Jan 27 2015

School Daze

I wrestle with the guilt. The shame that we have put our children in such a traditional school, one with the classrooms arranged in rows, facing forward, one in which they are expected to consume and memorize the expertise imparted by an authority in the front of the room, a school with teachers who never coordinate their lesson plans or homework assignments, instructing the students without (or with very little) cross-collaboration with the other teachers. A school which measures success on having the right answers rather than the right questions. A school which is old-fashioned.

I feel guilty, especially considering my profession – purveyor of creative thinking, problem solving and innovation – that I’ve settled for less than the kind of desks_rowseducation I know would be far more useful and inspiring for my children.

The French school is not a bad education. A good portion of the students at the lycée are from local Catalan families who’ve chosen it because of its fine reputation. It provides a rigorous education that prepares children well…for an earlier decade. It’s not – nor was the school they attended in Paris – the kind of school in which I would have expected to have enrolled my children. But we have not managed to find – have I looked hard enough? – a school that fulfills that progressive expectation. When we have found an institution that comes close, it is not close enough to our budget, or close enough to avoid an hour-long commute, each way, every day.

Homeschooling? I’m not that kind of mom. I need a break from them during the day and I need to throw myself into my work. Is that selfish? Or just honest?

“But they’ve lived in different cultures.” This is the protest I hear from my friends when I express out loud my disquiet. “And they already speak four languages.”

Yes, I know we’ve given them a wider horizon. I know they see the world differently living abroad and traveling the way we do. I know that learning languages is probably an advantage, it helps you understand not only the words, but the people and culture that speak with those words. This, I think, Google Translate will never achieve.

I watch them memorize facts and prepare for tests, not for life. They tick off boxes to get their homework assignments done rather than delving into projects and gobbling up the subject. Maybe that’s a tall order, that it wouldn’t feel like work, that they would relish school. Is it so far fetched? What if school was fun? What if they worked on projects in a way that explained the world to them, that taught them things they cared about? What if school seemed more relevant to their lives now? What if school engaged the students to be more creative, rather than killing their creativity?

~ ~ ~

Each September there’s a school meeting at which the teachers and administration are collected to address the assembled parents about the year ahead. I’m inevitably disappointed after this meeting, to the degree that I wonder why I even attend. I long for a visionary administrator – this is an oxymoron, I suppose, except I know it is possible – who will launch into an inspiring presentation about the education they hope to provide the educate_the_monkeystudents. I want teachers who will get up and talk about helping students learn to love to learn, to help them think and ask and be curious. Instead, meetings at the French school begin with, and rather abruptly, the rules and regulations. What time classes start. The signatures necessary for students to leave the campus. The punishment for being late. The punishment system in general. The rules about carrying backpacks and doing homework. I leave shaking my head: What am I doing, with my kids in this kind of school?

Just a few weeks ago the school sponsored a meeting for teachers and parents during which we were assigned 5-minute slots – yes, five minutes – back-to-back with each teacher. This is barely enough time to explain what’s happening, let alone to dialogue about any issues. The parents dash from classroom to classroom to keep on time, only to find themselves waiting in line because a teacher took too long with somebody else, looking bewildered and muttering to ourselves is this really the way to get meaningful parent-teacher interaction?

I made the mistake of asking, gently, one of Buddy-roo‘s teachers if there was any way she might consider adding other forms of instruction to address different learning styles of her students. The handout she’d distributed for the myth of Isis and Osiris was rather dry, not to mention that it was unintelligible because it was a photocopy of a photocopy. When I was helping Buddy-roo study for the test, it was clear she didn’t understand the story, let alone why it matters. So I gave her an assignment: go to YouTube and find five videos about Isis and Osiris and watch them. Buddy-roo transformed after watching the videos, and she could retell the story and even draw some conclusions about why it was an important myth.

Ludique? Nous n’avons pas le temps!” She explained they didn’t have the time to be playful. Her excuse: there’s a big test three years from now. They have to prepare for it, seriously.

Seriously? We can’t make learning even a tiny bit fun, or at least interesting?For a test that’s years from now?

I knew better than to press further. It was already a risk to even suggest something like this. But I couldn’t help myself, I had to see how she’d respond. On the way home I worried if she might punish Buddy-roo because of her meddling mother. I should know better than to taunt a schoolmarm. Or should I know better than to put my kids into such an old-fashioned, rigid system?
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~ ~ ~

Last week I attended a TEDx conference here in Barcelona, one dedicated to the topic of education. A roster of fascinating speakers paraded on stage, each one with an uplifting story: a cross-disciplinary teaching team, project-based learning, an entrepreneurial education program, or a futuristic view of how to teach our children well, for the coming century, not the last. It was all terribly inspiring, and yet I finished the daylong conference feeling even more discouraged. The evidence is there that there are better ways to teach our children, using multi-disciplinary curriculum, team teaching and technology. I know it’s happening in forward thinking school systems, in other places in the world. But the inertia in the system we have chosen is bigger than us. Or I don’t have the stamina to take it on.

As parents, De-facto and I can shore things up around the edges. We invent games for doing homework, we use Post-it notes to help them think about what to cover in their school presentations, we try to help them cultivate their imagination at home, we drag them to creativity conferences and camps. But I know it’s not reinforced at school, at least not consistently. There are some bright spots: Short-pants does have an imaginative English teacher who uses inventive methods in her class, and both the girls rave about their maths teachers. And yes, they’re learning lots of languages. But are they learning what to do with those languages?

I know it’s not easy being a teacher. I don’t think I could do it, spending the entire day with large throngs of pre-adolescents. I know they’re underpaid, even at private and semi-private schools like the Lycée Francais. I know they’re saddled with huge classes, and unruly, overly-entitled students. I know the system they’re working in is focused on testing rather than understanding. But I wonder, do they feel guilty, too? These teachers must read what I’m reading, see what I seeing on-line about schools and the future – it has to be part of the zeitgeist of the world of education. Do they feel as powerless as I do?

I’m trying to do more for the girls. Teaching them to code, rejecting the archaic gender bias and reminding them they are good at math and science, encouraging their passions, nourishing their creativity. But then every morning I send them out the door to go to a school that I’m not convinced can give them the education to prepare for jobs that don’t exist yet, to enter a world that will be very different than the one I encountered after school, to solve possibly insurmountable problems that we’ve hoisted upon their generation. And what do I do? I wave goodbye and close the door, taking inhttp://www.danwalkerartworks.com/ the quiet that descends after their departure. I wrap my hands around a fresh cup of coffee, set my gaze toward my computer to plot my day, attacking my own list of things to do and learn, scrambling to keep up with my own life, let alone to envision what needs to be done for them to create theirs.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? Burrowed in to our day-to-day, it’s hard to lift our heads and look at the horizon and think strategically about our lives, our work, our kids and their schooling. Until I carve out the time for that, I’m left with the guilt. Until, I guess, it gets so bad that I do something, which might be simply to decide to stop feeling guilty. They are still bright eyed, curious, open-hearted girls, and they’ll do just fine. But I keep wondering, could we do better?

(Photo credit: “You are the Bows” is artwork by Dan Walker.)


Jun 7 2014

He Likes You

At that age, I remember, romance was awkward and bartered or brokered by your friends. That cute boy, one seat up and two rows over, put butterflies in your stomach. In the lunch line you mentioned it to a friend, or else she already noticed. With your permission, or sometimes against your wishes, she’d find him later in the hall and ask him if he liked you.
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Often nothing came of these declarations of like. Sometimes a short, non-romantic romance would result, with smiles across the classroom and if you were lucky a quick hand-holding on the school steps, phone calls at home. For two weeks you’d be “going steady” until he got tired of being teased by his friends, or somebody else expressed affection for you via proxy messenger. You never did the dirty work on your own. You sent a friend to break the bad news to your once coveted beau of one seat up and two rows over.

I got dumped this way as often as I did the dumping. That was middle school romance.

That was also the ’70s. I have to imagine, based on the influence of the increasingly vulgar advertising and sexually explicit media that it’s very different today. I’ve read accounts of experimentation at ages almost too young for me to imagine. I brace myself for the worst.

Then I look at Short-pants and I can’t fathom this kind of behavior from her. She hasn’t folded into the fast social cliques. Maybe we’ve accidentally found a school where this kind of pressure isn’t part of the landscape. Or else it is, and she just doesn’t see it given her charming naiveté. She doesn’t ask to go out with her friends. She’s not that keen on sleepovers. She’s friendly with a gang of kids at school, but she rarely asks to bring anyone home or go anywhere else. At her age I was begging my mother to let me hang out with friends after school, champing at the bit to go out to the “rec center” every weekend night, already eyeing boys in my class and older. Short-pants, though more social than before, is pretty much a homebody. She’d rather sit in her room and read.

This week, though, she’s come home from school nearly every day with an update about a potential suitor. Eduardo (not his real name) is quirky but not an outsider. Based on her description of him, I’d wager he’s fairly extraverted and possibly one of the class clowns. He makes up pet names for her – not mean ones, but silly ones, with a slightly affectionate tone – and he’s constantly tapping her on the opposite shoulder, stealing her bag and running away, finding ways to engage her which come right up to but never quite cross the boundary of annoying.
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I explained to her, trying my hardest not to be patronizing, that this is how pre-adolescent boys display their affection. And it’s been confirmed. Every day this week a different classmate approached her with a comment, a variation on the theme: “Eduardo likes you. Do you like him?”

“How do you respond?” I asked her, yesterday.

“I don’t,” she said. “I just laugh it off.”

Phew.

I extended my arm to her and pulled her into my room. Some of our best conversations happen laying on the big bed staring at the ceiling. These heavier talks happen more easily, I think, if you don’t have to look your mother in the eye.

We talked about the possible scenarios at play: Eduardo really likes her and he’s sending scouts to find out if it’s reciprocated. Or he’s unable to express it any other way and everyone else is trying to help. Or because she’s the slightly offbeat girl, he’s targeted her for teasing and as soon as she likes him back he’ll point at her and laugh.

That last scenario seems a bit harsh, and I emphasized that it’s probably not the case. But in matters of teenage social interactions, one must be prepared for any eventuality. Her eyes teared up a little at this – I glanced sideways quickly, pretending not to notice – and I felt a bit shitty for having even suggested it. Except in the end I think it’s better to have considered it and discover it’s not the case rather than the other way around.

“Here’s the more important question,” I said. “Do you like Eduardo?”

She fell silent, considering my question.

“No,” she said, in a most grounded way. “I don’t like him.”

She thought about it some more and added, “except as a friend.”

I told her not to get caught up in all the noise from his friends and to start liking him simply because he likes her, or says he likes her. The reason to like a person – I kept it deliberately gender neutral, too, because, well, you never know – is because they are kind or funny or smart or you find them physically appealing. Or hopefully some combination of those qualities.

“You should never feel you have to like someone just because they like you.”

Saying this out loud thrust me into a time machine, back into those awkward middle and high school moments of (at the time) great social consequence. I wanted so desperately to have a boyfriend – all my friends did – that sometimes I just accepted the placeholder. It took me a decade of dating to love_in_a_dinerreally get that the first question wasn’t who liked me, but who I liked. And even with that knowledge, I still made a mistakes with some of my adult romances, falling hard for someone who pursued me so passionately that I was blinded to how bad he was for me.

“I’m not ready to have a boyfriend,” she said, “not yet.”

“That’s probably true,” I said, relieved.

Given her proclamation, though, it won’t be long before she is.


Jun 11 2013

Smokin’ Cool

As we walked home from school, just the two of us, Buddy-roo reached out and took my hand.

“Mama,” she said, “Is there any kind of smoking that isn’t bad for you?”

We’d just passed a lycée, where a pack of high-school students huddled together outside the entrance. Nearly every one of them held a cigarette. The guys went for the pinched between the fingers hold, the girls held their arms out in that affected way that young smokers do, trying to look cool but looking, actually, a bit silly. We pass this school and these kids frequently, and I’ve made it a point to point out to Short-pants and Buddy-roo how not only is smoking bad for your health, but it looks really stoopid too.
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Her question required a moment to think about the best right answer.

“There is one kind of cigarette that some doctors prescribe to help sick people manage pain and nausea.” I deliberately avoided the word marijuana. “But it still has consequences to your health if you smoke it.”

Her facial expression was serious, almost worried.

“Why do you ask?” I said.

She hesitated, and then the words spilled out, the pitch and pace of her voice rising and quickening, bringing her to the verge of tears.

“Because I think it looks cool and I’m afraid I’m going to want to smoke and I know it’s bad for me and you’ll be mad at me if I do.”

I gulped, and then remarked, with praise, about her honesty and how I hoped she’d always feel that she could talk to me about anything, even if she knew it might make me angry. I told her it’s a choice she’ll have to make, but I hope she chooses not to, because it’s bad for you.

“Plus it makes you taste like an ashtray,” I said. “Can you imagine kissing an ashtray?”

She started to cry. My heart was breaking. I didn’t want to upset her. But I wanted to upset her.

“Listen, do you feel like lighting up right now?” I made the gesture of puffing on a cigarette.

She shook her head vehemently. “No, I’m too young.”

“Let’s not worry about this yet. Come talk to me when you get the urge to have a smoke.”

~ ~ ~

It was a gorgeous day, a scarcity in Paris since our bleak and wet winter stretched through the end of May. Despite the treasured sunshine, I spent the afternoon in a dark, windowless rock’n’roll club. One of Buddy-roo’s extra-curricular activities this term was the Park Slope Rock School. Every Thursday we’d take the Bus 69 to a further-flung arrondissement where I’d drop her at a real live recording studio for an hour and a half rehearsal with the members of her band. Two other mothers and I staked out a nearby café and it quickly became our practice to park ourselves there with a glass of wine until it was time to fetch our rock’n’roll kids. Last Saturday afternoon we all met up at the Bellevilleoise to hear the final concert.
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Nine bands performed, each had been assembled and nurtured by the director of the school, a hipster from Brooklyn and rock’n’roll magician. Though some of the older bands had played together for more than one semester, Buddy-roo’s ensemble was conceived only last February, and in just over three months they learned to play, compose and perform together. Each band did a cover and an original song that they’d written together. Each band really rocked. Buddy-roo’s group – they named themselves “Shut up!” – was one of the newer bands, so they opened the show. Though their performance wasn’t without a hiccup or two, from which they always recovered, it was stellar. Buddy-roo was the front singer of “Shut up!” and despite a few nerves at the start, she found her footing on stage and was at ease holding the microphone. And her moves, well, cool. Smokin’ cool.

I dressed for the occasion in jeans, a black T-shirt and black chucks, which is what I used to wear when I went to rock concerts. After college I worked for a radio station that promoted itself as the rock’n’roll air force, so I had some experience in this sort of venue. I don’t often go to these kinds of clubs anymore, though standing there at the bar, waiting for live music to start, I wondered why I don’t take better advantage of the music Paris has to offer. In those free, coveted days-before-motherhood, I went to see live shows all the time. That was long before the smoking ban, when clubs were hazy with cigarette smoke. I’d come home, strip off my clothes and hang them on the balcony to air out; the stale scent of smokey garments piled on the clothes chair was a poison you didn’t want to face the next day.

~ ~ ~

I loved smoking. My preferred brand of tobacco was Old Holdborn, and I used to roll my own cigarettes. I had many pleasant associations with smoking: that first one of the day, with my coffee, reading the paper; the cigarette to accompany an apéritif or the one to finish a meal; after writing several difficult paragraphs, pushing my chair back, rolling a cigarette and smoking it while reviewing my work. I loved pulling out a thin paper and reaching into the pouch, pinching the moist tobacco between my fingers, spreading it along the fold and getting that first edge to tuck in and rolling it evenly. Each cigarette a chance – a test – for the perfect roll.

The night I met De-facto I persuaded him to stick around and keep me company while I “had a smoke.” Even though he’s never been a smoker, he used the opportunity to charm me. He even indulged my not-heavy-but-more-than-I-reported habit without complaint, though I’m sure he was relieved when I stopped. I quit overnight. One afternoon the pink line red_lips_glistening_teethturned blue on the home pregnancy test. The next morning I dropped a nearly full pouch of tobacco in the bin. I haven’t had one since.

I do miss the deep inhale, the drawing back, pausing, letting go and pressing the smoke out of my lungs and mouth. I don’t miss the stale breath, the morning cough, or the yellow fingers. I like tasting things, and I started enjoying food more when I quit cigarettes. I hope I knew how to smoke, but I also wonder if I looked as stoopid as those high school girls in front of the lyceé, holding arm and palm upwards in their awkward smoking stance. I don’t know if I smoked to look cool. I know that it felt cool, the experience. But it wasn’t, really. I mean when you stand back and think about it, it’s an absurd habit.

I tell Short-pants and Buddy-roo they saved my life. That getting pregnant and having little people to care for made me want to be healthier. I didn’t want to expose them to the second-hand smoke, but having them also made me think about my mortality, and how it wouldn’t be a bad idea to eliminate the things that might shorten my capacity to watch my offspring grow up.

Even with my no-smoking messages, beaten into their heads from the start, I suspect they will want to experiment with tobacco, and possibly other things that one might inhale. I used to chastise my father for smoking, leaving pictures of people with cancer of the mouth next to his dinner plate. But then, later on, my militant stance went up in smoke. Who knows if Buddy-roo will bring it up with me again, when her adolescent peers start carrying cigarettes and her urge is stronger. I hope I can stay cool, and help her see how cool she already is without having to smoke.


Mar 13 2013

Step on a Crack

It was raining at the top of the mountain. Short-pants klunked toward the car in her bulky ski boots, cold and drenched but smiling after a morning of skiing. Buddy-roo and I had skipped the sporting activities of the day. She’d turned her ankle running in the yard of our country house earlier in the week, and my back was flaring up a little bit, so I opted to sit it out with her. The first day we took over a table in the mountaintop restaurant and I even jumped on an open wifi signal and scratched out a few work messages. Her foot hadn’t improved, so I dropped half of my family at the ski lift that morning and took Buddy-roo to a local doctor in the village who sent us to chalkboard_skiierthe nearest hospital in the valley to get an X-ray. The visit was efficient, if not unsatisfactory in that the image showed no evidence of even a tiny fracture, so there was nothing to be done – according to the radiologist – but give it a rest and wait and see. A troubling prognosis, especially since our plan was to go to Barcelona the following week, a visit which would include no small amount of wandering around the city to explore it.

I wasn’t pleased to miss the skiing. At one time in my life it’d been an every-weekend pastime. I even lived in Switzerland for two winters, skiing to the chairlift from my door, whenever I wanted. These days it’s a once-a-year excursion, at best. But I appreciated the experience Short-pants was having, on the slopes alone with her father, exercising her skiing muscles and getting a few days to catch up with her younger sister, who, last year proved to be a more confident skier.

De-facto set about loading their skis in the car, Short-pants sat down sideways in the car seat with her feet out the door to remove her boots. She was wet and exhausted and could barely bend over. I squatted down before her, carefully. I unbuckled the boots and opened the wide flaps so she could extract her foot. The first boot slipped off with a gentle tug. The second was more persistent. I pulled at it, meeting resistance, so tugged harder, giving it a real yank. The boot snapped off into my hands, accompanied by a bolt of excruciating pain in my lower back, upwards to my shoulder and down the ground through my leg. I threw the boot down on the ground and leaned against the dirty, wet, car. Fuck.

Later, after lowering myself gingerly into the passenger seat, our car wound down the mountain roads and the tears streamed down my face. They were not so much about the physical discomfort – I new the pain would pass eventually – but more about the consequences of this injury on my plan to return to the Camino Santiago in a week’s time. I couldn’t imagine walking 250 kilometers, let alone with nearly 10 kilos of weight on my back. I couldn’t even think of bending over to tie my hiking boots. I’d have to postpone the walk. But until when? The spring is already filling up with work engagements, or preparations for same. I’d cleared these weeks specifically to walk, and to finish. Though the Fiesta Nazi, an avid Camino fan, reminded me that every time I “finish” I’ll start scheming another leg of it that I want to do, from Le Puy, or to Finisterre, or the Route del Norte. But I have had my mind set on finishing the Route Francés this year, while I was in the middle age of fifty.

“Sorry you hurt your back,” Short-pants’ gentle voice from the backseat. I realized she might feel responsible since it happened while pulling off her ski boot.

“Just wait,” I said, shaking my finger in the air so they’d know I was joking, “until I find out which one of you stepped on a crack and broke my back.”

Buddy-roo giggled, but Short-pants was quiet.

“Hey,” I pulled the visor down and looked at her in the mirror, “this isn’t your fault. I should have known better.”
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Even though you can tie my back injury specifically to a physical incident – it happened once before pulling up carpet, or this time tugging off a ski boot – I believe that I’m be pre-disposed to such an injury if I’m off balance in my life, or trying to carry too many things. Dr. John Sarno, a specialist in rehabilitating people with chronic back problems, wrote a book, Healing Back Pain that I’ve read more than once and always resonates with me. There is an emotional component that contributes to back issues. Whenever mine flares up, I know I have to pay attention to something.

We returned to our country house, where I remained horizontal for a whole day while Buddy-roo acquired a pair of crutches at the village pharmacy so she could hobble around. I can’t say this was a horrible punishment. Short-pants served me tea, and De-facto rubbed a special anti-inflammatory pommade my back. He cooked all the meals and the girls did all the dishes. I got to stay in bed and read and write and play Subway Surfer. My back survived the seven hour drive to Barcelona, and each day I have less pain and more mobility. Buddy-roo is still hopping on crutches – she’ll probably have to get another X-ray – but I’m very much on the mend. The Camino may still be within close reach. I have a few days to decide.

It’s might be better left for early May. I could carve out two weeks then and the weather will be warmer and possibly dryer. It’d be during spring break, so that might be easier for De-facto. We’ll see how I feel, later this week, when I need to decide whether to fly to Léon and bus to Astorga and begin my walk again, or whether I drive back to Paris with the family. For now, I’m taking it one day at a time, which is in itself a good reminder, and certainly a preparation for the Camino ahead, whenever it happens.


Jan 24 2013

A Little Bit Selfish

“Mama,” she said, “when you’re being selfish it’s really hard on me.”

This was Buddy-roo‘s pronouncement of the morning. You could say it’s the pot calling the kettle black, but I didn’t. She’d already launched into a long list of my faults over the last few days: forcing her to do a “forgotten” homework assignment at breakfast, not giving her permission to play video games on my iPhone, refusing to build a pretend oven for her school presentation (she’d asked me at 9:30 the night before it was due) or working on my computer instead of playing with her.

“Sounds like it’s been a rough couple of days for you.” I said.
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She nodded.

“So what do you think you might do about it?” I asked.

~ ~ ~

Like a knife in the gut, selfish. And then that taunting voice in the back of my head, snickering. It’s the old tape about not being a good enough mom, not living up to the pressure to be supermom: to be nurturing and nourishing, efficiently organizing their lives and getting them to rehearsals, classes and lessons while effortlessly juggling my own professional projects, looking sleek in a pilates-carved body, lighting the candle on a elegant table as the perfectly timed meal comes out of the oven. All this while penning the next great expatriate novel of our time. For the record I gave up trying to be supermom a long time ago, but some kernel of that illusion always remains, buried, despite regularly attempted exorcisms.

I recovered from the accusation quickly enough to throw the ball back in Buddy-roo’s court. We talked about how she might do a better job of looking ahead at her homework assignments so she could get “special pass” for access to my iPhone. We talked about how you can ask for help from other people, but you can’t always expect it to come on your own terms. We talked about if homework involved less fussing and thrashing about, there’s be more time to do fun things, together.

But it made me wonder. Do my daughters see me as selfish? Am I?

~ ~ ~

The English language is missing a word, a word that’s poised, in meaning, between selfish and selfless. Self-ful. A word that would convey the sense of how to take care of yourself so that you are better equipped to support others in the same pursuit. Self-ful wouldn’t be self-absorbed like selfish, nor would it carry the martyrdom or pliability of selfless. It’s the solid stance in between the two. It’s thoughtful self-reliance. It’s being concerned with the needs of others – family, friends, colleagues – but not at the expense of your own mental health or happiness. It might be epitomized by the classic flight attendant’s instruction: Secure your own oxygen mask first, before assisting anyone else. Maybe self-ful is being just a little bit selfish.
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As a young girl, I watched my mother organize her briefcase and dress for work. She also lent her professional skills to many causes, which meant she was often on the telephone in the evenings or going off to meetings after dinner. She was a busy woman, engaged in her work, involved in her community. She was also pretty good to me; she helped me, drove me, loved me. But she did all that while doing all those other interesting things. In this way, she was good model for me. And she forced me, inadvertently – or possibly deliberately – to be self-ful. I spent a good amount of time home alone after school, doing things on my own. I had to learn to be content with my own company. I had to learn to take care of myself.

I never got mad at my mom for being selfish, I got mad at her for not letting me do what I wanted to do. Which is really what Buddy-roo was mad about, and I know that. But this reminds me that I want to transmit to my daughters this notion of being self-ful. I suppose it starts by modeling it – not by being supermom, but just by doing my thing. And that might mean, from time to time, being a little bit selfish.


Aug 25 2012

Close to the Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jun 4 2012

Trust the Road

20120604-183830.jpgThe long stone building stood adjacent to the Camino, like a ancient fortress, or a chapel – or both – offering protection to passing pilgrims for centuries. Inside, the cool air refreshed and inspired a mood of tranquility, a pause from the endless step-after-step of the road. Two men welcomed passers-by with gentle Italian accents, offering a bench to sit on, a break from the hot sun, cool water to drink and a tap to refill water bottles. I marveled at the nearly medieval setting: the vaulted ceiling like a church, the small, narrow windows set up high like a fortress, the furnishings like noble dining room. At one end, a rounded chapel, with religious images and artifacts of the Camino. At the other, bunk beds in a row against the wall. I’d read about this albergue in the guidebook I’ve been carrying by John Brierley, a mix of practical and mystical tips for walking the Camino de Santiago. The Ermita de San Nicolas is a small way station, without electricity and with only 12 beds. Brierley wrote that and if you can get a place on a mattress here you should consider yourself lucky.

It was just before noon. I’d walked since 6:30 am but with more breaks than usual, covering about 18 kilometers, less than the usual daily distance, which might range between 22 and 29k. I was in good form, though, not yet ready to stop for the day. I rested there for a while, just to take advantage of the ambiance, but before long I stood up, grabbed my walking sticks from against the wall and took to the road.

Just beyond the albergue, a stone bridge crossed the rio Pisuerga and I stopped midway and looked back. I wanted to keep walking, but there was something back there, something calling me, an opportunity to stop for an afternoon in the quiet and reflect, the serenity of the setting, the experience it might hold for me. I mulled this over for at least ten minutes, standing there on that bridge.
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A German woman, crossing the bridge, stopped to talk with me. I told her my dilemma. “If you are torn, then go back,” she said. “I stayed there when I did the Camino before, and it was a special night.”

That was all I needed, a slight nudge to break the equality of my options. I turned and walked back, against the traffic of pilgrims. Remarkably, in that 50-meter stretch, I met several friends I’d made over the last days. An American couple I’d bunked beside at the albergue in the one-horse town – literally, it had one church, one bar/restaurant, one funky but cozy albergue – of San Juan de Ortega. Just behind them, two Spanish guys who called themselves my dos Sanchos, after Don Quixote‘s sidekick, with whom I’d had a long, late lunch the day before in Hontanas, and then a picnic that same night when the older Sancho‘s wife and daughter showed up, like a pit crew, with a huge feast, an impressive spread of homemade tortilla, fried pig’s chin (very tasty), and an array of salads and bread and wine we shared from a wineskin pouch. The younger Sancho, whose wife will bring his horses to Leon so he can finish the Camino on horseback, urged me to go on with them, offering the promise of another pleasant lunch together. But I knew – and I was literally walking against the tide of pilgrims – that I needed to stay in this remote, roadside station. I waved goodbye to all these fellow walkers, such fast friends we’d become in such a short span of time, and retraced my steps to the albergue, presenting myself to Augusto, whom I’d spoken with before, asking him if it was too early to request a place in the ermita that night.

Yo te visto,” he said. He’d seen me stop and ponder my decision on the bridge. He took my backpack from me and carried it into the building, even though it was earlier than the usual hour for accepting boarders.
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I sat at the table while he explained the rules and procedures, nothing unusual from any other albergue I’d stayed at, except here there was no fee, only a donation if I was able to contribute. Because it was so early in the day and I was the first pilgrim to ask to stay, I had a very private shower, despite the communal bathrooms in the back, and washed all my clothes in a big basin and hung them on the line next to the red flannel mattress covers that were flapping in the wind, drying after being washed after the previous night’s pilgrims. I’d noticed them hanging on the line when I approached, they reminded me of my mother’s sheets. I longed to help fold them, but I’d learned right away – when I’d offered to help – that the guests were not to do any work at the albergue.

“A pilgrim’s work is to walk and reflect,” Augusto said. “Our work is to feed you and give you a place to wash and sleep.”

I spent the afternoon writing, reading and resting. I sat in front of the building, watching pilgrims come down the road and peek in. You could see they were impressed with its mystical quality but also intimidated by its solace and simplicity. But by the end of the afternoon, 11 of the 12 cots were filled. The last person to walk down the road, with the absolute intention of finishing her day here, the Romanian woman whose wisdom I wrote about in my last post. Our hug was fierce, we had not seen each other since we had that conversation on the trail, days before.

At 7:30 pm, our hosts rang a bell and escorted us to the rounded chapel-like end of the long room. Twelve chairs were arranged in a semi-circle. The two Italian men donned shoulder-length brown capes with large scallop shells attached, the symbolic uniform of their confraternity. They talked about the privilege of being in service to pilgrims, a long winded explanation in Italian – there were six Italian speakers staying that night – and shorter translations in English and Spanish. To symbolize this service, they produced a metal basin with a pitcher of water, and one by one, washed our feet. The gesture surprised and moved each one of us. We were then invited to be seated at the table, set for our dinner, lit only by candles. A huge bowl of pasta with red sauce – prepared on a gas stove since was no electricity in the albergue – was placed at each setting. As much as I love Spanish food with its eggs and pimentos and potatoes, the pasta was a nice change, served with a generous amount of imported parmesan. The red wine was plentiful, second helpings thrust upon us, good conversation and laughter, a hearty meal for belly and the spirit.

As the sun set, we prepared for bed. When the last pilgrim crawled into a bunk, Augusto blew out the one candle still burning. I did not move again until the morning, when the noise of breakfast-in-preparation woke me gently and I rose for a cafe con leche and bread and Nutella, before setting off again, slightly sad to leave but thoroughly composed, light-footed, ready to walk.

~ ~ ~

Last week, on my return trip to the Camino, I was at the bus station with an hour to kill between transfers, so I combed through my guidebooks and sketched out how I might walk over the next days. I calculated distances for each day and made reservations at charming little hotels and casas rurales, mapping out a very nifty little plan.

I have cancelled all but one of those reservations.

Each day, I’d realize that I wanted to stop sooner because a town had a certain charm, or I’d want to go further because I had the stamina to keep walking. I’d call to cancel my reservation with an apology, and I’d always find some other perfect place to sleep, in a room with a dozen others or by myself, it was always the right choice.
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I think it took me this long to surrender to the Camino. Plans are nice to have, but on this path they are unnecessary, or even burdensome. I finally learned to trust, fully, that wherever I end up, it will be the right place, that there always a shower, a meal and a bed. A Dutch man, doing the Camino on his bicycle, told me how he rode into a small town one evening and there were no beds available at any hotel or albergue. A local family took him in their guest room.

So I start off each morning with an idea of where I might want to end up, but otherwise let my feet tell me when to stop, or when to keep going. One day I walked 37k because it felt so good to be moving. The scenery is beautiful and I am fully aware of it – I am part of it. I wish I could live my life this way, trusting the road so fully, not trying to plan or control it, but just to be on it. Of course, I should mention that it took some clever planning to clear the decks so I could do the Camino. There’s the rub.

I was musing about all this when I came upon a small cafe-bar, deciding to stop off for a lemonade. There was an open wifi network there, so I checked my email. I was so immersed in the messages from home that I hardly noticed the four sloppy-drunk men at the bar, until one of them came over and pretended to be reading over my shoulder. I knew how to handle it: playfully rebuffing him at first, then, when that didn’t work, making a fiercer boundary until he left me alone. I managed it without a big fuss, but it interrupted my mood. I guess sometimes you can’t trust the road, at least not completely.
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But I want to. I want take this trust back home with me. I want to transmit it to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, this feeling of having faith in whatever unfolds, making the best of what is, realizing that among all the choices you have in any given moment, most of them will be exactly the right choice, if you show up for it fully committed. But I also want to help them understand when not to trust so fully what the road brings, how to set your own course, how to draw boundaries, how to protect your open, tender, heart while taking on four drunk men in a bar. Or how to trust the clarity of your own voice amidst the cacophony of others crowded around you. I want them to be able to trust the road, but also to know when to trust themselves instead.

It has taken me 18 days of walking and 400 kilometers – that’s 250 miles – to slow down enough to hear my own voice, let alone to trust it. I’m just over halfway to Santiago, and in a few days I’ll have to head home, and leave the rest of the Camino for another time, next fall or next year. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go back to the day-to-day of my life, to the bombardment of information, obligations and responsibility. Can I stay in this cool Camino groove? Can I bring its rhythmic calm back with me? Can I trust myself – and the road – and keep walking the walk?


Apr 27 2012

Time, more or less

I remember my first calendar. I must have been younger than Buddy-roo because I remember how a shiny gold star sticker was ceremoniously affixed on each day that I did not suck my thumb. The calendar hung on the wall beside the twin bed that was mine, in a bedroom that would go through many transitions. A big double bed with a mod black-and-white spiral patterned bedspread was moved in when my teenaged brother took it over and when he left I reclaimed it as my high-school suite. When we were all grown my mother stowed our accumulated paraphernalia – high-school folders, rock-n-roll posters and sentimental stuffed-animals-won-at-the-Fireman’s-carnival – into the closet and made it the room for visiting grandchildren, with two twin beds once again placed exactly as they had been when it was my childhood bedroom so many years before.

The page for the month of January was all pink. February’s had an apple green shade. March was powder blue. April yellow. I can recount for you the colors of each month of that calendar. On the last page there was an image of all the months, connected start-to-finish, their colors adjacent and cascading around in an oval shape, joining December to January.

I do not remember who gave me this calendar as a gift, but it shaped my notion of time for the rest of my life. In my mind, that colorful oval still repeats itself year-after-year. January is to the left, winding around in a patchwork of pastels. If it is August, I imagine the butterscotch color wedged on the southeast part of the oval, rounding the corner from summer to autumn.

How does time pass so fast? This is the clichéd remark about motherhood that I find the most patronizing. “But it goes by so fast.” Like a woman can’t express any exasperation about a her children’s impact on her life simply because it’s happening quickly?

Except one day you look in the mirror and you realize you’re not the Young Turk you used to be. One day things look and feel different, more distant. One day, kids come up to your chin and you say the thing you swore you’d never say, “It goes by so fast.”

~ ~ ~

Last week I took a creative time out in Italy – a place that has its own notion of time – at CREA, the European creativity conference. In the proverbial fashion of teach what we most need to learn, the program I facilitated was about slowing down in a hurry-up world to deliberately make time for and prioritize your creativity. The work I did with my colleagues to prepare served to raise my own awareness about what’s necessary to make peace with time. Spending four days with the group, immersed in the examination of our relationship with time, inspires me to think about making different choices that might better synchronize with the clocks and calendars – and the demands they represent – that seem to engineer my life.

This was the 10th CREA conference, which means we’ve been attending for nine years. I remember the first time, with Buddy-roo in my belly and Short-pants holding court in the dining room from her high chair. They’ve grown up at CREA, shot up from their meaty, miniature-selves into the tall pea pods that they are now. Along with a rat-pack handful of CREA heirs, other kids who’ve been coming to the conference for years, the girls are stars in their own right, with a hundred aunties and uncles all marveling at how they’ve bloomed, year after year.

The first years weren’t the easiest. I’d be running a core program, full-on days with the extra effort required in the pre- and post- workshop hours, while desperately drawing pictures, symbols and clocks to convey to the Italian-only-speaking babysitter how to feed and nap and care for our babies. De-facto and I would juggle the early mornings and the meals and the bedtime routine. That left only the late night hours – stretching into the wee early ones – to catch up with friends and colleagues whom we only see each year at CREA. I didn’t want to miss anything, so I’d burn the candle at both ends and in the middle. I’d finish the week totally knackered.

I realize this is a little bit my problem with time. It’s not that I don’t have enough time. I have been allocated the same 168 hours as everyone else. It’s not that I don’t use my time well; I can be extremely productive – if that’s how your measure using it well – and I accomplish much in a day. My problem isn’t time. My problem is choices. I am too greedy. It’s not that I’m obliged to say yes to everything, I want to do all those projects, to have my fingers in all those creative pots, to say yes to every friend who wants to meet for coffee or a drink, to make time for every visitor who wants to visit.

But for this greed I have suffered the consequences: the churning sensation of never getting to all my commitments or the undercurrent of angst about what I’m not doing when I do myself the indulgent favor of taking time to do nothing. What I am convinced of now, after last week’s reflection on how I might choose (from now on) to spend my time: less is more.

~ ~ ~

The number of spins around my oblong pastel wheel of time is approaching a number that ends-in-a-zero, a fairly significant one at that. Each year this cycle through the seasons appears to quicken – it goes by so fast – a sharp contrast to the first year when that indelible calendar actually hung on the wall by my bed, when the time between consecutive birthdays seemed like an eternity.

De-facto and the girls are giving me an especially generous gift this year. It is a gift of time. Time out. Time away. Not just time away to work, but time away to think. Not just a weekend. Many weeks. Enough time to walk a good portion of the Route Frances of the Camino Santiago de Compostela, a month-long (slightly more) pilgrimage across the north of Spain. I cannot walk it from start to finish in one go; there are still work and family commitments that I must keep. I will hike for a week, return to Paris for Short-pants’ orchestra concert and to be with the girls while De-facto takes a short business trip. Then I return to exactly where I left off and keep walking. A week later, a little birthday bash is scheduled in my favorite Basque village with a few good friends in attendance, and then I return to the route again, to walk some more.

Given the time I can take, I expect I might finish about half of the Camino this spring. The rest, perhaps a few days in July with the whole family in tow, or in September or May of next year. It’s not a race. It’s an active meditation, a chance to remove myself from the distractions of the day-to-day, and, with the backdrop of breathtaking scenery and the constant rhythm of one foot in front of the other, think about how to make more of – or less of – the however-many pastel-tinted calendar turns I have left.


Oct 29 2011

That Part

“Is this the marriage part?” Buddy-roo asked. We were congregated on the beach, greenish hills in front of us, the Pacific ocean at our backs. A few white folding chairs created a half moon, upon these chairs sat the elder family and friends while the rest of us stood behind them, making a tight circle in the sand before the couple. The vows were completely customized, except for an occasional dearly beloved and by the power vested in me, inserted for charm and humor rather than tradition. The barefoot bride, my sister-in-love, wore a dark pumpkin orange dress, her groom sported a similarly orange tie with a black suit, the trousers of which would later be folded up as he trampled around the surf with their two little boys, tow-headed like their uncles had been, tow-headed like my daughters once were, still young enough to have no clear idea about the meaning of the ceremony their parents had just constructed, more interested in the piles of sand than the people assembled.

The weekend was filled with wedding party and extended wedding party activities, dinners and picnic lunches, family football challenges on the beach, informal gatherings of cousins and friends of the bride and groom. Each occasion prompted the question from Buddy-roo, who was eager to witness the marriage part and didn’t quite understand all of the other moments of revelry leading up to it.

These are always a bit sticky, these wedding moments, as the nature of our non-wedded status becomes a topic of conversation that has its tender touch points. I brace myself for the inevitable and impertinent question, “so when will the two of you tie the knot?” It’s posed by loving and curious family or friends who aren’t privy to the quiet discussions that De-facto and I have had about the subject. We have morphed in and out of agreement and disagreement on our status, a negotiation which is moot given the inextricable intertwining that results naturally from having children while engaged in pre-marital coitus.

There’s an argument in favor of maintaining this unmarried position, railing against the conspiracy of marriage. Allegedly we are not lulled into the convenient malaise that comes with the “security” of a legal union. When there is no official agreement to rely upon to hold you together, there is no relaxing of the vigilance to the relationship. No lazy couples survive; we’re here facing each other every day, on purpose.

Still, some days I ache because we have not crossed a threshold of ritualizing our feelings for each other. It’s not the big wedding or the formal doo-dah, I know the headaches that accompany the planning and production of such an affair. It’s about stating deliberately to each other: I am here, on purpose, and I mean it, and doing so with a few family and friends not only to witness such proclamations, but to celebrate them, too.

Standing in the sand with the sun upon my back I recalled my failed marriage and the mild embarrassment I carry for having entered into such a public contract only to break it four years later. I take some pride in the amicability of that parting, not that there weren’t arguments and angry words launched between us during the height of its unraveling, but that ultimately, once the threads of our couple were untangled, my ex-husband and I were civil and caring toward each other. Elegant is how I’ve often described my divorce but I’m probably framing it with an aura of revisionist history. But okay, if that makes it easier, so be it: elegant.

There are a number of reasons De-facto and I aren’t married, most of them a defense against some fear that each of us harbors. Me, perhaps, that I will fail again and be twice divorced. Him, that such a traditional label of wife will push me away rather than draw me to him, that the formalization of our commitment would serve only to eat way at the commitment which has organically taken shape as our initial attraction and affection led to a couple in residence, which created one child and then another. Not by accident, the children part: we deliberately pulled the goalie for Short-pants and though Buddy-roo was a surprise, it was only the timing of her arrival and not the fact of it. We knew we wanted to parent together, although I can not for the life of me imagine why he would want me to mother his children as I surely exhibited no maternal finesse whatsoever while we were courting.

What cycles we have been through: one of us resisting, both of us inclined, then more resistance, or apathy. It should not be taken as a sign of rejection that we are not united in holy matrimony, but more an ambivalence about the institution itself and by whom we are given permission to be official. Having said that, the disappointment of having not chosen that path seems to rise out of its invisible resting place from time to time, usually when there is somebody else’s wedding to attend, and it falls upon me like an soft, worn blanket, that old throw that ought to be given away to the good will but for some reason it stays draped on the armchair. Why do we keep that old ratty thing around? Familiarity, perhaps. It wraps around me as I stand there in the sand, with all the others who celebrate the beautiful union of these two awesomely lovely, in-love-with-each-other people face to face before us, poignantly itemizing their life promises to each other. The tears that tip-toe down my cheeks are tears of joy for their happiness, and also tears of disappointment at my own, that I have everything they have – indeed – except the marriage part.

(The last image in this post is artwork by RubySpam.)


Oct 18 2011

Busy Bodies

“It’s my busy day,” she said, “I have too many things to do.” Short-pants was referring to Thursdays, a long day for her. She gets out of school earlier than usual, but after a short break for a snack and homework, she has to run off to the conservatory for her viola lesson at 6:00 pm, followed by a music theory class from 6:30 to 8:00 pm. It’s not ideal, being schooled in the evening. But it’s the only class that fits with the rest of her schedule, unless we want to succumb to a Saturday obligation. And if she wants to continue with her viola at the conservatory, the theory class is obligatory.

Is this the curse of our time? To be always busy? To feel the burden of constant busy-ness, even at the tender age of ten? When I was her age I had only a little homework and all my extra-curricular activities were somehow incorporated into the school day, a factor of being enrolled in an American primary school during the ’70s. I don’t think I felt fatigued by my schedule. I remember having ample time to play, to read for pleasure, to watch television with my family in the evenings. Sure I had outside commitments; I took private piano lessons from a very young age. But even in high school, when I added several after-school activities, I wasn’t busy.

Does she get it from me? Is her awareness of the weight of her schedule a reflection of her own experience, or is she parroting what she hears me mumbling about to De-facto when my day gets hijacked by little errands and tasks that pop up and scream at me for immediate attention, thrusting me into the urgent but not important quadrant of time management. Some of this is my doing: trips to the beauty nurse are an interruption that I could eliminate, but for the consequences. But too often I feel utterly out of control of my daily itinerary, racing to do things I didn’t arrange for myself. I left the more structured, corporate job scene to get off the hamster wheel, but now I’m on another one, of my own making. Call it the hamster wheel of motherhood.

It seems to be my story, the busy one. And it’s dull. Yes, my days are packed with busy little things. Short-pants is out of cartridges for her stylo plume, or I have to organize her second attestation d’assurance. The girls’ ID cards must be procured at the prefecture, an ill-timed administrative errand that interrupts time I’d set aside to work, but was urgent enough – an upcoming voyage where they are required – to displace my schedule and requiring two trips to the prefecture. Buddy-roo needs a present for an upcoming birthday party, or there’s a note in her cahier that she needs something new for school, by tomorrow. There are a dozen tiny things like this on the list, none of them on their own particularly time consuming, but their accumulation and interruptive quality stun me. That long chunk of hours I’d set aside to work or write squeezes in on me like the narrowing walls of a horror movie, and then, just as I get in the groove of concentration, it’s time to go wait outside the school and bring the girls home.

I’m so tired of being busy. I’m tired of squeezing too much into too few hours. I’m tired of rushing through my life and feeling too busy to stop and linger or else feeling guilty when I do, for instance, linger after school drop-off for coffee with the other parents, or when I go to meet a friend for a drink instead of using those last child-free hours to finish my work, which is never finished.

I need to change something, because what I’m doing isn’t working. But what? What to remove (or possibly add) that will put me back in a more productive, efficient mode? Or in a stress-free mode? Or else this: what might inspire me to care less about the fact that it’s never all done, I’ll never be caught up, this unfinished head-just-above-water, life-in-constant-progress feeling will accompany me, probably, until my life is finished. One could even hope for that.

Buddy-roo’s angst about homework is somewhat diminished from last year. As she matures, her capacity to address the hefty assignment list improves. She’s even starting to understand the concept of working ahead on the weekend, so her after-school workload isn’t quite as crushing. But still, there’s always homework for her to do. The girls also have their chores around the house, the seeds of community service which we acknowledge with a modest allowance. But when we have to remind Buddy-roo to empty the silverware tray from dishwasher or to pull the empty toilet paper rolls from the bathroom and put them in the recycling, or to move her toys upstairs, she sighs with exasperation, “Everybody keeps telling me all these things I have to do, like homework and chores. I never have enough time to play.”

I know where this comes from. It’s her experience, and she’s repeating what she hears too often from me. I’m turning them – or letting them be turned – into human doings instead of human beings. We’re all running on our own little hamster-wheels, and I’m wondering – a lot – about how can we get off and just have some time to play.