Settle to Malham and Back Again

 

When I’m walking I’m happy. Even if I’m feeling miserable, I can feel the misery full on, I can have a talk with it. It can do its real work.

This morning in Garsdale it was clear enough to hang out the wash. By one o’clock the rain had returned and the laundry had to be brought in to finish drying by the heater. But even with the rain coming down, the weather is much more tame than yesterday’s when we were walking across the fells from the village of Malham near Settle, winds of sixty miles an hour or so driving rain and hail across the moors, sheep standing in depressions near the drystone walls to ride it out.

The walk to Malham the day before had been wonderful. Despite predictions of rain all day, the rain came in bits and the sun came in and out, the wind gentle, driving the clouds in their various forms and shades of grey, cloud shadows running across the spectacular vistas of hills and dales with their craggy limestone cliffs and outcroppings, over miles of vast green squares marked off by miles of drystone fences, white and grey and brownish. The rain pants we’d bought that morning kept us dry in the wet spells. Some of the territory was familiar from a walk a week before from Settle–satisfying to recognize a tree, a style, a stretch of re-forested land, a lane, a farm, a turning.

 

dav

 

Just before reaching Malham, as we made the choice to take the footpath rather than the Pennine Bridleway, my spirits were high, my heart particularly open. We had just spotted the beautiful oval shape of the water of the Malham Tarn, as lovely as any lake, I’m sure, that I haven’t yet had a chance to see in the Lake District. The sight of it had lifted me further.

Checking the map together, a bit tired, we had a bristly moment of interaction. On the trek down the hill to the village hidden by trees in the bottom of the cup of the wide valley, I had the time to walk with the dis-ease that had suddenly surged up in me, feeling it molded by the effort required to find footfalls through rocks and mud on our downhill climb, softened by the vast beauty of the surrounding hills and cliffs.

This is the beauty of walking. It took a while to make out the actual buildings of Malham, nestled as they are in the greenery by the stream of the Malham Beck. By the time we were close enough to recognize the charm of its setting, the beauty of the stone houses with flowered gardens, the trees bending over the trickling water, I had digested the pain of the emotion enough to understand its origin. We would soon be leaving this countryside, this place where we had come to feel settled for a time. We would be leaving Europe and returning to the US to grapple with the difficulties of immigration, both technical and emotional. Upheaval. Like the motion of the tectonic plates creating the landscape. Ah, yes… My old friend that rumples me, always.

Thirsting for a British beer, one of our last, we headed directly for the inn overlooking the beck, the one over the stone bridge where a willow leans over the bank. It was warm enough to sit outside by the stream, drinking Bitter (which is actually creamy and smooth), feeling luxurious, enjoying the hum of our bodies after their exertions, drinking in the beauty all around us, surprised by the sight of tourists gathered in this isolated spot. The distress that still smoldered was cooling, no longer needing to sear to do its work.

After we checked into the hostel down the road and had a rest in our bunks, we came back for a lovely dinner at the same inn by the water. Checking our weather apps, we discovered that severe weather was predicted for the next day, our walk back to Settle. A big storm Ali, the first of the season, was blowing across the northern part of the islands from the tropics. Eighty-mile-an-hour winds were forecast. Big rain. No one in the village seemed the least concerned.

We went to bed and slept well, dreaming the many dreams as we do every night here in the quiet and calm of the Yorkshire Dales. We agreed to wake up and decide then whether to continue our walk or take the one bus a day from the village to the train station at Skipton. We figured we’d walk if the morning looked at all decent.

It dawned warmish, breezy, grey and dry. We had our breakfast and picked up the packed lunch we’d asked for and set out on the “top” part of the circle walk back to Settle through Malham Cove. Why not try it. As we started out, I had no conception of the beauty we would see in the walk through the cove, nor the wildness of making our way over the high moors in high weather. We watched as a large group of walkers started out over the first part of their walk, evidently prepared, as we were, for anything.

The walk away from the village gives a deeper sense of why it has settled into its nest there in the cup. There it is protected by the trees gathered around the water, sheltered by cliffs and hills at the edges of the bowl. Having had a life there for so long, raising its sheep and cows, mining its limestone, it has blended into its landscape with the sigh of a weary body sinking into a cosy bed.

So nearby, less than a mile of walking over the Pennine Way through lanes and then fields, the limestone cliffs that surround Malham Cove begin to rise up. Just there, dwarfed as you feel, you can see how the little river flows directly into the parting of the rocks. Around the cove, the land becomes a park of green grass, oak and rowan trees, dotted with limestone rocks of all sizes, looking tended yet wild.

For awhile we explored the deep canyon and the waterfalls seeping between the feet of the high limestone cliffs. Eventually, we found the bridge of field stone slabs that takes you over the swollen stream to start the climb up the huge rocks of the other side of the cove. The way is made easier by a seemingly unending flight of huge limestone steps that wind their way along the side of the rocks, their scale like something made for a race of primordial giants, each turning presenting yet more shifting pictures of the widely winding valleys and softly rising hills. Winded, we paused several times to breathe it in.

And then, unanticipated, not indicated on our map, one or two last turnings before the true top of the fells, we came upon the stretch of enormous, flat limestone rocks called a Limestone Floor. Protected from the wind and rain and foraging sheep, rare plants grow in the narrow crevices between these gigantic slabs. The sheer expanse and flatness of it, spreading towards the cliff edges and the horizon, gives a sense of the infinite. We walked from rock to rock for a bit to see more of what lay ahead, but the going was precarious enough to better be left for younger legs.

 

dav

The weather was holding as we climbed over one rise after another and came to the turnoff to Malham Tarn around a limestone outcropping. A couple whose path had converged with ours turned that way in the building wind. We kept on across the fields to follow the Pennine Way back to Settle, saving the trip to the lake for another day. So much of what we do now contains the piquant sense of a last experience of the place, greeting and parting at once. With places like these, I at least like to pretend I will return. There is so much more.

As we took the left and began crossing the next field to the gate over a road, the rain began. After climbing the first hill up to the high plateau of the moors, the wind was beginning to push the rain it in its characteristic gusts across the fields. Time to stop and put on rain pants before we got truly wet.

We took off sweaty shirts and put on a couple of warm layers. The best would have been wool next to the skin but I at least had a good mohair sweater to put on top of a dry shirt and Walter a fleece. As we tightened our boots and pulled on our wool hats, the wind was beginning to gust with real strength and the rain had started in earnest. The sheep, most positioned now against high dry stone fences or in the gullies, looked at us as we passed, ready to run if we tried to join them, seeming to wonder what we were doing here in such wind. Four miles to Settle.

Here the moors stretched out on either side with little variation. Distant bluffs were hidden in rain and fog. Since I often like to walk faster than Walter, we had a bit of distance between us, a solitary yet linked experience of the walk. At first, still dry and exhilarated from the beauties of the first three miles, the pushing wind had little effect. As the rain began to really pelt and the wind to exert its true strength, the going got a bit harder. But leaning into the wind and crouching down a bit in the most powerful gusts, overcoming a brief moment of a kind of panic, I even welcomed the hail that came next.

We each sang our own songs, the sound of the other’s voice drifting in and out softly, as we put one foot in front of another, the going much slower than before. My feet were wet from stepping into a bog near the last stream and my sweater had soaked up some water through a pocket hole I’d forgotten to zip, my hat was wet, but the wind was not cold. For all its power to push as if to lift you away over the fences and the hill’s edge, it felt like a wind that carried just a tinge of warmth from the place it was born. We trudged on in our singular ways, knowing the other was enjoying the challenge, anxious just enough for the other’s safety to stay close.

Hungry and a bit tired from struggling against the wind, we rounded the corner of a hill the other side of Jubilee Cave, a place in the limestone outcroppings we’d picnicked a week or so before in nicer weather. Then we had sat on the grassy, mossy hummocks with our backs to the cave, enjoying the warmth of intermittent sun and the grand sweeping view of dales to the left and outcroppings to the right. Today, we scrambled into the rocky opening as humans clearly have done for millennia, climbing over pools of water to some dry rocks at the back. Here in the last recess, there was no wind. The quiet was a relief. We were warm and sheltered. We took off wet socks and replaced them with dry ones and shared the sandwich from the hostel. Nothing like it.

Dry and renewed, we climbed out into the still powerful wind that tried to push us back up the hill and wound our way down to the walkway of the Pennine Trail that here goes straight for a way between rows of dry stone walls. The rain had stopped for a bit and the walls gave some protection from the wind. We felt a renewed sense of happiness, a buoyancy. The Dales had given us a chance with a different dimension of their beauty, the power of their wildness.

As we approached the gate where the other path comes down from the larger Victoria Cave, three young women with a couple of small dogs were organizing themselves as they came through a field gate, looking at a map. We asked if they needed help. They were dressed fairly lightly with no hats and seemed unconcerned about the weather. I suddenly felt overdressed and a bit fuddy-duddy.

Oh, no,” said the one without a dog on a leash. “We’ve just come out to do the circle but on the way up we were attacked by some cows in a field. They were running after us and kicking at us and the dogs. We’ve never seen anything like it! We had to run for the gate. Fortunately, it was close enough to get away and put a barrier between us. Unfortunately, we can’t go back up through that field again to do the circle so we’re trying to figure out whether we want to go up the other way.”

We confirmed that it was, indeed, a very unusual event for cows to attack, especially if they had no calves.

Maybe it was the wind that disturbed them,” we agreed.

Evidently deciding to call it a day, they trotted off merrily ahead of us in the direction of Settle.

Hmm,” I said to Walter. “Hearty English!”

As the rain cleared off, the wind dropped and the blue patches of sky began to appear, our jubilant mood spread itself out over the whole landscape. The path down to Settle is beautiful and now felt familiar. You can see the towers of the old textile mill at Langcliff as you turn down to the left along the hills. The limestone cliffs on the hills over the town loom to the left after a quarter of a mile or so and the whole town stretches to your right in its bed in the valley, limestone quarries guarding its flanks.

The green of the fields around you and the misty colors of the distant fells and dales is such a satisfying background to a walk that you feel you could just go on that way forever, thinking of nothing and then thinking of something for a bit, tossing it around, following it in its several directions and then releasing it into the fresh air–being captivated by some form, some color, some particular grace of motion, some particular beauty of light while all else disappears.

I am happy when I walk, even when I’m not happy.

dav

 

 

 

The Going Out

 

 

 

Now it’s a rush of wings, a flight towards an open door. The farm is sold, all but the signing on the dotted line. The airline tickets are bought and paid for. The objects that remain must be dealt with, each held in the hand and a decision made—in the trash, to a friend, in one of the few boxes for a small storage space, in the small suitcase. Overwhelming.

But soon everything will be done. The things designated or sold will have to be dispersed within days, the eyes looked into so many times looked into again, deeply for a moment, and the body that somehow contains that world held close and then released, the ache of longing coming to take up residence in my heart.

We will be homeless for now. All that we retain must be needed either for the journey of a few months or for the time when we will send a few boxes across a continent and an ocean to a place where we will settle again, perhaps grow some vegetables, plant some fruit trees and live for however many days we have.

Just as when we leave this body, we must discover what is important to retain, what is most precious. What we hold on to is not what we think we might possibly need someday, the insurance against some contingency, but what clings most adamantly to our essence. Over these past few weeks when things have come in a flood, wiping away every moment of space in the time of my days, it is my writing that I have yearned for from waking to sleeping. It has become an essential element of life, as necessary as the act of participation, the absorption of all that beauty in whatever combinations of elements await me in that time between the opening of my eyes from the world of dreaming and when they close at night.

One type of waiting may be over, but another more encompassing period of waiting remains. That waiting before the going out, that waiting each day for the closing of the eyes, the dreams, the deep quiet, the encompassing silence, the loss of all objects that cling, all thoughts that stick to the space of the mind, all emotions that swim in our waters. Gone. Gone. Letting it go.

A Window in Time (Part 5): Greece, The Arrival

There is a purpose to this exercise. It is an exploration of that interior space where imagination and memory meld their etheric essence. It is a practice, a meditation.

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We were gliding. It was a big boat, full of people but, although they must have rocked us gently, the waves meant nothing. Once we were away from the busy harbor with its sandstone and buff-painted buildings shining along the shores, it was only the presence of dark blue sea and islands, first in a kind of mist on the horizon and then in the bright glare of the full day’s southern sun, gliding past like mythic backdrops. Lovers leaned against each other on the benches on deck. Children ran with a parent in their wake. I was already entranced.

The four of us claimed two benches linked back to back by spreading out our meager gear, sitting near a young man carrying a guitar without a case. We sat together or walked when we felt the urge, our Greek friend chatting with other passengers from time to time, interpreting for the rest of us in mixtures of French and English. As the sun set and the night sky thick with stars emerged, the sea around us became infinite, pricks of pure white light in swaths poking through the black ink.

All the other visions of that journey are lost in that spreading well of night. When consciousness returns, we have made our way from Patras to Athens, most likely on a bus that went for hours through the night. My fresh, sharp senses were filled with the incredibly sweet fragrances of the countryside of Greece—the smell of grapes and jasmine mingled with the scents of roasting lamb and garlic and rosemary. It was a revelation that awakened something deeply joyful in the middle of my chest and spread a wash of light in my head. And then we were there, in Athens, Syntagma Square in August of 1969.

We naively had waltzed, as young Americans could, into a country that, with the tacit approval of the CIA and the American government, had been under the rule of a right-wing military junta since 1967. The huge photos of its appointed Prime Minister, Papadopoulos, dominated the square and were present everywhere. Back at home,  concentrated on the war in Vietnam, finishing our high-school years, we had no awareness of the iron rule of military law in this country rarely discussed in the news, the torture going on its jails, the exile of countless journalists and politicians and the repression of civil rights. Now it was jarring, somehow inexplicable in the context of this city both modern and ancient.

In Athens itself, what evidence existed of this horror was behind closed doors. The atmosphere in the streets seemed flowing and free. It was not until we travelled with our Greek friend to his hometown south of Athens that we began to feel the palpable pressure of repression.

In the heat of the full day, our friend led us through the huge square to one of the spreading streets leading away from the vast open space into the wide avenues of the city. On the ferry, he had told us of his plan to stay a couple of nights at–of all places–the YMCA of Athens. the safest and cleanest cheap place to stay. He asked us to join him. He had stayed there many times before on his way from the ferry to his family home in Glyfada.

He navigated us down the sidewalks of Stadiou Avenue, lined with tall white business buildings, and into another street that began to feel more contained–first-floor shop doors opening one after another into small groceries, restaurants, clothing shops, cafes partially filled with people. It was not a city of crowds, but yet had a sense of a vibrant humming of human life. We were tired and hungry. It was almost unbearably hot, well over a hundred degrees. The pavement oozed with the smells of concrete and asphalt and piss, the beautiful smell of roasting meat and garlic wafting from somewhere on the sides on every block.

One more turn and down the street. In front of us gleamed, in the hot sun of the late afternoon, a three or four story building with many windows, modern, lined at street level with white pillars–the Y. We checked in at a desk on the first floor and paid for four beds, two in a women’s room and two in a men’s.

My blond friend and I climbed the white wide stairs up to the big room where several beds were made up with simple coverlets and pillows. We seemed to have the place to ourselves. It was stifling hot, with a ceiling fan turning slowly and big windows facing out onto the air above the street, open on their sashes as far as they could go. Everything seemed to be white and spacious, the heat, the walls, the beds, the sounds of traffic and occasional shouting voices in the streets, horns, the pulsing ambulance sound of European cities. It felt like swimming in waves of heat, wanting badly to come up for air. We lay down on two of the small beds near a window in this sauna of white light and sweated into a drowsy state and then sleep.

We may have slept on and off until a hot morning light seeped into our confused washed-out heat dreams. We dressed and went downstairs to the cavernous cafeteria. Our two friends were already sitting at a table with bowls and plates of food spread in front of them. Our curly headed Greek/English friend, Ion, playing host in this country of half of his DNA, came over to show us how to order. There were ceramic pots of white yogurt with a skim of yellowish cream on top, figs, grapes, white bread in hefty slices, pats of butter, honey in a pot to drizzle by the spoonful on the warm bread, and cups of hot Turkish coffee. The yogurt was the creamiest, smoothest, most deliciously tangy sweetness I have tasted in this life. We ate well, enjoying the bounty of cheap fresh food, chatting about plans.

We were only there for a day and another night. We chose to go directly to the Parthenon.

As we walked out the front door onto the street, the force of the heat hit with all its weight. Though still fairly early in the day, the newspaper vendor where Ion stopped for a copy of the English language newspaper told him that the thermometer had already hit 43 degrees Celsius. As we had travelled across Southern France and then Italy, I had begun to shift my sense of the relative temperature scale and now could gage that anything over 32 was really uncomfortable. This was already orders of magnitude above that tipping point.

We walked along wide avenues and then down more winding streets, older, more packed-in, the huge rock of the Acropolis topped by the graceful columns of the Parthenon always within view, always a presence, the orientation point of the universe of this strange jumble of a city, messier and more complex as it approached that nexus.

We wandered, stopping to look at vendors’ stalls, talking as we walked about our trip to Ion’s hometown on the coast the next day. I was young. I remember little of the heat’s oppression, but I do see the steps up the side of the huge rock cliffs as we began our climb to the Acropolis, the height stretching upwards, Ion translating the remarks of a Greek family, also climbing, that the thermometer had reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  On another day, a climb that would have meant little to bodies still unaccustomed to limits now felt almost insurmountable under the burden of the sun’s fire.

But here we were at last at the feet of the Parthenon. Breathless with the climb, we stopped for long moments to adjust our senses to the vastness of this spreading plaza, seemingly littered with huge boulders, broken columns and monumental marble buildings, partially in ruins. The sense of ancient beauty, ancient poetry, was like a fragrance of light incense over everything, wafting up and disappearing in a miasma in the burning heat. The etheric beauty of yesterday’s trip over the deep blues of the sea, the islands purple as we watched them glide by, still present like a refreshing taste on the tongue, offset the heat and the enormity of the climb upwards, even in its subtlety. 

It seems to me that the same self that I can touch now was stirring deep inside, gathering itself still, soaking in through skin dripping with sweat the experiences swirling around it, rather astonished as always to be there, as to be anywhere on earth.

As we had climbed, the image of the Parthenon floating somewhere behind my eyes was a presence well before we emerged at the top of the hill, a plane of rocks, columns and carved human forms. As we took the last steps, it felt as if we were emerging from a dark sea into the air above. That climb, that emerging from a place of rough, heated rocks and sweaty effort to a level place with stretching vista has echoed in my dreams, transforming over time.

And then there it was, huge, spreading in the near distance before us, a perfect rectangle somehow still despite what had fallen or crumbled from its remains. A symmetry of suggested space, looming there against the bright blue sky, it existed in a place in time and space that was mysteriously part of a continuity of the universe within, vast, containing now the turquoise sea, the fragrances of jasmine and grape, the sounds of waves, the smells of a classroom now in some time past, the call of the voices of strangers, the pricks of light in the ink of night.

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A Window in Time (Part 4): Race Across Italy

 

We moved up the road a bit to be out of the crowd of people trying to find a ride over the border into Italy. The weather I remember was that perfect temperature of the Mediterranean at the height of summer, the light the perfect light of the coast, bright yet full of contrast. We were content to just lean against a guardrail and wait. I was the one to stick out my thumb at the roadside, a young blond woman in shorts.

It may have been hours. It may have been minutes. A medium sized truck stopped and motioned for us to climb in. We gathered our things quickly and jumped into the back which was all packed with sacks. As we started through the border, I could see the Italian Carabinieri standing in groups on the other side with their high brimmed hats, dark blue uniforms and white bandoliers across their chests. They looked distinctly threatening, like holdovers from Fascist times. I braced for barks of authority as we reached the customs booth. But all went well. We jumped down off the end of the truck and presented our passports. They were duly stamped by officials who smiled and said “American, ha!” as they looked from my face to the passport. We climbed back in, Michel waving to a group of Carabinieri as we passed. They smiled. He said, “They actually look friendly!” “We’ll see.” I said.

The next two or three days are a blur in my mind’s eye. We must have taken the faster autoroute, the A-10 up away from the coast, bypassing around mountain towns. I remember only miles and miles of hills full of dark trees, small fields up against grape vineyards, and small towns with red-tiled-roofed houses in what must have been Liguria. And then into the region of olive groves, through to Bologna. Somewhere along the way that first day we got a ride with a truck carrying local table grapes to market. The drivers let us sit in back with the roll-up door open and motioned with hand gestures for us to eat all we wanted. We sat with our backs braced on crates of grapes, comfortably watching the scenery unwind behind us, eating grapes and throwing stems out the open back. I remember the fragrance of the grapes and washing our sticky hands with water from a big plastic bottle but nothing more.

We must have gotten stuck in Bologna for awhile, waiting for a ride on the outskirts of town. We never went into any of the cities we passed. There was no time. We had to make our rendezvous for the ferry in Bari in two more days. We ate what we had in our packs and snacks bought at wherever our rides happened to stop. There were long periods of waiting by the road. It is all a blur except for one night spent in a grape vineyard.

It must have been late evening when we stopped travelling, dropped off by the last ride of the day. We looked around in our darkening surroundings and saw we were on the edge of a large vineyard. The soil under the vines was smooth and inviting. The ground felt cool after the heat of the day. Tired out, we walked back into the rows out of sight of the road and spread our woollen bags under the vines.

The soil was soft and fluffy, a perfect place to stretch out in relative comfort. We had no consciousness of the probable toxic herbicides and fungicides we were breathing in the dust. Lulled to sleep by the surrounding silence and the new fragrance of ripening grapes, we slept soundly until morning light.

There is nothing else I remember of our journey across Italy, although there must have been some difficulties. Maybe it was just problems getting rides that stretched out the time, but we were late for our rendezvous in Bari. The day must have arrived when we were still at some distance down the A14. We must have been worried. Our friends might have bought tickets already for the ferry, counting on us to arrive as planned. If we were late, would they leave? I’m sure we doubted that, yet there would always have been some tiny element of uncertainty. Our mode of transportation meant we had no control over the speed of travel. I faintly remember some irritability between us as we stood by the side of the road for hours with cars passing us.

When we finally arrived in Bari, we were twelve hours late. My memory is filled only with the large concrete buildings around the ferry dock, large boats in the harbor. It was morning when we finally got out of our final ride, the morning after the departure of the ferry we’d planned to take. We found our friends rather quickly in the waiting area for the ferry. As soon as we spotted them, we ran across the hall calling to them and hugging as we met. There were apologies and stories of the days we’d spent apart. They were clearly also road-weary eyes, anxious glances, hair a bit uncombed. It must have seemed to all of us, standing there together, that we were looking into some strange mirror. When they had finally realized we were not arriving for the ferry the night before, they knew they must spend the night in Bari, but by that time there were no hotel rooms available. They had managed to stay in the small apartment of an odd man from Romania they’d met at the ferry terminal. They’d had been glad to make it safely through the night and out early in the morning.   As part of the tumbling stories, they told us that the next ferry for Greece wouldn’t leave for another few days. We would have to travel down the coast to Brindisi where a ferry left the next day for our destination, Patras, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea.

Michel, now torn with the prospect of going to Greece, decided he did, in fact, need to get back to Strasbourg and see his family for the rest of the summer. He had promised. He left us that day on a bus, hoping to see us once more in Paris at the end of our trip. It was never to be. That was the last we ever saw of him, waving goodbye from the window of the bus, standing in the aisle, tanned but with tired eyes, crouched over a woman in the seat.

Now it was just the three of us, standing there suddenly feeling a bit shy of each other, strangest for me to be alone with my friend and this man I had know for only a day or two. I remember the run into the ferry terminal from our last ride, bags flapping around our shoulders, the wait on the line of people boarding with bags of grapes, bottles of wine and suitcases, duffles and backpacks—families with several children, couples old and young, young Greek men returning home from some job abroad, jovial and rowdy, a few young Greek women with a grandmotherly looking figure with a shawl, a group of tourists, shepherded by a young woman speaking English—a whole crowd all flowing up onto the three deck ferry, heading out across the wine dark sea.

The wine-dark sea. The peace that passeth understanding. The passage to the land of myth, the land of heroes would be a long one. We wandered with the crowd looking for a place to sit and spread out our gear. There was a quick consensus that the top deck was the best place to be. From there we would see the sea and the islands as we steamed along and feel the fresh air in the possibly bumpy waters of the Ionian. We found a bench next to a big metal box full of life jackets and settled down as the huge ferry pulled away from the dock. From where we sat, we watched as the multicolored two and three-story stucco buildings moved by us, gleaming from the shore and we passed through the wakes of the tall-sailed blue, red and green yachts in the harbor out into the more open turquoise water.

 

The Rocks

 

We climbed towards the enormous red sandstone arches feeling the blood of our bodies pulsing in the warm light of late afternoon, the cold air pushing and pulling with its rushes of strength, the blackbrush and sage shrubs leaning this way then that in the gusts.

Feeling the weight of my feet, dragged more by the force of gravity than I remember, grateful to reach the platform of rock under the unimaginable grace of rock arching over, I stopped to watch some children running up and down the sloping red rock above me.

A young father, slim and bearded, sat at the top of the slope beside the opening of the arch, an arm around his young daughter, who, not much more than two, plump legged, yellow-haired, pacifier dangling on a cord from her neck, rested only for a few moments in the ease of his protection. She watched her sister for a while with great attention, a lithe girl of six or seven, barefoot, long blond hair tossing behind her, running up and down the steep rock slope, chasing her two also barefooted younger brothers who then turned and chased her, up the slope, down the slope, full of the bursting energy of the first bloom of youth. The littlest girl then quickly squirmed out from the arch of her father’s arm, turning backwards, finding footholds to climb down the rock. The father climbed down next to her, arms relaxed, attentive but calm.

Further down, near me, the mother called to her littlest boy to see if he was ready to come down with her. He shook his head vigorously, no, ducking into a small rock crevice and out the other side, swooping up the jagged rocks again after his brother. The mother called up to her husband, “I’m going down. I’m a bit tired.” He called back acknowledgement as he walked, hand in hand, with his tiny daughter, across the top of the slope beneath the grand arch.

As I climbed up further, I watched as the young man showed the tiny girl where to put her feet on the rock wall leading up to the opening of the arch. He helped her kick off her boots so her feet could more easily find the places where rock would hold them. She climbed easily, finding footholds, her father beside her on the rock, not too close, letting her feel her balance outside the sphere of his protection.

An older man was beginning his descent from the opening of the arch where he had been sitting. I had seen him there from the back, sitting still for a long interlude, absorbed by the wide view beyond.  Now the man was awkward and hesitant, a counterpoint to the tiny blond girl, uncertain where to put a foot, how to find a firm way down. Leaving the baby on the wall for a moment, the young man moved over to help guide the older man’s faltering feet on the rock. The little girl continued her climb on her own, close in to the rock, easily finding the next place to put a foot. Her father, relaxed, returned to climb up next to her.

The two finished their climb, side by side, reaching, at last, the rock platform stretching under the arch. He held her hand lightly as she climbed up to the narrow shelf whose delicate breadth I could not judge adequately from below. He sat down beside her, an arm draped loosely around her once again. I watched as her small blond head relaxed against his side. They sat that way for some time, the father pointing from time to time at some feature in a distance certainly full of the glowing light of the coming evening.

The older man, humble in his anxiety, made his way down to the more level ground, grateful to have safely found a way.  Soon, the father and daughter made their way back down,  he coming first, reaching up and holding the tiny girl gently around her waist as she found her first footing, then descending alongside. The older children had not yet slowed in their running, climbing, hiding and chasing, the mother calling for them to start their way back.

As we all started down the path as the early sun was already beginning to make its orange way down to the horizon, I turned to the mother.

“We’ve been admiring how nimble your children are. I wish l was so agile.”

She said “Oh god yes! Me too. I have to just let them go. I can’t hold them back–they have so much energy to burn.”

As I walked down behind the group, children running ahead, barefoot still on the cold rocks, I thought about my own children and now grandchildren.  My fear of the harm that might come to them in the immediate moment, has it prevented them from learning things that will keep them from the real dangers of being a human alive in these times?  Did the culture that surrounded me shape my teaching to prepare them for a world that is fast changing into something more dangerous, more challenging? 

In that magnificent rocky land where people have lived for millennia, finding water and growing and hunting food where there seems to be none, surviving amidst the beauty, it is easy to become absorbed in imagining the lives of these ancient relations. Over the years and years that we live in parallel tracks in time as children and parents, as overlapping generations, as beings becoming ancestors, we go back and forth in this balancing, finding the edge between survival and annihilation where the skills to survive are born.

My children grew up in a time when some of us had begun to see the limits to the comforts of our culture.  But they and their children are still embedded in a culture that seems to see only some endless present of limitless energy, of technological fixes.   It will be up to them to find the skills to survive without the comfort and protection all this excess of energy has provided. It will be up to them to find the footholds in a new terrain.  I hope the love of those of us rapidly becoming ancestors has guided them well enough. I hope they can draw on its nourishment as they climb away, over the rocky ridge, out of our site.

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A Window in Time (Part 3): Through the Countryside of France

Diving into memory trusts that the image you see in the puddle by the roadside really contains the world you see there, clear and distinct at first, then fading in the depths to hazy sky and treetops.

I plunge and swim in the worlds deep in my mind, following some dreamlike trace of story, some images bright and distinct, others misty from the decay of their cellular traces. The story continues.

We slept for awhile, piled on the bed behind the driver in the cab of the big trailer truck, dozing through a stop in Marseille to load something more into the truck, waking finally with hunger pangs. We were somewhere along the Cote D’Azur in the afternoon, the sun brilliant, the air coming through the open windows, hot, with vistas of the turquoise blue sea. Do I see the same sea that I saw then, or is it the sea of the southern coast of the Mediterranean along the shores of Northern Algeria, the way I saw it so many years later, the color of that view of that sea taking the place of all others.  The Mediterranean viewed from both sides, as in some ancient journey, blends its colors.

Stopping somewhere by the road so the men could eat their lunch, we bought some cheese and a baguette at a little store around the bend and a watermelon from a truck by the road and made our own meal. The driver showed us how to cut the round melon with one swack of a big knife, splitting apart the sphere with strong hands, revealing the bright red within. We gave them each a chunk, wiped our mouths on a dirty towel he threw us from the cab and climbed back in for the rest of the trip to Cannes.

They dropped us off with friendly waves on the main street before turning off to the road to the produce market. Hot and dirty, but excited to be in this famous spot, we decided to take a swim in the Mediterranean.

We crossed the thin traffic of the main thoroughfare, lazy in the height of the afternoon, and climbed down some stairs to the narrow beach where people strolled in couples and small groups. No one was swimming. Swimming beaches, it seemed, must be somewhere else. With the day passing there was no time to search. We would have to get well out of Cannes to find a place to sleep.

We walked along the sand until we came to a place where the rock wall provided a little shelter from the view of the street. Feeling rather furtive, we stripped to our underwear and waded in until it was deep enough to swim.

The water was deliciously warm and clear. We laughed and splashed each other, feeling the dirt and sweat of the road dissolving away in the gentle salty waves. The bottom was rocky, clearly not meant for swimming, but it suited us fine, but we were quick about it. We didn’t really care for the idea of some police spotting us and deciding it was a good afternoon’s joke to haul us in for breaking some city rule. We hurried to dry ourselves with whatever we had and put on some less recently used clothes.

Finding our way back up a flight of stone steps, over the bottom road and to the main street where lovely sleek women and men passed in and out of the entrances of grand hotels, we walked along the sweeping arch of the bay, feeling talkative and gay, refreshed.

When we came again to a spot to stand on the side of the street, we stuck out our thumbs. I think it wasn’t long until a small older car pulled up with a young man driving. He motioned us to get in quickly since the cars were piling around him. We jumped in with Michel in the front and slammed the flimsy metal doors.

He, too, was in a talkative mood,  a student happy to find young people from America to tell him new things. He was on his way back to Nice at the end of his day and was eager for us to meet his wife. He would ask her, but he thought it would be no problem for us to stay with them at their apartment for the night. They were going to a street festival in the old part of Nice that evening and would be delighted if we would come with them.

The beauty of moments, one after another, of freedom from care, somehow protected and guided by sheer, sparkling joy, is what remains to me of memory from that drive along the Cote D’Azur, with the dazzling bright blue of the sea always present, even when obscured by the grand buildings and hills. We had so little to weigh us down–money, responsibilities, physical pains, none of it of any weight at all. Few desires even pulled us from the beautiful light of the afternoon.

There was a small place in some neighborhood of Nice where a door opened and husband and wife kissed and we were introduced, but only little shreds of those memories remain. What I can recall in its vivid colors in the warm, soft air of a Mediterranean evening is the small square paved with ancient stones where, later, we all went together, nestled somewhere back away from the lights of the seaside, tucked away in the spreading streets of the old parts of this pre-Roman town, hidden to all but those who live there.

How memory holds these experiences, almost complete in all the dimensions of the senses, held there somehow in the chemistry of the synapses, shimmering, deep somewhere in the vast dark light of the mind—unfathomable.

The square was strung with colored lights. A hum of anticipation in the twilight. An appetite for music and dance was clearly growing as people began to flow into the square to eat together, energy building, chattering in that lilting flow of French. Families and friends split off one after another into one of the restaurants grouped around this warm center.  These restaurants seemed to have no distinct boundaries, flowing into each other, tables in alcoves and courtyards, most built in the same stone with deep, framed windows. We had somehow come upon a Spanish festival here in this southern French town. Cultures merged. There would be Spanish music, Spanish food, Spanish dancing.

Our new friends motioned us towards their favorite restaurant. The owner ushered us to a table in an alcove opening out onto the square. There was a kind of perfection in the spot, both intimate and part of the activity of the whole. Our hosts ordered a paella which would take some time to arrivenand a big bowl of Sangria with slices of the fresh fruits of the Mediterranean floating on the top. Our hearts and guts warmed quickly with the wine. Talk began to flow easily. With the strange candor of the French, our hosts gently pried out some of our most secret desires, unknown even to our friends whose eyes widened from time to time during as they listened to the answers the tellers barely knew themselves.

The paella arrived in a huge steaming iron pot somewhere into our second bowl of Sangria. The fish was fresh. There were langoustines from the sea, succulent, supremely delicious. We dipped big ladles from the pot into our bowls and devoured it with chunks pulled from loaves of warm bread.

Our friends told us the cook here was Spanish and had helped initiate this festival some years before on the day of some obscure holiday. He revelled in the fact that he could, for once, serve as much of his treasured paella as he could cook.

We ate and went to dance together in the crowd in the square. Then we ate some more. There was teasing about who would dance with Michel the longest and some complications of emotions in the gay, drunken whirl, but, somewhere in the early, early morning, we were all back at our friends’ apartment where bedding and mattresses were pulled from somewhere. We all fell down on them and slept the sleep of the dead.

The pictures deep in my mind of the next day were lost in some darkness, but I have been reminded that sometime late the next morning, heads still fuzzy, our new friends drove us to the Italian border, where, in those days, passports were checked and decisions made about who would be turned away. There was evidently a crowd of people waiting to cross the frontier into Italy with a large presence of the Carabinieri which I remember distinctly, with their tall leather boots and uptilting hats making them look like models of the idea of Mussolini fascism.

Our friends dropped us off with kisses on each cheek, pressing us close, and got back in their car and drove off, back towards Nice. We shouldered our packs and walked up along the road towards the frontier.

As we waited our turn to have our passports checked and to answer the questions, we talked with other young people on the scattered line. Just before we crossed over to Italy, a young man with the profile of a Greek statue and the tight curls of the head of a Greek hero approached us. He was curious about our little group of three and wondered where we were going. We said we thought we would go to Greece.

He told us his name was Ion. He had dual Greek and British citizenship and was headed for his annual summer trip to his mother’s hometown of Glyfada, a seaside town north of Athens. As we went through customs, we continued to chat.

On the other side,  a crowd of people were gathered, many looking road weary, dusty and tired. Some held signs saying they had been waiting days for a ride. There were young and old with various luggage and with thumbs extended. We sat with Ion by the side of the road, sharing food from our packs, assessing the situation.

He said that in August it was particularly difficult to hitch a ride since so many people were headed to Italy for vacation. It would be particularly hard to get a ride for three. He suggested we split into two couples and hitch independently to the town of Bari along the Italian coast where we could catch a ferry to Athens. From there he would take us to visit his family. We settled on a date and a time for a rendezvous at the ferry dock.

My heart was suddenly heavy with anxiety. It was clear from the language of their bodies that I would be alone with Michel for the first time in our friendship. I was afraid for my friend who would travel with a stranger, no matter how friendly and trustworthy. And then afraid for myself, travelling alone with Michel who clearly I could trust from experience to keep us safe but whose last boundary of intimacy I was very hesitant to cross. I feared both the crossing of it and the possible rejection of that crossing, all at once. I had assumed his attraction for my friend. But somehow we were now stuck with each other. I was stymied, face to face with something an hour earlier I had not even anticipated.

My friend and Ion walked down the road a bit. She stuck out her thumb while he sat back on the metal guardrail next to the road. I, too, put out my thumb, Michel behind me, both standing in our position just within their sight.

We were off to Greece.

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A Window in Time (Part 2): To Lyon

We left together that morning, the three of us, Michel, my blond friend and I.  I remember ( although other details are gone) I had a rough khaki pack I had bought at the Puces in Paris along with the French Army surplus greenish-grey wool blanket roll I carried with me. I must not have brought much with me to France since I seem to remember carrying it all easily, along with the thick French translation of Faulkner’s “Light in August” I’d bought on a whim in one of the stalls on the Seine to see how southern America venacular translated into French.

We hitched a ride, if I remember, with a friend of Michel’s, southwest out of Paris on the A-10 toward Orsay. We must have had a ride out of Paris that morning since I have no memory of sticking out our thumbs in the middle of Paris. We were bound on an adventure to the south of France before Michel had to return to see his parents in Strasbourg at the end of the summer. Our tickets home from Paris in September left us plenty of time to escape the skeins of our parents’ concern in a time when the only communication back home was through American Express offices. What they didn’t know wouldn’t worry them. They would think we were busy in Paris or taking train rides together to places like Chartres. Dreams of my mother pulling up behind us on the road in her white convertible with the red interior pursued me for the first week and then faded into the background of our grand adventure.

By nightfall of the first day, we must have made it to Orleans or some small town nearby it on the Loire. We camped somewhere on a grassy verge of the rocky river bank, stretched out under a cloudy sky, grateful for the warmth of summer in our woolen sacks with rough sheet linings. We listened to the river and talked of the nearby chateaus we would never see, just as we had stood beneath the Eiffel Tower together, marvelling at the huge black iron girders, counting our sous and imagining the trip to the top. We saw nothing of the town that morning but stuck out our thumbs after eating bread and cheese from our packs.

Since the three of us had to stick together, hitching was slow. Drivers were not at all reluctant to pick up people along the roads, but most were pairs of women, single men or male and female couples. To “faire du stop” was an accepted way for people to travel, especially through the countryside, but cars were small and three at a time was hard to get. We took to having my friend and I stick our thumbs out by the roadside while Michel sat back somewhere slightly out of view.

We got a few short rides that day and made it to somewhere in the central rural farmlands. It was probably somewhere in the area of what is now the Department de Cher. It was getting quite late. Twilight had set in. It was likely our last ride had been in a truck that took us on a rather circuitous route. We found ourselves walking in the countryside where stands of trees still grew and inviting grassy spots under cover of trees clustered here and there beside a stream that ran behind the farmhouses. We were hungry and starting to feel more than a little tired and footsore. The shoes I’d brought with me had given me blisters and I had taken to walking barefoot when I could. The heat of the day had cooled enough to make the pavement tolerable but my legs ached. All we wanted was a spot to bed down safely for the night and a bit of seclusion. If I remember, we were somewhere near the towns of Theilley or Vierzon in the region of Cher. I will never know for certain.

Michel said he would go ahead a bit to check things out and find us a good spot to camp. In a few minutes, he came running back to join us.

“There’s a farmhouse and a barn just up there. I think we can find a spot there. There are lots of trees and a stream. I know the kind of people around here. They’re farm people like from my region. They’re okay about sleeping in barns.”

We walked together around the bend. By now it was fairly dark. Nightbirds called from the trees. He pointed to the little house just ahead to our right along the road. Quietly, we came up to the drive and stood together, looking for a dark opening somewhere in the trees. He motioned for us to follow him and whispered,

“Follow me”.

Behind him, my friend and I crossed a grassy yard only partially concealed by bushes from the front door of the little house. A ladder leading to an upper hay door was built into the side of the small barn. We watched Michel mount it and climb quickly up through the square opening. He turned and motioned for us to come up.

We ran the rest of the small distance and followed him up as quietly as we could through the door and into a loft strewn with hay. Hay bales we stacked on the far side in step-like fashion. We paused for a moment, watching Michel looking around for the best spot, feeling worried about what the farmer would do if he found us here.

“Are you sure this will be okay?” my friend asked.

“I’m sure!” he said. “People do it all the time in the country.”

Still feeling a bit like criminals, we helped him find a nice spot surrounded by bales and together, pulled hay from the floor and made a big luxurious bed for the three of us. We spread out our bedrolls and chose comfortable seats on the bales. Michel opened his pack and pulled out the bottle of wine he’d bought that morning. Bread, cheese, sausage and wine and maybe a cucumber or two we’d brought from the last epicerie we’d passed—each of us pulled some contribution from our pack. We drank from the bottle and feasted. Michel sang a song from Alsace with a little more gusto than we thought was prudent. To quiet him down, we tried to get him to teach us to sing it. We felt gay in this extravagant accommodation and somehow secure. After a while, we stretched out in our bags, sidling up to each other like puppies, talked softly until we were yawning and drifted finally into to a very peaceful sleep.

The sun took a while to reach us. When my friend and I finally opened our eyes, we discovered Michel was gone. We had a few moments of panic, quickly straightening out our hair and cleaning up the things left from dinner, thinking he had taken off in the night and left. In our flurry, it took a moment to notice that his head had appeared in the opening.

“I thought you’d never see me, you cabbages! Come on. Get up!” he said. “Bring your things. The farmer’s wife has breakfast for us. Don’t keep her waiting!”

We pulled on our packs, fastening them as we went, and followed him down the ladder.

At the bottom, a woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a long soft cotton dress of muted colors tied around the waist, stood with her hands softly clasped in front of her, following our progress down with her eyes. She spoke to Michel in an accent hard for us to follow. We looked at him with eyebrows raised in question. He interpreted for us, with a slight smile. “She wants us to come into the kitchen so we can tell her what we want. She has different flavors of fruit syrup for our water and she wants to know what you like.”

As we followed them towards the front door of the house, I noticed a tray laid out on a small metal table next to the stone path. There was a bowl of brown eggs, sausage, small misshapen peaches and a bowl of blackberries. Spoons and bowls were stacked on the other side of the wooden tray with a bottle of milk, ready for our breakfast.

Inside the kitchen was small and lined with shelves holding jars, boxes, glasses, plates and bowls. Near the rough sink was a line of bottles with spouts holding liquids of vivid purple, red and brownish yellow. She explained the different flavors to us, all homemade—cassis, blackberry, cherry and plum is what I remember.

She handed us each a glass and poured a bit of our chosen syrup in the bottom of each. She motioned for us to fill the glass with water from the pump at the sink and then told us to come with her out the door. She handed Michel what looked like a tablecloth which he put over his arm. She picked up the tray and led us down a path into the trees near a stream. Michel spread out the cloth on the grass and the three of us sat down together. She carefully placed the tray on the grass next to us and told us that the eggs were fresh from her hens and boiled. There was a homemade loaf of bread and a jar of jam. We motioned for her to join us and she shook her head.

“J’ai encore manger. Bon appetite!” she said and turned and went back to the house.

I watched her go down the path, crossing through the shadows made by the morning sun. I still see her in my mind’s eye.

My friend and I looked at each other with delight. Michel was more blasé.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it. This is what we do in the countryside.”

We sat together, leisurely eating until we had consumed every crumb and talking comfortably about the road ahead. The interweaving of French and occasional English was now familiar. I remember how my friend and I, after feeling the isolation of inadequacy, had now begun to feel a re-emergence of our familiar selves, able to communicate more of the subtleties of our thought. I remember my delight when I began dreaming in French and then when I was able to understand some threads of the quips that passed from one person to another with the speed only the French seem to possess.

Filled with the beauty of the countryside and the various tastes of the food on our tongues, we stacked things on the tray and followed the path through the bushes back to the farmhouse. The woman was doing something in the yard and came to us when she saw us approach. She took the tray and firmly refused our efforts to help her clean up. We followed her into the kitchen where she and Michel compared notes about life on a farm, brief phrases intelligible through the thick argot. My friend and I asked about the various things we saw around the kitchen in jars and bottles, curious to find out more about the life of this woman here in her little house. She explained each one, Michel trying to find ways to explain the names that seemed unfamiliar.

 

It was almost noon when we finally waved goodbye and set off back to the main road with more boiled eggs, cheese and bread stored away in our packs.

After such lavish accommodation, it was natural that the day that followed would have to be one of the more challenging. Car after car passed us by on the autoroute. Trucks whizzed by. We made it from one village to the next small town in the Centre-val-de-Loire.

Our next ride took us a short way to a turn off to a farm. We walked for a while on the highway as the afternoon turned toward evening and the light began to really fade. It had been raining on and off all day and now it was cooling. Cars were speeding by, on the way home with no thought of stopping to pick someone up. We realized we had to find a place to get off the road and bed down. But where? As with some American roads, there were fences along the roadside and fields beyond with no cover.

Up ahead a kilometer or so, we could see the lanes part to start a divided four-lane highway. There at the division was a patch of grass with a few trees. We walked along down the right side until we were close. Waiting for a time when there we no oncoming cars that could see us, we dashed across the two lanes to the island, ducking behind the bushes we’d seen from a distance. An empty bottle and a few wrappers indicated that we weren’t the first to think this was a decent spot to camp.

We spent a cold and noisy night on the grass and gravel, making sure that the first to wake up woke the others. Just before dawn, we rolled up our bags, changed into dry shirts and ran over to the other side of the highway.

As the morning dawned, it was clear that things would go better. The first car didn’t take us far, but it took us to a small village square where the cafe was just beginning to open. We waited for awhile on a bench while the man who swept the streets did his job and the cafe owner rolled up his metal door, put out the round metal Richard ashtrays on the tables and put out the chairs that had been stacked for the night. As soon as he was ready, we crossed the cobbled square and went in to order our cafe au lait and baguettes with butter. Satisfied, we went back out to the road and once again, stuck out our thumbs.

The next car that stopped was a nice little dark blue Renault with a young couple. They let us pack into the back with our bags with no fuss. As we drove off, we were already chatting about our trip, where we came from and where we were headed. They lived close by and were out on an excursion to the market and lunch, but it was “le weekend” and they were up for anything. They asked us if we had time to see something in the countryside, a bit of the beaten track. They promised to take us there, have lunch with us and then drive us to the turnoff to Lyon at Clermont-Ferrand. They had friends there and would have a drink with them that evening.

Of course, we had time! Chattering as we went, Michel helping us to understand some of the quips and jokes, they turned off the highway onto the two-lane secondary roads. After some time driving through pleasant countryside full of the vistas of fields and roads lined with Plane trees, coming through village after village, they turned off the road onto the grounds of a small ancient stone church.

“This is what we wanted to show you,” they told us as they stopped the car. We piled out.

“It’s one of the oldest existing churches in France. The original monastery was built in the ninth century. There are catacombs under the church. Come, we’ll show you. It’s wonderful.”

As we approached the entrance made in the ancient way with arching mortared stones, I remember the sense of enchantment that we would be led to such a place where clearly very few tourists ever came. They lead us through the cool echoing nave with a few rows of wooden benches. I remember only a simple altar in the transept and stain glass window of a simple figure of Christ behind it in the small rounded choir. They went ahead of us to the side of the transept, opening a small door. As we followed them, we could see stone steps curving downward. We climbed down the spiralling stairs to a stone area below.

There, with the only light from a few bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, we saw the rock partitions that once formed some part of the walls of monks’ cells. We wandered through the whole underground warren which seemed to extend out behind the actual walls of the church above. The couple explained this had been the original monastery, built in the Ninth Century. In that beginning time, there had been a small Romanesque chapel above. The church had been expanded and rebuilt in the Twelfth Century. Renovations had begun and then stopped in some more recent time. Now without a congregation, it was maintained somehow by local people and government funds.

We stood there for some time, each in separate spots in that enclosed space. Clearly, our thoughts were given wings by the place. There was something in the confined air, the cool stone that provided me a peaceful, pervasive sense of the centuries of meditation, the endless hours of chanting that had reverberated here and in the church above. It seeped in through my skin into my bones, sending a shiver through my spine.

We left quietly, with a reverence for a place of worship neither my friend nor I had absorbed growing up with modern intellectual American parents. To this day, I don’t really know where we had gone or whether I could find that place again.

The couple drove us to a cafe in a village square in their little blue Renault. I’m sure we shared a carafe of local wine and some ham sandwiches on lengths of baguettes, but I have no real memory of that meal or of the rest of our time with them. They must have dropped us off as promised.

I think it was late that afternoon that a large car with a middle-aged man at the wheel stopped to pick us up. We climbed in with a bit of hesitation, exchanging glances, as he was a fairly large and burly guy who gave off a sense of authority and the habit of power. He was going to all the way to Marseilles and would drop us off when the road diverged to Cannes. A long way. Michel motioned for me and my friend to take the back seat as he went around to the front passenger seat, but the man said,

“You and your girlfriend can have the back,” and he motioned for me to sit in the front, next to him.

We drove and drove, taking occasional bathroom breaks at small gas stations. At a seeming truck stop somewhere before Lyon, late at night, he turned to me as we were headed back to the car and said, “You can drive, right? I’m tired. You drive now.” It was clearly stated more as an order than a request.

Fear immediately gripped me like a sickness in my stomach.  I had never driven a stick shift.  I’d never even driven in France. I had little experience driving in any unfamiliar terrain, let alone another country whose regulations I didn’t know. I had no international license.  When I tried to explain,  he simply brushed me off with a shrug and a little gesture toward the passenger door. 

“I’ll help you shift until you learn. You’ll figure out the rest,” he said.

Michel put his hand on the man’s shoulder and tried to pull him aside to talk but the man just turned away.

“I’ll drive,” Michel said.

“No,” answered the man, “I want her to drive. It’ll be good for her.”

The three of us managed quick glances back and forth and Michel whispered,

“I’ll stay awake. Don’t worry,” and opened the driver’s door for me.

The man got into the passenger seat and showed me the controls, running through the gear stick and how to shift with the clutch pedal.

“Now go ahead,” he said, “Start ‘er up and I’ll help you shift to get on the road. Once you get going, you can stay in fourth for a while.”

I turned the key and put my foot on the clutch as he instructed. With his hand on the gear shift, he instructed me about when to depress the clutch and when to release. As we lurched forward he yelled,

“Gently up on that pedal! Feel it engage!”

Once we were on the two-lane highway, he sat back in his seat and said, “When we’re approaching a town, let me know. I’ll help you.”

He must have dozed for a while. I felt Michel’s hand on my shoulder even so often as he whispered,

“D’accord?”

My friend slept next to him in the back, waking when Michel leaned forward. Stiff with anxiety, my brain on constant alert, I managed to gauge my speed, feeling very lucky that our car was almost alone on the road.

Signs began to tell me that we were approaching Lyon. I could see the yellow of the sodium street lights in lines near the horizon, reaching inwards towards in other in the distance like a study in perspective. I said,

“We’re coming to Lyon.”

The man woke and stretched, his arm muscles evident, yawning loudly. He said,

“Slow down a little. I’ll tell you when to put in the clutch and when to shift.”

I suddenly felt his big hand on my thigh. “I’ll guide you,” he said.

As we approached Lyon I was almost frozen with fear. His hand was creeping further towards my crotch, gently massaging. I tried to pull my right leg over towards my left, making it harder for him to reach. It did no good. His hand just followed. My mind, half concentrated on navigating through stop lights, traffic signs and instructions from the man to do things like turn off the headlights through town, and half on keeping him from groping further without infuriating him, we somehow made it through the city. Now I was really worried. His hand was still there. What would be his next move? Would he make me stop the car and get out? I seemed to remember that at some point he had mentioned a knife he kept somewhere in the car, maybe the glove box.

After leaving behind the lights of the city, he suddenly said,

“I have to pee. Turn into this next station.”

I slowed the car and turned in to a parking lot, his hand alternately helping me with the gear shift and going back to its anchor on my leg. We came to a stop and he opened his door and got out. Thinking he would go towards the building, I was appalled to see him going around the front of the car, clearly headed towards my door. Panicked, I tried to sidle over to the passenger seat. As I tried to manoeuvre, I caught a glimpse of Michel opening his door behind me and lurching out of the car. He stood in front of the man, blocking him from reaching for my door. He put turned to me through the partially opened window and said,

“Go. Get out!”

My friend in the back seat was opening her door as I made it to the other side, opened the door and slid out.

My friend and I looked around wildly to see where we were. Over to the side of the parking lot was a group of men, standing around talking and smoking. A couple of tractor trailers were parked near them in the lot. In the blur of the next minutes, there is a haze in my memory, but it is likely that Michel, having lived in the rough section of Paris, was used to carrying a knife and used it to keep the man where he was near the car. He was suddenly with us, pushing us towards the group of men, putting one of us on each side of him, his arms coming up around our shoulders. As we came up on the men, Michel glancing behind him, he said,

“Who can give us a ride south? There’s a little money in it.”

Them men looked at each other, one looking down, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out on the pavement.

“I’ll take you. How much?” he said.

Money changed hands. The driver motioned for one more bill.  Michel peeled it off  and arms still around us, said,

“Which one?”

and pulled us quickly over to the cab the driver had indicated. He boosted us up the high step. The driver motioned us through the door and opened the curtain behind the seat to show us the bed behind.

“You can ride in there,” he told us.

The driver’s partner climbed up into the other side, we got through into the little loft behind the cab and the driver got in, pulled the curtain closed and started the big engine. Michel parted the curtain as we began to pull away, looking into the lot.

“He’s still there, standing by the car,” he said. “I don’t think he’ll try to follow.”

“God! That was too close!” said my friend.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes. Too close.”

 My heart pumped wildly in my chest as if feeling a rushing thaw after being frozen in my chest for hours. Michel pulled out a bottle of wine from his pack, opened it and we passed it around until it was gone. The driver’s partner handed us back some packets of nuts and we began to relax. I think we laughed together at Michel’s gallantry, I hugging him around the shoulders in relief. Michel leaned over to the driver and asked how many hours to Cannes. Since it was quite a few and he was going all the way, we stretched out on the bed and dozed off, the driver’s partner snoring in the front seat.

(To be continued..  More about the journey to Greece in the time of Joanie)

A Window in Time (Part 1): Bastille Day

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Today is Bastille Day.

I will tell you a story of a long ago Bastille Day in Paris the summer after the massive anti-capitalism and antiwar demonstrations and strikes of 1968. 

When I think of France I normally don’t think of Paris, busy, noisy, beautiful Paris, but today I’ll speak of a time in Paris when reality roiled its back like a sea monster briefly breaking above the water, creating storm waves all around.

She was eighteen, with blondish hair past her shoulders and blunt-cut bangs, a veteran of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, a student of English literature and of French and Russian and with the naive sense that her mind was capable of encompassing everything. Her parents were paying for a trip to Paris as a high-school graduation present, a cultural break before college. She and a friend from high-school had gone to New York together and purchased round trip tickets to London on Icelandic Air. The friend was also eighteen, with hair even longer and blonder than hers. They’d known each other for years but weren’t the most intimate of friends, she having found a consuming friendship with an intense young woman who had moved to their school from Palo Alto. France on Five Dollars A Day in her suitcase and on a strict budget, she and her friend had flown to London with hits of good Owsley acid hidden in their socks, meant to be shared at just the right moment.

Arriving at Heathrow, they’d gone directly to stay with a family in Oxford who knew the friend’s parents well. He was a Don at New College (the older part of Oxford) and the archetype of a cozy English prof, well rounded in body like a well-stuffed armchair, part of the stuffing extruding from his mouth in the form of upper-crust British English, full of overfed vowels, almost impossible to comprehend but occasionally well worth the heightened effort.

His wife was charmingly hostesy, and his grandchildren, all golden curls and perfect manners, made them feel they’d walked into a delightful post-Victorian Era British children’s book, especially when the children were released by their grandmother for “a romp in the garden” with the two friends. They went punting and picnicking on the Cherwell, a tributary of the Thames, where she dutifully made the rookie error of following the punting pole into the river, drying off in the sun on the river bank where they ate the things from the beautifully packed picnic basket. She learned how to say “boot” instead of trunk, and “strawbs” instead of “strawberries” and managed to choke down meat pies for the first time in her life.

From there, they took a train and then a boat across the Channel where they began their adventures by hooking up with a good-looking “older” man in his twenties who already worked as a journalist. They were intrigued by his aura of left-wing professionalism and his dual Greek and British passports.

They disembarked in Callais as the largest darkest orange full moon she’d ever seen rose over the tree-lined roads, golden fields of grain and red poppies spreading out on both sides. They camped in a tent with their new friend, putting up with some fairly gentlemanly groping, he trying to convince them to join him in Spain where he was headed for an extended vacation. They refused, feeling in part still dutiful and in part, even in their innocence, divining what a good thing he thought he’d found with two young American girls, perhaps eventually willing.

In the morning, he drove them into Paris in his Renault and deposited them in front of their student pension on the Left Bank on Rue des Ecoles where they’d somehow managed to rent a room for a month. They were enrolled in the summer French Intensive course for Foreigners at the Sorbonne, a process accomplished in those days totally by correspondence. They shared a room on the third floor with french doors opening onto a tiny balcony with iron grillwork. There they could sit on the window sill and watch the life in the street below and become absorbed in the lives of the people in the opposite flats.

They went to classes fairly regularly for a week or so before getting fed up with the slow pace of things. They were learning more French in their adventures around the city, where they went to cafés, wandered endlessly together or alone, shopped in the bookstalls on the quays of the Seine, explored Notre Dame and the Ile de Paris, sat on the quay in the evenings with German students whose big rucksacks were always there to lean on and their near-perfect English an entryway into the easy relationships of youth.

After a while, when they had practically stopped attending classes, they met up one evening with a young Frenchman on the quay. Young and ready for opportunity, he had approached the international group sitting around a guitarist and focused on the two blond women speaking a mixture of English and French. He was from Strasbourg, working-class and adventurous. He impressed the girls by teaching them argot and gallantly buying them a special dictionary of slang from one of the bookstalls.

Michel was his name. He was their age, friendly and easy-going and clearly interested in the friend with long blond hair for more than conversation. They went together to Greek restaurants deep in the Latin Quarter and drank cognacs so late into the evening that the two friend got locked out of their pension more than once. That was when he introduced them to the place where he lived in an Arrondissement on the other side of the river. The apartment where he lived with two other “mecs”, likely Algerians, was in a rough neighborhood. He’d bring back baguettes, butter and milk for breakfast and make them coffee in bowls with heated milk.

It was coming up on July 14th, Bastille Day, the day the two friends had chosen as the occasion special enough to use their smuggled acid. They consulted together about whether they could trust Michel enough to share it. After several days of hesitation, they decided to risk it. Down on the quays, they had all smoked pot with the German students. They knew he was no stranger to mind-altering experiences.

That evening, the three of them sat together on the edge of the quay and discussed the possibility. The two friends were now comfortable enough in their command of French that they were able to communicate some of the subtleties of the situation. As best as they were able, they described the experiences they’d had with acid, trying to give him a basis for a decision about whether it was something he wanted to take on.

In the end, although not without some trepidation, he did. He wondered, as privately did they, how prepared he was for an experience so extremely outside of what he had known growing up in his small town in the north of France. He told them more about what Bastille Day was like in Paris, full of fireworks in the street, parades down the Champs Elysee, crowds of people, parties, dancing, music and street performers everywhere. Everyone excited and happy. Everything festive. Everybody drinking lots of wine. How marvellous it would be with the enhancement of LSD, thought the two friends.

The night before, they slept at Michel’s apartment in the 17th Arrondissement, the two girls on the floor in bedrolls purchased at the Puce. The morning was bright, sunshine filtering in down the air shaft in the middle of the tenement and into the only the small apartment’s only window. They made cafés au lait and shared a baguette and then ceremoniously took the tiny white pills the friends had brought from the States, one each.

The two young women put on their long skirts and sandals and gathered up their passport wallets with enough money for food for the day. They waited as Michel, taking his time, had made sure he had his carte d’identité in his wallet and had combed his hair. Together they set off into the bright sunshine.

As they walked through the Arab quarter of Barbes Rochechouart, the streets were beginning to fill with people off for the holiday, walking in groups or with families, setting off to their favorite cafe to start the day. The atmosphere was relaxed and happy, people at their ease looking forward to spending a festive day together in a city with endless possibilities and endless beauties.

They descended the stairs of the Metro station at Brochant, Michel running ahead and turning to usher the girls down the next flight with a theatrical bow. They glanced shyly at each other as they stood on the platform waiting for the train, communicating without words the intoxication of an experience of the world that was beginning to unfold.  Even the expanse of the train station itself felt it held an intimation of how each object, each sight, now contained infinities of beatific interest.

After changing trains several times led through the maze by the savvy Michel, they emerged at the Louvre station, not to brave the pressing crowds of the museum itself, but to begin their day of wandering in sight of the old palace at the Tuilleries.

They walked through the gardens, seeing each familiar sight with total freshness as if its very nature had opened itself for their detailed examination and contemplation. People passed and left their impressions. The play of the children around the fountains took on its proper meaning. They were exhalted.

As the day began to turn to afternoon, they sat in a café with glasses of wine in front of them, mostly unconsumed, speaking to each other occasionally in the flow of all the magic unfolding in front of them in the street. There were mountebanks and fire eaters, street dancers and singers, but the people themselves were the most extraordinary sight. It seemed somehow that a festival of human oddities had begun, with families of giants and midgets, people with facial deformities, the enormously fat and enormously skinny, all gay and splendid in their holiday attire.

They walked again across the bridges, passing through the throngs who were promenading there, some chatting vociferously to each other, others laughing and gesticulating with their arms. They hung on the balustrades and watched the river below for a timeless interlude before crossing to the Ile de la Cité to enter the Cathedral.

What magnificence. They were pulled through the doors into the flow of people towards the center. As if on an island in the middle of a swirling lake, a white and scarlet-robed priest rose above the crowd, intoning words of ritual. The inner walls of the cathedral seemed to vanish. They found themselves immersed in another world, suffused by an incredible light that colored the air itself with jewel-like glow. The smoke of incense rose up into the arches of the heavens above, creating beams of white. They stood entranced at the edge of the gathering as a bell rang repeatedly from the altar, creating reverberations of color and sound throughout the nave. When the big bell of the cathedral itself began its tolling the universe itself was encompassed in the sound.

They were eventually pulled back through the doors to wander the grounds. There they walked on the grass and stone grass under the stupendous stone arches of the flying buttresses. Between the cathedral walls and the river, they became lost together in some zone of wizardry.  The air was beginning to scintillate with the colors of the sparklers that passer-bys held and spun in circles with their arms. Fireworks seemed to be coming from everywhere in the sky, sending sparks of light throughout the atmosphere, hovering around people and buildings, swooping like galaxies here and there. Time passed. Wonderful beings went by, singing.

In the midst of it, someone made a decision to climb the tower to see the gargoyles. Somehow directions were sought, money was exchanged and tickets bought. They climbed the long stairs of the north tower to the top to look out over the river and the city and commune with the gargoyles. What creatures they were. Some seemed to have flown tremendous distances in their travels and to have gained enormous wisdom. That afternoon, the three friends stood with them and heard many stories as they rested their heads against their stone wings.

Towards the end of the day, in Michel’s wake, they took the metro to Montparnasse, sat with the singing hoards of students gathered on the steps of Sacre Coeur, and watched the sunset, the city spread out before them. Flowers of color sprouted suddenly as fireworks exploded here and there amidst the sparks of the white street lights.   They thought that never before or since has there been such a magnificent sunset or such a joyous choir.

As the darkness began to penetrate into the streets of Montparnasse, they felt the lassitude of evening seeping in through their skins. The effect of the acid was on its downward mellow glide. The comfort of a little food and an apartment where they could relax began to call to them.

Even their young limbs were feeling a bit weak as they set off together again towards the Metro. After a miraculous navigation in the Metro, they were back in the Barbes Rochechouart.

They found a café where they bought some pastries from the case and then some fruit from the corner épicerie open late. They climbed wearily to Michel’s apartment where they put on a Bob Dylan record and stretched out his bed, contentedly munching pastries.

They must have dozed for a while. She woke to a pounding somewhere. Michel was up and moving to the door. The night was black at the window.

As she watched, he undid the locks and opened the door. As he pulled it towards him, a man seemed to slump and fall forward into his arms. Michel caught him around his back in a kind of rough embrace and walked him back into the room, easing the heavy form onto a chair. It was one of his roommates. Some guttural conversation was exchanged in the thick argot of the streets, incomprehensible from where she now sat on the bed, alert and more than a bit unnerved. Michele turned to the two friends, both now fully awake, and said in an excited voice,

He’s hurt. He’s been stabbed. He’s bleeding from his side.”

Over the next moments, they heard the hurried story of a fight in the streets Michel had so far be able to glean from his friend. Suddenly the door was being pushed open again by the other roommate, hair wet with sweat and shirt torn. He turned and quickly locked and latched the door behind him. There was more hushed conversation. A plan was being made.

The wounded man turned to the two young women groggily and explained in stilted but proper French that the wound was not grave, just painful. He was clearly in shock. Michel explained that the second roommate would take the wounded one to a neighbor’s apartment where he would be safe from the gang who had attacked him. They would wait until morning, evaluate the knife wound and see if a doctor were necessary.

In case the trouble followed his friend to their apartment, Michel thought it best they all leave. They gathered their things and the uneaten pastries and quietly and sleepily left the apartment, taking back streets around the scene of the fight.

It was too early for the Metro. Despite their drowsiness, they decided to walk back towards the girls’ pension on the Rue des Ecoles, where the concierge would not open the door for several hours.

A glow still lingered through the fatigue as they walked. It was mysterious and a bit exciting to be moving through the unfamiliar dark streets back towards the Seine. After what seemed a long and rather weary trek, they found themselves on the Rue Rivoli of the Right Bank, passing the back of the grand palaces of the Louvre.

They kept going until they reached the Boulevard de Palais and took a right turn towards the bridge to the Ile de la Cité. They could see Notre Dame not too far off, its towers, buttresses and rosette window brilliant in the dark city, a huge light among the nests of white Parisian street lights. They began their walk across the Pont St. Michel towards the quays of the Left Bank on the other side.

As they came to the bridge, sleep beginning to pull at them, they saw three women silhouetted against the white lights of the other bank, the colors of the Seine shining from below. They were leaning against the grey-white stone of the balustrade to the right, chatting, their murmuring conversation punctuated by quiet waves of laughter. One had her leg bent backwards behind her, letting her spiked heeled dangle from her foot, relaxed, black hair piled partly on her head, part hanging down her back.

As they came closer, they could clearly see the heavy black eyeliner and the red lips of the woman turning towards them. She looked pointedly from Michel to the blond friend walking close behind him. She spoke to Michel with flashing eyes and a little toss of her head. Of the string of invectives, the only word that came through clearly to the two girls was “Putain!” By the direction of her glance as she said it, they knew she referring to them. Her companions laughed and turned to lean their backs against the rail, the better to be able to taunt the two girls as they walked past. One of the leaning women spit on the sidewalk as they continued to snarl their insults.

Michel stopped several paces from them and turned to the girls, saying,

They’re insulting you and asking me why I’ve gotten myself some blond whores when I could have them with dark hair like me. It’s impossible! I have to defend your honor.”

As he said it he turned, swearing back at the women and pulling a knife he evidently had had in his pocket. He motioned the girls to go around him into the middle of the street as he kept his knife out in his extended hand and faced the women.

As the two friends began to move, the dynamic suddenly shifted. The two leaning women had pushed themselves from the railing and run around the first, skirting Michel. They were rushing towards the two friends, yelling, arms flailing at them with their claw-like fingernails. Suddenly they were on them, kicking with their high heels, scratching, biting, Michel trying to keep the other at bay. They felt as if they were being attacked by some pride of lithe cougars.

Knife hand extended towards the woman still holding the balustrade, Michel reached back with the other arm and grabbed his friend by the shoulder and then around the waist. She reached to grab her friend’s arm as he pushed and pulled them past the wildly flailing, screaming women. Grabbing her hand now, he pulled both friends in a human chain, yelling,

“Run! Run!”

With her friend still clinging to her hand, Michel yanked them with force into the intersection at the end of the bridge, heading for the opening of the Rue Danton. He turned to look as he said,

They’re chasing us!”

Panting, he added,

I think a guy has joined them. Keep running up here until we get to the police station. It’s just a few blocks. Run! Run faster!”

At that moment, she realised her friend’s hand had slipped from hers. She jerked as hard as she could on Michel’s hand as she wrenched around, trying to see behind them, screaming her friend’s name.

Stop, Michel, stop! I can’t see her! I lost her hand!”

But as she yelled, he just jerked her hand harder, pulling her forward. “We have to keep running. She’s following. I’m sure!”

Everything was happening in a blur of movement, nothing coherent.

When he had pulled her forward for a long block or two, both of them losing their breath, their tired legs buckling under them, they slowed as he turned and then stopped in the middle of the street.

I think they gave up,” he said.

He called out to the friend who must be just behind them, just around the last corner. No answer. He yelled again. Nothing. They began running back the way they had come, rounding bend after bend with no one in sight.

Desperately, she began joining him in calling out for her friend, their voices reverberating in the cobbled road. They finally arrived back at the intersection of the Boulevard St. Michele, near the bridge, having seen no one in the echoing streets.

She wasn’t sure what happened then. There was some confusion in her memory. She remembered there was a kind of greyness that hit them, followed by a perplexity of movements and ideas. She thought that somehow, after trying the police station with no result and wandering the streets in search of their friend, the sun had come up and the city around them was beginning to wake with a bit of a hangover, wobbling a bit here and there. She thought she bought Michel a coffee and a croissant and the sat for a few minutes in the first cafe to open on The Boule Miche.

By then, it was late enough to start back to the pension on Rue des Ecoles nearby to see if their friend would return there.

They walked along the quay where the bookstalls’ owners were just opening up the stalls and arranging their books for display. Passing each one, she felt rosy pangs of already nostalgic love for these men and women and their stacks of French and foreign books and art prints.

As they turned the now-familiar corner onto Rue des Ecoles and approached the entrance to the pension, she looked up at the third story window with the open French door, curtain billowing slightly outward through the opening in the breeze. There was nothing to indicate whether her friend had returned. Michel walked with her to the heavy wooden door. She opened it and looked up the stairwell, then turned and asked Michel to wait while she went up to check.

She climbed the stone stairs to their door and opened it with her key. With profound relief, she saw her friend lying there in her bed, asleep, still dressed, with the sheet pulled over her.

She saw her stir and called her name gently. Her friend’s eyes opened as she looked at her with a hint of accusation.

What happened to you?” she asked, in a rush, guilt flaming her face.

We were so worried! We’ve looked all over!”

Her friend half sat up in the bed.

My hand pulled out of yours and you didn’t stop. I yelled for you, but Michel was yelling too and no one heard.”

She shook a little as she said it, giving a kind of soft sob. The story tumbled out.

I had to think fast. I turned and ducked up an alley until they’d gone by. Then I ran back towards the quay as fast as I could go. When I got to the road by the river I saw a little car approaching the intersection. I ran out into the street in front of it and waved my arms. There were some guys running up after me from the bridge. The car stopped and someone started to lean out of the window. I didn’t wait. I just ran up beside the car and jerked open the back door and slammed it behind me. There was a couple in the front seat looking back at me as if I were crazy. I just yelled, ‘Drive away!’ Fortunately, they listened. After we’d gone a block or two and I could stop looking behind us, I explained what had happened as best I could. I asked if they could drive back and see if we could find the two of you. They did, but you were gone. They took me to get coffee and then back here as soon as the door was open.”

They hugged each other tightly and a bit tearfully, feeling shaky, and then went down to the street to reassure Michel. They all hugged there on the sidewalk, young and shaken, and agreed they needed to go to their own respective beds and get a good sleep. The bone-tired weariness and dullness of spirit at the end of an acid trip had overtaken them. The sun was warming up what promised to be a hot July day. They kissed each other on both cheeks and said “À bientôt.”

She and her friend climbed back up the stairs, threw off their sweaty sandals and clothes, closed the top shutters to keep out the sun, stretched out under their cool sheets and fell greedily into a deep sleep, as welcome as a long drink of water after a journey through the desert.

Her shame returned only in those dreams that happen just before waking as she finally stirred in the cool of the evening after Bastille Day, having slept away the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Runaway

Lying in bed, deliberately sleepless, waiting to make sure there is no sound at all. For the first time, the presence in the room of vestigial objects from childhood feels slightly distasteful.

Listening. Feeling the mood of the night.  No coughing. No quiet movement. The screen already removed and put in the closet earlier when any noise was covered by kitchen clean up. Is the opening in the old casement window big enough? Unused to lying awake, all sounds are magnified in the night.

Finally, there is complete quiet. No birds. No crickets. Perhaps slight snoring from the other end of the house, but how could it really be heard? 

She pulls back the sheet, quietly puts one foot then another on the floor, bends down to slide the small pack from under the bed and, with the help of a stool she had secreted in from the laundry room, she throws the bag out onto the ground, then somehow extends one leg and her head through the rectangular opening, boosts herself up, manages to pull up the other leg and, half sitting on the casement ungracefully to push herself through, landing on her feet, but twisted, off balance, embarrassed if only in her own presence.

In the darkness of the front yard, the familiar trees come into focus, grey, colorless forms. Breathing, watching for cars on the road. Nothing. 

Walking out to the road, brushing through the forsythia, leafed out and clinging, the smells of night are dampened, one dimensional, occasional. Walking down the road past sleeping neighbors, none of the lights in windows that make things seem alive and enticing. Flat. The shades of grey loom from every depth of focus. Blackness, perhaps a green-black tinge close by. Anxiety. Will someone see? Will a police car drive by and stop to ask what the hell a young girl is doing out on the road in the middle of the night, walking by herself? Keep walking. Ignore the dread in your stomach. There are places to duck into bushes if headlights appear.

Walking on and on over the daylight-familiar territory of the approach from the township to the middle of town. This old East Coast university town. Each block is known. The sidewalk begins on the main street. The cracks and upheavals of the sidewalk each almost drearily familiar but seem menacing in the dark.  No cars. Seems odd. No movement.

She walks the two miles to the middle of town, focused on reaching the shelter of the big stone mediocracy of the one Catholic church, delusional in her naïve youth, believing that there will somehow be sanctuary there for the night.

It seems a longer way than it has any of the hundreds of times it’s been walked in the light of day.  There it is, the looming fifties cathedral with its enormous rosette window facing the road, finally, after the little grocer’s which was shut and lonely. She walks the sidewalk up to the entrance inside one of the two archways. Of course locked. She tries the other door. Locked. Turning to watch the street. What now? A bit chilly, she pulls the sweater closer around her, buttoning it all the way up.

Awed suddenly in the pervasive flattened grayness of the middle of the night, she feels the beginning of some regret, a bit of smallness, looking around the inside of the archway of this now inadequately holy place.  There’s something about the steely cold of all the gray forms, drained of warmth, around her in the night that creates a mood rather than a vision.  She’d hoped to get some sleep here, imagining a pew she could lie on, her pack for a pillow, but that clearly won’t be possible. Only concrete and cool surfaces in the one place she can think to hide till dawn, sheltered from the view of the cops, who, at fifteen, she still respects and fears. They would not like this, she is sure. They protect property and the locked doors confirm this sanctity. The presence of black trees lining the main street is more penetrating than in the light of day.  Night seems serious, meant only for the attendance of sober souls who are ready to confront it full on. The washing out of all frivolous interest flattens her out as well, pushes in on her with its severity. The night began to feel like a gray mist enveloping the world, demanding something, some kind of honor.

Wide awake, evidence of no other consciousness, she learns to wait, to have thoughts that slow themselves over time.  The fear and some encroaching bit of shame become more familiar and calm as the hours go by.  The need to wait for that light that seems forever in coming becomes the only presence.

The train station is more than a mile still. The first train to Philly doesn’t leave until nearly eight in the morning but it will be light around six. A car here and there drives down the main street. It’s a quarter to five, maybe going to work. A police car passes by on the street, marking the beginning transition towards light. Objects now have just a touch of color as if the seriousness of night were gradually losing hold. Is it time to start out yet? No, suspiciously early for a kid like her to be out. Wait till six-forty-five. No one will arrive to open the church until later. Kids will be out on the street headed towards high school where she should be on a Friday.

Seven finally comes, the growing activity on the street pushing her nerve. She shoulders the pack, straitens her hair, pushing strands behind her ears, and stands in the shadows, watching for a moment when no one will be walking down the street or driving past to see her emerge from the black holes of the church’s archway. As she reaches the sidewalk, she feels her body begin to relax. Walking is a normal thing. She warms to the dawning day and a new sense of adventure that rises above her shame, quietly joyous. But it can’t grow too big, she warns herself. There’s still the danger of discovery. The wait at the train station will be the hardest. Her parents might have enough time to come and find her or to send a cop to pick her up. She’s brought a book to read there and on the train to keep her mind occupied and to give the appearance of a student traveling.

Passing the gates of the University and the locked shops of the town, she begins to worry that some family friend on their way somewhere will catch sight of her. She clings to the shadows of the shop buildings, making herself unobtrusive. Finally, the crossing to the other side of the main street, past the University Store, just another couple of blocks to the station. There’s a short ride in the small old train from the University to the main station. She hopes to make that first ride of the morning just on time.

As she walks up, she sees the ancient two-car train standing at the station, one or two people starting to get on board. She runs the last half block into the station to buy her ticket. The clerk in his railroad cap seems matter-of-fact about selling her the ticket to Philadelphia. She runs to the train just as the conductor is starting to close the door and slides through to find a seat by herself. There are only a few other passengers—a business man or two, a middle-aged woman looking like she’s dressed for a shopping trip in the city, a young Asian woman who looks like she might be a grad student, textbook open on her lap. No one seems to pay her much attention.

She’s always loved this train ride, ever since the first time as a kid, riding backward, rocking raggedly back and forth, jiggling, rickety rackety, clackety trakety. Pastoral looking fields lined with trees, streams, deep woods and then the backs of a house or when it’s approaching the station. She allowed herself to smile, falling in love a bit with her bravery, seduced by the audacity of it. She sat back into a sense of her own unique character, an actual person who perceives the world in a way really unlike anyone else around her, happy in the reflection of her profile on the inside of the window, seen evanescently as they pass through the woods.

She thought for a moment of the woman whose address she’d been given as a haven. She pictured a woman with long, thick black hair, round face, brown rather straightforward eyes and a kind mouth, a bit heavy, coming into middle age. She had really no idea. She was a jazz singer, though. And then, quickly, there they were, at the other end of the short line, the Junction. Gathered herself, the anxiety returning, making sure of her ticket, nearly leaving it in the pocket of the seat in front of her. She had just enough money for the ride and a few days of food. In the bottom of her pack, there was a nickel bag of marijuana her friend had sent as a present to the jazz singer, its presence eating a bit at that slight burning in the center of her chest.

Out the small train, through the tunnel under the rails to the westbound track, up the stairs, down the platform alongside the parking lot, in through the heavy doors to the waiting area, about twenty minutes to spare. Relieved to have gotten this far, she found a vacant shiny wooden bench and sat at one end, facing the track. She took out her book, one she’s already read several times and found absorbing. Aware of the people around her, touching down into the world of her book, she breathed, poised in her flight.

In the top of her field of vision, as she attempted to focus on the page, a form appeared, solid, large in a rain coat she suddenly knew. She looked up as her father took the few steps towards her, coming to stand in front of her with his hands in his raincoat pockets. She looked up at him, shot through with a bitter, burning acid of guilt, afraid of his eyes. He looked at her steadily for a moment and then, drawing one hand out of his pocket he pulled with it a familiar worn brown leather billfold.  Looking at it briefly, he opened in and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, a lot in those days. He extended it towards her. “Here. Take this. You’ll probably need it,” looking at her and then looking down and away  He folded the wallet with the same hand and put it back in his pocket. With the other hand, he reached into another pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper.  Unfolding it, still standing, he put on his reading glasses dangling from the black elastic cord he usually wore around his neck. With a characteristic look down through his glasses, he read the page.

I’ve left home. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Just know I’m fine and will call you in a couple of days.

“That’s it?” he said. “That’s all? Just that? No explanation? Nothing? That’s pretty cheap.”

Shame stung her sharply and brought tears to her eyes. Speechless for a long moment, the twenty limp in the hand resting on her leg, she said: “How did you know where to find me?”

“Oh, come on,” he said. “You think I’m dumb? I looked up the schedules for Philadelphia and New York and picked the first one leaving. If I hadn’t found you here, I’d have gone to the next one “

Stupid as well. How could she have thought it could work?  So awkward to be in this young body, sitting there, no escaping the elaborate stupidity of it all, crushed. He said, “May I?” indicating the bench next to her. She nodded, unsuccessfully trying to hold back tears, wet-cheeked.

He said, “You know, the worst part of it for me is that it makes me know I’m a lousy father. When we adopted you, I knew what an enormous responsibility we were taking on. Your mother wanted a baby so badly, but I was worried—worried about whether I could do it. I didn’t tell her. And then, I loved you so much.”  By this time the tears were flowing down her face, freely, sobs, gasps choking back the wail that was trying to force its way out.

“I know now that I was right. I’ve been a lousy father. You can’t stand me. My drinking hurts you. I know and I haven’t stopped. I may not ever.”

Desperate, the sobs now escaping, despite the women looking at them, she grabbed his hand and whispered, rather loudly through the gasping, “ Daddy, no! No! I don’t hate you. I love you! You’re my dad. I didn’t mean to be so stupid. I’ve just been so damned unhappy. I wanted to be free of it!”   She said then, “I’ll stay. I won’t go.”, turned on the bench, looking at him.

He looked up and sideways at her face. “No. You should go now. We’ll see what happens. Go. Your train is here.” She sat, unmoving for a moment. He stood up, picked up her pack, and handing it to her, motioned for her to get up. As she stood, he put his arm around her shoulder, moving to guide her towards the door. She seemed rooted briefly, but then looked at him and said, “I can’t go. I can’t leave you.” He said, “Yes. Yes. You will.”

He hugged her shoulder quickly and moved her through the door. People were stepping up into the train as the pressure from the engines gave its low whistle and the conductors leaned out on the chrome bars to help people up. He walked her up to a step

“Good-bye,” he said, squeezing her hand as he looked for an instant into her eyes, “I may not be here when you get back,” and turned away.

The conductor was already ushering her through the door with a man pushing up behind her on the stair. As she stepped up and through to the inner door, she turned and tried to see him, ready to push back through to people congregating in the entranceway and bang down the stairs after him. For a moment, she couldn’t see him. Then she caught sight of his back, khaki raincoat-covered, going around the far corner of the station, down into the parking lot.  Everything seemed to drain down through her feet. She was empty, a bag of limp rags.  She pushed through and found a seat by herself next to the window, dropped her pack on the seat next to her and turned her face toward the window, catching the reflection of her desperate eyes just before they vanished in the light.

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Brother Muhammad Ali

It was a Saturday early afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin and I was twenty-two or so. I was a college student and spiritual seeker.  Finally, after a series of very painful years, taking me through Vermont, New York City and two other undergraduate programs, I had come to Madison at the age of twenty-one and settled in to a new life and a new school.

Shortly after my move, my Sufi teacher had given me the assignment of starting a Sufi Order Center in Madison. I am convinced he did it just to shake things up. In that, another life-time, I had, trembling, started leading the Sufi Dancing in the square.  I had learned to speak and sing in front of a group of people, to lead gradually and then all of a sudden when the slightly older couple, who had been less formally leading the dancing, came into conflict with this youngster who had the effrontery to think she could do better than they.

My Sufi friend, Labonna, another blond twenty-something, full of energy, love and life, had just walked into the Underground Café on State Street. I hadn’t seen her for a while.  I was finishing brunch with a few friends in this vegetarian haven and was in an expansive mood.

She was someone I didn’t know well. She was of the archetype of the cheer-leader-girls in high school whose circle I could never penetrate and who had never included me in their parties since elementary school. But she seemed to like me, bridging the gulf from that world into mine, the world of sensitive, impassioned war protesters, back-to-the-landers, yes—“Hippies”.  We hugged, talked a bit and decided to spend the afternoon together on what I remember as a beautiful spring day.

We went to the park beside Lake Monona, sat on the grass and talked, walked and danced around together, taking hands and spinning, just out of sheer exuberance.  We may have smoked a joint, or maybe not. Our conversation was rangy, meandering through the politics of the day, the people in the Sufi group, the lives of our spiritual teachers.  It happened that our teacher, Pir Vilayat, had recently had a secret meeting with Muhammad Ali. They had talked about the spiritual life, it was said, and what it meant to live by its tenants. It was reported through the grapevine that Ali had really enjoyed the meeting.  Labonna talked about how interested she had been to hear about this through Sufi friends in Chicago. I talked about my admiration for Muhammad Ali’s stance against the war and the way in which he had nobly accepted his exile from the sport he loved so much as a consequence of living by his principles.

Labonna was a Chicago kid. She had many contacts in the city.  Her conscious or unconscious presentation as a young Marilyn–maybe the “Some Like it Hot” version–was mixed from a brew of intelligence, enthusiasm, impulsivity, narcissism, and innocence, with a modicum of tough street kid.  She knew that Ali had been living for some years on the South Side, near the Muslim Temple of Elijah Muhammad. She even knew the garage at Stony Island Ave. and 69th Street where he hung out with his friends.  Now Ali was a brother. He had met with our teacher so had become, in some sense, connected.  Labonna had met him once, a year or so back, in Chicago, and they’d talked a bit. She had liked him very much as a person, she said.  He had a strong magnetism yet was firmly grounded and human.

We decided to go find him. It was afternoon. She had an old Chevy. We could do it. It was only about two and a half hours down I-90. We didn’t know what we’d find, but destiny was calling. He was a young man who had suffered and was seeking. We were young and full of an ideal about the unity of all seekers.

She drove and smoked.  When we stopped for gas, we shared her lipstick, she complimenting me on how it was a perfect color for me. The high school girl in me was enchanted. We were calm in our excitement, confidant in the force of the moment.

We arrived in Chicago as it was getting dark. I had only been to there once when I was a kid of twelve, travelling through on the train going west, stopping with my parents to see the Museum of Science and Industry and walk through downtown. I remembered nothing.
Labonna navigated fairly well, showing me for the first time a certain vulnerability.  She was confidant finding her way from the freeway to the outskirts of downtown but it was clear the South Side was not her usual stomping ground. By the time we hit the boundaries of that neighborhood it was dark, and all the faces were dark. Two young blond women in a car, driving a bit aimlessly, asking directions. It never occurred to us to have any trepidation. These were all people, young and old, as dangerous as anywhere at night, but yet familiar.

When we stopped to ask, it was “Do you know where Muhammad Ali is tonight?” Those we addressed looked only slightly quizzical at first, then, meeting the direct glance and smile, softened and seemed to feel it was a part of the natural life of the neighborhood. They directed us to the Temple, which turned out to be closed. We found someone hanging out on the corner and asked him if Ali were in town and if so, where he might be. He directed us to the garage on 69th which also was dark and empty. We stopped at a convenience store nearby and went in to ask again. By now it was around nine-thirty and the streets were pretty quiet. The guy at the counter told us to wait a minute.

He went to the back and returned with another young man who, in a friendly manner, asked why we were looking for Ali. We explained about our teacher and our desire to talk with Ali about his experience in meeting with him. He seemed to accept this. He said, “Well, that would have been nice, but he’s out of town for a few days. His apartment is close by here, you’re right, but I’m afraid you’re a day too late. He left yesterday.” We thanked them both very much for their help. They smiled. It seemed they smiled with genuine warmth. Who knows?

As we got back in the car and she turned to me and said, “Well, we followed through. There was something that pulled us here. We didn’t shirk. We decided to do it. Too bad. I was really looking forward to hanging out with him.”  “Me too. But we found his atmosphere.”

It took a while to find a gas station still open. We had to drive almost to the North Side to find one. We fueled up and drove back to Madison, talking now and then, she smoking, me occasionally dozing, looking out into the night through the late hours of a long day.