What You Cannot Do

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I don’t know if I’ve ever been so scared in my life as when I first took the Metro in Paris, by myself. The day before, my host mom, Rosine, had taken me to the station to make sure I got the right card for all the places I needed to go, had found me a map, pocket-sized to keep me from looking like a tourist, and had double checked that I understood how the lines were marked and which way they went. She even took the trip with me to the language school and walked me right up to the door, despite the fact that it was Sunday and the place wasn’t even open. When Monday came, I arrived without incident. All my fears that I would take the wrong metro – get horribly lost, be stranded interminably in an unknown quarter of the city, find myself with insufficient language skills to clarify my plight – were for naught. However, I suspect that, if not for Rosine’s caretaking and instruction, I might well have done just that.

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Through all of the three months that I was in France that first time, Rosine was my rock. For the duration, I was shaky on my feet. I was just a kid, learning to play the part of an adult, figuring out what it means to take care of myself, and starting to ask what it means to be responsible to and for others. I felt like an anomaly, an untamed California child, bursting with passion, ambition, and uncertainty. I wanted to be a real artist; I wanted to be worldly; I wanted to be feminine and adult and intelligent. I read Kerouac and Calvino, passed my days in museums and parks, gazing at masterpieces, eating macarons, and wondering when it would all start to make sense.

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When I faltered, when I needed comfort, or just whenever, Rosine was there. She made giant pots of Lapsang Souchong and sat with me over cup after cup, talking through my teenage angst and the confusion of being an American in Paris with no real purpose to my stay. Despite language school, despite a little doodling at a local atelier, everywhere I went felt like a check mark on a travel brochure, and everyone I met seemed to be another transient foreigner.

It was Rosine who told me about les Café Philos, where people meet to talk philosophy. She told me about the neighborhood where I would find all the commercial art galleries. She convinced me to make the trek to FIAC, the contemporary arts fair held in some distant corner of the city. She kept the freezer stocked with ice cream and the fridge stocked with cornichons and rillettes, on the premise that everyone could profit from their presence, but really because she knew I loved them and that they helped cheer me up on days when I couldn’t make sense of who I was or who I might become.

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In the years since I left Paris, I’ve kept in touch with Rosine through holiday letters and occasional e-mails. I still feel the twangs of teenage insecurity when I look back on those days, and I give thanks to goodness for the support I had to get through it. But, also, life rolls on, and I don’t think much about that time anymore. I pause often to remind myself to get in touch again soon, yet I only manage to do so once in a blue moon. I’ve been in France three weeks already, and I haven’t managed to actually send the e-mail that says, “Hey, I’m close by, how’s things? I miss you.”

And then yesterday I got an e-mail from my Dad. He had lunch with old family friends, the ones who had first introduced me to Rosine and her family when I was finishing high school early and planning what adventures to embark upon. They kept in touch more regularly and had new news of things.

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The cancer Rosine had been in remission from has come back in full force. At this moment, she hasn’t even the strength to walk. In all probability, the disease will kill her, and maybe soon.

It’s a funny thing that’s not funny at all. I wish I could send all the letters I never sent, write all of the emails I didn’t make time to write, explain ten or twelve or fifty-thousand more times how grateful I am for the love I received. I wish I could go back to that time and be less angsty, less chaotic, less troubled and turbulent. I wish all of these things for myself because I don’t know how or what to wish for her. What can you do when some one you love is in pain? What can you do when anyone at all is passing out of this world and into unknown quarters?

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I’ll tell you what. You can do your damnedest to let go of your guilt and regret, to move past your fear and sorrow, and to ask, what, what can I possibly offer? I am trying to do this right now. It’s not so easy. What I can do is call and express my love and support, and ask if it is helpful if I come for a short while to say hello and also possibly goodbye. I can make wishes for her pain to be less than it might otherwise be and for her journey to be beneficial, whatever it may be. What I cannot do is change what faults I may have committed. What I can do is let go of my preoccupation with my own actions and focus on some one else’s needs.

Another thing I cannot do is change the reality that, once born, we all must die. Here I think of Dharma, where it is taught that death is a doorway. Maybe what I can do, then, is my very best to see some one I love safely through, with as much grace and care as I can muster in the face of mortality and the unknown.

Arch **Note: All the photos in this post were taken in Paris in 2005, during the time I stayed with Rosine and her family.

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The Making of Things…like a Chocolate Frangipane Tart

IMG_1105On Sunday, I made this tart. And it was, ahem, not one of the prettiest things to ever come out my kitchen. I had the best of intentions. I discovered an actual tart pan in the kitchen of the Lama House, so that my tart could actually resemble a tart, rather than whatever would ensue from the tart ring I had planned to fabricate out of tin foil. I successfully adapted my frangipane in the direction of a pastry cream to account for a slight deficit of almond meal. I had exactly the right amount of chocolate for the ganache. It was going to be gorgeous enough to impress the natives of France, which is truly the land of tarts.

But then I started the actual process of making it. The dough baked much faster than I anticipated, so that it was dark at the edges but still quite blond at the base. The frangipane bubbled up one side, and even after I remedied that by covering it with ganache, the ganache got all ripply while I was transferring the tart to the fridge. Not to mention that half the crust shattered while I was unmolding the darn thing. I ate the shards of pate sucree as consolation. One must get through these things somehow.

After all that, I wasn’t exactly, totally looking forward to presenting it to my cohort. They’d found out that I worked as the pastry chef at a restaurant in California, and I aspired to live up to what the term “patissière” signifies, though in truth my experience brings me nowhere close to the true pastry chefs of either France or the US. I cached the thing in the fridge and somewhat ruefully brought it out after lunch, hoping it would at least be tasty enough to overcome its aesthetic shortcomings.

cuttingtartAlex snapped this pic of me deliberating over portioning. 🙂

We cut it into thin slivers to share it among the many of us that there were, and everyone hurrahed as we dug in. I feared that the frangipane was maybe a teeny bit overdone and that the salt wasn’t evenly distributed, but no one remarked it. In fact, every one was thrilled. It’s amazing how even such a small thing as a slightly unsightly pastry can bring about a collective joy that is quite out of proportion with the sum of its parts.

The next day, some one stopped me in the stairwell to thank me again. She said, “It was a moment of perfection, like I haven’t had in ages: the crust was tender, the frangipane was just sweet enough, the chocolate was soft, and the temperature was – ah, just right! So thank you for that.”

And I thought, this is the reason why we make things. Because even though, every time you start, uncertainty nips at your heels, and during each step along the way, unforeseen obstacles may befall you, when it’s all done, you may have something to give, something that extends beyond the borders of what you thought possible to bring something meaningful into the lives of others. Even if it’s just a single moment of gastronomic joy, it matters. What we share and what we can exchange far outweighs the doubts and struggles that go along with bringing anything into this world, be it a pastry, a painting, a song, or an idea.

Recipe after the jump… Continue reading