I'm wandering around what used to be the grand gardens of a palace and are now simply grand gardens. I'm feeling a strange sense of peace, a feeling which eludes me quite often. Crows caw caw loudly, as they do all throughout Paris. The trees are January-bare, which makes them look like perfectly constructed skeletons. Historical statues line the paths and intricate fountains lay dormant, but still exquisite. This isn't Versailles, that's where I was yesterday. I'm on day 10 of my first solo trip, my first European experience, my first time to Paris (my favorite place in the world even though I'd never been there).
Day 10 out of 4, because my trip had been unexpectedly extended when my airline turned out to be overbooked, understaffed, and utterly incompetent. My return flight was cancelled as I stood at the gate and by the time I got to a telephone to rebook, there was nothing for another week and a half. While this seems quite a magical predicament, in the moment the logistics and chaos of the situation caused my anxiety to flare up into an inferno. I facetimed my sleeping mother in Ohio and cried into the screen.
"What's wrong?" she asked, holding the phone up to her ear even though we were in a video chat.
"I can't get a flight out for 10 more days," I sobbed.
"Okay. Okay," she said, still waking up at 6AM on a Sunday.
"What do I do?" I cried.
"Well, I think...Eileen, I think you have to just go enjoy yourself," she replied.
Enjoy myself? The concept is foreign to me. Well, not exactly foreign, but as a recovering addict and alcoholic, letting myself feel joy is a difficult negotiation. Historically, the things that make me feel joy also lead to destruction, of property, of glassware, and of healthy relationships. They lead me to terrible places. It was always gradual, the evening doesn't start with broken couches and screaming matches. I always enjoyed myself. In the beginning.
It is hard for me to trust myself to choose what is good for me. My pleasure receptors don't have the best track record. So when I find myself enjoying something, when I find myself feeling happy, when I start to feel magic in the pit of my stomach, my recovery walls fly up nervously. I often wonder if this is a first few years of recovery reaction, or if this is how I have to feel forever: looking at happiness from the other side of the wall. Just in case. Force field.
"I know you feel anxious," my mother's ear said to me. "And yes, you can feel anxious. But then you have to enjoy yourself."
"You can be sad and complain when you get home," so said the wisest person I've ever met.
And so I did. I tried to quiet my mind and put my anxiety aside for a few goddamn minutes so I could just have a nice time, because I had been gifted an extra week and a half in PARIS. I tried to focus on the present, the immediate, the beauty and splendor in front of me. There was plenty of it. My addict voice and my loneliness would try to stick on me, but I brushed them off as I looked on all the art I'd ever loved, ate delicious food, explored historical sites, and enjoyed the city I'd wanted to stand in since I was a child. I tried to let myself enjoy things.
So I'm traipsing through the gardens and breathing in the brisk, cold air. "This is where I want to be old," I think. "When I'm an old woman, and I've lived my whole life, whether I have anybody else with me or not, I'll come to Paris to really live here." And I smile to myself at the image of Old Eileen slowly walking through these gardens, thinking about how Young Eileen did the same thing when she was trapped in Paris for those two weeks so many years ago. And I smile.
And then I wander further still. Heading east or north, it's hard to tell without Lake Michigan always there. But I'm drawn to a tall, grand building with pillars. I do always love a tall, grand building with pillars. I walk closer and closer and discover that I'm in front of the Pantheon, a site that wasn't at the top of my must-visit places in Paris, but now that I have all this extra time, I might as well try to walk into every museum in the city.
I spend my time in the Pantheon straining my neck looking up at the incredible ceiling and murals and statues. I cautiously venture down to the crypt, where only the finest heroes of French history and culture rest. I weep in front of Victor Hugo's tomb. I weep in front of Marie Curie's tomb. I weep at the foot of Voltaire's tomb, that brilliant rat bastard.
I walk through the halls of the crypt solemnly with respect. But I also feel joy. To be in the company of these incredible minds. To be in Paris, I'm really in Paris. I smile in the crypt of the Pantheon and I think about Old Eileen again and then I catch my breath. I find a cold bench to sit down on.
It dawns on me: I've never imagined myself old before. I've never seen Old Eileen. I've never dreamed for her or planned for her. Because truly...up until now, I never thought I'd have to. I turned 30 a few months ago, and I never thought I'd make it to there, much less to silver-haired Old Eileen retired in Paris. See, even before I knew I was an addict, I knew my brain was wrong. I've known that it doesn't quite work the way everyone else's does. This world was not made for people like me. People with such a complicated cocktail (pun intended) of mental health issues. We weren't built to last. I've always assumed that I would die young and tragically, and whether I would have a hand in bringing that about, I don't know. I've never been quite ready to think about that part. I try to keep a wall between me and a lot of things. Force field.
I'd never gotten to see Old Eileen before. But here we are together, in the crypt of the Pantheon in honest-to-god Paris, living in a dream, but I'd never felt more grounded.
Amidst all the beauty of the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and the palaces and the art and the music and the air thick with magic, I am most grateful for those moments on a cold stone bench, gazing out at the future I'd never allowed myself to dream of.
About the artist...
Eileen Tull is a writer, theatremaker, and arts educator. Her work has been seen on stages throughout the country, from San Francisco to New York City. In Chicago, she has worked with Salonathon, Collaboraction, Broken Nose Theater, You're Being Ridiculous, among others. Eileen co-hosts Sappho's Salon, a semi-monthly performance series at Women and Children First bookstore. She is currently working on a book about her adventurous trip to Paris, many thanks to Alyssa and Dan for making it all possible.
Want to see more of Eileen's work?
Check out her piece, Into Blackout Yonder, from Issue III: Roots!