Jul 1 2012

A Slow Read

A crowd of people – family and friends – descended on Paris at the end of June and I wanted to see them all. I wanted to visit with them and catch up, host them for aperitifs and dinner, take them to my favorite cafés in this city where I’ve made my life. I’m truly happy for each and every visitor, but why is it they all arrive at once, with overlapping itineraries? It’s not that they become my responsibility – all these people are grown adults (or in the care of their parents) and have navigated their lives perfectly well to get themselves to an airport and get on a plane to Paris, so they can get themselves around here – but there is a mild but haranguing sense of duty, perhaps, but also desire, to help with the trip, to enhance their experience, maximize their time in Paris, a city with so much to offer and yet if you don’t know where to look, you can miss the best of it.

There were, as well, more shows to attend: Buddy-roo’s tap-dance recital, in which she had five minutes on stage in a red flapper dress, with two young men in black and white tuxedos flanking her, all three tapping their heels and toes together; and the final viola recital for Short-pants, the last of a litany of end-of-school-year performances and activities. Not to mention several beauty-nurse type appointments of my own, to put my person in order prior to going away for most of July.

Part of me was screaming for all of it to stop, such a jolt to my Camino-quieted system to have to ramp up and run at this pace of scheduled events every night for weeks in a row. This is why it was my first instinct to say no when my friend invited me to use the gallery where he was showing his artwork to host a soirée for my friends and talk about my Camino experience.

The theme of his show was This Here Now, a collection of odd objects he’s literally picked up in different places in the world, mounted on distressed zinc plates and framed, each one commemorating the place and the moment where the object was found. It was very much in sync with my walking experience, the sense of slowing down and noticing what’s right in front of you, here and now and acknowledging the beauty and story within it.

On my way to I meet him for lunch and to look at his exhibit, I was sure that I shouldn’t do it. My back-from-the-Camino self was determined to walk slower and take on less, to leave stretches of time, time for me, and time for my family. But standing in the gallery, his constructed paintings surrounding and delighting me, I heard from another self, a voice who whispered to me often during my long walks. It’s your writing, it’s art. Do it.

I remember my parents returning from their voyages – their treasured vacation in Greece the strongest memory of this – and they’d put together a slide show and invite people over for a dinner party. My mother would conjure up a menu of the featured country’s cuisine, and after dessert the guests would assemble in our living room for slides and stories about the trip. I’d yawn through it, convinced my parents’ friends were far too polite. This is why I thought it’d make sense to skip the pictures, and to excerpt a few key passages from favorite blog posts and do a very short reading. If I picked the right passages, the audience could picture it on their own. And otherwise we’d ply people with wine and have a nice time.

~ ~ ~

Little by little it slips away, my newfound rootedness giving way to the daily duties that call me, and I don’t know how not to answer. To some things, yes: I have unsubscribed to a dozen Internet newsletters. I refused paying work because of my out of town guests. I didn’t sign up to accompany Buddy-roo’s class on their day-long end-of-school sortie. I’ve said no to fundraising events and lunch invitations with people who aren’t mission critical. I haven’t looked at my Twitter feed in weeks (and I don’t miss it). Nonetheless, it felt like my energy was getting scattered from all the running around and doing more, when all I want to do is less.

But how? Every time I clear something away, a new task replaces it. We left the eye doctor last week with a prescription for Short-pants to see an orthopiste, a kiné for the eyes. This will require two visits a week for six weeks in a row. So next fall – it’s impossible to start this summer between our July vacation and every French orthopiste’s August holiday – on top of everything else we’ll be traipsing around twice a week to these appointments. It’s important and necessary, and in itself it’s not such an enormous task. It’s just that every little thing like this adds yet another detail to remember, to organize and execute, and I can’t not do them. After the Camino, I wanted to do less. But less of what?

~ ~ ~

Turnabout is fairplay, I suppose, so just as I’ve rallied for Short-pants’ and Buddy-roo’s performances, they showed up for mine. (Rallied is perhaps too exuberant to describe Buddy-roo’s reaction, but once she got there she didn’t mind.) My mother-in-love was in town too, a poet who’s done her fair share of readings so she had a few tips for me, accepted gladly as the time I had to prepare was minimal and a seasoned pro’s advice gave me comfort.

When you read your words out loud, they change. It’s not like what you hear in your head when you write them, or read to yourself. The words become truer. When you say them out loud their meaning is enlarged and magnified. You have to slow down and treat the words deliberately. Each time I practiced reading my selections, making small edits and changes along the way to suit a live occasion, I appropriated the words even more. With every read-through, I took back a little of the groundedness I’d felt slipping away. I needed to be in the this here now to be able to do the reading, and reading out loud was just what it took to get there.

De-facto bought wine and my good culinary-inclined friend prepared for me, generously, an array of pintxos and a gateau Basque, regional eats in the spirit of the reading. (My mother was smiling down at her, I’m sure.) A small group assembled, but it was just the right group. We took our time. I read one piece, and then we waited. An hour later, I read another piece. In between, a quick hint from my mother-in-love: “You could read even slower if you wanted.” So I did.

After the readings, the guests lingered at the gallery until nearly midnight, making a dinner out of the hors d’oeuvres and stretching out the evening with wine and laughter. I had a chance to visit with everyone, falling into long and meandering, meaningful conversations that affirmed for me how this reading, which felt at first like too much to do, turned out to be exactly what I needed. Note to self: do more of these.

All the images in the post are by Dan Walker.


Feb 22 2012

When it Spills, it Pours

Getting out of Paris was brutal. With only one day on the ground after a trans-Atlantic overnight flight, kicking into get-the-car-packed-high-gear took a tremendous effort. Loading the car took the right blend of brute force and spatial strategy. Buddy-roo’s old bureau, now replaced by a new grown-up chest of drawers, had been earmarked for the country house. We had to wind it down the stairwell and cram it into the trunk of the car. De-facto secured it with our collection of orphan bungee cords. We were one of those cars on the highway, stuffed to the gills and precariously secured.

Dusk was about to turn dark as we pulled in front of the stone house, the car headlights catching the little eyes of some creature in the grass. I crawled out of the front passenger seat, stepping over my computer case, handbag and another bag of something that wouldn’t fit in the trunk – crowding my feet for the entire drive – and stretched my stiff body before starting the ritual of opening the house. Electricity on. Close the refrigerator door and plug it in. Start the fire. I set about breaking the kindling while De-facto ventured out to the side yard with a flashlight to turn on the water. Short-pants and Buddy-roo paced around the cold room, not unbearably freezing like it was earlier this winter, but still too chilly to remove their coats, while I crushed up pieces of newspaper and piled the broken sticks on top.

When the water flow is restored – we drain the whole system whenever we leave during the winter – there is always a surge and sound of water forcing its way again through the pipes and you have to make a tour to every tap in the bathrooms and kitchen to shut off the faucets which were left open to avoid a freeze. De-facto had done the tour, and went out to finish unloading the car and I was swearing at the kindling that wouldn’t catch. The girls were walking circles around the kitchen table singing “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” (this year’s school theater production, but that’s another post) when a rush of water spewed out of one of the pipes leading to the kitchen sink. A connection had split. The water sprayed out in two directions, at full force, gushing out on to the floor.

“Turn it off!” I shouted to De-facto, unable in that split second to recall the most critical words of this command: the water. I dropped the iron fire poker to the ground and ran toward the sink. Several plastic buckets, used to collect water when we closed the house at the end of our last visit, were stacked in the corner of the room. I grabbed them and ran to the broken pipe, holding one under each jet of water. I was stunned at how quickly they filled up.

“Turn it off! The water! The pipe is broken!” I managed to inject more information into this second appeal. De-facto sprinted out to the yard while I filled and dumped the buckets, not without spilling more on the already flooded floor, until the spewing water trickled into a slow stream and finally stopped.

I turned around to see the girls frozen in place, standing exactly where they’d been the moment it started. Short-pants was all deer-in-the-headlights. Buddy-roo was on the verge of tears, “This is the most horrible country house in the world!”

“It’s okay,” I said, “it’s not something that can’t be fixed.”

“We have to toughen them up,” I said. (Not out loud, though.)

The real crisis, I determined, was that while attending to the water surge, the kindling had burned and cooled before any larger logs could be added to their flames. The fire was dead. We were 0 for 2 on the way to any kind of dinner.

While De-facto traced the origin of the broken pipe to figure how to shut off the right valves so that at least some of our taps functioned, I phoned the plumber, his name preserved on a post-it in a moldy notebook in a dusty drawer. We had no expectation that he would come immediately – this he was relieved to learn – but I wanted to alert him to our situation and plead for a visit the next morning.

What followed next: a new wheelbarrow full of wood and a second go at the fire, this time with more kindling and more success. Potatoes and onions and carrots chopped and in the pot. Cheese grated. A smug self-satisfaction at the ample wine supply acquired during our last visit, the sound of a cork popping which eases any country house catastrophe.

“So,” I said at dinner, “what if I hadn’t been in the room when the pipe burst. What would you have done?”

“I don’t know.”

“Call Papa.”

It makes me wonder: how and when do you learn how to react in an emergency? At what age does the hop-to kick in? Maybe they need to go to Girl Scouts. Something. Our children stood there absolutely paralyzed, unable to move or think of a response. This shouldn’t surprise me: a cup of milk (or juice or water) gets knocked over on table at home, and they freeze up and scream for me.

“You know what do to,” I’ve told them. “Run to the kitchen, grab a towel and a sponge, run back before it spills off the table and onto the carpet.

I know they’re good kids, bright kids, doing their best, learning how to live in the world. But next time, if I can possibly turn off my own hop-to I’m going to stand there with them and gawk whatever’s spilling over the edge of the table. Then I’ll ask, “What are you going to do?” And wait.

On the bright side, it’s one way to get a new carpet.


Oct 29 2010

Just the Doing of It

We arrived in the dark. Not the optimal time to get started at the country house. There was everything to do as dusk turned to night, fumbling with rusty skeleton keys to open the doors, switching on the electricity, venturing out to the yard to uncover the water pump to open its valves, visiting each tap in and around the house to turn off what had been left on to prevent pipes freezing, unpacking the car, stocking the fridge with groceries we purchased at lightening speed at the hypermarket ½-hour away, its closing hour pressing in on us as we raced to the check-out. De-facto set to light the wood stove, which took forever to start burning and once lit, seemed to take forever to heat the room framed by the stone walls that have assumed the outside temperatures that get cooler with each passing day.

We huddled over our dinner, shivering. Without hot water (it takes hours for the heater to deliver) we left the dishes for the mice and the morning and bracing ourselves, headed upstairs to the unheated bedrooms. Quickly stretching the cold, clean sheets over dusty mattresses, we fell into our beds waiting for the warmth and dreams to come. In the morning, frost inside the windows, and a light layer of white on the meadow across the road, but the sky blue and clear and fresh and that feeling of how good it is to be here á la campagne.

I rose and wrapped my icy hands around a warm bowl of café-au-lait and slid into my wellies and out to the yard to inspect my grapes. Take note of the possessive pronoun that has been assigned to these eleven stalks inherited when we purchased the property. I share ownership of this house with De-facto and his brother, but the grapes – they are mine. I’ve assumed the role of vineyard caretaker. Last year’s vendange managed to produce a single, but thrilling, crate of grapes. It took several years of cutting and caressing the abandoned vines, but finally, I’d found the right result. The crop was small, but it informed and inspired my approach for the year to follow: Last winter I cut them back more than ever before. In April, new wires secured the vines. In July, suckering and pruning revealed bunches and bunches of baby grapes, and the promise of a robust harvest.

Only September took us to far away places that made a quick weekend trip to the country house impossible. Our first opportunity comes now, with the school half-term break otherwise known as La Toussaint. A bit late for harvesting, but I held out some hope that at least a portion of the grapes could be salvaged. My inspection grew more discouraging with each vine. The birds had picked them over, they’d fallen to the ground, or a skeletal bunch of grapes remained, scrawny raisins, taunting me.

I came too late to harvest anything significant – anything at all, for that matter.

Today, clippers in hand, a deeply inhaled breath of country air and I started pruning and clearing. The work is not easy. Some vines have crawled up into the trees and require a tug-of-war to pull them down. (I am somewhat lenient with them, otherwise they’d be trimmed and thinned but since I am not here for months at a time, they grow with a wildness that a disciplined viticulturist would not permit.) The long serpentine limbs fall to the ground and I cut them into smaller pieces, one at a time, to be hauled away to the compost. The thicker vines I separate and cut into kindling, taking them to the stable to dry to be burned in future winters. I pull out the thorny weeds and dry grasses that have grown wild at the base of the stalk, raking again and again until all I can see is a soft bed of the terroir. The vines look relieved, freed of the weight of their long branches and leaves. They stand spry and lithe, my knobby, skinny friends, unburdened and smiling at me.

The girls, dressed in a hodgepodge of old clothes and torn fleeces that we keep here – a wardrobe that can get dirty and ripped and who cares – kick their toes upward to the sky, swinging together so hard that I wonder if the old swing set will topple. They run back and forth from house to garden, woods to field, shaking sticks and making up songs and stories. The swing set transforms into a pirate ship or a schoolhouse, whatever they require as a backdrop. Their play is as temporary as anything can be – made-up games in a made-up world that are made-up in the moment. There is no practice for this; no preparation for a final performance, and no expectation of an outcome. This is play in its purest form, just for the doing of it. They play with passion and zeal until a new story is offered up or something else distracts them in that moment, like a neighbor passing by with a sheep dog, or my mother-in-love calling to them from the house, “hot chocolate!” which instantly frees them from this moment, without a measure of its value, and they move on to the next.

Clippers in hand, the rake rested against the thick stone wall of the house, I look around at the lawn cluttered with leaves and cuttings and consider my story with the grapes. It’s futile, really. Given the amount of time I can devote to these vines, given their ill placement with insufficient sunlight, given my real knowledge of anything beyond what I learned as a seasonal worker during school vacations, I will never be a great grape grower. I will never make a fine wine. It is the silliest, most pointless work I do, year-in and year-out, work that will never be successful. And yet I toil for hours, my hands raw despite the protective gloves, my back aching from the bending and scooping and hauling and carrying.

Buddy-roo spies the old wheelbarrow and asks if she can help. During our first year here, we bought a shiny new metal one and its wheel broke off after just a year of use. The old rickety wooden one that we found in the stable has a lot more character and still rolls strong.

“Can I be the horsie?”
“Sure.”
“Tie me in.”
“I don’t have any rope.”
“You can use the imaginary rope I have right here.” She reaches out, as if to hand it to me.

This is my play, I guess, here at the country house, to tend the grapes. Even though it turns out just to be an agricultural exercise, even if there’s no harvest, I find it immensely satisfying. It’s all worth it, to love just the doing of it, regardless of the outcome. I’m pretty sure this is the trick to most things: being present with the doing of it, deliberately enacting the tiny tasks of life, one vine at a time. It’s just not always easy for me to cultivate this attitude of a mindful life. It takes the simplest of tasks and a playful child to remind me how.

I make the motions of harnessing Buddy-roo to the wooden cart. She provides the sound effects: Chtck. Ctchk. I fill the wagon to the brim with vines and leaves. She neighs, kicks the ground, and then gallops toward the compost pile with glee.


Sep 14 2009

The Vendange

We couldn’t get enough of our country house this summer, and even though the September back-to-school routine is a welcome one, we snuck out of town on Friday with hopes for an Indian Summer weekend à la campagne.

The weather cooperated with the gift of flawless blue skies and unhindered sunlight. A constant if somewhat reckless breeze raced through and around the stone house – slamming doors and flapping curtains – announcing the arrival of autumn. The sun was a bit lower as it arced across the sky, but still warm enough to dry our laundry and nourish our garden from which we harvested the last of the carrots and lettuce, and even a few last treats offered from a lone tomato plant.

But the news – the real news – is about the vendange. There were grapes to be harvested! After three years of attending to those stubborn stalks without any reward, this year the vines have produced plentiful bunches of succulent grapes.
white_grapes
“Who’s going to help with the vendange?” I shouted boastfully to the girls.

“We will!” they both shouted back in tandem.

And then, a few moments later, Short-pants asked, “What’s a vendange?”

How to explain the romance of the vendange? I’ve seen grape harvests in Western New York state, when I was a teenager, and in Switzerland where I lived for a year in my early thirties. Driving out to the vineyards in the back of a truck, jumping off with a crate in hand, gliding down each row of vines, filling the crates, bunch by bunch with round, ripe grapes. It’s backbreaking work, but harvesting bushels of fresh grapes for eating and for wine making is somehow so very satisfying. Something about the completion of a seasonal cycle, or else the anticipation of the (finally) well-deserved sampling of the end product.

“Do we have to be barefoot?” Buddy-roo asked.

“No,” I laughed, “that’s for making wine. We’re just picking the grapes.” I racked my brain to figure out where she would have learned about grape stomping. It has to have been a movie, maybe the DVD of Brigadoon has a scene like that? Or has she seen that famous episode of I Love Lucy?
hand_picked
The grape vines – left for us by the previous owner of the house – grow in four different spots on our property; the green grapes on patches of land that get more sun, the purple ones in more shaded areas. After rummaging through the junk in the barn – also left for us by the previous owner – I found a dirty crate and hosed it off and set out to collect my bounty.

“To the harvest!” I called out. Short-pants ran along beside me. She watched, and then followed suit, reaching to grab the stems and pull off the grapes in full bunches. Buddy-roo appeared a few moments later in her pink plastic high-heeled slippers. (I did not buy her
grapes_shoes these come-hither shoes. They are hand-me-downs from the girls who live down the road.) She folded her arms and watched us as we carefully set each bunch of grapes into the crate.

“Dressed for the harvest?” I asked.

She nodded. “In case we need to stomp on them.”

Isn’t it romantic to think that I might make my own wine someday? De-facto keeps asking, and I keep telling him – and everyone else who asks – that I harbor no fantasies of producing a fine wine, or even a modest or mediocre one. I am proud of my little harvest, but I am no oenologist. Besides, the yield of my crop isn’t enough to make but a few bottles, hardly worth the investment or effort. The idea of making wine is a lot more romantic than the actual activity. But if I ever change my mind, I know who will help me stomp on the grapes.


Apr 17 2009

The Wrath of Grapes

The garden at our country house is managed by De-facto and the girls; each spring there’s a big production to plant carrots and green beans and radishes and lettuce and whatever we want to cross our fingers and hope will grow. We’re not here enough to weed and water and watch with the kind of care a good garden deserves. But we give it a shot, plant those seeds and pray there’s a balance of rain and sun until we return again. If we’re lucky we’ll get here once a month. This year we might not be back until July. So when it comes to our garden, it’s a crap shoot.

But the grapes – we have nine gnarly vines on our property – I’ve made them my business.

Behind the house where I spent my childhood in western New York State there were rows and rows of vineyards. This was where my neighbors and I played pretend spy wars and carried out imaginary pageantry. Later, as a teenager, I worked in the vineyards after school and during spring vacations, tying the thick trunks and thin canes to the wires so that as the grapes grew heavy the vine wouldn’t bend and break to the ground.

By the time I encountered those vines, they’d been pruned by someone (the vintner or his sons, suffering the cold winter with double hooded-sweatshirts under their parkas) who knew exactly how far back to cut them so they’d grow just the right amount to produce the juiciest grapes. Back then those vines yielded mostly grape juice, but now it should be said that New York State wineries produce some very surprising, refined and delighting wines. Okay, maybe it’s not the region you’d turn to first. But you can find something very drinkable there.

The grapevines we inherited when we bought this country house in France – in the Charente, north of Bordeaux – had not been tended for many years. The trunks were burdened with too many vines, their long arms stretched up into the trees above them, tendrils strangling the branches to fight for sunlight. The stalks that had been planted beside the old bergerie sent a web of canes up into the roof, wrestling the terra-cotta tiles. I spent much of the first summer we were here cursing the previous owner and disentangling
three_vinesthe mess of neglected vines and cutting them back, apologizing to them each time, reminding them it was for their own good. Last summer, our third summer here, was too cloudy and too rainy to produce anything very interesting. My vintner efforts went unanswered. I’m hoping this summer will be the breakthrough. The buds that grinned at me this week, they give me hope. All we need is a summer with some serious sun, not at all guaranteed in this green (wet) region of France, which is why it’s not one that’s known for its wine. I am waging an uphill battle.

People who see me toiling in my micro-vineyard always ask if we intend to make wine. I assure them that a few youthful years working for a neighboring winegrower hardly makes me expert at growing grapes or making wine (though I am rather experienced when it comes to drinking it). Someday I would like to make some plonk, just for the fun of it. Right now, however, I just want to grow some damn grapes.