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

Entries in Berkeley (2)


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. 





How to Live: A Vision Quest, Part One

I just finished reading a magnificent book by Sarah Bakewell about Michel de Montaigne: “How to Live; A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.” The book just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography in the United States, and the Duff Cooper Prize for Non-Fiction in the U. K., and rightfully so.

I’m not interested in doing a book review here; I’ll just urge you to read the book, which set me to musing about certain key Greek terms—eudaimonia and ataraxia and prosoche—that engaged Montaigne. The Renaissance writer, who first coined the term essays—Essais, or “Attempts”—was not interested in abstract philosophy. He was interested in the pragmatic philosophies of the ancient Greek Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics. All had the same aim: to achieve a way of life the Greeks called eudaimonia: joy, happiness, human flourishing. As Bakewell puts it, “This meant living well in every sense; thriving, relishing life, being a good person.”

The ancient Greeks felt that the best path to eudaimonia was ataraxia, or imperturbability, freedom from anxiety. In order to attain this equilibrium, you needed to have control over your emotions.



Both Stoics and Epicureans believed that two things, especially, prevented the enjoyment of life: lacking control over your emotions and not paying attention to the present. If people could get those two things right, most other things would fall into place. But getting these right is so difficult that we need to trick ourselves into achieving them.

So the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers spent a good deal of time thinking up tricks to achieve this equanimity.

But this is not a book review. Bakewell prompted a remembrance of my own process of finding a practical philosophy of life. My personal history can only be of interest to you if you can use it yourself, so if you’re that reader, here goes:

Philosophy, even pragmatic philosophy, is intimately linked to one’s spiritual vision.

For some reason, I was born needing a spiritual vision. My parents were atheists, atheists who led an exemplary life of good sense and generosity towards others. I clearly loved and emulated them, but I needed something more. As a young girl, I looked around me to find some spiritual vision that made sense. I adopted the closest one in my community: Christianity. I begged my parents to take me to various churches, Protestant, Episcopalian, Catholic. I wanted to try them all and find one that fit. My parents scratched their heads at this strange child, but my father obliged and dropped me off at one church or another on his way to play tennis every Sunday morning.

I was confirmed in a Presbyterian church. Then, at thirteen, I persuaded them to let me go to an all-girls Episcopalian boarding school by the sea in La Jolla, California. It appealed to several parts of me: the adventurer (the ocean!), the book lover (a rigorous education!) and the spiritual seeker (chapel every day!). Within one year at this school, two of those parts of me were sorely disappointed: there was little adventure in a school so strict that we could only go down to the sea in a group with a chaperone; and by the end of the first year, by age fourteen, I’d lost my religious faith. Religion seemed to be merely a system for controlling behavior.



In the middle of my freshman year, the headmistress called me into her office, and said, “We thought you would be a leader, but I’m afraid you turned out to be a leader of rebellion.” (Was that the year a group of us ran down the hall in high heels, naked except for pearl necklaces, singing an aria from some opera (it might have been the "Violetta Aria" from La Traviata), and the dorm mother, peeking out of her room, screamed in horror and reported us? I’ll have to check with my classmates.) A certain group of us boarders were wild ones, and continued to be for our full four years at the school.



The one sterling aspect of the school was the education. We studied Latin, French, English literature, history and more, in depth, and spent hours every evening in study hall. I edited the school literary magazine, and got in early to the college of my choice.

Sarah Lawrence was a breeze compared to The Bishop’s School for Girls. I had only three courses, French literature, anthropology and psychology. But halfway through the first year, something happened. I froze. I stopped studying. Stopped turning in papers. Simply jumped the rails.

I didn’t know it then, but I was going on strike. If I had no sense of why I was in school, I couldn’t continue. I didn’t know it then, but this was a spiritual crisis.

I dropped out of that college, then spent the next year in Oxford, England studying English literature—a whole year reading Shakespeare!



Then, back at home, I spent a year at Arizona State University studying anthropology, philosophy and German. And an eating disorder blossomed.

Then to the University of California at Berkeley for summer school courses in philosophy, Ethics. I read some fascinating stories in Plato, but none of them were relevant to my quest.

Swept up in the radical movement in Berkeley, I began to experiment in alternative ways to live, what we called the counterculture. I lived in a commune, demonstrated for civil rights and student rights and against the war in Vietnam. My friends and I created performance art for one person at a time, whose purpose was to change that person’s life. And it did.



But in my core, I was lost. Luckily, I had my journals, where the real work was going on. I was drilling down to ground zero, trying to sort out all the conflicting desires in me—to find out exactly what/who they were and how they could all live in harmony. For they were all at war, all tugging in different directions, each speaking with his/her own voice.

(End of Part One. Saturday, Part Two.)