Flanerie.

Image above from brand Kalita. You can find the stunning backless maxi dress seen above (and on sale!) here.

Over the past few weeks, it has been rare that I have slept through the night. My wakefulness stems sporadically from heat or street noise, often from the apparition-like appearance of my three-year-old at my bedside, and mostly from floods of thought that seem to surge overnight, when I am not distracted by pleas for goldfish and strawberries, the incessant cleaning of the high chair tray, and the limbs and claws and kisses of my two children. I am nearly always awake at 3 a.m. Sometimes I stew. Often I read. Occasionally I leave cryptic, befuddling notes to myself on my iPhone that leave me hunched in decipherment at my desk the following morning. Today, I read in my notes from a couple of sleepless nights ago:

Carrie Bradshaw — Season 2 — flanerie, accounted time, matrescence

every minute accounted for

I have been turning on old episodes of Sex and the City when the sleeplessness extends beyond an hour. The note was referring to the vignette of a season two Carrie Bradshaw leaving her birthday party in TriBeCa and elegantly refusing to accept Mr. Big’s offer for a ride uptown in that winning, twisty-smiled, conscientious way she has. Mr. Big exits stage left and she turns and strolls, shruggingly, in the other direction, her gait suggestive of an idler kicking a can around an alley in unhurried self-reflection. I found myself cringing at the staginess and at the same time, while aware that I was wandering into a weird headspace given that I was watching a serial TV show with many improbable and unrealistic plot conventions, wondering why anyone would opt to amble around deserted storefronts at night instead of being efficiently whisked home by private car.

In short, her flanerie pricked something.

When was the last time I wandered somewhere? I thought to myself. I’m sure there must have been times before and after, but I could only think of Lyon, where I lived by and large alone, untethered from all loved ones whose routines might impact my own and not particularly close with my roommate, who traveled a fair amount besides. There was no one to check in with, no one to leave a note for on the kitchen table, no one to breathlessly text at nine-forty-eight p.m.: “Got held up at dinner — will be home later than expected!” Instead, I would wake on Saturdays and stroll through the farmer’s market, or read on a bench in Place Carnot, or walk through the rose-trellised pathways to Fourviere–or do none of those things.

I had learned to “walk with purpose” after my older brother had observed me slouching my way toward his car one afternoon after an orthodontist appointment at the age of fifteen. When I opened the car door, he had said, with uncharacteristic fierceness: “You need to walk with your shoulders back, like you’re going somewhere.” I’m certain I scowled in reciprocity, but the admonishment worked. I still think of it today on the odd occasion I catch my reflection in the mirrored glass of a neighborhood boutique: shoulders back. At any rate, though I had learned to adopt the posture of walking with purpose, in Lyon, I was, in fact, roaming without it.

My chapter in Lyon feels alien to me now for many reasons, but in particular, I can scarcely make out the sensations of flanerie. Nowadays, I am always flitting around, ticking things off lists, hurrying–including during this time of forced seclusion, where days putter by in dribs and drabs, yet I continue to barrel through my apartment in a maelstrom of activity. Walks through the park barely qualify for the moniker “strolls,” as they must accommodate sleep schedules, the need for proximity to a bathroom, the chirps or whines or queries of a passionate toddler who must stop to point out every “Mr. Robinson” (robin — the sweetest of malapropisms, an illogical hybrid between her favorite show “Mr. Rogers,” our best friends the Robertsons, and the bird) we see in the brush and whose desire to ride on the kickboard ebbs and flows minute-to-minute. I even find myself rushing when I jog, trimming that extra minute of stretching or running door-to-door rather than easing into the jog with a warm-up walk, aware that my hobby encroaches on Mr. Magpie’s limited breaks from the children. My evening excursion with our Airedale, Tilly, is often shaded by a desire to get home, where dinner and a glass of wine — quarantine high points — await. And besides, if I opted to roam through the Park with no itinerary, Mr. Magpie would send me a worried text: “Everything OK?”

In college, I took a course on Turn of the Century Art and Poetry — Baudelaire, Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, Aubrey Beardsley. We talked about the turn-of-the-century ennui captured in so much of this art, the widespread belief that civilization inevitably gave way to dissolution and decadence, and the corresponding emergence of the flaneur in cultural productions of the times, a dandyish figure who roamed the streets, lost somewhere between self-reflection and critical spectatorship. We read the rise of the flaneur as a critique of consumer capitalism and a symptom of urban alienation. If I were taking the course now, I would find myself mired in the practicalities of this figure’s existence: who had the flexibility to roam the streets of Paris for hours — for days — on end? Did his wife care for the children? Who was letting his dog out? Did he opt not to marry in order to accommodate this lifestyle? What must that decision have felt like? Was he really wandering or did he follow a route every day? Pragmatic and beside-the-point questions on this front would come fast and furious, and I would quickly attempt to shuffle the observations into some passable comment on fin-de-siecle gender roles before the inevitable throat-clearing and head-tilting of other classmates. “That’s interesting,” a professor might say, “and yet, let’s return to the question of urban modernization…” And still, my thoughts would pool there.

Mr. Magpie has often said that one of the biggest surprises to him after becoming a father was that “my time is no longer my own — ever.” Naps end out of sync with attempted episodes of self-care or hobby or rest, runs to the store are punctuated by the possibility of some urgent call to return home, thoughtful conversations — the kind meant to unspool with abandon over the course of a few hours — are interrupted by crashes in the nursery or rustling over the baby monitor. Parents don’t wander. Even married people and pet owners can’t wander far or long, called by the need to return to home base, replenish water bowls, check in with spouses, start dinner with that rapidly-wilting produce in the fridge, pick up the milk. Come to think of it, probably very few adults wander.

To be clear: it is a blessing to be needed, and you will find no snarkiness here on the responsibilities I have chosen for myself. I love being a mother and I love being a wife. And is the inability to wander even a sacrifice anyway? I am a Type A homebody, I hate being cold, and most of the time, I’d rather be reading. At the same time, I think that embarking on parenthood (or pet ownership or marriage or home ownership or caring for an aging parent or, well, so many of the milestones we make as we grow older) has occasionally startled me in its complete re-orientation of my time and my experience of my own selfhood–even now, on the eve of 36 years of age, after I have spent a non-trivial amount of time interrogating this exact subject. I will often go for long stretches without thinking much about it, lost in the shuffle of quotidian life, and then I will see Carrie Bradshaw roaming around TriBeCa and I will think, “What must that be like?”

P.S. More thoughts on balancing motherhood, marriage, and selfhood here and here.

Post-Scripts.

+Obsessed with the stand collar of this blouse — a great option if you’re still daydreaming about an investment piece from Horror Vacui.

+This pineapple-flocked maxi skirt is amazing.

+When I was younger, I thought I’d be the type of adult who would wear silky trousers and sophisticated bias-cut gowns in the evenings — basically, that I would look like Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and my closet would be full of pieces that look like present-day Cushnie, Nili Lotan, and Ralph Lauren Black Label. I have not graduated to that lifestyle or level of sophistication, but still covet a pair of silky trousers like these or these — both by Cushnie and both on sale. As I mentioned yesterday, Cushnie also has a collaboration with Target right now, and many of the brands elegant silhouettes are available for under $60.

+Stylish and affordable beach towels.

+This outrageously chic dress was just marked down to 50% off.

+Dreamiest wedding shoe from Brother Vellies.

+Into these new woven totes from Missoni.

+The handmade stuffed animals from Raplapla are so sweet and whimsical — love this koala and this octopus. (Who else has a child obsessed with octopi, squid, and jellyfish?)

+Elegant neutral dresses I am eyeing after realizing about 90% of my dresses are either blue, white, or floral: this notched-lapel khaki shirtdress, which feels very Ingrid Bergman, this puffed-sleeve dress, and this bow-backed statement, which has a Aje vibe to it.

+In a similar vein: this smocked top.

+Had to order mini this adorable cotton embroidered dress — also available in a sweet top variation — made by artisans of the Ibaba Cooperative in Rutongo, Rwanda.

+Mentioned this elsewhere, but these are fantastic kick shorts for layering under mini’s summer dresses. I bought several pairs in white — hold up well in the wash and well-priced, too.

+I think I might be buying mini her first set of Calico Critters soon. Who else had these growing up?

+Bobbi Brown’s confidence stick (“erases fine lines!”) is on sale, as is my favorite bra in some practical close-to-nude colors.

+A couple of books I have purchased or pre-ordered (so many of these books are sold out everywhere — other recs welcome! I have also been referring to the Conscious Kid for suggestions) for mini’s library with the plan of having more conversations about race at home: Wings by Christopher Myers, All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, and The Skin I’m In by Pat Thomas.

+This pareo is stunning.

8 Comments

  1. Have you heard about the book Flâneuse, by Lauren Elkin? I bought a copy years ago (!) and haven’t read it yet…likely because I’ve heard mixed reviews. Curious to hear your thoughts, if you have any!

    It’s a wonder to reflect on earlier stages of life, where wandering was more common — I had a very similar experience to yours in Lyon during my junior year abroad in Paris. Actually, most of my 20s were spent idly wandering around New York, when I wasn’t working! It’s so funny to think about that now …

    Love that Sister Jane top! Major heart eyes.

    xx

    1. Hi MK – No, never heard of that one! Sounds really interesting, especially given the incredible literary/cultural stars she examines in it. Thank you!

      xx

  2. Lou’s first Calico Critters set was the Nursery set and she would play with it for HOURS! Tucking the babies in, waking them up, etc. You can hold back some of the tiny accessories if you’re worried about H getting hold of them. I bet E would love!

    1. Aw! So sweet! I think Emory will love them, too. She is so into any dolls / figures / stickers that she can create vignettes with. Thanks for chiming in on this!

  3. “I am a Type A homebody, I hate being cold, and most of the time, I’d rather be reading.” Nailed it!!!

    Before kids, when I used to work, I frequently wandered during my summertime lunch breaks. Sometimes in the business park next door to my office building (yuck) or I would drive to the cute downtown area nearby and walk through the neighborhoods. This was less “wandering” and more to rack up steps on my Fitbit for our office step competition, and to thaw out from the overzealous office a/c, and of course it came with a time limit. But it also came with a sense of freedom that I don’t have in my current walks with an opinionated toddler.

    Despite the fact that my time is no longer my own, I do find myself lingering over breakfast in a way I couldn’t when I was rushing off to work. Somehow, I just realized this recently! After more than two and a half years at home! But now that I’m mindful about it, it seems more indulgent. Especially in the midst of the sprint that is the rest of my day.

    1. Hehe – hello, fellow Type-A-cold-footed book-lover 🙂

      I love this insight about breakfast. I know what you mean, too — on the occasion I have the wherewithal to see it this way, I will sit on the floor of the nursery and just watch the children and time just drips on by. It can feel luxurious to sit still and do nothing. We have also found that in the evening, after dinner, *some* nights, the children will play happily in Hill’s room (Hill bouncing in his crib with a couple of books/toys and Emory playing on his floor with her own) and we will sit next door working on a puzzle at the dining room table and drinking wine. It’s kind of a “dead” time of the day because dinner and bath are done but it’s not yet time for bed, and so there is nothing to do but wait — and yet it’s given us this little window to just sit there, quietly, doing pretty much nothing.

      Anyway, thanks for reminding me of this!

      xx

  4. Beautifully written! While I have never been more content with my life, it is true, after children your time is not your own. This post reminded me of when I first moved to Chicago and spent days just walking the city. At the time I was driven by loneliness, I went from a big family to living with a roommate who was often absent. But I now remember fondly these days spent picking up a drink, wandering, window shopping , admiring homes I could not afford. It is interesting, and worth thinking about, how we remember our past lives in the lense of the present. Thank you for inspiring this reflection!

    1. Hi Jen! Yes – that’s exactly right. So interesting that you felt “driven by loneliness” then and yet now think back fondly on your walks through the city. I feel the same about studying abroad in general — I was actually rather miserable most of the time, though I did try to make the most of it by traveling a lot, reading a lot, shopping a lot, visiting with friends a lot. Now I look back and can ONLY SEE the amazing opportunity it was, how much it forced me to grow, how eye-opening it was, how fortunate I was. xx

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