Saturday, March 31, 2012

Now and Future Elegies

A dear friend of mine died yesterday. Suddenly. Still very young. An incredibly gifted artist whose patience, reverence and diligence on the canvas were only exceeded by those qualities in himself as a person.

For one of the first times on this trip, I find myself homesick. I want to see Seattle. I want to pause at its intersections, look up at the criss-crossed electric bus wires tangling with the traffic lights, I want to walk down alleys that open onto views of the mountains, I want to be wrapped up against the rain in some inappropriate wool jacket and pause in front of a spread of graffiti that I’ve never noticed before while I wait for a bus, hear the shush of the passing cars peeling through the puddles.

Christopher Martin Hoff. Sono, oil on linen.
But, in truth, I think if I were in Seattle, I would still feel homesick. Seattle is a city authored by Christopher in his paintings and I think I would be looking for him. Every single day (rain or shine, really), he could be found carting his easel along avenues in the unreasonably up-and-down hilly city. He had the ability as an urban landscape painter to make naked its transience, its sadness, or its beauty. And he almost always worked on location on paintings both large and small, leaving behind a not-large-enough, but still sweeping collection of work painted with kindness and insight. It was this insight, this awe at the often-overlooked that turned him, for me, from an acquaintance into a date. It is also something that I wrote about quite recently (in January) for no other reason than that I was thinking about Christopher. Here is an excerpt about the night that we first met:

It takes a certain kind of man to approach two women in a bar and the sad fact is that most of the time, he isn’t the kind of man that I’d want in my general vicinity, let alone as a partner. And yet that’s how many of us spend our nights out as single women, vigilantly waiting for a man to approach us or then finding our way out of conversations with those that had the gumption but not our interest. It’s a rare thing to find yourself at ease with a stranger in a bar, but it happens.

On the tail end of the week, after going to a lecture at the Frye Art Museum on Capitol Hill in Seattle – an area that I usually avoid for its lack of parking and cooler-than-thou, ball-squishingly-tight-pants-wearing hipster crowd – a girlfriend and I decided to discuss the topics brought up throughout the Frye’s presentation at a nearby bar. We weren’t out to meet people, we weren’t even planning on being out at all. I was wearing the dress I’d worn to the office that day, we were both shrugged into bulky winter wear and the only quality in bar selection that was relevant to us was proximity.

So we departed the museum along with a stream of other artists headed out to their own bars to discuss the evening and fell in step behind a retreating, thin-shouldered man ahead of us. And although we have a tendency to be a bit loud and obnoxious after sitting still for a long while, my friend and I, the man in front only turned around once to glance with a smile of amusement at our boisterous Anchorman-quoting as we headed to the Hideout.

Christopher Martin Hoff. Ahab, oil on linen, 28" x 36"
The Hideout is dimly lit and covered in art – large framed paintings or small portraits, a slate of rotating photographers host their work there from time to time. There’s an old chandelier and a range of plushy little booths where two girls can settle in for a private conversation.

But the guy in front of us, slim of build and lightly dusted with facial hair also stood in line before us at the bar and turned around with a smile, offering to buy our drinks and join the conversation as he, too, had been to the same lecture at the Frye. With one raised eyebrow and a nod, my friend and I silently conferred with each other, agreeing that we weren’t risking too much by letting this guy in on our evening.

He carried our drinks over to us and sat down deferentially and waited a moment before saying anything, allowing us to drive the conversation if we wanted, but then began by talking about the lecture – how he thought the interaction between the visual arts and writing wasn’t always obvious, but it was still a very rich and interesting relationship and that’s why he had attended. I can't even remember now exactly what the presentation had been about.

He listened to us chat for awhile, smiling politely at our inside jokes and laughing genially, and offered a few shy and thoughtful nuggets about the speaker. It was like being back in graduate school again with a new colleague – all of us glad to be in the company of other people who wanted to discuss ideas of some weight and over the course of the evening it came out that I was a writer and he was a painter. We started talking about art and what he was working on and he tried to describe an alley he was painting at the moment at which point he turned specifically to me, looked me straight in the eye with a bashful timidity and lightly brushed the slope of my shoulder along my sleeve – “there’s this one beautiful garbage bag in a dumpster in the painting I’m working on now that falls exactly the same way your dress does,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it all night.”

The earnestness of his tone and the lack of derisive snort from my friend made me suddenly aware of how close his elbow was to mine, how bare my legs were under the dress I was wearing and I silently admitted (right then) that at some night in the near future, I would go home with this guy.

That was Christopher, the type of guy that could compare your dress to a garbage bag and make it into a compliment.

Daniel Carrillo. Wet plate collodion portrait of Christopher Martin Hoff. 
Christopher was willing to be misunderstood and to fail. He was one of the only artists I know who was working to make a living entirely off of his art and doing pretty well at it, too. This required some creativity, of course. Breakfast was the same every day: a banana (which he bought by the dozen every Sunday at Safeway). He lived in a reduced-income artists loft (complete with skylight) which would have been lovely except that it was in the heart of Pioneer Square, which (as everyone knows) turns into a den of drugs and high-volume conversations after dusk (I actually had to remove a syringe from the heel of one of my shoes when I arrived at his house one evening – no joke). It meant that WIFI had to be pirated from neighboring businesses and that every item in his closet was regularly put into rotation. When we were dating, he had a vintage white VW bug which was later stolen from him by hooligans out for a joy ride. It was a quirkly little mobile whose internal mechanisms somehow caused my car alarm to go off when he drove down my street. The Bug was held together by nothing more than rubber bands and Christopher’s love of it.

But Christopher didn’t see compromise, he saw possibility. He didn’t see sacrifice, he saw experience. And the result of that attitude is also our only comfort. By investing in himself, by investing in his dream, we are left with an incredible body of work that has been showcased at the Linda Hodges Gallery in Seattle.

Isn’t that what we’re all hoping for as artists anyway? A little immortality? A little staying power in an otherwise brutally impermanent world? Yes, I’d wager that’s at work for at least a few of us.

Christopher Martin Hoff. The Chase In His Wake, oil on linen, 30" x 22"
But really, today, I am simply glad that this is true for Christopher – that the relationship I can still have with him is the one that I get to feel while standing in front of one of his paintings, looking at the kind and dexterous strokes guided by hands that were as gentle to touch as they were to the canvas. I am not contemplating some sense of immortal staying power, I’m not worried about the generations to come (although I think he’ll be around for that, yes), I am simply grateful that he took enough time to bet on himself, to doggedly work every day, so that there is something of him for me. Yes, it’s rather a selfish lens, but that doesn't make it any less true and it doesn't make me any less grateful. I am so glad that I have a painting of his in my house; a watercolor of Mount Rainier that he gave to me for my birthday a few years ago, painted on a rare clear day – it’s one of the few prized things that I own.

It makes me want to light the fire under all of the artists that I know – from one continent to another and say: Get to work. Get to work! Get to work! It is possible that we will lose each other one day. Whether we mean to or not. Get to work!

Christopher and I? We were friends. It never worked out romantically, but that didn’t matter. I spent most of my time with him almost four years ago and I’m sure some of the details I know of him are now outdated. But I liked running into him. I liked the short and witty emails that sometimes peopled my inbox from him. I liked seeing his paintings. I liked looking around the city with Christopher’s eyes that could make any city (even Seattle) into something as eternal as Rome.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Social Graces with Dalloway, Vincent, and Others

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Certainly one of the most confident opening lines in literature and, after all these years, it is still one of my favorite initiations into a character and a plot. It’s a line that introduces the woman and her circumstances so effortlessly and, in a way, is the whole of the thematic character of the book in one line: Mrs. Dalloway in preparation for a party she will give – moving towards community, but also alone and intensely strained.

I have a tendency to “Mrs. Dalloway” my social scenarios. Strange - since I think of myself as someone who loves to meet new people and build small circles of friends who hug too much. I am, sad to say, a little socially handicapped. I spend vast amounts of time at parties near the cheese dip, stuffing my face and dusting broken tortilla crumbs off of my scarf, so that I don’t have to make too much conversation and thereby say one more off-color thing that proves me to be the socially inept hunchback that I am, leaving people to wonder who let me in.

Museum Night Fever
Here is this small insight into me. Perhaps I am talking to you at some well-lit party – a gallery opening in Seattle, say. There are girls wafting through the room, making it look easy to walk in heels, a band I haven’t heard of is whine-harmonizing in the background, and I am holding a glass of white wine more as a prop than to actually drink it. If I am stumbling through a story, laughing at awkward intervals and veering off the course of the conversation, or wandering dangerously close to unnecessary, blush-inducing innuendo and then spilling wine down my front, it is probably because I like you and I think you’re cool and I’m not necessarily up to the challenge of conversing with you as an equal. You’re probably either very funny or very intelligent (or worse, both). You wear a hat without looking like a poser. You’ve read more important books than I have, are disastrously well-informed about politics or the current financial crisis and I am terribly afraid that I’m about to be discovered at any moment.

Or another possibility: if I seem at all cogent or clever – if I manage not to mispronounce “endive” and don’t run roughshod with the volume of my voice, then I probably really like you and behind the steady and coyly, vague brown eyes, I am running a marathon in my head; Google-indexing everything I’ve ever learned, replaying past conversational faux pas at an alarming volume in hopes of side-stepping them this time around and wondering if you're preoccupied with the gap in my teeth.

Add the challenge of speaking in French to the mix and I’m absolutely blithering.

I’m socially useless and I know it, which means that I run at every communal occasion as though it were an episode of Survivor, wondering which round I’ll be eliminated in.

So, I am rather tense on the eave of a party – a dinner party for my small network of friends here in Brussels. I tried to buy the flowers myself, but they were too expensive. But, in spite of the nerves, in spite of the pressures I feel as a hostess for carrying off even a small party, I turned on the music, changed outfits three times and waited by the door while everyone arrived about a half hour late. Right on time for a slightly late European dinner.

Sunflowers by Van Gogh
I’ve been thinking about artists and their relationships. Probably my whole life, but certainly on this trip. Anne Lamott writes of her father who was an author, “I suspect that he was a child who thought differently than his peers, who may have had serious conversations with grown-ups, who as a young person, like me, accepted being alone quite a lot. I think that this sort of person often becomes either a writer or a career criminal.” A sentiment I agree with. Artists seem to come naturally to their own loneliness, but not necessarily comfortably. And the trend seems to be that artists are these funky creatures who are both in reverence for people and humanity on the whole and astoundingly lonely at the exact same time. Or maybe I just want to imagine better, awkward company near me at the cheese dip.

In Amsterdam, Kevin and I visited two museums. One was the Van Gogh museum, which thoroughly secured Van Gogh’s place in my heart. The whole experience is set up chronologically – shepherding tourists through his burgeoning impulses to become an artist into the full-fledged effort that he throws himself into in his early years, encouraged largely by his brother Theo, then on to his tours through France, Belgium, and Holland sampling different countrysides, colors, and landscapes along the way.

The museum, in this way, is also somehow a story of not only Van Gogh, but his brother who loved him so dearly – to their deaths, so close in proximity to one another. It turns out that much of Van Gogh’s acclaim is owed to Theo’s widow who felt honor-bound to earn Van Gogh his acclaim after both of the brothers had died, since their wish for his success was a shared passion.  It becomes clear as you walk through the work that much of it wouldn’t have happened without Theo encouraging him, without Theo to write to as Van Gogh tried to explain and hone what he was working on, without Theo to berate for not better advocating his work, without Theo to hearten him and tell him that he truly believed in the work he was doing.

Wheatfield with Crows by Van Gogh
I saw some of Van Gogh’s sunflowers which echoed my experience of seeing them in the National Gallery in London a month ago, bringing some amount of unity to the widely-flung net of my travel. I walked along his wheat fields, forests, still lifes of fruit, and looked at the grimly set faces of the Potato Eaters, admired blossoming trees, strolled along his garden paths and watched the world turn to whorls of water under Van Gogh’s paint brush. My favorite painting ended up being “Wheatfield with Crows,” which is supposedly his last piece. I didn’t read more about him until later that evening when I again had internet access (thanks, Wikipedia).

Self Portrait by Van Gogh
Never married. There were several women that he confessed his love to that refused him, a prostitute that he lived with for several years along with her two children. He had a professional fixation on Gaugin and was obsessed with the hope that Gaugin would someday view him as his equal (which never really happened). And then, as his mania reached a fever pitch, he went to confront Gaugin with a razor, thought better of it and went to the arms of a prostitute at a local brothel named Rachel where he cut off the lower part of his lobe, gave it to the prostitute and told her to bare the package carefully. Then hospitalization, cloistered experiences that still yielded paintings, and then, at the age of 37, he ostensibly shot himself and died two days later with Theo at his side. Another theory goes that two boys in a field shot Van Gogh who they knew to have a gun, though this theory seems to not be recognized by the Van Gogh museum. In any case, the gun was never found and Van Gogh’s last words were “the sadness will last forever.”

I’ve since been reminded by a friend of a book called Dear Theo, which is a collection of the correspondence between the brothers. I plan on reading it myself, but what seems most clear from my friend’s description of it is that Van Gogh wasn’t a raving, talented lunatic. His letters instead reveal that he is a complex, feeling, intelligent, troubled, and oftentimes lonely person. And, according to the museum and those letters, in spite of that loneliness and feeling of inferiority, so often what he wishes to express in his art is connection, reassurance, and hope. I think this desire comes to artists because they feel some gap between themselves and the rest of the world and are simply trying to build a bridge over it. Maybe everyone feels this way. I don’t know.

Otto Frank at the Anne Frank Museum
Kevin and I also visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, which effected me more than I thought it would. I hadn’t realized that it would be so hard on me (after not having read the book for such a long time), to visualize Anne Frank growing up here in this cage and then enter that final room knowing that she died of Typhus just a month before liberation and just a few days after her sister without any of her family left to mourn her (except her father, years later).

The museum takes you through the two stories of the secret annex and is completely unfurnished. It is an interesting choice meant to honor the wishes of Otto Frank who said that he wanted the museum to stay exactly as it was after the raid that exposed the family. Purely on a practical level, I don’t know how people would get through the place if they moved any of the furniture back in – there would be no room for maneuvering and the flow of traffic would be like the 520 highway between Bellevue and Seattle at rush hour. But, on another level, the empty rooms that were once her entire world communicate another sort of sadness, that isolation from the rest of the world that Anne describes in the book – something that I’m sure Otto Frank hoped would be implied. Even as you squeeze between the shoulders of other backpacked tourists, trailing curly-headed kids behind them, there is something inherently lonely about those rooms.

Whoever betrayed the Frank family was never discovered – the anonymous tipper remains anonymous to this day, in spite of extensive investigation. Which left this hollow ringing in my stomach as I thought of her while we exited the museum into the unreasonably pleasant sunshine outside. As someone who so desperately wanted to be a part of the rest of the world, I wonder what would have become of her book if she survived, what sort of writer she would have grown to be.

Amsterdam's Homomonument
So even though the sun was beaming as Kevin and I stopped by the nearby Homomonument (a large pink stone triangle in the center of a square, placed in honor of all those persecuted for their sexuality), I didn’t feel light and giddy in the spirit of Amsterdam, as I should have. I felt weighted, tired, and more reflective than social.

Kitties will Save You From Despair
We stopped at a café called Walem and ordered a soup for me and a sandwich for Kevin, while we discussed plans for tonight, the order of operations for stopping into different night clubs, what we should wear, etc.  But the conversation was slow and half-hearted in a way that isn’t the norm between Kevin and I. As we ate lunch, a gray cat wandered through the cocktail tables and scratched on the wide-windowed back door of the restaurant that looked out over a terrace. The tall, balding, and well-assed waiter opened the door and went about clearing more dishes from the lunch rush. By the time I was at the bottom of my Diet Coke, I still had that lonely, hopeless despair rock in the center of my stomach thinking about the distance between Anne Frank and the rest of the world and was just about to ask for the check when the restaurant’s gray cat wandered back to the high bench I was sitting on, leapt up in one coiled move and settled onto my lap. And even though nothing had changed, even though I could still hear Anne’s father’s voice from the video at the museum’s finale telling me that he was not sure that any parent could really ever know their child, as I stroked the soft gray furry back while marshmallow paws gently kneaded my stomach, whatever sadness I was suffering as I pondered the human condition gradually melted away. I ordered a coffee and Kevin and I sat there gazing at each other over the lunch debris, smiling.

Along the Rue des Bouchers with Kevin
It is a good thing to have another writer alongside you as your companion. What is so often a solitary activity, suddenly takes on a new form as you and your friend settle in front of your respective machines and begin to clack-clack your way through an hour.

When we are out together in one another’s company, Kevin and I, we are often mistaken for a couple. We walk joyfully arm in arm and the two of us take turns sometimes resting our head on the other’s shoulder. On our first night in Amsterdam, in one of the city’s oldest coffeeshops, Bulldog, Kevin and I met two very nice older gentlemen on a one-day layover in Amsterdam. One was a ship’s captain, the other – a chief engineer. Kevin clarified “so you’re Jean-Luc Picard and you’re Geordi La Forge?” The two guys loved it and roared with laughter. “You’re right,” they said, slapping Kevin’s shoulder, “that’s exactly right.”

They bought us drinks and talked to us while we settled into the feeling of the city. They were both interested in us being writers and were glad to talk to us about it: why we liked it, what books we liked, what we were working on. When I left the table for a moment, the chief engineer turned to Kevin and asked “is it hard to date someone that you have so much in common with?”

Then the explanation that has followed a few times on this trip: no, we’re not together, we’re just good friends, he’s gay and we’re both single. We’re just here on an adventure together.

At SOHO in Amsterdam
And somehow giving the explanation is both an invitation to remember how single we both are, but also oddly comforting. Kevin looks at me and I look at him and as the chief engineer asks “well, then, do you have a boyfriend?” Kevin replies with the most subtle of sighs, “I just think it takes a long time to find the right person.”

And so it goes. Keats on his death bed saying that if he could only get well again, he would go back to England and convince Fanny to marry him. Jonathan Swift’s final wish to be buried next to the woman he had loved for almost her entire life. Van Gogh struggling against his sadness until the end as his brother held his hand while he died. Me, writing in my silly journal, scribbling away at my silly book and shelving my nerves for an evening to give a small dinner party. Because in spite of my nervousness, I rather like people, so I’ve found something really wonderful in writing. There are no shitty first drafts in the improvisational art of conversational charisma. But give me a word processor, several days of editing, copious cups of coffee, a dictionary and fact-checking capabilities and I might emerge from the experience with a whole person (either myself or an imagined character) that can manage the interaction. I can speak to you this way. Or at least try to.

So there we were, finally seated around the dinner table. A – my Italian friend who studies law, who inspires me to fearlessly say “yes” over and over again. She, of all the people who were to come to the party that night had the least amount of English, yet throughout the entire evening she participated in the conversation, asked to be corrected, and laughed loudly as we covered a range of subjects from public urinals to the fashions for tying scarves. So far, she has not once said "no" to something I've invited her to. My new friend, S, who arrived with both appetizers and desserts and was there by my side in the kitchen while I cooked offering advice and telling me funny stories and who didn’t know a single other person in the room when we sat down. R - who is always fashionably dressed was there with her handsome boyfriend, eating their way through their second, long meal of the day. L – a lovely, young German woman who lobbies for the organic produce industry and is constantly apprised and letting me know about interesting things that are happening in the city (like Museum Night Fever or the concert that is happening tonight that I will be attending with her). F – neighborhood actor and English teacher who I met on the tram. And Kevin – certainly the life of the party who sits down opposite me at the head of the table, each of us taking the position of matriarch and patriarch of the feast. We laugh all night long and yes, everyone does indeed stay for coffee. 

I’ve been asked several times throughout the course of this trip (more than ever before in my life, really) why I write and I find that in spite of having a buffet of reasons to select from, I tend to trip through all of them simultaneously and somehow end up poorly quoting portions of my favorite childhood novel, Watership Down – ending by finishing lamely “well… so… rabbits… as a metaphor… powerful stuff.”

But let me try to organize myself a little better here. I write, because it is the only vehicle for connection that I have found that I can drive with some degree of skill. I write to try to communicate with you, with all of the books and authors I’ve worshipped along the way, or yes, with myself, as well.

Bike Ride to Tervuren
I think I am interested in the lives of lonely or awkward artists, because it is the aspect that I most identify with. The sense of displacement, but also a sort of reverent love for the people around me. And well, the only weapon I have to defend everything that I’ve ever loved, never had, imagined or hoped for is my keyboard so that I can tell you about all of them. I can tell you that there is a woman I know with a view across the city who loves a gardener that she has known for ten years, I can tell you about a downy-blond dog in the park the other day who waggled his tiny butt when he saw me and and then shied away back to the knees of his rosy-cheeked, spectacled master, I can tell you how good it felt to ride a bike with my friend while the bike seat somehow shifted off its axis and I laughed as I almost tumbled a dozen times into the thorns lining the road we were on. These things happened. I can tell you that they did. And if I can tell you that, maybe the distance between us isn’t such a large gap to cross after all and maybe I’m not the only one by the cheese dip. Maybe you’re here too and we can both make our way through the conversation together.

I went to Amsterdam, stayed out late celebrating Kevin’s birthday, met new people, stopped at a bar that looked like the library on Titanic, toured through the red light district, bought more chocolates (also watched a whole lot of Downton Abbey), gave a dinner party, wandered Vondelpark, stopped for a drink at my friends’ place overlooking Brussels, visited churches, convents, and karaoke bars. I should have written about the canals, the views, the food. Instead I wrote about artists and writing. Ah, well.

In fact, I have written about all those things – just not here. If you would like to hear more about adventures in Amsterdam  or my attempt to make friends with a  goose, please email me – I’ll send it along.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Night Fever

Me in the Parc Pépenière, Nancy, France
I woke up alone that morning in a strange bedroom with my back pushed up against a wall after having slept on a fold-out futon with a sizable divot at its center, that I was tacoed into. I’ve been traveling through the European countryside with my mother, her husband and their friends. In their company, I’ve seen Place Stanislas: the small, guilded city center of Nancy and wandered along the canals of Bruges. We’ve had several family dinners in well-lit restaurants or fireside in a farm-style ranch near a rolling hill in the French countryside where I can hear sheep bleating in the night. We’ve toasted with several different white wines, champagne, we’ve laughed at my tripping French and I’ve gleaned from the wheat fields of my mother’s well-traveled friends several short story ideas. This morning, I’m waking up at 6 a.m. to ride from France back to Belgium.

The bedroom is cold. The blankets are bunched up under my chin and I’m pillow-creased across my face and disappointed at how misty 6 a.m. looks between the slats of my window.

I’ve been waking up alone for almost thirty years now, the thought occurs to me.

It’s a five hour drive to Bruges in the squat blue rental car that my mother and Michael rented. The time passes quickly enough with my mother repeating all of the GPS instructions to Michael as we go. There’s me; in the back seat awkwardly typing on my orange-juice sticky computer, visible to Michael in the rear view mirror, and my iPad is the backseat DJ.

Me and My Mother in France
In the backseat, I can spread out, write, read, and (when I want to chat) I can lean forward to stick my head between the driver and passenger seats during conversation (which is always fun). It also feels very much like being a little kid again. The grown-ups paying for the gas, the food. The grown-ups who, after having found each other and figured out how to live together, keep a house together, and take intercontinental vacations together, squire me about on my European experience. And as I look at their paired profiles in the front seat and then look over to the listless seatbelt in the vacant seat across from me, piled with luggage at its feet, it seems as though there is an implied absence.

View from the Hotel in Bruges
Right now (as I write this) I’m here. In Bruges. The canals carry sound in strange ways across the courtyard so that as I’m outside by the waterside gate it sounds like the boy careening home drunk on his bicycle in the middle of the night on the street outside is actually going right past my ear. The water is mostly still, just slow, gentle eddies as a duck dives into the water for a midnight dip or a swan goes to take another lover. This is Bruges by night, but first there was also Nancy by day.

I have actually been to Nancy, France before when I was in my Senior year at Epping High School, although it turns out that most of the memories have been white-washed over or transposed into watercolor, because seeing the city now as someone totally enamored by nothing more than food, architecture, and art (rather than the intricacies of the high school relationships of the thirty other people that I was traveling with then), I am in love with Nancy – a city in the Lorraine region of the French paysage. It all seems very new.

Place Stanislas is a wide-open square that made me squint even in the initial gray afternoon light. The square is bordered by darker stones and then the rest are these bright ochre stones which pave a pedestrian only square for festivals, cafes and other city events.  As the fountain of Neptune pounded away in the background we walked past the Hôtel de Ville, the Opera House, the Museum, my mother ducking into the tourist shop. And then (right in the center) is Stanislas himself. The gray monument capped with his statue peering through the Arc de Triomphe by Héré  leading to the adjoining Place de la Carrière reads

Place Stanislas in Nancy, France
Stanislas Leszczynski, King of Poland, Duke of Lorraine and Bar, 1737–1766
To Stanislas the Benefactor, Lorraine is grateful, 1831, Meurthe-Meuse-Vosges

What was the king of Poland doing in the middle of a square in France almost 850 miles away from his home? I wrinkled my nose and asked my mother’s friend, an English teacher here in France.

Well, she tells me, Stanislas, twice the king of Poland ended up having to abdicate the throne for a series of reasons, but after his abdication in 1736 he settled here and was named the duchy of Bar-le-Duc and Lorraine and during his time there he was noted as a good host, a patron of art and science and the architect for the idea that eventually became Place Stanislas, uniting both the old quarter and the new quarter of Nancy. A good man, apparently, and partially responsible for uniting the Lorraine with the rest of France, father-in-law to a queen, overall well-remembered. Not bad for a foreigner living in another country.

But apparently in his old age he had become particularly enormous, boasting an untenable rotund fat body that he hauled around on his 89 year old legs and still it wasn’t old age that did him in. One night, going to stand by the fire after dinner, he lost his balance and fell into the flames and although his skin was immediately seared by the heat, he could not right his enormous body and instead flailed about as he burned, doing little more than rolling around in the embers. Help arrived, summoned by his screams, but not in time. He was seen to by a doctor immediately, but it wasn’t until four days later that he died in great pain from those burns.

Place Stanislas in Nancy, France
These are some of the things I learn while traveling…

My skin, almost 250 years later feels sympathy pains. I look up at his flowing robes, the confident hand resting on the hilt of his sword, the other pointing to the North and I wonder if a former king who died in flames knows that I’m wondering if he was ever in love, if he cared about his children, what music he appreciated.

Le chat noir in the Window in Nancy
The old quarter of Nancy was also bright, peopled with almost as many statues in its walls, alcoves, and alleyways as it was pedestrians. By the time we finished lunch along the Rue des Gourmands the sun was properly shining and all of the cafes had come alive with people, reading, smoking, laughing and talking in rapid-fire French in high spirits, probably encouraged by the springtime-promising sunlight. In one of the lacey-curtained windows of one of the shops along the way, a humorless black cat watched my progress across the street with gray-green eyes and flicking bottlebrush tail. I stopped to look at him, each of us evaluating the other and his tiny butt shot into the air, ready to pounce through the layer of glass separating us if necessary, when I took a step towards him. I ran my fingers all along the panes and he chased my hand.

Chez Ablancourt
Later that night, back home with the Ablancourt clan, I stepped outside while my mother and her friends were talking about the qualities of French vs. American elections. In the dark, back at M’s place in Flavigny, the mountains were one long low, hulking shadow and the air was almost warm. Little solar lights lined the stone walkway to their house where I sat on their stoop, afraid that I had locked myself out. The whole world smelled both funky and natural: like camembert cheese and rain.

And for some reason, in spite of the fact that I have spent the past week in the company of a shifting group of wonderful people that I love very much, I also felt very alone. 

Thinking about kings burning, reading poetry by Cavafy, listening to too much Dylan and seeing old acquaintances that knew you way-back-when, sometimes it all leaves you gasping for air when you’ve put it all together in combination. And it makes you feel a ghost in the air around you – of the person that you haven’t yet stumbled upon that makes the poetry, shifting ground, food, and hard historical stories make sense yet in the context of your own life.

Boat Tour in Bruges
Here is a story. Thomas Hardy, author of some of my favorite novel-length heartrending catastrophes, was 30 years old when he met his wife, Emma. They were married four years later and the marriage lasted until her death in 1912 (thirty-eight years all told). He was a 72-year-old man at that time of her death and she was buried on a shady stretch of green in Stinsford parish. He was a notably published author at that point, estranged from his son, and re-married to a woman 39 years his junior and all he could think about was the wife he had lost.

He wandered around Cornwall where they had met years earlier when he was studying the architecture of a local church and wrote poems about their young love nearly forty years after it had all gone away and even though he was to be honored after his death by being buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, the family insisted that he be buried next to Emma in Stinsford Parish. To this day his heart is buried in Stinsford while the rest of his remains are housed in London’s Westminster. Poems like “Without Ceremony” and “At Castle Boterel” are about the merciless forward movement of time, especially when it comes to maneuvering us further away from our love.

I think, no matter the height of our career, the joys of our travel, the pleasantness of the company that we’ve kept along the way, sometimes we are helpless, soppy poets when it comes to missing lovers we’ve lost or the love that still has yet to arrive.

I wandered around Bruges noting the cozy, two-person tables inset into the walls of restaurants overlooking the canal with champagne buckets nearby, the couples pawing at each other by the lights of the fountain in the park, the blankets draped over the edges of the horse drawn carriages as invitations. Bruges is an old city, romantic for its architecture, living and breathing stones, and flowering crocuses all around the borders that are still marked by windmills and connected to the rest of the world by bridge.

In fact, the bridge that my grandfather stopped to paint in Bruges over 40 years ago is still there and along the inside lip of the bridge there are little dangling locks that are meant symbolize the steadfastness of love. The Love Bridge or the Wedding Bridge leads over the canal, away from a church into the center of town and is still used by blushing brides today as they take their first steps into their married life.  40 years ago, my grandfather sketched out a painting alongside his friend – both men charmed by the romance of the arched pathway, the moist springtime air. I picture them seated on the low wall along the path leading from the church with berets on (thought it is unlikely that either of those men ever wore a beret) eyeing the bridge as one couple after another walked through their line of sight to kiss at the bridge’s midpoint. And in spite of the traffic that they must have seen, the painting that hangs in my grandfather’s house is un-peopled, leaving me with a sense that they saw the bridge more as an invitation to lovers than an exposition of lovers.

Anyways, these were the thoughts that I was carrying around with me on Friday. Someone was suddenly taking her time abroad and herself far too seriously, and I’m not sure how long I would have stayed on that course, but by that evening it was time to put on my new dress and head towards Le Bouche à Oreille to hear Charlotte Deschamps in concert.

Which, it turns out, reminded me what this whole grand mess is actually about.

Charlotte Deschamps in concert is a grand pleasure. A mixture of old cabaret-feeling performances with poetic ballads and other cheeky, clever little larks of song. I had my flip camera at the ready and was glad to capture a song called “Les Filles de Woluwe” (a song about the girls in the neighborhood that I live in). From my seat among new friends ranged in the chairs around me in the dark, I watched someone blissfully talented enjoy performing her art for a group of enthusiastic patrons. I smiled and laughed interminably throughout the whole thing even though I missed much of the all-French lyrics. The whole audience cheered the entire song list that was followed by several encores and featured some brilliant original musical composition by Charlotte’s friend.

Museum Night Fever at Bozar
And I followed it up the next night with a similar surprise Brussels pleasure. I learned that Saturday (after Kevin’s early morning arrival) was actually a special event in Brussels in which all of the museums in the city open their doors until one in the morning and transform themselves into concert halls, dance clubs, poetry slams, and live performance venues, complete with lounges and participatory graffiti. It is a special event hat happens once a year called Museum Night Fever. Kevin, shouldering his jetlag rather well, took to the late night challenge amiably and only hallucinated a dragon once (which, considering the substance of the evening, was really quite a credit to him).

There we were in the Musée des Beaux Arts with about four hundred other people ranged along their marble steps watching a howling band play while two other girls danced interpretively in long sliding steps all around the middle landing (planned or unplanned, who knows?)

“So the Heroes are actually really big in Brussels?” Kevin smiled as we watched the interpretive dance and accordion playing shift into a heavier metal band. I punched him in the arm.

Bozar at Museum Night Fever
Brussels, usually so quiet, was fired with spontaneous art of every kind last night. 24 of the city’s museums had transformed themselves and in every corner of the city, people were touring the galleries while listening to rock music, participating in a flash mob (or a silent mob – that was an option, too – but I don’t know what that is), or watching stringed quartets.

When we entered the Grand Place to go to the Royal Museum an enormous red box had been plonked down in front of it with large white words written in Flemish across its front, a bull horn was placed in the artful cracks through its side and someone was shouting poetry. As a group of loosely affiliated foreigners, we saw a great deal of the art of Brussels in one evening and the shift in my attitude in the face of new art was palpable. And it definitely helped to fuel the six hours of writing this afternoon. It’s funny the way that art can change the face of a landscape, can change the way you think of yourself in that landscape, can make you un-know yourself a little bit. It can leave you feeling unglued, but it can also remind you of the possibilities of the life you do not yet know, instead of the hall of doors that all seem to be shut.

The thing is - the aloneness, the time spent apart from all the rest of the business of life, well, I guess that feels right to me. What do I love about this damned writing thing? The answers to that seem to be multiplying. And they are questions whose answers have only come in company with a small touch of isolation. So maybe knowing who you are is overrated. And maybe romantic love is important, but maybe its absence shouldn’t live so near to the center of a wounded heart. Maybe assigning a value to anything isn’t really a key to discovery at all. Maybe just long walks, good music, passionate practitioners of interpretive dance and really, really amazing chocolate are the actual keys to self-discovery.