Several years ago I went to New Mexico to see friends performing in One Railroad Circus. I stayed in the eccentric enclave of Madrid (not pronounced the way you might think) and the friends warned me to be careful with the locals, a fiercely independent and private sort of folk who protect their territory. We poked around the town, learned about the history of mining, and chatted up the bartender. After we had been there a little while a man with a shotgun on the window of his truck stopped us and thrust his head aggressively while asking what we thought we were doing in town. Byron said we are here for the circus and the man was suddenly all smiles. He said The circus! I love the circus.
One evening at sunset Marisa took up to a mesa to see the graveyard. There were sections of neatly plotted memorials from the pioneer community and the miners. Just past that was the section for the newer members of the town. The graves were decorated with fantastic tributes of all varieties, welded sculptures, pop culture trinkets, mosaics, and sundry other wonderful objects. One grave had a sign etched Out for gas with a burned out gas can and a collection of liquor bottles giving a hint as to the cause of death.
Last weekend I realized it was time to fill up the boat since it is best to have a full tank of diesel before winter commences. The only trouble is that the nearest fueling depot is three or four hours away on the River Great Ouse. This journey would consequently be a serious endeavor, involving opening two locks. Which I did not know how to do. So off to a bookstore, where I purchased guides that served mainly to frighten me, and then early Sunday loaded the boat with children and snacks and set off.
Civilization drops off at the edge of Cambridge. It takes just a few minutes to go from crowded busy streets to deep country, with only the occasional herd of cattle gazing at us as we passed. You can go miles on the river without seeing any people, or even glimpsing a modern road in the far distance. This is not the same kind of rural silence of my childhood. I grew up in the middle of a forest that is hemmed in by salt water bays and inlets. I am used to vast hills, abrupt twisting roads, murky green stands of trees and deep blue bodies of water. The River Cam and the River Great Ouse are by comparison slow and shallow but the contrast between these different landscapes is tremendously interesting.
We passed a few pubs and country houses and found ourselves at the Baits Bite Lock. I jumped off and held the rope while Byron checked that our key worked the box. It did, so the next question became, where were the bollards? We tied the boat down and took our guidebook over to stand next to the unused keepers house and ponder the question. I was reading the chapter on how to operate locks once again when a man hailed us from the other side. He wondered if we had a key? We replied that we had a key but that it was our first time trying to go through. He quickly walked across the footbridge and came down, patted my arm, and then started to rapidly explain all that we needed to know about getting through a guillotine lock. I scrambled on to the boat and pushed off, Byron drove us into the lock, and the nice man shut the gates behind us then opened the next set. He and Byron stood above talking and laughing while the children and I stood in the boat watching nervously as the water level dropped, taking the boat down seven or eight feet. Byron jumped down and we motored away, waving and shouting our thanks.
The next lock was much the same, though we were in a queue and chatted with a new set of interesting strangers. Then we were off again in a vast flat wild landscape, with herons and all sorts of fabulous birds swooping and swimming around us. We waved at other boats when they passed, and eventually found a small private marina next to the Five Miles From Anywhere No Hurry pub (most famously the home of the Upware Republic) that the guide claimed would have diesel. But alas, there was neither an attendant on duty nor any diesel pump to be seen, and the local residents regarded us with suspicion. In the process of turning the boat round we seemed to pick up a snaggle of weeds. Byron did the short term fix of putting the boat in forward and reverse rapidly, but from that point our progress was much more slow. The wind also picked up at that point, making it impossible to know if we had mechanical troubles or if our problem was just the headwind.
Onward, and wondering if we would make it to the next possible source of fuel before closing (because everything closes early on Sunday) we were dazzled by a brilliantly sunny afternoon. The children settled in the cabin and worked on their homework and I wandered around doing necessary tasks. Byron was stuck with the job of steering because at six foot six he is simply too tall to hang out inside the boat.
Eventually we drew up next to the Fish and Duck at Popes Corner. This pub has been serving river trade for nearly eight hundred years, standing sentinel at the junction of three rivers. We had just moored when we turned around and noticed with great surprise the people who sold us the boat. The coincidence that they would drive out to an isolated riverside pub and arrive precisely at the same time we moored was felicitous if not a true miracle. We talked for a bit and after everyone enjoyed refreshments they kindly agreed to teach us how to pull the boat around for fuel. It was quite a tricky maneuver, and it is highly unlikely that we could have done it without assistance.
By the time we finished filling the tank it was nearly four in the afternoon. The entire day had been consumed by our quest for fuel, and we realized that it would be impossible to make it back to Cambridge before dark. We decided it would make more sense to continue on to Ely.
It was a short journey to this Fens city, once an island but now part of the undulating farmland. We moored near the train station and walked to the nearest pub, which might have had greasy bar food but instead offered tasty treats for the whole family and tables above the water. We were mystified by the seemingly derelict ducks that ambled about under the tables and along next to the boats.
After the food we walked up through the park and to the Cathedral and the children gasped at the sunset turning the sky pink behind the enormity of the building.
It took four hours to get to Ely by river and twenty minutes to get back to Cambridge by train. I went to sleep on the boat and dreamed that I was still on the water, going even further down the river.
My throat hurts. And because I had an old-fashioned subtotal thyroidectomy (translation: the doctors sliced me open, pinned extraneous things to one side, and then gouged out as much of the organ as possible without nicking other organs, believing as they did so that the massive tumor was not just malignant but also terminal) my recurrent and superior laryngeal nerves are permanently damaged. This is why I sound like a demented child and have no projection. This is why I lose my voice during book tours. This is also why I lose my voice whenever I catch a cold. Or at least someone told me that once. I tend to think that it is some kind of dreadful curse.
Byron helpfully suggested that I might have caught the hospital superbug during my recent appointment. I have in the past caught various strains of strep, staph, and a vicious case of hepatitis whilst in hospital. But since I didn't touch anything and watched carefully to make sure the doctor put on new gloves before digging around in my mouth, it seems unlikely that I have anything worse than a common cold.
Lots of people were worried that I might not be able to get good medical attention in a nationalized health system. I knew better, because I know exactly how extraordinary my body is. The doctor nominally in charge of me did not even want to hear the details; he just put his head down and started scribbling scripts to send me off to specialists.
Today was my first appointment and it went exactly as I predicted. I was x-rayed and then had a long conversation with a physician who kept shaking his head at each major diagnosis. He wanted a comprehensive history but I shrugged. I'm not even really sure how many surgeries I've had. I can only ante up the bare outline of what has happened, and rarely care to bother with even that much information.
This particular appointment was in the oral surgery clinic and it is always interesting to see inside my damaged mouth. The cysts are easy enough to diagnose when they appear in the mandible, and I knew from a casual glance that the x-ray was clean. The physical exam was brief. I cannot open my mouth wide enough to eat an apple but the degree of mobility I have is considered Excellent! Very good! by surgeons who know that it could be much worse. Several invasive surgeries inside the bone, a dislocation (or two) of the joint, and a fractured cheekbone should have left me in a sorry state. But I'm okay. I just don't eat apples.
Unfortunately going to the doctor leaves me in a black and seething mood. If the news is bad I feel nothing at all. But when the news is good I am calm and precise until I leave the clinic and then I start to rage, silently, over the appalling injustice of living with this illness an entire lifetime.
But I'll forget soon enough. I have never been healthy or without pain, so there is nothing to feel nostalgic about.
I think that I will go work on my boat now.
The day was chilly and grey and it seemed like a good time to try out the woodstove on my boat.
Those of you who know me in real life are probably worried that I set myself on fire. This is a valid concern. But before I started the adventure I made sure that the fire extinguisher was close to hand and the hatch was unlatched in case I needed an escape route.
I was a Bluebird and went to Campfire Girl sleepaway summer camp for years. After that I went to a creepy horse camp. Then I went to a very outdoorsy camp for young writers. During the rest of the year, whenever I was not busy with the whole cancer thing and often when I was fairly ill, my family went camping. We went to the forests, the rivers, the coast. We even planned to camp at the farm when the family convened for my uncles funeral, though on the way a drunk driver hit the side of our vehicle. I was in the back of the truck but the tent and sleeping bags contracted around me, keeping me safely off the highway.
But unfortunately, throughout these adventures, I was not paying attention. I was reading a book. I do not know how to build or tend a fire.
Lucky me the previous owner left the stove in good condition with paper, kindling, and coal already prepared. In theory all I had to do was strike a match and it would all beautifully ignite and merrily twinkle as the cabin filled with heat.
But this is my life, and instead of fire I mostly got lots and lots of smoke. I rushed about opening windows, paced and pondered, trying to remember all of those camping skills I should have picked up. Finally I started to blow at the mess. This once worked to start a VW with a locked engine. Which might seem inconsequential, but somehow was connected in my brain with managing flames.
I have no further explanation. But the fire ignited and started to burn and the kindling lit the coals and for the next several hours I sat next to the stove reading about the evolution of curiosity cabinets and natural history museums.
There are many advantages to living in this new pedestrian way. Picking up the younger child at school is not on the list.
I used to feel awkward around other parents because I was young (and looked even younger). It was difficult to communicate with people who waited until their thirties or forties to have kids. We simply did not have much in common.
Even when I had some kind of organizational status this was a problem. During the Co-op years I participated in governance (and was drafted to be a co-President) but hung out with Polly and Julia and their collective dozens of children in part because we had the fundamental connection of being teen parents. But they were vastly more socially skilled than me and capable of ignoring the things that made me uncomfortable.
Eventually I found Gabriel and we sat in the halls with our heads down, scrawling in our journals. It was like having all the good parts of an adolescent friendship again, and I started to think about my own education. I realized that one of the things I did not enjoy about waiting in the halls was the fact that it was a school. I've now tested this hypothesis and it appears to be true that if people had a bad time at school they do not enjoy visiting schools. Kind of a simple idea.
Now I am by no means the youngest parent in any given group. I am something like average in terms of age, and in this town the strangest thing about my appearance is my spectacles. It is not even a problem that we have the wrong accent; there is a steady turnover of people from all around the world and the kids go to schools that are dramatically more diverse than anything they encountered back home. Yet I still feel just as awkward as I did a decade ago. The problem is apparently me. I do wish that I had the ability to chat.
I also wish that Gabriel could be here.
The visit with Jen was far too brief. We walked around various colleges and checked out the Wren Library. We biked to Grantchester for tea at the Orchard and later went punting on the Cam.
We made dinner and stayed up late talking. It has been sixteen years since we met at Governors' School but the intervening time has not changed either of us as much as I might have predicted. We share a commitment to ethical behavior that can be exacting, but this makes it easy to continue talking to each other.
On Saturday we took the train to London and visited the British Museum and the Tate Modern. I thought the children might be bored but the girl was pleased to see canvases and objects by Dali and Magritte. She liked the David Goldblatt photographs, especially Miss Lovely Legs Competition at the Pick 'n' Play Hypermarket Boksburg 1980. The boy was amazed by the Gerhard Richter Two Greys Juxtaposed and intrigued by the Cy Twombly sculptures.
They nodded over the Anselm Kiefer canvasses Parsifal and Lilith but neither thought much of the Beuys Lightning with Stag in its Glare.
On the train ride home we played hangman and the children amused people with their antics over the game. Neither guessed the solution when I plotted their own last name. Upon seeing L - A - my son guessed lachrymose.
We all got up early to wave goodbye as Jen departed for her conference. It was strange and lovely to wander around with a friend from home.
On Monday, Sept. 20, my editorial partner Maia Rossini and contributor Ayun Halliday will be on the Brian Lehrer Show on NYCÕs NPR station WNYC 93.9 to promote Mamaphonic! TheyÕre scheduled for 10:40 AM Š 11:00 AM EST.
Jen K showed up late last night. She is in the country for a conference and the kids adore her. They swarmed around, competing for her attention, rattling off theories about various subjects. We stayed up past midnight talking about philosophy, and history, and the vicissitudes of medical science. The children interrupted each other and talked in bursts of words, sentences, ideas tumbling so fast I could barely keep up.
Now the children are off to school and the day is bright and chilly. I wonder what parts of Cambridge I should show a visiting academic. I have not figured out much except grocery stores and bicycle repairs. Good thing I have a guidebook!
When we first visited Cambridge I was nervous about riding a bicycle. I have too many broken pieces to stand much jiggling; the fractured tailbone, the shredded arms, the phantom flashes of accidents, all conspire to keep my feet firmly on the ground.
But I have a beautiful old Triumph, chopped and rebuilt in Portland by Erin Scarum and slowly improved by Eli and Bob to accommodate my various injuries. And this is a cycling city; it is just easier to get around using a bicycle. I started slowly, with little excursions to the grocery store, walking the bike when I got nervous.
I had an accident the second day out because I was overly cautious. I slowed down to let a pram pass and listed over too far, toppling over and hitting a pedestrian. He laughed and dusted me off and put me back on the bicycle. But other than that, the injuries are generally sustained by my tights, which get caught on my wicked grip pedals.
The children complained at first. The boy said he could not, would not, not ever learn to ride his tiny vintage bicycle. But over the course of a weekend he picked up the skill and turned into a cycling fiend, weaving in and out of large crowds of tourists with nary a scratch. He asked to ride every day, several times a day, at night, at any available moment.
One day he woke up two inches taller than the day before and we went to see The Bikeman in the market square. He reckoned he could find a stylish replacement and the next day my son owned a miniature version of the bike that all the elderly academics ride. The men in the park stop and exclaim I say, chap! That is quite a bicycle!
Now we ride everywhere possible. When the children are in school I go places they find boring. This week I have been all round the city, from Romsey town to the far end of the Stourbridge common. I have gone to Fen Ditton, Coton, and had tea in Grantchester.
Riding bicycles in Cambridge is brilliant and officially one of my favorite experiences ever.
Several months ago, as I herded the family toward our flight to Barcelona, we stumbled across Rich Jensen arriving home to the NW from a trip to New York. We stopped and chatted for a few minutes and I told him that we were moving to England later in the year.
Even though I neglected to tell almost everyone about the move, Rich remembered and tracked me down to send along the newest Clear Cut Press book. This one is called Core Sample: Portland Art Now and it includes a disk of "work involving moving images / parts / bodies."
Holding this object in my hands, I feel overwhelmed with sadness. The intangibles of Portland made up the value. I do not miss the grubby flat boring city but I feel an intense longing for the place. The factors that allow the art scene and underground communities in Portland to flourish were in some sense the same reasons I had to leave. But that doesn't make me miss it any less.
When I left Portland I really did not care. I was happy to have enough room to think and work, separate from the demands of my friends. I wanted to move on, I wanted to be back with the mountains and water of my youth. Now I want to be in England. This nostalgia for what I gave away is a puzzle. I suppose it is like an optical illusion, a refraction of experience. Now I remember only the parts of that life that are worth missing.
But whenever I go to the market and pick out apples I feel a wrench. I do not want to buy food from strangers. If I go to the store I want Meadow or Patrice be on the other side of the counter. I want to see Erin Yanke in the aisles of the co-op. I want to go back to Lynn's house and our vegetable buying club, and that guy who brought scales on his bicycle, and thirty pound boxes of apples and flats of strawberries and endless delicious vegetables divvied up from the back of an ancient Volvo station wagon.
I have been moaning about the fact that I cannot cook for countless years. People have attempted to teach me -- Polly and Moe both made good progress and showed me essential skills like how to chop garlic. I did pick up an occasional trick and until this summer managed to poke along just fine with a limited repertoire of four or five dishes. The rest of the time we ate out. Given the fact that we did not know how to prepare food, it was less stressful to pay $2.85 for a bowl of pho. Or $2.50 for a burrito. Or $1.50 for a tofu sandwich with pickled vegetables and fresh cilantro.
England has a terrible reputation when it comes to food, and while I reserved judgment at first, I can now say with some certainty that the stereotype is true. Most restaurant food is mediocre at best, and it is all terribly expensive. The good restaurants are exorbitant. I've had what people swear is the best of this-or-that variety of food and it just doesn't rate.
But the cost of food in general is actually quite low, even after I mentally calculate the exchange rate, and all stores have an abundance of organic options. I can buy high quality non-GMO food for a fraction of what I used to spend in Seattle, and I don't have to drive for an hour to find it. Just one example: a half pound of fresh organic butter costs 90p at the local grocer. The same item would have been $4.00 (or more) in Seattle, if I could get it at all without a vast commitment of time.
Unfortunately, though it is cheap to buy food, the staples I relied on back home are not available. How can a person survive without a daily dose of fresh salsa? I don't need the corn chips - forget the tortillas - I just want the sauce! So, inevitably, it happened.
I have started to cook. Pico de gallo was the first and most essential thing to learn. Then an assortment of rice and veggie dishes. Then salmon, and chicken, and eventually a soup involving carrots and coriander. I can make apple crumble, and cookies, and chopped up a chocolate bar for chips when the stores did not have exactly what I needed. I bought a basil plant for the window sill.
Because vegans rely on a core set of ingredients and relatively loose recipes I am using The Garden of Vegan, swapping in meat and dairy where they call for soy. Several years ago Stella gave me The Joy of Cooking and I have mostly read it for enjoyment. Now I am using it like a map to sort out what to learn next.
New on Girl-Mom:
More Than They Tell Us: Our Rights as Pregnant and Parenting Students
By Rebecca Trotzky-Sirr
New Mamaphonic merchandise is now available!
I have been a parent since 1990. In all that time I have never once left my children with a babysitter -- at least not the random teenage stranger version. There have been occasions when the children have been watched by friends or relatives for a few hours at a time, but my inclination has been to keep them with me. If I am not with them, Byron takes over. This was necessary to protect them from danger but also because the children are not exactly average in their needs or behavior. When I decided to have kids my fundamental belief was that they were my own responsibility, and that I would make a good life for them.
When they started nursery school and then primary school I was very careful to select programs that would work with their individual eccentricities, even if that meant an extraordinary commitment of travel time. They were always enrolled in special programs, alternative schools with substantial commitment to specific philosophical ideas.
Beyond that, I have never forced my children to go to school; if they were unhappy I moved on to the next solution. Sometimes this meant letting them stay home. My daughter was homeschooled for years and my son was only nominally in school programs until age six, when he went to half-time kindergarten.
Why? Because I know that I will not live forever and need to do well with the time left. Because children are only small for a little while. Because my kids are the most interesting people I have ever met. Because it is fun to hang out with my family. And mostly, because I was young, and poor, and sick. I did not have societal permission to have a family. Things that people in other situations take for granted were never part of my daily existence. It was a political act to have children and I had to be good. There was no acceptable alternative.
So here we are on the other side of the world, proper adults with careers. These children I have nurtured for half a lifetime are sturdy, healthy, loquacious. Moving here was a happy treat for the kids, and accepting the differences in the educational system is part of living in a new country.
Today I sent them to school. Regular, normal, state-funded British schools, with religious education and PE kits and a dress code and conduct rules.
I find this shocking. Though the children do not appear to mind.