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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Moving Rivers

A week of the worst jet-lag I've ever experienced.  I came back from Washington, poured myself into my bed and have been taking it easy ever since.  I do not recall it being this bad in my youth but my memory is not what it was.  Yes, I know that I'm not even 50 yet but this body and brain have gone through the cancer wars and I feel it every single day.

I did however make it to church yesterday.  I was there at noon sharp and it did me a world of good. It was exactly what I needed to shake off a week in the States and to put my priorities firmly back in the right order:  faith, family, friends.  Everything else gets what's left of me once those things are taken care of.

 Just a few short years ago the French church was a mystery to me.  The Mass in English was one of the last things I was still holding on to after a couple of decades in the Hexagon.  After I became a lapsed agnostic and returned to the faith of my childhood in the U.S. it was familiar and comforting to head into Paris to the anglophone Catholic church.  Truth be told it was not exactly like going to church in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.  Yes, the language and the ritual were the same but the accents, the community, and some of the customs were different.  Still, it was as close as I was going to get here, a few thousand miles away from where I grew up.  As my father used to say, "Good enough for government work."

For some reason I started thinking about all that as I was sitting/standing/kneeling in the chapel. After all that angst and fear and trepidation - after making such a Big Deal about the whole business of going to Mass in French - here I was as comfortable (and happy) as I could be and not missing one beat, one response, one gesture.

When I went looking for a local francophone church here I think I was expecting a repeat of the original experience when I first moved to France with all the negative emotions that I associated with that.  It was "living in the wreckage of the future" and expecting it to be hard  with a dash of uncertainty:  What if I can't do it?  Yes, I wondered about that. Why, since I was reasonably successful in integrating, did I have so much fear around something as simple as going to a new church?

Because it meant leaving my comfort zone. You can live in a country for a very long time but that doesn't mean that dark and dangerous areas do not exist for you.  A country is cut up into regions and towns and a culture is filled with sub-cultures - worlds within worlds.  Even when we look back with nostalgia to the place we were born and spent our formative years,  at some point (one hopes) the light comes on and we realize that our experience was very limited in so many ways.

For example, how well do I really know the United States, the place where I was born?  The truth is not very well.  I was born and raised in a particular part of the country and if I am honest, places like New York or Texas are complete mysteries to me.  I don't know the people there and what they think or how they live.  I have impressions but those were formed primarily by what I hear on the radio and see on TV.  I am just as ignorant about them as any non-American who has never set foot in the States.  Furthermore, those worlds have moved on since I lived there.

Other countries and cultures are the same.  The Hexagon is not just one world or one culture, it is many.  At some point in the integration process, you get comfortable and have the illusion that you now know all you need to know to survive and thrive.  But inside there is an awareness that there are deeper different waters out there - that you have simply skimmed the surface of all that this particular place and culture has to offer.  But having achieved a sort of stability, you don't want to venture out of your comfort zone.  Who knows what's out there in the wilds of Brittany, at that church in the center of town, or even just next door?  

But life is a moving river of experience and the harder you try to make things stand still, the more it slips through your fingers.  An image I read recently that I really liked was one of trying to take that river and pack it up in a box to Chronopost it to a friend.  The moment you trap the water, it ceases to be a river and becomes still water in a plastic jug.  

If you can think of languages, countries, cultures and sub-cultures as moving rivers it changes everything.  It's not a question of aggressively tackling the unknown and trying to achieve some sort of stability.  In fact that may be the worst strategy of all because the more you wrestle with the river, the more likely you are to drown.   It's more about jumping in feet first and letting the current carry you along.

And that was how I joined a local French church.  I just got up, got dressed, and went to Mass one day.  And to my delight (and surprise) people were very welcoming and kind. For the first few months I was a bit lost.  It wasn't just having to learn the responses in French, it was also about diving into this world within a world which was very different from anything I had experienced previously in my life here.  Their perspective on France, the church and many other topics was one that I only knew through others' opinions and prejudices.   You might not agree with their take on things but, for me, it was well worth getting my feet wet.  I still don't understand everything about this country I live in (and never will but then I don't really understand where I came from either) but I now know more than I knew just a few years ago and I find that some of that understanding seeps into other parts of my life here - the other worlds I belong to.

In retrospect the fears I had seem so ridiculous now but as I contemplate other barely known worlds that exist just at the periphery of my vision, I find the same fear lurking underneath my curiosity whether it is here in France or in the United States or any other place.  Why?

Surely part of it is the possibility of drowning - not all forays into different worlds end well.  But I think there is something else going on here and that is losing our sense of self.  To think of oneself as a cork in a river being swept downstream is a vision few of us like since it engenders feelings of helplessness and loss.  That if we allow life and experience to have their way with us, we will no longer have an answer to the question, "Who are you?"

And the true answer to that is that you and I are not the same person as we were yesterday and we will all be something different tomorrow.  That would be the case even if we never learned another language or never went further than five miles away from the place of our birth. There are rivers one can choose to dive into that can change our lives, but all of us already live in rivers of experience that are constantly moving us along without us even being aware of it.  And all we are at any one moment is the sum of all those experiences.   When we try to stop the stream and hold it in our hands and hearts and heads, it has slipped away and we are already something new. Something other than what we were just a few moments ago.

That means that not only do we live in moving rivers, but that "I" itself is one.

We can respond to this by making our worlds as small as possible in order to keep as much of the change at bay and our sense of control alive for as long as possible.  Or we can kick and scream and grip the bank of the river with our fingernails until we muster up enough courage to swim.

Or we can let go of the illusion that all of this is under our complete control and live in the ever-changing present.  We are less than the gods and more than the beasts and "we suffer from the delusion that the entire universe is held in order by the categories of human thought, fearing that if we do not hold on to them with the utmost tenacity, everything will vanish into chaos." (Alan Watts)


Ellen Lebelle said...

I've been having a very enjoyable visit with family in Pittsburgh and today it's back to DDC (well, Bethesda, really) before my leap into return jetlag. it's always worse than the jetlag on arriving here. You don't sound too bad for the fourth day home.

Northerndar said...

Beautiful. I have often thought of my life and the river, you thoughts on going to church brought to my mind of the lovely song "When they ring the golden bells".

I felt a sense of peace reading wgat you wrote today.

Laure said...

Se laisser emporter, ballotter par le courant... c'est une très belle image, et je trouve très juste. Merci Victoria, prends bien soin de toi !
- une lectrice française qui patauge dans les flots de l'expatriation à New York :)

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful presence you have in your writing and in your life.

FacingCancer said...

What a thought provoking post. The river analogy feels very right... and that quote about that fear of letting go of the categorizing and control, it resonates not only outwardly but inwardly as well. ~Catherine

Blaze said...

“Life is like the river, sometimes it sweeps you gently along and sometimes the rapids come out of nowhere.”
― Emma Smith

Tim said...


You should have done what I always try to do. British Air has flights from Boston, New York(and I think DC) that leave in the morning US Eastern Time and arrive in London at night(Air Canada has a similar flight from Toronto). I don't know if they get in early enough to make a connection to Paris(The one from Boston arrives in London at about 7:30PM or what still feels like 2:30PM Boston time the one from DC/Dulles has to be later)but worse comes to worst you have to say overnight at a hotel at Heathrow. Plus if you connect at Heathrow you can fly directly to Orly Airport(much closer to Versailles) than Charles DeGaulle. I remember when British Air and the French government got into a huge fight about British Air flying to Orly as the French thought it would hurt Air France as people south of Paris wouldn't want to travel all the way to CDG. I believe British Air had to sue the French government to get into Orly(France tried for many years to restrict Orly only flight within France, Spain, Portugal and North Africa).

If you travel during the "day" you do lose a day of travel but in my opinion you make up for it with the lack of jet lag. Just out of curiosity I checked to see if there were any daytime flight even from New York or Montreal to Paris and the answer is no. Only London has daytime service. Also connecting at Heathrow is well connecting at Heathrow there is always a moment of truth as to whether you luggage will show up.

Tim said...

No London fog is as thick as the one you bring with you on the stupor-inducing, overnight trans-Atlantic flight to Britain. "It's like pulling an all-nighter," says Alvin Chow, a business development executive at Coca-Cola in Chicago. "You're bleary-eyed all day and just not productive." The answer? Get there the night before.

OAG, which publishes flight guides, lists an average of 97 commercial flights leaving the USA for London each day. Only nine take off in the morning and get you there in the evening, London time.

Of the morning departures, five leave from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, two from Boston's Logan, and one each from Newark and Chicago's O'Hare. There are no morning departures to any other European city.

Chris McGinnis, an airline industry consultant, says he finally went to Newark to catch a morning flight to London after years of futilely pestering his hometown carrier, Atlanta-based Delta, to add one from Hartsfield.

McGinnis' trip began with an early morning flight from Atlanta to Newark, where he caught Flight 18, operated jointly by Virgin Atlantic and Continental. He got to London's Gatwick airport at 10 p.m. local time, went to his hotel and turned in for the night. He felt fresh for his meetings the next day.

"I loved it," McGinnis says. "Most Atlanta flights get you to London at 6:45 or 7:15 in the morning. Nothing's open, you're groggy, and it's difficult to get a hotel room, even if you paid for it for the night before."

Chris Hosford, communications director at Hyundai Motor America in Fountain Valley, Calif., says he hopes to take a morning flight across the Atlantic next time he has business in Europe. The trick, he says, will be arranging to be in New York on business beforehand.

A traditional overnight flight means "acclimating by staying up all day," Hosford says. "It's hard to get things done, hard to focus, hard to get the creative juices flowing."

Airlines say the morning flights are popular.

British Airways says morning and evening load averages aren't far apart. And the airline's two morning flights, one from JFK and one from Logan, typically draw a greater percentage of higher-paying business travelers.

*After I thought about it for a minute I have NEVER flown overnight to Europe from US/CAN. I HAVE flown overnight within the US and Canada(West Coast to East Coast). That is bad bad bad. Flying from Las Vegas to Boston at night has got to be the absolute worse. Plane completely filled and packed in like sardine cans. Literally the first flight to land at 5:00AM

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Ellen, Thanks. I reread and I seem coherent enough. Hope Pittsburgh was all you had hoped for. You were the BEST roomie I've ever had. I'd live with you anytime.

@Northerndar, Thank you. I'm happy that it gave you that sense of peace. That is what I am striving for in my life these days: serenity. I think I wasted too many years making a Big Deal out of things that in retrospect turned out to be not at all important.

@Laure, Bonjour! Et merci pour le message et les gentils mots. Aujourd'hui, je me sens entoure et assez bien dans mes baskets. :-)

Je suis en train de lire L'expatriation au feminin par Delphine Marteau. Si ca vous interesse je ferai un synthese ici des que j'aurais fini...

@anonymous, Thank you. I write this blog for the pure pleasure of writing and it means a great deal to me to know that others enjoy it to and that there are things here that resonate or just plain make people happy.

@Catherine, Oh yes I loved the Alan Watts quotation and I really enjoyed his book too. Fits nicely a lot of what I read in Pema Chodron's work and what I learn through AA.

@Blaze, That is a lovely quotation.

@Tim, I have never figured out a sure fire way to avoid the jet-lag. We are pretty much married these days to Air France. Not only do I love the service but we have so many miles that I can always get a very nice seat and a few hours in the lounge.

Tim said...

I did some reading in the frequent flier forums and it one time Air France did try a daytime flight from New York to Paris but the demand was simply not there British Air does allow you to book from Boston to London during the day and then you can connect to Paris(CDG not Orly) with about an hour and a half to spare. The morning BA flight from Boston to London tends to be pretty delay free because it is flying right out over the ocean after takeoff. Most frequent fliers whether or not they prefer flying during the day generally do acknowledge the airline flight schedules are to the benefit of the airlines not the passengers.

Back before 9/11 the delays used to be ridiculous. You would fly from Boston to LA on a sunny day and spend an hour waiting on the runway due to thunderstorms in New York.

Anonymous said...

After years of being a fallen American Protestant, I found my church home in the French Catholic church...where I first dipped my toes by getting married there.

an lost scared soul, just finding out about crazy tax laws after quietly and simply living most of my adult life in France

Anonymous said...

re Moving Rivers
"…all of us already live in rivers of experience that are constantly moving us along…" (Victoria)

"No man steps in the same river twice."
(everything flows, nothing stays the same. (Heraclitus)

Thank you, Victoria,
It was partly thanks to you that I reverted to the Church After years wandering in the wilderness of Europe's #1 atheist nation I found a home.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@anonymous, Good to hear. Thank you so much for your note. I can relate to the wandering the darkness. A very good book that I highly recommend is John Water's Lapsed Agnostic. He expresses so well much of what I felt before I found my home.