Thoughts on Paris

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Boulevard Haussmann, Paris

Good Americans when they die go to Paris.
– Thomas Appleton

The magic of Paris lies in the religious quality of its architecture, the juxtaposition of that which is greater than man, beyond him in every way, with that which is exactly his size and precisely meant for him. The imperial monolith of the Haussmannian boulevards—the vast wings of cut stone, the uniformity of the limestone facades against the slate of the mansard roofs, the precise alignment of every balcony, floor, and window on the block—all of these communicate that one is part of something larger than oneself. But the uniform grandeur of the boulevards hides smaller, quieter attractions. It hides cafes and arcade corners and little markets of every sort. It hides charm.

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Parisian charm

The city—like other continental cities, especially the Latinate ones—is very public. People spend more time outdoors, and public spaces are much more frequently used. Young people are almost always picnicking on the banks of canals, more old men read newspapers on park benches, and almost every restaurant has a terrace on which dark, brooding Frenchmen and waifish ingénues with disheveled hair smoke with great abandon and with no apparent concern that they are perpetuating stereotypes. I’ve always loved this about Paris. The city feels so alive and vibrant; there is energy and, finally, a great esprit de corps.

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Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

But, as the fox says to the Little Prince in France’s most beloved story, nothing’s perfect. There’s a code of conduct for public space that is as peculiar as it is complex. You can stay as long as you like on a restaurant’s terrace with no fear of lurking, disapproving servers, but there are certain times of day when only food, not beverage, will buy that right. There are public monuments at which you can do any activity whatsoever—no matter how amorous—but at which you absolutely cannot eat. Feet are filthy, shameful things and ought not to be propped up on empty benches. Anywhere. Ever. Ever. This particular rule is enforced not just by the disapproving public but by security guards who emerge from the shadows to scold. Being a young woman in France buys you a good number of favors and discounts and a great deal of immunity—but not that much.

So though I love Paris, I wasn’t always à l’aise there. Privacy is elusive, a fact particularly unsettling for homebodies like myself. I had corners of public gardens that became mine in a way, but they weren’t invulnerable. Sometimes it rained, and sometimes the amorous couples arrived before I did. In these cases there was nowhere to retreat. Letting my mind wander in the anonymity of the metro was the closest to privacy that I could come.

Magdalen College, Oxford

Magdalen College, Oxford

It was this acutely urban life that I left when I went to visit in Philip in Oxford for the first time. Oxford, a city that is the opposite of Paris in every way, was the perfect place to catch my breath. Old, medieval, idiosyncratic, and above all cozy—that is Oxford in the fall. Everyone called me “love,” and the guestroom in Philip’s university housing had exposed timber beams. We and a friend had champagne and strawberries at ten o’clock in the morning, surrounded by the extravagant autumnal splendor of Addison’s Walk, because we assumed from having read Brideshead Revisited that that is what one does at Oxford. We put our feet on benches. It was the antidote in every way to the parts of Parisian life that had become exhausting, as great pleasures can.

There was just one thing I didn’t love in England—London. I had gotten hopelessly lost while looking for a bus stop and the very last bus of the night, and what should have been simple was incomprehensibly difficult. My exhaustion gave way to a kind of feverish terror, and it became clear no one in the whole damn city spoke English.  I can see now how that might be wonderful in its own right, but my strait was blinding me to charm, as straits will do. When I arrived back in Paris, tired and lonely, I was oddly relieved to hear someone say, “Pardon, mademoiselle.” “Thank God they speak my language here,” was my thought, a brief and lovely thought.

Of course I saw the irony immediately; French is not my language, and in fact my French is only middling. But I was sure not to be lost or terrified in Paris. If you are a young woman in France and you stand still for more than a few seconds, men of all ages emerge to offer you directions in the clear, uniform French of the Académie so that you, a pretty but undoubtedly stupid foreigner, will be sure to understand.

I told my host mother about my relief that night, told her against my better judgment, for she was an eccentric Parisienne of the most vehement sort, and a tirade was never far from her lips. I was certain she was about to launch into a lecture about how very française I was not, but instead she said the only truly kind thing she ever said to me, something motivated at least in part, I am sure, by her undying hatred of the English, but also in part, I like to think, by something else. “Of course,” she said, in French. “You felt yourself at home here.”

Writings Elsewhere

Lest you think we haven’t been writing lately, a few posts from elsewhere . . .

Killing Perfectionism

After the planning and measuring and careful digging and tender planting, after you enclose a seed in its dark little chamber, there is almost nothing you can do. What’s happening is happening where you can’t see it, and all you can do is wait, keeping the faith.

What They Don’t Tell You About Buying a House

. . .  problems caused by love are problems worth having.

Lessons from My Grandmother

Never complained. I believe this of my grandmother, who complained shockingly little even when she was dying of cancer. But that none of the women complained—that still surprises me. What a different era from our own. And how strong these women were, how very unlike myself.

Perhaps, if we are very, very fortunate, Philip will link to some of his posts over at EerdWord as well; they are much finer stuff. And, if I can pull myself out of the Aeneid for long enough, I think I have another post for this blog coming.

Poets’ Corner: The Right Book at the Right Time

Philip:

Here’s the first post from a regular column I’ll be writing for Eerdmans. If there’s one regret I have about high school, it’s that I didn’t skip class more often.

Originally posted on EerdWord:

Philip Zoutendam Philip Zoutendam

About Poets’ Corner, a new column from Philip Zoutendam.

The South Transept at Westminster Abbey is called “Poets’ Corner.” It’s a place where the luminaries of British literature, beginning with Chaucer and extending through Dryden and Dickens to Eliot and Auden, are buried and memorialized. For those who, like me, can’t quite remember their art history lessons, the transept is the shorter arm of a cruciform church. Thus the placement of Poets’ Corner becomes a symbol, a simple and beautiful reminder of the place that poetry has in faith. Not all our belief is theology, or perhaps more precisely, not all our theology is syllogism and argument. Some of it is wonder. Some of it is beauty.

I myself am no poet, and this column will not be my corner. It will be a place to celebrate the poetic within Eerdmans books, a place to remember…

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Seeing Words Anew // A Review of Sacred Pause: A Creative Retreat for Word-weary Christians

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Around our house, Paraclete Press is known as a publisher of pretty books. Paraclete is responsible for the lovely Advent and Lent devotionals that I use, books with thick pages, ribbon bookmarks, and full-color representations of sacred art. Paraclete takes the physicality of books seriously.

And so it is with Sacred Pause: A Creative Retreat for Word-weary Christians. The book has a beautiful, airy feel to it, with wide margins and color on every page. And indeed the book has to be beautiful if it is to live up to its promise—after all, it is a collection of words promising to help us recover from other words.

In order to rouse the word-weary, Rachel Hackenberg (a minister in the United Church of Christ and author of Writing to God) sets out not to remove us from words but to help us consider them anew. She writes, “Sacred Pause is your invitation to approach the words of faith with curiosity, to seek out fuller understandings of our religious vocabulary, to adopt childlike wonder for the sights and sounds and even colors of words, to marvel at the breadth of meaning that words convey, and to make use of words for spiritual renewal and growth.”

In each of the twelve chapters (which constitute twelve individual “retreats”) there are guided exercises, such as using mandalas to explore word associations, illustrating the individual sounds words make, and creating “MadLib” psalms (less cheesy and more beautiful than it sounds!). Visual, creative types will no doubt find the connections that Hackenberg makes vivifying, and they will feel at home in the careful design of each page.

As someone who is neither visual nor creative, what I appreciated most about the book was Hackenberg’s understanding of the religious language that we use to talk about God; she sees it as essential but ultimately only an imperfect attempt to describe a God beyond our comprehension. Without any hint of jadedness or disillusionment, Hackenberg warns against the idolatry of words, against the false belief that we can completely and certainly contain God within doctrine, liturgy, and religious vocabulary. She writes, “If anything remains with you from your retreat with this book . . . I hope it’s the understanding that religious language is always and only an attempt to translate a Word that is beyond complete translation.”

I tend to seek my word-therapy in poetry, so I don’t know how often I will return to this book. That being said, I thought of several friends for whom this book would be the perfect resource, friends who are more creative than I am and who long for the open-ended exercises that Hackenberg has provided.

Full disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of Sacred Pause from Paraclete Press in exchange for an honest review.