Dec 10 2010

Wise Decision

Employing the word decision could give one the impression that I actually did something to deliberately drive my life forward – or even to the side – during the last year. I didn’t decide much; 2010 was a year when things happened to me. I got pulled into the rushing rapids, and there were no overhanging branches to grab. I didn’t decide to say goodbye to my mother. She chose to stop treatment and enter hospice. I didn’t have to make any decisions; the rest of my life – my family and my work – just happened to accommodate my schedule so I could be with her until the end.

That was in February. What followed, all year, was a whirlwind of one thing after another: travel, work, responsibilities, challenges, burdens, changes, opportunities. Life just kept barreling on.

Never before have I been so behind. Never before have I had so many loose ends waving at me, so many unsorted piles and unattended tasks. The priority duties (for the most part) are (apparently) not overlooked, but otherwise my chin is barely above water. All those photos I mean to scan, those folders I want to clear out, the letters I want to write. That teetering stack of books is ridiculous; I really do want to read them all, but when? The New Yorker magazine arrives every week, I can’t keep up with it. Sometimes the issues stay in their plastic cover, piling up on the table where we put the mail. There’s that workshop I mean to take, the language I want to learn, the instrument I want to play again. The girls’ room is spilling over with out out-of-favor toys and books outgrown and clothes in their drawers that are now too short for them. I mean to spend an afternoon sorting and reordering and making bags of things to take to the French equivalent of the Goodwill. Next weekend.

Life hurls at me its great adventures and its mundane missions and there is all of it I want to do, to taste, to try to manage, to accomplish. I’m greedy about life; I say yes far too often. I overestimate what I can do and underestimate how long it will take. Then I curse all that eagerness when I find myself running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

This could all make me crazy, and in the past, it has.

Sometime in the last few months – I can’t say when exactly, but recently – I decided not to sweat it anymore. I decided to stop worrying about what I haven’t done and what I haven’t (yet) gotten to and to stop beating myself up for it. Remorse is romantic but not terribly productive. In the end, I’ll get to what I get to.

Even before my mother was sick, she used to worry out loud about the backroom. This was the room where she stowed, over the years, her memories, her childhood scrapbooks, college folders, love letters, trip memorabilia and the general accumulation of stuff that one acquires after fifty years in the same house. She didn’t want to burden us with the disposal of those effects. I didn’t want her to worry about this. “Leave it,” I told her, “Go do what’s interesting to you. Travel. Be with your friends. We’ll clean it out later, after you’re gone.” And we did.

If I didn’t want her to make herself crazy about getting everything in perfect order, why would I do that to myself?

This life is the full-bodied one I’ve chosen, wisely or not. Sometimes it rolls in too fast, too large, too much at once. But that’s what it is and I’ll take it. I’ll take as much of life as I can and if I don’t get to everything, if I don’t get it all done, if it doesn’t all fit in the perfect order of my imagined self, well then at least it keeps things interesting.

As for how this will play out? We’ll see.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Susannah Conway: Wisdom. What was the wisest decision you made this year, and how did it play out?


Dec 7 2010

Our Gang

The ceremony was short and sweet. French civil weddings have little to do with romance and everything to do with the legal, functionary details, though the Mairie IIIeme de Paris has a certain flair and managed to make this usually-dry ceremony at least a little theatrical. Outside we congregated in front of the ornate doors waiting for the bride and groom. They presented themselves in wedding-cake-ornament style, emerging to applause and showers of rose petals. “Suivez-nous!” They called us to follow them down the street. We fell in step behind them, small clusters of friends and family strolling down rue des Archives, not quite in a line, not quite together – more like a casual, clumpy parade.

They led us to the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, a grand hotel particulier. It is a museum (of hunting and nature) but it is also rentable, with the right connections, for special occasions. We were directed through its magnificent rooms, replete with stuffed, mounted heads of hunted game and several wild animals revived by taxidermy – even a tiger and a giant polar bear donning elements of the bride’s veil for decorative effect – and ushered out the back doors into the garden where the black-and-white clad waiters held out trays filled with tall flutes of champagne.

It was all perfect. Perfect because the bride was stunning and the groom had style. Perfect because of the setting, the elegant backdrop of a manoir and its manicured, labyrinthed garden, the cloudless summer evening sky and the approaching sunset. Perfect because of the eclectic mix of French and English conversations. Perfect because I looked around at the friends of the bride and groom who’d assembled to celebrate, and I thought to myself, what a lovely collection of people. How lucky we are to know them.

When you live as an expatriate in a transient city like Paris, you make friends in cycles. There’s the first set, made up of anybody who’ll have you, basically, because you’re new in town. This evolves into a more deliberate circle of friends with bonds that form because of common interests. Just when those friendships seem to be cemented, someone moves away. Another friend, who was perhaps on the periphery before, steps into the place made empty by the departure and brings along other friends and the circle grows. Then people move away and it shrinks again. That couple that became your best friends, they get transferred to Cambodia or they move to Boston or return to New Zealand or god forbid they break up and the circle of friends has to adjust to accommodate the change.

This happens everywhere, to some degree. But in a foreign capital that attracts voyagers and wanderlusters, the landscape of friends shifts more often than usual. It’s like living on a fault line, with tectonic plates of friends and acquaintances in constant motion.

We do have some very affable French friends whom have warmly welcomed us to their land and their habits of wine and cheese and all-of-August-off. We are part of a cool and creative association of fine colleagues who are also good friends. But the community we most easily identify with is expatriate. We are not French, we are other, or at least in-between.

When I first used to take the girls to school, I was just a drop-off-and-go-mom: I’d cheerfully greet any familiar parents encountered but otherwise I’d hop on that velib’ and get back home. Those uninterrupted hours while they are at school seemed too scarce a commodity not to be maximized to their fullest. But De-facto, he’d hang around, waiting to watch the girls as their teachers escort them from the courtyard to the school building, waving at them as they pass two-by-two like animals marching to an ark. In the meantime, he met more parents. He chatted and went for a café. He became a regular in several overlapping coffee klatches. He made friends.

And then it happened. A group email included our addresses and we were invited to join a dinner and dancing get-together at a club. A few weeks later we got an invite to a birthday party. Next we were invited to the wedding. We’d been absorbed.

I love this community of bilingual parents. It’s not a clique of expats who cloister themselves and lament about how things are better at home. This tribe is made of couples where he’s French and she’s English, or she’s French and he’s American, or they’re both Brits but weaving their lives into the fabric of Parisian life. What binds us is just what differentiates us in our home countries: having chosen consciously to live outside the borders of our own culture and to (sometimes) struggle through this one. We worry about our kids and how they’ll survive the French school, we compare notes and help each other and laugh at ourselves as we cope. We’re also just the right amount of wild and ready for a good time. For instance, last Saturday night this very gang congregated at a small club not too far from the Bastille. Some of us were twice as old as the younger patrons but we were the ones who moved the furniture so we could dance, and we were the ones who kept shouting for more volume on the music.

To be invited to the wedding of our new friends (and incidentally, both bride and groom are French) felt like a great privilege. I looked around and thought, damn, these are fantastic people. They are like me, but they are different, and in the most interesting ways. They hold the codes of their own cultures and ways of speaking English (sometimes unintelligible though it’s the same mother tongue), but they have chosen to live this adventure in France despite the fact that it is not always easy and it puts them far away from family and childhood friends.

The cocktail hour lasted for hours. We were hungry but we started not to care. People moved around and mingled; the clusters of friends and family formed and reformed into new conversations. The waiters kept pouring champagne. The laughter of the guests grew louder, wilder. The sun lowered its head on the horizon and the indigo sky uncovered the first summer evening stars. Dinner and dancing still to come, the night was young and we were among friends.


Dec 6 2010

Making It

I once hosted an All Soul’s cocktail party. I remember because it was kind of an eccentric occasion, on a weeknight and in honor of a rarely celebrated holiday, at least rarely celebrated with cocktails. I made the invitations by hand. I can still – twenty years later – picture the paper stock I selected, a heavy construction grade in burgundy and rusty orange, and a patterned paper with both these colors and black in a marbled design. Thick felt-tip calligraphy pens, in black, brown and rust, a few lines of clever text, burgundy envelopes and stamps with an autumnal spirit.

I invited all my friends and colleagues from work, thinking of each person individually as I hand-made every invitation. When the exercise was over – two hours and two glue sticks later – I stared at the pile of crafty envelopes and felt supremely satisfied. The work I did then (and do now) keeps me in brain. It was a nourishing pleasure to have been working with my hands.

One year, back when the Paris metro tickets were green, I saved all my used ones and cut them into the shape of a fir tree and pasted them on to home-made Christmas cards. It took me the entire evening, at least twice though Ella Fitzgerald’s Swinging Christmas album and nearly a bottle of wine. I remember feeling it was an evening extremely well spent. I’m tactile, I love to cut and paste.

But during this last year? I made a goal book, the result of an inspiring goal-setting exercise into which I inserted my favorite activities of cutting and pasting and making collages. But that’s about the only cut and paste I managed to get to.

What did I make? Aside from the meals, and the beds?

I made a tribute to my mother that honored her well. I made new bonds with my siblings. I made new friends. I made trips. I made mistakes. I made progress. I made a lot of memories. I made a living. I made love. I made my way. I made it up as I went along.

But next year, I’ll make more things with my hands. It makes me happy.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Gretchen Rubin: Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some timer for it?


Dec 3 2010

Alive as I’ve ever been

Does it sound harsh to say that the moment when I felt most alive – this last year – was when my mother was about to die?

Maybe it was the contrast, life and death standing side-by-side. I’m sure that framed it. But that is not why.

During the weeks leading up to her death, I was home alone with her and very focused on the care she needed. Aside from a few moments to myself, to exercise, bathe or make a quick stop at the public library to go on-line, my days were focused on her. I helped her move around. I helped her get dressed. I made soup. I scratched her back. I answered her email. I wrote, as she dictated to me, two letters that she had wanted to write for weeks but hadn’t gotten to. I held her hand. I administered morphine, kept track of all her medications, noting the dosage, the time, the reaction. I told her stories about Short-pants and Buddy-roo.
I changed the channel. I rubbed her feet. I watched her sleep. I witnessed the end of her life. She did not have to do it alone. I accompanied her.

It’s remarkable, the singularity of purpose that comes at a time like this, when there is no question about what is priority and what is ancillary. There was no “should I do this or should I do that?” The day became a series of small moments of service. There were no distractions, no getting pulled off course because of a pretend client crisis or a drama at school. I was fully present.

When you are present like this, it is impossible not to feel alive.

I can think of other moments in my life, moments when I was present, not pulled into a future aspiration or tugged into nostalgia or remorse. The result, always: aliveness, palatable joy, delight and gratitude for my place on earth. This moment I write of, last year, rivaled those moments in its intensity and emotional alertness. The primary emotion was not joy or glee, but grief. Grief and sorrow.

But if you can step out of the judgment that insists alive must mean happy, then you can see that alive really means feeling. Feeling fully any and every emotion that washes over you and accepting it. Relinquishing control and living it and living through it, thoroughly. That is the alive moment.

Something I find curious this moment (it is not that exact moment she left us, by the way, but a moment at her bedside a few days before) is that my mother was severely hearing impaired, and the details I hold on to are almost all auditory. Silence except for a few distinct sounds: the ticking of the clock on the shelf; the furnace kicking in and vibrating the entire house, even the glassware in the cupboard; the snow-plow scraping the road as it passed in front of our house; the wind-chimes on the back porch, hanging amongst her sheets. The sound of her uneasy breathing. The sound of mine after a deep breath, taken when I realized my breathing had grown shallow. “Breathe,” I said out loud, to myself, not to her.

I knew my mother was readying herself to be no longer among the alive. I held her hand and in my heart, I could feel it hurt. It hurt so much, it hurt like my heart was being carved out of my chest with a sharp knife. I was present, all right, with the feeling, with the hurt. In pain, yes, but as alive as I’ve ever been.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Ali Edwards: Moment. Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail.


Dec 2 2010

Stop and Start

What’s stopping me?

The cursor swings across the dock of icons perched at the bottom of my screen. Each one swells and rises and the tiny arrow passes, as if standing up to wave, “Choose me!” A small red circle whispers that there are 17 unread messages in my in-box. The Twitter app growls at me, someone I follow has just posted a tweet. I eye the Skype icon at the top of my computer screen, it is illuminated, green for go ahead, chat me, call me. Facebook is open on one of the tabs of my browser, She Writes in the other. These friendly distractions smiling at me, reaching out as if to offer me a piece of candy.

Last night’s pledge to get writing as soon as the kids left for school is not forgotten. I hear the door click shut, and their voices fade as they make their way down the stairs and out of the building, out of my way for the day. I heave the obligatory sigh of relief, warm up my coffee with scalded milk that’s been whisked until frothy. I sit with my laptop and I realize that this is my moment, this is bliss. I am alone. Hot café-au-lait beside me. The internet humming. My RSS feed. Favorite blogs. A scan of the tweets from overnight. Emails. Part of me needs that 1/2-hour to wake up, to wet my toes in the day and give myself the gift of messing about and luxuriously eating up time with the simple pleasures of the internet.

I owe much of my writing to these elements of the internet. Because I started blogging two years ago, I have become a more regular writer, which is bound to make you a better one, or at least a more confident. The simple act of posting once or twice a week means I’ve published twice as many words in two years as in the previous decade. And I love the medium. It makes me want to write. Blogging has made my writing a priority. Twitter, too, though sometimes a deterrent, a handy mechanism to avoid the stare-down with a blank page, must be acknowledged because through these micro-texts I have met other writers, solid resources and cunning friends who inspire me to write.

I could blame my computer and its high speed connection to the ether and all the bells and whistles that keep me plugged in to a digital universe — except that universe has been my inspiration, my vehicle, my great encourager. I cannot place the blame there.

What I do each day that doesn’t contribute to my writing is doubt. I doubt that I’m ready to start. I doubt that I have something to say. I doubt that it will turn out as lyrical or poignant or sarcastic as it sounds now, in my head, the seed of something yet to be written, a concept emerging, fecund with its own potential. That’s what’s stopping me.

I know how to do it, how to eliminate it. It happens when I quit the mail app, turn off Tweetdeck, set Skype into offline mode. Once I do that, the words come, slow but then with momentum until I am tapping the keyboard like it’s a piano and I’m playing the Debussy I know by heart.

The doubt is never permanent, but it likes to linger. I know exactly how to eliminate it. All I have to do, is start.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Leo Babauta: Writing. What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing – and how can you eliminate 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!