Moved to Tears
When I returned to Boston earlier this month, I found that although I still have a house there, it is now someone else's home. When have I ever returned from a trip late, tired and hungry, and opened the fridge to find ahhhg! no food to eat. In a word, never. It was oddly displacing to find unfamiliar items where all my stores would ordinarily be. I wasn't surprised that my housesitter was making my house her home, mind you. I'd encouraged her to do so, in fact. What was surprising was not feeling at home in a place where I've lived for almost 15 years.
It seemed nothing was at hand any longer when I went to reach for it. When I needed aspirin for a headache that was threatening to turn migraine that first night, I found nothing of mine on any of the three shelves of the medicine cabinet. Even my bedside table, in a room that was to be used only occasionally for guests, had been cleared out. Where was my hand cream? My pad and pen? What happened to my waste basket? It's a little shocking how disorienting it can feel to go to throw something in a basket that's been your basket, dutifully serving, occupying its one and only spot year after year, and find it gone.
For the record, I felt really fortunate that my housesitter was amenable to my staying at the house at all. But before long, I felt as if I couldn't get out of there fast enough. To make matters worse, I was showing up late everywhere on account of...well, everything takes longer when you've got to look for things!
Gradually stuff started turning up. They weren't gone, just moved. Put away or aside. Finding I still had food in the fridge and freezer felt like striking gold. Pesto! Tacos! Pancake mix!!! So I returned to the medicine cabinet the next day thinking that with a closer look I might make a few discoveries there as well. When I opened it, what I saw moved me to tears. Two, not one, but two of the shelves had been cleared out. I hadn't asked for this. I had not even hinted. My housesitter had intuited completely independently to make this room for me.
"It must be weird for you to be here," she said that evening. Yes, it was. And it was weird for her too, she told me. Neither of us was at ease, both new to such a situation. But the fact is, she had put herself in my shoes and acted on what she saw from that vantage point. She'd done something I would never have asked for, something I didn't even feel entitled to ask for, but something that made all the difference for me just the same. It was as if she had read my mind. Or more precisely, my heart.
Compassion is to "suffer with." There must be a word for taking thought for another. Is that what it means to be thoughtful? The dictionary says so: " Having or showing heed for the well-being or happiness of others and a propensity for anticipating their needs or wishes." It's that "anticipating" part that gets me. And here is what touched me. Here is the Love of it: in order to anticipate the needs or wishes of another, we must leave our own experience and enter the other's. We must see through the other's eyes, feel through the other's heart. We must, in a manner of speaking, briefly become them. From the inside, it is of course easy to know what might be called for, what might be well received.
I am reminded of the gift buying I did for my niece and nephews when they were 5 and 6 and 7. These were the easiest gifts to choose. I stood in the toy store thinking "OK, I'm five. What do I want?" Well, I didn't think those words exactly, but it was as if I had because suddenly this "wheeeeee!" feeling took over and I made my selections in no time flat. Surprise, surprise, the kids loved them.
That's what moved me about what the housesitter did. It's her thoughtfulness that moved me. Sometimes it can certainly seem that no one has the time any more to take thought for another, that the humanity has gone out of our human interactions. In these United States, anyway. In this part of these United States, anyway.
There is a cancer treatment facility in London, or at least some caregivers there, who without prompting took time and thought for one of their patients with a daughter in the States. This daughter, my neighbor, shared the details with me in one of those spontaneous sidewalk conversations that occur between raking leaves and making dinner:
"Yes, they said 'Oh, you have a daughter in Boston... maybe we can do something with the Internet...' and the next week she went in and they had purchased a webcam. Now we have a visit every Wednesday when she goes for her treatment."
"That's so beautiful," I said, my eyes filling with tears. You'd think it had been my very sick mother abroad that these caregivers had just brought closer. Would she think it too much? I claimed jet lag and insufficient sleep as the cause of my reaction. But in truth, I am happy to be someone who can be so easily moved. I love being arrested, surprised by the ways Love finds to have Its way.
Earlier this month, Love put me on a winding passage through the Luberon Mountains in the South of France. We were bound for Aix-en-Provence after visiting at the home of a woman whose acquaintance I made 20 years ago.
On a hot July afternoon in 1988, prompted by a poster I had seen around town, I followed the strains of a heavenly music deep into Cathedrale St. Saveur. I was a bit late; the concert had already started. But all the better for me, as I could follow the music to locate the baptistiere, and join the audience already assembled. When I turned the corner, I was stunned to find all that music was coming from one woman, from two small hands. I was immediately captivated.
This would be my tomber as in "tomber amoureuse"--to fall, in love--my official introduction to classical guitar. I was so taken from beginning to end that, however shy I felt or lacking of confidence in my ability to communicate my sentiments en francais, I approached the musicienne afterwards to thank her. In my best French, I said I was American, not so sure I could say it well, but that I felt I had just been given a great gift. I felt I wanted to give a gift to her in return. And what does this Martine France do but introduce me to her friends, invite me to visit at her home sometime, offer her telephone number.
I called that number, and I went--by foot then bus then taxi--and stayed for two days and another concert about an hour north of Aix in a tiny village up the road from the Centre-Ville of Apt where Martine's home sits like a throne for a king (or queen), holding dominion over the seduction that is the Luberon Valley.
We shared other time together that July, ending with a soiree at my little apartment in Aix, then another visit chez elle when I returned the following summer, and we kept up a correspondence for a time. But 18 years had passed with not a word between us when I sat to write her on the eve of my birthday trip to her part of the World, to that region of la Belle France that had stolen my heart so many years before. This being the Internet age, I reached her almost immediately, and her reply was quick and warm and welcoming. She was delighted to receive my news, she was happily surprised, she invited us over!
I was a little nervous about the meeting. How would it go? What would we talk about? Would my French hold up?
We spent a sweet, sunny Provencal afternoon of sipping and strolling, grapes from the vine (viognier), an impromptu concert (guitar, vihuela, drums). And when asked, on that road to Aix after our rendez-vous, "How was that for you?" my reply was a tearful one.
"To be so welcomed...after so long..." I wasn't sure how to express what I was feeling. "Someone I knew so briefly so long ago... Why would she welcome me like that?"
It almost didn't make sense. At least in my cultural context it didn't make sense. Martine was not being cordial, let alone cool. On the contrary, she was warm, enthused. She wanted to hear about my life, she wanted to share hers. She'd made a real effort - calls, emails - to get us together. How can I be that close and not see Martine? I'd thought. But I wondered if too much time had passed, if perhaps we had become irrelevant to one other.
In a few hours' time, straining my brain to follow the French, trying to drag words and phrases from the cobwebs of memory, I saw how not random had been our meeting, our acquaintance. We had a lot in common, in fact: poetry, philosophy, listening, in our lives our work our art, to the heart and soul, the love of if not reverence for the natural world. Fresh air, chocolate, good tea, honey.
"Where's the fire?" she was saying as we made motions to leave, and though I didn't understand the expression at first, I could sense what was going on. She didn't want us to go. She wanted us to stay. But if we had to go, she wanted us to return.
"La prochaine fois..." Next time we would meet her companion, Michel. She was already speaking about next time. Which had me remembering the last time, 18 years ago. When we'd parted on a street corner in Bonnieux, there was the baiser, of course. The "bisous" of the Parisian French is four kisses delivered alongside (not touching) each cheek alternately: left right, left right. But the bisous in the South of France is three. Martine explained it, all those years ago, when I had leaned in for a fourth:
"It is left undone, to finish at the next."
The Provencal bisous is the true "au revoir": until the next, until we meet again.
It was humbling to be so generously received. It was beautiful to me to realize that we had in the brief life of our active friendship made a true connection. It was moving to me to see that that connection remained. Without any care or nourishment for almost two decades' time, it remained. It was alive, we were alive. More advanced in our years and in our life work, but otherwise, not so changed.
And I find this marvelous, how Love finds Its way, how Love knows the way, and will have it.