Jun 23 2010

Birthday Courage

The party invitations pile in, Fêtez mon anniversaire! It feels like almost every weekend we’re taking one of our children here from 2-5, the other there from 3-6. The hardest part has been the confounding decision of what kind of present to buy for a young schoolmate (hoping always to avoid being the parent who adds more little pieces of plastic to the ever mounting pile that every mother hates) or the negotiation with De-facto about who delivers and who does the pick-up. Each time we arrive at an apartment that is tidied and decorated, snacks are set out in a neat line of little bowls, the arts & crafts table is prepared and poised to stimulate little imaginations. The parents are fresh and enthusiastic, calmly noting our portable phone numbers just in case. Smiles and see you in three hours. Or more. One party last month lasted from 1 until 6. Lord, that woman had courage.

When we return to retrieve whichever child we’d dropped off for the afternoon celebration, that same apartment is bouleversé with children scrambling around in a sugar-frenzy. Haggard parents open the door, patience tested, tempers suppressed. Our child is then thrust in our arms with a quick gift bag and thank-yous all around. Occasionally, a glass of wine or champagne is served as we come to reclaim our offspring; a celebration of the party’s end – or perhaps the methodology for endurance.

De-facto and I have long managed to avoid the party-with-a-dozen-friends racket. Short-pants’ July birthday always falls during the summer, when everyone is out of Paris and so are we, and Buddy-roo’s October birth date conveniently falls during the 2-week autumn school break, called Toussaints, another moment in the year when we leave the city to spend time at our country house.

We’ve still celebrated our children’s birthdays with a party, but it’s always been a small one, with just the four of us and an aunt or grandmother who might be handy, and the two neighbor kids who live on the farm down the road. Well, and just to make it pleasant, the four or five adults who live nearby. In truth: we’ve been throwing parties for us, adapted to include the birthday in question.

This year, Short-pants has more than hinted at her desire to have a full-on birthday party with her school friends – not just the convenient neighbors – and she is getting too old and too clever to accept “it’s summer vacation” as an excuse. We could no longer delay this parental duty. It’s been a good ride, we got away with being slackers on the birthday thing for a long time. But now it’s time to rise to the occasion.

Today, school lets out at noon (it’s Wednesday) and at two o’clock there will be twelve invited guests under the age of nine assembled together playfully in this rooftop apartment. Pray for good weather, so we can divide and conquer, move some kids down to the courtyard for games, rotate them around for different activities. (Some of our “workshop choreography” may come into play.)

De-facto, the guy who’s normally up for any kind of shake-up, keeps toning down the plans that Short-pants and I have dreamed up for the party. Last weekend she and I brainstormed a bunch of activities and games that might fit in with the theme she has selected for the party: mandalas. When we went to choose among all our ideas (one per post-it), De-facto weighed in heavily with simplicity as his primary criterion. I know he’s right. But the mandala-pizzas were such a good idea! And covering the entire floor with paper and drawing a mandala mural: Brilliant!

Have I mentioned how over the moon Short-pants is about her mandala birthday party?

About this I have mixed emotions. There is obvious delight that comes with witnessing her anticipation of the event. Each morning this week she rises smiling, counting the days until her party. She cannot contain her excitement, yesterday she was nearly jumping out of her skin. At the same time, I wonder, why do we make such a big fuss about birthdays? Is it appropriate to want to be pampered? Or do we just raise expectations that lead to later disappointment? Or else that’s just my story; I hope this is not something she inherits from me.

As much as I’m dreading it – having all these kids under foot at one time, anticipating the decibel level of 12+ sets of enthusiastic vocal cords, preparing for the inevitable re-arrangement of entire home – I know how much this means to her. She is everything an 8-year-old going on nine should be, her enchantment and excitement, leading up to the party, is worth every moment of pain and sacrifice we will endure.

And who knows, maybe we’ll even have fun?

Jun 18 2010

Worry Beads

I look at them and I marvel at their innocence. They live in the present, enthusiastically responding to the stimulus of this moment. I can say one short phrase, and Short-pants eyes’ brighten and she runs upstairs with glee to get her notebook and pens to draw a picture that corresponds. On her way up the stairs, Buddy-roo finds a toy she left there this morning and forgets why she was following her sister to begin with, folding into the fascination of that thing in front of her now. They are vibrant beings, open-minded and open-hearted, eager to please, eager to learn what the world is about. They are natural and not yet self-conscious. They act on impulse and without editing. This is exactly how they should be.

It makes me wonder: What will they become? And how on earth will they get there in one piece?

I don’t think of myself as a worrywart, and any of you who knew me in my younger years could easily recall to me my relatively cavalier level of risk-taking. That I escaped my teenage and college years – even my twenties – without being assaulted or abducted is beyond me. My father used to say that I was naïve enough to get myself in ridiculous situations but clever enough to get myself out of them. I’d shrug and think to myself, what’s life for, anyway? Sitting around on the back porch playing it safe?

Now I nod my head heavenward at both my parents and with profound understanding. These two little girls in my charge have so much life ahead of them, so many interesting, incredible experiences and adventures and opportunities. So much to learn. So much to do.

So much that could go wrong.

Rainy days with strangers offering them a lift in a dry car. Candy anyone? Mean-spirited classmates. Sloppy, arrogant boys in stone-washed jeans who’ll break their hearts and lie to them in hopes of physical affection. Will they do well in school, so that later they can more choices in their lives? If we push them too hard, there’s too much pressure; if we’re too lax, then we don’t give them enough of a nudge to inspire them take on life’s challenges. When will they decide to give up their virginity and how and with whom and will it be lovely and respectful or will it be stolen from them with deceit? Will they resist the temptation to try drugs? Will they ignore our advice and try anyway? If so, will it be just a brief sampling or occasional recreational treat? Or will they fall into the habit and join another culture that we’d hoped to help them avoid? Will they make many stupid mistakes? Will they recover from them? Will they be cool enough not to get picked on, but not so cool that they’re intolerable to live with? Will they grow to resent us? Will they be nice to us? Will they be nice to each other? Will they succeed? Will they find love? Will they be happy?

A friend whom I admire for her very zen, chill attitude wrote to me about her 27-year old son who went hiking with her just-beyond-teenage son and together they drank a bottle of wine and the oldest one came down with heat stroke. She received a semi-coherent call from his cell-phone; he was overheated and unable to sweat, shaking, confused. Fortunately friendly locals and other hikers helped until the help she sent could arrive. In the end, she wrote, “Everyone is all ‘phew, disaster averted, guess they learned their lesson,’ etc. But me, I’m still shaken.” She went on:

“The next night there was a tremendous thunderstorm, a real deluge with cracking thunder, and I woke up imagining him still lost on the mountain in the rain, and realized that although my babies were all okay, the whole notion of keeping them safe is hopeless.”

Does this mean it never ends, the worry, the gnawing feeling that these little creatures we introduced to the world will always need a little looking after? Motherhood – I suppose parenthood – is a perpetual lesson in surrendering, isn’t it? Surrendering to the 24/7 experience, to the inextricable commitment, a pact for forever that began the moment sperm met egg, a relentless job that is as depleting as it is fulfilling (and still not carbon neutral). I know I must surrender to the fact that ultimately I will have done all that I can possibly do for them: offering guidance and guidelines, steering them toward the good things I was steered toward. Once the foundation is set, they will build the walls and the roof of their lives they way they choose. Maybe they’ll follow our design, if we model it well. Maybe not. Ultimately, it is not my life they are living; each has her own life – to thrive in, to fail in, gloriously – to live.

They are not mine to keep. They are merely guests in my life.

And still. I worry.

Jun 11 2010

India Dreaming

The women sat in a circle on the floor – actually the roof, the meeting took place on the flat rooftop of someone’s house. The cement walls of the balcony painted lime green, adjacent to a house of pumpkin orange, and each and every one of the women wrapped in a vibrant sari, the whole scene like a painter’s palate of the colors of India. They chanted together, a call and response that sounded almost like a prayer but was probably a pledge to honor the agreement of this community of about twenty women, all of whom have come together in the name of micro-credit.

They have all taken a loan, something equivalent to several hundred dollars each, and they meet every week to check in on how their small businesses are doing, and to make a collective weekly payment. The interest ends up being nearly 20% by the end of a year-long loan, which might seem egregious except for the fact that they have no collateral and there are money-lenders who charge much more. It is a way to get the money to start a small business – to buy a cow, buy supplies for a small restaurant, retool a cottage-industry toy-factory – and to produce cash-flow for their household that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to create.

We are in India, we came to lead a meeting for an organization, Unitus, an important innovator in the field of poverty reduction. Part of the meeting included this field visit, a chance for everyone who works at Unitus to see how important it is, the work they do, by visiting the microfinance institutions (MFIs) that make the loans, and also the clients who take them. Seeing it first hand makes you realize how important this work is, how what they’re doing really matters.

A few of the women stepped up to the front of the circle where the representative of the MFI was seated and paid the installment in cash; the tattered bills were counted out carefully as they sat and watched. After the payments were made, they grouped in smaller circles and had a chance to talk with the women about their loans, their businesses, what they need. They are grateful for the loans, but they wish could they could borrow more. They have dreams of other things they want to do.

After the meeting we were taken around the town – halfway between Bangalore and Mysore – and several of the women showed us where they live and work and answered more questions about the kind of expenses they have. We did the math in our heads. Even though these loans are helping to create growing businesses and in some cases even employment to others, these families are still living on just a few dollars a day, sometimes less. And this is not the worst of the poverty in India, or elsewhere.

This morning, for the first time in too long, I woke without an alarm. No kids to get ready for school. No plane to catch. No workshop to run. Not a single pending activity that required timely attention. I woke naturally, when my body was finished sleeping. This is a luxury.

Without the need to bound out of bed (or drag myself out of it), I lay still, listening to the waking world. The metal ceiling fan in our hotel room clips along, some creaky piece of it not quite fitting, ticking like a metronome. Bird-calls I do not recognize come from the garden outside our balcony. Even though we are 5 km outside of Mysore, you can still hear the muted, distant sounds of the chaotic traffic in the city – rattling old buses and the distinctive beeping of the tuc-tuc horns.

Then, the sound of a crowd, cheers that crescendo and fall, whistles and buzzers: the sound of the Lakers vs. the Celtics. De-facto turned on the TV to watch the NBA playoffs. It is morning here, the night game is on in Boston; he gets to watch it live. He is delirious.

Our hotel was once a palace, designated for guests of the king of this region. Yesterday we visited the Maharaja Palace, it put this one to shame. But still, when we arrived earlier this week, this white domed, grand building made for an impressive approach. Once inside, the sense of opulence wore off. Though it is a building that speaks of its own grandeur, it is aged now, a tired tribute to its more glorious past. Still, I like it. Were it taken over by the Four Seasons and restored to immaculate elegance, it would no doubt be a work of commercial art, but it would not have the funky historic charm that it has now, that makes you feel like you have actually stepped backwards into another era of India’s history. And because we are here off-season, and we were part of a large group, the price was very right. The group has left, but De-facto and I remain, taking advantage of such grand accommodation at a discounted rate (about this, he is also delirious) and resting, playing tourist. Mostly resting. Talking. Wondering about our future. Where should we be? Is France the right place for the girls? Aren’t we both a little restless? Where else could we go? Would we return to the states? Go someplace else exotic? Is it time for a new adventure?

We laugh and dream. On some level we believe, we know, we can go anywhere we want. We can choose where we want to live, and find a way to get there. We can travel; leaving our children in the care of someone else, just to come to India for a week. We can go shopping at the silk emporiums and come home with gifts that our girls will appreciate, but they don’t really need. Not because we are so very rich; we are not. But we have the means to do the things we dream of doing.

I keep thinking about those women, meeting on the rooftop, draped in their colorful fabrics, faces worn and weary from constant labor, but still somehow – amazingly – serene and beautiful. They work so hard and they don’t give up. My life is privileged compared to theirs, but if they would only loan me a little of their grace, I might appreciate it more.

Jun 4 2010

And the Winner is…

She’d written the short story, titled Danger in the Permarquette River, and re-copied it, twice, to hand it in for her school assignment. Then her teacher sent home a note about the Paris English Young Author’s Fiction Festival, encouraging students to submit their stories to the city-wide competition.
I typed it in to the computer, resisting any urge to change a word here or there, to improve the syntax. I made a few suggestions for edits, most of which she rejected – and I honored this because it was, after all, her story.
I followed carefully the explicit submission directions: Short-pants’ name shouldn’t appear on any page of the story; certain information had to be in the body of the email message to which the story was attached, the subject line of the email had to be titled in a specific way so the entry would be received and noted. All the details confirmed, I hit send, checked off that box and moved on to the next thing.

This is how I live, checking off a box and moving on to the next one. That particular week, just like this last one, was jammed with too many apparently important and urgent tasks. That was the same week as the Spelling Bee, competition that Short-pants was also keen to enter. (Incidentally, she graciously accepted the news when we learned that she did not advance to the final round.) I also remember that I was getting ready to go somewhere, which always adds an extra layer of stress. Preparing to go away, but also preparing to be gone; organizing things at home so they operate as they should in my absence. Then there’s the delicate management of personal appointments. De-facto always rolls his eyes when I have one of my “how am I going to get it all done?” meltdowns, pointing out to me I might be less pressed if I wasn’t also fitting in a haircut, a facial, wax and pedicure. He’ll never understand how, at my age, these things are not luxurious indulgences but rather critical acts of maintenance; an investment in my our future.

Though this week only the most essential grooming made the schedule; a haircut put me in good stead to go on yet another trip. I know I’m lucky to travel as I do, but sometimes I’m too overloaded to appreciate it. Saturday we go to India for a work assignment, after which De-facto and I will stay on for just a few days for some much needed R&R alone, as a couple.

When the email landed in my box informing me that Short-pants was a finalist in the young author’s writing competition, my inner peacock preened for her. The message said that she was among the finalists in her grade level, without indicating exactly which award. Did she win? Second place? One of who-knows-how-many honorable mentions? I don’t know. I just know she won something. I know that this awards program is a 2-hour engagement on a Friday evening, at rush hour, on the opposite side of the city, on the eve of a trip that I am barely ready to take and we leave at the crack of dawn the next day. Of course then Short-pants’ theater teacher sent home a note about how her rehearsal will run later on this very Friday, to prepare for their end-of-year spectacle. (Oh, June, the month of something every night: a performance, a recital, parent-teacher meeting, end-of-school-party.) Not to mention that Ricky and Lucy, who I haven’t seen in more than three weeks, invited us for a potluck dinner in our courtyard, all of this happening on the same Friday night. Tonight.

I suppose this isn’t the right spirit. I know you all don’t want another rant about how busy I am and what a pain in the ass it is to juggle everything. You all juggle a lot too. We all do.

But that’s the point. We’re all jugging a lot: our work, our families, our friends. We’re overloaded with information to ingest, there are more activities to engage with than ever before and who can fault any of us for trying to take advantage of all of them? In this day in age, especially with most mother and fathers multi-tasking, we’re all up to our ears. It makes the surprise element of this event seem more insulting than intriguing.

So the question is: do I arrange for Short-pants to get out of her rehearsal early, dash away with her, squeeze into the metro to get to the 16th arrondissement in time to watch a probably more than 2-hour ceremony honoring a bunch of children I’ve never met in my life, so that she can receive her award in person and have the experience of having a small crowd give her grand applause her as she approaches the podium? What if we schlep through all that only to hear them call out her name, in a string of others, as an honorable mention?

I remember when I was in school, receiving a letter to attend an awards ceremony like this, not knowing exactly what prize would be mine, arriving with a few anticipatory butterflies. What I found out later that night is that my parents knew all along what prize I was winning. They’d received a different letter, so they’d be sure to attend. I wish I could get that letter now. I fished for it, writing back to the organizers and explaining how we might not be able to attend. No hints were given to inspire our attendance. Perhaps that is a sign.

Every other parent who’s organizing their nutty schedule this Friday night is probably going through the same machinations. If we all knew the outcome, well, then only the win, place and show winners would probably turn up. So much for that grand applause.

So what do I do? Buck up and make the trek to the far western side of Paris so that Short-pants can accept her award, whatever it is, and cheerfully celebrate the success of other children while supporting the art of writing at the primary school level? Or do I blow it off, give myself a break and take it easy the night before we leave, calmly packing my valise, hanging out in the courtyard with my family and my neighbors, savoring this summer’s first bottle of rosé?

What would you do?

Jun 1 2010

Spilling Over

On Sunday, my children saw me for the first time in ten days. They ran to me with that amped-up fondness that the heart manufactures during a long absence. Into my arms they flung themselves and I received them with equal exuberance, only I held on a little too tight, a little too long, a little too fierce. Quickly they were wriggling to free themselves.

“Happy French Mother’s Day!” They sang this out in unison, prompted, I’m pretty sure, by De-facto who, having made very little of the American Mother’s Day earlier in the month, hoped to make good. Last week’s school art projects helped the cause: Buddy-roo proudly handed over a large blue envelope she’d made that read bonne fête maman! Inside, a picture of a flowerpot covered with sparkles, and a poem, copied meticulously, no doubt, at the behest of the teacher after she wrote it in perfect penmanship on the chalkboard.

Short-pants had crafted, in her class, a small box out of construction paper. Inside it there were tiny notes with micro-messages, mots doux as she called them. “Maman, mon coeur,” or “I love you night and day.” Sweet words, indeed, scratched out in her familiar pen. These hand-made gifts so precious, so heart-felt and so tear-inducing. Damn it.

“Why are you crying?” Buddy-roo asked. Before I could answer, Short-pants chimed in. “Because she’s happy and sad at the same time. Right maman?”

I guess I’ve said that before.

These days tears are everywhere. They reside barely below the surface, wherever I turn. A group of scientists discuss new ways of visualizing biology in order to better understand it, and I’m a little choked up. Thirty strangers sing happy birthday to me, I press the tears down. A liberated Alice returns from the Underland at the end of an in-flight movie and I’m hunting for Kleenex. My Pilates trainer urges me forward in grueling sets of 8 and 12, I’m concentrating to hold the tears in, at least until the workout is over and I’m on the stairs outside.

A taxi drove me to attend a meeting yesterday at an address that I, too, was unsure of. I was dropped at the wrong building, which – no surprise – put me on the brink of tears. Hold it together, I counseled myself. Running mascara has very little professional merit. The receptionist assured me it was only a ten-minute walk to the other #163 Quai-de-Whatever, where I wanted to be. So I walked. On the way, a man dressed in white painted an iron fence a shade even whiter. Does he still have a mother, I wondered, and does he think of her often? A hundred meters later, under a trestle, I passed a hooker wearing short black shorts and an ankle-length black leather coat that flew open behind her with every step of her stride. She smelled of liquor and hair spray as she went by. How about her mother?

Everybody had a mother, at some point. Every time I look at anyone I pass, I wonder, do they still?

Thoughts rush by on a train of remorse. Why didn’t I spend more time with her this last year? My week-long visits every-other month were a stretch to make happen at the time; they seem pathetic in retrospect. Now that my mother is gone, now that I can’t ever visit her again, isn’t it ludicrous that I didn’t go every month? Or that I didn’t just move in?

I run through the last week of her life, a string of images are frozen in my mind: watching her dress herself slowly and carefully, laughing because it was taking so long. How she sipped her special juice drinks with a straw, but elegantly. As she weakened, how she would regard herself in the mirror, as if she did not recognize the not-well person she had become. This image is especially strong because I, too, was in it, off to the side, watching myself watching her talk to her own reflection. “I don’t know how to do this,” she whispered. “Neither do I,” I’d said, unable to contain the tears. But she didn’t cry about it. Ever. At least not in front of me.

This morning my daughters’ longer-and-lankier-than-ever bodies were nearly impossible to stir, their jet lag, now a week old, as fierce as mine is after just returning a day ago. Buddy-roo grumbled and stretched and turned to the side, “scratch my back.” I caressed her, urging her, gently and then more rigorously, to wake up and rally for the day. I went to rouse Short-pants, who sweats in her sleep. I pulled the comforter off her shoulder and swept the damp hair off her forehead. Her sleep was deep, but when she saw it was me, she jerked her arm from under the covers and wrapped it around my neck, pulling my head right up to hers. It was a strong, firm grip, very deliberate.

“You can take your time letting go,” I told her. So she drew me in closer, even tighter.

Tears. Again. My emotions spilling out like an overfilled tank. Or to draw a truly sad and timely analogy, like an oil spill. No small trickling here. Rather a fountain of feelings gushing out because of some sloppy fissure; messy, embarrassing, uncontainable, washing up on the shore for everyone to see.
I have an odd and eccentric empathy for those BP engineers. Some spills are not so easily contained.