Places in the World

“I  had a farm in Africa…” Wait! This is not that, but I do belong to a book group in England. I joined in 2006 after an out of hand rejection to my inquiry about membership in a certain local reader’s group. Belonging to the group in England has been a great thing, and in a few weeks I’ll be traveling there to meet up with several of the members as we gather for a few days in Barnard Castle, a small town near Durham. This will be our last real get together as a group. The energies have shifted and participation is ever so slowly dying on the vine. Parts of the trip won’t be easy –  the saying of goodbyes, my fervent wishing that the laughter and conversation could last forever in the face of all obstacles. It is painful in the way of visiting a seriously ill person; the reality is that the fresh ideas and inquisitive spirit of the group are squelched in the shadow of those behemoths of immediacy, Facebook and Twitter. It’s been a spectacular run for an online discussion group, ten years now for the founding members, and there are many lives enriched and changed by dusting up against thoughts about reading and cinema, explorations of The Apprentice and the schlock of B-horror, all for the most part peacefully. There just isn’t a downside to this, other than its sputtering out.

Getting ready to travel lifts me into that state of pleasurable anticipation where thinking about the whole experience comes to the forefront and the mundane gets pushed aside to make way for excitement and wonder. The others in the group are far and away better read than I am; not for one second has this put me off chasing after them in an intellectual sense. I am the pesky American, the one asking questions, drinking it in, feeling excited about the newness of all the different directions to discover in reading and experience. In a sense I’ve been birthed again as a reader and thinker through membership in such a diverse and interesting group.

And yet on a long walk tonight, I thought not only about what a fortunate circumstance it is to travel, but what a happy thing it is to come home. The desk at my new job affords me a window onto the lovely city park here where Abraham Lincoln once debated. There’s a beauty and simplicity about my chosen home town that can make my heart flutter from thousands of miles away. It’s a good place to live, to dwell in what some days feels like an international station for connection with people who are down the street, across town, even across the continent and ocean. Not to mention the one most dear to me who sleeps down the hall and who is like me in his ability to make and keep close ties.

My son is getting to know teens from other places, and I’m amazed at how varied and strong these relationships can be. Last December, one of his closest friends visited here for a week. As I drove the boys home from the airport, somewhere between St Louis and Hannibal I learned for the first time that the boy’s father is prominent within NBC. In all of my exchanges with his mother it hadn’t come up because it wasn’t important. What could have been an awkward chasm of class division never opened, thanks to the graciousness of the boy’s family and my son and his friend. I was pleased to show the young man a Sinclair station with its ceramic dinosaur décor, wild turkeys flocking in a snowy Missouri field, and the lights of Kansas City as we drove in to spend a couple of days celebrating the New Year. My son looks forward to visiting his friend at some point when they can ride the subway and explore city life.

As the big world gets smaller and more navigable, I think more and more about Martin Buber’s philosophy of being open to each experience, each person, as an I-Thou relationship. When I’m available to the complex, indescribable melding that is the chance lying within almost every encounter, I’m open to the Eternal Thou. This is not pie in the sky, nor is it a dreamy state of willful ignorance to problems or conundrums such as class division and out of hand rejection. Rather it is at the heart of solutions small and ultimately larger. It’s the way of reaching out and then returning home to live more fully. I’d like to think that Martin Buber would never acknowledge any notion of mobility as simply “up” or “down.” Truly there is no such thing. There is really only out and back.  Buber wrote, “One who truly meets the world goes out also to God.” Out into the world, back into place.

9 o’clock somewhere

(Re)Imagining Paris

What can meaningfully be said of an ordinary girl’s first visit to Paris? Not even a girl, really, as she’s lashed to an aging woman. And we all know that there is nothing more ordinary than someone barreling through, at first slowly with the anticipations and delays of youth, gaining speed and thrust on the rails dizzying towards the station. Forgive the tiresome metaphor — it’s inescapable coming so newly from places where trains are such staple — I was going to tell you about Paris.

Paris is, in one word, forgiving. The chorus of ‘pardon’ and ‘excusé’ which clings eternally to the molecules of the city, the foot journey that begins in one neighborhood and meanders harmlessly into uncountable others, original destination erased and continually supplanted, the blur of wealths and poverties amid the boulevards and the metro, the softening of the grand structures along the Seine, all amount to a giant sigh of relief and a free pass towards whatever transgressions might be found within the city.

Even the force of erasure that is the Parisian dog owner pulling fresh leavings from the sidewalk has its place in the sanction bestowed by the city. The easing flow of the language, vowels that clash into consonants, striking one another, instantly muted into that low bubble of eloquence and grace that is French. All of the elements smoothing, mixing, water coloring. Impressions.

Paris is a place that quite suddenly works its way into you, not so much with its shiny spots, though they have their place, but through the reflected light of glories that seep into every alley and gesture, bathing you in filigree, covering you and forgiving you for intruding.

So, what more can I tell you of the thread of a few days in Paris. Of course, I’ll always have it, tucked away for days when I need blending, some permission, lights. I went to Paris as a happy person would, smiling with people and delighting in their kindnesses and rituals. I ate the food and laughingly drank the wine. I touched the streets with light feet that eased me up and down long stairwells, fading into and out of the crowds.

I brought sorrows to Paris, failure, flaws, all there undeclared, trailing me into town and riding by my heels. Loneliness, doubt, grief, all the trappings- all the names- of pain. They were so close, the strands that would stumble me, the pebbles that would turn and fling me into the street, breaking bone and spell, to leave me splayed and thrown from the center. It didn’t happen.

I saw Paris with my oldest friend, someone who has known me since childhood and who has been unfailingly accepting, even when I’ve been unable to reciprocate and have been critical, sharp, cutting. We strolled, aimlessly at times, avoiding the main tourist stations, slipping down the side street, looking for small excitements, talking, listening.

We spoke of our many incarnations, individual forays within the intimate shape-shifting that has been our adult lives. We began as rockers, career girls, clothes horses, cock worshipers. Then, we found divergent roles, far from parallel but intertwined through will and tolerance. She has remained attuned to all that is new in fashion and music. I have tried marriage, only to fail spectacularly at finding a partner who simply liked me. I took on the shape of motherhood while she, basking in that particular indecision, allowed the form to pass. In midlife, we are still reinventing, she as ex-patriot and newlywed, and I as a nurse.

Maybe that is the story of Paris, the small Celtic village refurbished as metropolis, glamor and high life walking alongside the provincial and quiet. It is a city where two old friends can meet and find what they are each looking for. My friend found Prada and I found Galignani, just as we are finding ways to become more like ourselves. I have four words of love soup for Paris – The city discovers you.

My favorite Paris photo

Sketches so far

Thursday night, Paris, France, 15 May 2008

There are some people I want to remember by jotting them down before taking a first nap in Paris. First, the woman on the train to Chicago who is 73, has lived in the same house her entire life and considers Frank Sinatra the love of her life. Eek. Then, the sparkling grandmother traveling cross country on Amtrak, returning home to Washington state where her husband works for Microsoft and where she is a college junior, trying to pass algebra. She knows she has my heartfelt sympathies and support. On the flight to London, my seatmate was a lovely (and lovely) German man who was a fascinating conversationalist and also knew just when to be quiet. And, how could I forget?! The very kindly doctor’s widow from Lincoln, England, who visited with me on the Eurostar, gave me a banana to snack on, and was not offended when I fell asleep across the table from her while we were talking. It was a long trip and I enjoyed almost every moment.

Friday, Paris, France 16 May

Went to the Pompidou museum today and saw the Louise Bourgeois exhibit. Walked all the way from our hôtel, my friend trying to drag me into numerous boutiques along the way and me pulling her out of store doorways. Ever it was thus. She called me late Tuesday night and wanted to know if I was still coming over. So she hopped a flight Thursday evening from Edinburgh and here we are, the introvert and the fashionista. Had we not met and been friends since the age of ten, we might not even get along, so striking are the differences. But we know one another inside and out and she’s the first to hold me accountable and the first to encourage me in pursuing good things. So, I’m thrilled to have her here.

Saturday, Paris, France 17 May

Slept in this morning after a night of listening to some street gangs fighting in the alleyway outside the hôtel. Thankfully there was no killing, but they were incredibly loud and we both were awakened and unable to go back to sleep for hearing them. Took a leisurely brunch and headed back into town. Today we walked even further, all the way into the Opera district for our one afternoon of fashion. I can only take so much oooing and ahhing over clothing before I turn into a truculent bitch who will do anything to get out of the store. I almost got there, just after the one hundredth entreaty to look at a blouse I wouldn’t be caught dead in. So, I have paid my dues to the Paris fashion world.

Immigrant Song

Yesterday I met someone interesting, a person who came to this country many years ago, fleeing, with her family, the Yugoslavia of Josip Tito. We chatted. I mostly listened. At one point, I asked if she had ever read My Ántonia by Willa Cather. Her eyes lit and our conversation took off with a connection spanning years and continents. My Ántonia is indeed a favorite for us both, and the workaday was suddenly charmed and warmed. My new acquaintance spoke of returning to Ellis Island a few years ago to visit and how the wash of memory brought back her arrival to this country in sudden freshness. Listening, I looked up and found that she was unable to speak for crying. I quickly said, “There’s no other place on earth like it, is there?” She smiled and said “No, there isn’t”. There just isn’t.