September 11, 2021

9/11 An American in France


Twenty years ago today, September 11, 2001, I was staying in Coudoux, a French village outside Aix-en-Provence where I was on a sabbatical from a community college in New Jersey. I had spent the day doing errands in French and not always succeeding.  I had had trouble making myself understood at the cheese monger’s.  At the Internet café, I had struggled with a French keyboard.  Afterwards, I took a bus to Aix and made my way to the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer, which holds the records of French colonies.  I was researching my family who had emigrated from Aix to Martinique in the late 1600s.  Using the archives isn’t for the faint hearted.  The protocol is complicated and outdated.  By the time, I had ordered the material I needed, the archives were closing, forcing me to put my documents on hold for the following day.

I walked to the Gare Routière and caught a bus back to Coudoux.  Exhausted, from speaking French all day, I grabbed a glass of wine and turned on the television, hoping to catch an American show.  I thought I had found a movie- some version of Godzilla with buildings crumbling, fire and smoke shooting from the windows.  But something was off.  The narrator sounded like a newscaster not an actor and the buildings were the twin towers at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, not the setting of a Japanese monster film.  It was 5:30 P.M. in the south of France, 11:30 A.M. in New York.  The towers had collapsed just 45 minutes earlier.  At that moment, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing.  Was it a joke? Then the TV screen moved to the Pentagon.

At that moment, Christiane, my landlady, opened my front door talking to me in rapid almost hysterical French.  Nevertheless, I understood that the film I had been watching was real. Terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and somewhere in Pennsylvania.  I was paralyzed with fear and shock.  My daughter has just moved to Manhattan.  My son lived in Philadelphia.  My husband, was he at home in Princeton New Jersey just miles from the disaster?  Had he gone to teach at the community college where we were both professors?  

Christiane grabbed my arm and pulled me into her house and to her phone.  I tried over and over but could not get through.  I called everyone I knew, every family member, every friend, every neighbor, but nothing.  Hours later, Christiane’s cousin managed to contact my daughter who assured him that she, her brother, and my husband were safe.

I don’t remember the rest of the evening.  I woke up in the middle of the night wondering if I would ever get home.  All American airports were closed.  For how long?  Would it be safe to travel by plane?

Over the next few days, French citizens reached out to me in sympathy, je suis désolé.  At the local bank, the teller told me, “We are all in this together; we are friends.  The U.S. helped us in WWII, and now it is our turn to help you.” These acts of kindness comforted and fortified me, for a moment, for an hour.

At noon on September 15th, France observed three minutes of silence for those lost in the attacks.  At twelve o’clock, I walked across the street to the village church.  It was empty.  I lit a candle and sat alone while the church bells rang.  I felt no solace, only isolation.  I still hadn’t spoken to my family and the images of people jumping out of windows replayed over and over whenever I closed my eyes. 

This was my second time living in France while my country burned.  During the summer of 1965, I sold Herald Tribunes on the Champs Elysée.  On August 14th, I picked up my papers at the office on Rue de Berri.  Images of a burning Watts filled the front page.  Shocked and frightened, I wonder what I would find when I returned home. 

Thirty-six years later, flying into Newark International airport, I looked out the airplane window and saw a familiar landscape changed forever.  Where there had been two narrow skyscrapers, there was emptiness. 

February/March 2021


Just a year ago, my doctor warned me not to go to Paris. I ignored her and went anyway, February 14-28 before all hell broke loose and the pandemic took hold.

Pantheon, Paris, February 15, 2020

A year later, I look out my kitchen window during a snow storm: a male cardinal searches among the sunflower seeds I broadcasted this morning.


The dilemma of the artist as a monster haunted me this year. Can their art rise above their monstrous behavior? In Edna O’Brien’s brief biography of James Joyce, she proclaims that, indeed, the artist must be a monster.

It is a paradox that by wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they glisteningly depict.

Vanessa Springora’s memoir Consent portrays her affair at age 14 with the writer Gabriel Matzneff then 49. She poses this question.

If it is illegal for an adult to have a sexual relationship with a minor, why is it tolerated when it is perpetuated by a representative of the artistic elite- a photographer, writer, filmmaker, or painter?  It seems that an artist is of a separate caste, a being with superior virtues, granted the ultimate authorization, in return for which he is required only to create an original and subversive piece of work.

Were these so called artists really creating great art or was Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, revered because as Springora asserts, it was original and subversive. Is that enough?

For me there is no question about Woody Allen. His predatory behavior towards young women has made his films unwatchable. Joyce’s determination to create situations that fed his writing seems questionable when applied to his wife, Nora. He tried to maneuver an affair between her and a family friend in order to write authentically about Leopold Bloom, the cuckolded hero of Ulysses.

Of course Joyce didn’t seduce teenagers although one wonders about his attachment to his daughter who later went mad.

I spoke to an Irish friend about Joyce. She believes he rescued Irish literature, stealing it back from the British. Serendipitously, a course on Ulysses was being offered locally. It was time I took him on. And so began my odyssey in search of “sunny Jim,” his family moniker.

James Joyce, Dublin, 1904, age 22

Joyce spends 644 pages following Leopold Bloom as he makes his way through Dublin on June 16 1904. Hard, hard, very hard. I fall asleep after an hour or two of reading. So much in each chapter, each paragraph, each sentence. Latin, German, French, Italian, Irish literature, Irish politics, Irish mythology, literary history, and more and more and more. No detail of Bloom’s day goes unattended from reading a newspaper in the outhouse to pissing with Stephen Dedalus in his back yard. I, sometimes, feel I’m in a storm of words without an umbrella. And yet. And yet.

Dear reader, I was rescued. Reading Ulysses put this past year in perspective. I could spend weeks on one chapter, the layers of meaning as dense as the everyday details of the characters’ lives that fill the novel. Joyce celebrates it’s minutiae, no matter how small- a fart, a smell, the taste of gizzards, the pleasure of walking in “happy warmth.” Humanity in all it’s glory and frailty.

First Edition, Shakespeare and Company 1922

Bloom ends the day somewhat triumphantly. An ordinary man saddened by his wife Molly’s sexual betrayal but raised up by that wife’s very words. Molly has the final say- assessing the day, assessing Bloom, and bringing the novel to a close.

Molly can take a dim view of males.

...itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering when do you ever see women rolling around drunk like they do or gambling every penny they have and losing it on horses yes because a woman whatever she does she knows where to stop sure they wouldnt be in the world at all only for us…

She takes her husband to task, citing some of his faults: how he eats, how he deludes himself, how he makes love. But she also rises him up.

…he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is…

From Joyce’s perspective, like Bloom, we all are heroes in our own lives just by getting to the end of the day. Now we’ve managed to get to the end of the year, at least those of us who are lucky enough to be alive.

Molly’s soliloquy begins with “Yes” and ends with “Yes,” an affirmation of life. I’ve heard the sermon from 7 Eccles Street home to Leopold and Molly Bloom. Yes. I’m taking back what I often ignored or half-heartedly attended to over the years- yard work, house repairs, painting, sewing, cooking, canning, writing. What was I waiting for? Was it Sunny Jim? Literature can do that. Yes!


January 1

A new year officially. For me, March 13, 2020 marked the “new” year when I rushed home from Ireland as Trump closed the airports to international travel. The COVID-19 year. Usually, I hold an open house, inviting most everyone I know. Fresh ham (the same cut as a ham but unsmoked) sauerkraut, and rye bread are menu staples. Although on my own this New Year’s, I still intended to feast on the customary dishes. Like my search for a Christmas tree, I came up empty: not one supermarket had the ham in stock. I panicked. I needed this tradition to make the world seem normal, even for a day. After much fretting and searching, I found a local farm that sells pork: they offered me a deboned shoulder. New Year’s Day, I did the honors, shoving rosemary and garlic wherever I found an opening. Mashed potatoes, sauerkraut. and salad finished it off. I ate and drank heartily.

IMG_8565Cherry Grove Farm’s Pork Shoulder

January 6

The world, at least my part of the world, went mad today. Trying to hold on to the presidency, Trump created a riot. Hitler accepted defeat and slinked off to a bunker. Trump got his minions to do his dirty work claiming the election was a fraud. He egged on his supporters to storm the Capitol Building. They succeeded: some with guns loaded, some taking congressional offices hostage, some forcing guards to barricade the Senate chamber. Windows were broken, guns were waved, and by the end of the day, two people were dead. The attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the election results failed, but striking fear into the hearts of most citizens succeeded. What’s next? 2021 is 1774 in reverse. The first revolution’s goal was to overthrow a despot- the British. This siege’s goal was to keep a despot, Trump, in power. Heart sick.

January 8

This morning, a large bird sat on the top of my neighbor’s tree. I was pretty sure it was a hawk, sitting, surveying, hoping for a meal. During breakfast, it moved to a large ash tree that graces my back yard. Most mornings, cardinals and sparrows show up around 9 to scratch at the broadcasted sunflower seeds. Not one. He soon left for better hunting grounds.

IMG_8637Cooper’s Hawk

January 20

Inaugeration. Is the siege over? Physically, the White House is now occupied by President Biden. As for the rest of the country- deeply divided. Trump’s supporters, still in denial, wait for a miracle, ignoring the truth behind his presidency.

January 24

I celebrated my birthday at my son’s house on the Jersey shore. Each morning with the temperature in the single digits, we walked along the 14th street beach in Barnegat Light. The only travelers in a desert landscape. Once on Eigg, an island in the inner Hebrides of Scotland, I looked across to the Isle of Skye. I ordered my brain to permanently imprint it’s beauty. These past few days, I gave the same order- hold on to this haunting landscape, to this untouched world.


IMG_862214th Street Beach,  Barnegat Light, New Jersey



November 1

Over the past few weeks I’ve worked phone banks for the Democratic Party speaking to folks in Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Often I only reach an answering machine. Sometimes, people hang up on me. One person wanted to help me find God. And sometimes, I get to share our mutual concern over the state of the world. Tonight, I phoned someone with a Greek last name. When she answered the phone, I said Kali Spera or Good Evening in Greek. She responded by asking me Ti Kaneis or how are you? After she learned my grandfather had been born in a small village north of Delphi, she told me that although she was 90 years old, she had already voted using a mail-in ballot. Poli Kala. Very good and very rewarding.

November 5

On a walk to the Farmer’s Market, the autumn light retrieved a sense memory. When I was in the 6th grade the school bus dropped me off around 4. Once home, I was confronted by floor to ceiling windows flooding the living room with hot afternoon sunlight, suffocating me. I wanted to escape the house or was it the family?

From the short story “It’s How You Play” in my collection Jersey Dreams.

The summer before, I had accompanied my mother, with my brother and sister in tow, to the lake.  This thirteenth summer I went on my own, picking up friends along the way or joining them in the des­ignated spot to the left of the beach, where anyone from thirteen to sixteen was welcome.  We spread our blankets in the direction of the sun, hiding our lunch in the shadow of a beach bag, and waited.  We waited for the older kids, mostly boys to show up; we waited for the lake to warm; we waited for mothers and younger children to go home.


Now my family wants to escape me. My younger sister and her husband wouldn’t visit on my terms: backyard, social distancing, masks. Puts me in my place. But what place?

November 7

Finally, Joe Biden declared President. Hope, Relief, Black Cloud lifted, temporarily.

November 9

Drifting again, playing too many computer games. An antidote- a walk through the university gardens. My friend and I stopped at Small World, a popular coffee shop. Even with masks and social distancing, the day felt almost normal. Back by noon with plenty of time to do “stuff.” No success.

IMG_4425 2
Prospect Gardens, Princeton University

November 20

This afternoon, I attacked my nemesis, Rudebkia during a three hour stint in the garden. Another sense memory, my old gardening self. I could feel her: I was her. The welcoming warmth of the house after a day working in the cold. It reminded me of Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. She describes herself as an historian of the soul. The women she interviewed said that when they relived their war time experiences, they could see themselves clearly above from the heavens and below from the ground. The sense of self drifts in and out but isn’t entirely lost.


November 21

In another attempt at getting back parts of my old self, I decided to take a ride down the shore to Spring Lake once knows as the Irish Riviera. (See my Washington Post article “Spring Lake, Splendor on the Shore.”) In the 1940’s my parents danced to big bands at the once grand Essex and Sussex Hotel now converted to condominiums. When I was single, I would spend the day on the beach, don a coverup, wear a large sun hat, and retreat to the Warren Hotel (now torn down) order a martini at the bar and for an hour gaze at the grass covered dunes and the sea. My daughter and I spent many a happy hour perusing the Spring Lake Variety Store, a traditional 5 and 10. I often took my elderly mother to lunch at the Breakers Hotel after which we sat on the boardwalk and people watched as she called it. Once my husband and I saw an elderly couple walking past Saint Catherine’s Catholic Church holding hands: we hoped we would do the same as we aged. This brief visit seems familiar and strange.

 Essex and Sussex House  Spring Lake,  New Jersey

November 28

Thanksgiving, fewer members of the family present. Nevertheless, shared stories, jokes, gratitude and remorse.


Most years, my children and their spouses celebrate Christmas at my house. A few weeks before Christmas day, we pick out the tree, decorate it, argue over the number of lights needed, and reminisce as we hang the handmade ornaments. When I realize I’ve forgotten to string popcorn and cranberries, I’m told nobody cares. A bossy crowd. This year, my daughter and her family couldn’t make it. They were deep into preparations for moving to another state. Then, my son and his wife couldn’t come because they’d been in contact with too many people: I was uncomfortable seeing them- that old Corona Virus interference.

Wednesday-Bah Humbug. Screw Christmas. It’s canceled at my house!

Friday- Goddamn it. I’ll do it myself! I went to my favorite tree farm. Not one left. I drove around in a panic and finally, managed to get the last one in town as well as the last pine garland.

It was a brute of a tree, 7 feet tall and almost as wide. I had to get it out of the car and into the house. I huffed and I puffed and I blew the tree in. Getting it up, just as troublesome. I wrestled with it and won. Now I could put on as many lights as I wanted without commentary.

Next lights, garland, and ribbons around the outside porch, surely the easiest task of the day. I hadn’t accounted for the length of the garland or the difficulty hanging it. Unwieldy. Seeing me covered in pine boughs and lights, neighbors walking by rescued me. The husband and daughter took over, thank God, fully masked and socially distanced. We celebrated with a Christmas toast as the sun set. The heart was warmed. The self regained.



I continue my morning routine: feed Milo, my 19 year old cat, empty the litter box, pet Milo for an hour, guide him to his bed, then a 3 mile walk, and breakfast with the paper. Some days I meander around the house doing chores broken up by any distraction that passes my way. The New York Review of Books on the dining room table captures my attention on the way to vacuum the sunroom. Twenty games of solitaire call to me as I drift by my desk covered with papers that need filing, something I’ve neglected since March. Old photos discovered in a folder occupy me as I move to sort out a bookcase.

IMG_8137My Greek Family in my grandfather’s village, Kastellia, north of Delphi

Late afternoon Milo time. Is it cocktail hour yet?

This month Milo bravely faced new obstacles. He is blind but could still navigate the house. On occasion he missed the litter box but not by much. He just wasn’t fast enough. Then he developed a neurological disorder which caused his eyeballs to shuttle back and forth. I assured myself that having him close and whispering sweet nothings in his ear would help his brain relax and his eyes would stop their mad movements. He never complains, not like me.

Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Friend sometimes a mediation on writing, on being a writer, and on teaching writing, ends with the last days of her dying dog. He became the true friend, providing an audience for her musings, her novel, giving unconditional love and support. Cats do have conditions yet Milo is accommodating and loving even as he suffers.


One social day in the middle of the month, I spoke to friends in Ireland, Oregon, and North Carolina, then, drifted outside to plant 60 pansies as the summer flowers fade. My nemesis, Rudbeckia or Black Eyed Susans, have decided my yard is their yard and screw every other plant. I pull and pull trying to protect my 30 year old Irises and Poppies. Sometimes I delude myself that I’m winning. That night as I lay in bed with the windows open, I heard a fox howling. Eerie.

On the 27th, I had a doctor’s appointment on the Upper East Side.  It’s been 10 months since I drove to Manhattan.  The drive was fraught with fear.  A generalized COVID-19 anxiety?  I had to park in an indoor lot.  Am I safe?  I was back in my car in an hour but saddened not to enjoy New York as I usually do: no walk across town, no visit to the Morgan Library, no late lunch.  But the city didn’t disappoint.  Driving down Third Avenue, the sky a pearly grey, the Chrysler building on my left.  Restored.

IMG_9598A Pearly Sky on the Upper East Side

IMG_8695The Chrysler Building

That evening, Milo’s head started twitching back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Nothing comforted him. When he walked, his head twisted to one side: still, he’s eating, drinking, and going to the bathroom. The next morning, I found him wandering in circles, his head cocked laterally, unable to eat or drink. He must be frightened, in pain. The vet and I agree this is no way to live. It’s time. We spent the afternoon cuddled together watching the 1945 film, The Enchanted Cottage.

IMG_8241-1Milo’s last day

My first day without Milo, an empty house. I enter a room expecting to see him. A terrible loss at a terrible time.