Unintended Consequences

Posted September 13, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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Probably I’m anthropomorphising but I’ve been obsessed all summer with getting a kitten for Minou. He seems lonely and bored, and Toby only comes in to eat, say rude things to him, and leaves for his secret destination, wherever it is that he spends 99% of his non-eating time.

All summer I’ve searched for the perfect kitten and the perfect time to get one. Not before I went to France, not before I went to Bainbridge, not when I’d have house guests or a noisy party. Not while the local Humane Society was infested with ringworm. Finally, last weekend, I decided the time had come, before kitten season was over. I went and picked out what seemed to be the best available kitten, although I wasn’t in love with any of them.

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She was a tiny thing, weighing only 2.2 pounds. She purred when I held her, and seemed sweet enough. And then I brought her home. She met Minou, who weighs in at a solid 13 pounds, and all hell broke loose. Minou behaved himself quite well, but the kitten screamed and shrieked at him. He went outside in self-defense, she settled down.

That night she slept by my pillow in the place that Minou usually occupies from around 5 a.m. until I get up. He jumped on the bed in the morning and I awoke to an unearthly scream. Partly that was me, because when I’m sound asleep and someone screams right in my ear, I’m inclined to join in the chorus. Minou jumped down and ran for the hills.

Later that morning I realized that he had a bleeding gash on his neck, my sweet Minou who never fights at all. I put the kitten back in her box and returned her to the Humane Society, not 24 hours after adopting her, without remorse. Minou acted traumatized for a couple of days, and I dabbed at his wound with antibiotic gel. Then this morning I saw that in scratching at it he had opened it up much more than the original gash, and it was actually pretty gory, Off to the vet he went.

He got stitches. He got a cone. I got a bill for $250, in addition to the $95 I had paid to adopt that kitten. But all of that is just an aside to how freaked out, like totally psycho-nutjob, he is now. The cone makes him crazy, makes him try to get it off by batting his head against the wall. They said to keep him inside, which means closing the cat door. Now he can’t get out, has to remember how to use a litter box, and Toby has no way to come in for food. The whole balance of life in our house is topsy-turvy.

And all as a result of the fact that I probably projected my own loneliness onto Minou. I’m desperately hoping that things will settle down. And that’s definitely the end of the add-a-kitten program for this year. Be careful what you wish for, someone wise said that.

 

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Morning, Interrupted

Posted August 21, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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This was the perfect day to take the morning off work, grab some geeky glasses and some nice food and wine, and hang out with friends in a sublime spot, gawking and wowing in a gaggle.

It is safe to say that we were all enthralled and astounded, although we all expected it to be a lot darker that it was at our big moment. What a potent sun we orbit, that shines so brightly even when it’s 97% blotted out. Incredible.

It was a very hot morning, so we were glad when it cooled perceptibly and a little evening-type breeze washed over us in the most welcome way. It got unearthly silent as a nearby combine and even road traffic shut down for the event. As it got dimmer and dimmer Skye the Weimaraner hadn’t gotten the memo and decided that she didn’t like it one bit, so she provided a mournful sound track of her own. We could have live-streamed the Kronos Quartet, who were playing a real-time musical interpretation of the eclipse, but we had Skye and that was all we needed.

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Even though two of us look like we’re posing for a B movie poster about incipient alien landings and the other two look like they’re posing for a NASA recruitment ad, we were all well and truly impressed by our galaxy.

We watched the moon come and go, had some befuddled Google-assisted conversations about the moon’s rotational pattern which was so evident from our vantage point, gravity and tidal locking, and whether there is really a dark side of the moon (nope, but there is a side we never see). From time to time we’d pop in to the house like cuckoos in a clock, to watch as people cheered the NASA totality captures all over the country.

As a new day began the robins re-inhabited the lawn and a nearby rooster crowed as if two dawns in one day were a thing. We basked in all of this while sharing a lovely potluck brunch in comfy chairs on a deck above the vineyards and below the rim of the Blues. A perfect summer morning.

 

Help In The Night

Posted August 12, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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Last night, the eve of my birthday, managed to be one of the most desperate nights of my life. To set the stage, I’m spending the week in a sweet little vacation rental on one of the more remote parts of the island, with water on both sides of the house.

Because the Perseid showers are always my birthday gift from the universe, I went out on the back deck about 10:00 to look for meteors. Because it had gotten a bit chilly, I closed the door behind me. Because I’m an idiot I didn’t see that although I had unlocked one lock to get out, there was another, waiting to ambush me. Twenty minutes later, no meteors. Also, I’m locked out on a deck that’s right over the water. All of the windows are locked, and my phone, keys, wallet, and glasses are inside the house.

No point in screaming for help, as there’s no one home in the houses on either side of mine. I remembered that there was a little door from the deck to the parking area. It was jammed and only opened about 12 inches, but I knew it was either jump in and swim, or squeeze through that door, even though I was mortally afraid of being stuck in there all night, or possibly for the rest of my life. I ooched and scooched my not-at-all-small way through, bending the wooden gate as much as I could, and finally as I popped out the other side the door came free of whatever had been blocking it.

So then there I was, in the pitch dark, with no neighbors home. I stumbled up the road toward a house that had lights on in the upstairs bedrooms and rang their bell. A silver-haired woman who looked to be in her late 60s came hesitantly to the door, wearing a housecoat and slippers. I pleaded for help. I must have looked either so honest or so distraught that her sense of danger was overcome, and she let me in. I think her name is Reenie, although I wouldn’t swear to that.

She and I proceeded to try to find the number of the rental’s owner, who lives in California. Apparently it’s unlisted. I called 911, and the nice policeman gave me some numbers of locksmiths, who don’t answer their phones at night.  Reenie called AAA, just in case. No luck. I called my former neighbor Denys, who lives about four miles up the road, is 84 years old, and goes to bed early after a few Manhattans. He still has an old-school voice answering machine and I yelled into it “help, Denys, wake up, help” about a dozen times, but no luck. Reenie kept urging me to break a window, but I told her I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Totally freaked out doesn’t begin to describe how I felt, and it was now after 11:00. No keys, no phone, no glasses, no wallet. At least I was fully dressed and had shoes on.

Intrepidly, Reenie grabbed a flashlight and a huge hammer and went out, still in her pink-flowered housecoat, to break into a stranger’s house. In the event she had to hammer like a lumberjack because the door turned out to have double-paned safety glass, made to entirely resist break-ins. She did succeed, finally, we exchanged heartfelt hugs, and I was home.

I had hoped to get the glass replaced today without any need to confess to the owner what an idiot I was, but no, there’s no glass place anywhere around that works on the weekend. Meanwhile, poor Denys got up this morning, saw his answering machine light flashing, heard my cries for help, and arrived, pale-faced and grim, at my door.

Because he was a builder and contractor all his life, he set about removing all the shattered glass and trim pieces, and closing up the opening temporarily. First thing Monday morning I’ll show up at the glass shop and hand over my credit card. But before then I have to call the owner, which, I can assure you, I absolutely do not want to do. I’m always a model guest, taking care of things as if they were my own. It’s almost more than I can bear to admit to being an idiot.

And now I’ve told the whole world. And also, it’s my birthday. Reenie and Denys, you’re my best gifts ever.

Smoke And Sand

Posted August 8, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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I wept all the way from Walla Walla to Vantage. Not because I was sad to leave my new home for the old one, but because the land was awash in smoke. My eyes streamed, my nose stuffed, and cars appeared like shape-shifters, making me blink furiously and wonder whether I needed new glasses. When I climbed up to the high desert around Ellensburg the smoke lifted off the roadway, but the mountains were still a blur. Through it all I kept the vision of the island clear in my mind, and hoped against hope that the skies would clear.

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Seattle greeted me, wearing a gauzy grey little wrap. I could see the island across the sound, but dimly.

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If you were reading French Letters last year, you might recognize this view. You might remember it with a blue sky, blue water, as I do, not floating disembodied on the page as it is here. This is the back yard of the sweet vacation house I’m renting for the second time, a place that feels oddly like home, whatever the palette.

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And this is the front yard, peculiarly pale, mysteriously bleached. I should add that the two bodies of water are not more than 100 feet apart where this house sits, on a sand spit that we had all better hurry up and appreciate before it goes under water as the sea level rises inexorably.

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When I arrived the table was set for four, although I imagine that my guests and I will always dine outdoors, smoke be damned.

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In French you’d call this a house les pieds dans l’eau, with its feet in the water, and that seems apt, as I stretch out after my long drive with my feet over the scummy backwash of the ebbing tide on the lagoon side of the house.

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Night begins to fall, almost imperceptibly, the grey deepening, a few lights coming on. Still I don’t go inside. This is the first time in weeks that I’ve actually been cool while out of doors, and it feels fantastic, even though it means having smoke instead of sweat clinging to my hair.

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A smoky moon rises. This day is done.

Where Wheat Is King

Posted August 4, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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Yesterday I went on a hot and hazy journey. You might have heard that we’re having a heat wave here in the Pacific Northwest, with temperatures hovering around 100°, and that we’re being smoked out by the fires in British Columbia. It’s not as bad here as it is in the Bainbridge Island area, where a friend told me today that he couldn’t see across Puget Sound for the smoke. But it’s hazy and greyish and the sky has an unhealthy gauziness to it. Plus it’s icky sticky hot. Staying indoors with the air conditioning cranked seems the prudent thing to do.

Nonetheless, yesterday I went on a 200 mile drive through it all.

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It was such a still day that even the windmills were powerless to churn up the cough-inducing mix of smoke and dust from the last of the wheat harvest. The wheat is mostly in, but the last harvesters are toiling away, and the trucks hauling the wheat down to the Seattle Grain Terminal are plying the roads. It’s the kind of drive where all you see is wheat, interspersed with scrubby range land, and punctuated by startlingly few homes. A lot of the way I had the road absolutely to myself, and I admit that I reveled in it.

When I drive like that I don’t have the radio on, no CD, just the whoosh of the car in space. Sometimes I sing to myself, sometimes I don’t. It’s a time for freedom, for just keeping my eyes and ears open and being glad to be on the planet another day.

I was going to Clarkston, WA, for my work.  The work part was good. Very good, even. But the town was discouraging, at least to an outsider. I asked one of the guys I was interviewing where the pretty part of town was, and he allowed as how there really wasn’t any. It’s a town of about 7,000, plopped down in what we’d call the middle of nowhere. In French you’d say it’s at the fin fond of Washington, which means more or less the furthest depths, and to my ear captures the situation better. It’s a town that sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, which makes it sound pretty.

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I took this picture at a tiny park in town, and for once the picture looks a lot better than real life, hence the power of Instagram (I imagine). This looks bucolic, but in reality it’s kind of tucked behind an industrial area, an afterthought. Clarkston also just a bridge away from Lewiston, ID, which is the most inland seaport in the U.S. Amazingly, it’s located 465 river miles inland from the Pacific, separated by eight locks and dams. Tens of millions of tons of wheat pass through this port, on their way west, quite a bit of it headed for Asia. That makes it sound imposing.

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But in reality, it looks like this. A small and dusty town perched on the edge, one where you can still get burgers and shakes delivered right to your parked car. There’s a lot to be said for that, and there are things you could say against it as well. I could say that nearly all of the students attending the community college there qualify for financial aid. I could say it’s a place where two years of community college studies will get you a job at less than $20 an hour, whereas if you took that welding degree and hopped a plane to Texas you’d likely start out at $80,000 a year. It’s a town where a hot and dusty traveler might not get offered a cup of coffee. That’s how on the edge it is.

Of course, I was only there for three and a half hours, so what do I know? Four hours on the road, less than that to try to capture the feeling of the place, the dreams of the teachers and students of that college. To understand why they are there, of all places on the planet, other than an accident of birth. Why do people stay there, in a town that wheat built? What did I miss, in my laughably short time there?

Well, I can say that I didn’t see anyone kiss, although they must. I didn’t see anyone vote, but it’s Trump country so that’s probably just as well. I didn’t see the town’s beating heart, and so I’ll go back. I’ll keep looking, but I’ll be prepared to be disappointed. I didn’t see a single sign advertising gluten-free anything.

Crossroads Of The Heart

Posted July 28, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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Somehow life in France always seems more vivid to me. I don’t know why, but when I’m there the smallest things glow with meaning and emotion. Every word and gesture seems nourished by an undercurrent of feeling.  Shel always said that when we lived there I was the happiest he’d ever seen me, and I think that’s still true. Something in me sings to be there, it’s an intimate experience of well-being, living in a place where le relationnel, the interpersonal, is the driving force of daily life.

I got a little French suntan last week while I was on vacation, but it’s already fading. I’m still thinking in French half the time, but it’s no longer all the time. I brought home with me the impulse to look prettier, fuss with myself a bit, that always descends on me when I’m there. That too shall pass, and I’ll once again go to the grocery store in embarrassing shirts with lackadaisical hair, not having looked in a mirror all day. That’s how I am here, less, in so many ways.

One reason is that there everyone knew and loved Shel, thought of me as his wife, seldom saw me alone. Here, no one’s ever known me to be anything but alone. Ça change la donne, which is hard to translate. It’s a game-changer, making you do something differently because of the hand you’ve been dealt.

In a certain way now I’m a half, but my friends in France all knew me when I was part of a whole. In another way I’m twice what I was, because, whatever happens, now it’s all up to me. I live another life in France, I speak another language, I’m someone else entirely.

But this time I was definitely an American, and faced a lot of gently- raised eyebrows. and a certain amount of tiptoeing around, until I took to saying notre soi-disant President, our so-called President. It’s a lot for one person to have to answer for, the horrific mistakes made by one’s country. I gained a much greater sympathy for the Germans of modern times, who must feel, as I do “it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it.”

All of which raises the question of who I want to be in this so-difficult world. In spite of  the legendary bureaucracy and the notorious plumbing, should I sink back into what feels to me like the warm bath of French life? Or is that bath bound to cool with the times, just as the American dream is shattering, unthinkably? Stand and fight, or flee toward peace?

It’s a time of deep, existential deliberation for me, and it’s France that inspires my contemplation. As a woman alone on this Earth, one with a foot in each of two worlds, I welcome your thoughts and counsel.

La Piscine Et Le Glouglou

Posted July 17, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: At Home In France

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Glouglou is a lovely onomatopoetic French word that technically means to gurgle, or glug, but also means to drink a lot, or describes what one drinks a lot of. And piscine is, of course, a swimming pool. And drinking, perhaps immoderately, while swimming? Well, that’s the story of the day.

Because all the while I was planning this trip to France I was dreaming of this pool. Perhaps it’s a shallow dream, to go where it’s hot and submerge oneself in cool water while drinking French wine, or the alluring, anise-flavored drink of the south, pastis. Ok, I’ll just go ahead and be shallow. I’m on vacation and shallowness is called for. Or, if not called for, at least allowed and indulged.

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Although down here near the deep end is where some of Shel’s ashes are buried, and it’s here that I place a glass of whatever glouglou I’m indulging in, so that I return regularly to where he lies, floating, paddling, and just generally hanging around his presence, on some level or other.

Today while there I suddenly began humming a bit of a song by Alain Bashung, “un jour je parlerai moins, jusq’au jour où je ne parlerai plus.” One day I will speak less, until the day when I speak no more. Which is, as you know, exactly how it went down. That inspired a pretty big gulp.

After a few lazy laps I passed by this same spot and heard in my head another French classic, “il y a longtemps que je t’aime, jamais je ne t’oublierai.”  I’ve loved you for such a long time, I’ll never forget you. And there a gulp wasn’t enough, I discovered that what I really needed was a saltwater face wash, which my own blue eyes obligingly provided.

Ok then, is that why I’m here, in this sort of garden of Eden?

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To revisit my past life? I thought I was coming to see old friends, before they, or I, get too old for a grueling journey between our two far-apart daily lives. I didn’t realize that this house would be a living cemetery of memory, albeit beautiful memory, and beautiful in its own right. Maybe more of a memory museum.

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But yes, the view from this pool, one of my very favorite spots in the world, is clouded, or enhanced, depending on your perspective, by the shadows of my former life. In this case, it’s analogous to a filter. Because for the first time I decided not to bring a camera, but to try to make a leap into the future by using just my phone to capture my days. And the filters cast shadows, and make things glow, just like my memories.

But I’m not reproaching myself for any of it. I plan to spend as much time in the pool as I possibly can, and if it’s saltier when I leave, well c’est la vie.