One door closes but another opens.
In a certain way, it can be easier to find gratitude when your life is turned upside down. At least it often works that way for me. When I’m really up against the wall, like I was when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, a switch often seems to click on, and I tend to marshall some inner resources by seeking out all the small and large things that help me keep my sanity. Like having loving friends. And a roof over my head. And chocolate. You get the idea.
Last week, I was talking with one of my physical therapy patients about Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday season. This person happens to be bilingual, and as we practiced leg exercises, we found ourselves singing French Christmas carols, en français, naturellement. And in that moment, I was grateful for the sheer delight of such unexpected whimsy, happening alongside my more mundane clinical pursuits. And that contrast led me to remember a vacation I spent in Languedoc a few years after I finished grad school, with one of my best friends from our class. I’ll call her Thea.
Southern France wasn’t our original destination. We thought we’d go to Prague. But we were still paying off school loans, so money was tight, even with a ‘real’ salary at last. And through my writing grapevine, I came upon an American woman who had a house for rent in Languedoc, in a small village called Montpeyroux, for far less than we would spend on any other type of accommodation except perhaps camping. And we didn’t want to go camping. Thea had lived in Spain for several years, and had friends there, so we thought, while we were in France, we could hop over to Spain for a weekend and see them. Thus, we flew to Paris, hopped a commuter plane to Montpelier, picked up the Peugeot I’d rented, and drove to Montpeyroux.
It was like entering a dream. None of the dozens of photos or films I’d seen of southern France prepared me for how exquisitely beautiful it was in the countryside. The colors really are different, full of vivid light. It requires no imagination at all to understand why so many artists have found inspiration there. It was the end of May. Acres of la lavande (lavender) were in bloom, and tidy rows of wine-grape vines flourished everywhere. Les fraises et les framboises (strawberries & raspberries) were ripening. The markets had les asperges (asparagus) ready to sell. It was off-season, which meant that instead of being blisteringly hot, it was temperate during the day, 60-70 degrees most days, and pleasantly cool at night, dropping to perhaps 50. The sun rose by 5:00 a.m., bringing with it flocks of les hirondelles (swallows), and did not completely disappear until 10:00 p.m. Our French neighbors in Montpeyroux, bundled in their down coats, often apologized for the ‘cold’ weather until I explained that back in Boston, it was rainy and beaucoup plus froid than it was in Languedoc.
For several reasons, it turned out that being in Europe again seemed to bring up for Thea all kinds of remembered heartaches from her life in Spain. Among them was the death of her Spanish fiancé in a motorcycle accident the day before they were to be married. She had told me the story a few years before. But instead of talking about her obvious disquiet now, on our third day in France, just as I was beginning to recover from jetlag, she picked a fight with me. She could not tell me what it was that I had done to anger her, but suddenly, she found my company intolerable. My apologies and entreaties yielded no explanation but an extensive list of my flaws. I was boring. I was pedantic. I was arrogant. I was thoughtless. My admittedly lame high-school French was pathetic. The result of all this was that Thea decided to spend the rest of our vacation in Spain with her old friends, while I stayed in Montpeyrous in our rented house, with my rented Peugeot and my camera and my French grammar books. We would only meet up again in Montpelier at the end of the sixteen days, when we had to fly home.
Needless to say, I was devastated, doubly so because her assault on my character was incomprehensible. A few days after she left, I managed to call a good friend back home who knew us both, and tearfully told the tale. She was as astonished as I was. By the time I called her, I’d come down with a cold. The next day, I drove to the nearby town of Gignac, and bought cough drops and lots of tissues at the local pharmacie. La pharmacienne told me kindly to soignez-vous.
I took her advice to take care of myself the only way I could — by immersing myself in this lovely place si agréable, and trying to make a virtue of my aloneness, telling myself that I could do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to do it. I began by walking. Down the street from the house I was staying in, I discovered an entire courtyard blooming with irises. On a walk through the village, I met an old woman sitting in her garden who taught me the French word for swallows and cut me a bouquet of her roses.
I looked up verbs and nouns and adjectives in my French books. I poured over maps and took day trips. In St. Guilelm le Désert, I helped a shop manager translate a transaction with some English tourists. Afterward, she gave me her phone numbers and told me to call her if I needed anything. In Pézenas, home for a time to Molière, I met a professional photographer from Aix en Provence. We kept running into each other, finding ourselves drawn to taking the same pictures. His camera was much nicer than my old Minolta, but I also discovered that we shared a common instinct to see with an artist’s eye, that my background in drawing and painting translated to the viewfinder.
Because I was by myself, I was more approachable. In banks where I changed money, in cafes, in shops and museums and old churches, people would introduce themselves, compliment my French, offer help, even invite me to visit their homes. One of the loveliest experiences I had was attending a classical music concert in a very old church in a village whose name I have forgotten. After the intermission, two pianos were moved into place, and a father and his son sat down at them to play a special arrangement of Ravel’s Bolero. To sit in this stately French church, surrounded by French musicians and music lovers, to hear one of the most well-known pieces of music by one of the most loved of French composers, played with passionate magnificence, was a moving, indescribable joy. I went up to the conductor/organizer of this concert afterwards to convey, in my by-then somewhat less halting French, my profound thanks, and discovered that she was from Australia, married to a French native, and spoke English. And she told me about another concert a few days later in another church, which I happily attended.
Thea and I met up in Montpelier as planned, and managed to fly all the way back to Boston by maintaining a strained but scrupulous politeness. But our friendship was over. She rebuffed all my attempts to communicate and sort things out. I was left with a deep sense of loss and heartache and ambiguity. But then I took my several rolls of film to be developed, had several photos enlarged, and discovered anew an even deeper sense of creative resilience. Those photos netted me my first art show in what was for me a new medium.
So much of what I’ve learned about gratitude is like that trip. Circumstances beyond our control may heap on us some unexpected heartache, while at the same time forcing us to look outside ourselves in turn, because we must. And sometimes when we do, what we really need will find us. And if we are alert, we will embrace it. Thea and I had been the best of friends for five years. We’d been through the hell of graduate school, the death of my mother, and of her father, her diagnosis and successful treatment of Hodgkins lymphoma, and many other challenges in those five years. And yet, for no apparent reason, she no longer wanted my friendship. But the richness of an ancient landscape and the kindness of people whom I will never see again gave me gifts beyond counting. And for that, I’m forever grateful.