from paris to amsterdam to utrecht to sheffield (via london), via trains, planes, boats, and cars, the end of june has been a bit of an academic whirlwind. the soft landing of the hospitality of friends and no-longer-strangers was especially welcoming — more on that (and peak walks and pub lunches) to come.
… sometimes it pours and sometimes things look shiny and new. this week, in the city of light both were true and in the glimpses of sun and dryness amidst the mist, the landscape of sound came truly alive.
i spent this visit — and if you’re keeping track, that’s three times to paris, which sounds obnoxious only until you realize that it’s a mere 2.25 hour train ride from london and there are people who do this every weekend! and as some of you know, in my real life i’m used to a 2-hour journey to and from homes, so… — staying in the 13th arrondisement and while my walks took me to both familiar and foreign corners, i enjoyed getting to know this neighborly section of paris in a new way, learning its contours of art on walls and through window arrangements.
the 13th is a bit removed from the center of town, not that there is an exact center per se, so perhaps it is more apt to describe the region around maison blanche in the words of a colleague who has lived there for several years: an area alive with immigrant communities, particularly from east asian countries, where the thai, laotion, and japanese restaurants are owned and operated by people from those respective countries. hues of skin were darker here, with predictable tropes of valid citizenship and belonging thick in the air as strangers and emigrants seek to be recognized as citizens. to emphasize the varying forms of exoticizing and ostracizing behaviors he has witnessed, my colleague told me a story about a conversation with a teacher while picking up his children from school. he is american and in this first exchange with his eldest child’s new teacher he was praised for raising his children as bilinguals. he said he later laughed because many of the parents all around him were also raising their children as bilinguals, however their “other” language — the primary language being french, of course — was something other than english (or american, as the rest of the world refers to our ways of talking). as an american he is both fetishized and kept at a distance. whereas he is expat, his neighbors are immigrants. will either ever really belong in a land where its inhabitants, like in many other parts of the world, are caught up in ongoing battles over who has the real right to be and live and own pieces of the earth?
this conversation weighed on my mind as i mind as i wandered, first south and then into pockets of winding streets near the bastille and then the next day deeper into the 13th where at one point i found myself standing on the corner of hope and providence — that is, at the intersection of rue de l’esperance and rue de la providence.
and on these walks i encountered moments and signs that reaffirmed for me the familiar adage that our differences are what we have in common; they are what unite us.
as usual, i walked with no plan and found my way into the jardin du palais royal, listened to church bells ring the eglise saint-sulpice — and once lured in, i and many others who had taken refuge from the rain were treated to a magnificent organ concert. i think the organist was showing off, and rightfully so! — and stood with the audience that had spontaneously gathered around a man playing a piano in the middle of one of the bridges that connects ile de la cite with ile st louis.
i had not yet made it to shakespeare and company on this visit, so after the evening concert i wandered there on my last night in paris and listened as lydia davis read some of her very short stories for which she is apparently famous. i was not aware of this author before that evening, but apparently she lives in new york and is somehow affiliated with nyu — all this, according to the young woman who ardently and somewhat nervously read the introduction she had prepared in honor of the author.
listening and seeing and looking, i kept returning to the same thought over and over again. it was a riff on what has continued to intrigue me, and at times anger me, about the ways in which humans treat humans. each of us is bizarre in our own way; what makes one person’s strangeness any better or worse than another’s? someone tweeted a comment the other day about an average new yorker meeting as many people in one week as a medieval person would have met in a lifetime. i have no idea whether that is true or not, but i have to believe, even in the smallest town that time informs geography; that we must know that our occupation of a plot of land is temporary. there were others who came before and others who will be here after we’re no longer living in our house, this neighborhood, a particular state or country. could it be that time is just a maypole standing still and watching as we dance around until our ribbons come to an end?
during the rainy sunday, i sat for a while in cafe de flore, where baldwin is said to have written a draft of go tell it on the mountain. the symphony of voices faded into the background as i read studiously from my ipad and wondered how recently the red leather seats might have been reupholstered and whether this was the arrangement of tables, chairs, and waitstaff during the time of baldwin’s visits. i had left my copy of j.m. coetzee’s disgrace in the hotel room so i started reading pigeon english by stephen kelman, which i had learned of while sitting in the audience of someone’s conference presentation earlier this month. (i didn’t take a photo this time, so you’ll have to mash the next two together, and foreground the backgrounded cafe de flore, to imagine the rainy cafe scene i’m describing to you.)
i hope my ribbon has a lot of length left to it, if only to appreciate much more of the fantastic ways that others have decided to spend moments of their time — that is to say, by taking in and engaging with their words and music and other forms of art. and if by some chance i’m able to add some of my own to the mix, then how sweet that would be. maybe those hippie-dippy, flower children really had something…
And again I ask myself: what exactly is this life I’m living? If it’s a dream, don’t wake me please.
Scenes seen along and near the Seine last night:
(click on pics for larger, better view)
Procrastination is the only religion I practice. Religiously. And every now and then, I find a gem like this collection of quotes about writing, including the following choice words from writers and more:
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives. – Toni Morrison
This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back again. – Oscar Wilde
I, even now, persist in believing that these black marks on white paper bear the greatest significance, that if I keep writing I might be able to catch consciousness in a jar. – Jeffrey Eugenides
Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else. – Gloria Steinem
Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. – Cyril Connolly
There aren’t even crickets chirping inside my head — that’s how bad this spell of writer’s block is. The frustrating thing about writer’s block isn’t that the words don’t come forth. It’s that they are too scared to even exist in the same realm as your consciousness, too frightened to complete the transfer from notion to discernable thought. Because if you can’t think them, then you can’t assess what you have just thought or mentally composed as absolute crap. I know what Anne Lamott says about “shitty first drafts” — it’s the advice I have passed on to students and friends and colleagues. “Just write” I say, knowing full well that sometimes there are no words and that even if the words do some, they might be complete, well, you know… How does one “not take things so seriously” while also attending meaningfully to the many little fires that may crop up during the day. Can one be existential while also being engaged? Or perhaps the better question to ask whether it is possible to be engaged without a certain amount of detachment? It is, after all, just some writing or, in Lamott’s friend’s words “just a bit of cake.” (See excerpts from Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on writing and life below and you’ll see what I mean — don’t read it for answers; just commiserate and go back to work.)
The trick, it seems, is to recognize that you’re stuck and move on. Accept the denial, so to speak, and allow yourself to transition into a better headspace. It’s the unstuck-ing that is especially challenging. To date, I’ve tried my usual standards: long walks, cooking, television, reading, napping, and even laundry. Nothing has quite done the trick. This tells me two things: I really do need ongoing dialogue with actual humans to get me through this stuck-ness, and I might need to try an approach that doesn’t come naturally to me: just sucking it up and barging through the stuck wall.
Here I go…
(And if you’re still stuck, might I suggest some math)
The rains fell hard the past several days, allowing the sun to peek through with some regularity just this weekend. As if following in barometric symphonic succession, the muses seemed to be on strike and the familiar rhythms of lexicon and discourse fell out of tune. In short, this spell of solitude of mine appears to have cast its own spell on my abilities to communicate outside of my head; and thus, while retreating within and time for introspection and reflection bring forth ample riches and goods, the greatest consequence is also the ugliest: getting out of practice in being with the world. I experienced something similar when re-entering non-monk-like status after the Vipassana course in the fall, but unlike that stretch of inward quiet, this stretch of several days has been characterized by a desire for quiet while needing to perform in public.
A self-imposed digital hiatus and a stint in London’s villagey ‘burbs has provided much needed balm for a bruised soul, an afternoon of which was spent amidst the scenery below. Regularly scheduled blog programming that was heretofore unwittingly suspended will now resume. While the gears are turning and ideas brewing, enjoy these pics (and look closely at the first one):