Feb 14 2013

Valentimes

Last night, a frenzy of jet-lag induced productivity resulted in a batch of just-in-time handmade Valentines. At about 9 pm, when I should have been coaxing Short-pants and Buddy-roo to brush their teeth and crawl into bed, I remembered that we hadn’t made any heart-shaped cards or messages for their papa. Out came the construction paper, Mr. Sketch markers, magazines and scissors. The dining table was instantly covered in scraps.

De-facto had left for a week-long trip that morning, almost exactly 24 hours after I’d returned from a week-long trip, giving us just enough time to hand off the baton of childcare and bring me up to speed on the upcoming homework assignments, rehearsals, birthday parties and the rest of the long Buddy-roo_Vcardlist of social or scholastic responsibilities. It was barely enough time to reconnect, and not enough time for me to get those girls’ fingers in glue and glitter to make Valentine’s cards without him knowing, so that we could slip them into his suitcase.

Instead, the meeting of touch and tech, as their handmade masterpieces met the glasstop of the scanner and went digital so they could be attached to emails that zapped out of my inbox this morning. Once the girls were in bed, I made my own handmade cards for the them, scanned the one I’d crafted for De-facto and attached it to an email, pasted everyone’s head on a couple of Jib-Jab cards. By now I’d passed the window of drowsiness when I could fallen into a sound night’s sleep. My second wind had kicked in, and with it I scurried around the house in the dark, the girls snoring audibly upstairs in their rooms as I moved from love messages to work emails, scrambling to clean out that in-box, to catch up from being gone, to try and get ahead so my time wouldn’t be so crunched at the end of the week.

I’m still trying to make peace with time. Each day I wrestle with tendencies that have plagued me my whole life: overestimating what I can do and underestimating how long it will take. On top of that I’m greedy. I say yes more than I should, but it’s hard to turn down interesting opportunities. Then, when all my plates are overloaded and I’m barely keeping them spinning in the air, I throw myself back against my pillow, pressing the knuckles of my hand to my forehead, lamenting my foolish busy-ness and longing for a string of slower days with nothing to do.

When I was walking the Camino I slowed down, and so did time. It took all the hours of the day – or most of them – to get from when resting place to the next. In between there were only the distractions of nature, and the clock_bellysound of my own footfall. Today, rushing home after dropping Buddy-roo at school, chatting out loud to myself about the things I planned to get done before noon, grumbling about the cold rain, the lights in the kitchen that need to be fixed, my suitcase on the floor in the hallway, still unpacked after two days home, a surge of impatience swelled in my chest. Forced to wait at a busy crosswalk, I looked down at my boots, the worn, brown hikers that carried me 550 kilometers last year. They reminded me to breathe. Sometimes I wonder if all the presence and steadiness I gained from walking the Camino has already worn off. I’m not sure I expected it to change me entirely, but I felt different when I returned. Then my world of work and family wrapped itself around me again, many patterns remain.

Except the winding up takes a little longer than it used to. The dervish in me spins out a little sooner. My recovery is faster. All it took today was looking down at my feet on the pavement, and the miles of track and road and grass that I’ve covered stretched like a wide wake behind me, a slow and welcome drag on the engine that motors me forward.

I pulled those boots out from the back of my closet because I’m breaking them in again, reminding my feet about how they fit. And a month from tomorrow, I’ll travel back to Astorga, where I left off last summer. I plan to finish the Camino, ending in Santiago on Easter weekend. Not one single professional assignment has landed in March, and De-facto is willing to pilot the household alone again for a couple of weeks while I take time to finish what I started.

Which might be why I stayed up till the wee hours last night, making cut-out hearts and pasting and coloring, making Valentimes, as Short-pants and Buddy-roo – and just about every little kid you know – used to say. De-facto doesn’t care about the holiday, there’s nothing Hallmark about him, but I had to let him know. This is a guy who, time after time, never stands in the way of me doing what I want to do. He gets to be my Valentime. back_of_Vcard

This morning, shrills of delight from the girls as they found feathered heart pens by their breakfast bowls, heart shaped lollipops and my home-made cards hidden in the pockets of their school bags. Short-pants handed over some Valentines she’d made last weekend, pink and red and peppered with crooked but affectionate words. She motioned for me to turn the card over to see the back, on which she’d drawn a laptop computer with a heart in place of the Apple logo.

“Because you spend a lot of time on your computer,” she said.

I winced. No mother wants this to be how her child remembers her.

“But mama, you love to write.”

I’ve never been a huge fan of Valentine’s Day. I never snubbed it – who wants to be left out of the holiday of hearts? This year I think I’ve figured out why it’s worth celebrating. Hopefully, the people we love know it because we show them in little ways, every day. Valentine’s Day is when you take that extra bit of time to slow down and make sure you tell them.


Nov 15 2010

End Pieces

In the world of mots doux, the plot thickens as Short-pants attempts to discreetly verify the source of her mysterious love note. Last week she reported seeing the alleged scribe, Jean-luc, using a notebook with pink paper, the same paper as the little note she received last month. “He really had a pink-paged notebook?” It’s unusual, she agreed, but she’d seen it with her own eyes.

“Does this make you think he wrote the note, then?” She squinted one eye, displaying her suspicion. “First I need to see if there’s a page with the corner ripped out. Then I have to see if the handwriting matches.” She ran upstairs to her room and returned with a copy of Encyclopedia Brown, holding it up like a shingle she was about to mount above our door. “I’m in detective mode.”

I don’t bring it up too often but I want to stay plugged-in to how she’s feeling about the whole saga. Every once in a while I ask, as nonchalantly as possible, “Any further developments in the case of the pink love note?” No, she says, supplying me with the same status report as before, or musing about the stealth ways she might obtain more clues to solve the mystery. For now, she seems more engaged in the curiosity of the puzzle than the romance.

I suppose I’ve made peace with the maitresse after our appointment, and Buddy-roo’s struggles with the schoolwork seem to have (mostly) subsided. Reluctantly I must admit that it was probably just a period of adjustment for my little one, a passage in scholastic responsibility, leaving behind the days of symbolic homework and entering the world of the real deal. She seems to have accepted (sort of) the fact that there’s something (a lot) to do every night, so doing homework is no longer a three-hour procedure (usually). The defiant fits and helpless tears have diminished from nightly to weekly. Her flash-quiz scores have upped from twos and threes (out of ten) to sevens and eights. Her teacher still writes attention au soins! in red ink; it takes all the restraint I have not to write back that of course Buddy-roo’s work would be clean and neat and without messy smudges if she wasn’t required to use a fountain pen. Fortunately (for Buddy-roo) my capacity to be snarky in French is not yet fully developed.

The 10-day Toussaint vacation helped, giving her a break from the grind, and a chance to catch up. De-facto quizzed her daily on the 130 spelling words she’s been asked to memorize (so far) this fall, in anticipation of the full-on first trimester bilan – two weeks of daily tests on all the work they’ve covered since school started. It still feels like a lot of work for a second-grader to tackle, or for me to help her manage. In the end, it’s an adjustment for all of us, isn’t it?

The chilly, gray days of November have settled in and wrapped around us. There are some good aspects: it’s an R month of oysters and the approaching holiday season, though not without its drawbacks, at least offers the promise of warmth, cheer and well-spiked egg-nog. But the mornings are far too dim, night falls way before suppertime and the cold drafts slip too easily through our ancient dormer windows. The courtyard seems especially somber these days; summer’s laughter barely an echo as we hunker down for the winter, bracing ourselves for the end of another year and all the changes that a new one will bring.


Oct 15 2010

The Love Note

She handed me the small sheet of paper, torn out of a notebook. It was creased from being folded and unfolded. I tried to make out what was written, the paper was ripped in such a way that none of the phrases were complete. Was it a code of some sort? It looked like it could be a practice test or part of someone’s homework, scratched in the deliberate fashion of a schoolchild working with the obligatory stylo-plume fountain pen.

“No mama,” Short-pants instructed, “turn it over.” On the other side, more words from (apparently) the same stylo-plume, but this message was clear: proclamations of her beauty and expressions of affection. Tu est super belle and bisous d’amour. The signature, from a boy in her class – call him Jean-luc – was written in the middle of a big heart.

I remember the thrill of all my schoolgirl crushes. What’s-his-name loved me, which meant we wrote notes back and forth and maybe talked on the phone. But at the age of nine that was enough to be an official couple, even if we never saw each other outside of the confines of the school building or schedule. These torrid pre-teen relationships were mercurial, lasting sometimes only a few days before I.D. bracelets were returned and another boy was the objective of, if not my affection, at least my attention.

“It’s a love note from Jean-luc,” she preened. “Olivier, who sits at the desk next to mine, passed it over. He told me that if I asked Jean-luc about the note, he’ll deny it because he’s so shy.”

I know Jean-luc. Last year he was one of the four classmates with whom Short-pants was teamed to produce an exposé. He’s very smart, very quick, rather precocious. Shy is not a word I’d use to describe him. He is the class boy-geek, and Short-pants could be classified as the girl-geek. They do make a nice pair, if you think in stereotypes.

“Well anyway, I didn’t do anything because Melanie Martin says that you don’t tell a boy how you feel because it will embarrass him. You just have to show him.”

You gotta love Melanie Martin. She’s the heroine of With Love From Spain, a book about a family’s spring-break trip during which the mother visits old haunts from her college year abroad. This entails introducing her husband and children to an old flame, which goes over (mostly) well, especially for Melanie who develops a crush on the son of her mother’s old boyfriend. I love this book because it introduces ever-so-gently the nuances and complexities of old relationships-turned-friendships and how it all works when the past meets the present. The book, which Short-pants has read no less than a dozen times, was a gift from none other than the Fiesta Nazi, a woman who wants everyone to love Spain as much as she does. Aside from Melanie’s wisdom about show, don’t tell, it contains a number of valuable nuggets about life in another culture. Like this one: Spaniards don’t believe in bedtime; they believe in nighttime.

The next morning Short-pants brought up the love note again. “Do you think I should tell Jean-luc that I like him, too?” I gave her the standard answer-a-question-with-a-question response, “What do you think?” She paced around the kitchen island, mulling this over in an active meditation. “I could ask Olivier to tell him that I like him.”

Now I knew I was in tricky territory, I didn’t want to burst her love-bubble, but here was a chance to prepare her for one possibility: that just maybe the note wasn’t for real, that the note was a joke. On her.

“Why don’t you think it’s for real?” De-facto had asked me the night before. I explained my theory about a note on pink paper and how maybe some girls in the class don’t quite get Short-pants and this kind of a joke would be a typical response. “Yeah,” he said, after considering it, “much too crafty to be perpetuated by a male.”

Short-pants is a prime target for teasing. She’s a bit of a loner. At school, during the récré, she often rejects invitations to play with her peers. She’d rather wander around the courtyard and talk to herself. She is über-sweet, kind, empathetic, angelic. The fact that she’s so nice, to everyone, could work in her favor – so far I think it has – but I’m waiting for the day when the girls in her class are old enough to get mean, the way pre-adolescent girls can be so mean. Short-pants will be an easy one to bully.

The recent incident at Rutger’s University is an extreme case, but it’s served to raise awareness about how bullying is a real problem in our schools. Back in the day (my day) you didn’t talk about it, you certainly didn’t tell your parents, you just suffered. But I think the bullying is more severe now, and as parent, I feel compelled to watch for clues, even if it’s just the seeds of something that turns out to be a harmless prank. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. But I believe there’s an important distinction between being overprotective and preparing our children so they can fend for themselves.

“I think Melanie Martin had you headed down the right track,” I told her. Bolstering my argument with her favorite literary character couldn’t hurt. Deep breath. Then I said it: “Do you think Jean-luc really wrote the note?”

“I don’t know,” she said, pondering the possibility that he hadn’t, “it looks like his writing.”

I brought up the pink paper. She admitted this was a bit of a stretch.

“You never know, though,” I softened my blow, “maybe it was some scrap paper he found.”

She studied me, taking this all in.

“Maybe it is a real love note, maybe it’s not. But if I were you, I’d wait and see before playing your hand. If you start asking around, you’re giving away too much. If it’s not real, you save face. If it is real, then Jean-luc will have to work a bit harder to get you to swoon for him.”

“Melanie Martin is right!” She marched out of the kitchen, turning back to offer a quick but heartfelt, “thanks mama.”

I grabbed the edge of the butcher-block centerpiece of our kitchen, as if to steady myself for any and all victories and heartbreaks ahead. This is just a small love story. Or if it is couple of girls having fun at her expense, it’s only a mild teasing. The thing is, I do want her to know romance and to be open to its magic. I also hope she’ll learn to be discriminating and solid on her own two feet.

Short-pants came back into the kitchen. “What does swoon mean?”

“Look it up,” I said. This one, she can figure out on her own.