Saturday, July 31, 2010

To Plan or Not to Plan

The Pros of Planning

I can go both ways, I like making lists, I like post-its and paper clips with notes attached to them, I like dreaming up new projects. I also wake up some days and just "feel like an adventure" as my children put it.

This has been a week of decisive "lesson" planning. I first made the decision to make time to plan, doled out one-two hour spots for each of the three older children to be in charge of the two youngest. I included the young lady, Melanie, who came back from France with us. She was not quite ready to leave us for a home where English only was spoken, so she is still with us. All the better for my own offspring, who continue to speak French every day with her.

After much administrative nonsense, I was able to settle down, finally, yesterday, to organizing one first project for Alienor. I chose "Keepers of the Earth" for Native American stories, a book we had loved a few years ago. I have my own copy of it now, so I am not under a deadline to give it back, and I can put in my beloved post-its and they will stay. (I use the ones Melisa Neilson recommends: duratabs, I think they are called, they are half the size of a regular post-it, made of some unfathomably non-environmental friendly material, but hard and durable, and can be written on. Lovely stuff, my lesson planner/daily diary from last year looks like a picture of organization, in color!)

I spent an enjoyable hour reading over the stories I remembered sharing with the older children and settled upon one to begin with. I reread it a little more carefully and chose from among the many project ideas proposed with each story, noted the materials I would need to find before beginning and took the kids to the park. I felt that something small had been accomplished that morning. Sort of like Piglet sweeping out his little house before leaving for his walk with Pooh.

The weather was perfect for a walk, two good friends called before we left and joined us there, it was a gorgeous day. We had the park all to ourselves. I knitted, chatted, helped Melanie with her burgeoning knitting skills, and then had an unplanned hour-long bathroom outing with Alienor. She was not feeling well and not willing to go home, we were stuck. Some time into the wait she called from the other side of the stall; "Mommy, tell me a story." Well, we were alone and it was not the nicest place in the world to be when you are feeling bright and chipper, much less not so sunny. I told her I had a new story, I did not remember exactly how it went, but if she wanted, I would give it a try. She did. I told her the legend of the young brave and the great wind eagle that he stuffed upside down into the crevice of the mountain and how he thus learned the importance of the wind through its absence. When she finally emerged, she said, "that was a very good story, mama." One of my first thoughts was "darn, so much for that story, I'll have to learn another." Then I was grateful to have had a new one to keep her amused instead of horrified by the bugs and dirt in an outdoor facility, and glad for the captive audience, lol! Since then, I have realized that a good tale bears repeating, and that we will both enjoy it just as much when I recount it again.

I have also realized how powerful a tool a good story can be and I plan on learning more to keep in my stash.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Love and Do What Thou Wilt

"Love, and do what thou wilt." St.Augustine

While in France, I went to mass the first Sunday. This was more out of a desire for my children to reconnect with their French and Irish Catholic roots and tradition than from a need for spiritual sustenance that particular day. However, from the very first sermon, this priest had me hooked. Not just the sermon, but all of the reflections beginning with the first moments of the service to the little ones in between readings, were about love. Just love, the importance of love, the all-conquering power of love, the need for love in the world. No guilt, no moral lessons, just love.

That first sermon was a syntaxical nit-picking of a phrase that could have been translated by either; "do as Christ did" or "love as Christ did". My linguistic ears pricked up and listened as hard as they could between pacifying a toddler and making big, scary eyes at the five-year-old who wanted to run and play, or at the very least, pinch his sister so that SHE would make noise. I love translation debates of ancient texts, especially when they've been translated two or three times and are thus open to interpretation and discussion.

The last sermon was a reading and explanation of the text from St.Augustine quoted above and in full here:

"Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good. "

This is the one I remember and seek to apply in real life. Upon what else can one base one's decisions in life? I remember picking up a book one day, I think it is still on the shelf in my bedroom. The title frightened me, it is the well-known; "Loving Your Child is Not Enough." With many years of pondering not necessarily the contents, but just the title, I will propose that loving your children IS enough, if it is the basis for everything you do. Not from a sense of duty nor from frustration nor from a need to dominate should parenting decisions stem. When we take the time to truly see and consider the character and needs of a child and seek to fulfill those needs through right paths for that child, this is based on love. Don't get me wrong, needs also include limits and boundaries, I am not talking about catering to every whim and fancy of every child.

When we see a child as a being that we need to prepare "for the real world" and we impose what we believe to be "the right way" upon them, regardless of their individuality, we act not from love but from fear. Fear of the future, fear of personal inadequacy, fear of uncertainty, fear of failure.

Seeking to bring out what is inherent, good and true in each child is really what education is all about. Understanding their needs and interests, drawing out their latent talents and potential, these are our real life tasks as parents and educators. Beginning with love seems like an excellent starting point. So, do you wake up one day and "get your kid" and everything just flows from then on? Of course not, how boring! Life's circumstances are not static nor are children. It is a continual dance of seeing, reacting, adapting and never forgetting to see others through the eyes of love.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Parenting and Leaving the Hose Turned On

I did. I left the hose on all night. I also have a big pile of papers on to my left that might, for the uninitiated, constitute a "messy desk."

So, what to do? Will I learn better from the error of my ways if I send myself to my room (what a wonderful thought; "sorry children, mommy is punished for the day"), deprive myself of dessert for a week or take away my knitting or computer time? The first would be counter-productive and the other three would make me grumpy. I already feel bad enough, a punishment will not change what happened or ensure I never do that, the water bill will take care of that.

How to give our children real consequences for their actions? I, for one, am tired of trying to improve behavior by setting out artificial ones. Language has been an item for us (and in a bilingual version!) Revoking privileges has worked well, now they're sneaky when they use bad words. What values am I promoting? The truth is, as a house ideal, I will not have nasty language flying through the air. It pollutes and makes the receiver and the others around him feel icky. At the same time, I do not think that playing potty-mouth-police 24/7 is the way to go about it. Then again, real life also means obeying the law of the place in which you live.

As you may already know, pickpockets merrily worked the crowds of London come out to see the public hanging of...another pickpocket.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

We Come Back Home

We're home! Here is the end of the French stay and the beginning of our return home.

Day Ninety:

No one has slept enough, but we are all wide awake and making preparations and getting in mama's way as she desperately alternates stuffing and removing items from full-to-bursting suitcases which have been weighed and found to be at the very limit of the allowed 23 kilos.

Day Eighty-Nine of Ninety Days in France

Day Eighty-Nine

Sick kids. Does this happen to everyone else too in the last hours before a trip? Two of my little munchkins, the youngest, had red-hot, burning up fevers all night. The kind where they cry because their throats hurt so much they can't stand it, their heads hurt worse and we change the sheets so many times we lose count from various leaking or spurting bodily fluids.

Tonight is so much better. A third one is ill, fever, hallucinations, (he keeps waking up and yelling "don't take the plane without me!"), and it is as hot as an oven in here so no one can get to sleep. I wish I wasn't wondering how on earth I could be cruel enough to drag them onto an airplane to get home, but plan B seems out of the question.

Today my little Arthur turned six, sweet guy. Some birthday! An aching head, a doctor appointment, parents crazy with attempting to stuff an entire apartment into five suitcases and nothing on television. It was somewhat redeemed by lunch with his grandparents, a movie on tv in the afternoon, and last visits with cousins, uncles, aunts and his beloved great-grandmother. The warmth of the family rivals the warmth of the weather and comforts us much more as we prepare to leave.

That's where the post ended, I was out of inspiration, out of energy and ready to get home. I'll make the post-script into a new entry, we need a little comic relief after that!

Monday, July 12, 2010

When I'm Not Eating...Knitting in the Garden

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Mamie Alie

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Alienor at Mamie and Papy's

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Your Table, Sir

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Before the Famine

I am reminded of the words of a friend of a friend, who explained the rational for homeschooling his children when people accused him of protecting them too much from the real world. He said: "If you knew a famine was coming and that your children would be suffering for years on end, what would you do? Would you begin to deprive them now so they would be accustomed to hardship? Or would you fatten them up, filling them with all of the good things you could give them in order to strengthen them against hard times to come?"

I love this analogy for homeschooling, and I think instinctively all mothers hold this to be true. My mother-in-law certainly does, but she does so in the literal sense. The past three months we have been well-fed and well taken care of, we have all gained a little weight, her darling son has gained more than the rest of us, as he allows himself to be stuffed full of all of his favorite foods. However, the past two days have seen an acceleration in the process!

Yesterday's lunch began with champagne and hors d'oeuvres out under the trees. The meal, outside as well, as a matter of course here when it is not raining, started off with oysters from the Arcachon Basin. They arrived fresh from the coast with an aunt, uncle and two cousins. This was accompanied by homemade pate, two kinds, one with foie gras, the other more properly called "graisserons". Next came both a tomato salad and a grated carrot salad, and baguettes so tender and crusty they would make someone heading back to sandwich-bread land weep. The main course was green beans with cold roast pork, perfectly seasoned the way Pierre's grandmother makes it, with garlic cloves inserted and salt and pepper rubbed into the skin. Green beans are never merely steamed and served with salt and butter here. They are first cooked and then tossed in a skillet with olive oil, butter (for the over-indulgent) and garlic, fresh, never powdered. That's the way to serve green beans! The wines were Tariquet, a white that is perfectly reliable, as it was developed by Australian enologists to give a precisely consistent product year after year. The red was "La Malatie", one we purchased ten years ago from friends who had started their own winery. It has aged very nicely, too bad we don't have any bottles left. There were two kinds of goat cheese and a Camembert that would have run all the way to the neighbor's house had we not eaten it straight off. A green lettuce salad and then the final course, dessert.

Dessert was a catastrophe. We celebrated Arthur's sixth birthday yesterday. My mother-in-law, in her aim to please, ordered three cakes for the birthday child and his entourage. My sister-in-law made her famous tiramisu, amazingly fantastic. Arthur, on the other hand, as a five-year-old boy, requested a plain old chocolate cake (gluten-free) from mama, and that is what I brought, with a can of whipped cream in lieu of frosting. Tummy aches were enjoyed by all and dinner was sparse last night.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Family Mealtime

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Why the Wine?

In a very cultural context, I have posted this month's theme as a typical first course of a summer meal in the region of France we live in. There is a glass of wine. I realize that, for some, this is totally unacceptable in a family blog, and for others, it really should be either red or white. Here is my explanation.

Here in the southwest of France, in les Landes, there is usually, even in the dog days of summer, a part of the night when a breeze comes up and the air cools down. Thus, no air-conditioning, hardly any fans, and you get through the few nights when it is too hot too sleep by eating late, maybe going downtown to a festival and drinking lots of fruit juice and water. You eat melon, and what goes better with melon than a nice rosé? Chilled and waiting in the refrigerator, the only place a sane-minded person would care to be on a day like this. It was 104 degrees today and sunny. The promised thunder-storm for tonight has not yet made itself manifest and it is 11: 39 pm. The children have the fan in their room and even they cannot get to sleep.

The munchkins are delighted, four of them and daddy were at the beach today, finally. The little guy was with his cousin and I, splashing around in her pool all afternoon. They are indulged with extra amounts of "menthe a l'eau" (that green, minty syrup and water), popsicles and about anything else that is cold and full of liquid. Time to try and any case, it's too late for another glass of rosé!

El Flamenco

Originally uploaded by corbata1982

El Flamenco

El Baile el Flamenco

The music first takes you south, down to Andalusia, southern Spain. There is heat and sun in the music, from the lone guitar, male voices and drumming accompaniment. There is something lonely and breathtaking in the sound that is brought to life further when the dancer enters...

She is proud, stately. Her movements combine severe precision with Spanish sensuality. Every woman in the audience stands a little taller, they are all wearing summer dresses or skirts. Tonight is a night for being a woman, down to the smallest girl. My heart pounds with the rhythm of the music, takes flight in the dance that is el flamenco.

There are quiet moments, when the only thing moving are her feet, then the hands release the skirts and dance their own dance. With the grace and exactitude of a ballerina, her hands interpret the music, beguile and enchant. The music, too, in turns is hushed, rippling and flowing, but charged with an undercurrent of what is to come. With a harsh tap of the dancer's foot, it changes, reverses direction and takes off yet again.

I am enthralled by the dance, the energy, the music. I am not alone. The whole town, whole families, come out each year for the festival of "el arte del flamenco" in Mont-de-Marsan, five hundred miles from Andalusia, but in the very south of France, where bull-fighting, dancing and music are the reason for the summer.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


The Sound of Music, Summer Camp and La Gloire de Mon Pere

The Sound of Music: seven children, one parent, in this case, the mother, the father, a doctor on a submarine, was at sea.

Summer Camp: a large property, a pool, woods, sand pile, and staying up until all hours.

La Gloire de Mon Pere: a French movie, based on the novel by Marcel Pagnol, featuring a XIXth century family's search for a summer home, Everyone is well-behaved (at least on the outside), dressed in white, the interior is all cream and white and the house is in the middle of nowhere, beautiful yet simple.

This is what our last days of vacation outside of Mont-de-Marsan looked and felt like. We were treated to a moment outside of ordinary time, beginning in Bordeaux and continuing in a region of France known as "la Vendee". My friend E. and I have been hoping to meet up again for the past ten years. We met in Bordeaux, when our first babies were at a mother's day out center, We were both putting in our "adapting" time (i.e. staying with your child for short periods over a month, until you are both adjusted to the place and the separation, standard procedure here.) Neither of us was comfortable leaving our tiny person with anyone else, it was instant and enduring friendship. We've kept in touch over the years, many of our phone calls have been to say, "I'm expecting number 3, 4, about you?"

Finally, we made plans long about November to see each other this trip, for sure. They move a lot for her husband's military assignments, but have a house in the country for holidays. It is in a tiny village in a part of France known as "la Vendee", north of la Rochelle, full of houses made of stone, a castle in every village and magnificent countryside. I apprehended, like always, heading to someone's house with all of my munchkins in tow, especially in this case. E.'s family had moved on June 27th, out of one house into storage, stopped by another town for a family wedding the next day, arrived in their summer house, then left again for an unexpected funeral, returning only a day or two before our arrival. P., the father, needed to leave the night before we arrived, as he was expected on his ship even before that. He stocked the refrigerator and freezer and left us supplies with which to celebrate July 4th, how thoughtful! The whole family was to prove just as thoughtful and kind and fun to be with. We had a fantastic time. Our friendship has not budged through many changes of family and career and location, what a good thing it is!

Their children, in a rare case for France, are homeschooled as well. One more point in common, and one that allowed the children immediate common grounds. They are also extremely well-behaved. They lined up, in their button-down shirts and khaki shorts to greet us with a "bonjour madame, bonjour monsieur." There are six boys and one little girl. She, of course, had on a sweet summer dress in shades of pink. The eldest is thirteen, the youngest one and a half, and I threatened to stick name tags on them until I could straighten out who was who.

Instead of being tedious, it was simply lovely. Everyone pitched in to do whatever needed to be done. Pierre often took on the task of kitchen clean-up while the older children looked after the little ones and E. and I put the youngest down for naps or for the night. We fed the children first, then sat down for a calm meal each time, which meant lots of adult time despite the twelve of them.

The house is one they fell in love with head over heels, bought, and then began to consider how they would ever restore it to a livable dwelling. It is wonderful. They have removed the stucco that was hiding the stone on two sides and are working on the others, renovated the second-floor which used to hold grain and hay, making the whole long length into bedrooms and a "dormitory" for boys. We were given our own room, there was a girls' room and the boys joined the others in the dormitory, to their great delight.

Besides hanging out in the pool, we took a walk around the lake and through the village. You have to have once in your life lined up twelve children with their shoes, hats and all to understand the undertaking. The kids played dress-up, army, knights and princesses, and their favorite; a world cup tournament of something called "flipper-kick" that looks like a cross between that air hockey game we used to play with no air and a wooden, horizontal pinball game.

The three adults spent a good deal of time on the break-down of the refrigerator the second day. What to do, in the middle of nowhere, with a fully stocked fridge on a Saturday afternoon? Close the door, hope some of it makes it and go buy another one. E. "ran to the store" thirty minutes away, but came home with merely the promise of a delivery on Monday. The bummer was that her own refrigerator will arrive on July 26th, so she didn't really want to replace the other one. We packed what we could into the freezer, took some to the neighbor's house, and fed the kids as much as we could stuff into them. The next day a serious lack of freezing was noted in the freezer, as well as an alarm light. Too much food? Too much moving things around? Back to the neighbor's house to fill her freezer with the contents of E.'s freezer, now the house was approximately empty of food, but full of happy children who had each been given three or four ice cream cones for dessert that night.

How fun it was for our kids to have the opportunity to share some of their culture with a French family. Sunday morning twelve of us went to mass, then came home and made real hamburgers, fries and served it all with soda and ketchup outside on paper plates. We had brought along s'more fixings and showed them how that was done too.

We are all amazed at how well we all got along. Our families are very different, yet joined by the loving parenting that happens in both households. The children were sad to leave each other, they said they felt like brothers and sisters, playing, arguing, teasing. Our friends spent much time showing us different houses that were for sale in the area...who knows, maybe we'll have our own house in the French countryside some day. Here are the photos of many happy memories.


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Pool Overflow

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Vendeen Countryside

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House in Vendee

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S'mores in France

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Happy 4th of July!

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Around the Lake

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Line Up!

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And Jump!

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Bordeaux (place de la Bourse)

Place de la Bourse, Bordeaux, France, by night

Bordeaux - Place de la bourse - Miroir d'eau

Here is an image of just one small person enjoying the pond, it must have been springtime, the day we were there it was full of people of all ages.

It's Still Hot (104) and We've Gone Visiting

The heat is here to stay and we are back "home" in our French apartment, after almost a week away(amazingly enough, no air-conditioning magically installed itself while we were gone). What a week! First, back to Bordeaux, our home for a few years awhile back, minus three children and a number of wrinkles. How it has changed. We were graciously invited to stay with friends, believe it or not, all seven of us. They are a Franco-American couple as well, that we have known for ages, with seven children of their own. Only two are living at home at present, so that left plenty of room for all of us to play and sleep.

My dear friend, D., has been my ally and friend through thick and thin, through my young, silly mother phase, to a more mature, tranquil outlook on life, without ever making me feel inadequate or lesser than her brilliant self. D. and J. have an absolutely kid-friendly, welcoming home and always invite fascinating people to share dinner with when we visit. This time was no exception. The hospitality was warm and we all enjoyed ourselves to no end. We were given dinner and beds and told we had wonderful children, what more could a mother wish for?

We arrived in the evening for dinner, foosball and Monopoly. This was followed by pirates, I think, but really, I was too busy talking with the adults to be sure. Their charming children, a daughter who is 11 and a son, 18, were fun, bilingual hosts to the children. My oldest two and their daughter had become fast friends during our trip to Biarritz and had been looking forward to seeing each other again.

The next day, under a scorching sun, D. took us to the brand new (to us) tram for a mini-tour of Bordeaux. For those of you who knew Bordeaux back in the 90's and early years of the 21st century, it has changed significantly. The mayor, Alain Jupe, obliged all of the building owners in the center of the city to clean up the facades of their property. Instead of a blackened mess, they are sparkling cream, as they were originally built. Many surplus, old, dilapidated structures were removed to make room to enjoy the classical, Parisian-like architecture that characterizes Bordeaux. A pond that changed the city was added, really! It was not meant to be a pond, but D. took us to the new "Mirroir de la Bourse" to see and join in all the the people splashing barefooted in the reflecting mirror of the Place de la Bourse.

It is a huge, black surface along the Garonne River, where once there was a parking lot next to broken-down storage buildings. A thin film of water covers it, and every fifteen minutes it drains out and then comes back up in fountains of cold vapor all over the mirror. It was meant to be a noble reflecting pool of the aristocratic building ensemble across the street, and it could have been preserved as such, with a fence surrounding it and a guard or two. Instead, as D. pointed out, the mayor chose to react with a sense of humor, allowing the play and interaction between citizens of a city that never looked more than three seconds at one another before now. She maintains that with the pool and the tram, where people have to sit across from each other and stare into the whites of the eyes of their neighbors each day, the atmosphere in the city has changed so much that it has become a pleasant place to live. It is true that people actually smiled at me on the street while I was out walking during the two days, perhaps she is right...

In any case, that second evening, I picked up my daughter who had spent two days with her best friend, daughter of one of my favorite friends, in Andernos. We made the most of the short time we had by meeting for a cool soda at the train/tram station before each heading in opposite directions. Our sons found that they got along as well as they had when they last saw each other and it was fantastic to see my friend again. We arrived home to late to help with chopping up vegetables, but in time to learn how an Algerian friend of D's cooks couscous "the right way." It was appropriately hot in the kitchen, but she stood for at least two hours with her couscous; rinsing it, running it through her fingers, steaming it, and repeating the whole process two more times. She made a soup/sauce and kosher lamb to go with it. Delicious. The conversation was interesting, all about an Algerian view of the United States, with a little bit of French opinion thrown in and the Americans mostly listening, we're used to being the center of attention, both good and bad, and don't mind it as much as we did twenty years ago. The night ended way too late, but no one minded, especially not the children who were permitted to stay up late, late, late.

The next day we set off for la Vendee, up north three hours by car, and that is another story!