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The Magic Thread

I once walked on the beach at Playa del Rey with the poet, Jack Gilbert. He talked about the difference between poetry and prose. Poetry has an element of magic, he said.

The world is a magical place. You don’t need the Surrealists to tell you that, though we do love works of art like Andre Breton’s Nadja that dramatize this web of connections beneath the surface of reality.

This magical synchronicity seems to happen more with certain people than others. Listen to what happened when Willis and Sarah came to Paris a few months ago this summer:



For you to fully grok these coincidences, I have to first introduce you to the dramatis personae—six people, many, but not all, of whom already knew each other. They are:

Willis, poet and translator.

Sarah, Willis' wife, expert on, and author of, books on Chinese furniture, architecture and art.

John: food writer and cartoonist.

Varda: psychologist.

And Richard and I, poetic and mythical string surrealists.



Six people who have all spent varying amounts of time in Paris:

Willis first came to Paris in 1948 for a year at the Sorbonne. He knew The Father of Dada, Tristan Tzara. Willis wrote poems then, and writes poems now—some forty or so this Paris trip, during the couple of months he and Sarah spent in July and August.

Richard and I have been coming to Paris individually for years, and together since our honeymoon in 1997, and now live here.

John was in Paris for two months this summer, as he was last summer, when we introduced him to Varda, who’s lived here since the ‘90s.

(The thread goes back further, but more on that later.)

Richard and I were to meet Willis and Sarah for café at Les Deux Magots. When we arrived, there were no tables for four outside, so we settled in at two tables in the glassed-in section between the sidewalk café and the interior, with a view of the street.

We arranged the tables so that they would have the best view, which is what you do with friends. But until they arrived, we’d sit facing out, in order to spot them.



Who should we spy but John, who happened to stroll by and sit down at a table near the entrance. This spot has special resonance for us. It’s where we drew the picture in our Dream Book two years ago of our plan to move to Paris, back when it seemed a mirage.

Richard tapped John on the shoulder, and invited him to join us. John sat down with us (surprise! We’d never bumped into each other in Paris before.)

A few minutes later, Willis and Sarah arrived.

I’d last seen Willis at an Eco-poetry festival that Richard and I had produced at Ballona Wetlands, where Willis read his poems. Richard had seen him more recently in the Bay Area where they began their quest for abandoned shoes chronicled in an earlier post.

I hadn’t met his wife, Sarah, yet. She was shy and graceful, an Asian art historian in pearls.

Though in his 80s, Willis has the zest of a young boy. We introduced him and Sarah to John, who happens to live most of the time right near them in the Berkeley-Oakland hills.



We ordered drinks. John was only able to stay with us for fifteen minutes, he said; he was meeting our mutual friend, Varda, for dinner.

“Varda,” said Willis. “A girl named Varda broke my heart when I was 10 years old. I kissed her, and the next day she brought me an envelope, which I opened with excitement to find another envelope, and inside that was another one, like Russian nesting dolls, and finally in the center… nothing.” He mimicked being crushed. “So I knew my love was hopeless.”

We knew that Willis had lived in New York City as a child, which would have been more than seventy years ago.

“This Varda lived in NYC,” I said. I felt a thread pulling taut.



He mentioned her last name.

I had traveled in Vietnam with her, and had learned her maiden name. “It’s the same Varda!” I exclaimed.

All of our mouths fell open. What were the chances that John would walk by, stop at Les Deux Magots before dinner, join us and Willis and Sarah, mention within fifteen minutes the name of the friend with whom he was having dinner, and that she would be Willis’s first (though unrequited) love, whom he hadn’t seen in over 70 years? 70 years bridged in fifteen minutes.



John was flabbergasted.

But we were about to go out of town to a friend’s wedding. “Please, please wait for a few days to have the reunion—we’d love to be there!” we pleaded.

Later we learned that John was so excited to tell Varda the story that he turned it into a game of “This is Your Life” over dinner. At first she didn’t recognize Willis’s name, then suddenly the memory of a T-shirt that Billy wore broke through.

But in spite of John’s request, Varda couldn’t wait to have the reunion.



We were disappointed, since we had an overwhelming desire to see this magical thread that extended from us to Willis to John to Varda and back 70 years in time to another continent--a Paris play!--reach its dramatic fruition.

But we heard about it from John.

Later, musing on the thread connecting us all, I thought about its further reach.

I remembered the night in Paris that Richard and I arrived at our apartment, anticipating that the renovation would be complete, and discovered that all the walls had been painted gray-green, which gave us the feeling of being a couple of peas in a bowl of pea soup.

We had to move into a temporary apartment on rue du Bac, while our apartment was being re-painted. Now our plans to begin furnishing the place were so delayed, we couldn’t possibly finish it in the time we had.

We sprawled on two couches in the rue de Bac apartment, feeling depressed. (Oh, you poor things, stranded in the 6th arrondissement in Paris.)



Let’s call Connie, Richard suggested. And we did. We had never met her, but my friend, Carol, had been urging us to meet for several years.

Connie invited us to join her and several friends in one hour for a film and dinner. It was a Ronald Colman film, based on Oscar Wilde’s play, Lady Windermere’s Fan.

More synchronicity! We happened to live in the beach shack Colman once owned in Playa del Rey. That night, we met Connie, Susan, Diane and Varda all for the first time.

Connie was the cousin of a good friend from my years in Santa Fe. I’d met Carol one night at a restaurant where I was reading a book of poems by Denise Levertov. She greeted me, and I soon joined her poetry workshop.

The thread that connected Carol and me was poetry.

The thread that connected Willis and Richard was poetry.

And the thread that connected Richard and me to John and Connie and Varda and back to Willis and Sarah was the poetry of the universe. 




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Reader Comments (19)

I would love to see photos of the interesting people you write about. It is always so fun to put a face to a name.


Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 7:26 | Unregistered CommenterSister Ann

Good suggestion, Ann. Most people don't like photographs of themselves, but here's a link to Richard's photos of Willis reading at Shakespeare & Co. on August 25th, 2011. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/mythyes/6082193205/in/photostream/>

And here's Sarah at the same event:



Kaaren & Richard

Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 16:28 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren & Richard

What's wonder-filled about this, about what you do, is that you force even me — lazy (yes!), self-obsessed, venal (or maybe just wildly superficial) -- to look up poets like Willis, which leads to Borges, which leads to Rilke, and finally to a poem that fits this day so perfectly. (Here in Santa Barbara, where I came last night to hear Mary Oliver, because that's how much of a plebe I am.)

My own deep coincidence.

Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 18:08 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

Dear Anna,

Are you kidding? I can't think of anyone who's less lazy or venal than you!

I was about to post this connection to Willis Barnstone's website, when I read your comment. Here it is for others:


And a great interview with Willis for the Bowdoin College magazine:


You would love the translations Willis did of the Restored New Testament and the Essential Gnostic Scriptures. The passages he read at Shakespeare and Company were pure poetry. Also check out his recent book, Cafe de l"Aube a Paris, or Dawn Cafe in Paris, poems he first wrote in French, then translated to English. A magnificent book.

What a wonderful reason to go to Santa Barbara. I wish I'd been there too, both to see you and Mary Oliver.

Much love,

Kaaren & Richard

Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 18:54 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren & Richard

"It is not the business of poetry to save men's souls. It is the business
of poetry to make them worth saving." -- The Century Magazine, August 1928


XXXX, margo

Monday, October 17, 2011 at 8:26 | Unregistered CommenterMargo

Well, Kaaren and Richard, those coincidences are nothing compared with the fact that I was the father of all of them in a prior lifetime. They all used to call me Popsie. Ask them about it.


It just so happened that I was completing this morning this monumental work on abandoned shoes.

And it also so happened that just yesterday I was thinking how tiresome the graffiti in the States is. And there I have proof of it in Richard's wonderful shots of the Paris ones.

Love ya,


Monday, October 17, 2011 at 17:07 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Moody

Dear Kaaren,

I have been enjoying many of your e-mails from Paris. This one was particularly beautiful graphically, as so many are.

Just got back last week from Beijing where Jonah got married to a Chinese girl.

Headed to Copenhagen in about a week to meet a museum director who wants me to curate an exhibition based on a book I just did a few months ago concerning bamboo architecture. You can see it by going to www.bambooarchitecturethebook.com

After a few days there I will go to Rome for a few days, then back to Paradise.

Thought of you and Paris a lot after seeing Midnight in Paris. I just love the fantasy of hanging with the old greats then.

Love and peace,


Monday, October 17, 2011 at 17:52 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Greenberg

The older I get, the more I realize how small the world really is. In 1991, shortly after I had met Joanne (now my wife) she invited me to the wedding of a friend of hers, Cheryl Bentyne, who sings with the Manhattan Transfer. Cheryl was marrying her pianist, who turned out to be a former student of mine at Berklee College of Music. Joanne had known Cheryl when she was the singer with the New Deal Rhythm Band in Seattle, and J introduced C to a friend who became C's agent and who got her the Transfer gig. Sometime later, J was hired to accompany the band on their Europe tour and design clothing for them. Their guitarist was Wayne Johnson, my old college room- and band-mate. In fact, both Wayne and Joanne grew up in Spokane. Wayne and I played a month at the Black Angus at the Falls in Spokane in 1973. J had a gallery a stone's throw away, but I could only get the slightest whiff of the presence of my future bride, some mysterious and unknown essence of greatness to come.

Monday, October 17, 2011 at 18:32 | Unregistered CommenterStuart Balcomb

Dear Kaaren & Richard,

I so love the title of this post... the threads you speak of truly are magical, and they do create these beautiful webs of connection that sometimes go dormant, but reappear. They are never gone! What delightful stories you've shared here... (Though I respectfully differ on one small point ~ your lovely Playa home certainly was no beach shack! :)) And I had a snap of recognition in your description of Les Deux Magots: on my first and only (so far... :)) trip to Paris I sat, on a drizzly gray morning, so very thrilled to be in that city I had only dreamed of, in that very section you described so perfectly here. It brought back a flood of memories...and I loved imagining you there with good friends.

And of course I am partial to the photo of the little tuxedo cat... how perfectly you've captured his darling white whiskers, Richard! And oh, who doesn't long to * toucher la lune...*?

Thank you, both, for sharing your many gifts with us...


Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 7:55 | Unregistered Commenterdawna

Dear David,

What a treat to hear from you. The beautiful graphics are thanks to Richard, and he thanks you.

You and Jonah have such a Chinese connection! I'm sure he found a wonderful girl.

Copenhagen, huh? What an honor! You might want to go to Noma restaurant if you haven't already been (Strandgade 93, 1401 Copenhagen, Denmark)--it's been voted best restaurant in the world for three years in a row. My cousin, Hank Kitchell, an architect in Copenhagen, was part of the design team for the restaurant. (We haven't been there, but the photos of it are gorgeous, very Scandinavian in its naturalness and simplicity, and of interest for an architect.)

I looked at the preview pages of your bamboo book. These designs look straight out of a science fiction film. Bucky Fuller would have flipped.

Wasn't Midnight in Paris one of Woody Allen's great films? We thought it was brilliant, and, among much else, perfectly captured our ecstatic feeling about Paris.

To feel your home is paradise, how delicious is that?


Kaaren & Richard

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 21:20 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren & Richard


I don't know about poetry saving souls, but it DOES save lives. It saved mine during several dark periods in my life--both writing it and reading it.

And aren't most souls worth saving, by whatever various means people find?


Kaaren & Richard

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 21:33 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren & Richard

Dear Bruce,

You are funny.

And your abandoned shoes piece is touching.

We think the graffiti here is the best we've seen anywhere in the world. Though there's some very fine street art in Los Angeles. And thank you from Richard!


Kaaren & Richard

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 21:43 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren & Richard

Dear Stuart,

It IS an intimate little planet, isn't it? I hear in the interweaving of your and Joanne's lives the threads that connected you, even before you met: music, art, design, Washington State. It seemed almost inevitable that you'd meet. You probably read the Steve Jobs quote from his 2005 Stanford Commencement speech: "Again,
you can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."

That's the magic thread!


Kaaren & Richard

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 21:51 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren & Richard

Dear Dawna,

This web of magic that connects us all is why we love stories so much, isn't it? I like your way of putting it: "these beautiful webs of connection that sometimes go dormant, but reappear. They are never gone!" Yes, dormant, but they never disappear.

Size is relative, huh? I think it was Colman who called our house his "beach shack," since it was modest compared to his mansion in the Hollywood Hills.

We are going back to that VERY spot at Deux Magots when you get to Paris this summer, and we'll make some new memories, who knows, maybe bump into John again, and he'll tell us he's about to go have dinner with your first boyfriend when you were 10 years old, whose name was.... hee hee

Tuxedo cat! That's a good description. Marley likes to be called a wedding cake cat, since he's white and gold. It's no coincidence that cats are often connected to magic, right, Emma?

We're grateful for your kind words.


Kaaren & Richard

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 22:51 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren & Richard


What a jaunty story this weaves with shuttle flying back and forth threading warp and weft, twining threads from years (decades!) before. And all to come together in Paris! Delectable. This fine tapestry could spin its wonderment on any castle wall.

Actually, as I read, I saw it as an animated movie running at a very fast speed (like the old silent films) with everyone flashing in and out of the scene from past to present. Great fun. The final production was still a tapestry.

It is intriguing how lives are interwoven, threaded together over time. Were meetings pre-arranged in another life, another era? Or, are these friends living in Parallel Universes the whole time, waiting to pop through at the perfect moment?

It is most fun to "connect the dots" and discover when everyone began to appear and what their relationship is to each. It's a new "genealogy." Your marvelous interconnected, synchronistic gatherings in such a few short hours and days was most invigorating. I'm sure all parties were enthralled.

Sending Love,

I see Stuart posted some of our synchronicities above. It would be fun to compile a book from friends on a variety of such weavings.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 7:22 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne Warfield


Your comment is so full of imagination, we are delighted! Personally, I don't have much sense of having lived other lives, but I love this notion of our friends living in Parallel Universes "waiting to pop through at the perfect moment." Richard and I were at so many of the same events, from music concerts to activist demonstrations to literary and film conferences over the years, but didn't meet until the parallel lines unexpectedly opened. It amazed us that we hadn't met before.

An animated film! A great idea. Sped up, slowed down, the threads of the tapestry arrayed, x-rayed, before our eyes!

And what a great "naming," that these threads of our non-family relationships form a genealogy of their own. We have more than one kind of family, and what a fascinating work that would be, tracing the genealogical lines of our friendships. Yes, we were all enthralled by this magical synchronicity in Paris.

And ANOTHER great idea from you, compiling a book on these relationship synchronicities. It would be like focusing on one sort of synchronicity of the many that Phil Cousineau gathered in his book, Soul Moments. His book dealt with synchronicity of every sort; your book idea would focus on the unexpected weavings that happen in our relationships.

Whoah! Keep those ideas coming, Joanne. Let's see if they coalesce into a book project or film.

Much love,

Kaaren & Richard

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 17:04 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren & Richard

I absolutely thought of Phil's "Soul Moments" book, Stuart and I are both in it. (It was renamed: COINCIDENCE OR DESTINY? Stories of Synchronicity). Perhaps he'll discover some new Synchronicities here.

Fun, fun, fun. I love "playing" this way; sparking ideas across the planet, firing up more ideas... spinning. I think we ARE all living in parallel universes all the time, it's just when the channels align and the forces are right (for whatever reason...) that we "appear" to each other, come into focus. .

This reminds me of the first gift Stuart gave me; "The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke." Sometime later, inspired by Rilke's poem [You who never arrived], he wrote this one to me (it is beautifully illustrated too):


The faint echo of your being
resonated yet again
down the haunted corridors of my past.

It was as faint as tender lips
upon a window.
How many times in the last
six-hundred years had I missed it?
How many times had I chosen to ignore it?

You had been there all along
just beneath the surface
of my awareness.

I pressed my body against the
centuries of glass.
I passed right through
and my lips met yours.


Parallel on dear friends.

Friday, October 21, 2011 at 3:03 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne Warfield


Small world. Both Kaaren and also I have pieces in Soul Moments, published, as I recall, shortly after we met. A wonderful volume, which I hope never goes out of print. And I wish the same for Stuart's heartfelt piece of timeless love to you.


Friday, October 21, 2011 at 23:50 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Thank you Richard..

I see that our parallel lines (you, me, Stuart, Kaaren), were laid down in "Soul Moments" those years ago and percolated until they were ready to emerge again through Phil (again) at his reading at Gregg's studio for WORD PLAY a year ago - delightful timing.

Yes and yes for timeless Love. Thank you for seeing it.


Saturday, October 22, 2011 at 6:37 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne

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