A shift in focus

I just finished narrating lovely Janice MacLeod’s memoir PARIS LETTERS for Tantor, which tells the story of Janice’s decision to save enough money to leave her job and travel for a year. Janice ended up meeting and falling in love with the lovely Christophe, and rather than tourist-ing her way through foreign lands, eventually, she put down roots, committing to Paris and to her new love, creating and embracing a new life and career.

Janice and I had a wonderful conversation this weekend by Skype. I’d contacted her to ask her how to pronounce the names of her friends and how to voice other phrases in the book that are unique to her world, but we ended up talking for an hour about writing, love, her work, my work, our future plans, and more.

Janice is preparing for another international move, this time in the company of her now-husband, Christophe. The two will leave Paris for Calgary this fall, and I’ll be checking into Janice’s blog so that I can keep up to date with her contemplations, observations, and adventures. She’ll be taking pictures and painting pictures, and as one of her newest fans, I’m eager to luxuriate in the work she creates and the window into her life she opens to others.

One of the things Janice said she’d miss is the beauty in Paris. Everything in Paris is made to be beautiful. Beauty is celebrated and prioritized. Her admiration of her adopted European home made me think of my dear Maine, where beauty is everywhere — on every tree-lined street, down each hill toward the park or the beach or the city square or the farmer’s market, where no matter the season, something sweet captures your eye and your heart.

I told Janice that I had been taking a lot of pictures in my New York neighborhood lately, and though the pictures were different than those I’d taken in Maine, I was finding just as much beauty around me in this urban landscape as in the more apparently bucolic setting of my previous home. Beauty still surrounds me, if only I will change my perspective. I can’t as often take a wide shot and find as much natural beauty; I must focus my gaze tighter, look for smaller details, in order to find something that soothes me. But there’s no shortage of scenery that brings me peace and well-being. It’s up to me to shift in harmony with my landscape, so that I don’t hold an old expectation in this new world.

I look forward to taking more pictures of my new setting here in New York, and I look forward to seeing the new setting of Janice’s life, too. In the meantime, here are some shots of the beauty that has blessed my days lately.

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Learning from Dorothy

Yesterday afternoon, one of my closest friends, Eric, called. He and his fiance, Rosemary, and her daughter, Lucy, were in Manhattan for just 36 hours, he said, and they wondered if I could meet them for dinner. So last night I took the F train from Brooklyn to the East Village to meet them at Angelica Kitchen (my new favorite restaurant, with a totally dairy-free kitchen and an extensive gluten-free menu). The food was delicious, I was delighted to finally meet the woman who so thoroughly and understandably has captured Eric’s heart, and I bonded with 13-year-old Lucy over recaps of Downton Abbey episodes.

It was significant, seeing Eric at this stage in my transition to New York. We’ve been friends for almost 20 years, through all the big shifts of our lives — marriages, divorces, deaths,  breakups and makeups — and it was meaningful that we had an opportunity to so effortlessly mark this new point for both of us. It felt like no coincidence that Eric, who has not been to New York for decades, was in the city less than a week after I arrived, as though we’d been meant to be together — connecting our pasts to our futures.

Over bowls of three-bean chili and glasses of crisp apple cider, I recounted to Rosie how Eric and I had become close. When I was just barely 18 and a sophomore in college at the University of Washington, I applied for a part-time job as a legal secretary at Seattle’s small Sayre Law Offices. Eric, one of the gravest and grouchiest people I’d ever met, interviewed me, after pointing out that I was late for my appointment and lateness would not be acceptable in the future. He was so scary, I told Rosie, laughing as we recalled that he was only 25 years old. But at over 6 feet tall, with a deep voice and a pointed gaze, he was fierce, and within the first week he made me cry, snapping, “It’s just like a phone. You use it just like a phone!” as I tried to figure out how to work the fax machine.

Those were dark and isolated days for me. I lived with my boyfriend, a furious alcoholic who drank a fifth a night when he had money, or a couple forties when he was broke. I still don’t know quite how or why I had so quickly become swallowed up in an abusive relationship. But what had started as a sweet connection with a drama department misfit, a boy who charmed me, saying, as we did our Russian class homework together at a campus coffee shop, “какая красивая девушка,” had, within a month, devolved into the most frightening and violent time of my life.

Jon never assaulted me physically, but when he was drunk (daily), he was threatening, vicious, and lacerating with his words. One  night, just a couple months after starting work at the law office, I called Eric in a panic. It was a pretty inappropriate call, I told Rosie, since Eric was my supervisor, and we weren’t really even friends. But whatever had happened — neither Eric nor I could recall what exact circumstances had prompted the late night plea for help — Eric was the only person I could think to reach out to. When he heard my teary, strained voice on the phone, he said immediately, “Do you need me to come get you?” and within a few minutes he had pulled his beat-up car in front of my building in the U District and took me to the house he shared with his two roommates in Wallingford. Eric held my hand until I stopped crying and my breathing calmed, and finally I drifted to sleep, awakening the next morning to Tom Waites blaring in the living room and pancakes cooking in the kitchen. Eric and his roommates, Mike and Leslie, teased me and fed me, talking to me gently and kindly, without judgment or criticism. For that long morning, I sat at their table, and was comforted.

It took me another stupid year to leave the terrible relationship with Jon, which remained unhealthy and chaotic throughout its duration, but because of it, I gained not only deep understanding about the powerful mental entrapment of an abusive relationship, but one of the best friends of my life.

Through the evening Eric, Rosemary, and I talked about how the two of them came together, how I met Dutra, their wedding plans, our families, their work lives, my hopes and dreams for my career. I wrapped up leftovers to take home to an exhausted Dutra, and then we lingered over the most delicious chocolate cookie, dairy-free cheesecake, and nut brittle, finally standing reluctantly near closing time, pulling on our coats, exchanging hugs and thanks and well-wishes and congratulations and promises to see each other again soon.

As I walked back to the subway, I thought about how, 18 years ago, when I was suffering so much anxiety and heartache, so unsure of myself and fearful and lost, I never could have anticipated this life. I never could have imagined that Eric and I would remain friends, that we’d share meals and exchange phone calls and texts and Facebook messages, that we’d laugh at the things we laugh at, and tell each other that we love each other. I would have been so amazed by the richness of my community of friends, the peace and promise of my daily life, my life’s evolution, my bravery and willingness to live in a healthy and whole way outside my comfort zone.

The wonderful night with Eric and his beloveds reminds me that there is no clear picture of what lies ahead. I don’t know who will be in my life in another 18 years, who will become just a great story or who will be my family. I don’t know where I’ll be working, how much security I’ll have, with whom I’ll share my home. Though I will never again be in a relationship in which I am not safe and cherished, more pain and heartache, as well as joy and abundance, are guaranteed as a natural part of life. When things grow difficult I can fret and worry and play out awful, worst-case scenario stories in my mind about all the possible terrors, or remember that I’ve been through roiling, dark nights before, and even at the highest pitch of the storm, when I’ve cried out for help, I have been shown to safety by unexpected sources of strength, love, and tenderness.


From The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Tantor Audio):
It was very dark, and the wind howled horribly around her, but Dorothy found she was riding quite easily. After the first few whirls around, and one other time when the house tipped badly, she felt as if she were being rocked gently, like a baby in a cradle.

Toto did not like it. He ran about the room, now here, now there, barking loudly; but Dorothy sat quite still on the floor and waited to see what would happen…

Hour after hour passed away, and slowly Dorothy got over her fright; but she felt quite lonely, and the wind shrieked so loudly all about her that she nearly became deaf. At first she had wondered if she would be dashed to pieces when the house fell again; but as the hours passed and nothing terrible happened, she stopped worrying and resolved to wait calmly and see what the future would bring. At last she crawled over the swaying floor to her bed, and lay down upon it; and Toto followed and lay down beside her.

In spite of the swaying of the house and the wailing of the wind, Dorothy soon closed her eyes and fell fast asleep.