“Shoot, we’re late!” I call to my daughters in the backseat.
Ah, what does it matter if we’re late (again), I rationalize to myself. It’s only a swimming lesson.
“Oh no!” my older daughter, Julie, says.
“It’s going to be okay,” I reassure.
“But it’s a swimming lesson!”
“We’ll get there.”
At this, our car, zipping through the streets of Dijon, is powered not only by sans plomb 95, but also by my own desperate adrenaline kick that wants to avoid any further appearances as Simply The World’s Worst Father. The naysayers—and they may only say so in my head—must be proven wrong. An American stay-at-home Dad plunked down in a slightly old-guard Western European city can, and will, deliver his daughters to enriching activities on time.
My younger daughter, Louise, doesn’t look concerned. She requests that I change the radio to Rihanna. I turn the volume up on Pete Seeger singing “Skip to My Lou.” The dog on his haunches in the passenger seat is still less concerned.
We roll at more ill-advised herky-jerky speeds. By the grace of mid-mornings, we pull into an open parking space near the pool entrance.
“Let’s go, people!” I say leaping out. “We can still make it!”
The three of us hotfoot it into the changing rooms of the Dijon public pool. I look back at the dog, paws and nose pressed to the car window and eyes going forlorn behind their white fringe of fur. It’s his turn to be concerned.
In the changing room, Louise’s blue fish swimcap is a kind of polymer torture device. Pulling it onto her head induces wailing. But we affix it somehow. The strap on Julie’s goggles is twisted and tangled.
“There’s no time!” I announce like an ER doctor.
Tiny bare feet smack on the tiled corridor leading to the pool. My girls arrive after the others, but only a few minutes late by my clock.
I say we’re good.
“The Secret of Happiness lies in looking at all the wonders of the world and never forgetting the two drops of oil in the spoon.” Paulo Coehlo says in The Alchemist.
This appears in the parable in which a young man seeking wisdom is told by a Sage to explore all the splendor around a mountaintop palace, while also holding two drops of oil in a teaspoon. We must learn to wonder at the wonders, while also not letting the drops spill from our spoon. This is the balance. The secret.
In my overflowing days, the secret to the happiness of a family is holding that teaspoon with the drops of oil amidst the very real and burgeoning wonders while also lugging two coats and two Hello Kitty earmuffs, plus, a post-dated check, a dog’s leash, notes to this idea that occurred to me to write down, some healthy snacks, a buzzing cell phone and a brilliant, burning book under my arm called The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp— full of wiser, mightier words about being a human and a parent than any from a Sage or an Alchemist, I might add. I haul these items remembering gratitude not only for the wonders, but for the fact that mine will soon be changing into something else and I will forever remember this day as an unheralded milestone. Above all, keep the faith. Above all, relax. It’s not as timeless or as lyrical as the Sage, but it’s the same.
So I hope.
The Sage has more time on his hands to clean up spills.
Emily Rapp has more transcendence and love for a moment we’re fortunate enough to share.
From the bleachers, I watch the dorsal fin of the blue fish swimcap bobbing along the surface of the pool. It dips under, leaving a swirl of water, then pops up farther down the lane. Louise reaches the ladder and climbs out, tiny arms hooking around the aluminum rungs. Julie is doing a freestyle stroke with a separate instructor at the deeper end of the pool. Her head turns to the side, open mouth barely catching the air before submerging again.
We parents watch, some chewing fingernails and others already resigned to the idea that we’re powerless to do anything, so why not look at our smartphones for forty minutes. Still, if you listen closely, you can hear the murmurs:
“ça va vite…”
My God, it goes fast, the speed of these petite swimmers. My God, it goes fast, the blessed compressed time.
My older daughter has said I pronounce words like “dieu” wrong. She says this and I hear a whiff of teenager, a brassy defiance in her voice that’s smart and suspicious. She may have just realized I’m not a superhero.
Am I doing anything to shape them anymore? Is the outline of their lot in life already bullet-pointed or do I still have time to revise? If so, will someone please text me the deadline? Or fax, because that way my daughters won’t ever see it.
Because I’ve gone ahead and assumed we’re all prepared for the adolescence just around the corner from the pink and purple princess castle of these years I’ve developed a genuine fondness for. I’ve cultivated a real affection for unicorns and stardusted fairies. I thought my tenderized focus went hand-in-hand with the realization that things like hard-partying, risk for risk’s sake and not looking before you leap were, frankly, boring and unhelpful. I try to acquire instead the wisdom of stillness, at the very moment that my daughters are acquiring a taste for the kinetic, and all the other things I’ve had the recent solid sense to set aside.
Perhaps, it’s just too warm in here.
I finally take off my coat only minutes before the end of class. I stand and approach the pool area’s partition, with a sign at waist height that prohibits getting any closer to the water. It’s because of the shoes, but I take it as warning to parents to back off.
No meddling. They’ve got it from here. Merci.
“The water smelled a little bit like poop,” Julie announces.
“Yep,” Louise reaffirms.
“Really? It smelled like chlorine from where I was sitting,” I say, driving home at the leisure pace of post-swim class.
“What’s chlorine?” Louise asks.
“The opposite of poop,” I say.
“No, it’s not,” Julie counters.
“You’re right it’s not, but it can completely clean away poop.”
“I call it plutôt caca,” Louise smirks like a mischievous Franglish-speaking gremlin.
“I don’t feel very good because of the poop water,” Julie continues, not joking around.
“I understand.” I humor her, but wonder if maybe someone really did poop in the pool.
My dog turns his head from the passenger window to stare up at me. He thought there might be treats.
“We’re all trying our best,” I tell him, patting the downy fur at his little shoulderblade.
“What?” Julie asks.
“I told Barnaby that it’s going to be okay.”
“You always say that.”
“I always say that it’s going to be okay?”
“Well, isn’t it true?”
“Yes, but you still don’t need to say it all the time.”
I full-stop at the light while it’s yellow.
“Fine. I’ll take it.”