Episode Twenty: A Modern Odyssey begins…
We’re told everything is in constant flux, that change is everywhere, and that nobody stays in one place anymore…some truth to that, but there are signposts to guide us on the journey from one place to another, and from one story to another…
This brief episode is such a signpost, because I want you guys to join me on a new adventure, with the people you’ve got to know through listening to Love and Care, but in an odyssey that picks up the story of our lives a few years later, after the pandemic began to recede – hopefully for good. It’s called, Me and Michel. Catchy eh?
The odyssey I’m taking you on involves a bicycle, but don’t worry, I’ll be doing the peddling. If got a companion, but he won’t be peddling either; the philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, who lived almost five hundred years ago, before bicycles were even invented. But Michel had his own invention, he called it ‘the essai’, which in French, roughly translated, means ‘to try’ in the sense of attempting something, or experimenting, in his case with a new form of writing and self expression.
We call it the personal essay, and it takes many forms, especially these days with the explosion in blogs and podcasts giving all of us platforms and ways of reaching others.
Michel also did something even more revolutionary for his times. He wrote openly and honestly about himself. Back in the day, to reveal the inner workings of your mind, to uncover the many faults and failings he felt he had, to let us in on his thinking about the big questions, and about the trivia of life, to share so conspicuously, was pretty much unheard of.
There was some biographical writing– Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, for instance, published in 1550. Or the goldsmith, artist and general bad boy Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, completed in 1562, but these works – contemporary with Michel’s essais – seek to do something very different, to celebrate, memorialise, appreciate and criticise their subjects with something like a story of a life that makes sense as the framework.
Michel is altogether different, and altogether more modern. His essais reveal a man of many facets, every changing opinion and shifting moods, in all his contradictions and reveries – as much concerned with what he does not know or understand, as with those subjects he comprehends in some way.
I’ve been having a kind of imaginary conversation with Michel all my adult life, but this is the first time we’ll get to be together for a few uninterrupted weeks, cycling through, or at least nearby, to his homeland, forty miles east of Bordeaux, in France.
We’ll be riding to the west of that great port city, but still in Gascony, and Michel was a proud Gascon, amongst dunes and pines, where his chateau, that still stands today, and his study, where he wrote his essais over the course of ten years or more, having retired from public life, can still be visited today.
His books are gone, but there’s a desk where he might have sat in the middle of his round tower room, and you can see where his daybed was, and if you’re really keen, there’s even a rudimentary bathroom…more a toilet, really.
And we’re heading south to north, from Biarritz, close to the Spanish border, all the way north to Brittany and the ferry home. About a thousand kilometres of cycle track and road, most of it hugging the coast all the way.
I won’t just be reading Michel. I’ll be writing my own essais as I go. Attempts to put my own life, now I’m beyond sixty years old, in some kind of perspective, to own my own faults and get some time to think about the many things I don’t know or don’t understand, as well as the few lessons I’ve learned along the way.
I’m not competing with the great man. I’m paying homage. I’m imitating, very poorly perhaps, and maybe it’s better to say I’m seeking Michel’s inspiration, because that’s the truth.
I’ll give you a for-instance…Michel had a devastating fear of death. Hard to fathom and affecting him deeply. When I read this in his work, I was surprised and to be honest, I didn’t really get it. Now I’m older, I do. And big time.
Recently, it’s been playing on my mind, only background, but there nevertheless, a rumble of mortality that is unmistakable and a little disturbing.
But there’s also the adventure. The ride itself, and another preoccupation of mine. Home. I’m cycling home as a kind of symbolic odyssey – just like Odysseus tried to get back to Ithaca – because I want to find a home of my own. I haven’t had my own home in many, many years.
I want somewhere to put my books. I want somewhere to have a study of my own. And I want a place my children – my two daughters – will want to visit. And a place that one day, if every there are grandchildren, I can be a child again with them.
But for now, there’s the journey in search of what home means, and where it might one day be. I’ve been learning French in evening classes. And I’m still terrible. But it might be France, because I love the country and because I might be able to make a sustainable life here. For that, I’ll need to speak French, so this trip might also allow me to practice on the locals!
But whatever happens, I invite you to join me. It’s easy to find the new season, entitled Me and Michel, and they’ll be a book to follow in due course. But join me on the journey to be part of the making of the book. If you’re already a subscriber, just stick with me. If you’re new, sign up.
Let’s hit the road.