Jim’s Musings from Paris
- Blog #1, July 10, 2021
- Blog #2, July 17, 2021
- Blog #3, July 24, 2021
- Blog #4, August 21, 2021
- Blog #5, November 17, 2021
It’s been one week since we (Jairo and I) arrived in France—Paris, to be exact—our newly adopted home. The send-off was bumpy. After months of downsizing, which meant selling or giving away almost all our accumulated possessions, we were able to pack 2000 pounds of essential artwork, books, files, winter clothes, memories, and two wooden rocking chairs into two crates to set sail for Europe. The two rocking chairs span my career as a theatre professor at The University of Akron. One, an Amish-made, bent willow rocker, was given to me by the cast of Peer Gynt, the third production I directed at UA in Spring 1992. The fact that the young students scrimped together enough money to make the purchase and traveled to Amish country to pick out just the right chair, while keeping it a secret from me, meant a lot to an undeveloped director trying to find his way, and the chair still holds a distinct place in my heart. The second chair, a black Captain’s style number, was presented to me in commemoration of my thirty years of dedicated service to The University of Akron. More about that later.
The other bumpy part was saying goodbye to friends and family and friends who have become family. 32 years of living in a place creates a lot of ripples. The last months have included taking stock of some of those ripples and trying to acknowledge the effect our work and our lives have had on the community at large and our own close-knit community of artists with whom we create and procreate, dance, dare, suffer, and celebrate.
Now here we are in Paris. Sometimes as I sit drinking my morning coffee and look out the window at the beauty of this city, it seems like a dream or that we are on vacation and in two weeks we will need to pack our bags and head back to Ohio. Then I remember the look on our grandson’s face when he saw his abuelo for the first time in a year and a half and, running, he leapt fearlessly into Jairo’s arms. In those moments, I know that this decision was the right one. We have placed ourselves in the eye of a hurricane whose winds blow expressions of authentic joy and love. (And, yes, I know there will be suffering, too). We have no choice but to participate. As this Third Act reveals itself, our actions will generate even bigger ripples than before, and those ripples will reverberate throughout the different Acts of our lives and in the lives of those we have met along the way.
Thank you, fellow travelers, for spending time with us and following my musings. I look forward to sharing more thoughts with you along the way.
Wednesday was July 14, Bastille Day, the French national holiday of independence. The day commemorates the storming of the Bastille, a fortress that served as a prison at the time of the revolution in 1789, and the overthrow of the French aristocracy. Our new apartment, which we move into in two weeks, is across the street from the Jardin de la Folie-Titon. Supposedly, the revolution began at a factory once located where the park now stands, when the owner decided it made economic sense to lower the workers’ wages. The riots that broke out, in March 1789, slowly made their way toward the Bastille over the next five months culminating in the capture of the building on July 14. This slow journey towards revolution and change reminds me of our own slow journey towards Paris and our new home across from the Jardin de la Folie-Titon.
On 15 July 2020, The University of Akron abruptly ended my tenure as Professor of Theatre based on a bogus declaration of force majeure, dismantled the Theatre Program, and unceremoniously forced me into an earlier retirement than I had planned. Our personal and professional lives were upended. The fact that the world was in the middle of a pandemic helped lessen the blow somewhat because everyone’s lives were in a state of change and uncertainty. But, in a very short time, we had to move my mother to South Bend to be near my older brother, sell our much-loved house on Overwood Road, and organize the succession of CATAC, the non-profit we had built and managed over three decades.
Finally arriving to Paris after the last year of non-stop turbulence has allowed me to take some deep breaths. The tiny apartment with the bright green cabinets across from the Jardin de la Folie-Titon promises exactly this space to breathe. As we gallantly make our way through the famous French bureaucracy of telephone companies and internet set up and electricity and insurance and rendezvous after rendezvous, I know that soon I will have a place to call my own again where we can grow some plants and cook some dinners, entertain friends and family, and offer shelter to those from afar. It’s a much smaller place than what we had in Akron. We have gone from 2100 square feet to about 700 square feet. But it will be a place of love and laughter and Léo (our grandson). A place from which I can stand on the balcony, look across the street where the revolution began, and stir the embers of my own revolution, the personal revolution that Jim Morrison, whose grave is a mere mile from the apartment, speaks about:
“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.”
― Jim MORRISON
We have taken the first steps. Now on to the Bastille!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about courage. All the while that we were going through the process of leaving Akron—downsizing, selling our house, stripping away everything that wasn’t absolutely necessary (the via negativa in the Grotowski lexicon)—numerous people told us how “courageous” we were to embark on this path of moving to Paris. I’m not sure it was courage, but there was a kind of freedom I felt arriving to the airport with no keys, a one-way ticket, and only what we could fit in our suitcases. Of course, I’m not counting the literal “ton” of stuff that had been shipped previously by boat. Let’s forget about that for the moment. I was feeling free, not courageous. But others looked at what we were doing and called it courage. Even now, in Paris, we have met people who have remarked how courageous it is to make such a change in life so late in the game. To give up your security, your network of acquaintances and support in lieu of something very unknown. Unenrolling from Medicare was hard, even though I knew that in three months we would have access to one of the best medical systems in the world. But was that “courageous?” Trying to decide which memento or book to keep and which to part with took time. But is that courage?
I started kindergarten the same fall that John F. Kennedy was elected President. My formative years of grade school, first through fifth grades, took place in a four room Catholic schoolhouse, two grades to a room, with Sisters Dorine and Edwina and Mrs. Swatzina. For me, the word courage was associated with my evolving conception of our president. I knew he had written a book titled Profiles in Courage, and I perused the weekly issues of Life and Look consuming the images of the handsome JFK sailing with his beautiful wife, and the stories of how he saved his PT boat crew from certain death during WWII. In the summer of 1963, I remember watching Hollywood’s version of this courageous story, PT109, in our small town’s main street movie theatre.
Later that summer, I made one of my first theatrical appearances in the annual “Kiddie Parade” as a toga-wearing Julius Caesar, marching with my older brother, Tim, cast as Mark Anthony, clad in black leotard, tights, and tin foil armor. Wendy Bloom, daughter of the editor of the town’s newspaper, The Stanley Republican, floated between us as a very blonde (might I say Marilyn-esque) Cleopatra. I remember there was an asp involved as well. Somewhere. We won an honorable mention even though no one really knew who we were supposed to be. The infamous movie with Elizabeth Taylor hadn’t been released yet. Few people made the connection between the three wholesome children “courageously” strutting down Main Street amidst trikes and bikes festooned with crepe paper and balloons and the lurid Taylor-Burton scandal that burned the world’s presses. I think my mother and her friends, who conceived the idea of their children portraying this ill-fated love triangle, didn’t quite take their performance art idea far enough to make the statement resonate for the residents of Stanley, Wisconsin. However, the semiotics of my first performance now make me smile. Yes, I had a good childhood, but still, what about “courage?”
One day in third grade, later that same fall, Father Cramer came into the classroom and announced that the President had been shot. I remember the shock on Mrs. Swatzina’s face as her hands involuntarily covered her gasping mouth. I remember the moment of fear as I whispered to the girl sitting closest to me that the Russians would now take over. Or was it the Republicans? Usually, my brother and I walked the long mile to our house on the outskirts of town, but today after school my mother picked us up in the car. The weekend was spent watching the remains of our country’s courage played out on television and my idyllic childhood quickly faded with the autumn colors.
It’s probably clear to you by now that courage is a badge that I am not comfortable wearing. Sometimes courage is simply generosity. Sometimes it is compassion. Sometimes it is forced upon you and sometimes it comes after the fact. Rarely, is it something one seeks. My colleague Neema, who grew up in a refugee camp and arrived in Akron with his family to start a new life—he is courageous. The young people, like my niece Viola, who are starting university this fall at a time when the world is in such a state of chaos and tumult—she is courageous. The elderly who daily face their loneliness and mortality with dignity and fortitude—they are courageous. People of color and LGBTQ youth and adults who must constantly defend themselves against systemic racism and phobias that assault them at every moment—they are courageous. Those who battle disease and addiction, devastating loss and grief–they are courageous.
This past week as I explored what will soon be our new neighborhood, I stopped in front of the school next to our apartment building. I saw a placard like ones that I had seen on several other schools in the 11th and 12th arrondissements in Paris. It reads:
In memory of the students from this school
deported from 1942 to 1944 because they were born Jewish,
innocent victims of the barbarism of the Nazis and the Vichy government.
More than 1200 children from the 11th arrondissement
were exterminated in the death camps.
May 15, 2004 We will never forget them.
They were courageous.
A few weeks have rushed by since my last posting. When I think of all that has happened in the past seven weeks, since we left the USA on July 1, I get a bit light-headed. After we received the keys to our apartment, we have been busy cleaning, painting, and furnishing the empty space. Our Akron goods have still not arrived. In fact, the boat’s departure has been postponed, for the fourth time, until August 31. I don’t know the new boat’s name, but we’ve gone through the Atlanta, the Tosca, and the Daedalus. I’m a little afraid what the next one will be called. Perhaps it’s best not to know the name.
We have been living day to day with the bare minimum of “things.” We bought a bed—a very good one. I told Jairo it will probably be the bed we die in so we should make sure it’s comfortable.
A sofa (très BoBo chic), a desk and chair, a dining room table and chairs (more Bo(hemian) than Bo(urgeoisie), a guest bed (Léo’s bed), a buffet, a refrigerator (the tallest refrigerator I’ve ever seen) and an Ikea island with stools to create some workspace in our very efficient, Parisian, open, “American” kitchen—these items round off our major purchases. The kitchen features lovely olive-green cabinets, a dishwasher, a washing machine, an induction stove top, a very small oven, and a micro-wave that Kena and Raphael were able to loan us. We also bought a great bistro table and two folding chairs to put on the balcony. It was marked down 45% and just waiting for us in Monoprix when we walked in one day. Other necessities, like sheets, towels, dishware, some flatware and utensils, cleaning products, and lots of Bonne Maman jam to use the jars temporarily as glassware (very Bo(hemian) of us) have found their way into our closets and cupboards.
We are slowly exploring the neighborhood. It’s a little difficult in August since many businesses close for vacation. But we are trying out different boulangeries and butcher shops and trying to determine the best supermarket to frequent and where to buy our vegetables, cheese, and fish. Aligre, one of Paris’ traditional open air and enclosed markets, is a ten-minute walk from the apartment. The options for garden-fresh, local, and organic food are many and will increase in September when the city goes back to work.
Paris has been exceptionally quiet this August. There are fewer tourists because of the pandemic. The streets and stores are much less crowded. Often, we find ourselves alone on a bus or metro car. It’s been a nice, easy orientation to big city life after 30 years of Akron’s small city calm.
This brings me to my meditation for this posting. I’ve been thinking a lot about “home.” Maybe it’s because our recent collaborator, Josy Jones, is working on a project called Home back in Akron. But the question, “What is it that makes home?, has been haunting me since moving into our new abode. Having our Akron things around us, artwork and pictures hanging on the walls, bowls and books in place, will certainly create a more familiar atmosphere in the apartment, but is that what will create home? Certainly, our grandson playing in the space, making “snow” from the Styrofoam packing material, and building forts and castles with his abuelo from the cardboard boxes left from the multiple deliveries, will begin to forge memories and infuse our petite flat with a sense of play and transformation. But what makes a place “home?” In New World Performance Lab’s Performance Ecology work, Jairo talks about the body being the first “home,” oikos in Greek, from which we derive the terms ecology and the eco-system. Perhaps this is the key. Our bodies themselves are home and create home. Home is not one place. It is wherever “I” am. For us, it is the intersection of Jairo’s presence with mine. It is the inclusion of other “bodies” within that juncture: intimate lunches and dinners with Kena, Raphael, and Léo; hosting Viola, our first Akron visitor, for several gaga days before we were in any condition to receive guests; unruly and improvised vacation days with extended family on the west coast of France. Dare I say it without seeming too sappy? Home is not a place. Home is a condition. Home is another word for love.
It’s been a while since I sat down and gathered my thoughts into this thing called a blog. And even though I stoically insisted “NO EXCUSES!” from my students for years, here are some poor excuses for an excuse: First off, there was vacation– a real French vacation at the seashore. To take a break from writing while we enjoyed the bliss of sand, sun, and salty air seemed like a good idea. I slowly began to shed the layers of stress and tension that had accumulated over the past few years. The pandemic, a forced and rapid retirement, the move, my mother’s illness, and new beginnings at every juncture had hammered an armor over my emotions. I needed some time to disassemble myself. Vacation served as a point of departure for this work.
The French refer to the weeks after vacation, the beginning of September, as la rentrée. This term can have many meanings: the end of vacation, the beginning of the school year, autumn. It also signals the opening of the French Parliament and the beginning of various seasons—theatre, literature, music, and others. I like to think of it as both a homecoming and a re-entry, blending the new with the nostalgic. September and October are a beautiful time in Paris. The threat of any kind of heatwave has passed and the days are generally sunny with cool and clear evenings. This year, especially, there was a sense of excitement that things were getting back to normal. Theatre, dance, opera, music, and art exhibits were all happening as scheduled. Although tourists were still scant, the city began to bustle. We spent la rentrée figuring out our grandparent duties and which days and times we would be responsible for our grandson, picking him up at school, feeding him, playing in the park, or taking him to some other activity. French schools are not in session on Wednesday afternoons. Therefore, Léo gets to split his Wednesdays—one week with his abuelo and dziadzia and the next week with Mami-Do and Papi-Lo. Abuelo also picks him up after school several other days of the week and spends some quality playtime with him. They have developed a deep and tender rapport that allows them to enter each other’s fantasies and play with abandon. Léo has an extremely inquisitive mind (I suppose most four-year olds do) and we have spent numerous dinners discussing the lineage of Greek gods and goddesses, stories of King Arthur and his knights of the round table, and the names of all the different dinosaurs (and I mean all).
When I began this blog entry, it was again vacation time in France. The last week of October and the first week of November mark an academic break for French school children: les vacances de la Toussaint. When I went to Catholic grade school in Wisconsin, we always had off on All Saints Day. One day of vacation, mind you, not two weeks. We arrogantly held this day over the heads of our public-school friends because, of course, it was November 1, the day after Halloween, and us Catholic kids were able to stay out late and spend the entire next day counting our loot and trading candy. Those were the days before Trick or Treat became a movable feast and must end before darkness falls. It never entered our minds to begin until after sunset and it was dark outside. Suddenly, the streets of our tiny town were full of kids running from house to house, dressed in sheets or old work clothes to depict a ghost or a scarecrow. Groups would meet on street corners and report to each other who was giving out nickel candy bars or other special treats. One year the bread man gave out little loaves of white bread and the milk man’s house always held some surprise. I was lucky to be in the same class as one of the milk man’s sons. On his birthday, his dad would show up to school with ice cream bars or chocolate milk for everyone in the class. On Halloween, the milk man’s house and the bread man’s house were at the top of the list. There were, of course, the scary houses that everyone would skip or where we would dare each other to ring the bell and run off. No one was watching us. Our parents sent us off and we didn’t think about going back home until our bags were full of treats or we were too cold or tired to continue. It seemed like it lasted all night, but it was probably a two-hour spectacle at most. Still, it was very different from the antiseptic version of Halloween practiced today.
This blog entry was going to be about my reasons for not blogging. My first excuse for not blogging in a while was vacation. And then another vacation. There was also the arrival of our two tons of “stuff” via boat from the USA. Our apartment on Rue Titon is now completely furnished with rocking chairs, kitchen crockery, glassware, books, files, and artwork. Home has been established. Coziness ensues.
I wonder if I can use coziness as an excuse for not writing. As I sit on my Bobo chic sofa, sipping an after-lunch coffee, listening to abuelo and Léo playing in the guest room, I am content. Writing from a place of contentment seems like a perfect way to spend a November afternoon in Paris. I promise I will do better. Until next time.