Water lilies as survival tactic

Finding loveliness in hard situations, book clubs, and a little-known de Gaulle who fought to free occupied France.

photo: Wikimedia Commons

Apologies for the hiatus. Interviews fall through. Life happens. Freelance work happens too, and thank goodness for that. And then, a certain writer (ahem) looked at her foundering newsletter project and wondered whether to keep going after leaving people hanging for a bit. Deleting a resilience newsletter didn’t seem to send a very good message, especially in a year when resilience is supposedly more important than ever. So I’m hitting reset and seeing where things lead. Thanks for bearing with me.

Last week, a very nice group of people invited me to talk about my first book, The General’s Niece, which is about General Charles de Gaulle’s niece Genevieve, a teenaged resistance heroine during World War II. It’s something I haven’t done in more than a year, so I was super-nervous about it. Public speaking, or chatting to a group of relative strangers in a welcoming home, or talking to a lot of folks about something that is a huge part of your heart is something that makes me feel incredibly awkward and vulnerable. I’ve been working on this, though, and I think I’m getting a little bit better, talk by talk.

Among the things that people like to talk about at these gatherings are the dreams and daydreams Genevieve de Gaulle had while she was in a concentration camp. Faced with the daily cruelty and death around her, and wasting away to nothing, Genevieve could have lost faith and the will to survive. But she maintained her faith, as hard as it was to do, and she did her best to keep a positive outlook. Faith and positivity are two ways one can develop resilience, which is the ability to bounce back. But they are just as important in the related skill – perseverance – which is the ability to keep going through hard times. Perseverance aids one’s ability to be resilient, because you can’t bounce back if you can’t keep going.

Genevieve needed to keep going. While things were bad at that moment, she thought of a time in the near future where they might be good again:

“She wanted to see her loved ones again and wanted to experience another spring with all the trees in bloom,” I write. “She could think of Paris, with its watercolor skies and the gardens of the Tuileries in full color. She imagined herself walking along the gravel pathways, past the fountains and flower beds, until she reached the Orangerie. She envisioned Monet’s water lilies surrounding her in the circular rooms of the gallery, and she felt awash in their pastels. By forcing herself to think about their cloudy petals floating across the soft blue pond, she could fill her dreams with them. The blooms covered silent lakes and filled her reverie with light. These visions would keep her going until she could get back to Paris and see the lilies for real, with her own eyes.”

I’ve stood in the gallery Genevieve dreamed about, and understand how those sweet pastels could lift her spirits in such a stressful, traumatic landscape. Readers seem to like this scene, because the paintings are so famous, and they can envision what she must have thought about in her cell. Lilies are a temporary fix, to be sure. Sometimes when things are hard, or we’ve suffered a setback, we need to grasp at that kind of beauty as a reminder of what things can be. And when we do it, it gives us strength to get through hard, anxious moments, at least for a moment.

I meet so many interesting people when I do talks like these, and learn so much every time. Not every reader sees a book in the same way. They take different things away from it, and that’s definitely been the case with The General’s Niece since it came out in 2017. When I first wrote that book, it was before the 2016 election and so I viewed it as this interesting and inspirational story about a young woman coming into her own as she developed a political conscience and then became a public figure in her own right. After the election, resistance became a hashtag. Then came the Women’s March. Then, some readers likened the oppression of Jews in the 1940s to the impact of religious freedom laws on the LGBTQIA community. It heartens me to know that people have found meaning in this tale, and continue to do so, whatever that meaning may be. As history evolves, so too has people’s relationship with this book.

The waterlilies remain.

Maybe talking to readers about this young heroine last week was what reconnected me with my little mission to talk about resilience. The idea of starting something from scratch here, and going with it became a daunting task, I’ll admit. But when I think about the people I write about, I realize that something like this wouldn’t have daunted them. So instead of hitting delete, I’m going to stare this down and keep on keeping on.

A special thank you to the kind readers who hosted me last week. I hope they realize how much I love – and live for -- telling them stories. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly, not for one instant.

For those of you who might want to read more about the water lily room in L’Orangerie, here is an interesting history from its website. As always, please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions, or whether there’s something you’d like me to write about here. Your feedback helps me make this as good as it can possibly be!

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