Saturday, June 30, 2012

LEAVING AMERICA excerpt - November 2007

The Fool's Journey

             "I like the shores of America!
              Comfort is yours in America!
             Knobs on the doors in America,
                        floors in America!" 
                  Anita - West Side Story 

People here are always asking us why we left "America?" Sausalito, Ca. to be exact. The French ask us (FYI:  the French adore SF, Ca. so even if you are from Climax, Pa. say you are from SF.-- some French folks would really like to escape the obligatory Sunday family lunch that the rest of us think is the societal glue that holds France together), other expats, Brits, Scots, Irish, Finnish, Latvians, Russians, etc. inquire & all seem perplexed and somewhat troubled by our flight.  From time to time there is even a chuchotement (whisper) of scandal, an inference that we are on the lam, escapees from a troubled past. One local wag suggested K might be a CIA agent??!!  The same thing happened to us before we left the states--queries boiled down to around two:  1)  Why are you leaving?  2)  Do you speak French?    Answers:  1)  Destiny called 2)  Not very well.  We didn't run away from anything--we ran towards something else.  We weren't even sure what that something was.  It started on the Canal de Nivernais on a "drive your own barge" through Bourgogne. Maybe it was the french woman playing a concertina in the moonlight on the banks of Auxerre, where we tied our barge up for a night--her husband's head resting on her shoulder.  Or the french children playing simple games with a broom and a ball after handshakes all around, or the old couples strolling arm in arm, in the late Autumn of their lives. Or even wilder yet, 12 years ago a channel had told us we had a lifetime together in la belle France, "married with many children"--a happy life, but a busy one in which we had only scraps of time for each other. He said we'd come back to continue the nocturnal conversation of marriage.  We found this tape in the bottom of a box a few months ago.  Voila!

One forgets reasons and motives as the energy and attention focuses on pouring new foundations, stabilizing and settling into the ill fitting garments of a new life.  And after all it is FRANCE, not Transylvania or Timbuktu.  But I decided to revisit some of the things I wrote to family and friends after we arrived.  First thought, best thought, as the Buddhists say...

Darling G...
It was a hair raising exit (we felt like we were hanging onto the landing skids of the last helicopter out of Cambodia a la "The Killing Fields")...but we made it, & we are adjusting, see below--just a quickie to give you an idea of our first entry impressions. It all feels right, and I am reading & writing & generally feeling like a Disney animator, drawing in the lines of my life.  The interior world has many shadows, and I am faced with myself in this realm as in any other.  Alan de Bord, a clever Frenchman coined the term "psychogeographer" to describe a sensualist who likes to ferret out nooks and crannies, secret passageways in a landscape.  That is me...walking down the  narrow ancient roads here, "whistling down the wind", slipping around the corners of buildings as well as my own psyche.

I am reading Annie Dillard's "The Writing Life", Ann Patchett's "Magician's Asst.", Harry Potter in french and listening to O'Donohue's "Beauty" CD's, (all of it good brain/soul food) when not staring into the fire or gathering eggs from the hens up the road.  We are off to La Rochelle on Wed. for a few days to visit French friends, then down to the Dordogne till March 1st.  The Celtic Cross spreads I have been doing with the Tarot cards have been luminous and challenge is to dispense with the habit of "worry", liberate myself! or as a divine Persian mystic once said:  "I deliver myself unto myself with tender mercy".

Thinking of the Sacred Music Festival in Fez in May...any chance you might come and twirl with me? I miss you, no resident mystics like you here, but the french are kind, the Loire is generous, maybe it's all the mistletoe in the trees, why they are always kissing...


Dear Friends,

First Installment:  DEPARTURES & ARRIVALS

Nous sommes arrives (we have arrived!)... We are in the Loire Valley (Valley of the Kings), village of Pontlevoy, equidistant between Blois & Amboise (home of Leonard de Vinci/La Clos de Luce where Kevin bought me the luminous Leonardo Da Vinci tarot deck).  The river Loire to the north and the river Cher to the south.

We drove in a hard dark rain after circling Paris roundabouts for what seemed like hours (even Tom-Tom couldn't save us), finally reaching Pontlevoy via one lane roads with wild hares leaping from behind sighing Poplar trees and les moutons with their wooly backs braced to the wind.  There is an annual "Fete du Mouton" -- sheep festival.  If all else fails perhaps we can become shepherds.  In town there is a thousand year old Abbey--large Benedictine monastery--built from the bourre stone, which has an ochre cast, so when the sun strikes the facade, it gives off a golden glow.  And if one angles the laptops just right, it is possible to pick up a wireless network near the eaves where some cheeky Magpies nest.

Our house for the moment is a restored stone cottage built stone by stone by two Americans from Long Beach that shed those lives many years ago.  There is a surprisingly luxurious bathroom & a microwave (amenities not anticipated). In the mornings we find dozens of dead flies who have entered the house for the warmth and then flown against the windows towards the sun, plunging to their deaths in the bathroom sink.  Houseboat life devoid of insects has not prepared us for these "killing fields".

Their mother-in-law, Joanne, lives in another cottage down the road from us, speaks no french & so we look in on her, pick her up some taco shells and mango chutney from the Super U, and read her Tarot cards--she has just come out from ten weeks in hospital, so I am hoping she doesn't pull the Death card!*  C&K, les Americaines, have gone off to Uruguay for a vacation after a Marx post transport strike rerouting bonanza.  So now it is Kevin & I, Joanne, Mac the Cat, and the chickens to keep each other company.  In a book of old photographs taken from 1903 to 1934 I found on a shelf here, there are postmen and delivery carts drawn by dogs.

Service de la Poste par Voiture a Chien
 But the photo above is "actually from a card found for sale by 'some ole gal' owner of a 10 seat bar in a teensy village in Les Cevannes", given to us by one of our dearest friends (we shall call her Mme X-Mouse) as we fretful immigrants set off for the new land. Wrapped inside, along with joyful tear stained wishes, was 100euros. She said to never mention it, but she can't stop us now.
Setting Sail for New Lands

You never do it alone, whether it's coming or going.  There was a cast of dozens who helped us exit, like L& DC who handled the piles left behind at the very end, & A&B who helped us navigate the rough waters ahead. And my dear brother who bought our beloved car and crammed extra stuff into his already bulging storage unit.  To all those who gave of their time and energy, resources, you know who you are, & we can never merci you enough.  And to those of you who said we'd fall "flat on our faces"....well, as our friend, Valerie, the gay french stone mason says:  "Putain"!

*Death card - Joanne died two years after this was written- RIP Joanne
*Aloha - RIP Casey, our shining star

Monday, June 11, 2012

FRACTURED FAIRY TALES - Melusine, Anniversaires & Une Femme d'un Certain Age

Fountain head Chateau de La Rochefoucauld

It all began with the "The White Queen", a Phillippa Gregory historical novel.  One of those kind I swear to myself I won't get caught up in & then end up page turning till my eyeballs start smoking.  Even two pairs of glasses are insufficient if the light is low.  After the lengthy crawl I took through Tudor mania a few months ago, this book focuses on the Yorks and the Lancasters, "The War of the Roses", and Elizabeth Woodville, a young widow, whose mother's Burgundy family were descendents of the Water Goddess: "Melusina".  Lizzy (a raving beauty, aren't they all?!) seduces and marries the charismatic warrior King Edward IV and drops more babies than puppies to keep her husband's line and the Plantagenet rule in place.  It's a gripping story with loads of blood curdling battles, Tower scenes, & enough intrigue to satisfy Dungeons, Dragons and Sherlock Holmes hounds, plus the added elements of witchcraft & wishcraft. And kudos to Gregory for just being able to keep track of approximately 800 major and minor characters.  It doesn't matter how many of these historical fiction or non-fiction books I read, I'll never get the Kings and Queens straight in my head.  It's not fair to name each one of them Charles, Edward, Henry or William--throw in the french Henris and you are lost in a thicket of royal loos. Which by the way you can purchase on line, the perfect wedding souvenir for someone feeling a bit flush:
Kate & William loo seats

I'm so impressed with the Amazon book reviewers who write mini-novels synopsizing (new scrabble word) 500 pages of someone else's book!  I use them as Cliff notes for the books I've read, enjoyed and promptly forgotten. 

But one thread Gregory wove through "The White Queen" that stayed with me was the tale of Melusina, based on a 14th c. French folk tale.  She was born half fairy, but mostly appears in human form.  Due to one of those pesky curses, once a week she turns into a half-serpent, half-woman, a secret she keeps from her mortal husband.  A little trickier than hiding those Gucci bags or alligator boots.  One version of the fairy tale has it that when Melusine's husband Raimondin catches her out, she transforms into a full dragon and flies out of his life, but they are then reunited by the epiphany of Raimondin that love transcends our physical form.

But the Melusina Gregory writes about is more like the archetypal mermaids or Selkies, a water goddess: half woman, half fish who is found in hidden springs,waterfalls & grottos. Melusina will let a man love her if he leaves her to bathe alone so she can keep her tail under wraps & she will love him in return, but if he "peeks" (as men always do) she'll sweep him into the depths with her big fishy tail and turn his faithless blood to water!  In any version or any language, the tragedy is that a man will always promise more than he can do to a woman he cannot understand. Ta!

A pre-teen memory that popped into my head, was skinny dipping with my girlfriends in some hidden pools in northern Wisconsin and being caught out by some boys sneaking up through the woods-- but we just turned them to stone and that was the end of it. 

There is a wonderful composer, Jobe,  who has created a tone color palette to go with Melusine's tale. His score has cellos, pipe organs, violins & orchestral harps. When Melusine is in half-serpent mode she will sing metal and glass arias--songs where the primary accompaniment to the voice is metal percussion--tubular bells and gongs--in combination with glass bells. These exotic instruments. along with the pitched glass bells that Jobe designed, create a supernatural, haunting sound for his opera, "The Legend of the Fairy Melusine".  At the climax of the opera Melusine transforms into a dragon and the score features another instrument created by Jobe:  a 10 ft. long Bosch Hurdy Gurdy based on an image from Hieronymous Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights".  If you don't believe me, check it out at

On to the Anniversaire, which I had last week, and as birthdays come and go, I was hoping to let this one slide right past third base. I am now as they say in France:  "une femme d'une certain age".  The english phrase: "a woman of a certain age" was cited in 1714 by an anonymous essayist in Connoisseur magazine who said:  "I cannot help wishing that some middle term was invented between miss and Mrs. to be adopted, at a certain age, by all females not inclined to matrimony." This is two centuries pre-Ms.  In 1817 Bryon wrote:  "She was not old, nor young, nor at the years/Which certain people call a certain age/Which yet the most uncertain age appears."  Five years later he got grumpier and added the phrase:  "A lady of a 'certain age,' which means "Certainly aged." Charles Dickens took it even further in "Barnaby Rudge":  "A very old house, perhaps as old as it claimed to be, and perhaps older, which will sometimes happen with houses of an uncertain, as with ladies of a certain, age."  Bah humbug!

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Then there's the Oxford English Dictionary which defines that sense of certain as "which it is not polite or necessary further to define." I'm glad I live in France where there is a long history of women of "fortyish" and thereabouts who are able to initiate boys and young men into the beauties of sexual encounters.  In french the phrase has erotically or sexually charged overtones and as Dr. Lillian Rubin wrote in her book:  "Women of a Certain Age:  The Midlife Search for Self," it comes from a society where sexuality is freer and more understood as an important part of human life."  So there--you English snicker pants! Anyway as we all know, 50 is the new 40 and 60 is the new 35.

I always do a tarot birthday spread for myself and this year was no different except for the addition of finding a historical spot to add some confusion to the reading. ("Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment"--Rumi).  I chose Chateau de la Rochefoucauld, in of all places: La Rochefoucauld. 

Painting on stone wall Chateau de La Rochefoucauld

I've been drawn back there a number of times to ogle the innocent looking fountain in the center of the parc with its extraordinary sculpted heads on the underside, which you can't see till you lie beneath it on the grass.  I haven't been able to find out who they were, though mighty Gods I am sure, tortured souls representing the human condition in its gravest form.

This time I paid the freight to tour this Renaissance jewel of the Charente, the bibliotheque with over 18,000 priceless books, the salons, the chapel, Marguerite of Angouleme's boudoir decorated with 17th c. painted panels, beaucoup family portraits and even meeting some family members.  You can't swing a dead cat without hitting one of the Rochefoucauld's. They've been living in or near the chateau since 1019. They were "Roches" (rocks) till the 13th c. when they became Rochefoucaulds.  From the family gallery I picked my favorite, the 17th c. essayist, Francois de la Rochefoucauld, known for his maxims and memoirs. His view of human conduct has been summed up by the words, "everything is reducible to the motive of self interest". 

Francois VI - Duc de Rochefoucauld

Vraiment, I think it is his eyebrows that most attracted me, a hereditary family trait I surmise from looking at all his cousins.  He wrote a sketch of himself as a preface to his Maximes:  "I am of medium stature:  I am well proportioned and my gestures are easy.  My coloring is dark but harmonious.  My forehead is high and rather broad; my eyes black, small and deep set; my eyebrows are dark and bushy, but well shaped.  I am at a loss what to say of my nose, for it is neither hooked nor aquiline, heavy, nor yet, to my knowledge, sharp; all that I can say of it is that it is large rather than small and that it is a trifle too long." 

So even our predecessors seem to have been symmetrically disposed.  I was toying with the idea of taking Francois' photo to "Symface" on line so I could see how he might look if he were perfectly symmetrical and we lopped off some of that nose, but I want to remember him this way, bushy eyebrows and all.  

La Grotte de Melusine

"I.  Don't trace out your profile--       
      forget your side view--
      all that is outer stuff.

II.  Look for your other half
      who always walks next to you
      and tends to be who you aren't"
                       Antonio Machado

It was getting late, storm clouds gathering, and the Chateau was closing so I scampered onto the next level of marble stairs leading down, down, down into a dark, drippy cave...coming face to face with an apparition:  Melusine/Melusina, half-fish (with two tails?!) and half barbie doll.  Droll and spooky at the same time.  What was she doing in what looks like an old wine barrel or hot tub?   I was not clever, I was bewildered.  I pulled a card....

                                                                             to be continued
The door in my heart
opened on its hinges, 
and once more the gallery
of my history was revealed.
Once more the little plaza
with flowering acacias,
once more the clear fountain
telling its tale of love. 
                    Antonio Machado