“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel ProustAt this moment I am pleasurably enveloped in an ivory colored satin quilt in my own room with a view, at my daughter, Hadley’s, house in Atlanta. Beau, the elegant, velvety, warm blooded, chocolate colored companion that is my dog, is curled around my legs. It is the beginning of Thanksgiving weekend and I am writing in bed, my very favorite place to write, and well, my favorite place, I think, in any house. Certainly I am surrounded by new landscape, about which Proust speaks, away from the Carolina Lowcountry and well, yes, Atlanta is admittedly one of the Great Aunts of the American South. In the spirit of the weekend, I feel renewed and I see again, with new eyes, today, that Proust is just right, oh so right, about what matters.
What a delightful American holiday this is, a day dedicated to gratitude and the splendid pleasures of the table. As I packed yesterday to travel, I tucked into the red leather traveling bag that this beauty loving daughter gave me, another gift from her, a copy of the original Proust Questionnaire, in Marcel Proust’s own handwriting, in French. She gave it to me, because every holiday season for years we’ve circulated a family questionnaire amongst the large and blended family that is mine. The questionnaire we make is usually twenty questions or so, like “If you could have dinner with anyone who would it be?” or, from the original, “What is your idea of happiness?” (Proust’s answer was ” To live in contact with those I love, with the beauties of nature, with a quantity of books and music, and to have, within easy distance, a French theatre – all of which would be mine exactly! – except having access to film now, instead of French Theatre).
Completing the questionnaire is a gift of connection, or listening to each other, the one element that somehow began to be missing as the holiday became so centered around gifts and shopping. Our own family questionnaire has taken a life of its own and now, each Thanksgiving, one family member begins and circulates the questionnaire beginning on Thanksgiving weekend, by email, even though I value those old paper compilations, especially the one my sister did in her own beautiful perfect and loose handwriting, so passionately detailed in the food category. When she died, all the foods she listed as her favorites – and her list ran around the page to fill up the back (it included Duke’s mayonnaise which those from the South will understand) were gathered and cooked and served by my son’s wife at the gathering of family and friends who came to my house after the funeral.
But ah, Proust! – whose passion, curiosity and genius inspires all lovers of the arts. Virginia Woolf, the legendary writer, identified the highly sensual nature of Proust’s prose as the Proustian effect, a rejuvenating energy, the intense pleasure that we find in great art. The root of the word “aesthetic” is to feel, to be alive; it is about art that so dazzles one’s spirit that it consoles: Joy, I think, is the word.
Included in that is to feel overwhelmed with gratitude. For the pleasures of love and food, for the pleasures of grown children who now create the feast, and the birthday celebrations and the blessings of grandchildren. Proust’s own words mark the refrigerator here in Hadley’s oh so sensual home. (It is a fridge magnet her mother gave her). “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy: they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
The two warm ham biscuits, on a gold rimmed porcelain plate, delivered to my bed as I write, by my amazingly beautiful and talented daughter, illustrates it all. Amen.