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!

Reunions and Happy Endings

One of my favorite moments of the summer– when Gus realized it was us! Yes, Q and I are both crying…

Until I was twenty-two, I mostly thought of the word “reunion” in the sense of potluck lunches in the park pavilion, with multiple variations on baked beans and seven-layer salads, and distant relatives you were supposed to know but didn’t.

Then I moved far away from home for the first time and learned how it feels to anticipate seeing loved ones or dear friends after months or years apart.  Then I had kids and learned the joy of bringing your children and their grandparents together after time apart.  A year turned into twenty-five years away from my little hometown and the friends and family there.  Now I thoroughly understand the word “reunion.”

I look forward to every trip back to my hometown to see my parents and my sister and her precious and adorable family.  I’m grateful to get to see my sweet grandma, who still has a sense of humor at 92 and only stopped zipping circles around everybody with her walker this year because of a knee injury.  I’m so happy for any time I get to spend with my aunts and uncles, and cousins (like drinking Pimm’s in the front yard with Aunt Terri, my cousin Jason and his new wife Laura; or the too-short stop by Aunt Lana’s house one afternoon).  And there are still a few close friends who live in the area– like Sue (who shared a nuns-on-a-tour-bus sighting with me this summer), and Jill (who waited patiently while I drove circles around her brother’s house, trying to find it).  Sometimes I get lucky and a friend who has moved away just happens to be in town at the same time I am– as was the case this summer with my fun childhood friend, Emily, who happened to be in from Chicago the very day I chased her mother down on the downtown sidewalk just to say hello.

Visiting Grandma– love that lady!

Sometimes we try to orchestrate a big family gathering– not quite the old-style reunion with seven-layer salad, but maybe a party at the town pool, or a picnic at the park (okay, that sounds kind of reunion-y, doesn’t it?).  I always end up feeling weird about that– like we’re demanding that everyone come see us now instead of letting it just happen or not.  But then if we don’t do one big activity, we end up running around a lot of the time to see people, or waiting at home for them to come see us.  So it’s kind of a tricky thing, and even after twenty-five years I still wouldn’t say we’ve got it right.

This summer there was a different kind of reunion for us.  If you’ve been around here sharing a cuppa with us for a while, then you know of my heartbreak over leaving my sweet, rescue dog, Gus, behind in the U.S. when we moved to London last year.  If not, well, I did write about it a few times– like here, and here.  My amazing, fun, big-hearted cousin– she is my hero– took Gus to her home in Indiana.  He has acres and acres to romp in, a pond, two doggy brothers (including Marley, his best friend and larger twin brother– who’s actually a Great Dane…), and loving ‘parents’ in Josie and her husband, Mike.  Gus’ life is wonderful, and I am so grateful!

I wasn’t sure what to do about trying to see Gus this summer.  His home is a few hours away from where we were staying with my parents.  But more than that, I was worried about how the kids and I would feel after seeing him.  Of course, it did occur to me not to rock the boat for Gus and his new family as well, but anyone who has read a book about dog behavior knows that that is more something we project on dogs than they actually feel– given that they live in the present and all.  Right?  (I was so sure of this when I was reading Cesar books, but how can we really know?)  Anyway.  All these things were swirling around in my head leading up to and during the first week of our trip, and in typical me fashion, I simply chose to do nothing.

Look how happy the kids are: )

Then one day I woke up knowing I deeply, deeply wanted to see Gus.  It all clicked into focus and I realized that, for example, even though I really missed Will last year when he went to college, and even though I knew I would cry when he left again after a visit, that didn’t mean I didn’t want to see him when I could.  The same could be said about Gus, my fuzzy, four-legged son.  I also realized that though I was worried about protecting the smaller kids from more hurt, they really wanted to see him, too.  How could I have forgotten Claire’s poem about Gus?

So I got in touch with Josie and she– wonderful lady that she is– went way out of her way to make a reunion happen for us.  We spent a few precious hours with her, my aunt, and Gus.  He knew us and was ecstatic to see us (photo, above), but he clearly loves Josie as well, and is her dog now.  He would lie down by me for a while, then get up and go for a drink and lie down by Josie.  Seeing that was like balm to my soul and closure to all my wounds about betraying the rescue dog I had promised to give a ‘forever’ home (as they say at the shelter).  I felt peace about something that had pained me for the last 12 months.  That is, indeed, a happy ending.

I do love happy endings.  As an aspiring writer of fiction, I struggle with my innate desire to orchestrate a happy ending, versus the prejudice against a tidy and upbeat wrap-up in contemporary fiction.  Things are supposed to be messy in serious fiction, as well as in our dystopian world.  Maybe that’s part of why I keep stalling out near the end in my fiction efforts (the other part is that I’m afraid to finish things– but that’s another blog and another course of therapy).  I’ve written three-quarters or more of three novels.  Mathematically, that should be 2+ novels, right?  But I guess it doesn’t work that way…

And then there’s a fourth piece, for which I’ve written a very rough, but complete first draft.  This one I wrote for Quinn and Claire– it’s a middle grades story involving a dog and his family caught up in the conflict between rebels and establishment in a magical world they didn’t realize was right under their noses.  The dog is a hero in the story, but the wounds he sustains in saving the children make it impossible for him to come back to the children’s world with them.  He must remain in the magical land.  And though he can be happy there– and the children know he will be happy–  they are heartbroken to lose their beloved pet.  Are you getting any ideas about when I wrote this and why?

I finished that draft a year ago, but have never been happy with the ending.  My kids really liked the first chapters, but I’ve never read any further with them.  Maybe now it’s time to go back and try a rewrite– you know, now that I’ve seen an unhappy ending transformed?  I have no idea how our reality changes the fiction, and I won’t write something that ends in some folksy bit of wisdom about time healing all wounds.  But I think if I could find a happy ending in the real life story, there must be some way to pull out a better ending for the fictional Gus and family.  Any ideas out there?

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.

Hairpin Turns

Image

Stand up if you remember Witch Hazel!  She’s one of my favorite Looney Toons characters– mostly because it just cracks me up how she leaves hairpins hanging in the air behind her when she takes off on her broomstick.  I can’t explain it, it just makes me grin every time.  I’m grinning even thinking of it now!

Earlier this year we went through a phase where we could almost find Chloe by following the trail of hairpins– at various times we found them on the sidewalk outside our door, we spotted them at the bus stop, and of course we found them throughout the house.  She was in cross country, so running all the time– and I had a fun little mental image of her taking off at a run and bobby pins flying out behind her.  I’m not sure if I shared that with her, because I didn’t want her to think I was comparing her to a witch… and also to avoid bringing up the fact that she was using all those hair pins because we hadn’t managed to get her a haircut in a ridiculously long time.  (Why do some things just seem so hard when you’re in a new place?)

We did finally get her a haircut, and the bobby pin sightings abated.  Now I’m the one using hair pins.  My hair is ridiculous– don’t even get me started.  I haven’t had it cut since July.  There.  I confessed it.  I look like crap and I just can’t bring myself to book an appointment or walk in somewhere.  Maybe today will be the day.  But anyway, these hairpins… they are everywhere!  I don’t think I’m shedding them as I walk through life each day, but there is a little pile by my sink in the bathroom, there’s another little pile by the bedroom mirror where I do my makeup.  I think they procreate.

Yesterday we had a tedious commute home from school.  Buses were quite full and rather hot and smelly (I know I shouldn’t name names, but, ugh!, those Number 13 buses always kind of make me gag the whole ride).  The kids were tired, and my body actually hurt from tennis clinic earlier in the day.  When we finally stumbled off our own C11 bus at the stop just across the street, I did the cursory belongings check (got backpacks? jackets? my phone?).  Then, glancing down, I spotted a bobby pin on the sidewalk.

It made me smile.

And a smile can put a hairpin turn in your day.  Try it!

I’m walking out in a few minutes to do a bit of shopping– hoping to find some little goodies to take back to the States next week for friends.  Maybe, just maybe, I will stop dithering and walk in somewhere for a haircut.  Even a bad one would be better than the ignominy (wow! where did that word come from?) of returning to Marblehead without having accomplished this basic task in 8 months.  Too bad I don’t have enough hair for the style I’m thinking of: remember the principal’s secretary in Ferris Buehler’s Day Off?  It would sure be handy to have a hair-do in which you can stow an endless supply of pencils– or maybe even the keys!

Just finished a Nespresso Americano with milk.  Thanks for indulging my silly train of thought over coffee this morning.   Have a great day– Cheer-i-o!

[…and she dashes off, leaving several bobby pins hanging in the cloud of smoke from her quick exit…]