Feb 14 2013

Valentimes

Last night, a frenzy of jet-lag induced productivity resulted in a batch of just-in-time handmade Valentines. At about 9 pm, when I should have been coaxing Short-pants and Buddy-roo to brush their teeth and crawl into bed, I remembered that we hadn’t made any heart-shaped cards or messages for their papa. Out came the construction paper, Mr. Sketch markers, magazines and scissors. The dining table was instantly covered in scraps.

De-facto had left for a week-long trip that morning, almost exactly 24 hours after I’d returned from a week-long trip, giving us just enough time to hand off the baton of childcare and bring me up to speed on the upcoming homework assignments, rehearsals, birthday parties and the rest of the long Buddy-roo_Vcardlist of social or scholastic responsibilities. It was barely enough time to reconnect, and not enough time for me to get those girls’ fingers in glue and glitter to make Valentine’s cards without him knowing, so that we could slip them into his suitcase.

Instead, the meeting of touch and tech, as their handmade masterpieces met the glasstop of the scanner and went digital so they could be attached to emails that zapped out of my inbox this morning. Once the girls were in bed, I made my own handmade cards for the them, scanned the one I’d crafted for De-facto and attached it to an email, pasted everyone’s head on a couple of Jib-Jab cards. By now I’d passed the window of drowsiness when I could fallen into a sound night’s sleep. My second wind had kicked in, and with it I scurried around the house in the dark, the girls snoring audibly upstairs in their rooms as I moved from love messages to work emails, scrambling to clean out that in-box, to catch up from being gone, to try and get ahead so my time wouldn’t be so crunched at the end of the week.

I’m still trying to make peace with time. Each day I wrestle with tendencies that have plagued me my whole life: overestimating what I can do and underestimating how long it will take. On top of that I’m greedy. I say yes more than I should, but it’s hard to turn down interesting opportunities. Then, when all my plates are overloaded and I’m barely keeping them spinning in the air, I throw myself back against my pillow, pressing the knuckles of my hand to my forehead, lamenting my foolish busy-ness and longing for a string of slower days with nothing to do.

When I was walking the Camino I slowed down, and so did time. It took all the hours of the day – or most of them – to get from when resting place to the next. In between there were only the distractions of nature, and the clock_bellysound of my own footfall. Today, rushing home after dropping Buddy-roo at school, chatting out loud to myself about the things I planned to get done before noon, grumbling about the cold rain, the lights in the kitchen that need to be fixed, my suitcase on the floor in the hallway, still unpacked after two days home, a surge of impatience swelled in my chest. Forced to wait at a busy crosswalk, I looked down at my boots, the worn, brown hikers that carried me 550 kilometers last year. They reminded me to breathe. Sometimes I wonder if all the presence and steadiness I gained from walking the Camino has already worn off. I’m not sure I expected it to change me entirely, but I felt different when I returned. Then my world of work and family wrapped itself around me again, many patterns remain.

Except the winding up takes a little longer than it used to. The dervish in me spins out a little sooner. My recovery is faster. All it took today was looking down at my feet on the pavement, and the miles of track and road and grass that I’ve covered stretched like a wide wake behind me, a slow and welcome drag on the engine that motors me forward.

I pulled those boots out from the back of my closet because I’m breaking them in again, reminding my feet about how they fit. And a month from tomorrow, I’ll travel back to Astorga, where I left off last summer. I plan to finish the Camino, ending in Santiago on Easter weekend. Not one single professional assignment has landed in March, and De-facto is willing to pilot the household alone again for a couple of weeks while I take time to finish what I started.

Which might be why I stayed up till the wee hours last night, making cut-out hearts and pasting and coloring, making Valentimes, as Short-pants and Buddy-roo – and just about every little kid you know – used to say. De-facto doesn’t care about the holiday, there’s nothing Hallmark about him, but I had to let him know. This is a guy who, time after time, never stands in the way of me doing what I want to do. He gets to be my Valentime. back_of_Vcard

This morning, shrills of delight from the girls as they found feathered heart pens by their breakfast bowls, heart shaped lollipops and my home-made cards hidden in the pockets of their school bags. Short-pants handed over some Valentines she’d made last weekend, pink and red and peppered with crooked but affectionate words. She motioned for me to turn the card over to see the back, on which she’d drawn a laptop computer with a heart in place of the Apple logo.

“Because you spend a lot of time on your computer,” she said.

I winced. No mother wants this to be how her child remembers her.

“But mama, you love to write.”

I’ve never been a huge fan of Valentine’s Day. I never snubbed it – who wants to be left out of the holiday of hearts? This year I think I’ve figured out why it’s worth celebrating. Hopefully, the people we love know it because we show them in little ways, every day. Valentine’s Day is when you take that extra bit of time to slow down and make sure you tell them.


Dec 11 2012

Adjustments

I tiptoed up the stairs, knowing how if you are laying in our bed the sound of footsteps echo in our hallway and you can hear them drawing near. I slipped the key into the lock and turned it slowly, quietly pushing open the door and then easing it closed behind me, noiselessly. In the apartment, I set my suitcase down gently, surveying the cluttered living room. I was home, and so far nobody knew.

Too wired from the travel, but exhausted from the adrenaline-dip that follows every job, I was restless. I wanted to unpack, but I was afraid it might make too much noise. I didn’t feel like climbing into bed, but I didn’t want to stay up either. Mostly, I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I snuck into the bathroom to wash my face when I heard De-facto and Short-pants talking to the neighbors in the hall outside our apartment. They’d gone next door to wait for me, but I had eluded them with my stealth return. The rush of hugs a clear indication of how happy they were to see me. I was happy to see them, too. Mostly. I also wanted them to leave me alone.

Buddy-roo was at a sleepover with a friend, which in retrospect was a good decision on De-facto’s part. Sliding back into the household is hard enough. Her particular brand of attention can be overwhelming and I wasn’t yet ready to be that enthusiastic mom who re-channels it with grace.

The thing about being away is that you get used to your own company. You get used to looking at only your stuff and nobody else’s. You get used to that quiet hour before bed and the luxury of having only yourself to get ready in the morning. The clients and meetings can be demanding, but their requests fall within a reliable frame. And once the door to the hotel room is closed, there is nobody calling you to get out of bed to scratch their back, check for a fever or scare away the monster under the bed.

I remember when De-facto and I were “dating.” Ours was a long distance relationship for more than three years and we’d jet back and forth between Boston and Paris, getting to know each other one long weekend at a time. There was always an adjustment period, during which awkward feelings and questions threw darts at the initial delight of our reunion. It’d take a day or two to get in sync again. I suppose that hasn’t changed. I know how it feels when he returns from a long business trip and I’ve been running an efficient household without him. Surely my return interrupts the rhythm he and the girls have established. Not to mention how jarring it is for me.

All of a sudden, I’m a mom again. I have to attend to boo-boos and aches and pains and the combing and braiding of hair. I have to get excited about art projects and stop whatever I’m doing to watch the latest ballet move. I have to press little noses to the grindstone on their homework. I resume my role as Vice President of Errands: the book of verb conjugation I have to buy (for tomorrow); the trousse d’écolier is missing a glue stick or it out of ink cartridges for the fountain pen; the music teacher requires the purchase of a metronome and a battery-powered tuner – the tapping of feet and my old-fashioned tuning fork aren’t sufficient. One girl needs metro tickets for a field trip, the other baked goods for a school party. These requests are presented haphazardly and of course, at the last possible minute.

What’s remarkable is how quickly you get out of practice. I was only gone for two weeks, but I’ve gotten sloppy. Last night, when De-facto came home from an evening out, I’d just barely put the girls to bed. He grilled me on our activities.

“Did they do their handstands?”

Short-pants has to achieve this for her gym class, so they’ve started practicing every night at home to strengthen her arms. I shook my head; I’d forgotten.

“Viola practice?”

I hung my head in shame. “No.”

I had to confess to him that I’d fallen asleep on the couch while Short-pants and Buddy-roo played on my iPad. Some stellar parenting, that.

He smiled. “A little rusty, are you?”

Instead of getting perturbed, he pokes fun at me, which, I suppose, is just what it takes to help me make the adjustment to being back home.


Jun 20 2012

The Hand-Off

They hoisted their heavy cartables up on to their back, the lift and twist on to one arm and then reaching the other back, blindly, to find the strap and slip beneath it. It’s a motion they enact several times a day without thinking. Each time I see it, I wince. Their school bags are so heavy. The number of books and notebooks the girls are required to cart back and forth, daily, is pretty serious. Some days it feels like Short-pants‘ bag weighs more than the pack I carried on the Camino.

They trampled down the four flights of worn, wooden steps and out the door to the street. The morning was fresh, a downpour during the night had cleared the air and cleansed the streets. Short-pants grabbed one of my hands and Buddy-roo seized the other, sandwiching me between them.

We talked through the order of events for the day: how I’d come back to school to help out with the line rehearsal for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the year-end production of their theater atelier in which I was also implicated, having volunteered to create and manage the changing of sets via Powerpoint presentation; how our “sitter” would come to get Short-pants and sweep her off to an orchestra rehearsal; how Buddy-roo would go home with a friend because I had an appointment, how the sitter would pick her up later and get them dinner; how the rest of the week’s homework had to get done early because of the school play. Every day has been like this, a full schedule of meetings and hand-offs, the three of us shuffling around to all the final rehearsals for theater, orchestra and tap-dance performances that culminate during these final weeks of June.

It was perhaps not the best planning that De-facto would leave Paris the day after I returned from Spain. I’d hoped to be on the Camino few days longer, but the reality of my responsibilities stepped into the spotlight and delivered a long monologue about how I’d been away already a luxurious amount of time and I had no right to even think of sulking a moment about returning home a few days earlier than my original plan. And by the time I got to León, I missed my family something fierce. I started to dream about the girls throwing their thin, pale arms around me, the sweet smell of their breath, and their soft, smooth, hands in mine.

Apparently they missed me, too. The day before I returned home I got a message on my voicemail from Buddy-roo, describing what had been the “worst day of her life” and how she wished I’d come home. Once I was in the door, after two days of train travel to get there, De-facto appeared with a small tub of a water and a sponge, in homage to my experience at the Ermita de San Nicolas, and washed my weary pilgrim feet. The next day, however, he put his own feet on an airplane and left me in charge in Paris.

After weeks of walking slowly through life, I was immediately asked to sprint. The multi-tasking, order-barking, for the third time please brush your teeth, up-in-the-morning-out-the-door routine a stark contrast to the contemplative preparation of my backpack each day before setting off to walk on my own. The fetching and feeding of children, the hither and yonder to get them to this and that rehearsal, catching up with the details of our household, resuming my professional duties, let alone catching up with any friends put many things on the plate that I had so thoroughly emptied during my walking sabbatical.

This is probably just what St. James had ordered for me. I’d been gone for nearly a month and I’d forgotten how to be a parent. Had De-facto been around, I’d have let him keep the lead role. In his immediate and complete absence, I was forced to remember how and when to cook for the kids, how to help them stay on top of their homework, how to motivate them to do the chores that earn their allowance, how to read with them a bedtime and sing them soothing songs to coax them to sleep.

I did, however, forget to suggest a bath, and the girls went for a good long stretch without one. The day after my return, I’d washed and dried every towel we own. Nearly a week later I noticed they were still perfectly folded on the towel rack, untouched.

Maybe there were a few other things I forgot about mothering: like how to bury my nose in my computer, or how to send texts on my phone on the walk home from school, how to snap at them sharply when I’m distracted or frustrated. I’m hoping these might remain absent from my fashion of parenting.

Especially the electronic part. I see so many people on the street, walking and tapping their thumbs on their smartphones, oblivious to the friends beside them and the world around them. If this is the only thing I learn from the camino – when you walk, just walk – it’d be enough. How good it feels to stop the constant multi-tasking and just be with the sights and sounds of even an urban stroll, to be fully present with my daughters, but also with myself. My feet are now in street shoes rather than hiking boots, stepping on pavement rather than a dirt track or a hiking trail, but why should that make a difference?

Last night, a friend helped us out, fetching Buddy-roo at the cabinet médical after a routine eye exam to take her to a tap-dance rehearsal. Short-pants and I, after our own eye check-ups, went back to school to attend a presentation about the class project, an imaginary overland voyage through Europe to Russia. The kids learned a number of songs during their pretend travels, and they lined up in the front of the room to sing them to us enthusiastically.

I scanned the group of long tall bodies, remembering when Short-pants and her classmates were squat and miniature, marveling at how they’ve all grown up. It dawned on me that this was the end of their time together in the primary school. Next year they’ll move up to the collège, with the more independent and demanding schedule of middle school, and probably a heavier book bag.

But last night they were still kids, an innocent, exuberant chorus, trusting each other, their teachers, and all the parents in the room. I hadn’t expected the rush of nostalgia prompted by the sight of these now-bigger little people collected together, about to walk into the next stage of their life. I looked around and saw that I was not the only mother with her hand on her chest and a tear on her cheek, that others were equally moved by this moment.

We’ve walked our children to this point, held their hands, juggled schedules to get them to all the places they needed to go to be able to be right here, now, with everything to look forward to. They’re almost out of our grasp, which is why it’s so important to cherish those precious moments when they still offer up a small, soft hand on the way to school, and why I’m so glad I came back home to do just that.


Jun 11 2012

Not in a Rush

When you slow down, a window opens and you see things you couldn’t see before. When you take your time, you sense things, because you’re not rushing through life facing forward, you’re ambling along, receptive to what’s around you. When you give yourself time, you think things through, following a string of thoughts from one thing to the next and then further. Unlike the one-thing-to-another we experience while surfing the web or multi-tasking through a busy day, staccato and mercurial, the thought process that accompanies a long walk in the country is calming and fluid, like waves of water rolling forward and back and forward again. It doesn’t take very long for the chatter to cease, the chirping in the back of your head quiets and the mind is filled with simpler thoughts. There is space for bigger thoughts, or the smaller thoughts have room around them to echo. You start to really see what’s inside you and around you, and notice things that you don’t notice when you’re in a rush.

~ ~ ~

Walking through Pamplona, one of the early stops along the Camino – this was in the beginning of May – I couldn’t help but be reminded of the rituals we enact there every July during the fiesta. It was odd to walk through that city without people and music spilling out into the streets. I walked down the empty Calle Merced, where in two months time, to the day, there’d be long tables set up end-to-end in the street, and friends would be assembling for a breakfast of greasy eggs and chorizo or pochas and red wine. I love those breakfasts, especially when the jota singers among the group stand up and sing their beautiful Navarran ballads. A man named Puchero is a force behind this, his voice bold and full, like his body. When he sings, his mouth stretches wide with each vibratoed note, his eyes bore into you, tearing sometimes because he is singing with such force. If he sings to you, the only thing to do is look right back at him with the biggest smile ever, and stay present to fully receive the song, sung in Spanish and if it is later translated, you are moved by the choice of words and their meaning.

For a minute, I wondered if the Fiesta Nazi, in a fit of generous mischief, would make some arrangement for Puchero to show up at my party and surprise me with a birthday jota. It would be only an hour’s drive for him, and not unthinkable for her to orchestrate something like this. At the same time, it was pretty far-fetched and highly unlikely. Still, I permitted my imagination to hold this image for a few minutes, just for the pleasure of the fantasy, picturing him singing to me and giving my assembled friends this taste of the Navarran culture. A little Walter Mitty moment during my walk.

Two weeks later, when the pit crew kidnapped me to go to my party, I found myself back in Navarra. The day before the big celebration – on my actual birthday – we decided to drive by St. Jean Pied de Port to see where I’d started the Camino. My credentials were getting full – I collected stamps not only from where I slept each night, but from the churches I visited and many of the cafe-bars I stopped at along the way – in St. Jean I could stop by the Camino office and get an extra pilgrim passport to use when my original one got filled up.

It was lunchtime in France – only a few miles away, over the border in Spain, lunch was still something to look forward to – and we decided to eat in St. Jean, installing ourselves at a table on a restaurant terrace along the street. We’d barely clinked glasses when a squat, thick man charged up to our table, trailed by about a dozen other people.

“I know those two girls,” he said between a string of colorful curses. We knew him, too. It was Puchero. By chance, he happened to be visiting St. Jean Pied de Port with a group from Pamplona and just happened to walk down the street where we just happened to be seated. We were as surprised to see him as he was to see us. The Fiesta Nazi didn’t miss a beat. “It’s her birthday,” she said, pointing at me, “sing her a jota!”

Without hesitating even a second, he launched into song, his robust voice belting out a wailing call. His face right away red, the veins in his temple squeezed as he forced every cubic inch of air out of his lungs before a new breath and a new phrase. He literally stopped all activity on the street. Every passerby, every diner on the terrace, every waitress, every shopkeeper, craned their necks to watch and listen to Puchero as he sang me my birthday jota.

It was framed slightly differently than my fantasy of weeks before, but nonetheless, the same elements were there. But this had not been organized in advance, it happened by chance, that Puchero was there and we were too. Had I experienced some kind of premonition? Or had my little fantasy sent out a request that was answered? Or was it all just a coincidence?

~ ~ ~

The first time I had the dream was in Estella, five days into the Camino. I guess you could call it a pilgrim-stress dream, in which I walked to the next town only to realize I’d left my walking poles in the previous night’s hotel. I woke up, relieved to see those familiar bastóns leaning against the chair, that I hadn’t left and walked an entire day’s stage without them. I had the dream again, the next night, waking to check that my poles were still there beside my bed.

A few days later, I lingered in a room I’d shared with five others, letting them all finish their morning ablutions first so that I might have a more leisurely and private departure. (This was prior to the hot meseta after Burgos, when my timing changed and a just-at-dawn departure was required to make tracks before the midday sun.) On my way out, I set my poles against the table by the door, stopping to take advantage of the wifi signal in the lobby to send a word of love to De-facto before heading out for the day’s walk. The door closed behind me, and I walked three blocks before realizing I’d left my poles at the albergue. When I returned, the door was locked and when I knocked, nobody answered. I sat on the stoop wondering how long I’d have to wait to get my poles, when I remembered I’d called the proprietor the day before, his number was in my phone memory. A quick call and he was there in 5 minutes, unlocking the door so I could reach in and retrieve my walking sticks.

Hold on to those poles, I told myself.

~ ~ ~

He stood to the side of the path and beckoned to me, holding out a small bag. “Would you like an olive?” he said, “I just opened them.”

Always accept small gifts on the Camino, I’d been told. So I reached in and pulled one of the plump green olives from the package, trying not to put my sweaty fingers in the juice that preserved them.

“I’m Mark from Michigan,” he said. I hadn’t met that many Americans along the way, he reminded me how exuberant my countrymen can be. He thrust the small bag toward me again. “Have another olive.”

I’d been singing to myself all day, a kind of stream-of-consciousness name-that-tune, when one simple word could provoke an entire medley of songs. I took another olive, but held it in my hand while I sang to him one part of a song from Godspell, which includes the lyrics,Your wife is sighing, crying, and your olive tree is dying.

The song is actually a duet I used to sing, in spontaneous moments, with a good friend Dilts – we called each other by our last names as a form of endearment – his part fast and syncopated and my part slow and melodic. The last line of my part: When you go to heaven you’ll be blessed, oh yes, it’s all for the best.

Mark from Michigan looked me straight in the eye, just the way I’d looked at Puchero when he sang to me, for the entire song, which I did not rush through, but rather sang to him very deliberately, emphasizing especially the word olive, to nod my head at the cause for this melody.

“That’s beautiful,” he said, when I finished. “If I go to heaven, I’ll wait for you there.” I ate my olive, thanked him again, and walked on.

Singing that song had conjured up images of my friend Dilts, his wry smile and his dry wit. He died eight years ago, cancer took him before he could turn fifty. I carried him with me for several kilometers, vacillating between missing him fiercely but also laughing out loud at things I remember him saying and doing. A lasting image of him, still in my mind now: his smart-ass smile, one eyebrow raised and jubilant fist in the air. I had Mark from Michigan to thank for conjuring up that string of memories, all from one single olive.

~ ~ ~

I made it to León, after 20 days of walking, covering 450 kilometers. The very last leg, by bus, as I didn’t want the lingering memory of this stretch of the Camino to be the industrial suburbs of the city. I figure the day I walked on the Camino Baztanés from Urdax to Elizondo is like extra credit, and makes up for the sage decision to avoid the plight of an urban pilgrim. A friend, an avid hiker, had joined me for these last two days of walking. Even she agreed this was a better choice than to march through truck fumes and under highway on-ramps. I could see much of the Camino route from the window, so I followed the trail with my heart, even though my feet were on the bus.

We took a train from León to San Sebastian, and in the rush of getting off the train, I neglected to pick up my poles, which I’d meant to strap to my backpack, but hadn’t gotten around to it, as they were useful until the last moment getting on the train. I’d put them on the overhead shelf and when I pulled down my pack, I somehow didn’t think to grab them. In fact, I didn’t realize they were missing until we’d walked ten blocks through San Sebastian in search of our hotel.

I didn’t get upset, even though they’d carried me so many miles, even though they’d become an extension of my arms, and probably a savior of my back, even though I loved the little feet I’d bought to cover the noisy metal tips. I let them go. Not that I gave up: once we checked into the hotel, the proprietor was very happy to help me call the RENFE and register the loss in their records, just in case. The next day I visited the lost and found at the terminus, the same station where we’d board our train to Paris. There was no sign of them. They are in someone else’s hands now, but hopefully helping them to walk as well as they guided me.

I wasn’t paying attention. That’s when you miss things. But hadn’t I seen that coming?

~ ~ ~

Word passes on the Camino without texts or emails. The weaving that happens as you walk puts you in touch with different people over the course of a day. You might walk with someone for fifteen minutes and then pull ahead, only to run into them again a few hours later when you’d stopped for a rest at a village cafe. Or someone you hadn’t seen for days would somehow get in step with you again. In the meantime, they’ve walked and talked with others, and if there is news to share, it gets passed along. After Burgos, there was a rumor about someone who’d gone to sleep in the albergue there and hadn’t woken up. This wasn’t the first death I’d heard about during my walk: a 65-year old man had a heart attack on his very first day, going over the Pyrenees. The story told was his wife had died the year before, his Camino was meant to help him sort through it. Nobody I spoke with felt too terrible about it. “Perhaps he’d joined her,” they said, or “it’s not a bad way to go, walking the Camino.”

The amazing night I stayed in the Ermita de San Nicolas, after our feet were washed and our dinner was finished, my friend from Romania turned to me and asked if I’d heard about the man who died in Burgos. “You knew him,” she said, “I saw you talking to him.” She described him, but I couldn’t place him. She kept saying his name, but it didn’t register. “Yes, you knew him,” she insisted, “Mark, Mark from Michigan.”

I fell silent then, thinking about the lyrics in the song I’d sung to him, remembering our very brief exchange. Did I see that coming? Was it just another coincidence? That day, the day I shared his olives, I must have been paying attention to something.

If there is a heaven – and I’m not always sure of it – but if there is, I hope he’s there. I hope he’s met up with Dilts, who can sing him the other half of the duet. And if he is waiting for me there, well, I hope he knows I’m not in a rush.


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.


Apr 1 2012

By the Book

I sliced the eggplant into medium-thin slices, slimmer than the recipe suggested, but more to my bite-sized liking. De-facto would appreciate the efficiency of it; I’d only used one of the eggplants he brought home from the market. Not that our budget is so tight but rather he appreciates an intelligent economy of things.

The recipe called for baking the slices after they’d been breaded. After ten minutes in the oven they looked dull, melancholy. I quickly pulled out a frying pan and lined the bottom with olive oil. When it was hot, I dropped each of the austere eggplant slices in, smiling at the percussion of popping oil. I could sense the vegetable’s heavy sigh of relief, almost stunned at how close it had come to giving up its life to be a flavorless, mediocre meal. The infusion of fats would satisfy its desire to come to a tasty end, and frying made the house smell heartier. Now I was cooking.

Lately, though, I haven’t. The string of extended voyages placed De-facto as the primary care-giver for long stretches of time last fall and winter, and even though I always returned ready to roll up my sleeves, somehow the wooden spoon had been handed off like a relay baton. He’d gotten used to cooking dinner. In the absence of me taking the reins – or one of the reins as we’ve always shared this household task – he kept hold of them. Six o’clock would roll around and I’d ask not, “what do you want for dinner?” but instead, “what do you want to do for dinner?” A distinctly different question. If he’d answered with, “what I want to do is for you to cook,” I’d have complied without complaint. But since he seemed to be on a streak in the kitchen, I didn’t mind one less responsibility.

Except I missed cooking. He’d be at the stove braising a whole chicken before stuffing it and besieging it with potatoes and onions and vegetables. Short-pants would be standing on a small stool on the other side of the kitchen island, slicing mushrooms. I’d want to elbow my way back into that world of salt and butter and herbs, to cover my hands with flour and wince at the just-chopped onions on the cutting board. I didn’t complain, it’s a lovely thing to be cooked for and De-facto’s food fills the belly well. But I missed conjuring up my own culinary creative juices.

Reading Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton, is what stirred the pot. My friend the Pastry Ace, who also happens to be a pâtissière and chocolatier – I’m sure she could cook anything but those are her current specialties – loaned me the book last fall. As a chef, she loved the story of this woman’s kitchen history, and the detailed tales of meals well conceived and prepared on the route to opening the restaurant Prune in New York city. As an avid reader, she loved the wordsmithing and thought that I might appreciate the writing, too. Having now finished the book I can attest – it’s a delicious read.

It took me months to get into it, though. Not that the first words and chapters aren’t appetizing. But I think many mothers might appreciate this syndrome: little or no time to read for pleasure during the day when the brain is actually alert. Once the kids are in bed and the dishes are done, the laundry folded, and I’ve slipped between the taut white sheets of my bed, it’s pure pleasure to switch on that reading light and open one of the books on the pile. But not even two pages later, my eyes droop and I’m startled awake as the book falls open on my chest. I’m always disappointed not to be able to read further, but the intoxicating serenity of sleep descending makes me smile with my eyes half open as I lean over to shut off the light.

It means I’ll go months before finishing a book, although at any given time I’m in the middle of five or six. And when weekends are too busy, the books gather dust. Until this weekend; I sat in bed for hours devouring the pages of Hamilton’s memoir. Short-pants, who’s reading the junior version of Three Cups of Tea for the tenth time – she’s an avid re-reader – climbed in next to me and we turned pages in tandem, wordless side-by-side as we consumed voraciously the words of our novels.

There are several passages in Blood, Bones & Butter that made me close the cover and hold the book close to my heart, like I had to savor it before I could read on. I’d open the book again, re-reading the paragraphs, admiring the combination of words that blended together, comma after comma, phrases pieced together to convey what happened to her and how she felt about it in perfect measure.

My sister gave me a cookbook for Christmas,
The Family Meal by Ferran Adrià, celebrated chef of El Bulli. I’d thumbed through its pages, treasuring the images of the ingredients, and the pragmatic rationale behind each menu. But it went on the shelf, with the other volumes of recipes, because as I said, I haven’t been cooking. That is until I was in the heat of Blood, Bones & Butter, when I pulled that new cookbook off the shelf, determined to use it. “I’ll make dinner tonight,” I told De-facto, stretching open the binding of the unexplored book. I flipped through its pages, again admiring the artistry of these simple meals – or so they were designated: the menus weren’t for Adrià’s Michelin-starred cuisine, but for the meals served to the restaurant staff prior to the dinner service.

And here it happened, what always happens. Inspired by a cookbook dish – in this case a menu – I realize too late that my kitchen is not properly stocked to prepare the recipe. I lack too many key ingredients even to fudge it. Cooking at this caliber requires advance planning, and my spontaneous return to the fold of kitchen service hadn’t include such a plan.

The most creative cooking is probably conceived when we must work with the limitation of what’s left in the pantry. The box of more-than-a-year-old lasagna noodles deserved some attention. There were two eggplants and just enough tomatoes to make a sauce. I called De-facto, who’d run out to do an errand, pleading with him to pick up some mozzarella and parmesan. I turned the oven on and pulled out that wrinkled apron.

The systematic chopping and dicing, the attention needed to carmelize something perfectly, the on-the-spot decisions to follow a recipe or improvise, it’s like an active meditation. Even when things go wrong and the pan is too hot or the croutons don’t transform into breadcrumbs as easily as you’d hoped, the problem solving required forces a mood of concentration and creativity that can be terribly satisfying. It’s nourishing for the soul.

At the table De-facto raved about the aroma and celebrated the novelty of something different to eat. The girls weren’t as inspired. Buddy-roo pushed the large noodle around her plate, eating the steamed broccoli that accompanied it, but laying her fork down on the rest.

“It’s just a big pasta,” said De-facto, “you love pasta.” She scrunched up her nose at the eggplant. It made me think of something my father used to say, when I refused his favorite delicacies, Welsh rarebit and pig’s feet. “You don’t know what’s good,” he’d say.

My lasagna wasn’t by the book, but it was good. It was a tasty change of pace from our habitual menus. It was good to be in the kitchen again. It was also good to finish a good book and return it to a good friend. Now if I could just open that new cookbook again, before I make the next shopping list, maybe there are a few good meals ahead.


Feb 19 2012

Lost and Found

A travel day can be a lost day, or a found one. When the job ends too late to make it to the airport, I am occasionally afforded an extra overnight in the hotel, and a quiet morning to myself without anything pressing to do. The meeting organizers and participants – who will sleep in their own homes that night – offer me sympathy, which I receive graciously. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to zap myself home and curl up next to De-facto and wake up to giggling girls in the morning, but the alternative isn’t a severe punishment. It is rare, once you have a family, to sleep alone and to wake alone, and there’s something delicious about the chance to do so.

Oh but I had plans. Several writing projects that have been on the back burner, a bit of research I’ve been meaning to do for another assignment. Big things I’d do with those extra hours. I’d gotten up early for an hour-long Skype call with my trainer, but otherwise I let the lazy morning stretch toward noon. I lounged around my hotel room doing a whole lot of nothing in particular: browsing, surfing, cleaning out my email inbox, catching up on non-urgent correspondence. It was supremely satisfying, handling all those little rocks.

I don’t remember where I heard the theory of big rocks and little rocks, but it’s a metaphor that’s stayed with me. The large rocks represent the important purpose-giving activities that one hopes to accomplish in any given day or week or period of time. The little rocks are the administrative and logistical tasks of life, those to-do lists I often rant about, all the minor tasks that take up time. Not that these little rocks are necessarily unimportant. Paying bills might be one of those pebbles, but if it doesn’t happen on time, the havoc created can further delay attention to the big rocks, and leads to additional smaller rocks just to get things back in order.

The theory goes that if you have a large glass vase and you fill it up with all the little rocks first, there won’t be enough room for the big rocks to fit in on top. But if you place the large rocks in first, and let the little rocks slip into the crevasses between them, then every rock will fit in the container.

Do the meaningful agenda items first, then the minutia.

This makes mountains of sense to me, but it doesn’t mean I can execute it consistently. It’s partially related to my medium-level of discipline, but also a natural by-product, I think, of the distractions – all those little tasks – that our children create for us. Then, of course, there’s the thrill of the Internet: the latest link to breaking news, three new emails announce themselves with a cheerful red dot in the dock of my desktop. (This isn’t so modern: as a child I used to wait and watch for the mailman to drive by every day, hoping for a letter from some summer-camp friend.) These incoming attacks of data and information all call for my attention, even if I’ve shut down the pipeline, which I often do.

Yet those lovely and surprising distractions take me on such serendipitous excursions each day. An article that provokes new thinking, a data point that’s amusing or interesting that could be used in my work. A soulful blog post that makes me laugh or even produces a gentle tear or two. It would be a shame to cut those little side-turns out of my experience entirely.

After my lazy morning, but before I left the hotel for the airport, I took a walk to stretch my legs. I’d been penned up in a windowless hotel meeting room for nearly three days, and the fresh air and sunshine were a relief. I did a full circuit around four long city blocks, walking briskly, breathing apace with my strides. It was just a 20-minute stroll, but it felt like a big rock, like something I needed to do, to keep my sanity.

I left my phone in the room – I wasn’t expecting a call and I didn’t intend to make one – yet almost every person I passed on the street wasn’t really on the street with me. They were on their portable phones, talking at full volume, waving their arms to make their point. Nobody was just walking and thinking. Nobody was just looking around. Even the people walking in pairs. They appeared to be conducting their own business, side-by-side but on their own devices, with other people in other places. Nobody was simply present.

At the airport, I felt like a fish swimming upstream, walking against the tide of people talking with their earphones on, or with noses buried in their smart phones, thumbs tapping away. The night before, in a restaurant, the diners seated on both sides of me felt it necessary to keep their phones on their tables, right next to their plates. I purposely put mine away. Partly because while I’m in the U.S. my roaming charges are onerous. Partly in defiance to the plugged-in, linked-in connected world that is eating us all up.

I love my gadgets and my connectivity. I really do. But I have to ask myself, just to stay honest: Which rocks does technology put in my hands? The big ones, or the little ones?

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the big rocks in my life. The manuscript that languishes on my hard-drive. That relocation project that I’ve been dreaming about for too long, and I’ve done little to prepare myself to make it happen. The children. They are my biggest rocks, though sometimes I forget this. I get so caught up in the little rocks – many of which have to do with them and their logistics – that I forget the biggest rock thing I can do is simply pay attention and engage with their lives. Find things to do together. Cultivate a rapport with them that they will cherish when I am gone. Appreciate them. Learn from them. (Until the eventual moment – and it’s not far off – when all they’ll want to do is talk on the phone and use their computers. But we’re not there yet.)

I suppose it takes a few days away, and maybe a long walk in the sun, to remember. Or else it’s just a string of hours to myself, to get lost in the thoughts of an uninterrupted morning to get my rocks in order, so I can find my way back to the precious stones that they are.

(Courtyard photo by Betsy Riley)


Feb 14 2012

Waves of Love

I waited until Short-pants and Buddy-roo were dressed and downstairs, fully involved in their breakfast. Chances were good, once they’d reached that point in the morning, they wouldn’t return to their bedrooms until after school, when I’d be long gone. I tip-toed upstairs and slipped the Valentine stickers under their pillows, each with a little heart-shaped message. I straightened the bedding thinking maybe they wouldn’t see the little gifts until it was actually time to crawl under those covers, prolonging their surprise. I’d also addressed and stamped a couple of pink and red envelopes. They were in my bag, ready to be put in the postbox at the airport, hopefully to arrive in our mailbox at home, on Valentine’s Day.

We all walked out together, De-facto carrying my suitcase down the stairs. It’s rare that the four of us are out the door at the same time in the mornings, typically only one of us (usually De-facto) accompanies the girls to school. This time, they accompanied me to the taxi-stand and issued hugs and kisses and nearly-tearful goodbyes while the driver hoisted my suitcase into his trunk. They stood there, waving, while he waited for the light to change and allow us to plunge into the traffic.

This is the custom in our family – and don’t ask how it started, it’s just what we do – when you see someone off, it’s required to stand steady and continue waving until the car that’s whisking them away is no longer visible. I think it’s a lovely way of saying we don’t want you to go, but we do want you to go. You’ll be missed, but we’re excited for you and your adventures ahead.

The light took a long time to change. The traffic was heavy and slow and unwelcoming to a new vehicle. De-facto and the girls kept standing there, waving at me. I studied them, from a distance, as they were obliged to wait and wave from the other side of a green construction barrier that framed the repair work on the sidewalk between us. There they were, those people, their lives intricately interwoven into mine, everything mixed up together: our DNA, our dirty laundry, the pile of shoes by the door. That tall guy and those two bean-sprouting girls. That’s my family. And I love them.

Hope you’ve all got good people to love. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.


Feb 5 2012

A Mid Crisis

I’m typing away at my computer. It’s 3:45 in the afternoon and I’ve just hit my stride. The fits-and-starts of my own creative process now oiled and operating, I’m thinking crisply and spitting out maximum-words-per-minute. It feels like I could cruise in this productive lane for hours, but for the hands of the clock, sweeping in on the witching hour. De-facto, best co-parent known to womankind, volunteers to fetch the kids at school. I’m grateful for an extra thirty minutes to profit from my momentum, falling back into my flow as soon has he’s out the door.

Until I hear their cherubic voices in the stairwell. It should fill me with anticipation – if I were a good mom – but instead I feel dread. Here comes the hell storm of the evening grind. The door bursts open with the blast of post-school fatigue. Both girls, in high volume screams, run to me crying, each with her unique sob story. I have one too, but I know I’m supposed to swallow mine.

I wait without comment until the home-from-school-crisis fades, the screeching ceases and the tears dry. We agree to homework before dinner, which is when we discover that Buddy-roo’s new water bottle has leaked all over her cartable. Her schoolbooks are more than damp, her pencil case drenched, after sitting in the bottom of the bag with ¼-inch of water. I know I should be coolly pulling things out and laying them on a towel, but now I’m ticked off. It’s just another damn thing to do, another project for the evening that isn’t fun, restful or even interesting. It’s probably only fifteen minutes to lay out all her notebooks to air and blow-dry the interior of the bag, but there are a half-dozen other unexpected tasks just like this that result from being a mom to 8 and 10 year old girls, creatures old enough to be independent, but not at all autonomous.

I slam each of the books on the floor, not cursing with words but cursing with gestures. Short-pants slips around me and upstairs to avoid my mood. Buddy-roo has no choice but to witness it; she knows she can’t abandon me to dry out her schoolbag on my own. I turn toward the backsplash and breathe deeply, pursing my lips so I don’t utter a word that will be irretractable. I reach for a water glass to give purpose to this moment’s removal from the chaos of their presence in my life, and these few seconds taken to fill the glass and quench my angry thirst and calm me down so that I can be civil toward my offspring. I grab two towels, hand one to Buddy-roo, and we dry off the books as best we can, spreading them out, open to the air. We lay all the pens, erasers and other paraphernalia of her pencil case on another towel to dry overnight.

“Don’t be mad, mama,” she says, “I didn’t know the water bottle would leak all over.”

I’m not mad about the water bottle. I’m mad about the train wreck of my life every day after 4:30, and how I can’t manage my time better so that I’m poised and ready for them after school. Mad that I don’t have what it takes to be more compartmentalized, more together, more agile about the juggling act that is my life. I’m mad about the Sisyphean list of child-oriented household tasks, the laundry, the hang-up-your-clothes and wash-your-hands and do-your-homework-for-your-humorless-French-teacher and did-you-practice-your-viola grind, the acquisition of school supplies that have run out, the purchase of birthday presents for upcoming parties and the orchestrating of who-goes-where-and-how whenever De-facto and I are both out of town on the same days, the day-in-day-out-to-do-list that by the time they are in jammies and stories read and lights out, leaves me ready only to collapse into bed, falling asleep before even one page of my book is turned, wrung out from the last four hours of the day.

“I won’t be mad anymore,” I answer, assuring her with a gentler voice and my open arms, inviting her to an embrace. “Now we know not to use that water bottle in your school bag.”

She wraps her arms around me and squeezes. Is it a hug of appreciation, or relief? I really wish I hadn’t lost my temper; this gives me no leg to stand on when they start screeching. But what to do when everything you’re supposed to do, being on time, being conscientious, cheerful, responsible, reliable and all such hobgoblin behavior, is heavy on your shoulders when all you want to do is escape and run away, as far away as you can?

There is, for some, a point in a marriage where he buys a red sports car and has an affair, or she joins a book club or takes a pole-dancing class and has an affair. It’s the midway, midlife doldrums, when the grind of the day-to-day bears down one day too long, too hard, too much. The routine that was once cozily reassuring becomes relentlessly tiresome, compelling us to rebel and misbehave.

Is there such a point in parenting? A mid-parenting crisis? If there were, wouldn’t it settle in about now, halfway through their childhood, at age eight or ten with as many years left to go before the promise of an empty nest? The sleep-deprived diaper-changing infant and toddler years behind, you’d think it should be easier now. Supervision is still required, but at a diminished level from those formative years, which are as full-on as it gets but somehow that baby smell, the sweet odor emitted by newborns and small children, acts like a drug, seducing you to think that it’s really okay that your life has been turned totally upside down. The scent has worn off by now (replaced by the smell of lice shampoo) but the work is far from over. Even if you’re the best kind of limit-setting French-styled parent, it’s still a lot of work to keep up with your mid-childhood aged kids, no matter how well behaved they are.

I’ve had contact, very recently, with two of my college friends who have children in the midst of their junior-year-abroad. While remote mothering is still necessary, the relationships have shifted. They’re already speaking with pride about their nearly-adult children. I suspect, eventually, you turn some corner and you get to stand back and observe the success of your offspring, and relish the result of nearly two decades of parenting labor. Like you get to retire from intensive parenting and become a parent emeritus.

I’m in between the nascent parent and the at-the-finish-line parent. Halfway through the job of raising little souls, a balancing act between honoring their nature and enriching them by nurture, even though their nature’s starting to wear on me, the day-in-day out of dragging them out of bed and getting them out the door with the right coat on and their teeth brushed, and acting as PA with an entirely different schedule of pick-up-and-take-there every day of the week, all of this exacerbated by my attempts to continue to nourish myself and my own career. And I have an equal partner in parenting. I can’t even imagine the daily existence for parents with spouses who can’t or won’t help as much, or most of all, for the single-parents, moms or dads, who do it all without a sympathetic cohort.

It’s about now that I reach back and try to grab hold of the faded drama of our bleak hospital days, when Short-pants was in the ICU and we didn’t know if she’d reach her fourth birthday. I made no shortage of bargaining promises to any and all omniscient gods and higher powers who’d hear us, pleading against an unimaginable outcome that would remove her from our family and our lives. It feels petty to rail about being at the end of my rope in a mid-parenting crisis in light of that experience, a true and bonafide crisis. I know my current problems are little and luxurious. My children are healthy, creatively-tempered yet obedient-in-the-right-doses. They give abundant love, and all those gifts, expected and unexpected, that children deliver to their parents. I’m told, again and again, that it all goes by so fast and I should cherish these days, because soon I’ll long for them. But I know the days I’m longing for now, and they aren’t these.

A good friend likes to remind me that my children will be a comfort to me in my old age. But right now, I’m middle-aged and only midway through their childhood. It’s still my job to comfort them. I know this is a sob-story, my tiny mid-parenting crisis, but swallowing it hasn’t made it go away, and the idea taking up pole-dancing seems more appealing every day.


Oct 18 2011

Busy Bodies

“It’s my busy day,” she said, “I have too many things to do.” Short-pants was referring to Thursdays, a long day for her. She gets out of school earlier than usual, but after a short break for a snack and homework, she has to run off to the conservatory for her viola lesson at 6:00 pm, followed by a music theory class from 6:30 to 8:00 pm. It’s not ideal, being schooled in the evening. But it’s the only class that fits with the rest of her schedule, unless we want to succumb to a Saturday obligation. And if she wants to continue with her viola at the conservatory, the theory class is obligatory.

Is this the curse of our time? To be always busy? To feel the burden of constant busy-ness, even at the tender age of ten? When I was her age I had only a little homework and all my extra-curricular activities were somehow incorporated into the school day, a factor of being enrolled in an American primary school during the ’70s. I don’t think I felt fatigued by my schedule. I remember having ample time to play, to read for pleasure, to watch television with my family in the evenings. Sure I had outside commitments; I took private piano lessons from a very young age. But even in high school, when I added several after-school activities, I wasn’t busy.

Does she get it from me? Is her awareness of the weight of her schedule a reflection of her own experience, or is she parroting what she hears me mumbling about to De-facto when my day gets hijacked by little errands and tasks that pop up and scream at me for immediate attention, thrusting me into the urgent but not important quadrant of time management. Some of this is my doing: trips to the beauty nurse are an interruption that I could eliminate, but for the consequences. But too often I feel utterly out of control of my daily itinerary, racing to do things I didn’t arrange for myself. I left the more structured, corporate job scene to get off the hamster wheel, but now I’m on another one, of my own making. Call it the hamster wheel of motherhood.

It seems to be my story, the busy one. And it’s dull. Yes, my days are packed with busy little things. Short-pants is out of cartridges for her stylo plume, or I have to organize her second attestation d’assurance. The girls’ ID cards must be procured at the prefecture, an ill-timed administrative errand that interrupts time I’d set aside to work, but was urgent enough – an upcoming voyage where they are required – to displace my schedule and requiring two trips to the prefecture. Buddy-roo needs a present for an upcoming birthday party, or there’s a note in her cahier that she needs something new for school, by tomorrow. There are a dozen tiny things like this on the list, none of them on their own particularly time consuming, but their accumulation and interruptive quality stun me. That long chunk of hours I’d set aside to work or write squeezes in on me like the narrowing walls of a horror movie, and then, just as I get in the groove of concentration, it’s time to go wait outside the school and bring the girls home.

I’m so tired of being busy. I’m tired of squeezing too much into too few hours. I’m tired of rushing through my life and feeling too busy to stop and linger or else feeling guilty when I do, for instance, linger after school drop-off for coffee with the other parents, or when I go to meet a friend for a drink instead of using those last child-free hours to finish my work, which is never finished.

I need to change something, because what I’m doing isn’t working. But what? What to remove (or possibly add) that will put me back in a more productive, efficient mode? Or in a stress-free mode? Or else this: what might inspire me to care less about the fact that it’s never all done, I’ll never be caught up, this unfinished head-just-above-water, life-in-constant-progress feeling will accompany me, probably, until my life is finished. One could even hope for that.

Buddy-roo’s angst about homework is somewhat diminished from last year. As she matures, her capacity to address the hefty assignment list improves. She’s even starting to understand the concept of working ahead on the weekend, so her after-school workload isn’t quite as crushing. But still, there’s always homework for her to do. The girls also have their chores around the house, the seeds of community service which we acknowledge with a modest allowance. But when we have to remind Buddy-roo to empty the silverware tray from dishwasher or to pull the empty toilet paper rolls from the bathroom and put them in the recycling, or to move her toys upstairs, she sighs with exasperation, “Everybody keeps telling me all these things I have to do, like homework and chores. I never have enough time to play.”

I know where this comes from. It’s her experience, and she’s repeating what she hears too often from me. I’m turning them – or letting them be turned – into human doings instead of human beings. We’re all running on our own little hamster-wheels, and I’m wondering – a lot – about how can we get off and just have some time to play.