Breath

 

(A POEM FOR MY GRANDDAUGHTERS TO GROW UP ON)

 

Breathing.

Listen.
The world is breathing.

Breathe through your ears
Breathe through your eyes
Stretch breath out
Beyond the skies.

The ocean is breathing
Breath never lies
Its rhythm like wind
that soughs and dies
Speaks of the weather
where the water sighs
at the end of each wave
that the tempest tries
to smash on the shore
Without pity
contrives
to continue its swing
with whatever the moon tides can bring.

Feel what it feels
This huge enterprise
of breath going in
of breath going out.

The wind breathes
with gasps,
with sighs and
with songs.
Who knows to what
tense it belongs?
The present. The past.
None of them last.
Just the breath
Breathing the breath of the vast
Breathing along with the breath
of birdsong
Breathing the air
Breathing the light
Breathing along through the death of the night.

Breathing the phrases of music
on keys
of pianos and harpstrings
and in wings of the bees.

Breathe with it all
Breathe with it, please.

 

 

 

 

A Window in Time (Part 6): Greece Itself

 

 

Even bareheaded in the blazing sun, baked as if in an oven, the grace of the Parthenon seemed to me exquisite, unbelievable as an edifice made of hard, unyielding marble. The columns, in their orderly placement, with such rhythm of number and proportion, created the structure of the washed out universe of white heat there on top of the world.

We wandered for awhile, Ion sometimes pausing to sit on a smashed pillar or on a rock while we explored. My friend and I made our way toward the Porch of the Maidens. There we stopped, sweat suddenly dripping down my sides as if it had been pooling for that moment, a sensation I had first noticed with astonishment as a twelve-year-old back in New Jersey at the height of the humid summer. But here I was in Greece, not New Jersey, away from my parents and the familiar streets, on top of a huge rock that had been there for aeons even before the first village had established itself somewhere down below. There I was amid the bones of buildings that had been built over decades by laborers unknown more than two thousand years before. Yet it felt more present than the buildings surrounding me day after day in my other life. The women of the huge statues around the portico dwelled in some dimension more real than the one I occupied. I yearned for it.

My head was becoming very light from the heat. I think it had begun to pound. I had to sit down for awhile on one of the huge pieces of marble once part of the huge complex of buildings. They had stood for hundreds of years and then gradually, with the pull of gravity, the blasts of wars and winds had fallen where we now walked. I could feel their tremendous weight as I put my head down between my knees. I had never known heat like this. It did strange things to the mind. The thought occurred to me that there is a seeming geometric difference between one hundred degrees and one hundred and twenty. I don’t think we even had water.

I don’t remember the walk down the stairs or what happened for the rest of the day or two we spent in Athens. I remember only that we tried to get out of the heat of the streets and sleep in our room at the Y. At least in the white space of that room, there was no sun beating down on our heads.

Arrangements were made and we were on a bus together to Glyfada, Ion’s hometown. We probably drowsed in the heat next to the open windows, through a nondescript landscape of towns with lines of shops and apartments, small hills in the distance and the smells of garlic and cooking meat drifting in as we passed souvlaki shops. When we jumped down from the bus in Glyfada we could feel the way in which the sea took the edge off the heat that had been oppressing us. We walked through the streets of the town, away from the water past small homes built of stucco, surrounded by walls of cheaply manufactured bricks or metal grill-work fences.

Now a suburb of the sprawling city of Athens, then it was a resort town where traditional Greek life continued away from the bustle of tourists at the seaside. It felt like a small town, surrounded by hills where families kept gardens with grapes and vegetables beside their one or two-story homes and widows dressed in black carried baskets from the market.

We were to stay at the home of some friends of Ion’s, in their garden in fact. We went there first to knock on the door and see if they were in. The parents came out, so happy to see Ion, gesticulating, the old man putting his hands around Ion’s face and kissing his cheeks, his wife hugging him with tears in her eyes. They were overjoyed to greet the two Americans, my friend and I, and called to their neighbors in the next house to come and meet us. We sat at a rickety table in the garden, under a grapevine that climbed over an arbor made of metal poles. The wife brought out cold drinks of homemade lemonade and cookies from the local shop and we sat and watched the couple chat with Ion as gathering neighbors came to sit on an assortment of plastic and metal chairs and, in turn, watch us.

After a while, the old man walked us to the other side of the house where he proudly showed us two old metal cots he had set out for my friend and me under trees where grape vines climbed and hung their bunches of fruit here and there. It was truly a delightful, somehow exotically simple setting. We put our bedrolls on top of the springs and stashed our packs underneath.

We went back to join the small crowd that had gathered in the front yard where he poured us small glasses of transparent Ouzo, made milky when he poured water from a ceramic pitcher into each glass. We toasted, raising our glasses and looking around at the faces in the small circle, to our first repetition of the Greek word Yamas! Ion explained that our next stop would be a cafe in the town near the water, popular with young people. There we would meet his friends.

As we left, opening the gate and walking into the stone-paved street, he stopped and, putting hands on our shoulders, turned us towards him.

“Listen to me now,” he said. “You are going to meet some of my best friends in the world. We grew up together. One of them has a father in the police force, another has a mother who works in the mayor’s office. Be careful what you say. I trust them, but you never know who else is listening or what they might be thinking.”

A bit mystified, we both nodded, wondering quietly as we followed.

We walked back out to the streets of the town and down towards the water, towards the restaurants and hotels for the tourists of the “Greek Riviera”. We saw little of this. Ion lead us to a street away from the main thoroughfare where a smaller restaurant and cafe sat on a corner with just a bit of a view of the ocean.

As we approached, a few young men got up from tables outside and waited for Ion to cross the street. When he did, they came up to him immediately, embracing warmly and slapping each other on the back. They ushered us to a group of tables where several young men and a couple of women were sitting together, glasses of beer and ouzo and cups of Turkish coffee on the tables. They all rose and greeted us, the women embracing us, woman to woman, and the men shaking hands. They were all warmly happy to see Ion and excited about meeting his two American friends.

We sat and drinks were ordered and probably a plate of olives and snacks. The sky was an absolute shade of blue and the glimpse of water behind us sparkling in shades of indigo and turquoise. The air was much softer than the blazing heat of Athens. We chatted in English with many pauses for translation. As the afternoon passed slowly by, we began to feel quite relaxed with these new friends. Someone got up to go to the store to get cigarettes and the conversation shifted a bit. One of the men was asking about the atmosphere in the US. Ion translated. “What’s it like there now?”

I began to answer by explaining how I felt about our new president, Nixon, and his stance on the Vietnam War, my friend adding a comment about the demonstration that May. The man who had asked the question seemed quite interested in our response and turned towards Ion with to ask another question for him to interpret. While my friend and I had been speaking, I’d noticed the other men in the group turning to each other with looks of furtive anxiety. One suddenly leaned in towards me and said quietly in English,

Don’t say anything more. We can’t talk like this. It’s not safe.”

Ion pulled his chair close in towards mine and my friend’s and, leaning forward as if he were thinking about something, said in a low voice as if speaking to the floor,

“This is what I was talking about. We can’t talk politics. My friend was foolish to ask his question. There are people here with connections to the police. We should just get up and leave now as if we had planned to all along.” He put a hand on my arm and we both stood up.

The whole group responded, standing up and taking the last drinks from their glasses, embracing and shaking hands to take our leave. As we walked away from the cafe, one of Ion’s friends, long hair caught up in a ponytail, slim and tall, turned to him and said,

Why don’t I give the girls turns riding on the back of my motorcycle? I could show them the view up on the hill.”

Ion came up beside us and asked whether we’d like that. Gazing quickly at each other for some confirmation that this was alright, my friend shrugged, raising her eyebrows slightly and smiling for the men. I said,

Sure! Sounds wonderful!”

My friend was the first to hop on the back of the small white motorcycle. Waving, they took off up the road. A couple from the cafe had come to join us where we leaned against an iron fence, waiting together on the edge of what seemed to be a small park. Ion smoked and chatted with them in a mixture of English and Greek, translating some bits here and there. After a few minutes, it became clear they were talking about plans for the next couple of weeks, the final days of summer break. The plans seemed centered around making a trip to the island of Mykonos. They weren’t sure whether they could get away but they thought it would be a splendid place to take us. They talked about a tent he could borrow so we could all camp on the beach.

After a long while, the motorcycle roared down the hill, my friend smiling, her hair streaming out behind them like a fluttering yellow banner.

“What a great ride! You’ll love it! It’s so beautiful up there!” she called to me as she slid off backwards, finding her footing on the pavement. Her face was shining with the joy of it.

She hugged the driver around his shoulders and waved back to him as she came to join us. He looked over at me and motioned for me to get on. I ran up and, as I settled in behind him he said,

“Remember my name? It’s Yanni.”

“Yes” I said, as he turned and shook my hand.

“I remember now.”

“Hold on around my waist,” he said.

“Ever been on a motorcycle before? It’s curvy up here. You have to hold on tight.”

A memory of the long motorcycle rides through the countryside with my good friend back in my hometown, stopping for ice cream in our special spot out of town, flashed through my mind. A round burn mark inside my left calf was a lasting reminder of the first time I’d dismounted from the hot bike. My friend had taught me how to lean in with the curves and how to hold on just tight enough around his leather jacket. Protectively, he had made sure I had the security of a helmet. Here, my head was bare in the free open air. Nervous, yet excited, I told him,

“Yes. I have. I’m okay.”

I pressed myself in against his back, reassured by its firm, steady strength. He turned the bike and started up the hill.

The air rushing by was hot and fragrant with smells I had never smelled anywhere else but Greece. As we leaned through a pocket of fragrance, I yelled into his ear,

“What’s that sweet smell?”

He turned his head just enough for me to hear and yelled back, “Jasmine.”

The air was filled with wafts of its sweetness. The view of the ocean to our right was exquisite, the particular hues of the blue sublime in their combined intensity, transforming the world. A wave of happiness washed through me and rested there as we whizzed past the graceful dark pines and exotic palms with their strange bark, the wind now cooling me and sending a shiver up my back and into my bare shoulders, filling me with a physical, animal joy. Recklessly, unlike me, I threw up my arms and tilted my head back to look up into the endlessly vibrating sky.

I’m in Greece!” I thought, “In Greece!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

There Is Nothing That I Know

Wind rocks the top of cedar tree
shivers its thin, dark feathers.
The warm damp smell of spring
as present in air as warmth can be
in cool wind’s weathers.
My bones are cold as only
some cold grief can bring.

There is nothing that I know.
Yet this is what I know.
At the beach today
I saw land slide
Abruptly down a cliffside
Poured from above by some unseen shift
Its roar erased by waves’ unceasing sift
of water against rock, a symphony with the wind.
Suddenly pooling earth as if just another drift
of waterfall.
Then done and as if it must
Just let one more rock come tumbling down
smug,
still, as if it had  just been a pile of dust
all along.

A twisted tree atop another sandstone cliff
with roots that hold it fast and stiff
above the open air.
Along the forest trail huge limbs of trees
Wounds gaping orange here and there
In some time past
were there above me with their papery leaves
still clinging when I walked here last.
It seemed they had been part of living tree,
suspended
against the pull of that firm gravity
gracefully from strong trunks.

I see in memory the big wind
I hear its howl
but in this here, this now
they never were but
logs, limbs spreadeagled
among the litter of leaves
and ginger sprouts and beetles.

There was an ache, a dull burning behind my eyes
from some night past when I remember worry
burned like biting flies
Even as they saw those things in some slight flurry
of what seemed to be the grey light
of late slanting afternoon
Tohee chirping, hawk in flight

Now a memory, gone.

Is it now, or was it then I felt the warmth
of those sweet patches of air
as choruses of song
that seemed to carry messages of spring.
Is it now or was it then
My thoughts rise on some cold wing
Chill and bare.

What I know is that big things
are always changing in the wings
Of time.
Moving imperceptibly towards some shift
Mountains buried in the drift
of sand in winds
Rocks perched on cliffs while cities come and go
tumble from the years of snow
pressing in their cracks.
And become a hidden hill in some forest below.
While the smallest things forever in and around
find some quiet movement in the ground.

What I cannot see is the movement of these
smallest things
The stir of atoms of the air, dust of star and strings
of dancing proteins in each cell
Light that glimmers as if  at the ringing of some clear bell
in their shift from state to state

I know nothing of the great.
This is all I can know
Cedar shivers when wild winds blow
Earth roars swiftly down the cliff
Then is quiet as a drift
in streams of time.

There is nothing
That I know

Yet this I know.

 

 

The Rocks

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_20171203_161529965

 

 

The First Day on the Road

 

From a motel in America

 

Traveling in our own country

in that edge of time

between autumn and winter

The few tenacious trees that

still cling to vibrant songs of red

so joyous in defiant singing

in the concert of grey, brown and dark green

that has begun.

 

Not like the holiday travels

in warmth and sunshine

we wake to darkness and drive

until well after darkness comes again

shivering inside to think

of working in the cold of night

to create some little home

to shelter sleep.

 

This first night instead

tired and full of the sickness

stretching around the globe

like a fungus

we find a motel by the road

and feel the comfort

of a bed and sheets and

nice soap

as if travellers from

a place of tents

and beds on hard ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were off to Greece.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Autumn 1968

In the space

of an upturning

brilliant leaf

cupping the clear air

on the dusty autumn ground

The entire universe spreads itself

Beginning here

contained and unbounded yet

It is born

 

A Window in Time (Part 2): To Lyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Follow me”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll drive,” Michel said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“D’accord?”

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

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

“We’re coming to Lyon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go. Get out!”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll take you. How much?” he said.

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

“Which one?”

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

“You can ride in there,” he told us.

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said. “Yes. Too close.”

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

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