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Sounds of Voices

February 12, 2021

“Silence is imaginary, because the world never stops making noise.  A sound is a disruption of the air, and it doesn’t so much die as recede until it subsides beneath the level of the world’s random noise and can no longer be recovered, like a face that is lost in a crowd.  In past times, people sometimes thought that all sounds that ever existed were still present, hovering like ghosts.  Guglielmo Marconi, who sent the first radio message, in 1902, believed that with a microphone that was sufficiently sensitive he could hear Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, and in 1925 a writer for the Washington Post speculated that a radio was capable of broadcasting the voices of the dead.  A radio transmits vibrations, he wrote, and the voices of the dead ‘simply vibrate at a lower rate.’”

–Alec Wilkinson, A Voice from the Past, The New Yorker, May 12, 2014.

Years ago, in my omnipresent past, I was a student in Paris where I enjoyed by the grace of happenstance one of the greatest friendships of my adult life.  My friend, my love, Andrée, passed away last summer at the age of eighty-three, and I felt sincerely that her voice had been permanently silenced.  I was wrong, very mistaken in fact, and I heard today for the first time in a long time her voice, albeit vibrating at a lower rate, a phantom accompaniment to my daily life, and it was resoundingly joyous.

Last July, the Internet brought me the terrible news that my friend was now gone, having suffered with inexplicable pains the previous number of months, if not years.  With no word from family or friends who were close enough to have detail, I have wondered if the global pandemic which has kept us from interacting with others in the ways in which we had become accustomed had played a part in her demise.  I still have no confirmation on that, her nephew in charge of her estate opting to remain silent in the face of those who would inquire.  The Internet, though, in its power to create ties between people far and near, even if they have never had the occasion to meet in person, brought me a new friend, Soraya, who had long been a friend of Andrée’s, shortly after I had eulogized my friend, sharing some of my memories of our time together with others, thanks to my blog, who I may never have met, and likely never will.  Soraya, in an attempt to bring back the sound of Andrée’s warmth and vitality had set out on an Internet search for her friend, and found my tribute, the only information she had at that time that her friend had died.  She reached out to me, and we have corresponded several times since.

Today, for the first time, from her flat in London where she is in lockdown like the rest of the island nation, Soraya and I spoke with the assistance of a video chat, meeting each other for the first time ‘in person’.  It was quite wonderful.  To see her face, to witness the tears which escaped her as she recalled in fondness our friend, to watch her hands, and to listen to her stories, it was as though we had gotten together at the Parisian salon de thé, Angelina, on the Rivoli, a hot chocolate for me and a shot of espresso for her.  We spoke for more than an hour, and it felt as though Andrée had just slipped out of the room for that moment, and that she was surely to return with a sampling of patisseries from the store’s counter or perhaps a half bottle of wine for us all to share, to toast, to enjoy in friendship.

Soraya and Andrée’s amitié predates the one that I shared with ‘Dédée’.  Their mutual fondness began when they were work companions; Soraya was twenty-one as Andrée entered her forties.  Even as one or the other was transferred from one office locale to another they remained in contact, the one with the other.  Soraya had the pleasure that I did not in meeting Andrée’s beloved mother, who had assisted in finding the little house in Courseulles where I lived that one summer with my friend.  Over the years, Andrée had visited Soraya in London and Andrée, I would learn, had hosted Soraya and her then teenaged daughter at her home, the bigger house that Andrée had bought but rented out for years before renovating and living there herself.  All throughout that time, the two kept in touch and shared stories and the little joys of life.

Andrée and I met, of course, later, when I was twenty or so years old, and she was then fifty-six.  I’ve told this story before, but today I heard it from Andrée’s perspective for the first time.  I was living in the Quatorzième Arrondissement of Paris, and was on my way to an evening with friends, a bottle of red wine under my arm as I exited the Paris metro at Place Denfert Rochereau.  Andrée was on her way home after a long day of travel back from Germany, where work had taken her.  Soraya, as she told me today, “I knew all about you.  Andrée had told me about how as she got out of the subway car, there you were, insistent in grabbing her suitcase and ‘helping’.  Andrée was a bit frightened, but you showed such patient determination that you were going to help her with that bag whether she wanted the help or not, telling her that you weren’t a thief, that you were just an American!”  Andrée was in the end grateful for the help and had told Soraya that we were going to be friends.  And we were.

Andrée had told Soraya over the years about how I would go to her apartment to work on her English pronunciation and share in a good meal.  Soraya, like me, keeps close to her heart so many fond memories of learning under the tutelage of our friend about the joys of fine wine, foie gras, a good coffee (or in my case, elegant tisanes and tilleuls, infusions sipped over good conversation, a nighttime elixir), a lovely porcelain place setting, and most of all about slowing down to enjoy the time spent among friends.  Soraya, like me, feels very much like Andrée had given us a roadmap toward a different kind of peace, to happiness.  Listening to Soraya, it felt very much as though we had been leading parallel lives, and that Andrée was where the intersection occurred, far off on that horizon, even though the two lines meet only in perception.

Andrée was a child when the Second World War broke out.  Her family, I learned today, not only suffered the privations of the war and the rationing of goods, but at many points in those early years, didn’t have running water, let alone hot running water like she had after she renovated her little house on the coast of Normandy with a shower stall, equipped with heat sensing technology so that her favorite temperature was guaranteed to flow from the showerhead.  It was a traumatic time, so much so that her sister, Jeanine, who was by all accounts very bright as a child suffered some break, something that led her to be not quite like other children, silencing her inner beauty in some respects.  Jeanine, who was a wonderfully caring and loving person also, worked hard all of her life, despite her cognitive challenges, and merited the full respect of everyone who knew her.  But that war had robbed her of so much.  Andrée’s sister, Thérèse, who has also written in recent weeks, is also a munificently unselfish person who with her late-husband, Michel, welcomed me openly in to their family as Andrée had.  While they may not have had the luxury that we enjoy today when they were children, they all knew something valuable:  to have friends is to be one.

Andrée remained forever in the gratitude of that American soldier who at the close of the war in 1944/1945 rolled into her town on a tank, similar to the tank known as “One Charlie” which sits on the coastal dune of Graye-sur-Mer, a site she and I visited often on our walks.  That soldier lifted Andrée up on to the top of his metal beast, taking her little outstretched hands and whisking her atop his char, and handing her the very first chocolate bar she had ever tasted.  “It tasted like freedom” she used to say of that Hershey’s bar.  Her gratitude for that soldier’s kind smile and insistent demeanor, her desire to pay forward the kindness he had shown her which she was in no position to reciprocate, was to my direct benefit.  While she never knew his name, and neither shall I, I too am grateful for his act of selflessness and generosity.  I am keenly aware of the liberation that he represented to young Andrée.  He will never know how much he touched her life, or mine.  That young soldier must have been about the age that I was when I first met Andrée, that is to say, hardly in his twenties.  I wonder if Andrée saw in me the man that he had been almost fifty years earlier.  Andrée, as Soraya explained to me today, very much felt as though I was her one special American boy.  Andrée, with the same patient determination, heaped on me all of the thanks that she had never been able to give that young man a half century earlier.

Andrée, who we both agreed was not gifted in letter writing, and often felt that she could not afford the overseas phone calls with us both that she likely would have wanted to make, somehow never closed shut that little spot she held in her heart for us.  Andrée had told Soraya over the years of our adventures together, and the trips that she had made to New York, and Boston, Philadelphia and Washington when she came to visit me at my first apartment in New Jersey.  She had told of the visit with my family in Maine for Christmas that one year.  She loved the majesty of the full-house decorations my Mother displayed, and quietly wished for a set of china with the holiday theme like Mom used in her kitchen that time of year.  We took many wonderful photos during her visit with us, one of which was a funny cliché of the two of us, each dressed in a Victorian winter pajama, the striped dressing gown that one thinks of as ‘Ma in her kerchief and Pa in his cap’ ready to tell the tale of the Night Before Christmas.  What I didn’t know was that Andrée had framed that silly snapshot and had it hanging on her wall in her Norman home all the rest of her years.

Just a few years ago, Soraya told me this morning as we spoke, she had invited Andrée to come and visit her in Australia where she was stationed for work at the time.  “Ah, Soso”, she said, “I have to go visit my James again too!”  She didn’t make it here, but I sure wish with all of my heart that she had.  To have had that opportunity to sit, and talk, and share in the fellowship, that eternal friendship, and to hear her again tell me about that American soldier who lifted her by her tiny, outstretched arms toward the light of Liberty, I would have given all that I have to do that.  While I haven’t heard Andrée’s voice in a very long time, today, my new friend Soraya brought that voice back to me, albeit vibrating quietly beneath the surface of the technology that allowed us to meet in the first place.  It was, indeed, a wonderfully faint conversation between two hearts.  I hope that Andrée’s, like mine, was filtering out the world’s random noise and was listening.  Thank you, Soraya, for being her messenger.

Traditional Holiday at an Un-traditional Time

November 26, 2020

Covid-19 has consumed the entirety of 2020.  At this house, at least, we started a good solid quarantine in early March.  We had our last dinner out at the Cheesecake Factory (but did not order dessert, how stupid were we!?) in late February.  We did a good pantry shop in mid-March, which was a typical thing for us to do since my New England roots run deep and we always have apocalyptic pantry planning in case a snow storm comes in and blocks everything for any length of time, and filled up on everything that we might need for an extended stay at home.  We started figuring out how to order groceries online and have them placed in our car trunk so as to avoid contact with people.  I am convinced that the untrained store clerks who make ‘reasonable substitutions’ to my orders are not just being passive aggressive by sending ‘something green’ (often unidentifiable) when a squash was ordered, but that they want me to hone my skills for the tv sensation, Chopped, and its mystery basket of ingredients!

We have had friendly visits with friends who sat at the picnic table in our yard as we greeted them warmly from the balcony above.  We have increased the amount of time that we spend on the phone talking with people, but we have not joined the facetime craze, trusting instead that we still have an adult-sized dose of object permanence.  We are ok with having to associate a person’s voice with an image we have stored in our memory of what the person looked like.  I do all of my work remotely with the help of several great assistants.  In short, we haven’t had contact with ‘real people’ in nearly nine months.  And we are tired of it to some extent, but grateful for an ample book collection and Netflix in three languages.

            In the past nine months, though, we have also witnessed from the inside of the house, or from the car radio, an entire Presidential campaign season.  In this case, there is a pandemic raging out of control in Wisconsin, with very little political will to effect any real change; our alt-right-leaning legislature is opting instead to protect ‘free-dumb’, just like their cult leader at the White House has been demanding.  If one suggests to some from ‘that side of the aisle’ that we need to celebrate our nations’ holidays differently this year to keep each other safe, one is greeted with calls not to be condescending and elitist, to respect opposing opinions even if we don’t agree, and most of all, not to infringe upon the God-given right to celebrate en masse without ‘living in fear’.  Don’t make the mistake of pointing out that we lost some three thousand souls on 9-11 and that forever changed our country, and that we have already lost over a quarter of a million people to this virus.  That mistake might just get you ‘unfriended’ from social media sites!  Covid-19 is not just another flu, even if we wish it so.  (I also point out that my hometown has about 2800 residents at present, and the calculate risk that some 2% of them might die of the disease is 56 people—no one at home is willing to tell me which 56 should die due to poor choices at the holiday, especially when I remind people that while they would never put themselves on that self-imagined list, they may be on someone else’s!)  All of these arguments about acceptable level of threat sound nice and logical, except for the fact that they are not based in science or reality.  Those contentions reflect also a level of selfishness that is rather unparalleled.  Nothing says I love you and you matter to me at the Holidays more than demonstrating that you don’t care if they live or die, as long as the turkey wasn’t dry and there was plenty of pie to go around!  To be honest, I do not understand how people have become so callous and uncaring for even the people they profess to love the most.

            That said, I am here to tell you that if you choose to host a very socially distanced holiday this year, inviting to the table only those who live in your immediate household, you will indeed survive the experience.  One can not hide behind ‘tradition’ as way to shortcut cogent thinking!  Stay home.  Call your loved ones and eat the whole damned pie yourself.  You will survive.  Traditions (sometimes known as peer pressure from dead people) change and evolve over time; they can even be put on hold.

            I was away in France when I was a Junior in college.  Swept up in the strong desire to host a typical Thanksgiving, while at the same time seeking to blend my new friends in to the traditions we hold dear in the United States, I organized a bit of a party with two of the other kids from the States and we invited a number of our friends from the French fac to join us.  We went big on it.  We found a turkey to roast at a Breton butcher shop.  I made a pumpkin pie from an American-style pumpkin that I found being sold at an American ‘fair’ being held for ‘Halloween’ out by the Eiffel Tower.  Another friend brought ingredients to make our own homemade hand-churned butter to go on the yeast rolls she had made.  We even served a fresh cranberry jelly (from cranberries we way over paid for at an import American shop, since cranberries are almost unattainable in France) to complement the yams (bought from a vendor I knew near Les Halles who said he could get them for me if I ordered them well in advance—he found a farmer near Reims, where Champagne comes from, who grew them in small numbers), the potatoes, the peas and other side dishes we made.  What we had not anticipated was the clash between the two cultures that would ensue!

            The French have very strict (read: pathological) rules about what food items go with what food items.  Pumpkin is a savory item, like all squashes.  It is never eaten as a sweet dessert.  Sacré Bleu!  Everything on one plate, after being served family style?  Mon Dieu!  Cranberries, those are ‘sweet’ and should never be eaten with anything savory.  They are a ‘fruit’ after all.  Ce n’est pas possible!  Well, we made progress, my American friends and I, in convincing our French friends that pumpkin could in fact be a sweet, and no one turned down the whipped cream (crème Chantilly, as the French call it actually has more sugar in it than our version, which is weird given the size of your typical American eater!).  Our French friends insisted however that they would not eat the cranberries, and stated that jellied berries were meant only to be smeared on one’s morning toast and dunked in to coffee.  Unwilling to relent, one friend asked that I make small doggie bags (also not a French concept) of cranberry jelly so that they could do just that.  Friday morning, I got some seriously hilarious phone calls:  “Oh my god, are you trying to kill us?  Do you know how sour those berries are?  Do you know that they do not at all go with coffee!?  I had to throw my breakfast in to the trash!”  Well, ummm, yeah.  You were warned, but you knew better!

            I was so terribly sad that I could not be at home with my family for a traditional Thanksgiving holiday that my only partially successful attempt to host a ‘real Thanksgiving’ for my French friends left me quite depressed about the whole idea.  I spent the following day baking cookies and drinking a healthy amount of vodka to get over the pain.  I suspect the vodka was more helpful than the cookies.  In any case, that Thanksgiving was the first major holiday for which I was unable to be with family.  I cried a bit.  I had several times invited others to join our family for the holiday, taking friends home from college because otherwise they might have spent the day alone on campus without even cafeteria service.  Even then, it was a very standard American holiday, and everyone appeared to enjoy the experience.  My first holiday in France though?  That was an emotional bust.

            What I learned from the experience was that it wasn’t my friends in France who needed to change to help me get through the next holiday.  It was me who had to adapt.  That following month, I went to spend part of my Christmas holiday with my friend Uli and her family, in Germany.  We shared a Christmas dinner and went to visit with some neighbors of her folks.  I bought an extra bottle of the sour-cherry wine that she had served in aperitif to send back to the States for my parents.  (I saved the bottle after we drank it, and I put it out with my other holiday decorations each year to remind me of that first time I missed being at home for Christmas).  From there, I went via train back to France, but skipped Paris, to go to Brittany to a small town, Quimperlé, where a pen pal I had written to for several years lived.  On Christmas night, I sang O Holy Night, in French, at the local parish church, but only after having been told, “You don’t need to tell the priest that you are Methodist.”  We got a drink at the local tavern after the service, and the village clock struck midnight.  There was no tree, no presents, no holiday lights and decorations.  It wasn’t the Christmas I recalled, but I did feel quite loved, just the same.

            In France, people often give a box of chocolates to people that they care about but who they don’t know very well.  I came home from my holiday travels to my Paris room that year with seven kilos of chocolate (that is 15.4 pounds!).  I like chocolate, don’t get me wrong, but I had to give that stuff away by the bagful to anyone who would take some.  I made plenty of friends with my generosity when I made my way back to classes at the university in Nanterre.

            The following holiday season, I was in Spain studying and decided to head up to France for Thanksgiving.  But, by then, I had worked out in my mind the parts of the American holiday season that I valued most.  That boiled down to the feeling of being surrounded by loved ones, a good meal, and taking a day off from the regular chores of life and spending that time in reflection instead.  What really mattered was not the hours and hours of food prep, the number of pies, or even the decorations and other trappings of the holiday.  While I really enjoy all of those things, having to do without is not what upset me the most about being away.  What upset me, in the long run, was that I hadn’t resolved myself that first year to the parts of the holiday that did matter.

A new friend of mine, Soraya Winter, and I met a few months ago over the internet.  She was a very good friend with Andrée Harivel, the Norman woman of whom I have often written on this blog.  Soraya found me because of the eulogy I wrote for my friend, “Dédée” as we called her, upon learning of her passing.  I have been so pleased to make Soraya’s acquaintance because one of the lonely parts of being a student living and working abroad was the fact that when you come home, you are the only one to have had those experiences, to have made those friends, to have loved and been loved by those people.  While Dédée met my family at D-Day, when the world celebrated fifty years since the end of the war, none knew my friend Dédée as I had.  None had fallen so madly in love with this Norman woman who revered America ever since a GI handed her five-year old self a chocolate bar from atop his Sherman tank in the way that I had loved her.  That is, until I met Soraya, who had met Dédée through work years before.  Dédée had largely adopted “Soso” as she had me and was truly a wonderful friend to both of us.  Soraya wrote recently, “I am slowly getting used to the idea that Andrée isn’t anymore with us but regularly I find myself talking to her or crying. I am not crazy but it is like she is not far and sometime depending the situation I can hear her telling me “Allez, Soso, vas-y!  Profites-en, la vie passe vite…” (Go on, Soso, go for it!  Take advantage of the opportunity, life is too short…)  This is something that Dédée told me often also.  I too can hear her voice still; it is a liberating sound.

Knowing that Thanksgiving was an important holiday for me, and for all Americans, Dédée did her best that second year to make a special day of it for me.  While we couldn’t go to her Normandy home for a Thursday because of her work and my need to travel on an overnight train leaving the Atocha station in Madrid, we did make it out for a weekend visit, and invited her two sisters, Thérèse and Jeanine, as well as Thérèse’s husband Michel and their little dog, Mumuse, to join us.  Dédée and I got up early that Saturday morning and went to speak with her fish monger on the docks of Courseulles-sur-Mer, where we were handed a beautiful and fresh turbot fish that had just come in on the boat.  It has been gleefully swimming around the English Channel only hours earlier.  Thérèse must have brought the special turbot-shaped poaching pan to cook it in because I don’t recall Dédée owning one.  A turbot is a strange flat fish that looks like a sting-ray of sorts, and to poach it, one needs a shallow diamond shaped pan.  We also stopped by to get some belon oysters (which they all enjoyed; I had pâté de fois gras instead) at the oyster growers, as well as a nice bottle of wine from the vinter.  Thérèse brought the rest of the meal.  We sat for lunch at two o’clock and didn’t get up until it was time for bed.  The following day, Dédée and I walked to Banville to spend the day with my friend Marie Chirot, who said upon seeing me come in to the yard, “Oh, if I had known you were coming, I would have slaughtered a rabbit for lunch!”  No need to kill Thumper on my behalf, I thought.  It wasn’t a holiday like the others I had known.  No turkey, no pie, but lots of love.  Dédée had captured nicely the holiday I had been missing.

The following year, when Dédée and I got together for Thanksgiving, it was just the two of us and we enjoyed a nice bavette à l’échalotte together.  While it wasn’t the big holiday, it was just lovely.  We went for a long walk that evening on the Juno Landing Beach (which is how Courseulles is known today) and went for a ‘bain de minuit’ (a midnight swim, otherwise known as a skinny dip) in the English Channel before putting our sandy shorts back on and retiring for the evening to a warm shower to rinse off and a candlelit mug of tisane (a hot herbal tea made of linden flowers and mint) in the new chairs Dédée had commissioned be built earlier that fall, before heading upstairs to bed.  I lay awake that night staring out the skylight window in the room she gave me while I stayed in her house, thinking about my family back home.  While Mom was sad that I couldn’t be there with everyone, she was glad to know that I had gotten what really mattered out of the day, a bit of love.

Since my time living alone in Europe ended, I haven’t always been able to afford to travel to Maine to be with family for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter.  (We’ll talk later about why teachers are so poorly paid in this country!)  This year, regrettably, won’t be much different in that respect.  Owing to the pandemic, I will instead, since Gregory and I had Thanksgiving on Sunday due to a bit of a miscalculation (I had bought one too many turkeys for the freezer so the one that thawed too early for the holiday was made when it needed to be cooked!), have a nice Spanish Paella with seafood, shrimp and turkey chunks and chorizo (Spanish sausage, not the Mexican ground meat version) instead.  We will be here, just the two of us.  In quarantine, just as we have been since early March.  We won’t be traveling to be with his aunts and uncles in a Madison suburb.  We won’t be seeing Gregory’s cousins.  We will just be here, and then perhaps go for a drive to see the holiday lights people have put up around the city.  It will be different because it needs to be.  Thanksgiving REALLY needs to be different this year so that next year, when the holiday rolls around again, everyone will still be here with us.  It isn’t about risk, or freedom to choose or any of that.  Skipping out on the family gathering is a necessary evil this year.

But just like when I couldn’t recreate America while living in France, or when Dédée and I shared a steak in peaceful quiet, we can still share in the love we have for others.  I will begin my day with phone calls to my Dad and siblings in Maine and Tennessee; and Gregory and I will eat waffles with blueberries and maple syrup for breakfast and have paella for lunch/dinner with leftover turkey bits in soup with salad for dinner.  There won’t be a huge table set and lots of people, but the essential will be there.  It is just the way it has to be.

Be safe.  Celebrate in person with those who live with you, and give everyone else a nice call, or zoom them.  And if you have to go out of your house for anything, wear your mask.  I for one will be thankful that friends like Soraya continue to remind me of the happy times I had with Dédée, and will think of my late Mom who undoubtedly has already started making her mince pie, her cranberry raising pie, her pumpkin pie, wherever she is tonight, with her Mom’s help, as they celebrate with us from the other side of that rainbow bridge.  I hope Dédée is able to join them.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Reframing: Where are you From?

September 6, 2020

“Only after they charged him with the crime of silence did Babel discover how many kinds of silences existed.  When he heard music he no longer listened to the notes, but the silences in between.  When he read a book he gave himself over entirely to commas and semicolons, to the space after the period and before the capital letter of the next sentence.  He discovered the places in a room where silence gathered; the folds of the curtain drapes, the deep bowls of the family silver.  When people spoke to him, he heard less and less of what they were saying and more and more of what they were not. […] But he knew that just to utter a single word would be to destroy the delicate fluency of silence. […] He had thought the possibilities of human silence were endless.  […] how could he have forgotten what he had always known:  There’s no match for the silence of God.”

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

            I currently reside in a lovely old Victorian on the banks of Lake Monona, in a small city of the Midwest of the United States.  Across the street from my home, which every year resembles me more and more, is a public beach and park named for Bascom Clarke, a somewhat local businessman from the turn of the twentieth century.  A few years ago, my partner, Gregory, wrote of this park on his blog, Caffeinated Politics, and a reader from France, Helena, responded to his thoughts.  As it turns out, Helena is the great granddaughter of the Mr. Clarke for whom the park is named; she has lived the last sixty years of her life in France where she raised her own family.  Mr. Clarke’s home, which he abandoned upon his passing in 1929, still stands a few blocks away from here.  Helena, herself, though, was born in upstate New York, and later graduated high school in a place about twenty miles from where I grew up.  In fact, some of her classmates were the parents of people who went to school with me in the late 1980s.  Helena learned French as a young woman, much as I began to adopt that language as my other first language when I went away to college at the conclusion of my secondary education.  We have much in common and have since meeting through Gregory’s slice of cyberspace become very good friends.

            Even though Helena has been to visit us here in Madison a pair of times in the last decade, she and I share a largely epistolary friendship with the aid of modern technology.  Between emails and contacts on Facebook, and phone calls from her home in the South of France, we have discovered that despite the thirty years which separate us in years, our life experiences have led us, at least on a philosophical level, to inhabit much of the same sphere.  I am attracted to her most because she is kind, exceedingly generous, and has lived long enough to feel confident in herself (keeping in mind that life in June Cleaver’s United States of the nineteen-forties and fifties was not exactly designed to foster an independent spirit in women).  She no longer countenances some of the garbage that people in her life would shovel upon her shoulders and fiercely protects those whom she loves.  She is loyal and true, and I love her.  Even more importantly, though, she knows, as I do, what it feels like to be ‘from someplace else’.  Perhaps I should restate that.  She knows, as I do, what it feels like to have others remind you that you are not truly ‘from here’.

            I have lived in Wisconsin now for a bit over twenty years.  It is the longest I have ever lived in one town.  I have been in my current home for thirteen of those twenty years, moving here after the sudden passing of a dear friend who had remembered me in his Will.  Two years ago, I realized that I had lived here as long as I had lived in Maine, where I was a child.  The difference being of course that I have always felt that Maine was ‘home’, that place where I feel my roots when I visit a local cemetery and spend time with ‘my people’ who arrived in that town in the 1820s.  Maine is that place from where my values originated, and where I find my touchstones among friends, teachers, and others who showed me kindness.  Wisconsin has never been more than the place where I live, that place I went to when I wasn’t feeling like my hometown shared my goals and aspirations.  That isn’t to say that I haven’t made my life in this Great Lakes territory, owning a home, sharing life with my partner, Gregory, and working.  It is a strange feeling.  I realize that some of this is my own fault.  I often describe my not really fitting in with the locals because I don’t speak the same language, Midwest Passive Aggressive. I would say that I am cordial, but if I need to be, overtly aggressive and assertive, and this irritates some in my surroundings here.  I am not alone in feeling this way.  Author, Garrison Keillor, writes often of the Lutheran ethos which is pervasive in this part of the world, an ethos often anathema to my stoic, overly frank-speaking New England upbringing.  Were it not for Gregory, I have often esteemed, I would have no connection on a personal level to this place, and that makes all the difference.  I am not sure, though, what it would take to make this place feel truly mine.

            Helena and I have written about this feeling of dépaysement before—that’s how the French describe that sensation of not being at home, being in a foreign or different place, whether a good or a bad feeling; a change of scenery.  The root word of all of that is pays, which denotes the macro, the country and nationality as a whole, but also the micro, the very local, magnified in the AOC designations the French love to give to everything from wine to cheese help to recall.  The Spanish, despite their shared Latin roots, don’t start out quite so far from home.  They refer to this sensation as pueblo, which principally signifies the micro, one’s town, but finds broader meaning as patriotism and the people who make up one’s community, one’s country, the macro.  It is truly a matter of perspective.  To get back to the French, dépaysement, the loss of all of that, is also used to describe life in exile, which is often how one feels when not at ‘that place one comes from’.  Exile, however, is a word tinged with politics and doesn’t really fit that feeling of being without what the Spanish (and later similar to Spain in the thirties the American fascists under George W. Bush) call patria, homeland.

Helena reintroduced me to an author, Nancy Huston, who I had met on a pair of occasions during my time as a student at the University at Nanterre, outside of Paris.  Huston describes in a non-fiction piece what it feels like to be without ‘country’.  Huston was born in Canada, but moved as a teenager to the US where she finished high school and went to college.  She went abroad to France in 1973 and remained in Europe since.  She writes in a fine French and translates her own works into English, her native language.  Her 1999 work, Nord Perdu (in English Losing North:  Musings on Land, Tongue and Self) is one which Helena and I read together a few years back.  The North referred to in the title is rather like that one on a compass which helps to orient us towards our true selves. 

            I, like Helena, do enjoy having quite a lot of distance between myself and the past, and that is sometimes both a physical and a temporal distance.  It is hard this many years out to relate to people from ‘home’ at times since they never left our small town.  Their experiences remained (or at least appear to have remained) relatively unchanged and more importantly unchallenged.  Going back to my childhood home is often like time travel, even though I understand that not only have I changed but so have they.  What both Helena and I never anticipated though in our flight out of the pays was how very upset some were that I left the pueblo, the community, and didn’t come back to the area when I was done—former friends and neighbors have told me that it has felt like some betrayal.  By the same token, I personally can’t understand how they never had the curiosity to get out and see the world, even if just figuratively.  Oh, sure, there are those who travel, who go on cruises to places far from central Maine, but those ships are mini-Americas, colonies almost, and their passengers never have to confront anything ‘native’ or local, so it is as though they were in a hotel in their hometown, which in my case at least is also an impossibility, there being no rooms for rent in my Penobscot County haven.

            Novelists, Colum McCann and Taiye Selasi, have both written on this paradox.  McCann states that “all experience is local”.  It is that sense of being local that defines us as people.  Selasi bucks at the idea of describing ‘where she is from’ in terms of nationality or by those accidents of history (birth, education, death) which define how we usually present ourselves to the world.  When I lived overseas, I would often tell people that I was from the United States (never that I was American, because there are whole number of other countries which share these two continents with us) and that more specifically, that I was from Maine.  Even that meant very little to people.  This is where I would hold up my hand as if in a peace sign as a virtual map of the country and point to the top of my little finger as the bit of the US that sticks up in to Canada.  That seemed to help.  There is no way to conceptualize the size geographically of the United States or its grandeur in terms of origins and diversity of peoples.  I was reminded once in France that the US takes up the same amount of space on the television screen during the evening news as France does.  By logical extension, they must be comparable in size.  To my French friends, my telling them that the US is 18 times larger made no sense whatsoever, but that may have had something to do with France’s outsized sense of ego, culturally, gifted to them by their Sun King and Napoleon and others.  Explaining to people that I didn’t know how many miles separated my hometown from Boston because it wasn’t really relevant information, but that I could say that if we left in the morning, it would take four hours without traffic to get there.  Distance here is often measured in time.  That four-hour trip from Corinth to Boston was because there is interstate 95.  The six to eight hours that it took to get me from where I grew up to where I went to college was due not to the distance but to the lack of east-west highways between Maine and Vermont.  Inconceivable not to know how ‘far’ something is.  Every French kid knows that there are fewer than 100 kilometers between Paris and Chartres!  (Chartes, by the way, is where one goes to by Champagne—capitalized because that wine demands that level of respect–at the source!)

            I have realized over time that my sense of self, often tied to my origins, is really not even ‘from Maine’.  A few years ago, I went to one of the cemeteries in my hometown, one where I did not have family of my own buried.  It was on one of those country roads, off in a remote section of town overlooking the end of Appalachian Trail.  I was in my thirties at the time, and it struck me profoundly that I had never once traveled to this section of town.  How is it possible that in the eighteen years that I lived there that I had not even visited all forty square miles of that place?

            I was terribly bullied as a child.  I was different.  The schools recognized it and called me ‘gifted and talented’ at one point.  My parents were told that this might account for my inability to fit in, and also my strong-willed desire not to do things just because everyone else was doing them.  I had absolutely no athletic skill whatsoever, so why would I try out for the local baseball team with the other boys?  I wouldn’t look good in a cap turned backward on my head, nor would I ever get off the bench and actually play in the sporting event.  Why waste my time?  I didn’t like the idea of getting dirty and having greasy stuff on my hands (I still don’t), so why would I give a crap about what sort of engine was under the hood of the car that I didn’t want to drive in the first place.  (I still have never owned my own vehicle, and I am now pushing fifty).  I also didn’t fully understand at the time why I didn’t find it easy to form relationships with my peers.  As it turns out, I am a gay man, but then, I tried hard to pretend to like the particularly perky breasts of one of the girls in my class—I even wrote about them in my diary at the time, in case anyone ever read along and though differently of me.  I listened to family and friends alike decry the ‘homos and lizzies’ who were actively infiltrating our schools and indoctrinating us—though in reality, actually having a gay role model growing up would have been so beneficial!  I heard about the ‘faggots’ and how they deserved to be thrown over a bridge to their death (“Gentle Charlie” met his untimely death in Bangor this way, just as I was hitting puberty—the thought of which was terrifying to me since I knew something was different about me even then) because they didn’t lust after women like the other boys did.  I was hopeless in not understanding that a little conformity on my behalf might have made my life easier.  Except of course that that conformity would have come at a cost.  That cost, me, would have been too great.  I could have easily lost myself in others’ conceptions of who I should have been, but I would have been miserable.

            Instead, I became very good at ‘nesting’, building my ‘home’ around me and surrounding myself with those things and ideas which made me feel safe and valued.  I still do this, which is why Wisconsin feels safe but not like ‘home’.  Of course, that ability to shut off the outside and retreat to my interior space also came at a cost.  I have often said that the bullies didn’t only steal those school years from me, but also the years after I finally was able to break free.  I didn’t know any better how to form relationships with others when I got to college than I did in high school.  The difference was that I was free to restart and shape those boundaries on my own terms at that point.  Liberty.  I realized over time that my etiological story, my beginning, was really limited to that area around my childhood home and the places I could get to on my bicycle, those roads which lead to where my Mother grew up, the cemeteries where ‘our people’ were, and the stream where we could go to cool off in summer.  Mom and her friends who grew up only a couple of miles away from where I did referred to the area as the “East Ridge”, which references the horseback left behind in the last ice age, which was excellent farm land where our grandparents had settled and raised our families.  When I was a child, the Jehovah’s witnesses used to come to the little valley where our home sat.  Mom would talk to them at the door, but motion for me to go in and call Grammy, who lived a bit further up the Hudson Road from us.  Grammy would call in turn to her neighbor Chris and let her know, and so on.  One day, I answered the door to one of them on Mom’s behalf, she undoubtedly busy in the kitchen with her fall canning chores.  “You know it is strange,” this faithful follower said to me.  “It is strange how you are always the only ones home in this valley!”  If only she knew what our local phone tree looked like.  No way anyone else on the Hudson Road, Wright’s Hill or otherwise wanted to engage for an hour with these outsiders.  We already had the Methodist Church for that!

            What gets me thinking about all of this today is the question that Helena and I have so often been asked, living away from our place of origins for as long as we have.  “Where do you come from?”  Sometimes, we leave not to get away, but to remember, at least that is how it feels for me every time I read something on Facebook wretchedly supportive of Trump coming from kids I grew up with on that East Ridge.  What is hidden in that question, “Where do you come from” is the idea of “Do you intend to go back?”  But is that possible?  The Corinth I left behind thirty years ago is not the same today, and neither am I.  I can’t ‘go back’ because it no longer exists, except in my mind, and memories of that place sit dangerously adjacent to a whole passel of memories of trauma and pain.  It isn’t a matter of either space or time, really.  It is a matter of definition.  The other hidden question behind “Where are you from?” is in very real and often depreciative terms, “Why are you HERE?”

            A number of years ago, I attended ‘town meeting’ with my father.  Dad was having trouble expressing himself on the topic at hand, so I stood up next to him and stated more eloquently his case.  Town Meeting is a uniquely New England experience.  The townspeople make a public banquet and share a potluck dinner before settling down to discuss the issues facing the town.  People don’t miss this annual springtime event.  Before television and VCRs, it represented a way for people in town to come together and connect.  One by one, people will stand and tell the crowd assembled, “My name is Susan; I have lived in this town for 47 years.”  Duh!  Everyone knows that Susan.  You never left town any more than the rest of us!  But that indication that Susan is local, and that she has been for a long time matters.  When I stood up, after having been away from town for a decade or more, the moderator actually questioned me.  “Jesus Christ, James, you don’t even live here!  Why should any of us sit and listen to this from you?”  I replied, “You’ll listen for one because that is respectful of my father who is standing here next to me.  Furthermore, because of the three children that Robert had, I am most likely to be the one to inherit that home.  You can either deal with me now, or you can deal with me later when I return a bit more angry than the last time I left!”  That silence between my words, and the moderator’s resignation to let me speak were what made my tirade the most effective.

            To get back to novelist, Taiye Selasi, who has a wonderful TED talk on this very topic, what if we were to stop asking people the loaded question of “Where are you from?” and started asking them, “Where are you local?”  By this, she means, where did you have those life experiences which shaped you?  Knowing that I was born in the hospital in the city nearest to the home where I grew up is only important to the county clerk and the passport office, and maybe Social Security.  Knowing where I was born is not overly revelatory.  While I claim to be from Maine, and Corinth more specifically, what I mean, as I mention above, is that I grew up in a valley just off the center of town, that being two miles by bicycle from the schools I attended.  But is that where I am local, where shopkeepers recognize me?

            I was writing this morning with poet and novelist, Anne Britting Oleson, who still teaches in the school where I grew up.  (Her novel The Book of the Mandolin Player especially is a touching story, well worth your time).  She wrote, “I’ve now lived more than half my life in this house. People here sometimes forget that I haven’t been here all my life. BUT this house is two hours north of where I grew up.  There’s still a pull from my place of origin: not just the town, but the neighborhood–Grover’s Crossing, a name not known to people who didn’t grow up there. But the neighborhood is not now the same as when I was growing up, so the pull is from the time of my origin as well.”  (And in a lovely but shameless plug for her fellow Grover’s Crossing denizen, writer, Jim Nichols she points me toward his book Closer All the Time.)  Does being local just mean that you know the name of some place that is so insignificant that it doesn’t necessarily make it in to a Delorme atlas?  Probably not.  I reminded Anne that at the time she and I met, I desperately sought an exit strategy from the silent desolation of my very bullied existence.  My father’s aunt had been a missionary in Africa for several decades and had seen this in me, and connected me with children/grandchildren of people she had met along her life journey–I began a wonderful relationship with some of them. For $.55 at the USPS, some stationery that I hand-designed, and a bit of my time, I could leave Corinth and for a while be on the other side of the world.  I also found other connections at home–Mrs. Conner, a lonely older woman who lived further out on the Hudson Rd. made wonderful mittens to pass the time.  She was a bit shocked when I went to her in July to ask her to make some for my South African penpal, who had never heard of mittens.  “My Lord!” she said, “Mittens in the middle of summer!?”  We talked about how it would be winter (though never like what we had in Maine) in the Southern hemisphere, and that my penpal would be very grateful.  Mrs. Conner and I became wonderful friends over time.  I enjoyed spending time with her because she knew what it was like to feel alone, really alone.

Later, when I was in Karen (Larson) Clarida’s French class, I got a ‘penpal’ from France (a friend that I kept for many years).  I remember writing a blanket letter to the postmaster of a town in Brittany that intrigued me in one of Karen’s books, stating my name, age, and my interests and asked if the postmaster had someone my age interested in having a friend.  (I would later spend a summer with Delphine and her family in their home; my folks also came to know them when they visited me in Paris.)  By the time I got to college, my addressbook was filled with names and addresses of people I had never met, nor would ever meet, even via phone, but with whom I had shared a bit of my life.  From Hawaii, to South Africa, to Germany and France, and the most southern tip of Patagonia and the hills of Venezuela.  My sense of local included spots all over the globe that only my friends at the USPS could help me visit.

All of that said, what interests me about redefining where we are from is the idea that those experiences which formed us may not have all happened in the place where we lived and grew up.  Not only did people in Corinth recognize me, but by the time I was in graduate school, people all over the world knew of me, and shared my story with their family and friends.  My experience in shutting out the ugliness with which I was so often confronted in my hometown led me to open the door upon so many other people and places, people and places to which no one else I knew had access.  My sense of what was local was so much more expansive that that of my peers.  I went on to college to learn French and Spanish, and adopted the languages and cultures, integrating them into my very core.  In my daily life today, I bounce between the three languages (and at times a handful of others I master less fully) and also the ways which they allow me to conceptualize the world around me.  Learning a new language is, after all, learning a new way to think and be.

So, how does Selasi suggest that we move from the ill-suited question “Where are you from?” and the intended questions behind that to “Where are you local?”  She proposes that we look at the three Rs:  Rituals, Relationships, and Restrictions.  By rituals, she intends for us to examine the bits and fragments of our life that give it structure and meaning.  We look to those holidays like Christmas which were so important to my mother because they represented family and togetherness.  We look to eating around the family table and not in front of the television because it means someone loves you and wishes you health and prosperity.  We look to the small things like where you were tucked in to bed and which stories were read to you time and time again.  All of those rituals which make up our daily life help us to form that sense of self, and they are not the same elsewhere.

I recall being in France in 1993 at Christmas time.  It was the first time I had ever not been with my family.  France celebrates Christmas, but with a lot less commercial fanfare.  No one has themed holiday dishes, it is not a large day to gather as a family like it was at home.  It was a religious observance and people exchanged gifts but never in the amounts that Mom used to lavish on us.  I went to church that evening with my French friends, who had arranged for me to sing O Holy Night for the service, provided that I not tell the parish priest that I grew up Methodist!  I spent an hour or two before falling to bed that night in quiet reflection about the loss of the elements of the day that my Mother would have loved the most.  She loved the ritual of the day—breakfast and gift exchanging at our home, repeating it twice more that day at our grandmother’s homes.  The day had its own life.

Selasi also defines being local as those relationships that we hold with people.  I can’t really say that I ‘knew Maine’ in the end.  I kept to myself a lot in those years.  I did have wonderful relationships with teachers like Derwin Emerson who allowed me to be me, and to explore my passion through black and white photography and the darkroom he had encouraged the school to build when the new Middle School was being constructed.  I was in the seventh grade and he allowed me to run that dark room by myself, trusting that I would work independently and honestly.  He treated me with great respect and kindness, and is not to be forgotten.  More importantly, however, was that he showed me that eventually, when I was old enough to chart my own course, that I could have true friends, people who would believe in me and help me to be the very best James Wilson that I could be.  Those are the relationships that Selasi refers to in her three-step test toward defining one’s origins.

Lastly, Selasi speaks of the restrictions that life puts on us, those things that are barriers and shape the contours of the world in which we live and experience life on a personal level.  There is a whole movement on the internet, “It gets better”, for kids like me today.  I am fortunate to have had a strong sense of self and never once thought of self-harm or ending it all; not all were so lucky.  For me, I was limited by my lack of mobility.  I have always had the kind of mind which raced in all sorts of directions; driving a car requires me to settle down and focus on one thing only.  I am quite content travelling, but equally as happy to be at home by myself.  Even as I sit here to type, I am planning in my mind the pasta dish using the arrabbiata sauce that I created yesterday from the tomatoes and basil that a neighbor lady gave me, while at the same time contemplating a visit to an apple orchard because apple season is the best time of the year.  I hear a symphony by Albeniz in the background, and a song by latino crooner Pablo Alboran singing over the top of it all.  It is as though there are several tracks playing at the same time in the soundtrack of my mind.  In real terms, in growing up, my lack of mobility meant I just didn’t go any where.  My parents never had to have a curfew for me because they knew where I was—I didn’t get invited to things with the other kids at school very often.  I most often heard of things the following day after it had taken place.  That was a form of destruction all of its own.  Where my folks could find me easily was up in my room rage-playing the piano or reading a book!  I was also restricted by my unnerving desire not to be like everyone else, by being gay, by being smart in ways the other kids (and often teachers, who could be worse bullies that my peers in fact) didn’t understand, by being able to see the ‘big picture’ when all that was being asked of me was the most obviously mundane of detail.

All of these things—my rituals in life, those relationships that I did manage for form, and the things that restricted me and my personal sense of liberty—made me who I am today.  And my story is uniquely mine.  I have hundreds of photos of places that I visited when I was a young man, photos which to this day I am the only one to have ever seen because I didn’t grow up in the cellphone age and inflict all of those pictures on friends and family on a three inch screen!  What my experiences did also were to define for me where I am local—where do I find myself truly at home.  I am from those places where people care for each other in hard times, where a good meal means more than just satisfying hunger but also that you are loved.  I think this is why I felt so at ease when I was living in Basse Normandie in a small town on the coast with my friend Andree Harivel, who passed away earlier this summer.  She and I were not ‘from the same place’ but her life experiences and mine led us to inhabit the same sphere.  Being in her presence all the way across the ocean from where my story began felt just like the times I spent living with my Mother’s rituals.  The restrictions of space and elements of my being which didn’t matter to her at all were lifted for the brief time we were friends and wandering the coast of France in search of others who could tell me their personal story of growing up in the War.  I am from a place where books and letters between friends are essential travel tokens, lifting me up from one place and placing me back down in a spot where my personal happiness is possible.  I am from all of those places where the silence between the notes of music is what makes the fullness of sound rich and meaningful.  I am from a time and a place which no longer exists, but one which is still distinctly mine.  I thank you for finding me here in this place where you can give yourself over entirely to commas and semicolons, to the double space after the period and before the capital letter of the next sentence.  I am grateful that you have come looking for me in that space where the silence has gathered.  I invite you to come and join me here, and often.