Oct 30 2015

A Final Bow

I’m almost too busy to grieve. I say almost, because when you’re busy, you still grieve, it’s just pushed underground. If you don’t make time and space for the grief, it takes its own, and never at a good time or with enough space to permit you to delve in. Grief doesn’t fit itself neatly into the daily juggle of life and kids and work and an airplane to catch. Grief commands you to stop and pay attention. If you don’t, or you can’t – or think you can’t – you’ll find out too late, you should have bowed to its call.
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I’ve just said goodbye to a friend. We knew each other for only ten years, but in that time he showed me great kindness. He was older, leaning toward the end of his life even when I met him, yet he cultivated friendships with younger minds and spirits. Part of this was denial; he would not see himself as aged. Part of this was delight. He could never truly hide his amusement while he feigned surprise or mild disdain for the words and acts of the younger generation around him. He kept himself young by keeping such company.

He was just shy of eighty when he died, with years of achievement and adventure behind him. A hero of sorts among a special crowd, my San Fermín friends, he was known for his courage as a runner, back in the day, and for his chivalry and generosity until the end. He was the last man standing on the longest of fiesta nights, even at his ripe age, signaling a strong heart that could have kept him going for another decade, surely, but for his liver which he’d taxed too much, and his mind, which, like all of ours, wasn’t what it used to be.

I was too far away when he died to join the community of mourners at his memorial service. I got the news while at a meeting of 300 people. I stuffed the feelings down – the show must go on – until it could seep out later on a transatlantic redeye, the high altitude cabin pressure no doubt attributing to the release of emotion, my teary sniffles muffled by the constant hum of the jet engine. I made it home, tired, with puffy eyes and a heavy heart.

Winston met me at the door, his paws and long snout bobbing at me. One of the great things about having a dog is this enthusiastic welcome no matterteary_eye how long you’ve been absent. After a week away, he was especially excited to see me. I knelt down to scratch behind his ears and Short-pants came around behind me and placed her hand gently on my shoulder, her calm intention distinct from the peripatetic affection of the dog.

“I’m sorry you lost your friend,” she said to me. I pulled Winston closer, wincing to keep from crying again.

“It’s okay to be sad,” she said, stroking my back.

~ ~ ~

Grieving is messy business. I think you rarely grieve for only one person. Saying a permanent goodbye to someone you’ve known and loved triggers a memory of all the others you’ve lost. It’s like they’re all called out on the stage again, taking their place in line, holding hands, the full cast of the beloved, stepping forward for their encore bows a second, third, and fourth time. Side by side, the line splits in the center to make space for the newly departed, and together dipping their heads, skipping forward, their farewell bows perfectly synchronized. There you are in the audience, clutching a tissue and fighting back tears for each and every one of them, all over again.

Buddy-roo danced around the living room, throwing words at me I wasn’t prepared to take in. The test she thought she was ready for (but wasn’t), a misunderstanding with a girlfriend, the stuff of every day life that she likes me to know about. It made me think about coming home to them just after my mother died. I’d been gone three weeks, accompanying her through hospice. The girls had been desperate to reconnect with me, to catch up, to tell me of their lives, needing me to know, to respond. And I, jet-lagged and grief-stricken, listened half-heartedly, distracted by an internal conversation of my own, wondering how it would be for them when it was me who was gone for good.

This is the part that’s (mostly) unspoken: When we grieve all the others, there’s the hint of grief at our own demise. Each time there is a death around me, I know that contigo_torosomeday it will be my turn. What will happen to me is a mystery. I don’t know what to believe about any existence of my consciousness after death. But I know what it will be like for the girls, and if I could take that heartache away from them I would. But just as Short-pants says, it’s okay to be sad. Mourning is as much a part of life as laughing or loving or any of the experiences we covet.

I’d seen my friend just over a month ago. I walked him down a long corridor to surgery, a surgery he recovered from but extenuating circumstances numbered his days and took his life. His departure is a reminder that all things have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that it’s the people we love who keep the memory of our existence alive, albeit with their heartache, calling us back on stage to take yet another final bow.


Jun 29 2015

The Triangle

The little red dot on my telephone indicated a message was waiting. I’d put my phone on silence during a meeting, and the breaks were so busy that I didn’t even check. I rarely get calls, so sometimes I forget to monitor the phone. If you ever leave me a message, don’t count on me getting it right away. Email is a much swifter way to reach me.

I dialed in to the voicemail and there was Buddy-roo‘s signature greeting, “Mama?” with an upward inflection at the end, as though, despite the recorded message, she was still holding out hope I’d answer. The message that followed was in a tone that conveyed anger not panic, which relieved me. The call I dread getting when I’m far away is from a fearful child. Anger I can handle, it’s a more assertive emotion, easier to manage from a distance. But if they call me all wound up and afraid, I’m gutted.
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What followed was a litany of irate complaints. She’d been at the end-of-year party at school, always an event filled with too much excitement and too much sugar, and she and her two girlfriends had gotten in a big row. Buddy-roo had stayed overnight with one of the friends the previous night, and my guess is the other friend felt left out. The mother of the other (allegedly excluded) friend got involved, blasting the girls for being rude. Buddy-roo was indignant, protesting that they hadn’t been rude, they’d tried to include her and she’d shunned their approaches. The mother’s reprimand was apparently caustic enough to elicit the father of the other accused girl to intervene, rebuking the outspoken mother for jumping to conclusions and for scolding them with such severity. Personally, I was very glad to be out of town.

It could be that Buddy-roo and her friend were inadvertently (or even deliberately) rude to the third girl. I’d hope otherwise, but I know Buddy-roo has it in her to take the low road – she does occasionally with her sister – and I also know that she sees the world from her own vantage point (don’t we all?) which is sometimes rather distorted. But since I wasn’t there, and I was in another time zone and frankly in another frame of mind, I opted not to call back, at least not right away. In the absence of my feedback, Buddy-roo would have to sort this out on her own. It’d be interesting to see where she ended up.

As for the parents involved, they are both only acquaintances. I could venture a guess that the angry mother, who tends to be protective of her daughter, stepped over the line and the retaliating father, who in my brief experience is relatively good natured, was probably sorry to get drawn in, but something must have rattled him. These guesses of mine about shout_outas far as I want to go. I’d prefer to keep this argument in the domain of our children.

The next day Buddy-roo phoned again, this time while I was on a break. I contemplated letting her call go to the voicemail. I do want to encourage her independence, but I also want to be available to her when she needs guidance. I steeled myself and answered the call. I got an earful: one of the girls (the one whose mother was worried they’d excluded her) was now telling Buddy-roo they could only be friends if she refused to be friends with the other girl. Buddy-roo didn’t want to take sides, but if she had to choose she didn’t know what to do. Just a reminder about how awful teenage (and pre-teen) girls can be. Especially in groups of three.

Actually, I participate in a few trios of girlfriends. Two dear college pals who live in New York get on very well without me, but seem to embrace me fully when we’re all together. My fiesta circle has several trios within it, depending on who attends each year, and it seems to work without incident. I’ve tried to hold up these examples to Buddy-roo, whenever a conflict with her friends comes up. But I must acknowledge her not-yet-fully developed brain has a hard time talking in these terms. It’s still somebody else’s fault.

“Whatever you do, be kind,” I told her. “You don’t want to be one of the mean girls.”

I’m not sure that helped. But it was the only advice I could think of. And about as much as I wanted to meddle, until further notice.

When I returned home on the weekend, I asked Buddy-roo how things had turned out. In the end, the three girls had made up, though probably a fragile reconciliation. One of them left early for the summer, and with only two days of school left, Buddy-roo and the other friend had time to heal. Tomorrow is the last day of school and two months will pass. If I recall how things go at that age, come September they’ll greet each other with open arms, as if nothing had ever happened. Or they’ll end up in entirely different don't_be_meancircles as the classes get shifted around, and the crisis of this fight will fade into a vague memory.

But I wonder, and I watch, carefully, as Buddy-roo (and her sister) launch into what I recall was the most challenging time of my life when it came to making and keeping friends. How to help them avoid getting bullied without being the meddling parent who makes things worse? And, how to make sure they aren’t the ones perpetrating the bullying, deliberately or by default when they watch passively from the side? These years are a treacherous minefield among even the best of friends, especially when it comes to threesomes.


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 3 2014

A Little Adventure

The black band of highway stretched and curved through the dry desert hills. An occasional cactus stood at attention, in a half-salute. The cotton-ball clouds dotted the sky. The white markings in the center of the road slipped one by one under the car. The mountains on the horizon ahead loomed in shades of grey and blue until they weren’t in the distance anymore, and we were driving among them. This scenery had been breathtaking at first – and still was – but we’d grown accustomed to it after six hours on the road.
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“Are we there yet?”

“We’ll get there when we get there.”

The classic road trip call and response. We’re used to it because we drive a lot, back and forth to the country house, during the last spring break we drove to Croatia, Milan, Paris and back home to Barcelona. The girls are more patient that most, they’ve been trained to make long car rides. Even Buddy-roo, who gets nauseous on any curvy road or one with too many stops-and-starts, is a good sport. I collect air-sickness bags from the seat pockets of airplanes; they come in handy when Buddy-roo throws up in the car. I have at least a dozen on hand for this road trip, since we’ll be in a car for nearly a month straight, traveling west to east across the United States, from San Francisco to Cape Cod.

~ ~ ~

When I was eight, my parents had the idea to take the family on a trip around New York, so that we might learn about our home state. My brother, sister and I fidgeted in the back seat of my father’s Delta 88 while we drove from our home in the Finger Lakes to to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to Fort Ticonderoga, Ausable Chasm, and the North Pole, NY at Whiteface mountain in the Adirondacks. That was the highlight of the trip, at least for me. Certainly it was the least favorite stop of my brother, who’d just turned 16. His discomfort was obvious when you saw the photograph in which he was forced to pose with Santa Claus for that year’s family Christmas card.

We stayed in modest motels and ate at family restaurants and diners. I remember loving the motel with rows of rooms wrapped around a kidney-shaped swimming pool with its blue twisted slide. There’s a picture of me in my red, white and blue two-piece sailor-styled bathing suit, its white skirt lifted by the wind, clearly loving this vacation. I also remember the disappointment of the guest house the following night, its tired upholstery, pilled white bedspread and a musty, closed-in smell. That it was only for one night was beyond my comprehension, I was indignant that we would stay there. (Ask De-facto, not much has changed on that front.)

At breakfast my father set a dollar limit for breakfast, barely enough to cover eggs and toast. He disappeared and returned with a stack of post cards that cost as much as two breakfasts. We begrudgingly wrote cards to friends, as commanded, and thus started the family tradition of writing postcards at the breakfast table. If you ever get a post card from me, chances are I wrote it with my morning coffee and a plate of eggs.

~ ~ ~

The girls and I had a long layover in Vancouver. De-facto was making his own way to San Francisco but our frequent flyer itinerary forced us to wait eight hours before our connecting flight. We stowed our luggage at the airport and took the sky train into the city. A security guard – Buddy-roo called me out for flirting with him – saw us studying the map and offered to help. girls_on_tracks Instead of connecting to a bus to get to the Granville market, he suggested walking along an unused train track. A more scenic route, he said. Buddy-roo, who’d been whinging earlier about the long plane ride, the lengthy layover, her hungry tummy, now started jumping up and down, begging me to take his advice.

Sure enough, just behind the parking lot of the train stop, a set of tracks rolled out from under a locked chain-link fence, a good sign that the tracks were out of use. We marched along the thick wooden rail-ties, feeling very happy-go-lucky and on-the-road. The theme song to the Andy Griffith Show came to mind. We could still see the street and it was broad daylight, so it felt pretty safe. If the fence across the tracks wasn’t enough to assure me that we wouldn’t encounter a moving train, the overgrowth of wild, thorny blackberry bushes along the tracks and between the ties was another strong clue. Short-pants is a blackberry picking fiend, it’s her favorite pastime at the country house and she had lamented leaving before the berries on our property were ripe. She, too, had been hungry and as a result, grumpy. But the sight of all these bushes lifted her mood instantly. The dense clumps of black raspberries were like magnets, pulling her from the tracks as we walked along. She’d lag behind and then run to catch up, her hands filled with sweet, fat berries to share with us.

When the road veered away and the chain link fences on either side of the tracks turned into cement walls twenty-feet high, I started to wonder if it was such a good idea to be having this hobo adventure. It occurred to me not to overreact, but at the same time some motherly-hormone kicked in and presented me with the worst-case scenario: an indigent needle-carrying hoodlum lurking in the bushes, surprised to see a happy, unsuspecting family skipping along the tracks, taking all sorts of terrible liberties with us. I had a fair amount of cash on me, and the more precious cargo: my daughters. Were I alone I’d have sprinted along without thinking of it. Worry is too strong a word, but I did wonder about the safety of our surroundings. This led to the conversation we often have about being smart, not scared – our motto, as Short-pants says – and we managed to navigate the tracks to our destination without any incident, and having experienced the freedom of going off-piste, and the thrill of having made it out alive. The girls’ whining had ceased, entirely. Nothing like a little adventure to help you forget your misery.
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San Francisco treated us to visits with family and friends, a hike in Muir Woods, a beach day at the Presidio and a big birthday bash for De-facto (hint: ends in a zero). After a few days, we picked up the vehicle that will carry us east across the country for the next several weeks, and headed south with overnight stops in Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix. We’ve stayed with friends and family, who treat us like royalty and protest that we should stay longer, but we are trying not to impose on anyone for too long. Besides, we’re a family on the move with the whole country left to traverse.

~ ~ ~

I can’t say I was thrilled about this taking this trip. I wasn’t looking forward to hours on end in the car. We just put in a new kitchen at the country house, I wanted to linger there over the summer and enjoy it. I don’t really like being in the states too much, I get overwhelmed by the enormity of everything: the stores, the portions, the people. I’ve done vagabond traveling in my life and loved it, but I had only my own backpack to manage. Supervising the preparation and maintenance of several suitcases and the other odd belongings that get picked up along the way (nothing without a handle, channeling my father’s car-trip mantra) could be classified as my Sisyphean task. My attempts to empower my daughters to keep track of their stuff have been in vain. I know I should let them live with the consequences of their sloppy suitcase habits, but in the end I’m the one who has to buy them another pair when their sneakers are left behind, so it’s hard not to be craning my neck vigilantly behind them. Even De-facto can’t manage to get out of Dodge without losing something. Already he’s had his bathing suit mailed to Santa Fe from Los Angeles.

But my mother-in-love has been politely asking to visit for too long. She’s awfully good about flying to Europe to spend time with us there, but she wanted to host us in her own home, and we wanted to grant her this as well as to enjoy her lovely hospitality. If we’re going to go all the way to Santa Fe, De-facto argued, we might as well visit some other people on the west coast, and then why not friends in Chicago and on the east coast too? And shouldn’t our American children, both born abroad, get a taste of the good ol’ US-of-A? It’s the passport they carry, after all.

You can see how the conversation went. During the weeks leading up to the trip I’d think about what it entailed and the dread would rise up within me. Yes, it would be an experience, a great adventure, something we’d always remember. Yes, we’d see good people we love to see. But this kind of touring doesn’t count, to me, as a vacation. It’s hard work, shuttling a family around for so many miles.

But, anyway, smiles everyone.

~ ~ ~

I’d been the one to set the alarm for 5:00 am, but I groaned the loudest when it went off. We’d been up this early the day before, too, to beat the traffic out of Phoenix and get up to the Grand Canyon early enough to enjoy the afternoon walking along the rim. De-facto called for a family hike down into the Canyon before we left, and that would mean getting up before dawn, again, in order to beat the heat but also to get on the road in time to make it to his mother’s house, in Santa Fe, for a late dinner. The night before, I’d extracted from the girls promises of cheerful faces in the morning, vows broken before their heads even left the pillows.

De-facto maintains marvelous poise in the company of grumpy women, he’s learned to keep his mouth shut and let time do its magic. Despite the girls’ protests, and my ambivalence, he herded us to the trailhead. It didn’t takecanyon_wall long for me to fall into the hiking zone, the path transported me instantly to my days on the Camino and the euphoria of walking in nature. The majestic beauty of this early morning walk wasn’t lost entirely on the girls, their complaints abated for a while as we snaked down into the canyon. But when we turned around to make our way back up to the rim, the combination of an uphill climb, the growing heat of the sun and a desire for a breakfast beyond the granola bars and orange slices made for a reprise of the chorus of complaints.

I slowed my pace, distancing myself from the grumpy girls so I could stay in my “Camino high” and marvel at the grandeur of the canyon. It’s the kind of vista that compels you to take in fully the moment. It’s the kind of vista that makes you amazed and privileged to be where you are. It made me glad that we’d pressed ourselves to get up and out early to make this hike, glad to be in the Grand Canyon, glad to on our big cross-country tour, in a car, with my family, making an important memory. Maybe, I figured, this trip wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and maybe it wouldn’t be as awful as I thought. Nothing like a little adventure to help forget your misery.


Jul 21 2014

That Big Fiesta

“Wait!” Buddy-roo screamed from the upstairs window of the country house as I walked to the car. “I want to give her another hug goodbye!”

I heard her pound down the stairs before she rushed out the door and took a hold of That Big Doll. tbd_hug_goodbye

“You’re sure?” I was afraid of the answer. For years I’ve been trying to remove this freaky nearly life-size doll from our lives. I managed to exile her to the country house, where she was tucked away in a back room, in a corner nearly out of sight beside a wardrobe. But when De-facto cleared out the room to lay a new floor, she ended up in plain sight again, standing by the fireplace in the main room.

When the Fiesta Nazi first encountered That Big Doll she got that nasty twinkle in her eye that I find especially endearing and suggested in a conspiratorial tone that it might be a humorous series of moments I’d we were to drag her along on an afternoon bar crawl at the fiesta in Pamplona. One could imagine instantly the clever (at least to us) stunts we might pull off, with our primary objective, of course, the free drinks we might secure with her in tow. But every time I brought this up, Buddy-roo would hear none of it. She stomped her feet and pounded the table, no, no, no. If I pursued the idea further, there were tears.

This year, as every year, I asked – a throwaway comment with expectation of the usual resistance – and I was surprised by her response.

“Sure,” she said, all cool I-don’t-care-like, “it’s time to let her go.”

I hadn’t asked if she was sure about it, afraid she might change her mind. Which is why when I blurted it out as she gave That Big Doll an extra goodbye hug I wished I hadn’t said it. What if she changed her mind now, so close to the getaway?

No need to be concerned. After the embrace, she handed me the doll so I could put it in the trunk. The knees don’t bend so it’s hard to put her in a seat, her legs only spread out in a suggestive V-shape – and we drove off to the promise of her next adventure.

~ ~ ~

When you carry a nearly life-sized plastic doll around under your arm, you have to be nonchalant about it. I channelled my father, remembering how he once took a three-foot long Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum box with him to meet my brother at the airport. In the ’70s, an advertising campaign featured wrigleys_flavorpeople walking around with huge boxes of Wrigley’s gum under their arms, signifying its big, long-lasting flavor. My sister’s boyfriend worked as a stock boy at the local five-and-dime store and when the Wrigley’s display was dismantled, gave the box to my sister after extracting her promise to carry it through the school cafeteria during lunch period, which she did without the embarrassment he’d intended. After that, she kept the box on display on top of a chest of drawers in her bedroom.

In those days you could pass through airport security without a ticket, to meet an arriving passenger as they got off the plane. My father trooped through the terminal toward the gate with this huge cardboard box under his arm. People turned their heads and stared. A woman – an enthusiastic stranger – came up to him.

“Where did you get that big Wrigley’s Gum box?”

“Shut up lady,” my father said, out of the side of his mouth, “You’re ruining the commercial.”

I carried That Big Doll through three train stations. I acted as if this were the most natural thing in the world, but couldn’t help but notice people’s reactions. They either laughed at me or, in an amusing stance of denial, pretended not to notice. I know my father would have approved: when I boarded my last train, toting a fairly large suitcase in one hand and That Big Doll in the other, a man seated nearby offered to help. He reached for my valise, intending to lift it to the overhead rack. I thrust the giant doll in to his arms for him to hold while and heaved the suitcase up myself.

~ ~ ~

Of course we dressed her in the fiesta whites. The red faja had to be wrapped three times around her tiny, not-at-all-proportional waist in order on_the_fence2 to hang properly. A red panuelo tied at the neck put her in full fiesta uniform, and it must be said she didn’t look quite as wanton once she was wearing the traditional white and red.

She spent most of the week standing at the window of our apartment, waving out the window. I had to wait to be in the right mood to take her out. Part of the joy of the fiesta is being unencumbered with responsibilities; there’s an agreement among my cuadrilla that there are no obligations, or that if you take on any kind of obligation, the others are not required to participate. It’s one week a year, for me, that I have nothing I absolutely have to do. I can follow the rituals of the fiesta or wander away to something else, on a whim, if I choose. Having a plastic doll to watch out for, even though I intended to leave behind, felt counter-intuitive.

But the day before I left (it was now or never) the spirit moved me and we slipped on her manoletinas and took her out to the street. The fact that she has a strange adult body but is only as tall as a little girl shocked and then amused the people she met. She made friends. She was held, carried, danced around and dipped. She was put into strange poses at café tables and bar stools. She did planks and push-ups in the street. She posed with anyone who asked, and some who didn’t. She applauded a band of mariachis and found herself wearing a sombrero. She was thrown under a bus (while it was stopped at a light) and if only I could have gotten my camera out in time to capture the bus driver in hysterical fits of laughter. She was good fun, in the daytime.

At night something changed. The mood on the street was different. Instead of being the quirky doll-dressed-in-white, her plastic shapeliness took on a different connotation. The pranks and stunts ceased to be clever, and started to feel not-so-funny. She wasn’t received with amusement, but instead with lascivious grins or looks of disdain. Given that there was also a campaign to raise awareness about violence against women at this year’s fiesta, That Big Doll – who on her own is just wrong – felt even more wrong. We took her back to the apartment, and left her at her window perch.

It was my intention to leave her in the back of some bar, or in a random doorway, tbd_runninghappy to be rid of her for good. But I couldn’t do it. Even Fiesta Nazi agreed, it was hard to leave her. That Big Doll had grown on us, being such a good sport at the fiesta. Instead of leaving her to be spoiled in the street, we left her in a closet to surprise our landlord. And she’ll be there next year, if the spirit moves us, to take her out again.

That Big Doll absolutely had the big adventure I’d hoped for. And Buddy-roo was tickled by the pictures of her antics; check out her Tumblr if you want to see for yourself how she survived that big fiesta.


Jun 7 2014

He Likes You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phew.

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

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

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

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

She fell silent, considering my question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nov 7 2013

Home Away from Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sep 8 2013

Finding your Place

The huge green gate swung open and the dozens of moms and dads, congregated to fetch their children after the first day of school, plowed into the courtyard. The children stood in a clump, all of them slightly hunched over from the weight of backpacks that contain every school book they own. The first parents through the gate created a tall wall that made it nearly impossible to find your own in the mob of children waiting to be claimed. I paced back and forth behind the crowd of parents, craning my neck to locate Buddy-roo. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t find her, but more concerned that she would panic not having been found. The school is so much larger than our little corner primary school in Paris. There were so many kids, and as many adults. I stood for nearly ten minutes looking for her.

Then that moment. It happens at every school pick-up, and warms my heart each time. It was ten times more robust on this day, the end of her first day at a new school. I saw her and she saw me and her face exploded into a huge grin. My whole body sighed with relief. She’s happy. It went well. She inched through the swarm of people to reach me.

“I made five friends today!”

She is a voraciously social creature; achieving new friends is her measure of success.
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“And I love my teacher!”

I didn’t expect her to have difficulty, but I know it’s not easy, adjusting to a new school and a new life in a new city. That morning, standing outside the school with her, I felt as though we were alone in the sea of families greeting each other warmly, catching up with their friends after the long summer vacation. I pictured us in the courtyard of our school in Paris, where we’d be hugging our friends and chatting and laughing, all of it too loud and the directrice would have to remind us, repeatedly, to be quiet as she called out the name of each student. A sharp dagger of regret not to be there with our friends instead of here amongst these strangers. I let it wash over me, not accepting it, not fighting it either. In moments of unfamiliarity, the familiar always has a halo. You will find your place here, I told myself. So will they.

~ ~ ~

The van we’d rented was stuffed to the gills. Every space was used. Boxes and suitcases stuffed to the ceiling, rendering the rear view mirror useless. De-facto even unpacked some of the smaller bags I’d prepared, breaking my father’s cardinal rule of nothing without a handle – sage guidelines always appreciated when unpacking – and stuffed the girls shoes and T-shirts into the nooks and crannies. The front passenger seat was pushed so far forward that only Buddy-roo could sit comfortably in it. Half of the back seat was given to storage so Short-pants and I squeezed in the other half. We were like the Clampetts, riding toward Beverly Hills in an overloaded jalopy.

Moving sucks. Even if you have a moving company with a big truck coming to transport your life in cartons to your new doorstep, it’s brutal. I wanted to hire such a mover. I pictured those muscled men hoisting our boxes away and then miraculously appearing again at the other end to carry each box in, placing it where I’d point. De-Facto, being a scrapper, resisted the idea, reminding me not only of the unnecessary expense – we aren’t taking that much furniture – but also how when you have just a small load they try to pack you in with other larger shipments and you end up at their mercy. It took weeks to coordinate a delivery date for the small shipment from my mother’s house, about the same amount as we are taking to Barcelona, and it was not without surprise charges and additional headaches. So our plan: take a load of stuff with us, find our apartment, unload it and then De-facto would drive back to France for our second load, the pack for later load. Anything else could wait until the fall school holiday, when we could make a third trip to get any other longed-for items. The plan was not to move our entire home – we have a renter in Paris who’s counting on most of our furniture – but to take just what we’d need.
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Things were going along according to plan. We hit the ground running, saw a fabulous apartment on the first day and three more very livable options the next. At each apartment we visited, Buddy-roo and Short-pants would run off to explore the bedrooms while De-facto and I inspected the main rooms and kitchen. They’d sprint back with a report on who’d claimed which room. They moved into every apartment, in their imaginations, instantly.

Then, last Monday, we found it. A slightly eccentric apartment with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that slide open against a balustrade, giving the effect of being indoors and yet on a terrace. It’s a duplex, too, so the girls can keep their upstairs universe, only this time with more headroom than in our attic apartment in Paris. De-facto and I have agreed, more or less, on the viability of all the apartments we’d seen, but now we turned to each other and it was obvious: this one. We made an offer – with the rental market as it is in Barcelona it wouldn’t be sane to pay the asking price – and negotiation started. On Tuesday we reached a verbal agreement. Conceivably, the contract could be signed mid-week and we could move in on the weekend, which would give us time to move out of our temporary digs and leave them in mint condition for the return of the friend who was loaning her apartment to us while she went to Burning Man.

On Wednesday the owner, our potential landlord, wanted more information, requesting financial documents that we never guessed we’d need and had left packed away. Our new tenant in Paris – fortunately a good friend – was heroic in his willingness to scavenge for these papers and scan and send them to us. This would delay the signing, but we still had time. That afternoon, however, the small side window of our van was smashed and we were robbed. In broad daylight. We’d had the sense not to leave our most important possessions in the van, there were just boxes of sheets and towels, toiletries, a large suitcase of De-facto’s clothing (I actually wish they’d taken that), some books and papers. There was nothing of demonstrable value except the one item we’d forgotten to bring in because it was hidden in a secret floor compartment that the thief managed to find: the small black bag with our video camera. I could care less about the camera, we stopped filming years ago. It was that all our cassettes were in the same bag. Every video of Short-pants and Buddy-roo, coming home from the hospital, kicking in their highchair, learning to walk, playing at the beach. All of them surely tossed in a garbage bin somewhere in Barcelona.

“It’s okay,” I consoled a tearful Buddy-roo. She’d been watching the videos just last week, relishing the images of her own childhood. “I had no videos of my childhood and but I still remember it was a happy one.”

It was time for Plan B. We moved everything that was left in the van into our tiny temporary apartment, and De-facto, worried that a stack_of_gripsvehicle with a broken window would only invite another theft, decided to drive it back to Paris, that night. He’d return it and get another van – a bigger one even – and on the way back he’d stop off at the country house to pick up a few pieces of furniture, returning to Barcelona on Friday. Our heroic friend and renter even volunteered to drive back with him; an extra muscle to move things, a co-pilot and relief driver, and in general good company. In the meantime, I’d sign the lease and we’d move everything in on Saturday.

Except on Friday, while De-facto sped down the autoroute toward Spain, I got a call informing me that the landlord wouldn’t schedule an appointment until he could review our tax returns, which meant not until Monday. I should mention that the night before I noticed that Short-pants was scratching her head and a close inspection confirmed that she had lice, and so did Buddy-roo. We were up until after midnight combing out their hair. The only saving grace is that the metal long-tooth combs and tea-tree oil were in the box of toiletries we’d been forced to bring in from the van after the theft. This, probably my lowest moment of the move, so far: operating on four hours of sleep, a van of our belongings on their way to Barcelona, another van’s worth of boxes and suitcases in our tiny temporary apartment that we needed to vacate before Sunday, and no apartment until at least Monday, or later.

I was never thrilled about plan B. I’d have waited until we signed a lease before making a trip back to Paris. But De-facto had valid reasons for pressing forward this way, and when he wants to get something done he’s tenacious. Or he trusts that if things go wrong, he can solve that problem later. It’s foolish, sometimes, what we get ourselves into. It does keep our problem solving skills in sharp order. It’s definitely not boring. But now I had to devise a plan C. There, on the ground, and fast.

I asked our real estate agent for a list of the best storage units, and with his advice, managed to contact one and make a reservation. I’d already been scanning Air BnB apartments to rent in case our homelessness stretched beyond the weekend. I sent a bunch of messages inquiring about places to rent for a few days, or up to a week. I met the girls at school and tried to be cheerful as I explained that we’d have to wait until Monday to find out about our apartment. I think they’re used to this “suspended” situation we are in; they just shrugged and asked for a snack.

~ ~ ~

Night fell around us as we sat on the balcony at the home of new friends introduced to us by our friend/tenant who’d accompanied De-facto to Barcelona with our things, new friends who’s daughter happens to be, by chance, in the same class as Short-pants. While we’d driven the van to the storage unit and unpacked it – how reassuring to see my grandmother’s two velvet fauteuils ready to be in our new home, wherever we make it – these friends cooked up a paella and set the table on their terrace. In the course of dinner conversation, we acquired the name and number of a cousin in Barcelona who has an apartment we can rent a day at a time until we get our own. A crisp glass of white wine, children playing together happily inside, the night air warm and easy, it felt like things had somehow turned around. A few angels here and there, a helpful friend, a generous stranger. Maybe it was hope, maybe it was just the wine: we even started to laugh at our own situation.
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You learn a lot about your decisions when you think about undoing them. There’ve been many moments this week when I thought about how much easier it’d be if we’d just stayed in Paris. But after each flash of frustration or fatigue, I’d looked around and notice something like a palm tree in front of the school and remind myself that we came here for a reason, even if I don’t know what it is yet. As for the apartment: we like the other ones on our list well enough, but we love this one. The thought of not giving it one or two more days to come together feels short-sighted. Perhaps tomorrow things will fall into place and we’ll have a new home. If not, we’ll have to concoct a plan D.

As I write this, De-facto and the girls are in the other room, crowded around his computer, laughing out loud at a string of videos: two little girls singing “Twinkle Twinkle,” the kids playing poker with their uncle in the back yard of the country house, footage from our stay in Cambodia. As it turns out, he’d archived some of those early family videos on his hard drive. A few motion pictures of the girls’ charmed childhoods still exist. Seeing the videos reminds me of all the places we’ve been, how happy we’ve been in all of them, and how we just have to give it some time before we all find our place here in Barcelona.


Jan 7 2013

Finding Out

We stepped one foot at a time into the harnesses and pulled the bulky belts high around our waists. The tall men buckled us in, pulling straps tight, double-checking that the fit was snug. Everyone was handed a helmet and a pair of suede gloves, worn from use by many hands pressing down on wire cables. Because the electricity was out, we couldn’t watch the introductory video. Instead a guide, who spoke English fluently but with a dark velvet accent, did his best to show and tell us what would happen. hiking_in

We piled into a safari truck, wearing all our gear, helmets already a necessary protection from knocking our heads against the roof during the bumpy ride that took us to from the lodge to the drop-off point. A 15-minute hike brought us out to a cliff overlooking the ravine. We climbed on to the first wooden platform, where the ropes connected to our harnesses were clipped to the guide wire at our feet.

Never at any moment was anyone not fastened on to something, either to a line on the ground, attached to the rocks by giant pins, or, in the moment we’d come to experience, on to the long wire that stretched over the open gorge. A large pulley unit was the primary device, that’s how you rolled along the cable to the platform at the other side of the ravine. But there were always two other clips in place, for security. We’d been told this was one of the safest places for Canopy Touring, and that seemed to be the case.

“Are you ready?” the guide would ask when you were sufficiently latched on and secure for your ride across the abyss. “Enjoy!”

All you had to do was step off the edge of the platform and gravity would take over. A flight through the air, only the sound of the mechanism driving along the wire and the water cascading over the rocks below. Fifteen seconds of flying freedom.

~ ~ ~

Our friends had been to Swaziland before; it’s an easy weekend trip from where they live in Maputo. Things change almost immediately after crossing the border from Mozambique. The hills and mountains rise around you, and the land shifts from dusty brown to a palette of greens. A house just outside of Mbabane, the capital, was offered to us from a friend of a friend, one with many bedrooms that easily accommodated our two families of four. We did a big shop on the way there, the kind when you buy way too much food that you never eat because you end up going to restaurants for more meals than you expected. We spent the week taking hikes, visiting various tourist attractions, like a revived glass factory or an eccentric candle-making workshop, and then, of course: zip-lining at the Malolotja Nature Reserve.
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Our friends’ kids had already tried zip-lining, and loved it, so we knew the activity was child-friendly. But our girls have a different appetite for adventure, and it’s not as vigorous as ours. A little cajoling is almost always required. I knew for this to work it had to be well positioned to garner their enthusiasm.

It was Short-pants I was most worried about. She is thin and spindle-like, slightly uncoordinated. She’s aware of her lesser athleticism and though we work hard to keep her moving and confident, it’s her nature to avoid physical activity. I fully expected her to resist, until I thought of her role as Grandpa Joe in last year’s school play, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. After drinking the fizzy lifting drink Grandpa Joe sings a duet with Charlie called, “I’m Flying.” This was my entry point. We talked about how zip-lining might be a bit like that scene in the story, when they’re flying through the air. She said she was game. I couldn’t tell if she was truly interested in this adventure, or if she was just humoring me. Or maybe she was afraid of disappointing me. I worry about that, sometimes.

That morning, as we donned sunscreen and sneakers, it was Buddy-roo, though she’d been instantly enthusiastic about the idea when it was first proposed, who came to me with her head bowed.

“I don’t want to go.” She can make her voice so little and glum when she wants to.

“It’s natural to feel nervous before you do something new,” I told her, “I bet you’re going to love it.” I was wondering, myself, if I was going to love it.

“I’m worried about my sister,” she said, trying to think of another excuse. “What if she gets scared and freaks out?”

“You just worry about yourself,” I told her, though I wondered, myself, about the very same thing.

~ ~ ~

There were eleven zip-lines zig-zagging along and across the ravine, eleven chances to sail through the air. This meant it wasn’t a one-time shot. Once you started, you were committed. There was no way to turn back.

While Buddy-roo masked her fears by whining about her sister, Short-pants stoically adjusted her harness and her helmet, listened attentively to the guide as he reminded us of where to place our hands – and where not to put them – while gliding along the cable. We’d all gotten a lot quieter as we approached the first wire. I looked over at Short-pants and she bared her braces in a broad smile. If she was feeling frightened, she wasn’t letting on.

De-facto went first and I followed; we both had cameras and were charged with capturing images of the kids and cheering them in as they came across the ravine after us. Our friends stayed to the rear, ready to coach the youngest members of our squad as each one took their turn. The first zip-lines were shorter and the drop below them not too steep – like having two starter flights to get used to the feeling and to figure out how to use your glove, with its leather palm, to slow down at the end for a good landing.
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It wasn’t hard to get a feel for how to speed and slow yourself along the cable. The guide at the receiving end was there to catch you if you barreled in too fast, or to coax you if you’d slowed too soon to make it all the way to the platform. He unfastened and quickly re-fastened my ropes to the ground cable and I quickly turned to snap shots of each child, as they came into view, one at a time. Short-pants, long and lanky even with her knees bent, glided and landed effortlessly on the platform. She raised her arms in a jubilant victory pose. Buddy-roo sped in a few minutes later, smaller and more compact, but fast and confident and just as exhilarated by the ride.

As we followed the rest of the course, the cables got longer, stretching over the wider, steeper parts of the gorge. The hurdle of how-to-do-it had been cleared, and both girls were beaming. Much like our family hike last summer, the self-esteem of both daughters expanded, visibly, after two hours and eleven rides dangling from a cable strung out over a deep ravine. I’ll never know if they really wanted to try zip-lining, or if they were just afraid not to. But I’m reminded of how important it is to encourage our children to try to do new things they might not (at first) believe they can do. How else will they find out?


Dec 24 2012

Flight of the Reindeer

They’ve gotten good on planes. They should be, they’ve been on enough of them. We take them back to the states every two or three years, they’ve flown around Europe and to the Caribbean. They’ve both been to Cambodia when we took an extended 5-week trip there in 2007, when it wasn’t a problem for either of them to miss school. This is Short-pants‘ third trip to Africa; Buddy-roo‘s second time. They have always done well on overnight planes and 12-hour drives. A perfect merger of nature and nurture; traveling is in their genes, and we’ve given them plenty of practice to get used to it.
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It’s a lot easier to fly away to an exotic place for the holidays when the myth of Santa Claus no longer needs to be maintained. We managed a Christmas in Cambodia, but it required an extra suitcase, a good amount of advanced planning and a tiring amount of conversation about how would Santa know where to find us? Fortunately we were staying with friends who had not one but three Christmas trees set up in their otherwise tropical apartment, which added enough magic to mask the charade. But now that the girls know about Santa, we saw the possibility of a holiday trip with only carry-on luggage, and seized it.

“Why did you have to tell me?” Buddy-roo has been giving me grief about last year’s revelation about Santa. I tried to remind her that she had asked me, no less than five times, directly, “Who puts the presents under the tree?” I tried to evade her question but it seemed clear that she already knew and to continue would be a bold-faced lie. She was almost happy to be in on the secret, at least at first. Now her short-term revisionist memory has taken over – or else she figured out she’ll get less booty now that Santa’s been outed – and she wants him back.

“I liked believing in Santa,” she said, “you ruined it for me.”

Short-pants, too, wishes out loud that we hadn’t had our discussion about Santa, but she’s gentler on her mother. Her sadness is occasionally expressed, followed by, “but it’s okay, mama.”

My sister, who still believes in Santa, in the way that adults who still love the magic of Christmas do, sent over a beautiful book, The Flight of the Reindeer, thinking it might help heal the wounds of my children’s scarred Christmas. The book is filled with evidence that someone who really wants to believe can point to as concrete. In a whimsically factual way, it winks at every reader: Sure, there’s a Santa. If you want there to be.
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It was my peace offering.

“This is a book about the magic of Santa,” I said, as they unwrapped it, “to keep his spirit alive.”

Short-pants’ eyes widened and she flipped the book open, ready to devour it. Buddy-roo studied me with pursed lips. “Why would you give us a book about Santa when you already told us he doesn’t exist?”

“I never said he doesn’t exist.”

“Yeah, Santa lives in our hearts.” She rolled her eyes. “But I want him to be real and I wish you hadn’t told us he wasn’t.”

“You can still believe,” Short-pants’ angelic voice. “I do.”

~ ~ ~

We opened all but a few of our presents early, the day before we got on the plane to Africa. We knew Buddy-roo wouldn’t stand waiting until our return after New Year’s, and we wanted to travel light. Dragging the gifts with us, even though there weren’t that many, and explaining them to various border guards between South Africa and Mozambique – our Christmas destination – felt like a hassle to avoid. We opened our gifts in rapid fire after dinner, rather than unwrapping them leisurely, with breaks for ice-skating and Bloody Marys, two of our usual Christmas day rituals. Although a few thin items were slipped in my suitcase to be opened on the 25th, it feels good to dispense with the merchandise aspect of Christmas. Maybe, we’ll just be happy to be together. Well, and being someplace warm and sunny; that’s a gift, too.

Short-pants has deliberately decided to believe again. The book from her aunt has given her permission. It’s too heavy to take along with us, but up until our departure she had her nose buried in it, reading out factoids that helped her build a case in his favor. She tried to share her revived faith with her sister, who would have none of it.

“Stop,” she’d snap. “You’re only making me miss Santa more.”

~ ~ ~

The friends we are visiting in Mozambique – the same ones we stayed with in Cambodia years ago – keep moving to far-flung places. They used to live across the street from us, and the friendship between the adults and the children of our two families has endured since they left Paris, for many reasons, but certainly aided by the fact that we keep traveling to visit them almostSanta_in_Africa everywhere they light. As we prepared for this adventure together, I brought up the subject of Santa Claus. Were there still believers amongst us?

It turns out – to my surprise – there were. Two believers, the younger one for certain, the older probably just hanging in for the gifts. I’d alleviated the problem of carrying Santa’s goodies for our kids to Africa, but now I had a new one. Would the girls spill the beans?

When I brought it up, Short-pants grinned and started hopping around, singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town. This was just the excuse she needed to carry on believing. Buddy-roo scowled and crossed her arms. I braced myself for the if-you-hadn’t-told-us-we-wouldn’t-have-to-pretend retort. But instead her pout turned into a smile.

“Does that mean Santa will bring me presents in Africa, too?”

~ ~ ~

The flight was long, six hours to Dubai and another ten to Johannesburg. I can’t tell you how many hours we were in a car, either driving through Kruger Park admiring wild animals, or making our way across pot-holed roads or winding in and out of the dangerously crazy Mozambique traffic to get to our friends home in Maputo. We held our breath and crossed our fingers at the Mozambique border, hoping that the valid-for-6-months passport rule we read about on-line wouldn’t keep Short-pants out of the country, since hers is a temporary one, expiring in three months. Turns out it was a non-issue, or the charm offensive worked, as everyone got a visa and made it into the country. That our load of loot was light helped a lot; we meant it when we said we had nothing to declare.

Or I might declare one or two things: That I wish every one of you a merry Christmas. I hope your holiday is warm – if not in temperature, like ours, certainly in spirit. And no matter how far Santa’s reindeer have to travel to find you, may you be there together with the people you love most.