So as I mentioned in previous posts, toward the end of our sabbatical year, back in the early summer of 2011, Melinda and I began dreaming of the idea of returning to France, and specifically to Nantes, for the better part of a month each summer. We worked out the details at PSCS to make this happen and in 2012 we returned with Chloe and Ella, as summarized in my previous post.
In 2013, Melinda and I returned to Nantes without the girls. At age 20 and 16, they kinda liked the idea of having time by themselves in our Seattle house.
While not having the girls with us provided a lot more flexibility, I’d hate to suggest that we didn’t miss them. To be honest, some nine years later, I don’t really remember missing them. I do remember posting on the blog little tests for them, cryptic photos of places in Nantes that I invited them to identify. So clearly, I was thinking about them…
The point that really felt different without the girls is when Melinda and I spent extended time in Paris, just the two of us. That was, indeed, a glorious time.
To gain easy access to all the posts from our 2013 trip, use the France 2013 tag or, even easier, click here.
In my last post, I talked about how Melinda, Chloe, Ella, and I spent 13 months in France beginning in July of 2010. These 13 months got dubbed the “French Sabbatical” as Melinda and I were granted paid time off from our jobs during that time.
Not surprisingly, while we there we grew quite fond of living in France, especially living in the city of Nantes. I’m not quite sure how to describe this, but living as we did in Nantes, as well as traveling to various destinations in France and once to Italy, felt completely ours. It was different than anything done by other members of our family and carved out a super-special context in our lives that the four of us will forever share.
Melinda and I would go on regular walks while the girls were at school and it was on one of these walks that we talked about taking a month off from work each summer to return to Nantes. We starting seeing this as a focal point for the next phase in our lives, one that would ultimately settle with us living in Nantes and Seattle for maybe 6 months each year. At first, though, because of work and other responsibilities, this would need to be a single month in the summer when school wasn’t in session.
So in 2012 we put the plan into action. Our good friends in Nantes, the Boudeaus (who were responsible for us choosing Nantes in the first place) and the Bertails (who lived around the corner from us during the sabbatical and had become among our closest friends), were only too pleased to help us. And it was Christine Bertail who found a place for the four of us to live for the month of July, 2012. A colleague of hers and his family would be in Spain that month so it worked out for us to rent his house.
As I had done during the sabbatical year, I decided I would post to my blog on a daily basis while we were there. Truth be told, I had kept doing this once we had returned to Seattle in August, 2011. All of these posts can be found here by using the “Monthly Archive” pull-down menu below and selecting one of the months. Still, the idea of returning to France in 2012 and not posting daily seemed sacrilegious in some way.
So here was are in 2022, nearly ten years after our “Return to Nantes.” It’s hard to believe that much time has flown by. Because of the pandemic and other reasons, it’s been five years since we’ve been back but we do have plans to go this summer! And, yes, we did return in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. I’ll be focusing on each of those trips in future “From the Archives” posts.
One of the highlights of my life, of Melinda’s and my marriage, and in our role as parents of Chloe & Ella was the 13 months we spent in France from July 2010 through July 2011. We were granted a sabbatical from our jobs at Puget Sound Community School (PSCS), both as a tribute to the work we had done to get the school going and keep it running since its humble beginnings in 1994 AND to provide the school community an opportunity to know it could exist without its founders being present (ie: the infamous “Pie Truck Scenario” – perhaps I’ll explain that in a future post).
The concept of the sabbatical being a real thing began while Melinda and I were on spring break in 2008. The concept of living in France with our children began as a pipe dream we’d tell each other before we even had children. That this could become a reality is a tribute to a lot of people, most significantly the PSCS board and staff at the time. I can vividly recall the months leading up to our departure like they were last month, not twelve years ago.
Officially, the sabbatical began with the school’s 2010-11 fiscal year, meaning on July 1, 2010. But we didn’t leave for France until July 4th so we had a few days in Seattle on our own. Because we were renting our house(note, this link takes you a site we created in 2012 to promote the idea of swapping houses with someone for a month that summer) to another family for the year and they moved in on July 1, we were staying at a friend’s. The day of the 1st, Chloe was out with some friends on one of her many goodbye tours and Melinda & Ella were doing some last-minute shopping. I was alone in an unfamiliar house with my laptop for company.
I had recently been reading how a person had documented his life for a full year by posting a daily photograph and some quick comments on a website. The idea appealed to me so that afternoon, alone in the house, I investigated how to do something like it. I knew a tiny bit about WordPress since one of the PSCS teaching staff members had taught the rest of us how to use it to post our class offerings to the students. On a whim, I created a WordPress blog, calling it “frenchsabbatical.”
I had promised myself and told others that I wasn’t going to over-commit myself to projects while on sabbatical. I wanted some practice of living more spontaneously, freed from the daily requirements of being a school director. Indeed, Melinda and I would have parenting obligations but beyond that, I wanted a sense of freedom. That the PSCS board had agreed to supply Melinda and me with a monthly stipend helped tremendously with this.
Little did I know that the whim of starting my “frenchsabbatical” blog would propel not just me but many others on a daily adventure, one I never regretted for a minute. Beginning on the 1st of July from the home of our friends, I posted every day until our return (truth be told, I kept posting every day after that for another year or so, all of which you can find here). Conversations emerged, first just among Melinda, Chloe, Ella & me – “You could put that on the blog.” And, “Don’t you dare write about that.” To, “I get to approve any photos you use of me.”
As the months went by, our French friends got in the act. My dear friend Laurent made sure I had a way to post when his family took ours to their cabin in the French Alps that didn’t have an Internet connection. I also learned that part of his morning ritual while we were there was to read what I posted the night before.
Around the corner from our house in Nantes we met the Bertail family, people who have become among our closest friends in the world. There are so many stories to tell about them, from Christine, the mom, twice stopping by to introduce herself to us only find Chloe and Ella at home, to how they helped me celebrate my 48th birthday in style.
Then, of course, there were our friends and family members back in Seattle who used the blog to keep in touch with us. As a writer, I often would picture a member of our family as the audience to what I was writing. Michele, my mother-in-law, my brothers, or one of our nieces were common “targets.” Certainly, my mother was always in mind (she’d regularly send me edits – catching my typos with her usual flair).
To this day, I pay WordPress a fee each year to keep ads from the site and to maintain its unique domain name, meaning you can find it in its entirety at https://frenchsabbatical.com. Two years ago as a holiday present, one of the best I’ve ever received, Chloe & Ella had the blog posts made into a two-volume hardback book set that will forever hold a place of prominence in Melinda’s and my home.
Last week, in order to have all of my personal blog posts in one spot, I copied the content to this site, my ongoing personal blog. So if you’re interested in seeing what we were doing on a given day, you can do so right here. In fact, in the footer you’ll see a pull-down menu on the left for a monthly archive. Choose a month from the sabbatical year, July 2010 – July 2011, and enjoy some reading.
Heartman was a character I first created when Melinda and I began dating in 1990. Heartman was my alter ego, the superhero part of myself that would go on with his day while my real self, “a small man,” missed Melinda.
When Chloe was a kindergartner in 1998/99, I brought Heartman back. Each morning I quickly drew on a sticky note a comic involving Heartman and put it in Chloe’s sack lunch. Each image had something to do with what I had recently done, often with Chloe, and with Heartman waving to her and saying, “Hi, Chloe!” Some of these images made it home each night and I stashed them away.
Some time ago, I found a sandwich bag filled with the drawings and created a scrapbook of them. Then, in the summer of 2013, while seeing a Keith Haring art exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, I was inspired to scan these drawings and present them online as a way to preserve and share them.
I posted them in order of their creation, one at a time, with a little commentary tossed in for good measure. To start with the first, go here. Note, the drawings got better as I went along so for a really good one, check out this one, noting the chocolate pudding spilled on it.
(This completes the three part remembrance of Vacation Guy from the archives. The original of Part III is from March 11, 2012. In terms of a Vacation Guy update today, 10 years after the posting below, he happily lives with Ella in her Seattle apartment. –Andy)
I’ll finish my Vacation Guy trilogy with today’s post, including a photo I just took of the esteemed stuffed toy, taken nearly 15 years after he entered Ella’s life. As you can tell, he has been fully loved by her, so much so that in true Velveteen Rabbit terms, he is undoubtedly real (and has been for years).
Ella would gently rub his face while falling off to sleep each night, the loving he received there being obvious. Several years ago, my mother sewed on “gloves,” replacing the originals that had been worn through. I remember how nervous Ella was when Vacation Guy went in for glove surgery, and how excited she was when he emerged looking so good.
A similar experience was had each time Vacation Guy went for a bath (the washing machine). That form of bath was a little too hard on him so next he got the Woolite treatment in the sink. Ultimately, though, the concern of hurting him was too great and the baths ceased.
Vacation Guy no longer sleeps with Ella but is kept on her nightstand, right next to her bed.
(Here’s today’s post from the archives about Ella’s most important toy, Vacation Guy. Yesterday, I posted Part I and tomorrow I’ll post Part III. The original of Part II is from March 10, 2012. –Andy)
So I gave Ella this advice when she was little, thinking she might be dumb like I was when I got to be 12 or 13. You see, I had an important soft toy when I was little. In fact, I had several of them. Bunny, Pooh Bear, Kanga, Eeyore and others. And when I got to be a certain age, 12 or 13, when these important toys had all been packed away into a box and put in the garage, I thought I was too big for them. Truth be told, I was kind of embarrassed by them.
I’m sad to say, I gave them away.
So the I gave advice I gave Ella was … “When you think you’ve outgrown Vacation Guy, when you get to the point that you think you really don’t need him anymore, when you go crazy ’cause you’re a teenager … Just give Vacation Guy to me for safe keeping.”
“When you come to your senses, I’ll give him back to you.”
That’s what I told Ella.
Today’s Prompt:What’s something *crazy* you did as a teen?
(I’m digging into the archival history of the 10+ years of postings I’ve made here and found three consecutive stories about Vacation Guy, Ella’s most important childhood toy. I’m reposting them over the next three days, starting with today. The original is from March 9, 2012. –Andy)
In Ella’s hands here is Vacation Guy, so named because she got him in 1997 while we were on a vacation. The four of us were in Sun River, Oregon and we found a little toy store in town. There on the shelves was the cute, soft, cuddly doll, perfect for 8 month old Ella. It became THE soft toy, the one that stayed with her wherever she went, including to bed in her arms each night. I believe in psychology they call such a thing the “transitional object.”
Over the years, Vacation Guy’s family grew. I found his “female” (pink) compatriot on, of all things, eBay and “won” her for Ella. This doll became Vacation Girl. Then there was Vacation Kid and Vacation Joey. Each of these had their own song, part of Ella’s bedtime ritual.
Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow when I tell about some sound advice I gave to Ella about Vacation Guy.
Today’s Prompt:Share a story about your most important soft toy, pillow or blanket.
The date on this photo is May, 1994 which means two specific things. One, it means Chloe, my daughter, wasn’t really a baby. She was 15 months old. And two, given the jackets and such, it must have been chilly in Seattle.
Anyway, the charter members of this exclusive club were Tammy and Stephanie (two of Chloe’s cousins, pushing the stroller), as well as Granny (Chloe’s paternal grandmother — my mom, hey!). The club held its first meeting in March of 1993 at the home of my parents, specifically on their living room floor where Melinda had placed a two-week old Chloe in front of her cousins and doting grandmother.
I’m not sure when the fan club last met. But if I can be so bold and include myself as a member of the club, I’m pleased to report to the members that Chloe is doing quite well in life. Engaged to be married this summer, gainfully employed as a school counselor, proud puppy mama to Tino, she’s made this parent proud.
In the book “The Power of Kindness,” author Piero Ferrucci talks about how human beings are able to “resonate” with other human beings.
I love this concept.
He tells us that the ability is with us from birth, but if it doesn’t develop sufficiently we are in trouble. Me, I think the ability can be cultivated at any time in our lives. It’s certainly easier when we are younger, before we’ve had years of not resonating or not resonating well. But the ability is always there inside us, waiting to be tapped. I think the means is through storytelling.
In other words, if you’re ever feeling out of sorts, alone, or untouched, try telling the story of something that has touched you.
A few years back, I developed a class for teenagers on the subject of empathy. I wasn’t at all sure how many students would be interested. And since the classes that get scheduled at Puget Sound Community School are determined by student interest, I honestly wasn’t sure if this class would make the cut. Typically, more than 75 classes are offered to the students for each of the school’s main three terms, and the maximum any student can attend is around 20.
When I pitched the empathy class, I told the story of visiting my newborn daughter Ella in Children’s Hospital one Saturday morning in early 1997, she having been admitted (along with my wife, Melinda) because of a possible case of meningitis.
Ella was only 2 weeks old.
The day before, we had taken her to the doctor because of a high fever and the doctor ordered us to the emergency room. There, Ella experienced a spinal tap, during which the nurse’s assistant passed out and Melinda had to step in and hold still the crying/screaming baby Ella while the doctor inserted a needle into her spinal cord to get a fluid sample. Fearing meningitis, the doctors hospitalized Ella and treated her as if she had the illness while the fluid was tested over a period of three days. Melinda stayed with Ella while I was at home with her older sister, Chloe, not quite 4 years-old.
So early that Saturday, with my mom having come to watch Chloe, I arrived at Children’s Hospital to be with Ella and Melinda. At that time of day, they have a special entrance for parents. I entered there and took the elevator to the Intensive Care Unit, where Ella was being watched.
Exiting the elevator, I encountered one of the most moving scenes of my life – a young boy playing with a remote control car. 8 o’clock, Saturday morning, playing like little boys all over the world, down the hospital hall came this pajama-clad boy directing his car, remote control in hand. Keeping up next to him was his father, pushing the IV cart, making sure it stayed attached to his little boy’s arm. It was so poignant that it took my breath away. A little boy just being a little boy on a Saturday morning. And a dad just being a dad, doing what he needed to do so his boy could play.
I told those stories to the students during my class pitch. Lots of students prioritized the class after that. It made it on the schedule.
I’m not sure if the class ever matched the stories that I think sold it, but it was a great class. The second week I brought in photographer Lynette Johnson as a guest speaker. Several years previously, when I first heard of her, she was trying to start a nonprofit organization.
To provide professional photographs to parents of their terminally ill children before they died. Yeah. Kind of hits you right there, doesn’t it?
Lynette succeeded in starting her nonprofit and has since been featured in People Magazine and on the TV show “Today.” She calls her nonprofit Soulumination and they’ve since expanded their services. They now take professional portraits, at no charge, of terminally ill parents so their children will have photos to help remember them.
Lynette told the students why she started the nonprofit, tearing up each time she told the story of one of the children she has photographed.
Two weeks after introducing the students to Lynette, I took them off campus to meet a couple in their 90’s who were living in the same retirement community as my parents. Both had lost their spouses and finding the other, they thought it made sense to share an apartment rather than pay for two. But the conservative retirement home wouldn’t allow this unless they married. So they got married. As it turns out, we learned the woman was at Pearl Harbor in 1941 when it was bombed.
What stories these two people had to tell a group of teenagers!
Feel the resonance? If so, did experiencing this resonance change how you were feeling? Pay attention to this.
As I’ve written before, when I was a little boy I experienced significant night terrors for about two years.
My parents took me to a child psychiatrist who recommended family counseling so we tried that. A behavior modification program was created. Still, the terrors got so bad that I was hospitalized for a week when I was in 4th grade, studied by doctors and nurses to try to determine the root of the problem. One memorable experience in the hospital was when electrodes were attached to my head to study my brainwaves. Nothing significantly wrong was determined and I returned home.
Ultimately, I grew out of the night terrors, but the experience cast a dark shadow on me for years. For instance, I was horribly shamed by it, even into my young adulthood, and never talked about it.
It was my deepest and darkest secret.
But during college I started to make peace with it and even started to appreciate how the experience helped make me who I am. I believe the empathy and compassion I have for children is a direct result of my experience with night terrors, of undergoing counseling as a child, and from the experience of spending that week in the hospital.
These days, I use my childhood experience with night terrors on a nearly daily basis as I mentor children and coach parents. The Haiku I wrote and to which I added one of Fish Astronaut’s drawings above demonstrates that the experience is deeply embedded in me.