Dec 31 2011

Nothing Doing

We hover around the wood stove. Its cylinder drum radiates a fierce heat if you stand too close, but still it’s not enough to warm the entire room. We live mostly in this room, the main room of our country house, venturing outside only to acquire more firewood or to go the neighbor’s bench to tap into their wi-fi network. Unless you’re near the fire, you might as well be upstairs, or outside. It’s cold, and raw.

De-facto installed an electric heater in the new room in the back of the house – the guest room – so that the girls could have a warm place to sleep. The first night we were here they gutted it out in sleeping bags in the loft. I didn’t like the fact that I could see my breath when I was tucking them in, but that loft is the kid’s world and Short-pants especially was determined to sleep there.

At the country house our sleep is sound and heavy. We wake naturally, without any alarm, a luxurious break from the get-them-off-to-school morning grind. I rise and make my way downstairs to stoke the stove. De-facto has made a science of stuffing it full and closing the vents for a slow burn all night long. I have been chastised to save the thickest logs for these overnights. In the daytime, we burn smaller wood and the floorboards we removed to create the loft in the room that’s now too cold to sleep in.

The coffee press produces its black elixir, mixed with milk steamed in a dented saucepan on our beat-up three-burner cooking stove. The mug warms my hands as I sip from it, staring out the window at the wet trees. If it weren’t raining, if the sky were blue and the ground dry, I’d go out and prune the grapes and cut back the rose bushes. De-facto could climb up on the roof and reorder the misplaced tiles that are causing the gentle drip-drop in our bedroom. But it is raining, and I don’t even mind. The rain quiets us and turns us inward, the right spirit for the end of the year reflection and assessment.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo stumble out of their slumber, rubbing their eyes and scratching their bed-heads. Their pajamas reveal knobby ankles and long, thin forearms; their country house clothes are all just a bit too small for them. Things gets dirty and ruined so easily here, it’s become the stopping-off place between their good “city clothes” and the good will. They look like urchins, or something out of a bleak Dicken’s story.

I make them a tartine with butter and honey, and heat up some pain au raisin from the bakery. More milk is warmed, this time to make hot chocolate. The futon couch has been moved so it’s right next to the wood stove. We sit on it together. We don’t talk: it’s too early for words or it’s too quiet for words or else they just aren’t necessary. We stare at the stove, listening to it pop and crackle, listening to the rain against the glass panes, the dripping faucet, the creaking and groaning of the house. We sit like this for a long time, doing nothing but staring and listening.

It’s a lost art, the art of doing nothing, ill-practiced these days in our world filled with 24/7 news sweeps, iPhones that ding in the night and a constant stream of feeds and posts we’re supposed to like or not. People sleep less, rush more. We are compelled always to be busy at something. To do nothing is to stand still against the rush of activity in which the world is so seriously engaged. Productivity and efficiency and impact – these are the measures of success. But are they the best measures of contentment?

At home, it’s hard to do nothing. There’s always something calling: things that need to be straightened, organized, fixed, cleaned, started or finished. Not that there aren’t plenty of projects at this country house, but when it’s cold and rainy, most of them can’t be tackled. And since (up until now) we haven’t installed an internet connection, the distractions of email, social networking and other web activity disappear. There’s empty time and space, with no urgency to fill it.

Eventually there were words. A description of last night’s dream. A question about the smoke from the fireplace. A remark about how nice it is to have nothing to do. De-facto stirred upstairs – there is no insulation between the floors so you can hear every word, every footstep – we listened to him groan out of bed and run through his morning yoga poses before he trampled down the stairs and turned the corner into the kitchen to catch the three of us there, cuddled up on the couch, by the fire, doing nothing.

“What are we doing?” he said, grinning at us.
“Nothing,” said Buddy-roo.
“Are we happy?”
“Yes,” said Short-pants.

The country house isn’t my favorite winter destination. In the spring when the days lengthen and the sun is warm, it is much more pleasant. In the summer, there are soft grassy lawns and swings and blackberries to harvest. We leave the doors open and run in and out of the house in flip-flops. In the autumn, the temperature is still gentle and the crisp smell of leaves and the promise of Halloween summon a unique country house mood. But in winter, it’s damp and raw, rainy and windy. The house takes days to heat up. It always feels like the stones begin to retain the enough heat to go without double sweaters just as we’re about to close the house to head home.

Yet it is in this condition that perhaps we learn the most from this old stone homestead, when it draws us in and requires us to wait and watch the weather, when it offers us nothing but a few moments to slow down our thoughts and hear them without the clutter and hurry-up of our day-to-day routines. What I love about the country house is how it asks us to do nothing, and, when that’s what we do, there’s nothing else like it.


Jun 23 2011

All that Noise

I stood at the curb, waving goodbye as Buddy-roo’s face pressed against the window in a crying grimace. That would be the very last image I’d ever have of her – this is what I told myself as I walked away – if they got in a car accident on their drive to or from the country house. This is a morbid thought, I know, but don’t we all have them occasionally? I think this is how you handle a suppressed fear – the one you know is irrational but somehow it’s still lurking there, just under the surface, polluting an otherwise optimistic view of life.

They were getting a late start, later than De-facto had hoped, and I knew that when they returned on Sunday he’d opt to leave even later to avoid the end-of-weekend traffic jam outside of Paris. But thinking of him driving by himself, so late at night, the two girls sleeping in the back, makes me just that little bit nervous – not enough to try to talk him out of going, but enough to let a few morbid thoughts squeeze their way into my colorful imagination.

I’d failed to pack Buddy-roo’s favorite doudou and pillow for her to have with her in the car, this was the original cause for her torrent of tears. The car was parked too far away from home to return to fetch the prized items, she’d have to do without. Then she realized that I wasn’t accompanying them to the country and this became her main beef. There was nothing I could do to console her; I knew the only answer was for De-facto to simply drive away. But that didn’t make it a very easy departure, for any of us.

Within a few blocks, however, the lump in my throat disintegrated and I regained my clarity and you could even say there was a little spring in my step: a contained enthusiasm about the idea of two nights – and full day in between them – to be all alone in my own home.

It’s not that I don’t get time to myself during the course of a regular day (though it never seems to be enough), but it’s impossible to get a long stretch of uninterrupted and unaccompanied hours in my own apartment. I have to be in my studio, or at a café, or away on business – and I do use that time to resource myself – but there’s nothing like a weekend of absolute solitude in the comfort of your very own home. If you live alone, you might not appreciate that sheer joy of this solitude – or maybe you do – but I can tell you with two children and a partner, I forget what tranquility is like, except perhaps late at night when I’m too tired to appreciate it fully.

I love how you walk in the door and it’s absolutely still. Everything is just as you’ve left it. There is no wooden train track encircling the kitchen island with tenuously-constructed bridges tipping over each time you try to move from the refrigerator to the sink. There are no coats left in the hall, no shoes by the couch, no upside-down-and-open books and thin strips of just-cut colored paper and partially-finished spontaneous art-projects left on the table, the floor, the stairs or anywhere in your sight. I know these are the accoutrements of a creative childhood, and I believe I indulge and encourage them sufficiently. But just once in a while, it’s nice to have the house left how I like it, without having to nag anyone to get it that way. This only happens when they’re gone.

Then there’s the quiet. But don’t you love the sound of their feet pounding down the stairs, shouts of “Mama!” delivered with the same enthusiasm as if they hadn’t seen you for weeks, even though you walked them to school this morning? Yes. And. The fact that what’s usually playing in the background at home is the constant chatter of children, the talking and telling and an occasional tantrum, the sound of a hundred plastic pieces being dumped out of a bin onto the floor; it’s all one continuous loop of noise. I get that it’s good noise, it’s the noise of a happy family. But sometimes, it’s just nice to be happy without it, too.

The weekend was all mine. I did go out with some friends, knowing that if I had too much to drink, the following morning’s discomfort could be slept away without having to negotiate the manufacturing of pancakes. Yet I exercised discipline, because I was so excited to have a day to myself to do things alone in my own home, that I didn’t want to spoil this precious opportunity by being even the least bit hungover.

I went for hours without talking with anyone. I talked to myself, out loud, without anyone thinking I was nuts. I worked a little, but not too much. I wrote a little. I did what I wanted, and I did it when I wanted. A little slice-a-heaven.

This weekend coming up, it turns out, I’ll get another break from all that noise. This time I’m the one going away: I’ll slide through the Chunnel to London to attend Cybermummy, a conference for British mums who blog. I didn’t plan these consecutive escapes from the girls (and there’s even another one coming up) and I know I should take advantage of another noiseless weekend without remorse. I should be more excited about going. I am looking forward to the reunion with several of the fab femmes I met last year at the BlogHer conference. But packing my suitcase tonight, I looked out at the mess of shoes and books and toys strewn about my living room, and I heard the girls upstairs opening and closing drawers, changing in and out of play-dresses and costumes, acting out the wild stories or singing songs they’ve made up on the spot, and I thought, I don’t mind it so much their precious, playful noise.

I might even miss it.


Apr 22 2011

Country Rhythm

She set up the chairs at the edge of the property, just as the sun bent low in the sky. The sunset was ahead and she wanted a front row seat. The invitation was so clear, so soft, and because it was issued without whining words or direct demand, all the more irresistible. The dishes could wait. The evening chores – scanning the lawn for tools left out, closing barn doors and latching the shutters – this could happen later. There’d be plenty of time before it got dark. There was a moment, there, waiting: Please sit with me, she said without words. Please sit with me and say goodbye to the sun and to this beautiful day.

The rhythm of the country house is a welcome break from the hectic pace at home in Paris and the creative chaos of last week at CREA. Here we slow down. There are fewer interruptions. We are alone as a family. We are focused on the basics, occupying ourselves with simpler concerns: What to eat? Are you warm enough? Shall we go for a walk? The kids are even freer here than last week, the country provides fields and forests for exploring and escaping. They run in and out of the house, down the road to see the sheep or the neighbor’s dog without the chaperone that is required in the city. This is freedom for De-facto and me, too; since we are not needed as escorts, we are left to finish that long chapter or nod off into a late afternoon nap.

Oh but if the country house were just that: long lunches and lazy afternoons, reading thick volumes and dozing off mid-sentence. That is the ideal country house, one that might be pictured in Homes & Gardens: replete with perfectly distressed tables and painted wicker chairs. But anyone who owns a country house – not just a second house or a vacation home – but a fixer-upper country house, knows that there’s little time to rest and repose. A country house is mostly work.

This morning, the blinding sun on the staircase reveals the fact that I have not swept since last October. The mice who’ve so kindly kept an eye on things since we were here in February left us many little presents on the shelves where we store the plates and glassware. All must be washed and replaced, I’ll clean it now but I know this task will be repeated in July. The lawn is knee-high and the lawnmower needs to be repaired. The garden is to be tilled and planted, the weeds plucked from the back stone terrace. The cobwebs cleared from every corner of every room in the house.

Then there’s the laundry. Several loads from the suitcases we brought from Italy. Three more loads of clothes and sheets we could not wash last winter because it was too cold and damp for them to dry. In the wash now, a load of blankets that smelled of fireplace smoke after the long, locked-in winter. If I had to choose my Sisyphean task, I know what it would be; in front of me all the laundry to do, and more laundry.

We have no dryer at the country house, so doing the wash requires meteorological knowledge. On a warm sunny day, it takes 3-4 hours for clothes to dry on the line, an hour less if there’s a brisk wind. When it rains, the drying time could be up to 3 days – and in the meantime the cumbersome and not particularly aesthetic drying rack becomes the centerpiece of the house. Some say make hay while the sun shines, I say wash clothes. Five loads yesterday. More today.

Buddy-roo runs into the kitchen, screeching with glee after making a trip to the neighbors to feed their chickens. In her outstretched hand, a large brown egg, hatched overnight, a gift that will become a fresh omelet. Short-pants returns after an hour in her forest; she’s been sitting on the discussion bench (she named it) knitting, and she returns to show me her work. She’s getting good, the rows of purple yarn are entirely uniform; I can’t see even one dropped stitch. It is the beginning of a hat, she says, and for the first time I see it could be something to wear.

I can hear De-facto in the loft of the “new room,” a hopeful room we’ve been renovating for years. He’s fashioning a windowsill out of an old slab of oak he found in the barn, telling the girls how reusing this piece of wood means we didn’t have to kill any more trees. They run to the barn to find more wood that might save a tree, but on the way they forget their mission, caught up instead in the chasing of dandelion fuzz that is dancing with the gusts of wind. The breeze is brisk, it stirs up the pollen and makes us all sneeze, but it sure to dry the laundry well and fast. This might even leave me some time to read and rest.

This post is about nothing, really. It has no point to make. It’s about the day-to-day of the country house. It’s about simple tasks and basic pleasures. It’s about being in nature. It’s about the kind of manual labor that frees the mind to wander. It’s about being away from the distractions of the world and folding into my family. It’s about no other moment than this one, this moment now, taking its place in the string of moments and memories that will always be part of our peaceful escapes to the country.

Or maybe that is the point.


Dec 29 2009

Garbo Days

You know I love those two little rug-rat creatures of mine. They furnish dozens of adorable moments each day, doing or saying something funny or sweet. The simple extension one of their peach-soft hands upward toward me, a gesture of such complete trust, is sometimes all it takes to wet my eyes and thrust me into a state in awe. How did I ever have such beautiful children? I must have done something good.

However there are just as many dozen moments in the day when I would just like them to please be quiet and go away and leave me alone. If you listen closely, you can hear me parrot Greta Garbo under my breath, “I want to be alone.
I want to be alone.”

I’m not the first woman to know this paradox, and I won’t be the last.

You can imagine, then, the gladness and joy I experienced when one of the presents under the Christmas tree for Mère Noel was De-facto’s offer to take Short-pants and Buddy-roo to the country for a few days – without me.

He knows my fondness for going to the country house wanes in winter. It’s a lot of work to open and close the house in the warmer months, but in the cold weather that work is augmented by all things that must be undone and then done again to protect pipes and water tanks. Not to mention arriving to an unheated house. It takes at least two days for the wood stove to truly warm the walls and you have to let the fire die before you leave. The visit, then, is book-ended by hours of hovering and shivering and wearing mittens inside. My idea of nothing to do.

Late on Christmas Day afternoon I shut the trunk and waved as they drove away, and I have been alone, in my home, without another creature stirring for four days. Four days of solitude. Four days of freedom.

The quiet that stretches its waking arms throughout the apartment is delicious. I hear only the muffled voices of people in the street, an occasional sound of a neighbor in the hall, a nearby church bell ringing. No pattering feet. No screaming and crying and “Mama, watch this!” No voices in stereo vying for attention.

There are no marbles, pet-shops-creatures, Barbie shoes or other small, unidentified pieces of plastic left on the floor to torture my bare morning feet. No toys or dirty stuffed animals, no pretend stores, schools, or cars constructed of chairs, pillows and blankets to navigate when crossing my living room. Absolutely no sign of that big doll, often splayed on the couch. I’ve relegated her to a far corner upstairs.

No interruptions when I’m in the middle of something; that means complete privacy during all ablutions and eliminations.

It’s paradise.

What to do with all that time?

There’s reading, an attempt to make a dent in that pile of books on the bed table. There’s writing, on-line and off. There’s sorting and organizing those papers and things that pile up. There’s catching up with my electronic life, clearing out emails and diving deep into the blogosphere. (Ah, the sweet pleasure of unlimited time to click-through; to tumble deep into my curiosity and then into the web of information to satisfy it, without watching the clock.) There’s sleeping in, until noon. There’s complete autonomy. Decisions are all up to me. One day, I didn’t even change out of my pajamas.

I have remembered what is too easily forgotten: hours without boundary. This only fortifies my belief in the importance of solitude. I have never minded being alone. I think both my mother and father made an asserted effort to instill in me – especially, as a youngest sibling – the capacity to be content with my own company. I’m grateful; it means I’m rarely lonely. But this conditioning has its price. Without sufficient private alone time, I become awfully grumpy.

Greta Garbo is quoted as saying, “I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said, ‘I want to be left alone.’ There is all the difference.”

Yes. Just because I’m so delighted to be alone does not mean I’d seek permanent separation from my family; if they were gone for good I’d be shattered. I just want, from time to time, to be left alone. The sense of peace that has come over me this weekend proves the value of such solitude; I feel grounded and calm, like the old me.

A text message from De-facto just a few hours ago tells me they’re on their way home. I must admit I’m a bit terrified. The order and solace of my home will be broken, an eruption of laughter and play will bounce off these walls again. I will have to readjust.

At the end of the scene in the movie Grand Hotel, where Garbo utters those words that haunted her for the rest of her career (watch the clip here) she makes a phone call to find out what happened at the ballet. “They didn’t miss me at all,” she whispers, in despair.

It’s probably not today – since I’m pretty sure those two little girls will run strong and fast into my embrace when they return – but I know in a few years time, they won’t even miss me at all. Then maybe I might not appreciate the solitude so much. But for now, how lovely to have been left alone for a few days.

It makes all the difference.