I am still trying to wrap my head around this being the beginning of a new decade, as well as a new year. My approach towards New Year’s resolutions is basically nonexistent, since I am apt to reinvent myself on the spot whenever I feel the need, which tends to be multiple times in a year. However, I do love telling stories. In fact, the only possible way for me to ever make sense of my life is by telling it back to myself. Not once, but a thousand times. Memory is a funny thing. Our brains are constantly arranging and rearranging the past to make meaning out of it; reinforcing the parts that fit our own internal narrative and discarding the other unhelpful bits. ‘Truth,’ in the words of the immortal Ursula K. LeGuin, ‘is a matter of the imagination.’
Perhaps there are those who would disagree with me on this. Among them, in fact, I would probably count my self of a decade ago. I have learned a thing or two since then, and forgotten even more. I feel a bit dislocated from that previous person in terms of time, space, and experience. As Alice put it, ‘it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’ And yet. To find some kind of coherence, let alone closure, I really ought to go back and take a look at the defining events of the past decade of my life. Some of these events I find myself actively trying not to remember as I go about my days, let alone wishing to incorporate them as part of my story. Which is why I want to set them all down here alongside the happy, exciting events I like to focus on in our yearly Christmas letter. In the interest of truth, understanding, and figuring out where the heck I’ve been during this roller-coaster decade, and maybe therefore where I might be going from here.
I guess the final thing I will say before beginning is that for me, time and memory are inextricably linked to space. I grew up homeschooled, and found it interesting that my schooled friends often marked time by which grade they were in when something happened, or who was their teacher. I had no analogous structure for my memories, which made it more difficult for me to accurately pinpoint when they had happened. Then I grew up and started moving around all the time. The place I was living became my anchor for memories. I could picture myself back at home in whatever place it was, and instantly recall where (and thus when) things had happened. Tony and I have lived in 23 different homes since we were married sixteen years ago. A page of our family website that he made to document all those different places has become indispensable to me, because there is no way I could keep them in my head otherwise, let alone put them on a timeline. I have referred to it liberally when compiling this account. So here you have it: 2009-2019. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the wondrous.
2009. Two major events define 2009: our business failed, and Tony was recognised as an Italian citizen. The failure might have had something to do with the fact that we had been running the business from Italy while we worked on the citizenship application, but it was also connected to the economic downturn of 2008 and the subsequent recession.
Later that year we moved back to San Diego, where Tony got a bad job with an even worse commute. But we lived on a lovely little ‘farm’ in northern San Diego county, with chickens and goats and abundant wildflowers.
See, I’m already trying to put a positive spin on it. That was a horrible year, and I ground my teeth so badly at night that I ended up with periodontitis and a grey tooth that needed root canal.
2010. We moved back to Italy. And then to Ireland, and then back to Italy again. We had no money, and were trying to make it in Europe. I can’t explain that, even to myself. In Ireland I got so sick all the skin on my fingers and toes peeled off entirely. By the time I went to the doctor (Tony wheeled me there in our double stroller), whatever I had been sick with was invisible to the tests. I got better, but when we moved back to Italy and I had to be fingerprinted for my residency permit, I still had no fingerprints because the skin on my fingers was so thin and new. Here I am that year, stressed out in Florence.
2011. If you thought 2010 was crazy, take a look at 2011. We moved to Tunisia. Right after the revolution. I mean literally right after; we were scheduled to fly into the country the very day the fleeing president flew out. It’s a beautiful country, and this is how much you have the beach to yourself when all the other tourists have sensibly left because the army just took over the government. Yes, that’s me on the lounge chair and my daughter standing at the edge of the sea.
We moved there because Tony left his job, and his company car along with it, which meant we were living on the side of an Alpine mountain in the middle of winter with no car. Someone had donated a bunch of winter clothes to the kids, but we had come from California and really weren’t prepared for winter otherwise, especially without a car. And odds of getting a job when you’ve just left the only major employer in the city (who also happens to be the mayor) are pretty slim. Tunisia was warm, and cheap. Even in the middle of a revolution it looked good to us. We tried to start another business. I wrote a lot of poetry on the beach. It was idyllic, but also very stressful. I ground my teeth so much at night that I deformed my jaw and eventually had to have surgery on it. Then we crawled home in defeat and moved in with Tony’s parents.
2012. We moved to Florida, because it was the place where Tony could find a job. I had a vague idea that Florida was kind of like the California of the East Coast. It wasn’t. From the giant flying cockroaches to the deadly spiders and less deadly scorpions I found all over inside our screened-in porch when we moved in, it was not like California. I am not joking when I say that the biggest bright spot of my life that year was our delicious giant corner bathtub, where I spent many hours with books, although not candles, because when I tried that I almost set my hair on fire. In fact, to give you an idea of that year, I read through the entire Twilight series in that bathtub. Twice. I also briefly thought I might take up drawing; here’s my rendering of what’s definitely the nicest house we’ve ever lived in, even though American Suburbia and I are utterly incompatible. No, it actually wasn’t that colour, but my box of 12 coloured pencils didn’t include a lot of beige tones.
2013. I had that jaw surgery I needed (which was NOT covered by our health insurance), emerging looking like a cross between a chipmunk and a basset hound. That was just the post-surgery swelling. I guess now my face is pretty normal. Incredibly, it was a few months after that, while still wearing a post-surgery apparatus that gave me a heavy lisp, that I started applying for jobs. It had finally dawned on us that we were going to have to ditch the Mormon ideal of mom staying home full-time with the kids if we were ever going to get out of the financial precarity we’d been teetering around in since our business had failed. Incredibly, I did manage to get a job, even in my freakish post-surgery state. It was full-time, and I commuted an hour by (unreliable) car each way. It was a pretty big boost to my self-esteem, actually, since I hadn’t had a full-time job since I was pregnant with Axa. Tony was working from home, so he took over the homeschooling. Which resulted in a lot of unstructured play, probably the most valuable thing for kids that age to be doing anyway.
2014. We left our religion. It was a Big Deal. Looking back, the change had been coming for awhile. More and more parts of Mormonism were resonating less and less with me. However, my reaction for years had been to work harder at being Mormon. We always faithfully made the (significant) financial contributions expected by the church, and we followed all the rules. Even right up till the week we decided we couldn’t take it anymore, Tony and I were both devoting several hours per week to our volunteer responsibilities at church, as well as regularly making visits to minister to other members. We had always held frequent personal and family worship sessions at home. For the couple of years before this, I had been writing for a (somewhat) progressive Mormon blog, trying to reconcile problematic aspects of my faith. Eventually, the cognitive dissonance of trying to remain part of an organisation that conflicted so seriously with my deeply held values became too much. The proximate cause for our deciding to take a ‘step back’ from Mormonism was the excommunication of a prominent Mormon advocate for gender equality within the church. But that was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. The instant and overwhelming relief and peace I felt after leaving was a surprise to me, and also a confirmation that we had made the right decision. Letting go of such a big piece of my childhood and family heritage involved its own kind of mourning and rebuilding, but it has been a beautiful journey. Also, for the record, if there ends up being a forever, then Mormon or not Mormon, we are staying together for it.
2015. Finally made it back to Europe! And what a wild ride it was. Having (hopefully) learned something from previous adventures, we opted for a highly organised northern European socialist country with a big English-speaking job market. Sure enough, we shortly acquired local jobs, bicycles, and excellent health insurance. This was the year we put the kids in school, which actually worked out spectacularly better than a die-hard homeschooler like me could ever have hoped, and resulted in them becoming fluent bilinguals in short order. Amsterdam was also the perfect place to try all the dark delights forbidden by Mormonism. We started a tradition of weekly coffee dates, exploring all of Amsterdam’s cosy, picturesque cafés. Tony developed a taste for Belgian beers, and I whipped up ‘sonic screwdriver’ cocktails for our Doctor Who watching parties. We made a couple of memorable batches of pot brownies. Our innumerable sexcapades are a story for another day (or never). Good Mormons go to heaven, and bad ones go to Amsterdam.
2016. Have I already mentioned how much better life got when we moved to a European socialist democracy? In 2016 we were shocked to find that even with virtually no savings we could qualify to buy a house, and that in fact paying a monthly mortgage would be far cheaper than renting. It’s a tiny flat furnished almost entirely with IKEA furniture, but it’s ours, and it marked the beginning of real financial stability for the first time in our marriage. A house, two kids, and yes, a dog! Lyra joined our family in 2016, and now we can’t imagine life without her.
2017. By this time life was really feeling pretty good. Axa got into an amazing university-prep high school where she studies Latin, Greek, French and German. I had a job I loved, working at an archive, and had started an arts-focused nonprofit with some friends, including an exciting foray into the world of podcasting. Tony’s job took him on cool business trips to places like Spain and Dubai. I even tagged along on a couple, of his trips, and spent kid-free days exploring museums in London and Paris. I think we finally paid off our American student loans that year too, as well as various other outstanding debts. I got around to applying for Italian citizenship myself (although I have yet to receive it). The kids were old enough to fly back to California by themselves to visit the grandparents, and we took the opportunity to privately renew our wedding vows—our way, not the Mormon way—on a trip to beautiful Iceland.
2018. If I know anything about us, it is that we are always—consciously or unconsciously—looking for a new challenge. During a very nostalgic trip to Italy, we decided it would be a good idea to both quit our jobs and make another go at starting a business. From a financial standpoint, this was probably not our worst idea, but mainly because we have had a lot of bad ideas. Did it work out? Not exactly. But the second half of 2018 and the first half of 2019 were kind of a blast from the past. We spent a lot of time working together, and it was a breather from the fast-paced everything of the year before. We finally formalised our departure from the Mormon church by requesting that our names be officially removed. That summer we got incredibly lucky; an airline bump on our Iceland trip the year before had resulted in four free round-trip tickets anywhere in the world. We picked the thing we really desperately wanted and couldn’t have otherwise afforded to do: go to California for a nice long summer with family. My favourite part of that trip was going camping with my parents to the same breathtakingly beautiful place up in the redwoods where we used to camp when I was a kid. We had to drive around multiple fires during that summer of conflagration to make it up to the northern California coast, but it was so worth it.
2019. The last year of the decade began with me getting a chance to do something I have wanted to do for at least twenty years: go to grad school. I spent the months after getting accepted in February brushing up on all the languages I had ever studied, in case I might need them while doing research. Then I went back to school with the kids in September. Fall semester finished up a few weeks ago, and I can happily say that I enjoy school as much as I ever did (maybe even more).
Tony went back to work, this time at a hip Amsterdam startup that monitors solar energy systems in Africa. He went along with the Dutch trade mission to Nigeria in July, and has devoted a lot of time to growth strategy design. Much as he wouldn’t have said this when he was in it, he misses corporate life, so next year will probably find him back leading a sales team for some multinational.
Summing it all up. Is there a way to sum it all up that makes it into a neat, tidy story? I guess the simplest is to say that the 2010s started out really, really rough. The whole first half of that decade is at the top of my list of years I would not want to relive. But these past five years in Amsterdam have been pretty amazing. Have we put down roots? Maybe. I still fantasise almost constantly about retiring in Italy. But Amsterdam has been very good to us, and I love it here so much that I got a map of the place tattooed on my back. Where will the new decade take us? I was celebrating the new year with my daughter and her friend, and it occurred to me that they were four years old when the 2010s began. During the next decade both my kids will go off to university. The first half of this decade went by excruciatingly slowly, but the second half has been speeding by like this high speed rail thing we have here in Europe. Here’s to a 2020 and decade of 2020s that take us all somewhere we are happy to be.