Simone & Me
I carried her with me across Poland. From Warsaw, to Krakow, to Gdansk and back to Warsaw, she was with me. I brought little with me for that trip; a carry on suitcase and a messenger bag were what I'd packed for more than 2 weeks worth of journeying. She took up 3/4's of the messenger bag - all 716 pages of her.
Books, my Achilles heel, are always my inevitable downfall when packing for travel. I had convinced myself at least to pack just one book for our trip. It just happened that the book I had chosen, Simone de Beauvoir: a Biography by Deirdre Bair, was impossibly large & heavy. But I knew I couldn't go to Poland without her - my muse -I needed her.
You see what I admire most in de Beauvoir's writing is her courage. She bravely dives into difficult philosophical quandaries concerning class, race, gender & sex, and deftly surfaces to explain her findings to her reader with astonishing precision and detail. She does the arduous work researching, learning and thinking through her findings to then do the even more arduous work of translating all that knowledge for her reader. Her incredible ability to convey her own knowledge is stunning - as in it literally leaves me stunned. How does she do it?
Consider, for instance, her canonical feminist text Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex). Here, de Beauvoir does the work of providing a historical narrative on the treatment of women through time, to ultimately discuss the treatment of women at what was then the present: 1949, and how women can be socially and culturally liberated.
Most (myself if I'm being honest), wouldn't have the courage to see such a task through. Yet she did, and she did it many times over, producing a body of work that spans from fiction to philosophy to memoir, and each a reflection of a brilliant mind and braver woman who was compelled to share such jewels as The Mandarins and America Day by Day.
I was looking to siphon off some of that courage for myself. Traveling to Poland was my first time abroad, and I knew de Beauvoir's grounding voice would tether me, even when I felt worlds away. I was also journeying to discover a bit of who I am and what I'm made up of. My paternal grandmother was Polish, born in the small town of Kalisz. We planned to travel there, my then best friend now husband, from Krakow. We were urged to take a bus, a faster and more comfortable option, we were assured. But we're Tauruses - the both of us - and we fancied we'd remember the train ride there with more nostalgia than a bus.
We never made it to Kalisz. A nine hour nightmare wherein our train maxed out at a speed of 50 miles per hour with multiple stops due to impromptu repairs and fixes, stranded in the middle of corn fields in nowhere Poland with men drinking homemade Vodka from old milk jugs eyeing us with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity, peppered with a stint in Opal where we got off on the wrong stop and almost lost all of our belongings. But she was with me the whole time, attempting to distract me from what was hours worth of anxiously entering the unknown. We landed as far as Gdansk, about 50 miles from Kalisz, but it had felt like a feat just to arrive somewhere that wasn't an unexpected stop in no-mans land.
I flexed my own tenacity and bravery during that trip, but she was there with me the entire time teaching me how. Onward ever, not knowing exactly where I would end up, never going exactly where I thought, but still creating something incredibly meaningful, was my experience in Poland, and how I've written of it since. Still flushing out what to do with all that happened and was felt there, I channel de Beauvoir and attempt to brave it all day by day, committing as much as I can to the page.