What better time to write a piece on beginnings than the 1st of January. On this day, we begin a lot of things (apparently). We throw out the old calendar and set up the new one or peg it to the wall. We tuck last year’s agenda in the drawer for consultation: a phone number jotted down, the name of the person we had lunch with last March that we can’t remember for the life of us, what we were doing a year ago at this same time, the address of the hotel stayed at in October and where we possibly left the earrings that are now missing. So the past settles in the drawer, the future stands out on the blank pages that will soon fill with dates, memos and appointments, and the first day of this month we call “the beginning” and write it 01/01. It’s totally arbitrary but we wouldn’t give it up for anything and not just because some of us party till the dawn’s early light or drink champagne till our brains turn bubbly, but because we need to believe that everything has a beginning and will have an end and can be wrapped up and stored in neat little packages called agendas or calendars or even memory capsules.
So I sit here looking for a beginning for what has lead up to the precise situation in which I begin this year for this is my story and stories must have a beginning. They must have beginnings, middles and endings because that is their nature and that’s why we love them: they are neat, they are under control, we can know precisely where they began –page one- and where they ended –last page. We buy a novel and we know without a shadow of a doubt on reading the first word that there will be some sort of summing up tying everything neatly (or not) in place and ending with a last word. It’s there, we have it: it cannot escape us.
So here I am waiting for my mind to give me a beginning and the first image that appears is the precise moment when, still in Madrid, I sat at my dining room table and observed while two men carried away the small sofa from my living room leaving behind an empty space which would gradually grow with each removal of the things that then filled my apartment there. Could I say this was the moment the story of my present began? No, it didn’t begin then, nor when the two men rang my doorbell, nor when I placed the ad announcing the sale of all of my furniture, nor when I returned from Salies the second week in October or even when I was on my way to Salies in August. There just doesn’t seem to be a precise moment that I can call A Beginning and feel right about it.
The truth is life is not like novels, but neither is it messy nor incoherent, just as a flowing river which is, at one time, never the same and always the same is not messy nor incoherent. So life is the river that passes AND the pebbles that stay, it is forever both, forever each one reflecting in its own way the sparkling of the sunlight and the mellow glow of the moon.
There, I can see it now: each time I begin a “vignette”, I am choosing a pebble that I call “the beginning”, a pebble beneath the eternal flow of the river which for some reason –it caught a ray of sun in a particular way or has a distinguished shape- attracted my attention. Once a pebble has attracted my attention it becomes more real than the flow, and it receives the name of “beginning”. Is this quantum physics? Could this be what is meant by reality being both a wave and a particle: wave until attention is focused and then a particle creating “reality”? Could it be that we do not really see the river, the flow, that if we focus on the water we see nothing, but that the moment our attention catches on a pebble, a ray of sunshine reflected off a crease on the surface, a leaf fluttering in the current, a twig caught between two stones, a world that can be told appears? So a beginning is the pebble that first caught my attention and made me conscious of something solid and apprehensible within the flow, the same as an ending is that moment when my attention ceases to rest on the elements of the river bed and once more enters the flow.
So where in the past was the pebble, the twig, the crease that caught my attention and set in movement that which has led up to today, that letting go of possessions, that freeing that took place, the move which has uprooted my life and replanted it in a new surroundings? Can I say it began last August as I drove towards Salies for my usual (as of six years ago) summer stay in France? Was it precisely that moment when the thought of buying a place in Salies appeared? Isn’t choosing this just as arbitrary as choosing any other moment before or since? Why not the moment I stepped into my car for my first or second or fifth trip to France? Why not when I decided to learn French or that very first time I drove through the Southwest of France on my way to Normandy and saw the road sign with a name ending in “cq” and realized for the first time in my life that my last name was not a misspelled “que”, but a “cq” in its own right? Or three years later when I passed through Salies almost by mistake on my way back to Madrid and realized that the “cq” is a normal Béarnaise ending for names of people and places? Maybe it had nothing to do with France or languages. Supposing it was one of the many times I thought my apartment in Madrid was too big for me alone, or those in which I wished someone would whisk away my belongings and set me free, or that time way before even living in Madrid when the woman reading my future in the cards proclaimed I would die neither in Mexico nor in New York, or the first time I heard my father say that his family originally came from France. If I stop to look there are millions of pebbles along the course of the river that could be identified as beginnings.
So guess what! Arbitrarily I am going to choose one. It was the moment I was driving to Salies this last August having a train of thought that seemed to be suggesting to me that this month in France was beginning to pall a bit and making me wonder if perhaps it wasn’t becoming actually quite boring and think that I might have to look for a new summer activity, when an unexpected thought appeared, caught the sunlight and my attention (that is what I, yes I, am: the attention that stops the flow and turns the wave into a particle): “Why don’t you buy a place in Salies?” the thought suggested, completely out of sync with everything that had preceded it.
If memory serves me –and even if it doesn’t I’ll say it does for the sake of this vignette- there was no time-distance between this thought and the surge of emotion as the body responded, opening, thrilling, quickening as if spoken to directly. So this moment I will definitely call The Beginning: the pebble, the flowing water and suddenly the sunlight catching it in such a way that it “exists” alone and sparkling, and the body saying “yes, yes” all in the same instance. One would say “time stopped” if it were not such a cliché. The beginning: a mere thought that popped up like a bright colored bauble from the unending flow of “thinking”.
But it was just a thought, a strange unexpected thought that brought nothing but the frisson that accompanied it. There was no plan, no project; the feelings died down, the road stretched out ahead, the next gas station appeared, was taken advantage of and then left behind and the flow was reestablished: it would have seemed that the summer was to proceed as planned and nothing more.
But even as the river of thought and being continued and the outstanding pebble was left behind, it was obvious that something in the body had shifted and the “tingle” remained. So I found myself unconsciously stopping in front of the windows of Realty offices and reading the announcements. There was no thought in my mind that I actually was going to buy something, but it was something to do on my walks. Then one day I saw an apartment advertised in the window of Béarn Immobiliare and it looked interesting and inexpensive. In the window of the office was a sign announcing that both English and Spanish were spoken inside. Life couldn’t have made it easier: the one excuse for not entering the realty offices was my poor use of French. I took a deep breath and entered.
The rest of the story is simple and yet so fantastic it is hard to believe. The two men who owned the Realty office were the exact copy of two very good friends of mine in Mexico and we hit it off so well that I felt I had just come home. After being escorted to several apartments for sale, I realized that I didn’t want to buy something but would rather rent it. Apart from the fact that I had no idea of what on earth I was going to do with a place in Salies, buying in a small out-of-the-way French town at my age is a bad investment for my future heirs to say the least. So with great embarrassment I told Loic and Jean Claude and thanked them for their troubles. Upon the spot they immediately said: “But, we have the perfect place for you” and drove me straight away to the attic apartment that I live in today. I rented it the next day and then proceeded to write to my daughter telling her not to worry that I was not moving to France. I understand now that whatever was happening in my life was going much faster than my capacity to realize it.
At some moment I must have made a decision, but for the life of me I have no conscious memory of it, of having decided to sell everything and move to France. It just was suddenly what I was doing. It really is the strangest thing, as if all the process of letting go that I have been involved in over the years had finally caught hold, and I was definitely “in the flow” trying my best to keep up with the pebbles caught in sunlight as I whizzed past on my way to this new life in France.