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Who was Cassandra?
In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.

the cassandra pages
words, pictures, and a life
Monday, May 09, 2005  
It's almost hot in Vermont this evening, after days and days of raw rainy weather. This afternoon I took a break from computer work to go outside and work in the garden, raking leaves off the perennials, inspecting plants, and then standing, hands on hips, considering possibilites for the coming growing season. Compared to last year, when we were a week into that fateful month of renting a Montreal apartment, I haven't abandoned my garden, nor do I have the same illusions about what I can handle. This current week here/week there schedule does allow for some maintenance, but I'm much more realistic now, and I know I can't keep up the way I used to with perennials, a few roses, a vegetable and herb garden, planters full of foliage and flowering annuals, and a couple of shrub borders. So today I made a decision - most of the vegetable garden is going to get mown. And that's surprisingly OK with me.

Like the decision to get rid of a lot of our books, I find the relinquishment of this once-important part of my life to be something long in coming, but fine once it actually happens. And of course it's not necessarily permanent. I've always grown some of our food, as much out of principle as pleasure. But if it's too much - and it is right now - then it's time to let go.

Tonight we had some friends over for dinner, a couple who are twelve or fourteen years younger than we are. They're recently married, and they're nesting: working hard on their old house, making a garden, making plans. It was fun to listen to their excitement - I remember feeling exactly the same way - and it was also interesting to note how much I don't feel like that now.

We've been replacing the bathroom floor during this stay in Vermont, and it's the second time around - we're taking up a floor we ourselves installed a long time ago. When we paint, it will be the second time over the surfaces. We like doing this kind of work, but it's lost the excitement it once had. At this point in my life I'm simply not into settling down, putting my imprint on things and tucking the corners around me. I'm after lightness of being, freedom of movement, a loosening of weighty responsibility so that the things that are the real priorities have more space.

Flowers, need to stay.

10:06 PM |

Friday, May 06, 2005  
This afternoon we're heading down to Boston, through the tremulous barely-green hills, to rendezvous with some blogger friends and pay a visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Sounds like we're also heading toward a nor-easter, coming up the coast bringing gale-force winds, rain, and possibly sleet - times when one is glad for the metro). Right now, though, it's a beautiful spring day in Vermont, the trees poised on that chartreuse cusp between bud and leaf.


I've been thinking a lot this week about the Bibliotheque Nationale, the new national library of Quebec, which opened last weekend and is located just a short bike ride from our apartment. Over 18,000 people visited the library during its two-day, grand opening weekend; we were two of them and to say that we were thrilled would be putting it mildly. Not only is the building an architectural marvel - beautiful, original, light-filled, huge and yet intimate - it is up-to-the moment technologically, and houses a vast collection of books, journals, music, films, nearly all of which are availble for circulation. There's a language lab, a software-tryout lab, a whole floor for children, exhibition spaces, an auditorium, a cafe, and innumerable different places for reading, studying, using the library's terminals or your own, listening to music or watching films and videos, or even creating music in the innovative electronic music studio. In our brief initial tour of the building we couldn't begin to see everything, but along with the thousands of other wide-eyed, delighted visitors of every possible ethnicity, we cannot wait to return.

It's funny - I had sort of given up on libraries. Well, not given up, but resigned them to a place in the past. That's mostly because the libraries I know - even ones tat are supposedly state-of-the-art - still seem like they dont' get it, either in terms of the ambience that will draw readers to use them as destinations and refuges, or in terms of service and integration with new realities fo information-gatheirng. But here, as I walked from space to space, I saw so many me. Book lovers, curled in the deep black armchairs,;bent over the honey-colored yellow-birch reading desks; deep in study at ergonomically-designed computer stations; sprawed in sofa-like chairs, eyes shut, listening to music; wrapped in afternoon sunlight in a western window, slowly turning the pages of an artbook. It was a brand-new building, and it felt like home.

A line of people waiting to sign up for their free library subscription stretched from the front door to the back wall. People walked wonderingly up and down the wide stairs in the central atrium, and spilled out of the glass elevators onto different floors: a punk couple, studded and tatooed; an African family; a distinguished set of octagenarians; even an Orthodox bishop in his black robes and silver cross, came sweeping out of the subway. And from the fourth floor balcony, I watched a young Asian mother, all in white, running back and forth below me, carrying her baby, stopping now and then to excitedly show and tell him everything she was seeing, everything he might find in his future - a future sure to be filled with many many books.

12:54 PM |

Thursday, May 05, 2005  
HIGH (part 3 of 3)

Well, they said that fraternity stuff was pretty revolting, but they didn’t really know anything about it. Neither one of them had ever been a drinker. B. started grinning and said his mother had been a teetotaler, but his father had drunk just a little now and then, which drove his mother crazy. If she found a bottle, she’d make a big show out of pouring it out. Toward the end of her life she had loosened up a bit, and at a party for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary he remembered her drinking a little glass of wine. “I only got drunk once,” he said. “I hadn’t drunk at all in high school, and not even when I was in the Navy, which was…well…let’s just say it wasn’t the usual thing!” But on V-J Day, the navy guys had a huge celebration, and he decided he could have one drink, and after that he thought he’d have another…

“I got really drunk and really sick, of course,” he said. “And apparently I made quite a fool of myself – or so they told me. I don’t’ remember any of it. But I decided I didn’t like that feeling, so I’ve never drunk much at all since.”

He sat back and shrugged. “It all depends on how you get your jollies, and that’s different for different people. I get my jollies from up here…” – he tapped the side of his head – “from using the brain…well, the brain God gave me. Why should I want to mess that up with drugs or alcohol, when I have a perfectly good time without them? But that’s me. Other people feel differently, don’t they?”

He turned to his friend, my father-in-law, who nodded solemnly. Both of my in-laws disapproved of alcohol and the people who drank it; so far as I know there was rarely any in their house, although my mother-in-law occasionally offered a tiny glass of sherry if there were “cocktail drinkers” coming for dinner, making sure we knew it was with disdain. My father-in-law would occasionally accept a drink at a wedding reception or some other formal event, and then brag that he had poured it out in a plant pot. I always thought this was a superiority thing – drinkers were weak people who lacked self-control, or something like that – but when I finally became friends with Muslims I realized that my in-laws’ attitudes were cultural; that being Christian had far less to do with it than the fact that they had grown up in conservative Muslim/Arab culture and had absorbed the prevailing values (alcohol is forbidden in the Qu'ran). Upstanding people simply didn’t drink – - and that was the end of it.

So when my father-in-law said he’d gotten drunk once, we both raised our eyebrows. “Oh, I never told you that story?” he said. We shook our heads. “Oh yes. It was in Nabataea. Three people, himself included, were scheduled to present remarks after a dinner. He had decided, on the spur of the moment, to have some wine. “I liked it,” he admitted. ‘And then I got up to talk, and realized I’d lost my cool.” He glanced at B., who nodded solemnly, and looked affectionately and knowingly at his friend.

“Yep,” he said. “That’s it. You'd lost your cool.”

“I was really worried! So I persuaded the others to go first, and by the time they were done I managed to give my remarks. It was the first and only time in my life that happened to me, and I decided I couldn’t afford to have it happen again. I didn’t want to lose my cool.”

5:04 PM |

Wednesday, May 04, 2005  

Tulips in a Westmount garden

HIGH, part 2

Somehow, talking about prep schools and colleges in the 1960s, we got onto the subject of drugs. B. turned to my father-in-law, and asked him if he’d ever smoked dope…


“No, never. But I used to smoke corn – what do you call it?”

“Corn silk. Oh yes. Out in the field. Oh, you did that too?”

“Oh yes.” My father-in-law laughed.

“Did you ever make a corncob pipe? You know, where you hollow-out a piece of corncob and stick a hollow straw in there?”

M. raised his eyebrows in surprise. “No, I wasn’t that sophisticated.”

“What did you use to roll up the corn silk in?” B. asked.

“Toilet paper!”

“Did you ever smoke tobacco?”

“No! But I’ve got a story about tobacco. There was a playing field at the university in Beirut that the soldiers used to use for their practices, and we discovered that my older son, who was maybe six or seven, had been going around picking up the butts of their cigarettes and smoking them. So we confronted him and my wife said, “Those are dirty! If you want to smoke so much, we’ll do it at home.” So we took him home and had him sit down , and we gave him a cigarette – and he smoked the whole thing!”

The two old men laughed and laughed. By this time, J. and I were wide-eyed and pretty much speechless.

Unlike my father-in-law, who moves slowly, never fidgets, and, once settled, seems like a large heavy object that would just as soon stay in place calmly and indefinitely, B. is a wiry little man with twinkling eyes and is, in spite of countless physical difficulties, still bursting with energy. He’s animated and observant, and has an eager way of leaning forward toward you with interest, even mischievousness. My father-in-law still has a luxuriant head of flowing white hair, few wrinkles, and a calm, untroubled face; B. has only wisps of white hair on a nearly bald head and looks older than his years, but the two of them have similarly active minds.

B. went on to say that while he was a professor in California all the kids were trying dope, and he understood that, that was just the way kids are; what bothered him was the way some people got “hooked on it” and became lost, or got into harder drugs. He was a scientist, and he said he still felt there was some evidence that pot was just as bad for you as tobacco. It certainly distorted one’s sense of reality, he said, glancing across the table at the dubious looks on our faces.

He grinned: his son had been into pot for quite a while when he was young, he said, and the young man had been completely convinced that when he was high he had brilliant insights. So one day B. told him, “OK, I’ll smoke dope with you, and we’ll tape record our conversation.” His son said fine, so the two of them smoked – this was the one and only time B. had done it – and he made a tape, which he played back for his son the next day.

“When my son heard his ‘brilliant insights’ he was shocked, and he quit smoking then and there.”

M. shook his head, and said drugs had nearly ruined the prep school system in those days. “They’d send busloads of kids to a rock concert without any adult supervision at all!” he said, shaking his head. “I told the administration I felt this was totally irresponsible, but they didn’t pay any attention to me. I had one student, back then, who came to class the day of an exam totally stoned. He asked me for six of the examination booklets. When he turned in his exam he told me, “This is the best exam I have ever written! Please grade it right away!” When I got home I looked, and saw that he had filled all six of the books with ‘tra-la-tra-la-tra-la!’ That was it! Nothing but ‘tra-la’! All six! And when I told the headmaster about it, all he’d say was “what grade are you going to give him?” –meaning, ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re telling me so I am going to ignore it.’” He shook his head in disgust.

As former members of the generation they were discussing, with our own versions of those years, J. and I had been silent so far, listening to these unselfconscious recollections with a certain amount of amazement. It was like a time warp, listening to these familiar arguments, except that now there was no anger between us, and no need for either the old or the young to assert control; that felt strange but open, free, equal.

Now J. said, “Well, is it any different from the fraternity system and alcohol now? Are the colleges acting any more responsibily? A lot of students are alcoholics when they leave college, and that system has a great deal to do with it.”

(to be continued)

3:56 PM |

Sunday, May 01, 2005  

Recently, I was honored to be asked by Melanie of Chandrasutra to be interviewed as a part of her 'Blogger's Blogger" series. The interview is up today and I hope you'll not only read it, but check out the entire series. Among the esteemed company are Natalie d'Arbeloff of Blaugustine, certainly a person on my "blogger's bloggers" list, and James Luckett of, whose blog was one of the first to attract me to the medium, and who was kind and encouraging to me when I was starting out, as well as a number of other bloggers whose work is new to me.

Mel is trying to give voice to vital but less-recognized parts of the blogosphere, especially women, and bloggers who are writing in different veins from those that seem to get featured (again and again) in Big Media stories. I'm appreciative of what she's doing; it's very much needed, and a gift to our whole medium. Thanks, Mel!

6:32 PM |

Friday, April 29, 2005  

I don't know if I've linked before to the blog of Karl Dubost, but if not, it's my sin of omission..mea culpa. The blog itself is in French, but, English readers, please don't let that deter you: Karl is a photographer and a traveler who goes often to Asia, and he has an extraordinary eye, especially for color. Visiting his often ravishing, always surprising site is a delight and almost a meditation in my day: here I encounter a world drenched in color, now pulsating with life, now quiet in the repose of objects and persons, populated with juxtapositions one senses only this camera has seen. There is usually a short poem, in French or English, at the beginning of the day's entry, usually well worth figuring out even if it is not in your usual language.

6:04 PM |


Just Spring...Vermont


On Wednesday, we had our usual lunch with my father-in-law, and toward the end of the meal we were joined by his friend B., another resident of the retirement home. B., a former professor, was in Beirut at the American University for a time with his wife, and they’re both very appreciative of the Middle East – his wife now takes Arabic lessons once a week from my father-in-law. We had gotten to know them prior to the whole retirement home deal, through Middle East peace work, and when they moved there we were pretty sure that they and J.’s father would become friends.

When he first moved in, my father-in-law had said all he wanted was to be left alone; he reluctantly went down to the dining room for meals and ate alone when he could. The other residents were “boring”, or they were “only interested in sports” or they “didn’t care about foreign affairs”. And besides, he said, he couldn’t hear anything. As had been usual throughout the time I’ve known him, he’d say so-and-so was “very decent” – which was a polite put-down, translated within the family as “they’re nice but not intellectual”. But gradually he began to make friends – or, more accurately, people began to make friends with him, despite his former intentions. Now, several years down the road, as we walk down the hall or go through the dining room, the affection and respect the other residents and staff have for him is very obvious, and his caring for them is genuine.

Not long ago he told me he had at least a dozen very good friends there, and admitted, without a single qualifier, that that was more than he’d ever had before in his life. His best friends are probably B. and his wife, and N., a woman who is a writer, an avid reader, and, God forbid, an Episcopalian. In fact, all three of these friends are pretty devout, practicing, liberal Christians – a humorous irony that isn’t lost on my "humanist" father-in-law.

After he retired, my father-in-law wrote three full-length books. They are fictional biographies of religious figures, set in the Middle East that he knows so well, but too creatively non-traditional to suit a religious market, and too religious to suit a publisher of fiction. They’re written in a flowery story-telling style, often veering off into the poetic and philosophical, that I’ve come to recognize as typically Arab, and although the English is grammatically perfect, the style seems very strange to a westerner. To my father-in-law, though, they are brilliant, and the greatest disappointment of his life has been his inability to find someone to publish them.

That is, until B. came along and decided to start a publishing company and bring out one of these books. This has been quite a saga, with some family involvement and help with the intricacies of digital on-demand publishing, but it’s happening, and both B. and my father-in-law are all excited, and hanging on to their own precarious health in order to see the project to completion. They were already good friends before this project, but they’ve gotten a lot closer, and on Wednesday it was great fun to see the two of them teasing each other and talking naturally together, almost as if “the children” weren’t listening.

Somehow, talking about prep schools and colleges in the 1960s, we got onto the subject of drugs. B. turned to my father-in-law, and asked him if he’d ever smoked dope…

(to be continued)

3:33 PM |

Tuesday, April 26, 2005  

If all goes as planned, we'll have lunch with my father-in-law tomorrow noon and then head north for a week. This has been another intense week of work, culminating with a presentation this afternoon; all that went pretty well and if the boss doesn't do something unpredictable tomorrow, we might actually have a few days to regroup and relax. I wonder, especially in exhausted and frustrated moments, why I still do this - and the answer is that it's fun, on certain levels. Today we met some new people, consultants from D.C., and they were smart, interesting, engaged, very likeable, and impressed with what we showed them. It's that stuff - the chemistry, the creation of teams trying to fulfil a challenging and worthwhile goal, the figuring out how to do something new from scratch - that makes communications work fun and interesting, even when it's also maddening.

On the other hand, there are limits.

10:46 PM |

Monday, April 25, 2005  

1. Early morning; a black beetle is on its back in the shiny white free-standing bathtub. I offer it the pad of my index finger; after nervous faltering it climbs on board. I give it a ride up to the pot of grape ivy, near the skylight; it disappears over the rim.

2. The rain has stopped but the day is still blustery and cold. Walking to the post office, I notice drowned worms on the sidewalk - one of the more unfortunate signs of spring. In front of me, a larger worm, covered with grit, is trying to head across the sidewalk and into the road. I go past, turn around, pick it up and set it down in the wet grass. This action is immediately followed by a memory of how many worms I put on fishhooks as a child.

3. I notice that the river is very high.

4. Across the bank, sirens. An white ambulance with red lights flashing heads across the bridge, toward the village.

5. Three sleek crows land, cawing, in the bare sycamore saplings on the river's edge. One crow has a beakful of leaves. All around the birds hang last fall's sycamore fruits on their long stems, like Christmas balls, or dangly earrings from the 60s.

6. When I come out of the post office, the ambulance is above me on a dead-end street. I used to know the people who lived in that house. The village is silent now: no siren, no crows.

7. In front of the tenement on the corner, the green leaves of the young maple trees are curled in swollen buds, like fists.

6:56 PM |

Saturday, April 23, 2005  

Royal Canadian Mounted Police to escort gay married couple to "40 Heroes" Celebration in Philadelphia on May 1.

Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell will be honored at a GLBT civil rights event in Philadelphia on Sunday, May 1. Bourassa and Varnell were the first gay couple to be legally married in North America. Two RCMP officers will accompany them to symbolize Canada's commitment to same-sex couples.

The trip will be a far cry from one Bourassa and Varnell attempted to make shortly after their marriage in 2003. The couple was turned back by US Customs and Immigration officers when they attempted to board a flight from Toronto to Georgia. US Customs and Immigration pre-check people traveling to the US at most major Canadian airports. They couple was rejected after filling out a form identifying themselves as a family.

Other recipients of the "40 Heroes" awards are Martina Navratilova, Melissa Etheridge, Barney Frank, Gene Robinson, and Ellen DeGeneres.


This anonymous letter at Planet Out! from a gay Catholic priest describes his reaction to the election of the new pope, and is a poignant commentary on what "keeping the faith" means for someone in his situation. I was interested, and glad, to see that he mentions Bishop Gene Robinson as someone whose witness has helped him continue under very difficult circumstances.

2:26 PM |

Friday, April 22, 2005  


“I had a very good day yesterday,” announces my father-in-law, as he settles into his chair. From the buffet, he’s brought back a plate of salad greens topped with baby carrots and ringed with six big strawberries, and another plate with a grilled hamburger from the buffet. He peers under the bun, and starts carefully spreading the hamburger with ketchup, mustard, and relish that he’s arranged in layers in one of those tiny folded paper cups that mints or condiments are served in.

“What was especially good about it?” we ask.

“Well, for one thing I was pleased with the new pope. And I wrote a few letters, which was something I haven’t been able to do at all lately.”

“You were pleased with the pope?” I’m astounded that he’d say this; a few weeks ago he made it clear he was completely disgusted with the entire thing.

“Oh yes,” he says, nonchalantly, and goes on preparing his hamburger. J. looks at him, hard, shakes his head, and goes off to get something he’s forgotten in the buffet line.

I'm somewhat at a loss. “You are kidding about the pope, aren’t you?”

“No! I think he’s an excellent choice.”

“You don’t think he’s too conservative?”

“Someone has to hold the line.”

“What? So you really think it’s good to have someone in there who, let’s see, forbids contraception?” Now I'm getting suspicious; it looks like he’s enjoying this; his eyes are half serious, half mischievous, and he knows I can’t tell exactly where he’s going to land today.

“Sure. Someone needs to be against contraception…and that other thing…” he makes vague gestures in the direction of his abdomen.


“Yes. And no…”

“No women priests.”

“Exactly.” He crunches decisively on a baby carrot.

“Come on,” I say.

“No, I mean it,” he says. “Somebody needs to counteract my liberalism, you see. I worry that there is too much liberalism like mine and unless it’s opposed…”

“People will go wild.”

He nods, and takes an appreciative bite of his hamburger. “I’ve put on weight in the last two weeks,” he says. “I need to watch it. But you should eat more. Go gets some cake.”

“I’ll get something else later,” I tell him. “Now, do you really think that?"

“Yes! Did I ever tell you – once the prep school where I was teaching sent me as a ‘delegate’ to a Catholic prep school conference, so I went, and there was a theological discussion in which everybody seemed to be taking a very liberal point of view. So I decided, for the fun of it, to take the opposite view, and I argued the strictest, most conservative Catholic position. Afterwards one of the priests came up to me and whispered, ‘That was very impressive – may I ask, what Order are you a member of?’”

"Maybe you should go to Africa," I tell him. "You might fit right in with those conservative bishops."

He looks up in mock horror. "I don't think so!"

I look at him, grinning, and shake my head. He seems very pleased by the memory. "You see," he says, "if no one takes the traditional view, there's no one for me to push against."

And I still don't know what he really thinks.

4:07 PM |

Wednesday, April 20, 2005  

At Idle Words, a commentary on New York-style pizza, a subject dear to my heart. J., who is at this very moment making pizza crust in the kitchen, has been a pizza aficionado since long before we met; it was clear to me at the start that loving pizza was going to be synonymous with loving him. In his post, Maciej describes several pizza places we also count among the very top - Pepe's in New Haven, is our #1 - their white pizza, a blend of garlic, clams, parmesan, and olive oil on the best crust you have ever eaten, served unpretentiously on a rectangular tray, is well worth the drive off the highway into the city, and the potential wait to get served. And Grimaldi's, at the end of the Brooklyn Bridge, also makes our top five. What about John's, in the Village? We've never, however, eaten Staten Island pizza, and it sounds like we've missed the best of the best.

Grimaldi's made it into a poem I wrote a long while back - and it's as good a time as any to post it. That was another early spring day, much like this one. The "Kim" in question is now a late-teenager, with bright red-dyed hair; she is escaping as best she can.

Two Dollars a Day

After pizza at Patsy Grimaldi’s
we walked past tulip gardens and pear trees
and then across the Brooklyn Bridge
at sunset
with the skylight still glowing
and the riches of Manhattan sparkling blue and gold and silver.

Liberty beckoned from the harbor;
the Verrazzano, a diamond necklace in the distance.
Lacework cables above us,
bicyclists rattling the wooden decking;
a big black jogger,
woman in a suit and Nikes,
other lovers.

Beneath city hall and its gilded dome
down to the trains
where a Frenchwoman read philosphy
and a black couple leaned against each other
uptown to 32nd Street and out
into the city night
small again on the fast streets full
of yellow taxis and hot smells
and people intent
on their destination.


“Where did you go?” said Kimmy,
who had fed the cat and brought in the papers.

“New York,” we said. “Have you ever been there?”
and she said no,
she had never been anywhere except
California once and it was wonderful,
there was so much happening! And here
nothing ever, ever happened, except they had
a new puppy, which liked to bite her.

So she took her dollars and went back home,
and later in the day
I saw her riding her bicycle up and down the street,
the way she’s always liked,
and she smiled brightly
and pedalled furiously
as if she had somewhere important to go.


6:49 PM |

Tuesday, April 19, 2005  

Last night was too warm and too lovely to spend inside. We walked in the park, along the serpentine lake, and then, reluctant to go in, got our bikes and rode up absolutely quiet, nearly deserted streets, past cars parked along the sides shining like dark green and black carapaces under the indefinite streetlights; the sound of a piano or a violin drifting from a window, yellow light behind lace; an occasional rustle revealing a mother coming home with a child; someone bringing in a folding chair; a cat; a woman with a cigarette gazing at the street from the shadows on a third-floor balcony.

I caught up with J. and we rode side-by-side on the dreamy street, saying nothing, reaching out once to touch hands.

Across on St. Gregoire, at the top of the Plateau -- and then coasted back home.

5:32 PM |

Monday, April 18, 2005  

There's a wonderful story at FunnyAccent which gives a different take on running in Boston, and on the difference we can make without even knowing it.

Thanks to Language Hat, who linked to my post on language-learning, I found a new blog, amusingly named "La Coquette / Don't Hate Me Because I Live in Paris". She too is learning French, and since I had had a similar experience getting new contact lenses, I related to her story of a French eye exam.

And then there's, well, this bit of stranger-than-fiction, from the oddball humorists at the BBC.

7:59 PM |

Sunday, April 17, 2005  

We rode our bikes through nearly-empty streets this morning for the 10:00 church service at the cathedral; it was the first time we've been able to do that this spring, and it felt great. Our usual route takes us down the Av. Berri bike path past the new and about-to-open Bibliotheque Nationale with its pale aqua louvered glass facades, and then along Maisonneuve past Place des Arts into downtown. This morning as we waited for the light near Jeanne Mance, a woman rode by wearing a retro black-and-white checked coat-dress with a tight waist, 3/4 length sleeves and flared skirt, black fishnet stockings, black flats, and oval black movie-star sunglasses; she had a bright pink milk crate on the back of her bike. She looked like she had walked out of Lauren Bacall/Humphry Bogart movie - it was a great outfit, and she had the attitude to go with it - some study had definitely gone into that one.

I just washed down the planters and bench out on the terrace; the sliding doors are open and every now and then the sound of the traffic and bicycle wheels is broken by the voices of a passing group, talking happily in French. I want to thank everyone who commented on my post about language frustrations; I'm sorry I couldn't write back personally to everybody because I really appreciated what you said. Hearing your experiences not only encouraged me but reinforced the fact that this is a universal feeling that one simply has to go through on the way to becoming more fluent and more comfortable. Most days I just enjoy the bilingualism of the city and go with the flow of it; it's easy to see that I've made a lot of progress just from noticing how much more easily I understand whatever spoken French I hear and how much more comfortable I am in various situation than I was when I first came. Along with humility, I think another lesson to be learned is patience!

This morning quietness, combined with the beautiful music and sense of peace, shared commitment, and community I've come to find at the Cathedral, have helped me rejuvenate after many days of very intense work. I could feel myself fraying on Friday and Saturday: very much in need of a break and some extra rest, if not sleep. I still feel tired but much better than I did. I like the work I'm doing a lot, and feel grateful for it - as usual, the question is balance and taking care of myself, something I've come to accept as a continual task and responsibility, not a place I'm going to arrive at and stay without readjustment.

4:03 PM |

Saturday, April 16, 2005  


It's today: moulting day, when Montrealers shed their dull winter garb, the heavy layers, the scarves and hats and fleece and fur, and...get naked! It's the first weekend day of the warm weather, and the warmest day we've had yet. Like colorful butterflies, an entirely new flock seems to be passing by my window. They're on bikes, on roller blades, on skateboards, in baby carraiges; on running feet and slow old feet, on barely-able-to-walk-yet feet, and on four paws. It's fabulous, as if everyone has suddenly been set free, and they're celelebrating in motion, in color, in cafe-windows flung open, in an exuberance of winter-pale skin bared to the sunlight.

We're going to friends' tonight for the first barbeque of the season, and I offered to bring strawberry shortcake; the shortcake is baking in the oven right now, awaiting the basket of strawberries we brought home yesterday from the Jean Talon market. It's the first cake I've baked here; with boulangeries such as there are in this city, I'm afraid my Vermont country baking has seemed, well, superfluous. But the scent of butter, sugar, vanilla, ginger, and browned almonds is lovely in the house today; I'm going to play my flute a little, with the door open to the outside, where, above the happy people and happy dogs and children in their carriages, a light blue sky is crossed with a delicate tracing of tree branches, each dotted with swelling buds of almost-leaves.

5:36 PM |

Thursday, April 14, 2005  


The other day I went to the local locksmith because we needed two keys copied. One was straightforward, and I was sure it wouldn’t be a problem, but the other was for a bicycle lock. The locksmith shop is on Papineau; I’ve been there several times and so I know that the proprietor doesn’t speak anything but French. On the way, I figured out how to ask for what I needed. Once inside the shop, we greeted each other, and I handed him the first key and asked for two copies. He nodded and asked if that was all. I said no, and handed him the other key, asking if he could make a copy of it. Suddenly, there was a torrent of French – an explanation, I assumed, of why he couldn’t copy the key – but I could hardly understand any of it. From his inflection, I realized he had ended with a question – which of course I couldn’t answer, so I stood there, staring at him dumbly, helplessly. He repeated the question – it seemed he was confirming whether or not it was a bicycle key. I said yes, it was a bicycle key. More incomprehensible French. I shook my head and said thank you. He handed me back the key, looked at me with a certain disdain, and set about making the first copy while I dropped the bicycle key into my purse feeling, well, vulnerable and not very happy. I didn’t blame him – he’s a nice enough man – after I paid him he started waiting on a French woman who had just come in, and he was smiling and making polite chatter. If I had been able to banter with him, he would have been just as pleasant to me.

So then I walked down Marie-Anne several long blocks to the bike shop where we bought our bikes last summer. The shop was bustling and packed to the handlebars with bikes and accessories. The young clerk I remembered from last year was there, waiting on someone at the counter, so I stood in line until he was free. He doesn’t speak anything but French either, but he’s a different sort of guy. I asked my question, told him I had lost one of the bicycle keys, was it possible to obtain a replacement? So far so good. “C’est perdu?” he confirmed. “Oui.” He looked at a loss, and asked if I had gone to a locksmith. I said I had, but now, two or three sentences deep into the subject, I was running out of explanatory words. He motioned to me to wait, and gestured toward the other clerk, who I gathered spoke English. He was busy, and a young Asian woman - another customer – who spoke flawless French and English kindly offered some suggestions about who might be able to replace the key for me. I thanked her and the clerk and then asked about a pannier, a basket for the back of my bike, trying to go back to French, and we concluded our discussion in the usual two-language back-and-forth I’ve come to expect in most places here.

But somehow, this experience, on that particular day, threw me. I left and started walking home, feeling like I might cry. “It doesn’t matter how long I live here or how hard I try,” I said to myself, miserably, “I’ll never master this language completely, and I will never, ever fit in. What are we doing, choosing to live in the Plateau where anglophones are already resented?” Luckily I saw that I was passing a favorite bakery, so I went in and bought a couple of cookies – a transaction for which I didn’t need any specialized language. But even chocolate didn’t lift my spirits quite enough, and the helpless, isolated feeling haunted me the rest of the day.

Yesterday, though, I found myself taking care of my former landlady’s little girl, as a favor while the mother did an emergency errand. Left alone with the daughter, and a menagerie of stuffed animals and plastic dinosaurs, I was able to think back to last May when we first lived here and I would try to play with M. and barely understand a single word she said, while she’d look at me like some strange dumb animal, screwing up her little face in puzzlement and frustration and demanding, “Quoi???” She’d never had to deal with non-French speakers in her short, highly animated and very verbal life. But there I was yesterday, able to talk to her, able to understand much of what she said, even able to concoct some games and comfort her when she decided her mother was never coming back.

“So, that’s it, I’m at a three-year-old level,” I thought, wryly, feeling a bit more able to laugh at myself. “Everyone who finds themselves in a foreign country must feel this, and yet they learn the language, they manage.” I told myself, “Come on, you’re doing your best, look at all you’ve learned.” Gradually I did feel better, and I was grateful to my little friend for giving me a yardstick for measuring some progress. Still, there is something about feeling cut off verbally that is deeply disturbing to me, and it obviously goes to the core of who I am.

As I thought about it more, I decided that it wasn’t so much an inability to make myself understood – for I’m pretty good at that, using language or not – as it was not being able to understand others, and how humiliated I feel when they instantly switch to English, or turn their backs – whether the gesture is real or only felt. The switching, I’ve found, is often Canadian politeness, and most people will continue in French if you tell them you’re trying to learn and improve. I recognized that discomfiture was also coming from a bruised ego. I am not only a word person, and someone who wants to communicate and know other people, but I’m an over-achiever, and I can’t stand feeling stupid or unaccomplished, especially in this sphere. That’s a hard thing to admit, and a deeper one to face squarely, but I’m sure it’s yet another lesson in humility that’s important for me to experience -- or it wouldn’t be happening in such a total and unavoidable way, with my own willing, if sometimes uncomfortable, participation.

9:03 PM |

Tuesday, April 12, 2005  

A couple of items from today's Montreal Gazette:

Let's not Arm Border Guards

"Providing Canada’s border guards with sidearms would be a “dangerous move” and contribute little to improving national security, according to RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police)Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli. “I know being at the border can be risky and there are certain dangers,” he said yesterday. “But somebody who runs through the border and having a customs officer run out of his hut and shoot after them – I’m not sure we want to do that.” He said he’s against arming people “simply to create the notion that we are going to feel more secure.” Zaccardelli made the comments before a parliamentary committee reviewing Canada’s anti-terrorism legislation yesterday. "

Community Bands Together to Rehabilitate Youthful Mugger

Along with many others, we've been following the story of an 18-year-old young man who robbed a 90-year-old woman and shoved her down some stairs in the metro a while back. Apparently the young man, the son of a mentally-ill anglophone mother and Armenian father, had suffered such neglect and difficulties in his childhood that once his story came out, both this local community and the victim have pled for leniency and rehabilitation rather than punishment. The boy's mother committed suicide in 2003 after years of refusing to talk to her son. In January, his father "dropped him in Montreal with $100 in his pocket in order for him “to become a man,” one witness said. At the time of the mugging, he had been living with friends for a few weeks.

One thing we've noticed in reporting about the rare violent crimes that do occur here, is that the papers and community and justice system always seem to ask and report how the victims feel about the crime and the sentence. To us this seems old-fashioned, quaint, idealistic...and amazing, if it actually works. And it seems like although religion may not be expressed in the way it used to be, through church attendance, devotion, and loyalty to priestly authority, the values of forgiveness and reconciliation are still at work in this society. Read a couple of quotes from this article, entitled "Métro mugger needs love – not prison, supporters say."

Emrys Brooks Djierdjian made a terrible mistake when he robbed a 90-year-old woman and shoved her down some stairs, but he is a teen in need of love and support, not prison time, say friends and neighbours from his small village who have stepped forward to take him under their collective wing...

[people]... from the village of 2,000, 60 kilometres north of Montreal, said they decided as a group that instead of sitting back and watching bad news on television or reading about it in the paper, they would take some responsibility as members of society. They’ve raised money to pay for any therapy Brooks Djierdjian needs. One has offered him a job. Even the victim, Gemma Martel, who suffered a fractured pelvis, broken arm and bleeding in the brain, has written a letter of forgiveness to her aggressor, said supporter Catherine Ruiz-Gomar. “If this society believes in rehabilitation, then we need to give people the means to do it,” Lamarre [a neighbor] said.

The judge is scheduled to make a decision in the case tomorrow.

7:39 PM |

At the border, the douaniere asks us for our license plate number: “I’m afraid I can’t read it,” she says, smiling. We laugh and tell her the number, and she cheerfully waves us through. She’s right; the car is covered with road spray and salt – an indication both of this place and season, and a life that’s lately had few chinks in it for such things as washing one’s car.

It’s a beautiful day - cold, sunny and clear - and the wind buffets the small car from side to side as we cross into the flat plain where flocks of geese stand in the corn-stubble of the endless fields where clods of black earth plowed last fall lie thawing in the sunlight. Silvery pools shine in the curving furrows where the plow approached the road and made its wide turn back toward the east, and the long drainage trenches, stretching to the horizon as straight as a column of mercury, send a sudden reflective flash as we pass by.

I wondered, at first, if I’d become bored over time with this drive through so much apparent sameness; I grew up, after all, in a very different agricultural landscape that has always seemed to me the epitome of pastoral beauty with its varied fields of hay and corn and oats, its hedgerows and orchards; woods on the higher ground and blackbird-busy swamps in the lowlands; herds of black-and-white dairy cows in the pastures and sheep, goats, geese and chickens in mud-luscious farmyards. What was the appeal of acres upon flat acres of nothing but corn, on a land scoured flat by water and glacier and swept by a constant wind whose only positive purpose seemed to be keeping aloft the white fleur-de-lis on the blue fields of the Quebec flags fluttering in so many farmyards?

Perhaps it was that blue that gave me the clue yesterday, as I looked again at this land that, I realize, has stolen its way into my heart: it may look vast and all the same, but it’s a sameness like the ocean, a sameness that changes its face with the day and the season. One has to look harder, perhaps, to perceive it, but within the wheel of the seasons rolling over these raw and elemental fields, a smaller wheel turns by the day: the differences in the play of light depending on the clouds and the sun or lack thereof; the angle of the wind and its strength; the presence of birds and their tendency, depending on their own cycles, to lift off the ground in wide flocks or scatter individually; to stand, satiated, and observe, or to be on the move, as the geese were yesterday, flying in low purposeful lines above the waiting fields dotted, in the far distances, by a steeple, a cluster of houses, and the silos where the golden products of so much flatness are stored, for a time, in the sky.

9:39 AM |

Sunday, April 10, 2005  

A long weekend of mostly work, and I'm not done yet. This morning I was the organizer and one of the presenters for a talk on the Windsor Report and the future of the Anglican Communion, and it took most of yesterday afternoon to prepare for that. Yesterday morning and this afternoon I've been preparing for a business meeting tomorrow. After that, in the afternoon, we're heading north, which I'm looking forward to very much indeed.

We've had a string of fabulous, unseasonably warm days in New England, and there was time to get outside and uncover the vegetable garden and most of the perennials, rake leaves, get a permit to burn some brush, and do a lot of our usual spring clean-up. And, oh, it felt glorious to be out there with the sun on my back and the smell of the earth coming up from the mud and the wakening grass! There's a patch of snowdrops from my late grandparents' garden in bloom, and another of delicate pale blue crocuses; during the past few days nearly all the snow and ice disappeared from its final banks on the north side of the house, leaving undulating frost heaves and squishy earth. How good it is to feel my hands in the soil again, pulling dry leaves from the base of the lavender and the peonies, discovering the pale red shoots of tulips, running my fingers over the soft green "fur" of the lambs' ears. And when the sun has set and I open the back door, it's a robin who scolds me from the apple tree, reclaiming her world.

8:32 PM |

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