Saturday, September 10, 2016

A few days of summer

To say that this has been an odd time is an understatement. More like a hold-your-breath, tic tock, out of the normal standards of what passes for continuum. Things stretch, they seem impossibly eternal and then run into each other like bumper cars with a case of the hiccups. And unfortunately, I am only referring to what has been going on in my heart.

A few weeks ago, I found myself sobbing, kind of in public, it's a long story. But there I was, washed over by a whole new wave of grief that had risen out of a seeming nowhere. I wiped off my tears with no pretense of embarrassment and then moved on to go shopping for a bit with my Sister, as one does. There, we ran into one of her oldest friends. I actually introduced them when I was seven years old and still fearless. We had just moved to Michigan and there were these girls about Robin's age out in the alley by the blackberry bushes. I took them up to her room and there you go. How simpler things were without personality in the way. So this same friend, Susan, invited us up to her family's little slice of personalized Heaven. We left less than 24 hours later. 

Michigan - where I have been living for the past six months - is truly quite beautiful, something that is a bit of an inside secret for those who are from "the Mitten State" (take a look at the bottom half on the map to understand, apparently the residents of the Upper Peninsula smugly prefer to be left out of the equation entirely) but an area, like much of the US, where great distances are considered casually. As I still do not have my drivers license, Robin sat with a fixed gaze behind the wheel for four hours but wore the effort with the lightness of a grocery run until we pulled up under the pines in front of a true log cabin.

Her immediate spreading smile was worth...all the gold in the world? Well, not quite, mais presque. She knew what she was getting us into. We both needed this. I stepped out and stretched and could feel the pull of Lake Michigan before I could see it. Now, you may laugh - certainly if you have never seen it - for I know well it is not an ocean nor a sea, but trust me, that pull, lion-like, is there. 

For two days, we settled in as Sisters. Sisters of a certain age who know each other now. We respected each others needs for respective space and togetherness. The timelessness of the log cabin walls and the somehow more seeming choice to have internet access or no let our individual current stories fall away. We read. 

Coming back from one of the evening walks that we would take along the beach before sunset, we looked up just as we were arriving back to see Tupelo, or Tupy, nosing down the steps of the dock. She is Susan's 15 or 16 year old Golden Retriever, depending on who is doing the math. So that meant that Susan had made the drive up to spend a few nights with us after all. It wasn't certain, but we had hoped. 

Old friends banter. I made a toast to Susan just for having known her for forty years. When you have moved around as much as I have in life, that is something worth the clink. I took over cooking when we all were too lost in the conversation and I let these two true friends be to wander down to the beach so that they could talk and I could get lost in the stars. With the waves crashing in, I craned my neck and was overwhelmed by the merciless number, far outweighing what my concerns - current or past - could ever be. And yet even there, I cried again until my ribs shook, vulnerable to the truth, that damn resounding truth that natural beauty or God (your choice) has called out to me with an unflagging voice. Under the bare gaze of a million years, I could not help but hear it. 

What else happened down there on the sands is between me and...something greater. This was a few weeks ago. It is such a long process, this grief, these steps towards healing. And I have accepted that I am on nobody's schedule but my own. But those stars are emblazoned within me and if I close my eyes, I feel them not far. 

As luck would have it, I slept down where I imagine the children are usually delegated, the basement level of the log cabin. But as it is built up on stilts, I was able to open my curtain every morning and see that thin line of horizon that could extend nothing but hope into my view. Breathe in, breathe out. Another day rising. 

This has been such a strange time. I don't quite remember the days of the week but I am aware, often too aware of whether I am moving forward or not. And yet, for those four days, I had a taste of pure summer. Far from much, I was focused on the quality of the light upon the water (so similar to that of Bora Bora as to be laughable - why do people insist on flying to the other side of the world?), how the most basic food could taste so much better, how people seemed to have their guard down enough to talk with strangers, that it was possible to count down the sunset and even the Milky Way could break me open, yet again, to the possibility that I am learning and very much still alive. We all forget that some times but it was, in this case, nothing that a few days of summer couldn't set towards the direction of...a maybe one day beyond. Listless yet dreaming like summers do.

Thank you with all of my heart for the many incredibly loving messages and emails that so many of you have sent about Ellie's passing. Again, I feel truly fortunate to have been able to call such a woman my friend. It has been so incredibly moving to see here and elsewhere on social media exactly how far her reach was and is. Hers is a light that will never go out.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Best Angel

My beautiful friend Ellie passed away yesterday. 

I remember after the first time that I met her in Paris (when the above picture was taken), I was literally buzzing, nearly shaking with happiness and just this phenomenal energy as I made my way first to the Gare de Lyon and then all the way back down to Provence. Her star shined that bright, even in the confines of her ALS bound body. The amount of love and laughter and incredibly wise perspective that she had to share, so directly, was like nothing that I had ever seen. 

Not having time to waste, we declared our friendship that night. I still feel really honored by this.

When she said a few months later that she definitely wanted to move down to Provence, I was on it, searching for possible houses immediately. The courage that it takes to leave Paris is huge. I did it myself when I moved to Arles with Remi in 2005. But Ellie did so while paralyzed from the neck down, with only her caregivers as her main company, knowing that her husband David and her daughter Grace would most often only be able to join her on the weekends. And yet she didn't look back until her declining health forced her to return to Paris and palliative care.

I had already left Provence at that point, but while there, I would do anything for her - too much - to show my love. Her family would make fun of me (with kindness) because of the insanely over-elaborate lists of suggestions and recommendations that I would spend hours concocting for their visits. My friend L ran into her a few times while Ellie and Co. were out at an antiques or food fair and would always remark at how strong she was even in the midst of the crowds staring at her in her wheelchair with her breathing mask on. That is Ellie too. She was determined to enjoy whatever she could (and occasionally pushed herself too far when the temptation of, say, a Frito beckoned) and without apologies.

She was so excited to surprise me that she had found the house to rent. Little did either of us know that it was located only at a twelve minute drive from mine. We honestly had no idea. She wasn't even exactly sure of the name of the town that she lived in until I explained it to her. She just found the house and made it happen. Given the proximity, you would think that I would have seen her every day but I did not drive yet (and am still working on it), there was no bus transportation and I was not in shape enough to bike it. But Remi would take me when he could and I watched as she (not-so) slowly transformed the wonkily decorated house into something so her, something really elegant yet completely welcoming. Again, how could I have had my doubts? This is a woman capable of anything. With Joel, one of her amazing and loyal caregivers, I helped to hang the lights on the Christmas tree while the Mistral roared outside. I surprised her with a bit of patisserie on New Year's Eve (before David surprised her by showing up an hour later) and she outdid me by somehow persuading him to pull their enormous Mercedes into the tiny lane outside my house the next day. I crouched down by the open door of the back seat and we talked, I was so happy to start the New Year in seeing her. Ben and Kipling came out and licked her hand. That was the last time that I was able to be with her in person.

My life took a dramatic shift not long after that. And she did not let me down, even though I could hear that her voice was getting weaker when we spoke on the phone. Of course, she said nothing about that. She listened to me, let her opinions fly with stinging precision but also knew just what to say with common sense and care. I can hear her voice so clearly: "If I can day...with this disease...then you will get...through this." I think of that nearly every day. It was Ellie who I would turn to for strength, just as I did my best to offer it to her (at the very least she knew well that I was never scared of her decline). She was also the first person I wanted to tell after my family when I took her advice: when I arrived in the States, when I passed the test for my driver's permit, that I was starting therapy...I suspect that a lot of us, whether close friends or less so, felt that way about her - that she was someone to share the good stuff with immediately. She was in contact with thousands of people and yet somehow managed to make each one of us feel special and important. 

Once she was again in Paris, despite having just been released from palliative care and her increasingly weak physical condition, she managed to not only keep her shop open but self-publish her third book, And So It Is, which tells the story of both her life and what it became while living with ALS. It is an incredible book, one that moves far beyond any trace of sentimentality to hit right to the essence of her experience. I literally do not understand how she made this happen but, along with her blog, Have Some Decorum, it is an important part of her legacy - one of being awake to the value of one's life - that I often told her was "The Ellie Revolution" (I also used to say that she could stop a war just with the power of her baby blues but that is another story).

Her last and perhaps most spectacular decision was her recent choice to return home, to the US and to her beloved California. When I had asked her about the possibility of doing so in the past she said that there was no way that she could make the flight, that the doctors would not allow it - but she did it anyway, supported by a generous friend who sent his private 727 for the occasion. From there she was able to get installed in the same compound that she had loved and left to live in France. It was truly meant to be, a gift from above.

While we would continue to email, I made a decision to talk to her less - it would break my heart to have to ask her to repeat things when I couldn't hear or understand her and frankly I wanted her to save her precious breath for David or Gracie or her best friends Jennifer and Yolanda. But I do hold especially dear one of the last conversations that we had (every single one of our conversations was special, we could talk for hours and hours and hours without pause back in the days when her voice was stronger). She wrote about this later actually, but it was a Sunday and she had gone to her favorite little church, this is still in Paris. There she had a "come to Jesus" moment, except that in it, she told God that she was ready to go soon. And to be truly Ellie, she took things one step further by saying that she was ready to go to work for Him. When she told me that, even though it was such a serious moment, I couldn't help but laugh and say, "Oh my God, you are going to make the best angel. The most kick ass one!"

And she will. She is. 

I am sure of it.

From what I know, her passing was exactly as she wanted it (because save for having ALS and dealing with workmen in Provence, she always got her way). She was surrounded by the love of her family and friends and she was at peace. I was one of her new friends and am incredibly grateful for every moment that I was able to spend with this extremely unique human being. There is so much more that I could say about her (and my thoughts are still fuzzy with my own grief, please pardon any errors here) - about her physical beauty, her brilliant impeccable taste, her wit, her steely intelligence, her thoughtfulness and caring. Not to mention her sheer force of will. While I feel immense relief that she is finally free of her physical suffering, I cannot stop thinking of David and Gracie, of her sister Heather, her parents, her incredible friends and those of you here and all over the world who loved her. She said that she could feel that, you know. To everyone involved, I am sending my love and strength, even though it is a drop in the ocean of your sadness. I am so sorry. 

With typical Ellie humor, she began her last post, "Well hello, surprise surprise, I'm still here."

You most certainly are, because you will live on. Let the angel work begin, Ells.

I love you, beautiful one,
Heather bis

Saturday, August 20, 2016

FOMO - or my best new addresses for Arles

So, people have been talking about "the next wave" of Arles since I first moved there in 2005. My then neighbor said that folks were saying the same when she first moved there some twenty odd years prior to that. And...*letting out a giant exhale*...rien...nothing happened. 

That is, of course, until now. I add the modifier because "of course" this would begin to happen during the first summer when I am out of the region in over ten years. 

As I perch over my instagram account, scrolling to the far blue yonder, I have been astonished to see so much positive change rolling into this 2500 year old town. At times, I twitch with a bit of FOMO or Fear of Missing Out.

Now, there is ab-so-lute-ly a reason for all of the hullabaloo.

I have been mum on this blog about the arrival of the LUMA Foundation as I have been slowly documenting its conception and construction from the beginning, all the better to spring it on you as the completed "Savior of the Arles Economy" that it will be. It is a brilliant project, entirely and privately funded by an incredible arts patron (who happens to be a woman no less) and yes, the entire town has been polarized by the pros and cons of converting tiny Arles into the new modern art capital of Western Europe. Ok, that last bit depends on who you speak to but in my opinion, it just might not be so far from the mark.

Those who are wise are anticipating the arrival of this next wave by paddling out to already to save their place before the surf is indeed up. Remi and I, were too far ahead of the game when we opened our now online only gallery, Nature and Cultures, in 2008 (granted, the actual construction dates of the LUMA tower, designed by no less than Mr. Frank Gehry himself, have been pushed back several times). And we were far from alone. I know of several business owners in Arles who have been just trying to "tient la route" for several years now and we all know why. 

It has been estimated that the LUMA Foundation will draw an additional one million visitors per year.

But oh, does Arles hate change. And yet, as my wise friend Stephen often reminds me, "Let go or be dragged." 

So, Arles, I am talking to you, time to let go and "face the strain."

Here are a few new and recent addresses that have my eyebrows arched in surprise. I can not wait to explore each and every one of them, hopefully upon my return to le Midi this October.

Those of you who have been reading for some time know that my bona fide number one gripe about Arles is that it is extremely hard to find a decent restaurant for a decent price, let alone one with adventurous yet grounded cuisine. Eh oui, no longer. I watched the team of the Paris Pop-up do some magic last summer at the gorgeous Nord-Pinus Hotel (I have always said that it is one of the prettiest dining rooms in Arles) from a distance as I did not have a dime to my name but the word out was fantastic. Now, they have brought a new concept to an even better space (the previously under-used Querida on the rue des Arenes) by welcoming a series of chefs in residence to whip up their own menus of small plates tailored around the availability of seasonal ingredients. Just please trust me that this is a radical concept for Arles. In addition, there is a fantastically reasonable wine list (6 € for a glass of 2014 Bourgogne?) as well as a "bar dynamique" which can be attested to by some of the impromptu concerts that have taken place so far this summer (I can only imaaagine what the neighbors think). The current menu has offerings such as a cheese plate at 7€ and beef cheeks with eggplant for 12€. The ambiance seems to be a very happy, unpretentious one.

As it does at Estello too. When you live in the centre historique, you try really hard to have a friend who has a roof terrace (they are harder to come by than you might think) because the truth is that there are no really great open air bars, especially for sunset (I can think of one). So, it was high time that this summer time pop-up happened with djs and drinks, plus petanque and photo exhibitions. I am not exactly sure whose idea it was to house all of this on the rooftop of the downtown parking structure but even that is just part and parcel with the "my way or no way" charm of Arles. Open until August 28th at 5 boulevard des Lices. Climb the stairs as the elevator can be iffy.

Arles Yoga
The same team behind Chardon is also bringing "real" yoga to Arles, finally. Now. I know how snobby that sounds but I have been down-dogging since my hippie Mom taught yoga in the 70s and was a bit mystified by the total randomness of the bit of yoga that I heard about in the area, either consisting solely of détente or "yes, you really can do a headstand your first class, come on, just give it a try - allez hop!" This summer there will be the Rock in Opposition technique on feature with two different teachers from Canada and the fall schedule will be released soon. Classes start at 12€ the pop with packages available - all take place at 9 rue du Palais near the Place du Forum. Sweet.

If you had told me a year ago that soon there would be a café where not only everything would be made inhouse but also with vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options available, I would have rolled over with the giggles. But it has happened. This spot is brand-spanking new on the lovely but unvisited rue Molière, inbetween the Place de la Republique and the boulevard des Lices. Salads such as black quinoa with avocado, fennel and parmesan in a lemon dressing are only 3.60€. I rest my case. 
There is a facebook page for those who are less Big Brother fearing than I plus on instagram:

Le Collatéral
Anyone who has been on one of my guided walks can verify that there are some absolutely amazing abandoned buildings throughout town that are just begging on bended knee to live again. I think that the former church and ballroom (because we know how those two go together) that is home to the b&b Le Collatéral most certainly takes the cake and I am delighted to see that it is open, plus that the owners put forth a ton of bonhomie in their presentation. There are only four bedrooms, each with a unique design spin, a huge lounge, library and an open terrace plus lots of art - all in the close but not noisy Roquette neighborhood. Booking rooms can be tricky business in Arles. I promise to look into this spot for you directly in the fall.

Le Réfectoire des Ateliers
Of all the summertime events that I am missing out on this year, it feels the weirdest not to be going to the Rencontres. I love this photography festival and always have but...going to see the exhibitions out at the site of the Parc des Ateliers (where the LUMA is blooming to be) is just brutal. The heat is insane, it is dusty, everyone is cranky and usually hangry by the time that they stumble through thousands of photographs. Now, there is finally an option that makes this a worthwhile destination in it's own right. And listen up my tourist friends whose stomachs are on a different time zone: they are open all day from 10am to 5pm non-stop.  The products are local and often organic as are the dishes, save when they are put together by one of the "mammas" of the kitchen staff who are capable of whipping up what looks like to be a mean lamb tangine. This is not a new address but one that seems to be really coming into its own.

Jute espadrilles
And speaking of relative old-timers, I just want to put an update out there for the many of you who have loved my post on the handmade espadrilles at Jute. And you should love them because the pairs that I bought when I wrote that post are still going strong and oh my do I wear out my shoes. I mention them because what they are doing now is phenomenal. I would love to buy all, or nearly all, of what they are creating. Worth a second look. 
They also have a facebook page, a new store in Avignon and this instagram account:

So there you go. No, I am not sponsored for any of the above - however, if any of the owners of these establishments want to buy me a drink or offer me a job, I most likely would not say no.

Bon Week-end tout le monde! 

PS. For those of you who can't wait a minute longer, you can read about the LUMA Foundation by clicking here.
PPS. Thank you to ALL of you who sent me so many happy birthday wishes here at Lost in Arles and by email. As you might imagine, they were especially appreciated this year...

Friday, August 12, 2016

Growing oak

Today is my birthday.

I want, I need for it to be a really quiet one.

As with many things of late, I notice that it is the "the first without Remi" in many years. That is hard.

And in writing that, I understand all of the sudden why my Sister has been so intent in making sure that I don't just let it slip downstream unnoticed. She is extra thoughtful that way.

So there will be gifts despite my saying that, "You all do enough for me as is" and if the weather permits, maybe we will move the table out to the expansive oak tree under whose reaching arms my Mother and Leonard were married not so long ago.

But it is to another such tree, further down the road that I am thinking just at present. Actually, I have been eyeing it, sometimes surreptitiously, others with open mouthed wonder, since I arrived out at my Sister's farmhouse, where I am now officially living. Another room and bags to unpack, a place-marker where, thankfully, I am warmly invited to feel at home.

This oak is perhaps not the largest in the neighborhood but I love it for its scars. It's a many-headed Hydra. How often has it been struck by lightning and yet kept growing? Where can I trace the outlines of branches that were cut to the trunk only to continue pushing out in an opposite direction? It is just there, at the side of the road. It doesn't have to be the best tree. 

It is just there.

Intuition isn't needed to divine why this means something to me.

Maybe I can keep one tradition of recent years and get to a museum, as I have always liked to do. As if in seeing art, I can call it towards my heart for the year ahead, knowing that I am driven by creativity and love, determined to fuel up on blind faith and winged hope.

And that, is beautiful. My family here will sing to me and not even off-key.
(My family there will most likely be silent, moving forward on their own trajectory. Best then to "choose joy" and "be here now" - these catchphrases coating wisdom - for we can only be responsible for ourselves.)

I am so grateful for this birthday and a merit badge of 47, so young still - or at least as Thich Nhat Hanh might wish, "Happy Keeping Going." The oak trees stand strong on their own and yet are very much a part of their environment, the surrounding nature, just as I have my own, my human nature too. And I am proud to still be here. I have fought and cried and laughed and am held by something universal, thrumming in us all.


Earlier this week I had the good fortune to speak to someone for a few minutes who has been through unspeakable difficulties in life from his earliest days. And he has fallen down many times and I mean fallen beyond what we can know and yet he managed to get back up, through dedicated work, every time. Over and over again. He spoke quietly, there was no survivor's swagger; it was a human exchange. We can be so hard on ourselves - me worst of all - and it just points us in the wrong direction. And it isn't...very humble...because it suggests that we already know the answer and just aren't - for whatever reason - delivering. If we can have the courage to be honest and then act from a place of compassion -  ok, still struggling with that one also as far as towards myself is concerned - it just makes so much more sense. Otherwise, we will just keep having to start over, which gets exhausting but hey, if that is what has to happen, well, then so be it. That too, broken open but done. I think about something really simple that I read in one of Glennon Doyle Melton's articles lately, "Remember. Don't be afraid. Begin again."

We don't have to be the best tree. Let's keep going.

 Happy Birthday because it just might be today.

Thank you for all of your responses on my previous post, one million pageviews isn't the same as a million people but in the strength of your kindness you just might make it so.
With much Love and Gratitude,

*These are just iphone photos (and I know that they are similar to a lot of what I have been posting here of late) but sometimes I think that it is good to have beauty be a simple, everyday occurence that isn't so preciously documented as to make it seem rare...because it isn't. :)

**No art in a museum today but I had my tarot read by a fascinating man on the street and it was such a fulfilling experience that it did the job just as well. So, living art instead.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

One in a...


This is not at all the post that I wanted to write but sometimes life decides. I actually have been truly missing talking about Provence on Lost in Arles and so have been preparing - with a big intake of breath - some of the other photos that I took during those last weeks in February before coming to the States for some months. These are the things that I do on a Saturday night when I can't sleep, when the future is bullying, to calm me.

You know, I rarely look at the statiscal end of things for this blog anymore. As I have written previously, at some point I realized that I wasn't aiming to "build a brand" - seriously, I do admire those who can but it makes me kind of bubble giggle to think about it - and then I just stopped seeing for quite a while, the words wouldn't roll off my tongue but rather got caught in the back of my throat. So I was pretty silent. I still am, down to sending off missives once a week. It feels odd. With all of this time available, can't I do more? Be more? Apparently not just right yet.

Do you remember how scared I was that you would all abandon me once that I admitted that I was no longer in the midst of what was pretty much a fairy tale existence? And you all said, "No, I won't" or "What are you talking about?" You stayed. Nearly everyone - although a few long term readers have bowed out, that happens. And then, more than quite a few of you arrived without my knowing. What I have been so acutely aware of is that not a day goes by when one of you doesn't reach out to me somehow, either here or by email or on instagram, sometimes signed anonymously or with cryptic aliases. "Just checking in," is how it is expressed most of the time, that reassuring yet expressly casual hand reaching out across the wires, offering kindness. We are a mighty community.

In fact, a bit more so than I would have guessed.

A few years back, over a rosé-fueled lunch under a leafy terrace in Arles, a very successful friend with a "blog" that is more like an e-zine was teasing me about my laissez-faire attitude towards what I do here. "Do you even know what SEO's are?" she queried. "Um, South-Eastern Oreos?" I offered (or some such silliness) for I had no idea at the time. When I half-sheepishly offered up the number of pageviews I had that month, she whisked the figures out of the air with her hand. "You can't go by that," she responded before giving me several solid, helpful ideas that I tried my best to absorb. But I never did figure out why I couldn't trust those figures and now I am kind of glad.

Because last night I stumbled upon the statistics page and saw that Lost in Arles had sailed past the milestone of having a million page views. One million.

Those of you who have blogs yourselves know very well such numbers are extremely relative but...I had to admit that for a moment I was sat bolt upright, blinking in surprise. For I am quite proud. I think that I have the right to be on this one, no? have been reading quite a lot about the self, including the illusion of what that means along with the counter balance of our connectedness. And I know that to be true not only because I have been able to have a far more direct experience of who I actually am minus all of the adjectives and modifiers these past few months but also because...I feel you too. Now, don't run away so quickly - or fine, go look at the photos! - but it is true. My friend Ellie has many thousands of people that pray for her on a daily basis and I don't think that she would mind my sharing with you that she says that she can really sense it directly. I get that. You are all quite present in my life somehow, even when I am not actively conscious of it.

These photos were taken for a dear friend who I have not (yet) met on the eve of her birthday. I don't have the means to offer much these days but the evening sky was doing its best so that I could send her a gift. A bit of light. If I am sharing them here it is because I realize so clearly that is what we are doing for each other. I had a bit of banter with an old friend about the nature of the world "obsolete" - that I am not overly fond of the finality of it, preferring instead to take a more Buddhist take that things keep going and just transform. The social media folks say that blogs are obsolete but I know better. And so do you. One or one million? Same difference and that is exactly wherein the beauty lies.

Thank you for being here...and in so doing, encouraging me to be true and true to myself. 
It's a good goal...along with self-love and inner peace.

With much love and gratitude,