Clinical Psychologist Roni Beth Tower on a Miracle at Midlife in Paris

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Clinical Psychologist Roni Beth Tower on a Miracle at Midlife in Paris
Roni Beth Tower grew up in Akron, Ohio, majored in religion at Barnard College, earned her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Yale University, and did postdoctoral work in epidemiology and public health at Yale Medical School. She is the author of “Miracle at Midlife: A Transatlantic Romance,” which tells the unlikely (but true) story of how she, a fifty-something clinical psychologist living in Westport, Connecticut, met her husband David– who was, at the time, an international lawyer living in Paris on a converted barge in the Seine– and how they fell in love, and conducted a passionate, whirlwind, life-changing romance. She and David now live in Tarrytown, New York, and return to Paris as often as they can. Janet Hulstrand: Early on in “Miracle at Midlife” you describe Paris as being for your husband, David, “a city that encouraged him to become the person he liked being.” And you say that, for yourself, Paris “inevitably grounded me, opening my emotions in response to her beauty, her balance, her legacy of being loved.” Can you say a bit more about this? What is that special something about Paris? What is that power it holds for so many people? Roni Beth: Paris has affected David and me in profound but somewhat different ways. For David, Paris offered attitudes that liberated him from constraints he felt in the United States, and a pace that suited his temperament. In contrast to the East Coast pursuit of maximum efficiency, the French value human relationships in daily life. David found support for his needs that went beyond earning money or flattering his ego by doing work that was deemed “important.” French laws mandate universal healthcare, state-supported education from day care through university, time off for family demands, support for older adults. These are formal manifestations of the importance to the French of human welfare, and of preserving time for le plaisir. In France, people and their needs warrant attention and resources. At the micro-level, the essential “Bonjour, Madame” or “Bonjour, Monsieur” reflects the underlying respect people give to and expect from each other. In Paris, David could walk more slowly. He could enjoy the experience of both the exercise and the feast for the eyes that paraded in front of him. His clients understood that he was entitled to claim time for his personal life, to enjoy, to recalibrate. New York expectations that he would work and be available 24/7 disappeared. The French explicitly honor restoration: it is the root of the word “restaurant.” They take time off for real meals, to faire le pont (maximize benefits by taking a longer break whenever a holiday falls near a weekend), and to schedule periodic vacations both in schools and at work. My initial attachment to Paris springs from the qualities I refer to in my book. The beauty of the city nourishes my soul every day that I am there. The natural light, regardless of time of day or season, intrigues and mystifies me. The curves of the Seine force constant shifts in perspective. These natural phenomena are complemented by the human-made beauty of the buildings, the gardens, the parks, the artificial lighting and the people. There is a micro level here, too. Everywhere you look, people seek to infuse beauty into their city. Last winter we discovered hand-knit unique “hats” perched atop posts (poteaux) along the sidewalk on Avenue Rapp; huge murals decorating sides of government housing in the 13ème; smaller surprise paintings of charming street art in the 3ème. Not only does the Orchestre National de France fill its new auditorium at Maison de la Radio with renditions of Debussy and Dvořák, but small groups of musicians pop up in support of charities, playing on street corners like Place d’Italie, or even drumming to support marathon runners and entertain those who cheer them on. Attention to detail, to creating pleasure for the senses, to maintaining what already exists – from a lamppost to a patisserie display – reflects an understanding that creation and beauty feed the spirit. Another thing that enchants me about Paris is time perspective. The culture and the people embrace heritage, age, wisdom. Buildings are more likely to be renovated internally, their exteriors left intact, than destroyed. Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuelle Riva, among others, continued to star in films in their seventies, Riva until her death this year at 90. The noble roots and history of the city (and country) are visible in respect for agriculture, creativity, tradition. At the same time, impermanence is acknowledged. Every time I walk along the Seine or watch a sunset I am reminded of this truth. The French embrace the necessity of letting go, innovating, meeting needs that have evolved. A train station was repurposed into the magnificent Musée d’Orsay. The Centre Pompidou, the Bibiliothèque Nationale de France, la Villette and so many more places were deliberately created to be nourishing gathering spaces for the people. Finally, for me, along with those curves of the Seine and the ever-changing role of perspective, the uniqueness of Paris lies in the language. Spoken French, filled with melody, grace and harmony, has a softness that mirrors the curves of the river, the old cobblestone roads, much of the architecture, creating music that resonates somewhere deep within me. And, of course, there is le plaisir – the pleasure of eating, of drinking, of reading, of loving… Janet: You talk quite a bit about the importance of “plaisir” in French life and culture. What do you think is the…
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Lead photo credit : Eiffel Tower by Gadjo_Niglo/ Flickr

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and she writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program of Queens College of the City University of New York; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region (l’Aube).

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  • Karen Burns
    2017-10-06 14:21:21
    Karen Burns
    Very much enjoyed your interview. We just returned from one month in Paris (still jetlagged!), so it was a double pleasure.

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