I was searching through my electronic calendar to see what was coming up on my personal agenda. Without my asking, it reminded me that November 13th has been proclaimed a Day of Mourning – a year to the day since some crazy bastards hopped up on religion and righteousness massacred more than 200, mostly young, people as they ate and drank, danced, chatted and flirted.
My concerns were more immediate than thinking about the moribund past. The past? The inconsequential past is what Today’s Winners say it is. Yes?
Anyhow, Karine and I like the romantic singer song-writer sweet-voiced Katie Melua. Last Spring, I saw she was coming to town in November and, acting on a newly-acquired principle of “acting now is always right action,” bought tickets.
What could possibly go wrong with such long-term planning of a little handholding to songs like “Just like heaven” and “Thank you, Stars” at the gorgeous, famous Olympia concert hall in downtown Paris?
But needs must sometimes; I had forgotten to mention it to Karine until a week before the day, only to discover she was out of town – tickets bought, arrangements made, paying customers waiting.
Since I can barely survive being alone the time of a single night’s sleep and I’d rather lose the money than go to the trouble of re-selling a paid-for ticket, I had to hunt for somebody free to come and who likes mushy music.
At four days and counting, no takers; I’d even asked a nodding acquaintance from the gym!
At this point, Fifi, Karine’s frangine, as they say, naturally came to mind. ‘Though her cultural tastes run to the Velvet Underground, Goth, Heavy Metal and Frida Kahlo, she’s very easily imposed upon.
I called and left a self-pitying message outlining the service she could render, not neglecting to point out how much better something always is when done with a pretty woman.
Mourning? Remembrance of a massacre?
Remembering, let alone talking or writing about the substantial marrow of the November 13th serial mass murders in Paris makes me feel powerlessly angry: I am quite sure that such anger somehow puts me in the power of the murderers and their handlers.
That can’t be good and must be bad for the heart in all senses.
I have no idea of writing about murder or remembering murderers.
I will say, though, that, apart from stirring fear & hatred and anger & cloudy, blood-eyed thoughts, the enduring evil of murder, political or personal, is the un-mendable hole it tears out of the tapestry of daily life: the instrument maker known only by sight, the shy young woman once permanently, silently, perched at the far end of the bar, the roller-skating companion, the nodding-acquaintance, Myriam's neighbor's cousin’s brother-in-law’s sister, their former neighbors...
The distinction of being and belonging is why I can be delighted to meet not only a truly new acquaintance but someone who was already in my life but did not yet belong to it.
In fact, the newness of truly new acquaintances seem most often to be about a changeover from being in your life, to belonging to your life, usually in an unexpected way.
Grief and time will eventually patch up belonging relationships; there are understudies; the players keep on playing as the candles go out on by one; we are all born to die.
But the big tapestry behind the stage, background to the play, it never gets patched up. As does history, the tapestry registers and uses absence and presence in equal measure.
The absence of strangers who were in our lives goes on forever in the tapestry. The presence of those who belonged disappears into the background as soon as the candle goes out; the understudies appear, usually stepping from the shadows of the tapestry. The show goes on.
But when the intimate strangers, those who were in but not of our lives, disappear, no understudy gets patched in to the piece. Neither players nor spectators pay much attention, but their absence – an absence of possibility – is writing a whole new piece. Absence changes life’s potential.
The power of absence in life’s potential is a law, you see. It is not one of Yahweh’s, but one of the real ones, like gravity.
The calculus of absence is important enough to be a Real Law because, we, each and all of us, as strangers, are the threads and daubs, points, colors, stitches and filigrees that frame, shape, then potentialize the infinite number of ongoing pieces with possibles. As strangers, then, we, as the French say, égayons – hold up and support – life’s cheer, in the same way as beams and joists étayent – hold up and support – a house.
It is November 1st, the greyest, most useless of so-called “holidays”, good only for pulling the quilt over my head. There am I, vertical only from habit, waiting for Fifi to get back to me about something in the future and – a bit against my very much unindomitable will – juggling all the above thoughts on presence, absence, massacre and mourning.
I am all alone, and sick – as I am tempted to whisper over the scratchy phone line in a small, hoarse voice to Karine and thus serving her right too – sorely afflicted by la bougeotte, the restless need to get out there and bother.
So I went to look at Natacha Panot’s sculptures.
She has a workshop at the Usine Chapal (https://fr.pinterest.com/chapal1832/usine-chapal-de-montreuil), once a tannery and now a labyrinth of artist workshops not far off the Croix de Chavaux station on the 9 métro and easy to get to on a dead grey Tuesday afternoon.
I had met Natacha during the Montreuil artist open house in mid-October; she is one of the easy-mannered folks of this world – easy to confide to, easy to confide in.
After a short, much interrupted, conversation about some polished plaster panels (so polished and textured that I took them for bronze), she had promised to invite me to talk and see more when she had more time. And it turns out that Natacha is as good as her word: she had invited me for this very same first of November, thanks God, as Karine says in English, oddly.
What better way to spend an afternoon than to see interesting stuff while having an amusing chat when you’re alone on a holiday honoring the dead and have got la bougeotte?
So, first, Natacha and I talked about what caught my eye the first time around: the panels – hard-polished plaster bas reliefs of game.
The mix of very formal presentation and homely theme produces in me a pleasant evocation of 18th-century “art of the hunt”: the strong, ironic tension between the magnificent & mawkish: think of Joseph Wright of Derby, think of bronzes of a favorite beagle; think of the The Nightwatch doing shots with a brigade of Elvis imitators. My pleasant esthetic vaporings got a nice little push when I finally noticed that what I expected were trussed-up grouse were actually kiwis; a lizard, stretching as if for sunning, is actually a favorite Walkabout food for Australia’s First People and in course of preparation on a baking hot rock.
No surprise, I learn that Natacha is a fan of the Musée de la chasse et de la nature (Hunting and nature museum). Also no surprise, I come to understand that more than a decade working in New Zealand has left Natacha with a new and complementary set of visual expectations as well as experience with Other Phyla.
At the end of the afternoon, we both seemed quite satisfied with the transition from being in each other’s lives to becoming actual acquaintances, as you might say, in the French way of it, going from the arriving handshake to polite cheek kissing for the departure.
As I was walking to the bus stop happily thinking about polished panels, Natacha Panot, 18th-century kiwis and alchemy in Derby and pheasant-hunting in southern Ohio with Grandpa and Australian walkabouts, Fifi called.
She announced that, enfin, she would find it impossible to sit through two hours of neo-romantic Katie Melua muck with me.
Also, she explained, she couldn’t get a babysitter. Sorry.
We hung up and I – still under the spell of new acquaintance, that delicious aroma of the joie de vivre et bonne humeur of the Other – I decided on the spot to ask Natacha to the concert.
I sent her a text.
A day or so went by.
I was beginning to think I’d made an unwelcome advance and would be going alone, feeling chastened.
And, just as I was thinking all that, the following text dinged into my phone:
“Sure. But you should know that it will be the first time I’m going to a concert since November 13th,” Natacha wrote, “I am still fragile in public places; it might become too much for me.”
Her haring off mid-concert seemed a reasonable risk to get to be, as it were, midwife to somebody reintroducing themselves to ordinary pleasures. So I wrote back I’d be proud to be with her, come what might.
As we were walking back from the concert I asked Natacha about what had happened, how it had happened. So she told me.
She was walking, she said, from a friend’s opening, debating as to whether she’d get takeout at the Petit Cambodge when she heard what she thought were fireworks, but knew were not. She believes she was grazed by a stray bullet, but could not get a straight answer from medical personnel on the spot or later.
I don’t ever know how to respond to a story like this, so it came to me to tell her I was grateful that she was walking toward the Opéra Garnier with me, that bright lights were twinkling along the boulevard and that faded stars were in the sky.
I am still; should I never see her again, I am grateful to her and to all former and current and future intimate strangers, those men, women and children whose persons, talents and dreams are the possibles and potentials in my life.
Discovering the Real Law of Intimate Strangers, finding my delight in the presence of all those who are here, now, with me and I with them, being un-belonging and potential, stands In Memoriam to those whose absence now does so much to shape daily life. Merci, les amis.