Puis nous sommes allés au Sud de la France [google translate, do me right…]

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The only things I knew about the South of France before I arrived I figure I must have picked up from questionable romantic comedies. Or Inglourious Basterds, I feel like there was some provincial Provence somewhere in that film. Maybe? [RIP Shosanna Dreyfus.] As was the theme thus far in France, I was unclear on what I was supposed to want to do in the South of France, but I know I certainly enjoyed saying, out loud, that I was summering in the South of France. What else did I really need to know?

I had heard a lot of things about Provence. Mostly to do with food, lavender, wine, and sunflowers. I think I also had some illusions about dreamy, mysterious, older gentlemen who might wander out of quaint cafés or mysterious corners bearing flowers or wine or something, while romantic music emanates from some equally mysterious location.

Some of these preconceived notions were spot on.

We left Paris by train headed to Nimês, where we would rent a car to drive to Uzès, a small town near Avignon where Frenchie’s dad lives when he is in France. It was hot, and stunningly beautiful as we moved through the countryside to our first destination. There is something viscerally exciting when, before your eyes, preconceived notions become realities. It is a strangely satisfying combination of surprise, validation and joy.

Arriving in Nimês, we found the car agency and took a bit of time to work out exactly what was going on. Initially I had not been entirely on board with a couple of the decisions – like renting a car – did we really need one? [Yes.] Or did we want to see a concert at the Arena de Nimês even if it was not going to be Lionel Richie? [Hello, yes, although initially no-yes-no-yes.] In keeping with the trend, Frenchie knew best and I was finally learning to keep my mouth shut about it. We would get a car, drop our stuff in it, and head out to see the village of Nimês for crème glacés, tickets, shopping, walking.

And so we did.

Nimês was lovely, and hot. I remember being really impressed initially, but looking back on it after seeing Uzès, it was a little less special, perspective being what it is. It was a lovely intro, at the very least, and the Arena… well, we will get to that.

On returning to the car we were grateful for the shade of the subterranean garage. So grateful apparently that the powers that be allowed us to be there for far longer than we anticipated. In our (occasional) fiscal and (regular) regional pragmatism we opted to have only one driver on the car: Frenchie. And I was excited to see how this would go. But it appeared that we were not going. To be fair, I have not had a car since I sold mine – or rather #4 did, for far less than he should have – when I moved to Asia, and cars have become far more… automated. It is amusing to me how in simplifying things, car makers have made the vehicles so much more mysterious. Add to this that Frenchie is a committed luddite and an indefatigable anachronist, and we were nearly in a Mr. Bean sketch. There was an informative (though French) LED display that kept saying to engage the clutch. I am not sure how I suddenly understood French when I could barely recall how to say you’re welcome after several weeks dans le pays, but suddenly I could. So I kept saying “Put the clutch in.” And Frenchie kept saying, “What is this clutch?” And I would tell her and she would look at me like I was crazy. This went on for quite some time. At one point we were even considering going back upstairs to tell them we had a defective car.

And the shade of the garage was no longer keeping these four ladies cool.

I asked could I just try once, so we switched seats.

And the car started.

I believe we are now  all clear on how to say, and effectively demonstrate, clutch multilingually.

More to the point we now had air con and were en route to what lay ahead: Uzès.

The drive was beautiful and the approach to the village stunning. But we were completely unprepared for what was really in store. I now understand so much more clearly Frenchie’s love for all that is old and gone – I have always been curious, almost perplexed, by her love for the past. She has described it as a love for the lost innocence of people and places. I have felt more that it was a strange resistance to see the world – for better or for worse – as it is. In some cases I even felt like, and tried unsuccessfully to communicate, that her love for days gone by in places is at best limiting to these places as she insists they not progress in any way for the benefit of maintaining an image of something she wants to hold, rather than a reality she should be able to see. At worst it feels repressive and imperialistic. I know that this is not at all how she feels it or means it and that she would tell me I am up to my tricks of over thinking. This may be true. Either way she is my own Adriana, the one who will always long for some illusive Golden Age.

But walking through the gate (yes, gate) on the narrow, cobbled streets, we were transported.

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I knew I was going to enjoy my time here, in a quaint experiential way. But when I turned to look at Nic I saw something different: she was home. I had never seen someone look so perfectly in situ. She belongs in the South of France… if not now, or forever, definitely right then, Nickie was home.

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After dropping off our things and appreciating the wonderfully familiar home of a person who you’ve never met but in knowing his familiars you know him anyhow, we went out. We wandered around a few of the streets to the place du village. We chose a small taverna and sat down for appetizers and rosé. And there we were: a group of people, sometimes friends, sometimes foes, sometimes family, sometimes allies, sometimes travelers, always simpatico: especially in the moments when we were not so sure.

Over wine and bread and wine and olives and wine we considered if people always have choices or sometimes they don’t. We talked about men in Australia and America and Hong Kong. We talked about the recurring narrative that we could not really believe that we were here in this place, at this time.

There were perfect dark corners and music emanating from them… no mystery men… but it was early.

For the next few days we explored various aspects of this part of Provence. We got a wonderful tip on a restaurant from two women who had been sitting next to us at the taverna, La Table 2 Julien, for which we booked a table later in the week, there were villages of ceramics, open air markets, an arts festival in Avignon, the aqueduct, the Tower of Uzès… the list had the potential to go on and on. And not to be forgotten was the lovely home we had at our disposal.

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I think the myriad options gave rise to the more obvious differences in our various objectives. It would be the first time – to my knowledge (save for the regular disparagement for being American) – that these differences began to be a little prickly and sting as it were. (As I have said before, group work can be a struggle in the best of times.) The result of this was a bit more alone time, or tandem time, which was good for all of us, and required that we make our needs clear, which is another good practice.

I was not giving up the Pont du Gard, nor the ancient garden and tower of Uzès. And food, I wanted all the food, though truth be told I didn’t really want to figure it out in terms of restaurants and meals, I just wanted to eat it. As for road tripping and shopping, I felt like there was enough in our vicinity, but was reminded that I didn’t really know what was in our vicinity, which was an undeniable truth. Still, I was not really excited for hours in the car to spend moments in towns I was not sure I could actually see. But for the potential of greatness (positive spin on F.O.M.O.) we went.

Our day to Avignon was important because my young real estate magnate (aka Frenchie) is looking there for her next purchase, but also because of the Festival d’Avignon, self-proclaimed as “one of the most important contemporary performing arts events in the world.” I think it was impressive, I mean I know it was, it was just all in French. So we eventually went to a dance production. I was far more interested in the history of Avignon, it was the home to the Popes for years and there was a big old Palais des Papes, which I wanted to climb.

I did not get to climb this palace. We did however witness a mad conflict between a bunch of French officials who were trying to oversee a memorial for Jewish soldiers who had died in WWII at the same time that a visiting troupe of Korean drummers and dancers was kicking off in the plaza directly adjacent to and below the memorial. There was a lot of unscripted whistle blowing. It reminded me quite a bit of this for some reason.

Avignon is a walled city along the Rhône River with an interesting and complicated history. While it maintains much of this feel, during the festival it is like one giant billboard.

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Following the show we had a walk and lunch and then I took the liberty to scramble across town in search of a particular show poster that I had been unable to pull from the walls (there were so many posters but the one I wanted of course cost €5.) But this run gave me the chance to see the ramparts and the walls – as you know I do love a walled city.

The city was gorgeous and another one of those places that really takes you back, with winding streets and narrow buildings with the colored window shutters on muted terra-cotta colored buildings. I tried to picture myself living there as we considered different areas where Frenchie might find herself. Every time, as with Uzès, I thought it was lovely and sweet, and positively unlivable. I am just not cut out for the provincial, I guess.

Leaving Avignon we were en route to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. This town rates incredibly low on my Fabulous French Review. I would like to say this is because with limited time the parts we saw were totally uncharming… so strange for the part of the world that seems to have a lock on charm… and it was unbearably hot. And we were going the opposite way from Uzès so I was confused. The saving grace was that after a quick stop we drove on to Gordes, a place I would have loved to check out further but it was not to be.

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Someday I will go back to Gordes with one of those mythical mystery men – out the shadows or not.

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Our remaining time in and around Uzès accommodated almost all of our needs in different ways. We went to the Pont du Gard, and it was as fantastic as I could have imagined as we were able to walk through the actual aqueduct. Well, some of us were… somehow one of our tickets had been misplaced and in a strangely non-provincial way, the woman who had sold the ticket suddenly claimed she had no recollection of such and event and she would not let Frenchie through. Nic and I were unaware of this until we had gone through the entire aqueduct and sat wondering how we had lost our friend in a one way tunnel. I was a disappointment, though I am not sure if Frenchie was more disappointed in not going through the aqueduct or in the behavior she declared decidedly UN-French from the guide. The day itself was so stunning, it made up (almost) for this mishap.

The Pont du Gard is: an ancient Roman aqueduct that crosses the Gardon River in the south of France. Located near the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard, the bridge is part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 50-kilometer system built in the first century AD to carry water from a spring at Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus (Nîmes) Because of the uneven terrain between the two points, the mostly underground aqueduct followed a long, winding route that called for a bridge across the gorge of the Gardon River. The Pont du Gard is the highest of all elevated Roman aqueducts, and, along with the Aqueduct of Segovia, one of the best preserved. It was added to UNESCO‘s list of World Heritage Sites in 1985 because of its historical importance. (wiki FTW)

And basically I just wanted to walk around saying: What have the Romans ever done for us? [“The aqueduct?”]

It was one of the coolest things I have seen. Along with the mural of world heritage sites that listed French gastronomy as one of them. Oh France.

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In our last full day I was able to explore the medieval garden of Uzès which is between the ancient King’s Tower and Bishop’s Tower – formerly used as a prison among other things. This tower I got to climb.

After spending a little bit of time by myself in the medieval garden and exploring the King’s prison and the Bishop’s tower I headed back to our flat. For our last night all together in the south of France we would be driving to Nimes to see Sting perform at the ancient Arenes de Nimes. The drive was easy and the parking was fortuitous. If only choosing an outfit would have been so easy.

We stopped for a light dinner beforehand, although by this time I had waited too long and was crabby from hunger and nitpicking. This is the thing about being in a group: sometimes little things go unnoticed and sometimes they don’t and sometimes they just build up. It is usually in these situations I find that the inconsequential breaks the levee and emotions are misdirected and further misinterpreted. For public consumption, I’ll just say, the one person who I snapped at was not the one I meant to… And I needed a time out.

Or champagne. Champagne is generally a good alternative.

There is no mood that the Arenes de Nimês could not conquer, which for the setting seems completely appropriate.

Built in the year 70 (C.E.) for gladiator combats, animal slayings and executions it was fortified and held by the Visigoths after the fall of the Roman Empire. By the 700s it enclosed a fortified palace and eventually a small neighborhood was established within the amphitheater; home to around 700 people. In 1863 it was remodelled to serve as a bullring and today it is still used for this (gross) practice as well as lots of other public events. It is 130 m. by 100 m. and can seat 16,300. And it has sections still called the vomitoires. Which is obviously awesome. [These are the seats adjacent to the lower level tunnels that facilitate the exits.]

When we arrived the setting was simply breathtaking and this was before we even saw Sting (although, the hipster beard he is now sporting is less breathtaking… but he’s still totally hot. It’s the yoga, I know it.) The show was great, the crowd was entertaining, the weather was perfect. It was a lovely last night in Provence.

The next morning we woke up knowing that we would be heading out our separate ways. Nic and her sister were off to Bruges, Frenchie and I to Spain by way of Marseille. I got up early to walk around the village one last time and bid adieu to Uzès.

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On my return we were readying to go and people were packed, the house reassembled, and we were off.

Except the keys to the house were missing.

Like, totally gone.

Although there were some mild time constraints – more for us than for Nic and Sam who would be spending the night in Nimês – we basically had time. And how hard could it be to find a set of keys?

Suddenly we were looking everywhere. In packed luggage. In garbage. Under furniture. In the toilet.

No keys.

Of course, it was hard not to look to Frenchie who, without intentionally casting aspersions, I might suggest has had some struggles around losing misplacing items. Everybody was verklempt.

Still, no keys.

Until… there they were. On the kitchen table. Albeit, under the tablecloth, but they were there. It was relief incomparable to much I could think of save for having to pee so bad you think you might die and then finding a bathroom. And not dying.

So we were off. Back to Nimês to share a tearful goodbye with our friends and then to the train for Marseille. There was much to unpack – emotionally and experimentally. We had seen so much of Provence and seen how differently people see the same things. There were moments that were challenging and others delicious and still others that were transformative, and some that simply eliminated the need for words.

I suspect those are precisely the sentiments that define travel.

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Les Classiques.

For the days following Bastille Day we were largely on our own in Paris, every woman for herself. This was to accommodate our different tastes and objectives for Paris and was a good thing, if for no other reason than to travel en masse necessarily brings with it the complications of group work, but I also noted that there were moments throughout my days when I considered how the trials and tribulations of a group dynamic can easily be offset by the joy of having someone to share amazing moments with. I do not think that Paris lost anything for me as I traversed the city wide-eyed with my own version of disbelief about being there, but I must say, I can recall with pristine clarity the moments I looked around for a compadre for no other reason than to exclaim: Can you believe this? Truth be told, by the middle of the first day, I was just borrowing other people and their groups with which to share my awe, I mean after all, we were all there together, crowded, sweaty, agape, amazed, dusty, sprinkled upon, craning our necks, making space… whatever. Travelers are a unique tribe, and everyone I met was completely willing to reply – I know, right? AHmazing. 

Having never been to Paris (unlike all three of my fellow travelers) I was committed to seeing some of the things they all could do without. And I understand, I mean the Louvre can be overwhelming at best, and positively maddening at worst, but I was not going to miss it. And I know that I will return every time I go back to Paris, because: AHmazing. 

The only things I did not see that I know I will on my return include the Luxembourg Gardens and the Bastille.

High points from these couple of days included the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile and le Musée d’Orsay. Although, the Louvre and strolling the Champs-Élysées and floating along the Seine and sidewalk cafes and riverside picnics and the Centre Pompidou did not suck.

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And at the end of each day we reconvened in Clamart to share our stories, each of us infinitely pleased with our days and thrilled to hear about the others’ from parfumeries to cafes and cocktails to crowds and beau artes to vistas and gardens, from missteps to rendezvous, we had it all.

And with our own Frenchie to thank for our bon chance.

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We would depart by train for Nimês on 18 July and take ourselves to Provence for some time in the country. But first one last evening in Clamart.

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Paris sans Plans.

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For the week of Bastille Day 2015 I found myself in and around gay Paris. We were primarily based in Clamart, although we would spend the night of Bastille Day itself in a sweet apartment in the 15th arrondissement.

In hindsight, weeks -no, months- out from the trip, it seems so simple, but at the time there were issues around planning, and coordinating and compromising. There are always such issues to consider when you are functioning in a group, but there were certain elements that I think made the adjustments a bit more challenging this summer: time apart, expectations, varied personalities. At the end of the day, we were four people in Paris, with everything we could possibly need or want, but in the moment, making decisions seemed really hard. The players here were three people who know each other well from living as friends and neighbors for years on an island in the South China Sea, and two siblings – one acting as a host and one as a fellow traveler.

Our first full day in Paris had us first meeting at a flea market on the north side of the city. Porte de Clignancourt is a well-known shopping area, known more commonly as Marché aux Puces. This is one of the largest antique markets in the world, which is impressive and also should make it totally apparent that I would have no idea whatsoever what we were doing here. I do not like flea markets or antiques, and I surely was not interested in adding to my neat and tidy >10 kilos of luggage for the next month with second-hand furniture. However, having not involved myself in planning, I felt like it was my responsibility to toe the line with those who had made their preferences clear. Plus there were some great photo ops. Sadly, I seem to have deleted the photo of the gigantic €500 wooden penis.

From the market, where in spite of my anti attitude towards shopping at that juncture I bought a scarf as I had lost my favorite one on the train to London, we headed to the Sacre Couer. Again, I felt like I was just bumbling along with my friends and felt myself wondering for much of the morning when they had made the plans they had, feeling simultaneously left out and relieved to not have the responsibility of possible people pleasing problems by making potentially unpopular choices. I wandered along with the group under grey skies towards what would be one of my favorite views of Paris.

It started to rain as we made our way up the steps, and I was bent on getting to the top, a choice I pushed for. I think everyone was glad they did it in the end.

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Following our climb to the top of the Sacre Couer we headed to Place du Tertre. Now it was sporadically sprinkling adding a sort of appropriate melancholy to this former artists’ district that was now an overflowing tourist attraction. We sat for drinks after looking at the art and my first few dozen looks at le chat noir du Montmarte. I noticed that Parisians love dogs – seriously there are so many dogs, but they seem to really prefer cats as a motif.

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From here we endeavored to navigate down Rue Lepic towards Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge, because tourists. And frankly, I was shameless. I actually considered how I might react if Ewan McGregor came flying towards me in song.

Again, I found myself wondering, how did they plan all this and where had I been? And again, I was happy someone else had done the work to make it happen. The walk was really lovely – neighborhoods and areas that I thought were eminently livable. Except for the whole being-in-France part. But all joking aside, were I able to reside Paris, and it could abide the coming of another Americane, the 18th arrondissement would be for me.

We did some food shopping and made our way back to the hotel where Nic and her sister had been staying; a side drama that had been developing was that luggage had been lost and so there was understandably much ado about this – I would have been pretty buggered myself, especially on learning that the missing bag had reappeared some twelve hours before I was notified… but overall, there was much relief on learning that the bag had returned. As we deliberated next steps I finally spoke up. Looking at all the luggage that was now in our possession, and a good six hours on our feet I was heartily in favor of taking a taxi home rather than navigating the metro – or busses (Frenchie loves busses – definitely more on this later). I stood firm on my position and felt relieved to see that it would happen.

Back at Clamart we fixed a meal and had some wine and I think felt pretty satisfied all around with our day. To sleep we went, well, everyone except me. I had taken to using the late nights to send photos home so as to maintain memory on my iPhone – a strategy that worked well through most of the trip, and I could post photos then too without it being an issue in mixed company… I have always taken a pretty good amount of shit about my use of social media from these friends so I was being sensitive to that. [I do feel that they eventually saw the benefit of my strategy, and I even got them in on the Summer-of-Selfie™. #validation]

All in all as the day had shown, it is clear I did not do the preparatory work I would normally have done for a trip (which many people would already consider pretty lightweight) because I was relying (unfairly) on Frenchie to sort out France because, she’s French. Coupled with trying not to hurt feelings when people said/suggested things that others thought completely ridiculous, we eventually sat around a lovely table in the courtyard of our host’s home and talked in circles while having our morning coffee on our second full day as a group. There was far too much “I’m fine with whatever” from my side – because let’s face it, that is a lie. And there was frustration with collective indecision from Frenchie, our de facto hostess, who while French has not lived in France for more than two decades and is not from Paris. JM seemed to find the whole thing amusing, Nic wanted to make sure everything was perfect for everyone because she is ever the caretaker for us all – which must be tiring, and I fear not outwardly appreciated enough by any of us. [As an aside, I know that for all the years I lived in HK I felt so much better knowing that with my mom was on the other side of the world, I always had someone I could call on who would ably be there for me if ever I needed her, even though I was not her own… and if I never said it aloud Nic, I am saying it now.] 

The thing is, a week is simply not enough time in Paris. A fact Frenchie had made clear months earlier. Add to this that there would be a day trip to Versailles, it was Bastille Day, and we were planning on heading to the South of France in what suddenly felt like no time at all.

Frenchie suggested we focus on les classiques for our time in Paris. But even this was not consistently understood. As the only one in the group who had never been to Paris, I wanted different things, and I think I like museums more than most people… Again, as I sit here and reflect back on it, it seems so silly that there was any issue about accommodating people as we are all seasoned travelers and can manage whatever we want in most places. I think the issue was trying to please others got in the way – for (almost) everyone, and perhaps we should have been a bit more selfish.

Back at the table in Clamart, the conversation seemed adrift, but eventually some decisions were made. And as one might imagine, in the end most needs were met. And although I am still childish enough to pout about people/things that do not meet my expectations, I am proud to say I am adult enough not to put them all out here on the internet.

And really, all of this is just a big reminder about group travel – it is a unique endeavor.

Our decision for this day, July 13, 2015 was that we would go to Versailles.

 And so we went. 

Eventually.

Sei sup mmmmmmmmm: ripple in still water.

I wanted to write tonight. I took care of all the things I needed to take care of today and I was all ready to give myself time to sit and write. But I couldn’t. I mean, obviously I could have in a literal fingers-to-keys kind of way, but not in a metaphorical making-meaning(ful)-meaning kind of way.

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung,
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

I wanted to write about this video I took from JM’s car in Paris this summer.

I wanted to write about something satisfying. Like about taking a group of high school seniors to listen to a conversation with US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on a Friday night and having them come out of the talk and say, “He is all about the Social Contract, isn’t he?”

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But, no.

I suppose if I were a writer, I would say I had writer’s block. But I am not really a writer, am I? Only in so far as one with an Instagram is a photographer, or one who goes to church is a Christian (I wanted to write about the Pope too, because I cannot get enough of the Pontiff.) Instead, I sat. I considered meditating, but I didn’t want to make the cat move, and I sort of suck at meditation anyhow.

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken,
Perhaps they’re better left unsung.
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air.

I turned 45 this week. I sat with that for a while. 45. Forty five. Cuarenta y cinco. Sei sup mm. Fifty minus five.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

Maybe that is why I can’t think of anything good to write. Maybe by the time you get to be this age, you are supposed to have a whole bunch of real things to write about, and here I sit with my immaculate home and my two cats and some loud Eighties music in my unbearably hip neighborhood, and no typical accomplishments like husbands and divorces and kids and shit to write about.

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,
If your cup is full may it be again,
Let it be known there is a fountain,
That was not made by the hands of men.

I was born in 1970. Do you know how long it takes to scroll to that year when you are filling out your birthdate on-line? You have to pick your finger up off the touch pad at least twice. That shit is crazy. Nixon was the president and my Grandma M tried cocaine. That would have been something to see.

In 1970 things were pretty fucked up.

I came of age in the 1980s. Do you know how accidentally iconic the Eighties have become? What I know recall about the Eighties could feather your hair. I still love the music, hipsters still love the fashion. We are all still paying for the politics.

In the 1980s things were pretty fucked up.

I got some education in the 1990s: formal and otherwise. Do you think everyone assumes the time they opened their minds is the more relevant than that of others? I don’t know, but a lot of shit happened in the nineties. And then at the end of 1999 the world didn’t end and I think a lot of people thought that was pretty fucked up

I had my mid-life crisis in the mid-90s. Which makes sense because I never really thought I would live very long (which is kind of dumb of me because the women in my family tend to live a very long time.) For whatever reason my mid-life dramz kicked off at 34. It took me about four years to sort that shit out.

Mid-life crises are pretty fucked up.

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

On the weekend leading up to my birthday I met someone who is in her mid-30s and appears to be on track to have a midlife crisis just like mine. (Apparently it’s not just movies and politicians from the decade that never go away.) I told her I had to sail away to China to deal with it. She did not get the musical reference, but I am fairly certain she is on board with the rest of it. I predict she breaks up with her boyfriend before the end of this year (not due to my counsel, mind you – I am not a meddler, just a sharer.)

Maybe the reason this birthday isn’t sitting so well with me is that I don’t have anything to be in crisis about because I already got all destructive and ridiculously reckless ten years ago and so it feels empty of purpose. I emerged from my midlife crisis down one Wal-Mart-shopping boyfriend and one suburban tract house, but as my kids would say: I am not about that life.

Life in with the suburbs was pretty fucked up.

You, who choose to lead, must follow
But if you fall you fall alone.
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home.

This week was my fifth repatriated birthday. The birthday itself was not particularly eventful, but at this point in one’s life, that seems like a win. A dear friend I have known since the 8th grade said to me, “I hope you feel how much you are loved.” Yes, L, I did. And here I am, in a great city, with great hair, a few new wrinkles, amazing friends, no involuntary responsibilities, and I am alive.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

So, happy birthday to me: good hair, good shoes, wrinkles, and a potty mouth, but crisis free. That’s livin’: L-I-V-I-N.

That seems like a lot to write about.

I’ll get back to writing in no time, I am sure.

My First Yoga Retreat.

*** Author’s Note:  I began writing this post on July 1, two days after I came back from Mexico. But then I realized I had to do a few other things and here it sat. Until now. But hey, who doesn’t love a good flashback?

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As we rode towards the center (we thought) of Cancun, SP and I clearly felt confused. This in and of itself was confusing because we are both well travelled and SP is a native Mexican and so a simple bus ride into to town should not leave us nonplussed. As we rolled by an Outback Steakhouse I said, “Shoot me now.” This comment caught the attention of a young gringa in front of us who told us we “just had to go to the Montero Steak House because it was so authentic” with such earnestness I almost felt like she needed a hug (the restaurant appears to be German owned, for what it’s worth).

When we finally stepped off the city bus in the part of Cancun that everyone apparently thought we were trying to find we looked at each other and looked around, and had no idea what the heck was happening. Eventually we got a map and saw – to some degree – what had gone wrong. Simply wanting an easy night out, maybe a margarita, on our last night in Mexico after thirteen amazing days in Xcalak & Tulum, we had asked every wrong person where to go and thus stumbled into a Samuel Beckett-like evening of absurdity.

Walking along a weird avenue that backed up to gigantic mega-hotels with water on either side of us and not a bar or restaurant in sight, our confusion increased. Eventually we reached the part of the “Riviera” where we were told the bars and restaurants were. It was a full frontal assault of awful that nearly had us breaking into a full sprint to escape.

By the time we reached The Fiesta Americana we were just like, “Get us to an air-conditioned hotel bar away from this hideousness.” And so we found one and sat down.

But they had no food.

So we went to another restaurant in the hotel someone recommended. We sat down in a lovely little spot and ordered drinks. And then were told that the only meal option was a buffet.

Are you kidding me?

So off we went to another restaurant in the same hotel. It was Mexican. How bizarre. It was a totally odd place with super high ceilings and even more super loud mariachis. But they had food and a/c.

By the time we left we were ready to spend every last peso on a taxi home just to get out of Cancun and back to our airport hotel. I can’t really say if Cancun itself was so bad, but the Zona Hoteleria was vile, and our sensibilities were not ready for it after two weeks of bliss.

Which brings to light the point of this post: The Bliss. Our yoga retreat and entry into to said retreat were amazing. So amazing in fact, that the weirdest night I have ever had in Mexico (and I have had some doozies) could not even dispel the amazingness.

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I cannot remember my original motivation to do a yoga retreat – I have never done one before – but I do remember making the decision to do this retreat. And the decision brought up interesting (unfamiliar) feelings around my yoga life. If I were to describe my yoga practice I would use words like: disciplined, traditional, focused, quiet, solitary, consistent, serious, quiet. It is not that I am antisocial, although Veer did tell me long ago, I needed to work harder to be a part of the group – the kula. I didn’t know why it mattered at the time, like really and truly, I couldn’t understand why it mattered that I get socially involved with the group of Hong Kong Chinese women I practiced with. Everyday. For three to four hours.

When I say it like that it feels pretty ridiculous to think I needed someone to tell me I had to intentionally and meaningfully engage with a group of people I was in close contact with every single day.

But, I did.

And then years later as I continued to grow my practice and get to know new teachers, I was maintaining my practice in a very similar way. There were some people I got to know by virtue of frequent proximity, and I would go so far as to say I even had a few yoga friends. So to suddenly join a yoga retreat in Mexico with a group of people – who I may or may not really know – would definitely be categorized in the “out-of-character” file.

But I did.

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Before joining (I can hear S.P. right now saying: “Look at you, you joiner!”) the retreat (with my friend in and out of yoga, S.P.) we went to Xcalak to visit my former building managers. These are two of the more amazing people I have met in my life. I met them in the way that you meet the people who run your apartment building, but a little bit more than that. And then when they told me they were totally changing their lives and moving off the grid to a (rad) rural part of the Mayan Riviera they had a going away party, which I attended, and at which they said “Come visit! Really!”

Now people say this kind of thing a lot. And I often wonder if they really mean it, not like it is disingenuous, but more like the likelihood of future visits being, well, not that likely make it easier to say? I took a chance that they meant it. The type of people R & C are are not the type of people who would ever tell someone to come visit if they didn’t mean it. I know that now for sure if I did not before.

This meant we had five gorgeous days in a really special place that I am not really super interested in telling people about because: too special. There were great talks, perfect silences, friendly ducks, grumpy geese, clever chickens, snorkeling, Sargassum, stand up paddle boarding, cold beers, delicious food, and immeasurable generosity.

One week after finishing the school year, I could not have asked for more.

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Next we were off to Tulum for a week-long yoga retreat with a teacher I admire and know well and have grown to really trust. This, I imagine, is why I found my self there, at a yoga retreat.

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The retreat basically kicked off on the Summer Solstice, which is cool. (This also happens to be the date that the Indian government pushed the UN to adopt as International Yoga Day… a notion that if one does any amount of research upon will leave one quite… fraught.) But waking up on the Mayan Riviera for a Summer Solstice sunrise is pretty awesome regardless of any other circumstances…

And so here I was. With some people I knew. And some I did not. Joining.

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The retreat itself was very special, and as with my previous week, I am not super interested in spelling out all the more intimate ways that it was special, because it seems like something that feels more comfortable taking up residence in my own conscience. I am not sure how it would compare to other yoga retreats because I have never done a yoga retreat. I can assure you it was very (VERY) different from living in the ashram… as it should be.

We did yoga. We ate good food. There was a lot of time to relax or contemplate, or tan, or get spa treatments (I mentioned it was not like my ashram, right?)

It was gentle.

And the thing is, I think I need more gentle in my life. I do not default to gentle. I get after it. I work hard. I do lots (and lots and lots) of things. I push myself (and yeah, others too, sorry.) That is all fine, but gentle might be too. It gives you time to do different things.

I made a bunch of new friends. Real friends, who live in my neighborhood and have priorities in line with my own in lots of ways. I joined things. We rode bikes to ruins, we floated down crystal clear canals through ancient mangroves, we had warm white wine and rolled up Velveeta cheese. We laughed a lot. One of our group who attends yoga retreats regularly said that this retreat was totally unlike any she had done before because everyone at this retreat had come because of their connection to this particular teacher. She said it was a completely different feeling of community. Like I said, I cannot compare, but I can certainly agree.

This experience both changed my entire reality at home – in the yoga studio and around my neighborhood – and set the tone for my entire summer. My kula has grown and I am really glad. It is not always easy to develop community in a bustling urban situation, but, here we are. Better for it.

Namaste.

 

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In search of मन्त्र.

The Sanskrit word mantra consists of the root man- “to think” (also in manas “mind”) and the suffix -tra, designating tools or instruments, hence a literal translation would be “instrument of thought”

It would seem that the search for mantra begins early in life. Or, at least it did for me. The ubiquitous words to live by, maxims offered in children’s books, sayings… words of wisdom were always right there at the ready, waiting for me to try them out. I let the roll around my mouth, coming tumbling out in various ways and contexts. I thought about them and considered their gravitas. I endeavored to create my own.

People are people no matter how wierd they are. (Spelling, words, and attached art – not pictured – are mine, circa 1976)

I don’t remember when I started collecting quotations, song lyrics, expressions, lines from movies… and the collection has comprised all sorts of representations; collages, repetitive script, artwork, photos, memorization. I definitely was looking for instruments of thought.

It makes sense at a young age to rely on the words of others. People who have more experience in life, or art, or the world, or something, can serve as guides, or teachers. The words can provide validation or support whether or not you even know the person. And it’s nice to feel like someone has been there before – someone really *gets it*. I think that was my first motivation in the search for mantra.

A silly beginner, basic apprentice aggression
In the absence of a master, trying to make up my own lesson – Astronautalis, Oceanwalk

Eventually, my search for mantra had a different purpose. Rather than validation it was more a search for kindred spirits: one’s tribe. Again, this is not for a lack of a tribe of my own, but more of an effort to somehow identify the reach and significance of the tribe. Here came the words of the masters; great poets, singers, novelists….

  • All who wander are not lost!
  • Carpe diem!
  • And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make!
  • Do not go gentle into that good night!
  • Rage rage against the dying of the light!
  • Oh! The places you will go!
  • The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return!
  • Emancipate yourself from mental slavery!
  • Live! Laugh! Love!
  • Dance like no one is watching!
  • Shoot for the moon, you might land in the stars!

ओं मणिपद्मे हूं

This led into my efforts to really study mantra – in the traditional sense. I began to think much more seriously about the power of words and the power of manifestation – like how words can so often become reality, for better or for worse, and how words can provide a path to deeper more effective thinking, concentration, or better yet, a truly quiet mind. Considering that mantra is also defined as “a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation” this too makes sense in my continuing coexistence with, and search for, mantra.

Om mani padme hum has been a staple for me. This mantra has far too much depth to be covered here, but as the lotus mantra, and the lotus is that which can emerge with beauty and grace from the mud may indicate a bit of its direction. I love studying the yoga sutras and the mantras of the Bhagavad Gita because the relevance of these ancient texts underscores so much of the interconnectedness of life that my age has been beginning to show me.

And as I continued to embrace mantra I started to see how everyone else I saw around me was too – sometimes consciously, other times less so; looking for the perfect tattoo, identifying the perfect quotation for the college essay, or with which to begin each chapter of the new novel, or to get through the next overwhelmingly sad/challenging/devastating/heartbreaking circumstance that will surely come up.

Mantra is also believed to be a spell or weapon of supernatural power…

I think maybe the reminder of mantra can also be protective and maybe that is what drives a lot of people to search for mantra. It certainly drove me last year to a point where I felt compelled to put mantra on my body – out of my mind, my mouth, and on to my skin. This was new for me, and definitely reactive. At a time in my life when I was feeling overwhelmed by all that was happening around me, and needing a reminder that not only could, but that I would, stay the course.

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In hindsight, I am not sure I would have actually gone through with this commitment to mantra had I not been reeling emotionally on so many levels… which is not to say I regret the decision, I do not. But I have found myself feeling shy about it in a way I never anticipated, which makes me wonder.

I chose to get two mantras tattooed on my back in the last year. One, the lotus mantra was less surprising, and somehow, people seem not to ask about it because: I do yoga. I guess that excuses the cultural co-optation. I also chose to represent the mantra in a form that is not generally scripted because I wanted to include a traditional ॐ. I suppose this could be construed as an error – but it is just intentionally archaic. Somehow, that feels apropos for me.

The second piece of mantra I chose to put on my body was a refrain from a song that I listened to on repeat for nearly three months after the sudden loss of three friends near the end of last year. Because the words are in English, people are much more likely to ask about them. And it feels really silly to explain that I have put a song lyric on my grown up body. This is a shyness I am not familiar with. But that bit of mantra – like everything – is so much more than the tattoo. I am not sure if I will add to the tattoo, or change it, or grow into it, but I am so glad for the reminder that in spite of terribly sad times, I do maintain my belief in the good things coming… that nothing is irreparable, or lost forever.

Mantra brings comfort, and is powerful. We have seen this always, prayers, chants, superstitions, cheers, spells. I think even for people who would say they don’t believe in mantra, they would find, upon closer examination, that they actually do. From positive self talk and affirmations, to songs of empowerment and resistance, to calls to action, mantra is there.

And we could do far worse than to seek out interments of thought.

I am no master, I know nothing…
I am a servant and I know something…
I am a witness….

My Small (home)town.

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Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Prob’ly die in a small town
Oh, those small communities

I have a complicated relationship with my hometown. Anyone who knows me would easily confirm this. I am not sure if everyone has similar complications with the places from which their roots emanate, though I suspect that fewer and fewer people actually have places that they feel rooted in. Or at least that is how the world feels to me these days.

But not me. In spite of all my best efforts to make it not so, I have a hometown.

Educated in a small town
Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town
Used to daydream in that small town
Another boring romantic that’s me

This relationship was not always so complicated. For a long time I was wholly committed to total disdain for my hometown. I think a lot of kids just want to get out of wherever they are at some point, but I was sophomorically certain that I was never coming back. Not ever. Because this small town was simply not ever going to be big enough for the likes of me. And I left, like most of us did at some point. Most, but not all.And I kept going… further and wider with little thought as to why, it just seemed like my destiny.

As is often the case, something changed.

I think the first thing that I noticed was that my hometown somehow along the way became a place people wanted to be. Like people were really busting a move to try to get there. It got hip. Or something. Suddenly, the little hick town was a destination.

What?

But something more substantial about my relationship with my hometown was revealing itself to me with more and more strength the further away I got from home (in time and space). As I met more and more people and saw more and more things, and observed the relationships that all these other people had with their people and places, I began to see that the foundation – the roots – from which I came gave me not only a healthy perspective from which to engage with all these people, but actually was the entire reason I could do the things I was doing. I had a safety net: my hometown. No matter what happened to me, or the choices I would make (wisely or not so), I had a place I could return to.

Regardless of the severity of the road or cliff I teetered off and away from, Petaluma was there. Contrary to Robert Frost’s sentiment, in many ways it is not the road but the point of origin which has made all the difference for me.

I have people from my hometown I have known a lifetime who remain steadfast in their commitment to each other – and me. Although I didn’t always see it, in my own way I was there for them, too. And we are unique in our connection to each other, to our families, to our memories, to our town. The world, and our experience in it, being ever-changing and dynamic, means the intricacies of the relationship I have with this place and the people in it continue to change, but our foundation allows for these changes to feel like stretching, not severing or breaking.

But I’ve seen it all in a small town
Had myself a ball in a small town

When I go back to visit now, it feels very different. It is so much bigger and “cooler” than I will ever know how to work with, but some little bits of it stay the same. There are still the ever familiar family names, the small town gossip, the drama, the expectations… even if I don’t know a single person I see downtown.

Which is not entirely true either – I do know these people. And I no longer recoil when greeted with the same questions every time I see the same folks: “Not married? No kids?” These days, even though I still fall right back into my adolescent awkwardness, I can embrace it a little more fully and just say, “Nope, not yet.”

I mean really, shared roots or not, I have always been a little bit of an oddball.

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I am hugely grateful that I can go back to Petaluma and be reminded that there are people who really know me deep down and even in non-acceptance, they accept me. I am so grateful that my parents have facilitated this chance to see my hometown in this way later in my life. And my goodness I am grateful for my friends who, all differences included, feel so much more like family than just friends after all this time.

No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be

You can thank me for this amazingly coiffed John Cougar later. a video circa ’87 just felt so right.