Forget Paris (For Now)

Local Landscape Offers Hopeful Reassurance During a Milestone Celebration

Long before I learned the word coronavirus, I had a plan for my 40th birthday last March: I’d be in Paris. I was going to take long walks in the city my grandmother had inhabited as a young woman, whose footsteps I’d followed when I was in my 20s, hungry for adventure, culture, romance. I wanted to sit at cafes, drinking espresso, watching the well-dressed natives go by, and duck into patisseries with windows full of delicate desserts. I would revisit art museums whose Impressionist paintings inspired me when I was younger, and take day trips to Versailles to walk through the orange grove and Monet’s garden, full of weeping willows he painted over and over. And I would eat lots and lots of cheese. 

Instead, I celebrated in Carrboro, North Carolina, whose nickname is Paris of the Piedmont. It’s a sweet little town with bike lanes, roaming chickens, an elementary school with a bilingual program. It’s got a food co-op with a big lawn known as Carrboro’s front porch, where (in the Before) you could get a plate of food or a bottle of wine and spend the day under the shade of huge trees, catching up with friends or just reading a book. Carrboro is above all a friendly place, one that values community. We do a lot of waving. 

On my big day, I went for a hike in the woods with a friend, the creek running high from a long, rainy winter. We talked about her job search, out of state opportunities, how long it had been since we’d seen our families, what it would feel like to hug people again. The wind moved through the bare, budding trees as we wondered what the future would bring. 

I was feeling the pandemic exhaustion along with fear of how much was behind me, my life half over, if I’m lucky. Western culture considers time linear—the past behind us, the future ahead—as well as in capitalist terms: we can save time, waste time, and borrow time, just as we would money. In English, we can race the clock or beat it. Time flies, and it can also catch up with us, its scarcity one of the challenges of aging.

I’ve spent a lot of the last year in those woods, falling into the habit of doing the same out and back over and over. That day we detoured, taking side trails I didn’t usually travel, following instinct and whim rather than a well-trodden trajectory.

Time has warped in the last year, and perhaps that’s what reminded me of an article I read years ago about the Aymara, an indigenous people who live in the Andes highlands of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile, whose language describes the past as in front of them, while the future and its unknowns are behind them. Some elders simply don’t talk about the future, believing that nothing useful could be said about that vast terrain of uncertainty. Younger speakers, however, who also speak Spanish are beginning to shift their conception of time, to include the more Western frame of future ahead, past behind.

We ended up walking in circles. It was pleasant and reassuring. There is a subtle sense of satisfaction and safety when you come upon a crossroads and, after a few moments of scanning the path, the trees, the sky, you realize: Oh, I’ve been here before. I know where I am—who I am. I got this far and I can make it further. In the last year, I’ve hung my sanity on the cyclic conception of time more common to Eastern cultures, the movement of the Earth around the sun and the rotation of the seasons telling me more than any calendar notification what time or day it might be.

After hiking, pizza was ordered; friends filled the backyard, appearing with bottles of wine under their arms, brandishing platters of extravagant desserts they’d made in my honor. We lit a fire. We ate and drank and laughed as the smoke curled toward the sky.

Spring is the season of hope, the phase of possibility, when we plant our seeds and wait to see what will grow. The white blooms of dogwood and pear trees canopy the streets. Red, purple, and yellow blooms turn the landscape into one Monet might have enjoyed painting. I still want to go to Paris, but I wonder what more I could be looking for besides this—vast expanses of tall, tall trees where the birds nest and I can walk for hours, a patio to sit with friends as we watch the fire, to marvel at the time we’ve lived, to theorize about the unknowable future, certain only that spring will bleed into summer, which will bleed into fall. That in a year’s time, it will once again be my birthday, wherever I am. 

Places to Go, Things to See: