Saturday, April 29, 2017

veering off corse

We don’t have to feel like poverty-stricken paupers, because right in our heart is everything anyone could ever wish for in terms of open, courageous warmth and clarity.
—Pema Chödrön

I HAD BIG PLANS, during our 5-day trip to Corsica over Easter, to write here every day and present an engaging, constant flow of images and reflections. I’d mapped it out, how I’d post regularly, maybe even include sketches I’d done; at night I’d put le petit garçon to bed and then set to work, diligently. But then, as some kind of cleverly-masked gift, my committee of angels stepped in, cut off my access to the internet, and the plans swiftly changed.

Not to knock ambition, much le­ss discipline. But apparently I had another lesson to learn.

On the first day, I did in fact rise early and make my coffee in peace, but then it was too chilly to sit outside and inside was uncomfortable and dammit, le petit garçon woke the very minute I’d settled down with my notebook. And from there it went speedily downhill, The Frenchman was awake too. Argh! You people! I began to stomp a little. I hunted for my spot, my time, which I needed.

I was just getting ready to push them away with a book or a look or something, when I felt a proverbial tap on my shoulder and a thought occurred to me: Darling, maybe this isn’t a time for you to be alone. Maybe it’s time to be together. Just embrace the thing that’s here. Don’t fight it hoping you’ll have some sort of meditation all by yourself. You won’t get it, first of all, and resisting it will do little aside from cause more pain.

Sometimes I shush meddling voices, but I decided to cede to this one. A moment of potentially heart-opening wisdom; lately they arrive so unexpectedly. 

So that first day, when le petit garçon asked persistently Do you want to play with me? I said Yes. I decided to try to stop arguing with the reality that we were three, I am a mom, and we were on vacation in a pint-size place. Instead of fighting for time and space and attempting to write in the evenings as if it were some kind of working holiday, I read to my child and passed out directly after, exhausted. I sunk my teeth into a new Zadie Smith. I stared into space and admired the landscape. I accepted the invitation of Valentine, our hostess, to share a morning coffee and chat.

When we hiked, I thought, I’m really rusty at this, this parenting. I’ve assumed this guy could just come along for the ride pretty much. I’ll push us ahead, and he’ll come along, and he’ll play with whatever. I felt out of practice, in a rut even, which seemed unlikely to me given the fluidity of our lives right now.

But as we walked in the woods and he fashioned every other stick into a pistolet and wanted to talk about the storm troopers who were following us I finally said, OK. I put on my 6-year-old thinking cap and said, Which ones? How big? What color?

If someone had told my 17-year-old Edward Abbey-loving self — let alone the staunch pacifist in me — I’d be playing with guns in the forests of Corsica without even a wave of discomfort crossing my face I’d not have believed a word. Yet there I was, a clone trooper fighting off bad guys with my twig, soaking in the scenery and smelling flowers on the sly.

One morning le petit garçon said, tears welling in his big blue eyes, I feel like you keep dressing me too cold. So rather than insisting on the outfit I wanted I said, You’re probably right, how can we fix this? I wondered: How can I just help him, at whatever stage, if he needs it? Can I think like a 6-year-old here?

Do you want to build a sandcastle? Who wants to build a chateau? 

We talked a lot about wild boars, and Corsican forests, and we wished Obèlix was with us.

We discussed Easter, the Easter Bunny (how big is he? does he talk?), Jesus, the whole cross and crucifixion, tombs and burials, and after a quiet stretch of intense analysis I heard from the back seat: “I don’t think the Easter Bunny is real. I think it’s some Catholic people who dress up and hide eggs. Mystery solved!

Working independently, on art or writing, is perplexing. When does one say, No, I have to do this, I am committed and have to clock in or I’ll get sidetracked forever, and when does one say, OK, I’m going to just let myself flow along with this? In Corsica, I opted mostly for the latter, and although I’m doubtful as to whether it’ll result in any material, it was at least less of a fight. I accepted that for I am a parent, and that is time-consuming, and this kid is not made of steel, we can’t just forge ahead and go-go-go. One might think I’d have figured this out after six years but no, I am not so skilled or perhaps so generous, and it’s an ongoing lesson.

A little more Yes and a little less In A Minute. As Pema Chödrön might say, How can I stop trampling over this jewel that’s right here?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

en train de

thanks to Packing My Suitcase

THE OTHER MORNING as I did my toilette I thought, lately I feel as though I’m swimming across a lake. I set out, ostensibly to get to the other side but we’ll see, mainly just to swim for a while. I’ve arrived at about the middle — too far from shore to turn back easily, yet the other side is also distant, and I’m a little tired and a tad discouraged. Work’s involved, either way. So I’m paused in the middle, treading water for a moment. I look back and can just make out everyone on shore, relaxing and chatting and picnicking gaily. I squint to look ahead, and it’s so far away and unfamiliar (although it does look quite pretty), I wonder if I’ll ever get there.

I am not in love with Toulouse at this very moment, sandwiched somewhere betwixt winter and spring. Too crowded, too many cars, too much pollution, garbage on the sidewalks and in the shrubs, and where’s the green space? We’re all pale getting paler, a little doughier round the middle (not to name names, ahem) than we’d prefer. The sky is flat, trees bare. The canal looks pitiful, still and dirty, and that bottle that was trapped in the ice dramatically now just bobs sadly and reminds us that a) many a life is spent looking for solace in one of these, and b) does anyone clean this place? I return to our apartment greeted by a mess of drinkers who’ve taken shelter from the wind and rain outside our front door. They are friendly, even courteous — I am invariably met with several “bonjour madames”, even a compliment — and harmless, but I am unsettled.

 Do you know what this is? I don't know what this is.

Where was I going again?

To top it all off I turned x5 a week ago. Le petit garçon reminded me several weeks in advance, on our bikeride to school. What? I responded. No no no, you have that wrong, you’ve miscalculated, I’m only like 42 or something or I don’t know, 37?

hip hip hurra.

But although I am tempted to despair the world, the environment, the absence of grass and leaves, still I am vaguely determined — that seems like as much as I can muster — to focus on what is, not what is not. Wasn’t that my intention when I set out? I walk out of the grimy building where I work as an English teacher, see the mess of cigarette butts deposited directly in front of our door, and take a breath. OK Una. What is happening? What’s not wrong?

OK, ok. For starters, I am alive. It could well be otherwise.

I look around. The view from the middle of the lake always astonishes me, it’s so different from my usual vantage point. I notice people bundled up, men handsome in their sweaters. They've a genetic gift for scarf-tying, the French, that’s the only way to put it. I hear the conversation around me, still a pleasant, musical background noise. I go to the marché, even just a regular supermarché, and admire the abundant butter selection. I notice goosebumps as I write, and let them rise, prickle. Feel that. Exhale.

words . . . words fail me.

I remind myself to just savor this life.

A friend who’s experienced enormous loss just adopted the most beautiful baby boy; another just gave birth. How does this goodness prevail despite it all? Maybe that’s what February and March are all about. Cuddling with babies till spring fully arrives. The holy days. Some sort of mercy in the midst of it.

Last week, for example, I’m riding to work and I hear another cyclist passing me, whistling cheerfully. And what, of all songs, is his song? Memory. From Cats. An early 80s musical, for hell’s sake! He wasn’t just any guy either, he was hip, riding his fixed-gear bike at a clip. How lovely that was, how incongruous, how bizarre. Andrew Lloyd Webber, ya made it to Toulouse. The world is connected.

And did I mention the butter section?
I walk in a favorite park and the daffodils say it for me: We’re going to do this; we’re pushing through the cold wintry ground despite the odds. Move aside, dirt, we have a song to sing.

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

—Jane Kenyon