On The Eve of the Départ

Since first I booked this trip, people have been asking me, “Why are you going?” I’ve had lots of quippy answers: “Mama’s last gasp,” or “Because I can,” or, “To get away from Alaska in the winter.”

There are more thoughtful reasons that can be pointed to. That I love Paris, and spent a magical year of my life here once and wanted a chance to revisit that, and to check in on my status with this language that I once knew so well. Or, that I am having unfettered time off for the first time in a very long time, and that I wanted to check in with myself, and that Paris is known and easy and, grâce aux Tilliers, an inexpensive place for me to do that. Perhaps more honestly: because I have been in year after year of rolling and monumental upheaval in my life, and I’ve been so damned busy, have felt so plagued by this unrelenting chaos of the pivot and the loss and the change, that I’ve had very little opportunity to step back and see what would arise in absence of constant doing. And given that I’ve wildly charged forward, one foot in front of the other, so that now I stand in open air past the edge of the cliff, I wanted to know whether I am Wylie Coyote, doomed to plummet to earth, or whether I might perhaps be a bird. Or whether, perhaps, the cliff was an illusion, a trick of the eye or a construct of the mind, and instead I stand with two feet on solid, holy ground.

I came with a triad of tasks (or practices?) to assist me in this process and to provide the structure (the cadre) for what may come. They were: write, read, walk. Added to those were two ways of living a good of life that I wanted to embrace: marvel and eat. Upon arriving, as I’ve previously shared, I added a fourth practice to my cadre: yoga.

Combined, I’ve used these six things to structure my time here in Paris. Ever wary of the Type A tendency to *set up a plan* and then *execute on that plan* and then *punish oneself for failure to adhere to that plan* I didn’t demand a lot of myself on any of these fronts. Rather, I figured time spent in pursuit of some combination of these things was likely time spent moving in the right direction.

And I’ve found that this was generally a beautiful way to proceed through these past three and a half weeks.

I confess, happily, that my greatest fidelity was to the practice of eating. Paris is a wonderment of delectable, magical creations. There are simple sandwiches on baguettes that would make you weep at home; sweet pastries like Paris Brest and buttery pastries like croissants that (dare I blaspheme) transubstantiate from air to cream in your mouth; street crêpes in the cold at 10pm like weighty, fragrant hand warmers. I befriended the monsieur who is the regular server at the brasserie downstairs from my house. He teases me by calling the baby petit Donald, makes sure the kitchen keeps the raw egg off my carbonara, and waves each time I walk by en route to the Metro. Market, restaurant, home for cooking—all have been a joy.

My second greatest fidelity was to the walking. Nearly every day since my arrival I’ve set off across the city, with or without destination, to let Paris unspool its unique wonders before more. Yesterday evening, walking with my friend Ellie, we happened into the street made entirely of shops that sell linens. When Felix was here last week it was the street with shop after shop that sells model cars and trains. There’s the street with shops that sell Japanese tea pots. And the one with shops that sell only items related to Tintin. There’s the moment when you emerge from a small alleyway to find yourself on the edge of the Seine, your view filled by the towers of Notre-Dame de Paris. Paris, above all, is a city for walkers. You need no itinerary, you need no destination. You need practical (though chic!) shoes, and it’s all there before you.

In true American fashion I have a little step-counting gizmo, and so I know I have logged an average of about 11,000 steps a day, with my biggest day being 22,000 (or about 8 miles) and my smallest being about 5,000.

I’ve also read every day, though my subject matter has been inconsistent. I’ve tried to pick up the daily paper Le Monde at least 3 or 4 times a week, and have been enjoying French politics, as well as the French view on our own. (Little known fact: my college thesis was on the French papers’ view of L’affaire Lewinsky, and what it revealed about differences in American and French political mores.) I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior while I was here, and have started yet another book by Margaret Atwood. I also read most of Bringing up Bébé, started reading St. Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will, and have spent a lot of time in daily commune with the Gray Lady, the Washington Post, and the Guardian.

Writing has been a little more tough, though I’m generally pleased with what I’ve been able to do. I’ve nursed a desire to write for years and years, and know that a major thing standing between me and it is the discipline to sit down and put pen to paper every day. Somehow I don’t count blogging, though I suppose it is in fact an act of writing. If you include it, I’ve been able to write with some attention on a bit more than half of the days that I’ve been here—and happily most of those were true pen-to-paper days. I may never do anything publishable or worthy of a greater audience, but I do get joy when I find a moment of flow in the creation of a story.

Yoga, as previously reported, has been wonderful. And then there’s the marveling.

Ah, Paris.

It’s impossible to do anything here but marvel. When the simplest bus ride takes you past a half dozen beautiful, timeless buildings and monuments. When the windows are full of confections and delights. When the busiest avenue gives way to a crooked tiny street that spills out onto a square crowned by a temple that took three centuries to construct à la main. When the marché is filled with old women with wheeled shopping baskets, into which they slip whole rabbits or duck medallions wrapped in pork. When the rain begins to fall and a garden of umbrellas blooms before you register the drops on your face. When the neighborhood church is built upon the original stones laid down in the 11th century, then modified by the faithful in the 13th century, and again in the 16th, and protected from les révolutionnaires by residents who insisted the edifice belonged to them, not the Church. When construction crews in green work suits replace cobblestones in the same pattern that they were laid down 200 or 400 or 600 years earlier. What is there to do but marvel?

So, on the eve of my departure, I ask myself, have I found what I was seeking here in Paris?

The answer is uncertain. Given the luxury of unfettered time, ample money, regular contemplation and good daily exercise, any person is likely to feel at ease. What has me much more curious is whether I can return home to the regular disruptions and delights of daily life and maintain a strongly centered self. Can I find me amidst the disorder and the deluge, and keep a strong axis at the center of my spinning world? Can I be a helpmate and a mother and still step out to find solitude? Need I go so far away, so radically, in order to put my hand on it?

I am no great philosopher. I’m not even that good of a student any more. At this stage of my life I operate from instinct and impulse, and occasionally cobble together some evidence to support my gut. Today, my instinct and my impulse tell me to go home. Put down strong roots. Welcome the arrival of our son. Assume—and insist—that I will always be able to find myself, come what may.

In this sense, then, j’ai réussi

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