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Paris Dispatch, 5-18: Reflecting
Sarah Bernhardt's Mirror

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak

"I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
Well I take my spirit and I smash my mirrors
Now the whole world is here for me to see."

-- Jimi Hendrix

"Rien est joué
Mon coeur batte encore."

-- Almacita

PARIS -- When I first lived in Paris, I used to collect things. My most prized possession was Sarah Bernhardt's personal mirror. (La Sarah gave it to her personal make-up assistant, who gave it to a photographer taking photos at her retirement home, who left it to his wife, who left it to her son, who sold it to me one Saturday in Montmartre.) After the mirror would be my Leonor Fini art books, including a numbered copy of a limited edition "Story of O" the late surrealist painter illustrated, and two other books, also numbered. Then probably the #2 edition of Paris Match, which was actually the first to devote the cover to just one person, and she was...Katherine Dunham. Then perhaps various objects associated with Camus, including a recording of him reading "The Stranger" from start to finish, the Paris Match published after his random death, an edition of Combat published as the Parisians were chasing the Germans out (complete with an editorial by Camus and a man on the street report by one J.P. Sartre), and various novels and journals. Then would come my other art books, or maybe my music collection, which serves me as a an occasional DJ (monikers: MC World Beat & DJ Yo MaMa.) Then some things which are actually useful: A churro maker from Spain in a box decorated with a picture of a happy Franco-era familiy enjoying them with coffee, twin coddled egg cookers from England, and three mixer-babies. Then various plates, glasses of specific marks (Pastis 51, Aveze, etc.) and the carafes and ash-trays to go with them. (I probably have the most ash-trays of anyone who doesn't smoke you've ever met.) I guess I'd throw in (possibly breaking my back in the process) my gold-plated petanque boules and their leather hand-strap, and, going back to San Francisco, my Samuel Johnson Liar's Dice Tournament cups and then, back to childhood, my high school year books. En fin, my treasure box, including the pocket-watch my grandfather Morris got on his bar mitzvah, lots of photos of my three cats Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey in our W. 8th Street Greenwich Village and rue de Paradis Paris apartments, my Mission High School ring, some war-time silver nickels and a bunch of Kennedy half-dollars my grandfather and others gave me. I also have four record players, including one in a valise that matches the one Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando made out to in "Last Tango in Paris," except that it's green. (Theirs was orange, I think.)

Most of these things, the French-connected ones anyway, I collected at vide greniers (basically neighborhood-wide garage sales; vide = empty, grenier = attic) in Paris and the southwest of France over the past decade.

In late June 2007, when I lost the first of my cats, Mesha, I remember going -- from force of habit, trying to find a rock in routine -- to a vide grenier three days later off the Canal St. Martin. Wandering around the various tables and looking at the junk, I said, "Can you sell me back my dead kitty?"

While I was amassing all these...things... I was discarding people right and left. Do something to upset me? You're outta here! Don't fit what I'm looking for in a girlfriend or don't want me for a boyfriend? Asta la vista, baby! Got a fault? I can do without you.

Now I find myself in a position where I may lose everything -- well, all my 'stuff,' anyway. And I've been thinking about that mirror. And the value I place on it. For instance: When Sarah Bernhardt was dying, did she find herself thinking, "Boy, I'm sure going to miss that mirror!"? Well, actually, she'd already given it away to her make-up artist, starting the chain of events that would one day leave it to me. So, if even Sarah Bernhardt could dispose of her own mirror, why can't I? Well, the obvious answer is that that for me the mirror has an extra value as...Sarah Bernhardt's mirror. But really -- it's not Sarah Bernhardt. If Sarah Bernhardt left us anything, it was in her capacity to feel and to project those feelings on stage at an intensity that evoked our feelings and passions...for and with others. And inspire ouir own capacity, or at least ambition, to be moved so deeply, to feel so deeply, to be so alive in our interactions. It was, in effect, not her mirror, but her role as a mirror. And let's move from Sarah to her neighbor in the Pere Lachaise cemetery from which -- oeuf, Freudian slip -- I meant to say, here in the 20th arr. of Paris from which I'm writing you -- let's move to her neighbor Pissarro, whose art is in a lot of those books I value so much. In 1870, Pissarro fled Louveciennes as the Germans approached. When he got back a year or two later, the Germans had left but not before sacking 1,500 of his works of art, just about everything he'd created. 1,500 works! Pissarro was 40 years old when.... he lost everything...But did he? He went on to create something just as if not more precious: Lots of children, and the love with his wife Julie that produced them. Not to mention a few more paintings -- which are plenty to move someone like me 100 years later. Why do they move me? Like Sarah, with the vibrancy of life. Of emotion.

So here I am in Paris, here I am unplugged in the City of Love from all my things (and really, the only one that really counts I lost in February, my last cat Sonia). Naked. Just my heart. Just the most valuable thing I have. Still intact. And finding living things much more valuable than any dead matter.

For my cats Hopey, Mesha, and Sonia, who I miss every day, and for Valerie, in the land of the living.

For more of Paul's reflections on life, society, culture, food, and politics in France, click here. E-mail Paul by clicking here.

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