Friday, September 18, 2009


Here is a story that is at least partially true, and that I may have told a few times before:

Once upon a time there was a lucky girl who married a tall and extremely enthusiastic prince. They moved to a beautiful city with parks and trees and lived in a tall, narrow castle with their two independent princesses and a big black goofy dog, and they worked to make the world a better place. Sometimes dragons came out of nowhere, but the two bravely fought them until they were vanquished. The city was awfully busy, and all their highminded hard work and dragonslaying sometimes made them tired and cranky, but they could always order takeout and sit on the stoop of their castle at the end of the day.

Then the little family decided to pack up to go on a long journey, a big adventure they would take together. They left the city they knew and the people they loved for a different country far away, where they discovered delicious new foods, and a proud people who loved their land fiercely, who gave each other bisous, and who spoke in a strange tongue with a lot more vowels than they were used to.

There, they would find mountains and valleys and fruit trees. They would find waterfalls and new kinds of birds and really awesome grape juice. There they would find peace.

It dawned on me as I was down on my hands and knees using a little bit of paper towel to wipe up the dried up millipedes off the tile floor of our rented cottage: nothing enchanted remains so forever. Eventually everything that first appears to be magical reveals itself as real, often when things start to really make sense. Or when it's time to clean up.

As I have become more comfortable here in the magical world of Bien-Etre, some of what at first appeared to be unreal has started to make sense and become my life. And as I have had time here to watch my own girls so much more closely, I have been turning Bettleheim's phrase, "the uses of enchantment" over and around in my mind. He spoke of the vital lessons that children learn from hearing fantasy stories in which evil is faced and vanquished, and goodness and order prevail. Far from being merely terrifying, or merely entertaining, Grimms' grim stories of wolves threatening little girls or small children left in the woods by adults they had trusted help children to imagine how they might themselves face life's biggest problems when the time comes.

What are the uses of other sorts of enchantments? Like the nice ones, rather than the scary ones? What do we learn from the subsequent disenchantments that must come our way? Like the moment when you realize that no matter how incredible that last meal may have been, somebody is going to have to wash all those dishes and go around picking up millipedes. And that somebody is you.

I used to wonder about the story of the Garden of Eden. I grew up on a farm, and knew what animals and gardens required. My favorite joke was about the moment just after Adam and Eve had finished naming all the beautiful new creatures, and started wishing that the elephants and zebras had been created with some zookeepers to pick up all the big piles of dung they were leaving around the garden.

Or heaven. While I was loathe to be rude to God by harping on ungrateful thoughts, I couldn't stop worrying as a child: wouldn't heaven get boring after awhile? Eventually?

But then I discovered a new question lurking inside the mystery I thought had deflated. What if this real earth, with its dirty dishes, dead millipedes, full parking lots, disappointments and horrible wars turns out to be heaven itself? What happens if we start to see it and treat it that way? (I know, easy for me to say, sitting here in Provence with a whole year off of work.)

Abigail just turned eight years old. Or, to be clearer about the chronology, we held her birthday party tonight because it was a convenient day for her to turn eight and for us to spend the day together in a place we all know. Back in September 2001, the doctor induced my labor to line up with her work schedule, so the nineteenth has never seemed particularly mystical. This afternoon is Bill's first bass guitar lesson, and on Saturday we will move from Les Baumes to Bastide de la Loge, our home for the next eight months. Abigail's actual birthday will be taken up with packing, drives back and forth and unpacking. Thursday night was our last full evening in the hobbit hole all together, and we wanted to enchant it as fully as possible and really bring the birthday love.

I first cleaned up the dried millipedes, then we celebrated with lots of plastic toys (thank you, Carrefour,) her favorite dinner (Provençal pistou on tortellini,) a CD of her favorite music (from the Jackson 5 to John Denver to Journey to the Black Eyed Peas), a scary movie (Harry Potter V courtesy of itunes) and a big old yellow cake with chocolate frosting (the traditional birthday cake of all the princesses in my family.)

This was the first birthday cake I have made from scratch in my ten-and-a-half years as a mother. I always told myself that Betty Crocker makes it better as an excuse for not having made cake baking a priority. Here in the hobbit hole I didn't have an accurate teaspoon measure, I had to improvise some of the measurements into the metric system, but I invented the chocolate icing recipe myself from butter, melted dark chocolate, heavy cream and powdered sugar. Jackie and Loni, you would be so proud: the cake was incredible. No match for yours, but way better than Betty's. We liked it so much we ate it again at breakfast. I felt a sudden kinship/rivalry with Julie and Julia.

Abigail's eighth birthday marks a high point for my baking career, but also the end point of a few crucial enchantments. For one, she has recently recognized that her mother is her tooth fairy. This summer, Grace's molars were falling out like they were going out of style, and the tooth fairy had a lot of work to do. Then Abigail found a baby tooth in my wallet jangling around with the coins, and flat out asked me if the tooth fairy was real, or whether I was the one leaving all that money.

Since she asked, I told her the truth. Parenting rule #1: answer the questions they ask, as honestly and simply as you can. But don’t give them more information than they have asked for. They ask only what they need to know only when they ready. When I was straight with her about the true identity of T.F., she looked relieved and wounded in equal measures. She had been freed of the burden of forcing herself to believe, but also robbed of the miracle of something for nothing.

A few weeks ago, she revealed the tooth truth in close confidence to our friends Jess and Nick, as soon as she had them alone. She also told them her most closely held secret: that she has for quite some time only been pretending to believe in fairies more generally. In our family, fairies have long been responsible for a number of important functions. Tooth fairies have provided money in exchange for teeth, of course, but there was also the fairy who provided a dolly in exchange for a pacifier when a certain toddler turned three. The shy and rarely-seen woodland fairies have always left candy in the woods for good little hikers who don't complain or ask to be carried.

I found it touching -- heartwrenching even -- that she couldn't bring herself to tell Bill and me that she no longer believed in these other fairies either. Perhaps she thought that it would hurt our feelings, much as I had worried about offending God by wondering about the entertainment value of the heaven he had made for us. Perhaps she wasn't quite sure what she believed, and worried that her doubt might be dangerous to the fairies' health. She's a responsible sort, and would hate to be the last child who stopped clapping to save Tinkerbelle.

But more likely she kept mum because she did the calculus and realized that the end of fairies might mean the end of treats. I hope all the plastic toys reassured her on this score.

This birthday also seems to be marking the end of her romance with her ideal parents and the start of a new kind of relationship. A child's eighth birthday marks the end of early childhood, and the ninth year is the beginning of the middle. In early childhood, you start to read, you do simple sums, you believe what you are told, and you idealize what the grownups tell you. What is magic and what is real are fully enmeshed. When you turn eight, and then nine, you don't just read, but think. You don't just add, but manipulate numbers. You work at disentangling fact and fiction. And you don't just take adults at face value as gods and demigods. You begin to see them for the complicated and fallible human beings they really are: both duplicitous (remember the fairies?) and benevolent (remember the fairies?)

I see this gradual turn in Abigail lately. She has always been direct and no-nonsense, but now she is even sturdier in her convictions. You can't fool her, and her sense of humor is less innocent, more knowing and witty. She still loves potty talk, but gets off little wisecracks now, pleased to have joined the other three smarties at the dinner table with her little puns and bemusements. She is just as fresh-faced as she ever was, but she isn't simply falling for anybody's tall tales. She hears a story and rolls it around in her mind, working hard to make it square with everything else she knows for sure.

It feels wonderful to have both girls in the same incredible stage for this year we are spending together -- neither little kids nor tweenagers, (how I hate that term) they are whole and perfect and complete in themselves as children. As girls.

In the last few days, I've felt my own enchantments falling away. The other day, at the mall where we bought Abigail's presents, I suddenly began to speak a whole lot more French than I had previously. Hungry and cranky, we rolled up to a little Brasserie, and instead of waiting for Bill to start talking, I ordered the whole shebang. Two cafés au lait, a sirop citron, several croissants, and an Orangina for la cadet, our little one. It spilled out of my mouth almost without effort. The waitress wrote down our order with no questions, and brought it back a few minutes later, exactly what I had asked for. Just breakfast. No eloquence, but also no drama, and no problem with the language.

As the mystery of language fell away, I started talking at the girls in French. Suddenly it seemed so much easier, so much simpler: I would just speak with them in French, and of course they would understand me eventually. All day long I shot my "vraiment"s and "il faut que"s and "vous avez"es in their direction, and just ignored their weird, uncomprehending stares. It was poorly conjugated and poorly accented and required a lot of "quelque choses" to fill in for vocabulary I didn't know, but I was speaking French. No drama, no problem.

But at the same time: no drama, no problem, no more enchantment. Precisely as I got so comfortable with the language that it came spilling out, reality came thwomping down around me. Before the French wormed its way into my ears and out of my mouth, I had been in a magical and incomprehensible land. There was a magical blue waterfall and a soft green olive grove and there had never been such beautiful weather in all of eternity. I had found somewhere that nobody else had ever been, and it was nicer than all of my old someplaces jumbled all together. We were standing together holding hands in the garden, ready to give new names to all the creatures crowding around.

Like Provence's many magical pleasures, its dangers felt enormous too, even dragon-sized, in the form of scary scales at the supermarket, and endlessly shifting road signs at the roundabouts, and hillsides that seemed to twist of their own accord as I drove up their sides and towards the setting sun and the rising moon. Slaying them in defense of my little brood felt awfully dramatic.

But then, once I settled in enough to get comfortable, cozy, and familiar with the words and with the place, there I was, sitting in a mall, having a mediocre breakfast with my cranky little family. We had been shopping for used cars. We were in a shopping mall. We were about to go buy plastic toys, carrots, and pickles. The scary dragon of the scales fell away, and I was left at the Dragging Town mall. In French, but so darn what?

The setting contributed to my sense of the magic falling away. Unlike other brasseries we have encountered on the sidewalks of Aix or the town square of mountaintop village Y, the site of my little language explosion was the awkward and artificially-lit hallway of a shopping center.

Picture the location of your favorite Kay Jewelers (ideally one located in a prime corner spot.) Instead of poor-quality diamonds, this location was hawking café au lait and croque-monsieurs. They had set out little tables half into the open space of the mall, each set with the government-issued menu and table settings: salads, pizzas, beverages, breakfast beer and little bell-shaped wine glasses.

Just a few dozen yards away was a V.I.P. Jeans store, with a supremely weird ten-foot fiberglass statue of a Bison standing guard outside. On the statue had been taped a hand lettered sign (which I could read just fine) asking people please not to sit or climb on the Bison. It was all so real, so strange, and so tawdry. It was France with all the mystery and style squeezed out. All the way home, the weather was dreary and chilly. I despaired of ever finding a decent used car. I was starting to feel a little sick. The kids were poking each other in the backseat of the car and already pestering us to let them watch a movie. I went to bed early, feeling deflated.

I woke up the next morning, fully expecting to feel awful once more. But the sky had gone back to bright blue, and I felt just fine, having slept all night. There was heavy mist on the mountains as we drove to school, as though the hills were defrosting. And speaking of frosting, it was time for me to bake that cake and get the party started.

First, the world is enchanted. You are five, or sixteen, or thirty-four, and you believe all sorts of magic tales and fear all sorts of imaginary dangers. Nothing has a name yet, and anything is possible. You test out your ideas in the world of fantasy, groping in the dreams and the dark to try to catch onto something solid and real and sensible. You learn so that you are ready when the dragons come to call.

And then you are eight. Or Eighteen. Or Forty-six, and suddenly the magic peels away to show you things as they really are. You step out of the gates of that big garden and feel the weight of knowing: the weight and the privilege. You wonder how you could have been so blind. You are angry at the old lies, and mourn them at the same time. Everything Provençal is suddenly smushed down to earth in the brasserie in the mall.

But then. Then you are eleven. Or twenty-seven. Or thirty-nine. Or ninety-two. After the magic part, and then your subsequent cranky disenchantment, there is a moment when the realness of the world takes hold, and you no longer mourn or seek the old stories. You begin to sort the world you have named, alphabetize it and file it according to a system you make yourself and begin to make good use of it. Realizing that nobody is going to keep the garden for you, you start tilling it yourself.

The world itself is animated and growing, rather than magic and enchanted, and you get the indescribable privilege and the unpredictable challenge of living in it clear-eyed. The dragons you had expected reveal themselves to be dangers that you can only sometimes slay yourself. Sometimes you see that they are horrors of your own making. And sometimes, they come barreling down out of a clear blue sky with a force from which nobody can protect you.

But thus far fate and fortune has largely given you more smiles than you deserve. The handsome prince charming is now your husband of fifteen years, someday fifty if you both continue with your luck. The princesses are now eight and ten, smart and sassy and sweet, sometimes impolite and always imperfect, just like their mom and dad.

We ate our pasta and laughed at all of Abigail's jokes. She ripped open the wrapping on all of her toys and Grace started to hula hoop in the front yard while Bill pulled out the toxic plastic substances that you blow into translucent bubbles with a little straw. Abigail started catching the little plastic magnetized fish on the end of a fishpole: it's just like the fishing game at Coney Island, but she can play it forever until the end of time. She loved the bathrobe I picked for her. She blew out her candles and we laughed some more.

Then we sat together on the big wide sofa, warming ourselves around the screen of the macbook. We ate popcorn and candy and watched digitized children pretend to be enchanted, episode five of the series that proved Bettleheim's points a thousand times over. And it was way better than magic, to be hugged that close together in our hobbit hole, safe and warm in the dark.

1 comment:

  1. The thing that impresses me most, Launa, apart from the actual stories of your adventures there in France, is the fact that you write such long, descriptive, enchanting tales every single day!!! You will most definitely have an entire manuscript - and then some - when you are done with documenting this year in France. Wow!