I HAD DREAMED of Europe, and of my living there, since I was 19 years old, the age at which I first saw it, felt it, loved it--even though I was on a, gasp, tour with lots of "old" people who were probably the age I am now. It was the turbulent early '70's, the time of Vietnam, Watergate, the revolution to bring Civil Rights for all.
Europe's Old World was brand new to me. With its sidewalk cafés, its tapestry of history and cultures, its emphasis on living life in all its moments instead of rushing through them--somehow I felt at home there. Being in Europe, even for a short time, enlarged my sense of self and my view of the world. I wanted to be a part of that world, not just a visitor to it.
Fast-forward 29 years: I finally got my chance!
It all began in 2002. As of that fall, my children would both be out of the house, beginning new lives separate from my husband, Jim, and me. What were Jim and I going to do? Maybe the last daughter's impending exit for college forced that question. We had loved our wonderful old Craftsman home in Little Rock, our friends and family--collectively our roots--but over the past few years something else had also been apparent: It was time for us too to make a change. A need for transformation was slowly seeping in, and Jim and I had started talking about maybe selling our house in Little Rock and buying a place in the Hudson Valley in New York State.
Above and below, the home we left in Arkansas. (Photos by Nancy Nolan)
At the same time, we were planning what I now believe was a fated trip to France to research Jim's book Chasing Matisse, which would be a quest for living life with creativity as its center, and for valuing the journey itself. Jim was going to rekindle his lifelong love of painting by following in the footsteps of his creative hero, Henri Matisse. We were both going to learn to really see the world, the way an artist has to, instead of just "looking" at it as the rest of us usually do. We knew this trip would be a grand adventure in itself, a dream come true, and thought it would last a few months at most.
Then one day in May 2002, I was struck by a riveting notion: Why did we have to buy another house anywhere? We could go ahead and sell, pack up all our furniture (we have tons of it), and go! This would be moving beyond a mere book project to a life project, and one I'd wanted for years. We would be severing our bonds, stepping outside all boundaries, truly altering our lives. It was an aha moment. When I actually said the words out loud, euphoria bubbled up in me like the fizz in a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. What we were looking at was the proverbial Window of Opportunity. The chance and the moment had crystallized into one, and we understood. We decided to make the leap.
When I first told people what we were doing, most reacted the way I had in the beginning. First there was a moment of amazement, and then that turned to recognition of what it meant. To be homeless--oh, boy! It seems so freeing. This epiphany focused their attention on their own liberty or lack of it, and their wish to have a great adventure--or simply to escape. We all have these wishes, these dreams--though it usually feels wrong to even admit them, in case we might, God forbid, actually act them out. Or, even worse, in case we don't.
By this point in the conversation, their eyes had become opaque, a far-away expression had softened the lines in their faces, and they were looking into their own dreams and futures. There were usually comments about how wonderful it all sounded and what courage we had. They said they'd always wanted to do something like that themselves...and still would if they could. If they couldn't drop everything and leave themselves, they wanted to live vicariously through us.
That was eight years ago, and we're still here. Jim and I have been in France since the last day of November 2002. Just as I imagined, Chasing Matisse (the book, published in 2005) carried us away on a planned but uncharted voyage--a life journey. Now I've bound together my own journal from our travels--our exercise in "seeing" through my eyes: the charming inns we've stayed in, the wonderful food we've tasted, the art we've experienced, the people we've met, the endless beauty of France.
(Photo by Beth Arnold)
But more than that, here is the unfiltered, behind-the-scenes, day-to-day narrative of our exhilarating struggle to live the life we knew we had to live. In chasing Matisse, we've essentially been chasing ourselves. It's a journey I'm extremely proud of--and it still goes on. Some days it feels like a soap opera, which is why I call my journal "Jours of Our Lives." Now, like I did with my Little Rock friends, I invite you to tune in. Come with me on a journey of a lifetime. It begins next Wednesday.
Join me and see what you see.
For more on artist (and couturier) Elizabeth Cannon, click here.
---Beth Arnold in Paris