Houses of Glass

The Palm House at Kew Gardens-- definitely not a place to throw rocks.

The Palm House at Kew Gardens– definitely not a place to throw rocks.

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks.

This piece of age-old wisdom came to mind last week while I was contemplating the fingerprints, crumbs, and sticky things smeared on our glass-topped kitchen table.  As I wiped, dried and buffed the tabletop for something like the 443rd time this week, I thought, “People who live in glass houses probably shouldn’t give their children crumpets with jam for breakfast, either.” (Unless they are lucky enough to have live-in window cleaners… which, come to think of it, probably should come included if one is building or buying a glass house).

And really, is there anything people who live in glass houses should throw?  Certainly not tomatoes or water balloons.  Maybe pillows?  Or used tissues, or paper wads (not spit wads!)?  Having wandered down that line of thought, I thought better of taking the next turning.  Just think of all the things people who live in glass houses shouldn’t do!

Our house... for a bit.

Our house… for just a bit longer.

I’ve been a little preoccupied with houses– mostly not glass ones– since we recently woke up in the middle of an episode of Househunters International.  (Minus the whining about how we really need a 3-car garage, a “bonus” room, and a pool…)  Our landlord is moving back into this flat, which he designed and renovated several years back.  Despite any complaints I may have had in the past year about that slight problem with our flat being a float… there’s nothing like being told you will have to move out to make you think that you’ve been living in the perfect situation.  I will miss my beautiful kitchen and our luxurious bathroom, if not the perennially reappearing water spots and occasional dripping walls in Quinn and Chloe’s rooms.

Chloe’s room.  I’m having a hard time with that aspect of the move: with breaking up the last household one of the big kids actually lived in full-time.  Packing up our home in Marblehead and moving overseas right when Will graduated made the end of a family era that much more undeniable.  Packing up this place we’ve worked so hard to make our new home means that our next abode will hold no shared memories with Will or Chloe living there.   It doesn’t help that when you go to college orientation they say, “You should keep your child’s room as it is for a while, so they feel like they still have a place.”  OK.  Thanks for that advice, but apparently we live in a different universe from most parents dropping their kids at university.  Clearly I haven’t yet acquired that famous British “stiff upper lip.”

A couple of things I have acquired over the last two weeks are squinting, red eyes and hunched shoulders, from huddling over every real estate website and database in the city.  A person could spend days, 24/7, looking at all the listings, exploring the floor plans and following the google street views to see what the neighborhoods look like…  What? No, don’t be silly!  I said “a person could“… of course that’s not what I’ve been doing all week!  The piles of laundry downstairs?  The dishes in the sink?  That neglected, hungry look in my children’s eyes?  Nothing to do with rightmove.co.uk.  Just because I have now memorized the north London streets almost well enough to take the taxi drivers’ exam?  Nothing to do with Foxton’s real estate website…

When we moved to London for the first time, we hired a relocation firm to assist in the housing search.  It just made sense, as we weren’t on the ground in the city, and we needed to find something in the short window we had carved out for a house-finding trip.  They had a driver and an agent ready for us, as well as a list of about 20 properties that more or less matched what we had described to them.  We went out and saw them all in one day– which was like a dream come true if you like that sort of thing (which I emphatically do) and probably a nightmare if you don’t.  After the last viewing our guide and new best friend, Ryan, took us to a pub and the three of us huddled over beverages and talked through our options.  He got on the phone and made offers and we negotiated in real time.  By the time we parted for the night we were pretty sure we had secured our place.

Our initial choice was a townhouse with a newly redone, beautiful, modern interior– in fact, it had glass railings on all the three floors of staircases… so practically a glass house!  It also had black wooden flooring, a sundeck cut into the middle of the master bedroom suite, and it was about 40 steps from Primrose Hill park.  But the two bedrooms the younger children would have been in were on the ground floor near the entrance, while we were two floors up from there.  And there were no shops or restaurants within a 5-10 minute walk.  The aesthetics appealed to us so much that we made the offer, negotiated a bit, and then went back to the hotel for the night thinking that was probably going to be the one.  But the next morning, Clay and I both woke up feeling like it was the wrong choice.  Luckily for us, the owners had not agreed to our offer, so we were able to walk away from the deal.  Literally.  Will and I took the half-mile walk up to the neighborhood of our second choice flat while Clay went to his office for a few hours.

What our exploratory walk revealed... coffee shop, wine shop, gelato shop, coffee shop, gourmet burger place, family restaurant, upscale pizza place.  All within a block of the prospective flat!  Yep... that's what we now have to leave behind...

What our exploratory walk revealed… coffee shop, wine shop, gelato shop, coffee shop, gourmet burger place, family restaurant, upscale pizza place. All within a block of the prospective flat! Yep… that’s what we now have to leave behind…

Our second choice flat was further from the school, and we needed to see if I could live with the neighborhood and the commute.  The flat hadn’t shown very well, as it was overfilled to stuffed with a French family, their nanny, and enough furniture for at least an 8-bedroom chateau.  One of the little girls in the family followed us around while we toured and fed us with bits of information like, “Daddy likes to sleep in the bathtub!”  (I found it very amusing, but I bet the parents would have thought otherwise.)  But I had seen this property online with pictures from less cluttered days, and I knew the floorplan would work for our family.  What Will and I also discovered when we walked up to the neighborhood that fateful June morning, was that it was in a great street (see photo), with the Tube, great shops and family restaurants, groceries, bakeries, and even a movie theater all within two blocks of our front door.  Second choice quickly flip-flopped to first choice!  (And ultimately, knowing that the bathtub would work as an extra bed in a pinch may have been the factor that swayed us…)

That was our Househunters International,  Round 1 experience.  This time around we really can’t justify a relocation firm.  We live here now.  We know what neighborhoods we like.  We know basically what we should be able to get with our budget.  It’s really just a matter of vigilance, patience, and nerves. All we have to do is spot the perfect place when it comes on the market, sometime in the next 4-6 weeks, and then hope that we can swoop in and be the first and/or best offer.  How hard can it be? (That’s for any Top Gear fans out there… “How hard can it be?” ALWAYS means there’s trouble ahead!)

I promise to be back very soon with an update.  In the meantime, no spoilers in the comments, please!

Tears on the Traffic Island

This post is NOT going to be another chronicle of my tears. Really, it’s not. Well. Mostly not.

A quieter island than the one I cried on… but you get the idea.

Quinn and Claire went back to school this week. The most notable difference between last year’s first day and this year’s first day is that I didn’t find myself crying on a little concrete pedestal– the traffic island in the middle of a busy London street after drop-off.

Granted, Quinn started kindergarten last year. That’s a vulnerable moment for every mom. And I had only just left my oldest child at university a continent away for his freshman year. So double whammy vulnerability. Oh, and I didn’t know anyone here yet, and the time difference made it ridiculous for me to call my mom or my sister or any friends back home where it was 3:30 am. So I was feeling pretty isolated– the traffic island was an amazing metaphor, come to think of it. And possibly some of those tears were in the nature of, “Oh Lord, what have we done? What are we doing here?”

First Day of School, Aug. 29, 2012

This year was So Very Different. I had no nervous butterflies about getting to school via public transport (aka, big red London buses) in time. I was hugging people in the hallway, greeting the librarian and the assistant principal like old friends, giving the new families whatever help I could (even if that was just sending out friendly vibes)… It felt good to feel not quite so not-in-control, and it felt great to be able to offer a little help to people who were where I had been.

My life, I realized, has felt out of control for a long time. Nearly two years, in fact– from the time we decided we might move to London that fall, just when our oldest was starting his Senior year and all the stressful gearing up for college. Moves and graduations, leave-takings and growing ups. Yeah, that stuff will make a parent feel like she’s not the boss– of anything. (I’m smiling as I write, at a momentary flashback to itty bitty Chloe– hands on her skinny hips, strawberry blond curls sticking out– saying, for the millionth time, “You’re not the boss of me!” to her older brother. Now they text each other regularly from their colleges on opposite sides of the country.) So maybe boss isn’t the right word– it’s not like I ever really acted like the boss in the first place. Maybe being in the driver’s seat is a better metaphor. The mom is driving the family carpool for years and years, and then– suddenly– she’s not.  That’s the kind of loss of control that happens when the kids start the college thing.  Then throw in a move overseas, and, well…

But the moves are done, and for now we’re ‘sorted,’ as the Brits like to say.  Now that Will and Chloe have both left home for college, I have nothing left to dread in that regard for a long time (Claire is only in 3rd grade).  It feels like the major tumult might be done.  (God help me for saying that.) So I’m coming out of this 2-yr-long storm and surveying the damage. Mostly I’m pleased at the things that held up through it all. Not that I’m not battered. There are way more gray hairs and wrinkles than there were in Marblehead. But I have more compassion for myself and my body. After all, we’ve been through some things together. The gray hairs have sprung from the stress of moving, and worry about the kids (far and near) and the daily details of making a new life. The wrinkles have come from– I’m not gonna lie– a lot of tears through the last couple years. It sounds cliché, but those outward signs of aging represent the experience, the wisdom, the empathy I’ve gained through these hard transitions.

Don’t look now, but I think I’ve finally learned to be gentle with myself. And sister, right now I am positively exuding empathy for women in all stages and walks. I want to be an ear, a shoulder, a comforting hug. I want us each to respect the walk we’re on, and know that whatever trials we encounter, they tend to be universal. We love till we think our hearts will explode. We hurt until we think the sun cannot possibly rise again. But it always does. We condemn ourselves for what we don’t get done. We condemn ourselves for what we do. We create elaborate plans to improve ourselves, our lives, and even our loved ones. But we are still ‘just’ ourselves, and never the perfect version of anything we set out to be.

But we’re walking on this path. All the while we’re walking.

Maybe you have to have been on the trail for quite a while before you get to look back and actually realize you’ve covered a lot of challenging ground. You turn around and appreciate that you’ve climbed over rocks and boulders, across streams and through muddy bogs; and when you pause and look up, you realize that the view is… just breathtaking.

You can see others further back the trail, perhaps a woman wading through the exhaustion of having two or three littles at home. Losing her mind piece by piece. Making unrealistic plans for what she hopes to accomplish during nap time or during the two hours the oldest is in preschool. Disappointment and self-condemnation that she couldn’t get it done. Utter exhaustion by dinnertime. Falling asleep while reading the bedtime story, then staying up later than she should because she’s so desperate to have a little time to herself. You try to shout back, “It’s okay! Don’t be hard on yourself! All of us up here were just like you on that part of the trail– you’ll make it! And it doesn’t matter if the toys are picked up every night…” But she probably doesn’t hear you, because she is where she is on the trail, and the sounds of her busy life are roaring in her ears as she does her best to cross that river.

Or there’s another one resting on a trailside boulder (or possibly even a London traffic island), crying as she watches her 5-year-old walk away from her wearing a backpack. You smile at his sweetness and you wish you could reach out and touch her shoulder. “Yes, it feels like such a change, doesn’t it?” you’d say. “But he will still hug you after school today, and the day after that, and… you’ve got lots of time to love your little one.” Silently, you might add, Just pay attention! It all goes so fast, and you’ll barely realize it’s happening and then you wake up one day and realize his feet are bigger than yours and he doesn’t really hug you after school anymore. But you wouldn’t say that out loud because, well, how is that edifying, and why would you want to add to her sorrow?

It’s not just moms, either– that happens to be the trail I’m looking back at right now, but there are lots of junctions along the way: jobs and school, boyfriends and girlfriends, weddings and births. Funerals.  Something about the start of a new academic year this fall– and the first anniversary of our life in London– has me looking back, and looking at others, with a new view and a deeper tenderness. I suppose scientists would say there’s some hormone at work– that’s fine, because there’s plenty of room for science right here alongside this more metaphysical view. I mean, why wouldn’t God create hormones like little instruction codes to help us along this whole road: eat, grow, run away, reproduce, love…?

I also see better than ever that you can’t walk someone’s walk for them. That kindergarten mom has to go through her moment and her reactions (and maybe her reaction is ‘wahoo! freedom!’– which is also legit!) in her own time; just like no abstract knowledge that everything will be okay could stop me from shedding tears on the tarmac flying away after my term-long goodbyes to Will and Chloe in the last 10 days. Traffic island to tarmac, it’s a part of my walk, and I just have to feel what I’m going to feel.  The best we can do for one another is simply to be there, as our sisters and friends and parents and grandparents have been in their turn.

And we mustn’t forget to look back, and up and out, over where we’ve been. We might be kinder to ourselves and to others if we occasionally take another look at all the road we’ve covered.

Besides, the view is fantastic.

Half Empty (But Still Rather Full)

Image

I’ve had a crash course this week in being a half-empty nester.  Chloe left Sunday for the U.S., not to return until some future college break– maybe Christmas, unless we all decide to spend Christmas in the U.S.  Then Clay left on Wednesday morning for a regular kind of business trip– three nights away, returning on Saturday morning.

So it’s been the Littles– Claire and Quinn– and me for the last few days.  What’s strangest of all, maybe, is that because they are not in school right now, we have absolutely no commitments.  We could stay in our pajamas all day and never leave the house.  We could stay out of the house all day and eat every meal out (it’s so CHEAP with only the 3 of us!).  We could stay up all night watching movies, and then sleep all day.  I could neglect to load the dishwasher at night, leave the clean laundry in a pile at the foot of my bed, let shoes build up by the front door until no one can either come or go.

No, I haven’t done these things, not exactly… but maybe bits of them.  Conscience intervenes, you see.  I can’t keep the children in the house an entire day– even if it is raining (but I can let them stay in their pajamas until way past lunch sometimes).  I don’t even want to eat every meal out with the kids (ever watchful of table manners, preventing spills and other catastrophes, and managing bathroom trips alone? no thanks.)  Nix the all-night movie fest, too– we do that on the last day of school, and it takes the rest of the week to recover.  As for the housekeeping?  I hate having piles of laundry in my room (they just get all crumpled and it’s harder to fold them later), and the dishwasher really has to run at night (there’s nothing like coming up for coffee with a clean kitchen!).  There are shoes by the door, though.  Lots of them.  Also mail and umbrellas.

The thing is, all that freedom of having no adult supervision– or at least teen supervision– really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And I guess maybe I’ve grown up a bit myself over the last 19 years– contrary to all expectations.  Bother.  So where do I find my fun, now that Chloe isn’t here to chat at night, watch a movie with me, or go to a cafe with me (and the littles, of course)?  When Clay’s out of town, there’s no one to handle the TV remote and find old NCIS episodes, stream Modern Family from his iPad, or just talk about things.  And there are no Malteasers in the house.

But hang on.  My mothering instincts must be intact, because I’ve just realized I’ve already been subconsciously working on this problem!  While other, “good” parents spend time reviewing math and working on reading skills in the summer, I’ve been helping my kids learn to play Rock Band on the Wii.  (Oh, alright, we’ll do a math page later!)  We pulled the instruments out of the utility closet last weekend– out of all the things we left in storage in the U.S., we brought Rock Band??  But obviously I knew what I was doing with that– because you don’t know summer fun until you’ve jammed out “Dead or Alive” or “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” with your kids!  Quinn’s got the drums, Claire’s the vocals, and I am obviously the guitar queen.  We’ve got some work to do, but you know, we’ll get there.

Classic Rock, with Paula on drums, Will on vocals, and Chloe on lead guitar.

So hey, my nest isn’t feeling so empty now.  We’ve still got enough kids around to cover the parts.  We might even have to go out and buy the bass guitar if Clay wants to play, too.  But even while I work on making this new nest situation work, I’ll be remembering my big kids so far away.  All my kids are Rock Stars, of course.  But Will and Chloe are the classics.  Love you guys!