Sanctifigation

If I weren’t happily married . . .

If I weren’t joyfully a mother . . .

If I didn’t thrive performing on the stage . .

If I didn’t love writing and thereby connecting with people. . .

If I weren’t an incurable nomad who’s drawn to what this weighted world can offer. . .

In other words, if I’d lived a whole other life altogether. . .

I would definitely be a hermit.

The Abbaye de St. Roman is a troglodytic sanctuary carved by hand into the mountaintops overlooking the Rhône Valley of central Provence.

Here is a special aerial view:

http://www.360cities.net/image/troglodyte-abbey-of-saint-roman#423.34,90.00,110.0

For well over 1000 years, this one-of-a-kind abbey (there is none other like it in Western Europe; you have to go to Egypt or Cappadocia to find anything even similar) kept pilgrims and monks, hermits and the otherwise ultra-ascetic apart from this world.

To such disciples of self-discipline, their stony refuge kept them focused, pure, unsullied, liberated high above the heaviness of this realm of flesh.  They lived in near silence.  They prayed.  For hours and hours.  And hours.

They wrote.  They ate very little. And very simply.  They sang.  And chanted. And hummed. And breathed deeply.

They moved quietly. Or they sat all alone. For, oh let’s see, a lifetime or thereabouts.

In their tiny cells.

Con.

Tem.

Plat.

Ing.

(Now is when you check to see if you still have a pulse.)

Luc in the chapel

Dalton standing in what looked a lot like a baptismal font

Three ascending thrones

The abbey’s stark chalky walls of limestone have intermittent splotches of outdoor light –- primitive windows — carved out with one-by-one chiselmarks made by pilgrims who, many of them, had crawled to the abbey entrance on their hands and knees. Seeking God.

Here, they lived for months or years. Or until the end of all their earthly days, when released by death from a world they did not simply reject as vulgar, but from a normal life which they considered a distraction from the divine.

Some spiritual recluses (the Desert Fathers and their less-known but fascinating Desert Mothers) felt energized — or at least divinized — by living in cells so small, they could hardly turn around in them, let alone get comfy enough to spread out their elbows and enjoy their daily heel of bread.  Let alone stretch out to sleep when they needed.  Let alone do anything but be let alone.

Sound nuts?

Oh, but lemme tell you: I so get hermits.

More than the mere aversion to this material world, the yearning for the divine — theosis — can drive one out.  Out of the city.  Out of human contact.  Out of whatever a given culture or time calls “normalcy.”

Out of one’s mind, some would argue.

Out, at least, to regions far apart, to solitude and its wondrously soundproofed spaces, to deep retreat, retreat so unspeakable, its compressed depths squeeze one toward extreme — but sometimes elevating — behaviors.

All this to reach outside of this clunky, awkward phase called mortality.  To try with all one’s might at consecration. Sanctification.

(My pulse is quickening. Yours?)

As I hiked up to and around and through St. Roman, though, I took myself — wife, mother, performer, writer, nomad, lover of people, lover of God — to task on these issues.  I contemplated.  (Okay, okay, while walking freely, that’s true, and while humming my very favorite Earth, Wind and Fire tunes, I admit it, and while munching on a granola bar.) I contemplated what it means for me to live inside — and outside of — this world.

What is the challenge?, I asked myself. Standing outside of the world?  Or standing in it while withstanding it?

How can one give to the world, I asked myself, if one gives up on it?

Where can one find sanctuary?  Apart from? Then apart from what?

Or within? Then within what?

What is the path to “sanctification”?

Carving out of mountain stone a place where I can dwell? Apart from the world? And therefore closer to God?

Or carving out of my stony soul a place where God Himself might dwell?

A part — the most consuming part — of me?

The words of a Desert Mother, Amma Syncletica:

 “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town; they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd; and it is possible for those who are solitaries to live in the crowd of their own thoughts.”

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Intensifigation

What defines brilliance?

What is the relationship between creativity and insanity?

How do you judge what is inspired and what is insipid?

What breeds eccentricity: extraordinary gifts, or the drive to be extraordinary?

What breeds the extraordinary: excellence, extremes, excess or some combination of the three?

Or something else altogether?

Is there really such a thing as an inborn artistic temperament, and how does one temper it?

Do you necessarily want to?

What makes the difference between a bright mind and one that ignites randomly, setting the soul on fire?

Whose self-painted eyes are these?

Why did he sell only one painting in his lifetime?

Why did his neighbors call him the “fou roux”, (the crazy redhead), demanding he be institutionalized?

Why did he cut off part (or some say all) of this ear?

Why did he admit himself for a full year to an asylum?

How could he paint, in that one year, 150 canvases?

And why did only seven of any of his canvases draw any public attention whatsoever during his lifetime?

Why, just a few months after that calming and productive institutionalization, and just as some of his work was noticed by critics for the first time, why then did he kill himself?

Why, a century later, are seven of his paintings among those that have drawn the highest dollar in history at auction? ($147 mill, $107 mill, $80 mill. . .)

Why are all those above-mentioned works among those he painted during that year in asylum, the last year of his life?

And why has this man — and why have his eyes —- followed me for the last five days? Stared me down for the last 35 years?

**

Five miles over the Alpilles from Maussane lies St. Rémy, a bubbling Provençal hub with its weekly market, grayed lavender and periwinkle blue shutters, squares shaded by speckled plane trees, and our favorite barber who for 42 years has cut men’s hair and shaved their beards in the same small shop off the plaza where (the same barbered) men used to play péntaque every day after lunch.

St. Rémy is a plateful of all you can hope for in deliciousness and a paletteful of all a painter could want in vividness. Yet acres and acres of soft slopes colored in peace and quiet.

That thick quiet suffused with a special light and the sun-warmed earth are what drew the crazy redhead to retreat here to a cloister called St. Paul-le-Mausole just outside St. Rémy’s center.

The cloister, dating from the early Christian period, is part of a small compound bearing the name of the nearby Roman mausoleum. The mausoleum – an imposing tower and arch — are the first structures discovered from the adjacent Roman community called Glanum, completely uncovered a generation after the painter lived a few hundred meters from it.

But the painter rarely if ever walked outside of the walls of the cloister. He wouldn’t have seen the tower.  In fact, his letters suggest he kept not just within the walls of the cloister, but mostly within the walls of his two rooms.

There, he seemed to find plenty to stimulate his acute eye and unquiet mind.

Asylum of St. Rémy

He wrote about what he saw through the small barred windows:

“A view of the garden of the asylum where I am, on the right a gray terrace, a section [of] the house, some rosebushes that have lost their flowers; on the left, the earth of the garden – red ochre – earth burnt by the sun, covered in fallen pine twigs. This edge of the garden is planted with large pines with red ochre trunks and branches, with green foliage saddened by a mixture of black. These tall trees stand out against an evening sky streaked with violet against a yellow background. High up, the yellow turns to pink, turns to green. A wall – red ocher again – blocks the view, and there’s nothing above it but a violet and yellow ochre hill. Now, the first tree is an enormous trunk, but struck by lightning and sawn off. A side branch, thrusts up very high, however, and falls down again in an avalanche of dark green twigs. This dark giant – like a proud man brought low – contrasts, when seen as the character of a living being, with the pale smile of the last rose on the bush, which is fading in front of him. Under the trees, empty stone benches, dark box. The sky is reflected yellow in a puddle after the rain. A ray of sun – the last glimmer – exalts the dark ocher to orange – small dark figures prowl here and there between the trunks.”

I’ll bet you’ve seen these paintings. Maybe you even remember, as I do, the first time you saw any of them.  Maybe the moment knocked you flat. It did me.

**

I’d just become a teenager and was in Europe for the first time, and found myself standing in a famous museum creaking along the wooden floors until I paused — froze — in the middle of a room entirely full of his works.  Irises.  Sunflowers. Cypresses.  Wheat fields.  A glimmering, disco-ball starry night.

In that hour I felt what you felt, too, probably: I and I alone had discovered electricity.

Not the Ben Franklin current. And nothing as banal as a pronged plug at the end of a twisted plastic chord.

What I’d found was more like what would have happened had I stuck my tongue right into the socket of the center of the universe.  Scorched through.  Whizz-zammed.  Lifted off my toes by thunder.

I crept closer to the canvas — as close as I could get without getting slapped by a guard — to see if the brushstrokes still smelled of oil. Weren’t they painted just an hour ago?  And then I looked both ways, thinking maybe if I staged the right distraction or turned at the perfect angle, I could lick the canvas.  Honest.  Weren’t chunks of color that fresh and moist made to be tasted?

Today, they are in every dentist’s office, those pictures.  And you can pick them up in every Three-For- $4.99 student print shop.  (You’ll find them right between the posters of greased surfers and kittens hanging on a clothes line by their paws.)

As soon as Randall and I, students at the time, had saved $20, we bought a “Starry Night.”

We framed it ourselves with a plate of discount glass and cheap little clippy thingies.  And it followed us in that simple frame from house to house for years.  When we eventually visited Amsterdam, we’d graduated from grad school and to a big, canvas reprint of those succulent almond blossoms.

We had it framed professionally this time (hand painted wood and all), and it’s followed us ever since.  Both works were painted in that intense last year at St. Rémy.

Much like they’ve become clichés those two pieces, so have the painter’s life and even his name. I heard, for example, an automobile manufacturer tried to market a family car using his name: Van Go.  The campaign didn’t make it out of the starting gates due to legal snags.

We can all thank our lucky starry nights.

And now here I was again, strolling the modest garden that once grew the irises he captured with his brush.

Walking by the old stone wall with his cypresses,

standing beside his bleached blue door,

circling the inner courtyard where he’d walked in an infinite loop for hours on end,

hearing his own description of what his peculiar and fiery eye saw. What my thick lenses hardly notice:

“You’ll understand that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called ‘seeing red’.”

To a friend, he wrote of his

“. . .Moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant.”

To his sister he wrote:

“I should like to paint portraits which appear after a century to people living then as apparitions. By which I mean that I do not endeavor to achieve this through photographic resemblance, but my means of our impassioned emotions — that is to say using our knowledge and our modern taste for color as a means of arriving at the expression and the intensification of the character.”

“Intensification of character.”

Van Gogh himself. As well as being a genius with his tormented, mercurial moods, furious and radiant manic episodes, passions at once so violent and so virtuous, he feared he was the devil and his brother thought he was a saint.  His vigor was physical, intellectual and spiritual, making for such a tempestuous existence, he seemed fated from early on to self-extinguish — destitute, alone, a pauper — as he in fact did at an early age.

And so I wonder.  I ask again all those questions at the top of this post.  Is “intensification of character” and all its distantly-related cousins — passion, zeal, pushing and obliterating boundaries, creativity, perfection, sensation-seeking — are they really, in the tragic end, all they’re cracked up to be? Isn’t surviving — reliable steadiness, normal plodding through, being there for others — a pretty intense quest? All by itself?

What price art?

I have no answer. Except perhaps to the first question:

What defines brilliance?

Well, that’s an easy one:

Which begs the obvious: What price no art? 

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Pontifigation

Avignon, runner-up to Vatican City for being the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, epicenter of Catholicism. For over a century, this fortressed city was the seat of seven Popes and two anti-Popes during what is known as the Great Schism or the (Second) Babylonian Captivity.

(For a more detailed history lesson — and trust me, this infamous stretch is as convoluted as history gets — google any of the above capitalized words.  Except for the title. I haven’t notified Google about my fig puns.)

Our Sunday afternoon we spent in this auspicious setting after having attended morning meetings with the modest (30 members?) congregation of our LDS church which meets in an unremarkable building on the outskirts of town.  We didn’t visit either just for the contrast, but if contrast would have been what we were after, we couldn’t have chosen better.

“Outskirts”, in Avignonese, means anything outside the huge, intact walls encircling the whole medieval center of town, which is dominated by this, the Papal Palace.

Well, that palace, yeah. But also a few restaurants that didn’t do so much business, I don’t think, during the Plague.

When Pope Clement chose Avignon over Rome as his home, the Western Schism in church leadership/doctrine/politics/even musical preferences got enormous traction.  Avignon was a breeding ground for secular (or popular) music — like the love tunes crooned by the Provençal troubadors, medieval equivalents of Elvis, Frank, Mel and Nat — and it was here over a couple of centuries and thanks to the tastes of a couple of Popes in particular, that secular music merged with the sacred. Something called polyphony — “many voices” — flourished during and as a result of what we otherwise call the Crisis of the Middle Ages.

Historians call that new wave of multiple merging voices ars nova, and what we get from that centuries later is every bit of harmony you’ve ever heard. In other words, thanks to crisis, schism, division and a fortressed city like Avignon we have The Beatles, The BeachBoys, Styx, Foster the People, Pentatonix, Racal Flats and, of course, MoTab.

(For a more detailed music history lesson, see David and Donna Dalton.  My parents.  Growing up, I never learned how to tell score for football, tennis or golf.  It crippled me only slightly as a teen, as did some other black holes in my knowledge, many of them — but not all — numbers-related. And totally due to my own laziness.  Like telling score. But wanna talk musical scores? Chat polyphony? I’m all over it.)

So, why am I lecturing you from this polyphonic pontifical pulpit? Is it all about Popes? And Dark Ages? And Schisms? And newfound harmony?

Nope.

And yep.

Avignon, to me, is a monument to all the good that can grow out of disaster.  Those who witnessed firsthand the messiness of papal estrangement, captivity, separation and divorce, (and the Great Schism was the greatest divorce Christianity had known, surely capable of having taken out the church for good and forever), those witnesses wouldn’t have been able to foresee, I don’t think, what beautiful harmony would eventually emerge from that period of catastrophe.  Music as we know it — from the contrapuntally weaving majesty of symphonies and choirs to our simplest hymns — rose from a widespread and profound split.

Majestic harmony from cataclysmic disharmony.

Avignon put its name on the map not only as a launching pad for all modern music, but as an important outpost during the French revolution. In 1791, the massive gothic Pope’s Palace with its 18 feet thick walls, made a perfect and unassailable prison and garrison.  Once again, it was the one fortressed spot on a tattered map.

And for the rest of us that afternoon, it was the one perfectly unassailable shady spot on a Sunday.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Frenchifigation

“Madame? Madame? Bonjour, hallo? Vous parlez le Français?”  

Her voice chirped through the hedge and I scrambled up from the patio chair where I’d been since sunrise, working at my laptop and trying to see things eye to eye with my camera.

“Oui, Madame, bonjour?” I called back, folding laptop flat, setting it on the tiled table next to me, maneuvering off the lavender linen cushion that made the wrought iron tolerable for so many hours.  I then searched for the person to match the voice.

There was the top of a head. Blonde. Then a face. Smiling.  Wide bright blue eyes.  And two waving hands over the uppermost greenery of the hedge.

She continued to address me in French.

“So, you speak French? Wonderful! I’m so relieved. Enchanted to make your acquaintance,” her manicured hand stretched over the branches to meet my hand, also stretching. Unmanicured.

“Blanchard, Françoise.  I’m here during the summers. And you?”

“Bradford, Mélissa. Only this week.  Unfortunately. We’ve driven down from Geneva this time, but we’ve vacationed here in Maussane for over 15 years, now.” I was glad to talk with this neighbor, but must have seemed distracted, since I was already sensing sweat seeping beneath my hair pulled back in its typical morning pony tail. The instant I appeared from under the shade of the awning, I began sizzling. Things were beyond glistening. They were dripping.

Maussane is a village in the heart of Provence at the base of the low range of mountains called les Alpilles.  It is also, this past week at least, in the heart of a heat wave.  Until this year we’d come in early June or latest, July. Never late August, and I felt the difference, drizzling while squinting into sun that was high in the sky and fierce as an angry bull’s snort. My boys and husband had been at the pool for a couple of hours already, escaping temperatures that would make my lap top, by the time I would return to it following this neighborly chat, hot enough to fry my thighs when I would open it up again.

“So, you write, I see.” Françoise motioned to where she’d apparently been watching me sitting, tapping.

“Yes, yes. Working on two books at once, actually,” and I rolled my eyes at myself, sputtering, as if to mock my own Type A idea of vacation.

I’m an author, too, imagine!”, she exclaimed as she clapped her hands together.  “Eight novels. I’ll give you one, if you’d like.  Little romances, you know.  Local stories. Fragrant. French.”

“I’d love a copy, thank you.  I’m always looking for inspiration.” I wiped my forehead into my hairline, dabbed my upper lip.

“Oh, don’t you worry,” my sweat must have made me look worried,  “You’ll find inspiration here.  This area grows writers like it does olives,” Françoise said. “Or grapes. Or figs.”

“Figs?” I’d sampled more than my share of Provençal olive oil, no use hiding that.  Better said, olive oil is my beverage of choice.  Since I don’t drink the wine.  But figs?

“But of course! Figs!” Françoise lifted her voice and fingers, pointing behind my head. “Your tree!  Les figues!”

Okay. So that’s what those small black pouches were plopping now and again on the pebbles all this time I was writing. Les figues!

 

 “This tree?” I turned to the tallest thing in the garden, impossible to miss. “A fig tree?”

“But of course!  Tell me . . .” her large blue eyes narrowed in the direction of the fig tree, “Are you, uh, are you going to harvest them?” She smiled, caution holding her lips just a bit tightly.

“Harvest? I guess. . .yes, of course, I planned on waiting till the sun gets lower this afternoon, then I’ll—”

“Simply rinse them well, stem them, cut them into quarters, soak them in some water and honey, and let them cook, “ she instructed with spirit.  “Lentement. Come Christmas? Confit de figues avec foie gras! Absoluement délicieux, I assure you.

“Then I can bring a basket of fresh figs to you a bit later?”

“To me?” Françoise acted surprised. “Very kind of you. But I must warn you: once you discover Provençal figs, you’ll add them to everything.  I tell you: Everything.”

That day, (and I couldn’t wait until the sun moved lower in the bleached denim sky to do this), I gathered a whole sink full of newly fallen figs.

Then I climbed the tree, eating as I went.  Another bucket full. I followed her instructions and had my first ever confit de figues.

Then the next day, same routine. Figs with chilled lemon yogurt.

Next day the same. And many figs. And many pots of lemon yogurt.

Figs with tomatoes and endive (and rivers of olive oil) for my salad. Figs with steamed fennel and toasted walnuts.  Figs on rye toast with almond butter.

Figs as facial scrub.

Why not?

Figs, Françoise’s latest novel, figs, and figs. . .

Françoise was right.  You can add figs to everything. Even to your writing.

So to test her words, in the following posts describing our week in Provence, I’ll make “fig” figure in everywhere. As a figure of speech.  A figment of my imagination. A terrifig figtion.

I figure I’ll work it all out.

We will begin tomorrow with Afignon.

Make that Avignon.  . .


**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Borrowing My Girlfriend’s Garlick Press

Lisa Garlick is the mother of Jocelyn.  Or Jocie.  Or Jiggy.

I am the mother of Parker. Or Frenchie.  Or Par Coeur. Or PFB.

Five years ago, we didn’t know each other and couldn’t have ever found one another, I don’t think, on this big wobbly planet. But a kind and common friend, Diane, and our cruel and common tragedies, our children’s tragic deaths, brought us together. We bonded online.  It was instantaneous for me, and I think it was pretty quick for Lisa, too, who is a woman of such honesty and such sheer heart-volume, it’s been a marvelous lesson just taking in all she has to give.

Since there are certain geographic constraints, we only see each other once a year. At the Parker Hike. Every year she brings her dear Dean. . .

. . .and their youngest son Chet. . .

. . .and every year they make homemade (scrumptious) flavored beeswax lip balm they call Jiggy Stix, which they hand out to all the hike participants.  (Just to give you an idea of their capacity for giving. And to reveal to you that hunky, soulful Dean is a beekeeper on the side, as well as a bereaved father and splendid all around human being. And Chet, the sly genius, is a poet.)

And Lisa, besides all this, is a quilter.  A master quilter.  Twice already, Lisa has hand made our family the most impeccably designed quilts — major artistic renderings of carefully selected fabrics stitched thread-by-thread into visual harmony with our Parker’s clothing: his volleyball uniforms; his basketball uniforms; his drum-beater T-shirts; the light blue swim trunks he was wearing that July evening he lunged back into the whirlpool to try to grab his drowning classmate.

Yes. Those quilts are sacred to us.  I only crawl under mine when the world feels wobblier than usual, which, you know this as well as I, can be just about any time.

The hike — The Wagon Train — has brought me face-to-face with Lisa, and all of us face-to-face with Michelle, who recently lost her beloved mother.

And with Sharlee, who, when she was a girl, lost both her father and oldest brother weeks apart to tragic accidents.  She also lost her sweet mother to cancer.

And with Julie, who cared for her mighty and terminally ill son Brigham for 14 years, then held him in her arms as he expired into the next life.

And with Patsy.  And Ellen.  And Maja.  And Cheri.  And Bonnie Jean.  And Jacque.  And Angelique. And Renee.  And Kathryn.  And Glen.  And Aaron.  And . . . Such friends.

Michelle’s husband, Eric, and two of five adorable sons

Such magnificent souls.

Dean carrying Michelle’s youngest, Mary

Such constant manifestation of God’s solid everpresence in an ever-wobbly world.

Emily, Brigham’s sister; My niece Eliza and Michelle

Part of the Bradfords and our new Singaporean friend, Chloe Ith

Lisa’s blog is a gust of clean, clear air to read, and treats beautifully this year’s Parker Hike.  I haven’t even asked her yet, but I’m inviting you to drop in and visit her place. Here’s the address:

http://thegarlickspread.blogspot.fr/2012/07/five-years.html

You’ll love her, as I do.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Makeshift Wagon Trains

When you move internationally and often, you’re granted many unusual opportunities and significant blessings. I’ll admit that.

I’m afraid, though, that my most recent posts have been a bit of a Charm-Glam Gallery, parading the deep pile rug of ivy on the ancient stone wall, the personalized fireworks, the corner château.

You’re asking by now, doesn’t Switzerland have garbage cans? Couldn’t she have shot those?

(Honestly, I’m still looking for them. And believe me, junk is stacking up.)

Up to now, though, I’ve only hinted at some of the challenges and costs of this nomadic life: The uncertainties of school-or-no-school; house-or-no-house; chaotic moves; disastrous moves; language panic; that teetering load of stress everyone’s expected to shoulder with aplomb and without complaint.  And I’ve only hinted at them because, compared to the biggest cost, the one I want to share with you today, I think they’re all pretty darn wimpy.

Hardly worth mentioning. (Although I mention them anyway. For texture, I suppose.)

The one major cost of moving so often and so far every time is the cost I’ve been saving up just for this post.

I’ve been saving up, in fact, until this very day, the 21st, to write it.  This is maybe too self- revealing, but I will risk writing it because it must be said: Every 21st of every month since the 21st of July of 2007, is a day of extra reflection, a hunkering down day for our family.  And many who know us intimately hunker a bit, too.  In solidarity.

So here you have it: Today it’s been 5 years and 1 month since we turned off life support.  We circled a gurney in an Idaho I.C.U. and witnessed enormous promise, perfect health, loving humor, and a powerful heartbeat expire with one breath.

With that breath, the universe titled wildly on one side, and Meaning itself threatened to careen down that slope off the edge and into the bottomless pit of oblivion forever.

But it did not.

Why didn’t it? Why hasn’t it yet?

I’ll tell you.

It has something to do with a wagon train

***

The last month we lived in Paris, Parker was trying on his cap and gown for high school graduation and making arrangements to spend his summer enrolled at a Freshman Academy at university.  I was simultaneously packing up our life and sending it, crate by crate, to Munich.  It was to be our next home. We felt God’s hand in it, so I was optimistic though bracing myself for all that a Big Move and sending off our first to University requires.

And in a split second disaster struck.  There was a freak water accident and frantic phone calls. Local helicopters and transglobal corporate jets. A regional medical center in Idaho with, oddly, a French name, Port Neuf.  There were hours of holy and horrifying silence. There was a form slipped across a counter with its time-sensitive request for organ donations. There was the word “mortuary.”

And then there was a funeral.

“I think I see an element of grace in this,” a fine and loving woman had whispered that morning of Saturday, July 21st, as she and others watched our huddled family shuffle back into the I.C.U. room to take our final farewells from Parker before life support was to be turned off.

“This is all happening just as they leave Paris for a new life in Munich,” she had added. “No haunting reminders of Parker everywhere they turn, none of those painful memories that point to his absence.  They can start all over.”

My mom, always so on-the-money, was just that once innocently and completely off-the-mark.

As were we.

What we did not know then but have learned since, is that disaster calls for regrouping, rebuilding, and reorienting.  It calls for people — your people — and even a small handful of them will do.

You need people with eyes that look into, not merely at or past, you; eyes that see your present stillness not as aloofness or faithlessness or bitterness, but as what this peculiar stillness is:  shock, injury, gouged-out emptiness, a silent scream, openness, waiting, and a swelling understanding that gives way to profound reverence.

You need people who neither require small talk nor big talk — nor any kind of talk at all for that matter — to understand when you cannot talk at all or when you crave talking all night.

You need people who know and recite the old stories of who you were, who will help you make sense of the story that has ripped wide your life, people who will stay with you while you agonize over whatever story must fill the blank pages ahead.

And all of this hushed storytelling (or this speaking silence) you need to be able to share while you shed tears and take steps into the next, unbelievably empty hour, reorienting.

And this is where a wagon train rolls in.  I believe that one of the core reasons why more of my pioneer forbears who buried their loved ones along their brutal westbound route did not curl up in the sagebrush or snow, themselves debilitated by the heart-exploding pain of grief, is that they lived — and their loved ones died — in wagon trains.

Survivors carried with them a closely bound, unbroken mourning community, a ready-made bereavement group.  I do not doubt my pioneer ancestors were also helped on their march forward by real but unseen spirit beings, some whose own bodies lay freshly dead in shallow graves or frozen in the bed of a hand cart.

But what I also believe and appreciate now, is that in addition to that constant spiritual support, there was also mortal support: the inestimable power found in the eyes and voices of others in the wagon train. Those eyes had witnessed their friends’ losses, their voices still spoke their lost one’s name.  They were part of the shared stories.  They lived them.  In fact, they had helped write them.

Even if what they shared was only silent presence pulsing to the rhythm of a creaking wagon wheel, these brokenhearted and wretched souls shared their suffering with one another.  They knew, as Paul wrote, that “whether one member suffers, all the members suffer with it,” (1 Cor. 12:26). Each loss that was shared unified them in their sufferings because every single loss was known, felt, and mourned by the whole body of that wagon train.

Munich, through no fault of its own, was not our wagon train.  It was full of strangers who had not known us all those years when we were intact and innocent, buoyant and carefree, let alone two weeks earlier when we stood broken at the side of a grave of a beautiful boy named Parker. And this, you understand now, is the inestimable cost of moving over and over and over again: you forfeit your safety net. You trade off stability for mobility. You peel off from any potential wagon train. When the unthinkable hits, you desperately scour the horizon for the refuge found in being known.  And you find only strangers.

Strangers are not a wagon train.  And in their effort to no longer be strangers, ask questions.  Harmless people—mothers at the bus stop, shop owners behind cash registers, old couples walking dogs, jaunty mail deliverers, genteel neighbors — ask typically harmless questions.  But the harmless “Are these all your children?” or “Do anything special during your summer vacation?” were so hurtful they cut off blood flow to my head. They ripped off my emotional armor right there in broad daylight.

For all those who made up our new world I realize that we might have seemed anti-social, chronically jet-lagged, clinically depressed, or rip-roaring mad, particularly when we cried silently through church meetings or ran out of them altogether. But I grew tired of fielding chats about weather, and was weary of dodging casual questions that were worthy of only my most reverent response and the other person’s most reverent listening. Parker’s story was such precious matter for which the clunky tokens of everyday talk were worthless.  And all these new emotions were at once too colossal and too subtle for words, so I wasn’t about to flatten them in some generic packaging of common vocabulary to dole casually.

But you can only stay curled in on yourself inside your shell for so long before you morph into a snail: moving like a slug, dragging on the ground, formless, nearly inert, wearing the same slimy clothes day in, day out.

At a certain point, and nudged by God, I know and am grateful for this, I realized that by every method available in our highly-connected world, I could drum up a virtual, makeshift wagon train.

And so I did.

Today, that train consists of people who knew us and/or knew and  loved our son before July 2007.  But many who did not know him or us before recently.  They have learned to love us and him and speak openly of him in spite  of never having known him in life.  Among those who are linked in this train are magnificent families who have also buried a child, parents and siblings whose stories would knock your breath away as they have mine.

There are parents who have cared for and then buried chronically and terminally ill children. . .

There are widows and widowers who have pushed through pain and loneliness to raise their children well though singlehandedly. . .

. . .Survivors of cruel divorces who manage to embrace others and trust in love’s power to bring life out of desolation. And there are people who are struggling to carry the weight of their hidden and unspeakable burdens. . . And there are just loving human beings who, though not acquainted with tragedy themselves, face it in our faces and enter into it with courage and authenticity.

Every July for four years, this wagon train has gathered sometime very close to July 21st. There, as happened a month ago today, in the splendor of Utah’s Rocky Mountains, we draw ourselves first into a circle. . .

. . .Tell what loss (or whose legacy) brings us to the Parker Fairbourne Bradford Memorial hike. . .

Give firm hugs and fill our water bottles . . . And head up the trail.

For a few hours we talk. . .

Laugh deeply. . .

Tell stories. . .

Whisper questions, cry a little, stop shocked in our tracks. . .

Carry each other. . .

Sweat our share (and part of someone else’s share). . .

And eventually. . .

We all get to the top of the mountain.

Where, like the pioneer wagon trains did at the close of every stretch, we follow a tradition. . .

We sing.

(All photos courtesy of my talented and loving friend, Jonna Robison, the blonde beauty in the black tank top who is featured, appropriately, right in the middle of the “Laugh deeply” shot.)

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Local Big Wig

. . .Without his wig.

And that, naturally, is why you’re having  a hard time figuring out who he is.  Because for you, as for most of the world, he’s most recognizable, (besides being the most recognizable name in French literature the world over after Victor Hugo, probably) with his cult hair.

Cult hair.

(Which rhymes with his name.)

And makes him bear a striking resemblance to Kevin Cronin, lead singer of the ’80’s rock band, REO Speedwagon.

At least I thought so.

Next clue:

He figures in that class of prolific writers who has covered virtually all the genres: essay, play, poetry, novel, scientific works, philosphy, history. He also wrote over 20,000 letters.

Next clue:

He was born and died in Paris, but lived in various locations (Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland) in those 83 years in between. And yes, that means he spoke and wrote in English, German, French, Italian, and knew Latin and Greek.

Next clue:

He was imprisoned in the Bastille for his writings which decried abuses by political and ecclesiastical organizations.

Then he was exiled from Paris. So of course he came to Switzerland. Wouldn’t you?

Next clue:

The neutral Swiss liked him, and so he bought this village château outside of Geneva, calling it “Les Délices.”  (Oops. You’ll find his identity in this illustration.)

Next clue:

He apparently liked a tidy garden. This helps us understand his hair.

Today, “Les Délices” is the neighborhood château and a national Swiss museum, and looks like this:

And its gardens look like this:

Photo credit: Capelady webpage

To the right the 15h century  village church, and to the left the 18th century community building.

 Next clue:

Thanks to dour Calvinism which determined Swiss law at the time, theatrical performances and his famous work, The Maid of Orleans, were banned in his host country.

Next clue:

So be hopped a kilometer or two over the border to Ferney, France, bought a bigger estate, and stayed there for the last 20 years of his life, during which time he wrote his most famous work, Candide.

Next clue:

A forceful voice for civil liberties, separation of church and state, and human rights, he was a man who determined his times, greatly influencing the thinkers of both the American and French Revolutions.

Last clue:

He eventually gave up the trademark bouffant hairstyle only attainable , one of my boys thought, with electrical means.

Which explains his nom de plume: Volt Hair

Bust of Voltaire

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

La Vie Villageoise, #4

Our street. Our village.

Our lavender. But someone else’s bumblebee. . .

Before I lead you down a lavender path into thinking things are all rosemary, antique water pumps, cobblestones and charming chapels when you move often and internationally, (and certainly before I reveal who the famous French writer was who lived in our neighborhood chateau), I have a story about the realities of this life.

**

Luc, now twelve, was then five.  He had attended two years of bilingual preschool in Paris, and the next day, for first grade, he was joining his big brother at the French elementary school, E.A.B. in the Parc Monceau where Dalton had already attended two years.

At dinner the evening before his first day of this French immersion school, I’d noticed how pasty Luc looked, a bit too calm in the pupils behind his red Harry Potter glasses. Fork-fiddling with his food. Unable to drink much.

Sip-sip.  Long breath in. Sip-sip. Longer breath out.

Head titled. Like he had the weight of the world on one bony shoulder.

I went into his room that night to nuzzle up to his freshly bathed body and stroke his slick blonde bangs.

“How things, Luc?”

It was dark where I knelt next to him in that bottom bunk so all I could make out was the general lumpiness of a checkered cotton duvet.

“Hm?” a voice came from under lots of feathers.

“You there? You alright?”

(Muffled breathing sound.)

I burrowed and found a forehead. I smoothed my long fingers across it.

“Sick, sweetie? Fever?”

“Nah-uh.”

“Air will help, honey,” and I drew back the comforter to see his profile. Nose like a ski jump. Pronounced pout.  Delicate neck. “Okay, there you go. So. . .hon. . . you nervous?”

“Uh-huh.” There was a tremolo in his voice that sent a ripple of chilled bitter lemon through my senses.

“For. . .?”

Aw, c’mon. I knew full well that he was nervous.  And I knew what for.  Although he was functional in French — could recite Victor Hugo poetry and sing French ditties at the top of his lungs, even had a girlfriend Jasmine with whom he managed quite well in her tongue — up till then he’d been in a cozy environment with multiple nationalities, everyone buffering everyone else’s language acquisition. He hadn’t yet been in a classroom where everyone else was French and where all the instruction –– reading, math, history, graphisme — was exclusively in French.

Where he might not be able to figure things out.  Where he might be mortified and, where he might, oh maybe, wet his pants.

In terror. In front. Of everyone.

What he was having was a typical fit of language panic, I recognized the signs. And my Empathy-Mometer shot clean through the ceiling.  How well I knew the dread.

“Well. . .” he shifted in bed, turning toward me.   We were nearly touching noses.  “What if someone says something to me tomorrow?”

“Okay. . .”

“A lot of something.”

“Right. . .”

“A big sentence, Mom.”

“I know. Big.”

“All in French.  In front of the class.  And I don’t understand all of it. What if there’s just this one word. . .and I don’t. . .get it?”

It made me so nervous for him, had I not already been on my knees, they would have buckled right then and there.

I pulled out my wise woman hat and tugged it down tight over my anxiety.

“Well, Luc, know what? You just say this one thing.  . .”

I took his polished cheeks in my hands and looked (like a wise woman) into his eyes.  Were his the teary ones? Or were those mine?

“Kay, you listening?”

“Yuh. . .”

“You say these words nice and loud: Je. Suis. Desolé. Mais. Je. Ne. Comprends. Pas.”

(Which, roughly, is “Zhe swee dezolay, may zhe nuh comprohn pah.” Very roughly. And it means, “Sorry, but I don’t get it.” Also roughly.)

Luc looked right through to the exit side of my irises.

“But I know how to say that already.”

“I know, I know. But you have to have it right here,” I pointed to my temple, “ready to pull out of this little brain pocket. It will protect you. Like a shield.”

“Really?”

“Yup. Easy, right?” (I felt so incredibly reassured by myself.)  “So, Luc, let’s do it together, kay sweetie?”

We cleared our throats and entered on the self same pitch:

Je suis desolé, mais je ne comprends pas.”

Mom and son, nose to nose, in the dark.

“Again, Luc.”

Je suis desolé, mais je ne comprends pas.”

Chanting our fear away.

“Again, louder.”

Je suis desolé, mais je ne comprends pas!”

We added a rhumba beat this time:

Je suis desolé, cha! Mais je ne comprends pa, cha!.”

Chanting and rhumba-ing our fear right out the door of the universe.

Je suis  desolé, mais je ne comprends pas! Woo-hoo!! Now give me a big kiss!”

He froze stiff, “NO WAY am I saying THAT!”

**

Luc, two years later, spoke such fluidly effortless French, I was sickened to leave Paris for fear of his losing that gift. But we headed off to Munich. Where he had to learn German.  But he did so quickly. So quickly, in fact, that German teacher bumped him up a class.

But just as he was growing confident in that language, we had to leave there.

To launch into Mandarin in Singapore.

Only to return two years later to Frenchland.

And where, do you think, is Luc’s French now?

**

Back in our village. . .

The morning I took the village walk you’ve now taken with me, Luc wanted to go along on his trontinette, which in the U.S., I think, is a razor scooter. At twelve, he’s searching for independence and responsibility.  And at this point I’m anticipating school starting the first week of September with a plunge back into French. I’ll plot these little simple errands to ease him back into interacting daily in French. It’s a benign stealth maneuver I always have on my mind.

So I give him a wad of Swiss francs and tell him to whizz across the square to the épicerie (corner grocer) and pick up some things to bring home.

“And please see if they have a chunk of Parmesan cheese,” I tell him as I rehearse with him, just in case, things he will say to the grocer. “I’m making bruschetta, [one of his favorite dishes] for dinner. We’ll put slices of Parmesan on top.”

Near the village center. . .

Whizzing by. . .

A half hour later we went home. Or actually, I ran home, camera thumping on my sternum, trailing him as he raced past on the trotinette, head down, face unrecognizably grim, strange gasping sounds coming from his mouth.

“Luc? Luc, Luc! Open up for me!”

There were sobbing and punching sounds coming from behind his bedroom door.

“Luc?! What on earth happened?! Listen, open up right this minute, son.”

Punch. Grunt. Muffled ugh, ugh, ugh.

“Luc? Luc??!”

The door flew open, then Luc dove head first back onto his red bean bag chair. The fabric was deep burgundy-black, a bruised abrasion, everywhere his crying face had been buried.

 

Seems he’d asked correctly for du fromage Parmesan.  But when the store clerk asked if he wanted it râpé, (pronounced, “rappay”, and means “grated”), Luc didn’t know what that word meant because he’d forgotten correct Parmesan terminology over five years. So he’d understood râpé to mean “wrapped.” Which makes perfect sense.  Obviously.

So did the boy want his cheese wrapped?

 

Oui, oui, Monsieur.

But when the grocer then directed Luc to little plastic pouches of pre-grated Parmesan (instead of a chunk), Luc told him, non, non, non, Monsieur, he wanted a big piece, un gros morceau, as Luc showed with his hands just like he and I had practiced.

But the grocer could go ahead and râpé it, Luc said, thinking he was telling the grocer to wrap (or wrappay) it.

Which led, as you might imagine, to a back and forth between the grocer and the twelve-year-old scooter boy, which grew into a lively community debate as another waiting customer suggested the boy on the scooter wanted sliced, and another said no, that one would never râpé Parmesan beforehand, then another added that you really shouldn’t wrap un Parmesan râpé.

Ah, I could envision the scene. My Luc, pinned in the middle, his skinny arms stiff at his sides, his mind whirring for words, the adults trying to help but getting nowhere, no one understanding what it is the boy with flushed cheeks wants, Luc just wanting to manage one simple hunk of cheese to prove his manhood and make his Mom proud. And make his favorite dish.

Outnumbered. Outlanguaged.

So he fishes out of a deep pocket in his cerebellum the best retort he can muster:

 “Je suis desolé. . . mais je ne comprends pas.”

Which got him two pouches of râpé cheese.  For which he paid, hands sweaty and shaking.

Then he took off, embarrassment drizzling in sweat rivers down all his limbs, trotting as absolutely quickly as his trotinette was capable of going.

Your common case of language panic.

Oh, boy. How I have been there.

I tried minimizing the ordeal, handled it with kidding gloves, so to speak, and after some time — some hours — brought the old Luc back to life.

We decided that evening to make pesto instead of bruschetta ,which, hey, just happens to require Parmesan rapé.  While we tooled away in the kitchen, I told Luc he was pretty lucky the grocer hadn’t pulled out a pen and paper to try writing the words out.

Now that might have been really disturbing, dontcha think? What kind of cheese is that?

Then I told story after story after painful and mortifying story of my own history of language panic. Those stories began when I was just a year older than Luc, and lived in Salzburg at 13.  My preteen, who’s got the mistaken impression that his Mom just somehow sprouted these languages she speaks out of thin air, seemed to love knowing how often and thoroughly she’d been humiliated by language, and how often that humiliation was in front of a big, glaring, native audience. How often she punched things and wept.

Some of these moments were just embarrassing. Others, indecent. Others, insulting, Still others, full-on dangerous.

As you might expect, many happened in grocery stores, much like Luc’s Parmesan crucible. But others (and this is where language panic reaches a whole new pitch) happened in doctor’s offices. Or in a formal dinner at an Embassy. Or in front of hundreds on the concert stage. Or on the telephone with the electrician.  When I had a serious car accident. While standing ankle deep in gushing water as my basement flooded.  While my child writhed in pain on an emergency room floor. During childbirth. And, most incriminating of all, in an aisle of IKEA.

“Luc, honey,” I told him as we served up our pesto, laughing now, “I’ve had so many experiences like yours today, I could write a book!”

“But. . .I thought you already have.”

Safe back at home. . .

Next post: Who’s the French Big Wig who lived under this roof?

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

La Vie Villageoise, #3

La Chapelle de la Famille

At is so happens, this chapel belongs to the family of the matron of this home in which we now live.  All of her children were christened there, following a family tradition dating back . . . I don’t know how many generations, except that her husband, the gracious Monsieur B. from my post entitled “Finding Home,” waved his hands several times in the backward direction, suggesting the string of ancestors.  This chapel, and the many homes in this corner of the village that belong to the same family, are quite a bit of the history.

With time, I will know some of that story.

Makes me downright salivate.

Farther down that same passageway. . .

La Source de la FamilleI’ve shown this water trough once before, but did not know then, as I do now, that is was the family’s private water source for . . . (hand wave gesture indicating “way back”).

I also did not know that Dalton’s bedroom would overlook this pump, and the trickling water sound would put him to sleep every night.

Official tourist wandering trail

What I also didn’t know is that our little street bears one of these signs, which means it is a designated wandering (or hiking) trail on the Swiss government’s maps system. (Which system, you gotta appreciate this, is a SERIOUS enterprise.)

I learned it was a designated route when, during the move when I was standing, hands on hips in front of the moving truck in the road, a group of five impressively equipped wanderers wandered toward me.

I noticed they spoke Swiss German, so I sopke to them in High German. One man responded.

I also noticed they had two German Shepherds (or would that be Swiss German?), and they slurped noisily in the water trough.  I’ll not invite you to bathe there, as promised earlier.

“Hello, you look like you’re looking for something,” I offered to the man with olive green army grade hiking boots.

“Yes. We are. Which way to Rue St. Jacques?”

The dogs were nearly dunking themselves front legs and all in the trough.  The woman with a yellow tank top and a chestnut braid down to her waistline, yanked at their collars and blurted something quiet and cute at them in Swiss German. That language is cute, though incomprehensible as a real language.

“Rue St. Jacques? Um, Sorry, I’m pretty new here myself. Never heard of it.”

I turn to the movers and ask in French if they know the road.

“Only one I know,” says the moving team leader Monsieur Tin Tin, as he calls himself, “is in the middle of Geneva.”

“Yes,” says the head of the hikers. “That’s the one.”

“You’re walking to Geneva?” I ask, laughing a little. It’s a 25 minute drive. But on foot? And with hounds?

“Yes. We are walking. Of course.” And he lifts up his walking sticks. As if they will do some magic or something.

The woman with the braid, who has taken a swig from the fountain and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, echos, “Yes. Walking.”

I smile and shrug at the moving crew, feeling conspicuously sedentary, and put in my place. Wuss-like.

“And from Geneva?” a moving crew member asks jokingly, as if they could possibly go any farther. “Where are you heading from there?”

“To Lausanne.  Then Basel. Then Zürich. Then, uh, Bolzano.”

I now see they have calves like stones. And I’m wondering about the magic in those walking sticks.

“So. . .you’re walking across. . .”

“Yes. Das ganze Land.” The dogs shake off forty liters of water from their fur. Then sit at attention, staring at me.

And then all five wanderers give a jaunty stamp-stamp of their boots, shrug up their enormous backpacks, wave swissly, and walk off down the pathway.  Heading across, yes, the whole country.

I think I mentioned to you somewhere the Swiss invented walking.

My neighbor’s trusty — and stationary — guard dog watches them go. . .

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

La Vie Villageoise, #2

Down the path and around the corner. . .

. . .Is the direction I took once I’d pulled on jeans and some comfortable shoes and headed out, camera slung around my neck. I couldn’t pretend to just be on my way to the boulangerie for the morning bread with that camera staring at everyone like a black cyclops.

Still, I tried to be discreet. I ambled. And hummed, kicking pebbles.

Dum-dee-dum-dee-dum.

Occasionally whistling.

Tweet-dee-tweet-dee-tweet.

Around another corner and over someone’s beautiful old wall. . .

You’ve noticed, these shots are unpeopled. The village is not, though, I promise. It is, in fact, inhabited, and the folks sure look hospitable — we all greet each other with “Bonjour Madame, Monsieur, les enfants” — whatever — when we pass in the street.

But I didn’t want to ambush anyone quite yet for the right photo-op.

We’ll meet a bit later, on September 1st, at the annual village gathering. . .

I wanted to bury my head in this ivy. Or take a mouthful of it. Thought twice when a classroom of kiddies walked by right then. Might have to make a midnight visit.

Roads made for horses, not Hummers.

The cornice above the door reads 1791. Although the carpets might be newer. Maybe.

When you come back tomorrow, I’ll tell you more about this, a family’s private chapel just across the street. . .

And this, the château . . . where a great French author used to lodge . . .

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.