Me and Michel Chapter Thirteen

No one saves us but ourselves. We ourselves must walk the path.”  


The sky is copper-bronze, and the sun a burnished shield of cadmium orange. Streaks of thin black cirrus clouds are black silhouettes, as if painted on a Greek vase. Homer, it seems, can be addictive.

I am atop the Dune du Pilat, All around me are maybe a hundred people with exactly the same idea, here to witness the world in a state of becoming, or unbecoming as it is now evening, and to court a moment of awe. At least I hope that’s the case, because that line T. S. Eliot filched from Dante, ‘I had not thought death had undone so many,’ is drifting through my consciousness.

But I am not dead, even if some of my guests are, and nor are the people around me. Far from it. There’s chatter, and laughter, and animated conversations. This is less a mystical experience, and more like a music festival, with us, the audience, awaiting the headliners, Moon and the All Stars.

It’s seven-fifty. Sunset is listed online as eight-forty two. I’m tapping my fingers to the distant doof-doof of a boom box someone has thought to bring with them. It’s all a tad self-conscious, but I’m beginning to enjoy the absurdity of so many of us waiting reverently for a spinning rock in the void to turn a few degrees more to the east. The sun’s perfect disc is only a width away from the horizon, and I’m sure I can feel the earth’s rotation in the sun’s orbit through the sand beneath me. Or maybe it’s the rosé.

I am happy to say that most, if not all of my fellow duners, have brought their own food and drink. Many have come with blankets to sit on and whole hampers of good things           §. I had to trek some distance from the long wooden steps leading up here to find somewhere I could comfortably call my own. I’ve laid out my sleeping bag as picnic blanket, with my bottle of rosé, plucked deliciously cold from the supermarket chill cabinet, sweaty in the warm air. The very basic repas I’ve put together out of a whole pain rustique, a wedge of Comté cheese, some green olives, with fresh tomatoes, a little lettuce, and a rare tin of Dolmades, rice wrapped in vine parcels that I’m hoping will give the meal a Greek flavour. I struggled with the dessert menu and opted to keep things simple; yoghurts, framboise times two, and a bar of Milka chocolate, the one with crushed hazelnuts.

Half an hour later and the disc is a dome, as simple as a child’s drawing, and shimmering as it extinguishes itself in the wine-dark sea. To my surprise, people are leaving already, though the show is at its most grand and operatic moment. Full darkness is coming on fast and perhaps they want to negotiate the hundred and sixty-eight steps up here whilst there is still light to see by. Others are huddling together as the temperature drops, illuminated by phone screens and head torches, speaking less and in voices that are hushed by the coming on of night, and soon, we reduced to shadows and nightlights dotted over the great dune, like candles on a cake.

I’ve had all the food I want, but the others are still eating, enjoying earthly delights whilst they can. Epicurus is as good as his word, happy drinking water and contentedly munching some bread and cheese. Odysseus is somewhere out there in the dark chatting with some folk he said he’d heard speaking Greek, and he’s dragged a reluctant Marcus with him. Telling old war stories, no doubt. Nhất Hạnh and my grandfather seem to be engaged in some kind of mindfulness meditation, sitting side by side with their eyes closed with a thumb pressed against each nostril in turn. All these folk have been there for me at one time or another, usually a time of crisis, but it’s rare for me to be with any of them simply to socialise and enjoy a sunset. Rarer still to do it all together. I’m enjoying the company after so many days on the road alone.

I smile at Epicurus and say, ‘Thank you, for being here.’

‘ The pleasure is all mine,’ he says with a grin. ‘Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.’

I recognise the words from his writings. Maybe quoting yourself is one of the hazards of being dead. ‘Too true,’ I say, not wanting to embarrass either of us.

‘Ce sont pas mal,’ Michel says, trying dolmades, I would think for the first time ever in more than five hundred years. ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est ça?’

I’m glad to say that’s not a question he raised in the Essais, though in trying to answer, my poor French means I end up talking wine instead of vines. He cuts through my appalling accent with a phrase I’ll never be able to spell, let alone pronounce.

‘Ah, feuilles de vigne!’

‘Pour moi, c’est impossible à dire ça,’ I say. He gives me the pronunciation again, slowly this time, but it’s no good. ‘En Anglais, vine leaves,’ he says.

‘So much easier.’

‘But less beautiful.’

‘Tu es vraiment Français.’

‘Gascon, s’il vous plait, monsieur.’

‘I’m trying to remember when we first met. In English, please!’

‘And you ask me? You know my memory. The children were young, I know that. Attend! In the van! We were in the van together, no?’

‘Yes, but we’d met before, years before, maybe at university.’

‘I don’t think so. You had no time for philosophy back then.’

‘I got a distinction in philosophy, actually. Hobbes, Hume, Locke…’

‘Hume is okay, but still English.’

‘Hume would beg to differ.’

Epicurus is smiling. ‘We only got to know each other through Michel.’

‘But I’d heard of you, and to be fair, you didn’t write very much.’

‘I did so. Two hundred books. Is it my fault that libraries burn down and Christianity has it in for you?’

‘You’re being rehabilitated now. Though I think the word ‘pleasure’ did you no favours.’

‘Lost in translation. The principle is sound.’

‘It is, and your notion of retiring from the world is very attractive to me right now. But I note you didn’t have children. That makes living apart a mite easier.’

‘Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance. And you enjoy your children. Why complicate things?’

‘Because if I retreat from the world, don’t I retreat from them? I can’t expect them to live their lives in a garden or an orchard.’

Nhất Hạnh has opened one eye and even in the gloom, I know he’s looking in my direction. ‘Be Yourself. Life is precious as it is. All the elements for your happiness are already here. There is no need to run, strive, search, or struggle. Just Be.’

My grandfather winks at me and raises a thumb in approval, before taking a slug from the wine bottle. ‘Nothing to add to that,’ he says as he resumes his lotus posture. It strikes me how similar these two look, not just in holding the same pose and breathing in harmony, but there’s something about the eyes, if not the ears, too. Don’t you think? It makes me wonder if wisdom and a soul at peace with itself has a look, or at least a smile, that gives the game away. I’d like to have reason to wear that smile myself one day.

Nhất Hạnh was not the first Zen master I came across. ‘We found each other through Shunryu Suzuki, didn’t we?’

I think he nods assent, but the light is fading and it’s hard to tell. I do remember I came across a double audiocassette in a secondhand shop right around the time I was trying to understand my marriage was over. The reader was actor Peter Coyote and it was called, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I listened to that a lot. I didn’t understand much of it, but what a voice. I do my best Coyote warm growl in a mock Californian accent. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert’s, there are few.” That was my takeaway. No fixed ideas.’

Nhất Hạnh seems not to have heard me, but he has. He opens his eyes and gives me the Zen smile-thing. ‘Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.’

‘It sounds so simple when you put it like that. But it’s pretty hard to stop yourself worrying about what’s past or what’s still to come. Experience says keep your guard up, no?’

I’ve lost him to bliss again. Epicurus wags a slice of Comté as he speaks. ‘There is nothing terrible in life for the man that realises there is nothing terrible in death.’

‘But death is terrible isn’t it? I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.’

‘The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.’

‘But when you love people, when you love life, the thought of it ending is too much to take in, and yes I see that if you live every day as if it were your last, you’re going to give it everything. But…how do you learn to let go?’

‘Lathe biosas.’

‘Live in obscurity? I’m doing that very successfully, but I’m not sure it’s helping.’

I can just make out two shadowy figures approaching with their arms around each other. Odysseus and Marcus are stumbling towards us. I flick on my phone light before they don’t miss us in the darkness. It’s full night now, and we’re amongst the last up here. Whatever war stories they’re reprising, it’s clear Odysseus is doing most of the talking and Marcus is doing all the listening.

‘Epistrepsame!’ says Odysseus, which I’m pretty sure means we’re back, which is obvious, and a bit the worse for wear, by the looks of things.

‘How were your new friends?’

‘A good Greek family, a pretty daughter and a boy child, who will grow up to be strong, like his father. Very hospital, very… hosp…your language does not fit my tongue.’


‘I’m okay, unlike my friend here, you know what I said, be generous with others and strict with yourself. I only had one drink, and always mix the wine with water. What are you talking about?’

‘Life. Death. The usual stuff.’

“Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature. Like youth and old age. Like growth and maturity. Like a new set of teeth, a beard, the first grey hair. Like sex and pregnancy and childbirth. Like all the other physical changes at each stage of life, our dissolution is no different.’

‘A new set of teeth would be just the ticket. Things look very different from where I’m standing. Maybe I just need to worry less.’

‘If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.’

‘I like that, that’s good. I don’t remember you saying that.’

‘I didn’t, that was Lao Tzu, seven hundred years before my time.’

Michel has got the drift of the conversation. ‘When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.’

‘You withdrew from the world, right? You spent the last ten years of your life writing in your turret and reading these guys. I can’t make my mind up whether it is better to engage, like Marcus and Odysseus here, or withdraw like you and Epicurus. But then maybe I won’t live long enough to have the problem.’

Marcus is quick to respond.

‘The question is false. Men seek for seclusion in the wilderness, by the seashore, or in the mountains, a dream you have cherished only too fondly yourself. But such fancies are wholly unworthy of a philosopher, since at any moment you choose you can retire within yourself. Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.’

‘I’m not actually a philosopher. And I find my own soul to be very troubled waters.’

‘Don’t quibble. Stop talking about being a good man, and just be one. ‘

Odysseus is mumbling what sounds like a tuneless sea shanty and Epicurus is generously trying to clap along. Gangi and Nhất Hạnh’s low rumble of an ‘Om’ is taking all their concentration to sustain, but they seem to be enjoying themselves in an entirely non-competitive competition.

‘Odysseus, are you okay?’

‘Okay…okay…it is the wine that leads me on, the wild wine that sets the wisest man to sing at the top of his lungs, laugh like a fool – it drives the man to dancing… it even tempts him to blurt out stories better never told. And empty words are evil.’

He seems upset. I know from reading The Odyssey that when he cries, he cries a lot, and he’s beginning to snuffle now. I offer him the wine bottle, but he refuses and begins to curl up on the sand with his arms under his head. “Sleep, delicious and profound, the very counterfeit of death. My name is nobody.’

It’s clear we’re all getting tired, but I can’t quite let it go. I mean, how often are we all together like this?

‘What about a show of hands?’ Engage or withdraw? Who’s for engagement?’

Marcus is scribbling in a notebook. I’m glad he is getting something out of the evening. He doesn’t speak much, but he writes a lot. He raises a finger to indicate his vote. Odysseus has covered his head with my sweatshirt and I can’t see his face, but I hear, ‘ Arravoniázo!’ I’m going to take that as an affirmative.


Gangi and Nhất Hạnh are making their own position clear with the endless ‘Om’ reaching a breathless conclusion.

‘Michel?’ He has a mouthful of dolmades, very probably the last of them.

‘Hmm? Well…’ He’s licking the olive oil from his fingers and taking his time to reply.

‘There is nothing more notable in Socrates than that he found time, when he was an old man, to learn music and dancing, and thought it time well spent.’

He’s right. Instinctively I know he’s right and I always feel better when I listen to his wisdom, even if he steals so much of it from others. Nothing wrong with a bit of petty larceny. I’m prone to being light-fingered myself, especially when it comes to the big questions.