Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Tonight, President Obama declared the end of the combat mission in Iraq.  I had three months to go in my pregnancy with Mister O when this war started, one of the longest wars this country has ever fought (we'd say the longest, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly when the Vietnam War began).  As this chapter, perhaps more symbolic than promising, draws to a close, it's hard for me to realize that my son's entire life has thus far been framed by the presence of this war.  Has a nation ever been more oblivious to the war it's in?  In the Middle Ages, war was seasonal: many Labors of the Months cycle depict a knight setting out for battle for the month of May.  There are no named wars in the Middle Ages: all of the names (Hundred Years' War, the Crusades) were provided by later historians.  War was a constant, war was a rhythm.  If I start to muse about medieval barbarity, I will very quickly have to confront modern barbarity, and tonight is not for that.

How do you mark the end of combat operations (but we don't call it war)? How do you acknowledge an entirely new chapter in your children's lives (that they are not aware of)? How do you feel hopeful when the future is so uncertain (Afghanistan - Iraq, too, for that matter)?  Of course, Kipling doesn't help, though commentators on him do somewhat.  For the past couple of nights I've been reading a chapter of Harry Potter when I sit and read with Mister O in his bed (before Harry, this is how I finished Amy Klempnauer Miller's memoir).  Tonight, Mister O looked at me and said "Mom, why don't you read a chapter a night until you're done with all seven books?"  And so my little guy gives me this gift: to read Harry Potter in peacetime.  One chapter at a time.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


It turns out that there is a pithy answer to the slightly worried question "So, how is it being back?"  And it's completely true, too: Where everything was new, now everything is familiar.  And I can elaborate (always): where we lived propelled by the momentum of discovery, we now live paced by the certitude of a life well-shaped by habits and rituals.  Which may explain why I hurled myself out the door in my nightgown the other morning when I awakened to see that thick fog had blanketed our town.  We live next to an observatory built in 1884 (it's all brass instruments and wooden chairs inside), and its solid whiteness melted into the milky fog.  I took this shot from underneath the tree in our front yard and I love how the crisp closeness of the leaves frames all that beautiful incertitude of fog.  But I also know what I was really doing: I was remembering the morning that the castle in Josselin was completely shrouded in fog - you could barely see the walls and the towers had been swallowed up.  It was early March and it felt mystical and weird and we took picture after picture.  But this foggy morning, I was trying to make Josselin the familiar - I was using the discovery of that March morning as the familiar framework for this August surprise.

The melancholy of not being in Brittany feels like a secret - something I return to and turn over while walking across campus.  I'm all grown up: I know it's over and will become a fond memory and that it was good and that it's over. But make no mistake: there's a good deal of pining going on.  One of the emotional phenomena of the Middle Ages that fascinates me is the Christian desire for Jerusalem. It's, arguably, a 400-year pining. (Two framing dates could be 1095: Pope Urban II's Call for the First Crusade; and 1492: Christopher Columbus's letter to Isabella and Ferdinand asking for the riches of the New World to be used to reconquer Jerusalem) (the Spanish monarchs demured and took the riches for themselves).  It's complicated (the righteous possession medieval Christians felt for a land that was absolutely not theirs), and extensive (the images, the texts, the eight Crusades themselves, let alone the pilgrimages which continue to this day).

We'll be studying the poems of the earliest troubadours, many of whom were returning Crusaders, later this semester in "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature."  The one that emerges for me now, as I think on this phenomenon of desire for a land that isn't yours (on a scale much larger and more complicated than my own), is William IX, Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1126), Eleanor of Aquitaine's grandfather. Upon his return from the First Crusade, he composed a series of songs that somehow survives - he's dubbed the first troubadour, and I think that it's key to know that these "medieval love songs" (as they're sometimes called) emerge from the troubled and troubling experiences of the first Christian conquerors of Jerusalem. What filters through, and what gets perpetuated by other writers, is this intense love of Jerusalem, as though the city itself were a long-lost lover (Jerusalem is compared to Guinevere, at one point - we are Lancelots, all). It's a confusing and downright strange set of reactions to have to war - but then again, surely swooping down on Jerusalem and massacring its inhabitants, reconfiguring its urban topography, and re-envisioning the lands of the entire region within the system of feudalism troubled many a medieval mind. In the midst of these early poems, William IX writes a poem so surreal in its embrace of its own lack of meaning as to be dubbed post-modern by modern scholars.  "Farai un vers de dreyt nien" begins "I've made a poem that means nothing" that, he claims, he composed half asleep on his horse.  There is a sense that he is somewhere along the return journey from Jerusalem ("no suy estrayns ni suy privatz" - I'm neither a stranger nor a native): he's uncertain as to whether he's awake or dreaming, he can't remember the lady he loves (and decides he doesn't care), he thinks he might be dying, but he sends the poem off "to someone who will send it to someone else" ("e trametrai lo a selhuy/ que lo m tramertra per autruy").  Does he miss Jerusalem? Does he miss home?  Does he seek familiar scenes and smells of heres and theres that become confused?  Does a fog in Anjou conjure up a misty morning in Jerusalem?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What Memoirs Maybe Do

Botticelli. Augustine, 1480.
Some argue that the earliest memoirs are Augustine's Confessions (written in 397-98).  That the Confessions are the first Western autobiography is seldom contested, but the first memoirs? Do I dare try to distinguish?  Autobiographies keep their specificity, and memoirs universalize.  Autobiographies are the writings of one life, one very important life, with these dates and these events, and here's what happened and maybe why; and memoirs end up putting into words the fundamental experiences of many.  I love the switch in scope, from personal to universal, of memoirs.  They universalize a very particular human experience.  They take what is deeply, secretly, sometimes painfully specific, and through craft of language and generosity of spirit make it make sense to everyone.

These last criteria of craft of language and generosity of spirit are what would make me argue render the Confessions a memoir.  If you're going to read just one of the 13 books, read book 2, in which Augustine remembers stealing pears that he didn't even want to eat, and the awful pleasure of throwing them, having taken maybe just one bite, to hogs. "My sole gratification in them was my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy; for if any one of these pears entered my mouth, the only good flavor it had was my sin in eating it." He ends the chapter with the devastating "And I became a wasteland to myself." It's not a pious memoir of turning to God (for that is the main narrative arc, which makes some readers glad and others uncomfortable), but instead a raucous and wild one.  "The sense of touch has its own power to please and the other senses find their proper objects in physical sensation" (hubba hubba!)  I've never stolen pears, but I am seduced by the tale of beautiful young men running in the streets at night and plucking ripe fruit - sin? pitiful fantasy of a middle-aged woman? sublimation of the sex drive? ever-lasting desire for rebellion? Every generation comes up with a different response and way to reason through Augustine's stolen pears. Personal - universal.

But ultimately, it's his awareness of the writing process that makes Augustine a memoir writer to me. "To whom am I narrating all this? Not to thee, oh my God, but to my own kind in your presence. - to that small part of the human race that may chance to come upon these writings." Of course, it's delightful and awesome to know that millions of people have read Augustine's Confessions.  But it's also that community that a memoir creates, of people who understand or come to understand - "to my own kind in your presence."  I think that creating that community of understanding still motivates memoir writers.  The "presence" within which the community is created is no longer just that of God, it's other Big Ideas: Home, Children, for example.

Which brings me to the two memoirs currently on my bedside table. (And no, one of them is not Eat, Pray, Love).  In my attempts to hold on to Brittany, still see the pictures and think about the sounds and remember the sensations, I read I'll Never be French (no matter what I do) by Mark Greenside.  I'm terribly jealous of him because he owns a house in the Finistère and spends more time writing about washing machines than megaliths, but hey, it's his story and it was fun to walk with him.  He nails several phenomena that I love to think through: the whiplash between the French love of detail and precision (things must be just so), and the French love of Really Big Ideas (things must be just so because of "liberté, égalité, fraternité, bien sûr!") And also the strange dances of familiarity and (eventually, eventually) friendship.  It took our friend in Brittany eight years to get a bonjour from a neighbor.  And when it came, it was warm and the most natural thing to do. Chapters and generations of contemplation (years of therapy?) can't explain it all.  But Greenside gives you a pretty good sense of that discovery and desire for home.

In some wonderful, but unplanned continuity from Home to Children, I'm reading She Looks Just Like You; a Memoir of (Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood by Amie Klempnauer Miller.  I'm only on the second chapter of twelve, but I couldn't wait to write about it.  The specific experience here is one whose voice is just starting to be heard - and here, eloquently, warmly, pointedly.  She has a great section in which she writes about the inconceivability (my bad pun, not hers) of gay couples even wanting to have children.  Surely that's not part of being gay, said the culture at large - even the gay culture at large.  The universalizing revelation is that wanting children is part of human culture. No, not everyone wants to have kids, but the dividing line between people who do and who don't is not their sexuality (plenty of straight people don't want to have kids).  It's everything else that goes into the process of wanting children: love, home, desire, dreaming, curiosity.  And the challenges of conception are widespread, too. Amie herself, in the long frustrating end, can't conceive.  This is the part where I smiled and wept at the same time: she worries about her eggs being little lesbian separatist eggs keeping the sperm out. But her partner can, and now, in the middle of chapter two, she watches Jane's body grow around the baby and it's poignant and wonderful, and read it read it read it! The transcendence of (her?) writing is that we're all in there: hoping and daydreaming and coming up with crazy scenarios and doing word plays (they call the baby the "Speck" and Jane is the "Speck Jar" and Amie is the "Spectator") - anything to make the unimaginable possible. Yes, they're part of the "gayby boom," but Amie still has to go to the "stay-at-home-dads" section of the book store to read through ideas of her role in their endeavor. Well, but the next lesbian mom-partner won't.

Which brings me to why I love America (in a general, ever-potential way; not a realist "Oh God, why does the Tea Party even exist?" kind of way).  I will end briefly by marveling at what happens because Americans don't like waiting (definitely, a cultural universal here).  The law is doing one of its strangest dances ever around the issue of gay marriage, going back and forth, and back and forth again, and telling people to wait, wait wait.  Of course I looked to France to think through their potential solution, but of course no one is getting married over there (there's the PACS, and the general disdain for organized religion, so if you do get married in a church in France, just what is it you're trying to prove, buddy? PACS not good enough for you? liberté, égalité, fraternité!).  But HERE, gay marriage is going to become legal, no matter how long it takes for the culture to realize that the law was written not with conservative agendas in mind, but universal civil rights instead. The law will eventually catch up with itself. In the meantime, two women have started an on-line Gay and Lesbian Wedding Magazine.  It's all here: the honeymoon spots, the costumes for the bride and broom (not a typo, a new language, words that make new identities real!), funny ways to get through the agonies of menu choices and future in-laws. Writing makes it real, writing makes it so, and memoirs make you feel it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Hitting a Squirrel While Lecturing Your Son about Good Citizenship

Mister O made a noise in class that sounded like a car horn beeping and so (inevitably) his green card was turned to yellow.  He felt the need to confess and was sorry as he was telling me about it in the car on the way home - probably especially since I heaved a huge exasperated sigh (third day of school and already demerits!).  The truth is, an enormous part of me thinks "A car horn noise in the middle of a school day can be a funny thing" - but another enormous part of me thinks "Ack! don't make car horn noises at school!"  So I'm trying to think of how to talk about this, and citizenship is really big this year at school and so I say "Well, Mister O, in what way do you think that making a beeping car horn noise takes away from good citizenship?" And we get into a little discussion about other people and their right to quiet so that they can learn, and about how we're all members of a community, and create one together, and a squirrel runs out and looks around, and I'm going maybe 15 miles an hour and so take a wide turn to get around it, and think "a little lesson in citizenship, a little preservation of the local fauna," and I look back in the rear view mirror and I've somehow hit the squirrel and it's hopping and wriggling all over the road and scampers off to the woods (to heal? oh please oh please), and I feel sick, and the conversation about good citizenship comes to an end.

Why does hitting a squirrel rob you of moral authority? I have a hard time with moral authority anyway (who am I to judge anyone ever?) but here,  I was completely devastated, and felt as though I had no right to tell anyone to do anything for the rest of the evening. Rationally speaking the one act (talking about good citizenship) had nothing to do with the other (hitting the squirrel), i.e., the one did not cause the other, and yet there was no way to blather on about being a good citizen after I'd bumbled my way across this poor squirrel.  I'm sure there's some philosophical proof that would get me out of feeling so awful.  Fermet's Theorem of Coincidental Moral Absolution, or some such. 

When Charles V had a bunch of Aristotle's texts (crucially, the Nichomachean Ethics) translated into French in the 14th century by Nicolas Oresme, he blew a lot of people's minds.  Aristotle has this idea that virtue can be learned. Simple - radical - revolutionary. It's the whole reason we have schools and education: we firmly believe, along with Aristotle, that you can learn to be good (do good, think well, improve, excel).  You no longer just have to rely on God's grace for your goodness; you can now cultivate your own goodness.  Now let's be clear, Aristotle had some pretty big caveats about who could and couldn't learn certain virtues (women and slaves, for instance, couldn't learn to be prudent - not enough reflection).  But the revolution remains: you can learn to be good.  Mister O is engaging in Aristotle's revolution and learning to be good (which for right now means not sounding off like a car horn).  Meanwhile, I'm caught in some quagmire of accident and irony that makes virtue a plaything of circumstance.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The France Life Museum

We've been away for seven months, and thus far, I've found no pithy way to describe it all and my dear, patient friends have listened to tales randomly chosen by nostalgia and desire.  Miss I has found a way, though - she has created a museum of our France Life, as she'd always called it.  I hope that it stays open a long, long time, under the watchful (or is that surprised?) gaze of that Swiss cow piggy bank to the right.  Now, of course, I question that I ever resisted buying that small, breakable thimble from the Douamont Memorial WWI battlefield gift shop, or the awkwardly jagged unicorn from the Cluny Museum . They're just so great.  When you go to the France Life Museum, you should know that it's free, but you have to give up your driver's license (or some kind of important document) in return for a ticket which is scanned under a book light.  Wonders of the world are yours to behold after a precise bureaucratic ritual - welcome to France!

So I'm here because I can't stay away.  I've had this running blog post in my head ever since we've come back and I realize anew, afresh, always, how fantastic writing is.  What a cool, unusual act.  These writings will be short, scattered, and ever-prey to every-day life.  But there's to be this place where we can puzzle things out.  I'm a little puzzled by the funky background I've chosen here, but only because it's so much of a piece with an insistent attraction to the 1970s: we've watched The Muppet Movie and School House Rocks videos (both of which I credit our society's moral and social progress over the past 30 years to) and listened to a lot of Carole King (more than Miss E can bear, but since "We Will Rock You!" is more her idiom, I guess I get it).  What is that all about? The Muppets and School House Rocks were the emblems of everything cool and free about America when we moved here in 1978 and I wonder if my gladness at this return isn't triggering some of these old admirations and loves.  Mister O has simply said: "I feel good here" which, when taken existentially, sounds very late 70s groovy.  Let's be clear: late 70s groovy is distinctly not my idiom - but it's making a lot sense these days as that sense of possibility that right now I'm perceiving as distinctly American is so palpable.

To quote Dr. Teeth in the hit Muppet single "Can You Picture That?": "There isn't anything you can't do.  Even Santa Claus believes in you."