Pleasure and Time

When I was 12 or so, my cousins, brother, and I spent the summer at my grandmother’s house in the Black Forest. It was very exciting for the four of us, I was the oldest. We flew unaccompanied from California via London to Germany. I remember picnics with Frikadellen in the woods after long carsick-inducing rides in my grandmother’s little diesel car. I remember my little cousin getting so mad at me, I definitely provoked him, that he hurled a wooden block at my head. I was standing in front of my grandmother’s huge double-glazed picture windows and we all froze in silence as the wooden block flew across the room. He missed me and miraculously the block hit the small border between the windows. That was terror when we were all so young, breaking a window.

Ras la tasse I miss you and your smooshy delicate croissants.

When we left Germany my grandmother gave us a wrapped gift, something for all of us, with strict instructions that we not open it until our second flight. My grandmother was a lifelong believer in the glories of anticipation, Erwartung. It drove me crazy when she got presents and she waited as long as possible, drawing the time out, before finally opening the gift. She told us that there was more pleasure in waiting for pleasure than in the actual pleasure itself. This is not a believable statement when one is 12. No. I wanted to open the pretty box right away but her powers of guilt were great and so we put it in the overhead bin on our first flight. And forgot it there. When we changed planes in London Heathrow (oh such an exciting spectacle for a rural girl in the 1970s), we no longer had the wrapped gift. It stayed on that first plane and we were unable to recuperate it. I still don’t know what was in the package. Our grandmother gifted us an infinite anticipation because she would never tell me what was in it, either because she forgot or because she wanted it to stay forever wrapped in our minds. And now she is gone and I can only guess. A smallish box but a square one, not a chocolate box, not a book, the paper was green in my memory and it had a ribbon tied around it so it was something that had been wrapped in a shop because my grandmother only ever used reused gift wrapping with creases and odd shapes. What could it possibly have been? Maybe it showed up years later in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino got his hands on it.

Every morning I look forward to my coffee. Do I enjoy the actual coffee as much as the one I am anticipating?

Pleasure does strange things to the brain. We want chocolate tarts on some level even if we don’t particularly like chocolate or even if our tastebuds are numb or even if we get a headache afterwards or even if we know it is never as good as it looks. This year in Toulouse has been a little baffling for my anticipation brain. Other than the coffee, I don’t really know what I should look forward to, day by day. I have been negotiating a long and tedious divorce between my present consciousness and my future brain. My brain says, I want to know what the future will bring and I want to know it right now or else!!! And my body says, shut up, look at the sky, smell the onions someone is sautéing in another apartment, enjoy how quiet the air has become. We are currently in front of the judge, the process got fast-tracked, and luckily my body is being granted temporary custody of all pleasure and my brain has to go to some “calm the fuck down” training. You know, the kind all divorcing people fantasize about sending their exes to, the hours and hours of powerpoints about being a nicer person and learning to let go of controlling your ex. I digress in my fantasy of legally imposed character building, but what I couldn’t impose on my ex husband I can impose on certain parts of my psyche.

Today I can look forward to only the simplest and most immediate joys on this Friday. A bath, some movement, wow, my list is really short, but that doesn’t mean pleasure is gone. Not at all. But it does require less brain and more body. By this I mean feeling the yummy cotton roughness of the white rug under my feet, rolling my sour coffee stink around my mouth and watching the wind caress the lavender plant on my balcony.

We have so much to look forward to right now. The next meal cooked by someone else is going to be exquisite ambrosia to my tastebuds. Just thinking about a hug from someone I haven’t seen in a long time brings a great ball to my throat. The ocean, hearing cicadas again on a summer night, seeing my son as a grown man, listening to live music, or getting a kitten sound like exquisite future pleasures. My body says yes, let’s feel those feels and hear those sounds and anticipate those moments.

My missing cat.

So we can feel pleasure in our bodies now if we slow down. Caress your own hair, wiggle your bare feet, roll around, jump, twerk, flap your arms, it’s all good. We can only breathe in this present moment, we can only enjoy the creaking of rolling our shoulders right now. My son and I are doing a lot of yelling and crazy dancing. It feels good. So does making silly faces, sticking out my tongue, boxing the air like Rocky, or lying on the ground wherever the sunlight puddles.

In yoga we often talk about poses that feel so good…when they are over. If your brain is getting the best of you try a camel pose, a timed plank pose, a twisted standing pose. You’ll only be able to hold them as long as your brain shuts up. And then when you come out, ahhhh, struggle is relative, suffering comes and goes.

Oooh vulvas on the bike path. A welcome break from all the penis graffiti in the world.

I read a beautiful Italian book last spring, where the author, a literature teacher, bemoaned the fact that many of our young people have lost the art of yearning. He cited case after case of students he knew who had everything and yet who were miserable, suffering self-harm and hopeless. In French the book is called L’Art d’être fragile by Alessandro D‘Avenia but I’m not sure it’s been translated into English.

Anticipation, yearning, being physical, now is the time to notice which pleasures are available in the instant, which ones are almost more enjoyable in the abstract, and which feel delightful because they are at least, relatively, the opposite of pain.

Exquisitely blue sky at dusk.

Things I like to do

Today this project of writing a blog post every day seems daunting. I had no idea how exhausting this current state of affairs would be. Social norms are fraying and so I thought I would like to share a little list of things I love to do but which I do not feel have been sufficiently embraced, approved of or celebrated by the people in my life.

  • Read like a maniac. I am currently reading a French Burundi book, a philosophy book and a big fat book about prehistoric man but I’m tempted to pick up something else for fun along the way.
  • Write in my books and dog ear their pages. They need the love.
  • Be naked. This will have to wait until I once again have alone time.
  • Sleep outside.
  • Jump into cold water. The sun has come out and even the completely grotty Canal du Midi looks tempting.
  • Eat with my hands and fast.
  • Fart loudly.
  • Hug my child. He is much bigger than I am and his hugs are a little scary now because he can pick me up and drop me.
  • Ride my bike in the rain and also walk in the rain and also walk in the snow.
  • Run up stairs.
  • Praise my own excellent cooking. I have Cuban black beans, garlicky green rice and apple crisp in the kitchen.
  • Dance wildly and without much rhythm.
  • Get up before dawn.
  • Invite lots of people with small children over to my house. The ruckus will return one day!
  • Be a slob, leave my clothes on the floor, dishes in the sink and a general state of rumpledness.
  • Swear.
  • Leave work at work.
  • Wear clothes with holes or stains. Parsimoniousness will save the planet.
Time to breathe says the mural.


Consider the small child scootering along deserted streets, knowing his father is behind him but not really knowing anything else except speed, breeze, freedom.

The first month I was in Toulouse I saw another child scootering around and around the park and singing a song to herself and I remembered, just for a tiny moment, the glorious body motion of childhood and the inner song that I sang then.

When I was in graduate school I met a blind man and he asked me for a favor. He said that what he most missed was the wind in his face. It’s hard to do anything fast when you are legally blind (although Ashlanders know a local champion who has mastered this, Miss WW). And so I took him out along the Schuykill bike path on spring evenings on his tandem bike. I am always so happy to be on a bike, it didn’t feel like charity.

Sometimes we move, maybe on a horse, maybe in a convertible, maybe on a crazy German summertime luge.


They call it the Rodelbahn and it’s so terrifying that you will want to do it more than once.

And then there are times when nothing moves and it becomes so still and time stretches out like infinite taffy and I feel like this is it, this is what all the Buddhists are talking about, this is the present. Thank you for making it so long and so big and so obvious that my mind got it, just for a moment.

Libellule is one of my favorite French words. Did you know its etymology comes from the Latin word for book? Libellulus, little book. Because its wings open up like a book. A dragonfly in English.

Last June I came to Toulouse to figure everything out. Where I would live, where my child would attend school, who my new friends would be. I figured nothing out. I was heartbroken and incapable of making decisions. I went to find a new school for my son and crashed on a bike in the rain. I called about apartments and people apologized but really they were laughing at me because it was the wrong time of the year. I am generally a decisive person but that was a time of nothing knowing, nothing moving.

I felt as wretched as old cheese. Stuck in that back damp corner of the refrigerator. And then one day a libellule, a dragonfly, so sure of itself right in the middle of the city, hooked onto my tshirt, a brooch on my midriff and rode along with me in my confusion.

How does the libellule fly with its little booklike wings? It surely doesn’t know the future but it skits and darts up and down and side to side. And its child doesn’t know any different. Today pancakes for dinner, tomorrow broccoli.

Here she is.

She hopped off my shirt and I took her picture to remind myself that a very beautiful and effective creature only occasionally employs the straight line, the logic, the cause and effect, and yet still sparkles and shimmers in the sun. I may not be working toward anything at all.

Today on my balcony I maybe be a dragonfly, frozen in apparent stillness, poised and not knowing anything at all. Flit flit. Tomorrow there may be a lily pad or a green pond toward which to direct myself.

Fly. Or rest. But whichever you do, do it like the dragonfly, all movement, all stillness.


It’s March on my first year off of teaching since 1998 and today I am missing my students.  A good feeling as I contemplate going back to teach in about five months. I have been teaching since 1994 with only 3.5 years of no teaching but even then I taught summers.  My largest class was 60+, a political science/art history extravaganza that I taught with my former spouse, and my smallest class was 2, a seminary in French feminism with only two students, one gay man and one ex-military man.  The latter spoke excellent French, the former always pronounced vierge as verge to the latter’s great annoyance. My oldest student was well over 60 and my youngest ones have been 13.

I started teaching yoga in 1998 but have taken many breaks and taught one student at a time or 30 in a gym. I taught yoga on 9/11, I taught yoga in people’s homes, to pregnant friends, to my own friends and to so many sweet people.

My students have taught me so much.  They have been hilarious, brilliant, enraging, sad, furious, resistant, enthusiastic, inspiring, courageous, confused, and so, so funny.  Here’s a little patchwork of memories which I will try to keep anonymous.

Practicing prepositions.

Doing yoga on the beach in St Malo on a beautiful summer day with a bunch of college students who I was teaching and guiding for several weeks.  Going to the beach was delightful and I think of that day every time I see a picture of one of those students doing a headstand. And another of them is a bonafide yoga teacher herself now.

A student had to leave the term early to drive to Utah with a Uhaul trailer to bring back her mother’s body.  She explained the paperwork and I guess this is quite common for some families.

A student came very late to class and told me it was because of the snowstorm and he had had to sleep in a bowling alley off of the interstate the night before.

Before I left my job a student asked me a question I can’t stop thinking about: Is it better to be motivated by going toward something or to be motivated by moving away from something?

I remember a student playing her clarinet as her poetry presentation and feeling goosebumps on my skin and a lump in my throat because it was so beautiful.

In the very early 1990s, at Penn, a rather conservative place, I remember a beginning French student standing up in front of the room to explain that his partner was indeed a man.  I was so impressed at his courage to come out in front of the class in a language that he was just beginning to learn. It took the other students a long time to actually understand what he meant but he didn’t give up.

During our Moby-Dick unit, an amputee student went to Home Depot and challenged the workers to help her find the materials to build her own peg leg which she then brought to class.  

One year my French 1 students decided that our poetic catchphrase would be: le ciel est noir comme un ananas noir.

High school students + yoga blocks = ??

A tall young man student reading Joyce Carol Oates and asking the girls in the class if being a young woman often felt as dangerous as being around a bear, the only equivalent he could imagine since he was so big and male.  Yes, we said, it’s like a bear, except you never know who is a bear.

Two girls in my first year of high school teaching who cried almost every day in class and spent hours sitting outside of my room to cry more.  Their loves and friendships were so complicated every single day. So much weeping at age 15.

Original compositions on the saw, on the guitar, with a full rock band that were played in my classroom, all about Moby-Dick.

A student who had failed so many English classes standing up in front of a big class to read his original poetry aloud with great glee.  He read poem after poem and didn’t want to sit down.

A student who started a philosophy club at lunch in my classroom and asked me questions I couldn’t answer and then diagrammed all of their possible vectors on the whiteboard.

A student who told me off for my classist attitudes on her last day at high school.  

A student who could and would put both legs behind his head just for our entertainment.

A yoga student over 60 who told me one day after many months that she was starting to realize that her body was part of her and not just the flesh envelope she inhabited.  

I love this mural inspired by Saint-Exupéry.

A student who was brilliant and whose education was violently stopped because of power struggles with male authority. It made us both cry when he had to leave.

I think of all of these people I have been so honored to know and how much they have to offer the world in their honesty, struggles and hilarity.  I could write for hours about all of the little stories, all of the little moments that I can’t forget, the conversations that startled me, the music playing that enchanted me, the resilience that made me check my assumptions.  I am sending them all love today and thanking them for showing up and giving me such an education in humanity.


Last week I attended a Proustian writing workshop, be still my beating brain, and the entire six hours was devoted to writing the longest sentence possible. What a joy in French, what a taboo in English. I learned a few new French words, mostly nautical, quite pretty, délover and faseyer and noir de Mars, a black with a little red in it. When you delove it’s nothing to do with a breakup but rather unwinding a rope and faseyer, well that is what we are all doing, our sails floating, rippling in the wind. It’s a technical term that comes from the Dutch but the word that I learned that I want to know so much more about, and which seems to have an English equivalent, is ipseity – ipséité – Jemeinigkeit – ipseidad. Pretty exciting stuff!

ipso facto – the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
ipso facto – the best lover of my best lover is my prince/ss charming

Yes, ipseity comes from the Latin ipso but since I only got as far as my ancilla (servant) in my villam est in my six months of conversational Latin, I can’t tell you much about ipso. Conversational Latin you ask? Some random French experiment I participated in many years ago. (I’m beginning to be a little embarrassed at the amount of completely useless intellectual endeavors I have enjoyed). The brilliant writing workshop leader explained that for her ipseity is a return to the self, a consciousness of the work that has already been accomplished. We have been working on this project, this life, for a long time, and we know some things. Another headstand, another deep breath while helping a child with homework, another tentative reaching out to people we want to see more of, these are things that we have done in the past and can keep doing now. Ipseizing the day.

What can make our small selves big?

We were looking for the ipseity in our sentences and tried to expand them by bringing in explanations, descriptions, synonyms, internal monologue, parentheses. Basically by puffing up and extending our one sentence we were looking for the ’self‘ of the sentence. This is so contrary to what we teach in high school English in the US with our abject horror of the run on sentence and the linking comma. But I adore it! The French language with its specific relative pronouns, distaste for the overly direct, addiction to litotes, and shifty, often extramarital, relationships between subject and object loves to open up wide and just put in more and more words. The other participants in the workshop were brilliant, their longer and longer sentences full of word play, cultural references, mental tension and many mentions of a nicely chilled white Burgundy. Because every good Proustian sentence has a lovely drink hidden in it whether it be lightly perfumed tea or the beer your neighbor is pouring into a glass right now.

I am looking forward to getting back into the classroom and doing some of these exercises with my students. How can you make your sentence bigger? Now is the time to add the descriptions, the random references to your cultural compendium, the little hint about your terrors, or the restating over and over, but in different words, of the fabric of your reality.

This is one half of my Proustian sentence. It includes a bathtub, Godard and some reflection on 1960s apartment buildings. Just like my life.

All these years I have been practicing yoga, I have suspected that the second half of my life would be an exploration of an inner vastness, a world that needs some quiet and time to reveal itself. It’s like the Arab baths in Seville, warm, deep under the street, very dark and so relaxing. My version has no lighting so far but come on in, the water is delightful.

A Star

Today I saw so few planes in the sky. Many years ago I lived in Geneva, Switzerland for a year. It’s important to clarify because some other years ago I lived near Geneva, New York, a much smaller town. My year at the Université de Genève was solitary, not by choice, but because Switzerland, for foreigners, is always an experience in social distancing. And maybe for the Swiss themselves but I am not here to make vast generalizations about a small country.

This mural in Toulouse seems to be telling a story about women and the colonial wars but I really don’t know what it’s about.

I made a Greek friend, some German friends, an Italian friend who was a dancer and died the following year, two Albanian classical musician friends and a few Senegalese dance and party partners. Most of the other graduate students I met were very serious about their political science, their NGO, their CERN but I was there doing a masters in literary aesthetics which no one has ever heard of. I had no international acronym. A dear German cousin took me out now and then and I visited his family and it turns out that I was often riding my bike past the apartment building of my father’s first wife. My seminars were entertaining and snow fell early in the year and thickly. I turned 30 there in the international dormitory on top of a hill.

These very old and useless maps are doing something on the walls in Toulouse. A lesson? A reminder? This is the street we lived on for our first month in Toulouse, I’m quite fond of it.

Today is a difficult day to write about anything but the news but I have set myself this challenge so I will continue. I loved the heady conversations I had with people in multiple languages and I don’t know what I learned about literary aesthetics but the fact that such a degree even exists delights something deep in my brain. The faculty were extremely well paid and said ‘tu’ to us and went out for coffee with us and were interested in their students. I was lonely nonetheless in the way a 30 year old woman begins to be lonely. I believed I needed to find love, in order to find the means to create a new family. All around me people were cheating on their wives and girlfriends at the university. I went to one wedding but it was so odd because it was more like a planned marriage than a true love marriage. It was like it was what had to happen.

Some very stylish graffiti downtown. An empty Sunday street. Today I rode my bike around trying to take pictures of murals. The sun was bright, the wind was chilly and all seemed suspended.

My body was happy in Geneva. I joined the rowing team and we rowed big heavy wooden boats across the lake during wild storms. In the depth of winter when the lake water was a thick 2 degrees Celsius I saunaed naked with men and women at night and jumped into that heart attack water. I had my mountain bike and my snowboard and I headed uphill with one or the other whenever the weather permitted. The university offered a whitewater kayaking class and we went on all the rivers we could. Every day included phenomenology, cold water and a lonely wooden bed. I felt so nineteenth century. Kant’s sublime was all around us for the tasting. And then sometimes when it was just too dark and cold we all piled into one dorm room and made fondue from a cheap supermarket mix and the whole hallway stank, of us from all over the world, of cheese, of the giddiness of not being Swiss.

A sweet mural at a school that will be closed for a very long time.

The sun set so early those late winter evenings or sometimes didn’t even seem to appear. The sky was leaden and gray as in all the French poetry. But, that year, when I rode my bike home in the icy cold nights, I had a new friend. He, or she, maybe a genderless being, waited at the top of the hill, right above my dorm building, in the black sky whenever I came home after 10 pm.

A comet, unlike a shooting star, just stays there for a while, becomes part of a nightly ritual.

I looked at the golden tail and I thought about the last time people had seen it in the sky, thousands of years ago. It will not be back in my lifetime, or my son’s or even his grandchildren. I would dismount my bike, stand looking up at the sky, breathing hard from the big hill and taste that exquisite sadness that is so joyful – we are nothing but dust, but such beautiful dust. I stood and looked at it up in the sky until I got too cold and had to park my bike and go to bed. The comet wasn’t my comet but somehow it was there when I came home alone and went to bed alone. Four thousand years ago, I like to think, looking at that comet gave someone else comfort too.


Life lets you fail and try and smell bad and fall and stumble. Life lets you remember that there is time and that the slippery sycamore leaves aren’t just there to make you fall, to clog up the canal, to slip around our feet and bike tires but also to remind you that Napoleon was here. There were men and women and children who labored to shape this space. The three canals and the Garonne and all of the big boulevards host the sycamore. For years I believed that most fatal French car crashes were heads hitting sycamore trees. So much cracking.

The trees that line the roads in all of our ideas of what this country is.

In June I wept and the witches dust that is sycamore pollen stung my eyes. It swept through the air, visible prickles, and everyone else sitting outside eating lunch wept with me. Time passes with the trees but not as quickly as you might think. It’s never so fast. We are given gaps and moments of time to develop our own style, to grow in and out of pants. Life lets us flibbertigibbet about and there is still time to buy marmalade, to begin to think a deep thought, to rue a text. These little mistakes, these small miscalculations of the bumps and crevices of our own time.

The sycamores are still naked but their little friends have lovely pink dresses, albeit a little skimpy.

I took a year off of work, off of my life in the US to explore what I was, who I would be, with so much of my identity stripped away. And now it feels like we are all being catapulted into a very intense version of this experience. No work, no school, no real idea of the concrete future and a lot of time on our own. I like to look at the plane trees, many suffering from their own new malady, a mushroom-like growth, and wonder at their notion of time.

We can only breathe right now, not tomorrow, we only know our bodies right now, not next month. These huge trees give me such comfort. They are, it turns out, a terrible choice for bordering canals because their leaves are so thick and leathery that it can take four years for them to disintegrate in the water. So all of the canals need to be dredged or they will disappear, their bottoms rising in a muddy blanket of bio phyllo. But we love them despite their unsuitable nature.

Remember! Inversions are good for your immune system and then we can be trees, a least for a few moments.

The sycamore trees in Toulouse are old enough that they saw me once before. Do they remember me in 1997, in a boat, blistered and hot, struggling under their meager midday shade? Did I remember them?

I did something like this last century. The little cart is because these boats aren’t allowed to go through the locks and so portage through nettles and up steep banks is part of the adventure.

These sycamore trees are my monuments right now, keeping a gray-barked vigil all night long. All life long. Tonight we will ride by a hundred or more of them, in the dark, on our bicycles. Next fall they will be naked again.


Right now there is nothing I can do but sit tight, stay home, and wash my hands. My son’s school is cancelled probably for the next two weeks and maybe for the next three which actually means five because of vacation. So maybe now is a good time to share some more stories. We are so lucky to live in a time when we can read and even hear each other’s stories without being amongst our bodies. I love being with other people and their bodies but it also feels like the right civic thing to do is to speak from a distance. So I’ll try to post a story every day here for the next two weeks to distract myself and you all.

This morning at the market. Many cheerful people buying many vegetables. I didn’t notice people acting any differently.

Last week I had to go for my official medical visit for my long-term visa. I went to Arthur Rimbaud Street where the immigration office is. Rimbaud, the stranger, the exiled, would well have appreciated the marginal nature of his street. It’s far off in the north of Toulouse where immigrants live and where spicy food is actually spicy. I showed my official appointment letter and one of the guards in a black coat unlocked the gate and let me in. He walked me in to the secretary who took my paper and then he told me to wait in the Asylum Seekers waiting room. Which I am not but which was a perfectly nice waiting room with toys and books for children and posters on the wall advertising the French government program to help you go back to your country if you have a good investment project. I was afraid to take a picture because of all the no cell phones signs but, how encouraging. It looks like the French government would rather give people seed money to start a business in their home country, than just throw them out. I don’t know much about this program but I liked looking at the pictures of people in their new lives with little businesses in various countries.

Some seemingly simple math about how incarcerating immigrants and forcibly returning them is a lot more expensive than giving them a flight and some cash to start something new. Of course in the US since those prisons are private there is a capitalist incentive to do the bad math and profit.

After about 10 minutes the guard took me to another waiting room which was much bigger and a beautiful young woman in a white coat came out to give me a psychological test. That sounds sexy but it was just pleasant. On a laminated piece of paper I had to use a dry erase marker to circle oui ou non if I had ever been depressed, felt trapped, wanted to hurt myself, etc. The questions were thoughtful and all yes or no. They also had copies in other languages.

I said all gardenias for my mental state.

Then the nurse brought me into my office and informed me I was almost obese and should stop eating chocolatines, chocolate croissants. But then she looked at me and reconsidered and measured and weighed me. I was completely wrong about my height and weight (centimeters!) and am actually exactly average. I felt so foolish for turning 5’5’’ into 155cm.

Then I waited in a hallway for a very long time and listened to someone beyond an open door following a webinar or a training for virus mitigation while I read a good book and looked at all the brochures in so many languages that I do not recognize.

And then I went in to see the doctor. I couldn’t help myself and blurted out, « une rousse! », when my freckles found themselves in front of her freckles. A Frenchwoman who looks like me is extremely rare. I asked her if childhood had been difficult and she said yes. A little moment of silence, of sadness, of our shared girlhood exclusion, loneliness, difference in this office on the street of Arthur Rimbaud.

Her glasses were bright blue and she stamped my official documents and I left. On the way out the security guard in the black coat unlocked the gate with a key and I passed a huddle of young men, mostly speaking Arabic, all on their cell phones, all trying to get into these offices.

The lonely and difficult childhood of my speckled sister touched me. Bureaucracy and humanity. Everyone more and more separate, or not.

5th grade?

P.s. I am experimenting with writing in French first and then translating kind of stiffly. Hence the odd style. It’s interesting to me to see how my brain constructs the world differently in different languages.


Let’s face it, we are all thinking a little more about who is dying, where and why and what it means for us. My beautiful grandmother died this week seven years ago which feels like a very long time and then no time at all. Next month will be the 13 year anniversary of another death, a loss that still makes me choke up and feel like there is big hole left in this world. Close friends of mine have lost their parents in the last year and some are anticipating more big losses. We look at all of the maps and we run the numbers and we wonder who is coming to get us and what do we need to do.

Just a little reminder, in a beautiful square in Toulouse, that people here were regularly executed for their religion, for their philosophy. If you didn’t read Voltaire’s Treaty on Tolerance while you were in grad school, you could always read it now.

Today I am mourning the death of a love relationship that was dear to me. I recently did a strange ritual where I had to imagine my own death and I did once give students the option to write their own obituaries. So, what do we do to prepare for and live with the mourning that is inevitable in our lives? In yoga we lie down on the floor in a pose called corpse pose and we become very quiet. A little practice in letting go. In Buddhism I hear a lot of talk of going through life and letting certain selves die, and mourning them properly. And then there’s sex which brings us closer to a certain death, at least here in France as Wikipedia so poetically puts it: La petite mort (French pronunciation: ​[la pətit mɔʁ]the little death) is an expression which means “the brief loss or weakening of consciousness” and in modern usage refers specifically to “the sensation of post orgasm as likened to death.”

Recently, all of our baguette bags come with these poetic enticements to go to Japan and take a romantic train ride. I have no idea if this advertising campaign was launched before the virus or as a reaction to it. We eat our bread with jam, here in Toulouse, and we think about the sublime views of Mount Fuji from this special train.

One day, in my undergraduate years, I was standing outside looking at the sun and smoking when a very tall and thin man came up to talk to me. We stood on a balcony in the art building with the Pacific crashing just meters away and he told me he was from Pennsylvania. He turned to me and looked at me with his sad beautiful eyes and said that he found the problem of California to be that no one acknowledged death. I told him that I was from Oregon and I agreed. We stood there, leaning against the concrete balustrade, feeling deep and superior. He asked me, why does everything here have to be beautiful, why doesn’t anyone accept growing old, why doesn’t anything die here? And I fell in love. At least for a while. Death and love. I was 20. It was so enticing.

How many people have fallen in love over heady conversations in these buildings?

When I cleaned out my house to come to France I found so many letters from this long ago love. I put them in a tidy box, found him on Instagram and offered to send them to him. I will always remember that first conversation, the first time I saw him sleeping, naked and vulnerable and almost childlike, and driving in his small truck through a blinding snowstorm. I learned so much about Buddhism from him and about devotion and inspiration.

I still talk to my grandmother but I have to imagine her responses. I am lucky to know the two brothers of the boy we lost. I will never see him be any older than 14 but I get to watch them grow into men, amazing men. Sometimes in savasana the allure of the peaceful infinitely soft and warm darkness scares me just a little. One year after heartbreak I am tempted to do some accounting, some stock taking but then I think, no, that is not the mystery of the death of a love.

When we lose a person in our lives, what are we losing? Ourselves as seen by them? I loved how my grandmother perceived me. Or are we losing a future? I thought we would end our days together, I thought he would be a fun and dangerous big brother to my son. The little losses of day to day fade, other people bring us coffee in bed or make us laugh or fill our time. We lose stories, we lose memories that we made together, we lose a certain vision of the world.

And yet, and yet. Tennyson and Auden have to be right, don’t they? I got to know these people, I was so privileged to experience so much love, I get to keep some of the stories, even if no one else remembers. I do not like mourning, I am angry about still being beset by grief. But I got to love. And be loved.

A picture for my grandmother! She always looked at people’s feet first and she would have loved these.

Talking Cure

Decades ago I went to visit my childhood friend Kim in San Francisco. She was married to a very athletic man whose cycling socks she had to wash by hand. This one detail stuck so much in my mind that I wasn’t dismayed when they divorced. One Sunday afternoon I stopped by because her parents were visiting. We sat in the living room for hours until the sky grew dark and we were but shadows in the unlit room. I had known her parents since I was young and we sat on comfortable chairs and just talked. It was probably a four hour conversation in that living room near USF. Our conversation meandered over this and that and I remember thinking how much I missed talking to people with no eye on the clock, no agenda. In the 1990s we didn’t have iPhones but we were already so busy, so running around, so uncool if we didn’t have multiple social plans. That afternoon of laughing, telling stories, gently mocking each other and discussing nothing in particular has stuck in my mind for years. I missed that kind of ‘sit a spell‘ conversation that only the older people in my childhood indulged in.

People in Toulouse stop and chat. I love his jacket.

I am so lucky to spend hours a week chatting here in all sorts of languages and at all sorts of levels. This morning at the market the Mexican guy who makes tortillas told me about where the best place for his family to live might be. We talked happily, I bought tortillas and I wandered on. Then I stopped and talked to the local cheese guy about why I prefer quesadillas to croque monsieurs and whether or not French people can tolerate spice. I wandered on to a cafe to do my eavesdropping writing assignment and listened to four French women hold forth on medications, inheritances, style, missing sweaters and the Scandinavian retirement system. They spoke faster than I could write and laughed and cut each other off and repeated each other’s sentences. Their conversation was about nothing at all but it was the casting of social threads that bind us together. As they left, they asked if I want their newspaper. I said no, all bad news, and she said yes the news these days is nothing but a tally of ‘chats écrasés,’ an expression I didn’t know but yes, the news is like reading a roster of run over cats, indeed.

An exercise in semiotics in the park across the way.

I spend several hours a week speaking in Spanish with my new Colombian teacher. Our conversation is simple but from what I understand people who speak Spanish say much more than is necessary and repeat it often because talking is really important. She explained that it doesn’t really matter what you say but it’s a way to show warmth and friendship to just keep talking and talking and talking and talking. For her the French are taciturn and too worried about what they say. I like talking for the sake of talking. I talk to my favorite bakers about my son’s school, I talk to other yoga students about weird diets, I talk to the butcher about my child, and to my meditation friends about health care and somersaults. I love all of this talking. I am so going to miss doing it in several languages.

Walking over this bridge this Sunday morning I heard Spanish, Portuguese, German and English. And some very nice French ladies talked to me about Jesus.

I have spent the last month studying trauma; Karine Bell’s weeklong amazing series, rereading Bessel van der Kolk, and diving deep into other somatic practices. It seems like talking is a good thing for us humans. There is little evidence that telling the story of the actual trauma is what we need to do, rather we just need to exhale a lot. And that can be singing, ah yes, or talking and talking. It is soothing to just yammer on about nothing in particular. I like all of my little conversations of here and there that make the glue of this life. Now when someone starts to go on and on I would like to think, they need this, this is good for them, it’s like digestion, let’s just digress and chat. It’s lovely.

Oh wow! The Pyrenees. This is our view today but not every day. I agreed with the nice Jesus ladies that God certainly has given us beauty but I declined their invitation to join their group. This view from the middle of town is so hard to capture on my little camera but it is stunning. This is the other side of the bridge in the photo above. Toulouse has its beauty.

And then there are the mind-blowing, long, intense and profound conversations. I remember sitting outside at 11 at night right before I got married talking and talking with good friends while the sheep grazed nearby on a hill in France. I remember staying up until 2 am with Germans in my living room in San Francisco, trying to figure out the state of the world. I am so lucky to have a friend here who will talk to me about anything and everything. I love these conversations where we go deep, where we try so hard to figure out humanity and I’ve often had them with my students.

I often see this dog with the boules players in my neighborhood. He always has his little pillow. It makes me happy to think of his owner going to play boules and bringing a dog pillow. Kindness.

Little conversations about nothing at all can weave connection and big conversations about everything can punctuate our mundane existence. Talking is exhaling. Sharing is connecting. Telling stories is making the world real, for ourselves and for others. I am happy that the town I call home in the US is an easy place to chat. Some people would prefer to avoid all of the socializing, but I like going to the Co-op and having six long conversations before I even get my broccoli, or going to get a quick coffee and talking to at least three people I’m very fond of at Mix or just walking down the street on the first sunny day and talking to other parents. In my neighborhood I can always run into someone and have a little friendly chat. One reason I ride my bike is so I can talk to people. Cars are the enemy of social connection and conversation. I worry that fears of contagion will make people in the US talk to each other even less than they already do.

My amazing grandmother, one of the best conversationalists I’ve ever known. She could talk to anyone about anything and make them feel like the most interesting person in the world. I miss her.

I have spent a lot of time in my life figuring out what makes me happy. I know I love deep conversations like I get to have with my good friend here, or philosophical excavations which every now and then my students and I get to embark on, or long slow hot tub chats with old friends about electric cars and sexy stuff. However, I have found here in Toulouse that it’s also the little conversations, the small chats, the simple exchanges that keep us going, that lift us up, that provide just a few degrees more warmth and connection. My son has had much less of this here due to his age and language limitations and so I will be bringing him back to the US for high school so that he too can spend hours and hours talking about nothing at all with his good buddies.

Exploring a new neighborhood in Paris. Next time with someone his own age.