Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Love Affair with Books and Words: My Afternoons with Margueritte

Elegant, elderly ladies in one of the tree-lined, serene streets of Barcelona, Spain. 

One of the imprints in my mind from my trip to Barcelona several years ago is the older women and gentlemen out mingling about, or lingering on benches with their dogs or their newspapers, all to be part of the grand beauty of ordinary life. Many were smartly dressed. We live in such a dressed down society, even going out for fine meals or to the theater are casual affairs. Will we still have a posh elder generation in the future? I hope so. I remember my paternal grandmother, whose engagement ring I wear, always dressed so elegantly with her pearls, scarves and handbags, even into her nineties. Maybe I'll be a polished lady donning pearls and a purse in my old age. I have a few of her handbags which I cherish, from a time when they weren't made so cheaply and their generation didn't value excess the way ours seems to. I doubt many bags made today will last decades.

When I sat down one afternoon with a cup of Harney and Sons Paris tea while baby Grace Ann (our little Gracie) was napping, I didn't know what a treat I was in store for when I watched the French gem of a film, My Afternoons with Margueritte. Germain, in his forties who sells his garden's bounty at markets, meets Margueritte, 95 years young, in the park. Neither are looking down at handheld devices for distraction. I saw a cartoon recently where a young girl inquires, "Grandpa, What was personal communication like before social media?" to which the grandfather (holding a newspaper with a headline "Facebook Profits" and a skyrocketing arrow below it) replied, "Just like this." Another cartoon depicts a woman telling another, "I had to get off of Facebook to get a life." I love that social media can bring people together, but I'm hungering for more of these personal interactions, with the lost art of rich conversation. But back to the film...

Margueritte tells Germain on their second meeting in the park she thought of him when reading The Plague by Albert Camus. She says,

"You know, when you sort through books, you always flip through one or two at random. I happened to come across a sentence."

The paragraph she reads to him:

"How can one conjure up, for example, a city without pigeons, without trees and gardens, no encounters with flapping wings, no rustling leaves, a neutral place. When all is said and done, changing seasons are read only in the sky. Spring's arrival is announced by the air quality, or baskets of flowers brought from the outskirts by diminutive vendors, a spring only sold in markets."

Remembering a market in Barcelona.

Germain is plagued by memories of taunts from classmates and even his teacher for his poor reading aloud skills. He has a dysfunctional relationship with his mother. Yet, he only needed a nurturing soul. Germain's girlfriend wants to have a child together, but insecure Germain is filled with fear and doubt. He asks, "What kind of father could I be? I can't even put three words together. I'm a loser. What could I give a child?" To which she gave the wisest answer of all, "Love."  Margueritte provides motherly love to Germain and gives him the gift that keeps on giving - a passion for books and love of words.

Margueritte tells him,

"You're an excellent reader. Reading is listening. Look at children. When you teach them to read, you read aloud to them. If you read well, if they listen well, they want more, and then they need it."

At the Ramapough Powwow in New Jersey, a Native American storyteller, who tells the children she hopes there will be some future storytellers here. So many great authors were avid readers too as children.

We received many generous gifts for Gracie following her birth. In a way, a lot of gifts reflected much about the giver. My ecologically minded friend sent a basket of organic cotton clothing and natural products from Burt's Bees. A friend who I know would love to curl up with a blanket and a book or knitting on a rainy day gave Gracie a cozy swaddle blanket. Another who loves ladybugs as I do (a favorite character is ladybug Terfle in Michael Hoeye's Hermux Tantamoq adventure series books) presented an adorable ladybug towel. Leave it to my friend who is an avid reader and bookstore enthusiast to send a book, so appreciated, Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses."

When you have a daughter, I was told many people will give you clothes, even when we've tried our best to communicate we have more than we need coming from other mothers passing them on, since it's a joy for people to play "dress up." I have Gracie almost always in comfortable cotton onesies.  I'm more interested in building a bookshelf for her than filling a closet of clothes she'll quickly outgrow (never mind where all those clothes are manufactured, although disappointingly so many children's books are made in China).  I went to a reading by Elizabeth Gilbert for the paperback release of The Signature of All Things, and asked her to sign my copy for Grace to put in her library (we have mother-daughter copies, with my signed hardcover on my bookshelf). I loved in her talk when she spoke about her fondest childhood memories revolving around reading and quipped about cutting school to finish, "For Whom the Bell Tolls."  Can I start a movement to buy our girls books, not clothes, or to ask for gifts for college funds? As soon as we get any monetary gifts it goes straight into college savings. Let's play dress up with their minds.

Some of the books on Gracie's bookshelf.  "A parent is inexcusable who does not personally teach her child to think." - The Signature of All Things.

Gracie is now six months old, and my happiest memories are such simple ones, like quiet time spent in our garden and reading to her. I'm reading anything and everything: a Basho poetry book I received as a wedding gift, my Muir Woods, Yosemite and Lands End meditations books, and such. Anything so that she will hear the language. I love pulling up my raspberry colored rocking chair to her crib and reading. I'm now a stay-at-home mother, such a change from my harried commute from New Jersey into New York City five days a week. My commute did provide one good thing: structured downtime to read for myself. Lately, I keep starting and quickly stopping books, but I feel deprived at the end of the day, like I didn't do something good for my spirit. If I watch too much mindless television or waste time surfing online, which on many days as a tired new mom I am guilty of despite my intentions not to, I feel like I've consumed fast food for the soul, feeling completely unfulfilled and guilt-ridden when I know better. I need to carve out my own personal reading time too.

I so loved reading aloud Johanna Spyri's classic Swiss story Heidi to Gracie. Motherhood has me reconnecting with my own personal history which includes a Swiss heritage with Swiss born parents. I think of the light brought into the life of the blind grandmother when Heidi read aloud to her. Heidi and William Tell re-enactors entertain youngsters at a Swiss Independence Day celebration in New York City a few years ago. Story time is so magical for children. We need to rekindle this as adults too sometimes.

I enjoy recommending and sharing favorite books, or even just favorite passages when I think of someone in mind when reading them. My mother is now reading my copy of Willa Cather's "My Antonia," a novel enthusiastically recommended to me by a former colleague. Margueritte tells Germain, "On this earth we are but couriers. I'm giving you a book."

Margueritte reads aloud The Plague and Romain Gary's Promise at Dawn to Germain and she asks what he would enjoy next, perhaps an adventure story or detective novel? A tale of Amazon Indians he says, as he read cartoons of them in his childhood. Margueritte declares she has just the thing in her library. When he visits her for tea (served elegantly on charming china, what else) she presents him with Sepulveda, a Chilean author, and his work, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories. It made me long to broaden my horizons and explore more international authors.

A statue in Seville, Spain, surrounded by books.  "Her head is fill with shelves. On the shelves are books, books, and books." - Germain

If it's possible to have "word fatigue," I would include "hashtag" and "selfie" on my list, and also the chopping up of our language (LOL, OMG, and such). We have all this information at our fingertips and so many ways to communicate, but I worry about the excess of useless information, like all of the celebrity gossip that dominates the news, and the beauty of language being lost. A dictionary may seem unneeded when we can look up a word so easily online, but I adore when Margueritte gives Germain a cherished old dictionary, she reflects,
"With a dictionary, you travel from one word to the next. You get lost in a maze. You pause, you dream."

To the left, a fairy pausing and dreaming at Old Hook Farm in Emerson, New Jersey.

The film ends with this poignant passage from Germain, which I leave you with:

"It's not a typical love affair, but "love" and "tenderness," both are there. Named after a daisy, she lived amongst words, surrounded by adjectives, in green fields of verbs. Some force you yield to, but she with soft art passed through my hard shield and into my heart. Not always are love stories just made of love. Sometimes, love is not named. But it's love just the same. This is not a typical love affair. I met her on a bench in my local square. She made a little stir, tiny like a bird with her gentle feathers. She was surrounded by words, some as common as myself. She gave me books, two or three. Their pages have come alive for me. Don't die now. You've still got time. Just wait. It's not the hour, my little flower. Give me some more of you, more of the life in you. Wait. Not always are stories just made of love. Sometimes love is not named. But it's love just the same."