creative ramblings & reverie

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Writing Spaces

That age-old pastime: writing stories in the stars.

image: Two perseids meteors and their radiant (crossing of dotted line). Two star constellations are indicated. Mila Zinkova Anton

End of the Millennium Way (after the Navajo)

In the year now dawning,
full of kindness may I walk.
With my eyes open to beauty may I walk.
With friends beside me may I walk,
and tell the constellations with our hands.

Mindful, will I make my way again.
Mindful, will I make my way
among the stones of fallen temples
laid out now meandering and lovely
ahead, through sage and red poppies,
as long contemplative paths.
Lovely quizzical paths. Paths looping
like question marks back on themselves. Or,
lovely too, a looped canoe sail petroglyph,
marking my way back, mindful, to the start.

On a road of wonder may I walk.
On a road of wonder, alive to every turning, may I walk.
With spirit dancing,
like the sun on water, joyful, may I walk.
Beside the bay of sea turtles,
barefoot and humbled by their wisdom, may I walk.

May I walk high above the sea
and in it, up to my knees.
May they acknowledge me, the sea turtles,
and swim around me easily.
May it be lucid and green there, where they are.
In the tracks of deer dancers
with pine bough antlers may I learn to dance.
May there be sunlight on the far hills, and
the light of stars at night in ancient canyons on old snow.
May Orpheus too come, and all the gods I learned
to call by name once in a distant starwashed place.

In this last year of a thousand, celebrating, may I walk.
May every step be celebration, telling
everything there is (there is so much!) to celebrate.
May I, stepping, sing. Exultate jubilate.

It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.

—Christie (January 1, 1999)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Writing Spaces

A favorite vantage point in Hawi, Hawai'i, one blissful September of writing all day long.

image: Christie B. Cochrell, Hawi

Friday, December 11, 2009

Writing Spaces

El Ateneo Bookstore in an old theater in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

image: David

January Journal (2002)

Released from the office long enough to pick up a check across campus, I make my way among the art students sitting crosslegged on the cold pavement outside the studios, with watercolor sheets or small square canvases, jars, brushes, and palettes mottled with pigments. They're trying—absorbed—to match the color of the winter earth: muddy loam, bark mulch, confettied leaves; rich and elemental.

In a jar, water the au lait color of the Mississippi before it rolls on finally into the Gulf—beyond the convent, the perfume and voodoo shops, the French Market, beyond Burgundy, Dauphine, Basin and Rampart, Bourbon and Royal and Chartres, the streets of saints, defense, remembrance, streets of sin and riffs, the black hands opening oysters and pouring rum, and opening more gently come morning the gospels and Revelations, there beyond Decatur and Tchoupitoulas, at the end of Iberville, north of Algiers.

Not drab at all, the winter browns they alchemize deftly in that squeeze of pigments, the oily globs of color, viscous and velvety as mud itself.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Writing Spaces

To remind us of balmier days . . . when writing didn't have to be done huddled next to a space heater. When, indeed, writing could be set about at leisure, and daydreaming as well.

image: Chairs overlooking the grain fields in Høje Taastrup, Denmark. Photographer: Dan Simon

Letter from the Desert

A letter on a torn brown bag (the bag
held beer, cloud-capped and warm
from skeining down along the canyon road)—
“The cliffs!” he says, “bruised blue with thunder-
clouds, where storms have caught and pooled.

“In the unplumbed quiet of the coming night
the dark is being pencilled in around me,
all along the sky—a gritty line of dark,
like silt, that slows my welling thoughts.

“An enormous solitude has thrown its shadow.
In it, I am held as still as dusk-fed water
in a hand. I tremble at the point of brimming
over; rushing, mad, between all fingers.
Too deep becalmed, I am become the maelstrom.”

In the very epicenter he remarks on it
and lights, just as the pencil blacks him in,
a fire of sage and tumbleweed to read by—
letters of some long-dead Greek, a poet
who has given the stillness words.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Writing Spaces

Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love.  

Things We're Thankful For

Here's my briefly described list of things that have delighted me in the past week and for which I am thankful:

1. The return of the ancient dancing woman to Farmer's market. Last seen dancing to to Greek music, she reappeared to the sound of marimbas from Zimbabwe via Santa Cruz.

2. A branch laden with persimmons on my desk

3. Birds on the water at Half Moon Bay

4. Black tea

5. Undying love

6. Stories, told and untold

7. Sunset over the Pacific

8. The dignity of very old dogs

9. Antique flavors: ginger, Greek olives, chocolate with chili, cardamom

10. Friends in all weathers

11. Sitting in a pool of sun on a cold November day

12. Laughter



A dozen or two things that I am thankful for:

Some just-cut pine next to a pile of tangerines.

The sagacity of playwrights—Stoppard, Shakespeare, Brian Friel.

The long memory of inland mesas that is in me, and black-hearted blue waters on the Kona Coast.

The dusty contemplative green of Medieval French tapestries.

Geodes—plain on the outside and full of surprises.

To have my name spoken in wondering love.

Little scowling Venetian stone lions that make me smile.

Apple-scented brandy from old trees in Normandy.

Getting above the turbulence.



British detective stories.

The sounding of a temple bell.

My teacup from St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, even now with its fatal crack.

The meandering of an oxbow river like an artist’s signature below me on the land.

Tandoori spices; grilled onions and peppers with the mark of the grill on them.

Lime and ice and Perrier.

The impertinent wet noses of Black Labs.


Eyeglasses—the ability to see.

Barack Obama.

The intriguing thought of water on the moon.

Clover honey and orange pekoe tea—both which my Granny Belle gave me.

This song by Juan Diego Florez (J’ai perdu mon Euridice, Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck):

The chance to say how glad all these things make me.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Writing Spaces

Le nom de Dieu écrit en arabe sur un mur d'Eski Cami à Edirne, Turquie.

image: Nevit Dilmen

Writing Exercises

For this Thanksgiving month:

Describe a dozen things you're thankful for.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mushrooms à la Grecque

Friends are coming for drinks tonight. My philologer friend from New Hampshire and her partner, an astrophysicist, born in Florence to a family of gem merchants. At Draeger's I buy a Côtes du Rhone "from the mountains," with the name of a female saint (though tempted by one that is said to taste like plum pudding); a soft French cheese called d'Affinois, so ripe it's bellying gently from the confines of its white rind; a loaf of Grace Bakery's Pugliese bread; and a bit of goat cheese—to eat with the roasted red peppers I walk a couple of blocks down Main Street to buy at A.G. Ferrari's, along with mixed olives flavored with orange rind, and grilled polenta squares with the stripes of the grill across them. And from DeMartini's Orchard, approached by u-turn across busy San Antonio Road, a pound of little white mushrooms, weighed in the scale, the smallest and firmest I can pick out, for Mushrooms à la Grecque.

I make the marinade first: bring what seems like too small an amount of water to a boil in my big kettle, then drop into it fennel seed, coriander seed, a bay leaf—two, dried thyme, and ten peppercorns, to simmer for twenty minutes. After the herbs have been reduced to their quintessence, fragrant and flavorful, I'll add olive oil and lemon juice, squeezed from bright rough yellow lemons. I can't wait to taste the delicate lemony flavor of these mushrooms again. They were so delicious, when I made them in the summer. But they'll have to marinate for hours first.

While the liquid comes to a boil, I wash the little mushrooms in cold water in the collander, rubbing the smooth globed surfaces one by one with my thumb and two fingers, though they always say you're not supposed to wash mushrooms, but are instead to use a brush to coax the dirt off, or wipe them with a cloth, like sterling silver. I figure nobody will ever know. But to make up for my gaucheness I do swaddle them in a clean blue and white dish towel when they're clean, to dry.

The steam is pungent rising from the kettle. I have a hard time maintaining the simmer. My tiny midwestern stove with its unsophisticated—and awfully dirty— burners is getting more and more cantankerous, impatient of my demands. (Clafoutis, with apricot puree;
Keshi Yena, a Dutch meat and vegetable concoction from Curaçao, with a gouda crust; oregano-scented posole; lamb fricassee with wild greens and avgolemono; regional stews from Thessaly; oyster soup with vermouth from some monastery kitchen under the Rule of Saint Benedict.) So it rebels. The liquid either sits, not even roiling, or bubbles furiously, away. I adjust the knob several times—from 2 to 5 to high back down to 3. We compromise at 5 finally. It's so annoying. I'm going to have to see if I can find another stove that fits the space, maybe one made for a boat.

But the very idea of these mushrooms makes me happy. The first time I made them was for my birthday, in June, when I threw myself a picnic one lingering evening and we sat out under the trees in the Rodin sculpture garden with the small children and Black Lab playing among the fallen caryatids, and when it got dark we lit candles in oyster shells and (unwisely) opened a bottle of Calvados. It was a going-away picnic too for friends who were leaving in just a week or two—one going to teach in Minneapolis, another living in Mexico City now, working with the famous old writer and watching a camera obscura being built on a plaza near the Zócolo; grinding spices for curries, he writes; sitting in a cantina on the Day of the Dead, watching the American news, untouched and sober in the middle of the foreign celebration.

The twenty minutes is just up, and all the liquid has boiled dry. The herbs are seared dark brown in the bottom of the kettle. I add more water; not sure if the flavor is still there, or ruined. I've caught it just before burning (lately I've fallen asleep in my reading chair and charred black a couple of batches of white beans—giving them an intriguing smoky taste). I don't have time to start over; I'll have to hope this complete distillation has only intensified the elusive flavor of the herbs which are to complicate the lemon juice and olive oil. But it isn't summer. Life has moved on. Whatever I do, I doubt that the mushrooms will be nearly as good this time.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Writing Spaces

A creative moment in Willow Glen.

image: Bob Lloyd

Resty Muse

The Shakespeare sonnet she liked best began,
“Rise, resty muse.” Her own muse slept till noon,
wore purple socks. Then toast in bed, fig jam,
crumbs everywhere. 

Espresso, macaroons together (dipped) cheer her, but favorite Illy demitasse cannot be found. And where's
her Shakespeare Sonnets? Willy-nilly, happens on Molière. In deep despair.

Then Mamet. Dammit!

—Christie & Muse

Friday, November 6, 2009

Writing Spaces

Writing table at our favorite Sand Rock Farm, in Aptos.
(In the Hidden Garden suite.)

image: Christie B. Cochrell, Writing Table, Sand Rock Farm

Worthwhile Distractions

Labradors of any hue
The scent of a warm apple tart
A small glass of sherry & some Spanish cheese
Finches wearing tiny yellow vests
Billy Collins on poets & their windows
A bowl of glossy chestnuts and their broken shells
Chains of golden ginko leaves hanging in a window
A Japanese flute, played in the distance



Friday, October 30, 2009

Writing Spaces

Vermeer, A Lady Writing.
(National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

image: Wikimedia Commons

Writing Exercises

Using the spell-check for a little book I made in Blurb/Booksmart, I was charmed by the contrary choices it gave me—almost willfully obtuse at times; at others playful; at others trying to rewrite history.

For pinenuts, "did you mean pimientos?"
For 16th, "did you mean Utah?"
For chapati, "did you mean chaplain?"
For cowsmilk, "did you mean cornsilk?"
For Bonnard, "did you mean bombard?"
For Vivaldi, "did you mean invalid?"
For palazzo, "did you mean Paleozoic?"
For raddicchio, "did you mean addiction?"
For operahouse, "did you mean powerhouse?"
For Uffizi, "did you mean fizzier?"
For Tuscan, "did you mean Toucan?"
For Gloucester, "did you mean Leicester?"
For t'amo, "did you mean Tao?"
For più, "did you mean ICU?"

There's surely a writing exercise in that.

And another: Describe what you would like to be for Halloween.

I'm thinking a medieval mystic, a Black Mountain poet, a torch singer, someone who keeps bees in blue boxes in the mountains above Delphi. But then, above all else I want to be the woman who got on Caltrain in South City—probably not as much as twenty, wearing short black leather jacket, black boots, heavy canvasy pants with big pockets at the knees, some kind of cargo pants or riding pants. Black hair in dreadlocks past her waist. Not a big woman, but with enormous hands, like a man's, someone who could coax a basketball through a far hoop with a whisper, hands shaped to the ball, someone with absolute assurance. And yet a very feminine woman, for that. Her knuckles plated, crusted in silver, in rings, like gloves of silver or chain mail. An East Bay sorceress, inner city Medea, like the play we have just seen. I want for one changed night to be this woman, utterly unknown to myself.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Writing Spaces

Still Life: Writer with Laptop and Cathedral.
National Cathedral, Mount Saint Alban, Washington, DC.

image: Christie B. Cochrell

Shells and Bones


I like the Laura Gilpin photograph best of everything at the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Legion of Honor, better even than the utterly purple—almost black—petunias, the drenched colors of the other flowers. It seems to me a perfect portrait of the artist, though she isn’t actually in it. A portrait of those things that have made her what she is, which names the exhibition: “The Poetry of Things.” A row of oil paints in silver tubes, paintbrushes of various widths and bristles, a horn curved like an elongated S, a little puddle of river rocks, the Abiquiu desert country beyond.

In other of the paintings and photographs there are the rough Penitente crosses said to be place holders in the vast desert space; the door and the covered well in the patio where she grew desert sage; a little track of sunlight across an adobe wall; shells and bones from the high desert, once the bed of an ancient sea. These bleached things are restful but evocative, like the Greek temples with their garish paint worn off which we imagine were intended that way.

All these things remind me of a past I never had.


Last summer I went to Taos for the first time, though I grew up only two hours away. I’d always been led to believe it was prohibitively far or hard to get to. I was angry for what I knew then I had missed, for having been kept from what might have filled in some of the holes in me, without such a struggle. I didn’t get it.
“Why didn’t we ever go to Taos?”
“I never liked Taos much,” my mother said. “It’s sort of weird.”
As am I, Mother, I want to say, but as usual don’t.

I took pictures of blue doors all afternoon, and bought soap with juniper berries, then drove out to the D.H. Lawrence Ranch, five miles of dirt road in from the highway in a canyon just north of Taos. The best part of the day, which I almost, feeling guilty, skipped—late aready getting back to Santa Fe.

The drive was through gorgeous New Mexico countryside, that high desert, with sage, rabbit brush, piney green hills, a shimmer of cottonwoods wherever there’s any possibility of or memory of water, and the beautiful substantial clouds, clouds piled by wind. The ranch was given to Lawrence’s wife Frieda by Mabel Dodge Luhan (whose spinach enchilada recipe we have, or once had) in exchange for the manuscript of Sons and Lovers. Sitting on a wooden worktable inside the window of his cottage is his old manual typewriter, and in a line or two the story is there. I took a picture of the blue bench under the high pine tree where he sometimes sat and wrote or gazed up into the cathedral-tall branches that Georgia O’Keeffe later painted when she stayed in the cottage.

Her painting of that pine is in the show at the Legion of Honor. We got so close there, for a just a minute, years apart.

But back in Santa Fe I am unsure again. And I am unforgivably late.


Maybe I will live in New Mexico again someday, but on my own terms. I’ll take the fossil fish that’s on my writing desk, the white shells from Cape Cod, my Greek octopus pot, the postcard of “Black and Purple Petunias.” Maybe I will regret what I’ve become, in exile, when I look back. I’ll speak bitingly of The California Years. I wonder if I might even live in Taos someday, or if it’s too late for that? I’ll frame the triptych I’ve made of my photographs of the Ranchos de Taos church and the monastery on Santorini six years ago, which are so remarkably alike. The world I’ve found for myself has turned out to be very like that other one I never knew was there.

Maybe someday I will bleach too, like the pieces of wood and bone the artist loved, and maybe then, maybe in my old age, I won’t seem weird any more—or will at least stop minding that I irrevokably am.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Writing Spaces

A monk signing a temple book at the Byodo-in—

image: Chris Gladis


The sun’s gone but I work on in the garden, wanting to get the old dead rosebush out. I feel its reluctance, and coax it slowly from the heavy citrusy leaves. A broken branch scratches my arm as the bush suddenly gives. But it’s still hung up; I need to unlace the wooden trellis from the hedge, too—the way it was when I moved out of my rented Victorian sunporch and everybody laughed at me for having to saw my bicycle out of the vines that bound it, the old turquoise English racing bike I loved once, for its poetry, but never rode.

Because it feels like summer I make some of the margaritas I’ve invented with blue agave tequila, Key Lime juice, and apricot liqueur, shaken in an old jar. The tequila is called “reposado”—Resting? In repose? The thought of it is almost better than its taste. In it, reposado, azul, is the desert at dusk, the blue shadows of the hills around Tucson or on down into Mexico. There’s a tequila shortage, I heard the clerk at BevMo tell another customer this afternoon. Disease, maybe, or agave thieves in rattly old pickups?

I try not to kick over the glass in the dark, set on the sidewalk against the house wall while I hack a little more off of the hedge with my loose-hinged kitchen scissors.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Writing Exercises

Describe what happened here.

Image: Dead woman on floor by desk, with chair, spittoon, telephone; Denver, Colorado. Photo, Harry M. Rhoads c. 1920

Writing Spaces

Bench overlooking the Western Meadow in Fish Creek Park in Calgary Alberta Canada.

Image: Chuck Szmurlo

Things I Know I'll Never Have

that dammuso with an Arab garden on Pantelleria
a cape schooner
a child
a little red brick house on Beacon Hill
prize-winning marrows
an Olympic medal
homing pigeons
a lap pool
the ability to carve gargoyles
the George Harrison album I gave away
an igloo
a unicycle
Barbra Steisand’s nose
a chinchilla
a blind date with a satanist
a comet named for me
another model riding school
a button factory
my name in the Minoan textbooks for having translated Linear A
a Golden Wedding anniversary
a zydeco band
the ability to suffer fools gladly


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Writing Spaces

Amelita Galli-Curci seated at desk using typewriter, dressed in fur coat and hat.

image: Bain News Service

Friday, September 25, 2009

Writing Spaces

Hammock at The Writing Mills, Mallorca, 2003.

image: Kate Whitehead


On a heartbreakingly beautiful September afternoon Ruth drives across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin. It’s that time of day and year when the sparkle is on the water, and she would give anything to be going to Angel Island, with its circular harbor and sonorous old bell and abandoned immigration station, to be sitting with a book and half-bottle of cold white wine within the almost-Greek smell of its pines. Looking out towards the island as she changes lanes midway across the bridge, she catches a glimpse of sailboats tacking in a lovely drift across the bay; and like a clunky barnacle-encrusted whale among a school of quicksilver minnows, a huge container ship, the Yangtze, headed for Hunter’s Point or Alameda.

Crossing bridges anymore, Ruth can’t help thinking about terrorists. And now, as if that weren’t enough, how structurally unsound the bridges are, how we can’t afford to fix them. She glances west, where the Coast Guard is supposed to be patrolling. Out toward the Farallons, that mystic death-charged place (or is she thinking Avalon?)—the rocks and shoals where endangered seabirds find sanctuary. Over twenty species on the brink of extinction. Admittedly, she’s a little jumpy these days. Everything beautiful and grand has that doomed edge.

In Marin, she visits her friends Anna and Tom. They walk, under oaks beginning to show signs of the virus that has infected California’s coastal trees; eat salmon (not farmed, she’s sure) and organic fall vegetables lovely and charry from the grill; and after dark go to Kiri te Kanawa’s farewell concert in San Rafael. The Maori soprano must be in her sixties, leaving the stage before her voice goes. Ruth remembers the night of her debut in Santa Fe, in Mozart; and even more vividly the night the old Santa Fe opera house burned down, the summer before she came out to Berkeley for college, the town waking to smoke and then the ominous unworldly halo in the pre-dawn sky to the north.

One of the songs Kiri te Kanawa sings is Puccini’s “Mattinata,” the haunting melody stolen from the quartet in Act III of La Bohème, when the doomed lovers stand in the beginning snow, apart, singing and dying by degrees, singing the music of farewell.

Somebody hands up to the stage a bunch of obviously home-grown roses—generous blowsy blossoms from an old garden tea rose. Two women beam nearsightedly after their gift, looking so much alike, but one ancient, tiny, bent. The mother of the gardener, Ruth fancies, born in Devon or Hampshire and widowed for twelve years, who’s loved Dame Kiri since she sang at Charles and Diana’s wedding, and is sad for her that she has to travel so much alone, so far from home. The petals rain down as the singer puts her nose to them; soon the stage around her is littered with vivid red petals.

But what Ruth is remembering the whole while, during Strauss and Puccini, Wolf-Ferrari and Poulenc, is what she saw, by chance, that afternoon, when she looked over at the island. The unlovely container ship which dwarfed and blotted out the drift of fragile sails.

How low it rode in the water, bearing its load of shoddily-made Chinese goods under the bridge and through the bay, seeming to overfill it, even make it spill—the displacement of water you are taught in school.

How it streamed coldly past the island where the immigrants once waited to be let in (ironically so much more difficult for people than for things), writing their loneliness and fear in poems on the wooden walls in characters like dragons, pagodas, warriors.

How relentlessly it came. How wide its wake.

How silently it slipped past almost unnoticed that brilliant afternoon, with no alarm sounding, no Coast Guard boats surrounding it to prevent its making landfall. We’ve been right, Ruth thought, to fear for the bridges, the ways in.

She sees those identical containers piled up on the cargo deck, like child’s blocks with no alphabet letters. Labels aren’t necessary, in that functional sans-serif font that everybody’s using now. These aren’t the silks and teas and spices that the Orient once sent on ships to satisfy the world’s desire; not even television sets and sneakers, though those are coming too. Nothing you can distinguish. Some gray inert substance without odor or taste. A numbing mediocrity of mind and spirit carried on the water like a medieval plague, spreading and strengthening daily. Homogeneity, available for sale in the cathedral shop she visited in England in April or the little kiosk in the Tuscan hilltown up the winding road past pear orchards where she held for a moment in her hands the mystery of the Etruscans—two painted dancers and a rise of birds—before turning it over to find that, too, had been made in China.

But as the last note of the last song comes hushed and holy to an end, and there will be no more, not that night, not ever, Ruth shuts her eyes and sees again the red, as if in ecstatic slaughter, of the rose petals.

image: The Yorck Project, Etruscan Dancers

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Green Scooter: The Cocktail

On another dark, dark day in the Bush Era when reading about poets on small motorscooters wasn't quite enough, we came up with something more drastic—

Green Scooter: The Cocktail
2 oz. vodka
2 oz. sour green apple liqueur (schnapps)
1 1/2 oz. lime juice

Shake well and pour into a tall glass over lots of shaved ice. Feel the bright breeze tugging at your hair and shirttails, and the green sap rising in your pen!

image: Christie B. Cochrell, Green Scooter Cocktail

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Writing Spaces

Favorite spaces—ideal spaces—imagined spaces—collected spaces.

This, at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch in Taos, New Mexico.

(Writing Spaces will be a regular feature of Green Scooter.)

image: Christie B. Cochrell, D.H. Lawrence porch

Friday, September 18, 2009


The unschooled nannies wheel their infant charges up Mt. St.-Albans. They talk together in the gardens under the Cathedral. Sit sunning, splendidly oblivious to its attention-seeking pose.

Slyly, the babies charm its sulk away. Several gargoyles slip down, admiring them. They jabber old stonemasons’ Italian. Share fennel-scented salamis, anchovies. Exchange souls happily. Climb back. Baby-faced.


image: Nino Barbieri,

Thursday, September 17, 2009



I have grilled trout and cold white wine for breakfast, in a tavern off the road somewhere between the two old mills—first Aldie Mill, before Champe Ford, and then an 18th-century gristmill on a slow green river. It’s after one o’clock by then, on Sunday afternoon; I’ve been too taken by the rambling little road to stop, even for photographs.

I’ve driven recklessly, with one hand scribbling down the poetry of the signs in this Virginia horse country. Dominion Saddlery, ferrier supplies, names that are like the down-to-earth odes of the Roman Horace—Goose Creek, Pidgeon Hill, Goat Hill, Crums Church, Lemmons Bottom, and funny Beeline Drive.

There have been pastures with long dry-stone running walls, the color of honey; beautiful leggy thoroughbreds; a small white plane sitting wing-deep in an overgrown meadow. The October light is dappled and the leaves on all the unfamiliar trees just beginning to turn. All of the eastern trees whose names I don’t know or have half forgotten—hickory, linden, sugar maple, larch, dogwood, black walnut, wild cherry. . . another list. And roadside stands with local cider apples and Amish pumpkins.

Here, though, finally, I have to stop—in this village between the mills.

I’m torn; I cross the side road twice, and back, irresolutely. I want to eat at the Red Fox Inn, for its name and its cherry red door with a fox-head knocker. But a tavern . . . it will be appropriately rustic, not so formal. Perfect for the day. There’s the fish, too— Chesapeake rainbow trout—handwritten on a chalkboard on the tavern’s wooden porch; and wine from vineyards somewhere nearby, in the foothills of the Appalachians. I’ve made my choice, though feeling just a little wistful for the dapper Red Fox. What might I be missing?

Others are eating eggs. With crab, with local smoked ham or bacon. Lunch at the roadside tavern after church, before the hunt races I’ve seen posted in a shop window, behind panes of slightly irregular glass.

I see another posted notice when I go out. Sunday, October 5—today—Saint Francis of Assissi Day at the James River Episcopal Church. There, now, right across the road from me, in this particular block of the meandering country road where I’ve happened to stop— the Blessing of the Animals. People coming up the path outside the ruddy brick church in the lazy afternoon sunlight, bringing their spaniels, their dim-sighted old Airedale terriers; one child and father carrying between them a brown rabbit in a cage.

“Will he be frightened?” the girl wants to know.

I’ve missed nothing, I understand. Absolutely everything is here.


I turn on every light when I come in, against the lowering eastern night, the failing year. One by one, every lamp I can find. The bulb inside the garnet-red hurricane glass, that turns on with a kind of ornate key; the lamp with the dull, tobacco-colored shade on the glass-ringed wooden desk; the reading light over the quilted bed (thankfully bright, more than expected); and then even the bathroom light, because it is October and the sun has gone too utterly—sunk plumb, deep, silent, as into the stagnant pond below the inn that shows no sign of trout now, though trout were promised. Not a glimmer. They would be sullen, anyway, heavy, if there were any there. It makes me shudder thinking what the taste of muddy hopelessness would be in them, the fish once slight and quick and iridescent.

I drink Moroccan mint tea from a bathroom glass, deliciously cold. I left the bottle in ice while I went out looking for the walking trails the map showed down from the old inn. After skirting the pond they took off up again into the woods, across hilly pastures, looping around along the fence-line, to springs which I never found. On a grassy rise thick with wild white yarrow I came upon a red clay tennis court, abandoned; and higher up, among the feral trees, a ruined house, its openings caved in upon themselves.

Coming back at nightfall, it has felt to me entirely deserted, this purplish brick inn from 1850 with its clean white trim. Most of it is shuttered, closed for the season now, during the middle of the week.

I go down to dinner, in the glassed-in porch pooling with candles, the night just beyond. Holed up snugly against the autumn darkness, as in a boat. Only two other tables are occupied—one by the two women who came in asking about a room after I was given my room key, late afternoon, when the light was still seductive.

“We saw your sign up on the road, and thought we’d poke our heads in . . .” Two women around sixty, out rambling the countryside (for antiques, birds? planning a book?); lonely together, somehow. Maybe with grown-up kids they never see, looking for something. Or with a lifetime of quarrelsome companionship between them. And at the far end of the dining room a party of six, older, rich, talking about the ingredients of rum cake, and of sailing the canals of Burgundy in a barge.

I eat a delicious spicy crab soup, with crab from Chesapeake Bay, and look at the reflections of the candles in the greenhouse glass, remembering an inn somewhere on the other coast years and years ago, where I went with the stranger who was my husband, feeling caught in the wrong life, longing to be by myself with a good pair of walking shoes and a couple of Dorothy Sayers mysteries. A working boat harbor, it was, with dark woods close around. Redwoods and evergreens, pushing and pushing in. It scared me that the road went no further from there. The road dead-ended at the oily landlocked harbor in the woods. I feel the panic even now.

“It was dreadful in Barcelona,” one of the rich old men is saying. “You can’t imagine. The tour leader fell asleep on the bus.”

Another white-haired man who looks a little like my father makes me sad. He doesn’t talk at all, or even seem to listen much. He’s deaf, maybe, and so excluded from the others’ conversations. Or, sadder—just dull, without stories. I look at him and think where I would be if I hadn’t gotten out of that marriage. Where I would be now, with the winter coming on, the dark pressing against the lighted room, the inn on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains where I’ve come with camera and maps and notebook and my stash of Peet’s Sumatra coffee. I feel the cold glass, the chilly yellow circles of the candles not warming but seeming to melt holes through to the other side.

I’m grateful to be in the right company, now that it’s all closing in; closing us in with just ourselves, with what we’ve done and been and nothing more, that’s it, that's all there'll be: the black pond mute of trout, of skimming dragonflies and glancing green. The standing water absolutely mute.



Monday, September 14, 2009


I’ve been thinking about—yearning for—clean surfaces, the Georgia O’Keeffe aesthetic. Every time I step around another pile, I envision expanses of white wall and a long old wooden table, perfectly bare, from a farmhouse in the country, from some carver of santos outside Oaxaca whose work is holy and who talks and prays and curses to a sweet-faced Madonna with gold-leaf on her cheek who has the same nose as his mother’s youngest sister, dead early from a weakness of the heart. At mealtimes when I try to find a clean dish somewhere in the kitchen, some place to set and use the chopping board, I see rooms empty of all but a handful of black water-polished river stones, or a single rosy pomegranate in a simple black bowl. Space to breathe, space to create. I can only believe equal expanses of time will follow, when my living quarters are not choked by clutter, by the accumulation of weighty and demanding things. Such a quantity of things—abandoned, unfinished, reproachful.

My finances are in a mess too. I need to find ways to save money, to cut back the increasing insistence of bills. And then one morning lying in my bedroom where the piles are worst, imagining them like flood tides lapping up against the pilings of the bed, carrying wreckage, it comes to me. I think of a terrific solution. I’ll move into a single room, almost perfectly empty. Pure as a monastery cell. I’m excited about the idea, get up to turn on the computer and look through what’s available on Craig’s list. Idly at first, but then quite serious, determined to make this drastic, liberating change. I’ll have a quiet bed, a small writing table, a window with a view onto a garden or some hills—nothing I have to tend. That’s it. I’ll put all of my things in storage, save money on my rent that I can travel with and pay off bills, eat only a little brown rice with vegetables (take-out or from a compact microwave), live unfettered, become a better person. I’ll write in the lucid mornings, meditate in the long evenings. Go to bed, without television, with the sun. Live with the honest clarity of Georgia O’Keeffe’s wind-bleached skulls. Without a million distractions and demands; with room and time enough to do whatever I choose. I print out one or two of the ads. I’ll call right away, before somebody else snatches the chance away from me.

I’ll just take my Bonnard posters, I think. The big ones, anyway. The one all blues and oranges, and the open door with summer through it, and the one on my piano of the wonderful Black Lab eying a cherry tart on a table set for Sunday lunch somewhere in the French countryside—the one Steve bought in Martigny the year we went to find the aqueduct. Will there be enough wall space? I can always prop them on the floor if I have to. They’ll add color; the room will probably be nondescript.

The Black Lab, though—that worries me. What happens when I need to look after Duet, my aging friend, my “time-share” dog, dear blithe spirit? Would any of the rooms allow a dog sometimes? There’s the piano, too, bought for me for $1.00 by my parents for my childhood lessons (I’ve got the funny $1.00 receipt from Mr. Fernandez the old owner, our Sombrio Drive neighbor, somewhere too). I don’t think I’ll be able to store a piano. And I promised myself I’d learn to play all the Beethoven sonatas someday. To play the Beethoven sonatas, and bake bread. I have done that at least. I love to feel the dough giving and resisting under my fisted hands, to discover together its proper firmness; love to sit in my favorite oversized armchair while the rye or seedy wheat is rising, slowly, surely, through a sunny morning, under one of the striped cotton dishtowels that always seem so innocent, so like my namesake Granny Belle. I’ll need an oven, I realize—I can’t give up the possibility of bread; and someplace to keep my big bread bowl, warped in a funny way like rippled water since I got it too close to a burner once. The towels, too. And that other one, of the Rosetta stone, that my friend Cherry in archaeology class brought back from the British Museum for me, and the one that goes with it, whose colors match so perfectly.

Of course I’ll have to have all of my books, for reference, and the two cabinets and deep file drawers of writing—all the things I mean to finish someday. My photographs, too, in the six-drawer chest that almost holds them, with just one more extra-long shelf (oh, and don’t forget—those underneath the bed, the oversized ones; and the negatives if I can find them). My lime tree, though it needs a bigger pot and fertilizer, and the Zen stone from my secret back garden. The Burmese water bowl beside it, with its lovely celadon color, and that kind of lily I’ve got growing in it in the shade back there, where the fence had to be replaced after Bruce died—never again to hand plums over it. I need an outdoor space. And there’s my little green Parisian café table where I write (or mean to) summer mornings, where I drink my Peet’s out of the green and white Italian cup with its saucer and watch the play of leaf-shadow on the old doghouse from the previous tenants with vines growing up through it. I can’t give up any of that. I’ll need my coffee grinder, and someplace to keep the coffee beans—a refrigerator, really, and the red whistling teakettle that calls me when it’s ready . . . .

I am too sad, panicked almost, thinking about doing without these things that have defined me. The kiva ladder, the rocking chair my mother’s brother Kink (the funny one) re-caned, the purple coyote howling at life, my pottery from Skyros—things that hold my past my world my memories my being. Things I honestly love. What would I be without them? What point would there be in tearing out my heart, being confined with nothing in a small, mean space, foreign to me? The bleakness and the desolation, the estrangement of that thought are terrifying. Even the Stonehouse olive oil with the delicate flavor and scent of lemon peel which I got last month at the shop in the Ferry Building (a train ride to the water), even the loss of that one thing would somehow forever diminish me. The Monk’s Blend Tea from Boston and the perfect two-cup teapot Heidi gave me, for those gray days when the thought of tea is comforting; the lobelia that is blooming through the winter for the first year and the violets scattered through the grasses by the side fence—what can Georgia O’Keeffe have been thinking? How did she ever get by?

I’m sad for her. The woman in the desert. How arid that kind of life must be—all that lonely emptiness to fill.


Stone River

(January 10, 2002)

This intriguing wall, below the level of the grass which forms its banks, looks at first like an archaeological excavation—which is what draws me, in the end, back out of my car, away from my next errand, back into the beautiful January sunshine, which I’d left only reluctantly after lunch under market umbrellas at the museum café, an earlier walk up the Quad to buy books for this quarter’s class. What are they digging up? What asked to be let out? It’s called “Stone River”—a trickle then a flood of honey-colored stone, an ooze of honey-slow oxbows. Dry-stone wallers from England made it, it’s said, from the sandstone left as rubble by the earthquakes on the Stanford campus. It’s a liminal place, “somewhere between quarries and buildings.” The ephemera of stone is something the artist of this just-emerging wall,
Andy Goldsworthy, is noted for, the choreography in the landscape of process and decay.

On this unseasonable day, two men and a schoolchild, down in the manmade riverbed, are coaxing a cat on a leash to walk along the narrow top edge of the sinuous wall.


(April 23, 2003)

The wall is magic. I tried running my hand along parts of its spine. Some pieces of sandstone were beginning to warm and others were cooler. A child had left part of a pbj sandwich tucked between the stones, until a jay discovered it and flew off with a large chunk. I walked back up to the Burghers and then said hello to Hope, the angel with the green cape and no-nonsense expression—she’s definitely my favorite of the four.

Thinking about:
Nabokov. A green table in a secret garden.
Reading the last page of Running in the Family again,
and again.



Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I put water in the kettle, a tea bag in my mug, toast in the toaster, and yoghurt in a blue green bowl the color of the Mediterranean Sea. Or some sea, not an ocean, not the Atlantic, not the Pacific, but a sea and somehow more contained. The toast pops up too pale and I push it down one more time so it will come up brown on the edges and ready for the smooth knife, ready for marmalade. This morning’s travel page shows the Dalmatian Cost, where I have never been, may never go. In the picture, a couple sits on hotel balcony with a bowl of oranges, not yet marmalade, but just as orange. I plan my own, my solo itinerary and, as I eat my now burned toast, I notice that the marmalade is more sharp than sweet.



Nobody knows where King Kamehameha, the great king of the Hawaiians, is buried. (Though it’s suggested that it might be somewhere near where an almost impassable ropy lava road comes out reluctantly on the beach by the old Kaloko and ‘Aimakapa fishponds on the Kona Coast, after bucking and balking the whole way like one of the donkeys that run wild just north of there; not really leading to it so much as seeming unable to quite keep you from it in the end.)

Why ever don’t they know? you wonder, wanting plausible explanations—he was lost at sea or taken prisoner in war—or a simple failure to employ the latest techniques—carbon dating, computer mapping, the infrared photography that strips the very heart from deserts and jungles. The historians on Hawaii, the Big Island, are working so steadily to uncover the past and to preserve it, collecting the stories of the elders who still live on the island. Surely they should have figured it out by now. Just as they will want to fix the very bad road.

But one of the elders explains that the whereabouts of King Kamehameha was a deliberate secret, known only to the one who buried him, and still respectfully kept, unasked. The old Hawaiians believed that bones hold spiritual power, mana, and that the bones of their king hold the greatest power of all. They couldn’t risk letting that power come into the possession of their enemies, of those who were unworthy or would misuse it.

Walking again at o Honaunau, I thought about that sacred power of bones being unloosed, instead, entrusted to the land and sea; and could believe that my father’s bones, lost to the waters there, have gained and relinquished mana too.

I spent the afternoon at the beautiful bay called the Place of Refuge, Pu ‘uhonua o Honaunau, where five years ago we scattered my father’s ashes. Three miles out towards the horizon in an outrigger canoe—a journey flat as through the midwest, where he always said he felt that without mountains to contain the edges, he was going to fall off. He is everywhere there in spirit.

I walked feeling sad for all of us—for a friend who died in Arkansas early in January; for the daughter our elderly Hawaiian friends lost to cancer a couple of days before; for my father beyond all the others. But more than anything I felt as always the abiding peace of the place. Within its protective half-circle of coconut palms life began anew in ancient Hawaii. Here in what was a sacred refuge people were provided with a second chance—a second chance for life itself.

The inner bay is alive with sea turtles, amber and green, dapple and sunlight, the color of the water. My father never got to see them; they have come just in the last few years, as if generated from his passing (like the inexhaustible torn and scattered god in the Rilke poem). And in the far pools in the lava, variously silvered and clouded like trapped sky, there are striped fish darting after brilliant red fish; spiky sheer black urchins. I walk out to the farthest of the pools, and back.

It’s clearly there, the mana. The power to protect the living; the enduring power of the natural world; the regenerative power of the wise old water-colored sea turtles.

The king is safely lost still.


image: Christie B. Cochrell, royal fishpond, island of Hawaii