Discovering Gratitude

One door closes but another opens.

In a certain way, it can be easier to find gratitude when your life is turned upside down. At least it often works that way for me. When I’m really up against the wall, like I was when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, a switch often seems to click on, and I tend to marshall some inner resources by seeking out all the small and large things that help me keep my sanity. Like having loving friends. And a roof over my head. And chocolate. You get the idea.

Last week, I was talking with one of my physical therapy patients about Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday season. This person happens to be bilingual, and as we practiced leg exercises, we found ourselves singing French Christmas carols, en français, naturellement. And in that moment, I was grateful for the sheer delight of such unexpected whimsy, happening alongside my more mundane clinical pursuits. And that contrast led me to remember a vacation I spent in Languedoc a few years after I finished grad school, with one of my best friends from our class. I’ll call her Thea.

Southern France wasn’t our original destination. We thought we’d go to Prague. But we were still paying off school loans, so money was tight, even with a ‘real’ salary at last. And through my writing grapevine, I came upon an American woman who had a house for rent in Languedoc, in a small village called Montpeyroux, for far less than we would spend on any other type of accommodation except perhaps camping. And we didn’t want to go camping. Thea had lived in Spain for several years, and had friends there, so we thought, while we were in France, we could hop over to Spain for a weekend and see them. Thus, we flew to Paris, hopped a commuter plane to Montpelier, picked up the Peugeot I’d rented, and drove to Montpeyroux.

It was like entering a dream. None of the dozens of photos or films I’d seen of southern France prepared me for how exquisitely beautiful it was in the countryside. The colors really are different, full of vivid light. It requires no imagination at all to understand why so many artists have found inspiration there. It was the end of May. Acres of la lavande (lavender) were in bloom, and tidy rows of wine-grape vines flourished everywhere. Les fraises et les framboises (strawberries & raspberries) were ripening. The markets had les asperges (asparagus) ready to sell. It was off-season, which meant that instead of being blisteringly hot, it was temperate during the day, 60-70 degrees most days, and pleasantly cool at night, dropping to perhaps 50. The sun rose by 5:00 a.m., bringing with it flocks of les hirondelles (swallows), and did not completely disappear until 10:00 p.m. Our French neighbors in Montpeyroux, bundled in their down coats, often apologized for the ‘cold’ weather until I explained that back in Boston, it was rainy and beaucoup plus froid than it was in Languedoc.

For several reasons, it turned out that being in Europe again seemed to bring up for Thea all kinds of remembered heartaches from her life in Spain. Among them was the death of her Spanish fiancé in a motorcycle accident the day before they were to be married. She had told me the story a few years before. But instead of talking about her obvious disquiet now, on our third day in France, just as I was beginning to recover from jetlag, she picked a fight with me. She could not tell me what it was that I had done to anger her, but suddenly, she found my company intolerable. My apologies and entreaties yielded no explanation but an extensive list of my flaws. I was boring. I was pedantic. I was arrogant. I was thoughtless. My admittedly lame high-school French was pathetic. The result of all this was that Thea decided to spend the rest of our vacation in Spain with her old friends, while I stayed in Montpeyrous in our rented house, with my rented Peugeot and my camera and my French grammar books. We would only meet up again in Montpelier at the end of the sixteen days, when we had to fly home.

Needless to say, I was devastated, doubly so because her assault on my character was incomprehensible. A few days after she left, I managed to call a good friend back home who knew us both, and tearfully told the tale. She was as astonished as I was. By the time I called her, I’d come down with a cold. The next day, I drove to the nearby town of Gignac, and bought cough drops and lots of tissues at the local pharmacie. La pharmacienne told me kindly to soignez-vous.

I took her advice to take care of myself the only way I could — by immersing myself in this lovely place si agréable, and trying to make a virtue of my aloneness, telling myself that I could do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to do it. I began by walking. Down the street from the house I was staying in, I discovered an entire courtyard blooming with irises. On a walk through the village, I met an old woman sitting in her garden who taught me the French word for swallows and cut me a bouquet of her roses.

I looked up verbs and nouns and adjectives in my French books. I poured over maps and took day trips. In St. Guilelm le Désert, I helped a shop manager translate a transaction with some English tourists. Afterward, she gave me her phone numbers and told me to call her if I needed anything. In Pézenas, home for a time to Molière, I met a professional photographer from Aix en Provence. We kept running into each other, finding ourselves drawn to taking the same pictures. His camera was much nicer than my old Minolta, but I also discovered that we shared a common instinct to see with an artist’s eye, that my background in drawing and painting translated to the viewfinder.

Because I was by myself, I was more approachable. In banks where I changed money, in cafes, in shops and museums and old churches, people would introduce themselves, compliment my French, offer help, even invite me to visit their homes. One of the loveliest experiences I had was attending a classical music concert in a very old church in a village whose name I have forgotten. After the intermission, two pianos were moved into place, and a father and his son sat down at them to play a special arrangement of Ravel’s Bolero. To sit in this stately French church, surrounded by French musicians and music lovers, to hear one of the most well-known pieces of music by one of the most loved of French composers, played with passionate magnificence, was a moving, indescribable joy. I went up to the conductor/organizer of this concert afterwards to convey, in my by-then somewhat less halting French, my profound thanks, and discovered that she was from Australia, married to a French native, and spoke English. And she told me about another concert a few days later in another church, which I happily attended.

Thea and I met up in Montpelier as planned, and managed to fly all the way back to Boston by maintaining a strained but scrupulous politeness. But our friendship was over. She rebuffed all my attempts to communicate and sort things out. I was left with a deep sense of loss and heartache and ambiguity. But then I took my several rolls of film to be developed, had several photos enlarged, and discovered anew an even deeper sense of creative resilience. Those photos netted me my first art show in what was for me a new medium.

So much of what I’ve learned about gratitude is like that trip. Circumstances beyond our control may heap on us some unexpected heartache, while at the same time forcing us to look outside ourselves in turn, because we must. And sometimes when we do, what we really need will find us. And if we are alert, we will embrace it. Thea and I had been the best of friends for five years. We’d been through the hell of graduate school, the death of my mother, and of her father, her diagnosis and successful treatment of Hodgkins lymphoma, and many other challenges in those five years. And yet, for no apparent reason, she no longer wanted my friendship. But the richness of an ancient landscape and the kindness of people whom I will never see again gave me gifts beyond counting. And for that, I’m forever grateful.

This entry was written by Kathi, posted on Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 02:11 pm, filed under Art & Music, Attitude, Survivorship and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

15 Responses to “Discovering Gratitude”

  1. dear kathi,

    what a beautifully written account of a series of events that could have left you simply bewildered and bereft. having such an abrupt parting of the ways with thea must still be mystifying, but being able to capture so many lovely moments when you helped others, showed your profound appreciation (the gorgeous music and photos shot to heighten your painterly eye), and shared exquisite places in time with kind-hearted people became the take – away. i always feel that adversity, be it cancer, losing a solid friendship right out of the blue, disappointment, and heartache, can turn out to kindle a little light within ou and give us the inspiration we need to get outside ourselves, and share it with others. you did that in such a joyful and giving way, and look at all the happy memories you have! such a wonderful and inspiring post – and the photos are really very lovely.

  2. Thank you, Karen, for your kind words, and especially for appreciating what a bolt out of the blue my friend’s behavior was. Yes, I was bewildered & very hurt. I tried for a few months to get in touch with her, but she refused to answer calls or emails. Finally, I got a terse, grudging sort of apology by email, and that was it. I can only think that she was processing what she’d been through herself, and externalizing her pain on me.

    You know, I think that not allowing myself to be drowned by her hurtful actions was at bottom perhaps just the practical thing to do. I’d spent a lot of money to get to southern France & I was delighted to be there, so why should I let someone else spoil it for me? I try to avoid being a martyr. xoxo

  3. Kathi, your expression of gratitude in words and pictures is a gift that I am grateful for. Thank you!

  4. Kathi, this is an awesome tale and great example you set for yourself way back when on how to deal with adversity. I’m not sure I would have been as brave as you were to stay and make joy of your experience despite being dissed by your friend. I agree, she was likely displacing her anger at her fiancé onto you. And on some level you understood that. But what it also shows is your tenacity to deal with the unexpected with strength and a good attitude, something I know has served you well since BC. Bravo my dear! You are awesome.

    Your experience with your friend reminds me of the dramatic changes so many of us experienced with our friends post cancer. You know, the folks we thought were loyal and steadfast, but who turned out to be scrims on the backdrop of our lives. I am grateful for the lens that cancer has provided me; I am better able to spot who is real and who is not now. Ya know?

  5. Thanks, Renn. Thea had been through a lot of loss herself. It’s not an excuse, but ultimately, remembering that made it easier for me to process the whole thing.

    And yes, I do know. When my mom died, I went through a similar kind of thing that you refer to, similar to what we find out about our real friends, and who can step up and who can’t, when we are dealing with cancer. It was painful, but it taught me a lot when the same thing happened again after cancer. We do learn some tough lessons, don’t we? Kind of feels like a trial by fire sometimes.

  6. Kathi,
    Your story reminds me not only of gratitude, but also of resilience. You were indeed resilient in how you handled yourself back then. I admire the way you carried on, immersed yourself in your surroundings and decided to grow as a person. I’m sorry about the falling out you had with your friend. I think it still bothers you a bit since you write about it even now. It also makes me think there was something much deeper going on with her. It’s sad when good friendships end. I lost one especially dear friendship a while back and I often wonder why my friend chose to stop being my friend. Suddenly it just ended. Sometimes it’s just the way with life I guess. Thanks for sharing this story and your insights on gratitude. Hugs.

  7. Nancy, I don’t think I would have thought about Thea except that I was telling my patient about that Ravel performance last week, and naturally remembered the whole trip. But I learned a lot about myself and about coping, that’s for sure, and it’s good to remind myself of those lessons just now. It was such a bittersweet memory. She could have spoiled France for me. But I wouldn’t let her. And neither would Languedoc. xoxo

  8. Very touching and beautiful post. Thank goodness you were comforted by the beauty and people of your location, though it must have been a very hard time in your life to have lost a friend so abruptly and without explanation.

    On another note, the story feel so cinematic to me – you should pitch it to Hollywood, or a french filmmaker, maybe? 🙂 ~Catherine

  9. Catherine, southern France is so cinematic. Little wonder so many films have been set there. Sigh. So gorgeous.

  10. What a beautiful post and extraordinary photos. I love the concept of creative resilience; and the strength to transform the shock of your friend’s betrayal into a journey you can always draw from.

    I have been in France twice, and both times I’ve been there I have been mesmerized. While I’m there I can’t imagine living any other way. Everything is gorgeous….when do you want to leave?

    I’m so taken with what you’ve written I want to look up the small village you visited, tho you captured it beautifully in words.

    Thank for telling us this amazing story,

    (and I completely agree about gratitute: it flows most freely when one is at the bottom of the heap, looking up)

  11. Yes!! Let’s go, Jode! Click on the links in the text, which will get you to the right area. Montpeyroux must still be a small village (900 souls when I was there) so it doesn’t have it’s own office of tourism, but Gignac is right nearby & there’s a link. And let me tell you, I actually found out when I was there that the former mayor of Montpeyroux (a woman) was then putting together a homecare team! Believe me, it made me want to enroll in French classes & apply for the job.

  12. Kathi … your pictures are stunning. I keep scrolling back up to look at them again – they are proof that out of pain and loss can come beautiful art that will withstand any test.
    “creative resilience,” indeed!

  13. Thank you, Yvonne. I could really write a whole collection of stories about that trip and all the lovely experiences I had. xo

  14. Always fascinating, inspiring, captivating, intelligent, thoughtful, it’s a joy to read everything you write. Please write the collection of stories and pictures!

  15. Thank you, dear Indi. One of these days…

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