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

Entries in literature (2)


Elements of Ecstasy, a Five Year Update



Take a big question of your life: Why are my sleep hours so crazy? Bring it to a specialist.

You love everything about her: her strong nose, her mood balanced between caring and taking care of business, her beaded scarf on black jacket, the sparkle of Arabian Nights in the consultation room.   

You have one hour to tell her your entire psychological and medical history, and you do so in French. She gives you a recipe for change.

You join your adored husband on Boulevard du Montparnasse where he’s taking photos near La Closerie des Lilas.


Arm in arm you walk through the curving paths, the sheltering trees, the thwock of tennis balls, the elegance of chess in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

“Have you ever given up something you were good at?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say. “Have you?”

“Chess,” he says.


“I was pretty good when I was six years old. But my mother brought me late to an important city tournament. Now I don’t remember how to play.”

“Oh, my darling, my lateness must drive you nuts.”

“It’s better now,” he says. “Ten minutes, that's Paris time…. How about you?”


Street art © 2016 by Pole Ka

“I was good at reading Tarot,” I say. “But I didn’t like the way some people projected guru nonsense on me.”

We walk across Paris to Simrane. The January sales! We each have a throw pillow cover in our bags, shredded by our chatons. We want the jewel colors (van Gogh), not the milky impressionist ones (Monet), or the newer fluorescents. We find replacements.

At Le Pré Aux Clercs, we take an alcove table. I glance in the mirror. Where did that lost girl go who was so besieged by men she could barely think? She’s now a woman (mostly) at home in her body and soul, no longer pursued, but captured, captivated by this man across from her, a man who knows how to listen, a man who is thrilled by many of the same things that thrill her, and who himself thrills her still, who, like her, appreciates the waiter, attentive but reserved, unobtrusive but present, and who brings to this intimate nook perfectly cooked saumon et légumes for her, and salade de tomates et Mozzarella et soupe a l’oignon for him.

Paris waiters

It’s the five-year anniversary of our living in Paris. We click our cafes crèmes, talk of how the refugee crisis is affecting Europe, and what we can do to help. Let’s ask friends on Facebook, that world-wide forum of brilliance and idiocy.

Down rue Jacob we go. The waiter flies after us with a glove one of us dropped. I’m dizzy with the beauty of the displays in every vitrine. Remember Jung’s words about the Door to the Divine for us intuitive types: sensory beauty. Oh yes it is. Here is a shop I’ve never seen with Navajo and Mexican-printed patterns of sweaters and skirts.

I dart in, find the scarf I’ve been looking for, but he’s waiting on the sidewalk, I don’t want to hold him up.

Street art © 2016 by Konny Steding 

We meander up rue de Seine. There on the corner of rue de Buci is a new street art paste-up. He stops to take a photo. “I know you hate to backtrack,” I say, “but we’re here & the sales are on & I hate to shop & may not want to come back & I’d really like to try on this scarf & you say yes or no.” I don’t need his permission, but he knows what suits me. Back we go. “Yes,” he says. And it’s half off.

Down rue Saint-André-des-Arts to Starbucks for beans. An unhappy French girl at the counter. I see why when her male colleague orders her around, micromanaging her.

We switch him over from English to French, and chat with the girl. By the time we leave, she’s cheerful.


At our favorite Alice in Wonderland bookstore, I buy The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, a novel that helped me get accepted early to college, when I wrote an essay about A Book I Hated.

I wonder why at age 17 I hated it so. Will re-reading it bring back the time, for a fictional story I’m writing?

At home les chatons greet us, with vomit on the rug and purrs. Lift it off, soak it with bubbly water. Move our two couches close together facing each other to create a square enclosure and, voila! le cratère de l’amour

We lie together (no, not “lay,” you writers who keep posting variations of “I was laying on the bed”) against pillows, reading. Ethan Frome: the first chapter is clotted prose. Then the characters of Ethan, Zeena and Mattie in a small village in western Massachusetts envelop me with their tragic tale.



It is grim. Hopeless. And rather unimaginative. Sometimes the dialogue between Ethan and Mattie seems melodramatic. I wonder how much experience of love Edith Wharton had. “Oh Mattie.” “Oh, oh, Ethan.” “Oh, oh, oh, Mattie.” “Oh, oh, oh, oh, Ethan.” 

And then they try to kill themselves.

Surely even these stunted lives have a few moments of joy besides the first blush of falling in love. But man, can she write about weather. 

In an essay at the back of the book, Lorna Sage writes, “Edith Wharton got to know the kind of dead-alive New England hamlets she is describing by taking excursions in her chauffeur-driven motor car.… One should dwell a little on this image of Wharton touring the territory of her tragedy – a woman of enormous energy, wealth and creative curiosity finding her subject in the ‘insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation’ of the near-extinct inhabitants she observed on her travels. The contrast between Wharton and her subject could not be more striking.” 

She wrote this novella in French while living in Paris, then with ease, a second time, in English. That might explain that first congested chapter. 

In A Backward Glance, Wharton wrote, “From the first I know exactly what is going to happen to every one of them; their fate is settled beyond rescue, and I have but to watch and record.” Control freak much? Don’t her characters ever surprise her?


Pollux (top) and Castor 

Les chatons nestle against us, Pollux on Richard’s head, giving him a tongue shampoo, Castor burrowed close to my feet. Hyper-active Pollux has been taking a natural tranquillizer given him by our vet, and it’s making him mellow enough to lay lie down with us, calmly at times.

Later, I check e-mail and find on Poem-a-Day a poem by our friend and mentor, David St. John. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/alexandr-blok  Yes, there it is: the ecstatic sensibility I’ve always loved in his poems. The passion for subtle intellect and sensual beauty that Paris embodies. It’s why we love his poems, and him. And why we love this city.





Open Minds


I was full of inspiration after the evening panel discussion by French, British and American literary magazine editors at Shakespeare and Company Books. I wanted to get home quickly to open my new books (Giovanni’s Room! The Stockholm Octavo! The Tenants of The Hôtel Biron! Londoners! Tin House’s issue on Beauty!). But I was hungry. I took a short detour down one of those twisty golden Paris streets to a little Italian trattoria with phenomenally tasty pizza.

The small black-haired Italian girl behind the counter was talking with the older Italian customer just as if the scene were frozen since the last and only time Richard and I had stopped there.

The Italian man asked where Richard and I lived. Paris, now. And where did you live before? said the girl. Playa del Rey, a beach town in Los Angeles, I said. The Italian girl wanted to know why we’d rather live in Paris. The older man laughed. He knew. He moved to Paris from Bari some thirty years ago.

My pizza was ready. There was a booth at the back, near two women who were belting down red wine.



I opened my book, The Tenants of The Hôtel Biron. It’s a fictional account of the years when the house that is now the Musée Rodin was inhabited by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, Camille Claudel, Vaslav Nijinsky, Eric Satie and Jean Cocteau. I know, you want to read it, too, right? I read with special relish because the author, Laura Marello, had passed the manuscript to me about ten years ago when we knew each other in Los Angeles. I’d been knocked out by the story and the writing, felt it was publication-worthy then, and now, ten years later it had found its publisher, Guernica Editions. Do you have any idea how happy it makes me when a writer finally breaks through?

So I’m savoring the pizza, devouring the book, and the two women speaking Spanish behind me are growing boisterous with gaiety. One taps me on the shoulder and asks in French if I have a cigarette.



Non, je suis désolé, je ne fume pas.

She gets up to ask the only other diner, a man who looks like Serge Gainsbourg, for a smoke. He hesitates, gives her one, and she puts it in her mouth as if she’s lighting up.

You know it’s not legal to smoke in restaurants? I ask.


Street art (mask) by Gregos, additional artist unknown


She scurries over to the edge of my booth and leans in and makes a face at me. Then walks outside to smoke.

Her friend behind me says, Forgive her. She doesn’t understand that you have to respect the cultural customs of the country in which you live. She has a problem with depression.

It’s okay, I say. For me it’s just a matter of health. I’m so relieved that France changed its laws about smoking in restaurants.

The woman and I banter in French. She tells me she talks to her friend about her surly attitude.


Street art by PopEye


The smoker returns. She sits down, her back to my back but turns to look at me as I talk with her friend. She is drunk, with a sweetly cow-like expression on her face, melancholy eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles. Like her friend, she has very short hair.

We ask questions of each other. Discover we are from the same continent, only they are from South America.

It’s the continent of the heart, I say.

South America, maybe, says the older woman.

North America too, I say. It’s all one heart.



Then an odd conversation begins. The older woman begins to talk about her friend as if she isn’t there. She is too closed, she says. She stays at home and is depressed. She doesn’t have any confidence in herself.

The younger woman nods, That’s right.

The older woman says, We’re out tonight trying to cheer her up. Getting her out of her apartment. Having a little wine.



There are four empty bottles on the table.

We talk about living in Paris. I notice that the younger woman’s fluency in French, her accent too, is excellent, and ask her about it. She was educated in Paris.

The older woman is originally Basque—we have rebellion in our veins, she says. Her family emigrated to South America before she moved to Paris. She never wants to leave.

The younger woman asks me if I’ve read Stefan Zweig.

No, I say. Is he good?

Very good, she says.

Do you like Proust? I ask.

The two women shake their heads. There are certain moral problems it seems with Proust. (Do they mean that he was gay?)


Street art by PopEye


He was Jewish, wasn’t he? the older woman asks.

Half Jewish, half Catholic, I say. He was raised as a Catholic, but really identified more with his mother who was Jewish.

I can see in their faces that there’s some difficulty in the way they regard this fact.

But you can’t be two religions, says the older woman.

Well, God, gods, spirits—what difference does it make?

They look at each other meaningfully. (Unspoken: a huge difference.)

You are Catholic? I ask.


Anti-Israel/-American street art in the Marais, artist unknown


They both nod as if to say, Exactly. And then the older woman, her lips red with wine, begins to talk about Jews. How grasping they are. How they try to take over the banks.

No, no, no, I say.

How Hitler tried to save his country from the Jews.

Hitler was a monster! I say.

No, he was trying to save his country.

The Jews were not responsible for the wretched state of Germany after World War I, I say. Germany was economically ruined and Hitler offered a scapegoat, someone to blame. He was a failed artist, a maniac.



I suddenly see that a visor-like armor has fallen over their faces. There is no further place to go in conversation with these two. Closed minds. Time to go. I pack up my book bag and say goodbye.

And the Italian man who still stands talking to the girl behind the counter, says, Dites bonjour à votre mari. Say hello to your husband.

Merci. Et bonne nuit à vous.

Buona notte, says the girl with a big smile. California, she sighs.

I walk home thinking about bigotry and hatred. How an atheist Jewish friend of mine used to talk about Catholics, and mock my spirit helpers, who appear to me in the form of gods and goddesses. She is someone I love, but it cost the friendship. No one wants to have to defend his or her own spiritual beliefs, nor should any of us have to.



I think about how a recent online discussion of a well-known Native-American poet’s reading in Tel Aviv elicited a furor on Facebook. There were those who, objecting to Israeli bullying of Palestinians, said, Don’t cross the picket line. There were those who defended Israel at any cost. There were those who sent her love and blessings on her performance there in the role of poet and musician.

I identified, in some way, with all of them.

It’s so obvious. Peace and love are not clichés. They’re the answer. But when you encounter scapegoating and bullying, where do you draw the line?