On this particular Friday, we awoke to the alarm at 6 a.m. and walked over to meet the kids for our drive to Stansted airport and the short flight to Brittany, where our son-in-law’s parents, Jill and Peter, have a home. My journal mentions bird song, trees in fog, soft gray autumnal light, and “flat white” coffee from The Missing Bean in East Oxford, which is milky but strong and seriously caffeinated, just the way I like it. Soon I am sitting in the backseat of a little red car, reading emails on my phone and the usual Twitter stream of outrage and anxiety, and listening to the clipped, reassuring tones of BBC Radio 4. Through the misty windows I see students walking to school, bicyclists, morning traffic. It’s the beginning of a busy fall day in the regular work world, but we are on vacation.
There’s a program called Desert Island Discs on the radio, where guests (called castaways) choose the music they would want to have with them if stranded on a desert island, and their selections are played in the course of an interview. A director named Paul Greengrass is the castaway today, and his musical choices thus became the soundtrack for much of our drive to Stansted. His choices include Dylan, B.B. King, Springstreen, Beatles, and the overture from Lawrence of Arabia.
But most memorably, there is the delightful duet between Papageno and Papagena from Mozart’s Magic Flute, which Greengrass has selected because, in his words, “it reminds you of the joy of humanity and what it is to be alive”. Indeed it does, for it careens tipsily into hilarity, and it’s a very fine piece for the start of a journey:
We arrive at the airport, board our economy flight, and sit in narrow seats not even next to one another, but soon we are at Dinard, the airport in Brittany. Brittany is a whole new place in my geography, and my first impression is of a porcelain blue sky with white clouds and gray stone houses. We are driving along country roads to a coastal town called Pléneuf-Val-Andre, and the first music I hear in Brittany is a song called “Let It Lie” by Bros. Landreth, the title of which is very good advice.
It is followed by a song called “Holy” by Chris Pureka which I have come to love, have since downloaded, and listen to often. Its lyrics make references to a “a mountain of old pain” and a yearning for redemption, which is oh, so me…”but we danced, yeah we danced, to be whole, to be holy.” Somehow it strikes a balance between mournful and defiant. Feel free to have a listen as we drive:
So yeah, it’s fitting, because my head has been churning up sad and painful memories again, even here, and it occurs to me that this is a perverse, unconscious way I punish myself for being so fortunate, a reflexive or ritualistic acknowledgement of all the things the others didn’t get to do, as though self-flagellation could ever balance out the terrible inequities of life.
More about this later, but for now I shove it out of my head and, as one of the songs says, let it lie. I have been learning to take a deep breath and turn away, and it isn’t easy, but sometimes I succeed. I refuse to go to the dark places when there is so much light.
So much light. Roads are winding and there are cornfields and plowed earth and bakeries and markets and tall houses standing stately in the brightness by the sea. Jill and Peter welcome us to their home and we sit at a table in the backyard having wine and fruit and cheese and sliced ham and buttery croissants with jam…and now I feel like I am in a slow-moving French movie about well-heeled people having a lazy lunch at their country house.
And these days in Brittany are pleasant ones of walks along coastal paths and through the narrow streets of a picturesque town called Moncontour, and once to a lighthouse, and sometimes along the boardwalk of Pléneuf-Val-Andre above a broad white sand beach where people are sitting beneath umbrellas or strolling with their little dogs, and Monte and Miranda go swimming every day. Once there is rain with sun shining through, and the sky is like a sheer gray silk curtain behind which a lamp has been switched on, rendering everything in the warm, blushing hues of a dream. One evening we go to a restaurant on the waterfront, and there are boats in the gold glow of sunset, and I see my daughter walking by the water, and sometimes she is the little girl she used to be.
Life. I used to think everything would all fold itself up into some kind of resolution someday, that a sequential progression of events was proceeding toward a state of sense and settlement, not unlike a story, and that would be that. But that’s not the way it is. Everything is always pending. And depending. And deepening. Maybe everyone knew that but me.
On our last night in Brittany, Peter lights a fire and we all sit in the living room listening to an incongruously random mix of music…Guy Clark and Nina Simone…Iz Kamakawiwo’ole and Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley and Andrew Bird…why should it make sense? Maybe the theme was wistfulness, maybe it was about not wanting the evening to end.