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

Wednesday
Jan212015

After the Paris Massacres: Following the Clew

 

 

As I approach my writing café tonight, a lone clarinetist stands on the sidewalk, blowing a melancholy tune.

Inside, I savor coquilles St. Jacques, and listen. At the tables around me, everyone is French: three women; a couple; two men; a young couple with her parents. All are doing what the French do so well: fine dining and fervent debate. The words I hear are familiar: Charlie. Vincennes. Fear. Murder. Brothers. March. Terrorists. Muslims. Jews. Security. Police. France. Hollande. Obama. U.S.A. Iraq.

This chorus of voices is too multi-phonic to catch more than isolated words, plus, every conversation, though animated, is modulated, as the French do, only for the ears of those at each table. But they are all grappling with the same tangle of threads that Richard and I have been for the past week. What is the larger dimension? If we step back for a broader view, what larger stories, what myths, are being summoned?

 

Impromptu shrine outside Charlie Hebdo offices, 9 January 2015

There are so many threads, I feel like Ariadne in the labyrinth circling the Minotaur, the monster, trying to untangle the ball of many-colored threads—the clew!—to find the way to the core of the monstrous events of January 7, and January 9 in Paris. On January 7, two hooded men (cobras!) entered the office of a French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and killed twelve staff members, including four noted cartoonists, and two police officers, with Kalashnikov rifles, shocking the western world as only September 11, 2001, did in recent times.

For the next two days, police in riot gear swarmed France, looking for the trail of the two murderers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi. On Friday, the eleventh, the two jihadist brothers were found hiding in a printing house in Dammartin en Goële, near Charles de Gaulle airport. At the same time, another terrorist had taken hostages in a kosher supermarket near Porte de Vincennes. When the Kouachi brothers came out of the warehouse firing, they were killed by return fire from the police. Twenty minutes later, Amedy Coulibaly, the hostage taker, was shot, having earlier killed four of his hostages.

 

Spontaneous demonstration at République, 7 January 2015

On Sunday, January 11, Richard and I headed north from our home in the Latin Quarter to the Unity March at Place de la République. We passed l’Institut du Monde Arabe (the Arab World Institute), and gasped to see on the silver panels (like eyes!) of the Jean Nouvel-designed building, in giant red letters, "Je suis" in Arabic, “Charlie.”

That set the tone for a most moving day. An hour before the march was scheduled to start, the crowd was already thick crossing the Pont Henri IV, on foot and by bicycle. The streets were closed to vehicle traffic for blocks around.

We approached the Bastille, where we intended to meet a group of street artist friends. But a solid wall of policemen and policewomen were diverting everyone in a clockwise direction away from the Bastille, up Boulevard Beaumarchais. We spoke to a few policemen and were struck by the humanity in their faces, the complete absence of aggression in tone, expression and body language. The police in France are in the right relationship to their role, protecting the public, defending, not attacking, as is too often the case in the U.S.

 

By the time we’d marched three blocks up Blvd. Beaumarchais, there were so many people in the street that when Richard and I let go of each other’s hands so he could snap a few photos, and I glanced away for one second, I lost him in the crowd. In front of us we’d admired the banner carried by two men that said, “Je pense donc je suis Charlie.” I tapped the man on the left on his shoulder and gave him a thumbs up and a “Magnifique.” He grinned, and exclaimed, “C’etait mon idee!” (“It was my idea!”)

 

 

Richard called me on my cell: “Where are you?”

“Right behind 'I think therefore I am Charlie.'” He quickly found me.

Everywhere you looked there were “Je suis Charlie" signs, but other signs too: "Islam is innocent of terrorism," "I am Muslim, Terrorism Does Not Represent Me," "Blame Terrorists, Not Muslims," "I am Jewish," "I am a cop," "Respect differences and stand united," "liberté, fraternité, egalité," all implying the same thing: we are all connected, we are all united in empathy with the victims, against violence.

Aside from one sign that pointed a finger of blame—“Quatar finances terrorists”—not a single sign we saw was divisive. There was no shouting, no pushing (well, a little), and from the politicians, no speeches. Just silence, arms interlocked, dignified, a mood of gravitas.

 


Everyone there was aware of the potential for violence, and most of us were grateful for the dense presence of police and the helicopters overhead. The terrorist alert was at maximum, so the more than 40 political leaders from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, were filmed on a roped-off side street, TV images of which moved me to tears later that night.

As block by block we surged closer to La Place de la République, it began to feel like a cattle yard. Richard, who has claustrophobia in crowds, needed to peel away onto a side street. I pressed forward for another 30 minutes, until I could no longer move. Enough. I turned onto a side street, rue Charlot, and passed a couple who live in our building, she American, he French, the ones who give the annual Christmas party for everyone in the building. (American warmth, bien sûr.) We greeted each other going in opposite directions.

Turning onto rue de Turenne, I passed a phalanx of police vans, and stopped to phone Richard. Surprise—he was right down the street taking photos. He’d just run into Sylvia Whitman and David Delannet of Shakespeare and Company. Richard waited for me in front of a small church, and we ambled to the Marais for galettes and conversation, returning to the question posed in “A Day of Mourning in Paris,” What turns a young man into a deadly cobra?

 

Impromptu shrine on Boulevard Richard Lenoir for Ahmed Merabet, a French police officer shot and killed near Charlie Hebdo offices, 9 January 2015

How to approach the question? At La Maison de la Poesie the other night, a friend and I heard Russell Banks (the author of Affliction, the best novel I know about the wounds inflicted on children by an alcoholic, abusive father) talk about what being a storyteller entails. When he’s telling a story, he’s trying to penetrate the mystery of what it is to be human. And he begins with one character. No one act depends on a single motive. A writer knows that no one does anything for just one reason; as humans we’d like to reduce acts to one reason, but it’s impossible.

And so, it might be illuminating to examine the roots of terrorism by looking at the character of just one of the three men who murdered 12 journalists and staff (cartoonists!) and four Jewish shoppers (marketing for Sabbath, their holy day!), the one about whom we have the most information: Chérif Kouachi.

 

What do we know about him? Thanks to a fine piece of reporting by the New York Times, we learned a great deal quickly. 

That he was the younger of two brothers whose father had died early, and whose mother died in 2004, when Chérif was 12 and Saïd was 14. They were sent to live in a boarding school for orphans and troubled children in the village of Treignac in central France. According to Mohamed Badaoui, a classmate of Saïd’s, Chérif was the more outgoing. Both brothers played soccer. Neither seemed to be religious.

They were Algerian-French in descent, with all that that colonial history implies. The Algerian War of Independence from France was fought relatively recently, from 1954 to 1962. The war was prolonged and bloody, with atrocities on both sides, and left psychic wounds that remain to this day.

(It seems intuitively obvious that the memories of one’s ancestors are in our DNA, and this is now being proven scientifically.)

According to Badaoui, their dream was to move to Paris, and this they did, when Saïd was 20 and Chérif was 18. 

The two brothers were raised in France, a country whose values are to some extent foreign to, antagonistic to those in Algeria: colonial vs. colonized; predominantly Christian vs. Muslim; democratic vs. older, more tribal North African.

In France, they were marginalized, lived in block housing on the Périphérique, the edge of Paris, in the Nineteenth Arrondissement, a working-class neighborhood full of Muslim immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa. Muslims make up seven-and-a-half percent of the population of France.

They lived in poverty, where the education provided did not seem to lead to the same job opportunities as more privileged and well-connected Frenchmen, where jobs were hard to find, in a setting and an atmosphere where hope was in short supply.

They encountered open or subtle discrimination, as lower-class, lower-income immigrants tend to do in France, and in most other western countries.

 

Impromptu shrine outside Charlie Hebdo offices, 9 January 2015

In 2003, after the start of the American Invasion of Iraq, Saïd and Chérif Koachi began attending prayers at a Mosque that no longer exists on rue de Tanger. It was here that the brothers met Farid Benyettou, a 22-year-old Muslim of Algerian descent.

Mr. Benyettou’s sister had been expelled from a Paris secondary school for refusing to remove her niqab. The banning of veils for women in France, which is an aggressively secular society, seemed to many Muslims nothing more than a sign of disrespect for their religion.

Mr. Benyettou taught a group of young men daily for two hours, inviting them to join jihad. Chérif Kouachi was among those, according to the New York Times, “sickened by images of American soldiers humiliating Muslims at the Abu Ghraib prison.” After Abu Ghraib, his doubts vanished, and he began training with assault weapons, gathering with other jihadist young men in  Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, and planned a trip in 2005 to fight in Iraq. He was stopped at the border and arrested, with his teacher, Benyettou, and both were sentenced to prison.

 

Graffiti at impromptu shrine outside Charlie Hebdo offices, 9 January 2015

In this prison, Fleury-Mérogis, 15 miles south of Paris and notorious for its bad conditions and Muslim resentment, Chérif met a radical jihadist, Djamel Beghal, who had trained in one of Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan. In prison, his radical convictions hardened.

Imagine this as the apex of your ambition, your desire in life: to die a martyr by killing others and yourself so that you can become a bird soul in paradise surrounded by 72 virgins. (And how exactly would that benefit you unless these virgins happened to be female birds?)

This is male heroism completely untethered from the aims of life, the feminine, wisdom, Sophia. It is a loss of tender-hearted humanity, a descent into savagery.

The last time we saw such terrible extremism in the West was in World War II. The German vaterland (father-land) took male efficiency and testosterone-fueled aggression so far from Sophia, the wisdom of life, that perhaps it is no accident that Germans elected Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany in 2005, the first woman to hold the office. Women are needed to balance such primitive male warring impulses. It does not seem incidental to me that from the ages of 12 and 14, these brothers lacked a mother. Nor that both brothers kept their jihadist plans secret from their wives, who, apparently, were shocked by the savagery of their husbands’ acts. Nor that these deadly plans were hatched in mosques and prisons without women around to point out the insanity of this perversion of religion.

 

We need female heads of government around the world. The world is terribly out of balance. Without the feminine aspect given equal power with the male, men lose guidance towards life. If women headed more countries, there would be less war. (Of course, there are exceptions to this perspective among women, but not many.)

And looking beyond the tangled threads in France:

The record of the U.S.A. in Afghanistan. Russia understood the wisdom of withdrawal long before America did.

After 9/11/2001, there was a rush to war in the U.S.A. and Britain, fueled by a cynical stoking of fear for the purpose of greed. The invasion of Iraq was accomplished based on lies about “weapons of mass destruction” to cover the baser motive of greed for oil and money. Cheney and cronies gained billions from nepotistic contracts in Iraq.

Other imperialist western countries, France and Britain among them, rushed to join the U.S. at war in a country on another continent.

U.S. diplomacy failed spectacularly. Neither political leaders at the time, nor military leaders and soldiers, were trained to understand the culture they invaded, neither its tribal allegiances nor its complex religion.

Modern drone warfare wreaks collateral damage on a country’s inhabitants, killing innocent women, children, and men who are not affiliated with jihadism.

 

American torture, humiliation, and wrongful, illegal imprisonment further inflamed Muslim jihadist rage. Waterboarding, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib.

War creates an endless tribal cycle of vengeance. Of attack and counter-attack. If a man’s relatives, home, village, country are devastated by a foreign power, and he lacks money, power, artillery, but is filled with the rage to revenge himself, jihadist extremism might seem to be the only path.

If that path is legitimized by so-called religious leaders, their teachings provide a purpose for testosterone-driven lost young men, and an outlet for resentment at being treated as second-class citizens by the western world.

And then there is the anti-Semitic element in all this. Chérif Kouachi talked obsessively about attacking Jewish shops and Jews in the street. Targeting a kosher market was no accident. Was Israel’s war on Palestinians an element in this anti-Semitism?

The rage of jihadists seems to be aimed at the countries that are most imperialistic at the present: the U.S.A., France, Britain, and Israel. How swiftly the victims of one vast crime—Germany attempting to eradicate the Jews—become the bullies of another—Israel crushing Palestine. The terrorists demolishing the twin towers, followed by the U.S. invading Iraq. Where is the pause for reflection, for understanding, for action born of wisdom?

 

Finally, free speech. How far can it go when it involves mocking what is sacred to between twenty and twenty-five percent of the people on earth?

And where, you might ask, in all this discussion of the jihadist terrorists is my empathy for the seventeen murdered victims? It is deep and ongoing. In every conversation we’ve heard or read about in Paris, the sympathy for the victims is huge.

The central issue of our times is the monster in the center of the labyrinth. It is tempting to see him as a jihadist terrorist. But perhaps he is any religious fundamentalist, whether he appears as a Muslim terrorist in Paris or NYC; Christian fundamentalists in the U.S.A; American right-wing politicians lying about their reasons for going to war; Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, and Muslim terrorists in Palestine, murdering each other; Christian and Muslim fundamentalists in Nigeria terrorizing each other; Buddhist terrorists in Myanmar murdering Muslims. He is the one we need to try to understand. He is the least educated, the most medieval in his thinking, the most resentful, rageful and dangerous, the most violent in his actions.

 

Impromptu shrine outside Charlie Hebdo offices, 9 January 2015

In the myth of Ariadne and the Minotaur, it bears remembering that the bull man, Asterius, is Ariadne’s half-brother, no stranger. She must follow the clew to the core of the mystery, to free both the Minotaur and his sacrificial victims. Only wisdom, understanding can take us there.

In a sense, the Arab world is Sleeping Beauty. If we go back centuries—what learning, what intellectual genius and innovation!—in art, in science, in mathematics.

During the Crusades, when Christianity dominated in Europe, what happened to Arabic learning? What happened to the lively intellect, the scientific questioning, the wisdom? How did the intellectual tradition harden into reactionary dogma?

And what is the story between Christianity and Judaism? The myth of warring brothers; an antagonistic relationship of 2,000 years. You have only to look at caricatures of Jews, from low-level bigotry to literature, from the ghettos of Europe, the banning of Jews from many professions to the demonizing during the rise of Nazism, which culminated in the horror of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

 

French street artist C215 gives away hundreds of stencils outside the 13th Arrondissement city hall, 11 January 2015

In the drama which unfolded in Paris during the last week, we saw three marginalized groups, the so-called “Muslim” French-Algerian jihadists, the Kouachi brothers; the four Jewish victims in the supermarket at Vincennes; and the African-French hostage taker, Amedy Coulibaly, born in France to parents from Mali.

Many of France’s Catholic majority of between fifty-one and eighty-eight percent of the population, and its ever-growing number of agnostics and atheists, along with Muslims, Jews, French-Africans, and many from other continents and countries, between one and two million people strong, all marched in Paris on Sunday, January 11, to the Place de la République. The overwhelming spirit was one of unity; another two million people marched in other French cities.

I’ll go out on a fragile limb and say, to me it looks like a new paradigm, a realization that we are lost if we continue to slaughter one another in the name of religion, fanaticism, revenge, greed for money and oil. The planet will not survive.

What is out of balance is the balance between masculine and feminine values. And the root of this is spiritual vision. If God is pictured as a man, solely a male, it doesn’t matter how far you go from that primary vision: you can go as far as doubting, or denying, agnosticism or atheism, but you’re still on the masculine track.

If your vision, spiritual and/or secular, can imagine a world where female and male values share space, that means a world in which war is a last resort. A world which cannot move too far beyond what’s healthy for humans, animals, the earth itself. A world in which we pay attention to visible signs like increasing cancer rates, and the increasingly alarming weather, disappearing animal species, and invisible signs like dreams, anxiety and dread.

If more women were allowed to lead or at least participate equally in governance, the sanctity of life would be the first consideration, not power. 

 

To clarify, all of us humans are androgynous creatures, with feminine sides (life and relationships) and masculine sides (power and work). Just as women are robbed of half of life if they are prevented from working, from circulating freely and independently, from self-governance, by their fathers, brothers, husbands, culture or religion, so men rob others of life if they blindly follow the will to power and war, as Cheney and Bush did in 2003 in invading Iraq, as the two Kouachi brothers did in murdering twelve staff and policemen at Charlie Hebdo, and as Amedy Coulibaly did in murdering four Jewish men in a supermarket in Paris. They are two sides of the same phenomenon, the will to power divorced from the feminine sense of the sanctity of life.

Sanctity: the sacred. Life doesn’t care what you believe in: whether it’s Mohammed, Christ, Jehovah, Shiva, Buddha, No One, or You-don’t-know-Who. Life is sacred no matter what you believe in, or don’t. And it has its male spirits and its female spirits.

When I did my own vision quest, I took apart all the parts of my psyche. And I discovered that there were twelve parts, and I gave them names. Later I discovered that these twelve parts had already been named long ago by the ancient Greeks, the names of their gods and goddesses. These re-emerging male and female divinities represent to me  the beginning of a crumbling of monotheism, a reawakening to the ancient truth that polytheism is what is needed for harmony and balance.

 

Impromptu shrine outside Charlie Hebdo offices, 9 January 2015

The gods and goddesses are no longer “out there,” up in the sky, beyond us, separate from us. Instead, they are the very structure of our psyches, the archetypes that make up our deep souls, and who speak to us in dreams. If we listen, we can begin to live in harmony. If we deny or ignore them, we are troubled by addictions, disturbed sleep, raging anger or greed or depression or loneliness and all the other maladies of modern life out of balance. We can heal ourselves, and the world, by listening to these innate sacred voices in ourselves, which are part of all of us.

We’re entering into Nietzsche territory here: What did this profoundly spiritual philosopher mean by "God is dead?" His sense of the old Homeric Greek gods and goddesses was vivid. He clearly meant the punitive monotheistic god, not the array of spirits Homer dramatizes as present in all human activity. Jung territory: all the archetypes of the unconscious are alive, and they are sacred. The gods are reawakening.

It will, of course, take hundreds of years. But it’s beginning. There is a way out of the labyrinth.

 

 

 

Sunday
Jan112015

A Day of Mourning in Paris  

 

Walking home from a delightful feline evening with three women friends at Le Café des Chats, the café where cats have free rein, Anna and Sion turned left at rue de Rivoli, and Rachel and I headed to the Place de Parvis Notre Dame, where she headed right and I turned left along the rue du Cloître Notre Dame on the north side of the Cathedral. The moon was directly overhead, slightly past full, shining on the gaping mouths of the gargoyles. They looked like monsters, mad dogs, straining to attack, held back by the force of the church and centuries of solid stone, radiance all around them. 

I passed over the Pont de l’Archevêché, heavy with love locks. Paris attracts romantics from around the world, and the weight of their yearning for lasting love threatens to collapse the bridge. Four young men across the street were leaning down to examine the locks. I listened, looked, scanned for danger. They spoke French (which tends to give me a sense of relief), were laughing, seemed safe.

 

Turning east along the Quai de la Tournelle, I headed home along the Seine, whose ruffled surface mirrored a fractured moon.

Another four men advanced toward me, heavy-set, middle-aged, talking amongst themselves.

I stood waiting for traffic to pass, alert again to possible danger. Out of the side of my eye, I monitored how close they were, before crossing the street.

And I had two thoughts: after years of living in Los Angeles, and before that, Santa Fe, New York City, Boulder, and Cambridge—after attacks by men in Berkeley, Cambridge and New Orleans, all averted by a weapon I hadn’t know I had, my voice—screaming in one case, talking calmly in two others—I still have the habit of scanning for threatening men. 

And once again, I felt happy to be living in a city where I feel safe, where I can walk alone at night, even late, as now at 11 p.m., or even later, like returning from a favorite writing café at 2 a.m., though I’ll probably never lose the habit of scanning for danger. It seems to be an intrinsic part of being a woman.

 

 

The following day came the shocking news of the murder of twelve journalists and staff at the office of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, by two terrorists with Kalashnikov rifles.

Horror. Grief. Sorrow. One state of mind bled into another. Richard and I cried, talked, and read newspaper articles online, many from links on Facebook. What a stunning locus/web of community and news. Friends in the U.S. and beyond sent moving messages of empathy, many wishing us safety.

We watched French news stations, and BBC. We heard President Obama and John Kerry extend their sympathy and support of democratic ideals to the French (Kerry in passable French—bravo, Monsieur Secretary of State!). French journalists and intellectuals discussed the events with nuanced intelligence, the absence of hysteria, and invited Muslim imams to voice their condemnation of the terrorist acts. President François Hollande declared the following three days to be days of mourning.

 

At the Place de la République, we gathered spontaneously with fifteen thousand other Parisians, lit candles, stood in solidarity with the victims. “Je Suis Charlie,” said the signs. I am Charlie. Such a respectful gathering of grievers. Standing in silence, then the waves of applause, and the chant, Char-lie, Char-lie, Char-lie. Then silence, then repeating the clapping and chant. No speeches, no politicians; the police present only to direct traffic, not in their Robocop outfits. 

That first day we heard no anti-Muslim sentiment expressed, just deep gravitas, grief, and a sense of unity. One French Muslim woman interviewed on TV wept, Ceci n’est pas Islam! Je suis Française! Je suis Française! (This is not Islam. I am French.)

On Thursday, I awakened feeling flattened by sadness. Over the course of the day, I found myself circling through the stages of loss and grief again. In reading the news and Facebook posts, I saw a few of bitter hatred, ones that urged killing the terrorists, that kind of thing. 

 

That seems to me to be a far greater danger than another terrorist attack in Paris—the massing of hatred, the backlash, the rise of anti-Muslim scapegoating, fueling more terrorism in a murderous feedback loop. In this decade, we’re already seeing a mirroring of the reactionary xenophobic spirit and crimes of the 1950s—the McCarthyism that had a devastating effect on so many artists and intellectuals, including the career of a writer relative of mine, and his actress wife.

So what is needed? For one thing, understanding. How does a lively young French man of Algerian descent descend into such barbarity? Look at Chèrif Kouachi, the younger of the two brothers, in this video, a 2005 investigative documentary about jihadism. 

Chèrif Kouachi might have gone in another direction. Like so many young men growing up in a western culture, he liked rap music and pretty girls. Like so many young people, he had no sense of direction, but was searching for guidance. He met a teacher, Farid Benyettou, who told him that, “The scriptures showed the virtue of suicide attacks. It’s written in the scriptures that it’s good to die as a martyr.” Farid “gave me a justification for my coming death.”

 

His doubts vanished. He was trained in the use of Kalashnikovs, was on his way to Syria in 2005, hoping to go to Iraq, when he was arrested by police, along with Farid Benyettou, and spent time in prison. When he was released in 2008, he apparently convinced others that he’d put all that behind him.

At the Café des Chats on Tuesday night, I’d taken off my feather necklace, and dangled it in front of two sleepy cats. The small tortoiseshell leapt to the game, following the feathers with her marble eyes, batted them, snatched the leather cord and trapped that bird beneath her paws. 

The big gray cat seemed indifferent, even contemptuous. After Anna and I played birdie with the small cat for another few minutes, the big cat suddenly whacked the tortoiseshell hard across her cheek, shocking her into stillness. 

“Woah!” we exclaimed. A second later he sank his claws into my index finger, breaking the skin. Game over. 

I had the thought today that these two Kouachi brothers somewhere along the line had turned into cobras. Deadly, hooded serpents who, when provoked, killed. 

What turns a young man into a cobra?

Let’s take a break here, and return to this subject in our next Paris Play.

 

Artwork (and stencil) © 2014 C215

Sunday
Dec282014

Longing for Snow

 

 

As I walked to my favorite café there was a light rain that seemed to want to turn to snow. I wanted it to turn to snow. But it wasn't in the mood.

While waiting for salmon and risotto with mushrooms, I read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. It’s a series of essays that examines pain, in people with Morgellan’s disease; Bolivian miners; ex-gang members in Watts and Silverlake, Los Angeles; women with eating disorders and women who cut themselves; addicts; and most compellingly, herself when she is punched in the nose and robbed in Nicaragua. Jamison’s gift, I think is less a fresh approach to empathy (some of the essays feel like catastrophe tourism) than it is a fresh approach to language and especially to the structure of an essay. I was most interested in her citing of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, a map of sorts for storytelling, with 31 structural units of story, which she shuffles in unexpected ways in her essay about Nicaragua and her nose.

After dinner, I caught up on my daybook, my daily mandala of the twelve realms, for envisioning and reviewing the focus and balance of each day.


 

Around me were couples, all but one speaking French. I noticed a typical pattern and one that was atypical. Typical: the woman does most of the talking, and the man seems half present, nearly mute. In one case, the man had little opportunity to talk, since half of the woman’s conversation was spoken into her cell phone.

Another older couple, in their 70s perhaps, was startling in that the woman had the voice of a little girl, the man the voice of an indulgent Daddy.

The couple I enjoyed most were in their 40s or 50s, had rich voices, musical and intelligent, but what I liked best was the rhythm of their talk and her laughter. They were both lively talkers, playing verbal tennis. That ball got thwocked from one side of the net to the other and back, in a rousing game.

The waitress hovered, wanting to get a closer look at what I was drawing and coloring in my Moleskin. I tipped the page up for privacy.

 

 

And then two men sat down next to me who spoke French with a Provençal accent in voices so loud, I jumped when the younger one spoke. They were discussing women and money and Paris. Women were better older, they agreed. Paris hotels were too expensive, unless you rent the room by the week. And Paris has too many foreigners now, especially Muslims. They continued on, and I thought how nationalism is really just one country, the land of Xenophobia, and it seems to be inhabited by the shallow and the dumb.

 

 

I paid and walked out into a light rain. Rain that was growing a body. Rain that was slipping on a lacy white dress. I held up my hand to the sky. Snow? Snow! Snow! Two men in a nearby market grinned. I remembered standing in the doorway of the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, seeing snow for the first time in my early 30s, a man with whom I was beginning to fall in love standing in the doorway behind me.

You’ve never seen snow? he said. 

Never!

It still fills me with wonder.

 


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.