Mar 18 2013

Leaving Behind

I called out to the girls, playing in the yard. “Don’t forget I need a stone from each of you.”

They screeched in unison, remembering the task I’d assigned days ago – and reminded them of again the night before – to select a small rock from somewhere around our country house for me to carry on the Camino. My back was still tender; I wasn’t convinced that in a week’s time, especially after playing tourist in Barcelona, I’d be able to fly to León to make my way on foot to Santiago. But since the Pilates workouts I’ve been doing make my recoveries quicker, I held out some hope that I’d be up for the walk.

Short-pants ran toward me with her fist extended, opening it to reveal a small angular rock. Buddy-roo hobbled on her crutches soon after, offering me another stone, about the same size. I’d set my backpack, ready to go, on the 20130318-205137.jpg bench outside the country house so De-facto could put it in the trunk when he packed the car. I squatted down, carefully, and unzipped one of the small side pouches of my pack, saying out loud to myself where I was putting them, so I wouldn’t forget, later, where I’d stashed the two stones.

~ ~ ~

The taxi dropped me in front of the Cathedral in Astorga. I’d planned to take a cab from the León airport to the bus station in the city center and from there an hour-long ride to pick up where I left the Camino last summer. A few questions at the airport taxi stand and a little negotiation made the smarter option to go directly to my starting point in Astorga. I’d kissed the girls goodbye at 6:30 am as they slept in their beds in Barcelona. By 11:30 I was walking on the Camino Santiago de Compostela.

I stopped three times in the first kilometer to get myself situated, each time carefully removing my pack – at its heaviest with a full supply of water – shifting the tube to my water bladder from the left to the right side and moving key supplies to familiar places. Tissues and lip balm in the zipper compartment on one side, iPhone poised in camera mode on the other. Map in the left pants pocket, money in the right. I fell right back into the ergonomic system I’d worked out last year. The air was chilly but the sun was warm, my back seemed okay and my legs felt strong. I’d planned to walk just 5k, to get started. Twenty kilometers later I rolled into Rabanal, a village just before the highest point on the Camino, the Cruz de Ferro.

The next morning I looked out the window of my pensión to see the village rooftops of the covered in snow. The road was wet, though not slippery. It turned into a muddy track at the top of the village. With altitude the ground was frozen, and as I climbed higher there was snow, several inches covering the ground. The fog and the light sprinkling of falling snow 20130318-203011.jpglaid a blanket of quiet over everything. All I could hear was the sound of my boots crunching on the snow.

It’s customary for Pilgrims to leave a stone or a talisman at the Cruz de Ferro, a symbolic gesture of leaving something you’ve been carrying and no longer need. That’s why I’d asked the girls for stones. I’d been thinking, for a while, about what I’d like to let go. Something that would ease my own burden, but also that, if I really could leave it behind, would help my daughters, too. Either because I’d be happier, or because it’d model something important for them.

I dug through the compartments of my backpack to find the two stones that Short-pants and Buddy-roo had found for me and put them in my coat pocket so I could reach them easily at the right moment. One of them I’d designated as the burden of time. I have become so very tired, and bored, of thinking about time. I am allotted hours in the day that seem never to be sufficient. I became more aware of this during my stretches on the Camino last year, but I still struggle with time. I think about it, I talk about it, I complain about never having enough of it. I want to stop this.

I waste too much time catching up instead of being present – this relates to my second stone – because I am always trying to do what is (or I believe is) expected of me. To be a good girl. A good mother. A reliable colleague. A friend you can count on. None of these terrible qualities to be known for, unless achieving them cuts you off from being at ease with life and savoring it rather than rushing through it. I want to stop being good and start being true.

~ ~ ~

As I approached the Cruz de Ferro, I could barely see it because of the fog. I admired the huge mound of stones at its base, thousands of small rocks piled on top of each other, representing the prayers and requests of the pilgrims, faithful or not, who’ve passed by. I fingered the two stones in my pocket, thinking again, as I had been all morning, about what I had infused into them and what it would mean, the act of leaving them there. Not that I put so much import on a cross standing on a mound of stones at the top of a mountain along the road. Except that it can signify something, if I want it to. A wedding doesn’t ensure a lifetime as a happy couple, but it does serve as a milestone to mark your intention to be so. That is the purpose of rituals.
The Camino itself is a ritual, and walking it doesn’t mean I will change entirely. I never expected to return home as someone new. Doing the Camino has been for me a chance to reflect upon everything I am walking in this lifetime, and I suppose, to try to be true to it.

I pulled those two rocks out of my pocket and said a few words to whatever force might be out there in the universe listening. I did this not because I necessarily believe that someone or something would answer me or grant my requests, but more because it was important for me to say my intention out loud and to hear myself say it. I don’t know if I’ll ever make peace with time. Being true instead of being good feels like a tall order. But I can try.

At first I placed the two little rocks neatly, side by side, on top of a larger flat stone. On second thought, I picked them both up and threw them haphazardly amongst the the other rocks. Now they were just part of the pile. I stared up at the cross. Prayer ties, attached to the pole, flapped in the wind.

Just beyond the Cruz de Ferro there’s a rest area with picnic tables. I wiped the wet snow off the bench, slipped out of my pack and took a seat. I pulled out a sandwich and ate it, slowly. When my feet felt rested enough or my body felt too cold – I’m not sure which – I stood up and and threaded my arms through the straps of my pack. The pinch that plagued me last week, just above my hip, was gone. I felt good. I walked away from the Cruz de Ferro and I didn’t look back.

Jan 28 2013

Push Me Pull You

It was going to be a slow morning, the way weekend mornings should be. Little feet pattered about in the hallway and the kitchen, but ostensibly my assistance was not required. There was nowhere to go, no rushing to get up and out for school, no running to an appointment. I snuck into the kitchen to make a coffee – my second cup, since Short-pants had already brought me the first – and slipped back into bed. I puffed the pillows upright against the wall and surveyed the towering stack of books beside my bed table, wondering which one to choose for a leisurely morning read.

“Who drank the milk I left in the glass?” Short-pants yelled from the kitchen. Maybe not so much a yell as a cry, and it was followed by angry tears.

I could picture it: a tumbler, its glass discolored from years of dishwasher wear, filled halfway with milk. It’d been on the counter, next to an empty bowl. I’ve seen that glass of milk a hundred times, after just as many breakfasts, left on the counter unfinished. We try not to waste food in our family, so I always set the glass aside and use the milk in my coffee. It’s regularly the source of milk for my second cup of the morning.
Just moments before her forlorn cry, I’d dumped that very glass of milk into the frother and used it to to top off the cup of coffee I’d re-heated in the microwave. It was in the cup I’d brought back to bed with me.

“I think I used it, sweetie.”

Short-pants stormed into the bedroom. Her face was red, her lips turned down. “I was going to use that to make hot chocolate for Papa!”

I apologized and did my best to assure her that it was okay, her papa could live without it. De-facto didn’t protest. This did not assuage her anger. Remembering that I’d seen some light cream in the fridge, I suggested we could mix that with a little water and froth it up for him and it’d be perfect, maybe even better than milk.

“Really?” She wiped the tears running down her cheek. “Will you help me?”

Would I make the lazy mother’s choice? Having just put myself back in bed for a few moments of peace, that was my first instinct. I tried to explain where the cream was and how much water to mix in, but this only resulted in a blank stare from a girl on the verge of more tears. Since I’d profited from what was apparently the last drop of milk in our home, I felt obliged to help with the situation. I flipped back that cozy comforter, pushed myself out of bed and followed her to the kitchen. We found what was left in the small carton of cream and mixed it with a little water to thin it. The frother whipped it up into a cloud of warm foam, allowing her to achieve her objective of serving her papa a cup of hot chocolate in bed.

While I was in the kitchen, Buddy-roo called to me, asking for help with some research for her school presentation. I’d been nagging her to do it for three days, she was finally starting. I figured I could make a quick detour to the table where she was working, point her in the right direction and then return to the warmth of my bed and the pile of books beside it. As I worked with Buddy-roo – which wasn’t as quick a detour as I’d hoped – Short-pants returned to the kitchen and exploded into tears, again.
“I didn’t get any milk this morning.”

I wanted to strangle her for making such a big fuss out of this shortage. We could all live one morning without dairy in our drinks. Except she’d made a milky beverage for everyone in the family before making one for herself. Selfless, some might say.

After a discussion about the nature of this crisis and whether it merited such outbursts, then a quick brainstorming about how the problem might be solved, it was decided that she could get dressed and go to the store to buy some milk. A glance at the clock shocked me into the realization of what time it was; my Saturday errands ought to be run sooner rather than later when the stores get crowded. So much for my thirty minutes of peaceful reading in bed.

We both dressed and headed out together. The plan was to go to the little Arab store and get a bottle of milk, then she’d take it back home and I’d go off and do the rest of my errands. Her mood brightened as we descended the four flights of stairs and opened the door to the street. Sometimes just getting out of the house can make you feel better about anything. At the little shop, we selected a bottle of milk and I paid the shopkeeper, a man who used to watch me navigate (precariously) the narrow aisles of his store with Short-pants in her baby-stroller. He made a comment about how she’s grown. I nodded with a dual expression of pride and bewilderment.

Outside the store, I offered her the change he’d given me. “Buy some pain-au-chocolate for you and your sister.”

“That’s what I was already planning to do.” She opened her palm. It held several coins she’d taken from her own piggy-bank.

“Here,” I gave her my coins anyway. “Use mine. Get one for Papa, too.”

Smiling, Short-pants reached up and kissed me, turned around and walked – almost running but not quite – down the street toward the patisserie. She has a signature gait, it’s a little off center, pronounced because of her lengthening legs. I watched until she disappeared into the bakery. Tears in my eyes, now, my heart hurt from the morning’s mix of angst and awe. She’s oh so sensitive, but at the same time so very strong.
That’s it, isn’t it? The push-me-pull-you of parenting. It’s the fiercest can’t-you-just-leave-me-alone-for-a-moment juxtaposed with a desperate please-don’t-grow-up-and-go-away-yet. Both feelings rushing at you in the span of thirty minutes, thirty quiet minutes that you thought you’d have for yourself, but instead thirty minutes of full-throttle parenting, dancing to the highs and lows of little people inhabiting your life, ultimately marveling at the size and breadth of their hearts, little hearts that push and pull at every string in yours.

Dec 15 2012

Come Home

I was going to write about yesterday, when Buddy-roo came home from school and announced to us, in a panic, that she had a 5-minute oral presentation due for next Monday. The project was assigned to her a month ago, but fell through the cracks of our parental supervision. Some might contend it’s her responsibility to keep track of her own assignments – but then of course, she’s only nine and I know when I was in the 4th grade I wouldn’t have tracked on an assignment of this nature without a little help from the adults. It was her problem, but it was also our problem, as much of the weekend would not be devoted to preparing the assignment.

I was going to write about one night just a few weeks ago, when Buddy-roo ran into the living room after dinner – and after any paper-supply store was closed – to inform us that she needed a life-size piece of blank cardboard. For the next day. She was to perform a skit with two other classmates, and she’d volunteered to bring in the prop: a large poster of Goldilocks sleeping in a bed. Maybe if I were an arts-n-crafts mom I’d have a closet filled with foam board and large cardboard and other supplies. Not that we don’t have a certain stock of creative materials on hand, but a poster-sheet of cardboard just wasn’t part of the instant inventory. Well, it was, but I’d given it to Short-pants the night before, to draw a map of the Jamaica for one of her school reports. That was a bit of a miracle, that I’d saved the poster from a previous year’s exposé on spiders. But two large cardboard sheets out of a hat, this maternal magician could not pull.

I was going to write about the debacle of helping Short-pants to set up a meeting with three of her classmates to work on that very report about Jamaica, ultimately requiring a Doodle poll which still couldn’t unite all the parents in a single conversation about a time and place that would work. The result, a just-under-the-wire meet-up, putting us once again in an at-the-last-minute dash to organize the map on that recycled piece of cardboard, and to practice the oral presentation for the report.

I was going to write about another assignment – it seems every time I turn around Short-pants has a team presentation requiring the juggling of agendas of other students and parents to find that precious two hours to get in sync – this one about rationing in wartime Britain. There was no mutually workable date until the night before it was due, so we scrambled to pull it all together swiftly and memorize the presentation – they have to do the oral part without notes – once again, pulled together, just under the wire.

I was going to write about the last minute demands that make me feel like some kind of short-order mom, and how I’ve had it with them coming home from school with all their I-need-it-for-tomorrow panic attacks. And once again about all the things I have to chase after, scribbled notes in cahiers from teachers for quick turnaround on lost or missing materials and newly required supplies I have to chase around town to acquire.

But now I’m not.

Because while Buddy-roo stood there, holding her map of the south Atlantic states, in shock and overwhelmed by the work she’d have ahead of her this weekend, De-facto read out loud a headline from his Yahoo home page, about the massacre of students and teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. He clicked through and read the details, sketchy still at that moment, but enough to leave us wordless.

So instead, this is what I’m going to write: how Short-Pants and Buddy-roo can come home from school, anytime, anyday, and ask for anything the need, new ink cartridges, erasers gone missing, more glue sticks, cardboard poster boards, help organizing a meeting of their schoolmates, helpful reminders about what’s due and when. I may not be able to rally for them; but they can ask for anything they want and everything they need – even if it’s at the last minute – just as long as they come home from school. Please, please, just be sure to come home.

Dec 2 2012

Being Away

It usually starts with tip-toeing around the apartment in the early morning darkness, adding the last toiletry items to my suitcase and leaving a post-it note on the kitchen island with a last minute instruction about some detail that must be attended to in my absence. If time permits, a soft kiss on angelic foreheads of sleeping children and a light touch on De-facto’s shoulder before ever-so-gently closing the door behind me and heading down the stairs carrying suitcase and computer bag. Once out on the street, my rollaway valise is noisy against the cobblestone streets, rickety-rickety until the pavement turns smooth and the taxi stand is in sight.

A taxi ride to a train or a plane that takes me far away, and I find myself in a conference hotel somewhere, with the prospect of two or three or five nights without my family in reach.

“It must be hard, with all your travel,” people say.

It’s not. I like the fact that when I’m on a job – my work is intense, immersive and full-on – that I can be singular in focus. I can work until the work is done without having to switch gears to domestic matters. I need the hour of absolute quiet to wind down before going to sleep, and I need the hour of solitude upon walking up to keep my energy intact for the next day’s work. I actually like the break from my family.

I have colleagues who check in every day, more than once, keeping in touch with spouses and children. Oddly, De-facto and I don’t bother. He travels as much as I do, often leaving me at home with Short-pants and Buddy-roo for a week or more at a time. We’ll go days without talking to each other when one of us is on the road. An occasional email message will assure us that the other is still alive, but they’re usually short and sweet.

When the girls were little we thought it would be important to call home and touch base with them, like that would somehow be reassuring. It did just the opposite. My call would inevitably occur at the worst possible moment, interrupting the flow constructed by De-facto or by the babysitter. I remember De-facto was out of town and the girls and I were happily in our groove when he called to check in. At first, it was a delight for them, to hear his voice and have a chat. But once he hung up, they began to wail. All I heard for the rest of the day was how much they missed Papa.

I guess it’s a courtesy we give each other, De-facto and I, and it works both ways. When you’re gone, you’re gone; go do your thing and check in when you can. And when you’re home, you’re home; just keep calm and carry on.

It doesn’t mean I don’t think about them or that I don’t miss them. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love for one of those cherubs to crawl in for the morning cuddle (quietly) or that I don’t long to have a strong hug from De-facto and his thoughtful ear to talk to about all that’s happening. But we’ve somehow struck a balance that permits each one of us to pursue the professional and personal activities that will nourish us, without turning the idea of being away from home into a big deal or a bad thing.

The girls voice their disappointment about our absences, but they soldier on with one parent – or with our good caregivers when both De-facto and I must be away – and I think this is important for them to understand: Mama and Papa do interesting things. Someday, I tell them, you’ll go off to do interesting things too. They’re learning to be a little independent, forced to manage without my care every waking moment. And most important, they know first hand that when I go away, I come back. This must give them some sense of security, and it gives me a sense of freedom, much needed.

Plus the reunions are always so sweet.

It’s rare that I have two week-long programs back-to-back, but that’s the case for this trip. I’m only halfway through and knackered already, but I’m happy. Happy to be able to travel and do the work that I do; happy to have a family at home that, even though they might miss me, doesn’t mind so much, me being away.

The photograph of the Parisian street by Peter Turnley.

Nov 24 2012

The Best Sandwich

Up until now, November 21st was a date I thought I’d never ever forget, the way you remember the birthdays of your siblings or a wedding anniversary. Every year, slouching into the shorter, darker days of November, I’d anticipate the anniversary and think about where I was and what happened – and what could have happened – on that day eight years ago. But this year, the day came and went without a thought of it. Not until yesterday, when I was describing to a friend what for me is the very best part of Thanksgiving: the turkey sandwiches the day after.

The day before Sunday, November 21, 2004, I kissed the girls goodbye, checked the long note I’d left for the babysitter and made my way to the airport to fly to New York. De-facto’s family was congregating for my mother-in-love’s 75th birthday party. Much preparation had been done, decorations, food and drink, a parody Playbill has been produced to honor her theatrical career. It wasn’t just the family who’d come for the event, a huge crowd of friends had RSVP’d affirmatively to attend the celebration.

The morning of the party, we learned, through a series of disturbing phone calls from Paris, that Short-pants had fallen into a coma. An ambulance had come and taken her to the hospital. A CAT scan and MRI had revealed a tumor the size of an orange in the right frontal lobe of her brain. Surgery was required, urgently.

“Could she die?” I asked my friend, who’d dropped everything to accompany Short-pants to the hospital. A long silence before she answered, “Yes, she could.”

Within hours we were on our way to JFK and back to Paris. You might imagine the agony of that overnight flight. A telephone conversation with the surgeon, competing with the boarding announcements, informed us that she’d survived the surgery, but the doctor didn’t sound optimistic. His words before hanging up, and he switched to English to be sure I understood, “You’ll want to come directly to the hospital after you land.”

Which we did. The news was grim. The MRI images horrifying, the foreign mass in her brain like a hurricane on a weather map. The surgeon believed it was a cancerous tumor, and he’d tell us how to treat it when the lab tests came back. Much of his medical terminology was too much for me to consume and comprehend, my brain at its breaking point from the cocktail of shock, fear and jet-lag.

~ ~ ~

The waiting room of the neurosurgical intensive care unit was a tiny windowless room with dull textured wallpaper and mismatched furniture. On every wall, children’s drawings were mounted in black picture frames, the subject matter and brush stroke typical kindergarten genre: houses with happy smoke puffing out of chimneys, round green tree-tops, bold yellow suns in the corner of every picture. This did little to cheer the parents who spent hours in that room every day, when the nurses would ask us to leave our children so they could wash them, perform some procedure or medical test. Waiting out a surgery – that was the worst to endure, and the hardest to witness. The look of worry and fatigue on a parent’s face in a moment like that is heartbreaking.

Two days after our first meeting with the surgeon, he came to find us in that waiting room. He motioned for us to follow him to an empty office nearby, asked the nurse who occupied it to leave, and ushered us in.

“It is a great mystery to me,” he said, “but this is not cancer.” According to the lab report it was an abscess, an infection in her brain. This was an entirely different prognosis. No cancer. No radiation. No chemo-therapy. It required a long antiobiotic treatment, but there was a 99% chance of full recovery.

We occupied ourselves at Short-pants’ bedside for all the hours that the ICU nurses would permit us to be at her side, even though she was in a coma. Getting a turkey was the last thing our minds and our neighbors – the same ones who had gone with her that terrible Sunday – knew this and invited us to be part of their Thanksgiving dinner. De-facto and I reluctantly left the hospital early and joined them. I remember staring at my plate, piled with turkey and all the obligatory trimmings, listening to the laughter of everyone around the table, reminding myself that I had much to be thankful for: that the babysitter called the ambulance in time, that the surgeon had saved Short-pants’ life, that the illness she struggled with was not fatal and that she would recover – a miracle, given how perilous her condition had been just four days before.

But she was still in a coma, still in a lonely hospital room, and there were still so many questions. What caused it? How long would it take for the drugs to work? Would she have any brain damage as a result of the trauma? Would she be different? I was relieved for what I had to be thankful for, yet my gratitude was tempered by worry.

~ ~ ~

The next day, the nurses came to fetch us from the waiting room with good news. Short-pants had moved her fingers. She was starting to come out of the coma. De-facto and I sat beside her, chatting with her, hoping she could hear us, feeling hope for the first time. When we were asked to leave her room so they could change the bandages on her head, we found our friends waiting for us with two large shopping bags filled with foil-wrapped packages. In each one, the perfect turkey sandwich: a blend of white and dark meat, leftover stuffing, cranberry sauce, all squeezed between two thick slabs of bread. The waiting room was packed with other parents, many of whom we’d come to know during the hours of waiting and wondering in that room. How quickly these bonds had formed, as we suffered together, waiting out long surgeries, reeling from the doctor’s reports, waiting for a the nurses to come call for us to return to our children’s bedsides.

There were dozens of sandwiches, so we passed them out, explaining the tradition of the American Thanksgiving and how the cold turkey sandwich is as coveted by some as the feast itself. For a moment, the long faces in the room lightened, and there was chatter and laughter, as everyone tasted the homemade sandwiches, certainly an improvement over the hospital cantine. My appetite during this hospital adventure was particularly un-vigorous, but I do remember enjoying that sandwich. Maybe I finally believed that Short-pants really was going to get better. Maybe it was breaking bread with some strangers who had become friends by way an intense shared experience in the waiting room of the ICU. Whatever the reason, I’m sure it was the best turkey sandwich I ever tasted.

Oct 7 2012

A Little Edgy

I know it’s not a becoming word, the f-word. I manage to avoid its use in the presence of clients. It’s harder to edit myself in the more relaxed company of close colleagues or at a bar with friends. Of course I try to refrain from saying it in front of my children, but often the bodies attached to those innocent ears are the source of irritation and rage that elicits the use of the very word I’ve made a concerted effort to avoid.

I suppose this is a serious #fail as a mother. Not that it’s so frequent; it’s still a surprise when it happens and the kids still look at me in shock. Of course I immediately acknowledge that I’ve used a bad word, apologizing and instructing them, please, not to repeat it. Inside I’m kicking myself because I know they’re likely to use it sooner because of my carelessness. I don’t mean to be a foul-mouthed mom. I never heard my mother using the f-word, ever. I think the worst curse I ever heard from her was Jesus H. Christ on a crutch, or maybe an occasional Oh shit. At least here’s one example of me not turning into my own mother.

The thing is, I like the f-word. It’s expressive. It’s fun to say. It starts off all furry. Then there’s a deliberately passionless vowel. And it ends with the sharp bite of ck. It sounds like what it means. I’m not so wild about its use as a verb, but as a general expletive, it’s unsurpassed in its efficient expression of annoyance. It is the pinnacle of curse words.

~ ~ ~

It’s usually the high point of the day for me, watching the Daily Show. After De-facto marches the kids out the door to go to school, I refresh my coffee mug and set myself in front of the previous night’s episode. Sometimes I’ll wait until he returns from the school-run to watch it. If it’s an especially busy day I’ll hold off until bedtime; tucked into our covers with pillows propped behind us, we’ll open my computer to the web page – living abroad we can only view the show via the Internet – and sit back for 20 minutes of funny.

He’s a hero of mine, Jon Stewart, pointing out the absurdities in the news and revealing the illogical policies and practices of Republicans. He makes fun of the Democrats, too, but these days there have been more reasons to ridicule the Republicans. Until this week, that is.

The girls had gone to bed; the house was quiet. I suggested a viewing of the Daily Show before lights out and De-facto agreed. The episode that opened for us was the one in which Stewart reported on the Presidential debates that had aired the night before.

Everything he said about President Obama’s lackluster performance was true. It was a stellar job of poking fun at the campaign and calling out the shockingly sedate stance of the incumbent candidate during this political exercise. De-facto was laughing out loud. I knew it was funny, but I couldn’t laugh. I was too agitated.

I remember when I was little, watching the I Love Lucy show. Lucy would get herself in such a pickle, I’d get too nervous and I’d have to leave the study, where we watched television, and run through all the rooms of the house, several times, ultimately ending up in the hallway sitting on the stairs too upset to return to the TV show. Even though I knew it was just a TV program, it wound me up too much. I had to physically leave the room.

“I can’t look at it anymore,” I told De-facto, before bounding out of bed. I paced around the kitchen and the living room, on edge, cursing. I let the f-bombs fly.

I thought everyone was asleep. I thought wrong. My string of obscenities prompted Short-pants to run down the stairs to see what was the matter.

“What wrong, mama?” She looked alarmed.

“Your future!” I screeched.

I walked her back upstairs and told her my fears about what might happen if President Obama wasn’t re-elected and why I think we need him now, perhaps more than ever. I reminded her of previous discussions we’ve had about women’s rights. I talked about the growing anti-science stance of the extremists in the other party. I tried to explain the impact on the Supreme Court if Mr. Romney were to appoint the next two justices. Thoughts of the latter, almost provoking another f-bomb out of me right there in her presence.

“But I don’t have to worry,” she said. “I live in France.”

“That might not always be the case,” I said, thinking of the modest but consistent donations I’ve started making to my alma mater just in case she wants to go to university in the States.

I’ve become rather invested in the Obama campaign. I haven’t donated just $5 or $41; I’ve attended fundraising events here in Paris that require writing larger checks, the most recent, a Paris fashion-week event hosted by Anna Wintour and Scarlett Johansson. (Mick Jagger even came by.) I worry, daily, about the outcome of the Presidential election. I read Politico and The Dish religiously. Nate Silver is my second hero, after Jon Stewart.

I went to sleep last Wednesday night hopeful for at least an uneventful debate, or at best, a trouncing of the challenger. Thursday morning I scanned the emails from all the news services to which I subscribe, each subject heading more discouraging than the previous. I felt myself shrinking, message by message, until I had to close my laptop computer. I couldn’t read any more. Nobody was home with me, so I just said it out loud without apology: fuck.

~ ~ ~

Last night at the dinner table, after some light-humored nudging about using silverware instead of fingers and napkins instead of sleeves, Short-pants, in a gesture of turnabout-is-fair-play, told our dinner guest, a school friend of Buddy-roo, about how sometimes I let a curse word slip out, and how the other night I was downstairs circling the kitchen island in the dark when I used the f-word. Everyone at the table looked at me like I was the crazy woman that I guess I am.

Some things you can’t lie about, so I owned up to my mistake. But following this political race so closely, I guess I’ve been learning a little about spin.

“Listen,” I said, “ten years from now you’ll think I’m cool. You’ll be able to tell your friends that your mom’s got a little edge.”

“That’s right,” Short-pants smiled broadly, showing the food in her braces. “I’ll say, ‘My mom’s a little edgy.'”

Yeah, okay, maybe not.

Sep 6 2012

Things Could Happen

At what age do we start to tell our children about the terrible things that could happen? We try to keep them innocent for as long as possible, perpetuating stories like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. We encourage their kindness and fairness, wanting them to believe the world is a kind and fair place. We build a magic bubble around them so they can grow up feeling safe. I’m never sure if we’re investing in their optimism or shielding them from the harsher truth. Maybe a dose of both.

Buddy-roo thumped down the stairs for one last goodnight kiss while De-facto and I were watching a movie, arriving just in time to see the scene in which a bold manservant attempts to force himself upon a young maid, who, fortunately, manages to push him off her and escape.

“What was he doing?” she asked as I steered her back upstairs.

“He’s trying to hurt her, but she got away.” I didn’t elaborate, partly because I wasn’t sure how much of the attempted rape scene I wanted to explain to a not-yet-nine-year-old, but also because I wanted to watch the movie, not talk about it.

The next morning she descended for the morning cuddle – these are still happening – and after a moment of wordless staring at the ceiling and listening to the familiar morning sounds of cleaning trucks spraying water in the street and pigeons cooing outside the window, she brought it up.

“Why was that guy trying to hurt the girl in the movie last night?”

These are the conversations I wish we didn’t have to have, but I won’t avoid them. One of the reasons I’ve told my daughters how babies are made is so they know how to protect themselves. I can’t warn them to watch out for strangers, without telling them what strangers might do. They cannot defend themselves from an atrocity like a rape if they don’t know what it is or what to watch out for. I hate to frighten them, but I don’t want them to be in the dark.

I took a deep breath and explained that the mean guy was pushing himself on the young woman because he wanted to have sex with her.

“Why was she fighting him back?” Buddy-roo asked.

“Because she didn’t want to have sex with him.”

“Why didn’t she just say no?”

I explained how there are in the world some arrogant men – boys, too – who think it’s okay to force themselves on a woman. They think if she says no, she doesn’t really mean it. Sometimes they don’t even bother to ask.

“If you’re ever in a situation like this, you have the right to say no. Say it loud and clear, and then get out of there.”

I am lucky to have never encountered such a scenario, but I imagine it isn’t always easy to scream no and get out. The whole subject – whether its date-rape or an attack by a stranger – is much more complex and there is no one right way to escape. You’d want to protect your sexual dignity, but you also might have to save your life, if a weapon was involved. Difficult choices might be required. Things could happen.

~ ~ ~

An exhibit at the Hotel de Ville, C’étaient des Enfants, chronicles the story of the children who were deported to the war camps during World War II. A number of these children disappeared right from our neighborhood; almost every school within ten blocks of our house has a plaque to commemorate the children who were taken. Just a few streets away is the address of the apartment featured in Sarah’s Key, the story of a young girl separated from her family during the Vel d’hiv Roundup when, in the course of just two days, 8,000 Jews were collected and deported.

Last week I took the girls to see it. I could have waited a few days until school started and gone on my own or with De-facto. I knew there’d be haunting images, the kind that can produce nightmares. I knew I was putting a sad and frightening story in front of them, but despite the picture of horrific reality that would be revealed, I felt they should see it.

I had to explain, as we toured the exhibit, why only some of the children in the class photographs had stars sewn on their clothing, how in one case an entire class of students completely disappeared, how some families were surprised in the night and then separated and sent off to camps, how the French police cooperated while many neighbors turned a blind eye.

“How could they let that happen?” Short-pants asked, earnestly.

That’s the question, isn’t it? How could they, a modern society, allow a paranoid politician to rise to power and enact legislation that denies the rights of an entire law-abiding segment of the population? It’s preposterous, that this could ever have happened, and to such extremes. But it did. And not so long ago.

~ ~ ~

These days I read the news, and I must admit, some of it seems just as preposterous to me. For instance, it’s become commonplace for white-haired male politicians to sponsor legislation that has a negative impact on a woman’s right to reproductive health. A candidate who knows little about a woman’s anatomy, let alone the reproductive process – and who, remarkably, sits on a science committee – proclaims that a woman’s womb won’t allow fertilization if she’s raped. Another lawmaker proposed legislation that would criminalize miscarriage and make abortion completely illegal, without exception. The bill didn’t pass, but that it was even suggested, that it could possibly be considered illegal for a woman to choose to end a pregnancy that was a result of a rape, this seems barbaric to me.

These social conservatives would insist a woman give birth to a baby that she never intended to have, whether the result of a rape or a broken condom, and that she cannot afford to raise. Yet they would cut a welfare program that would support her when she doesn’t abort, and they would un-fund an organization like Planned Parenthood which – except in the case of rape – might have helped her avoid the pregnancy all together.

It’s preposterous, isn’t it?

I live in a country where abortion is legal, where a big mistake or a violating incident can be remedied. It’s not without angst – abortion is never an easy decision for a woman – but at least it’s without felony charges. If my daughters stay here, they will have the right to choose. But I fret about what’s happening now to women in the United States, how the rights our grandmothers and mothers fought for – my mother was a supporter of Republican Majority for Choice – like the right to make choices about our bodies, the right to obtain safe birth control, all these aspects of reproductive health that, incidentally, contribute to our economic health, that these could slowly be stripped away. How could we let this happen?

That’s the question, isn’t it? How could we, a modern society, allow paranoid politicians to rise to power and enact legislation that denies the rights of an entire law-abiding segment of the population? It’s preposterous, that this could happen. But could it?

Aug 25 2012

Close to the Ground

At the country house we are always close to the ground. Nature is prominently adjacent, in every direction. Walk out the door and there is grass. Behind the house a forest. Dust and dirt find a way inside, blowing in through the cracks and crevasses of old doors and windows, tracked in on little and big sized shoes. We are constantly touching the earth: tilling the garden, weeding, picking up vines and branches that have fallen or been pruned to the ground. Each day I walk to the edge of our property to contribute to the compost, grabbing with my hands piles of dirt to cover the empty vegetable peels, cantaloupe rinds and egg shells I’ve thrown on top of the pile of organic garbage. It is the opposite of our city life, where the earth is covered by pavement and half the time we are meters above the soil and the earth, where other people remove our garbage and clean our streets. In the country, we’re working all the time, our fingernails are constantly dirty, our feet always close to the ground.

This is in part due to the rustic quality of our country house, an early twentieth-century edifice, inhabited for the forty years before we purchased it by an eccentric bachelor and his pack of dogs. The price was very reasonable, though we probably still overpaid, and like all old houses it came with surprises, the kind that make you keep paying. A full septic tank needed to be emptied the first week we were here and must be replaced, according to the inspector, within the next two years. The roof leaks, floors are rotted. We knew it was a fixer-upper, but you never know how much fixing up there really is until you’re in it.

We’ve removed plaster and pointed our fieldstone walls, reconstructed floors and replaced windows – all by ourselves. Given the nature of our professions – plenty of talking, thinking, writing and planning – the chance to build or rebuild something with our hands is gratifying, if not humbling. It is hard and dirty work, digging in the ground and laying cement and molding plaster around stone. It is backbreaking work to remove beams and old boards and to mount insulation and wallboard. Though I help, and so do the girls, it is De-facto who does the bulk of this work, and mostly alone, during the weeks we are here. This is why it takes years to finish one room.

I know someday we’ll have a real kitchen, but for now ours is barely functional: a long, bare room with a narrow stove, a sink, a table and one cupboard. There is no place to put a Cuisinart or an electric milk frother. The toaster we have, inherited from a friend who left town, burns all toast unless closely observed. Our hand-me-down fridge has an interior freezer without a door, so De-facto fashioned one out of Styrofoam and packing tape. I refuse to invest in new appliances until we renovate the kitchen, so we manage somehow to function with what we have, a hodgepodge of furniture, dishes and cooking gear that remarkably turns out edible, and even occasionally delectable, meals.

I didn’t realize how valuable this was until a few summers had passed, when it became apparent to me that the renovation would not happen swiftly, when I found myself putting MacGuyveresque solutions in place for storage and other basic household functions, when I noticed that Short-pants and Buddy-roo were being equally creative. In the absence of their familiar toys and the playtime props of home, they make up games, create costumes out of leaves and ferns, toys out of sticks and stones, amusing themselves with things found in the house and outside in the fields and forest. They have the freedom to run about, of more value than most possessions, and they are connected to the ground.

An internet connection is harder to come by. Since we’re only here 10 weeks or so a year, we haven’t installed it. We walk down the lane and pilfer (with permission) from our neighbor, or ride a kilometer into the nearest village to jump on an open wifi network. Thanks to 3G, the news of the world still reaches us, but it seems more absurd than ever. We chop wood and carry water while slick politicians rant about moral issues that have little to do with how they might turn an economy around, widen the narrowing middle-class or govern a nation fairly. The rhetoric seems so far removed from anything that’s real or important. Forget Mr. Romney’s tax returns. I’d like to see him use a little elbow grease on my bathroom bowl as a measure of his character. I think every candidate should have to scrub a toilet to get on a ballot. It couldn’t hurt to remind what it’s like, close to the ground.

In a previous, potential life of mine – the one imagined in those what-if-I’d-kept-that-job or what-if-I’d-stayed-with-him moments – the second home would probably have had every comfort. Or if charmed by a house as needy as this one, architects and contractors would have been called in to complete their deeds before attempting to inhabit it. I don’t mean to assert that De-facto and I are impoverished or that our life is a trial. That’s not the case, we live comfortably. But we have made choices that prohibit a lavish life; opting to do things rather than have things. Though occasionally the longing for an ever-clean, semi-luxurious, well-appointed country house, the one where I’d lounge against plump cushions on a plush divan all afternoon before cooking up something on my La Cornue 6-burner stove is real and fierce.

In Paris, a cleaning woman comes weekly and our babysitter helps with ironing, but here, I sweep and clean and scrub and weed and patch and paint. The chores that earn the girls allowance at home are lightweight compared to the country house: here they do dishes, clean toilets, remove brush from the lawn and help with construction projects. They are expected to do their share, because there is much to be done and everyone has to pitch in. They are learning something that I think many in our generation of parents are forgetting to transmit to our kids – and I probably wouldn’t have thought to emphasize it if we didn’t have this broken-down house – how to be happy with less stuff, and how to do the dirty work that nobody likes to do. I hope that Short-pants and Buddy-roo grow up to fly high and far, but it can’t hurt them to know what it’s like to be close to the ground.

Jul 16 2012

Toro Suelto

Every fiesta morning at eight o’clock, a rocket fires and six bulls are released into the streets of Pamplona to run toward the bullring. They do not run alone. They are accompanied by a pack of steers, whose docile influence hopefully keeps the bulls running close together. Also running beside them are thousands of people who’ve been waiting in the street for the chance to run with the bulls even for just a few moments. This is the encierro.

I have been to the Fiesta San Fermín nine times and have never ever considered running with the bulls. It is a dangerous tradition that I respect, from our balcony. I’m told it started when the shopkeepers along the route, having closed their doors while the bulls run by, decided to join in, with the permission of the pastores who herd the pack of animals to the bullring. It grew into a local ritual. Hemingway made the fiesta popular among foreigners, who joined the party and the run. I’m privileged enough to be friends with some of the foreigners who are loved and respected by the local bull runners, for whom the encierro is an art and a serious sport. These are men easily distinguished from the drunken college students who show up and know nothing about the bulls or the run and whose presence in the street is often the greatest danger of all.

A good encierro is a fast run. It can take less than three minutes to cover the 800-meter distance. It’s a good run if the pack of bulls and steers stick together, if the bulls remain focused on running forward and pay little attention to the throngs of people running beside them, trying to maneuver their way to the plum running spot, just ahead of one of the horns. It’s not such a good run when a bull gets separated from the pack because he falls behind or literally falls down, and when he gets up he’s lost his mates. The toro suelto, a loose bull, stops and spins around, charging at any runner who happens to be in front of him. Usually a green-shirted pastore will appear with his long herding stick, a stick sometimes used to whack idiot runners, and redirects the bull forward to join the others at the end of the run. Sometimes it’s up to a courageous bull runner – the experienced ones know how and will dare – to turn the bull around and provoke it forward, before getting out of the way.

The entire encierro is broadcast, so the parts I cannot view from my balcony on the calle Estafeta I can see on television. It’s something to see the toro suelto stopped and spun around, confused. The bulls are so beautiful and noble; it’s perplexing to see them out of sorts.

~ ~ ~

Each and every fiesta I have my own suelto moment. The week starts out bright and convivial, with champagne and cheer and old friends greeting, music and dancing in the street, a whole week of unscheduled wildness ahead. But midway through the fiesta there’s a dip, from lack of sleep, too much drink, getting fed up with the gray sludge in the streets and the constant press of people. I always have one restless night when my mind won’t shut down and my train of thought is only of the dark side. I become convinced that everyone I know, in Pamplona and elsewhere, merely indulges me and that I’m a terrible mother abandoning my family to come to this sloppy party. It’s a lonely moment, laying in the dark, unable to sleep, the dull roar of constant revelers in the street audible even with the best of earplugs. It’s the moment I feel out of the pack, and turned around, but fortunately, too tired to charge.

It’s remarkable to me that even in the company of so many fun-loving, open-hearted fiesta-thriving people – anyone you meet in the street will nod and smile at you – that such a lonely moment can prevail. The only thing to do is ride it out; the mid-fiesta plunge always passes and with the rising of the sun, the spirited alegria of the fiesta returns.

~ ~ ~

Another always: how I leave Pamplona before the fiesta ends. Two days of incessant partying remain, but I never finish with my friends. There have been years when I lamented my early departure. Other years, like this one, I felt ready to leave. My farewell breakfast included some beautiful jotas, a reprise of singing attention from Puchero, hugs and kisses and goodbyes, followed by the sound of suitcase wheels rolling along the pavement to my last bar in town, where the taxi meets me. It’s just over an hour’s ride to the train that takes me to France and to my family. I always keep my pañuelo and my faja on for the entire ride. I’m the only one in white and red, the suelto amongst a train full of people dressed in blue jeans and regular colors.

At the other end of the train ride, De-facto – donned in white pants and T-shirt and a thin red pañuelo bearing the name of a cheapest brand of patxaran, something I must have left behind after a previous fiesta return – swept me into the car and on winding roads through villages, fields and forests to our country house. Short-pants, Buddy-roo and my mother-in-love cheered my arrival and sang a song they’d rehearsed for my return. There were fierce hugs from my not-as-little people, both of whom had grown taller since I last saw them. Dinner was waiting on the table. Ten days of stories were flying at me from every direction. I looked around, stunned, not unhappy to be in their presence, but somehow not quite in sync, not yet facing their direction. Like the toro suelto, I’d been somewhere else, out of the pack, loose and turned around.

~ ~ ~

A few days pass and I am back in step with my herd. Little by little I take up the routines that we follow here: writing in the morning, a run to the store before midday, pruning grapevines and rose bushes and attempting to keep up with the laundry. My dirty white clothes, soaked for two days in a mix of Coca-cola and bleach before they were washed – a secret recipe for removing the gray sludge – are now draped across every clothesline, drying in the sun. Long, thick nights of sleep, deeper because of the country quiet, restore my energy and return my attention to my family. I was away from them for three weeks to walk the Camino, and another ten days before and during the fiesta. I’ve had plenty of time away from my pack. But that’s something I need, that time away, and it’s exactly what makes it feels so good to be back, running side-by-side with them now.

Jun 20 2012

The Hand-Off

They hoisted their heavy cartables up on to their back, the lift and twist on to one arm and then reaching the other back, blindly, to find the strap and slip beneath it. It’s a motion they enact several times a day without thinking. Each time I see it, I wince. Their school bags are so heavy. The number of books and notebooks the girls are required to cart back and forth, daily, is pretty serious. Some days it feels like Short-pants‘ bag weighs more than the pack I carried on the Camino.

They trampled down the four flights of worn, wooden steps and out the door to the street. The morning was fresh, a downpour during the night had cleared the air and cleansed the streets. Short-pants grabbed one of my hands and Buddy-roo seized the other, sandwiching me between them.

We talked through the order of events for the day: how I’d come back to school to help out with the line rehearsal for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the year-end production of their theater atelier in which I was also implicated, having volunteered to create and manage the changing of sets via Powerpoint presentation; how our “sitter” would come to get Short-pants and sweep her off to an orchestra rehearsal; how Buddy-roo would go home with a friend because I had an appointment, how the sitter would pick her up later and get them dinner; how the rest of the week’s homework had to get done early because of the school play. Every day has been like this, a full schedule of meetings and hand-offs, the three of us shuffling around to all the final rehearsals for theater, orchestra and tap-dance performances that culminate during these final weeks of June.

It was perhaps not the best planning that De-facto would leave Paris the day after I returned from Spain. I’d hoped to be on the Camino few days longer, but the reality of my responsibilities stepped into the spotlight and delivered a long monologue about how I’d been away already a luxurious amount of time and I had no right to even think of sulking a moment about returning home a few days earlier than my original plan. And by the time I got to León, I missed my family something fierce. I started to dream about the girls throwing their thin, pale arms around me, the sweet smell of their breath, and their soft, smooth, hands in mine.

Apparently they missed me, too. The day before I returned home I got a message on my voicemail from Buddy-roo, describing what had been the “worst day of her life” and how she wished I’d come home. Once I was in the door, after two days of train travel to get there, De-facto appeared with a small tub of a water and a sponge, in homage to my experience at the Ermita de San Nicolas, and washed my weary pilgrim feet. The next day, however, he put his own feet on an airplane and left me in charge in Paris.

After weeks of walking slowly through life, I was immediately asked to sprint. The multi-tasking, order-barking, for the third time please brush your teeth, up-in-the-morning-out-the-door routine a stark contrast to the contemplative preparation of my backpack each day before setting off to walk on my own. The fetching and feeding of children, the hither and yonder to get them to this and that rehearsal, catching up with the details of our household, resuming my professional duties, let alone catching up with any friends put many things on the plate that I had so thoroughly emptied during my walking sabbatical.

This is probably just what St. James had ordered for me. I’d been gone for nearly a month and I’d forgotten how to be a parent. Had De-facto been around, I’d have let him keep the lead role. In his immediate and complete absence, I was forced to remember how and when to cook for the kids, how to help them stay on top of their homework, how to motivate them to do the chores that earn their allowance, how to read with them a bedtime and sing them soothing songs to coax them to sleep.

I did, however, forget to suggest a bath, and the girls went for a good long stretch without one. The day after my return, I’d washed and dried every towel we own. Nearly a week later I noticed they were still perfectly folded on the towel rack, untouched.

Maybe there were a few other things I forgot about mothering: like how to bury my nose in my computer, or how to send texts on my phone on the walk home from school, how to snap at them sharply when I’m distracted or frustrated. I’m hoping these might remain absent from my fashion of parenting.

Especially the electronic part. I see so many people on the street, walking and tapping their thumbs on their smartphones, oblivious to the friends beside them and the world around them. If this is the only thing I learn from the camino – when you walk, just walk – it’d be enough. How good it feels to stop the constant multi-tasking and just be with the sights and sounds of even an urban stroll, to be fully present with my daughters, but also with myself. My feet are now in street shoes rather than hiking boots, stepping on pavement rather than a dirt track or a hiking trail, but why should that make a difference?

Last night, a friend helped us out, fetching Buddy-roo at the cabinet médical after a routine eye exam to take her to a tap-dance rehearsal. Short-pants and I, after our own eye check-ups, went back to school to attend a presentation about the class project, an imaginary overland voyage through Europe to Russia. The kids learned a number of songs during their pretend travels, and they lined up in the front of the room to sing them to us enthusiastically.

I scanned the group of long tall bodies, remembering when Short-pants and her classmates were squat and miniature, marveling at how they’ve all grown up. It dawned on me that this was the end of their time together in the primary school. Next year they’ll move up to the collège, with the more independent and demanding schedule of middle school, and probably a heavier book bag.

But last night they were still kids, an innocent, exuberant chorus, trusting each other, their teachers, and all the parents in the room. I hadn’t expected the rush of nostalgia prompted by the sight of these now-bigger little people collected together, about to walk into the next stage of their life. I looked around and saw that I was not the only mother with her hand on her chest and a tear on her cheek, that others were equally moved by this moment.

We’ve walked our children to this point, held their hands, juggled schedules to get them to all the places they needed to go to be able to be right here, now, with everything to look forward to. They’re almost out of our grasp, which is why it’s so important to cherish those precious moments when they still offer up a small, soft hand on the way to school, and why I’m so glad I came back home to do just that.