Revisiting France with Thomas Merton.

When I was a young lass, my father took a sabbatical to teach in Nancy, France. Carla and I went along with him and I studied in a French school for the first semester of 7th grade. It was the longest time I’d lived without the sweet Tresor-scented aura of my mom nearby.

From what I remember, 7th grade was the year when all my Catholic school friends started “dating” and tight-rolling their jeans. I was a little bit of a wierdo- the kid who wasn’t allowed to watch “Saved By the Bell” or to shave her legs, the one whose mother laughed when she mentioned getting a “perm”- “You don’t need all those chemicals in your hair, Alina!”

In a sense, I escaped the pressures of 7th grade girldom in the States and found a whole new world. In this new world, everything you had to do as an American preteen made no sense. My experience with cultural relativity did so much to ease my transition into the teenage years. All those imperatives assumed their proper space within a particular locality and culture. Peer pressure lost its rub on me.

And my Tuscaloosa friends could not hide their concern when I returned wearing straight-leg jeans and having “grown out” my bangs. The good news is that I found better ways to relate to my friends that by wasting hours “styling our bangs” together. Rather than love them for the way they fit the mold, I was free to love them for the ways in which they were themselves, young girls on the cusp of womanhood with inarticulable dreams and a soft spot for star-filled skies.

My 7th grade class at Lycee Frederic Chopin, where I learned more red-letter words than my parents knew existed in the French language. It was a baptism of fire for me in my puffy red down coat.

I loved to chew on these anise-flavored twigs for days at a time. I think we were driving through Lorraine on our way to Domremy-la-Poucelle in this photo when the most beautiful storm belly-danced around us.

Every weekend, we climbed into our car and visited another tiny village. The intensity and rich backdrops of history absorbed me completely. I would just sit with my Walkman and gaze at the amazing stories unfolding around me. It still gives me chills to remember those days and that effervescence that tied me to the soil while leaving me somehow floating above it.

In a park munching on baguettes with Carla and her friends.

Given the sensual awakening of my first love affair with a land, I wasn’t surprised to feel a tad of Franc-envie while reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain this morning. When ennui sets in, Merton reminds me that “the biggest human tempation is too settle for too little”. To settle for marriage without love. To settle for faith without awe. To settle for life without living.

Merton describes his impressions of Cazals, a small village which even today has an estimated population of 160 people. His description captures certain shades of the meaning invoked by the daily wonder we discover when refusing to settle for commercial voyeurism and, rather, delve deeply into the heart and flesh of human culture.

And this is exactly how I remember feeling when driving through the French countryside, unassaulted by billboards of girls in bikinis promising that I could look like them if I purchased some product meant to distract me from that trembling little spirit within- the only real and eternal part of me. My parents did more to nourish my heart and soul with these experiences than all the Sunday School sessions in the world combined. By drawing my attention and imagination to history and the varieties of cultural experience, they freed me from an allegiance to “looking good” or “being cool”. It’s all temporal anyway…

Now, in the present, looking backwards, I wonder how to share this lesson or experience with my children who have been raised in the culture of affluence….. As I plod along, don’t be surprised if you find more Merton in the coming days. And don’t be too reticent too share how you have found ways to connect your children to the beauty of the eternal in everyday life.

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