My Teachers

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.  

Hands at work.

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.

Don’t free me! I’ll free myself! I’ll take care of it!

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.

One day I shall balance in handstand!

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.

The European red squirrel is so cute.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. Be present.  Whatever you are doing, be there.  Be in your headstand, be in your stretched legs, pay attention!
  6. Love yourself.  Love the world. Love knowledge.
This little street is someone’s art project. Education can be silly and fun and loving and tender and rigorous and inspiring and very difficult – I do believe this.

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.

Beds

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.

Flying son.

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.

And speaking of cheese, look what I got! From Holland and amazing. Well aged with those little crystals in the crumbly body which also is so strong it has a little echo of chocolate or wine.

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.

Now why would a cow be saying merci to someone who bought veal? The debris on the streets is getting stranger and stranger as deconfinement arrives.

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.

Toulouse has a lot of these very tender sculptures on public housing. I like the idea of gentle naked caresses over the doorway of my government subsidized apartment. Endorsing love.

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.

Next Steps

More and more debris on the streets, more and more people.

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.

This ad for insurance doesn’t look like fun anymore – it looks like family confinement. Let us out of here!!

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?

I am a little weary of all of the parenting, just the two of us, so many days. I would love to know what that gold object is floating above her head, a croissant, a lingam? I especially appreciate how this seems to have been written with mommy blood and yes, that is my hair now.

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.

The French get their coffees to go now too but I have never understood the need to carry just a tablespoon or two of espresso around in a tiny paper cup with a lid for sipping, sipping! This is a mistranslation of the American coffee nursing.

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.

Cribbage, good book and a little clawing in the sunshine.

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.

A local exhortation.

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.

A short break

Today is my stepfather’s birthday! And my nephew’s birthday! All celebrating in rather exclusive, excluded ways this year. Here in France we are savoring the idea that in two weeks things might change. Or maybe not. They are all arguing about voting on the deconfinement plan tomorrow and no one is going to be happy with all of it. I have been thinking lots of thought about some binaries. What is the difference between hard safety and soft safety? How do we reconcile what our ears tell us and what our eyes tell us?

I was wondering about the separation of the senses and here was Paulette’s lesson for the day. Your brain has two sensory systems (eyes/ears) which contradict each other.

I have also been having heavier thoughts about my son’s future. Will he go to high school in the fall? Will we be comfortable putting large groups of people in old buildings with imperfect ventilation in just four months? I don’t know.

Once I counted up how many miles I had walked in my radius I got a little worn out just thinking about it and lost some steam. My exercise routine is starting to resemble pacing, a nervous twitch of the confined beast.

French dentists are protesting that they aren’t going to be getting PPE. My own dentist is very cute but I haven’t seen him yet at #dentisteapoil.

We are alternating between big heavy rainstorms and hot summery days here. There is more trash (and dog shit, sigh) in the streets and people seem quite a bit less worried about life.

A sign outside of a daycare for essential workers – thanking the sanitation workers.

I have many stories to tell but today feels like a day of staying inward and so more will come tomorrow.

A short bloody story

Forty days of confinement. 174 miles walked or run – within my 1 km radius. 34 blog posts written. I’m tired. We are sapped. I’ve run out of new places to sit in my apartment. Yes, I’m grumpy. And so many sad stories and utter political lunacy coming from my country. I do not dwell very much on the future but the present is heavy today. Borders closed. Looming uncertainty.

My new friend Paulette! Every day there is a new anatomy lesson here outside the window and so I make sure to include this as a destination on my constant circling walks.

My grandmother lived through WWII with two small children and she told me a long complicated story of waiting for a sign. They were in rural Pomerania in a large house with many relatives nearby in other large houses. She had grown up there, married there and probably thought that would be her life. My grandfather was busy taking pictures out of airplanes or making deals or somehow being involved in the world of greater Germany.

We slump a bit these days.

She was waiting to decide when to flee west, when it would be too dangerous to wait any longer for the Russians. My decisions seem so small. The cook was killed in her bed by a jealous lover. There was a lot of blood. The sign. My grandmother took as many valuables as possible, her severely depressed postpartum friend and three small children and they went west. I don’t know when this happened but I imagine a beautiful Baltic summer, my aunt and mother with short dresses and white socks and a train full of very anxious women and children.

A new border. No return. A closed boundary. Gone. All just gone. The wind.

Trash is coming back to the streets. Humans and their debris.

I have some of those precious objects spirited from the ruins of an epoch. But to me they are old and pretentious mementoes of a life I never knew. When I was little her story made so much sense. A cook with her throat slit in bed, of course it was time to go. That is a very clear signal that one should not stay.

But thinking of it now it seems awful and confusing and so unnecessary. People were losing their minds of uncertainty out there among the wheat and potato fields. Handsome French POWs enscripted to help in the fields were somehow to blame. So young, so lonely, so desperate for a caress and willing to risk the jealous lovers. That cook, her lovers, were so much younger than I am now and their desires heightened by the loss of so many futures.

I would like to think things will be normal on May 11 but I know they will not be. My grandmother’s life was shaped by that loss, by those stories. I would like a sign, but a gentle one, not a murder. And so I pulled a card and now I want to cry because anyone who knew my grandmother knows that this is her, her favorite symbol of herself – Löwe.

Competition

As a child I won several spelling contests and got some very high test scores.  However, I didn’t compete in any sports until high school and then it was just running which sometimes I lost and sometimes I won but only depending on who else was there.  In graduate school I joined a mountain biking team but as this was the late 90s and the Ivy League, there just weren’t very many women. Did you know over 70% of the tenured faculty at four year institutions in the US are men?  But more than half of the PhDs in this country are women. Don’t forget that.

The Holocaust memorial near my home, I only noticed the writing yesterday and I have been walking by it for months.

Anyhow, once in State College, PA I raced against no one at all and I won.  It was surreal riding up the green hills of a ski resort by myself just so I could win because there were no other women.  Suffice it to say, I never learned much about true competition in sports.

The longer I stay in France, the more I have a slightly nauseating feeling that what has stressed me out in the US is a society based on extreme competition for scarce resources.  I hear sad friends convinced they will never find a good man to date because there are none left. I see my teacher friends stressing out because if someone else gets a good schedule, they will get a terrible one and so much of it is based on weird popularity contests.  If I do really well at something, back in the US, I know that talking about it too much will make others feel bad because since we live and breathe capitalism, we begin to believe that there just isn’t enough for all. There will be winners and losers.

I don’t know what this means but someone worked hard on it.

So I looked up competition, concurrence, here in France and the first things that pop up aren’t love and attention but rather economics and sports.  You can win a bike race and then business can compete for accounts, but it seems to stay in those domains. I am often impressed by what seems like kindness and patience here but now I am beginning to think that it is actually the lack of competition.  People can give each other time because there is time.

When I look up the definition of competition in an English dictionary the word supremacy figures prominently — the activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others  is the first definition in English but in French – so different – it’s a rivalry amongst people who have the same goal. So if I want to buy an old charm on Ebay that’s competition for the French dictionary but for the English dictionary it’s the condition of establishing superiority.  

More sidewalk debris.

In yoga classes, in dance classes, in various conversations over this last year I have begun to notice that comparison is simply not done here that much.  So if I am being an amazing mother then that’s great, it doesn’t in any way make another parent feel lesser. They may be sad about what isn’t working in their lives but my reality isn’t the cause of that wistfulness.  We aren’t literally in competition because our goals are diverse.

I am not an expert in vast generalizations about French culture but it feels like comparing oneself to others is just a little bit in poor taste here.  Which is good for mental health. Because comparisons just lead to misery. I am alone in confinement with my child. That is definitely worse than being with a hot man who wants to practice tango all day and cook delightful meals.  Or is it? And it’s definitely better than having no one at all to touch and hold. Or is it? It would be lovely to have a big garden to romp in but if I had that then I’d spend all my time pruning instead of practicing handstands. It’s just a bad path, the competition and comparison path.  But if I think about only being in competition with those who have the same goals, well, then that’s just me and I might as well help myself.

How lucky am I to semi-illegally walk here every day?

The comparative and the superlative are what we teach in foreign language classes, thinner, thinnest, richer, richest.  But that superlative is a complete myth. You are only the thinnest when you are dead and you can only be the richest if you do the math a certain way.  There are no absolute superlatives in our human existence. And so the path of comparison is just a path of misery.

What if my beauty or my happiness or your adoring husband or his cheerful boyfriend or their perfect teaching schedule didn’t affect anyone else’s wellbeing?  I don’t know if in the US we can ever wean ourselves of this as a society, as a whole because capitalism needs us to compare and strive so that we will buy. I know so many wonderful people who don’t compete or compare except when they are feeling really down, but the pressure, the habit, the compulsion has been bred into us in so many of our social interactions and ways of perceiving ourselves.

I have been institutionalized most of my life: years and years of grading and being graded.  It is exhausting our children. Any time we are evaluated, even by ourselves, our nervous systems get all wound up.  It has been such a blessing this year to be in France where, frankly, no one really cares if I have more or less or if I’m faster or slower.  

A little font party and also a surrealist invocation to contact the young blind ones if you have an electrical accident.

I feel like I have been taught to internalize a barometer, a constant superiority checker and evaluator.  It drives me crazy and doesn’t make me happy. This year away and this confinement have made it almost impossible to compete with anyone because I’m on a long race to nowhere at all.  I worry that I won’t be able to maintain this live and let live attitude once I return to the US where it just feels like there aren’t enough affordable houses, enough good jobs, enough health care, enough room on the roads, enough, enough, enough for what we have been taught to believe we need.

This year I have had the incredible blessing of being intensely involved with two groups that conscientiously work to keep the voices of comparison quiet through meditation, practices, writing and conversational practices.  It’s exciting to think that this is possible, that we, especially women, can work together and enjoy everyone’s success and forget completely about superiority.

Need a little inspiration? Here you go.

Epicurienne

This morning I awoke to a light rain, opened my blinds and windows and watched the reflections of the trees wave in the glass as I read Douglas Brooks’ very long introduction to his new translation of the Bhagavad Gita.  My sheets are dark brown cotton, rather worn but nicely stiff. I have a lovely fluffy down duvet loaned to me by some nearby friends. Every now and then I looked up to track the darkening and moving of the sky. Occasionally the rain dribbled with a beat but mostly it misted and so the birds continued to sing and coo.  I had a small espresso in a ceramic stemmed cup with violets painted on the outside of it and I thought, what is just so lovely about reading a book in France in bed and in the rain on a Sunday morning?

Future delights.

A few days ago I found jasmine growing on a small street and spent a few minutes just sniffing and sniffing.  Wisteria are profuse and drippy all over town but their scent is diffuse and doesn’t have a long memory track in my mind.  The jasmine made me so happy. A deep inhalation and a warming in my belly, a dancing of my brain thinking of weddings and beautiful Nedjmas and Fatimas.  I walked up the little street and then looped back again for more. I took the jasmine twice. And then, astonishing delight, on my way back to the concrete graffiti stairs, white lilacs.  I looked up and down the street. No one was about so I had some long luxurious sniffs. I think lilacs are my favorite flower smell. In the lilac is a little sharpness, a little stabby olfactory gesture that is missing from the more certainly sweet jasmine.

Remnants of a pre-confinement dinner party.

My senses are my entertainment most days.  I wonder if I was giving them too little time in the pre-confinement epoch.  They can be like family members, we complete their sentences for them, assume we already know what they like.  “Oh yes, it’s a velvet cushion, it’s soft, moving on, time to get some math homework done.” Or, “ah, coffee, you like that smell and taste, but let’s think about meetings and schedules and have a little mind fit.” It’s like the mind says to the body, yes, yes, I know what you think or feel but we have got much more pressing business.  The tyranny of the clock, of the future, of the plans to be made and right now. But business, oh it does not press now. Sometimes I get an email asking me to weigh in on some relative future problem and my mind says “aha there is that stress we know, now I have something to do and you can stop sitting there watching cloud graynesses.”  Because right now that is what I’m doing every few minutes. The sky to the left has a cold blue vapory quality whereas up above it is starkly grey like a Hitchcock movie but down to the right it looks like a violet mousse. And then it changes.

The color of the Toulouse sidewalks.

So really, mind, I laugh at you, as does God or the universe.  You simply cannot make a good chart to control the reality of September 1 or even May 11.  I put things on my calendar but I do not know if they will occur or change or disappear.

I love tango dancing and yoga because there’s more body presence and a lot less chatter.  And in headstand or in the embrace my plans become very limited, the next step, the next inhalation or leg extension are all my brain gets and so the body fully inhabits the hands, the warmth, the tiny movements.  My senses get to smell the cologne, propriocept a bunch of balancing and hear a whimsical piano solo hidden in the sad song.

It’s spring Christmas!

I recently read a sentence that I have been thinking about for days.  “sensual meditations—meditative savoring of food and music, as well as slowed down and ritualized acts of refined awareness like the Japanese tea ceremony—[…] allow us to cultivate our ability to allow the senses to meet their objects fully.”  And then I read a great line in my friends’ new book about phenomenological accounting. Have I been allowing my senses to meet their objects fully? I think not. I think I have been rushing them even though I had the best intentions. Spring is a fantastic time to give the senses more time to meet their objects.  There are subtle flowers to smell, cool breezes to notice, shifting light patterns to observe, and now that we are confined I can hear so much more. I love the sound of two feet jogging down my little street, or the light clickety whir of one bicycle or the rumbling that means my son is skateboarding home.

Because it’s not just our senses meeting their objects fully but also coming back to us fully to inform us that the world is so much more than we think.

My new favorite girlfriend.

Swaying

This is another post about the sublime because there’s nothing like staying in a one kilometer radius for five weeks to make one really think about pleasure.  Some years ago I was in New York City to enjoy all the grownup pleasures possible after dropping my son off at his father’s house. I did back to back yoga classes at the Institute, went tango dancing in basements and lofts, walked aimlessly and childlessly, and went to as many museums as possible.  Being a single parent all of the time except for a few weeks in the summer is very intense. Thoughts don’t get thought and art and dance and not knowing what time it is become such desirable fruits.

Poppies near the railroad tracks within my kilometer.

That summer there was a new exhibition on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum.  I love the Met and I love going up to the top and looking at leafy Central Park in the summer.  There’s often some kind of party up there. I always go see Rosa Bonheur first and then up to the top. Two brothers had constructed an enormous bamboo scaffolding artwork on the roof and if you showed up with no purse, flat shoes and the ability to sign waivers, you could actually walk in and through the sculpture.

I was so excited to get one of the climb on the sculpture tickets and go in the employee side door to a special room at the bottom of the Met.  We were given lots of instructions and then our group of about 18 people crammed into a smallish elevator with our docent. We stood shoulder to shoulder without air conditioning but we knew it was only five floors up so it would just be a moment.  But it wasn’t. The elevator jammed to a halt somewhere around floor four and we were stuck. I’d never been in an unmoving elevator full of people before. At first we laughed and called the completely nonplussed fire department. New York. « Stay right there, don’t go anywhere, we’ll be there soon. » I’m sure they tell that joke to every stuck elevator call but it isn’t funny.

Time passed.  It got stuffy.  I started to feel a little oppressed and began focusing on my breath.  Stoically I stood in tadasana, there was no room to move, and filled my lungs. And then a woman started to panic, let me out of here, I have to get out, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.  Our docent got very nervous, she was just a young person with a laminated tag on a lanyard. We had to make room for the panicking woman so we all squeezed more against each other. My breaths were shallow. I couldn’t say anything.  My throat was so dry. In the movies stuck elevators are always with a cute couple or a sparring pair and they have all the room in the world to gesticulate, slump on the floor or turn their backs, but we were tight in there. I do not know how much time passed.  I couldn’t lift anything up to see the time and didn’t want to move to get any hotter.

Very little mail these days. Much graffiti.

Finally, with a jolt and some more hilarity over the intercom from the firefighters, we made it up to the top, fresh air!  Blue sky! Green trees! Many of the group were too upset to proceed so only three or four of us climbed up into the bamboo structure, swaying high above this huge building.  My heart swelled. I wanted to cry with joy. Life was so beautiful. I was in love with bamboo, with artists, with New York, with all of life.

I experienced the sublime through relativity.  I do not know if I would even remember the sculpture except for my post colonial appropriation read on these white guys taking traditional Asian structures and making art of it, if it weren’t for that horrific time in the elevator.

New York, I love you.

So today.  I had an errand to do and I traversed the 1 kilometer boundary.  I saw greenery. I wanted to cry with joy. Five weeks without moving more than a kilometer in space and today I went a few more.  Oh man, the world is so beautiful. I saw running water and trees waving in the wild wind and I was in love again.

Deconfinement, as they are calling it here in France, is going to be amazing.  Get ready to fall in love with a leaf, the feeling of moving through space, a new piece of art, and the incredible human miracle of this life we get to live.

Chewy

When I lived on the rue Jean Nicot in Paris, around 1990, I lived across the street from a pink-painted bakery.  Our street was named for the man for whom nicotine was named. We were very close to the National French museum of tobacco and cigarettes which I never visited but no longer exists.  Did you know that France had a state-owned tobacco monopoly until about 20 years ago? SEITA (Société d’exploitation industrielle des tabacs et des allumettes) sold the cigarettes and the tobacco and even the matches, making money for a state whose health care costs were paid by the same state.  I always wondered who had the gruesome task of figuring out that cost-benefit analysis.

We are all so sick of the confinement rules. The canal, the parks, any little green space is off limits and the sun is coming out and it’s hard.

The bakery was very cute and renowned.  It has since changed hands so you can’t go visit the deliciousness of my memory but I hear the dashing M. Poujauran is still making bread and Catherine Deneuve has a standing subscription.  

Look at that! For 80 euros I could buy this little charm from the 1980s which was in an epiphany cake.

It was not a pastry shop (pâtisserie) but a proper bread bakery (boulangerie) and I was delighted because their specialty was rustic buns which I adore/d. I always needed more than one. In French a bun or a roll is just called a petit pain and the size was a little smaller than my palm.  Their specialty was small dark rolls with dried figs and hazelnuts. If you go to Portland, Oregon and the world returns to a place of small loaves and coffees out, the Saint-Honore bakery there does an almost equivalent dark rye raisin nut roll. The dough was almost a sourdough and so intensely alive that the outside had a tight sheen.  Gnawing was needed for the first bite and best to have some water or something wet nearby. They were good for putting into pockets for long bike rides or early morning train trips because they could nourish for hours.

Maybe he’s gone off to visit Henri the existentialist cat!

A bite of that chewy dense dough could sit in my mouth for a good minute and entertain me.  Rawr. Sometimes they ran out of my favorite and I tried other sorts, always two at a time. I was in my twenties and embarrassed at always buying more than one.  I was always hungry in those years, for excitement, for real meals, for true love or for late night adventures.

Melons from the Caribbean and pineapple from Costa Rica. This perplexes me. Who is working to get all of these fruits so far from their homes?

They also had little roast pork sandwiches with garlicky mayonnaise and small pickles on hard chewy buns with tender insides.  I always got two of those too, which was too much but the heft and the chew and my desires were sharp in those days. And then sometimes they had little quiches.  My favorite was a provençal one which was garlicky ratatouille in a tender buttery pastry shell with a little delicate custard holding it all together. Eating one of those, still slightly warm, was a comfort, such a comfort.

I did not take my mother with me to Paris but she shaped me into someone who sees love in a dense loaf, toothsome and nourishing.  And she taught me that indulgence is the permission to eat it warm, right there. I lived on the ungodly eighth floor without an elevator and the bakery goods tasted so much better out in the cold tobacco street than after I went home, panting up the stairs, clutching a greasy crumpled little brown paper bag.

Looking at the Pyrenees last fall.

Grand Gestures

When I was five I got a pony for Christmas. We lived in rural Oregon and the pony was an asshole pony who disliked children so this wasn’t as storybook as it may sound. I still remember looking out the upstairs window as the truck with the horse trailer drove up the gravel driveway, and there he was, a little dark pony for me. I loved riding horses and drawing horses but having one was less delightful. His name was Pistachio and his evil nature included scraping his sides along fence posts so that his child rider’s leg would be crushed and they would get pushed off and the ride would end. He was quite cute when just decorating the meadow but terrifying as an actual mount.

There is footage out there of a zebra running down a Parisian suburb street. I don’t know the whole story but things aren’t what they were.

When I lived in Rochester and was eternally disappointed by my future mate, I asked my therapist what to do. They suggested that perhaps the early childhood pony gift, even though a gift horse in the pejorative sense of the term, had perhaps set me up with a weakness for a grand gesture. We joked that what I really wanted was a very fancy vacuum cleaner when what I got was a massage gift certificate.

Here we are all locked up and I think about grand gestures. If I were to bake a cake for a friend they might be afraid to eat it. Nothing touched is unsuspect. Perhaps a serenade out in the street? But it’s technically illegal and the police may or may not have a sense of humor.

Night walks – not a soul in the streets but me and the cats.

The grand gesture, the whirlwind trip to Paris, and even the massage gift certificate are all indefinitely on hold so I thought I’d wander down memory lane and see what stories I could remember.

When I was 19 and very much in love with an artist, he woke himself up at 2 am and baked me a surprise Sacher Torte in the middle of the night while I slept. That dark chocolate cake with gold leaf on top seemed to appear out of nowhere the next day, out of sheer love.

A sad story on my running steps.

In my twenties, I worked many long days at a big finance company in a big building in San Francisco. They didn’t believe in anything but work and money. Before I realized that I had other gods and left to pursue a doctorate in French literature, my boyfriend took me to the Saratoga mud baths. I said no, I must go to work, because I always have to be there, and he said, I took the liberty of calling your boss and asking her personally to let you have the day off so we can go get naked in the mud and celebrate your birthday, with my mother.

A Serbian surgeon I knew briefly heard me complain about my weedy garden. The next day a crew of workers showed up at my house and worked for hours to clean it all up. Even though it just took a phone call and a checkbook for him, I was thrilled at the thoughtfulness.

This is right outside an elementary school.

A more recent friend knew he would be late getting into town for my birthday so he secretly arranged for his friend’s wife (someone I had not yet met) to go to my favorite bakery and bring a strawberry cake to my house. Delicious.

An old friend traveled across the country and showed up at my door unannounced with a bottle of perfume and a large bunch of gladioli. It was like a romantic comedy but the timing was terrible and I never knew what to do with the perfume, the flowers that fit in no vase or the old friend.

Let’s have a party here when it’s all said and done.

I have often thought that these gifts, these planned acts of thoughtfulness, these creative expressions of love were the best stories. Now no one can give me anything. Packages no longer arrive. My excursions go no further than a kilometer. If someone showed up on my doorstep I would first have to lock them up in solitary confinement for two weeks. I’m already in France and can’t even surprise myself with a weekend in Paris or Montauban. Birthdays and anniversaries and proposals are occurring in the most stripped down circumstances all over the world.

So hungry have we been for the love, for the cakes, for the sacrifices and the planning. Was I, were we, duped into a decoding of love that required so much of the physical world to be at our disposal? Is it time to go back to the things we can exchange that cost nothing? Words and presence. Presence and words. Not even touch but words and presence. So the next time you reach out to someone or hear from someone far away, take the big step, listen, and pick out the most beautiful dancing whipped cream strawberry words that you can find in the boutique of your skull.

I am so fortunate to be part of several communities where what we do is really, really listen to each other. This is not a grand gesture but it is what is keeping me sane. My future holds no trips to the coast, or five star dinners out but I am thrilled to think that it holds a long pause after I’ve said my piece or a delightful friend taking a deep breath and saying… I’m here, tell me about it.

And sometimes someone puts a cookie in my bed.