Nov 6 2014

The Good Life

I cleared out the fridge, making swift decisions about what to pack in the cooler, what to discard because it wouldn’t travel and wouldn’t last until our return. I’d packed three small suitcases the night before – we keep a set of clothes at the country house so we don’t need to take much – and created the shopping bag stuffed with things to take with us: the rug that doesn’t quite work in our living room, an old lamp, and some worn clothes being retired to the country house wardrobes. I thought I’d gotten a head start, but as usual, I found myself scrambling at the end, rushing around pulling things together when we wanted to have left Barcelona an hour before.

De-facto commanded Short-pants to help him carry the bags down to the rental car, while Buddy-roo occupied the dog, who was suddenly very winston_in_carnervous, seeing all the activity. Did he know what was going on? Did he see all the bags and think we were leaving him? Did he sense our mild stress, always present at the moment of departure? What do dogs think? Now that we have one, I wonder about this.

A final sweep of the house to make sure the lights were off and the windows locked, and we all piled in the car – the dog, too – and headed north to France. Winston stepped around and on top of the girls in the back seat, unsure of whether to burrow himself between the two of them or take advantage of the view out the window. A few barks to express his excitement, or consternation – what was he thinking? – before he settled in as the car sped along, leaving the light city traffic for the open highway.

We’ve passed the 3-week trial period designated by the animal rescue center, so there’s no turning back. There have been moments when I wanted to march Winston up the hill to those dog pens and hand him over. The initial chewing incident was an anomaly and he hasn’t ruined any of our clothes or furniture, but his digestive tract has been in adjustment mode. Probably we changed his food too drastically or else just from the change in general, so he left us some presents in the mornings that weren’t particularly pleasant to discover, or to clean up. At least the mess was on the floor, and not on a rug or on the furniture. I’d like to think he did this in desperation, not as a mean-spirited gesture. I used to have a cat that deliberately avoided her litter-box when she was mad at me for traveling. She did her business by the door instead, and it wasn’t fun to come home to.

~ ~ ~

Winston is folding into our family. He’s not nervous anymore. His barking has diminished. He heels more often, though not reliably. He’s a good dog, even if he is a bit cheeky, sneaking in the kitchen though it’s forbidden, nosing into the bathroom if someone leaves the door open. You know, doing doggie things.
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In the country he was liberated. As far as possible from the caged life at the rescue center, he was completely free. He could come and go from the house as he pleased, without a leash, to explore the woods and fields around our property. There were new smells to sniff at, green ones, strong and natural. There was tall grass to run in and dirt tracks to run along. We were cautious at first, wondering if he’d run away or get hit by a car. But he strayed only far enough to explore, and managed to avoid the occasional traffic that passes on our road. The best part, though, was taking him out for a run.

Winston would trot beside me, his ears flopping wildly until he stopped to sniff in a ditch or a fencepost. He’d root around and eventually lift his leg to leave a calling card before looking up to see I was ahead of him. He’d sprint to catch up and pass me, running ahead with glee until some other scent would capture his attention and he’d fall to the side of the road to investigate, relieve himself once more before sprinting up to catch me again. Biking with Winston was even better: he’d hit full throttle to overtake us on our bicycles, his nose jutting forward, all four legs stretched in a fully extended stride. After a week I noticed three things: Winston didn’t smell like a city dog anymore. Winston got stronger and more muscled. Winston seemed really, truly, happy.

I grew up with a dog. He was part of our family before I was even born. Bum – yes, that was his name – was a mutt, a variation of golden retriever mixed with who-knows-what. My father called him a woodchuck hound, because he liked to hunt them down and return home triumphantly with the small dead animal clutched in his jaw. Owning a dog when you live in the country is relatively fuss-free. We never had to put Bum on a leash, take him for a walk or carry plastic bags to pick up after him. Bum_at_lakeHe’d scratch at the door to go out, and then again to come back in. (In a renovation years after the dog had died, my father refused to replace the doors because Bum’s nail marks were, as he put it, part of this history of the house.) Dogs belong in the country, I’ve always thought, not cooped up in a city apartment. And yet now we have a dog, and we live in an apartment. I suppose it’s better for him than being cooped up in a cage at the pound, or with a family that can no longer care for him, but this week reminded me why I haven’t owned a dog my entire adult life, up until now. A dog’s life is so much better in the country.

If fact, I think Winston found his footing within our family because we took him to the country. We gave him freedom, with a measure of safety, and he started to trust us. Maybe it would have happened anyway, over time, but being in that environment accelerated the bonding process. He’s really part of the family now. He seems to like us. And he’s absolutely nuzzled his way into our hearts.

~ ~ ~

The closing up of the country house is a series of rituals. I clean out the fridge, stow all the counter-top appliances and utensils behind closed cupboards, put away the good pillows and bed linens, and sweep and vacuum to put the place in some semblance of clean, knowing that dust and cobwebs will begin to accumulate the moment we leave. De-facto locks all the exterior doors and drains the toilets and the water heater, shuts off the water. Last one out flips the electricity switch before securing the door. The house always looks sad, standing dark and lonely as we drive away.

This time, our departure reminded me of a moment on last summer’s trip when we visited my hometown. It was a quick stop, just one overnight, enough time to see a few friends, visit my parents’ gravesite and drive up the hill to see the house that was my childhood home. We sold it three years ago, but the new owners have already put it back on the market. Too much work and expense to keep it up, that’s the rumor. Now it stands empty, void of furniture and family. The row of short bushes around the front porch, kept in check by the gardener my mother employed and befriended, sprawl uneven and overgrown, the shrubs beside the back stairs are fast becoming a overgrowth_by_stairswild thicket, the peony bushes in the side yard flattened by the weight of the dead blooms that hadn’t been pruned. It broke my heart to see my old house like this, cold on the inside, untended on the outside.

Across the street, another lonely house. Once the home of a family with five boys – my first childhood playmates – now not even a carpet remains inside. I’d heard these neighbors were planning to move but I hadn’t prepared myself to see their house emptied of all its belongings. We stood on the cement porch, pressing our faces up to the windows, cupping our hands around our eyes to see into the rooms I hadn’t thought about in years. A living room once filled with books and a framed print of the mysterious (to me) Peaceable Kingdom, a kitchen that always smelled of fresh baked brownies – we used to pull out the pots and pans from the corner cupboard and turn the lazy-susan inside it into an amusement park ride – the playroom where I spent many afternoons until my mother called from across the road to come home for dinner.

Two old houses, longtime friends like the families that lived within them, now stand across from each other, hollowed out. There is no life inside them, only memories, and only a handful of us who remember. As we drove away, tears were unavoidable. Tears for the people who are gone. Tears for those empty houses that for so many years knew warmth and laughter and the vibration of the good life within them. Now their windows are blank, like wide eyes staring across the street at each other in disbelief.

There were once doggies living in those old country houses. I remember Windy, a feisty black and white Boston Terrier skittering around on the neighbor’s cement porch. And our Bum, who occasionally crossed the road to sniff at Windy before running off to the apple orchard to hunt down an errant woodchuck. Those dogs had it all, living free and unfettered in big rambling houses with loving families and fresh country air. That’s the good life, for a dog. Winston got his taste of it, but now he’s back to being a city dog again, lying on his blanket on the couch until one of us picks up his leash to take him for walk or, if he’s lucky, a run up to the carretera on the mountain behind us. I bet he misses the good life of the country. I know I do. It’s a good life for humans, too.


Jun 19 2014

The Other Man

After I’d called to arrange to see him, at his place, I felt dirty. I hadn’t been with anyone else for a long time. What would it be like? I mean, you get used to someone. Someone who knows what you like. Someone who knows how to make you feel good. Someone who knows your secrets. It’s an intimacy you develop over time. You’re with the same person for years. You build a trust. Why would you go anywhere else? It could ruin everything.
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I stared at his number, grinning up at me from the WhatsApp dialogue cloud. He spoke English and French, if that would make me more comfortable than having to do this in Spanish, a language I’m still acquiring. In fact, he was French. He’d know how to do this.

I looked carefully at myself in the mirror, fussing with my hair. There’s a kind of conversation you have in these moments, close to the mirror, face-to-face with yourself. The candid, truthful tell-it-like-it-is self-talk, where you call yourself by your last name. Are you really going through with this?

His place was in a ritzy neighborhood, near Turo Park. At least it’d be fancy. I have two friends who live on the park, but I didn’t want to see them on my way there. I didn’t even tell them I was going. I wanted to be discreet.

Later, standing before him in my robe, he combed his fingers through my hair, grabbing it and pulling it from the roots, marveling at its thickness.

“How long have you worn it this way?” he said. “It suits you.”

I thought about my coiffeur in Paris and the first time I went to see him, eight years ago. I was mired down with a too-busy-with-two-toddlers-to-care hairdo, a straight and blunt pageboy cut. He persuaded me to sport a messier, spiky hairdo. There were tears as he cut my long, even locks into layers, but in the end, there was no question that the new, wilder look worked much better. Not only that, it helped me get my mojo back. I was different after that haircut, more like my previous pre-mom self.

“Don’t worry,” he said, leaning in. “It won’t hurt.”

He put his hands on my shoulder and turned me toward a long, flat, reclining chair. He moved behind me and eased me into the black leather seat, cradling my head carefully as against the porcelain sink. I heard the water before I felt it, and his hands squeezed the water through my hair, making sure it was damp before he applied the perfumed shampoo. His strong fingers massaged my head, and I felt myself letting go.
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Sitting in front of the mirror at his table, I watched the chunks of my hair fall to the ground. He had his own way of trimming it, circling around my scalp in a quick rotation, each pass clipping off a bit more. It was different than what my usual coiffeur does, but I had no choice now. I was in the hands of this man. He would butcher my hair or, who knows, maybe he’d make it better. There was no turning back. I exhaled, nervously.

“Close your eyes,” he whispered. “You just have to trust me.”

What is it, this thing we have with our hairdressers? I know I’m not the only one. The Fiesta Nazi, one of my favoritest friends in Paris, has been going to the same woman for thirty years. My mother saw the same man for just as long. Do a survey of the women around you. I’d wager most of them have a steady hairstylist, one to whom they are fiercely loyal.

Finding the right one is like dating. You have a lot of one-night-stands where the walk of shame is just about walking out of the salon wishing you’d never gone in. You’ll go to anyone who’s recommended, politely explaining the various quirks and hairlicks you’ve lived with your whole life. It’s always about finding the right balance between their expertise and your knowledge of your own head. Once you happen upon the hairdresser who gives you a good cut, time after time, and who makes the best out of how you look from the neck up, well, you hold on tight. You only leave because you have to, or because of a very, very compelling recommendation. Which is what took me, eight years ago, to my coiffeur in Paris, the second most important man in my life.

When De-facto and I first talked about moving to Barcelona, I checked out the flight schedules to Paris. If I could think ahead and get a good fare, or fly through Paris on my way to other places, could I get back every six weeks or so? My hair grows like a field of weeds, I used to cut it every four weeks. I could stretch it if I had to, but the last days before the next appointment were sloppy ones. Remarkably, since we’ve moved to Barcelona – just under a year – I’ve managed to have legitimate reasons to travel to Paris almost every month. Each time I paid a visit to my coiffeur. Until now. It’d been 10 weeks since I sat in his chair. The mop on my head was a Medusa mess.

“Mama,” Buddy-roo shook her head at me. “Your up-hair is all down.”

She was right. No amount of product could keep my thick mop in the preferred vertical position. I’d pinch and twist it to stand up, but within 5 minutes it wilted. I looked like I’d slept with a bowl on my head.
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A number of people have noted that eventually, if we stay in Barcelona, I’ll have to find a new hairdresser. I’ve acknowledged this with a mildly-affirmative grunt. I don’t want a new hairdresser. I love my Paris coiffeur. He is the second most important man in my life. De-facto knows this and indulges my almost monthly trips to Paris to see another man, if only in a cranial sense. But he’s given me my style. He’s played with my color, moving me from blonde to red to my current shade, honey-badger. He experiments enough to keep it fresh, but not enough to ruin the look he has created for me. He’s a coiffeur coveted for his runway experience, but he’s not as hard on the wallet as you’d think, especially given the consistent quality of my color and cut.

But I feel like I cheated on him, going to see another hairdresser. Even though the other man did a perfectly fine job. He was quick and confident with his shears, he stayed true to the spirit of my original hairstyle, cutting my hair very much like my signature look. I had to wash and style it again myself the next day, but it does, mostly, what I want it to do. It’s good enough. Just good enough to carry me through until I can get to Paris again to see the second most important man in my life.


May 31 2014

All that Promise

In those days way before 9/11, you could accompany a departing passenger through security and wave goodbye at the gate. My parents drove me to the airport and stood beside me as I checked my bags. The agent handed me my ticket, her fingers red from the ink on the back of each of its multiple pages. On the way to the gate, my father made conversation by asking consecutive “what do you suppose” questions, thinking they would inspire me or keep me from getting nervous. Now, years later, I suspect he was living vicariously through me. When they announced that my flight was boarding, I hugged my mother and father goodbye, walked to the gate agent and showed her my ticket and without looking back, headed down the jetway.
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Later that day, I watched the other freshman on my hall moving in, their fathers like Sherpas behind them with boxes and blankets, their mothers overseeing the move-in or sitting on the bed chatting with the new roommate’s parents. I’d arrived on campus in a taxi and happened to find a dorm counselor – still a friend to this day – who helped me carry my suitcases up to my room. I was glad to be there without the burden of parents, liberated from any of the eye-rolling data points my mother might share, conspiratorially, with the parents of my new peers. College was a time to go off on your own, and that is, literally, just what I’d done.

My new roommate’s parents had driven her up from Philadelphia. I escaped their sympathy – “but you’ve come all by yourself?” – by slipping out to take a walk. I headed nowhere in particular, wandering the streets around the stately campus. It was the first week of September, the leaves had just started to turn. The late afternoon sun, low in the sky, cast my shadow long on the sidewalk. Just like my future, it stretched out before me. I’ll never forget that moment and its sublime promise: anything can happen, and it’s all going to.

~ ~ ~

I made that walk again, last weekend, returning to my university to celebrate a big reunion. I wasn’t particularly rah-rah when I was a co-ed, and I haven’t been the heartiest alumna, but lately I’ve been crossing paths with more of my college compatriots, and this reunion – my 30th – seemed like a good occasion to be more deliberate about reconnecting. I spent much of the weekend running to different events and parties with friends and old classmates, but stole a moment one morning on my own to take a quick detour, one that I knew would take me back to where I’d strolled that first day on campus. I walked up that same street, alongside an iron-gated quadrangle and under trees thicker and taller than when I was there years ago. No shadow was cast – it was a different time of the day and there was cloud cover – but I could picture the long shape that once loomed before me and the emotions that had accompanied it. All that promise. Have I fulfilled it?

~ ~ ~

How did I end up at one of my parents’ cocktail parties? This was my thought, the first night of the reunion. There was a big dance on the campus green to kick off the weekend’s festivities, but we got to reconnect at a pre-party just for my class, under a big tent near the athletic center. I looked around at my classmates, and though I recognized many faces, whether they were people I knew reasonably well or only smiled at passing them on my way to a lecture hall, I was stunned at how we’re getting older. They’d all remained, in my memory, young and wrinkle-free because dog_in_mirrorI hadn’t seen most of them since 1984. Now to see the graying or receding hairlines collected together was a bit of a shock. Maybe it’s just that I tend to live life from the inside out, looking out at the world knowing the the years are adding up, but always feeling, inside, a static, youthful age. An event like this holds up the mirror, a reminder of how relentlessly time passes. Not that we’re in such bad shape, in general my classmates have taken care to attend to their fitness and appearance. But we aren’t the feisty spring chickens we used to be.

The weekend was a mash-up of nostalgia and discovery. The campus is changed. I can still find my way around, though I noted the absence of a buildings where I’d spent the bulk of my time, now demolished and replaced by new landmarks. I visited a favorite professor, one who challenged me and made me think harder and deeper. He says he can no longer read and analyze, but at least takes pleasure from painting and listening to Irish music. I left his house soberly, guessing it might the last time I’d see him. There were those two inseparable girls who never managed to make eye contact with me when I was an undergraduate, still joined at the hip and unable to acknowledge my presence. Back then I’d wondered what was wrong with me. Now I wondered what was wrong with them. The nice surprise from that guy who seemed way out of my league all those years ago; it was with him and his lovely wife that I had one of the most thoughtful, engaging conversations of the weekend. Finally the after-party on the last night, like stepping back thirty years, a hundred people packed into a cinderblock-walled dorm room, crammed in the kitchen, lining the hallways talking and drinking out of red plastic cups, dancing with abandon in the dark with friends from way too long ago.

I’d like to tell you that the reunion was one oh-my-god-how-are-you hug after another, all-elbows with friends from the past, our shared history bonding us together inextricably. Maybe I’d hoped for that when I signed up, but even then I knew that the weekend would be filled with moments of reconnection and disconnection. It wasn’t at all the impress-fest that it could have been – I found people to be very genuine – but there was an element of standing across from each classmate encountered and trying to figure out who not only who they’d become, but who I’d become. They all seemed to fall right back into place with each other, I was still trying to figure out where I fit in. There were moments when I felt like an outsider, not an uncommon feeling for me, but a mildly discomforting one to carry at such an occasion meant for reuniting. It wasn’t until we were all assembled on the steps of the library for the class photo that I felt that feeling of detachment slip away. Instead of standing face-to-face, we’d all turned to arrange ourselves together on the steps, side-by-side, facing a photographer perched on a ladder. I felt thirty years slip away, and all those people were beside me, with me, shoulder-to-shoulder, facing exactly the same thing. A shorter future than before, but not without its continued promise.

~ ~ ~

A few of my friends sported a P’15 or a P’17 on their name tags, indicating their children were currently enrolled at our alma mater. At the big footstepscampus-wide dance, my sophomore roommate ushered me over to re-introduce me to her son. Only moments earlier I’d been laughing with the son of another classmate. Both young men were charming, articulate, good looking. Just the kind of guys I’d wish upon my daughters about a decade from now. Less than a decade, actually, for Short-pants. She’ll be thirteen this summer. College may not be just around the corner, but it’s not far down the bend. I would never press her to attend the same college as I did. But what if she wanted to?

I went to one of those universities that gets a boatload of applications every year and only a small percentage get accepted. I’m pretty sure that if I applied today I wouldn’t get in. My guess is that Short-pants has a reasonable chance; she’s bright and quirky, fits the profile. But is she bright enough? Does she need to ramp up her extra-curriculars? Would it help if I were more involved as an alumna? Should I be adding an extra zero to my checks for the annual fund? Do I have to start thinking about this stuff already? Do I have to think about it at all? Nobody’s strong-arming me, but the gentle suggestion from friends who’ve been there is do what you can, just in case she wants to apply.

I have a great appreciation for my undergraduate experience, and though I’ve been subtle about expressing it over the years, a strong loyalty to an institution that helped me come into my own, on my own. It’d be a kick to see a P’23 or a P’25 on my reunion name tag some day. I’ll happily drive them to the airport and wave goodbye. I can picture them roaming around the streets of the campus, wondering about what’s ahead. But if it’s going to happen, it’s really up to them. That’s the promise of the future, isn’t it? Anything can happen. And it’s all going to.


Jan 20 2014

How Fitting

The saleswoman directed us to the fitting room, a long row of closets where we could undress and try on our selections. Short-pants and I had toured the lingerie department thoroughly, in search of new bras. We used to find them easily in the girl’s section, the starter bras for budding young women. I’d noticed the week before that those easy-to-buy standards were not only a bit ragged, they were too tight. It was time to buy her a real bra.

I’d wager that most women remember the acquisition of their first bra, and not always happily. It’s a question – and I’ve asked different circles of girlfriends over the years – that’s always met with groans. How could such a simple step into womanhood have so many unpleasant stories? My experience is a classic example: My mother, noting that my nipples were popping through my favorite striped turtleneck sweater, drove me to McCurdy’s department store. It was “out of town,” meaning it was a 30-minute drive (that was a good distance in those days) so you didn’t go there for every-day things. It was a special trip. This was where we went to do Christmas shopping, or to buy back-to-school clothes. I remember coming home after those late August shopping trips and laying all the new outfits on my bed and feeling the discordant mix of excitement about going back to school along with a deep sadness about the waning of summer and its late sunsets long after dinner, stretching the hours of play to the maximum.

In the same shopping plaza as McCurdy’s, there was a lingerie store called The Ethel Abraham Shop. It was classy place. My underwear worldview, in house_of_underwearthose days, was fairly polarized. You bought underwear at a department store like McCurdy’s, or by mail-order from Frederick’s of Hollywood, which was reserved for people kinkier than my mother or her circle of friends. Lingerie was an evocative word. It spoke of the unspoken: sex. Or so I thought, until Ethel’s little boutique became part of my awareness. Its balance of quality silk and satin with just a very tiny hint of sensuality (at least what ended up in our home) opened my mind to the possibility that you could wear silky underthings without being one of the models in the Playboy magazines I’d found stacked in the bottom drawer of an old junky cupboard in the backroom of our house.

Sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s turquoise Chevy Impala, I pictured us going to Ethel Abraham’s, imagining what it would be like to walk out of the store with one of her distinctive boxes. They were usually plain on the outside, but when opened a bright flowering print exploded from the interior of the box. A metaphor, I suppose, for the lingerie she sold: something beautiful but kept inside, hidden beneath a simple, unremarkable exterior. My father used to go to Ethel’s on the day before Christmas and pick up gifts for the women in his life: my mother, his sister and his mother. The shop carried a lovely array of nightgowns and robes, silky and lacy and soft to the touch. One year he gave my mother an elegant pink quilted robe that came in a long flat brown box. When she opened the lid, her face conveyed her delight. The robe was folded in the bottom of the box and I couldn’t see it until she held it up for us, but I knew right away it was from The Ethel Abraham Shop because of the flower print on the inside of the lid.

Forty years later, cleaning out my mother’s backroom, I found that box, or one just like it. My mother recycled boxes for years – she piled them on a table next to the cupboard with the hidden Playboys – and you could find any size you wanted for any occasion. This was especially handy for gift-wrapping at Christmas. The box from Ethel’s was used and re-used and re-used again, saved because of its beauty or perhaps because of its nostalgia. I had a hard time throwing it away and even included it in the shipment of things I sent to France. It was only there, out of the context of my family home and its thick web of childhood memories that I could see it for what it was: a dilapidated, overused 40-year old cardboard box. Even the pattern on the interior had faded. I finally put it in the recycling bin and watched the garbage truck pick it up and haul it away, but not without a deep sigh.

My mother parked the car in front of the entrance to McCurdy’s. I was mildly disappointed, and yet at the age of eleven or twelve or whatever, I was old enough to reason that I wouldn’t be fitted for my first bra at Ethel’s. I was excited enough about the acquisition I was about to make to erase any disappointment. I was also a bit nervous. Like any adolescent girl, I was self-conscious about my body. I knew I’d have to strip and let my mother examine me. I was embarrassed just thinking of it.
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It played out pretty much like my worst nightmare: the racks of the bra department were thick with cupped, hanging devices that looked like a jungle to navigate. The saleswoman was right out of central casting: pointy-heeled shoes with skin-tight pants in a leopard print (when leopard was out of fashion), a thin sweater over her thick middle and cat-eye glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. When she asked if she could help us it was more of a screech than a request. Her voice was incapable of any volume but public broadcast.

My mother answered, matching her volume. “Yes, we’re here to buy a bra for my daughter. It’s her first one.”

Every other shopper in the department turned to look at me, the newbie. I suppressed the instinct to turn and run out of the store – I really wanted a bra, all my friends were wearing one – and just dropped my head, cringing inside, praying that being “out of town” meant none of the people who could overhear this conversation might actually know me.

The saleswoman ran her eyes up and down my chest and torso, then reached out and put her hands on my shoulders, pushing them back and thrusting my very small breasts toward her.

“Stand up tall, sweety, let me have a look at you.”

A half-dozen white “trainer” bras were placed on the glass counter for my mother to inspect, which she did by holding them up so that everyone in the store could inspect them, too. When I could escape to the dressing room, I pulled the curtain closed, fussing with it to keep it fully shut in order to achieve the privacy I felt I deserved. My striped turtleneck came off and on the chair and before I had a chance to clasp one of the bras around my body, my mother had thrown the curtain open.

“Let me see, honey.”

She was helping me to adjust the straps when the bobcat-dressed lady barged in and asked for viewing rights. She pushed her way in, taking over for my mother, instructing me to bend over into the bra, and fill the cups – not that I had much to fill them – before standing upright. Her cold hands poked and prodded to make sure it fit correctly, adjusting the shoulder straps and then snapping the strap in the back – ouch! – to see how tight it was.

I was sure everyone in the lingerie department could not only see into my dressing room, but could hear my mother and this tacky woman discussing how to fit a bra to my barely-existent breasts. They kept handing me different models, and ripping the curtain open before I’d hooked them on. I felt like a mannequin being dressed and undressed in the window. I was cold, cranky and tortured. I just wanted to get a bra and get out of there.

Later, in the parking lot, a bag of new bras in my hand, I eyed the sign for The Ethel Abraham Shop. When I had real breasts, I told myself, I’d go there. It had to be more civilized.

~ ~ ~

While perusing the racks for the right style of bra for someone Short-pants’ age, I came upon several models that appealed to me as well. The straps on my best black bra were on the verge of disintegrating, I needed a new one to wear under my favorite black sleeveless sweater. So as we speak_the_truthwere bra hunting for her, I collected some for myself. We entered the dressing room – at the Corte Ingles, a much upscaled version of McCurdy’s – with our hands full. The saleswoman didn’t stay around to assist us, a slight disappointment as I’ve outgrown the need for privacy while bra shopping and it’s actually nice to have someone at your beck and call to fetch better sizes and make suggestions based on a full knowledge of the inventory. There were intercom phones in the dressing rooms, in case we needed to call for a size change, but our hands were full with multiple sizes of the same models.

“Do you mind if we use the same dressing room so I can help you?” I asked.

Short-pants wasn’t at all reluctant, she seemed delighted to be sharing the experience with me. We both stripped to the waist and took turns trying on what we’d brought in. I showed her how to bend over and fit herself into the bra, just as I’d been taught, but with a deliberately gentler explanation. She seemed genuinely eager to learn the nuances of putting on a bra. We hooked and unhooked each other, admiring the fabrics and the patterns – teenager’s bras are far more interesting today than in my day – laughing at the ones that were too tight, too big or just too quirky. We stood side-by-side under the fluorescent lighting, staring at each other in the mirror, mother by daughter, in different phases of our lives, but still two women standing together in their bras. Freeze this frame in your memory, I told myself. She won’t want to do this with you forever.

In the end, none of the bras I’d tried on fit. But Short-pants selected two pretty white ones and a deep burgundy satin number, something a little bit soft and ever-so-slightly sensual.

“The thing about nice lingerie,” I told her, while standing in line to pay, “is you wear it for yourself. It’s a gesture of self-respect, having something pretty on, but just for your eyes only.” I didn’t mention that sometimes I keep De-facto in mind when I select my bra and panties for the day. She’ll figure that out on her own.

“Like the purple one?” she asked.

I nodded. “Wear that one on the days when you feel a little down. It’ll give you something to smile about, every time you remember how you’re wearing something beautiful underneath, something just for you.”

~ ~ ~

I learned about the pleasure of lingerie when I moved to France. It’s said that French women spend 20% of their income on their undergarments. It’s certainly a habit I picked up while living there. But recently, in New York on a very quick transit stopover, I spent a Sunday afternoon with two college friends and the subject of lingerie came up. After a long lunch, including a bottle of wine, we walked back out on to the street debating what to do. pink_negligeTwenty years ago this same trio would have gone to a movie or hit a favorite jewelry shop. Last Sunday we went to Sugar Cookies, an exclusive lingerie shop. It was about to close, but stayed open for the three of us. We opened the curtain between the side-by-side fitting rooms and tried on nearly every bra in the store. I wished Short-pants could have been there to see us, each with dozens of silk and lace contraptions going on and coming off, modeling for each other, frank feedback flying back and forth, giggling, oohing and aahhing, viewing ourselves in the beautifully made undergarments. Unlike my experience at Corte Ingles, where nothing came close to fitting me, nearly everything I tried on seemed to work. An hour later, I laid a pile of lacy things on the counter. The saleswoman rang them up and wrapped them, and my friends and I walked out of the door swinging our bags, exhilarated by the items that only we – or perhaps a special somebody – would get to see.

I’ve overcome any collateral damage from my early bra-buying trauma, though it’s never been a task I’ve relished. At least that awkward first occasion produced the awareness to construct a different experience for my daughters. It occurred to me, giggling with my girlfriends in the dressing room, and reflecting on my shopping trip with Short-pants, too, that trying on bras can actually be something fun to do. How fitting to discover this hidden pleasure, just in time to pass it along.


Nov 24 2013

The Plastic Question

The girls seem to have forgiven me for breaking the news about Santa Claus, but this means that their Christmas wish lists are now addressed specifically to me. At least the dialogue has changed. I always felt uneasy perpetuating the you’d better be good because Santa’s elves are watching myth. Our discourse now is a more rational one about how many toys you really need and the santa_on_a_springdifference between having things and doing things. Last year we took a trip over the holidays, so the gift booty was limited to just a few items before we left and one or two things to open on Christmas day. De-facto and I kept repeating how the biggest present was the adventure we were having together. Short-pants bought into this idea completely. Buddy-roo was happy to have the trip, but felt her Christmas had been a little thin.

It started, this season, with Short-pants’ initiative to create her Christmas list, delivered to me with a disclaimer that it was a long list so I’d have choices; she didn’t expect to get everything she’d asked for. She’d written down about a dozen specific book titles, plus a Spanish dictionary and an herb book (?). Short-pants is always the easiest to shop for; a few balls of yarn and a book and she’s delighted. But that’s her chemistry. She slept on a mattress on the floor, and kept her underwear and socks in shoe boxes for the first two months we lived here. When I finally got her a bed and a dresser she threw her arms around me in appreciation. About the bookshelves I bought for her, she said, “Mama, that was more than I ever imagined to have in my room.”

Once Buddy-roo saw her older sister’s note on my desk, she needed to write one, too. The objects of desire on her Christmas wish list are considerably different: a Barbie dream house (with an elevator), the Playmobile castle (at 197 euros: ouch!), an iPod Touch, an iPad Mini, and a dog. For her birthday, just last month, we gave her a the simplest iPod, the iPod Shuffle, pre-loaded with songs I knew she’d like (Best Song Ever) or that I thought she should like (Bohemian Rhapsody). My strategy is to inch her into the technological gadgets, stretching our budget, and her attention span, as long as possible. Last year for her birthday she begged for a manual typewriter, which was no simple task to procure. The reason she still uses it as that she doesn’t have so many other toys to distract her. But despite her love for this new little iPod – it’s great to see and hear her with her earbuds on, rocking out with herself – she always asks for more, bigger and better. It’s in her nature. She always wants what she doesn’t have.

We’ve tried using her hunger for things as an incentive for doing her school work, but it always backfires. The reward we promise isn’t based on grades or scores, it’s about being responsible about her homework, bringing home the right bright_ideabooks, getting started on her own each night without whining or dilly-dallying. She starts out all excited, inspired that simply by being conscientious she might get that dollhouse, or that gadget, or a dog. Three days later, fatigued by the effort, she gives in to her lazy impulses and proclaims that she’ll never get what she wants because the work is too hard and it’s not fair and we’re the cruelest parents in the world.

Which was fine with me in the past because I didn’t really want to give her any more gadgets or any more toys with little plastic pieces, and our apartment was too small for a dog. But now I actually would like to have a dog and here in Barcelona we live close to the mountain, which means a great, open, outdoor place where a doggie could run and frolic and do what dogs are supposed to do. But we can’t reward her current school behavior so at the moment we are pet-less.

~ ~ ~

Two new friends from Buddy-roo’s class have invited her to work with them on an exposé for extra-credit. The subject they’ve chosen to explore: the large toxic plastic island forming and floating in the Pacific ocean. Her research involved collecting images for their poster board – leave it to Buddy-roo to volunteer to do the easiest part – so I set her up at my computer and she clicked on Google images to search for pictures of the floating plastic. What she found was disturbing: a mass of plastic containers, bottles and bags, partly deteriorated by the salt and sun but never fully degradable, pressed together in the middle of nowhere by ocean currents, forming a continent of debris that is killing the wildlife around it and bleeding toxic chemicals into the sea water and into the fish that are eaten by the fish we eat.

We scrolled through the images, selecting the ones she wanted to print and show to her schoolmates. She was disgusted by the volume of plastic garbage that has accumulated. She kept scanning through the images, horrified by the photographs of animals choked by or wrapped in pieces of plastic. It was the turtle whose shell was malformed – it looked as though it had a Barbie doll waist because it had grown within the ring of a plastic six-pack carrier – that made her cry.
Nat_Geo_ocean_predator
“Those poor animals,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks, “how can we let that happen?”

I didn’t have an answer.

It must have stayed with her all night, those images, that question. The next day, on the way to school, she brought it up.

“How come they keep making all that plastic? It’s killing the animals. Why don’t they just stop?”

“It’s all about money,” I told her.

It made me think of The Graduate, when Benjamin, who has no idea what to do with his future, is cornered by one of his parents’ friends offering unsolicited advice: “One word. Plastics.

“Money?” she said.

“I bet you the men who run those big plastic factories were outraged about the pollution on the planet when they were ten years old, just like you are. But then they grew up and got jobs and got married and had families they had to support. Little by little they forgot what they knew when they were ten, and they started taking jobs and making decisions based on how much money they could make, because they wanted buy their kids what they needed: food and clothes and toys…like big, expensive dollhouses, made out of plastic.”

We walked along quietly. I could tell she was thinking about it, weighing her anger at the mounds of plastic in the ocean and what it was doing to our environment with her ardent desire for that overpriced plastic dollhouse.

“If you buy me that that castle, or that dollhouse,” she said, “I’ll play with it for years, and I promise to recycle it.”

We’d arrived at the gate of the school courtyard. She reached up and kissed me before running in to find her friends. I watched her as she joined their circle, opening her school bag to show them the images we’d printed, field_of_princessestelling her friends, I gathered, about the research she’d done. You could see the anger and sadness on her face. She was animated, outraged. But is she outraged enough to stop asking for plastic toys?

Are any of us outraged enough to stop using plastic? Even if we are, can we slow or stop its production? Could we function in this plastic-wrapped society without ever touching plastic? The throw-away economy promised us convenience and delivered. But what do we do, now, with the environmental mess it’s created? That’s another question I can’t answer.


Nov 7 2013

Home Away from Home

I needed a knife to test the cake, to see if it was done. The oven door open, I reached behind me, to the top middle drawer in the kitchen island, an automatic gesture after using that kitchen for twelve years. My hand landed on cardboard boxes of biscuits, crackers and grains instead of the cutlery tray I expected to find. The drawer is no longer the silverware drawer. I had to clear the old memory and replace it with new information. Our tenant has made himself at home in our apartment, as he should. Part of that includes organizing the kitchen to fit his logic. I don’t mind and many of his alterations are improvements. But even after several days of operating in the re-arranged kitchen, I couldn’t override my old habits. I kept reaching into drawers and cupboards and finding something other than what I’d reached for. Those mental pathways are etched in my brain like deep ravines.
red_autumn_leaves
We’d driven into Paris in the late morning, managing to avoid the rush hour and also to get to our street before it was infested with the pedestrian tourists that accumulate around lunch time, making it impassible. It was all familiar: turning the key in the street door that opens into the cobblestone corridor with the leafy courtyard – now with red leaves that I love to see every year at this time – up four flights of stairs to our door and into the apartment that for so many years, until two months ago, we called home.

Because our tenant is heroic and also a good friend, he understands that from time to time we want to come back to Paris, to see people and stay connected. He organized a trip last week that would coincide with our desire to come visit, so we could stay in the apartment while he was gone. One of our objectives: to collect another van-load of personal possessions to move to Barcelona. Buddy-roo was thrilled because it meant that she could celebrate her birthday with her old gang of Paris friends. She’d had a very small party with a few Barcelona friends before the school break, involving hot dogs and pony rides. We had a family celebration at the country house; she’d been a good sport about spending most of her actual birthday in a car. She’d been missing her Parisian friends – me, too – so I organized for her a little boum (that’s a French dance party) and invited not only a handful of her friends, but their parents too.

By the time we carried our things up to the apartment, I had only a few hours to run errands and shop, decorate for the party, set up the music playlist and bake a cake. I found myself running at the familiar Parisian pace: a brisk walk without time to spare, to the department store, the pharmacy and the grocery, before running home to crack eggs in a bowl and cook up a cake. The cake pan wasn’t anywhere to be found, not even in its usual spot, so I had to rifle through a box of kitchen stuff stashed behind the couch. Luckily I’d hidden the birthday candles on the top shelf of an obscure cupboard, so Buddy-roo’s cake had candles to blow out.

We were still downloading Ylvis from iTunes and blowing up balloons when the doorbell started ringing. The younger guests batted the balloons around the room while the older guests congregated around the kitchen island drinking wine and telling stories (completely unaware that the contents of its drawers were completely changed). It felt good to be withpeace_flowers old friends, good to touch base and stay in their circle. It felt natural to be there; and why shouldn’t it? It was our home until just recently. We haven’t been gone long enough, really, to feel like strangers when we return. Yet standing there I knew something had already shifted. It still felt like home, but I knew it really wasn’t.

The rest of the week ran at the same pace, with dozens of errands and appointments. I saw the beauty nurse and my coiffeur. The girls saw their pediatrician – a gentle, lovely man who is part Groucho Marx and part Ghandi – because we needed a health certificate from him for their Spanish residency. It was worth the two hours spent in his waiting room because he is a wonderful man and the girls love him so. And it never hurts to have a check-up. If we stay in Barcelona, we’ll need to find new doctors and care-takers, but for now it’s good to inject a little of the familiar into all the change and tumult in our lives these last months.

Moving is a messy experience and doing it as we have, in small bites, a trip at a time, has its benefits except each time is just as messy as the last. By the end of the week, the apartment was turned upside down, again, with boxes and bubble wrap strewn about, several packing tasks concurrently half-completed and the clock ticking down fast before the return of our tenant and our departure back to Spain. There wasn’t enough time to do all of the things I wanted to do – my ambition to sort through that office cabinet or empty that medicine cupboard was greater than the time allotted. Or I stopped trying to do it all and just let it rest while I slipped out to my favorite café to sit on the corner stool and smile at the barmen while my children paraded around the bar in their thrown-together Halloween costumes.

De-facto can pack a car like nobody’s business, and in his usual fashion he bull-dogged every box and basket and table and chair that had been designated for this trip into the small van we’d hired. The girls are used to it. They don’t even blink at being squeezed into the back seat with suitcases stuffed beneath their feet. Nine hours later, they took their places in assembly-line form, unpacking the car and getting things on the street, into the elevator and into our apartment. bottles_cans_in_order

It must have been after 10 pm when we’d brought in the final box, and though I’d risen at 6 am that morning to finish packing and cleaning what used to be home in Paris, I had to start unpacking right away. I needed to put the kitchen right, adding the second wave of dishes and utensils that hadn’t been essential when we moved two months ago – things like my mother’s pancake-batter bowl, my favorite serving platters, the champagne flutes – but now would make the kitchen complete. This snowballed into an entire kitchen cupboard re-org, but when I was done, later than midnight, I had the feeling that the kitchen wasn’t so funky after all and maybe it was starting to feel a little bit like home.

There’s still a lot to do to pull our apartment together, furniture to purchase, pictures to hang and shelves to fill with books and objects d’art. But for the first time I had the feeling that this apartment in Barcelona could be home, that it felt good to be here, good to be at home away from home.


Oct 29 2013

A Fall Fix

It was strange to be driving north, away from the sunny skies into cloudier cover and cooler temperatures. When the windshield wipers were required, De-facto and I glanced sideways at each other in the front seat, no doubt thinking the same thing: why are we driving away from the better weather? balloon_bcn_buildingUsually, for the Toussaint fall half-term break, it gets a little warmer and a little sunnier as we drive south toward our country house. This will take some getting used to, going the other way.

The drive is almost twice as long from Barcelona as it is from Paris, though we are a family for which time in a car is not a burden. Our children have been weaned on long car drives, so if they do ask, “are we there yet?” it’s only to mimic a conversation between Donkey and Shrek on their journey to Far Far Away. De-facto’s sister made us a few playlists, years ago, and these have become our standard driving music. We all know the words to the songs, and the order of the tracks, by heart.

We stopped at the Supermarket just off the highway and picked up some staples we’d need for meals for the few days we plan to stay in the country, and still made it to our old stone house before dusk closed in. It’s always easier to open the house in the daylight, though it hadn’t been officially closed yet. De-facto was here for an overnight in September; he couldn’t remember if he’d left the electricity on or not. If it had been shut off, we didn’t know if we might arrive to a mold-ridden refrigerator. It’s happened before, when the last people out forgot to leave fridge door open before cutting the electricity and closing the house. It took hours of cleaning with a scouring pad and a lot of cursing, not even under my breath.

The fridge had been left closed, but it was nice and chilly inside, thanks to a steady flow of electricity. I removed the inedible food that had been languishing for weeks and restocked it with the groceries just purchased. We’d cleared our most of the furniture from the main room of the house before leaving in August – if moving to a new city weren’t enough, we’re also in the process of renovating the country house kitchen, a project that after many years I’d finally convinced De-facto to support so I wasn’t about to give it up no matter how bad the timing – so the room was empty but for the ancient appliances. We’d have to move the table and chairs back into the kitchen so we could function for a few days.

“Quick, everybody,” De-facto shouted from upstairs, “Bring cups!”

I had no idea why he wanted us to bring him cups, but his appeal was urgent, so I scrambled around, trying to remember where I’d stored all the cups when we’d dismantled the kitchen at the end of the summer. After opening three ladder_up_to_walldifferent boxes, I remembered we stashed them on the shelves in a back room. I grabbed three, and the girls and I ran upstairs.

A large paint bucket, placed on top of the wardrobe in our bedroom to catch the drips from a minor leak that emerged last year, was filled to the brim with rain water that had leaked in and accumulated over two months. It was too full for him to move it. Cup by cup, in assembly line form, we emptied enough of the water until he could lift it without spilling the contents and carry the bucket to the bathroom to dump it out. The wall behind the leak was soaked, as was the floor and the carpet beneath the wardrobe. The ceiling between the skylight and the wet wall was covered with black splotches of mold. When it rains, it pours. In our case, inside.

The leak was no longer a minor one. We wondered if the kitchen renovation project would be stalled while we replaced the roof instead. But our neighbor, who’s prepping the walls and ceiling for the new kitchen cabinets, stopped by and peeked upstairs at the at the skylight and the ceiling. He returned minutes later with a ladder and some tools and found the problem that had eluded De-facto on his roof-top romps over the summer. Within an hour, he declared the leak repaired. Since his proclamation, a few days ago, it’s rained with significant force, and the bucket remains dry. The fix, at least for now, is a good one.

~ ~ ~

I was missing the autumn. It’s my instinct, about now, to put on a sweater. Barcelona’s warmer weather hasn’t required it. I’m not complaining – I’m looking forward to the milder winter ahead – but it wasn’t until Short-pants and I went out for a walk down the lane and into the woods that I remembered how much I relish these few October weeks, just after Indian summer and before the gray, windy November days settle in. The leaves, though not as vibrant as in New England where I grew up, are still a colorful range of yellow and gold hues. The air is crisp, the wind not yet cool, but brisk, gusty. All of a sudden I’m somewhere else: raking in the yard of my childhood home, under that old split-leaf maple, and then jumping into the pile of leaves; or climbing up the bleachers at a home-team high-school football game; or walking up the brick sidewalk near my college campus, smelling and feeling the end and the beginning of something, all at once. Autumn is for me the most nostalgic season of the year. Each season has its good memories, but the fall conjures my favorite ones.
grapes
Not just from my childhood, from this country house, too. Though this fall’s busy schedule didn’t permit it, in previous years we’ve made mid September weekend trips to harvest the grapes and take advantage of the last days of Indian summer. (A few stray bunches grapes remained on the vines this year, it would have been a good harvest. But instead the birds enjoyed the fruits of my labor.) We make it a point to come every October, taking advantage of the school break to enjoy a few more country days before we close the house for winter (when we leave the fridge door wide open). When the kids were little we constructed some very frightening Halloweens here, and it was by far better to trick or treat down the dark and spooky country road then to make stops the places we’d planted candy in our Paris neighborhood. It’s not fancy, our country house, but it’s a (mostly dry) roof over our heads near open fields and wild forests. It’s the source of good, strong memories from every season, but the ones in the making right now – a leaky roof and a leafy walk – gave me just what I needed: a quick fix of fall.


May 30 2013

In-Flight Etiquette

She side-stepped through the aisle with a young child in one hand, another child in her arms, both her shoulders burdened with multiple bags: a purse, a carry-on, a diaper pouch, a bag of toys and books. The standing child, maybe four years old, stared at me with round, brown eyes. The carried child was kicking wildly and had already started to fuss. The woman inched toward her designated seats just as these precariously perched bags fell to her elbow and the child in her arm began to cry.
eye_up
Like many people, I roll my eyes when a family with kids comes down the aisle, willing them to continue past my row and far beyond to the nether regions of the plane. A beat later I remind myself what it was like, when Short-pants and Buddy-roo were young babies and we toted them with us to the states to see family or to go on some wild adventure. Short-pants took her first consecutive steps – becoming an official toddler – in the Charles de Gaulle airport lounge while waiting to board a flight to Johannesburg. De-facto and I were determined that having small children wouldn’t hamper our travel habit, so we were those parents, the ones dragging their children on flights to far-flung places, the source of many eye-rolls by many other passengers, I’m sure.

That’s how our girls learned to be good travelers. But even the best-behaved children reach a threshold on an airplane. I survived many long flights because of the kindness of strangers who’d entertain one child while I took the other back to the bathroom, or who just played peek-a-boo for five minutes so I could manage a few bites of my dinner. This is why, after I permit myself the inward groan with the rest of the passengers, I swallow hard and offer up a big smile that’s meant to entertain the child and reassure the parent. Or, as I did on last week’s flight when I discovered the woman with the two children in tow was seated behind me, I stand up and offer to help stow bags or distract the kids while the parents, already visibly exasperated, settle in.

~ ~ ~

The man sitting directly in front of me pushed his seat back so abruptly that my papers and books fell to the floor and I am certain that had my laptop been open on the tray, it would have snapped in half. My belongings spilled beneath the seat and across the aisle. He was oblivious to the chaos he’d created. I stood up to gather my things and tapped him on the arm.

“Sir,” I said, “You have every right to put your seat back, but it would be nice if you’d turn around and check with me first, so I could be prepared.”
respect_peace_nature
His grunted apology was half-hearted. But I’d won the respect of the passengers around us and after this I noticed several lovely social exchanges occurring, brief but civilized acknowledgments and non-verbal negotiation of your-space-and-mine prior to seats pushing back to a reclining position.

If I ran an airline I would make etiquette part of the flight attendant’s on-the-runway security announcements. I’d include a segment on how to share space in the overhead luggage racks, and how to remove bags from those compartments in a non-hazardous manner. It would include where to put your elbows and how to share a row with other passengers. It would also include extremely specific instructions about make eye contact with the passenger in the seat behind you before pushing your seat into a reclining position. I might also add this: Be nice to parents traveling with children; they feel worse about their crying child than you do.

(I’d also tell the pilot and the purser to be short and sharp with their intercom interruptions, especially if it has to happen in two languages. I don’t need a rundown of the duty free boutique specials, nor do I care to hear a long-winded explanation of our flight path. Just shut up please so I can get back to my in-flight movie.)

~ ~ ~

An Australian friend used to make a yearly trip back and forth between Perth and Paris with her young children. Once she and her husband were assigned three seats together and one solo seat ten rows further back. She’d asked a passenger if he would switch seats so they might sit in two pairs, one adult with one child. Her offer was an aisle seat for an aisle seat, and still, the young man refused to move.
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“Look at me.” She spoke politely, but insisted he make eye contact with her. “I understand that you don’t want to move, and that’s okay. But someday, if you ever have children of your own, I just want you to remember me.”

Ten minutes later he came up and tapped her on the shoulder and agreed to change seats.

I relish the lengthy, quiet privacy my trans-Atlantic flights permit, and I am so glad I don’t have to travel with toddlers anymore. But I open my heart to parents enduring long flights with their young children, and do my best to support them, even if it’s only with a smile to convey that I am not annoyed, even if maybe I would prefer not to have screaming kids nearby. It occurred to me too late on the last flight – but it might come in handy next time – I could help one of these frenzied moms by offering to take her fussing child on my lap, and let him kick away to his heart’s delight, right against the seat back reclined just in front of me.


May 5 2013

In our Nature

I stuck my head out the bathroom window to see the girls playing in front of the house. Buddy-roo was prancing in the grass as Short-pants paced in a circle with her hands up in the air. They talked to each other in exaggerated voices, though occasionally Buddy-roo would assume her normal tone to bark an order at her sister, directing the theater of their play. Or the other way around, as each took turns in and out of role, suggesting the next step of their game, pure improvisation as children do best.

I watched for several minutes, looking down on them from the second floor of our country house, observing the choreography of their make-believe, catching pieces of dialogue.

“…and now my wings are growing back.”

“Penelope’s mechant attempts to block your entry to the sacred circle have failed, thanks to my powers.”
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I could not contain a pollen-induced sneeze – spring in the country – and both their dirty blonde heads turned upwards toward the upstairs window in which I was perched.

“Mama!” This shout came in tandem, with glee. Even after just 45 minutes, it’s like they haven’t seen me in days.

“We’re playing fairies!”

“Look at my wings!”

I listened to the convoluted explanation of their play, which to be honest wasn’t that interesting but their animated exuberance deserved my attention. It was impressive, this lengthy and specific scenario, conjured up from nothing except the wildflowers bloomed in the tall wet grass on a partly sunny morning. That’s one of the reasons I love coming to the country house; there is no better stimulant for their imagination then a little bit of nature.

Not that they don’t tumble into their imagined skits and games at home in Paris, but here in the country it happens more often, for longer and with greater detail and depth. They disappear for hours in the fields and forest, running back into the house and throwing themselves against me, their clothes and hair cold and fresh from being out in the springtime air.

~ ~ ~

There are lilacs across the road, in full bloom this week. The bush is tall and unruly; we never quite get to pedicuring the trees and bushes on that part of our property. The dark lavender flowers look like a fireworks display gone awry. I stand at the kitchen sink, washing the breakfast dishes and smiling at the purple blooms. My mother had a lilac bush, pruned regularly and evenly, that tickled the posts of the front porch of her house. It was, along with a bed of daffodils near the road and row of peonies on the side yard,lilacs_up the announcer of spring. These early flowers preening in their finest glory on that first sunny May morning, when we’d step outside and see and smell that spring was fully upon us and the summer was at its heels.

Just looking at the sloppy lilac tree across the road puts me instantly on my mother’s porch and back into my own childhood, when I would run off beyond the farms and the woods behind our house, out of her sight, into my own world of fairies and forest friends, conjured up by the best playmate in the world, mother nature.

Many years ago, I took one of my elegant Parisian friends to visit my mother. She was charmed by the country surroundings and wanted to know what my childhood was like. Instead of telling her, I showed her the circuit that used to occupy me for hours: from the back porch, crossing the side yard, beyond the pond, through an apple orchard and a vineyard, into the forest and back out into a clearing around a large pillbox-shaped water reservoir, against which you could throw stones to simulate the sound effects from Star Trek. Then back into the woods and down a steep slope to cross the creek and climb up again to Wagon Wheel Springs, named so by my neighbors and I because of a wooden-spoked wheel they lay in the debris nearby, through a field of tall grain, arriving on the other side of our house and landing, happily, on the stoop of our front porch. Last month, after reading one of my posts about walking alone on the Camino, this same friend wrote me a message remembering that visit and our hike through my childhood.

“It must be in your nature,” she said.

~ ~ ~

“I’m not going to be back for a while,” Short-pants ran into the kitchen, breathless, spitting the words out quickly. “I heard a bird calling my name.”

She dashed out the door and disappeared. I had my hands in mozzerella and ricotta so I couldn’t move to the window to see which way she’d run to answer the call of her avian suitor. I realized I didn’t need to know. In Paris, I like knowing which direction she’s gone. In the city, she has destinations. She walks to school, she walks home. She walks to the boulangerie to get a baguette and back. There’s a start and a finish, and she’s still young enough that I need to monitor both points. Here in the country she has her own forest and several fields, a big lane to run down and baby sheep to visit and birds to answer to. I don’t need to know which direction she’s run because they’re all good.

~ ~ ~
table_out_back
Yesterday friends visited for lunch. They came with a pack of kids. We were eleven around the tables set up out back, on the terrace of stones, in the sun. Four adults were outnumbered by kids of ages ranging from 5 to 12, the youngest among them a set of twins. In Paris this would be an uncomfortable guest list. At the country house, you just pull out another table, add another place and make an extra quiche. After the meal, the kids escaped from the table and disappeared into field and forest. The only time we had to involve ourselves in their play was to caution them, when all seven were at the same time swinging, climbing or perched on our rickety old swing-set. From the table where we lingered with a bottle of rosé – an announcer of summer here in France – we could see that the metal structure might topple at any moment. A word of warning and the children scattered themselves to other places in the yard and beyond, the swing-set only one of a dozen places for them to run and play.

Yet another reason why we have a country house: so I can take another wedge of cheese and refill my glass of wine, in the company of good friends, with my feet in the grass and the sun on my back, while my children occupy themselves, elsewhere. This, I guess, is in my nature, too.


Mar 31 2013

And in the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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