Recognizing Where the Needle Is

At a weekly (virtual) meditation group I attend, the guide said today, “It feels like the world has changed since last week. But it’s not that it’s changed, it’s that we have become enlightened to it.”

I think that’s right. Yes, the world changes, but not overnight in either direction. I think if we’re doing it right, we’re constantly awakening. Awakening and expanding our perception to include more and more realities of others in this world. That might be through getting to know the stories of people around us. It could be through reading. It could be through research. It could be through podcasts. It always means having an open mind.

This week, like many in the United States, I was searching. Dejected, I signed on to the vast e-book collection of my region’s library network. In searching for a number of titles on race, I was heartened to see that all of them had a waitlist. Other people were looking to educate themselves.

The internet is now flooded with reading recommendations, but for those who might want a glimpse into what I’ve read in my corner over the past few years, here is a selection. They range from humorous, irreverent memoirs by Black comedians, to fiction that takes the reader through real neighborhoods, to thought-provoking nonfiction.

Memoirs
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Essays
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now by Maya Angelou
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Humor
Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay by Phoebe Robinson
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

Fiction
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Queen of Harlem by Brian Keith Jackson
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Nonfiction
Tell Me Who You Are by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi
Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time by James Kilgore

A couple of quotes from these books that struck a chord with me:

“It does not matter that the “intentions” of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, “intend” for you is secondary. Our world is physical.”
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

“But no matter how it panned out, I knew I’d at least done something good for myself in speaking up about my needs. There was power, I felt, in just saying it out loud.”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming

Staying Sweet

Today I was thinking about how easy it could be to become cynical. I think I tend towards a positive outlook here, but that doesn’t mean I see the world as rosy. I see that people around me are in pain, and I think about it. People have experienced struggles and somehow continue.

In the past few days I heard and saw on the subway:

– 3 young gay guys, maybe teenagers, talking about their past drug use and how they started. Two of them said that their boyfriends at the time, who were seven to nine years older than them, introduced them to cocaine. The three friends agreed that they might have been offered drugs, but it was their choice to take it, and they could have said no. One of them referenced the “Shame on you, shame on me” quote, saying that the first time, shame on the other person, but the second, third, fourth, and fifth times, shame on you. I was struck by how young they were and yet how they had been through things and come out the other side already. Kind of heartening. I also thought about how great it was that they could talk about their experiences with each other and reflect on them. They may have had bad influences, but they are good influences on each other.

– An adult man telling a woman who was a bit older than him that his first memory of his dad was his dad throwing his mom on the kitchen floor. As their conversation continued, the woman told him about how her brother was committed to the state. I just thought, geez, everyone has something! We just don’t talk about it with everyone.

– Heavily armed police with black helmets in the station, and not far from them, a young Asian man singing and playing peaceful songs on his guitar with a handwritten sign in front of him that read, “Music is my passion.” He is there often, and I find his presence encouraging for multiple reasons—he is a young person pursuing his dream; he is an Asian person performing in public, a public that is not exposed to enough Asian artists; and his music is nice. As for the police, there are usually police in this main subway and bus station, but not outfitted in such gear. I wondered if it had to do with…

– A white powder scare in the bus station the other day. I arrived at the station in the morning, and a large area leading to the main exit was blocked off with yellow caution tape and four military men standing in a line. (Military personnel are usually present, but they always stand on the side.) I later learned that an unknown substance found in the station was the reason for the investigation. The powder was a cleaning agent, non-hazardous.

This is life. This is a normal day.

“J’ai tant d’admiration pour ceux qui se relèvent. …la plupart des hommes et des femmes que je croisais dans la rue me semblaient admirables… je ne les connaissais pas mais je devinais en eux des blessures, une fatigue, des failles qui me bouleversaient. Leur capacité de résistance m’épatait… »
– Olivier Adam, Le cœur régulier

This morning I was thinking about how in spite of all this, I am glad I am not cynical. I hope it never happens. You get older, you get hurt, you see how awful people can act. It will happen again and again. Yet I believe most people are good and are trying their best. They’re also utterly surprising in the best way.

Long Days and Long Nights

Last Saturday I went out into the sunshine. If you live somewhere where periods of the year are rainy or cold, you understand how glorious it is when a beautiful day arrives.

Sometimes when I see a church, I stop in and walk around the inside and look at the stained glass windows and statues of saints. How utterly tranquil and filled with light this church was.

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People who don’t live in France sometimes ask me if I shop at outdoor markets. The answer is: not often enough. Like many other city residents, I usually make a one-stop shop at the supermarket. But once in a while, I remember that there are markets open every day, in every arrondissement, and I go.115.market.2015a 115.market.2015b

My fridge is now stocked with broccoli, carrots, turnips, garlic, eggplant, tomatoes, and leafy greens.

I picked up mozzarella from a small grocery and fondant au chocolat from the frozen food chain Picard before heading home to make lunch.

Next was a stroll on boulevard du Montparnasse for a little shopping.

This month I didn’t buy the 70 euro monthly metro pass, so I am walking and biking everywhere. According to the weekly vélib email that shows up in my inbox, last week I biked 3 hours and 45 minutes.

My purchases and purse fit neatly in the metal basket of the heavy gray bike.

Unbelievably, the sun was still warm and shining at 7 in the evening. I took the opportunity to sit in the Luxembourg Gardens and finish Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which I had borrowed from my favorite library.

After a quick munch on the broccoli I had cooked earlier, I headed out for a group rendez-vous at Belleville. A sit on a terrasse was followed by dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant and a night out.

Is it any wonder that this is my favorite time of year here? When the nice weather rolls around and the days grow longer, I struggle to think how I spent my free time during the winter season!

Un Brunch

On a recent weekend, a friend and I caught up over brunch. I say that casually, but actually I have never been a go out for brunch person. I’ve always figured that I can make fried eggs and toast at home and it’d be equally enjoyable and less expensive. No travel time, no reservation, no waiting, and as much milk as I want. Brunch out always seems to be a prix fixe of a seemingly long list of items that are actually mostly liquid—coffee, orange juice, mimosas (well, mimosas in the States—there is no tainting of champagne in France). However, if visiting friends suggest brunch to me, I’m up for it—I’ve done it in New York. For groups, it means that no one needs to host or clean up.

Likewise, I was enthused when my friend suggested a brunch place in the 14th arrondissement that she had found online. When she proposes a restaurant, bar, or café, I always say yes without researching it first. I trust her to make a quality choice. She’s the kind of French person who will not snub Angelina’s because it is touristy or the glossy bar at the Louvre because it is at the Louvre. She takes pleasure in food and places that are nice, and while her choices might cost a few euros over what I would suggest, they are never out of my budget and usually worth the experience. And precisely because they are not necessarily what I would have proposed, all the more I am glad we went.

The restaurant offered a choice of brunch terre (earth) or mer (sea), meaning meat or fish. We both chose land. I was curious about what brunch in France would be like, as portions in general are smaller than in the States. Well, this place went overboard. They started us off with complimentary fruit juice while we waited for a table, then served coffee and a basket of mini pastries and bread with butter and jam, a huge platter that we could not finish (and that is saying something for me), and a thick slice of pear and prune tart.

I had never had mozzarella sticks in France.113.brunch.2015After, we parted and I walked through the slight drizzle to meet a date at George Brassens park. He and I walked around a bit before hitting this book market I didn’t know would be there but was of course delighted to find.113.bookmarket.2015a

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Circul’Livre

Books make me happy.  Free books kick that happiness up a notch.

I’ve had a few experiences with free books.  My parents took my sister and me to the library from a young age.  We checked out and in dozens of books each time.  I remember that ‘thump’ sound when the librarian inserted a card in a metal device to stamp the due date on it (does anyone know what I’m talking about?).

I still go to the library, and whenever I browse the shelves, I always feel the possibility of coming upon a great book.  I’ve discovered some of my favorite books by skimming the spines and flaps of library books.

When I worked in publishing, twice a year my company held Free Book Day to clear the offices of excess copies.  All employees were invited to a book-filled room at the headquarters to take as many books as they could carry.

This past Saturday I partook in another kind of free book experience.  Circul’Livre is a program in Paris that has been around since 2004 and organizes free book events in eleven arrondissements once a month or more.  I headed over to the location near Canal de l’Ourcq in the 19th arrondissement.  A site closer to where I live would have been more convenient, but the great thing about the one in the 19th is that it takes place several times a month.

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Upon entering the centre social et culturel, I was greeted by one of the two volunteers who were shelving books.  I had brought two books to donate, which she asked me to put on the front counter so they could affix a sticker with the program logo to their covers before adding them to the collection.  She encouraged me to take as many books as I wanted and said that I wasn’t constrained to choosing two books just because I had brought two.

Not all locations organize books by category, but this one was well-organized: the volunteer showed me that there were sections for fiction (which were alphabetized by author), detective novels, autobiography and biography, travel, foreign language books, pocket paperbacks, and children’s books.

8.circul'livre.2013c8.circul'livre.2013aOnce I had chosen my books, one of the volunteers simply wrote down my first name and how many books I had brought and taken.  The two women who were volunteering were really nice and welcoming.  The event time listed on the Circul’Livre web site was 10 to 1, but at 1:15 they were still shelving new books and showing no signs of rushing visitors out.

I’m pretty excited about my selection of books, which include Simone de Beauvoir, Françoise Sagan, and Muriel Barbary.  I hope the books I donated find a good home too.