Friday, February 29, 2008

On origins

When French people ask me where I'm from I always hesistate. If I say where I grew up (Illinois), they assume I moved to here from there. If I say Seattle, they assume I lived there from birth until I moved here.

Vous êtes originaire d'où?

I suppose it shouldn't matter if they assume those things, but the places I've lived have been so important in my life that I cannot let the assumptions slide. So I've develeped a brief, lengthy answer: I grew up in Illinois, studied in North Carolina, and then worked and studied some more in Seattle. All three places marked me deeply, as a child, as a girl/almost woman, and as an adult.

I used to just say that Seattle was my ville de coeur (city of my heart - my expression, not a standard one) but stopped a few years ago when I had to accept the very real possibility that I might never live there again. Heartless.

Ville de coeur. I'm not even sure how it came to be that. Seattle is a city that didn't welcome me so much as look up at me through the mist I loved immediately and say, "What took you so long?"

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Flash fiction, tome 2

It happened at one of those ridiculous youth group meetings. The preacher-in-training was young and dynamic and we all gathered around him. We were there because our parents didn’t want us to end up lost.

And yet, I had watched it happen twice before. They started out fragile and ended up fanatic, wandering in the halls at school with a bible on top of their books, staring bug-eyed when they talked about the dangers they saw in everything not found on the short list of sanctioned activities they kept posted inside their lockers.

On that sunday, the young preacher-in-training was asking questions. Getting to know each other under God’s umbrella, that’s what he called it. He asked a question and we all had to answer, a circle of verbal dominos he pushed into falling.

The last question made us giggle. “What do you do when you are alone in the dark?” The answers ranged from true, “I sleep,” to kiss-ass, “I praise God freely.” As he made his way around the circle, I tried to prepare my answer. But when it was my turn, I couldn’t stop myself. I tried, I really did, to say something else, anything else. But I couldn’t. I told them, I told them all what I did alone in the dark.

The silence spoke next and I knew that I was the only one to hear its whispers.

You will never be lost. Not here, not anywhere.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In Justice

You didn't come here on a whim. But you don't believe you were marked to come here either. You do not mark for inflection, never have.

You found the spot, in the middle, which you do not like. In cases like these, it is always best to keep a door nearby, or at least a wall.

Questions are asked about how. You respond eloquently. And then when. You fill in the blanks well. Before this panel of superior peers, you let your soft edge meet, with no resistance, their hard center. You learned that lesson.

Everyone is looking for the same thing. They just want to understand. They don't want justifications. They speak of nothing justiciable.

You finish.

You will find no justice here.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Ah, justice

The French legal system is filled with particularities. I don't know a whole lot about it really and what I may know could be incorrect but that's never stopped me before.

First of all, there are three professions that we don't really have at home. L'huissier, l'avoué, and le notaire. There are people in the US who perform aspects of these jobs, but not all. I'm sure no huissier would like to be called a fancy repo man, but he kind of is. And a notaire here has very little to do with a notary public at home, at least in terms of financial gains . As for the avoué, well, s/he is technically a lawyer, but only goes before the cour d'appel. Avoué, huissier, and notaire are all ministerial officers, while the lawyer is not. The office of the first three is called une étude and a lawyer's un cabinet.

Where am I going with all this? Well, the profession of avoué is on its way out the door. There have been a lot of reforms of the legal system here in the past 6 months, along with the obligatory strikes to show discontent.

Notaires and huissiers are about to lose their monopolies on certain activities and the profession of avoué will simply no longer exist.

How strange.

Tell me, what do you do when what you do, what you've done, and what you've become no longer exist?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Flash fiction, tome 1

I hadn't been in the city long. Certainly not long enough to make it mine or allow it to penetrate me the way places sometimes do. I had taken its trains. I always start with that.

So many sights on the train here. The pregnant women left to stand, the businessmen carrying their worry in the same hand as their briefcases - leaving the other hand free for the newspaper, the old women making endless trips somewhere. Wherever do they go these old women? I dream of being able to talk to one of them, just one. She'd have something to tell me about this city I haven't felt yet.

After the trains, I move on to the men. Different physically but all alike too. I've never met a wolf I didn't follow home.

But apparently the sun was in my eyes today. There was a man, I was sure he was a predator, and our eyes met in that big music way. And then he said something I never would've expected, "Filthy American." Perhaps I was. But I was no longer a stranger in the city. An insult is just a welcome of a different kind.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Nearly an island

You cannot be an island, no one can be, that is what they say. But you are surely not, obviously not, mainland.

So what on this earth, literally, are you?

A pennisula? Perhaps. No. Even better, well, not better, but more accurate, a presqu'île. Which is not an island, not at all, but closer to being one than a pennisula. That is you. Joined to the mainland only by the long slender curve of your neck. Head on the mainland, body and viscera finding their ground in the surrounding ocean.

Understanding finally, you allow the soft fingertips of mercy to trace the outline of your lips. Your smile will never be the same.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A word about conversion

Or we could call this le cul entre deux chaises...

I've been baking a lot, especially lately. Most of the recipes I use are American, many even from the family cookbook compiled by a distant cousin years ago (an absolute treasure that cookbook for many reasons - excluding velveeta and cans of cream of mushroom soup). Which is fine, I have a set of measuring cups and spoons. But for some things, like butter, I have to convert. Butter is sold in rectangular blocks here, not sticks. So a half of a cup of butter, a stick, has to be converted into grams, (it's about 120 grams, by the way) and then I have to weigh it on my digital kitchen scale, which is also fine, it's just something that has to be done.

Because that's what happens when you live with your ass between two chairs. You do what is necessary to keep your ass right where it is and not lose your balance.

You integrate the conversions as you make them, building a database of duality. Sort that.

Which two chairs are you sitting on?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

In the wish

You could see where you were, but not feel it. It was light, so you should've felt warm, but you didn't. It had shadows on the edges, or at least one edge, so you shouldn't have felt alone, but you did. And then you gave your sight away, just a loan.

Blinded, blindsighted, blind now, you put your hands out in front of you - to feel your way around, high heels on cobblestones. Predictably, you trip and cut yourself. You bleed, it's for real this time, nothing honeyed. You wish its stickiness away.

What else is in that wish?


Because sometimes that's the best there is.

The boys are in Nantes at their grandparents' house. It's school vacation here (AGAIN!) and I've still got a lot of classes so my in-laws sweetly offered to take them for the week. Before I took them to Nantes, the boys had just enough time to make me laugh and make me wonder.

So, we were having breakfast and Boy1 was teasing his brother. I called for calm, it was way too early for anything else, and Boy2 did this thing. He held up two fingers, as if to say 2 or make a V, and then pointed them at his own eyes, and then at his brother's and then back to his own. Is that from a movie or something? Anyway, then he looked at me and said, "I've got my eye on him. Don't worry, Mama."

A couple of days later, I had a serious linguistic conversation with Boy1 about the difference between passer and dépasser, in reference to karate belts. I later learned he had had the same conversation with his father and with the karate teacher. The thing about Boy1 is that when he thinks he knows something, he cannot, for the time being at least - I'm hopeful this will change with time - open his mind to the possibility that he might not know all the story. Most of the time our linguistic discussions end with a standstill until an encyclopedia or a dictionary is consulted. And if it's about a French thing, I get the invariable, 'but you're not even French, Mama, how could you possibly know this?' At which point I smile instead of citing diplomas and years of residence. He's so sweet and smart (yes, I know, all parents think that) and also so very stubborn.

For the life of me, I cannot imagine how he came to be that way, stubborn, I mean.

It needs a name

What do you call that? When you realize you know something, not a brain knowing, but a deeper knowing - a mitochondrial nod of recognition to a certainty you must have been carrying with you, unaware, for nearly ever. When every question finds an answer, every feeling a mirrored response, every impulse an outlet, every anything that rises up finding its counterpart, easily, effortlessly, within the limitless confines of joy?

I call it the door slamming open, not closed.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

How beautiful is that?

Remember the quality guy? Well, I have to say, he has simply been a wealth of information.

He introduced me to a new word last week - no, a concept.


A funny sounding word. But what it does is very, very serious.

It's un système anti-con. An anti-dumbass system. Or in prettier language, a behavoir-shaping constraint for mistake-proofing.

Can you imagine? An anti-screw-up device. Something you can use to calibrate anything. Slip it into the system and you're sure, you're guaranteed it'll work.

Who wouldn't love one of those? Who wouldn't love a guarantee?

And don't get all superior on me and tell me how much we learn from our mistakes and all that. You wouldn't have to use it all the time. You could still make mistakes whenever your fancy dictated it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

On being managed

When I was an undergrad, I took a seminar on Baudelaire, the poet. It was interesting, I learned a lot, and I had a wonderful teacher. PJ Lapaire, who became a good friend.


I also used Baudelaire, actually something he said, as the basis for the essay I wrote for my graduate school applications.

I'm totally paraphrasing here but it was something along the lines of - the stricter the form, the more creative you can be within the form. I wove a tale about creativity and freedom and linguistics and poetry and whatever else and it was either good or it wasn't but the rest of my application was because I got in.


My point is, my question is, where do you find freedom?

Is it in total liberty of movement, pushing the walls away and feeling all that limitless space?

Or is it in the cellar, where the salt stays and preserves during winter? There is freedom there for some, I think.

Or is it within a place that has limits, maybe an older place, a place that knows you well, that can manage you without breaking you and let you feel free, you are free there, without feeling chaotic?

What does that place look like? And what does it feel like when you take a breath there?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The politics of being raw

For someone who claims to like to think a lot, you didn't this time. Or if you did, if you were preparing for this for a long time, you certainly didn't realize it. You thought you were in it, going with the flow, or at least a flow. And whose if not your own? No one has imposed a flow on you, impossible.

Finally, despite the roles, you realize you are not an actor in all of this, there is no method. There is no protection, no one standing in front of you. Alone for once. Undone, tired of being done, raw, tired of serving yourself up as a prepared dish. Visceral - how does it feel to be ready to be coarse and base? You flip smooth off and get close to jagged.

Despite how good THAT feels, you acknowledge a loss. No tears fall though, why would they? The sadness, it simply seeps out of your skin. Not all bad though, it is possible now to follow your trail. We will find you.

On being rigged

Nearly every day, at around 6:00 pm, I put a dvd on for the boys and I go upstairs to do yoga. I used to have issues about letting them watch tv on school days, but I got over that quickly. Of course, being able to rationalize helps - the dvd is always in English and they need all the exposure to English they can get. Even Disney exposure.

Anyway, part of the routine deals with me going back downstairs at least 3 or 4 times to fix the stupid cord that goes between the dvd player and the tv. Don't tell me to change the cord, I already have, twice. It's a problem in the little slit things. I'm not a particularly mechanically inclined person, I wish I were. I can put together Ikea furniture, without swearing, and that's about it. I've never been great with my hands, I'm much better with my mouth. I often talk my way out of a situations I can't fix. But try talking to a prise péritel.

So yesterday evening, at the end of my going-up-and-down-the-stairs rope, I looked for a less stressful solution. After several tries, I found the perfect toy to wedge in between the tv and the hard part of the cord, holding it in exactly the right position. It's a cube, with monkeys on it, and it's perched, maintaining balance on just one point.

Which brings me to the real topic of this post and to the second person pronoun.

You've been rigged, haven't you? You probably even did the rigging yourself. But perhaps you forgot that rigging is a temporary solution. There is no permanence to it. And yet, the oddest thing happened. That ridiculous position you were in, perched, like those monkeys on that cube, balancing on a point, came to seem so normal. How on earth did you get used to that? How could you possibly have believed you had achieved any balance at all? You have edges, not just points. Use them.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Where soft meets hard

Remember when I flew over the mountains a few weeks ago? Fossils were not the only things I saw.

I also saw, amid the lower mountains, a rocky caldron filled with clouds as white as marshmallow fluff. The clouds rippled, literally, against the edges of the mountain. Silken whispers.

It occured to me then that I would not find truth in the wind but in that place where yielding meets resistance and wins, hands down, every time. Where giving up actually means getting. I think, today at least, that is where the truth lies. And you can't hear it or see it or even receive it, you can just brush up against it, and hope it leaves a mark.

Or were you alone?

You speak, obviously, but they are not always your words. You take responsibility for them, you must, but still, they are not, organically, yours. Living in a second language requires being comfortable with borrowing and never owning.

Perhaps that is your difficulty. Words are your weapons, they always have been, and using weapons that are not your own is both too intimate and too approximate for your tastes.

You understand now that in order to live in that second language you have had to cross a border. But who saw you come here? Who bore witness to that border crossing in the dark?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Close your eyes

When you wake up, you are water. You flow silently, sweetly over stones, more river stones, and gather in quiet pools.

Later, during the day, undone, you swirl, pulled by forces unknown, or at least unseen, away from an order you understand. But your search for reassurances and solid ground, both orders you can understand, is futility's guru.

Finally, in the night, when you sleep, you are a wishing well, laden with silent, hopeful coins.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The scent of it all

Quand tu fonces, la tête baissée (when you plow forward, head down), you don't always see the wall you're about to hit. And your breathing is probably as shallow as your understanding. It's not about thinking, it's about doing. Maybe doing so as not to think. Who knows?

But when you finally stop and lift your head and take a deep breath, it is the one deep breath you need more than anything. And you are surprised to detect the scent, as faint as the memory of a last kiss, of something new, something unfamiliar. It is neither the rose of desperate longing nor the sea salt of sadness nor even the air freshener of your own voluntary ignorance, but the amber of promise. And though you know it's miles and months away, what that amber might suggest, and you cannot possibly know what that promise holds, you smile.

As you make your way back down to the cellar you've recently made your home, you bring that promise with you. You've always loved amber - it is your scent.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

In the trace

As you walk out of the very small room, you see a mirror, framed in river stones, calling out at you to have a look. And when you look into that mirror, which is nothing more than the reflection of your life, you see the brutalities you've inflicted and the violences you've committed.

Something new, you search not to deny, because despite the dust covering that mirror, you can still see the traces of what has happened. You do not seek excuses, there are none. Or reasons, do they matter? Or even redemption, you're not there yet. You take a deep breath and exhale, hard, sending a cloud of sparkling dust flying into the air. And as it settles you see, are relieved to see, the imprint of softness in the brutality and sweetness in the violence.

Nothing, despite your attempts to prove the contrary, will ever be exactly and only what it is. You receive it as the blessing, the kiss it is: there is no category for this.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Beyond reasonable authenticity

Yeah, about that.

I saw a man walking on the sidewalk this morning. He had that wraparound to-cover-the-baldness thing. You know what I'm talking about. And he, believe me, had taken it to a whole new place. A place that was definitely beyond all reasonable authenticity. It was LONG and the head under it was BALD. And that hair wrapped way around. And it was plastered to his head with some kind of product. He looked happy with it though. And really, isn't that what matters? Who ever said the inside was supposed to align with the outside and not the other way around? And why did you ever start to believe that?

But when you start to mess around with this stuff, when you question the pragmatics and the bright light with no shadow and the four corners of something that you finally realize is inherently round, what are you left with?

It would seem you are left with only one option. Temporary stillness and an attempt at quiet integrity.

Because, really, how could you possibly hope to direct the flow of what breaks the dam?