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daily fieldnotes » 2013 » July
 
daily fieldnotes

July, 2013 archive

Back Home 3

We are back home in San Francisco, where the redwood trees bend and sway in the cold foggy wind, and the heater is on. From a high of 97 degrees in Spain to a high of 60 with a foggy wind chill. We have lived here for nearly 7 years, and it still surprises me to wear boots, a jacket and a scarf on a July afternoon. I am so glad to be home. But I wish we had more of a real summer here.

I have a post about traveling with toddlers in the works, and another about our last days in Spain. I’ve also been writing about women, work, family and the balance I’m finding. And I have an idea about a series on raising bilingual children, and would love to interview or have guest posts, so if you or someone you know grew up bilingual, or is raising bilingual children, I’d love to talk.

That’s all for now. Time to put this jet-lagged family to bed!

On Writing 4

I do not find it hard to write every day.

Like the explorers of old whose journals have taught us about history, I feel hardwired to write things down, and when I’m traveling, even more. After a very late night with friends talking and arguing over Spanish politics and history, my head hums with ideas. I get up after 2.5 hours sleep, give Basil breakfast, and then sit down and type 1000 words. When we were in London a few weeks ago, I stayed up later than anyone else, writing about the party boats sliding by on the Thames outside the window, the book I was reading, and the meaning of losing oneself in a novel. When I’m at the park with Basil back home, I notice the conversations children have, or the group of nannies I see there every day, and later jot things down in my notebook on the way home.

Gathering material is not the hard part for me. The challenge is turning it into something I want others to read. This is why I blog, and why, since finishing my degree, I have started working more on the craft of writing. I have never had formal training in writing and I feel like I have a lot to learn.

Stephen King says, in his book On Writing, that if you want to be a writer, you should do two things: read a lot, and write a lot. So I read the latest Atlantic cover to cover, noticing how the essays are written. I play around with beginnings for an essay about my research on language and national identity. I re-read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. I go through The Best American Essays 2012 and read the first paragraph of each essay and copy down the first sentence of a dozen. Then I work on my essay, trying to incorporate elements that the best writers use.

Everyone says that if you want to be a serious writer, you need to submit pieces for publication. I feel like I’m in kindergarten when I think about publication. Sure I show up and write, but who am I to publish something? Blogging is wonderful because it’s a place to put my writing out there, and experience how writing is a conversation. It’s a community where I can appreciate others’ writing, and be inspired. It’s a way of practicing the craft of writing, and support others in doing the same.

But blogging every day? I have been trying hard this month since joining Megsie in the challenge. And I am seeing how good it is. How it becomes more of a conversation with other blogging friends. How it has me trying harder to implement what I’m learning about essay writing into my posts. How it pushes me risk a little more, try a little harder.

So I get back on the horse and post, though I’ve missed a day. I think about what my goal will be after July.

And I keep writing, every day.

Pictures from the Week 2

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Over the Hump 2

Yesterday there was a morning walk under the pines, cut short by a squirmy toddler. But not before we heard doves, and saw them perched among the branches. Not before we saw the tall rattlesnake grasses, as high as my shoulder. Not before we felt dry, golden grass against our legs. Not before we heard the sound of our feet crushing crispy brown pine needles. Not before I felt my muscles working as they pushed the stroller up and down the hills, and remembered how a morning walk opens things up like nothing else.

But the day was still long afterwards. Wednesday, the middle of the week. When the heat bears down all day long, it’s easy to go stir crazy. To feel like a prisoner of the air-conditioned house. To crave an outing of any kind. But even a walk around the block or to one of the parks nearby has no appeal when it’s 100 degrees outside. When the black asphalt radiates heat that is almost visible in its intensity.

So in the evening we went to the library. The county library here is in the top floor of the Alcazar, the famous and imposing fortress that reigns over Toledo’s skyline. From the windows there are sweeping views of the city, and the wide open plains beyond. I look through the wooden shutters into the distance and imagine a watchman warning of the approach of an army in the distance in centuries past. Basil jiggles with giddy excitement at the sight of another child, toddling up to him and offering a book. “Hi” he says, and when the other small boy says nothing, he tries “hola”. I smile at the mother and wonder if she’s as glad to have her child entertained as I am, or if I should redirect my enthusiastic little boy.

After the library we went to a park. The parking garage where JJ’s parents have passes hugs the side of the hill by the Alcazar, its roof level with the street next to the fortress. There is a big square on top of the garage, and in the late evening when the sun goes behind the buildings and it finally cools off a bit, children play there. Parents sit along the edges talking and looking down at the river below, or have drinks in the café tucked in one corner. Basil watches a group of boys playing soccer. He follows two little girls riding their bikes around. And then he toddles into the play area and climbs up the slide behind a much bigger girl. I watch his cheerful attention to the other children, and feel guilty for how little he sees other kids here.

Now it’s Thursday and I can feel how things are shifting towards the end of our trip. Basil’s abuela has started saying she can’t wait until he leaves, which is her way of saying how much she’s going to miss him. Abuelo has begun to ask Basil for kisses all the time, linger longer over him at mealtime, and get jealous when we spend time with Great Grandma. JJ comes back from Barcelona tomorrow. We are going home soon, and a sense of possibility has replaced the mid-trip restlessness.

 

Tonight 1

The restlessness continues, fueled by the oppressive heat that keeps us indoors most of the day. Basil still takes two naps, so that keeps us close to home too. He’s still afraid of the water, so the swimming pool is no fun. A storm finally blew through tonight, dropping rain for just 10 minutes but cooling things enough to enjoy being outdoors again. The smell of dried summer grass wet from the rain reminds me of the fog-drenched hills in Northern California right now. The curtains swoop and billow in the wind, and the air feels cooler than it has in days.

There was a visit to Great Grandma tonight. Raindrops on my bare arms as we walked to her house, a ground floor apartment down a narrow cobblestone street in the old town. She has lived there for over 70 years and her house is full of dearly loved china, photos at toddler level, and old-fashioned fans that whip around and entice small fingers to explore. Needless to say, I spent the visit managing Basil, trying to let him look and climb but not break anything. The best was opening and closing the shutter, looking out at the street below, saying “hi” to people passing by.

You parents: how do/did you manage to enjoy visits to non-childproof grandparents’ houses with toddlers? I feel like I need to plan for it like I would plan for a flight, filling my purse with snacks and entertainment. Otherwise, I spend the visit chasing him around telling him “no” like today, and where’s the fun in that?

The Restless Days 5

There’s an arc to every trip here. A recognizable shape that my body knows, and my mind and heart weather. First there are The Arrival Days. Everything is bright and chattery. Phone calls to welcome us, an uncle stopping by, a first trip to the old town to visit Basil’s great grandma. Glorious quiet during Basil’s naps, and time to myself in cool morning breezes. Late nights writing with bare shoulders outside on the porch like right now. Day after day of dresses and sandals, never once taking out the light sweaters I brought.

Then about a week or 10 days in, The Restless Days hit. Suddenly I’ve been away from home long enough. I am tired of how little we do here, how it’s the same day after day. How I’m not working towards anything, and I want to be. How we get not family time just the three of us. How it’s too hot to do anything.

On the first morning after the restlessness comes, I lay down on the cool grass by the lavender and listen to the bumblebees and honeybees at work. I look up at the blue sky and feel the grass prickling my back. I play with Basil and take pictures. By 9 he’s ready for a nap and it’s too hot to be outside much longer. But the pictures of the lavender fill me up the rest of the day. Somehow their wistful purple against the unchanging blue sky captures the yearning I feel.

On Sunday the mid-trip restlessness drives us to brave the furious evening heat to walk around in old town Toledo and get frozen yogurt at our favorite place. The sun had finally left all the main plaza’s benches in the shade. But it was still so hot that I burned the back of my legs sitting down on one stone bench. It was like sitting on the roof of a car after hours of driving. We had to eat the ice cream fast because it turned liquid at the edges with each spoonful. Basil watched other children playing and turned to us for bite after bite. Then we wandered in and out of a couple air-conditioned stores looking at the sales, and I bought a light cotton white sweater appropriate for the more mild temperatures of home.

I came home a little bit renewed. Mostly from the sweet time with just the three of us. But the mid-trip restlessness continues. Today, JJ left on the first train for Barcelona, and I started making lists for my week. What to cook. What to write. Where to go with Basil when my in-laws are off doing their work and activities. It helps a little.

Later this week when JJ gets back we’ll go into the final chapter of the trip, The Last Days. There will be favorite meals made. Technology for JJ to install. Last visits to family and friends. Suitcase conversations three days out. And tears because Basil is more fun every time we come and it’s harder to say goodbye. Every trip has the same arc, the same familiar shape like an old tree outside your kitchen window. The hardest part is the restlessness of these middle days when I’m still firmly here, but wanting here to feel different.

Elegance 2

Isn’t the detail on this porch just full of grace? It’s my favorite place to be in the summer here. All yellows and whites, and bright greens. An amaryllis, spider ferns, impatiens, and marigolds. In the mornings the air is cool, and the wind rustles the tall white curtains. We eat breakfast looking out, the breeze keeping the heat at bay for a little while. I can’t imagine coordinating my own porch so perfectly, or hanging up curtains outside, but they are so beautiful.

Alone with the In-Laws 4

As in-law relationships go, I have a very good one with JJ’s parents.

I know I love them, and they love me. JJ and I have spent a lot of time in Spain since we met nine years ago, so we’ve had ample opportunity to get to know each other. I already spoke Spanish and had lived in Spain for two years when I met them, so we had an easier start than other international families. “Que suerte has tenido” JJ always tells his mom, teasing that she’s lucky I speak Spanish since she knows little English despite private lessons once upon a time. We know each other well enough that we’ve been able to navigate the inevitable clashes over how JJ and I are raising Basil without lingering resentment. Lately, I talk to them as often as JJ does so that they can see Basil over Skype. We’re all comfortable together.

This trip to Spain is more of a business one for JJ. He is spending the weeks in Barcelona, the weekends here in Toledo. It’s the longest time I’ve spent without him at his parents’ house. With Basil at the center of things, it feels easy. I know their routines well, and I have my own here. We all know what to expect of each other.

But I know they’d always rather have their son, just like at the end of the day, I’d rather have my family. It’s the way it is, with in-law relationships. These ties created by marriage. Strengthening the ties, turning them into real feelings of family, takes time and effort. When you are crossing cultural, national, class, political boundaries, it takes a lot of patience and humility too, like learning a new language. And even when you’ve done all that, when the relationship is pretty good, you’re still the in-laws to each other. They didn’t choose you, and you didn’t choose them.

I feel good about the relationship we have. But I know we’re all glad to have JJ home for the weekend.

If you are married, how is your relationship with your in-laws? I’m especially curious, if you crossed some kind of big boundary in your marriage (religious, cultural, etc.), how have you navigated the differences with your in-laws? Do you spend much time with them without your husband or wife?

A Faraway Fourth 2

Evening brings a neighborhood phone tree of yipping dogs, one fierce bark setting off another at intervals. The barks ring out in synchrony with the children’s yells that puncture the air. It’s 10pm, and the sun just set. The sky is a soft steely blue. The cicadas hum in the tall junipers, then stop, until just one is left in the wisteria arbor across the pool. A breeze as gentle as grass blades whispers at the curtains.

Independence Day is a funny holiday to be across the Atlantic. Like Thanksgiving, its ours and ours alone. No fireworks, no BBQs here in Spain. We had breakfast, lunch, and dinner like any other day. The heat pulsed like a July Fourth in Northern California, but the sweetish smell of sparkler smoke did not fill our lungs tonight. When Basil is older, maybe we will do something special for the Fourths we spend here.

Today, we swam instead. In and out of the pool before lunch, then again before dinner. Basil was uncertain about the water. His small body clung to me at first. We hadn’t been in a pool since last summer. But then he warmed up to it. His abuelo grinned at him, and swam to the end of the pool and back, blowing bubbles and making him giggle. In a moment of excitement, Basil lunged from my arms towards his abuelo, dipped his face in the water, and came up crying in surprise.

This is why we’re here. For afternoons like this. So Basil can feel his abuela’s love as he gets wrapped in a bright green towel by the pool. So Basil can feel the happiness he causes when he decides to come back in the pool again, lets his abuelo hold him.

The shadows deepen now, the street lights click on, and the last cicada falls silent. I can hear only silence now, a hum of soft crickets in the distance. The children have gone inside, for their late Spanish dinners, then bed. Just one child across the scrubby meadow calls out now, setting off the dogs again. I lean back and feel my dress get soaked from a wet pool towel hung to dry on the chair behind me. The air still hangs heavy with the day’s heat, so it will dry soon enough.

Each Trip a New Beginning 3

It’s 97 degrees in Toledo, and we’ve just arrived for our annual summer visit. I haul suitcases up the stairs from the garage while the abuelos show Basil his new toys and exclaim over how much he’s changed. JJ prints his train ticket for tomorrow’s business trip to Barcelona, and I get us settled in. I hang up sundresses next to winter coats from the last trip. Stow sandals in the shoe cupboard next to an old pair of sneakers. Organize baby shirts and pants. Then we all go sit outside in the shade with cold drinks and Spanish tortilla sandwiches to talk and watch Basil play.

When you have family on the other side of the world, trips to see them become markers in the seasons of your life, like the first snow signaling the start of winter. Each Christmas, each summer, we decide on our dates. Buy our tickets. Make plans to see friends and family before we leave. Pack our suitcases. Worry over keeping the baby entertained and fed on the flight now that we have Basil. And then we do the nearly 24-hour trip from California to Spain.

The trip itself is always exhausting. Two flights, one 9 ½ hours with a 16-month old. But once we are here, and start settling into a routine, I always feel the possibility in a life lived like this. The ways that having family in two countries stretches you. It makes you cross boundaries more often. Language, culture, food boundaries. There is a way that travel makes you see yourself anew, and these family trips to Spain do that for me. They make me start fresh. Each time I go through the list of things to attend to before leaving, make the trip, and then we’re here. And while the isolation of being far from family and friends can be hard, it also makes me read and write more, and I like that. I like the distance from daily life that comes with being in a faraway place.

Now, with Basil’s milestones marking the passage of time, each trip is even more of a new beginning. Last Christmas, he had just begun to crawl. He was pulling himself up on the dresser for the first time, opening drawers, figuring out how to get up stairs. Now he is walking, exploring each room on his own, climbing up on furniture, holding his Poppy’s hand as we walk through the old town to visit his Great Grandma.

This is the first trip to Spain since I finished my degree. Another new beginning. I’m excited to write while I am here, and see where it leads me. See how the future looks 2 weeks from now when I’m home again. And thanks to Meg’s challenge, and NaBloPoMo, I’m going to share more of the process here this month. See you tomorrow!