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

Entries in boarding school (2)


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.





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.)