A letter to Norwegian author, Karl Ove Knausgaard, a year after attending his March 2017 reading at Shakespeare and Company bookstore, published on CutBank’s Long Way From, Long Time Since here. Photograph taken at Shakespeare and Company, Paris, France.
In the glamorous version: I catch an early train to Paris and spend the morning on the Left Bank drinking espresso at the Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots and later, I wander over to the Musée d’Orsay and take detailed notes on my impressions of favorite paintings (how I dream sometimes of chewing on Van Gogh’s thickly layered paint or sliding into Courbet’s The Origin of the World the same way Alice went through the looking glass). Returning home on the train that evening, I could describe the shifting landscape and how it gradually goes from fertile farm fields starting just outside of Paris, to the Charolais cows in Burgundy, and the chalky blue Rhône near Avignon before ending in a more arid and Arizona-like scene further into Provence.
In the more interesting version: I visit the cemetery and count the stones that well-wishers have left on Paul Cezanne’s grave and tell you how the stones remind me of the stone I placed on Marc Chagall’s grave in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. I also might mention that a hotel is being built just outside the cemetery wall where, in the not so distant future, some lucky guests will have a room with a view of Cezanne’s monument and probably also of the Mont Sainte-Victoire in the distance. Or alternately, I ask my husband to take the day off (if he wasn’t leaving for Paris to attend his aunt’s funeral) and we drive to Cassis to picnic and swim in the sea.
In the actual version: I got up at 5 am and unlike some of my friends who hit the meditation cushion right away, I did the Pavlov’s dog thing (and in the usual order): checked email and a social media account (clicked an image posted on DIAGRAM which was lovely and disturbing in the way that it reminded me of how everything always seems to go out and come back to you i.e. me), skimmed a handful of online newspaper headlines (read some articles), fed the three guinea pigs, started making pancakes, said good morning to our eleven-year-old daughter, who’d woken up on her own and was excited to get to school to give a birthday present to one of her friends. My husband rolled out of bed and gave our daughter a hug goodbye (since he’d be gone to Paris for two days) and she left for school.
Our ten-year-old son started his morning routine and we talked about watching the World Cup together (France-Peru and Argentina-Croatia) that evening and he predicted France would end up winning against Spain in the final game on July 15, 2018. I laughed and hoped he was right (for the France fans, anyway) and then he talked about the funeral in Paris and how Papa was going to help carry the casket and what is left behind when we die and where do we go. We’d talked about death before but as I’ve noticed with my kids, they often repeat certain questions. I paused a second and then said something I’ve said before: that our bodies are like vehicles we climb into to experience duality, that is: hot and cold, light and dark, happiness and sadness which reminded me of the Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire and how one of the angels, played by German actor, Bruno Ganz, falls in love with a trapeze artist and chooses to enter the corporeal to be with her. So what are we then if we aren’t bodies? My son asked. Thinking about a chapter on beds I’d recently read in the Norwegian author, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, book Autumn, I said to my son: You know when you’re in bed and just about to fall asleep? The room is dark and your eyes are closed (or not) and your body is completely relaxed, to the point of not even feeling it? Yes, he said. Well, you’re still there, aren’t you? That’s consciousness, that’s the part that goes with us when we die. That’s what I believe anyway, I said, but you’re going to have to decide for yourself. He didn’t ask where we go when we’re asleep but had he, I would have said I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t experienced that yet.
My husband and son left (for school and work, respectively) and I ate breakfast and opened a letter I’d just finished writing (actually) to Karl Ove Knausgaard, which revolved around a reading he’d given at Shakespeare and Company bookstore on March 28, 2017. The piece had been accepted by an online journal and now I was just waiting for the editor to send his revision suggestions—a process, from submission to usually rejection, that sometimes felt like waiting for a call from that boy (or girl) you had a crush on when you were thirteen.
Normally mid-morning on Thursdays, I’d have coffee downtown with a friend but she’d just left France and was in Boston for a few days before flying home to Santa Monica. We’d met the evening before she flew out and I mentioned finishing the Knausgaard letter and how I’d heard he was giving a reading at The Edinburgh Book Festival on August 25, 2018. I’d always wanted to go to Edinburgh, I said, and thought it might be an occasion to kill two birds with one stone but my struggle was this: a part of me felt that the only reason for going was to gather new writing material, like we sometimes arrange things for the sole purpose of posting on social media, something about confusing the means with the ends. My friend laughed and said I should go because that’s what writers do and to stop overanalyzing. I told her it might be better to visit Edinburgh another time and instead, was considering signing up for a 10-day Vipassanā retreat. She seemed irritated and said it sounded like a good excuse to isolate. Guessing that she didn’t really want to explore my point any further, I let it drop but later wished I could have said that after years of trying to run away from myself, the isolation of a 10-day silent Buddhist retreat was just what I needed.
On September 13, 2017, I was contacted by a literary agent who’d read another piece I’d written about Karl Ove Knausgaard. She was interested in a memoir I’d been working on and made some suggestions after taking a look. Though there was no commitment between us, I’d taken her comments to heart but kept getting waylaid by other projects. So, after closing the Knausgaard letter, I opened a still-in-progress memoir chapter about going to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, France, on a pilgrimage to St. Sarah in honor of one of the children who I’d lost (aborted) along the way. A child I’d always imagined a girl. I named her Sarah and had things been different, this year she would have turned twenty-five. I spent a good part of the afternoon adding and subtracting sentences, moving paragraphs around and overall, doing a lot of staring.
My husband got home from work and we walked part way together to the bus station where he was going to catch the bus to the train station and then the train to Paris. We’d all planned to go to the funeral, which was at 10 am the next day, but for logistical and other reasons it didn’t work out. We were disappointed but took it in stride. I asked my husband how his plans were going vis-à-vis organizing neighborhood watches to save the trees that grew spontaneously in hedges and he gave me an update. Whenever my husband talks about saving trees, I think of Jean Giono’s beautiful short story The Man Who Planted Trees. We kissed and said goodbye and on my way to pick up the kids from school, I cut across and over to one of the roads that lead past the cemetery.
There are seventy-eight stones on Paul Cezanne’s grave. Along with a votive candle (like those you see in the churches downtown), the broken handle of a piece of unfired pottery, and a bright green ceramic shard. Some of the seventy-eight stones are arranged in a small circle with a larger stone in the middle, an imperfect, primitive flower form perhaps laid out by a child.
My son prefers train stations to airports because they were generally smaller and easier to get around. I agreed and said wouldn’t it be nice if we could take trains sometimes instead of airplanes to travel around the world? The Chunnel, the underwater train that connects France with England, was discussed and it was decided that building one all the way to America probably wasn’t feasible. My son looked at his watch and was upset when he realized we were about to miss the opening of the France-Peru World Cup game. We met my daughter near her school and she was happy to report that her friend had loved the birthday present she’d given her and in return, she’d given my daughter a handmade beaded blue bracelet with a tiny blue heart.
I made tarte à la tomate for dinner and, content after France’s 1-0 win against Peru, we ate while watching the Argentina-Croatia game. The score was still 0-0 when my husband called at 8:30 pm to tell us he’d made it to Noisy-Champs, the train station closest to his sister’s house where he was staying. Croatia finally scored the first goal and from there the game went downhill quickly (for us Lionel Messi fans, anyway). Argentina ended up losing 0-3 in what one of the French commentators said was un vrai calvaire (a real calvary i.e. crucifixion). My husband called back to say goodnight and afterward as I tucked the kids into bed, I was overtaken by an unexpected feeling of lightness, something quite possibly bordering on that elusive phenomenon called joy.
Originally published in slightly different form on Essay Daily on June 28, 2018.
“Luckily writers aren’t supposed to be saints, like our parents aren’t supposed to be saints…” My Letter to Ernest Hemingway published on CutBank’s Long Way From, Long Time Since here. Photograph taken at la Plage de l’Espiguette in Le Grau-du-Roi, France.
“I love you with the fierceness of fire, I say…” A prose poem adapted from my memoir (working title Beautiful) here on DIAGRAM. Photograph taken from inside the Barrage Vauban, Strasbourg, France.
“A Letter to Jack Kerouac” (or “Satori on Willy Street”) here on CutBank’s Long Way From, Long Time Since.
“Karl Ove Knausgaard and I are stuck together…” A short story written after a dream here on Electric Literature’s Okey-Panky.
(& an Apology to a Boy)
“Andrew” was 26 and back at recovery meetings after a relapse. I was just shy of 31 and sober seven years. Andrew was part of a small group of friends I’d met in Saint Paul, Minnesota, after moving there six months earlier to be baptized in the Catholic Church.
I’d made a vow when I moved to stay single (and sex-free) for at least a year. I was easily swayed, so one of my rules was never to have a man alone in my apartment.
It was snowing like crazy when we left the recovery clubhouse after the 10 o’clock candlelight meeting. Andrew begged to come over. “Just a cup of tea,” he laughed. “I have my vow,” I said. “I know—come on,” he laughed again. We were friends and it might be nice. One cup of tea, why not?
Summit Avenue was illuminated by the snow. My place was just a couple blocks away in one of those beautiful, old brick buildings on Grand Avenue. The Mississippi River was a 15-minute walk further west and the house where F. Scott. Fitzgerald reworked This Side of Paradise—due east.
Andrew and I stamped the snow off our boots and climbed the stairs to my small apartment. I loved this place. It was the second time I’d ever lived alone and the first time I could manage the rent on my own. I drew the living room shades and put on water for tea while Andrew inspected my makeshift bookcase.
“You’ve got the coolest books,” he said, running his fingers down their spines. Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Richard Bach’s Illusions, and various others about the health benefits of yoga and meditation (which I didn’t actually practice).
“Autobiography of a Yogi changed my life,” I said, coming back into the living room.
“I’ve always wanted to read it,” said Andrew. “Maybe I could borrow it sometime.”
“Did you know there are Hindu saints who could walk on water like Jesus?”
“Let’s make love.”
“What?” I laughed.
“Let me kiss you.”
“I can’t,” I said. I knew if I kissed him I wouldn’t be able to stop.
“Let me spend the night, I could just hold you.”
“If I let you in my bedroom, I’ll never get you out,” I laughed again.
“What about here—on the floor?”
I heard the water boiling and the electric kettle clicked off.
“All right, but just for a little bit,” I said, still determined to keep my vow.
I gathered blankets off the inflatable camping mattress in my bedroom. I hadn’t bothered buying a real mattress since I wasn’t intending to stay in Saint Paul long.
We arranged the blankets on the floor and Andrew pulled me into his arms.
“We don’t have to make love, but I could…”
“Touch you and…,” he paused. “I’ll keep my clothes on.”
“But I can’t give you any more…”
Andrew worked off my shirt, jeans, and underwear like a Zen Buddhist monk immersed in the practice of Hitsuzendo (Japanese calligraphy). I’d never been in this position before—without any pressure for a certain reciprocity. And if one could ever truly be loved through the body, I felt loved.
We held each other for a long time afterward. I pulled on my underwear, jeans, and shirt and Andrew helped me up.
“It’s really late,” I said.
“It’d be better if…”
“I understand,” Andrew said and began to move toward the door. “I guess I’ll see you at the meeting tomorrow, then.”
“Wait,” I said and went over to the bookcase and found Autobiography of a Yogi. “You forgot this.”
“Hey, thanks,” Andrew smiled and took the book.
“See you tomorrow,” I said.
I quietly shut the door, went to the kitchen and put on water again for tea. I poured the hot water into my cup and imagined Andrew gliding home through the freshly fallen snow like one of those Hindu saints gliding across water. “Thank you, Andrew,” I whispered and took a sip of tea.
I lost touch with Andrew shortly before leaving Saint Paul the following fall. We never really talked about what happened that night and over the years, I’ve thought of him off and on and sometimes searched for him, without luck.
In recovery circles, it’s suggested that those with longer sobriety not get romantically or sexually involved with newcomers or those struggling to stay sober (the same reasons for not getting involved with someone who’s married).
I wasn’t thinking about that or about how my actions might have caused harm. The experience is a powerful reminder that even when we think we’re on the path, we may not be, but that our mistakes still remain some of our greatest teachers if we let them.
Originally published in slightly different form on elephant journal on January 6, 2017.
Nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land, grew especially strong in spring.
Vladimir Nabokov, Mary
“Chaste, poor, and obedient,” repeated Sister Helena as we left the monastery and turned onto Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe.
“Your habit—” I said, pulling my rolling suitcase behind.
“Pardon?” asked Sister Helena, gathering a loose wisp of hair back up under her headscarf.
“Your habit is such a beautiful blue,” I said. Blue as Lake Michigan in a certain light.
“Our habit is a sign of our consecration as Brides of Christ and the blue is for the Virgin Mary,” she said.
“And your sandals—” I said, thinking of Moses throwing off his sandals and speaking to God.
“My sandals?” Sister Helena looked confused.
“Yes,” I said and all I could think about was how beautiful Sister Helena looked in her white headscarf, pale blue habit, and brown leather sandals. I’ll look beautiful, too, I thought. I’ll trade my bad hair days for a headscarf, my t-shirts and jeans for a habit, and my running shoes for sandals. I’ll be a beautiful Bride of Christ, like Sister Helena, like the Virgin Mary.
“Et voilà! We’re here,” said Sister Helena, stopping in front of an old wrought iron door just a few buildings down from the monastery. I’d never seen a door like it, not in the upper Midwest anyway. The dark metalwork spread out Medusa-like in a symmetrical pattern of flowers and horns of plenty rising up above the head of an angry-looking lion and two griffins. Beatrice’s griffin times two, I thought, from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
“Let me help you with your bags,” Sister Helena said.
“Pardon?” I asked, still daydreaming about Beatrice and the angry-looking lion.
“Let me help you with one of your bags.”
“Thank you,” I said and began to untangle the heavy athletic bag from the top of my rolling suitcase. Sister Helena threw the bag over her shoulder and unlocked the door. I followed her inside and up a curving wooden staircase. The stairs were worn in the middle like grass flattened in fields where white-tailed deer had bedded overnight.
“You’ll be living here with five other nuns,” said Sister Helena. She opened the apartment door and we entered a dark hallway. “We maintain silence as much as possible, following our Rule of Life which says, ‘silence is the road to communion as well as its fruit.’”
“I’m quiet by nature,” I said. And shy, though my shyness was much worse when I was younger.
“The toilet’s here,” Sister Helena continued, “but no flushing after 10 o’clock—the pipes are loud—it will wake the sisters.”
Okay, I thought, who flushes after 10 o’clock anyway?
“And the bath is this way,” said Sister Helena, hurrying down the hallway.
We reached the far end of the hallway and stepped into the bathroom and were suddenly awash in sunlight and a sweet smell I’d later recognize as savon de Marseille or Marseille soap.
“Please be conscientious when bathing. There’s not a lot of hot water,” said Sister Helena, glancing toward a deep enamel tub.
“All right,” I said catching my reflection in the small mirror above the sink. I looked tired, jet-lagged maybe, and my hair, cut short like a boy’s, was a mess. I’d always kept my hair long, except for a pixie cut at eight and a shaved head, trying to be punk rock, at eighteen. I’d had it cut this time just after moving to Saint Paul, Minnesota, a year and a half ago to be baptized in the Catholic Church and start a new life.
“And your cell is here,” said Sister Helena leaving the bathroom and turning to her right.
“Your room,” she laughed.
My room was small, with a single bed and a desk near the window. An icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus hung on the wall above the bed. Mary looked tired, jet-lagged maybe, and Jesus, serene. Sister Helena dropped my heavy athletic bag on the floor. I parked my rolling suitcase next to the bed.
“Our community is especially consecrated to the Virgin Mary,” Sister Helena said, looking up at the icon.
“I try to pray the Rosary every day,” I said. I wasn’t going to mention my struggles with the Virgin Mary or with women in general, though. Maybe it was all the years of stealing boyfriends, husbands, and brothers. I’d never meant to hurt anyone, it just seemed to happen, and always with regret afterward.
“Excellent and before I forget, here are your apartment keys.”
“Thanks,” I said, taking the keys.
“You must be tired.”
“Yes,” I laughed. “I think the jet lag’s finally catching up with me.”
“Why don’t you rest and I’ll meet you downstairs at 12:15 for Midday Prayer.”
“Okay,” I said, “and Sister Helena—”
“Thank you for everything.”
“We’re glad you’re here and hope your time of discernment with us will be a fruitful one,” Sister Helena smiled, then disappeared down the dimly lit hallway in a swish of pale blue.
I quietly shut the door, went to the window and finding no screens like back home, opened it and leaned out. I’d spent hours studying my Paris map and knew the monastery wasn’t far from the River Seine, Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and further, the Luxembourg Gardens where Ernest Hemingway, with a small notebook and two pencils in his shirt pocket, used to cut through to Gertrude Stein’s apartment on Rue de Fleurus. I felt the faint tremor of a metro train passing underground. I looked at my watch. It was exactly 11 o’clock. I took a deep breath. Paris, here I am.
I kicked off my running shoes and as a way to set anchor, began unpacking. Almost empty Evian bottle, two six packs of candy bars, camera, notebook, aspirin, laminated Paris map, money belt, alarm clock, hot pink Hello Kitty stash box, package of cheap Miraculous Medals, and colored pencils. And, there were my books: Knopf Guide: Paris, signed with love from my ex-stepfather, The Poetry of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, French pocket dictionary, and my New Jerusalem Bible, all of which I stacked in a neat pile on the desk near the window.
I went back to digging until I found a big, green, button-down men’s shirt. It was Jason’s shirt, the kind of shirt my father used to wear. “Take this to France with you,” Jason had said, “and remember me.” I took Jason’s shirt without hesitation, like an intercessor accepting a prayer request. I’d gone to confession a few days later and my penance from the priest had been to pray the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and to promise to go and sin no more.
“Jason, I miss the idea of you,” I said out loud, “but that was then and this is now.”
I pulled Jason’s shirt around me, set my alarm, and crawled into bed. Jason’s shirt would be an anchor to the memory of the girl I used to be. The girl I used to be. I was determined to be faithful now, chaste, poor and obedient, a consecrated Bride of Christ, set apart and holy, like Sister Helena, like the Virgin Mary. I closed my eyes and fell asleep and slept without dreaming, maybe like Eve had slept before she’d sprung from Adam’s rib.
Memoir opening (working title Beautiful) with photograph of monastery bedroom, originally published in slightly different form on Hippocampus on June 1, 2016.
Dresser, pillows, bed, yellow lamp, teapot,
silverware, bookcase, running shoes,
blue jeans, savings account, bicycle rack,
Dr. Martens Mary Jane look-a-likes,
move to Paris, boyfriend, compass.
Originally published on Vilas Avenue, Spring 2016
In Min’s garden, where the asparagus
grows tall as cornstalk in late summer,
my brother’s cat sits,
between asparagus and rose bush,
sits and waits in Min’s garden.
The year Min’s husband died a dove came,
white and flightless, crippled somehow.
Her husband’s dove, survived him,
perhaps even was him,
between asparagus and rose bush,
sits and waits in Min’s garden.
Originally published in Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar.