May 25 2012

Walking into Fifty

The Camino rises and falls from the hills of Navarra into Rioja, and my mood follows suit. The swing from elation or the simplest contentment – Camino bliss – to feelings of regret or frustration is a pendulum wide. What is it about me that thinks my Camino has to be perfect? I do this in the rest of my life, too, set up these grand expectations and then kick myself along the way for not doing it well enough, whatever it is. I forget that as a rule, things in my life are pretty damn good. Good enough, and then some.
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I arrived at the edge of a small town – it was Los Arcos – after walking 20k in the steady rain, steady when it wasn’t torrential, which it was on a few different occasions during the day. I was drenched, even with good rain gear, but not yet tired. I debated whether to keep going to Torres del Rio, about 7k further. As I came into the center of town, another downpour drowned out all thoughts of continuing. I’d reserved a sweet single room, it had a shared bathroom, but that’s why it was only 20€, this was a good deal not to be passed up and besides, even if I wasn’t weary, I was wet.

The room was the size of a postage stamp, with a narrow chastity bed like I had in my college dorm. Its best feature was a brand-spanking new space heater, over which I could drape my wet clothes for quick drying. After a hot shower, I sat on the bed and thought, what am I doing here? I should have kept walking. I didn’t feel like writing, reading or napping. I was restless, even angry at myself for stopping. It descended upon me, that sort of funk, the four walls of the already too tiny room closing in on me. So I did what any pilgrim who’s logged 20k during a day does, went out to walk some more, around the town.

A church bell rang, so I followed the sound to the main square. I pressed the door tentatively, not knowing if it was open or not – many are only open in the evenings for mass – and it swung inward and allowed me to enter. The first thing in view as you enter the church, its elaborate organ, the pipes painted blue and gold. My mouth gaped at the sight of it. In another church, on another day, I heard the organ being tuned. I wondered if this one sounded as rich as it looked. I walked to my customary place, 1/3 of the way back from the altar, to the left, and took a seat.

And then, tears. For no particular reason. Maybe for every reason. Tears for all those people gone, but not forgotten. Tears for all my disappointments, and for the people I’ve disappointed. Tears for the things I didn’t become, and for the things that don’t become me. Tears for being alone. Even though I mean to be alone, I like to be alone, these are tears that remind me, despite all the good company on the Camino, and in my life, I am alone – we are all alone with ourselves.

It’s been ages since I cried like that, with the floodgates wide open. It made me feel so much better.

Maybe all I needed was a good cry.

~ ~ ~

After all that contemplative crap, I needed a beer. There was a bar across the square from the church. The cast of characters inside a gang of pilgrims, people I recognized from walking, but hadn’t yet talked with and wasn’t sure if I wanted to. Heavy rock music was blaring, boisterous men strained to talk over it, mostly about themselves. I regretted the decision to stop there, but I’d already ordered. I read the blackboard beside the bar, advertising a pilgrim menu for 12€. I debated whether to stay for it or not. The rain outside made the decision for me.

A rope across the doorway leading to the cave of the bar was unhooked, and the assembled pilgrims filed down the narrow staircase one by one to the dining room. I took a seat at a random table and was joined by five others. Miraculously, the boisterous men opted out of the pilgrim meal service, or sat elsewhere. My table was a mix of nationalities, two lovely German women who would become important touchstones for me over the next days, a gentle Australian who’d walked the Mekong, two other German men, one of whom was an 81-year-old retired ship captain celebrating his rebirthday. Nineteen years ago – to the day – he’d fallen in the ice-cold water between two boats, and it had taken fifteen minutes before either crew realized he was not on either ship. He’d been rescued, and he remains in a state of gratitude, even after all these years, for what he called his second life.
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We alternated between private conversations and full table storytelling, and the dinner was accompanied by good questions, thoughtful answers and general spirit of conviviality. The ship captain wanted to treat us all to an after dinner digestive, I suggested the local (we were still in Navarra) specialty, my favorite patxaran. Our round red glasses klinked together festively, overriding any of my earlier angst about stopping and staying here for the night.

~ ~ ~

Each day a different path with different views, different thoughts, different moods. Up and down and around into another dusty town, backpacks laid in a row next to a fountain where pilgrims rest their feet and fill their water bottles, village cafes brimming with friendly hikers. Over the next days I would run into those dinner companions and check in. How are you feeling? How are your feet? How is your Camino? I’d stop and chat for a while, but walk on alone, and let my mind wander – I prefer to walk by myself – although once I spent a good part of the day’s kilometers beside a thoughtful Irishman, swapping stories. It wasn’t so much that we were talking, more like we were thinking out loud with each other, reflecting on reflections otherwise interior. It was one of my nicest days walking the Camino.
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Except they’re all nice. In the rain, in the sun, the cool morning or the brutal late afternoon heat. Every day is good, even when it’s not so good. You get where you’re going, and the right things happen to you when you get there.

Yesterday, another church stop, a needed break from the midday sun. As I stepped inside I heard music – often there is some kind of classical or choral soundtrack piped in – but this one was slightly imperfect, like someone was practicing. In one of the pews, an open guitar case lay just beside a pilgrim’s pack, and in the back of the church, in the dark, someone strumming. I sat, where I always go to sit, and listened, as the guitarist played song after song and then he started to sing. Sometimes, when I knew the words, I sang along, in harmony with him.

Tears came again, fast now; I am tender these days. The walk, the time this walk has given me, puts my real person closer to the surface. She is touched more easily, her joy comes as instantly as her pain. But I have made this walk just for this, to access her. This time, I can report, the tears were glad ones: I was so fucking happy, in that perfect little moment, the one I didn’t orchestrate or expect.

~ ~ ~

Today I turn fifty. Such a bold number, and it came up on me like lightening. The two digits sit beside me, not quite smirking, grinning. I grin back. I started the Camino with a question, something like how might I make the most out of the rest of my life. Along the way, thoughts about how to make less of it, how to simplify, weed out the unnecessary, make room for the things that deserve to be made the most of. Coming now to another turn, wondering how to make nothing of it, and let it make itself. I’m not even halfway through the Camino, but just starting to open up to what it has to show me. But I am right where I’m supposed to be, and I think understanding that is perfectly good enough.


Apr 13 2012

The Façade

I had a kitchen pass last night, allowing for an after-the-kids-are-in-bed rendezvous with a girlfriend. We sat beneath the outdoor heaters on the terrace of my favorite café and slowly made our way through a carafe of Côte du Rhone.

The meet-up was not easy to organize. Family commitments and work schedules put our calendars at odds. After a half dozen back-and-forth emails, we realized our lives as professionals and mothers wouldn’t permit a daytime coffee or even a pre-dinner aperitif. The only way to meet was after the children were fed and bathed and tucked into their sheets. This suited me, I like the feeling of escaping my domestic responsibilities, kissing those tender foreheads and pulling up the covers, closing the door behind me, walking out to the street where unattached people navigate, spontaneously, the free hours of their evenings. Now we, too, were among them, on the terrace, sipping our wine, and as women unhampered with children we could catch up and talk about our lives.

What did we talk about? Our children. Whether the French school was right for them, the pros and cons of other education systems, whether a different school in Paris is more suited to cultivating their creative promise. We talked about the little quirks and charms of their emerging personalities, our worries and hopes for them as they grow into little people. In essence, we talked about all the things that we’d escaped from in order to sit at that café together.

Such a conversation inevitably tumbles into the stream of the parenting theories and practices. Last year it was the controversial Tiger Mom, terrorizing her children to perform. This year the spotlight hones in on the French method, contrasting the resulting polite, obedient, no-fuss-at-the-table children with the insolent Veruca-Salt-like youngsters holding their American parents hostage. There’s a lot to be said for it.

My friend is French, but because of stints living in foreign countries, she shares my understanding of being other, as in an expat living abroad, and shies away from stereotypes. Rightly so. They help us describe things in broad strokes, but neglect the nuances that most subject matter deserves. She argued that there are also French parents held hostage by their children. All those French mums in the park will tell you how firmly they parent, but is it that really that way when you peek into their salon? She wasn’t so sure.

“Every parent has a façade,” she said.

* * *

At least once a day I have a moment of maternal despair. It happens quietly, my head lowered while I stack plates in the dishwasher, my back to the family as I fold their laundry, or those first minutes, café-au-lait cupped in my hands after I’ve pushed them out the door to go to school, sighing with relief as their voices circle down the staircase and out of our building. Yes, yes, nothing can eradicate the love and laughter my children have injected into my life, but there is also the un-joyous part of parenting, a tedious string of commands to get up, clean up, wash up, finish up. Then there are those moments when the required enthusiasm and encouragement I must conjure up is, well, a façade, because I am, mentally elsewhere, in my own creative world, and when I want them to be elsewhere, not underfoot, not speaking to me, asking of me, wanting of me.

Do my children notice? Probably. But they seem to appreciate my maternal efforts nonetheless, and they can – and will – get me back for this when they are teenagers.

I tear through the moods of mothering, juggling what I feel with what I’m supposed to feel. Occasionally I sense the tough love of the tiger mom in me. Sometimes I believe I have taken on the practical approach that has now been categorized, as least for the Americans, as French. Other times I’m as indulgent as you can get, on the floor playing with them, giving them choices, watching their imagination flower unhindered. It’s not a very consistent measure. Some days the house must be ordered, I cannot stand to look at their clutter. The next week, I’ll leave the blanketed fort that’s been constructed between the couch and bookshelf standing for days, with its hidden treasures of trinkets and toys and make-believe and odds-and-ends stuffed beneath.

* * *

We all show ourselves to the world by way of the different roles we play. Our professions and familial positions define us broadly: teacher, lawyer, aunt, parent. Adjectives are added to narrow in on the quality of how we execute those roles: lenient, strict, engaged, detached. Battle lines are drawn. You’re a stay-at-home mom or a working mother. (Or a working-while-staying-at-home mother?) You’re a breast-feeder or a bottle-giver. Family bed or let-them-cry-in-the-cradle. It’s easy to glance sideways and make a judgment. I do it. Everyone does.

Sometimes I am certain, and possibly even a bit full of myself, reporting on this blog a conversation or a conflict I feel well handled, constructing a mosaic of proud parenting moments. Other times I disclose – not always without hesitation, and yet these posts are the most powerful – my faiblesses, my #fail moments, my vulnerabilities and obsessions, or the angry rants that seem ridiculous in retrospect but were, apparently, too impassioned for me to contain. When I write about it, I get to construct a façade of who I think I am as a mother, good and bad.

The real façade, perhaps, is that any woman is one kind of mother. The rhythms of our days and weeks and the passages of our lives stretch us across the boundaries of prescribed parenting styles. When I am not overworked, I am more creatively engaged. When I am stressed, I am stricter, firmer, even impatient. When I’m tired, I’m laissez-faire. When I’m inspired, I bake heart-shaped cookies. As I straddle the abyss between my ideal self and my real self, it helps to accept the fact that I might be every kind of mom. Except to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, I’m just their mom, and they seem pretty devoted. Maybe that’s where I should look when taking measure of myself as a mother.