I write in Constantia as a nod to my former professor and inspiring mentor, Dr. Kate Schmitt. I miss my grad school days. They said I would, and I do. Mostly, I miss the community and the rounds in Starbucks, the only semi-cultured place on campus, a safe haven from the rap music pulsating through the open hallways, sweeping with the numerous, environment-destroying fliers down the ugly, post-J.F.K. architectural corridors. There my fellow graduate students and teaching colleagues would meet for sessions that included fast-paced, stress and caffeine-induced conversations, wildly gesturing and skipping from topic to topic, complaining or laughing about student papers, workshop feedback, or upcoming deadlines. Often the only calm of the day came while sitting at a table for two or three, guarding the other empty chairs while one person went for the coffee, staring out into those ugly, paper-dusted corridors, and trying to envision what it would be like if the environment looked a little more Ivy-league.
So one day you’re in a campus Starbucks in Boca Raton, Florida. And the next you’re in a café called Anne & Max in Amsterdam, silently typing alongside other presumable freelancers, sipping a Nutty Latte, while your husband is at home with the baby and a bottle of freshly-pumped breast milk in the refrigerator, waiting for her to wake up. And this is your calm moment.
It’s been a wild couple of years, baby.
I seek to make sense of change, or work, or anything, by trying to create order in my thoughts. And I do this through making lists. So here we go, my life in a list since July 2011:
- Life changed the day I went swimming in a Tennessee River after the wedding of a friend.
- I had just jumped off a rope swing into the river, yelling at the guy treading water below to, “Look away!” in case my bikini top came off upon impact.
- We swam to shore and sat side by side in a hammock that touched the ground. I was oddly not self-conscious in my bikini.
- He helped me out of the boat and while carrying me (yes, still in that bikini, a bold move on his part), slipped on the green, slimy rocks that made up the floor of the river. He turned his body so that he got the full impact of the fall. I prayed to keep my ‘hands open’ but I knew I had come upon someone.
- Life that fall was grad school and teaching, Skype conversations and nerves, a New York meet up and another goodbye; a sudden void, as if I had lost a limb. And then comes a visit to the Netherlands. A cold, rainy visit. A long-distance boyfriend I thought I loved, but who told me that his head hurt when he had to switch languages.
- And then, back in Florida, a long-distance boyfriend who told me he had the chance to take a job contract in the Netherlands, but wouldn’t if I wouldn’t move. We agreed he would take it.
- A feverishly-written thesis, written in the lush gardens of a historic library on Palm Beach, among retirees who looked on me with more suspicion than curiosity.
- A visit from the long-distance boyfriend, a whirlwind glimpse of my world and friends, and a surprise engagement. After the engagement Frans took a nap and then went off by himself to build a fire. My head had just begun its wild spinning.
- A well-defended thesis and encouragement to turn it into a book (haven’t yet).
- A feverishly-planned wedding, a moving-sale, a move, a graduation, goodbyes, and a summer away at a tiny community in the Dutch countryside to work as a ‘helper.’
- A sinking feeling when I realized how long and slow the process of learning Dutch would be.
- A sinking feeling when I realized I would have one day off per week to spend with my fiancé, and that we would spend it feverishly working on painting his entire apartment and readying it for couple-living.
- Returning to the States one month before my wedding, with a very dirty wedding ring (from all the cleaning) that the kind jewelry lady offered to clean for free. Cue more frenzied wedding planning.
- A sweet week with Frans and his parents, and me and my parents.
- A wedding week where I spent some time crying from the stress and chaos I had worked so hard to eliminate.
- Cue one of the finest nights of our lives: the Rehearsal Dinner. Food and toasts and our favorites. A taste of heaven.
- I woke up on my wedding day and cried… in two days, I would move to another continent to begin the process of inburgering, or integration into Dutch life.
- 2 Days of Orlando honeymoon bliss before we left for…
- Switzerland. Honeymoon was one week, in a nearly-free cabin; we hiked the Matterhorn, bathed in outdoor hot springs, spent a night in Germany’s wine-country, and had long talks by the bonfire Frans made outside our cabin each night.
- Back in Amsterdam and long, lonely days. Crying every Sunday for my nieces and nephew. Mourning my old world. Having the same conversations with people about being American, learning Dutch, what I would do for work, yada-yada-yada.
- Ducking my head, avoiding strangers and Dutch. Refusing to speak English, even if it meant refusing to speak.
- I became invisible for awhile, keeping myself busy with finding furniture and painting it, grocery shopping and trying new recipes, and bike-riding to new places, even though the rush of bikes and cars and trams scared me to death.
- Visiting Florida for Christmas and not wanting to return to the long, dark, Dutch winter. Lows.
- Beginning Dutch courses a month later was the beginning of the upswing. I had classmates, people in similar situations, and even though the language was intimidating, I was getting tools I needed to communicate.
- Studying Dutch, volunteering for IMPACT, writing a blog now and then…visits from friends. Got a museum card and used and abused that thing.
- I got pregnant and we celebrated.
- I was sick all day, molehills were mountains, and I struggled to find the energy to study and bike to Dutch classes.
- We told family. I felt better. Saw the baby in the ultrasound. “He” looked like he was chilling in a hammock. Already looked cute to me.
- Parents visited for the first time. When they left I felt like someone had pulled the beams from the floor I was standing on.
- We’re having a…girl! Frans and I are momentarily stunned. Frans is from a family of 90% men.
- Doggedly pursuing Dutch, taking the NT2 hugely pregnant, and…Ik ben geslaagd!!
- Got my first large, freelance assignment and my first fat check.
- Overdue 11 days. Stripped…next thing I know I’m feeling like I’m dying on a Civil War battlefield…right before I want to pass out, I hear “Catch your baby!” They say you forget; I haven’t forgotten. For the first time in my life, I am considering the possibility of having only one child.
- Estella Christine van Santen is born at home, on a birthing stool, wide-eyed and surprised, arms and legs waving. I think, “Oh, I’m her mother!” and reach out to take the tiny, naked girl and hold her to my breast to keep her warm. She is and always will have our love. I find myself calling her, “My sweet girwul.”
- My mother is with us before, during, and for two weeks after Estella’s birth. Estella is the name of her mother, my grandmother.
- My nipples are dying on a Civil War battlefield. I have almost every breast malady known to new mothers. The first three weeks of breastfeeding are *almost* as difficult as the thirteen hours of labor.
- Frans and I move through the first two months of Estella’s life made giddy by her existence and beauty, with an odd wonder at how we’re still alive after such little sleep.
- I black out during conversations with the baristas at my favorite café while trying to complete a freelance assignment in between feedings.
- I am questioning everything about motherhood…and have to stop myself from compulsively researching every symptom online or calling all of the mothers I know.
- Estella begins to sleep through the night and suddenly, I am reborn. I want to simultaneously choreograph a new dance in the living room, clean and organize the whole house, go shopping for stylish clothing, and become a young and hip entrepreneur. I am convinced I can do it all. Oh wait, just stepping out to get fresh ingredients for tonight’s three course meal!
And here I am, at Anne & Max, knows that somehow to write is to obey.
And now that I’ve gotten this list out in the open, let the obedience begin.