Nov 30 2011

Departure Stress

It wasn’t as bad as usual, this time. I even spent a few hours, the day before leaving, no less, wandering through the brocante on the rue de Bretagne with De-facto and the girls. We combed through the stalls of faux-antiques, furniture and junk in search of bookshelves and a dresser for the girls’ bedrooms, stopping midway for a chocolate chaud before hunting some more and heading home without a bookshelf or a chest-of-drawers, but instead with a desk for Buddy-roo that we hope will inspire her to do her homework.

Such a leisurely, familial break could have set me back, but it didn’t. I managed, somehow, to be packed and in bed with the (most of) the list checked-off by midnight. This is highly unusual. There were also fewer incidents of dragging my hands through my hair with the exasperated how will I ever get it all done? that too often accompanies my preparations for a journey. I’m a chronic sufferer of departure stress, but for this trip it was less torturous than usual.

Not that there was a total absence of angst. I lamented out loud, more than once, what was I thinking? I must have lost my sanity to agree to these projects that would take me away from Paris for such an extended period of time, and just before Christmas. I’ve been traveling too much, I moaned to De-facto, I can’t do it like this anymore.

Which is a load of crap, because I love to travel, it’s my drug of choice. I like to be on the road. I am most invigorated standing on a train platform with my valise beside me, or dragging my suitcase through a long airport corridor. Standing in a long queue at passport control can indeed be frustrating, but it can also breed a fierce anticipation of the adventures ahead. It’s all how you look at it. This trait I inherited from my mother, who in turn learned it from hers.

The problem is my obsession to put things doubly in order (also inherited). There’s the preparation to go away: packing, assembling supplies and the fairly mindless yet remarkably time-consuming task of booking tickets and checking-in on line. Then there’s the preparation to be gone for such a long time: paying bills, leaving notes and cash for the cleaner, anticipating babysitter coverage for the complicated moments in the girls’ schedules. It doesn’t help that De-facto has his own week-long trip during my three week absence, so a detailed calendar is required for the two babysitters who manage the girls days and nights when we’re both gone, including pick-up from two different birthday parties and dropping Buddy-roo with one of her friends while Short-pants goes to her music lesson. This is not just organization; it’s choreography.

I catch myself whinging about it and I think of the longing moments I spent on my back porch, growing up, dreaming of traveling in the manner that I do now, and I want to slap myself across the face and shout snap out of it! Because once I’m on the plane – or even before, once I’ve cleared security and I’m in duty-free land – and there’s nothing else to attend to and only the voyage ahead, I’m in a state of bliss. Two long-haul flights to get to New Zealand? No problem. That’s a full day of absolutely uninterruptable time, which can also be described as several movies, two New Yorkers, a novel and still plenty of sleep. I’ll wake up as the plane landed in a far-away place with the familiar tickle: who knows what adventures are ahead?

Guilt is part of it. Even though De-facto is super about taking on the kids and never once complained (to me) about the duration of this trip, I know what it’s like to be the sole parent at home – I do it for him when he travels. The girls don’t like it when I’m gone; their sweet pleading voices tug at me. Worse, I’m missing several important events-of-the-season: the school marché de Noël, the Christmas carol concert and Short-pants’ first viola recital. I know how it meant so much to me that my parents sat through all my orchestra and chorus performances. I feel a bit guilty to be missing theirs.

But guilt is part of parenting. A constant stream of media and societal messages harp on us about how to parent; it’s easy to get caught up in it. I’m always unwinding myself from this tangle, remembering that I don’t have to be the perfect parent, I just have to be a good one. Being true to myself is part of that recipe; mothering by example.

Now I am halfway around the world after 24 tranquil flight-hours of travel that followed 24 hours of frenzied preparation. I do miss my family, but without drama. I also know that this is an important part of me: to be on a trip with a grip, and I can’t deny it. Traveling may seem like a hassle when managing a life around kids, but if I didn’t get to do it at all, I’d shrivel up.

So I endure the pain of preparing to go away, and I find a reasonably sized receptacle in which to place my guilt about being gone. I focus not on the morning cuddles that I’m missing, but on those that will be all the more succulent when I return. And I hope that when it’s time for Short-pants and Buddy-roo to go out and grab the world, they’ll know just how to do it: without stress, without guilt, instead with a wide-angle view on the horizon, and all it has to offer.

Nov 25 2011

Tout Turkey

It’s not like you can just walk into any grocery store and select a Butterball from the shelf. If you want to do Thanksgiving in France, you have to order a turkey in advance. Not that it is obligatory to celebrate. We could easily sneak by the holiday without any mention. It’s business as usual here on what is the quietest Thursday in America; quiet but for the sound of pots and pans in the kitchen, cutlery and crystal at the table and the blaring of the football games on televisions across the entire country.

Except that it’s a ritual that reminds us, pleasantly, of our childhoods, and we like the gratitude part. The idea of having a designated dinner party to express our thanks, deliberately, seems like a good thing to pass along to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, so each year we fashion some facsimile of a Thanksgiving feast, hobbled together with fine French products and a little American ingenuity (and nostalgia).

Just down the street from where my tailor used to work there is a brightly lit boucherie that I pass whenever I’m walking the girls to or from school. Its floor is covered with saw-dust. Red slabs of meat hang on hooks from the ceiling above the glass refrigerator cases that display even more raw meat and poultry. Two hefty men in long white aprons stand behind the counter, shouting and smiling at the same time, bantering with each other like talk-show hosts, entertaining themselves as much as their customers.

Bonjour,” I said, entering the shop. This is a required salutation in France. Too many Americans walk into Parisian shops without any kind of a greeting, so their first utterance to the shop-keeper is “how much is this?” The French, rightly, take this is an insult. We’ve tried it in that states, too; it’s amazing how just saying hello to someone before asking them for help can pave the way for a more productive encounter.

Bonjour!” The butchers, one of them with a thick mop of gray hair, the other with fine white hair that hangs over the top of his wire glasses, answered in unison.

I asked if I could order a turkey.

En entier?” The gray haired one was surprised that I wanted a whole turkey.

Oui,” I shrugged, “Je vais faire le Thanksgiving Americain.”

Mais, non,” said the white haired one, “C’est en Decembre!”

I politely informed him that Thanksgiving always falls on the last Thursday in November. He continued to disagree with me, defiantly sure of the wrong month. I explained that just as (some of) the French celebrate the Beaujoulais Nouveau on the third Thursday of November, we Americans have our special fête on the last Thursday in November.

Je n’y crois pas,” he said. He still didn’t believe me.

Monsieur, pardonnez-moi,” and then I switched to English, “I know it’s in November. I’m an American. I’m sure of it.”

The two of them looked at each other, in disbelief.

“Would you like to see my passport?”

“Okay, she wants a turkey, she’ll have it,” one said to the other in heavily accented English. Now I really did feel like a guest on their talk show. They interrupted and corrected each other, comically, as we went back and forth about my order. Pinning them down on an exact weight or price was impossible. Even the delivery date was sketchy. But this isn’t unique to this shop. De-facto used to schlep over to a butcher on rue Montorgeuil that had been recommended to us for turkeys at this time of year; he went through the same song and dance. He’d come home cursing with a bird 2 kilos and 20 euros more than we’d hoped for.

Those of you in the homeland are already digesting yesterday’s big feast, you’ve already gobbled the rogue turkey sandwich late last night – maybe you’re already sick of the leftovers. But since French businesses and schools stop for no American holiday, we opted to postpone our Thanksgiving a day. So this morning I stuck my head in the butcher shop to pick up the bird that I’d reserved.

“We sold it to someone else,” the white-haired butcher said. “Anyway, your Thanksgiving was yesterday. It’s too late.”

“That’s okay,” I told him. “I ordered a turkey down the street, just in case.”

“Touché,” said the other one, pulling the enormous bird out of the chrome refrigerator.

I braced myself for the weighing part. The turkey barely fit on the scale, and it registered 7.6 kilos (nearly 17 lbs). At the cash register, I feigned a Fred Sanford heart attack while handing over my carte bleu. Sure enough, 2 kilos and 20 euros more than I ordered. But it was butchered especially for me, and it’s even kosher.

Plus it’s cooking right now, smelling up the whole place like dozens of November Thursday afternoons embedded in my memory, that savory roasting aroma, the comforting smell of gratitude, everything that turkey is to me. Happy Thanksgiving everyone…

Nov 18 2011

Bowing Again

I called first. Yes, the store was open all day, until six. Yes, they had archet d’alto. The woman on the phone – I learned later that her name was Odile – asked me a question that would save us both time: what was I willing to spend? We agreed on a range, which was even a bit less than I had expected to pay. I was glad to know I could get a good viola bow without breaking the bank. I am an amateur musician, so I do not need top-of-the-line. But I was once a decent violist, and mine is a fine enough instrument to merit a bow that will make it sing.

There is a feeling that accompanies you when you carry an instrument, a kind of musical legitimacy that is not only broadcast but that is confirmed within. Walking down the street with viola case in hand, I had a kind of visceral nostalgia – not just a memory, but a replay of the feelings of that long ago time, fierce and full-bodied; I could feel exactly what it was like to be at a rehearsal. The faces of all my orchestra friends right beside me, looking up at the conductor as he scratched his beard just before raising his arms and snapping the baton. Those boys I had a crush on, the ones in the horn section, I could see them all, under that one forever-flickering fluorescent light in the back of the rehearsal hall. I was right there again, with all the harmonies and hormones of my youth orchestra experience, all this just from holding the handle of my instrument case.

It’s been almost two years since my bow broke, ironically only a few months after taking my viola in to be totally refurbished after years of not playing it. Short-pants would practice for her lesson and I’d wish I could pull out my instrument and play, too. Sometimes the pieces she’s assigned have two parts and she’d beg me to play along with her. But without a bow, I could not draw any sound from my fiddle, so I would answer to myself that I must absolutely carve out a few hours the next week to go to a luthier and remedy the situation.

Weeks and months and much more than a year went by.

Last week, Short-pants was practicing a piece for her lesson, a simplified excerpt from the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. She was having a hard time staying in tune, partially, I determined, because she didn’t know the tune. I found a recording on YouTube, and sat her down to listen to it. This particular movement is one that almost always draws tears from me, which perplexed her.

“Mama, why are you crying?”

“Because it’s too beautiful,” I told her. I didn’t know what else to say. How do you explain the way music can move things around inside you?

~ ~ ~

Rue de Rome is lined with stores featuring cellos cases and hanging violins and other stringed instruments in their windows. I’m not sure how I would have known which store to go to had I not a specific recommendation from a friend who’s a violinist. One finds this often in Paris: an entire street dedicated to the same industry, be it stringed instruments or textiles or handbags. How one purveyor differentiates himself from another amongst so many is beyond me.

Odile had laid out six bows for me to try. She vigorously rosined each one while I tuned my instrument. I was worried about playing in front of her. I hadn’t played in a long time. Not only would the instrument be cold and closed, my fingers were rusty. I’d even forgotten to cut my nails. I knew this was silly. I shouldn’t care what this woman thinks of my playing, I told myself. It didn’t help, I was still self-conscious.

I picked up the first bow and positioned my fingers around the frog. I drew the bow across the open strings, just letting them ring. Then I started an old standard, Telemann’s Concerto in G, a piece that every violist has played at more than one recital. I lacked the nimbleness I once possessed; I stumbled through the sequences of eighth notes. No matter, I told myself, just listen to the sound.

“They are all somehow different,” she said, “and you can never explain why or how. You just feel it.”

How true. One bow seemed to make a sound more metallic, and another slid too swiftly across the strings. Another harbored some invisible inertia, even with more rosin it felt heavy, sluggish. The next one was good, okay, but it still didn’t feel like it fit me. And so on. I tried each bow, pushing aside the thought of anyone in earshot, immersing myself in the technical details of each bowing experience, analyzing it – but also feeling it – until I narrowed it down to two favorites.

Odile took my instrument and played for me with each bow to give me the experience of hearing them in use, not from beneath my chin but from a distance. Then she regarded my viola and asked if I liked those strings. And did I feel that the bridge was too high? I shrugged.

“Will you permit me?” I consented to new strings and the shaving-off of my bridge and watched her carry my viola up the stairs to the mezzanine where some artisan performed a magic fix. Fifteen minutes later, she handed my instrument back, and nodded at me to try the bows again.

There is a passage in the JC Bach’s Concerto in C Minor that uses all four strings in a cascading rhythm. With this in mind, I selected one of the bows, and let it fall back and forth on all the strings in long, heavy strokes.

“Push with your finger,” she coached me. I dug the bow into the string and used its entire length. The sound bellowed and danced around me, rich, voluptuous.

“Now try the same thing with the other bow.” I did as she commanded. I forgot that anyone else might be listening, but pressed myself into the notes, bonding with them, breathing them to life. So quickly was I lost in the music, even with my scruffy, out-of-practice sound. I was playing my viola again.

It was clear that the second bow was mine. Like Harry Potter’s wand had chosen him, I too had been selected. I ran my fingers along the polished wooden stick, pressed the taught horsehair up against my nose.

“Hello,” I whispered to it.

~ ~ ~

That night, Short-pants opened her music case and I opened mine, too.

“You got your bow!” she squealed in full delight.

I suggested we play the Beethoven piece; she could play the first part and I’d play the third, so our harmonies would be distinct. We rosined our bows in tandem, and sat side-by-side with bows poised upon the D-string. I looked over at her, prepared to start, except she raised her instrument and dipped it down, the way an accomplished musician knows to lead off an ensemble. We plunged in, stalled and restarted a few times, but soon found our way to be in sync. After only a few tries, we played the half-page of music together start to finish. De-facto and Buddy-roo applauded wildly. Short-pants beamed. And for all the reasons you can surely imagine, I smiled too, keenly aware of just how music can move things around inside you.

Nov 11 2011

In the Cloud

I want to be in the cloud. Not the up-there-in-the-ether-all-safe-and-stored-and-accessible-from-any-device cloud, I mean the creative cloud, the cloud of that fuzzy, I-don’t-know-but-something-might-be-emerging cloud, both thrilling and unnerving at once, the cloud of my imagination. I want to go there and stay there and live there, mindfully navigating life in a writerly way, a painterly way – even thought I don’t paint – or a musical way, any way that might be an artistic way.

Once upon a time I had my fingers in glue stick and construction paper, cutting out magazines and making and pasting creative little things. I wrote daily in my journal, I did multiple free-writes on the same prompt. I remember feeling perfectly capable of taking time, without the gnawing sense that I might be wasting it, time being that precious commodity that we all have exactly the same amount of but some people seem to use more industriously than others. Not that industry is the truest measure of contentment. I would like to do less.

I would like to tether myself to this cloud and move deliberately, through the potentially artistic moments of my day. Spooning a mountain of frothy milk into the coffee in my favorite mug with just the right swirl and then doing nothing but sitting and drinking it; handwriting funky postcards to far flung but not forgotten friends before opening email and RSS feeds to respond to the “urgent” news of the day. Drawing a flower on the steamed-up mirror after a unhurried hot shower – better yet a drawn-out bath – and taking the time to add detail to each of its pedals; sitting pensively on the barstool, imagining the life of the Asian woman with gray squared-off bangs sitting across from me at the café; stopping off at a bookstore on the way home to browse the stacks randomly, pulling titles off the shelves and reading paragraphs, just short snacks in a feast of enticing literature.

I want to mount those family pictures on the bathroom wall in that funky frame I found, produce that little film of my mother walking through the rooms of our old house, finish that scrapbook of Buddy-roo’s blessing before she realizes her sister’s is completed but hers – though its pieces are ready to go – has never been assembled. I want to read without being interrupted or without collapsing the book on my chest in utter exhaustion. I want to, when I’m feeling haunted by a passage in Shostakovich’s 5th symphony, sit down in that moment to listen to it with the Bose headphones I bought (an indulgence) to block out noise on long-haul flights when the real reason to own them is that they make everything seem alive and present and close around you.

I just want to live in a more artistic way.

I’ve decided to stop talking about being too busy. It’s a boring line of conversation, and frankly, everybody’s busy. It can’t be denied that I juggle a fair amount between work and children and De-facto and friends and the administration of our household. The latter being the most tedious, but I have not yet achieved the zensibility of regarding piles of paper-needing-attention and unwashed laundry and children’s toys and books strewn as anything but an aesthetic assault. I think back to when I lived alone – I’ve never been an everything-at-right-angles person, but it was easy to sustain some amount of sloppy kind of order in my surroundings, which permitted me to vault into the messy cloud of my own creativity without stopping at the toll booth to get there.

There is nobody standing over me insisting that I attend so diligently to the administrative details of my life (and my family’s). I had a dream that I simply stopped caring: No need to remember to stuff the little morning snack packs in their school cartables, no hounding them to straighten their rooms or finish their homework, no longer picking up the random empty glasses left on the floor behind by the couch. I let them leave all the drawers pulled out and cupboards wide open, the wet laundry festered in the machine because I couldn’t be troubled to hang it out or run it in the dryer, the furniture was no longer visible as every surface had been covered with blankets, princess costumes, doll clothes, train tracks, little bits of paper and plastic, and books left open face down to mark the page. In the dream I regarded it all with amusement, and simply joined them, unbothered by shoulds and oughts, basking single-mindedly in my unfettered imagination, up there, in the cloud.