I remember our last conversation on a winter morning. I was in my stuffy classroom at the high school in Ashland Oregon and she was in bed in her small apartment in Bad Krozingen, Germany. It was March and she had decided to die that January. She was running out of money, had been a little sick in the winter and just decided she was done. But her extremely healthy body and mind did not agree. She took to her bed and didn’t die. My mother and aunt flew to Germany and she still didn’t die. She stopped eating and then she stopped drinking and then she still didn’t die for three more weeks. They say this is physically impossible but this is what my cousin and mother explained to me. This grandmother who went to Tibet for her 80th birthday and bitterly complained about having to shit on the side of the road, wasn’t as prepared for death as she thought.
So they got her on the phone in those last terrible weeks and when it rang I excused myself, left my students in French class and went outside my classroom door. It was a dark morning and I was freezing in my teaching dress. I spoke German to my YaYa and I told her I loved her and that it was okay to go. Du darfst jetzt gehen. My teeth were chattering and I told her all the things my mother had said to say, to help her go. YaYa’s voice was feeble and she didn’t have much to say but I could tell she was miserable and also very happy to talk to me. I didn’t make it to Germany even though I had a ticket booked for spring break in March. She had died by then and I didn’t know how to manage the trip as a single mother with a little child. Years later I read in our union contract that 5 days bereavement leave are allowed for grandparents. I didn’t know then and nobody told me and I regret not getting to Germany to pay my respects.
I didn’t tell people at work about my personal life. I lose all power when I need to ask authorities and institutions for special favors or special treatment. I could easily have taken time off of work to go see her but I was so afraid of losing my job, of my fragile tenuous life falling apart. The saddest thing is that she was afraid too. She was afraid of dying. A whole life of anxiety and worry had not prepared her for death. According to my mother she was terrified, terrified of going into the next phase alone, at the end she didn’t really want to die even though she had made her mind up. So much trauma and flight and fear in her life. So much fear that she passed on to all of us and that we take all our new age practices and psychology and love to try to vanquish. We none of us wanted to grow up and be so anxious.
My grandmother and I had so many arguments about her fears which I, feminist and West Coast US person, thought were ridiculous. She, refugee, bride at 20 to a man approved of by her family, feeling broke much of her later life, argued back.
I remember parking her car after midnight in a tiny village in France where there was, supposedly, no parking. And it was Sunday. I was sure we were safe. Look at all the shutters bolted against the night, any police that live in this village are fast asleep. She was sure a disaster, a towed car, an embarrassing incident with the police were imminent.
I firmly believed that we could talk or charm our way out of anything. She firmly believed that disrespecting social norms could lead to terrible suffering. I couldn’t explain why I believed what I did. She didn’t want to hear my stories of interactions with Parisian police that had often ended up oddly flirtatious and innocuous. Her fears struck me as ridiculous. I wanted her to know that we had power, that we could speak French and smile and even if we got a ticket, it was something we could afford. I think she wanted me to respect the fact that in her life she also had evidence that in a few years one could lose everything, that borders could shift, that invading armies could walk right into your living room and eat your potatoes, take your furniture, take you if you were a woman.
We sat in the car in that little sleeping village in France in the middle of the night and got so angry with each other. I was driving so I had the last word and we left the car there but neither of us slept well that night, in that small dark village, because we were so upset with each other.
She would have had much to say about the state of the world today. I paraded around the world with my white American entitlement and she challenged me to question its solidity, its durability, its certainty. We didn’t have good tools for challenging each others’ world views but we learned so much from each other.
I miss my grandmother so much. I miss her soft skin and her way of calling me Kimberlienchen and her wise counsel and her insistence on things being as lovely as possible even if it always made life so much more complicated.
I have been thinking a lot more about privilege since my last post and also thinking about how much I love it here and what comes next. This morning riding my cute bike (thanks City of Toulouse) back from the quickest most pain free waxing with ripe tomatoes in my basket and two crispy tiny baguettes, I passed the happy boules players back out in force, inhaled deeply under the sweet blossoming linden trees and rode along the clearly marked bike route and thought about returning to the US. Life here is delightful right now, a bubble of greenery, happy people out socializing, delicious food available again, people just sitting outside at cafes doing nothing whatsoever but enjoying the clouds moving and the delights of seeing people walk by.
When I first came to Toulouse I wanted to disappear, or at least not appear. My heart was broken, my confidence in my appearance shattered by cruelty to which I was too vulnerable and all of my desires were to turn inward. There is privilege there. When I want to I can disappear, I can wear coats and shoes that look like the other ladies in my neighborhood, keep my face stern and gaze aloof and no one will look at me. I wandered around like this most of the winter. The other day I was with a very chic friend who is not white and two little boys stared and stared. We weren’t carrying toys or doing anything remarkable and yet her appearance as other than white seemed to cause a very intense examination by these children. As a white woman of a certain age, I can mostly choose when I want to be seen. If I put on makeup or brush my hair out or wear bright colors and tight clothes then I am flying the ‘look at me’ flag, my choice here in this mostly white neighborhood.
When I talk with women who are feeling low or unsure about their projects much of the discourse is about being seen. About choosing to be seen. About having the courage to be seen. Some are terrified of being seen and some are worried about no longer being seen if they start behaving differently than they have so far. But, but, we are the mistresses of our own visioning in a way. When they talk about being seen they don’t really mean literally, they mean that somehow on a deeper level they will be recognized for who or what they really are.
If you don’t look like the majority of the women in the media (my IG suggested posts are 99% white people, why?) then you don’t get to adjust the dial of seen/not seen. You are both simultaneously always seen (as belonging to some category) and completely unseen (as an individual). As a child I did not like public comments on my appearance but rare are the times now when an adult will comment on my skin or hair, because I am white. My son marvels at how content the French seem to be at being homogenous, wearing the same colors, driving the same cars, not standing out in any way. But this is a double-edged sword for those who can’t disappear in the French blue.
I don’t know what this feels like for men but women in the cultures where I live are trained from an early age to attract the gaze and to measure its worth and intent. In tango if I want to dance I have to get someone to look at me, to lock eyes with me in a cabeceo, these are skills that involve attire, body language, eye movements and positioning. So I want a potential partner to first see me, to make eye contact, but then also, as humans we are all always yearning to be ‘seen’ on a deeper level, to be known for who we are.
As a teacher, I have spent decades being stared at. School is boring. Often I am the only moving object in a neon-lit room with uncomfortable chairs where students are trapped for 90 minute blocks. I have given speeches in front of large groups, under spotlights and been on TV. This kind of being seen is easy for me, a performative moment. But being seen as vulnerable, lost, weak, pale, out of sync, is not my preference. I lived with a photographer who did not delight in taking pictures of me. I wanted to be seen differently. My child is entering the teenage era, the terrible time when we suddenly realize that people are looking at us, judging us, labeling us. Here in France he is content to stand out because I think he still feels invisible, unseen and unrecognized as a stranger here.
Before I left my little town I wrote down a list of pros and cons about the place to keep that in mind for the future. I didn’t write about being seen. I didn’t realize how exhausting and yet also how ego-stoking it has been to be such a public persona for the last 12 years. When I ride my bike through town people wave at me (I can’t always see them), students often enter my classroom proclaiming that they ‘saw’ me somewhere, and parents remember me better than I remember them after more than a 1,000 students taught in this town. Here in this large French town I am recognized by a few, very few people, but mostly I am just another anonymous individual going about my business.
I have enjoyed not having an audience for my life here in France. It has been freeing and relaxing to live here and to rarely explain myself. My differences are not visible from the outside, especially if I don’t speak and so here again I can choose to be in or to be out, to be seen or to pass by unnoticed and this is an incredible privilege available to me in most of Europe and the United States. White people so often get so much more control over their own narratives and also just look like they belong to the ‘universal’ or primary narrative all around us. Perhaps even being able to complain about not being seen is itself a great privilege.
I thought today I would take some time to explain shifts in perspective. I have always been interested in paradigm changes that upset the arbitrary. Sometimes these have come from hard conversations with friends who pointed out my assumptions or ignorance, sometimes these come from just watching people out working in the world, many times these have come from historical research using original documents and many times these have come from the extreme privilege I have to travel and see things from a different angle. My students have also explained and demonstrated so many things to me: from being more aware of gendered language, to reframing discussions about consent and body image to going vegan to sharpening my ability to see class and race to educating about trans and fluid gender struggles to explaining how hard it is to be masculine to calling me out on my classroom responses. The list is very long and I still have so much to learn. Let me say this again, I still have so much to learn but I hear the call to talk about whiteness and so here is what I can say today.
I am a single mother with no partner, I have a job that is barely a middle-class wage, I do not have a car, I have lost many things in my life and I have struggled.
However, today I would like to point out how thanks to my immense white privilege, many of these hard times can be reframed. It is so easy for white people to have the knee jerk reaction of well, I suffered too, my life hasn’t been easy, I didn’t get everything I wanted. I know this well. I have suffered. Things have been and continue to be hard but here are a few reframings to consider.
I graduated from college with student loan debt and had to work most of my undergraduate years. I didn’t get to do anything fancy, had no car and lived cheap. BUT I came from a family whose white privilege meant we were conversant with how to get into college, how to get financial aid, and yes, some relatives eventually gifted me the money to pay off my loans. As a white person, I knew I could appeal financial aid and residency decisions and that the various people in charge at the university would listen to me. I was able to make noise, go where I wanted and pick the college of my choice because I had a lot of social capital to do so. I was easily able to persevere through the jobs and the financial troubles to excel at school and finish. I knew how the system worked because of my family and how many of them had attended and worked at institutions of higher education in positions of power. When I didn’t have money I could go stay with my cousins or eat dinner with my friends who did have money or complain to my godparents. I was surrounded by people who had some resources, financial or strategic.
2. I have raised a child all by myself and it has been very lonely. BUT never, ever, ever as a white person did I have to worry about the state intervening, about the neighbors calling social services if I yelled at my son in the driveway or that in court I would have a disadvantage because of my skin color. I never felt unsafe or worried that I would actually lose my child because of my bad parenting moments.
3. The obvious one. I do not like having encounters with the police. They pull me over plenty. I have had arguments with them. However, in all of my years of poor driving, I have only gotten one actual speeding ticket. When I totaled two cars because I ran a stop sign at age 16, I was never cited. The judge took one look at my white freckled face with the big bruises, said, I guess you’ve learned your lesson young lady and dismissed me. I looked ‘innocent’ because I was white. The second time I totaled two cars (this one maybe not entirely my fault), the police were so worried about me out in the cold that they gave me a ride home in a squad car and waited to make sure I would be okay. I know they treated me like this because I am white. Since I drive crappy cars at odd times of the night, I have often been pulled over for the most ridiculous reasons like not signaling within the right number of feet or pulling into the far lane after exiting a gas station. But every single time they have just given me a warning and I went home. I smiled at the officer and played the game and was done. I am pretty sure that at 2 am in West Eugene they weren’t expecting me to be a grumpy white lady and that things would have turned out very differently if I hadn’t been white.
4. I have a small boring house that I can only just afford and I’m never going to be able to remodel it or probably move to a bigger place. It is not very cute and it looks just like all of the other houses on the street. Most of my friends have much nicer houses. BUT I was able to buy a house in the US because I have inherited money and been gifted money from my relatives who in turn inherited or were gifted money from their relatives and so on down the line. We have capital because our grandparents and great-grandparents were white, were landowners, were able to escape global conflicts because of connections, were able to make money grow into more money. If my ancestors in the US had been enslaved people, this accretion of capital could never have happened because zero doesn’t grow into a house down-payment no matter how many generations.
5. I was abandoned by my father and have carried this loss with me all of my life. It has hurt and it was traumatic. This is one of my core wounds. BUT he left because he needed to or wanted to. As a white man, he was not taken away from us to be incarcerated or killed by a militarized police force. He just up and left because of his own personal demons, not because of the demons of the race relations of the United States. My personal story is just a personal story, it is not because of the color of his skin that we lost him, it is not because of an institutional system that targets men like him. He was an addict and an alcoholic but because he was white, this did not lead to him being incarcerated or killed.
6. My dear stepson died at age 14. It was terrible. I still miss him. BUT his cause of death was entirely natural, it was something that could not possibly have been prevented. While he lay in a coma in the ICU another boy was also dying that same day, innocent victim of a drive-by shooting in the inner-city neighborhoods of Rochester, NY where decades of poverty and terrible policing have led to more and more violence. My stepson’s race had absolutely nothing to do with his death. It was a tragedy but an individual one. The other boy’s death was statistically highly connected to the color of his skin, ultimately preventable, not something that ever, ever had to happen in a humane world.
7. I am in France now and I feel like an ungainly slob going into the very fancy boutiques. I feel like the salesladies are giving my hips the stink eye and I simply cannot afford 50 euro lace panties. BUT I can go in any store here or in the US and even if I feel a little out of place, because I am white, I will not be followed or made to feel like I should leave. I can pretty much walk into any fancy place in the world, even in scruffy clothes, and because I am white I will not be asked to leave even if I really, really don’t belong. I can go sit in a big city hotel lobby if my feet are tired or wander into conventions or conferences without a name badge pretty easily. I am not rich but I am white and so I have a ticket to most events.
8. So here I am in France and I have gotten terribly lazy about my accent and people often ask me where I am from, sometimes even when I don’t speak because I probably smile too much. It’s annoying BUT never, ever do they assume they know something about my kind of people or my way of being in the world because I come from another place. As a white woman, I don’t have any particular characteristics attached to my identity. People don’t ask where I am from because of the color of my skin and when they find out where I am from they just believe it because I am white. I don’t have to justify where I was born or my parentage. It’s a light conversation usually that doesn’t put me in a racial box. When a non-white friend says they are from Indiana or wherever, people interrogate them because they have to be ‘from’ somewhere else. My mother is not American but because I am white, I get to be ‘from’ wherever I say.
This is a short and incomplete list but I want to explain how, although my life has been hard because I am a human being on this earth, these hardships have not been compounded by the color of my skin. My hardships are my own story and not due to my race. Of course I have much to say about how the patriarchy has slammed many doors shut in my face but not because of my race, not because of my race, not because of the way I look. People are afraid of me because I say sharp things but not because of my skin tone, not because of my hair, not because of my race. There are many things I didn’t get to have in this lifetime but the reason is never, ever because of the pigment of my skin, because of society’s ideas about my ethnic group, or because of my family’s history with the institutionalized racism of the United States.
Please, please point out anything you think I missed. I’d like to come up with more examples. My son and I are preparing our return to the US and of course I have mixed feelings about this but it seems like now more than ever it is time for educators like me to do the hard, hard work and to show up.
All four of my grandparents died in different countries. All four of them died in different countries than where they spent their childhood. My grandfathers were great travelers and adventurers, trekking through jungles, flying small planes over North Africa, setting up new homes in Big Sur, California and Tanzania. I did not know my grandfathers well but my grandmothers were also firm believers in the magic and power of place. My maternal grandmother lost her country and her childhood home. A border was moved and names and language changed. When she took us back there decades later she knelt in the wheat fields and kissed the soil. This is the place my mother was born and the only other place I’ve been where pine forests and dunes dance to the sea, just like Oregon where I grew up. Echoes of ancestral breezes and berries and mushroom hunting.
My paternal grandmother grew up in the US-occupied Philippines with a snake they kept in the attic, only let out at night to roam the house and eat the rats. She loved her adopted Hudson River Valley so much that she wrote a book about the place and its lore. All four of them chose places to live in because of a strong feeling for the place, for its beauty, for its history. And none of them were from the places where they eventually made their homes, far, far away from any visible roots.
I was so influenced by all of this that my only published book is about people who traveled to find themselves. And now, sitting in the town made rich by Airbus, I hear stories of planes that cannot be delivered or stored because there simply is no room and the sky is empty of travel. The borders will still be closed but starting on Monday we can travel around France.
When I wrote my book I bemoaned the demystifying of the world. We no longer need paper maps or stamps to send letters to hotels in a foreign language or traveler’s checks. One phone and I can see anywhere I am in the world. But now, I wonder, travel may change. Perhaps the world will become more mysterious as we long for it, as we reconsider air travel and displacement.
Some people find their place in the world and dig in, make it a home forever, and embrace the pleasures they have created in their material surroundings. I don’t think I will ever be that person. La bougeotte. Restlessness. The great joys of being from somewhere else. A non-committal relationship with objects.
Yesterday I talked with a friend who is ready for a change. This town has become too easy. And in the fall I will go back to a town and a job completely changed from when I left. I remember leaving my job, husband and first house in New York. I was on the plane flying across the country to a completely unknown life. I had my little baby on my lap and my kitty cat at my feet and I thought, yep, I feel like myself again. Goodbye matching living room furniture, goodbye car, goodbye pots and pans.
We can come home to ourselves while moving about the world. I am looking forward to continuing this initiation home through all of the places I have had the immense luxury and privilege to inhabit.
When I read the news or look at Facebook I fear that returning to the US will put us on the wrong side of history. Heading out of the pot and into the proverbial inferno. It’s terrifying and confusing from this vantage point so I thought today I would share some little moments from my notebooks from this year. Here are times when we were with people and humanity was a simple pleasure.
Last fall we went to an Olympique Marseille soccer game with 65,000 mostly shirtless fans who chanted and threw smoke bombs onto the field. It was intense and exciting. Afterwards my son ran in the night, in the rain, and I followed him to cram ourselves into the metro with everyone else. We came out to a small dark street on a hill full of parked cars, carrying our little light blue plastic soccer flags with the other fans going home. A drunk man or a crazy man yelled at us: You are fake Marseillais, chui vrai moai, faux Marseillais vous. In my head this man without hair, missing some teeth, is following me in the night of my soul: everyone else knows, you are fake, a fake writer, a person who is just floating in the world.
I stood on a cobbled street with my bony friend and her young son and to my surprise she began crying. We walked to the park and I tasted a little red and yellow fruit that I had never eaten before. I rest astounded at all the things my friend knows about the animal world, about nature and she wants to learn more. Once again, she is in love, or maybe not, with someone who thinks they are always right. I want her to be the smart one in the house.
At the Velo Toulouse station a clergyman wearing a black bike helmet types in his number to get a bike and ride off. I am sitting in front of a plaque commemorating the pre-Enlightenment thinkers who lived and were killed in Toulouse. The little free electric bus for getting around downtown comes down the street. Today I heard that empathy was first proposed as an art historical term.
Last night my son asked me what superpower I would want and I said to be in someone else’s head and to see the world. He said I couldn’t have that one because that was the superpower he was going to choose. And we talked about how it would be so interesting to be in their head, looking out through their eyes, but still being ourselves. He surprised me by saying something like: that would be the ultimate empathy. But then, a few moments later, he explained that what he really wants is to be in someone else’s head the moment they are decapitated by a guillotine.
An encounter in the library. She walks right up to me. »I’m Danish. I don’t like Toulouse. It’s too Spanish here,« she says to me in excellent French, pale blue eyes unblinking. And then with no facial expression at all she walks on and heads out into the pouring rain.
On the ski bus coming back from Saint-Lary I wanted to write a sentence: I admire the optimism of artisanal soap makers. I love the math of snowboarding. Slope plus speed plus objects moving in a certain direction and their likelihood of collision.
I walked into a beautiful church I had never visited before. I don’t know why. The organist was playing, practicing, and I was moved by all these centuries of other peoples’ faith. How lovely. My hair was wet, my coat was long and warm, my face and head hurt a little from falling yesterday, and my throat tightened.
A weekend away and I am discussing spirituality and cohousing in French on comfortable couches with thoughtful people until almost midnight after a day of good adventures and intense natural beauty. Five of us. All single, all weighing the fragile balance of contentment in our chosen states. Single people get together and talk. They spend a lot of time with other people. We talked about love. Such a nice topic of conversation. And then they all needed to smoke so we went outside and stood around a small white table. A few stars twinkled beyond the high foggy clouds and we asked each other humane questions about fear and living with animals and who does the cooking.
One day we came home in the afternoon to find two very drunk men lying in our small street. One was mostly on the sidewalk, the curb as a pillow for his large blond and ruddy head. The other man sat and swayed on a box in the middle of the street before eventually lying down with some of his butt hanging out. They sprawled on the asphalt, inert and hot. We leaned out of our fourth floor window several times, waiting for a scene, for anger, for honking. The first car drove up. A woman in a Volkswagen. She assessed the situation and then simply backed out the narrow curving street. No yelling, no upset. The men were there for hours, eventually moving out of the middle of the street and we never heard any rage. It was a day of partying and drinking and there they were.
A good croissant. An unexpected conversation. A vast beamed meditation hall. I love that this cafe is so generous with water. The regular barista, a trans fellow, is not here. Twelve small globular pendant lamps in black and white metal hang over all the little tables. We can all see our work very well. There is so much light that my hand casts two shadows. Bohemian Rhapsody on the stereo and I have to smile. Mama, I just killed a man. I am back in my classroom, teaching Camus, laughing with my students.
Sitting here on this gray bed listening to the rain falling on the stone courtyard might be the moment that changes it all. In my life there have been a few Eureka moments but mostly an accretion, a lot of little experiences that pushed my bark to a certain muddy overgrown fork of the river and yet I am also the river. There is no unchanging life.
When it came, we didn’t believe it would affect us if we followed the rules and then we were wrong and they told us that we were all in danger. Two days later, Friday the 13th of March was the marker of the beginning of us being affected. Somewhere along the line we forgot to be afraid of everything. We touched light switches and we started sleeping very well. The dead grey vines leafed out and covered the entire old white stone house in lush green. In the end, we realized we no longer knew what an end was. We had stopped counting days and started noticing the light in the evenings and the temperature of our skin. In the end there was no end and the grief and mourning that had arisen became our companion and whispered sweet stories of old love and grandmothers as confused and beautiful young women of only twenty.
I feel haunted. For the last decade or so I have taught Toni Morrison’s Beloved every February which always gives me an excellent opportunity to talk about history as haunting and haunting as history. Someone mentioned haunting the other day and I began to think about my own past being present in this moment. I lived in France for some years in my early twenties and here I am again and sometimes I don’t know what time is any more.
I have expounded that here in France people are generally reasonable and cooperative about the various restrictions because this is not their first curtailment of liberty. Not by a long shot. Other times of trouble in France have lasted 5 years or 10 or wait, 100 years! Taking the long view on times of not getting what you want can definitely help put the last few months and the next year or two in perspective.
French people are not saints. They smoke cigarettes with blue paper masks dangling on their chins, they forget how much space a meter is, they complain bitterly about Neoliberalism and the Macorona virus and they are suspicious of many of the government’s plans and also quite worried about the economic future. However, their responses seem quite resigned and Gallic shruggy compared to the lunacy I see in the news about the US. I feel like the long view helps. This is not their first rodeo as we might say. Things are going to be bad for a while and then they are going to be better and in the meantime there is wine to drink and boules to play (they are back!) and little pleasures to enjoy.
But then I got to thinking. What if I took the long view on my own life, on my own hauntings and history? It took me 3.5 years to get pregnant. That was a very long time because every month involved a mourning. Over 40 disappointments and despairs. It took me 5 years to do graduate school and then when I got my current job they said “back to the coal mines of pedagogical nonsense!” and I had to go back to night school for 2 more years. It took me 7 years to move away from a place I never enjoyed and leave its dire weather and record-breaking sprawl. I have loved people who are gone forever and I have lived in places that will never be what they once were. Now I am facing a year or maybe two of strange and uncertain working conditions, a social life that may be neither social nor alive, and some child-rearing that will involve entirely new challenges. During those terrible patience- challenging times of my past many delightful things occurred as well. As my son observed recently, it wasn’t always winter when there was war, it wasn’t always dark and cold. Suffering went on and flowers bloomed and people fell in love and books got written and people laughed in soft snow and the history was always quite complicated even when we look back on dark years or difficult periods.
And what if now were a time to take the long view and think of our own families and where they have been and when they were hungry or hopeless? Epigenetics has started to convince us that their traumas are ours too. Life now for many of us seems easier than anything our grandmothers might have known. In our own families we can trace peaks and valleys of comfort and success and utter hopelessness. Did anyone ever really know for sure what the future would hold? Is our sense of a stable world really a modern illusion? How much are we willing to pay to know what tomorrow will hold?
I have never slept as well as I have during these surprising uncertain times. Perhaps my body knows something more about the rhythms of what might look like disaster but is only part of the creaking and cracking of yet another mythology.
I think of my brother and I kayaking out in a warm bay in the Caribbean a decade ago. He had his son between his legs in a little plastic boat and I had mine. The boys were so young and lulled to sleepiness by the quiet air, the rocking kayaks, the warmth of being in a boat with your competent parent paddling along the shoreline. In moments the sky turned black, the winds howled and the waves grew. In the storm my kayak hit my brother’s and my sleeping little nephew was doused with salty water. My old lifeguard training kicked in and I gave up on the boat and surfed through the waves to shore with my son and scooped up my nephew and reassured them onshore. My brother is a wise surfer and he swam out and rescued kayaks and paddles. We were all okay and had a good story to tell. Enjoy your nap in the bottom of the boat, it is so delightful to sleep well. Keep your metaphorical life jacket on because the waves are bound to come.
In a few days some things will open up here in France. After two months of confinement, we will be able to go out without our attestation or permission slip. We can roam within 100 km instead of inside one. My child might even have school! So why is this time feeling so much harder than the previous two months? We followed orders, we washed our hands, we hunkered down and counted the days. But now the future is here, we can begin to imagine taking action and I am exhausted.
This morning I awoke in a sweat, summer is here, Toulouse is getting hot. It’s time to pack up the duvet, to buy some shorts that fit my growing son and everyone wants to know what we will do and when. What is our plan? Did you hear the universe chuckling? The full moon is in Scorpio and OSF has cancelled its entire season. Auguries and auspices and chicken guts and forecasting and talking to highly educated data analysts and they don’t know, nobody knows. I Zoom with cheerful Oregonians who see little change, I get frantic texts from people who feel the world is ending, and I just don’t know.
And so I think back on my own hardest times, the year of my son’s birth. I finally had the child so desired after 3.5 years of infertility, I almost bled to death during a dramatic birth while my then husband was on the phone with one of his several girlfriends, I discovered said girlfriends and the marriage was over. For several months I stayed at different people’s houses, taught and pumped during the day, cried at night and tried to get my child to sleep, ate alone in the dark in an old truck, my only vehicle, worked full-time in a hostile environment that I couldn’t fix and wasted away to a very thin, very sad, very confused person. It’s a complicated story and it was awful in so many ways. The New York Times is running a series on single mothers by choice and tomorrow is Mother’s Day here. Be a mensch and reach out to any single mother you know, confinement has concentrated the soloness of solo parenting. If seeing their struggle makes you uncomfortable, DO NOT say « I could never do that » and DO NOT say « at least you have a child. ». Please. Please just say, « you are so strong, you are so creative in this hard season, you have worked so hard at this and I see it. You are a great mother ». Thank you.
So during that year of incomprehensible struggle I came up with a mantra. I went to the YMCA to spin classes because it was the only place that had baby care and I could go sweat on a bike and scream for a short hour while the frigid night closed in on Western New York. I repeated to myself over and over, « what is is ». There you go. My academic career was probably ending, my marriage (and the family I had with two stepsons) was ending, my beautiful house was not where my son would grow up and this was all simply true. But I didn’t want it to be. But it was. So I went to the fancy lawyer chanting my mantra, I asked sweet friends for help and a place to stay, I went to job interviews. What is is.
So now times once again seem very daunting. Many things are easier, I have a job, my child cooks his own dinner often, I feel healthy, tomorrow I will FaceTime with my fantastic stepson and his lovely wife. We are in a peaceful apartment near the Canal du Midi. And yet, and yet, there is so much looming. I do not know what his high school years will be like, I do not like to think of actually breathing and teaching in a classroom full of bodies, our town’s economy is going to be staggering and falling for years to come, and it sounds like violence and disaster are lurking for so, so many in the US. And so I need a new mantra. I can say « what is is« and for today it is lovely. Coffee, bird songs, KCRW on the radio, yoga practice, writing groups. Today has so much that I love in it. But when will we get on a plane? Where will we go? When will we have family trips again? Can my son play soccer in the fall or go rock climbing or be with friends? My instinct is that we have another year or two before we can all get close and cozy. Will we remember how to have potlucks and sit on the couch and talk with legs touching? Will we travel? Will we trust our compatriots? Will November bring, oh I don’t even know, but unrest, trouble, conflict? How can we feel safe in our world?
So dear ones, what should our mantra be? I do not like writing so many questions. I ask my students to think harder when they feel like they just want to throw questions into their essays. I thought that sitting here writing this would lead me to a good conclusion. Everything will be okay. Nope. Not buying it. Be here now. Doing that one but at 4 am with hot still air and a sameness to the impending morning, it’s just not comfort enough. I think of Shakespeare and the yoga sutras and my favorite poets and I’ve got nothing. I wish I could ask my grandmother what they thought about during the terrible post-war years. Once the crisis has abated and we have to work to rebuild whatever we lost and want back, what will we tell ourselves? It is going to take a lot of time. There will be disappointments and some things may be lost for our lifetimes. I would like a touchstone so that I can just rest in this beautiful month of May and trust that we will make the plans we need to make when we can, when borders open up, when calendars are launched, when the winds blow the right way. But it is hard, so hard, right now to trust any kind of future and to feel safe in that trust. I feel a great responsibility to do the right thing, to help out, to make safe choices and it’s just beyond my powers to know any of that right now.
So here’s my new verb mantra. I looked up the etymology and although may sounds all polite in English it actually comes from a much older word which means to have power. So I think I will try this mantra for this month. What may may. And yet we go on. And yet we continue to love. What may may. And we are still here.
In the last two weeks I have gotten to hear the voices of three beloved teachers and see two of their faces. Today I will take another class with a teacher whose knowledge and voice resonate with me and on Thursday we will start a weeklong experience with our main teacher in India. Yesterday I practiced along with a recording of her and at the end I could hear one of her little children telling her things while she did her shoulder stand, I could hear the Indian cars honking in the street and my own shoulder stand became something else. These dear voices are people I have studied with, in some cases, for more than 20 years. So I will count this as an enormous pandemic blessing, the move of the Iyengar Yoga community onto or into the internet.
I moved to Philadelphia from Berkeley in the 1990s to attend graduate school. Until then my experiences of the East Coast had only been the briefest visits to relatives and I thought of New York as a place of fancy restaurants, golf playing and traffic. I quickly learned to pull in my lax smiling, my eye contact with people on the street and any expectation that people would just be nice to me because I was nice. Philadelphia was violent, messy, angry, corrupt and home to terrible police history and drug wars. The only way to find anything was to look in the phone book and so I looked under Y and there was yoga, only one teacher and so I called her up. No website, no other way to know what was going on. She gave me the address and told me to come to her house in West Philly. We changed clothes on the second floor in a spare bedroom and the entire third floor was a yoga studio with the occasional beautiful cat wandering through.
That first class she made me do headstand in the middle of the room and we did a lot of other hard poses and that was it, I had found my teacher. And now, twenty-six years later, I can see her face on my ipad, hear her distinctive midwestern accent and there I am trying poses that I would never try at home alone, except I am home alone, or am I?
I was excited about yoga in my twenties because it looked like a field of infinite learning, one lifetime would never be enough. During the day I went to grad school where we were indoctrinated in some odd belief system that we could know everything and it would lead us to a superior position in life. At night I went to Joan’s house and saw people easily do Kapotasana and I did my first drop backs. It is a crazy moment the first time you feel the back of your head touch one of your feet. It wasn’t just the physical postures that seemed infinite, but also Sanskrit, philosophy, ancient texts, and anatomy. I started yoga teacher training during my last year of graduate school, two tracks, two paths, two ways of learning and educating.
My academic career did not fulfill its promise even though I learned a whole bunch of things and probably read a thousand books in those years. As a woman in a patriarchal and stagnant system, I had no mentor. My dissertation advisor was, in retrospect, rather lazy. He said he could get me a job in Detroit, I said I didn’t want to live there and that was the end of him helping me in any way. Academia was an unknown system to me and no one explained the real rules except occasionally, among women, and I simply refused to believe that the backstabbing, the sabotaging, the posturing, and the misogyny could be true. I was convinced that if I worked hard enough I would get the job and be able to shine smartly. Meritocracy is a game only available to the privileged and although I am quite privileged, I wasn’t the kind of privileged that made it possible to win at the academic game. Learning that lesson was terribly painful and still stabs at me every now and then. I did everything I was supposed to do and in a timely fashion but that didn’t make the doors open. I don’t even want to write down the lessons I learned from academia. I didn’t learn how to be a good teacher but I did learn how to suffer fools and narcissists with some politeness.
But, I am now in my middle age and I still have teachers! I have the immense delight of being able to learn from people who have seen me do a headstand pregnant, who have watched me cry during savasana, who have watched me learn to teach and who are themselves always learning and evolving. What does it mean to have a teacher when you are an adult? I have been thinking about this quite a lot because it is not necessarily the same thing as a mentor. These are not people who give me advice but rather people who consistently model and explain hard concepts that I want to integrate into my life. Here are some of the things I have learned from my favorite teachers:
Always show up. Just keep showing up. Practice means practice. No excuses. Sniffles, a headache, a broken heart, you can still practice something. There is always a way to keep practicing.
Hold yourself accountable. Whatever you are pursuing is not for the teacher, it is for you. Check in regularly. Why are you here? What are your intentions?
Break some rules some of the time. Don’t be rigid. You are never going to be perfect. Life is not always so serious. Here’s the French version: mais pleeeeease ne soyez pas si sérieux si bloqués, si rigides!
Future suffering can and should be avoided. Don’t hurt yourself to impress others. Don’t give away what you can’t spare today. Take tender care of yourself.
Be present. Whatever you are doing, be there. Be in your headstand, be in your stretched legs, pay attention!
Love yourself. Love the world. Love knowledge.
I always say that everything I know about teaching I learned from my yoga teacher training and not from graduate school. I will be back at my teaching job in the fall and I have no idea what it will look like. I look forward to learning from my students and I am so excited that maybe I will be able to continue to hear my favorite teachers’ voices without having to fly through many time zones. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
When my cousins and I were quite young my German grandmother took us for one night to stay in a chalet in Switzerland. We were very excited to eat fondue which we had only seen in comic books but then sad and horrified when we got it. All of that melted cheese is full of alcohol! I thought it would be like a bowl of the top of pizza but no, it had schnapps and white wine and a cheese so strong it was like an additional kind of alcohol. We sat in the little alcove and tried to politely eat it because we knew it was an expensive trip for our grandmother. No one every told me there was anything in there but cheese. Decades later in the Geneva dorms we would down bottles of white wine and pour more and more into the fondue pot to keep the fumes going and the bubbling mixture thin enough to dip.
We also had an adventure on a paddle boat on a lake with big dark thunder clouds looming and my aunt yelling into the wind while we paddled farther and farther out into the whitecaps. For years she told us how terrified she was but we thought it was just fun and a little chilly.
We all slept in one little room under the eaves in the chalet. I had never seen eiderdowns like that before. They were thicker than my own child body, thicker than a stack of cousins in a bed. The room was very cold but we each burrowed into our stiff white sheets, under the massive fluff of down, that delightful crinkle crackle of an ironed duvet cover as you make your nest. It was like being smothered by angels. The heft and fluff were simultaneously too much and just right. We only stayed there that one night but it is my first real memory of bed and sleeping as intense pleasure, a delight in contrasting temperatures and the sweetness of being so cuddly warm in a very old house when outside was so cold and damp and still.
Oh, Melville, you knew what you were talking about but I wouldn’t find you for several more decades. Chapter 11 of Moby-Dick: We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blankets between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal. (My emphasis!)
I love my current bedroom with its bare white walls, large window with wooden shutters, view of treetops and balconies, old pine floor (good for handstands) and not much else. It has been raining here and the cool air is delightful and some nice friends have loaned me a big duvet, not quite Swiss size, but warm and fluffy.
For much of my life sleeping was a fraught activity and I avoided it and its tortures. My child didn’t sleep through the night for three years and my own worries roused me at the bad thinking time of 4 am for many long periods. And so when I think of the great pleasures of confinement life, or a simple life, I think of sleep. It is quieter here in this mid-century apartment building in a big city than in my little wooden house on a small street in the US. And so I sleep, and it is just fantastic.
In my penultimate year of graduate school I slept in 54 beds. I wrote every single one down in my agenda which back in those days was a small book with paper pages. When I brag about this people think I am some kind of Casanova but most of the time I was all alone in those beds. And some weren’t even beds, like the cheap seats on the Amtrak train from Philadelphia to Emeryville. I thought that if I made myself sleep in as many different and new places as possible I would get better at sleeping. It was difficult. Most nights I tossed and turned for hours until finally settling down. I had good sleeps at my friends’ houses and at my relatives’ houses because I knew them and the particular quality of their sheets and blankets well.
I have slept on the dirt in the rain with just an old sleeping bag, I have slept in a convent, in a hammock on a beautiful Canadian island, with a dying dog on a musty floor in a shack in Big Sur, and in my grandmother’s twin guest beds with pink covers. An open window, cool breezes, a hot bath before bed and no work meetings the next morning are all good sleep aids. Freshly washed cotton or linen sheets that have hung outside enough to still be cool, bugs or raindrops or frogs making a concert outdoors and a drop of lavender oil on my pillow carry me home to dreamland. Knowing loved ones are nearby and will be there in the morning, but not too near with their snoring and rustling, soothes me to sleep.
Wherever you are and however life has treated you this first day of May, I am wishing you delightful sleep. It’s a miracle of redemption, restoration and the most exciting journey I can take for at least another 10 days.
The French government has announced that by May 11 or even by May 7 we will get some deconfinement. When the prime minister spoke he excused himself for relying so often on litotes. Yes, I love that word. Do you think a single member of our US cabinet even knows what it means? It’s the way the world is now and it’s a very French perspective. Just like that crazy word deconfinement. It isn’t freedom or liberty and it’s got two counteracting prefixes de- and con-. How can we move away from and move toward at the same time?
In rhetoric, litotes is a figure of speech and form of verbal irony in which understatement is used to emphasize a point by stating a negative to further affirm a positive, often incorporating double negatives for effect. From Wikipedia but you get the gist.
Welcome to your litotes future people! It’s not the past but it’s not not the past either, it’s a return to normal which was never normal except that now it looks normal because it’s not what we are doing now which has become the new abnormal but ask anyone who wasn’t operating from a pinnacle of privilege about what the hell normal is or was and they will laugh at you sardonically.
Yesterday I saw so many people out – especially running toddlers, tearing breakneck down the still relatively car-free streets – the sun has come and the future has a shape, or at least a very vague outline. We are all delighted to know that something, anything, will happen. Schools will reopen in some form, my one kilometer radius will turn into 100 kilometers, and no more attestations, the little permission slips we have been writing up and carrying about. Hallelujah! But then what?
This is the 67th post on this blog and I am beginning to wonder about my own next steps; as a writer, as a mother, as a teacher, and as a wild woman in the world. I have been pushing myself to write harder more intimate things, in French and in English, it’s actual work, I toil to put things down on the page that are hard to say. They are too raw for a public post but they are showing me something. Or, shall I say, they are not hiding things from me. The revelations are opaque and terrifying.
I have agreed to go back to my teaching job in the fall but from this vantage point I have so little belief that I will return to what I left behind. It’s gone. No more staff meetings where we stand shoulder to shoulder in the library in some kind of bonding game. No more goofy students sipping from the same straw in a big sweet drink after lunch on a sunny day. I want to write about how much I miss my students and how precious teaching is to me. I want to enter a new phase of parenting where my son shapes more of his life than I do.
Last night I slept deliciously, a light early morning rain and cool air coming through the wooden shutters. I awoke with a complicated dream memory. I found my cat, the mischievous and lovely Farrago, missing since last August! Oh kitty.
In the same dream I also saw the person who broke my heart and who was now secretly dating a teenager named Candy. My subconscious is not subtle with its opinions on the bad and good in life. I left behind so much that is simply not there any more or was already gone before I was. A relationship, a pet, a classroom, concerts and milongas, weekly rice and beans with lots of people at my house, a community that had a certain set of rituals (chakra hugs!) and a fabric that supported my son and me. So as we step forward into the future, we are not walking back to the place on the map that we think we know. Uncertainty about the future is so hard on humans and what I hear is that we need each other in big groups to combat those feelings – we are mammals who regulate each other in so many ways.
Yesterday I tried to get my child to do a project, it was our worst day yet. I just don’t know how much to push or how much to leave him alone and focus on my own projects. He is anxious about going back to school because of the language and I am wondering if sending him to school is sending him straight into the jaws of COVID. At some point we need to decide when we will return to the US and how.
Here are some litotes for your pleasure. I added the English but I hope you get the idea that there is much irony and that a positive expressed through a negative is a rather oblique way of saying nothing whatsoever and everything that matters at the same time. I hope they will help you envision a future of which you know nothing at all:
Ça ne sent pas la rose ! Ça sent mauvais. It doesn’t smell like roses [your future]. Ce n’est pas pour demain. C’est pour dans très longtemps. It’s not going to happen tomorrow [your idealized future]. Ce n’est pas l’idéal. C’est mauvais, mal fait. It’s not ideal [your future]. Ce n’est pas rigolo. C’est pénible, ennuyeux. It’s not going to be funny. Ça ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard. C’est banal, sans intérêt. It’s definitely not going to break a duck’s three legs. Ha! Il ne fait pas partie de la ligue anti-alcoolique. C’est un ivrogne. Much drinking in the lockdown. Ils ne partiront pas en vacances ensemble. Ils se haïssent. And….and… no one at all is going to go on vacation together.
Tomorrow is May Day. Thank the unions and the workers and all the laborers who make it possible for you to have food, the internet, clothes on your backs and education.