Broken Glass

images

 

“You Would Never Talk to an Adult the Way You Speak to Me”

Last night as I was making dinner, I heard a loud crash—broken glass—and a familiar wave of anger rushed over me. Something lost, another thing to sweep up and throw away. I stormed into the dining room. My son had tried to juggle three arms worth of things to bring to the table and everything ended up on the floor, including the new colored-glass water bottle I had just bought that morning, now in shards and slivers.

“How the #@*% did that happen?” I demanded when I saw the mess. “I can’t believe you did this!”

“I’m fine, thanks for asking” my son answered calmly. “It was an accident.”

Already on his knees picking through the mess, he glanced up at me. And there it was, hanging there. The mirror. And me before it, looking waspish and ugly and naked, armed only with sharp words that sting but never solve. Blame, that injured bird, flailing all around me looking for a hard place to settle down. Because we need to find the source of all the wrongness in the world. We need to nail the un-namable feeling to an easy target.

Of course, my son was right. There was glass everywhere. He could have been hurt. He had been trying to help by setting the table and now he was kneeling among the shards sweeping them up. Because he’s a great kid. An awkward, shy fourteen year old.

Deep breath, deep into me. “I’m sorry” I offered. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I shouldn’t have tried to carry so much. I’m sorry I broke your new bottle.”

I held the pail as he began to gather up the pieces.

My daughter, 11 months his junior, had been watching the scene in silence and was now scrutinizing me carefully from her chair, eyes squinted, head nodding slightly, as though she had me all figured out, and it wasn’t a pretty picture.

“What? I said I was sorry.” Me, the adult, feeling judged. I sat down on the floor with my legs splayed out. Wounds never grow up, especially the oldest. They hold us in victim, which I’ve come to think of as state—physical and emotional—like a yoga pose that we get into easily, we refuse to move beyond.

“I was just thinking,” she said, “that you would never have reacted that way with an adult. You would never talk to an adult the way you speak to us. What if we had Steve and Paula (friends and neighbors) over for dinner and Paula was carrying the wine glasses and one slipped from her hand and crashed to the floor. Let’s say it was an expensive glass, maybe crystal . . .”

“We don’t own any crystal” I reminded her.

“Mom, just stay with me, okay?”

“Right. Go ahead. But we will never own crystal. Exactly for that reason. I’m just saying.”

Two pairs of eyes roll towards the heavens.

“Anyway”, she continues, “just imagine Paula breaks a glass, maybe two or three. There’s glass everywhere. And you shout . . . ‘Paula, how the hell did that happen?”

We giggle. More examples are batted around and tossed out teasingly. Real things that I’ve said to my children. Things they remember. Things I would never, ever say to an adult.

“Yeah, Paola”, my son chimes in, “how can you be such a klutz?”
“Maybe next time you’ll use your brain.” my daughter offers.

In spite of myself, I add the clincher: “Steve, Paula! You get back here right now, the both of you! No one is leaving this house until the dishes are done! Do you HEAR me?”

We all laughed at the absurdity of it. Of course we did. Because the words are unthinkable, grotesque. We laughed so hard, our bellies ached. We laughed so hard, the tears streamed. For me, they transformed, as they often do, into the real thing. So I let them come. Because it helps. Sitting on the floor in the middle of the mess, it helped.

The things that mattered had survived the fall.

Advertisements

The Opening of Pandora’s Box: Honoring Ourselves in Menopause

 

fantasy-gif-favim-com-2366626

 

At some point in the last year, I ceased menstruation and officially entered menopause. On what day, at what time, and in what manner, I couldn’t say. Just a seminal phase of my woman-life ushered in with little fanfare. We don’t acknowledge this rite of passage like we do the others.  I wonder why that is? My child-bearing years are now behind me and I’m floating in a sea of hormonal and life-purpose confusion. I’m not asking for a party, but can’t we at least talk about it? Shouldn’t someone at least say something. But what would be appropriate under the circumstances? “Good luck in this last phase of your life.” “Don’t let those hot flashes get you down.” “Best of luck finishing your sentences.”

I am aging. In ways that are genetically predictable, I am transforming. My knees sound like castanets when I walk up stairs.  The ankle I sprained in July aches when the weather drops below 65. And my fingers are beginning to curve upward and inward in a way that would be sexy if it were my breasts. I can’t help but be reminded of my grandmother’s arthritic fingers and the rings she could never get off. I loved her for decorating those knotty hands with bangles and rings that drew attention to the leafy skin and the complicated root system of blue veins beneath. Maybe that’s what it’s all about. Decoration, despite. And yet, intuitively, I am leaning less towards embellishment and more towards revelation and rebellion. I’ve decided to celebrate my greys. No hair dyes, or hennas, or hats for me. In fact, I’m wearing my hair down more these days. Wild and coarse and threaded with silver.

Mysterious things are happening. I’m no longer afraid of bees, or spiders, or snakes. In fact I speak to them tenderly, as I do trees and bodies of water. I’m now leery of falling and terrified of forgetting. Vocabulary words, the names of beloved actors, musicians, movie titles–even childhood friends– float around out of reach, or just plain leave, and I often have to put on my coat and boots and go looking for them in the middle of the cold night. I always find them, but they seem to wander off more frequently these days and I resent them like hell when they come sauntering back in the door like nothing ever happened. Like finding a child whose been hiding for too long, I’m both relieved and super pissed off. But I smack my forehead with the heal of my hand and say “of course” just to let them know it’s no big deal. They came back. That’s all that matters.

I also seem to be regressing (or progressing) emotionally. As a child, I held negative emotions inside. I could feel them vibrating right behind my chest plate in a small coffer I was told never to open.  Now, there is the leaking of self in all it’s forms. Anger, sadness, grief.  And at the bottom, a soft lining of Hope and Forgiveness. Pandora’s box has sprung wide open. I drive along country lanes with the windows rolled up and scream until I have no voice.  Sometimes, I fight the urge to hurl myself down a couple of stairs just to get my family’s attention. But I must be reasonable. So I speak my mind. I’m sick of doing the dishes. What about dinner? Did anyone notice I made dinner, you know, that lovingly prepared stuff on your plate?

The other night after losing at Scrabble during family game night, I actually muttered “it’s a stupid game anyway” and went to pout alone in my room. I cried my eyes out for no particular reason and for this whole tender world and ended up in a fetal ball with my forehead on the mattress—a petulant child’s pose. When it was all over, I felt renewed and peaceful. I don’t pretend to know what it all means. Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. On a recent morning, as I searched desperately for my new hair clip, I spotted it in my daughter’s silky hair.

“Give it here! It’s mine!”, I shouted.

This is particularly disturbing behavior for someone who practices mindfulness and Buddhist principles. Even more so for a mother who prides herself on being a peaceful parent. And well, an adult, by many years. When I had my children at 39 and 40, I didn’t think to do the forward math. Which finds my children at 12 and 13 entering puberty as I cross the threshold of menopause. Generally speaking, this is not a good combination. But they seem to be handling it better than me, easing into it, being the better example. I ask for forgiveness and offer it to myself.

I am a champion of healthy foods. And yet I found myself on a recent trip to the grocery store staring at the vast selection of Pop Tarts in the breakfast aisle . “Ooh, Pop Tarts” I enthused as I held a box of brown sugar cinnamon toaster pastries in my hand. “Mom, put the box down,” my son spoke gently and slowly to me. “You can’t buy those. They’re not even food.” He is a wise thirteen year old. I put them back. We made apple pie instead. I am still learning to compromise.

Menopause also finds me suspended in the middle place of womanhood. I am mother. I am daughter. I am mother to a teenage daughter, daughter to an ageing mother. Her body, so fragile now, betrays her with a constant series of small losses and a denial that won’t allow her to get rid of the tripping heels and the clothes that will never be worn again. And I care for her, when I can, with patience and compassion, as she cared for me. She must show herself, vulnerable and exposed, and allow others to assist, additional arms and legs to carry and lift and wash her. Tuck her into bed. And although I am at times terrified by what her ageing looks like, I recognize my inclusion in the cycle as a priviledge.

My own daughter will begin menstruation soon, as mine has ceased. So I sit her down and tell her that one day soon she will begin to bleed, only a few teaspoons really, and that it means her body is working as it should. I try to make it sound like no big deal, and a miraculous splendor at the same time. I tell her we can celebrate somehow. And I tell her, I will be there, if she wants me. If she needs me.

Some day soon, I’m going to plan a small ceremony to honor my own transformation. Something private, just a still moment under a tree. Nothing to figure out, just a time to be. Maybe in the Spring, when the bees are around. I have so much to tell them.

Unschooling my Spirituality

IMG_3356_2I grew up with two imposed givens in life—education and religion. Education happened in school, a place I was obliged to go Monday through Friday. Religion, reserved for Sundays, was fortified and demonstrated by my family’s regular attendance at church and rewarded with warm donuts and scalding coffee served in styrofoam cups in the community hall. We usually skipped that part in order to be the first to get out of the parking lot.

These two obligations were not of my choice and I never really questioned either until I had children. Two uniquely designed, impossibly small bodies imprinted with years and years of genetic scrambling and combined ancestral traits and yet I didn’t see them as part of me, or as part of my husband, but rather as two free souls who chose us as parents. My husband and I have always described our children’s births as special occasions when we were introduced to the two most important people in our lives. Of course we felt fiercely protective of them (and still do), but we are constantly working to avoid any notion of proprietorship. We take Kahlil Gibran’s words to heart and to bed, and hope to remember them as more than a poem during the day.

Having my own children had the unexpected side-effect of stripping away old belief sets. It was as if, through their painful and clamorous births, I was given a fresh start as well. It wasn’t sudden, or obvious, or easy, but for their sake, I wiped the slate clean with some threadbare remnants that I no longer had use for. My vision got clearer, my heart and mind woke to a sense of self that swept away the imposed veil to reveal a very clear understanding that I had choices and that I would offer them to my children.

There would be no imposed school. School is merely a place, a building. But there would be expansive and meaningful learning. There would be play. There would be exploration and expeditions of the imagination. We would choose experiences over things, curiosity over information, expression over conformity. Because learning lives in all these spaces, seen and unseen.

There would be no imposed religion, no housing of beliefs. All doors of worship would lay open,  with their similar beauty and identical fears. There would be mindfulness. There would be gratitude. There would be loving kindness and equanimity and compassion. We would expose our children to mosques and temples and cathedrals, to museums and cafés and booksellers, to lectures and concerts and performances, and to mossy gardens and majestic forests. Because the spirit of life lives in all these places, seen and unseen.

As I watched my children pull together an education independent of time, pace, place or someone else’s agenda, it occurred to me that I could craft my own form of spiritual expression according to my own interests, my own curiosity, and whatever helped me make sense of the world. I could unschool my spirituality in the same way they were unschooling their education. And I could do it with joy, purpose and intention.

I put aside obligation and legacy and thought about what made my heart bloom. Gospel music, reciting the Gayatri mantra, a regular practice of Qi gong, the Hawaiian principles of Ho’oponopono, keeping a gratitude journal, Buddhist teachings and meditation, cooking a meal for loved ones, holding compassion for others. The spiritual patchwork I pieced together is nothing that could fit into a neat category. It can’t be extorted and will never be profitable. It wields no guilt and promises no rewards. And because I sewed it together, I don’t need to call it anything. It is what it is. We are who we are.

 

Book Release

4f2ef7c9-7a0c-4169-b385-02feaeb9f604~compose-height(705)

Dear Blog Readers,  Friends, Fellow Unschoolers/Worldschoolers and those interested in Self-Directed Education,

I haven’t been posting much here lately and I apologize for that. I have a good reason though. I’ve been busy writing a book, a true labor of love, and one I hope you will all enjoy reading. It’s a collection of essays about the personal journey of accompanying my two children on their life learning journey. It’s also about looking closely at my own formal education through a deschooling lens, confronting doubts, and embracing the joys and challenges of stepping outside the status quo. Woven throughout are threads of peaceful parenting, sustainable living, and anecdotes about living off the grid in Senegal, West Africa.

So without further ado, I am thrilled to announce the publication of

“Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Life and Learning”

Click on the link above or the book icon to the right for more information about the book.

Please share the good news! And thank you for your continued support!

All good things,

Ellen

A True Mother: On Breaking the Transgenerational Parenting Cycle

Favim.com-alone-beach-girl-ocean-sad-132550

“Shadows of the past churn and turn towards the light asking us to pay attention to unexpected feelings of ambivalence, comparison, and inadequacy in parenting. Unearthing, and addressing these feelings when they arise unwinds shame and is an essential key to healing our transgenerational attachment legacies”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

I was not always a gentle parent. Although I believed I was doing what was best for my children, my early days as a mother were a tug of war. I loved my children with all my heart, but my notions of parenting were based on what I knew. Transgenerational parenting, in short, means we parent the way we were parented. And in doing so, we often pass down complex ancestral emotional wounds. We all face the same challenge when we stand before the child-rearing fork in the road. We either follow the well-worn path of legacy or we veer off in a completely different direction, vowing to change a pattern that no longer serves us or our children. But the stronghold of that generational biologism is very difficult to break. It requires a certain level of consciousness and the willingness to ask ourselves some important and sometimes painful questions. Above all, it takes a great deal of courage.

When my son and daughter were toddlers, I believed with strong conviction that the best way to guide them was through rigid scheduling and correcting “bad” behavior. Which meant lots of yelling, time outs, talking to’s, threats and even spankings. Because, isn’t exerting control how children learn to behave, to obey and to conform? Isn’t that how we instill the notion of right and wrong? Isn’t that how we ultimately protect them? I wasn’t their friend after all, I was their mother. How many times had I been told that?

The results were detrimental. Most of my arbitrary attempts to control their behavior without trying to understand the emotions behind it was hurtful and confusing for my children and made them resentful. That resentment was either internalized in the form of withdrawal or externalized in the form of acting out, neither of which was the desired outcome. And it quickly became a pattern.

My personal interior tug of war was that I often felt rejected and disrespected. And I constantly felt guilty. And when I felt guilty, I would tap into the little girl in me that remembered just wanting to be loved and try to offer that affection to my children. But without an explanation, exchange, apology, or any real change in my behavior, my children soon learned to mistrust the 360° attempt to sooth away the damage. They would accept my  hugs and I love you’s, but they were left with the disappointment and menacing presence of unresolved feelings.

I was deeply at odds with myself because I didn’t know another way, but I didn’t like myself as a parent. My husband, on the other hand, was a model of patience and a first rate problem-solver who often intervened when I was overwhelmed. I admired him greatly as a father and wanted so much to be more like him. At the same time, I struggled with the resentment I felt at the bond he had with our children, which in turn fed my self-doubt as a parent. Some fundamental understanding of my relationship with my children was missing.

One day, when my patience was extremely low, my voice got loud. Really loud. It boomed and raged and reflected in my children’s frightened eyes. I recognized that voice–the tone, the intonation, the tenor–as that of my father’s, someone I had loved and feared with equal measure. That voice, on good days, could lift me up with  praise and laughter and on bad days and without warning, could plummet me into despair with criticism and disdain–well into my adult years.

Before my father passed away from a long battle with cancer, I  took the risk and asked him some hard questions. How was it possible that former employees, friends, colleagues and strangers described him as nurturing, loving, a great listener, kind and patient, when I knew a whole other side to him that was harsh, critical, rejecting and punishing? Was he even aware of how much he’d hurt me over the years? Did he care? Did he love me?

Well, my father was all those wonderful things that other people saw in him. And he was also the father I knew. He did his best, and of course he loved me. But, he was also a wounded child who grew up to be a wounded adult. As he explained to me in the vulnerable voice of a soul who’s come full circle,  he grew up in a household without love, walled in by strict rules and moral codes that demanded good behavior. He had been largely deprived of compassion and physical affection. “I was incapable,” he’d said. And I believed him.

I had inherited his long legs and his Irish sense of humor, as well as a long lineage of dutiful parenting and the emotional scars that got passed down alongside them. His admission broke my heart, but it also awakened a deep understanding in me that I would no longer be the forward carrier. I would break the cycle.

The first thing I did was get down on the floor. That’s where the change began. Down there, with my children, I could see the world through their eyes, I could imagine how tall I must seem to them, how everything asks to be explored and conquered, how it’s all wonderful and funny and frustrating as hell. Down there, I started to play, to clap, to dance, to sing. To be still. I looked out the window and up at the clouds. Those clouds! I fell asleep on the floor with my children on a bed of legos and books and cinderella shoes. I laughed and I cried. For my father, for myself and for lost time. I listened and I watched and I let the small things go. I spoke, slowly, purposefully and as gently as I could. I practiced. I held their feet, their hands, their heads, their whole small bodies until I knew their separateness by heart.

And when the time was right, I picked myself up off the floor and took care of myself. I engaged in the world. I did one thing, one small thing, every day just for myself. I read about respectful parenting. I tried on compassion and trust with myself and others. I learned how to talk things through rather than react. I learned to inspire rather than insist. I learned to ask questions and listen to the answers without judgement or criticism, regardless of how much time it took and how many other things I had to do.  I meditated. I wrote. And I asked myself a lot of questions about the parent I wanted to be. I didn’t try to be a perfect mother. I aimed to be a true mother. True to my nature, true to my instincts, true to my word and true to my intentions.  I forgave the past. And I learned to forgive myself when I’m not at my best. I would be lying if I said it was easy. It’s not. Every morning I summon patience and kindness to my side. The love is already there. It always has been. And so we move on, together.

Just Curious

 

IMG_3356_2

 

I wasn’t very curious as a child.

Writing that sentence feels both liberating and profoundly sad. The truth is, I was curious. Of course I was. But I quickly learned that there was little value in it.

Like most children, I was taught to stay inside the box (because it really was there to protect me), to color within the lines, not to read ahead in the history books, not to  speak unless I was called upon. I learned in school that information must be administered, monitored, measured and validated by adults in positions of authority. I was led to believe that I was categorically bad at math, but a star speller, so I excelled where I was praised and became ill when faced with numbers. I learned that if it’s not in a book or on a test it’s not worth learning, and that my physical and emotional needs were secondary to the material at hand. These messages, although never overtly stated, were reinforced daily by the routine and repetition of what constituted learning, namely, the unquestioning obedience to instruction.

The children we often hear about–the ones who retreat to their rooms, who don’t feel like telling their parents what they learned at school, who don’t seem to have any interests, the children who are labelled “sullen” or “introverted” or “dispassionate”  –these children are not part of a slacker generation, or emotionally void, or brain-fried from too much screen time. They are not, in fact, anomalies. They may just not know how to identify or explore their passions in the absence of prescriptive learning, or possibly even how to communicate without being prompted. They have learned to avoid anything that is not assigned or solicited. Most importantly, they have forgotten how to be curious. And this is when they get lost, to themselves and to us.

All children are born hungry to explore the world with their five senses on high alert. And since literally everything is unknown to a child when they are born, what a thrilling state to be in! The unreigned joy, the innocence of failure, the confident determination as they take their first steps, clap their hands or discover that dirt doesn’t taste very good. Isn’t that what stirs our own adrenaline and wonder as parents? Isn’t that what allows us to see the world with new eyes, what challenges us to be a little more curious ourselves? It’s what makes diaper changes, getting spit up on and sleepless nights bearable. We want to be around that joy, those pure discoveries, capture the grace and muck, document it and dream about it, and wake up wanting more.

But then one day, and increasingly too soon, most of us willingly hand  our children over to an institution in order to be “educated,” divesting them of the very same curiosity and wonder we so valued up to that point, and depriving ourselves in the process of the great privilege of witnessing our children truly alive.

People often ask me why I homeschool my children.  It isn’t because I hate school. It’s because I embrace choice.  I believe my children learn better by being free to ask questions at all hours of the day, and empowered to discover the answers at their own pace.  And I see great value in talking to and learning from other children as well as adults, and sometimes questioning their authority. I encourage my children to read ahead, to try ahead and to try again when they fail.  It’s because I now understand the fundamental difference between the deep knowledge we gain from being curious and the mere distribution of information. But it’s also because I’m a bit selfish. I’ve become addicted to my children’s curiosity. I want to be around it all the time. It’s worn off on me, inspired me and challenged the life I was taught to live. Depending on the day, It serves as either a kick in the ass or a healing tonic.

Life is an inexhaustible subject.

The Santa Mom

christmas-snow-winter-Favim.com-3765244

 

 

“Mom, I have a really important question to ask you.”

My son has a serious look on his face, so I stop what I’m doing. At ten, his questions are not always easy (why do certain cells divide faster than others? How do coral fish change their sex? Is there enough room on the planet for everyone to live?). So I put my coffee down and close my laptop.

“O.K.,” I say. “Shoot.”

“Before I ask, you have to promise me, pinky swear, that you’ll tell me the truth.”

I crook my little finger and hold it out to him, a little tentatively.

“Does Santa really exist?”

And there it is. The moment of truth. The question I’ve been waiting for, anticipating, dreading since leaving that first plate of cookies by the tree and later eating them, untidily, crumbs floating in milk as evidence. (Of course, Santa dunks.) Since mailing that first illegibly scrawled letter to the North Pole. (Of course it will get there.) Since that first trip to the mall to wait in line for a photo. (Of course that’s really Santa.)

This time I know I can’t dodge the answer with my evasive standby, “If you believe, then he exists.” This time, he’s figured it out, has probably suspected for a while.

I wonder if the fall of Santa is my fault. As the years have gone by, perhaps I’ve toppled him little by little, gotten somewhat slack, a bit sloppy, a tad lazy in the Father Christmas department. Maybe I didn’t vary Santa’s handwriting enough from my own on the gift tags. Maybe the glass of milk was left untouched on the counter because I just couldn’t stomach dairy at two in the morning. Maybe Santa’s presents were piled in right alongside the others in the closet. On the shelf that was once too high, when you were too young to turn the door handle.

Or maybe, I’ve stopped believing.

My son deserves an honest answer. So I say it. “No sweetheart. Santa is not real.” I let it sink in, expecting tears, or worse, outrage. But he is silent, reflective.

“So who put the candy canes and sparkles all over the tree?”

“Me.”

“And  the presents? All the notes?”

“That was me too.”

“But what about those reindeer prints in the yard that time? That couldn’t have been . . .”

“Yep. Me. Powdered sugar. Remember all the ants?”

“And the cookies? You didn’t . . . That was . . .”

“Your father. Your father ate the cookies.”

My husband and I had the great Santa debate before our children were born. He was against perpetuating the “greatest lie a parent can tell their children.” I was all for fostering “the most magical time in a child’s life.”  It was a matter of perspective. For my husband, Christmas smacked of divorce, a father an ocean away, hard times and unfulfilled wishes. Christmas stung.

For me, it sang. Christmas was a  Norman Rockwell scene complete with yule tide guests, walnut-studded cheddar logs, sugar cookies and mugs of mulled spices. Carolers  congregating in front of our house holding sheet music, the baritone warming the notes deep in his chest, the soprano rounding her mouth into a chilly, fluted O. And there was midnight mass (the warm torpor), tapered candles in green and red on a mantle lined with hand-written cards. A stained-glass window of a Christmas tree whose branches democratically mingled bangles and baubles in silver and gold, blown glass and delicately painted spheres with the less noble popsicle sticks, garlands of gluey, glittered construction paper, threaded popcorn and slivers of molding dried oranges.

I wondered how two people could experience Christmas so differently.

We eventually compromised. As the years went on and my father passed away, I understood my husband’s sense of loss. As the years went on and he saw the magic through our children’s eyes, he understood my joy. And Christmas became ours, a shared middle ground–a lot less extravagant than my memories, a lot less melancholy than his reality. We tamed  the tinsel and decorated the banana tree in our yard. We made most of our gifts. We walked on the beach, a broad hearth for the sun. We celebrated life.

For all those years, I was the Santa mom. How easily I slipped into the persona of the secret giver, the teller of little untruths, the steadfast believer, the noiseless magician. Suddenly, I feel a sense of loss that my role has come to an end. Until I remember that his little sister doesn’t know, or hasn’t admitted it. We can pretend a little longer.

My son isn’t disappointed or sad or angry as I’d feared. He’s stronger than me. Instead, he’s curious, wondering how it all happened, calling up details and memories that I don’t even remember.

“What about that time when I lost my stuffed animal and he showed up all dirty under the tree with a note? How did you get him back?”

“I honestly don’t know,” I tell him. Some things are still a mystery.

Flight of the Ephemerals

animal-bampw-black-amp-white-black-and-white-butterfly-Favim.com-357681

photo credit: endless-nightmare.tumblr.com

There’s a restaurant in the village where we take the kids when they are in need of the kind of comfort that only a good pizza can provide. This establishment makes a respectable one baked crispy and thin in a half-moon brick oven.  Although they have a full menu offering a variety of options, whenever I inquire about anything other than pizza, I am told, “We are out of that tonight, Madame.” So pizza it is.

The proprietor of this establishment is a 50-ish Frenchman named Jacques who has a thick shock of white hair and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts. On this particular night, he has clearly overindulged and is asleep at the bar when we arrive. We approach gingerly, not knowing whether to clear our throats, or turn around and leave. Thankfully (for us, not him), the young Senegalese waitress, Fatu, emerges from the kitchen and slaps him on the back of the head. He sits up abruptly, his bloodshot eyes rolling about, attempting focus.

“Oh”, he says. “I was wondering where you were.” I can only imagine by “you”, he means any customer in general–the restaurant is empty.

“Right ziss way, my ‘merican frenz,” Jacques says with an exaggerated wink in my direction. Scrutinizing the room as though he is hard-pressed to find a table, he ushers us to one near the open door, hands two large menus to Sunny and Jamie and pulls out my chair to seat me. As he leans in, my nose is affronted by an afternoon’s worth of Pastis and stale cigarettes. He returns a few minutes later and places eight wine glasses on the table.

“I don’t think we’ll be needing all these glasses,” my husband says. Jacques looks at the four of us, then the table and finally says, “Oui, oui, oui, pardon,” removing one of the glasses. This man is clearly drunk. Careening back to the bar, he puts both hands around the cup of coffee Fatu has poured for him as though it were a buoy in the middle of the ocean.

Several tables fill up over the course of our meal and the place takes on a convivial ambiance with layered notes of several languages. I can discern the two most obvious: French and Wolof, but also catch bits of Italian, a cockneyed British and Serer, the language of Cassamance to the South. I love this about Senegal–the small cosmos that gathers at any given moment. Tonight it is unexpected in this rainy season, in this little-known eatery with it’s checkered table cloths and plastic palm tree salt and pepper shakers; it’s poorly rendered murals of Africans running to catch the bus with baskets of fish on their heads–their noses, breasts and feet large and caricatured. But it feels comfortable at this moment, this ordinary evening.

As darkness falls, several winged bugs begin drifting in through the open door. They are silent and delicate, resembling dragonflies with a short rounded body. Soon, there are twenty or thirty hovering around us, landing on the table, alighting on fork tines and shirt sleeves, only to take off again towards the ceiling. No one seems concerned but us. My son Jamie, who is particularly bug-phobic, is standing on his chair, screeching and waving his hands about, ducking the onslaught. Jacques comes over and says, “Don’t worry, it’s just the ephemerals. This will all be over in a few minutes. Regardez!” Perching again on his barstool, he gestures in a wide arc at the swarm, as though he has arranged this spectacle for our entertainment. My daughter wonders aloud if they are fairies.

These insects are born during the rainy season and live for a single day. Not many people get the chance to witness their struggled, short life span. It takes them the better part of a day to hatch and they are fully formed only at dusk. Tonight, they have come to our restaurant, attracted by the single bright overhanging bulb near our table. They ascend slowly and purposefully, their wings beating furiously towards their beacon. But just as they reach the summit, they lose their top set of wings and fall fast to the ground, where they struggle for a minute or two, then exhausted, surrender. The life cycle that we are witnessing is narrated  by an old Senegalese man sitting at the table next to us. I ask if these insects exist elsewhere and he tells me he doesn’t know. He has never left Senegal.

We find ourselves riveted, cheering them up and on towards the light. “Go, go, up, fly!” As they fall, Jamie, who is no longer afraid for himself, but deeply sad on these creatures’ behalf, tries to catch them before they fall in hopes of saving them. But nature would have it otherwise. Within minutes, these beautiful ephemerals have lived their short lives and their bodies lie motionless on the floor. Only their delicate, transparent wings remain, floating through the air, taking flight again, independent of their host, on the current the ceiling fan provides. They descend slowly only to be lifted again into the air.

As we leave the restaurant, we turn to see Fatu sweeping the remains of the ephemerals out the door along with the sand and crumbs of the day. We walk home through the village with a flashlight. People are out on their stoops, chatting and singing in low voices. The electricity has gone out and the street is dark. But there are candles everywhere illuminating our path and the stars are bright and numerous.

Coming Back Home

IMGP0838

 

The summer after my junior year in High School, while all my friends were working fast food jobs at the mall or hanging out at the pool, I was taking typing lessons. To the best of my memory, there were six of us–all girls–and none of us wanted to be there in that hot, low-ceilinged room while “everybody else” was making pocket money or meeting boys. There was a lot of gum-snapping and heavy sighing during those four weeks of keyboard drills.

It was my mother’s idea. Being of a certain generation, she believed that every young girl should know how to type (and cook and eventually make a proper Martini). I like to think she had high hopes for me. As she pointed out (and rightly so), “even the most successful women have to start at the bottom.” So I went, begrudgingly, lacking the maturity to understand what a gift she had given me. At the time, it felt like some twisted, antiquated form of torture.

Our teacher was a slim, tireless woman with a voice like Wilma Flinstone. The repetition, my god, the repetition. “j,j,j,j,j,j,j,j,i,i,i,i,i,k,k,k,k,k.” The act of typing felt aggressive to me somehow, each key reaching up and striking the paper, recording our successes and failures.

“Come back home,” she would say after each practice drill, referring to the position of the hands on the keys, the two index fingers poised lightly on j and f. Home was extremely important: if the hands were just one key off, “duck” would become “fivl” and all hell would break loose. Home was where hands and thoughts were allowed to rest.

Like many young girls, I kept a hand-written diary at the time to record my deep thoughts and hormone-ridden rantings along with banal entries about the weather and my obsession with getting my ears pierced. I soon abandoned my pink-ink pen and plastic-padded diary and began typing. By the time I had finished the course, I could finger 60 words a minute. I now had a means to record my thoughts as fast as they came. Fluidly, madly, I wrote. Short stories, dialogue, life snip-its and still those deep thoughts.

What I remember most about those four weeks of typing lessons has to do with mastering a skill, but also about making mistakes.

If you’ve ever typed on a real typewriter, you know that mistakes were a much bigger deal and required a little effort to correct. Backspace didn’t exist in 1982. You’d be typing along at a steady clip and perhaps your mind would drift off, wondering what your friends were doing or what was for dinner, and inevitably, you’d hit a wrong key. And have to stop. Roll the page up. Erase the mistake either with correction tape or white-out. Roll it back up. Hoping that the page didn’t slip, willing it to find its former position. And try again. If you didn’t instictively feel the mistake as you were making it, you might even get to the bottom of the page, catch an unfixable gaff, which meant you had to start all over again . . . if you wanted it to be right.

Because it wasn’t so easy to correct my mistakes, I practiced harder, I vowed not to make them again. Because correcting them was hard and time-consuming and somehow slightly painful. But I learned from them.

As I’m typing this on my mac notebook, and my fingers are flying across the keyboard, hitting backspace, cutting and pasting, deleting entire sentences because they don’t feel right, I wonder if the ability to erase our mistakes so easily is such a good idea. It’s certainly convenient, and efficient and time-saving. But I worry about my kids. I don’t want “backspace” to become their default mechanism for coping with inconvenience.

I want them to feel the caloused pleasure of writing with a pen, know how to spell words in their entirety, not just use an acronym because it’s faster. I want them to know the musty smell of old books, the feel of pages turned by the hands and minds of past lovers of words.

I want them to know how to slow down, know what its like to eat a meal with people you love that lasts for three hours because there’s so much to talk about. I want them to spend days, many of them, with no set plans.

I want them to be aware of the greater world out there and the impact they can and do have on it. The solutions to many of our current problems may well lie in their hands . . . their capable, purposeful hands.

When they’re confronted with their mistakes, in language, life or in love, I want the solution to be a little bit hard, require a little reflection. In our fast-paced world, we all need to “come back home” from time to time, poised for whatever comes next.

Mud in Black and White

IMG_2504_2

“The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.” E.E. Cummings

Mud is two very different elements coming together. Earth and water. Rained on dirt. Water soaked soil.

No longer liquid, but not quite solid. Until baked by the sun into sinewy continents.

P1000796_2

Then it can become bricks.

Molded and poured, shaped and baked, turbid then opaque. Mud can make,

a house. An adobe abode.

P1000866_2
Mud can be worked.
But mud can be tricky and maleable.
Mud lays in wait for something or someone to change it.

When you least expect it,

IMG_0980
the rain can reign down and carve out crevices,
wash away walls,
and muddy your whole bloody life.

Just when you thought it was solid.

But you are not made of mud, although you melt in a puddle for a mired while.
Then your hero pulls you to your feet and tells you to breathe, but it’s hard.
Lots of doubt and mud-slinging. Can you feel it stick?

P1000781_2
So you walk the hard path together because it circles back to home.

P1000365_2

And you make better bricks from the fallen mass. Repurposed, relived, repaired.
Learned.

IMG_2488_2
Memories awash and days float by
as you play in the mud with abandon.

Mucky joy over all the possibilities . . .

the alchemy of life can bring.

originally posted at http://senegalease.blogspot.com/