Thursday, December 28, 2017

The man who gave me Japan

Edward Seidensticker was diminutive in stature, but he was a giant.  I didn’t know it at a time when I took his class in Japanese literature at the University of Michigan in 1966. When he walked into the classroom for the first time—I think there were just seven or eight of us—seeing how unlikely, how un-towering he looked, I thought that I had made a grave error. I was thrown, too, by his choked, somewhat agonized way of speaking. But soon I got over that. I got over that as soon as I started listening.

What knowledge. What authority. I knew nothing—and I mean nothing—about Japanese literature. I didn’t even know there was any such thing. I certainly didn’t know that Edward Seidensticker was one of the great translators of Japanese literature. His major opus, the translation of The Tale of Genji—the great majority of which was done when he was at Michigan—was still to come, ten years later. I didn’t know that he was a friend of Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata, Japan’s first Nobel Prize winner. And that, by all standards, he was one of the great scholars of Japanese literature in the world. I learned all that later.  In his class, we studied Japanese poetry and prose from the earliest days until the present.

So, we read Arthur Waley’s translation of the eleventh century masterpiece, The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu that Professor Seidensticker would later translate. We also read excerpts from Sei Shonagon’s tenth century Pillow Book. Professor Seidensticker talked about these books as if he had personally known the authors, andwho knowsmaybe he had. He could tell us everything about them, and did. But for me, who, somewhere, knew he wanted to be a writer, who wanted to throw his lot in with that calling, it was the Japanese poetry that Edward Seidensticker taught and discussed that grabbed me—then and still—by the heart.

Now here was this somewhat agitated, perspiring, highly intense little man telling us about a compilation of Japanese poetry called the Man’yoshuThe Book of Ten Thousand Leaves, as he translated the title. This was Japan’s greatest book of poetry, compiled sometime in the middle of the eighth century, in which there were poems from the fourth century to the eighth. In his half agitated, half shy way, Edward Seidensticker revealed the great voices of the Japanese poetic past. I can still remember the names fifty years later that he spoke: Akahito, Yakamuchi, Okura and Otomaro.

Poems from the Man'yoshu
But the poet who I am forever grateful to him for introducing me to is Kakinomoto no Hitomaro. When Professor Seidensticker spoke of him, he got a faraway look, as if he were transporting himself back to the end of the seventh century when Hitomaro lived.

“Hitomaro was one of Japan’s six poetic saints,” Professor Seidensticker said, “and many think—as I personally do—that he was the greatest of all. We don’t know anything about him, except that he was married and had a child. It appears that he was married twice. There are poems by the wife of Hitomaro written after his death. But it was about his first wife that he wrote so movingly and memorably.”

He had the Man’yoshu in Japanese as well as in English, and sometimes he would read us the Japanese first and then the translation. He did this with Hitomaro, and I wish I had the transliteration of the poem, because I would print it here for you to read, even in this foreign tongue, the better to feel that moment when Professor Seidensticker read the Japanese words and, finishing, simply said,”Wonderful.” The poem he read from was “After the Death of His Wife.” He read the passage first in Japanese, next in English:

In the days when my wife lived,
We went out to the embankment near by
We two, hand in hand
To view the elm-trees standing there
With their outspreading branches
Thick with spring leaves. Abundant as their greenery
Was my love. On her leaned my soul.
But who evades mortality?
One morning she was gone, flown like an early bird.

“Now,” he said, “if that doesn’t move you, there’s little I can do for you.”

Even then, as a punky college junior, I knew he was right. What Kakinomoto Hitomaro—and his vessel, Professor Edward Seidensticker—taught me was that this man with his “sleeves…wetted through with tears,” as Hitomaro writes in his grief, could reach across 1300 years and touch me lastingly. If, I thought, I could never write nearly as well as Hitomaro, maybe I could stand in his shadow, and that would be enough.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017


You know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? I never read the book, but I liked the 1941 movie version with Spencer Tracy very much, although it frightened me.  For years, though, the story seemed remote to me.  Until one day I realized that it's a story about alcohol.  A man, a perfectly respectable man, a doctor, drinks a serum he's invented and turns into a monster version of himself.  He has no scruples or conscience.  His basest instincts emerge.  His face contorts, becomes twisted, enraged.  He rapes.  He murders.

That face and figure of Dr. Hyde look nothing like the learned Dr. Jekyll.  But they're the same man.

The drink wears off, and he becomes the respectable London gentleman Dr. Jekyll again.

This is exactly what happens to some people when they drink.  They become a completely different person, an ugly twisted version of themselves, who cuts, slashes, wounds and abuses those around them.  Or becomes embarrassingly maudlin.  Eventually they pass out, sleep it off, and become themselvesDr. Jekyllagain.  If they remember what they did when they were drunk, they usually apologize, sometimes pathetically.  They're contrite.  But a lot of times, they don't remember.  And they don't stop drinking.

The damage, though.  The damage.

If you're a kid, and you see your father or mother turn into a person you don't know, who acts differently, who spits and snarls and accuses and rages and belittles, your world has no stability, there is suddenly nothing you can rely on.  Where did my mother go?  Where did my father go?

We all have our relationship with drink and drinking. 

I have, as I'm sure you have, encountered nasty drunksmostly men in my experiencewho, with a lot of alcohol in their veins, unleash stabbing words, knowing exactly what your soft spot is, and going for it, like a hyena, ripping it open.  One former friend for years would get drunk and go for the soft spot so effectively it left you reeling or weeping or limp.  Nothing was sacred to him and his clever, hostile tongue.  Even my daughter.

I drink.  I've quit for a year or two from time to time, but I always pick up the glass of wine again sooner or later.  Mostly the things I do when I drink too much are stupid or rash.  I don't think I'm cruel. But the idea that with alcohol I unleash this different person with the same name is highly unsettling.

The next day, as my head clears, thinking of what I did or said the previous evening (if I can remember), I wonder: who am I, reallyDr. Jekyll?  Or Mr. Hyde?

Friday, December 22, 2017

Old faithful

I'm seventy-three.  I like to point this out from time to time.  This time, because I want to talk about my body, to thank it for all the long years of faithful service, for tirelessly performing day in and day out so wonderfully well. 

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, I first want to thank my brain.  Thanks for letting me think.  And create. And imagine.  Heart! What can I say?  How unstintingly you pumped my blood to the far reaches of my body supplying it with nourishment and centering me with your beat.

Thank you, lungs, for your tireless day-in-day-out bellows work.  When I slept, you never did. I'm so grateful for the great swell and release of air, 24/7.

Thank you stomach, kidneys, liver, for the impossibly complex work, the alchemy you've performed for me. Thank you eyes for letting me see my daughter’s face. Thank you tongue for the letting me taste fragrant peaches. Ears for letting me hear the singing of birds.  Fingers for letting me touch a woman’s hair. Nose for letting me smell ocean breezes.  For the many miracles, my great gratitude.

Thank you arms for making me so versatile.  Thank you hands for letting me grasp, push and pull.  And hold a pen. Thank you legs for taking me near and far and for giving me so much steed-like pleasure.  Thank you skin for keeping it all together, and for sweat. 

I am at the podium with my extended list of thank-you's. The other parts of my body to thank are just so numerous.  But I at least have to mention blood. And I can't forget spine, neck, back. Hips, feet, nerves. Shoulders, bones, muscles. Pardon me for what I've left out.  It was all so important.

You've been the best body any person could ever want.  I know I'm fortunate, and I have never taken that for granted.  I know you'll be getting tired soon.  Parts of you will begin to break down, to give out.  Of course.  But what a ride you've allowed me to have.  What a remarkable way of encountering the world.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Very bad Santa

This is the time of year I dread. It's not the fault of Christmas. It's that, you know, divorced, without the kid, and so on.

There are many more like me everywhere in various un-merry circumstances, depressed. So, I propose a few ways in which to alleviate the Xmas doldrums.

First, I suggest we dress up as Santa, approach strangers on the street, and whisper in their ear, "I'm not wearing any underwear."

I suggest that we all go shoplifting and give each other the things we steal.

I suggest we try to get 100,000 signatures to make playing "Little Drummer Boy" in any public place a felony.

I propose we leave Santa cookies laced with Viagra and cut Mrs. Santa's milk with Ambien.

I suggest we buy copies of "beloved" Christmas movies: Miracle on 34th Street, Love, Actually, A Christmas Carol and, of course, It's a Wonderful Life. Then we go outside, pour gasoline on them, and set them on fire.

I suggest we call up houses, ask for the kid, tell him he's Jewish, and hang up.

I propose we send "ten Lords a-leaping" to anyone in your community who is homophobic.

I propose that wherever it snows, we go to people's houses in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and urinate, letter by letter, "BAH, HUMBUG," in the snow. Women can try this, if they like.

I suggest we complain to authorities that when Santa says, "Ho, ho, ho," he's actually asking for a prostitute.

I propose that we all get together on Christmas evening and watch the clock go past midnight and sigh collectively in relief.

Well? What do you say? Anybody want to join me?


Monday, December 18, 2017


Finishing Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir of becoming a chef, Blood, Bones & Butter, I am thinking about passion.

This is how Hamilton writes, and this is how she lives, passionately.  She is a chef.  She is a mother.  She is a woman.  Foremost, though, she is fiercely alive. Her gospel is hard work. (At one point she calls it "my Protestant dishwasher's mentality.)  This book is crammed with exhaustion and with determination.  She is never, no matter the situation, afraid of getting her hands dirty. (For a definitive example of this, read about her cleaning up the space that was going to be her now-famous New York restaurant, Prune.)

She's certainly not perfect. She can be bitter.  It's clear she can be difficult at times, and she doesn't concede a lot when blame is to be dispensed. 

But she's resolute. Giving up is against her nature.  And she's a whirlwind.  The gusto, the energy she possesses, is scary.

This book is a pleasure to read, like one of the joyful exuberant meals Hamilton has in Italy with her husband's big family.  She writes with such verve, she can even make an early-morning train ride to speak to a conference with just four hours sleep, missing her young children, seem, somehow, exhilarating.  She's also one of the most informal narrators you'll ever encounter.  There is zero pretension from her.  She walks around casually, handing you a glass of wine, a joint, a bowl of something delicious.

Gabrielle Hamilton

In the end, I come away from reading this highly engrossing bookaddictive, reallythinking that this is a person guided by passion, for better or worse, like a migrating bird's sense of direction.  It takes courage to live that way.  Hamilton is courageous.

I remember visiting a friend a year or so ago, an older woman in her eighties, who married young, an Irish Catholic from outside Chicago, steeped in the restraints of her religion and culture.  She had five children and spent most of her life raising them with a somewhat difficult husband.  We were sitting in her living room one afternoon, drinking wine, when she started tearing up.  I asked her what was the matter.  I don't remember what it was we were talking about, but I'm fairly sure it was just some kind of banter.

"So many people," she said, "have lived more interesting lives than I have."

How could I console her?  I said a few words, did the best I could.  But there was truth there.  I know, because I saw it in me.

Now, at seventy-two, with no idea how many more years are allotted to me, I wonder if I'll have the courage to live those years the only way they should be livedwith passion.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

How the Hardy Boys saved my life

The year, 1955.  I was ten. The Hardy Boys books were about.  They’re a series, the first one published in 1927, about two brothers who become amateur detectives.  The brothers’ father was “the internationally renowned detective Fenton Hardy.”  The boys, Frank and Joe, were about seventeen.  Each book was a mystery, and each was numbered.  Number One was The Tower Treasure.  (I see that The Tower Treasure is ranked 45,112 on the sales list, and is number 55 on Publisher’s Weekly’s all-time bestselling children’s book list, so I guess people are still reading the books.)  They were written by Franklin W. Dixon.  I thought he was a real person at the time, and was fairly worshipful of him.  I found out later that there wasn’t a Franklin W. Dixon.  It was a pen name for Charles Leslie McFarlane, a Canadian journalist.  I was crushed when I found that out.  It was almost as disillusioning as the unmasking of Santa Claus.  
So, the scenario is: somewhat unhappy boy (yrs truly) goes to library for the first time on his own.  I don’t remember why.  Perhaps I had to pick out a book for school.  Perhaps a friend, not knowing about how hard it was for me to read, urged me to read the Hardy Boys.  But one day I found myself in the stacks of the local library searching for Hardy Boys books.

I was not a good reader as a kid.  Each word on the page came into my tiny head with great labor, as if I were driving in fence posts with my mind.  I read word by word—letter by letter almost.  If I say it was painful for me to read, I mean that.  It hurt for me to read.  My brain squeezed.  My eyes clinched.  I often had to go back to read a sentence again and again.  So many words eluded me.  I couldn’t understand why it was so hard, this reading thing.  I was too ashamed to admit what was happening.  I just struggled.  I still do, after a fashion.

I picked the second book in the series, The House on the Cliff.  I opened the book in the stacks and began to read.  It was hard for me, as usual.  They used such difficult words!  (Yes, I’m talking about the Hardy Boys. I was not an able reader.)  How could anything that took this much effort, that was this humiliating, be fun?  Nevertheless, I started to read.  I remember the fat book in my hands.  These are not the Technicolor Hardy Boys editions of today.  The old books were Victor Hugo-esque in size, with thickish pages.  They had fat covers, the kind where the corners curve inward and the covers have faintly scored surfaces, nearly serrated.  I can still remember the smell of the pages.  They smelled of wood pulp.  You turned a page, and you felt you had taken a kind of step as it settled softly against the bank of pages that preceded it.  

Here is the beginning of Chapter One:
“‘So you boys want to help me on another case?’ Fenton Hardy, internationally known detective, smiled at his teen-age sons.

“‘Dad, you said you are working on a very mysterious case right now,’ Frank spoke up.  ‘Isn’t there some angle of it Joe and I might tackle?’
“Mr. Hardy looked out the window of his second-floor study as if searching for the answer somewhere in the town of Bayport, where the Hardys lived.  Finally he turned back and gazed steadfastly at his sons.

“‘All right.  How would you like to look for some smugglers?’
“Joe Hardy’s eyes opened wide.  ‘You mean it, Dad?’”

That’s not difficult writing, you may say.
It was difficult for me.  I’m sure expressions like “internationally known” and “gazed steadfastly” were beyond me.  But I kept at it, inch by inch.  Soon, the Hardy Boys’ chubby pal, Chet, was introduced, a comic foil.  The adventure began to unravel, and somehow I followed it. 

Then occurred that moment that all readers know.  It is particularly strong when you are young and beginning your reading career, but it never leaves you.  I went into the book.  Suddenly, I was in it.  When I did enter, I found an entire world.  It was a world where “they” were glad to see me.  I belonged.
I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands of people who have experienced the salvation of reading.  Who have found refuge between covers of a book.  I was too young to understand fully what was happening.  I do remember that there came a point when the labor of reading seemed to be less important than staying in that world.  I wasn’t just watching.  I was participating.   Right then and there my life was saved.  I mean exactly that.  

What was in that world I entered into?  It was a world that was certainly different than the one I was living in day by day, and far better in many ways.   It had a good and kind father, for one thing.  It was a world chock full of adventure.  These boys could do things that I would certainly never be allowed to do, whatever kind of father I had.  They faced danger. They solved problems.  They helped solve crimes.  What I didn’t know then and only realized later was that I was helping them do that.  Without me, this world didn’t exist.  It was simply ink.  
That world was waiting for me whenever I returned.  It never changed.  If I had been humiliated or rejected or ignored in my own world—all of which happened with some frequency—I could return to the world of Frank and Joe Hardy and their excellent adventures.  No matter how hard it was for me to read, it was worth it to have this refuge.  I was never denied access.  No one ever said to me: you can’t come in, you’re too young, you’re too stupid, you’re too anything.

That day then and there, I was saved.  Saved from most anything life threw at me.  Saved, in the sense of religion.  Saved by the Hardy Boys.  And all the other splendid books that followed.  

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


He was medium-sized mutt, about fifty pounds, with some obvious German Shepherd in him. But he had enough of other indeterminate breeds to cut the regimented ears and the black hair. He had flannel-like floppy ears and a tan coat that felt like soft bristles. He had a sweet, almost female face. I never had thought about a dog's face being either male or female, like a person's, but I do now. Chester was in fact mistaken for a female dog by people who didn't bother to look down below. He was pretty more than handsome.

I was living in New York City. I wanted a dog for myself, but I also wanted one for my six-year-old daughter, as well. I wanted her to live with a dog, to see how wonderful they can be, feel comfortable around dogs and to learn from them.

I got him from a small shelter. They told me Chester had been beaten by his former owner, a brute who lived in the South Bronx. When I first met Chester, he shivered and shrank. He lowered his head deferentially. His tail was as far between his legs as it would go. I'd never seen a dog so afraid.

I took him home. He sat in a corner. I told him about my daughter. I told him how beautiful and sweet she was, and how much he would like her and how much she would like him. I told him that we would both love him and that he would feel safe. He seemed to listen. When my daughter saw Chester for the first time, she was in heaven. It wasn't long before Chester lost his shyness and, as dogs miraculously can do, triumphed over his wounds. That's how he entered our lives. He became Chester, the dog he was meant to be. He was as sweet as sweet can be, and everyone who met him, adored him. I tried to learn from his ability to forget the past. He was better at it that I was. But he was always there, with his dog smile and floppy ears, ready to tutor me.

I had him for ten years.  You tell yourself, he won't age in that disproportionate way dogs do, but of course he did.  He grew old. It seemed impossible to me that this exuberant, playful dog would ever age. He did.  And one day, a day seared in my heart, when he was too sick to enjoy life any more, I took him to the vet and came home without him.

It's been almost seven years since he's been gone.  I'm still hoping to come home to him.

Monday, December 11, 2017

This just in...

                 OLD MAN ATTEMPTS TO                           STRANGLE GOOD SAMARITAN       

(AP) Richard Goodman, SEVENTY-FOUR, attempted to strangle a young man yesterday afternoon on the M57 crosstown bus in front of horrified passengers.

Several alert riders pulled Goodman away from the man, Chris Waldeman, 20, an NYU film student, before any serious damage was done. 

“All I did was offer him my seat!” Waldeman said incredulously, massaging his neck, while at the same time trying to determine if anyone filmed the incident on their iPhones. 

When asked later by the police why he had attacked the man, Goodman replied, “That mother-f-ing son of a bitch offered me his seat!  DO I F-ING LOOK LIKE I NEED TO BE OFFERED SOMEONE’S SEAT?!?” 

When told by the police sergeant at the booking station, that, in fact, he did look like he needed to be offered a seat, Goodman lunged across the desk, arms outstretched insanely, in an attempt to strangle the sergeant.  He was quickly subdued by other officers and led away in shackles.   

Goodman is now undergoing psychiatric evaluation at Cherrydale Mental Hospital for the Acutely Old in the Bronx.   

Saturday, December 9, 2017


What did Joseph Conrad say?  "There is a taint of death in lies."

On the other hand, Graham Greene wrote, "The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human beingit's a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths."

We all lie.  Most of the time it's for expediency.  You just don't want to do something, go somewhere, see someone.  Or you don't want to express your true opinion of something--the food you've just eaten at a friend's house, the gift you've been given.

There are bigger and more significant lies, of course.  Some quite malicious and harmful, some inexcusable.  Some that cause permanent damage, betray great trusts, lead you to do things harmful to yourself.  Some lies must be called out.  Some lies stink.  And the more powerful you are, the easier it is to get away with your lies.  We all know that.  And sometimes it is hard to tell the truth, but necessary.  I don't always live up to that.  In fact, most often I don't.

I'm with Graham Greene, though.  The idea that you should never lie, that you're a horrible person if you do, tells me that the speaker does not understand the human heart or human relations, as Greene put it.

Tennessee Williams understood this very well.  A brave and uncompromising artist, he knew that often morality depends on circumstance.  That it can be nuanced.  In A Streetcar Named Desire, Mitch confronts Blanche when he learns about her sordid past in Mississippi:

MITCH: You lied to me, Blanche.
BLANCHE: Don't say I lied to you...
MITCH: Lies! Lies, inside and out, all lies.
BLANCHE: Never inside, I didn't lie in my heart.

How can you not lie in your heart and lie with your words?  You can.  If he believed Blanche, would Mitch have lived happily ever after with her?  I don't know. Tennessee never makes these things easy for you.  He never lies artistically.

People can use the truth to hurt others.  They can hide behind the maxim, "Telling the truth is always better than lying."  Then they take that "truth" and stab the person in the gut with it, humiliate them, make them feel small.  Add alcohol, and you have emotional razor blades across the face.

I do know that when I lie, I always feel a wave of guilt.  If I think my lying will save a person some shame, some humiliation, some pain, I get over that guilt almost immediately.  But if the reason for the lie is more to prevent me from facing something I don't want to face, then that wave doesn't go away.

The problem, for me, can be admitting the difference.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Living in Provence

It was a stone house that was big and old with walls as thick as a fortress. We lived there for a year in a small village in a corner of Provence about an hour from Avignon. It was a lovely way to live, in a house that had been built 200 years ago, hewn out of stone found not in quarries but in the fields. It wasn’t easy at first, though. The village life seemed as durable and unchanging as the house, and as mute. It was a while before the woman I loved and I could begin to fathom the rhythm of its ways. Why didn’t the villagers respond to our greetings, except for the briefest answers? Why weren’t they the least bit interested in us? Why didn’t they accept us with open arms?
Our house in Provence

A village in Provence can be exquisite and maddening. It took time for us to see that our sojourn was merely a blink in the villagers’ unwavering eyes. We did, at last, and it was the land that led us. As she and I woke up day after day to a sun-flooded room, our casement windows open to the new morning, we began to become part of Provence. We couldn’t look out onto the softly undulating hills, with their legions of precisely-lined vine plants, without giving away our hearts. We couldn’t smell the subtle morning air, a perfume of everything that grew there, without becoming a little more lost in love. We couldn’t have our vision enhanced by the marvel of the light without wanting never to leave.

The gap between their ways and ours lessened, and that was in part due to the power of the place. We were under its sway, and so many of the things that were important to the villagers became important to us. We walked the rough little hills above the village and saw wild thyme growing. The plant is like a dwarf version of a stunted tundra tree, all twisted and leaning. It’s a tough thing, difficult to cut. I began using it in my cooking. I soon found the taste is not the same as domesticated thyme. Like many wild versions of a plant or spice we know, its flavor is more subtle and quieter, and more interesting. It’s a good metaphor for some of the villagers we met. They were wild thyme. Their tastes weren’t revealed just by a single encounter.

No, we’d never be paysans—as the villagers unhesitatingly called themselves. Not farmers, peasants. They were people rooted to the land. Eventually, most everything in Provence comes back to the land. It is as basic as the thyme that grew above the village. Pays, the root word of paysan, means “country.” Before you leave Provence, walk in the maquis or the garrigue, the scrub hills, full of dry wonders and simplicity. Let yourself become part of this remarkable land. Day by day, we surrendered to its spirit.
Side view of the house

In surrender, Provence simplified our lives. That’s what the place will do. Simplicity will come over anyone who stays there for even more than a few days. “Only in this sun-steeped country,” Colette writes, “can a heavy table, a wicker chair, an earthenware jar crowned with flowers, and a dish whose thick enameling has run over the edge, make a complete furnishing.” And we began to understand, like everyone else who has become attached to Provence, that there is no place on earth like it. No one can possibly prepare you for this consistently ethereal level of beauty. Not any book, movie, or essay.  No painting. Not these words.  Nowhere else do you find such a confluence of pellucid air, fierce sun, ravishing smells and tastes, and grace.

We had a used car we had bought, scruffy and prone to seizures, but on the whole reliable. In it, we ventured near and far in the South of France and came to see much more of the land beyond our village during that year. We went to nearby Avignon first. What a shock it was to go from our little hamlet, with its stubbornly self-important ways, to a city that has had such a prominent role on the world stage! We—at least I—felt Avignon is a sad place. Even though it’s on the lyrical Rhône, that magnificent water, the city has a melancholy air. Cities have lived lives, too, and when you walk them, you begin to see exactly who they have become. I think of Avignon as not at peace with itself. For that very reason, it’s impossible to forget.

We drove to Aix, that exquisite town, then on to palm-lined Nice and to Menton. We went to the Gorges du Verdon in Haute Provence, Colorado in France, except that Colorado is far too young to have the ancient sense those small, high villages possess. Haute Provence, walking realm of Provence’s greatest writer, Jean Giono, whose rare, dignified sensibility reflects the land and the people he loved. We drove to Apt and to old Gordes, and wound our way to its top as so many others have, rapt. We drove to Arles and to les Baux and to the Camargue, and to the moving village of Aigues Mortes, and to the gypsy enclave at St.-Marie. 
Marie, or town hall

 But no matter how far we went, we always came home to our village. To the well-wrought house that now was our home. To the simplicity and timelessness of a life that unfolded before us. We met everyone in the place, and we began to piece together their lives. We were even luckier to find work in the fields, so we experienced Provence’s light and air and scents throughout the long days. The wine tasted better in our dirt-caked hands, and so did the daube I cooked for us when the day was through. They paid us, too, in francs, by God!

It was a privilege to go to sleep weary in our village, and to wake up with that slight feeling of regret physical labor bestows on you every morning. We had the gift of responsibility in Provence, and how much luckier can two people get? You cannot steal idle moments when everything is given to you. We were not used to the hard work, to the bending, pulling, digging and planting. We were old people for an hour every morning, but nothing in the world would have induced us to quit. We went home to lunch midday as the villagers did. We spooned our soup and devoured our bread happily with the morning’s cool still hovering over us. Sundays became as precious to us as long-waited vacations. Nothing that year was sweeter than buying villagers we liked a pastis with money we earned working their land. If you can work in Provence, even for a single day, you should do it.
Playing petanque, or boules, in front of the school

Despite the fact that we were frugal and that we worked, we could see our money dwindling. This alarmed us, and saddened us. We didn’t want to leave. We wanted to stay forever. We had brought a dog with us to Provence, and in our desperation to stay longer, we hatched a plan. We decided to teach her to hunt for truffles. Dogs as well as pigs hunt for truffles in Provence, and if we could turn our Brooklyn-born stray into a truffle-finder, we’d be flush. We heard that a man had a dog in a village not far from us who could find truffles, but we never found him. We bought a jar of cheap truffles in our local supermarket—perhaps they were from Bulgaria—and made her sniff these oily black things six or seven times a day for a week. Then one day we drove her to the woods where the villagers said if there were truffles, they had to be there. We whispered in our dog’s ear, “Go find truffles! Find truffles!” and let her go. She ran about, delighted. She paused at a spot near the foot of a small oak tree. Hadn’t she? Perfect! We brought our shovels and began to dig.
Five holes later, truffleless, and drenched in sweat, we drove home.

So, we had to leave. We had to say goodbye to Provence, and to the village we had grown to love and that had taken root in our souls. We all have to say goodbye to places we love sooner or later, and when we come home we all spend the next months or years dreaming of the place. We dote on our memories like political exiles that long to return to the mother country. We’ll talk to anyone who will listen to us about its marvels. Sooner or later, we’ll come back, we know. It’s just a matter of when. It might be ten years, or twelve, but we’ll come back. So far, Provence is stronger than anything we have brought to it, or done to it. Pray that never changes.

Go. Submit. Surrender.
View as you leave the village