Monday, October 31, 2011

Health Tips from the Crypt

The first time I was ever in Paris, many years ago, I was researching for my first novel, Owl Woman, which is set in that delightful city. Why a California woman would write an entire novel set in a city she had never visited is a mystery. An even greater mystery is that I knew my way around, from the moment my feet hit the pavement. Sans map or guide, I walked miles and miles, happily reacquainting myself with a place where I had never before been. I was only brought up short once, when the Beaubourg, all glass, metal and exposed duct work, suddenly manifested amidst the antique streets of the Marais. I stopped in amazement and exclaimed aloud, “What the hell is that doing here?”

Had I lived in Paris in another, pre-Centre Pompidou, time? The Paris I had described through pure imagination in Owl Woman turned out to be exact, in all respects. This odd circumstance was bolstered by my several visits to Père Lachaise Cemetery. The sense of familiarity was so haunting (if you’ll excuse the pun) as to be uncanny. I drifted along the winding streets of that strange city of the dead like a sojourner returning after a long absence. Was it possible that the former me was buried there, a minor player among major names of French culture like Frédéric Chopin, Georges Bizet, Colette and Honoré de Balzac?

One visit coincided with All Souls’ Day, November 1st. The streets of the cemetery were crisp underfoot with yellow chestnut leaves and, all along the way, families were gathered, cleaning the graves and headstones, and sharing food and remembrance.

 I wound my way to my favorite spot, Chopin’s monument, drawn by the poignant notes of one of his Nocturnes that floated on the chilly air. I was amazed to find a large group of people holding vigil there, silent except for the immortal music flowing from a small tape deck. Candles by the dozens blazed atop the monument and flowers were heaped about its base. In recognition of Chopin’s Eastern European roots, many of those gathered held home-made signs in support of Lech Walesca’s Polish Solidarity movement, in which a full one third of the Polish people were then involved. The mood was deeply somber and reverential.

What, I wondered, would Chopin tell us, if he could speak from that other dimension he now inhabited? Perhaps, I considered, those silent watchers were his voice, reverencing music and the anti-bureaucratic, anti-Communist, pro-worker stance of the courageous Poles. And what would singer Édith Piaf want to tell us, or surrealist poet Paul Éluard, or jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, or the playwright Molière—all denizens of that quiet city?

It seemed to me that all would say their lives had been too short; that their creative verve had been snuffed out too soon. And why would that be so? What combination of influences -- social, financial, medical and self-inflicted -- was the witch’s brew that took them down?

Certainly Jim Morrison, interred at age 27 after a heroin overdose, and Oscar Wilde, who, worn out by dissipation and imprisonment, died early, might have some cautionary tales about the toll taken by living too many steps over the line of convention. Chopin, who suffered from chronic poor health and died at 39, might want to comment on the cost of creative genius to the nervous system. Édith Piaf, whose early life was one of impoverishment and neglect, might lament an economic system that reduces children to beggary and sets in motion habits that undermine both body and spirit. 

The ill-fated12th-century lovers Abelard and Helöise also rest together at Père Lachaise, finally at peace. Their forbidden love flew in the face of the powers of the Church, with the result that Abelard was castrated and Helöise was hustled off to a nunnery, where she gave birth to their illegitimate son, whom she named, marvelously, Astrolabe. Abelard spent the rest of his life being persecuted by various powerful members of the Church, most notably Bernard of Clairvaux, and she became a num, a vocation for which she protested she had no calling. Would they still advocate for free love, I wonder, or would they advise moderation and respect for custom? I like to think that they, too, have returned to Père Lachaise in this latter day, walking freely hand-in-hand, without harassment from anyone.

As Halloween precedes All Souls’ Day, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention those other habitués of Père Lachaise, who seem to live perennially in the penumbra of that eerily celebratory day. These are young people of skeletal thinness who favor a zombie mode; whose ghoulish clothing is all-black and rotted-looking and whose hair hangs long in unwashed, cadaverous tufts. They break into the crypts and sleep there, I am told, amidst the dust, the broken prié-Dieus, and shards from shattered stained glass windows, in necrophiliac clusters. I have seen small bands of these repellant creatures roaming around the grounds and, good breeding be damned, can’t help but stare. I cannot imagine what advice they might supply us, as I suspect that living a healthier, more conscious life is not a foremost concern of theirs.

This All Souls’ Day I will go, as I have for the last nine years, to the little pioneer cemetery at the foot of this mountain, to visit with my folks, who rest side-by-side there, under a canopy of oak trees. I’ll take rakes and brushes to remove biomass, and candles and flowers to honor them, and food to share. After my labors, I’ll sit on the one-ton limestone sitting stone my mother had placed there, after my father’s death, and eat my sandwich and commune with those dear people. The grief has faded now and we sit companionably in the full knowledge that I will be joining them, someday in the not-so-very-distant future.

What would they tell me, if they could? They lived long, busy and fulfilled lives, into their mid-80s. Their accomplishments are legion, yet I know, too, that so were their discouragements. Also, some of the health problems that led to their demise were accidental or genetic but some were self-inflicted. What can I learn from their experiences and apply to what remains of my own years?

For one thing, I know I won’t be eating any Halloween candy this year, to keep my father’s diabetes at bay, and I’ll make sure to enjoy a good laugh as often as possible, to relieve myself of my mother’s perennial seriousness. Like my father, I’ll “get up and make myself useful,” every single day. Like my mother, I’ll create an environment that is aesthetically pleasing, rich, comforting and beautiful. Mostly, I’ll make sure that every day I honor those things that bring me joy and the people whom I love. Our family was altogether too distanced from one another, so the healthiest thing I can do is to make lasting bonds of reverence and love with this earth and all her sentient beings.

So, in this season when the veil between the worlds thins and all manner of specters walk, let’s take the opportunity to ask them for their favorite health tips from the crypt, and then, put that ghostly advice to use, while we still can.


gaelee said...

Suzan, Thank you. I love this story, like all the others.
You paint and sculpt your words like your beautiful art on canvas and stone. You cut and paste words that are arranged into wonderful images like your treasure tove of collages. You are honor us by sharing these amazing stories.
And now, I'm enjoying seeing the world thru your lense and your remarkable photos. You "trick" us by revealing and bringing up some deep part of ourselves. The trick is to figure out what to do with it.;-) You "treat" us with your enduring tapestries that you weave, spinning the world into being like SpiderWoman.
All Hallow's Blessings to you.
oxo gaelee

Anonymous said...

Absolutely beautiful, Suzan. (Susan C.)