Jan 7 2011

Porch Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

He was expert at having the last word.

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 31 2010

A Year, Defined

Her coughing echoed off the walls of our hotel room. Just as I’d doze off, Buddy-roo would cough again, violently, waking herself up, and keeping De-facto and me from any semblance of real sleep. Only Short-pants, who could sleep through a train wreck, got any shut-eye.

The cough started last weekend, on the tail end of a mild cold, a typical flight-path for this kind of winter malady. Here is every parent’s dilemma: hover over your child and rush her to the doctor every time she sneezes?
Or help her gut it out because, usually, a little TLC, tea and honey and homemade chicken soup will let it run its course. It’s never comfortable, but kids get sick – everyone gets sick – and you get through it. Of course, Short-pants once had a cough and flu-like thing that turned out to be a brain abscess and required surgery and six weeks in intensive care. This could have turned us into full-fledged helicopter parents. We’ve tried, very deliberately, not to overreact to subsequent illnesses based on that experience, which was a statistical anomaly. I’m kinda proud of that.

Why is it that a child’s cough or cold always gets worse the day just before a holiday weekend or in the middle of a vacation? It’s like they wait to get really sick until your trusted pediatrician is out of reach or until you’re in a strange place where you can’t handily call a doctor. Then you wished you’d addressed it when they were just a little sick, except then you’d feel a bit silly, calling your doctor because of a runny nose.

After one particularly severe coughing fit, I switched places with Short-pants (who barely woke up and moved to the other bed like a zombie) in order to be next to Buddy-roo. I wanted to check her heart-rate, to feel if she had a fever, to try to slow her breathing by slowing mine beside her, or at least try to reassure her with a mother’s embrace.

“Mama,” she said, in that sweet middle-of-the night voice, “the coughing is keeping me from continuing the beautiful dream I was having.”

“I’m sorry peanut,” I soothed her, “tell me about your dream.”

“I was standing in the courtyard at school and there was a big white cloud stretched across the sky. The cloud got closer and closer and I saw it was Grammy standing on the cloud in a really beautiful dress with gold wings…”

She erupted into another fit of coughing.

“…and then I stepped onto the cloud, it was soft and warm, and then I had wings and a halo, too. Just like her.”

I’m glad this felt like a beautiful dream to Buddy-roo, but to me it had the makings of a nightmare. Was this a message from my mother or just a coincidence? I vowed to myself that we’d see a doctor, and soon.

During the last week of my mother’s life, we talked about communicating from the other side. “If you can,” I pleaded, “could you tell Short-pants to pick-up her room?” It’s true I wouldn’t mind such a nudge from the afterlife, but the real reason I said it was that I knew it would make my mother laugh – the full circle of it all – and she did. Laugh, that is.

After some back scratching and tandem breathing, Buddy-roo’s coughing subsided and she fell into an even sleep. But now I was wide awake, left to further consider the meaning of her possibly prophetic dream, after which I turned to something I’d been pondering all day: my defining moment(s) of the last year. This is one Reverb10 prompt that I’d considered skipping; I think I’ve written enough about it already. Click on this blog’s dying or grieving tags and you’ll see I’ve documented, explored and exhausted the subject. Even my most loyal readers must be bored with it by now.

But there in the darkened hotel room, pitch black but for one thin line of pre-dawn light where the drawn curtains didn’t quite meet, the rest of my family slept and I ran through it all again, the whole constellation of moments that defined 2010 for me, plotted around the event of my mother’s death.

I remember at the calling hours at the funeral home, when, for a moment I actually stood outside myself, like an observer, watching the scene unfold. I saw my brother, my sister and myself greeting the friends and colleagues of my mother – of both my parents, in fact – who came to pay their respects. There’s a remarkable thing that happens at a time like this, a mutual healing occurs when the people who’ve come to console you discover their own grief and you end up consoling them. I think this is why we have calling hours and funerals and memorial services. Grief has its private moments, but its public expression has a place in the healing process, too.

I saw that somehow, despite our own exhaustion and grief, we’d pulled ourselves together and done what had to be done to move things along, to make all the arrangements, to show up and dig deep and find the words to appreciate each person who’d come to console us. I saw the three of us, doing this just the way my parents would have done it, just the way they would have wanted us to do it. And I knew that if my mother were watching, she’d have been proud.

The defining moment, perhaps, is what happened next, when I realized that I didn’t need to make her proud anymore, and I hadn’t needed to for a long time. I understood, in a deeper way, that it’s about making myself proud – not her, not my father, but me. Or even thinking ahead – maybe it’s a little bit about making my children proud, the way my siblings and I were so very proud of our mother.

What defined me this year was not that I lost my mother, but what’s happened since she died. Not to go overboard here; it’s too easy to canonize her now that she’s gone and it should be said that we had our fair share of frustrating, eye-rolling moments, typical for most mother-daughter relationships. But in the end, we were good friends and we relied upon each other. I’ve had to learn how to be afloat without her gentle ballast in the background, and that is what will define this year for me.

At breakfast the next morning I asked the hotel proprietor to suggest a local doctor. She could, it turns out, and she even made a few calls on our behalf, returning with several options, the best of which was a general practitioner with open office hours until 10:30 am, in the village halfway between our hotel and the ski mountain.

Vous avez évité une catastrophe,” the doctor said, pressing her stethoscope against Buddy-roo’s chest and looking at her throat and ears with the proper lighting. Buddy-roo coughed, violently, and smiled. “What’s a catastrophe?” she asked me, in English. “A big mess, and we’ve avoided it,” I answered. “Is that good?” she asked. I nodded, feeling her forehead.

At the pharmacy I handed over the prescription, waiting and watching as the pharmacist meticulously fulfilled the doctor’s requests, one item at a time. He placed each box of medicine in front of me with an explanation of how much, how often, at what time of the day to administer it. When he put the package of suppositories – for a cough – on the countertop, he must have noticed my expression. “It’s the French way,” he said, in English, smirking at me. I’m pretty sure he never had to administer a suppository to a 7-year old child. If he did, I bet he’d choose another form, despite its slower efficacy.

Our last day of skiing could continue as planned. I was prepared to sit it out in the lodge with her, but Buddy-roo wanted to have another lesson and another few hours on the slopes. At least now she was fortified with some medicine and tonight she’d sleep without interruption. In a week’s time she’ll be fine; already she seemed on the mend. I felt the clouds lifting, rising high and away, and I knew that if my mother were watching, she’d have been proud.

Not that it matters (ahem).

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Kathryn Fitzmaurice: Prompt: Defining moment. Describe a defining moment or series of events that has affected your life this year.

Dec 28 2010

Everything’s (just) Okay

For days I’ve been chewing on this one: a moment that offered me proof that everything was going to be alright. I really want to answer this Reverb10 prompt, because it’s a good one, because I like the author, I like her blog and her book, a signed copy of which was among the presents under our tree this Christmas.

Honestly, I cannot think of a moment in the last year when I felt that everything was going to be okay. I can think of many moments like this in my life: for instance when Short-pants was released from the hospital. Even though we had months of physical therapy ahead and our lives were totally bouleversé, I remember the exquisite feeling of relief, pushing her stroller down the central road of the hospital complex toward the main exit; the winter sun low in the sky that was otherwise a flawless blue, literally and figuratively.

But this year, not that things weren’t eventually okay – they are – but I don’t remember ever having that reassuring feeling that they would be. I don’t remember a pivotal stop-in-time moment when it felt like a corner had been turned and things were going to be alright. Mostly I remember feeling like I was drifting from a state of really-pretty-hard to not-awful-but-not-okay, orphaned in my grief, putting one foot in front of the other because that’s what you do; life marches us forward and we manage to keep in step. Pancakes are made, coats are zipped, children rushed out the door and phone calls are made, emails are answered, meetings attended. The industry of being a parent and a professional inches us forward and it’s all like clockwork if you don’t think too hard about it or let yourself feel what’s missing. That’s what the rest of the world expects, not to think or feel too much. Grief is such an imposition, a thing spoken about in hushed tones.

But if you’re like me, and you can’t turn off the ticking thoughts, or quiet that nostalgic heart, it’s hard to answer society’s numbing call to put on a good face and put it all behind you. You do it, but inside you’re trudging along. Yeah, you’re okay, but not really.

I think – at least for me – 2010 wasn’t a year of being alright. It was a year of being rather a bit hard then just being okay. It wasn’t my year, this year. I don’t want to be overly dramatic, I know it could have been a lot worse. There are millions of people in the world who suffer much more than I have. But I think it’s okay to acknowledge that the last year had a heavy cloud hanging over it – at least over my little piece of the universe.

Moving into 2011 isn’t anything but a numeric change; January 1, 2011 is only 24 hours later than December 31, 2010. But somehow the flipping of digits offers a mental satisfaction of a change, a shift, a sense of next. The prospect of a new year means a new start, a clean slate. I will have some one-year anniversaries to move through in the coming months, no doubt, but I’ll forge through them and then, maybe, finally, I’ll have that feeling that things are going to be alright. And when I do, I’ll write about it here.

However, I did share this prompt with Short-pants, who knew instantly what to write. She gave me permission to publish her reply:

I was entering CM1 – the 4th grade – and I was nervous because it was the class that I knew the least about, when you talk about teachers. On September 2, 2010, it was the first day of school and I was worried. I wondered who my teacher would be. When I finally saw the teachers, they both looked nice. My worries escaped from me, suddenly. I knew everything would be okay.

Here we are in the homestretch, winding down the old year, heading into the new year, hoping – and knowing, I guess – that everything will be alright. Let’s hope the new year bring all good things to all of you – to all of us.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Kate Inglis: Prompt: Everything’s OK. What was the best moment that could serve as proof that everything is going to be alright? And how will you incorporate that discovery into the year ahead?

Dec 26 2010

Picturing Endrina

I used to keep photo albums. Once or twice a year I’d sort through the pictures, pulling them out of a tall stack of black cardboard envelopes, each one with two or three-dozen pictures that had been developed after a trip or a holiday or a gathering of friends. I’d put the photographs in some kind of narrative order and, with immense satisfaction, glue them into the albums. I kept at it during Short-pants’ earliest years, and even managed an album or two for Buddy-roo, not wanting her to suffer from second-child-with-hardly-any-photographs syndrome. But sometime around Buddy-roo’s second birthday, I stopped adding albums to the cupboard. Partly because life got really busy, partly because I stopped using film, partly because a dozen different digital options for storing and sharing photographs popped up on the web, changing they way everyone keeps their photographs, including me.

In a way it’s unfortunate. There’s something about a hand-made album that carries a warmth that an on-line slide-show cannot duplicate, even with a music track. The mother-in-love just sent De-facto two beautiful photograph albums she’d made for him for Christmas, pictures of him and his family from childhood and adolescence. You could smell the love on the pages, with every turn. But life is digital now, and time is scarce. I suppose I’ve opted to blog instead of keeping scrapbooks and photo albums.

A provocation to select a photograph, from all those taken in the last year, that captures something essential about who I am (or want to be) inspired yesterday’s thorough review of the haphazardly-organized 2010 picture file. This retrospective reminded me that the last year was an up and down journey, with spikes of grief and bliss in rapid succession. But the choice was easy. You may not think so because I’ve chosen two, but they go together, they were snapped within twenty seconds of each other. They both capture me in my favorite condition of alegría, a Spanish word that means joy or jubilation, but within the context of the fiesta San Fermin, its meaning has an exponential quality.

The stocky man who has effortlessly thrust me into the air, much to my surprise, is fondly referred to by his friends as Puchero. He is a force, blunt and direct, with a crass sense of humor. But when he sings the jota ballads – and during San Fermín he does so every morning at our breakfast table – his robust energy, directed through the poetic words of these songs, is beautiful and often tear-inducing.

In these photographs I am a bit surprised – I did not expect Puchero’s abrupt dance moves – but a good surprise is followed by fun, and it’s clear I am having a good time. I am in a state of pure joy. I feel as free and alive as I will feel all year long. I am who I know myself to be, without the labels of a profession or a family. I’m just me, experiencing alegría.

I am Endrina.

The Reverb10 prompt about changing my name for a day, at first, didn’t particularly inspire me. But as I was writing about these choice photographs of the year, I realized that if I could call myself by a different name, it would be Endrina. This is the small, dark berry that is pressed to make my favorite elixir, patxaran. This is also the name I offer when, at the fiesta, I want to be friendly without giving my real name to a stranger who’s asked. (I’ve also been Flora, with my sister Fauna, but that’s another story.) Endrina is who I am when I am taking a brief vacation from the responsibilities and the consequences of my life. She is who I am when I’m experiencing, fully, alegría.

Photo credit: Guillermo Navarro is the photographer who captured Endrina (and Puchero) in rare form. See more of his photos here.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to two prompts. One is from Tracey Clark: Photo – a present to yourself. Sift through all the photos of you from the past year. Choose one that best captures you; either who you are, or who you strive to be. Find the shot of you that is worth a thousand words. Share the image, who shot it, where, and what it best reveals about you. The second is from Becca Wilcott: New name. Let’s meet again, for the first time. If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why?

Dec 22 2010

Have Grip

Traveling is my drug of choice. I love to be en route, suitcase at my side, tickets in hand. I’m happy to travel short or long distances, with friends or family or all by myself. It doesn’t matter, I just like to be in the midst of a voyage. Ramping up for the trip is another story – De-facto will attest to the fact that I am a complete grump while in preparation. But once I’ve locked the door behind me, and the adventure is ahead, I’m a happy traveler.

I remember as a child, we’d get dressed up to go on a trip. Our annual spring visits to Florida to see my grandparents meant putting on our best clothes. It was a big deal, a very sophisticated thing, to be at an airport about to board a plane. This is why I have never worn a track-suit on an airplane, and never will.

I once had a dream-job that permitted me to travel to just about every European capital. I flew business class and stayed in comfortable hotels. Locals on the ground, intent to impress, treated me well. I wasn’t a tourist, but I wasn’t a regular in-and-out-of-town business traveler. I was something in between and it suited me perfectly.

Flying was nearly effortless then, in the days before security measures force us to remove belts and shoes and experience intimate strip searches. I’ve always been partial to train travel anyway, and I choose this whenever the option exists. Put me on a train, speeding through country landscapes and swaying in the backdoor of every city en route, this is my state of bliss.

De-facto loves traveling as much as I do. When he was in his late twenties, he quit his job and took a year to travel around the world. I was living in Hong Kong at the time and his mother, who I knew first, told him to look me up. He took down my name and number, but never called. I wasn’t in a very good state-of-mind at the time, so it’s just as well. Years later, the night we met, when he heard my name he said, “Oh that’s you? Your name is in my journal.” This was enough to start falling in love with him: He kept a journal and my name was already in it. (And he loved to travel.)

The girls travel like fish in water. Short-pants took her first steps – not just the stumbling ones, but the six or seven or eight steps in succession that constitute walking – in the Charles de Gaulle airport while we waited to board a plane to Johannesburg. Buddy-roo has traveled to South Africa as well, and she was conceived in Mexico while her sister took a nap in that ever-so-portable pack-n-play. They’ve both traveled to Cambodia and to other less exotic but equally interesting destinations in Europe and the United States. They obtained their passports at the age of one month; already they’ve had to renew.

I think if we’ve done anything right by these girls, it’s giving them a second fluent language and then making sure they aren’t at all afraid to get on a train or plane and go somewhere new. It’s in their blood now, too.

But like any drug, too much can be toxic. I might have overdosed on travel in 2010. I flew over the Atlantic twelve times, half of those flights to the west coast. I went the other direction, too, a long haul to India and while there enjoyed (if you can say that) a few harrowing automobile rides that equal any of my crazier youthful travel adventures. I trained and planed around Europe and through the Chunnel. I traveled somewhere every month, and often twice in a month. I wore out two suitcases and counted a lot of miles. But I depleted my stamina for travel. The last trip was a rough one, I just wanted to stay home. This is unusual for me.

That would explain why De-facto and I have failed to organize any kind of a trip for this upcoming holiday. Our dream of several days trolling tapas bars in San Sebastian is still alive, but neither one of us has succeeded in executing any of the details to make it happen. A friend sends SMS messages about snow and skiing and a place to stay in Switzerland, enticing us to get some winter exercise. We haven’t said no, we just haven’t booked a ticket. I don’t want to stay at home in Paris next week, too many consecutive days of the girls on top of each other with nothing to do is a brutal thought. But I’m too fatigued by the travel of the last year to do anything about it. My own pillow feels like too much like a luxury.

Deep inhale. This is certainly temporary. I know if I’m stationary too long the feet get itchy. I need to move and be on the move, it’s hereditary. My mother and her mother were fantastic travelers. Their motto: Have grip will travel. That looks to be my mantra again in 2011. Already I’m scheduled to be in Florida in January, and – get this – in New Zealand in March. That’s going to be a long haul trip, the number of hours in flight dehydrates me just thinking about it. But you can count on this: I don’t care how long it is, I won’t be wearing a track suit.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Tara Hunt: Prompt: Travel. How did you travel in 2010? How and/or where would you like to travel next year?

Dec 20 2010

A Girl and Her Toys

For years, I have avoided giving away my favorite childhood toys. I allowed them to gather dust in my mothers backroom, stowed away and yet accessible for her friends who visited with children, or for her grandchildren, when they visited. It is true that these toys were put to good use whenever young persons belonging to me or to others were guests in our house. But this is not the reason they remain in our possession.

As long as my mother lived in that big old house where it was really no bother to store them, I could avoid the inevitable: the task that all my peers must have executed years ago, the disbursement of their personal childhood belongings, including their favorite toys. Letting go of these toys is letting go of my childhood.

I collected Fisher Price toys. Even in junior high school. I owned the house, the school, the airport, the A-frame, the houseboat, the camper, the playground set, the village and the castle. The boys across the street owned the barn and the garage, and the village, which coupled with mine, made for a metropolis on those occasions when we held what we called a Fisher Price reunion, when we set up every toy we owned in my living room, creating a veritable city of Fisher Price life.

For years after I knew there was no Santa Claus, I pretended to believe so that each year I could request the latest Fisher Price model. I amassed the larger and more complex toys during those years, playing with them in private, without informing my school friends. I wasn’t playing. I was collecting. Fuzzy line, that.

These toys came in handy. My brother’s children enjoyed them, and my own girls certainly put them to good use. We’d barely arrive at my mother’s house before the girls would beg me to bring out the Fisher Price toys. Buddy-roo especially could recall the details of each one, and would speak about them long after we’d returned from our visit. She still asks for them. She misses Grammy; she says so carefully, knowing that my grief is still close the surface. It doesn’t inhibit her from asking: What’s happening to all those toys? They were yours weren’t they? Why don’t you bring them here?

I know I ought to donate them to a children’s toy-drive or to a daycare center or a needy family. Or give them to the recycling: they are toys that no longer pass the safety test, though aesthetically and functionally they are far superior to what Fisher Price is compelled to manufacture today with all the safety constraints. I should do something, I should let them go.

Except giving them away feels too harsh. I have lost enough this year. Losing your mother is surprising – you think okay I can handle this, I’m prepared, but you cannot because you had no idea how integrated she was into everything in your life; you had no idea how it would floor you and how lost you would be without that person to tether you, even if by now, in your forties, it was a quiet, grown-up kind of tethering.

Here’s what I am avoiding: the inevitable distribution, donation or destruction of my most treasured childhood toys. I’m avoiding everything that this stands for. You fill in the blanks. Or, consider this: maybe I’m avoiding the voice of the rational adult who wants me to let them go. Sell them on eBay, she says, without sympathy. They are originals, antiques, worth some real cash. Or give them away, to someone who needs them. Let go of them.

I don’t want to give them away. They sit in my mother’s basement – I removed them from the backroom – gathering moisture and dust while I wait for the house to sell. Once it does, I’ll have to make a decision. Sell them? Move them to storage? Box them up and ship them?

Buddy-roo wants me to ship them to France. We don’t have room for the whole lot here in Paris, but I contacted a few shipping companies, anyway, just out of curiosity, to determine the cost. It’s not unreasonable.

Give me my bonus points, if not for wisdom or courage, at least for honesty: I’m not ready to give away these toys. But do I dare to keep them, as unreasonable as that might be?

Maybe I should, maybe I will ship them. And when they get here, I’ll get on my hands and knees and set them up, just like the old days. Short-pants and Buddy-roo and I, we’ll will make a whole world of Fisher Price, moving the little wooden people around in their little plastic cars, playing out all their imagined stories. We’ll have a ball with all my old toys. Tell me, why would I avoid that?

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Jake Nickell: Prompt: Beyond avoidance. What should you have done this year but didn’t because you were too scared, worried, unsure, busy or otherwise deterred from doing? (Bonus: Will you do it?)

Dec 16 2010

The Posse

Over the years, gradually, it’s grown – this gang of girls. We share in common an extraordinary event, the best party of the year, every July, and although the duration of our stay in Pamplona varies depending on finances and family or work commitments, that moment – when the gun goes off and the champagne flows and the cathedral bells ring – is a precious moment when we are reunited and ready for anything to happen. Others start their new year on the first of January or in September with the new school season. The PPP (the Pamplona Pussy Posse) starts its year on July 6th at noon o’clock, and with a bang.

Dressed in white with red sashes and panuelos, we have our daily rituals, borrowed or invented over the years. We all know the general schedule (the Fiesta Nazi has done her best to train us) so if for some reason you don’t make it home or if you get distracted and pulled off to lunch with other friends, or you need a nap, or to put your feet up, you still know where to go, and at what time, in order to rejoin the posse. We are predictable that way, and yet within our rhythm there is deviation and surprise: a new favorite barman, a newly discovered out-of-the-way restaurant, a place to better view the fireworks.

The founding members of the posse are, though we don’t dwell on it, on the other side of forty. The younger members of the PPP are in their twenties and there’s a thirty-something amongst us, too. Together, we represent a range of the feminine experience. Young, daring, sexy things becoming thoughtful beauties and turning into witty, wiser (and still rather wanton) women. I’d like to think that when we’re out and about, we blend together. I know I’ve got a few more wrinkles and lot less stamina, but every one of us is laughing loud from the belly, dancing deep from the heart. These days, the younger ones get more attention, but I don’t mind as long as somebody buys us a drink while they’re flirting with our younger friends.

The posse experiences the fiesta fully. We watch the encierro every morning, vigilant for our friends who are running. At the corrida we bite our knuckles, shedding tears and/or applauding if it’s beautifully fought. We dance anyplace where there is music to dance (which is everyplace), turning strangers into friends at each stop. We befriend barmen, street cleaners and pastores. We stumble upon a neighborhood party, or follow a band meandering through the side-streets of the city. But there’s something that happens between us, in the middle of the non-stop revelry, when we look around and recognize how absolutely privileged we are to be here in the midst of it this madness, and to be in each other’s wild company.

In the wee morning hours (or else in the high heat of the day after a siesta) we’re splayed on the couch in the one air-conditioned room of our rented apartment, feet up on the table or soaking in a tub of ice-water, telling our stories. Funny stories about what’s happened to us at the fiesta morph into other stories about things in our lives outside the Pamplona party that we share, things that drive us, inspire us, annoy us, or amuse us. I love these talks. You can’t plan them; they happen spontaneously.

I couldn’t plan this, either – I wasn’t even aware of it until I was in the middle of writing this post – what I would gain from being part of this circle of women of disparate ages and life experiences. It’s one thing to be friendly with a few younger women who are at different places in their life, to be a colleague, or a mentor. It’s a whole different ballgame to go through what we go through in Pamplona, the intense highs and lows, moments of elation and disappointment back-to-back, feeling free and wild and strong, and then feeling instantly vulnerable as a result.

Knowing these women this way – and letting them know me – gives me a perspective about the curve of my own life. Who was I when I was at that age and stage? Who will they be, when they are in my place? And who and what are we all becoming?

Those heart-to-heart late-night talks could happen anywhere, I suppose, but the exchange – and that’s the operative word, exchange – is somehow made more intense by the backdrop of the world’s greatest party, the boom-boom-boom of the music and people living out loud in the street, the constant roar all week long, all-day and all-night, these phenomenal moments when we get to be free, we get to be foolish, we get to be fierce, we get to be with friends, when we get to be the posse.

Photo credit, for the middle shot: Jim Hollander. (I have no idea who took the other two pictures.)

Dec 15 2010

Her Hands

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

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

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

Dec 14 2010

On Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s De-facto.

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

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

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

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

Dec 13 2010

An Energetic Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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