Originally published 27 February 2015
First, the inside. Here is what it is like on the inside: Since I was born I have been aware and certain of an abiding, stronger-than-life, palpable wonder of which, as a child, I realized was a different experience than those around me. I knew that I was connected to it, a part of it, an incarnate of this something wonderful, an expression of it, happy and alive. I was told stories about how serendipitously different my existence was. I knew this wonder to being as a priceless layer of existence that is a golden dimension to everything and designed to be delighted in and to sensuously permeate every atom and is better than one human could imagine by him or herself. Simply stated, it was an all-permeating good. Because I felt and knew this as a present state and an internal natural way things were and that it would, without a doubt, eventually prevail against any worries or concerns, I assumed I could explain and share it with anyone around me and it would be immediately delighted in, accepted as real and understood. The unhappiness and doubt I saw in everyone else did not match. My perception of this reality was that eventually it would be realized, alongside the impression that it might not be for a long time and so there was time to learn. My earliest memories were that it was a given, without any doubts. Figuring out the world around me was much harder but I did not worry because this was the true way things were to me. I more wanted to know what would be necessary to know for the future and that is what I sought out in learning. For my family, a present struggle existed in the environment but with a far-off, distant realization, as if premonition or intuition, that something special was happening and would happen. One of the biggest challenges of my life has been to learn the hard lessons of what it means to take and follow that path with others but essentially alone, give up trying to convince and include those around me, and through trial and many hard errors, come to this point of putting it finally to writing. The goal being to give it the light of day and let it be what it is in the clear daylight; to ultimately see for myself if it fades or is questionable in the light or becomes more true and alive to me without my manipulating it. I have learned that writing it is intimately tied to being able to live it as something beautiful. Neither living it nor writing it is possible without the other and there is no place for the wonder otherwise. If it doesn't work, it must be put away. Writing it is how one comes to realize what it is and what it is worth. It has been a long, private existence sometimes tested in the waters around me; the respect, nurture and valuing it requires, I realize now, though, is my own. Looking back I have asked myself if what I knew to be true could be attributed to an inner-state during a family in turmoil and my need to heal and fix what was "wrong." I have found that what I knew goes far deeper than this for me, that it was being able to look beyond those troubles to a way of being I knew existed apart from those experiences and that did not match up with most beliefs. I was aware it was something very special because it held resonance both inside and out. Sometimes I could see people see it. There was a feeling one got, a deep impression in interaction. I delighted when that happened. ("You see," I would think, "there's something wonderful!") Beyond these sometimes interactions, the fact that it also happened serendipitously outside of my mind also helped me to see that it wasn't just me or about me, that the feeling I knew matched a true and present wonder. I desperately wanted to follow it to see what it is. That is where I am today, putting it into the light for myself to see what about it is true.
I live with a constant presence of serendipity. It has always been this way for me, even before I was born. Of course it is much larger than serendipity, but that is a good place to start in giving it words. The word importantly implies a kind of delight. All of my life the wildest occurrences have amazingly networked—without a break in the perfection—to make it a first-hand experience of this wonder. It is on these occasions when the inside and outside experience match and I want to share it with someone and say, "Look at this, isn't it wonderful?" While this can be fun for a moment, it does not actually readily translate to anything meaningful. That has been one sadness of my life—feeling a joy and no one to share it with. And so on to write it now.
One important thing is that, while it has made life more beautiful, it has not made life easier. Being deep in thought about things has been in many ways alienating. The realizations haven't healed loneliness or stopped pain or tragedy or allowed me to stop or heal others' struggles or pains. Life has remained what it is: sorrow and loss. To stop that would be to stop becoming; to accept it is to be a part of all that is, not above it or beneath it, less or more, but a part of it and an opportunity to be. Vulnerability is required. There is nothing greater than that participation. It is to become one with everything, alive with everything and for everything to be alive. Over the years I have learned what was too difficult turned out to be a shaping and a re-directing. It was always a fire defining what was real from what isn't and in that process bringing up new or killing doubt within me and no one else. I've had help from truly beautiful people, but it is necessarily a lonely task to figure out what one is made of and what to do with existence. It has definitely been more about loss than any kind of gain. Still, beyond this level of the struggles of life, within that loss is a participation with a universe far grander and present than readily seen and an immense joy in getting to see it.
The things of wonder are of what couldn’t possibly be true to anyone else but every time they reveal something to me more true than what persistently tries to appear real (but proves not to have been real at all: if it burns up in the fire, it never was.) All of this, though, has been the strangest and greatest challenge: to put the right words to this experience, finally, and to arrive at the time where nothing else can be done but express it: a moment arrived seamlessly and perfectly in time while also being my own personal chess-game moment of "check." Time has seemed to get away from me in my struggle (but how could I have written it before now?) and I worried, how will I ever say it and to whom? It had repeatedly crushed me when I couldn’t articulate the inside to the outside in a way that actually liberated what I felt and knew was a different way of being that is not recognized or readily accepted. While I sometimes said it, it only made things harder. I’ve gotten excited about books that touch on it and I want to jump for joy and tell someone, “Look at this book!” and every one is still looking at me like it means very little. I tried and tried to get my family and friends to see, to understand and to find joy and to help me take the path, let me go, come along with me or to stay with them and try to forge the path in a personally compromised way. The immense frustration: Say what IT is and live it. If it’s real, live it. Fight for it. Endure for it. Stop trying to convince anyone of anything. In fact in this struggle I’ve quite hidden behind it hoping people will guess, which is a losing game since those around me have little idea what the game is we are playing and no idea why they should play along. It’s like playing charades and drawing pictures of something they’ve never seen and expecting that they’ll eventually guess what it is. “Don’t you see it, don’t you see it?” and I’m jumping up and down. My friends and family grew very tired of the game. It has worn thin. They all needed and wanted results. It is as if they say, “Well, if it is magic, let us see it. Do something with it. Make it work. Or give it up."
Teaching is an incredible, intensive way to learn and in teaching literature I did get to express my excitement and passion. I was happy talking about it. I loved showing how the books opened up to everything. I loved seeing it light up. While there were wonderful successes, it didn't feel that I was living what I was supposed to try, as if I was still holding back, and it was that elusive path of the creative I thought was the answer. As always, the answer was deeper and scarier than I imagined. Risking the creative life meant letting go of what is accepted as security. While I had wiled away the hours even since high school writing screenplays, it wasn't until living by myself on a ranch in Southwest Texas that I became immersed in writing and creating. I thought that I would write and direct film, create on the screen these stories and that would be the outlet: let it live on the screen. Even that didn't quite feel like it was a complete picture. Writing, acting, and directing was something I'd done for years in the community and in Austin and it was my best effort at finding a direction. Still, my hope was to bring it to life, to stop being hidden inside myself and somehow embrace that I don't think or operate like other people and it isn't to sabotage life, alienate family, get attention, be somebody or even done on purpose. So the answer seemed to be to direct movies and help stories come to life. The thing is, though, that this wonder can't be underestimated. It has made me cry in the process, but it's way bigger than my own brain's imagination. It laughs at what I see as road blocks or limits but it doesn't remove them for me: that's the shaping. And the hard-won truth remains simple: it always comes to life when I write honestly, not about human happenings, but from the deepest recesses. It was when I did that one act starting back in 2010 when I opened it up and wrote, "There's magic," that it started becoming liberated. In writing from a deeply honest, unabated and wide-open place, existence has been about becoming, not in any way tucked away, but alive and real, and the wonder, clearly not limited to the page. There are endless ways I could show it coming to life, but the subject here is putting the wonder itself on display.
The venue was waiting, and wonderfully, it was waiting for years and in perfect order traceable from incredible directions. In law, a venue is defined as "the county or place where the jury is gathered and the cause tried." In German, my last name Richter means "judge" and I know that essentially for my own life, both the presentation of the pleadings and the decision come down to me. The "venue" has several more meanings: it is here in this literary journal that came to me from long, phenomenal culminations both outside of my life and in a culmination of my own life-long quest in books and a long affinity to anything writing; the venue is also here in the Southwestern United States, this place where ideas move to come alive and universal liberation seeks its shore; it is also in a personal way, the meaning of my first name, Shiloh, which in Biblical translations means "place of peace." A close minister friend of mine, Judy Shema, translated it upon first meeting me as one of the places of protection or "place of safety" where one could be without action or harm while a trial was pending in ancient Israel. It is a place of peace from outside opinion.
I have written here some about the history of this book journal, Books of the Southwest, founded in Los Angeles in 1957 by southwestern author Lawrence Clark Powell, and of the culminating literary milieu in California in which the journal was begun. Powell was close friends with the before-hand censored Henry Miller who then came to live nearby in California, and also a life-long friend of the culinary author M.F.K. Fisher, even having lived next door to her for many years in Laguna Beach, California, and have moved to France near her to complete his doctoral studies. And while this year marked the 57th year of the journal, mirroring its origination date, it turns out that other years were also important to what was developing for the journal and on the cusp in California. It has been part of the wonder to me to see that happen. I have often looked at moments in history to see what was happening and where it was going and trace them to a whole which shows an order. While the movements in history are much written about, it is the extraordinary way in which numbers lined up to me that became a way to see and finally express the wonder visible and recognizable—outside of myself. Spirit of places and times seemed alive to me, but more importantly, this started mirroring a way to express what had been inexpressible. It became a way to show that I wasn't only dreaming or lost in a beautiful mind; it was free from my control. This was not limited to year numbers or places, but was visibly confirming what I knew to be true. It also became a way to say things without much condemnation. More and more over time, though, while I needed it to communicate something wonderful and extraordinary, it was confirmation to me that I wasn't wrong and that I should take the path of my own life, even when it was the most threatening and scary. It was expressed enough to know that I could not ignore it and that I couldn't mind the dragons breathing fire on both sides of the gate. In mythology, in this kind of letting go and re-centering trust outside of oneself into this wonder, the dragons simply dissolve. It is "sacrificing the fears . . . to that which spiritually supports the body . . . learning to know and express its own deepest life in the field of time . . . " (The Power of Myth 148).
Joseph Campbell describes the pinning up, the "nailed down" insides:
But the dragon of our western tales tries to collect and keep everything for [herself]. In this secret cave [she] guards things: heaps of gold and perhaps a captured virgin. [She] doesn't know what to do with either, so [she] just guards and keeps. There are people like that, and we call them creeps. There's no life from them, no giving. They just glue themselves to you and hang around and try to suck out of you their life (150).
It has helped me let go of people's judgements and opinions and come to write here on the journal. Of course this also includes supportive people coming along at the right time in each others' paths, providing Ariadne's thread. Campbell describes how it is a particular western aim to find individual potential and when it comes out of "our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities," that is how we give our individual gifts to the world (151).
And so I will tell you about some background of how I came to start seeing this wonder happening that I have felt so deeply inside. My mother had gone to school with "the most beautiful girl" named Shiloh at Arsenal Technical in Indianapolis, but the name Shiloh is also in the Bible and is the name of a bloody Civil War battle (fought April 6-7, 1862). The verse in the Bible is Genesis 49:10, and says, "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be" (King James Version). Not only my first name is there and my last name (the "lawgiver"), but also my birthdate of 7.10.70 is in that particular scripture verse numbers with 7 x 7 being 49 and the 10th day. (I like how there are references to a transition of the phallic symbol, too). When I was little I noticed that my name upside down makes the numbers: 407145. Playing with those numbers, I came up with variation after variation showing my birthdate being both in the name and in the numbers of the scripture verse: 7.10.70 is right in the three numbers the middle (071) with 49 on the outside numbers. 1049 is the number of the road leading to the ranch where I began writing about this. The dates of April 7, 14-15, are in my name and I noticed the other day that in European format it is the U.S. Independence Day, 4 July, 14-15. It has been odd to realize now looking at those dates that this last year, the year of those dates, because of circumstance, have been spent alone from family and friends and with a concentration on finally writing. While these are radical examples, extraordinary things come up in daily life. This year, I am the age of the year my dad was born, 44, and he is the age of the year I was born, 70. The list in endless, and there are extraordinary stories.
So, when I walked into the bookstore in the mountain village of Ruidoso, New Mexico, on a muddy snowy day after coming down from my home in the Sierra Blanca mountains needing a book to write about, the fact that the one most prominently displayed inside the door being Luke Barr’s Provence, 1970: M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste was a delight to find at the precise right moment, but not completely unexpected. I was born in 1970 and Provence and France have played a role in my life from the beginning with my mother loving many aspects of it. Luke Barr's book is about a major shift in time in American cultural life, particularly in its cuisine. My mother has always been the most outstanding chef I've ever known and whose dishes stun everyone who tastes them. No one dares go up against her in the kitchen. She creates perfection. There would be no sense in trying. In fact, she won't let anyone in the kitchen with her. Barr's book is about the main cultural characters, who played a role in the shift of the expression of American cuisine as distinctly coming into its own from beneath the shadow of France. (And I know it to be no coincidence that my mother's given name was Frances before she altered it.) The book is also about the culinary/literary writer M.F.K. Fisher, the author's great-aunt, her experience in Provence in 1970, and in her coming home to what she called her Last House in Sonoma County, California, and the major transition that occurred at this time for her to find her independent voice that would be distinctly American.
There at are our home in Amelia in 1970 was where I would have my First House (not quite yet built), right out our back door in a long back yard, at the same time M.F.'s Last House was being built and as she was preparing to leave for Provence during its construction. My first house that was my own would be a hand-built grayish-blue life-size playhouse with hand-built wooden dining room table and chairs, windows and an upstairs loft built by my dad. Even at three, I longed to actually live in it. It may be that these homes were the security we felt in ourselves and it would take me years to find that belonging feeling again. The coming transitions, though, would be leading the same way.
When I was four years old, in 1974, my family gave away all of our belongings and sold our home, including my first house. I remember giving away Raggedy Ann and Andy. We took not only the proverbial road west, and all the intense hoping and the immensity of the unknown that that implies, but also the literal highway, making it half-way across the continent to our primary destination, Fort Worth, Texas. The point was a more spiritual existence. The move, this major transition, was about living a different existence, about fulfilling destiny, coming into knowing fully the potentiality of what we could do. It was also about giving. My parents wanted to give all they could to make a difference. That was the thing: it needed to be different. We would give it all we had--everything, including our belongings, our selves, our futures, our lives.
It is a glorious thing to come into the ability to write. It takes quiet, pent up years to know the allusive alchemy of it. It has alluded me as long as my own self has alluded me; there hasn't been a second's difference. I look back now at a childhood of scribbling nervously on paper, determined that the act of the pencil could express what I was certain of and give the completeness. I discovered after a long time that the missing element in the alchemy is this: surprises, and the subsequent all-consuming transformations. Words give the depth of the moment; they do require mastery. The still life in a museum offers beauty up, captured, to be realized. Character and experience lie outside of this, opportunities for the shaping into the ultimate beautiful: a living creature. The universe as shaper defies the expectations and the imagination and each new element of the alchemy causes a change with a perfection that continually, unexpectedly broadens the scope. We want to know that moment of the still life; it brings realization. It, as James Joyce says, "delights the heart and enchants the mind." But the spirit, expandable, is what gives the living, breathing masterpiece that changes everything, and that is the reason to take the extra step.
My family's first home in Amelia, Ohio, right outside of Cincinnati where I was born in July 1970, was immaculately decorated with light blue French Provincial furniture and classic art. Music was also central with the piano. My dad had worked in a factory, Cincinnati Milacron, since he was eighteen. He was young, beautiful and bursting with talent and abilities with a clear, powerful and very beautiful tenor voice. He made a Christian album entitled Face to Face and I thought through the beauty of it and his life and talents. I remember being there while it was recorded. All of the efforts meant something to me. He had a weight room and workshop in the garage where he sculpted gorgeous muscles and built amazing things. I was raised to know how hard raising children and giving up one's life to the factory was to the human soul. I understood. My mother had been raised in volatile, abusive situations with a hostile, alcoholic mother, and had been taken in and out of foster homes her whole childhood and met my father when they both were fifteen. She was determined to do things differently with her own children, even when feeling that her own life had been damaged and limited. And so, with my older brother, it was the four of us who would try to figure out the intense struggle of what to do about life. For my brother and I, it was learning, and in particular, my mother longed to have the standards of the classical ideal of which she had completely missed out on: that which is beautiful through language, art, music, and books. She wanted us to be absolutely beautiful on the inside. And in order to have the highest human values, our small family was dedicated to church and to giving there all we could. My mother also had an intense need and desire to help the poor and vulnerable which she still has to this day. Because of this, we also had a very bohemian upbringing. All the bases were covered, values wise. My mother gave her whole self to it.
For the chefs and writers in his book Provence, 1970: M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, Luke Barr writes of a transitional moment in the lives and careers of this small group of chefs, friends and writers that took place in December 1970 that would not only change their lives but ultimately the American culinary landscape. What seems insignificant—a group of friends/chefs getting together for an informal winter break in Southeastern France—became an internal impasse for at least two of those present: Julia Child, a very popular American personality by that time, and M.F.K. Fisher, a literary culinary writer. While Barr shows the personal moments of these transitions in this shift away from the "judgements, discernments, pronouncements" of the French establishment, the answer is, surprisingly, a movement towards the significance of these lone, individual voices. There on the coast of California where food and wine was taking a shift to being more locally grown and prepared, it was also importantly taking on aspects of broadening to be more inclusive and global. In this trajectory, almost imperceptibly, the spirit of the freedom of the individual can be seen in motion, opening. It was the opportunity to write free from restrictions.
Transition itself was in the air in 1970, as Barr points out in his book, and felt in many ways such as in women's and civil rights, and it is in that winter in 1970 that the change started taking hold in the lives of M.F., Julia Child, James Beard, and Richard Olney, the American culinary writers shaping American cuisine and thoughts about food and lifestyle. This thought and influence encompasses the consideration of where the food comes from, who is capable of making it, the spirit in which it is made and then also, importantly, the spirit in which it is taken and enjoyed. Inadvertently, this would also mean the boundaries around such ideas concerning food and experiences, including opening these exclusionary boundaries and putting it in the hands of people not deemed appropriate or capable. This opening of boundaries is indicative of larger things, even as the small meals are microcosms of larger shifts. The transition in their lives began happening when the individual voices were met with rigid, exclusive standards and insular opinions experienced at different meals the friends shared and was represented not only in the preparation of the food (and outside of this, the writing of articles or recipes), but then also in the spirit of conversation during the meals and the spirit of the meals themselves. For M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote groundbreaking, sensuous writings about food and love dating back to the 1930s and who "captured the drama of food, its emotional context" it was partly the stifling arrogance, criticism and air of superiority of the French attitude from which she knew she would have to take an independent step. Being in France she was struck again and again by the rigidity and insularity of importance. She loved Provence and had wanted to continue writing about the nostalgia she felt for it, but in her life in California, a different feeling was calling. She was also closely involved in the changes and movements in America, from the civil rights to the improvements of wine, and felt the importance of the changing difference.
Being exquisitely sensitive to experience and moving moments, during one of the dinners in Provence when the subject needed to change away from the stifling superiority, M.F. told of a lunch that portrays not only the difference in the meals, but also what was importantly happening in America. It is a gorgeous, small moment. She was trying to find if those present there in Provence were interested in the civil rights movement, the antipoverty movement, the student movement (164). She tells of an impromptu party at her home in St. Helena with the black activist Paul Cobb who had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and was the head of the antipoverty program at Berkeley. His sister, Mary Cobb was also at the lunch. According to Barr, M.F. herself had gone to teach literature and composition at Piney Woods, a boarding school for black children in Mississippi in 1964, during the "Freedom Summer" and the 1960s politics had become for her "tangible and personal" (164). At this lunch Mary Cobb, "black as coal . . . tiny, but with a big, exciting voice . . . just put back her head and let it flow . . . a lot of freedom songs . . ." For M.F.. this experience was riveting in its singular powerfulness and she described "hardly breathing" as Mary sang. It is a moment telling of the individual voice. How disjunct this moment was with its reception in Provence would solidify the difference of outlooks to M.F. While it had excited M.F. and she was stirred by it, it was of no importance whatsoever to the more French-minded at this dinner.
Likewise, Julia Child, already a very popular American personality by that time, would also come to a personal impasse against the overbearing rigidity against her as an American. The judgements against her even from Richard Olney, a fellow chef who considered himself more of a French cuisine expert, were that "her recipes were clumsy, inelegant, and inauthentic." He had a "lack of respect" for her in that "she wrote for 'beginners.'" But the need was already present for her to go back to America and work in her independent voice. Getting out from underneath the control and opinions was the transition to blossoming into doing what she so dearly loved to do.
In reading Barr's book I was curious about what the transition for these authors led to, after leaving their time in Provence with its exclusionary standards and perfections in order to express their insights and do so in the very different spirit of place in America, and especially for M.F. in California. I had recently left Texas after reaching a personal impasse of my own at feeling the insular and controlling beliefs about my long and deeply-held passions that have always been a part of me. I wanted to know in the reading what could then be seen in the changes in their lives and writing and consequently because of their work, the change in culture that was now, after that moment, becoming distinctly American, independent, and possibly even demonstratively better as a way of life. I knew that was as unspeakable and unimaginable from the French perspective as it was with my own family in Texas. In my own experience, too, in others' opinions I was leaving the very best for what could not even be categorized as living. The assumption was that I had not also given my life to working, thinking, reading, experiencing and coming to know. In the pages of his book Barr shows even then the perception of Americans were that they were "vulgar" (49) and incapable of anything of quality or worthwhile.
Impressions between the American and the French, as is widely-known, are long-held differences. The French know their language to be excellent, superior, and in many ways its nuances far exceed English's reaches. French women are not known for "selling" themselves, even the Moulin Rouge in the red light district is more cultured than that. They do not suffer the growing pains of getting past the puritanical views about women's bodies. They just are. French women's appearances, as can be seen in fashion magazines, are not surface. I have read many times, for example, that they take care, rather than try to "look" a part, skin care being more important than makeup. American women, in contrast, are commonly seen world-wide as "cheap and easy." They are known to be, generally-speaking, uncultured. French men do not ordinarily readily aim to marry American women. So for what Julia Child was doing, teaching American housewives to cook French food, while she was well-liked in America, her groundings in France by the French and the food establishment were assumed to be the basis and limits of her abilities. To them, her compliance to that is what mattered. The French were the superior chefs and anything apart from that was much less and beneath them. The French knew themselves to be superior in all aspects of life, love and lifestyle. To them Americans are about surface and money without class and direly lack in qualities. There is no contest.
For my mother, the standards were such that I would never have to "sell" myself. She did not want me to have to marry or have children. She wanted me to have a creative future with any possibilities that I chose. While she is an excellent chef, I was never allowed into the kitchen because she did not want me to have to be domestic. She had higher hopes for me. After a lifetime of being exposed to the best my mother could offer me with her impeccable style, the French and English languages, history, books . . . we took a trip to Paris in December 2002. The haughtiness of the French was abruptly shocking. (By that time we were friendly Texans.) All that we loved about the culture was tinted and there was no desire to return. My mother was a better cook than any food we tasted, and yet waiters acted as if we had crawled in from the gutter in the street and at times completely refused to serve us, ignoring our presences. We constantly had the French angry at us and they yelled at us, "It is not done!" My mother is a free-spirit and it was funny watching how different she was from them. She is intrepid, vivacious and alive and they found her very presence despicable. They hated us in their shops; they stopped me to correct my language. We would be laughing and we would get scolding looks. We were complete opposites from them. I spent most of the time there walking around by myself in the museums and graveyards away from the establishments while my mother stayed at the hotel. I returned home to my wide open ranch in Texas and could finally breathe. It meant being able to do things independently again and without all that rigid uprightness that was so constraining. I wondered how the French could lay claim to liberty when their manners were critical and heavy and with the very old culture, death hung in the air. If they had mastered the art of life, they had not mastered freedom.
So to imagine the happenings that caused the transition for M.F. and Julia Child in 1970 was not a far stretch for me. What they would now go on to was the question. In reading Barr's book I also wanted to discover what has happened since this transition in 1970 that shows the necessary trajectory of thought and development to this moment. I could see the necessity for returning home to California, but what would it mean for the transition in America?
As with these chefs/authors, my experience had been formed with a view to having high standards with the intent to create a different experience of life and for that to conform always with the intense care and attention that set it apart from the lack of standards of outside culture. The surrounding perspective around me was that the standards were only possible within that family configuration and with their choices and beliefs, just as the French chefs perceived their American counterparts: to remove the "France" would be to remove the ability to be anything of value. Independence is regarded as standard-less, narcissistic, and throwing oneself away. To them, leaving that behind meant leaving behind the basis of all that was viewed as the definition of authentic authority and perfection with the goal being to surrender oneself to this already complete answer. To break with that means to do everything wrong. While in Barr's book the question is France and the transition away from it, the question is also "What could be truly independent, inclusive, bold in a new direction and arrive to something after leaving behind the judgement of that line of thinking?" In reading this book I wanted to know how Luke Barr would articulate the transition M.F. and the others felt in returning to America and then how he would show what then became expressed in both their lives and in their writings, relationships and creations.
As unimportant as culinary practices might seem in regards to a larger picture, M.F. and Julia Child, both women from California, were writing and giving voice to how to experience daily life in America and were now coming back from Provence knowing there had to be a new, independent step. It is in daily life when the changes occur and in this book reading about a meal shows how seemingly small moments are the elements of larger importance and informed by the larger scope. When this is put together with what else was importantly emerging, in the political expressions in Berkeley, for example, the question becomes what to do with American existence that is seen as gross, uncultured, and pointless to the rest of the world. What could be more mundane and crass than writing for American housewives? M.F. herself wrote that she felt fatalistic about her future. While it seems disconnected, the connections show that the question is the same across all of the endeavors. Being back at the place of the United States' forefront of American daily life, and knowing that they had now to give individual expression to it, they were aware they had to give voice to the change. The classical ideal of France had brought them this far and here they were back where the spirit of place and time were requiring that they simply speak on their own—there would be no other way. This seemingly slight movement doesn't carry the weight of thought of an established French culture on the Provincial landscape, but now the interiority is wide open and not controlled. It is this clear step into freedom of expression with an understanding of the rules and standards and now, independently into this new terrain.
Interestingly, it is this combination of culture and spirit that American writer Willa Cather brought together—also in the American Southwest—when she set two cultured French priests into the wilds of primitive New Mexico in her 1927 narrative Death Comes for the Archbishop. Importantly, they are priests, not only representing culture, but also the spiritual aspect. They come from erudite upbringings where now the experience of the senses is set against a stark background. The realization that she comes to is stunning and that does carry the weight and shift the movement of the spirit of individual experience to the forefront of America, and what is more, to the rugged, stripped-down existence of the Southwest that requires the truth of the individual experience. Even in unthinkable fashion, Cather delivers Rome itself here and "the first Romanesque church in the new world" (Byatt xiv-xv). She brings this combination of religion with the culture of France—the world of food, art and wine, here in these two devoutly religious men and tries them on the unrelenting landscape that lets nothing stand but the human spirit.
In the opening pages of Death Comes for the Archbishop the bishops having an exquisite dinner and very particular wine outdoors with a stunning view overlooking Rome and St. Peter's on the Italian countryside. In a very subtle yet fortuitous description Cather describes a sunset that happens "when the vehemence of the sun suggested motion. The light was full of action and had a peculiar quality of climax—of splendid finish" (3). It is a comment on the setting sun, the end of a era, and a description of the personality of a wine. All of this is even while they do not want bothered by such unimportant topics as the wild and unruly Southwest. It hardly matters to them what to do with the dioceses there. When taken with dialogue within that same meal, these words take on much deeper meaning. Bishop Ferrand, who is there for a purpose, "ate more rapidly than the others and had plenty of time to plead his cause" so much so that "the Frenchman remarked he would have been an ideal dinner companion for Napoleon" (5). What is said next at the dinner finishes these three instances of references not just to the ending of a meal and a conquerer, but also to the new beginning when Bishop Ferrand says:
Likely enough I have forgot my manners. I am preoccupied. Here you can scarcely understand what it means that the United States has annexed that enormous territory which was the cradle of the Faith in the New World. The Vicarate of New Mexico will be in a few years raised to an Episcopal See, with jurisdiction over a country larger than Central and Western Europe, barring Russia. The Bishop of that See will direct the beginning of momentous things (5).
The response is important: "'Beginnings,' murmured the Venetian, 'there have been so many. But nothing ever comes from over there but trouble and appeals for money.'" It is during this one meal and conversation where the ultimate realization of the novel shows the shift from the old world to the American Southwest. Cather transitions both religion—the "universal" Catholic church—and French conquest in her mentioning of Napoleon, to what realization will come at the end of her novel. And likewise, she references the impeccable manners when Ferrand says, " . . . I have forgot my [unforgettable French] manners."
At the end of the novel, after a lifetime in New Mexico, instead of the success of having applied the structures of religion upon the people and terrain, the effects are conversely of the Southwest upon Bishop Latour and have gone deeper than culture and standards and made him stand alone is his own consciousness: "The mistakes of his life seemed unimportant . . . he sat in the middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown. They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible." Latour has let the calendar go, but he also no longer agrees with the displacement of the Native Americans and sees a "superior strength in them. There was purpose and conviction behind their inscrutable reserve." It is as if the landscape itself is looking at him. The character of place cannot be denied. While the Europeans had the "desire to 'master' nature,' "It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it" (xv). Latour's consciousness as a man is laid bare. His individual awareness now offers the closing vision of his life: He returns to a deciding moment with Father Valliant that isn't really a decision at all:
He continued to murmur, to move his hands a little, and Magdalena thought he was trying to ask for something, or to tell them something. But in reality the Bishop was not there at all; he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. He was trying to forge a new Will in that devout and exhausted priest; and the time was short, for the diligence for Paris was already rumbling down the mountain gorge (237).
The transition to the Southwest is the turning point and, although there is an internal struggle, it was not a choice. It was always in the making: the diligence that is coming is both a train with its movement of human progression and a natural river; it is the arrival to the point of consciousness where LaTour arrives in his final days. He even knows the arrival of this natural movement when he thinks about how he had "lived to see the railway trains running into Santa Fé. He had accomplished an historic period" (217). In 1927, in the midst of the beginnings of women's suffrage and the "flappers" and two years after Virginia Woolf showed the immense life-affirming qualities of a woman in the face of the disillusionment of war having a small party, Cather gave us this insight of place, not as an ending, but now as our own starting point of the experience of the Southwest in that it liberates the internal. While Archbishop Latour can choose to spend his final days in his home village in the mountains in France, he instead chooses New Mexico and it is about spirit of place along with the profound difference in the internal landscape there, as Cather describes:
In New Mexico, he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one's body feel light and one's heart cry "Today, today", like a child's.
Beautiful surroundings, the society of learned men, the charm of noble women, the graces of art, could not make up for the loss of those light-hearted mornings of the desert for that wind that made one a boy again . . . one could only breathe that brightness on the edges of the world, on the great grass plains or the sage-brush desert.
. . . He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning! (218-219).
Where the sun had been setting in Rome at the beginning of the novel, here LaTour finds it rising—in his own soul. Latour's metamorphosis and Cather's writing mirrors the true experience of wonder, even at the beginning as Latour first comes upon the Cruciform tree and at the end when he remembers listening to stories from other priests from lower California about "the blessed experiences of the early Franciscan missionaries" and how "their way through the wilderness had blossomed with little miracles." That she had her priests at the beginning of the novel, like my own life, travel from Cincinnati to the Gulf of Mexico and up to New Mexico where I am now is part of the wonder to me.
Like the bishops' dinner in Rome in Cather's novel, it is a small moment in time that Luke Barr marks in December 1970 in Provence in his book as the transition when these friends lives came together and the showing of the precise meals and conversations that were the moments of their internal shifts could easily have gone by without much notice and remain insignificant in thought. Reading a book about the menus these friends ate and the specific wines they drank with each course feels like a quaint way to discover these chefs in intimate moments. Luke Barr takes it further and pulls conversations, impressions, and thoughts directly from their individual letters and journals written at the time—much like Cather did from actual documents—and reconstructs the moment that each knew their lives were shifting and that there could be no turning back, only a going forward into what would rely completely on their own individual voices, not as the purveyors of French Culture anymore, but as individuals in a nascent culinary landscape.
The effects are the opposite of what is expected: the landscape frees the individual, just as France had kept it locked, and as Bishop Latour stands at the end of his life not as a religion, but as realizing his own bare consciousness. It is a momentous change, as Cather predicted in her opening pages: the individual now has the effect upon religion and culture instead of vice versa. The human spirit stands bare, now one in understanding with the landscape he has worked to alter. The spirit of place has acted upon him instead. For M.F., she was also walking into the unknown but felt the powerful pull of the individual experience and the requirement to write it. While in Provence, one of the friends where she was staying was writing the biography of Aldous Huxley, the author of The Doors of Perception. The owner of the estate was the founder of a literary journal responsible for bringing Virginia Woolf's writing, among others, to France. M.F. was continuing her long distance relationship with Arnold Gringrich, the founding editor of Esquire and Hemingway's and Fitzgerald's editor. Another chef present, James Beard, had lived across the road from Ernest and Hadley Hemingway in Paris in the early 1920s, the days from which Hemingway would later write A Moveable Feast about all that which he loved of the time in Paris and and the parts of it he could take with him. The return to California for M.F. was not without its being a small, momentous occasion—in the quiet way that momentous things occur, with large internal transitions. She would go back to her close friendship with Lawrence Clark Powell who was quietly writing, collecting and expressing the Southwest here in this journal, and his friend Henry Miller, who had challenged all the rules of containment while in France, was nearby exploring a different kind of individual freedom, now not fighting constraints, but the individual voice free as never before.
The requirement? To write the real. To become stripped bare and starting at the point where the literary Southwest has expressed the most momentous internal transitions to this momentous opportunity here. The greatest minds who contemplated it, having known the establishment, still spoke to the truths of what this next step means. Cather, a woman writing in the 1920s and in one small novel, brought Catholicism and the most refined and advanced European culture, and with it all of its history of the best of Western civilization, to this natural transition and by the end of the novel expressed the most profound change: start on the bare conscious landscape, set free the human spirit, and write it. Carl Jung found an ultimate truth in coming to this same place. He wrote that in our small rituals we can offer back something which is "necessary even to [the universe]." These small, momentous rituals are our "answer . . . 'activating,' a form of magic coercion." We are to formulate a valid reply to this unknown wonder of being that is both inside and out and in that have the "enviable serenity . . . [where] such a man is in the fullest sense of the word in his proper place" (Hillerman 43).
While I was waiting for Barr's book Provence, 1970 to come from the publisher for review, I re-read A.S. Byatt's introduction to Death Comes for the Archbishop. She wrote of how Cather loved Provence and was writing a book about it when she died. It was an interesting moment to realize another legacy was in the thought: Cather writing of Provence upon her death and me waiting for the book with the year of my birth to arrive. It was if she was sending it to me, ℅ Editor, Books of the Southwest, our beginning and endings meeting and in that a continuation, somehow touching.
What is delivered here is not an emptiness, but the continuation of a phenomenally rich culture of civilizations and religions, Christianity along with the ancient Greek ideals having played out across the centuries and arrived at the point of the transition of the human spirit, not chosen, but because it has to open up—both the train and the river are here. Withholding its ideas and definitions and opinions in restrictions of what can be puts the human mind and human-made institution in charge of something much bigger than itself and restrains even that life itself, locking it in its own prison to guard its pinned-up wealth—both internally and externally. The individual voice—bare and rid of intention and ego—finds itself wide open to the universe and finally able to speak freely and activates that source that is both within and without. Because the change is a shift in consciousness, bared of differences, the symbol of this in society is the female that represents all, not just one. Her "otherness," disregarded by society as insignificant and incapable and overlooked at the meal in Rome, internally transitioning, quietly dissolves the boundaries set by the human restraint. The Romans did not care as much about perfection, excellence, completeness in their art, and what was out of sight did not matter. For the ancient Greeks however, completeness was key and their art spoke to this—the seen and the unseen. In French culture the symbol of liberty is Marianne and her spirit was brought to our own shores and faces this direction. It is here in the Southwest where she takes on life in creation. Freedom is not meant solely for commercialism, but for the human spirit. The act of writing and creating allows consciousness to arrive in its own time, be it the writer or reader, the actor or audience. Either way, it is the act of the lone individual freed from constraints and in full expression of the unseen inner potentiality that unites—both within and without—and makes the difference.
For me it has come to mean that the natural state that I always knew is the unseen real, that which is overlooked: that inner-landscape that matches the universe and works in culture, humans and nature. Blocking it out and setting aside my acknowledgement and expression of it for the opinions of others led to hard, long lessons to finally arrive here. The years driven to search for what would make the difference and how the changing difference is the female were not out of place but a requirement in coming to know. It also makes it true the deep feelings I carried that it would one day be necessary. To fail to recognize that would be to set aside one of the miracles of being. That it is real, spiritual, unbounded, and playful lets me see my own passions as matching those of the universe that speaks, and that feels indescribable. What will we say back?