Chalkboard of Childhood

I remember the dusty black chalk board in my first grade classroom on the second floor of an asylum built in 1857 which had been converted to a private elementary school at the end of WW I. The blackboard was on the far right wall as one entered the classroom, the large windows faced forward on the building overlooking a walled courtyard with a beautiful maple tree at its center. Our desks faced the chalkboard so that our right sides were graced by the sunlight streaming from the windows. I remember mathematic equations on that board, grammatical exercises as well as the occasional art mural formed by placing a cardboard surface onto the chalkboard and covering it in tiny colored papers that had been rolled by our small fingers into little balls and pasted onto the hard paper. The images ranged from a winter scene to a floral display. My fingers were sticky with glue during those projects.

Our classroom was so close to the maple tree in the courtyard, that at times when I glanced out in a day dream during class, it felt as if I could touch its branches. It was as if when building the school, it had been built as part of the tree; a school treehouse. This was the back drop of my childhood for about five years in the early 1970s. Ecole Blanche de Louvencourt is situated at the cross roads of Rue Alexandre Dumas and Rue de Louvencourt in the small town of Marly-le-Roi, France. The school was at the periphery of Old Marly, where one found crooked cobblestoned streets with various slopes and gradients, offering small shops with curiosities and antiques, as well as basic provisions like the Charcuterie where we picked up our meats, or the Boulangerie where we ordered the best pastries and breads, and the small grocer where we could shop for other basics like milk, and cereal and various sundries. This was all found at the top of an incline street which led in the other direction down to the train station and post office, past my dentist and on the way towards the open air market which was my route home from school each day.

Thinking back, I wonder why I always took one route to school, and a different one home.

Each morning, I would walk that other street to school; the one that passed the public elementary school and library tucked into the center of our village’s public gardens, to the corner where one met the crossing guard and then walked the quiet side street leading to my school coming at it from the left side of the school. On my way home, I left the school courtyard by exiting the school taking a right and then an immediate second right turn down the residential street that had this somewhat steep incline and would find myself in the square that housed the post office, train station and a few shops including the bakery. After picking up a baguette of bread for Mother, I would continue my journey cradling the warm loaf in my arms and urging myself not to pull the hot dough out from its center; the smell of the bread taunting me with each step. I would continue by ducking through one of the small tunnels that went under the railroad tracks coming out next to some homes that led to the open air market which was in full swing once or twice a week. Otherwise that market was quiet and the surface of the lot would be littered with debris from the previous commerce transactions, interspersed with puddles of water from the workers having washed up after business was done.  At times, I would play a game of hopscotch in my mind, dancing through those puddles- hopping on one foot and balancing my bread for leverage.

From the market, I would continue a short distance until I came to Chemin du Bas des Ormes – where our family home was stacked into a modern apartment complex.  We had  the luxury of a separate building for our underground parking lot which had a gravel roof that was used for recreation. It was common on a Sunday to find many fathers playing Boules; a game of throwing colored heavy metal balls with the aim to get as close to the small red ball target as possible.  Children would be laughing and running and playing nearby and occasionally, one of the men would call out in a loud shush to make us quiet down during his turn, so that he could concentrate on the task at hand: throwing his heavy boule underhand and with great intention to bop another boule out of range of the small red ball and increase his own chance at a win.

 

Those are days of fond remembrance. I don’t recall having any heavy burdens back then, nor fears to speak of. It was a time before strains; prior to learning the ache of loss and uncertainty.

My First Day at Sea

It is my first day at Sea aboard the Oasis of the Seas  and we are sailing the Western Caribbean.  I take some time to gather my writing goals for the week.  I decide to go back and read past journal entries and I find this one.  And I marvel at how my feelings on certain subjects remain the same year after year.  And, I am grateful that, in some ways, at least I am consistent.

 

May 10, 2014

It is 9:24am and having arrived early for my meeting with Angela, I sit at a round orange pedastal table against the wall of the Barnes and Noble Cafe savoring my Caramel Macchiato and reflecting on all that has passed and all that could be.   It is a moment of deep reflection blended with the mundane.  To my left, a couple sits enjoying their own breakfast version of coffee and a muffin, passing commentary on whether one has tried the other’s delectable latte version.  I think about time.   How fleeting it is and what a waste I have made of most of my life.  Or have I?  I am so hard on myself- why?   What is it about my life that seems to fall so short of the bar I have set for myself, for which I seem to never be able to attain success?  The bottom line is that I too often compare others lives with that of my own.   I look to their experiences in the hopes that I can one day perhaps mirror their realities.  Then I am drawn back to my present moment and I listen to the tunes filtering through the line of my ear buds from Spotify.  Right now, I am playing one of my favorite play lists which contains pieces from Handel, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and pieces also from the soundtrack The Piano.    This is the movie that starred Harvey Keitel and Holly Hunt- set in turn of the century South Pacific somewhere.  I have very vague memories of the actual theme of the movie- it was about a woman and a little girl played by Anna Pacquin- who moved to this remote place that had a beach, rain forest, aboriginal peoples, and she – this lady – brought along this piano that was a required part of her daily life.   And the pieces she played were incredible …they to this day do something drastic to my soul.   Truly.  Classical music moves my spirit in a way that nothing else can touch.  So I love this soundtrack and realize that I must find a way to get ahold of that movie again and watch it.  There was violence involved- she had her finger cut offf which curtailed her ability to play the piano… horrific moment.. and I do not even know why that happened, what prompted it.   And was it in New Zealand, Australia or a French Polynesian Island?  What was the exact time period?   Why were they there?    I have such vague memories of the overall plot … but the music- oh my, the music.  I have had other experiences like that over the years- with movies like:  The Mission- which introduced me to Ennio Morricone, and also Adiemus.   I enjoyed the movies- but it was the music that followed me out of the theater and made me buy the soundtracks and listen to them over and over and over again.

I think about how isolated I am in this experience- I don’t know one soul that has this same passion about music.   I have no one to share it with- is this perhaps the disatisfaction that I face?   Angela has said and written about the notion of wondering “where are my people”.  I feel this same way -most of the time.  Like I was dropped on this planet as an experiment- to see how I could manage surrounded by other beings that had nothing in common with me.    I have so many vivid memories of moments when, in a rush of excitement to share something I had experienced- the person on the receiving end of my commentary glazes over and it is  obvious that whatever it is that I am trying to convey has absolutely no impact on the recipient.  This is actually a regular occurence for me- just about daily.   And, I wonder- why?   Why do I have these passions ..to experience them myself and just enjoy them- probably.   Is there a need really, to have someone else mirror back the same contentment that I experience in these moments?    I recall the time I was in Rome and was standing at the Trevi Fountain.  I was the only single soul standing there marveling at this fountain with sculpted horses in action as if jumping out of the fountain in fear.    I had no one to turn to to say “wow”.   And I remember how sad I was about that.  Or, standing inside the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican on a bus tour full of other people that were either couples or families traveling together, best friends on a trip together- and then there was me… standing there under Michaelangelo’s Creation – in awe… alone.
So I wonder – does it matter?  Why do I have a sense of loss when I experience these moments alone?  Why do I long to have those moments shared by someone else.   And the specific and more probing question is- would that other person even get why I was so mesmerized by those horses or by the music or by the piece of art work depicting the creation and biblical moments- like the Garden of Eden on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?  Would that person stand there with me, nod his head and then move on?  What am I looking for in the shared experience?   Having that person stand with me – simply be present with me?  Or, for that person to look at me and for there to be this connection.. this moment of complete understanding that comes from having the same passion.    And, what are the odds – if I were a betting woman, to be able to find this type of partnership?    I admit that I am not looking actively because I fear the risk of getting tangled up in another disatsifying unbalanced partnership that ends up being more service than mutual partnership and enjoyment.
Not finding other souls that share the same deep interests and understandings is difficult- it means that the life experience is more of a solo journey filled with obligations.  Is this the reason that my marriages – in part – failed?    I was stuck in these relationships with people who had absolutely no clue what made me tick, and nor did I know what made them tick and- neither of us could figure out how to move to the next step to learn about one another, to feel what the other felt.  And, with our busy schedules and obligations ..time trodded along, and the experience of being part of a “couple” felt so bland and blank… and pointless.   I was there to satisfy his sexual needs- mine were satisfied in part, but honestly, it felt more like servicing him.   And, the payment was null.    No real mutual benefit ..so then, why stay?   So, I did not stay.  I eventually got out of both of those prison cells and launched myself into freedom… healing a bit along the way and then finding myself here- a solo traveler.  I enjoy my music, I enjoy my dog, I enjoy my parents, I enjoy globe trotting without having to gain access to a permission slip from another party that might find my globe trotting interest offensive or a waste of precious resources.  I don’t have to get permission to buy the vehicle I want to buy.  I don’t have to beg to go to the restaurant I want to go to instead of the one that makes him excited, I don’t have to hope that the movie we pick will be one I like.  I don’t have to share the dinner entree on the menu with him that he picks.   I can pick what I want on the dinner menu and eat it myself.    These all sound likely – like bizarre expressions of freedom- but to someone whose life was directed by another strong personality during two marriage episodes, the very idea of a third foray into this bizarre arrangement leaves me falling flat.     There is this comment I hear from people that one day I will find someone- so that I don’t have to grow old alone.    Well,  maybe I won’t have to – maybe I will live with several canine friends that keep me company, organizing my time as I see fit, enjoying nature, writing, music, and also- friendships.   I do need to get more involved in volunteer and other organizations that offer an outlet for social time and make life interesting- get things on the calendar.
Other than that- this time with the keyboard has been once again, fruitful.   I can count on the keyboard to help me organize my thoughts, to help me put down on virtual paper- the essence of the discontent and then I have a way to observe it through a different lense that brings focus on the situation and a better perspective.
Sometimes I come away from these sessions a bit more blue.   Today, I feel encouraged.  It’s been months since my last daily pages entry… and I am glad that I have re-opened this outlet of thought.     I need to do this much more often.

The Box

I have now launched myself into the full depths of commitment to a specific theme and focus for the November Novel Writing Challenge within the NaNoWriMo 2015 writing contest. When the contest first made itself known to me through the Writer’s Digest Magazine only a few days ago, I didn’t have any ideas of what my novel might be about. This of course made me a little nervous, but somehow I knew it would not be an issue for me. Lately, having taken up the daily writing task once again, there are many threads flowing through me.. ideas that I want to explore and delve into.
Many weeks back, Mom and I had been talking about her aunt and the affair and this aunt’s family alliances and interests in communism. This brief discussion ended up being a jumping off point, an entree point into, the romance novel. I’ve never been a fan of the genre… so it was almost on a lark that I continued typing and bringing the characters together with the tension and conflict of their current condition. In one daily writing session,out flowed this story with twists and turns and character development that I tucked away for later. Again, I am not planning to be a romance novelist. But the story came back to me a few times during later days nudging me to pay attention to it.  Then one day, sitting at the kitchen table with my parents, I ask Mom if she remembers our discussion about her aunt. She nods, her eyes squint and she cocks her head slightly “Yes” she says tentatively “why”? “Well, you see, I sat down and wrote a piece after our talk, and I wondered if you would like to hear it”.   Dad beats her to it “yes”, he says.   She nods in agreement “Sure”.   Shoot, I think did I really want her to hear this.   I wonder how she will react and my brain scrambles back into my memory bank for a moment in an attempt to quickly recall what I might have written that could be awkward when read to parents. I can’t think of anything, it was pretty clean. I leave the kitchen to retrieve my iPad from my bag tht is sitting out on the chair in the hallway. I return powering it up.
I read the story to them. Through it, I hear their sighs and gasps and a small giggle here and there.   At the end, a long pause. Silence. They are both looking off into space – facing each other but each one’s vision is focused on a different point, high up on the kitchen walls just beyond one another. “You should really submit that to True Confessions” says Dad. “Thanks, but I don’t think I am ready for that just yet, I just wanted to share it with you to show you what I am up to lately”.   Mom is in deep thought. This is when she mentions that she has a picture of her- of her aunt.
So this kitchen exchange has been covered in previous posts- but what’s different now is that I pulled out that story again a couple of days ago. In my reread I see something different. I see possibility- a historical fiction piece with layers of various other themes. World War II, what led up to Norway’s occupation, what life was like during those years – for families and couples and lovers.  The aftermath.  The pulse of politics of the day in Norway. The various sides of the equation. An adult’s point of view as well as that of a child. I have a ready source right there under my roof. Mom’s memories of what life was like could be the start. My own childhood in Norway – visiting frequently with our cabin there and time spent in Oslo, this gives me a strong knowledge base for place and culture. My interest in history and politics will take me on an historic research adventure to a time and place that lends itself to intrigue, espionage, resistance movement, passion and fear.
Last night, I asked Mom: “What was it like really to be a child living during the war and the occupation in Norway?”. “Well, I was just a small child really. Unlike other places, Norway didn’t have any outward appearances of upset, we just quietly went about our business- we were quiet when we walked the streets. There weren’t any visible fights or conflicts between the german soldiers and the people of Norway. I remember the soldiers walking quietly down our streets with their german shepherds.” And I nod as this part of her story  that I recall from many earlier tellings over the years. It’s not that she didn’t share, but now I am wondering about the detail of it all. I am looking for a deeper reach into her memory. And then it comes, something new. “I do remember that we used to get a box once in awhile. These boxes came from Sweden..  You know, they were neutral and at times, we would get these donations boxes from over there. I remember Dad opening up the box and how disappointed we were sometimes – because really, the contents were just people’s throw aways. You know, stuff they didn’t want any longer. That’s why when I donate now, I only put things in that I feel the person would enjoy, something they truly need- you know, for a job interview or something like that. I don’t put things in that are worn out or dirty or just ugly. I put things in that I would want to find if I opened up a bag or a box llike that- give people not just what they need but dignity too.”  The box affected her – lasting her whole life.
Listening to her, I imagine a family and a young girl of around five years old, eager to open a box which would contain basic things that they might need because of shortages due to war. Maybe a clean fresh pair of tights and some shoes. Socks for everyone. Maybe a shirt for Dad. Sweaters, mittens, a hat and a scarf. Pants. Needing winter garments. And, even toys to keep the children occupied and content and mostly distracted, during the blackouts and air raids. A doll for a little girl that she could hold on to and craddle during those times of stress and fear. I hear Mom echo her recollections of years gone by: “I used to ask my father all the time: do you think there will be another war?” She was so afraid of another war.. and never really trusted that it was truly over. When the war ended, and Norway was once again free, Mom remembers the parades in the street – with music being played at full blast. She remembers the other parade as well- the one with the women who had been having affairs with the Nazi soldiers during the war. Any woman who had been involved with a Nazi was brought in, head shaved and she would have been paraded on a flat bed truck through the streets. The truck’s flat bed had been outfitted with a wall of wood as a backdrop and these women were now exposed for their war crime- for everyone to see. This was a stigma for these women that lasted for years to come. Some women fled to other countries, in the hopes of starting over.
So many impressions to explore. So, I use my Nina story from weeks gone by as a starting point and my mother’s memories and my history as a treasure trove of possibility. My travels to Norway, my understanding of language, religious perspective, political slant and relational backdrops to flavor and feed this novel. This NaNoWriMo 2015 is a challenge to finish a first draft. This opportunity is perfectly timed. So now, I work on the outline, the research and preparation of the basics for the official start date: November 1, 2015. My prep time is fairly short, but my background and my daily pages practice over the years (off and on I know- but nevertheless, I have been writing for most of my life- it’s just never been focused before). Now, I feel a focus and a wave of excitement that I have never experienced before… I am poised for lift off.

Universal Love Dashed

Recently, Mom and I were talking about the past and about faithfulness to one’s spouse.

Mom has some family history with relatives that for her reinforced how sacred marriage is and that for her laid the foundation of how, as a young girl in the midst of these stories, she would promise to always be true to her spouse once she married. Mom told me about how sad she was about one of the stories..  This one relating to one of her many uncles and his wife in Norway. As a child, Mom had been deeply fond of her aunt. And it made her so sad to hear about what happened between her aunt and uncle. Up until that revelation, all she had thought about her aunt was how beautiful she was and what an amazing smile she had. She was always smiling.
Mom pulls out an old photo album that is filled with these tiny black and white photos mostly faded and some hard to make out. They are all tainted with the sepia tone of time passing, the glue from the pages no longer holds the images as they lie there somewhat scattered on the page under a flimsy cellophane sleeve. A turn of the page and holding the album at a slight angle brings some of them tumbling to the floor. “I have a couple of pictures of her in here somewhere, a nice large one of her” she says.   As she turns the pages slowly, pausing on each page to examine faces and ancient places of her childhood, she comments on various characters from her past. “Who’s that Mom?” I ask pointing at a picture that shows Mor Far facing another man, his arm is wrapped around this man’s shoulder and they are smiling at each other like a couple of brothers. “That’s my father and his best friend”. Strange, I think, that Mor Far (Mother’s Father), had a best friend other than the one I knew in later years- Erling. “He just passed away not too long ago”. I don’t ask why we never met this best friend… I just sit there silently watching her take in her past. “Here she is” she exclaims. The picture shows a girl with ivory skin and thick wavy shoulder length black hair, her chin and head are tilted just slightly giving a coquettish glance at the camera.    Mom repeats that she always loved her aunt’s smile.  This young woman has the tiniest shoulders,  her head of hair billowing above her emphasizes her petit frame.  One can make out that she is wearing a particularly dark lipstick, typical of the fifties.

Mom  moves on to other pictures “There, look- Røseim, we spent so much time up there” she is looking at a photo of the black timbered exterior of a mountain cabin with a porch occupied by several twenty something women and men, some with arms wrapped around each other, all beaming at the camera, marking a ski vacation spent with friends. “Wasn’t she beautiful?” she whispers as she lifts the cellophane cover to a different photo that she retrieves to get a closer look.  It is a picture of her mother standing in light culotte shorts with a white blouse while holding Mom’s hand.  Mom must be about four or five years old in this picture.   Mor Mor sure was a beauty, and so skinny back then. I don’t think I have ever seen a picture of her that slender; not that she was ever large.  But in my memory, she was soft to squeeze, not bony.  “I understand based on this picture, why you have said he didn’t want her to take you to church alone..  I can better understand his jealousy”.   Mom just nods, she is deep in thought as she gazes at the picture. “Yes, he was very jealous” she whispers. Mor Far had forbidden Mor Mor to take my mom to church.  He didn’t want anyone having access to Mor Mor without him being present, and he was unwilling to go to church himself. So, mom stopped going to church as a young girl.
Still, she had received enough of a dose and spiritual guidance by then to have fallen head over heels in love with Jesus.  She was hooked, and her love for God would never leave her.  And as a grandchild, I recall Mor Mor often in her own world in the kitchen, singing Norwegian hymns and love songs to Jesus while cooking or washing up.

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Fortunately many years later, almost a year into her overseas life in America, Mom would meet a man named Jack who had a dashing smile, the most kind eyes she had ever seen, and a love for Jesus. Jack did not wear his love or awe for God on his sleeve, he didn’t really speak of it.  His beliefs have always been close to his heart and in his view, not to be talked of, but rather to be lived out.   However, with Mom  he did share what his upbringing had been like.  And, Mom knew that Jack’s mother had been a dedicated woman for Christ, involved with many outreach organizations,  and that generosity of spirit had transferred to her son.
Jack was a genuinely kind and gentle man. And in short order Mom knew she could never leave him. Over fifty years later, she still talks about how she can’t believe she did it- she left her country for him. Her beautiful country. Back then she offers, she had no idea how incredibly beautiful Norway was until it was gone. At least, gone for her in terms of daily life- a future only of stolen moments – visits to relatives. And her parents over the years, especially Mor Mor – would say to her that she couldn’t believe her sweet Karin had left her for America. This would be a repeated conversation each time we visited them.

But back to her aunt. This aunt had tortured her husband with a torrid affair that had started when she went on a trip to Russia without him. She had met someone on that trip and on return to Norway, she had continued the romance and even got ready for dates with this lover in front of her husband. And mom shares how shocked she had been on learning of her aunts behavior, because she had really liked this aunt and loved her uncle and she couldn’t imagine what might have gone wrong to cause her to behave in such a way.

In my own life, I have endured pain through two broken marriages. I know what can go on behind closed doors that might cause a once passionate love flame to blow out. What others see from the outside is very rarely the truth of what is going on within the privacy of the home. I know how a fervor of not getting to the presence of your lover quickly enough can turn into wanting to be as far away from that same soul as possible. Often it has to do with expectations. Unreasonable and unfounded expectations. And, it can have a lot to do with blinders, like those worn by a horse. Thoses blinders force you to look straight ahead and prevents you from seeing distractions along the side that could take you off course. When one is in love, one welcomes the blinders because we want to believe in the romance and the fairytale. We want to be a part of the great symphony called love. We want our part of the miracle of connecting with another soul. And maybe we put on those so called “Rose Colored Glasses”. Those glasses exist and many a lover has put them on and kept them on right up through to the alter and the vows and perhaps even through to the first weeks and months- I daresay, even the first few years of a marriage. And, then the glasses come off. And somehow, life isn’t the romance ending within which we had imagined ourselves.
For my mother’s aunt, something along the way went wrong enough for her to consider the option of setting herself up with an affair. You see this is not an option for most people who are in love with their spouses. I do not believe that someone who loves, truly loves their spouse- can be unfaithful. Some might disagree with me but it is my view that the vast majority of people do honor the sacred vows of marriage until they have reached a tipping point. Something happens that breaks the soul a bit, creates a wound that needs a bandaid and perhaps some ointment. And then, that wound properly tended to needs time to heal. Most people don’t allow the healing part to take place after having been emotionally wounded by another person.
For me, my wound kept getting picked at so that a scab couldn’t even really form. Oh don’t worry, I never did have that affair. I never let it get that far because I planned my escape early on- at least that is the case with husband number one. I stayed faithful until I just couldn’t take it anymore and until I figured out how I would exit stage left. Then I acted on my plan and I left. In each case, not going back. My first marriage was fairly short lived. I was smart enough and had enough self preservation in me to know that the slowly escalating acts of violence would one day mean a very bad ending.

The control nature of my first husband with his reprimands for how I incorrectly transferred the eggs from carton to egg holder in the fridge door, and how I didn’t remove them from the fridge properly- from right to left – never randomly as I did… there was an order on how one was meant to take the eggs out of their holder. Or the way that my cans were not turned properly to show their labels from the cupboard. After my marriage was over, I recall being in shock watching that movie “Sleeping with the Enemy” with Julia Roberts- because some of the behaviors of her character’s husband mirrored my ex. Then, towards the end of the marriage, there was that time when his moodiness during a visit from his seven year old daughter on one of his every other parental rights weekends ended up with a hole in our kitchen wall because of his anger directed towards me. On that same weekend, I came home to find dozens of little pieces of telephone all over the dining room floor because I had excused myself to go for a drive to get away from the tension. I had asked his daughter for forgiveness as I gathered my purse to leave, I told her I had to go run some errands. I fled the apartment and went for a drive. I recall feeling directionless that day- I just drove randomly up this street, down another with tears streaminng down my cheeks and blurring vision, which made it necessary for me to finally pull over. There were no cell phones back then, so I found a pay phone and tried to call him. I wanted so desperately to try to connect with him on that level we use to have together. But I had no success. Instead, the phone just went dead in my hand. On my return to the apartment, I understood why the phone was dead. It was broken in pieces; weeks later I was still finding the odd opaque button with letter 4 or 7 along the baseboards in the dining room- buried in the plush carpet. All this anger in the presence of his daughter. His poor sweet daughter. And now over twenty years later, I wonder how their relationship is now? Do they even have one? And how is her ability to have healthy relationships with men? She might be married now. She might have kids of her own. I would never know the outcome because I escaped within six months of that episode and was divorced from him within that year. And, we did not keep in touch. It was one of those marriages that almost feels like it never really happened. Like it was one of those nightmares that I wake up from that feel so real and thankful that it was just a dream. Except that it was real. And it forms a layer in my psyche.
So I think about my Mom’s aunt and her uncle. What are their stories. Why did she go to Russia? Who was her lover? And her uncle, what of him? What are their back stories?  One thing I do know, theirs is a  universal story of disappointment, of lost love, of sadness and of shame.