Nov 6 2014

The Good Life

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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


Sep 7 2014

Up in the Morning

It starts to happen, as our children get older, that the cherished memories we have of their childhood lose their clarity, and the boundary between sun_shineswhat we remember and what really happened begins to bend and blur. I want to tell you that when Short-pants was a baby, not quite a toddler, we’d hear first stirrings as she’d stretch and come to life slowly in her crib, taking in the new day. Then we’d hear her little voice call out enthusiastic, “Up in the morning!”

I’m not sure if that’s exactly true. It might have started that early, but maybe not until later. I do know that when she could finally escape on her own, over the railing of her crib, she’d toddle into our room and crawl up into our bed to make this morning declaration. She would pronounce each word with delight, as though lyrics of a song, all this while wearing a supremely self-satisfied smile.

A dozen years later, it’s still the first thing she says to us when we bump into each other in the kitchen, or if she slips in to our room while we’re still in bed: “Up in the morning!”

Getting the girls up in the morning and ready for school has long been my task. This involves assuring their state of dress and putting breakfast in their bellies, commanding the final assembly of book-bags the brushing of teeth until De-facto, a few minutes prior to the must-be-out-the-door moment, lifts himself from bed, throws on whatever clothes might be handy and walks them to school. Occasionally I’d be the one to escort them, but most days this has been our routine, in Paris as well as in Barcelona.

When Short-pants entered collège (middle school) two years ago and started walking to school on her own, she developed, instantly, an admirable sense of self-responsibility. She sets her own alarm, dresses and prepares her backpack, eats whatever you put in front of her or makes breakfast for herself, monitors the time closely and steps out the door in plenty of time to make it to school without having to rush. She likes the morning walk, and though accepting of our company on days we join her, has admitted to us that she prefers to walk to school alone.

So far this year, though, she’s been accompanied by her sister, who’s just started at collège. Buddy-roo is a professional sleeper and not such a happy-in-the-morning person. She is rallying, though, as part of the get-a-dog campaign. A campaign she’s won, by the way, as last spring not only did she demonstrate the capacity to wake herself earlier and more self-sufficiently, no_walking_with_parentsshe also achieved fine grades at school. Grades were not the objective; being conscientious about about her work was the goal. But by doing that she surprised us all – and mostly herself – with a recommendation from her teacher. (The dog, incidentally, an impending acquisition. Watch this space.) Part of the rite of passage to this higher class level involves making the trek to school without a parent, whether by walking or public transport. Since the girls start school at the same time now, they walk together.

~ ~ ~

Last week, on the night before the first day of school, we sat around the table after dinner, a family meeting to review the girls’ household chores. Since we’d been gone most of the summer, everyone was a little out of practice. I wanted to give the girls an opportunity to switch up their tasks and also to add new and different ones; as they get older and taller, there’s more they can do to help around the house. They are good natured, mostly, about the jobs we ask them to take on. Except one: Despite years of making it a required activity, I still can’t get them to replace an empty toilet paper roll or move the finished cardboard tube in to the trash, let alone to the recycling bin. Not sure why these tasks are so challenging to accomplish, but the three people with whom I live with seem unable to complete either of them. Though everyone has pledged, once again, to do their best.

For some reason, my annual clock rotates on a scholastic calendar, and I always think of this time of year as a time to change habits or get started on new projects. Or return to old projects, which is an objective of mine this year. I have a languishing manuscript. It needs a bit of re-work and a few chapters to end it. I’ve been working on it for a decade, and its time to finish and publish.

One way of changing a habit is asking for help from the people around you; this insight came to me during a session at Mindcamp, which resulted in the idea of setting aside just an hour a day to work on my manuscript. But not just any hour. The first hour of the day, before my fresh-from-the-dream-state imagination is spoiled by reading the news or email or by all the don’t-forget-your-maths-book kind of conversations that are part of shooing children out the door to school. It’s not the first time I’ve thought of this, but I’m just not enough of a morning person to get up before the girls, and askeven when I manage to rise before them, as soon as they’re up, they’re in my hair.

I decided to ask my family for help. After all, when they ask for something, I’m happy to do what I can to support them. Wouldn’t they show me the same courtesy? De-facto made what I perceived to be a slightly patronizing remark and Short-pants corrected my grammar, so I had to pound the table a moment to make them understand that this was actually something about which I was feeling very tender and even slightly vulnerable. A moment of discomfort around the table was followed by a how-might-we discussion about the people setting their own alarms and getting their own breakfasts. Everyone agreed we could try.

“Think of it as an experiment,” I said, “to help me get back in the habit of working on my book. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Up in the morning,” said Short-pants.

~ ~ ~

It is a mild surprise that they’ve adapted quickly to the new morning plan. Not that it’s been flawless: they forget and walk into my office to ask for something and I have to remind them that this is the kind of thing they have to ask me about the night before, so I can focus on writing in the morning. I get a knowing-nod and tip-toes out of the room.

Whether Short-pants and Buddy-roo leave for school together or separately, they leave early. At eight o’clock, or shortly after, I hear the door slam and their steps in the stairwell. By the time they’re out the door, I’m typing at full-speed. I don’t know if what I’m typing is any good, but I’m typing, and that’s as good a start as any. By the time I move on to the other tasks on my to-do list, professional and personal, I’ve logged at least an hour on my pet project, and that feels huge.

De-facto and I have gained hours that we didn’t have before, hours once taken up with walking Buddy-roo to school or picking her up at the end of the day and bringing her back home. Plus her day is longer than it was in the primary school. Add to that my extra writing time in the morning, and this year could be a whole new world for me. More time, the thing I’m always lacking.

Only a few days in to our new reality, I was at my desk, partly working and partly wondering if it wasn’t time for the girls to get home. De-facto walked behind me, through my office to the little balcony that looks out on the street. I kept waiting for him to pass back through my office, but he didn’t return. I stuck my head out the door to find him leaning against the rail, looking down the street.
balcony_watch
“Waiting for the girls?” I said.

“I miss them,” he said.

I thought about how I’d hardly seen them in the morning and how they’d been gone all day. I wasn’t just missing them, I was aching for them. Maybe just because we’ve been so together all summer, it’s just an adjustment that takes getting used to. I wondered if this up-in-the-morning-writing-routine was going to work. I’m happy to have the creative space, but there’s definitely a price to pay.

“Me, too,” I said. “It’s a long day.”

De-facto wrapped his arm around me and we stood on the balcony together, our eyes fixed on the street below, waiting for their two heads to come into view so we could wave frantically and welcome them home.


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.


May 12 2014

The Days Away

I closed the refrigerator door, giving it that extra press to be sure it was firmly shut, eyeing the notice attached to the door with a magnet. Short-pants had a school field trip coming up and these were the instructions about what to bring: a small backpack, a metro card, a bottle of water, a hat, rain gear, comfortable shoes. I’d suggested that we assemble her bag in advance because I was leaving the day before her trip, and I wouldn’t be able to help her the night before. But now I was about to leave – the taxi would come for me in ten minutes – and we hadn’t done it.

“You’ll have to prepare your backpack yourself,” I told her, thinking that wasn’t the worst thing in the world. She’s at an age now where she should be able to collect a few necessities in a bag on her own.

“I thought we were going to do it together.”

It wasn’t that she didn’t now how. It’s that she relishes anything we can do together. She likes to hang out with me. A game of Bananagrams together delights her. She still comes in and cuddles with me in the morning. Or out of nowhere, standing in the kitchen, throws her arms around me in an unsolicited hug.
full_hearted
“You know how to do this,” I assured her.

She lifted her head up from her cereal bowl. “Do you have to go?”

This is always the part when my heart sinks and I swallow hard. There’s nothing to say to appease her, so I usually just shrug and give her a hug.

The thing is, I do have to go. If I didn’t get on an airplane every once in a while to go off on my own, I wouldn’t be the mother they love. I’d go stir crazy and my grumpiness alone would have an effect on them. I think it helps them to be independent, to see me doing my own things and coming home happy to see them. I know it keeps me sane.

Still, it’s hard. That chattering chorus sings behind me as I drag my suitcase out the door: you are neglecting them. You are missing important moments, and they won’t be long forever. You’re selfish. What kind of mother leaves her children, especially on mother’s day? This cacophony serenades me every trip, and though I can see my way out of the noise it makes, I am still surprised that I fall victim to these skeptical voices. They represent something I profess to reject: the firm hand of societal expectations about motherhood. But they are firmly embedded in our culture. I don’t necessarily pay them heed, but every time I leave I have to step over their sharp edges to get to the door.

~ ~ ~

While I’m gone I hardly check in. When I’m away for work, which is usually pretty intense, the timing never seems to fit what’s happening at home. If it’s an escape trip, well, where’s the escape if you’re constantly phoning home? Plus it’s disruptive. When the girls were younger and De-facto called home from the road, it did more harm than good. They’d be playing along, living in the present that is the world of young toddlers, and his call would remind them that he was gone. The tears that came after hanging up seemed hardly worth the quick check-in, which was usually a pretty inane conversation anyway.

It’s the same for us. There’s a certain disconnect when one of us is away – for work or fun – and the other is home administering the day-to-day routine. The conversations are filled with lost-in-translation moments that leave us feeling further apart than before the call. We’ve gotten into the practice of keeping correspondence to a minimum, which means staying present, mentally, in the place that we’re working or visiting, doing the things that we do without the angst of not being home. It seems like a waste to be someplace interesting only to spend your time there wishing you weren’t. airplane_fliesNot that I don’t ever call and say hello – but it might happen every few days, not a few times a day. This way, by the end of the trip, I’m missing him and the girls pretty fiercely, which makes the coming home part, all the more sweet.

~ ~ ~

Three trips in May means I’m gone seventeen days and all or part of four weekends. I missed the Spanish Mother’s Day a week ago and the American Mother’s Day yesterday. I’ll be missing the French Fête des Mères at the end of the month, too. I remember hesitating before booking all these trips, one for work, two for personal visits, and wondering if the time I was allotting myself at home between them was sufficient. I can tell you now it’s not. My overdose of voyaging has put me off my drug of choice. I’m longing for my own bed and my own people and even, maybe, a bit of humdrum routine. This is the plan for June, but right now next month seems ages away. I can’t complain. I get to visit some festive and exotic, interesting places: Sevilla last week, Tanzania this week. But at the moment my family feels too far away. I’m surprised to be counting the days that I’m away from home, and even more surprised to be counting the days until I get back.


Mar 4 2014

Into the Woods

Any lenses we were wearing – glasses or goggles – fogged up instantly when we trudged into the lodge. Wet, heavy snow dripped off our coats and hats. We’d been skiing nearly three hours and hadn’t intended to stop, except a small squall settled in over the mountain, its steady diagonal snowfall like needles against our faces. Hot chocolate was required, to warm our hands and take a break from being battered by the icy snow.

The lodge, a chalet-styled restaurant, was packed with diners at tables with plates of steaming food, croque-monsieurs and pomme-frites, thick pieces of red meat with creamy sauces. European skiers won’t miss their appointed meal times; a plus for flexible eaters like us who’d rather snack along the way and take advantage of the short lift lines that result while the rest of the mountain’s patrons are savoring their long lunches. Now we were in their midst, standing at the bar in the dark room, cradling our cups of hot chocolate, taking a restorative pause and hoping the snow would ease up.
girls_on_skis
It did. We gulped down our last sips of chocolate and clunked out of the lodge in awkward ski-booted steps to retrieve our skis and poles, laid against a wooden fence, and headed for the nearly empty lift-line.

We’d rotated in shifts all day, skiing as a family of four, and then De-facto would ski off to explore more demanding terrain, later returning to the two gentler hills that satisfied the girls. Then we’d ski a couple of runs together, all of us, before I’d get my turn to ski off and take a few longer, more challenging runs alone. It’s fun to ski with the girls and watch them get more confident. But how I love to ski alone, at my own pace, to stop when I want – or not stop at all – revived by a few precious, private moments at the top of the mountain. I was a ski-bum for a year in my early thirties, and all the freedom associated with that period of my life comes rushing back to me in an instant, just by sitting alone on the chairlift.

While I was off on my own, De-facto tried to inspire the girls to veer off the main piste into the woods, following tracks carved out by other adventurous skiers. The narrow trails snaked on and off the main slope, quick little jaunts in and out of the forest. For heartier adventurers, you could go deeper and find steeper tracks, one of them even over a bridge with a small jump. But if you stayed at the edge, close to the slope, it was a gentler risk, exhilarating enough for Buddy-roo, who daringly followed her father into the trees and out again.

Short-pants, though older, wasn’t quite as daring. It doesn’t help that her just-about-adolescent body is gangly and spindly. But she’s always had a different kind of physical coordination, and because of this tends to avoid sports in general. Just getting her out on skis is a bit of a trial. The night before we left, she cried because we were forcing her to go skiing. After three runs the first morning, she’d forgotten the burden we’d pressed upon her to enjoy this form of winter athletics, surrendering to its pleasure. But despite De-facto’s enthusiastic encouragement, she refused to follow them into the woods, preferring to do her standard snowplow snake back and forth across the main slope.

Our four-hour passes would expire soon – we’d gone for the shorter lift-pass thinking that the kids wouldn’t want to ski longer. In the end it was De-facto and I who were aching and exhausted and ready to call it a day. I’d skied fairly hard on my last solo turn, so I nodded at him to go off and take a last run on his own. I’d do one more with the girls and ski them over to the rental shop to return the skis and meet him there.

Except Buddy-roo wanted to follow her father into the forest again, so it was agreed she’d wait for Short-pants and me at the bottom by the lift so we could make our final ride up the mountain before our passes ran out. ski_pisteThen we’d take our last run of the day, down a different slope that would take us to the rental shop. The phrase, last run of the day, always sounds ominous to me. As a young child, my sister broke her leg on the last run of the day, so I’m always cautious about making this declaration, afraid to jinx one of us to such a casted fate.

Short-pants and I started out side by side, but I soon pulled ahead, making slow, wide arcs in the fresh snow. Halfway down, I stopped to wait for her. I scanned the hill for her distinctive helmet-worn-over-the-ski-hat (her choice to wear it that way), but she was nowhere to be found. I craned my neck in every direction, on the verge of worrying, until I saw her purple coat and her lopsided helmet…in the woods.

She was just above me, so I took a dozen giant side-steps back up the mountain to get closer to her. She was stopped in her tracks, considering how to navigate forward. From where I stood, it looked like she had a choice to veer out of the woods fairly easily and ski to me, or she could continue on the trail into the woods, though then the route out would be steeper.

“Look at you, in the woods!” I shouted. I wanted to encourage her for taking the risk, though I wished she’d have done it with her father so he could coach her through it. “Hey, why don’t you take the next path out. We’ve got to get down and meet your sister.”

Either she ignored my advice or she was unable to turn her skis in the heavy snow. Although she wasn’t going fast, she was going deeper into the woods and the further she went, the ridge between her and the main slope grew steeper, as did all the little exit paths. When she realized this, she froze.

I checked my watch. Buddy-roo was no doubt waiting for us by the lift, wondering where we were. I knew our lift passes would run out soon, too, which wasn’t the end of the world except then we’d have to ski a good distance cross-country style – never fun with the girls – before walking up a steep hill to get to the rental shop.

“Come on out!” I yelled, cheerfully. “You can do it.”

She inched forward until she came to the next set of tracks leading out of the woods. When she tried to turn, her skis got caught in the heavy snow and trees_on_canvasshe fell over, landing with her skis above her. I watched her struggle to lift them; they were buried under the snow. I called to her, coaxing her to move her body above the skis so she could lift them and position herself to stand up. She couldn’t move. She didn’t have the strength.

I snapped out of my bindings and walked up into the woods to where Short-pants was laying in the snow. I couldn’t get her untangled, so I snapped her out too and we walked out of the woods, carrying her skis, back down to the slope. But now the bottoms of her ski boots were caked with packed snow, and we were still on too much of an incline to balance on one foot and scrape it off. Getting back into her skis was turning out to be a chore.

It was starting to snow again, hard. I took out my phone – De-facto and I had been texting each other to choreograph our meet-ups all day – and called him to tell him to go back to the lift and get Buddy-roo, who by now was either angry with us or terrified that we’d forgotten her. It was a stroke of luck to reach him, he’s not an always-answer-the-cell-phone kind of guy.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Short-pants kept repeating. She could sense my exasperation, without me saying a thing. She was on the verge of tears and the whole ordeal had exhausted her. I kept assuring her it was all okay, but my voice was tired, making my words hard to believe. We walked up to a more level part of the slope, where she could find her balance and we could fuss more easily with her skis and boots. Just as I managed to scrape the snow off her boots and clamp her back into her bindings, De-facto and Buddy-roo called to us from the chairlift passing overhead. Short-pants waved back as I put my skis on and shuffled up right beside her.

“My little wood nymph,” I said, planting my poles in the snow so I could let go of them and put my arms around her. “You ready to ski down?” She cracked a reluctant smile, chuckling at her new nickname.

We took off down the mountain, both of us skiing directly to the front of the lengthening lift line. I begged the pardon of a family about to enter the two_pairs_of_skiselectronic gate, explaining that our passes were about to expire and we needed to get up one more time in order to ski down to the other side of the mountain. The turnstile blinked green, letting us through. We inched forward as the chair came around behind us, scooping us up as we thumped back into it, with relief.

Swinging in the air, meters above where she’d been stuck in the snow, I asked her why she chose that moment to go into the woods, instead of going in with her father.

“I guess I just wanted to go on my own,” she said. “You know?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I know.”


May 5 2013

In our Nature

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

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

“…and now my wings are growing back.”

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

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

“We’re playing fairies!”

“Look at my wings!”

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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


Dec 11 2012

Adjustments

I tiptoed up the stairs, knowing how if you are laying in our bed the sound of footsteps echo in our hallway and you can hear them drawing near. I slipped the key into the lock and turned it slowly, quietly pushing open the door and then easing it closed behind me, noiselessly. In the apartment, I set my suitcase down gently, surveying the cluttered living room. I was home, and so far nobody knew.

Too wired from the travel, but exhausted from the adrenaline-dip that follows every job, I was restless. I wanted to unpack, but I was afraid it might make too much noise. I didn’t feel like climbing into bed, but I didn’t want to stay up either. Mostly, I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I snuck into the bathroom to wash my face when I heard De-facto and Short-pants talking to the neighbors in the hall outside our apartment. They’d gone next door to wait for me, but I had eluded them with my stealth return. The rush of hugs a clear indication of how happy they were to see me. I was happy to see them, too. Mostly. I also wanted them to leave me alone.

Buddy-roo was at a sleepover with a friend, which in retrospect was a good decision on De-facto’s part. Sliding back into the household is hard enough. Her particular brand of attention can be overwhelming and I wasn’t yet ready to be that enthusiastic mom who re-channels it with grace.

The thing about being away is that you get used to your own company. You get used to looking at only your stuff and nobody else’s. You get used to that quiet hour before bed and the luxury of having only yourself to get ready in the morning. The clients and meetings can be demanding, but their requests fall within a reliable frame. And once the door to the hotel room is closed, there is nobody calling you to get out of bed to scratch their back, check for a fever or scare away the monster under the bed.

I remember when De-facto and I were “dating.” Ours was a long distance relationship for more than three years and we’d jet back and forth between Boston and Paris, getting to know each other one long weekend at a time. There was always an adjustment period, during which awkward feelings and questions threw darts at the initial delight of our reunion. It’d take a day or two to get in sync again. I suppose that hasn’t changed. I know how it feels when he returns from a long business trip and I’ve been running an efficient household without him. Surely my return interrupts the rhythm he and the girls have established. Not to mention how jarring it is for me.

All of a sudden, I’m a mom again. I have to attend to boo-boos and aches and pains and the combing and braiding of hair. I have to get excited about art projects and stop whatever I’m doing to watch the latest ballet move. I have to press little noses to the grindstone on their homework. I resume my role as Vice President of Errands: the book of verb conjugation I have to buy (for tomorrow); the trousse d’écolier is missing a glue stick or it out of ink cartridges for the fountain pen; the music teacher requires the purchase of a metronome and a battery-powered tuner – the tapping of feet and my old-fashioned tuning fork aren’t sufficient. One girl needs metro tickets for a field trip, the other baked goods for a school party. These requests are presented haphazardly and of course, at the last possible minute.

What’s remarkable is how quickly you get out of practice. I was only gone for two weeks, but I’ve gotten sloppy. Last night, when De-facto came home from an evening out, I’d just barely put the girls to bed. He grilled me on our activities.

“Did they do their handstands?”

Short-pants has to achieve this for her gym class, so they’ve started practicing every night at home to strengthen her arms. I shook my head; I’d forgotten.

“Viola practice?”

I hung my head in shame. “No.”

I had to confess to him that I’d fallen asleep on the couch while Short-pants and Buddy-roo played on my iPad. Some stellar parenting, that.

He smiled. “A little rusty, are you?”

Instead of getting perturbed, he pokes fun at me, which, I suppose, is just what it takes to help me make the adjustment to being back home.


Dec 2 2012

Being Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus the reunions are always so sweet.

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

The photograph of the Parisian street by Peter Turnley.


Sep 6 2012

Things Could Happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why didn’t she just say no?”

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

It’s preposterous, isn’t it?

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

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


Jul 16 2012

Toro Suelto

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~

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