"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."  --William Shakespeare

Wednesday
Dec172014

Christmas in Paris

 

 

 

 

Why does Christmas feel so vastly different in Paris than in the U. S.? 

It’s a week before Christmas and I feel—Paris feels—calm and peaceful. (Some of that sense of peace comes from the relief of distress I've been feeling about the U.S. Finally people are beginning to revolt against racist police brutality in America.)

But back to Christmas: years ago my mother initiated a Christmas ritual for our Arizona family. Enough with the glut of Christmas shopping! We would each choose one gift for $25 or under, preferably something amusing and original, wrap it and stack it beneath the Christmas tree.

 

 

On Christmas Eve we’d gather and pick numbers from a hat to determine order of choosing, then select a gift to open. When your turn came, you could snatch someone else’s opened gift, or take a chance on an unopened one. Easy and fun. Everyone liked this low-pressure, low-cost version of Christmas (except for the vicious fights when everyone wanted the same gift. Kidding. Kind of.).

Sometimes a gift was so original it knocked your Christmas stockings off. My sister-in-law, Leatrice, once gave M & Ms, on which were printed portraits of my mother smoking a cigar. Wish I’d been there for that Christmas—I’d have tackled anyone to get that gift, and never, ever, eat them.

 

 


Still, the holiday season in America continued to be fraught with glut—too much advertising, too much treacly music, too much junky Christmas decoration, too many dumb holiday films, too much traffic, too many crowds, too much spending, no matter what you and your family chose to do. Too much everything!

 

 

In Paris, it’s the absence of all this that makes the season so pleasurable. The Christmas lights are minimalist. Less really is more. Certain colors are the same—red, silver, gold—but instead of the green of money, there’s more of the blue of the dreaming mind.

I find it amazing that one week before Christmas, I haven’t heard a single note of Muzak—no Rudolph, no Jingle Bells, no Silent Night—instead, the nights really are silent, except for the music of spoken French which surrounds me now as I write in my favorite café.

 

 

The window displays are, as usual, works of art, with some references to the season, but with fresh, original approaches.

There are more Christmas parties, but they tend to be attended by friends from all over the world rather than by family (or at least the ones we’ve been to). That’s okay, too. I carry my family inside my heart—they’re always with me. I sometimes think I love best from afar.

The essence of Christmas—the birth of Christ, and Santa Claus or Père Noël, who embodies the spirit of giving—are the same in both the U.S. and France.

 

 

You don’t have to be a Christian to acknowledge what Christ represents: the divine embodied in man. I think each of us has an inner image of what divinity is, according to our genius (genius in Plato’s sense of a daimon, a guardian angel or twin soul who follows us all our lives and lets us know when we’re off track by giving us depression or other useful signals). For me, that inner image is not goodness. I was raised by good people, so-called atheists with many generations of Christian ancestors.

For me, that inner image is making art. I was also raised to exult in the treasures of art throughout the ages. For me, the divine center, the Self, is best expressed in art. My own way of honoring the inner Christ, or as C. G. Jung called it, the Self, is devotion to writing five or six days a week, a daily ritual to honor my daimon.

Elaine Pagels, in her bestselling Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), contrasts the Gospel of Thomas with the Gospel of John and argues that a close reading of The Gospel of Thomas shows that its teaching was: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Another translation is: "There is a light within each person, and it lights up the whole universe. If it does not shine, there is darkness." Thomas emphasized the light within all human beings; John placed the emphasis on Divine Jesus Christ as the center of belief. Pagels is the main modern advocate for a connection between Buddhism and the third and fourth Century Christian sects, which were called "Gnostics" by early Christian heresiologists.

 

 

We’re celebrating the same thing this month in both countries. But in a commercial culture like the U.S., profit dominates. In France, quality of life wins out over profit. And everyone profits by that. (Unless you arrive at a store in Paris fifteen minutes before closing, and the proprietor languidly informs you that they’re closed, they need time to tidy up, and get home, go on this week’s vacation or weekend in the country. And then you shake your head, and say to yourself, Jesus Christ! This would never happen in the U.S!)

 

 

 

 

Sunday
Nov162014

Back in the U.S.A.: Surprises!

 

 

 

  • How scuzzy Penn Station in NYC is, not a single restaurant with inviting food or places to sit! Cappuccino to die from, not for; and how do you ruin a bagel?  
  • Emily, Richard’s niece, over lunch at Union Oyster House in Boston (where Daniel Webster ate six plates of oysters a day and President Kennedy dined). How can a 19-year-old girl be this focused, grounded, present? 
  • Hawk! A lone hawk on a bare winter branch to the right of the bus just outside Amherst, (my father’s emblem, his totem: the thread of this journey leading back to him).

 

  

  • Never have trees seemed so alive to me, living beings breathing all around us in their coats of mauve, burgundy, scarlet, orange, brown, goldenrod, yellow! I remember standing with Dad here on the Amherst Commons under this same flaming tree in ’93. 
  • Walking with Richard, Ron (Rosbottom, the Amherst professor who invited Richard to lecture on Paris street art) and Betty (Rosbottom, the cookbook writer) in Amherst, I’m surprised that everyone is speaking English! 
  • The magic of Richard’s lecture in a red-carpeted amphitheater: three and a half years as a photographer and student of Paris street art and history, and he’s mastered both!   
  • I’ve never seen brussels sprouts attached to a stalk as thick as my wrist the way my aunt Susie serves them. The taste of pork for the first time in years. The sweet comfort of family talk with Susie and cousin Kit and his wife, Gayle.

 

 

  • The former frat house where my father met my mother: littered with beer cans, scruffy, post-Halloween party. I suddenly realize he was only 18, 19 years old!

 

 

  • The bannister one can see from the entrance window that my mother slid down one night (she was really that frisky?) that now has a newel post half way downto stop Betty Heimark from raising hell?

That a young woman, Maia, answers our knock and invites us to come in and have a look around. She leads me upstairs where all the rooms have images of seal pups on the doors, each with different names. Sealye Hall, no longer Alpha Delta Phi, fraternities banned last year, as my trustee father long thought they should be.

The rooms upstairs are tiny, narrow cells, big enough for a bed, desk, chair. The students are expected to be studious monks, but there are traces of another life downstairs.

 

 

  • Julia, a student in Ron’s Imagining the European City class, offers after Richard's lecture to give us a tour of the Mount Holyoke campus, where we’ve come to trace the thread of my parents’ lives. She leads us to three waterfalls near bridges. The first is too accessible. The second bridge did not exist in the ‘40s. The third is the most private, a lover’s lane along the wildest waterfall. Here, we’re sure, is where my father proposed to my mother.

It seems amazing to me that a couple might find true love, so deeply suited for a life together, at such a tender age.

 

 

  • That my mother, here in the 1942 yearbook in the library, was in the May court, and not the May Queen. She was surely the most beautiful with that sweep of Veronica Lake hair, full Norwegian lips, character and intelligence in her eyes!
  • That the Asian language we hear in the back of the bus belongs to Nepalese students at Amherst, a language we’ve never heard. Long black hair, these women are light in spirit, confident, breezy.
  • That a college friend of Richard’s from the ‘60s would drive all the way from Newport, R.I. to Amherst, Massachusetts to stay overnight there, and drive us the next morning to Brooklyn! Is she in love with him? Getting to know her, I see that she’s just a super generous soul.
  • As we leave Amherst to drive to Williamsburg, New York—there! A lone hawk on a bare winter tree.

 

 

  • That our Williamsburg landlady, Iris, has two big coils of hair at her ears like a Navajo maiden! That a big poster of her hangs above the bed, naked with flamenco hair and pose, with two strategically placed red fans! That the bedspread features a giant tiger, brown and yellow striped, with pink nose! That 36 silver swimming trophies line the shelf at the head of the bed!

That reading Iris’s novel combined with an invitation from my friend, Cassandra, sparks a new idea, and I begin writing each morning here in Williamsburg.

  • Meeting Mona’s two-year-old twins: what a fabulous mother she is, organized, disciplined, gay! How happy she and Gabriel are in Brooklyn!
  • The NYC Metro, its grime and darkness, how slow the trains, how crowded, how badly marked the stations! We can’t help but compare them to Paris.
  • How much NYC reminds me of Amsterdam, the Dutch roots, practical, industrious, extraverted. How consistent spirit of place is: NYC, an Artemis city, tough, armored, status-seeking, just as it was when I lived here in the late ‘70s.

 

 

  • Brick buildings: I didn’t like them years ago in Cambridge and NYC, don’t like them now. How enduring is taste.
  • Walking one night on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, I discover a 24-hour health food store where a calm Nepalese man presides! In America, rock music rocks—so many memories in each song!

 

Street art © 2014 Adam Cost

  • In Williamsburg: young "hipsters" with patriarchal beards and short hair, and some with mushroom-like growths on top: a more retrograde, unattractive look I can’t imagine! How can you call a patriarchal look “hip”? The two are an oxymoron.

 

 

  • Richard and I set out one day to walk across the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan. There at the entrance, a sign on the pavement tells us: no pedestrians, bicyclists only. Richard questions a bearded biker.

He says, “No, it’s fine. Just stay to the right. You know, farther on you’ll cross to the left and it’ll be pedestrian only.” 

Richard says, “No, I didn’t know that.” 

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you!” snaps the guy in that brusque NYC way, startling us both. 

The noise of cars and trucks on the bridge is astonishing! It’s a warm day. My side hurts. I drink some water, and then feel fine. The NYC skyline is striking in a hard glittering way.

Halfway across, the man on the bicycle passes us going the other way. He waves, stops to talk. Four kids, a wife who’s a dentist, maybe she can fix Richard’s toothache? But the challenge is more complex, must wait till we get home to Paris. Luckily, Richard has enough prescription codeine for three weeks.

 

 

  • We walk to Greenwich Village, cross Washington Square, find 14 Gay Street, the basement apartment where Sam and Betty swear I was conceived. I wave thank you to my father and mother.
  • Two days later in Manhattan, we duck into a Bank of America lobby to wait out the rain, and this man strides by, grinning and waving! Instead of a helmet, he now wears a yarmulke. What are the chances of running into this stranger three times in three days? And then as we wait by a huge red statue for a lunch date with Richard’s cousin, Paul, the no-longer-gruff stranger comes up and asks us if we’re capitalists or socialists. Socialists, we say, but French socialism hurts entrepreneurs and American capitalism hurts its citizens; we’d prefer a system that values both. He, Avi, is a hedge fund trader. He offers to give us a tour of the Stock Exchange. We haven’t time, but we exchange cards. 

 

Picasso. Les images peuvent être soumises à des droits d'auteur.

 

  • The painters I loved most at 19 years old, years later, here in MOMA, are the ones I still love: de Chirico, Ernst, Dali, Duchamp, Kahlo, Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso; the ones I didn’t love then, like Cézanne with his baby shit colors, still do nothing for me. A show of Matisse cutouts: Joy! Joy!
  • On the crowded Metro, a man facing me has a red face dripping with sweat, sweat staining his shirt. He stares. Something odd going on. The train is delayed, says the well-trained voice of an actor over the p. a.

“Is this the Four Line?” Sweat Man exclaims to the crowd.

“No, the Five,” a young Latina says.

He gets off the train, stands facing our open door, says, “Thank you, Mother,” and grins. “Thank you, Mother,” and grins. “Thank you, Mother,” and grins. No one looks twice at him!

 

Van Gogh's palette, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

 

  • In Iris’s apartment, I read a novel, Van Gogh’s Bad Café, by Frederic Tuten. An extraordinary visionary feat: Ursula, a woman photographer, moves through space and time between two lovers: Van Gogh in late-nineteenth-century Auvers-sur-Oise, France and Louis in 1990s NYC. The story opens into moments of transcendent beauty, reminiscent of William Blake. And then we meet Frederic for drinks, and he is luminous like his novel.
  • I wondered if I’d be tempted by Brooklyn, find it more appealing than Paris, but no, not even close. Paris is Aphrodite, the goddess to whom we feel closest. Returning to Paris, this place—only Paris!—feels like home. 

 

 

 

Friday
Oct172014

Carolyn Kizer: December 10, 1924 - October 9, 2014

 

She was my poetry mentor, great friend and goddess.

We now live in what was once her Paris apartment, full of many of her poetry books and some of the novels she loved. I am too full of emotion to do her justice yet. 

But here is one anecdote that says everything about her: an admirer wrote her a letter, but did not have her current address, so simply wrote on the envelope: The White Goddess, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The letter was delivered to Carolyn.

Richard and I ran a poetry series with three other poets (Jeanette Clough, Jim Natal and Jan Wesley) in the late 1990s at the Rose Café in Venice. Just as we launched it, Richard and I met Carolyn at the Petaluma Poetry Walk with Jackson Wheeler. She and I fell instantly in love with each other. She was one of our first readers in the Rose series, which helped to make it a success.

Carolyn was one of the first feminist poets in America. Long before I met her, I relished her sharp, witty, clear poems, recognized in them something very close to my own taste. I loved the deep subject matter, the light tone and style of her mind and her poems.

She went to Sarah Lawrence College, which I attended for a year, studied mythology with Joseph Campbell, who was one of the writers whose books saved my life in my twenties. Most of her poems are mythological or erotic or celebrating friendship. She once told me she considered friendship more important than marriage. I said, marriage for me is more important, the romance in marriage. But there was romance in our friendship, too.

She was an editing maniac, generous, but outrageous. When Richard’s first book of poems, What the Heart Weighs, was published, he gave her a copy over dinner in Venice. When he stepped away from the table, she immediately began editing the poems (in ink in the book!). I worried about his response, but when we left her, he said, I’d be incensed if it were anyone else, but not Carolyn. The edits were minor tweaks, but all good.

When I sent my manuscript of poems, The Minotaur Dance, to her, asking for a blurb, she edited every one of them and every one was improved. And the blurb was a delight.

When she stayed with us in Playa del Rey, our cat Marley visited her in the guest bedroom. She made a huge impression on him. Not only was she as appreciative of his handsome white and gold-furred self as we, but even better she took him to bed for the night, a treat he never got from us who value our sleep. 

I cherish the books we have from writers we know. But the one with the inscription that I treasure most is Carolyn’s note to me in Cool, Calm and Collected: Poems 1960-2000

     “for beloved Kaaren,

     the best friend of my eighth decade—

     what a joy you are to me!

                               Carolyn”

written in her distinctive handwriting that is as easy to read as print. (No rococo flourishes there—she was direct and clear and unpretentious in all things.)

Speaking of unpretentious, I accompanied her to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books one year. She spoke on several panels; we went to various events as audience. I remember one panel discussing poetry, in which we sat in the front row. One of the poets on the panel was a woman we both knew, a fine poet, but a rather abstruse thinker. The woman was expressing some modern, convoluted, deconstructive babble that Carolyn just couldn’t stand. We listened, growing bored, until Carolyn had had enough and shouted at the woman from the audience. I was mortified, though I agreed with her.

Carolyn was born under a Sagittarius Sun and Gemini Moon. People born at exactly the Full Moon are often visionaries. (You don’t have to take it from me; I was thrilled to read this notion long after I’d intuited it, in William Butler Yeats’ A Vision.) Those born at the Full Moon tend to be what Willy called antithetical, aristocratic, visionary, artistic, passionate not sentimental, valuing the aesthetic over the useful, solitary vision over service to mankind, humor over melodrama. That’s Carolyn.

 

After we were married, Richard and I used to visit Paris and stay in Carolyn and John Woodbridge’s apartment in the Latin Quarter. (He, an architect, would have preferred the sixth arrondissement, but she wanted to live in the arrondissement where Dante had once studied and taught.) Occasionally over the years, we’d overlap visits with John and Carolyn, and go stay somewhere else. John often cooked dinner, which we ate around their round black dining table. He took us to the best open air market nearby, and introduced us to the only shop we’ve ever heard of that offers excellent frozen food, Picard.

We’d talk for hours about poetry, novels, Paris architecture, people, cats, and tell stories, endless stories.

When Richard and I tired of weeping with joy every time we arrived in Paris and weeping with sadness every time we left, and decided to find a way to live in Paris, we began looking for an apartment. At the time we were staying at Carolyn and John’s apartment, so called them to let them know what we were doing after the first day of looking. John called the next day and said, It’s getting hard for Carolyn to travel. Would you consider buying our apartment?

Would we! It was exactly what we were looking for. We determined the highest we would go, they came to a selling price below which they wouldn’t go, and, voila!, it was the exact same price down to the euro. Now, all we had to do was sell our house in L. A. at the bottom of the worst housing market in memory. We went ahead with applying for a French mortgage, and it was more complicated for Americans to buy an apartment in Paris than all the other financial transactions combined in our lives. But after a year, it was done.

We never were able to host John and Carolyn here, as she did stop traveling such distances, and the early signs of her dementia became evident when we last visited her in Sonoma, before we moved here permanently in January 2011. In spite of the obstacles to communication at the end, we never stopped loving the two of them.

I will be sifting through memories for a while to remember all I can about Carolyn and our friendship. I’m rereading her magnificent Cool, Calm and Collected: Poems 1960-2000. One brilliant poem after another. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her book, Yin, but she might have won it for any one of her books. There is no one else like her, this frank, eloquent, elegant, beautiful, generous, sharp, funny goddess. A great poet, great friend, great soul. Irreplaceable.

                                *

CAROLYN, DEPARTING

        (Carolyn Kizer: December 19, 1924-October 9, 2014)

Moon, bright eye

in a cloud-shrouded face.

Great blue heron, I see you

sailing away.

 

 

 

Saturday
Sep062014

“You Have Never Lived on the Moon”

 

 

They are shooting a film on our street. The big white trucks block the side where the handsome Japanese cordonnier resoles my boots, where the exuberant Egyptian pizza maker presses and stretches dough, filling the street with the smell of baking cheese. 

“TV or film?” I ask the knot of Italian men between two trucks. 

“Film.” 

“It is called?”

“You Have Never Lived on the Moon!” they chorus in Italian. One translates into French.

“That’s right,” I say. “And that’s okay, I’d rather live on rue du Cardinal Lemoine” (where Jacques Henri Lartigue has his blue plaque, where Pascal lived, where James Joyce finished “Ulysses” in Valery Larbaud’s apartment, where Hemingway and Hadley first lived in Paris and Gertrude Stein came by with Alice and said about a novel he’d started, “Begin over and concentrate,” and he waited three years before starting to write The Sun Also Rises, where he watched carts pulled by goats clatter down the cobblestones at dawn, where Carolyn Kizer had an apartment, now our home).

 

 

I turn onto rue Monge, crazed with love for this city, so full of beauty and mystery and dirty streets, and knock on the door of the podologue. A young man with crossed eyes opens.

“Chantal?” The name on the card is puzzling, a strange name for a man. Perhaps it’s his surname?

“Non,” he says, “Elle est en vacances.” She’s on vacation. He gestures to a dentist’s chair, examines my right foot. “Where does it hurt?”

“It doesn’t.”

“Where is the bunion?”

“Bunion? I have no bunion.”

“What is wrong with your foot?”

He peers at my foot with crossed eyes. “Can’t you see?” I say. “Here, and here?”

“Do you want a pedicure?”

“What?” (Did the podologue put her manicurist in charge of her practice?!) “It’s athlete’s foot. From the gym.”

“Ah,” he says, “you want a dermatologue.”

“That’s funny. An Iranian masseuse told me I needed to see a podologue for this. I just assumed she knew what kind of doctor I should see.”

 

 

Down rue Monge I stop at our supermarket, Carrefour, to pick up some paper products. I greet the Indian woman behind the cash register. She won’t meet my eye. Do I look strange? Is there goat fur between my teeth?

I leave the market feeling slightly depressed by the interchange with her. No, I won’t carry this with me. I’ll shake it off.

But it will affect others too, like a virus. I turn back to where a smiling woman is answering customer questions. We exchange “Bonjour, Madames.” I ask her if she might suggest to the cashier that she meet the eyes of customers if only for a second.

“Oh yes,” the woman says, “She was here when I started this job three years ago. She’s always been like that. Everyone complains. We’ve asked her to be friendlier but she doesn’t change. We suggest she greet customers but she won’t.”

Peut-être qu’elle est timide. Ou malheureuse.” Maybe she’s shy. Or unhappy. “If she’d just look at people for a moment, that would be enough. Otherwise, she conveys to you that you’re an object, not a human.”

“I find the French people to be that way,” says the customer representative. “I’m from the Antilles where people smile at each other.”

“Yes, it’s the same in California. Maybe this woman lives on the moon.”

She laughs. “Peut-être.”

I stop at our pharmacy on rue des Ecoles, where the pharmacien seems to me to be as knowledgeable as any doctor. He will be able to recommend a good dermatologue in the neighborhood. He shakes his head, pulls out a bottle and a small box from his cabinet of wonders. “Just use this and this for quinze jours,” he says.

I leave with the day’s simple needs met right here in our neighborhood in a mere thirty minutes, and wink at the quarter moon above the Pantheon. “Take care of all the people who live up there with you,” I say to La Lune, who is singing like a lunatic, sad or ecstatic, it’s hard to say. 

*     *     *     *     *                                                                                                                                          

 

Here’s a bit of lunacy from the French filmmaker, Georges Méliès, “Le Voyage dans la Lune,” a pataphysical film about a journey to the moon, considered the world's first science fiction film. The scientists who fly to the moon must escape from an underground group of Selenites (insectoid lunar inhabitants who go up in smoke when hit) played by acrobats from the Folies Bergère. The film was an international success when released in 1902, and Méliès' life was celebrated in director Martin Scorsese's multi-Oscar-winning 2011 film, "Hugo," based on Brian Selznick's novel.

 

 

 

Wednesday
Aug272014

Cats, Gods and Fiction

 

 Artwork © 2014 M. Chat

Character: it fascinates me. It’s the chief thing I look for in fiction, a profound understanding of human character at the level of depth of Anton Chekhov’s, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, or Virginia Woolf’s, or Marcel Proust’s fiction. 

I recently re-read Chekhov’s My Life and Other Stories. These stories are not so much about plot or language as they are about character, deeply felt and seen.

 

 

Character: it is as distinct, as particular in animals as in humans. We have a Dostoyevsky character staying with us for a while. He is dark, silent, taciturn. If you were to describe him as a god, he’d be the panther god, Dionysus. His name is Streak. 

We are fascinated by how different he is in nature from our late cat, Marley. Marley was light, talkative, affectionate. He didn’t favor either of us—he simply wanted to be as close to one or the other as he could get. When we had friends over, he wanted to be one of the guests, was happiest when we set out a chair for him at the table.

 

 

If you were to compare Marley to a character in fiction, he’d be Samoylenko in Chekhov’s story, “The Duel.” If he were a Greek god, he’d be Apollo; he inspired poems from both of us.

I’ve been thinking lately that I’d like to see more stories that include not just human characters but animals and gods. Guess I’ll have to write some.

 

Artwork © 2014 Miss-Tic