Butterflies in Aix-Stasis

Dali claimed that the job of the artist was accretion, that time would take care of the selection.  I’ve got to put my money on that one: where my mouth is.  I post this having passed through Barcelona and now from a table in Istanbul, where I can hear the ships on the Bosphorus laying into their horns, like NY drivers stuck behind the recycling truck.  The following terrain is for you to hopscotch through.  May 2010 bring you lightness, nimble feet and good head-gear. [pics of mountains and lavender taken by J.]


Pre Ambles on Imps

“Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman”—John Berger, Selected Essays.  I imagine that man sweats, tantalized; his sweat becomes the Seine, and Paris, contretemps gender-hopping, bats her eyelashes, full of lights.  Whatever is going on here, it must involve the illusions or clarifications of ecstasy.

Berger also insists that the artist’s way of looking “ increases our awareness of our own potentiality.”  Because so-and-so has now framed it this way, the universe does a tap-dance, when you had experienced said universe as merely shuffling along in holey Keds. Why we need, and I mean need, art.

The aperture shifts; life is capable of being re-seen.

But as artist, to worry that what you are writing must be important, or somehow matter, must shift somebody’s seeing, is a worry that can instantly crush the tip of your moving pen.   It’s the swift stomp of a Jolly Green Giant on a not-so-Jolly day, on which lording over the frozen pea-crop has made him more of a melancholic than megalomaniac.  The pen then bleeds its blackening blood, as when a jugular is tampered with.

Better to put the question of importance onto one of the delicate wooden sailboats on a leash in the public park of Paris, hand if off to a local kid to drag round and round the circumference of the excitable fountain.  The kid will be thrilled, while you can continue unperturbed on your tryst with your page, that placeless space.

For the psyche of the page is uncontained in an inverse proportion to its absolute physical limit.  Here, you will deposit yourself at the mercy of the familiar conclusion that being alive makes, radically and rudely, no sense at all.  In fact, it is a beguiling experience in the first place, so thank goddess someone went and invented the normalcy of pizza, which exists in every country like the sky exists in every country.

to tree or not to tree

Arrivals are a part of Departure, the Butt-end part: Views of Aix

We stay on a winding street, which curls up from a bridge Cezanne particularly loved. On the side of the shoulder-less road, where one harrows with speeding compact cars, lives a stoic Titan’s Bonsai with a towering Afro.  Good thing it is kosher to tell your boyfriend you’re in love with a tree, because he knows you won’t ever, exactly, leave him for it.  Our front yard, tickled by the mistral, has a cedar tree as mayor; I fall in love with this one too, fickle-hearted arborophiliac.  But tell me: what woman can resist a tree in a powerful position?  The cedar gesticulates as if an Italian explaining an opera plot to another deaf Italian.

There are, in fact, many Italians who live here in Aix-en-Provence, or so says our delightful host, Jacques.   Jacques also tells us that the French complain and complain about the current proliferation of Franglaise.  But, truth is, France lent us the words in the first place! So it is rather like recalling tires: Come home to Mama, you funky English bastards! France calls.  And the Anglophone lexicon takes off running.

To not at least attempt to learn the language of the place where I am strikes me as unforgivable, as if I were, by ignorance, tacitly authorizing a (purely) linguistic genocide.  And so for three months, caught up in other mechanics of living, I shyly avoided French.  Now, in the space of a week, I invite it in, to excess: a language binge.  My head swims with words that won’t combine symbiotically.  The entire French vocabulary is at a seventh grade dance, publicly and pubic-ly exhilarated, and yet hugging the Doritos bowl instead of each other. Moi and aussi in contractual avoidance; etre and avoir just puked bright orange in the bathroom. The prepositions dans and en have phoned their mother, from the last working payphone on earth, to please come take them home.   The pages of the dictionary flap in the illiterate wind.

flossing the toes


Weeks later, J reads aloud from an interview with Jim Harrison who reports that, honestly, much of life is not disappointing, but vast, open spaces; “The character in [his] book, Home, feels a delicious and particular sense of nothing.”  When one travels, those same vacant interstices either yawn or utterly evaporate.  It is easy to feel that one, as a particular being, is a palpable stretch of nothing (see note above, on importance).  But it is easy to feel the opposite, too; life is so congested with experiences that spaces of nothingness must be possible only in the hereafter, wherever here and after might be.  Or perhaps this is only true for one who lives in cities.

We can’t find a proper bus station, and a skinny-legged teen in tight jeans, which make his legs look even more like spokes, leads us round a corner to the right place.  He loves rock and roll, Jerry Lee Lewis—do we?  His face breaks out in a grin just to bring up the topic.  When the bus arrives, holding his 60’s guitar upright, he plays on his iPod a video of himself performing with another guitarist, who looks insurmountably hung-over, in love with fingering, and white-haired from the effort of it.  The kid is so pleased by his own sound he’s tapping his feet and smiling at the other passengers.  The bus is filled with sonic waves of decades that have long gone under.

While il pluie pluies onward, mesmerizingly idiomatic, I’m memorizing phrases that are laid out phonetically in the Romance section of the instant-French book, just for kicks.  “I know that you are wrong”: Je sais que vous avez tort, is one I keep coming back to, trying out on J, a declaration to be used whenever one’s narcissistic rectitude is called into doubt.  To my right, a little “crap” of herbed, local chevre; to my left, a glass of red, red wine.  What could be wrong?  By way of description its meaty fabulousness, its Sumo wrestler of a flavor-punch, the wine shop’s proprietress could only puff out her cheeks and pinch them madly.  Meaning…?  Sometimes others save us; sometimes we must save ourselves.

The Mountain is High Enough

crux, crucis

Today, on Mt. Victoire, beloved geologic lump of Cezanne, we immediately lose the trail and scramble up the sides of rocks, into sticky brush.  The clouds perch in the sky’s lap and I keep twisting round to look at them, but J’s a trailblazer.  How hardcore can you feel when you’re hugging a mountainside in a hoodie and a little orange dress?  The air in Aix is thickly redolent of pine, rosemary and dried lavender.  We pass olive orchards, sunlight so raw it could liquidate everything. My belly is rumbling from hoofing all over the mountain; it’s hard to obey the signs that instruct the passerby to please respect the work of the olive farmers.  How did Cezanne schlep an easel up here?  I’m so hungry I’d eat his paint, if it were food-colored; eat a natura morte of grass and creamy sky.  The wind comes after me as we pass another tidy grove of trees and signs begging respect for their fruits. I consider those (many, many, many) who are hungry, living in proximity to food that is not theirs and may never be.  After all, the nobility continued to dine finely in restaurants with transparent store-fronts, while the Parisian peasants just outside had no bread at all.  Most of the world’s hunger is not due optional exertion, as mine is—a metabolic outcome of the pure joy of ascending something bigger, fiercer, and rockier than oneself.  Instead it is a hunger that verges on irreparability.

I don’t touch the Olive.  I’m a good girl, and I can read.

noli me tangere

Funk Master

I sit freezing in the TGV station with J, where the menu features “salty softnesses.”

Because we sat down at a chrome table in the TGV diner before the used coffee cups and sugar packets were cleared, someone thinks we have already been good patrons and so deserve to dilly-dally.  The garcon looks too tired to be bothered by much; he chucks emptied break baskets at the small dresser were a baguette sits nonchalantly, staling.  The young man next to us orders tea; when it comes, the cup has a hole punctured in the bottom.  His charcuterie plate looks like a wholesale rug reject pile.  Welcome to France, he says to us.

Butterflies Everywhere

As surely as the slumbering wife in Folger’s commercials of yore woke when her husband– praise be– ran water through the ground beans, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross woke up to her true work as an “expert” on death and dying when she visited the concentration camp at Maidenik, still rank with the remains of destroyed bodies.  On the walls in the barracks, holding her disbelief like an unwieldy package, she saw: butterflies.  People, faced with no lighter prospect than untold suffering at best, had made butterflies.  And so she thought: there is something here.

There is something here.

She looked again.  Another butterfly, and another and another.

The Aim is Aimlessness

Yesterday, because the sun came out by accident, as if it tripped on a cloud and couldn’t help itself, J and I went on an aimless walk.  We didn’t set out to be aimless, but we were cursed by the city from the start.  Aimlessness is initially a luxury, a pure open seeing.  But when one is aimless for long enough, a certain heart-sickness can set in, the pointlessness of being alive peeking from every crack in the sidewalk like a boogey-man in training.  Does the heart, then, crave a certain direction?  “In rejecting suicide, we are all creatures of faith”, says a writer in The Nation, speaking on Fanny Howe.  When we have no compass, a walk will do, because it implies there is somewhere, anywhere at all, to go.

On days when my sadness is overripe, I usually choose to walk along the Seine like this, into the wind and cold; Christmas bulbs float in the water.  The statues on the bridge that extends out from Invalides, the glorious Pont Alexandre III, are dipped in gold.  Winged, furious horses rear up towards the sky.  Sorry guys: you’re stuck to a column.  But if you manage to unearth yourself: take me with you?

I see two kids biking with helmets on.  They must feel like they have the lamest parents in the world, marked for life as the only French offspring ever forced to take safety precautions.  Their dad, I notice, is gaily helmet-free.  The burnt-out shell of a motorbike rots under a tree on the promenade above.  The water nudges the sides of the houseboats.  The houseboat grunts.

We walk all the way to Notre Dame.  I think Notre Dame is more beautiful in its hindquarters, where the balustrades protrude grandly, than in its imposing interior; if an elephant graveyard could be a building, it would be this.  Mere Mary (eponymous) stands in the middle of an otherwise bare square park, the ultimate pigeon lady.  She clucks: well, I don’t have bread for you guys, but I’ll see if I can turn my son into some edible wafers… Irony of all ironies: the memorial to the Shoah is placed just across the way from the church’s rear.  It is at the very tip of Ile du Notre Dame where the island comes to a sharp, pointed finish.

For Shoah

I don’t know what to expect.  The description outside prepares you with the history of the genocide and the conscious erection of the monument: it ain’t just your average plaque.  A long narrow stairway brings you into the basin of the place, like Anne Frank Huis turned upside-down.  And perhaps this is what a grave is: a house standing on its head.  Paul Celan loved a quote that went something like that.  The chi going the wrong way on a one-way street.

At the entrance, a tough guardien interrogates: Do you have a cell phone?  A camera? She asks sharply, as if the next question will be: are you Jewish? No and No and Yes.  I overhear that the visitors all say no when asked about electronics (has anyone handed you any oversized, suspicious, ungainly, odiferous, scatological, technologically unverifiable packages since you packed?) and, funny that, cameras are flashing in the memorial’s sanctuary.  People lie with such grace: if poor Pinocchio’s nose enlarged every time he fibbed, our situation is quite the opposite.  It is as if, whenever we ‘fess fallaciously, our synovial fluid surges with lubricated glee, and our joints work better.  The pleasure of a lie greases the organism.  Watch people returning from France, suitcases bulging with wine, pass through the “Nothing To Declare” area of customs control. Really.

We squeeze down the narrow stairway between high, white walls.

E.(K.)R. for Embodiment

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross declares: “Life ends when you learn everything you are supposed to learn.”  Is this a good reason to stay dumb? A French friend tells us that when you smile while walking down the street, people here assume you to be naïve; did you not notice, dope, that the world is a big bulge of suffering?  That misery is the great common lot of humankind?  And so a smile, a cheery face, is indicative of a certain idiocy regarding this basic premise.  The appropriate scowl, such depravitas writ large, is like a boy-scout’s unsecret secret handshake: I understand, bro.  Ain’t no Dimeatapp-Plus for this malady.  It’s called embodiment, and no one has found a panacea yet.


The triangular thrust of the memorial is intentional.  In the open court, above the high white, concrete walls, one can see the blue sky.  Of course one can see sky.  What good is imprisonment if you don’t know what you’re missing? A little rookie seagull perches on the top of the wall.  The bird has no idea either what’s below it, cocking its head from side to side, having little bird spasms of bird feeling and bird nerve reflex.  At the apex of the courtyard, black metallic triangles stab towards the visitor; beneath these, the breathy Seine shows through a grate.

The interior requests silence; the writing on the wall is testimony but the thousand lights in the receding hallway are greater testament.  A sassy professor at grad school once lectured on the prophecy of the wall: who will read the writing there writ?  (Thanks, Selah!).  But these prophets came too late.  The writing on the wall was a post-script, not an S.O.S.  These memorial lights are like pores in the heavy, dark chamber, but still the recess ends in black.


I heart Thomas Merton.  He writes that the hardest thing to accept of St. John of the Cross is: the awful neutrality of his interior solitude.

Except Elizabeth Kubler Ross dared enter the chamber of interior solitude of the other. For she was radical and crazy enough, in her time, to ask the dying patient the one question the person longed to be asked: what does it feel like to be you?  She trashed the objectives of liver count in favor of the subjective, the thing that could really catch the light, in its quick passage, of the individual’s spirit.

I think, dying as we are, we all long for that question, and to be able to answer it honestly.


We’re in the wine-cellar of a bar.  A tall, wooden giraffe lords over the proceedings, which concern poetry.  The poet, S, who is reading somewhat reluctantly, wears a heavy pinky-ring.  His poem begins “At the age of 60, I wish to be torn limb from limb by a gang of indifferent women”; this is not quite quartering, more like sloppy, Dionysian butchery.  He name-drops some 15th century poets, most of whom managed to keep all their limbs about them.

J is beside me on the floor pillows, and we’ll feeling artist-y.  To spend all your time with one person is like this: within the space of an hour you can go from being as close as two adjacent skin cells, to being utter strangers.  Proof that another person is simply unfathomable.  Which is true of our own core, as well, I suspect.

J goes and becomes a poet, and a beautiful one, overnight. He makes one precious artifact and then another, stays up all night sweating about the fate of the world.  Black beret, nah—he stops before that part.  But he’s playing with the overwrought affect.   I am in love with him, except when I want to throw him off the Eiffel tower just to understand gravity that much better.  And he, I think, would run the same experiment.  What do you say, J, you reading my blog posts these days? Fancy meeting you here.

Stendhal used to write his thoughts on his pants, I learn from Beverly, also reading under the auspices of the giraffe.  Stendhal apparently was a scribbler who knew what words would feel like pressed against skin.  She goes on to read a translation of a piece about a jug, which impeccably rotates the object, and finishes: “For everything I’ve said of the jug, couldn’t one equally say it of words?”

What can one say of words except, like love, they can be quite useful in reframing?  If J chucks me off the Eiffel Tower, which would cost us 20 Euros or so just to climb, I’d have to put that last thought on my pants, or write it into the sky with the tip of my finger.


I finish this post at the Buddhas again, because I can’t stay away.  The exhibit is curative for my feeling hangover; for emotions had a barbeque in my heart-quarters and then hit the road, leaving all their litter for someone else—or no one else—to deal with.

This is like the Marais for ducks, J observes, when we see all the drakes pecking one another’s bottoms, in the pond of Parc Monceau, while the lone hen meditates on the concentric currents afferent to her body.  I adore Parc Monceau—Proust did too, I think, when he stopped nibbling on his Madeleine long enough to go for a walk.  It’s got some manufactured Roman columns, busts of famous folks, all in marble, reached after by women with plaited hair.  More importantly: its got trees and shrubs enough to please the urban nature-itch.  It scratches that itch with a million accommodating angles of flora—and the obligatory lawn, which you not only can’t touch (says the rules) but you can’t even think about touching.

Inside Musee Cernuschi

Nirvana: “l’Extinction du Souffle.  Here, I watch the guide animatedly point at the statues, which look anything but animated, more like a flip book whose pages fell out, the memory of something active.  Older, well-dressed ladies gather around his lecture.  They nod.  Sakyamuni: refusa de traiter de questions metaphysiques. Mindfulness sounds almost exotic when you write about it in French.

The bodhisattvas hold out arms, broken just below the elbow, hollowed where marrow should be.  They proffer something invisible—resource-less, and yet the epitome of resource.  Their noses are chipped from dumpster-diving, smile-first, into the garbage piles of suffering all sentient beings park in front of the temple of the body.  The left hand rests on or near the heart: c’est moi?

The Buddha’s ears hang low; “completment fagosite”—the guide is saying, or I am mis-hearing.  The crowd nods, graver than the grave.  The Buddha’s eyebrows almost touch each other; the guide’s eyebrows have gotten lost in the maze of his forelocks.   The smell of perfume wafting from the (mostly) older ladies on the tour rings the Buddhas as, in another locale and era, incense might have done.

And then a Vietnamese guard, Trong, siddles up beside me, and begins singing the Amitabha Buddha invocation in my ear.  To our left, a bodhisattva stretches out her piriformis—it is tough hopping century to century.  Then he sings in my other ear– what is this?  I think that one of the can-can-ing Buddha angels has taken a flying leap too far and wound up in the thin air of this lifetime.

You must pray to Amitabha, he explains gently, to pure your mentality.   Ami-tofu, Ami-tofu—(Nope: not a veg side dish, but an authentic invocation!)– nine times, day and night, calm mental.  Sakyamuni our teacher in this cosmic realm, he says.

And when he sees my eyes brighten, he takes my elbow and brings me to the secret corner, where his chair and jacket are.  Votre montagne, avec lucidite.  He reads my journal over my shoulder, while I write down what he says.  What are you writing? He asks. My privacy instincts sheepishly retire.  This was how it went in Thailand, too, and it’s not a voyeuristic thing.  Private thoughts are, in fact, no more or less interesting than anything else.  They are just: material.  And so I show him my journal:  I’m writing down what you say, I say.

He points upstairs with a grin, where the Buddha is waiting for me.

Anachronistic Amitahba

Amitabha Buddha sits in a tear drop of fire.  Fire will burn away your impurities, the book teaches me.  But, no: actually, fire will burn away your impurities and your purities, wreck the whole damn project.

Amitabha is in the upper mezzenine of the museum, enjoying an unbroken drsti upon the stairway.  He is of marble, and his robes sit in his lap like a pet cat.  His third eye is gutted out; likely a gem once was placed there.  The recess is so deep that if Amitabha were sentient, his forebrain would be in jeopardy.  All around him, little angelic buddhas float in Samadhi.  Amitabha himself is suspended in the uncheckable tear of Samsara.  Paris, in turn, is held by the ambulant tear of the Seine.

In front of this Buddha, I am holding myself back from getting down on my knees, but barely.  This is the second statue that has ever pulled me to reflexive genuflection, as unstoppable as the urge to defecate.  Fact is, I am so in love with this Buddha that I have just demoted myself from equanimity.   I wonder: if I make myself as tiny as possible, can I climb into the well left behind by the absence of his third eye?

Cold Curtain Call

It’s freezing out now, and the pipes along the Seine look like they are drooling icicles.  J is opening the tall shutters to let in the cold air.  We’ve been instructed—chastised—that in Paris one must do this every day in order to vent the moisture—otherwise they become stuck shut.  There is a parable in this about understanding.  I think this happens to the mind as well, a slick layer of black mold settling so deeply around what is insular and familiar that to open one’s mind seems almost dangerous, and therefore should be foregone, like tap water that comes out yellow.

But I think that this trip, and its gift, is in the framing.  Again and again, the seeing must recur.  Again and again, I must put my worries in a fragile boat in a hiccuping fountain.  Again and again, I cannot find the word for the thing I want, and so I must do a gesture dance, meet with frustration, do a gesture dance again, and finally go outdoors, look at the constant sky with its own inconstant vocabulary, and blow a great, big kiss– to Paris, that nostalgic orchard of contradictions, or that young man helplessly in love with an amused, indifferent, older woman.

provisions for the runaway


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2 Responses to “Butterflies in Aix-Stasis”

  1. russian ballet Says:

    Just want to say your article is striking. The clarity in your post is simply striking and i can take for granted you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your rss feed to keep up to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please keep up the ac complished work. Excuse my poor English. English is not my mother tongue.

    • saraknowsyou Says:

      that is so kind of you to say so! who are you and how did you come to the door here? it is my hope that you are both russian and balletic. perhaps the blog is better if you cannot understand everything that is said. if i liked emoticons, i would insert one now.

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