Card models

Château de Belcayre on the Vézère River, by Ed Alcock for The New York Times, copyright 2008 The New York Times, all rights reservedThis pic of Chateau de Belcayre on the France’s Vezere River is the first in a slideshow from a travel article about canoeing in the lovely Dordogne Valley region of France by Christopher Shaw*, in today’s NYTimes.com (click on the pic to see it full-sized).

When I saw it, I suddenly recalled when my son and I used to assemble card models of Loire Valley chateaux in some of our scanty spare time. We did Chamont, Chambord and Chenonceau. My son was four or five when this started. It’s kind of amazing that we did it. Chenonceau was hard!

Each chateau took months of patience to construct. From a free-time point of view, summers are great for working on models, so in early summer, we would. But NYC’s mid and late summers have a notorious humidity which softens everything, including paper. Turrets no bigger than a pencil’s diameter, tiny conical roofs, and minuscule chimneys wilt and curl, either too much, or too little. So in the mid-summers, the card model work would stop, not to be resumed until October or later.

As we assembled the paper models (it had to be done without glue — glue was cheating!), we got a sense of how hard it was to live in a chateau. There weren’t many chimneys on this one… it would be cold in the winter. All the chateaux had crazy steep roofs covered with irregular slates. Maybe… wasn’t that why castles fall down sooner or later — the roofs are too hard to repair? Where were the bathrooms? Or did they have outhouses, or piss in the halls, as the French nobles did at Versailles?

We had a beautiful book: Chateaux of the Loire by Thorston Droste and Axel M. Mosler. Its stunning photos made sure we never forgot how puny our efforts were — a beautiful ego-busting experience that indirectly taught us to persevere, that taught us to go back to working on our card model chateaux when autumns came around again.

Those were years of poverty for us. Travel to France wasn’t even a dream. The big flat books of die-cut chateau parts were gifts from my mother, who did not do the family thing and help us in our dire situation. Instead she passed a magic wand in front of her own eyes, to forget our poverty was due to a chain of events she’d started a decade earlier.

I’ve been deliberately forgetting difficult times, for peace of mind’s sake. But it seems I’ve also forgotten some lovely times, like working with my son on paper models while a wind howled outside the insecure windows of our fifth-floor NYC apartment, the dogs slept on the floor, and a vast loaf of homemade wholewheat cinnamon bread baked in an ancient, unsafe oven which we also used for heating. “Lovely times?” I hear you say. OK, yes, memories like these are pictures of hard times. But more, they’re symbols of togetherness. And they were gifts from my mother, just as the paper chateaux were.

Many things I’ve been blessed with never would have come to me, if my mom hadn’t made mistakes. I’m grateful to her — so much, so much. Her mistakes have turned out to have profound meanings, and taught necessary lessons. They were how she gave me her love.

See, love is not perfection and goodness. It’s the transmission of something essential from one person to another. It may be a very difficult process that seems hateful as it’s being played out. It’s only when time blows away the sands that we see the shape of the land underneath and understand where we’ve been, and maybe something about where we’re going.

Now is a humid mid-summer moment in parts of my life. When things get cooler and more manageable, I’l go back to things that have been put to the side for now. In coming years, maybe I’ll forget altogether the efforts I’ve made, still make, and will be making, in these difficult parts of life. Then maybe one day, in even more distant years, I’ll remember them again — all the bits, whether bad, good, tough, easy, ugly, lovely — all the pieces of life.

Love is. Ishq hai. That’s my motto, my Loire Valley beauty, that stops me from ever giving up on life.

This post represents a few hours of self-discovery process exercised in real time, with no forethought. It was an inadvertant process that justifies time spent, creativity, writing. blogging, the web — and friends like you all.

* Christopher Shaw is a canoeist and author. He writes for the NY Times , and has published several books, including “Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods“, which is about his canoe travels in Mexico and Guatemala.u

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