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

Entries in Betty Kitchell (3)


Unexpected Pleasures




You can walk out into the world thinking you know what pleasures await you, and have no idea of the treasure in store.

I knew the dinner would be excellent.

I knew that editing a story would be satisfying.

But I'm startled by the acute pleasure of being out in the cold sharp night air after several weeks mostly indoors with the flu. The world is so… solid, so real! Feathers! Flowers! Carytids! The moon! 

The pleasure of crossing a narrow street at the crosswalk, three men talking and blocking my path, the one on the bicycle looking up with great sweetness, "Oh, pardon!" and backing up his bike to let me pass.


The sweetness of men! It moves me even more than their strength. That Celtic douceur that comes from centuries of the troubadour tradition of courtesy (and perhaps from centuries of its opposite, savage wars on one's own soil).

The pleasure of remembering that I have several books to pick up at Shakespeare and Company. I'm carrying a book bag with my laptop and printed-out stories.  Do I want the extra weight? Sure. Better than swinging by too late after they've closed.



I detour, pick up the books. The bookseller with whom I'd been exchanging messages says, "Oh, it's you. I know your face, but didn't know your name."

"Same with me. You have the slightest accent. What is it?"

"I'm French."

"But your English is perfect."

"I lived in the States for a while."

Out into the blue-black cold. The face of Notre Dame across the river makes me think of Rosamond Larmour Loomis. The cathedral reminds me of those four years of boarding school, of memorizing hymns, the strict regimen of classes, study hall, every hour mapped out.



Rosamond was the headmistress of the school. She died last week at the age of 102, several weeks after her boyfriend Henry.

I remember two conversations with her, one when I was 14, and had been called into her office with Miss Moran, the sadistic assistant headmistress. I’ve already mentioned this once on Paris Play, but it made a deep impression on me, hinted at my future. Miss Larmour sternly addressed a most unfortunate incident involving naked girls in high heels and pearls stampeding down the dorm singing an aria from La Traviata. She said, "We thought you were a leader when you arrived, but this is not what we had in mind."



And later at a school reunion, she was no longer the strict head of the school, but relaxed, warm, ageless. We discovered that we'd both been married for the first time later in life, at the same age, though years apart.

Rosamond died the way I would like to die, quickly, quickly, well past the age of 100, with my beloved and friends nearby. I imagine her on her journey, sailing into the mystery.

It is crowded at my writing café. But maybe, maybe that man is not sitting at my table.

The waiter asks.

No, he's just spread out his packages there from the adjacent table where he's talking with a woman. He graciously makes room for me.



I order salmon and scalloped potatoes, the way my mother used to make them.

I open my new James Salter novel, Light Years, and begin to read. Oh. my. god. Oh! Oh! This is music. I cannot help it, I begin to annotate the page with a pencil, making scansion marks above the words as if the lines were a prose poem.

The rhythm of his sentences, the sculptural quality. The weather, the sensory richness.

I know these characters, their lives rich with art, books, friendship, family, storytelling, animals, weather, beauty. (And later, carelessness, sad choices.)

The dinner arrives. The waiter says, “If you finish that book tonight, I’ll give you a free dessert.”

The couple next to me laugh. It's a joke Parisian waiters make only when it’s clear that you’ve just started a book.

The meal is fantastic.



The man at the next table gets up to use the bathroom. The woman strikes up a conversation with me. She lives for literature. She lives in a small town near Brittany. 

The man returns. He runs a poetry and fiction reading series near us in Paris.

She invites Richard and me to visit her in her small village. She offers to drive us around.

He invites us to come to his poetry series next weekend.

They have just met in the Jardin du Luxembourg.  We all exchange cards.

I am flooded with richness.

When they leave I order a glass of cider. The mild alcohol content won't interfere with my editing.

Oh yes it does. I'd forgotten the lingering effect of the flu, am instantly tipsy. Now, how to balance that out? A coffee would keep me up all night. But a hot chocolate wouldn't. That delicate balancing act we do with food, drink and energy.

The hot chocolate warms and awakens me. I edit the story with the music of Salter's sentences ringing in my ears.





A Night Alone in Paris

Street art by Pole Ka


Richard is sick in bed. He caught the flu at L’Alliance Francaise (one of the hazards of being in school), so I went alone tonight to pick up a book at Shakespeare & Company. And I got sick too, but in a different way.

A bookstore that stays open till 11 p.m. suits me just fine. Since I work at home, I often forget the difference between weekdays and weekends. Walking down St.-Germain at 9:30 p.m., I was surprised to find the cafes packed with people, the art galleries open, everyone in convivial spirits. Oh, right, Saturday night. I stepped into a gallery where a man in a beret was playing a violin, while a dark-haired woman writhed like a serpent in front of a seated audience. It was not particularly artful. Yet the seats were all taken. More people like to watch than get up on stage and perform, so the balance worked.



At Shakespeare & Company, I asked a young woman behind the counter if my Alain de Botton book had arrived. She searched the shelf behind her, speaking to me in English and French. Her English was so perfect, I assumed she was British, but no, she had just started learning it 11 years ago. She gets a lot of practice at the bookstore.



She handed me Botton's, How Proust Can Change Your Life. Margarita recommended it, and she loves Proust the way I love Proust. She’s also reading a biography of Proust, which she said makes him seem like a nasty man, but I find that hard to believe.

I browsed the fiction section and found two Jennifer Egan novels I hadn’t read, Invisible Circus and Look at Me. Extravagant, but I learned from my mother extravagance in buying books. She used to leave bookstores with a box of them in her arms. When I was a child and my parents had more children than money, she’d take us to the library every day for another Wizard of Oz. The passion for reading came from her, and she got it from her mother, Esther the poet, who ran off to Columbia for a year of graduate school, leaving two small children (one of whom was my mother) at home with her parents. While it was an agreement she’d made with my grandfather, who could start his medical practice now after finishing medical school, it was still a shocking thing for a small-town Minnesota woman to do, and I think cost her dearly in her husband and daughter’s affection.


On to the poetry section to see if the book I longed to read last night was there. I’d gone to every bookshelf in our apartment, unsure if we’d brought it or donated it to Antioch, our MFA alma mater, when we moved. Hélas! It was nowhere to be found at home.

But here! Here it was at Shakespeare. I grabbed the only copy of Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, and headed for the red theater chair in the next room to read a little of each Egan, and decided, of course I needed them both, and then dipped into The Cantos.


The French woman clerk came in with an English colleague to put some art books to bed. They were bedding the books above me, and to both sides, so I offered to move. No, no, they said, in the relaxed way that characterizes this bookstore.

We talked about learning English and French. Terry said that he surrounded himself with French people, played soccer with an all-French team, sang phrases while he showered, just bore down on it like a jackhammer. He practiced saying words with French friends, asking them over and over, “Am I saying it correctly?” After four years, he was fluent. Both were fluent in both languages. But, they teased each other, “I can still tell you’re French when you say certain words.” “Well, I can tell you’re English,” she sing-songed back.



I listened to a couple speaking German.

Another couple came in and spoke Spanish, from somewhere in the Americas.

And then a couple spoke what sounded to me like Chinese, but perhaps was not? Japanese? No, they looked and sounded Chinese.

I went back to reading The Cantos, and read a line about Chinese or Japanese. Hmmm. That was strange.

I asked the woman if she spoke English or French.


Street art by Tristan des Limbes


English, she said.

“I was just wondering if you were speaking Chinese or Japanese,” I said. “And then I read this.” I showed her the line.

She nodded, as if to say, Very strange indeed, but she was looking at me, not the text.

I came in for two books, but I wanted all four. I’m trying to be frugal—the exchange rate from dollars to euros is nuts right now; imagine everything costing one-third extra—but frugality doesn’t apply when it comes to books. I was programmed that way in childhood.



I meandered out into the cooler autumn air, past the oldest tree in Paris, a robina planted in 1636, which has a crutch beneath it like a figure in a Salvador Dali painting. Maybe I’d try a new restaurant I’d passed on the way. I wanted healthy tonight more than delicious, and Le Grenier de Notre Dame promised wholesome vegetarian fare. It was intimate and beautifully lit, and the waiter was warm and wall-eyed, and recommended a vegetable pie, and I sat and read The Cantos, and ate a perfectly delicious, perfectly healthy meal.

I was again ensorcelled by Pound’s way of weaving myth, history, poetry of other times, astronomy, astrology, philosophy, beauty of place, Italian, French, English, German, Chinese, Latin, Greek, his own memories, his obsession with economic justice and wise rule, and the occasional expression of a heart that seemed cracked with scapegoating and hatred—the works. Oh, but the richness.

I read:

       “nothing matters but the quality

of the affection—

in the end—that has carved the trace in the mind

dove sta memoria


The couple two tables away spoke Italian, he in a caressing soft tone, she like a barking dog. She had tattoos on her arms that looked like the exquisite graffiti on the walls around here. I glanced at each of them. I’m fascinated by volume, how some nationalities speak loudly, some softly. Italians, like Americans, speak as if they’re on stage. French people tend to speak as if they’re in the bedroom, and sometimes as if they want you to get in bed too.

I was struck by how softly this Italian man was speaking. But the moment after I glanced over at the two of them, he began to bark back at his companion, as if caught in the act of being too gentle, too refined.

And I walked home at 11 p.m., feeling perfectly safe on a Saturday night in this city where my soul is so at home, sick—sick with love.




Paris: Vision


The following poem is included in a book of photos my sister, Suki, created after a trip to Paris in May 2008. My mother gave her children the gift of a lifetime, a trip to Paris for my four siblings, Jane, Jon, Ann and Suki. I was already here. She arrived needing an eye operation which was scheduled for after she returned home to Arizona. But she is a stoic Norwegian-American Viking, and explored Paris with the five of us, ignoring the pain. By the end of the ten days, she was walking down steep steps, in spite of also needing a hip replacement, which she's since had.

Richard traveled, while my mother stayed in our apartment with me. It was wonderful to be able to market and cook for her, after the thousands of meals she made for the five of us throughout our childhood.


Betty Heimark Kitchell and Kaaren


While my father was alive, he and my mother traveled around the world. After my father died in 2006, my mother was in a stunned state for two years, and said she would never travel again. This was the first trip she made after his death. We all felt his presence with us in Paris.



                  For my mother, Betty Heimark Kitchell


Two eyes

gaze out from the Seine:

the eye of judgment,

the eye of dream.


We cross into the left eye:

Here is where Camille Claudel

wrestled lost love

into faithful stone,


where Baudelaire wove

his poems out of smoke,

where Breton planted

Les Champs Magnétiques.


(Here is the place

on her left eye

that teared up,

preventing her from seeing.)


Here is the Pont St.-Louis where police

tortured a gypsy for a crime--

her mother cursed the bridge

and it crumbled seven times.


We cross into the right eye

where tulips bend their heads

over smaller blooms

in the park named for a pope,



past pink cherry blossoms,

through the Portal of Last Judgment,

and enter Notre-Dame.

(Here is where he and I


lit a votive

beneath the painting of mother and child

and prayed to pagan Demeter

for the health of her eye.)


Here is the Hôtel Dieu,

the first hospital in Paris,

where a drag queen stands in the quadrangle

dressed like Snow White.


Here is the Conciergerie

where Marie Antoinette was locked

before losing her head. (Her judges,

Danton and Robespierre, lost theirs too.)


Here is Sainte-Chapelle, the king's chapel

where 15 windows blaze with blue,

green, gold, red, mauve light,

and stars spangle the ceiling.


Here is where we remember our father's

Four Seasons (blossoms opening, bees

buzzing, horses galloping, snow falling).

Tears spangle our cheeks.



And here is the Square du Vert-Galant,

the old charmer, Henri IV,

most beloved king of France

astride his bronze horse.


Willows hang heavy as lashes

in the corner of the eye

where the bateaux mouches1



Where she descends

hundreds of steps

and we embark, exultant,

under the bridges of ghostly faces



carved in stone,

our boat sliding

toward the tower of lace

flooded with light.



We have passed

through death, passed

through suffering,



[1] Open excursion boats that provide visitors to Paris with a view of the city from along the river Seine.