February/March 2021

February

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.

March

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!

August

A Respite

My reading this month included non-fiction, cookbooks, and audio books. To escape the ennui accompanying COVID-19, I listened to Provence 1970 Luke Barr’s account of a confluence of food writers in the south of France: James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Simone Beck, Judith Jones and Richard Olney, the sometimes cantankerous painter and cookbook writer. Although by all accounts his meals were perfect, his approach to instruction was to provide general directions such as how to make a vinaigrette and then list various ingredients for a salad, so readers can make their own adjustments. I decided to take him on using his instructions for Porc Rôti au Fenouil or Roast Pork with Fennel as the main course for a family dinner in my garden. We began with a traditional French appetizer, french breakfast radishes from the garden served with butter, followed by the Porc Rôti au Fenouil served with sautéed potatoes, green beans with thyme and lemon, and, finally, dessert, peach pie.

The pie is an adaptation of one I learned while living in France with family friends, the Brenots who introduced me to good food at their summer home in Sotteville-sur-Mer and their apartment in the 12th arrondissement in Paris.

images

Sotteville-Sur-Mer

My sighs, my grunts of pleasure, the closing of my eyes as I swooned over most meals amused them.   I ate everything they put in front of me: whole fish where I learned to use a spoon to get at the sweet flesh just below the eyeballs, wild hare with its innards made into a terrine, gamey yet fresh from the addition of tomatoes.  It took me twenty years to figure out Mme. Brenot’s crab soup and although mine is good, hers was perfection.

At that time, French husbands had one dish at which they excelled and probably the only one they ever cooked. For example, M. Brenot’s brother’s was a mousse of octopus including the ink. Not my favorite. But M. Brenot made an unforgettable tarte aux abricots. Finding good apricots in New Jersey is practically an impossibility. But Jersey peaches in August work.

My daughter and I have spent many a summer enjoying the sun and food of Aix-en-Provence, a second home. The meal transported us as food can often do and instead of COVID-19, the conversation drifted to good food and Lyon, the supposed gastronomic center of France. I had just finished Dirt another book about food and France where Bill Buford in his late 50’s apprentices at a Lyon restaurant.

The pandemic can be a time for regrets. One that haunts me is leaving Paris to finish my degree: my parents insisted. Sometimes, we find ourselves in the one place that is home. For me it was Paris. Everything fit: I was free. What if I hadn’t been a “good girl” and stayed? Would I have been a “good” French housewife instead? French women had only gotten the right to open a bank account in their own name, not their husbands, in 1965. I’m sure many households held on to that tradition for decades. I often railed at my mother for the measly allowance my father gave her: $100 a week for years and then, after I had left home, $200. She never complained. She felt safe after having grown up in an unpredictable alcoholic family. So perhaps I wouldn’t have been free in Paris. Although I have bragged to my husband that “I’ve been a good French housewife” whenever I’ve managed to use up everything in the refrigerator.

Later in the month, on my son’s porch in Barnegat Light, we enjoyed another bounty from my garden, all the cherries I had picked made into one pie. After which we took our traditional walk at dusk. “Can the French make a cherry pie Billy Boy, Billy Boy. Can they make a cherry pie charming Billy?”

IMG_8048 Barnegat Bay, Long Beach Island, New Jersey

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Day 4 and 5

Monday March 16

I woke up this morning remembering recent conversations with friends.  Sometimes, I say that I’ve been in training for the lockdown, having lived as a widow for the last 9 years.  Sometimes, I lament a life alone, not having that loved one in the next room.  Is it as hard to be alone as I claim, am I pleased that I answer to no one, or do I want people to feel sorry for me?  Why?  Perhaps, my desire for empathy is a desire to be seen, heard, understood.  Much of the time. I have kept my grief to myself, not wanting to put people off.  Who wants to hear about sorrow?  Maybe as the pandemic takes hold, we’ll all be immersed in it and won’t be able to look away.

To avoid these concerns, I went to the Delaware and Raritan Canal for a long walk, a breather, some peace.  But peace was difficult to muster.  People crowded the walkway and seemed surprised when I asked them to give me room.  Often I had to stand with my back to them which felt like I was shaming them.  Maybe I was.

img_7871-1Delaware and Raritan Canal

As three young men approached me on bicycles, I requested they give me space to pass.  They mocked me.  Got my ire up.  I threw back at them that I was trying  to protect them as well.   As I walked away, they laughed, shouting, “Talk, talk, talk” to my back.  Discouraged, I cut my walk short and retreated home.

But I had a plan: do taxes, clean sun room, correspond.

By the late afternoon, I had taken care of Milo the cat petting him for an hour or so to relax him, filled out an application for a census job, read the newspaper, faced time with family, called the garden center to check the availability of Brussel sprouts, and contacted the landscaper about putting in a garden.  Then, I relaxed into my new addiction, computer solitaire in all it’s variations: Vegas, Forty Thieves, Spider, Gaps, Mrs. Mop.

Tuesday March 17

Newly established morning routine.  First order of business is Milo: lift him on to the ottoman facing the couch, provide treats, apply blood pressure medication to his inner ears, more treats, brush him, pet him for a half hour or so, feed him, clean out litter box, more treats and petting, and finally, put him in his bed.  Next is a walk down the driveway to retrieve the paper, followed by a leisurely breakfast working my way through the Times.

IMG_8124Milo Bliss

Late morning, the landscapers arrived, reviewed my plan, a 10 by 20 foot raised cedar bed in the front lawn using organic mulch and soil.  I’m cheered by this return to vegetable gardening.

Although I haven’t done any writing, I did correspond with the writer’s I met in February while staying at the Irish Cultural Center in Paris.  Does that count?

Went to bed reading Samuel Beckett’s bio.  The description of cafes he frequented, the same as my haunts when I was 21 are bittersweet.   Nostalgia for hours of nursing a drink while reading, writing, staring.  But nostalgia has an edge, loss.

unknown-1Le Select Montparnasse

Day One and Two

Friday March 13 -Saturday March 14

This journal attempts to record observations during an extraordinary time.  Although the title for this entry says “Day One,” it is actually 207 days since my first interaction with the virus.  That day my doctor urged me to cancel my trip to Paris afraid I would be one of the now 5.7 million Americans stricken with the disease.  I didn’t listen: on February 15th, I landed at Charles De Gaulle airport.  My return flight was booked for March 20th.  I didn’t make it.  On March 13th, I raced home like thousands of other Americans after President Trump announced the closing of borders at midnight to anyone traveling from Europe.

Once home, I ran around the supermarket loading up on beans and toilet paper in a frenzy of ignorance.

The next day, March 14th, I faced my first day of reckoning.  Like many humans, my thoughts turned to vanity.  Who would cut and color my hair?  It was due.  My hairdresser had already closed her store but said she might consider seeing a few regulars.  I jumped at the offer, ignoring the risks .  These were early days.  Maybe I felt invincible.  I had been in France during fashion week when some Italians had been allowed to enter the country as Italy reeled from the voracious spread of the virus.  I had walked down the narrow streets of the Marais past fashion show venues bumping into people, perusing stores for hours.

UnknownMarais, Paris

 In London, I had been to the movies, to the British Library, the National Archives, spending whole days researching family history.

images-1Curzon Cinema, Bloomsbury, London

I was in Ireland just as Dublin shut down.

imagesO’Connell Bridge, Dublin

I had flown on a crowded plane for more than 6 hours and then taken an hour train ride home.  But I wasn’t sick.  So couldn’t I get my hair cut?  No, I finally decided, I couldn’t and so began five months of isolation and negotiations with family, friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, with myself on what to do and how to manage.

Paris Day 15 and 16

Saturday, February 29

This morning I woke up exhausted after a good night’s sleep.  Do I have the corona virus or is it the ennui I seem to carry around?  Usually it dissipates after breakfast with the residents.  Today, overwhelmed by fatigue, I spent the day in bed and didn’t join the three women for dinner.

I tell myself there will be days of isolation and loneliness.  But why is it’s happening now?  I have stimulating conversations every morning, gatherings with artists in the evenings.  Although I have dinner alone each night, I’ve been very engaged.

IMG_7479                                                                 The last bouquet

I read my blog on Greece, written five years ago on the verge of a Fulbright.  I describe two days of staying in my Athen’s hotel room emerging only for a meeting one day and and a souvlaki the next.  Ennui is no stranger to me.   My expectations set me up for self-doubt.  I romanticize those that seem to have found their place especially the Bloomsbury group whose work I devoured many years ago, in particular,  Virginia Woolf.   Her country home with her writing shed surrounded by beautiful gardens, long walks along the downs, afternoons with writer’s and painters reading, discussing.  But like Samuel Beckett, she endured days of doubt, of mental anguish and, then, a swing to elation.  Her solution was suicide.  Perhaps, my urge to live on an island is a strategy to force me back on myself, to find my place.

Sunday, March 1

Today I feel alert, confidant, at home in Paris.  God, these extremes are exhausting.  

For my last full day in Paris (I leave for London tomorrow) I plan to have Sunday lunch at La Rotessirie d’Argent.  It faces the Seine two doors away from the famous Tour d’Argent, and next door to it’s bakery, Le Boulanger de la Tour.  I pass by frequently crossing the Pont de la Tournelle over to the right bank.  One day, I stopped to buy mini croissants.  Ils etaient parfaits.  The idea of eating roast chicken on a Sunday afternoon is part of a long tradition of Sunday dinner with Maman in which I long to participate.

UnknownLa Rotisserie d’Argent

On my way to breakfast one of the administrators of the Centre Culturel Irlandais caught up with me and asked if I still planned to attend the book club she had mentioned when I first arrived.  I thought I could  fit it in with my roast chicken.  But this was no intimate group meeting for an hour, this was a formal meeting known as Cercle Litteraire Irlandais (Irish Literary Circle) lasting three hours with drinks, food, a program and over 100 attendees.  There were speakers including Deirdre Farrell, Deputy Head of Mission at the Irish Embassy in Paris, and Lara Marlow, France correspondent for The Irish Times, as well as mediatations, readings, and even a group writing exercise.  It was a celebration of International Women’s Day.

Lara Marlowe in her keynote address discussed three women who inspired her: Iranian Nasrin Sotudeh, French Berthe Morisot, and American Edith Wharton.  All three defied their respective roles: Sotudeh, a lawyer, represented women who refused to wear the hijab, Morisot became a well-respected painter, the only women to exhibit in the first impressionist show in 1874, and Edith Wharton wrote novels becoming the first woman to win the Pultizer Prize for Literature in 1921 instead of being a doyenne in her privileged social circle.  My question to Ms. Marlowe was where are the Irish women of the 19th century without upper class privileges who fought against stereotypes to become artists in their own right.  She and the audience were stumped.

images   Nasrin SotudehUnknown-1Berthe Morisotimages-1Edith Wharton

 Then we were asked to write about a woman we admired.  I chose Molly Daly, my grandmother.  She lived in Ireland for 13 years without her mother.  She returned to the United States only to be teased relentlessly about her brogue.  She married an alcoholic whose family thought she was “shanty Irish.”  When he died leaving her with two children to raise, she often brought in family members who had no where else to go.  When her children married, she moved in with them usually with no room of her own, sleeping on a daybed in the dining room.  And she never complained.  Her solace, reading her prayer book and saying her rosary.

IMG_7779

Molly Daly on the right