I recently pedalled up a steep and unfamiliar road to have tea with a man I had met several years before. I can’t say I knew him well. We had met through an organization we’d both volunteered for, and the various exchanges we’d had were always a notch above simply pleasant.
Despite the 30+ years between us, and despite not knowing much about each other’s lives, I felt he was a kindred spirit.
As I parked my bike and tried to ruffle my helmet-hair into something fitting for a tea-party-for-two, I had rather forgotten that, four years back, we had briefly connected on the subject of roots.
I had invited him to an exhibit of photography and writing I was putting together, entitled Coming Home. He had contacted me after attending the show, to express appreciation and ask if he might include part of a piece I’d written in a book he was compiling about his family’s genealogy. I was of course flattered and happy to oblige.
And then, I forgot all about it.
It gradually came back to me as we started to chat and Antoine began asking about my recent return from six weeks in the States, making references to “home” and my ongoing, life-long (or is it?) dilemma. I felt like a broken record as I told him that coming back to France this time had been somewhat of a violent shock (even after 15 years) and that I’d fallen into an instantaneous funk.
Antoine made sympathetic sounds. He mentioned the frustration he had held onto for decades about having settled down in Normandy rather than in Brittany, where his own roots were. Suddenly he encapsulated my whole experience in one, perfect French expression: “Tu as le cul entre deux chaises” (Your ass is between two chairs). My God! The French may be missing some important words but lord, the wealth of expressions — there seems to be one for absolutely every situation you could ever conceive of.
Before sitting down to write this today, I researched an English translation for this marvelous idiom. I came up with “sitting on the fence.” This doesn’t do it for me. It seems to convey peril, and at the same time, a big decision that needs to be made. I also found an expression (British, I’m assuming?): “Falling between two stools,” which seems to be the equivalent of the French, but it doesn’t count because I’ve never heard anyone say it in American English.
Le cul entre deux chaises … now THIS image works for me. I can visualize the two chairs. My two chairs. They are cedar-hued wood, with strong, woven seats. They are facing the same direction, but there is a big gap in between them, just about wide enough for my arse to plummet through.
Were I sitting squarely in one of these chairs I would enjoy the feeling of a solid, comfortable base, from which I would not wish to leave because… I feel good here. There’s a nice back I can lean on when I’m weary. I am not simply held in place, I am held up, supported and in a spot where I can let go, where I feel serene.
Only problem is, there are two of these chairs, and I only have one bum. Do I take turns between the two chairs? Sit in the void in between? Grow a second one…?
But hold on. What is this split really about? Where does it really reside now? Is this a matter of geography? I came from there, I live over here. Sometimes I visit back there, then I always come back here. Over there’s where the family is. The childhood friends. The grandparents’ gravestones. The language of my mother and father… Over here was all about love to begin with. Love of this new language. Love of the history and the buildings and the over-here-ness. And the cheese. And then there was more love. Love with someone from over here. Then my children, born over here. Now shared custody over here. And still my “old life,” my formative life, over there.
Is this half-assed feeling simply about borders and homelands?
Sitting, writing, in one of the only vegetarian cafés in the French college town where I reside, I strike up a conversation with the couple sitting at the other end of the rustic farmhouse table we share. Their energy is all love, without any mush. We quickly turn to talking about the work we each can do to free ourselves of the gunk. To feel joy and lightness for real, coming from within, without needing to lean on the bottle, the pills…without draining others of their vital energy.
The man is tall, solid, with a childlike smile and wise, caring eyes. I ask him about his sunshine—whether he was just born this way or if it was the fruit of a long journey. “Both,” he responds. We talk. He mentions a book called Being Happy Is Not Necessarily Comfortable. He refers to the work of liberating oneself: not always peachy but usually bearing plentiful fruit.
I hear myself referring to the “leap” I know I must take. Part of me (I suppose it’s the part residing within my skull) has understood the concepts of how happiness, liberation, peace can be attained. Other parts of me (my heart? my cells who still hold on to memories of who and how I was…?) have yet to fully integrate this understanding.
“How high must you leap?” he asks. “Oh! Well, I hadn’t pictured it as a vertical leap,” I explain. “In fact, the feeling I have, when it comes to integrating my conceptual understanding into every little corner of my person, is that of having one foot in the old me and one foot that’s already moved forward into the new me. An old skin half-shed.” “Hmm,” he replies, so it’s only a step you need to take, not a leap. “You’re right,” I realized, suddenly feeling less daunted. And he’s really right. I can see my feet on a stone path through the grass: one foot on one slate, the other foot lagging behind on the slate that came before it. A moment disunity on my path? Or are we always swinging back and forth between unity and disunity?
Is this back-and-forth between different states, places, mindsets, occupations, perfectly natural after all—and not particularly unusual? Are we all just hauling bricks most of the time, in order to build our home, our base, our self, and occasionally spending a few moments within that frame, before heading back out to gather more material?
Another image comes to mind now. Being a 44-year-old on the brink of getting my first pair of bifocals (insert gasping sound that accompanies getting punched in the stomach), I am curious about the phenomenon, when your eyes aren’t working so well together, of one image appearing as two—one person stands before us but our two eyes don’t manage to overlay their visions into one neat image.
It’s as if several Isabel’s are circulating, trying to find each other, trying to consolidate, to become one.
Is my “where do I belong?” hangup simply a metaphor for finding myself? And what does that really mean anyway, to find yourself?
Will I cease to feel like I’m nowhere once I manage to merge—meld—blend—marry all of the different, disjointed parts of me?
Is that when I’ll finally find my identity? Figure out who I am? Finally feel I’ve come home?
Is it more a matter of finding my center? That place where I feel whole?
Will there be a time when no questions remain? And where will my ass be seated then?