Starting 2019 (a bit late) with a simple motto
After an afternoon of ice skating with our neighbors, we were invited to back to their place for happy hour. Instead of gathering wine and snacks, Radek was seated at the kitchen table. Dressed in a gray T-shirt and green sweat pants, it didn’t look as if he were going anywhere. He flipped his laptop open. I heard the ding as he logged in.
“Don’t you want to take care of the US trip?” Radek said.
I sighed. I knew what was coming.
Each year in early January, Radek and I sat down to map out our family’s adventures and sync our planners (his electronic, mine a hardbound “student’s planner”) until the following September. With three children and an active lifestyle, laying the framework for our travel adventures required patience, stamina, and the willingness to be flexible.
Baseball tournaments overlapped with biking weekends; tickets to the National Theater for one child edged out a potential family weekend on the ski slopes. Invitations to birthday parties were weighed against attendance at team competitions.
Although laidback friends made fun of us; overall, our plan-ahead tactic seemed the best way to maximize our leisure time and give each member of our family a chance to prioritize his own desires.
Our annual summer trip to the US was the most logistically complicated, and the largest financial investment. However, the pay-offs (quality time with US family, speaking English with native speakers, exploring national parks and visiting my hometown) were priceless (at least in my opinion).
But on the cusp of the new year, with homemade vaječný koňak (egg liquor) waiting for me at the neighbors, I wanted to spend my Saturday night hunched over the computer as much as I wanted to spend it stuck in an elevator.
I could predict how the evening would unfold. Radek and I would spend hours scouring skyscanner.com for cheap flights. We’d realize we couldn’t fly on the dates we wanted. We’d curse the airlines for listing prices without luggage and lament that our children’s schools ran until the end of June when prices skyrocketed. We’d call my parents to see how far they’d be willing to travel to pick us up.
Radek would half-jokingly volunteer to cut costs and skip the US. I’d get offended. We’d argue. When it came time to push the BUY button, the flights we’d chosen would have jumped 20% in cost. We’d argue again.
When our children got wind of the tension, they’d swarm around us asking, “We are going to see Grana and Opa this summer, right?” I’d nod reassurances and shoo them to play while we kept searching for the most efficient combination of variables.
I had a strong urge to grab a bottle of wine and head to my neighbors with, or without, my husband.
Whenever Radek asked me for help leading with the phrase, “Don’t you want to?” I had a knee-jerk reaction. Of course, I didn’t want to do what he was asking me to do. Even when we desired the same end goal, I wanted control over how I was going to participate.
For his part, Radek hated asking me for anything. My negative reaction created tension between us even when I ended up doing what he asked me to.
Thinking it was a Czech/English translation snafu (questions in conversational Czech often begin with the negative “Nechceš” or “Don’t you want to”), I tried to explain the subtle, but significant, difference. I asked Radek, “Doesn’t it sound better when I say, ‘Would you mind helping me?’ than when I say, ‘Don’t you want to help me?’”
Radek replied, “No. I know what my responsibilities are. I don’t care how you ask me. I’ll do what needs to be done.”
Radek’s straightforward response resonated. My husband never shirked from fixing a broken shingle, repainting the front fence, or driving the children halfway across town to pick up shoes they’d forgotten at a baseball tournament.
While he leapt into action, I made to-do lists and thought about how much time each extra task was going to take. Radek was a doer. I was a thinker. Most of the time we balanced each other out.
After turning 40 in the previous year, I had begun to realize that my most precious commodity was time. Sometimes, I had the sense that my life was a spinning merry-go-round, and I was waiting to jump on. On good days, I found the right rhythm and took a running leap. Other days, I stood by lamenting that my life was reeling out of control.
My youngest son Sam was fond of asking me “Just what exactly do you do all day, Mommy?” When I detailed my English lessons and the inevitable household maintenance that came with caring for a family of five, he would respond with, “Are you ever going to get a real job like Daddy’s?”
In many ways, I had everything I’d ever dreamed of – a loving spouse, healthy children and an interesting life in a safe and stimulating environment. State-supported healthcare, the minimal-cost of public education from preschool through university, and four weeks of paid vacation (for company employees) made life in the Czech Republic desirable.
Compared to contemporaries in many developed nations, including the US, my family was rich – not in terms of personal finances – but by having adequate leisure time and affordable options for recreation. I did my best not to take our privileges for granted.
Still, trying to accommodate the big-picture of my family’s needs occasionally met at odds with my own personal desires, particularly my need to write. Writing required focused time alone, something that tended to be scarce at this stage in my life. When I did squirrel away the time, it was hard to justify (even to myself) writing for free on a personal blog. But, it was even harder to muster the energy to submit my work elsewhere.
We were lying together in Sam’s bed after reading a Czech book called, “Čím budu,” or “What Am I Going to Be When I Grow Up?” when he shyly told me that he wanted to be a baker. Then he asked, “Mommy, do you think when you’re 60, you know in 20 years, like when I’m big and I don’t live with you, do you think by then you might be a real writer?”
I looked at Sam. He squirmed and said, “I mean, do you think you will have finished that book you told us you were writing?”
I had no idea what to tell him.
When I went to visit a body psychologist for advice, she said, “Stop thinking.” Even though my brain had my life all figured out (and quite literally mapped into slots on a calendar), it was time to pay attention to my emotions and listen to my body. The therapist described helping my feminine energy flourish by going for an impromptu bike ride, taking a nap by a lake, waking up feeling hungry and finding a café for a snack. Per her advice, I needed to live in the moment instead of planning my life 6 months in advance. I needed not to overthink.
I didn’t agree with everything the psychologist said (i.e. the annoyance of trip planning aside, making and committing to our travel plans seemed to help the big picture rather than hurt it). Under the umbrella of our planned trips, we did leave unplanned space for downtime. And, I paid attention to my body many times a week when I went for long runs on the trails near our house.
Still, I knew she was right. My feeling about not having control over my life wasn’t going to go away. Unless, I did something about it.
I did what any bookworm would do; I read. I was typically in the middle of no less than five books at once. I read expat memoirs like Pamela Druckerman’s recent release, “There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming of Age Story,” where I identified with Druckerman’s search for the elusive “grown-up” in her adopted homeland of Paris and laughed when she recounted the trials of raising children who correct her French grammar. Like Druckerman, I also wondered when the “grown-up” was going to arrive and take charge; only belatedly realizing that that “grown-up” in question was now me.
Another book that spoke to my heart (and my organizational tendencies) was Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent A Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.”
From Rubin, I was surprised (and satisfied) to learn, “The feeling of control is an essential element of happiness—a better predictor of happiness than, say, income.” After a year’s worth of research and reordering her life, Rubin concluded that she didn’t need to “give up her limitations” in order to be happy but to acknowledge and accept them. Like Rubin, I didn’t want another life, I just wanted to be happier in the life I was living. I took her “Four Tendencies Quiz” (I was an Upholder) and started my own list of resolutions.
To inspire my writing, I turned to Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.” From Gilbert, I learned that my fear was natural and that bringing my own creative treasures to light was a process that would take (in her words), “work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion.” In a section called “Why It’s Worth It” about going beyond our fear, Gilbert writes, “the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time to think so small.”
On a tip from my father (who had perhaps not given up all hope that his investment in his daughter’s formal education would be for naught), I bought and read Susan Shapiro’s “The Byline Bible: Get Published in 5 Weeks.” It took me over five weeks to get through the first five chapters, and in spite of Shapiro’s practical tips, I still wasn’t sure if I was any closer to getting an essay published beyond my blog or local outlets. But that could have just been my fear speaking.
In another self-help type memoir,“Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People,” Bob Goff taught me a lesson he learned from buying his dad’s used truck. As young Bob backed out of the driveway, his father said, “You’ll want to change the oil.”
As the story went, Bob drove the truck 120,000 miles without ever once changing the oil. Only years later with the truck’s engine ruined beyond repair, did Bob acknowledge that his father had been right. Bob pointed out an important facet of human nature. Like most of us, Bob didn’t want to be told by his father what to want; he wanted to be told who he was.
Bob’s reaction to his father’s words made me think a lot about who I wanted to be. And, whether the person I wanted to be was actually the one who was showing up.
That night in the kitchen, I knew Radek was right. Turning our family’s aspirations (and my own) into reality was going to take thoughtful planning (and more than one night of sitting by the computer in high-intensity search mode). Starting at the beginning of the year was our best chance to have the widest variety of travel options.
I texted my neighbor M. to apologize that we’d come late. I set down the bottle of wine and made two coffees. I joined Radek at the computer.
I wasn’t thrilled, but I was ready to do what needed to be done.
However, after hours of checking all possible ticket combinations and airports within a six-hour drive of my parents’ house, we still hadn’t pushed BUY.
Radek turned to me. “Don’t you want to…”
Before he could finish, I blurted out, “Go to M.’s?”
We grabbed up our coats. Within minutes, we were sitting in M.’s dining room, sipping wine and telling tales of ticket booking fiascos. We shared tips on when to fly (before July 1stor in early August) and guessed how many connections it took to get from Prague to L.A.
Over shots of egg liquor, we toasted to our neighbors, to friendship, and to the travel adventures that awaited us in the coming year.
The next morning, we woke early and sat again in front of the computer. By noon, we had found suitable tickets. Radek pushed the BUY button.
I felt a huge sense of relief.
As I got up from the table, Radek said, “Now that we have the tickets, don’t you want to check into the accommodations?”
I smiled. Of course, I did. As soon as I had a little break.
Shortly after my family’s travel calendar was synced, I received a New Year’s email from a regular Half ‘n Half reader in Brno. The email was titled: “You can do it – if you’ll work hard enough.” In the body of the email, T. explained that he missed reading my column in The Prague Monitor. He thought maybe I didn’t have anywhere to publish my writing. He told me that my story about Czech preschoolers who hesitated when I asked them to color purple leaves still made him think. He suggested I try submitting my writing somewhere he could read it, somewhere like The New York Times.
I was flattered T. believed my writing was NYT-worthy (particularly since his first email to me years ago was titled “I bit my tongue” and pointed out grammatical errors in my story). Although I knew it was a long shot to get published in any major publication, T. had a point. If I didn’t try, I’d never know.
As I carry my motto, “Do what needs to be done,” into the new year, I aim to balance my family’s needs with my own, to do my best to lead with my heart not my head, and to have faith that if I work hard enough, both my goals (and the person I want to be) will be within my reach.
Coming Soon: How to train for a marathon in the snow