Aug 10 2014

We Leave at Dawn

I take it back. All that mush I wrote in the last post about our little adventure. The family car tour across the United States is taking its toll. Too many consecutive days of too many consecutive hours crushed together in an automobile makes it hard to forget about the misery of too much proximity. The constant call of the kids from the backseat, the packing, unpacking and packing again of the suitcases, the smushed stale or soggy sandwiches from the cooler, the cracker and pretzel crumbs all over the car, the overall organization required to keep a disorganized crew on the road and heading east. Nothing like a little adventure to tire you out.
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Yes, we’ve seen some amazing places and reunited with old friends who’ve taken us in and given us luxurious shelter, tasty and nourishing food and a healthy supply of hooch. Yes, we’ve seen the beauty of America. There have been remarkable moments that I’m sure we’ll never forget. But there have been just as many moments when I wanted to lean over and strangle those who purport to be the people I love most in the world.

~ ~ ~

We left at dawn (again). That meant being up before sunrise, packing the cooler, nudging Buddy-roo, the professional sleeper, and her sister to wake up enough to walk themselves to the car, but not to wake so much that they’d stay that way for the first leg of the long drive. My mother-in-love, despite our admonition, set her alarm to coincide with our early departure to help us with the last of our preparations. Clothes had been selected and placed in the car in the girls’ designated seats – Buddy-roo has claimed the long back seat of our roomy 4WD Buick Enclave and Short-pants is content to read in the middle row bucket-seat – and all other luggage, except the dopp kits, had been stowed in the vehicle the night before.

My mother-in-love, wrapped in her white bathrobe, watched us with eyes both delighted for our visit and dismayed at our departure. Though our 5-day stay with her in Santa Fee is the longest place we plan to stay stationary on this trip, it didn’t seem long enough. She is in fantastic health for a woman in her 80s, spry and alert and more active than most women my age (me, for example) so chances are extremely good that I’ll see her many times again in our lives. But I’m still mindful of the surprises life throws at us when it comes to our parents’ generation, so I always take in a deep-breath mental photograph of her whenever we part company. She waved goodbye with that happy/sad face and even without a stitch of make-up on, and her still-sleepy eyes, she was as pretty as I’ve ever seen her.

Earlier, in Arizona, we’d driven along Route 66, where we’d stopped for lunch and achieved a classic roadside diner experience. In New Mexico, we took Route 56, which hovers beside the Santa Fe trail, another classic American passageway. The risks of a national route are slower traffic and multiple stoplights, but the reward is a distinctly scenic ride with charming windwheel_sftrailtowns, authentic roadside watering holes, kitsch historical points of interest and, to De-facto‘s delight, cheaper gas.

We saw the sun rise on the Santa Fe trail, and made good time – better than we expected – on the road much less traveled. The lack of trucks and traffic in general – we went for miles without seeing another vehicle – and the awe-inspiring western vistas kept us from killing each other on the 12.5 hour drive, our longest of the trip. Well, 12-hour drive; De-facto permitted us a 1/2-hour lunch break at a picnic table near the Edwards County, Kansas Sod House and Museum, apparently 1,561 miles from both New York and San Francisco, a veritable halfway point for our US trip, in both distance and duration. His rush: he’d made a hotel reservation in Kansas City. He had a fantasy about putting the girls to bed and going to a Casino with me on his arm.

“Baby needs a new pair of shoes!” he kept shouting, from the driver’s seat, in his best mid-western hillbilly accent. Mostly to tease me, since I have expressed on many occasions my lack of enthusiasm for the activity of gambling, and even more for the despairing spirit one encounters in an American casino. The windowless tombs with all the flashing lights, the unrelenting noise of the slot machines and the longing, lonely look of people hoping for that elusive big win. But De-facto’s a charmer and it’s a rare thing to see him part with his money so frivolously, so how could I not agree to go along?

I was raised with James Bond movies so I pulled out a dressier dress from the bottom of my suitcase and opened my jewelry bag for the first time in weeks and even donned my nude patent-leather heeled sandals. After so many consecutive days in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops, standard road trip wear, it felt good to get duded up a little. We were the best-dressed people in the joint. Everyone else was in jeans, or even shorts and tank-tops – as the Kansas City casino crowd is slightly different than the Casino on La Croisette in Cannes. We may have looked good, but we bet poorly, so it took us about an hour to lose all our chips. We were up by 60% early on, but De-facto was having too much fun watching me throw the dice to cash in. “We’re just hittin’ our stride,” De-facto said, in his gambling-guy accent. I was rolling lucky at the craps table, for a while, but it was the Black Jack that really did us in.
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The next day wasn’t quite a dawn departure, but we couldn’t dilly-dally. Friends were to congregate to meet us at a bar on the north side of Chicago at 7:00, so we needed to make another long slog, this time from Kansas City to the Windy City. There were non-interstate routes that might have been more appealing, but because we hadn’t gotten up at dawn again, we had a tighter schedule. It was raining. The highways weren’t as well kept as those we’d traversed previously. The truckers taunted us by pulling out and passing each other, making it hard for us to make up any lost time. We ate leftover pizza from the night before, rolling along at 75 mph.

~ ~ ~

In pretty much every state, it’s possible to find a radio station that’s a time machine, propelling De-facto and me back to our youth. One song after another, each tethered to a high school memory. Journey, Aerosmith, The Cars, Van Halen, Bad Company, ACDC, Tom Petty, Creedence, Steve Miller, Heart, The Who, The Stones, Zeppelin. You know this kind of station, the classic rock station. You kind of hate it because it’s so dated, but you kind of love it because you know the words to every song. And after you’ve been penned up in a box on wheels for six-plus hours, and you’re just a little bit punchy, it’s easy to get a bit over-excited. Rock’n’roll anthem Stairway to Heaven is a song that used to make me groan – I worked at a rock radio station and it was overplayed – but I caught myself cheering when I heard the opening chords. De-facto lowered the volume long enough to tell the girls that this was a rock’n’roll classic, commanding them to listen to the lyrics. Then he cranked the sound back up and we sang along, word for word.

“This isn’t rock’n’roll,” Buddy-roo said.

“It’s a ballad at the start,” I said. “Just wait, it’ll kick in.”

When it did, we were singing along at the top of our lungs and dancing like head-bangers in our seats. Buddy-roo, disgusted by our behavior, took the fleece she’d been using as a pillow and wrapped it around her head to drown out the noise and to keep from having to look at her stupid parents. This only inspired us to continue. She did get the last laugh; De-facto and I were so caught up in the music that we missed our exit. We had to turn around and backtrack to get back on the right road. It’s happened to us several times on the trip. We get lost in the music, and nearly get lost.

~ ~ ~

“Girls, look! We’re about to cross the mighty Mississippi!” De-facto, our own Clark Griswald, shouted it exuberantly, his fist in the air. Short-pants barely raised her head from her book, Buddy-roo re-arranged her feet against the back of the seat in front of her, their tandem sign language for who cares. I’m afraid they are saturated with national parks, 4-H styled museums the_Beanand points of interest, or just tired of being hitched to our wagon on this cross country tour, that their best defense is to ignore us. But we keep nudging them along. At every stop, Buddy-roo begs to stay just one more day. The most recent host becomes her new best friend, and that stop, the best on the trip. Both girls moaned about being dragged into Chicago, until they discovered the fountain and the Bean at Millennium Park. We couldn’t linger too long, though, as friends were expecting us at our next stop, in Ohio, and the heavy city traffic had already slowed us down.

We’ve been on the road twenty days, crossed ten states and we’ve still many miles to go. But the Atlantic draws near and another city beckons, with more family and friends waiting to see us. The road calls, whether we like it or not. Tomorrow, once again, we leave at dawn.


Aug 3 2014

A Little Adventure

The black band of highway stretched and curved through the dry desert hills. An occasional cactus stood at attention, in a half-salute. The cotton-ball clouds dotted the sky. The white markings in the center of the road slipped one by one under the car. The mountains on the horizon ahead loomed in shades of grey and blue until they weren’t in the distance anymore, and we were driving among them. This scenery had been breathtaking at first – and still was – but we’d grown accustomed to it after six hours on the road.
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“Are we there yet?”

“We’ll get there when we get there.”

The classic road trip call and response. We’re used to it because we drive a lot, back and forth to the country house, during the last spring break we drove to Croatia, Milan, Paris and back home to Barcelona. The girls are more patient that most, they’ve been trained to make long car rides. Even Buddy-roo, who gets nauseous on any curvy road or one with too many stops-and-starts, is a good sport. I collect air-sickness bags from the seat pockets of airplanes; they come in handy when Buddy-roo throws up in the car. I have at least a dozen on hand for this road trip, since we’ll be in a car for nearly a month straight, traveling west to east across the United States, from San Francisco to Cape Cod.

~ ~ ~

When I was eight, my parents had the idea to take the family on a trip around New York, so that we might learn about our home state. My brother, sister and I fidgeted in the back seat of my father’s Delta 88 while we drove from our home in the Finger Lakes to to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to Fort Ticonderoga, Ausable Chasm, and the North Pole, NY at Whiteface mountain in the Adirondacks. That was the highlight of the trip, at least for me. Certainly it was the least favorite stop of my brother, who’d just turned 16. His discomfort was obvious when you saw the photograph in which he was forced to pose with Santa Claus for that year’s family Christmas card.

We stayed in modest motels and ate at family restaurants and diners. I remember loving the motel with rows of rooms wrapped around a kidney-shaped swimming pool with its blue twisted slide. There’s a picture of me in my red, white and blue two-piece sailor-styled bathing suit, its white skirt lifted by the wind, clearly loving this vacation. I also remember the disappointment of the guest house the following night, its tired upholstery, pilled white bedspread and a musty, closed-in smell. That it was only for one night was beyond my comprehension, I was indignant that we would stay there. (Ask De-facto, not much has changed on that front.)

At breakfast my father set a dollar limit for breakfast, barely enough to cover eggs and toast. He disappeared and returned with a stack of post cards that cost as much as two breakfasts. We begrudgingly wrote cards to friends, as commanded, and thus started the family tradition of writing postcards at the breakfast table. If you ever get a post card from me, chances are I wrote it with my morning coffee and a plate of eggs.

~ ~ ~

The girls and I had a long layover in Vancouver. De-facto was making his own way to San Francisco but our frequent flyer itinerary forced us to wait eight hours before our connecting flight. We stowed our luggage at the airport and took the sky train into the city. A security guard – Buddy-roo called me out for flirting with him – saw us studying the map and offered to help. girls_on_tracks Instead of connecting to a bus to get to the Granville market, he suggested walking along an unused train track. A more scenic route, he said. Buddy-roo, who’d been whinging earlier about the long plane ride, the lengthy layover, her hungry tummy, now started jumping up and down, begging me to take his advice.

Sure enough, just behind the parking lot of the train stop, a set of tracks rolled out from under a locked chain-link fence, a good sign that the tracks were out of use. We marched along the thick wooden rail-ties, feeling very happy-go-lucky and on-the-road. The theme song to the Andy Griffith Show came to mind. We could still see the street and it was broad daylight, so it felt pretty safe. If the fence across the tracks wasn’t enough to assure me that we wouldn’t encounter a moving train, the overgrowth of wild, thorny blackberry bushes along the tracks and between the ties was another strong clue. Short-pants is a blackberry picking fiend, it’s her favorite pastime at the country house and she had lamented leaving before the berries on our property were ripe. She, too, had been hungry and as a result, grumpy. But the sight of all these bushes lifted her mood instantly. The dense clumps of black raspberries were like magnets, pulling her from the tracks as we walked along. She’d lag behind and then run to catch up, her hands filled with sweet, fat berries to share with us.

When the road veered away and the chain link fences on either side of the tracks turned into cement walls twenty-feet high, I started to wonder if it was such a good idea to be having this hobo adventure. It occurred to me not to overreact, but at the same time some motherly-hormone kicked in and presented me with the worst-case scenario: an indigent needle-carrying hoodlum lurking in the bushes, surprised to see a happy, unsuspecting family skipping along the tracks, taking all sorts of terrible liberties with us. I had a fair amount of cash on me, and the more precious cargo: my daughters. Were I alone I’d have sprinted along without thinking of it. Worry is too strong a word, but I did wonder about the safety of our surroundings. This led to the conversation we often have about being smart, not scared – our motto, as Short-pants says – and we managed to navigate the tracks to our destination without any incident, and having experienced the freedom of going off-piste, and the thrill of having made it out alive. The girls’ whining had ceased, entirely. Nothing like a little adventure to help you forget your misery.
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San Francisco treated us to visits with family and friends, a hike in Muir Woods, a beach day at the Presidio and a big birthday bash for De-facto (hint: ends in a zero). After a few days, we picked up the vehicle that will carry us east across the country for the next several weeks, and headed south with overnight stops in Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix. We’ve stayed with friends and family, who treat us like royalty and protest that we should stay longer, but we are trying not to impose on anyone for too long. Besides, we’re a family on the move with the whole country left to traverse.

~ ~ ~

I can’t say I was thrilled about this taking this trip. I wasn’t looking forward to hours on end in the car. We just put in a new kitchen at the country house, I wanted to linger there over the summer and enjoy it. I don’t really like being in the states too much, I get overwhelmed by the enormity of everything: the stores, the portions, the people. I’ve done vagabond traveling in my life and loved it, but I had only my own backpack to manage. Supervising the preparation and maintenance of several suitcases and the other odd belongings that get picked up along the way (nothing without a handle, channeling my father’s car-trip mantra) could be classified as my Sisyphean task. My attempts to empower my daughters to keep track of their stuff have been in vain. I know I should let them live with the consequences of their sloppy suitcase habits, but in the end I’m the one who has to buy them another pair when their sneakers are left behind, so it’s hard not to be craning my neck vigilantly behind them. Even De-facto can’t manage to get out of Dodge without losing something. Already he’s had his bathing suit mailed to Santa Fe from Los Angeles.

But my mother-in-love has been politely asking to visit for too long. She’s awfully good about flying to Europe to spend time with us there, but she wanted to host us in her own home, and we wanted to grant her this as well as to enjoy her lovely hospitality. If we’re going to go all the way to Santa Fe, De-facto argued, we might as well visit some other people on the west coast, and then why not friends in Chicago and on the east coast too? And shouldn’t our American children, both born abroad, get a taste of the good ol’ US-of-A? It’s the passport they carry, after all.

You can see how the conversation went. During the weeks leading up to the trip I’d think about what it entailed and the dread would rise up within me. Yes, it would be an experience, a great adventure, something we’d always remember. Yes, we’d see good people we love to see. But this kind of touring doesn’t count, to me, as a vacation. It’s hard work, shuttling a family around for so many miles.

But, anyway, smiles everyone.

~ ~ ~

I’d been the one to set the alarm for 5:00 am, but I groaned the loudest when it went off. We’d been up this early the day before, too, to beat the traffic out of Phoenix and get up to the Grand Canyon early enough to enjoy the afternoon walking along the rim. De-facto called for a family hike down into the Canyon before we left, and that would mean getting up before dawn, again, in order to beat the heat but also to get on the road in time to make it to his mother’s house, in Santa Fe, for a late dinner. The night before, I’d extracted from the girls promises of cheerful faces in the morning, vows broken before their heads even left the pillows.

De-facto maintains marvelous poise in the company of grumpy women, he’s learned to keep his mouth shut and let time do its magic. Despite the girls’ protests, and my ambivalence, he herded us to the trailhead. It didn’t takecanyon_wall long for me to fall into the hiking zone, the path transported me instantly to my days on the Camino and the euphoria of walking in nature. The majestic beauty of this early morning walk wasn’t lost entirely on the girls, their complaints abated for a while as we snaked down into the canyon. But when we turned around to make our way back up to the rim, the combination of an uphill climb, the growing heat of the sun and a desire for a breakfast beyond the granola bars and orange slices made for a reprise of the chorus of complaints.

I slowed my pace, distancing myself from the grumpy girls so I could stay in my “Camino high” and marvel at the grandeur of the canyon. It’s the kind of vista that compels you to take in fully the moment. It’s the kind of vista that makes you amazed and privileged to be where you are. It made me glad that we’d pressed ourselves to get up and out early to make this hike, glad to be in the Grand Canyon, glad to on our big cross-country tour, in a car, with my family, making an important memory. Maybe, I figured, this trip wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and maybe it wouldn’t be as awful as I thought. Nothing like a little adventure to help forget your misery.


May 12 2014

The Days Away

I closed the refrigerator door, giving it that extra press to be sure it was firmly shut, eyeing the notice attached to the door with a magnet. Short-pants had a school field trip coming up and these were the instructions about what to bring: a small backpack, a metro card, a bottle of water, a hat, rain gear, comfortable shoes. I’d suggested that we assemble her bag in advance because I was leaving the day before her trip, and I wouldn’t be able to help her the night before. But now I was about to leave – the taxi would come for me in ten minutes – and we hadn’t done it.

“You’ll have to prepare your backpack yourself,” I told her, thinking that wasn’t the worst thing in the world. She’s at an age now where she should be able to collect a few necessities in a bag on her own.

“I thought we were going to do it together.”

It wasn’t that she didn’t now how. It’s that she relishes anything we can do together. She likes to hang out with me. A game of Bananagrams together delights her. She still comes in and cuddles with me in the morning. Or out of nowhere, standing in the kitchen, throws her arms around me in an unsolicited hug.
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“You know how to do this,” I assured her.

She lifted her head up from her cereal bowl. “Do you have to go?”

This is always the part when my heart sinks and I swallow hard. There’s nothing to say to appease her, so I usually just shrug and give her a hug.

The thing is, I do have to go. If I didn’t get on an airplane every once in a while to go off on my own, I wouldn’t be the mother they love. I’d go stir crazy and my grumpiness alone would have an effect on them. I think it helps them to be independent, to see me doing my own things and coming home happy to see them. I know it keeps me sane.

Still, it’s hard. That chattering chorus sings behind me as I drag my suitcase out the door: you are neglecting them. You are missing important moments, and they won’t be long forever. You’re selfish. What kind of mother leaves her children, especially on mother’s day? This cacophony serenades me every trip, and though I can see my way out of the noise it makes, I am still surprised that I fall victim to these skeptical voices. They represent something I profess to reject: the firm hand of societal expectations about motherhood. But they are firmly embedded in our culture. I don’t necessarily pay them heed, but every time I leave I have to step over their sharp edges to get to the door.

~ ~ ~

While I’m gone I hardly check in. When I’m away for work, which is usually pretty intense, the timing never seems to fit what’s happening at home. If it’s an escape trip, well, where’s the escape if you’re constantly phoning home? Plus it’s disruptive. When the girls were younger and De-facto called home from the road, it did more harm than good. They’d be playing along, living in the present that is the world of young toddlers, and his call would remind them that he was gone. The tears that came after hanging up seemed hardly worth the quick check-in, which was usually a pretty inane conversation anyway.

It’s the same for us. There’s a certain disconnect when one of us is away – for work or fun – and the other is home administering the day-to-day routine. The conversations are filled with lost-in-translation moments that leave us feeling further apart than before the call. We’ve gotten into the practice of keeping correspondence to a minimum, which means staying present, mentally, in the place that we’re working or visiting, doing the things that we do without the angst of not being home. It seems like a waste to be someplace interesting only to spend your time there wishing you weren’t. airplane_fliesNot that I don’t ever call and say hello – but it might happen every few days, not a few times a day. This way, by the end of the trip, I’m missing him and the girls pretty fiercely, which makes the coming home part, all the more sweet.

~ ~ ~

Three trips in May means I’m gone seventeen days and all or part of four weekends. I missed the Spanish Mother’s Day a week ago and the American Mother’s Day yesterday. I’ll be missing the French Fête des Mères at the end of the month, too. I remember hesitating before booking all these trips, one for work, two for personal visits, and wondering if the time I was allotting myself at home between them was sufficient. I can tell you now it’s not. My overdose of voyaging has put me off my drug of choice. I’m longing for my own bed and my own people and even, maybe, a bit of humdrum routine. This is the plan for June, but right now next month seems ages away. I can’t complain. I get to visit some festive and exotic, interesting places: Sevilla last week, Tanzania this week. But at the moment my family feels too far away. I’m surprised to be counting the days that I’m away from home, and even more surprised to be counting the days until I get back.


Mar 4 2014

Into the Woods

Any lenses we were wearing – glasses or goggles – fogged up instantly when we trudged into the lodge. Wet, heavy snow dripped off our coats and hats. We’d been skiing nearly three hours and hadn’t intended to stop, except a small squall settled in over the mountain, its steady diagonal snowfall like needles against our faces. Hot chocolate was required, to warm our hands and take a break from being battered by the icy snow.

The lodge, a chalet-styled restaurant, was packed with diners at tables with plates of steaming food, croque-monsieurs and pomme-frites, thick pieces of red meat with creamy sauces. European skiers won’t miss their appointed meal times; a plus for flexible eaters like us who’d rather snack along the way and take advantage of the short lift lines that result while the rest of the mountain’s patrons are savoring their long lunches. Now we were in their midst, standing at the bar in the dark room, cradling our cups of hot chocolate, taking a restorative pause and hoping the snow would ease up.
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It did. We gulped down our last sips of chocolate and clunked out of the lodge in awkward ski-booted steps to retrieve our skis and poles, laid against a wooden fence, and headed for the nearly empty lift-line.

We’d rotated in shifts all day, skiing as a family of four, and then De-facto would ski off to explore more demanding terrain, later returning to the two gentler hills that satisfied the girls. Then we’d ski a couple of runs together, all of us, before I’d get my turn to ski off and take a few longer, more challenging runs alone. It’s fun to ski with the girls and watch them get more confident. But how I love to ski alone, at my own pace, to stop when I want – or not stop at all – revived by a few precious, private moments at the top of the mountain. I was a ski-bum for a year in my early thirties, and all the freedom associated with that period of my life comes rushing back to me in an instant, just by sitting alone on the chairlift.

While I was off on my own, De-facto tried to inspire the girls to veer off the main piste into the woods, following tracks carved out by other adventurous skiers. The narrow trails snaked on and off the main slope, quick little jaunts in and out of the forest. For heartier adventurers, you could go deeper and find steeper tracks, one of them even over a bridge with a small jump. But if you stayed at the edge, close to the slope, it was a gentler risk, exhilarating enough for Buddy-roo, who daringly followed her father into the trees and out again.

Short-pants, though older, wasn’t quite as daring. It doesn’t help that her just-about-adolescent body is gangly and spindly. But she’s always had a different kind of physical coordination, and because of this tends to avoid sports in general. Just getting her out on skis is a bit of a trial. The night before we left, she cried because we were forcing her to go skiing. After three runs the first morning, she’d forgotten the burden we’d pressed upon her to enjoy this form of winter athletics, surrendering to its pleasure. But despite De-facto’s enthusiastic encouragement, she refused to follow them into the woods, preferring to do her standard snowplow snake back and forth across the main slope.

Our four-hour passes would expire soon – we’d gone for the shorter lift-pass thinking that the kids wouldn’t want to ski longer. In the end it was De-facto and I who were aching and exhausted and ready to call it a day. I’d skied fairly hard on my last solo turn, so I nodded at him to go off and take a last run on his own. I’d do one more with the girls and ski them over to the rental shop to return the skis and meet him there.

Except Buddy-roo wanted to follow her father into the forest again, so it was agreed she’d wait for Short-pants and me at the bottom by the lift so we could make our final ride up the mountain before our passes ran out. ski_pisteThen we’d take our last run of the day, down a different slope that would take us to the rental shop. The phrase, last run of the day, always sounds ominous to me. As a young child, my sister broke her leg on the last run of the day, so I’m always cautious about making this declaration, afraid to jinx one of us to such a casted fate.

Short-pants and I started out side by side, but I soon pulled ahead, making slow, wide arcs in the fresh snow. Halfway down, I stopped to wait for her. I scanned the hill for her distinctive helmet-worn-over-the-ski-hat (her choice to wear it that way), but she was nowhere to be found. I craned my neck in every direction, on the verge of worrying, until I saw her purple coat and her lopsided helmet…in the woods.

She was just above me, so I took a dozen giant side-steps back up the mountain to get closer to her. She was stopped in her tracks, considering how to navigate forward. From where I stood, it looked like she had a choice to veer out of the woods fairly easily and ski to me, or she could continue on the trail into the woods, though then the route out would be steeper.

“Look at you, in the woods!” I shouted. I wanted to encourage her for taking the risk, though I wished she’d have done it with her father so he could coach her through it. “Hey, why don’t you take the next path out. We’ve got to get down and meet your sister.”

Either she ignored my advice or she was unable to turn her skis in the heavy snow. Although she wasn’t going fast, she was going deeper into the woods and the further she went, the ridge between her and the main slope grew steeper, as did all the little exit paths. When she realized this, she froze.

I checked my watch. Buddy-roo was no doubt waiting for us by the lift, wondering where we were. I knew our lift passes would run out soon, too, which wasn’t the end of the world except then we’d have to ski a good distance cross-country style – never fun with the girls – before walking up a steep hill to get to the rental shop.

“Come on out!” I yelled, cheerfully. “You can do it.”

She inched forward until she came to the next set of tracks leading out of the woods. When she tried to turn, her skis got caught in the heavy snow and trees_on_canvasshe fell over, landing with her skis above her. I watched her struggle to lift them; they were buried under the snow. I called to her, coaxing her to move her body above the skis so she could lift them and position herself to stand up. She couldn’t move. She didn’t have the strength.

I snapped out of my bindings and walked up into the woods to where Short-pants was laying in the snow. I couldn’t get her untangled, so I snapped her out too and we walked out of the woods, carrying her skis, back down to the slope. But now the bottoms of her ski boots were caked with packed snow, and we were still on too much of an incline to balance on one foot and scrape it off. Getting back into her skis was turning out to be a chore.

It was starting to snow again, hard. I took out my phone – De-facto and I had been texting each other to choreograph our meet-ups all day – and called him to tell him to go back to the lift and get Buddy-roo, who by now was either angry with us or terrified that we’d forgotten her. It was a stroke of luck to reach him, he’s not an always-answer-the-cell-phone kind of guy.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Short-pants kept repeating. She could sense my exasperation, without me saying a thing. She was on the verge of tears and the whole ordeal had exhausted her. I kept assuring her it was all okay, but my voice was tired, making my words hard to believe. We walked up to a more level part of the slope, where she could find her balance and we could fuss more easily with her skis and boots. Just as I managed to scrape the snow off her boots and clamp her back into her bindings, De-facto and Buddy-roo called to us from the chairlift passing overhead. Short-pants waved back as I put my skis on and shuffled up right beside her.

“My little wood nymph,” I said, planting my poles in the snow so I could let go of them and put my arms around her. “You ready to ski down?” She cracked a reluctant smile, chuckling at her new nickname.

We took off down the mountain, both of us skiing directly to the front of the lengthening lift line. I begged the pardon of a family about to enter the two_pairs_of_skiselectronic gate, explaining that our passes were about to expire and we needed to get up one more time in order to ski down to the other side of the mountain. The turnstile blinked green, letting us through. We inched forward as the chair came around behind us, scooping us up as we thumped back into it, with relief.

Swinging in the air, meters above where she’d been stuck in the snow, I asked her why she chose that moment to go into the woods, instead of going in with her father.

“I guess I just wanted to go on my own,” she said. “You know?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I know.”


Dec 15 2013

Absolute Power

I pulled the basket of silverware out of the dishwasher and set it on the counter for Buddy-roo. It’s one of her assigned chores to empty it and put the silverware away in its drawer. A few of the forks had been placed with their tongs downward in the container. I took one out to inspect it and, as suspected, it was caked with food from the previous night’s dinner.

“The silverware should be put in the dishwasher with the handles down and the silver part facing up.” I announced this to the entire family with the exasperated authority that only a mother possesses. “Otherwise it doesn’t get properly washed.”
shes_got_the_power
“Your mother has just issued an edict,” said De-facto.

Short-pants had been studying French history, something to do with Louis XIV’s decision to revoke the Edict of Nantes. De-facto was reading from her notebook, quizzing her for an upcoming test.

“That means she has absolute power,” said Short-pants.

“Does she?”

The girls nodded in unison. This led to a discussion about the governance of our household. Was it really a matriarchal monarchy? Was I a cruel despot or a benevolent ruler? Should I be ousted? Would such a revolution result in anarchy?

“Actually,” said Short-pants, “it’s more of an oligarchy.” She’d plucked that word off a list for her upcoming spelling bee. We’d looked it up the day before. “Both of you get to tell us what to do.”

“That’s right,” said De-facto, “but your mother makes the rules. Like the Edict of Silver High.”

~ ~ ~

Last week I got to spend five days in Paris, without man or kids in tow. I had many errands on my list, including a routine medical check-up that I opted to have conducted in French rather than Spanish. I made visits to the beauty nurse and my coiffeur, met up with friends, even went to a party and danced until 3 am. I had a brunch date with no reason to rush home afterward, permitting me to stroll around the neighborhood window shopping, doing a bit of nothing. I stayed in my studio and enjoyed hours of solitude. I cleaned up after no-one but myself. It was reminiscent of my early days in Paris, clown_carrotbefore there was a family wanting and needing my attention.

While I was basking in my imaginary exile, I could easily envision what was happening at home with De-facto at the helm. No doubt the laundry was piling up, beds were left unmade, bikes and scooters were parked in the living room, leftovers shoved in the fridge in the pot they were cooked in with a plastic bag barely covering them. Ours is a whole different household when it’s under his patriarchal rule.

I don’t mean to assert that all fathers – or all men, for that matter – are slobs. My brother keeps his desk organized at right angles and grabs the towels for the wash before you’ve even had a chance to finish drying off. Our tenant in Paris takes good care of our apartment; he keeps it clean and in good order. But the stereotype of the messy man has evolved from some nugget of truth and De-facto could be the poster boy. My girls happen take after their father, with haphazard filing systems and dirty clothes stuffed under their beds.

I can’t complain (too much) about what happens when I’m away from home. I don’t take it for granted that I get to go away for several days at a time, that De-facto can easily function as a single parent, self-sufficiently cooking for himself and the girls, managing school runs and acting as the overlord of the homework brigade. I have friends who prepare meals and store them in the freezer, planning ahead so the family will have something to eat each day during their absence. Other friends give me the snake eye if I moan even a bit about what happens when I’m gone; they have little or no chance to escape from their kids and husbands. I get to go away on my own a lot, lingering somewhere after a job, escaping every July to the fiesta or just going off for a fun weekend alone in Paris, something they remind me is not standard practice for every couple.

~ ~ ~

They made an effort to pull the place together before my return. Carpets were straightened, dishes moved from the sink to the dishwasher. A laundry had even been endeavored, the clean clothes were draped, somewhat awkwardly, over the drying rack. Coats that were surely left on chairs all week were hung in 3_on_a_bikethe closet, shoes stashed on the shoe-rack at the last moment. Bikes had been stowed in their designated compartments. I’d been gone long enough so that the feeling of missing my family would have overpowered any discomfort at the condition of the apartment. The reunion was so joyful that they got cocky and started to boast about the carefree life under the patriarchy.

“Was it anarchy here, then?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” said Short-pants.

“No,” said Buddy-roo, grinning, “It was manarchy.”


Aug 5 2013

Out of my Depth

She threw her towel on the sand and sprinted to the water’s edge, halted only briefly by the shock of the cool water at her feet before she plunged forward, into the ocean. A frothy wave rolled directly at her, pushing her back toward the shore with its force. She faltered, but stood up and dove into the next wave, and again and again until she was on the other side of the wall of waves that break at the shore’s edge. Short-pants‘ fearlessness in the ocean has always surprised me. She is tentative about many things that other children dive into effortlessly; getting her to ride a bicycle requires cajoling and bribing. But the water calls to her, her courage summoned from the rhythm of its fierce waves.
in_the_waves
I stood on the shore watching her bob in and out of the water, alternating her practice of diving under the wave and surfacing on the other side, or chest-bumping it defiantly as it rolled toward her. The tide was high and that made the surf fiercer. Several times during her ocean frolic I’d called her and motioned her to swim back into the lifeguarded zone, away from the rip tides on either side. I’d tried to do it playfully, but still, I was watching her like a hawk.

Later, back at the beach house – friends from Paris had rented it for two weeks and kindly invited us to spend a few days there with them – I told Short-pants she seemed fearless in the surf.

“Were you worried about me?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “I love to see you bold and daring like that.”

Her shoulders expanded, pride filling every cavity of her chest.

“And I also want you to be safe in the ocean. It can be dangerous.”

“In other words,” said my friend – she’s Irish and has no problem telling it like it is – “your mother was terrified.”

~ ~ ~

This is the maternal – the parental – conundrum. We want our kids to seize the world around them. We want to encourage their adventures and help them build skills, strength and confidence. But there is so much that could go wrong; so many dangers to meet, some mere obstacles to overcome, others truly life threatening. We want to steer them, guide them through the minefields of growing up without being over-protective. We know they need to fall and fail, and pick themselves up and recover. But what if they’re on the edge of something they might not recover from?

De-facto and I like to think we found the middle ground. We didn’t childproof the electric sockets; we just taught the girls not to stick their fingers in them. We didn’t put up a gate, we showed them how to crawl backwards down the stairs. We never safety-latched our cupboards; we moved the seriously toxic stuff to higher shelves and designated cupboards they could play in. When one of them fell or stubbed a toe, we’d wait a beat, and walk, not run, with words of passive concern: “You’re okay, aren’t you?” At some point we realized that Short-pants thought “okay” meant ouch because we’d said that to her every time she hurt herself.

We might have been, perhaps, a bit cavalier about her boo-boos. We thought it was just a flu, that thing that turned out to be a brain abscess, putting her in the ICU for six weeks. If there was ever a time that I felt I was truly in over my head as a mother, this was it. No parenting book can prepare you for tending to your child in a hospital, still, you can’t panic, for their sake and for yours. But even after all that – especially after that, not wanting to live in fear or make her feel fragile – we try to take bumps and bruises in stride, and despite my own terrifying memory of those moments when we thought we might lose her, to keep sending her out into the world with all its dangers.

~ ~ ~
beach_shadows
We stood together at the water’s edge, admiring how the morning sun cast our shadows long and lean. They were nearly the same length, demonstrating that at 12 she is fast approaching my height. There were only a few other early swimmers in the water. De-facto was at a different part of the beach, taking his own surfing lesson. Buddy-roo, who’d excelled spectacularly in boogie-boarding the day before, had opted out of this morning’s beach excursion, choosing to take her opening swim in the pool back at the house.

Short-pants and I waded hand-in-hand into the water, it seemed to take forever to get beyond the shelf of the sandbar. We charged at the waves, stepping over them until they lapped against our mid-sections and then we began her favorite game of calling out “Under!” or “Over!” – one command for diving beneath the wave as it passed, the other required confronting the white foam surf and letting it splash in your face. It felt like we were the only two people in the world, frolicking in the surf, my daughter and me, laughing at the waves, diving over and rolling under.

I kept an eye on the shore – or so I thought – to keep within the distance of what had been pointed out as the safe zone. But too late I realized we’d succumbed to the longshore drift. Not only had we slipped sideways down the beach, we’d also drifted out from the shoreline. In fact, I could no longer touch bottom, which meant Short-pants couldn’t either. The current was stronger now, and I knew we were entering a danger zone.

“Why don’t we swim back toward our towels?” I said. Just then a wave pummeled us. She winced, her hair splayed over her face, spitting the salty water out of her mouth. “Take my hand, let’s swim together.” I could feel the current tugging us the direction we didn’t want to go. I pointed us diagonally, not to swim directly against it, but I knew we’d have to work hard to swim back in.

The shore seemed forever away. The waves relentless, hurling themselves at and over us. The sound of the surf was a constant roar. The swimming was hard but we were making slow progress. I also knew how quickly the surf can tire you out and I couldn’t gauge how tired Short-pants was already. We’d actually drifted into an area where there were a few surfers, one of them within shouting distance. Here was another human being, just ahead of us, and he had a floating device. I yelled to him. The surf was too loud, he paddled away.

“This is a good time to swim on your back,” I told her. We turned and kicked together. I held her hand tight; I would not lose her in this surf. It would not happen, not on my watch, the thing I dreaded, that terrified me most about her love of the sea. Moments earlier I’d marveled at the beauty of the waves cresting in front of us, blue-green walls of water, arcs perfect and smooth, like a picture window into the sea. That should have tipped me off, we’d never swum out far enough to see waves like that before. It was my fault, I’d gotten lost in the rhythm of the waves and the pleasure of being side by side with her, dancing together in the ocean.
lone_surfer
Another surfer came within sight. We’d made headway and he was a bit closer. I called and waved, he looked up and turned his board our way. Just this gesture buoyed me. I tugged Short-pants, who was still paddling and kicking beside me – she was holding her own – toward him. Just before we reached him, my foot hit the sandy bottom. Three steps later, Short-pants could stand too.

“Okay?” he asked, seeing that we’d stopped swimming and started walking. I nodded, and thanked him. But I was thinking, ouch, that was a little too close.

We trudged onward toward the beach, still fighting the force of the waves as they withdrew from the shore to slide back into the ocean. Finally we made our way to dry sand.

“Mama, I think you overreacted, waving and calling to him for help.”

“Look,” I said, pointing at the surfers in the water. “We were way out there.” Her jaw dropped as she noted the distance. I also pointed out how far down the beach we’d drifted from where we’d left our towels. “In a situation like this, you don’t realize how tired you can get, fighting the current. If there’s someone nearby, it’s a no-brainer; you should ask for help.”

We sat on the beach to rest and talk about what happened. I played down, slightly, how dangerous it might have been; I didn’t want to spoil her love of the waves. But I didn’t dismiss the danger completely. A little fear – or rather respect – for the ocean is something I was happy for her to acquire. Not that my respect for the ocean had kept us from getting in trouble, but maybe it’d had gotten us out of it in time.

“I didn’t realize,” she said. On her face, full recognition of the danger, and then the relief of having escaped it.

I’d succeeded at not panicking her during the swim back to shore, but I didn’t want this to trigger a phobia about the ocean. We walked up to the beach cafe at the top of the dune, for hot chocolate and a croissant, after which I suggested we go back into the water to do some wave-jumping before we called it a morning. She hesitated. I could see the fear taking its grip. I insisted. This experience should make her smart about the ocean, not scared of it. I took her hand and walked with her into the water. We didn’t go out as far, we weren’t quite as daring. But we got back on the horse; we rode the waves again.

~ ~ ~

blue_bird_on_yellowIt wasn’t until much later in the day, after all the vacation-house group activities – the late breakfast, the food shopping, lunch, cleaning up for the evening’s barbecue party – were finished that I had a few moments to be alone. Standing in the shower, I ran through the morning’s events, re-hashing everything we did, letting myself consider what could have happened. I leaned my head against the cool tiles, the water cleansing the salt and sweat off my body, and I wept.

I’ve managed not to beat myself up too much for this little adventure. I should have known better – I do know better – but I was in over my head, literally, forgetting my own best advice. Maybe it was useful, I told myself, that this happened. What terrified me earlier in the week was her nearly cavalier attitude about the waves. Each time I’d motion for her to come back between the lifeguards’ flags, she’d comply, but not without a groan. Making this error together, I could help her out of a pickle she might not have escaped on her own. This gave her a taste of the ocean’s formidable strength and why you shouldn’t go out of your depth, unless you know what you’re doing.

Of course, even when you think you know what you’re doing, you can still get in over your head. You can be an experienced swimmer and still make a mistake and get caught in the rip tide. Just like you can be an experienced mother, and still get out of your depth. The ocean is humbling that way, and so, I guess, is motherhood.


Jul 20 2013

Well Elevated

There were three of them, smooth skinned, thick brown hair, chestnut eyes. They might have been in their early twenties, or younger. We’d met them somewhere along the night, dancing or stopping off for a drink, and invited them to our terrace in the morning to watch the encierro. It would be easier not to invite anyone, and to sleep as long as possible without interruption. But the terrace of the apartment we rent in Pamplona every year is too large and well situated not to share it.

There are rules, if you’re invited to our balcony. You must arrive before 7:00 am when the police close off the street for cleaning. But it is forbidden to ring our bell before 6:55, so we can maximize our sleep, a scarce commodity during fiesta. When we’ve let you in the building, a key tied to a long string is dangled down the stairwell to allow for entrance to the second, inner door. Once inside, you climb the six flights of stairs to our apartment. The encierro doesn’t begin for another hour, so you have to occupy yourself, quietly, until we’ve all risen from the dead sleep, the kind of sleep you have when there’s only been two or three hours of it.

These boys, the Minorca boys as we called them, based on their origin, were especially appreciative of the invitation. They waited on the balcony, chatting with each other, surveying the street below or looking up at the Navarran hills on the horizon beyond the city while we girls scurried to and from the bathroom, dressing and primping, one by one joining them on the balcony as our fiesta costumes of white and red came together. bulls_run_belowAt eight o’clock, when the rocket shot off, we scrambled inside inside to catch the beginning of the run, which is televised, and then ran back out to the balcony to watch the bulls live as they stormed up our street, Estafeta, toward the bullring. It’s an impressive sight, even from six floors up.

Afterward, the boys accompanied us to the Txoko, where our friends who run in the encierro go to check in with each other and discuss the morning’s run. We introduced them to the ritual morning drink, a sweet milk called Kaiku mixed with cognac, and the boys took out their wallets to treat us, as a thank you for the privilege of viewing the run from our balcony.

“These boys are well elevated,” said the Fiesta Nazi. I agreed, thinking about how their mothers had done a fine job of raising them.

Every year, it seems, we manage to net a gaggle of three or four freshmen at the fiesta, young guys who have tripped into town, eager for the Pamplona experience. We run into them while dancing at one of our favorite night spots, or having stopped off for a plate of peppers and a beer during an afternoon bar tour, or just running into them on the street. We suss them out – to see if it feels right – and then extend the encierro invitation. I suspect we’ve kept a few innocents out of the bull-run by inviting them up to view it from our place. Then, at the Txoko we introduce them to experienced runners who give them a few safety tips – or scare them off it altogether. One year we met up with a trio unable to find their host, and rather than let them sleep in the street we offered them couches in our living room. There are a few mothers out there in the world who would be grateful for our interventions and invitations, if they knew.

We keep the cougar to a minimum. I admire the handsome youth of our guests, but I am merely imagining a future my daughters might meet. It’s all absolutely hands off, and any uncontainable lascivious remarks are made briefly and in whispers, between women applying make-up in the bathroom.
ole
The following morning, at 6:55, the Minorca boys rang the buzzer again, caught the key as it dangled down, climbed the stairs and went directly out to the balcony. They were as polite as the day before, staying out of our way as all the women in the flat went about our ablutions. They brought with them a tray of croissants and pastries – and a bottle of gin, for good measure – which they set out on the terrace so we could enjoy a light breakfast with the bulls.

The Fiesta Nazi caught my eye. I nodded. “Well elevated,” we mouthed to each other, in tandem.

Some day Short-pants and Buddy-roo will have the urge to travel and explore the world with their friends, wide eyed and trusting, the romance of the travel overriding any sense of planning or organization. I’m hoping that they’ll run into some “aunties” or “uncles” just like us, good-hearted strangers who offer some kindness, sage advice or who simply point them safely in the right direction. Each time we help out some youngsters in Pamplona, I know I’m paying forward for my daughters, whom I can only hope will be as polite, appreciative and well elevated.


May 30 2013

In-Flight Etiquette

She side-stepped through the aisle with a young child in one hand, another child in her arms, both her shoulders burdened with multiple bags: a purse, a carry-on, a diaper pouch, a bag of toys and books. The standing child, maybe four years old, stared at me with round, brown eyes. The carried child was kicking wildly and had already started to fuss. The woman inched toward her designated seats just as these precariously perched bags fell to her elbow and the child in her arm began to cry.
eye_up
Like many people, I roll my eyes when a family with kids comes down the aisle, willing them to continue past my row and far beyond to the nether regions of the plane. A beat later I remind myself what it was like, when Short-pants and Buddy-roo were young babies and we toted them with us to the states to see family or to go on some wild adventure. Short-pants took her first consecutive steps – becoming an official toddler – in the Charles de Gaulle airport lounge while waiting to board a flight to Johannesburg. De-facto and I were determined that having small children wouldn’t hamper our travel habit, so we were those parents, the ones dragging their children on flights to far-flung places, the source of many eye-rolls by many other passengers, I’m sure.

That’s how our girls learned to be good travelers. But even the best-behaved children reach a threshold on an airplane. I survived many long flights because of the kindness of strangers who’d entertain one child while I took the other back to the bathroom, or who just played peek-a-boo for five minutes so I could manage a few bites of my dinner. This is why, after I permit myself the inward groan with the rest of the passengers, I swallow hard and offer up a big smile that’s meant to entertain the child and reassure the parent. Or, as I did on last week’s flight when I discovered the woman with the two children in tow was seated behind me, I stand up and offer to help stow bags or distract the kids while the parents, already visibly exasperated, settle in.

~ ~ ~

The man sitting directly in front of me pushed his seat back so abruptly that my papers and books fell to the floor and I am certain that had my laptop been open on the tray, it would have snapped in half. My belongings spilled beneath the seat and across the aisle. He was oblivious to the chaos he’d created. I stood up to gather my things and tapped him on the arm.

“Sir,” I said, “You have every right to put your seat back, but it would be nice if you’d turn around and check with me first, so I could be prepared.”
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His grunted apology was half-hearted. But I’d won the respect of the passengers around us and after this I noticed several lovely social exchanges occurring, brief but civilized acknowledgments and non-verbal negotiation of your-space-and-mine prior to seats pushing back to a reclining position.

If I ran an airline I would make etiquette part of the flight attendant’s on-the-runway security announcements. I’d include a segment on how to share space in the overhead luggage racks, and how to remove bags from those compartments in a non-hazardous manner. It would include where to put your elbows and how to share a row with other passengers. It would also include extremely specific instructions about make eye contact with the passenger in the seat behind you before pushing your seat into a reclining position. I might also add this: Be nice to parents traveling with children; they feel worse about their crying child than you do.

(I’d also tell the pilot and the purser to be short and sharp with their intercom interruptions, especially if it has to happen in two languages. I don’t need a rundown of the duty free boutique specials, nor do I care to hear a long-winded explanation of our flight path. Just shut up please so I can get back to my in-flight movie.)

~ ~ ~

An Australian friend used to make a yearly trip back and forth between Perth and Paris with her young children. Once she and her husband were assigned three seats together and one solo seat ten rows further back. She’d asked a passenger if he would switch seats so they might sit in two pairs, one adult with one child. Her offer was an aisle seat for an aisle seat, and still, the young man refused to move.
svp_ok
“Look at me.” She spoke politely, but insisted he make eye contact with her. “I understand that you don’t want to move, and that’s okay. But someday, if you ever have children of your own, I just want you to remember me.”

Ten minutes later he came up and tapped her on the shoulder and agreed to change seats.

I relish the lengthy, quiet privacy my trans-Atlantic flights permit, and I am so glad I don’t have to travel with toddlers anymore. But I open my heart to parents enduring long flights with their young children, and do my best to support them, even if it’s only with a smile to convey that I am not annoyed, even if maybe I would prefer not to have screaming kids nearby. It occurred to me too late on the last flight – but it might come in handy next time – I could help one of these frenzied moms by offering to take her fussing child on my lap, and let him kick away to his heart’s delight, right against the seat back reclined just in front of me.


Mar 28 2013

Ultreïa

As I came out from under a canopy of trees, the skies opened up. The rain had been steady all morning, something like a constant sprinkler, but now it came down in sheets. In just minutes, I was drenched. During the days before, the rain had been gentle or playful, intermittent, volleying back and forth with the sun. This morning it was unyielding. The wetness was inescapable. I have rain 20130329-203023.jpgpants and a Gortex jacket, but this kind of rain finds its way under your sleeves and seeps into your clothes. I pulled the strings of my hood tight, closing it around my head. I leaned in to the rain and the wind, focused on my muddy boots. One foot in front of the other, step by step. Just a little further to go.

The night before, at dinner, a new friend – I appreciated having some company after so many days of eating alone – asked if I ever listened to music while walking, and if it might be interesting to listen to Oliver Schroer‘s recording, Camino, on my final leg into Santiago. He’d learned about Schroer from one of my blog posts, and even downloaded the album for himself. I haven’t listened to the music function on my phone at all during the Camino. I carry the earbuds only to transcribe, in the evenings, what I may have dictated during the day using a recording app. A string of words will come to me and if I want to remember them, I have to capture them quickly. These little snippets become aural markers of the route; musings with the sound effects of my footsteps, birds and dogs and passing tractors. Other than that I’ve tried to leave my phone in my pocket, except to take an occasional photograph. I prefer to be present – sight and sound – with the walking experience.

It wasn’t until this very wet moment that I remembered his suggestion to have a soundtrack to accompany me into Santiago. Ahead there was a tunnel under the highway. I stopped beneath it, set my backpack down on “dryer” ground and dug deep inside to find the plastic bag with my earphones. I selected the music, figured out how to tuck in the wires and keep (hopefully) electronic things dry. When I emerged from under the overpass, the rain pounded against me, almost horizontally.

The first song started out jubilantly. It made me smile, buoying me as I ventured out from the cover into the downpour. But the chords soon turned minor and introspective, matching the somber rhythm of the relentless rain. It was kind of a perfect storm: a violin playing in a minor key, every note enhanced by the acoustics of ancient churches along the Camino, played by a man who died of the same disease as my mother. This, on the last day of my way to Santiago, another ending. It wasn’t my intention when I put the music on, to put myself into a state. But there I was, marching along, dripping, drenched, so wet that I didn’t even try not to get wet anymore. The rain 20130329-205738.jpgdripping off my hood into my eyes, the rain dripping from my nose and eyelashes. The rain, the music, the end, all of it dripping together. That’s when I began to weep.

Why was I crying? I wasn’t sure: I thought I was glad and proud to be finishing the Camino. Then I recognized it, the feeling. It was grief. I was grieving the end of this walk, a journey that I had been planning and looking forward to – and in the midst of – for over a year. I was grieving some part of me, a part I don’t need anymore, but a part I was used to. I was grieving, again, good people who’ve passed on: my mother and my father, grandparents, my friend Dilts and the pilgrim I hardly knew, Mark from Michigan, the one who shared his olives with me the day before he died. Another friend called Bomber. Not that we were close, but that it’s recent and he was young. A whole list of people who now live only in the world of memory. The violin played on, track after track. My tears indistinguishable from the rain.

~ ~ ~

For the last week I’d been toying with the idea of continuing on the Camino, after Santiago, to Finisterre, the furthest outpost of land on the European continent, the edge of the old world. The Camino extends beyond Santiago to the two coastal towns of Finisterre and Muxia, 90 kilometers further. When I planned this last leg, I estimated 12 days to Santiago, but I bought a return ticket a few days later, a buffer in case I needed a day midway to rest, or for an extra day in Santiago, to go to the pilgrim’s mass. When I found myself making better time than I expected, going further, all the way to the ocean, became a real possibility.

Ultreïa means to keep going, or literally, still further. The term comes from Latin, it’s heard in a French song about the Camino, and I heard it and saw it written in various forms along the route. I had understood it as an encouragement to keep going, to go further than you think you can. As I approached Santiago, I felt this call, Ultreïa. Since I am not particularly religious, the Cathedral and its pomp and circumstance and the sin-expiating power of the compostela carried less weight for me than simply making the journey. If anything, it made more sense for me to end this pilgrimage not at a big church, but instead at the western coast of Europe and the Atlantic ocean.

scallop_shells

The Camino was originally a pagan route, and the Christianization of the region involved incorporating this ritualized road of the Druids and the Celts who were here first. I also heard that the original St. James pilgrims had to walk all the way to Finisterre first. To prove that they’d done so, they had pick up a scallop shell, distinctive to the area, and bring it back to Santiago. This is how the shell became the symbol of the pilgrimage. Nowadays it’s given to you when you start, or you can buy them along the way. Most pilgrims attach the shell to the back of their backpacks, like a badge, worn with pride.

~ ~ ~

It was raining too hard to even unzip my rain pants and reach into my pocket and pull out the map to check the distance to the next hamlet where I might find a café or bar to rest and dry out, or at least have a break from the rain. I kept walking and hoping – nearly praying – for a place to stop. Finally, a corner turned and a small casa rural with red and white checked tablecloths on the tables. I stood at the bar, unable to speak. The owner tried to offer me something in Spanish, and in English. Then he understood that I was too moved to speak or too wet to answer, or both. He left me alone for a few minutes so I could compose myself.

I wanted caldo, but it was only noon and the cook didn’t come until one o’clock. The proprietor said he could make me a sandwich but otherwise the kitchen was closed. Ten minutes later, he appeared with a bowl of soup. He must have heated it up himself. He poured me a glass of red wine and pointed to the heater where I could put my wet outer clothes to dry. I have insufficient words to describe my gratitude in that moment.

I could have stayed there. He had rooms. I could have checked in, had a warm bath, pulled myself together and hiked in the last 8 kilometers in the morning. It would have been an entirely reasonable solution, given the weather. But after the soup, and then a second course once the chef arrived, and a bit of time to rest and ready myself, there was no question. This was the day I was to arrive in Santiago. I was too close. I could go further still. Ultreïa!

~ ~ ~

The violin music was the right serenade for the walk through the initial urban sprawl of Santiago, I wish I’d thought to use music while traversing the outskirts of other larger cities along the route. It eased the discord between pilgrim and progress. The rain was merciless, but now I was laughing at it. As20130329-200155.jpg I approached the entrance to the city center, it let up slightly. I walked up the first narrow street into to the medieval part of the city, and just as the top of the spires of the cathedral came into view – I kid you not – the sun came out. Briefly, barely, but it was a brighter light beaming through a thinner cloud.

A bagpiper droned in the street, standing under an arch, playing a somber but celebratory march as I came around to the entrance of the cathedral. I’d stood there once before years ago, as a tourist, never imagining I would approach this grand stairway having walked 500 miles to get there. Strangers congratulated me. A tourist wanted to take my picture (“look, a real live pilgrim”). I wanted to laugh and to cry, so I did a little of both.

The next day, my Latin inscribed compostela in hand, I went back to the Cathedral. I’d heard my father’s voice in the back of my head, “You’ve walked this far, go to the mass.” I found the pew where he would have sat, a third of the way back on the left side. I tried to think of the last time I was at a Catholic mass. Maybe at someone’s wedding, years ago. I certainly don’t go to confession anymore; I’m not convinced that the priests’ sins aren’t worse than mine. I have little faith in the Church, a mixed-faith upbringing, and questionable faith in my daily practice. But I was still comforted by the familiarity and the rituals of the mass. It reminded me of my childhood, those long, boring services, about which my father used to say, “it’s a good time for thinking because nobody interrupts you.” So I sat and I thought and I meditated, and I stood up and I sat down and stood up and sat down. Just as I was getting restless like a kid in church, it was time for communion. I remembered how my father would give us the knowing nod, and we’d follow him up to the priest, take the host, and then follow him out the side door to the parking lot so we could get to the ski mountain or to the lake and to our little sunfish sailboat. De-facto‘s father used to pull the same stunt, sneaking out after communion. So I gave a knowing nod to both of our fathers, 20130329-175842.jpgand took my cue just as the others in my row stood up and moved to the center aisle, I picked up my pack and poles and scooted out, around the back of the church, nodding goodbye to familiar faces and fast friends made during the last days, and slipped out the side door.

I’d been to the Galician tourist office that morning, they gave me a walking map to Finisterre. I had to hunt around a bit, to find the first marker, indicating the route out of Santiago. Just at the edge of the square, between the city hall and the Parador, I found it. A bright yellow arrow, a familiar friend, pointing west, pointing me further still on my way. Ultreïa!


Mar 13 2013

Step on a Crack

It was raining at the top of the mountain. Short-pants klunked toward the car in her bulky ski boots, cold and drenched but smiling after a morning of skiing. Buddy-roo and I had skipped the sporting activities of the day. She’d turned her ankle running in the yard of our country house earlier in the week, and my back was flaring up a little bit, so I opted to sit it out with her. The first day we took over a table in the mountaintop restaurant and I even jumped on an open wifi signal and scratched out a few work messages. Her foot hadn’t improved, so I dropped half of my family at the ski lift that morning and took Buddy-roo to a local doctor in the village who sent us to chalkboard_skiierthe nearest hospital in the valley to get an X-ray. The visit was efficient, if not unsatisfactory in that the image showed no evidence of even a tiny fracture, so there was nothing to be done – according to the radiologist – but give it a rest and wait and see. A troubling prognosis, especially since our plan was to go to Barcelona the following week, a visit which would include no small amount of wandering around the city to explore it.

I wasn’t pleased to miss the skiing. At one time in my life it’d been an every-weekend pastime. I even lived in Switzerland for two winters, skiing to the chairlift from my door, whenever I wanted. These days it’s a once-a-year excursion, at best. But I appreciated the experience Short-pants was having, on the slopes alone with her father, exercising her skiing muscles and getting a few days to catch up with her younger sister, who, last year proved to be a more confident skier.

De-facto set about loading their skis in the car, Short-pants sat down sideways in the car seat with her feet out the door to remove her boots. She was wet and exhausted and could barely bend over. I squatted down before her, carefully. I unbuckled the boots and opened the wide flaps so she could extract her foot. The first boot slipped off with a gentle tug. The second was more persistent. I pulled at it, meeting resistance, so tugged harder, giving it a real yank. The boot snapped off into my hands, accompanied by a bolt of excruciating pain in my lower back, upwards to my shoulder and down the ground through my leg. I threw the boot down on the ground and leaned against the dirty, wet, car. Fuck.

Later, after lowering myself gingerly into the passenger seat, our car wound down the mountain roads and the tears streamed down my face. They were not so much about the physical discomfort – I new the pain would pass eventually – but more about the consequences of this injury on my plan to return to the Camino Santiago in a week’s time. I couldn’t imagine walking 250 kilometers, let alone with nearly 10 kilos of weight on my back. I couldn’t even think of bending over to tie my hiking boots. I’d have to postpone the walk. But until when? The spring is already filling up with work engagements, or preparations for same. I’d cleared these weeks specifically to walk, and to finish. Though the Fiesta Nazi, an avid Camino fan, reminded me that every time I “finish” I’ll start scheming another leg of it that I want to do, from Le Puy, or to Finisterre, or the Route del Norte. But I have had my mind set on finishing the Route Francés this year, while I was in the middle age of fifty.

“Sorry you hurt your back,” Short-pants’ gentle voice from the backseat. I realized she might feel responsible since it happened while pulling off her ski boot.

“Just wait,” I said, shaking my finger in the air so they’d know I was joking, “until I find out which one of you stepped on a crack and broke my back.”

Buddy-roo giggled, but Short-pants was quiet.

“Hey,” I pulled the visor down and looked at her in the mirror, “this isn’t your fault. I should have known better.”
angels_burden
Even though you can tie my back injury specifically to a physical incident – it happened once before pulling up carpet, or this time tugging off a ski boot – I believe that I’m be pre-disposed to such an injury if I’m off balance in my life, or trying to carry too many things. Dr. John Sarno, a specialist in rehabilitating people with chronic back problems, wrote a book, Healing Back Pain that I’ve read more than once and always resonates with me. There is an emotional component that contributes to back issues. Whenever mine flares up, I know I have to pay attention to something.

We returned to our country house, where I remained horizontal for a whole day while Buddy-roo acquired a pair of crutches at the village pharmacy so she could hobble around. I can’t say this was a horrible punishment. Short-pants served me tea, and De-facto rubbed a special anti-inflammatory pommade my back. He cooked all the meals and the girls did all the dishes. I got to stay in bed and read and write and play Subway Surfer. My back survived the seven hour drive to Barcelona, and each day I have less pain and more mobility. Buddy-roo is still hopping on crutches – she’ll probably have to get another X-ray – but I’m very much on the mend. The Camino may still be within close reach. I have a few days to decide.

It’s might be better left for early May. I could carve out two weeks then and the weather will be warmer and possibly dryer. It’d be during spring break, so that might be easier for De-facto. We’ll see how I feel, later this week, when I need to decide whether to fly to Léon and bus to Astorga and begin my walk again, or whether I drive back to Paris with the family. For now, I’m taking it one day at a time, which is in itself a good reminder, and certainly a preparation for the Camino ahead, whenever it happens.