Sunlit Sanctuaries

When I was in junior high I used to lay in bed Sunday mornings and feign sleep. I would listen to the footsteps above me and when they eventually stopped I would think to myself, “Yes, they fell for it. They must have left without me. I don’t have to go to church.” A few seconds later I would hear someone walking down the stairs and much to my dismay, I would be dragged along to our little Lutheran church. At least there were donuts after the service. And these were fullsize donuts, a whole assortment of maple-glazed, sprinkled, plain, custard-filled donuts, not a pile of donutballs like at our first church.

Once I finished confirmation, my attendance at church quickly diminished. I picked up a Sunday morning volunteer shift at the local hospital and traded in Fellowship Hall donuts for hospital cafeteria fries. Despite going on to choose a Lutheran college, I attended only one chapel service throughout my four years at school. I only went because the professor with whom I was doing research was speaking about our topic of forgiveness. I dabbled in the Secular Society Club and my Religion minor was completed with more courses on Islam and Buddhism than on Christianity.

Jumping ahead a few years, I make the move to France, I get married in a secular ceremony beneath the gnarled branches of the apple trees in our orchard, and the next year I become a mother. And then I start thinking about those Sunday mornings of my childhood.

I remember how the sunlight streamed in through the skylights in the atrium of my church. I think about the goofy songs we sang at Vacation Bible School. And then I start thinking about my pastor’s sermons. Even if I reluctantly joined my family most Sundays, I did usually listen attentively to our pastor’s sermon each week. He had a way of capturing your attention and moving you with stories about his life, his family, and the people he had met. He would tie in a few refernces to the bible and by the end I felt enlightened, even if I was too young to know what that word meant or that it could be used to describe how I felt.

In the weeks and months that followed the birth of our son, I would often experience moments of loneliness. Despite having a tiny being always at my side, I felt a hole. Being far from my home and my family and friends certainly exacerbated this feeling but I could not help but feel as though there were more to it. I wanted church basement ladies to come and check on me. I wanted a freezer-ful of hotdish. I wanted someone to sit and rock my son for a half hour while I took a shower. Maybe these are selfish reasons but they are what reignited my desire for some kind of church family. I wanted that safety net of love and peace and kinship.

When I was going through confirmation classes each of us had a member of the church who acted as our mentor. This was to be an adult, other than our parents, to whom we could go to with the big questions. Someone to count on. I remember my mentor, who also happened to be my old basketball coach, and what she had written in the card she gave me on the day of my communion. She had slipped her business card in and written a note on the back. Call me whenever, and wherever you need me. No questions asked.

Looking back , I don’t think I fully grasped the enormity of what it feels like to have someone in your life give you such a lifeline. I never did have to call her. My lifestyle in high school was not exactly full of risk. I was almost never put into a situation where I needed to call someone who would not ask questions and would not judge. By the time some of these types of things did start happening to me we had grown distant and other people had stepped into that role for me. I was incredibly fortunate.

But as a new mother, I wanted, I needed, someone to fill that role for me. And since the first person who ever did was someone I knew at church, I began to seek that once more. Unfortunately, the main religion here is catholicism and mass is held in cold, damp, somber stone churches. I did not feel comfortable or attracted by the idea of attending mass, it felt too far from what I knew as a child. And quite frankly, the actual religious aspect of returning to church was not as appealing to me as simply finding the right space and the right communtiy.

Then, last Easter, I woke up from a dream that left me feeling full to the brim with warmth. But also confused. In the dream I was standing in the atrium of the church where I was confirmed. I was holding our son in my arms and my childhood pastor was walking towards me. He smiled and said hello, both of us happy to see one another after so long. Then I asked him for a hug and when he obliged I began to cry. Later in the dream I spoke to him in his office and asked him if he could baptize our son despite the last minute notice. Then I woke up. It was surreal to be honest. And on Easter Sunday no less! The next night I had a similar dream. When I woke up that morning I asked my dad to send me a bible. The one I had in college for my required religion classes had been sold back to the bookshop.

About a year ago I dscovered that there is a small parish of protestants in our area. For over a year they did not even have a pastor. But it was not until today that I finally worked up the courage to go and check it out. I woke up yesterday morning and just felt that it was time I return. Or at least that I go and see how a protestant service here would compare to what I knew from back home. When I checked the congregation’s website yesterday I discovered that they now have a pastor. He splits his time between three churches so I decided to email and find out if he would be near us today. Turns out he was.

This church is small. It is in an old port town. On the other side of the small parking lot is a bridge. Beyond the bridge is a port full of sailboats. And beyond that is the Atlantic. It would be easy to miss, there is no big sign out front listing the hours or sharing a short word for passersby. There is a small gate with trees arching up above the entryway. This opens up into a simple yard. To the left is the worship space. A stone building from the 19th century, chosen by protestant Gallic missionaries in the 19th century. But inside there is light. The stone walls have been covered and painted yellow. Tall windows that line either side of the sanctuary let in plenty of natural light. A simple stained glass window behind the pulpit give the space that typical sacred feeling. There are two aisles of wooden benches and an armoire at the back that holds songbooks. We are the first ones to arrive and the pastor greets us with a smile.

I think in all there were maybe 15 of us there to worship this morning, including our little family of three. Our son began to fuss early on and I was worried that he would bother the others so early on I snuck out with him and went into the adjoining room. My husband stayed behind in the sanctuary to listen to the rest of the service. He was eager to experience his first protestant service after a childhood of Catholic mass. I caught snipets of the sermon and the music coming through the door I had left ajar for that purpose. When the service finally ended the pastor sought me out and reassured me, saying that I don’t need to leave, even if everyone in the sanctuary can here Lewis talking about wolves and skunks and tractors. I thanked him and he pulled out his binder, removing the text from his sermon and offering it to me in case I wished to read it after missing it during the service. I thanked him again and we said our goodbyes.

I will be honest. I still feel a little uncomfortable with the actual religious aspects of it all. The word ‘Amen’ feels clumsy when I say it and I think I have forgotten some of the Lord’s Prayer. But I felt the warmth. And the reassurance. The other members offered genuine smiles and welcomed us to the group. And even though there were no donuts after the service I think I would like to go back next week and see if I don’t feel a little more at ease each time.

 

 

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Winter in the Midwest

For the first 22 years of my life I lived in a place that had snow all winter long, for most of those 22 years anyways. Sometimes flurries or snowstorms would arrive as early as October and surprise us as late as May. As a kid we would watch on weekday mornings as the ticker at the bottom of the television screen listed off the schools that were closed. Even a two hour late start would be a worthy cause for celebratory cheers.

Worn in flannel shirts would be slipped on and then covered with scratchy woolen sweaters. Snow pants with the knees worn out would be pulled out of storage and winter boots tried on to see if they still fit. Mittens and gloves, soaked through after an afternoon of play, would lay out to dry for the next morning. 

It did not matter that the sun set early because by the time the sleds had been stowed away and the carrot nose poked into the snowman, we were ready for hot chocolate and a movie anyways. Despite the below-zero temperatures outside, everything always felt cozier and warmer in the winter.

One holiday led to another. Halloween costumes were customized in order to fit winter coats and warm pants beneath tutus and superhero capes. Before we even had time to finish our candy the first flurries would arrive and pies would sit baking in the oven for Thanksgiving dinner. Cinnamon and nutmeg perfumed the house while decorations of burnt orange, yellow, and red replaced smiling jack-o’-lanterns. As the temperatures continued to drop the snow began to accumulate. The first few snowmen would have a few straggling leaves rolled into the mass as we struggled to find enough snow in the yard to make a snowman we could see eye to eye with.

And then we had given thanks and the handprint turkeys were tucked away to be replaced with a porcelain nativity scene. Patchwork stockings were hung from the mantel and the Christmas village laid out. The yellow brick house at the end of the row of buildings, the ice skating rink in the middle. Garlands of multicolored lights were untangled and checked for burnt out bulbs before being wrapped around and around the year’s chosen tree. Beloved ornaments, forgotten over the last eleven months, were rediscovered and given coveted spots on the tree. Handmade ones strung up next to heirlooms.

Winter here is a little different. Instead of snow, there is rain. Instead of bitingly cold, crisp morning walks there is the unrelenting dampness. There are no sleds and the carrots are eaten in stews, not saved for snowmen. The mittens are still damp and find a place in front of the wood-burning stove to return to their dry, woolly selves . Some people here think I am crazy for wanting to return home during the coldest Minnesota months but I can’t think of any time I would rather visit.

All this to say, our tickets are purchased, we are coming to the Midwest this winter! Fañch and I will fly over with Lewis in mid-December. Fañch will fly home at the end of the month and early in the New Year his parents will fly over to join Lewis and I (there was much juggling when it came time for me to buy everyone’s tickets). In all, Lewis and I will be there for nearly five weeks and I could not be more excited! There will certainly be lots of running around, visiting our favorite spots and more importantly, our favorite people! I am starting to plan out our trip so please don’t hesitant to reach out if you’d like to hang out, build a snowman together, join us at the Children’s Museum, bake Christmas cookies, you get the idea!

 

 

A Different Kind of Birthday

My dad taught my sisters and I to ride a bike earlier than most kids. So early, in fact, that I have no memory of learning how to balance on those two wheels and pedal fast enough to keep myself from falling over. Going on bike rides with my dad was one of  our favorite summertime activities so as soon as we got bored of the Burley it was on to the bicycle.

I remember struggling to bike up hills and how my dad would slow down, align himself next to me, and hold on to my handlebars, pulling my bike along as he continued to pedal his own. When we biked along a boardwalk through the marshes, and there was a gap in the planks, he would stop and set his bike down, then lift me over the minuscule gap, knowing I was too afraid to bike across.

And when we inevitably did fall down, or crash as we sped down the steepest hill in the park, he was always right behind us. He would make sure we were okay, wipe away our tears, but then most important of all, he would make sure we got back on that bike. Maybe not in the minutes that followed, but by the end of the week you could be sure to see us pedaling up and down the driveway once again.

My sisters and I were not the only ones to be cheered on as we took our first wobbly rides on a bike. There were several kids in our neighborhood who reached elementary school without having learned. Their parents were either often absent, or not bike-riders themselves. When my dad found out these kids could multiple and divide but not ride a two-wheeler, he enthusiastically took it upon himself to ensure that they could follow along with the rest of us on summer bike rides through the woods.

Today is my dad’s 2-year sobriety anniversary. Two years since he “fell off that bike” having ridden down the biggest hill in the woods. This was not his first crash but it was certainly the scariest and the most life-changing. It may have taken him some time and a whole lot of hard work but he eventually started pedaling again. And I could not be prouder.

I feel like alcoholism is something our society still struggles to be frank about. It is either the butt of a joke or a family secret stepped around in conversation. I will be honest, there were times when I hesitated to give the real reason why dad was not present for this or that, or why I suddenly needed to go home and miss a day or two of classes. Every now and then I crack a sarcastic joke about my “alcoholic father” to avoid the subject. But when it comes down to it, I do want to talk about it. I want you to ask me questions. I want to be open and honest, and to tell you that my dad is a recovering alcoholic but he is also the best damn bike-riding teacher I have ever met.

Substance abuse is a really terrifying illness. I can only speak about it from the perspective of someone who has watched a loved one battle this disease, but if it was scary for me than I can only imagine what it is like for the person in the middle of it all. From 2010-2016 my family watched as dad slowly crumbled beneath the weight of alcoholism’s wrath and the guilt and shame that followed in relentless waves. There were moments of clarity, when we hesitantly hoped that the worst was over. But there were also the incoherent phone calls, the breathalyzers, the absences. But through it all I knew my dad was still in there somewhere, and he would eventually recover and get back on that bike. I prepared myself for the worse, but I never gave up.

One of the hardest parts of watching from the sidelines is that eventually it is just that, you can only watch. You can tell the person that you love them, that you want the best for them, and that you know they can do it, but they will only be able to heal when it comes from within. When it gets bad enough, you even have to distance yourself to save yourself. Throwing your faith out, out to the person, out to the wind, maybe out to a deity, you release your hope and cross you fingers that it will find its way back to you, carrying your loved one along with it. You live your life, and wait.

It has been two years now since my hope came whistling back across the Atlantic to me, carried on sighs of relief and wrapped in warmth, carrying my dad back to me. Two years ago he chose treatment. Two years ago he chose God. He chose love and family and faith. He chose to get back on that bike. He chose us. Happy 2nd Sobriety Birthday Dad. I love you.

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A Summer Update

I have had a bad case of writer’s block lately. Over the last few weeks I have started several different blogposts only to abandon them soon after because I did not like what I was writing. Maybe I will return to them in the coming weeks to complete some of my thoughts but in the mean time I figured it might be nice just to post a simple update on life here at the farm.

Lewis is doing well, though he has several new teeth arriving all at once which has meant our fair share of long nights. In the mornings he comes with me to milk cows and spends that time wandering the milk barn and “helping” us. Once the last cow is milked and on her way back to the pastures, Lewis gets a ride in the wheelbarrow. Fañch’s mom brings him with to get the overgrown salads that she feeds to the chickens. The leafy greens pile up around him in the wheelbarrow, he loves it! If for some reason he does not get to do that in the morning and he comes across the wheelbarrow later in the day he will insist on going in it. It is as though he worries the chickens did not get their daily veggies!

Summer can be a hectic time at the farm but we are fortunate that because there are five of us the burden does not feel as heavy. And I suppose it is not really even a burden when you enjoy the work. We currently sell vegetables at two markets, one of which is in the evening and has a great atmosphere. There is music and food and kids running around playing together in the grass. My brother-in-law arrive early to set up but as the evening progresses the rest of the family arrives. Lewis adores playing with his cousins and his grandparents beneath the shade of the trees that cover the market grounds.

A couple weekends ago we went to the Fête des Brodeuses in Pont-l’Abbé. Some of you may know that that is the festival where Fañch and I first met five years ago. It is always a lot fo fun to return to the place where our story started. Plus, this time Lewis was with us so we got to share the festivities with him. We were invited to have lunch and dinner at my first host family’s house. I am always so happy to see them and to catch up. It was surreal to be there with Lewis and to think of how much things have changed since I was staying with them during my internship in 2013.

Besides that I am looking forward to fall (yes, already). I am not a big summer person and I pretty much start counting down the days to cooler temps as soon as the flies come out and the heat takes over. Air conditioning is not very common in homes here, which would be fine, but screens on windows are not common either. Which means that in order to cool off you want to open up the house. Windows and doors stay open to let the breeze in. Unfortunately, that also invites mosquitos, flies, and yes, even a mouse or two to seek refuge as well.

I was thinking that maybe to help me get over this bout of writer’s block I would ask you all what kind of stories interest you most on here? Farm life? The expat experience? Adventures in motherhood? Don’t hesitate to ask if you have questions or anything. Feel free to send any you have and then maybe an upcoming post can be me responding to your questions : )

Alright, a few pictures to finish up for the evening. I hope everyone is well!

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Milking cows with Tady and Nanou

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At the seaside!

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The market we work at on Wednesday evenings.

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At the Fête des Brodeuses.

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Feeding salad to the chickens.
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In the wheelbarrow with the salads!

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A Farmhouse, continued.

I think we can all agree that a well-worn pair of shoes or a pair of jeans are much more comfortable than a stiff new pair fresh off the shelves. For the most part, moving into this house has felt like snuggling up in the comfiest of hand-me-down sweaters. The stones of the foundation date back several hundred years after all. A lived-in home is warmth. And love. And so heavily imbibed with life that even on quiet, lonely evenings I feel at ease in the company of its history. So many people have stood in this room, sat around the fire, and slept beneath these rafters that the walls are permanently buzzing with the memory of their laughter, their joys, and their sorrows. Not only that, but for 120 years the source of all that life has come from Fañch’s family itself.

I have heard first hand stories of what it was like to live in this home from three generations of my husband’s family. In family photo albums I see Fañch as a baby, learning to walk in the same room where Lewis now cautiously works on taking his first steps. My father-in-law lived here for nearly 60 years, his time away at school and one year in the army being the only exceptions. Fañch’s grandmother, who lives out her retirement just a few meters away, also grew up and raised her children here. She did, however, spend part of her childhood living in a nearby town with family while her father was away fighting during the war. Besides that, the farm has always been her home.

Lewis is now the sixth generation of the family to call this house his home. He sleeps in the bedroom his Papa grew up in. The mural of plants, trees, and not-to-scale animals on the walls was painted by Fañch’s mom when he was hardly much older than Lewis is now. I have no plans to paint over it.

Here is where the pressure of moving into the farmhouse comes into play. With so much history at work in our new space I am unsure of how to make it our own without ignoring or erasing the past that lives in every nook and cranny. There are things that we hope to one day tinker with and adapt to our needs and tastes, but we are in no hurry. Every time I think about painting the walls I picture my father-in-law fifteen years earlier taking the time to paint every last ceiling beam that deep forest green. Even configuring furniture is a family affair. It seem that nearly every buffet, china cabinet, and dresser belonged to a great-grandmother or great-great grandfather. If we do not keep it then does Fañch’s brother want it? Do we keep the china cabinet from Annie’s side of the family or Jean-Yves’? How many do we actually need?

These are just some of the things I have on my mind as I chip away at making this place our own. It is a gradual transition. The bookshelf is still full of Jean-Yves’ precious paperbacks and one of the china cabinets in question still holds their wedding china. What counts is that it is still the farmhouse. People still come and go throughout the day as we contribute our own stories to its centuries-old history.

 

 

 

 

A Farmhouse at Fern Island

The first time I visited the farmhouse here at Fern Island Farm was in January 2014. It would be the first time I officially met my future (unbeknownst to me at the time) family-in-law. Fañch had told his mom that he was bringing a friend over for crêpes and to see the farm. When she tells the story now she laughs, saying that when she saw the look in Fañch’s eyes as we sat together at the table she knew there was something more going on.

As is typical in January, the day was overcast. The trees were bare but the grass was green. The courtyard in front of the house was bursting at the seams with palm trees of all shapes and sizes, shivering stands of bamboo, and two hounds, whose Breton names I could not pronounce, weaved in between it all. The house stood discretely behind the verdure. Blue shutters were framed by naked pear tree branches and wisteria vines.

There are a handful of places in this world which put me at ease simply upon entering the space. A friend’s home on a quiet St. Paul street. A professor’s sunlit office. My grandparents’ kitchen. It is something I feel right away on my first visit. As soon as I walk through the door it is as though whatever problem I had when arriving has evaporated and drifted out the window. There is warmth that calms even the coldest of winter days or most frigid of anxious thoughts. On that January morning I found another one of these sanctuaries, a centuries old farmhouse in the Breton countryside.

The walls were painted orange and nearly every available inch seemed to have a picture hung upon it. Or a violin. Or framed prints of vegetables. In the corner was a built-in floor-to-ceiling bookcase. The books filled each shelf, stood towering in piles on the remaining ledge, and covered the coffee table. Philosophy, religion, the natural world. Language, politics, and history. Breton fables and veterinary medicine. Biographies of folk singers and authors. A crackling wood stove centered the room, Fañch stoked the flames and added a log or two, closing the glass-paned door before smoke could billow out.

I felt a smile spread across my face and I quickly sneaked a photo, not sure if photographing someone else’s house was normal but not wanting to ever forget the time and space in which I had found myself.

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In the four years since I took that photo, the farmhouse and more specifically, that room, have been a constant reassurance as my life evolved and changed quicker and more drastically than ever before. Its walls have held me and sheltered me, providing a home on days when I was not really sure anymore what “home” was.

My first Christmas away was celebrated there, the house soaking up our laughter and storing it for when we would need it later. Eight months later Fañch and I announced our engagement to his parents as we stood in the kitchen late one evening. My father-in-law helped my sister carry my wedding dress down the staircase on a warm August morning a year after that. My mom buttoned it up as I stood next to the dining room table on which we ate crêpes during my first visit.

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A & F (7)

On a particularly difficult day of motherhood I had called upon my father-in-law to take Lewis as I finished milking cows. He had fussed and cried all evening and nothing I did would calm him long enough for me to finish my work. Defeated and out of ideas, I sent a message to my in-laws asking if they were back home. Knowing I was attempting to work with the baby, they came straight home and drove up to the milking parlor. Jean-Yves swept in and picked his grandson up, gave me one of his reassuring soft smiles, and brought him back to the house.

As soon as I had finished and washed up I went to the farmhouse to pick Lewis up. I was exhausted and discouraged, questioning how I ever thought I could work full time while mothering full time with Lewis (sometimes literally) attached at the hip. As I walked into the house I heard the familiar crackling of the fire. It masked the sound of the wind whistling outside. The warm colors on the walls seemed to glow, as though reflecting the flames in the stove itself. And there, asleep in his grandfather’s arms, was Lewis. Finally resting. Finally calm. The house had worked its magic on him as it had me so many times before.

To be continued.

 

 

Balance

I need to start this post by sending out lots of love and thanks and hugs and did I say thanks? Because thank you! After my last post I received so many lovely responses from people that had either gone through what I was going through or who simply wanted to send their love and encouragement. It filled me with so much warmth and inspiration. So how about an update?

Winter here, simply put, has been long. It rained every day in January. Driving home from a New Year’s Eve party at 6am on the 1st, the rain fell sideways and my windshield wipers raced to keep up. So that pretty much set the tone for the January weather status quo. The problem with wet winters here is that there are days when you feel as though you will never be completely dry or warm again. It is a cold that seeps and soaks. Everything is humid and you can not leave your house without traversing puddles of browns and grays or side-stepping mud six inches deep.

Lucky for me there were two major things to break up the wintery monotony. My sister arrived on New Year’s day for a two-and-a-half week long visit and the two of us road tripped across France with Lewis so that I could attend a week-long cheese-making course. Nights ended with the two of us perched on the squeaky fold-out bed playing cards. There were heart-to-hearts, Spongebob quotes, multiple bowls of popcorn, and Goodnight Moon readings with Lewis on repeat. For nine months I had imagined what it would be like to have my sisters nearby to help me with Lewis. For those two weeks my daydreaming became reality and I felt more like myself than I had in a long time! Sisters are magic.

The cheese-making course was terrific and I wish I could have stayed longer for the other classes they offer. Mine was an introductory course which was very broad but packed with information. We covered everything from Blue Cheese to Mozarella. Saint-Nectaire to Morbier to Comté. We spent time making yogurt, butter, cream, and rice pudding as well. If milk was involved we probably made it or at least theorized about how one goes about making it. The instructors were passionate about what they do. I have never met two people so inspired by cheese so that by the end I, too, considered cheese to be a living being and the process of making it an intricate dance of temperature changes, cutting techniques, air circulation, and aging. I can not wait to begin the dance myself here at the farm.

Another great thing about this class is that nearly all of the particpants were women. And among those women were several mothers. I finally got the chance to speak with other moms who are raising their kids while working on a farm. Something I have to come to realize about motherhood is that it is a constant back and forth of second guessing yoruself. Should I be doing it this way? Or that way? Will letting him cry for a few minutes while I finish milking cows cause lasting damage? What would people think? Would it be better for him to be at daycare from sun up to sun down? Are the customers at the market going to think it negligent of me to have him tag along all morning while I work selling bunches of carrots and kilos of beets? And the biggest question of all, that inevitabely follows all the others, why do I keep worrying about what others think?

During the class I got the chance to speak to the other farm mamas about how they balance work and motherhood. And what I discovered reassured and calmed me. Each mama does it differently. There is no one size fits all to figuring out what works best for your family. One mom started by keeping the kids at home with her (or the grandparents) but ultimately decided daycare was the best option to maintain healthy extended family relationships. This is important when living and working with multiple generations in the family as well as aunts and uncles in close quarters. Another mom more or less quit working at the farm those first years when the kids were young and did not start up again until they went off to school. By the end of our chats I realized I was not judging them for their choices so why would others judge me for mine? Lewis is happy and healthy, we are happy and continue to be able to get work done (if not quite at the same pace as before), so why question everything?

So I have decided that instead of resolutions and “I will do this more” to start off the new year I am just going to seek balance. Balance in motherhood. And balance in work. Lewis will try out some occasional daycare and I will not feel guilty about it. Balance between home and work and play when the three seem to be so closely intertwined. Now that the rain is finally calming and the sun has burst forth from its wintery hiding place that balance feels all the more attainable.

More updates coming soon!

Living Abroad Is Weird.

I have been living in France permanently for just over three years. You could say I have not lost any time in settling down, having gotten married and had a baby within that time span. A lot has changed but one thing remains steady, the weirdness of living abroad. While the stages of weird have evolved, the mixed emotions, confusing encounters, and the ups and downs of expat life have remained constant. Nothing reminds me of that more than when I travel back to the U.S.

Early on in my adventure here the struggle of moving abroad centered around your basic bureaucratic frustrations (France is the champion of this), bilingual miscommunications, and the occasional craving for Pizza Luce’s sausage and pepperoni pizza. As time goes on, the manifestation of my expat worries have evolved. I’ve grown accustomed to long waits and paperwork delays at the immigration office. My French has improved and I find myself struggling for English words more often than French. While I haven’t found that perfect Pizza Luce replacement pie I have discovered new dishes I could not live without. For at least the last year my living abroad concerns have transitioned into worries that go a little deeper beneath the surface.

I first experienced these new feelings with the wedding. Here was a big life event that I wanted to share with as many people as possible. I knew that would not be possible as a nine-hour flight separated me and the majority of my loved ones. This was the first time I felt this mixture of homesickness and an inability to express it. I felt that because I had made the choice to leave Minnesota behind, it would be inappropriate for me to then complain about homesickness and not being able to see my loved ones when I liked and or needed to.

These feelings increased ten-fold after the birth of our son Lewis. All of a sudden I was full of emotions, both negative and positive. I was exhausted, and despite having my new constant companion, I felt lonelier than ever. In the mornings I would sit nursing him, half-awake, and imagine my mom walking through the door to work her magic on the towering pile of dishes. I could picture my sisters bursting through the door and each taking turns to hold my son while I took a quick (or not so quick) snooze. Or showered. Or went for a walk. After a long day my biggest wish was for my dad to arrive and to cook a delicious dinner instead of me quick scraping together whichever vegetables were about to go bad.

At the time I did not tell anyone about these feelings or express them, for the same reason as before. Here I was building my life thousands of miles away. It was I who made that choice and as such I felt uncomfortable complaining about even the smallest of things. I could just hear people thinking to themselves “well what did she expect?”

Plus there was the fact that having a new grandson/nephew/great-grandson, etc. so far from home was and is really difficult for everyone back home. I did not want to compound those feelings by calling home and saying how badly I wished to see everyone when I know they wish they could be here as well.

And then we actually did go home to Minnesota. And it was beautiful. And emotional. And overwhelmingly full of love. And then we had to leave and I experienced the hardest goodbyes yet.  For two weeks my wishes became reality. Lewis passed from arm to arm while I finally had moments to myself. My dad baked not one but two amazing cheesecakes and cooked delicious meals. My mom folded laundry, ran to pick up baby food, and took care of basically everything while I sat on the couch watching New Girl. And it was glorious.

When it came time to leave I saw how difficult it was for my family to send us off back across the Atlantic. Feelings of guilt and sadness contorted themselves into a cement brick that sat in my stomach, weighing me down and causing me to drag my feet. How was it possible to be so happy and fulfilled in France while still craving so much that I was leaving behind in the Midwest? I looked forward to returning to our normal routine and the beauty of farm life but I wanted to check an extra bag and sneak all of my loved ones in to it. Simply stated, how can happiness and sadness coexist like this in one person? Living abroad is weird.

I have been turning this blogpost around in my head since our return to France and despite that I still have not succeeded in attaining much clarity. I guess it comes down to motherhood is incredible but terrifying. Living abroad is an adventure full of confusing and at times, frustrating emotions. Our visit home was the best one yet. And our family and friends stateside are the best parts of me and have already become integral parts in the life of Lewis. Sending you all love from Fern Island Farm, we miss you already!

 

 

 

Back To Work

Little by little these last couple of weeks I have been returning to work at the farm, baby in tow of course! It is definitely a work in progress as we struggle to adjust our rhythms to fit the cow-milking, vegetable-picking, farmer’s market schedules. I will not complain though because I recognize that I am fortunate to be able to live and work in a place where our son can learn and grow as he tags along at our sides.

A few times a week Lewis joins me in the milking parlor with his grandpa (Tady) and watches as we milk the cows. Though the sound of the machine usually lulls him to sleep within the first fifteen minutes, he does spend some of the time watching, eyes wide, as the lumbering animals walk into place. Sometimes I have to stop early to feed him or even do a quick feeding session right in the middle of everything, but for the most part I have been able to get back to my mornings of working alongside my father-in-law.

Vegetable picking is slightly more complicated as it requires that I bring a little pop-up tent with me and get Lewis set up somewhere shady. This typically only happens in the mornings because by the time the afternoon sun arrives it is too warm to be out with him. One time, I had forgotten the tent and he actually just fell asleep right on the ground on his blanket, shaded by the chard plants growing next to him. I feel very lucky that he has been so laid back about been hauled from one spot to the next at the farm. I have a feeling that once he starts to move things are sure to become much more complicated…

Lastly, every week I bring Lewis with me to the two markets where we sell our vegetables. I was worried about this at first; unsure if he would accept sitting in the stroller for a couple hours. So far so good! He usually gets a pretty good nap in then wakes up in time to give out plenty of smiles and “coos” to the local elderly women who come to the market. We did not go this week because I have been feeling under the weather and apparently many of these regular customers were asking Julien, my brother-in-law, where Lewis was. I think he has the beginnings of a fan club! One time a woman even said she hadn’t planned on coming to the market for vegetables but when she passed the stand and saw the chubby-cheeked baby she had to stop and say hello. She ended up leaving with a basketful of veggies!

While the transition back into working has gone more smoothly than I had imagined, it has presented a few issues. I am feeling pretty tired once again. Lewis has been waking up twice a night to eat ever since he started teething and eating smaller meals. That means that for me, waking up at 7am has not been very easy yet. I can tell we still have a ways to go until a solid rhythm is in place, he usually takes a good nap in the morning and a couple short ones in the afternoon but our days still lack consistency. I am hoping in the next few weeks our schedules fall into place a little better. Although our upcoming trip to the States will probably throw that for a loop.

It is also a very busy season for Fañch and he has been working some very long days. There are times when that starts to wear me down as taking care of Lewis, getting some work in at the farm, and keeping the house put together fills the days up quickly. I know it has been difficult for Fañch as well, who misses getting to spend more time with the little guy. He is growing so quickly and making new progress and discoveries everyday that Fañch wishes he could be there more to watch as our boy’s life unfolds. For now he looks forward to goodnight kisses and looking back on all the photos I took of Lewis during the day to stay in the loop.

Only three more weeks to go until our trip stateside. We can’t wait to see everyone and introduce Lewis to his friends and family in the Midwest. I will post more soon about our plans while we are in MN, we hope to see as many people as possible so don’t hesitate to reach out!

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Selling veggies at the market, no the baby is not for sale!
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With his cousin at the market.
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Working hard in his tent…
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With Tady selling veggies on Friday evening.
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On our walk to the farm in the morning to milk cows.
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Lewis thinks having cows right outside his window is pretty neat!

Finding My “Village”

We have all heard the saying, “it takes a village” but what exactly counts as a village in this day and age? We certainly no longer live in little hamlets where kids run from one home to the next and everyone looks out for everyone else’s kids. In certain communities today we do not even know our next door neighbors despite the close proximity. But raising a kid is hard work and having a close knit group of people around you is important from the day you return home from the hospital with a crying bundle in your arms. Every mom (and dad!) needs a “village”.

I will be honest, there have been days these last few months where I have been more homesick than ever since my arrival in France. It is a busy time of year at the farm so there are nights where Fañch doesn’t get home until nearly midnight. Those are the moments where I think to myself what I wouldn’t give to be able to call up my sisters and have them come over for dinner and to give me a hand with putting Lewis to bed. On days when Lewis is fussy and maybe throws up a time or two, I am relieved to see Fañch walk through the door and take over in the evening. When that isn’t possible and I am on my own all day the fatigue can be rough.

So can my “village” include those loved ones who are a nine hour flight away? Or are there limits to what support we can receive from afar despite technologies like Skype and FaceTime? I love my family and friends back home and every call, message, email, and letter I receive from them encourages me but there is that physical presence that is still missing. My village no doubt has the virtual hut bustling with loved ones from back home but it still needs a few members that are within driving range.

Building a village from the ground-up has proved to be no easy feat. I remember reading Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman and how she would talk about the difficulties in forming a group of friends as an expat. French people don’t go about making friends the same way as most people do in the U.S. People here have their established friend groups and breaking your way into one is not as easy as it seems. I’m lucky that Fañch has such a close-knit group of friends from school who welcomed me into their group immediately. However, I have been here three years and have yet to truly make a connection and meet friends of my own. To be honest, up until now that hasn’t been much of an issue for me. I am pretty introverted and a Friday night spent reading or going for a walk at the farm or at the beach with Fañch suits me just fine. Though now that Lewis is here and I am learning about this thing called “motherhood” I realize I am missing something in my village.

For the last few weeks I have begun my search to meet other moms who have babies Lewis’ age. Someone who can talk breastfeeding and diaper brands. Someone who knows what it is like to get to the end of the week and realize you only showered once. Someone who can sympathize with that simultaneous desire to always be there for your baby but to also want to work and make progress on your own personal life goals. Someone who understands the struggle to find balance.

A couple weeks ago I attended a “mommy and me” playgroup. It was wonderful. There were play mats and toys and comfy couches. When Lewis got hungry and I started to breastfeed one of the women who was working there came and offered me a glass of water. Being a mom herself and having breastfed, she knew about that immediate thirst that kicks in as soon as your baby latches on. One of the other moms, whose son is a couple years older than Lewis, smiled encouragingly as I asked her an endless stream of questions. So far so good.

The other day I also responded to an ad for cloth diapers. When I went to go pick them up I found out the woman selling them has a son just three months older than Lewis. We got to talking and found out we are both expats, me form the U.S. and her from Hungary. She hesitantly asked if I have had much success making friends since my arrival in France and upon my saying that no, I haven’t, she breathed a sigh of relief and admitted that she hasn’t either. So we exchanged numbers and hope to hang out soon!

Another thing that helps is that in Fañch’s friend group there are five of us this year that will have had a baby. When we all get together it is reassuring to not be the only one breastfeeding at the dinner table or worrying about whether or not baby will fall asleep despite all the noise. The only problem is that we all live rather scattered about the region and it is difficult to just pop in and see each other or to share a cup of tea.

It is an ongoing process but I am confident my village will soon include a tight-knit group of both physically present and emotionally present people. I will always rely heavily on the love and advice from those of you back home, even if I can’t swing by to see you on a moment’s notice. And little by little I will succeed in opening up to people here more and forming the village that is so vital in raising a child.

Here are a few pictures of Lewis to finish up!