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 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.
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.
I have many stories to tell but today feels like a day of staying inward and so more will come tomorrow.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the late 1980s I lived in Paris and ostensibly went to a Parisian university. Classes were always being cancelled or moved or rescheduled and it seemed like I was the last to know. I lived a little outside of Paris, in Boulogne, and so once I had trekked to the Latin Quarter for what I thought was a seminar but was nothing but a stale empty room with cigarette butts and an incomprehensible schedule printout on the door, I stayed in town. My housemate was Latin American, quite beautiful, ailing and always upset about something, sometimes or often, me. In retrospect I believe she suffered from chronic pain but at the time I just found her unpleasant even though our little house was so cute and so I stayed away.
As a student I could go to matinees for just a few francs and so I went to see old black and white French films or new ones with colors but no action. I walked or rode my bike all over the city and pondered immensely. Since I was bored, or aimless during those months, I made up projects for myself. I quit eating sugar for six weeks which was silly given all the pastries. Then I bought myself a chocolate croissant, devoured it and went to an art history class. I sat and watched my hands shake, it was kind of amazing to fell the sugar coursing through my veins and I tried to explain in my meager French to the professor. Je viens de manger du sucre, c’est comme les drogues.
Yesterday I was so sad about another month of confinement. If I ever get to see the Garonne again it will be as momentous as a trip to Victoria Falls. I decided it was time for another odd goal. Not running a half marathon, the sidewalks hurt my knees. Not being without internet, just too hard right now. Probably doing handstands and headstands every day and writing here too but I was looking for a different kind of goal, one that might enhance the deepening of my experience.
So my new life goal, until May 11, is to try to only do one thing at a time. This includes eating without reading, talking on the phone without looking up word etymologies that I forgot to investigate (if I ever sounded distracted that’s why), and just accepting that when I am doing homework with my son it is anathema to him for me to pick up a book. I’m not going to count listening to music as a second thing but it seems to me that the only way to make this time go faster is to completely slow it down. One thing and only one thing at a time.
There will come a time when we will look back on these days with nostalgia or regret or a gently poignancy. I am old enough to know this and have heard it from post-communist regime citizens, the parents of children no longer little and even dissertation writers. Our conscious minds know that the Stasi, whining toddlers and the solipsistic stresses of graduate school weren’t great but those times when we really couldn’t do anything else or be anywhere else become polished markers along our memory charts of how we became who we are today.
It’s raining in Toulouse tonight and the homeless guy is out in the dark feeding ducks before ducking into his tarp-covered tent. He lives behind the monument to World War I and not far from one of the open pharmacies. Two guys sit at a bus stop but it is late and the buses are few so I think they are just taking shelter.
The lights in the empty church were on and so the green and blue glass was illuminated in the rain. I walk and walk on the empty streets, under the drops, in the wet. I am sad for my heartbroken friends, for my writing buddies with no priority if they get sick and a little bit for myself. Four weeks and now four more weeks. No dancing, no canoodling, no sitting out with a drink on a spring evening.
Tonight I have no clever metaphors. I think of the woman whose journey I followed for a long time who set her goal to row across the Pacific Ocean heading west from the US. Winds buffeted her back to her starting point, things broke, currents took her the very longest way. While I was all alone in my little house in Ashland trying to raise a baby and have a job, I read about her adventures to give myself fortitude.
Her journey had to be aborted for all sorts of reasons but it took a long time before it ended. I thought of her sleeping alone in a little shell in her boat and knowing that day after day after day it would be the same thing again. Salt in her cracked hands, sun on her head, small cans of tuna and all the rowed progress gained in a day could be lost, or more, in a night.
The first time I came to Toulouse, 20 some years ago, was to row the Canal du Midi. Rowing is both comforting and exhausting. Quadriceps, back, hands and even feet suffer in the constant bending forward, folding knees. Nonetheless, on all that water, and with the body doing something against which it can fully push itself, something therapeutic happens. Years later when I did EMDR to confront my own traumas I thought of my hours and hours of rowing, of bike riding, of moving my body over and over for comfort.
I went rowing once on the Garonne when I first moved to Toulouse but I decided I just wasn’t angry enough to need that kind of workout. Digging in my whole body and grunting against the water wasn’t the kind of healing I was looking for at the time.
Today my child tore apart a cardboard box with his teeth. He wishes we had a boxing bag or some way to build huge bonfires. Our oars aren’t digging into anything but the metaphysical and its such hard work but the boat just won’t move.
Tomorrow I will rise with the sun and be thankful again for the joys of this petite vie but tonight it is sad that we have been rowing so long and made no progress at all. Here we are.
I recently asked a French person how to say boundaries in French. And then our discussion turned into one about whether the word is even needed here because there is such a strong social code which is reinforced by family norms (which definitely vary dependent on social class) and a centralized public education system. I was talking about social boundaries, how to say no to unreasonable requests or how to not find out weird sex things about people we used to know. My impression here is that people are in pretty tight social containers and unless you are very young or living on the margins, you know exactly what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. I find this comforting but these same codes can be a stultifying prison.
We are in Europe but the borders are closed for the first time in decades. Our bodies are protected by skin but we debate the boundaries between ourselves, 6 feet, 23 feet.
A long time ago in Chicago I was at a conference and discovered that a California friend was also at a conference there. She was an electrical engineer and giving a paper and I had time so I went to watch her. I love seeing people do their thing, especially if it’s a thing I know nothing about. I think this was in 1998 and I still remember learning two concepts. She told me that she had terrible stomach pains before giving a paper and I have since learned that many people run to the bathroom before public speaking. I can’t remember the cute name she had for it but she survived and presented her paper very professionally.
The second thing I remember was the topic of her paper. It was delightfully poetic. It turns out that when one works with electricity, basically energy, there are not linear boundaries. At some point the charge changes or the current is blocked, electricity can be controlled by mankind. But the place where this happens is more a zone than a line and she called it the boundary of unboundedness. You are positive, you drift through a zone where things get more intense and then, you are negative. So between two states is another state, the state of unboundedness, extreme potential and not a lot of control.
I remember the diagonal line on her graphic and then the little clouds along it, the groupings of things that weren’t on one side or another but still in the in-between maybe becoming state. I always delight in teaching my high school students the word liminal from the Latin limens or threshold. If I have one foot out the door and one foot in my confined space, where am I? Teenagers are in a liminal state, not yet across some boundary of adulting. Our hearts can be in a liminal place, connected to the past and unwilling to look at the present. It is uncomfortable to be hanging out in the bardo to be doing the limbo lower and lower in limbo day after day. But when I think of my friend’s paper, and she was very smart, I wonder if maybe we aren’t always somewhere in the unboundedness.
Tomorrow the French president will announce the next step, the next amount of time, the spatial limits of our bodies here. I hear that these might vary by region so our boundaries may be different than boundaries in the north.
What do Americans really mean when they say boundaries? I am taking a Bhagavad Gita course and hear that the goal of the Vedic world is to create boundaries and spaciousness that allow us to share each other’s company. The stronger our boundaries, the more we can do, the more space and time we can have to share the world with each other. Knowing where one’s boundaries are takes focus, good will and sometimes brutal honesty.
In trauma and in meditation studies I hear much talk of windows of tolerance. This window is the boundary of unboundednesss, the spaces where I still feel free, not trapped in lethargy or jolted into uncontrollable and overwhelming emotion.
Happy Easter and Passover. Times between death and birth. Times between staying put and leaving. May your boundaries of unboundedness be as loose or tight as your secret self desires.