Sunday, April 14, 2019

Points of Interrogation

Have you ever been dealt a problem which you thought was a terrible, terrible problem — and it was, even — but later you discovered that it was actually a doorway, to a whole world of subtlety and self-love you really needed to uncover? 

That’s how I feel about food, with which I struggled for, oh, fifteen years easy and then way more after that, though later the dial turned down considerably. I’m grateful almost daily for this particular challenge, whose profile has changed from problem to more like question, or puzzle. 

It continues to be an unpredictable, daily journey of ups and downs and, finally, a reminder to listen to and honor the feelings and the inner landscape. Where am I on, and where am I off, and what is my own middle way? 

One thing I did which, phewf, as le petit garçon might say — what a relief — was to stop dieting. That was around age 17 when I discovered the work and writings of Geneen Roth, in a furtive and desperate visit to Waking Owl books, where I found her book Feeding the Hungry Heart and, at last, someone who got what I was going through. The relief of dismounting the roller coaster of restriction was like exhaling after holding my breath for fifteen seconds too long. 

But alas, rather than eating in a balanced way I kind-of misinterpreted that as a green light of sorts, and instead swung in the other direction to an extreme, and therein lay my struggle for years to come. 

I swear I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Another story for another time. Twenty years hence I feel like Geneen and I are enduring pals: I’ve stuck with her and dug deeper with her as she — as we — investigate the ways how we are with food reverberate, wider and wider into all aspects of our lives. 

Take Rules, for example. 

Turns out, the following-of-rules is deeply ingrained in me. For years I hunted for a set to follow, along with the right label to describe myself. Maybe, I subconsciously figured, if I found them I’d finally be able to relax. I'm good at following rules, at being good — or at least trying to be good, and then knowing when I’ve been bad, so I can feel bad, and then try to be good again. I’d be OK. 

But as It turns out I hate rules, even when I agree with them. The problem is that beneath the surface is the implication that without them we are not to be trusted. If left to our own devices, particularly around food, we will devour the entire box, our appetites are too big to manage, we are fundamentally bad. 

It begins with food, but then it extends to other areas of our lives: don’t trust your ideas. Some outside arbiter knows better than you. 

I much prefer the line of self-trust, as scary as it is. So on this journey with food I found a path of sorts which is not about following rules but rather listening closely and respecting what my body wants — which is what I wanted all along anyway. 

I vividly remember seeing Danny Kaye direct the Utah Symphony when I was about twelve years old. The first half of the concert was the regular conductor Maurice Abravanel; and then, written on the program for after the intermission, was simply this:

That one question mark thrilled me, visually stamped itself onto my memory. 

Danny Kaye, Tanglewood 1961

It strikes me that my relationship with food is more like that now: rather than a regimen to follow, it’s more like a daily question mark in relation to food. What’s right for right now? 

Roth — Geneen, since we’re old friends — talks in one of her books about permitters and restricters, about how we’re often basically one or the other, kind-of fundamentally oriented that way. Of course someone with anorexia would be the classic restricter, and someone who compulsively overeats might be your classic permitter. I am a permitter all the way who once wished she were a successful restricter, because she imagined they were more disciplined and thus morally superior. 

But (sigh) I guess I am a rebel at heart. It’s not the law of the land, obviously, but rather a tendency. I prefer these days to think of myself as a listener, as opposed to a blind follower of rules. I need the freedom of choice. 

Choice: definitely an option here.

Apropos of everything, I read just this morning in the philosophy book I found in the children’s section: Quand un acte est libre, il a plus de valeur pour nous et pour les autres qu’un acte forcé. When one does something of one’s own free will, it has much more value than the same thing done under duress. 

One thing Roth offers, as a counter to all this, is a set of eating guidelines. Unlike rules, there’s no feeling shitty after if you don’t adhere to them perfectly. They’re more like loving offerings. If love could speak, this is what love would tell you is helpful. Maybe you focus on one for a while, and see what happens when you follow it, and what arises. 

Sit down when you eat, don’t stand there because we all know that when you stand things somehow don’t count or they’re forgotten or we don't really taste and experience them. Eat without distractions, so that you really taste and savor this food you’re putting in your beautiful body. Eat with pleasure and enjoyment: relish the gift of this food. Eat as if other people could see you, as if you were in full view of the world. There’s no hiding here. And eat when you’re hungry. Trust the messages this body sends you. 


Some say that how you eat is how you live. How you eat is the messages you send to yourself about what you deserve and what you value. For me, eating mindfully, without distractions, is deeply challenging. I often do it on the fly. Or I’ll make a beautiful meal, and then I’ll think about other things and whip through it like the Queen is waiting on me, and then I’ll wonder, where did that beautiful meal go? Does that say something about what I think I deserve and how much time I deserve? 

So much to savor

I'm still working on that one. 

I do love the subtlety of it, even while the lack of confirmation makes me deeply uncomfortable. Am I fat? Am I ugly? Vegetarian? Good, bad? Straight, gay, bi? Turns out in most cases it’s somewhere in the middle. 

Maybe those kinds of questions are unanswerable anyway, so it might do me well to disengage from them as much as try to answer them. Weight, another example: for me, better to turn my back, toss the scale, and trust the inner guide on that one. 

(I can hear The Voice mocking me now: Trust your feelings. Inner guide. Ha! Look how far that got you! I put her in a little jar, so she doesn’t sound so intimidating, but jeez already.) 

Perhaps it’s no accident that I am now in an expressly secular country which celebrates food to a kind of religious extent. I get the irony: good food is plentiful and even amazing, and I’ve the ability and luxury and good fortune to daily eat according to what feels right. The éclairs will be there tomorrow, and the next day, so there’s no rush to consume it all in one go. 

No, seriously: we’re only scratching the surface here.

This whole damned blog could be about food and body image, really, since the topic is so deep. And constant: it’s a daily effort to meet these questions, and to treasure both food and this body. 

I don’t know about you, but some of us around here might have just turned 47. How did that happen? It’s a prime number, 47; prime seems the perfect word to describe the juicy pulpy marrow of life at this age. Besides, what is age, anyway? As a wise person once said to me, we’re all kind of the same age, really, at this moment, aren’t we? 

Mid-life is such a personal journey. How much longer? How will it end? What do I do with this accumulation of mini experiences and traumas? What’s it all for, and who is the final judge? IS there a gold star at the end? Who the f is issuing the gold stars? Wait, there ARE no gold stars? Oh merde, hold on a minute: who the hell am I living this life for anyway? 

I mean, so I’ve heard. You probably already knew this. I had a hunch, but it’s finally sinking in. 

Once again, Mary Oliver steps in to issue a nugget of wisdom and perspective. News flash: What you’re looking for is who is looking. That person, that final arbiter and distributor of the stars? That’s you, m’dear. 

We’ll let her drop the mic once again, with a poem that makes the rounds frequently, and for good reason. The first three lines alone. Words to live by.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Pause Visuelle

That last post took so damned much effort to assemble that I decided, this round, to focus on something straightforward, easier. Isn’t that a lovely word, ease? Perhaps easy doesn’t mean lazy, after all; perhaps it steers us toward what’s natural, what’s genuine. 

I scoured my list of possible topics to see what resonated. Anything that opened my eyes a little wider or made me sit up with attention, unexpectedly, even momentarily? 

All of them seemed just too cumbersome in an already unrelentingly cold January. 

One thing I for sure didn’t want to write about was how in December I attempted in the world’s worst French to guide a gaggle of 6- and 7-year-olds into the world of portraiture, when I ‘volunteered’ for le petit garçon’s class. It took so much energy to just do it, let alone write about it. Suffice it to say that I and 26 kids, together with one maîtresse and my American college student assistant, drew a bunch of portraits, and at moments it wasn’t pretty, but then again nor was it ugly, and we all learned from it I think. 

What struck me more than anything was how much these children loved blind contour drawing. Dessin à l’aveugle, I think it’s called in these parts. I had temporarily forgotten that I love it too. 

Stephanie, the young opera singer, ca. 2010

Adults kvetch a little even within the first two minutes of a blind contour drawing. Their minds wander, they begin to squirm. But these little people did not kvetch. They focused. 

They loved having two rules to follow. One. You MAY NOT look at your paper, not once, during the five or so minutes in which we are drawing. Two. Once you start that line, you keep going, you don’t pick up your pencil or drawing tool. You imagine that you are an ant, you believe that you are this ant, crawling across the surface of whatever it is you’re drawing, and you let your mind quiet, and you DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR PAPER.

I saw you — ah ha! Resist the urge!  

They also loved the results, the funny-looking-yet-recognizable drawings that magically emerged. I showed them one I did recently, how fun they could be. 

The other thing I definitely didn't want to write about was the coffee-making competition I attended in late November. Those of us who know Café Cerise know it is among the best in Toulouse: attention to and passion for coffee combined with atmosphere and overall conviviality. Valentin recently installed his own roaster; he’s the one who generously gave me that list of coffee houses to visit when I went to Paris, entirely spot-on. 

I wonder where people get their distinct preferences for roasting time, because their beans, and roasting in general here, strikes me as a bit on the light side, I’ll call it an impressionist roast, whereas I prefer something more bold and intense and grounding, maybe something more expressionist. I bravely face this battle daily. 

… but I digress.

Valentin’s been hosting these cuppings and competitions recently, first for the Aeropress European championships would you believe, this time for a pourover contraption called the Hario V60. I confess it was a bit over-the-top even for this enthusiast: as competitors weighed their grounds to the fraction of an ounce and fussed over the best way to pre-moisten their filters, I kept thinking, a possible delicious cuppa is sitting there getting cold! You serve it lukewarm, and it may have subtle toffee or ruby notes, but that whole component of the coffee-drinking experience went down the proverbial drain. 

But both these events inspired me, woke something dormant. I thought, you know, why not just embrace these recent reminders of things I love, scramble them together, and take a break from all those words? So — here we are, with a pause visuelle you might say, of blind contour drawings inspired by daily life. 

. . . starting with coffee, of course

I hope you enjoy them. 

Winter, I'm told, is secretly preparing treats for us, but they won’t be ready for a while — something called spring I think it is? Hang in there. I will too.

We begin rough, with whatever's at hand . . . 

. . . and continue with leftovers from tree-decorating

The kaki trees — persimmon to you and me — which have generously agreed to wear their fruit a little longer, brightening otherwise stark surroundings. They’re everywhere; yet few people I've met seem to eat or cook with them…

Tools of the trade

Winter will not last forever, little grape vine

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Behind the Scenes (at Musée Paul Dupuy)

As has happened several times, le petit garçon unwittingly steered me to this month’s blog topic, just by attending school each day. First it was French poetry, next a filmmaker; I won’t be surprised if I soon write about marbles, which are the thing on French playgrounds for the under-eight set. But more on that another time. 

I leapt at the opportunity when his teacher asked if any parents would be willing to chaperone the class on a field trip. I love to observe the kids together with their maîtresse, listen to how they talk and interact, and discover new corners of Toulouse. 

I was especially excited because this was an exhibition by a Franco-American artist who, I learned upon a little research, was born in Pasadena and moved to France as a child. I imagined all the stuff she and I would have in common, the conversations we might have. I pictured her, oozing Californian cool and free-spiritedness while speaking perfect French. 

Maybe, maybe not. But I also had a hunch too that there was something for me there. Something to uncover, to be reminded of, inspired by perhaps. Maybe, I thought, it will stoke a fire in me. 

Part of month-long slew of contemporary exhibitions around Toulouse, a biennial festival titled Le Printemps de September (OK, yes, maybe we are a bit tardy), Nina Childress’ show was held at the small Musée Paul Dupuy just off Rue Ozenne. It was two days from opening; our tour would be a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the work-in-progress. My mouth watered. 

So one afternoon, we cheerfully herded 22 five-to-seven-year-olds through the park and to the museum, where a friendly guide welcomed us. 

Childress had dug out works from storage at the larger Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, ones made by minor, forgotten, or less-loved artists that caught her attention for formal or thematic reasons. Her interest sparked, she planned to then associate forty of them with thirty of her own. And today, she’d generously agreed to have a herd of curious enfants trample into her construction zone. 

As we waited for our tour I peered through a glass door on my right to see a bunch of the museum’s paintings, anticipating their moment in the spotlight. Out of context like this, they seem so modest and ordinary. How does putting a museum object on the floor, versus a pedestal for example, affect our experience and our critique of it? 

This one, for example?

We were greeted at the exhibition entrance by the artist at work, bralessly unpretentious in an orange t-shirt splattered with paint, carrying a roll of blue painters’ tape. Her glasses were thickish, smudged; she seemed to peer through them at us, as if through fog. 

She began by explaining the opening sign, painted in rough letters, its paint dribbling deliberately. 

Apparently the owl also finds its young beautiful . . .

…which, I thought, must imply that every parent finds its children beautiful? OK, that’s sweet, and true, I thought, right? Babies — adorable to every mother’s eye, and thank god for that. Apparently this was a fable her own mother repeated to her, about an owl who, in an effort to protect her young from a dangerous and hungry eagle, effused about how beautiful her babies were. Really built them up. So much so that when the eagle saw them, it didn’t recognize them by the owl’s description — perhaps their faces only their mother could really love? — and so devoured them as planned. 

Childress was, as my helpful guidebook told me, building her own nest of sorts at the museum and “brooding over the chicks’ revenge”. Retrieving paintings and finding something in even the most neglected among them. I think; to be honest, I’m still a little puzzled. Was she connecting the story with her own efforts on behalf of the unloved paintings? Was she critiquing the portrayal of women in painting and sculpture? If so, how does that connect with the owl story? Or is it more of an institutional critique — rethinking the museum itself? 

As it turned out I got too busy being captivated by the physical experience of the exhibition to fuss with these questions for the moment. I was immediately entranced by the sea of brown craft paper, covering the walls. Torn bits here, plastic sheets with quick sketches of precious 17th-century portraits there. People busily worked around us, discussing placement, mounting, lighting. My questions multiplied. Was what we were seeing prep, or was it the exhibition itself? 

We sat down with Childress, in the midst of the chaos, to chat. Scared her by nearly putting our sneakers on the freshly-painted black wall to our right, came perilously close to leaning on that painting on our left, propped against the wall. 

We plied her with questions; she looked at us through her clouded lenses and fielded them, clearly distracted but still, remarkably, amiable. How did you start painting? How long does a painting take? Do you like animated movies? Do you ever draw on a tablet? When did you know you wanted to be an artist? Where is your studio? What inspires you? 

Oh, she said, good question. It’s not what people think, artists aren’t what people think. 

As we sit, my eyes wander to what she’s wearing, how she holds herself. She’s unassuming, not the least bit flashy. Unpretentious and hard-working, like her work, I think. 

As I assess her physical presence, I wonder, Why am I so interested in how she looks? It dawns on me how deeply-set that is, this tendency to size a woman up based on her appearance. Even an accomplished artist who’s pouring hours and hours into a sizeable and meaningful project. I resist it, but it takes concerted effort: I sometimes still buy into the pervasive idea that looks are the ultimate statement about a woman’s value, long before the content of her ideas or character. 

I refuse to go there. I want to concentrate on her work. But on the other hand, the artist’s persona, their public face, does fascinate me. How do they turn up? How do they present themselves to the public? Do they care? How do women embrace their bodies and at the same time refuse to be reduced to their appearance? 

I hang out with that kōan. 

I returned later in the week for the opening, breath baited, to see the completed show. 

I was relieved to discover that the elements I loved — the paper, the roughhewn-ness — remained. More clear now was the conversation between her work and the museum’s. The torn paper on the walls, for example, echoed of one of the abstract paintings. 

One section contained image after image of nudes being gazed at — hers and theirs. Some coyly aware, some utterly innocent to that weirdo peering out from behind the trees. A lot of breasts, here lovingly attended to, there aggressively painted. Damn they get a lot of attention, don’t they? As if they’re the defining female feature, or have some kind of structural significance. 

The machismo in one museum piece was particularly appalling — men fully-clothed being served tea by a woman in her birthday suit, spare me — so she repainted it into abstraction. It might be my favorite: a reclamatory critical statement, and interesting in itself, simultaneously blurry and crisp. 

Mm hmm. Right. In your dreams.

It's not your eyes, nor my camera, I swear!

The artist was present; she told me they’d finished just two hours before the opening. Aside from flash of turquoise blue toenails evoking her color palette and 70s-era imagery, she seemed unceremonial. Same knee-length blue jogging pants and sandals as before, now with a dark blue hooded sweatshirt, a blue backpack slung over her shoulder. Same clouded glasses. 

She’s been working on this shit for days, I thought, and she’s finally done. She’s probably exhausted. 

On my third and final visit, I had the gallery to myself. I appreciated again the deliberateness in every detail, even down to the splattered paint. I admired her range and versatility, crude here, polished there. I longed to work at a museum again so I’d have access to their trade secrets. I thought of volunteering to help install exhibitions. I wondered how long each piece had taken to create, and how that affected my thoughts about its monetary value. 

Absent a curious friend or companion with whom to toss around ideas, I tried to practice the inquisitive approach I encourage in my students. What was I seeing? Why, for example, was this roll of what looked wallpaper cascading down the wall and spilling onto the floor? Kraft sur Kraft, Nina Childress, 2018. 

What a delicious challenge, to curate an entire space, from the moment of entry to the rounding into the final gallery. Ensuring each space is its own but also part of a coherent whole. Precision even in the apparently sloppy bits. And in this case, a call to question what we assume is going to happen, given that this is a Museum, in whom we place our aesthetic trust. 

I think of Duane Linklater’s 2015 salt exhibition at the UMFA, who took objects from the museum’s collection off their literal and proverbial pedestals and shone new light on them. How do museums shape our assumptions and opinions? Can they themselves address these challenging questions, including their own authority? As with the owl and the eagle and their view of the owlets, is the nature of reality dependent on the perspective from which it is observed?

This exhibition reconnected me to my craving to take over an entire space, from the moment one enters to how the walls are painted to how every sense is engaged. Like a piece of music: when you curate a full exhibition you could curate a journey. Make it practically irresistible. 

where the journey isn't just about your belly

My own work has found a temporary home in Toulouse, at Le Pic Saint-Loup till the end of the year. I love the way restaurants like this can address the space in its entirety, too, and tend to all your senses whilst offering what could appear on the surface to be just a (really, really good) meal. 

You never know, with cafés and bars — the lighting can be shit or the whole thing can feel like a vague insult, to the place, the artist, the artwork, and all the work behind it. But at other places, like this one, even the toilettes are considered, with their hand towels, bunches of lavender, objects placed just so simply for pure visual appeal. We were expecting you, we haven’t forgotten you. Now get back to your gastronomically gorgeous repast

Thank you Ms. Childress for pointing shit out and for working hard despite all the forces working against you. Including yours truly, who still struggles with the notion that, for women, appearance is what it all comes down to in some kind of absurd final analysis. Thank you for being smart, and strong, and hard-working, and kind-of witty, and for continuing your work. Maybe I'll write you a love letter, dammit.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Touché, Universe

You know that thing people say when they’re trying to make sense of the nonsensical? I could never get behind it. They knowingly evoke the Universe, saying, Everything happens for a reason. Oh it seems so trite and overused I could spit

So as much as it pains me to admit it, I am of late turning on the receptors and tuning in to signs. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a bit more sleep, the tide of stress is ebbing, and we’re in the easy chair of August that I’m just noticing more, but it seems they’re everywhere. Unexpected conversations, cleverly-placed objects. Someone I keep bumping into. A situation I can’t change. 

Signs that whisper, This way. Yoo hoo, you’re meant to go this way. 

An example. 

Self-portrait, 1912. Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

One day after I’d brought my class to Les Abattoirs, Toulouse’s contemporary art museum, I took a few sleep-deprived minutes to browse the store. A couple of postcards featuring the artist Helene Schjerfbeck jumped out at me, and I thought, Who is that, who on earth is that angel who escaped my attention until now?

Costume Picture II, 1909. Ateneum

So I uncovered Helene’s work — she was Finnish, and worked in France for a time — which then led me to this extraordinary website championing women artists. I know what I’ll be up to this afternoon. And tomorrow, and the day after that . . . 

Self-Portrait with Palette I, 1937. Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Nice work, Universe. 

Some signs appear like confirmations. A few months ago, we visited friends who’d recently had a baby. Just the day before, I’d got my ukulele out for the first time in over half a year, to learn a few chords and strumming patterns. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but I'm longing to play. And there, in the corner of our friends’ little house, sat a ukulele, in a case identical to mine. A sign, I thought. Confirmation. Do it. Yes, do it. 

Here’s another: Le petit garçon and I were reading recently, and I saw this, which would totally have escaped my notice six months ago. It seemed to say, Recognize this? A little reward for all your hard work lately. 

from Astérix Legionnaire. Albert Uderzo & Rene Goscinny, 1967.

Some signs are suggestions, and I’m so glad to get them. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing lately, and it’s a stagnant August in France. I need a nudge. 

Last week at the library I came upon this wall where people put up notes offering services or searching for piano lessons, art lessons, an odd jobs person, a room in the country in exchange for English conversation. I was inspired to leave my own note. 

like bibliothèque, or discothèque, or mediathèque… but for partaking!

I love the mix: effort, followed by throwing the ball up in the air and just seeing where it lands. Lay the groundwork, set the stage, and then stand back and allow fate — OK, The Universe — to do its thing. Already I've had responses from Lionel, Nicolas, and Lola. Who knows what might happen? 

On another museum visit, I saw the work of Eduardo Chillida who referenced the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. Household to the French, perhaps, but only vaguely familiar to me. Where had I heard his name before? Aha! The Poetics of Space. That book Michael Howard introduced us to back in his painting class in Seattle. Howard’s paintings of houses made my heart leap then, and it turns out they still steal my breath. Could it be time to revisit them? 

Michael Howard: 156 Herman, 2011. Thanks to Prographica/KDR Gallery, Seattle.

Harman Site, 2011

764 Maddock (Daly City), 2013

And another. After visiting my morning farmer’s markets last Saturday I ended my errands at the co-op. A man in a dapper cap stopped me after I’d paid and said, Look, your basked is so beautiful, the arrangement of colors. Definitely worth a photograph. I hadn’t really thought of it till then, and I looked down to discover he was right. 

But I’m not always sure how to read signs. Some seem to say Do This Now; others forewarn; still others are gently-placed prompts: I see that you’re a little lost. This is important. 

In one common scenario, and I don’t like to admit this, a “sign” appears too demanding or scary so I just pretend I don’t hear anything. Not now. Don’t contradict my plans. And don’t you dare try to tell me Everything Happens for a Reason

For perspective on coping with the Universe’s less pleasant offerings, I turned as I sometimes do to Improvised Life, which offered another option: What might be the hidden lesson or value in this situation? This seems like it sucks. It DOES suck. But could there be a veiled message here? 

I love this approach. I have long imagined I have a committee of angels who present things to me, sometimes clear, other times obscure, to guide me. 

I vehemently resist physical signs, the things beyond my control. But alas they seem to abound lately. At the end of a usual run recently a strain surfaced in my left calf. I waited several days, then a week. After two weeks I thought, OK, this is getting ridiculous, I’m going to lose my mojo. So I tried, but after ten minutes I felt that familiar pang and knew I had to stop. Two weeks became three, then more easily four, and here we are over a month later. 

After engaging in a good dose of annoyance followed by self-pity, it occurred to me that maybe this was my body saying, Yo, quit this, you’re not 20, you can’t burn candles at every end and expect to just keep sallying forth. Take it easy. And even if you don't rest, you’ve got other shit to take care of, so go spend some time on that. 

During significant foot surgery some years ago, I — who assumed that my life (and the size of my body, which I equated with basic worth) depended on maintaining physical activity — learned that great things can happen when one gets off one’s feet and sits on one’s ass for a while. You go slow. Or ask for help. You have time to rearrange your closets and throw out all the clothes that don’t spark joy and never look back. You read more poetry, and drink coffee and read the entire Chronicles of Narnia

So maybe The Universe is saying Be careful about getting too obsessed, particularly about conflating body size with value. That’s a dangerous road you’re starting down, so your committee is removing it from your options for a spell. 

Besides, it’s too hot to run anyway. A forbidding forecast calls for Sweltering for the foreseeable future. What might be that hidden value? They’re in cahoots, the weather and my calf, saying, You’re not invincible. Life is short. Check your motivation. Take a little break, and come back refreshed and restored. 

So I suppose that this summer all signs point to Attention. Everyone’s out of town, or closed, or unavailable. Boo hoo hoo — I could really get down about this. But on the other hand, no one’s asking me for anything, either. And right here, today, in this moment, I am totally fine, and actually quite comfortable. The fan is on me, it’s not too stuffy in my little corner. I can sit with this anxiety about the heat that’s to come. Will the future arrive in the form I think it will anyway? The Universe seems to be saying: Embrace this life, this body, this one that’s right here, this moment and then the next, when it arrives. 

A song lands in my head. Molly gave it to me some years ago, and that’s no coincidence. 

Enjoy yourself / It’s later than you think 
Enjoy yourself / while you’re still in the pink 
The years go by / as quickly as a wink 
Enjoy yourself enjoy yourself / It’s later than you think.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Back in Business

I keep reading about the summer starting, how to spend summer, summer reads, what to do with all those berries you’re swimming in, and I’m just not quite there yet. Maybe it’s that I was submerged in teaching and visitors and then more teaching, returning to the world of all-nighters and fueled by coffee and not enough sleep, absorbed in the cubists and the fauvists and romantics and post-impressionists to the point that I’ve not noticed what season we’re in. But weeks after its official end, and it still feels to me like spring only just began. 

André Derain: Henri Matisse, 1905. Tate Gallery. What I’d call a perfect painting, were a perfect painting to exist . . 

It's the weather's fault too, I swear. During the two or so three months since my last post, whilst the blog has sat gathering dust, lonely and unattended, we vacillated, in Toulouse, between hats and down jackets and tunics and sandals — sometimes on the same day. With all the rain, the Garonne flooded its banks and was higher than I’ve ever seen it. 

Wasn’t it just yesterday Claritin D and I resumed our friendship where we left off last year? I resisted till my eyes were on fire, and the inside of my nose was gently but cruelly being caressed with feathers, and my skin erupted in bumps at the mere mention of a field of unmown grass. I only just got used to returning from drawing in the evening intoxicated by the rich smell of jasmine. 

I’m so glad that May included a revival of the compost collective. I thought I was alone, but it turns out there are other Toulousains who share my passion for putting their carrot peels and coffee grinds and onion skins in a bucket and carting them to the park to create a communal pile of nourishing soil. 

One of the best things about this town are the three connected public parks which lie close to le petit garçon’s school. The Jardin des Plantes is the largest, with the Jardin Royale across the street, and then the Grand Rond, with its large central fountain. The first year we were in Toulouse, there were a set of compost bins in each, and although I wasn’t an official subscriber I used and treasured (and wrote about) them. My composting ritual was one thing that helped me be here, get my hands in some dirt every once in a while, tolerate the fumes and commotion of a new city. 

Segment of wall in the Jardin des Plantes. Photograph by Mike Peel (

But then one day I arrived to the park and all the bins had disappeared. My heart sank. Left behind was just a note, saying like, Sorry, the experimental phase of this project is over, we’re reassessing how best to continue, but we’re gathering in a few weeks and you can come to help us discuss what’s next. 

I barely understood a thing at the meeting, confounded as I was by the vocabulary — strategy! ecology! city planning! — and the speed at which everyone spoke. However, when they asked for my name and which park I was associated with I somewhat randomly chose the Grand Rond, which proved to be the most organized and motivated of the three. 

Over the next few months my group worked with astonishing speed and efficiency to return composting to the Grand Rond, and although I missed a lot of the details I understood that we’d finally set a date to assemble and install the new bins. We gathered one May evening; four-fifths of us looked on while the other fifth did the actual physical labor. We received instructions on what to compost and how, what makes for an ideal pile. This being France, people brought food and drink to make this a moment of convivialité. We toasted, we clapped. I received my official green compost bucket which I now wield proudly as my badge of membership. 

We started a listserv, where fellow members write to express their appreciation, or small concerns or admonishments. My favorite was from someone who was distressed to find almost an entire baguette in the bin, plus egg shells that had not been crushed and an uncut grapefruit. People! 

Another observed that the bins were getting full and that we were completely out of brown material!!, followed by a smart-assy “quel succés!”. 

After just a few weeks the container was chock-full, and we were going to have a first-bin-emptying ceremony of sorts. But the aforementioned shitty weather kept intervening, and it was called off multiple times due to rain or wind. Notes flew back and forth, alerting the group to the latest plan, including unsolicited responses detailing people’s attendance or lack thereof. (Favorite example: I have a dentist’s appointment, in which I expect to have my mouth numbed, and I’ll be twenty minutes late.) While we waited, to curb overflow, the organizers put a lock on the bins and shared the code only with members. This caused one person to resign in protest, not wishing to be part of an effort that in any way is elitist and opining that the city should be able to organize ecological efforts accessible to everyone. Fair play. 

To cut this long story short, we’re back in business. Today as I undid the locks I could feel the heat emanating from inside. I opened the lid and the gloriously pungent odor of decomposing vegetable matter enveloped me. Mmm — glorious. 

Perhaps in spring everyone’s just so ready to say eff you to winter. At long last; and in Toulouse it took so damned long. This year, it no doubt had to do with the state of the world. Enough already. For me, it was some combination of this plus lack of sleep and early menopause, I swear to you, that caused my attitude to be much more along the lines of screw you than joy to the world. Not pretty; but in a way affirming at the same time. Screw it, says the flower, I’m coming up. I’m coming through this earth and yes I need sun but if all you’re giving me is rain I’ll take it and I’ll work with it. There won’t be many of us but we’ll be the darkest, plumpest cherries you ever saw.  

I was given an unexpected gift of new strawberries and cherries and le petit garçon and I made our first clafoutis. Everyone said Too-eggy this and I-don’t-like-the-texture that, and to all of them of course you know I’m saying Screw you, make your own, or don’t eat it, here, gimme that, I’ll take yours. 

See you again, real soon.  

Thank the gods we don't see this wacky practice anymore!