The only sounds are birds and the muted rumbling of a truck on a far off road. It seems surreal that I am here in this medieval French village, on this balcony, looking down narrow walkways framed with stone tenements built centuries ago, harboring ghosts of the past. Four days ago, I arrived, somewhat bedraggled, in this place I will call my home for the next two months. I visited the village in January and fell desperately in love with its cobblestone streets, colorful doors, and stone bridge arched like a stretching cat over the river that wanders through it. I never wanted to leave. I had to, but the universe has been kind enough to allow a series of miracles to fall into place, making it possible for me to return.
When I was here last, it was cold. Trees clawed the gray sky with their white, knobby fingers. Now, they are all in bloom, bursting with purple possibility. Their petals rode the wind in front of my car as I drove here, flurrying in time to the pounding music that accompanies me everywhere I go, songs I have saved on my iPhone, only a handful, not hundreds or thousands like most people. I am bad at collecting things. I always lose bits and pieces somewhere along the way. I own only the contents of my two suitcases that rested in the back of my tiny rental car. Both bags are uniquely ugly, one a stained red monstrosity, the other a ridiculous hot pink zebra patterned gargoyle of a thing. It was on sale for half off. No prizes for guessing why. The songs made me fly, made my soul flurry like so much snow, like those petals, and in the distance, jets painted the sky with blue and red contrails, for what reasons, I couldn’t guess. Was it a holiday? The dancing petals seemed to think so.
I travel often. I almost always feel panicky when I arrive in a foreign country, a desperate, lonely, trapped feeling that lasts days, sometimes even weeks. But I didn’t feel that when I came here. Immediately, I felt as if I were home. I arrived late in the afternoon and pinned a note to the blue, colossal door of a neighbor I’d met during my last visit. She’s a brilliant, beautiful Australian novelist, Martine, who lives with her wise, wonderful 11-year-old daughter, Manon. Then I fell into bed and slept the kind of dead-man sleep only jet lag can produce. The next morning, I woke to hear Martine and Manon pounding on my door. I can’t tell you how delighted I was to see them standing on my steps asking me to join them on their morning walk.
Since that moment, my time here has been a blur of beauty. I came with the intention of eating simply, hiking daily, praying often, writing always, and when the universe opened the door, interacting with the brilliant, lovely people who live here. It’s played out more or less like that.
The first day I was here, I wandered to a local, one-roomed grocery and bought the basics—bread, cheese, eggs, vegetables. My French is abysmal, but I managed to bumble my way through the transaction and left feeling secretly proud that I remembered the French words for eggs and bread. All of these things are somehow more delicious here than they ever are in the states, maybe because they are all produced locally. So my simple meals of bread and cheese and water taste like paradise to me. Since my arrival, I have survived on 17 euros worth of food, and felt like a queen all the while. And I’m not even halfway through the food I bought.
In the evening, Martine has been introducing me to the artists, musicians, and writers that populate this village. She takes me to various events at a bar called Le Troquet Toqué, which apparently is a play on words that means Mad Bistro. I know this because I called it Chucky Chucky the first night I was here, much to her amusement. It’s located in a stone building that resembles a white cave on the inside. Like all of the buildings here, it was built centuries ago. Last night, I danced to a calypso band there under that low ceiling with some of the most lovely people I have ever encountered. I was scared to dance at first, thinking I would be subjected to the kind of scrutiny one is subjected to in the U.S. when one dances, but I quickly realized that these people dance with all of their hearts, and with little or no concern for the grace of their steps or the perfection of their movements. For hours, I lost myself in the pounding rhythms of the drums and clarinet and tuba, in the wails of the woman who sang from a place that went much, much deeper than her diaphragm.
In the tiny room, humanity was magnified. It smelled like food and sweat and beer. There was nowhere to go without being crushed by bodies. Had I been given to claustrophobia, it might have been my version of hell. And although I was tempted to panic when I first walked through the narrow doorway into the almost-smothering embrace of ancient, rounded walls, I let go of the sensation and decided instead to become one with the magic that was happening around me. The cavelike room became a womb, giving birth to some version of me that is just taking shape, something undefinable, something that has faced darkness and wandered back into the light. And so a potential hell became heaven.
Speaking of heaven, yesterday, as I hiked the flowered trails sewn around the village’s edges like so much lace, I stared out over the yawning green forever of the landscape, dotted here and there with stone houses and ancient ruins, and I whispered, “I’m in heaven.” I meant it. At the risk of sounding trite, I feel God here. And no one seems to mind. At Le Troquet Toque, I spent hours talking to a local musician, a Canadian ex-pat, about God and reincarnation and the divinity of art. In the U.S., people might scoff at these notions. No one has scoffed here. Maybe when you are this close to heaven, you can’t help but harbor notions of something bigger than self.
Every morning, I wake before dawn, because even though I’m normally a notorious sleeper-inner (yes, I made that up), my body clock seems to have decided this is how we are going to roll while we are here. I make eggs and coffee and watch the sun rise from my balcony. When it is light, I hike through the hills outside the village, gasping every time a purple blossom comes into view. This place is alive with purple blossoms. It is spring, and everything is purple. I have long considered purple flowers to be the symbol of The Divine Mother. I am surrounded by her here. I am embraced by her. I am embraced by this village. I am embraced by these people. I am embraced by a place that feels into my bones like home.
P.S. I wrote these poems while I walked. People often tell me I should send my poems to journals instead of publishing them online. I sometimes do, but most of the time, I feel gushes of generosity when I create art. I believe art is the breath of God, her way of saying “I love you” to me so I can say it to others in a language I hope they will understand. She gives it to me, I give it back to her in the form of the woman or man or child who reads my words and feels light. To me, the commodification of art feels disingenuous, though Lord knows I do it when I sell my novels. But I’d rather share these while they are fresh in my heart, even if only three people read them, than hide them in a drawer for months or years, waiting for some other pair of eyes to deem them worthy of being read.
MEETING THE NAMELESS MOTHER
Awake, oh sleeper. A song lives in those hills, past the purple flowers that grew from the seeds The Mother left in her footprints when she passed. Lick the dawn. Swallow the sunrise whole. Let the branches grow, wrapping themselves around your legs, making them strong and thick. Become the goddess you were born to be. Let the river drown out the voices of the demons who whispered their lies in the night, who stole your eyes so you could no longer see yougodyougodyougod.
Demons are made of dust. They disperse in the breeze. You fall to your knees and whisper. Nothing. The name of God is only hhhhhhuuuhhh. It is only breath. It cannot be said. Say it, and you take away the sacred. Make it a thing of this earth. Or say it, but do not think when you do that God will stay within the box you have made. Let her dance outside those walls you erected from so much breath. Let her sing, “Death is an illusion, and stars from far away galaxies pulse the truth of the ages, which is all there is is hhhhhhuuuhhh. You are hhhhhhuuuhhh, You are born from stardust. Breath.”
Breathe God in like oxygen. Hold the stone of her on your tongue. Taste the salt of her sweat. Let her seep into your pores. Make her close. Make her you. Even in the darkest nights, when you were sleeping in hell with those demons, she has always been, will always be, yours.
All of the love I ever wrote was just a way of saying his name a little longer. And saying his name was just another way of saying his eyes. And saying his eyes was just a long way of saying ________, that silent breath that God breathed when She exhaled the universe into existence, thinking it was very good. Did God dance that day? Did She sway to the sound of the spinning stars, wearing moons in her hair and Saturn’s rings on the tips of her toes? Did She expose her breasts to The Sun and dare him to burn her. I think She must have been, must be, something like us when we are at our best, that moment of brilliant, brave tipsy that comes just before drunk, right before we fall off the precipice into the abyss, slurring come-ons to boys we never remember in the morning.
I think She must have been like him, the way that dent in his throat always made everyone who ever saw it dream of licking it long after he was gone. The songs he sang were a way of saying her name, and mine, drawing them out in forever chords and shuddering chants, and when he brought his lips to the harmonica, we felt what it meant to sleep neck deep in_______.
I have not always loved love. Some days I have cursed him, slept shaking with his invisible name tarnishing the red of my lips, cracking and turning them brown. His cruelty has shattered me, made me a glassless, bent window pane after the suicide bomber, left me standing in Hiroshima under a glowing mushroom cloud of death, gasping for breath, and even that sound was __________.
Because it all meant the same thing. It meant that the day I first saw him sway under an exploding canopy of stars was the day I first met God, was the day I first understood my own name had nothing to do with vowels but was a song She sang that day when She first gave herself to The Sun, settled beneath his heat, opened herself wide, and cried, “Burn me, break me, incinerate me, make me the embers that glow at the center of these bones, leave me shuddering and alone, clawing at my face, wailing for the home of you, calling _______.