Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My Umbrella: A tale of Atonement

While this is not a conventional story of a journey and writing, it does involve journeys of various types. And it seems appropriate to write this now because the Jewish High Holidays are approaching and it is, of course the time to atone. God forgives us automatically on this day, but it is for us to forgive and seek forgiveness from others. We must make our own amends. Yet each year as Yom Kippur approaches, I am reminded of what happened to my umbrella. And, the truth is, I cannot approach my synagogue or say my prayers without recalling its fate. And so I cannot ever entirely forgive.

It was a pale blue umbrella I had purchased with my daughter a number of years ago in Prague and it contained scenes of the Castle, Old Towne Square, Charles Bridge. It cost, as my daughter recently reminded me, about forty dollars, not the usual three or five dollars of a street umbrella in New York (the kind that lasts through about one storm and whose remains are strewn across city streets). But I never really thought much about the cost of the umbrella. It reminded me of Prague - a place I love. And I loved walking beneath its sky blue cover on rainy days.

One Yom Kippur eve, as I was about to head up to Temple, I saw that it was pouring. I could have easily taken any old black umbrella in our umbrella stand, but I grabbed my Prague umbrella instead. My reasoning being that in a sea of black umbrellas it would be easy to locate mine as the service came to a close (which on Yom Kippur it really doesn't; it just resumes in the morning). As the service concluded, we filed out. The sanctuary was, of course, packed, and it was raining so it took people time to gather up their umbrellas and make their way back out into the world to begin their fasts and ask God’s forgiveness.

But when at last I approached the sea of umbrella all the greeted me was darkness. Black umbrellas everywhere. And a blue one not in sight. How is this possible? I asked myself. Someone must have made a mistake. But how do you mistake your black New York city umbrella with a bright blue one from Prague. Or perhaps they forgot their umbrella. Somehow they would return it to me. But, as I walked home with rain splattering me on the head, I came to the only conclusion. Someone, on the holiest night of all for the Jews, the night when we ask God to forgive us for our sins, had stolen my umbrella.

It became a minor obsession of mine. Wandering the neighborhood on rainy days in search of the blue skies of Prague. But after a while I realized that my thief wouldn’t walk around the neighborhood with it. She (because I came to think of my thief as a she) would take it with her in a car service to the opera. But she couldn’t chance a trip to the corner store.

I have tried to be philosophical about my umbrella. I recall for me the most moving moment in Les Miserables. When Jean Valjean has stolen the priest's silver candlesticks and is captured by the police who bring him to the priest's door. And in a moment of grace that changes Jean Valjean forever the priest tells the officer that he had given Jean Valjean the candlesticks. They were a gift. I wonder if I'd be so magnanimous.

I try to imagine what went through my thief's mind as he or she picked up my blue umbrella from a sea of black ones. I do think of the thief as a woman because the umbrella was rather girlie, but it could have been a man. At any rate I wonder. What did she think as she reached for it? Did the question of sin and atonement cross her mind? The breaking of one of God's commandments. Was it an impulse or something she's done before? And did it occur to her that I might be only a few steps behind as she dashed out into the windy, sodden night. Anyway she must have figured she had another year to atone for this theft, maybe even find a way of returning it. No questions asked.

I am reminded of an incident that happened to my husband once on an airplane. He was boarding and, as he put his suitcase overhead, he put the newspapers he'd just purchased down on the seat behind him. When he turned, he found a couple, sitting in those seats and they were reading his papers. "Excuse," my husband said, "I'm sorry, but I just put those down." They looked at him oddly and told him that they had purchased them and they owned them. Of course my husband knew they were lying. He argued, but they wouldn't budge and, rather than slow down the entire plane, he gave up on his newspapers. But he told me that what riled him the most was seeing the two of them, giggling among themselves at the fast one they'd just pulled off.

Because the truth is when something like this happens the universe feels a little less safe. Our ability to deny just how dangerous and indifferent the world can be, Our world view is slightly shaky, a tiny bit off our axis, really never to return. I still wonder at the impulse to steal a pretty blue umbrella even as you are trying to atone for your sins. Now I know why at Christmas the baby Jesus is chained down in the Nativity scene near my house. But I wish I didn’t.

I have at long last forgiven my thief. Perhaps it was an honest mistake, which seems doubtful, or a desperate act. Like the priest with Jean Valjean if my thief were captured I'd give it to her now. I hope it has given her pleasure. I hope it has kept her dry.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Wheelchair and Mime at the Tour Eiffel

This is a picture I took of my wheelchair and a Pharoah mime when we went to Paris in 2008 after I broke my leg. Larry and I went to Europe with the "full catastrophe." Crutches, air cast, cane, and the wheelchair to whom we gave a name. Duncan. "Have you seen Duncan?" I asked my daughter in Dublin as I dragged myself up a set of stairs at Gogerty's to hear a set. "Who's Duncan," my daughter replied. In Paris Larry bumped me up and down the streets. At some point I decided to document Duncan's excursions. In fact there are very few pictures of me and Larry on that trip to Europe ten weeks after breaking my leg, but I have many of Duncan.
"Drop everything and hit the road."

Arthur Rimbaud

A Moveable Feast

"To a man looking for fresh eyes, everything about Paris fascinates." Brassai wrote these words in his memoir about Henry Miller, The Paris Years. Because I am heading to Paris in October, for the first time in three years, these words ring very true.

The last time I was in Paris I was in a wheelchair which I had affectionately named Duncan. Trust me it was no way to travel. Clomping along the cobbled streets and narrow sidestreets of Paris. Now I am going back to do what it was that Miller loved to do, and what Paris is one of the greatest cities in the world for. Walk.

As a girl I lived in Paris in 1967-68. It was a lonely, cold, glorious, insane time. I studied cooking and failed my French class. I lived in an old working class neighborhood with Joelle, my dear French mother, recently deceased. It was in the 13th Arrondisement. The district of Paris that Miller refers to as the most putrid, impoverished, decadent, hungry, filthy, redolent and so on neighborhoods of the entire city.

I don't know if this is true though when I lived there it was a solid working class neighborhood with shift workers coming and going as I can and went from my classes.

Why Paris? Why French? Why me? When I was a girl, growing up in suburban Illinois, my mother (who had never been to Europe) began a crusade to have French taught in the public school. She believed that children in 6th or 7th grade should start learning a language and for her it was French.

My mother longed to travel. She named our dog Renoir. She had the heart for France and, I believe, if she'd been born in a different era, she would have developed a fashion line and gone to Paris all the time. Instead she was locked into girl scout meetings and Flag Day marching bands.

But she wanted me to learn French. Once a week she sent me to see Monsieur La Tate. Monsieur La Tate had a very strange, sad tic that made his head flash back and forth all the time and clearly he hadn't seen his life's destiny as being my instructor in rudimentary French. None the less I went. I was dutiful. And I learned.

In high school we were given an aptitude test in language. The test was weirdly administered in Kurdish. You had half an hour to memorize Kurdish grammar and vocabulary, then you took the test. In all my years of testing I never scored higher than I did on that language aptitude exam.

I went into AP French. My mother got our local school to start teaching French and in college for reasons even as I write these remain obscure (though perhaps not to Dr. Freud) I became a French scholar. A degree I would never complete at the graduate level, but still I learned.

In 1967 I sailed on the SS France. My mother stood on the dock. Before leaving me, she said, "You take yourself with you." I arrived in Paris in time to become part of the student revolts of 1968. Paris got under my skin.

Miller understood what Paris had to offer him. He referred to the city as "mother, mistress, home and muse. As Brassai says, Miller tried to understand how Paris worked its magic on him, but the answers were "innumerable, intangible and ineffable."

On his first trip he didn't fall in love with the city, but when he returned for the second time the city grabbed him by the throat. He cut his writerly teeth here. After spending his days and nights in its bars and cafes, Miller wrote in "Remember to Remember": One needs no artificial stimulation in Paris to create. The air is saturated with creation."

Miller never read books for their meaning. He read a book because it touched something inside of him that made him think and feel and write more. Later in his life he admitted that he had read at least five thousand books in his life and perhaps fifty of them really mattered.

I picked up this Brassai book because it was sitting on my bedstand. Larry thinks he bought it at St. Marks as something good to take away with us to Paris. And I am devouring it as I would a meal. I am dogearring, underlining, making big check marks everywhere. It is becoming one of those books that matter to me.

I envy Miller. He went to Paris. He had no money, no resources, no hope and yet as he writes in the opening pages of Tropic of Cancer,  "I am the happiest man alive."