In the “The Astonishment Index,” contributor Joan Frank provides what she calls a piece that functions more as a “coda” to her original essay, “France: The Cake Frosting Country,” that ran in the Winter, 2010 issue of The Antioch Review. She says her essay describes realizations gained from a (very!) recent trip to France, and concludes that while the beautiful Cake Frosting Country is still a wonder, one can’t not see it differently with age and experience: certain scales have tumbled from one’s eyes.
The Astonishment Index
by Joan Frank
Someone close to me recently suggested, about the work of a famous living poet, that everything she writes is an expression of shock—arising from the thunderbolt comprehension of the fact that we will die.
That shock evokes—rather, tugs like an attached cart after itself—the ancillary question of how then to live, how to be, during our brief tenure of time on earth.
It strikes me increasingly that we never really recover from this first astonishment: that it extends vastly from and through our lives, like spokes of a wheel.
It strikes me too that everything we say and do, once that double-whammy realization cracks open, is driven by it. Perhaps more strangely, the fact of Place feels intimately bound up with the whole business—this acute, spreading recognition of a finite self, operating so briefly in time and space.
We wonder not just how to be, but why—and inevitably, where.
It’s arguable that my American generation, post-World War II, was saddled with a sanitized moral vision—a series of givens about fairness, or at least of eventual tit-for-tat. We were taught to do good, and expected that good would be offered back to us in return. We were encouraged to reason, never questioning the (hard-won) modicum of food and shelter enabling this luxury: food, shelter, and a resuming moral order, furnished by a shaken adult population doing its best to rebuild in the wake of unspeakable horror.
So when we grew up and began to travel to the classic world capitals, we viewed them through a rosier lens—possibly a Disney-fied lens, of princesses and castles and kindly old shoemakers. (Later we applied the Jamesian/Kerouacian lenses: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.”) A piquant paradox: how my own great-grandparents, and those of countless others, likely fled Europe for Ellis Island, and how their progeny’s progeny eventually returned to Europe as self-styled rogues and daring artist-adventurers (never mind the exciting new venue’s dark history). This imposed romance, in effect appropriating a backdrop, persists to some degree in our own kids—though I think that it probably peaked in my own generation; that young adults now, chafed by the bizarre trials of making their own lives (paying off loans), look coolly at any notion of Dharma bumming (unless someone else is funding it).
I recently revisited France, starting in a small, sleepy southern town and moving north to Paris, the journey viewed this time through a pair of eyes seasoned by inevitabilities of age—windfalls and personal loss: books published, babies born, the death of an only, beloved sibling. And while L’Hexagone delivered everything described in my essay of 2010, those real joys felt limned this time by deepened tensions and frailties. All the jewels remain intact in the crown, but they seem to have shrunk a little. Life feels tougher there, more fraught. North African storekeepers look grimmer, more vigilant; teenagers act out more recklessly; clerks, streetpeople, business types, even nannies all seem tightened, more pinched by want and need as they move through the day’s obligations. A certain playfulness seems to have vanished. Everything’s bewilderingly expensive. True, restaurants and cafes still bustle with people who appear poised, accomplished, at ease with the world and with their meal’s bill. But waitstaff, as they hustle about, damp and breathless, exude a telling, desperate fatigue. The divide between haves and have-nots grows starker.
This, too, counts as astonishment. If we are honest with ourselves about it, we’re never ready for the next revelation, whether for good or (too often) for ill. It falls to an individual’s mettle—an inborn or willed resolve—to be able to witness the rise and fall of of empires and ideals, live with surging change and uncertainty, and knit meaning from them; carry on with what remains. Part of what is gained, with age, is a richer sense of how little these parsings (and the parser him- or herself) finally matter. France does not care who loves or hates it, just as a piece of timeless music or art does not care. Do I still champion the Cake-Frosting Country? Yes, but with an asterisk—an existential qualifier, an expressive shrug in the best Gallic tradition: “as it stands, as best one can.”
Joan Frank (http://www.joanfrank.org) is the author of five books of fiction and a book of collected essays. Her last novel, MAKE IT STAY, won the Dana Portfolio Award; her last story collection, IN ENVY COUNTRY, won the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award, and was named a finalist for the California Book Award. Joan’s book of essays, BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO: A WRITING LIFE, won the Silver ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award. A MacDowell Colony Fellow and recipient of many grants and awards, Joan is also a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Northern California.
© The Antioch Review 2015