Remembering Toni Morrison

Remembering Toni Morrison, (1931-2019), who said:

“I am staring out the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, “How are you?” And instead of, “Oh fine—and you?” I blurt out the truth. “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write:  it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election…” I am about to explain further but he interrupts shouting, No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds:  who did their work hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.

The list—which covers centuries, not just the last one—is long. A short sample will include Paul Robeson, Primo Levi, Ai Weiwei, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, Dashiell Hammett, Wole Soyinka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lillian Hellman, Salman Rushdie, Herta Muller, Walter Benjamin. An exhaustive list would run into the hundreds.

Still, I remember the shout of my friend that day after Christmas: No! This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilization is held.


Elephants Carry Each Other—Namibian Proverb


When: June 13th to 20th, 2020.

Where: The Cheetah Conservation Foundation, Otjiwarongo, Namibia, Southern Africa


Join us for the “Journey to the End of the World,” as CNN once described it. Or maybe, with its vast, dramatic landscapes, magnificent wildlife, primordial dunes, fabled Skeleton Coast and original inhabitants, the San (or Bushmen), it is a journey to the beginning of the world. It is certainly a land of superlatives—the driest in sub-Saharan Africa, the emptiest in Southern Africa, and the country with the largest population of cheetahs, the world’s fastest animals.

It is the cheetahs who beckon us, and among them we will be making our stay. Founded by the American, Oxford-trained zoologist Dr. Laurie Marker in 1990, the Cheetah Conservation Foundation has done world-acclaimed research and pioneering work in wildlife conservation, particularly by it’s innovative programs working with farmers.

We will be housed in a beautiful lodge or a guest house, have meals in the dining room which features locally grown food, and take field trips daily into the reserve’s large territory,  visiting such facilities as its model farm, Dancing Goat Creamery, museum and genetics lab. We will also have daily workshops, writing time, and drinks at sunset overlooking a watering hole.

At the end of our stay, there will be an optional trip to the famous Etosha National Park, a great wildlife preserve shared by Namibia and Botswana.

It is said that you may leave Namibia, but it never leaves you. Come and be changed forever.





Perhaps it was the shadows left by Walt Whitman

and Emily Dickinson as they passed through that first imprinted the capital with a taste for poetry. Whatever it was, it remains one of the best-kept secrets in the creative heart of a city buried inside its persona of politics.

In the many years I lived and worked here, I was nourished by its flourishing scene, not only in the bookstores, universities, arts centers and clubs where the young and upcoming could share and perform, but also through contact with some of the established giants of our times. Visiting here again during National Poetry Month, I am reminded of the many great poets I met, heard, studied with, or simply learned from. Even a partial list is astonishing: Maxine Kumin, William Stafford, Lucille Clifton, E. Ethelbert Miller, Richard Wilbur, Stanly Kunitz, Carolyn Forché, Rod Jellema, Roland Flint, Robert Haas, Grace Cavalieri.

Moreover, for a few years, in my capacity as a journalist, I had the wonderful beat of interviewing the Poet Laureate. I would like to share a few personal remembrances of three of them, plus one inspirational woman who won prizes and glory in other poetry spheres.


Howard Nemerov—  I met him on Capitol Hill during his tenure as Poet Laureate in 1989. A Pulitzer Prize winner, it was his second stint as the nation’s official poet, as he had already held that post earlier when it was called Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. Before following him around the grounds of the Capitol as he led a throng of high school students dispensing his wisdom and jokes, we had first met in a sitting room of the nearby hotel where he was residing. It was there he greeted me with his wry humor and distinct diction. “I only agreed to this interview because my wife loves Modern Maturity,” he boomed.

It was there I had to reply that I did not, in fact, write for Modern Maturity, but rather for Maturity News Service, a wire.

Having passed that hurdle, the rest of my time with him was a delight, filled with quips, humor, and of course the poetry of a self-proclaimed “poet of few regrets.” Beginning from the beginning, he said he never intended to be a poet, but didn’t succeed at another imagined profession—that of Catholic priest—when he realized he couldn’t start at the level of cardinal, but would have to work his way up. Then he added: “As my mother said, ‘Howie, you’ve come a long way for a rich Jewish kid from Park Ave.’”

He also agreed with W.H. Auden, who claimed that “you are only a poet while writing a poem,” or for ten minutes afterward. He further claimed, “Most poetry is drivel, including my own.”

Listen to him read  about the line between prose and poetry and make your own judgment:

Howard Nemerov – YouTube



Joseph Brodsky– When I was summoned into the ornate office of the Poet Laureate inside the Library of Congress in 1991 to meet the new appointee, he had already won the Nobel Prize in 1987, and was a Russian-American literary rock star on the world stage. I knew some of his storied life history: as a young child surviving the Siege of Leningrad and Russia’s rampant anti-Semitism; as a young poet being sponsored and helped by the likes of Anna Akhmatova and W.H. Auden; his escape to the United States in 1972.

As he spoke, recounted his impressions of America, recited poems in English with Russian cadences, I expected to be awed. What I did not expect was that, half-way through the interview, he would begin to fidget. I noticed his fingers, distinctly stained yellow at the tips, fiddling with his shirt pocket. It finally occurred to me to ask: “Mr. Brodsky, would you like to take a break to smoke?”

“Yes,” he replied, “these”… and he deleted the expletive I was sure he had in mind, “people won’t let me smoke inside.” Then he added, “Come.” And before I knew it, I was following him over a low wrought-iron railing and out the window of his office to a small perch overlooking the capitol. There we remained for the rest of the interview, above the trees. He happily puffed, while I scribbled.

A follow-up to an unforgettable afternoon came some months later, during the first exchange between Russian and American high school students. By luck, my daughter’s high school was chosen as one to receive Russian students, and one of her best friend’s family was a host. As a result, we often had many Russian students in our home. One of them, named Anna, spied Brodsky’s autobiographical and highly acclaimed book of prose, Less Than One, on my bookshelf. She was amazed that I possessed this, telling me that her parents, both English professors, so wanted to read it, but it was forbidden in the Soviet Union. It went home with her, my smuggled gift to Brodsky’s native land.

Hear him read from “Odysseus to Telemachus.”

Joseph Brodsky reads ‘Odysseus to Telemachus’ – YouTube



Rita Dove—    My first encounter with Rita Dove, in 1993, was as an imposter. She had been named Poet Laureate and was being honored by the Library of Congress with a luncheon for high-powered literati in an ornate room worthy of Versailles.

I was neither one of the intended august guests, nor, in all my dealings with and writing about the Library of Congress, had I known about such a room. The fact of the matter was that the directors of the Writer’s Center in nearby Bethesda, Allan Lefcowitz and his wife Jane Fox, had been invited, but at the last minute  could not come. Still they had wanted the Center, a stellar local gathering place for local writers, passing luminaries, readings, and workshops to be represented at the lunch. They directed Sunil Freeman, a longtime staff member, and my friend, to go instead and to find someone to accompany him. He called me, who had been for many years an instructor there.

We arrived just in time and found our place cards–as Allan Lefcowitz and Jane Fox–at the appointed table. Sunil, a dark-haired man of Indian heritage no more resembled the silver- haired Jewish gentleman, Al Lefcowitz, than I did the tall, sturdy bespectacled woman I was supposed to impersonate. Table-mate and Pulitzer-Prize winner Henry Taylor looked confused, evidently recognizing me as the mother of one of his son’s classmates. Sunil and I tried to explain, but it was difficult to keep saying, “we’re not really who you think,” and didn’t want to interrupt the introductions as they began.

Then followed the warm, human, and inspirational presentation by Rita Dove. From that moment to this, I have been riveted by the story of her grandparents, Thomas and Beulah, first presented to the world by a prize-winning book of the same name that later became an opera.

Of course, when introduced to her that first time, as well as the subsequent ones, the name on my name-tag was of no importance. What was of importance was her openness, her thoughts on poetry and activism, and eventually, her mission of making clear the innate connection between poetry and jazz. All through her tenure, Washington was alive with verse and its reverberations in the sounds of jazz.

Click on these links to see Rita Dove at the White House introduced by President Obama and singer Clairdee with the Ken French Quintet perform a jazz ballad based on a Rita Dove poem.

White House Poetry Evening with Rita Dove, intro by … – YouTubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIT82Oy9U1Y

The House Slave #jazzvoicesofpoetry – YouTubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymk-LaQxaAk


Ann Darr When I first met Ann Darr, she was a storied figure in the Washington poetry scene, and at the Writer’s Center where she was a popular teacher, as she also was at American University. As an instructor at the Writer’s Center myself, I often saw her wrapped in a velvet cape, her penetrating blue eyes peering out from beneath a beret. I decided to apply to study with her in one of her poetry workshops. She turned me down. Later, after a more successful application, after we became fast friends, we laughed about it.

But despite her warmth and friendship, despite the jokes and personal stories we shared, I was always in awe of her gifts, her immutable beauty, and the courage that remained the hallmark of her life. Its central meaning was based on the reality of her experience as a pilot and the images of flying that permeated her poetry.

As she told it, her fascination with flight began at age six with the death of her mother. She was told her mother had gone to heaven; she figured if she could learn to fly, she would find her. The opportunity came young to fly over the crops of her native Iowa, and in World War II, she joined the fabled Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). They formed a core part of the women who, according to Eleanor Roosevelt, were “a weapon waiting to be used.”


Darr joined in 1943, and the metaphor of flying appeared throughout her life and work thereafter:

Instructions for Survival 

                                        You women pilots are on

                                     your way

                                        to becoming precision flyers.


                                          your responsibility to remain

                                      alive. So,

                                         it’s entirely up to you;

                                        the decision that bailing out

                                     is necessary

                                       the act of leaving your plane

                                      the procedure during the descent

                                     the landing.

Hear Ann Darr in her own words in this conversation with poet Roland Flint

Ann Darr, a poet and pilot, lets her words fly – YouTube


Fire at Dawn

A remembrance from That Paris Year, Alan Squire Publishing, 2010

“Dawn, a discovery really, for eyes unaccustomed, like Jocelyn’s. Hard, glittering fall, already stiffening with cold, making the towers, spires, and sighing rooftops of the old part of the city stand erect. Or, perhaps, they just stand out because many trees are prematurely bare. At this season, she notices, there was also room for the sun, that unruly invader from the east, ripping the cover from night and spilling red across the unknown vastness of Europe. The bells in the towers of Notre Dame shudder then, but do not give in to the sound as daylight engulfs the great stones in a fiery rose.

     She climbs up the river walk along the Seine just as the first pigeons awake and fly from their granite perches, just in time to see the cathedral walls erupt in light, and she asks herself:  Who else could be up at this hour? A few silent captains, working rusty barges up the river, drivers of the tin-sided trucks delivering bread. The insistent lovers of course, the beggars, the occasional prostitute also walking the river’s Left Bank before dawn. Or perhaps, in livelier sections of the city, cabaret-goers and artists wandering Montmartre, intellectuals and first-class hustlers in the all-night cafés of Montparnasse. The clerics, doing whatever mysterious things they do, while others sleep or sin. And now, of course, the pigeons.

     She stands, stranded in silence on the upper embankment, a short silvery half-river from Notre Dame, singed rose in first daylight. She knows, certainly, there is meaning in it, but cannot see it. Perhaps because the other fire burned, once again, across her eyes…

     Soon the bells of Notre Dame break the silence, followed by Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, Saint-Sulpice, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and others all over the city. And for a moment, at daybreak, she concludes it possible to think a known God still exists in Paris.”

 These words of fiction reflect impressions gathered decades ago during my first Paris year. They are now refracted in the splintered images of the countless times since that I have stood in awe by the same flowing river watching the stones catch the changing light, or inside, looking out through the mystical rose light of the great stained-glass windows. The pink-tinged fire of dawn playing on the solid exterior has now exploded in hideous, ravenous fire, consuming so much beauty, history, and hope in its maw. I now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of other mourners worldwide who perhaps still hope against hope that a known God still exists in Paris.

Two Poets; Two Poems


I was lucky enough to kick off National Poetry Month as one of the poets reading at an event at Book Passage in Corte Madera, flagship of the iconic Bay Area bookstores. Rebecca Faust, great Poet Laureate of Marin County, presided. I chose an old poem, first published in a chapbook, Travels, by the Argonne Hotel Press in 1996.

I chose it because, with its retelling of Odysseus’s homecoming to Ithaca from his wife Penelope’s point of view, it seemed a good segue from celebrating National Women’s Poetry Month to celebrating National Poetry Month. Also, it was on my mind because I am soon to accompany Wanderland Writers to our writing adventure in Greece.

Penelope and the Suitors

She had heard the whispers:
fish-tailed maidens
with nets of gold hair,
those sirens, their bitch calls piercing
his ears, painted hands strumming
his legs
and Circe. Ah, Circe,
wild young body dancing to calypso eyes,
that one, she’d heard, had lasted a year.
But only Helen’s face
oval goddess beauty
that he had looked upon
haunted her

and her heart, slow constricted fist beyond the leap of yearning, stopped its beating.

Now, they said, he was dead.

For the first time in twenty years she laughed, twenty years of rock island, stone, sea, swells of waiting.
Now he was near and those who could not follow his wake said he was dead, those who could not tell dying
from coming.

At last near coming home,
the waves pulled back from the beach
like parted lips, like
hands running over hips,
rounded still, and she laughed
again knowing how the gods and suitors
wet their tongues.
Hair to waist, laced with silver
precious metal, like gold
on the looking-glass
where her face, smooth and finely laced,
finely colored from
twenty summers’ sun was,
she knew, lovely.

So, what had he heard?

If he knew her, he would know
she did not remain untouched,
not by the sinewy black one
who loved her like the night,
or the fisherman with the wise beard
casting his net of stories
about her, rubbing her back,
or the philosopher who thought best
with his slender fingers,
or that young artist with Vulcan eyes,
all like the seasons, her weave of patches
a coverlet to cover
the marriage bed.
That was what they came to.

Still she dreamed Odysseus, closed her eyes to see him wearing those twenty years.
But she saw only his likeness, Telemachus, the son,
beauty in his fierce and tender restlessness,
the boy left behind, the guard charged by men
to do what no man can:
Separate a woman from her desire.
Still she waited, had waited, waited and wanted
husband, blood-mate,
twin of the inner mirror
whose likeness only knew
the holier longings of love.
Then he came. Strong-chested.
Broad-armed, steeled in beard and bone.

Did he know at last what this journey had been for?

He saw her first, her eyes
the lissome blue his glance once
skated over,
mirrors on a pristine lagoon.
Now, around them, little creases,
a holding place
before plunging
into the deep sea.
You are the most beautiful, he thought.
Yes, she smiled.

Come in.

Within days of the reading, I received a copy of writer, friend and publisher, Rose Solari’s reissued book of poetry Difficult Weather.

Winner of he Columbia Book Award for poetry, it was published by Gut Punch Press in 1994. In the introduction to the new edition, published by Alan Squire Publishing, Katherine Young makes the observation that for the first volume of a young poet, these poems are “extraordinarily mature.” In reviewing the book now, I found it was like revisiting an old friend who has, in every respect, stood the test of time.  Among others, the themes of family and the struggle for one’s own identity are particularly strong. And on this reading, I was especially taken with the poem “The Beginning, 1939,” in which the poet goes to her own imagined roots in an early moment in her parents’ relationship. The sounds of the piano, often associated with her mother, echo through it.


 The Beginning, 1939
for Joseph and Mary Solari

That she was beautiful. That her nails
were red and tickled the palm of his hand.
That she could talk and laugh so generously
she gave his answers grace. That her eyes
 could flush past brown and into black.
These were the reasons he turned away

from his books in the evening, and spent
his paychecks on small clusters
 of gardenias, which she would tie

around her wrist with a wide green band,
or folders of new sheet music, songs
 she would hum on the streetcar or sing

while they walked. He’d never courted a lady before,
 had never known how much
 small conversation mattered; he’d never

learned to waltz; he’d never felt
this foolish or this happy. After
 he’d called on her, he’d walk back

to the rooming house, remembering things
 she’d said. It was summer. The sky
 was full of heat and water. He’d take his time,

promise himself that when he saw her next
he’d leave no long tight pause for her
to fill. And he would pause beneath a gas lamp

and pull the photograph she’d given him
into light. It was a profile. Her sitting
at her piano. Whatever tune she had been playing

then was one she knew by heart: the music stand
was bare, her chin was tilted up, her eyes
were closed. And while her left hand was dissolving
in a bass chord, into shadow, her right hand —
a little closer to the camera —
was caught in the air between the last note and the next.

And in that last note, suspended in air, the reader gets wind of what is to come: difficult weather.

As March draws to a close, taking with it National Women’s History Month, I am impressed with how many stories of strong, brilliant, achieving, and up-and-coming women I have read about who are making waves in politics, the arts, sports, academe—everywhere.

But it also puts me in mind of the past, and my singular good fortune to have known, and long been a part of, The Society of Woman Geographers (SWG), a group of women explorers and leaders in their fields who banded together in 1925 because men wouldn’t let them through the door.

For me, the association began in the early ‘80s, when recently returned from several years living in West Africa, I decided I wanted to make a career switch from academia, my intended destination, to writing. Having become fascinated with a myriad of generally unknown women explorers in Africa, and having done considerable research on them, I decided to start there. I got  a research desk in the Library of Congress and burrowed in. But quickly I found myself in company. At the time, the acclaimed poet, Maxine Kumin,

was the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (a precursor to the Poet Laureate) and I was invited to brown bag lunch sessions with her and other women scholars.

Before long I met and was befriended by Luree Miller, inveterate traveler, adventurer and author of several books. She was doing research for On Top of the World, her marvelous book about five women explorers in Tibet.

She was also an enthusiastic member of SWG, which she soon nominated me to join. Not only did she become a mentor and invaluable friend, but she shared so much—books, research, contacts, friends, and most importantly, what it means for women to help each other—that my life was altered permanently.

Among women of her generation whom I came to cherish was the artist and writer Ben Booz who traveled the world with Luree as they produced travel stories together using Ben’s drawings instead of photos.

Then there was Jane Coon, who had been close to Luree during their days together in India, and who would become US Ambassador to Bangladesh while her husband, Carleton, was Ambassador to Nepal.

Closer to my age was Ann Parks Hawthorne, photographer extraordinaire and specialist in Antarctica. Pictured here with her hero, Jackie Ronne,

who was the first woman to winter over in Anarctica,  she would become my life-long friend and companion as we traveled the country as a kind of “Thelma and Louise” of journalism, on assignment for a Washington news service.

We would all come together in a special way in 1995-96, when Luree succumbed to the cancer she fought so valiantly. On the days when she had chemotherapy, Jane would drive her, then return with her to her Capitol Hill townhouse where Ann and I would join Ben in cooking her dinner, which she would enjoy in company before the nausea set in. As her support group, we called ourselves the Gang of Four, and during that year Luree taught me as much about how to die well as she had taught me about living.

I am including a link to an article I wrote for the Washington Post Magazine in 1985 about SWG. Some of Luree’s shared research informed this piece.



To learn more about the Society as it is today, (now happily housed on Capitol Hill due to Luree Miller’s efforts), here is a link to its website.




As an unabashed Francophile, I have always taken notice of the French connection to places I have visited: The amusing presence of bidets in parts of the Sahara for example; the military-looking line up of women by a toll road outside Hanoi, armed with … baguettes. Small wonder then I would seek the same in the most French of all U.S. cities, New Orleans.

The name itself conjures many associations for me. Decades ago, I did a doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Charles, Duke of Orleans, in whose name Joan of Arc lifted the English siege of Orleans in the 15th century. Seeing her statue valiantly raising her sword as a symbol of the American city certainly links to its deep French roots.

As of course, do the names of its founders, the brothers Sieur d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville who finally found the elusive mouth of the Mississippi in 1699. D’Iberville died soon thereafter, but de Bienville lived to found the city in 1718, named to honor the Duke of Orleans. By 1722, the grid plan for the city, the part now known as the French Quarter was laid out. It includes streets named Iberville and Bienville.

The brothers envisioned a great trading city on the mighty Mississippi, but who would build it? The Native Americans of the region, notably the Houma and the Muskogeans had largely already been hugely diminished by European diseases and cruelty. To populate the new “French” city, a P.R. campaign was launched to lure Europeans–that is French, Germans and Swiss–to the lush “paradise,” failing to mention infestations of mosquitos and annual flooding. Moreover, to sweeten the pot, French criminals and prostitutes were offered freedom in exchange for relocating to the colony. Then there were the Africans, brought in as slaves in the early 1700s. A cultural shift was setting in already.

To be sure, French speakers from everywhere were drawn in. Acadians from Nova Scotia in the 1750s after the English takeover of Canada; aristocrats fleeing France after the revolution in 1789; Haitians, both white and black, after the slave rebellion of 1791.  A happening success culturally perhaps, but from a financial standpoint, not so much. Not seeing the anticipated pot of gold, the French happily dumped the less-than-profitable enterprise on the Spanish in 1756 in exchange for military support in the Seven Years War.

So, with a Spanish flag flying over New Orleans, and Spanish language and Spanish law in place, it was a Spanish city, right? Not so much.  With the arrival of different classes and races, a population of mixed peoples, high-born, low-born, slave and free—Creole— had quickly arisen.

Mardi Gras parades, a mixing of Catholic ritual and African traditions began when the Mistick Krewe of Comus took to the streets in 1857, and is still going strong.

Music that started with slaves drumming and dancing on Congo Square morphed into brass bands, then jazz and all that came after:  honkey-tonk, swing, rock n’ roll, R&B, hip-hop.

The Acadians, or Cajuns, also created their own strong culture—with unique versions of French, music, and cuisine–steeped in their agricultural roots, on the land and bayous outside the city.  Black residents in the neighborhood of the Treme started their own parades by adopting tribal names and elaborate feathered costumes in solidarity with the Indians who had been pushed aside. Then the Yankees came, building an English-speaking enclave in the posh Garden District. So by the time the territory–still not an economic golden egg–was passed back to Napolean from Spain then quickly purchased by Thomas Jefferson for the U.S. in 1803, what manner of place was it?

My guess is, what it had been from the beginning: at heart French still. But French with a twist, closer to a culture born of Haiti, Puerto Rico and Cuba, than one of Paris or Montreal or, mon dieu, Washington. By weather, custom, instinct, cuisine, and music a place more Caribbean than continental.

And so, to my mind, it remains–tropical and French, but with that twist. On my family’s first trip there long ago, my father ordered milk for my young brothers to drink. The waiter at the famous restaurant, Antoine’s (established 1841), scoffed and brought them wine mixed with water.

The French Quarter, with its iconic architecture built in the Spanish style after fires burned the city down in the late 18th century, has always been considered French.And now, with its crazy Bourbon Street, its multi-colored parades, its jazz, its beignets,  its po’ boys, gumbo and jambalaya

never found on a menu in Paris, its French words in a town where the language is rarely spoken, its laissez les bons temps rouler philosophy? I see the French connection, somehow holding it all together.


On my most recent trip, we made a visit to a restaurant in the 9th ward which had been particularly devastated by Hurricane Katrina. This was at the invitation of a friend who had grown up there. Though the ward has been much restored, the address we had was on a dark and pot-holed street, and an uninviting wood fence didn’t seem to indicate a restaurant. Yet behind it was a lively, attractive space for outside dining, a happening bar filled with locals of every race, an impressive menu and a superb wine list with many French wines, and a Japanese chef. When we asked the young waiter what the restaurant’s name, N7, meant, he replied: “It’s for the national highway. The one that goes through Provence.”



This title, in a bow to the famous book by Gabriel García Márquez, is intended to draw attention to two major features of Love in the Time of Cholera: the marvelous love affair of two very old people in an ancient, unspoiled environment. The resemblance to my own story is slight, but evocative. Márquez’s lovers are very old and find themselves in the fecund embrace of the Amazon jungle. My husband and I first came a few years ago as a less old amorous pair to an ancient city in Southern France, Aix-en-Provence, and fell in love with it. We have returned  many times to renew our bonds of affection.

But this year we came in the time of canicule—heatwave, extreme weather—and find our affection tested. Rather than the overpowering humid heat of the jungle, our beloved city faces desiccation, thirst, withering. It is a city transformed.

One of our great pleasures in Aix has always been to wander the narrow streets, with medieval towers and arches bordering Renaissance beauties, such as the great clock tower in the central square, and running along side the graceful private houses of the 17th and 18th centuries, with their massive wooden doors and elegant staircases. We’ve taken comfort from the sun in their shadows and warmth from the cold in heat of their walls, reflected in the earth tones of their colors—pink, yellow, beige, terra cotta.

But in the canicule, their passing heat creates an oven, their contours quiver, and beneath, cobblestones and marble of the streets appear to melt. We are dizzy in this present, trying to find our breath.

The fountains, for which Aix is famous, reflect this new reality. In many the usual welcoming sprays are reduced to a trickle. An exception is the most famous fountain, the Fontaine de Quatre Dauphins, on rue Cardinale. After a recent renovation, it is gushing with water from the mouths of its Four Dolphins, and residents are taking advantage of it by plunging in.

At the other extreme is the fountain at the base of the statue of the “Good King,” Roi Réné, who stands as protector of his city at one end of its main, wide boulevard, the Cours Mirabeau. Among other things, Réné was a poet who enjoyed poetic sparring with his famous cousin, the Duke Charles d’Orléans, himself a renowned poet. One of Charles’ celebrated poems, Je Meurs de Soif Auprès de la Fontaine (“I Die of Thirst next to the Fountain”) perhaps finds new meaning here. Hot and thirsty citizens sit under a sparing shade at its bone-dry edge.

Everywhere we turn, it seems, we are confronted by Aix’s altered state, exacerbated by the hot sirocco winds from North Africa. At the beautiful Caumont Centre d’Art, the formal French garden with its maze, on fine days filled with visitors, is empty.

Inside, the paintings of Nicolas de Stael, featuring his year in Provence (1953-54), reflect the burning colors of the region, the colors of canicule.

At a party organized by friends in the neighboring town of Puyricard, the Provençal feast is interrupted for a great celestial moment as we watch the close passage of Mars. The Red Planet. The Burning Planet.

As the night sky is transformed, so is the city we have come to love, as we experience it through unforgiving, shimmering heat. It feels a tinge desperate, newly exposed, its drying façades showing cracks like lines in old skin. Like ours.

So, in heat, are we still in love? The charms of Aix—its beauty, music, art and architecture, its high culture, its books—are all still there. As are dear friends. Of course, we would prefer to return to them in temperate weather, under blue skies with a hint of breeze. But we now know, the heatwave is everywhere. Europe, from Scandinavia to Greece, is burning. Islands and coast lands are drowning. Giant storms spawn terror on land and sea. The Amazon forest, “lungs of the Earth,” vastly deforested, bakes and struggles to breathe. Our homeland, California, is in flames.

So will we return to this alternate Aix? Again and again, as long as we are able. We, a late-married couple, understand especially that the vows of love are taken “for better or for worse.” That includes Love in the Time of Canicule.




It’s a given nowadays that at some point in our distant ancestral past, bipedal and no doubt hirsute forebears marched out of Africa. Thousands of years later, mine showed up in Northern Europe, from whence they sailed to North America only hundreds of years ago—hardly a blink in the continuum of time.

But in the millennia between the African exodus and their establishment in the British Isles and Northern France, where were they? What were they doing?

I have no idea in specific terms. But in general terms, the limestone rocks and caves of Southern France offer rich clues to our passage from nomadic early humans to our present, early 21st century version of Homo sapiens sapiens—Sapiens for short.

I had only to look at the extravagant limestone cliff overhangs in Les Eyziers en Tayac—with what appear to be window holes in them—to see the ways that rocks and stones connect us through time. For there, below the ledges that sheltered early humans, dwellings, hotels and restaurants are still built into the same rocks. And elsewhere, in nearby Rocamadour above the Dordogne River, for example, castles and church spires tower over an entire medieval town spun from rock, making its residents truly cliff dwellers.

But our remote ancestors did not actually live inside cliffs any more than they lived in caves—which were too damp, dark and dangerous to occupy. What they did is take and make shelter there—and in many cases extraordinary and symbolic works of art—while they lived in portable shelters, rather like the Plains Indians of North America. These were easier to heat and pack up for relocation when the need arose for hunting.

Les Eyziers is the site of Le Musée National de Préhistoire of France, and as such, houses artifacts, displays and an astonishing number of flint tools which were the bedrock of the stone-age culture. But for me, hunting my ancestors, what stopped me in my tracks was the model, based on fossil remains, of a Neanderthal woman (named Wilma to be sure) and her baby. Her slightly furrowed forehead told me that it was no easy thing to bring up and protect that child in the environment in which they lived, a small ice age with tundra to live upon and herds of wild animals their best resource for survival.

But what also moved me was her coloring—reddish wisps of hair over freckled white skin and gray-green eyes. The coloring of members of my family. This, of course, is quite possible considering that for most people of European (and Asian) ancestry, Neanderthals are us. For several thousand years, beginning about 40,000 years ago, the two species, Neanderthal and Sapiens, coexisted until the Neanderthal…disappeared. There are many ideas about what happened, but one thing is certain: in part they disappeared into us. From 1%-4% of the DNA of most modern Europeans and Asians is Neanderthal.

Even as the Neanderthals were beginning to fade, an even closer ancestor, Cro-Magnon, was busy making highly sophisticated art inside caves throughout Southern Europe and the Middle East. For me, experiencing the images inside the reconstructed cave of Lascaux II was astonishing. The cave itself is small, and was discovered in 1940 by four teenage boys in what is now a lush woodland. The pictures, with one exception only of animals, project colors and a realistic knowledge of the animals’ anatomy and movements that become transformed into stylized scenes of ritualistic meaning.

Many experts believe the paintings are shamanistic, and the shamans themselves are seen in the form of horses that disappear beyond the rocks, symbolizing that they themselves also go beyond the known world into one unseen. The portrayal of light, shadows and movement would be best seen by torches carried into the darkness.

Although there are also many different theories about the meaning of these cave paintings, one aspect of them seems beyond dispute: that the rock structure with its arches overhead and its narrowing passages leads the artist, and the viewer, deeper and deeper into the heart of a mystery. And that the space is a sacred one. Not unlike modern places of worship inside stone structures with domes, narrow passageways, and refracted, mysterious light.

Not unlike European Gothic cathedrals, with their high arching ribs, their stained glass windows and candles scattering holy light, their altars inside naves containing the heart of their mysteries. I sense my ancestors felt at home first in one, then migrated to the other.

Beauty and the Beast


It is a day during spring break for my grandchildren, the lucky ones, who have a lovely home, an thriving family, a marvelous school. It is a day we are sharing with those who are refugee children, who have none of the above. After playing at their house, after games and toys and selected gifts of books and a fine lunch, we all pile in a car and go to the nearby mall to see the newest hit children’s movie, “Beauty and the Beast.”

No continent nor country has a monopoly on the blatant gap that exists between its citizens who are materially blessed and those who live among them in desperation. But as I am again a visitor to Jakarta—and an avowedly “blessed” one—I am today painfully aware of how the gap becomes a gilded crevasse Asian-style.

Today I spent much time with some of these refugees, who number in the thousands here and represent only a small percentage of our fellow humans who are trying for mere survival. By fleeing impossible homelands for unknown futures, they are ensnared by separation from home and family, by poverty, uncertainty, and the imprisonment of endless waiting.

Today, I chatted and walked among them because of my daughter, Heather, who with her friend Ashley saw the need, and two years ago took on the arduous task of founding a school, a center, a gathering place for these desperate and misplaced persons trying to find a safe harbor somewhere in the world. The center is called Roshan, meaning Bright in Farsi, the most common language for its habitués who mostly come from Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.

Today while in the reception area for the school, I chatted with R., a young man from Iran who has been here for three years. He now works at the school as a guard in exchange for a room, good digs for one in his position. In decent English he tells me his story. About wanting a life for his family, about the little three-year-old daughter he left behind who is now seven, about missing her terribly. About waiting. “How is it with Mr. Trump?” he asks. “Always we hear news from Internet.”

I leave the Roshan Center to return to my daughter’s house, where S., from Pakistan, is waiting at a table in the sitting room, her round, smooth face looking up from behind her headscarf. My grandchildren and her four children are playing in various corners of the house—a palace by the standards of the shelter where they are now living. Twice S. has fled her abusive husband—a culturally courageous act, and in these circumstances, also a dangerous one. A refugee—a woman– with no means of support and no legal protection, she has tried to keep her family together under horrible circumstances.

 The first shelter she landed in kept them as virtual prisoners and often forgot to feed them or bring water. The mosquitos were so prevalent that she contracted dengue fever and was sent to a hospital while the children were left to fend for themselves. Someone contacted my daughter, who got S. released from the hospital and brought the family to her own house until a different, better shelter could be found.

Still, the abusive husband is on the prowl to find them, which makes going out very difficult and  renders it impossible for the children to return to school, where they were thriving and the girls at the top of their classes in English. For an hour S. and I sip tea together while she tries to explain her plight in the English she, too, acquired at Roshan Center, when she was able to go. “Mr. Trump?” she says, as if posing an existential question. “For me, my situation…” she shakes her head to complete the thought.

The mall where we have come for an afternoon’s distraction is a marble and gold splendor, similar to others I’ve visited in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore. We thread our way past the name brands vaunting the first-class tastes of the world’s wealthy—Louis Vuitton and Tiffany, Hermes and Armani, to find our plush seats in the air-conditioned theater. There, together, we watch the unfolding drama of the rough-hewn beast and the feisty girl with a wise heart in a crumbling castle where wolves in the forest and vain and heartless men from the village threaten to crush all vestiges of human hope.

Hope, and love—this is a fairy tale—prevail of course, and the children, move on to eating fancy gelato,  giggling and discussing the meaning of the story they have, however briefly, shared. Then S. and her children get back in the car to return to the shelter, where the next day it will be again impossible for the children to go to school. Where, today, they will wait. Meanwhile, my children will return to the lovely house with sunlight and a garden, the house on the other side of the crevasse, and resume their lives among the blessed, which will continue tomorrow.