Friday, 2 July 2010

There Goes My Baby

Truly was born on January 6th, the Epiphany. Because she was my first-born, and I was the first of my friends to have children, we brought out the fatted calf and sounded the bugles (I misplaced my vuvuzela). The three Magi came bearing gifts. We heralded her arrival with all the pomp and pageantry that befitted the second coming. Unfortunately, our scheduled parade through the streets of town was cancelled on account of the Blizzard of ’96.

We swarmed around her cot bed like flies buzzing around a picnic basket, hovering over this tiny new life, catering to each and every demand, and oftentimes anticipating the need before it was voiced. I made the switch from gazing at my own navel to gazing into her eyes, plumbing the depths of her soul, searching for the answers.

‘She’s wise,’ my sister said.
‘An old soul,’ I said.
‘Do you think she knows something we don’t?’ my sister said.
‘I hope not. That will make it difficult to keep up.’

Throughout the toddler years and pre-teen years, I managed to stay a half step ahead of Truly. This was, in part, thanks to the set of encyclopedias and later the Internet, always within fingertips’ reach. Also, when she was younger, I could get away with weaving tall tales which I fobbed off as truth. There was a time when she would come to me with all her woes, her stories of heartbreak, her moments of indecision, her cuts and bruises that required a bandage or a kiss or a special treat to dry the tears and light up her face.

However, as anyone will tell you, kids grow up. I’m not sure how I missed that section in Parenting 101. As children grow, we parents think we’ve been around the block for a while and assume that we get wiser and savvier, despite the teenager’s conviction that we know less than nothing with each progressive year.

Truly and I have a good relationship. She doesn’t get in trouble and rarely rebels. She excels in her academic studies. Unlike a few of her classmates, she steers clear of harmful substances and alcohol. Her star chart is filled with enough gold stars that I can overlook the occasional bouts of sulkiness, the wails of ‘it’s not fair’, and the bedroom that needs a ‘hazardous for humans’ sign on the door.

Recently, however, it dawned on me that maybe teenagers had a point. In some ways, we don’t know anything about their world. We know about the grades they’re getting in school, what they’re wearing when they leave for a friend’s house, the movies they’re watching, the books they read and the food they like.

But they are very selective about what they tell us when it comes to the inner workings of the teenage mind. Very little. The other day I took a trawl on Truly’s Facebook wall, perusing the tons of photos and comments, heavily peppered with enough LOLs to make me wonder if I had just laughed out loud without realizing it. Luckily, I didn’t find anything that would force Truly into a house arrest. But it brought me back to my own teenage years, the little secrets I kept from my own mother, and the conversations I had with my friends, secrets that my mother was never privy to. It’s not because I had anything to hide. I didn’t. I never rebelled until I went to university and that barely counts. It was more of a reminder that teenagers have their own language, their own location jokes (of the ‘you had to be there’ variety), crushes on boys at the school whose motto (according to the girls) is ‘God’s gift’, and a whole world that they only share with each other.

Truly is growing up and it’s a bittersweet time for me. She still has four years before university but she’s no longer the little girl who needs me to kiss it better. But you know what? She'll always be my baby.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Age of Austerity

Good morning, Nappy Valley Housewife.

Good morning, Next Door Neighbor. You’re looking very smart this morning.

Thank you. But, sweetie, I’m not sure about that bandana and the dirt-streaked face. It’s not the best summer look. It makes you look like a charwoman. What are you doing with that bucket and all those cleaning supplies?

Cleaning up after my builders.

They’re not finished yet?

They've barely scratched the surface.

They could have built a brand new house by now.

I’m starting to wish they had.

There’s no point in trying to clean when they’re still at it. Would you pull out your broom and sweep during a sandstorm in the desert?

No sooner than I would scrub the decks of the Titanic.

There you go. Well, I’m off to the Summer Sales. Care to join me?

I can’t. As soon as the machine coughs up the cash, it goes directly into the hammy fists of my builders.

Ouch. That hurts. Remember the days when you could fit in building work AND the Summer Sales?

Yes, vaguely . . . but fondly. Apparently, we’ve entered the Age of Austerity.

A bitter pill to swallow.

They say it will be good for our kids.

Like a daily dose of castor oil.

Or a stick in the eye.

Well, I won’t hold you up. What are you going to do with your new-found time?

Sit at my desk and stare at the blank screen on my computer.

Huh. Right. Off you go.

See you later.

So here I am, doing exactly as I promised. I love it when a plan comes together. My discipline is unequalled. Books write themselves, don’t they? Or maybe a very clever, industrious muse will take up the cause.

In between agonizing over my own fictional characters and plots that unravel, I’ve been doing a lot of reading of other writers’ books, authors who actually put the words onto the paper and then find a publisher.

What's on my bedside table?

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Her writing is so exquisite that it makes me feel I can never write another word again. She makes me see what real writing is all about.

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd
William Boyd lives in Chelsea and I’ve been told by the owners of the book shop I frequent that he comes in there a lot. I’ve stalked the bookshop as much as legally possible but still no sightings. On the plus side, they’ve not clamped a restraining order on me yet.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
It promises to be very juicy. I love to read good historical fiction.

Monday, 21 June 2010

What's for Dinner?

Last year my daughters and I visited a street market in Beijing. As you can see from the photos below, the delicacies were so tempting that it was difficult to choose. Suffice it to say that we were starving when we left the market; despite the abundance of creatures, there was not a bite to eat.

Starfish lollipop anyone? Try them flash fried and served on a stick. Yum! What's that next to the starfish?

Would you like your scorpion dipped in chocolate or sauteed in garlic?

Sorry about the blurry photo. I think they were still moving.

When we lived and travelled around Asia, we were introduced to many creatures, great and small, most of them served up on a plate. We went to a Korean BBQ where they plunked a platter of horse sashimi onto the table. Because it is a delicacy, I suspect that there is strict rationing of glue for the schoolchildren of Seoul. One time, in Tokyo, my husband's Japanese colleagues treated him to dinner at a restaurant that served live crustaceans. The expat community called it the Wiggly Restaurant. In Malaysia, they snuck some chicken feet into our stir-fry. In Asia, food is an adventure and we were game, up to a point.

Heston Blumenthal, eat your heart out! The Asians know how to throw a banquet to remember. But to be fair, I have to say that creepy crawly creatures aside, Asia has some of the best food I've ever eaten. Tokyo, especially, is a foodie's dream. We still fantasize about the fresh sushi, wagyu beef, odorless fish that is fresh from the sea, and the delicious seasonal produce and exotic fruits.

I'm participating in the Gallery at Sticky Fingers and this week's theme is Creatures. Clearly, I took a great deal of artistic licence with my interpretation. Due to my non-existent photography skills, you can probably understand why I'm a first-time contributor to the gallery.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

If I Had Magic in My Fingertips

I wish that I had magic in my fingertips, the same fingertips that smooth your troubled brow, mend your cuts and bruises with a Dora the Explorer plaster, and single-handedly wrestle the dragons and monsters that lurk like cowards under your bed and in the cupboard. If I had magic in my fingertips I would move the storm clouds to make way for sunshine and endlessly blue skies. If I had magic in my fingertips I would lift boulders to smooth your path and sprinkle gold dust on your silky hair to stave off poverty and sickness and the tyranny of slavery of any kind. If I had magic in my fingertips I would part the waters of the sea so you could travel unharmed and keep you safe from abuse in a world that doesn’t always believe in magic. If I had magic in my fingertips I would guide you in your journey so you wouldn’t fall down or get mired in hopelessness, cutting a swathe through the dense undergrowth of the jungle so that you could see the height of wonder without tripping up and experiencing the lows.

Remember that time, at the birthday party, when the magician coaxed a rabbit out of his top hat? With the wave of his magic wand he turned an empty box into a treasure trove of sweets. He produced a gold coin from the folds of your dress. Your face lit up as you laughed and clapped and said you believed in magic. I said I did too.

You believe that the clouds don’t fall out of the sky because they’re really magic cows and sheep and elephants floating. You believe that a vibrant bloom that grows from a tiny seed you planted in the soil is magic. Santa Claus coming down the chimney is magic. There is magic all around you and you are so innocent that you can still see it, believe in it unquestioningly.

Someday when my very hungry caterpillar turns into an independent butterfly with wings to take you away from home, I hope that you will still believe in magic, that you can conjure it up on a bleak day and know that spiralling down is not the only direction. And someday maybe you will know the joy of holding your own magic in your fingertips. My wish for you is that you will always know that the magic is inside you.

Thank you, my darling girls, for making me remember that the world is full of magic. It’s at every hairpin turn in the road, in the leaves of a mighty oak tree, in the cry of a baby’s first gasp of breath, blinking in the light after so many months of darkness.

Did you see that? It’s the magic surging through my fingertips. It’s love. It’s wonder. It’s motherhood. For me, it’s the greatest show on earth. It’s magic. But not always. Sometimes it's just life. And that's why we all need a little magic.

I wrote this post for the Josie's Writing Workshop and chose prompt #3: What is your magic power? Or what would you like it to be?

Monday, 14 June 2010

How to survive your teen years being Truly you!

This post was written by my 14-year-old daughter who, on my blog, goes by the name Truly. I haven't edited a word and am posting it exactly how she wrote it. Thank you, Truly, for your words and wisdom and for being the best 14-year-old daughter a mum could ask for. I love you.

Here it is, the post you have all been waiting for! A guide for all of the teenage daughters out there on how to stay yourself throughout one of the most difficult parts of your life: The Teenage years.

Step one: (as corny as it sounds) you need to know yourself. Know your limitations, and know when you’ve had enough.

Step two: you have to learn to say no, and saying no is the hardest thing to do. I know most teenagers (like me) have had the talk from their parents about saying no to drugs, smoking and alcohol etcetera. However like most things in life that is easier said than done, but it is not impossible and though it seems ridiculous at the time, you will be grateful afterwards when you see the effect it had on anyone else who does it. Harder than saying no to things like alcohol though, is saying no to your friends. If they ask you to do something or go somewhere that you don’t feel comfortable with you should be able to say no without worrying. If they are really your friends then they will accept your wishes and leave you alone (and not hold a grudge).

Step three: Surround yourself with people you like. People who share your interests, or if they don’t then who don’t hold them against you. You want people who will always be on your side when you have a fight (because face it, you're a teenager, you will have fights).

Step four: Avoid the popular people. If your not one of them, don’t try to be, be yourself and if they like you they will try to be your friend, not the other way around.

Step five: Clothes. Go crazy; wear what you want to wear if it’s in fashion cool, if not even better. If you want to wear outrageous colours go for it! Don’t care too much what other people think about you, because most of the time they are jealous of you! They want to be the one to stand out in the crowd, to be special.

Step Six: My favourite one! If you are getting bullied, you tell the bully that you know a girl with a black belt in karate and judo who can kick their butts if they mess with you. Say Truly’s going to come and get you! I’m not actually a black belt in anything but why do they have to know that! Most bullies are cowards so they will be too scared to test you anyway.

Step Seven: The best way to make friends, is to be nice and be yourself, because if your not yourself who else are you going to be?

So there you have it, my guide to help you stay you. I really hope it helps you and that you try to follow it, you have to put in a lot of effort (I would know), but it does work! I have four close friends and I am a very happy teen!


Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Time Traveller's Trouble & Strife

We humans 'know' past and future and, as far as scientists can tell, this ability is not shared by other animals. It’s interesting to think that animals can’t conjure up memories or envision something in the future. Time is a tricky business. We all seem to take it for granted that it does exist but why do we believe in something that we can’t see, taste, smell or hold? Why does it only travel in one direction, from past to present to future and not the other way around? If this thing called time is so elusive, does that mean that it’s real or a figment of our imagination?
Time may be elusive but, for the past few years, it’s become painfully obvious that it’s not a figment of my mind nor is it travelling backwards. I know this because of the deepening furrows on my forehead, the crow’s feet, the laugh lines and the spreading and sagging and creaking. I not only know what a wattle is but I have enough to share. But you know what? I’ve earned all these battle scars and I wear them proudly. Also, I’m not so keen on needles or scalpels.

Besides the inevitable ageing process, I’ve discovered another interesting thing about the passage of time. As I get older I’ve begun to identify with my grandparents’ need to share their stories from the past, memories of their golden sun-dappled days of youth. I find myself doing the same thing lately, telling my kids all these old stories that I unearthed from my own childhood, digging them up like an eager archaeologist, blowing off the dust and entrusting them to my children as if they were the treasures in King Tut’s tomb.

Partly, I’m reminiscing because my long-term memory is becoming better than my short-term memory. But there’s another part of me that gets a thrill out of remembering the past. Sometimes, as a parent, as a spouse, as a tax-paying, bill-paying member of ‘responsible society’, it’s fun to remember that I have a history, that once upon a time I was young and carefree and devil-may-have-cared but I didn’t. I tell my kids about some of the crazy hijinks from bygone days, editing out the truly disreputable parts and skipping the story about how I jumped off a moving train that was headed to Budapest when I needed to get back to my school in Germany for final exams. And that is a true story. [Aside: Just for the record, even if you can still see the platform, once the train is moving it’s going faster than you think and the majority of train station platforms are not made out of that spongey stuff they use in playgrounds. Just saying. ]

But mostly, I reminisce about the good times and the funny times and the times when I felt sad or confused or scared but came through it okay. I share my stories with my kids as a way to connect with them and I like to think it helps them make sense of the world or maybe just lets them see that I’m a person too and not just their mother. They like to hear about the music I listened to and the TV shows I watched and the trouble my sister and I got into. They ask a lot of questions about what it was like to grow up in the cave ages, before the Internet and Facebook and Skype and Twitter and Nintendo. So I tell them that I read a lot of books, the kind with real paper on the inside and I listened to record albums. And they laugh. And it’s a little bonding exercise, free and fun for the whole family. But, despite all the reaching into the past for jolly tales of yore, time keeps moving forward. And there’s nothing that we can do about it. Hopefully, time is on my side but, if it’s not, my kids will remember some good times and funny times and sad times and pass them on to their own children some day. I give them my time today and my memories from yesterday and they’ll have that in the future.

On another note regarding time, I have always been fascinated with the whole concept of time travel. If you were given a chance to travel in time, would you take it? Would you choose to travel to the past or the future? And, upon your return to the present, would you want to remember what you had seen?

I wrote this post for Josie’s Writing Workshop at Sleep is for the Weak. The prompt I chose was Time.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

There Are So Many Colors In The Rainbow

Scrumptious has two new friends. Chloe lives in China and Clara lives in Candyland which is, apparently, a 2-day trip from London. Chloe and Clara are Scrumptious’ imaginary friends. My only explanation for their land of origin is that there was far too much crispy duck and chocolate in the breast milk. The biggest surprise is that neither one of these imaginary friends lives on a vineyard in Puglia.

When Chloe and Clara made their debut a few weeks ago, my husband and I shared a knowing glance across the dinner table. Here we go again, the look said. We’d all but forgotten that, at the same age, Truly had an imaginary friend named Alice who lived in a palace. For a few years, Alice jetted around from one exotic location to the next but still managed to spend a fair amount of quality time with Truly in our humble abode. If these friends were real, we’d be hard-pressed to off-set their combined carbon footprints. It would take more effort than my weekly delivery of an organic vegetable box or our hybrid. But Chloe and Clara are invisible and imaginary, seen only by Scrumptious, just as Alice was for Truly.

My husband, Truly and I go along with Scrumptious and don’t try to dispute her claim that these friends have joined us for a Sunday roast or love to play Legos and Groovy Girls just as much as Scrumptious. We know that, eventually, the friends will move on and this too shall pass.

My husband and I are the type of parents who celebrate Scrumptious’ fertile imagination and if we’re wrong to do that and there’s a whole team of experts who say differently, then I don’t care to know about it. That’s why I’m still kicking myself for mentioning the imaginary friends to another mother, merely an acquaintance really, a woman whose brow puckered in dismay. She wasn’t comfortable with the topic and brought up a whole slew of ‘issues’ that I might want to explore further, even going so far as to slap on a few child-friendly labels. Depression. Loneliness. In her words, ‘It’s not normal.’ There is nothing on this planet that gets my juices flowing more than the words ‘not normal’ when referring to kids or people in general. How does one define normalcy? In this case, I suspect the woman was her own role model for ‘normalcy.’

Later, thinking about this woman’s reaction, one song played over and over in my head. When my sister and I were young, my mom used to play a song called ‘Flowers are Red’ by Harry Chapin. Every time we heard the song, my mom would tell my sister and me how sad the words made her feel. I was too young and never really got it then. But I get it now. Honestly, read the words of this song or listen to it on YouTube and you will understand.

The only time I ever had a gripe with a teacher was many years ago when Truly wrote a story for school. Her teacher sent it back, all marked up with red ink and question marks. The teacher’s remarks were all negative and she gave Truly a low score because the story was ‘too fantastical.’ Huh? It was a creative writing assignment. I didn’t give a fig about the score but I was slightly alarmed that, potentially, one teacher could stomp on Truly’s creative writing style and turn it into a generic regurgitation exercise. Luckily, the teacher was very kind and receptive to my concerns. She explained to me that she set a specific assignment, with an end goal in mind and, although Truly missed the mark, she may have been too harsh and critical in the remarks section. Maybe the teacher had a bad day and got fed up with marking papers which is easy to understand but, happily, the rest of the year this teacher encouraged and celebrated Truly’s imagination without trying to curb it or fit it into a neat cardboard box. To this day, Truly creates wonderfully crazy worlds and believably eccentric characters who inhabit them, not square peg characters jammed unsuccessfully into ill-fitting round holes. And this makes me happy.

So I don’t know. Maybe I’ve always been attracted to the more eccentric characters, possibly because I don’t always fit into a box myself. The times I have tried to be what I thought was expected of me have been some of the most miserable times of my life. Who knows if I’m doing the right things by my own children but at least nobody will accuse them of being boring.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

A Few Things I've Learned from My Kids

Never ask ‘What did you do today?’ or ‘How was your day?’ Save your breath. Instead, engage in random chatter about absolutely nothing and, eventually, your kids will tell you all about their day albeit in fits and starts and twisted paths down blind alleys.

From the minute they are born, the world ceases to revolve around you; it revolves around them.

They really do like to hear ‘I love you.’ Even teenagers need to be hugged everyday. Affection is a good thing but not in front of peers.

When teenage peers are present, it is best to brush up on your invisible parent act. But you still need to provide plenty of food and drink.

Singing along (loudly) and dancing (badly) to Abba songs is an instant pick-me-up. Perks: It’s free, has no calories and it won’t give you a hangover.

If you are undecided about which outfits and shoes make you look ‘frumpy’ ask your kids.

It’s not cool to use your teenager’s slang-uage. Even if you do know what it means and, possibly, even invented it long before they were born.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. If you can’t laugh at yourself, your kids will do it for you.

Perfectionism is overrated but laughter, spontaneity and good listening is not.

Don’t give them the satisfaction of watching you lose your cool. When you are shouting at them, they are secretly chortling and high five-ing each other behind your back.

Nutritious food, plenty of water and a good night’s sleep takes care of a multitude of ailments.

Don’t say anything about your neighbours or family members that you don’t want repeated.

In the not so distant future, in what seems no longer than the life of a mayfly, you will wake up and realize that the housework is still there but the kids are not.

Stay in the moment. It’s all we’ve got.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Story of My Life

I can hear the collective groan throughout the blogosphere but don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the story of my life. It’s too long and convoluted and dull in so many ways. But I’ve been thinking about the days and the years of my life lately, analyzing them, and combing through their pesky and, sometimes painful, snarls with a fine-toothed comb. And you know what? I’m okay with the place that I’m in right now. Maybe I have a set of crampons and a gigantic pick-axe to grind or maybe I’m just trying to make sense of my place in this world. Who knows why I need to figure out if this is the 'right' life for me. I’ve struggled and I’ve felt conflicted and I’ve wondered if my university education is being wasted by staying home to raise my children. Have I become a June Cleaver housewife, a woman of no substance, a Stepford wife? I wasn’t that to begin with so why should I be that person now just because I made a choice to raise my own children?

Yes, I’m a stay at home mother. There, I’ve said it. Actually, I shouted it but you couldn’t hear it because you’re reading words on paper. There’s something else I want to say. I’m a writer. I’m not published but, by gum, I write. No, I’m not soaring upwards and crashing through the glass ceiling in a fancy office. That doesn’t make me a loser and it doesn't make me a hero. My life is not that black and white, it’s a lovely soft shade of grey, so flattering in these Northern Lights. The person I am today is about the choices I have made along the way. Is there really a good choice versus a bad choice? I don’t really think so. Sometimes it's about making your choices right.

You know how people are always asking that question: What if? What if I could change something about my life, what would it be? If I went down that road and wished that I could change something, go down a different path, where would I begin? What if I had pursued my passion and gone into a creative field, something that involved writing, when I graduated from university? What if I had published a book when I was 22 years old? Did I have anything to say when I was 22, before I really lived and experienced the pain and the pleasure, the clock-stalling tedium and the extraordinary? That book would have gone straight to the charity shop racks. What if I had stayed in New York and never accepted that transfer to London? And never gotten drunk on raspberry martinis in a bar with the man who later met me at the altar after I walked down the aisle to the strains of ‘Moon River’? How dismal would my life be if I didn’t have my fabulous, eccentric, cheeky Scrumptious or my gorgeous, brilliant Truly? What if I said ‘no’ when my lovely husband expressed a desire to relocate to Tokyo because I wanted to stay in London and pursue a career? And missed out on an opportunity to gorge myself on sushi and meet a beautiful, soul-mate friend, and give my daughters the experience of a lifetime?

So you know what I think about that What If game? I think it’s ludicrous and I think it’s self-absorbed rubbish. It’s like tossing a stone into a river and expecting that you can control the ripples, that each of the circles will return to you, as if you can forcibly change their direction or limit their reach, and that they won’t affect anything or anyone else unless you say so.

Hopefully, there will be a lot more chapters in the story of my life. As Truly said to me this evening, 'You still have time to become an English Lit professor or take an art class or write your book.' And she's right. I can choose to do those things or not. It's my choice. And that's why it's so much better to be a human being than to be a head of broccoli or a firefly.

I’m in reasonably sound mind, despite what my detractors might say, so the decisions I’ve made in my life have all been mine. I take responsibility for them, I embrace them like a familiar lover, and sometimes I curse them. Sometimes I wrap my arms around my knees, rock back and forth, and keel in misery. Other times, I jump up and down on my pogo stick and feel that I can just about touch the clouds with the tips of my fingers. At times I am quirky and corny and wrapped up in daydreams. I live in the clouds, I conjure up spirit worlds, I am often out of step with the parade. But it’s my parade and I’m high-stepping my way through a rousing rendition of a La Cage Aux Folles show tune, wielding a sparkly baton, and for some reason imagining that I look like Sienna Miller playing Edie Sedgwick in ‘The Factory Girl.’ It is, after all, my parade. And by golly, ‘I Am What I Am.’ And we all know that needs no excuses. I might be a stay at home mother but it doesn't mean that my life is small or that I have subjected myself to a life of servitude or that my life is in any way demeaning.

This is what I have figured out. Someday, when the days are long and the years are short, and I pray to the pagans and gods and anyone who will listen that it’s many years from now, I will look back and say ‘This is the Story of My Life.’ And I will remember the joy and the pain, the times when I patched things up with a Dora the Explorer plaster, and the sheer exhilaration that goes with living a life well, to the fullest, without making excuses for who I am and why I am not like everyone else. And, gods and pagans willing, when I’m drooling into my supper will I be proud of the story of my life? Hell, yes. Because it's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

What's Gonna Happen When Summer's Gone?

When I was young I imagined that my life was set to a soundtrack. You know, cut to the romantic first scene when our eyes meet across the room, they speak of longing and love and fresh promise and there’s a swell of ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’ The boy and I finally speak, we know we’ve found The One and Frank Sinatra is crooning ‘Come Rain or Come Shine.’ Now lovers, we are sitting in a cozy trattoria, gazing into each other’s eyes, sharing a single strand of spaghetti like the Lady and the Tramp, and Dean Martin is belting out ‘Mambo Italiano.’ Strangely, the soundtrack of my life never included current music and I always suspected that I was an anachronism, a black and white movie character time-transported to the wrong decade. Most likely, though, I’m kind of weird. None of my high school or college friends listened to ‘The Rat Pack’ and I suffered the sting of insult due to my musical predilections. Occasionally, my friends humoured me but grudgingly and not very graciously.

When I was 20, I spent a summer season in a chi chi East Coast beach town with my college roommate. We got waitressing jobs at a popular restaurant and found a room in a gigantic beachfront shack which the owner turned into 10 rooms, all rented out to college students. The rooms were crummy, but in a quaint way, and you could glimpse the pounding surf and acres of smooth white sand from our bathroom window. We had two twin beds, a dresser, two striped beach chairs and an antiquated record player. In less than a week, my roommate and I hooked up with two guys who were, conveniently, roommates as well.

You know how, in the old movies, the guy kisses the girl (‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’) and her feet come right out of her pumps? Well, that was me. My guy (H) was tall so when we kissed my feet dangled above my Havaianas, which were still firmly planted on terra firma. H and his friends were from Main Line Philadelphia. H was prep school and I was Catholic nuns smacking my knuckles with a ruler. H was trust fund and I was work/study program to fund the education and the beer. H was Mayflower and I was Ellis Island. You get the picture. But the great thing about living at the beach is that it’s a leveller so, naively, I didn’t realize how monied H was or how blue his blood ran. I lived in a bikini and flip-flops and H was always in a t-shirt and madras Bermuda shorts. Okay, whatever, it was before the days of Abercrombie and he made madras look pretty damn sexy.

H loved Frank Sinatra. He played it all the time while he mixed martinis in a silver shaker. Honestly. H and I agreed that ‘The Great Gatsby’, the novel, is nigh on perfect. We loved the same books and discussed them passionately. We laughed at the same jokes. In short, we ‘got’ each other and that doesn’t happen everyday. I loved H’s friends and he loved mine. I never felt so at home in my life. Finally. My own kind.

As the summer wore on, H and I pledged our undying love. We talked for hours, lying in a sand dune, planning our future together. When he looked at me, I felt more beautiful than I had ever felt before and in his eyes I saw hope, love, acceptance, joy, and belonging. I saw my life spread out before me, in all its Technicolor glory, because H brought the colours alive in my black and white movie world. If I could have read his soul I would have seen the word mate etched across it.

The summer ended as it often does (‘The Summer Wind’) and the season was officially over. H drove me home and met my family who loved him. He was witty and funny and polite and handsome. What’s not to love? My bronzed god, my summer love, promised to keep in touch. We had already arranged visits between each other’s colleges and promised to call and write everyday. When we said goodbye, I wrapped myself up in his strong arms and breathed in the scent of him. I closed my eyes to imprint a memory that would carry me through the cold months of separation.

H invited me for Thanksgiving dinner at his McMansion. It was lovely—the house, not the chilly atmosphere. ('Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread')

‘Where do you come from, dear?’

‘Other-side-of-the-tracks Town, do you know it?’

‘Oh. I see.’

‘Is your family related to the ‘A’s’ of Bryn Mawr.’

‘Um, no, I don’t think so.’

‘What do you plan to do when you graduate?’

‘Well, I got an internship in New York City, working for X tv show. I’m an English Lit major so I could go into anything, really.’

‘Oh. I see. No real focus, then. Well, H is going to medical school. Private practice. The poor darling doesn’t really have a head for business like his father and brother, do you dear?’

‘No, I guess I don’t,’ mumbled H, turning ten shades of fuchsia. I gave him an encouraging smile and was rewarded with a grimace.

After dinner, H showed me around the house, pointing out the gigantic star chart on the wall. It tracked the progress of H and his siblings. Dean’s List, Olympic team try-outs for swimming, acceptance into Harvard MBA program.

‘Oh man, there’s a lot to live up to here. Don’t you get a star for nice things?’

‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know. Like remembering Mother’s Day or getting your chores done without being asked.’


‘Yeah, I see what you mean.’ They had a maid, for Chrissakes. She scurried past me in a uniform and white apron. Thanksgiving Day and the poor woman had to serve the Mayflower madam.

Soundtrack cuts to ‘I’m Beginning to See the Light’ and H explains that he needs to concentrate on school right now so his calls and writing might slack off in the lead-up to Christmas. I think we can all guess how this story ends (cue ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’). I saw H one more time. He visited my house over the Christmas break, bearing gifts, and told me that it couldn’t work out. H looked miserable---pale and gaunt—and he told me that he had developed an ulcer. Christ almighty. Bad livers, yes, but ulcers for college kids?

Years later, when I was living and working in Manhattan, I wondered if I would bump into him. He might be some fancy pants Park Avenue private practice doctor. But I never looked him up. For all our bravado, I could never be the Tracy Lord to his C.K. Dexter Haven in our version of The Philadelphia Story. Central Casting would have pegged me for the role of the wise-cracking reporter/photographer gal. And you know what? I’m okay with that. One more swell please, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me.’ Thanks for humouring me.

I wrote this post for Josie’s Writing Workshop at Sleep is for the Weak and chose the prompt Summer. Thanks, Josie, for your prompts and setting us loose with our own creativity, possibly not as dangerous as setting us loose with a box of matches but you never know. I’ve wanted to write for your workshop for months but keep missing it. Not this time though. Count me in. And thanks for all you do. Everyone, go check it out if you haven’t been there before.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Twizzlers, Root Beer, Cheez-its and My Credit Crunch Bloggy Lunch

A few weeks ago when the BBQ season had officially arrived, HRH and I were out in our postage stamp-sized garden, firing up the grill when my neighbor struck up a chat through the fence. Because we live in a fishbowl, a terraced house in London where everyone has done the side extensions in their kitchens, we’re used to our public lifestyle. If my neighbor is standing in her daughter’s bedroom on the first floor she can look down into my kitchen and vice versa. I never knew how detailed her view was until she started asking me for recipes for the food I’d made the previous evening.

Anyhow, my neighbor and I brought our glasses of wine to the fence and talked about warm-weather concerns---where to go for a good bikini wax, the best (cheapest, quickest, most hygienic) pedicure and the nicest spot for al fresco lunches. To be perfectly honest, I’m not a very high-maintenance girl and alluded to that through the fence.

‘I haven’t gotten my highlights done since January,’ I said.

‘Oh yes, credit crunch roots,’ she replied.

‘And you know I never go out to lunch. Unless it’s with the kids.’

‘That’s true. We’re good like that.’

HRH made a little throat-clearing sound which was not lost on the neighbor.

‘Perhaps, Nappy Valley Housewife, we should start leading the lives our husbands think we lead,’ she said.

‘Yes, make a reservation, dahling.’

So it was in that very spirit that I found myself heading out of Liverpool Street station on Saturday morning, on an Essex-bound train, all by myself. I met a few fellow bloggers in Saffron Walden for the expat meet-up. The absolutely fabulous and organized Michelle from Mid-Atlantic English picked me up at the station and kindly gave me a tour of the North Essex countryside. It was beautiful and green and covered in bluebells. Honestly, it was like a picture postcard, everything that Americans probably dream of when they try to conjure up an image of the English countryside.

We met the others at a local restaurant: Mike from Postcards from Across the Pond and his wife; Not From Around Here; and 3 Bedroom Bungalow. The great thing about meeting fellow bloggers besides, of course, getting out of the virtual world and into the real one is that you already have common ground. The fact that all the bloggers gathered were Americans made it that much easier to have a conversation. The conversation flowed, there were no awkward pauses and everyone was incredibly kind. It's kind of funny that whenever I get together with fellow American expats and we ask each other what we miss about America, the answers are mostly food-related.

The lunch was relaxed, friendly, fun, and entertaining. Who could ask for anything more from a lunch without the kids? Of all the positive things that blogging has brought into my life after only a few months, meeting the real people behind the blog has been the highlight to date. Social media networking is a great way to connect with people but email, twitter and blogging have their limits. There is still no substitute for sitting down with a person, talking to them face to face, and sharing a meal together. Oh, and I almost forgot--I'm pretty sure that Kat from 3 Bedroom Bungalow mentioned something about scoring some Twizzlers for me. At least I'm hoping. See that? Connections.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Is Brainy the New Black?

Last night I went to The School of Life. Don't laugh. I know what you're thinking. Sounds a bit hokey, maybe even nerdy, right? But it was great. The class was called 'How to Make a Difference.' I read about the school in January, in the Times Style Magazine and I was intrigued. Admittedly, reading about it in the Style Magazine was half the charm because it meant that intellectual can also be stylish. And I really liked the idea of sitting around and philosophizing freely, stretching the brain in a different direction, something that hasn't been a part of my daily life since my university days.

I had no idea what to expect. The school is in Bloomsbury so, romantically, I anticipated a bit of a Virginia Woolf Bloomsbury Group vibe. The class ran the gamut, from the lecturer quoting great philosophers to discussing people who effect change, anyone from a guy who has single-handedly improved his town by picking up rubbish everyday to Greg Mortenson, the adventurer who has dedicated his life to promoting education and literacy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We debated topics such as politics and power, cultural changes, and how it is far better to be a participant rather than a spectator in life. Through it all, there was a spirit of belief that each of us really could effect change in our own way. We broke into small groups and discussed what you would change in the world and how you would go about doing it. It was idealism peppered with realistic solutions. The group of 20-25 students were in their 30's and 40's, well-educated, well-dressed and with good jobs. We bonded over wine and baguettes stuffed with parma ham and rocket.

As I said to a a fellow student, 'I don't know what I expected. Maybe a group of zealots or soapbox warriors?'
She said, 'Yeah, but they wouldn't be here because they're far too busy saving the world.'
Good point.

On the way home, I started thinking about what really resonated for me. One of the things that the lecturer discussed is that it's dangerous to place a hierarchy on the good that people do. It's true that Bill Gates donates millions and millions of his own money to charitable causes but does that make his deeds more important than a parent who is raising responsible, kind, emotionally intelligent children? Maybe there is greatness in each of us. And maybe, in order to tap into that greatness, we first have to be honest with ourselves. We need to know who we truly are and to ensure that we're not operating on an empty reserve tank before we can give freely. That way, when an opportunity to make a difference does present itself, we will be in a position to do something about it. We don't have to be Mother Theresa to make a difference. Personally, I'm no saint and don't really want to be. But I quite like the idea of random acts of kindess or paying it forward. Anyway, it's all food for thought that I got from The School of Life.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Borneo, Bats and Vampires

Back in April I wrote a post about an upcoming camping trip and how I really did not want to go. But you know what? I loved it. Food tastes better when you cook it on a Coleman and eat it outside. We stayed dry and cozy in our tent and slept soundly on our air mattresses and duvets. For the first time in more years than I can count, I went horseback riding with Truly. We rode out on two treks through the beautiful New Forest and I felt so brave and adventurous and filled with joy, that fresh wonder you experience when you’re young and trying something for the first time.

So I got to thinking about other adventures that I never wanted to try but, when push came to shove (sometimes literally), I tried and ended up loving. And it doesn’t have to be adventurous. It could be a new way of approaching a problem, a different genre of books, a horror film that you enjoyed even though you’ve always hated horror films. So, off the top of my head, here are a few things that I ended up enjoying despite myself:

Trekking through the Rainforest in Borneo. I planned the wedding and HRH was in charge of the honeymoon. He kept it a surprise. On our way to the airport, he spilled the beans, and it all became clear why he kept the plans under his hat. The first week was to be the adventurous portion of the holiday and we would stay in Borneo, in the Mulu National Park. The second week was the luxury part, a week in Tanjong Jara on the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsula. I thought I would try to make it through the first half and be rewarded for my pain and suffering in the second half. But you know what? I loved Borneo. We watched millions of bats come out of Deer Cave, drank Tiger beers in a little dive bar, got soaking wet in the Rainforest, and got up close and personal with the orangutans. We ate street food, fresh produce and fish stir-fried in gigantic woks, and one of the dishes included chicken feet. I even tried spelunking, climbing and clawing my way through tight crevices in a cave, and sometimes wading through chest-deep water. The whole experience was completely exhilarating. The second half of the holiday was nice too but Borneo is the part I remember most.

Tarzania. A few years ago, we took my older daughter and my niece to one of those places where you attach yourself to a harness and a zip line and swing, ape-like, from tree to tree on a thick cable. My palms were sweaty and my stomach churned as I climbed the ladder to get to the jump-off point. Those trees were tall. I tried not to look down but who has that kind of self-control. After what seemed like a short lifetime compressed in a heart-flipping few moments, I let go and slid across the cable. It was fast. My stomach jumped into my throat and I couldn’t breathe. It was amazing. I went on to do the whole circuit.

The Twilight series. I really don’t like vampires. I never got into them. For years, Truly tried to get me to read the Twilight books and I resisted. Finally, I picked one up. I couldn’t put it down. I fell in love with Edward. And the thought of becoming a vampire was almost appealing, except for the staying out of the sun bit.

Yoga. I never wanted to jump on that whole yoga craze bandwagon. It seemed boring, something more suited for a vegan or a holistic medicine man or a joss stick burning meditating type, but not for me. Not that I have anything against all that but it’s not really me. Then a friend told me she was doing Ashtanga yoga and it was amazing and a great workout. Life-changing, she may have said. She mentioned Madonna and Sting. Have you seen Sting recently? Enough said. I tried it. Loved it. Ashtanga yoga is great.

The next thing on my list to try, something that has made me balk at the prospect for years, is the summer festival. HRH has been talking up Glastonbury since the day we met. No way, I said. Not me. Well, many summers have passed and I have finally purchased tickets for a festival. We're starting out with a family festival, Camp Bestival, which I first heard about through Deer Baby. The kids are excited. HRH is excited. I am embracing my adventurous side, the part of me that would normally say no, but has detoured into yes territory. So I am excited too. In fact, I've been reading up on the festivals and there are quite a few that appeal to me (I'd love to see Vampire Weekend). We may become the Festival Family. Although, it must be said that I did say ‘no way’ when HRH said he wanted to buy a camper van. Who knows what will be next on my list? Perhaps the best is yet to come. Can anyone else think of something they thought they would hate but ended up loving?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Sushi for Beginners

On Fridays Scrumptious only goes to school for a half day. That’s rather inconvenient, mostly because it means that she finishes school before eating her lunch or her afternoon snack. So it’s become our custom to stop at Waitrose and pick up a sandwich which she eats on the fly or on a park bench if we’re lucky enough to have sunshine. Last Friday we went to Waitrose and they didn’t have her usual ham and cheddar baguette. Scrumptious browsed the aisle and came back with a plastic container of edamame and a California roll which came with soy sauce in a plastic fish-shaped squeezy bottle. We sat on a bench and she ate her Japanese bento and I told her that I’d never even tried sushi until I was 21 years old.

‘Wow, Mummy, that is sooo old.’

Yeah, I thought, you don’t know the half of it. I won’t even tell you how many Prime Ministers have been carried over the threshold of 10 Downing Street since then.

I was 21 years old and working in a corporate office in Midtown Manhattan. Fresh off the boat from small-town America , I was so green the hayseeds hadn’t fallen out of my hair yet. There was a guy in the office, Charlie (Chaw-ley), a New Yorker born and raised. Charlie took me under his wing and taught me the ropes. He was a Vietnam vet, a Marine, and everything about him was square and wide and bigger than life---his jaw, his head, his shoulders and his personality. When he spoke it sounded like a foghorn. Charlie was a little bit crazy, an eccentric character, but in the very best way. The great thing about Charlie is that he never made you feel stupid for not knowing something. For someone who had learned about life through hard knocks and unspeakable horrors, he was a surprisingly gentle teacher. He was, as they say in New York, a real mensch.

Anyway, back to the sushi. One day Charlie told me he had a special surprise planned for me. We met at the elevators at noon and I followed him through the streets to a little restaurant. When we entered through the sliding door, it smelled of the sea and I could almost feel the brine tickle my nostrils. The restaurant was all blonde wood and clean and spare. Charlie said I didn’t need to see the menu because he would order for both of us. He didn’t start me out on California rolls either. Oh no, he was far too hard core for that. The sushi and sashimi came out on a wooden board with legs and they placed it in the middle of our table. I took the chopstick and gingerly nudged a piece of bright pink fish, so raw it quivered, and Charlie laughed. He showed me how to hold the chopsticks and in his big, square hands they looked so delicate and precarious. Then he showed me how to dip the sushi into wasabi and soy sauce. I dipped and ate and dipped and ate. I couldn’t get enough.

‘Do you want more?’ he asked.

‘Bring it on,’ I said.

I felt like Anthony Bourdain in ‘Kitchen Confidential.’ I couldn’t get enough. Who knew that raw fish with rice and seaweed and green horseradish could taste this good? There we were in this tiny little Japanese restaurant, the big burly New Yorker who had been around the block and had the scars to prove it and the fresh-faced kid in a navy blue Brooks Brothers suit and a white button down shirt. And we shared this common love. Sushi. I don’t know if that was the best sushi I ever ate but it was the first sushi I ever had. And even though I’ve had a lot of sushi since then, you never really forget your first time. When you’re trying something new or daring, I think it’s important to do it with someone who makes you feel comfortable. Can you remember your first time?

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Into the Wild: Are there any bears in the UK?

Sorry, but I have been so very busy. Panicking. And checking every two seconds. Unfortunately, our dry April is showing every sign of turning into a very wet May holiday weekend. This is very bad. Sure, it may be great for the plants and flowers. Bully for them. But it’s very bad for me. Because I’m venturing into uncharted territory this weekend.

You know how, sometimes in a marriage, you forget that there are two of you in it? Two people with completely different ideas and views on life. And you know how, sometimes, you have to cross over to the other side in order to make another person happy? Well, that’s marriage, isn’t it?

Back in January, HRH was saying that we needed to break out of our rut, be more adventurous, and be open to new ideas.

‘What, in the bedroom?’ I asked nervously.

‘That’s always welcome. But what I mean is that you don’t seem to be open to new things anymore.’

Uh-oh. I felt an argument coming on and I crossed my arms defensively. ‘How do you mean?’

‘We’re acting middle-aged.’

‘But isn’t that what we are?’

‘Well, we don’t have to act like it.’

The conversation continued over a bottle of red and, somehow, I agreed to listen to an idea and love it instead of dismissing it immediately.

‘Let’s go camping,’ HRH said.

Er. Huh. Um. I pictured the miserable, damp camping trips of my youth. Even as a kid, camping was something I never embraced and HRH knew that. Over the years, he has been on an evangelical mission to convert me. Albeit, rather covertly, lurking quietly on the sidelines and biding his time.

‘See, I knew you’d say no,’ he said.

‘I haven’t said a word.’

‘But you will. I can tell by that look on your face.’

‘Let’s go camping!’ Without thinking, I blurted it out. That’s the problem with me.

You know how sometimes your spouse says one thing and you hear something different? Ahem. In an effort to wrap my head around the whole camping thing, I did some research. I read about a London family who stayed in a Moroccan-themed yurt. It was spacious, luxurious, and totally cool. I could picture us there. And then I read about glamping. That would be a fantastic compromise, a way to ease into the whole camping concept. We could stay in one of those little huts all kitted out with Cabbages & Roses decor. And we could pick up a Daylesford Organic hamper.

But the buzz stopped there. HRH booked the campsite. In the New Forest. He unfurled his musty old sleeping bag. ‘This baby travelled with me when I cycled to India.’ Yeah, I think there’s still a bit of Kazakhstan mold clinging to the inside. He pulled out a leaky old tent and some tin bowls and cups, something the inmates might bang on the tables to signal an uprising. My imaginary glamping trip was tarnished by visions of refugee camps. But HRH was not to be thwarted. He did what I would have done and I grudgingly admire him for it. He blew the dust off the plastic and went shopping.

The camping gear arrived and filled up our hallway and Reception room. HRH bought so much that he had to get a Thule box for the roof of the car. And a bike rack. On Saturday morning, at the crack of dawn, the four of us will be heading to the New Forest with a 6-man tent complete with wall to wall carpeting and a walk-in closet, a kitchen, four bikes, one dog, food, clothes and wellies and the Royal Hound. In a Prius.

My god, what was I thinking? It's possible that I'm making myself sound kind of high-maintenance here, a regular princess. And I'm really not. It's just that I'm more of a city girl. I don't need 5-star hotels in exotic beach locales with Frette sheets on the bed and room service for breakfast (actually, that all sounds pretty nice). I think what puts me off about camping is the whole shower and toilet thing. And bugs. And mud. But HRH, Truly and Scrumptious are excited. And one of the rules of agreeing to something new is to enter into it with a joyous spirit and have a positive attitude. I will not moan (too much) or cast dispersions or in any way dampen the enthusiasm of my family. I’ll zip my lip. Wish me luck! I’m sure it will be great. And I'll probably end up loving it. See? Positive attitude.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Reading Lolita on the London Bus

A few weeks ago, I was taking the bus into Chelsea. One of the things I love about riding the bus is that I can read and nobody will bother me. About a year ago, I embarked on a personal reading journey. In addition to current fiction, I'm reading the classics from A-Z, choosing one author from each letter of the alphabet. Austen to Zola. I'm currently up to the letter N which is what got me into this mess.

Anyway, I was sitting in my favourite spot---top deck, front window seat. It was mid-afternoon so the bus was quiet with plenty of empty seats. So it was particularly annoying when, after a few stops a man got on and chose to sit next to me. I looked around the bus as if to say, hey, pick another seat, you're spoiled for choice. But the octogenarian in tweed and corduroy waited for me to remove my bag from the empty seat and, amidst a great deal of huffing and puffing, he settled his rotund self into the seat next to me. I got a whiff of musty wool and cherry pipe tobacco but kept my nose in my book. Mr. Tweedy fidgeted and uttered a tssk tssk. When the tssking refused to cease, I glanced over to make sure he wasn't having a gout attack or anything equally alarming. That’s where it all went wrong. He spoke to me but not, as you would hope, a friendly, ‘Good afternoon. Enjoy your reading.’ Oh no.

‘That book is nothing but filth,’ he said. He raised his white bushy eyebrows, a few stragglers comically long and heading in a gravity-defying northern direction.

‘Er, sorry?’

‘Nabokov. He wrote about that nymphet Lolita. It was banned in this country, you know.’

‘Yes, I did read that somewhere. But the ban was lifted.’

‘Shouldn’t have been.’

‘Hmm. Yes, well.’

‘Do you have any children?’

‘Um, yes. Two.’

‘Boys or girls?’

‘Two daughters.’

‘Daughters, eh? Well, how would you feel if you read that story in the newspaper? That an old man was lusting after a schoolgirl?’

‘Um, I’d feel upset?’

‘Bloody right you would. He was nothing but a paedophile. A very sick man.’

‘Do you mean Nabokov or Humbert Humbert?’

‘Ach. What’s the difference? The author and the character are one and the same.’

‘But it’s fiction. It’s a classic. I showed him the Penguin logo as proof.’

‘Harrumph. It’s porn.’ He whistled through his nose in protest.

‘But the language is lovely. And some parts are very funny.’ That was a mistake.

Mr. Tweedy used Nabokov as a springboard to leap onto a tangent. He said that society is so confused that we don’t even know what’s funny anymore. He talked about ASBOs and young girls getting pregnant so they can take money from the government. The rant kept going and going like the Duracell bunny. When he had to pause and wind himself up with the key again, he returned to Lolita.

‘Maybe you should choose your reading material more wisely, young lady. Stay away from this smut.’ He spat the last word and a bit of dribble slid from the corner of his mouth.

‘Yes, well, thank you. If you’ll excuse me, I’m getting off at the next stop.’ I got off the bus before my stop because Mr. Tweedy had the appearance of a man who was in it for the long haul.

So what did I take away from that? Freedom of speech is alive and well. Clearly. I am free to read whatever I choose. However, if I’m taking public transport I may be forced to deal with the, er, public. And maybe I should wrap the cover of my books in brown paper. Because I am a whimp and I hate confrontation, even if it's to defend my choice of reading material.

Perhaps Orwell will be less controversial.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Limbo, Limbo, Limbo

In many ways, choosing to make your home in another country, a place in which you were not born and raised, means living in a state of limbo. At least, that’s how I sometimes feel. The last time I visited the States, I was discussing American politics with a friend. As you do. Naturally, this led to related issues such as gun laws, education, Michelle Obama and the state of the health care system. It was all very Michael Moore-ish, warm and fuzzy. Rather annoyingly, I may have used the line, ‘Well, in the UK, they do such and such’ one too many times. As somebody once said, comparisons are odious. So, unsurprisingly, my friend stopped me halfway through my rant and said, ‘No offence. But how could you possibly know? You haven’t lived here in a decade.’ Hmmph.

I think she went on to say that I sounded un-American, a regular turncoat. In a way, she was right. Because, when it comes to the really important issues, I want to choose from the a la carte menu, not the set menu. I want to do a pick-n-mix from all the issues and solutions on offer and come up with the ‘perfect’ combination. But we all know that it doesn’t work that way.

On the flip side of that coin, if I venture into similar weighty discussions here in the UK, I get the old ‘Yeah but you weren’t born and raised here. You’re an American.’ So where does that leave me? Stretched tautly across the breadth of the Atlantic, one big toe digging into the ‘Land of the Free and the Brave’ and a sinewy hand grasping for This Sceptred Isle?

I don’t really consider myself an expat. The UK is my home, albeit an adopted home. We own a house here and have no plans to move away any time soon. When we lived in Japan, we were ‘expats.’ We knew it would be temporary and treated it differently. We never tried to ‘blend in,’ which would have been challenging for my blonde Amazonian family anyway. We tried to experience as much of the culture as possible but Japan was our host country and we were the visitors, the outsiders, the Gaijin.

As anyone who holds more than one passport knows, having a British passport does not a Brit make me. I will always be an American. Straddling two nations is not for the thin-skinned. As an American living in the UK, I get a special insight into the British view of Americans. Sometimes it’s lovely and sometimes it’s not. But it has opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing America, my birth country. Perhaps one of the benefits of dual citizenship is that, distancing myself from one country and familiarizing myself with another one, affords me a fresh perspective on both my adopted country and my birth country.

My view on being an American is similar to my view on family. I didn’t get to choose them but, if I had, I would choose my family and my country all over again. I’d protect them in a fight, take their side against enemies, and brag and complain about them in equal measure. Whereas living in the UK is, for me, like choosing your friends. You’d take a bullet for them, celebrate their victories and empathize with their pain. With friends and your adopted country, you embrace their fabulous qualities, their endearing eccentricities and learn to live with their annoying habits. Because you love ‘em, warts and all.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Guest Blogging

Today I am guest blogging at Michelle's Mid-Atlantic English. Michelle and I are both Americans who married Brits and chose the UK as our 'home.' I love her blog and her writing style. There is always great content in her posts that make me stop and think about something in a different way. Lately, she's been educating me about the finer points of gardening, at which I'm totally useless and know virtually nothing.

HRH is the gardener in our house. He loves to muck in and get his hands dirty and Scrumptious has inherited his country-lovin' genes. This was the inspiration for my post at Michelle's. It's about the debate over city living versus country living. So please visit Michelle's blog and read about it there.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Why I Write

"I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it." –William Faulkner

My daughters are still on Easter break. It’s been a long holiday. And I cannot write. I need peace and solitude to write.

I’m not a writer. I don’t earn a crust from it. I’m not a published author. My name does not grace the cover of a book or appear in the by-line of a magazine article. I wish it did.

Sometimes I fantasize about turning back the clock, returning to the time when I chose my path in life. If I could go back, I would choose the writer’s way. I wish that I had been brave enough to pursue my passion, instead of settling for a soulless desk job with a pay check at the end of the week. I wish that I had made writing my craft, my art, my life’s work, my trade. But I don’t have a time machine and I can no sooner go back in time than I could fly to the moon in my daughter’s fairy costume with the pink gossamer wings. Even the magic wand and the fairy dust won’t help me make that journey.

The truth is that I don’t need a psychic or a life coach to tell me why I didn’t pursue my passion. I was afraid. Afraid of the critics, afraid of putting myself out there, afraid to find out that everything I have ever written is boring, unoriginal, caricature-inhabited, cliché-ridden crap. It is my fear that encourages me to write privately, to save my work on the computer, to hide it away in a secret file. I’m not afraid of the perspiration or the hard graft. But if I write and I am exposed as a fraud, who will I be?

But still I write. I write for myself, tapping away at the keyboard, wrenching words out of the cobweb-infested nether regions of my brain, slitting my wrists and hemorrhaging all over the screen of my laptop. I write because I can’t stop writing. I write because there has never been a time when I haven’t written. Writing helps me make sense of my world. I cannot fathom my life without it.

Sometimes when I read a beautifully written book, filled with prose so lucid and vivid that it makes my heart sing, I back away from the keyboard, and I take a sabbatical from my private life of fiction writing. Because I think that there is no way that I could ever come within a fraction of the power or the humour or the thought-provoking genius of a book that made me laugh and cry and turned my world upside down, shaking loose my preconceptions.

When that happens, if I stay away from writing for too long, I start to itch. My life careens and tips into a chaos and I feel slightly lost. Something is missing from the finely wrought balance of my daily life. I feel slovenly yet edgy, dissatisfied with everyone and everything. And then I know I have to get back to my writing, to flex the muscles and stretch the imagination.

So why do I write? I write to express my feelings. I write because I need a creative outlet. When I write, I can be my best self. When I come to the page, I come to it honestly. When I write from the heart, in a free flowing stream of consciousness, my life is illuminated. When I give birth to my fictional characters, if I am true to them, they grow from needy newborns to toddlers discovering their independence. Pretty soon they are skipping and running across the page, telling me what they plan to do. And I have no choice but to tell the truth. Because anything less is an insult to my private stash of saved documents.

Someday I may take back the power I’ve given to my fear. It’s not too late to send my baby out into the world. I hope that I’ll have the courage to finish my book and choose the writer’s path. Until then, I will continue to write for myself.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Sisterhood

Scrumptious was born 8 years and 9 months after Truly. Did we plan it that way? Ha Ha. Ha Ha. The universe scoffed at my family planning attempts. Besides, I’m really not that organized. My sister, on the other hand, is that organized. She had three children, each one exactly two years apart, and all three born in the same month. Now that’s family planning. I would have loved for it to happen that way for me too. But it didn’t. So I reconciled myself with it. And I have come to realize that, while my sister got what she wanted, I got what I needed.

My daughters may not be playmates in the sense that siblings closer in age are playmates. They will never pass each other in the school corridors because they will never be in the same school together. They won’t share Legos and Barbies and clothes and shoes. They may not bond in the same way as two sisters who are closer in age. But, nevertheless, they are extraordinarily close.

And, over the years, I have come to see that there are some real perks to a wide age gap between siblings:

Babysitting services. Truly is 14 and Scrumptious is 5 so it’s legal now (I think). However, advance booking is essential. Because the social life of a 14-year-old is a lot busier, a lot more important, and a lot more difficult to rearrange than theatre tickets for ‘Jerusalem’ (according to the 14-year-old in my house).

No competition. Scrumptious is crossing hurdles that are so far back in the dust for Truly that there is no need for crowing, ‘Oh yeah? You may be able to read that Jelly Bean book but I can read ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ So there.’

No ‘borrowing’ or exchange of goods. Truly doesn't want to borrow her little sister's Groovy Girls, crayons or Charlie & Lola books any more than Scrumptious wants to borrow her big sister’s Hollister jumper, Ugg boots or 1,001 cheapo Top Shop bangles.

Historical reference (aka Did Mummy really traumatize/screw you up/give you a reason to spend 25% of your salary and 10 years of your life on the therapist’s couch?) As it turns out, this one is proving the most useful lately.

A few weeks ago, I took Scrumptious to a birthday party. When we got there every little girl in the room was wearing a dressing up costume. Except Scrumptious. I re-read the invitation. Nothing. No mention of coming in costume. How did all the mothers know? I really let my little girl down and the misery showed in her crumpled face. Eventually, she rallied and joined in the dancing (she learned from Truly) and it was okay. But still. I failed her.

I told a friend of mine about it and she said, ‘Do you really think she’ll be traumatized by this? Will she really remember it as one of life’s major disappointments when she’s older?’

Well, I really don’t know. It’s kind of funny the little things you remember from childhood.

So I asked Truly, ‘Do you remember the time you had to miss your best friend’s party when you were six because I punished you for fibbing?’

‘Um, no. I don’t remember that.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘So it didn’t scar you for life, then?’

‘I guess not if I can’t even remember it. But I do remember my 7th birthday party when I had all my friends for my first sleepover.’

‘Huh. That's good. Do you remember the time we were in the States and I lost you in Macy’s?’

‘You LOST me? Geez, Mum, how could you?’

‘Yeah, but do you remember it?’

‘No, not really. How did you find me?’

‘A lady took you to the desk and you had me paged and I came and picked you up.’

‘Mum, I wish you hadn’t told me that because now it will haunt me. It will be one of my bad memories from childhood.’

Hang on, how does that work? I don't know. But I have some hope that our kids will cut us mothers a bit of slack in the memory department. I'm hoping that they'll remember the time we played the 3-hour marathon game of Monopoly or the time we took them to their first concert or let them bake bread and get flour all over the newly cleaned kitchen. Hopefully, the Easter bonnet parade and the birthday party without a Princess Jasmine costume will not measure on the mother failure richter scale at such a high level as we think it will.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Mad Hatter

When will I ever learn? Two weeks ago a note was sent home to the parents in Reception class. The kids had to decorate an Easter bonnet at home and wear it to school today. There will be an Easter Parade with prizes awarded for the best bonnets. I thought back to the last time this happened, 8 or 9 years ago, when Truly was in Reception and I felt that old familiar queasiness. Arts & Crafts and I make for strange bedfellows. We do not get along. I'm lousy at all things artsy or crafty. Always have been.

It seems that whenever the mummy stakes are set the highest, I have a tendency to aim low. That way I won't miss my mark. So, in the two weeks leading up to the grand Easter Parade, I stalled in anticipation. Finally, two days before the big event I sent Truly off to Poundland with a few loose coins. She returned with a treasure trove of festive holiday hat making goodies. Not wanting to get in the way, I sat back and let Truly assist Scrumptious with her millinery creation.

This morning Scrumptious donned her hat, pools of the copious amounts of glue still tacky to the touch. Luckily, the little £1 hat that could has an elastic chin strap because it's a teensy bit too small. So it sat on the top of Scrumptious' head, perched at a jaunty angle. A few anaemic little yellow chicks (most likely battery instead of free range) clung to the glue with spindly plastic feet. On top of the hat there was a nest of purple straw with three Cadbury's creme eggs nestled inside, all that could be spared from a jumbo bag. It appears that milliners require sustenance to complete such a technical marvel.

When we got to school, it happened the way it always does. The other children turned up in hats that stepped off a Philip Treacy catwalk. I'm envisioning the Isabella Blows and Mad Hatters strutting in the Parade with Scrumptious pulling up the rear, looking for all the world like Minnie Pearl taking to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. If she belts out her own rendition of 'Howdy!' I will not be surprised.

So yet again, I am the mother of a daughter who will be sorely disappointed when she is not awarded a chocolate egg the size of her torso. And yet again, I will most likely be buying her a big chocolate egg to compensate for my shortcomings. The good news is that Scrumptious was proud of her hat and didn't seem to notice that the other kids had much more talented mummys who excel at Arts & Crafts.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Scent-sational Monday

For the past week or so I've had a cold which, in addition to being annoying, has limited my sense of smell. Olfaction is the sense of smell. Of the five senses, it is often said that smell is the most evocative of memories. When my cold departs, if it should take my sense of smell with it forever, would my memories be altered? Would they be less vivid memories? With that in mind, I pondered some of my favorite olfactory-induced memories.

The Sea
The smell of brine and salty air conjures up memories of so many summers spent at the seashore. I remember my first oyster, a rite of passage. It smelled of the sea, its flesh plump and juicy, milky yet flinty, slippery as it slid down my throat. It was the summer of my first kiss, behind the sand dunes, with that sweet boy with tousled hair the color of wheat. I read Hemingway's 'A Moveable Feast' on the verandah of our rented beach house. Frank Sinatra crooned 'Summer Wind' into the inky darkness, illuminated by the porch lights, the citronella candles, and the fireflies. And the sea air teased and tingled my senses.

Orange Blossom
My wedding day, a bouquet of orange blossoms, and I wore a long white dress and he wore a tuxedo. I floated down the aisle to the bittersweet strains of 'Moon River.' I gripped the orange blossom bouquet as we lay side by side on the verdant carpet of green grass gazing up at a cloudless blue sky. Later that evening, under the prism of twinkling crystal chandeliers, we swayed together on the dance floor to our 'first song', Etta James' 'At Last.' Our joy was reflected in the gilt-framed mirrors, the bubbles leapt out of our champagne glasses, and the scent of orange blossoms floated through the open French doors, lingering in the August heat.

Coffee Beans
The scent of freshly brewed coffee is the quintessence of a lazy Sunday morning. We're still in pyjamas, a mummy and a daddy, two girls and a dog, and we're reading The Times on our overstuffed sofa. Years ago, in my halcyon days, coffee refills fuelled the late night diner discussions about existentialism, atheism, eroticism and capitalism. As a student, it reminds me of espressos, gulped down while standing at a formica counter in Rome, under the shadow of the Colosseum.

Pine, Clementines & Clove
We hiked up to the hills behind our house to reach the wooded area. Our dad had a saw slung over the shoulder of his red and black checkered Woolrich coat. My sister and I scampered to keep up with his long strides. We deliberated and debated before choosing the very best tree and, after it fell, we clung to the spikey needles and helped to drag it through the snow. Later, at home, we sat by the blazing fire and we drank cocoa from steaming mugs, strung popcorn garland, and pushed cloves into the skin and through to the flesh of the clementines. The scents of Christmas day.

For so many mornings of my youth, I pulled the chocolate brown leather saddle down off its peg in the tack room and inhaled its richness, its promise of joy. I saddled up the beautiful chestnut gelding, tightened the girth, adjusted the stirrups and swung one booted leg up and over the horse. We cantered across the field, moving in rhythm as one. The scent of leather rose up and intermingled with the scent of horse and hay and long grass.

There are so many wonderful scents in my memory. There is the milky sweetness of my baby's breath, the scent of beeswax on freshly polished wood, freshly washed clothes hung on the line to dry, the coconut scent of suntan lotion which used to signal the start of summer sunbathing, garlic and olive oil sauteeing, warm apple streudel in a chalet on a ski break.

Which scents conjure up happy memories for you? I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

10 Things That Make Me Happy Right Now

The lovely Modern Dilemma tagged me to do a Happiness meme (I'm a meme virgin). I need to list 10 Things That Make Me Happy Right Now. This is probably a good thing. Recently, my 14-year-old read my blog and advised me that I needed to be more entertaining, funnier and far less dreary or nobody will want to read my blog. In other words, my blog should be like Glee, more of the feel-good factor and less of the real-life stuff. I'm not sure if all the words on my page will cooperate enough to break into song and sashay across the page. But I'll take a crack at glee-ful and save the singing for another day. Today I'm acting as the scribe and will type it all down as it rolls. And I'm not going to list all the truly wonderful things in my life, the given ones that I'm truly grateful for, like my kids and husband and (touch wood) my health. Because that's not the assignment and I don't want to go off-piste on my first tag.

10 Things That Make Me Happy Right Now:

1. Living in London. My mom is visiting from the States and we're going to the theatre this evening and to the Van Gogh exhibit tomorrow. So...geographically desireable and we can just jump on the bus, Gus. Culture without the fuss.

2. Truly loves to bake. So I get homemade scones for breakfast. With lots of butter. And coffee. Gotta have the coffee.

3. My Ugg slippers. Because they keep my feet warm on the tiled kitchen floor and the hardwood floors upstairs. And they're cosy. And it doesn't worry me that I have to shuffle in them--I'm preparing for life as a geriatric which, these days, doesn't feel too far off.

4. My office. Technically, it's not just mine. It's for the whole family. But I pretend it's just for me. It has a lovely window with white shutters and gets great light. I love the colour (Farrow & Ball Pale Powder). One whole wall is lined with bookshelves and some of my best friends live in there. It has an overstuffed chair, a desk and a touch-screen computer. Bliss.

5. Lancome juicy tubes. Addicted. Slick it on constantly. Can be found at the bottom of all my handbags and coat pockets. Try to avoid the fuzzy things and kleenex bits that cling to the applicator. Moist, kissable lips on the go. Hah. Love the cerise.

6. My orange blossom Jo Malone candle. A birthday gift from HRH. It's on the desk. Gorgeous aroma, reminds me of my wedding day.

7. Sunsine. Well, it was sunny this morning but this is London. I crave the sunshine and love a healthy dose of Vitamin D.

8. Comfort food. As mentioned, my mom is visiting and she's been doing the cooking. Roast chicken, mashed potatoes and all the fixings on a Monday night? That's nice. And the added bonus--leftovers for lunch.

9. My dog, a border terrier. I walk him every day, rain or shine, because it's necessary and because it's the best part of his day. Some days I'd rather not. But I put his lead on anyway and zip around the park for 45 minutes and I always feel better afterwards.

10. Blogging. I just started my blog on March 1st so it's still brand new. I'm still trying to work out how to do everything and feeling like a total dummy in the technology department. But I'm meeting so many other lovely bloggers in the community, albeit virtually, and it's been a very positive experience.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Body Double: My mother, my self?

Last week Truly hosted a sleepover. Half a dozen 14-year-old girls sequestered themselves in my daughter’s room in the loft. The laughter, squealing and shrieking combated with the thumping music and reached the decibel levels of an Ibiza nightclub. After listening to the sounds of hormones bouncing off the walls, Scrumptious headed upstairs. She was armed with Dora the Explorer plasters to administer to possible injuries. Five minutes later Scrumptious returned to the kitchen and delivered the prognosis,
‘Liberty is fat.’
‘Honey, don’t say things like that. She is not fat,’ I said.
‘I didn’t say it. Liberty said it.’

Not one of the five girls in our house had an ounce of extra fat on their bodies. But when dinner was served they said no to the rice (oh no, I don’t do carbs) and took microscopic portions of the chicken and vegetable stir-fry. They did, however, inhale the brownies despite the ‘oh-my-god-gazillion’ calories in each wedge. And they shovelled the buttery, salted popcorn into their mouths as if the kernels came from the last cobs in the field. Through it all, they kept up a running patter, ‘Oh my god, I am sooo fat. Look at these thighs. My stomach hangs over my size 0 skinny jeans. Have you tried Atkins or the Miami Beach diet? Do they work? Oh, right, not eating. That’s the best diet. Sometimes I skip lunch. And breakfast. I’m not going to eat tomorrow. Just a carrot stick and a celery stalk.’

I’m not a nutritionist and I’m not a psychologist. But I am the mother of two girls and I have had a lifelong relationship with food which, for the most part, has not been co-dependent. As far as I’m concerned, no further qualifications are required to offer up my unsolicited advice.

‘Oh no,’ their eyes said. ‘Here goes Truly’s crazy mum again. Please spare us the lecture in the guise of a friendly chat.’ I persevered through the eye rolling and hair flicking and the study of, and subsequent nibbling of, ragged cuticles. I trotted out my timeworn adages, ‘You should never ever go on a diet, girls. It wreaks havoc with your metabolism. Eat healthy foods first. Start out with small portions and go back for seconds. Don’t deprive yourselves of chocolate, it will only lead to bingeing. Never ever skip a meal. Everything is okay in moderation. Eat slowly. With chopsticks if it helps. Stop eating when the food ceases to taste as delicious as it did in the first few bites.’

Were they listening? I don’t know. I have no doubt that girls are affected by the media when it comes to body image. But I also believe that girls are heavily influenced by what their mothers say and do. It has been my experience that teenage girls have selective attention disorder (SAD). They don’t do a lot of what we tell them to do. But they tend to do a lot of what we do. And they listen, albeit subconsciously, to the tapes we play over and over again. Sometimes I think my well-worn tapes are silent, spinning round and round inside my own head. But all too often, I realize that the words are coming out loud and clear. ‘I feel so fat today. My boobs are sagging. I need to get to the gym. What a lazy slob. I have nothing to wear. This dress makes me look like I’m pregnant. Would you look at all those wrinkles around my eyes. And did you see those furrows on my forehead. Looks like a farmer tilled the soil to prepare for planting season.’ I know I say so many things on a daily basis, pretending to be in jest, without even realizing I’m sending a negative message to my daughters.

I want to work on silencing the negative tape playing inside my own head and stop the noise pollution. I want my girls to believe that they are beautiful, inside and out. I want to shift the lens and focus more on their kindness, their sense of fair play, their intelligence, both emotionally and academically, and their quirky and delightful sense of humor, instead of zooming in on their physical attributes or waif-like physique. Rather than fostering a dysfunctional relationship with food, I want my actions and words to reflect my healthy attitude towards my own body and the joy I derive from eating delicious and nutritious food with a proportionate amount of decadence thrown in. Instead of saying that my girls need to limit consumption, I say eat everything in moderation and then go for a jog around the park, do a funky dance, do the limbo, or hop on a pogo stick.

I want them to strive to be women who are more than the sum of their caloric intake. I want them to know that women are capable of discussing topics other than diets, beauty, botox and designer labels. I want to encourage them to try public speaking, learn to use a wok, delve into Buddhism, plant a vegetable garden, calculate the square root of pi, or whatever ignites their passion. I want them to do this so that the media won’t have as much power over my daughters, so that they will learn to eat and think for themselves, so that they will maintain a healthy body image and high self-esteem.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

So full of hopes. . .so full of dreams

I’ve been feeling rather glum for the past few days. It’s funny because sometimes you’ll be skipping along, humming merrily to yourself, and building castles in the sky. Then, without invitation, the blues will invite themselves around for a visit. They will move in and sleep in your bed and sneak scorpions and rats and serpents into your dreams. They will dismantle your carefully crafted feelings of joy and gratitude and eat all the chocolate you’ve stashed in the secret cupboard. The blues are tricky that way, insidious and sly, skulking in corners. And then Wham, they are pummelling you over the head.

At least, that’s the way my blues act but I’m sure yours are much more polite. On a typical day last week, I was tidying up when I caught sight of Truly’s pencil case. It has jaunty musical notes on it and it says . . .So full of full of dreams. In the second that it took me to read the words I felt unbearably sad. I tried to remember how it felt to be 14, your whole life in front of you, and so full of full of dreams. But I couldn’t remember. The pugilist swung and took a cheap blow to the vital organs.

After a few days of downward spiralling, I surfaced again and I started to wonder how my grown-up reality measures up to my teenage dreams. I grew up in a small town, not to be confused with a suburb, which would imply that there was a big city nearby. There wasn’t. When I was 14, I was tall and gangly, skinny and flat-chested. I had no eye-hand coordination and was hopeless at group sports. I never had a date in high school and I wasn’t a cheerleader or a Prom Queen. Before you worry that I was Norman No-Mates, I did have friends. We were the kids who wrote for the school paper, who campaigned for an unpopular cause, who were in the drama and debate clubs. The boys treated me like a buddy, someone they could study with and then cheat off of in exams. Small town, big dreams.

1. I wanted to be a writer. I would write the great American novel and be lauded for my intellect and witticisms and unique observations.

2. I wanted to have a boyfriend. I wanted to know the agony and ecstasy of love.

3. I wanted to travel and see the world. Growing up, I was an armchair traveller. Nothing much ever happened in my town. Almost everything I knew about the world came from the books I read. I have always been a voracious reader and read an inordinate number of books written by dead white men.

4. I wanted to live in a big city. In my town, there were two types of people, the ones who didn’t leave and never got out or the ones who got out and never came back. I resolved to be in the latter group. I was obsessed with the old black and white movies and pictured my life to be something out of the ‘Thin Man’ movies, Nick and Nora sharing witty banter over the clinking sound of martinis being mixed.

5. I wanted to live in Africa someday, saving children and striving to eradicate poverty and poor living conditions. I wanted to fight for a cause and volunteer my services for the betterment of mankind. I wanted to be a Libertine, even if I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

Well, the years passed as they so often do and I did not make my living as a writer. Instead, I was a waitress, a glorified secretary, and an analyst in an investment bank. It’s perfect fodder for the writer who saves unfinished books on her laptop but, thankfully, has given up on the cheesy poetry. So I started a blog. Baby steps. Someday I will write that book.

I got a boyfriend and then a few more. I tasted the ecstasy of first love, the heady pleasure of love that sustains you more than food or drink or even the air you breathe. And I suffered the agony of lost love and then the profound sweetness of finding love again.

I spent my Junior Year abroad and backpacked my way around Europe, hitchhiking and riding the rails, staying in every flea bag hostel across Europe. Since then, I have travelled to 4 different continents and 25 countries, maybe more. I rode an elephant in Indonesia, swam with dolphins in Mexico, reached up to the Hand of God at the Sistine Chapel, ate sushi in Tsukiji market, and skied in the Alps.

I lived in New York City for more than a decade, Tokyo for two years and London for eight. I drank martinis at The Plaza and swilled longneck bottles of Rolling Rock in the dive bars of the Village. Instead of the sprawling duplex overlooking Central Park, I lived in a sixth-floor walk-up in Chelsea but it was rent stabilized. I danced the night away in seedy nightclubs, on the deck of a houseboat on the Hudson River and under the moonlight in Central Park. I idled away countless afternoons, people-watching in sidewalk cafes on Madison Avenue and ‘thrived on a riff’ in smoky jazz clubs. I was a gangster’s girl, a bar fly and a late night diner frequenter.

I have never lived in Africa and I have done very little to ‘save the world.’ But in January I joined a volunteer organization which helps underprivileged children get a better start in life. A staggering 2 out of 5 children living in London are living below the poverty line. The program has many aspects but I’m working with the literacy program which will get kids into books. And, hopefully, the program will provide them with some of the tools needed to not only dream big but to be in a position to make their dreams come true.

Have my hopes and dreams been fulfilled? Yes and no. In so many ways my life has exceeded my wildest dreams. In my life, I have had the fortune to witness miracles. I have held hopes and dreams in my arms, my two healthy newborn daughters. I have seen the magic in the ordinary, through their eyes. Twelve years ago I survived a head-on collision, at an angle and speed that statistically had a 2% chance of survival. When you are travelling on a six-lane interstate, going 75 mph in the dark and you stare into the oncoming headlights of a drunk driver, you pretty much hit your knees and thank your maker for the life you had. The world went very dark and very still. And then came the fleeting moment of basking in a warm light and feeling no pain, only to have a voice whisper that your time had not come. My job in this world, whatever it is, was not yet finished.
So full of hopes. . .so full of dreams.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Are you there, God? It's me, Scrumptious . . .

Last night at the Parent/Teacher’s meeting, the lovely Reception teacher told me that Scrumptious is enthusiastic about learning and loves questioning the world around her. Every statement is countered with a Why? Don’t I know it.

When it comes to parenting, some questions are easier to answer than others. I know why my kids need to eat nutritious, well-balanced meals with plenty of fruits and vegetables. I know why exercise, fresh air, and the right amount of sleep are so important. I know what to say if my teenager asks me if she can get facial piercings or tattoos. But do I know how to answer questions about religion? I’m being put to the test by Scrumptious who is fascinated with Jesus and God and the Church.

I was raised a Catholic, in a very traditional Catholic family, and went to Catholic school all my life. I was taught by nuns, except for Sex Ed which was taught by a priest, so the high number of teenage pregnancies in my school should have come as no surprise. If there ever was a better reason to embrace agnosticism as an adult, I can’t think of one. HRH is an atheist. He wasn’t raised with any religion whatsoever and is a man of science. If you can’t see it and you can’t explain it logically, it does not exist. Truly studies Religions of the World in school and is happy to discuss reincarnation, the quest for spirituality, or the good versus evil that religion has played throughout history. She does not, however, have any interest in attending a church, synagogue or temple on a regular basis. Sure, HRH and I try to instill values. Help a neighbor. Stand up for a cause. Be kind. Make ethical choices. But organized religion has not played an active role in the raising of our children.

We spent two years in Japan and, during that time, we visited temple after temple. We saw all types of magnificent Buddhas---glitzy and gold, fat and jolly, serene and smiling. But Scrumptious never took up the fascination with Buddha the way she did with Jesus. She has been fascinated with Jesus since she saw her very first crucifix at my mother’s church. It’s gotten to the point where Jesus creeps into the conversation on a daily basis.

‘Who was Jesus?’
‘According to the Bible, he was a man. But he was also a teacher and a healer.’
‘And was God his Daddy?’
‘Well, they say that God is his Daddy in Heaven but he had another Daddy on Earth.’

Somehow she’s found her own way around this conundrum. Jesus must be the product of divorce so he had a biological Dad and a step-Dad. And then there is Jesus the miracle worker. He turned water into wine (that one is brilliant), he walked on water so he could meet up with his mates in the boat, he healed the blind and calmed the storm. This is very heady stuff for a 5-year-old.

Then there are the stories from the Bible. Adam comes out looking like Prince Charming and Eve is the beautiful fairy princess. For some reason, they are naked and they’re hanging out in the Garden of Eden which is like paradise on earth. There’s a bad guy, that tricky serpent, and there’s some forbidden fruit, oh that tempting juicy apple. Meanwhile, God created this paradise, complete with sunny skies, lush gardens full of flowers and little singing birds. It’s possible that I jazzed up these stories too much because they’re sounding a lot like Disney.

‘So God created the whole world, you and me and the Royal Hound and all those flowers and trees?’ asked Scrumptious.
‘Some people believe that he did,’ I said.
‘But, Mummy, you believe it don’t you?’
‘Well, I’m not sure. Maybe. Sometimes. People who have faith, like your Nana, believe it.’
‘What is faith?’
‘It’s when you believe in something very strongly, even though you can’t see it or touch it.’
‘Oh, faith is a good thing then. I have faith too.’
‘You do?’
‘Yep, I have faith in Father Christmas. I can’t see him and I posted his letter to a place I’ve never been. But I know he will bring me all the toys on my list. He always does,’ she said confidently.
‘Hmm, I’m not sure it’s the same.’
‘You know what, Mummy? I think God is magic. And Jesus is magic too.’
‘Well, they’re not magicians, Scrumptious.’
‘Yes, but Jesus escaped from behind that rock even after he was dead. That’s magic.’

I’m struggling with this one. Scrumptious asked me to take her to church and I did. I thought she might get bored with it but she still wants to go. As a parent, do I have a moral obligation to expose my daughter to some form of organized religion? If I don’t give her a religious foundation and she’s expressing an interest, if I don’t take her to church and Sunday school, and never teach her how to pray, am I balking on an important parental responsibility? Am I cheating her out of her right to Freedom of Religion just because I personally derive no joy from it, because it’s not the answer for me? That sounds pretty selfish. Today I can make my own choices because I know that Catholicism doesn’t work for me personally. Perhaps I am better able to make my choices today because I was raised in a religious home.