31 March 2009

A Saturday

                       The BF is away in England. I sleep in, waking on and off, not wanting to get up. I let the girls watch more tv then usual, then we eat breakfast and plan the day: packing for Youngest's week away at classe verte, the laundry, the homework, the cutting of fingernails. Eldest agrees to vacuum and mop the hallway. Youngest begins to pack. I haul laundry to the laundromat, nip into the grocery store for milk. On the way back to collect the clean laundry I drop glass bottles into the recycling container at the Parvis Trinité. Satisfyingly, they break upon impact inside. Then I sneak to the secondhand bookstore for 20 minutes, leaving the wash in the machines. Youngest phones in a tiff about something or other, threatening my sneaked moment of peace, but I manage to talk her down. I browse and chat with Louis, the bookshop owner. If I were better at this I'd describe him;  suffice for the moment to say that he is slim, pale, in his thirties, with unruly curly brown hair and scraggly stubble or maybe a would-be beard. He has a quirky sense of humour that I cannot always rise up to although sometimes I can be so banal that it gets surreal. I think he likes that. Having had a dose of actual human contact, I collect the wash and lug it back (assuring myself this has got to be the best weight-bearing excercise; I surely will not sufferrom osteoporosis). At home I sit down with Youngest and so through every item she has packed. She has done a good job, and not tried to sneak in her MP3. 

                       Eldest showers and Youngest mops the kitchen. Yes, they actually like to mop! I hang the laundry to dry, deciding it is not worthwhile to cook today since I have forgotten to buy potatoes to go with the chicken. Decide to take us out to the Balmoral milk bar place on Place Brugman. 

                       "Where?" they ask.

                       "Milkshake place."

                       "Oh that place -- hooray!"

                       All day the weather has been sun interspersed with sudden showers. We walk over to the restaurant while there's sun. BF texts that he's found wellie boots for Youngest. Another hooray. The Balmoral is a 1950s/US-themed resto, with formica tables and car culture motifs and Betty Boop pin-ups. Belgian-style fancy drive-in food. Eldest and I order hamburgers, Youngest a hot dog. I let the girls get milkshakes and take long pulls on each one...

                       On the way home we somehow start singing "If you're happy and you know it". I make up ridiculous things for them to do besides clap their hands and stomp their feet: walk like a duck, etc. We walk/skip/jump back down the chaussée de Waterloo, finishing with several rounds of "Doe, a Deer" from the Sound of Music.

                       It isn't always like this but when it is, it's very good. 

27 March 2009

It was a good thing there was yoga today....

.... because I got a letter today about secondary school for The Eldest. It was from the governmental body or committee or something like that which has been appointed to try to sort out the inscription mess. It basically said that they noticed Sophia doesn't have any place for September. Good of them, eh? They said they felt really bad about the fact she doesn't have a place, and attached a list of schools where there are, apparently, still openings. All I can think is that those must be the crappest schools in all the land, because every decent and half-decent school has a waiting list a mile long. Oh yes, and they added that if we were considering sending The Eldest out as a boarder, they could give me a list of boarding schools.

We have moved up to good positions on waiting lists at 2 schools, and both schools have told me they think that places will open up in June.

At the same time, a letter was supposed to have been sent out to parents who have multiple inscriptions, urging them (or commanding them? I'm not sure) to pick one and "desist" from the others. Oh, and if you have a place at a school, to give up your waiting list places at any other schools. I know parents who are in this fortunate situation. They don't know how lucky they are! I wonder sometimes what I would do in if I was them. If I only got The Eldest into our last choice school, I might well be holding out hope and hanging onto every place I have. But having got nothing, I feel so desperate I want to tell these people off. Can't they see what's happening? Not to mention my kid is smarter than theirs and does not deserve to go to school in deepest
Molenbeek. No, she will NOT go to school in deepest Molenbeek. They have got to be fucking kidding.

26 March 2009

Into every life, a little rain must fall....

I think I have some rare mood disease, akin to SAD. The weather is all over the place and I am, too. The weather is sun, rain, wind, rain, showers, more showers, more rain, more wind, some sun again (but not very much), cold nights, cold days, a little less sun... And I am happy, sad, frustrated, confused, angry, resigned, depressed, depressed, okay, not bad, getting better, no, worse; depressed, depressed, all right, okay...

In an effort to stabilize the emotional system, I added some books to my wish list:

Walking in the World
by Julia Cameron

The Richness of Life
by Stephen Jay Gould

Will somebody please buy me something nice even though I am already reading at least half a dozen books?

Twyla Tharpe's The Creative Habit

A Book of Your Own
by Carla Stevens

Jeannette's Mental Health and Well Being Committee thanks you...

25 March 2009

What am I doing???? a brief history of my writing life

I started writing poems about 10 years ago, say, sometime during 1999. I even think it was spring of 1999, because I was part of a group of women writers (Julia, Beverley, Gill... where are you now?) and I remember we did an exercise about colour and I wrote a poem about purple and one of them said, "That's really good, do you write a lot of poems?" It's amazing what being complimented can do for you. I had not, in fact, written many poems but I started to, after that. They just started pouring out of me. I'm not sure many were "good" -- by good I mean that they succeeded in and of themselves. However, it was satisfying and I had high hopes. My aim was to write at least 60 because that was the minimum number of pages needed for most chapbooks. I used to list each one by title and count them up, thinking along the lines of "Only 25 more!"

That was Phase 1. Phase 2 began in 2002 when I started attending the Brussels Writers Group. I began to get a whole new level of feedback, and this was good. It was the feedback of one member, David Morgan, (now moved back to the UK) that gave me one of my biggest "lightbulb moments". Commenting on a poem, he said that he felt the biggest problem with my poetry was that it was too abstract, and he showed me an example in that very poem. I don't know how but somehow it clicked and I "got it".

I wasn't working a day job during Phase 2, my girls were still little, and I had a quite disciplined routine that I loved: walking in the morning (on the way back from dropping them off at school), having coffee at my desk and writing until midday, sometimes more; afterwards working around the shopping and cooking and etc etc etc. I started working for a charity 2 days a week and that was fine, too. I liked that balance. In 2004 I had a poem published, and then another two. I started making more submissions and got decent feedback. But then in 2005 I entered Phase 3.... The Phase of the Day Job.

Is it a coincidence that I haven't had anything published the day job began? Sometimes I wonder. It may have happened anyway, who knows. However it is statistically proveable that during the past two years I have written less and less. I carve out time to do so, though the returns seem to diminish. The girls are older now and therefore easier in many ways, including ways conducive to writing. I have learned a lot about poems. I get positive feedback from readings and I enjoy the making of poems. But it depresses me not to get published. Submitting is depressing too instead of hopeful, because now I expect the answer will be negative instead of "maybe positive". I really wonder what is the point of writing poems no one will read in book form. And yes, I do mean in book form. There's a sense of validation that comes from someone exterior wanting to publish your work, and while I know there's a fine tradition of self-publishing, blah blah blah, I want someone to like it and think it worthwhile. I suspect most writers want this, which is why self-publishing, even the kind that can be done now, remains the less desireable option.

And so I find myself arriving at Phase 4. The post-debutante phase, the post-hopeful phase. The post-naïve phase. The hard-looks-in-the-mirror phase. And what to do about it? I have no idea....

24 March 2009

Accentuate the positive

List: positive things to do today

1. Have coffee at naturale café
2. Buy umbrella during "lunch hour". Hooray, it is black with red polka dots
3. Ask for translator details from person I met last week (another American) who also just applied for Belgian citizenship, after 10+ years
4. Have a muffin from the lunch place. They told me it was yogurt-honey, but it also had lemon zest and sesame seeds on top (very tasty as a matter of fact)
5. Make plans to see a friend on Friday
6. Take Youngest to 2d hand bookshop on way home from school
7. Make macaroni au gratin for dinner
8. Watch series end of Mistresses without shame...
9. ... while eating large helping of No. 7....
10. ... in my pyjamas

I think I deserve a dolphin sticker for that.

Maybe I should get one of these...

But wait! In America it looks like this:

What a no-brainer. I'd far rather get the one with the gun held up to the kitten.

19 March 2009

And you thought your life was boring?

Excerpts from the journal....

16 March
Monday. Morning. I have a surge of energy. It is either: spring, getting enough sleep, eating properly all weekend, this sunny morning, being happy with my BF, all of the above, or mania. At last! A bit of swing-up after the swing-down. And I know what to do: pace. Even if I feel I have tons of ever-lasting energy, I must go slow. Don't burn it out in one go. Slow and steady. S-t-e-a-d-y. Remember to breathe.

17 March
Tuesday. Afternoon. Did bugger-all for most of day except determine that the Eurostar fares for Brussels-London have increased to the point where, if we can't stay with ex-husband's sister, we won't be going. I am waiting for a tram to meet the Eldest to buy some shoes. Dropped the Youngest off at home. Eldest announced this morning that she needs trainers for a journée sportif (sportive?) on Thursday. At least she didn't wait until Wednseday at 6 pm... I don't really care that I'm cramming this shopping in, I'm so brain-dead and need to eat and I-don't-know-what. Mental List: One. I need to reply to a commenter on my blog (I have a reader!). Two. Find a crumb of motivation to write some poems for Friday evening. Three. I really want Chinese food.

18 March
Wednesday afternoon. Another day of sunshine. Girls went to their father's after school, so I have a free couple hours to go to the library before meeting them in the neutral zone (aka in front of the Delhaize). Did not make any headway vis-à-vis London. BF emailed that he isn't feeling well so I may not see him later. My thoughts turn to what to make for dinner. Bloody hell...

I spend too long in the library. It turns into 4 pm. Have to meet the girls at 5. Also, need to do some shopping. Also, I need to eat. Couldn't be bothered earlier. Always a rash course. Wouldn't do shopping either, except we've run out of garbage bags and English muffins. But tonight at last we are going to eat Chinese!

List du jour - The Chapters in Alain de Botton's "How Proust Can Change Your Life":
1. How to Love Life Today
2. How to Read for Yourself
3. How to Take Your Time
4. How to Suffer Successfully
5. How to Express Your Emotions
6.How to Be a Good Friend
7. How to Open Your Eyes
8. How to Be Happy in Love
9. How to Put Books Down

19 March
Thursday. Morning. A quick turnaround at the bus stop. Again, sun. Real, yellow sun. Frankly, I have to admit, it is almost too much.

For some reasons I can't bring myself to write or work on any writing. Is a stretch of a couple of weeks the longest I can do? I suppose that tomorrow morning when I must come up with something I will do so. I don't feel any pressure. Could that be it? But where (oh where, oh where) is my deep motivation? Where is the wanting? The drive? Where is the little dog of desire, nipping at my heels and compelling me to make things? All I can think is I really need a break.... preferably, out in the country near a stream and no one for miles except for BF and the girls who will bring me coffee, fresh bread, and newspapers.
For as long as I want.

Is London in Europe? Or, WTF is up with Eurostar???

You won't believe this (or maybe you will). I've been looking into getting out of Brussels for at least a day trip during the upcoming spring holidays.

I can take the 2 girls to Cologne roundtrip on a weekday during the school holidays for .... guess how much.

Clue: roundtrip on the Eurostar to London, which is roughly the same amount of time (2 hours), is 270 euros for the 3 of us (cheapest tix going).

Yes, that is 270 euro for Brussels to London, roundtrip, 1 adult and 2 children under 11.

Ready to know how much it costs to go to another vibrant major European city? OK, sit down.

Brussels to Koln, roundtrip, Thayls or ICE (both are reservation-required, direct international trains), for the same adult-children combination, costs

a TOTAL of

65 euros.

I do not know sufficent internet shorthand to express my dumbfoundedness, WTF does not seem to do this justice.

18 March 2009

All goddess bloggers wear traveling pants...

Oops I accidently published an early draft of this post. Read this one instead!

Perhaps you may have noticed that cool new image.... over there on the right. It is an Award -- my one and perhaps only award, nominated by Leila in an act of Sisterhoodiness (which does make it feel rather like a big old lovely cosy very-soft-from-age-and-many-washings sweatshirt). She nominated 10 sisters and likened them all to Greek goddess. I am thrilled to be Hestia (and also here, for those of you who would like to get to know your Greek goddesses better).

This award was created by Diana. As she says:
I've created a new blog award called the Sisterhood Award (inspired by The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). This is a special award that should be given to your best bloggy girlfriend(s). Give them the award to thank them for their special friendship. No need to list favorites, addictions or what-not. You can even email them the award.
In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, four girls acquire a pair of magical jeans that fit all four of them perfectly, even though they're all different shapes (that's one magical pair of jeans!). An unfortunate title for the British audience, there is a series of four books and at least two movies. Ironically enough, Daughter the Eldest happened to pick up a copy of the French translation of Traveling Pants the other day in the bookstore and said she might read it after she finishes the last of the Cherub series...

Now, Leila has put some conditions on this sisterhoodythingy....

1. Put the logo on your blog or post.
2. Nominate at least 10 blogs which show great attitude and/or gratitude!
3. Be sure to link to your nominees within your post.
4. Let them know that they have received this award by commenting on their blog.
5. Share the love and link to this post and to the person from whom you received your award.

I can manage 1, 4, and 5 and 3, so far as there are any, but that brings me to 2: link to 10 girlfriendy blogs! I hang my head in shame.... I do not have 10 bloggy friends : (

HOWEVER in the spirit of the Traveling Pants, I would like to nominate two blogs that share the same title, yet are completely different in shape and size. Both suit me perfectly, and are among the handful of blogs I read immediately (or as close as I can get to immediately).

Therefore, without further ado, I nominate Emma, at Belgian Waffle, and Anne, at Belgianwaffle, and give you this:

Wear it proud.

I am Hestia

Please check me out*


16 March 2009

I actually left the house on a Friday evening

How did it happen? Well.... very boring really. But it comes down to the fact that last Friday I was able to hop down to Waterstone's bookstore and only miss about 20 minutes of a poetry reading by the poets from an anthology called "A Twist of Malice", which is a collection featuring 36 contemporary poets exploring the darker side of the female imagination. Leila had sent me some info about the reading earlier in the week but I didn't see a flyer until right before... At which point, one, I was suddenly free to go and, two, I recognized one of the names from the small lit mags I frequent, so off I went. I am so glad events conspired with me for a change! It was a fantastic reading, even wedged into a corner of the ground floor of Waterstone's, complete with police sirens and a browser in the magazine section who talked to himself, loudly, everytime someone started up a new poem. Ah, that's the stuff that poetry readings are made of....

But really, it was like meeting my future, a coven of kindred late bloomer spirits. I got to hear 5 or 6 of the poets read; their work overall often wry, often humourous, never posey or posing, "striking home" one after another. Afterwards I stayed to have a drink and had barely began to compliment them when they were asking me, do you write, do you submit, which mags do you like, oh yes, we like that one too... So encouraging! They get rejected all the time, they said; our works gets held up for months. But we move on. Yes, submitting is tedious. Do keep writing. You've got to do that. After a certain level it's so much to do with luck and timing and what the editor published last month etc ...

I would have gladly had them all to my house and plied them with cookies to keep them talking. I forgot to make a list of exactly which poets were there -- I will do that in a subsequent post, with links for you. In the meantime, have a look at Grey Hen Press, an independent publisher of
poetry, short fiction and autobiographical work by older women.

PS. Grey Hen is also running a competition for women poets over 60, so if this applies to you, better get a move on: closing date is end of April.

I went to the commune for a parking permit and came home with an application to naturalise

It's true. I've been meaning to do it or thinking of doing it for years. I could have done it since my third year of residency in Belgium. But I had small kids and a million necessary things to do (or one or two things to do, one million times over). Now, since then, several things have happened.

One, the girls are older. More of my brain belongs to myself, once again.

Two, as a direct result of the preceding point, the girls will soon(ish) go to university. I must prepare for that. At the moment they only have US citizenship and no right to pay EU-fees in any EU universities apart from Belgian ones, which will put them at a disadvantage if they want to go to another EU country.

Three, the secondary-school fiasco has frustrated me to the point that I want to vote those socialist party idiots out.

Four, the right to reside permanently in Belgium without the question mark of a 5-year card would be lovely.

An EU passport and right to work anywhere in Europe (five) would also not be amiss.

Six, the girls have known no other home than this country. We have made this place our home.

So, I went to the naturalisation window at the maison communale/gementehuis (town hall) and picked up the papers. This was the only part of the maison communale that did not have at least 10 people waiting in line. It appears to be a fairly straightforward process for me, just a lot of forms. Bonus: once I become Belgian, the girls automatically do too (i.e., there is no separate procedure for them).

I even went home and looked through my papers and found a birth certificate that already has an apostille. (An apostille being this official thing you need to support a document. I never knew what one was either until I came here.) It's a sure sign, I think, that now is the time.

12 March 2009

Enrolling into secondary school, Brussels-style. Or not

Live from today's Le Soir Belgqiue:
61 % de parents disent non au décret mixité

Un sondage réalisé à Bruxelles et en Brabant wallon révèle que les parents qui éprouvent de grosses difficultés à trouver une école secondaire pour leur progéniture sont mécontents. On s’en doutait. Mais cette enquête montre que même les familles qui n’ont pas rencontré de difficultés sont majoritairement opposées aux dispositifs mis en place par Christian Dupont.

That's French for, Christian Dupont the education minister forced a horrible system onto the enrollment process and it sucks and doesn't work, and even the people who got what they wanted out of the process are not happy about it.

An independent survey was taken. 1000 people responded. (Not the government doing this, mind you. An independent survey was done by concerned parents groups.) Half of resondents said they had received a place at their school of first choice. But even they are not happy about having had to go through a lottery, or the fact that others they know still do not have places.

Even Dupont admits there are mroe than 1000 kids in Brussels and Brabant Wallon that do not yet have a place for school in September. He admits this, but isn't taking any steps to solve the problem. The process was incompetence itself from the outset. It never contained a contingency plan, or a remedy for parents/students such as myself and my daughter (we do not have a place for September). Nor does it require families who have more than one place give up their extra places (or their waiting list places!). The literature I received makes only promises about how great everything will be and how we will get the school we want.

Absolute bolllocks.

What do the kids have to say about it?
« Je n’ai pas d’école pour septembre » ("I don't have a school for September"). In French, but compelling reading if you can do it.

Various thoughts on generally, being happy, and on being poetry-happy in particular

It seems pretty obvious , doesn't it, that if something makes you happy, you should do it.

If it isn't illegal and it doesn't hurt yourself or anyone else, you should do it.

If something like that makes you happy, why aren't you doing it?

You know what I've realized recently? Writing poetry makes me happy.

The act of creating poems makes me happy.

Getting them to "work", for me, makes me happy.

If someone else enjoys them when I read them, that also makes me happy.

Having poems published, trying to have them published, thinking about having them published, thinking I "must" have them published, does not make me happy.

In the case of poems that have been published, I was happy for about 5 minutes. Then I only wanted to see another one published.

The happiness of writing poems -- even poems, yes, that others might find absolutely dire -- is enough to carry me through the dull and mindnumbing grind of my current job (a job that is the best I can do at the moment), and all of the mindnumbing moments of parenting children (which is not to say that those are the only moments, just that there are many mindnumbingly dull ones).

I did not realize all this until recently. Isn't that funny? It seems so simple.

10 March 2009

More sharing...

10 commandments for the happy writer

Almost invisible but real

I have been feeling low but this morning managed to copy out something sustaining to share. It is from Diana Athill's memoir "Somewhere Towards the End":

Because after all, miniscule though every individual, every 'self', is, he/she/it is an object through which life is being expressed, and leaves some sort of contribution to the world. The majority of human beings leave their genes embedded in other human beings, other things they have made, everyone things they have done: they have taught or tortured, built or bombed, dug a garden or chopped down trees, so that our whole environment, cities, farmland, deserts -- the lot! -- is built up of contributions, useful or detrimental, from the innumerable swarm of selfs preceding us, to which we ourselves are adding our grains of sand.

I suppose you might tell from this passage I was feeling useless and pointless. From my perspective down here in downville, the idea that I might have dug more gardens than I have chopped is heartening.

Athill continues:

To think our existence pointless ... would therefore be absurd; instead, we should remember that it does make its almost invisible but real contribution, either to usefulness or to harm....

(all quotes from paperback edition p180).

I suppose that pretty much sums up how I've been feeling: almost invisible but real... But I think I must remember to include the rest of the quotation. That is, if I can get to the end of most days having contributed more usefulness than harm, perhaps downville won't seem as down as it does at the moment.

04 March 2009

Taking exercise

Martin offered up a very good idea the other night: to gather all the literary exercises done for our writers workshop, and publish them. I quite like the idea and hope to see it come to something. Following on from this, there is going to be another "soirée" at Nigel and Stella's, and he thought we might read some of our exercises in that setting. Again, I like the idea (whether anyone else is going to use their exercises or not), but I am often a bit lame in the "lit ex" department, and I really wanted to read some poems. I haven't been writing much poetry, I haven't wanted to be distracted. I feel my poems are too much like cookies: yummy, good with coffee, but that's about it. No one's going to be saved through a dark night of their soul by a plate of my poems....

However (much like making cookies), writing poems makes me happy so, well, I always come back to it.

But then I got a bit stuck and felt like I was getting nowhere. I needed a shake-up but with 2 kids and no trust fund, the options are not enormous. I sulked about this for a while.... Questioned my own self-worth.... Despaired of any number of things. And then I remembered: exercises!

I've had good luck in the past doing writing exercises.... two published poems, in fact. One of them via the Guardian poetry workshop... Which I hadn't looked at lately...

And off I went. Now I have been happily immersed in several exercises, involving among other things, Leonard Cohen, Pablo Neruda, letters, elegies, and nature walks. I printed the instruction bits off the internet and took them with me on the bus. (Writing even just one or two lines on any given bus ride is very satisfying.) I think (thank god) I will have something edible to read for the soirée, and also a nice thematic point: that they are all exercises.

Finally, if you've a mind to it, check out the very good exercise by Kate Clanchy using Leonard Cohen's Famous Blue Raincoat. I will consider "showing you mine if you show me yours"....