“We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.”
~Earnest Hemmingway. Excerpt from A Movable Feast
In Paris, we rented a very small and completely perfect half-room apartment on the third floor. To call it a one-room apartment would be to grossly exaggerate its scale. Our only window looked out onto a common space, a sort of chimney of light that allowed each apartment both the pleasure of natural night and the pleasure of being a voyeur into the lives of our neighbors. For breakfast we ate warm omelets with fresh melted goat cheese that Seneca cooked on the hot plate. Seneca said the cheese was too strong and tasted like a sheep’s utter. I loved the strong cheese and we both swooned over a small salad of fresh arugula and the freshest tomatoes and strawberries so flavorful that it made me feel like I’d never before eaten something called a strawberry.
After breakfast we left the apartment and descended the old but sturdy stairs down the narrow, winding staircase and made another day of walking the streets of Paris. Walking down our street I again felt like a voyeur looking into the lives of the people around me, like those sitting outside in the small seats of the Café Italien on the corner that served fresh-squeezed orange juice and delicious smooth coffee by the owner who was as warm as her coffee one day and as cold as her orange juice the next. Sitting in his usual seat was the middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and neat moustache who seemed not to mind to run the errands on his scooter, nor mind being readily criticized by the other regulars of whom there seemed to be the same three or four, always with their commentary of the goings on in their petite corner of the world. We walked along the Rue Du Pont Aux Choux to Rue Vieille Du Temple, the small road which seemed to my navigational senses a main artery into the colorful quarter of the Marais and 3eme Arrondissement with its small, bright shops, historic buildings and boulangeries. This road led us directly to the Rue Des Rosiers, the small jewel of a street, like a vein of gold in the rough, that was home to the both the orthodox Jews and the gays, a street that served the finest falafel from boisterous Israelis, and where you can find the tidy shop of the most master crêpe-maker I believe I will ever know.
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Later that day as we left the Musée d’Orsay, the canvas of our mind painted by the colors of Cézanne, Monet, Van Gough, and Renoir, we walked down the narrow streets searching for the artisan pâtisserie and some mineral water. Looking around, the thought entered me that people are just people wherever you go. Whether in Paris or anywhere else, people need to belong. We all need to be loved. We all need to find purpose and beauty in the world whether that is through art, music, architecture, numbers, teaching, children, nature, or all of it. And looking around at this city showed me the miracles that people can perform when they believe in something. Everywhere I turned, I saw a spirit of strength and determination and capacity for beauty and meaning. I saw it in their architecture, their cathedrals and palaces and their houses and most poignantly by simply watching them live out another day in their regular lives. I saw it in the way they decorated their little shops and showed great care about their cafés and restaurants, the prim waiter with his pressed shirt and manicured mustache and his full-length apron, standing at elegant attention hoping to show off his mastery of service because that was his art, to impeccably serve un café and croissant and make correct change and whisk you away when you were finished with a polite “Merci. Bonjour!” The next evening we sat in the small wooden pews of Nôtre Dame at the free organ concert. Here, I felt the beauty and strength of the human spirit, past and present, like a weight in my heart and lump in my throat as the deep pedal tones of that organ shook that holy palace at its foundation and opened my eyes perhaps for the first time to the height of the ceiling and light of the stained glass windows, a peach sunset at our backs making color dance upon the giant grey stones. I felt the strength of those rough hands that built that edifice of solid rock hundreds of years ago which stands in the form of a giant cross to remind us all what is directly in the center of vertical and horizontal, that magical place between what is spiritual and what is temporal, that place that is now. And whether on the yoga mat or at Nôtre Dame, presence allows us the same vision into the divine part that is within all of us.
Whether it’s the tourist who snaps a photo of the Mona Lisa on their phone and rushes off to something else hoping somehow to take it now and maybe look at it some other time, or it’s the local who never takes the time to get up into the mountains because there will be plenty of time later, it all speaks to the same thing: presence. It’s about this moment which if lived fully might express itself into something that could last into centuries or if wasted by living too much in the future or past never really happens. Without presence, we will never have our movable feast, we will never taste the cheese, see the stained glass, or feel the beauty of anything.
I invite you to come to yoga this week and practice presence. I invite you to move about your daily life with presence and experience your own movable feast.