Nov 14 2016

Explaining the Loss

She was hunched over her computer, sitting cross-legged on the floor when I pushed open the heavy door to Short-pants‘ bedroom. Fully dressed, ready for school, her purse already draped over her shoulder as though she might need to jump up and sprint out the door at a moment’s notice, her head moved back and forth as she read from her screen.

“He’s winning,” she said, “how can he be ahead?”

De-facto sat on her bed, his hand on her shoulder. I crouched behind her and wrapped my arms around her so I could whisper the news I’d come to tell her.

“It looks like he’s going to win.”

The reality of that – the thing we all thought was impossible – hung in the air over us. It was 6:45 am, the CNN commentators – we’d been up all night with them – were scrutinizing the counties of Michigan and Wisconsin, and though the race had not yet been called in Mr. Trump’s favor, the data did not look good.broken_ideas

Short-pants bent over her screen, her shoulders heaving, letting out her signature moan, a forlorn wail of grief and disappointment.

“But, what about women’s rights? And minorities? The environment? The Supreme Court?”

I didn’t have an answer. I myself was numb with disbelief at how the red and blue graph lines had criss-crossed and grown in opposite directions, a possibility that Nate Silver never ruled out but that I hoped was an impossibility. Even over the weekend, when the polls had tightened, I just couldn’t believe that it could happen. Not in my America. We wouldn’t elect an impulsive, vulgar bully to the highest office in the land, would we?

Absent any authentic words to re-assure her, I simply rubbed her back and kissed the crown of her head.

She began to sob.

When I pushed myself up from the floor and pattered across the hall into Buddy-roo‘s room, it was still dark, just a hint of dawn’s early light squeezing through the shutters of her window. She lay motionless in bed; I crawled in to spoon behind her.

“What happened?” she mumbled, half asleep.

I didn’t answer right away, I wanted to take in the peace of the morning cuddle for an extra beat before spoiling her day.

“Hillary?” she said.

“I’m afraid Trump has pulled ahead, and will probably be the president.”

She’s a lazy riser, Buddy-roo. It takes several nudges, hugs, shoulder rubs and calls-up-the-stairway to be sure she gets out of bed every morning. This time, though, she jerked around and threw off her comforter.

“You’re joking, right?”

I shook my head to answer. She turned back and buried her head in her pillow.

~ ~ ~

The girls took an active interest in the election over the course of the summer. It was hard not to, the media circus that was our election spilled over into Europe. Plus we spent nearly a month in the United States in August, news about the Clinton-Trump red_white_stripedrace was inescapable. These last weeks I was fairly addicted to my various news feeds; by osmosis they had to pick it up on their radar.

De-facto and I lean left, and as long as we’ve known each other (20 years now) we’ve favored the same candidates. Still, we try our best to inform our daughters about politics without indoctrinating them. I know it’s impossible for any parent to hide their bias, and perhaps it is a parental right to pass on political values. But I’ve felt it was important to try to set an example: to speak respectfully, not to be vulgar, dismissive or to demonize the other party’s candidate. That was much harder to do this time around, I’m sure I couldn’t mask my truest fears about Mr. Trump’s character, which from where I sit, was hard to paint in any kind of neutral light. Still, days before the election when Buddy-roo stated emphatically that she hated Trump, I corrected her. She could dislike his ideas but hating him, personally, was not the answer. I suspect my attempt wasn’t very authentic, it was hard to hide my disgust given how he insulted women, minorities, veterans, and the disabled. His cavalier discourse brought out the worst in all of us – on both sides of the ballot.

~ ~ ~

I really want to be a good loser, to take the long view. I want to respect the democratic process. I’ve been reading about the pendulum swings of politics, how it’s going to be okay. (Or maybe it’s not all that okay.) I’ve even been willing to explore how Trump could be a good president after all. I’ve tried to take solace from conciliatory posts asking for respect between sides. Though it’s hard to imagine this when a scan of the nation’s Facebook feeds shows how polarized we are. I’m incensed by the images of racists emboldened by Trump’s election. And just as angry when anti-Trump protestors have turned violent, too.

The meme that tires me out the most is the one about being sore losers. It’s so much more than that. It’s fear. If Romney had beaten Obama four years ago, I’d have been discouraged and concerned, but I wouldn’t have been frightened. I was angry about many of the actions of the Bush administration, but I wasn’t afraid of him. I am scared of what will happen to the rule of law in our country with Mr. Trump as president. I can’t even fathom what this administration will be like to anyone who disagrees with him.

To be blunt, I’m lost. I’ve written before about how I like being other, living between cultures, understanding the codes but at the same time, escaping them. What I know, now, is that I no longer understand the codes of my home country. I don’t know how to explain to my daughters, who still identify as ask_yourselfAmerican despite never living there, when they ask what this means to their future. Even if they never set foot in the states again, they worry about the ripple effect, around the world, of a Trump presidency.

My daughters are worried and afraid. I am worried and afraid. And when they ask me how a man like that could be president of the United States, I have no answer.

How to explain that the party I identify with, a party that I truly believed was trying to do good things for our country and for the world, misunderstood or ignored the suffering and disgruntlement of the large portion of Americans who voted for Trump, or didn’t vote at all? How discouraging that so many people felt so abandoned and ignored that Trump was the candidate they chose. For their sake, I hope they haven’t been conned. Women, minorities, gays, lesbians, non-Christians – and our environment – are all going to pay the price for this decision. If rural, red America ends up getting shafted by Mr. Trump, too, if his promises to drain the swamp of elite lobbyists and cronies turns out to be campaign-speak and nothing more, we will have given up all our progress for absolutely nothing. But maybe that’s what it will take – being in the same boat of suffering and misery – to get America to work together again.


Jul 18 2016

The Joyride

I sliced peaches into a bowl of vanilla ice-cream while Buddy-roo scrolled through the options in my computer’s movie folder. It had been an ideal summer day at the country house: bike rides down the lane with Winston running joyously beside us, a little bit of yard work, trimming grapes and pulling ivy off the walls of the stone house, De-facto making progress on a construction project in the bergerie. A late afternoon trip to the lake with sailing and swimming, followed by an apéro on the back terrace, then burgers and chicken from the grill with a chilled pale rosé. As soon as the sun set – and it sets late at this time of the year – we’d planned to gather around my computer to watch a movie. Buddy-roo, our media-kid, had been begging for one all day, and was sustained through the outdoorsy activity only by the promise of a movie after sunset. It was between Guardians of the Galaxy and Malificent, in her mind. I was lobbying for The Way Way Back, when I heard De-facto shouting from outside. I ran out to see him doubled over, just down the road. He motioned to me, urgently.

“Winston’s dead.” His voice strained. “A car. He ran into the road. Wouldn’t come when I called.” His chest was heaving, his face anguished. I held his hands; they were shaking.
black_heart
“I heard the sound. When he was hit. It was awful.”

“But where is he?” I needed to see Winston, lifeless, to believe it.

That was the worst – or the weirdest – part. De-facto couldn’t find the dog. They’d been at the edge of a track road that runs into a main road behind our house, a road on which cars speed by. Winston can be cheeky, but he usually minds us when call him to head back home. This time he’d dashed into the road and stood there, his head was probably extended upwards sniffing at something in the air. De-facto heard the car coming and yelled to Winston to get out of the road. Though he didn’t see it happen – the tall field grass was in the way – De-facto heard clearly the sound of car meeting dog. He’d cried out,”Nooooo!” but we did didn’t hear him, crowded around our kitchen island contemplating movie titles, 300 meters away.

De-facto ran to the road, expecting to find the mangled body of our beloved dog. There was nothing there. No evidence of an accident. No broken plastic pieces from a car. No blood, no hair. No dog. He looked in the ditches, but no sign of Winston. That’s when he ran back to the house, when he called me to come outside.

By now the rest of the family joined us. Buddy-roo saw De-facto holding my hand, his head bowed, and noticed the absence of our dog and collapsed in the road. Short-pants and my mother-in-love hugged each other, shocked at the news.

“We’ve got to find him.” De-facto’s anguish commanded us to the task. He started barking orders, which we all accepted dutifully. He and Buddy-roo drove off in the direction that the car had been going, to see if they could find Winston or its driver. I ran down to the spot in the road where the accident occurred to search again for his body.

I couldn’t piece it together, everything went into a spin. He couldn’t be gone. I pictured Winston’s empty basket, the bed he sleeps and his food and water bowls; how we’d look at them dog_pulls_metomorrow, empty, and how we’d grieve. We haven’t had him in our lives even two years. It took half of that time for him to get to know us, to let go whatever fear he carried with him from his life prior to us bringing him home from the rescue center. For more than a year, he was even standoffish, a dog that only loved us loving him. It was until very recently that I had the feeling he had actually started to love us back.

We’d become a family with a dog. And now – way too soon – our dog was gone.

There was nothing on either shoulder of the road. I scoured the ditches for a red-haired body with its blue harness. Maybe the impact had thrown him away from the road into the thick of bushes and trees. I was about to head home and change out of my sundress and flip-flops into long pants and boots in order to search in the weeds and briars beyond the ditches, when I saw De-facto, in our car, driving toward me.

“He’s alive!” He stopped the car. “Get in!”

We rushed back to the village – at least a 1.5 km distance – where I saw Buddy-roo standing with a young couple, staring at the front of their car. De-facto pulled in beside them; I didn’t wait for the car to stop before jumping out. There was Winston. Neatly wedged into the front grill of the car, his paws hanging out comfortably, his head moving from side-to-side. He panted and blinked, like nothing was the matter. He did not bark. He did not whimper. He looked only slightly relieved to see us after his little joyride.

The couple in the car had already called the pompiers, and though De-facto wanted to take the bumper apart and free Winston immediately, we persuaded him to wait. There was no blood, and Winston did not appear to be in pain, but who knew what kind of internal injuries he might have suffered. They would have tools to extract him carefully from the grill of the car and avoid further injury.
Winston_joyride
It was probably only 15 or 20 minutes, but if felt like hours before the firemen arrived. They probably did exactly what De-facto wanted to do, dismantled the bumper and stretched open the grill where Winston had been squeezed in. Winston stepped out, like slipping out of a train berth, and even stood up on the sidewalk for several moments before collapsing. There was not one cut on him. No external marks or bruises. All bones appeared to be straight. No blood, anywhere.

I’m still not sure why the driver of the car didn’t pull over sooner, why he drove past several turn-offs and driveways and continued all the way to the village. Winston must have had the ride of his life, a full front bumper view of a French country road for nearly 2 km.

The pompiers helped us locate a veterinarian, who, even at 10:00 on a Saturday night, opened his office to attend to Winston. After a thorough physical examination and a series of X-rays, Winston appears to have suffered only 2 cracked ribs and some mild internal swelling. He’s on anti-inflammation medicine now. He’s moving a bit slower, as you’d expect, but he walks, and even trots a little. He still manages to be underfoot, sitting in exactly the spot you want to stand, in front of the very cupboard you need to access, or just at the base of the refrigerator at the moment you want to open it. Not only is he alive, he’s his old self.

If things come in threes, then I’ve used up two of the three miracles I’m allotted in this life. A dozen years ago we almost lost Short-pants and even the doctors called her recovery a miracle. Searching the ditches for Winston’s body, I was transported back to those brutal days when we didn’t know if Short-pants would make it or not, standing on the threshold of grief, wondering if we’d have to enter its dark room. The pain of almost losing our dog reminds me of the pain of almost losing our child, which puts me in touch with the pain of so many people this year who did lose someone they loved: in Paris, Istanbul, San Bernadino, Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, just last week in Nice, and dozens of other places that don’t get enough media attention but merit our mindfulness as well. There’s so much loss in the world, it’s hard to hold on to hope.
Winston_on_white
Short-pants felt terrible because, as she put it, she loves Winston the least in the family. It was a wake-up call to her, thinking he might be gone, to appreciate him more. Near-misses like this can be gifts, it’s true, to remind us to appreciate the present and the people – and animals – who are here for us to love right now, in this moment. We don’t know when they will be swept away from us. (Even if it’s if only for a few moments, in the grill of a stranger’s car.) Seizing the joy of the day is how we avoid regrets.

Yesterday Buddy-roo and I took Winston back to the vet for a controle to check that everything is okay. He’s been vomiting repeatedly and the vet took another X-ray to look at his internal organs. There’s some additional inflammation in his stomach and esophagus that’s causing it, and we hope the medicine will kick in soon and he’ll start eating normally again.

While he was getting his X-ray, Buddy-roo and I sat together in the waiting room, running through the events – and the rollercoaster of emotions – of the previous 24 hours. We keep going through it in our heads, again and again, what happened, what could have happened, what didn’t happen. We’ve all been shaking our heads, doing a dance between disbelief and relief. I’m exhausted from the rapid cycle through so many emotions in such a short span of time.

Buddy-roo reached over, took my hand and caressed it.

“Mama,” she said, her voice pitched perfectly between laughing and crying, “tonight, can we just watch a movie, rather than living it?”


Nov 15 2015

Under Attack

I am not done with Paris. That conclusion I came to just over a week ago, when I was there on a last minute trip, a quick overnight visit provoked by an administrative errand. Usually I pack my schedule with lunches, drinks and dinners, taking advantage of the time on the ground to catch up with Parisian friends. This last trip I organized very few appointments. I’ve a lot of work at the moment and I didn’t metro_signwant to orchestrate every minute of my visit. I wanted to be in Paris with a bit of time on my hands. The way it used to be. Just being there.

Standing in line to board the flight, I cringed at the weather forecast: chilly, cloudy with showers. This was one of the main reasons for relocating to Barcelona. We craved a warmer, sunnier climate. The cold and gray of Paris can wear you out. But luck was with me, the forecast was inaccurate. The Paris weather was milder than predicted and the sun had only a few clouds to hide behind. Walking across the Pont Notre-Dame to the Prefecture for my appointment – one that had been assigned to me so I had no choice but to make the last minute trip – I took in the majestic vista of Paris’ bridges arching over the Seine, and all the familiar landmarks, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Conciergerie. No matter how many times I make the walk between the left and right banks, I am still struck by the stunning beauty of the city. Second only to the friendly upstate New York village where I grew up, this is the place that feels most like home. It was home, for eighteen years of my life.

~ ~ ~

Our try-a-year-in-Barcelona turned into two years (one was not enough to really get a full experience of the city and culture) which then turned into three years (it takes more than two years to feel at home) and who knows, now, how long we will stay. We’re set up comfortably, in a roomy apartment, walking distance to the school, a mere block away from a forested mountain that leads to a track where we love to run, bike and walk the dog. New friends aren’t as intimate or familiar as those we knew in Paris, but there is potential. I am not unhappy in Barcelona. Our life is lovely. But it isn’t what my life was in Paris. And I do miss that life.

De-facto was out playing basketball on Friday night and Short-pants and Buddy-roo and I heaped ourselves together on the couch with Winston to watch the an episode of our latest favorite Netflix series. It was a text message from a faraway friend that alerted me to the attacks that were unfolding in Paris. I plugged into news coverage of Liberation and the BBC and Al Jazeera. I scanned my Facebook feed to see which Parisian friends were online and sharing updates – partly to hearparis_runs their perspective, mostly to confirm they hadn’t been caught in the mayhem.

It was hard to go to sleep and harder still to wake up in the morning to the tally of dead and injured and the stark images of a vibrant city shut down by terror and bloodshed. When Short-pants delivered my coffee – a Saturday morning luxury – I pulled her into bed with me for a morning hug. It made me think of the days just after 9/11 when we were glued to the TV, the altar for our grieving. I was breastfeeding Short-pants – she was only two months old – and while I watched the news, I’d glance down at her little mouth seriously at work taking in nourishment, her tiny fists banging against me and wonder what kind of world we’d brought her into. Now, fourteen years later, I held her (considerably) taller body in a long embrace and wondered, again, what kind of world she was inheriting. How will this ever go away?

~ ~ ~

It’s remarkable how a network of friends reaches out to support one another at a time like this. I was desperately texting my Parisian friends on Friday night, unable to get to sleep until I’d heard from them that they were safe. Saturday morning I woke to a full inbox myself, messages from friends who weren’t aware that we’d moved to Barcelona, or who know I often go back to Paris and that we have many close friends there who might have been hurt. It made my heart grow. In the midst of this horrible tragedy, little pockets of kindness make all the difference.

Later, at lunch, I asked the girls what they thought about what happened in Paris the night before. They both had the same first instinct: to ask why someone would want to kill so many people with such violent attacks. I struggled to respond. How to convey the complexity of such a convoluted reasoning – the perfect storm of anger, hate, disenfranchisement and indoctrination? How to share my indignation, my fear, my grief, but without fueling their prejudice and creating the fear and hatred that only perpetuates a cycle of terrorism? How to tell them the truth without scaring the bejeezus out of them? I always tell them, “Be smart, not scared,” when it comes to dealing with danger. But is that enough to keep them safe from this kind of arbitrary violence? go_paris

I am relieved that my family and I are safely away in Barcelona, that we weren’t subject to the immediate fright of it, the menace of proximity to such a massacre. And yet a part of me is aching to be there in Paris, now, to witness for myself what has happened, to be there not only in spirit but in person, showing my solidarity with some of my dearest friends and with the city that was my home for so long, and in my heart, still is.

But are we really safer here? Any European city – any city at all – might be subject to the same terror as Paris. There’s nothing to do but return to our routines, taking it all in stride, just like we numbly take off our shoes and place our liquids in plain view at airport security, running through the motions of protecting ourselves from a mid-air terror, when simply sitting at a café with friends can be just as deadly. How do I explain that to my daughters?


Oct 30 2015

A Final Bow

I’m almost too busy to grieve. I say almost, because when you’re busy, you still grieve, it’s just pushed underground. If you don’t make time and space for the grief, it takes its own, and never at a good time or with enough space to permit you to delve in. Grief doesn’t fit itself neatly into the daily juggle of life and kids and work and an airplane to catch. Grief commands you to stop and pay attention. If you don’t, or you can’t – or think you can’t – you’ll find out too late, you should have bowed to its call.
tendido_sign
I’ve just said goodbye to a friend. We knew each other for only ten years, but in that time he showed me great kindness. He was older, leaning toward the end of his life even when I met him, yet he cultivated friendships with younger minds and spirits. Part of this was denial; he would not see himself as aged. Part of this was delight. He could never truly hide his amusement while he feigned surprise or mild disdain for the words and acts of the younger generation around him. He kept himself young by keeping such company.

He was just shy of eighty when he died, with years of achievement and adventure behind him. A hero of sorts among a special crowd, my San Fermín friends, he was known for his courage as a runner, back in the day, and for his chivalry and generosity until the end. He was the last man standing on the longest of fiesta nights, even at his ripe age, signaling a strong heart that could have kept him going for another decade, surely, but for his liver which he’d taxed too much, and his mind, which, like all of ours, wasn’t what it used to be.

I was too far away when he died to join the community of mourners at his memorial service. I got the news while at a meeting of 300 people. I stuffed the feelings down – the show must go on – until it could seep out later on a transatlantic redeye, the high altitude cabin pressure no doubt attributing to the release of emotion, my teary sniffles muffled by the constant hum of the jet engine. I made it home, tired, with puffy eyes and a heavy heart.

Winston met me at the door, his paws and long snout bobbing at me. One of the great things about having a dog is this enthusiastic welcome no matterteary_eye how long you’ve been absent. After a week away, he was especially excited to see me. I knelt down to scratch behind his ears and Short-pants came around behind me and placed her hand gently on my shoulder, her calm intention distinct from the peripatetic affection of the dog.

“I’m sorry you lost your friend,” she said to me. I pulled Winston closer, wincing to keep from crying again.

“It’s okay to be sad,” she said, stroking my back.

~ ~ ~

Grieving is messy business. I think you rarely grieve for only one person. Saying a permanent goodbye to someone you’ve known and loved triggers a memory of all the others you’ve lost. It’s like they’re all called out on the stage again, taking their place in line, holding hands, the full cast of the beloved, stepping forward for their encore bows a second, third, and fourth time. Side by side, the line splits in the center to make space for the newly departed, and together dipping their heads, skipping forward, their farewell bows perfectly synchronized. There you are in the audience, clutching a tissue and fighting back tears for each and every one of them, all over again.

Buddy-roo danced around the living room, throwing words at me I wasn’t prepared to take in. The test she thought she was ready for (but wasn’t), a misunderstanding with a girlfriend, the stuff of every day life that she likes me to know about. It made me think about coming home to them just after my mother died. I’d been gone three weeks, accompanying her through hospice. The girls had been desperate to reconnect with me, to catch up, to tell me of their lives, needing me to know, to respond. And I, jet-lagged and grief-stricken, listened half-heartedly, distracted by an internal conversation of my own, wondering how it would be for them when it was me who was gone for good.

This is the part that’s (mostly) unspoken: When we grieve all the others, there’s the hint of grief at our own demise. Each time there is a death around me, I know that contigo_torosomeday it will be my turn. What will happen to me is a mystery. I don’t know what to believe about any existence of my consciousness after death. But I know what it will be like for the girls, and if I could take that heartache away from them I would. But just as Short-pants says, it’s okay to be sad. Mourning is as much a part of life as laughing or loving or any of the experiences we covet.

I’d seen my friend just over a month ago. I walked him down a long corridor to surgery, a surgery he recovered from but extenuating circumstances numbered his days and took his life. His departure is a reminder that all things have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that it’s the people we love who keep the memory of our existence alive, albeit with their heartache, calling us back on stage to take yet another final bow.


Dec 28 2014

The Let Down

The days leading up to Christmas are filled with such eagerness. The hidden shopping bags, do-not-enter warnings and the sound of gifts being wrapped behind a closed door. The setting up and trimming of the tree, and the moment that the decorated packages are placed beneath it. The restraint that we’d promised ourselves obviously abandoned mid-December, boxes with ribbons and bows multiply in the ramp up to Christmas. Then there’s the relished ritual of making cut-out cookies and decorating them with frosting and colored sugar, complete with festive carols blaring in the background. Ella’s Swinging Christmas maybe not the most traditional collection Santa_glasses but I’ve made sure that years from now it’s the one my girls will remember. The case of champagne – or here in Barcelona, it’s a case of cava – is carried home and the a treasure of foie-gras and special cheeses fills the refrigerator. School finishes and the shortest days of the year keep us close and home. We light the menorah, too, to celebrate the ritual of my mother’s religion, not that she practiced it piously but because it acknowledges another holiday that overlaps and shares a spirit of family and gratitude. Candles flicker, lights blink on the tree, the quiet of Christmas eve settles in and the anticipation mounts.

We can’t escape the commercialization of Christmas. It’s impossible, living the world we live in, not to absorb the materialism that has overtaken this holiday. We do our best to minimize it without taking away the delight that comes from receiving a small pile of new items that help to refresh a wardrobe, restock a bedroom bookshelf or add energy to the toy box. I remember this delight: as a child studying the Sears & Roebuck Wishbook and dreaming about what might be mine if Santa answered my pleas. I’d flip through the catalog for hours, staring at those pages so long I knew them by heart. Even now, looking at an archive of old Wishbook pages from the ’60s and ’70s, I’m stunned at how many of them I recognize. I never got everything I asked for and I knew I wouldn’t, but my mother always managed to buy enough of the most coveted items so that those first moments of Christmas morning, coming downstairs to see what toys Santa had left – unwrapped for immediate pleasure – were exalting. All the waiting had been worth it.

Then the rest of my family would arise or arrive and once breakfast and its dishes were finished, we’d sit in the living room, going around one-by-one opening our gifts with oohs and aahs. A break halfway through for Bloody Marys and cheese and crackers, and the gift opening would resume. We’d stretch it out all day, to the delight of some and distraction of others, until, finally, the space beneath the tree was evacuated of its treasures, a few stray ribbons the only evidence of the abundance that once existed there.

After the last lovely box was unwrapped, the final thank yous circulated and someone was compelled to say, “Wasn’t that best Christmas ever?” We’d nod and sigh and begin the process of tidying up, collecting the scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon that hadn’t landed in the trash bag. There was the satisfaction ofSanta_figurines a stack of new possessions, but also a sadness: Christmas was, for all intents and purposes, over. Yes, the Christmas dinner was still ahead and more time together as a family. But the electricity-producing part was over. It was always a bit of a let down.

And you knew it shouldn’t be. You didn’t want it to be. But you couldn’t help it. Something hollow in your gut, no matter how your brain would explain to you that it had been a great day with beautiful gifts and favorite people around. There’d been such a build-up, and so much of it crafted by marketing masterminds. Even in those simpler Sears catalog days, it was a strong feeling. You just had to work through it. By the next morning things were fine. It had been a great Christmas, maybe the best one. But you had to move through the sad bit before you could calibrate back to normal.

I watch Buddy-roo wrestle with this. Despite all the gifts she received this year, many of them specific requests and a few things she’d admired in my presence and then forgotten about, adding to her delight as she unwrapped and re-discovered them, when we were done opening everything, she got all mopey.

“If only I’d gotten an iPad cover.”

I gave her the really? look, more of a scorn, and she ran upstairs in tears. I followed, because this is important. I wanted to acknowledge her feelings; they’re real. I also wanted to give her a reality check: you’re lucky to even have an iPad. Let alone all the new presents that just arrived. But I wanted to deliver both these messages in the right balance, because it’s complicated, even the mildest form of post-festum let down.

The thing is, I know where she gets this from. Because I had it when I was her age, and I still feel it now. Some years more than others. For different reasons. It’s the adrenalin drop after all the build-up. Even though you got truly terrific presents, it’s the not getting that one thing you kept answering with every time someone asked, what do you want for Christmas? It’s how we keep saying it’s not about the gifts, but then if that’s the truth, why is there so much hype about them? Mostly, though, it’s feeling a bit disoriented in the aftermath of all the activity and anticipation, lost and alone even though you’re with the people you love most and who love you most.

My father used to tease us, when an important event approached, like a birthday or a much-anticipated holiday, by telling us he’d heard on the radio that it’d been cancelled. winston_as_santa This is a family joke I’ve perpetuated, and Short-pants and Buddy-roo laugh and roll their eyes whenever we say it. So I don’t know if they’d believe me if I suggested that next year we cancel Christmas. I’m serious. What if we took away the merchandise and commercial part of it, that makes it so much work, and creates such expectations and disappointments, and just did something simple together? It’s not a new idea. Lots of families choose to travel rather than plunge into the trim-the-tree-open-presents-at-home routine. We’ve done it before. We spent Christmas away, in Cambodia and in Mozambique. Both times with warning that there’d be fewer presents because the trip was the gift we were giving ourselves. Yet as Christmas day approached, because the kids were young, because we’re victims of the media, we’d cave in and start shopping. Granted, the booty was contained, but it was still booty.

This seems so appealing right now. But chances are in eleven months time with the Christmas season in full stride, I’ll be sliding right into my role as executive producer of Christmas: shopping, baking, planning menus, coordinating our Christmas Eve open house. I’ll buy the extra paper so that when De-facto sticks his head in my office and says, “do you have any wrapping stuff?” I can answer affirmatively. I’ll watch the girls get excited and help them select gifts for each other and for their father. Christmas is, most of all, magic for the kids, and it’s still magic for us, watching the kids. I’d wager that the let down, if we didn’t do anything, would be more than the little let down that follows Christmas now. As long as we have kids, I think it’s a guaranteed tradition.


Nov 23 2014

The Anniversary

Because De-facto and I have never tied the knot, officially, we’re always at a loss about celebrating an anniversary. We met at a week-long creativity workshop – the one person we knew in common there was his mother – that for many years started on the third Sunday in June and ran through the following Friday. Both De-facto and I had come in the day before, and it was on that Saturday night, the eve of the conference, when he first saw me dancing at the pub and I first saw him walking behind me on the breezeway, his grin all innocent and mischievous at once. We turned toward each other and stayed that way, chatting on the campus lawn and late into the night in a dormitory stairwell. We spent a good part of that week together, and on the night after the conference ended, we even went out to dinner at a nearbycouple_hugging restaurant. I suppose you could call that our first date. We could google the calendar for June of 1996 and figure out the exact dates: that Saturday before CPSI or the Friday on the other end. But we could also identify the date, two days after the workshop, when I flew to Boston to see him instead of flying home to Paris, or the date he flew to visit me in France, two months later.

If we were mawkish we might celebrate all those firsts, and even the firsts I haven’t mentioned here. But we don’t. We end up giving each other a subtle head nod every June. It’s approximate: it might be on the third weekend of the month, or thereabouts, one of us will remember and send a card or leave a Post-it on the bathroom mirror to remind the other that it was X years ago this whole party started.

Part of me misses having a distinct anniversary to celebrate – an etched-in-stone beginning of our committed relationship that merits romantic notes, flowers and gifts, dinners out. A pair of friends just celebrated a silver anniversary, and we know other couples creeping toward such a milestone celebration. We’re still taking it one year at a time.

There is a date, though, a day on the calendar that we rarely forget. I remember it mostly as the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Sometimes I also take a deep breath on November 21st, the date of that Sunday ten (really, already?) years ago, in 2004. It’s a day I celebrate now because we survived it, all of us.

Standing at the kitchen island of my girlfriend’s New York apartment, each phone call delivering news that was harder to hear than the last. Short-pants had passed out. Our nanny had called the ambulance. The EMT guessed it was something neurological. Our neighbors who’d crossed the street to help started using words like convulsion and coma. The party that had prompted us to leave the kids in Paris to come to New York, just for the weekend to celebrate his mother’s 75th birthday, now soured by the news that her granddaughter had been rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, a surgery that took place while we hurriedly packed our bags and sped to the airport to catch a flight home to Paris. Just before boarding, we got a phone heart_in_hospitalcall from the surgeon. Short-pants had made it through the operation but it was a long night ahead. Come straight to the hospital after you land, he said.

We did. When they let us in to see her she was a narrow bump in a big bed, with tubes and wires attached and a gauze skull cap. The next days a blur of doctors and nurses and beeping machines and hours spent at her bedside in the ICU. The cancer they’d feared in our first meeting turned out to be a brain abscess – not nearly as ferocious a predator but perhaps more mysterious. Six weeks in the ICU and countless tests, scans and procedures until finally a second brain surgery was necessary to remove it. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s passed, our days split between being at her side in the hospital and being at home with Buddy-roo, who was too young to have any clue of how important she was in this whole ordeal, standing with her sweet little arms up in the air every time we returned from a grueling day at the ICU, wiped out and beaten down. Her smile and kicky-legs a constant reminder to keep hoping, keep loving, keep trying to keep it together. She needed us too.

Just after New Years, Short-pants was sent home, the cause of her mystery illness never determined but the ugly thing removed from her head and a plan for rehabilitation underway. The next weeks, months and year presented their own challenges, but she survived. Her mental capacity intact, she learned to walk again, to master motor skills she’d lost, to be a healthy little girl. She survived, and then some.

Ten years cascade by and the mother-in-love just celebrated another milestone birthday. Short-pants does all the things a 13-year old adolescent is supposed to do. Her sister adores and resents her, they’re just like normal siblings. Thanksgiving approaches and conjures up the memory of those cool fall-turning-winter nights when I’d walk home from the metro after a daylong vigil at the hospital, desperate for some news to turn things around, each day disappointed until the very end, when by some miracle, her miracle, she recovered. And little by little – it took time – we all recovered from it, from the shock, the strain, the exhaustion of the whole ordeal.
Viva
It left its mark on all of us. Short-pants with her tiara-like scar across the top of her head, Buddy-roo who doesn’t always understand why her sister is different, even though what makes her different is something you can’t explain to the kids in the schoolyard who can’t comprehend the kind of wisdom that accompanies the experience of being resuscitated in an emergency room. De-facto and I, acutely aware of how precious life can be, still awed by the simultaneous fragility and absolute resilience of a 3-year old child who reminded us to live and love while we can.

The drama of those days is long behind us. There are no more follow-up appointments, no need for another MRI, no more fears that it will grow back. There is nothing that will inhibit Short-pants from leading a full, healthy and active life. What remains is the memory of how brave she was, how stoic and poised she remained over such an arduous hospital stay. What remains is the gratitude we felt, to our unwavering family and friends who supported us during those painful days. What remains is a day on a calendar page and the recollection of a brutal Sunday afternoon I would never want to repeat. It’s a story with a happy ending we get to witness every day: our healthy, hopeful Short-pants growing into a remarkable young woman. And still, every year – except for the one year I forgot – on this late November Sunday, we mark an awkward anniversary. Maybe not your typical anniversary, the most poignant one we’ve got.


Nov 19 2014

In Transit

The plane taxied down the runway toward the terminal and came to a stop, waiting for the jetway to connect. Eager passengers leaned forward, hands on the seatbelt clasps, poised to jump up from their seats the moment the familiar bell signaled their freedom, only to be left standing in awkward hunched-over poses, unable to advance for the crowd of standing people in the aisle. Sometimes I find myself amongst the hurry-up-to-wait crowd, moving too early from my seat out of restlessness or boredom more than anything else, not because I’m in such a rush to deplane.
airplane_flies
I like to smile in airports, just to put myself in deliberate contrast to the crowds of confused and distracted faces. If you walk around an airport smiling, people wonder what you’re up to. I like to be mindful in an airport, walking at a strong pace but fully aware of each gate and kiosk I pass. Most people don’t like airports, possibly they’re uncomfortable about flying or eager to get where they’re going or else tired of traveling and all they can think about is getting home. I don’t mind airports. I like the buzz of people about to go somewhere, the motion and movement, the collective anticipation of travel, all in one place. There are exceptions, obviously: on difficult travel days with weather or mechanical delays, or long trips with missed connections, then I would not praise an airport so highly. But on most days, most trips, it’s a place I like to be. It means I’m going on a trip, something that suits me fine.

I also like airport bars. Despite their overpriced cocktails and the lingering scent of over-fried food, I like what happens when you push your roll-away up beside the stool and settle in. It’s more festive and friendly than the rows of attached metal chairs in bleak arm-to-arm formations in the waiting area of the gates. You’ve got your TV screens flashing behind the bar and some music playing. The bartenders and waiters have a special camaraderie, bonded together in response, I suppose, to such a transient and temporary clientele. The snippets of their banter heartwarming, their jokes and shared stories well known to each other amidst a sea of unknown, ephemeral stories belonging to strangers on their way to somewhere else.

The smart phone is the worst thing to happen to the airport bar. Back when I first started traveling for business, in the days when we dressed up to travel, the corner seat at an airport bar afforded you interesting people watching and convivial conversation with strangers. True, the occasional bore could chat your ear off with observations and opinions gleaned from his banal life, but more often a friendly moment passed the time quickly, or occasionally even a poignant exchange could leave you thinking deeply and with gratitude about something important in your life. Now most people just nuzzle into their handheld screens, chatting with the rest of the world while ignoring the perfectly nice human being standing just beside them.
painted_squares
It’s true I might take my phone out and give it a look, but if there’s someone nearby, I’ll set it down.

Last week I had two hours to kill in the Phoenix airport, en route to Mexico where I stole a few days with the Fiesta Nazi at her winter home. The mid-week airfare to fly to a job in Texas went from astronomical to reasonable if I stayed over a Saturday night. And Mexico is close to Texas, right? My job behind me and the prospect of three days with a good gal-pal gave me a particularly wide airport smile as I marched to the corner stool at a bar that happened to be adjacent to my gate, right away joking with the bartender who called me sweetie and darlin’ in the first twenty seconds of taking my order.

“Don’t mind me,” she said in response to my teasing. “I’m a bar whore, I say that to all the customers.” Quickly I learned this was true, as we all got the sweetheart treatment when she set the little napkin down in front of us. But I liked her candor about it.

A white-mustached man with a proper cowboy hat took a nearby stool, eyeing my Bloody Mary and pointing to it while he ordered one, too. His phone rang and he plunged into a conversation with what sounded like his wife. The call was interrupted by someone else, and then someone else, and when he finally set the phone down he told the bartender, and me, about his son’s truck accident. Nobody had been hurt, fortunately. The son, miles away from home, as was this man, was trying to sort out the details. It wasn’t that he was talking so loudly, it was the proximity of our seating at the bar. I tried not to mind his business, but eventually I couldn’t help but look in his direction.

He had tears in his eyes. Not the sobbing out of control kind, not even sad tears – there was no grief in them – but tears of concern and tears of helplessness to do anything to console or assist his son, so far away.

He apologized for talking too loudly. I assured him that he had not disturbed me.

“Your tears are beautiful,” I told him. He cocked his head sideways at first, but then, nodded in agreement.
concerned_face
“It wadn’t even his fault. Now he’s scared he’ll lose his job. It’s his first job.”

I didn’t say anything, not at first. Sometimes silence is what gives people permission to say the thing they really mean to say.

“I love my son and I hate not being able to help him.”

I waited a beat, thinking about Short-pants and Buddy-roo and how it’ll be when they grow up. How it is already. “Seems like no matter how old they get, we’re always worrying about them.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” he said, raising his glass to mine.

We kept talking, both of us leaving our phones dark on the bar, and even a few others nearby chimed in with stories about their kids, teenagers or adults, still invoking parental concern. Caring about your children, even if they’re fully grown, even if they drive you mad, is a universal theme.

My flight was called to board, and I wished the man well, and his son, too. I paid my sweetheart bartender, leaving her a big tip for all her exaggerated terms of endearment – I guess that works! – and pulled my bag behind me toward the gate. This time I smiled not because it’s the deliberate thing I do, but because of how that man loved his son so much, and how much I love my girls.


Aug 3 2014

A Little Adventure

The black band of highway stretched and curved through the dry desert hills. An occasional cactus stood at attention, in a half-salute. The cotton-ball clouds dotted the sky. The white markings in the center of the road slipped one by one under the car. The mountains on the horizon ahead loomed in shades of grey and blue until they weren’t in the distance anymore, and we were driving among them. This scenery had been breathtaking at first – and still was – but we’d grown accustomed to it after six hours on the road.
road_ahead_and_feet
“Are we there yet?”

“We’ll get there when we get there.”

The classic road trip call and response. We’re used to it because we drive a lot, back and forth to the country house, during the last spring break we drove to Croatia, Milan, Paris and back home to Barcelona. The girls are more patient that most, they’ve been trained to make long car rides. Even Buddy-roo, who gets nauseous on any curvy road or one with too many stops-and-starts, is a good sport. I collect air-sickness bags from the seat pockets of airplanes; they come in handy when Buddy-roo throws up in the car. I have at least a dozen on hand for this road trip, since we’ll be in a car for nearly a month straight, traveling west to east across the United States, from San Francisco to Cape Cod.

~ ~ ~

When I was eight, my parents had the idea to take the family on a trip around New York, so that we might learn about our home state. My brother, sister and I fidgeted in the back seat of my father’s Delta 88 while we drove from our home in the Finger Lakes to to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to Fort Ticonderoga, Ausable Chasm, and the North Pole, NY at Whiteface mountain in the Adirondacks. That was the highlight of the trip, at least for me. Certainly it was the least favorite stop of my brother, who’d just turned 16. His discomfort was obvious when you saw the photograph in which he was forced to pose with Santa Claus for that year’s family Christmas card.

We stayed in modest motels and ate at family restaurants and diners. I remember loving the motel with rows of rooms wrapped around a kidney-shaped swimming pool with its blue twisted slide. There’s a picture of me in my red, white and blue two-piece sailor-styled bathing suit, its white skirt lifted by the wind, clearly loving this vacation. I also remember the disappointment of the guest house the following night, its tired upholstery, pilled white bedspread and a musty, closed-in smell. That it was only for one night was beyond my comprehension, I was indignant that we would stay there. (Ask De-facto, not much has changed on that front.)

At breakfast my father set a dollar limit for breakfast, barely enough to cover eggs and toast. He disappeared and returned with a stack of post cards that cost as much as two breakfasts. We begrudgingly wrote cards to friends, as commanded, and thus started the family tradition of writing postcards at the breakfast table. If you ever get a post card from me, chances are I wrote it with my morning coffee and a plate of eggs.

~ ~ ~

The girls and I had a long layover in Vancouver. De-facto was making his own way to San Francisco but our frequent flyer itinerary forced us to wait eight hours before our connecting flight. We stowed our luggage at the airport and took the sky train into the city. A security guard – Buddy-roo called me out for flirting with him – saw us studying the map and offered to help. girls_on_tracks Instead of connecting to a bus to get to the Granville market, he suggested walking along an unused train track. A more scenic route, he said. Buddy-roo, who’d been whinging earlier about the long plane ride, the lengthy layover, her hungry tummy, now started jumping up and down, begging me to take his advice.

Sure enough, just behind the parking lot of the train stop, a set of tracks rolled out from under a locked chain-link fence, a good sign that the tracks were out of use. We marched along the thick wooden rail-ties, feeling very happy-go-lucky and on-the-road. The theme song to the Andy Griffith Show came to mind. We could still see the street and it was broad daylight, so it felt pretty safe. If the fence across the tracks wasn’t enough to assure me that we wouldn’t encounter a moving train, the overgrowth of wild, thorny blackberry bushes along the tracks and between the ties was another strong clue. Short-pants is a blackberry picking fiend, it’s her favorite pastime at the country house and she had lamented leaving before the berries on our property were ripe. She, too, had been hungry and as a result, grumpy. But the sight of all these bushes lifted her mood instantly. The dense clumps of black raspberries were like magnets, pulling her from the tracks as we walked along. She’d lag behind and then run to catch up, her hands filled with sweet, fat berries to share with us.

When the road veered away and the chain link fences on either side of the tracks turned into cement walls twenty-feet high, I started to wonder if it was such a good idea to be having this hobo adventure. It occurred to me not to overreact, but at the same time some motherly-hormone kicked in and presented me with the worst-case scenario: an indigent needle-carrying hoodlum lurking in the bushes, surprised to see a happy, unsuspecting family skipping along the tracks, taking all sorts of terrible liberties with us. I had a fair amount of cash on me, and the more precious cargo: my daughters. Were I alone I’d have sprinted along without thinking of it. Worry is too strong a word, but I did wonder about the safety of our surroundings. This led to the conversation we often have about being smart, not scared – our motto, as Short-pants says – and we managed to navigate the tracks to our destination without any incident, and having experienced the freedom of going off-piste, and the thrill of having made it out alive. The girls’ whining had ceased, entirely. Nothing like a little adventure to help you forget your misery.
golden_gate
San Francisco treated us to visits with family and friends, a hike in Muir Woods, a beach day at the Presidio and a big birthday bash for De-facto (hint: ends in a zero). After a few days, we picked up the vehicle that will carry us east across the country for the next several weeks, and headed south with overnight stops in Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix. We’ve stayed with friends and family, who treat us like royalty and protest that we should stay longer, but we are trying not to impose on anyone for too long. Besides, we’re a family on the move with the whole country left to traverse.

~ ~ ~

I can’t say I was thrilled about this taking this trip. I wasn’t looking forward to hours on end in the car. We just put in a new kitchen at the country house, I wanted to linger there over the summer and enjoy it. I don’t really like being in the states too much, I get overwhelmed by the enormity of everything: the stores, the portions, the people. I’ve done vagabond traveling in my life and loved it, but I had only my own backpack to manage. Supervising the preparation and maintenance of several suitcases and the other odd belongings that get picked up along the way (nothing without a handle, channeling my father’s car-trip mantra) could be classified as my Sisyphean task. My attempts to empower my daughters to keep track of their stuff have been in vain. I know I should let them live with the consequences of their sloppy suitcase habits, but in the end I’m the one who has to buy them another pair when their sneakers are left behind, so it’s hard not to be craning my neck vigilantly behind them. Even De-facto can’t manage to get out of Dodge without losing something. Already he’s had his bathing suit mailed to Santa Fe from Los Angeles.

But my mother-in-love has been politely asking to visit for too long. She’s awfully good about flying to Europe to spend time with us there, but she wanted to host us in her own home, and we wanted to grant her this as well as to enjoy her lovely hospitality. If we’re going to go all the way to Santa Fe, De-facto argued, we might as well visit some other people on the west coast, and then why not friends in Chicago and on the east coast too? And shouldn’t our American children, both born abroad, get a taste of the good ol’ US-of-A? It’s the passport they carry, after all.

You can see how the conversation went. During the weeks leading up to the trip I’d think about what it entailed and the dread would rise up within me. Yes, it would be an experience, a great adventure, something we’d always remember. Yes, we’d see good people we love to see. But this kind of touring doesn’t count, to me, as a vacation. It’s hard work, shuttling a family around for so many miles.

But, anyway, smiles everyone.

~ ~ ~

I’d been the one to set the alarm for 5:00 am, but I groaned the loudest when it went off. We’d been up this early the day before, too, to beat the traffic out of Phoenix and get up to the Grand Canyon early enough to enjoy the afternoon walking along the rim. De-facto called for a family hike down into the Canyon before we left, and that would mean getting up before dawn, again, in order to beat the heat but also to get on the road in time to make it to his mother’s house, in Santa Fe, for a late dinner. The night before, I’d extracted from the girls promises of cheerful faces in the morning, vows broken before their heads even left the pillows.

De-facto maintains marvelous poise in the company of grumpy women, he’s learned to keep his mouth shut and let time do its magic. Despite the girls’ protests, and my ambivalence, he herded us to the trailhead. It didn’t takecanyon_wall long for me to fall into the hiking zone, the path transported me instantly to my days on the Camino and the euphoria of walking in nature. The majestic beauty of this early morning walk wasn’t lost entirely on the girls, their complaints abated for a while as we snaked down into the canyon. But when we turned around to make our way back up to the rim, the combination of an uphill climb, the growing heat of the sun and a desire for a breakfast beyond the granola bars and orange slices made for a reprise of the chorus of complaints.

I slowed my pace, distancing myself from the grumpy girls so I could stay in my “Camino high” and marvel at the grandeur of the canyon. It’s the kind of vista that compels you to take in fully the moment. It’s the kind of vista that makes you amazed and privileged to be where you are. It made me glad that we’d pressed ourselves to get up and out early to make this hike, glad to be in the Grand Canyon, glad to on our big cross-country tour, in a car, with my family, making an important memory. Maybe, I figured, this trip wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and maybe it wouldn’t be as awful as I thought. Nothing like a little adventure to help forget your misery.


Jan 5 2014

The Adaptation

The nose of the plane dips under the cloud cover as the pilot makes an announcement, first in Spanish and then in French, alerting us that we are preparing to land at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. I watch the patchwork of fields growing larger beneath us, buildings and roads coming into focus as the plane descends. In the airport, the familiar chimes of Air France alert passengers to upcoming flights. I breeze by the luggage carousels, confidently pulling my rollaway behind me. I know my way through this airport by heart. Earlier this morning I got turned around in the Barcelona airport, a beautiful, modern and efficient hub still foreign to me; I walked in a circle twice before finding the hallway to my gate. At CDG I easily found the escalator to the RER train and made my way into Paris, nearly sleepwalking, as though it’s a commute I make every day.
eiffel_tower_rosey
It’s become a commute I make every month. Since we have moved to Barcelona last September, I have returned to Paris four times. Each time with an explicit reason, or at least a good enough excuse: a meeting with a potential client, a check-up with a doctor or a dentist appointment. I manage to plan enough in advance to get reasonably priced tickets, or to include the leg in a trip elsewhere at negligible cost to the client. Each time in Paris I attend to essential personal errands, see a friend or two and, most important, I get to walk down my street and around the corner toward my favorite local café where I am always welcomed with gusto. If the corner stool is empty I can happily sit there for hours and chat with the barmen and nod at all the regulars who come and go. This, for me, is a perfect moment. Some people get their bliss from meditation or from the endorphins of exercise. It happens to me when that corner stool is mine and from it I can watch the world go by.

~ ~ ~

When the girls were babies we enrolled them in the halte garderie, a state-subsidized nursery service that takes care of babies as young as 6 months. We waited until the girls were a year old, but took advantage of this quality, cost effective care option for several afternoons each week. It meant we could put the kids in the company of other children, and with native French speaking caretakers. It also allowed us to begin to understand the system of childcare and schooling in France.

Some mothers are sad about putting their children in someone else’s care. I couldn’t wait to drop them off and have a few hours to myself. Since it wasn’t an all-day-every-day routine, I wasn’t afraid of “missing” any stage in their development. For me it was a chance to take a shower and brush my teeth in peace, or grab a few hours in my studio to scratch out a few pages of my manuscript. We weren’t eligible for the crèche, which is reserved for parents with full-time jobs. The halte garderie and its twice or thrice weekly schedule was all we could get, but we took it.
colored_handprints
You had to tow the line there: parking a certain way in the room designated for strollers, donning the obligatory shoe covers before entering the playroom – too often I found them still over my shoes out on the street on my way back home – keeping to the correct time for dropping your child off and retrieving them at the end of your morning or afternoon session, tolerating the snooty director who’s name I always managed to mispronounce. And then there’s the system of adaptation – how you got your kids started at the garderie, which is meticulously regimented.

The initial visits lasted only an hour, and a parent is required to stay the entire time and sit and play with her child. This way the little being gets accustomed to the new environment and new playmates with a familiar and comforting parent close by. After two visits, you bring your child and stay with them for 15 minutes – and then you leave, but only for 30 minutes or an hour, so the child is there without a parent for only a short time. Each successive visit the parent’s disappearance is extended, until after about two or three weeks it becomes just a matter of dropping off and picking up four hours later. It makes perfect sense to ease the children into their day care situation and though it doesn’t eliminate drama – both Short-pants and Buddy-roo cried for 20 minutes after we left the first few times – it probably minimizes the pain and anyway it just seems kinder and gentler.

I used to love the pick-up at the end of the day – not that I was always ready to shift back into mothering gear, I could always have used a few more hours – but because I could peek in the window and watch the kids playing and being their own little selves without interacting with me. I’d stand there for 10 minutes observing them bob around with the other bobble-headed toddlers. And then, of course, once I walked in and they’d look up and see that the parent who’d just arrived was there to fetch them, this exclamation of glee always so affirming. Parenting is a shit-load of work but those wildly enthusiastic greetings are part of the payoff.

~ ~ ~

Remarkably, Short-pants seems to have adapted the quickest to Barcelona. In Paris, her classmates indulged her quirky, introverted habits, but she was often the target of some teasing by older kids in the courtyard. I worried about how she would fare in the new school. We talked about what behaviors might have caused the kids to pick on her, and how with this move she had a chance to deliberately re-think them.

“Mama, I understand the consequences,” she said, “but I like walking around the courtyard talking to myself.”

I couldn’t really argue with that, so I didn’t. But she must have internalized a little bit of our conversation because I think she’s not doing the things (as much) that attracted the teasing and in fact has made a real effort to extend herself and make new friends. She’s even part of a small “gang” of girls, much different than her social life in Paris. She’s plunged into the new languages and excelled at school; this semester she landed her best report card ever, with felicitations. (In a French school system, that’s really good.)
walkin_in_the_woods
De-facto, too, has taken an immediate shine to our Barcelona life. The location suits him. Unlike in Paris, where we were in thick of things urban, our new home is in a quieter part of the city, and just 100 yards from nature. Nearly every day, he hops on his mountain bike and peddles up the steep hill to the Carretera des Aigües, a winding dirt trail where you can walk, run and bike with a full view of the entire city and the Mediterranean sea beyond it.

Then there’s Buddy-roo, for whom the jury is still out. Because she’s usually brimming with energy and life, it’s easy to forget that she’s actually a bit shy when she first encounters new people and things. I wouldn’t classify her as miserable; she has made a few good friends and she’s thrilled about the bunk beds in her room in our new home. But Buddy-roo’s the one who misses Paris the most, her friends there, her last year’s teacher – even though she wouldn’t be her teacher this year – our neighbor’s dog and her rock band.

“Nobody asked me if I wanted to move to Barcelona,” she says, in those moments when she’s feeling particularly low. We actually did ask her, and she was very enthusiastic. I reminded her of this, but it didn’t seem to help her mood much. Now I just shrug and draw her close for a hug. No use trying to talk someone out of their feelings.

~ ~ ~

My monthly visits to Paris are sort of a reverse adaptation. It would have seemed brutal to be cut off from my Parisian life completely, to have packed up all of our things and cleared out, closing the door abruptly on that long and lovely chapter. The fact that I can stick my toe back in the Seine every once in a while, see friends, speak French, eat a real croissant, stock up on my favorite French products, take care of my hair, and sit at my favorite bar in the whole damn world makes it easier for me to adjust to my new life somewhere else. I don’t really miss Paris, because I get to go back regularly. I probably should take Buddy-roo with me on one of these visits, to ease her transition, too.
sagrada_in_tiles
Eventually, if Barcelona is a place we decide to stay, I’ll be compelled to find local doctors and a dentist and an aesthetician. Surely there are capable practitioners there. One day I may have to ween myself from the artist who cuts my hair every trip to Paris. That will be harder; he’s given me a distinctive look and I trust him like no other hairdresser I’ve known. Replacing my favorite bar is probably the tallest order, and may never happen. But there are still plenty of fine watering holes around Barcelona and maybe someday one of them will even feel like “mine.”

For now, I like straddling the two cities, exploring the new options and opportunities that Barcelona offers me while staying connected to the rituals of my Paris. Keeping the thread to my old home is comforting, and makes for a nearly painless transition. I know on some level I won’t have fully embraced our life in Barcelona until I let go. But for now, I guess, I’m still in the middle of my adaptation.


Dec 22 2013

Not that (Christmas) Mom

It must be disappointing for my daughters, how I am not particularly adept at motherly school functions. I’m not the one who volunteers to organize the parties and send emails around about baking goodies. I’m not the cheerful enthusiastic I’ll-make-costumes mom. I love those moms, headless_with_palmI’m so glad they are exist at our school. But I’m not one of them.

Call me the do-we-have-to? mom or the oh-not-again mom. Each time I get a notice about a school event or activity that requires parental assistance, I groan. It’s not that I’m not delighted by the extra-curricular school events that break up their mundane scholastic routine. I want those things to happen, and in technicolor. I just don’t want to have to do them.

I don’t think I’m alone on this. I think many of us pitch in because we know we’re supposed to. It’s not that we want to be doing it, rather that we want to see it being done. But it’s taboo to say so out loud.

I could blame it on the new school. Just as the girls have had to forge new friendships here, I, too, need to put in the effort to make friends with the other mothers. This is happening to some degree: a bit of small talk waiting at the school pick-up, the exchange that happens when dropping a kid off for a play date or to work on a school project, the friendly women I’ve met at monthly coffees. But all these relationships are nascent, and still awkward. I miss what had become effortless in Paris where the school activities didn’t feel like a burden and there was always the invitation to go for a beer afterward, to catch up with pals while doing our parental duty.

But even though I may have relished the social aspect, I’ve always felt inadequate at these school functions. I’m the mom who hasn’t managed to buy the right school supplies or who doesn’t have the time to go across town to get that one book that’s on-order so my kid has to look on with another student and work from photocopies. I’m the mom that misses the parent meetings because I’m out of town on a trip or I have a conference call or because I didn’t see the note in my daughter’s cahier de correspondence. I’m the mom who doesn’t come to the Christmas choral concert because I didn’t understand that parents were invited, the mom who doesn’t quite understand the system, and manages to figure it out just a bit too late.

It’s always comes down to this: living up to the elusive perfect mom. I can picture her. When I was in my twenties imagining myself as a mother I looked just like her. Cheerful at breakfast in a business suit, shooing my heirs out the door to school and going to work, leaning in all day but simultaneously plugged in to the little lives of my children, scrutinizing their school, up-to-speed on all the goings on in their extracurricular lives. I turned out, instead, to be a lot sloppier. I’m much better at leaning back. And while I’m there, I tell myself I really should do more. I could do better.

~ ~ ~xmas_snowglobes

You know what kind of mom I am? The I-hate-Christmas mom. Every year I proclaim, to myself, and here on this blog, how I dislike what Christmas has become. I’m disturbed by the ubiquitous commercialization of the holiday. Each year it starts earlier and there are more useless things to buy not because they are special or thoughtful but because there is a marketing engine prodding us to buy more. Store shelves are stocked with unnecessary decorations and novelty gifts that have little to do with the spirit of giving and even less to do with the birth of Jesus. Except crèches are a big deal here in Catalunya, but then, of course, there are hundreds of different figurines to buy – some of them in scatalogical poses – to add to your standard manger scene.

I know we aren’t forced to buy any of this merchandise, but I hate that it’s ubiquitous. I hate that it feeds an insatiable desire in Buddy-roo, who is overwhelmed by all the gadgets on the shelves, screaming at her to want them.

Maybe I don’t hate Christmas. I do love the Christmas that we create in our family. I’m just repulsed by much of the Christmas that goes on outside our door. We try our best to keep the holiday grounded, the promises embedded in our responses to the girls’ wish-lists are carefully crafted to create reasonable expectations of the loot that Santa might bring. Though now that they know who Santa really is, they don’t buy the “Santa can only carry so much on his sleigh” argument. I keep pointing toward the family traditions. We unwrap the ornaments from their wrinkled tissue paper – the same paper that my mother wrapped them in for decades – and tell the story of that angel, or that red ball with my name on it, or the ugly silver lantern-shaped ornament that always hung on the tree, albeit in the back. We have our open-one-gift-the-night-before tradition and our Bloody Marys on Christmas morning, our one-at-a-time gift opening marathon that lasts all day, and sometimes even for days as we like to take a break to stop and relish the first presents we’ve opened. There are traditions from De-facto’s family and from mine, forged into the rituals of our nuclear family, and this is what I hope my children will remember years from now. Not that they did or didn’t get the Barbie house with its own elevator (they didn’t) but that we laughed and did Christmasy things together, whether that was making cut-out cookies at home, or going someplace exotic to treat ourselves to a family Christmas adventure we could share together.

Despite my self-proclaimed deficiencies as a mother in matters of school activities, I will take credit for my resilience carrying on a certain ritual: the baking and decorating of the Christmas cut-outs. Each year as I cream the butter and sugar that cutout_cookieswill make the dough, I nod upwards at my mother who would no doubt be pleased, if not entirely surprised, at my adherence to both the tradition and her recipe. It’s a demanding process: the rolling out the dough to the right thickness and maximizing the cut-outs from each batch – using her original cookie cutters – and baking them just enough, pulling them out of the oven before they brown. Then there’s the icing, though mine is made with butter instead of Crisco – what was in that anyway? – as her carefully typed recipe card called for, and the preparation of the sugar for decorating. Two drops of food coloring in petri dishes of granular sugar, ready to be spooned on to the freshly frosted cookies. When I was little there was a definite rule to how these cooked were sugared. Angels were blue and yellow, Christmas trees were green, stars were yellow. Santas were sprinkled with red sugar and the bells were done up in blue. I suggest this guideline to the girls but never enforce it. They have too much fun designing their own color combinations. And in the end, they all taste the same.

~ ~ ~

It doesn’t rain much in Barcelona but unfortunately it was raining last week on the day of the school’s Marché de Noel, which is a shame because the palm-treed courtyard is expansive and would have been a lovely venue for this Christmas market. But due to the rain, everything was scrunched together under a smaller covered area. I could feel the dread rising as I walked to the school, the rain dripping down off my umbrella. I gripped tight the Tupperware of cut-out cookies I’d brought to be sold at Buddy-roo’s class table. I wanted to be going anywhere but to this event where there’d be a hundred wild kids running around, amped up on sugary Christmas snacks, and table after table of items made by students that I’d be compelled to buy to support their effort but would end up cluttering my home and breaking any vows I’d made about buying unnecessary items just for the sake of Christmas. I disliked this activity at the other school, where I knew everyone and had my posse of moms to hang with. Going now as the new mom who hasn’t yet been integrated only made me feel more isolated.

I’m always a little lonely at Christmas. Even though it’s a time when world quiets down for the day and we cocoon as a cozy family. Even though I’m with the people I love most in the world, I always feel a little disconnected. Maybe it’s the pressure to have a lovely Christmas, when the truth is it’s a lot of work. Maybe it’s walking in and out of store after store looking forSanta_Buddha something meaningful to give to people who already have everything they need, and feeling fatigued and uninspired, just ticking off the boxes. Maybe it’s that song, the one I heard too often the Christmas my father died that takes me back to that sad, disappointing holiday. Maybe it’s every Christmas that passes without my mother’s newsy year-end letter – the one I used to roll my eyes at but now I’d give anything to read it – or my grandmother’s homemade rhubarb pie. The holidays are supposed to be happy, even if they’re not.

But you can’t wallow in Christmas sorrow with kids around; their expectation for joy is a big, fat, red wake-up call. So I snap out of it and dance around the Christmas tree, break out the paper and start wrapping, and roll out another batch of cookies. Or I just grab Buddy-roo’s hand and march into that schoolyard Christmas market, head high, whistling a familiar carol, and watch her marvel at the lights, the music and the shiny offerings laid out at the gift stalls, eyes bright and wide, taking in what is, for her, all that she loves about Christmas.