Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Friday, September 25, 2009
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
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
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, Wikimediacommons.org
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.
(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.
Nabokov. A green table in a secret garden.
Reading the last page of Running in the Family 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