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Saturday, October 27, 2018

Summer Knits

My travel project this summer; begun on the airplane, frogged in a cafe in the south-west of France, (never start a lace project on an airplane), re-knit on the terrace of my in-laws, and bound-off in Ireland. Blocked back home and mailed back to my mom-in-law, a knitter who appreciates the gift.





Friday, October 26, 2018

Pre-Heading-off-to-school Messes


There are always a few; discarded remnants of yesterday's lunch box or this morning's breakfast, tissues that did not make it all the way into the waste paper basket (pet peeve!), and papers...from school, from activities, from the mail. This morning's mess was almost artistic in its color and form, almost a pretty bit of clutter. How they have time to get so much...accomplished, before even starting their official day, is a mystery. I sorta wish part of the mystery was how tidy they left everything before leaving. Alas.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Duty

August 20, 2018:

"compulsory", obligatory", "done" seem to be the words which first come to mind when speaking of duty. Often these are accompanied,  by an adjective even less flattering; "grim, determined, bound." Today, I find happiness in the term, as I see my children off to their first day of school, knowing that their lunches are packed, their summer was as good as one can offer, and that they have had years of homeschooling to make them look forward to spending their days among peers instead of with me. Or at least that is what I am telling myself.

October 20, 2018:

I have been exploring the meaning of surrender and resistance, of should/must/need amidst this freedom of sorts that has appeared for a few hours a day.  What is it that I owe to my family, to the world? What do I owe to myself? Is there a difference?

Some things can be both  duty and  privilege, depending on how they are viewed. The act of voting carries with it this dual sense. It was in France that I heard for the first time; "There. Voted. We did our duty." I had never considered it that way; it was drilled into our young American minds to remember the privilege it was to live in a democratic nation, where we had the right to choose who governed. I would say that both sides of the question are of value, but the feeling that comes with completing a duty may be of longer and more profound duration. Can we say there is a lower meaning to doing dishes and keeping up with the laundry? Which comes first, the completion of 5000 words today or keeping away the dust bunnies? When you are working from home, the angst can weigh on you; first things first...but which is which?

As for France and our family there, all concerned with this summer's trip seem to have the same regard for it; the grandparents are back to their daily routine, happy to have taken care of us and happy to have their house back, I suspect.  I approached this visit to France with a sense of this before leaving. I would do everything I could to be helpful, uncomplaining and grateful. It wasn't that I was regarding it as an ordeal, well, maybe the traveling part; security and long hours cramped in tiny quarters, followed by mad dashes through airports, only to be met with long lines to go through security or immigration. Was the effort simply monumental? Yes. Was it hard for the grandparents to host six people and serve them two meals a day every day? Terribly!

I was not needed in the kitchen, Mamie Coco has her own way of shopping, meal organization and serving, keeping out of her way was the best thing to do. However, setting the table, and doing the dishes after each meal, became my own. Once in awhile, one of my older kids would take over, and you could find them singing as they washed and wiped. It must be the novelty of having no chores at all, and taking over one giant task at one meal that gave them the same sense of "I did something to help".

Many hours were passed before and during the trip, planning to visit certain places or certain beloved friends and family. How we looked forward to those experiences! They were fun, elucidating, exciting, but the feeling that struck me yesterday, walking in the woods with my pup, was much deeper and noble, and...satisfying. We all pitched in, we remained on good terms with each other, despite the close conditions, despite the heat, in spite of the difference in child-rearing philosophies and generational gaps. Back home, the house is in a rather decent state, meals are cooked, flowers watered and alive.

Duty fulfilled, go in peace. (Without too much back-patting-of-self, really. I tripped on a branch right after that.)

Friday, October 19, 2018

First Dates and Old Traditions

The pumpkin patch picture, in the Burke Family, is the one where we all squish in for a photo, or fifteen, after choosing our pumpkins and gourds. This time,  everyone made it, except for my nephew who is stationed in Alaska right now...too bad, because he has a darling family too!


This next one was the first time all of us have been in the same car in a long time; road trip! on the way to Dubuque. Back row; Duncan, Cate. Front; Charles, Gael and Valentine.


And, my father, with his great-grandson (my little sister is a grandmother!!!)


My Valentine, with her homecoming date...which was her first "date".


(This was a hard shot to get, as four different high schools' worth of students AND their parents, had all gathered in about three spots, tops, for photo ops. I think the enthusiasm for this torture generates from otherwise only ever getting a glimpse of their little angels, as they run out the door in the morning, wearing perfectly disgraceful apparel, such as leggings, sweat pants and old hoodies. But maybe that is just in my house.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Authenticity and Reality

I may be the only one not having an identity crises, now that all of my children are in school. The question returns, again and again, "Wow, what are you going to do with all of your free time?" My children, my family, my friends, the homeschool group, the neighbors, the post man, all think I might just break down and have no idea what to do with my life. 

I thought I might be more attached to the persona of homeschooling mama, following that of nursing mama, and before that a dozen more "me's", but as you have probably perceived in your own life, roles change and mutate, they even disappear. As thoughts and definitions of who you are meant to be are stripped away, by choice, by circumstance, and the voices outside, but especially inside, are allowed to quiet down, it is possible to return to the essence, and there, nothing is missing.

It feels as if this stripping away is also the occasion for a rebuilding. My house has emptied out, my daytime hours have (only somewhat) emptied of their usual rhythm, but I have not hurried to refill them. Attention to the present moment and a chance for deep reflection are great gifts, and I am savoring them fully. 

Outwardly; the dog is happy that he no longer has to wait for his human brother to be up and ready in order to leave on his daily walk. The bus comes, we leave. It may also be easier for the court to schedule a French interpreter...as long as I did not promise to take someone to the clay studio on the only day we can still get there, or pick up someone else from P, Q or T. (Why do we only ever use X, Y, Z or A, B, C? After all, there are 26 letters in our alphabet. I suppose it's for that reason that everything has been "awesome" for the past 10 years, 20 years?)

If you'd rather not subject yourself to the description of my new, "free" life, feel free to skip the next paragraph. If you're looking for empathy with your own version of modern motherhood, you've got it, read on.

As any mother of five (or eight or one) very well knows, there simply isn't that much free time in a day, with or without school. The house still needs taking care of, laundry needs doing, meals need to be cooked, just faster, and the precious time you spend together is now scheduled by someone else. Not only are there doctor visits; lucky you, I shall spare you the details, voice and piano lessons, there is the unbelievable amount of hours OUTSIDE the school day that you and/or your child are now spending at school anyway. From waiting outside the football field for practice to finish, watching a football game, registration, orientation and unpack the dang backpack night (all before school even began), parent-teacher conferences (didn't we just see each other at orientation or registration or both?), choir concerts, plays, chaperoning events, parent meetings for organizing the events that need chaperoning, parent meetings for funding the events that need organizing and chaperoning, ice cream socials for two different schools, visiting student art galleries, volunteering to bring group meals to children during their show choir camp that goes from 3-9:30 pm, parent meetings to tell parents not to take their child to the ER if he gets hurt at football, just talk to the team medic/trainer, who can conveniently be found, out on the field, in the rain, during the hours that you might otherwise have had a chance to take your child to urgent care and have things straightened out two days earlier. Chances are, your offspring is incapacitated enough not to be able to walk out to the field, but that does not guarantee he will want to go see a real doctor because "coach said to wait and see the trainer, I'll just go see the trainer." Three sprained ankles (two kids) and one broken toe later, we have spent more hours seeing healthcare providers than there are stinky football jerseys to launder each week. (I know, I promised not to detail the doctor visits, but technically, in urgent care, one sees nurse practitioners, not doctors, and then physical therapists to fix it all). I have not even mentioned Boy Scouts; with meetings, canoeing practice, bike rides and camp-outs taking up now non-family weekends. Sorry, was I ranting? I know I am not alone.

I do not feel any less involved in my children's lives. I gave birth to and raised these munchkins. Although sometimes on my walk along the bike path, the echoes of my children, all in a line, marching through the tall grasses of the prairie and chanting, "Where will this road end? .....NEVER!" as they play hobbits and dwarves comes to haunt me, it is easy to remember that my life is sweeter because those moments were a part of it. When the voices fade, the day is still filled with the joy of the sun, the wind, the meadow and forest, and peace that comes from within.


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

5000 Years Ago...New Grange

The name does not have the same ring to it as Stone Henge or Killarney or Culloden, but New Grange is indeed a mythical and historical wonder. Imagine, if you will, leaving the hotel and its fairy tale grounds early, swathed in mist and fog, with everyone half-awake, on our way through a green landscape, dotted with castles and lined with stone walls, to a mystery destination at the end of a road somewhere half an hour away. 

We arrive and park at the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Center, where I was instructed to arrive by 9:00, on the dot, if I want to be assigned to a tour that same day. The monument is yet a bus ride away, but an entire museum is dedicated to New Grange here for one's perusal. I neglected to make reservations six months before, and a month before was not soon enough, so we are at the mercy of the "same day tickets" system. Such luck; we are on time! We have been given spots on the 9:30 tour, so the walk to the shuttle needs to happen soon. Dad leads the way, traversing the foot bridge that spans the stream, which affords views of farms and white dots that are sheep in the distance. We are on the shuttle and ready to go in no time, happy to be out of the wind, because the morning is chilly. 

The short ride takes us down a road that ends in a farm, where the bus does a u-turn to head back up half a block to drop us off at the monument. We can see it. There is such excitement, but contained, as we have to sit in a corraled-off area around a stone cottage to wait for our tour guide to come fetch us. The kids think the monument is pretty cool-looking, but they are not yet overwhelmed with anticipation. Soon, it is the turn of our group and we climb the hill with our guide, who tells us the story of New Grange in the most compelling way. It is the story that brought us here, the one told in "Ireland, a Novel," by Frank Delaney, or perhaps another, of a thousand possible stories.

Made to honor the ancestors, New Grange, circa 3300BC, is a passage tomb, built out of time immemorial, so long ago that writing had not been invented in the western half of the world. The two most fascinating parts are; what happens inside the passage once a year on the winter solstice, and the stone artwork,  the most extensive collection of megalithic artwork in Europe. The latter is visible all around; on the stones on the outside of the circular structure; the most magnificent being directly in front of the entrance to the chamber, the others in place as part of the supporting structure. The first marvel is the reason people flock to New Grange; the passage, 60 feet long, narrow and irregular but straight to the end, where the sun, once a year, on the Winter Solstice, shines through a frame built on the top of the entrance, to allow it to illuminate the carving on the far wall, in a beam of sheer gold. 

We make our cautious way along the passage lit by lamp light, to the end, craning necks to get a glimpse of the side nooks as we crowded into the area before the final tomb. We listen intently to the guide, and then prepare ourselves for total darkness, as the lights blink out, and the simulation of the sunrise at winter solstice travels the length of the passage to shine on the far wall's carving, a demonstration of the power of human invention, long, long ago. No one fails to be awed, in the end. I am grateful to have been given the chance to see this fantastic achievement of our ancestors for myself.

Bridge from Brú na Bóinne to the shuttle:


Above: the stones of the surrounding ring
Next: a view from between fence rails:
The wall (reconstructed after being found in pieces all around the buried tomb):
The entrance to the passage, with the "sun box" overhead, and the large, carved neolithic stone, representing the rivers and fields and mounds: (hand rail added in more recent times)
Bodies were not burned inside the burial chamber, but outside; a stone oven:



Friday, August 10, 2018

Ireland is...

City, town, castle, country, cliffs...and we have only been here for two days. Day one; next post, was spent exploring New Grange, a monument that earned the name honestly. It is a passage tomb over 5000 years old...more on that tomorrow. We also spent an afternoon in Dublin, below, and today we had a day of sight-seeing along the coast and inland in Clare County, Ireland. I may have a new favorite country.

Christ Church Cathedral: https://christchurchcathedral.ie/ (for better photos):



 This was Lahinch, where we picnicked with a view of the cliffs:

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The "dirty sock" period of having houseguests

Papy had just disappeared through the hedge. I had never seen him do this. He waited, impatiently, for the man mowing the neighbor's lawn to look up from his work. The unsuspecting fellow, head-set on and focused on what he was doing, apparently finally glanced up and yelled out a loud cry of near apoplectic surprise. We saw none of this from our side of the hedge, we only heard the shout and got the story when he returned. Everything was a source of irritation for him, and this guy, this guy DARED to mow his lawn at 12:35pm, something the law clearly prohibited, as my mother-in-law explained to me, as she waited anxiously on the other side with me. It was meant to allow people to eat in peace, but as far as I could see, we were not about to eat any time soon, not before 1 or 1:15 per our usual lunch time. It was, they explained, the principle. They had the right to call the cops to report him. And the police would have had to come...ha ha ha. 

Once you hit the two week mark, staying with family seems to be more complicated. What was one's best behavior can become less...natural, if you will. This may result in increased grumpiness, a little less restraint and a little more tension. We stayed for four weeks this time.

Back to the police and the utility of calling the constable.

Have I told you about the time I called the police in my village in the south of France because there was a cow on the road at 4am? I only knew there was a cow on the road because I lived up on top of the ancient ramparts of the village and I had a view of everything below. There was a dog barking that did not usually bark and I walked over to the window to check  out why, since I was not sleeping. 

I saw a form that might have been a large wolf (it was still sort of dark, right?), so I called my husband over to the window too. Together we determined that it was not a wolf, it was a...? Oh, there, it meandered under a street light; it was a cow. The police were notified; someone might run into that cow, dang it.They seemed to duly note the event and the location and we hung up. An hour later, this is 5am and I have fallen back asleep, right? the phone rang...it was the police, asking me, me with the American accent, so, clearly not a local, if I knew who owned the cow. And would I mind looking out to see if the cow was still visible in the road?

Ach! Here are some photos of daily life when everyone comes to every meal...my poor mother-in-law! Papy, very precisely cutting the birthday cake:

Cousins; Remy, Thomas and Gael:
Mamie, Thierry and Remy:

  And...the Tour de France, zooming past, after a 3-hour wait to see it:







Tuesday, July 31, 2018

"But our love it was stronger by far than the love...of many far wiser than we"

Today my love and I celebrate 25 years of marriage. Here is a spot that has always been special, a place where we first camped, as practically children, many and many a year ago, in a campground by the sea...

This is where we were with the kids, just before catching the train to Spain, along the "Corniche" near St.Jean de Luz.





Monday, July 30, 2018

Gastrointeritis in France

...or something equally unpleasant, has invaded our days and nights, only one child, for now, for two days, but there is not much else occupying my half-awake brain this morning. Prayers and thoughts are most welcome. The weekend started out well enough; a delicious, cloudy day turned sunny at the beach, with us and almost nobody else around. 

It was actually raining when we left, but, you know how the coast is; (no worries, I don't either, living in the middle of Iowa, as I normally do), nevertheless, the weather can be completely different 10 miles away, so we drove on. We had, after all, shopped, and packed and made a picnic, and one of us was bound and determined to go THAT DAY, it was not me, but naming names is not kind. I guess it's a good thing we did, the ways things turned out. The weather was, in fact, a little different when we arrived, it was even cooler than it had been at home and it was still raining. It was actually freezing, hoodies were dug out and donned. Undaunted, we trudged up the dune with a light(ish) step and were rewarded with the view of a magnificent ocean; all grey and wild, crashing and throwing up so much spray and mist that the coastline faded in the near distance. I love the ocean like this, but putting on a swimsuit and going into it was not in my plans just then. A cup of hot tea under the beach cabana...yes, please! Half of us had a warm drink, the other half (or maybe only third) went swimming. 

The weather shortly cleared up and we joined them on the beach, installing parasols, coolers, towels, bags, books, etc. (Yes, my knitting was in the et cetera, though I barely touched it that day; the sea was so gorgeous.) It was mesmerizing, it wanted to be gazed upon and walked along and to creep along the sand to my toes. The girls read; we were with my sister-in-law and her little family, as well as our friends from Toulouse, G and S. Even the men did not last long in the water, but they stayed by the shoreline and supervised the non-bathing children. S. devoted her afternoon to helping Gael and Remy (small cousin) build a sand model of Carcassonne on the beach; magnificent! 

I took a long, long stroll along the almost-empty beach, toes in the water when the rising tide was not forming quick-sand puddles two feet deep. It was still cloudy and the world looked like it was covered in a distant brume, rising from the waves. I could see for miles and miles up the coastline, yet the details were poetically blurred. The ocean rolled and roared and crept in further and further. I wandered on. Later we would roll ourselves; with laughter, as the newly-arrived-with-the-sun tourists were soaked, towels, picnics and all, by the fresh waves of the rising tide, whole groups of them, and not just once. Rotten locals. 


Like that, but with much bigger waves and clouds in the sky and all grey and mysterious...needless to say, I did not carry my camera or even my phone into the rainy mess that was the beach when we left the car. Darn it.

We were all settling in for our picnic when my little guy started to shiver, ask for more sweaters, still shivered and wanted to have a nap...a nap! on a towel. This did not look good. We stayed a little longer to watch the sunset together. This was another magic in itself. The few folks left on the beach gathered in couples and small groups or all alone, along the edge of the receding ocean to see the sun burn out its last light of the day in glory. I turned, at the end, and found that up on the dune, more people had joined us in watching the sun set, in a communal act of admiration and awe. There was a feeling of togetherness, unspoken, unintentional and completely universal just then, and it was better than the sunset on the beach.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Finally...Spain and Children

Once upon a time a girl left Iowa to see the world; this time to the north of Spain; Euskal Herria. The first time she left, she had been 18 and ready for adventure. The second time she knew a secret she had not known the first time; there was a whole world out there she knew nothing about, and had never even imagined. Enter the San Sebastian chapter of life; one, short, too short, semester abroad in the loveliest place I have ever seen. 







Twenty-some years later, I was able to share Donosti (the Basque name for San Sebastian) with my children. I have waited for years and years! It is mountain and ocean, grandiose plazas, luxury hotels, beaches and tiny, 6-floor walk-up apartments (some things we do not forget), shared with three Basque women and one New Yorker. It is cooking meals for five every night and hollering down to the gas truck on delivery day; "Senor! 6th floor, por favor!" 

It is, above all, representative of a Spain that literally lives in the streets almost all of the time. Night and day there are bars open with people going in and out of them, discussing everything from politics to the price of pasta to the weather, eating a bite (a pintxo, no "tapas" here), usually standing up, having a tiny beer or a half glass of wine, and moving on to the next one. I miss this street life, vibrant even in tiny villages and towns. I miss the Basque culture, in which I steeped and stewed for five fabulous months. (It rains a lot).

Those are hams hanging from the ceiling; in every bar. And the wide, delicious variety of pintxos meant that even my vegetarian daughter had a choice of items everywhere we went. There is just the smallest amount of Basque vocabulary left in my head, enough to warm the locals to my requests. This bar tender said "yes!" to a photo with good grace in the middle of a busy pre-lunch hour. 

Another couple offered to take a picture of the whole family; I find the people here some of the friendliest anywhere...almost as good as in the Midwest. Everywhere you look, there will be someone giving a tourist directions, with big arm gestures and a million explanations. If you look really lost, you might find your arm tucked under theirs as they walk you to the place you pointed to on the map or tried to pronounce.

It really is not far away, but logistically, there was always a reason for abstaining from one more thing on my "to see" list. If you do not wish to drive and tempt fate with a French license plate (the Basque would notoriously set fire to cars daring to approach their territory in a French car at one point in time), not to mention traffic, limited parking and long lines, there is an easier way; the TOPO, or tiny train from Hendaye to Donosti, a 30-minute ride. I was finally able to gather all items needed to make this little trip happen, at least for the five of us. The older kids...will have to return with me or on their own another time. We drove the two and a half hours down the coast, parked in a secure parking lot with video surveillance now, for a whole 7 Euros for the day, and hopped on the TOPO two minutes later. 

The streets of "La Parte Vieja" where the pintxos are the best and it is all happening, unless you are looking for the A-crowd in the chic part of town. Even many of them will be here too. Note; the tables on the right; OUTSIDE of the bars.


The square outside of the station in Donosti:

Along the docks of the old port; we sat and watched half a dozen people dive from the edge into the bay; right in front of the "NO DIVING" sign. The rebellious spirit of the Basque people is alive and well.

I studied Basque at La Universidad del Pais Vasco with one of the kindest, well-educated professors I have ever known. There were five Americans, and that was the whole class. We learned the language, geography, the struggle, the poetry and the music of Euskal Herria, or Basque Country. Singing is a serious part of being Basque. It was one of the ways the people could express their discontent, hopes and ambitions for their country. We visited churches, museums, towns, and attempted to learn this very particular, non-Indo-European language that sounded like nothing any of us had ever heard before. The love of my life lived a train ride away in France and visited often. It was the best semester of my life as a student anywhere.

Here is the main beach/boardwalk of Donosti; La Concha, I have memories of walking home from the Parte Vieja, late, late at night with friends, filled with wonder at the moon beams shining on the beach...






Sunflowers and Sea

Photos brought to you by budding photographer, Valentine, below:

Valentine had the idea for a photo-shoot amid the field of sunflowers down the road. It was one of those sweet, sibling moments, where they left, with the cousins in tow, to spend a minute together on their own. All that sunshine and heat was not my speed that day, so I reluctantly handed over The Camera to Valentine, who had a blast taking a hundred thousand photos of her sister and of flowers. I'm glad I did. She's pretty good! Photos of Valentine, credit to Cate, who captured her little sister really well!











Full of her newly-found confidence as photographer, Valentine continued to find reasons for more "portrait sessions" while we were in Pays Basque, Spanish and French sides (another article, but here are a few of her shots):



And her take on the sunset over "La Corniche"cliffs and ocean, that I had renounced trying to capture:


She made me sit for pictures too; and had the good idea to make sure I took off my ugly and comfortable shoes after the first couple of shots. Port of San Sebastian...more on this tomorrow.