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.
I had lunch at the Cafe de Flore, which is next to Les Deux Magots and across the street from the Brasserie Lipp, all famous French literary landmarks. The waiter, when asked, said that I was sitting exactly where Simone de Beauvoir would sit when she came to the cafe. Now, he may say this to everyone who asks, granted, but I’m not picky. And it was a good spot. I could see the whole cafe.
I am returning by train to Louviers soon, to finish my work there. But today, I had nothing on my schedule. So after breakfast (two croissants, jam, camomile tea, served discreetly in the “library” at the appointed hour), I walked. I walked and walked and walked, marvelling at how open the city is, how inviting. How it has been arranged to feed the public — anyone who comes — with beauty.
I sat on a bench beside the Eiffel Tower, having stumbled onto the quiet side, and here is what I wrote.
Sit on a bench. Sit and look at the tower built for a World Fair in 1889. Two birds fly directly toward you and flit past your head. Green buds on trees newly popping open. What shall you do, but look? And sit. And rest in the strange power of human-made beauty — a thing that has no practical purpose, really. I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic last night, and she writes that what she loves about her work (as a writer) is that it is NOT essential. And therefore it is play. It expresses the same thing that this Eiffel Tower does and these buildings of enormous beauty and power — and the portraits at the museum in Louviers. It says: we are here to be joyful, too.
A man stops and touches the blooms on a flowering bush, of pale yellow, a middle-aged man with sunglasses and a paunch, stops and touches the blooms. All of this beauty freely available, maintained over generations, open to the public, open to anyone who can get here, like me, and sit on a bench and look.
Maybe art exists because we want to create, we humans. Maybe I should stop wishing I were someone with a practical essential career, and rejoice instead that my gift, such as it is, is a gift. That what I have been stumbling toward all these years is an expression of thanks. Thanks to this world for letting me in, letting me live and breathe and love and feel the overwhelming desire to express what catches inside me.
Elizabeth Gilbert is absolutely right. My work is not essential. I’m not saving anyone’s life or changing the world here. I’m just playing. And my God, how good it is to have the freedom, the safety, the permission, maybe even the calling, to play.
I like how Gilbert describes itching at a tiny curiosity and how it grew, for her, into a book. Maybe I need to scratch more points of curiosity: research, study, fill the arid patches in my mind with knowledge, and see what connections get made, see what stories grow. I think Gilbert’s book may have given me a template, a guide, for how to continue doing this with real purpose. It isn’t all about the writing. It’s also about collecting knowledge and experience and material in order to transform it into something that can’t be seen in advance. No guarantees.
But that’s okay. Risk is not so scary when all I’m risking is time and effort poured into something that pleases me. Forget selfishness, or stop fretting about it. Do I wish the people who built this tower had dug wells instead? Do I wish that Mavis Gallant had become a nurse instead of moving to Paris to write stories? No!
Can you accept yourself unconditionally for who you are right now? I’ve been saying this to myself and it is a powerful powerful medicine — or incantation. It is powerful good.
Maybe I came to Paris to see what beauty means. That it is bigger than its human creators; that I just need to do my work. Does your writing love you? Elizabeth Gilbert asked, and Yes, I declare that it does! Look at the gifts it’s given me: I wrote a book and it brought me to Paris! I must admit that when it comes to gift-giving, I prefer to give than to receive. Sometimes, often, I’m resistant, wary, guilty, almost afraid of being given gifts — like I must repay what’s given or fall into debt. It is probably a desire to control: a gift, after all, is something over which the receiver has no control. A gift is a gift. And I see I’ve been mistaken and blind all this time. I’ve been thinking I need to repay my debts by helping others, serving, being useful … when all I really need to do is say thank you.
PS Forgive any typos: written and posted in a very short amount of time, as I am rushing to get the train back to Louviers. Goodbye, Paris!
There should be art for all occasions. Sometimes we want to laugh, sometimes we want to be entertained, sometimes we want to cry, sometimes we need to be challenged.
What I’ve enjoyed about this experience in France is being given something to do, an assignment, a commission. It gives me purpose and direction. In my usual writing life, I am the sole source of my purpose and direction. I have to propel myself toward something no one else can see and when the work is done I have to convince people to care. It takes a lot energy. The pleasure of this commission is that I’ve been asked to do something, and I’m doing it, to the best of my abilities. It’s up to the Festival to convince people to care about what I’m making, just as they invented the goal. It takes so much weight off.
My sense, as I’ve worked, is of being at play, in a playful and free state of mind, digging in, like a child with a wad of modelling clay having just been told: go ahead and get messy!
When I am busy and rushing around, I imagine that what I want is to be still, to do nothing. But here I am, today, with nothing pressing to do, well-rested, in a state of quiet and relaxation, and it is almost as if I’ve come to a stop and can’t begin again. The idea that we will get to do whatever we want in our state of needing-to-do-nothing ignores that it is a state that requires some force to exit. I think I sense this in my every day life, that it is easier to keep going than to stop and recalibrate. Now is my chance to recalibrate, now that I am at a stop, and it’s up to me to decide what that means.
Today, I went for a run on the trail by the river where I’ve been walking almost every day. What a good choice it was to run, as I knew it would be. The air was sweet, the wind was cool, it was sunny, I got a good sweat going, I made myself work on some stretches and let myself go easier on others. I heard songbirds, and saw the green popping out faintly on the trees, and my thoughts came calmly and clearly.
I thought about doing rather than thinking. How important it is to do. To do is to be. I’m proudest of myself and most satisfied with my life when I am active, involved, taking risks, in the public space, using my body, along with my mind. My idlest and least productive times have been when I’ve had “all the time in the world,” or “nothing but time.” During those seasons (winter, age 19; fall, age 23), I tried to write and produced nothing; more nothing than at any other time in my life. For example, as soon as I got a job, age 24, I started to write again. Another example: I started to write Hair Hat as soon as I’d given birth to my eldest, but not during the months of relative idleness before. That says to me something quite profound: that my being a writer is not dependent on having grand expanses of free time. It may even be dependent on the opposite, on being squeezed for time because life is so interesting and full, and I’m doing so much, and then in reverence and thanks can I come to a quiet space and write, in a way that feels crucial, important, necessary. If I could go around the planet working on commissions like this, I would; but this is unique, this is grace.
Something came to me while I was running — running past a ramshackle farmhouse with a red attic door and orange brick outbuildings, running past a field of bright yellow blooms, running under a row of fat-trunked trees with bird-shit splattered on the pavement below them — I thought, in order to write I must have something to say, and I’ll only have something to say if I have something to do.
I need to do.
If I want to be the writer that I want to be, I need to do more … but what? … than write.
I haven’t taken many photos at the museum, where I’m spending my mornings. I mean to, and then get caught up in the work and forget everything else. I’ve been commissioned to write a completely open-ended piece that will be performed in the museum a week from Sunday (by an actress, not by me).
Here is my morning routine: I walk to the museum, enter at a back door that is unlocked and propped slightly open, climb a wonky circular staircase, which I swear is going to fall off the wall any minute, and ring the bell outside an industrial metal door on the second floor. Eventually someone comes to let me in, although I usually have to knock for awhile too, and one day had to wander around the grounds until the museum director happened by. Behind the door is a large room with big windows, big tables, shelves of books, filing cabinets, several desks, mysterious bubble-wrapped items, and a workspace where today a man was framing photographs: new prints made from old film (or would it be plates?), photographs originally taken in the late 1800s. These will be part of the exhibit too, which focuses on portraiture.
I follow the director down a hallway where he unlocks another door, this time to a small storeroom that has become very familiar. Here, I sit on a step-stool and write, while looking at paintings, photographs, etchings, sketches—whatever the director brings and props before me. His gentle delight when he offers me a new portrait has become familiar too. It is an astonishing and simple way to spend several hours. I sit, I study, I look, I think, I lean closer and examine, I wonder, I write. Out of this, I hope to make something new and original.
Adolphe Felix Cals, “Portrait de Leonie-Rose Davy,” 1874.
Today, I walked through several empty rooms in the museum below, where the director has taped paper print-outs of paintings on the white walls to indicate where the real paintings will be hung. The exhibit is due to open a week from Saturday. On one wall, I saw a print-out of the portrait, above. As we stood in the empty room, the director gestured toward the woman and said, “It is you!” I have not seen the painting in person, only in the catalogue. I have not studied her face up close, nor sat with her in the storeroom. I hope there will be time before the exhibit officially opens to stand in front of her and wonder about who she was.
After I left the museum, and walked to the boulangerie to buy half a baguette for lunch, and to the fromagerie to buy some very soft cheese to eat with the baguette, I came back to my apartment and looked up an old photo I remembered taking during my 365-project (when I took a self-portrait every day for a year): our expressions are so similar, it is uncanny. What do you think?
I surrender to the mystery.
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.