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Notes from a Blue Bike
The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World
By Tsh Oxenreider
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Tsh Oxenreider
All rights reserved.
Izmir, Turkey, 2008
Filtered light danced across our white IKEA comforter. Saturday morning meant little in this culture, and the daily jackhammering on our street had started an hour earlier than usual. For once, I'd woken up earlier than the six-month-old in the crib next to our bed. He slept, blissfully unaware of the construction. I was glad.
His sister and dad were still asleep, too, so I twisted my way out of the covers, maneuvered around the crib, and tiptoed down the hall. It's a rare thing, as a mom with little kids, to behold a few moments of solitary quiet spread before you. I chose to take advantage.
I slipped outside onto our balcony as the beans for my morning coffee brewed in the French press. I was taking a gamble that I might be caught in my pajamas by another early riser, but I'd grown used to being a foreign misfit in the neighborhood. The people here already found us strange in so many ways.
Cultural differences aside, I was slowly growing to like where we lived. It wasn't always so. During our first year in Turkey, I was pregnant with our second baby and overwhelmed by how little life resembled what we had hoped for and expected. It didn't matter that there were twenty layers of civilization beneath this land, or that the nearby ocean was turquoise. That first year, I didn't want to live in a tourist destination. I wanted home.
I was diagnosed with depression then. But in our second year, life was getting better. I no longer needed my index card of prompts in order to hold a basic conversation at the park. And weird things were becoming normal. I had stopped expecting pepperoni as a pizza topping option. The grandparents lived in a land called Skype. We had discovered a corner store an hour away that stocked cheddar cheese, to save us if we got the cultural shakes. We were coping.
My coffee was ready, so I tiptoed inside and poured a cup. I took it back to the balcony to sit at our little café table, journal in hand. I sipped and scribbled and stared off into space for half an hour. I watched an old woman kneel in the concrete pavilion at ground level and sort through freshly shorn wool from the family's sheep. Her grandchildren played with plastic toys nearby. I heard a neighbor boy in the courtyard, yelling repeatedly for his mom until she finally opened the seventh-floor window with exasperation: "Ne?!" (What?!) I saw a work-wrinkled man ambling down the road in his produce truck, driving at a snail's pace, and calling out the day's vegetables.
My three-year-old daughter, Tate, woke up and gleefully scampered onto the balcony to begin her day's important agenda of playing. She has never known the sleepy start to a morning; from birth, she was my zero-to-sixty child. I tried to journal a little longer, despite her running commentary, but I could no longer concentrate and soon raised the white flag. She needed to tell me her latest plan for a tea party, and I needed to listen.
The boys continued to sleep while we girls chatted and watched the world wander by. My husband, Kyle, eventually rose from bed, starting the morning with his usual routine of opening the front door to see what lay at the entrance. Usually, it was a bottle or two of milk. That was the case today, which meant we could make Dutch babies for breakfast.
It wasn't 1950; it was 2008, and yet we awoke almost every morning to fresh, whole milk served in glass bottles. This was the fault of a man we had nicknamed George, since we couldn't pronounce his real name. George was our doorman, a normal feature of apartment buildings in Turkey, and his job was to take care of us and the other hundred-or-so people who lived in the building. We would set trash bags outside our front door every other evening at seven thirty, and by eight o'clock, they were miraculously gone. The little garden surrounding the building bloomed with softball-sized roses in cotton-candy pink and lipstick fuchsia, and this, too, was George's fault. If our hot water turned cold, we called George, and he would travel up the elevator with his toolbox. If we needed milk, bread, eggs, or the paper, we could let George know, and the next morning, it would be waiting for us on our front doorstep. He was our fairy.
Milk was expensive in Turkey. We bought no more than five bottles or so weekly, and each bottle was only one liter. This provided a few cups to drink and maybe enough for a baking recipe, and then we would have to wait for the next morning's batch. But it was pointless to stock up—the milk turned sour in twenty-four hours. (I can remember plenty of mornings when one sniff of the milk meant eggs and tomatoes for breakfast.) I've never learned what, exactly, made that milk so delicious, but heaven help me, it was good.
Deciding when and how to use our milk rations was part of my household liturgy. So was premeditating the laundry timetable—washing, because our machine took longer to wash a (tiny) load of clothing than I was used to, and drying, because instead of tossing the clothes in the dryer, I would hang them in the sun on the balcony, and they'd dry in twenty minutes. I'm embarrassed that I once thought tumble dryers to be a necessity.
Kyle collected our milk bottles, the glass click-clocking the song of breakfast. He's the breakfast king on weekends, lucky wife that I am, so Tate and I continued our leisurely tea-party planning while he rolled up his sleeves. As the Dutch babies baked in the oven, Reed finally called out, awake and wanting to join us. I gathered him from the crib and let him play happily at my feet until the oven announced that breakfast was ready.CHAPTER 2
Moving Back to Venti Latte Land
Austin, Texas, 2010
"Tate. Tate. Time to get up for school." Only a month into her kindergarten year, and this had become my daily sun salutation: twisting Tate's arm to wake her up for school. The sparkling excitement of wearing her school uniform had faded mere weeks into September, and as I pulled out the cereals and granola from the pantry, she reluctantly changed into her polo shirt, pleated skirt, and knee socks. The ponytailed schoolgirl joined the rest of us at the table—Kyle and me, along with two-year-old Reed and her three-month-old baby brother, Finn.
Cereal was scarfed down, coffee poured in travel mugs. At ten till eight, I donned my drill sergeant hat and barked marching orders: "If you can put on your own shoes, do so; if not, make yourself available for a parent to do it for you, and then go, go, go, to the minivan." Well, not really, but that's how I really wanted to say, "Hurry up, honey. We really need to go." We shoved laptops in computer bags, strapped little ones into car seats, and anchored our coffees in their cup holders. Then off we sped, thirty minutes to school.
The previous winter, a few months earlier, we had traveled from Turkey to Austin for a five-week visit. Home was still our fifth-floor apartment in an urban high-rise, blessed with a not-too-shabby balcony view of the Aegean Sea. We had packed our bags for a five-week stateside holiday to see friends and family, get prenatal and other medical checkups, and take a breather from the cultural stress.
We had a few health issues that were a bit of a concern, but nothing to give suspicion that our vacation would turn into a relocation across the Atlantic. We were shocked, therefore, to learn that those issues were more than minor concerns. They required our immediate attention, and people smarter than us said we had better listen.
My pregnancy so far hadn't been stellar (I had miscarried six months before), so my doctor suggested I deliver this baby in the States. And the baby's older brother, Reed, wasn't speaking at two and a half—as in, not even babbling—so speech therapists in Austin recommended ongoing professional attention for the foreseeable future. Kyle and I were also nagged by thoughts that a job change was in order, though our jobs were the very reason we were in Turkey in the first place.
Suddenly, our jaunt across the pond became a pathetic relocation package. It was pointless to use my return ticket, only to have to spin back to the States a month later for the no-travel third trimester and birth. We decided I would stay put in the States with the kids, enabling Kyle to go back and retrieve just the essentials. We figured we would probably return to Turkey in the fall.
But just as our five-week vacation had turned into a six-month stay, the extended stay evolved into a total relocation, with job changes, a new home, and a complete rewiring of our brains. Kyle's retrieval trip that March turned out to be a shockingly uneventful good-bye to our home of three years, unbeknownst to him at the time. The kids and I never did have the chance to say farewell. I cried heavy tears when I heard that my writing desk, where I'd tapped out my first book, had to be abandoned by a trash bin. The forced departure from our home in Turkey was also a forced shedding of identity; we were no longer expats, living the international life we had both wanted and planned since we were single in our early twenties. We were going to become Normal People. We were going to do the minivan thing and live the drive-everywhere-because-the-US-is-so-spread-out life. It was soul jarring.
After selling our apartment's furniture from six thousand miles away, thanks to friends back in Turkey, we pieced together an American home from Craigslist and IKEA finds. We swapped public transportation to the neighborhood bazaar for zooming around in a minivan and avoiding interstate traffic on Longhorn game days. We missed our postage stamp–sized high-rise garden of strawberries and begonias, both of which could have been watered with one of the venti lattes so ubiquitous here.
We discovered a school in Austin that offered a rare half-day kindergarten program, so despite the inconvenient drive, we enrolled Tate. We simply weren't ready yet to relinquish our family togetherness for eight hours each day.
In those early days, after dropping off Tate at her school, the rest of us would trek to a nearby park so Reed could play, Finn could nap in his car seat, and the two breadwinning adults could work. Kyle was continuing to work remotely at the same job, the one he had with our nonprofit organization in Turkey; and as a writer and blogger, I was able to work from anywhere. A few months later, after Finn began crawling everywhere, Kyle and I started tag-teaming; just one of us would take Tate to school and then find a coffee shop with Wi-Fi, while the other parent stayed home with the younger brothers.
And so began our life of logging long minivan miles, making plans with friends a month in advance because everyone was just so busy, and reluctantly waving good-bye to the world's freshest produce. We were relieved to speak English with waiters and to not be stared at every waking moment, but something inside didn't quite settle. I couldn't shake it.
When we realized our return to the homeland was permanent, Kyle and I set some ground rules. Yes, we were back in the birthplace of TV dinners, but that didn't require us to succumb to the stereotypically American lifestyle. Surely we could import some of our practices from life abroad and remold them for our life here. We had a few American friends who valued the same things we did—relationships, not living with clutter, smelling the roses—and they made life work here in the States. We could live experience-rich lives in our mother country. No need to be international snobs about it.
But the truth is, it was hard for us to dive into the deep end of life. Our skin felt itchy, as though our home culture were now a too-tight wool sweater. And why did everyone seem to be in such a big hurry?CHAPTER 3
A Blue Bike
Bend, Oregon, August 2011
Our first big step toward crafting a slower life was moving to small-town Bend, Oregon, twenty-one hundred miles from Austin, where Kyle would begin a new job. In my city-girl head, this place was Mayberry. In a good way. It would be a brand-new town where I wouldn't know the butcher from the baker.
I wasn't necessarily in the market for a new me, mind you, but there was something romantic about moving to a new place. I didn't know a soul in Bend—I could fake a British accent if I wanted. I could add a vowel to my name, which I had always wanted to do as a kid. I could be that mom who jumped in with both feet and hosted a summer barbecue for her new neighbors, the mom who could make a superb margarita for the adults and Italian sodas for the kids. I didn't really want to do all this, but it was still fun to think that I had in my cards the complete freedom to reinvent. I was happy—happy that I could wear long sleeves when the sun set on my August birthday, yes, but also happy that, as a family, we were finally doing something. We had lived in limbo the year before, returning to a more recognizable life in the States after three years in Turkey, yes, but it was a waiting-room sort of existence.
Several weeks after our move to Oregon, Kyle surprised me with a cruiser bike for my birthday. As a kid growing up in Austin, odds were always high that the first day of school would fall on my special day, and I was also used to my birthday bringing with it the worst of the hot weather. But here, in the Pacific Northwest, it's one of the best seasons of the year. Odds were now in my favor for stellar bike-riding weather.
I had wanted a cruiser bike for several years—for the cool factor in some ways, I admit, but also because I liked the idea of having an engineless set of second wheels. As a one-car family, we mostly got around just fine, except for those rare afternoons when Kyle needed to be at a meeting and I had scheduled a playdate for the kids on the other side of town. So my rosy idea involved me on a bike in Mayberry, pulling the younger two in an attached carrier, and my oldest trailing along behind on her own bike. We would go to the farmers' market and select the week's fare on these wheels, and we'd make our regular trek to the downtown library needing helmets instead of keys.
Idealistic, no doubt. But I believe I had good reason to be—this was the first time in a decade that I lived in a town with a population closer to zero than to a million. My Texas hometown boasted one million residents, and in Turkey we had made our home in a city of four million. Now we were in Bend, population 76,639. Plus, we were still in our home culture, unlike with our last major move; it'd be a lot easier to find our way and make new friends when we already knew the language.
This cruiser bike, with its powder-blue frame, chrome fenders, and wire basket, represented our new home, sentimentally idealized as it was. It was going to take me places; it would be part of the new me. When Kyle handed over the metaphorical keys to my new two-wheeler, I knew it was more than just a bike. It was his assurance that we'd try, with all our collective might, to make a new life that better aligned with our values. We would stop living from one stressful culture-shocked crisis to the next. We would make intentional choices and water tomatoes in the garden and drink lemonade out of mason jars. That's the bulk of what it means to live slowly in small-town America, right?
Excerpted from Notes from a Blue Bike by Tsh Oxenreider. Copyright © 2014 Tsh Oxenreider. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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