When I Get Back to Paris

The rain-soaked streets were quiet that evening. I don’t remember whether it was a weekday or weekend or whether it even mattered to anybody. I remember being excited to get to the Notre-Dame Cathedral and walk along the banks of the Seine, across its bridges and back again.

Before I reached the river, I spotted the peak of the Eiffel Tower shimmering in electric light over the rooftops to my left. I was hearing music too. People singing and guitars playing. Flames over stove tops and candlelight in restaurant windows. People were laughing, lovers young and old holding one another, kissing in the still, cold night.

Man I couldn’t believe it, but somehow this city was already turning out to be everything I ever imagined and hoped it would be, which was saying a lot.

Ever since that first evening I’ve found it difficult to write about Paris. It could have something to do with expectations and some inflated idea of what an account of my time there ought to be and sound like. Many have written of it and will continue to do so, and I’m not sure whether I have anything particularly novel to add to the ongoing conversation but I can try.

What surprised me about Paris was that it met and more often surpassed every expectation I originally had of it from years of reading stories in countless books or seeing it in film and other media. Expectations were high enough to make it seem as though disappointment were inevitable, but like so many others I too fell in love with the city. Now during what are hopefully the final days of lockdown and travel restrictions, it sits among the top of my list of places I look forward to seeing again, not too long up the road. So maybe it’s no accident that I’m finally writing this now, years after that first night, since a city like Paris represents the opposite of everything most of us have experienced for the past year.

Where many of us understandably might be at a point where we’re re-evaluating our lives and no longer taking as much for granted, Paris is a place where nothing seems taken for granted and where every detail is savored and art, beauty, fine food and good company are given the priority they deserve.

Take the parks for example. Not only are there plenty of them, but they’re all beautiful and they stay busy with groups of friends gathered there on any given morning, afternoon or evening, sitting atop a picnic blanket enjoying wine, good food and ultimately the added company of everyone else sitting across the lawn of the Champ de Mars or along the hillside below Sacré-Coeur.

Or take the restaurants and how uncommon it is to see one that doesn’t have tables out front with seats positioned side-by-side, facing town instead of each other, so people can enjoy not just the company of the person with whom they’re dining but the feeling of being out in their neighborhood and appreciating where they are and where they live.

Then again, you’re equally apt to see someone sitting alone at one of these cafés having lunch or enjoying a coffee (no laptops) and out in their city in the company of strangers, in the company of neighbors, and in the broadest sense, in the company of fellow citizens and human beings, all participants in this grand experience of life and living.

If such a person can learn to recognize this and to cherish it, they may still be alone in that moment, but I can almost guarantee they’ll feel a lot less lonely.

We’ve heard the phrase work to live, not live to work. I wonder whether to someone in Paris, the phrase might sound silly not because it isn’t true but because it’s so obviously true. For here it’s an understanding that seems second-nature, as obvious as any other common realization made generations ago and now never given a second thought.

In the days ahead, after more than twelve months of lockdowns and social distancing across the world, I’ve got a feeling Paris is about to become a lot less exceptional, at least in this regard.

A man can hope and dream.

Ren Michael - Paris - Saint Michel
Ren Michael at Saint Michel

I write on the backs of napkins

I write on the backs of napkins
I write on scraps of tissue paper
for you ought to not sweat
the fancy jet
the time yet, no
or the old lessons of propriety
don’t stack that shelf
full of fancy volumes, neither
no, don’t overload the head with journals
with their pages crisp and clean
with the ribbons in between
if you’ve got paper
and you got a pen
then write it down
and let it all
flow
and ease the weight
from within your head
you’ll thank me in the end

Cordially Yours,
Your friend,
Ren

 

Originally published // renmichael.com

Zia Meditation #2

on this day then
shall I make the declaration
to let fear fall before the sun
to set aside old clothes
and remember who I really am?
who and what I am to become?

to reclaim
the throne of my own heart
& the kingdom of my mind

to remember
the sun, setting before sweet Cambria
upon the majestic cliffs of Zion
and rising again over New Mexico
the Zia in electric blue

can we do it?
let’s do it then.

Let’s act.
and listen
open our hearts and minds
and then make the decision

let’s paint in brights shades
of blue, yellow and red
in broad brushstrokes, yea
on a pearl white canvas
without thinking twice
breathe big
smile
and play jazz music
Mozart
and the blues

you’ve got the heart of a lion

December 21, 2020

Mona Lisa Wheels

at my table
it’s a beautiful view
for in the cathedral of my mind, and
out across the highway
I’m seeing
visions
of antiquity
the streets of Paris
the slopes of the Sierra
the state roads of the South
along the banks of the Mississippi
river, and the ol’ Rio
Diabolo

I’ve got a set of wheels
a complex machine
sings from within me
my horse and steed
we take this road together
unmatched, obscene
but sharp and clean
over lands unseen
our spirit redeemed

It’s you and me,
let’s begin again now
and tell the old stories
oh how I love you, my friend
my fortune
my glory

dig it
we’re too big for dreaming

The Root

Political discourse like broken leaves
Stands in the shadows of laughing trees
The root of evil
Disguised as greed
Only as old as Adam and Eve
Cannot die but it must be beat, and
What comes to pass, what’ll come to be
Sings from deep within you and me.

Like a lion you are
A golden heart
As old as time
Though unborn, just thunder in the dark
Younger, less experienced
His untested mark
The test to wait
Through the blood
The great flood
Many years in the deepest recesses of Noah’s old ark
No angels for you, no
Just those in your soul
We’ll see what you do, unprotected
Still molested
Untested virtue
You’ll need help through the rain
Deep within the grain, your skin screams in pain
They may give you the whip, they may call you insane
And in the dark of the night, few will call you brave
Yet in the dark, like a lark
Goes right to your soul
In the quiet night, yea
In the murdering cold
A voice, quiet choice
Calls out, says you’re not alone
To love your brother, all you got is each other
It’s all you each will ever know.

Soon the voice dies
Some crucified, their eyes
Said to watch from the sky
You feel a need to keep the dream, carry on
Though you question why
Whether you do it, or not
Remains up to you
All you want’s your own life
Nice wife, and your own
bit of fruit

The choice seems clear, then
And it seems quick
Keep the people out, yea
It’s them that are sick
It’s them that rape, pillage
And crack the whip, indeed
A wise man knows when to quit
No,
I won’t cast stones
I’ll just build me a wall
Better to be dressed to kill
Than prone to crawl

And yet every time night falls
Through your window view
You won’t play the fool
You want what’s owed to you
You know you’ll have it all, if you just forget
The voice in the night every time the sun sets
But rich or poor
Still you feel unborn
You got love
But who’s it for?
When you realize a sobering truth
That love itself is no great virtue
To the courage that came first
Living in a dream, still deep inside of you

You wake in a cold sweat, it’s hard to forget
All the gold you own, and the possessions you’ve kept
But you leave it all behind and step out in the night
Soon the sun’ll come a-rising and you’ll enter the fight

And each and everyone will ask you “Whose side are you on?!”
They’ll worship and abuse you, and still you’ll carry on
Through the rain, there’s a thunder
And that rain’ll come hard
Yet still, you’ll stand together
With your brothers in arms.

Travel Log: Budapest/Borders

A few years back when I was still in Europe, people were persuading me not to go to Budapest since we’d heard news that the city was flooded with refugees seeking asylum from war-torn Syria.  But I had roots there and I’d never been as to close to it as I was then.  It was only a 7-hour train ride from Prague, so I decided to go. 

The roots I’m talking about are through my grandfather on my mother’s side.  Though I never met him, I feel like I’ve known him all my life through the stories I’ve heard and through the music–the Hungarian violin and the old gypsy csárdás, which are a type of folk dance native to Hungary made popular long ago by the Romani gypsies.

Whether it takes me to Castilla or Budapest, it seems I’m guided by that music and the unrelenting thirst for movement and experience it seems to inspire. Here I was now, years later, paying homage to my own gypsy blood, riding a train and vagabonding through Europe for close to a month already, finally making my way to a place–much like Castilla–that felt like my homeland in more ways than one.   

When the train pulled in to the station I looked out the window and caught my first sights of the city. I’ll admit, I half-expected to see angry mobs raising all sorts of hell like it was the Bastille at the start of the Revolution.

Yet as I looked out, I saw nothing particularly remarkable. The station was quiet. Nearly empty.  I stepped outside and saw fellow passengers leaving the train, some being greeted by friends and loved ones. I saw a few kids hanging out by the cafe and a few more outside, skateboarding around the courtyard. Whatever chaos had been unfolding in the preceding days and weeks had gone now.

I thought for a moment about the media and it’s tendency toward sensationalism, as it sometimes ignores other news for the sake of news that will keep us interested or drive up their ratings. I do worry whether it might become the boy who cried wolf, if it hasn’t already; as today I consider those who still have trouble grasping the urgency of climate change, or COVID-19 for that matter.

In any case, however things went down here, it appeared the refugees had either moved on or disappeared into the city blending in with everyone else. They were only people with the same essential needs and aspirations as the rest of us. And the more I recognized that, the more I thought about those qualities that truly defined a country.

Was it borders, or something less tangible? Maybe something not quite set in stone but in constant motion, rooted in history but still vulnerable to change by the passage of time, or by the influence of an outside world–one that can never be kept outside for too long.

If the latter was true, then I figured countries were a macrocosm of the individual human experience, which would ultimately make borders something of an illusion.

I hoisted my bag over my shoulder and stepped out onto the streets, the sky turning a bright pink as the sun set behind the hills and day faded into evening. The air had grown cool.  I could hear a violin somewhere not too far away.

Mr. Moonlight Slim

Chase not the praise of others
seek only the affirmation of self
as you keep an eye out
for anytime you think
you’ve got things
figured out

as you constantly
create yourself
you may yet switch
names like you do
different hats
adopting shapes to match

but all the while
the stars align with
Slim the crescent moon
smiling in night
you are they
and they are you

a bluesman, true
born of the southern
American swamps
singing, dancing
for the coming
light of the sun
up the road, knowing
remembering all is
but one

Travel Log: General Sherman

I stopped in one of the last towns to fill up on gas and get supplies–which consisted mainly of sandwich bread, two cans of tuna, some fruit and peanut butter–before starting into the mountains, into Sequoia National Park, where I’d sleep for two nights.

Desert Town - California - Central Valley - Quinby & Co
Small town in the desert, where I got a quick breakfast.

 

After getting to my campground and setting up my tent, I set out to see General Sherman, the largest tree in the world.  I reached the trailhead and made my way into the grove, warm and stuffed with tourists wandering and laughing and taking pictures. I heard babies and toddlers crying and whining, and kids sprinting up and down the trail playing tag and accidentally photobombing the pictures of strangers. I continued and noticed the larger crowds gathering to snap a picture of something in the distance, still obstructed from my view, but something I knew could only be the General Sherman Tree.

It stood mightily at the center, surrounded by excited onlookers who looked like ants by comparison. It was crowded with admirers and yet it seemed strangely alone. A silent sage. A wise man who’d seen generations come and go, had witnessed all the great moments of human history from the very spot upon which it stood. I even pictured some legend of the silver screen growing old though still appearing ageless, encountering a crowd of photographers or tourists taking their picture, but just taking it in stride like a professional. They’re no stranger to the attention, after all. They’ve seen it all before.

General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park - Sequoia - California - National Park - Quinby & Co.
General Sherman Tree, and the ants at its feet; Sequoia National Park, CA

I understood and appreciated the truth that trees, like all other plants on earth, are living breathing organisms. And the more I looked at General Sherman, a tree more than 3,000 years old, the more I appreciated the relevance of these truths concerning all living things on the planet. The more I looked at it, the more I connected with it.

I felt like it was looking way past me, somewhere far beyond where I stood; and that despite its age and wisdom and experience far superior to my own, it too was still something of a lost soul searching and still unsatisfied with everything it had so far understood its purpose to be on this earth. It was the king of these mountains, but it was still subservient to a higher order it didn’t fully understand.

A soft rain fell, more like a mist than a rain. It probably only lasted a minute, but it seemed longer, as if the rain had slowed down time. In that moment the surrounding tourists vanished from sight and left the two of us alone, facing eachother.

The rays of the sun beamed in through the forest, shining down on us both, revealing the tree in all its eternal youth and ancient power, as the reclusive angel, having kept its vigil for centuries way up here in this shadowy grove high up in the mountains.

We were pilgrims, old and young. Angel and man. Man and angel. Guardian angel, maybe. Brothers.  In that moment, we were no longer separate from each other.  We never had been.  There I stood, once again remembering something I seemed to know long ago.

General Sherman - General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park - Sequoia - California - National Park - Quinby & Co.
General Sherman; Sequoia National Park, CA

It was the first time in a long time that I’d felt this way about anything in nature. It wouldn’t be the last. Unbeknownst to me, an entire network existed, scattered far across the wilderness of America, and farther still, across the Atlantic Ocean and out to the far eastern reaches of Europe.  It took the form of people I’d meet, and the many beautiful things I’d see along the way.

It was ocean and sky, woman and man, living and passed on.  With them I felt connected in common cause: that each of us might reach the realization of love and respect for all living things.  An understanding of our ongoing, unfailing connection to one another.

I remembered something from my early days in the church that made more sense to me now than it did before.  As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be.  United in one breath, one beating heart.

Kaweah River - Lodgepole Campground - Sequoia National Park - California - Sequoia - Quinby & Co.
Kaweah River at Lodgepole Campground; Sequoia National Park, CA

The thought didn’t occur to me at the time, standing in the shadow of General Sherman and the mighty sequoia. It only does now, as I recall the story and wonder how it might sound to someone reading this. Truth be told, prior to this experience, I wasn’t much of an outdoors person. I liked to be outside as much as the next guy but I’d never really camped before at all, and I’d never done much hiking beyond the typical neighborhood hikes in and around LA.

I’d never spent much time in the mountains, amongst the trees whispering at night. I’d never lay quiet listening for melodies beside the creek in the early evening. I’d never breathed in the rush of the river beneath the new morning and the slow, rising sun.

Now that was all about to change.

General Sherman - General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park - Sequoia - California - National Park - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
The tree is my brother. Me and General Sherman; Sequoia National Park, CA

In-Brief: On Parks and Wildness

Save Our Home, Save Ourselves

I recently applied to a job that asked me to select the best pic of myself in the outdoors. It sounds like it could be an exciting one, a job where I’d be spending time in some of my favorite places, or one place depending on how you look at it. That is, the National Parks or in the broader sense, in nature.

To that point, I’ve come to see them less as individual places and it more as one larger whole.  Our planet.  I like that approach more.    

It’s hard to say which picture could ever be the best, but this is the one I felt like posting–taken almost exactly four years ago.

Ren Michael - South Kaibob Trail - Grand Canyon - Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona - National Park - Quinby & Co.
Ren Michael on the South Kaibob Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

Much has happened since then both in my life and throughout the world, and I’ve been fortunate to have gone on many adventures in the time in between. Hopefully I’m a strong sum of those experiences, as each was its own unique reminder of my connection to both land and people.

I’m not unique in that respect, since I know many who have turned to the outdoors and felt a similar way. Restored, replenished, readjusted to the point that their day-to-day ambitions either suddenly feel silly, or are just given renewed purpose in light of the bigger realization that they are a part of something bigger than themselves and their possessions.

While I can only hope it’s enough to help us recognize the importance of preserving these places—since all of us deserve to experience the land in equal measure—above all, I hope we each begin doing our part in preserving the integrity of our environment, for the health of our planet, our one true home, for our physical health, and ultimately for our sanity.

I look back on recent years and I think about people marching against gun violence, or against corporate greed on Wall Street.  I think about people marching for Black lives and for our government’s full recognition of their humanity. 

And I think about two weeks ago, when everyday I stepped out and saw a smoke-filled sky blotting out the sun due to devastating regional wildfires.  In the back of my mind, the fire’s reach had far exceeded the limits of the west coast where I make my home.  Indeed, the larger symbolism was hard to miss.      

The issues of violence, racial justice, environmental justice and economic inequality are, I believe, inter-related.  The dangers of climate change for example pose the most immediate threat to Black and Brown communities, a disproportionate number of which fall below the poverty line in the United States and throughout the world–a reality most clearly demonstrated in food and water shortages not just in third-world countries, but here at home.  

Tackling the threat of climate change will not automatically close the gap on income inequality or accomplish comprehensive racial justice.  Still you cannot adequately address problems in your house when your house is, quite literally, on fire; and truly, the fight for a healthy planet has the power to bring people of different backgrounds and beliefs together, likely more so than any movement we’ve ever witnessed.  More to the point, it’s the understanding of our interconnectedness that will ultimately save us in virtually every domestic and global conflict we experience; and nowhere is that realization more critical than in the necessary global effort to mitigate climate change by cultivating a cleaner and more sustainable world for all people.  

The act of getting outdoors, spending time in our public lands and in the broader wilderness of the world has the unique power to reinforce the fundamental reality of our interdependence and dependence on the land.  It’s just one of many reasons why it’s so important they stay preserved and protected.    

I often reflect on whether it will just be an ongoing battle for every generation between people committed to preserving our wilderness for the public benefit, and the people who seek to exploit the land for their own profit. 

I hope that it won’t.  Maybe the dual threats of climate change and a global pandemic will convince people of their stake in each other’s health and the health of our planet, and the influence will carry over through generations to come.      

I only know that the need for such a realization has never been so urgent.      

As for our wilderness, and it’s unmatched beauty and healing power, for now there’s little more I can say, other than to simply go, as soon as you can, and experience it for yourself.

Let’s please take care of our home.  I am committed to doing my part and I hope you will join me.  The Sierra Club is one of our nation’s most enduring and influential forces for environmental action and awareness.  I’ve been a member for a couple years now and I urge you to consider joining and lending your support as well. 

Let’s get to work.   

 

*Take Action –> www.sierraclub.org

Friends of the Earth Action https://foeaction.org/

Natural Resources Defense Council https://www.nrdc.org/

National Parks Foundation https://www.nationalparks.org/

Talking About Political Correctness

I used to complain about political correctness, even though I’d never actually met anyone who shamed me or embarrassed me due to my incorrectness. I wonder then whether most of the people who complain about it are just insecure people?  

The growing consensus seems to be that everybody everywhere takes everything so personal all the time, which may yet be true.

For starters, the complaint seems far more warranted, say, with respect to professional comedy where part of what makes a joke funny at all is it’s irreverence, its breach of political correctness. If a comedian were constantly wanting to avoid offending people, that comedian would likely lose inspiration and give up the whole thing. 

Comedy thrives on irreverence. Even so, the best comedians still grasp the basic concept of knowing how to read a room.

When people look at their life and really think about the number of times they’ve been slapped on the wrist by a friend, family member or acquaintance for using the wrong word or making an insensitive remark, is that number actually few and far between, if at all?

The way I see it, political correctness is a fact of life and always has been, no different from any other form of etiquette that will change depending on where you are in the world. The only difference now is that it’s been given a name, and stigmatized in the one sphere of public life where it’s probably essential–politics.   

I wonder then whether people who complain about having their head bitten off for breaching that etiquette, who yearn for some comprehensive, universally agreed upon rubric for what’s ok and what’s not, and who then further expect it to never change, ever again—at least while they’re alive—are simply operating in some other reality; as if anything like that ever existed at all within the long span of human history and the diversity of cultures that make up this planet, let alone the ones that make up this country.   

They’ll mention how it used to be different years ago, how somethings were ok and others were not—as if the ideal sort of history of language and expression is a static one.

People once used words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, words like ‘colored’, just as men once wore stockings and wigs out in public. And yet if you spoke or dressed that way today, you’d look like a jackass. Why? Because things eventually fall out of fashion. And yes, it might be a phenomenon but if we can’t accept it, then we might want to find ourselves another planet.

The complaint ignores the fundamental truth that language changes because people change.  It ignores the fact that larger, free-thinking societies are quite naturally heterogenous.  The bigger they are, the more diverse they will likely become, with each community and sub-community developing their own customs and standards of decorum. Political correctness, then, at the very least seems to represent that basic truth in the matter of how we converse with one another, when each of us comes from a different background and our own sphere of personal experience.  

I’ve noticed that people who travel a lot typically have no problem understanding this, because they’ve spent a good amount of time in communities other than their own. They learned to adapt, and often a part of them even enjoys navigating the complexities of different cultures.

They don’t get upset over the fact that they have to learn a new language, they embrace it as an opportunity. If something changes in the country or community they visit and they have to adapt yet again, they don’t dismiss the people as petty and refuse to budge any further.

They are often driven by an appetite for learning new things, and a wonder before all the intricacies of the world and its many points of view.

They don’t get hung up on the possibility of making a mistake here and there, because they’ve already accepted the high possibility that they will make one sooner or later.

However, that leads to another point of discussion.

Could those who are hip to the changing tides of fashion be more polite about it? Do they have to be such a dick about it? Is being woke, for example, nothing more than a matter of bragging rights, one that ultimately involves shaming all those who are out of the loop?

I’ve never encountered anyone like that, but if and when I do, I don’t think it will surprise me. I used to complain about political correctness because I’d automatically bought into the notion that these types of people were everywhere and running absolutely wild…even though I never met one.

I think it had to do with insecurity. My own fear of making a fool of myself led to a defense mechanism against the enemy I had never actually seen. If these woke people exist–and I do think there are a few out there–then I imagine they are likely motivated by the same fear. Fear of not being hip, fear of looking like an idiot, or just someone out of step with the times. An outsider.

I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with being ignorant. I think the real pity is either burrowing yourself in your ignorance, or over-compensating in the direction of righteousness or enlightenment, all for the sake of never being wrong and being some kind of insider.

Personally I think it’s more fun being a little bit of both, having one foot on the inside and another on the out.

It’s one reason I like to travel.  I like knowing that I can adapt easily enough to changing surroundings, and I know doing that involves a flexibility of perspective, a willingness to listen and an actual openness to being wrong every once in a while.

It’s something I’d forgotten about myself, but I think it’s a good lesson for all of us to remember. It might make life a little more complicated now and then, but with the slightest tweak in perspective, if we can set aside our ego, it might also make life a whole lot more enriching.