On being a great loser

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On being a great loser

For starters, never begin a game of Risk. No good can come of it. Fun, fun, fun, rising blood pressure, glee, despair, fury, philosophical levels of doubt about your value and place in the universe because if you were worth anything you’d surely roll something above a two!

I’ve never been great at losing. Some people are cool, calm, untouchable. Not me. When it’s board games, I’m getting better. Sometimes I still want to cry. I remember, one time, my husband and I once spent two days straight playing chess and late on the second day I won a game. I might have won two, total. It was long ago, before we had kids, and there was this great vibe about it: I’d decided I was allowed to lose, to begin with, at least, because I’d never really played before. This was learning to play chess and we kept playing until I had a fighting chance.

Losing without a fighting chance is the losing that sucks. So Risk is out because it’s a little tact and a lot of luck. Games that are a lot of luck drive me crazy. It doesn’t help that my husband is insanely lucky. No lottery winnings as yet but seriously, if a game is luck-reliant, he’s in. Lucky Luuk, we call him.

Okay, it’s just me who calls him that.

I’m much better than I used to be at losing at board games, anyway. The trick is playing lots and losing lots, I suppose. And winning often enough to not feel totally useless helps.

But boardgames are the baby pool, aren’t they. Stakes are low. Hours of your life (more or less) wasted unless you CONQUER, but no real stakes. No money, career, livelihood, DREAM on the line.

On the other hand, when I’m talking about my writing… ouch.

I have been sending out a heap of writing submissions: query letters to lit agents, to publishers, manuscripts, partials, short stories and flash fiction, poetry too, for competitions and journals. I’ve been doing this for years now, actually, and most of that time it was silence or rejection. Polite, impersonal form rejection.

But every now and then I’d get feedback. Notes on my work, not general niceties, but constructive criticism. It was a good sign. My work was worth the time and energy of saying something about it: that something being the reason it wasn’t right for whatever I’d submitted it for.

A step in the right direction, however painful.

I figured out that I wanted to get those notes before sending it out to be rejected. I needed criticism during the writing process, or rather, during the rewriting process (but that is part of the writing process, really.)

I had this AMAZING writer’s group in Paris. They gave brilliant notes. They didn’t hold back and yet none of it was cruel. It wasn’t me and my work versus the critique group; it was me and the critique group versus my work. It wasn’t personal, though my writing often was and is.

I lap up criticism. But once upon a time, it was personal, even if it came from a lovely, warm, collaborative place. I didn’t know how to separate myself and my worth, from the work and its worth.

I don’t lap up rejection, of course not, but I’m pretty good at taking the hit and getting up and getting on with more submissions or more rewrites or something else entirely.

But once upon a time it was THE END OF THE WORLD. My one almost-novel wasn’t good enough (and, in truth, it was not, and thank you lucky stars it didn’t go anywhere because embarrassing) and therefore I was not good enough. Rejecting that one manuscript was rejecting my entire body of work.

No one gets to do that anymore. No one sees my entire body of work. It’s more than a million words now and oy vey, right? That’s a lot of words.

When I get a rejection now, it’s one of MANY, rejecting one of MANY stories, poems, novels… Compared to that baby writer, a decade ago, a rejection now is a blip on the radar. It hurts, but it doesn’t take me out. I still write that day. I don’t chuck the lot. I don’t even chuck that story.


I’m sure different people have different processes and experiences, but for me it’s like learning patience: the only way to do it is to wait. For ages. It sucks. But you can’t learn to be patient without being impatient for, oh, hours.

Learning how to take rejection is the same: take lots of it, one way or the other, and you’ll get better. Which, I know, and I’m sorry, is NOT what anyone wants to hear, unless they’re well into years of getting rejection, and there’s the hope that it’ll start to pay off.

And one day, it won’t be rejection. It’ll be constructive criticism.

And then it might well be a few more rejections. Or years.

And one day it will be a yes.

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busy somethings and busy nothings

We had a mad couple of weeks, and then things calmed down and the quiet is a different kind of mad.

First, the mad weeks – the busy doing something bit. A kiwi friend came to town and so I played tour guide, which I love. We walked our feet off. The first day we went to Versailles and (finally) saw the Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s wee (not actually tiny) village.

too early for the trianon

The Trianon doesn’t open till midday – consider yourselves warned – so we wandered around the lake and took in another angle on the palace and gardens before we went into the Trianon.

the grand trianonThe grand trianon was like a summer house, a cottage if you will. But giant.

the petit trianonAnd then there’s the petit trianon, which is small, I suppose, but set among vast gardens.

marie antoinette's farm

And beyond that is the village that Marie Antoinette had made, so that she could experience authentic french village life… yep.

exploring marie antoinette's village at versailles

Me and Elena at the little village.

The kids were exhausted long before we were done. That place is huge. It’s beside Versailles, so the very concept of huge is seriously warped.

music and fountains

Luuk took the kids home, after a fortifying ice cream, and my friend and I continued on to the palace. The fountains in the gardens were all going, and some even had music playing, so it was quite spectacular. Transporting, really. It is hard to imagine the opulence of life in this place when it was a palace.

On Monday, we went to Paris but our tired feet kept us from going far – just a lap around Notre Dame and a little of the little Ile St Louis. We stopped in at Shakespeare and Company and then had some lunch.

worn out in Paris

Elena slept through lunch.

And then we headed back to Antony in time to drop the little lady off at halte garderie.

Tuesday we were amped and organised and showed up at the Louvre just after it opened… except it didn’t open because it never does on Tuesdays. Quick change of plan, which was nervous-making given I’d forgotten my phone. Its handy-dandy maps of Paris and GPS functions are good at times like these. We winged it and found our way to Sacre Coeur, then the Amelie Cafe and the Moulin Rouge.

creme brulee at Les Deux Moulins

Creme Brulee at Les Deux Moulins

After all that traipsing about, I left my friend to find the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower by herself and took Elena to halte garderie. I took the afternoon off.

In the evening, we went to see La Belle et la Bete – Beauty and the Beast. It was brilliant. It was in French. But there’s not a lot of subtlety in musical theatre and we picked up most of the jokes.

la belle et la bete

The staging, the costumes, the music, was all brilliantly done – lavish and hilarious and even a little bit moving – when chip, the little boy who’s been trapped in a tea-cup, gets to be human again – aw. And the feast – ah! – the plates and napkins and cutlery all prancing about. The plates lit up. There were streamers shot into the audience. If you’re in Paris, and you can stretch for it – so worth seeing.

Wednesday, my friend went to the Louvre, and Louis and I hung out at the ludotheque while Elena was at halte garderie, so that was nice and chilled-out for the morning. On Thursday we stayed in Antony and went to the market. We met up with a friend of mine in the morning and another came over in the afternoon. The first was about to head off on holiday, the second was about to head off for good. It’s an expat thing, and it sucks, but it’s also very predictable. You make these friends knowing you’re only going to live in the same place for a few months or years. This particular friend is a writer and a great babysitter, so she will definitely be missed!

The next day our visitor left and the kids and I had a lazy day. Lazy was also the plan for Saturday, but it was gorgeous weather and while I’d got plenty of exercise, walking around Paris during the week, Luuk has a desk job – so it was bike ride time! We went up the hill to the coulee vert and discovered a new play ground. We came back to rest our tired muscles and then heard from Kiwi friends who used to live in Paris, but have been in Lille for a year now. They were in town, just for the night, and so we biked up the hill again to catch up with them.

Well after the kids’ bedtime, we biked back, and got home only to discover that Luuk had forgotten his back pack. So he did the hill three times on Saturday. Sunday, we felt quite a lot of sympathy for the tour de france cyclists. It was the final day of the tour and they came into Paris via a road that is only a short walk from our house.

ready for the tour de france

Waiting for the bikes.

So that was all the busy somethings. This week has been busy nothing. Halte Garderie is closed for the summer, and Elena and I are getting rather tired of each other. Louis still had the holiday program to go to, but I’ve not been well, just niggly things that mostly wear me out rather than make me feel sick. Getting out of the house and doing anything interesting with the kids has just seemed like a huge effort. Hopefully I’ll get better, get my energy back, because next week Louis isn’t going to the holiday program and I will have them both to myself, all day, every day.

To think, once upon a time I thought being a full-time mum and home-maker was right up my alley. Turns out, I have a very small capacity for playing with very small children. I run out of ideas, and patience, horribly fast. A few hours, a morning, is fine, but then I’m ready for some time to myself.

Two of them, together, can be great if they want to do the same thing, together, and happily. The playdoh colours are all mixed together, but hey, they’re happy. I can join in, then wander away and do some housework or a blog post, then peal the colours apart and put the playdoh away and organise lunch. It can be relaxed, but it tends to go that way for just a fraction of the day. And there tends to be rather too much television on.

‘George of the Jungle’ is the current favourite. I do an excellent jungle-man yell.

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It’s a lazy Sunday here, and tomorrow is 14 Juillet (known as Bastille day only outside of France, apparently). Sundays are so much nicer when Monday’s a holiday.

This is what we’ve been doing:

and a few minutes later:

Movies, music, food. Hanging out like pros.

It is summer holidays and so far so good. The weather has been lousy, and continues so today, but I got to the market, and we have friends coming around tonight. During the week, I crossed paths with friends who have kids, and we all keep each other company. I had writers’ group. Things are going okay.

And yet, I am feeling rather under-whelmed, just at the moment. I’ve been solidly working on writing for two and a half years now… and the reasonable bit of my brain knows I’m getting better, and I’ve written LOADS, but there’s a little bit of my brain, a bit that is both a) irrepressible, and b) immune to logic.

That dangerous cluster of neurons (I took science until they let me stop. I was 15. I don’t even know how to spell neurons. No squiggly red line – good) is getting me down.

I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by how much work goes into writing (and rewriting and editing) a decent novel. I’m not a naturally gifted wordsmith. I’m not a speedy reader. I have to work hard at this stuff.

working, at the playground

Working hard. At the playground.

I’ve been working hard for two and a half years now. That’s as long as it took me to get my B.A. – which you might argue is about as useful. I had to do another year of study on top of my degree before it made me employable. And there was always more to being employable than those qualifications.

It’s possible that publication, or even finding a literary agent, is a ways off. Maybe not, but maybe. I actually had a dream last night, in which a friend, who has written a lot less than me, got a book deal. If that were to happen, sure I’d be very happy for them, but I’d also be angry. I’m a little bit angry anyway. And it was just a dream! Two people I studied with have prize-nominated published books, and one of them won the freekin’ Booker.

Now, I know, comparison is a foolish idea. But there it is. The brain goes there anyway, don’t it?


writer with angst

Louis, with writers’ angst.

I’m terribly impatient. And most of my anger is to do with impatience. If I stick at this long enough (and I will because I love writing) then surely it will pay off… eventually.

Exactly what ‘paying off’ looks like, might not be just what I think it is now.

I recently had one (of seven – oy vey) of my manuscripts assessed and got comprehensive editorial feedback from a professional in the publishing industry. There are lots of positives in her report, but what I was seeking (and what I got) was advice on how to lift my game.

I’ve got plenty of work to do. Perhaps not all of it is strictly NECESSARY. But I do intend to go through the entire thing again and fix up that which is (now) obviously improvable. And for a while, before I touch it, I need to just think about what I want to do. Especially about the opening chapter. (But I really am horribly impatient.)

so many words

So many words.

One of the discouraging things is that two of the editor’s concerns are to do with things I added, relatively recently, in response to other people’s feedback! (Including the opening chapter.) I made big gut-wrenching changes… and it’s possible they didn’t work. It’s always frustrating to try something and have it not work.

But it’s part of the learning process, says the reasonable bit of my brain. Writing is not all you do. Writing is not all you are.

Look at your lovely kids and all the things they’re learning. Look at that fantastic feast you’re slapping together without a recipe and when did you start understanding french on the radio???

But still. Gr. Writing a book is a slog. A first draft is something I now find easy, but that is far and a long ways from a book. In fact, what happens to first drafts, in this house…

That about sums it up.


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trial and error

This parenting shtick is all trial and error. You know what? This LIFE shtick is all trial and error. I mean, sure, there’s good advice (there are whole books full of it) but it’s hard to be sure the advice is good until you’ve tried it out to see if it errs.

So we stuck Louis in school for full days and it’s been a bit rough (mostly on Louis, but sure we all suffer with him). Getting better slowly, but still, we decided to pedal back to half days. Just for a month or two. Maybe, miraculously, he’ll master a nutritious and adventurous diet at home before we throw him back to the canteen sharks with their fantastic school menus.

Maybe, come January, he’ll still eat only bread and compote at lunch, but he’ll be happy after his nap and not missing his mum. For now, I’ll pick him up in the middle of the day and he’ll have lunch with Elena and me, à la Maison. Then, after we drop Elena at halte garderie he can nap away the afternoon.

Elena, meanwhile, is rocking nursery school. She is welcome to stay till 5.30, already! Happiest kid on the block. Envy of the world (or at least parents whose children suffer separation anxiety)…

So we’re changing up the routine again. I was reluctant to give up so soon. I’m of the wait-and-give-it-a-chance school of thought on most things. It can be hard to know when to stick at something a bit longer and when to jump ship, try a different tack.

Am I messing with metaphors again? Am I mixing boating metaphors? Blame the stupid late nights watching the stupid America’s Cup.

On the weekend we visited Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I thought it was a modern art museum but in another vein from the Pompidou centre. No psychedelic lights, pantyhose and perspex here.

sculpture outside musee d'orsaySculpture outside, on arrival at Musée d’Orsay.

Much as I love that ‘it’s art cause I say it is’ stuff, Musée d’Orsay is something else and gorgeous. It’s in an old railway station and the building itself is stunning. It houses the french version of the statue of liberty, as well as many other incredible sculputre, and numerous works by Monet and Manet, Degas and Van Gogh, Renoir and Cézanne, Gauguin and Rodin… you get the picture. Needless to say, I bought lots of postcards at the shop on the way out.

view inside musee d'orsay

Musée d’Orsay. Just, wow.

inside clock face, musee d'orsay Cool old railway station, and clock faces.

art fatigue seats

Seats for dealing to art fatigue… or climbing on.

Looking at all that beautiful art made me want to paint, to sculpt, to study the human form and teach my fingers to render it, to teach my eyes to see more, notice more…

Thing is, there’s only so much time in the week. Becoming a better writer is taking an awful lot of time, and I’m working at that every day.

I’m resisting restlessness this week. Maybe one day I’ll dedicate time and study to painting, to sculpture, to mosaics. But this day, I’ve got a novel to edit, to sculpt and render and shine, and just like those masterpieces in the galleries, it’s going to take time and dedication and sacrifice.

women statues outside musee d'orsayI bet these ladies had discipline.

On which note, back to work.

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in it for the long haul

Category : Art

Writing a novel is like a long haul flight. But worse.

And better. I, for one, prefer novel-writing, but then I really don’t like long haul flights. We’ll be here for 22 months before we visit NZ. I miss home, I do, but 24 hours in-flight, plus layovers – ick!

on the wing

So there are obvious differences, between novelling and flying, but there are plenty of similarities. Bear with me.

1. You can get up from your seat but it’s safer if you don’t.

2. You start at point A and eventually get to point B, and most of the time it’s the destination on the ticket. Occasionally flights get diverted but most of the time you end up where you were going to begin with.

3. Only it’s not quite what you expected it to be. The food is better, the language is harder, and the roads are more insane. The weather is a bit different and you don’t have the right shoes. But you can buy shoes.

Or you could if your writing made any money. (Which it’s more likely to do if I stop mixing metaphors, and probably if I stop extending them any further. Too bad.)

4. Landing is the hardest part of a flight, usually. I’m not very good at landing. Yesterday someone asked me if I’d finished my novel. I said something like, “Yes, but no, none of them are actually finished. They’re all finished. But no. I’m editing. Still editing.”

I suppose people don’t take more than one long hall flight at the same time. Two in a row, sure (only way to get to NZ from here…) but you can only be in one plane at a time. With writing it’s not the worst thing to have more than one on the go. A drafted novel needs time to stew (could we go with a refueling metaphor here? Not worth the risk…) and while one almost-book is sitting in a drawer I work on another, and go back to the first one with something like perspective.

5. It seems to take a very long time. Now, with novel writing you can get up and walk out and give up. Ditching your A380 over the Atlantic is seriously foolish, but giving up on a novel part way through is just… a little bit soul-destroying.

view of the wing

Ooh, is that an island we could parachute onto?

One of the major differences, of course, is that you can be fairly certain when a plane lands. There’s plenty of warning. Serious sinus pain, in my case, and usually a little deafness, an altered seat-angle, the end of the beverage service, the whir and thump of the flaps and landing gear. The cars and houses get bigger and then, bumpety-bump, smooth but fierce breaking, and oh, look, there’s the airport.

And everyone’s cell phones start going off.

And then the flight attendant tells you that cell phones shouldn’t be transmitting until you’re in the terminal. Oops.

me, reading in-flightMe, reading on an airplane.

I’ve thought my novels were finished. Once, twice, three times even, I’ve thought, ‘Send it off! I’ve checked everything. No lippy on the teeth or runs in the tights. She’s good to go!’

She wasn’t. But I sent her off anyway, to be assessed and rejected. And then I rewrote and edited that baby and sent her off again, this time to school, just to be sure. Friends read my stuff and some of them give me feedback, and some of it is incredibly helpful.

And maybe, having taken on board all that feedback, this re-write will be actually ready. But it’s hard to be sure. The over-sized plane diagram on the pixelated map is moving awful slow, and I really don’t know how far away the tarmac is. But we’re on our way. Getting closer.

There better not be any bloody fog on the runway, is all I can say. I do not want to be diverted to Palmerston North*.

6. You’re never alone on a long haul flight. As much as you might wish for the people around you to just disappear (and stopped getting published before you!) you’re never really alone. And that’s good, because it’s important to have someone flying the plane, and someone serving the drinks, and someone snoring at just the right volume to lull the kids to sleep, and someone to look at across the aisle and think, hey, I’m not suffering alone here.

louis and elmo, flying long haulElmo will keep you company… or at least distract the toddler while I write.

Metaphor fail. And end.

* Why Palmerston North? Well, I used to have a job at NZ’s air traffic control company and I spent much of my time watching the approach to Wellington airport, which is prone to sudden attacks of sea-fog. Palmerston North was their favourite alternative destination. And I’m allowed to mock that charming wee town, just a little, ’cause I was born there.

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playing to our strengths

Rather than trying to be a super-person, brilliant at everything, they say it’s best to stick to your strengths and outsource the rest… or something like that.

One of my strengths is a middling amount of web-nous. Middling because there are people fluent in all those nifty languages that pop up when you right click on a web page and choose ‘view source’. And I’m not one of them, probably because I never set my mind to it. And there are other people who are just now viewing source code for the very first time.

I’m also middling on the housekeeping front. But, I’ve been working on a website for a housekeeping genius… and voilà, my house is tidy and there’s an increasingly functional/beautiful website in the works! On Friday, while I edited photos and fidgeted around with widgets, my lovely friend wiped, swept, washed and organised our apartment. An excellent trade off.

Speaking of strengths, Elena is 9 months old, and sleeping should be right up her alley… catch her at the right time of day, or most of the night, and it is. Babies and sleep… quite the contentious issue, I know. Elena is a little less eager to sleep anywhere and everywhere than her big brother was. We were spoiled with our first child.

sleeping on the floor

Louis asleep on the floor, at San Francisco Airport, July 2011

But yesterday Elena managed to fall asleep during her very first bike ride. And it was far from smooth sailing. The bit where she fell asleep was when we’d left the paved path behind and taken to the dirt track, with all the mud puddles and bumps and roots and bridges…

Elena asleep during first bike ride

Elena, asleep on her first bike ride. Bumpety-bumpety-bump.

Biking the coulee vert, ParisGorgeous day for it. We are now fully equipped with two bikes, each with a baby seat on the front.

Actually, Elena’s greatest strength at the moment is charming people. She has mastered waving, she’s had smiling down for ages, and now she can even crawl across the room to meet you.

Elena charms em allAnd a gentle face-stroking gets them every time.

the kids playing

Meanwhile, the other kids were doing what they do best: play!

We had a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, as you can tell, hanging with friends and enjoying the sunshine… just in time too because the weather forecast is all bad news this week.

Other noteworthy events of the weekend: I watched rugby. I generally don’t watch sport, but enjoyed it more than expected. We have come to support ‘Racing Metro’, one of the two teams in the Ile de France, because I go along to French class with a bunch of the players’ wives. And Racing won, so that’s probably part of the reason I enjoyed the game. Plus, good company improves these things, and getting titbits of insider knowledge on the players spiced it up…

I missed the bit where the ref’s leg got snapped; I was upstairs feeding Elena at the time. So far I’ve managed to avoid Luuk showing me a clip of it on youtube. No thanks.

But I’ve gotten off track. I was talking about strengths, and I think there’s truth to that whole ‘play to your strengths’ idea, but it definitely has its limits. I don’t love web page design or construction but, at High School, I did much better in Computer Science than I ever did in English. If I’d loved computers I might have made quite the web-nut, but what I love is stories and language and teaching. I have to work a lot harder to write well than I ever did to succeed in maths or computers… but it’s what I love. It makes me happy.

So I say, play to your loves, considering your strengths. It’s not that I’m a bad writer, it’s just that I have to work at it. I need others’ help. But because I love it, I will work harder and eventually I will be a better writer than I could ever have been at creating websites.

(It’s Sunday evening, and our Chinese take-away delivery person must be lost, so forgive me if this post isn’t a good example of my improving writing skills…)

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different cow species

on a hiding

on a, in French, means ‘we have’… so I could say on a cacher which means, ‘we hide’, but I’ll get to that later.

I got another rejection letter – argh! – but this one was very (very!) encouraging and had helpful advice… so, if I’m keeping perspective, this is all very positive progress, after all I’ve only been writing every day, with this kind of dedication, for a year, and good things take time and all of that bollocks.

Which isn’t bollocks at all but for a day or two, inevitably, I’m going to feel like all this work is for nothing. That I am on a hiding to nothing.

Speaking of hiding, the weather has been icy and snowy and miserable. So we spent the weekend hiding… but boy did we find some fabulous places to do it.

1. Mysterland. The indoor playground, south of Paris, that I wish we’d discovered a year ago! This place was several steps up from the one we did discover, when the temperature was hanging around freezing point for about a month and our 1-year old needed a bit more room to roam than our tiny hotel room then slightly less-tiny apartment. Now he’s coming up two and a half, so he needs even more room… but he’s more cautious now than he was then. Refused to go in the ball pit at all, but he did enjoy riding around on a toy motorbike and building walls with giant lego. We met a bunch of other friends with their kids and so we all chatted, ate crêpes, drank coffee, and occasionally got up to attend children/put them on the carousel.

2. The ‘asiatique’ buffet (ie. seafood for asia!) across the parking lot. All you can eat, and then some, of the usual chinese buffet suspects, plus a sampling of sushi, fresh spring rolls, dumplings, and then the fresh wok stuff – where you put your raw ingredients (including delicacies like scallops) on a plate and they cook it up for you, just so, with your choice of sauces.

Awesome. And I over-ate to all-new-excess.

And then came home only to print and dash to writers group. But that was good too.RER dash

The dash to writers’ group: on the RER train.

3. Salon de l’agriculture at the Paris Expo centre… which is really centreS – plural. Holy cow it’s huge. And holy Cow, that’s a lot of cows. And we didn’t even go into the cow building. We just saw the overflow cows (which I’m happy to say were not overflowing in and of themselves) in the building with all the sheep and goats and pigs.

And now, pictures…

Elena wrapped up

Unfortunately we had to go outside to get to the show… so wrapped up snuggly, we took the RER, then a tram (a first for me, in Paris, and for Elena… anywhere)

scary donkey

First stop, the horses. We got there early, hoping to avoid the worst of the crowds, and thought we’d best tick off the most popular sights first, for the same reason. But Louis was too scared to go near the horses/donkeys, even though they’re like his favourite thing the rest of the time, and he sees them regularly at the local park… but logic be damned.

pat the horse

Other people enjoyed patting the horses. Luuk and I included.

fancy tails

Others enjoyed plaiting their tails. It’s a thing, I guess.

fishes and bubbles

Louis calmed down when we got to the smaller animals. And there was a bubble machine beside this fishing display. Elena liked the fish.

Louis finally patted an animal when we got to the bunny rabbits. There were also screeds of different hens and other poultry. They were conveniently beside the produce section: saussison sec, cheeses, chocolates, caramelized nuts and candies (fruit pate at an exorbitant rate… that they don’t tell you till after you agree to buy some).

We should have spent more time there, but nonetheless…

sheep and lambs

We came all the way from NZ for the sheep! Oh, wait. Just kidding. Though I suspect this is the same breed that our friends farm in Otago.

big sheep

And this one was rather large.

french marino

And they have Marino in France too, turns out.
Another thing I thought was special about NZ… so much for that.

cow bells

And then there were cows. The bells gave them away.

cool cows

I thought these two were a handsome pair.

different cow species

And these two won the prize for interesting hair dos. By my opinion. No idea about actual prizes. Be there isn’t one called ‘interesting hair do’. There should be, though.

Howdy Cows and Boys

Forgive my ignorance. I’m sure my farming family members would have appreciated a whole lot of the details that went way over my head, in fact I still haven’t quite figured out the bell thing – is it so farmers can find their stray herd-members? I have another theory – the cows don’t like the noise and so they don’t move so much when they’re wearing the bells??

Shot in the dark. Figuratively. Though, wearing a bell would make it easier to shoot a cow in the dark. But still unwise.

4. The fourth way we hid from the weather was yesterday: Inviting ourselves to friends’ houses. I had a bit of a gong-show Monday morning because Elena had been up every hour in the night and then it was snowing. The thing with Monday mornings is that Louis has to be at halte garderie at 9 but French lesson doesn’t start till 10 (and in reality often later). So I have this chunk of time to kill, and I often just walk around Antony or a park on the way to class, but the weather yesterday was not all that inviting.

Antony in the snow

Antony in the snow. (The mad drivers are just out of this shot, on the left.)

Then French lesson finishes (again, in theory) at 11.30 and I have to pick Louis up at 11.50… but getting from one to the other takes more than fifteen minutes and when the path is icy, longer. (It’s not icy enough for safe skating.)

My walk to French

The icy path. (But it’s a nice walk otherwise)

So it’s stressful. Yesterday, class didn’t start till nearly 11 (blame the trains and the snow-crazy drivers) and so my friend gave me a ride to pick up Louis. We left Elena at the lesson and dashed down, got Louis, and returned in time for banana scones (and to scribble down the last few notes on pronomial verbes pour le passe compose et futur proche). But then I was faced with the prospect of walking home, in the snow, with Louis also walking because the double buggy is a nightmare in snow/ice so I only had the single…

Anyway, long story short, we spent the afternoon at Marcelle and Johnny’s again.

the boys holding hands

Louis and his friend Sua, being awfully cute, watching The Wiggles and holding hands. They didn’t know we saw them…

self-crusting quiche

I made quiche for us all for lunch… self-crusting quiche. Awesome.

The kids slept, I cooked, Marcelle, Mel and I talked… about Marcelle’s new business start-up, about my novel, which they’re very helpful with due to real-life expertise in the field of rugby player romance… And then Johnny came home and the kids finished school. It was still snowing so we hid out, hoping it would stop, did some gymnastics… as you do. Turns out I can still do a cartwheel and a handstand (against a wall). Didn’t risk the back-bridge.

Johnny drove us home, good man, and if I can manage it we won’t be going out today. The snow is gone but it’s oppressively grey and we can live without bread, if necessary. Or maybe I can coerce a friend into bringing us some…

And on that note, better get some writing done (just in case I’m not on a hiding to nothing) before the friend shows up with the bread…


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where’s wally progress?

Progress feels slow but it’s there… just. I submitted a short story to a Paris lit magazine today, and also received a rejection letter from a lit agency I queried… before Elena was born. I got the message about four months ago, thanks, but the email cleared up any confusion, yes.

Sorry, no more bitterness. Promise.

Progress on my novel also feels slow but I have been distracted a lot, by other, shorter projects (and by other things entirely… like scrabble on facebook… can’t be disciplined all the time.)

Louis had an accident again at halte garderie. Perhaps he’s too young for potty training completely – perhaps its just a communication issue. I’m not sure. But we’ll try for another week or so and see if things fall into place. Prior to this he’s always had a nappy on when he’s away from home, so it’s steep learning curve.

Elena is progressing toward crawling and she’s getting from one side of the room to the other without it. She’s full of energy and eats anything she can get her hands on, happily finishing Louis’ leftovers. Her progress is more obvious than anyone’s and a great joy.

play, the work of childhood

The little lady wants in on all the fun.

It’s a year since we left New Zealand and I’ll write a summary of sorts in the next day or so, but yesterday I read back over my first two blog posts after we arrived in France. There is a very strange time warp thing going on – the year is so short and so long. We’ve learned so much French in that time and yet most days it feels like no progress at all.

So I suppose the lesson here is that progress is invisible up close, but it’s happening nonetheless.

Time is certainly progressing, no doubt about that! Only one more day of the january writing challenge. Here are yesterday and today’s small stones…

a glass of wine

if sunshine were put on ice till
it turned liquid
then chilled a while longer, sweetening
softly with age till
I glug glug it into my glass
a celebratory salute for ticking
off that one big thing
at four in the afternoon.

And today’s, inspired by our walk in the last of the gorgeous late afternoon sun,

the steeple bright, as
if two photos, day and dusk
were stuck together 

It was like a taste of spring today – just lovely. Spring is an excellent example of slow, easy-to-miss progress. We’re leaving winter behind but some days it’s still an awful lot like winter. (I know it’s still January – definitely still winter – I’m getting ahead of myself but you should’ve seen the sun today!)

enjoying the winter sun

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creativity begets creativity

Today I painted for the first time since we arrived in France.

I have had good intentions since, oh, week three or four. Now, in month ten, I finally put paint to canvas. I had my little helper, the pants-less wonder, contributing – first with green ballpoint pen, and then with my paintbrush. He then commandeered my brush so I let him have it and from then on it only got dipped in water.

For the sake of keeping Louis’ private parts private, this photo was taken after he was re-pantsed and put to bed.

What a mess, eh? Ah, but it was fun. And oddly beautiful, I think, but a long ways off being ready to hang anywhere except up to dry.

And to drip. Very important.

Painting this, I thought it’d make a great metaphor for nanowrimo, and really for first drafts at anything creative. So here goes my bit of advice for today, entitled,

writerly wisdom from painting

– the first layer of a painting, is not ready to be seen. It does not need to be ready to be seen.

– the first layer is fun, free, exploratory, expansive. You can do no wrong – unless you stop. It is never wrong before it’s finished. And it’s always wrong if it’s never finished. (Wrap your nanowrimo-tired brain around that.)

– you can paint right over the first layer if you want.

– BUT you won’t know if you want to for a while – you may think you do, but give it time. You need some space and objectivity before you’re ready to make those sorts of decisions.

– a first draft is often beautiful as a first draft. Beware: an audience will feel cheated if you hang it in a gallery (or put it up online as an e-book)

We’ve all seen something like this in a gallery. Sometimes we think it’s lame because we are ignorant. And sometimes it’s lame because the artist is lazy, and scamming everyone. Don’t be that artist.

– that said, some of the best work is an accident. Happy, happy accident.

most of the best work is not accidental, and is not done in a first draft. Most of the best work hasn’t happened yet and won’t for sometime. This is a lesson in patience as much as a lesson in art or writing.

We had this charming little tune on a tape we overplayed during road trips when I was a kid. Whenever I think of patience, I think of Herbert the Snail. And I get this stuck in my head. (My gift to you.)

The moral of the story: chill out. And keep working.

Now, I wonder how long I can bear to leave that lazy scam of a hash job hanging on the living room door, taunting me with how much better it could, can and/or will be?

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by sheer force of will

We are rapidly approaching the terrible twos – and I suspect this is just a taster of things to come. Food and toys are thrown around. There’s kicking and screaming.

But why can’t I spin her around wildly? I really really want to.

The stones are more interesting than going to a cafe for lunch.
No, I don’t need to eat actually.

How has no one else noticed? The world is ending!

I suspect his teeth are bothering him. I found one more molar coming through on the bottom today. Poor kid. But this is not all teething-related.

At 22 months old, he has a good handle on the word ‘no’ and can wield his will with the best of them. He’ll do battle over anything, refusing food he usually loves and activities he, at other times, begs for.

It’s one of those many qualities that make toddler-hood difficult but arm you well for life. I want my kids to have strong wills, to stick to their guns, to stand up for themselves… of course. I guess they start learning how and practicing it young.

But there’s a difference between having the strength to stand up for what you believe in and being stubborn. Perhaps its semantic, but regardless of word choice I can think of two distinct types of willfullness.

– being willful for the sake of winning

– being willful for the sake of integrity

The first is about ego and we all do it, of course, but a little self-knowledge and maturity help here… the truly wise beat this habit, I guess, but most of us mere humans do battle with it.

In theory, my identity doesn’t hang in the balance every time I discover that something I once thought or believed is in fact wrong. Some beliefs I hold tighter than others, of course, but I hope I can find the grace to admit when I’m wrong. This is hardest, I suspect, when the person proving me wrong is my spouse, sibling, parent or (give it a few months) child.

The freedom to change my mind, to admit I am wrong, to learn and grow and change… these are essential for survival.

The other kind of willfulness is also a vital survival tactic. Without some of this type of willfulness a person will be walked all over. They’ll buy every gimick, sign up for every weight-loss program and magazine subscription, own every self-help book and constantly question whether or not they’re doing things ‘right’ – as if there is just one way to live ‘correctly’.

Every salesperson in the world will take advantage of a person with no will of their own, and whether they mean to or not, so will most of their friends and family.

This kind of willfulness is also a kind of determination. This is the kind of willfulness that I need in order to stick at writing novels, to stick with learning french, to hold onto my faith when I am, once again, confronted by its complexities.

The trick is, I suppose, distinguishing between the two. At a given moment it’s difficult to know – is Louis refusing something because he genuinely doesn’t want it, or because he just wants to beat me? Or both? Am I arguing with my husband over something really important, or do I just want to win? It’s hard to be honest with myself, especially in the moment. And later, if I discover I was in the wrong, then there’s the fun of apologising…

By sheer force of my will I can’t be right all the time. By sheer force of my will I can’t know, in that moment, whether or not I’m fighting a noble battle, or defending my ego.

Parenting seems to me a constant test of will. Sometimes I’m just so tired I think, there’s no way I can get up right now. But then Elena cries or Louis hurts himself, and what do you know? I can get up. I do get up. I drink too much coffee and spend too much time staring blankly at one screen or another, and not enough time exercising, but I suppose I’m busy using up the strength of my will on the really important stuff – I’m being a mum, a writer, a friend and lover, and keeping the house just clean and tidy enough that it’s not a health and safety hazard. Priorities eh?