Archive for the ‘writers’ Category

Pacing Life

June 9, 2010

One of the biggest adjustments Americans have to make when living in France is that of pacing. Even after nine months here, we must remind ourselves that almost everything will be closed from noon until around 2 or later and all day on Sunday. We work furiously on the four days of the week when the children are in school (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday) from 9:20-5:00 p.m., and we expect that a special meal like the annual hunter’s luncheon (wild boar and four or five other courses) in the village will last at least three or four hours (not counting the two-hour nap one needs to recover from the meal). To accomplish even the simplest tasks (closing a bank account; getting school-bus passes for the children; the H1N1 vaccination), we have learned to schedule in delays. Offices and businesses are often closed with no explanation, and several of the many holidays on the French calendar “float,” meaning that the actual date is often not scheduled until the last minute. The relationship to time is simply different in French culture. And, after nearly a year, I have become convinced that the French have got it right. It is healthy and sane to slow down, to change priorities; it is, quite simply, more civilized.

Eating is, of course, the prime example. Almost everything in France (except restaurants) really does close down from noon until 2 for a good long lunch. And two hours is really not so long at all for most people. The shortest lunch “out” I had in France was when I visited the local college (the school for kids aged 11 to 14, equivalent to a U.S. middle school). The teachers (and students) only had about an hour to eat, but even there, not a single person had a piece of paper, book or pen at the table. Lunch required conversation, relaxation, a time separated from work and studies. These were not “working lunches”; these were social opportunities. On the day of a recent snowstorm (unprecedented) in May, our friends went to the village of St. Andre to the very popular Bistro de Pays for lunch. As they arrived and sat, the power went out, as all over the region the heavy snow weighed down fragile branches already in full leaf. The restaurant staff scurry around in candlelight, cooking on gas, serving a full house of diners, when Voila! a half-dozen workmen from the EDF (Electricité de France) appear in the entry. All heads turn. And the EDF workmen sit down at a table and order their wine and lunches, which will last until 2, despite the urgent need for their services outdoors. Only the foreigners found this surprising, of course. For the French it makes perfect sense: lunch—and life—before work!

In 2000, the French passed legislation mandating a 35-hour work week. The goal then was to lower unemployment, and, with most people working four days instead of five, reduced commuter traffic and office heat and electricity use have also benefited the environment. Studies in years following the shift showed no significant reduction in productivity despite the reduction in work hours. In a 2008 study, the Romney Institute of Management at Brigham Young University found that a four-day work-week (and this was a study of a 40-hour work-week/four 10-hour days) increased job satisfaction and productivity. The French can begin collecting retirement benefits at age 60, and virtually everyone retires before age 65, many as early as 50. In the United States, 5% of people over 70 are still employed. I expect that I’ll be one of those people who can’t afford to retire; most of my generation in the U.S. understands now that Social Security will run out before we’re eligible. And what about vacation time? Every French worker, from the minute he or she starts the job, is guaranteed at least five weeks of paid vacation a year. In the U.S., we consider ourselves lucky to get two weeks off in a year, and it’s well-documented that many U.S. workers don’t even use all of their allotted vacation time, most because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs or simply fall farther behind. In an average year an American will work 1777 hours and a Frenchman will work 1346 (OECD in Figures, 2004, OECD, Paris). What would you do with another 400 or so hours (that’s about sixteen 24-hour days, a month of waking hours!) in a year? For the French, the answer is easy. Spend time in leisure activities. Spend time with family and friends. Spend time eating, reading, and socializing.

The fact is that it is simply healthier to slow down. France has one of the longest life span expectancies: currently 80.98 years, 9th highest in the world. Life expectancy in the US is now 78.11 years; 50th in the world (CIA World Factbook 2009). No one has yet satisfactorily explained the so-called “French paradox,” which is the fact that the French have one of the lowest rates of chronic heart disease in the world despite a diet high in cholesterol, fat, carbohydrates, salt, and alcohol, and more smokers than in many countries. I’d suggest that it might have something to do with the pace of life. A slow meal is a better meal. A life with more time for living and less time working is a better life. After almost a year in France, a life that emphasizes the joy of living (joie de vivre) rather than making more money or having more things than the next person seems to me a key to a longer, healthier and happier life.

As we prepare to return to the U.S., Susan (my partner) has suggested that I make a sign for my office door: “I’ve been to France on sabbatical; this office will be closed from noon until 2 every day!”

It won’t work, of course. American culture is not French culture. If it is only one college professor refusing to work during a long lunch, no one will accept it. Students will bang on my door. Colleagues will schedule lunch meetings. I will be seen as a “slacker.” In France, the whole country (except restaurants, which are only open for lunch) shuts down for all of Sunday and two hours at every lunchtime. Paris closes for all of August. You learn to accept it because everyone else does. There’s no fighting it. And it doesn’t take long to learn to love it. A leisurely meal of three courses with wine and a coffee afterwards is just about right to move into the long afternoon and evening shift. Remember, the French usually work later, so that long lunch makes sense. The French are not lazy; they’re just relaxed. They are simply placing the emphasis where it belongs: living before working.

I know I have been very lucky to have this year off from teaching and university responsibilities. I will admit that the promise of occasional sabbaticals was one of the reasons a position as a professor appealed to me. A writer needs time to write—a reality that is hard to justify on a grant proposal to academic-type folks. Yes, I do research, and this year in France has been very productive in that way too, but it’s mostly the time to write, to sit at a desk and type out the words in my head (which is work, I might add, a bit defensively), that I needed. I’ve worked hard this year. I’ve finished a novel and a collection of short stories, and I’ve started another novel and this collection of personal essays on the blog. A sabbatical is no more a “vacation” than summers off from teaching, at least not for me; as they say, a writer writes. And teaching time (with comments for sixty or a hundred essays, stories, journal, etc. a week, plus consulting with students) is not very conducive to writing time, especially if one actually wants some living time of the French version (family, friends, leisure activities) as well. I know I’m lucky to have been able to be away from interruptions and responsibilities to focus on my writing work. And it’s not that I dislike my work; indeed, I love both teaching and writing. But the reason I love both is that they connect me to other people, and how much better it is to make those human contacts outside of the work context. The unexpected benefit of this year abroad, I now see, is that I have also learned to understand work in another way. I understand that work—including both the writing work and the teaching and university work—is secondary to the rest of living. What I wish, as I return to the U.S., is that I could change my culture, that I could bring home a new attitude for my compatriots: we should all learn to place living rather than working at the top of our lists of priorities.

Sacrifices have to be made, of course, when a culture or one person makes joie de vivre more important than work. In France, customer service is generally lousy, especially when you want something at 11:45 in the morning. Lunch, after all, is near. No need to start a transaction you won’t have time to finish. The other day we were hustled out of the supermarket at noon on a Wednesday, and no one cared how much we had planned to spend. In the caisse (line) at the supermarket, everyone is greeted by and greets the cashier, often chatting and even—if known to each other—exchanging les bises and gossip. There are few “express” lanes and it’s rare that another register will be opened up if lines are long. The French are accustomed to waiting. Each customer takes his or her time, fumbling with money or writing out a check in careful script, and bagging his or her own groceries. No one complains or gets huffy. The social relationship supersedes the financial one. No one expects to meet a deadline or buy gas or get a liter of milk on a Sunday; Sunday is family time, leisure time, time off for life. On the other hand, if an American worker decides to close her office for an hour or two at lunchtime, well, she must not be very serious about her work. If he takes a vacation with his family instead of working to meet the deadline, he must not much want to get ahead. Do we really need to be able to buy food (or anything else) 24/7 (a term that I’m not sure even exists in France)? Is it really more important to accomplish work tasks during lunch than to have a real discussion with other humans?

In France, we learned early on, it’s not polite to even ask another person what they do for a living! In America, it’s the almost always the first question we ask in a social situation. Here, work is simply not to be mixed with real living. Truly, what does it say about us that our economic status or job title is assumed to be the most important identifier of our person? It’s a subtle but huge difference in cultures. Not being able to say what it is that you do for a living, or to ask the other person what they do, changes the dynamics of any conversation and any new relationship. It forces you to connect on other—non-economic—terms.

As I think about returning to the U.S., I’m trying to think about ways to keep this year’s lessons alive in my life. I’m not sure it is possible to make so huge a shift to a slower pace within the American context, but I aim to try in my own little way. I think my mental and physical health, and the relationships I’ve grown with my family this year, are worth it. I’d also like to think that by avoiding shopping on Sundays, for instance, to devote more time to social and family activities, we’ll make a small step toward freeing up more time for the families of others—all those store clerks and cashiers—in our culture. By taking time to simply say hello in the check-out line, perhaps we’ll change the emphasis in the transaction from economic to interpersonal. And maybe by taking a little time out to eat slowly and converse—and refusing to take our work home—we’ll all live a little longer and happier.

One of our American friends who now lives in France told us about her return to Nice—a big city, not “slow” at all, except in the French way—after a month of visiting family and friends back in the States. “I found myself rushing down the sidewalk, passing everyone as fast as I could,” she said, “even though I was just going to the market, nowhere very important.” She realized then just how fast American life makes us all. We hurry everywhere. We hurry to work, to home, to the kids’ soccer games, to the store, to school, to the next thing and the next thing, packing in as much as we can. I guess what I’ve discovered here in France is not very much is as urgent than it seems in the U.S. and that the really important parts of life—families, friends, other humans—need to take priority over the economic parts of life. We’ve lived on nearly nothing this year (a sabbatical means partial salary, and only one income for us), but we’ve lived very well indeed. We’ve certainly lived healthier and happier. For me, a pace-of-life adjustment means a slower pace. We’ll get to the grocery store tomorrow. Work that needs doing will get done, but not at the expense of my health and relationships. Life—all eighty years, more-or-less—need living, and that means living with joy.

Advertisements

Les Fantômes

May 21, 2010

When you move into a house that has been around since 1100, sitting on a patch of the Earth inhabited for about 25,000 years, you assume there might be a few ghosts about. Plenty of people have lived in the château Latour; it’s likely that some of those inhabitants or visitors died here. And just perhaps some of that matter or energy that made up those humans has hung around.

It’s not so much that I believe in ghosts, but more that I try hard not to succumb to the all-too-human arrogance that asserts absolute understanding. The universe is mysterious. We simply do not know everything. Galileo is a great example, denounced to the Roman Inquisition, tried, convicted of heresy and sentenced to house arrest in the 1600s for the mere suggestion that the Earth was not the center of the universe. We’ve been wrong before. I try to keep a mind open to possibilities. This, of course, is both helpful and problematic when you’re a writer. Too many possibilities leads to writer’s block or a prose so scattered no one can follow, but a mind closed to possibility can never be the mind of a fictionist. My characters and stories grow from my imagination, often in a way that seems mysterious. Sometimes I almost hear voices. Sometimes I can see a whole scene or character, or hear a conversation, that exists—I think, but am not certain—only in my head. Sometimes the words and stories come with so little effort that it seems like magic. Explain it with psychology or biology or history. Call it madness or divine inspiration or demonic possession. Call it mystery or magic. I can’t explain it, but sometimes the fiction seems a kind of haunting.

We moved up to the tower apartment on October 21, Halloween Day, so I asked Pete and Rosie for a good ghost story. They told me about the phantoms with whom they share Latour des Feuilllants.

First is the white-robed man with the square hat who is most often encountered on the fifty wooden steps in ten flights up to a tower that originally served as a look-out across the hills and valleys for marauders, invaders and other dangers on one of the many Roman roads that cross this part of France. Both Pete and Rosie have seen him numerous times, Pete most clearly in an evening encounter at the first floor landing. Some time later, in his reading of the history of the monks who were the original inhabitants of the chateau, Pete discovered an illustration that matched the costume he had observed in his encounter: a man in a square white hat with robes nearly to the floor, identified as a “first visitor” or cleric who would have been sent out from the Vatican to check up on country estates like this one, owned by the Church and manned by the monks from monastery outposts. This spirit is not malicious, Pete says, but a gentle watchman who drops by to check up on things from time to time.

Chained outside the front door...

Chained outside the front door is a couple from around the 1400s, more traditional sorts of ghosts. The gruesome story goes like this. The master of the house, as was common in those days, exercising his “droit de seigneur,” got a serving girl pregnant. When she gave birth, the master and mistress—the couple chained outside—threw the girl and her newborn into the big fireplace in the formal dining room. These evil-doers, the story goes, are condemned to a long tenure stuck on earth. But they are outside, we’re assured, not permitted to enter.

Thrown into the fireplace...

There are often unexplained smells—of baking, often—and sounds in the château. Occasionally something like a piece of paper will move, just slightly, without explanation. The monks buried their own on the property, just outside the wall, so some of those fellows may be wandering about as well. Pete says he feels he’s being watched quite often as he works about the garden and orchard. Sometimes he talks to the ghosts. Maybe that’s a little like me when I write. Talking to ghosts.

How do Pete and Rosie know these details about the ghosts? Early on in their ownership of the house, a guest—a French garage mechanic—came down to breakfast after his first night having slept terribly. He explained. “There was this terrible heavy weight on my chest all night.” He slept in the same room in which Susan and I slept when we first arrived in Saint Araille. Susan—a sponge for feelings and emotions in the ordinary world—suffered a week of disturbing dreams there, “bloody” and violent dreams, as she described them. Izzy too, sleeping in the bedroom at the other end of that apartment, had bad dreams those first weeks. We had chalked it all up to the newness of the situation. The change in our lives. Now we reconsidered our psychological explanation.

In addition to being a mechanic, the Frenchman was a psychic—apparently a quite well-known one—and he offered to exorcise the chateâu for Rosie and Pete. They agreed, and followed along as he performed the task. As the mechanic/psychic and his friend (another psychic) moved from room to room and floor to floor in the château, he told them what he saw, who he encountered, a little of the ghost’s history. His friend kept asking questions like, “who is that?” Or “why do I hear a baby crying?” As they proceeded, stable to breakfast room to dining room, salon and up through the building, he sprinkled holy water, prayed, and, finally, gathered the spirits together and then released them to rise to heaven. At that point, Pete became suddenly so cold that he had to leave and go sit by the fire. The psychics left soon after, to go to Lourdes to replenish their supply of holy water, and the woman said that as they looked back at the château on the hill, they could see a mist rising toward the sky. All the drive to Lourdes, their car was under a bright patch of sun, “illuminated” though it was a cloudy day.

I’ve never seen a ghost, never experienced the things Rosie and Pete describe, exactly. But I kept my eyes open all winter, all those long trips up and down the stairs to take the dogs out in the darkness, ready for an encounter with the white-robed first visitor. I never saw him. I did feel nervous, spooked even, quite a few times. The château was huge for our little family of four and the two dogs, and because we kept ourselves primarily up in our tower apartment, the rest of the house was cold, dim and dusty. If ever there were a place for ghosts, this is it.

In March, Pete and Rosie returned from New Zealand, and Spring arrived. Doors and windows and shutters were flung open, the daylight hours lengthened, and the house became more lively. More filled with life. Anything ghost-like seemed to fade back into the few shadows.

Then Susan strained her back, leaving her in agonizing pain for several weeks. The best mattress in the apartment is on a small twin-sized cot up in the loft at the very top of the tower, next to the double bed in which Izzy sleeps. Susan began sleeping on that firm bed in the loft, which is windowless except for one skylight and the glass door that opens onto the porch overlooking the countryside. The weather changed around then. Cold, wet winds blew in from the west and the Atlantic Ocean. We tucked in around the wood stove in the evenings until bedtime.

One morning after the kids were delivered to school, Susan said, “I almost forgot to tell you. I saw ghosts last night.” Very late she had woken and seen several reddish glowing figures around the loft. At least four and maybe as many as a half-dozen. “I was plenty awake enough to know that what I was seeing wasn’t a dream,” she said. “I tried to think of what it might be. A plane going over? No. It was dark out, overcast. There were no lights on in the house.” The figures were just there, presences, wavering a little. “It was really weird,” she said. “Definitely something there.” Eventually they went away, but she was spooked and didn’t sleep well the rest of the night. Two nights later, she had a much more intense experience. She woke to find a reddish light form right next to her bed. A sound like static or a humming. In the middle of the form, she saw a sepia-toned series of scenes, like a silent movie on fast-forward. She saw women wearing long dresses and scarves and men, peasants she thought, harvesting hay or grain and throwing it onto a wagon. Scenes from a life, she thought, a long time ago. There didn’t seem to be any malice in the ghost, but intensity, she said, as if the ghost really needed her to see this. A witness to a life, perhaps. Again, it eventually disappeared. After that, until her back healed, Susan willed the spirits to stay away, telling them before going to sleep that she wasn’t willing to see them now. We have had no ghostly encounters since then.

Are we haunted? Who knows?

This is what I do know. Ghosts have crept into almost everything I’ve written since Susan’s encounter—a long short story, this essay, a whole new novel for teens set here in the château. I am fascinated by the idea (though not the actual experience; I’d just as soon not see any ghosts). Why do we see or imagine ghosts? What do these fantasies or fantômes or fears have to tell us? Are our unconscious minds communicating something we need to recognize or know or learn about our own lives? Do we simply frighten ourselves by contemplating the vast unknown in the universe? Is some matter or energy or spiritual being trying to lead us astray or toward some celestial epiphany? Or is it merely that we humans live consumed by the importance of our individual lives, which, it turns out, are relatively insignificant.

Here in Latour des Feuillants, I am conscious, daily, of the fact that in this very spot have likely lived and died thousands of other individuals: prehistoric cave painters, Roman soldiers and travelers, monks and peasants, wealthy lords of the manor, extended farming families, World War II resistance fighters and twentieth century bed and breakfast owners. Twenty-five thousand years of single all-consuming human lives. As I consider Susan’s haunting, the intensity of that ghost who needed to have his or her life witnessed, remembered, counted, I think I better understand my own fictional hauntings. These lives and stories and people who appear—apparitions—in my mind and become physical on the page, whether they are subconscious parts of myself or some mysterious others, are a most important magic. The writing, for me, is a kind of manifestation of existence. With the words, I try to witness the vitality and mystery and humble reality of a single, simple human life. And in the end, I suppose, this too becomes a kind of ghost.

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.

Chicken-sense

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.

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.