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I recently went back to the first post (well, almost the first) I wrote for this blog in April of last year. I was taken aback by the voice that comes through, so clearly mine, yet different, like that of a much younger me. I can hear the energy, curiosity, and eagerness that went along with going on new adventures, like having my own blog and writing creatively in English. In the posts of the month of May I sense some concern too as the move to Portugal approaches. Sixteen months later I am still in Portugal, pushing through the terrain of my father’s condition and the country’s financial decline – unfamiliar landscapes I was only half-prepared for.

I am grateful every single day for the beauty of the Porto sea shore and hand-painted boats (bright reds, blues, yellows); the narrow streets and carved granite walls; and the evening lights slowly covering the steep river banks. I love the filled restaurants, the packed theaters, the fabulous Music House. What I had not foreseen was the rawness of watching my father recede like a figure walking backwards into a blurred horizon. Or the quickly approaching death of my dear friend, Maria José, whose hand I hold as often and as long as I can, and as tightly as she can take it. Or the death a few weeks days ago of another dear friend, Isabel, who gathered those she loved dearly for a last meal before they could recover from the news of her diagnosis, and then left, quietly, in the early hours of the following day. I imagine the vineyard valley around her home sent out a sigh; she loved it so.

From the margins I had chosen for myself, which you find in the title and at the heart of this blog, I have been thrown into the eye of the storm. I feel less prepared than ever for the journey ahead for I am reminded that no amount of gear, ropes, or padded clothing can shield one from such falls.

‘Write, write,’ wrote Isabel in this blog, on my facebook wall, in private e-mails. She knew I was hesitant; I watched the waves, longed to dive in, but was so afraid. ‘Don’t give up,’ she wrote. Then she fell ill and left … and pushed me in.

I hope you understand why it is time to give this blog some rest and swim into deeper waters, write a longer work. At least for now, as Cathy Kozak once said, it is ‘over and out.’

A huge, warm ‘Thank You’ to all of you who read my posts, commented, and e-mailed. You are always welcome here. I hope we’ll meet again in a book or a collection of stories in a future I wish not too distant.
Clara

A messenger

sunset in Foz, Porto, Portugal

About a month ago (it feels like such a long time), when the sun reached high in the sky but did not yet warm the air, a sort of paralysis set into me.

On the surface, nothing changed. I was there for my father and gave final grades; I continued the gargantuan tasks of indexing the family library and organizing thousands of photographs; and I started making important decisions about what I can realistically pass on to my daughters and what must be auctioned, or given away.

You could say those are practical, necessary things I had to do. But I have also done things not strictly necessary, like write papers (yes, those I could write), travel to England to give a talk, meet with friends, see a movie or two (please do not miss Wenders’ Pina Bausch).

I have also kept my ability to feel, and felt deeply. What I seemed to have lost was the ability to write about it. I simply could not find the words to tell the sadness and the beauty I live in; perhaps there is too much of both.

In the meantime, the sun grew warmer and the people walking the streets changed. Tourists replaced the portuenses (the people of Porto), who emigrated to the warmer seas of the south for the month of August. For the past two days TV has shown images of highways streaked with winding lines of cars, stretching, they say, from the northern tip of the country to the southern. The city was transformed by foreign sounds coming from foreigners holding large cameras and peering at iphones for street map instructions.

Mensageiro, by Irene Vilar in Porto, Portugal

Only a year ago I was much like them (minus the iphone). I looked at my surroundings through a real, and an emotional, photo lens. Now, I’m the blurred figure walking past the blue and white tiles of the church they just photographed. A local, a stranger – that’s me, I thought, as I walked along Foz yesterday, the place where the sea and the river blur into each other, no longer one or the other, but something entirely its own. I arrived there on time (which in Portugal means I was early) to meet a friend, and so had time to see the evening spread against the sky, as in Prufrock.

Everything was infused with a golden tinge. I felt a stirring, an impulse to write it down, but how could I describe the glowing quality of the light without sounding corny? To make it worse – and I mean, of course, better – the long glass walls of the riverside restaurants reflected it back onto those who did not join the southward exodus: old couples holding on to each other for balance, a few joggers, and me. On the glass we became one long wave of molten gold, taking in the water, the boats, and the palm trees, and shimmering off the angel standing a few feet away.

I know this angel well. It was carved by Irene Vilar between 2001 and 2012. She called it “Mensageiro” (Messenger). I photographed it often through these last months, in different angles and light conditions. Yet yesterday it looked as if it had just come down and was still suspended against the water and the bridge. I came close enough to see the tiny, delicate flowers someone had left at its feet. Light streamed down its dark bronze cloak, and I felt a surge of boldness. “Please,” I said, “I would like to write again. Something, anything. Really, I’m not fussy,  just desperate. Thanks.”

 

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I have been thinking about a comment in reference to my mention of maids in Oh Mother. The comment struck a nerve, precisely because I have been tiptoeing around this subject.

It is difficult to write about it without sounding over-righteous, snobbish, or something in-between. Yet I cannot change the fact that I grew up in a household in Portugal where people other than my family did the household chores. And since I returned to my family home last year, I have been adjusting to having maids again. Their names are F. and C., and I have permission to mention them as long as I tell them what I say in a language they understand (it’s a promise!).

I don’t even know where to start on this. When I left at 18, F. was already working in the house. C. arrived only 10 years ago. Both have been devoted to my parents and I am forever grateful. They still take care of my father, the family home, the dogs … and now me and my dog too. But I keep making blunders in a set up that has been settled and comfortable for all of them for a very long time; and I keep showing signs of what I can only call inverted social snobbishness.

Here is an example of a major blunder: When I first arrived, I sometimes tried to fix myself something to eat. But the kitchen is F.’s domain; her self-worth is woven into the superior quality of her cooking (to which I am witness). Rummaging through the pantry to get ingredients for spagetti “my style” meant I was tap dancing all over her self-esteem.

It is harder to write about inverted social snobbishness because I am still confused about this whole thing. I guess we’re all confused around here. To F. and C., my life choices are incomprehensible and I hold threatening beliefs, like: a house doesn’t always have to be spotless and shirts can be worn without having been impeccably ironed. To me, their contentment is hard to grasp. For a while I found myself wishing they did not love their job; everything would be simpler, more in tune with my beliefs, if they didn’t. But wishing this made me feel uncomfortable (what kind of person wants someone to feel bad about her life?).

They will not indulge me, or do my any favors either. For a start, they would not trade places with me. I am a slave to deadlines, responsibility, and stress. “Slave” was the word F. used in a tone of compassion. She cannot imagine a fate worse than mine, and secretly pities my daughters, whose successful careers in the US confirm her suspicion that I turned them into stressed-out slaves just like myself.

On the other plate of the scale are their lives. Pay is good, they say; there is social security and a pension to look forward to; and they decide when to do what. I would add, from my own observations, that there’s no social stigma and plenty of affection. My father misses them when they’re not around, and F. is jealous of C., who lives in the house; she finds every possible reason to visit on a Saturday, bringing her grandson and her husband along to check on a loose doorknob or a leaky tap. It took me a while to get used to these “intrusions,” though I was the only one to feel this way about it. I no longer do.

I am also the only one who believes this arrangement is not universally good. Fortunately, I keep this belief to myself. I say fortunately because a few weeks ago, just before Portugal’s latest elections, I found out what they think of people like me, who are concerned about, say, the universal good. The choice was between Sócrates, the Prime Minister of the Socialist government that was in power for the past 6 years, and Passos Coelho, the head of the Social Democratic party (to my American friends: more to the center-right of the European political spectrum). As election day approached, F. and C. became more and more agitated. When Sócrates came on TV to make his final electoral speech, F. exploded.

“Soon we won’t have to listen to you anymore,” she mumbled to the TV set. “You’ll be gone, and good riddance.”

I was completely surprised. Hadn’t they always voted for the socialist party, I asked.

“I don’t know how he can show his face,” she said.

“But he’s a socialist,” I insisted. “He fights for things like your unemployment benefits, pensions…”

She was angry.

The new Prime-Minister

“Really! The country’s going to the dogs! And we’re going too. I only hope smart people will stop with the big ideas and vote against him.”

“Smart people?”

“It makes me mad to hear all those smart-talking people on TV going on about people’s rights. Will you please stop fighting for my rights, that’s what I want to say to them.”

“I see. I’d better vote for the right person then.”

“You’ll be voting?” she asked, alarmed.

“Yes, I think so. Why?”

“You’re American now. You vote there!”

“I can vote here too, you know. I am still Portuguese.”

“I see.” Clearly this was a worrying thought. “Just one thing: You need to be careful with the ballot. The party symbols look very much alike. You want to tick the right box.”

C. nodded. I nodded. Coelho won.

(In reference to a previous post, because so many readers were kind enough to offer advice – Flowers will be brought with some regularity. I will not be the one to bring them. We are both happy with the arrangement).

While pondering what to do, what to say (Yes, No, Yes, No?) to The Professor (previous post), I came upon the first paragraph of  The Second Bakery Attack by Haruki Murakami:

I’m still not sure I made the right choice when I told my wife about the bakery attack. But then, it might not have been a question of right and wrong. Which is to say that wrong choices can produce right results, and vice versa. I myself have adopted the position that, in fact, we never choose anything at all. Things happen. Or not.

Oh, Mother

About my Mother - University of Porto, Portugal

“Will you have a minute at the end?” whispered The Professor in my ear. He was sitting next to me in the auditorium where the third and final lecture in memory of my mother was about to start. The faces of her mentors and friends – Piaget, Inhelder, Klein, Trevarthan – were being projected on the screen. “There’s something I need to tell you,” he added.

I was curious. Perhaps he wanted to share memories of the time, the very long time he was a regular visitor at my parents. He was named The Professor by the cook, who complained to my mother he ate her croquettes before they were ready. Besides food, he loved Philosophy, Kant most of all, which he talked about continuously to students and anyone else who’d listen.

‘How have you been?” I asked him. He gave me his other ear and I repeated the question.

“Can’t get what people say these days – even in my own language!” he said. We laughed, remembering how upset he would become when my parents and their friends moved from philosophy to politics. French had become the language for anything political since the secret police had jailed a neighbor after receiving information from his maid. The Professor was not good with foreign languages, and insisted on going back to Portuguese.  “French isn’t safe either,” he argued. “Words like democracy and freedom sound too similar in our language.” By the time I was a teenager, I was convinced he had a point. French was not so hard. The secret police could easily find someone who understood the language to pose as a maid. Did he not think so, I asked one day.

“Harder to plant a maid than a bugging device,” he answered. “I bet there’s one somewhere.”

“What, in the house?”

“Oh, sure,” he said.

“OMG,” I thought, though not exactly in those terms as everyone was an atheist then; my father is the only one still carrying on that tradition.

University of Porto students/copyright @mariaclarapaulino

University of Porto students/copyright@mariaclarapaulino

In the auditorium the first speaker took the floor. The Professor leaned forward trying to hear. It was sad to think of him living on his own. I should visit him, listen to him again. The speaker finished, another one started, and then it was time for me to leave. The Professor came too. I helped him up the stairs and we walked together into the sunlight.

“So,” he said. He hesitated.

“Is everything alright?” I asked.

“Well, you know, not really. I have a request.”

“Yes?” I said, bracing myself. I had had half a day of intense emotion. I’d give anything for some light conversation.

“I loved your mother. No, wait, that’s not true. I love your mother.”

“Excuse me?” someone said. I think it was me, the me about to faint. The other me was busy Being Positive: You can deal with this, yes, you with your gorgeous grown-up daughters, your travels and nationalities, your cultural in-between-ness, your hundred ways to navigate an airport, your skyping, your loves and losses and successes, you. But the me about to faint just wanted to faint.

“Sorry, there was no other way to say this,” he went on. “Would you be kind enough to put flowers on your mother’s grave when I’m gone? I mean, on my behalf?”

So, that’s who they are from, the roses my father finds there almost every Sunday; they have become an on and off topic of conversation in the family.

“The roses – is that you?”

copyright @mariaclarapaulino

“Yes, but let me assure you, your mother never knew. I never interfered.” He looked thinner and frailer than minutes before.

“I don’t know what to say. Sorry. I need to think. There’s my father to consider.”

“Quite. You must think. But there’s very little time left.”

“I see.”

“You’ll let me know soon?”

“Soon, yes.”

“Thank you. Or shall I say, Merci?”

I had to smile. I hailed a taxi for him and saw him disappear in heavy traffic; young people in an open red bus went noisily by, celebrating Portugal and soccer. And all I could think was, Oh Mother!

"Eyes" by Louise Bourgeois, 1982, marble

“Can I get you something to drink? Coffee, soda?” he asked, getting up from the bench we’d been sharing in the hospital waiting room. He was there to see a friend, admitted the day before. I, as my readers will guess, was waiting for news of my father.

“How about a cup of tea?” he insisted. I hesitated. The vending machine was on the other side of the room and I had burnt myself before trying to get a steaming cup through a hole too small for human hands. I was about to suggest I’d get something for him instead, when he said, “I can manage.” I chose tea.

He walked with sure footsteps across the room, his cane lightly touching the floor, right and left and center, like an animal’s antennae. I watched the nurse watching him from behind the desk, hands on patients’ files, eyes on him, eyebrows arching in rhythm with his steps. She raised her head when he went round a column, and then again when two nurses came through the swinging doors, inches away from the tip of his cane. But he moved assuredly and efficiently. Coins soon clanked through the metal slit. Two drinks, two trips.

We sat side by side again sipping from our cups and talking. It is not often people strike a conversation in hospital waiting rooms. We avoid each other’s fears and hopes, try to keep our composure, knowing a word from a nurse may have us sobbing in the presence of strangers. We hold on to our privacy by staring at photos of Paris Hilton in magazines, or at the drama on the TV screen, though we do not follow the plot. At times we gaze at the blue walls with strange intensity; or we hide behind laptops like I had done that morning. I was trying to get some work done and might have succeeded if it wasn’t for the man sitting beside me. He was not pretending to read or watch TV; he was not quite staring at the wall either.

We’d been sitting there for some time when he exclaimed, “I was afraid this place would feel more claustrophobic.” He seemed to be talking to me. I looked up and saw his eyes moving erratically in their sockets. “Really?” was all I could think of saying. How does a blind person experience claustrophobic space?

Earlier in the week I’d listened to a radio program about blindness. A blind man told the journalist he had fallen in love with “a beautiful woman.” Here is what I remembered from that program:

“What do you mean when you say that?” the journalist asked.

“I mean I loved her smell. And her shape too, the shape of her body.”

“There was physical intimacy, then?”

“Oh no, it never got that far. But, I could see she had a beautiful body.”

“So, how did you see that? Did someone tell you?”

“No, I never talked about her. I saw by the way she moved.”

"Blind #14" by Sophie Calle, 1986

I kept thinking of this interview the following day as I discussed Sophie Calle’s Blind series with my students – the human eye, the eye of the camera, and what beauty means to someone who cannot see. Now at the hospital blindness crossed my path for the third time in a matter of days.

“I like wide, open spaces,” he continued. “They’re beautiful.”

Here’s this word again, I thought: Beautiful. I chose not to ask him about it though. Instead, I asked where he went when he wanted to be in an open space. The beach? The city park?

“A park isn’t open space, is it?” he answered. “Too many trees breathing, moving.”

“Moving? In the wind, you mean?”

“No. Have you ever touched a tree? They’re never still.”

“Oh.”

“I’m not keen on the beach either. It’s hard to walk on sand. The sea is too loud; it sounds like it’ll swallow everything up.”

“So, where do you find wide, open space in this city?”

“My house,” he said. “My friends too, like the friend I’m here to see. I can breathe when I’m with her.”

A nurse called out his name. He sprang up, said goodbye, and walked lightly down the hallway. I thought of opening my laptop, but decided to go for a walk instead. Outside, there were some trees. I wondered if they would move for me.

Beach café in Foz, Porto, Portugal (photo copyright @mariaclarapaulino)

Waves bloom into white froth, then fall, thinning out onto the shore; they play hide and seek with the crabs, sprinkle salty droplets everywhere. I lean against the beige and blue cushions of a Modernist sofa; like many others, this one sits on a layered wooden platform on the sand.

This is a Porto beach and the wind whips the sea hard; the waves rise higher, roll around themselves again and again, and crash against the rocks. Glued to the surface, mollusks sparkle as the waves subside and seagulls dive for tiny fish left in the water-filled crevices. Children run to the sea, and then away from it, giving out short shrieks. It looks so much fun.

And this is all I want: to be where fun happens. I will stay the whole one day. It is Saturday, after all. And it is the month of May.

To my right a young couple lean on mossy green cushions laid against an off-white sofa. The wind blows the pages of their newspapers but the waiter brings two softly rounded stones to  keep them still.

Drinks before lunch, beach café, Foz, Porto (photo copyright @mariaclarapaulino)

A little lower down, following the natural slope on the sand, a man sits under a white umbrella. I see his head from above: his salt and pepper hair almost touches his shoulders, but not quite. The hair falls perfectly around his skull, and I think of the high-end hairdressers along the street not too far behind us. This is Foz, after all – literally, the place where the river Douro meets the Atlantic and, also literally, the residential abode of old wealth. The world’s troubles dissolve in this cushion-filled beach.

It is but 15 minutes away, yet a world apart from my everyday life in Porto, a city of hard-working citizens whose labor drains into Portugal’s leaky vaults. There are graduates to supervise, workshops to organize, and teaching to do in the understaffed state university; there are traffic jams to sit in, suicidal drivers to keep away from, crowded hospitals to train skills in (the art of negotiation, patience, acceptance), and mirrors to avoid (yes, really; it has been a hard year)… But I have written about this before and I don’t wish to bore you.

... could be anywhere (photo copyright @mariaclarapaulino)

So, come back to Foz with me, where I will stay till the sun goes down. A tanned young man just placed a glass of white wine on the wooden table by my knees. Soon he will bring a salad of goat cheese and red pepper paste, Italian-style. Not much Portuguese traditional cuisine around here. Today I’m glad I can pretend this could be anywhere else in the world. It is Saturday and the sun is shining.

Around me people read, eat, drink, and talk to each other silently because the sea roars every sound away. I see a German shepherd and a Mexican Chihuahua. There is Brazil in some bikinis and Paris in high-heeled shoes; a mix of tanned and milky skins, young and older lovers, babies in strollers, toddlers kicking the sand and trying it for taste. There are long-haired teenagers next to grandmothers quick to loosen their bikini tops; and a man in long trunks has just dived into the sea; his oiled-up bronze skin shimmered in the sun before waves rolled over him.

Pity I can read everyone’s newspapers, though. There are headlines on Portugal’s bankruptcy, EU and IMF loans, 13% unemployed, Colombian doctors replacing Portuguese doctors, who are leaving in droves (where to, I wonder),  nursery school teachers applying for jobs in Madeira and Azores, Mozambique and Angola.

I wish everyone had left their newspapers home because this makes me think of my father and my loyalty struggles (to stay by him, or to go on with my life); and of my daughter S.’s recent visit. The look she gave me as her Portuguese childhood friends – well-qualified, multi-lingual young women holding a variety of MBAs, yet unemployed – mocked their maids’ uneducated accents spoke volumes.

I want to forget ... so I can write (photo copyright@mariaclarapaulino)

I want to forget. I can write if I forget. So let the sea and the wind wipe all memories clean, if only for a day. I will write a new blog post, perhaps, today. There will be time to see students, hold meetings, put on black robes for Ph.D. performances, wait in hospitals, dream of normalcy, struggle with doubts, be with friends. There will be time for all of that as soon as … well, Monday.

Now, the sea; now, the sand.

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