The Road to Jonestown

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81l31yy4felMost of us know only about the end, how it all turned out. We’ve probably said something about drinking the Kool-aid without knowing where the expression comes from. This book takes us further. It’s a fascinating character study of someone far more complex than he’s often given credit for, and someone whose demons led him to become the architect of what is commonly referred to as the biggest mass suicide in American history. But it was more than that, too. For one thing, it was murder. But for another, it reduces the work of Peoples Temple over many years to its final moments, when a paranoid narcissistic megalomaniacal drug addict decided that the rational thing to do was to kill everyone in Jonestown. That reductive view doesn’t allow for an understanding of the socialist vision that originally motivated Jones and the Peoples Temple, including running state-sanctioned nursing home facilities, employment agencies, and drug rehabilitation centers; sponsoring students to attend college and paying their tuition, room, and board; or Jones being appointed director of the city Human Relations Commission in Indianapolis where he worked on racial and economic justice issues. Guinn writes,

“In years to come, Jim Jones would frequently be compared to murderous demagogues such as Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson. These comparisons completely misinterpret, and historically misrepresent, the initial appeal of Jim Jones to members of Peoples Temple. Jones attracted followers by appealing to their better instincts. The purpose of Peoples Temple was to offer such a compelling example of living in racial and economic equality that everyone else would be won over and want to live the same way. Government would be altered, not overthrown. Temple members might march to protest racism or unjust wars, but would never resort to violence as a tool to bringing about a better society. No one joined Peoples Temple with the intent of doing harm or achieving subjugation. Instead, they felt better about themselves by doing good things for others.”

It’s a slow build to Guyana, and even though I appreciated the backstory, and Guinn does a meticulous job of painting a fuller, more realized – and in many ways, generous – picture of Jones and his family and followers than is commonly told, I still found myself frequently thinking: can’t we just get to the jungle already?

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Murder on the Île Sordou

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51zzozesm7l-_sx325_bo1204203200_There is a good deal of happiness that comes from finishing a good book; from being twenty-four hours home from a lovely two week vacation; from sipping a light salmon-colored rosé from Provence; and from enjoying all this on my back porch under a brisk summer breeze. Murder on the Île Sordou is the best yet from M. L. Longworth. She does such a great job, especially in this one, of capturing people doing the things I best associate with France – savoring food, wine, conversation and, in the South, sunlight and the sea.

I love the silence here, and the breezes, Verlaque says at the end. And the smells, Bonnet revels. Part sea and part plant. The days and nights on Sordou reminded me of the two weeks I spent in Provence last summer – minus the murder which, as a testament to Longworth’s priorities here, doesn’t come until more than a hundred pages in. In addition to the intrigue, even more so, we get to savor Longworth’s affinity for fine wine and cigars; her descriptions of dinner menus so colorful they invite hunger and make the characters tear up; scrumptious drink recipes you can almost taste on a hot summer afternoon; lunch poems; delightful conversation between island guests you can’t help but wish you were one of, even though you know one of them surely must die. And before it’s all over, an entire chapter inspired by Babette’s Feast!

Longworth’s fourth book is like one of the meals she lovingly describes. There is so much going on, so many different delicious ingredients, and like a true chef de cuisine she manages the complexity of her art to produce something exquisitely simple, and deceptively sweet.

Up next: The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne.

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The Wooden and the True

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As we feel our way into this new post-election reality, when things seem bleak, and all feels lost – progress, justice, hope for better – it felt like the right time to finish reading The Road. It’s a book of questions.

*How old is the boy?
*Where is his mother?
*Why are these two still alive?
*Why are they the only ones? There are others, of course: frightening aberrations in the distance; lightning struck man; man with a bow; bandits; pregnant woman crossing a bridge;
*Who are the good guys and who are the bad? What’s the difference, and how can you tell?
*And of course: what happened?

Questions without answers, mostly. And pure poetry that only a child, McCarthy’s son, and all the dust of West Texas could have inspired.

It’s a hard book to read. It is achingly beautiful. My brother gave it to me as a gift for Christmas many years ago. He’s not a reader, so when I opened the present and he said it was the best thing he had ever read, I sat up a bit at that. Still, it took me years to get around to it. I love few things more than starting a new book, but every time I found myself standing in front of the bookshelves I would see The Road sitting there, alongside other things I haven’t read yet, waiting. And I never brought it down. Or I did, and I re-read the jacket flap I’ve read a hundred times, felt the weight of it in my hands, and then put it back. I wasn’t ever ready. I didn’t have the energy for something so hopeless. That’s what I thought. It’s what I told myself.

But as we move into a world where President-elect Trump are words, real words, it suddenly felt like the right time. And what it’s left me thinking – having finally finished it after all these years, on the eve of an inauguration that will see an unqualified xenophobic megalomaniac installed in the most powerful post on the planet, an impending reality that is already showing evidence to cause grave concern, appointments of men – and they are all men – to positions of great authority and power who may surely put us on a path that could lead in very real ways to a reality not dissimilar from what Papa and the Boy encounter in The Road – what it’s left me thinking, because it seems like there is almost no other choice, is about the ability of language to transcend suffering, darkness, hopelessness, and despair.

I was teaching in Paris the morning after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June, and as we sat down the following morning to begin class one of our students, near tears, asked if we could talk about what had happened. And we did. We set aside our lesson and spent a quarter hour hearing what people had to say, comforting one another, finding strength in our community. And then we got back to work. We turned back to the task at hand. We acknowledged how important it was not to ignore what had happened, but also how important it was – more important than ever, it seemed – to focus on our work, to do our job, and do it well.

The week before we’d met with Claire Verlet, who programs the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris. She spoke about France’s national focus on art and culture as being a direct, deliberate response to the destruction of the Second World War, how having big cultural festivals that brought people together around art, theatre, music, performance, and dance helped them heal – as individuals and as a nation. (And now, according to a 2014 article, art and culture contribute seven times more to the national GDP than does the automobile industry.) Claire talked about how renovations to the Italianate building in 1968 – itself a complicated year – helped democratize the theatre, ensuring that there are no bad seats, no hierarchies, no impediments. There is no dress code and prices are reasonable; the building opens right onto the street.

When we think about what’s happening here today, in this country, about facing an uncertain future that is frightening, dangerous, and cruel (or at least a president-elect who is) – about who we just elected president – I think about what Claire said to us that day in June. “The theatre has to be more open,” she told us. “It’s the only way to fight the brutality.” Or as National Book Award winner Colson Whitehead put it recently, “Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power.” And art is not just the theatre, of course. We have to keep reading, writing, studying, painting, composing, marching, and debating. We have to keep creating, keep finding what’s beautiful, even in – especially in – the dust of these next years.

Which brings me back to The Road, and the poetry of a decimated humanity, a world wretched with ash. “He knew that he was placing hopes where he’d no reason to,” we read. “He hoped it would be brighter where for all he knew the world grew darker daily.” “They left the cart in the woods and he checked the rotation of the rounds in the cylinder. The wooden and the true.” Papa and the boy, whose grim reality now seems relatable in a way many of us hadn’t imagined a few weeks ago, our safety in question, our rights threatened, our very humanity under attack. Maybe we’re not without hope, but unsure, angry, frightened and, for me mostly, sad. It is that same book where we also read that Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.

Farewell, Professor Wiesel

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Honored and grateful to have my essay published in the online magazine, The Rumpus.

“Memory is fragile,” Professor Wiesel said to us in class one day. But what is memory, I wanted to ask him, what is time, and how do I ever get off the side of that road? Sometimes I feel like I am still there, unable to go back and unwilling to go forward.

Original artwork by Elizabeth Schmuhl.

Middle Saturday in Provence

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It was several years ago that I discovered the brilliance of a two week vacation, and my two favorite words in the English language: middle Saturday. I’ve been in France for four weeks, but am just now beginning the second week of vacation in Provence.

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What I love is the quiet. It’s loud with an abundance of birdsong in the trees, all manner of birds I couldn’t begin to identify – doves for sure, because I can see them, their fat breasts puffed out, sitting like little Buddhas on the branch above the terrace, cooing. There’s what I like to imagine is an owl, although it could be any number of other things. It’s this silence, this full, vibrant, noisy silence that I love – devoid of all the things I spend my normal days hearing: sirens, endless horn honking, telephones buzzing and beeping and ringing. One night, the first we slept with the windows open, we heard what we imagined was the sound of sangliers rooting through the garden. I fell into a peaceful sleep.

The wind races over the hills behind the house and sounds like the roar of interstate traffic as it picks up speed and bends through the trees. This happens in the afternoon while I’m sitting beside the pool reading and drinking a beer. I worry that the umbrella might fly away, reach out and steady it, and then the wind calms down and I turn the page as church bells in the nearby village start ringing up through the valley.

There are singular pleasures to be appreciated here: the simple elegance of local women strolling through the Friday produce market with their baskets hanging from one elbow while they squeeze a tomato or kiss-kiss a friend they meet on the street. From one end of the basket drapes a gorgeous deep purple bundle of lavender while a warm baguette peeks out the other. I could never get away with it at home, taking my Provençal market basket to Whole Foods. But I still might try.

Since we arrived I’ve learned the words for bat, fly, ant, mosquito, and crickets; the difference between a côtelette and a brochette; what daube de taureau means; and the pleasures of sauce à l’échalote.

The changing colors over the Massif des Maures are more of a spectacle than anything streaming on Netflix – the pink gradients that suddenly appear low in the evening heat and then slowly but dramatically rise, leaving the massif to float below, bold and gray in a ribbon of blue. No wonder so many painters and artists have been inspired by this place. It’s a different picture with every passing quarter hour, bright and soft at the same time, and so richly textured it seems like you could reach out a hand and feel the mounds of paint.

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The mattresses are unfamiliar and my back aches; the sun is baking hot and it’s in the 90s by eleven; the drivers are crazy and the winding roads narrow and frightening; and the GPS is often unreliable. But none of it matters – because of the way the light hits the leaves and lands in a big shimmering bowl beneath the hills; how it rolls in glassy waves over the rounded roof tiles and bathes the lush green valley beneath our Mas, sitting grandly on its terraced hillside. Enough bread and butter can also fix anything. And the wine. Chilled local rosés, light and dry; crisp, minerally whites; round, chewy reds. I’ve come to realize that my days are arranged around where I’m sitting and what I’m drinking – early to mid AM: front terrace with coffee; mid AM to mid PM: pool with beer; mid PM to early evening: front terrace with Champagne Rosé; dinner on back terrace with a white or red. Repeat.

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At the end of the chapter, “June,” in Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, he writes, “The sun was a great tranquilizer, and time passed in a haze of well-being; long, slow, almost torpid days when it was so enjoyable to be alive that nothing else mattered.” So we may go visit other villages or we may not. We may go shopping in Marseille or we may not. We may make it to Aix, or Arles, or Draguignan, or Grasse. Or we may not. With the view and the bells and the bread and the wine, it doesn’t matter. I’m being still. I’m luxuriating in the quiet and the light.

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Mary

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Twenty years ago I read Margaret George’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles. I’d just started dating the first boy I ever kissed, which was a milestone and came, as difficult as it is to believe now, as something of a surprise to me.

It was a terrifying time, trying to balance this new discovery, this whole other person, the most important person in my life, who I was afraid to acknowledge when I saw him on campus but with whom I would clandestinely make out in the darkened language lab when no one was looking – trying to balance all the raging, delightful feelings with everything else, with what I thought of as my normal life. The closet does that. It makes you think – really believe – that you can go back and forth like that, which is impossible; which is why the closet is a killer.

He insisted that I read Mary. It’s the most amazing love story, he said, before reading me what had to be the most depressing poem I’d ever heard:

The wind doth blow today, my love, and a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true love, in cold grave she was lain,
You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips, but my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips your time will not be long.
Tis down in yonder garden green, Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that ere was seen is withered to a stalk.
The stalk is withered dry, my love, so will our hearts decay;
So make yourself content, my love, till God calls you away.

No surprise that he turned out to be an ass.

We never spoke again after I broke up with him three years later. He told me that life was like a chest of drawers, with only so much room. In order to accommodate new friendships, new love, old clutter had to be removed. At the time I thought it sounded callous, but with no self-confidence and even less experience, I convinced myself it made sense. Imagine my surprise when, re-reading Mary twenty years later, I came upon this dialogue, between Sir Francis Walsingham and his chief agent, Thomas Phelippes: “`And do you know what happens to something when there’s no place for it any longer?’ He jerked open one of the drawers and pulled out a letter. `This is outdated. Its contents are of no relevance.’ He tossed it out the window, where it landed in the street. Three horses in a row stepped on it and ground it into the mud. `That’s what happens. It’s very simple. We have to keep our drawers neat, Phelippes; we have to get rid of the useless.'”

So not only was he a dick, but also totally unoriginal.

Anyway, it was with no small amount of irony that, afraid though I was that someone would find out the truth about me, I spent the better part of a semester wandering around my tiny college campus carrying a 900 page novel the size of cinder block with a big queen named Mary on the cover.

It took me a good five months to get through that year, and maybe it was something about the symmetry of time – twenty years and all – that, last December, I decided to read her again. It took a little longer this time, with other commitments and distractions along the way, but I once again finished her story, her long winding saga, at the end of May. Shortly thereafter I was off to church camp to work as a counselor for the summer, and now I finish it just in time to return to France – Her adopted country, the country of her mother, of her favourite language, her sensibilities, her dress, her memories. I leave tonight, for five weeks. Back for new adventures in the country that nourished a queen.

M Train

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On a quiet Thanksgiving morning, I’m finding the space to finally watch the edited, televised Patti Smith interview on PBS that I saw live in early October. I’m struck anew, and on this day, by her gratitude. “I’m grateful all the time that Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women; I’m grateful the New Testament was written. I love books, and I love what the hand of mankind produces, whether painting, or music, opera, I just think it’s wonderful that we have that in our life.”

M Train is one of the most luxurious books I’ve ever held; it’s an object worthy of reverence, as much for its construction, for how it feels in the hand, as for what’s inside. I probably spent as much time running my fingers across the silky brown cover, just sitting and turning the pages for hours, listening to the wisp and scratch, thumbing the paper like money, as I did reading it. Anyone who thinks the book is dead should hold this one; touch it; take it in.

As Patti writes in the book, “as an object it had already manifested a sacredness …”

These are stories of movement and stillness. Her adventures – to graveyards in Japan, to visit Sylvia Plath, to the burial place, finally, of Genet, traveling to the North African seaside to present him a gift more than twenty years in the making – balanced by quiet moments in the corner of her café, along the boardwalk in Rockaway Beach, in a cold Tokyo hotel room, or buried beneath the covers in her New York City bedroom, fumbling with the remote.

What I wanted, and what I found, is this: Her images. Her words. How she sees the world.

Sylvia, in a cream-colored sweater and straight skirt, shading her eyes from the mischievous sun, walking on into the great return.

I sat quietly by the grave, conscious of a rare, suspended peace.

I slipped the photographs into my pocket. My mother was real and her son was real. When he died she buried him. Now she is dead. Mother Courage and her children my mother and her son. They are all stories now.

And rare moments of moral turpitude, the kind I love, when someone takes her café table. “I stood there mutely,” Patti writes. “If this were an episode of Midsomer Murders she would surely be found strangled in a wild ravine behind an abandoned vicarage.” But then: “Such dark thoughts for the sake of a corner table. My inner Jiminy Cricket spoke up. Oh, all right, I said. May the world’s small things fill her with delight.”

This is where I am, filled with delight by the world’s small things: creamy vellum, a deckle edge, a handful of words, artfully arranged. Whether she’s in the whirlwind or in the eye, the book is filled with her patience, despite the fact that she – above all – knows that there is never enough time.

When she’s in motion, though, caught up in the rapture of something so simple as crossing 6th Avenue on the way to her beloved café, that’s when I was most captivated. Especially then. Because that’s where she did the hard work of doing what sounds so simple, and yet what becomes, here, divine. “I’m going to remember everything and then I’m going to write it all down. An aria to a coat. A requiem for a café.”

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My bookmark is a ticket stub, admittance to the reading Patti Smith gave at Lisner – as I read her words it peeks over the pages like strange divination, an invocation. Like a dare.