Sometimes from sorrow, for no reason,
you sing. For no reason,
the way of being lost, cutting loose
from all else and electing
where you go where you want to.
Arbitrary, a sound comes, a
that a steady center is holding
all else. If you listen, that
will tell you where it is and you
can slide your way past
Certain twisted monsters
always bar the path—but that’s
you get going best, glad to be lost,
learning how real it is
on earth, again and again.
Cutting Loose by William Stafford
Do you remember the feeling of childhood summers that seemed to last forever?
The more familiar my world became, the more quickly time seemed to pass. I needed to slow everything down. That’s one of the reasons I packed up everything, including my two cats, and moved to France. The moment I left the circumstances I’d grown accustomed to, I was already in a foreign country.
If life is short, why do we do so many things we don’t like?
Something was missing in my life, but I didn’t know what. There was no variation in the landscape of my days. Moving to France changed that. I was not allowed to work as an architect or designer, so I had to rediscover myself. By letting go of the what-ifs, how-comes, and should-haves, I unraveled the story I told myself about who I was in the past and discovered the story of who I was becoming now and it was nothing short of liberating.
If not now, when?
Figuring out what I wanted to do rather than what I ought to do was not an easy dilemma to solve. Each step I took was the step before what might be, and after moving forward little by little through the shadows, I emerged into the light of my next adventure. I decided to do what I liked to do most, what brought me joy: write, take photographs and travel, which led to creating French Country Adventures, my slow travel company. Traveling slowly is what I like to do.
When all is said and done, will I have said more than I’ve done?
That’s doubtful. We’re only here for a short while and as the poet Mark Strand said, “…it’s such a lucky accident to have been born that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.” Travel changes you. It marks your heart deeply and permanently and it can be a powerful journey of self-discovery and revelation.
Why is the line I’m in always the slowest?
Since living in the rural countryside I am often reminded that we learn about life by relating to others. I was in the post office the other day at the end of a very long line. Each person ahead of me had something to tell the postal clerk when they reached the counter, some little tid-bit of gossip or news about their family. I could have grown impatient as most foreigners do, but I waited and waited and waited, joining in the greeting of, “Bonjour Messieurs-dames” to everyone that entered. I finally reached the counter after what seemed like an eternity. An old, arthritic woman was putting each separate piece of change into her purse, coin by coin. When she turned to leave she smiled broadly radiating the delight she felt at being able to accomplish such a simple task and I realized there’s nothing to do with a life, but live it.
One ship sails East,
And another West,
By the self-same winds that blow,
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales,
That tells the way we go.
Like the winds of the sea
Are the waves of time,
As we journey along through life,
‘Tis the set of the soul,
That determines the goal,
And not the calm or the strife.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox
I first met Danae Penn at a vernissage, a preview of an exhibition, of my photographs of Gascony, the area I call home in southwest France. I was absolutely charmed by her enthusiasm and joie de vivre. She was kind enough to purchase a photograph of mine that I’d taken of an old mill in the village of Samatan. My friends, David and Barbara, who brought her with them, told me she was quite the celebrated local historian, a former diplomat and translator for the European Union.
The following year I was invited by Danae to hear one of her historical talks about medieval Condom, the town she lives in. For the past 6 years Danae has given talks about 15th century Gascon history and way of life, complete with costumes and props.
Two months ago I received this email from Danae: “I am writing to tell you that my historical mystery novel called False Rumours has just been published! The novel is based on five hectic days in Condom in 1483 when Belina Lansac, young wife of the town’s detective, learns that the Princes in the Tower are being chased by a murderer who has been ordered by Henry Tudor’s mother to kill them so that she can accuse Richard III of their murder and thereby spread false rumours. At the end of the book I explain why I think that Richard III did not kill his nephews. As you will see, one of the reasons concerns the use of strawberries…”
What a surprise! I had no idea Danae was writing a book. False Rumours drops you head-first into 15th century of France and England and leaves you wanting to unravel the real life mystery of the disappearance of the Princes for yourself.
I met with Danae at her home to ask her about writing a book late in life. She told me it was primarily a way of coping with the death of her husband, who subsequently became a character in her story. She said she’d studied Elizabethan history in school but knew nothing about medieval history nor about writing a novel. After reading Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, she took a writing course. She read dozens of other books, including Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, and various histories about the pilgrimage route of St. Jacques de Compostelle (Santiago de Compostela), which runs through her village. She learned many interesting things, including that Torquemada, the head of the Spanish Inquisition, was a Jew by birth and not a Roman Catholic, that bishops were very rich political appointees not religious ones, and that women had more rights than she’d previously thought. But the most important thing she learned was that she could do it – after fits and starts over the course of 7 years, she finished her first book.
Our family, friends and society give us many reasons why we can’t or shouldn’t do something when we’re older, never realizing that it’s not about the result but the journey. It’s never too late because you’re only old once. Better to be a Don Quixote jousting at windmills than a pessimist in an armchair. In disregarding the voice of doubt, Danae became the real heroine of her story, and in the middle of a crisis found meaning.
* False Rumours is available in paperback and on kindle at Amazon (see Belle Lettres in the right hand column to order) The French translation will be available next year.
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