Archive for the ‘God’ Category

Daily Bread

May 18, 2010

When I was a child, I memorized the Lord’s Prayer, Christ’s response to his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. The only request for a tangible thing in the entire prayer is “give us this day our daily bread.” Not for tomorrow, just for today, because we must remember to let the future take care of itself. We must eat today. And it’s not a six-course dinner we need, or even a full meal or meat or vegetables. Just bread. Just for today. Simple, plain, everything one really needs.
The French understand the centrality of bread to life. Remember that one of the causes of the French revolution was rising bread prices. When Marie Antionette cavalierly said, “Let them eat cake,” she not only dismissed the plight of the common people, she forgot that here, bread is an essential. Bread is life. According to de l’Institut national de la boulangerie-pâtisserie, in 2004, there were more than 34,000 artisan boulangers in France, accounting for more than 70% of bread production in the country. A “boulanger” (baker) and “boulangerie” (bakery) must adhere to strict regulations, including the choosing of the raw materials, kneading the paste, controlling the fermentation, and cooking the bread in its place of sale. None of the products used or produced may ever be frozen. This is by law, the “décret pain,” or “bread decree” of 1993. Bread is serious business here.

Bread in France is also ubiquitous and simple and delicious. Even when everything is closed for one or another of the many holidays, you can almost always find a boulangerie open for an hour or two with loaves still warm from the ovens. At any time of almost any day, we pass Frenchmen on the street with a loaf or two—no bag or wrapping—tucked under their arms. Most buy it daily. Even the shops in the aires (rest-areas) on the expressways sell baguettes, and I’ve often seen travelers grab a loaf and a package of ham to dine at a picnic table outside. Rip the baguette open, stuff in the ham, eat. Absolute satisfaction. Indeed, the bread is often a meal in itself. The truth is that a good bread really is all you need.

In Saint Araille, Monseiur Marty Chantal, boulanger, arrives at about noon every Monday, Wednesday and Friday—not daily—but to my door, which is even better. We can hear the beeping of his little white delivery van across the hills, the dogs barking hysterically as he starts up the driveway to the château. He came during the snow-storms; he brings special cakes on holidays; he has chocolate croissants to lure the children clamoring down the stairs on cold mornings. If we’re not home or don’t happen to come when he beeps, he leaves the bread, au natural, tucked into the front door handle, in a bag only if it happens to be raining. If we’re in the mood for something special, he has a variety of extra treats in his packed van, baked fresh by his own hand during the night. When we arrived in October, we placed a standing order with M. Chantal for two baguettes (literally, “sticks”) every delivery day, and we often supplemented by baking in the bread machine in the tower apartment or stopping at the boulangerie on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. In mid-winter, we changed our order from baguettes to pain aux céréales (cereal bread), which is so good that we often lurk around at the window and delay lunchtime, waiting for the sound of M. Chantal’s horn. I’ve been known to eat a third of a loaf for my lunch.

M. Chantal himself has retired during our year here, turning deliveries at least over to his daughter, Mademoiselle Chantal, a lovely smiling young woman in her twenties. In one of our early chats with M. Chantal, we learned that he hoped to travel to the United States in retirement—to see the Rocky Mountains, he said—and we’ve been wondering if he’s on his way to Colorado now. This, as we gaze at the Pyrénées white-caps an hour to the south. Like these mountains, bread, too, has its cousins across the sea. And we discover that this desire—to go, to see, to adventure in the world where the unfamiliar becomes familiar—is a shared desire. A simple bread, different and sometimes better.

In the nearby villages, the bread baking is often an event, a community gathering with lines out the doors of the boulangeries. When we visit La Couvertoirade, a beautifully preserved bastide village in a remote corner of the Aveyron, we see the communal ovens such as once existed in every town. In the Middle Ages, citizens paid a tax for which everyone gained the right to bake their daily loaves. As we wait with the others for Sunday loaves to emerge from the heat, the community of the event—the sharing and visiting of the people—seems as important as the sustenance of the bread itself. Is not that too a kind of daily bread?

As a treat, I buy “American” bread for James and Isabelle at the Intermarché supermarket. The brand is “Sam’s,” but, despite the name, it’s actually French cereal bread baked in the regulation rectangle and pre-sliced. True “American bread” tastes like paste compared to this bread, rich and nutty and fresh. With a little Nutella and fresh kiwi jam from the abbey, this sandwich makes more than a complete meal. Even plain, Sam’s surpasses Uncle Sam’s. Why is this bread so much better?

I read the label. Seven kinds of farine (flour), plus fiber, water, grains, and some of the usual suspects, including ascorbic acid, diglycerides, and sirop de glutcose-fructose. In my research, however, I find these differences. Bread flour in France is rarely bleached. Flour used in the U.S. has a higher gluten level. Potassium bromate, which U.S. bakers use to strengthen bread, is banned in the European Union. French bread is legally controlled and may not contain anything but flour, water, yeast and salt. Traditionally, it should be baked on a hearth. It doesn’t keep for more than a day. Sam’s, I suspect, is not cooked on a hearth, certainly not in an official boulangerie, so maybe it is the flour or the water that make it so good. I used to know a very old New York bagel shop owner who swore that New York bagels get their wonderful flavor from New York City water. “You can’t get New York bagels anywhere but New York!” he’d shout. Maybe you can’t get French bread anywhere but France because of the wheat grown here on the hillsides all around us in the Haute Garonne. Maybe it’s the soil or the air. Maybe it’s just that Frenchmen have appreciated bread for a very long time.

At the Grottes de Gargas, we see hundreds of images of hands printed on the walls from the Stone Age, and it comes as no surprise to learn that these same hands might have worked the first breads. Neolithic peoples baked bread in this same part of the world before 10,000 BC. Bread—the stuff of life, the symbol of our only real necessity this day—was born here, raised on the very yeasts in the air, and has been perfected and become essential to everyday life over the 12,000 years since. Every culture has a bread that is born of its own history and land, and the bread in a contemporary culture reflects not only that history, but some of the modern values of that culture.

When I think about the relationship of Americans to bread, what seems different is that we have forgotten to appreciate bread. We have neglected the simplicity of this one essential need. We want more and more and more. We live in excess, like the bread shelf at the Safeway supermarket. We do not have time to stop for daily bread, much less bake it ourselves. Can you imagine Americans lined up and waiting for a loaf of bread fresh from the oven? We do not want to wait for our bread to be baked, but we expect our bread to wait—preserved with whatever additives are available—for us. We have valued the new, the next thing, that which might make life more efficient, faster, or better, and in our rush and cry and looking always so far ahead, we have lost something very simple and essential to a healthy life. This day, this bread.

It is not that the French are a simple people—far from it. This a land that values complexity, theory, thought and philosophy. Consider Sartre, Montagne, Irigaray and de Beauvoir. Nor is the difference that the French are not busy, hurrying from home to work and school just as contemporary Americans do. The difference, it seems to me, is one of priorities. And bread is a good example of this.

Daily bread is a priority in my life here in Saint Araille. Fresh, simple, a reminder of the only thing a human really needs. It provides a place of community and of intercultural exchange. Bread is a creation of earth and air and fire and water, worked by human hands, as straightforward and innovative as the stone wheel on a log axle. We make bread from the materials at hand, the materials of this Earth. We might pray for this one essential sustenance, but for what do we truly ask? To be able to create sustenance from the materials at hand, the things of the earth. To share with a community of people. To value this day, fresh and warm and simple. All we really need. The breadboard on our table in the tower here in France is carved with these words by which to live: Donnez-nous ce jour notre pain quotidian. This day. This bread. Enough.

Relics

December 16, 2009

In Saint Sernin in Toulouse are hundreds of Christian relics, including what is said to be a thorn from Christ’s crown at the crucifixion, the skull of Saint Edmund, and a fragment of Saint Jeanne of Toulouse’s pelvic bone. Henry James describes being shown the head of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Saint Sernin’s crypt (Chapter 21 of A Little Tour in France), and in Saint Bertrand de Commiges, the body of Saint Bertrand is contained in a walk-through reliquary the size of a small house, illustrated with events from his life and death. The Monastery of Cluny houses both a finger of Saint Stephan and a tooth from Saint John. For the pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostella, visiting these churches and viewing the relics housed there was a chance to be closer to God and the saints, a brush with miracles and the divine which might just, with a little luck, rub off. The little casks or caskets (or other holders) in which these holy items are stored are gorgeous too, gold and velvet, carved ivory, marble, and these reliquaries are often all there is to see, the sacred bits locked within. As we visit church after church around southern France, I think a lot about relics, about the things we bring along to mark our pasts, to remember miracles, to bring a little magic into our lives.

For Isabelle, my daughter who is six, the little bracelet made of green yarn gleaned from her baby blanket, “Greenie,” who went missing last April, is the most important of relics. She tears up sometimes when remembering Greenie, and she wears the little fragment of the sainted security blanket when she needs comfort… though it’s not the real thing but a memory of it. Maybe it’s the memory of that time in her life that she is keeping. A touch of divinity in the assurance of safety the object seems to provide.

Izzy also brought with her to France a fragment of a blue robin’s egg shell, carefully stored in a small plastic spice bottle on a bed of Kleenex. She found the robin’s egg on a walk with Ingrid, our next-door neighbor, shortly before we left Vermont. She says it reminds her of home, of the day she found it, that it’s special. What does that mean? The hatching of the creature from the egg, perhaps, the magic of our eternal rebirth into the world.

For James, my son (Izzy’s twin), relics are important in a different way. He wears these days the scar from a dog bite incurred last summer, and it bothers him that his face is not perfect any more. When he sees himself in the mirror he says that he’s ugly. He is not exactly afraid of the dogs we live with here—very sweet Border collies—but he avoids the front door when we arrive home, knowing that they will rush out barking, excited to see us. The scar is a reminder, a warning, maybe something like the bone of a martyr or a grail miraculously survived.

James has been on a binge of collecting “stuffties,” stuffed animals, since we arrived in France, but we’re not sure why. He is six now, an age at which children usually move on to other interests. He buys these stuffties at the many vide greniers (empty-attic sales) we go to on weekends with birthday gift money or money he earns for doing special chores, a Euro here or there. He names each one of the new additions to his family—a puppy named Joe, a lion named Leo, a Tiger named Jessie (also the name of our recently deceased old dog). James brought two bears and an Ugly Doll named Igor from home, but it’s these “new” second-hand creatures to whom he seems most attached. I doubt he will feel the same way about them when we return home, but there is something magic about their place in his world just now, as if he is invoking a circle of friends or children to offset his isolation in this new place. Or maybe they are relics of a future, a way of imagining something elusive or intangible, a matter of faith. James talks to them about their “Poppy,” referring to himself as their father. Maybe he’s preparing himself in the only way he can in this fatherless family for his own future fatherhood.

James did bring his map of the solar system with him from home. When we make Christmas ornaments for our little tree in the chateau, he paints the Styrofoam balls as planets, just as he did in Vermont. The solar system has been an obsession for the last year. He learned all of the planets—and many facts about each—and collected artifacts—models, maps, books—about space. Is he mapping his past, marking the place he left off when we left Vermont? Is he keeping track of his place in the universe, France being—really—just next door to Vermont in the grand scheme of things?

My partner, Susan, brought her art supplies, paints, brushes, pastels, paper, and books. Of course, she buys more books here—at markets, vide greniers, junk stores. These are more obvious objects for working magic—she transforms ideas into art. And they seem to be security for Susan as much as Greenie was for Izzy. Her running things—her shoes, her Walkman, her books on tape—are Susan’s other essential supplies for travel. Susan needs her every-other-day run like the rest of us need air. When she runs, she can leave her body even as she inhabits it fully. Susan’s sneakers and audio-to-go are sacred objects, things she must have to be herself wherever she goes.

I too have brought a few special things with me from home as well—a favorite photo of the children; a stone—black with a magic white circle—from the brook behind our house in Newfane; a few of my favorite brand of pen; my journal. I also packed the Christmas stockings Susan made for each of us over the years, and we unpacked them and have them hanging by the fireplace now. I thought they would remind us of home, that they would help us feel settled—still at home in our own lives even so far away from home.

What does it mean to attach significance to objects? For the pilgrims, these teeth and locks of hair and bits of bone and splinters of the true cross reinforced faith. They were tangible evidence of something that is actually unknowable, intangible, abstract. God exists, these objects said. Miracles happen if you believe.

Home, perhaps, is the abstract unknowable intangible thing for which each of us needs reassurance. Even here on the edge of our universe, out in rural southern France, magic exists, miracles happen. We touch our little talismans and they help us conjure up strength and faith for the rest of the journey. Maybe home is something to do with faith, with believing and knowing that wherever we go—from security blanket out of the nest, leaving the egg behind; from a blue-green planet to the mysteries of fatherhood, the dangers of the world worn on one’s skin; from a paintbrush wand to the comfort of one’s own body moving through space and time; from a little house beside a brook in green mountains to a thousand-year-old château atop a French hill, stockings hung by a chimney with care—we house home in the reliquary of our souls, our imaginations. We take the objects to remember, to believe, to work a little magic. But the things we take are not nearly so important as the box we build to keep them safe.

Latour/La Tour/The Tower

November 15, 2009

We writers love towers. They are removed and lofty, closer to the divine. Maybe we believe writing in a tower opens our thoughts to the heavens, to the muses. Maybe we need to look away from our work—the tedium of language, the marks on the page, these attempts to quantify a life, life itself, and one’s thoughts—into distances, to see the bigger, wider view. Maybe we seek quiet and solitude to be alone with our thoughts, to focus on the words. Maybe we need to hide to create. The tower’s symbolism and uses—power, protection, lookout, communication, storage—draw us up the stairs, toward the sky. The words housed in this stone structure—the words themselves a structure—contain, and maybe disguise or secret something, maybe imprison, maybe let us watch for something else.

Acrobatic ballet on former prison tower, Auch

At the first of November, Susan and I and the children move up to our home for duration of our stay in a village in France, the château’s tower apartment. It is a proper private space about 50×25 feet with a fully equipped kitchen, living room, dining area, bath and toilet, two bedrooms, and laundry, and a huge loft opening onto a covered balcony overlooking the countryside to the east, north and south. A wood stove stands in the open hearth, supplementing the under-floor heating, and we are fully connected to the rest of the modern world with satellite television, DVD, and Wi-fi. On the other hand, the square holes for the beams of the catwalk ramparts that once ringed the roof attest to the tower’s former importance as a lookout post for the monastery that owned and built it and the surrounding residents. Since the 11th century, when the stones were worked and laid and stacked up in a tower of more than 60 feet on top of a tall hill, Christian Crusaders regularly crossed this part of southern France on their way to Spain and the Holy Lands. Invaders frequently made incursions from the south—where lies Spain beyond the Pyrénées, about three hours drive from here—and the east—where the Mediterranean Sea opens to Rome and Greece, North Africa and the Middle East. Pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella passed nearby. In the tower, we are the tallest thing for miles around. We inhabit both old and new worlds. We climb the thousand-year-old stairs, hang our laundry where the monks kept an eye out for Saracen raiders, sleep restlessly while the winds from the Atlantic and the white Pyrénées howl like ghosts, and wake to write at dawn for an audience to whom I am connected by satellites and radio waves. Weird.

In the Tarot, the Tower is a symbol of destruction, the collapse of the systems and structures we erect in our lives to make us feel safe, to keep us secure, to hide away our secrets, our vulnerabilities. The pictures from the most ancient decks show a stone tower struck by lightening, the people within escaping from the flames and stones in the nick of time, often naked to the storm. This is a mythology that explains those times in life when everything falls apart. When what we had counted on suddenly no longer is. Jung liked this symbolism, of course. He even built a tower himself, by hand. Our tower seems strong, even when the wind blows. We tell ourselves that it has been here for a thousand years. This is unlikely to be the storm that brings it down.

150px-RWS_Tarot_16_Tower

I have always been a weather-watcher, but in the tower, I find myself both obsessed and mystified by the weather. Up here, the winds blow almost all the time. The winds in France have names—Autan, Mistral, Tramotane, Cers. The winds that blow in this part of the Haute Garonne are not the Mistral of Provence, but they can be just as fierce, just as damaging. The winds that blow in from the south and west—from the Atlantic Ocean and across the Pyrenees—in the fall and winter can be very cold, very wet. In the first week of November, our first week in the tower, a series of storms blow in from that direction, sideways sheets of rain, sycamore leaves sweeping past our windows. The wind is loud outside, like waves at the beach or the blood through the heart and veins of someone under great stress, intense. In legend, these winds can make a person go mad, tumble the walls of self that holds the mind together. But isn’t that always the legend of great winds? The tower stands rock solid, cutting the yowling winds. We feel safe but unnerved.

La tour, Montesquieu- Volvestre

Lightening does strike, on occasion, we’re told. It has hit this very tower, the tallest thing for miles. It strikes the chimney and travels straight to ground. It hits the satellite dish and, like an evil sprite, dances through all of the electrics in the whole château, blowing out the television, the d.v.d. player, towel warmers, computers, washing machines, an oven. We protect ourselves as much as possible, keep everything important unplugged unless we’re using it. Unless we see and hear a thunder storm approaching. We watch for lightening like those sentinels of old watched for marauders. I think of the Tarot card image, everything tumbling to the ground.

We find that the weather on the ground floor may be very different from that up in the tower. Some days we hike down all those flights of crooked wooden steps from the howl of wind outside into warmth. The wind from the east feels dry, though the clouds may lower and darken the day early. The clouds may part suddenly, blue skies opening up. Rainbows spring up from the brown plowed hills and disappear into lavender clouds. The snows creep down the Pyrénées as the storms pass, day by day, week by week. And then the weather turns warm again. We pick more of the tomatoes from the garden. My spinach and arugula sprout in the garden. We run in shorts one day and dress the children in winter coats for school the next. Who are we inside this tower? Something different each day. Something unpredictable as the weather swirling around us. But also something solid and unchanging within—is this the self? We come down to earth some days, and find it a strange place.

I move my chair and work table so that I am able to see the sunrise, pinks and oranges and purples and reds. I sit on the swing on the balcony on warm afternoons and look through binoculars. I point the telescope toward Jupiter so that we can look for the giant red spot, a mammoth storm that has been swirling up there 400 million miles away for thousands of years. Since the time this tower was built and monks in robes tended the fields and slept on boards without blankets and watched the horizon for danger coming. They sat, perhaps, just about here and watched these same stars. We look up and out for God, but isn’t that spirit also contained within these walls, permeating the very stones of this tower? The light I see tonight left that star when that lonely monk sat in my place now. When this tower falls, what secret minotaur will be revealed?

View from our tower

In this tower, though, I am not alone. James and Izzy and Susan are all here, and soon we’ll be joined by the dogs in our care. It’s a busy tower, full of life. My heart swells with it. The structure is sound. It holds our joyful noise and points it to the heavens. It draws the heavens down in bolts that illuminate and warm, transformed into dancing sprites. Change—even destruction—can open the heart to magic, to the divine within.

I rise at 5, as is my custom, to be alone in the loft with my words, my writing, my stories, watching the sunrise, watching for invaders, storing away the harvest for another, colder day. I don’t know all that is hidden in the heart of this structure. It has not yet been revealed to me. The tower has not yet fallen away. Change will come though. I know it. And it may be the change of a tower falling, some structure tumbling, a rug pulled from under my feet. It has happened to me before: my coming out, my brother’s death, my father’s silence, even falling in love with Susan and the birth of the twins, the total demolition of my former life. I have learned that the tower falling can bring new light. We can rise to the challenges, embrace the changes, move into a new world.

Sometimes the words build the tower up. Sometimes they protect the secrets. Sometimes they reveal them and the tower crumbles. I seem to land on my feet, naked perhaps, vulnerable. But clean. Illuminated. The words are just a tower. The life within the walls is ordinary and divine in the same breath, the same light of heaven. Stones may crumble, but the light warms, a kind of magic. We must trust—not fear—the process of change. I signal the world miles away. We are safe up here together, even when the walls come down.