An Ending: Paris
I was in Paris for a long time in February. It rained every day, and the chill sliced one’s skin open, leaving the body naked, wounded, despite the layers and layers of scarves, wool, fur-lined gloves. I loved it. I loved it because I am solitary, and something of a masochist, and because people were so busy hurrying away from the weather I could take my time watching them, and watching the buildings, wet limestone glistening in the dim grey light.
One evening I was walking home in a knife-like drizzle. It was impossible to comprehend that the drizzle wasn’t snow, the cold was so deep, so encompassing. It was early, but dark. Headlights doubled in the streets, and cell phones glowed, and stores shut their lights. I was walking toward the rue de Seine, where I was staying in a small lofted studio. I had chocolate and wine, and I had been walking for hours. My feet ached, or I think they ached, but I could not feel them. I passed a small square and a movement caught my eye. No. It wasn’t a movement. It was a spirit. A phantom. Or pure prana, as my spiritual practice might name it.
It was Joy.
There, hard to my left, was a beautiful man. His hair was chic and short, he wore the expensive wool overcoat of a conservative banker – certainly someone in finance, someone with wealth. His shoes were perfect, unmarked, and his narrow, fashionable pants hung in magically dry creases down his slender shins. Handsome. Confident. A person one would notice almost anywhere.
But on this evening, and who knows, if the world is lucky enough on every evening – even the nights Paris is bombed, or Nice is bombed, or the hard nights of the streaming refugees from the Jungle of Calais – on this night he had headphones in his small ears. He was dancing. When I say he was dancing I do not mean he was listening to hip-hop and his head was moving to the beat.
No. This man, so well dressed in the freezing rain, was moving with a feline practiced grace, taking up extraordinary amounts of space with amazingly few steps, his feet sliding into pas de chats, his hips circling like an Ailey dancer. His arms were slightly lifted, giving just enough space to his torso to keep the rhythm in check. Reader, I tell you it was a vision. It was beauty beyond beauty. This man, dancing with himself, or with his own private sorrow or new love or lost love, no matter; he was dancing in the dark in the rain. The oddest thing, too: no one noticed, or stopped, or even glanced up; it was is if he was invisible to all eyes save mine.
People who know and love Paris often encounter gifts like this, gifts one knows, instantly, will stay forever, and become part of the mosaic of memory, of how one defines joy, and when joy departs, how one defines its absence.
When I think of this man, and the striking, clear love for the Moment, for humanity, he evoked in me, and then I think of the events that later unfolded on this trip, and continue to endlessly unfold, like an unwanted, hideous cloak from a wizard in a cruel fairy tale, I find myself wondering at the nature of joy.
What is joy? Perhaps because it is so totally absent from my life, and has been almost from the day I witnessed the man in the rain, I can think of joy with some distance: joy as concept, joy as a philosophical toy to be played with by the mind, held to differing angles, histories, stories.
The world in general is a joyless place, particularly right now. A lying carnival barker leading the (now not) free world, Barack departing the political stage to the sorrow of those who love him, and know that if it were not for the sickness of our country this great man could have accomplished ever so much more. Racism ascendant in every corner of our planet, from the Buddhist monks in Burma to the nationalist Hindu government in India to the formerly tolerant societies of Northern Europe. The Middle East burns, North Africa is worse, and the United States is quickly turning into a banana republic, an embarrassment to the rest of the world, and becoming unbearable to inhabit. Fear and violence, one cannot the latter without the former, are the defining characteristics of the human race.
The macrocosm of our society, from what I can see, is fundamentally hopeless, despite the valiant efforts of a brave and enraged few. My own life, the tiny little microcosm that has meaning only for me, is much the same way. Depression, a true and old depression, one that has the consistency of granite rock and the familiarity of a dull dry face one has stared at for far too long, has returned to my body, has taken my body, and inhabits it, leaving me shelled, face down, waiting for a departure that doesn’t come.
Have you ever read the great and terrifying Yeats poem “Leda and the Swan?” Depression is something like this: the angry god descends, the young girl lies helpless in the field.
So, Joy. I think joy is primarily a stunning of the senses. And when the senses are both paralyzed and brought into line all at once, as if by some electrocution, the ego dispenses itself, and what remains… what does remain? The emptiness of pure observation. This capacity to see, to witness, and in the witnessing take part in a Moment not created by a small self, is, I think, Joy. In a way, the beautiful title of C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece on Christian faith, “Surprised by Joy,” possesses an element of tautology: Joy cannot exist without surprise. How else does one approach the wonder of God, or a beautiful man (perhaps a god) dancing in the rain?
Remember when Woody Allen was a genius, and he created Manhattan? Remember at the end, when he sits on that old couch, and speaks into a recorder? “What makes life worth living,” he asks. Groucho Marx, Louis Armstrong, the Jupiter Symphony, Sentimental Education.. the list is perfect, though I would add to it. A lot. But I think one could dispel the list to this: what makes life worth living? Joy. The joy of brilliance, the unexpected vision, the higher realms that occasionally open themselves to us, as when one catches a first glimpse of Venice at dusk. Joy is granted by a generous god, but a fickle one. And what the god grants the god can take, leaving an abyss of absence.
Not long after the evening I saw the dancing man, I spent part of an afternoon, one of many, wandering around the courtyard of the Louvre. I love the light created by the elaborately carved limestone facades and tall glass windows of the square: it feels as though one has entered a delicate music box and the lid has just opened to the sky.
On this particular afternoon I was fighting, bitterly, with my then-husband. He was in a fury: my passport had been stolen and he blamed me for it, and couldn’t believe the extra work of phone calls and bullshit I had handed to him. He was in a fury that I was in France, he was in a fury to be with our children, and working, and totally overwhelmed. He had supported the trip during one of our ever shrinking moments of affection; by the time the journey came to pass his regret, I believe, was total.
I looked around the courtyard. There were happy tourists milling around. Paris! Uncrowded Paris! The Louvre and friends and drinks later: what more could one want?
My headphones on, looking at the sweet laughing faces and beautiful stone surrounding me, I took out my phone to take pictures. I am fairly good with a phone camera, it’s the only reason, really, to even have a phone. The photos were quickly forgotten, though, when I saw The Texts. My husband had let loose his rage, and the rage could be felt, read, in real time, an ocean and half a world away.
It is not necessary to repeat the content; everyone is entitled to pure anger and the details only distract… even though it is details like the words on that phone to which I return, in my grief, often and too much. All around me, cinematic joy. And suddenly, violently, the private misery of my marriage encircled me like a noose, from which I have yet to see any escape or relief.
It could have been a moment of grand, romantic reckoning: “Here I am, in Paris, with no passport, my children far away, my husband clearly out of love and done. I can take a lover. I can be reborn and release myself from these years of suppressed rage. I can come home, call a lawyer, and file for divorce. I can be strong.”
It was a moment. But it was not grand, and it hasn’t lead anywhere but to this slow, hideous, increasingly lonely dissolution of a 17 year affair. Children, property, “assets.” If I hear the word “asset” one more time I think I shall go deaf. There’s not time even for grief, it’s all taken up with the trivial problems of housing and the profound, irreparable suffering of my children.
Joy. The memory of joy is inversely proportional in pain to the happiness of knowing it. Each day, for me, is a precarious balance, knowing that the depression within my body is caught and held by a thin net of phenelzine (thank the gods for chemicals), and if the net fails all will fail. Actually, all has failed, but the failure must be a secret, and my children must see this change as chaos, as difficulty, something malleable, workable, but ultimately resulting in the steady reborn happiness of two shiny new homes, as if we had planned it all along.
There is no reckoning, no grand conclusion to the end of my marriage. I have been a housewife, taking care of my children, a lost late pregnancy before that, for ten solid years. Housewives often have the worst of it when a marriage ends: there is the great, private grief, indescribable in depth; there are the children; there is the total loss of love and reliance on a sweetly imagined future of age and the mutual support needed through the passage of time, change, death, disease, suffering. All these things must be set aside, however: a newly single housewife must re-imagine herself as a person, a woman, in the world, capable of taking care of her children, making money, managing finances, ensuring the stability of her children’s financial, educational, and emotional future. She must become father, mother, worker, therapist, caretaker, organizer, all at once and immediately, with no gap.
I am old. I have three children, two of whom have unusual needs and minds. How many hundreds of thousands, millions of women have gone before me in this exact situation? Did they reinvent themselves, or just get through it? Did they know joy again? The dry new territory of true solitude and age: what is the nature of the terrain? Does even the occasional mirage of sex disappear? Where is the refuge for women who must suddenly be everything, and so become, within, nothing?
This past summer I spent nine days in New York. Like everyone, I adore New York. It is probably one of the most photogenic cities in the world. I was there to practice with an Ashtanga teacher. And to take pictures of the city at dawn. Somehow, I’m still not sure how, I forgot my phone.