Shakespeare and Company, Paris

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Today I returned some books to the library and picked a new one to read: The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher.  It’s a fictionalized biography of Sylvia Beach, the founder of the first Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. 

I was drawn to the topic because I had been to Shakespeare and Company, although, as I know now, it was not the original bookstore started by Sylvia Beach.

How did I end up at this iconic bookshop in Paris in 1971?  I’ve been trying to remember but it’s a long time—fifty years—ago.  I was twenty, attending the University of Bordeaux, and hitchhiking to Paris with a friend whenever we could.

Perhaps we were looking for a free place to sleep.  At the time, the proprietor was George Whitman.  He was slim, slightly hunched, missing some teeth, wearing disheveled clothes.  He drifted through the store eating a soft-boiled egg out of a glass.  The yellow yolk stands out in my memory.

The bookstore itself was perfect: musty, cluttered, stuffed with books.  The clientele ranged from older history buffs, writers, and literary tourists to unwashed youthful travelers. 

We were directed upstairs where the travelers crashed.  My friend and I looked around at the backpacks, rumpled sleeping bags, dirty dishes, and agreed that this was not for us.  We’d find a cheap hotel room instead.

Here’s a bit of history, excerpted from the link below:

Shakespeare and Company is an English-language bookshop in the heart of Paris, on the banks of the Seine, opposite Notre-Dame. Since opening in 1951, it’s been a meeting place for anglophone writers and readers, becoming a Left Bank literary institution.

The bookshop was founded by American George Whitman at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, Kilometer Zero, the point at which all French roads begin. Constructed in the early 17th century, the building was originally a monastery, La Maison du Mustier. George liked to pretend he was the sole surviving monk, saying, “In the Middle Ages, each monastery had a 
frère lampier, a monk whose duty was to light the lamps at nightfall. I’m the frère lampier here now. It’s the modest role I play.”

When the store first opened, it was called Le Mistral. George changed it to the present name in April 1964—on the four-hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth—in honor of a bookseller he admired, Sylvia Beach, who’d founded the original Shakespeare and Company in 1919. Her store at 12 rue de l’Odéon was a gathering place for the great expat writers of the time—Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Pound—as well as for leading French writers.

Through his bookstore, George Whitman endeavored to carry on the spirit of Beach’s shop, and it quickly became a center for expat literary life in Paris. Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, William Styron, Julio Cortázar, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Lawrence Durrell, James Jones, and James Baldwin were among early visitors to the shop.

https://www.shakespeareandcompany.com/

And a little more:

It’s Paris’ second Shakespeare and Company bookstore

This bookstore takes its name from an older store which was started in Paris in 1919, by a lady called Sylvia Beach, another US expatriate. It was at 12 rue de l’Odéon and in the years leading up to World War II, it became a literary haven and a publisher in its own right – it was the only place that published James Joyce’s Ulysses in its entirety when no one else would. The store was closed by the Germans in 1941 and Sylvia was interned. Ernest Hemingway is said to have arrived at the shop after Paris’ Liberation and personally declared it reopen, but it never did. At least not in the same location or with the same owner. Sylvia Beach bequeathed the official name to George Whitman in the late 1950s and upon her death, he renamed his bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, in her and the store’s honour. He had originally called his store Le Mistral.

from www.theculturetrip.com

I’ve only begun to read Maher’s book, but it’s promising to be a good one. 

And, if you go to Paris, check out this historic bookseller.

Before

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Before he lost his license,

we traveled.

In Mexico, he braved insane traffic,

maneuvered a Ford Fiesta

through bullying buses.

Before he lost his profession,

he saw clients,

put out brochures

in three counties.

Before he lost his skill,

he could fix anything

with a motor.

Before he lost his agility,

he was a fourth-degree black belt.

Before he lost his past,

he sent out dozens

of holiday cards.

Before he lost his bearings,

he led the way.

Covid Finds Us

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reach for the air

the hair unwashed sweat

stale sheets, moldy bread

no one wants to eat, so

coleslaw slimes, melon oozes

meals cooked with kindness, no,

freeze it all, tv vacant

naps if breath is freed

hot dark dreams

or lie awake until light

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water, Gatorade, tea

five senses distant,

in Central America, perhaps,

walk the dog

on the driveway

retreat breathless

to the wrinkled bed

Five of us succombed in July: my husband, my daughter, two granddaughters and myself. All at once.

Fire

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down in the basement of must and mold

lives a slow-burning fire

connected by wires and tubes

to the thunder-maker

life-support, hearth heartbeat

an ancient system, obsolete

a necessary antique

not mine to critique

its warm water saltsweet

*

down in the chest cavity of blood and bone

lives a slow-burning flame

connected by prayer and intent

to the liberator

keystone spirit, seven stories high

an ancient path, evergreen

not ours to refuse,

only when to choose

A Teacher’s Nightmare

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This memoir comes from 2005, when I was teaching English as a New Language (ENL) to kindergarten and first grade children. Now, seventeen years later, I still have “teacher dreams” like this one.

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I am in a room filled with the brightly colored decorations and clutter of a primary class.  It is 8:30 and the first student comes in bundled in snow jacket and boots and burdened with a backpack almost her size.  I am teaching kindergarten (God give me strength) and it is a winter day with no outdoor recess. 

            A boy enters next, followed by a parent: my class mother.  She greets me pleasantly and proceeds to remove her coat.  There being no place for it, she folds it up and stashes it in a corner on top of her purse and a brown bag she was carrying.  More students arrive with parents in tow.  I become anxious, and check the week’s schedule posted on the bulletin board.  No PTA program is planned.  I have no choice but to whisper a question to my class mother.  “Why are you all here?”

            “For the math demonstration,” she replies.  “Parent-child hands on math?”

“Oh.”  My co-teacher and I scheduled this activity for a weeknight.  Or so I thought.

            Now eight parents, with bags of materials, are perched around the room.  One dad has brought a guitar.

            “Apparently there is some mistake,” I say with a smile.  “This class was scheduled for a Thursday evening next month.”

            Most of the adults do not hear me.  Three look up vaguely and continue talking to their children.  No one moves to put on a coat and leave.  The room is crowded.  Seven moms and one dad are perched on bookshelves and miniscule chairs, conversing with each other, and being interrupted by noisy children showing off their work.  The rest of the students have unpacked and are milling around the room aimlessly.

            A sickening knot begins to form in my gut.  The room is descending into chaos.  I call to the students to sit in their chairs.  Most do but I see two girls go out the door.  I follow them into the neighboring classroom where they are taking toys off the shelf.  I speak to them severely; they put the toys back and return to the overcrowded classroom.

            Maybe I can teach some math.  Frantically, I search through a stack of math worksheets that I have collected for emergency lessons.  All the tasks require pre-teaching new concepts.  I couldn’t do that with this group.  No math lesson this morning.  I decide to read a book and paw through a shelf of paperbacks to find something appropriate.  I come up with a story called “Scrub” about a backhoe.  I call the children to the rug.  I have to shout to make myself heard over the noise.  The students are distracted: some sit down and some hang on their mothers. 

            The dad takes out his guitar and begins singing a silly song that gets the attention of the group.  He is a much better guitarist than I.  I feel a pang of jealousy and inadequacy.  He is doing my job and I am now looking bad: unprepared, unable to maintain order.

            My last thought is that I will read the story and improvise a lesson on phonemic awareness: have the students identify pairs of words that begin with the same sound.  I’m feeling sick.

            Like the trite endings of third grade stories: I wake up.  Relief pours over me, the nausea subsides.  It was only a dream.  I don’t teach kindergarten, and I will not be presenting at Math Night. 

Whew.  Deep breath.  Time to get up and get ready for work.

My chest sags low

                        Line from: I Don’t Think for a Second That We Won’t Survive This — Abdul Ali

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how did I do this

fifty years ago?

siblings battling in the back seat

put your shoes on

I can smell your feet

you take the dog out

I already picked up the poop

finish one meal, clean up, start another

how did I manage as a single mother

working full days

rushing home to drive to rehearsals, shows

crashing into bed, dazed, glazed

fevers, stomach flu, stitches, broken nose

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Summer brings it all again

only I’m the grandma now

slow, deaf, a used-up cow

ask your mother, would she allow?

forgot the car seat, the gluten-free turkey,

the towels, the laundry, the car key

It’s much more fun

than it used to be.

Under Our Noses: The Philosophy Works

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“Right near you in Wallkill,” my friend said, about a year ago.  “We used to go to events there—concerts and crafts sales.  Quality crafts.  Really beautiful grounds.”

Then, last spring, we got a postcard in the mail from the School of Practical Philosophy at 846 Borden Circle, in Wallkill, New York.  It announced the Philosophy Works Introductory Course beginning on April 12, 2022.  I was intrigued, but I didn’t get around to looking at the website (www.philosophyworks.org/wallkill) until June.   My Zoom schedule being full, I wasn’t as interested in a course as I was in the place itself.

Finally, on a Friday afternoon, we found our way to the site after several wrong turns. As far as we could see, nobody was around.  We parked near a stately house and followed the noise of a weed whacker to where a man was clearing off the stone patio behind the house.

He turned off his machine, introduced himself, and proceeded to give us an abridged history of the organization and the Borden estate.

Perhaps some folks in the senior category remember Elsie the Cow, the mascot of Borden Milk?

(https://bordenestate.com/) John G. Borden, son of Gail Borden, the inventor of condensed milk, chose the site in Wallkill for his Home Farm in the 1880s.  His daughter, Marion, took over running the business after his death in 1891.  Under her auspices, the Queen Anne-Tudor style mansion was built.  She was a great benefactor to the area, funding the library, portions of  local school buildings, and other projects.

To learn more about the Bordens, go to this link:

http://abouttown.us/articles/marion-the-last-wallkill-borden/

The Borden Estate/Philosophy Works site is delightfully peaceful.  We have visited twice so far and no one has chased us away. 

The Borden Mansion
Koi pond
Estate farm

Cat Bath

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When the cat bathes itself

at the bed’s foot,

soft thumps

against the curve of my leg

take me home

to my child self.

Then I always had

an animal curled up fur tight

sharing my dreaming bed

nosing purr close

kneading an arm

sheathed claws

tiny pain pricks

supple companion

chose the king’s spot

the royal feline middle

and I, careful not to disturb

adjusted my legs around

its warm weight

Day Care

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He has his pull-ups on.

I’ve shaved him. (It’s fun.)

He’s got just one hearing aid.

Lost the other one.

He’s had his breakfast,

taken his pills

brushed his teeth.

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“Where are we?” he says.

I tell him again.

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“I’ll be here when you get home,”

I say.

“You don’t need to call me.

You’re safe.”

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I send him out to the van.

Watch him climb in

wipe away familiar tears

like a mother.