Lichen pom-poms

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, April 5, 2015

When birthdays roll in, and eye rolls to go with them, I like to remember what a friend of mine says with every yearly groan of every one of her middle-aged friends.

“Well, what’s the alternative?” she says. “It’s a privilege to have another birthday.”

At the moment, I am staring at a chickadee wiping its beak with lightning speed in the trunk branches of a fir tree, preparing itself for another eager, chipper, industrious round at the bird feeder. There is not a spec of irony or sadness or frustration or irritability or mania in this fabulous creature, nothing but the requirements of the moment and doing what has to be done, everything in the context of lacing itself delicately like a ribbon through the fabric of the natural world. Can I somehow, right now, take this birdie into my heart as a birthday gift?

Because, like roughly 19 million other Earthlings sharing my entry date into the world, I’ve just marked another lap around the sun.

Born in late March — a child of spring — I feel inherently called upon — instinct-bound, in fact — to be one of its cheerleaders. Hooray, life force! And winds of change! And dust that blows! And hooray for the beginning of thaw and underground movement so bold and dedicated the once-frozen earth starts to thrill in a softening mass, soft enough for a slew of primal activity to happen beneath it. There is a world of micro-activity here below me, one armed with the force of a hurricane, only tiny, tiny, tiny.

Now: if I am quiet, reverent and seat myself in the moment squarely without a trace of irony or any other squinty-eyed view of things, I can feel it all singing, stretching, beneath my feet, pulsating, shoving up to try to meet the air and sun. Our noses can smell life in the soil and water and air. Our eyes can be arrested, won over by the sheer force of a willow bud on our path, arcing down, first in a tender bud and then coated with fur. Fur! We can touch anything newly, greenly fresh with our fingertips or our lips and feel a crushing tenderness and happiness for the sheer force of life.

It’s not that I don’t ever longingly recall other springs in other places — especially places where spring itself seems to spring eternal. Places like dewy Seattle, where daffodils herald February instead of sneaky snowstorms. And Hawaii, where the spring flowers, trumpeting in their loud and psychedelically tropical way, constitute only one of four boisterous, brilliant seasons. And New York City, where cherry blossoms in the park burst into candy-floss snowflakes, and then fall lightly, landing on people’s heads, brushing their cheeks with the lightest of touches, rising to meet their noses with the most delicate of smells. I’ve had spring in Paris, too, where sweaters are timidly shed and floral scarves vie for attention with the real flowers, and where, briefly, the slate gray of the city fades into the background as exuberant pops of foreground color rise up. All of it is sweet and special and speaks to the spring-born in me.

But it’s from this perch in the San Juan Mountains that I wave my little lichen pom-poms around with the most enthusiasm and abandon; because though spring may come in fits and starts, the stop-and-go reawakens me to its glory over and over, until, silly dense human that I am, I start to get it.

Here, during a March thaw, you might see a butterfly, a single black-winged one moving in that haphazard way they do, like shards of night sky, then see it disappear into — what? And to come back — when? Then another storm will invariably blow in, bringing with it a wet, white blanket and the ensuing days will drip with spring melt, rivers will swell and red-winged blackbirds will arrive in force, perching themselves in bushes and indulging what seems to be a bodily need for constant singing.

I like the way the newborn calves down the road drop to the earth with little thuds and curl up, whether it’s snow or bright green grass beneath them, as their mothers hover. I like waiting and waiting some more for all the green-tipped aspens to blow open and unfurl, millions of green leaves quaking in unison. I like the surprise of spring in the mountains, the fickleness of it, its force and its gentleness. Like reeds, we profit most by bending in the gusty winds, and going along.

Above us, and far, far away through an eternity of black space, there are Red Giant Stars that make our planet seem miniscule — literally. But in the spring, when tiny pinpoints of life begin moving the earth like bulldozers, I feel the might and power of life force, and feel in my bones that it’s bigger than I can know.

Once upon a time, New Year’s Eve 1945

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, January 4, 2015

My mother and father met at a New Year’s Eve party in Paris 1945, at the end of World War II, at the Pierre Hotel in Paris. She, the 24-year-old eldest of three girls who had been working to help support her family for eight years already, was on leave from her duties with the U.S. Army in LeHavre (where French women had been recruited by the American army). He, a U.S. Army lieutenant, was brought to the very same party by one of my mother’s platonic American escorts, which were numerous, as she had not yet met the man of her dreams.

The encounter was some sort of extreme, war-born form of romantic thunderclap and lightning. She fell for his American good looks and blue eyes and “slow, devastating smile” — none of which would have succeeded without the requisite smooth moves on the dance floor. She speculated that he was probably swept off his feet by her loose and wavy dark hair, vivaciousness and lack of “war paint,” as she called it. She also attributed her conquest to a sprinkling of freckles, something she evidently considered essential to that wholesome brand of withering beauty she ascribed to.

Whatever the mysteries of timing and circumstance, chemistry and karma, after meeting only half a dozen times, there they stood on March 13, 1946, before the deputy mayor of Paris’s 16ème arrondissement, joining two 180-degree live wires together, touching and sparking themselves into the velvet dark of the quantum field, where the creation of stories — and of life itself — happens.

Under the laws of the last days of the Third Republic, they were united. They ran down the steps of the Hotel de Ville and into the open jeep my father had secured for the occasion and made their way to her parents’ house for the wedding dinner of leg of lamb, bombe glacée (an ice cream cannonball, popular back then) and champagne. Her family, impoverished like so many other families during the war, was stunned by the union, by the notion that their Jeannine would be leaving them; but the reality of the situation was plain to all: bowled over, in love and determined escape the reaches of poverty, there was no stopping her.

When she finally got her travel orders, however, she panicked. “I was passionately in love but I really did not know the man, and I intended to spend my whole life with him, come hell or high water. I took my luggage to the railroad station and did not sleep much that last night at home, believe me.” (This is all recorded in an unfinished 75-page memoir she was writing, the last sentence left original, half completed, and hanging by my oldest brother Gael, who published it for the family after mom died in 2002.)

On May 7, Jeannine Curry, née Moulignier, boarded the Zebulon Vance, a liberty ship, with 200 other French women she claimed to have had very little in common with (!), since many of these women were obviously pursuing hasty marriages of convenience. On a journey of 12 days, like many of the others, she spent five dry heaving. When the ship finally arrived in New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty gilded by the late afternoon light, the girls were kindly given an extra night on board to rest and recuperate. At 4 a.m. the next morning, they began making themselves presentable, and, after breakfast, each was called alphabetically from the deck of the ship, luggage in hand, to greet their men and begin another life.

According to my mother, her Jim, handsome and elegant in his blue suit, starched white shirt and “sedate necktie” drew numerous wolf whistles from the other girls. He wore, she said, a face as happy as hers and a “long, very affectionate greeting” ensued for two very modest people. They had three perfect days in New York — Empire State Building, the Radio City Music Hall, lots of walking hand in hand and Lord and Taylor for a few items of chic, American clothing.

This brief period of not even six months was the magic crucible from which the rest of my mother’s not-so-easy life was born. So when people ask if I believe in fairytales, I have to say that my very life — to some extent — was born of one. Well, the beginning of one, anyway.