Apr 29 2010

Hold on

Our days are filled with affection. My children, being completely bilingual, are adept at American hugs and French calins, and dispense these joyously (mostly) throughout the day. But there is something especially poignant about the morning cuddle, the first and most delicious caress of the day.

It is as if the toxins of their tantrums, their princess demands, their bêtises and all their mis-targeted mischief – all the moments of yesterday that made me close my eyes and count to ten before asking (not out loud), “why did I have these children anyway?” – all of it washes away overnight, flaking off during their sleep and disappearing through the dream-catchers hanging above their beds.

They rise in the morning, semi-conscious and automatically innocent. The footfall of tiny feet down the stairs, uneven and still stiff from an overnight of motionless sleep, groggy in the sweetest kind of way, waking me enough to skooch over and make room for the small body that nudges its way under the covers and curls up like a spoon within my embrace. Even several days dirty from country house living, the skin smells sweet and the hair is scented with the sweat of swing-sets and forested play.

Almost immediately, breathing lengthens and loudens, and sleep reigns again as if the trip from the bed upstairs to our bed downstairs was a quick flight between REM stages; like they could wake up and have no memory of how they got in bed with us.

Short-pants is curled up beside me and her soft long limbs intertwine with mine. Buddy-roo will stumble down any minute. There is a bond that is renewed with each and every morning hug, a reminder that we all fit together, our DNA is shared, so then why not a few moments of pillows and sheets? We revert back to the moment when we were in constant embrace, those babies in my womb and De-facto‘s thoughtful arm over my big belly. Ages ago it seems, and yet reenacted every morning.

Last night, the last drive of our spring break trip, a tour that took us to Italy and slowly back through France, visiting friends along the way before a respite at our country house, driving sometimes in 10-hour chunks. The final leg took only 4 hours and 5 minutes; we managed without even a bathroom stop, allowing De-facto to beat the previous record by 2 minutes. This morning’s cuddle is particularly cherished, then, as it marks the end of our spirited (but tiring) voyage and the return to Parisian routine.

I lay half-awake, staring out the dormer windows, listening to the sound of our city street coming to life, caressing the soft skin of my child, breathing in tandem with her. Slowly I let the thoughts of my day ahead creep in, the things to do after being gone nearly 20 days may be daunting, but I am fortified by the sweetness of this moment, to be savored until, say, the two of them break into battle just about the time of my second cup of coffee.

Apr 26 2010

Growing Pains

She changed into her pajamas in the living room, doing a funny kind of half-dressed jig to entertain us, happy to laugh and happy that we were laughing with her. I said something that made her run away from us – a pretend threat to pinch her, or a comment about her lack of underwear. She turned too quickly and stubbed her toe on the base of the couch. (We are at our country house, where there’s a sagging, old futon with odd parts of metal protruding from the bottom.) She shrieked and exploded into tears.

De-facto and I remained seated at the table. It’s not that we are insensitive, but early on we agreed to be the parents that wait a beat (or two) before coddling our children after they have hurt themselves, reserving our rushing-over-to-console-efforts for those boo-boos that actually merit such earnest concern. We were, perhaps, too cavalier about this when Short-pants was a little toddler. She’d tumble and we’d quickly suggest to her, “you’re okay!” Later we came to understand that she thought “you’re okay,” meant “ouch, it hurts!” After a fall, she’d jump around, in obvious pain, shouting, “I’m okay! I’m okay!”

She sat on the couch and screamed again, her face in a grimace, red with tears. “I’m always hurting myself!” she cried.

Short-pants does stumble a lot. She trips and falls more frequently that most children her age – and I know that 8-year olds can trip and fall a lot – but she is constantly nursing a hurt toe, foot or knee. She moves with short, jerky motions, especially when she is excited, which often causes her to bump into something and bang or bruise one of her appendages.

Part of this is related to a broken leg at age 4 that was, unfortunately, set incorrectly, a fracture which, though we’ll never be sure, we believe is related to her brain abscess. She had just learned to walk again after a coma and two brain surgeries and six motionless weeks in a hospital bed. She overestimated her strength while hanging on a bar in the park, fell on her leg and broke it, after which she spent eight weeks in a cast and then had to learn how to walk again. Except after the cast came off, the leg was longer and slightly turned. This would set anyone back a bit, let alone someone with a little neurological story like hers.

We were diligent about physical therapy, until one day it felt like she spent too much time going to medical appointments and that maybe the best therapy for her was to just be a playful kid. The French doctors all agreed, a bit too readily, “Her legs will even out, you’ll see, pendant la croissance.” During the growth. I could tell they were mocking my concern – I was one of those obsessive (American) mothers and if I’d just relax it would all be fine.

This is the line we walk – all mothers, not just mothers who’ve been hospital mothers – the fine line between advocating for your child and obsessing over her. I don’t want to hover and try to direct everything in her life. But to what degree is my role as parent to make sure she has the best care possible and that we’ve done everything we can to help her? It’s not that she has to have perfect legs and run like a gazelle and win every race. I just want her to be able to move comfortably and do the things she wants to do. And when she’s an old bat, I don’t want her to be in pain because her pelvis and back are all messed up because her leg was never attended to.

We’ve waited a few years, and the croissance is indeed happening, in amazing spurts, but her leg is still longer and it’s still crooked. She’s not really getting stronger or more coordinated. If anything, she’s discovering that she’s not as swift or steady as her school friends, and starting to shy away from physical activities where she knows this will be apparent. We try to encourage her, with modest success (De-facto has her playing basketball and the practice is helping) but we don’t want to nag her and make it larger issue than it already is.

A few weeks ago, I decided it was time for an expert opinion, so I returned to one of the PTs who’d worked with her before. He was terrific – said all the right things to her about finding a physical activity she loves and practicing and working at it. He gave me that look that said I know you want me to fix this and I can’t, but she can, if she works at it. He gave us some exercises to do together, but of course, I haven’t been so diligent about it. I’ve not been very diligent about my pilates, either. It probably doesn’t help that her mother is much better at laying in bed and reading than running laps at the basketball court.

I looked at De-facto. “I wish I knew what to do to help her move more fluidly,” I said.

“She’s missing a little part of her brain,” he whispered back. “She’s a miracle, remember?”

I do remember those awful days when Short-pants was in a coma, when all I wanted her to do was survive. I bargained with someone above to keep her with us in any condition. A funky leg that makes her a bit uncoordinated and a left side that isn’t as strong as her right side? No problem, we’ll take it. Just give her back to us. That’s what I would have said. More or less, it’s what I did say.

Short-pants hobbled over to the table and folded herself in her father’s lap. I listened to him talking to her in his low, soft, reassuring voice. He explained it all to her, how maybe she falls and trips a lot because of the operation on her brain, and how it takes her a bit longer to learn to do physical things. He put all those big-person concepts into littler-person words so she could understand. And maybe, he said, it all had to do with the thing that was in her brain, but maybe not, we’ll never know for sure, but what we do know is she can do anything she wants to do, just sometimes she has to work longer to get her body to learn how to do it.

He always knows the right way to frame things for the girls, to tell them the truth without talking down to them or being patronizing. He’s the best explainer there is.

Short-pants rested in his arms, taking in all he said. I watched from across the table, admiring the two of them in their embrace. Then she pushed herself up, out of his lap and limped around the table to me and curled her lanky legs up in my lap.

“Don’t worry, mama,” she said, “I’m okay.”

Apr 23 2010

Where it Starts

I watched them run ahead toward the grand dining room, confident, at ease. Short-pants set her book down on a table and grabbed a plate, Buddy-roo was already surveying the buffet table and deciding how to choose among the abundance. They forged into the crowd forming around the tables, picking through the platters of seafood, pasta salads, Italian meat and fried vegetables and filled their plates. On the way to their table, they stopped to chat with adults – new friends and old – engaging them in conversations about how the conference was going. My big little girls, so poised and polite. I stood aside and watched them, shaking my head.

We have been taking our girls with us to the CREA conference since its inception in 2003. That first year Short-pants was just under 2-years old. The hotel found for us a babysitter who spoke only Italian, so each day I made little drawings of bottles or a sleeping child next to the hands of a clock, indicating her schedule. I was also pregnant at that first conference; Buddy-roo was the wild idea growing strong-willed in my belly.

Which is to say that the girls are well loved among the community of leaders and participants who return to CREA each year. Many are friends we know from years attending the Creative Problem Solving Institute, (CPSI), the original creativity conference (which also happens to be where De-facto and I first met). The one year that I came to CREA alone, I was chastised for not bringing the girls. “They are our inspiration,” my friends said.

We are not the only people in this clan who have children, but perhaps we have been – up until now – the only ones crazy enough to bring our young creatures to the conference for the whole week. This has never been easy. Both De-facto and I are usually running core programs that require our attention as facilitators for most of the very long days, and there’s always a bit of extra planning and adjusting of the program to do in the evenings that requires our time and attention. A wide menu of concurrent activities calls to us at any given moment, not to mention nights dancing at the CREA pub or hanging out at the bar with friends. There’s a lot to do without the kids around, let alone when they are tugging on your shirt for some mama-time after missing you all day.

We’ve experimented with different child-care formulas: hiring a local babysitter through the hotel, bringing our own babysitter from Paris, using the mother-in-love, taking turns trading the kids off to each other. It’s never ideal and there’s always the feeling of being totally stretched. Yet it has always been worth it: our kids have something special in them as a result of rubbing up against all these open-minded, open-hearted adults, some of them eccentric, many of them equally as childlike, all of them in awe of the sacred uninhibited spirit that lives in children who have not yet had their creativity taught out of them. This community covets that spirit, and in turn, keeps it burning in our children.

This year, with a bit of coordination in advance, a few other CREA friends brought their children, too, and we initiated the first unofficial CREA kids program. Ten youngsters from the ages of 6 to 14 – an entire pack of CREA-rats – made the Grand Villa Balbi Hotel their playground. My friend, la maman créative, brought her mother to help with oversight and to work with the kids to produce a journal every day about their activities. The mother-in-love and other CREA leaders and parents helped us to create a schedule of events and activities for the kids. There was a session on creativity by playing with light, another on meditation. Two about knitting, with fingers and with needles. One leader even organized a Harry Potter tour – arranging in advance with locals in the town to pretend not to see the kids when they passed by in their invisibility cloak.

Short-pants herself facilitated a session on how to make mandalas, which I was unable to attend because I was running program. A bunch of the kids helped la maman créative to lead a session titled Taking time to be Creative as a Family. De-facto was there for that, but unfortunately, I couldn’t attend – a session I was running was scheduled at the same time. The irony of this wasn’t lost on me.

I did find one opportunity to play with the kids: We rolled out a 10-meter long sheet of blank paper on the sidewalk in front of the hotel and set out jars of paints and brushes. The instructions were this simple: paint. “What do we paint?” was what most of the adults asked. The kids didn’t wonder why or what or how. They simply got down on their hands and knees, picked up a brush and some color and started painting. They didn’t need instructions. They just started.

The beautiful thing about seeing the gang of CREA-rats running around the conference is that you see immediately how they belong there. It is in their nature to be creative. There is no hesitation to step into the flow of their imagination. Most children don’t even know that they are being creative; they are simply at play. It is their way. This is, perhaps, why their presence at the CREA (or the CPSI) creativity conference is not only natural, it is just what we need.

(If you’re interested in attending one or both of these creativity conferences, the next CREA is April 13-17, 2011 and CPSI, which has an official youth program, is coming up very soon, June 21-25. You can also read more from other bloggers who’ve been to CPSI: Jonathan Vehar, Cynthia Rolfe, Amy Basic, Gregg Fraley, Pablo Munoz, Whitney Ferré and Missy Carvin.)

Apr 19 2010

The Sound of Chaos

While volcanic ash reached across Europe like a gray blanket, I was nearly oblivious to it, sequestered with colleagues and friends who meet every year to attend an annual European Creativity Conference known as CREA. Last year, I was here without De-facto and the girls, and though the week was filled with planning and preparing and running an intense core program, I still had room to connect with old friends and colleagues who, like me, return to CREA each year. I had time to breathe around the edges.

But this year, I arrived à la masse. Suitcases packed haphazardly, things I’d hoped to plan in advance were left to plan on the fly. I even forgot my rings and my watch – always present on my hands and wrist – at home by the bathroom sink. It took almost the entire 10-hour drive through France and into Italy to recover from our chaotic departure.

Not that this is so very unusual. Just watch me run around like a frenzied woman most days of my life. Pursued by a to-do list that stalks me – my own ugly shadow creeping behind my back with Sharpie in hand, adding small boxes to the bottom of the Post-it notes strewn about my life. Despite any determination to be grounded and centered and somehow effortlessly juggling it all, I am too often hurrying. I am too greedy; I want to experience all the interesting invitations life offers. I forget the limits of my stamina.


My colleague brought a recording he’d made, one that suggested the sound of chaos. We used it in our workshop, for an exercise about sound, silence and memory. The sound was a dissonant mash-up of noise, primordial, and lacking order or pattern. Still within it I could find some sporadic harmonic quality. It was a music that asked nothing of me, but rather, for a those moments that I closed my eyes and let it fill up my chattering mind, the sound of chaos pushed all those busy thoughts out and left me with the temporary calm that I seem always to yearn for. Could chaos be useful?


How scarce is silence. Rare and almost impossible. It is no wonder I am so distracted. I can close and cover my eyes to be in darkness, but it is impossible to be in absence of sound. A tone rings and finishes but the white noise of the background persists; the ventilation, the cars outside driving by with their aggressive engines, muffled but audible. Each building has its own hums and hems and haws. The noise of the world around us is relentless. We are never left in peace.

Except my mother, who lived for the last half of her life with a significant hearing loss. What was her silence like? Was it quieter than mine? And why didn’t I ever ask her this question?


The sound of the furnace in my childhood home, revisited this winter as I slept on the couch beside my mother. The familiar cadence as the motor kicked in and buzzed and vibrated the walls, a noisy old engine heating the tired old house that protects my memories. Another memory marked by sound: that of an iron releasing steam as it is set upright, the rhythm and moan of my mother’s ironing. All these sound-ful memories to do with my mother. Is this natural, because she’s gone? Or is much of memory to do with the maternal?

Which makes me wonder what will be the sound of the memories I leave to my daughters? Will it be the sound of my chaos?

Apr 10 2010

Spelling it Out

She has more than an hour of homework every night, in French and English. There is music theory to be memorized and viola to be practiced. She has an activity after school three days out of five. This leaves little time for Short-pants to simply be a child and inhabit her imagination unhindered. Then the extra projects: in the last few weeks she wrote a short story to submit to a competition for her English class and she’s had three meetings with a small group of her classmates to prepare an exposé on the topic of the Ancient Romans. Don’t even get me started on this – it was just as tedious as last year’s assignment (read about that here and here) and designed, it seems, to test the parents’ patience as much (if not more) than to measure the students aptitude preparing a report.

So when the note came from school about a citywide English spelling bee, my first instinct was I don’t think so. It’s too much, too tough on her. But of course, we didn’t want to make an assumption, so De-facto asked her if she’d like to participate. She was jumping-up-and-down thrilled about entering.

“Okay then,” I said, attaching the application form to the refrigerator with a magnet, “we’ll sign you up.” Why not fill it out then and there and send it in right away? Probably my own inertia; a spelling bee is more work for us, time going over the list of words with her, and schlepping her someplace on a Saturday. Maybe it wasn’t that she had so much enthusiasm, but that I had none. It’s tough being a mom and having to be cheerful about all matter of things you aren’t really deeply cheerful about.

We did sign her up, and just in time. In an exceptional flash of memory, anomalous to my usual state of maternal mindlessness – it came to me while I was out of town, in the middle of a job: we’ve got to get that application in before its due date! I emailed De-facto, who insisted that he was totally aware of the looming deadline. He left a photocopy of the completed application on the fridge as proof of compliance. Later, I reviewed it approvingly, until I noticed he’d misspelled the name of her school.

“So what?” he said, until it dawned on him, the irony of it.

Let’s hope she didn’t get her DNA for spelling from him. Nor from me, since I am a handicapped speller as a result of a scholastic experiment with the International Teaching Alphabet (ITA) when I was in the first grade. My first alphabet was phonetic, with funny connected lettering that made for interesting spellings (ergo the odd-looking title of the childhood book I authored, U.D.T. Rool Book). In second grade, I had to learn the regular English alphabet and unlearn all the phonetically-spelled words I’d been taught the year before. My spelling has never fully recovered. I managed, however, to persevere, competing aggressively in my 5th grade spelling bee. I was one of four students in the final round, and I was certain I would win. Rule #1 in spelling bees (and life): never get cocky. My first reaction to the word that eliminated me was “Oh, that’s easy.” Then I went on to misspell alcohol. Yes, it’s prophetic.

De-facto’s nemesis-word was crocodile. He made the same error that I did. mistaking the middle O for an A and eliminating himself from the final round of his spelling bee, too. Will Short-pants do what every generation is supposed to do and exceed our mediocre achievements? Or is she saddled with our sloppy and cocky spelling habits?

I wonder about the pressure that is hoisted on such a young creature to perform at such a young age. I’ve mentioned the hours of homework, which follow a grueling 8-hour day at school. Tests are frequent and often a surprise event. Students are graded out loud. Class ranking is public. Everywhere they go, life is rigorous for children in France. It feels like their childhoods are robbed from them. Or am I over-sensitive? Is this all just good preparation for the future, toughening them up for real life?

It makes me think of my Uncle Buddy, a man with a generous heart and a rigorous spirit but little tolerance or sympathy for kvetching. I can picture him now, cocking his head with a mocking frown, rolling his eyes. “That’s tough,” he’d say, “spelled T-O-O, B-A-D.”

This morning De-facto accompanied her to the first round of the spelling bee. She sat with 53 other students at her age level (there are 77 signed up, total) for the written competition. The top spellers from this round become finalists in the oral contest at the end of May.

Short-pants returned from the test, beaming. I asked her how it went.

“It was great!” she said, meaning it, “Except I got two words wrong: laundry and medley.” She and her papa had gone through the list on the way home, remarkably she could recall the words she’d had to spell.

“Medley is a tough one,” I told her, remembering my own bout with alcohol.

“It’s okay,” she said, “now I’ll know it for the next time.”

She’s tougher than I think, our little speller, isn’t she?

(The painting pictured above is by Blair Bradshaw.)

Apr 4 2010

God Won’t Mind

“But why do I have to go to the Jesus class?” Buddy-roo whined.

Religious instruction is an optional class at their school and Short-pants is excused from it because we opted to schedule her viola lesson at that time, to avoid an evening commitment at the conservatory. The reason Buddy-roo attends the class: convenience. It’s part of our strategy to limit the number the days when they get out of school at different times (it already happens twice a week) in order to make end-of-the-day school pick-up less complicated. Besides, a little religious instruction won’t hurt Buddy-roo. She’s the rebellious type; this will give her something to reject later in life. As De-facto says, we might as well put up a couple of false walls, ahead of ourselves.

“Well anyway,” she said, “I know that there are two Jesuses. The one that died on the cross, and the one you talk about when you’re mad.”

Oh, yes, that Jesus.

I guess you could say we’re not particularly religious. I was more spiritual before I had children, when I had the time to meditate and read provocative books by the Dalai Lama, Carlos Castaneda and Eckhart Tolle. Children may be closer to the spirit – miracles that they are – but I’ve found that having them gives me much less time for such sacred contemplation.

Short-pants practices her own religion of angels, healing energy and metro tickets, much of it the result of her hospital experience and fueled by our belief that the intentions and prayers of all the people who were rooting for her recovery created an energy that was directed at her and absolutely made a difference. Buddy-roo prays at the altar of our DVD player, finding meaning in the plots of every movie she watches. Her favorite film of the week, appropriately, is The Ten Commandments.

I am the product of a mixed marriage: a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. I know the Jewish faith claims me because of maternal lineage, but there was no temple in my rural hometown and only a handful of Jews. What I knew about the Jewish faith was Chanukah and Passover. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were remotely in my awareness only because they were printed on a calendar my mother used to mark her appointments.

So my brother and sister and I were baptized and fulfilled the sacraments of the Catholic Church, not because my father was so devout, but because those rituals teach lessons about life, about coming of age, taking responsibility, being a kind and responsible Christian (as opposed to a gun-brandishing, tea-bagging Christianist). And as my father used to say, “Church is a good place to think. The phone doesn’t ring. Nobody interrupts you.”

One thing my father and De-facto’s had in common – and they never knew each other – was a penchant for ditching church early, after communion. After receiving the host, we’d walk with hands folded and heads bowed to the transept and out the side door. In the winter, we’d be the family clumping down the aisle in our laced-up ski boots, making our early exit to drive right to the small mountain 45-minutes away for a few Sunday runs.

When my mother was dying, she consulted with a friend, a Jewish history professor, about what she might suggest to us to bring a few Jewish customs into her memorial service. He wondered about having a minyan to pray for her, but worried that it might be hard to collect ten adult Jews from our community. In the end, he advised her that the minyan could be constructed of people from any faith, because, “God won’t mind.”

This is the kind of religious tolerance I grew up with, and that I hope to pass on to my children. Our girls get a goulash of religion: They go to a Catholic school (it helps that it has a strong English section). We live in the pletzl, in
heart of the Jewish quarter and we have Muslim neighbors. We trim a Christmas tree and we light the menorah. We color Easter eggs and eat matzah. We did our own truncated version of the Haggadah at our Passover Seder. We’re doing an Easter feast (and Ricky’s roasting the lamb). And why not? It’s all very Cambellian in our home.

Earlier this week I was at the local butcher shop buying a bone for our Seder plate. I was waiting patiently for my turn – not an easy task when it felt like the butcher was taking his time, entirely unconcerned that the line of customers in his narrow little shop was spilling out into the street. I reminded myself to just keep smiling. Demonstrating exasperation in this situation only invites condescension. Not that being patient ensures you will be treated kindly. But it puts the odds slightly in your favor.

When I was next to be served, I took a deep breath. I’d rehearsed my appeal, having been rejected at two other butcher shops the day before.

“Pardon me, sir, I hope you can help me. Do you, by any chance, have a zeroah?”

He stared at me like I was from the Vatican.

Mais, non,” he scolded, “C’est vachement trop tard.”

Yes, I’ve been told it’s too late. But I’ve been a very busy half-goyim, and this weekend is the only time my Jewish friend, who’s also very busy, and I could organize ourselves to do our Pesach. And anyway, isn’t it enough that I’m trying to carry on the ritual and pass it down to my children? Isn’t that the idea anyway, tell your sons and all? Does it matter if it’s early or late?

“Jesus H. Christ on a Crutch.” I said. (Not out loud though.)

He continued to stare at me, waiting for me to leave, boneless.

“I realize this is very unusual,” I said, not really meaning it. I thought you could celebrate a Seder anytime you wanted during Passover. “But due to personal circumstances, this is how it must be in our home this year. Wouldn’t you please suggest to me another kind of bone I might use? I’d like my children to experience the Seder.”

He shrugged that brilliant gesture of indifference that is part of the French genetic code and suggested a small lamp chop. I nodded.

“It’s okay,” I said to him, as he was wrapping it up in butcher paper. “God won’t mind.”