Midnight mass in the 12th century cathedral at Narbonne rounded out the Christmas dinner of way too much food–lamb, salad, haricot vert, cassoulet beans, potatoes, figs, foie gras, du pain, pain, pain!–and drink (wine and champagne). It was lovely to walk the stone streets in the brisk, windy night, bundled in heavy winter coats, wool hats and thick scarves, all five of us, into the dank, solemn air of the ancient worship ground and gathering.
The sound of angelic choruses vibrating with the enormous, ancient, wood-piped organ created a majestic mood, and the parishioners seated in centuries old pews facing the gold-plated, ornate altar where mysterious rites of chanting, bells and smoke took place.
The wine helped open up my heart and lungs. I was moved. I stood, sat, stood, sang, sat, stood, sang…for two hours. I sang Christmas songs loudly-passionately (catching the echoes inside the mile high ceiling) in French, a few Gloria’s and hallelujah’s, and all was grateful and grand.
The experience for my children might have been less engaging. They fidgeted less than I did, but they were clearly unmoved. Having worked in a Catholic high school for four years, I at least was familiar with the procession. They went panicked blank when the offering plate was passed in front of them. They’re obviously not Catholic.
And their eyes widened in surprise and then ironic glee to see their father line up to take communion–a first sight for their two decades or so of life. When he and his mother returned to their seats, the universal let’s get out of here side glance and nod of the head had us heading for the doors at midnight–into the cold, then into our impossibly compact car, driving back past the canals and into the dark, lampless, skeletal vineyard lined lane to home.
L’Aude is a river that houses three main regions here down south, Salelles d’Aude being one of them along the canals in the South of France. The canals are one of Napoleon’s bright ideas for moving trade through the southern country. That big idea and expanding Paris boulevards and thoroughfares wide and far-reaching were revolutionary, practical and enduring.
Today, after last minute shopping in a quiet mall outside downtown Narbonne, some to-go sushi from the supermarché, and an espresso in the cafe by the mall exit, we ventured to a small hamlet close to Salelles called le Somail, one of the three divisions resting on the Aude. The sleepy port town boasts a tea house and ancient book store, the former closed for Christmas and the latter open for our roaming eyes and feet. Much of the tiny town is closed for winter.
The ancient musty chill air inside the book store reminded us of winters, many of them passed through, wind and rain soaking the stone walls of this tiny librairie tucked alongside the river of moored houseboats, cacophonous ducks and romping dogs–just before the stone bridge. The cool wind hurried our leisurely walk.
The town, abandoned by tourists and inhabitants alike, stood as contrast to bustling downtown Narbonne with its courtyard restaurants a-brew with ale and crepes, narrow boutique-lined lanes, stately cathedrale de Narbonne, and street music. We spent a fine-weather, blue-skied day sightseeing, shopping and eating crepes, croque monsieur, and macarons along the outside booths and stands of the market. Inside the farmer’s market, we crammed all five of us into a tiny tapas bistro of four long bar tables, where we ate duck and scallop brochettes, planchas drenched in olive oil and garlic, and grilled aubergine and courgettes, washed down with local white wine for us and orangeina for the kids.
We are gaining weight in kilos but will be losing it in pounds when we return, so it should be easy. Right?
Just like any other mother, naturally I did not want to make even minor let alone crippling mistakes in child rearing. So when it came down to the uncomfortable decisions that arose daily as my children grew, I examined my own childhood to weed out the unwanted inheritances.
While I had an unremarkable childhood, pleasantly healthy and largely uneventful (a good thing), there are certain cultural traditions I would have eliminated. In hindsight, I wish I was mollified less and respected more as a child. I had a great need to be seen, not for attention (though that too probably) as much as for recognition of what I was capable. As the middle child of five, that was my specific plight–invisibility. I did not feel unloved, just unrecognized.
I bristled at statements like, “Oh you’ll understand when you’re older” to my exasperation at illogical or unfair reasons or causes, for example, why my father was allowed to call my mother mean names while she served him hand and foot. She was right. I would not understand then the subtleties of relationships, but I wanted someone to try me nevertheless, see if I could grasp complexities. I wanted honesty and direct explanation. Still do.
So when it came to decisions my husband and I made about imaginary beings like the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, I was adamant that we not build a relationship of lies at the outset. I did give in, however, to the argument that kids thrive on fun, and these fantasies were fun. Also, I did get to explain to my now mostly adult children what I wanted for them and the reasons for our decision to build their reality in the way we did.
So much in childhood goes unexplained and we blindly carry pieces of childhood with us, never examining them, never even looking at them, just wearing them like skin. Memories, information, habits and beliefs are all carried without notice. One battle I won is the one for deferring religion until a time the children grew old enough to choose. Religion is inherited for most of us. My children have since thanked me for giving them that option to decide for themselves.
I was raised Jewish, a culture more than a religion. Seder songs and Chanukah rituals patterned my days and years, just as a sliver of them pattern my own children’s life. While I did not pass down ritual, I did my part for the economy by indoctrinating them in the gift-giving commercial holidays like Chanukah with its alluring candle-lit solemnity and awe, and Christmas with its bright celebratory colors and good will. They knew when the getting was going to be good, counting the days to a secular consumption feast.
One song I know from my own childhood as well as candle-lit menorahs, Chanukah gifts and chicken soup was Dayenu, the passover song. Passover was not a fun holiday until after the ceremony, requiring young children to sit for far too long at a table where unintelligible words and actions played out, mystifying and boring. Until the singing of dayenu, a catchy tune that signaled eating and then running off with cousins to play.
Forty-five some odd years later, on this very day, I learned the meaning of this Hebrew word. Not that I was curious and looked it up out of the blue. No, it happened by chance. Last night I enjoyed a Valentine’s Day dinner on a stool at a local bar around the corner. I had a long day slinging sweets at the shop and craved a beer. So, while in the throes of feel-good satiety (seafood soup and roasted artichoke) and a slight buzz, I looked to the words written over the entry to the establishment, which read, “if you are lucky enough to drink wine by the sea, you are lucky enough.”
I raised my glass to the thought and the written words and did what anyone would do: I posted a bastardized version of it to fit my current circumstances–drinking an IPA–on Facebook: “Drinking an IPA by the sea. It is enough.” The next morning’s comment from a friend was “dayenu.” After lamely asking if the word was the name of a beer as well as a song, I googled the word before receiving a response only to find the word means something like “it is enough.”
Who knew? I obviously did not. While this may be a case of syncronicity, kismet or mere coincidence (no major planetary alignment), it should remind and caution all of us of an interesting psychological and cultural phenomenon: we are products of much we do not understand or even think about.
And this I have often argued is how racists and bigots form most often: through mindless heredity, unthinking but powerfully instilled. This is how a culture perpetuates–unknowing, unheard, and undetected. We do not know why we know what we know or do what we do, unless we make the effort to understand, observe and mind. How else do we make changes local and global?
It is obvious from the wacky state of U.S. politics this election season that Americans hunger for drastic change and reject the mindless status quo business as usual, regardless of the wisdom or catalyst of that change: Trump the savior or Sanders the socialist, if you believe campaign rhetoric and vitriol. But this hunger is good. Feeding automatic feel-good responses, age-old prejudices and knee-jerk reactions dredged in a rotten history of exclusion, bigotry and fearmongering is not. We must examine where our frustrations and reactions derive. Are they mere mimicry? inborn? calculated? truth? Riotous urges to shout and defy are necessary sometimes but not without mindfulness. Otherwise, we are mere primates.
Being vigorously and mindfully curious, now that is enough.
I look up at her from my veggie quesadilla plate, my eyes suggesting an answer to the question in my expression, but her face shows no comprehension. She wears sunglasses inside the restaurant.
I pass the salt.
Two shakes and she sets the shaker aside to pick at fake cheese melted over corn tortilla chips. Biting the triangle tip of a chip, she glances up–I think–at me, my head recently returned to face her after scooping up random bits of salsa to topple over one of the soft triangles targeted to dissect and devour.
“When do you think you’ll know? I mean going back.” I ask but already know the answer. How can she know?
“I don’t know. You’re asking me something I can’t possibly know. I mean I could recover next week or continue on like this forever or get hit by a bus as soon as we walk out this door.” She waves to some indeterminate place beyond the restaurant walls.
I know what she means. The asking leaps over logic into faith like a ghost limb needing to be scratched. Nothing there but habit and the act of speaking.
The gap of knowing and being spans eons now. We both know it, and yet we dance this ancient witless dance of caretaker and charge. It’s my job to ask the unanswerable questions and hers to stem the flow of fear with uncertainly, freeing and terrifying, reminding us both to surrender and enjoy lunch.
“Can we have a peaceful family Christmas dinner and forget for a few moments? Will we?” I ask uncertain of her answer, the truth of her answer. I fight the terrible urge to cough.
“Before the bus hits? Sure. Might as well.” She laughs, picking up the salt to shake it once more. Merry, Merry, Merry to one and all!
A therapist once asked me why I gave myself appendicitis. I was supposed to move out of my marital home of 9 years that weekend but ended up moving my appendix out of my body instead. It was ready to burst and so was I, especially after such a farfetched question. I quit her after that session and never went back.
Since then, however, her question returns even after 20 or more years. Not exactly the question but the idea that I could induce a physiological crisis in my body in avoidance or in reaction to a psychological catastrophe. Could repression or stress so powerfully indel, cut, trigger or distress the body to rebel in disease? I know what the scientific literature says, but could I have caused appendicitis?
As I sit here with a flu, I believe such unconscious self-destruction possible. I have resisted this Christmas shopping for as long as possible and now that there is only today to shop, I am sick. I cannot remember a holiday season I have felt less jubilant about, and now layering the whole holiday experience is a Rudolph red nose and the vicious taunting of my own conscience.
The kids will be so disappointed with nothing under the tree. And so, I will trudge through the stores, sharing the sick germs of Christmas spirits past and present. T’is the season to give after all.
Love cares what becomes of you because love knows that we are all interconnected. Love is inherently compassionate and empathic. Love knows that the “other” is also oneself. This is the true nature of love and love itself can not be manipulated or restrained. Love honors the sovereignty of each soul. Love is its own law.
On this day before Christmas Eve, I made a short list of things–not necessarily people–I like and appreciate, things that make me feel the love in the natural law of loving life.
What I like: joking with my kids, eating in restaurants that have a great variety of vegan foods, when my mother smiles while looking in my eyes, making my great nephews and nieces laugh, laughing, books that I wish would continue on after the last page, books I never want to climb out of, books, when my father says I love you to my mother, writing something with a few well-turned meaningful phrases, writing poems, time to write, making love, being a lover, being a wife, being a mother, being a daughter, being a friend, being a sister, when someone is inspired by what I write, good comments that provoke a stimulating conversation, salmon, art, photography, Stone IPA, fine pinot, a French white burgundy like a merseult or chassagne montrachet, cooking when I have time and ingredients that are exotic and fresh, organic, being home alone, quiet places, long into the night conversations about people, love and life in a car parked at the beach, watermelon on hot summer days, fresh strawberries with fresh cream, pineapples atop soft serve vanilla ice cream, yoga, smoking with a beer, wax, running with Kiah, the ache of loving someone so hard, orgasm, the unobtainable, P’s laughter, my daughters’ laughter, watching my daughters play soccer, being out on a soccer field on a dewy summer morning, snowboarding, swimming in the Caribbean, being a friend, looking at love in someone’s eyes, slow bicycle rides along the water at dusk, finishing a marathon or half marathon, when playing soccer was fun, when playing tennis was fun, when running was fun, when swimming was fun, floating on a waveless warm sea with my ears immersed and eyes closed, Samasati, snorkeling in Tobago Cays, summer camp when I was a kid, warm feet when it’s cold, unexpected gifts in the mail, good strong flavorful coffee, when I was friends with M, Louis CK, movies that make me think about them or feel them for a long time afterward, Joni Mitchell songs from Blue and Court & Spark that I can sing every word to, long movies that go by quickly, teaching, a tender kiss, a strong character, passion, being invisible in a crowd, crossword puzzles, Halloween teen night high at the cemetery that was really Mordar, the pleasant surprise of not being disappointed after seeing The Lord of the Rings, not being afraid, the idea of love at first sight, book stores, people in heroics, the scent of an infant’s head, the epiphany of understanding that the earth, stars, space and humans are made of the same stuff, randomness, that the components and shape of DNA molecules in plants, animals and humans are the same.
The mountain woman sleeps in the forest green.
A mountain of a woman, she is the sleeping green of the forest.
Oh, mountain of my dreams, oh womankind, you are the green of my forest sleep.
Gina Barreca, PhD, has a clear agenda writing about the mistress during the holidays in a 2010 Psychology Today article entitled The Mistress at Christmas. It is under the site section “Show White Doesn’t Live Here Any More”. She paints the profile of a mistress (the proffered everyday mistress), who is single and involved with a married man, and relies on stereotypical mistress-life facts to tell the story of a coming to conscience during the holidays.
Barreca tells the story of the circumspect mistress in whom conscience and self esteem triumph over delusional love, repressed empathy for her lover’s wife, and low self-esteem. She portrays the mistress who realizes that the game is not worth the candle–she has sold herself short. Though this holiday epiphany belongs to a recognizable type of mistress, the one of an over 35 year old who is not married herself but wishes to be, it is not a one size fits all moral realignment applicable to all mistresses.
The persona in the article is the conscience of the mistress, but the psychologist behind the persona is a critic making a case for the misguided one’s recovery. Story crafting is a great way to hammer some message home subtly and clandestinely. The reader gets a story–and who doesn’t love a story?–without suffering the heavy handed pedantic writer’s moral. And there is a clear moral to this story.
The author unravels the details of the mistress’s situation slowly; she is not unlike many other “typical” mistresses who are pining away for their men, lonely and disillusioned or hopeful about marrying her lover–eventually. They are also self-deluded in thinking that they have “the best of him” and of all worlds.
If she’s over 35, she probably suspects she isn’t getting that ring.
Maybe she tells herself she doesn’t want it: After all, she already has a full life and why clutter it up with a full-time relationship? Where would she find the time, the energy, the metaphoric and literal space? She gets the best of him and his wife gets the rest.
But this reflection, the reader soon discovers is a trap. The writer will steer the reader down the path of silently nodding in agreement or grimacing in revulsion with this assessment–best of both worlds–before she undercuts the mistress’s mere self-justification, as it turns out.
But holidays make it harder to find a safe place in her head. It’s as if the world conspires against her from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.
Innocent enough observation by the mistress, but Barreca’s project is to advocate for the mistress’s rehabilitation, not support her cheating ways. “It’s as if the world conspires against her,” sounds like someone very egocentric and unrealistic. Yes, it is metaphoric and not meant to show the mistress as a paranoid delusional, but it certainly suggests self-absorption, even if as just a passing thought. She feels the outside, uncontrollable forces are responsible for her predicament, her loneliness.
Halloween is her holiday, with masks and disguises, with catsuits and pirate outfits. She’s a shape-shifter, a plunderer, a thief, and she knows it.
Call her all the names you want, and you’ll discover that she’s called herself worse. It’s not like you’re telling her something she doesn’t know. She’s the backstreet girl, the booty call in perpetuum.
She’s Jezebel. She’s Little Suzy Homewrecker.
And there it is: the out-with-it shame and judgment of the mistress by her own internalizing of society’s mores. Yet, while the good doctor is working her reader’s sympathy (not empathy) in reminding the reader that yes, this mistress has a conscience and suffers from it, she is also reinforcing societal notions that the mistress, any mistress, is all of those: shapeshifter, plunderer, thief, booty call, Jezebel and home wrecker. All of those names encompass the socially accepted and reinforced moral dimension of a three-person relationship: deceit, plunder and self-debasement. She cheats the wife of time and money, steals it as her relationship is not legitimated morally or perhaps even legally in the court of public opinion and religious indoctrination, even as she cheats herself of pride, self-respect and open, “valid” public love.
So she makes the round of holiday parties, makes cookies and makes pies, makes jokes and makes new friends. She makes nice. She is nice. It’s not bad, but there’s a blanked-out figure where the man she loves should be.
Why does he need to be there? Is it her need or one she believes she needs because there is a constant bombardment of messages that remind and convince her that the holidays is a time for family and loved ones, and you can not be complete unless you have an other that is acceptably, normatively yours to exhibit. How can you be validated and happy and fulfilled, unless you can show up to holiday parties with a man? Where is the cheer in that holiday cheer?
Now, I am not implying that the mistress is wrong in feeling lonely and lost without a mate she can show up to parties with or that Barreca is profiling a mistress with aberrant ideas and feelings. What I question is how the mistress even knows how much is her belief and picture of herself and how much is her societally derived perception of herself in her unconscious or conscious absorption of the judged self.
Regardless of the speculated cause of her self-vilifying, there is no doubt that the mistress is an outsider and her relationship is inconvenient, frustrating and lonely–in fact.
She can’t call him; too risky. She can’t email him; anything in writing is out. She’s tempted, at her worst moments, to drive by his house in order to catch a glimpse of him through the window when his home is brightly lit after dark. Is his car there? Is she there? The wife?
She is an onlooker from the outside and wishes to be inside. Or does she? What is the measure of the frequency of her wanting to stay on the outside and enjoy the best of him against the frequency of her wanting to give it up for something full time and exclusive? The holidays are a mere smattering of days compared to the rest of the year.
Finally, Barreca shows the weighing mistress mind examining the endearing traits of her lover, what has drawn her to him and had her risk so much to be with him, against the sacrifice on her part to enjoy those alluring qualities.
In the past, she’s always found that little-kid-with-a-secret-look endearing. But today she’s less impressed. Maybe she looks at the wife, a woman more like herself than she’d care to admit. Usually she thinks of her as the woman who has everything and doesn’t appreciate it, but today his wife looks restless, tired, overworked, needy, a little frantic around the eyes. She looks older, but then who doesn’t?
Can this really be her rival? Is this the enemy she cries herself to sleep over on those nights when she can’t convince herself that she has the best part of the deal?
Well, it seems the scales are so obviously tilted that this mistress must be an idiot: “that little-kid-with-a-secret-look” versus crying herself to sleep at night “on those nights when she can’t convince herself” of her good fortune. Her attraction to his cute ways is juxtaposed to her painful self-delusion.
The picture might look different, however, if she quantified how often she lost sleep, one night a year or every night? It would also be another article entirely if the qualities the mistress gloms onto in her crisis of conscience are his traits that complement and fulfill her, like his ability to love her like no other can because of their compatibility in every way except for his being married and not to her. Perhaps she has never met a man who could kiss her in the exact way she could not even have dreamed of before because she didn’t know it existed until he named it with his kiss. Or maybe they love the same movies and find humor in exactly the same situations, let alone that they share the same world vision, values and goals. She may have not met anyone else like him before for the way he makes her feel so deeply loved. Oh, and he has that cute little boy look too.
But this is the doctor’s fiction, her probably anecdotally-derived composite of a certain mistress.. She wants to focus on that mistress who makes poor choices and, in doing the cost-benefit analysis, concludes that the costs to others’ lives and hers are not offset by the benefits because there is no prize–him/marriage–at the end.
She thinks about how the only thing to do when you want to stop going in circles is to stop.
And upon this rational thought, she, like the skaters on the ice before her lonely view on her lonely holiday walk, can joyfully whisk away her troubles and cares to a new life of legitimate love. Which is true, right? She can do better–maybe. But if she wants to have the kids and family like “the wife” has, with all of the drudgery of frictional living as well as the shared painful losses and ecstatic gains that come with coupledom, she needs to move on.
This is a story of a species of mistress, not a specific mistress. It is tailored to fit the message sculpted from the given details, and is merely a thin slice of the mistress pie. What if both were mistresses/misters? Does the distribution of power or deprivation change the equation? The question is not geared to elicit the cliche’d response that two wrongs do not make a right.
If a reader comes to the mistress story, any mistress general or specific, with pre-set notions of absolutes on the question of religiously-induced, societally induced, individually-realized and/or family-enforced rules, the accepted right and wrong of it without further indulgence in details, then those readers are resolved to condemn each mistress without exception. If, however, a mind can meet the material of each case as an unbiased observer of cultural, philosophical, psychological, social, scientific and spiritual facts, she might find that discrete individuals enter into discreet relationships, not types, and that all relationships, legitimate or otherwise, are a cost-benefit analysis.
I want to tell a mistress tale about a woman who is petite and strong with red hair or brown hair and adores both her lover and her freedom, whether she is over 35 and single or 55 and likewise married with children. She understands that the relationship comes with grief, conscience clutches and inconvenience, but she feels the situation is right for her at this time as it adds to her life goals more than it detracts from them. Perhaps she is in a sex-less marriage and her husband secretly or openly wants her to stay with him but satisfy her needs elsewhere because he can no longer do so. Perhaps they have great communication and connection but have outgrown each other as lovers even as they have deepened their well-seasoned friendship.
In this story, the wife of her lover is secretly or unconsciously grateful her husband gets his tiresome sexual needs satisfied elsewhere while she gets the benefit of his name, economic security, friendship and fathering of her children; she closes her eyes to her husband’s dalliances on the side because it takes no noticeable time away from her and the kids. Yes, he is more distant emotionally, but she still gets the day to day rote gestures of affection of the peck on the cheek and pinch of the ass. And from time to time, they do have intensely intimate moments that only marrieds can have by virtue of suffering failures and successes together and raising their kids. She may feel lonely at times, the loneliness that comes with not having all of someone in all ways, but she is not alone.
And he gets the same from his wife and mistress as they get from him. All around, the parties are satisfied for the time being if not for the long run, but none can tell the future, and the kids get to grow up with their parents in truce, or peaceful co-existence if not in marital bliss. The only glaringly volatile risk to everyone involved is the arrangement’s public disclosure with resulting judgement that causes the participants to act according to what is expected of them. Then everyone is screwed.
This is one fictional story of another account that is neither aberrant nor atypical in the human domain of mistress-dom and monogamy. I merely present a competing version to consider. And before I get accused of mere advocacy of a moral relativism, I remind my readers that my campaign, if I can be ascribed one, is for consideration of the specific over the general, the study over the selective moral quipping, and indulgent compassion over unmindful condemnation.
Some people are what they are accused of: a wicked poisonous-apple-toting witch of a stepmother. Some are not, not entirely or not at all. Was Snow White innocent or stupid to trust a stranger? Does she get a free of judgment pass for naiveté, for representing an ideal of innocence pure and sweet? After all, she did steal into the bed of a stranger in an empty house. What was she thinking?
The magic mirror shows you the truth you want to know. The more fruitful option is to question, to work at ‘seeing’ by paying attention to the details as well as the big picture. To withhold judgement until all pertinent facts are present takes strength, a healthy skepticism. The Snow White of my idyllic tale is not the innocent goddess of ignorance but the mistress of doubt, compassion and curiosity.
Those scenarios, hypothetical musings in a magazine or real experiences of the newsworthy, that cause knee-jerk powerful reactions in us are the ones that afford opportunities to test our beliefs and flex our mental, moral and empathic muscles. These muscles need a daily workout to keep them strong and healthy. Stories are the workout gyms in which to sweat it out.