Literature

This category contains 7 posts

Dear Dana, Romance Novelist

Microsoft in the 1990s: more multi-talented people per square inch than should’ve been geometrically possible.

Which was why Microsoft, not Disneyland, was “The Happiest Place on Earth.” (Except for the Internet Explorer team during the Netscape smack-down, which was “Divorce Court.”)

During those years, I worked with a ballerina marketing lead, a city councilman graphic designer, a Special Forces parajumper database admin (who would neither confirm nor deny), and a brass ensemble of program managers.

Not one, but two pro surfer finance analysts.

Channel sales bagpipers, who practiced after work in the parking garage, giving us a sense of what it must’ve felt like being a lowly British soldier hearing that music coming at you from over the next hill and knowing you were done for.

Then there was Dana, DDEE.

Database Darling and Editor Extraordinaire.

If I was writing the potentially Great American Novel, I’d want Dana to be the poor soul poring over my sorry manuscript because she is, hands down, the best editor I’ve ever worked with.

Ever.

Nowadays she’s Dana, BSRN.

Best-Selling Romance Novelist.

Romance novels just aren’t my thing at all, but it’s a literary fantasy world that’s wildly popular. To the tune of $1.36 billion per year popular.

That’s why some of my first Microsoft friends hatched this grand plan to pay off our student loans by writing romance novels on the side, since girls’ poker night with nickel stakes was going to take forever.

(The guys played with stock, which made them no-fun competitive whiners, so they were banned.)

Problem was, writing compelling, marketable romance novels is part art, part science, part Joy of Sex. There are people in this world who are really, really good at it, and consequently are very, very rich.

Then there’s us.

We just couldn’t figure out how to go about it. (I think the fact that we used a database schematic to map out potential characters and plot lines tells you everything you need to know.) The harder we tried, the more embarrassing it got and the more we laughed until we cried, which apparently with romance novels you’re supposed to do only while you’re reading one.

Eventually, we realized it was hopeless and good thing we had some unromantic skills and day jobs to fall back on.

We also realized why none of us had hot dates for the company Christmas party and that we’d probably have to go together as a group, wearing name tags saying “Romance Writing Failures.”

With the word “Writing” crossed out.

However, I’d heard somewhere that the best way to come up with character names for your romance novel was to pair names of your childhood pets with names of streets where you grew up.

My computation resulted in 4 admittedly promising romance novel personas ‒ Julius Nye, Crispin Victoria, Skipper Melrose, and the one-and-only (thank goodness) Bo Fremont ‒ whose lives ended before they began because I’d learned the hard way to leave fiction writing to the experts.

Allora, cara Dana, whose 4-part romantic suspense series “Blood and Honor” is set in Italy, about which I contributed the tiniest bit of background for book 1, Revenge: it’ll be a pleasure buy the first romance novel of my entire life because you’re a star in anyone’s book and I’d read anything you wrote on the back of a deposit slip.

Like many smart tech-savvy new authors these days, Dana bypassed the world of traditional publishing. Her story is a perfect example of why those dinosaurs are scared to death of self-publishers and e-books, namely the fact that writers aren’t much tempted anymore with measly offers to give them 40% of the profits when they can DIY with equivalent quality ‒ and smarter distribution ‒ and keep 100%!

Also, did you know that if you write a book series you have to sign over the rights to your series story line and characters to the publisher in advance?

According to Dana, let’s say after book #2 of your series goes to print, your publisher decides to dump you. You can’t just take books #3 and #4 to another publisher. The series just dies, unless you go to court to win the rights back…to your own series, which you created!

By the time your case has made its way through the legal system, the only thing you might accomplish after all those attorney fees is to pass those rights onto your novelist grandchildren.

Who, bad luck, might turn out to be commentator types like me and for everyone’s sake should stick with what we know.

Anyway, Dana proves that you don’t need an old-school publisher, who still hasn’t gotten over the Borders Books bankruptcy, to sell your paperbacks and e-books on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, let alone on Smashwords, Kobo, and Sony!

Dear Ms. Delamar, I’m a long-time fan. (20 years long.) Can I get an autographed copy on iTunes?

You can follow Dana on Facebook, @DanaDelamar on Twitter and at danadelamar.com.

Une amie ou une étrangère?

Brief intermission from coverage of the Middle East. For fun, some friends and I decided to see if we could each write a credible piece of fiction, a poem or short story…in somebody else’s native language. This is harder than it sounds. With apologies to the French, here’s mine (based on a true story about the daughter of a family friend):

Voici l’histoire d’Emelina, qui choisissait de disparaître.

Emelina est la deuxième fille d’une famille célèbre de notre village, qu’est situé dans l’extrême sud de la Californie, à côté de l’Océan Pacifique. Au XIXème siècle, les ancêtres d’Emelina avaient reçu une concession du roi d’Espagne et finalement la famille Delgado a gagné une grande fortune grâce à leurs vergers d’avocats.

Emelina était une très belle fille, avec beaucoup de talents artistiques. Elle était mannequin et travaillait dans une entreprise du mode qui s’appelait Bégonia. Elle faisait aussi tous ses propres vêtements à partir de ses propres dessins. Pendant qu’elle était élève au lycée, elle a fait un portrait du maître d’école; ce portrait se trouve toujours dans l’hôtel de ville.

En 1980, Emelina est allée à l’université. Après, elle a travaillé dans une galerie d’art à Los Angeles. Un jour, à une fête à la galerie, elle a fait la connaissance d’un médecin suisse et elle est tombée amoureuse de lui immédiatement.

Mais, il y avait quelque chose qui n’allait pas. Sa meilleure amie a dit qu’elle avait pleuré toute la nuit précédant la noce. Aucun de ses amis ou de sa famille n’avait été invité au mariage et le jour suivant le couple est parti à Genève sans dire au revoir.

Quelques ans plus tard, j’ai voyagé en Suisse toute seule pour jouer à La Fête de la Musique Ancienne. Quand je descendais le train, tout à coup je l’ai vue! J’étais absolument sûre.

Pendant qu’elle me regardait à travers la foule, je l’ai salué de la main. Elle s’est détournée et a marché dans l’autre direction.

Je ne l’ai jamais revue.

Kate’s American Bridesmaid Returns to Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey Visiting Hours for the Uninvited.

I wanted to see the Abbey again, while the Royal Wedding trees and flowers were still in place. So did a few (hundred) thousand other people.

The queue was 7 or 8 deep: all the way down the street, past the Houses of Parliament and the Westminster tube stop, to Big Ben. A few people walked across Westminster Bridge to take photos, waiting for the excitement to die down.

Good luck with that.

Being a morning-person-in-training, it wasn’t such a hardship to be among the first in line for the chance to walk under the canopy of wedding trees and flowers in relative quiet. One wedding wish that, as I expected, didn’t exactly come true.

Regardless, the botanical effect was dramatic and inspiring and utterly amazing.

I don’t know whether William and Kate chose the color scheme partly for any of the following good reasons, but green and white are the two primary colors of the Welsh flag, Wales being their current home. They were also the colors of the House of Tudor. They’re fundamental to the personality, history, and spirit of the whole of the “Isles.”

However it came about, the result was simple and spectacular…and, as far as adjectives go, I’m just getting started.

I loved the potted trees best, the English maples especially.

We Abbey visitors walked down that same aisle where the royal couple and their attendants had walked not so many days before, into that pavilion of green and white, as one British poet described a long-ago image from nature, which the Royal Wedding florists re-created to near perfection.

The couple, we’d been told, had put great thought into the symbolism of the seasonal flowers.

White lilacs, symbolizing first love, together with Solomon’s seal, which symbolizes love’s confirmation. Azaleas, to which the Chinese attribute femininity. Beech, rhododendron, and wisteria from Windsor Great Park, lush with greenery cut from the royal estates, at the groom’s special request.

Other blossoms, unnamed but not unnoticed, signifying spiritual beauty.

Two billion people around the world saw the official proceedings on TV, including me standing in London’s Hyde Park with “only” a million or so other viewers. But naturally our primary focus on April 29th was on the pageantry and the people and their expressions…and their clothes, expert and novice opinions this once actually converging.

The green and white together struck me, observed one British writer, describing a much less formal event. Suddenly we who stood in the Abbey on this ordinary day understood what he’d meant, 150 years ago, by being wrapped in green and white.

The quotes I’ve included in this post date primarily from Victorian times, an era of relative peace and prosperity in Britain, no small credit to the long reign ‒ and happy union ‒ of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. As a consequence, literature and literary figures ‒ poets, novelists, essayists ‒ flourished and the Victorian period is considered the high point in English literature.

Much of this imagery came from the topography of the land itself, scenery that inspired writers who were simply looking out their own windows, or journeying on foot or by carriage near their own homes.

How lovely, the green and white fields, noted one. Green and white flowers, beautiful to view, wrote another. An artistic study in green and white, observed a third, a fourth reportedly walking along some green and white shore, finding by accident a frail half-shell pale green and white-lined of sea-urchin.

A medley of writings from a medley of British writers, with variations on the same elegant theme.

This theme also inspired a veritable rush of not only the mythical ‒ fairies…green, and white, she wrote, dreamily ‒ but also of the philosophical, particularly suited, I thought, to a Royal Wedding not only marking the beginning of a new life of a young couple in love, but also ushering in a new era of the British monarchy.

Over the years, and as King and Queen one day, I hope William and Kate can look back on their wedding day and say that, from the very beginning…

…the river was the green and white vein of our lives.

One of the iconic images of the day was of Kate standing at the high altar of Westminster Abbey, where royal brides have stood for 1,000 years, about to exchange vows with her Prince, perhaps thinking: green and white his name on the tip of my tongue.

As we witnessed all this, we long-distance guests were finding true what those British poets of old knew best: love is green, white.

Prince William of Wales and Kate (now Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge) will undoubtedly have ups and downs in their marriage, like any couple, but unlike most couples, theirs will play out on the international stage and undoubtedly be scrutinized to death.

But it might comfort them to remember, when those times come, that it’ll be all green and white when the weather clears.

Momo and the Elephant’s Child

When I was very young, I thought that all little girls born in Japan were like Momo, who had an umbrella, which wasn’t fair.

Especially since Momo and I had the same red rain boots and the same haircut, even.

Momo means “peach” in Japanese and is the little girl in my favorite childhood storybook, Umbrella by Taro Yashima.

When we moved back to the USA from Japan, my Grandma Bel of ratatouille fame bought me a plaid raincoat with those red rain boots just like Momo’s. It was the first and last stylish moment of my life.

Unlike the more obedient Momo, who only got up at night to look at her new rain boots, I wore mine night and day, and there are 10,000 family photos to prove it.

I was an only child back then – thus the massive photo portfolio – and couldn’t care less about dolls. (Why get little sisters any earlier than you absolutely have to?) My favorite toy was my record player, which played actual records. (What’s vinyl? ask the nieces and nephews, who don’t even remember VHS.)

My favorite record was The Elephant’s Child (from the Just So Stories for Little Children by Rudyard Kipling). It hasn’t happened yet, but one day I’ll visit the great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, the setting of this tale.

(The Limpopo is the second-largest river in Africa, originating in South Africa and flowing through Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique before reaching the Indian Ocean.)

“In the high and far-off times, the elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk…” the story begins.

Spoiler alert: because of the Elephant’s Child’s “(in-) ‘satiable curiosity,” he almost became the crocodile’s dinner…but not quite. Thus, the elephant’s trunk was invented.

Mr. Kipling is long gone, but kids are still listening to his stories today – on MP3 downloads − and still driving their parents crazy by asking, without end, that same dreaded one-word question: “Why?” and that, O Best Beloved, is why day cares, pre-schools, and “play dates” were invented.

Kids are curious. If it’s not “Why?”, then it’s “What’s that?”, “Who’s that?”, “What does that mean?” or – that familiar road trip refrain –“Are we there yet?”

“Then Kolokolo Bird said, with a mournful cry, ‘Go to the banks of the great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River and find out.’” The Elephant’s Child thought that was the best advice he’d heard in a long time, said goodbye to his dear family, it says, and went off to find out for himself − the grownup thing to do – just exactly what the crocodile has for dinner.

Momo, meanwhile, is still at home in a big city somewhere in Japan, waiting for rain. Hoping for rain. Thinking about rain every minute of every day. Her parents assure her, “It’ll come,” and when it does, you can take your umbrella.

Why? Why not? Why not right now?

Sometimes someone who’s been curious and impatient a lot longer than we have gives us a tip: it’ll come. Give it time.

That’s hard to hear when you’re 2 or 3 feet tall.

We can be filled with wonder every time we hear “I wonder if…???” and filled with happiness when it’s followed by “Look what happened when…!!!” That’s what dreams are made of, even once you get to be 5 or 6 feet tall, or taller.

…knowing, too, that there are other things we can just plain count on happening, given time.

Now for the Umbrella spoiler: that long-awaited rainy day “was not only the first day in her (Momo’s) life that she used her umbrella, it was also the first day in her life that she walked alone, without holding either her mother’s or her father’s hand.”

Because the “whys” and “whens” and “waits” had served their purpose.

Yours and Yours and Yours

In the “old days,” so say my parents, who get younger by the minute, you got one − maybe two − doses of bad news a day: the morning paper and the 6 o’clock news.

Now, thanks to CNN, we get bad news 24×7 not only about our own cities, states, and – for expatriates − countries, but also from places we’ve barely heard of before, where tragic things we can’t even imagine are happening.

Every minute of every day of every week of every year.

So, you’ll understand my confusion when here I’m reading on CNN.com the text of a poem? A love poem? Wow, must be an awfully slow news day in…Iraq, North Korea, the Gulf Coast…

Turns out, this poem was indeed internationally newsworthy because it was read at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, when she and her husband Marc Mezvinsky were married a week ago today, on Saturday 31 July. (Congratulations!)

The poem is The Life That I Have by Leo Marks:

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours
And yours

A friend of the couple read this poem during the ceremony. I’d never heard it before and thought it was beautiful and perfect.

This poem is about romantic love and commitments of a lifetime, but there’s ever so much you can give to family, friends, colleagues − even strangers − that I wonder how many other wedding guests, or other people reading CNN.com, contemplated a broader theme.

The gift of time. The gift of understanding. The gift of respect. The gift of patience.

Perhaps the gift of love, too − not in a romantic sense, necessarily, but an unconditional care that someone has never truly received, or hasn’t received in a long time, from anyone else.

I had a perfect stranger on an airplane once confide in me that she traveled frequently for work – chose to, preferred to – because she dreaded going home…to her husband, who’d married her for all the wrong reasons; to her teenage kids, who thought she couldn’t do anything right; to her colleagues, who couldn’t − or simply chose not to − see the big picture; to her parents and parents-in-law, who were obsessed with their own neediness.

Her employer was a national brand that had recently turned around after a slump and, although she didn’t say so, I’m sure she played a role in that success. I could easily picture her standing on a stage presenting to 1,000s of people, or being interviewed for the Fortune 500 Most Successful Women in Business.

This woman needed all of these gifts…and was getting none of them.

So, not only do you receive nothing, but what you have to give there’s no-one to give it to. “The love that I have for the life that I have is”…nobody’s. “For the peace of my years in the long green grass”…with nobody.

Tragic doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Problems like this are years − likely decades − in the making, so you can’t even make a dent in them during 4 hours and 35 minutes in business class. But maybe the gift of insight into what you’re missing is a start.

Since sometimes a moment is a moment – and the moment is the gift − and sometimes that’s all you really need to go on, we decided, deliberately, not to exchange business cards.

Le Dernier Métro

There’s the last metro. Then there’s the last metro.

There’s almost a “last metro” genre − certainly some impressive urban myths − in Paris. There’s of course the famous film of the same name (1980) by François Truffaut, starring Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, who we’d watch in the last, first, and middle of just about anything.

Then there are the everyday, but ever so much more real, last metros with real people and real consequences.

I’ve been on the last metro a time or two and missing it is one of those no-win situations if you don’t have a car, you’ve gone somewhere and arrived back home in Paris on a Friday or Saturday night/morning (when it’s nigh unto impossible to get a taxi) a lot lot lot later than you expected. You won’t be able to reach any of your friends on their mobiles because they’re either still out enjoying Friday or Saturday night/morning, or are finally asleep, in which case if you wake up the baby, you’re in the deepest kind of trouble.

If you could walk home, time-wise or safety-wise, you’d have done it already.

Sometimes you look around and maybe you WISH you’d walked. At 01:30, the percentage of savory to non-savory characters is sometimes weighted heavily toward the latter.

There are great lengths you’ll go to catch the last metro…and an equal number of lengths you’ll go to avoid catching it.

There are people who thrive on taking the last metro, people who like adventure and risk and don’t have anything to do the next day, or are tourists who haven’t quite mastered 24-hour time. Then there are the rest of us.

Foreigners from car-centric societies don’t understand this. Obviously, you walk to the parking garage and click your automatic door opener. The worst-case scenarios are a) you’re alone and there’s nobody to walk you to your car in the creepy moonlight, or b) you have a dead battery and have to call AAA.

If you’re in New York on any night of the week, you’ve planned ahead for this situation and organized a car service out to Long Island, or wherever.

On those thankfully rare occasions, I’ve always pondered: who’s on the last metro and why, where are they going, are they on the last metro by choice or by chance? Might it be the last of all chances?

I was on that last metro once with a man who was over-the-top drunk. He stumbled down the 2 flights of stairs to the ticket stile. He didn’t have a ticket, so he climbed over, almost falling on his head onto the cement floor as he did it. Then he stumbled again along the platform and leaned against the wall, panting.

He heard the metro coming from the opposite direction and mistakenly thought it was ours. He stumbled – his M.O. this particular night – forward into the yellow danger zone, although in Paris it’s not yellow.

He was so anxious to board a train, any train, that he stepped forward…into nothing.

Other people waiting for the last metro, including me, saw it happen in slow motion.

Luckily, something down there had broken his fall and he was relatively uninjured and easier to reach. Some sober – less inebriated, at least − men immediately grabbed various limbs, but they were pulling probably 68-70 kg of dead weight.

They didn’t dare risk getting down on the tracks with him and none of us watching, helplessly − except to yell for the metro police, who’d put in their 35-hour work week already and were nowhere to be found, and waving sweaters in the direction of the black tunnel − would’ve blamed them. I’m sure the man, had he been in his right mind, wouldn’t have blamed them either.

Unlike the typical dramatic plot, in which good Samaritans pull the fallen person to safety mere milliseconds before the train arrives, these impromptu rescuers had at least a minute to spare. However, those of us not-too-helpful onlookers were still holding our breaths when we saw the metro lights and heard the horn as our train pulled into the station.

Of all the times I’m sure every one of us had complained about the metro being late (again, as usual, sigh), in this particular case the late train – the last metro – saved a life.

For that man, it could’ve been the last metro of all time. Luckily for him, others made it not so. Unfortunately, his unfortunate habits might cause him, on some other night with less attentive or able fellow riders, to cause things – on a different metro, at a different station, on a different night − to end, as one would expect, differently.

The film Le Dernier Métro is set in occupied Paris, 1943. Let’s see: a boring man meets a boring woman and they ride to into town together without saying another word, then go their separate ways none the wiser. Are you kidding? Remember, this is a FRENCH film.

To confuse you even further, this film is not about riding the metro at all.

Meet Bernard (Depardieu) and Arlette (Andréa Ferréol). She’s hot. He’s pretending to be hot, in a leather vest with a fur collar that he’s probably trying to pass off as mink, but is most likely rabbit. This is wartime and everybody’s pretending to be rich when they’re not, happy when they’re not.

After Bernard utterly fails to make a good first impression and they meet later at work, at the first rehearsal for the same play (now that’s awkward), they pretend not to know each other.

Meet Marion (Deneuve), who’s pretending her Jewish husband escaped the Nazis, when actually he’s hiding in the basement of the theater they own. Since she’s so deep in the pretending business already, Marion won’t admit she’s in love with Bernard, until her own husband points it out to her.

I’m no film critic, but I think this story is really about fear. First there’s “la panique” – how everyone’s feeling in wartime, in occupied France. The chaos you live with day in and day out, just trying to manage. (The title refers to the reality that missing the last metro in Paris during the war left you out in the elements after the 23:00 curfew and meant certain danger, even death.) There’s also the very real fear you have of strangers, neighbors, friends, colleagues – maybe even of family − in these perilous times when you don’t know who you can trust anymore.

Then there’s “une peur” – your own personal fear, which might not be the same thing at all, and of which all this pretending upon pretending is really just a symptom.

The first time they meet, Bernard says, after Arlette walks away, uninterested in talking to him, having a drink with him, whatever this is all about, you impolite boor: Wait, wait! I saw you in the café earlier…oh, your eyes, your expression…and I said to myself…”Today’s my lucky day.”

Not so much. Even in Paris, women you randomly accost on the street normally hate your guts. But Bernard, serial ladies man with rose-colored glasses, sees in everything a second chance.

On the second chance metro. Lucky indeed.

Victor Hugo and Universal Losses

Funny, the random memories you recall when you walk past your old school.

For my first term final exam at La Sorbonne, I decided to write a short essay about things that had been lost. As you’d expect, there are many works in French literature devoted to lost love, but also of missed opportunities, of failed faith, of ambitions never realized.

We’d studied a few to choose from, all famous (but not always to me), and the easy road would’ve been to do what every Université de Paris IV student had done for 200 years: give a synopsis of what made one of these works, in the literal sense, meet the criterion. My goal was to take a fresh look though 21st century American eyes and see what happened.

One poem was particularly moving to me: Demain, dès l’aube by Victor Hugo (1802-1885), from Les Contemplations, 1856.

It’s about the loss of a child.

What follows is the text of the poem (written in a 12-syllable structure called “un alexandrin”), then a summary of what I wrote and later explained orally to the faculty examiners:

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.

We all know Victor Hugo by name, and for good reason. He was a giant of Romanticism and one of the greatest writers of his time – maybe of all time. Even if you didn’t major in French literature, you’ve heard of Les Misérables!

What not all readers immediately learn about Victor Hugo is that a tragic experience changed his life and caused him to withdraw from the glory, celebrity, and adulation of others that he’d spent the better part of his adult life cultivating.

He lost a child.

In 1843, Monsieur Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine, then a 19-year-old newlywed, drowned in the Seine. (His son-in-law also drowned, trying to save her.) At the time, Hugo was on vacation with his long-time mistress and happened to read about Léopoldine’s death in the newspaper.

The journalist, just doing his job reporting vital statistics, would’ve had no idea the impact of that statement.

I have no experience with this loss personally, but close friends of mine who have say there’s nothing more profoundly painful. It goes against every law of the universe that a parent would bury a child rather than the other way around.

Imagine the heartache. Although the end of the poem implies that his memories and love for his daughter will never die (and by all accounts she was his favorite child), one wonders if, given the era and the family’s social class, he ever actually said those words to her in life.

In another poem he wrote immediately after her death, entitled À Villequier, where she died, the second to the last line reads:

Où je criai : L’enfant que j’avais tout à l’heure,

which I would loosely translate as, “When suddenly I cried out, “The child I had just a moment ago…”

…is gone just that quickly and nothing is ever the same again.

This poem is about him visiting her tomb in the frosty early morning hours. Although this word never appears in the poem, it’s in essence a pilgrimage (“une pèlerinage”) that he makes often and always alone, alone with his thoughts, head bowed as if in prayer. He carries with him not fashionable bouquets of bought flowers, which he easily could have afforded, but rather wildflowers he’s gathered on these solitary walks in the countryside.

Victor Hugo was thus transformed from Victor Hugo the famous writer into ordinary Mr. Hugo the grieving father, perhaps wondering, as other fathers have when faced with an experience like this: if I’d done more, if I’d been there, would it have made a difference?

There are two kinds of pain: the pain of loss and the pain of regret. One we can’t help; it’s part of the human experience. The other is well within our control. My dad used to say, “Keep short accounts (with other people).” Say and do what you wish you would’ve said and done, looking back.

In the last two lines of the poem, he’s speaking to his daughter directly. On her tomb, he’s telling her, he’s placed alongside the other flowers a bouquet of holly. Evergreen. Everlasting.

I’m sure this is a rather different interpretation of this poem than a French student would’ve given, but for better or worse we all bring our cultural perspectives and personal histories to what we read. My conceptual analysis didn’t come across perfectly in French, either (although, to my credit, I used a lot of conditional verbs).

But when I was finished, these older lady professeurs – “battle-axes,” we’d call them in English – who’d ridiculed me every day about my terrible grammar and even worse pronunciation (“Quelle horreur!”), were sitting across from me with tears in their eyes.