Jul 27 2012

A Family Way

Driving west, the dry landscape lifted and then flattened. I recognized the terrain, and then the familiar towns, posted on road signs: Belorado, Burgos, Castrojeriz, Frómista, Carrión de los Condes, Sahagún. De-facto dumped us in the dusty town on the outskirts of León and drove away as we checked into our hotel, his bike strapped to the rack on the back of the car. He drove 45 clicks toward the sunset, to Astorga, where he parked the car and rode his bike back to us, arriving in time for dinner. That bike would spend three days in the basement of the hotel while De-Facto, Short-pants, Buddy-roo and I walked the Camino de Santiago together, as a family.

This was his birthday request, to give him and the girls a chance to see what it’s like to be on a the Camino. I divided what would have been not quite two days of walking on my own into three pieces, or roughly 15 kilometers each day, suitable, I hoped, for the legs and stamina of an 11 and a nearly 9-year-old. Even though I’d learned to trust the road and end up wherever you end up, with the girls in tow I thought it’d be smarter to map out our stops and reserve beds in advance. I even found an albergue that had small rooms with four beds, so they could experience the community feeling of the Camino but without the snoring and lack of privacy that is part of staying in a dormitory with 20+ beds. I also booked a night in an upmarket B&B, so we could have a little luxurious charm on our walk, too.

That first morning, sitting on the bed, I leaned over to tie my boots: Hello, old friends. I lifted my pack onto the table, turned and slipped my arms under the straps, content to have all the essentials close, on my back. I’d packed lighter than ever; we’d be walking only a few days and I needed to make room for the girls’ clothes. They had smaller daypacks – less than half the weight of what they carry to school in their cartables – to carry their own water, snacks, sandals and K-ways, in case of rain. Tucked in the side pocket of my pack were four pilgrim passports, three of them blank but ready for stamps.

Short-pants, whom we had to cajole and persuade through tears to join us for a 9k hike on my birthday weekend, turned out to be a most confident pilgrim. She often walked ahead of us, happy to be on her own. She insisted upon carrying her book – I’d limited her to only one – and occasionally tried to read it while she was walking. She never complained and wouldn’t tell me how sore her feet were until I asked. Even then, I think her feet hurt far more than she let us know.

The week before, we’d watched The Way, a movie about walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. In the film, each of the featured characters reveals a reason for being on the Camino, the objective they want to accomplish along the way. It was during the second day of our walk that Short-pants volunteered, during a moment she and I were alone, ahead of De-Facto and Buddy-roo, that she had two goals for the Camino.

“I want to stop picking my nose in public,” she announced, “and I want to stop yelling at my sister.”

Part of the Camino is the contemplation that comes from solitude and slowing down. Another part is the camaraderie and the exchanges with other pilgrims along the way. While Short-pants followed her instinct for self-reflection, Buddy-roo was busy making friends. At every stop, she’d strike up a conversation with fellow pilgrims. If we didn’t see them again, she’d speak of her new friends longingly, aching for another sighting. When we did happen to encounter familiar faces, she’d run up and greet them with full-bodied hugs. We hiked for an hour one morning with a Canadian man who was suffering multiple aches and pains from walking. The next day we met him again, at a roadside cantine at the end of a long, steep climb. She bolted over to him and threw her arms around his waist. He was startled at first, but when he realized it was Buddy-roo he surrendered fully to her healing affection. I bet that hug did more for him than the Advil, the sunblock or the pieces of sausage we’d shared with him the day before.

July is not an optimal month to be on the Camino. Afternoon temperatures soar, making it advisable to get up by sunrise and get on the trail early to walk in the cooler morning hours. On our final day – we actually walked 17k but didn’t tell the girls how long it was until we’d finished – we agreed to start off before dawn. When the alarm went off at 5:15, De-Facto went across the hall to wake the girls and found Short-pants, who’d set her own alarm, already up and getting dressed. Buddy-roo was harder to rally and she was grumpy about walking in the dark for the first half hour when we had to follow the yellow arrows by flashlight.

Two kilometers later, as the sky grew light enough to turn off the torch, we heard the sounds of a pulsing bass beat, like a discotheque in the distance. Could there be a late night club somewhere near? This would explain the pack of drunken boys we saw coming in to town when we’d started out. The music grew more audible as we entered the next little village, really just a hamlet, and as the Camino snaked into the center of town we stumbled into a full-on outdoor dance party, the annual village fiesta that had been raging all night. A pack of young revelers cheered and raised their drinks at us as we stepped around the flashing spotlights with our backpacks and walking sticks.

I suppose we could have kept our heads down, pushed through the dancing crowd and continued on our way. But that would have been humorless, and besides, the song that was playing was one of my favorites from the fiesta in Pamplona. I couldn’t help but dance. I looked over at De-facto, he was dancing too. Short-pants was even shaking her hips. Buddy-roo, whom you’d expect to dive into this kind of a social situation, disappeared behind a truck parked in the street. When De-Facto danced back a few steps to check on her, she came running into his arms in tears.

“It’s not right,” she screamed. “We’re supposed to be walking.”

Buddy-roo was unconsolable. I suppose you could argue her point: I’d easily have danced there for a half an hour or more, using up energy reserves that I’d need later to cover the distance when the sun was high and hot. Despite pleas from the partiers for us to stay, we collected our children and started to walk again, heading the wrong way until one of the locals, drink in hand, redirected us toward the yellow arrow and the road leading out of town.

As we left the little fiesta behind, Buddy-roo scolded us. “The Camino is for walking,” she said, officiously, “you’re not supposed to dance at a party that’s happening in the middle of it.”

“Sometimes things happen that you don’t expect,” I said, “the Camino gives you little gifts.”

The more we talked about it, the more convoluted her justification for being angry. When pressed, her reasoning deteriorated, and as it became less logical, her voice grew more authoritative. This is the thing she does that drives her sister berserk. Short-pants gets enraged at Buddy-roo for being a know-it-all when she’s obviously making-it-up-as-she-goes-along. She’ll yell and scream at her little sister and stomp off. I’ve tried to coach her to ignore Buddy-roo and just walk away when she starts to talk nonsense. Short-pants has never been able to let it roll off her back.

Buddy-roo babbled on about how the Camino is supposed to be and I braced myself for the blow-up. Instead, I heard Short-pants murmur something under her breath, loud enough for me to hear, but her sister missed it.

“Whatever you say, smarty-pants.”

Then she slowed her pace, dropping back several meters to take a little distance from her grumpy sister. A little quiet sarcasm, a giant step for Short-pants.

There’s such a surge in confidence when you achieve a goal. The kilometer count was daunting to both girls, but especially to Buddy-roo, the pokiest of our foursome. I’d slow down to walk with her, distracting her with stories to keep her from thinking about how much further we had to go. She did not suffer silently like her sister, but she never gave up. And at the end of each day’s walk she was always the proudest of the distance we’d covered. On the last leg of our little walking tour, only a few hours after her angry rant about the fiesta, it was Buddy-roo who was skipping and rocking her head happily from side to side, leading the way up a serious hill, thirty meters ahead of De-facto. I brought up the rear, watching my family spread out single file along the trail, everybody in their Camino zone, exercising legs and mind and spirit, each one on their own, but all of us together.


May 22 2012

Still Walking

Any journey starts long before you walk out the door with your suitcase – or backpack – in hand. So it may be hard to pinpoint exactly when my Camino started. Was it the moment I decided to walk it for my birthday? The first time I heard of it? When I first read about it? I remember that De-facto and I took a vacation in Spain and Portugal some years ago. Passing through Santiago, we parked the car and visited the enormous, opulent cathedral. We saw pilgrims, apparently finishing their walk, and I think I might have wondered how could they possibly make that journey. I’d never felt compelled to walk 800 km just to get to a church.

On that same trip, interesting to note, we ended up in the Basque city of Vitoria, where I witnessed my first Basque fiesta. A man sporting a metal bull costume – and it was spewing sparks – chased the children around the town square as they squealed with terrified delight, and I thought, isn’t that an odd ritual. Not even a year later I would meet the Fiesta Nazi and she would start chewing my ear off about another feria, in Pamplona, and soon something else I never thought of doing became something I do.

Also worth noting about that trip to Spain: while driving around, De-facto and I decided that we should start trying to have a child, as I was getting up in years and who knew how hard it would be or how long it would take to get pregnant. Short-pants was conceived within a month’s time.

~ ~ ~

Lately I’ve been trying to meditate. This was a regular part of my life, along with Yoga and Aikido, when I was in my late twenties. Of course we go through different phases and fascinations over the course of our lives, and the discipline I surprised myself with during those years slipped away in my thirties, and the time required for parenting hasn’t made it easy for me to take back those practices with any regularity, despite the fact that now more than ever they would do me good.

It was a David Lynch video that inspired me to try it once again, and ever so gently – no grand proclamations here – I am trying to set aside 15 or 20 minutes here and there each day to still my mind. I’m not very good at it; my mind chatters away. But I figure sitting still and breathing deeply for a few moments now and then certainly can’t hurt and is likely to be restorative in some fashion. This is easier to do in hotel rooms and airplanes, harder to accomplish with the hundred household tasks whispering at me while sitting in my living room, but I’ve managed to at least start a habit over the last month. On the Camino it’s a walking meditation most of the day, but nonetheless I take the time to sit still and deliberately meditate, thanks to all the churches along the way.

And aren’t there some Churches? Many so grand and gilded, I stand awestruck at the altar, impressed by the opulent beauty, disgusted by the power and wealth embedded in the bejeweled reredos. I see just as much beauty in plain, little village chapels, homey and welcoming, peaceful because of their simplicity. Like the one pictured here, empty and unused but for the crude stone altar plastered with handwritten notes and pictures and stones and private pleas from passing pilgrims.

Whether you are pious or politically opposed, there is one thing you cannot deny: when you are in a church, large or small, magnificent or modest, there is a thickness in the air, an invisible weight hanging, magnified by the silence or by the distinct echoes of prayerful footsteps on stone floors. Within the thick walls of an edifice that for centuries has been the repository for the prayers of believers, you can feel the faith that’s suspended there, even if you don’t share it. Like a thick velvet blanket it drapes around you, lowering upon your shoulders and pressing your awareness down, calm, and within. In a church, I can meditate in an instant.

~ ~ ~

In 2004, Oliver Schroer walked the Camino de Santiago, carrying his violin, making a musical pilgrimage. He recorded himself playing in 25 churches along the way. This very short film tells the story of his walk, and the music that came out of it.

A good friend of mine, who also happened to know Oliver, introduced me to his recording, Camino, several years ago. I heard only the opening bars of one song, and went immediately to iTunes to download it. It’s become classic Sunday morning music in my household, but useful also in the workshops I lead, when I want to create a mood that makes people stop and reflect on their experience. Each morning, while readying my pack, I hear this song in my mind and I’ll hum along out loud. Once, in one of those cool, darkened churches, I took out my earbuds and plugged them into my phone and listened to him bowing fiercely on his violin. Looking up at vaulted ceiling, I wondered if this was one the churches that hosted his beautiful music.

Sadly, Oliver Schroer died of a form of leukemia in 2008, a year before my mother was diagnosed with the the same disease. Wherever they’ve both ended up, I hope the music is as beautiful as what he created while he was here. And I hope my mother can hear it.

~ ~ ~

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When I go into a church, any church, I always move to the left side and up the aisle, taking a seat in a pew about 2/3 of the way toward the altar. This is where my father preferred to sit, at this 9:30 position within the congregation. It’s comforting to be there, at what has always felt like our place in church. I think of long sermons on summer mornings, the patch of blue sky visible out the side door of that church, beckoning, and my father beside me, ready with his crisp, ironed handkerchief the moment I succumbed to a pollen-induced sneezing attack.

I’m not especially religious, growing up in a multi-faith household where neither parent was pious. But my father appreciated the quiet and the lack of interruptions afforded during the church service, and told me this many times, as if he was giving me permission not to be devout, but rather encouraging me to be contemplative.

Which is harder and harder to do these days, in this world that commands us to rush and run about and measure our satisfaction and self-worth by the number of things we get done in any day, rather than by the clarity and quality of our thoughts and actions. On the Camino, I have the luxury of little to do, except to walk, and a lot to ponder. I like this pace. I want to keep this pace, to walk through life rather than speed through it. Apropos of this, it’s worth reading the transcript of a commencement speech given by Nipun Mehta – this link, incidentally, sent to me by a close friend of my parents, both of whom seem especially present with me at this moment on the Camino – advising the 2012 graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania, as they “walk on into a world that is increasingly aiming to move beyond the speed of thought…to remember the importance of traveling at the speed of thoughtfulness.”

When my Camino started, exactly, probably doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I’m on it now. That I started, that I left and returned, that I’m still at it. That every now and then I try to sit still and listen, for the quiet thoughts – or the lack of thoughts – and then, I lift my pack up on my back, look down the trail, content, under the heat of the sun or even in the pissing-down rain, to know this most basic of pleasures: I’m still walking.


Apr 27 2012

Time, more or less

I remember my first calendar. I must have been younger than Buddy-roo because I remember how a shiny gold star sticker was ceremoniously affixed on each day that I did not suck my thumb. The calendar hung on the wall beside the twin bed that was mine, in a bedroom that would go through many transitions. A big double bed with a mod black-and-white spiral patterned bedspread was moved in when my teenaged brother took it over and when he left I reclaimed it as my high-school suite. When we were all grown my mother stowed our accumulated paraphernalia – high-school folders, rock-n-roll posters and sentimental stuffed-animals-won-at-the-Fireman’s-carnival – into the closet and made it the room for visiting grandchildren, with two twin beds once again placed exactly as they had been when it was my childhood bedroom so many years before.

The page for the month of January was all pink. February’s had an apple green shade. March was powder blue. April yellow. I can recount for you the colors of each month of that calendar. On the last page there was an image of all the months, connected start-to-finish, their colors adjacent and cascading around in an oval shape, joining December to January.

I do not remember who gave me this calendar as a gift, but it shaped my notion of time for the rest of my life. In my mind, that colorful oval still repeats itself year-after-year. January is to the left, winding around in a patchwork of pastels. If it is August, I imagine the butterscotch color wedged on the southeast part of the oval, rounding the corner from summer to autumn.

How does time pass so fast? This is the clichéd remark about motherhood that I find the most patronizing. “But it goes by so fast.” Like a woman can’t express any exasperation about a her children’s impact on her life simply because it’s happening quickly?

Except one day you look in the mirror and you realize you’re not the Young Turk you used to be. One day things look and feel different, more distant. One day, kids come up to your chin and you say the thing you swore you’d never say, “It goes by so fast.”

~ ~ ~

Last week I took a creative time out in Italy – a place that has its own notion of time – at CREA, the European creativity conference. In the proverbial fashion of teach what we most need to learn, the program I facilitated was about slowing down in a hurry-up world to deliberately make time for and prioritize your creativity. The work I did with my colleagues to prepare served to raise my own awareness about what’s necessary to make peace with time. Spending four days with the group, immersed in the examination of our relationship with time, inspires me to think about making different choices that might better synchronize with the clocks and calendars – and the demands they represent – that seem to engineer my life.

This was the 10th CREA conference, which means we’ve been attending for nine years. I remember the first time, with Buddy-roo in my belly and Short-pants holding court in the dining room from her high chair. They’ve grown up at CREA, shot up from their meaty, miniature-selves into the tall pea pods that they are now. Along with a rat-pack handful of CREA heirs, other kids who’ve been coming to the conference for years, the girls are stars in their own right, with a hundred aunties and uncles all marveling at how they’ve bloomed, year after year.

The first years weren’t the easiest. I’d be running a core program, full-on days with the extra effort required in the pre- and post- workshop hours, while desperately drawing pictures, symbols and clocks to convey to the Italian-only-speaking babysitter how to feed and nap and care for our babies. De-facto and I would juggle the early mornings and the meals and the bedtime routine. That left only the late night hours – stretching into the wee early ones – to catch up with friends and colleagues whom we only see each year at CREA. I didn’t want to miss anything, so I’d burn the candle at both ends and in the middle. I’d finish the week totally knackered.

I realize this is a little bit my problem with time. It’s not that I don’t have enough time. I have been allocated the same 168 hours as everyone else. It’s not that I don’t use my time well; I can be extremely productive – if that’s how your measure using it well – and I accomplish much in a day. My problem isn’t time. My problem is choices. I am too greedy. It’s not that I’m obliged to say yes to everything, I want to do all those projects, to have my fingers in all those creative pots, to say yes to every friend who wants to meet for coffee or a drink, to make time for every visitor who wants to visit.

But for this greed I have suffered the consequences: the churning sensation of never getting to all my commitments or the undercurrent of angst about what I’m not doing when I do myself the indulgent favor of taking time to do nothing. What I am convinced of now, after last week’s reflection on how I might choose (from now on) to spend my time: less is more.

~ ~ ~

The number of spins around my oblong pastel wheel of time is approaching a number that ends-in-a-zero, a fairly significant one at that. Each year this cycle through the seasons appears to quicken – it goes by so fast – a sharp contrast to the first year when that indelible calendar actually hung on the wall by my bed, when the time between consecutive birthdays seemed like an eternity.

De-facto and the girls are giving me an especially generous gift this year. It is a gift of time. Time out. Time away. Not just time away to work, but time away to think. Not just a weekend. Many weeks. Enough time to walk a good portion of the Route Frances of the Camino Santiago de Compostela, a month-long (slightly more) pilgrimage across the north of Spain. I cannot walk it from start to finish in one go; there are still work and family commitments that I must keep. I will hike for a week, return to Paris for Short-pants’ orchestra concert and to be with the girls while De-facto takes a short business trip. Then I return to exactly where I left off and keep walking. A week later, a little birthday bash is scheduled in my favorite Basque village with a few good friends in attendance, and then I return to the route again, to walk some more.

Given the time I can take, I expect I might finish about half of the Camino this spring. The rest, perhaps a few days in July with the whole family in tow, or in September or May of next year. It’s not a race. It’s an active meditation, a chance to remove myself from the distractions of the day-to-day, and, with the backdrop of breathtaking scenery and the constant rhythm of one foot in front of the other, think about how to make more of – or less of – the however-many pastel-tinted calendar turns I have left.


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.


Dec 1 2010

Reverb Reflection

I’ve found a rhythm for posting on this blog; it’s about once a week, sometimes twice. That’s about as much as I can write, with the rest of the things in my life calling for attention. But I also think it’s about as much as you can read, given all the things in your life calling for attention. I once subscribed to the blog of a beautiful writer, her well-crafted pieces often made me cry. But the email messages came every single day, and I soon grew too tired of being that intimately aware of every moment her life, and I unsubscribed. (The saddest part of it is that now I forget to visit her blog, so I don’t read her as often as I’d like.)

That experience instructed me: too much can be, well, too much.

I’ve decided to engage in a reflective, end-of-year activity called Reverb10. It’s organized by a thoughtful and enthusiastic team of bloggers, headed by Gwen Bell, a yoga practicing social media maven whom I’ve grown to admire for her zen/wired balance. Each day there’s a prompt that you’re invited to respond to by journaling, blogging, tweeting, posting in Facebook, however you want, publicly or privately.

As a result, I might be blogging a bit more than usual during December.

I don’t expect to answer every prompt here: it might be too private, it might be too short, I might be too busy, I might do it elsewhere, on She Writes, on Twitter or on another blog. For those of you who subscribe by email, I’m going to turn off the alerts on many of these posts so I don’t clutter your in-box. You’ll still get alerted if I write a post that’s typical for my blog, or if one of these Reverb responses feels like it ought to be shared with you. For RSS friends, well, you’ll know if you want to click through or not.

Of course if you’re curious, I invite you to check in anytime to see how I’m doing. By all means go to #reverb10 yourself. It’s not too late to join in!