Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading, Chapter 26: How Did We Get Here?

May 14, 2015

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Photo by Gene Turner /

Photo by Gene Turner /

“THINGS CHANGE,” says Madame Journu. She holds her watering can in one hand  and makes a revolving motion with the other, evoking the cycle of time. “People die or go away, new people come, and the village becomes a new place.”

This is why I listen to her. She has the calm that comes of completing cycles.

It’s been eight years since the summer she and the Baron moved here from Paris and Andrew and I from Washington. We’ve all left world capitals for a tiny dot on a map, and we’ll all be moving on in one way or another.

The Baroness and I look silently around the Place for the new and the missing, and inevitably our eyes are drawn up, over the rooftops, to that spectral gallery of everlasting rocks.

Already, Monsieur Pas Facile had died. Four of my favorite village dogs had died, including my old Mojo. Now we have Beau, a greyhound rescued from Spain. Everyone tells us he’s too fat, just as they told us Mo was too fat and that our cats are too fat. What can I say? I say. We eat well at our house.

Last winter, Rosario finally died in her bed. The ruins she’d made into an atelier were ruins again, and the English-Australian couple who owned the chapel bought the rest.

Fran and Nancy enjoyed coming “home” to the village and spending time in their little apartments. We tried to fill their rooms when we could, and they got a little chump change out of it. Sticking together as the majority owners, we were pretty much of one mind as to the destiny of our property.

Andrew and I continued our holding pattern, asking ourselves how long until J-C drops this bidding war he’s been trying to provoke and agrees to a reasonable offer for the ground floor? Should we hold onto our vision of a place of art and culture and international exchange? Could we keep dodging the affronts and assaults of people who don’t understand us, and work toward making something good happen? Should we integrate?

Or should we say fuck it, sell the property and leave Provence to the tourists? Maybe we were city people and belonged in Paris. One thing was sure. We weren’t going “back.” We’d played the repatriation scenario over and over and it never worked. It held the horror of the addict’s ultimate relapse—a catastrophic surrender of strength and will.

But Paris—that would be moving forward.


I daydream of Paris. I go there in my memory. I verify my whereabouts on Google Earth.

The day dawns with skinny, shivering light, but by afternoon we get the rich, forgiving fullness of maturity, and Paris receives it with a satisfied sigh. This dreamy light burnishes the arcades of the Pont-Neuf, and the Seine mirrors the golden images, ruffled gently by the wake of a bateau mouche, one of the sightseeing boats. Where the piers of the bridge plunge beneath the water there appears another row of arches upside down. I look for the line that separates the real bridge from its illusion.

In this reflective mood, one might consider what defines the surface of water. Is the surface something that separates air from water? Air is one organization of atoms, and water is another. So what is the surface made up of?

Isn’t the surface of water just as much of an illusion as the reflection on it?

The name means “new bridge,” but the Pont-Neuf is the oldest bridge across the Seine. It was completed in the reign of Henri IV, whose horseback image stands by the scene. Henri was the king who guaranteed religious liberty to Protestants with the Edict of Nantes.  When his grandson Louis IV revoked it, great waves of skilled and industrious Huguenots left the shores of France, to the benefit of her neighbors.

I turn around and follow the river westward to the Institut de France, and the little pedestrian bridge, the Pont des Arts, which crosses over to the Louvre. The sketchy beginner at the Académie des Beaux-Arts must daily look across at the pinnacle of glory on the other side, so near and yet so far, and squeeze back tears of frustration.

On the Pont des Arts, I stroll past students sharing wine and joints, lovers kissing, tourists taking pictures, old people musing and bums sleeping on benches—a short story of humanity on the way to the vast treasury of artistic accomplishment in the halls of the Louvre.

I stand still for a minute and watch that august façade soak in the amber light and grow radiant, its windows glittering like inspired eyes.

This is where Sir Kenneth Clark stands in his BBC series, Civilization, and shares these thoughts.

On the one side of the Seine is the harmonious, reasonable façade of the Institute of France, built as a college in about 1670. On the other bank is the Louvre, built continuously from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century: classical architecture at its most splendid and assured. Just visible upstream is the Cathedral of Notre Dame — the most rigorously intellectual façade in the whole of Gothic art. 

What is civilization? I think . . . I am looking at it now.


To contemplate civilization, I think of looking across the continuum of time, as if watching a parade, each epoch symbolized by a float carrying the iconic personages who shaped it. We are who and what came before us. We take them with us as far as we go.


Republic of Texas, 1838. A young woman sees her image in the shallow waters of the San Antonio River. Her married name is Maverick. Some day her husband Samuel will accept a herd of cattle as payment for a debt owed him. A businessman with far-flung interests, he will leave the cattle to roam. When ranchers come across these “mavericks,” they will brand them and take them home.

Mary is a great-great granddaughter of John Lewis, who slew the lord in Donegal County and brought the Lewis family to America. She and her husband and their baby Sam have made the hard overland journey from Tuscaloosa to Texas, and just short of the land where they will settle, their wagon has broken down. Samuel is searching the river bottom for wood to mend the wheel when several Indians ride up. They are in war paint and fresh from victory. They display two scalps, a hand and various other putrid parts of human bodies.

These are Tonkawa Indians, despised by other tribes as ill-natured vagabonds, disposed to thievery. They are generally reputed to be cannibals.

They want to see the papoose.

Mary holds up the baby, making sure they can see the pistol and the Bowie knife at her hip. She will lose four of her ten children to life on the frontier, but not a one to Indians.


San Antonio, 1896. Yellowed pages of fading ink litter the parlor, and old documents and sketches are arranged on the big table in the dining room. Mary Maverick is assembling her memoirs for publication, and her son George comes by every day to help her. “There are twelve of us,” she writes in dedication. “My husband and I and ten children—six living, and six in the Spirit Land.”

Sangamon County, Illinois, 1896. The youngest daughter of a county official celebrates her tenth birthday. Anne is brash and bookish, and she will be over twenty-five when she marries the farmer Charles Mitchell, descendant of John Lewis, and therefore joins the pioneering family that is going gung-ho across America, eyes forward, jaws set, flask in back pocket.


Springfield, 1930. Anne Mitchell scatters chickenfeed in the dusty barnyard and escapes into daydreams of Paris and the artistic life she can only read about. Her daughter whimpers for attention and clutches at her apron. Her two boys will grow up to have families of their own, but this child called Sister will be a twelve-year-old all her life, and Anne will never get to Paris.

San Diego, 1940. Anne’s sons leave the heartland for the promise of aerospace, taking the family’s history to California, to the very edge of the continent. Robert’s path will turn around and go back to the East Coast, but Charles will raise four sons here, and Anne and Sister will spend the rest of their days in a little stucco apartment by the beach.

San Diego, 1950. Anne and her visiting granddaughter throw pellets of bread to the seagulls and walk in the moist, salty seaweed-smelling air under the pier. Anne teaches her granddaughter the words to “Barnacle Bill the Sailor.” The little girl says her mother does not like this song.  Anne bends down to whisper in the girl’s ear: “Durn, durn, double-durn, damn!”

“DAMN!” shouts the little girl happily. “DOUBLE DAMN!”


 Paris, 1965. Anne’s granddaughter encounters Civilization and has a fling with Art.

Universe, 1965. Lieutenant Colonel Ed White steps out of Gemini IV and takes the Lewis genes about as far as they can go from County Donegal.


Atlanta, 1966. Anne’s granddaughter calls her in San Diego.

“Nana, I’m going to be married!”

“Shoot. I was hoping you’d go to Paris and be an artist.”



Washington, D.C., 1980. Anne’s granddaughter sees in her newborn’s eyes a procession of images floating up from some unexplainable depth. She recognizes the prominent foreheads and square jaws of her father’s line.  She sees down the corridor of her blood history.

She is on morphine.

She’d come to with no baby in her arms. She’d demanded to be taken to the intensive care nursery to hold him.

They rolled her there, I.V. and all, but they wouldn’t let her go in.


They let her go in.

“That’s the spirit,” say the ancestors in his eyes.

–Marcia Muir Mitchell 






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