When the ear-piercing screech of metal upon metal engaging the powerful brakes and the bursting release of air simultaneously reach our ears, the train arrives at a full stop. We hear the muffled voice of the conductor announcing an inaudible but expected phrase and the double doors slide open. A crowd exits, jostling shoulder to shoulder with the crowd entering. Sharp elbows jabbing as feet compete for space during the transfer.
Distancing myself from the acrid smell of the body to my left, I turn my head to the right and that’s when I see him. I recognize the face of this man leaning in toward the pole he grasps for purchase and I take surreptitious glances at him as he reads a book he’s carried onto the train. The indifference displayed by our fellow riders interests me. Either I’m the sole passenger in the car who recognizes the man, or they’re so accustomed to seeing famous people on their commutes that they no longer look. His crimson scarf juxtaposed against the subtlety of his auburn hair and neutral colored clothing says something about him—the vibrant slash of color reveals an artistic flair.
His haunting song is dancing through the crowded rooms of my mind and I’m slightly awestruck. My bold son laughs at me, approaches the man, and points in my direction. The man turns to me and smiles. My cheeks flush with heat. Moments later, I’m shaking his warm, ungloved hand. His hushed voice in this loud car reveals a humble nature. As I recall the Austin City Limits concert he performed with a group of disabled children, his eyes begin to twinkle. It’s a concert he is distinctly proud of and he thanks me for my praise and recollection of it. The sides of his mustached mouth raise in an expression of pleasure and I can’t help but smile in delight at his graciousness—and the lilt of his Irish accent. As I hear the screech of the brakes re-engage, I rewind the song that’s just reached its end in my head and then push repeat before gliding through the double doors.
by Sonja Martineau
Reflections of a 21st Century Catholic
Throughout the years that I watched her evolve, I never imagined the religious influence of my mother passed down through two generations would have had such a profound impact on this one child. Four grandchildren in church, two passively playing, one actively listening, and one in constant not-so-quiet motion. Each present for the same experience, each reaching a different conclusion. What compelled my niece to become a student of faith while my youngest son became an atheist? She alone was captivated. Was it the lure of her visceral experience? The warm glow of twenty candles flickering on the altar, the hypnotic scent of the incense, the haunting, glorious pitch of the organ notes, the almost flavorless but familiar thin wafer as it melted on her tongue, or the quiet murmur of a crowd in prayer? Which sensation caught her notice? Or was it, perhaps, the totality of the experience as each struck her simultaneously?
One of the most selfless people I know, Ann-Marie’s commitment to practicing a loving and pious life is admirable and at times, astonishing to me. She put herself through graduate school working as a nanny and is now a practicing speech-language pathologist employed by a non-profit agency—most certainly for much less money than she is worth. Despite her kind and generous nature, she can also smite a person with one pointed, killer glare—a talent that first presented itself when she was a toddler—something she uses now almost exclusively to make us laugh.
Ann-Marie is one of those rare individuals who gives every undertaking one hundred and ten percent commitment. A recent example was her first knitting project—a baby hat that looks like a strawberry. As her mother knit in circles and I dropped and added stitches willy-nilly, this young woman’s work was well done from the first loop. Despite this tendency toward perfectionism, she is a truly fun person. A few years ago, she hosted a “Downton Abbey” party, mailing hand engraved invitations with menus—which I’m certain closely resembled something the British sent to one another in the early part of the last century—requesting that we attend in attire appropriate to the era. She made every British afternoon tea food item herself and all of it was divine. For Halloween during her high school days, she once dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from the film Pirates of the Caribbean and I remember her make-up being so flawless that to this day there remains a vision in my head of her as a Johnny Depp doppelganger.
In my observation, Ann-Marie lives a comparably ordinary life, but she walks through it with extraordinary faith. Her steadfast commitment and obligation to her religion never wavers. I am in awe and at times, puzzled by her devotion to the church and specifically, to Catholicism. Curious as to what continues to draw her to the Catholic faith, I asked her, “Why this faith over Protestant or Buddhism?” To my surprise, she stated several reasons.
First, she observes that there is likely something fact-based in every religion, but Catholicism “stands out” for her because “it is the only religion founded by God; it is Jesus’ faith.” I wondered where Ann-Marie had gleaned this from and discovered a similar sentiment on U.S. Catholic magazine’s website, “Faith in Real Life” which stated; “Jesus may have been Jewish, but his universal message and vision are reflected in the very definition of the word ‘catholic’.” (Miska) I found her next reason to be amazingly self-reflective. She told me that her faith furnishes her with her “identity.” To help me understand, she made the comparison of career—an “identifier” for many of us—and stated that the issue is one of transience. She could become sick or injured in some way that would strip her of her career but being a “child of God” provides her with an everlasting identity and as “someone worth dying for” it also provides dignity. She asserts that the sacraments offered by the Catholic religion (Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation) have given her the strength to live in this society as the person she believes she was “created [by God] to be.” She further explained that confession is not punitive, but a blessing (not exactly my experience in 1965, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day). Sin is impossible for humans to avoid, but confession (the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation) allows us to seek forgiveness and “partake in God’s divine mercy.”
Believing that I had a better understanding of her reason for Catholicism, in particular, I then wondered (and asked) what she felt was the greatest obstacle or difficulty facing practicing Catholics today. Her response was that “our culture is having a crisis of trust” and that “absolute truth” has fallen by the wayside—something even a non-religious person such as myself can hardly deny, as I am continuously dumbfounded by the lack of honesty in American politics. She feels that the truth is in Jesus Christ’s teachings, which she identifies as her “absolute truth.” Ann-Marie further observes that we live in a “self-focused culture” with everyone being told, “Do what makes you happy” but Catholicism transfers the focus away from self and toward others. She said, “Jesus was controversial 2,000 years ago and things haven’t changed; he is still counter-cultural” but she remains undeterred. She went on to share one of her favorite quotes by poet, philosopher, and theologian, G. K. Chesterton; “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
Ann-Marie believes that the difficulty in becoming a practicing Catholic lies in the doing. Are we willing to change our lifestyle to follow this path? Are we willing to make the shift away from what we believe makes us happy and toward first considering the happiness of others? She stated, “It’s not easy in this society and it also comes with responsibility. To practice, you may have to change the way you live—you have to be committed.” Not only is Ann-Marie committed, but she finds the greatest joy in this aspect [giving to others] of her faith. I may not share her feelings about organized religion, but I cannot discount the powerful and beautiful experience Catholicism is for her.
I saved my most difficult question for last, but Ann-Marie was ready and willing to have this discussion. I queried; in our modern-day society, how does a member of the Catholic faith address its specific dogma regarding homosexuality? Since her mother’s best friend is a gay male who has become like another member of the family, I wondered how Ann-Marie reconciled her relationship with this man. I expected dichotomy and though this is present, I discovered that she is adept at separating her regard for a person from the disapproval of the activities that accompany their sexual orientation; which she believes go against the teachings of Jesus.
Ann-Marie enjoys her mother’s friend and her own gay friends for the humans that they are and is easily able to separate them from their sexuality. She brought it back to identity stating that “we are beloved by God, which is easy to forget” but we don’t have to agree with someone to love them. She believes she has a duty and that it is more loving to disagree with choices she feels are harmful to one’s relationship with God. She made a point of highlighting that the most controversial issues for the Catholic church—contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and divorce—share a common theme; sex. In her opinion, the sexual revolution [though in many ways a positive thing] has “become a barrier to seeing the beauty of Christ’s love.” Likely one of her most profound statements during our interview was that “there is no hierarchy of sin,” which is why she does not sit in judgment of others—she “sins too.”
Ann-Marie is clear about her path; “we are called to love and care for our fellow man. This is our humanity. We are broken and fail because we are not perfect.” On a lighter note, Ann-Marie concluded our conversation by sharing something she’d heard recently in Bible Study class,
“To Adam & Eve: You had one job!”
I couldn’t help but chuckle.
by Sonja Martineau
Miska, Rhonda. “Was Jesus a Catholic?” U.S. Catholic Faith in Real Life. Aug. 2016. 81:8 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2017.
Roden, Frederick S. Wild(e) Theology: On Choosing Love. More than a Monologue : Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church : Inquiry, Thought, and Expression. Fordham University Press, 2014. Pp 174 -180. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://0-ebookcentral.proquest.com.ksclib.keene.edu/lib/ksclibrary-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3239864.
Isolation, Evil, and Influence in the Character of Dorian Gray
The thematic thread of maltreatment and neglect throughout early childhood that runs through Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and to a lesser extent, Middlemarch is—in pure Oscar Wilde fashion—expertly flipped upside down in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The protagonists Jane Eyre and David Copperfield are both abused, neglected, and misused by adults, as is Will Ladislaw in the respect that he is cheated out of not one, but two inheritances. The three share the similar fate of growing up within a lower (Jane and David) or no (Will) class status and in the case of Jane and David, living at times, in abject poverty. The striking aspect of this mistreatment and poverty is that all three are not only sympathetic characters but grow into honorable human beings who show kindness and generosity to others. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde presents us with a protagonist who could not emerge from childhood as a more extraordinary contrast to these three. Raised among the upper class, Dorian Gray has been given all the material things he could want. Unlike the other characters, however, Dorian is isolated throughout his childhood and of the four protagonists, he alone becomes a sociopath who commits murder. And so, we are compelled to examine whether this outcome is a consequence of Dorian’s childhood isolation (Jane, David, and presumably Will all had friends), is due to some innate predisposition for evil, or is the result of the seemingly sinister influence of Lord Henry, who discovers and reinforces Dorian’s propensity for narcissism.
Though isolated in childhood, as an adult, Dorian forms friendships with Basil—an artist who asks him to pose for a portrait and encourages him to play the piano—and Basil’s friend, Lord Henry. Both men are captivated by the youth and seek his company. Dorian is no longer the isolated and lonely boy he was during childhood. He makes friends with men and women who compliment him on his beauty and treat him with what can only be described as adoration. Basil’s infatuation with Dorian is evident when he tells Lord Henry about him, “Every day. I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him every day. He is absolutely necessary to me” (Wilde 12). In discussing the portrait he is painting of Dorian, Basil goes on to describe him as, “a suggestion…a new manner. I find him in the curves of certain lines, in the loveliness and subtleties of certain colours…” (Wilde 14). Basil’s words are so full of passion that he has piqued Lord Henry’s interest in Dorian, though this is antithetical to his own desire to keep the two apart. Basil fears a connection between them, as he is fully aware of both the irresistible power of Lord Henry’s influence and a certain naiveté that exists in Dorian—making him highly susceptible to influence of any kind. The worst happens as the two become inseparable, with Dorian falling under Lord Henry’s spell just as Basil feared he might. Because his childhood isolation has not affected Dorian’s ability to form friendships in adulthood, it is impossible to consider this alone as the impetus for Dorian’s sociopathic behavior. It does not fully explain or predict the cruel choices Dorian makes later in the novel.
If we believe that what went wrong with Dorian was due to something innate in him, we must examine what traits within a person can produce a sociopath. The first and most obvious answer to this is some biological tendency toward evil—but is that possible? Are some people born to kill? This question may not be entirely answerable, though there exist identifiable characteristics shared by those who commit evil deeds. Writer Vera B. Profit describes evil in a way that perfectly encapsulates Dorian’s personality in her book, Devil Next Door: Toward a Literary and Psychological Definition of Human Evil. She states:
Evil individuals consistently treat others poorly, are exclusively interested in themselves and their welfare, are laws unto themselves and ceaselessly attempt to hide their strident failings behind a plethora of half-truths and total fabrications. (Profit 181)
Additionally, in doing her research, Profit references an analysis written by Psychologist M. Scott Peck, M.D. in 1983, who identified eight specific characteristics of evil:
Drawing upon his clinical findings and corroborated by copious amounts of multi-disciplinary materials, this study identifies the eight signs of individual evil: victimization of body and/or spirit, failure to recognize the separateness of others, their depersonalization, unmitigated narcissism, the unsubordinated use of power, scapegoating, lying, and the total inability to tolerate legitimate criticism. (Profit xii)
Breaking this down as we think about Dorian, we observe that he has both victimized others (Sybil, Basil, Alan, James), and been victimized not only by himself but by his own grandfather (Lord Kelso)—who caused the death of his father (Profit 96). Lord Kelso deprives Dorian of a family (his mother dies within a year of his father while Dorian is still a young boy) and as he loathed the father, he loathes the boy and neglects his grandson throughout the boy’s childhood. With regard to Dr. Peck’s “signs of evil” characteristic “victimization” (Profit xii), Dorian certainly qualifies as having been victimized if not in body, certainly in spirit.
The fact that Dorian is physically beautiful becomes the impetus for both his pleasure and his suffering as he grows into a young man. Without question, he suffers from Peck’s evil sign of “unmitigated narcissism” (Profit xii), which in adulthood, manifests itself through his outrageous “scapegoating”—another of Peck’s identifiable characteristics (Profit xii) as he is incapable of considering himself less than perfect; he is irreproachable. We see this most prominently when nearing the end of the novel Dorian blames his murderous behavior and the ruination of his life on Basil (for painting his portrait), Lord Henry (for the influence of the “yellow book”), the prayer (to swap places with the portrait), and finally, his own beauty (narcissism)—which of course is the fault of his parents. He is completely blind to the fact that just as he blames a trait within himself for his crimes, he simultaneously takes no personal responsibility for the fact that he is the one who has perpetrated those crimes. In his book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, Dr. Peck describes it this way: “The problem is that they [people with evil traits] misplace the locus of the evil” (74).
Wilde uses the painting of Dorian as a symbol and an object upon which Dorian may transfer his evil. Psychologically incapable of holding himself responsible for his cruel misdeeds, Dorian uses transference as a coping mechanism. Despite this, and on some level because he does understand his responsibility in performing the acts, he later attempts to reverse the evil by intending/performing good deeds—such as deciding to marry Sybil after he has abused her (albeit too late), and in choosing not to victimize Hetty Merton. However, it is only as he realizes he cannot control the portrait that he considers atonement, “Yes, he would be good, and the hideous thing that he had hidden away would no longer be a terror to him” (Wilde 182). This ultimately leads to his own demise when he believes he is destroying the evil by destroying the portrait, but in reality, destroys himself. In this way, Dorian absolutely “misplaces the locus of the evil” (Peck 74). Though initially in love with the image of himself, “Once in boyish mockery of Narcissus, he had kissed, or feigned to kiss, those painted lips…” (Wilde 88), Dorian eventually comes to see the changing portrait as a nemesis he must conquer. Profit speculates that because of this mindset, Dorian is the only person in the novel who could have caused his own demise, explaining the reason for it this way;
Dorian Gray could not have died at the hands of James Vane. That task he would have to perform himself. How could it be otherwise? He has victimized himself psychologically for the novel’s duration and consequently, he becomes his final victim also physically. Dorian finally attains the hardness of heart, characteristic of any evil individual. (Profit 101)
In thinking about Peck’s evil sign “inability to tolerate legitimate criticism” (Profit xii), we see Dorian patently refuse to accept it. One stark moment is when Basil visits him upon learning of Sybil’s death and finds that rather than grieving, Dorian has attended the opera. Basil chides him for his callous disregard of the young woman’s life, and Dorian reacts with indignation, deflecting Basil’s criticism, “You are awfully unjust, Basil. You come down here to console me. That is charming of you. You find me consoled, and you are furious” (Wilde 91-92). This is yet another negative consequence of Dorian’s opinion of himself as a perfect specimen of humanity. He believes that he has done nothing that he should be criticized for, “I am what I am. There is nothing more to be said” (Wilde 92). This serves his purpose, as it allows him to do exactly what he wants without regard to others. What Dorian is incapable of understanding, however, is that with each act of cruelty or disregard toward another human being, he is doing damage to his own soul. In analyzing his path to destruction, Profit explains: “Therein lies the paradox of evil. In annihilating others, he succeeds in annihilating himself” (Profit 103).
As a way in to what becomes Dorian’s rampant, murderous vanity, Wilde cleverly makes artistic references throughout the novel (beginning with connecting the themes of beauty and art to the central plot) and in Chapter XI, he employs the use of a frame (the yellow book) to discuss sculpture, music, painting, perfume, and poetry. Through the language and conflict in his one and only novel, Wilde expresses his own personal feeling about the arts—specifically, that art doesn’t have to explain itself. Soon, this attitude emerges in Dorian, who is presented to us as a physical work of art and whose adopted opinion (a Lord Henry concept) is that he doesn’t have to explain his selfish and harmful behavior; he deserves to act however he chooses. To Dorian’s way of thinking, his physical perfection is a gift to others, and he deserves the most sensational of pleasures—all without remorse. Additionally, Wilde’s theme of the superiority of youth and beauty is expressed as both a gift and a curse. The idea that the pinnacle of life occurs in youth is introduced and repeatedly reinforced by Lord Henry and once adopted by Dorian, it not only leads to his destruction but along the way, allows him to justify his most heinous acts.
In Chapter IV, we see a subtle example of the idea that Dorian’s beauty transcends decency (which also serves to foreshadow the horror that is to come) when Lord Henry says, “People like you—the wilful sunbeams of life—don’t commit crimes, Dorian” (Wilde 47). Dorian’s burgeoning belief in his own perfection is at the heart of his inability to look at his cruel and aging image (causing him to lock the painting away), which is ultimately his undoing. Even as he notices the portrait beginning to alter in a negative way—a part of him understands that it’s changing in reaction to his cruelty toward Sybil—he still looks upon the unusual situation in a positive light, as if it were some new benefit to himself. Unaware of how prophetic his words will prove to be, he determines to consider it a boon:
For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul. (Wilde 89)
The act of lying is another of Dr. Peck’s signs of an evil person (Profit xii) and Dorian reaches a point where he is not only lying to others, but in the interest of self-preservation, it becomes necessary to lie to himself—and with Lord Henry’s assistance, Dorian manages to convince himself that he is not responsible for Sybil’s death. He has embraced Lord Henry’s justifications for his cruel behavior, all the while unaware that his corruption is entertainment for Lord Henry. His friend has no remorse for the negative impact and chaos he has caused to Dorian’s life. We see this as he observes Dorian’s first stirrings of love toward Sybil:
He was conscious—and the thought brought a gleam of pleasure…that it was through certain words of his…that Dorian Gray’s soul…bowed in worship before her… The pulse and passion of youth were in him…It was no matter how it all ended, or was destined to end. (Wilde 51)
The power of Lord Henry’s influence is absolute and for what happens to Dorian as a result, we must consider that influence—at least in part—as an explanation for the development of Dorian’s unchecked narcissism. We must not, however, presume that this influence is the sole reason for Dorian’s undoing. Dr. Peck’s assumption of “unsubordinated use of power” (Profit xii) as a character trait of an evil person, is something not only exhibited by Lord Henry, but something we see exerted repeatedly by Dorian himself. His power lies in his physical perfection, and it is likely that Dorian was aware of the influence of his own beauty before he met Basil and Lord Henry. Still, it is their behavior toward his beauty that is the catalyst for the extraordinary narcissism that is ultimately Dorian’s undoing.
Throughout the progression of Dorian’s descent into complete madness, we observe as he becomes increasingly indifferent to others. We see it when—after watching Sybil’s disastrous stage performance—Dorian exclaims, “You have killed my love” (Wilde 74) and later, “She is nothing to me now” (Wilde 79). That these statements are made within hours of Dorian proclaiming his love for Sybil to Lord Henry, is a portent of his emerging shallowness and pronounced self-interest. This speaks to Dr. Peck’s “failure to recognize separateness of others” (Profit xii) in that even as he is emotionally crushing Sybil, he can think only of how he personally is affected by her failure. She is not a separate, autonomous being with passion and sorrow of her own; she is simply an extension of him—one from which he is compelled to disengage as soon as she displeases him.
Later, we see the most profound example of Dorian exhibiting Dr. Peck’s evil characteristic of “depersonalization” (Profit xii) when he blackmails Alan Campbell into disposing of Basil’s body after murdering him. Dorian says, “What you have got to do is to destroy the thing that is upstairs…” (Wilde 141). That he could refer to a man who was previously a close friend as an inanimate object is—for the readers—a profound and horrific confirmation of our suspicions; our protagonist has gone completely mad. It also speaks to Dorian’s inability to accept anything negative about himself. He must dehumanize his dead friend in order to minimize—and live with—the gravity of his actions against the man.
Even as we observe that Dorian exhibits all eight of Peck’s identified characteristics of evil, the source of the creation of this sociopath remains a mystery. Ironically, though the isolation of his youth has been overcome when he reaches adulthood, he eventually isolates himself—through his cruel treatment of others— as he nears the end of his life. Thus, were Dorian’s evil traits a consequence of his unhappy childhood? Does his eventual sociopathic behavior occur as a result of the combination of his childhood isolation and the influences of opium and Lord Henry’s persuasions in his young adulthood? Was Dorian biologically programmed to exhibit the eight signs of evil? Was it not within his control to reject the behaviors? Would he have developed all eight of these traits if he’d had a happy, friend-filled childhood? Or was it the culmination of the isolation, evil influence, and an inability to control the innate biological impulses with which he was born? Perhaps intentionally, Wilde leaves the decision to his readers.
Later in his life, Oscar Wilde encountered evil people—the ones who persecuted him for his homosexual orientation. On the stand at his trial, Wilde made no apology for his sexual preferences or his art, no denial or excuse which might have spared him the two years of hard labor that precipitated and contributed to his tragic and early death. It is our loss that this brave and brilliant man died so young, and without having written another novel—though it is impossible to imagine one that could surpass The Picture of Dorian Gray in its poignancy and artistic value. Wilde did not write his story as a moral comment on society in the way that Brontë, Dickens, and Elliot did, but from this vantage point over a century later, the essence of his message about the way that human beings inflict pain on one another is perhaps, the most vital of all.
by Sonja Martineau
Profit, Vera B. Devil Next Door: Toward a Literary and Psychological Definition of Human Evil, Editions Rodopi, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ksclibrary-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1789264. Created from ksclibrary-ebooks on 2018-04-25 11:34:51.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Michael Patrick Gillespie. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. Print.
Peck, M. Scott. People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. New York, Simon and Shuster, 1983. Print.
Une Autre Vie
Enthralled? Perhaps. There are surprisingly few words to describe a feeling that is beyond description, but I shall attempt to explain.
My love affair with all things French began at the age of fifteen. Perhaps it was simply because the language and customs were foreign and I longed for something different—something intriguing to dispel the tedium of my uneventful days. Perhaps it was because French, to my ear, is the most melodious language on the planet. Whatever the reason, until I had the experience standing next to the Seine, I was never certain why I became a Francophile that first day in French class. I knew only that the feeling was immediate, powerful, and exciting. It was not until some twenty-eight years of pining and imagining had passed before my dream finally came to fruition and I boarded the plane. Why I pined for France was irrelevant. I pined—this was enough.
We’d flown into Charles de Gaulle, about an hour away from the heart of the city and one of the most prominent landmarks in the world. I longed to see that famous tower in person. Despite the jet lag, Jennie and I checked into our hotel and eagerly left to explore the City of Light—a moniker coined during the Age of Enlightenment, a time when Paris was one of the most prominent hubs in the world for education and the generating of new ideas.
Over the course of our ten-day visit, my friend and I enjoyed a plethora of new and wondrous delights, but I could not have imagined the near out of body experience I would have toward the end of our trip. In fact, had Jennie not been aching to speak with her young daughter, Sophie, the incident might never have occurred.
My aunt was an experienced traveler, making her an excellent travel agent. She booked us into Hôtel Saint Honoré, a mere 7-minute walk from Le Louvre, one block from le Jardin des Tuileries, and around the corner from an outstanding boulangerie where we began our expedition. On a mission to eat and drink our way across Paris, the aroma inside the boulangerie that morning was like no other. To this day, the Pain au Chocolat remains the most incredible either of us has ever tasted. When on another day we happened to be in the vicinity during lunch, we enjoyed what I think of as a cross between a hot dog and a sausage, though exceedingly better than either, and encased in a small baguette. The crusty bread baked around the saucisse was fabulous, particularly when slathered in Dijon mustard. We savored every bite. Though we had promised ourselves not to eat at the same place twice—there are too many eateries to experience in this “gastronomie” capital of the world—we made an exception for what we came to feel was our own personal boulangerie. That, and a small bistro in Montmartre near le Moulin Rouge. We managed to stumble upon the bistro on our fifth day after visiting Sacre Coeur, and went there with intention on the seventh, after returning to Montmartre to visit the Place du Tertre a square constructed in 1635 and where the artists have been setting up their easels to paint since the 19th century. The bistro was small—maybe six tables—and served the most magnificent quiche and salad lunch, accompanied by a carafe of white table wine. The combination was heavenly.
Have I mentioned the ham? If you ever find yourself in France, you must eat the jambon! Unlike American ham, jambon is sliced exquisitely thin, is less salty, and can be cut without a knife. To this day, I’d import that ham if I had the wherewithal. In fact, upon returning home I gave up American ham completely—it is that inferior to the French version.
Although we walked everywhere, I gained seven pounds over the course of those ten days in Paris, for I had given myself permission to enjoy all that France had to offer me and without restriction. Uncertain if I would have the good fortune to return to my beloved city, it was the right choice. Some seventeen years have passed since that March visit, and I continue to wait and pine for the plane that will take me back.
One evening, as we were walking back to the hotel, we strolled by and landed in the most extraordinary nightclub in the city. Like Manhattan, Paris awakens for the evening after 9:00 pm. That night, the Buddha-Bar—still in existence today—felt as though it held two hundred people. It was the place that celebrities hung out. In the dimly lit, elbow-to-elbow space where we enjoyed loud Rock music and were surrounded by a plethora of languages, we danced with abandon. It was beyond exciting. We spoke with people from all over the world—we Americans appear to be the only singly-lingual people—and consumed mass quantities of wine and Gran Marnier before walking home at five in the morning. Never to be repeated, it was an evening of magic that remains embedded in our Parisian memories.
Another night, we entered a nearly deserted brasserie around 1:00 am and thanks to the friendly bartender, discovered Kir (white wine with blackcurrant liqueur). As we’d been undecided about what to drink, he requested our permission to surprise us—which we’d granted and did not regret. Being in France, I also found it necessary to experience the Gitanes (strong, French cigarettes). The bartender attempted to warn me, insisting that I wanted the American manufactured Marlborough’s, but I remained adamant. After delivering the box to the table with a book of matches, he returned behind the bar and waited—never taking his eyes off me. It was clear that he fully expected me to cough up a lung. What he didn’t realize is that not only does French blood run through my veins, but I’d been smoking for decades. When I lit the cigarette, inhaled, and blew out a slow, steady cloud of blue-grey smoke as smoothly as any Frenchman, an amused grin spread across his face as his brow lifted in surprise. He was, evidently, quite impressed by this American, for he did not allow me to light another cigarette for the remainder of our visit—coming out from behind the bar with his lighter each time I removed a new Gitane from the box.
Lest you think all we did was eat and drink, I must share that we did visit the Musée du Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay (a marvelous art museum converted from an old train station), Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, La Tour Eiffel—where with food never far from our thoughts, we enjoyed lunch on the second level—and Notre Dame Cathedral. At that breathtaking gothic cathedral, there must have been over a hundred candles burning. Incense hung in the air, and the huge nave echoed with nuns chanting some indecipherable but ethereal combination of sounds; it was magnificent and otherworldly. Aside from the chanting, Notre Dame held the holiest of silences. Soundlessness I never conceived possible exists here. Though neither Jennie or I are conventionally religious, we both felt as though we’d had a religious experience.
Still, the most astounding thing that happened during those short ten days, occurred while I was alone. Jennie had gone back to the hotel to call home and I had decided to continue discovering the city. I walked along cobblestone streets visiting vendor stalls full of antique books, pottery, and artwork. I stopped at a brasserie and sipped a café du crème at an outdoor table before strolling leisurely to the Seine to watch the bateaux. A cloudless, grey day, there was a slight chill in the air, though the rain from earlier had dissipated. It was likely an uneventful and perhaps dreary day for the Parisians. This was my thought as I approached Pont Neuf—one of several stone bridges that traverse the Seine. That’s when it happened. The unexpected and unprecedented sensation was so powerful that I stopped, my feet rooted to the bricks—stunned at its capacity to overwhelm me. I felt as if Paris had pulled me into its embrace and was holding me in its strong but insistent grip. I could not explain at that moment where the sensation came from, how it had managed to take hold of me, or how it stole the breath from my chest. Without warning, I had the most compelling and undeniable sensation that I was home—an experience that I’ve never had anywhere else on earth. As I stood next to the Seine peering down at the water, I knew without a doubt that if my passport had been in my purse at that moment, I would have tossed it into that cold, dark river. When I shook myself from the reverie, I thought about my two sons waiting on the other side of the Atlantic—remaining was not an option.
Over the years, I have told this story to many people. Some stare blankly at me, some roll their eyes or shake their heads, but three have described similar experiences, albeit in different countries. Whether it’s that we live more than one life on this planet, or that a specific place can be embedded in our genetic code, remains unclear. What is clear is that the dominance of my ancestral connection with France remains present, powerful, and persists across time—perhaps for even more than one lifetime.
C’est dans mon âme.
by Sonja Martineau
Not Your Bones
The cadence of your voice lingers over the furniture—your idioms pause for a laugh. The crater in the seat of your recliner waits, as the ten-point buck blinks back a tear and your twenty-five-pound striper shakes his tail in farewell.
Bees no longer buzz behind our house—your hives are deserted. Forlorn. Dandelions poke their heads up through your lawn and militant ant armies invade your walkways. You’d say,
“Sonofabitch!” if you were here to witness the weeds and sandy ant hills multiplying in the cracks.
Nuts, bolts, screws, wire, glue, paint, and nails—your workshop still well equipped, but wordless. Your self-contained archery sandbank is as silent as your longbow is bereft of arrows.
In the empty fullness of your cellar, the cold is more obtrusive.
I don’t visit the cemetery so much—you are not there. You are not your bones. You are the things you’ve left behind: the table I sit at sipping coffee each morning, the Skippy peanut butter jars whose tops you screwed into the underside of metal shelves to store your hardware, the long apron from the ink lab you donned each time you worked in your basement, the bird feeder you jury-rigged to the chagrin of the squirrels, the hundreds of home repairs you made throughout the decades, and most especially the echoes of your voice in my head.
You are not here, but you remain eternally present.
by Sonja Martineau
Well-traveled. It’s the one thing she has in common with most of what is left of my possessions. First appearing in 2000—replacing a fixture with much less appeal—Clara hung around patiently in wordless waiting for seven years, silently observing our life. Witnessing Josh’s teenage angst and mischief, overseeing Aaron’s breakfast utensils—invariably placed with perfect precision each morning in the same spot—she was present for our critical and personal moments. Dimmed to a subtler glow on evenings it was too cold to socialize on the porch, Clara eavesdropped on conversations about men whispered over glasses of wine.
Weaving around her red-violet and icy-blue orbs, her rust and green leaves, her blue, orchid, and yellow-orange petals, the silver solder outline creates an abstract and pastoral design. Fully lit, Clara exquisitely flashes her array of colors on the walls—commanding the full attention of anyone entering her room. In 2007, she presided over a Jewish Passover Seder, burning brightly as we recited the bracha rishonah. She observed dinners between the man and woman and sometimes, she beamed over their blended family of five. Later that year, she and I were on the move again, and sadly, she was exiled to a second-floor storage eave where she remained enveloped in darkness for an entire decade. Occasionally, she overheard conversations as yoga took place on the other side of the wall; but ultimately Clare was separated, alone, and barely considered by anyone in all that time.
Clara’s beauty transcends. Through each of my moves in which she had no place and was left idle in the dark, we both held out hope that one day, she would return to participate in my life. Her magnificence can never be completely realized or appreciated when she is not illuminated and so, Clara sat idle in darkness. She could not join me on my journey to the land of the sun and for nearly three years, wondered if she would ever see me again. To her surprise and mine, the four seasons beckoned, and we were soon reunited; though she spent that first year inside a storage tote in a cold, unused bedroom.
A year ago, our shared dream of a new home—one in which she could be returned to her proper place suspended from the dining room ceiling—was realized. She has been rewarded with a freshly painted home in a shade of rust that compliments her multi-colored splendor. Presiding over an oval table with the flexibility of a dimmer switch, Clara is ever-present in all her glory and delighted to accept compliments. At seventeen, she has hit her stride and I believe she means to fight me if I ever attempt to shuffle her off to another location—most specifically, one where she is not allowed to shimmer in the center of an exquisitely appointed room.
by Sonja Martineau