“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Day 55: The Search for the Perfect Schedule, Part II

My husband is a woodworker, and a few years ago he tried his hand at grandfather clocks.  He made two, and they were both beautiful and intricate, but he considers the first one to have been a rough draft.  The second one presides over our dinner table, but only as a piece of sculpture, not functional art.  For a few seconds once, the arms moved, but he was never able to make them move again--not reliably anyway.  And for some reason the date he took this picture is frozen on it, for all time: 7/19/09. And the clock will be forever stuck at 9.  July 19 was his birthday.  I don't remember what we did that day, but I am glad he got to spend part of the day making art.

We search for a way to fit all the things we want to do into our days, despite the restrictions of time.  What we want, I think, is a life that feels rich and full without being rushed, when the ephemeral and the eternal coexist and make for memories we will want to keep.  To live fully without rushing, without stress: that's my eternal quest.
And yet, the two most productive people I know are also the busiest.

One of them teaches full time, chairs her department, and is also pursuing another graduate degree, while meanwhile editing a book series and writing books and articles of her own.

She wakes up at 4 AM to write, goes for a run at 6:30 or 7 AM (she is currently training for a half-marathon, although she could run the race tomorrow as she is already "trained") and then works for the rest of the day on all the other stuff she has to do professionally.

She does this all with a great sense of humor and grace.  She is compassionate and warm, and makes time for all her friends.

Another friend has managed to work full time in a demanding career in New York City as an editor for magazines that you know and have read.  She has two children.  She also has manuscripts to edit outside of the workplace.  She has a devoted coterie of friends, a large literary circle, a close-knit immediate family, and she never forgets a birthday or a school event.

A lot of busy people write early in the morning, but that was out for her because of family's schedule and her own body rhythms.  When the kids were small, she would get home after work at about 5:30, take them to the park if it wasn't dark, and make dinner.  Then she and her husband devoted the evening to the two boys.  I think, when the boys were very young, she was able to get in an hour of alone-time with her husband after they got the boys to bed.  Finally, if all went well, she could spend an hour writing, maybe three or four nights a week, from 9-10 PM.  She spent weekends with her family, taking the boys to art lessons and science enrichment and music and more, and only rarely could she put in an hour or two of writing.

Still, she has managed to publish a novel and two short story collections.  An essay collection will be out soon, and she is working on another novel.

I have a friend who worked for years and years at a company that packs up art and ships it anywhere in the world.  He had to leave at 5 AM to catch the ferry to Seattle, from the island where he lives with his wife, and he would arrive home 14 hours later.  He had to work a lot of overtime.  And for years, in his spare time, he and his wife worked on their house and their studios and gardens. 

Sometimes he would have to spend over an hour in his car waiting to get on the ferry.  So that was when he made art.  He would open up his notebooks and draw, or make collages, if I recall.  He had to have something portable he could take with him, that required no prep time, that he could put aside if the traffic started moving.  When the economy imploded, he lost his job, and last I heard, he is making art full-time while he and his wife live on just her salary.  If he had not kept a hand in all these years, making art when he could in his car, he would not know how to handle the bizarre scenario of being suddenly set free.

The woman who edited my memoir is also a writer.  She has published a novel and a collection of stories, and has edited two story collections, on top of editing a book series, raising a family, and now, being an editor at a prestigious literary magazine.  She chipped away at her books by working at lunchtime, at her desk in the office, for years and years.  From 12-1--that was it. 

I think the key is to figure out where and when you can steal just a little bit of time and use it.  And to do it every day, if you can.  Even if it's just for a few minutes, when you're sitting in the car, waiting for the traffic to move.

But I don't have the self-discipline of all the people I've described above.  If I am exhausted, I can't make myself do anything.  So I'm still trying to figure things out.

This week, I'm testing out a new writing schedule. Today is day 2 and I think I might be onto something good here.  The story continues tomorrow.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Day 54: The Search for the Perfect Schedule, Part I

First, there's the dream life:

Time enough in a single day to pay attention to matters in the world at large, while living at full throttle doing what we do in our home communities.  Year after year, I search for the key.

A life as full as this shop window in Paris: books, art, prints, thoughts, ideas and inventions that expand to fill a room and encompass the world.

bookseller on the Seine, in Paris
Time to read for pleasure.  And while we're at it, time to read books in other languages.  Which means, of course, having time to become fluent in at least one other language.  Which means, of course, time (and enough income) to travel.

Time to walk every day, and I'm not even counting the workout at the gym or the run or bicycle ride.

photo by Tara Freeman

Time to create.  Inventing every day.  Whether it's literature and art, or new ways to do what we do at work while investing ourselves with our full creativity.

Time not just to smell flowers, but to walk through them and maybe even plant a few.
Time to enjoy at least one lunch out during the week with your best friend, instead of just nibbling a sandwich at the computer, or not eating lunch at all.

Then there's reality:

In the U.S., for those of us who are lucky to be employed--and so many are not, and we're not hearing the true numbers in the news--we work too much.  Most of my colleagues and I log in about 60 hours a week or more.  (Sometimes we can get away with 50 hours, but that's considered a "light week.")  Teaching only takes about 9 hours for some of us, double that for people who teach art or theater or a lot of lab courses, and teaching is the part that's the most fun.  We get to be with the young.  We get to talk about and share our passions with them. The rest is grading papers (rewarding when they are naturally talented or are quick learners and we see that we have taught them a trick or two) and quizzes and exams, meeting in office hours (I love this part too, although often, someone cries), going to meetings, reading to prepare for class (fun when we love what we teach), crafting lectures and discussion group prompts, and so on.  It's all great work, work most of us feel humbled by and lucky to do--but it takes time to do it well.

I have it easy because I don't have small children at home like many of my friends do (including a lovely friend who had twins at 40, has to drive 90 minutes to two hours each way to get to work, but still manages to publish, attend conferences, edit a journal, teach amazing courses, work out, eat healthy dinners with her husband and toddlers, and is one of the most chic, elegant women I know.  And she never complains about how many times she has to wake up in the night.  She just does it.)

And when my colleagues and I are not teaching summer school, sponsoring independent projects, or at a writers conference, we do have a big chunk of the summer off to do our writing and research.  And some of us get sabbaticals every seventh year.   I'm on one this semester.  Please don't hate me.

And we don't work as much as doctors and lawyers and business executives.  We don't work the long days my friend Sandy does.  The at-risk babies in her hospital all have to be seen the day they are born.  She wakes up at 5 AM, contacts the night staff to find out what happened and how she can help them before she comes in at 7 AM, and she can't go home until everyone has been seen.  Sometimes it's 7 PM or later.  She has a hard time finding a minute to use the bathroom.  She has stayed so thin all these years because she never has time to eat.

And if she screws up, a baby could die.

If I give bad literary advice to a student, or I'm off my game in one class, or I forget to bring something I needed for class, the world won't end.

Sandy loves her work, and she's really good at it.  On her days off, she rides her bike through the Ohio River Valley, she runs, she makes quilts, and she is devoted to her family.  These activities and people give her more energy so that she can do well at work, and being good at her work gives her energy that feeds these other activities.

And Sandy is constantly taking courses, acquiring more degrees, and doing community service work.  Another case of: How does she do it?

When I want to feel bad about the 27 papers I have to grade in 24 hours, I think of her, and I think of all the other people I know who work really hard but still have great senses of humor and have created beauty in their lives.

And then there are all the people who work several part-time jobs, and still have no health insurance, for whom eight hours of sleep, let alone a paid vacation, are the stuff of dreams. 

We can think about people who seem to have it made, and we can think about people who are suffering, and we can think about acquaintances who make the great balancing act of work/family/lifestyle all look far easier than it probably is, but in the end, it's just you, and it's just me, trying to figure out how to work within the constraints we have, and to hope that when we're old and we look back on how we spent our days, we won't have too many regrets.

And hence, my lifelong quest continues: How to fit in enough beauty and joy into a demanding career, and not waste a minute whining?

What had to go for me:

1.  TV--we don't have cable.  But, we have Netflix.  There are still dangers there, but I no longer depress myself with channel-surfing.  I'm telling you--it made me exhausted and grumpy, and I won't ever do it again.  And now I have an elliptical machine at home so I can do my workout while I indulge in my latest guilty pleasure from Netflix.

2.  Socializing that I know isn't going to be fun and joy-producing, when I know I'm likely to find myself going home feeling drained, or saying something I'll feel guilty about later.  I try to surround myself with supportive people who have good senses of humor and deep wells of kindness.  Generosity of spirit is key.  We might need to vent about a hard day at work, but there's a difference between people who cheer themselves up by recounting a day's dramas to friends, and people who just need to spew in a poisonous way.  People who are mean-spirited, jealous of others' accomplishments, judgmental--they sap energy instead of buoy us up.   I don't have anyone in my life who fits into this category, but I hear tell they are out there--or at least I've seen versions of them on my guilty pleasure show on Netflix.

3.  Bad food, too much alcohol, bad vibes: overloading on anything that will affect my sleep and sap my energy and strength and optimism.  To have a good life is like athletic training.  If I know my body will suffer later, then I know it will affect my mood, and hence, writing and teaching and everything else.

A lot of artists live more like monks than like wild party animals, but I happen to know, from my travels to monasteries, that monks still like to laugh.

The quest for the perfect schedule continues this week . . .

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Day 53: The Sunday Novelist

I just read an inspiring story about a biology teacher from Lyon, where I spent the first weekend of April this past year with my students.  He won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for his debut novel, L'art Français de La Guerre.  This prize isn't about the money--you get all of 10 euros--but you are guaranteed to sell about 400,000 copies of the book after the announcement is made.

The author's name is Alexis Jenni.  He's 48, and he describes himself as a "Sunday writer."  He has no intention of quitting his day job.

Mr. Jenni wrote two novel manuscripts before he wrote this one, but he had no luck with them.  This novel, which is 700-pages long in manuscript form, took him five years to write.  He sent it to just one publisher, Gallimard, and they took it.  And then this November, he won the grand prize. 

I read about him in the current issue of France magazine, and then found this article in The Guardian.  Allson Flood of The Guardian wrote:
A journey through France's military history in Indochina, Algeria and at home, Jenni's 600-page novel is told through the eyes of Victorien Salagnon, a war veteran who becomes a painter, and the young man he teaches to paint in exchange for writing his story. 'I saw the river of blood which flows through my peaceful town, I saw the French art of war, which never changes, and I saw the turmoil which always happens for the same reasons, for French reasons which never change,' writes Jenni in the novel. 'Victorien Salagnon gave me all of time, through war which haunts our language.'

The teacher/Sunday novelist/Priz Goncourt winner also writes a blog, the title of which, Voyages Pas Très Loin, voyages not very far (rough translation) is totally in keeping with the spirit of this blog, especially this week.  I just became a follower/member.  I love synchronicity. 

A dear friend who fits in the making of art into a very demanding, full-time job, told me that on Sunday afternoons beginning at 3 PM she makes art or crafts projects with a friend for three hours.  "It's easy to find reasons to cancel," she told me.  "I have a paper I have to write for a conference, and so much work coming up this week.  But once I get out of the habit, it's easy to just stop going.  So I have to just do it." 

This same friend rented a studio twenty years ago, before she had her own studio and I had mine.  On Saturdays, from 9 AM to noon, she used to share it with me.  Every Saturday morning, no matter what, I would write and she would make art.  Were it not for these sessions, I wouldn't have published at all.  That's because when I first started teaching, I had no time at all to write.  Not even the pre-dawn hours.  I had new courses to prepare, endless reading, and the grading was out of control, so setting aside these Saturday mornings helped me so much.  Everything I wrote and published those first two years on the job came, or began, from those morning sessions.  I wrote a lot of short-short memoirs and stories then (funny how we find the form that fits our time constraints), and I could always complete a draft in the three-hour time allotment.  Then I'd tweak and revise later.  I also wrote chunks of longer pieces that I could spend a few minutes of each day working on as the week progressed. 

There were always papers to grade on Saturday mornings, but I put them off to the afternoon.  And I would put off recreation--bike rides, and adventures in cross-country skiing--until Sunday.

But if I happened to live in Lyon, it would be difficult to devote all of Sunday to writing.  A world UNESCO site, Lyon is just a spectacular city.  When I was there with the students, a few of us spent much of the day on bicycle exploring the Rhône and the Saône rivers.  My bike ride in Lyon is one of my happiest memories of being in France last year.  The warm air, the spring flowers, the river view of people picnicking and smooching: it was all so romantic and festive.

Lyon is the second most prosperous city in France and is rated something like 38th overall in the world on livability.  There's a Roman amphitheater, a festival of lights, deep ties to the history of film (the Lumière brothers invented the cinematographer here), but get this: Lyon is the gastronomy capitol of France.  Need I say more?

I love the little bouchons, traditional restaurants with local wines, that often have strange puppets in the window.

If I lived in Lyon, I would have to wake up very very early to be a Sunday writer, so that I could write my minimum requirement of pages, but make it out of my art cave in time for Sunday lunch.  But then
It seems that every door opens into a captivating courtyard
the ruins of the Roman amphitheater in the distance
again, I operate very well on the rewards system.

Happy Sunday, everyone!

Who could resist a restaurant with this window?
Your table awaits you. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Day 52: Travels at Home

The happiest person I ever met was a man named Richard, who worked at WordMasters Inc. in Seattle just when desk-top publishing was the new best thing.  He was at least a dozen years older than I was, and I thought of him as a sage.

One day I was feeling sorry for myself about not having any money, and about my ongoing troubles with my mother, and about how I'd just broken up with my boyfriend, and so on, and I decided to walk to work, even though it would take over an hour.  I went through Green Lake park, and there he was, Richard, running around with that goofy grin on his face.  He didn't run like a runner.  He ran like a Whirling Dervish who has just finished spinning, with the thrum of the world still pulsing through his ears.  It was like he had never been outside in his life and was just feeling wind and rain on his face for the first time.  (In Seattle, when I felt sorry for myself, it was always always raining.)

Later I asked him to tell me his secret.  "You always look so happy," I said.

"I decided to be a traveler in my own city," he replied.  "Best decision I ever made."

Then he explained that his money "wasn't liquid" just now.  He had bought a house.  And socked a lot of money into it.  And what's more, he couldn't afford the mortgage by himself.  So he had people living with him, sharing the house, paying rent to him.  And that was okay, except for when they dumped coffee grounds in the sink.  "I like a clean house," he added.

Richard wanted to travel, but he was tied to this house, and tied to his job as my not-demanding boss at Word Masters, Inc., where we wrote copy for university catalogues and such.  And where no one signed contracts when Mercury was retrograde.  So he had come up with a way to live with the same sense of wonder and mindfulness he brought to his traveling life.

"So every day, I try to see new things.  I walk to work when I can.  I walk a different way each time.  I try to pretend I'm new to Seattle, and I take myself places to see them again, even if I've been there a lot already.  It's really fun."

I always loved the way Henry David Thoreau described himself as "widely traveled in Concord": his home town, and location for Walden.  His four-hour walks each day were the inspiration, setting, and subject for his journals and most of his writings.

Each week for my journal and the blog, I'm hoping to bring back stories from the world--the world from the North Country, where I live with my husband and Zoe, our dog.  It's not a traveling year for me.  We need to stay close to home and take care of our Zoe.  I'm as firmly installed here as I have ever been.  And it really is fun.

This is my world these days:  My Paris and London and New Delhi and Rome:
Maybe I'll become like the Inuit, who have all those different words to describe snow.

I sometimes wonder what happened to Richard.  When I knew him he was 35.  That was 30 years ago.  I hope he has traveled a lot since then, and lives with people who don't dump their coffee grounds in the sink.  But I hope he is still like the same thirty-five-year-old sage running around Green Lake, catching rain on his tongue.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Day 51: The World on the Page: On Keeping a Journal, Part Two

My best journals are lived in.  They're stained with coffee and wine, a little greasy from croissant crumbs and cheese.  And they take place in the present tense.  I can open up a page and I'm there again--at the fountain square in Cassis where I drank a cappuccino and indulged in a whole lot of people-watching, the market just behind it with a stall of surprisingly large skirts, the café overlooking the sea where a cherry tomato from my fish platter went flying across the room and the waiter winked at me solemnly and said, "Je l'ai vu," I saw that.  That week I did a lot of people-watching.  I wrote about the middle-aged motorcycle mamas, still hotties, in their way, whose greetings to one another were so boisterous, the cheek-kisses so exuberant I could hear the smack from a few feet away. 

I was so happy that week, even though I was on vacation by myself and was homesick for my husband and my dog.  I knew I would probably be writing about Cassis someday, and I realized that if I wanted to remember that scene again, I would have to look down too, to remember the ground beneath my feet.  I didn't used to do this.  And I saw that the street was pink, all tiled, a fine, glinty pink, and I wanted to take off my sandals and feel the stone against my skin.  I hadn't noticed this when I was walking up the street looking for somewhere to drink coffee and write in my journal. 

I dug through that journal the other day when I wrote about the dog I saw in Cassis waiting for its person to come back from the market.  I would have forgotten the details if I hadn't written it down.

Sometimes, at the end of the day, I can record enough to remember it later.  It's just a skeletal sketch, really.  We went here.  We did this.  But I'm always happier with the result when I just plop myself somewhere and open my journal and try to take what the English art critic, John Ruskin, once called "word-pictures".  I want to feel the world on my skin and to see it again like I'm watching the movie, or better yet, like I've transported myself there again.  I want to inhale it and taste again what was on my plate.

Here are two passages from nonfiction writers I love, Patricia Hampl and Frances Mayes, whom I think would not be able to write the exquisite memoirs they craft unless they kept journals and brought them with them everywhere.

Near the end of Blue Arabesque, Patricia Hampl writes from the balcony of her apartment in Cassis about what she hopes to remember about a season of four months she has spent in France, about what she wants to take with her back to her home in Minnesota.  She writes:
Beyond the flowers and sea-foam, there is always a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee smell coming from the cafés that ring and define the harbor, and brief puffs of gasoline from the delivery vans and Vespas that go by . . .
Sitting here, a person without any employment except to look, I have an uncanny sense that things here in this light, the world itself and all its haphazard parts, have a way of coming together to form something—the sun, the lick of the morning air off the sea, the ruined medieval château on the crown of the bluff across the harbor almost effaced in the light, insubstantial but enduring like the past as it recedes and enriches itself in the mind.  (186-190)
And here is Frances Mayes in Lisbon, from A Year in the World:
We leave and meander until we're lost in the Alfama: the labyrinthine historic Arab quarter.  You'd need to drop stones to find your way back to where you started.  Arm's-width streets twist, climb, double back, drop.  Whitewashed houses with flowering pots and crumbling ruins with gaping courtyards open to small plazas with birds competing in the trees for the best song of the morning--a soulful neighborhood for spending your days.  If I lived in Lisbon, I would choose to live here. . . Open this door and find the memory of a Muslim mathematician consulting his astrolabe, pass this walled garden and imagine the wives of the house gathered around the fountain under the mimosa. . .
Colors: Islamic turquoise, curry, coral, bone white, the blue layers of the sea.  The scents of baking bread, wet stones, and fish frying at outdoor stands.  The aromas of coriander and mint and big stews and roast pork emanating from the small neighborhood restaurants, the tascas.  As we wait, I admire a walnut cake with caramel frosting served to a man across from us.  He sees this and reaches over for my fork, handing me back a large bite of his dessert.  The waiter brings platters of fish fried in a gossamer, crispy batter,  and a spicy eggplant the old Moors would have loved.  We are astonished.  Here's the real local food.  (83-4)
My travel journals are rarely this vivid, but when they are, they remind me anew that rushing through a place, seeing as much as you can and checking things off a list, is not the way to make them live on in your memory forever.
In this picture below, Kerry and Zoe and I were exploring what was left of the village of Montaillou, in the Cathar region of Languedoc we both love so much.  The Cathars were a heretical Christian sect who were killed by the Pope's armies during the Albigensian Crusades beginning in 1209, and were later burned at the stake during the Inquisition.  Among the reasons they were considered heretics was that they didn't believe you needed to go to a church to feel the presence of God.  I'm writing about the Cathars in my novel and in some of my travel memoir.  They fascinate me.

In this one village, the heretics managed to hang onto their faith a century after all the Cathars had supposedly been exterminated.  They kept their secret for a long time, but they were found out at last.

Zoe and Kerry and I looked for ghosts, but we didn't find any.  Instead, we ate a good picnic and watched the grass move in the wind, and took a nap.  It was a day of quiet, stillness, and contemplation, savory tasting and lazing, and when I look at this journal, I'm so happy to remember that we were there.
This is kind of scrapbooky/dorky, but I always stick postcards in my journal of the places I go, which you can see on the left-hand page, so that I have a reference point for what I'm writing.  Maybe it's cheating, but it helps me remember.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Day 50: Being Alive Twice: On Keeping a Journal, Part One

When our mother was dying, my sister and I found the key to the self-storage place out near Kamms Corner in Cleveland and we found our childhoods and hers stashed in there, in piles and drawers, boxes and under sheets.  It was like she'd been keeping a hope chest, nurturing the hope that one day her girls would come home.  Old report cards.  Toys.  Photo albums.  Letters.  Books.

(I just want to inject here the fantastic news that my sister, Mira Bartok, is up for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Libraries' Association Award for her beautiful memoir, The Memory Palace, in which this storage locker plays a very large part, as does our mother's diaries.)

Among those sweet and heartbreaking items was my diary from age 13 to 17.  It was one of those small, red ones girls used to have: the kind you close up with a little lock you can wear on a chain around your neck like a locket with a heart.  Our mother had picked it open long ago, trying to get clues, I suppose, as to who I was as a teenager and who I was consorting with long after the fact.  I don't envy her trying to figure it out.  The story keeps changing.  Now and then--well, every other page--a new boy's name comes up.  I don't have the book in front of me, but trust me, it's all along the lines of, Bob is so cute!  Dave is a hunk!  Gary gave me a ride on his motorcycle!  And then the one that made me smile when I read it again: I like meeting people from out of state!  I'd been working the counter at McDonald's and a bus-load of athletes from maybe Michigan came in, and I'd enjoyed chatting with them about their lives in that exotic, distant world.

I like meeting people from out of state.  Probably I meant boys from out of state.  Probably I just meant that I liked meeting boys.  But to say--"out of state"--that meant other places, other lands.  That was the closest I could get at that age to voicing this wish: I want to see the world.  That was what I really meant.  And even though my journal was tiny, and even though, in five years, I never filled it, I was asking for something that seemed at the time an improbable wish.  I wanted to get out there and see what there was to see.

Before I started writing this post a few minutes ago, I did an inventory of my journals.  I counted 66, but I'm sure some of them are stashed somewhere.  I don't look through them that much, and when I do it's because I'm writing a memoir piece or a travel essay and I want to check the facts.  Where did my husband eat goat?  What year was it, again?  But sometimes I can open a page and the world comes back.  That's when I know I wasn't as lazy and artless as I usually am in those pages.  I was being nice to my future self in the journal and helping ensure that reading it, to quote the poet Linda Gregg, who was quoting her former lover, the poet, Jack Gilbert: "was like being alive twice."

"More world, just when you think you've seen what there is to see."  Mark Doty writes in Still Life with Oysters and Lemons when he's discussing both a painting he loves, and about "coming back to life after a period of grief."  I'm not currently in a period of mourning, but I know I will be.  And I imagine there's a time when you see the world in black and white and gray, and then one day color returns.  And it comes with the desire to see what there is to see just around you.  He writes:
Desire brings us back.  My exuberant, golden new dog, racing down the sand slopes of Beech Forest toward me, sheer embodiment of eagerness, given over entirely to running, wind streaming his long ears back, his eyes filling with me.  The roses, in June, which deck the front of this house in a flaring pink crescendo of bloom, old roses, dense flowerheads packed with petals, with handsome and evocative names: Eden, Constance Spry, Madame Grégoire Staechelin.  The startling quality of presence in Paul's eyes, when they are suddenly direct, warm blue-brown, catching lamplight.  The particular whole-body enthusiasm with which he gives himself over to something he loves, outcries of delight that know no reservations--for Joni Mitchell singing a moody ballad, for the sight of our old retriever, Arden, sitting poised in the falling snow, completely happy, his dense black curls gone arctic.
The world on the page.  To be able to bring that back.  To see and smell those roses years later, and to trace the patterns of white snow on the dog's black head after she has been rolling in it.  Or to capture Zoe's stillness--how she stares at the river for hours and hours.

It's like walking through the world living it twice already--in your body and your senses, fully, completely--and on your stenographer's pad.  Hello world, you say.  I'm taking dictation.

I've been trying to figure out how to do this, while not excusing myself and excluding myself from that life itself, the life I want to be awake for--in the iced-over garden, in the snow with the dog staring at the river.

And I still like meeting people from out of state.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Day 49: What the Dog Sees in Him

Last March I was shopping for lunch at the market in Cassis, and I met a lovely dog.  She was black and white like a big saddle shoe, with soft fur and big eyes.  She looked like a springer spaniel but reminded me of a border collie in the way she watched over her domain with such vigilance.  I longed to pet her. 

I bought fruit and cheese and bread for a picnic, but I kept checking back.  Who is this dog's person?  I tried to get her attention, but she only had eyes for her companion, whom I knew could not be very far away.

After a few moments passed, and the dog inched closer to the crowds, I couldn't contain my curiosity. Who was this dog's person?  I had to know.

That woman, there?  A Korean woman in her early twenties walked past carrying a bunch of yellow jonquils.


What about him?

A middle-aged man with a white goatee and a beige raincoat approached with a newspaper tucked in his elbow.  He sat on a bench to read, but the dog did not acknowledge his presence.

Definitely not him.

The dog now could clearly see her person.  She pulled herself further out from under the bench.

This is exactly the intensely focused look Zoe has perfected over the years.  It's a herding dog look, I think, although other dogs seem to have mastered it.  The world revolves on its axis inside the pupils of this dog, and that world is one human being.  I have seen Zoe assume this same position: she lies down with her head and neck straight down on the earth and stretches forward as far as she can go.

A tall blond woman in skinny jeans and knee-high boots walked past.

No.  Not her either.

Finally the dog began wagging her tail in joy.  A tall man appeared in a tan, ragged coat.  Some of his teeth were tan as well.  He had the blurry, unfocused eyes of a hard drinker.  In France, a street person like this is called a clochard.  He had bought a small amount of cheese and meat for himself and the dog.  Then he took a sip from something in a paper bag.

The dog was calm now.  The man sat on the bench and dog climbed underneath, order restored to her world.

I was on the opposite bench.  I resisted taking a picture of him, so you only see his legs here.  I said, "La chienne est contente maintenant," the dog is content now.  But he didn't seem to understand me.  It could have been my accent.  It could have been that he wasn't used to having people speak to him.  Or maybe he was already a little drunk.

I wanted to respect their privacy, but if you look closely, you can see the man's legs and the dog.
I don't know if I have ever missed Zoe more than I did as I watched those two be reunited after an endless separation of maybe ten minutes.

Yesterday I met a woman who told me about her father's decline into dementia, and how he no longer remembers her name.  She is just, "sweetie," which works for her.  He knows he has a son named Richard, but he doesn't recognize Richard when he sees him.

Nine years ago, Richard adopted a dog from the humane society.  Every day for eight years, he left the dog at his parents' house when he went to work.  The dog's name is Rusty.  Rusty loved spending her days with Richard's parents.  What she would do when she came in the house was kiss both of them, and then sit on the father's feet.  The man would read the newspaper, or watch TV, and there Rusty would be.

Last January the man's wife died and he began to lose his bearings.  Now he lives in a nursing home.

The dog visits often, and does what she always has.  She licks his face, then sits on his feet.  "Hi, Rusty," he says.  And sometimes, "Rusty, next time you come, you should bring Richard."  Richard will be standing there when his father says this.

I asked the woman if the dog treats her father any differently now than she ever did.

"She's a little distracted by all the people coming and going in the nursing home, and all the new sights and smells," she said.  "But no, when it comes to being with my dad, she sees him the same way.  She loves him the same way.  And the two of them, Dad and Rusty, are the same way together as they've always been."

I thought about this for a while.  I imagined how this man's two adult children have been forced to say and do different things in his presence now that his reality is so irrevocably altered.  He doesn't reliably know them.  He believes his dead wife visits every day.  He doesn't always know where he is.  But the dog still knows him.  The dog knows the "real" him that is still there and has always been there.  And he knows the dog.

When he is with Rusty, then, he is still himself.  He is still the man who loves Rusty, his companion for eight years.  He is still a man with a dog at his feet.

I couldn't wait to get home and see Zoe.

Sometimes when Zoe has been in the yard and doesn't want to come inside, I use my husband as enticement.  "Let's go see your daddy!" I will say, and she comes running up from the river and into the house.

What does the dog see in him?  What does Rusty see in the man in the nursing home who is losing his memory and doesn't always know his own son?  What did the French dog see as she tugged at the lead to get as close to her person as possible while he shopped at the market?

Love.  Home.  Or whatever those words are and mean in a dog's world, in a dog's bottomless eyes.

photo by Francois Bernier

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Day 48: Mindful Winter Walking

Yesterday when Zoe and I were across the river heading home from our walk, she stopped to study a young man ahead of us on the path.  He leaned against a tree and for a long time it seemed like he was looking for something in his pockets.  Then he took off his mittens and began a monkish walk; whether he meant to do it or not, he was doing walking meditation.  I have often imagined monks competing--although I know it's not very zen to imagine a race--to see who can walk the slowest, lowering each food down in stages: heel, arch, pads, then one toe at a time.  The young man walked just like this in his big, well-treaded black boots.  It was the first day of classes, he was dressed in his winter best, and he didn't want to fall down and spend the semester limping or in a cast.

We had an ice storm, then it snowed, then warm weather turned the snow layer to ice, then it warmed up until water was rushing off roofs and down sidewalks, and then that water froze again.  There's not much you can do about it but maybe buy clamp-ons to put over your shoes and boots, like one of my colleague has.  I'm tempted now.

I worried about two things for Zoe going into this winter as a tripod: deep drifts, and ice.  Sunday we walked for an hour with Cooper and Pat, and it was tough to avoid the ice.  By the end of that hour, Zoe was very tired.  She has to hop on her back leg and when it can't find purchase, she slides.  But she never seems to want to stop, not even to rest for a second.

Yesterday I realized that Zoe had figured out how to walk in this weather.  The path was sheer ice, and the young man did not make much progress on our watch, but Zoe led us to the snow-and-ice-on-grass-and-fallen-branches bits around but not on the path, and we made our way home safely.  She has learned to find the places that have enough texture and grit to hold her upright, and I go where she goes, if I can.

I just have to ask her, and she shows me where, and how.

Sometimes on tough days you just have to low ball it--it's a gold star day if you can stay upright, all day.  Of course I mean that metaphorically too.  I can see sometimes in a student's eyes that just getting out of bed and across campus into the overheated classroom took Herculean effort, and I want to say, Gold Star, you.  That was hard what you just did.  Winter makes us go to that deep, dark place, especially when the outside looks like the inside of a basement janitor's closet and the landscape is the color of the mop.

And I have a little problem with balance, literally.  In my thirties I went on a sprained ankle binge--three times, then four.  Yoga for me, especially a balance pose, is less about bliss than for physical therapy.  Last night when I did tree pose I could feel in my right leg that just the effort not to fall from the car to the street and around the back alley up to the yoga loft had already given that leg a workout.

I opened up my Thich Nhat Hanh, Your True Home, to this page, just before I started writing this morning, after a slapsticky slip-and-slide across my yard to the studio:
"Picture a tree in the storm.  At the top of the tree, the small branches and leaves are swaying violently in the wind.  . . . But if you look at the trunk, you will see that the tree is solid; and if you look down to its root structure, you will know that the tree is deeply rooted in the soil.  The tree is quite strong.  It can resist the storm.
 "We are also a kind of tree.  Our trunk, our center, is just below the naval.  . . . If we stay in the winds of the storm, it may be too dangerous.  We can go for refuge into the trunk, breathing in and out, aware of the rising and falling of our abdomen.

In yoga class last night I tried to balance myself from my own trunk, using my core muscles, and sometimes I succeeded, sometimes not.

At home after yoga class, coming in from the garage, I made the mistake of crossing the yard through the grass.  The warmer temperature and the heavy rain had washed a lot of ice off the path, but the lawn was now a big block of ice.  After a lot of sliding, swaying, then righting myself, I gave up.  I got down on all fours.  I crawled across that sheer, slick ice until I was home, laughing the whole way.

I told my husband about this at dinner, and when he took Zoe out for her last pee before bed, he said she sat on the deck for a full minute surveying the scene.  She wasn't sure if it was a good idea to go out there.  But then, he said, she spotted the few remaining bits of textured snow and ice, those complex, layered surfaces, and deftly made her way out and back.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Day 47: New Moon Monday, New Moon Year

In some circles I have frequented, the new moon is known to be a good time for new beginnings.  The fact that it's happening on a Monday, the day of the week named for this celestial body, inspires me, even if the sky is black as I walk over to the studio to begin this day, and indeed, this new week.

In the Iyengar yoga classes I used to take in London, the new moon week was supposed to be when you emphasize standing poses, like the warrior sequence or triangle and side angle pose.  The idea was that you were setting out on a fresh start with energized feet, moving forward with renewed vigor.

For people who garden using the cycles of the moon, this is a good time for planting.  Except, of course, on the third week of January in a cold climate.

The new moon in January or February is always the start of the Chinese New Year. This time it's today, on January 23, so Happy Chinese New Year, everyone.  Go have some steamed dumplings, and find a festival near you.  Soon, February 4, the Year of the Dragon will begin.


The festival lasts for 15 days.  I have been in Montreal and in New York when it was celebrated, and I loved the festive red streamers and delicious smells wafting all through Chinatown.  Two years ago one of my students went to Paris for it and reported on it vividly in her travel blog.

A few fun facts:

More than a billion people celebrate this holiday--a sixth of the world--and airports will be crowded today. In 2010, about 210 million people traveled, which one site says is "the equivalent to the whole population of Brazil packing their suitcases."

On this day, world records for numbers of texts sent are routinely broken.


With all this auspicious energy out there, today is a very good day for new beginnings: a new lunar year for all.

So it's a marvelous time to bring new moon energy to new endeavors.  A good time to plant seeds or plant new ideas.  To make a wish.  Start a creative project.  Make a list.  Plan a trip.  Go on a first date or go out for coffee with a new potential friend.  Begin learning something new.

At the Asian market in Ottawa last month, we stocked up on dumplings without even thinking the holiday was coming.  We're having some for lunch with the last of the spicy, cured pork a dear friend gave us for Christmas as part of a delicious food package of French delicacies.  We like to mix things up--French and Chinese fusion.  Fusion everything--that's my world.  Zoe had a good whiff of the meat before I put it away.

I'm excited to start a new meditation class on Thursday evening of this week, and, by the weekend, to begin a new draft of my novel with a fresh, new approach.

But for now, I'm looking forward to the Chinese dumplings at lunch.  Almost as much as Zoe will savor sniffing out the last of the pork.

Happy new moon, gentle reader.  Happy Monday, and happy Chinese New Year!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Day 46: An American Dog in the City of Light, Part Two

It was time to return to Paris after several weeks of travel.  This time, Zoe entered the city in comfort: from the back of the car, with her people in front listening quietly to the soothing, female French voice of the GPS as it led them into the great city.

It was going to be better this time for Zoe.  They had a great apartment all to themselves, not far from Place de la Bastille.  They would be able to shop at the open market there, walk a few blocks down to the Marais, and go to the Seine every day, which was Zoe's favorite smelling part of Paris.
They were staying at Marianne and Marc's family's place.  Marianne and Marc live in Berlin, but they had spent a year in the North Country some years ago, where they became friends with Zoe's people and told them about this apartment in one of Natalia's favorite parts of Paris.  What had started as a vague wish on Natalia's part was real.

She and Kerry felt very lucky.

The apartment had everything they needed.  Zoe enjoyed sitting out on the balcony in the morning watching other people drink their coffee on their balconies.  When it grew too hot, she liked to go back inside and sit under the kitchen table during lunch. 
The location--near shops and parks and the Marais and the Sunday Bastille market--was perfect.

The Seine wasn't far.  As Natalia and Kerry had promised Zoe, there was delicious ice cream to be had in Paris.  Berthilon is considered to be the best ice cream in France, and it is made on Île St. Louis.

Of course they walked over there immediately, on their very first day.

Zoe thought the ice cream was a good idea. 

She would point to the island's ice cream stands on their walks for the rest of the week.

Zoe also enjoyed sniffing around Notre Dame but did not understand why so many people wanted to take their picture under it.

Natalia was starting to think that maybe Paris was a good city for dogs after all.

After all, Zoe liked the apartment.

She liked the Seine.

The French dogs seemed to like her scent, and many came over to say hello.

And they were admitted into fine restaurants, where she was always seated under fragrant tables.

But their good luck could not last forever.

Soon they discovered a problem. 

Because, perhaps, of bad behavior in the past (people not picking up after their pets, hmmmmm) dogs are not welcome inside Paris parks.

Zoe and Natalia found this out when they went into the Place de Vosges and heard a whistle.  All heads turned to watch as this American woman and American dog were busted.  An officer escorted both of them out and then pointed to this sign, which they would soon see all over the city.

They would find themselves looking longingly across fences and into green spaces, day after day and day.  Sometimes at night, they considered breaking the law, and once or twice, they did, but don't tell anyone.

Towards the end of a good day, they often wandered into the Marais.

One night everyone was gathering inside bars to watch the concluding game of the World Cup.

Spain won, and Zoe was glad because she had been to Spain in June and had eaten very good ham there when she was meeting her people's niece's family.

There were so many colors to see in shop windows and on street signs, even as it got late and dark.  Rue de Rosiers, in the Jewish quarter, is always full of tourists, but it is one of Natalia's favorite streets. 

Later that week, Zoe's people thought a boat ride would be a great way for Zoe to see the city.

Zoe helped pick the spot for the picnic first.  She also caught up on her reading.  Kerry read to her his favorite stories from Tintin.

After the picnic, it was time to find a boat.

While her people checked out the sights, Zoe studied the water.

It was a perfect, sunny day, and even the crew of the boat came out to meet Zoe and snap a picture of Zoe's family.

The week was going well, but then Natalia realized something.  It was soon going to be Bastille Day, and they would be in earshot of it.  Like many dogs, Zoe is not a fan of firecrackers.  She does not like loud revelers.

In other words, they were in the best location for human beings who want to enjoy Bastille Day in Paris, but not for a dog.

In fact, Zoe's people became alarmed at Zoe's reaction to pre-Bastille Day firecrackers.  It was terrible to see their dog so scared.  They had escaped America's Independence Day celebrations, which take a lot out of Zoe, and here they had gone to the capitol for another independence day show.

But then something unexpected happened.  On the night in question, they couldn't hear any fireworks or any wild partiers at all.

Instead, a thunderstorm blew through town.  It hit Paris was such force, that all plans for dancing in the streets were suspended.

Still, this was one of Zoe's worst nights on the trip.  Zoe's people spent all night comforting her as she whimpered and shook.  They cuddled her, rubbed her belly, scratched her ears, and eventually she fell asleep. Zoe fears thunderstorms as deeply as she fears fireworks.

At least they couldn't blame Zoe's bad night on the city of light.

The next day, they took Zoe to a veterinarian to see if maybe some kind of doggy-valium would be helpful if they came upon another big storm.  The vet was a young woman who happened to love America and especially New Yorkers.  She had perfected her English by watching Seinfeld and Friends, and she hopes to eventually move to Manhattan.  She was very sweet to Zoe.

The week ended peacefully, without incident, and Zoe and Natalia learned where to find patches of green in Paris: those that are open to dogs, those that aren't, and everything in between.

And Zoe received a big reward for having put up with big city life for an entire week.

A few days later, they were in Brittany, where she swam almost every day.  A family vacation involves compromise, and if you wait long enough, you will always get to do what you love best.