Apr 27 2012

Time, more or less

I remember my first calendar. I must have been younger than Buddy-roo because I remember how a shiny gold star sticker was ceremoniously affixed on each day that I did not suck my thumb. The calendar hung on the wall beside the twin bed that was mine, in a bedroom that would go through many transitions. A big double bed with a mod black-and-white spiral patterned bedspread was moved in when my teenaged brother took it over and when he left I reclaimed it as my high-school suite. When we were all grown my mother stowed our accumulated paraphernalia – high-school folders, rock-n-roll posters and sentimental stuffed-animals-won-at-the-Fireman’s-carnival – into the closet and made it the room for visiting grandchildren, with two twin beds once again placed exactly as they had been when it was my childhood bedroom so many years before.

The page for the month of January was all pink. February’s had an apple green shade. March was powder blue. April yellow. I can recount for you the colors of each month of that calendar. On the last page there was an image of all the months, connected start-to-finish, their colors adjacent and cascading around in an oval shape, joining December to January.

I do not remember who gave me this calendar as a gift, but it shaped my notion of time for the rest of my life. In my mind, that colorful oval still repeats itself year-after-year. January is to the left, winding around in a patchwork of pastels. If it is August, I imagine the butterscotch color wedged on the southeast part of the oval, rounding the corner from summer to autumn.

How does time pass so fast? This is the clichéd remark about motherhood that I find the most patronizing. “But it goes by so fast.” Like a woman can’t express any exasperation about a her children’s impact on her life simply because it’s happening quickly?

Except one day you look in the mirror and you realize you’re not the Young Turk you used to be. One day things look and feel different, more distant. One day, kids come up to your chin and you say the thing you swore you’d never say, “It goes by so fast.”

~ ~ ~

Last week I took a creative time out in Italy – a place that has its own notion of time – at CREA, the European creativity conference. In the proverbial fashion of teach what we most need to learn, the program I facilitated was about slowing down in a hurry-up world to deliberately make time for and prioritize your creativity. The work I did with my colleagues to prepare served to raise my own awareness about what’s necessary to make peace with time. Spending four days with the group, immersed in the examination of our relationship with time, inspires me to think about making different choices that might better synchronize with the clocks and calendars – and the demands they represent – that seem to engineer my life.

This was the 10th CREA conference, which means we’ve been attending for nine years. I remember the first time, with Buddy-roo in my belly and Short-pants holding court in the dining room from her high chair. They’ve grown up at CREA, shot up from their meaty, miniature-selves into the tall pea pods that they are now. Along with a rat-pack handful of CREA heirs, other kids who’ve been coming to the conference for years, the girls are stars in their own right, with a hundred aunties and uncles all marveling at how they’ve bloomed, year after year.

The first years weren’t the easiest. I’d be running a core program, full-on days with the extra effort required in the pre- and post- workshop hours, while desperately drawing pictures, symbols and clocks to convey to the Italian-only-speaking babysitter how to feed and nap and care for our babies. De-facto and I would juggle the early mornings and the meals and the bedtime routine. That left only the late night hours – stretching into the wee early ones – to catch up with friends and colleagues whom we only see each year at CREA. I didn’t want to miss anything, so I’d burn the candle at both ends and in the middle. I’d finish the week totally knackered.

I realize this is a little bit my problem with time. It’s not that I don’t have enough time. I have been allocated the same 168 hours as everyone else. It’s not that I don’t use my time well; I can be extremely productive – if that’s how your measure using it well – and I accomplish much in a day. My problem isn’t time. My problem is choices. I am too greedy. It’s not that I’m obliged to say yes to everything, I want to do all those projects, to have my fingers in all those creative pots, to say yes to every friend who wants to meet for coffee or a drink, to make time for every visitor who wants to visit.

But for this greed I have suffered the consequences: the churning sensation of never getting to all my commitments or the undercurrent of angst about what I’m not doing when I do myself the indulgent favor of taking time to do nothing. What I am convinced of now, after last week’s reflection on how I might choose (from now on) to spend my time: less is more.

~ ~ ~

The number of spins around my oblong pastel wheel of time is approaching a number that ends-in-a-zero, a fairly significant one at that. Each year this cycle through the seasons appears to quicken – it goes by so fast – a sharp contrast to the first year when that indelible calendar actually hung on the wall by my bed, when the time between consecutive birthdays seemed like an eternity.

De-facto and the girls are giving me an especially generous gift this year. It is a gift of time. Time out. Time away. Not just time away to work, but time away to think. Not just a weekend. Many weeks. Enough time to walk a good portion of the Route Frances of the Camino Santiago de Compostela, a month-long (slightly more) pilgrimage across the north of Spain. I cannot walk it from start to finish in one go; there are still work and family commitments that I must keep. I will hike for a week, return to Paris for Short-pants’ orchestra concert and to be with the girls while De-facto takes a short business trip. Then I return to exactly where I left off and keep walking. A week later, a little birthday bash is scheduled in my favorite Basque village with a few good friends in attendance, and then I return to the route again, to walk some more.

Given the time I can take, I expect I might finish about half of the Camino this spring. The rest, perhaps a few days in July with the whole family in tow, or in September or May of next year. It’s not a race. It’s an active meditation, a chance to remove myself from the distractions of the day-to-day, and, with the backdrop of breathtaking scenery and the constant rhythm of one foot in front of the other, think about how to make more of – or less of – the however-many pastel-tinted calendar turns I have left.


Apr 13 2012

The Façade

I had a kitchen pass last night, allowing for an after-the-kids-are-in-bed rendezvous with a girlfriend. We sat beneath the outdoor heaters on the terrace of my favorite café and slowly made our way through a carafe of Côte du Rhone.

The meet-up was not easy to organize. Family commitments and work schedules put our calendars at odds. After a half dozen back-and-forth emails, we realized our lives as professionals and mothers wouldn’t permit a daytime coffee or even a pre-dinner aperitif. The only way to meet was after the children were fed and bathed and tucked into their sheets. This suited me, I like the feeling of escaping my domestic responsibilities, kissing those tender foreheads and pulling up the covers, closing the door behind me, walking out to the street where unattached people navigate, spontaneously, the free hours of their evenings. Now we, too, were among them, on the terrace, sipping our wine, and as women unhampered with children we could catch up and talk about our lives.

What did we talk about? Our children. Whether the French school was right for them, the pros and cons of other education systems, whether a different school in Paris is more suited to cultivating their creative promise. We talked about the little quirks and charms of their emerging personalities, our worries and hopes for them as they grow into little people. In essence, we talked about all the things that we’d escaped from in order to sit at that café together.

Such a conversation inevitably tumbles into the stream of the parenting theories and practices. Last year it was the controversial Tiger Mom, terrorizing her children to perform. This year the spotlight hones in on the French method, contrasting the resulting polite, obedient, no-fuss-at-the-table children with the insolent Veruca-Salt-like youngsters holding their American parents hostage. There’s a lot to be said for it.

My friend is French, but because of stints living in foreign countries, she shares my understanding of being other, as in an expat living abroad, and shies away from stereotypes. Rightly so. They help us describe things in broad strokes, but neglect the nuances that most subject matter deserves. She argued that there are also French parents held hostage by their children. All those French mums in the park will tell you how firmly they parent, but is it that really that way when you peek into their salon? She wasn’t so sure.

“Every parent has a façade,” she said.

* * *

At least once a day I have a moment of maternal despair. It happens quietly, my head lowered while I stack plates in the dishwasher, my back to the family as I fold their laundry, or those first minutes, café-au-lait cupped in my hands after I’ve pushed them out the door to go to school, sighing with relief as their voices circle down the staircase and out of our building. Yes, yes, nothing can eradicate the love and laughter my children have injected into my life, but there is also the un-joyous part of parenting, a tedious string of commands to get up, clean up, wash up, finish up. Then there are those moments when the required enthusiasm and encouragement I must conjure up is, well, a façade, because I am, mentally elsewhere, in my own creative world, and when I want them to be elsewhere, not underfoot, not speaking to me, asking of me, wanting of me.

Do my children notice? Probably. But they seem to appreciate my maternal efforts nonetheless, and they can – and will – get me back for this when they are teenagers.

I tear through the moods of mothering, juggling what I feel with what I’m supposed to feel. Occasionally I sense the tough love of the tiger mom in me. Sometimes I believe I have taken on the practical approach that has now been categorized, as least for the Americans, as French. Other times I’m as indulgent as you can get, on the floor playing with them, giving them choices, watching their imagination flower unhindered. It’s not a very consistent measure. Some days the house must be ordered, I cannot stand to look at their clutter. The next week, I’ll leave the blanketed fort that’s been constructed between the couch and bookshelf standing for days, with its hidden treasures of trinkets and toys and make-believe and odds-and-ends stuffed beneath.

* * *

We all show ourselves to the world by way of the different roles we play. Our professions and familial positions define us broadly: teacher, lawyer, aunt, parent. Adjectives are added to narrow in on the quality of how we execute those roles: lenient, strict, engaged, detached. Battle lines are drawn. You’re a stay-at-home mom or a working mother. (Or a working-while-staying-at-home mother?) You’re a breast-feeder or a bottle-giver. Family bed or let-them-cry-in-the-cradle. It’s easy to glance sideways and make a judgment. I do it. Everyone does.

Sometimes I am certain, and possibly even a bit full of myself, reporting on this blog a conversation or a conflict I feel well handled, constructing a mosaic of proud parenting moments. Other times I disclose – not always without hesitation, and yet these posts are the most powerful – my faiblesses, my #fail moments, my vulnerabilities and obsessions, or the angry rants that seem ridiculous in retrospect but were, apparently, too impassioned for me to contain. When I write about it, I get to construct a façade of who I think I am as a mother, good and bad.

The real façade, perhaps, is that any woman is one kind of mother. The rhythms of our days and weeks and the passages of our lives stretch us across the boundaries of prescribed parenting styles. When I am not overworked, I am more creatively engaged. When I am stressed, I am stricter, firmer, even impatient. When I’m tired, I’m laissez-faire. When I’m inspired, I bake heart-shaped cookies. As I straddle the abyss between my ideal self and my real self, it helps to accept the fact that I might be every kind of mom. Except to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, I’m just their mom, and they seem pretty devoted. Maybe that’s where I should look when taking measure of myself as a mother.


Apr 1 2012

By the Book

I sliced the eggplant into medium-thin slices, slimmer than the recipe suggested, but more to my bite-sized liking. De-facto would appreciate the efficiency of it; I’d only used one of the eggplants he brought home from the market. Not that our budget is so tight but rather he appreciates an intelligent economy of things.

The recipe called for baking the slices after they’d been breaded. After ten minutes in the oven they looked dull, melancholy. I quickly pulled out a frying pan and lined the bottom with olive oil. When it was hot, I dropped each of the austere eggplant slices in, smiling at the percussion of popping oil. I could sense the vegetable’s heavy sigh of relief, almost stunned at how close it had come to giving up its life to be a flavorless, mediocre meal. The infusion of fats would satisfy its desire to come to a tasty end, and frying made the house smell heartier. Now I was cooking.

Lately, though, I haven’t. The string of extended voyages placed De-facto as the primary care-giver for long stretches of time last fall and winter, and even though I always returned ready to roll up my sleeves, somehow the wooden spoon had been handed off like a relay baton. He’d gotten used to cooking dinner. In the absence of me taking the reins – or one of the reins as we’ve always shared this household task – he kept hold of them. Six o’clock would roll around and I’d ask not, “what do you want for dinner?” but instead, “what do you want to do for dinner?” A distinctly different question. If he’d answered with, “what I want to do is for you to cook,” I’d have complied without complaint. But since he seemed to be on a streak in the kitchen, I didn’t mind one less responsibility.

Except I missed cooking. He’d be at the stove braising a whole chicken before stuffing it and besieging it with potatoes and onions and vegetables. Short-pants would be standing on a small stool on the other side of the kitchen island, slicing mushrooms. I’d want to elbow my way back into that world of salt and butter and herbs, to cover my hands with flour and wince at the just-chopped onions on the cutting board. I didn’t complain, it’s a lovely thing to be cooked for and De-facto’s food fills the belly well. But I missed conjuring up my own culinary creative juices.

Reading Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton, is what stirred the pot. My friend the Pastry Ace, who also happens to be a pâtissière and chocolatier – I’m sure she could cook anything but those are her current specialties – loaned me the book last fall. As a chef, she loved the story of this woman’s kitchen history, and the detailed tales of meals well conceived and prepared on the route to opening the restaurant Prune in New York city. As an avid reader, she loved the wordsmithing and thought that I might appreciate the writing, too. Having now finished the book I can attest – it’s a delicious read.

It took me months to get into it, though. Not that the first words and chapters aren’t appetizing. But I think many mothers might appreciate this syndrome: little or no time to read for pleasure during the day when the brain is actually alert. Once the kids are in bed and the dishes are done, the laundry folded, and I’ve slipped between the taut white sheets of my bed, it’s pure pleasure to switch on that reading light and open one of the books on the pile. But not even two pages later, my eyes droop and I’m startled awake as the book falls open on my chest. I’m always disappointed not to be able to read further, but the intoxicating serenity of sleep descending makes me smile with my eyes half open as I lean over to shut off the light.

It means I’ll go months before finishing a book, although at any given time I’m in the middle of five or six. And when weekends are too busy, the books gather dust. Until this weekend; I sat in bed for hours devouring the pages of Hamilton’s memoir. Short-pants, who’s reading the junior version of Three Cups of Tea for the tenth time – she’s an avid re-reader – climbed in next to me and we turned pages in tandem, wordless side-by-side as we consumed voraciously the words of our novels.

There are several passages in Blood, Bones & Butter that made me close the cover and hold the book close to my heart, like I had to savor it before I could read on. I’d open the book again, re-reading the paragraphs, admiring the combination of words that blended together, comma after comma, phrases pieced together to convey what happened to her and how she felt about it in perfect measure.

My sister gave me a cookbook for Christmas,
The Family Meal by Ferran Adrià, celebrated chef of El Bulli. I’d thumbed through its pages, treasuring the images of the ingredients, and the pragmatic rationale behind each menu. But it went on the shelf, with the other volumes of recipes, because as I said, I haven’t been cooking. That is until I was in the heat of Blood, Bones & Butter, when I pulled that new cookbook off the shelf, determined to use it. “I’ll make dinner tonight,” I told De-facto, stretching open the binding of the unexplored book. I flipped through its pages, again admiring the artistry of these simple meals – or so they were designated: the menus weren’t for Adrià’s Michelin-starred cuisine, but for the meals served to the restaurant staff prior to the dinner service.

And here it happened, what always happens. Inspired by a cookbook dish – in this case a menu – I realize too late that my kitchen is not properly stocked to prepare the recipe. I lack too many key ingredients even to fudge it. Cooking at this caliber requires advance planning, and my spontaneous return to the fold of kitchen service hadn’t include such a plan.

The most creative cooking is probably conceived when we must work with the limitation of what’s left in the pantry. The box of more-than-a-year-old lasagna noodles deserved some attention. There were two eggplants and just enough tomatoes to make a sauce. I called De-facto, who’d run out to do an errand, pleading with him to pick up some mozzarella and parmesan. I turned the oven on and pulled out that wrinkled apron.

The systematic chopping and dicing, the attention needed to carmelize something perfectly, the on-the-spot decisions to follow a recipe or improvise, it’s like an active meditation. Even when things go wrong and the pan is too hot or the croutons don’t transform into breadcrumbs as easily as you’d hoped, the problem solving required forces a mood of concentration and creativity that can be terribly satisfying. It’s nourishing for the soul.

At the table De-facto raved about the aroma and celebrated the novelty of something different to eat. The girls weren’t as inspired. Buddy-roo pushed the large noodle around her plate, eating the steamed broccoli that accompanied it, but laying her fork down on the rest.

“It’s just a big pasta,” said De-facto, “you love pasta.” She scrunched up her nose at the eggplant. It made me think of something my father used to say, when I refused his favorite delicacies, Welsh rarebit and pig’s feet. “You don’t know what’s good,” he’d say.

My lasagna wasn’t by the book, but it was good. It was a tasty change of pace from our habitual menus. It was good to be in the kitchen again. It was also good to finish a good book and return it to a good friend. Now if I could just open that new cookbook again, before I make the next shopping list, maybe there are a few good meals ahead.