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Healing Places

One day, for no discernable reason, I felt an urge for amethyst, a common but very sought-after mineral. The purple hue of its quartz-based crystals is formed by traces of iron in its matrix, and vast deposits of amethyst line the volcanic underbelly of the Earth, particularly in Brazil and Uruguay.

What I felt wasn’t just a want. It was a need; an obsession as strong, I imagine, as a food craving is for pregnant women. I was a rock hound as a child. I wanted to be a mineralogist when I grew up, but the infatuation faded with time, and while I have never lost my appreciation for crystals, I have not collected them for decades.

As a child, my collection was limited to my budget: saved-up allowance money that bought simple, tumble-polished stones, plus a few bigger specimens gifted to me on birthdays or Christmas.

Now, however, I was on a quest for a real chunk of rock. An amethyst geode like I’d always ogled in store windows but never had the means to buy: tall and heavy; a polished face composed of an outer border of agate caving into a center filled with large, deep-violet crystal points.

In Paris, to make such a purchase, there is really but one address: Minerales Do Brasil, in the city’s 8th arrondissement. The neighborhood is posh. The boutique is not. In fact, from the street, it is all but invisible. There is a small display window on Boulevard Malesherbes, but it is just a façade. The unmarked way in is around the corner, behind a heavy door at 86 rue de Miromesnil. If you get this far, you find yourself in a courtyard, but then need to navigate a passageway to a second courtyard to find a small — and again unmarked — wood-panel door that finally brings you to your destination.

The store’s labyrinthine location would seem a death knell for business, but there is never a shortage of customers milling slowly about the cramped aisles, scrutinizing a vast selection of rough stones, polished crystals and, to my delight, a whole room given over to amethyst geodes.

I examined each one, but kept coming back to the same, a beautiful, slender-shaped geode that was puzzlingly affordable. The sales woman explained that the price was reduced because it had fallen, cracked horizontally and had been pieced back together. The fissure was visible, but barely. It was scarred… just like me. So I bought it.

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To me, crystal formations are nature’s perfect bouquet. If you stop to contemplate how they come about, a crystal’s existence is mind-boggling. Precise, geometric lattices, stacked, repeated and built — slowly and methodically — over millions of years. Water infusions, mineral additions, gas compressions that add brilliant color and hue.

The veins of the Earth’s crust are filled with crystals, and what fascinates me most is that these miracles of physics “just are.” By that I mean that they are perfect examples of altruism. Almost everything else in life has the ulterior motive of survival or procreation. The beauty and scent of a flower favors its pollination. A peacock’s intricate fan favors finding a mate. Crystal formations, on the other hand, seem to me a selfless act of creation. They are beauty that exists simply for beauty’s sake.

As a cancer patient, I have spent a lot of time pursuing meditative techniques that lead to “The Center Within,” also the title of one of my favorite books. It is that place of peace that resides only in the present moment and steers us away from attachment and toward acceptance. I can — and should — fight for my life. I can do chemotherapy, I can cry and pray for my health. But if I am attached to the outcome, if I am unable to move with the inevitable tides of life, I will suffer.

I want to be able to accept that life — like a crystal — “just is.” It has its beauty and its fissures. It is complex and miraculous in its creation. It is built, it erodes and it ends. It is like the mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism: the remarkable sand designs created over days or weeks by monks, one grain at a time. The result is a masterpiece of concentration. But once finished, tradition calls for the ritual destruction of the mandala, swept back to the pile of sand and dust from which it began, a reminder of the impermanence of all things.

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Last fall, my wife had a sudden craving for a rose quartz ring. She was never a rock hound like me. She just has a favorite jewelry store on Ile Saint Louis in central Paris and she wanted — she needed — her next purchase to be something with rose quartz.

At the time we were in a disappointing spiral of negative in-vitro pregnancy attempts spanning some three years and were preparing a new and perhaps last try.

My wife bought her ring and much later we learned that in the lingo of lithotherapy (the study of the healing qualities of crystals) rose quartz is the stone most associated with matters of the heart, love and, especially, fertility.

Twins — to my wife’s elation and my fear-filled hope — are due in August.

This too, I must remind myself, “just is.” And it is beautiful.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Minerales Do Brasil
86 rue Miromesnil
75 008 Paris
Web Site : http://www.midobras.com

Galerie Kara (jewelry store on Ile Saint Louis)
90 rue Saint Louis en Ile
75 004 Paris
Tel : (33-1) 46 34 20 80

“The Center Within” by Rev. Gyomay M. Kubose, click here for web link to publisher.

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Last week I awoke in the middle of the night to the soft sound of wheezing. I was jostled from a dream where I was very far away. I don’t remember the details, but it was one of those dreams where coming back to consciousness is momentarily disorienting. I sat blinking in the darkness. My hands touched my throat. Was this my breath? And then I remembered : the wheezing sound was, in fact, my dinner.

For the past 10 days I’d been eating primarily in my sleep. The evolution of my disease has been a creeping constriction of my digestive track. And considering that the average length of the small intestine is already a labyrinthine 22 feet, you can imagine the discomfort if a knot were to get tied somewhere in the middle.

And so, to give my whole eating apparatus a rest, a small pump machine doles out — with a rhythmic, soft push and wheeze — drop after drop of a white nutrient-rich liquid meal through a big-vein catheter implanted in my chest. This means of nourishment is hopefully temporary, and I am grateful that it exists. I am particularly grateful that it can be administered at home. I feel like a hybrid experiment : plugged in at night; unplugged and ready to roll with a full tank 12 hours later.

The frustration, of course, is that eating this way is a tether. I’m literally tethered to tubes and an I.V. pole. But I’m also tethered to a schedule. I have to be home when the nurse comes at seven in the evening. I am confined to home until she returns in the morning.

I am not yet debilitated by my illness. And when I can — no matter how short the stretch of good days I have before me — I like to get away. In France this is relatively easy. Drive an hour-and-a-half from Paris and your new surroundings are the iodine air and D-Day beaches of the Normandy coast or, if you go south, a chateau in the Loire. When we lived in New York City, the same time investment in driving put us in… New Jersey.

I was very pleased, therefore, to learn that there is a way to spend a leisurely day in Normandy, the chateaux of the Loire and 150 other historical French sites — and still be home in plenty of time for an evening I.V. feed.

FRANCE MINIATURE

Less than an hour from Paris in a suburb close to Versailles is France Miniature, an odd but ingenious theme park cut in the shape of France and presenting some 150 1/30 scale models of almost every notable historical site and monument in the country.

A well-marked path guides visitors through the park and starts with a little Savoyard village that, while intricate in detail, veers a little too far toward kitsch. When I visited, someone had tipped the little cow figurines and a sort of Sound of Musak played over speakers ad nauseam.

But as the visit continues, you quickly come to appreciate the effort — and wonder at the obsessive compulsiveness — necessary to build these miniature re-creations. The bay of Saint Tropez is splayed out in faithful realism. Every door, roof tile and window seems to have been studied and reproduced with exact precision. The same can be said for the Roman arena in Arles, the Sanctuary of Lourdes, the chateaux of the Loire and, of course, the main monuments of Paris. Even more remarkable is the fact that the park’s five hectares of land is mapped in the exact shape of France and includes nearly every aspect of everyday life. Over 60,000 figurines populate the scenes. There are 20,000 miniature trees; a car-packed autoroute in the direction of Marseille, and three miles of railway tracks traveled by 19 model trains.

At 1/30 scale, the size of some of the exhibits remains daunting. The Eiffel Tower, for example, is still 33 feet tall and the Chateau de Versailles and its gardens are a masterpiece as impressive — in their own way — as the original.

Most memorable, at least for me, is the model of the 81,000-seat Stade de France (France Stadium), the real one having been completed in 1998 to host the World Cup of soccer, won by France that same year.

The model stadium is not just a reproduction of its architecture. It is filled, to the rafters, with thousands of figurine fans. There is a rapt energy. All these hopeful people, focused on the playing field and the goal, expectant, waiting for something to happen.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

France Miniature
Open daily from mid-April through August. Consult web site for off-season hours and ticket prices.

http://www.franceminiature.fr/en

The Hôpital Européen Georges Pompidou, in Paris’ 15th arrondissement, is the flagship of France’s public healthcare system. It opened its doors to “malades” — the French language’s unfortunate choice of word for “patients” — in 2000. This is where I ended up in late 2005, when my health went downhill. I didn’t know anything about the hospital at the time. I just needed an emergency room, and Pompidou had the closest one to my office.

I’ve always been well treated there, and Georges Pompidou has the psychological advantage of a modern and well-considered architecture. Regardless of their quality, many Parisian hospitals have an air of dilapidated austerity. You get the feeling of going back in time — too far, you think, for adequate care. Pompidou, on the other hand, is contemporary and appeasing in its design. It has an open-space, airy lobby, capped by a sloping glass roof that charges the space with an optimism of natural light.

My favorite thing about the hospital, however, is the hot-air-balloon ride.

The hot-air-balloon attraction (officially titled “Ballon Air de Paris”) technically isn’t part of the hospital. It is anchored at the adjacent Parc André Citroën, 14 hectares (35 acres) of green space resurrected on the former grounds of a Citroën car factory in 1992. The park is modern, angular and manicured. But, unlike many of the more-famous Paris gardens, you can set foot on the grass here without a man in uniform hustling over like an angry squirrel, making a “nut, nut, nut!” sound and pointing at a stay-off-the-grass sign.

And, of course, no other park in Paris has a hot-air balloon. You don’t get as high as the 276 meters (905 feet) of the third observation deck of the Eiffel Tower. But the balloon’s 150 meters (492 feet) of altitude — and the sometimes precarious sensation of free-floating — are more than adequate for a bird’s-eye perspective of the city.

I remember being at the hospital at the beginning of my treatments. It was a marathon day, calling for both a transfusion and chemotherapy. I watched the drip-drip of the i.v. with detached resentment. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a white shape rising like the moon to the level of my window. It was the balloon and I watched it, transfixed. Over the years, on numerous occasions I’ve been lucky enough during a consultation or during a treatment to be in a room with a view of the balloon.

But I didn’t take a ride in it myself until just a week ago. As we lifted off the ground, the handful of passengers crowded on the side of the balloon with a sweeping view onto the Eiffel Tower and central Paris. I lingered, alone, on the other side, watching the hospital right below me grow smaller and smaller. I liked what I felt. The feeling of rising above it all.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Ballon Air de Paris
Open daily from 9 a.m., but flights could be suspended due to unfavorable weather. Call ahead.
Telephone : 01 44 26 20 00
www.ballondeparis.com