Thursday, April 24, 2008

What have you done for me TODAY?

My husband put himself through college with an athletic scholarship as an offensive lineman for the SMU Mustangs ever so many years ago. He often uses football analogies to describe life and growth and the human condition and our relationship with God.

One of his favorite phrases is this one, “You are only as good as your last play.” By which he means, of course, that one can have played a powerful game two or three weeks before, or even earlier in the game, but the only thing on the minds of the fans is how good was he on the last play. Past glory really means very little compared to the present need to win the game going on.

How true: it is not particularly helpful to “rest on our laurels,” to use a very old-fashioned phrase. So what if five or ten or fifteen years ago, such and such was accomplished or some award received? What are you doing now? Such an understanding helps to keep us in the present, working on keeping skills sharp, and integrity intact.

However, in case you hadn't noticed, there is also a downside to this. It means a lot of pressure to perform, and perform NOW. And everyone has an off day, or off week, or off month, or off season, or even an off year. Does that mean such people should be written off? What if God doesn't jump to our insistence on immediate response? Do we write God off?

Since my husband and I are both clergy, we find this is true in church life. Many people come to God and demand, “What have you done for me TODAY?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that yesterday there was unusual blessing and the day before I became especially aware of the glory of the Presence of God, and last year I began to really understand the gift of reconciliation but . . . what have you done TODAY?”
When this happens, demandingness replaces gratefulness. Demandingness is that part of us that says, “I want what I want and I want it now and I don't care if you are inconvenienced or have to compromise yourself or leave someone else behind, get it NOW.”

Oh, this one hurts. I wonder how many times I've prayed to God and implored, “C'mon God—I need this NOW. Don't make me wait.” How many times have I pushed someone to get what I want on my time frame, no matter what the cost to them. But in waiting, much of our character gets formed. In waiting, I learn real patience—the openhanded stance that no longer insists on my own way but watches grace move in. In waiting, I learn not to take vengeance on others because I stop long enough to see how destructive this is to my soul. In waiting, I give others a chance to grow, to learn new skills, to bloom at their own pace. In waiting, I see how lovely it is to think of others as more important than myself. In waiting, I sit still long enough to see the power of the moment. In waiting, I have time to remember past blessings and prepare myself for the future ones. So God, what have you done for me NOW? You've taught me to wait.

Now, that's worth waiting for!

The Redeemable Mistakes

Who among us has never done something that is regretted later? Who has never said an unkind word about someone or to someone? Who has never gossiped or spread untrue rumors? Who has never deliberately inflicted hurt or pain on another in a moment of high emotion? Who has not made some life choices that turned out in retrospect to be destructive to one person or another? Who has not violated written or unwritten moral codes at one point?

Would that all could live without some sorrow over the past. Is it possible to do that?

Yes and no. It is possible if the sorrow leads to greater illumination about ourselves. It is not possible if the sorrow only leads to blaming others for those choices made.

It's the human tendency to want to blame others. No one has to teach a child this—they seem to figure it out all on their own. “But Mom, he/she started it!” That's the universal mantra of young children. It's someone else's fault. They started it—so that relieves me of any responsibility to stop it or return good for evil. They started it, so I get to continue it. They started it and I continue it and the cycle just keeps going on and on and on. Blaming never, ever leads to self-illumination. That is one fact of life we can all hang our hats on. It just perpetuates the problem.

But what happens when we make the hard effort to stop the blaming and seek to shed some light on ourselves instead? This doesn't mean going into some “woe is me” pity party. It does mean recognizing that all of us make mistakes, some major with perhaps worldwide repercussions, some minor that may only affect a small circle. But we all make them. All of us. No one gets excluded from this one.

In that recognition, and in the time taken to look carefully at ourselves, we are invited to a place of real liberation. Blaming others leaves us helpless, for all circumstances are the fault of others and we can't do anything about it. But a careful look at our own mistakes gives us the chance to learn and gain strength and confidence for the future.

It's not easy to do this. It is often painful to say, “Wow, I really blew that one. I can't believe I did that, or acted like that or said that.” Sometimes the pain seems too much to bear, and we want to retreat to blaming others to take the pressure off. But if we go there, and if we go there knowing that God both forgives and redeems—God lets it go and changes it to something far better—then we come out with renewed hope.

I say it often that one of my favorite verses in the Bible is from the very, very sad book of Lamentations where the prophet, after agonizing over all the bad things happening ends up saying, “God's mercies are new every morning.” I love that phrase, “new every morning.” It gives me hope. It reminds me that in the eyes of God, it all gets wiped clean. When I can learn about myself from that “wiped clean” experience, I can then turn around and offer to others the option of also being “wiped clean.”

As my congregation often hears from me, the “grand do-over” is always an option for us Christians. And in the “do-over,” that sorrow and regret over past mistakes turns to future hope and thanksgiving. This is the only way I know to live without sorrow over the past: face it, learn from it, stop blaming others, and receive the “do-over” grace that God keeps offering.

Thank you, Jesus.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Real and the Almost Real

Supermarkets are truly amazing places to shop. There is almost nothing of daily need that can’t be found there and occasionally, one can even find food.

On a recent, fact-finding shopping trip, I netted some of the following items:

· Fresh Fruit: blackberries, strawberries, oranges, and lemons.
· Fresh Bread: a whole grain, heavy and rich loaf.
· Fresh Cheese: a wedge of flavorful Jarlsberg.
· Fresh Vegetables: several ears of corn, still in the husk, a potato, some fresh basil

I also picked up:

· A can of potato chips, made from reconstituted potato flakes and fake cheese flavoring.
· A container of “breakfast orange drink” and “lemonade drink mix.”
· A box of corn flakes, made from cooked, mashed, extruded corn and preservatives.
· A package of strawberry sponge cakes, with no strawberries actually listed in the ingredients.
· An aerosol can of spray on cheese food.

Quite a bit of difference between these two lists, isn’t there? One provides freshness, richness of flavor and the reality that in a few days, if this food is not all consumed, it will all go bad. Mold will grow, bread will get stale, other signs of aging will occur. Either eat it fresh or toss it. It’s only good immediately. Frequent grocery shopping is necessary to feast on such things.

The items in the other list would probably still be consumable even after a nuclear blast. Full of preservatives, very little actual real food in there, they could provide calories in an emergency. But these things are far, far removed from the power and freshness of the things in the first list.

Our spiritual lives aren’t a whole lot different from these two shopping lists. We can have a vital, immediate relationship with God that must be renewed frequently with times of worship, learning, helping others with sacrificial service and seeing the mundane things of our lives turned into acts of holiness. Or, we can have a second-hand experience, with the real encounter with a living and often terrifying God replaced by the occasional thought about God, maybe even wandering into a church once in a while, but not much else. The rest of life is totally separate from any possibility of transformation into hope and holiness.

In both cases, we will still live. We can work, play, rest, and do necessary chores. But those who are vitally engaged with God will be able to do these things with the same burst of flavor that comes from eating an ear of corn picked moment before cooking. Those who go for the second hand experience can still get nutrients from a box of mashed, cooked, extruded, boxed and preserved corn flakes—but the deep joy and transformative nature has been lost.

Just something to think about—on your next trip to the grocery store and the next opportunity to truly encounter the living, loving and powerful God of the universe.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Je suis désolé

“Je suis désolé. Je ne parle pas français.” This is the phrase I memorized: “I am sorry. I do not speak French.”

I said this many times on my recent trip to France. For the most part, my apology did not bring about a sympathetic response. French people expect people to speak French. Period. And while many do speak English, there was an expectation that I would have also sought to learn their language.

I did give myself a quick crash course before I went, but it was not enough to even carry on a basic conversation. I could read some of it, and occasionally understand a bit, but that was about it.

We are fortunate, of course, that English is the international language of commerce, so that makes it easier to get by without the bother of learning the words of another. But I also became even more fully aware that our language insularity does not speak particularly well of us as a nation.

Two weeks ago, I was celebrating my oldest son’s birthday with a group of international friends he has made at the school he is attending near Paris. Gathered in one room were an Australian (married to a Dutchman who couldn’t come), two Spaniards, one German, one Colombian, two Americans, and three from France. We conversed in English since that was the one common language.

There were also seven children under the age of 2 ½ there, and I asked each parent what languages they were teaching their children. The Spaniards speak primary to their sons in Catalan, a Romance language with some French characteristics and one of the official languages of Spain, and also expect them to speak Spanish. They do not speak English to them. The French couple speak only in French to their children. They would like for him to learn English someday, but do not wish to be the ones who teach it to them. The Australian-Dutch couple speak primarily in English to their daughter, with some Dutch thrown in, but do not expect her to be fluent in Dutch. The American-Colombian couple speak primarily in Spanish to their children (my grandchildren), and expect that to be the first language, but with considerable facility in English.

All this leads me to thinking about the whole issue of words and communication and languages and misunderstandings. I know that even if we speak the same language, we may not understand each other at all. As one who has spent possibly way too many years in school, studying theology and things of God, it is easy for me to throw around words like, “sanctification, ecclesiology, redemption, proclamation, hamartology, and supralapsarianism” and not realize these words are rarely, if ever, used in everyday conversation. Every person with specialized work also develops a specialized vocabulary which may also sound incomprehensible to those on the outside.

Then I look to the words of Jesus and find that he spoke in the common language and used the words that everyone knew to help them bridge the gap between their lives and the joy of intimate connection with God. Living and working in a farming and ranching world, he reminded them that he’s a good shepherd, and his sheep respond to his loving voice. As did farmers, Jesus willingly scattered the seed of the kingdom of God everywhere—knowing, just as those who work the ground for a living know, that not every place would be immediately receptive and that some seed would fed the birds rather than growing into new plants that would feed the people. But that didn’t stop him from spreading it out everywhere. He reminded people that the things we experience daily can serve as doorways to the heavenly places, should we chose to hear the invitation to enter in.

Yet as I write this, I also know that as we enter into deeper intimacy with God that we must also learn to see and speak differently. We must learn to find the holy and sacred in the common things. We must learn the language of prayer, of worship, of radical generosity and service, and these words and concepts do not come easily to most of us.

With all this, I believe there is a call on all of us to expand our vocabularies and our language abilities. We need to learn the languages of others, and the language of God. By so doing, we open ourselves to far deeper experiences and find ourselves amazingly enriched. It’s worth the effort.

Monday, April 07, 2008

This will be the last post for this trip. Tomorrow is my last day here, and I will be doing "kid duty" again as Adriana needs to go back to Paris to finish getting her travel visa. Then it is time to pack. We will leave very early Wednesday morning so I can catch my plane.

For the first time today, I cared for Joshua without his parents present. After the first few bad moments were over, we settled in for a lovely day. A friend of Adriana's, Jackie, and her six month old daughter, came to help so we'd have two pairs of hands for three children, especially with the situation with the steep stairs.

Joshua decided to crown himself with a halo, and was loving, fun, personable and full of hugs for his granny. What a relief! We had all been concerned because he had not wanted to stay with me before, but we probably should have just pushed the issue last week. But he made up for it today and gave me a full week of hugs in this sweet day. Samuel, on the other hand, this placid, easy baby, showed his other colors. Very charming, of course, but determined to have the time in Granny's arms that I think he now sees as his right. Adriana will now get the challenge of "unspoiling" him after I leave.

I really don't know how Adriana does it. Even with two of us, we were pretty busy, and didn't try to do anything else except a couple of loads of laundry. Just focused on the children. Adriana, on the other hand, would have done all that, and fixed a three course meal for lunch in the middle of it. Without an extra pair of hands.

She did enjoy her day away, however, and I'm glad she got it. One last gift to her.

And speaking of one last gift: I arose very early this morning because I wanted to make that one final trek into the village for the fresh crossaints--speaking of being spoiled. After dressing, I got ready to go outside and saw that everything was covered with about two inches of snow. What beauty. The gorgeous red tulips that grace the entry to the farmhouse, and which bloomed just for Jonathan on his birthday, were each wore a head dress of white lace. As I walked toward town, with the sky slowly lightening, a few flakes drifted gently down. The beautiful green spaces received their covering of lace as gracefully as though they were brides waiting for their grooms.

I got to the village before the bakery opened, so just walked around a bit in the deep silence. No one really moving yet. I was the first one at the bakery, and had watched the bread I bought be removed from the oven just a few minutes before. Oh my--Jackie and I made a simple lunch of one of the baguettes and some good cheese and we both reveled in the rich flavor and chewy texture of such a gift.

One funny note from the morning. As you may have guessed as you read these posts, I made keeping up with the laundry here and dealing with the persistent flooding from the machine my mission. Just that alone can be a constant job. Anyway, at one point this morning, I was upstairs with Samuel and Joshua was down with Jackie. He stared to get a little uncomfortable and said, "Granny?" So Jackie told him I was here but with Samuel and that she'd take him to find me. Well, he made a beeline for the laundry room and opened the door looking for me--he knows exactly where Granny hangs out here!

Well, it's time to sign off now. Thanks for taking this trip to France with me. I've been blessed beyond words. Plus the laundry got done for this one day.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

OK, the question has been, "How can I spend two weeks in France just 100 km from Paris and not see Paris itself?" Since it was becoming clear that I was in danger of doing that very thing, today, Sunday, April 6, became the day to remedy the problem. Although we had originally planned for all to go, it turned very chilly overnight and snow was predicted, so at the last minute, just Jonathan and I went.

As we entered the outskirts of Paris, Jonathan told me to get the map and to navigate our way to the center of Paris, aiming for the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I was completely flummoxed, having trouble reading the tiny print in French and also reading the unfamiliar street signs, but somehow we made it to our goal without a wrong turn--mostly due to Jonathan's superb sense of direction and a memory of a couple of others time here. Next job: finding a place to park. Even on mid-Sunday morning, central Paris is very alive with people thronging the streets and every street parking place taken, cars parallel parked with generally less than six inches between bumpers. Twice we thought we spotted a sign for an underground parking garage, but each time we followed the sign, we were unable to actually find the garage. Personally, I think the signs are just there to lead people out of the city. At this point, we are driving along the south bank of the Seine and suddenly the perfect parking space appears. With great expertise, Jonathan maneuvered the car in the spot and hopped out, looking for a place to pay. A minute later he returned and said, "You are not going to believe this: it's free on Sundays."

So we set out, heading for the Cathedral when we noticed that the street we wanted to cross was blocked off and hundreds of runners were coursing down it. After watching for a while, we realized this had to be a marathon with perhaps 30,000 runners, and we needed to change our route because we dare not cross in front of them. Anyway, a slight detour led us to our goal and we walked up the side of the Cathedral. There were a bunch of people in line for a guided tour, and we did not want to do that, so were just going to look at the outside and then go on. When we got to the front, we saw a place where we could either go in and visit or go in and attend a Mass. As it turns out, the 10:00 a.m. Mass was just ending and we were in time for the 11:30 Mass.
We decided to attend and both were a little surprised to see that visitors were permitted to continue touring during the Mass. There was a constant stream of people in the outer section of the huge cathedral coursing from one end to the other, some even taking flash pictures of the worshippers and celebrants.

Parts of the service were printed in English and German, but it wasn't all that easy to follow even so. During the reading of the Gospel, when the congregants were standing, three younger people in front of us abruptly sat down, began consulting their tour map of Paris, starting whispering to each other and then walked out.

The music was beautiful, and they practiced a form of open communion with these words in English, German and French in the bulletin: "The bread distributed during mass has a high significance for Christians: it is the body of Christ, their Lord and God. If you do not share our faith in the living presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread, we ask you not to join your neighbors at communion time." I was able to interpret that as an invitation to participate, so Jonathan and I both communicated.

But . . . and I had this same feeling when visiting the very old Norman church (also called Notre Dame) in Moret: It felt dead to me. I know much of the problem again is my language facility, and my frustration with not knowing the responses. They weren't even printed in French, so you either knew them or didn't. But there is something else. The buildings are certainly built to last, and they are very, very impressive. But, as many others have asked, "Is this the Church?" "Isn't it a lot more than this?" Yet we need meeting places--that has been a part of religious practice from the beginning--we need places to gather, to worship, to learn, to connect, to be launched for service. I have a lot of ponder with this one here.

Anyway, after that, we walked over to the Louvre, and I just stared in awe at the size of what was the royal palace. Didn't even try to go in, as there was no way to do justice to a place like this in our limited time. But how magnificent! After stopping at a cafe for a lunch (and real "French Fries"--not as good as MacDonalds), we decided to head back to the car. All in all, we walked about seven miles, saw much of the beauty of inner Paris, and then walked along a lot of streets that are almost indistinguishable from streets in NY City. The weather had been cold, but not nasty and on the way back we were kind of wondering at the inaccuracy of French weather forecasters when suddenly we hit a significant snowstorm, and then a mile south it was totally clear and then another five miles and it was sleeting, and then clear again, and just raining slightly when we got back here. However, a few minutes ago, it began sleeting furiously here.

So, that's my quick trip to Paris. But the real triumph of the day: have finally rigged up a temporary fix to the washing machine so laundry is possible again without constant mopping. As Jonathan said, "Laundry is my reason to be" except he said it in French. I'm so grateful that I can leave Adriana with this much done. It is difficult to describe how impossible life would be here without being able to wash at least two loads a day and most days three.

Tomorrow morning will be my last chance to walk to the town bakery for some fresh crossaints. I will never again be satisfied with an American made one, I suspect. The taste and texture delight the tongue. A special treat. The bakery is closed Tuesdays, as I know now, and Jonathan and I will have to leave for the airport by around 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday in order for me to be at the airport in time for my flight. So, shall arise very early, make my way down there, and then care for the children for the morning and into early afternoon while Jonathan heads back to Paris with Adriana to get her visa. Jonathan is so incredibly patient with the women (and children) in his life.

Hard to believe this visit is nearly over. Has been so full of joy and delight and many things to consider.
Saturday was Jonathan's 31st birthday and Adriana was absolutely determined to surprise him with a party and an American-style cookout. This party took a week in planning, unbelievable coordination, many hands to help, and much trust the people would keep it secret. The big fly in the ointment is that Jonathan decided on Friday that he wanted to taken me and the family to Paris on Saturday so I could see the city, and Adriana just had to agree to go, hoping we could change his mind in the morning.

At 9:30 a.m, Jackie (who is from Australia) and her daughter, Lotta, (six months old), came for breakfast and walked in, acting surprised at all the birthday decorations (Adriana blew up balloons and made a huge card for Jonathan). Innocently she asks, "is this your birthday? Oh, I hope I'm not intruding." When assured that she was not, we all sat down for a delicious repast--along with the usual fresh crossaints, of course, and then I equally innocently asked, "Jonathan, I really want to see that Norman church in Moret. Could we go over there and then maybe find a hardware store where we might find something to provide a temporary fix to the washing machine?" He agreed and we decided to take Joshua with us.

This worked out beautifully. We had a lovely time at the church, found a few things that might help with the washing machine situation, and then Joshua fell asleep and we took advantage of his nap to take a long, glorious drive through the countryside, seeing tiny little towns and horse stables and beautiful fields, plowed and many already lush with crop. Stopped at on point when a group of pheasants were crossing the road and just watched them. Almost all the roads we were were one lane roads (but two way) just meandering between forest and farm and tiny town. Exquisite moments, quiet and peaceful and in tune with the rhythms of nature.

It was nearly 1 before we got back and Jonathan said something about taking us all to lunch in Fontainebleu, but as he drive down the driveway, he saw the outside table covered with balloons and set for a picnic and said, "Hmm, I guess Adriana has other plans."

Somehow, this party just turned out. Besides Jackie and her six month old, two other couples with children exactly the same ages as Joshua and Samuel came along with a single man from Germany and our landlady. So in the house, we had seven children under two and a half, two Americans, one Colombian, two Spaniards, two Parisians, one German, one Australian, and one rural Frenchwoman. Adriana had cleaned an ancient grill and Jonathan managed to light the fire and cook the burgers. I couldn't find American style hamburger buns, so I had bought small loaves of bread for the buns, along with all the fixings. We had hidden a couple of cases of beer outside, and they stayed cold out there. English was the common language, so that was how we conversed. Simply wonderful time, last person left a 6:00 and we just sat and looked at each other. Jonathan truly had no idea we were doing this. And the rain held off until the last person left, thank goodness, so the men and older children could be outside while the women and smaller children crammed into the tiny living area for great conversation.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Friday in France

The day started hard. Both the children were restless during the night, especially Samuel. Little sleep for anyone and we all gave up around 6 a.m. Adriana and I had said that we'd walk together to the village at 6:45 to get some fresh crossaints and a baguette from the bakery, but it was clear that she couldn't leave the fussy Samuel. So I threw on some clothes and left the house.
The sky was turning light by then, and a gentle fog covered the river to my left as I walked toward Montigne sur Loing. Little traffic, a chill in the air, but very comfortable walking weather. I reached the bakery by 7 a.m. and walked into its warmth. On some other day, I would have been able to enjoy the delightful smell of warm bread, but this lingering congestion denies me that pleasure. I did manage in my limited French to order some crossaints and the baguette, paid for them, and tucked them in the bag I remembered to carry. Merchants in France do not supply the ubiquitous plastic bag found in every store in the US. One either brings one's own, or, in the larger stores, purchases them on the way out in order to bag the items purchased. At a small establishments like the bakery, no bag means carrying things by hand. Period.

As I began the walk back, I heard the church bells ringing out, calling people to early mass. The fog was deeper, and held the promise of a spectacularly beautiful day when it lifted. I got home in time to see Jonathan off on his bicycle to Fontainbleu, and to help with the children for a while. I had promised on this morning to do the week's grocery shopping for the family in order to free tomorrow for other things, and was definitely dealing with some apprehension. First, could I even find the major market again? Second, assuming I found it, would I be able to shop adequately with my language limitations?

After an inventory of the refrigerator and a discussion of the things we need for Jonathan's surprise party tomorrow (he still has no clue, amazingly), I headed out, reminding Adriana not to worry as it would take me at least two hours to complete the task. That, by the way, was a significant understatement. However, I did manage to find the store, and get most of the things I needed. Here's what I learned about the French stores when we are preparing for an American-style cookout of hamburgers: They don't carry hamburger buns. At least, I couldn't find them (learned later that they were there with regularly sliced ordinary bread, but never saw it). Finally settled on some rolls to split. They don't carry bread and butter pickles. In fact, their pickle selection is really sparce, so will need to slice some that I bought.
I was also looking for some fresh spinach that Adriana wanted. Couldn't find it, and, unfortunately, don't know the French word for spinach, so didn't know how to ask for it. Very, very frustrating for me not knowing French.

There is much more real food in French grocery stores than American ones. Far less space devoted to "pretend food"--highly processed items and dog and cat food--and far more devoted to real, fresh, nutrient laden food. So much healthier for all.

I did spend thirty minutes just looking for a simple timer. Since the best discipline for Joshua is "a la sia", or "In the seat," I told them it would help him if there were a timer so he could see how long he had to stay there and that it would go off when the time was done. Did find one at last, by the way.

Managed to pay for the purchases with Adriana's French debit card, bagged them, and headed for the car, which fortunately, I had marked mentally in the parking lot. Beautiful drive home, but had been gone over three hours by then and was concerned about getting home before Jonathan did, in order to hide the birthday purchases. However, that worked out fine.
The sky was cloudless today, and the owners of the estate early this morning provided for us a simple molded plastic table and six chairs for the patio, so we adjourned out there for the afternoon. Jonathan got home by 2 p.m. and Adriana's friend with the six month old also came over.

Here's where I'm not sure I'll find the words to describe the next magical hours. Gorgeous spring weather, wine, beer, good cheese and good bread, children playing and enjoying the outside, gentle conversation, good-natured ribbing, deep peace. This morning, multitudes of tulips magically bloomed. By tomorrow, iris plants will be in profusion along the river. Tiny wildflowers every where. Quiet. No sirens, few cars on the roadway way up above us. Space to breathe, to be, to simply enjoy. I have rarely enjoyed anything so much as that afternoon.

Children are now very tired--neither would nap this afternoon. So Adriana and Jonathan are bathing them and getting them ready for what we hope will be good sleep.

I, personally, have really turned French--after so quickly grabbing clothes to go to the bakery and then the store this morning, I realized I've never bothered to bathe. Won't be long before I smell like the French. I may already, but with my congestion, I'll never know.

So, that is our day. Tomorrow, somehow we are going to cook burgers on a very inadequate grill, serve them, and celebrate Jonathan's birthday. Sunday I will play tourist and go into Paris just to see parts of it. Monday, Jonathan and Adriana must spend part of the day there with the government bureaucracy working on Adriana's Visa, so Adriana's friend and I shall care for the children most of the day. Tuesday will be my last full day here, with a very early departure on Wednesday morning so I can make my mid-morning flight. Am a bit homesick, even after this beautiful day, so know when the time comes to go home, I shall be very ready. But today really was magical. One of those days that needs to be savored and held in the memory forever. A foretaste of heaven.
Initial Impressions

I'm in France, about 80 km south of Paris. Here, in a small hunting cottage originally built in the 1700's, I'm watching (and helping where I can) Adriana care for a 22 month old and a four month old in a house that was never designed with "kid-safety" in mind.

About a 100 yards from this cottage is the estate house, built some time in the 1800's. Beautiful, white stone with numerous outbuildings, including a greenhouse. To get here, one takes a sharp left turn off a narrow road and then heads down a steep driveway which goes first to the estate house and then another sharp right turn leads to the cottage.

The cottage has three levels. On the first level is the kitchen, dining and a step down living area, along with a tiny toilet room and tiny laundry room. The living area looks over a small patio which itself looks over a rapidly flowing river, the River Loing. On the other side of the river is a lovely green area, home to a number of horses. A very, very steep flight of stairs leads to the upstairs hall. An immediate left at the top of the stairs leads to one bedroom which has a shower room off it. From that room, another very scary set of steps (wide open to below--all the way to the ground floor) winds to a loft where Jonathan's study is--and where I'm writing this note. Going down the hallway, there is a toilet room on the right followed by the only closet in the house. On the left is the amazingly spacious bathroom, and then there is the other bedroom, which the children and I share.

In France, the toilet room is separate from the bathroom. There is no sink in there, just the necessary facility. The bathroom has a deep but exceedingly narrow tub (as I discovered this morning when I sought to bathe in there and discovered my american-sized derriere would barely fit). But it's great for bathing the children.

The kitchen is a narrow space, perhaps six feet wide total. Everything is small--sink, stove, refrigerator, oven and microwave. Almost no storage of any kind. A few upper cabinets, a couple of drawers and two lower cabinets. One open shelf above the sink holds most of the condiments. The kitchen has a pass through window to the dining space which is open to the living space which has the spectacular view of the river and horses.

Joshua, the 23 month old, can get up the stairs to the second level OK by going on hands and knees, but can't get down on his own yet. He must have someone holding his hand. That means that if we need to carry the baby and bring Joshua down at the same time, we gave to navigate those steep stairs without any kind of support--no handrail. The first day I was here, I was holding Samuel and needed to get downstairs and Joshua wanted to go down as well and I realized there was no way I could do that safely.

All the upstairs rooms have sloped ceilings, going with the roof line. I watched Jonathan this morning come and get Samuel when he woke early and noticed that the top of his head missed the door frame by about 1/2 inch. Things are built here for smaller people, to put it mildly. In this loft, where he keeps his computer, he can stand up straight only in the exact center of the room.

The house is light because there are skylights in most of the rooms. It is warmed with radiators, and that keeps the early spring chill at bay. It has certainly been remodeled and modernized since it was first built. Floors are either hardwood or ceramic tile or berber carpet. Kitchen probably last saw any work in about 1950, but it is functional.

The almost complete lack of closets is typical for French homes, I understand. Certainly helps to keep one's possessions to a minimum. The one upstairs one has a clothes rack about 2 1/2 feet off the ground and just about that long with a shelf above it. It is built into an attic eave, as is the toilet room. The toilet room almost makes my own bathroom at the parsonage look large--but not quite.

At this point, Adriana manages because Samuel is still immobile and is a very laid back, happy and content child. Very much like Jonathan as a baby. Joshua, on the other hand, is really struggling with a lot of separation anxiety, is very, very active, talks in long paragraphs (and primarily in Spanish), and needs a lot of attention. Jonathan is home more here than he was when he was working, and that helps. He's loving his school-work, studies rarely and is still one of the top students, and is having a great time. He often rides his bike to school (about 8 miles, up a STEEP hill at one point), so Adriana can have the car. Since it rains daily here, it also means he often gets wet on the bike ride, but he rides in biking clothes and takes a clean pair of jeans and a shirt in a backpack.

The children are healthy and beautiful. They look very much alike, just are unlike in temperament. Adriana and Jonathan look wonderful--slim and in shape and very youthful. It's a good thing I have that narrow set of stairsteps at my church which I go up and down multiple times each day--at least the stairs are not bothering me, even carrying a child. Adriana, as always, manages in that kitchen to create all her own babyfood, and fix healthful meals, all from scratch. They have hired a once a week housekeeper, thank goodness. That does take some household pressure off.

There's a huge sandbox outside for Joshua to play in--about 15 by 20 feet, with a lovely tree in the center of it. Everything is green and the grass has small wildflowers growing everywhere. Trees are just beginning to leaf out.
We're a mile out of a little village that has two small grocery stores, a fabulous bakery, an amazing pizza place (we were so tired last night that I teased Jonathan about ordering in Pizza and he said there is a place to do that. However, they only deliver when the person who tends bar decides to shut the bar down and deliver the pizzas, so he ordered some and we went and had a beer with the locals while waiting for them), a pharmacy (I've not been in yet, but may have to go there), a few restaurants that Jonathan has not seen open yet, an inn where some other students live and houses all crowded along the narrow road--just a two lane strip that also serves as a parking lot for some people. You have to see it to believe it.
So, that's the initial report from France. Will write more later.

Saturday in France

Well, Adriana is working on getting Samuel to sleep for the night and Jonathan is outside with Joshua working on wearing him out. Not a problem with me--I'm utterly worn out. For the life of me, I can't figure out how I managed three children under five, and two this close together.

After getting up and having a nice breakfast (Joshua and Jonathan went to the boulangerie early this morning and brought back fresh croissants and baguettes), we loaded up the children and all five of us crammed into their small Renault and headed for a town about 15 miles from here for a major grocery shopping trip. Just before we got there, Joshua fell asleep in the car, so Adriana elected to stay with him so he could nap and Samuel and Jonathan and I headed for the French equivalent of a shopping mall with a large store similar to Wal-mart.

About two and a half hours later, we had a cart full of food, I had passed Samuel back to Adriana and traded her for Joshua, and we headed for the check out. At least $400 American. and not one bit of junk food in the cart. All "Adriana" food--fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, a little beef (we skipped the horsemeat, freely available here), some cheeses, and lots of diapers, paper towels, etc. Somehow, it all fit into the small trunk, which usually carries a stroller and we headed home to unpack.

Here's what I learned at the store: French women DO get fat. So do French men. Not as fat as Americans, but there is definitely some heft around the butts, thighs and stomachs here. Everyone wears blue jeans, and dark clothes. Sales help is not particularly friendly. Not reading French puts me at a great disadvantage when trying to figure out what products do or how much they cost. There are three aisles of cheeses, two of yogurt and at least four of wine. You can also buy Scotch in the grocery store. Fish is very, very fresh here. And things are pretty expensive.

After getting back and unloading, Jonathan fixed us a great mid-afternoon meal of fresh caught trout while Adriana and I tried vainly to get several loads of laundry folded in the midst of looking after the children. Jonathan had left a couple of aluminum pans on the counter in which he had poached the fish and after the meal, Joshua brought us one of them. We were impressed that he had not spilled it until I went into the kitchen and saw the contents of the other all over the floor. At that point, I took over cleanup duty and got all that taken care of, as thoroughly as possible cleaned the kitchen, started another load of laundry (learning to use these machines has been tricky), tried to get Samuel to bed but couldn't, and went outside to sit with Jonathan and Joshua. Decided to come back in and get this day down on paper. Am really tired, but feel good. Know it is helpful to have me here. But also bet I've been up and down those stairs over 50 times today. Nothing like one's very own fitness machine in the house.

Tomorrow, I hope to take a long walk in the woods near here. There are miles and miles of walking trails nearby. Hopefully I won't get too lost--just need to remember the name of the village nearby and can find my way back again. Other things about France: stores all close on Saturday and most are closed by 5 p.m. each day except for some grocery stores which stay open until 7 p.m. So evenings are spent with family. NO big SUV's here. All cars are small. From what I can tell, gas is at least $6/gallon--maybe more.

Lots of traffic circles at intersections--roundabouts they are called. Really treacherous. Lots of bicyclists also. Streets in towns are very narrow. Just two lanes and people sometimes even park on them, so traffic has to negotiate around them. Houses are right up to the streets--no yards in the towns. But there are big estates like this one where we are on the outskirts.

So, that's the report for the day. I'll sleep well tonight. Daylight savings time starts tonight for France--but I won't even care. Not bothering to look at my watch while I'm here.

Sunday Morning in France

It is a rare quiet moment in this lovely household and the first time I've been able to write without a baby in my lap, so am taking advantage of this ttime. Sunday morning here, nearly noon now. Daylight savings time started here today. I slept a little late as I wasn't feeling real well during the night and am still in some jet lag, so just about the time to get up here, I fall into a sound sleep. Jonathan and Joshua and I went into town earlier, listening to the sound of church bells, and picked up the daily ration of fresh croissants and baguettes. All are napping here right now. I've cleaned up the kitchen, made another cup of tea, and am watching another rain storm come in. It does rain daily here in spring, and the trees are just now coming out, but the grass is extremely green. The horse pasture across the river from their house just looks lush--surely the horses that graze there are getting rich with good, fresh green food.

It's such joy to be here, and much hard work. I estimate I climbed those treacherous stairs here at least 50 times yesterday. With everything so small and somewhat inconvenient (to these spoiled eyes of the pampered citizen of the US), everything takes longer. This morning, all three of us, Jonathan, Adriana and I, were in the tiny kitchen getting breakfast ready and cleaning up--that in a floor space 2 1/2 feet wide by five feet long. Joshua was sitting in the hallway just outside it playing with a piece of kitchen equipment. Samuel back down for his morning nap by then. Later today, Jonathan plans to take Joshua for a bike ride and I will go for a long walk in one of the many walking trails in the forest around here. Am looking forward to it. If Adriana feels like it, we'll put Samuel in the stroller and take him too. Initial roads into the forest are paved, and we can stay on them and give him a good outing. I enjoy being around Jonathan and Adriana. In the midst of child chaos, they keep their affection for one another and support one another with necessary disciplinary issues, pretty frequent in Joshua who is testing every single boundary. Many "sits" a day in the time out chair for him, but they are consistent and it is paying off.

He is still having trouble adjusting to me. Although he likes to play with me, he has a memory that my presence means his parents are going to disappear for a while, and he is not happy about that. Probably the only time I'll have them alone is a couple of days before I leave as Jonathan and Adriana need to go to Paris to deal with immigration issues. A never ending battle for them.

As I may have written earlier, Jonathan studies little but stays at the top of his class. This is like a vacation to him, and when he runs short of funds, he picks up some consulting work to bring in some income. They live fully, yet frugally where possessions are concerned. They indulge in the healthiest and freshest of food, and Jonathan has become quite an accomplished cook. Anyway, that is the news from France this Sunday morning. I am finishing this note with Samuel now in my lap. He woke early and I am insisting that Adriana resume her nap while I care for him. He's the sweetest baby--truly Jonathan almost reincarnated. Rarely cries, full of huge smiles when he sees anyone, loves to be held and cuddled.

Tuesday in France

France: It is chic and it is picturesque, but convenient it ain't.

Adriana and I made the brave decision to drive the children to the place where the large store is that we shopped in on Saturday--about 15 miles from here. She had to return an item and also wanted to pick up some things we'll need for a party for Jonathan's 31st birthday on Saturday (this is a surprise, so please don't say anything to him). The drive went beautifully. No getting lost for us! We put the baby in the stroller and Joshua in the cart (it costs one Euro to get a grocery cart, but you get it back after returning it. Keeps carts from being all over the parking lot).

First 15 minutes went great. Managed to find someone who spoke enough English to help with the exchange, and we were finding what we needed. And then . . . Samuel got fussy and hungry and Joshua got restless and obstreperous. Oh my. Apparently French children DO NOT misbehave in public. Dirty looks all around. I'm trying to carry Samuel and give him a bottle at the same time and I think my arms are going to fall off. Joshua did not want to stay in his seat and became more and more demanding. By the time we were checking out, they were both screaming. They calmed down as we headed to the car, and then everyone was fine. Adriana nursed Samuel while I unloaded the cart and returned it and then had an uneventful drive home.

After we got home,I decided to walk to the village to get some bread, which we had forgotten to do the day before. Should have bought it at the big box store. Also should have bought some stuff for Samuel's aching gums, as he is teething. Before I left, I decided to give the flooding washing machine one more try. Keeping up on laundry here is nearly impossible. With the small machines, and that fact that every single thing any of us wear is quickly either covered with baby drool or dropped food or something worse, everything needs frequent washing. With reckless abandon, I decided to gather up all Samuel's dripping bibs (how can one tiny mouth put out that much drool every day?) along with other pieces and throw them in, gambling that I could get them washed and dried before the current one was soaked.

Of course, even after a lot of attention to the washing machine drain, it still spills all over the floor. I've become the expert mopper with that. Anyway, I thought I'd take a walk to the village (one mile, mostly sidewalks, quite hilly) then to get the bread and my exercise and the teething medications. Hmmm . . . it was 1:30 when I got there and I was wondering why there were actually parking spaces along the street. Then I walked up a huge flight of steps to the pharmacy, and found it closed. Walked down those steps and up a hill to the bakery and found it closed. Walked back down the hill to the small general market and it was closed. Of course--it's mid-day meal time in France! Everything closes so all can have their leisurely meal together.

An hour and a half later, after mopping the latest flow from the washing machine, I headed back to the village. Pharmacy still closed--with my awful French, I really tried to read the sign on the door and realized it will be closed until April 4. Bakery still closed. A friendly woman said to me, "french words french words french words Merde." Merde! Tuesday! The Bakery is closed on Tuesday!!!!!!
So, just went to the market, got a baguette and some lemon tea and cough drops for me, and trudged back up the hill to the estate where we live.

Now, on this walk, it is possible to see gorgeous views of the river below and houses that sit on it, as does this one. Beautiful, peaceful, verdant, quiet, settled, aging gracefully. I have no idea how people around here support themselves. Nothing seems open. No commerce. But it is quiet and gentle.

When getting to the estate, I walk in and can either walk down a steep driveway to the main house or take a steeper flight of stone stairs to the farmhouse we are in. I take the steps--wondering how many years people have walked down them. A lot of history here, yet there does seem to be a lack of life.

Oh well. I've about decided I'm in boot camp. When I got back, trash needed to go out--two children in diapers means it goes frequently. To take it out means a trudge back up those steep, steep stairs and then hope I've got things in the right bin. I also make a trip with the recyclables, May as well do my part.

I'll be in better shape than I've been in for years after this trip is over.

I come up here to this attic room and write on Jonathan's computer when I'm just not able to do any more "kid stuff." Adriana manages beautifully in this never ending process of feeding, napping, playing, feeding, cleaning up, feeding, cooking, shopping, napping, feeding, laundry, feeding, cleaning up, playing. Yet there is something quite powerful to rearing children this way. Joshua can be left alone upstairs when necessary. He knows he can't go down the stairs without help, and abides carefully by that. Samuel will also figure that out, and they have baby gates to use for a while. I know that Adriana does things I would have given up on long ago, especially the making of all her own baby food, but this is right for her and I fully respect it. So I'm getting in the rhythm of this household, and helping where possible.

Tomorrow, I shall try to write about Malibu and Reisling, the estate dogs.

Wednesday in France

Just got back from my dash to the village and Samuel is still napping, so I have a few minutes to write before he awakens and the late afternoon craziness occurs here.

Here's the latest I have discovered about French bakeries: what they bake in the morning, they sell in the morning. Late in the afternoon like this, the cupboards are nearly bare. But I did snatch three "pain de chocolat, " one bag of "financials" a type of afternoon tea cookie that Adriana loves, and a loaf of "pain de rustique." So it was worth the walk, plus my "boot camp" experience here means I'm making the walk quickly and without fatigue, even up the somewhat steep hills.

Now, about Malibu, one of the estate dogs. He's a rescue dog, mixed breed, but a lot of terrier in him, black and white, about 40 pounds, and somewhat erratic. To this point, he has bitten Jonathan, Adriana and at least one of their visitors. There is little that terrifies me more than an out of control dog, so this was not good news for me. The first evening, I went out for a short walk with Joshua and Malibu was out with Agnes, the owner of the estate. He came charging and barking toward us but she called him back and kept him under control while we walked. Later, he came over when Jonathan and I were in the back, and he was clearly friendly and curious.

But Adriana is terrified of him and she needed to go to the estate house to talk with Agnes about the washing machine a couple of days ago. I decided it was my job to protect her. After all, I am a dog owner and I do watch multiple episodes of "The Dog Whisperer" with Cesar Milan. Who better to be the champion here? I walked with her carrying a large walking stick that I had picked up on my walks in the woods to help me get down muddy trails. As we approached, I held my head high, kept the stick prominent, spoke to Malibu with a confident and firm voice, and was astonished to see him quickly get into a posture of submission. He did come forward to bark and remind us that the estate house is his territory, but with no menace at all.

Then there is Reisling, whom we don't often see. Huge--at least 140 pounds, giant beast, reddish brown, very much a chow, but perhaps something else mixed in. He just wants his rump rubbed gently and go goes into a trance, eyes half closed, somewhere off in dog heaven. That's the kind of dog to have!

Today, the French housekeeper came to do her weekly ablutions. First rule for this American: do NOT get in her way. She had a way of doing things that would brook no interference. When she was done, the house was not only spotless, but also totally re-arranged so it looked like a proper French home, not one overrun by children. Coffee table back in the middle of the living space, not shoved off to one side as we had done to create more play space. Joshua's bedding removed from the floor in the joint room where we sleep and the proper rug restored to it's spot. Essentially everything in the kitchen rearranged--one can only hope they can find what they need. I don't think she cleans Jonathan's study--I don't see anything re-arranged here. That may be part of the deal. By the way, she was definitely the size of a nicely plump American.

Well, I hear Samuel starting to wake. This is the longest he has napped since I've been here and we're all relieved. He feels better with more sleep and we are all more relaxed.

Thursday in France

Adriana and I had a good laugh last night when we started talking about the fact that I'm losing weight and trimming up here. I really hate to leave them next week without my help as I know it has taken a huge load off her and so we decided that we could package this as a fabulous "Weight Loss Spa." I would charge a finder's fee, send people over here with the instructions that their job is to be housemaid, laundress (and laundress mopper--it it still not fixed), kitchen help, nursemaid, trash taker-outer, and errand runner (walker, that it, to the village at least twice a day). In return, they receive room and board, and are to eat only what Adriana puts in front of them each day, plus just one glass of local variety wine/day (of course, I allow myself more!). It will be healthy, and filling. Everyone wins! I think people would pay a premium to live in the French countryside, eat lovely and healthy food, play with babies, etc. and trim up in the bargain. Just even writing this paragraph probably burned 100 calories because I'm doing laundry right now and each time I hear it start to spill, I race down two flights of steep stairs to mop the latest batch of water before dashing back up to keep writing. As each load has six drain cycles, that makes for some multiple stairs! I say again, thank goodness for these european washing machines that use very little water, or we wouldn't be able to do laundry at all.

It's a glorious day here. Adriana took Joshua to Fontainbleu to a play group and left Samuel in my care. This is the first time I've had him alone and we were both concerned because he's not been able to get to sleep recently without Adriana's nursing him. However, I told her he had to learn sometime and this was as good a time as any. He and I had a great playtime. Just since I've been here, he's starting to sit up on his own and also has gained much more hand coordination. Then when he got sleepy, I gave him his bottle. He only wanted a little, but then was able to get himself to sleep after just a few minutes of fussing. A definite step forward for him as he learns more self-regulation.

Monday will be the day I need to care for both of them. A friend of Adriana's who has a six month old will come for the morning. We figure between the two of us, we should be able to handle three children, and it spares me the concern of having to leave Joshua either up or down by himself since I really can't bring both children up or down at once, as Adriana can.

The landlady, Agnes, came for a visit today. They are still working on the washing machine situation and know now that they're going to have to get a rotor-rooter type service out here. She speaks some English, thank goodness, and we enjoyed the conversation. They bought the estate 5 years ago and are slowly renovating it--working on the main house now. They have four children, two away at the University, and two others as home. I've only seen the youngest son, however.

Yesterday, we needed more groceries. Since Adriana insists on cooking everything with fresh ingredients--and that includes fresh squeezed orange juice for everyone in the morning, and since storage space is so limited, it's hard to keep everything in stock. So Jonathan, Joshua and I went to Moret, a village about 5 miles from here that has a pretty large grocery store. After doing our shopping, we drove through the center of Moret, into the old town via the entrance over a one lane bridge through a high, stone guard tower. All the streets in the center part are just one lane, but they are two way, so stop lights control the flow of traffic in and out and each street changes direction every few minutes. Very, very charming and old world--just full of little shops and ancient homes and a huge, Norman church with real flying buttresses on the outside.

At the grocery store, Jonathan wanted to buy some celery and had a bunch in his hand, looking for the price. Then a store working came over to him and said something, tore off the plastic strip that held the bunch together and explained to Jonathan (whose French is coming along nicely) that he should just tear off the number of actual stalks he wanted and leave the rest. Those were then weighed and priced. Ah, the no waste French cook in action!

Well, Joshua is stirring. Must go.