Leaving


It’s been two months  since I’ve returned from my trip to the States.  The summer here in France, cool and wet much of the time then suddenly very hot and dry before retuning to rain, has now turned the corner into fall. The time has gone by as if it were a heron on it’s flight home. Today, looking back through a lens, I can just make out the whirlwind that swept me there and back.

I prepared as best I could for the trip. I had waited for a moment when Macron had clearly said that Americans would be able to travel to France if they were vaccinated. I should be able to get back to my home in the Ariege.  I bought my round-trip tickets. For weeks, I gathered presents and thought about what I would bring to each of the people I would see. It seemed so very long since I’d put my arms around any of them.

I packed carefully, unpacked and repacked the two suitcases I could now take. It was allowed as part of the ticket package I had to buy in order to anticipate yet another border closure. I made sure I could access the Covid-19 vaccine certificate on my smartphone. I printed out a copy, just in case. I checked and double-checked the other requirements for entry to the US from France and for my re-entry. I contacted all the people I hoped to stay with and those I’d visit. 

My daughter had used up all her time-off from her job coping with two young children in a small apartment. She had patched together expensive child care for the summer but was missing a week, so I chose that time.  I felt a pang of deep regret that the US doesn’t care enough about its people to provide such basic services as care for young children. Most other relatively well-to-do countries see such things as human rights. I looked forward to taking my granddaughter (who I’d seen only in two dimensions for so long) to the parks of Seattle, getting to know her again in her eight-year old form. What transformations would this unusual time have produced in her developing personality, in the expanse of her mind? How would my three year old granddaughter react to someone who she really only knew from a computer screen.

The day arrived when I would begin the first stage of my trip. Thunderstorms were predicted for the afternoon. My plane would leave early the next morning from Toulouse.  I’d booked a hotel room near the airport for the brief night I’d spend before launching myself into space. We left plenty of time to drive from our village to the castle town of  Foix  so I could catch my afternoon train to Toulouse. I had scheduled a taxi to take me the few blocks from the motel to the airport the next morning, knowing from my last trip how sudden downpours  could keep  me from walking the few blocks.

On the way to Foix, the skies opened. Rain poured down so hard I could barely see to drive. Winds gusted with such force that big branches were falling here and there on the road. When we finally got to the autoroute, the storm had almost ended but, somehow, as happens unexpectedly, something had blocked the tunnel that diverts traffic around Foix. The traffic jam to get through Foix would delay us at least another hour. I might barely make it to my train.



The delay got longer and longer. By the time we arrived, frazzled, at the station and I ran to see if perhaps the train itself had been delayed a few minutes, the people walking back from the platform told me the train to  had been totally cancelled. No one knew why, but it was uncertain whether any more trains would come through that evening. Someone speculated that branches had fallen on the tracks. We would have to drive to Toulouse and Walter would have to drive back alone– without a license. “Trust to the Fates and let it go,” we agreed.


We made the trip, I checked in and we said our good-byes. I found a hotel restaurant within walking distance, had a decent meal and tucked in for the night, checking all my papers and passport before falling asleep for the few hours I had before my alarm went off. Walter called when he got home to tell me he’d made it back without incident. The back roads had been quiet and clear.  I could now turn off the lights and drift off.

Waking with a start to my alarm, I got dressed quickly and wheeled my bags down to the lobby, empty at 3:30 am. A man, dark-skinned like so many in the hotel trade in Toulouse, was preparing the croissants and pastries for the breakfast that wouldn’t  be available for another hour. I said “Bonjour” and asked if I might have a croissant to take with me. He smiled, wrapped one in a napkin and handed it to me. I turned to walked through the glass doors to start the long, long day travelling across an ocean and a continent.

In that enchanted time of day, the air was dry, dark and silent. I could be anywhere in the universe.  I grappled with the parking lot gate, feeling dopey for not getting it, read the sign again, tried the directions again–no luck. The nice man from the lobby had fortunately stepped out for a cigarette. I motioned to him that I was stuck and he sprinted over to help me. I slipped through the gate saying “Merci, Monsieur. Vous êtes si gentil”.  He, smiling indulgently again and saying “Pas de tout, Madame. Au Revoir!” went back to his duties in the dark motel.

I stood on the sidewalk waiting for my taxi. I waited ten minutes, called the number I had and got no answer. Another five minutes passed. Worried, I figured I’d better start walking. Turning on the GPS on my phone, I began to walk towards the airport. The instructions became more and more obscure. Was I really supposed to walk through this back alley? Couldn’t be.

Beginning to imagine various disasters, I turned around and started again, my heart starting to race. Before I could get back to the beginning, a taxi pulled up beside me. Was it my taxi or some random taxi looking for rides? It was my ride, come looking for me, cross that I hadn’t waited. His last ride had taken longer than expected and he had come as quickly as he could.

I made my plane easily. The woman who checked me in verified my negative PCR test. No one ever asked again. No one ever asked at all to see the vaccine certificate that had caused me such anxiety.

It seemed that I had chosen to travel in the window of time between that time when it had not been possible to fly from France to the US (except for “essential” reasons) and when a real onslaught of bookings were made. The plane was only about a third full. Anyone who wanted to stretch out on three seats was able to. I won’t say that it was actually comfortable, but it was so much better than sleeping fitfully almost upright, fearing that at any moment you might fall over on the person next to you or drool on their shoulder, that it felt like sheer and unanticipated luxury.

I arrived in San Francisco airport a bit earlier than scheduled. The airport in Toulouse, although busy even in the early morning, had been quiet. You could hear conversations here and there around you, but the general noise of human activity was subdued.

Here in San Francisco, as I walked out into the big hall, it was as if the volume had been suddenly turned up by some unseen hand. Groups of people went by, masked but still managing to speak loudly enough to be heard for a good distance. The men were particularly loud–their laughter was loud, they gesticulated broadly and spoke as if addressing a group in a bar full of music and chatter. The background music was loud. The announcements were loud.


But not everyone was loud. There were the older couples sitting quietly together, just as in France. There were small families with a child old enough to be looking at their phone or Ipad sitting  quietly together. There were lots of individual adults of all shapes and sizes, walking aimlessly or determinedly, a small rolling suitcase following behind. But then there were the groups of young people that looked like sport teams off somewhere for a meet, talking continuously, laughing giddily, unmasked for the most part. I was overwhelmed by the activity and the noise. I found my gate and sat for the hour or so of my waiting time, looking at my phone like everyone else, creating a little shell around me, drawn every few moments to peer sideways into the lives of the other humans around me. They were all going somewhere different from the place where they usually found themselves, each now having arrived on a new stage, some easy with their lines, some searching for direction.

The plane to Seattle carried the same noisy little groups, their members calling out to the flight attendants for this or that. Things seemed quite amiable. People were enjoying the opportunity to travel again. They were light-hearted. I thought “I actually like this about Americans. We don’t tend to put a lid on things.” I began to remember what it was like to be in this place, to be so accustomed to it that it really was all that existed.

When we arrived in Seattle, I was still feeling pretty fit, despite only an hour or two of sleep here and there for about twenty-eight hours. I had been drinking lots of water during the flights, and eating only fruits and a bit of vegetables and bread. It seemed to help. While I waited for my bag at the Seattle airport, I turned around once clockwise to reset my body’s orientation as instructed by my learned friend . No one stared. I found my way through the fairly familiar landmarks of the airport and walked the long trek to the light rail station. It seemed like miles.

The train ride gave me time to settle into the now-strange atmosphere. A country with myriad cultures I have lived a life in, a city I have come to know over forty years though never my home, now they are places that dwell only in holograms in my mind. Being present in them again gave me the sensation that I had suddenly been sucked through some hole in the universe into an ongoing film. And I hadn’t been hired to play a role. I had to figure out where I fit in the unfolding screen-play.

At the first stop, a young woman covered in tattoos, her blond hair cropped close, skillfully lugged her bike through the open train doors, shifted it around and slid it into a space reserved for bikes. She sat down across from me and at a slight angle as not to intrude. Looking ahead, a wisp of a smile played briefly around her lips, an acknowledgement of my attention. As we pulled out of the station, she turned her head towards me and asked,

“You coming from the airport?”

“Yes” I responded. “I’ve just arrived from France.”

She nodded. 

“You must be tired.”

I remembered my line  in the script. The tenderness between us had awakened it.

“Yeah, that’s true. It’s a really long trip, especially now with Covid.”

We were done. She lapsed into silence, her eyes unfocused, gazing at the other side of the car. We traveled together in a kind of satisfying peace until we reached her station and she reversed her deft actions with her bike. As she paused for a slight moment to wait for the doors, she looked over her shoulder towards me and said with a warm smile,

“Have a good stay. It was nice to meet you”.

“Thanks! You have a good day, too.” I replied, returning the little wave of warmth in my own smile.

The next stage of my journey had begun. I was a long way from home but home.

 

The Obsidian Knife

Remembering the Big Obsidian Flow, Newberry Caldera, Oregon

 

The black stone that is not stone but 

a piece of earth’s mysterious bowels

Astonished by its appearance in the oxygenated landscape 

Its molecules frozen in that millisecond of emergence.

 

We, the humans, see what it can be.

It is the knife that cuts both ways

Slices atom from atom

Parting astonishment from astonishment

So that we can slice so thin

That even flesh does not pause in its production of cell upon cell

And has no recognition of the parting.

 

It is like the bird,

Cutting the air for such a brief moment that

Air needs not know its passing.

 

From where has this blackness come,

From where this sharp flight?

What can we do but find it

Somewhere in the inventory 

Of the soul.

The Hawk in Snow

 

 

It’s windy, wet and cold and for the first time since we’ve moved here to this village, for several days I had no urge to go out to the forest to walk. Yesterday I had the same feeling of disquiet and lassitude. Yesterday, I indulged the mood as a grace period for New Year’s Day. Today it just feels like giving up. 

But the day before yesterday, the day of New Year’s Eve,  I began by saying I’d take a short walk and ended by climbing up the hill to the path that leads up to Montségur. I only went up to the top of the hill, a good pull, just up to where it levels off before it begins the real climb.  

The sky was grey, the light flat, but the smell and feel of the deep layer of oak and beech leaves under my boots still filled me. The trees along the way, some with roots growing out of the old stone walls, still spoke to me. On the way down, the view of the orange-tiled roofs of the village against the snow-dusted hills made me stop in my careful descent over the muddy, slidey track, to breathe in the feeling of living here in a place where our species has been rooted for so long.  Today I am just disgruntled and, though I want to sit and read, nothing really eases my spirit except writing.

Most of the people of the village have closed their shutters and lit their wood stoves. Unlike the old days, many are watching their télé or are planted in front of their computers.  I will leave the shutters open like the American that I am. I want to see what’s happening out there. I want to see the light, even the dim, grey light. I don’t care who sees me as they drive by. I don’t even care if the woman who is “the-repository-of-all-village-knowledge” (for whom I have real fondness) peers up to try to find me through the second story window where I sit typing and glancing at the road. She can tell I’m up here through that keen sense we all have when eyes are focused in our direction–a sense of something furtively flickering deep inside our head. I turn away to release the magnetism and go back to my typing.

And then, today, the sun came out, its brightness felt only for a couple of hours around mid-day. As it was beginning its descent down towards the mountains, I made myself set off for a walk up the hill into the forest, deciding to wander as far as I wanted. I had to get back to the trees.

I reached my sitting spot as the light was pulling away into the further valleys. Crystals of icy snow stuck to moss here and there. The light here, deep in the forest, was at an exquisite tipping point, grey, flat as if one was breathing ether through one’s eyes. 

My sitting stone is like the back of a horse. I straddle it as if riding bareback. The tree behind me grew around it, embraced it. They have become one being. I feel the cold granite between my legs and I let my warmth expand into its slow atoms until I am a bit colder and it is a bit warmer. I sit in the silence.

There is no breeze. The earth slopes dramatically down away from me, the trees riding it like the trough of a great wave. I let myself be carried by its silent, still motion. The force of it is cleansing, like the great pull of the ocean. Everywhere I look, I am moved to stillness–by the brown of the layers of wet leaves, by the brilliant green of the moss shining in the dimness, by the flecks of crystalline snow delicately riding on top of the moss’s fuzzy miniature forests growing on part of fallen trees, the patterns of the bark on these vertical beings that have ranged themselves all up and down the slopes of earth, breaking apart rocks, turning them, as they stretch out their roots with such patience, into the very earth that feeds them.

When I finally get up from the rock, feeling the cold as the air abruptly chills with the draining away of the sun’s rays from the last east-facing hillside, the silence, the presence of the trees and the soil and the moss has become me, replacing all thought, all noise. 

 

 

It is now the next day. The silence of yesterday is still with me. With snow starting in the night and falling through the morning, I have climbed up to see the woods decked in all that glorious whiteness. With the big stick I had found in the spring to help me over the slick rocks and have kept hidden in a spot under some brambles to wait for my frequent return, I am making my way down along the muddy and snow-covered track. Breathing in the silvery, dim light, I alternately watch my feet as they place themselves on ground where they won’t slip and look up to observe all the exquisite detail of limbs and bark, lichen, dark and red leaves here and there clinging to bare twigs. 

Suddenly– a large bird, barely perched on a branch piled delicately with snow, barely displacing any of the crystals held together by their mutual cold.  And suddenly, I recognise it to be a hawk. Without thought, I know it by its size, the upward sweeping of its wings as it lifts,  somehow remaining still.  But now, for some incredibly small instant, there is a flash the color of the sun at the base of a wing,  a flash of an orangey-bronze patch under a strong uplifting feathered limb. a sudden revelation of hidden beauty as stillness and movement are somehow combined. Deciding that my presence disrupts the flow of his life’s movement, he is flying in a trajectory through the trees, up and over, gone.

My whole being vibrates in response, tasting this moment, absorbing it like the nourishment that runs in the blood, like the air that seeps into the lungs and is drawn up by all the cells and moved out by the lungs once again, a different substance. Filling to emptying, emptiness to fullness. That brief moment had become the whole universe inside me, rising up and out forever.

 

 

Teddy

 

Teddy, the way I remember it,  just appeared one day. But maybe that’s not true. There may have been discussions and plans.  When I came to visit for the first time he was established there on the land that nestled so beautifully between the breasts of the Vermont hills, so fragrantly colored in autumn, so dusted with white on bare branches in winter, green and soft and flowing in the heat of summer. 

 

He was not in the old sugar shack they had converted into a home, but off at a distance. He had built a tiny log cabin, chinked with moss, roofed with scrounged shingles, where he lived on his own. It was a beautiful little place, everything neatly done with a kind of meticulous care. At first it was very simple, I was told, a single layer of logs,a bed on a shelf on one side, a small old wood stove in another, a small pile of books and some blankets and cushions. Perhaps a stool for the rare visitor. He came for super with the group most days, cooking in his turn, his two long braids dangling over his shoulders, tied together in back to tend to the beans or the soup or to cut into the huge wheel of Vermont cheddar.

 

It’s hard to remember his face. It seems it was tanned, even in winter. His eyes were dark brown and settled rarely on human faces, preferring the focus of trees, earth and, while cooking, beans and fire and pans. When my eyes did settle on his in the moments together, sitting for a break after cutting trees for our winter wood , they were steady, intent, clear, dark, yet shining gently from the interior. But that was later, when we had a few more precious conversations as we worked together in the woods, I learning he had been, unbelievably, an Eagle Scout and he learning, impressed, that my father had been an editor of Boys’ Life Magazine and had written responses to the “Letters to Pedro”, the mascot donkey of the Boy Scouts.  Incongruities. 

 

It’s the way he moved that I remember most. His slim body glided across the paths, his feet silent on the leaves and earth. He was neither tall nor short, but straight, erect still when climbing up the rocks on a trail, the presence of his form always held quietly. He might have been an old man, but he was not. There was patience about his movements. 

 

He spent much of his time in and around his cabin, tending to the world from his position in its center. The rest of his days must have been spent out in the forest, exploring, looking, finding, mostly solitary. 

 

One day when I was sent to find him to see whether he wanted to join a trip to town, he was gathering moss from the circle around his cabin and pushing it into tiny holes in the insulation of the cracks between the logs of its walls with a small stick. He was squatting on the ground  as I approached, saying,

 

“Hi, Teddy.” 

 

He gracefully stood, pushing himself up without effort, and turned to come towards me. Stopping a few feet from me, in seeming respect, he said,

 

 “Hello.” 

 

 “I’ve come to see if you want to go on a shopping trip to town.”  I said. 

 

“No,” he replied. “I don’t need anything.” He paused for a long moment. 

 

“Would you like to see my cabin?” 

 

“Oh, very much!” I said, feeling greatly honored  as a newcomer by this offer. He gestured with a sweep of his arm towards the wooden door.

 

As I remember, it was late autumn, the brilliance of the leaves mostly gone, some orange and bronzey-brown clinging to the trees lower on the hills where the sun came late in the day. A trail of smoke came through the metal pipe on the cabin’s roof. I ducked a bit to go through the door and entered into an enchanted room that seemed somehow larger than the tiny cabin could contain. 

 

The small wood stove to the left of the door filled the space with heat. A bed on a platform to the right was covered with two woolen blankets, one a dark red. To the left on the other side of the stove was an alcove with a small window looking out towards the hill behind. A round of a very large log was set under the window with a green plastic basin on top. A black cast iron pot and pan hung to one side and a plate, a bowl and a handmade ceramic mug sat on a shelf on the left-hand wall of the room. He showed me how the hook for the round cover on top of the woodstove hung on a convenient hook. He took it down, and inserting it into the small square opening in the cover, lifted the round cast iron piece and set it to the back on the stove top, revealing the glowing logs underneath. He reached behind us for the cast iron pot and put it over the hole. 

 

“This is how I cook.”

 

“Have a seat.” he said, motioning to the stool. “I’ll make some tea.” 

 

He took a plastic water container from the side of the makeshift log sink and poured a little into the pot.

 

“That will heat soon.”

 

He stepped past me and reached to a wooden shelf carved from a split of a log and took down an old book. Opening it, he showed me a page with pictures of several kinds of trees. 

 

“I found this in a shop in town this summer. I’m studying the types of trees.” 

 

He handed it towards me, and I took it from him. “Look through it. The pictures are beautiful.” 

 

He busied himself getting tea leaves from a small metal tobacco tin, a strainer and the mug. I looked through the book, exclaiming to him over one tree or another and asking a question or two about whether or where a tree was found in these woods around us. The water soon boiled and he poured it through the tea strainer into the mug, setting it on the stove. He carefully took down a small basket which hung on a hook by the opening side of the door, away from the heat of the stove, and brought it to me.

 

“Owl and hawk feathers,” he said. “I find them from time to time up on the hill. Feel them.” 

 

As I gently reached out my hand, he tipped the basket toward me and my fingers touched what felt like the energy of the air, smooth and soft and without weight.

 

When the tea was brewed, he handed it to me. “None for you?” I said.

 

“No. It’s for you.” 

 

“Thank you,” I said, sincerely grateful and feeling a bit guilty and suddenly shy. 

 

I took a sip. It was lovely, a bit minty but smoothed by some green, slightly fruity tasting leaf.

 

“It’s so good. What is it?” I asked.

 

“Wild mint and verbena I planted in the garden.”

 

He showed me other small treasures as I sipped my tea. A piece of wood that seemed to have the head of a duck, A large piece of quartz with a rose streak. An owl pellet. A fat, long, oblong seed pod. A big piece of birch bark, so smooth and white with its black markings.  “I’m still thinking what to paint on that,” he said. He stood over me and we looked at it together, admiring its markings.

 

He showed me how on the inside the planks were fitted together. “I have the logs on the outside and left over ends of planks from the yard in town on the inside. Between the two are pine needles for insulation. There are no air leaks. I have to open the door every once in awhile, even in the cold, just to let in some air.”

 

“And, oh,” he said, as if an afterthought, “I almost forgot this. I just finished it.” 

 

Animated in a way I hadn’t seen before, his eyes smiling, he showed me that in the corner behind the wood stove, a  kind of small metal wash tub hung on a nail. Above it, hanging from the ceiling, was a large tin can with holes punched in the bottom. Around it on the wooden planked ceiling was painted a blue sky with a fluffy white cloud in the middle just above the suspended can. He demonstrated how the cloud hid a hole, plugged with a piece of wood, painted to match the cloud and large enough for the end of a small hose. He went to the door, opened it and motioned me to come outside. 

 

He pointed  to the roof near the stove pipe.

 

“See. I have a five gallon container of water that I can put up on top. Then I run a hose with a valve down through the hole and into the can. When I’m ready, I put down the basin, get undressed, stand in it, and open the valve. A shower. The water’s cold, but I’m warm.”

  

Going back inside, that warmth embraced us.

 

“It seems like a perfect little home,” I said, as I picked up the mug to finish the last of my tea.

 

At the compliment, he looked away slightly, out the small window at the back.

 

“Yes. I like it, too,” he said, with nothing but an internal smile, now settled and still once more behind his eyes.

 

Having finished my tea, I handed him the empty mug, and, putting on my coat, said “I guess I’d better get going. We’ll be leaving for town soon.” 

 

He pushed open the door and waited, standing aside, for me to step outside before following me and closing the door behind him. As I turned to say goodbye, I saw the face of a racoon appear briefly in the bushes at the edge of the small cleared area. It quickly turned and vanished.

 

Teddy had seen it too. “That’s Ralph,” he said. “He’s a friend.”

 

“I thought racoons were untamable. I’ve heard they can be dangerous,” I said.

 

“Oh, yes,” said Teddy. “He’s not tame. He just comes to live near me about this time of year. This is the third year. He hangs out and eats with me. Last year he climbed down from the roof onto my shoulder. Now he’ll sit on my shoulder sometimes and come with me into the woods. He won’t let anyone else come near him. “ 

 

“That’s amazing!” I said. 

 

“Yes, but it’s a big responsibility. I have to make sure he doesn’t get into things in the outdoor kitchen. He’s learned to open jars. Their paws are almost hands. And I have to make sure I have enough for us both to eat.”

 

He paused for a moment, looking out into the trees.

 

“He came to me so I’m responsible for him. But it’s not just him.”  He looked all around us. 

 

Indicating a broad circle around us with his outstretched hand, he said, “I’m responsible for everything in my universe, the cabin, the trees, the rocks, the plants, the animals, the humans, the insects, everything. I care for them constantly.”

 

He looked away as if the act of speaking this had been a serious decision, a risk.

 

He followed deferentially behind me down the path towards the main house in the big old sugar shack, where several people bunked together. Just before the garden, put to bed for the winter, he stopped. 

 

“Thanks for showing me your cabin. See you later,” I said, and walked on.

 

A few steps later, I turned  to see him still standing there, contained, straight yet at ease;  solitary, in his way. He waved. I waved back, reflecting his respect–for me, as part of his universe with the plants, the earth, the animals, the bark of the trees; for him, as part of mine, still living inside me now along with the paths through the forest, the walks with friends down the road in the snow, and the unbelievable illumination of the blazing colors of the trees for those brief days in the autumns of Vermont. It is living alongside the sight of the dark, furry pine  trees that I see through my window in this moment of my life,  an accompaniment to the browns and greys of the bare branched trees, vibrating always upward.

A New Year and A Memory of Violets

The year is quickly coming to an end. I suppose we have a need for beginnings and endings, however arbitrary. The world of people around me seems paused, a bit listless, waiting, relaxed but a little bored.

Here, they are anticipating a feast on New Year’s Eve, perhaps some inebriated viewing of fireworks down by a lake. For me, it will be quiet, one day just melding into the next.

The ground is covered with frost these last few mornings, the sky clear and blue-grey until the sun rises high enough over the foothills to fill it with that intense yet evanescent blue of winter. Last night the moon hung there above the mountains in its most fragile form, the slimmest crescent facing Jupiter, the two sparkling and exerting their magnetism, one towards the other. A concert of such delicacy and jollity that it was almost unbearable.

Things are beginning to hum a bit now as the village comes to life in its Sunday form, some people driving to the boulangerie before it closes at noon, only to reopen on Tuesday. One or two quietly, almost secretly perhaps going to church in the town nearby but more going to hike somewhere in the mountains, their “batons” stored in the trunk. Soon there will be cyclists going by, just one or two now and then, not the chatting groups of summer, coming one after another down the road that lead up to Montsegur.

This is my occupation as I sit, not disturbing too much the bone that is mending itself stealthily with new cells somehow, deep inside, blood carrying the materials where they are needed. Who knows?

This afternoon I lay down for a nap in my study, the sunlight streaming in the southern window, a chill still in the room. In the moments of waking, the great luxury of it bathing me, the little memories of a Christmas some sixty years ago floated in on the particular quality of the light.

When I was some eight or nine years old, my father gave me a box of candied violets for Christmas. What else he gave me that year in the usual extravagance of his Christmas giving, I can no longer remember. There were certainly marzipan figures of Santas and snowmen and apples and peaches in my stocking and expensive toys under the tree, but it’s the beautiful little hat-box-like container with a violet colored satin ribbon handle that captivated me.

When at first I unwrapped it, I remember only the delight of how pretty it was, violet and cream with clusters of painted purple violets strewn around on the label. The words on the box were in French, a language I’d already begun to learn in my enlightened school. My mother spoke French and taught it sometimes in the schools where she worked. She read aloud the writing on the box as she pointed to the words, “Les Violettes de Toulouse”.

Entranced by the evocation of a city far away, I gently worked the top off the cylindrical box. Inside, cushioned in violet-colored tissue, were the purple violets I knew from my days of playing near the stream where they grew up in the grass and between the rocks. I picked them for decorations for my tiny rock villages. But somehow these had been transformed into fragile-seeming crystal rocks. A fragrance of sweet flowers and sugar, somehow a bit musky like the leaves of the forest floor. Pulling back the tissue, I inhaled and inhaled again, sitting cross-legged in front of the Christmas tree, The light in the big windows of the living room warming my cheeks, I touched them, all packed together, crunching a bit against each other. With my thumb and finger, I pulled one from its nest and put it in the palm of my hand where I could study it better.

“Eat it!” said my father.

“Really?” I asked, aghast.

“Yes,” he chuckled. “It’s candy made of real violets.”

I put it in my mouth. The sugar began to melt, carrying with it a flavor on the tongue of that fragrance of the sweetest of flowers, of spring forest and sunlight, of gardens from picture books–a revelation. I crunched it a bit between my teeth, a delicate crunching like nothing else, a little explosion of a flavor sweet and touched with the slightest acid of green stems.  A treasure from France.

For the next month, as school resumed and the days became ordinary once again, it sat on the dresser in my bedroom. Each day, going to my room to change out of school clothes, there it would be, that exotic box, waiting there. I’d hurry, and half changed, eat just one, letting it melt on my tongue like that first moment under the Christmas tree, recalling something extraordinary, something of another world.

I wanted to make the box of them last forever, but, of course, well before spring, they were gone. The empty box with its tissue paper sat on my dresser for years, a hiding places for treasures, preserving just a small whiff of the fragrance of France–violets.

Now this memory transplants itself to the Toulouse I am getting to know, a city of rosy red brick buildings, of a beautiful tea shop, a cozy restaurant, a beautiful square, parking garages, spreading banlieus and streets filled with university students and demonstrating yellow-vests and police barriers.  A place where, at a Prefecture in an office building, we got the Cartes Sejours that allow us to continue to live in France. Now I remember it is also the city of violets, the city of those transfigured flowers.

The light recedes onto the eastern hills, rosy. Another day is passing. There will be a fire in the woodstove and dinner with vegetables from the garden. Somewhere in all of this a transition must be happening, a movement of one cycle into another, spiralling onwards.

 

 

 

The Body

There comes a time when, in the life of anyone who writes anything, it is the moment to write about becoming old. My time has come. The telling begins in small pieces, travelling around in the infinite spaces. It begins with the body.

Interesting now to stand back in the vastness of my mind and view this body I have both loved and contested for so many years. I have never liked to view it as if from the outside in photos or in mirrors. I can look at it only from far away in the shop windows in cities or as a ghost in my train window as the whole huge machine passes through the darkness. Only then does it appear as the spector it must be.

I “see” it mostly from the inside, my view of my hands, my legs, my feet the indicators of its boundaries. I feel the periodic and rhythmic surging of something in the middle of the space I seem to occupy. I sense tinglings and aches that seem to come from different points in that small bubble.

Ever since this bubble first floated to the surface of this particular world, I have spent most of the time being only that bubble, aware only of what it contained and how it bounced up against furniture, other bubbles, breezes, heavy winds, always trying to float up and away but finding that some force kept it trapped.

It is a body that has piloted my awareness and allowed me to experience the great joy of the senses. It has done miraculous things like master the coordination of nerve impulses necessary to walk, to swim, to ride a bicycle, to dance with abandon, to play a flute with some proficiency– at some point even to run.

It has never been able to coordinate with any brilliance the impulses from this brain with its movement of sinews and muscles, lungs and heartbeats, but it has done well enough to move me through a brilliant array of encounters with the life all around it.

In the past few months, it has become increasingly obvious that it no longer has the resilience I have counted on since the “I” of it began.  As appendages appear in view, it is clear that the strange stuff that covers them is drying out. There are strange discolorations. The molecules of the muscles, sinews, ligaments and bone are no longer fresh and flaccid, vibrant with life.

Despite all the lovely vegetables this stomach receives from our garden and converts into humming nutrients, all the little spheres and globules, the pulsating atoms of this bubble are slowing.

All their infinities of activity have brought me here to a place far away from their habitual rounds–to a place where the very air they draw in vibrates with the lives of so many humans. The place is thick with the stories they left in their wake like lines of forgotten poetry covering the floor. For aeons, these other bodies trod over these paths through these hills, drank this water, listened to other generations of the same birds, spoke words, sang songs, loved and died in every way imaginable. Although it knows it will likely be floating around in this environment for some time to come, drinking it all in, t

his bubble that I have called “me” has begun to sense it is joining this coming in and going out, that it too will burst, leaving drops of an essence that perfumes the wind. Begun to accept.

 

 

 

 

dav

In Cahors

We are on our way to the Dordogne, the refuge of the Neandertal, the land of the caves where the ancient humans painted and carved on walls tens of thousands of years ago. The beautiful, rich valley of that big river, lined with limestone cliffs. On our way to finally see Lascaux (of course not the cave itself where we nearly destroyed the artwork of the ancestors before closing it off, but the elaborate replica, Lascaux Four, there at the base of the hill where the cave itself sits, closed to all but a few occasional scientists in moon suits). On our way to the valleys of the Dordogne and its tributary the Viesse, we stopped for a pique-nique in the city of Cahors.

We drove in the way we had come four summers ago when we were wandering the area, looking for a new home. We remembered the cafes by the river, away from the flow of the big old buildings of the city, and the trees that will flower later in July. We turned to the left to stay close to the river and settled on a spot with benches that looked over the water to the cliffs beyond, old houses with their clay tile roofs nestled at the base of the rock, next to the river.

It was just beside the road, but it didn’t really matter. There were trees, grass and rose bushes. We found a bench beside a fig tree, poured ourselves some wine, brought out the bread and cheese and olives, ate and watched the parade of humans, cars, buses and bicycles.

When we had almost eaten our fill and were pouring a second glass of wine, we each, in our own way, gradually became aware of a presence quite near us on the lawn. I had hesitated to turn and look, sensing it might be some semi-wild creature we would scare away. Walter had looked. He turned slightly and touched my leg. “See that woman? She has a parrot in the tree.” I turned squarely to see.

“Bonjour”, I said, suddenly unsure of the gender to the person who stood there, close to our bench, chopped brown hair under a nondescript cap, loose-jacketed, looking up at a big, brightly colored parrot in a fig tree beside us.

“Bonjour” replied the person, the voice either male or female, a bit rough. The parrot looked at me, cocked its head and squawked.

“Il est curieux de vous.” the person explained, glancing quickly at us and turning back to the bird.

“Comment dit-on ‘parrot’ en francais?” I wondered aloud.

A blank look passed quickly over the face turned towards me, incomprehension.  Something in the eyes, perhaps a directness in the brown-eyed glance, made me recognize this person was a woman.

“Quel es le nom de cet oiseau?” I stumbled.

“Bertrand,” she replied. “Bertrand, mon perroquet.”

Confused for a moment, I thought, no it can’t be a parakeet, it’s too big, then remembering some lesson I’d had with the French word for parrot, I said,

“Oui, perroquet! Il est beau avec le rouge et le bleu et le vert. Quel âge a-t-il?”

A small smile of pride, just a hint, appeared on her face as she calculated the length of time and then replied that he was thirty-four years old. I translated for Walter, who was picking up much of the meaning already. He said,

”I wonder how long parrots can live? That’s pretty old.”

I asked. She said with some confidence that they could live to be about fifty but most kept in a house lived to be about forty.

“I’ve had him since he was a few months old,” she told us, with an accent that seemed part of the air she had breathed since a child.

We talked for quite some time, learning that he like being outside and would not fly away, that he couldn’t say any words but imitated the bark of the neighbor’s little dog quite nicely, that he sometimes imitated a laugh from the television.  It was clear that this bird had been her closest companion for all those years. We learned somehow that she watched movies about the old days in France. In fact, she watched a lot of old movies on her TV at home. She had been born in a nearby village and lived in Cahors all of her adult life. There was much I wondered about her life but didn’t dare to ask, what she had done, had she been married, did she have children, what kind of home did she have.

We told her we were going to the caves at Lascaux, about a hundred kilometres north on the Dordogne River.  Her round, tanned face crinkled. She had heard of them, of their paintings, but had never been. It reminded her somehow of a movie she’d seen about men who wore plumes on their helmets. She had been to Toulouse with her father once or twice she remarked, hearing we lived further south, near the Pyrenees.

Our conversation could have stretched on and on. She was clearly content to have our interest. We could have become acquainted. But the road called us, the paintings in the caves, the river itself. We made our excuses. She motioned to Bertrand who sidled up the branch and jumped to her shoulder where she snapped a leash on a ring around his leg.

As we gathered our things she stood, watching, Bertrand squawking, impatient. She waved, unmoving, as we walked toward the road. “Au revoir!”

“Bonne journée!” I called back.

For those moments, walking away, I was filled unexpectedly with a certain kind of joy. Having seen through the window of her eyes some part of a life, some flicker of recognition beyond the filters of language and culture, I was stirred, happy to be able to communicate in my imperfect French. As we climbed into the somewhat battered car we’d bought a few months ago here in France, I looked forward eagerly to the next things we would experience on the road–together; the beauty of the cave paintings, the unknown stretches of a big river that had supported so much life for so long.

She, on the other hand, was probably returning slowly, by way of several familiar stops, to some small old house nearby, perhaps to chat for a while with a neighbor, then a meal in her kitchen and an evening to watch old movies with her parrot chattering in the background. Perhaps content. A good day. A recognition. Small things.

Paris

 

Paris.  A city.  A city with the ills of big cities. A city like all cities with a million individual worlds swirling around in its boundaries. A city with such flavor that the whole world holds it in the heart of its imaginings like some living treasure.

We went to Paris from our new home in the countryside of the Ariege in the foothills of the Pyrenees, from the fresh winds of the south to the stinking air of the Metros and wide streets filled with cars and buses spewing carbon monoxide. from the work in the garden and the planning for the work on the house to the city that is so richly imagined. Walter had never been. I had never been there with him, only told him stories of the Paris I had loved in its days after the student revolt.  We had just three nights in Paris.

We went to some of the usual places. We walked past the badly wounded Cathedral of Notre Dame where the smell of charred wood still lingers and tourists stand at the barriers clicking their tongues and discussing various theories they’ve read about the cause of the conflagration.

We spent a day wandering in the Louvre until our knees ached.

 

We wandered in the streets around the Sorbonne and the Pantheon in a thunderstorm and bought little music boxes in a wonderful toy store that we happened on in the downpour. We poked through the book stalls on the quays and browsed the books in front of Shakespeare and Co. We ate in bistros and sipped Armagnac in cafes while we made up stories about the people passing by. We walked under grey skies in the Jardins de Luxembourg and the Tuileries. We took the Metro to the Champs Elysee and bought a Paris umbrella to walk in the rain through rivers of water where the old cafes and the elegance are now lost to the visual noise of Mac Donald’s and Starbucks and arcades. We saw the Tour Eiffel looming as we went by the glamorous buildings of its neighborhood on the elevated tracks of the Metro. We spent hours in the Musee D’Orsay and the Orangerie. And I wandered in the neighborhood of Butte de Calle around our hotel, sampling the boulangeries, tabacs and epiceries while Walter rested—our usual routine.

And there we were, our first day, wandering in the evening near the Boul’Mich to see what had changed, pausing at the intersection at the corner near the Musée de Cluny, idly reading the affiche about the history of the place. Curious about the little ruin I could see through a gate, I popped in to take a closer look while Walter read. There, surrounded by the higher walls around the Cluny, in an obscure little place with a temporary-seeming fence in front of the stone ruins of the Roman bath, the sound and smell of the traffic faded suddenly and trees grew. A man of some middle age with an impulse similar to mine had walked in behind me and had gone to stand at the fence a small distance away. As we stood there quietly, wondering about the piles of stones, a bird began to sing, hidden in the greenery above.

 

Listening for a moment to its clear notes, a song that seemed not to repeat, going here, going there, lilting pure, I realized it might be a nightingale, the bird I have been waiting to hear for so long, a bird not heard in America. Impulsively, excited, I turned to the stranger there in the enclosure just off the busy thoroughfare of Boulevard Saint Germain, this man with a round sympathetic face, greying hair, unfashionable glasses and said, “Vous croyez que c’est un rossignol qui chant comme ca?” He listened a moment, head tilting up, and said, a bit uncertainly, “Oui, je crois que oui! C’est pas sur mais quatre-vingt-dix pourcent.” He turned to me and smiled a small smile. “Ici,” I said, “au milieu de cette grande ville?” He paused as we listened to the song still sprinkling down from one of the trees over the ruin and, nodding, said, “Oui, c’est ca, Oui. Je pense que oui.” and smiled again his small smile, turning only partly toward me in his deference towards a stranger. We listened for another brief moment, each smiling but not to each other, until the song ended and the characteristic sound of a Paris police car in the distance blended in to the sounds of the traffic going by outside the wall. We looked at each other briefly, smiled down at the ground, wishing not to look too directly at such a moment of fleeting intimacy and, saying our Au revoir, he walked through the gate of the enclosure into the street in one direction and I in the other to rejoin Walter on the corner.

 

And then, our last evening in Paris, after a lovely romantic dinner near the Place D’Italie where we shared a bottle of red Corbieres from our neighboring region of the Aude and ate duck and perfectly cooked steak (a rarity in France), we were walking back to our hotel when we noticed a man filling a bottle at a big metal spigot in a chrome structure in the middle of a small square. In our village in the Ariege, there is such a place where, although the water is not monitored by the city, it is gathered in bottles by the locals in the same way- from a metal spigot in a stone basin under a sign stating Eau non-contrôlée. Coming down the hillside above it, spring water untreated and uncontaminated by livestock is preferred by the locals to the village water. Watching the man filling a bottle from a spigot set in a public place, it was hard to believe we were seeing a source of spring water here in the middle of Paris, here in a tiny park off the Rue Bobillot in the Place de Paul Verlaine two minutes walk from the big indoor mall at Place D’Italie. Looking at each other to confirm we were thinking the same thing, we walked towards the man still filling a bottle under the spigot.

He seemed neither young nor very old, bent there with his water bottle. Saying hello, stumbling over French vocabulary, I asked whether this water was actually potable. He was immediately animated as if waking from a dream to find us, and, saying, yes, it was good water, held out his bottle to offer us each a taste. We each drank, knowing the other had quickly considered and rejected the notion to decline a drink from a stranger’s bottle. It was good– fresh, cold and slightly sweet. He told us that yes, in fact, it was from a deep artesian well that had been drilled in the nineteenth century, still used by locals.

Reading about it later, I discovered the well is near the Bievre River, where it dumps its overflow in times of heavy rain. The river, still flowing into the Seine, was covered over a century ago and now was somewhere under our feet as we walked. In the lovely old yellow and orange brick building on the park marked Piscine, an old pool draws on the water from the well. The man leaned on a pole to talk with us, saying he had grown up in a nearby neighborhood with a French father and Japanese mother. He had lived abroad for years and worked in environmental engineering. Now had come back to his native Paris where he felt he belonged. We talked more about our farm in the States, our move to France, our shared interest in the environment and water. Each invigorated by the encounter, we said our goodbyes, exchanged compliments and went our ways. As we walked away to go back to our room for our last night, still a bit drunk on wine and happenstance, we talked about water, always so precious to humans, the element around which they gather, how it flows through our village just as it does through Paris, still seeping up in this neighborhood of Butte de Caille, fresh water now more rare than ever.

 

Here in France where the Neanderthal evolved and lived skilfully till gradually overpowered by the modern humans with their complexities of language, we have gathered around water, rivers and coasts, lakes, springs and streams. We learned long ago to build systems to distribute the water and irrigate crops. But the water that comes directly from the source is the most precious of all. There it is, flowing pure in the midst of the sewers and roads and endless buildings of Paris like the improbable song of the nightingale and the small smile of a stranger with a round face. How we may come to count on such quiet knowledge of the essentials of life, stored by communities against all odds.

 

 

 

 

 

Observing the Anglers’ Surface

When I was a small girl I discovered the interior world of puddles.  It was perhaps for me the dawning of consciousness.
My first discovery. The awakening to the wonders beyond the ordinary, beyond mother and father and the hard surfaces of Brooklyn sidewalks and the contained universe of a front porch, beyond even the wonders of carousel horses, walks to the delicatessen beside my enormous father or the dark, sinewy jaguars in cages.
One day I just saw it. Walking somehow by myself, after a rain. Here was a world no one else knew, unexplored. I could stand beside the watery expanse, big or small, and look endlessly into worlds of shimmering trees and clouds. In that world, there was even the watery presence of someone else with brown eyes and short blond hair, someone who seemed to understand me well. I wandered and wandered down and in, beyond the seen into the unseen.
Later I dove deeply into books in the same way. They were worlds of my own, unexplored by anyone else, intensely known. Even later I began to find other people who had read the same books, explored the worlds the words somehow projected, experienced them in some way inside of themselves. It was a revelation. They had experienced something I thought only I had experienced. Was it the same experience? Was it different? How could I get inside them to know? These people who had also read were even more unknowable than the world of puddles, more impenetrable.
Maybe my world of puddles in known by the people who fish. Maybe that is what they explore there on the surface of the rivers and lakes, there on the anglers’ surface. I watch them standing in the river here that flows through the village, past the bottom of our garden and beyond, through many villages, standing there in their high boots for hours on end. There is so much in that clear substance, so many layers. I try to intuit what they see, to intuit the thoughts passing through their minds like the flow of the water itself.
I almost see it, then it shifts, out of my grasp, like the clouds that pass over and obscure the watery reflections.

dav

Childhood

There was a time when I moved from one secure place to somewhere else, as I have done now.

There is a sepia photo of a small girl in a cage with white rabbits. Sitting there in its frame in the living room of my last home and in some other familiar position in the house before, I assumed it was a moment my mother had captured at a petting zoo somewhere in my misty childhood.

But this evening, as I looked at it again, in this new place, on the top of a dresser purchased at a second-hand store in Mirepoix, furniture now mine in a room in a partially settled house in Southern France,  I recognized suddenly another reality. There I was, in my backyard in the first place we’d moved from Brooklyn.  In our new town, I was five years old, tending the rabbits that were mine, that my parents had given me, in the pen my father had built for them there on the square of grass behind the duplex they’d rented on a nice old street in a nice old town.

Now, as I recapture those images of childhood, I didn’t feel that small in the big world, that sweet and delicate.  In my memory of the rabbits, I was a person of consciousness, of large awareness–of rabbits,  of a body of some magnitude navigating tree-lined streets on a tricycle, of other people in my world, of great imaginations.

In the photo, I am as little as my granddaughter. She will remember herself as a person of agency, just as I remember. She will remember conversations she has had with friends. She will remember herself in those dream-like memories as a real person in interaction with the world. She will know who she was.

On top of the dresser