If we were having coffee, I would tell you how glorious May has been with its graduations (beginnings wrapped up as endings), breezes and flowers, and yes, even rain! The other morning when I saw birds whizzing around with big, fat worms in their beaks I realized how happy they were about the rain and it made it decidedly more tolerable!
When I began this year teaching in my new position at the seminary, I had braced for the challenge, the uphill newness of it all, but I never could have imagined the pride that has come at getting to know these students and having a small impact on their lives and ministry. This has been such a joy and yet, May has also brought necessary rest that I didn’t even know I needed. All of a sudden, the world seems lighter, more affable, with more space in it for creativity, thought, opening, and even play.
Lucia is thriving, too. She’s on a new formula that she’s tolerating so much better than in February or March. We’re steadily increasing her intake and speed, hoping she will be able to get more nutrition. We’re thankful for this respite, yet we know that nothing is forever or for certain. What we’re eternally grateful for is her sunny disposition through it all–in an overnight minor procedure last week, her smiles and giggles were so lovely to behold!
May is kind of the gateway to summer, so there’s also the fun now of expecting things. I put together my summer goals, which are quite simply fieldwork and revising my book on China, but I broke them down a bit on the whiteboard in my office. I realize that this time of year is so rejuvenating for me because it’s all aglow with ambition and possibility! Now if I can only realize these goals and maintain this steady pace of work and play throughout the summer.
On Friday, my husband and I take an overnight trip to New York City to celebrate ten years of marriage. We’re planning on dinner at the same French bistro I surprised him with last year. In truth, we’re forever trying to recreate our idyllic five year anniversary trip to Paris, which I’m totally okay with. I have the fondest memories from that trip and from ten years of marriage, with so many travels, our little girl, and a bright future ahead!
Perhaps because it’s a particularly gloomy morning here in Princeton in the dead of winter, or perhaps because the NYT’s thrilling 52 Places to Go in 2014 just came out this week, I’m finally wanting to return to those Paris files that never made the blog, and some of the best eating, sleeping, and reading that we did on site.
I mentioned in another post that just after touching down in the city of light my husband caught a nasty cold, and so we decided to forgo our travel plans to the countryside and spend the full two weeks in Paris.
And we never felt like we were missing out.
When we had to scramble to find another hotel for the time we’d planned to be outside the city, we stumbled upon this gem, the Hotel Sainte Beuve, nestled right off the Luxembourg gardens in the 6th arrondissement. Walking off the chilled streets into the warm living room with its burgundy and pink color scheme and crackling fire place afforded all the warmth of a cozy cottage, and the rooms were a soft mix of comfort and sophistication, much bigger than the closets you get in many areas of the city, featuring floor to ceiling windows, airy balconies, and spacious bathrooms with eclectic black and white tile. The staff spoke a myriad of languages, booked us at many of the local eateries, and the hotel even had its own fragrance, that we bought and often spray around our bedroom to recall our memorable time there.
Of course this experience totally converted us into Paris snobs, who were quite unwilling to venture too far outside the city center, much less stay on the outskirts. Why would we, when some of our best meals consisted of picnics cobbled together from local cheese, cured meat, and wine vendors, and then enjoyed on the lawn of the nearby Luxembourg?
The neighborhood had plenty other charming spots, including Cafe Vavin, where we’d enjoy heaping plates of charcuterie, foie gras, cheese, and wine around 5 or 6 pm before we’d enjoy a late dinner at the teeny, white-tabled clothed Le Timbre, or the bustling Julien Pattiserie around the corner where we’d grab an exquisite espresso and croissant before heading out to the day.
These were some of the cheap thrills of discovering the neighborhood around the hotel, but for some other memorable meals, I scoured the Paris By Mouth blog, which helpfully lists restaurants by arrondissement, and provides detailed, accurate reviews. This is where we discovered the delightful Semilla, in the much-adored Saint Germain de Pres neighborhood. The menu changes daily so each experience was different, but the food was rich, delicate, and refined.
Another great meal, or should I say the best buttery, melt-in-your-mouth plate of scallops I ever had, took place on a friend’s recommendation at Pramil, the tiny, yet cozy wood-beamed restaurant off the quiet rue Vertbois in the third arrondissement. If you go, be sure to make a reservation (we didn’t, and we almost missed out as it quickly filled up!).
Of course, the sights and sounds of the city nearly rivaled the food and the flavors–that first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower coming up from the subway that I didn’t expect to care anything for, the quaint courtyard and the sounds of the organ in Saint Suplice, the eerie beauty of the cemetery at Montmarte, dotted with the tombs of artists and saints, or even Monet’s sprawling gardens, packed with tourists, were as beautiful as everyone says they are. We can’t wait to go back and lap up escargot and enjoy wine by the carafe, but for the moment, especially on a day like today, Paris remains but a wonderful, distant warm memory in the dead of winter.
“My friend who is a Buddhist said once after coming out of a meditation retreat, ‘The colors were so much more vibrant afterward.’ Her meditation teacher said, ‘When you are present, the world is truly alive.'” –Natalie Golderg, Writing Down the Bones
Sometimes when I take a vacation, my Protestant ethic won’t quit, and if I lounge in the sun without intention, sleep in, or indulge in some rich food, I can’t actually enjoy the stuff of life, because I’m too busy trying to tap into my greater purpose, honor my routine, and be intentional.
But the thing about the Protestant ethic, and the one that goes into overdrive for so many of us, is that it’s actually quite shoddy theology–theology that wrongly overemphasizes our small part in this big world, while deemphasizing God’s infinite wisdom.
Well, it turns out God lives in sweet rest, play, and adventure just as much as silence, intention, and purpose. As my husband and I walked the cobbled stoned streets of Paris, marveling at all the amazing places we’ve been over these past five years together, we began to dream aloud about the next five, ten, and twenty years, and it was good.
The other morning as I spoke the language of my heart with a dear friend, I confided in her how delicious it has been to dream with God by my side, and how when so many things are wrong and scary and negative in our world, that blessing of vision that sees opportunity and possibility and goodness is from a God so worthy of praise!
The best thing about this break is that coming home, it felt as if the colors here didn’t dull in comparison to those in Paris (although the coffee really did, but that’s for another post…), but rather had blossomed and become more vibrant in my absence. The air smelled clean, the sunrise eager, the sunset gentle and delicate, and I looked around and found my friends flourishing in their lives, too.
And I rejoiced.
You know that real leap your heart does when it knows something to be good and you can barely contain yourself from jumping up and down and yelling like a little child? I’ve felt that numerous times in just the past few days listening to my friends tell me that they’re thriving, and I see them following God with such earnest devotion. And I realize that life is simply more exciting when you’re letting God call the shots, take the reins, and lead you in directions that you never could have dreamed.
I don’t think abundance is fleeting.
I think God is a God who deals in abundance, but our glimpse into understanding that abundance is limited and finite. So today while I’m granted this vision, I’m filled with praise, joy, and reverence. And I’m going to take in those vibrant colors, rejoice in who God is, and pray with dreams, conversations, and this precious life I’ve been given.
“I was in love with reading and literature. There were stories only I knew about my family, about my first kiss, last haircut, the smell of sage on a mesa and my kinship with the flat plains of Nebraska. I had to get slow and dumb (and not take anything for granted) and watch and see how everything connects, how you contact your thoughts and lay them down on paper.” –Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
I’ve just started reading Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and I love the way she talks about writing as practice and meditation, and all the things that you, and only you know.
Sometimes I think everything that’s good and true in my life and the direction thereof, I owe to my mother–especially that ninth grade world lit class that she pushed me to take when I wondered why anyone would take two English classes at one time (!) and whether it was kosher for a lowly freshman to enroll in a senior-level course. And then, there I was with that young, handsome teacher and a classroom of older students that I found so momentously my equals, but most importantly, with a stack full of books from authors like Camus, Achebe, and Shakespeare, who I began to believe might actually want something to do with me.
Looking back, however, I question where or how I lost that enthusiasm for books or English and somewhat, history. Or writing, for that matter–where did I become convinced that the few things I loved and was good at paled in the shadow of the world’s more noble pursuits of science, objectivity, and real life? I think it was Clifford Geertz who said that all anthropologists are really just wanna-be, disguised, or failed writers, and I suppose the real question is, can we be both?
I have not read like I did since that high school English class, or written the sonnets, the stories, and the prose that used to win me awards, even. Anthropology, yet another pursuit that my all-knowing mother launched me toward, has opened up so many doors and windows into my soul and others, brought me to so many corners of the Earth, and taught me new languages, and not just the ones we speak with words, but the deeper meanings of life, culture, and spirituality. But what doors has it closed? As I began to call myself an anthropologist, rather than a reader, a writer, or a poet, did I, in some ways, surrender the creativity in my mind to the limited ways of being found in this world?
In Paris this past week I’d see people painting scenes of the city and the gardens, scribbling into notebooks in cafes as I imagine Hemingway doing, or even doodling shapes and faces while listening to lectures at a conference at which I was presenting. I used to doodle, I thought, as I watched the glamorous professor from Milan to my left sketch the contours of others’ cascading hair, sloping shoulders, and curved backs. I don’t anymore. In fact, my second thought was to wonder how an assistant professor can doodle, so juvenilely, during a conference presentation to which I assumed she’d be rapt with attention. Perhaps that’s what the Italians do, I thought, but then I glanced around the room and the other scholars–French, Portuguese, Brazilian…all doodlers.
The fact is, it seems novel to realize that I, the committed anthropologist, can pick up a pen or a pencil and create something other than empirical social science, and that I want to. In many ways that’s what this blog has been for me, a place to doodle a bit and without crafting a conference paper or treatise, dream something a bit more “inner worldly” rather than the worldly travel notes, kinship charts, or ethnography I’m used to writing. Perhaps that’s why the words have often so hungrily leapt onto the page, why posts can feel effortless even while the conference papers won’t come. They are vestiges of that innocence, that playfulness and self-discovery that led me to read in the first place and to even dare to call myself a writer.
I’m not wanting to part with ethnography–in fact, I’m writing one, and I love reading them because they capture some of that creativity, that art that life clearly has and science tends to stifle. I often tell people that I love anthropology because it’s deeply concerned with culture but at such a fundamentally human, relational level. I love ethnography because it doesn’t efface the author, but brings he or she into view, into relationship, if you will, with the other subjects and cultures and problems.
But the anthropologist isn’t her own protagonist; she relies on others. And she doesn’t write about all the little things, the things that I and only I know so firmly. She doesn’t write about her mother, her freshman English class, Camus, Achebe, Shakespeare, or a life trajectory that includes physics and Puerto Rico, ministry and China. Those kinds of stories, I’m realizing, are left to be written and pursued, by doodles, scribbles, and practice, one word, dream, and recommitment to the world of imagination, at a time.
What about you–do you doodle? What stories do only you know and have left to tell?
“Paris is… the best city to wander around alone because it’s so beautiful you feel like it’s hugging you.” —Lessons in French, by Hillary Reyl
This is just a quick update to say that the blog’s been ho-hum as of late because we’re in Paris on a fifth year anniversary/conference/stuff your face food tour, and while we’ve been seeing lots of lovely things like cathedrals and art and cobbled streets, the photos are firmly in the digital camera (and subject to my husband’s critical editing eye) until we return, and I’ve been doing that thing lately where you soak it all in before you muse onto the page.
Still, just a few updates: we’re spending the full two weeks in Paris, because Evan caught a nasty cold on the plane, so we’ll save the trip to Burgundy, the Loire, and Normandy for another time! That means we’ve been scrambling to book hotels last minute, but that we’ve also experienced the personalities of several different arrondissements intimately. And I finally get the flaneur thing: it is so wildly freeing and delicious to just stroll about leisurely in this beautiful city, though it has also been predictably disorienting not to be able to speak the language, my heart still leaps a bit every time I hear Chinese, and Paris feels so decisively more foreign to me than Asia!
I’m convinced that I’m not sophisticated enough for all this, and yet I’ll–we’ll–continue to fake it, muddling through in our best attempts at French and French accents, which has gotten us some memorable and satisfying coffee, food, and views. And faking it isn’t so bad really– I’ll take satisfaction over sophistication pretty much any day.