Dec 14 2010

On Gratitude

Good literature, I’ve told my daughters more than once, always has tension. It’s what makes a story interesting. This came up again last night when Short-pants and I were talking about her latest assignment: to write a short story in the style of Rudyard Kipling (great assignment, yes?). First we discussed Kipling’s trademarks, which are, in her words, animals and nature. Then we talked about what makes a good story. “There has to be tension, something to resolve,” she said, making me proud.

I spend a considerable amount of time in this electronic journal highlighting my own tension, kvetching about what’s difficult: my life is a train wreck since the children came along, the administration required in this country is cumbersome, there’s too much homework, he can’t load the dishwasher correctly, the cup-choices at Starbucks are illogical. But imagine if I only wrote about how sweet my children are, how much I love their dad, how France is just one delicious cheese after another – I suspect after a while it wouldn’t be a very good read.

I’ve noticed that I tend to focus – more now than I used to – on what’s wrong with life rather than what’s right. This might be a product of living in France, where intellectual analysis trumps everyone-getting-along, and where disgruntlement is well manifested in the ubiquitous French shrug. It might also be because the time I spend writing has increased dramatically over the last few years, and when you write only nice things it feels a bit superficial, so I feel compelled to dig into the underbelly of my life. Or it might just be part and parcel of being middle-aged and confronting the abyss between my ideal life and my real one. Or all of the above.

The other day, before even reading this #reverb10 prompt, I wondered if sometimes I think too much about what I don’t have and not enough about what I do have. Because I have a hundred reasons to feel gratitude.

But if I had to narrow it down, to the one thing I’ve come to appreciate most in the last year?

I’m grimacing. It’s very saccharine, but I have to say it. Brace yourselves.

It’s De-facto.

I’m grateful that he came to France to be with me, so we could live our mildly exotic life and raise our children bilingually. I’m grateful for the two kids he made with me; the coolest parts of them, I’m pretty sure, were transmitted from his chromosomes. I’m grateful that he gives me as much room as I need, really, to do all the things I want to do. Take off to Mexico to go whale watching? Yes, do it. Go to Pamplona every July? Yeah, sure. He doesn’t say no. He says okay, how?

I appreciate how he watches my moods from a distance and comments carefully. I’m grateful for his modesty and humility, his childlike willingness to play in the world. I’m grateful for his strong reassuring arms around me, especially this last year – which was occasionally brutal – when that’s just what I needed.

And all those other little things about him that aren’t exactly who I want him to be, or what I want him to do or how I want him to do it – well, they just add a little tension, don’t they? That’s why ours is such a good story.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Victoria Klein: Prompt: Appreciate. What’s the one thing you have come to appreciate most in the past year? How do you express gratitude for it?

Dec 13 2010

An Energetic Action

The homework routine is much easier for Buddy-roo these days. The tears and drama have abated. It’s still hard to get her started, but the resistance to starting is diminished. The reward for completing homework is clearly established and we’re strict about it, so the anguish we experienced during those first weeks of school has vanished, more or less.

She’s still pokey. There are a dozen preparatory rituals that must be enacted, pencils and erasers laid out just so. When she finally begins, we must be vigilant against distractions, hard because Short-pants forgets and asks her sister a question, or starts talking to me about something that peaks Buddy-roo’s curiosity and then her concentration (if you can call it that) is broken. Or Buddy-roo looks over at the Christmas tree and must go over to move her favorite angel ornament two inches to the left. She returns to her work and writes one sentence. Up again to retrieve that angel to bring it back to the table where the homework is happening. “The angel wants to help me.” Right.

I sit beside her and use my calm but firm voice. (Any calmer she ignores me, any firmer she cries.) “Do you think you can finish a line without stopping? Let’s try it. Now.”

I flip through her agenda to review the rest of her assignments. Two vocabulary lists to review for an évaluation the next day, plus studying a science unit about vertebrates, also for a test. What? (Brass horns swell in dissonant chord.) This is a lot, for Buddy-roo, to do in one night. She has a particularly tough time with vocabulary. It’s always baffling to me because whenever we start to prepare for one of these quizzes, it’s as if she’s never encountered the words before. They must go over them in class, in the context of the story or subject they’re covering, right? But it’s like her brain has no glue for these words. She has no recall of their meaning. At all.

So we have to make it a game. While she takes fifteen minutes to copy four sentences for another assignment – with calisthenics in between every three words – I cut colored Post-it notes into slices and write the vocabulary words on one color and the definitions on another. (This isn’t hurting my vocabulary acquisition either.) In the past we’ve drawn pictures and matched them to the words. One weekend De-facto made a store with all the items on the vocab list (using reasonable representations found around our home) and bought or sold items from her until she knew them all by heart. If you make her read the words in a book and tell you what they mean, she goes blank. Lay them out like a match-up game and she dives in.

We played the game again and again, and again, matching definitions to words, words to definitions. Some of the words just wouldn’t stick; we made up silly ways to remember them. Robust is busty and strong, solid, like Mr. Incredible. The word lutter, (which I thought meant to fight, but it’s defined in her school book as an energetic action) kept stumping her until we decided the two Ts together standing tall looked like Short-pants and Buddy-roo marching energetically in a parade. We three marched around the kitchen island three times laughing and shouting out “lutter!”

This morning she remembered it. Because we made it fun.

It makes me think about the things I intend to do in the next year. Finish that manuscript. Realize a new project with my colleagues. Polish-up my Spanish. Pick up my viola and play it again. Keep strengthening my core with pilates. I want to keep the priority list short, so it doesn’t feel like it does for Buddy-roo when she has twenty vocab words to memorize and only two hours before bedtime. And I need to make it fun. If it feels like slog, I won’t want to do it.

I want to minimize the slog in my life. I realize you can’t eliminate all of it, there’s some administration that has to be managed. But whenever possible, taking action – especially on the ideas I’ve been dreaming of – ought to be fun. What’s the maximum pleasure I can extract from doing things, rather than just striving for their completion?

My next step? Make it happen, but make it fun. It doesn’t have to be a battle. Just an energetic action.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Scott Belsky: Action. When it comes to aspirations, it’s not about ideas. It’s about making ideas happen. What’s your next step?

Dec 10 2010

Wise Decision

Employing the word decision could give one the impression that I actually did something to deliberately drive my life forward – or even to the side – during the last year. I didn’t decide much; 2010 was a year when things happened to me. I got pulled into the rushing rapids, and there were no overhanging branches to grab. I didn’t decide to say goodbye to my mother. She chose to stop treatment and enter hospice. I didn’t have to make any decisions; the rest of my life – my family and my work – just happened to accommodate my schedule so I could be with her until the end.

That was in February. What followed, all year, was a whirlwind of one thing after another: travel, work, responsibilities, challenges, burdens, changes, opportunities. Life just kept barreling on.

Never before have I been so behind. Never before have I had so many loose ends waving at me, so many unsorted piles and unattended tasks. The priority duties (for the most part) are (apparently) not overlooked, but otherwise my chin is barely above water. All those photos I mean to scan, those folders I want to clear out, the letters I want to write. That teetering stack of books is ridiculous; I really do want to read them all, but when? The New Yorker magazine arrives every week, I can’t keep up with it. Sometimes the issues stay in their plastic cover, piling up on the table where we put the mail. There’s that workshop I mean to take, the language I want to learn, the instrument I want to play again. The girls’ room is spilling over with out out-of-favor toys and books outgrown and clothes in their drawers that are now too short for them. I mean to spend an afternoon sorting and reordering and making bags of things to take to the French equivalent of the Goodwill. Next weekend.

Life hurls at me its great adventures and its mundane missions and there is all of it I want to do, to taste, to try to manage, to accomplish. I’m greedy about life; I say yes far too often. I overestimate what I can do and underestimate how long it will take. Then I curse all that eagerness when I find myself running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

This could all make me crazy, and in the past, it has.

Sometime in the last few months – I can’t say when exactly, but recently – I decided not to sweat it anymore. I decided to stop worrying about what I haven’t done and what I haven’t (yet) gotten to and to stop beating myself up for it. Remorse is romantic but not terribly productive. In the end, I’ll get to what I get to.

Even before my mother was sick, she used to worry out loud about the backroom. This was the room where she stowed, over the years, her memories, her childhood scrapbooks, college folders, love letters, trip memorabilia and the general accumulation of stuff that one acquires after fifty years in the same house. She didn’t want to burden us with the disposal of those effects. I didn’t want her to worry about this. “Leave it,” I told her, “Go do what’s interesting to you. Travel. Be with your friends. We’ll clean it out later, after you’re gone.” And we did.

If I didn’t want her to make herself crazy about getting everything in perfect order, why would I do that to myself?

This life is the full-bodied one I’ve chosen, wisely or not. Sometimes it rolls in too fast, too large, too much at once. But that’s what it is and I’ll take it. I’ll take as much of life as I can and if I don’t get to everything, if I don’t get it all done, if it doesn’t all fit in the perfect order of my imagined self, well then at least it keeps things interesting.

As for how this will play out? We’ll see.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Susannah Conway: Wisdom. What was the wisest decision you made this year, and how did it play out?

Dec 7 2010

Our Gang

The ceremony was short and sweet. French civil weddings have little to do with romance and everything to do with the legal, functionary details, though the Mairie IIIeme de Paris has a certain flair and managed to make this usually-dry ceremony at least a little theatrical. Outside we congregated in front of the ornate doors waiting for the bride and groom. They presented themselves in wedding-cake-ornament style, emerging to applause and showers of rose petals. “Suivez-nous!” They called us to follow them down the street. We fell in step behind them, small clusters of friends and family strolling down rue des Archives, not quite in a line, not quite together – more like a casual, clumpy parade.

They led us to the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, a grand hotel particulier. It is a museum (of hunting and nature) but it is also rentable, with the right connections, for special occasions. We were directed through its magnificent rooms, replete with stuffed, mounted heads of hunted game and several wild animals revived by taxidermy – even a tiger and a giant polar bear donning elements of the bride’s veil for decorative effect – and ushered out the back doors into the garden where the black-and-white clad waiters held out trays filled with tall flutes of champagne.

It was all perfect. Perfect because the bride was stunning and the groom had style. Perfect because of the setting, the elegant backdrop of a manoir and its manicured, labyrinthed garden, the cloudless summer evening sky and the approaching sunset. Perfect because of the eclectic mix of French and English conversations. Perfect because I looked around at the friends of the bride and groom who’d assembled to celebrate, and I thought to myself, what a lovely collection of people. How lucky we are to know them.

When you live as an expatriate in a transient city like Paris, you make friends in cycles. There’s the first set, made up of anybody who’ll have you, basically, because you’re new in town. This evolves into a more deliberate circle of friends with bonds that form because of common interests. Just when those friendships seem to be cemented, someone moves away. Another friend, who was perhaps on the periphery before, steps into the place made empty by the departure and brings along other friends and the circle grows. Then people move away and it shrinks again. That couple that became your best friends, they get transferred to Cambodia or they move to Boston or return to New Zealand or god forbid they break up and the circle of friends has to adjust to accommodate the change.

This happens everywhere, to some degree. But in a foreign capital that attracts voyagers and wanderlusters, the landscape of friends shifts more often than usual. It’s like living on a fault line, with tectonic plates of friends and acquaintances in constant motion.

We do have some very affable French friends whom have warmly welcomed us to their land and their habits of wine and cheese and all-of-August-off. We are part of a cool and creative association of fine colleagues who are also good friends. But the community we most easily identify with is expatriate. We are not French, we are other, or at least in-between.

When I first used to take the girls to school, I was just a drop-off-and-go-mom: I’d cheerfully greet any familiar parents encountered but otherwise I’d hop on that velib’ and get back home. Those uninterrupted hours while they are at school seemed too scarce a commodity not to be maximized to their fullest. But De-facto, he’d hang around, waiting to watch the girls as their teachers escort them from the courtyard to the school building, waving at them as they pass two-by-two like animals marching to an ark. In the meantime, he met more parents. He chatted and went for a café. He became a regular in several overlapping coffee klatches. He made friends.

And then it happened. A group email included our addresses and we were invited to join a dinner and dancing get-together at a club. A few weeks later we got an invite to a birthday party. Next we were invited to the wedding. We’d been absorbed.

I love this community of bilingual parents. It’s not a clique of expats who cloister themselves and lament about how things are better at home. This tribe is made of couples where he’s French and she’s English, or she’s French and he’s American, or they’re both Brits but weaving their lives into the fabric of Parisian life. What binds us is just what differentiates us in our home countries: having chosen consciously to live outside the borders of our own culture and to (sometimes) struggle through this one. We worry about our kids and how they’ll survive the French school, we compare notes and help each other and laugh at ourselves as we cope. We’re also just the right amount of wild and ready for a good time. For instance, last Saturday night this very gang congregated at a small club not too far from the Bastille. Some of us were twice as old as the younger patrons but we were the ones who moved the furniture so we could dance, and we were the ones who kept shouting for more volume on the music.

To be invited to the wedding of our new friends (and incidentally, both bride and groom are French) felt like a great privilege. I looked around and thought, damn, these are fantastic people. They are like me, but they are different, and in the most interesting ways. They hold the codes of their own cultures and ways of speaking English (sometimes unintelligible though it’s the same mother tongue), but they have chosen to live this adventure in France despite the fact that it is not always easy and it puts them far away from family and childhood friends.

The cocktail hour lasted for hours. We were hungry but we started not to care. People moved around and mingled; the clusters of friends and family formed and reformed into new conversations. The waiters kept pouring champagne. The laughter of the guests grew louder, wilder. The sun lowered its head on the horizon and the indigo sky uncovered the first summer evening stars. Dinner and dancing still to come, the night was young and we were among friends.

Dec 6 2010

Making It

I once hosted an All Soul’s cocktail party. I remember because it was kind of an eccentric occasion, on a weeknight and in honor of a rarely celebrated holiday, at least rarely celebrated with cocktails. I made the invitations by hand. I can still – twenty years later – picture the paper stock I selected, a heavy construction grade in burgundy and rusty orange, and a patterned paper with both these colors and black in a marbled design. Thick felt-tip calligraphy pens, in black, brown and rust, a few lines of clever text, burgundy envelopes and stamps with an autumnal spirit.

I invited all my friends and colleagues from work, thinking of each person individually as I hand-made every invitation. When the exercise was over – two hours and two glue sticks later – I stared at the pile of crafty envelopes and felt supremely satisfied. The work I did then (and do now) keeps me in brain. It was a nourishing pleasure to have been working with my hands.

One year, back when the Paris metro tickets were green, I saved all my used ones and cut them into the shape of a fir tree and pasted them on to home-made Christmas cards. It took me the entire evening, at least twice though Ella Fitzgerald’s Swinging Christmas album and nearly a bottle of wine. I remember feeling it was an evening extremely well spent. I’m tactile, I love to cut and paste.

But during this last year? I made a goal book, the result of an inspiring goal-setting exercise into which I inserted my favorite activities of cutting and pasting and making collages. But that’s about the only cut and paste I managed to get to.

What did I make? Aside from the meals, and the beds?

I made a tribute to my mother that honored her well. I made new bonds with my siblings. I made new friends. I made trips. I made mistakes. I made progress. I made a lot of memories. I made a living. I made love. I made my way. I made it up as I went along.

But next year, I’ll make more things with my hands. It makes me happy.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Gretchen Rubin: Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some timer for it?

Dec 3 2010

Alive as I’ve ever been

Does it sound harsh to say that the moment when I felt most alive – this last year – was when my mother was about to die?

Maybe it was the contrast, life and death standing side-by-side. I’m sure that framed it. But that is not why.

During the weeks leading up to her death, I was home alone with her and very focused on the care she needed. Aside from a few moments to myself, to exercise, bathe or make a quick stop at the public library to go on-line, my days were focused on her. I helped her move around. I helped her get dressed. I made soup. I scratched her back. I answered her email. I wrote, as she dictated to me, two letters that she had wanted to write for weeks but hadn’t gotten to. I held her hand. I administered morphine, kept track of all her medications, noting the dosage, the time, the reaction. I told her stories about Short-pants and Buddy-roo.
I changed the channel. I rubbed her feet. I watched her sleep. I witnessed the end of her life. She did not have to do it alone. I accompanied her.

It’s remarkable, the singularity of purpose that comes at a time like this, when there is no question about what is priority and what is ancillary. There was no “should I do this or should I do that?” The day became a series of small moments of service. There were no distractions, no getting pulled off course because of a pretend client crisis or a drama at school. I was fully present.

When you are present like this, it is impossible not to feel alive.

I can think of other moments in my life, moments when I was present, not pulled into a future aspiration or tugged into nostalgia or remorse. The result, always: aliveness, palatable joy, delight and gratitude for my place on earth. This moment I write of, last year, rivaled those moments in its intensity and emotional alertness. The primary emotion was not joy or glee, but grief. Grief and sorrow.

But if you can step out of the judgment that insists alive must mean happy, then you can see that alive really means feeling. Feeling fully any and every emotion that washes over you and accepting it. Relinquishing control and living it and living through it, thoroughly. That is the alive moment.

Something I find curious this moment (it is not that exact moment she left us, by the way, but a moment at her bedside a few days before) is that my mother was severely hearing impaired, and the details I hold on to are almost all auditory. Silence except for a few distinct sounds: the ticking of the clock on the shelf; the furnace kicking in and vibrating the entire house, even the glassware in the cupboard; the snow-plow scraping the road as it passed in front of our house; the wind-chimes on the back porch, hanging amongst her sheets. The sound of her uneasy breathing. The sound of mine after a deep breath, taken when I realized my breathing had grown shallow. “Breathe,” I said out loud, to myself, not to her.

I knew my mother was readying herself to be no longer among the alive. I held her hand and in my heart, I could feel it hurt. It hurt so much, it hurt like my heart was being carved out of my chest with a sharp knife. I was present, all right, with the feeling, with the hurt. In pain, yes, but as alive as I’ve ever been.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Ali Edwards: Moment. Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail.

Dec 2 2010

Stop and Start

What’s stopping me?

The cursor swings across the dock of icons perched at the bottom of my screen. Each one swells and rises and the tiny arrow passes, as if standing up to wave, “Choose me!” A small red circle whispers that there are 17 unread messages in my in-box. The Twitter app growls at me, someone I follow has just posted a tweet. I eye the Skype icon at the top of my computer screen, it is illuminated, green for go ahead, chat me, call me. Facebook is open on one of the tabs of my browser, She Writes in the other. These friendly distractions smiling at me, reaching out as if to offer me a piece of candy.

Last night’s pledge to get writing as soon as the kids left for school is not forgotten. I hear the door click shut, and their voices fade as they make their way down the stairs and out of the building, out of my way for the day. I heave the obligatory sigh of relief, warm up my coffee with scalded milk that’s been whisked until frothy. I sit with my laptop and I realize that this is my moment, this is bliss. I am alone. Hot café-au-lait beside me. The internet humming. My RSS feed. Favorite blogs. A scan of the tweets from overnight. Emails. Part of me needs that 1/2-hour to wake up, to wet my toes in the day and give myself the gift of messing about and luxuriously eating up time with the simple pleasures of the internet.

I owe much of my writing to these elements of the internet. Because I started blogging two years ago, I have become a more regular writer, which is bound to make you a better one, or at least a more confident. The simple act of posting once or twice a week means I’ve published twice as many words in two years as in the previous decade. And I love the medium. It makes me want to write. Blogging has made my writing a priority. Twitter, too, though sometimes a deterrent, a handy mechanism to avoid the stare-down with a blank page, must be acknowledged because through these micro-texts I have met other writers, solid resources and cunning friends who inspire me to write.

I could blame my computer and its high speed connection to the ether and all the bells and whistles that keep me plugged in to a digital universe — except that universe has been my inspiration, my vehicle, my great encourager. I cannot place the blame there.

What I do each day that doesn’t contribute to my writing is doubt. I doubt that I’m ready to start. I doubt that I have something to say. I doubt that it will turn out as lyrical or poignant or sarcastic as it sounds now, in my head, the seed of something yet to be written, a concept emerging, fecund with its own potential. That’s what’s stopping me.

I know how to do it, how to eliminate it. It happens when I quit the mail app, turn off Tweetdeck, set Skype into offline mode. Once I do that, the words come, slow but then with momentum until I am tapping the keyboard like it’s a piano and I’m playing the Debussy I know by heart.

The doubt is never permanent, but it likes to linger. I know exactly how to eliminate it. All I have to do, is start.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Leo Babauta: Writing. What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing – and how can you eliminate it?

Dec 1 2010

Reverb Reflection

I’ve found a rhythm for posting on this blog; it’s about once a week, sometimes twice. That’s about as much as I can write, with the rest of the things in my life calling for attention. But I also think it’s about as much as you can read, given all the things in your life calling for attention. I once subscribed to the blog of a beautiful writer, her well-crafted pieces often made me cry. But the email messages came every single day, and I soon grew too tired of being that intimately aware of every moment her life, and I unsubscribed. (The saddest part of it is that now I forget to visit her blog, so I don’t read her as often as I’d like.)

That experience instructed me: too much can be, well, too much.

I’ve decided to engage in a reflective, end-of-year activity called Reverb10. It’s organized by a thoughtful and enthusiastic team of bloggers, headed by Gwen Bell, a yoga practicing social media maven whom I’ve grown to admire for her zen/wired balance. Each day there’s a prompt that you’re invited to respond to by journaling, blogging, tweeting, posting in Facebook, however you want, publicly or privately.

As a result, I might be blogging a bit more than usual during December.

I don’t expect to answer every prompt here: it might be too private, it might be too short, I might be too busy, I might do it elsewhere, on She Writes, on Twitter or on another blog. For those of you who subscribe by email, I’m going to turn off the alerts on many of these posts so I don’t clutter your in-box. You’ll still get alerted if I write a post that’s typical for my blog, or if one of these Reverb responses feels like it ought to be shared with you. For RSS friends, well, you’ll know if you want to click through or not.

Of course if you’re curious, I invite you to check in anytime to see how I’m doing. By all means go to #reverb10 yourself. It’s not too late to join in!

Jun 4 2010

And the Winner is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would you do?

Feb 26 2010

Other Stages

We climbed the four flights of stairs to the olive green door of our apartment. Short-pants was ahead of me. She stopped at the landing, just before the door, and turned toward me. “Grammy’s happy now,” she said, “It’s just the rest of us who are sad, the ones left behind.” The edge of her mouth spread into a wide-open smile, her oversized chalky teeth in full view. She beamed awkward and proud at once, fully aware that she could console me with her wisdom. Where does she come up with these things? As if she could read my mind, she went on, “I read that in my Molly McIntire book, but it makes sense.”

Funny what our mourning minds construct to soften the blow of our loss. She’s happy now, we say. Is she? Happy lying in a polished box under the frozen soil? My mother, a card-carrying member of Republicans for Choice, now buried a mere stone’s throw away from a newly placed memorial that I’d never seen before, a marker engraved with prayers for the lives of unborn children “in hopes that our nation will stop the abortion that kills them.” Is she happy about that?

She’s with Daddy now. Is she? Although my last post was engineered around this idea, I have no evidence to prove it. He’s been dead for 23 years. Did he wait for her in some celestial green room with a monitor, watching the rest of her life before she came to join him? What if he reincarnated? What if right now he’s some pimply teenager fumbling his way to second base in his parents’ suburban basement?

I suppose this is would be the anger that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross referred to in her five stages of grief. Anger being the stage that follows denial, which is what I guess I was doing for the last year because my mother didn’t look or act like somebody with a terminal illness. My anger rises from the dust and residue of all the clichéd things we say about a good death, and how she didn’t suffer and how her family was with her, and she died on her own terms.

They weren’t my terms.

I wanted to be able to ask her advice about how to manage my girls when they are rotten and unruly teenagers. She had some experience in this domain, having survived my adolescence. I wanted my mother to watch my daughters grow into young women, to see them graduate from college. I wanted her to be around. I wasn’t done yet.

I keep wondering what do I have to do to wake up and be in a different reality where she’s still with us. Is that bargaining? Check the box for the Kübler-Ross’s third stage, too.

Right away, Buddy-roo noticed the ring on my right-hand ring-finger, a narrow gold band with two rectangular blue amethysts set with two miniature diamonds. I told her how my mother bought the ring from a jeweler in the Russian market in Phnom Penh. My sister was living in Southeast Asia at the time – hard to believe it was 10 years ago – and organized for us a Christmas trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was a trip filled with indelible images: two sisters sunbathing on an island beach on Koh Samui; my mother, tired and proud after climbing the steep and treacherous stairs to the very top tower of the Temple of Angkor Wat; we three lined up in a row, each in our own single-seated cyclo, complete with toothless drivers and the backdrop of Hanoi’s chaotic traffic.

The jeweler – his name was Sarat, my sister’s most favored vendor in the market – was charmed by my mother, like everyone we introduced her to.
He spent nearly an hour showing her all the rings he’d designed, telling her about his gems and precious stones and where he found them in Cambodia. I remember how, after my mother went to bed, my sister and I would sit at the hotel bar and shake our heads. Everyone was always so enamored with mom. If they only knew what we knew, we’d mutter to each other, knowing that what we knew was a daughter’s privilege, and that despite all her motherly flaws, we, too, admired her fiercely.

Buddy-roo wanted to try on the ring. I twisted it off my finger and handed it over. She held the band, turning it back and forth to make the stones sparkle under the light. It was too large for her ring finger, even too big as she pulled it down over her thumb. “Can I have it someday?” she asked. “Sure,” I told her, “someday you can have it all.”

I’m haunted by that someday, that future moment when I will leave Short-pants and Buddy-roo to their grief, when they will rifle through my earliest love letters to
De-facto, making fun of my copiously worded and disclaimer-ridden proclamations of affection, or when they read the letters in that shoe-box that I should probably destroy now while I can, the syrupy ones I wrote to my parents when I was an introspective, awe-struck student seeing Europe for the first time. Or when they go to write my obituary and realize that I used to be somebody, somebody who was a competent professional before becoming their quirky, forgetful, imperfect mother.

As I begin to sort through the relics that belonged to my mother, I see her anew. I study her photographs a different way. A college friend of hers writes a note about some mischief they stirred up on campus; I am surprised to think of my mother involved in such antics. Now comes a new view, I suppose, to see her as someone beyond my mother, to frame her in larger context, as a woman coming of age and living a range of life experiences. A regular person – just like me.

It makes me look at the girls and think this: by the time you can possibly understand who I really am, it will probably be too late to know me. Then you, too, will know this hollow, cheated, bereaved anger.

This isn’t a pretty post. It’s agitated and discomforting. It doesn’t resolve and tie up in a pithy bow at the end. You were a bit too whiney in that one, someone will say, after reading it. Why, I wonder, when a woman speaks the truth about anger or frustration, this is called whining. Were I man, I’d be allowed to punch holes in the plaster wall. Which is what my words are meant to do right now, because I have been on an airplane all night and I am tired and honest and angry that my mother has been taken from us.

Everything else I’ve written about her death has been well-behaved. Why can’t the poignant be joined by the raw and unrefined? I want to write it as it is: real, rough, full-bodied grief, something that’s messy, mad and just a little bit selfish, something that will be diluted if there are too many drafts and edits, something that’s ugly and maybe hard to read. Something that screams at me to just press publish.