Monday, February 27, 2012

Damn Fool Things

A gift from Belgium to England (and the statue, too)
“Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
Je vois la vie en rose

Il me dit des mots d’amour
Des mots de tous les jours
Et ça me fait quelque chose”

It is mid-afternoon in Brussels on a day of rare sunlight. It is warm enough that I don’t need a sweater and my scarf is wrapped infinity-style dangling at my neck like an overlong necklace. I am in a room full of strangers of varying ages, cradling plates of homemade tiramisu, singing along to Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” led by a poetess in black and red Mary Janes. I’m singing in that noncommittal manner reserved for people who don’t really know the lyrics. The well-dressed blind woman next to me is smiling and the French teacher to my right with the uneven goatee is closing his eyes while he sings.

The curtains are drawn, the incense is burning… How in the hell did I get here?

In the network of people that I have come to know in Brussels, there is a young woman named Jessy who invited me to a “spectacle” (pronounced differently in French) of poetry. I don’t really know what this means… She gave me the time, the address, and if she told me something else, I didn’t understand it since she doesn’t speak English. I just decided that I would spend my Saturday afternoon this way.

It turns out that Jessy is a poet and a writer of modern fairy tales and once a month, in her top floor apartment overlooking a little garden, she dramatically performs myths that she has written for whoever chooses to stop by. On the stone terrace outside, the table is set with different juices. At intermission there is tea and cake and the audience is entirely composed of her friends and people from the neighborhood. This month’s recital was inspired and centered around Edith Piaf’s songs which Jessy uses as her starting point to tell about the origin of love and other quests in the name of ardor. She moves around the room in various poses like a dancer, but with the attitude of a woman in a bookshop at story hour, reading to children, with variations in tone and call-and-response sections (it reminded me of a Heroes project - how a good-natured audience shows up without the least idea of what to expect, but ends up in a group hug that seems strange, but just feels so right). After a month of French class, I have to say that if you’re going to try and learn French, a dramatic poetry reading is a wise investment of one’s afternoon.

Ostensibly, Edith Piaf’s last words were "Every damn fool thing you do in this life, you pay for." It is a somewhat dismal note to end on (though certainly one earned by a life as checkered as hers was) and it turns out that it’s something that I have come to disagree with over the course of the past few weeks. I think, for the most part, that it is sometimes those “damn fool things” that lead you to your greatest triumphs or joys or an apartment full of artists, beekeepers, and linguists on a Saturday afternoon.

St. Paul Cathedral
Last weekend, I was in London. I arrived the day after having drafted one of the first poems that I’ve been proud of in a very long time, cat-inspired, and just after having finished Ron Carlson Writes a Story. I arrived late that night and was plucked off a street bench by two of my loveliest, Anglophile friends: Carrie and Bryony. We stayed up late whisper-gossiping over tea in Bryony’s kitchen and much-admiring Bryony in her new London life that suits her both spiritually and physically.

While Bryony was at work the next day, Carrie and I set out into the city with Carrie fully in the driver’s seat. We rode the 76 bus into town and alighted at the Waterloo Bridge (I love that they say “alight” in England instead of “get off”). We walked along the Thames, weaving in and out of well-maintained recently opened gardens with birds cooing on the pathways and Carrie naming the various scents of the flora we were passing. On our way to Westminster Abbey, Carrie noticed that we were near Trafalgar Square and asked if we could go there for just a moment. Pictures were snapped, lions were climbed (diseases were acquired), and we decided to enter the National Gallery.

Lions at Trafalgar Square
The walls of the National Gallery are painted with bold, strong colors: rosy reds, bright golds, waxy greens that serve to keep pointing you in the direction of the next painting. We saw Van Gogh’s sunflowers, some more Brueghel, Cézanne, Dégas, and many more since the National Gallery’s collection is clearly flooded with well-known artists, if not the most well-known (to me) examples of their work. My favorite was Salvator Rosa’s “The Witches” which depicted naked, wild-haired, fat women casting a spell with barely visible shadow monsters emerging from the background.

By the time we emerged and had lunch, we realized that we missed the opening hours for Westminster Abbey and that we would not, in fact, be able to visit any of our beloved writing forefathers: Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Blake, any of them. I felt heartily disappointed and felt a small lump underneath the fish sandwich I had been eating.

Carrie at Westminster Abbey
Still, what was the harm in going there even after it was closed? Along the way we saw Big Ben, just turning on its green evening lights. And although we missed the proper visiting hours at Westminster, we were able to attend Evensong. This would end up being the best part of my visit to London. Westminster Abbey immediately became my favorite cathedral the moment I walked in. It felt bigger than I could manage and not all of it was visible from the entrance in the way that so many cathedrals attempt to be. The long arms of its various sects had to be peered into, rather than taken in from a single spot. And each separate corner was full of wild, active sculptures: angels alighting, dogs guarding masters, gods at work and prayerful weeping Marys. Their cloaks spun round them and they cast weird and wiry shadows all along the floor. The sound of my footsteps in my flats was enormous and the light from the afternoon sunset fired the rose window that we were seated under.

Big Ben
I said this afterwards and as pretentious as it sounds, I’ll say it again now: you really have no sense of a space until you hear someone sing there. A chorus of male voices announced the choir’s entrance and you could hear them before you ever saw them- each ricocheting harmony sounded very close and also mountains away and the whole room seemed sculpted of sound. Even the teenagers, bored and tired, staring at the their feet, annoyed at their parents for this religious detour, contemplating where they could escape to get the nearest bag of fries after this, perked up a bit, turned their heads to find the source of the singing.

In any case, the music was beautiful and in attendance at Evensong that night was a delegation from Gambia dressed in primary wild colors: purple, yellow, and deep, Valentine’s red. On the way home, past the BBC and Twining’s tea, I noticed that the disappointment lump had evaporated and was instead replaced with gratitude for having followed our plan-less feet to Westminster even though it hadn’t been according to plan.

The next night we saw a wonderful production of Sense and Sensibility at the Rosemary Branch Theater where Bryony works. In a space no bigger than a garage, the entire story was laid out perfectly believably, well-acted, and well told. In discussing it with Bryony later I said, “I still can’t decide if I’m sense or if I’m sensibility.”

Bryony hrmmed acknowledgement of the question before responding, “I think everyone wants to be sensibility, but really, most of the time, everyone, I think, is sense.”

Rosemary Branch Theater
But in the true spirit of sensibility that night, I allowed the group of barmaids, Bryony, and Carrie to shepherd me from one pub to another and although my tolerance for alcohol has perhaps built up a bit over the past month, any toe over the tipping point usually leads to strange outcomes. In this case, dancing at a gay bar at 4 in the morning on Whitney Houston tribute night in a London pub with old friends and new friends and finding that I, myself, was somewhere in-between the old and the new.

The other night, after I had finished writing enough of my book so that I felt like I had earned the right to live again, I decided to make some tea. I was tired, but I was also full of that restless energy that comes after having accomplished something (like finishing another chapter in your book). As I stood over the kettle, waiting for the hot water in the almost dark kitchen, I thought that it might be nice to take a walk. A thought that I easily dismissed: it was past midnight, I had to get up early and a finished chapter is nothing if the book doesn’t get finished. Silly impulse.

But then I thought: why not?

There is something dangerous about the “why not” side of my brain. It doesn’t feel like me – that cocky, smug voice that leans against the counter while I’m fixing my tea wearing thigh-high boots and way too much mascara. That side of my brain has resulted in some truly terrible conversational choices and jobs that I ended up regretting. It has also resulted in some of my favorite memories of jumping off cliffs in Hawaii and getting on a plane to post-disaster Haiti. “Why not?”: not a trustworthy lady.

In any case, the leather-boot-wearing me says “enjoy your robe too much to put on some shoes and go for a walk? Well, good, you’re really going to broaden your world view while drinking tea and closing the curtains. Fine, enjoy failing at life, robe-lover.”

She’s a bit harsh and the thing is – for impulses like this: midnight walks, interpretive dance to “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Whitney Houston night – there really isn’t a good enough reason to say “no.” So “why not” wins and then I’m wrapped up in my red, hooded coat, boots on my feet and out the door.

Quiet Brussels - View from Atomium
Brussels is not like other European cities (or indeed even American cities) in how quiet it gets (especially in my neighborhood). Although there is some night life to speak of, at a certain point in the evening, everything goes incredibly silent, like someone put the world on mute. Walking down that street, every single footfall sounded invasive and also grand. I found my way to a road that I’d never been on before, a new market that I’d never visited, and two teenagers making out on a park bench. The mist from that night’s rain created little haloes around the streetlamps and I sat down to write at a closed bus stop under the light while the mist slowly dampened my wool gloves.

I feel like, when one is at large from their own life, they are far more inclined to say “why not.”

“Why not?” my new Italian girlfriend said to me when I asked her if she wanted to go to karaoke. What I liked most about her immediately was her willingness to be friendly and enthusiastic even though we knew very little about each other beyond the fact that we both like the series, Game of Thrones. She would just as soon as had a coffee with me across the street as she would have boarded a plane for Detroit if it promised to be fun. She doesn’t speak very good English and I speak almost no Italian which means that we can really only speak in French, which is really an embarrassing half-French riddled with errors that is its own language. It’s like two children speaking in Pig Latin, there’s logic in the attempt, but it’s still not a language that anyone else would recognize or speak.

Brussels Karaoke
But we made plans for karaoke at a place I found online and when we finally met up on Friday night, we found that the place I had found was at capacity, so we decided to find another bar, have a drink, and come back later. And then, magically, the nearest bar that we found, blue-lit with a disco ball at its center was also, coincidentally, having karaoke night. And although there were only six pages of English songs to choose from, Celine Dion and 4 Non Blondes appear to be popular on an intercontinental scale. A, my new Italian friend, said that we should sing a song together and to a crowd that clutched each other and sang along as we careened our way through it, we belted out Dirty Dancing’s “Time of My Life” (with me singing the part of the man). It was a strange but the animated crowd: the lanky armed waitress, the family with their 12 year old son, a man in drag, and a mustachioed karaoke DJ. The disco ball spun and I hugged my new friend at the end and remembered how to say “well done” in Italian: ben fatto!

This evening was my birthday. Although I don’t turn 30 for a couple more months, somehow both my old world and my new world families were together tonight in my little house in  Woluwe St. Pierre in Brussels. Because I will see neither the Deschamps, nor my mother and Michael on my birthday (since I will be traveling), they decided to celebrate tonight. We took three hours to eat dinner and sampled six different patisserie cakes from around the corner. My mother brought me Season Two of Downton Abbey (as well as several other little trinkets) and D bought me a beautiful dress that is exactly my style. JP poured champagne for everyone and toasted the room saying, “to Jessica, to the book.” The grandeur of the thing made me blush , but I do think that in spite of however neurotic one becomes, you should never be embarrassed to be at your own party among people that you love.

From the Eiffel Tower
The thing is, I think “why not” leads you to the families of your life. To Brussels to your true as well inherited family that has shared with you unprecedented kindness, to a bar where a man is dancing while wearing a silver boa, to some of your oldest friends belting out Whitney Houston in the wee hours of the morning.

Why not take a walk in the middle of the night? Why not smile too much at that boy on the tram? Why not sing along to Edith Piaf with your eyes closed? The damn fool things you actually end up doing are usually led by the damn fool things that are actually in your heart.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In the Company of Cats and Chocolate

I keep my company with a cat these days. This rusty-black German Rex cat with one cloudy blue-grey eye. He lives in the shed next door. Each day, after lunch, he stalks by the front stoop, grizzly and damp. He comes up the short walkway leading to my door on his way around back with taut, coiled steps. Once he is within swiping of distance of me, he pauses. Every muscle rigid, almost vibrating while he evaluates me. Perhaps of all animals, cats have the ability to glare. But this shed-dwelling sovereign exceeds all average feline standards. He is downright livid at me for bearing witness to his afternoon cat errands. At some point, he moves on with a authoritative “I pardon you” and tumbles in a graceless plunge through the shed window. He is my only company and he hates me.

Trinity College, Dublin
The truth is that, for the moment, I am more alone than I have been a considerable amount of time. Just me and the cat. The days arrive gray and rainy with a very vocal wind. The winds seriously shrill here as they run up the gabled, tiled roofs of the neighborhood. The windows buck against their frames and the bare tree branches are tiny chutes of sound that the wind barrels through in long hissing arcs.

While talking to my mother one day, she could hear it in the background of our conversation.

“What is that?” she interrupts herself mid-sentence.

“It’s the wind, I say. Don’t worry. It sounds worse than it is.”

“Do you remember,” she begins in that way that reaffirms that I’ve forgotten important lessons from French class, “that the French have different names for the winds. They’re supposed to have different effects on your mood. The way they say the Santa Anas do.”

I don’t remember this. And haven’t heard this. But it turns out that yes, there is a wind in France called the Bise Noir which is said to drive villagers mad. Something I am certainly at risk of here a bit – tucked away in front of the computer screen sprinting through as many chapters as manically as I can.

Someone recently shared with me the blog of a woman who chronicles her solo travels. For Valentine’s Day, another blog enumerated the benefits of being single and abroad as covered in this woman’s posts. Among them are the lack of itinerary, the ease with which you meet other people, excitement, newfound confidence, and the ability to forge lasting connections with those that you do meet.

The observations themselves aren’t revolutionary, but they certainly seem true. Which means, that yes (even besides the cat), I haven’t been entirely alone.

Molly Malone, Dublin
On my last night in Dublin, I had no hotel. This was an intentional maneuver since my flight was somewhat early in the morning and I knew that some Irish pub would surely be showing the American Super Bowl. I figured I would save a few Euro and just stay up late. After several hours wandering Dublin by myself and dinner at an Indian restaurant where a group of Welshmen (flush from their win that day) invited me to join their conversation, I ended up finding a pub in Dublin’s Temple Bar promising seven screens of Super Bowl viewing. I went inside and leaned against a cocktail table by the nearest blue and white Tom Brady jersey that I could see, dubious about my Patriots during that first quarter.

The game was going badly for my team and I think I was scowling a bit, but a fresh-faced and cheerful looking Irish boy looked over at me: “Patriots fan?” he asked and I nodded and he pulled me up to his table with one arm and said “Aw, come here.”

After that, I felt very much at home with some ardent Dublin Patriots fans. We pumped our fists in the air at touchdowns and, at other times, stared fixedly at the TV screen willing the scores to change when things took a turn for the worse. Between quarters we smoked cigarettes out front and the Irish Patriots fans asked me questions about my book, one of them admitted to being a poet and a human rights advocate, the other, an engineer. We talked about New England and we talked about football. In the final hour of the game, no one was allowed to leave the bar and we sat back-to-chest and shoulder-to-shoulder watching those last few yards between the Giants and touchdown close dismally one by one. I watched them score and with a minute left in the game, I held my breath for every play until the Patriots finally lost.

As we wandered out onto the street, we slung our arms around each other and let loose some commiserative moans. For another few minutes we stood there, talking, laughing, and finally getting to the point in the conversation where we exchanged Facebook profile names with promises to find each other eventually. And so there – the first friends that I made as a solo traveler (if you’re reading this now – Hi Peter and Seamus!). I felt very sad to leave and I looked back over my shoulder several times at their small knot of bodies still groaning over the loss as I walked back to my hotel alone at three in the morning to fetch my bag for the airport. Funny how being alone after being so thrown together in such solidarity with other people (even with strangers) leaves one feeling even more isolated, quieter.

I said I wasn't going to post this picture
of myself... but it reveals too much truth...
Then my first week of French class, writing, shopping and long hours at the writing desk that this lovely family installed for me. I keep the heat low throughout the house, wear my fluffy blue bathrobe, sometimes doubling up on scarves. With just my little head visible over the top of my robe, I look a bit like a bloated, fuzzy Smurf.

Which is why I decided I needed to leave the house on Friday night. The problem is that it is very difficult to leave the house when it is so cold. There is no new snow, but the little that has fallen (nearly two weeks ago) dusts about in small piles and refuses to melt. Even when the sun blares all day, the wind and the hard temperatures are only enough to make tiny dunes of the thin sheet of flakes that cover my little back yard.

Café des Halles, Brussels
Anyways, I put tights on under my jeans and waited for the late night tram to take me into the heart of downtown. On the way to the bars by the Grand Place, I walked through the Rue des Bouchers where a young, dark-haired man wearing a chef’s vest stopped me and referred to me as "princess" throughout the conversation. I paused in that blue and green lit neon walk for a moment to talk with him (what minute can't I spare when there is literally nowhere that I have to be). He brought me into the restaurant that he ostensibly owns and gave me a glass of champagne and then took me outside to the heat lamps, produced an ashtray and we smoked together. When I said goodnight, trying to make a graceful exit out of a lie that I have to “go meet a friend,” I headed towards an area that Bri and I visited two weeks past and find a bar that claims to be part café, part dance hall, part art gallery and find that it is indeed a lovely venue.

Café des Halles, Brussels
It looks like a converted railway station with high sweeping iron beams that hold up the domed roof. The walls are brick with intermittent columns supporting the three levels that wrap around the whole room. There is a fountain at the center of the room as well as a sweet-looking DJ who I glance at throughout the evening. My young-looking server is charged with the sad task of conveying notes on pieces of cardboard boxes from a gentleman at the bar that I never quite see that gives me his number with scribbled Sharpie messages in French. He sends me a drink and later on a genial New Yorker takes a picture of me and ends up telling me about San Francisco and himself. And despite the trip out and the pleasant conversations, I still feel rather lonely. Not at all the Irish camaraderie I had so enjoyed less than a week before. But without an itinerary, agenda, or anyone to answer to, I was able to select my chances for myself. I treated myself to taxi home and jabbered with my driver in awkward French. That counts as practice for French class, right?

My benefactors here have a daughter that lives in Brussels and after a few missed connections, we had finally made a date for Saturday afternoon. And despite the cold, we decided to spend the afternoon taking a walk around the pond in the Bois de la Cambre.

Bois de la Cambre, Brussels
Charlotte, tall and willowy with wildly bright eyes, is an actress, comedienne, singer with a concert coming up at the beginning of the month. As two wool-wrapped artists on our own for the first time, we ended up going over a lot of our troubles with art, our giddiness for it, the personal trials associated with it. At intervals she would point things out to me: a red-throated robin, blocked off areas of the ice where skating was forbidden, large rock archways, and the small island at the center of the pond. She gently corrected my French as we walked. And even though the wind had bruised us blue by the end of it, I was surprised when I looked at my watch and learned that we had been talking for nearly two hours. We ended up in a café with our hands cupped around two warm bowls of carrot soup accompanied by thickly sliced bread and small flowers of butter.

Chez Charlotte, Brussels
Afterwards, we went to Charlotte’s place with a brisk walk along the sidewalks of Brussels, peopled with families out with strollers and men with their newspapers and girls with high boots. Her apartment is in an old town house style that would have once housed only one well-to-do family, but is now split into three floors of one bedroom apartments and the whole thing begins with a high and green-as-grass front door. We go up two flights of stairs and arrive at Charlotte’s apartment which is the ideal artist apartment – tastefully decorated with antiques, cards from friends and flooded with light from the high windows. I look across the street at all of the other buildings in the old Belgian style standing at attention, shoulder to shoulder and wonder how someone couldn’t be inspired here. I imagine that every flower box at every window along the street is the home of a poet, sculptor or dancer. And we continue to talk all afternoon long.

Is there anything better than making a new friend? Meeting yourself again for the first time and wondering what you might look like as you puzzle over an unknown French word? It is perhaps the greatest joy of traveling by yourself - you find out not only who other people are, but who you are as you get to know someone who has absolutely no sense of your past. You carefully unpack yourself for the first time in good long while and find out what you're really carrying around with you.

And so I find myself alone this Valentine’s Day. And yet, untroubled by that fact. Even with the Bise Noir blustering outside my window.

Full-size Chocolate Orangutan, Brussels
(I think the only thing that would make the Belgians
happier is if they could have made it out of beer)
This weekend, I also visited a chocolate shop with another friend – the premiere artisanal chocolaterie in Brussels: Pierre Marcolini. Of their highly varied selection (saffron, violet, rose, anise) one of their offerings is a tour around the world in a box – through chocolate. Each tiny truffle represents another country: Venezuelan chocolate, Swiss chocolate, Belgian chocolate, chocolate from Ecuador. I bought a box for myself and find myself this evening up late after too much coffee eating through a tiny voyage around the world. One of the best ways to travel solo.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Four Countries in One Month

I spent the first few hours of this new year desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to flag down a cab in the jungle of New York City. I ended up walking home from the East Village to Battery Park at 3 in the morning with a group of giddy and harebrained friends that I’ve gathered over the years. By glowing diner lights I laughed so hard that my abs ached the next day.

In Temple Bar
I finished that same month walking over the old brick streets of Temple Bar in Dublin with a friend of mine peering in restaurant windows and enjoying a hot toddy at a pub called The Foggy Dew.

In one month I have traveled to four countries – by far the most amount of travel that I’ve ever completed in such a short amount of time. In between I dined in a top floor apartment in Paris with a view towards the Eiffel Tower, shopped along the chaotic little paths of the flea market in the Place du Sablon and drank my way to the bottom of numerous cups of coffee and started over on a book I’ve thought about for years. And at such a strange (or at least unfixed) time in my life.

Let me first admit that I haven’t enjoyed “growing up” very much. In a very earnest conversation with a friend of mine over dinner one night about a year ago, we were discussing the various things that seem to be more problematic as time goes on. We have new fears, new neuroses, rote patterns of behavior that have become ruts.

Road to Dublin
“So do you think that you’re getting better or worse as time goes on?” I asked and we both answered the question in unison with embarrassed smiles of admission: “Worse – definitely worse.” We toasted this somewhat sarcastic confession over plates of well-made Indian food in solidarity, but I silently began to go over the things that have disappointed me or how I have disappointed myself over the years. I used to be so trusting of the universe, so present in whatever moment was elating me or scalding me. I used to be phobia-free and now I sometimes walk down streets with my keys formed into brass knuckles whereas once I walked through the streets of DC at 10 p.m. entirely on my own after having watched Buffy in Georgetown at the age of sixteen. I used to love airplanes and now I grip the seats and shriek a bit at each dip in the air (much to the disappointment of my fellow travelers).

I’ve worked numerous jobs basically half-awake at the wheel and finally acquired a sense of the educational debt that’s smothering me and that I signed on for. I’ve been in and out of relationships on the road to nowhere with decent human beings several times over now and I have no artistic life to speak of though it still is the bright sun at the center of my universe: as indispensible as it is untouchable. And sometimes the best news to me in a day is the free burrito I won from Gorditos. Have you ever ended up at the end of ten years and said to yourself “I don’t recognize me…”?

But in going over the past month, I have come to understand exactly what I have gained over the course of a decade and, as such, have also realized that I have unknowingly sponsored my very own “It Gets Better” campaign.

***

Beautiful Day on the Liffey
While the rest of Europe is buried under snow banks and experiencing a cold snap that is keeping many people indoors, I left for the island of Ireland where the forecast was all wind and rain and a general sense of discouragement in response to how hard hit the country has been by this latest recession. What I found instead was a week’s-worth of blazing sunshine and the friendliest people that I’ve met in Europe so far.

“That’s a nice camera you’ve got there,” the tour guide notes to me as I snap pictures in Dublin Castle.

“You’re just being nice,” I reply wiping off the blurry camera lens.

“Does it take video too?”

“Not very well,” I tell him, “I tried to record the evensong in St. Patrick’s Cathedral the other day. It sounded horrid.”


“The recording, not the evensong,” I clarify and he laughs heartily.

This exchange leads me to a recommendation that will result in my best meal in Dublin: an Indian restaurant called Jaipur between Temple Bar and St. Stephen’s Green where the staff is as fanatical about my presence there as I am about the food and the group of four gentlemen celebrating the Welsh victory in today's rugby match are gregarious, inclusive, and encouraging of me writing a book. I’ve found that all these Dubliners are eager to chat, incredibly helpful in pointing you in the right direction, and generally glad to have the tourists here, even though times are tough. Or maybe because they are so tough. I am so glad to be the age that I am: capable of managing this journey without a guide or stewarded experience, but not so self reliant that I won’t speak to strangers and make new friends with the bartender at the Guinness Storehouse, the grandfatherly cab driver, the carriage driver who lets me reach out and pet the velveteen nose of his horse: Sparky (putting me in mind of James Wright’s poem “A Blessing).

***

St. Patrick's Cathedral
On my first day in the rebellious Dublin sunshine, I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral (a building that was founded in 1191). The whole style of the cathedral is far more colorful than the other European churches that I’ve been in and Kristyn and I were lucky enough to be there in time for the rehearsal for that evening’s evensong performance. The whole building contains art and artifacts that are hundreds of year’s old including an old church door in which Gerald, Earl of Kildare cut a hole to thrust his arm through and calling an end to an age-old feud with Earl, James of Ormond, in 1492, old Celtic crosses and Irish wolfhounds standing guard over fallen soldiers.

St. Patrick's Cathedral - Interior
But, for some reason, my favorite relic was Jonathan Swift's death mask. The death mask – what a quirky habit of an older time (popular in the 17th century, it seems for leaders and people of note). Upon someone’s death, they would take a plaster cast of the face of the deceased. It’s a somewhat morbid tradition and I don't know why it draws me in so. But I remember spending a prolonged period of time with Keats’ death mask as well in Rome. Even as I looked out over the Spanish Steps on a bright July afternoon, seeing Keats’ face there staring back at me, so blank and so young. I felt more present with him than in all the activity outside on the streets of Rome.

Swift Death Mask
And then there was Jonathan Swift’s death mask. And, I mean, I liked what I read by Swift well enough (Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal), but I never knew anything about him as a man and probably never cared to. I've since learned about the somewhat dubious relationships that he had with two women (one nearly twenty years his junior who he met when she was eight and he was her tutor, although the affair didn't start until many years later). He never married either of them though he was buried next to the one he had known from her youth. But Swift’s mask – somehow even though life had already gone out of him, he looks concerned and troubled. What dark thoughts did he have on his death bed that left him capable of that expression and how did the plaster cast bring out those details so truly? I don't know - call me strangely dark and gothic, but I love a good death mask.

And I love that I know myself well enough now to pause at these things, to feel sorry for or sympathy with someone who was once a character in my mind, but suddenly becomes a person. I’m glad that I take the time to pause instead of rushing headlong onto the next thing on the agenda.

***

Wilde in Merrion Square
It also appears that Oscar Wilde is haunting me a bit on this journey. A man whose writing I always respected, but never soaked in. Before I left, one of my friends quoted him to me in a line of wisdom I already forget on New Years Eve. In January I visited his grave where I found one of my now-favorite lines of poetry by him on his grave. And then the other day, stepping away from the novel for the afternoon, I decided to visit Merrion Square because of the once again un-promised sun streaming in the streets and the proximity of its location to me. I walked briskly, skirt swishing around my knees, but grateful for the high boots in the wind. And right there – at the corner facing me in Merrion Square park was a reclining Oscar Wilde facing No. 1 Merrion Square where he used to live.

Apart from the fact that he wrote his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest and a number of other great literary works (The Picture of Dorian Gray – his only novel that I know I read, but I now have no memory of), he was a man known for his wit and sparkling conversation. He was a man much appreciated at parties, loved and lamented for his cleverness. He is someone I surely would have stood near at a writer's salon in order to hear him, but not to draw attention to myself for I surely wouldn’t be able to keep up the banter. Earnest brought him popularity and fame and it was at the height of this that he tried the Marquess for libel – a trial that brought to light his own homosexuality and resulted in his imprisonment. Whereas he was once known for lightness and love of pleasure, the prison experience and the abandonment of his former life caused him to write De Profundis (something I've never read)– a letter of deep distress, an illustration of trials, and a journey towards darkness. In other words, the downward spiral.

Eire in Merrion Square
He died two years later in a country that wasn’t his own, penniless. Alone. And relatively young. Just forty-six years old. And now his grave is covered in kisses. I hope he knows that we were waiting for him on the other side of his death. On the other side of the trials in his life – we were here. From everywhere, holding plays and poetry very close and wishing that we could have told him, “Christ, Oscar, it gets better.” It never would for him.

***

Every night after visiting a restaurant or a pub together, Kristyn and I return to the hotel bar and have a cup of Bailey’s Irish coffee (hers) and a mug of chocolate (mine) and we laugh and complain and listen to the middle aged men singing Elton John songs at the top of their voices in the blue-lit bar (drinking: it’s not just for young people anymore).

First Guinness at the Gravity Bar
Last night, Kristyn’s company hosted a party at the Guinness Storehouse in the heart of Dublin that was spread over the museum’s multiple levels and tiered to take you through the entire history and experience of this classic Irish beverage (something my cab driver refers to as “Mother’s Milk”) and is capped by the Gravity Bar which boasts a panoramic view of the city of Dublin where I have my first pint of Guinness ever.  I also was able to hear Ireland’s own Ham Sandwich perform and timidly stand at the edges of the action watching the sound girl with her patchwork stockings and Diet Coke t-shirt tied off to reveal her midriff while Kristyn and I end up talking to an old Irish man whose cousin published three novels here in Ireland and I am reminded of one of the most important ways that life gets better.

Kristyn at the Door of Reconciliation
I am accompanied on this trip by all manner of friends. Friends that have traveled to far-flung Venezuelan villages and are now stationed in Paris. Friends that have crossed oceans to explore new cities with me. Friends that I made in books when I was very young and their poetry was the only thing that made sense to me. Friends that are un-met or just beginning like the fellow who budged over at his table in this crowded café making space for both my laptop and his netbook just now.  Friends that will visit the seediest dive with me or remind me to treat myself to a white chocolate parfait topped with this season’s raspberries.  Friends that now live on another continent and have learned two new languages and then will tell you in one breath about the treasure of their Jewish sushi bakery (?) down the road. Over the years I have come to know some of the warmest, most sophisticated, intelligent, and vulnerable people that one could have the pleasure of knowing. And living this many years has only grown that population in my silly, sometimes-insecure heart.

***

En Route to Howth
Last Friday afternoon I walked to the Pearse Street train station and bought my ticket to travel to Howth – a seaside suburb of Dublin. As I boarded the train I queued up my iPod to U2’s epic “In the Name of Love” and rolled through the city and countryside with a feeling of epic possibility accompanying me. I opened up my journal and tried to write down what was feeling, but sometimes I have to remind myself not to take a picture or write everything down in my little black journal, but instead just watch the migrating geese working their way over the field in the sun. And just remember being here. Not process or preserve it.

Howth Lighthouse
I read somewhere that traveling produces the same chemicals in your brain that falling in love does – because of the newness and novelty of everything. It’s one of the reasons why some people say that they feel more sexy when in a foreign country. And as I stepped out into that little port side town, something like falling in love with my life happened to me. When I arrived, I kept the ear buds in right through my walking tour of town. I followed the sun all the way down to the point of the Howth Lighthouse and stood there while two other Americans sat right on the edge of the breaker and talked. Along the way, a street performer played jazz sax for the tourists and I pulled my red coat tighter around me.

St. Mary's Church
Howth is a town settled by the Norweigians as a strategic Scandanavian stronghold that has been converted into a suburb of Dublin. It is home to a small town of commuters and is populated by several small boutiques, fish and chips stands, and a variety of local taverns. One of my favorite spots was St. Mary’s Church and graveyard. It was one of the earliest churches built in the area – built by Sitric, King of Dublin in 1042 which fell and was replaced a few times and the ruins that are now standing are from the second half of the 14th century. The graves are decoarted with flowers (still) and surrounded by a wall that is lined with ivied benches for sitting and writing.

Writing Bench in Howth
Up the winding cobblestone streets, looking in tea shops, viewing other churches, watching the wrong way traffic, I finally found a place with free Wifi (The Abbey Tavern) and people extremely generous with their time where I was able to sit for more than two hours and work on my book (also set in a coastal town).

On the train ride home, it turned out that my train car was completely empty for three whole stops, and for some reason I decided to sing loudly along with the songs by Coldplay and the Weepies shuffling on my playlist– fiercely, passionately, and without reserve. They might have even heard me on the other cars. I didn’t care. And I can't remember the last time that happened.

If you want to picture me on this trip, think of it just so: me in a knitted black hat, layers beneath my red coat, sitting alone on a train, chasing the setting sun back into a city and singing, unembarrassed for a change and so glad that I am this age and not any other one.

Note: Tonight I'll be rooting for the Patriots at my favorite Dublin bar late night. Could be my best Super Bowl yet.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Keeping It Real

I hesitated to make this blog post. In the midst of all the vibrant delight that I'm feeling there have also been some substantial doubts and some long talks with myself and I wasn't sure that they were the correct tenor for the blog that exists as it is now. I wrote this journal entry in the first week of my time in Brussels when I was still staring down the barrel of "THE NOVEL." People keep asking "how's the writing going?" and I'm not sure if you've noticed, but there's a notable absence of a treatment on that subject. In the weeks since, I've substantially turned a corner in this regard. I've spent the past month in the equivalent of literary doodling: more than a hundred pages of short story starts, memoir-ish stabs, journaling, long letters to myself, flash fiction - just doing literary sit-ups really. And in the past week I made a command decision to start with a blank document and abandon the past three years of the novel segments that have been written at different times and in different moods and styles and just start fresh. I re-outlined, character sketched, planned and have since finished the first two chapters at an exciting sprint. So there's that, too.


I am posting this, because if you are a writer and you are unsure of yourself, if you're staring at a blank screen and wondering how you do this thing that you love... well, then this might help you feel not so lonely...


When I had an internship in New York City for one summer in 2004, I made a list of all of the destinations that I wanted to make sure that I visited before my time there was through. I saw almost all of them: The Statue of Liberty, the library, the World Trade Center monument, the MOMA, Gotham Comedy Club, the Bronx zoo, etc.. Every week, I ticked off another location and added it to my collage.

I spent the majority of that summer largely alone, but it was those excursions that reminded me of where I was and all that I could experience in that city. It was dirty and hounded and torturously, yawningly vast without any break. Where did all these people come from? Where did I fit in? But there I was – breathing in books that were hundreds of years old, there I was – smelling the dim but pervasive scent of shit in the Gorillas exhibit. I made my way out into the city and (in that way) was transformed. I also got a hell of a lot of writing done that summer. The bulk of my senior thesis.

This room that I’m now lying in feels like home – downy comforter, blue robe hanging balefully on the wall looking particularly woebegone. I have the limitless reaches of the internet before me, chat conversations ticking in and out of my browser and a still amassing to do list. It feels like home. But I don’t want it to.

I want to be transformed, but transformation takes courage, something that I seem to be sorely lacking these days. It requires me to get up and leave the confines of this charming room with its picturesque framed view of the suburbs and go listen to the chatter of other people speaking in a foreign language. I am hampered by my lack of confidence and a lack of that reckless and trusting faith that the universe will take care of me. After ten years of “real life” I am afraid of the food that I eat, the fate of the planet, the viability of love, most things that I experience even on a day-to-day basis. Everything that I have learned about life has led me to this conclusion “don’t trust; you’ll just end up profoundly damaged or at the very least violently embarrassed.” It’s something that keeps me inside this snug little retreat and out of the activity that might possibly change me.

It’s also keeping me from the page. If I venture into that territory too far I run aground on fear (as usual – “Jeez, did I really just use the thesaurus for “funny?” – “Is there really a character in that buttoned-down, limited, little mind of yours that can barely manage the story of her own life, let alone someone else’s for 300 pages? What’s your problem?”). And there’s always an available alternative – Bond’s facebook always has funny links on it, I’d best pay her page a visit. Still need to figure out how much it’s going to cost to get to Paris – I’d better go see what the fares are. Oh – it’s enormously complicated to put my loans on forbearance? Better do that now.

None of these things occurred during my time in New York. I had visitors constantly – almost every weekend – but during the week I was alone and fell comfortably into a rhythm. Get up in the morning and switch on Billy Joel, shower, adorn myself, subway, work (or whatever the hell that was), dinner somewhere (preferably air conditioned), and then home to write for two hours, hummus snack and a movie to fall asleep to. Bliss. On the weekends friends and family would visit. We’d tour, experience the city, knock a few things off the list and I’d be back to my own devices by Monday. Pages (not outrageously good pages, mind you, but certainly present) stacked up at the bedside. I wrote a short story collection in a summer.

You see – I was lying when I said I hadn’t ever lived alone. Well, not really. I’d just forgotten this portion of my history. And shame on me for not remembering. I did live alone for a summer and for that entire summer I was myself. A bit reclusive maybe, but politely, pleasantly, and productively so. I must shed my apprehension and I have to trust again. I have to get out into the city and be where I am – 6,000 miles away from the “real life” that I led a prison break from. I have to sit at my computer with the internet off and just doodle and stop pestering myself about this book that I have promised I will write and just write.

I asked Heather this morning: “you will still love me if I’m not a writer, right?”

“Of course,” she replied.

And somehow after she said that I produced another page, some lines of dialogue, a little vignette about my mother's watches. A little reassurance... sometimes it goes a long way.

Maybe if I didn’t place the burden of my ego on everything that I created, maybe if I knew that I was enough whether I wrote this silly little book or not, I would actually write this silly little book.

Today there was salad with vinagrette, bread and cheese, soup, lasagna, cheesecake, and tea. There was more. There was a run first thing this morning.

I don’t think people run on the streets here. I think they run in parks along paths. I did catch a raised eyebrow or two and JP said that he thought it would be “much nicer in a park.” But as I was pounding down the trattoire at seven this morning watching the sky smear gold and then to that familiar gray as I rounded the corner toward home hundred-year old bells reminded me of where I was.