Dec 23 2015

Time for Christmas

I’ve lost ten hours of my life to that bank. Ten hours I didn’t have to spare. Hours of fussing with the new on-line interface that won’t connect, or calling help-lines and being put on hold. Hours standing in line at a branch office, the only one that deals with my problem, a problem that can be addressed at only one desk, the one with six people waiting in front of it. I will lose at least three more hours opening a new account in a different bank, and trotting down to the previous one and attempting to withdraw all my funds. I suppose it will eventually get sorted and in the context of all the other horrible things that are happening in the world, this is a luxurious problem. But I’ll never get those hours back. clocks_times_three

It’s not a time when I can be generous with hours. An array of projects lie unfolded before me, marked by a mosaic of bright Post-it notes on the wall above my desk or Skype calls inked in my calendar. All of these need time and take time. Each one of them something important or at least fascinating to me, none I would be prepared to discard. Yet all of them, all at once, fill up the hours of the day, and quickly.

I have so many things I want to write. Website updates and posts about all those interesting projects. A book to finish editing (for work). A book to finish writing (for myself). So there’s no pleasure in the time spent on bank interfaces that won’t work, or calling our internet service provider about the strange undulation of our allegedly high speed, high quality fibre optic wifi, or hunting down viruses that have snuck into my computer, or scheduling doctor’s appointments I should have made weeks ago.

The girls, of course, need time from me, now more than ever. Short-pants is carrying the stress of her schoolwork. Always conscientious about homework, she manages it without assistance, but lately you can see the burden of the workload – it increases in intensity and volume every year — taking its toll on her. Each week, her introverted self gets depleted by Thursday. She explodes in anger or bursts into tears at the drop of a hat. Especially when it’s her sister who drops it.

Her sister, who is going through her own existential crisis, spiraling down into dark thoughts. Don’t laugh: I remember going through this myself when I was Buddy-roo’s age, conjuring up weird fantasies about what would happen if I was dead. Never enough to make it happen, but wondering about it, which leads to wondering about why are we here anyway, and for Buddy-roo, pondering what’s the point, especially if she doesn’t have a iPhone like all her friends?

The only antidote to their various bouts of teenage angst – both legitimate and dramatic – is time. Time spent sitting on the couch beside them, listening, chatting, or just being there and doing nothing at all. Time when I step away from the computer and give them my full attention. Time when they get to feel like they are the most important thing on my to-do list.
santas_elf
And then there’s Christmas. The time of year for spirited joy and treasured family traditions. Time-honored traditions that take a lot of time. It’s a holiday that’s hardest on moms, even if dads play along. Or maybe it just hits me the hardest. Me and my mother, who used to get all wound up at Christmas and I never understood why until I was the one buying, wrapping, baking and planning. Though nobody’s holding a gun to my head to bake 4 dozen ginger-bread men and 8 dozen Christmas cut-outs (because that’s what the recipe makes) every year.

“Because it’s your tradition,” De-facto says, when, wincing at my sore shoulders, I ask myself out loud why I do this every year.

I do know why. The girls love it. They jump up and down at the mention of the seasonal baking. Now they’re old enough to really help – as opposed to when they were toddlers, when their “help” had a short attention span – and they do their share by mixing the ingredients to make the dough, rolling it flat and cutting out the angels and stars and fir trees and Santas. They know how to add the food coloring to the sugar, and how to sprinkle it on the cookies while the icing is still soft. That’s time well spent, and spent together, but it makes me long for a time when I was the one standing on the stool watching my mother read from her recipe card while she blended the ingredients with her foley fork, admonishing me, with affection, not to eat too much of the raw dough.

Because for me – and I know I say this every year – Christmas isn’t entirely joyful. It’s a time when I miss all those people who used to come together for the holidays, whose collective presence seated around my parents’ living room was the most comforting thing in the world. Christmas makes me want to regress to an earlier time, a time when I was the one marveling at the tree and its trimmings and shaking the decorated packages beneath it, when my only responsibility was playing the elf who distributed the gifts as we sat around and opened them one-by-one, and maybe setting the table or drying a few dishes after Christmas dinner. I long for those days when the hours between now and Christmas morning seemed an eternity, when time couldn’t move fast enough. If only we could put those restless, protracted hours in the bank when we’re young and impatient, and withdraw them later, when we’d appreciate them so much more. (Santa, can I open that account for Christmas?)

In the meantime, the speed of how we experience time is variable but (mostly) out of our control. There’s nothing to do but take in this moment now: Buddy-roo squatting before the Christmas tree, keep_outbemoaning how many days there are still before Christmas while I put a “keep out” sign on my office door and scramble to finish wrapping presents. This is what she will remember, and some day she will long for it. That’s the most enduring gift I can give those girls, a string of Christmases to remember fondly, even if the memory is always a little bit bittersweet.


Feb 19 2015

Getting Caught Up

I didn’t exactly push them out the door. At the moment they were leaving, I had pangs of regret that I wasn’t going with De-facto and the girls to France. Our country house holds for me the sense of being outside of the day-to-day, on retreat from my busy life. Things move slower there. Nature embraces us, distracting us from our mental to-do lists pointing us toward more physical roadactivity. We clear the yard of brush and fallen branches and leaves, tend the grapes, adjust the tiles on the roof, hack away at other renovation projects in progress. The dog goes in and out of the house as he pleases – Winston is at his happiest in the country – and we take him for long walks and runs, watching him sprint up and down the lane, halting to sniff about, then bolting away to explore the world without a leash attached to his collar. I love to cook in the new kitchen we installed there last year, and how we sit around the table talking to each other after dinner, without anyone running off to finish homework or be on a conference call with some client in a time zone 6-hours behind us in the thick of their workday. I love doing nothing when I’m there, which, when you think about it, is what a country house is for.

I was aching not to be joining them, despite the long drive, despite the cold house they’d encounter. But I was also looking at a long string of days to myself, alone at home, a luxury that I rarely experience. I get my solitude on long airplane rides and in somber hotel rooms when I travel for work, but I can think of only two or three other times in my life, since the girls were born, when I’ve had such a stretch of time to myself – six consecutive days – in my own home, left alone, without anyone else around to take care of.

I’d like to tell you that I shut the door behind them and crawled back to bed. Or that I sat at the piano for hours conquering the Mendelssohn piece I used to play flawlessly and now stumble through. Or that I immediately set about adding chapters to my manuscript. I’d like to tell you I read all week, went for aimless walks, binged-watched on Netflix. I considered using these days granted to me to do just that, to escape my routines and to rest, alone, quietly doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Or doing nothing. But that’s not what happened.

One of the reasons I gave to De-Facto for not joining them in the country is that I feel exhausted by care-taking: our children, our household, my clients, the dog, any outside projects. Some days – and I know I’m not the only mother who feels this way – it seems like all I do is take care of other people. I longed for five days just to care for myself.
to_do_list_1
Taking care of myself, it turns out, was less about saying fuck you to the world and staying in bed with a Donna Tartt novel, and more about clearing the clutter that inhabits my life. Especially after the last grueling month, when De-facto was of town for two weeks and I was up to my ears in fairly demanding work and juggling the kids and finding myself scrambling to keep up. I had to keep my eye on the prize: do the most important things. That meant all the little tasks that weren’t urgent or (as) important were relegated to a different list. In principle, this is good time management, until all those minute, delayable tasks become urgent and important and merge together to become an albatross. It’s not just from the last month, this has been accumulating for a long time. And looking ahead to a trip I will make next week, an intense work schedule in March, and more travel in April it became very apparent to me. Taking care of myself meant getting these things out of the way or they’d hound me all spring and into the summer.

Maybe other people don’t mind the nagging list. They just ignore it or they don’t even see it. I inherited my mother’s productivity compulsion. It bothers me that I haven’t submitted medical insurance claims because the paperwork sits in a tray on my desk. It irks me that an iTunes upgrade wiped out my playlists but I haven’t had time to find them on my back-up disk or to rebuild them with fresh music. Try as I do to minimize paper filing, there are still papers that need to be kept, and put where I can find them. This pile is one that sneers at me from the mess on my desk which has reached a level of chaos now spreading to piles on the floor.

These nagging tasks aside, there are the bigger projects that suffered during the last month: professional assignments that are perfect examples of my extraordinary capacity to overestimate what I can do and underestimate how long it will take to do it; documentation and research and web-site maintenance; preparing for new initiatives that require new strategies and thinking.

So I split my time: half of it making progress on the big projects, and the rest tackling the nagging tasks. Those, somehow, were the most satisfying: changing the vacuum cleaner bag that was bursting at its seams; cleaning the dog poop off the bottom of one of Buddy-roo‘s shoes, which had been on our balcony for three weeks waiting for this attention; sewing a button on a sweater, one that fell off before Thanksgiving; running an anti-virus scan on my computer and upgrading to Yosemite; shoring up medical forms and tax receipts; taking the lone Christmas ornament that we found on the tree after packing away all the decorations and simply taking it upstairs to put it in the box in the closet! I reorganized my desk, washed the throw rugs from the just_tryin_to_livebathroom floors, washed and dried every piece of dirty clothing in the house, folded it and put it away, which required a little extra organization in the girls’ wardrobes. Things are coming together. I’m still not caught up, but I’m no longer drowning in random, rogue tasks.

What I needed was a vacation from my life, so I could get caught up with my life. Isn’t this ridiculous? That life is so fast and furious and filled with duties and obligations – let alone the things I want to do – that I find myself scurrying around trying to catch up? How did I get so caught up in getting caught up?

I’ll never be all caught up. I know this. There’s always something to be done, and new opportunities add new things to the list. But at least when my family returns home tomorrow, I’ll be more caught up than before, and more than ready to catch up with them.


Sep 7 2014

Up in the Morning

It starts to happen, as our children get older, that the cherished memories we have of their childhood lose their clarity, and the boundary between sun_shineswhat we remember and what really happened begins to bend and blur. I want to tell you that when Short-pants was a baby, not quite a toddler, we’d hear first stirrings as she’d stretch and come to life slowly in her crib, taking in the new day. Then we’d hear her little voice call out enthusiastic, “Up in the morning!”

I’m not sure if that’s exactly true. It might have started that early, but maybe not until later. I do know that when she could finally escape on her own, over the railing of her crib, she’d toddle into our room and crawl up into our bed to make this morning declaration. She would pronounce each word with delight, as though lyrics of a song, all this while wearing a supremely self-satisfied smile.

A dozen years later, it’s still the first thing she says to us when we bump into each other in the kitchen, or if she slips in to our room while we’re still in bed: “Up in the morning!”

Getting the girls up in the morning and ready for school has long been my task. This involves assuring their state of dress and putting breakfast in their bellies, commanding the final assembly of book-bags the brushing of teeth until De-facto, a few minutes prior to the must-be-out-the-door moment, lifts himself from bed, throws on whatever clothes might be handy and walks them to school. Occasionally I’d be the one to escort them, but most days this has been our routine, in Paris as well as in Barcelona.

When Short-pants entered collège (middle school) two years ago and started walking to school on her own, she developed, instantly, an admirable sense of self-responsibility. She sets her own alarm, dresses and prepares her backpack, eats whatever you put in front of her or makes breakfast for herself, monitors the time closely and steps out the door in plenty of time to make it to school without having to rush. She likes the morning walk, and though accepting of our company on days we join her, has admitted to us that she prefers to walk to school alone.

So far this year, though, she’s been accompanied by her sister, who’s just started at collège. Buddy-roo is a professional sleeper and not such a happy-in-the-morning person. She is rallying, though, as part of the get-a-dog campaign. A campaign she’s won, by the way, as last spring not only did she demonstrate the capacity to wake herself earlier and more self-sufficiently, no_walking_with_parentsshe also achieved fine grades at school. Grades were not the objective; being conscientious about about her work was the goal. But by doing that she surprised us all – and mostly herself – with a recommendation from her teacher. (The dog, incidentally, an impending acquisition. Watch this space.) Part of the rite of passage to this higher class level involves making the trek to school without a parent, whether by walking or public transport. Since the girls start school at the same time now, they walk together.

~ ~ ~

Last week, on the night before the first day of school, we sat around the table after dinner, a family meeting to review the girls’ household chores. Since we’d been gone most of the summer, everyone was a little out of practice. I wanted to give the girls an opportunity to switch up their tasks and also to add new and different ones; as they get older and taller, there’s more they can do to help around the house. They are good natured, mostly, about the jobs we ask them to take on. Except one: Despite years of making it a required activity, I still can’t get them to replace an empty toilet paper roll or move the finished cardboard tube in to the trash, let alone to the recycling bin. Not sure why these tasks are so challenging to accomplish, but the three people with whom I live with seem unable to complete either of them. Though everyone has pledged, once again, to do their best.

For some reason, my annual clock rotates on a scholastic calendar, and I always think of this time of year as a time to change habits or get started on new projects. Or return to old projects, which is an objective of mine this year. I have a languishing manuscript. It needs a bit of re-work and a few chapters to end it. I’ve been working on it for a decade, and its time to finish and publish.

One way of changing a habit is asking for help from the people around you; this insight came to me during a session at Mindcamp, which resulted in the idea of setting aside just an hour a day to work on my manuscript. But not just any hour. The first hour of the day, before my fresh-from-the-dream-state imagination is spoiled by reading the news or email or by all the don’t-forget-your-maths-book kind of conversations that are part of shooing children out the door to school. It’s not the first time I’ve thought of this, but I’m just not enough of a morning person to get up before the girls, and askeven when I manage to rise before them, as soon as they’re up, they’re in my hair.

I decided to ask my family for help. After all, when they ask for something, I’m happy to do what I can to support them. Wouldn’t they show me the same courtesy? De-facto made what I perceived to be a slightly patronizing remark and Short-pants corrected my grammar, so I had to pound the table a moment to make them understand that this was actually something about which I was feeling very tender and even slightly vulnerable. A moment of discomfort around the table was followed by a how-might-we discussion about the people setting their own alarms and getting their own breakfasts. Everyone agreed we could try.

“Think of it as an experiment,” I said, “to help me get back in the habit of working on my book. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Up in the morning,” said Short-pants.

~ ~ ~

It is a mild surprise that they’ve adapted quickly to the new morning plan. Not that it’s been flawless: they forget and walk into my office to ask for something and I have to remind them that this is the kind of thing they have to ask me about the night before, so I can focus on writing in the morning. I get a knowing-nod and tip-toes out of the room.

Whether Short-pants and Buddy-roo leave for school together or separately, they leave early. At eight o’clock, or shortly after, I hear the door slam and their steps in the stairwell. By the time they’re out the door, I’m typing at full-speed. I don’t know if what I’m typing is any good, but I’m typing, and that’s as good a start as any. By the time I move on to the other tasks on my to-do list, professional and personal, I’ve logged at least an hour on my pet project, and that feels huge.

De-facto and I have gained hours that we didn’t have before, hours once taken up with walking Buddy-roo to school or picking her up at the end of the day and bringing her back home. Plus her day is longer than it was in the primary school. Add to that my extra writing time in the morning, and this year could be a whole new world for me. More time, the thing I’m always lacking.

Only a few days in to our new reality, I was at my desk, partly working and partly wondering if it wasn’t time for the girls to get home. De-facto walked behind me, through my office to the little balcony that looks out on the street. I kept waiting for him to pass back through my office, but he didn’t return. I stuck my head out the door to find him leaning against the rail, looking down the street.
balcony_watch
“Waiting for the girls?” I said.

“I miss them,” he said.

I thought about how I’d hardly seen them in the morning and how they’d been gone all day. I wasn’t just missing them, I was aching for them. Maybe just because we’ve been so together all summer, it’s just an adjustment that takes getting used to. I wondered if this up-in-the-morning-writing-routine was going to work. I’m happy to have the creative space, but there’s definitely a price to pay.

“Me, too,” I said. “It’s a long day.”

De-facto wrapped his arm around me and we stood on the balcony together, our eyes fixed on the street below, waiting for their two heads to come into view so we could wave frantically and welcome them home.


May 31 2014

All that Promise

In those days way before 9/11, you could accompany a departing passenger through security and wave goodbye at the gate. My parents drove me to the airport and stood beside me as I checked my bags. The agent handed me my ticket, her fingers red from the ink on the back of each of its multiple pages. On the way to the gate, my father made conversation by asking consecutive “what do you suppose” questions, thinking they would inspire me or keep me from getting nervous. Now, years later, I suspect he was living vicariously through me. When they announced that my flight was boarding, I hugged my mother and father goodbye, walked to the gate agent and showed her my ticket and without looking back, headed down the jetway.
toothpaste_tubes
Later that day, I watched the other freshman on my hall moving in, their fathers like Sherpas behind them with boxes and blankets, their mothers overseeing the move-in or sitting on the bed chatting with the new roommate’s parents. I’d arrived on campus in a taxi and happened to find a dorm counselor – still a friend to this day – who helped me carry my suitcases up to my room. I was glad to be there without the burden of parents, liberated from any of the eye-rolling data points my mother might share, conspiratorially, with the parents of my new peers. College was a time to go off on your own, and that is, literally, just what I’d done.

My new roommate’s parents had driven her up from Philadelphia. I escaped their sympathy – “but you’ve come all by yourself?” – by slipping out to take a walk. I headed nowhere in particular, wandering the streets around the stately campus. It was the first week of September, the leaves had just started to turn. The late afternoon sun, low in the sky, cast my shadow long on the sidewalk. Just like my future, it stretched out before me. I’ll never forget that moment and its sublime promise: anything can happen, and it’s all going to.

~ ~ ~

I made that walk again, last weekend, returning to my university to celebrate a big reunion. I wasn’t particularly rah-rah when I was a co-ed, and I haven’t been the heartiest alumna, but lately I’ve been crossing paths with more of my college compatriots, and this reunion – my 30th – seemed like a good occasion to be more deliberate about reconnecting. I spent much of the weekend running to different events and parties with friends and old classmates, but stole a moment one morning on my own to take a quick detour, one that I knew would take me back to where I’d strolled that first day on campus. I walked up that same street, alongside an iron-gated quadrangle and under trees thicker and taller than when I was there years ago. No shadow was cast – it was a different time of the day and there was cloud cover – but I could picture the long shape that once loomed before me and the emotions that had accompanied it. All that promise. Have I fulfilled it?

~ ~ ~

How did I end up at one of my parents’ cocktail parties? This was my thought, the first night of the reunion. There was a big dance on the campus green to kick off the weekend’s festivities, but we got to reconnect at a pre-party just for my class, under a big tent near the athletic center. I looked around at my classmates, and though I recognized many faces, whether they were people I knew reasonably well or only smiled at passing them on my way to a lecture hall, I was stunned at how we’re getting older. They’d all remained, in my memory, young and wrinkle-free because dog_in_mirrorI hadn’t seen most of them since 1984. Now to see the graying or receding hairlines collected together was a bit of a shock. Maybe it’s just that I tend to live life from the inside out, looking out at the world knowing the the years are adding up, but always feeling, inside, a static, youthful age. An event like this holds up the mirror, a reminder of how relentlessly time passes. Not that we’re in such bad shape, in general my classmates have taken care to attend to their fitness and appearance. But we aren’t the feisty spring chickens we used to be.

The weekend was a mash-up of nostalgia and discovery. The campus is changed. I can still find my way around, though I noted the absence of a buildings where I’d spent the bulk of my time, now demolished and replaced by new landmarks. I visited a favorite professor, one who challenged me and made me think harder and deeper. He says he can no longer read and analyze, but at least takes pleasure from painting and listening to Irish music. I left his house soberly, guessing it might the last time I’d see him. There were those two inseparable girls who never managed to make eye contact with me when I was an undergraduate, still joined at the hip and unable to acknowledge my presence. Back then I’d wondered what was wrong with me. Now I wondered what was wrong with them. The nice surprise from that guy who seemed way out of my league all those years ago; it was with him and his lovely wife that I had one of the most thoughtful, engaging conversations of the weekend. Finally the after-party on the last night, like stepping back thirty years, a hundred people packed into a cinderblock-walled dorm room, crammed in the kitchen, lining the hallways talking and drinking out of red plastic cups, dancing with abandon in the dark with friends from way too long ago.

I’d like to tell you that the reunion was one oh-my-god-how-are-you hug after another, all-elbows with friends from the past, our shared history bonding us together inextricably. Maybe I’d hoped for that when I signed up, but even then I knew that the weekend would be filled with moments of reconnection and disconnection. It wasn’t at all the impress-fest that it could have been – I found people to be very genuine – but there was an element of standing across from each classmate encountered and trying to figure out who not only who they’d become, but who I’d become. They all seemed to fall right back into place with each other, I was still trying to figure out where I fit in. There were moments when I felt like an outsider, not an uncommon feeling for me, but a mildly discomforting one to carry at such an occasion meant for reuniting. It wasn’t until we were all assembled on the steps of the library for the class photo that I felt that feeling of detachment slip away. Instead of standing face-to-face, we’d all turned to arrange ourselves together on the steps, side-by-side, facing a photographer perched on a ladder. I felt thirty years slip away, and all those people were beside me, with me, shoulder-to-shoulder, facing exactly the same thing. A shorter future than before, but not without its continued promise.

~ ~ ~

A few of my friends sported a P’15 or a P’17 on their name tags, indicating their children were currently enrolled at our alma mater. At the big footstepscampus-wide dance, my sophomore roommate ushered me over to re-introduce me to her son. Only moments earlier I’d been laughing with the son of another classmate. Both young men were charming, articulate, good looking. Just the kind of guys I’d wish upon my daughters about a decade from now. Less than a decade, actually, for Short-pants. She’ll be thirteen this summer. College may not be just around the corner, but it’s not far down the bend. I would never press her to attend the same college as I did. But what if she wanted to?

I went to one of those universities that gets a boatload of applications every year and only a small percentage get accepted. I’m pretty sure that if I applied today I wouldn’t get in. My guess is that Short-pants has a reasonable chance; she’s bright and quirky, fits the profile. But is she bright enough? Does she need to ramp up her extra-curriculars? Would it help if I were more involved as an alumna? Should I be adding an extra zero to my checks for the annual fund? Do I have to start thinking about this stuff already? Do I have to think about it at all? Nobody’s strong-arming me, but the gentle suggestion from friends who’ve been there is do what you can, just in case she wants to apply.

I have a great appreciation for my undergraduate experience, and though I’ve been subtle about expressing it over the years, a strong loyalty to an institution that helped me come into my own, on my own. It’d be a kick to see a P’23 or a P’25 on my reunion name tag some day. I’ll happily drive them to the airport and wave goodbye. I can picture them roaming around the streets of the campus, wondering about what’s ahead. But if it’s going to happen, it’s really up to them. That’s the promise of the future, isn’t it? Anything can happen. And it’s all going to.


Apr 19 2014

Time and Time Again

They warned me. The ubiquitous voices of been-there-already parents, well-meaning strangers and card-carrying members of the cliché club. It all goes by so fast. They were referring to my children’s childhood, and how quickly it time_flieswould pass. When I was knee-deep in diapers and breast pumps, unable to find even a few minutes to brush my teeth, trying to coordinate conference calls with nap time, I’d just turn the other way and roll my eyes. Deep down I knew that someday I’d agree with them, but it didn’t make me any more receptive to their unsolicited commentary.

Now time screams by and each day the hands spin faster and faster around the clock. Those two tow-headed toddlers are long and lean. Short-pants is nearly as tall as I am. Buddy-roo is not far behind her in height. They can dress and feed themselves. They manage abstract concepts and demonstrate emotional intelligence. They are becoming interesting. Now that the extreme parenting required in those early days is – thankfully – behind me, I find myself observing my children with awe and amusement. I have to throw out an occasional bone: a reminder to set the table, help out with a complex homework question or to lob in some carefully-cloaked advice. I watch them knowing I will soon be irrelevant. They are sprinting toward a horizon that’s not mine to reach.

~ ~ ~

I don’t know why I thought that moving to a new city would give me more time. I imagined an uncluttered life, a tabula rasa, starting fresh without obligations that steal time. I must have been remembering my first year in Paris, when I’d go off on a Sunday morning and explore a different arrondissement block by block just for the sake of wandering, returning home as the sun set, nourished by the long quiet hours. I had only a few friends in the city, and fewer invitations to meet up with them. That was the mid-90s, and although I had an email address – a Compuserve number – the volume of messages in my inbox was a small fraction of what calls for a response today. The public internet existed, too, but it was nascent in its ability to eat up blocks of our time. That first year, though lonely, allowed me to stop and think about who and what I wanted to be and do. I foolishly incorporated that memory into my expectations of the move to Barcelona.

Laugh at me now. Living in a new place, everything takes longer. The errands that used to be on the way to somewhere aren’t quite as efficient. Getting around isn’t second nature. I’m operating in a different language. Spanish classes twice a week are helping with that, but these take up time, too. A move with kids adds another dimension of things to monitor and manage. I’m running faster than ever, once again on a hamster wheel but this time one of my own inadvertent design. The mantra that I hate to repeat comes too often to my lips: There’s never enough time.

~ ~ ~

Last week I spent time in Italy at the CREA conference, where I facilitated a workshop about time and creativity. It was a reprise of a 3-day workshop I’d done before, only this year, paradoxically, it was scheduled as a one-day program. The workshop wasn’t about time management, but rather an opportunity to reflect on the relationship with time and how we view it and use it. Not that I’m any kind of expert on this subject, but I took on the assignment because it’s one I need to explore over and over again. I wrote time_is_nowabout this before, when I chronicled the previous workshop, but it’s still true: we teach what we most need to learn.

Think of all the language around time: how we spend time, save time, waste time and kill time. We use time up, we take time out. Time is money, time waits for no thing and for no one. Time flies. We’re running out of time. We often talk about time in terms of Chronos, its passage in hours, days and years, counted and quantified. Contrast that with Kairos, the propitious moment of time, the opportune moment. This is the Carpe Diem approach, making the best of the now. These two notions of time dance together through our lives. While we can’t escape Chronos, we can be more deliberate about Kairos. All it takes, really, is paying attention to what’s happening right now. I had a lot of Kairos moments on the Camino, because I slowed down and paid attention. The only thing that stops me from doing that now is me. Sometimes I’m so busy keeping up, I forget to savor the little moments that, when pieced together later, are what add up to a lifetime of time well spent.

~ ~ ~

There are times when she is shy, painfully uncomfortable talking out loud in front of people. At the conference I invited Short-pants to attend a small group session with me, one where you reflect on the events of the day. She was eager to come and participate. When it was her turn to talk, though, she struggled to find the words, and even had a hard time looking up at the others in the small circle of chairs. I’m not troubled by this, she’s gregarious enough at home with family and in the company of close friends. It’s that I’m always surprised by her timing: it’s never quite logical, when she goes all shy, and when she steps up to take the stage.

On the last night of the CREA conference, a musical ensemble called Cluster performed an entertaining and interactive a cappella concert. After singing several songs and medleys, demonstrating their capacity for harmonizing and blending their voices to sound like musical instruments, they asked for three volunteers from the audience. Short-pants shot her hand up in the air, without even knowing what she was volunteering to do. Once on stage, she learned that she would conduct the singers, and that in her hands was the opportunity to go faster or slower, louder or softer. She was the youngest of the volunteer conductors, but probably the most deliberate, waving one hand to lead the singers through a version of The Beatles’ Let it Be with fierce concentration. she_conducts The audience applauded her wildly, for her courage more than her conducting prowess, and she won the opportunity to conduct a second time, as part of a competition, with the winner of another trio of volunteers. Once again she took the stage, this time the song was O Sole Mio, which she’d never heard before, but she managed to wave both arms this time and finish to more wild applause, enough to make her the victor once again. She stood tall and proud on the stage, beaming broadly, surveying the audience that had crowned her, taking in the moment fully.

From the moment she ran up to the stage until she came back to hug me when it was all over, time stopped. I didn’t think about what we’d been doing before, I didn’t wonder about what would happen after. I stood in the back of a big round room, my eyes riveted on her, my hands cupped over my mouth, feeling nervous and surprised and delighted all at once. She grabbed that moment for herself and in turn gave me one, too. That and a little elbow nudge in the side about our old friend time. It’s too easy to focus on how fast time goes by, watching your children grow up. Better just to pay attention, while it’s all happening, which is when they remind you how to seize the day.


Oct 29 2013

A Fall Fix

It was strange to be driving north, away from the sunny skies into cloudier cover and cooler temperatures. When the windshield wipers were required, De-facto and I glanced sideways at each other in the front seat, no doubt thinking the same thing: why are we driving away from the better weather? balloon_bcn_buildingUsually, for the Toussaint fall half-term break, it gets a little warmer and a little sunnier as we drive south toward our country house. This will take some getting used to, going the other way.

The drive is almost twice as long from Barcelona as it is from Paris, though we are a family for which time in a car is not a burden. Our children have been weaned on long car drives, so if they do ask, “are we there yet?” it’s only to mimic a conversation between Donkey and Shrek on their journey to Far Far Away. De-facto’s sister made us a few playlists, years ago, and these have become our standard driving music. We all know the words to the songs, and the order of the tracks, by heart.

We stopped at the Supermarket just off the highway and picked up some staples we’d need for meals for the few days we plan to stay in the country, and still made it to our old stone house before dusk closed in. It’s always easier to open the house in the daylight, though it hadn’t been officially closed yet. De-facto was here for an overnight in September; he couldn’t remember if he’d left the electricity on or not. If it had been shut off, we didn’t know if we might arrive to a mold-ridden refrigerator. It’s happened before, when the last people out forgot to leave fridge door open before cutting the electricity and closing the house. It took hours of cleaning with a scouring pad and a lot of cursing, not even under my breath.

The fridge had been left closed, but it was nice and chilly inside, thanks to a steady flow of electricity. I removed the inedible food that had been languishing for weeks and restocked it with the groceries just purchased. We’d cleared our most of the furniture from the main room of the house before leaving in August – if moving to a new city weren’t enough, we’re also in the process of renovating the country house kitchen, a project that after many years I’d finally convinced De-facto to support so I wasn’t about to give it up no matter how bad the timing – so the room was empty but for the ancient appliances. We’d have to move the table and chairs back into the kitchen so we could function for a few days.

“Quick, everybody,” De-facto shouted from upstairs, “Bring cups!”

I had no idea why he wanted us to bring him cups, but his appeal was urgent, so I scrambled around, trying to remember where I’d stored all the cups when we’d dismantled the kitchen at the end of the summer. After opening three ladder_up_to_walldifferent boxes, I remembered we stashed them on the shelves in a back room. I grabbed three, and the girls and I ran upstairs.

A large paint bucket, placed on top of the wardrobe in our bedroom to catch the drips from a minor leak that emerged last year, was filled to the brim with rain water that had leaked in and accumulated over two months. It was too full for him to move it. Cup by cup, in assembly line form, we emptied enough of the water until he could lift it without spilling the contents and carry the bucket to the bathroom to dump it out. The wall behind the leak was soaked, as was the floor and the carpet beneath the wardrobe. The ceiling between the skylight and the wet wall was covered with black splotches of mold. When it rains, it pours. In our case, inside.

The leak was no longer a minor one. We wondered if the kitchen renovation project would be stalled while we replaced the roof instead. But our neighbor, who’s prepping the walls and ceiling for the new kitchen cabinets, stopped by and peeked upstairs at the at the skylight and the ceiling. He returned minutes later with a ladder and some tools and found the problem that had eluded De-facto on his roof-top romps over the summer. Within an hour, he declared the leak repaired. Since his proclamation, a few days ago, it’s rained with significant force, and the bucket remains dry. The fix, at least for now, is a good one.

~ ~ ~

I was missing the autumn. It’s my instinct, about now, to put on a sweater. Barcelona’s warmer weather hasn’t required it. I’m not complaining – I’m looking forward to the milder winter ahead – but it wasn’t until Short-pants and I went out for a walk down the lane and into the woods that I remembered how much I relish these few October weeks, just after Indian summer and before the gray, windy November days settle in. The leaves, though not as vibrant as in New England where I grew up, are still a colorful range of yellow and gold hues. The air is crisp, the wind not yet cool, but brisk, gusty. All of a sudden I’m somewhere else: raking in the yard of my childhood home, under that old split-leaf maple, and then jumping into the pile of leaves; or climbing up the bleachers at a home-team high-school football game; or walking up the brick sidewalk near my college campus, smelling and feeling the end and the beginning of something, all at once. Autumn is for me the most nostalgic season of the year. Each season has its good memories, but the fall conjures my favorite ones.
grapes
Not just from my childhood, from this country house, too. Though this fall’s busy schedule didn’t permit it, in previous years we’ve made mid September weekend trips to harvest the grapes and take advantage of the last days of Indian summer. (A few stray bunches grapes remained on the vines this year, it would have been a good harvest. But instead the birds enjoyed the fruits of my labor.) We make it a point to come every October, taking advantage of the school break to enjoy a few more country days before we close the house for winter (when we leave the fridge door wide open). When the kids were little we constructed some very frightening Halloweens here, and it was by far better to trick or treat down the dark and spooky country road then to make stops the places we’d planted candy in our Paris neighborhood. It’s not fancy, our country house, but it’s a (mostly dry) roof over our heads near open fields and wild forests. It’s the source of good, strong memories from every season, but the ones in the making right now – a leaky roof and a leafy walk – gave me just what I needed: a quick fix of fall.


Jun 24 2013

Surviving June

At the school drop-off, mothers and fathers congregate outside on the sidewalk. Faces look drawn, fatigued from the routine of the school year. We’ve had it with the up-in-the-morning rush to get the kids to school on time, the homework battles after school, the tests, the rushed trips to the bookstore to get that book that’s needed for tomorrow, the exposés that require parental assistance. We’re all dreaming of summer holidays, those mornings when we can sleep in, let the children rise whenever they happen jantzen_swimmerto wake up, get their own breakfast and play by themselves. Those lazy summer afternoons without lessons and classes and all the extracurricular appointments that require enthusiastic schlepping to and fro. Within reach, now, the joys of summer camp, grandparents taking over, and long holidays in the country where the children can fend for themselves.

There is, of course, another side to summer: children underfoot without the reliable 8-hour pause button known as school. At the rentrée in September, we greet each other in front the school considerably more rested, but nonetheless aggravated by the 24/7 company of our children for at least some part, if not all, of the summer. By then, we can’t wait for school to start again.

But now, we’re in June, the month of end-of-scholastic-year madness. June, with all its rites of passage: all the closing concerts, recitals, spectacles, field trips, picnics, parties, and of course the kermesse, an excruciating day of home-made carnival games, face-painting and raffles. June, when after-school commitments seem to double with the final preparations for these closing events. Nearly every evening and weekend day taken with some function, be it an extra rehearsal, a performance, a celebration or a parent-teacher meeting. Thank goodness Paris is at a latitude that enjoys long hours of daylight around the summer solstice, because the days feel endless and we need those extra hours of sunlight to fit it all in.

In the last month I have attended every kind of event: a rock’n’roll show, a dance spectacle, theater performances, several different orchestra concerts orchestra_playsand recitals. In the audience watching my offspring shine (and struggle), I’d wave back when I saw Short-pants or Buddy-roo searching for me in the crowd of parents. It made me think of the charismatically stoic look on my father’s face as he sat with arms folded, cramped in a row of uncomfortable folding chairs in a school cafeteria-turned-auditorium, my mother beside him with her perpetually-expectant smile, waiting for a one of my concerts to start. I don’t think they missed a single performance, a long tour of duty spanning the twenty years between my older brother’s first piano recital and – I’m the youngest – my last orchestra concert.

So as I complain about the burden of all these squeaky, semi-synchronized performances, I look upward – because that’s what you do when your parents are both gone – and imagine my mother and father smiling down at me with the same expressions they wore so bravely through every single recital, play or concert that they had to endure, and I think about how you never truly appreciate your own parents until you become one yourself.

It all seems a bit more intense this year because I’ve had to navigate through June as a solo parent. De-facto slyly scheduled multiple work projects that required his presence in the US and in Canada – too far to skip home for a few days and give me any relief – and so I have been wearing all the hats of valet, cook, nurse, maid, tutor, coach, stylist, chaperone, schlepper and wild applauder.
wheel_of_responsibility
I cannot begrudge him these deplacements, three weeks straight of travel for legitimate business and to collaborate with creative colleagues. Though he is too much a gentleman to count the days that he has had to operate as a single parent while I’ve traveled for work or to walk the Camino, or to attend the fiesta, I am very aware of the responsibility he shoulders when I get to escape. Indeed, turnabout is fair play. But did he have to pick June to be out of town for nearly the whole month?

September won’t be much easier. The effort required of parents to line up and sign up for classes and extra-curricular courses, to buy books and supplies, to fill out forms in duplicate, to sort out the new routine and get the kids back into the groove of school is nearly, though not quite, as rigorous as the grind of June. It helps if both parents are present, and perhaps De-facto and I should just simply declare a moratorium on travel for the both of us in the months of September and June. That way we’d share the grief and the groans. But also, we’d witness, together, these rites of passage, the beginnings and endings of the chapters in the lives of our not-so-little-anymore girls. Their childhood is screaming by (as everybody warned me), month-by-month, year-to-year, summer-after-summer. I shouldn’t mind the heavy itinerary of June performances – deep down inside you know I’ve relished every bow stroke and dance step – but I’m readier than ever for the summer break. If I can just survive the last days of June.


Mar 23 2013

The Higher Road

I hadn’t met a single pilgrim on the road for three full days. Not that there weren’t any – I saw four people the very first day – but there weren’t many. For two nights in a row I was the only person staying in a pensión. The third morning I saw another place setting at breakfast, but I headed out before he or she came to the table. The only people I conversed with were hoteliers and hospitaleros, and barmaids at cafés along the way. I relished the solitude. Hours alone, just the sound of my footsteps and the swish-swish of my wet-weather pants. Nothing to do but walk and think and talk to myself out loud.
20130324-184617.jpg
Except I’d catch myself thinking sour thoughts: remembering a difficult person, hashing over an unpleasant memory, or thinking about a conversation I’m not looking forward to. When I noticed this, I’d correct it, taking a deep breath of fresh air or focusing on the stunning vistas around me. I’d try to think about something good, like De-facto and Short-pants and Buddy-roo and how lucky I am that they would give me the space and time to do the Camino. Then, some kilometers later, I’d catch myself again, trudging through the bad stuff.

Why is that? Why is it that when my mind wanders, it meanders so easily to ugly thoughts? I’m not saying not to address or confront the difficult situations in life. But to fester with them, which I’m adept at, is really a waste of valuable mental capacity, not to mention that ever-precious commodity, time.

It makes me think about how important it is to pay attention to my train of thought, to be mindful of altering the ratio of “time spent thinking” in favor things positive and productive.

~ ~ ~

Coming out of Villafranca del Bierzo there are three routes, accordingly to the Brierley guidebook that I carry. The lower road snakes along the Route N-VI, passing through lots of little villages and hamlets. While easier on the knees – you don’t have to climb up and down any hills, or navigate rocky, muddy, or snowy trails – it’s not easy on the soul. You walk beside the cars and trucks, often sharing the road with them. It can also be dangerous; once when the path was merged with the road, I was in such a Camino zone I almost didn’t notice the oncoming car. 20130324-184532.jpg

Another route is marked in the guidebook by a series of green dots, indicating an alternative scenic route, generally more forested and the furthest away from traffic. On these routes, you have to carry all your water and food. No counting on a village café to buy a bocadillo or have a bowl of caldo and you can’t be certain of finding potable water. This particular green-dotted route, called the Dragonte, is 25.1 kilometers of nature and no civilization, crossing three mountains, up and down. It would be gorgeous. It would also be rigorous. Given that ten days ago I was flat out with a bad back, and how tricky the weather might be, I knew I couldn’t risk it. Especially since hadn’t seen another pilgrim on the route since the first afternoon.

The third route, to the north, is called the Pradela. The guidebook warns of its steep incline, and suggests that it is a challenging path, but I couldn’t bring myself to take the route in the middle of the valley with all the traffic, which could be as dangerous, if not more, than being alone on a ridge in a forest by yourself for 13k, the distance until the first hamlet. I knew better than to take the uber-scenic trail. I didn’t want the low road. This one, the higher road, seemed just right.

It started out with an sharp, steep slope. For at least a hundred meters it felt like I was climbing a never-ending staircase. Eventually the slope became gentler, but it still headed upwards, taking me to and along a high ridge that peaked at 930 meters. I had sun and clouds that 20130324-184550.jpgday, and lots of wind. I was high enough to have incredible views of the valley below and the mountains on the other side, with the trail I didn’t take. As the path gradually dipped back down toward the main road, it weaved through a forest of ancient chestnut trees with thick trunks and wise expressions. I was in the zone, like a runner’s high, so I stepped off the trail and wandered between the trees. I sat in the hollowed-out trunk of a grandfather chestnut tree, and thought about only good things.

~ ~ ~

On the first day back on the Camino – now already a week ago – I came into a tiny village and saw a young woman walking out of a café-bar carrying a beer. She set it down on the table on the terrace. She said hello to me, in English, with an American accent.

“That’s a good idea,” I said, eyeing her beer. I unhooked myself from my backpack, setting it on the chair of a nearby table so I could go inside and get one, too.

“Maybe you can tell me,” she said, “how much should I tip here in Spain?”

“I don’t tip them at all,” a brash voice coming out of the bar answered before I had a chance. It belonged to a guy, probably in his early thirties, shaved head, a bit of a swashbuckler. I couldn’t tell his origin, maybe Brit, maybe Down Under. He set his glass on another table, across the road, but he didn’t sit down.

I explained to the young woman the my policy for tipping in Spain: rounding up to an even number and then adding a little bit more, especially now because the economy is in rough shape and these people are scraping by, especially in the winter with so few pilgrims on the route.

“They’d make some money if they weren’t all closed,” the guy yelled from across the street, pacing back and forth. “Think I can make it back to Astorga tonight? I’m gonna walk back and take a bus to Madrid where things are happening. I’m sick of this. Nothing is open.”
20130324-184625.jpg
I wanted to ask him exactly why he’d started the Camino in the first place. But we were headed opposite directions and any suggestions I might make, soulful or reprimanding, probably wouldn’t register. I opted to keep quiet. Besides, it was my first day back on the Camino. Who was I to be a know-it-all? (At least out loud.)

It’s easy to be righteous. What’s harder is to let people be in their own place on their own path in their own problems. To observe, not in a scrutinizing or judgmental way, but in an observant and curious way, the kind where your silence might actually be more useful than your advice.

~ ~ ~

I lost track of the days of the week. I know the date, only because with every sello, or stamp, in my credentials, the barmaid or hospitalier is obliged to add the date. At first I tried to keep count of how many days to Santiago, but then I realized it involved keeping track of the time. While it may not be something I can do permanently, at least this week I can take a vacation from worrying about when and where I have to be next. So, it could take two more days, it could take four days, it depends on my feet, my back, the weather. I’ve walked in the pouring rain for two days now. It can make you walk faster. Or it can make you stop early for the day.

I’ve made good time, better than I expected, but not because I’ve been in a hurry. It happened more than once: I’d set off in the morning gauging where I might like to finish the day, thinking about a walk of 18-25k, targeting an albergue or a pensión marked in the guidebook. I’d get there, only to find everything shut tight. One day I walked 36k, passing through four villages that I hoped would have accommodation, but nothing was open. I found myself cursing them, out loud to nobody, for being closed. It made me think about that guy I met on the first day. I’m glad I didn’t say anything to him. I hope he’s having a good time in Madrid.
20130324-184649.jpg
The minimum distance you must walk to qualify for a compostela is 100 kilometers. People who don’t want to walk the whole distance of the Camino, or who can’t take the time, will start in Sarria, 100 kilometers away, and walk the four or five days it takes to get to Santiago. In Sarria, the volume of pilgrims increases, noticeably. All of a sudden, the luxurious days of walking without seeing a soul are over. My solitude has been abruptly interrupted.

The first morning out of Sarria, I ducked into a roadside café to rest my feet for a few moments. After days of being the only person in just about every bar I stopped at, I was surprised to see tables crowded with pilgrims and a line to use the bathrooms. There was a buzz of conversation, and then the ritual of pilgrim questions: Where are you from? Where did you start? Why are you doing the Camino?

I wasn’t really in the mood for this chatter. I wanted to shout out: What are all you people doing on my Camino? I’ve done the whole Camino Francés, from the beginning, in St. Jean Pied de Port, and I’ve been walking for days, over high peaks and through a foot of snow!

But I didn’t. I’ve spent too much time walking, and thinking, about the higher roads, and how to take them. I softly answered the questions, and asked a few of my own, gently moving into the company and companionship of others, on their own paths but for the next few days, next to mine, as the road, high and low, draws us all nearer to Santiago.


Mar 18 2013

Leaving Behind

I called out to the girls, playing in the yard. “Don’t forget I need a stone from each of you.”

They screeched in unison, remembering the task I’d assigned days ago – and reminded them of again the night before – to select a small rock from somewhere around our country house for me to carry on the Camino. My back was still tender; I wasn’t convinced that in a week’s time, especially after playing tourist in Barcelona, I’d be able to fly to León to make my way on foot to Santiago. But since the Pilates workouts I’ve been doing make my recoveries quicker, I held out some hope that I’d be up for the walk.

Short-pants ran toward me with her fist extended, opening it to reveal a small angular rock. Buddy-roo hobbled on her crutches soon after, offering me another stone, about the same size. I’d set my backpack, ready to go, on the 20130318-205137.jpg bench outside the country house so De-facto could put it in the trunk when he packed the car. I squatted down, carefully, and unzipped one of the small side pouches of my pack, saying out loud to myself where I was putting them, so I wouldn’t forget, later, where I’d stashed the two stones.

~ ~ ~

The taxi dropped me in front of the Cathedral in Astorga. I’d planned to take a cab from the León airport to the bus station in the city center and from there an hour-long ride to pick up where I left the Camino last summer. A few questions at the airport taxi stand and a little negotiation made the smarter option to go directly to my starting point in Astorga. I’d kissed the girls goodbye at 6:30 am as they slept in their beds in Barcelona. By 11:30 I was walking on the Camino Santiago de Compostela.

I stopped three times in the first kilometer to get myself situated, each time carefully removing my pack – at its heaviest with a full supply of water – shifting the tube to my water bladder from the left to the right side and moving key supplies to familiar places. Tissues and lip balm in the zipper compartment on one side, iPhone poised in camera mode on the other. Map in the left pants pocket, money in the right. I fell right back into the ergonomic system I’d worked out last year. The air was chilly but the sun was warm, my back seemed okay and my legs felt strong. I’d planned to walk just 5k, to get started. Twenty kilometers later I rolled into Rabanal, a village just before the highest point on the Camino, the Cruz de Ferro.

The next morning I looked out the window of my pensión to see the village rooftops of the covered in snow. The road was wet, though not slippery. It turned into a muddy track at the top of the village. With altitude the ground was frozen, and as I climbed higher there was snow, several inches covering the ground. The fog and the light sprinkling of falling snow 20130318-203011.jpglaid a blanket of quiet over everything. All I could hear was the sound of my boots crunching on the snow.

It’s customary for Pilgrims to leave a stone or a talisman at the Cruz de Ferro, a symbolic gesture of leaving something you’ve been carrying and no longer need. That’s why I’d asked the girls for stones. I’d been thinking, for a while, about what I’d like to let go. Something that would ease my own burden, but also that, if I really could leave it behind, would help my daughters, too. Either because I’d be happier, or because it’d model something important for them.

I dug through the compartments of my backpack to find the two stones that Short-pants and Buddy-roo had found for me and put them in my coat pocket so I could reach them easily at the right moment. One of them I’d designated as the burden of time. I have become so very tired, and bored, of thinking about time. I am allotted hours in the day that seem never to be sufficient. I became more aware of this during my stretches on the Camino last year, but I still struggle with time. I think about it, I talk about it, I complain about never having enough of it. I want to stop this.

I waste too much time catching up instead of being present – this relates to my second stone – because I am always trying to do what is (or I believe is) expected of me. To be a good girl. A good mother. A reliable colleague. A friend you can count on. None of these terrible qualities to be known for, unless achieving them cuts you off from being at ease with life and savoring it rather than rushing through it. I want to stop being good and start being true.

~ ~ ~

As I approached the Cruz de Ferro, I could barely see it because of the fog. I admired the huge mound of stones at its base, thousands of small rocks piled on top of each other, representing the prayers and requests of the pilgrims, faithful or not, who’ve passed by. I fingered the two stones in my pocket, thinking again, as I had been all morning, about what I had infused into them and what it would mean, the act of leaving them there. Not that I put so much import on a cross standing on a mound of stones at the top of a mountain along the road. Except that it can signify something, if I want it to. A wedding doesn’t ensure a lifetime as a happy couple, but it does serve as a milestone to mark your intention to be so. That is the purpose of rituals.
20130318-203141.jpg
The Camino itself is a ritual, and walking it doesn’t mean I will change entirely. I never expected to return home as someone new. Doing the Camino has been for me a chance to reflect upon everything I am walking in this lifetime, and I suppose, to try to be true to it.

I pulled those two rocks out of my pocket and said a few words to whatever force might be out there in the universe listening. I did this not because I necessarily believe that someone or something would answer me or grant my requests, but more because it was important for me to say my intention out loud and to hear myself say it. I don’t know if I’ll ever make peace with time. Being true instead of being good feels like a tall order. But I can try.

At first I placed the two little rocks neatly, side by side, on top of a larger flat stone. On second thought, I picked them both up and threw them haphazardly amongst the the other rocks. Now they were just part of the pile. I stared up at the cross. Prayer ties, attached to the pole, flapped in the wind.

Just beyond the Cruz de Ferro there’s a rest area with picnic tables. I wiped the wet snow off the bench, slipped out of my pack and took a seat. I pulled out a sandwich and ate it, slowly. When my feet felt rested enough or my body felt too cold – I’m not sure which – I stood up and and threaded my arms through the straps of my pack. The pinch that plagued me last week, just above my hip, was gone. I felt good. I walked away from the Cruz de Ferro and I didn’t look back.


Mar 6 2013

The Ennui

I heard a long, shrieking moan from upstairs. I couldn’t tell it if was one of Short-pants‘ angry moans or the start of a crying jag. I walked to the foot of the stairs and turned the ear that wasn’t against the telephone – I was talking to my sister – to try and hear what was happening. After the initial wail, nothing. It was quiet.
graffiti_face
Had I not been on the telephone, I’d have called up to her or climbed up to check. But I hate it when I’m talking to someone who switches to a conversation with their kids mid-stream, often without a warning or a quick excuse me. Since there wasn’t any continuation from the original cry, I figured she’d sorted it out. If not, I knew I’d hear from her.

After the call finished, I went upstairs and found Short-pants curled up in her bed. Buddy-roo was sitting beside her, stroking her hair with a consoling air.

“She has a fever,” Buddy-roo said, somber, like a doctor pronouncing a fatal illness.

I put my hand on Short-pants’ forehead. There was nothing feverish about it.

“What’s wrong, sweet?” I asked.

“I just felt…” She paused and moaned again. “…some boredom coming on.”

I swallowed the snicker that wanted to leap out – this is one of those instances when parenting requires such suppression – trying to think of how best to address the problem of what was clearly, to Short-pants, a serious ennui. All that came to mind was oh no, here comes adolescence.

“I’m afraid,” she whispered, as if in pain, “that I’m becoming a teenager.”

~ ~ ~

I can’t remember the last time I was bored. I think I might welcome it with my own kind of moan, one of joy. How lovely to have nothing in particular to do, no tasks in the queue, no pressing items on deck. I know boredom has its drawbacks, but I’d gladly endure them for a temporary bout of it.
no_queueing
I think boredom must be good for you. In those moments of having nothing to do, or feeling like you have nothing to do, there’s reason to stop and reflect. What should I do? What do I want to do? Or even if you have a lot of things to do and it all seems tiresome – that’s a different kind of boredom – there’s an awareness that something is not quite right. It’s a signal to pay attention, a call to fix your direction, your mood, or both.

The opposite of boredom, I suppose, is being in the flow, aligned in mind and spirit with what you’re doing, so absorbed by an activity that hours pass quickly while engaged in it. It feels like this state of flow is harder and harder to achieve these days, compared to when Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first wrote about it in the ’90s, because our concentration is constantly interrupted, more than ever before.

How many of us live between boredom and flow, the purgatorial territory of just-tryin-to-keep-up? Not that it’s so terrible; there are moments of satisfaction and delight sprinting through the day-to-day. There’s even a little room for fun and laughter, just that it happens at the speed of light before turning nose back to the grindstone to attend to the oncoming deluge of professional, personal and familial tasks pressing forward. A little boredom wouldn’t hurt. More time in the flow would be ideal.

~ ~ ~

The girls are, at the moment, addicted to a game called Subway Surfer, which, thanks to the iCloud, exists on both my iPhone and iPad, so they don’t argue over who gets to play it. The app was downloaded as a reward, used only when homework and practice and chores are completed. It’s also a useful deterrent to interruptions when I have an evening conference call. In this game, the avatar – a punk kid with a spray can – is caught tagging in a train yard and must escape a captor by running along the tracks and up and over the trains, train_graffiticollecting large gold coins along the way. During the course of a single session, the more you succeed, the faster the little avatar screams along the rails, over and under barriers and zig-zagging around trains and through tunnels. Short-pants especially is adept at handling this speed with her index finger, Buddy-roo prefers her thumb but moves with agility to outrun the captor for longer than I can. My reflexes, though improving with practice, are still inferior to theirs. Or maybe I crash because it reminds me too much of my real life: things start out seeming in control, I’m buzzing along picking up coins and effortlessly jumping over obstacles. The more I seem to accomplish, the more there is to handle, and the speed of things seems to be like an avatar running out of control, crashing and burning beneath the front of an oncoming train.

~ ~ ~

She was a sweet little girl, innocent, naive, hopeful for a happy world. This is probably every mother’s elegy for a daughter on the doorstep of puberty. Having barely mastered wrestling with our own hormones, now we have to wrestle theirs, and help them with the wrestling, too. I’ve teased Short-pants, extracting promises from her not to become a rotten teenager. But it’s something we probably can’t avoid. The girl who who used to love school, who rushed to do her homework, who helped gladly with the household chores, is no longer. Okay, not entirely; her sweet smiling self is still present in our home. But she’s sometimes replaced by a quasi-grumpy girl who mopes and moans, does the bare minimum of any task assigned, school or home, and refuses to change out of her pajamas on the weekend.

She’s child/woman, not yet a teenager, but no longer little girl. One minute stomping out of the room, commanding us to leave her alone. The next, writing up a roster of fairies to use in a game of make-believe with her little sister. With all the changes going on inside that big girl/little girl body, I have no idea how on earth she could be bored. But I envy her for it. And I admire her theatrics. Let’s hope she manages all her ennui with such aplomb.