France on Fridays: Escalier au Ciel

REPOSTED from a 2011 series of posts

Stairway to Heaven • Sunday, June 4

In a city with one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, where do you go on Sunday morning? Mass at Notre Dame, bien sur!

Leaving the hotel, DeLinda and I walk the now-familiar streetscape, winding past the shops and cafés we’ve come to know on this daily passage. It is not as foreign as it was that first, map-in-hand day. The pâtisserie, the copy shop, the boutiques. The lovely French women in scarves and heels with wisps of perfume drifting as they pass. The short Napoleon-like Frenchmen, confident in stride and stance. It is the transition that happens whenever you travel, small and careful steps concede to confident stride.

We stop at one of the pâtisseries along the way to sample the morning fare.

Bonjour,” we smile to the woman behind the counter; she reminds me of my high school French teacher, Mrs. Masaccio.

Bon matin,” she smiles back.

In broken French, we make our selections and watch as she wraps our treats in tissue paper and slips them into parchment bags.

She is the owner, and I think of the business owners I know at home. My clients opening their shops on Main Street in the early morning.

“What is it like?” I want to ask, “being a woman business owner in France?”

“I own a business, too.” I would tell her.

“How long have you been doing this? Do you enjoy your work?”

But I do not have the words for the conversation I would like to have, so I just nod my appreciation and give her a knowing smile. I like to think she understands.

The Metro stop is around the corner, and we descend into the winding tunnels of lovely white tile, decorated with bold colored advertisements, and glide along to Île de la Cité and Notre Dame.

The plaza in front of Notre Dame is early-morning quiet. Instead of the hum of tourists, DeLinda and I are greeted by the glorious sounds of the bells of Notre Dame chiming out the hour. Above us, the three amazing carved portals, the crazy-quilt of architecture, the immense flying buttresses, and the famous gargoyles watching our every step.

Inside, a heavy smoke of incense lofts overhead, the choir sings in French, and a muffled “Amen” marks the ending of the 8:30 mass. It sends a chill up my arms. This place is dark and still, holy and…familiar.

I was raised Catholic, but it has been many, many years since I voluntarily entered a church to attend a mass. I am not prepared for the wave of emotion that fills me as I walk around the tourist perimeter of the cathedral. The tears sneak up on me as if to reveal some past, deep sadness, and they don’t stop.

“Was it a spiritual moment?” a friend will ask me later. Spiritual, perhaps, but in the moment it is quite off-putting, and I wonder to myself, “Am I supposed to be Catholic after all?” The thought surprises me, here in Paris, here on vacation.

Sitting through the 10:00 mass, old memories visit. I remember my Grandmother and her quiet reverence of her faith. I remember my father and his Catholic upbringing. I remember how important it was to my parents that I be raised Catholic. And for a while, it seems like this is an important moment. Perhaps I’d been too stubborn in turning away from the religion of my family. Perhaps I had not understood it enough, not given it enough time or patience.

And then, in a dark and righteous voice, the priest reads the second reading, while I follow along in printed English…

“I mean this: if you are guided by the Spirit you will not fulfill the desires of your lower nature. That nature sets its desires against the Spirit, while the Spirit fights against it…. Anyone can see the kind of behavior that belongs to the lower nature: fornication, impurity, and indecency; idolatry and sorcery; quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues and jealousies; drinking bouts, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who behave in such ways will never inherit the kingdom of God.”

His voice reminds my of my Grandmother’s funeral and the priest who warned us of the error of our ways, the darkness that would come to us in the end. “Beware,” he’d intoned in a deep, ominous voice, “for ye know not when you will be taken.” There had been no celebration of her life, just a dark foreboding of death and damnation. I’d felt alienated then, and again, now, as I sit in this beautiful testament to faith and art and reverence.

“What a shame,” I think, “to use this magnificent creation for the execution of man-made rules of right and wrong. Here, in this impressive space, it should be a celebration of our amazing gifts, the beauty of this place…the magic of this life.”

Then I relax into my seat, tune out the sermon, fold the mass program in quarters, and silently celebrate all that is in front of us. The mass is spoken and sung in French, voices echoing against the immense stone walls, the grand Rose Window glows from the morning sun. Heavenly French perfumes mix with divine incense, and stir the senses.


Click here for a slide show of photos called: The Spirit of Notre Dame


Sitting against our small wooden chairs, DeLinda and I pat each other softly as if to say: “I know, isn’t this amazing?,” “I know, aren’t you so glad we did this?” “I know, it’s almost over.” I forgot how long a Catholic mass can be.

After mass, we wander the grounds of Notre Dame and stop for lunch — French onion soup and croque-monsieur — at a café amidst the sudden flurry of tourists. From our window seats, now, it is hard to believe this space was so still and silent just hours earlier.

Despite our agenda for the day, the café insists we stay a while. It is like that here — sit, stay, relax — not at all like the fast-lane, drive-thru, hurry pace of home. The French, for example, have yet to master “to go.” After lunch, our “take-away” coffees take 10 minutes to prepare and are served in scalding-hot cups sans lids!

Leaving Notre Dame, we make our way across the Île de la Cité to Sainte-Chapelle, a 750-year old Gothic chapel said to house Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Perhaps this is the reason we encounter the x-ray machine and pat-down security at the main gate. Another sign, like the machine-gun-carrying guards at the Eiffel Tower, that our world has changed greatly since my early dreams of this place.

Saint-Chapelle is a glorious structure that, once inside, appears to be made entirely of stained glass. In the upper chapel, every inch of wall, floor, and ceiling is gilded and ornate. Detailed mosaic tiled floors, decoratively painted trompe l’oeil walls, and elaborate wood carvings set the stage. The King’s throne sits high above; it looks like the inside of a Fabergé egg. And then! The stained-glass windows! There are 15 windows totaling more than 6,500 square feet of glass. With shimmering colors of cobalt and ruby and emerald, you feel like you are standing inside a kaleidoscope.

We stay for a while, then leave and find our way to an outdoor flower and bird market, across the Seine to the Centre Pompidou for a visit to the famous colorful, dancing Stravinsky Fountain.

It has been a long day, but we have one more stop before day’s end — the top of Notre Dame. In preparation, we find a corner café and feast on chocolate mousse, fresh raspberry tart and frothy, decadent hot chocolates! Outside the café window, the Seine and street vendors, and Paris in her Sunday best.

“You should not ascend to the towers if you are pregnant, have a heart condition, or suffer from vertigo,” warn the signs at the entrance of the Notre Dame towers, sounding like one of those U.S. pharmaceutical commercials. DeLinda and I, feeling young and healthy — and appropriately nourished with chocolate — walk through the doorway.

As our eyes adjust to the dim light, we see a dark column of stone spiral steps leading upward. 387 steps, to be precise. Three hundred and eighty-seven. The width of the staircase is no more than five feet across, and the steps no deeper than 10 inches. Their centers are worn, with smooth indentations marking the millions of visitors who have also braved this staircase.

We hold tightly to the metal railing along the outside of the column and pull ourselves up, step by step, trying to stay at the widest edge. In doing so, we find ourselves looking down, guiding our feet so as not to lose footing. And then, looking up to see where we are…it turns out we do suffer from vertigo after all!

“It’s a good thing,” I wheeze to DeLinda, “we did this for my fortieth birthday. Any later, and I’d be dead by now.”

We would have laughed. We didn’t have the lung capacity.

And so we climb. Around and around. And around. Small windows at each story trick us into thinking we’re almost there. Voices above and behind us encourage the same, “We’re almost there. Almost there.” But we’re not, so we just keep climbing. There’s no alternative, really.

Three hundred and eighty-seven steps and several seated pauses later, we find ourselves at the top of Notre Dame overlooking Paris; it is worth every gasp of breath and aching muscle!

From the top, we visit up close with the gargoyles of Notre Dame, including the famous Stryga. We see the magnificent facets of the stonework and sculptures. We see the details in the city below, the perfect lines of streets and houses and building laid out in geometric perfection.

We can see for miles, and catch glimpses of where we’ve been and where we have yet to go. We watch the tiny specks of people walking in the plaza below, the skateboarders performing on the sidewalk — each of us silently dreading the 387 steps we must now descend to find our way home for the evening. There’s no alternative, really.

Do you know how, when you learn something new or are thinking about something in particular, you see it more often? Notice it more than you would have if you weren’t thinking about it? Well, I will tell you, there are an awful lot of steps in Paris! I had not noticed them before our trek to the top of Notre Dame, but I do now: the steps down to the Metro, the steps from one train line to the next, the steps out of the Metro station near La Madeleine up to Rue Royale, the two stories of mercifully carpeted spiral steps we must climb to our hotel room — the elevator mysteriously out-of-order for the evening.

We settle in to our nightly routine. DeLinda writes quietly in her journal, and pens poetic postcards home. I shuffle through my backpack — dumping everything out on the bed, tucking away the day’s collections, reorganizing the contents neatly for the next. We wash our clothes in the sink, roll them to dry and hang them where we can with hopes they will be clean-enough and unwrinkled by morning.

As we crawl into bed wearily before seven, we look forward to the day ahead, our last full day in Paris.

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
C’est La Vie
La Plus Longue Journée
À Travers La Ville
Petits Oeuvres D’art

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne, DeLinda Fox.

For more by Jen Payne, purchase a copy of Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind! BUY THE BOOK TODAY!

Uncharted Territory


Mermaids. Lovers Island. Gull Rocks. Umbrella Islands.

Sounds enchanting, doesn’t it?

I have been here before. On white-knuckle rides with wakes that crash onto shores and startle gulls. There is no romance to rocks at that speed.

But we took a slower pace, me and this man who breathes water like I breathe air. As sure-footed as I am on wooded paths, he is on the waterways that border the southern shore of my world. There are 22 miles of coastline here, with coves and inlets, rivers and creeks, harbors and a thousand islands from here to the horizon.

How often do I catch my breath at the beauty that is right around the corner from my day-to-day?

And how does one express gratitude for all of this? The blessing of this place. The chance to explore so slowly on a sparkling spring day. The gift of trust so surely grounded — even on water.


A new experience in my sights.


Leaving the Cove


Seeing Mermaids


Lovers Island


Cairn near Johnson Point


Rocky Shoreline


Gunkholing (look it up)







Towards Pages Cove


Umbrella Islands




Green Island




Rounding Johnson Point


Returning to Mermaids


Word & Photos ©2015, Jen Payne

A Big Fan


In the front bedroom of the house my Grandmother owned from the time her husband was killed in Okinawa until her own death in 1998, there was a fan.

It was large window fan, stalwart like her, with a six inch rubber belt wound around two pulleys, the partnering of which turned the giant steel blades with such determination that it teased cool summer shade from the ancient maple near the patio, through the back porch and kitchen, into the living room, up and around the bend in the steps, and down the hallway where the bedrooms lined up and we all slept on July nights in Bethlehem.

Its reliable mechanics, like the inner workings of the steel mill across town, represented the ideals of good and right and worth a long-fought battle.

It was not the type of fan you sentenced to the dump because the cost to repair it was so much greater than the cost to buy a new one.

It was not the type of fan you tossed to the curb after a summer or two, like the gadgets in the seasonal aisle next to the display of ninety-nine cent American flags Made in China.

That fan was never lazy in its labor, never turned off from a hard day’s work, and never complained.

In return, we didn’t take it for granted, and gave thanks for it often. We weren’t divided about its value, never questioned its strength, nor its ability to hold up under the hottest conditions.

My Grandmother’s fan was the kind of machine that demanded your respect, quite frankly because it earned your respect.

Words ©2015, Jen Payne
IMAGE: Bethlehem Pennsylvania graveyard and steel mill, by Walker Evans

Sitting with Dragonflies


Originally Published November 2010


On Saturday, a friend posted the following on his Facebook page:

“Tired today. Plan on doing NOTHING!”

Two hours later, a new post appeared:

“OK, so ‘nothing’ didn’t last long…kitchen is cleaned top to bottom and I’m on my 2nd load of laundry and off to clean the bedroom and bathroom…always something.”

There IS always SOMETHING isn’t there?

At a women’s group last week, we were asked to think about what we would do — what our hearts most wanted — if we could choose anything, with no regard for obligations, cost, or time. Something “just for us.”

“I’d take a month off,” I said. “And spend the time at home, just doing nothing.”

And then I elaborated: “You know, clean the house, reads some books, do some writing, go for long walks, organize the art room, finish a collage, get out in the garden, have friends over for dinner, move the furniture….”

Now, if I had not been the first one to respond, I — like the other women in the room — may have had time to think of something a little sexier:

Travel to Paris.
Learn a new language.
Finish my novel.
Drive cross-country.
Overcome fear.
Lose 15 pounds.

But none of these — my interesting-as-a-cardboard-box list or the yummy-sexy-life list — can remotely be considered nothing.

Just this past weekend, I was in Massachusetts with the intent to do nothing but visit with friends and relax. As is always the case when I go away, I brought my trusty backpack, filled with all sorts of nothing…the short story to edit, the book to read, the unfinished journal entry, the art supplies—just in case.

Just in case, what?
Just in case I end up doing nothing?

So, what is “doing nothing” anyway? Are there different interpretations—can there be? Is one woman’s nothing another person’s tyrannical to-do list? Are we genetically predisposed to different levels of nothing?

A magical woman I knew used to talk of sitting outside and letting dragonflies dance in her hands. “I can hear their wings flutter,” she would whisper, as if sharing a secret.

The secret is this…nothing is not nothing.

Doing nothing is simply the freedom and time and space to do something. To do those somethings that ground us, that help us rebalance, that bring us joy. Cleaning the house? Maybe. Or reading a good book. Going for a walk in the woods. Or simply sitting with drangonflies.

If you LIKE this post, then you’ll LOVE the book! LOOK UP! Musings on the Nature of Mindfulness includes 75 essays and poems about nature, balance, spirit, connection…and 100 color photographs capturing the woods and shorelines of New England. Click here to BUY IT today!

Photo by Olga Gerasimova, courtesy of iStock Photos

The Time Has Come, the Walrus Said, to Talk of Many Things


The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done —
“It’s very rude of him,” she said,
“To come and spoil the fun!”

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
There were no birds to fly.


And so it was that Matt and I headed out on a beautiful morning, with the canopy of a bright, blue sky and the sun at our backs. There were, actually, plenty of birds overhead — good omens of crows and hawks to guide our way.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
“If this were only cleared away,”
They said, “it would be grand!”

“If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

“O Oysters, come and walk with us!”
The Walrus did beseech.
“A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each.”


We were off to visit my dear friends Frank and Judith, “for coffee” we’d said. For introductions and conversations, too. And oysters, a gift from Matt.

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head —
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat —
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn’t any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more —
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.


With big smiles and generous hugs, the four of us headed straight to the kitchen for a lesson in shucking, and preparations for a feast that included these fresh ocean jewels and a sinful assortment of French pastries. Très délicieux!

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.”

“But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
“Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!”
“No hurry!” said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed —
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”

“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?


The view was fine — out through large windows to snowy woods on a winter day, then across the table to the warm, smiling faces of our hosts. The conversation was equally delicious — sharing first encounters with oysters, with new homes, with new loves. Laughter boiling over.

“It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf —
I’ve had to ask you twice!”

“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.


Indeed, we ate every one — oysters and pastries alike! The time had come then to take our leave. But not before posing for a group photo and promising to meet again soon. We waved good-bye out windows, and agreed it had been just like visiting family. Yes, what a pleasant run!

“The Walrus and the Carpenter,” by Lewis Carroll from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.

Discover the Magic of Nature: Just in Time for the Holidays!


Offered as an antidote to the fast pace of our lives and the toll it takes on our minds and spirits, LOOK UP! Musings on the Nature of Mindfulness is a clarion call to get up and get out — to look up from our work, our distractions, our routines — and to find our way back to the simple pleasure of being in Nature.

– – – – –

“LOOK UP! asks us to pause for a time, look around us
and breathe 
in all the magic in our world. This is a book
to keep close by and re-read again and again.”

– Margaret Iacobellis, Poet/Writer

– – – – –

Written by writer and poet Jen Payne, LOOK UP! includes 75 essays and poems, 100 original, color photos of the woods and shoreline of Connecticut, and quotations by philosophers, poets, naturalists, and treasured writers.

LOOK UP! Musings on the Nature of Mindfulness
288 pages, 5×7, 100 Color Photos
Index, Bibliography
ISBN: 978-0-9905651-0-9

*** CLICK HERE ***

This Reflection


Nose job, face lift, and breast enhancements complete, the patient beams at her plastic surgeon and proclaims, “I finally got self-confidence.”

Funny, it took me ten years of therapy to “get” mine. It took even longer to gracefully accept the tummy that never goes away and the nose of which I’ve never been quite fond.

But I look in the mirror and see, staring back, a face I recognize. There’s a scar on my forehead that’s been there since my sled hit a tree when I was five. And another on my chin from standing too close to a golf club in mid-swing.

This face has my mother’s eyes and my Grandmother’s cheeks. I see my father’s smile (and yes, even his nose). It’s a face I’ve known all my life, and I don’t mind one bit that it looks a little wiser, a little worn.

This body — with all it bumps and imperfections — has moved around just fine in this world. It has swam in the ocean and hiked up mountains. It has danced until dawn and slept until noon. It has eaten amazing feasts and had fantastic journeys. It has marched, skipped, reclined, sashayed, and stretched. It has been whistled at, greeted warmly…and loved.

No botox. No silicone. Yet no less sweet, no less precious.

With life well-lived, the lines will tell of love and laughter, the gray hairs of many years, the tummy of good nourishment, and the rough soles of heartfelt journeys.

What more is there to “get” than that?

WORDS, from the archives, ©2009, Jen Payne
IMAGE: Woman Looking at Herself in the Mirror, Suzanne Valadon

The Breath of Connections

Helen Hills Hills Chapel, Northampton, MA

It was an escape of connections — meaning an escape to connections, about connections.

In Northampton, Massachusetts, I re-connected with my college roommate Melissa, mere miles from where we met in Amherst nearly 30 years ago.

Jen and Melissa

After a meal and the start of a conversation that would continue on until morning, we enjoyed an evening with Krishna Das at First Churches of Northampton, a stunning backdrop for a sacred concert of Sanskrit chanting.

Krishna Das, First Churches of Northampton

My breath rises within me,
the breath of the heart.
The sweet breath.
The sacred breath leads me in.

– Krishna Das

The next day, a visit with friends Judith and Frank, and the gift of a conversation that unfolded over six hours—food, books, writers, words (and silence), how we process…how we love. “To me the give-and-take of conversation is the breath of life,” Judith writes on her blog, Touch2Touch, which served as our introduction several years ago. How wonderful its tagline: “Only connect!” Amen.

Jen and Judith

Frank reading one of the first copies of LOOK UP!, Jen’s new book



It’s hard to believe it has been FIVE YEARS since I quit smoking. Five years, today!

It ranks in the Top Five of my proudest accomplishments, sharing space with starting a business, buying a house, visiting France, and writing a book. It is that big.

It is that big because it was not just about quitting smoking. Quitting smoking is not just about quitting smoking.

Quitting smoking is about making a commitment to being healthy — mind-body-spirit healthy — and deciding to change your lifestyle so completely that smoking is no longer an option.

Quitting smoking is about making peace with the empty space — and the fear, loneliness, sadness, and grief that tends to congregate there. Everyone has an empty space. Everyone. And nothing fills it up — not cigarettes or alcohol or shopping or sex…or even cookies. You just have to make peace with it.

Quitting smoking is about the long haul. It’s a marathon event that might be helped by pills or patches or programs, but in the wee hours of the morning, it’s just you and the long, quiet road ahead. You have to feel safe there.

Quitting smoking is about support. Friends and family and loved ones who support your effort 100%. Who don’t let you slide, cheat, reconsider. Who cheer you on with love and atta-girls and encouragement — the day you quit, the week you quit, the month you quit. And yes, even five years after you quit.

But ultimately? Ultimately, quitting smoking is about loving yourself enough. Finally.

To Fred, MaryAnne, Martha, Bob, Carol, Dale, the folks at K&G, Mary, Pamela, Rhonda, Stef, Steve, Tara, DeLinda, Melissa, Doreen, the wonderful women from my Sharing Circle, Dr. Brainerd, Dorothy, David Sedaris, Pat and Betty at CVS, and everyone who stood witness, I thank you from the bottom of my healing heart and lungs.

If you want to stop smoking, please read this book now.