City Of Lights Redux

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I’m in Paris with my mums. Just a five day visit before bringing her down to the Dordogne to meet my French BuBu family and show her what her kid has been up to in the forest of Southern France.

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We’re basically having a blast, doing all the things we both want to do in one of the cultural and culinary capitals of the world. We went to a cooking class to discover the secrets of authentic macarons (spoiler: Italian and not French meringue is the base of the cookie batter), saw a concert in the famed Sainte Chappelle, ate a crepe on the banks of the Seine, and hit up the two best pastry shops in town (Pierre Hermé and Pain de Sucre if you’re looking for tips on culinary couture).

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We did a double doozy of retrospectives at the Grand Palais: Japanese printmaker Hokusai and seminal Franco-American feminist Niki de Saint Phalle. Both shows are rich and varied catalogues of the artistic evolution of their subjects, though visiting both in one afternoon is not for the faint of heart.

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We’ve been rambling the old stone streets, window-shopping the contemporary glamour, and fine-fooding our way through this renowned metropolis. Somehow, it’s not quite the city I remember. I remember Paris as a cold city, rich with color, but difficult to unlock.

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I lived here—if you can call taking the metro in from the burbs every day for three months living in a place—briefly as a teenager. It was my first real move away from home, and all of the history and magnificence seemed to be holding secrets of truth just beyond my reach. Coming back now, I still see how the city is marked by a history of great minds, cultural crossroads, and several hundred years of wealth and artistic genius. It is nothing if not beautiful.

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And I revel in its beauty. Everything from architecture to enterprise is aesthetic, and within it all are new ideas explored and old legacies conserved. The people themselves are works of art: their dress, their carriage, their language, their regard. The whole thing is a regale. And it is no longer a mystery.

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I used to ache for a lucidity of which I found traces in art and beauty. Flashes of self-awareness and awareness of the nature of things. I strove to find the answers to the why and how of being human in such places, and I scoured books and paintings, music, haute couture, gastronomy, all manner of creation for such gems of understanding. I found a lot. Snippets of wisdom sprinkled amidst a vast ocean of creation.

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But most of all I found expressions of the deep yearning of humankind to understand itself. Amongst creators I have always felt that I am with my own people. Those who believe that the suffering and the joy of life have meaning, that as humans we can elevate ourselves, and that it is not futile to search for this meaning and the means to realize it. This is the work of artists in my eyes.

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In the years since I left Paris and my teenaged self behind, the teachings of the Buddha have come to describe this path for me, and to respond to its questions. I no longer cling to art as the salvation to my waywardness, and I’ve learned that clinging in general is not so much a useful approach to life. I have the freedom to not like a lot of art, and even to be bored by it. I have the cognizance to realize that all beauty is not well intentioned or elevating.

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Paris no longer seems to me an inaccessible monument to human understanding, but a place like other places in the world, where people live and strive and suffer and achieve and die and take birth to do it all some more. And though the mystery has rubbed off, I can admit, I like this place. There is, after all, a certain comfort in being surrounded by both art and beauty, and in rubbing shoulders with so many humans who are seeking to perfect their own potential in the ways that they know how.

Thanks for the encouragement, Pah-reee…

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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.