Aug 30 2014

Still Carefree

From the other side of the dining hall, she stomped across the room, arms akimbo, her angry face narrowing in on me. Short-pants was scolding me with her whole body.

“Where were you all night? I didn’t see you before I went to sleep. You weren’t there when I woke up. Did you even come home?”

It took a concerted effort to contain my smile. My 13-year old daughter was admonishing me for what she believed had been an all-nighter. Already, it seems, the child is parenting the parent.

I wondered if I should tell her the whole truth. That after a long night of drumming, karaoke and ’round-the-campfire singing, I’d hung out with friends at the cottage, aka the party house, telling stories and drinking shots of fireball whiskey. That we busy_nightdiscussed and seriously considered a 3:00 am car trip – don’t worry, there was a non-drinker who would have driven – into the town a few miles away, to a 24-hour shawarma joint or to try out the all-night casino on the nearby Indian reservation. That the only reason we didn’t rally was that I was delivering a 7:00 am – yes seven in the morning – writing workshop and I knew I couldn’t pull an all-nighter and still pull it off like in the old days. I wondered if I should mention to her that I’d forgotten my key in the room and had to crawl in the window at 3:30 am, while she and her sister and De-facto snored in their beds. That I crawled into bed giggling, because everything about the whole night had left me feeling untethered, carefree.

“I stayed up very late talking to friends. I came in after you’d fallen asleep.” I tried to express this as a calm fact, realizing that I was feeling defensive. “And I was up and out early this morning, before you woke up, to facilitate my 7:00 session.”

Her anger turned to tears. She wrapped her arms around me and drew in for a big hug, whispering in my ear, “But I missed you, Mama.”

~ ~ ~

As creativity conferences go – and I’ve been to many, in the states, in Europe and the UK, in South Africa, too – the conference we attended last week, Mindcamp, might top my list. It’s casual pace and rustic setting at a YMCA camp just north of Toronto made for the right balance of escape, immersion and relaxation; a perfect storm for creative insights and expression. Many of the usual suspects from our tribe of practitioners and facilitators were present – coming north over the border from the US and Mexico, or traveling in from Europe, from South America and even New Zealand to lead and attend sessions on various aspects of creativity: cultivating the right mindset, using cool tools and techniques. One of the reasons I love going to these conferences is it’s great for taking a little risk and trying on an interesting topic or technique. But it’s also a place to sharpen the saw and pick up new ideas and exercises to broaden my own tool kit. Perhaps most important, it’s a place to see longtime friends, open-minded and big-hearted people who feel, to me, just like extended family, friends whom we’ve connected and re-connected with over the years and at whose suggestion I will stay up nearly all night drinking fireball whiskey.

We’ve been dragging our kids to creativity conferences all their lives. Both Short-pants and Buddy-roo had pre-natal experiences at CPSI or CREA. I remember the early days, dragging_kidshiring local babysitters through the hotel, or bringing our nanny along, or just juggling the supervision of their activities and meals in the thin slices of time between organizing and leading my own workshops. It was fatiguing, being mom and facilitator at once in such an intense setting, but I didn’t want to miss the conferences and I knew even just being in the company of this band of cool, creative adults would have a positive impact on our children.

When the girls were little, we managed all this on an ad-hoc basis, piecing together child-care while we ran our workshops. In the last few years at CREA, an unofficial kids program has entertained and inspired them, but we were involved in its coordination and responsible for filling in the holes. At Mindcamp, there is a full-on kid’s program with designated facilitators to do that, full-time, all day. That, coupled with the fact that the girls are now both old enough to dress themselves, find their way around, get their own food at the buffet table and get it from plate to mouth without our assistance, meant that they were extremely self-sufficient. We’d go the entire day without seeing them, just passing in the dining hall and getting a quick update on the amazing experiences they’d just had in their program.

Short-pants was even invited to co-facilitate a session. Originally designed for adults and kids mixed together, it had morphed into an adults-only workshop (sounds X, but it wasn’t) and because she’d already put some thought into it, her older co-facilitators invited her to continue with them anyway. I appreciated this as I think it’s better for her to get her feet wet under someone else’s wing, not only her mother’s (or father’s). I attended the session as a participant and I was struck by her poise and clarity in front of the group. Later it was reported to me by a friend that Short-pants had responded to a congratulatory remark by nodding at her heritage: “My parents and my grandmother are all facilitators, I guess it’s in my blood.”

I loved watching my girls from a distance, running amok with a pack of kids, engaging in precocious conversations with other adults at the conference who’ve watched them grow up over the years. It even happened big_balloononce or twice, when I wanted to stop and chat with them and they were antsy, distracted. They’d lean in and kiss me and run off to their next session or their new friends, leaving me to admire them as they sprinted away. I can’t say I minded too much. I’d been privy to their on-going chatter 24/7 for more than four weeks straight. I honestly didn’t mind seeing the back of their heads. And each night, on the passaggiata, an after-dinner creative stroll through the grounds during which you’d run into all sorts of creative events and activities, from giant bubble-blowing to drumming to illuminated hoola-hooping to a perpetually-laughing man, to name only a few, they’d run by, part of a pack of kids, waving to me as they passed, wild and carefree on a late summer night.

~ ~ ~

Mindcamp was our last stop on this epic family US-tour. We’d traveled from San Francisco to as far south as Santa Fe, then north again to Chicago and east toward Cape Cod. We even took the ferry to Nantucket for a few island days before driving to Toronto for the conference. We were on the road a total of 37 days and the trip odometer displayed 5,272 miles when we dropped off the rental car at the airport. With the exception of Buddy-roo’s small backpack, all the things we left behind had been mailed to us, and received, at subsequent destinations. After final search through the SUV that had carried us west to east in roomy comfort, we closed its heavy silver doors for the last time and handed the keys to the Avis agent.

Despite my initial resistance to the car time required for this trip, and the fatigue from having taken it, I must admit I was sorry to say goodbye to that car. It had become part of our family, carrying us across the country to see places of interest and people we love. It was the vehicle for our great adventure, the wheels that took us where we wanted to go, when we our_silver_bulletwanted to go there. Our driving-vacation was not without structure or commitments: we had to be certain places by certain dates and we tried to pack too much in, which kept us moving when we might have preferred to linger. Even so, it still felt footloose, like we were entirely mobile. Everything we needed was in the trunk of that silver bullet, and for days on end all we did was drive to a new place and see old friends. What’s more carefree than that?

I patted the car affectionately before we walked away. “I’ll miss you,” I whispered, so that not even De-facto and the kids could hear.

Back in Barcelona – back home – suitcases were emptied while the washing machine churned for hours and the girls sequestered themselves upstairs in their rooms to lay their hands on their own things. A restlessness usually accompanies the return from any trip, let alone a trip of this length and quantity of experiences, but this time something felt, and still feels, different. Perhaps it’s a consequence of a making a voyage rather than a quick trip. Having left behind the priorities and responsibilities of day-to-day life for so long, the endless list of little things that never got done before we left somehow feels like a new list, a list of things that don’t-need-to-get-done-after-all. There are things to do, but they don’t seem burdensome. Summer is waning, sure, and the return to school and work and the busy-ness of autumn are closing in on us, but it’s okay. For just a few more days, at least, things still feel carefree.


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.


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.


Apr 1 2012

By the Book

I sliced the eggplant into medium-thin slices, slimmer than the recipe suggested, but more to my bite-sized liking. De-facto would appreciate the efficiency of it; I’d only used one of the eggplants he brought home from the market. Not that our budget is so tight but rather he appreciates an intelligent economy of things.

The recipe called for baking the slices after they’d been breaded. After ten minutes in the oven they looked dull, melancholy. I quickly pulled out a frying pan and lined the bottom with olive oil. When it was hot, I dropped each of the austere eggplant slices in, smiling at the percussion of popping oil. I could sense the vegetable’s heavy sigh of relief, almost stunned at how close it had come to giving up its life to be a flavorless, mediocre meal. The infusion of fats would satisfy its desire to come to a tasty end, and frying made the house smell heartier. Now I was cooking.

Lately, though, I haven’t. The string of extended voyages placed De-facto as the primary care-giver for long stretches of time last fall and winter, and even though I always returned ready to roll up my sleeves, somehow the wooden spoon had been handed off like a relay baton. He’d gotten used to cooking dinner. In the absence of me taking the reins – or one of the reins as we’ve always shared this household task – he kept hold of them. Six o’clock would roll around and I’d ask not, “what do you want for dinner?” but instead, “what do you want to do for dinner?” A distinctly different question. If he’d answered with, “what I want to do is for you to cook,” I’d have complied without complaint. But since he seemed to be on a streak in the kitchen, I didn’t mind one less responsibility.

Except I missed cooking. He’d be at the stove braising a whole chicken before stuffing it and besieging it with potatoes and onions and vegetables. Short-pants would be standing on a small stool on the other side of the kitchen island, slicing mushrooms. I’d want to elbow my way back into that world of salt and butter and herbs, to cover my hands with flour and wince at the just-chopped onions on the cutting board. I didn’t complain, it’s a lovely thing to be cooked for and De-facto’s food fills the belly well. But I missed conjuring up my own culinary creative juices.

Reading Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton, is what stirred the pot. My friend the Pastry Ace, who also happens to be a pâtissière and chocolatier – I’m sure she could cook anything but those are her current specialties – loaned me the book last fall. As a chef, she loved the story of this woman’s kitchen history, and the detailed tales of meals well conceived and prepared on the route to opening the restaurant Prune in New York city. As an avid reader, she loved the wordsmithing and thought that I might appreciate the writing, too. Having now finished the book I can attest – it’s a delicious read.

It took me months to get into it, though. Not that the first words and chapters aren’t appetizing. But I think many mothers might appreciate this syndrome: little or no time to read for pleasure during the day when the brain is actually alert. Once the kids are in bed and the dishes are done, the laundry folded, and I’ve slipped between the taut white sheets of my bed, it’s pure pleasure to switch on that reading light and open one of the books on the pile. But not even two pages later, my eyes droop and I’m startled awake as the book falls open on my chest. I’m always disappointed not to be able to read further, but the intoxicating serenity of sleep descending makes me smile with my eyes half open as I lean over to shut off the light.

It means I’ll go months before finishing a book, although at any given time I’m in the middle of five or six. And when weekends are too busy, the books gather dust. Until this weekend; I sat in bed for hours devouring the pages of Hamilton’s memoir. Short-pants, who’s reading the junior version of Three Cups of Tea for the tenth time – she’s an avid re-reader – climbed in next to me and we turned pages in tandem, wordless side-by-side as we consumed voraciously the words of our novels.

There are several passages in Blood, Bones & Butter that made me close the cover and hold the book close to my heart, like I had to savor it before I could read on. I’d open the book again, re-reading the paragraphs, admiring the combination of words that blended together, comma after comma, phrases pieced together to convey what happened to her and how she felt about it in perfect measure.

My sister gave me a cookbook for Christmas,
The Family Meal by Ferran Adrià, celebrated chef of El Bulli. I’d thumbed through its pages, treasuring the images of the ingredients, and the pragmatic rationale behind each menu. But it went on the shelf, with the other volumes of recipes, because as I said, I haven’t been cooking. That is until I was in the heat of Blood, Bones & Butter, when I pulled that new cookbook off the shelf, determined to use it. “I’ll make dinner tonight,” I told De-facto, stretching open the binding of the unexplored book. I flipped through its pages, again admiring the artistry of these simple meals – or so they were designated: the menus weren’t for Adrià’s Michelin-starred cuisine, but for the meals served to the restaurant staff prior to the dinner service.

And here it happened, what always happens. Inspired by a cookbook dish – in this case a menu – I realize too late that my kitchen is not properly stocked to prepare the recipe. I lack too many key ingredients even to fudge it. Cooking at this caliber requires advance planning, and my spontaneous return to the fold of kitchen service hadn’t include such a plan.

The most creative cooking is probably conceived when we must work with the limitation of what’s left in the pantry. The box of more-than-a-year-old lasagna noodles deserved some attention. There were two eggplants and just enough tomatoes to make a sauce. I called De-facto, who’d run out to do an errand, pleading with him to pick up some mozzarella and parmesan. I turned the oven on and pulled out that wrinkled apron.

The systematic chopping and dicing, the attention needed to carmelize something perfectly, the on-the-spot decisions to follow a recipe or improvise, it’s like an active meditation. Even when things go wrong and the pan is too hot or the croutons don’t transform into breadcrumbs as easily as you’d hoped, the problem solving required forces a mood of concentration and creativity that can be terribly satisfying. It’s nourishing for the soul.

At the table De-facto raved about the aroma and celebrated the novelty of something different to eat. The girls weren’t as inspired. Buddy-roo pushed the large noodle around her plate, eating the steamed broccoli that accompanied it, but laying her fork down on the rest.

“It’s just a big pasta,” said De-facto, “you love pasta.” She scrunched up her nose at the eggplant. It made me think of something my father used to say, when I refused his favorite delicacies, Welsh rarebit and pig’s feet. “You don’t know what’s good,” he’d say.

My lasagna wasn’t by the book, but it was good. It was a tasty change of pace from our habitual menus. It was good to be in the kitchen again. It was also good to finish a good book and return it to a good friend. Now if I could just open that new cookbook again, before I make the next shopping list, maybe there are a few good meals ahead.


Nov 11 2011

In the Cloud

I want to be in the cloud. Not the up-there-in-the-ether-all-safe-and-stored-and-accessible-from-any-device cloud, I mean the creative cloud, the cloud of that fuzzy, I-don’t-know-but-something-might-be-emerging cloud, both thrilling and unnerving at once, the cloud of my imagination. I want to go there and stay there and live there, mindfully navigating life in a writerly way, a painterly way – even thought I don’t paint – or a musical way, any way that might be an artistic way.

Once upon a time I had my fingers in glue stick and construction paper, cutting out magazines and making and pasting creative little things. I wrote daily in my journal, I did multiple free-writes on the same prompt. I remember feeling perfectly capable of taking time, without the gnawing sense that I might be wasting it, time being that precious commodity that we all have exactly the same amount of but some people seem to use more industriously than others. Not that industry is the truest measure of contentment. I would like to do less.

I would like to tether myself to this cloud and move deliberately, through the potentially artistic moments of my day. Spooning a mountain of frothy milk into the coffee in my favorite mug with just the right swirl and then doing nothing but sitting and drinking it; handwriting funky postcards to far flung but not forgotten friends before opening email and RSS feeds to respond to the “urgent” news of the day. Drawing a flower on the steamed-up mirror after a unhurried hot shower – better yet a drawn-out bath – and taking the time to add detail to each of its pedals; sitting pensively on the barstool, imagining the life of the Asian woman with gray squared-off bangs sitting across from me at the café; stopping off at a bookstore on the way home to browse the stacks randomly, pulling titles off the shelves and reading paragraphs, just short snacks in a feast of enticing literature.

I want to mount those family pictures on the bathroom wall in that funky frame I found, produce that little film of my mother walking through the rooms of our old house, finish that scrapbook of Buddy-roo’s blessing before she realizes her sister’s is completed but hers – though its pieces are ready to go – has never been assembled. I want to read without being interrupted or without collapsing the book on my chest in utter exhaustion. I want to, when I’m feeling haunted by a passage in Shostakovich’s 5th symphony, sit down in that moment to listen to it with the Bose headphones I bought (an indulgence) to block out noise on long-haul flights when the real reason to own them is that they make everything seem alive and present and close around you.

I just want to live in a more artistic way.

I’ve decided to stop talking about being too busy. It’s a boring line of conversation, and frankly, everybody’s busy. It can’t be denied that I juggle a fair amount between work and children and De-facto and friends and the administration of our household. The latter being the most tedious, but I have not yet achieved the zensibility of regarding piles of paper-needing-attention and unwashed laundry and children’s toys and books strewn as anything but an aesthetic assault. I think back to when I lived alone – I’ve never been an everything-at-right-angles person, but it was easy to sustain some amount of sloppy kind of order in my surroundings, which permitted me to vault into the messy cloud of my own creativity without stopping at the toll booth to get there.

There is nobody standing over me insisting that I attend so diligently to the administrative details of my life (and my family’s). I had a dream that I simply stopped caring: No need to remember to stuff the little morning snack packs in their school cartables, no hounding them to straighten their rooms or finish their homework, no longer picking up the random empty glasses left on the floor behind by the couch. I let them leave all the drawers pulled out and cupboards wide open, the wet laundry festered in the machine because I couldn’t be troubled to hang it out or run it in the dryer, the furniture was no longer visible as every surface had been covered with blankets, princess costumes, doll clothes, train tracks, little bits of paper and plastic, and books left open face down to mark the page. In the dream I regarded it all with amusement, and simply joined them, unbothered by shoulds and oughts, basking single-mindedly in my unfettered imagination, up there, in the cloud.


Jun 13 2011

Behind the Curtain

“The tricky part is right here, after the storm in Kansas,” De-facto said, pointing to the creased sheet of paper that had been folded and stuffed in his back pocket, removed and unfolded, again and again. These were the set change instructions and they looked relatively simple, which was what worried me. He was in charge of the sets for the performance; he’d crafted and painted many of them, built the stage extension and choreographed the scene changes with the director. His crib notes made sense, to him.

I’d been in the audience the night before, the opening night of the school’s English section performance of The Wizard of Oz. I know it’s easy for proud parents to crescendo their praise to a distorted level, but I think I am not exaggerating when I report that the production was a first class piece of children’s theater.

A truly dedicated group of parents, affectionately named the Yellow Brick Road Crew, started the engine on this production way back in March. The director of the play, a multi-dexterous woman with talent and tact motored it forward with a professionalism that far exceeded her volunteer status. The rehearsals started as a Saturday morning activity. Then Sundays were added, then Wednesday afternoons, too, as the dates of the performance drew near. Lines were memorized by small, elastic brains, songs transposed and rehearsed until they could be sung by heart. Dance steps were choreographed, even practiced by adults in the café, trying to figure out how four kids might skip together arm-in-arm on a narrow stage. A week earlier, the dress rehearsal for their classmates was chaotic and choppy – as a first full run-through in costume with sets usually is – and even then, the teachers and peers were seriously impressed. But the real test was opening night, in front of a (paying) audience of adults, teachers and family members. The debut was a glowing success, acclaimed by all the spectators who were present, many I suspect, who had come with modest expectations. It was, after all, just a primary school play.

Except it was so much more. Yes, the sets were low budget, sheets of calico painted by harried (but artistic) parents and a few exceptionally obedient children. The lights (operated by a father in oven-mitts) and mikes were borrowed and jerry-rigged. The costumes were puzzled together on a shoestring budget (though brilliantly executed). But it was the actors who really brought the stage to life: twenty-some kids under the age of eleven, who’d learned not only their lines, songs and dances, but also memorized their cues for entering and exiting – no small feat because in order to give more children parts in the play, there were multiple actors for many of the roles: five Dorothys, three Scarecrows, three Tin-men, two Wizards. One actor would exit stage left, her replacement would appear through the center of the curtain at the start of the next act. Short-pants was Glinda in act two, after the house lands in Oz, and then the Scarecrow in act three. This called for a high-speed costume change during the song “We’re off to see the Wizard,” as Dorothy (played at that point by Buddy-roo) and the munchkins (played by a gaggle of kindergartners and first graders) danced on the yellow brick road.

Short-pants has a natural temperament to be the Good Witch of the North and there was a sweet and special chemistry on stage with her sister (who was truly lovely as Dorothy), but it was in the role of Scarecrow that she really found her stride. It was like she able to access the part of her that really is the Scarecrow, that slightly clumsy, brainy, loyal, lovable friend. During her solo number, as she side-stepped across the stage singing “I could think of things I never thunk before,” my throat got all lumpy and choked up and my eyes got a little teary.

The casting had been handled marvelously, every child had a chance to try every role (although we learned only recently that Buddy-roo refused to read for any part other than Dorothy). Then the kids were seriously coached. They weren’t just reciting their lines, the director had drawn each actor into his character. She’d guided, suggested and cajoled to help them breathe life into their parts. But she also got out of the way to let each child interpret the characters on their own, and let their creativity come out. The children were clearly having a great time. This was observable and palatable; you could feel how much fun they were having on stage.

I think most of us in the audience were in awe: of the actors, of the director and the transformation she’d alchemized, of the world-class musical parents, who did more than accompany the performance; their music was like a soft blanket underneath, supporting the kids without ever upstaging them. We were in awe of the people behind the scenes, committed parents who were sorting costumes and props, working lights and projectors. (De-facto even donned a green wardrobe to blend in with the cast while hanging scenery.) This was a real show.

With a good performance under their belt, a bit of feedback (speak louder, project to the back of the room), the kids seemed confident and excited to have another go for the final show. My role, on night two, was to sit with the littler actors and help to keep them quiet between their munchkin scene and at the point when they’d all wrap themselves in green satiny capes to become the citizens of the Emerald city. But the guy who’d partnered with De-facto on the sets the night before expressed a desire to see his child in the performance, so I volunteered to switch duties with him. He briefed me and it seemed clear enough. Besides, I was working with De-facto. We work together all the time.

“After shaking the curtains for the storm,” De-facto said, “put out the props and then you have to run to blow the bubbles for Glinda.” My eyes were glazing over as I was reading through his set instructions, trying to make sense of the timing. Much of what we had to do happened between acts: changing the background scenery, placing or turning a painted cardboard tree on the stage, putting the witches legs out under the house; but it had to happen quickly and at the right time. In some cases, the only cue to help me was the previous line in the script, so I knew what I had to do, I just wasn’t always sure exactly how long before I had to do it.

The curtain shaking (“shake them hard,” he’d said, “but not so hard that you knock over the sets,”) went well and before I knew it we were blowing bubbles, a pointless act, really, as my little bubbles hardly flew far enough on to the stage to be seen and the giant-bubble releaser he was blowing through only seemed to work when he was practicing with it backstage. It was a minute later that our friend, the guy who’d worked with De-facto the night before, snuck backstage and said, “where are the legs?”

The legs! I ran for them, slipping and falling, toppling Dorothy’s suitcase under the prop table. We managed to push the legs out under the set of the fallen house, fortunately in time for the moment when the wicked witch turns to them and tries to pull the ruby slippers off and they recoil back under the house.

At least I’d messed up on the scene with my own kids. But I didn’t want to mess it up for any others. My confidence shattered, I pestered De-facto for the rest of the show, “Now? Do I do it now?” It was comical, how the two of us were running around changing sets and props. At one point we were holding the curtain back to create a great-and-powerful shadow effect for the wizard and I noticed the heavy (and possibly dangerous) canister of helium at the edge of the prop table, on the verge of falling onto the floor where it very easily could have rolled out on to the stage. I couldn’t reach to move it, the shadow of my arm would have been visible to the audience. I pointed to the table and mouthed to him, “the helium” but he couldn’t make out what I was saying. “What?” he mouthed back, fumbling over the table, touching every item on it but the helium can. Mouthing unintelligible words back and forth, our faces wrinkled in masks of confusion and frustration. If we could have spoken, we’d surely have been screaming at each other. “What?” “Grab the helium can for Christ’s sake!”

A frenzy of activity between each act, and then the lull before the next set or prop change, during which we’d stand around laughing hysterically at ourselves. I mean, we’ve produced some complicated events for our clients, but here we were scrambling to keep up. It was the Wizard of Oz, after all, a story we both knew by heart. How hard could it be? Then all of a sudden, the act would finish and we’d be scrambling again. At one point a costume crisis – key elements of the wizard’s garb went missing – had us running around like chickens with our heads cut off in search of a turban hat and the sequined cape, a panic which made De-facto late for one of his cues.

Having been in the audience the night before, I knew it wasn’t the end of the world that I’d missed the cue on the legs. If you weren’t seated in one of the front rows, you couldn’t even see them. At least they appeared in time for the moment they were most needed. I think our crazy panic during most of the show was contained back stage. Though we couldn’t see it, we knew what was happening on stage was another fantastic performance. The kids were awesome, each one of them giving something of themselves to the audience, in a poignant song, a creative gesture, a comical dance or an ear-piercing scream. What a gift they gave us, our little thespians.

What a gift, from the Yellow Brick Road Crew, all the time and attention given to our children so they could have a real theater experience, filled with all the hard work and risk and exhilaration that come with acting.

What a gift, to the parents. Despite occasional complaints about lost weekends and schlepping to all the rehearsals – even for those of us who were involved only on the periphery, it felt like it took a lot of time – this production brought us closer together. We bonded. I got to know people I didn’t know before, and the ones I knew, now I know them more. I have developed a deeper respect and affection for the other parents at the school; all it took was a make-believe storm in Kansas to help me see that all these amazing people have been there all along, right in my own back yard.


Apr 20 2011

Big, Little Girls

I never imagined that they would turn out to be so lovely. When I watch them from a distance – not when they’re crowded around me and clinging, demanding my attention, but from afar, as they interact with others – I am a little bit amazed. I knew I would love my children, but I didn’t consider how much I might admire them. Or at least that this feeling of admiration would happen while they were still so young. Both Short-pants and Buddy-roo have poise and a thoughtful exuberance, and in certain settings they rise to the occasion in remarkable ways. They have become such big, little girls.

Last week, our annual voyage to Sestri Levante, Italy, for the CREA conference. We go every year to see friends and reconnect with colleagues. We go to sharpen our saws as facilitators and practitioners of creative process. We go to experience our own creativity in new ways. We go to be in service – we are volunteers – to give back to this community because it has given us so much, including our current careers. I realize now there’s another reason we go: for our children.

The girls weave in and out of the sea of adults attending the conference with ease and enthusiasm. It doesn’t hurt that the kind of people who attend a conference on creativity have a special knack for appreciating the wisdom of children and recognize well that we all could be childlike in adult bodies if we’d only let it happen. When I am at CREA I feel an enormous gratitude toward this community for being so open to my children, and for giving them a chance to interact with adults who truly respect them and engage them in very attentive way.

This has a huge impact. Short-pants and Buddy-roo are the kind of kids that can look people in the eye and can carry on conversations with people of any age. Because they are not merely seen, but heard as well, they believe in their own voices and they know how to articulate their thoughts and feelings. They share themselves with others. Occasionally I do have to remind them not to interrupt, but they heed this reminder because they know that when they are in a conversation, I will wait until they are finished, too.

At CREA, they are free-range kids. It’s a safe environment. There’s a bit of parenting-as-community; friends volunteer to take the girls out for a walk or to get a gelato. The CREA kids program is very ad hoc, friendly colleagues volunteer to devise creative 90-minute activities for the children of all the parents attending the conference. A rat-pack of creative kids runs around, often without serious supervision. But the rules are clear: don’t leave the hotel grounds, don’t cross the street, don’t go near the pool. Otherwise, they run freely. My kids live independently at CREA.

There are, of course, exceptions. For example, each morning I’d enter the dining room, looking to touch base with the girls, who’d get up and dress themselves and make their own way through the grand hotel foyer to the dining room. They’d find a table of adults, always delighted for their young company. They’d pick up plates and bowls and select fruit and cereal and a slice of sweet cake or focaccia from the buffet table and settle in for breakfast.

Of course we’d preview this the night before in very deliberate, repetitive conversation about how in the morning Mama had to run an early writing workshop and Papa wanted to go to an early yoga session and how they should get dressed and leave the key at the desk and how we’d join them in the dining room when we were done with our programs.

“Yes, mama,” Buddy-roo would say, full of disdain for our apparent over-parenting, “I know what to do. I’m a big girl, after all.”

She seemed to relish – at least in the evenings – the idea of this grown up activity, managing the morning all on her own. But every morning in the dining room, Buddy-roo would give me the cold shoulder: a dramatic toss of the head to look away from me, the 2-inch long pout and the narrowing of her eyes as she’d bite into her long slice of foccacia.

“Are you angry?” I’d say.
No verbal response, only the folding of her arms.
“It looks like you’re feeling a bit mad at something.”
Then she’d let loose the angry tears.
“You left me alone! There was nobody there when I woke up!”

At the age of 7 and 9, I suppose, meltdowns occur. (At my age, too.) Short-pants, who has no problem making her own way to breakfast, leaving Buddy-roo to wake up alone in the room, is an extroverted introvert and loves the chaos of crazy, creative people – up to a point. She, too, had her grumpy moments, storming away in tired tears because of the overload of noise and energy.

But if you take the long view over the full week of the CREA conference, a week when both their mother and father are often distracted and delighted by others things and not always paying full attention to the parenting part, our girls do just fine. In fact, they are growing into interesting people because they get to fend for themselves a little bit. CREA is a good and safe place to do that, and coming back each year is like periodically measuring their height and marking it on the wall; we really see how they’ve changed, and how they’ve grown. We see them for who they are in the company of others, learning to express themselves, to convey their own creativity. We see who they’re becoming, in and of their own right. And I couldn’t have imagined – nor could I be more pleased – to be the mother of such lovely, big, little girls.


Mar 2 2011

The Land of “Non

They paired up automatically, so accustomed to their organized method of moving from point A to point B. I suppose it must happen ten times a day: down and out of the school at each recess and back up the stairs for class, or when they descend the dark stairway to go to lunch, and again at the end of the day before they rush out the door into the arms of waiting parents and nannies. They fall into line, two by two, ready to be herded along.

Holding hands (sort of) they followed the teacher across the street and to the bridge to Ile St. Louis. We parents – the five who’d volunteered to assist with the trek to the children’s library – fell in step, guiding any stragglers back into the line and pressing the lollygaggers for a bit more speed.

I’m not that parent who eagerly volunteers to help with every activity at school. The adult hours I have are precious to me and I’ve never been a rah-rah-stir-up-the kids kind of mom. But Buddy-roo’s pleas for me to be a chaperone on one of her monthly library trips were too insistent to say non. Besides, I like a good library.

The maitresse received us with a formal enthusiasm and we responded in kind. Despite my occasional grievance about the amount of homework she levels on our children, I do try to give her the benefit of the doubt. Buddy-roo seems to be fond of her, and there are anecdotes of her individualized attention to students in the class that indicate she truly cares about helping the kids learn and succeed. It’s hard not to respect a woman who passes
the entire day with nearly thirty 7-year-olds and still smiles. During the Christmas concert rehearsals, the parents had an impossible time controlling this unruly pack of kids. Watching their teacher do it inspires awe.

“I’m counting down from twenty,” she said, “and when I’m done, all children will be quiet.” The French word she used was sage, which also connotes being well behaved. She started counting backwards and by the time she was at eleven, the foyer outside the library was soundless except for the shuffling of winter coats and an occasional cough.

That’s when we entered the library. A staff member watched the children file in, and the five adults accompanying them. “Non, non, non.” We were too numerous, he said. It was not possible for everyone to be upstairs in the storytelling room. I was one of the three mothers relegated to wait on the ground floor. We sat at the table and whispered to each other, recalling our younger days in childhood libraries. I was cheered by the whimsical décor and the stacks of bright, colorful books so I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a few pictures.

Non,” said the librarian sitting at her desk, “c’est interdit.” I explained that I wasn’t making a phone call, just taking a photograph. “C’est aussi interdit!” That was also forbidden.

Finally we three moms-in-waiting were invited up the curved staircase to join the children. “Maman!” Buddy-roo broke her vow to whisper, “Why weren’t you here for the story?” I explained that there’d been too many people. Except I hadn’t seen anyone leave before we were summoned, so I’m not sure what was the reason for being banished below.

Children were rifling through boxes of books, strategically placed around the room to permit easy access from many angles. The mother-helpers were reading stories to small clusters of children, other kids were reading to themselves or rolling around on the cushions on the bench by the window. A pillow fight ensued.

Mais non!” the upstairs librarian admonished the children fiercely. A few moments later he yelled at them for letting the cushions drop to the floor. “Non!” I heard it again and again, he was constantly correcting some child for some act of anti-library behavior. It doesn’t help that there is something particularly dismissive about the French way of saying non. Is it because it’s another language, not my native one? Is it because of its clipped sound, sharper and more abrupt? Is it the pleasure that seems to accompany its repeated use?

Children – in France and elsewhere – must hear no or non hundreds of times a day. No, you may not watch a movie during breakfast. No you may not wear your princess dress to school. No you may not talk in the cafeteria. No you may not, until you’ve done your homework. No you may not, just before bed. No you may not, it’s time to go to bed now. All day long a series of negative commands are fired at them, reminders of all the things they cannot do. Slowly we’re beating the optimism out of them.

Not that I’m opposed to no. In the how to raise kids debate, De-facto and I lean toward setting limits. (Or so I think, but do we ever really see ourselves clearly as parents?) I believe kids need structure and boundaries; too much freedom and too many choices can be overwhelming and anxiety-producing. Though I’d pale in comparison to a Tiger Mom, I see the value in being strict. It just feels so restraining to be negative and forbidding about it. Isn’t it possible to set limits and use yes?

I try to say yes, when I can, or at least say no without saying no. Yes, you may have another piece of candy, tomorrow after lunch. Yes, you can watch a movie, after you’ve done your homework. Yes, you can wear it on Saturday when we have a princess tea party. Yes, you can sleep with me, next time Papa’s traveling. It may just be a no in disguise, but at least there’s hope within it, hope for a future possibility, something to look forward to, an alternative to the restrictive, option-less brick fortress that stands around the land of of non.


Feb 19 2011

For a Few Days

I’m tucked under the comforter of my bed, the space heater generating barely enough juice to keep my hands from freezing, the children tumble into a world of instantaneous imagination in the living room below me. They weave stories as they go, shouting out commands to each other – it’s always in the past tense, “and then you were calling for help” – turning the plot into a new direction. A wood-crafted puppet theater becomes the television, Buddy-roo pretends to change the channel, a box of chalk as her remote control, and Short-pants performs a feat of improv, acting out each program: a news report, a weather forecast, a show about dancing animals, a documentary about the first woman doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell.

When the puppet theater accidentally falls over, the two of them shift seamlessly to a new scene. Buddy-roo calls a repairman on her pretend phone, Short-pants runs out the side door and comes around to knock on the front door for her next role. “What’s the problem ma’am?” She says in her deepest alto voice. Buddy-roo explains the catastrophe: her TV has fallen and broken and what will she do? The repairman inspects the damage. “I’ll have to take it to the shop, for a few days.” The damsel in distress cries out in despair and faints on the couch. (Art imitates life.)

There are so few toys at this country house, mostly remnants of broken ones, old board games and puzzles (with pieces missing) handed down from the neighbors down the road, a few old Barbies and a their torn dresses, a small plastic stove, some costume jewelry that the mother-in-love brought after a major paring-down-of-her-possessions. But it is enough to amuse them for hours. We have more toys and more books at home in Paris, but the “I’m bored” cry is heard there, and not here, in the country.

In the country we wake up naturally, without an alarm. There is no school. There is no rushing through breakfast. There is no out-the-door-you’ll-be-late. There is no internet (unless I walk down the road to borrow our neighbor’s wi-fi). There is nothing but the slower rhythm of time that is more natural, more civilized than what motors us in the apparently civilized city. I do not know if I could take this suspended pace all the time, but several times a year, as it coincides with the school holidays (it’s winter break now) it is just what the country doctor ordered. Fresh air. Deep sleeps. Long walks. Manual labor. Less media.

In the evenings after dinner as night lays down around us, we huddle around the wood stove. There is no checking of the email or watching a DVD or answering the phone or Skyping with a client in a far away time zone. We sit, the four of us, around our stove and talk. And laugh. We play Mille Bornes. We tell stories. We look at each other. We’re a family together, we four.

Did I say the four of us? I am mistaken, because we have an extra body here. As we were packing she caught my eye. I was startled by her as is often the case, there’s something so wrong about That Big Doll, something about her height coupled with her anatomical proportions and those oversized, alien-like eyes – if I catch sight of her out of the corner of my eye I jump a mile. “Should we bring That Big Doll?” I asked. The girls hopped up and down, cheering.

I had to get her out of the apartment. That Big Doll has become a liability. The boy guests at our house are a bit too fascinated that something their size could have such breasts, and the conversations she is provoking amongst my children, though hilarious and manageable, are conversations I’d rather have a few years from now. Removing the object of their origin may not thwart those discussions – Pandora’s box has already been unhinged – but I’m sure we’ll all live happily ever after if we don’t have to look at her every day.

That Big Doll made the car trip on her back (her preference, I suppose) on the panel under the rear window of our rented car, evoking interesting glances from cars on the auto-route. She was a bit out of sorts in the country at first; clearly she’s a girl used to the streets of the city. She quickly acclimated, however, and has shown herself to be quite the nature girl. Who knew?

Short-pants peeks into the bedroom where I’m working and hands me a piece of paper. Please come to the show ‘The Four Accidents’ at 3:30 pm. Signed, the Puppeteer. She watches while I read, waiting for my response.

“You’re going to do a show!” I know my enthusiasm is important to her.
She nods her head, her two front teeth like barn doors in the middle of her smile.

“Is it going to have a beginning, a middle and an end?” I ask.

She nods again. You may think me harsh on this count, but if you’ve sat through any of those homemade productions that go on forever with no clear plot line, you know the pain I’m trying to avoid.

“And tension,” she volunteers, “that gets resolved near the end.”

That’s my girl.

At 3:30 there’s murmuring in the living room, as the crowd of three plus That Big Doll assembles to view the advertised performance. The puppets dance on her fingers as the four accidents are revealed, one by one. There’s a wizard, a princess, a knight and a chef, all of whom suffer in their own way. When a dragon sets the castle on fire, a repairman arrives to rebuild the castle, with his invisible team of helpers. But between each accident, this narration: “And they live happily ever after for a few days.”

It seems our little playwright has a practical streak.

Tomorrow we return to Paris. I’d stay another week if we could; I’m thoroughly rested and relaxed from the fresh air and slower rhythm of life. But work calls and for that a more steady internet service is required. It’s true if we installed a connection here, we could stay on and work from the country house as easily as we do in Paris. But then we wouldn’t have the feeling of being truly unplugged. Our afternoons wouldn’t be surrendered to walks in the woods, visiting the lambs down the road, pruning in the yard, plastering in the new room. We wouldn’t linger around the wood stove every night with the same feeling of freedom and peace that comes from having no other option, really. I wouldn’t want to be here forever, without the Internet, but I can live happily ever after without it…for a few days.


Jan 24 2011

All that Magic

When I phoned to make my reservation, I braced myself. “It’s a magical morning here at the Disneyworld Yacht Club resort! Thanks for calling! How can I help you today?” It must have been a gag reflex that induced my coughing fit, the agent had to wait for me to recover before collecting information for my reservation. He chirped right along and I answered, wondering what he was like during off-hours. Did he get mad at his kids? Did he shout profanities at his wife? I shouldn’t complain: it was an effortless procedure to reserve my room, and any extra questions I had about my arrival in Orlando were answered in the most upbeat but efficient way. A final, effusive moment of customer service as he closed the call: “Ma’am, I do appreciate you making your reservation with us today, is there anything else I can do for you?’

“Well, yes, in fact,” I answered him, “You could be a little less cheerful.” He laughed. “Okay, ma’am, I’ll try.”

Perhaps I’ve been immersed in the French pessimism for too long – it’s not that I don’t wish I could get this kind of delighted-to-help you attention at home in Paris – but something about the happy-on-steroids tone of everything Disney provokes my sarcastic evil twin sister. Arriving at the Orlando airport, every wider-than-necessary smile and über-friendly remark as I made my way to the Magical Express transfer bus grated on me. On the magic bus, a TV commercial the length of the ride from the airport to the hotel offered up a numbing combination of deep, enthusiastic voices and flashing lights and colors. Then the exuberant welcome from every staff member as I entered the hotel lobby. I kind of wanted to scream. It was as if my heart couldn’t handle so much hospitality. Or hype.

The purpose of my trip was professional; that’s why I found myself in the world’s most famous family resort without my own. The participants of the training I was running hailed from many different organizations, but a handful were cast members, ergo the invitation to hold the workshop at Disney. We were hosted in a large meeting space at the far end of EPCOT, on the second floor of a pavilion that is no longer used. This meant each morning we strolled through the park to get to our meeting room, and the gate we were escorted through was just beside England and Canada. By the end of the week I knew by heart the music tracks that accompanied each country’s faux-setting. Further along in the park, near the iconic geodesic dome a sound track of futuristic schmaltz attempted (I think) to conjure up a feeling of the wonder of technological efficiency. Funny how the sterile technology we imagined years ago, when EPCOT was first designed, looks much different from the real technology we know today, which rather than simplifying and minimalizing seems to be sloppier, and more complicated and distracting.

Midweek one of the cast members participating in our program made a special announcement: everyone at the training was invited to a press event at the Magic Kingdom. This entailed V.I.P. passes to a private party in the evening when the park would otherwise be closed. My enthusiasm wasn’t entirely feigned; I appreciated the generous gesture. But did I want to immerse myself further into this cheerful, hand-waving, ever-smiling world? Later, when announcing the details about where and when the bus would collect us, I asked – as if it was to benefit the participants who might be worried – how we might leave the event mid-way if we didn’t want to stay. It wasn’t impossible, we were told, but it wasn’t easy to do. I wondered if I’d be better off staying in my hotel for a quiet night.

Opportunity is not something lost on me, however, and although I was reticent to commit to the event, I remembered some 20+ years ago when I worked in the media and I was flown to Disney to attend a promotional weekend. It was fun. We’d had easy access to every ride, attraction and Disney character roaming the park without ever waiting in line. It had, of course, ruined all subsequent visits to Disney where the snaking lines, though creatively managed, meant spending the same amount of time standing and waiting as playing and riding. It’s not every day you get invited to a V.I.P event, I reminded myself; probably a good idea to take advantage of it.

The coach circled around to the side of the park and we were driven through parts of the behind-the-scenes space that looks remarkably plain, ordinary. It was about as back-stage as you can get, but as soon as we walked through the hidden gate into Frontierland, a row of lively cast members lined the walkway with trays of drinks and snacks and high-spirited greetings. Throughout the park, rides were open and running, and line-less, so we stepped immediately into the elevator of the haunted mansion and without any delay into the carriages that meander through the caves of Pirates of the Caribbean. Our Disney colleagues who’d arranged our entry didn’t just dump us in the park and go off to do their own thing. They took us around, optimizing our time in the park and illuminating little details that we’d otherwise never notice. The restaurants that usually offer the typical fast-food fare of American families were instead set up with buffet tables holding a more sophisticated spread of food and drink. After we dined, we were prompted toward Main Street, USA where dessert and coffee accompanied the special light show and fireworks.

Of course I had a photo opp with the famous Mickey and Minnie, and though I couldn’t resist making an aside about the sexual advances I endured during Mickey’s embrace, it was my only snarky comment of the night. That’s because before I could stop myself I started to have a blast. As the night sped by, I let go of the suspicious energy I’d been carrying all week, and I immersed myself in the full Disney experience. I ran through the park, jumping on my tip-toes, laughing, shouting out “look, it’s Donald!” I could feel the smile permanently pasted on my face the entire time, and looking around at all the (mostly) adults there, I wasn’t the only one. At every turn another delight was proffered – a just-baked chocolate chip cookie, cheesecake served in a creative plastic dispenser (my editor was off, “It’s a cheesecake tampon!” I shouted, causing even the Disney server to laugh.) An amazing projection show that dressed the Magic Kingdom’s castle in forty different costumes and colors, sent stars and photographs tumbling out its windows, an animated performance that dropped everyone’s jaw to the ground. And if that wasn’t stunning enough, the finale of fireworks left everyone buzzing.

This is what Walt Disney had in mind, I suppose. Certainly his world was designed to delight children, but he must have known how it would be just as important – and a much harder a task – to delight their parents and any other adults who found themselves, sometimes begrudgingly, in his park. At Disney last week I relearned something I purported to know: how to play. Not just going through the motions and being a little bit playful, but giving into the magic and surrendering willingly to the child inside.

I hadn’t mentioned to Short-pants and Buddy-roo that I was going to Disney. It felt wrong to boast about such a treat to them, and you may recall I wasn’t that enthusiastic about going. But now I’m thinking a visit to Disneyland Paris is imminent. I’m even dreaming of a Disney cruise as a future vacation. (They christened a new boat this week, too.) Who knew I could come around to being so enthusiastic? Maybe that extra little hug from Mickey was all it took to be seduced by the Disney magic.