Sunday, January 30, 2011

A life well decorated

Sometimes I just don’t have anything to write about being a mom.

I could regale you with the minutia of my everyday here with my children. Not a day goes by when they don’t amaze me with something they say, or do, or how they blink their eyes, or shrug their shoulders, or dance to music that is inside their heads.

They are life personified. They are hope in a jar. They are love without complication, without borders. They are joy unbound. They are sorrow seared into my heart. They are not mine to keep.

And then there is me.

I move through my days trying not to question what we are doing here in France. Of course I know what we are doing here. But if you think about it too much, you can question why you are anywhere.

Motherhood guides me in that regard. Tells me when to leave the house, when to come back. Tells me why to get up. Tells me to go to bed. Tells me to be kind, to be patient, compassionate.

Motherhood asks me to forget myself again and again. Motherhood asks me to forgive myself for not being able to forget myself.

The gray winter sky soothes me. It cushions my anxiety, mutes it just enough to allow my thoughts to run clear, the silt falls away, floats to the bottom where it rests and waits to get stirred up spun in circles.

I am distracted. My distraction clouds my thinking, tears my experiences into small pieces, confetti. I try to hang on. My fingers get tired. The pull is strong.

I have to remind myself to stay here, now, focused. What are you doing right now? Do it then.

The table in front of me is strewn with things: A notebook, a checkbook, a cookbook, an address book, a French encyclopedia, a box of watercolors, a box of pastel crayons, a box of granola, a tangled pile of Scooby Doos, toy Corvette with three wheels. It had four wheels for just two hours. A pair of sunglasses, a can of pens and pencils. A coffee cup. A pair of scissors, a laundry peg, a paper towel roll which Esther has decorated so I cannot throw it out. Not right now, anyway.

I can choose to see my surroundings as a life a life unmanaged, out of control, or as a life well-decorated, full.

Today, at least, I choose fullness.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Destiny, or why I'm glad my mom's not a tiger

 I cannot shake the haunting effect of this article I read about "Chinese mothers."

If I understood the article correctly-- knowing that it was given a healthy shot of gratuitous controversial spin by some savvy editors--  "Chinese Mothers" seems to be a euphemism for mothers who are intensely involved with, concerned about, and in full control of their children's destinies.

What haunts me so is the fact that even though every bone in my body wants to disagree with this woman, or at times even shake her, she still managed to disturb my confidence in my parenting techniques. Am I too soft? Am I putting too much faith in nature, rather than focusing on nurture?

And I resent that. I reject that.

The very fact that I work hard to churn out the best possible pieces of writing I am capable of, without my mother sitting next to me, ruler poised to slap my hand if I get up too often for coffee or chocolates, tells me that I probably do not need to keep my children in a halter at all times.

Work ethic can be learned. I think. But can it be forced? Should it be forced?

I could have used a good dose of work ethic as a teen. Work ethic came naturally, sort of, athletically, but certainly not academically. No one, aside from the A.P. English teacher who kicked me out of his class, called me on it. The lesson came in its own time. And it tasted bitter, like regret.

But, there is something to be said for destiny. Something to be said for yielding to the current.

If I hadn't been a teenage screw up, I would never had run away from the ski academy I begged my parents to send me to. If my parents had been "Chinese," they wouldn't have let me quit said academy. They'd have forced me, by whatever means necessary-- hard to imagine, considering how incredibly stubborn I was, what means those might have been-- to stay.

If I had toughed it out at said academy, I would most likely have finished college in four years, where I would have been just another second-rate college ski racer. Then, after college, I would have been a college-educated, washed- up ski racer.

If I had graduated from said ski academy, and gone on to become a college skier, I would never have learned to snowboard, or broken my ribs, in stubborn determination, in the process.

And if I had never learned to snowboard, I wouldn't have had anything cling to, anything to keep me afloat, when I dropped out of college. (There's a big section I left out in here, involving letting go of the good guy, then flagellating myself with the bad guy, who, ironically, turned me on to snowboarding, while he tossed my heart around like a toy, then left it lying where it fell. It's dizzying how many closed doors lead to open ones.)

If I and my bleeding heart hadn't dropped out of college, I never would have had the time, or the rebellious incentive, to get up and go, alone, to the ski area every morning to master snowboarding.

And then I never would have been sponsored by a major snowboarding company, who paid me to travel the world and compete in World Cup snowboarding competitions, and, ultimately, the Olympics. (Had my mom been Amy Chua, would I have won the Olympics, rather than crashing? Oh right, I wouldn't have been a snowboarder, because sports are a waste of time.)

Had I never been paid to travel the world, to compete in snowboard competitions, I never would have met and married my husband.

If I had never met, or married, my husband, the right to my left, I would not be the mother of two of the grooviest daughters I could imagine being mother too. (Sorry, we've been watching too many Brady Bunch re-runs.)

If I hadn't given birth to my groovy girls, I never would have discovered BabyCenter and somehow finagled myself a gig with them as a journal writer/blogger.

And if I had never become a mom blogger, I really have no idea who, or what, the hell I might be.

But whoever I might have been--like the high-school German teacher I briefly was-- when the opportunity came up for us to live in France, it would not have been so easy to say,

"Yes, yes. Of course. Yes! What do we have to lose?"

I can't begin to think how piano lessons would have fit into this picture. As it turned out, I did take them, for about a year. But then I quit. I have been trying to teach myself to play violin over the years.  I'm still perfecting Camptown Races, but I've got Mary Had a Little Lamb down.

Nobody cares how often I practice.

Nobody but me.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dance with Daddy

{this moment} - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember.  Inspired by soulemama.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The lives of others

I love France most when I'm in my new French class.

When I'm in my French class I am exactly where I want to be. When I'm in my French class, I am me, the American. Nothing more. Not mommy, not former pro snowboarder, not blogger, not wife, but Me. Me. Pure and unadulterated. Free from labels and nicknames. (The teacher and my classmates call me Elizabeth and I don't correct them.)

And in my class are not other French people, but foreigners, refugees, immigrants from around the world: Morocco,  Serbia, Belarus, Finland, Holland.

I  have nothing in common with these people. Except for maybe two things:
I am not home.
I take the same government -sponsored language course.

All these months of trying to figure out how I was supposed to get enough experience using my French to actually be able to connect with French people so I could further use my French, when I didn't have much French to use because I couldn't find anyone French to speak French to. And all I really needed was immigrants, who spoke French.

My first day at school, back in November, I was so depressed, I cried  on the way there. ( I essentially cried for most of November, but I'm over that now. ) Within a half hour of sitting down at the classroom table filled with dark strangers, I felt better. 

At break time, I went downstairs and got a 50-cent coffee from the machine and was invited to sit down next to the Moroccan and the Serbian, both men. They talked, and I listened. They talked about Bill Clinton. They talked about Germany. They argued, playfully, about which countries in the world were the richest countries. I listened, nodded, said a few halting sentences--talking politics in French is a bit beyond me-- and smiled a lot.

"On y va, Elizabeth," said the Moroccan. (Let's go.) I followed them back upstairs, and as we walked through the doorway into the classroom, a few minutes late, laughing like naughty kids, happiness rushed my heart. I was as happy as a depressed person could be. Happy in between those incredible attacks of sadness and tightness I had been experiencing. Happy in between sentences. This, after the longest, darkest November of the mind on record, was like spring coming early. Spring coming at all.

On the way home in the car at the end of the day, I had a flashback to my college semester abroad in Zurich.  I went to study Swiss culture and German. I spent most of my time with another American girl, Gretchen, where is she now?, Mostafa the Egyptian waiter and Ersin, the Turkish taxi driver, talking, drinking tea and wine, and smoking cigarettes. Spending even one afternoon with these immigrants, "guest workers" as they were called, was more eye-opening than an entire semester in a World History class, without the prerequisite boredom. I had no desire to nap. In fact I hardly slept that entire semester. There was no time to sleep. I had so much to learn.

While I tried to act all grownup and Euro -cosmopolitan, thus the cigarettes, the sheltered, small-town girl in me was intrigued, blown away, really, by the life stories of my new friends. Stories so much more colorful and dramatic, somehow more real, than my own.

Driving home from class, it suddenly made sense to me that I had befriended immigrants, rather than Swiss people. Conscious or not,  I needed them, like any lonely traveler needs an occasional warm smile. And, just like the Egyptian and the Turk, this new tribe that makes up my French class teaches me things. About the world and about myself.

Turns out, the Serbian was a war prisoner. He spent 12 months in a war camp during the Bosnian war. His only son was born while he was hiding in the mountains. He didn't meet his son until the boy was over a year old. He talks about the home he left behind in Serbia, a home that has been forever altered.

In between all the joking, he complains about the weather, the scenery, the French culture. It all makes his head ache. And it makes me feel strangely guilty for complaining about being here when I am, essentially, here by choice. I am enjoying a little selective life change, knowing all the while I can and will go back home, eventually.

The Serbian and the Moroccan and the Belarussian woman, they have no choice, they are stuck here, for whatever reason, money, politics, jobs. I am a fraud, a tourist, among these asylum, better-life seekers. These immigrants, these non-tourists, they put me in my place.

I complain about how boring my small village is, but I have the ability to go to the mountains to snowboard, and to Paris to wander.

I use the example of a mother needing to be alone to be happy in one of my written French exercises. The divorced-Morroccan needs me to explain that. Then he tells of how sad it is not to live with his children anymore.

I ask the Russian girl, with the painted on Barbie-blue eyebrows, who's been here only one year, how she learned French so fast.

"I had to," she says "No one speaks my language here. But I can't read or write it. I am like a child. It's terrible."

I complain about having had to move house twice since arriving in France. The Finn woman tells me about living in her car with her dogs.

Poljak, the Serb, came into class one day with chocolate bonbons and Pepsi. It was the anniversary of his liberation from prison. After having spent 12 months pacing back and forth in a yard filled with other shackled men, being forced to look at the floor and not look at or speak to anyone, one day,  he was set free.

Then he told me about Richard Holbrooke, who just recently died, and the integral part he played in brokering the peace agreement that made Poljak a free man. What was I doing when all this was going on? Riding my snowboard around the world, probably complaining about having to live out of a bag, and the stress of competing for a living. Blah, blah, blah. I may have read a headline or two about the Bosnian war, said, "Oh, that's so terrible. Can't someone do something about it?" and continued on with my self -absorbed daily existence.

Poljak is happy to be alive today. Happy to be free.

And I? I have no idea what it is like not to be free. Not even for a day.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Winter night

I've never taken part in this lovely idea before, just admired it from afar, but, here goes: {this moment} - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. Amanda Soule, from Soulemama

Monday, January 03, 2011

Life catches up with even the fastest runners

I would swear my inlaws tried to kill me with food and drink. The torture went on for 10 days straight.  It was brutal. In a pleasant sort of way.

I have never met an entire family of naturally-thin people who love to prepare and eat food, continuously, as much as these people do. It’s hard not to be a bit intimidated by it. It's like being Betty Crocker in a house full of Julia Child clones. Or maybe I'm Chef Boyardee...

Christmas seems so much more lively, with so much more stamina, than it does with my family back in America.  I blame it on Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving screws up Christmas in America.

Families get burnt out on each other. The Brits are fresh, eager to eat and drink and get on each other’s nerves for the first time since last year. While the Americans are still feeling resentful for what was said, or not said, or cooked, or not cooked, over Thanksgiving.

But it's over now. We have gone from hedonism to a life of simple frugality. The contrast between being at Ian's sister's busy house in England to being here in our quiet home away from home in France is stark.

On our way home, a long and tedious road trip, Esther confessed she didn’t want to go back to France.

For the first time since we left America, I not only acknowledged her feelings, I agreed with her. Normally, in defensive mode, ever trying to fix things, I tend to invalidate her feelings, and force her to see how lucky she is. I'm making progress.

“I feel exactly the same way,” I said, “I don’t want to go either.”

“It’s just that I don’t really like France all that much,” Esther confessed.

“Either do I,” I said.

Why should we? Why should I keep trying to fake it? What value is there in pretending to like a place just because people expect it to be beautiful and fabulous from what they hear and read about in books? Everyone is susceptible to the grass is greener lie. Everyone.

But that is all it is, a lie. An illusion. Wishful thinking. A trick of the mind. An escapist fantasy.

“My life is dull," people think to themselves, "lacking in culture, excitement, social fullness, intellectual stimulation. It must be better elsewhere.”

Wanting to be somewhere other than where one actually is, is the human condition, is it not?

So here we are, away, and, yes, we're here for a purpose, and France is beautiful and fabulous, when it's not ugly and horrible, and it has been exciting and it has been a grand, enlightening, intellectually stimulating experience, and I don’t regret it in any way, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want, don’t need, to go home.

Long story short, I feel exactly as Esther feels and having Esther feel that way is almost a relief to me, since it would be much harder to pull her away from a place she truly loved in order to go home when the time comes.

She misses her friends and family in Vermont. She misses feeling home. She misses her dog.

If there is one thing we just don’t have in France it's any semblance of home. We can make up a place that looks like home all we want, but if it doesn’t feel like home, like any sort of permanent place. I can confidently say, it will never be home.

Esther’s friends, all those expat Brits and the few French girls she has befriended, were all born in France and have homes with closets and basements and attics filled up with their stuff. Their parents aren’t wondering each day, what next. They are resigned to stay. They are home. This is the difference.

We, on the other hand, are only so delicately moored to one spot. If a strong wind came along, it might just lift us up and carry us off, like leaves without a tree, left to cling to the breeze, not knowing where we might land.

Visiting England only brings our rootlessness into focus. Having Ian’s family as a surrogate family is healing and so welcome. The warmth, the comfort, the activity, the constant company, has been good for the kids. Good for all of us.

But it's also laced with the underlying tone of temporariness: We can’t stay here. England isn’t our home either. Ian has never really had a home here since he was a boy. Even then, I'm not sure he felt like England was his home. Having been born in India, then moved to Australia, then onto England, then hitting the road as soon as he was old enough to leave, he might be the original blowing leaf.

Or maybe it was Ian's mother's parents, who left the secure comforts of England behind to brave the wilds of Australia, in what was then considered a bold, maverick move, who started all of this. This trend towards restless transience.

Then there's my family, those that stay put, that goes back six generations, so deeply rooted into the rocky soil of Vermont, the strongest of breezes, or the longest of winters, could not convince them to move. Then again, I'm only considering the paternal side of things. My mom came from Brooklyn, via the Midwest. Perhaps my own itchy feet bottoms were inherited from her mom, or her mom's mom, or Great Aunt Charlotte...


The fact that Ian's mother is growing increasingly unable to care for herself only complicates things. Where do we belong? Where are our obligations? Are they with my family or his? I can't ignore the fact that my own parents are aging on the other side of the pond. Needing me. Well, maybe not yet needing me, but I am feeling the need to be there. To be closer.

The reality of Ian and I both having aging parents on either sides of the ocean is hitting hard right now. An inherent flaw with intercontinental marriages.

Life feels out of control, as always. And, as always, I’m faking this parenthood thing. Acting as if I really know what I’m doing but not really ever being sure what my, our,  next move is. 

For now the next move is to make the most of our stay here. Learning more French before we go home and forget it. Forging bonds that will soon be severed. All those things that make you understand just how important it is to live in and for the moment.

For what else do we really have?