Déjà Vu: Why Melissa Writes –– or Doesn’t–– of Passage

I could swear you’ve been here with me before. And before that.

June 30, 2011, Singapore

You remember? I was sitting on this same chair, tapping on this same laptop, pushed up to this same desk. Around me worked a team of moving men, preparing to ship our life (and file upon file of a yet-to-be-written but contracted book, Global Mom: A Memoir) off to a new life in Switzerland.

At the same time and as part of that pre-publication ramp-up, I was advised to launch this blog right away because the whole conceit of Global Mom was based on moving, moving internationally, moving internationally often and at times unexpectedly, and doing all that while raising a family of global citizens. On this blog, I was to take you with me, real-time. Show you some of the guts of global momming. Strap you to my forehead the way sky divers strap on Go-Pros and shu-weeeeeeee! Take you for a swift transglobal spin. Prepare you for that thud-and-roll landing.

What you didn’t see, I’m afraid, was the scary stuff, all the gum-flapping and limb-flopping that was going on behind the camera. As you who’ve done any of the following know, 1) raising a family takes one’s absolutely full concentration, 2) moving that family to a new country demands even more of one’s absolutely full concentration 3) helping your family adjust and integrate once in a new country requires that much more concentration, and 4) writing and promoting a book in the midst of all that…Well, just cue non-stop gum-flap, limb-flop.

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That lasted a year. I released Global Mom a year after leaving Singapore, and just when I felt maybe things were getting steady enough for my children here on the idyllic Swiss front, I signed a contract to write and publish my second book, On Loss and Living Onward.

Just as that book went to press last spring, we announced we’d be moving again. Unlike the previous move triggered by a restructuring of international headquarters, this relocation was wholly our initiative, one we’d been deliberating for some time.  We knew we needed to remove our youngest from a school environment that was unhealthy for him and causing our family much heartache (to frame it in the very gentlest terms.) Gum-flapping and limb-flopping don’t come anywhere close.

June 30, 2014, Switzerland

There’s a moving team milling through my house as I type. Same chair, same laptop, same desk. This week alone, I’ve seen my piano, refrigerator and Norwegian farm table go out the carmine red door of my soft yellow Swiss village home with is green shutters, its plump tufts of lavender, and tumbling velvet geraniums. Such a pretty, idyllic picture. Yet there’s sorrow and fatigue creasing the corners of my eyes. Two deep breaths, and I fill my lungs with optimism and gratitude. I work alongside men –– one French, one Swiss, one Kosovoan––packing our lives in cardboard, padding my concerns in bubble wrap, and heading things in a big metal box with wheels northward. To Frankfurt.

View out my office window

View out of my office window

My husband has long since preceded us to Germany, where he’s been living weeks-over in a sterile hotel room as he starts up a new job. One moment, I’m talking with a Jean-Michel about shutting down our Swiss/French phone lines; the next, I’m talking with a Johann or a Manfred about opening a German bank account.  Our Claire is at my side, mothering her brothers and helping me negotiate the 17th move of my married life. Luc is choosing classes online for what will be a German international school. Dalton, now 18,  is practicing his cockney accent and reworking his Singaporean Mandarin for when he heads in August to South London for a two-year mission for our church.

You remember? You’re right. We’ve been here before.

Dalton

Dalton

June 30, 2007, Paris

A moving team is arguing about how to get our massive Norwegian table out of our Paris apartment. I’m refereeing. Randall’s been living in Germany for several months already, starting his new job while we finish the school year and an eight-year French epoch. Dalton and Luc, 11 and 7, are finishing their French elementary school and once in a while I drop a German phrase or two into our talks, just to prep them for the next phase in our lives. Claire, almost 16, is inseparable from our 18-year-old Parker, who’s just graduated from ASP (the American School of Paris) and is heading tomorrow for a summer of leadership courses at college in the States. He’ll use the next months to complete the applications to serve a two-year mission for our church. Come winter.

Parker

Parker

Sorrow, fatigue. Deep breaths. Optimism, gratitude.  Days are spent shutting down French phone lines and opening up German bank accounts.  My daily discipline of writing so-and-so many pages? I set it aside, knowing I only have a few weeks left with all of us together.  How we are. The all of us. Like this. Sure, I’ll see Parker over the summer. We’ve made those plans. And he’ll come to us in Germany over Christmas to stay for a few weeks before launching out as a missionary. But still. I only want to be with him. The sails of life are stretched taut with stress, but also with gusts of hope, and we’re cruising on momentum, headlong into the cresting, broad, blue seas.

June 21, 2014, Paris

“We’re pleased to welcome the family of Parker Bradford to today’s ceremony. We’ve invited their son Dalton to the stage.”

A dark blonde, blue-eyed kid wearing a white shirt, navy suit and his big brother’s tie strides up to the school administrator at the mic. It’s the same gentleman, a Mr. H., who’d handed Parker his diploma seven years earlier. Now, he hands Dalton a heavy plaque with his brother’s name engraved in brass and in ornate letters.

The kid blushes. His face is neither smiling nor frowning, but hangs between emotions. Or above them. He shifts from foot to foot. The sibling resemblance is eerie.

“Dalton, like all of you here,” says Mr. H., “has just graduated from high school, only in Geneva. He’ll be presenting the Parker Bradford Spirit Award to this year’s graduating senior who best embodies the qualities of tolerance, enthusiasm and buoyancy that typified Parker, Dalton’s older brother. Parker was a student here at ASP for eight years.  One month after graduating in June of 2007––just like you’re graduating today––Parker lost his life while trying to save a college classmate from drowning.”

The blonde brother stares out over an audience of quiet faculty and families. I’m in the back-most row in a corner, yet can hear––can nearly feel––his heart beating. I tuck my chin to my chest.

I’m struck in that moment by the flaccidity of words, how they fool only those who trust words to convey the true proportion of certain truths, realities simply too vast for language. I’m sobered by how vulnerable that whole auditorium full of families is, but how they do not know it. How luminous the boy Justin is to whom the Parker Bradford Spirit Award is given. How magnanimous the school has been to our family, how empathetic. How utterly vital a healthy school community is for families, especially those in transition. How we could have used that these last two years.

Above all, I’m struck by how quickly it’s over––the presentation of the award itself, the graduation, the passage, this life.

How I have been here before. How everything is different.

How, because everything is different, I vow to do things differently this time.

How, for this passage, I’ll truly be there for my family.  

Which means that for a little while at least –– for however long it takes –– I won’t be here.

On the Pont des Arts, Paris.

On the Pont des Arts, Paris, before the bridge became weighted with the love locks that distinguish it today.

 

 

 

 

Unpacking From Prague: Women’s International Network

Let’s hear it for Reality/Dream Mashups.

Our last post anticipated leaving for and taking part in a global conference called W.I.N. (Women’s International Network) held this year in Prague. Back on that page, I dreamt myself into the hours and days ahead as I would arrive in my hotel room, unpack gear and gown for that conference, and line up my photos of family and special ones of our son, Parker. All of this was supposed to prefigure a personal dream-fulfillment of speaking publicly on my research and writing about both global living and living after loss.

So, just to return and report: Things didn’t go exactly as I’d dreamt.

They went better.

Everyone beat their own Sewa Beats djembe.  "Sewa": unity, service, joy.

Everyone beat their own Sewa Beats djembe. “Sewa”: unity, service, joy.

Quickly, let me tell you about the women, the ideas, the spirit, the music, the presentations, and the splendid city of Prague. What a week. . .

Kristin Engwig, social entrepreneur and founder of W.I.N., presents awards to women from Norway, Turkey and Nigeria.

Kristin Engwig, social entrepreneur and founder of W.I.N., presents special awards

. . .A week that began (small detail) without the aforementioned luggage. . .

Special award winners

Special award winners from Norway, Turkey and Nigeria

. . .And continued when Dieter-with-the-silky-customer-service-voice spoke from my hotel phone: “We regret to tell you, Mrs. Bradford, that we somehow have no record. . .at all. . . of your luggage.”

Which is when Maya Angelou’s even silkier voice slid into mind:

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

(See entire quote here)

So I gathered my few adrenalin-swollen, anxiety-twitching wits, channeled Angelou, and reframed both my expectations and the outlines for my two presentations. (Because in addition to my clothing for the week, I happen to have packed all my lecture notes, additional literature, and important talisman family photos in that one missing bag.)

Besides Angelou, I also channeled two generations of pioneer stock. And by darn, I found that one can squeeze a lot out of a bar of hotel soap the size of an Oreo.

Here’s what’s interesting. As soon as I got my mind and spirit settled and my Dreams compressed to Reality (i.e., this opportunity was not going to fulfill my high-pitched dreams; my presentations would be spotty and unpolished and I’d too closely resemble those pioneer forbears of mine after five days in recycled jeans and stinky boots), then it seemed everything trundled right along, sort of obliviously. Seamlessly. Like an empty luggage carousel.

The W.I.N. conference got rolling and I got swept up in it. Everywhere there were interesting, energetic conversations with leaders from backgrounds as numerous and diverse as their 75 nationalities: An entrepreneur from Kosovo; A girls’ school founder from India, another from Bhutan; a leading politician from Iceland, another from the Czech Republic; a researcher from Mongolia, another from Nigeria; corporate heads from all over Europe, mothers who are mentors, consultants, physicians, and writers; daughters who are film makers, painters, vocalists; sisters who are environmentalists, economists, pianists; and everyday marvels who are mountaineers and ultra-athletes (which title, in case you wondered, is given to those who run 315 km in 50 hours with neither sleep nor rest. And live to speak about it.)

Prague's old city

Prague’s old city

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By the end of our second day of plenary sessions and break-out courses, I’d already sped by foot throughout Prague’s old city, scouting out sumptuous architecture and random sales (for a couple of pieces of basic replacement clothing.)

When I returned to my hotel room, wouldn’t you know it? There stood my lost suitcase, rescued and delivered, as it had been, from the Bermuda Triangle of transiting luggage: the bowels of Charles de Gaulle airport.

Quickly, I changed clothes, hung the rest including that gala gown, organized my lecture notes and stacks of literature, and lined up my family photos. I washed my face, straightened my spine, and raced off to my session where I spoke to people about my writing. And they listened intently. They were extremely gracious toward me.

New friends over lunch

With Lisa and Sherry, new friends sharing lunch

Indian, Bhutanese, Nigerian, French Swiss, Canadian, American of Iranian/Indian descent, English

Indian, Bhutanese, Nigerian, French Swiss, Canadian, American of Iranian/Indian descent, English

The last evening, at midnight, while other conference participants crowded onto the dance floor of this, the Zofin  palace. . .

Zofin palace, Prague

Zofin palace, Prague

Over my head: Zofin palace

Over my head: ornate coffered ceilings of the Zofin palace

Irish, Turkish, Indian. . .

Irish, Romanian, Indian. . .

Majbritt, a beautiful soprano and, as we discovered, Swiss neighbor

Majbritt, a beautiful soprano and financial analyst, and, as we discovered, my Swiss nearly-next-door neighbor

. . .I stepped out onto a veranda with a couple of other women. We needed to catch some air. In the crisp blackness in front of me, my breath swam like liquefied cotton batting, and vanished – dreamily – as I looked out over the Vltava (Moldau) river.

“Changing moon,” the German next to me sighed, throwing her head back, peering upwards at the porthole of speckled white caught in the tangle of chestnut tree branches. “Exceptionally auspicious,” the redhead on the other side of me added. “A very powerful moon. It has pull.”

“And what does that mean? Pull?” I asked, searching for what the others were seeing. Was it pulling, pulsing, that moon? Or was that just the bass from the dance band inside? (And excuse me, but was I hearing a Czech translation of “Shake, Rattle and Roll”? No, but close. It was a Czech translation of “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” A proud moment, to be sure, for my native country.)

“It means,” continued the redhead, wrapping an Indian shawl up over her shoulders, “there could be change coming.”

Change? Like?”

“Like. . .well, you know. You’d better pay attention to your dreams. They can pull you to a new reality.”

More award recipients from all around the world

More award recipients from all around the world

The ribboned river swallowed the moon in pieces as I turned to go back to my hotel. There, I repacked my suitcase (boots, jeans, gown, lecture notes, my sacred family gallery) for the early morning flight and for whatever dreams and realities will rise under the pulse and pull of the next moon.

Landing in Geneva

Landing in Geneva

When a Fellow Expat Mother Reviews Your Book. . .

Ute Limacher-Riebold has a profile that makes one’s eyes pop, glaze over, wink twice, then close with reflection and a bit of – oh, I don’t know – Global Mom reverence. I’ve quietly followed her blog for a while, then recently dared to drum up an offline connection.  Ever since, I have been greatly enriched by our cross-cultural interaction. One of those times where I am indeed grateful for the power of social media.

expatsincebirth

Let me introduce Ute before you click over to her blog, where she has (voluntarily, without my request or prompting!) written a thoughtful and thorough review of my recently published book.

firenzemoms4moms

firenzemoms4moms

Born in Switzerland, she spent her childhood in northern Italy, attended university in Switzerland (completing a PhD in French medieval literature), worked there in the Department of Romance Studies, scooted down to Florence for professional reasons (and had a baby son there), scooted back up to the Netherlands (where her twin daughters were born), and now maintains a rich treasure of a blog, Expatsincebirth.

scienceillustrated.com

scienceillustrated.com

Yes, as you guessed, Ute is a polyglot.  She masters German, Italian, English and French, and in turn considers herself a comfortable coalescence of all of these cultures.  No doubt her Dutch is nearly as impeccable by now, and she, her husband and her children (all multilingual, as well) are flavored by the Dutch language and culture, too.  Her life experiences offer a strong model for the kind of nomadic, borderless living that is becoming more and more common.

mondial.infos

mondial.infos

I’ll be returning in future posts to Ute and similar writers and mothers. Their global outlook and multicultural life experiences will surely inspire a holistic view of how to navigate this fascinatingly diverse and ever-shrinking world.

**

Do you know families like this, who move between countries, cultures and languages?

Are you one? Tell us about it.

What do you imagine the costs are for such fluidity?

The benefits?

If you happen to live a more localized life, what things would be hardest to sacrifice to have such global experiences?

And what about localized living would you not mind giving up?

What’s Our Destiny? Thoughts on Epigenetics While Bumming Around Provence

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Driving the plane tree-canopied Roman roads of southern France with my parents last week, I noticed in my peripheral vision that my mom, sitting next to me in the back seat, was gripping the door handle.

Why the grip? I thought. She’s buckled in, there’s no one else on this road, Randall’s a safe driver, and we’re cruising this long, straight line. 

Mid-thought, I realized I was gripping my door handle, too. Exactly like her.

I also saw my mom was chewing gum. (I dislike gum-chewing.)

And mid-thought, I realized I was mid-chawnk.

She’s so animated, I’d been noticing all week, and look at her whip up a conversation with any stranger. Like me, my kids say.  And just like the way she used to call for us – operatically, throughout our little Utah neighborhood –– “Oh, Daaaaaltons! Come to diiiinner!” –– she sings my son’s name to get his attention: “Oh, Dalton! Come to dinner!”

Just. Like. Me.

Then I looked at my Dad, sitting in front of me in that car. Strong brow, concave temples, intense eyes, I thought.  And what’s this man got against sleep?

An instant, and in the rear view mirror I caught my own eyes staring back at me: riveted. Emphasized by those sunken temples. Underslept. My Dad’s mesmerizing green-blue-gray bloodshot.

In Rousillon, France

In Rousillon, France

I used to draw caricatures, and when I was a teenager, I did one as an anniversary gift to my parents.  It featured me as a hybrid of my Mom and Dad: Dad’s brow, Mom’s chin, Dad’s eyes, Mom’s hair, Dad’s fast gait, Mom’s theatrical voice, Dad’s cold fingers, Mom’s wide feet.

I looked like Quasimodo in drag.

What I couldn’t draw as a teenager is what fascinates me more today. There are all these parental qualities I mirror, the ones no one can see or hear or measure in a caricature: My strong inclinations toward the spiritual. My voracious curiosity.  My sometimes flamboyance, my former brooding. My perfectionism. My anxiety.  My sweet and salty composite self that, in ways still being revealed to me, are reflections of not only my beloved parents, but my parents’ parents, and their parents’ parents. And theirs. And theirs. Farther back that I can comprehend.

I am them all.

in Yvoire, France. Dad and his camera.

In Yvoire, France. Dad and his camera.

. . .And his camera. . .

. . .and his camera. . .

Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France.  Daughter, Dad, camera.

Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France. Daughter, Dad, camera.

Maison Carrée. Daughter, Dad's camera.

Maison Carrée. Daughter, Dad’s camera.

When pregnant with our eldest, Parker, I had an ultrasound.  I forgot completely to check for the tell-tale plumbing showing gender, because what gripped me most – what flipped me out! – was this little thing that had to do with our baby’s hand.  The technician didn’t understand why I gasped, squealed, then grew teary: There in a swimmy, uterine vision, was that small, 5-month-old left hand, fisted (could this be true?) with the thumb tucked between the pointer and middle finger.

Just like his father.

(Next time you sit next  to Randall during a long meeting or airplane ride, take a look at his thumbed fist.)

Out walking. No one can outwalk us.

Out walking. No one can out-walk us.

. . .even on crutches. . .

. . .even on crutches. . .

“A woman is her mother/That’s the main thing,” wrote poet Anne Sexton.

A woman is her father, too.  And a man is his mother, and his father, a baby his daddy.  And we are our grandfathers, our grandmothers. We are all composites of someone, most often someone totally unknown to us, whose eyes, voice, gait or grip (on a car handle or on a thumb) we have inherited.

The question is, how?

Scientists in the field of genetics used to insist that a double helix was the essential tree of life, that DNA was destiny, and although a pretty twisted ladder, it was an unyielding one that linked generations to each other. That stance says that we are inextricably and irrefutably the result of our bundle of wiring, however prickly or sleek that might be making you feel right about now.

While that camp was nailing down that truth, anthropologists were telling us something else; that zip code, not genetic code, was our true destiny. That geography, (meant broadly or specifically), determines who you and I will become.  We can escape (or overrule) our genetic print-out by changing our environment.  Drug lords and sociopaths and saints and poets aren’t bred, they’re cultivated, and that cultivation implies culture. Tweak culture (through revolutions, political uprisings, schooling campaigns, a move to the burbs) and you’re tweaking generations of humanity. If nothing else, one can at least lean that DNA ladder on a different wall.

Behavioralists piped in. They argued that nurture, not nature and not society at large, determined the composite person. I grip the car door handle or sing my children home, not because I am neurologically wired to do so, and not because I sprang from a western culture where cars and singing are a norm, but because I was nurtured by a mother who holds tight and sings well. Caring contact, say the behavioralists, (like regular physical caressing and cooing during infancy – or the opposite, isolation and other forms of brutality) will “make” a certain person. They went further to say that enough caressing can greatly soften, even straighten, a dangerously kinked-up double helix.

You’re way ahead of me in this already, and you’re thinking, no, neither DNA, environment nor nurture have made you who you are. You have a will. And this cast iron will of yours has made you into the intelligent, compassionate, resourceful survivor you feel you are today. You are the czar of your destiny. You have overcome. You’ve mastered your genetically inherited temper, waistline, anxieties and ingrown toenails. You’ve risen from the rot of the projects, or you’ve not let the excessive wealth in which you were raised rot out your core. You’ve shaped a life around trust, love and service, although you were abused, neglected and abandoned. With such a will, you know you’ll overcome the rest.

Whatever you believe with regards to how we become who we are – DNA, geography, nurture, human will – there’s something new to consider. Its implications are huge. I talked my husband’s ear off while we jogged and walked the dusty paths of Provence last week, an apricot sunrise oozing over the silver-sage shimmer of olive trees. Here’s the thing:

All those notions are right, partially.  Our genetic imprint is central to, but not exclusively responsible for, who we are.  DNA is not rigid.  It is smudgy. It morphs. DNA is a pliable genome, a wobbly ladder. How does it change?  Through social processes. That includes our zip code, our relationships, and our choices.

The study of epigenetics (the interplay of biological and social processes on our genes) suggests convincingly that both our immediate and intimate environments as well as our will (choices) can override our genetic code, or at least change that code markedly.  Like you, maybe, I wasn’t surprised to learn this, since I’ve seen it in myself and in others. Change is possible, even change on the deepest cellular levels, the change and evolution of one’s nature. It’s just nice to find scientific research to validate my personal convictions.

“People used to think that once your epigenetic code was laid down in early development, that was it for life,” says Moshe Szyf, of McGill University in Montreal. “But life is changing all the time, and the epigenetic code that controls your DNA is turning out to be the mechanism through which we change along with it. Epigenetics tells us that little things in life can have an effect of great magnitude.”

What does this mean? This means we don’t only have some control over our genetic legacy, but we carry a great deal of responsibility.  As one researcher notes:

“Epigenetics is proving we have some responsibility for the integrity of our genome. . .Before, genes predetermined outcomes. Now everything we do—everything we eat or smoke—can affect our gene expression and that of future generations. Epigenetics introduces the concept of free will into our idea of genetics.”

With Mom, Sénanque abby.

With Mom, Sénanque abby. No, she and I did not plan our matchy-matchy outifts.

So! . . .

Sooooo . . . Where did I arrive at the end of this long Provençal walk?  And what conclusions can we draw from studies of DNA, nature, nurture and epigenetics?

First, it’s all fascinating, and second, I’m not done discussing it here on the blog.

Lastly, for me it is, as are all things, understood best in its personal application, which is where I’ll end today:

I love my parents.  How can I even begin to express the ferocity, the devouring and sweet knee-buckling tenderness I have for them? I love them. Even if for the cynic this means, maybe, I’m merely loving myself as their genetic reflection.

(What. Ever.)

In all reverence and daughterly clumsiness, I thank my parents, married 56 years this month, for being who they are, for finding one another all those years ago, for remaining together and devoted to us children (and our children, and their children to come) all these long years.

I honor them – and the whole spiraling ladder of their parents before them – for watching carefully not only what they did or didn’t smoke and eat, but what they imbibed and ingested symbolically.  The woman I am is, to a great extent, their human and spiritual epigenetic imprint, indebted eternally to them. They’ve kept a tight grip and held an intense (though sometimes bloodshot) eye on the road, as we’ve cruised this good life together.

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Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad.

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How are you a hybrid of your parents? Grandparents? Culture(s)? Teachers? Mentors?

What other factors influence your nature/spirit/humanity?

Leave a note for your parents here, and copy them on this post!

Judging a Book By Its Cover: A Bit of the Backstory

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How does a book cover like this happen?

First, you live the story.  You move with your partner’s professional positions to several different countries, raising a family all along that bump-‘n’-swerve road, picking up languages and friends and a strange mashup of social codes on the fly, keeping a flimsy grip on your sanity some of the time, discovering depths of experience and breadth of  understanding most of the time, acquiring the kind of training that stretches and reshapes you and galvanizes your scraggly gaggle of a family, welding you to each other, to humanity, to this planet.

This life fits you. You fit it. So much so, you can’t imagine anything else, and you fling yourself again and again into the swirl, even forgetting to wash your hair the week of that sunny Sunday morning when your friend, Parson School of Design student Erin, calls up, singing, “The light’s good today, guys! Want to get some candid fam shots by Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower on our way to church?”

You’re busy writing all these years, of course, because that is what you do. (Far more than you wash your hair, if you really have to know my grooming habits). You’re writing about this life and how it yanks and pumices and oils your soul.  And then you discern, as you approach a decade of this nomadic life, a distinct inner voice that says you need to get this written into a book.  So you begin capturing the first phase of your nomadic family spiel, the move from Broadway to Norway. “Now is the time to write this story,” the voice persists. “You won’t have another chance like this.  Capture your early family right now, in this unfiltered light.”

So you obey the nudge, and you sit and write that book.  On a big Norwegian table placed squat in the middle of your Paris apartment, you sit.  You write so much you feel frustrated because, zut!, Paris is out there! Why crouch with your back to it, writing? (Because doesn’t everyone in Paris do just this? Crouch somewhere writing while the tourists stride around town?)

A band of motley literati friends critiques your pages.  You change things, change them again, change again and again and realize your own written voice sometimes gets on your nerves. You need a major break from yourself. You need to pack that voice into industrial-sized envelopes and get it into someone else’s ears. You send these fat envelope babies to a bunch of fine publishers with offices in big American cities.  Seventeen of them.  Even before you lick the stamps, you’re feeling like a fool, not to mention a misfit in the face of those distant, hard-edged cities and their mysterious publishing fortresses.  They loom and intimidate, those fortresses, leaving you sleepless and self-flagellating, needing as treatment the equivalent of fity hour-long heated eucalyptus oil full body rubs of reassurance.

Not a one of the seventeen publishing fortresses opens their drawbridge.

All the rejection letters are variations on one polite theme: “We wish you only the very best in your future writing endeavors.”

Well, see? What did I tell everyone?  

So, you tuck that manuscript away, way in the bottom of one of the 400+ boxes you’ve packed to leave your several years in Paris for a new life chapter in Munich.

And the next week, three days into a vacation in the States, and one day after visiting your eldest at his first college dorm, you get a phone call.

That call sends your story – all stories  you’ve ever known or written or told – into a screeching spiral which in its blackwash vortex sucks the air out of the universe. Your story – the old one pinned on paper and crammed in the bottom of a cardboard box, or the new story that your body writes as it crawls through coldening tar – feels massively irrelevant.  There is no more story.  There are no more stories.  There is no use in telling. There is nothing. Everything you now know is unwritable. What remains?  All there is, is loss.

**

Four years later, you’re quietly aware that even though you now live in Singapore where the air is as humid as living in the drying cycle of your dishwasher, there is somehow air to breathe. The cosmos has stopped screeching, reeling and jerking, and in soundless streamlets it has begun to fill back up with meaning. Not the meaning it had before. But meaning far more dense, immutable, textured like a freight rope lassoed around the underside of reality.  Though at times inexplicable, there is a story happening, a weighty narrative materializing as if it were writing itself, drawing you onward.  You write it out, riding it out, the story, and as you do, you move with it.

Your husband, the one you feared at times wouldn’t survive the vortex or its ghostly post-ravage landscape, is regaining traction.  He can laugh and joke and walk upstairs without getting winded.  Then one day, from out of the blue, a noted scholar contacts him, asking him to be one of several subjects for her book on lives like yours; nomadic but anchored lives that circle and recircle the globe.

He agrees. He does the interview. The scholar publishes her book, Cultural Agility, and it quickly becomes a seminal work in the field.

Wise and brilliant friends are constantly encouraging you to keep going, keep writing your stuff, keep knocking on fortress doors. When one such friend suggests you might tap-tap on the door of a publishing house that is just that – a house or a cottage literally, and not a fortress – you end up sitting in the CEO’s kitchen. The man is accessible, responsive and committed to producing your work.  He doesn’t just want to publish it (although he’s eager to do that); he wants to discuss it.  He even wants (get this) to take part in editing it himself.  You Skype at all hours from your opposing sides of the planet, discussing both the literary endeavor as well as the business aspects of such a book project.

“You’ll need to do some things,” Mr. CEO publisher says in one of countless Skype sessions, “which might not be comfortable at first.  Like, you’ll need to begin a blog.

Panic sits on your shoulders like a silverback gorilla in full heat, and you say something to the effect of, “Other options, sir? Like, let’s see. . . swimming around the whole of Australia? Through shark infested waters? In a Lady Gaga suit make of raw sirloin?” You’ve fought long and hard to reenter the world. But enter the virtual world?  That kind of exposure? Can you do that and not disintegrate? You begin chanting an Homeric epic saga about all the reasons blogs (and perhaps publishing altogether) are not for you.

“Start a blog right now,” kindly CEO sir says. “No later than next week.  Right when you begin your move from Singapore. And,” he adds, “I’m sending a contract right now.  Get me your finished manuscript in six months.”

Soon you have all these blog-followers, and you are carefully thriving in that connectivity, and these follower-friends begin chiming in on the progress of the book. (They’re even bossy about designing the cover. They simply take over.)

The scholar who quoted your husband in her book? She’s now quoted on the cover of yours.  Her blurbs are enough to make you run for cover, (neither you nor your own children would ever call you a “role model for all parents”), but you’re hoping everyone will overlook the endorsements’ effusiveness and focus on that darling little ISBN tattoo.

And this time around your twelve-year-old takes your photo for the back cover. For which event, thank goodness, you decide to wash your hair.

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Global Mom: Madame, Vos Trésors!!

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Fête de la Musique”)

**

Dear Mom and Dad,

I write from a hotel where I’m staying as of today until Monday when I fly to Munich. Packed the house all week. Sent off Kristiina and her kids Thursday morning. Hard goodbye for me. R will flee with the kids to Zaki’s in Provence while I finish up all the messy boring moving details here. Cleaned and spackled today, walked around an echoing apartment and remembered 4 years ago arriving alone to an echoing apartment, the ordeal of getting our Norwegian table through the windows, the crazy and hilarious moving team, the growth in our family, the depths of my friendships here, and I realized all the things I have learned during these critical 4 years, the gifts of wisdom I hardly deserve. Before they left, R and the children and I knelt in the middle of our empty living room, so strange, to offer a prayer of thanks for the gift of that home, of the years we were blessed to spend there. All the miracles. You know some of them. I’m giving the main sermon in church tomorrow (on seeking for wisdom and not for riches), then will do the official apartment walk-through on Monday morning. I’ll ship Parker’s big African drum to you after that, please be watching for it; he’ll want it at university if he can play it and not get in trouble for the disturbance. That thing is loud! After that, I’m thinking I’ll probably walk the streets feeling wistful, so wistful I can hardly formulate words. Then I’ll fly to Munich late afternoon because goods arrive Tuesday morning and we unpack all week . . . and so forth and so forth until I fly to meet up with all of you and the kids in Utah on July 14th. Have been overwhelmed with work for so many weeks (months?) now, that I haven’t really allowed myself to feel very much about this departure. Now I’m so completely clotted with warm fluid feelings. I think my earlobes are waterlogged.

Love you both always and see you very soon!

 

Grandma visiting, Parker, Claire, the Sorenson children, Kristiina

Grandma visiting Parker, Claire, the Sorensons, including Kristiina

And so that late Parisian June evening of the Fête de la Musique, I had been standing with my family on a bridge. A day later, I found myself alone, standing at a crossroads. It was a literal crossroads, the moment I am describing now, since I was standing in front of our building, which stands at an intersection, and the extra-large moving truck with its forty- cubic-meter container was parked there, too. We were leaving an epoch, a densely blessed whirring Camelot of a time, we all knew it, and I was balancing all that emotion with the practical necessity of overseeing the countless details of clearing out our apartment and making sure every last gram of our material lives was packed into a box that would roll out the very next morning heading for Munich, Germany.

I’d sent Randall and the children off in the car to say neighborhood goodbyes and pick up baguettes still hot and crusty from Secco, our local boulangerie. They timed it so they would show up to see off our moving crew, a spicy mix from the banlieue of Paris, headed by a great, burly fellow whose charm and salt-and-pepper eyebrows were equally luxuriant.

As that leader clamped shut the massive lock on our container parked in teeny Rue du Colonel Combes, he raised his voice and arms in a dramatic flourish, smacked the hind end of the trailer, and pronounced to the skies, “Madame, vos trésors!!” Madame, your treasures. In that very same instant, Randall rounded the corner in the Renault, kids hanging out windows wielding baguettes, waving, whooping, “Bonjour, Maman!!” like a chorus of French school children.

“Non, Monsieur,” I responded, an eye on the family van, “Voici mes trésors.” No, sir. These are my treasures.

In that serendipitously choreographed moment, I truly felt what I was saying as it caught in my throat, and I thought I knew just how completely those gangling arms and hoarse voices were my true treasures. I knew that if my forty-cubic-foot, padlocked trunk of treasures drowned in the blue black of some ocean, I’d survive it well because I knew what was most precious. And what’s more, I had it. Precious and irreplaceable. My treasure. My treasured family. I had every last one of them.

 

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Global Mom: Monsieur B., Part II

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Monsieur B., Part I”)

. . .[Monsieur B.] heaved a sigh and then, stretching upward his five knobby fingers, twinkled those blue eyes: “I’ve lived through this many wars, an occupation, my bride’s death, changes I could have never imagined would have happened in my lifetime. Capucine will survive, too.” And he smiled that smile.

**

credit: parisperfect

credit: parisperfect

. . .We returned to our apartments Monsieur B. and Madame B., those parallel universes split by a sliver of flooring. Against a backdrop of the Monsieur’s serenity, my native country’s vibrating map of red and blue “moral values” throbbed a garish neon nuisance across my mind—a mind already fuzzy from weeks of breath- holding over teetering politics, months of being on the global political alert.

That night in the Bradford’s cosmos, life felt so slightly perilous and slap-dash, with our six jostling bodies whirring like asteroids, weaving and whipping through what should have been a bedtime routine – our night time orbit — but which felt to me, at least, more like an enactment of chaos theory. Certainly the galaxy was off kilter, the Milky Way curdling, I thought, with our earth stuck in a hiccup rather than expelling her usual steady breaths. How could Monsieur B. just shrug off the recent events as “mere politics” when, as I was convinced, the whole globe was convulsing and reeling toward ruin?

credit: retinacandy

credit: retinacandy

Then, at nine on the dot, the Monsieur’s street shutters rattled their regular racket. Our Grandfather Clock incarnate chimed. A wad of laundry in my arms, I stopped for an instant to absorb the ritual beneath my feet, that common constancy like so many other banal patterns in a day, which, when noted anew, pin infinity in place and set fretting aright. In his cozy retreat from the world, Monsieur must have at least believed he was invulnerable to it, I reflected. And at his age, I thought, what else? Lining the level above his, all our shutters were agape as they always were, allowing our garrulous glow to flood the streets, whatever part of our private lives was not under wraps.

credit: 123rf

credit: 123rf

He’d watched foreigners come and go, Monsieur B. He’d seen the old open market that was once supplied by the boatmen delivering goods on the banks of the Seine one block northward razed to make way for the Senegalese Embassy and the Erik Satie music conservatory. He’d watched an adjacent villa converted into the bland headquarters of the American University in Paris and had heard the choir rehearsals, aerobic classes and karaoke nights through the wide-open stained glass windows of the American Church across the street. He’d heard more and more English-speakers just outside his windows asking for directions to the Eiffel Tower, (two blocks that way) or Napoleons’ tomb (two blocks the other way). He’d witnessed the high-pitched spectacle of four sweat-slippery men cursing in chorus at each other and at their weave of pulleys and cables holding our dangling long table which was to be hoisted through our windows. He’d quietly tolerated restrained ruckus, my occasional high-heeled prancing and Parker’s gym-shoed thudding overhead, and had graciously avoided even the most subtly judgmental political commentary as Franco-American tensions simmered and at times passed the boiling-over point. And he didn’t grow the least bit hysterical when his own French presidential elections kicked up dust in our own neighborhood, where camera crews interviewed candidates, pundits, the local political in crowd. There I was, practically salivating with curiosity at the whole scene, and there was Monsieur B. watching silently from his window, his ascot tucked in his camel blazer, a cup of coffee held in the right hand, the saucer in his left.

Stalking our flat that late autumn night, tidying room after room, I was ashamed that our comparatively super-sized portion of dwelling space was super-imposed, squat, right over the head of this frugal Frenchman. I cringed, feeling personally responsible for the astronomical U.S. deficit. Then I also thought of the thriving terrorist cell, which French intelligence had just exposed and exploded in a northeastern sector of Paris, eight Metro stops from our door.

To what end, shutters? To what end, self-imposed blinds? Was this gracious neighbor, this truly gentle man, what U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld had in mind with his pejorative, “Old Europe”? And did French foreign minister, Michel Barnier have a chance at realizing a “New Day” in Franco-American relations, where an alliance wasn’t always tantamount to absolute allegiance, but where mutual respect reigns, and where, as Monsieur B. once said, “we value one another in a community?”

credit: parisiensalon

credit: parisiensalon

To be sure, in a few hours some version of the next day would break, and I’d be counting on the 8:00 a.m. downbeat from Monsieur B.

(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Sitting in a Franco-American Political Hot Seat

After a week of real time traveling with Global Mom on the road through Poland (thanks so much for coming along, by the way), we’re back to our excerpts of Global Mom: A Memoir.

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Should I refresh everyone on where we’ve been here at the blog?  Last series of excerpts, we’d just finished a dense three years of moving home and/or country every few months.  We’d been in Versailles, had moved to a village called Croissy-sur-Seine, Randall had promptly moved to the US to commence work at company HQs in New Jersey,  I had followed over half a year later with the four children, we had reentered The Homeland (which entailed buying our first – and only – home, refurbishing it for what we thought would be the rest of our  mortality in that place), then, eight months into that life and two weeks after the grout had dried on the tiles in a new kitchen, we were offered a position in Paris.

We took it.

Another international move.

(I’m counting, but I believe that’s three major moves, including two international ones, in fewer than three years.)

This move was from the sprawling space, ease, convenience and  homogeneity of The American Dream to the heart of Paris and a sweltering Europe-wide heatwave, in the middle of which I stood while our waterlogged transoceanic container drained sea silt, a jelly fish or two, and most of our destroyed belongings out onto Rue du Colonel Combes. Our new “chez nous.”

It took several months to get our footing in Paris. By that, I mean that I hit a reinforced concrete wall of overwhelmdom.  Knocked flat for a spell and sinking a bit every day, I sought help (Mr. Psy and a week of teeny blue pills), circled Les Wagons, and steadied myself.  In the nick of time.  The last excerpt you read promised we were galloping  right into”Camelot.”

And so, voilà!  Part of “Village en Ville”, Chapter 16 from Global Mom: A Memoir. . .

**

New Year's Eve, Parker and friends, on the Quai D'Orsay.

New Year’s Eve, Parker, his  brothers and friends, on the Quai D’Orsay.

The Quai D’Orsay runs right along the left bank of the Seine and is roughly the French political equivalent of America’s Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s where one finds France’s primary governing body, l’Assemblée Nationale, housed in a grand neoclassical building that stands right at the mouth of the Pont de la Concorde, close to where the seventh arrondissement, or district, eases into the sixth. By partial accident and tremendous providence, we’d landed one street south of Quai D’Orsay. We were in a political hot seat.

To our left was the Eiffel Tower, icon of audacious French inventiveness and skyscraping pride. Surrounding us were the Senegalese, Austrian, Romanian, Finnish, South African, Swedish and Georgian embassies. Our apartment shared a wall with the central offices of the American University of Paris, two streets away in one direction was the American Library of Paris, and farther in the other direction, Napoleon’s tomb and the Musée D’Orsay. Immediately to our right was the American Church of Paris, seat of the Societé Franco-Américane, and that just about sums up our part of Paris.

In spite of Jacques Chirac’s touching expressions of support after the World Trade Center attacks, (“Nous sommes tous les Américains”, “We are all Americans”) Franco-American relations were tense following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a move the French (and most Europeans) found unsubstantiated and rash. I tell you all this to underline how we’d literally landed not only in the center of a politically stimulating neighborhood, but had done so in a moment in history when being an American in Paris was loaded with consequence.

Church friends making music

Church friends making music

As had always been the case everywhere we moved, we eventually eased into serving and worshipping in our church community. The congregation we attended met in a small rented meetinghouse in the narrow Rue St. Merri between Notre Dame and the Pompidou Center, and proved to be a cultural mix like we’d never know before and have never known since. There were as many non-French members as there are native French. Once I actually took count: among the one hundred fifty members there were seventeen native tongues. French with every accent you can think of or make up.

Our bishop, or pastor, who was married to a German, was born in former Serbo-Croatia to a French mother. His Italian, Russian and English were as solid as his German, Serbian, Croatian and French. His assistants were two men from Madagascar and the U.S. The presidencies of the women’s and youth organizations were composed of a Malagasy, an Ethiopian, a Romanian, an Iranian who’d converted from Islam, members from the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, the Congo, Angola, South Africa, Ghana and California. Working in the nursery with the youngest children were a Finn who spoke French, Swedish and English, a Swede who spoke Croatian, German, French and English, and myself, an American, who spoke French, German and Norwegian. We were overseeing children who spoke Spanish, French, English and Croatian. And the missionaries, young men and women from America, mostly, but also from France or other western countries, were bringing more and more Mandarin-speaking investigators of the church, students from mainland China and Taiwan, to meetings. When, on top of all these visitors, tourists also flooded our congregation, (which was a regular thing from April to October), everyone fought over the earphones through which we members would give simultaneous translation from French, the lingua franca of our congregation, into whatever language was required. That was primarily English but sometimes was another European tongue. French to German. French to Russian. French to Spanish. When enough Chinese members began attending, special rites like the sacrament (similar to taking the Eucharist) were performed both in French as well as in Mandarin.

The effect of all these cultures crowding into one cramped place made the overflowing facilities look like a general meeting for the U.N. Or, given the microphone head sets, a rehearsal for a Madonna concert tour.

Parker, Claire, Dalton and church friends

Parker, Claire, Dalton and church friends

At home, Claire’s flute teacher spoke French with a Mexican accent. Our temporary live-in student spoke French with a Colombian accent. And Parker’s petite amie (or crush), was native Peruvian, but had lived most her life in Paris and thus spoke French with no accent whatsoever and spoke no English at all. Parker, like the rest of us, was at home in all this, as comfortable as a you’ve ever seen a teenager, back in his circle at the American School of Paris (ASP) playing the drums in three ensembles (jazz, rock and orchestra) and on the weekends with his friends at impromptu percussion gatherings at le Trocadéro overlooking the Eiffel Tower, or on le Pont des Arts overlooking the Seine.

Parker and school friends

Parker and school friends

He also played basketball in the pick-up basketball games with the local guys (Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, Egyptian, and Lebanese) who gathered on Saturday mornings at the Champs de Mars, and with one of his best friends from school, (the captain of the basketball and volleyballs teams for which Parker became co-captain), he set up a volleyball sand pit near the Eiffel Tower. He was our resident PPE, or Paris Public Expert, who could shepherd brothers, sister, friends, and strangers on the street and befuddled tourists to whatever place they needed to reach via public transportation.  Paris quickly became his town, the place to which he swore he’d one day return as an adult to live out the rest of his life.

I

I

(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Burying the Bar

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from the last post, “Mr. Psy”)

Louvre pyramid against gray skies

That I didn’t take the rest of those blue pills does not in any way mean I judge anyone else for taking theirs. I know that for many of my friends they are necessary – without a question life-saving. Nor do I judge my benevolent Montessori mother friend who’d suggested them in the first place.

Luc at Montessori

Luc at Montessori

It just means I could not function so well for my family as a muted cello or dulled bell living in a chalky mirage. I preferred, believe it or not, functioning like the wrung out metallic wad of last year’s tube of Colgate because even if it was curled, pressed flat, emptied-out, and pasty, well at least I could feel it.

So I tried another approach. I took ahold of the bar I’d rigged (again) too high above my head. I lifted it out of its slot and lowered it down. A notch. Or four. I closed my eyes, literally, to the complete disarray I’d been trying to dig through and work around. And I walked out.

At 6:00 a.m. five days a week, in fact, I walked out and ran several kilometers along the Seine with my husband.

Then I lowered the bar another notch. I stopped tidying and list-making and got to bed by ten o’clock. Every single night.

I figured out ways to simplify some basics, like I ordered groceries online and had them delivered to my kitchen floor. I relinquished control over that part and other parts of my existence. I let things go – I let so many things go – lowering the bar another notch.

I ate carefully and regularly. (I have never since eaten lapsed yogurts with pretzel shavings).

I slowed down to read, very slowly, sacred scripture without fail every day and for at least thirty minutes at a time. I prayed in a steady stream. Or at least I listened inwardly in a steady stream. I let God pour His love into my open tank.

I did not immediately take on any major volunteer positions at school or at church, as had always been my tendency. I let other people volunteer for a while since they obviously wanted to. That meant I lowered the bar seventy-times-seven notches.

And my beautiful family, including my good parents, who came to stay for a couple of weeks over the holidays, rallied around me. We rallied around us.

Finally, I realized I’d let enough things go so that the bar was ground level. I could even step over it in stilettos. And okay, okay. I took off the stilettos. (I only needed their sharp heels to dig the hole to actually bury the bar.)

With the bar buried, with the permission I gave myself to not achieve or work hard or do things perfectly, with the permission to be broken and hobbling for as long as it took and that that – just existing – was fabulous enough, I grew better. Quickly, you might say.

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In a matter of about a month, actually, I realized I was even whistling (who whistles in Paris?) and smiling involuntarily (and who smiles?), skipping, as I recall, on a Thursday right past this century’s grouchiest old soul, the man who stood guard at the entrance of our parking box two blocks away from Colonel Combes. I skipped, he snarled and hucked a cigarette butt in my path, and I think I might have kicked my lovely heels together leprechaun style just as I winked at him.

Wink-wink, Monsieur.

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Someone might conclude that it was one week of blue pills that pulled me out of the death spiral. I have no hard evidence to the contrary. Could be. And someone else might think, well, duh, it was Paris. Of course she was happy.
But tell me, has that someone actually lived in Paris in January? This is not Happy Land.

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No, I believe something else happened, although I still cannot pin down in its every element what that something was. It had much to do with sleeping more, eating well and exercising reasonably. It also had a great deal to do with asking folks (namely my family) to give me some help, since I am normally a poor model for that. It also had something to do with disciplining myself to be nice and unproductive for a while. Yes, it was all that and something more, and I thank my terrestrial and celestial partners for that something, because that something tugged, shook, and Swedish-massaged my contorted double helix into fresh and hale alignment.

And having such things straightened out would be needful. Because we were galloping right into Camelot.

Portraits courtesy of Audrey White

These four portraits courtesy of Audrey White

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.