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.


Apr 20 2011

Big, Little Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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