Many lifetimes ago, on a planet far, far away, I fell in love with France. I had divorced after an early marriage and decided to fall in love with a country instead. I upped my high school and college French by dating Frenchmen and made a point of getting to France at least once, and often twice, a year. I could do that even on a low income because there were some cheap airfares back then. I flew Pakistan Air to Paris in the middle of one summer for $150.
Met the man of my dreams, lived with him a short while, and one rainy summer day knew it was all over. Not just my relationship with him, but also my relationship with Paris. And not just the relationship with Paris, but with the beautiful things outside that we clutch at because we think that there’s nothing inside.
I remember well how it all ended. It was a Sunday twilight, around 8 or 9 in the evening (it gets dark very late in Paris summers), and it was raining. I left our apartment and walked far till somewhere around Montparnasse a young man began to walk by my side. We maintained a companionable silence in the rain till he finally said, “Vous êtes triste, Madame?” [“Are you sad?] “Oui, Je suis triste,” I said back.
Without any further ado he told me his story. He was Hungarian living in Paris and several days earlier came back to find his furniture gone, his money gone from the bank, and his girlfriend gone, all now belonging to his best friend, a fellow Hungarian also living in Paris.
It was the oldest story in the world, and he told it to me in French as we walked through Jardin du Luxembourg in the Paris mist. No one was feeding the pigeons, no raucous children or couples in love, just a Hungarian expatriate living in Paris who had lost his reason to live, as he earnestly told me, and an American woman who lost her taste for Paris. We walked like this for a long time, he so deeply engrossed in his story that I don’t think he guessed that I wasn’t French.
Two days later I left France and didn’t come back for many years.
The page turned. I realized that there was no escaping my own skin. When I began to sit, or meditate, a couple of years later I realized that there was also a way of living in my own skin, maybe even finding refuge there.
Yesterday I returned home from our summer sesshin, or Zen retreat. I came back to two gorgeous dahlias in what had been till now a dahlia-less summer, to a home that, in the fall and winter, had felt caved-in upon itself but that was now enjoying the warm yellow sun and whose grass was thick and green. Aussie had broken through the fence again but broke right back and rushed to greet me when I yelled out her name, and Harry the dog mewled like a kitten when he saw me come out of the car.
I felt that I had rarely sat with so much in my heart as I had in this retreat. Episodes from the past popped up without surcease; I finally gave up pushing them away and let them wash over me, as did tears. I read aloud some of my notes from my Greyston Journal and I gave a talk about how to save a ghost.
You learn to take up all the space that life has given you. You dance with the afternoon sun as it frolics on the grass and much later you walk unafraid towards the night that lies deep in the garden, beyond the Kwan-Yin. You know that what makes a desert beautiful is that it hides a well somewhere and what makes the water come alive is the parched, indecipherable vastness that surrounds it.
You don’t have to go to Paris.