Sunday, March 13, 2005

For The Children

March 12, 2005

Just a thought: if they're going to make these skirts like the one I saw today in a shop window walking up rue Vielle du Temple toward the rue deBretagne -- a pale pink swirl of a thing, fairytale pink, fitted at the waist and hips and flaring out at the hem, with a sprinkling of beads down the front as if someone had tossed a small handful of tiny stars and they'd stuck there -- well, then, one should really be able to be 25 again, so she could wear it, at least for one week in spring time. Twenty-five, with a credit card this time, and the joie de vivre to wear it with aplomb. And preferably in love.

I'm more than a week behind here, so I'm going to try to do some quick catching up ...

Last Thursday I spent a rainy afternoon lunching with Jeff chez lui. He made us warm carrot soup and a salad with crevettes. His new book proposal has been accepted, so he's off to the US for April and May (alas!) to do research on an environmental ranch in Texas. We talked about our struggles with our work, as we always do, while the two Maltese watched us from their positions on the couch, sprawled out -- as only fluffy 3-pound dogs can sprawl -- and wearing expressions of amused concern. Jeff joked that they were his muses, and I told him he should re-name them "Poetry" and "Prose."

Then, on Friday evening, Jenny Huxta (WHO LOOKS GOOD IN CYBERSPACE!) and I trekked out to Alfortville for dinner chez Poilloux. Isabelle made some wonderful Asian dishes, redolent with cardamom, and Pierre dragged out some old photos of all of us from a decade ago. How young and beautiful we looked in the wind on the cote sauvage! No wonder we fell in love ... And Jenny brought along some of her photos, too -- beautiful images of Paris -- and also took some snaps of the children, especially of Princess Lila, who is not the least bit camera-shy. Isa told us Lila had been waiting for us all day. We played "mirrors" and showed each other dance moves. Lila was amazed -- and so wasPierre -- that I can still do splits. And I was impressed with Lila's natural turn-out, and even more so with Pierre's!

On Saturday, Dagmar and Uschi arrived by train from Basel. We picked up baguettes and had lunch in the apartment, then spent all afternoon walking around. Strolled past the department store La Samaritaine and stopped for a few minutes on the sidewalk to listen to a wacky band playing music that sounded psueudo-gypsy-ish to me. The lead singer/guitarist was wearing a Santa Claus suit and looked to be about 13 years old. Farther down the sidewalk, just at the corner, a clochard was reclining on a ragged blanket, spreading Camembert on a baguette. We walked over the Pont Neuf and finally stopped in a cafe where we got a corner table that gave us a post-card view of Notre Dame. Had big cups of cafe creme while dusk fell and the candles on the tables were lit, happy to be among the people inside, behind the windows, as the wind kicked up and rain started to fall and the people in the streets opened their umbrellas and looked longingly in at us. Later we met Adrian for a drink in the Marais -- she was on her way to a birthday party -- and then went to dinner at La Petite Chaumiere. That night, while I was brushing my teeth, I could hear Dagmar and Uschi giggling and whispering to each other. They were stretched out in their sleeping bags, side by side on the bed -- I made my bed on the couch for the weekend-- and it felt like we were all at sleep-away camp. Especially when they started reciting poems together, and singing songs they remembered from childhood.

Sunday was a day of more strolling and eating and talking -- and a little shopping, too -- and then a late afternoon visit with Brett and Aileen and their little girls at their apartment off the rue Montorgueil. Brett joined Uschi and Dagmar and me for dinner at le Gamin, which was delicious, though we could barely see our food and the place was noisy and crowded and filled with smoke, as always.

On Monday afternoon, I put my friends back on the train at the gare de l'Est, and then the apartment was little too quiet for a while. There's always a little bit of melancholy when houseguests leave, and always a lot of catching up to be done. Just the deluge of e-mail is enough to keep my head spinning, and then there's planning for the Paris Poetry Workshop, and trying to master the subjunctive tense in French, and several essays and poems in-progress, and always someone I'm trying to meet for coffee, if only a mutually convenient time can be found,

Monday evening I held my little weekly workshop, then made my now-perfected omelette fromage and turned in early because I knew that Tuesday would be a late night, an evening of feasting and drinking and probably dancing and singing, too, and telling stories and laughing, and I'd have to do it all in French, subjunctive or no subjunctive. Tuesday evening I took the train from the gare St. Lazare to Colombes -- about a 15-minute trip across the river, outside of the peripherique, and into the banlieue. The train was packed with rush hour commuters, so I stood on the steps leading up to the second level (also packed) and did some people-watching. Maybe it's the bad yellow light in the trains that makes everyone look less attractive than they do in the light of Paris; maybe it's the fact that the less prosperous and glamorous people do tend to live in the banlieue. It's the mirror opposite of the situation in the US, where we talk about "the problems of the inner-city." Here, it's "le probleme des banlieues," because that's where the people who can't afford to live in Paris -- though they may work in Paris -- live. And where crime rates are higher and the streets more bleak and deserted, especially at night. But Colombes is actually rather charming, and Jimi Hendrix played in a bar here once, before anyone had heard of him. And I have another French family, of sorts, in Colombes, glamorous and genial, to my mind, and I was on my way to them ...

I walked from the station to the rue de Progres, and could see the lights of Michele's atelier -- the glass walls and skylights emitting a warm glow into the night sky -- as I walked through the gate at number 30. Michele stood in the garden at the end of the walk, smiling and waving to me, looking, as ever, like some gorgeously-aging French film star -- but which one? I remember when she used to live across the street from me in L.A., when she was just that mysterious, beautiful French woman who lived with my neighbor Dale, and I'd watch her coming and going and wonder how one learned to carry herself like that, as if the whole world were watching but she didn't care, and didn't much mind being watched, either, was perfectly at ease being beautiful, and perfectly self-contained. We didn't really become friends until she moved back to France and I started coming to Paris for long visits in the mid-1990's.

Inside, Michele's equally beautiful sister -- think Isabelle Hubert, but slightly darker, slightly less fragile -- was waiting for me. I'm crazy about this Isabelle, too, who calls me "ma beaute" and sits close enough to me on the couch so that we can smell one another's perfume and hold hands, if we feel like it. Isabelle's little boy, Ian, was hiding behind the couch, ready to jump out and surprise me. I think he was just a bit disappointed that I didn't have Andrew with me this time. He was fascinated with Andrew when we came here for dinner last year, because Andrew spoke English and looked like an American Indian, and maybe also because of the way he danced the funky chicken with me after dinner. That was a ridiculous, wonderful, magical night, as my nights in Colombes always are. Much of the extended family was there, and we were "a table," eating whichever course we'd eaten our way to, and drinking whichever wine was the perfect accompaniment, and laughing and all talking at once. Isabelle was seated next to Andrew, since her English is very good, and Andrewwas telling her a story about the beret he wore as a teenager, and Isabelle was leaning across the table, translating the whole thing into French for me, and this went on for some time before I suddenly said, "Wait a minute! I speak English! I know what he's saying!" And Isabelle said, "Oh, cherie, but we don't want you to lose your French!"

So on Tuesday evening, much of the same crowd was gathered. When I arrived, Alain was in the kitchen doing what Alain does in the kitchen -- magic -- and Alain's daughter Valerie was there with her partner Didier, who's maybe the funniest man I've ever met, though the other Didier gives him a run for hismoney -- this second Didier being the husband of Alain's ex-wife Chantal, who was also there, along with Alain and Chantal's daughter, Claire, who's an extraordinary 19-year-old (and a wonderful poet) just back from three months teaching children in Vietnam. And Valerie's and Didier's new baby, Julian, was asleep in a basket in the bedroom -- we went in to peek and coo at him -- and there was Ian, of course, who wears little blue spectacles now, which make him look very "distingue" for a seven-year-old, and who gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "eating like a child." "J'adore l'urchin," he said, so I tried some, too; and "J'adore le foie gras," so I thought, What the heck, this is France. "J'adore les escargots," when they appeared from the kitchen on a huge platter with the fish, but Michele knows me well and smiled and brought me a plate sans snails. We were eating as they do in Marseilles, Alain told us, with copious amounts of the same delicious white wine we'd had on Wednesday at LeCoude Fou, and some wonderful earthy vin rouge with the cheese course -- a cheese from every region of France -- and then champagne with Michele's home-made tarte aux pommes.

After the meal, there was music, as usual -- Delta blues and gypsy music and even some "musique du Rap," for Claire -- and we danced. When everyone else had left and Alain had gone upstairs to bed, Michele and Isabele and Ian and I danced for another hour or so. I decided to try to do every move Ian did. I think we were spinning on our heads at 2 a.m. Then we cleared the table, swept up the shards of the one broken wine glass, and I went to sleep in the garden room that's always reserved for me when I come to Colombes. In the morning, I woke to birdsong and made coffee before anyone else came downstairs. Michele and Isabelle and I shared a cigarette in the garden, and Ian kept asking me to stay so that we could have some petite dejeuner together, but it was already noon and I needed to catch a train back to Paris.

In the afternoon, I met Lisa Pasold for tea in a charming place at the far end (from me) of rue des Rosiers, then had my French lesson with Corine at Le Boucheron, then came back to the apartment and collapsed.

Thursday was a day for buckling down and catching up on work. In the evening, I met Susannah -- an undergraduate writing student from USC, here for her semester abroad -- at le Boucheron for a glass of wine and salad.

Friday was another work day, all day, then in the evening there was a concert by my friend Ian Honeyman -- a tenor who would be singing Schumann and accompanying himself on pianoforte at the Anglican Church in the 8th arrondissment -- to benefit an organization in the UK that buys motorized wheelchairs for disabled kids. I wanted to make sure there was a good audience, so I sent the invitation out to my list and invited some friends to meet me here for an aperitif beforehand. There were seven women gathered in my living room drinking kir and eating olives -- Isabelle (of Pierre and Isabelle), Louise Thunin (up from LeMans), Adrian, Lisa, Eva, and Jenny Huxta (WHO LOOKS REALLY GOOD IN CYBERSPACE). And we managed to be only a few minutes late for the concert. Afterwards, we all went to a brasserie near the Madeleine for wine and a late, light supper.

Which brings me back to today, which is Saturday, and that lovely pink skirt in the shop window on rue Vielle du Temple. I was on my way to an appointment in rue Picardie and was about to take my usual shortcut to the rue de Bretagne by turning left onto the tiny rue Debelleyme. But there was a big crowd gathered in the middle of rue Debelleyme, and police on motorcycles at either end of the street, and -- thinking it was maybe an accident and not wanting to get too close -- I took the long way around instead. But on my way home again, an hour later, my curiosity got the best of me. I looked down rue Debelleyme from rue de Bretagne and saw that the street was deserted now. I also saw a huge bouquet of flowers on the sidewalk where the crowd had been. So I walked down the rue Debelleyme and found myself in front of a school, reading a bronze plaque on the facade -- the sconces beside the plaque held more fresh flowers -- dedicating the building to the 11,000 children of Paris who were deported by the Nazis, with the collaboration of the Vichy government, and sent to their deaths in the camps. The plaque said, "We must remember." I stood there and tried to imagine it. Tried to imagine the kind of men who could send thousands of children -- just like the four-year-olds I see holding hands, following their teachers into the Ecole Maternelle on the rue des Archives, or like Lila and Antoine, like Ian, like my own nieces and nephews, like children anywhere, everywhere -- to their deaths. I couldn't imagine it, or I didn't want to, butI have to, we all have to. Especially those of us who can't actively remember have to imagine. We have to imagine so that we can be horrified so that we can keep our own compassion alive. Because so many of our leaders so lack imagination, so many of those in power, who have the power to perpetrate these kinds of horrors. And if, as a society, we can't, or won't, protect the children of this world from the mass murderers of this world, I'm not sure we have any right to call ourselves civilized. I'm not even sure we have any right to call ourselves human.

Late this afternoon -- at last -- I met my good friend the poet Ellen Hinsey for tea. We recounted some of our personal horrors of the past few years, and tallied our shattered illusions and wondered how to keep faith in the face of that shattering. Ellen summed it up for both of us very succinctly; she said we somehow have to hold two things in mind simultaneously in order to do our work as poets: we have to be able to look at the horrors of this world and accept the presence of evil and those who perpetrate evil and, at the same time, see the beauty of the world, and bring both that horror and that beauty to our work. So there was that fairytale skirt in the shop window, with its promise of beauty and happiness, and -- just around the corner -- flowers left on the sidewalk by a crowd of Parisians in memory of the children who should have been saved.


Blogger Scoplaw said...

I love your posts - but how about some poetry my friend?


7:25 PM  

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