Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bon Voyage (or, Getting to “Bah, Oui”)

Today's post is the final one of five inspired by the five for ten challenge. If you like this one, inspired by the word Yes, read more at

The sun comes up and I wake up without an alarm clock. I open my eyes once more in this remarkable house. It’s not mine, but I am so at home here, so at peace. During the day, we four are à table together three times, with learning, writing, walking, talking, and looking at the flowers in between. Late in the evening, the sun sets, now off in the northwest rather than straight on from the windows. The garden gets quiet, and the white roses that have spent the day blooming are luminescent in the dusk.

Another day gone, another day truly lived. For this moment, I have everything I need, and I'm trying very hard not to count how many more of these days I have left.

A few years ago I decided to try to adopt this motto for my life: want what you have. I coined this little phrase as I was writing a toast for my father's 70th birthday party, trying to distill the essence of this wise and remarkable man. Dad never said this phrase to me in so many words, but rather enacted it on a daily basis.

During the times in my life since then when I have been able to follow this example, I have been happy. But as with any goal, sometimes I hit the mark and sometimes I fail. "What Would David Do?" Bill often asks me when I'm making myself nuts with worry. He's reminding me to model myself on my dad's steady positive nature and to want what's right in front of my face. But like any normal, non-David-like human being, I can't always do it. Often I find myself consumed with desire, sometimes bordering on lust, for something distinctly impossible, something I not only do not have now, but could not have ever. Now and again this drives me forward to the next big thing, but mostly it just drives me crazy.

Like about a month ago, when we decided to leave here somewhat earlier than we had planned. I was full of distress and regret (or as full of regret as one can be when one is also full of baguettes and nice cheeses) because I hadn't mastered much French, because Abigail was so stubbornly resisting anything French that was not a meat product, and because the girls hadn't really made friends.

We were frustrated that our girls still hadn't gotten comfortable enough to just walk into our little town, to take themselves outside to play, or to strike up a conversation in a park with a new kid. Part of me felt that we had failed -- failed them and ourselves. And we were tired of cheering them onward to a place they didn't want to go.

So we rebooked our tickets, skipping the big culminating tour de France we had planned, and decided that when our time in Aups was Up, we'd call it a day. We told Abigail that we were going to stop asking her speak French at home. The forced march aspects of the adventure would be over and done, and we would send ourselves packing. Bon Voyage.

It was a regretful, deflated little yes. Feeling defeated and not a little loserish, we said yes to our tired, cranky children (rather than the No we use more frequently and reflexively.) It wasn't a particularly loving yes. It was not a particularly patient yes, but it did the trick.

Everybody relaxed.

Without some faraway finish line to cross (we will all speak perfect French, we will all love France all the time, we will all embrace this place and one another in joyful kum-ba-ya harmony) our sense of being on an impossible mission evaporated. Or, to put it in a more positive, David-like way, we realized that our mission had already been accomplished.

And suddenly, in this last month here, a whole bunch of tiny victories started to unfold.

One day the sun came out on a Wednesday Market Day, and some of the little girls in the town rounded up our kids and convinced them to go play. The girls had asked before, but our kids had always been too shy. But this time, much to our surprise, they both said yes. Bill and I sat at one of the little tables and drank our breakfast beers with Dermot and Anna-Maria, and the girls went off with some kids to play. It was lovely. We had friends. They had friends. They were off on their own in the market square on a sunny midweek morning. Family victory number one.

One day Grace came to me and asked me, quite out of the blue, how she might get Abigail to respect her. She had real concern on her face, and actually listened to my answer, which was that she might first try to actually like her sister. We talked about it awhile, and she seemed to understand that there were things that she could do herself to improve their relationship, rather than waiting for her little sister to magically be less annoying.

The biggest fight between the girls is always about who gets to talk, when. Grace has a hard time waiting for Abigail to finish a thought, and Abigail has a hard time getting her words out fast enough to finish her sentences and her stories. When Grace asked me what specific things she could try, I suggested that she work on trying to be patient with her sister while the words form in her sweet little brain. And then suddenly, after eight and a half years of unabated poisonous sibling rivalry, Grace is taking actual steps to listen to her sister and show her a little love. She's saying yes. Family victory number two.

And in response? Well, a few nights ago Abigail told a long and involved story. For once, nobody interrupted. The story got longer and more detailed, and then slowly drew to an end. She finished up, looked right at Grace, and said, "Would you like to speak now? I'd like to hear what you have to say." Abigail finally had gotten her thought out completely, then politely asked whether her big sister would like to contribute. We all stared at one another in astonishment and surprise: one of us had actually finished a complete thought, then ceded the floor voluntarily. Family victory number three.

And then, one day (with fewer than ten school days to go) Abigail just woke herself up in the morning, put on her backpack without any fuss at all, and skipped all the way to school. That afternoon, she came home from school, made her own snack, and immediately sat down at the kitchen table to do her own homework. The homework consisted of conjugating partir and danser in the future, and multiplying big numbers by little numbers, so it wasn't baby stuff like coloring in a worksheet. And when Bill came into the kitchen to ask her a question, she answered, without any effort at all, "Bah, Oui, Papa." She didn't even hear herself speaking a foreign language as she said yes.

Once she was relieved of the fear of losing America, once she was certain we'd be going home, she let the words that had piled up inside of her come spilling out. I'd say that this was family victory number four, but this one was all hers.

Yes. Yes. Yes. Bah, Oui, Papa. When you decide to want what you have, the messages you hear from all around sound a whole lot more like yes.

(Happy Birthday, Dad -- I know that you already know how much I love you, how much we loved having you and Mom here in France with us, and how much your support of this bon voyage has meant to all of us.)


  1. Oh, Launa. I love this. Reading your words is like sitting down with my own baguette and fine cheese (and perhaps a glass of full wine). You embody the idea that France itself is a moveable feast.

    Also, thank you for the book suggestion. My library has it and I'll be reading it after LIFE AFTER YES.

  2. Yes to family.
    Yes to loosening up.
    Yes to wanting what you have.
    Yes to taking chances.

    Thanks so much for visiting Lather. Write. Repeat. It is so nice to meet you!


  3. Ah, the No's that become reflexive. How I know them well.

    It seems to me here, Launa, that you're fleshing out the importance of both Yes and No. And that your own Yes to Bon Voyage (which I suppose you could also look at as a No to some of your original plans) helped open you and your family up to the realization of some of those plans.

    Thanks for another lucid and lovely piece. (A book in the making. Absolutely.)

  4. Hooray for family victories! They always seem to come when we least expect them, don't they? Or in ways we didn't intend.

    Want what you have. Indeed.

  5. This is wonderful! I'm sure you smiled, hearing that French just come tumbling out of her mouth.

    And breakfast beers? Oui!

  6. Gorgeously written. Inspiring to take to heart. Want what you have. I really need to try that. Because I've had a few months now of broken this and broken that and I'm missing out on all the not-broken stuff. Including, perhaps my not-broken-at-all lovely little family. Thank you, Launa. I'm so glad you found us, so I could find you!