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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bird

https://archive.org/details/BachCelloSuiteNo.1PreludeYoYoMa

 

“…Above all
Did Nature bring again that wiser mood
More deeply reestablished in my soul”
Wordsworth, Prelude

 

Approaching home after my walk, beginning to wonder again about plans and decisions after clearing my mind, a great bird flew across my view from west to east.

It was so large I took it at first for the heron, so long, wings spread so wide, tail like some darting dessert lizard.

But then I saw a bit of curved beak in the profile of the head. A Golden Eagle perhaps. Since the head wasn’t noticeably white, it couldn’t be one of the Bald Eagles that perches in the big cottonwoods on either side of our fields. As I watched, it flew to one of these tall dark trees at the back of the garden.

I walked into the orchard behind the house to get a better look. It was perched high up, far enough from my place on the ground that I wasn’t able to make out the true color of its head against the grey and misty sky. It was so large, so tall, impressive there in that grim still-winter tree. It seemed to be some huge, mysterious bird, neither this nor that. I stood and watched for some time, trying to make it out, until it took flight again, swooping low behind the barn up the hill.

It must have found some prey there in the grass. After I had come in and taken off my muddy shoes and walked through the house to hang my coat, I saw it fly into the biggest cottonwood at the entrance to our drive. Through the dining room window, I watched as it began to peck and tear at something hidden between its feet on the branch. A group of starlings and crows gathered in the branches, one flying in, another flying off, slightly below and to the side. They eagerly caught particles of what it ate as it pulled off morsels with abandon and gobbled them, head thrown slightly back.

Through the binoculars I grabbed from the kitchen drawer, I could see the feathers on its great head were wet and ruffled, plastered to its head leaving bare patches between the rows. The feathers were not yet white but, from the shape of that head, the glimpse of an eye, they clearly would become so. Its forehead sloped into the large hooked beak, its body substantial and heavy, balanced on strong legs. It must, in fact, be the offspring of the pair of eagles from the nest behind the house on top of the big hill to the north, maybe from two or three years past, coming back to find a territory of its own.

Maybe it has been the one to claim the huge nest where it was hatched, reinforcing it with twigs and mosses as have his ancestors, year after year, maintaining its ancient continuity. I’ll watch as I go about my business day after day and see if it returns to the big cottonwood, itself to watch and wait with the patience of nature’s flow.

The Art of the Infinite

The sun was opening up swathes of brightness through the clouds, pools of sunlight spreading through the fir trees and onto the grass.  The car found its way into a parking spot on the drive near the front of the museum guided by some visceral memory of the circular drive around the dark hill at the entrance of the park. She got out and walked down the sidewalk to see the full east-facing entrance to the Museum. It was just as she remembered, yellow-white smooth stone and panels of etched glass gazing blankly out past the grand opening through the trees on the other side of the road, out towards the white pyramid of the volcano, poised in the middle of this symmetry.

As she approached the glass doors, there was a fragrance, if only in the mind, of some mildly oriental incense, of some kind of calm green and blue excitement, of a woman’s perfume mixed with fir scents and the cold, clear notes of marble and granite. Or maybe it was chilled music that touched the senses as subtly as fragrance.  Hard to tell. It reminded her of the moment, years ago, in the Modern Art Museum at the Smithsonian, when, as she walked down the swoop of the white marble staircase with a sense of the elegant expanse of air, of an openness all around yet defined, she caught sight of a friend she hadn’t seen for months, there with her mother, standing as if they had just entered the museum. Then she had been swept by a sense of the poetry inherent in moments of such confluence of beauty, memory and emotion. As she was now.

It was a day set apart. A moment seized, unanticipated. Going through the doors, there was a brief moment of disorientation, of change. Memory slipped out of place. A young woman stood guard at the opening to an atrium. Just beyond her, statues of Hindu gods were balanced on the walls and chairs and tables were set around as if for an outdoor café. Different somehow. The woman at the opening smiled and, with a gesture of her arm, directed her to the ticket desk hidden at the side.  The man at the desk, sober and dark, worked with his computer and then handed her the ticket. No limits of time. No demands.

She wandered into the atrium, taking surreptitious photos of a mother, young and graceful in the midst of her shed belongings, seated on a café chair, discreetly nursing her baby. She, of course, could feel the momentary direction of energy towards her back and turned slightly to catch the photographer snapping shots of the Shiva statue perched on the wall.  The graceful young woman settled back to her baby and the photographer moved on to the gallery through the door.

When she was young, she had met some interesting people, one in a town in Vermont. He was someone who frequented the food co-op, wearing the clothes of a farmer, but not one. His long blond hair fell in ringlets and combined with his beard, curling under his chin. That, along with the slight rosiness of his cheeks and the blue of his eyes, gave the ironic impression of a Fragonard angel. One day as he was shambling down the street in the small town, she decided to say hello. They had a friend in common that gave her a bridge into conversation. They saw each other several times over the next weeks, and then, when the winter holidays were approaching and they were both going back to family, she asked him for a ride in his camper truck to New York City. She could easily catch a train from there to her hometown in New Jersey. The memory of this journey connected with the objects of the museum in one of those internal sworls of mind.

They headed down the road in the evening a few days before Christmas with his German Shephard, Blue, in the back of the camper truck. The cab of the truck was cozy and they talked for hours as you do at the beginning of friendship. When he discovered they were nearly out of gas, it was already late into the night, somewhere in upstate New York. He said he had an uncle who lived in the town coming up and he knew where he kept a can of gas in his garage. We pulled up to a dark house where he found a key to the garage under a pot. In the dark, he found a gas can which he emptied into the truck and they were on their way again. It was only the next day he discovered he’d used his uncle’s kerosene instead of the gas. It was part, somehow, of the whole of it all.  Somewhere along the ride, they’d asked each other about their families. He’d told her that his was not particularly close. His father was a doctor who was busy a lot and his mother a psychiatrist who was fairly distant. He gave the impression they were a rather ordinary family living in an apartment somewhere on the east side, not far from the river. He said they would be fine with putting her up for the night.

She slept for a while. Sometime after midnight, she woke up as they pulled up in the large drive in front of an enormous building where a doorman in livery was awake all night, watching the door. As her friend opened the truck door and stepped out, the doorman came out of the building through the glass doors of the entrance, smiling, greeted her friend by name and hugged him. As she began groggily collecting her things, her friend took Blue of the back of the truck. As the dog started to look around for a place to pee, lifting his leg after the long ride, her friend rummaged in the back for the leash. Realizing it wasn’t there, he pulled the belt from his loose, dirty jeans and improvised a tether around his collar. Ragtag as they were, the doorman joyously ushered them all in through the enormous sliding glass doors, into the waiting elevator. When she asked her friend “Which floor,” he said, “It’s at the top. This is where Johnny Carson lives, too, and Truman Capote, parts of the year.”  As he pushed the button, she felt the sweat of a long day, and the damp crumple of her cotton shirt tucked into jeans that hadn’t been washed for several uses and felt some stirring of self-consciousness that combined itself, as they began their ascent, with the sinking of her stomach and the sleepiness in her head.

After a long climb, the elevator doors opened and her friend knocked on the door that faced them. After a few minutes, it was opened by an elegant woman with blue eyes and stylishly timed blond hair. She wrapped an arm around her son’s shoulders and ushered them in, as if greeting guests at two in the morning were a common event. Here is where the stories begin to converge.

They walked together through the entrance hall towards a partially opened door where the lights of a kitchen could be seen. She turned down another short hall and opened the door to her son’s room, which was immaculate and clearly expensively designed. As he put down his things on the bed, his mother said, “Your friend will sleep in the Ming room. It’s all set up. Show her where it is. I’m going to bed. Welcome! See you both in the morning.”

Her friend kissed his mother good night as she smiled and turned to go down the hallway. He gestured for her to follow behind his mother who quickly vanished through a hidden passage.  She continued ahead of him and found herself in a huge room surrounded by windows that seemed at least fifteen feet high, revealing the black night sky and a full landscape of skyscrapers’ lights. As she turned to take it in, there through the windows on one end of the room was the familiar outline of the United Nations Building, standing guard next to a dark river, a dominating presence through the glass. Large forms in cases loomed here and there in the dim expanse of the room. She turned and whispered, “What are those big things?” “Ancient Chinese bronzes,” he replied, “Bells and urns.”  Quite awake now, she said, “What is this? Where are we?”  “In my parents’ apartment,” he said. “My father is a collector. Come this way. I’ll show you to your room.”

She turned to face the stairway as he pointed behind them. In front of the staircase sat an astonishing figure, which she first took to be alive, one arm extended gracefully over a lifted bent knee, one leg curled under him as he looked out at them serenely. It was a man with long hair, lithe, clothed only in what were now just bare outlines of a loincloth, life-sized, carved of some light colored wood, riddled with wormholes, ancient yet intact. His presence was penetrating and palpable. She recognized him immediately somehow and was understood. Now calmly alert, attentive, she climbed the stairs behind her friend. They found the door to the bedroom, opened it and switched on a soft light to reveal a four-postered bed of dark wood with a flat canopy, simple and elegant. “That’s it,” he said, “The Ming bed. It’s actually more comfortable than it looks. I think you’ll like it.” He said goodnight and closed the door.

The next morning there was a tour of the bronzes, and an introduction to his balding, spectacled, Jewish father who strangely seemed delighted to meet her, this guest slipped in during the night. The father invited them into his study where there was coffee in porcelain cups and beautiful Persian miniatures, populated with elegant figures and lovers, and he showed her marvellous lithographs and etchings of artwork done for famous books. Marvel after marvel. Large Picasso painting of people feasting, eating lobster, in the dining room.

Months later, his son sat with her in his family’s estate on Long Island while he unpacked suitcases full of ancient Chinese artefacts that had just been delivered for his father, unwrapping each to handle and inspect it. This was when she saw the small jade bowl.  This was when she held in her hands a bowl made of light green jade, perhaps of the Tang Dynasty, precious beyond wealth, exquisite. It was so delicate it seemed to weigh as much as a bird’s feather, yet was big enough to be held in both hands. It was perfectly smooth over its entire surface, with no indication of any carving or etching. Yet the design of a lotus (or perhaps a chrysanthemum) was clearly apparent in the bowl’s bottom. When held ever so carefully up to the light from the window, the flower design floated somehow within the jade, etched in some uncanny way within, etheric, impossible.  Its beauty was a being, the soul of the stone itself, the cool slight pressure in the cup of her hands like a life. Of all the miraculous objects, this and the ancient wooden sage were the ones that stayed with her for the forty-five years that stretched between those objects and the ones of the Asian Art Museum.

These images walked with her as she entered an airy gallery lined with windows. Each tall window framed scenes of trees and sky in the park beyond. Three large glass cases each contained an enormous jade disc, ceremonial plates of different designs, each of slightly different tones of green, deep as oceans or light as heavens. Each floated between worlds. She stood in front of one and then another for long, long moments, mind as empty and infinite as the round surface of the plate, lost in the colors captured within endless layers of glaze—lost in the perfection of the curves and the roundness.  It is true there is no linear time. Here, as we’re perched on the swing of one year into the next, the transition point of one season at its depth into another, there is no way but to go beyond.

This Morning I Was Looking At Clouds

This morning, lying in bed, I found myself looking for a long moment into the pattern of clouds out beyond the silhouette of the now mostly bare maple in the front yard. The last few golden yellow leaves were hanging with delicate attachment to the darkened lower branches. They  drew me in—layers stroked with smoky gray, luminous white, lighter gray and pearl, in somehow just the right pattern, swirled with such grace, an opening revealing a patch of brilliant blue in perfect cadence.  Something shifted internally. I was gone.  Just as looking into the blue eyes of your lover, the “I” of you becomes spreads out to an infinity where edges no longer apply. The inside and the outside suddenly have no separation.

As we walk around in our lives, the forms of our bodies allow our consciousness to seem impermeable. Ever since I can remember being alive, I have worried this experience, chewing on it to get at its juice. How is it that the inside I explore every moment, awake and asleep, is not accessible to those around me? That I see a face lit up in a passing car as if in a circle of light and breathe in the particular savor of that soul, yet it is unknowable whether any other person, inside the coat she wears buttoned up all around her, will, walking this same road at some other time feel the same sensations as a car passes by. How is it that I can watch someone’s movements, hear their words, experience some emanation, some music, some color–maybe some jolt–and yet not experience the inside of them the way I experience what is whorling in my own mind?

Looking directly into the sky this morning was like looking into the eyes of my friend Shamcher in those brief moments so long ago when we stopped in passing in the hallway. We had been known each other for only a few short weeks or even days, I can’t remember, playing together in our respective roles in the world like children, he eighty years, me, twenty-four. We had taken the subway from the apartment in Maryland to the office buildings of the Senate where, together, we opened doors into closed meetings and talked to Senators about Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion and skipped to a cafe, arm in arm.  Then we had traveled to this spot in Ontario together, stopping in Niagra Falls where he had grumpily refused to leave the car while my husband and I viewed the overwhelming waters, standing in the mist.

In that moment in the hallway, we had both just come from a meditation in the large room of the building where we were attending a Sufi gathering with old and new friends. We both both seemed to feel just a little out of place here-I because I was young and a stranger to many, and he because he was old and wise. He took my hands and looked, just looked, across into my eyes. For a briefest instant, there was a flash of embarrassment between us, a swift, small bird flying across our vision. Then all awareness of emotion was gone, completely, as if it had never been. All that was left was the opening through the blue of his eyes which soon vanished, into a vastness I had never before known, somehow composed only of a light that was not light, with resonance and depth, in which all that could be created was present, without end.

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Then the scene shifts in my memory to another day at the camp, perhaps the next. A few of the adults who volunteered to be with the children were taking a group to swim in a nearby lake. One of the little girls, a five-year-old who typically clung to her mother, had taken to me. Since she was playing with me happily, I had offered to go with her to the water to give her mother a much-needed break. The mother was delighted and I was lifted up by my ability to help a friend I respected. Transported by my excitement and the animal desire to feel my muscles move in the cool water on that bright summer day, I asked how long it would be before they left. Impulsively, asking one of the other adults to watch her, I left the little girl with the group and ran to my tent to get my bathing suit. When I was out of sight, the girl began to cry. The spell was broken. Her mother heard, and going to console her, was drawn into taking her instead.

As I returned, breathing hard from my run, one of the volunteers offhandedly told me I no longer needed to come. Telling the mother I could now take over did no good. She was determined to go. My friend and teacher stood nearby, talking to a couple who were laughing and joking with him intimately. Overhearing, evidently having somehow paid attention to the whole situation, he interrupted his conversation and called to me in a clear voice,

“You made a choice. Now you have to live with it.”

As I stood as if rooted, tears of shame smarted my eyes, the infinite brought up short by my own moments of selfishness. It was true. Small decisions made without real awareness have a way of banging you right upside the head. Balance would take many, many more years. It’s still in progress, every moment of living in this body that carries me around. It’s a darn good thing I get to be an old woman at least for awhile. It’s just the beginning of waking up to who I really am. That one is the vastness itself. It has no limitation except that which we hold in front of it.

The Ocean at La Push

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Standing in the cold ocean water up to my calves, the sound of the waves and the wind having soaked in through my ears and my pours, I looked out towards the horizon, feeling the ebbing wave pulling the sand from under my feet, making holes under my heels, shifting my weight slightly backwards. The moving sand tickled playfully. I remembered this feeling from my childhood, standing in the waves at Cape Cod.

I waited to feel the next wave washing in to see if it replaced the sand under my heels. I listened to the immense whoosh of the wave still moving away from me, infinite in its scope but curved into some finite form by the geography of the shore.  The incoming and outgoing ocean itself had created that geography over some seemingly infinite time. As I waited for the last faint diminution of that rushing sound, the gradual crescendo of the next flowing wave began at just the point of its dying, like the motion of a swing coming back after the child’s feet had curled underneath her as far as they could.

After several moments absorbed in the sensations of the waves washing in and out, my concentration disrupted, I moved my feet, walking along with the edges of the jagged waves, some coming in further, some staying closer to the depths where the land drops away. As I turned towards the dunes and the piles of logs pushed by storms to the top of the beach, Walter called to me, over the roaring of the ocean, “What were you thinking about just then, when you were looking out toward the horizon?”

I stopped and gathered my thoughts, which were already straying, then said “I was thinking how the ebbing wave sucks the sand out from under my heals. It makes two holes. I was waiting to see whether the incoming wave filled them back up. It doesn’t. The next ebb wave just takes away more. I have to move around a bit so I don’t fall over.”

My curiosity reawakened, I turned and looked out again at the waves coming in, the sound of the roiling froth, the sensation of movement in the meeting of going in and going out. I began to breathe with the sounds of the waves, breathing in with the whole length of the incoming rush and breathing out with the until the sound had receded completely, breathing in again with the whoosh of sound coming towards me. By just the smallest margin, it was a longer breath than I could take.  The ocean was breathing for the planet. It was my lungs that had lost their full capacity. If I sat with the waves and adjusted my breathing, I was sure, over time, they would regain their rightful strength and I would breathe completely again. It would take a lot of practice.

From the beginning, it is the ocean that breathes. Everything breathes with it. The tide comes in gradually, waves shifting randomly, and everything rises with it.  At the moment of the shift in the pull of sun and moon, the tide pivots, at the end of that in-breath, and shifts. Imperceptibly, each incoming wave becomes part of the breath going out, leaving behind it more and more of the shore where life bubbles up from its time underwater into its time with the air, the huge breathing of the tides containing within it the rhythm of the waves.  Strange to know this after so many years with the ocean. It somehow shifts everything.

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The Opposite of Happiness

There is a central craving built in to the array of our emotions. Its opposite is loneliness.  My thesaurus lists the antonym of “loneliness” as “happiness”.  It makes the case for me.  In a true lexicon, dry and linguistic, the opposite of loneliness would be a word such as “affection”, “love”, “closeness.”  But there is really no one word to capture this absence of loneliness, this magnetic pull at the core of our humaness. Our sense of feeling close to others, understood by others, respected by others, worthy of sharing with others is so central to our sense of well-being that its lack is defined purely as the absence of happiness.

Yet, here we are, constructing loneliness, literally.  We see its result reflected in all the choices we are making. It is almost as if we have accepted that the natural result of affluence, gained now at such cost in a world where resources are dwindling, is isolation, which we must then protect at all costs.  I see the presence of this conviction as I take my walks through what was, until fifteen years ago or so, part of rural America. The result of affluence here has been that those who have it, and work long, long hours for it, want big houses, filled with comfort and luxury, surrounded by space which keeps them separate. In that space food used to grow. People worked together to produce it, even though the advent of cheap petroleum as the central slave allowed for less human cooperation.   Now it is a safety zone, an isolation bumper.

The children in these houses are extremely lucky if they have siblings to play with.  Each set of parents initially erects, at large expense, a playhouse with swings, slide, and other doo-dads. Sometimes it seems a kind of lure in hope that other children will come over for “play dates” and their children will not be lonely. This rarely happens. As the children grow older, a trampoline goes up, more recently, by parents conscious of dangers all around, surrounded by a wall of mesh to keep them safe from the combined effects of gravity and exuberance.  If there are siblings, it gets used a few times as they try to outdo each other. If it’s an only child, desultory efforts are made at mastery and then it becomes new again only on the rare occasions when a friend comes to visit.

Then an “above-ground” pool appears in summer, glorious in its newness, a representation of the deep desire to be outside in water, in nature, and for children to find joy together.  A party may be held to celebrate, with several children joining together on some sunny day for a couple of hours at a time.  Screams and squeals of play can be heard. The splashing and roiling of the water is imagined from afar. Happiness. Children together.  Afterwards, on really hot days during the quiet times, it’s possible the parents get in and float for a while on a rubber raft (with cup holder) after work or on weekends after riding the mower. Hard to tell.  That activity would be quiet. It wouldn’t have much of a chance to penetrate the boundaries of isolation.

At houses with a bunch of young siblings, occasional laughter and fighting can be heard in the summer afternoons. Much less frequently, friends come together in a band at someone’s house. Sometimes they play a game the parents have bought for the occasion–Slip and Slide or some game “guaranteed” to get the kids outside and active.  Once or twice in twelve years I’ve seen a few kids use a trampoline together.  The only hold-out from this pattern observed over the years on long walks, runs and bike rides is a small farm with six home-schooled kids. When the kids were little, I saw real tricycles and wagons with kids pulling each other. Once I witnessed a picnic in the grass with everyone together, talking and laughing. Now they seem to be busy studying most of the time.

We tried initially to get to know our neighbors. Each eventually made it known in some way that they cared much more for the preservation of their own rights to enjoy themselves than they did for connection. Dogs that barked all night. Dirt bikes ridden without mufflers all hours of the day despite objections.  Target practice where bullets “strayed”.  We raised beautiful organic food, plenty of it. We had a farm stand. All the neighbors passed it by on their way to the local supermarket four miles away. Once or twice they stopped by in June to ask if we had corn (August or September) or in the heat of the summer to see if we had snap peas (early June).  Some people came from further away but most of the beautiful vegetables in the coolers went into the compost or to the local food bank at the end of the day.

A couple of years ago, a couple moved in to the lavender farm up the road. Soon his sister and a friend joined them from Massachusetts where her husband had recently died.  We struck up a friendship based on shared interests. We remembered that habits of connectedness in other parts of the vast territory that makes up America are different from what we have gotten used to here. People drop by. They actually come to dinner when they say they will. They believe in reciprocity.  We have made those connections richer over time. There are other friends who understand the natural laws of connection, but they are the few, the exceptional.

When we were hunter-gatherers, we lived in bands. We worked together most of the day, some of the time with our own gender but much of the time with the whole group. We fought occasionally with other groups for resources or because we became angry, one family, one band, with another for some breach of conduct, some insult.   With the advent of agriculture, many things changed, the most salient being the centralization of power, but we still worked together. Wars got bigger and bloodier. Slavery increased dramatically.  With the industrial era, people congregated increasingly in cities where it became easier to exploit them in mass. The long dreariness of work days where people could not talk together created more and more isolation of individual from individual, individual from family, family from community.

As we have learned how to consolidate wealth, we admire those who have it and acknowledge their need to isolate from the rest of the community as only necessary protection. We understand that people will want to grab some of those resources if they can. Those resources give you power and justification in the world.  Through this understanding we have absorbed the sense that the more money we are able to pull into our sphere, the more we need to distance ourselves from others to protect what is ours. Thus, the more we have, the more isolated we become, exempting only those who have enough resource themselves to allow for admiration but not a dangerous level of envy.  Those made too desperate by the weight of the system become outsiders, wafted by the winds of exclusion.

Even now, when so many people are so stressed by the insecurity of life in society, drained by the work they must put in day after day just to keep from moving backwards, we hold on to the habits of protection, just as we hold on to the hope that just around the corner the economy will shift, we will have money in our fists and a job for life. In our exhaustion and distress, we have forgotten how to rely on each other. We are sold instead the “serenity” of home ownership where nothing permeates from the outside world.  We are afraid to trust to connection, especially when we know most of those around us are secretly as desperate as we are. In our isolation, we have become malleable to the forces of fear.

In the cities of the US, the children of relative affluence come together to play in playgrounds, safely guarded by parents. In contrast, it is in the neighborhoods where there are no playgrounds and parents have little time and energy to watch over their children that they play together in the streets. Their lives are full of conflict and stress, danger and fear. They are increasingly isolated in these imposed communities by the fear and protectionism of those of us holding on more and more tightly to what we have. They have much to struggle through to survive, just as most humans have over the millennia.  Some are lonely, others are not. But, of necessity, they know each other’s struggles, each other’s families, each other’s weaknesses, each other’s strengths.   Are we safer with this connection or without it?

 

The Row of Trees

 

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There is a place along the route of my morning walks where the trees, planted in a row, cast a striped pattern on the road.

I had walked along that stretch of road at many times of day, in seasons of grey and of brilliance, of wet and of dryness, before, one particularly early morning in spring, I truly experienced them.

Drawn to the beauty of the shade, I walked along the side of the road where the shadows spread their darkness onto the pavement. As I walked, a deep sensation of awe, of beauty seeped into my gut. I inhaled it deeply, drawing in a great sense of joy, astonished by its power. I walked along its whole length, listening, breathing, feeling the expanse and spaciousness of the sensation. I turned around, walked back down the road and walked it again, remembering something, someplace where I had felt this before.

Then it came, clearly taking its form in my memory. The cathedral, the Duomo, in Sienna. The striped columns of dark and light marble like the rows of poplar trees in the surrounding countryside.  There, walking between the two rows of columns, each repeating that pattern, stretching high above my head into the sky of the dome above, I had felt the same sensation of incredible internal depth, spaciousness, beauty, indescribable yet palpable.

It was a cathedral built in the 13th century. It echoes the striped marble arches of the of  the Dome of the Rock, built on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem five centuries earlier and those of the Great Mosque of Cordoba built slightly later in that century.  There are other more northern cathedrals such as the one built a century or two before the Duomo in Durham, England, which incorporate some variation of this pattern. What brought the architects of these great halls to this alternation of light and dark? What gives it such an effect?

When there is sun in the morning, I try to get out early enough to catch the right slant of the sun , the brief angle in its climb that creates the longest shadows along the row of trees on the east side of the road.  This morning I caught it just right. The shadows were long and distinct, the light bright between them. I savored the experience fully as I walked in the fragrant spring air.

Wondering again, I examined, in the Proustian mode, every nuance,  holding up its facets in the light of consciousness. What else was there? What memory? With a kind of internal start, I recognized the other place I have experienced such a great stirring. It is in the forest, particularly in the forest of early spring when the contrasts between light and shadow are most pronounced.

Is there some primordial sense triggered by this experience of patterns of alternating light and shadow? Did our ancestors who created the paintings in the caves of France and Spain some thirty-two thousand years ago transmit the same sense of inexplicable awe they experienced in the forest to their paintings on the deep interior walls, drawn in the alternating patterns of light and dark made by their flickering torches? Was this art continued through the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, repeating in their own mediums the experience of boreal awe?

It is embedded somewhere deep within our cells, in the primitive mitochondria perhaps, and echoes throughout the halls of our consciousness, like music. It calls to us less frequently now, since most have lost the faculty to hear it.

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Taking Tea

Then there was this dream I had the other night.

During their reigns, Khrushchev and Brezhnev had teas made of special herbs related in rather occult ways to their respective names.  On visiting their rulers, people were made to drink this tea, which was, in both cases, foul.  Sometimes still, Putin brings them out and serves tea to those who cannot refuse to drink it. He watches them gleefully as he leaves his untouched.

“Delicious, no?” he enquires with a handsome smile.

Getting Back

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It’s tough, but we learn, bit by bit. It doesn’t go forward in a linear way. We keep going back over the same lines as if carefully etching a drawing onto the paper of our mind.

At least it’s that way for me. If this holds,the length of the life stretching behind us has real effect. Pain is a particularly good etching tool. Joy too, its etching more colored and nuanced,  working not so much as a guide in our movements through life as the provider of its texture, its warmth, its tone, hue and fragrance and the ground of all wisdom.

There are times when the richness and beauty of life flow along for some period of time, never, of course, without difficulties, but without real obstruction. Pains are more easily tolerated. Joys permeate further.

As humans, we know these days are not without their number. They’ll flow into other times when nothing feels right and obstructions appear in every direction.  They’ll flow into times when pain permeates everything, the oblivion of sleep eludes you and all you know seems washed away.  One wave dies and another rises, all the same salty, vast water pulled by different moons, stirred by different winds.

As we wait to move to France, there are moments stretching lazily together when the elements of time, wind and gravity seem to be pulling us smoothly forward. We get up each day with the confidence we’re on course and the current is with us.  We sleep soundly and sweetly and wake refreshed. Then there are times when a strong gale we hadn’t noticed brewing to stern suddenly is on us, grey and deeply unsettling, buffeting down to the keel and threatening to throw us off course entirely if we don’t use all we know to keep the whole venture from being smashed to pieces. Small troubles gather together and swarm around so thickly that we can barely think straight for all the noise.

We seem to be coming through one of those swirling times. The weather isn’t really settling so much as somehow we’ve gotten a firmer hold on the tiller.  I could be wrong, but I think we’ll make it through.  The farm will sell eventually. We’ll figure out all the details of what to take and what to leave. We’ll figure out the health insurance, the visas, the banking, the tickets, the place to stay while we house hunt in France–all that. We might have to swim to shore the last mile, but we’ll make it.  Meanwhile, back to writing.

 

The Work

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A move of five thousand miles is both big and small. When it is not being done, it seems small. It is a place in your mind. You can see one thing, imagine another and then the expansion stops. The imagination circumscribes itself with the limits of your own sight–the limits of your senses both physical and essential. It is, in fact, enormous in its scope.

I had been taking it one small chunk at a time. I allowed myself only one variable at a time, trying to push aside all the other possibilities of the failure of ventures, large swings of fate. The way seemed clear. Getting rid of all the clothes that were not absolutely essential. Trying to sell and then giving away hundreds of books, winnowing, winnowing down through the levels of friendship until there were five or six boxes–still too many.  Unpacking all the boxes, full of mildew, where I’d stored the leavings of my children’s childhood, reading, discarding, treasuring, crying with joy or grief at its passing, saving what I could not part with for the moment, sending some to my children,  going back to some after weeks and finally throwing them quickly in the trash. Giving away so many little treasures, things I’ve held on to through moves and phases of life.

Getting estimates for shipping things to France, it becomes clear that unless the emotional connections to things, to their history, have true value, something beyond the mere presence of stuff, unless they add to some crucial continuity of social life, then they will need to be left behind, gone or perhaps delayed in storage. Even photos. Even childhood treasures. What is really needed to maintain the connection with the past of family and the history of love?  All those who have left behind everything to save themselves and their families—amidst all the grief of loss, alongside the anguish, can there somewhere be a deep sense of relief, a deep settling-in to what is?

I will continue to lose sleep until I understand this calculation deeply.  It never ceases to amaze me where the true work of life lies, day after day, moment after moment.  This evening, a pair of young eagles have alighted in the cottonwood tree at the top of the hill overlooking our back field, perching for hours in their strong, solid way and looking out over the surrounding sky and landscape. Maybe they are examining a new territory, experiencing with their expansive perception where to make their new home. They have brought nothing with them except the dust that gathers on their feathers after flight.