Airlines encourage passengers to arrive three hours before their scheduled flight times, but considering the vast emptiness of my gate’s waiting area, I’m the only one zealous enough to do so. I feel like I should be sitting bolt upright clutching a carpet bag and craning my head toward each new marvel à la Anne Shirley. A gingham dress would be a nice touch too; it would look far more earnest than my current getup of hoodie and headphones. I’m on my way home after a long-short time warp of a week, and the threads connecting me to my husband and girls have wound themselves so tightly around my heart that it’s in danger of bursting a seam.
How do parents travel for a living? Or spouses, for that matter? Does that lifestyle grow familiar with time, or does it ache continually like a phantom limb? I know I’m a little pathetic here, but that’s okay. I’ll be home soon smothering my girls with kisses and passing out Nonna’s oatmeal-raisin cookies. Just not soon enough… what with three hours until my flight and all.
I’ve been working on our Christmas newsletter and trying to squeeze each sentence into the narrow space between informative and bragging that entertains without either putting readers to sleep or making them feel bad about themselves. (I could always go the other direction and detail all our struggles of the past year, but while it might give others a luscious little burst of superiority, it’s not really what doting grandparents are hoping to read.) This politically correct newsletter-writing business is hard work, so I’m taking a break to brag about my family here. Cue the ‘60s doo-wop: “It’s my blog, and I’ll brag if I want to…”
Natalie picked up one of our Christmas books this afternoon and read a poem out of it. Considering she didn’t know a single phonics rule at the beginning of the summer and we haven’t worked on reading since school started, I’m amazed… and ridiculously proud of her. She’s already famous at school for her artistic talent, and she’s beautiful to boot. I love that girl.
Sophie’s beautiful as well and superbly talented at color-coordinating her forehead with her clothes. She is one seriously hilarious kid, whether she’s singing a ballad about pretty, pretty poops or passionately kissing her socks because she’s so happy to be wearing them. Plus, she gives the world’s best hugs, and I’m the lucky recipient of many of them. I love that girl too.
This is one of my favorite pictures of a man who is holding down a full-time job and working on his PhD and training for a marathon… who still finds the time to play hide-and-seek with the girls and to spend the last hours of each day with me. He also makes a mean cappuccino and can make me laugh even when I’m hungry (no small feat). It goes without saying, but I love him too.
Okay, gushing out of my system; back to work. ::cracks knuckles:: Thanks for letting me bypass the rules of propriety, if only just for one doo-wop-inspired blog post. “You would brag too if they happened to you…”
November had stashed away one last jewel of an afternoon, and it glittered emerald and gold in an unexpected flood of sunlight. Some friends of ours were taking advantage of the gorgeous weather to harvest their olives—another regional tradition that I’ve wanted to participate in since we moved to Italy—and they invited us to join them. I couldn’t imagine a lovelier way to spend the afternoon… soaking up the beauty of our friends’ country home, teaching the girls how to climb trees, rolling smooth olives between my fingers, and connecting with nature and laughter again after a stressful week.
However, I could not go. Literally. I had been dragging myself out of bed before dawn for days and scraping out my brain until late at night for any bit of creative residue. My Saturday word quota was filled, but I was beyond exhausted. Over a late lunch, my mind ran frenzied laps around the manymany other things I needed to get done until it simply stopped. Total shutdown. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t respond to simple questions. I couldn’t hold my head up.
While the girls skipped out the door with their dad to enjoy the last perfect fall afternoon, I burrowed under piles of covers where I spent the next few hours shivering uncontrollably and dozing off only to snap back in a panic over everything I needed to do. That’s when I should have clued in that NaNoWriMo was costing us too dearly.
It didn’t sink in though until yesterday when I read this:
“Sometimes I think I can do this and do that and then do this after I do that. But the truth is, motherhood permeates everything. It trumps all. It’s the calling that interrupts this and cancels that and makes this look like it never mattered anyway.”
Her words thudded into my chest and jolted my eyes back into focus. I hadn’t actually played with my girls since, oh… Day 3. The priority of writing a book in thirty days had edged them out, labeled them as threats to my agenda, marginalized their need for a happy, attentive mother. I had told myself we could survive anything for a month, but that simply wasn’t true. The crusty dishes could survive. The unsorted laundry could survive. But we, with our beating hearts and fragile skins, were not surviving my absence from life, no matter how excused.
I parked myself on the girls’ rug yesterday evening to play Legos with them and practically had to glue myself in place. I wanted to be there, to be a mother again, but my mind was lost in a maze of Christmas lists, insurance policies, and an ever-looming storyline while a disembodied voice over the loudspeakers reminded me that I was still 3,000 words behind. I told it to shut up. It boomed an accusation of laziness. I asked it what could be more important than my family. It answered, “NOT FAILING.”
I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to understand that that voice over the loudspeakers, the voice of achievement no matter the cost, didn’t have any more control over me than I gave it… but I would rather clue in late than not at all. Before going to bed, I reset the alarm to give myself an extra hour of dearly-needed sleep, and I woke up smiling for the first morning this month. Throughout today, I’ve worked on extra-bookular activities and spent time with my family without guilt. I worked on the novel too, but I let myself feel proud for adding 500 words rather than despondent over not completing 2,000.
I’m not quitting NaNoWriMo, and I’m certainly not giving up on my strapping kindergartener of a book. However, one month is too long to devote myself to literary abandon. I have a worthier calling that interrupts plots and cancels characters and makes an impressive 50,000-word goal look like it never mattered anyway. My new goal for November is to make sure my girls know that I know this… and if I manage to write a large chunk of book in the process, well, that will just be olive oil on my bruschetta.
I got up this morning as the tips of the sky were turning to tangerine. It’s not easy for me, this early to rise business, but creativity is a heady incentive, and I always value the extra hours of writing time. Except, that is, when they can’t be used for writing.
Dan had an early work meeting this morning, so it was up to me to get the girls to school, preferably on time and intact. That is usually his job, and I had no idea the magnitude of parental responsibility involved. While showering, I fielded questions and issued instructions (mostly “Close the door!”). While drying my hair, I mediated arguments and tried to follow preschool jokes. While whisking on some mascara, I wiped noses and bums alike. Cher probably takes less time getting herself ready for the day. And once I was finally presentable, it was the girls’ turn.
There were two complete outfits to be chosen. Eight separate limbs to be wrangled into the appropriate holes. Socks to be removed, turned right side out, and replaced. Shoes to be found. Matching shoes to be found. Uniforms to be rebuttoned. Bags to be packed. Medicine to be administered, hair to be fixed, and faces to be washed. Two energetic little bodies to be bundled into coats and scarves and backpacks and corralled along the walk to school. We made it with five minutes to spare.
While I should theoretically have felt great that I accomplished the morning’s goals (on time? check! intact? check!), I mostly felt like life was over. I had gotten up so ridiculously, agonizingly early only to spend those hard-earned hours on the mundane. I felt like I had missed my shot at productivity for the day. I was frustrated at the girls for needing so much from me, and I was frustrated at myself for not being more efficient. Back home, not even my morning cappuccino warmed in a pool of sunshine helped. I budgeted, wrote lesson plans, and made some important phone calls, but I didn’t have the heart to write.
By the time I picked up the girls from school, I had given up on writing for the day and NaNoWriMo in general. My situation was clearly hopeless, so I brushed it out of my mind and took the girls to the playground. I pushed them on the swings, soaked up their school day stories, and kissed their windblown cheeks. We walked home kicking up fallen leaves and shared gingerbread bears before story time. It was so refreshing to see them as my sweet, vibrant little girls again rather than as competitors for my time.
I have a chronic disability when it comes to cutting myself slack, and I’m glad I was finally able to look it in the face. I had accomplished a lot of good things with my day despite the residual brain fog from Monday’s late night. No, I hadn’t penned another book chapter, but I that didn’t mark me as a failure—just as another one of the millions of mothers who don’t try to write novels in one month. NaNoWriMo could wait a day. I began to breathe more easily and smile more freely, and when Sophie lay down for her nap, I discovered I had a few words in me after all.
In some ways, we were more than ready to hit the road. We were beginning to miss the familiarity of our home routines, my kitchen gadgetry, your Lego collection, PIZZA. However, the novelty of Scotland still glittered through its cloud cover, and we left the best way one can leave a place—full of hope to return. Of course, we might not have been so cheery had we realized that nine (9) hours of the UK’s thickest traffic stood between us and our campsite near Dover. You girls did amazingly well—a few pillows, some dry-erase markers, and plenty of loud music, and you’re model travelers—but my goodness… By our third full decade spent inching around the London Orbital, I had to choose between weeping and using the English language in exciting and colorful ways. Thank goodness for the aforementioned loud music.
Happily oblivious to the pressures of driving on blanky-blankish roads among blankety percent of the blanking world’s blanker-blanked vehicle population, most of which was blankly blanketing at a blank of 0.blank miles per blankety blank.
By the time we arrived in Folkestone, we barely had enough energy to set up our tent, eat fish ‘n’ chips, and get in several pointless arguments before crashing for the night. (The last argument or two took some real effort, but I’m proud of us for being able to fit in those extra misunderstandings and irritations, especially after such a long day.) The next morning dawned beautifully though. We made it onto our ferry with three minutes to spare, you girls immediately took up residence in the play room, and all was well with our souls once again. Well, mostly. We still had to drive across the flat expanse of flatness that is Belgium, but through a herculean effort, your dad managed not to fall asleep at the wheel, and we were soon rolling through Luxembourg’s blessedly varied terrain.
Are you taking notes, Belgium?
Our destination for the night was the fairy tale town of Vianden nestled in a forest along the sleepy River Our. We quickly discovered that unlike the larger, more touristy Luxembourg City, Vianden’s locals were merely trilingual, and as your dad and I speak a combined total of six words in French and German and a combined total of zero in Luxembourgish, communication proved amusing. (For the most part, that is. Trying to explain to the campground manager that we wanted an electric hook-up? Definitely. Enduring frigid, cobwebby showers before realizing there was an entirely separate shower complex? A little less so.) Also, it was a shock to our senses emerging from the UK’s overarching coolness into the muggy, sweltering underbelly of summer in mainland Europe. The first thing you girls did at the campground was ride the playground chicken back to Scotland where it was not 1,000,000°C.
“Hey girls, what is your chicken named?”
“It’s not a chicken! It’s a rooster!”
“Okay, so what is your rooster named?”
However, we managed not only to survive our stay but to be utterly charmed. Vianden’s main attraction is a beautiful little castle perched halfway up the mountainside, accessible by foot or chair lift. In deference to short legs, we chose the latter. (You’re welcome!) Your dad used his superpowers to convince the lift attendant that they understood each other, and we soon found ourselves being whisked up and away over the town rooftops, the gentle turns of the river, and the breathtaking Château de Vianden over which you girls immediately claimed jurisdiction. None of us had gotten enough of hiking yet (right? right?), so we naturally opted to walk down the mountain rather than take the return lift… which led to us opting to spend the castle entrance fee on ice cream. Naturally.
You girls were mightily in favor of the ice cream part of our decision.
Unfortunately for your future prospects, we didn’t move into the castle. I can’t say I would have minded the view; Vianden’s patch of buildings was an extension of the lush countryside, and daydreams practically spun themselves out of the tranquil hum of its summer air. However, driving around for an hour trying to find the town’s one ATM and taking that cold shower (did I mention the cold shower? and its exceeding coldness? Had it not been the hottest day of the year, I would still be frozen to the tile floor) made me pine rather sharply for home. Plus, and I hate to admit this, but the enchantment of tent life was starting to wear thin. The ground was seeming harder, the rooms smaller, and the bathrooms farther away. Conveniently for our collective sanity’s sake, we had only one stop left on our adventure.
Despite the theatrics of certain family members, we made fantastic time on the hike and still had a few minutes to preview the Royal Mile. Ducking through a hesitant patch of rain, we got a close-up look at Edinburgh Castle which was not the most welcoming of structures, squatting as it was on a heap of dingy volcanic rock half shrouded in fog. (10 points to it for being mysterious, -20 for sucking away cheerfulness à la Dementor of Azkaban.) However, we were all amused by bellboys standing awkwardly outside of touristy hotels in their kilts—“Mommy, why is that guy wearing a dress? And why does he look mad?”—and we passed just enough brightly-colored doors and intricate steeples to whet our appetites for some real sightseeing the following day.
This church was considerate enough to install peepholes at the exact heights of two- and five-year-olds.
We returned around 8:00 the next morning, and by 8:03, we had realized that we would need a month to properly appreciate all the history strewn up and down and above and underneath the Royal Mile. However, we only had a couple of hours, so we made the best of them. For you girls, that primarily meant running laps around Mercat Cross, climbing statues of famous Scotsmen, and trying to gain admittance to nearly every building we passed. (The only one open was The Loch Ness Experience: only £15.85 “to be dazzled by 3D effects!!!” As we had already seen Loch Ness in 3D—plus a few additional senses—that week, we passed.) We had only walked about half the mile before you begged to turn around; something about “too tired” and “feet hurting” and “hiking up a mountain yesterday”… excuses, excuses. We took our time heading back, but I’d dare say you had a pretty good time regardless.
And here Adam Smith was thinking that your tiredness would get him out of being climbed. Sucker!
In between rescuing you from phone booths and rescuing 18th-century philosophers from you, your dad and I enjoyed the architecture and the city’s vibes. (Your dad told me more than once that if we ever had to move to Edinburgh, he wouldn’t mind, honest.) I particularly admired St. Giles’ Cathedral, not so much because of its impressive design or its status as the High Kirk of Edinburgh but because it was presided over by the “Very Reverend Dr. Gilleasbuig Macmillan.” (The writer in me wished so badly that she had come up with that name herself.) Sticking out like a tourist usually bothers me, but we had both the language and your plentiful charm in our favor, and the locals generally seemed happy to see us. Well, we did get some funny looks when we posed for a family picture on the Heart of Midlothian. Come to find out, that lovely symbol of affection is a marker for the infamous 15th-century Tolbooth prison execution site. Oh yes, and walking across the Heart means we will never find true love.
Fortunately, we’ve already got that covered.
We almost made it back to the car without an impromptu detour, but we just so happened to have parked in front of the National Museum of Scotland. Maybe it was the way the doors swung open as we walked by or the giant “Free!” sign, but we felt compelled to take a look. I’m glad we did, considering the two familiar looking monarchs we ran into on the first floor. The dresses alone would have made your day I think, but you also had a blast at the various hands-on exhibits. We checked out a rocket, played music, taunted prehistoric wildlife, and at one point very nearly attained somewhere in the neighboring vicinity of something similar to capable of operating a catapult. It seemed a fitting farewell to Scotland.
“In the 14th century, queens spent their days putting together needlessly complicated pottery puzzles. Also, bloomers had yet to be invented, so their undergarment options were limited to Old Navy Jeans.”
By our second full day in Edinburgh, we were beginning to adjust a little too well to apartment life. Staying in a tent had allowed us to be outdoors from the moment we threw on some clothes, and our mornings had snapped with fresh air and the tang of adventure. In an apartment, however, we just couldn’t seem to get out the door. Between fixing breakfast, finishing cartoons, coordinating showers, deciding on clothes, packing snacks, making the beds, checking e-mail, and padding from one end of the building to the other thirty-five times trying to find the right set of keys, we hardly managed to leave before naptime, which was itself pretty well confined to the indoors due to a lack of comfortable logs on the city sidewalks. We were in desperate need of a good old-fashioned hike. Fortunately, Holyrood Hill stood just outside our back door.
You, Natalie, were a little less than enthusiastic about the climb, by which I mean you considered it cruel and unusual punishment. Every few minutes, you requested a break—or rather, every few minutes, we granted your unceasing requests for a break—and you amused passing hikers by moaning “Ugh, what a tired day!” and “This is the worst day EVER!” I do see your point… After all, strolling hand-in-hand with one’s loving family over lush green grass sloping gently upward toward a breathtaking summit is pretty much the most horrible experience one can have.
Your finely-tuned sense of drama is a wondrous thing to behold.
However, as much as the rest of us admired your commitment to misery, we did not succumb to it. The path really was lovely, flanked by flowering meadows and overlooking mysterious ruins. Plus, I’m pretty sure it was handicap accessible. Thespian naps notwithstanding, we reached the top fairly easily and found ourselves looking down from Arthur’s Seat across all of Edinburgh, the surrounding regions, and the Firth of Forth (say that 10 times quickly!). We had a bird’s eye view of abbeys and alleyways, towers and tollbooths, castles and cathedrals and distant crags. What can I say? It drove me to alliteration. The boisterous wind and staggering view took our breath away for a few moments, and then you, Natalie, announced jubilantly, “I am having the GREATEST DAY!” Your dad and I responded with synchronized facepalms.
The trip downhill was much more enjoyable, though you, Sophie, set a truly terrifying pace. In your opinion, balance and caution are optional as long as someone is holding your hand; why not try a freefall or two? Thank goodness for your strong daddy and tender mercies (in no particular order). I often vacillate between worry that we don’t allow you girls enough freedom and anxiety bordering on full neurosis-packed panic that we allow you girls too much freedom and that you will be killed in the course of fun. I hope the vacillation means that we’ve found a good niche between paranoia and recklessness. Besides, I can’t do much more than pray that your guardian angels are on duty… and make sure you have a strong hand to hold when you go flying down an old Scottish volcano.