Red Petals

This story was originally published in the literary journal, Vestoj, The Platform for Critical Thinking on Fashion, and depicts a scene that occurred in March, 1947, which is also featured in the tv series, The Collection. It was my first fiction publication!

 

 

 

 

RED PETALS
Paris, March 1947

I have designed flower women. – Christian Dior, February 1947

Caroline leaned toward the mirror and patted her black hair, sprayed to a stiff sheen. She had imagined this day since donning her first party dress at age five, which had been white with a red sash. She’d spun, thrilling to the rush of air tickling her legs and the fall of cotton gently brushing down, and turned her head to see her inky hair curling on the sleeve.

Now her reflection: her arm a white arc, her cheekbones high and sharp, collarbones gliding into bare shoulders above a tight bodice and a blossoming skirt in luscious, ripe-cherry red.

The joy of feeling pretty washed over Caroline like a clear, rolling wave.
Her heels clicked past girls whispering as makeup was dabbed on their faces. A redhead stared upward as a woman stuck pins into the hem of her emerald dress. Another girl in a white girdle and bra lifted her arms into layers of white tulle. The room hummed with hairspray shushes, compact snaps, and the rustle of skirts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As she glided through dashes of color and whiffs of perfume, powder and sprays, Caroline remembered her “good dress” during the war, a blue and white plaid that had faded and tightened as her figure bloomed.

A memory surfaced of a Nazi officer’s wife she and her mother had seen one day emerging from Hotel Crillon, with blond hair swept back from haughty eyes. A square neckline smoothed down in black silk to a skirt tight over angular hips. She’d had a cold, diamond-cut beauty.

“Dior,” Maman snapped. “Designer for Lelong; he dresses Nazi wives.” Her eyes narrowed. “His sister, Ginette worked for the Résistance and was taken to Ravensbrük. Dior dresses the enemy while his sister risked her life for France. ”

Caroline stared at the woman and wished she could dress like that.

After the Liberation, Maman had said Dior had been given sixty million francs to set up his house of couture on Avenue Montaigne, where Caroline and her friends peered into the windows at skirts like opened umbrellas.
The name Dior echoed with a new respect, of fabric pulled generously out of a bolt with a thump- rustle- thump, the slow cush-and-clip of scissors, of hushed gasps and quiet applause. The New Look.

One afternoon in January 1947, a man in spectacles and a gray suit sidled up to Carolyn as she stood outside Dior’s shop, nose against the glass, and asked her if she’d ever considered modeling.

“We could train you in a few months,” he said.

One March evening at dinner, she’d announced she’d been invited to model at a photo shoot in Montmartre, one of several Dior planned on the streets of Paris to show life after the war. She would be paid sixty francs. After her father sputtered, he’d given permission. Maman smiled indulgently.

“I’m pleased for you, Caroline.” Her mouth tightened, “But, Dior! Those dresses take a lot of fabric, a wasteful crime after such scarcity during the war; people are furious.”

But now the war was over and it was Carolyn’s turn.

*****

 

 

Caroline knew Maman and her friends were outside in drab coats and thick brown stockings, whispering and pointing at the American photographers.
When Maman saw her she’d blush scarlet.

She took a deep breath and walked out into chilled, early spring air. A breeze stirred her skirt against the back of her knees, and her spirit fluttered. Sunlight made a spotlight on the sidewalk, lined with cameramen and the curious.

She raised her head. This was her moment. As she walked, her dress ballooned out; she floated on a soft cushion of red.
Caroline felt a tug at the hem of her dress; perhaps a little girl dreaming of Someday.

She spun around into eyes filled with hate.

The tug became a pull. Jolt. Yank. She fell; her hip smacked the cobblestones, stinging. She was attacked from all sides by fingers reaching, clutching, grabbing.

Her body was slapped and spun by calloused hands, her hair snatched and twisted by the angry women of Montmartre. A rag doll ripped apart, she heard one word hissed above curses and exertions:
“Waste!”

She felt a rip vibrate through her being, saw strips of cloth brandished with victorious cries. More hitting, scratching, clawing at her thighs.

Carolyn lay alone on the sidewalk in silence. She crossed her arms around her naked torso and curled up.

She saw torn bits of red, like petals, scattered on the gray stones. A flashbulb popped.

 

The street sank into an uneasy silence; and then, with a shriek of outrage, a woman stall-holder hurled herself on the nearest model, shouting insults. Another woman joined her and together they beat the girl, tore her hair and tried to pull her clothes off her.

 

– Excerpt from Paris After the Liberation 1944-1949 by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper, Penguin Books, London, 1994

My Travel Manifesto

What are your life values and how do they fit into your travel experience? As I prepare to depart for Spain, to teach a brilliant and eager group of writers, work on my screenplay, Siesta, with filmmaker Rogier Van Beeck Calkoen, and indulge in a writing retreat at Casa Ana in La Alpujarra … and then whirl around Paris doing research for my novel, Illuminations (and a few events), I contemplate my own travel manifesto:

I believe our reactions to places are initially a reflection not of the place but of ourselves, thus I allow a place to beguile me. I do not post, proclaim, pronounce, or otherwise do the charming myself while in the place.

I believe there are deep, transformative forces whirling around the world, so I focus on the mysteries of the place, not on myself (I cannot try to learn flamenco dancing if I am worried about how I look!) I take time for solitude and refrain from selfies (Once I posed my family for a photo, “Merry Christmas from Stonehenge”, and all that was visible of this most ancient and moving sites was a little grey corner of a rock behind my son Kellan’s shoulder)

Our adventures are all connected to each other and to the trials and victories of history, so I seek my own true adventure, something that is that corresponds with my deep spiritual need.

Savoring a place is essentially the goal of travel, so I keep tight boundaries on my time so I do not feel if I am rushed. Set my own schedule (I swoop in and out of groups) aware of my energy, as absorbing a place and its people both takes and gives energy.

There are hidden stories in places that connect with my own psyche, so I observe and take notes on details and emotions, engage with people in a respectful way, coaxing out their own stories. I listen to the sounds of life, of history and of spirits.

I believe the dark gives meaning to the light, thus I look for the duende of a place by attending to ALL feelings within me without focusing on them, as my adventure has to be coming out of my own interior.

I look for my magical guides, those figures of the past and present who ignite my life. They are varied and unexpected, and one can easily miss their appearance.

Doors will open where there were no doors before and where there would not be doors for anyone else. I stay attuned to senses. Learn the history (enhancing my readiness), listen to music, dance, give art the chance to work its mystique on me, I look for duende and joy and angst and cheer. The underground journey. I direct my senses outward to the place and keep my focus there.

I avoid letting my identity as a travel writer, author, filmmaker or teacher eclipse my quest as a traveler.

I cultivate courage by pursuing the call to adventure: no security, no rules.

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What is your own travel manifesto???
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I am so honored to be featured on Jeff Greenwald’s Ethical Traveler podcast with a short version of my story, “The Stance of the Toro Bravo”.

You can find the entire story here:

LitWings

LitWings symbolizes uplifting literature and illuminated travel.  Literature can elevate our existence, whether through a poem by Charles Baudelaire or an essay about ancient times, and travel can shed light on our own lives. Here is an example of how this is reflected in my body of work.

Introduction to Wings: Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France

Challenging the meaning of life is the truest expression of the state of being human.                                                                              —Viktor Frankl

 

 

It is early morning inside a café on rue des Canettes, a tiny side street on the Left Bank of Paris near the cathedral of Saint Sulpice. From the kitchen comes the sounds of the place being coaxed to wakefulness: the hollow clatter of spoon on saucer, the solid clump of cup on counter, a knife plunging through a crusty baguette then cracking down on a wooden block.

You are alone in the room, ensconced in a golden brown embrace. The scent of coffee nudges your blood to thrum, and you sense that something in this place is here just for you. Drowsy sunlight yawns through lace-curtained windows and gleams a soft honey onto one of the tables.

Upon the table is a box wrapped in glossy fuchsia paper with a spiral design that catches the light, and a shiny white ribbon that meets in a scalloped bow in the middle. The box is full but not bulging, its edges folded tight enough to tempt.

 

The stories in this book—written over the past decade as I have traveled to France several times a year—are not meant to amuse or entertain, but to call forth responses. This is how literature has worked its magic with me: I read Julian Green’s essay about the tiny church of Saint Julien le Pauvre, and when I stepped inside the ancient church, Green’s image of Dante kneeling on straw listening to his lessons swirled with my own misty mood. Lines from the poem “Autumn” by Charles Baudelaire, read on a leaf-spangled day in the Luxembourg garden, reminded me that my own summer’s stunning afternoons will be gone, plunging me into cold shadows. It was summer yesterday; now it’s autumn, I knew, and echoes of departures from my own life—my sons going off to college, my sister dying—resounded in the air.

I share with you the hungers I felt inside a Parisian café, so that perhaps you may feel pangs of your own. I pass along secrets told to me by the late French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vincent van Gogh, and the patron saint of Paris, Geneviève, wondering what they have to say to you. I write about images and scenes that caused me to feel the sensation described by the French word chantepleure: to sing and cry at the same time, in the hope that you will recognize a singing sob rising from your own depths.

I hope to inspire you to ask yourself questions about your own travels to the Andes or the Appalachians, the Alps or the Atlas Mountains.

These are stories of the gifts I’ve received from France, music from the métro stations and the streets, compassion from a woman in Normandy, wisdom from my friends Jean-Bernard and Michèle, and wings from the statue Victory in Musée du Louvre.

I was drawn to this country and returned again and again, beckoned by unlikely guides who escorted me back in time through revolutions, wars, reigns, and riots; down medieval staircases; deep into wild forests; up onto parapets with panoramic views; and around and around in concentric circles, coming closer and closer to the X on the map.  I’m no expert traveler, just a person who set out thinking she had it all together, only to find pieces of her fragmented self scattered all over France.  The surprise was that each time I returned home, I felt reconfigured. This is the adventure of travel: We see, we feel, we perceive, receptors reach out from our depths toward what we need, and we have the potential to integrate into ourselves the transformative treasures of the world.

Just as Julian Green and Charles Baudelaire’s meanings merged into my own, so, I hope, will a morsel of Franche-Comté cheese or a sip of Côtes du Rhone taste different to you than it did to me. My view of Notre-Dame at midnight invites your unique response. The story of a young boy in occupied Paris about which I helped create a film may spark new sentiments in you. My experiences differ from yours, as you smell the smoke of faraway fires and hear words of foreign tongues roll off your own, but we connect in our search for meaning.

 

The café hums into action. You hear shoes slap the wooden floor, a waterfall of conversation and laughter, “Bonjour! Ça va bien?” and the clinking of glasses and dishes. Your arm is brushed by a rush of warm air, bumped by another arm, caressed by a shiver of anticipation.

Look closer at the gift on the table. On top of the fuchsia paper is a cream-colored tag with your name written in swirling black calligraphy. Inside the glittering box on the table are the stories of your life, images and scenes and people from your travels and times that these stories can somehow mingle with. I hope they resonate with you, call up echoes of your own tales, tempt you to travel, and tap into your dreams.

Grasp a corner of the smooth white ribbon.

 

 

Porte d’Aubervilliers, 1932 by Henri Cartier-Bresson

hcb porte  d'aubervilliersHenri Cartier-Bresson snapped his images inside what he called The Decisive Moment, operating on instinct, capturing the essence of life.

Somehow he knew.

Somehow we can know.

That is all I know.

 

 

 

 

Here is my prose-poem from Vignettes & Postcards From Paris inspired by this photo:

Escape

Based on the photo Porte d’Aubervilliers, 1932 by Henri Cartier-Bresson

 

The boy was the poorest of the poor in Paris between wars. He stopped and his feet slid inside worn shoes, which sank with an ooze in the mud. Underneath a grimace of gray sky, he leaned against the tin wall of the hovel he called home and listened to the chaos within.

Scraping, clawing, scuffling. Yelling, screaming, crying. Bumping, knocking, thumping. The last vestige of hope drained from his body; soon his father would come for him. The cold metal clawed his shoulder through an overcoat that weighed down his frame.

Panic spread from his stomach in escalating surges, poisonous petals growing with each pulsating push to grip and twist his bowels. His lungs were afraid to admit air.

He sought escape from the maelstrom with every vibrating atom of his being. He waited. And waited.

He reached out his empty little soul. His face took on a concentrated intensity. His eyes focused, unfocused. His chest slowed its rhythms, his mouth fell slack. His hearing slowly muffled, the violence became silence. The cold metal released his shoulder, and gloom gave up its quest to permeate. His dirt-caked body felt clean—and then he left it behind.

In this moment, though he did not know it, the boy instinctively practiced the ancient art of Transcendental Meditation.

Sunlight crept along the filthy slum, glinted on the window’s jagged glass, and turned the mud a tawny tan. It moved as if seeking him. It snuck over the folds of the boy’s soiled cap and rippled down his arm. Wave upon wave of warm, liquid love infused the center of his chest and rolled through his veins.

The sunlight was gentle, like a hand blessing him.

 

HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON: “The photo takes me, not the other way around.”

hcb camera behind him

Henri Cartier-Bresson, French photographer, 1908 – 2004

Henri Cartier-Bresson taught me how to reignite my intuition—to follow the inviting urge to meander in concentric circles until meaning becomes clear, to take a startling encounter with the Greek statue Winged Victory of Samothrace (never italicized to me) seriously enough to write a book about it, and to be attuned to signs and premonitions.  He taught me how to live.

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A photo tacked to a periwinkle wall: A seven-year-old, knobby boy-knees braced below shorts.  Shock-still, attention riveted down to the box he grips.  He’s poised to snatch something like a firefly in a jar; some image has dazzled him and his mouth lifts in a victorious smile—he’s about to trap it.

A soft cusion of sleep one winter night in Paris: swirling dream-shapes, dark, misty objects, night’s silence.

“Henri Cartier-Bresson,” a man’s voice said.

My eyes popped open.  I had heard this; my eardrums had vibrated.  The air still rang with sound.  But I was alone in my apartment at 3:30 a.m.

I knew with certainty that Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Parisian photographer of previous decades, whom I had only heard of, had a message for me.

—“Don’t Think” in Wings

Thus began my romance with Henri Cartier-Bresson.  As in the story “À Propos de Paris,” He’s French, but he speaks to me in English.  He died in 2004, but to me, he  is in present tense.

Henri is my mentor in a strange way.  Uncanny synchronicities often happen to me related to him, and sometimes it seems he’s inside my head.  Henri reappears with a message every so often.

Here is a photo Cartier-Bresson took in 1947.  WHICH famous author was this???

truman capote hcb

 

WINGS Book Launch Events

The initial Wings book launch tour was sizzling!  Thank you to artiste Anna Elkins for joining us with her gorgeous, colorful sketches and effervescent presence. Here are a few highlights:

Wings launch sign bp

Our first event was at BOOK PASSAGE, and “the Bay Area’s liveliest bookstore”  was crowded with champagne lovers and eager readers.

 

 

 

Special guest, mentor extraordinaire, Georgia Hesse, dishes about the deeper aspects of France.  You can find out more about this “grande dame of travel writing” here.Wings w Georgia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“The Taste of This Place” transported everyone through revolutions, wars, reigns and riots.bp signing black and white

 

 

 

 

 

University Bookstore in Seattle was our next stop, where we sampled IMG_8834Jurassic Cheese and celebrated “Bastille Day on the Palouse”, followed by an exquisite private event in Seattle.

 

gammies seattle reading

 

 

 

 

 

Kings Bookstore in Tacoma gave us a warm welcome, including flowers.

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A private event in Auburn was a chance for a pink champagne toast and “Coasting Beyond Boyhood”, a story about Normandy.

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Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane with its vibrant atmosphere packed them in and included an introduction by Christina Ammon and an appearance by my travel writing guru, the boisterous aIMG_8938nd brilliant Tim Cahill, who spoke about the origin of our stories and why thIMG_8915ey can reach the universal.

All through this tour, Anna Elkins and her work added pizzazz and panache.

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f is for…

le croissant et cafe au lait

Le Croissant et Café au Lait*

I felt so feminine in my fuchsia scarf as I read to a full audience from my new book about France.  The cover is pink, the pages are pristine and filled with beaucoup d’expressions Françaises.

This was my initial book launch. I read my story about baguettes, which presents two aproned boulangers eliciting perfect French before bestowing their treasures, and I roll out my foreign expertise: “une baguette, une croissant, un millefeulle,” I say, to their delight.  It was a thrill to read it straight from the book, the ink still freshly set.

As I stood atop my pedestal knowing I was making a flashy first impression, a flashback occurred:  During the final editing process, with my fledgling Français, I had frequently consulted my bible, my crutch, my linguistic sustenance, a dog-eared, yellow French dictionary, which had been my trusted companion for a decade, having rattled around in the baggage hold on Air France and jiggled in my clutches on the métro.  Vin rouge, Champagne, and café stains on its cover had lent it an art noveauesque appearance.  At home, as I frequently flailed about—seeking spelling, accents, and, that which most easily fled my mind, gender— it waited within arm’s reach of my computer.

The final fine-tuning of any story had always found me in a frenzied fear of failure, scratching through my beloved dictionary, which had so often restored my dignity after instructing me to change a le to a la, or a ma to a mon, or even an une to an un.  This time, with an entire book manuscript at stake, my forehead scrunched in terror, I moved the little book ever closer on my left side; it was à gauche so that I wouldn’t be thought of as gauche, always nearby to lend a helping hand (une – no, un!! coup de main).

Memories of a Junior High class paper with a bold, red “F” circled at the top swarmed my nerves.  I thought about a story in the book, “Cézanne’s Salon des Réfuses” (accents, plural, only one “s”), in which Paul Cézanne’s fear of Failure (capital “F”), instilled in him from an early age, drove him to extremes.  He never could get beyond it, thus his eyebrows snarled over a constant frown.

Now, speaking into the microphone as members of the audience tilted their heads and smiled, my confidence flew.  I loved all things French: the culture, the history, the language, and most of all, my parfait book.

The next day, the first text I received was from a close friend who traveled frequently to France and was often taking over the aproned ladies tutelage, patiently and sometimes humorously correcting my pronunciation of peu or pleur or hystérique, or (just as my yellow confidant did) informing me of gender  If she did it in writing, she’d enclose the correct phrase in quotation marks, just to set it apart.

In this text message, my friend asked, “Are you munching on “un croissant” this morning with your café au lait?”

Un croissant? It was une—I was positive I’d checked.  The only thing I hadn’t confirmed was the spelling of a main street in Paris that I’d been so sure I had correct, I hadn’t checked.  Indeed, as this very friend had pointed out then, I’d flubbed that one, but had caught it just in time to fix the manuscript before it went to print.  The more I thought about it, the more I remembered that I had been sure croissant was masculine, but had been informed in print that it was the reverse.

I rushed into my office and there it was, now languishing a full foot away from my keyboard, with its blue stripe lending the cover an authority that few would challenge.  First, I did a quick Google search to confirm that the buttery bitch was indeed masculine.

Pages fluffed; I stopped, my thumb highlighting croquant at the top of page 81.  It was there, near the bottom of the right column:

croiss/ance [krwa’sã:s] f  growth: ~ant [‘sã]

There it was, the f  I’d relied upon so fervently!  My face flushed with betrayal, my heart burst with a true cri de coeur, and I plummeted from my pedestal, sans confidence.  I hurled the dictionary across the room with a “f@#*!” and it flounced to the floor.

But when I picked it up I noticed the rest of the entry.  I rarely looked beyond the initial f or m in my quest for correction, but hidden in a birds nest of scratches and scrawls, italics and brackets and abbreviations was: su./m moon: crescent; cuis. croissant.

Hasty impressions can indeed be deceiving, as my faux pas proved.  But, when one thing is lost, another is gained, for as I realized that my own precious book, and by extension myself,  were far from perfect, along with femme, fi! and fou, I added to my repertoire of French words a new one, similar to the English, only seeming to come that much closer to the true meaning that it occurred to me it might be worth it to struggle with a foreign language: faillible.

I said it aloud and smiled.

 

 

*Photo credit: www.itineramundi.wordpress.com

 

The Taste of This Place

Here are a few menus from the siege of Paris.  The first item is precious Pain du Siege as described in the Wings story, “The Taste of This Place.”

Le Civet de Kangourou, mmmmm… Kangaroo stew!!Siege-menu1 Siege-menu2 340px-Menu-siegedeparis