Archive for the ‘symbolism’ Category


January 3, 2010

When we settle in to the château in Saint Araille and Pete and Rosie leave, one of our responsibilities is to take care of their thirteen free-range chickens. We don’t know much about chicken-care, but Pete and Rosie give us what seems to be straightforward and simple instruction: go down into the attached stable through the kitchen in the morning, unlock and open the door to the outside, open the door to the chicken coop, scoop a plastic bowl of corn from the bin, take it outside and scatter it on the grass. If we go out, we are to lock the stable along with the rest of the house and not to worry about the chickens, in or out. We should gather any eggs they lay for ourselves, though apparently sometimes a hen will decide to hide out and brood a batch and then we’ll have chicks. (Izzy is delighted at this possibility.) At sundown, the chickens wander back into the coop (best if we’re home and the stable door open then so that they don’t roost in the trees), and I am to lock up the coop door and the stable door at dark. Rosie says that occasionally a buzzard or a fox or something will get one, but not to worry. She understands that there may be either fewer or more chickens when they return. This is life with chickens.

The chickens wake me every morning for the first weeks of our stay in Saint Araille, while Pete and Rosie are still home. The roosters start crowing well before dawn and continue for several hours after dawn. They walk around the extensive grounds in small or large groups doing chicken stuff—eating bugs, pecking at seeds, clucking. We begin to recognize the individuals and give them nicknames: Mr. Fancypants, the huge chief rooster, who is quite shiny and hysterical to watch run, the feathers of his “pants” shaking as he goes; Raggedy Rooster, who is a small grey rooster with feathers that stick out every which way; Brown Hen, who has a teenaged chick, with whom she is very sweet and very protective; the Brothers White, matching young white cockerels; etc. Izzy loves the egg hunt, and she and I take on the chore within a week of our arrival. James, on the other hand, thinks the chickens are out to get him. He begs Izzy and me not to make them mad by taking their eggs, though he’s quite happy to eat them later. The chickens show up when I dig up my winter garden plot, and we soon understand their habits and haunts. They’re part of the life of the château, something to watch when I look up from my writing desk and out the window.

I have been struggling with a short story for my collection, Frost Heaves, for some time when we arrive in France. I have a great opening scene where the protagonist hits something that his young daughter thinks is Tinkerbell with his car. I know that the story has to do with freedom and flight and responsibility, but I can’t quite work out the scenes to my satisfaction. The story is set in rural southern Vermont, and my protagonist is one of those young professionals who has settled there to raise a family in a pristine and “carefree” natural world. As I sit there watching the chickens pecking around the chateau garden, it seems only natural that my protagonist and his family would keep chickens too.

“There are too many cockerels,” Pete says, and he plans to slaughter the extras before we leave. “It’s not fair to the hens,” he says. And it’s true that the poor hens seem to be jumped by roosters at every turn. I’ve seen it from the window over my writing desk. Even the kids have commented on it. Pete asks if I have any experience with killing chickens. I politely decline. I like fried chicken, but I’d rather not participate directly in the death of the meat I eat. Perhaps it’s a weakness or flaw in my character, but there it is. I don’t like blood on my hands, literally. Pete and Rosie have decided that it’s their “responsibility” to the chickens to do the deed—“We owe it to them,” Pete says. They wait until the kids have started school, put out a chopping block, and do in one a day for about a week. We are careful not to step in the blood or guts left on the ground. We tell the kids the truth: we eat chicken, they eat chicken, Pete and Rosie have to kill some of their chickens. I listen carefully to Pete’s description of the execution; I may need some of these details in my story.

Rosie reviews the predators in the area and the chickens’ names before they leave. The buzzards, which look to me like hawks, will occasionally snatch a chicken from the yard, leaving a heap of feathers. Sometimes a pine marten or stone marten or fox will take one, leaving a heap of guts. Mr. Fancypants is really Bertie (from P.G. Wodehouse), and Raggedy is really named Orpheus. He quite likes being stroked, she says. “He’s never quite been the same since his mate [Eurydice, naturally] and their lovely little chick were killed by a buzzard,” she says. In the Greek myth, Orpheus, the god of music, travels to the underworld after his wife, Eurydice, dies and there sings such a beautiful sad song that Hades allows her to leave with him, on the condition that she follow him and he can’t look back at her… of course, he does look and she goes back across the River Styx.

For the first weeks after Rosie and Pete leave, I am hyper-vigilant about the care of the chickens. I go down the four flights from the tower every morning at 7:30 or 8, slide open the glass door from the kitchen into the stable, and say “Morning girls and boys!” And they cluck and rustle feathers while I walk through the big empty space to the blue door, which I unlock and swing open, fastening it open with a shutter dog. I go back inside and open the chicken wire door to the coop, step inside, scoop up corn from the metal garbage can, and walk out to the yard, the chickens following along, flapping and stretching their wings, occasionally crowing. I scatter the corn and count them to make sure all thirteen are there. It’s not a bad way to start the day. They’re happy when eating, simple creatures. During the day, I talk to them when they show up in my part of the yard, or just stop to watch them when I need a break from weeding. The dogs seem to completely ignore them. When Izzy comes home from school, she and I hunt for eggs. When one hen decides to hide her eggs in the flower bed, we watch her until we discover her secret place. We eat a lot of scrambled eggs. In the evenings, I round up those chickens that are still out—usually only the red hen and her chick—close up the coop and lock up the stable, go in through the kitchen and upstairs. The chickens and I have a simple routine. They are a little stupid, but they are happiest when everything stays the same every day. In this very strange new life in a village in France, the routine of chickens comforts me too.

I get stuck on the story and switch to work on something else. One gorgeous blue-sky day I chase off two buzzards circling the flock of chickens in the back meadow. Then we have a few days of bad weather, cold grey winds from the west. I dream about the chickens one night in late November.

That morning, I head down the stairs with Izzy, on our way to the car before school, and we go through the kitchen and slide open the door to the stable. Total silence. “Morning boys and girls,” I call, though it’s a false front. I already know the truth. “Something’s wrong,” I say to Izzy. “What, Mom?” she asks. “I don’t know,” I say, trying to remain calm and confident for her. “But I think something’s wrong.” Feathers float in the air of the stable. There is a weird metallic smell. Something gamey. I keep Izzy behind me and hustle her to the stable door, glancing into the coop as we pass. The two white cockerels are lying on the floor, bright in the dim light. “Something bad has happened,” I tell Izzy, guiding her into the yard, trying not to let her see the coop. “Something’s killed the chickens.” I tell her stay outside. I suck in the cold fresh air, steel myself, and go back and into the coop.

There’s a blood splatter on the stone wall. In addition to the two white cockerels, there are heaps of chicken bodies everywhere. The red hen moves, but she’s not in good shape, and by the time I’m back from the school, she’s dead. The big rooster, Mr. Fancypants, is completely missing. The slaughter is shocking, senseless, cruel. Whatever it was that got in killed everything that moved. Certainly more than it could eat. The poor chickens had no hope. A predator. A frenzy. Only Orpheus has survived, but he’s clearly suffering from PTSD. I lure him outside with some corn, but he doesn’t eat, just stands there looking stunned under a rose bush all day. I put on old clothes and find some pink rubber dishwashing gloves in the utility room. I fill the wheelbarrow with chicken bodies and haul them to the edge of the ravine and throw them in, one at a time. Several of the corpses are headless. It takes three trips. I am horrified, repelled, shocked. I want to stand, like old Orpheus, under a rose bush and mourn. I rake out the coop. I get the ladder and a hammer and nails and try to tack the chicken wire to the rafters at the top. I think this is where the predator got in. The stable itself has huge gaps. There is no way to completely seal off the coop with the materials at hand, but I do my best to improve security. I install two new bolt locks on the rickety chicken wire door. I get Orpheus back inside before dark.

I email Rosie immediately, and she is kind and understanding in her response. I know that it is not my fault—the coop is just not secure enough—but I feel so sorry for the stupid defenseless creatures. I feel responsible. Rosie says it was probably a stone martin, what the French call a fouine. I research them on the internet—cute, deadly, fond of biting off the heads and drinking the blood. The M.O. fits. She gives me options—it’s fine to give Orpheus to her friend, or to get more chickens, or to just wait until their return in spring. It’s my decision. I can’t sleep. My dreams are bloody, dangerous. The imagination that serves me so well as a writer of fiction makes it far too easy to see the scene in the coop that grey windy night.

Orpheus is killed two nights later. We have no chickens. I throw his sad little raggedy body into the ravine and clean the coop out completely. I empty the straw from the nesting boxes and move everything outside to be washed by the rain. I rake and sweep and take the board from over the window to let the air circulate. Feathers float around me. I turn my turtleneck up to cover my nose and mouth as I work. Afterward, I take two hot baths in a row. I wish Orpheus well in his journey across the River Styx, feeling awful that I didn’t take him to the neighbors right away.

I tell Rosie that we won’t get any more chickens. It would be like serving them up to the predator. The coop is clearly not secure enough. Maybe by spring, the marten will have moved on. Maybe by spring I will have been able to tighten up security. Maybe by spring, I will have recovered from the trauma.

A month later, I know that the chickens need to play a central role in the short story I’m writing. I know that the slaughter will be a scene in that story, but I’ve spent the month not writing that scene, working around it, trying to understand the story. I know I will have to tear apart much of what I’ve written so far on the story. I open a new Word document and begin again. Twenty pages later, it’s a much better story.

It’s not the first time I’ve processed my personal tragedies into fiction. Those who are close to me recognize this in two of my novels, Getting to the Point and, especially, Backslide. I used the fiction to help make meaning of what seemed wrong in my life, even to correct it or imagine a different reality. This short story with the chickens is a little different. My protagonist is not much like me. It’s not a story about me or my own issues (not much anyway). This time I’ve taken the material of real life and recycled it into a new situation. I’ve asked myself what this set of events might mean to my protagonist, what it might cause or inspire in him. It works. It fits.

Fiction is, in some strange way, truer than truth. The chickens in my story don’t die for nothing; I sacrifice them to move the narrative along, to force my protagonist into a realization of his own humanity, his own essential needs, a recognition of what matters. The chickens die to make meaning.

In the real world, I look down from my writing desk in the tower, and the grounds just seem empty without the chickens. It still makes me sad to think of them. I miss them. I miss greeting the chickens in the morning, and their quiet rustle of anticipation for the day. I often remember that simple pleasure of holding a perfect egg in my palm, still warm from the hen, the potential of all life inside that brown shell. When I go into the stable to get firewood, I hesitate at the door, watching for some stealthy little movement, listening for the predator. The slaughter still seems senseless and mean, ugly. Meaningless.



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.


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.