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A Different Measure of Good
For a life that keeps on changing
Yesterday was the last day of summer, and the change is evident everywhere. In the wind, the leaves have a crispier rustle with the occasional volunteer turning brown and crunching down. The rains have come and the dusk drifts in earlier each evening. I find myself reaching for sweaters and sleeves that for months have been too warm to bear.
There’s a different quality to the light here as the summer fades, one that I find difficult to wrap the right words around. A few months ago my friend Tiffani asked, “Why is the light in Portugal so baked bread looking?” Baked bread comes close to capturing the feel of it.
This September light feels less urgent than the bright blast of summer. And as the light shifts, so does life.
After the languid stasis of August when everything in Portugal moves in slow motion or stops altogether, now things are moving with purpose toward some distant destination.
It’s a time of transition, and I am feeling it in all the ways...
school / a escola
September 12 was the first day of sixth grade for Filha. We have continued with “Lilly School,” which we started in February after two failed attempts at Portuguese schools. Lilly is a teacher we met at the second school Filha attended. She’s Portuguese, and lived in the UK for several years, so not only does she speak excellent English, she’s also very empathetic about the difficulties of being an immigrant in a foreign country.
Most importantly, though, Lilly loves Filha. She gets her. She gives her enough latitude to make her feel safe, but pushes her far enough out of her comfort zone to learn and grow and adapt.
Every school day, Lilly comes to our home and teaches Filha math, science, history and geography, English language arts, and Portuguese as a non-mother language. She uses the same school books as our local public school (with the exception of an English textbook from the States), so Filha is keeping up with the Portuguese curriculum.
Private tutoring has been wonderful for this time of transition, but it’s not a long-term solution. I am ever mindful of the need for Filha to be part of a wider peer group, to develop and exercise the social skills that are critical for moving through the world. For now, though, this is what works.
Would I have considered this option when we were living in the States or even when we were planning our move? No. I would have never.
But as with so many parts of life, I am learning a different measure of good. I had plans and ideas of what we should do for school. Those plans didn’t work. And so we shift. And when the time is right, we will shift again.
work / um trabalho
Work is in a state of flux, as well. Since giving up my full-time job when we moved to Portugal, I’ve juggled up to four freelance clients at a time. Some of those were very short-term writing projects, a one-and-done sort of deal. Others have been longer term as I’ve worked with a couple of clients for many months on a variety of projects.
I have a favorite client for whom I’ve been writing for nearly a year, and over the summer we began discussing a different freelance arrangement that would still fulfill my part-time employment dreams.
As summer came to a close, I ended my relationships with other clients and became Editorial Director for Design Dept., a company that designs educational experiences that guide people through transformation. The work has been meaningful and challenging—the kind that I’m eager to sink my teeth into. If I have to have a job (and I do), then this is the kind of job I’m happy to have.
With this new role comes an unexpected benefit. At least once a week, I’m on a zoom call with women* in several countries—the US, Canada, the Netherlands. (*Design Dept. is led and staffed by women.) We meet to discuss our work, but we’re also checking in on each other’s lives. All month, I have been leaving these meetings feeling something new.
I feel like I’m seen again.
It’s not that I ever truly disappeared, of course. I’ve been in touch with family and friends—and all of you, here in this space—since I left the United States. But leaving my full-time career cost me something that I hadn’t factored in to the equation: Visibility.
Though I never really wanted a career, I built one anyway. Painstakingly, for years. I was good at it. Good not just at the writing part, but at all the rest of it. When COVID hit, I was at my peak. I was part of an insanely talented team creating award-winning work. I was 100% supported by an amazing boss, and I had developed an entire program that was my very own brainchild.
I was fulfilled creatively. I was fulfilled professionally. I was a cog in a capitalist machine, yes, but I had found a way to make it work for me instead of just the other way around.
Two months into 2020, I had already traveled to Seattle, Washington and Melbourne, Australia to present my brainchild, Permission to Speak. The year was planned to be a “world tour” of speaking on stages and leading workshops. Next up was Dublin, Ireland; London, England; and Barcelona, Spain.
But COVID intervened. And everything changed. My plans. My ambitions. My priorities. The whole world.
Somewhere in that one-two punch of global pandemic and international relocation, I felt like I disappeared.
It’s weird to untether yourself from everything and everyone you’ve ever known and then try to set down roots in a whole new world.
You meet people and they have no idea who you are or where you’ve been. You try to tell them, but you’re someone different now. You set up shop as a freelancer and you begin fielding clients who, despite skimming your resume, have no idea what you’re truly capable of. Suddenly, you’re not operating at the level you’ve been accustomed to. You’re not speaking the same professional language. Your definition of “good” is not the same as everyone else’s.
And even though you asked for this, even though this is what you said you wanted, the reality of it—the daily practice—feels weird.
You feel weird. Unmoored, unzipped, unsettled.
(I’ve always loved that word.)
What I’m getting to is that I’m feeling less discombobulated these days. Less confused and disconcerted. I can attribute the shift to a whole host of things, but I am certain my new role is one of them.
I feel attached, again, to a group of people who define “good” in the same way I do. Good design, good writing, good communication, good process, good boundaries, good balance, good results, good work.
In this very particular way, I feel seen again. And it feels… so good.
body / o corpo
This year marks a big birthday for me, one that seems unreal because how did I get to be this old?
I’m feeling age manifest in my body in ways I never have before. Knees protest audibly. Flesh hangs oddly. It’s uncomfortable.
Given my upbringing in a religion that teaches women to fear their own bodies, it shouldn’t be strange for me to confess that I’ve never felt completely at home in this human suit that I wear.
My own daughter’s response to puberty reminds me of this truth. Some girls welcome the onset of hormones that herald their transition into womanhood. Filha resents it. She wants her childhood to last longer. Wants to rewind the inexorable advances.
I felt the same way when I was her age. As a child I wasn’t aware of my body other than as a vehicle to take me places that I wanted to be: the tops of trees, the depths of pools, the lengths of fields.
Puberty made me aware of other people’s awareness of my body, and that changed everything. It brought a shame that has never, in all these intervening years, been fully purged.
Shame was first reinforced by the religion I was ensnared in, and then trumpeted at me from all sides by a society that values youth and beauty and symmetry and slimness.
Although I have been young and beautiful and symmetrical and slim, those achievements never lessened the clawing shame.
As I’ve grown in age and girth and become less valuable in the eyes of our patriarchal culture, I’ve learned methods for banishing those feelings of self-loathing. I know that my worth doesn’t lie in my reflection. I have done my best to lavish my attention on my inner self while still moisturizing and exercising and caring for the body that takes me places I want to be.
What I measured as good about my body when I was twenty is much different now. I have a whole new yardstick for good.
Still sometimes, the shame returns.
When the pandemic locked us all in our homes, I made a lot of poor decisions about how to treat my body. I was sad and scared and anxious and angry and I ate every single one of those feelings.
When I moved to Portugal I harbored a secret hope that Europe would magically divest me of those dragging COVID lbs. But simply wishing doesn’t make it so, and disordered eating is a hard practice to halt no matter how close you live to a fresh produce market.
As I approach this birthday (still a couple of months away), my body is bigger than I’d like it to be. I’m ashamed of it, while at the same time I know it’s not the most important thing.
Please understand that by making my shame visible here, by putting it into words that anyone can see, I’m neither asking for weight-loss tips nor fishing for compliments. I am simply saying, “Here is a thing that hurts sometimes.”
For me, acknowledging that these feelings exist is a significant step in dealing with them. Shame wants me to keep silent. Shame wants me to be embarrassed, to feel small and silly and stupid that I feel these things. That I think them.
I will not.
brain / o cérebro
Unsurprisingly given all of this information, lately I am also feeling a shift in my brain.
A few months ago, I was desperate for a routine to restore a sense of normalcy to our lives. Lilly school and my new job have brought that, to some degree.
But so has time.
June was our one year anniversary as residents of Portugal. I’ve read, somewhere on this big wide internet, that on average it takes at least two years to feel settled after a move of this magnitude.
Reading that statistic put me at ease. There has been a pressure—self-induced, most likely—to feel more settled. After all, we have come so far, accomplished so much. We completed literal mountains of paperwork. We got our visas and then our residency cards and then our driver’s licenses (I did, anyway. Marido’s still waiting for his).
We bought an apartment. And a workshop. And a quinta. We unpacked all our boxes. We established ourselves with dentists and doctors and veterinarians. Filha is in school. Marido and I are working.
We adopted a new dog. We planted a tree. We welcomed friends both new and old.
And still, we’re not quite settled.
But we’re getting there. I can feel it shifting, in all of us. A slow, steady tide.
It’s helpful, every once in awhile, to remind myself—to remind all three of us—that we’re still in transition.
We are not who we were in San Francisco.
We are still becoming who we will be here.
What was good for us in San Francisco
is not the same as what is good for us in Portugal.
So we need a different measure for good… or perhaps we need to drop the measuring stick altogether.
Because life is always changing. And we are changing with it.
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Copyright © 2022 LaDonna Witmer