Apr 29 2015

In the Kitchen

It all happens in the kitchen. The heartbeat of a home, the source of our meals, the place where everyone ends up congregating at a party. The kitchen stands for warmth, nourishment and togetherness. The stove and oven cook food that gives us comfort and strength, its refrigerator and lil_kitchencupboards conveniently store everything we need for sustenance. A kitchen has a family connotation. Before I had children, I thought all a kitchen needed was a bottle of champagne in the fridge and a bottle of vodka in the freezer. Once we had a family, I realized – or remembered – what a kitchen really means.

Just after Short-pants was born, we tore down a wall in our Paris apartment to make our kitchen, dining and living spaces into one big room. In her bouncy chair on the table, or on her play-blanket on the floor, she could remain in line of sight while I warmed her milk or made a vegetable puree. During those early years when she and Buddy-roo could too easily walk into trouble, we could keep a safe eye on them. As they grew, the girls would stand on chairs on the other side of the kitchen island and help me chop vegetables or decorate Christmas cookies while De-facto watched from the couch behind them.

That open-styled kitchen – an “American kitchen” in French real estate terms – hosted many dinners, Thanksgivings and spontaneous pop-up parties (after school meeting and performances) just because it was easy to host a gang in such a big open space. Everyone would stand around the kitchen island and keep the cook company. And when I was the cook, I still got to be at the party.

Our Barcelona apartment has many fine features: a larger space than we inhabited in Paris, more rooms, enough for the girls to have their own bedrooms and both De-facto and I to have separate offices. The in-suite bathroom in the master bedroom is a boon and the girls have two sinks in their bathroom; no fighting for mirror time in the morning. But when it comes to the kitchen, it’s a disappointment. At first glance, it seems nice enough: marble countertops, light wood cupboards that reach all the way to the ceiling (no need to stand on a stool to scrub away grease that collects on top). But it’s too small: 6 X 9 square feet. Look closer and it’s a bit worn. The appliances are tired, not particularly energy efficient. But my big grievance: this kitchen has a door. oh_no_pasta

It’s a wide door that slides open to a small dining area that’s open to the main living room, so at first glance I thought it would be fine. But in fact, when in the kitchen I am entirely separated from the rest of the apartment. I find myself cooking dinner, alone, because even if the girls are on the couch, they’re in another room. I can’t see them and I can hardly hear them. I can’t participate in their conversation unless I keep stepping out of the kitchen. And when we entertain, I’m in there all alone, checking on the hors d’oeuvres in the oven, or else four people have planted themselves in the kitchen with me and I am constantly grabbing my guests by the shoulders and moving them from side one side to the other in this tiny room, to get into a cupboard or access the sink. Inevitably, somebody is standing exactly where I need to get to.

We rent this apartment, so there’s nothing to do about what is clearly a first world problem. But it’s raised my awareness about the impact of a kitchen on the life of a family.

~ ~ ~

A kitchen is a store of fertile childhood memories. I remember, in my mother’s kitchen, pacing around and around the stove and counters and table that together made an enormous island. I remember the drawers, one above the other, that I could pull out to create a short set of stairs to reach the top shelf on the snack cupboard. I remember my mother shifting her weight from foot to foot while standing at her kitchen sink, washing the dishes by hand and putting them in the drainer for me to dry with a dish towel. I remember the wide wooden board that she’d pull out from a slot between the drawers and cupboards to create extra workspace, and how at Christmas, it’d be covered with wax paper and cookies freshly frosted, waiting to be decorated with colored sugar.

I remember my father standing at the stove making Welsh Rarebit on Saturday afternoon, pressing the tiny square buttons to raise or lower the heat on the burners. I remember the bar he’d set up on the the kitchen counter whenever they entertained, and his law partner and best friend chastising my sister and me for putting an ice tray back in the freezer without heart_in_a_boxre-filling it. Like it was yesterday, I can remember my father leaning against that same counter, the morning of my grandmother’s funeral, mystified at his own grief.

I can tell you the color of every floor we ever had in that room, the linoleum of my early childhood and the carpets of two renovations that followed. I remember the decorative carving on the shelves that held my mother’s delicate demitasse teacup collection, shelves my high-school friends and I emptied and filled with beer bottles when my parents were out of town, the cups carefully replaced in exact order prior to their return. I remember standing in the kitchen looking out the window at the sheets on the clothesline the day my mother died, and feeling her absence so fiercely, that this was her kitchen and always would be and she will be standing in it forever, in my memory.

A kitchen like that, a room with so many stories, that’s what home is all about.

~ ~ ~

When De-facto and I bought our country house, in 2006, it didn’t have much of a kitchen. Some formica-topped furniture that didn’t attach to anything, a wood cooking stove, a sink. We brought down an old 3-burner electric stove – the one we’d replaced when we’d renovated in Paris – and a fridge we inherited from who-knows-where. The house, that first summer, required massive attention so we focused on fixing walls and floors. We slept in a tent outside while we made the inside livable. There were enough kitchen pieces to cobble together a meal, and we manage to function in that make-shift kitchen, kind of like camping inside. Not just that first summer, but year after year. Each time I’d suggest that it should be the next project on our list, I’d be persuaded that creating another bedroom or insulating a wall and finishing the side room was more critical. I succumbed in part because De-facto (and his brother who owns the house with us) had good arguments. The kitchen was workable, after all.

Last year I finally put my spatula down and fronted the cash to turn the skeletal cooking space we’d been enduring into a real kitchen. A workable kitchen, with plenty of counter space, mice-proof (mostly) cupboards, a light and fan above the stove, an eye-level oven, a cupboard with vertical shelf just for cutting boards, cookie sheets and long casserole dishes. A local contractor took his time – because he could, we were gone all winter – building and fitting the cupboards, giving us a new kitchen that matches the rustic feel of an old country house. I even persuaded De-facto, usually parsimonious farmer_sinkabout such acquisitions, that we should invest in a Cadillac sink, a mammoth porcelain farmer’s sink that matches the original one. I like an auxiliary sink, for cleaning vegetables, or putting champagne on ice. I even shipped over a stool from my mother’s kitchen, and it tucks just under the lip of a big square island, a centerpiece for people to stand around and lean on while preparing a meal, together, in a room that’s not only functional, but hospitable.

We just spent ten days at our country house over the school spring break. After a few initial rainy days, we were graced with sun and spring temperatures. We opened all the windows and aired out the house. I washed all the laundry that had piled up over our winter visits. De-facto mowed the lawn and planted the garden while I pruned the hedges and liberated the rose-bushes that I neglected last year. And every evening, when it was time to make dinner, I could spread out all the ingredients in front of me, with ample workspace to chop onions, slice vegetables, marinate chicken, roll out a pie crust – whatever we needed to prepare the family dinner, all of this in the spirited company of my daughters, in a kitchen I hope they’ll always remember.


Sep 7 2014

Up in the Morning

It starts to happen, as our children get older, that the cherished memories we have of their childhood lose their clarity, and the boundary between sun_shineswhat we remember and what really happened begins to bend and blur. I want to tell you that when Short-pants was a baby, not quite a toddler, we’d hear first stirrings as she’d stretch and come to life slowly in her crib, taking in the new day. Then we’d hear her little voice call out enthusiastic, “Up in the morning!”

I’m not sure if that’s exactly true. It might have started that early, but maybe not until later. I do know that when she could finally escape on her own, over the railing of her crib, she’d toddle into our room and crawl up into our bed to make this morning declaration. She would pronounce each word with delight, as though lyrics of a song, all this while wearing a supremely self-satisfied smile.

A dozen years later, it’s still the first thing she says to us when we bump into each other in the kitchen, or if she slips in to our room while we’re still in bed: “Up in the morning!”

Getting the girls up in the morning and ready for school has long been my task. This involves assuring their state of dress and putting breakfast in their bellies, commanding the final assembly of book-bags the brushing of teeth until De-facto, a few minutes prior to the must-be-out-the-door moment, lifts himself from bed, throws on whatever clothes might be handy and walks them to school. Occasionally I’d be the one to escort them, but most days this has been our routine, in Paris as well as in Barcelona.

When Short-pants entered collège (middle school) two years ago and started walking to school on her own, she developed, instantly, an admirable sense of self-responsibility. She sets her own alarm, dresses and prepares her backpack, eats whatever you put in front of her or makes breakfast for herself, monitors the time closely and steps out the door in plenty of time to make it to school without having to rush. She likes the morning walk, and though accepting of our company on days we join her, has admitted to us that she prefers to walk to school alone.

So far this year, though, she’s been accompanied by her sister, who’s just started at collège. Buddy-roo is a professional sleeper and not such a happy-in-the-morning person. She is rallying, though, as part of the get-a-dog campaign. A campaign she’s won, by the way, as last spring not only did she demonstrate the capacity to wake herself earlier and more self-sufficiently, no_walking_with_parentsshe also achieved fine grades at school. Grades were not the objective; being conscientious about about her work was the goal. But by doing that she surprised us all – and mostly herself – with a recommendation from her teacher. (The dog, incidentally, an impending acquisition. Watch this space.) Part of the rite of passage to this higher class level involves making the trek to school without a parent, whether by walking or public transport. Since the girls start school at the same time now, they walk together.

~ ~ ~

Last week, on the night before the first day of school, we sat around the table after dinner, a family meeting to review the girls’ household chores. Since we’d been gone most of the summer, everyone was a little out of practice. I wanted to give the girls an opportunity to switch up their tasks and also to add new and different ones; as they get older and taller, there’s more they can do to help around the house. They are good natured, mostly, about the jobs we ask them to take on. Except one: Despite years of making it a required activity, I still can’t get them to replace an empty toilet paper roll or move the finished cardboard tube in to the trash, let alone to the recycling bin. Not sure why these tasks are so challenging to accomplish, but the three people with whom I live with seem unable to complete either of them. Though everyone has pledged, once again, to do their best.

For some reason, my annual clock rotates on a scholastic calendar, and I always think of this time of year as a time to change habits or get started on new projects. Or return to old projects, which is an objective of mine this year. I have a languishing manuscript. It needs a bit of re-work and a few chapters to end it. I’ve been working on it for a decade, and its time to finish and publish.

One way of changing a habit is asking for help from the people around you; this insight came to me during a session at Mindcamp, which resulted in the idea of setting aside just an hour a day to work on my manuscript. But not just any hour. The first hour of the day, before my fresh-from-the-dream-state imagination is spoiled by reading the news or email or by all the don’t-forget-your-maths-book kind of conversations that are part of shooing children out the door to school. It’s not the first time I’ve thought of this, but I’m just not enough of a morning person to get up before the girls, and askeven when I manage to rise before them, as soon as they’re up, they’re in my hair.

I decided to ask my family for help. After all, when they ask for something, I’m happy to do what I can to support them. Wouldn’t they show me the same courtesy? De-facto made what I perceived to be a slightly patronizing remark and Short-pants corrected my grammar, so I had to pound the table a moment to make them understand that this was actually something about which I was feeling very tender and even slightly vulnerable. A moment of discomfort around the table was followed by a how-might-we discussion about the people setting their own alarms and getting their own breakfasts. Everyone agreed we could try.

“Think of it as an experiment,” I said, “to help me get back in the habit of working on my book. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Up in the morning,” said Short-pants.

~ ~ ~

It is a mild surprise that they’ve adapted quickly to the new morning plan. Not that it’s been flawless: they forget and walk into my office to ask for something and I have to remind them that this is the kind of thing they have to ask me about the night before, so I can focus on writing in the morning. I get a knowing-nod and tip-toes out of the room.

Whether Short-pants and Buddy-roo leave for school together or separately, they leave early. At eight o’clock, or shortly after, I hear the door slam and their steps in the stairwell. By the time they’re out the door, I’m typing at full-speed. I don’t know if what I’m typing is any good, but I’m typing, and that’s as good a start as any. By the time I move on to the other tasks on my to-do list, professional and personal, I’ve logged at least an hour on my pet project, and that feels huge.

De-facto and I have gained hours that we didn’t have before, hours once taken up with walking Buddy-roo to school or picking her up at the end of the day and bringing her back home. Plus her day is longer than it was in the primary school. Add to that my extra writing time in the morning, and this year could be a whole new world for me. More time, the thing I’m always lacking.

Only a few days in to our new reality, I was at my desk, partly working and partly wondering if it wasn’t time for the girls to get home. De-facto walked behind me, through my office to the little balcony that looks out on the street. I kept waiting for him to pass back through my office, but he didn’t return. I stuck my head out the door to find him leaning against the rail, looking down the street.
balcony_watch
“Waiting for the girls?” I said.

“I miss them,” he said.

I thought about how I’d hardly seen them in the morning and how they’d been gone all day. I wasn’t just missing them, I was aching for them. Maybe just because we’ve been so together all summer, it’s just an adjustment that takes getting used to. I wondered if this up-in-the-morning-writing-routine was going to work. I’m happy to have the creative space, but there’s definitely a price to pay.

“Me, too,” I said. “It’s a long day.”

De-facto wrapped his arm around me and we stood on the balcony together, our eyes fixed on the street below, waiting for their two heads to come into view so we could wave frantically and welcome them home.


Apr 28 2014

Write On

I still have to do it by hand. The keyboard is okay for emails or business proposals. But a post doesn’t come to me in perfunctory punches on plastic keys. There’s something about the pen in my hand, the side of my palm against the paper, connected to my wrist, my arm, my shoulder, to my body, where you’ll find my heart. If it’s going to have any guts to it, it has to start out as a hand written piece. My first drafts are always in my journal or on some scrap of paper beside my bed. The words come sometimes so fast that my hand can’t keep up and then I think I should be writing directly on the keyboard. But the instant I switch to my laptop – and I’ve tried this – the words dry up and I stare at the empty screen. Maybe it’s just habit, or maybe there’s something to the heart-to-pen circuit.
spilt_ink
Why am I telling you this? Because I’m participating in a “blog tour” about writing, and I’ve been given four questions to answer. A bit of backstory: five years ago when my manuscript was going nowhere, I took the advice of a few friends to try my hand at blogging. A few posts later I’d fallen in love with the medium. I loved that I could publish my writing without a gatekeeper. I loved that I could design my own look, choose my typeface and select my images. I also appreciated the community of bloggers who read each other’s posts, commented on and promoted each other’s blogs and in general supported anyone who wants to join the club.

I used to spend a fair amount of time nosing around in the blogosphere, but after a couple of years it got harder to keep up. Life got busier with more work and more travel and the bulk of time I’d permitted myself to read all my favorite blogs shrank considerably. But there are a few I manage to keep up with. One of them is Magpie Musing, a quirky, intelligent blog by a woman who shares my name, my love of books and a fascination with things in a state of desuetude. The other belongs to Amanda McGee, whose writing is good enough to eat. It’s Maggie at Magpie Musing who lured me into this assignment, but it was Amanda’s post that inspired me to accept.

~ ~ ~

How does your process work? It could be a topic I’m grappling with (again) that comes to the surface, or a comment by Short-pants or Buddy-roo that gives me an idea. Sometimes De-facto will hear me rant and respond with “that sounds like a blog post.” I’m a student of the Nathalie Goldberg school of freewriting, so I’ll write the nugget of that idea at the top of the page and let the pen go. Judgment is suspended and all words and phrases that come to mind get scribbled down, little gems both poignant and awkward, fodder to be fine-tuned and polished later. The more you get on the page, the more you have to work with, so I allow a full purge to create a first draft. If you read Annie Lamott‘s book Bird by Bird, she talks about the shitty first draft, and that’s exactly what I produce. It’s messy and wordy and occasionally embarrassing, but it’s a step beyond the daunting blank page, and for that alone it is a precious victory every time.
hatchets
When the computer gets involved, the editing starts. Words are arduously rearranged, lines chopped, paragraphs deleted. I’m still too wordy. I could use a good editor to catch typos and omit needless words. Sometimes the labor goes too long and I come to a point where I just have to ship it. But only after a good night’s sleep and a fresh read in the morning. Then I hit publish.

Why do you write what you write? The reasons have morphed since I started. At first I thought I was writing to get a wider audience. When my mother subscribed, I realized I could write to tell her things about my life that were hard to convey to her in person. When she passed away this blog saved me from heartbreak by giving me a place to express my grief. I still haven’t deleted her from the subscriber list. You might read between the lines and hear me whispering to her, with pride about how the girls are growing, or exasperation about how the girls are growing.

I write for my daughters, too. Just in case twenty or thirty years from now when/if they enter the mother’s club – if they are curious – there’ll be an archive about their childhood from my point-of-view. I can’t be sure they’ll care. All I know is how many times I wish I knew what my mother had been going through when she was mothering me. I used to ask, but her responses were not particularly revealing. If my daughters ever want that depth from me, well, it’s here for the taking.

If you really, truly, want to know more about why I write, read this.

How does your work differ from others in the genre? It’s hard for me to characterize how what I do is different. What I love about the world of blogging is the wide diversity that exists; blogs with ten readers and those girls_on_rockswith thousands, each with its own voice and purpose. In that way, different is normal. Somebody once told me this was a literary blog, which I took as a huge compliment. De-facto calls it a contrarian mom blog. I’m not sure this is so distinct, but it’s the crux of what I write. Every day I experience an acute ambivalence, the duality of amazement and angst about having these creatures in my life. I try to craft each post as a short narrative that makes a point about this paradox. I want to tell stories that make you love my kids, and at the same time, make you roll your eyes along with me.

What are you working on? This writing exercise reminds me that I’m not. There’s a manuscript that’s nearly finished, but stuck on a back burner. There’s another story waiting to be told, but its words haven’t made it to the blank page. I won’t even bother to go into the excuses. I’ll just say thanks to Maggie and for the nudge – here’s her blog tour post, by the way – and see if I can’t get back to that big writing project and finish it. Maybe I could publish chapters of my manuscript on this blog. Should I?

~ ~ ~

Like a tree, this story branches out. Each blogger invites two more to muse about their writing process, a digital chain letter that’s been going on for months. I have a long history of breaking chain letters without apology. This one I’m passing along, though I gave my invitees guiltless permission to bow out if the exercise wasn’t something for which they had time or interest. To my surprise, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to find two bloggers happy to play along.
tree_art_by_Blair
Lori, of Groovy Green Living, is someone I knew in real life before we linked on the internet. She’s a ferocious advocate for our planet, and for our health in an increasingly toxic world. Her blog not only inspires you to act, choose and shop in a responsibly green way, it tells you, in very practical terms, how.

Kristen at Birthing Beautiful Ideas describes herself as a feminist mother, philosophical doula and snarky storyteller. She has great post titles, too. One of my favs: The Pre-labor Cervix is not a Magic 8 Ball.

I encourage you to take a look at their blogs, especially next Monday to acknowledge them for carrying on the baton for this meme. And if you’re still curious about bloggers and how they write, then visit this Twitter hashtag: #mywritingprocess

Writing my blog has been a source of tremendous pleasure. It’s helped me grow as a writer, a mother and a woman. But it wouldn’t be the same if there weren’t any readers. So let me finish my writing about writing by thanking those of you who click through and read Maternal Dementia, whether it’s every post or just once in a while. There’s so much to read on the web. Your time is precious. I thank you for spending it here on my blog with Short-pants, Buddy-roo, De-facto and me.

(Photo credits: Spilt Ink is artwork by Dan Walker. The tree in the last image was painted by Blair Bradshaw.)


Mar 31 2013

And in the End

I’d given up being organized by the time I got to this part of the Camino. At the beginning, I had to think through my itinerary in order to squeeze it into our family schedule and wrap it around my birthday celebration. But during these last two weeks I was very much in the groove of landing where I landed, sorting out stopping points and sleeping accommodations when it was time to stop or time to sleep. I had all my gear all the time – despite the pre-Camino back injury I never needed to use a bag transport service – this meant I was at liberty to call it a day, or continue on, whenever I wanted.
menacing_sky
After Santiago, I’d heard, there were fewer places to stay and many might still be closed for the winter. I called ahead to a guest house/albergue in Augapesada, 11k from Santiago, to be sure it was open. This would be a respectable distance to walk given a mid-afternoon departure after the pilgrim’s mass. The sky was a threatening shade of gray, and I wanted some assurance of a bed under dry cover. The next option wouldn’t be for another 10k and I wouldn’t make it there before it was dark. I’m told you can always knock on any door that has a shell on it, along the route, to ask for help,or shelter. I think that’s to be saved for a real emergency, not for poor planning.

The gray clouds turned out to be much more than threatening and I arrived at the front door of the albergue thoroughly soaked, apologizing to the proprietor for the mud I was about to drag in. He was unperturbed about my wet backpack and my dirty boots, and showed me not to a room of bunk beds, but to a room with a princess canopy hanging from the ceiling, draped over a big bed with a thick, quilted cover. After a hot shower, I was invited to make myself at home in the salon in front of the fire while his wife did my laundry and cooked me dinner. I ended up being the only boarder that night, and it felt a little bit like I was in the tender care of surrogate parents.

The next morning, my host asked how I’d slept. “Como los meurtos,” I said. Like the dead.

Apropos, since this part of the Spain is called Costa da Morte, or the death coast. The pagans believed that this is where souls went before ascending into heaven. Before Columbus and Magellan proved that the earth was round, it was believed that this was the end of the world, and to go out to sea beyond the horizon would mean sailing over the edge to your death, the ultimate end.

I was merely prolonging my ending, continuing from Santiago to Finisterre. I knew another end was in sight, at the coast, but I also knew it would take a few more days of walking to accept it. That’s the thing about poles_markerendings, they’re hard to accept. Even when you know what’s next. At the end of a trip, you’re sad that it’s over, but you know what you have to do: go home, do your laundry, get back into your routine. When you finish a big project, you grieve at the end of it, even if you’re a bit relieved. Maybe you don’t exactly know what’s ahead but you have an idea, and soon enough the next assignment, vague at first, takes shape. But when you come to the end of your life, you don’t know what’s next. Is there a heaven? A next life? Is it just the end – that’s what my mother thought – before an eternity of nothing?

Funny, this Camino, a religious path for so many people, turned out to be an existential one for me. Someway along the way, between O Cebreiro and Portomarín, I kind of wanted to know, like, why we’re here.

I’m not the first to ask this question and I won’t be the last. And it’s not that I haven’t asked it before, although I’d wager it was a more intellectual query. This time it had a different timbre. Walk 500 miles across the north of Spain, you have some time to think, maybe about things you thought before, but you think about them longer because you don’t get interrupted. This presents an opportunity to pursue a string of thoughts much further than usual. And that’s how I got here, during the last days into Santiago and the days beyond, toward Finisterre, with this what’s the meaning of it all story. I imagine this sounds ridiculous and navel gazing to those of you reading this, but truly, you do get a little crazy, walking for fifteen days by yourself.

Maybe it was the rain. After five rainy days in a row, even though I’d surrendered to it, even though I didn’t even try to stay dry, even though I knew everything I was wearing would be soaking wet by the time I got where I was going, I still had to ask myself, why are you doing this? I suppose with so much time to think about it, that very simple why expands to a larger, metaphorical and then metaphysical why. Every step I’ve taken from the French border to the coast of Spain is very meaningful to me now. But in a hundred years, nobody will know or care. In the end, what’s the point? Why are we doing this walk on the planet? Why do we even bother?
camino_cross
The religious view on this, one I respect as comforting to many but unsatisfying to me, attributes it to the will of a higher being. But why? The reincarnationists would have that we live over and over again to learn our life lessons. But why? Scientists say we are the product of a big bang that over billions of years led to life forms that crawled out of the muck and evolved into the sentient creatures we have become. But why? No matter which I might believe or understand to be true, the reason for the time spent on this earth – at least for me – is still unanswered.

This isn’t the question I started out with, in those early, organized days of the Camino, when I wanted to walk and think about how to make the most of the rest of my life after a milestone birthday. I imagined that the question would evolve, and it’s true that several questions emerged along the way. But the more time that passed, and the more I played by this land where you land playbook, the more I landed back this unanswerable question.

I walked 90 more kilometers beyond Santiago, more than half of that in the rain, the other half with the threat of rain. I slept in a damp, drafty, heatless albergue, on a bunk crammed in a room of snoring, coughing pilgrims. I found dryer, comfortable shelter, too, like the one with the princess curtain, or another, where I was all by myself in a room of eight beds. I navigated trails of deep mud, hopped over puddles nearly the size of a pond. I walked alone the entire time, the only pilgrims I passed, but for those I met at the albergues, were the ones coming the other way, returning to Santiago. This was the perhaps the most isolated leg of my entire trip. I experienced moments of private euphoria as never before, and moments of aloneness that were neither good nor bad, just profound. Every night I was relieved to remove my pack and take off my boots. Every morning, champing at the bit to put my pack back together and and set off for the next day’s walk.
careful_on_the_moors
I landed in Finesterre on Good Friday. I crossed the moors that morning in the fog. I could smell and hear the ocean before I could see it. As I descended the wet, sandy and rocky slopes to the coast, the Camino gave me a last rain shower to make sure I got wet, one final involuntary baptism. That night the procession of the Saints, the Spanish tradition for celebrating Easter, passed by the window of my pensión, a parade of cloaks and hoods carrying saints and crosses like a funeral march to mark the end that comes before a new beginning.

The next morning, a huge surprise and a great gift, outside my window: sunshine. The real deal, with blue sky and good clouds, the kind that don’t portend imminent rain. This morning’s walk a very quick jaunt, just three kilometers to the tip of the cape of Finisterre, truly the end of the (old) world. I found a smoother rock amongst those on the craggy cliff and sat on it, thinking, meditating, talking to myself, watching the surf crash against the shore. So violent, its arrival, as if the water itself was surprised to encounter this outcropping of land.

It was still early. I was ahead of the tour buses that, in a few hours time, would crowd the parking lot on the other side of the lighthouse. I sat alone on those rocks for a good half an hour before a few random pilgrims came along – some I recognized from these last days on the route – and found their own perch. Quietly together, we looked out at the horizon.
surf_at_finisterre
At the end of it all, there, looking out at the ocean, I could only shrug at this notion of why. I never came to a definitive answer. But there’s another question, the one that follows naturally, one that absolutely did get answered for me during my walk on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I may not know why we walk this earth, but I think I know how:

Go a little bit slower so you don’t step in the mud. Look up, so you don’t miss the beauty. Smile whenever you can, it’s contagious. Be kind, kinder still to those who aren’t; they need it the most. If you need to be snarky (because it is therapeutic) do it under your breath. Take everything that is offered to you and be prepared to give away what you have, because other stuff will come. Figure out how, even if it’s hard, to be grateful. It’s better for you than being angry.

Throughout the Camino, but especially here, at this ending point, I couldn’t help but think about my parents. They both loved to travel, and though they never would have endeavored this pilgrimage themselves, they would have appreciated my journey, my mother especially. I wished I could see her and tell her about it. And I knew that if I was missing my mother that much, my little girls were probably missing me something fierce, too. It was time now, I knew, for me to go home.

I pushed myself up off that rock, my perch at the end of the Camino and the end of the world, and picked up my pack and my poles, and made my way back to town, and the next day, back to Paris, to my man and my girls, to see if I could practice what I preach. This time, though, I did look back, so I wouldn’t forget how far I’d come.


Jul 1 2012

A Slow Read

A crowd of people – family and friends – descended on Paris at the end of June and I wanted to see them all. I wanted to visit with them and catch up, host them for aperitifs and dinner, take them to my favorite cafés in this city where I’ve made my life. I’m truly happy for each and every visitor, but why is it they all arrive at once, with overlapping itineraries? It’s not that they become my responsibility – all these people are grown adults (or in the care of their parents) and have navigated their lives perfectly well to get themselves to an airport and get on a plane to Paris, so they can get themselves around here – but there is a mild but haranguing sense of duty, perhaps, but also desire, to help with the trip, to enhance their experience, maximize their time in Paris, a city with so much to offer and yet if you don’t know where to look, you can miss the best of it.

There were, as well, more shows to attend: Buddy-roo’s tap-dance recital, in which she had five minutes on stage in a red flapper dress, with two young men in black and white tuxedos flanking her, all three tapping their heels and toes together; and the final viola recital for Short-pants, the last of a litany of end-of-school-year performances and activities. Not to mention several beauty-nurse type appointments of my own, to put my person in order prior to going away for most of July.

Part of me was screaming for all of it to stop, such a jolt to my Camino-quieted system to have to ramp up and run at this pace of scheduled events every night for weeks in a row. This is why it was my first instinct to say no when my friend invited me to use the gallery where he was showing his artwork to host a soirée for my friends and talk about my Camino experience.

The theme of his show was This Here Now, a collection of odd objects he’s literally picked up in different places in the world, mounted on distressed zinc plates and framed, each one commemorating the place and the moment where the object was found. It was very much in sync with my walking experience, the sense of slowing down and noticing what’s right in front of you, here and now and acknowledging the beauty and story within it.

On my way to I meet him for lunch and to look at his exhibit, I was sure that I shouldn’t do it. My back-from-the-Camino self was determined to walk slower and take on less, to leave stretches of time, time for me, and time for my family. But standing in the gallery, his constructed paintings surrounding and delighting me, I heard from another self, a voice who whispered to me often during my long walks. It’s your writing, it’s art. Do it.

I remember my parents returning from their voyages – their treasured vacation in Greece the strongest memory of this – and they’d put together a slide show and invite people over for a dinner party. My mother would conjure up a menu of the featured country’s cuisine, and after dessert the guests would assemble in our living room for slides and stories about the trip. I’d yawn through it, convinced my parents’ friends were far too polite. This is why I thought it’d make sense to skip the pictures, and to excerpt a few key passages from favorite blog posts and do a very short reading. If I picked the right passages, the audience could picture it on their own. And otherwise we’d ply people with wine and have a nice time.

~ ~ ~

Little by little it slips away, my newfound rootedness giving way to the daily duties that call me, and I don’t know how not to answer. To some things, yes: I have unsubscribed to a dozen Internet newsletters. I refused paying work because of my out of town guests. I didn’t sign up to accompany Buddy-roo’s class on their day-long end-of-school sortie. I’ve said no to fundraising events and lunch invitations with people who aren’t mission critical. I haven’t looked at my Twitter feed in weeks (and I don’t miss it). Nonetheless, it felt like my energy was getting scattered from all the running around and doing more, when all I want to do is less.

But how? Every time I clear something away, a new task replaces it. We left the eye doctor last week with a prescription for Short-pants to see an orthopiste, a kiné for the eyes. This will require two visits a week for six weeks in a row. So next fall – it’s impossible to start this summer between our July vacation and every French orthopiste’s August holiday – on top of everything else we’ll be traipsing around twice a week to these appointments. It’s important and necessary, and in itself it’s not such an enormous task. It’s just that every little thing like this adds yet another detail to remember, to organize and execute, and I can’t not do them. After the Camino, I wanted to do less. But less of what?

~ ~ ~

Turnabout is fairplay, I suppose, so just as I’ve rallied for Short-pants’ and Buddy-roo’s performances, they showed up for mine. (Rallied is perhaps too exuberant to describe Buddy-roo’s reaction, but once she got there she didn’t mind.) My mother-in-love was in town too, a poet who’s done her fair share of readings so she had a few tips for me, accepted gladly as the time I had to prepare was minimal and a seasoned pro’s advice gave me comfort.

When you read your words out loud, they change. It’s not like what you hear in your head when you write them, or read to yourself. The words become truer. When you say them out loud their meaning is enlarged and magnified. You have to slow down and treat the words deliberately. Each time I practiced reading my selections, making small edits and changes along the way to suit a live occasion, I appropriated the words even more. With every read-through, I took back a little of the groundedness I’d felt slipping away. I needed to be in the this here now to be able to do the reading, and reading out loud was just what it took to get there.

De-facto bought wine and my good culinary-inclined friend prepared for me, generously, an array of pintxos and a gateau Basque, regional eats in the spirit of the reading. (My mother was smiling down at her, I’m sure.) A small group assembled, but it was just the right group. We took our time. I read one piece, and then we waited. An hour later, I read another piece. In between, a quick hint from my mother-in-love: “You could read even slower if you wanted.” So I did.

After the readings, the guests lingered at the gallery until nearly midnight, making a dinner out of the hors d’oeuvres and stretching out the evening with wine and laughter. I had a chance to visit with everyone, falling into long and meandering, meaningful conversations that affirmed for me how this reading, which felt at first like too much to do, turned out to be exactly what I needed. Note to self: do more of these.

All the images in the post are by Dan Walker.


Jun 29 2011

The Sweet Spot

There were baby things everywhere. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; this was a conference for mothers who blog, and many of them have little babies or toddlers. It’s just that it’s been a while since I’ve been in the company of so many women with babies on their minds, let alone in their bellies, in their arms, or in strollers, being pushed around the exhibitor hall. Friendly people at every stand offered up freebies galore: baby bottles and thermometers, teething toys and toddler clothes. The swag at Cybermummy11 was definitely geared for the mums with younger children. I didn’t mind – it meant there was less to carry home – but it made me realize how many of these mothers are squeezing out posts during naps, patching together tiny portions of spare time to write their blogs and run their businesses. They’re pacing back and forth to soothe a sick child with a thousand thoughts running through their heads, juggling diapers and daycare, surviving and thriving despite sleep deprivation and the constant churn of mothering little ones. I looked around at all of them with their babies in tow and I thought to myself, thank god that’s not me anymore.

The night before the conference, I slipped down to the hotel bar, dreaming of a quiet dinner at the bar by myself, but it turns out I’d landed in a trendy boutique hotel and the place was rockin’. There were no stools at the bar, and the restaurant didn’t have the right ambiance for solo dining, so I returned to my room and ordered room service. Like any diligent blogger, I happily ate dinner in front of my computer. When @mummytips tweeted me to come down and join her in the bar with her friends (@bumpwearclaire and @Melaina25), I knew the scene I was getting myself into. But I’d come all this way to see and meet my blogging compatriots, so I ventured down into the world of exposed brick and designer cologne.

The bartenders weren’t particularly efficient, though it wasn’t easy for them because the place was packed with testosterone. We struggled to find an opening at the bar, surrounded by all the young men mulling about, aggressively getting their drinks and blocking our way. To add insult to injury, two young slicksters did a little divert through the crowd to put themselves in front of us.

I was clearly the oldest woman in this entire bar. And I was parched. These guys were boys, young enough to be my sons. They had fresh blemishes and peach fuzz. They hardly looked old enough to drink. I had no choice but to step forward and slip in between them. I scolded them, but with a smile: “I can’t believe that two young men like you would actually sneak ahead of a group of thirsty women. Didn’t your mothers teach you anything?”

Deep down, I suppose, they were good boys, because they stood aside and made way for me to advance to the bar. On the surface, they were clowns, trying so hard to get the bartender’s attention on my behalf that he ignored me longer than he would have without their attempted aide. They swarmed around, alternating between hitting on anything with breasts and then returning and engaging me in the most inane conversations. I will admit that certain young men can kindle the cougar in me, but these two were not of such stock. They conjured up the memory of my awkward early years of meeting and dating and I thought to myself, thank god that’s not me anymore.

There are a lot of reasons to attend a conference like Cybermummy: networking and connecting with advertisers or sponsors, going to sessions for hints and tips from experienced bloggers, and of course, the swag. But the real reason: to be in the company of others who, finally, understand why you blog. Why you race through your day on skates so you can leave a little time to pound out a post. How you get a bit antsy when too many days have gone by without posting. Or as one of the crowd-sourced keynote speakers, who blogs at KateTakes5 put it, how you “get used to disapproving looks from other mothers when your child falls in the street and you scramble for the camera instead of picking her up.” When you go to a conference like this, there’s a huge sense of connectedness – and relief – when you think to yourself, that’s just like me and oh, I’m not alone.

More than four hundred women attended the Cybermummy conference, stating loud and clear that mothers – whether they stay at home, work part-time or do the full-time-job-mom-juggle – are a force to contend with. We have stories to tell, opinions to air and we can make a difference with our words. From the inspiring opening keynote by Sarah Brown, to the poignant or funny blogger keynotes that closed the meeting, the range of voices I heard made me proud to be among this group. Not to mention the Eden Fantasy sponsored dildo-decorating party hosted by @cosmicgirlie on Saturday night. Want to remove the sexual taboo of an object? Invite twenty women to decorate it with feathers and sequins. You’ll see.

Miles and hours away from London and the conference and a newly enlarged network of blogging friends, I returned, with some relief, to my family. I travel enough to be used to the ebb and flow of glad-to-be-gone but oh-I-miss-them, and still, on this trip, the longing for them was fiercer than usual. Maybe it was seeing all those babies and remembering how adorable Short-pants and Buddy-roo were at that age. Maybe it was stepping into that whole bar scene and wondering – worrying – if my girls will acquire what it takes to encounter, endure and exit (safely) from the company of doo-doo heads like those young guys. Or maybe I’m just getting soft.

At bedtime, Short-pants was reading in her own room while I sang a lullaby to Buddy-roo, who’d already shut the light and was drifting off to sleep. It’s the same lullaby my mother used to sing to me. It’s the same lullaby I used to sing to them when they were babies and toddlers. My girls are (nearly) ten and seven, they still ask for the song at bedtime. How much longer will they let me sing it to them?

I traced my hand along the length of Buddy-roo’s long leg, thinking about where I am now in my life, as a mother. I’m glad to have the baby part behind me. I’m dreading a bit what’s ahead: their adolescence and navigating the minefields of boys-to-men. But right now, in this phase: it’s pretty sweet. They’re old enough to be independent; they dress themselves, get their own juice from the fridge, conduct their business privately in the bathroom. But they’re still young enough to be truly excited when I come home from a weekend away. Is this the sweet spot of motherhood? It makes me think to myself, it’s a good time, right now, to be mom.

It’s a good time to be a Cybermummy, too.


Feb 16 2011

Digital Rasa

I once worked in a cubicle a stone’s throw from a meticulous woman. I’d listen to her set up appointments with clients in the most deliberate way, confirming the time and place, clarifying the purpose of the meeting. Her desk was ordered, her language precise, and she lived by her day-timer.

One year she tried a new calendar method: after completing each task or meeting on her to-do list, she’d erase it with white-out. I could picture her pulling the little brush out of the green plastic bottle and carefully blanking out every accomplished item. Her objective: a fully white page at the end of each day.

The problem, she confessed after doing this for an entire year, was that she had no reference about what she’d actually done. If you asked – a week or a month later – when she’d met with someone or competed something, she couldn’t tell you. She enjoyed the daily satisfaction of a clean agenda, but no institutional memory to assist anyone else.

~ ~ ~

I’ve been following an on-line conversation by Gwen Bell, an internet-mentor of sorts, one of the trio behind the whole Reverb deal. I say of sorts because I have only exchanged a few tweets with her, but even from a distance she inspires or provokes. She’s exploring how to be more intimate and authentic in her web-conduct, and as a result re-ordering her on-line priorities. In a recent subscribe-only missive she foreshadowed a digital incineration, and she’s followed through. She deleted her on-line artifacts – yesterday – starting afresh with a digital tabula-rasa. She wonders what would happen if everyone she knew did the same thing.

Given that last week I wrote about my reticence to delete my mother’s email electronic information from my computer, I’m an unlikely candidate for such a digital purge. I have dozens of boxes stored with eclectic mementos in various basements of my life and it would carry forward that the things I cherish about my on-line life – one I consider rich and nourishing – are things I want to bookmark and access with only a few clicks.

I wonder, when Short-pants and Buddy-roo are older, will they appreciate the memories assembled in this epistle, or they will be insulted, angry that their privacy has been compromised? I used to roll my eyes in embarrassment at my mother’s Christmas letter. Even though never more than a line or two was devoted to me – and her friends purported to love having the news – it was always painful to read what she had written about me. The girls could revolt with a digital mutiny; by then they’ll probably have hacked my password and could easily incinerate the stories of their youth without my permission.

There are a hundred questions I’d ask my mother, if I could. And I did, but there was much she couldn’t remember. If she’d only written it down. To have a digital archive of her feelings during my childhood would be so precious to me now. When my daughters are mothers to their own children, could it be that my archives might at least amuse them, if not offer them comfort?

~ ~ ~

In college I accumulated (just barely) enough credits to have a degree in History and in Semiotics. So the historian in me thinks it’s blasphemous to delete a rich history of published content from the web. Archives are the record of a narrative. Like the diaries of Anais Nin, an on-line journal is biased, slightly (or mightily) filtered for public consumption and maybe it tells only the part of the story, but it’s still part of the important collective herstory. There’s a feminist aspect as well: the platform of blogging has enabled more women to publish without a gatekeeper; it’s hard to imagine deleting the words that have resulted from this privilege.

The historian in me also believes that some things ought never to be deleted from our consciousness. Like the Holocaust, for instance. That’s an extreme case, compared to the archives of one person’s website, but where do you draw the line? When you delete something, what are you saying? That it’s not important enough to be remembered in its original form? If it were published as a book, it would just go out of print. But there’d be a dusty copy somewhere, a future internet scholar could dig it up as a reference for a treatise on the evolution of social media. Can a closed archive, filed away in the cloud, be accessed by the next generation of historians and sleuths?

The semiotician in me, however, wants to deconstruct the discourse of this electronic medium and my attachment to my texts, starting with the word “I” which is repeated oft and means one thing to me, and an entirely different thing to a reader. “I” also means one thing now, in this current reality, and it signifies something else later, in the future, when what is now is the past.

Or does it? There are stories of an unforgiving Internet. A Google search can undermine a burgeoning career. Names like Krystal Ball and Mary Bono Mack come to mind. This New York Times article last summer got me thinking about how digital archives signal the end of forgetting:

In a recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” the cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger cites…the importance of “societal forgetting.” By “erasing external memories,” he says in the book, “our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior.” In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. By contrast, a society in which everything is recorded “will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them.” He concludes that “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

Well yes. We ought to be given room to be young and foolish, to make mistakes and to grow into our opinions. I can think of a dozen things I said or did in college and just after (and into my thirties for that matter) that I’d rather not have to answer to now. Not because they were so horrible, but because they demonstrate questionable judgment, or the inexperience of youth. And yet, those episodes of lesser judgment were critical learning opportunities that informed the (usually) wiser me that exists now.

How can we evolve into who we are in the process of becoming if the current vehicle that records data is so very precise that it leaves nothing to the frail and vague human memory that edits selectively and makes most of our stories more interesting?

~ ~ ~

I like my current blogging practice, and I feel no compulsion to follow suit and delete any archives. But I’m interested in the conversation that Gwen and her circle are carrying on about what’s emerging as a more authentic way of telling our stories on the web. It has to do with publishing, it has to do with connecting, it has to do with being present with (or despite) technology. They’re challenging assumptions and renaming what is new media for many but already old media to them. And the internet, which has woven its way inside us, should be challenged as we grow to rely on it more and more.

For now, the body of work that is represented in this blog – which started out as a comment on my lack of institutional memory, the losing of your mind that happens after birthing children – is an important narrative for me to keep, and to keep public. But I have a new awareness: someday I might want to put forward a different part of me, or my daughters might ask to take control of their childhood stories. Then it might seem like the right thing, to take the plunge with my own digital bottle of white out. Would I be erasing history, or taking the reigns of what is to be remembered? Or would that be letting go the reigns?


Feb 7 2011

Not Deleted

I could attribute the start of this blog to a bad idea: it wasn’t too smart to help De-facto rip up that old carpet, especially just after running a 10K race. When my back went out, the doctor ordered bed rest and I was horizontal with my laptop for three weeks. To relieve the nerve-wracking stress of the Obama vs. McCain race, I scoured the internet in search of political perspectives and predictions and in doing so I learned the protocol of the blogosphere. I forged further, beyond political content, and encountered a whole variety of blogs: some charming, some ridiculous, some hilarious, some rife with typos, some even murderous (death-by-adverbs). Others poignant and personal, wordsmithed with beauty and vulnerability that moved me to tears, making made me wonder, could this be a place to play, in the genre of the literary blog?

There was much to learn about hosted and self-hosted sites, themes and widgets, plug-ins and API and php and CSS style sheets. I remember staying up until three in the morning while De-facto and the girls snored in their beds. I’d be typing away or adjusting the sidebar or figuring out how to configure the RSS feed. I experienced the pleasure that comes with feeling your brain grow – learning to do something new, something modern, even. The first post was daunting. Few people read it, and surely nobody discovered it on their own. But now I was out there. I was self-publishing.

My mother visited us in Paris just a few weeks later. She sat at the dining room table and read through the five or six posts I had already published. It’s not easy to watch someone read your work, but she smiled and laughed at all the right places. (You can count on your mother for that.) I had just added the subscription option, so she was one of the first to sign up. Each time I’d post, she’d get the notice and click through, right away. She did so religiously, and though she never contributed to the comments section, she never failed to write me a message after reading a post.

During that same visit, my mother was out of breath, a lot. When I put her in the taxi to the airport, I made her promise to call a doctor as soon as she got home. She did, and that’s how she discovered that she had leukemia.

She lived much longer than the doctors predicted, and with a heightened awareness of each day. This made her appreciate every little thing, including each installment of my blog. I realized, from the messages she sent after every post, that she was coming to know me in a different way. She had never been one to ask questions that would provoke too emotional a response and she was sometimes inclined to change the subject if what I volunteered was too deep. But the blog changed that, or maybe her perspective shifted when she knew she was dying – whatever – it all came together to create a bond between us that lived in the lines of every post, a long story about Short-pants and Buddy-roo and my life in Paris, told bit by bit. It was not what I had intended, but the blog had become a vehicle for a final narrative from me to her. And she read it. She read every word.

Months went by and I did not mention her illness. It felt too private, and it was hers, not mine. But I knew it would help me to write about it, so I sent a draft of a post to my mother to ask her permission, which she gave readily. Later, during those icy winter days of her hospice, I wrote about her dying and about her death. I wrote about my grief. I wrote about cleaning out the rooms of the house she inhabited for over 50 years, and gradually emptying the memories of my childhood. I wrote about it all, right here, on this blog.

Last summer, a thoughtful friend posed the question: Did I have someone in particular in mind when I sat down to write a post, or was I thinking about a group of readers? He blogs about rebuilding a vespa, and when he’s writing a post, he said, he has his dad in mind. I told him about how I’d come to realize that I was writing to my mother, but that now that she was gone, I really didn’t know to whom I was writing anymore.

“What makes you think you couldn’t you still be writing it to her?” he said.

~ ~ ~

After she died, I directed all the email from her server into my computer so I could unsubscribe her from the e-newsletters and mailing lists, and catch any stray correspondence that needed closure. For months I monitored her mail, fascinated by what came in to her inbox, an eclectic mix of investment briefs, political news, digests from the various on-line groups she’d joined. Sometime last fall we cancelled her email service, but I couldn’t bring myself to delete her account. It’s grayed-out and receives no messages. But I’ve left it there.

Her email address remains on my subscriber list, too. Each time I publish, a notification is unsuccessfully sent to her no-longer-in-service account, disappearing somewhere in the ether. Whenever I’m doing housekeeping tasks in the dashboard of my blog, I tell myself I need to remove her from that list. But I’ve not yet found a way to put a check in the box before her name and press delete.

Losing friends and family has stages of heartache. Who knew that deleting an email address and a phone number and those last electronic points of contact would be so hard to do? I know there are legacy services that save all your on-line profile data and passwords, so those surviving you can easily shut down your active participation in the world wide web. But that doesn’t help friends and family who still have that data stored in address books and friend-lists. Maybe there needs to be an electronic cemetery, where we can drag and drop those details with some ceremony. Then we could send flowers and e-cards. Think of it: a whole new industry of condolence e-commerce.

~ ~ ~

It was a year ago today that my mother died.

I thought about her a lot last weekend, marking the entire series of “lasts” that preceded her final breath. Those slow, quiet, waiting days are forever fixed in my memory. It so happens that my sister was in Paris, so we raised a glass together. My brother and I spoke on the phone. He said it seems like it all happened just yesterday, and at the same time, wasn’t it forever ago? Friends of my mother sent gentle emails; I’m stunned that they remember the date as precisely as we do. I wonder, have they deleted her email from their address books yet?

This blog, it turns out, has been a little bit of medicine. It set me to writing, on a regular basis. It refreshed the parched pages of my journal. It buoyed my dampened, unpublished spirits. In a way I never expected, it drew my mother closer to me during the last months of her life, and it keeps her near now, because I can still write to her, and I do. She’s gone, but not deleted.


Jan 7 2011

Porch Stories

That back porch could tell you some stories. It’s a porch that was good for licking melting ice-cream cones and sipping gin & tonics from tall glasses. It’s a porch where, as a young girl, I spent hours reading every book I could get my hands on, escaping into the thick forests of Narnia or sitting in a crowded courtroom with Scout Finch. It’s the place where I sulked and stewed, indignant that my parents would not let me go to town with my friends, forcing upon me an unjust incarceration in my own home. It’s a porch where sheets have been hung out to dry, in any and every season. I’ve swept its long, thin boards and shoveled snow from them more times than I can count. This porch I have shared with my family all of my life, an extension off the back of our home like a giant cradle where good things could and did happen, its balustrade like teeth in the smile of a happy childhood.

I remember a Saturday, last May, sitting alone on this back porch, steeped in an after-everything feeling. My mother was gone. She’d been buried for months, but now that her memorial service was behind us, it felt real in a way it hadn’t before. The house had been ordered and cleaned, the refrigerator emptied of everything but ketchup, pickles and a few jars of jam. The doors were locked, the alarm was set, and my ride had just called to say he was approximately thirty miles away, in a town with a name he mispronounced marvelously. I did not mind that traffic had delayed him; this gave me a little pocket of contemplative time.

I pulled out my journal and seated myself in one of the wicker rocking chairs on the porch, facing out over the grove of trees along the border of the property. It used to be you could see the lake beyond the thick of trees. Now the hedge is taller, fuller – as is every living thing that’s grown behind it – and the view, though still lovely, no longer includes the lake.

Just as I put the pen to paper, I had a flash, a sense of something different, something distinct from the sadness and grief that I’d known for the last many months. For a brief set of seconds, not even ten, I felt free. The feeling wrapped itself around me, singing a light song to lure me in and then, as quickly as it came, it slipped away.

It made me a little bit giddy, jumpy, kind of electric. Giddy like I felt that first day on campus, wandering around the cobblestone streets near my university. The sun was setting but I was rising, my whole life ahead, and this great collegiate opportunity about to launch me into it.

Or standing on the Metro North platform, after leaving the keys to my apartment on a table inside before closing the door behind me. I’d sold my car to a woman, a stranger, who then drove me to the station to go to New York for a quick overnight before flying to Europe – to live. I had with me only three suitcases and a red wide-brimmed hat. I giggled out loud as the train rushed into the station, the wind from its passage fierce against me as I held the hat firm on my head.

Or giddy like the first night in my first Parisian apartment, listening to Miles Davis with a bottle of Burgundy, or the Indian summer weekend I moved into my second Paris apartment, unpacking boxes and listening to a mixed tape given to me by a younger De-facto, wondering if the next time I moved house it might be with him beside me.

The thread in all these giddy moments: I had just let go, but I had not yet grabbed on to what would be next. That next was still unknown or unclear, and yet – and there was trust involved – ripe with promise. The prevailing thought: What can happen now? Anything.

~ ~ ~

When I was in college I slipped away one long weekend to take part in a seminar that was an offshoot of the Werner Erhardt personal growth movement. The reasons I was compelled to go are better left for another post, or it suffices to say that I’d taken my sophomore slump a little too seriously. The workshop did me a lot of good. A few of my friends remained involved in the program, but I was done after attending two levels. I couldn’t afford it on a student’s stipend and the pressure to proselytize, though not overbearing, was implicit enough to put up red flags warning me to keep my distance.

I remember going home to tell my father about the workshop. I wanted to express to him how it had changed me, how I felt so much more alive and in touch with myself. He interrupted me, reminding me of the occasion when I had eaten, in its entirety, my first Big Mac.

It was on the way to summer camp Yaiewano, circa 1972. The challenge must have been issued when I had pronounced it impossible. Not that my father was so interested in my consumption of a special-sauced hamburger, but I imagine he was trying to teach me something about setting and preparing for a goal, or turning an idea once considered implausible into something entirely feasible.

“Your Big Mac story,” he said to me, in that voice of his that could be comforting and frightening at the same time, “is one of many stories that you will have in your life, as is the story of this seminar. I hope you make the most of every single one.”

He was expert at having the last word.

But he was right. It’s easy to tell yourself a story and then begin to believe it’s your only one. Sometimes when it feels like Short-pants’ hospital story comes up too frequently I tell her just what my father told me. It is an important story, one that changed her life irrevocably, but it’s not her only story. I want her to know that. I want her to own that.

~ ~ ~

A thoughtful reader sent me an email, this week, with an excerpt from The Love Queen of Malabar, a memoir about the friendship between its author, Canadian Merrily Weisbord and the Indian poet Kamala Das. The timing – that this fell in front of me while I was musing on the subject of stories and freedom – was uncanny. This passage especially:

A writer moves away from family, old relationships, very far with the speed of a falling star,” she says. “Otherwise the writer is destroyed, and only the member of the family remains: the mother, sister, daughter, wife. The writer at some point must ask, do I want to be a well-loved member of the family? Or do I want to be a good writer? You can’t be both at the same time.”

I often wonder about this. Except it was the shock and awe of having children that (finally) propelled me to get serious about writing. My earlier story ideas languished, but the manuscript about the paradox of motherhood is the one that is (nearly) done. The number of posts I’ve written about my mother is growing out of control, but her departure from this earth provoked a stream of words from me like nothing before in my life. These roles of mother and daughter have not inhibited my word count.

But have I told the truth, the real truth, my truth? Not entirely, and I probably won’t, as long as my partner and children and siblings are alive and can read what I’ve written. That’s not out of fear, it’s out of respect.

Still, there is a shift now that my mother has joined my father in the land of gone. Sad as I am, I am also free. I was never deliberately constrained by her, but as long as she was alive, her influence was present. It wasn’t a conscious, I couldn’t write that, what would she think? kind of influence – if anything, I carved out a good portion of my identity by doing exactly what my parents thought I should not do. But therein lies the kernel. Some part of me has always been his child, her daughter. Now that they are gone, I am free to do as I please without worrying them, free to be who I am, without pleasing or displeasing them, free to write the story that is mine, unencumbered. Not that there is something so terrible to tell, or that I couldn’t have written already for them to see. But now, free of their reaction or judgment – negative or positive – the core stories within me are mine to tell.

This is what comes to me, then, after reading every post I’ve written during the Reverb10 challenge to reflect on the last year of my life. It’s as if I am once again alone on that back porch, staring out at the trees, wondering how it is they grew so tall. Let go. Grab on. What can happen now? Anything.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Molly O’Neill: Prompt: Core story. What central story is at the core of you, and how do you share it with the world? (Consider your reflections from this month. Look through them to discover a thread you may not have noticed until today.)


Dec 15 2010

Her Hands

Her hands were pale icicles, her skin became nearly translucent. The age spots, blemishes except they were handsome in some odd way, marks of a good life, well lived. Her hands, arched across the top of the comforter cover, the white one with the little flowers, a bedspread usually found on one of the twin beds upstairs, brought down to cover her in the hospital bed set up in the middle of our study. Our study, the family room, where we lived, where we spent all our time, when everyone was home, when her hands ran the household for the family. Those hands that changed my diaper, tended my wounds, drove me to piano lessons, rolled out the dough for Christmas cut-outs, braided my hair, signed my report cards. Those hands that did the dishes every evening, that carried the sheets out to the line, that ironed my father’s handkerchiefs until we were old enough to have the task thrust upon us. Through just about every stage of my life, she held my hand with those hands. They were soft and fine. She did little to care for them but they were always manicured. They were a pair of hands so familiar to me, I could recognize them effortlessly in a crowd of strangers. But they changed, they became different during those last days. It’s not how I want to remember them, and yet I will. As they became lifeless, they changed shape and color. It was as though her soul withdrew from her hands first and then gently slipped out of her body and danced away.

That’s all I could do in five minutes. But it’s enough.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Patti Digh: Prompt: 5 minutes. Imagine you will completely lose your memory of 2010 in five minutes. Set an alarm for five minutes and capture the things you most want to remember about 2010.