mercredi 1 juillet 2009

New habits

Capucine mounts for the first time

Tell me, if you can, what young girl does not look more beautiful in a riding helmet? And more still in riding habit?

It's been a long struggle for me, one I knew I was going to lose because I needed to. It was a matter of time and some combination of mystery and magic that cannot be named that did the work. Correction: that is doing the work. It's not done yet.

She is my youngest stepchild, the youngest of my husband's five children, the second from his second relationship, a relationship the end of which didn't make our beginning easy. I started with the best of intentions; I nearly finished with the worst. I was trying to aim for something in between, something that resembled the Hippocratic oath; do no harm. The problem is that with children, that is not enough; in fact, it is doing harm. You have to do better, even if it kills you.

Our friends gave me the best advice, for years. It amounted to "let their father take his responsibility; you are not responsible" and "be kind". I wanted him to do things the way I would; I didn't want to be kind. That kind of thinking leads straight to one place, one place neither one of us wanted to go: divorce court. In the case of my own childhood, it led to our father letting us go. I married a man very different from my own father. I like to think that I did that on purpose. I like to think that if we are committed, doomed to repeat our own histories, perhaps changing roles along the way, it isn't to make the same mistakes our parents -- however many were involved, for better or for worse -- made, but to learn from them.

That, it turns out, is easier said than done.

Perhaps, I justified, if we had had a child together, it would have been easier to hold my heart open. Maybe, I told anyone who would listen, if their mother were more like I am, it would be smoother. Surely, we all nodded in agreement, if she didn't hate me so much, it would be easier. But, the fact remained, none of that was going to be any different or change. Close your eyes and reopen them in front of the mirror as many times as you like, you will still see you; do the same in front of the Polaroid of your life, and you will still see your life, with all the same people in all the same situations.

But, it's not working!, you wail.

But, I'm not happy!, you lament, looking for someone to make it all better.

Have a temper tantrum, pout, refuse, dig your heels in, the fact remains: the situation isn't going to change until you do.
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

Yeah. Thanks, Luke. And Mark, and Matthew, and James, and Leviticus and Romans and Galatians and Ephesians.

And what if I don't like her? What if she really annoys me? What if she dresses really badly and sucks her thumb and wants her "doudou" still? And, what if her mother really resents me, and what if her father really loves me? I can hear the apostles tapping their feet and sighing.

There's no fighting Jesus. Go ahead. Try. You can be a secular humanist, and it's still pretty hard to argue with Jesus. You can struggle with it all you want. You can flirt with depression and divorce, but it isn't going to change. If you want to live, you have to love.

"Tu veux monter à cheval?" I looked from the corner of my eye at the 12-year-old girl, riding shotgun. Unusual because I never take her anywhere. I made a first step and asked if she wanted to come with me to get some new fish. It was a chance to talk about the "crise" of the night before. The one that started in the car on the way home from family's for dinner, and exploded as soon as we walked in the door at 1 am, the final bouquet finally only coming at 3 am, after 2 hours of non-stop screaming, shouting and sobbing. That "crise". The smile crept across her face. She nodded yes.

I had tried translations of my favorite books from my childhood. Her cousin prefers them.

I thought I would take her shopping for a new wardrobe. It wasn't, it turns out, the place to start, but I didn't know that yet.

The place to start was inside me, and the second place is inside her.

"Je t'amenerai alors."

"Mais papa ne veut pas."

"Papa voudra. Je m'en occuperai. T'inquiète pas." And dad did.

"Merci," he said.

"C'est normal," I said.

"Je te chercherai mercredi à 13 h 30," I told her. "Sois prète et attends-moi au portail. Je ne sonnerai pas." She was at the gate, peering through the slats.

"Merci. C'est vraiment gentil de m'amener. Je suis très heureuse," she said, very -- as Jane Austen would say -- prettily. Very simply.

"Moi aussi," I said.

We rode in the car together. We walked together. We talked companionably. She could have been my daughter. I almost didn't take the camera. She's not my daughter. Take the camera. Her father will be thrilled to see the pictures. She will be happy to have them. You will be happy to take them. Alright, I've got the camera. I took 100 pictures. She looked proud.

"Il y a la bombe à 29,00 euros et il y a celle-là à 49,00. Le visier est souple, il y a des trous de ventilation et de la mousse pour absorber la transpiration," said the sales girl. It was 34°C in the sun. We all sweat today. I thought of her father and what he would do. He'd buy the less expensive one. No, wait -- I was there with her, not he; he was leaving it to me to decide. He'd be happy whatever I decided. The sales girl handed her the deep, soft brown velvet helmet with the flexible visor -- in the event of a shock; God forbid --, the ventilation and the perspiration absorbing foam. It was lovely.

"Essaie celle-ci aussi, pour voir." The sales girl put the black velvet one on.

"Tu es mieux dans laquelle des deux?" asked the sales girl.

"Elles sont pareilles," she said.

"Remets l'autre," I said. The sales girl put it on her head. She blushed and looked happier than I have seen her since I stopped being kind, a long time ago, when her mother told her not to wear the winter jacket we bought her, that she loved. I nodded.

"On prendra celle-là." She would not say the more expensive one. Not until I had made the decision in favor of her comfort, even if her head will still grow.

"En fait," she said, "J'ai eu très chaud à la tête cet après-midi." I nodded. I could have been excused for chosing the less expensive one, without the foam and ventilation, in November, but in July weather, with temperatures hot enough to fry the brain, it was a no brainer. Be kind.

The sales lady proposed the bag to carry it in, to keep the horse hairs off it. They are, it seems, difficult to remove. "Et le sac aussi," I said. I thought she might burst. We went to have her try on the pants, and left the sporting goods store with the short boots (like mine that I use for the motorcycle, my motorized horse), chaps, riding pants, socks, and the helmet and its bag.

"Merci," she said to me. "C'est vraiment gentil. Je pense que je vais faire plus qu'une année de cheval."

"J'espère," I told her, "que tu en feras beaucoup d'années de cheval." We drove her home.

"Et maintenant, quand mes cousines parlent du cheval, je vais pouvoir comprendre et parler avec elles." I nodded. That was also the intention. It isn't clothes that make you like others, and it isn't clothes that give you the confidence to speak up; it's sharing things in common and having the sort of real confidence that comes from accomplishment.

"A mardi alors." She thanked me again, got out of the car and headed to the gate, open, waiting for her return to leave for the weekend. "Capucine?" She turned and looked back. "13 h 45 ira mardi." Her first 3-hour summer session, twice a week for the month of July, is Tuesday. She smiled and nodded. She'll be ready, in her riding clothes, next week.

"Pourquoi tu ne montes pas avec elle?" asked my husband. He was home when I returned from the supermarket later. I was showing him the pictures. He hadn't expected any.

"Elle me disait la même chose."

"Ca serait super. Inscris-toi en même temps qu'elle."

"Elle d'abord,et on verra pour moi plus tard."

"Merci," said my husband, "C'est vraiment gentil." I nodded.

I am going to have to get used to being nice. It appears that the horseback riding is going to help more than just one of us do some growing.

I can fight it, but I might just be shelving the arsenic sauce.

Beauty is something that starts inside, with pride.

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