TIME IS MEASURED IN DISTANCE
Looking through a little lens the other night, like a window onto time, I saw a galaxy 28 million light years away. I’d gone to the San Jose Astronomical Society Earth Day star party in Pinnacles National Park, a modest gathering, in celebration of science — and because I had been wanting for some time make it to another star party. I have been wanting to see the stars on a dark, dark night ever since our trip to the Grand Canyon and the star party we went to there. I enjoyed being out there in the brisk night air after a solo daytime hike in the park. The attendees were all quite friendly.
Pinnacles is in the process of getting certified as a dark sky park, from an organization known as the International Dark Sky Association. Light pollution masks the wonder of the stars in many places across our globe. There is a sense of poetry in the skies; city lights have proliferated with urban sprawl and population growth, and are encroaching on the dark places. Certification efforts are predicated on the nostalgia for earlier times when folks did not need to journey so far to find places where the stars — and the white swath of the milky way — are visible at night. I’m sure nocturnal animals are grateful, too.
It is amazing how with the aid of a telescope, you can see into the past, peer at an event that happened to a star or a nebula during a time when dinosaurs walked on Earth. Light journeying back takes so long that the ‘celestial body’ may already be gone.
Our astronomer hosts used laser pointers, which reached surprisingly far, to orient us to different zones and constellations and to pinpoint specific stars in the sky. Sirius in Canis Major sparkled like a diamond. We looked at Castor and Pollux. We eyed two of Jupiter’s 67 moons. We discovered the double star in the handle of the big dipper. Several of the society members introduced us to some basics, like how stars are born, what they’re made of and pointed out some clever tricks for finding different constellations using guiding stars and mnemonics. The specific mnemonics and some of the names are fading from my memory, though.
I won’t lose the experience and how almost familiar and comforting the sky looked as though I’d seen all of those stars the night before. Because it was Earth Day and the March for Science, it was a special time to be with serious science lovers. Yay Science, we were all saying, and the cosmos echoed our refrain.
Some of these fellows toting around their telescopes and sharing them with the public may have day jobs in the valley in science or tech fields or maybe they are accountants who simply practice citizen science. Either way, each of them could talk a blue streak and seemed to enjoy what they were doing quite a bit, demonstrating an impressive fluency and facility as they shared physics and chemistry concepts. Call them love songs to the skies or protest speech to the less educated detractors at whom so many scientists are rightly thumbing their probosces.
It was inspiring and humbling to look up at the world we largely ignore, a scene above us that stretches infinitely far into the reaches of the knowable world. It leaves you with a sense of wonder. You really should take the time to do this at least once in your life. Like a kid at an amusement park, I can’t wait to go again.
I asked the postal clerk today when I got to his window, how to pronounce his name, which was displayed on his badge.
‘My,’ he said, pronounced like the English word, me. “It means handsome,” he added. “It was true 40 years ago,” he said and chuckled.
I suppose I thought to ask because earlier in the day, the fellow who worked at the photo pickup counter at Walgreen’s was also from Vietnam, and his name was also displayed on a badge. I asked him now to pronounce it, man with a long a, or a short one, like man.
“It’s Man,” he said, pronouncing man with a Vietnamese tone.
I told him that it was an interesting name to have in the U.S. given how easily his name would be mispronounced. With our penchant for Americanization, it might have led folks to say, “Hey Man!” I am sure a few have.
In the 1970s, I went with my brother and other friends of his to Camp Pendleton to teach Vietnamese refugees English; my brother became friends with a Vietnamese teenager there who sent him a series of letters after she moved to Northern California. Her name was Ran Ran, which, we learned, was the Vietnamese word for Snow.
I loved hearing him read the letters aloud. Her broken English led to cute grammatical infractions that were charming and humorous. Embedded in the letters was a sweetness of sentiment that gave us a window into the heart of a young refugee, a young woman who had been through a lot and was looking on the bright side — learning how to be an American.
I remember songs the kids sang in Vietnamese for us in the tent. I would later learn that one of the songs was a protest anthem that had been banned in their country. I don’t know where it fit into the movement I learned of called Song Drowns Out the Sound of Bombs (Tiếng hát át tiếng bom) that leaned on music as a battle-weary country’s morale booster. Songs that did not reflect socialist ideals were banned, a page in the long conjoined history of music and politics.
Or another one, a student led movement called ‘Sing for my people to hear.’ Its first gathering was in 1968, just before the Tet Offensive and 200 students sang a chorus of its eponymous song, led by its founder, Tôn Thất Lập. The audience was 10,000 strong.
Perhaps the kids in the tent at Camp Pendleton were singing a Vietnamese version of an Imperialist song, the so called yellow music, banned and considered dangerous. I can still hear one of my tent school mates, Andy, carefully pronouncing each month, emphasizing the last syllable. October. November. December. That was more than 40 years ago — back when My, the postal clerk was handsome and maybe, although he didn’t say how old he was, barely a man.
Sometimes we feel more connected to the dead than to the living. We pass crowds of strangers who barely see us. We are not getting along well with those who are close to us.
On Mother’s Day, we walked in the Marin Headlands, and because O’s legs were hurting — she could only walk part of the trail to the beach, the one that passes through the Tennessee Valley. It being Mother’s Day, and spring, and her mood being ornery, I thought it best to walk to the ocean alone. Joe and O and Ellie headed to the car, and I headed towards the ocean. I wasn’t sure if I knew when I would double back and rejoin them. I just kept walking.
My mother took us to the beach all the time when we were small. We grew up beach kids. We only lived five blocks from Windansea. Today, this memory washed over me. I would walk to the beach and back in time — forward with my stride and backward in a revery of forgotten times.
It is good to remember your mother on Mother’s Day — whether she be alive or not. Suspended in between the generations — we can hope for nurturing; we can hope to offer nurturing; we can remember being nurtured and beloved.
I stood on the beach today and let myself remember a thought that no sooner do I think it than tears —like tiny salty ponds— appear. When she died, my mother’s ashes were scattered in the ocean, the very ocean at which I stared.
So before I leave I stoop to gather up a small bit of sand as I did from the beach at home the night we lost her. I was alone that night, too. Before leaving today, I looked at that bit of sand that I’ve recently set on a window ledge the way someone might look at a photo.
That night, she was not yet part of the sand. By now she has probably transmuted; she has returned to the sea. She is floating in some other form, having decidedly become one of the undulating lengths of kelp or attached herself to a rock from which she used to fish. Who knows how it works — but I know that her molecules are floating freely in the ocean of my childhood days. So, I sometimes stand and gaze at the ocean — the vast blue Pacific Ocean — where she brought me as a child.
I stare out and recall how very often we were there together. She stares back although I am not sure she can quite make me out. It is almost a comfort. It is almost torture. It is almost possible to imagine she is out there for a swim and will be back to shore. She has gone around that large landmark at the foot of Palomar we called Big Rock to pry an abalone off a rock and will return. She has gone for cold drinks.
I grab some more sand ritualistically thinking I can mark the years since she’s been gone. I can make today about my mother and not myself. I can let my daughter off the hook since teenagers sometimes don’t want to see their mother as the focus of a day.
They’ll give her an hour or two or maybe a heartfelt moment, but the day will come when she would give a lot to walk the entire length of a trail no matter how long it took, and it would still feel too short.
UP IN THE AIR
I wrote this in 2013 in the wake of many sorts of life entanglements: from losing a baby and then a parent, to leaving the country and returning to find life was not something I could just pick up again like a book, to estrangements from relatives and longtime friends, to many other kinds of suffering that tested my mettle. I read Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore that year and then became a walking expert on a new wave in treating breast cancer. DCIS treatment was not lowering the rate of invasive — and even fatal — breast cancer. In figuring out which side of the controversy might apply to me and my body, I sought the help of the Pine Street Clinic in San Anselmo. I waited for surgery because I could only have a consult with them if I had gone through the conventional treatment; then I could learn what complementary medical approaches could do for me. I now have gone four years without a recurrence since that troubling mammogram.
While I waited for my Pine Street consult, I wrote about the wayward medical treatment I experienced. It made a “good story.” I was a little like a Rorsarch test. I could tell it to different people and learn by their reaction or advice a little about their inner workings. Some thought I had a touch of PTSD, which was quite possible. Though, I bandy about that term with a lot of reservation. My life is relatively devoid of serious trauma, but I do come from a family where fighting and rancor were quite common. Children who come from combative environments where life threatening hurdles challenge them daily truly deserve the term in its purest sense. It comforts us to label ourselves, it sometimes seems even when prevailing wisdom tells us not to.
I wrote about what I was going through because I wanted solace and because I wanted to capture a moment in time, a time before I knew what I was going to have to do to treat my DCIS, also known as Stage ‘zero’ ductal cancer in situ. The thing about DCIS is that in some cases it can speed up at any time and in others it remains, as my report said, indolent. Genetic tests in their infancy were pointing to radiation post-surgery, but they were so hard to understand.
Writing was a kind of self-therapy, a way to address and support myself through a stressful encounter with the caregivers, whose effect was somewhat anti-therapeutic. This exercise in writing about the process also helped me when it came time to document a major hospital snafu at a leading local hospital, as a courtesy for their patient experience department. Their teamwork left something to be desired. Because things were up in the air for so long due to one delay and another, I did not know what was coming. Interruptions to our health sometimes remind us to find new lives and to appreciate the life we have been given.
Up in the Air
Things are up in the air. Interesting notion: up in the air. When things are up in the air it can sometimes make living uncomfortable. The unknown assaults us. But it can also give us hope. It is fodder for optimists to be optimistic and fodder for pessimists to be pessimistic. It leads some to distraction. It makes for just an ordinary day for others.
I have had many ordinary days since learning in January of this year from the director of a nearby women’s health center that I had Stage zer0 DCIS. I liked the days to be ordinary because it helped me live without more fear. It was detected quite early in my left breast yet there seemed to be this urgency that I get it removed immediately. I reacted by pushing back. This delaying was so I could educate myself. I found out more than I needed to know about DCIS.
I needed to know whether what the diagnosing doctor said was true by all accounts: that I needed the treatments she proposed. I needed to know whether I was in the purported x percent of patients with the mild DCIS that could best be dealt with by watchful waiting. The epidemic has 60,000 new cases annually, but over the decades it has been noted that catching this precursor to breast cancer early has not led to much of a decrease in the incidence of invasive breast cancer. Women undergoing full mastectomies, therefore, might have never developed a life-threatening, metastasizing cancer.
In many women who are autopsied who died of other causes, DCIS is found in the milk ducts. It is a controversy that has some in the medical world puzzled over how to classify cases with ramifications for how to predict the right-sized treatment for every patient.
This led me on a fact-finding odyssey. The biopsy I had undergone led me to complicated territory when it was discovered that surgery would not be straightforward for me: the markers, the DCIS “house address” as it were had been removed with the biopsy and I had elected to not have a metal marker left in there to assist the surgeon in locating the site. I was sure I didn’t need surgery.
This decision led to twists and turns: a later mammogram failed to find any further post-biopsy micro-calcification. The cluster had been removed with my biopsy. A further mammogram revealed not much to go on. My diagnosing mammogram never making it from my diagnosing facility to the second opinion doctor’s facility meant that when I showed up ready for taking the bull by the horn finally, I instead left as many a patient would love to do on surgery day: walking away.
The morning of April 19 I sat awaiting surgery, a smile on my face. My “second opinion doctor” said that for administrative snafus beyond my control, he could not do the surgery. But then weeks went by with no word. I’d gotten an apology, but felt the place was too chaotic a place for me. And I was fixated on how no one would explain whether the pioneering genetic marker/oncotype test whose import and results were not explained to me thoroughly and still haven’t been, placed me in the “surgery yes” or “surgery no” category. This led me to a private practice surgeon who said let’s get this over with. It was surgery yes after all.
So, July 3 I had surgery. The affected area was quite close to the skin. Surgery took a little over an hour. I wait hoping that, as my new surgeon predicted, it will come back with clean margins. I’m waiting now. I might learn that no more surgery is needed. I have ruled out radiation until I really need it since once you have radiation you can’t use it again on the irradiated breast. Radiation won’t help me live longer either. Google it!
Yet, now I think of how things could have gone more easily with this surgery if I had chosen to have it at a later date. I had waited so long anyway and how did I know I’d be so spent and exhausted even a week after our trip to the East Coast. But it happened finally, which also brings some relief. It was a long engagement.
I preferred July 3, which was the first available date after our return from our long-awaited vacation. It seemed I shouldn’t wait any longer. Here, I could have had surgery ten days after my diagnosis in January. Was my particular DCIS really a precursor to cancer or was I being over-diagnosed? I will wait to find out. I already know I have quite a few factors in my favor, but as surgeon number 3 has told me, you just never know until you do surgery. Mammograms are just a guide, a map.
Speaking of maps, we had just been gazing at one: in the seat backs in front of us. As the little journey infoscreen showed us over Wyoming, I opened the window cover and looked out at the Big Dipper.
We’d only come from JFK to SFO, but it was not the best case scenario in terms of our body clocks. Due to repair work on the SFO runway, our plane was delayed five hours, and we left JFK at Midnight. A week seemed long enough away. But even two days before my surgery date I was not on California time. We’d barely been on east coast time either. We were in our own private little time zone. Our taxi driver who barely spoke English or we’d have told him to slow down did 90 almost the whole way home. As Joe said, he helped make up for our flight’s delay. Once our trip was over. The day of reckoning had come.
Coming down from a Manhattan high I suppose to a sleepy suburb where a heat wave greeted us made for more sleeplessness and restlessness. Finally it’s the week of surgery and I’m to get up at 6:00 a.m. in two days yet can’t get to sleep before 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.
Something must be done. I decide to tap the valium prescription, the one that had gotten me calmer for my MRI and had gotten my husband through the flight home, (he increasingly has a hard time flying).
Mother’s Little Helper does its thing and helps me get some slumber even if I do sleep in rather late, throwing off my sleep cycle even more strangely.
I forget several appointments that before my trip I’d not transferred to my master calendar. I even to forget to check my phone for my pre-op appointment. It is rescheduled for the day before surgery. Then I forget to check the calendar in the morning for my appointment time. Once I get out of the bath, I get into the car and head to the doctor’s office, I take the wrong exit and have to circle back. When I do I miss the exit again and then have to cover lost ground and time again. I arrive to find, Buddha-like and unruffled, my surgeon who to my apology replies “better late than never.” As she sends me on my way, she cautions me however to try to be more assiduous about showing up for my wire placement appointment the next morning.
I awaken in time. But unlike the first surgery date — the one that was canceled by the staff at my hospital in April — I am no poster child for “let’s just get this over with” enthusiasm. I am not supercharged by the presence of friends and vibes sending me the palpable courage that in April assisted me. In April I felt like I was crossing a finish line There was a cheerful can-do glow about me.
Instead, I am psychotically exhausted, hungry, and jet lagged, with a valium hangover. The valium hangover was my phraseology, but according to my anesthesiologist, Dr. Halpern, it was an apt term. Due to the long-acting nature of valium, it happens. He’ tells me the night before surgery not to pop another. I comply.
So, let’s go back to the start. This moment. Things are up in the air. Here it is four days after surgery and I have been on two walks, and cried my eyes out in despair for who knows what reason. I have many candidates. I know it’s ok to cry, but I suspect the drugs wearing off have something to do with it. Who knows what went into that bollus, that bag that Dr. Halpern said he had filled with Pinot Noir. Who knows whether it likes coexisting with valium and Vicadin and what have you. Not to mention, I have my own internal stress factory churning out varying hormone cocktails of its own.
Post-surgery, I’ve been having some Vicadin but discover that I don’t much like it. I have had side effects like itching and feeling foggy. Weaning off all but Tylenol as a source of pain relief, I realize I’m not really hurting at my surgery site.
And, it is quite a sight. I keep checking myself in the mirror a few times a day to say ‘so that’s what I’m left with?’ It looks like a close twin to the other unmarred breast, albeit bruised, with an inch and a half bloodied curve roughly following the zone where my upper areola was, and a somewhat lopsided nipple compressed perhaps only temporarily by the bandages I was instructed to remove 24 hours after surgery. It has not sprung up again like I thought it might.
But my breast, a small breast that doesn’t weigh down and stretch the incision site like some women’s might, is the well-behaved body part in this story. As I stare at it in the mirror I am filled with a kind of admiration one might reserve for a child, a kind of tenderness — in the other sense of the word. I think this is what self-love is; this is self-compassion. I look upon it and seem to enter into a kind of soothing dialogue, saying, it’s okay now.
But, meanwhile, my stomach, which has its own wisdom, is telling me I must wait before I settle down. News that comes Tuesday could be of interest to my left breast, which almost seems to have a soul of its own now. It seems to be a separate part of me, and I am its caretaker, updating it on what to expect. My left breast, meanwhile, is looking to me to remain calm while word from the lab and my post-op appointment are still pending.
The summer I had breast cancer surgery, we took a trip to New York City and stayed a few days with my Indian friend, Preeti, and her husband and two children in Edgewater, New Jersey. The night we arrived — much later than we had thought it was nearly 10 p.m. June 18 would soon be June 19. It wasn’t until the next morning that I learn that while awaiting our arrival Preeti has been closely monitoring the flash flood in the Uttarakhand state in India in the Kedarnath valley. Her parents, had left to go on a pilgrimage to one of the holiest Hindu temples in India, Kedarnath Mandir where Lord Shiva is worshipped. This particular temple requires pilgrims to undertake a considerable vertical gain. It asks pilgrims literally to go up in the air.
The ascent of 8.7 miles from the surrounding Kadarnath valley can be an uphill hike on foot, or pilgrims can be carried in a palanquin, or ride uphill by pony. If they go on horseback, apparently the small ponies get to decide how close to the edge they travel. This means riders may have a dizzying experience as they ascend. If they take a look, it is a long way down. The temple is in the Himalayan range close to Tibet. If pilgrims prefer they can also be lifted by helicopter. This is only if the weather permits. This pilgrimage is only possible during six months of the year typically, from April to November owing to the wintry weather. When the passage is safe, pilgrims can go pray to Shiva. This temple in the Himalayas is one of the holiest in India and is located near one of the tributaries of the holy river Ganges.
I only find all this out later. But as I am standing in Preeti’s kitchen in Edgewater New Jersey — not the same apartment where she witnessed Sully land his plane in the Hudson right outside the kitchen window — at its closest it is a six-minute ferry ride to mid-town Manhattan, she tells me the news that a government official in her home state had sent a helicopter specifically for her parents and some others traveling from the Raipur area. The helicopter sent to rescue them and bring them back to safety means they will be among the lucky ones. I mention to her that in astrology (Western) the date June 19 was supposed to be ‘the luckiest day in the year’ according to Susan Miller.
As she goes on I realize how inapplicable this statement is. That her parents have escaped is lucky, but thousands are still stranded. The hardworking horses, the guides, the locals, and thousands of supplicant pilgrims: their fate is up in the air.
A tear runs down my cheek. It sinks in how destructive and tragic a disaster was now occurring miles away and how strangely ironic that it had occurred in a holy spot. Pilgrims making their way from all parts of the Hindu diaspora asking for blessings from Lord Shiva instead are swept away along with an entire settlement, the system of towns that had been of service to the pilgrims visiting this temple century after century. The exact date of the temple building is not known but it is believed to have been constructed in around 800 AD.
I will also learn that among the missing and believed dead are a party of eight distant relatives of their family. It is customary for Hindu families to go on pilgrimage at certain times in their lives. One is before a marriage to ask the gods that the bride and groom have a good life ahead. The party of eight had been on such a mission. The wedding was supposed to be July 7. For some reason the bride and groom did not go. What might this mean for their life together? The wedding did not go forward. And, as yet, the family that had gone to ask for blessings has not yet returned.
The 16th of June sudden heavy monsoon rains surpassing by 375 percent the usual charted precipitation for the monsoon period led to landslides and flooding. The infrastructure some say was undermined by less than perfect engineering projects and overbuilding that the land just can’t sustain. Many officials deny it. Whatever cause is to blame, terrain conditions meant that a muddy deluge swept away: the horses; the palanquins; bridges and roads; roadside hotels. One wonders if it also swept away their prayers. Or are some still to be granted? Some 850 are dead. Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims were stranded, and many are still missing.
Some pilgrims waited for days without food or shelter — some of the lucky ones were rescued or found a way out by an airlift effort that all told rescued somewhere near 100,000 people by helicopter. High up, at the top of the peak, a number of pilgrims took shelter in the temple itself.
According to a Wikipedia entry: “Some eye witness observed that, one large rock that carried up to the temple in flood water and settled at the rear side of the Kedarnath Temple, thus causing obstruction to the debris, diverting the flow to the sides of the temple avoiding possible damage.”
Why were her parents spared? Someone from the hotel where our friend’s parents were staying awoke them in the early morning, and less than an hour later their hotel and 30 to 40 other buildings were swept away by the forceful flood waters.
The helicopter sent to rescue them and return others from their area home, they felt should go to help retrieve the truly stranded. Preeti’s parents still had access to a car and were still in a zone with navigable roads. And so they stayed on the ground rather than ascending to say their prayers, and they returned home by car.
In the initial reporting of the disaster we saw in Times Square the number of the dead and missing were vastly underrepresented. We had had our news from the daughter of someone who was there, and this stunned me to see the discrepancy between what was displaying on the Times Square news agency ticker that wraps around the shimmering windows of the tall building and the eye-witness account from someone on the ground. The news eventually caught up to what we had heard that morning.
It was striking to hear that amidst all the destruction that took out the temple complex, surrounding roads, bridges, shops, dwellings and businesses catering to the pilgrims, in Kedarnath, the valley of collected villages that had grown up around the pilgrimage site, there is now a de-populated valley, and destruction all around. But the temple remained mostly unharmed.
It seemed not to be quite real to me while we visited Manhattan that far away some 70,000 locals and pilgrims were stranded by blocked roads and stampedes caused by panic, washed out bridges, and rushing waters.
I learn that Preeti has heard that her mother is undergoing a completely understandable stress reaction to the flooding in Uttarakhand. I don’t have the details but I can only imagine three or four dozen reasons for that; 8 distant family members have been killed; this is a kind of prophecy in the Hindu religion that Shiva, the destroyer, makes it his work to cleanse the land of sinners every once in a awhile; almost losing her life, to name a few. For this reason, she herself will be leaving a week early for India. She will be there for six weeks.
In the meantime, as I await news of my pathology report, Preeti prepares for the three-day journey home to her village to comfort her mother and spend Monsoon season with her family. Things are up in the air.
WINDOWS FOR HARVEY
May 21 — just yesterday — Joe and I went to the Castro district for a tour of the neighborhood to see scores of windows dressed up in honor of Harvey Milk, the revered leader who did so much in support of rights for everyone — and in particular the Gay Rights movement. What started in the City has spread, and the Internet has helped to expand his mission. He is a heroic figure and a friend forever to so many whose lives have had more dignity because of his actions, words and love.
Windows for Harvey was a creative, participatory and loving tribute to Milk. His birthday is celebrated in many ways over this time period, but the windows will be up May 18–31, as just one of the many ways the man has been honored. Here, in living color, some of the windows devoted to the man whose slogan became: You’ve got to give them hope.
In this spirit, we experienced a day of wandering in the sunlit streets. It was up lifting. Men walking hand in hand. People who had no doubt done the Bay to Breakers that also happened yesterday — though in the Castro you don’t need a reason to wear pink tutus.
Another draw for me to do this walk is that I have been writing about artist tributes over the last five years for the grieving site Open to Hope. It was my tribute to my mother who died in 2010; she was an artist and I dedicated the interviews to her. The people who organized this ambulatory exhibit, enmeshed in the Castro as is Harvey Milk’s spirit, were interesting to me for that reason, and perhaps I’ll have a chance to interview some of them sometime.
Now that I am writing about windows, they call out to me as an instance of this metaphorical journey, the first leg of which is coming to a close soon. The journey through a world in turmoil should include places like the Castro. Prejudice, intolerance and hate make the world Hell for those who are different, for those who march to the tune of a different drummer.
I was proud to be there to be audience and witness, to salute this better day — over my lifetime — when my brother came out to me in junior high school to today — I have watched our country shift. I have watched my contemporaries make history. We are part of our Times. The Zeitgeist of this new millenium is divisiveness, but we are entitled to flaunt our spirit of inclusiveness just as others are trying to shut it down. We owe folks like Harvey Milk and many others through whose collective efforts life can be a more dignified experience.
That we can point to this year as being one of the most divisive since say the last time the stars aligned to bring hatred out into the streets en masse, is not all bad. We can stand up and be the ones who shout out our support for the good, the true and the beautiful.
While hate is out there, so is a very public and publicized rise of tolerance and universal love. The girls and boys out there in small towns all across the country, you have the Harvey Milks and so many others to give you hope.
Joe and I will soon be wandering again in the 11th. We leave next week. We’ll visit the Village Popincourt, where we rented a sixth floor apartment in 2010. I was there this past September and went there in 2015 during COP21. Nothing prepared me for the experience of seeing the Bataclan memorials, candles still burning, some empty votives being swept away by city workers as I wandered by the teddy bears, crosses and flowers fastened to the railings.
As I approached the intersection of Voltaire and Oberkamp — where we often held Olivia’s tiny hand to cross the street — I began to weep. I did not need any other reason than the victims and the tributes but I had one. This violence had happened precisely in a location that for me had the familiarity of home. We had lived less than 500 meters from the Bataclan, which was now cordoned off and guarded by heavily armed soldiers.
Juxtaposed with my nostalgia for a past that beckoned with the sweetness and the sadness of temps perdus were hundreds of touching memorials, a carpet of votives and flowers, drawings and posters and photographs, crosses and peace signs and blessings extended along the black railings of the enclosure where kids played and people came to sit on benches with their little dogs after buying groceries.
This was the intersection of my geography and biography. Going to Paris during COP21 was also my memorial to my father, a pilgrimage as tribute journey, adding his voice — and mine — to support the decision that came out of the climate talks. I cried for losing him, too. These buildings, this city, had cradled me while I mourned my mother. Now it was funereal again. All around us the sidewalks and fences were festooned in grief. It was not just my sadness I could feel. The very air was thick with the hovering sadness of others. And so my tears began and kept on silently while I walked slowly by and read the signs and cards and letters to the victims of the Paris attack on the 13th of November.
I wished peace to everyone there, to the survivors, to the living and the scores of names written on sheets of paper. Gentle faces stared back at me from photos loved ones brought there. It is hard to put your grief away; it feels like a betrayal. It must have something to do with survival. Maintaining a healthy emotional distance from atrocities sometimes feels wrong though. You feel guilty for having the right to wander away, turn off the compassion, enjoy a meal.
When I arrived in Paris in December of 2015 for COP21, there were police standing guard, patrolling neighborhoods and in the Metro. To be in the city just weeks after the attack felt like we were living in different times. The memorials in la Place de la Republique spread out like a quilt, and there were people swarming there. I felt ill at ease. Though that shifted, too, with so many people creating a positive, solutions-oriented ambiance by broadcasting hope and serving as models of encouragement, of effort and solidarity. And they were on a mission to show not renunciation but hope. Yet, the fact that I started my presentation to a very small crowd by talking about my father’s death led one of the leaders to remark that indeed grief is a part of what is happening worldwide. That would make what we were a rather large support group.
And the historical climate talks were challenged by the attacks. The city, the planners, the attendees showed defiance and courage, one natural response among many in the face of violence. This violence that risked upending the many efforts of people trying to help the planet by attending and taking part in climate activism was a backdrop to the event.
I was there with artist and Climate Reality Project activist, Belinda Chlouber, who had come to participate in the activism taking place around the climate conference. I saw the fierceness and the beauty of gathering with others from all over the world. I spoke with veteran climate activists and climate refugees; it woke me up to how many educated and compassionate people are in this circle of virtue.
I had brought Gordon’s poem Ecology Is… and several recordings of it — as my little project. I was just representing me and my father’s work, yet this inducted me into the grassroots movement. I also took part in a few of the actions, such as this aerial photograph using people to create the Paris peace sign (http://www.planetexperts.com/the-true-story-of-the-paris-300-the-picture-that-almost-wasnt/). It became quite famous.
It was only when I got to Oberkampf and began to see the outpourings of grief at the epicenter of the terrorist site that was my cherished neighborhood that the numbness left me.
I had not been able to feel my feelings when passing by the restaurant near la Rue de la Fontaine du Roi earlier in the stay, where other gunmen had attacked. There were memorials. I walked by numbly. I knew this corner well, too, the florist stand, the confluence of narrow streets leading towards Olivia’s math teacher’s apartment. This route was familiar. We would take this route after dropping off Olivia for “maths” every Tuesday. I’d usually drop her off then walk to get money to pay Marianne in cash.
Our upcoming trip reminds me that when terrorist attacks happen and when parents die, thoughts of mortality surface. The news shows the tenuousness of life every day. I am reminded to live.
It is now 20 years that we have been married, almost 21, and Paris has always been a part of what it means to be us, it has been the backdrop of many stages of our lives. To me the neighborhood is precious for it is where I watched my child experience an early chapter of her life, where I dreamed of living when I was 16, where I carried my daughter when she was three and five and walked her to school when she was eight; where I lived through the grief of losing my mother, and where I found a lot of light waiting for me at the end of the tunnel in the many friendly people whose lives intersected ours there.
The night of the Bataclan attack, a woman known as Charlotte was saved by a fellow named Sebastian after she climbed out the window when the attackers entered the building on their rampage. She called out to people fleeing “I’m pregnant. Will you catch me if I fall?” She survived and became an icon of the event and of the fate of two strangers. Windows can suggest escape, but she defied the odds and survived by going back inside. The photographs show a woman hanging onto a metal bar protruding from the building. The man appears in the photo standing at the window. He will pull her inside and somehow she will survive. Her baby will be born. They will become lifelong friends. Life will go on in the broad and narrow streets of that neighborhood.
I am reminded too that each of the thousands of people who inhabit those streets have their own Bataclan. I offer up the prayer that the lights in all the windows that line all the nearby streets be the light of hope for those who visit this place, the way grievers sometimes do — attaching themselves to or distancing themselves from the sacred ground of their loss. For them, each random mark on the sidewalk, might hold significance, each fluttering of a breeze might carry a sign or trigger a memory. May their loved ones be at peace. If their own light is gone, may they borrow light from other windows — the giving light of strangers, those who may not know the enormity of the gift of living.
Is, you see,
The way things started
At first to be.
Here in the sea,
From chance energy
Changing some matter
That before wasn’t living
Into its new form:
The event was lifegiving.
How it could happen
Is a deep fascination.
That it did come about
We have no reservation.
But the answer to how
Still eludes cerebration.
As creation progressed,
There came virus, bacteria,
All doing their thing
At a pace near hysteria.
Life forms increased
Until all the creatures
Had thus been created.
Eons passed by
Marked by decisions
Of which forms survived
And how they were changed
As results of the test.
(Like which worked out best?
To the scrap heap, the rest.)
When finally onto the scene
It certainly seemed
Like a part of the plan.
He fit very well
In the animal clan.
But as time progresses
He stands quite apart
As a special example
Of biological art.
His advantage is great,
As he’s become master
Of other life forms:
His brain is much faster.
But, mere speed without aim
Can bring on disaster!
And so I submit
That man’s lack of aiming
Has brought us all kinds
Of environment maiming.
For his fault in the process,
He does much disclaiming
But he must soon admit
Himself for the blaming.
And when that day comes
(It’s right now overdue)
Will there still be a chance
For me and for you
To live as we’d like —
With a future in view?
Is, you see,
The way things
Will be —
by Geoff Relf ©