On my last full day in France, I went for one last walk on the Voie Verte, with Kelly Riviere, my collaborator, who translated and today performed my museum piece. I promised her that, contrary to its reputation, Normandy had been beautifully sunny during my stay, and as we set out, this seemed to hold true. We saw ducklings in a stream, a father fishing with his small son, families on bicycles. It was only when we turned around that we noticed the lowering darkening sky, and no sooner had we said, “Oh dear it’s going to rain,” then it began to rain. The rain came in the form of hail, icy fragments that melted on contact and soaked us by the time we’d reached the village again. But as you can see from the photo above, we appear to have a similar sense of adventure.
A few hours later, we’d dried off and readied ourselves for the performance at the museum. As planned, at the start of the piece, I positioned a chair and sat in it, laptop open, as if preparing to write about the paintings before me — the first paintings discussed in the piece. I was quite close to the paintings, and I sat looking at them as the room behind me began to fill. And fill. And fill. I realized, without turning around, that the small gathering we had expected was not small at all. Kelly began. And the crowd followed her and stayed with her — with us — for the entire time, as we moved through the museum. This was quite remarkable given the limitations of the space, and the size of the paintings or etchings, many quite small, which meant people were standing and listening to Kelly describe and illuminate a painting they could not see.
It was a moving experience, and unlike any I’ve ever had or expect to have again. And that sums up this whole trip, I think. This whole wholly embracing and embraced trip into what seems to be another world. One in which I’ve been opened, again, to the beauty of possibility, and the possibility of beauty.
It’s funny, but throughout the trip I kept saying to myself, “I think I came to France to …” and filling in the blank with something different. I think I came to France to write. I think I came to France to be alone and listen to myself. I think I came to France to appreciate art (hello, Paris!). And now, I think I came to France to discover the magic of collaboration. But I think it must be for all of these reasons. I needed to be here for awhile, longer than seemed reasonable when I was chalking out those columns on the board at home. But here we are, in the last day of the last column, all still standing.
I’m excited to be going home. I can’t wait to see those beautiful faces again. But I think — no, I’m certain — that whatever comes next will be better because I’ve been here. And I hope to come back again soon.
I suppose I should know better than to blog under the influence of extreme emotion or wine, or, much worse, both, but here goes.
I am “home” from a truly wonderful evening that completely focused on and celebrated Invisible sous the lumiere, as Girl Runner must be called while I am in France. It was a truly remarkable evening. I can’t believe it, actually. Nearly three hours, all focused on Girl Runner. The first performer (above) was actually a writer, not an actress, a young woman who has already published novels herself and who is also a runner: she memorized at least half an hour of text directly from the novel and performed it — embodying Aggie at different times in Aggie’s life. After her performance, which was very moving, the same woman did a short lecture on sports and literature, and the book. This was followed by a second performance, a reading from the book performed by a male actor, who showed us a whole different aspect of Aggie’s character — her humour. The audience was really laughing. I started to think that I’d written not a novel but a play! When his reading of the text was done, it was my turn on stage for an interview, with a warm reception from the audience.
After all of this, there was a dinner for the artists. During which I had some wine along with the meal. And I’m only “home” now, and it’s after midnight.
I feel like I’ve seen something that I won’t forget, and also that’s changed my view of what I can do and imagine. Being in France has shown me Aganetha as I never saw her before, but it has also shown me something about my own writing that I hadn’t appreciated, somehow. I don’t know how to describe it. All I can say is that it’s amazing to feel such energy and to be in such a different creative space. This trip has been a complete gift. Full stop.
Tomorrow is the performance of my museum piece. And on Monday I come home. But meanwhile, here I am, floating.
And this is where I’m staying, courtesy of my publisher, Gallimard, and I see that they also publish Elena Ferrante so I’m feeling rather fan-girlish just for being here, so close to brilliance.
That’s really I have to say just for now. I’m in Paris!
I have an interview at France inter this afternoon (like France’s CBC radio, I think), followed by an event this evening at the Maison de la Poesie, and then tomorrow I will be wandering around like a tourist taking photos of places I feel like I’ve seen before — but I haven’t! This is my first time in Paris. The streets are like mazes of similar looking buildings, like this (below), but I’ll figure it out.
If I were to write a blog post today, I would reflect on the past five days of utter solitude, days during which I rarely spoke out loud; there were several days when I spoke to no one in English. I read, I noodled, I listened to podcasts and surfed the news, emailed Kevin, ate pretty good food, kept to a reasonably regular routine, wrote and edited the museum piece, and went for several runs and many more walks.
I was not bored.
I was not even particularly lonely, except for the morning when I woke up with a raging bladder infection. Good thing I carry antibiotics with me in case of such an occurrence. Yes, that morning I was lonely and in pain and felt far from home and prone to worst-case-scenario thinking, but even that morning, I understood that I was self-sufficient and knowledgeable enough to cope with the unexpected crisis.
During these five days of solitude, I haven’t been lonely, I haven’t been bored, and I haven’t been restless either, not restless of mind or body. The body has taken care of itself. I’ve gone for long walks, and finally on Sunday felt a twinge of anxiety that whispered — you need to sweat! So I went for a run, and ran and ran and ran on the beautiful trail, discovering only afterward that I’d gone nearly 9 km, the longest and least painful run in many many months. Today, I ran again, pushing even further as I could feel my body beginning to trust that it would be okay: nearly 11 km. How joyous it is to run without pain; I’ve been injured for so long that I’d forgotten the joy of pushing against the ordinary discomforts and limitations of a body being asked to run — breath, heart, muscles, endurance. Running with a chronic injury you feel all these limitations, but you feel also a terrible dread that springs from pain from a different source, pain that whispers, Are you doing yourself damage?
For the month of March, my theme was health. This month, it would seem natural to name my theme: travel. But strangely, I think instead it’s: paying attention. The theme has arisen because I am travelling, and also because I am alone. What I’ve been paying attention to are my own interests, whims, rhythms, appetites, and desires. How often in a person’s daily life does an opportunity like this present itself? I’ve fantasized over the years about going on writing retreats in the middle of nowhere, and someone told me about a retreat where you do yoga and ride horses (not at the same time) that sounded fabulous, and a couple of years ago my mom did a silent retreat that intrigued me. But the risks seemed too great (the risk of it being a waste troubled me), especially given the heavy load of responsibility I’d be leaving on Kevin’s shoulders while away. So I never pursued these ideas.
I didn’t pursue this trip, either. It just landed in my lap, and because it was work-related, I said yes.
I thought I was saying yes, in part, to a writing retreat. I was excited to see what I would make with all this free time. (And I’ve made something interesting and specific related to the Museum’s exhibit, but it belongs here, and will stay here.) Why am I not writing my new novel? I thought, as the week went on. I tried, but the words felt dead. Yet the words, here, in my daily meditations and on my blog, these words felt alive. They interested me. And so I’ve been writing after all, just not the material I’d pencilled into the schedule.
Something else happened as the week went on. I stopped panicking about what I was not doing. I stopped worrying about what I should be doing. I started paying attention to what I wanted to do.
I wanted to read. So I’ve been reading: a David Sedaris essay collection (which has a story set in Normandy, as it happens); Ali Smith’s brilliant novel How to be both that somehow merges the world of a 15th century painter with a British teenager from the now, and weirdly also happens to be a book about sitting and looking at paintings, which I did not know when I chose it for this trip; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, on black bodies in Amercian history and the present, which challenged me, moved me to tears, and has inspired me to think differently about Dreamers and Dreams (and he’s going to be in Rouen THIS SATURDAY at the same bookstore where I had an event on Thursday, and I must figure out how to go, because, honestly, how is that even possible?); and now I’m trucking through Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert.
I wanted to write. So I’ve been writing. Mostly things like this. Scraps. Ephemera.
I wanted to rest. So I’ve been resting.
Most of all, it seems, I’ve been resting my mind.
It’s taken exactly 13 days of rest to recognize that I may already be writing what I’m supposed to be writing. I am writing what has come to me, which is all we can ever do, when we’re trying to make something out of what we love and believe.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ve been anxiously searching for purpose down dead ends, without seeing what is open before me. Wide open, like that field at the end of our street when I was a child in Managua, with its dusty path and matted grass and garbage and crumbling concrete walls — the place my mind travelled to when I wrote the phrase: open before me.
I will probably never be content, exactly, with what I’ve made. But maybe, just maybe, I can be content with what I’m doing.
P.S. Just thought of my word of the year: PEACE. Yes.
I tell you, spend a little time on your own and you start to develop a picture of yourself that is not that flattering. Do you know what I’ve done for the last hour? I’ve eaten a chocolate croissant, watched a bunch of HIGH-larious and/or weep-inducing videos on FB, and drunk a small glass of white wine (Reisling, from the Alsace region, purchased for less than $6 at a nearby supermarket). To tell the truth, I’m feeling pretty happy. I’m wearing my new sweater, which I purchased earlier this evening in a small boutique up the street, because I didn’t bring sweaters and it turns out that spring in France is chilly, like spring everywhere, really, except back home in Canada where apparently spring is winter, and there’s literally a foot of snow on the ground.
If I were to live alone …
Well, first of all, I would start talking to myself. Out loud. Loudly. Everywhere. With dramatic emphasis and an occasionally nagging tone, and a lot of swearing. In the second person. As in “you.” That sweater is totally you, I mean, it’s practical and it’s warm and it’s a nice colour, plus you got it for a deal. Nicely done, Carrie!
Oh, and the conversation would be banal. Even the swearing would be banal, as it would refer to the tiny irritations that come from doing every day tasks alone, like opening bottles of wine with cheap corkscrews. I worked my way in, but by God, it was touch and go for a few minutes.
Have I mentioned I’m in a new town, where I’m staying in a small flat? Louviers is about an hour and a half south of Dieppe. I arrived here on Sunday. I’ll be here for most of the next two weeks. I assumed I would want to write all the time. But I spent this morning writing at the museum and was completely spent by lunchtime—emptied out, emptied of words, emptied of the desire to process ideas. So this afternoon, I went for a long walk. There is a beautiful walking path beside the river, paved, and it goes for miles and miles between all the little towns in this region. I thought I would use the walk to think about things, but instead I just walked, as one does, and watched the families on bicycles and roller blades and scooters, and saw some swans and ducks, and a lot of dog turds. You really have to watch out for dog turds (I told myself, as I walked along).
The other thing I’ve taken to doing is hanging around outside the tourist office, which is fortuitously nearby. The wifi in my flat can’t be coaxed into working with my phone, so if I want to text or upload photos, I simply stand outside the tourist office and borrow their free wifi. I do feel like a bit of deviant or thief as I nonchalantly lean on the bricks between the windows, hunched over the screen of my phone, but I’m like a junkie for the wifi; I can’t get enough. I guess I could go inside, but there really isn’t anywhere to sit: it’s just a woman behind a desk with a shelf of brochures, and I’ve already taken several maps. I think the woman behind the desk is beginning to wonder about me. Tonight, after purchasing the sweater and the chocolate croissant, I stood outside the tourist office and texted Kevin while watching three young men fish in the river, a few metres away. I stayed for awhile, missing home, enjoying the happily timed back and forth conversation with my husband.
I wonder what this town will look like to me when I’ve been here for two weeks. Already its winding narrow streets are beginning to map themselves in my mind.
There is a hookah bar directly across the street from my flat. Also a Turkish kebab shop—two, in fact—a pizzeria, and a “Flanders-style” bar. When it starts to get dark, I close the shutters. Closing the shutters involves opening the windows, which look like huge doors and are level with the street. When they’re open, I could high-five strangers walking by on the sidewalk, not that I’ve tried. Then I unfold the shutters, pull them in, and close the latch, and shut the windows, and sit in my suddenly dark flat and see myself for who I really am.
**I am rating this post a PG13: it contains mature language that may offend some, and amuse others. You have been warned.**
When I am immersed in another language, even one that I cannot speak very well, I pick up the cadences and rhythms, the particularities of its grammatical construction, and almost immediately I sound like a foreigner when speaking in my native tongue. That might have been the problem at Saturday night’s reading, during the interview afterward when it may have appeared to the audience that I could speak and understand neither French nor English. Even as I write this, I am hearing these words flow out of me as if spoken in a French accent. A poorly imagined French accent. I apologize.
The woman who read from my book on Saturday night is an actress. She is very tall, slender, and I noticed her backstage immediately because she radiates an unselfconscious beauty, with a face that looks like it is carved, large dark eyes, an expressive mouth, her hair cut short and a bit messy as she ran her fingers through it. On stage, she read marvellously, kinetically, seeming to inhabit Aganetha, to bring her to life. Although my French can only be called deficient, I could understand the text because I know it so well and the translation must be very good. As she read the prologue, tears sprang to my eyes. I felt such pride, as if I were seeing and hearing a child of mine perform upon the stage, but it was something more, too, the gift of seeing what one has made from outside oneself. Perhaps because it was a translation, perhaps because it was being read by someone else—I could appreciate the book’s language, the imagery, the story, the appeal of the character in a new way, in fact in a way I have never before been able to appreciate it. I was moved at different moments during the reading by the story. I was moved by the ideas. But nothing was more moving than the initial surprise of seeing Aganetha come to life. I felt lit up. I felt it was a moment I would not forget.
The actress sitting at a small table on stage, lit from above, leaning in and out of the microphone, her voice changing as she became the characters, her free hand running through her hair. Before her, the text printed out on paper and scribbled all over (necessary cuts to bridge or shorten material). She read for 45 minutes, stopping several times to take a drink of water, once to check discreetly the slender watch on her wrist. At the end, the audience clapped and clapped and did not stop clapping. There was emotion in the room. It was magical. When I stood up to be acknowledged, I was confused, as if it were not of me. The interview on stage immediately afterward was, as I mentioned above, rather clumsy. I felt lost; but maybe I was just dumbstruck, in awe of the moment that had come before. All of my emotion was caught in the before, watching her, watching Aggie.
We drove back to Dieppe in a packed van, and I sat in the front seat beside Marie-Sophie, the actress, who told me about her time in Montreal last year putting on a play. It was late by this point, almost 11PM, and we were very hungry, very tired. The driver rolled down the windows because one of the women in the back was feeling sick. The headlights lit up a small portion of the narrow road and the grass beyond, and we plunged up and down, up and down until I began to feel sick too. Behind us, the women were discussing translation—two were actors who translate plays, and the other was my publisher. “It is not ‘sweet fuck,’” said one. “It is ‘sweet fuck-all.’” “Sweet fuck?” “Sweet fuck-all.” “Sweet fuck-all?” “You can say fucking this fucking that.” “But not sweet fuck? Sweet fuck?” “Sweet fuck-all.” “Ah. Sweet fuck-all.” They went on and on. I started to giggle, but I couldn’t share my laughter with Marie-Sophie or the driver, who were talking to each other past me, as neither seemed to understand what the women were saying. I couldn’t turn around, either, or I would have felt even sicker.
When we got out of the van after driving around the town of Dieppe—the driver was lost—and we were standing disoriented on the sidewalk near the restaurant, one of the women asked me, “How do you say it, ‘sweet fuck,’ or ‘sweet fuck-all’? What does it mean?” “I heard you talking,” I said, laughing. “It sounded like dialogue from a strange play.” “Can you say ‘sweet fuck?’” asked the actress named Kelly, with the Irish grandmother, who will be translating the work I’ve been commissioned to write while in Louviers; she will perform the translated work in Louviers’ museum next week. Kelly has a very sweet, innocent face, a bow-shaped mouth. “Not really,” I said. “What does it mean?” she asked. I said, “Sweet fuck just means … sweet fuck.” “Sweet fuck means sweet fuck,” repeated Dominique, the translator of the Scottish play that had been read earlier in the evening. “Yes,” I said, “like ‘nice lay.’ But we never say it. It’s not a saying.” “Nice lay,” repeated Dominique. “Then ‘sweet fuck-all,’ what does it mean? Does it mean ‘nothing’?” asked Kelly. She pronounced each word individually, so that the phrase did not sound in her mouth like it would sound in mine. Sweet Fuck All. I said, “Sweet fuck-all means ‘I don’t care,’ or ‘it doesn’t matter.’ ‘Nothing matters.’ Or ‘nothing,’ I guess, yes, it means ‘nothing.’”
“This is what I say to my students, when they are learning translation, I say, throw out everything you learned in school, forget it, you know nothing. They want to translate word for word and you cannot, because in language there is not translation, there is only interpretation. There are so many phrases particular to the culture,” said Dominique, as we crossed the street and walked toward the restaurant, where we would eat fish and rice in a cream sauce, a cheese wrapped in pastry, and I would choose the creme brûlée for dessert.
There is one more detail that I want to record, although it does not relate, only in the most peripheral sense. Earlier that evening, I saw a child’s sock, very small, toddler-sized, yellow with green detailing, stuffed with shit and left beside a park bench in the square near the theatre. I looked down and noted its existence as I walked past, I said to myself, that is a child’s sock stuffed with shit. I could imagine the mother or father having to wipe up the child who had shat himself or herself, and in desperation yanking the sock off the child’s foot and saying, there, we’ll leave it, we don’t need it, forget it, it’s a small loss; although all in French, of course.
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