During my recent week in Paris, the mornings came quickly. I felt pressure to do something important with my limited time, as if there was a tick tock soundtrack to my days. I mostly didn't listen. What I did: met friends for dinners and drinks and lunches and more drinks, saw the fantastic Surrealism exhibit at the Pompidou, bought a pair of boots and an orange glass ring; sat alone and ate a duck fois gras and fig tartine that might have been the best thing I've ever tasted.
I crossed the Seine one night on the Pont des Arts (laden with thousands of pad locks, inscribed with messages of love) while the full moon hung in a gauzy web of clouds above me, the water beneath shimmering under the amber streetlights. Gratitude broke over me like rain.
And then just as quickly, I felt guilty. How corny and sentimental -- to stand on a bridge over the Seine in stupid too-expensive boots and feel lucky, feel happy. In an instant, I became a grotesque shadow version of the person I was not three seconds before. I had been feeling pleased with my sporting attempts at French, but suddenly felt foolish and embarrassed. I had felt aware of the delicious cold air on my face, but suddenly became aware only of my stumble on the cobblestones, my perpetual clumsiness.
Whenever I feel joy, I'm sure I'm going to be punished for it. How dare you be happy when you're so far from your family? How dare you, when the bodies of typhoon victims line the streets of the Philippines? How dare you, when children are starving? How dare you, when your ancestors were herded onto railroad cars and then gassed and burned in Poland? How dare you be happy in this world of such enormous suffering?
I have a similar train of thought about my writing. How dare you take these hours to write? How dare you when your child needs you right now? How dare you when you are a clown compared to the brilliant writers that came before you? How dare you sit around writing about your silly life, in clunky and clichéd prose? How dare you when your house is a filthy disaster area? How dare you when you could be doing more important things for the world? And on and on.
I imagine that I am Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, during the scene in which she has just been coiffed and pampered and is skipping merrily around Oz, waiting for the wizard to grant her deepest desire. It is at just this moment, of course, that the witch appears, interrupting the giddy song by skywriting in black smoke:
For years, I read it as a call to Dorothy to surrender, but that is incorrect. That would be Surrender (comma) Dorothy. No, this is a call to the city itself to give up the cursed girl. But Oz doesn't surrender Dorothy. Instead, Dorothy walks out herself to meet the witch.
I had lunch with a Buddhist expat friend of mine at a delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Marais, and we talked about my inability to experience joy without guilt. He spoke about developing a consciousness that allows you to observe the emotions as if they're waves in the ocean, cresting and receding and then cresting again. Joy and guilt and despair and exhaustion and anxiety and curiosity and complacency and awe and longing and disgust and bliss. Again and again. Until you can watch them all and not attach so desperately, but rather see them for what they are: feelings -- mutable, neither good nor bad, but human.
In the end, Paris did not surrender me, in spite of the old demons that flew around leaving trails of smoke in the soft grey sky. Instead, I kept my stupid-but-still-very-sassy boots firmly planted on its cobblestones, one foot after the other, as the waves of emotion rose and broke and rose again. And I found that the joy was there -- somewhere in the lacy foam on the very crest of the wave, impossible to grab and even more impossible to keep, but there.