Wednesday, June 27, 2012

France, Drop By Drop

My friend, Joan, just returned from a nice long stay in France and she’s been sending me  photographs, one at a time, that are torturing me. It’s like Chinese water torture--first one drop. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then another. And just when I think these delectable images will cease, another. Then another. Then another.

It’s like sending a dieting chocolate lover pictures of bonbons. Then big chunks of fudge. Then crusty-creamy brownies. Then a bowl of Rocky Road ice cream. Then a cup of steamy hot chocolate. Then more bonbons. Then . . . well, you get the picture. Chocolate, chocolate, everywhere, but not a morsel to eat.

Now, Joan has the most refined aesthetic sensibility of any living human being, as far as I can tell. So when she does France, SHE DOES FRANCE! She hasn’t even shared the photos of her time in Paris, the City-Most-Loved, yet. This is merciful. I know she hit the high spots, the Death By Chocolate spots. I can only take so much in any one day without expiring from delight.

So, I’m passing on some of her images so you, too, can spend part of your morning in exquisite torture. These images are of the B & B where she stayed, outside of Montpellier, in the South of France. Can’t you smell the early morning sweetness rising from the garden? Hear the cicadas clicking in the noontime trees? Savor those fresh croissants? Oh my! Where’s my passport . . . ?

Bonne matin!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fiesta of Smoke: Calypso in Paris

Today’s post is an excerpt from my recently completed novel, Fiesta of Smoke. In this snippet, Calypso is fleeing a mysterious pursuer, while attempting to complete the mission she has undertaken in Paris. Her reminiscence takes her back to her first trip to the City of Light, as a teenager.

Presently, I’m involved in Round 3 of editing and revising the manuscript of Fiesta of Smoke. Last week, the publisher  approved the manuscript, saying,“I think you did a great job with it. Calypso, Javier, and Hill are all great characters and you've layered this novel beautifully. . . . Congratulations on writing a stirring piece of fiction.” A message that, as you can imagine, was a great relief and delight to receive! The plan, now, since it took me longer to finish than anticipated, is to set the publication date around the first of November.

For those who may have missed them, a synopsis of Fiesta of Smoke can be found on the January 5, 2012 post; the Prologue, on January 8; an introduction to the protagonists Calypso, on February 3, Javier, on February 20 and Hill on March 2; Calypso and Hill Dine was posted on March 14; More of Calypso and Hill, on March 30; More of Calypso and Hill–2, on April 10; Calypso’s Apartment, Place des Vosges, on April 19; and Hill’s Teenage Sex Life, on May 15.

. . . .

Paris, 1992

Calypso walked quickly on rue de Rivoli, dodging other pedestrians, heading toward Palais Royal. Traffic was heavy and noisy. She felt mercifully inconspicuous in the early afternoon flood of humanity.

To shake off her mysterious tracker, she had caught the métro at Quatre Septembre and ridden to Opéra, stepped onto the quai, pretending to check for something in her purse until the bell rang, then as the doors were closing, quickly darted back onto the car. The automatic doors compressed her shoulders as she squeezed through.

She turned to look back at the quai, to see if anyone were running or looking frustrated, but the train was engulfed in its tunnel before she could be sure. She rode past the Madeleine stop, and Concorde, all the way to Tuileries.

Emerged from the mètro and still not confident that she had eluded the tail, she merged with the flood of foot traffic, stopping periodically to use store windows as rearview mirrors, or to enter shops and observe the street from within. She could detect no sign of a follower.

It was still several blocks to Palais Royal. Plenty of time to reconsider. But all her life, she had set her eyes on what needed doing and had done it. Sometimes it involved considerable risk or prolonged periods of quiet, dogged faith. Whatever was required, she steeled herself to it. She did not deviate or dodge the inevitable.

She had made the deeply considered decision that while illegal, her project was not immoral. Au contraire. It was a grave moral issue and she could not ignore or evade it. Hundreds, thousands, even millions, of lives might be changed by what she was prepared to do today. It was a responsibility that simply could not be shirked.

Fate works in strange ways. How could she have known, those many years before, when she was just beginning to explore the cultural riches of Paris, that the contacts she was making would some day lead to her implication in certain violations of international law?

In those days, she had immersed herself in art--the Louvre, of course, came first, then the Jeu de Paume, and then the Cluny, the Rodin, the Grand and Petit Palais. After that, it was the galleries. She walked all Paris, singling them out, exploring them methodically, penciling the streets she had explored on her American Express Pocket Guide maps, so she wouldn't miss a thing, chatting with ever-increasing intimacy with gallery owners, as her pitiful high school French was hammered into a genuine tool of intellectual communication.

That was how she came to know Jean-Paul and Yvette. Their gallery on rue de Richelieu, close to Palais Royal, had drawn her again and again. Its interior was lined in glowing cherry boiserie and smelled of a potpourri Madame Grenelle concocted herself, from lavender, cedar oil and other ingredients that were secret to her and, she insisted, would die with her.

Monsieur Grenelle, a gallant figure with a huge white moustache and grandly pomaded head of white hair, darted-in waists on his jackets and impeccably creased trousers, was an extrovert who loved meeting his public. He specialized in paintings of the modern period.

Madame Grenelle, equally slender and white haired, was a regal presence who fortunately hid her initial chill behind the heavy cut velvet curtains that separated the gallery from their personal sitting area. It took several visits before Calypso even knew of her presence in the gallery, and then only because she asked about a pre-Colombian terra cotta figurine. Antiquities, it seems, were Madame's specialty, although the two had been together in both marriage and business for so long that their expertise in one another's sphere was complete.

Their love of their respective subjects was enormous and they were gracious and generous in their willingness to teach. Soon, Calypso was visiting them for an hour or two, each afternoon, and they were serving her tea in the sitting room behind the green curtains.

She remembered the day she had broken through their Gallic reserve; the day they had finally taken her warmly to their hearts.

Monsieur Grenelle, with great mystery and flourish, had whipped a drape from an easel, exposing a painting. "This I have purchased today, for 10,000 francs!" he exclaimed.

Calypso looked with complete incomprehension at the canvas. It was lurid and hastily daubed in broad brush strokes that left little raised incrustations of dried paint at their edges. The subject was a woman's face, slightly green, with contorted lips, as if she were about to vomit. The entire effect was repulsive.

"10,000 francs!"

"Oui!  What a bargain, non?"

"Is that for a single canvas, or by the truckload?"

There was a long silence, during which she saw expressions crossing his face like clouds caught on time-lapse film. Consternation, insult, dismay, disappointment, restraint and finally calm restored--all while Calypso cowered inside her mortifying rudeness.

"So you do not like this painting?"

"Oh Monsieur Grenelle, please forgive me, I . . . "

"Non, non, non, non, non. There will be no apology. Tell me what you are seeing.”

"Well . . . I . . . I mean, it seems crude to me. Violent. Unhappy. And poorly made, as if the painter were in a hurry, or just didn't care. And was also in a very bad mood."

"Ahhh! You have a good eye. All of what you say is true. Do you know what this painting is?"

"I'm afraid I don't."

"It is German Expressionism. A rare painting, long thought to be lost, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, of his favorite model, Dodo. Everything you say about this painting is true. He has used pairs of complementary colors to make aggressive and unsettling contrasts. Blue and orange. Red and green. And then, this silly, fragile pale aqua of her dress, so incompatible with the intensity of the complementary colors. Colors clash, you know, if they have radically different values. Really, it's completely ghastly, you're absolutely correct."

Calypso’s shoulders dropped from around her ears, in relief.

"Kirchner is close to Matisse in time, you know, a contemporary. But while Matisse painted his joie de vivre, Kirchner focused on the tensions of modern life. He saw everything in collapse: morals, religious faith, mindless mass society. He was much influenced by Edvard Munch, you see, and by the Fauves. The harsh colors and jagged brush strokes, the crudeness of the image, all are attempts at authentic expression."

"Oh Monsieur Grenelle, I must apologize! I am completely mortified! I am too ignorant!" Her French came out stilted. She felt like a heroine in one of the first talkies, wringing her hands and wailing her protestations.

"Not at all, Mademoiselle Searcy. You are young. Beauty is what you are, and it is beauty to which you respond. It takes time and a sound pummeling by life to appreciate such art."

"You're very kind . . ."

"Art can become too rarified, you understand. Too pretty. Then a Kirchner has to come along and rip the cover off things, show the dynamics, the mechanisms, behind all the show. I suppose Freud would say, demonstrate the unconscious."

"I guess I'll learn to appreciate him. Like I have escargot."

"You are still very young, and untouched, yet, by deep passion. Someday you will know that art, like sex, should rely as heavily on raw energy as on technique."

Calypso was still young and inexperienced enough to blush.

It was at that point that Mousieur Grenelle had taken her kindly by the elbow, saying, "It's time for a cup of tea. My wife and I have been discussing it, and . . ." he held the lustrous draperies aside, "we think it is time for you to call us by our given names. And we you, of course. Please, sit here in the bergère . . ."

With that, they had gone from vous to tu, and over time Jean-Paul and Yvette became the grandparents she never had.

. . . .

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sculpting the Future

A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark.
--Chinese proverb

I recently was asked to mentor a student at the local Waldorf school. For her 8th grade project, Autumn wants to sculpt a dragon in stone. I was happy and honored to accept.

It’s been a while since I’ve wielded mallet and chisel. Some of you may remember that last summer I was working on a Solstice Stone, that I hoped to have ready for yesterday’s Summer Solstice. The project was put on hold when I decided to throw all my energy into finishing Fiesta of Smoke. The stone has lain outside on my outdoor sculpture stand all winter.

I invited Autumn and her mother to come up to Big Hill, to assess my talents as a mentor. I have to demonstrate more than beginning skills in the subject and then, be approved by the teacher. Even though my masters degree is in art and writing, I could see where the teacher might look askance at my qualifications, since painting was my emphasis, with sculpting a pale third, behind printmaking. 

So I dragged out all the evidence: preliminary drawings in dusty notebooks, small clay maquettes, larger maquettes carved in plaster of Paris, and then, final products in marble, granite, slate, wood and bronze. I went at my sculpture stand with a broom and removed a good 4 inches of dead leaves. I brought out my mallets, hammers, chisels and rasps. I was just searching for a rake, to have the area nice and tidy, when mother and daughter arrived. 

I toured them around, from the smallest, humblest clay maquette, to the 9-foot steel armature for a  bird-headed goddess that is sitting lopsided in the yard, awaiting a stone base. I explained one complete development of an idea, the image of a seed, from sketch through drawing to maquette and finally, marble sculpture. I encouraged Autumn to follow such a discipline with her developing dragon image.

I set a piece of local shale in front of Autumn and told her to have at it, using the tools I’d piled up. Her mother and I went off to talk and came back 45 minutes later to discover that Autumn had begun creating a wonderful design in low relief that was well suited to the soft and crumbly stone. It was also clear that she didn’t want to stop carving, even though her mother needed to leave.

I sent Autumn home with the stone, a hammer and two chisels. That she is a naturally gifted sculptor is evident. I expect great things from her. As she was leaving, she asked how she would choose a piece of alabaster to work on, at the stone yard. “Let the stone  speak to you,” I said. “You’ll look at dozens of pieces, but one will call out to you.” I haven’t seen her since. She and her family have gone on vacation where, presumably, she will get a chance to choose her stone.

What a gift it is, to see that child’s enthusiasm and native talent! I feel that with every blow of the carving hammer she is sculpting a future for herself that is exciting and filled with anticipation, imagination, force of will and patient follow-through. This child is no piece of marked paper--she is durable as hammered stone.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Summer Solstice Blessings

Today, the sun reigns supreme as it reaches the apogee of its transit. It is at its zenith; at its highest in the sky. The symbolism of the solstice is interesting, in that it does not coincide with the character of the season in which it occurs. That is to say, while the solstice inaugurates the Summer season, it also represents the descendant phase of the light. Today has more hours of sunlight than any other day of the year. Henceforth, however, the hours of sunlight will diminish.

For this reason, the Summer and Winter Solstice were represented in ancient Greco-Roman religion and mythology as gates, through which transitional time passes. Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and transitions, thence also of gates, doors, doorways, endings and time, symbolized this liminal time of the solstice.

We, too, can look both backward and forward: back on the ascendent phase of the light, which began last December; forward, to see the seeds that we have planted growing during these summer months. I wish you the radiance of this day to light your consciousness throughout your earthly journey. Blessings of the Light upon you!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Morning Math

So far, the massive studio cleaning effort reported yesterday has paid off. Both yesterday morning and today, I tied on my gym shoes and did stints on the treadmill, the trampoline, the yoga mat and the weight bench. And lived to tell you about it.

There’s not much to think about as I plod along on the treadmill and since nature abhors a vacuum, errant thoughts get more play than usual. It began with me noticing that the studio windows and doors need cleaning. From the treadmill there is a lovely view out the French doors into the courtyard garden--if you can see it.

This observation led on to the determination to wash one window or door a day, after exercising. Which in turn led to counting: 7 French doors and 8 windows, each with between 8 and 12 panes of glass. About 10 minutes into my treadmill stroll, going about 3 and a half miles per hour, I began counting panes and found that it was devilishly difficult to do so while striding. If you don’t believe me, just go out for an fast walk around the block and add up a column of numbers, while you’re at it. Anyway, the final tally is 188 panes of glass. Which if you multiply it by 2, for the inside and the outside surfaces, becomes 376 panes of glass. Some of which are lurking behind large trees and bushes, or are barricaded by large objects.

Lying on my yoga mat, (from whence I evicted a large and shiny Black Widow spider, this morning), doing leg lifts, I was admiring the skillful manufacture of the underside of a Louis Quinze chair, depending from the truss above me. Then it occurred to me that, if I knew its weight and how high it was hanging above my vulnerable self, I might be able to calculate the impact it would have on me, if it were suddenly--say in an earthquake or big sonic boom or in the event of another meteor exploding in our neck of the woods, like one did a couple of months ago--to leap off David’s nicely inserted dowels and plummet downward, powered by weight and gravity. Could one of those beautifully turned French legs actually work up enough steam to pierce my straining abs? There must be a formula for such calculations.

It’s come to me that cleaning the studio is a better workout than working out in the studio. I get tired just thinking about all that window washing. Meanwhile, however, I’ve broken a sweat before 7 in the morning from something other than ambient heat and my math skills are improving. Now, if there are 7 doors and 8 windows, that’s 15 times 2, for inside and outside, and at one washed per day, with Sundays off for good behavior, that’s X number of days before all are clean . . . 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Whether It Needs It or Not

Once every six months, whether it needs it or not, I clean my studio. Yesterday, I awoke with the certitude that the day had arrived. I stood on the indoor balcony, looking down into 625 square feet of grungy chaos and was undaunted. With David riding shotgun, I knew we could prevail.

Every home needs a room like this one; a multipurpose room unafraid to take on major projects. Since the last major cleaning, we have hauled firewood through the space and burned it in the stove, with the concomitant bark, sawdust and ash. David has built emergency bee boxes for our every-growing honeybee community (sawdust, glue and errant screws); an early spring honey harvest left dots of honey on the carpets (honey, stuck-to-honey-dirt, and ants); I began and then abandoned a collage project (snipped bits of paper, generously circulated by wind pouring through open French doors); David started his spring garden starts on the counter (potting soil, seed packets, water stains); I stored my geraniums inside, against the winter storms (more potting soil and water stains, plus dead leaves); and David uses the work table as a desk (bills, books, drill bits, nails, spare change, garden hats, more seed packets and the detritus of his pocket bottoms) and the couch as a second closet (dirty clothes, clean clothes in unfolded heaps, various pairs of shoes and boots parked randomly beneath or in front).

One corner houses a wooden studio easel with a painting now almost a year old. That project came to a screeching halt when I became determined to finish Fiesta of Smoke. There was a stack of framed paintings and unused frames forming a bulwark around the easel. Stone carving tools lay in a heap on the counter, where I piled them just before rain fell on my outdoor sculpture stand, last fall. Five Victorian chairs, brought from storage for Christmas celebrations, still huddled in a furtive herd behind the grand piano, blocking access to the keyboard. Chopin’s waltzes still rest on the music rack, even though low G went sour sometime in the cold snap of January, rendering the piano unplayable. Exercise equipment—a weight bench and hand weights, a weight machine, treadmill and trampoline—had a nice patina of dust, threaded with spider web. And the skylight, rising 25 feet above the whole scene of Dickensian, Havishamish ruin, is an insect death trap, supplying a steady rain of crumpled bugs to the Persian carpet, below.

I had my work cut out for me.

I wrapped my head in a scarf, both against the clouds of dirt about to be stirred up and the sweat that was about to cascade. The studio thermometer registered 94, as I descended the stairs, broom in hand, to do battle. David was there to help. We decided to do a Shaker thing, and hang the extra chairs from the trusses. As I vacuumed the rugs, he brought in a ladder and drilled holes and inserted dowels and hung chairs. Then I re-vacuumed the rugs to get up the sawdust. He sorted and folded his wardrobe and ferried it off to the actual closet and dresser drawers, while I vacuumed some more. He discovered a box of old videos under the weight bench. Since the VCR has taken a peculiar turn, in which it plays films in random segments out of order, which was modestly entertaining in a surreal sort of way, the first two times around but simply annoying, thereafter, we decided both videos and VCR could go. Then, while I was vacuuming some more, the TV disappeared. Since it only has a 14-inch screen and could no longer serve to receive television programs, since the stations changed their signals, it won’t be missed, either.

Morning proceeded into afternoon in this fashion. I discovered things long lost, stored things too long exposed and removed probably a gallon of detritus from the floor. In the process, I found that about two thousand dollars in tube paints had been consumed by a rat. My first clue was finding yellow, red, blue and green rat pellets in the cupboard under the counter. Then, I found the trays of what used to be oil and acrylic paints, now containing a confetti of shredded metal from the tubes. I tried to imagine the desperation of some poor old wood rat, reduced in the middle of winter to gnawing on a tube of vermillion or geranium lake. How could he survive such fare? Still, I was grieved by the ruin of my paint stash, as I was by the dead hummingbird, trapped between the window and my big wooden case of Rembrandt pastels.

I have spared you photos from the outset of the day, although they would probably have been more entertaining than those orderly ones with which I now present you. I find I like being in a room with pendant chairs. And I’m motivated to actually use my exercise equipment, now that I don’t have spiders riding along with me on the treadmill. I’m going to enjoy the studio, today. Maybe I’ll even paint at the easel, since my acrylic jar paints remain unconsumed.

But I have to hurry because, as Robert Frost so aptly said, nothing gold can stay. I know that there’s a hair’s breadth of time before the next wave of industry and creativity turns the place into chaos, again. Already, I have followed a trail of small white bits of paper from the dryer in the utility room, through the library, across the studio carpet and into David’s closet, the tracks of a Kleenex that died a terrible death by first water, then heat. Also, a dead butterfly, victim of the killing fields in the skylight, has landed on the work table, bearing a streamer of spider web. This is life in the country. Entropy being what it is, I’ll have to repeat yesterday’s heroic measures in another six months. Until then, imagine me playing Chopin, with the G key taped down, butterflies wafting through the French doors, and 5 Victorian chairs hanging over me like the sword of Damocles.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day!

 Whether you guys have children or not, I know there are many ways you've expressed the love, guidance and wisdom associated with fatherhood. Maybe you're a father of fur children, or you keep a garden, or mentor someone, or tend the environment, or foster responsible politics. However you choose to father the world, I thank you for providing a role model, for giving of your love, leadership and energy, and for being part of a responsible solution to the crying needs of our times. Blessings on you! I hope this day is a relaxing and joyous one for you.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Saturday Morning Minutia

The sun just this instant rose, flooding my keyboard with orangy-gold light. The dawn breeze lacks the smallest thread of coolth. The sky is cloudless and tinged with pink along the rim of the western horizon, where Valley pollutants are building their summer pleasure domes. Summer heat is finally upon us, apparently.

The minutia of a Big Hill morning are in progress. Maclovio just mounted an heroic defense against the invading Mr. Sniffles, the marauding neighbor cat who slinks in at all hours and devours both cat and dog food. In the garden, bees are already plying the flowers and sipping from the basin of the fountain. A congress of shrieking blue jays just routed Mr. Sniffles from a hunting expedition in the shed. On the rounded, straw-colored hills outside of Columbia, long blue tree shadows stretch westward like spilled ink. The air is filled with the mingled scents of jasmine and honeysuckle. Peace reigns.

I’ve just refreshed the water of the bouquet of pink roses, my father’s favorites, on my desk, and of the artichoke on its powerful stalk, before the deep heat can leave them waterless. The emails are answered; the batter for our morning mushroom crepes is already cooling in the frig; and the deck is swept and its potted plants watered. Soon I’ll be off for the farmer’s market, basket in hand. Today, I’m looking for ripe peaches and a bottle of Persian Lime olive oil.

In a world so filled with troubles, I feel blessed beyond measure to experience such peace and plenty. My prayer this morning is, as always, that someday the world will allow this quietude and plentitude to wrap itself around every heart and across every doorstep. Blessings of the day to all. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Snakes Alive!

Twice, now, I’ve encountered Sierra Mountain Kingsnakes on my evening walk. These gorgeous, white-, black- and red-banded reptiles (Lampropeltis zonata multicincta) are usually nocturnal, so it’s quite a treat to see one during the day or evening hours. Kingsnakes eat lizards, small mammals, nestling birds, bird eggs, amphibians, and occasionally snakes, including its own species, so they are formidable hunters.

They are usually quite secretive, as well, and the one I saw yesterday evening was no exception. I encountered it climbing a sheer red clay road bank about 12 feet high. This bank is always a source on interest to me, as it is studded with holes of all sizes, like a critter apartment house. Apparently, that is what drew the snake’s interest, too. It slithered up the bank in graceful S-curves, defying gravity and stopping to thrust its head into any hole large enough to accommodate it, hunting for who knows whom.

When it came to the top of the bank, it stopped and waited. I had the feeling it was waiting for me to go away, so that it could hide itself. I turned away and took a few steps up the slope, then turned just in time to see it secret itself under an exposed root, where it was completely invisible. Actors and comedians know that timing is everything, and the same is true in sightings of wild things. They are all out there, doing the things that wild things do, but our perceptions of them are fleeting. They are expert at concealing themselves from our probing eyes and intellects and hurtful hands.

These two sightings, plus finding a baby rattlesnake dead on the road, remind me to be extra vigilant, now that the weather is warmer. The very first lesson I can remember my parents instilling, long before manners or chores, was always to look several steps ahead of me when I walked. This habit has saved me a number of times. You should see me levitate, when my foot is poised to fall on a coiled rattler! That one small act is a study in relativity!

Anyway, seeing these beautiful snakes brought to mind D. H. Lawrence’s poem, “Snake,” which I offer to you this morning as a meditation on the honoring of things that may seem, on the surface, less than desirable. Lest we, too, have a pettiness to expiate.


A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

Taormina, 1923

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Make Up Your Minds

Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.
--Pericles, 430 BC

I was thinking, today, about all the wacky things I’ve done in this life. Some of them made no sense at all. Some of them were dangerous. Most of them were expensive in one way or another. All of them were life-enhancing. I’ve just never been able to shove my life into a box and neither has my husband, David.

These ruminations brought to mind our first trip to Germany, 20 years ago. We were riding a commuter train from Frankfurt to Limburg, on our way to Talheim, to spend 2 weeks with the Indian holy woman, Mother Meera. It was 5 PM and the train was filled to capacity with gray-suited commuters returning home from work.

David and I were simmering with a hilarity we didn’t dare express, because the train car was dead silent. Not a murmur of a word, not a rustle of a newspaper. The passengers sat like crash test dummies stuffed with unlived dreams, waxen and immobile. We had never been in a culture so repressed, we irrepressible Americans. I wanted to stand up and make an announcement: “Gentlemen, this train has been re-routed to the Moon.” David whispered that he had an almost irresistible urge to take off his shirt and finish the journey naked to the waist.

We tittered and twittered and rustled like two barn swallows. Except for a few pairs of eyes, strained to the corners to take us into peripheral vision, no one looked at us. No one moved. The train did its daily milk run: it stopped; people silently stood, without so much as a nod to their seatmates, and departed; the train started again. This happened a dozen times during the hour between Frankfurt and Limburg.

No one looked out the windows as the lush, dark, umber and spruce green countryside rolled by. We passed cabbages the size of baby carriages, apple trees bending under loads of red or golden fruit, fields of grain ripe for harvest. No eye but ours registered the beauty and abundance of the German countryside. All eyes were straight ahead, registering some middle distance that fell just short of actual contact with any other human being.

David and I subsided into silence, ourselves. We were gripped with unease. We had inadvertently boarded a train of the undead--people who died at some undesignated time in the past but were too oblivious to themselves and their own needs to realize that they’d stopped breathing or that their hearts had stopped beating or that their imaginations had stopped making dreams, having wishes and longings, or making plans for the future.

We were on a train of zombies and we were alarmed. We looked at one another, wide-eyed. Was there a place in us that knew that claustrophobic space, that energy-less energy, that listless simulation of lifelikeness? Were we laughing out of nervousness? Were we fearful because we felt our own masks moving suffocatingly closer?

We sat erect, with renewed vigor. We took internal vows not to be dead to the moment; always to adore the rosy cheeks of apples, the huge blue and burgundy roses of cabbages. Always to feel the pulse of the train beneath us, carrying us to new adventures, spontaneous meetings, joyous soul-openings.
We closed ranks, David and I, against the closed ranks of the un-dead. And we made up our minds: happiness depends on being free and freedom depends on being courageous. Taking Pericles one step further, courage depends on risking spiritual conflagration, total engagement, even death. The Athenians knew that in 430 BC. Probably we shouldn’t allow it to be forgotten.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Another Billy Whiskers Morning

It was a busy weekend, including a pit stop at the Billy Whiskers Café. Karen was in antic mode and declared that she has gone feral, with no desire to fix her hair or diet or do any of the expected things that bludgeon women’s time and energy.

We reminisced about the old Paige House, a two-story charmer from the late 1800s that sits at the bottom of this mountain, and a couple of miles from Columbia. When we were kids, our parents used to vote there. I can remember entering its creaking front parlor, where the canvas voting booths were erected.

While my mother voted, I looked around. The interior had the look of a place that has spent winters with its windows open to all weathers. The wood was gray and dry. Where there was paint left, it was peeling. The floors were bare of rug or carpet. A long stairway penetrated the center of the house and went steeply up into darkness. I was sure that the place was haunted.

Karen remembered that Mrs. Paige played the piano with an élan that indicated advanced musical training. Karen never saw her do this, but would sneak up from her family’s property, next door, and listen from outside. When Mr. Paige died, Mrs. Paige was left without resources. She was carried from the house and, according to either Karen’s first-hand memory or to stories she heard of the event, Mrs. Paige’s hair was pure black, although she was in her nineties. However, when they got her to the county hospital and washed her hair, it was white as snow. That’s how long it had been since she’d had her hair washed.

Karen’s father bought the property and annexed it to the family ranch. The house is painted mint green, now, and stands amid its ramshackle gardens of old roses and fruit trees, all un-pruned, with a look of vacancy, although it is presently occupied. It retains its air of mystery, still, turned in upon itself as if ruminating upon a past no one else can remember.

After breakfast, when David went to pay, Karen and Rick insisted it was on the house. Why? we asked, astonished. Because we had brought them a jar of our raw honey and they were enjoying it immensely. But that was a gift, we protested. So was breakfast, they countered. And Karen added that, in her present feisty mode, it was dangerous to argue with her. We graciously and gratefully accepted and went our way.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Tablecloth for the End of the World

 Aesthetic sensitivity is a condition I inherited from both sides of my family. My mother’s genes must have carried it from her French forebears who fled during the French Revolution to save their heads. My father’s side has a long string of poets, artists and dreamers. All that genetic bric-a-brac washed up in me and I’m not sure if it’s a gift or an affliction.

A case in point is French table linens. I love to set a beautiful table and have collected a number of gorgeous tablecloths to underpin everything else--the antique plates, the old silverware, the crystal glasses. I particularly love a couple of lines of linens (actually cottons) designed by French designers but made in India, by hand, by the block printing method. These feature charming vegetal motifs or seashells or birds, all in somewhat primitive graphics and with the uneven coloration that attends block printing.

As the seasons change, I change my interior décor and one aspect of that is the tablecloths I strew about on every possible surface. This time of year, with the heat of summer coming on, cotton cloths replace the antique Kashmiri wool challis paisley shawls that I drape on tables and that cleverly hide tottering piles of books that are breeding more books under there, against my best impulses to the contrary. These books necessitate large cloths that reach the floor, a shape not all that easy to come by. Unless, of course, I delve into the websites featuring French table linens. There, I find my favorite block printed styles in an abundance of shapes, sizes, color ways and designs.

And a concomitant lust arises. The family genes assert themselves. How can I possibly be expected to choose between the blue and white birds and the flower-strewn, ravishingly rose pink “Jardin?” Or the blue and white seashells and the pale green and vermillion coral branches studded with cowries? It’s just not fair to present so many temptations! I mentally tally my recent credit card purchases. I calculate my available disposable income.

Eventually, I will settle down, break out the blue and white Indian block printed cotton bedspread I use every year, and press into service the French table linens already in my collection. Summer will come and the house will look cool and collected, without any new additions.

Then fall will arrive and the tables will start to look flimsily clad, with their knees knocking together in the chill. Now, for this particular juncture I’ve spotted a darling block printed cloth called “Winter Garden” with garlands of fruits and flowers. It would look lovely layered over a pink and cream paisley shawl. It could take me right through Christmas.

Then I remember that we may not make it to Christmas, this year. According to varying reports, we are going to experience either the Apocalypse or Ascension. Either way, tablecloths will probably not be required for the occasion. Here’s where the family affliction kicks in and aesthetic madness takes over. Despite the dire or transcendent predictions, I still want to dress my house for that coming season. I think Winter Garden would make the perfect tablecloth for the End of the World.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Just Another Big Hill Morning

Around 8 in the morning, yesterday, as I was writing my blog post, “Transiting Venus,” I suddenly heard sirens. Now you have to remember that this house is on Big Hill. It is not a city domicile, where sirens are part of the everyday background noise. Here, sirens basically mean one of three things: fire; ambulance-worthy illness or accident; or that one of our resident criminals is leading the police, Sheriff or California Highway Patrol--or sometimes all three--a merry chase.

If you’ve never seen a forest fire up close and personal, then it’s probably hard for you to comprehend the profound worry, not to mention primal terror, the very thought of fire arouses in those of us who live in the brush. Fires can get out of control so fast and devour so thoroughly, in this area, that thousands of acres can be gobbled up in a flash. When we hear sirens, therefore, or the fire spotter plane, we all run outside in a state of alarm and the neighborhood doesn’t settle down again until the plume of smoke is spotted, reported to all surrounding households, the tanker planes with fire retardant are in the air and the fire crews are on the ground. We all take to the road on foot or car, truck, 4-wheeler or motorcycle and place ourselves on whatever vantage point gives the best view of the conflagration and we watch. We cheer every heroic release of red retardant over the flames. We wait until the conflagration is reduced to smoking cinders. Then, we relax.

Or, in the case of ambulance sirens, we listen to their trajectory across the mountain. If the sound stops close by, we start calling around. Or drive up the road to check on neighbors. This is not nosiness. This is mutual aid.

Then there are the bad boys secreted about the mountain’s flanks and within its steep canyons. Periodically, they blow up a meth lab or lead the police on 90-mph chases up the mountain or beat up their girlfriends or get caught stealing copper wire or someone’s lawnmower to pay for drugs. Or, like the fellow who was apprehended not a quarter mile up the road, in front of my neighbor Mark’s house, they sometimes wander disoriented and fey. This fellow, whom my drive-by surveillance revealed standing handcuffed in Mark’s driveway, in the keeping of two Sheriff’s deputies, claimed, according to the Union Democrat News of Record the next day, to have been chased through the brush by people wielding guns, knives and chainsaws.

So I was more than mildly interested in yesterday’s sirens. I immediately left my desk and went next door to John’s house, he of the pallet palace/camera obscura, to inquire what he had seen on his morning drive up the mountain, coming home from work. This investigation yielded the news that he had, indeed, somehow gotten inserted into a convoy of fire trucks racing up the hill. Yet, I hadn’t heard the sirens continue eastward, across the top of the mountain. That, I surmised, could only mean one thing: they had taken the road into the narrow V-shaped canyon where my friend Marianne lives, she of the wonderful chicken eggs, artichokes and asparagus.

I raced to the house and called her. She answered, sounding stressed, saying, “Thank you for calling, Suzan.” No hello, first. A sure sign of trouble afoot. So this was the story: on the neighboring property there are two old mobile homes, clinging to the side of the canyon. The renter, a strange but apparently harmless fellow, was away, doing a stint in a VA hospital in the Valley. Yet, on the morning in question, she heard first what sounded like a car alarm, then gunshots, followed by an explosion, after which flames erupted on the site of the mobile homes. “It had to be arson,” she said. “No one is supposed to be up there.”

We theorized: a meth lab going critical? A revenge torching? A murder? Murder is not out of the question. Just a few months ago the remains of a man missing from the foot of the mountain were found within a couple of miles of our homes. Mercifully, the deluge of rain the day before kept the fire from becoming a mountain-consuming conflagration. Marianne promised to report further dealings with the situation. And I went back to writing “Transiting Venus.” Gunshots, explosions, fire: just another Big Hill morning.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Transiting Venus

A cold, exhilarating wind was blowing, yesterday, as I went out to experience the transit of Venus across the Sun. Since this event won’t happen again until 2117, this seemed like a good time to catch it. I made my way next door, into my friend and neighbor’s pallet palace, where he had set up a camera obscura. Using two lengths of metal water pipe duct taped together and aimed into a cardboard box, John focused the sun through a bit of tin foil with a carefully reamed pin hole. Over the box where the image would be projected he had erected a sun shade/viewing booth of cardboard. Periodically, he would enter the booth and shim the whole contraption up, to keep up with the movement of the Sun. In his own words, he was “pushing the limits of this technology.”

So I entered the booth, ducking under the towel tied to the pipe to block the triangle of sun entering somewhere. To get a clear view of the viewing box, I had to balance the entire cardboard structure on my head. I peered into the box . . . and there she was--Venus, a tiny pea of shadow, against the monster disk of the Sun! Who can say why this was so entirely thrilling?

Our little planet is only fractionally larger than Venus, meaning that we are in roughly the same relation, size-wise, to the Sun. In distance, Venus is 71.8% of the distance that we are from the sun--about 67 million miles vs. 93 million miles. It’s easy to live our little lives, going about buying paper towels and tickets to the theater, and to forget the vastness of which we are inhabitants. We say “awesome,” when something pleases or excites us, vitiating one of the few words in the language that can express the profound sense of wonder of which the human mind and heart are capable. (An aside: I am amused every time I spot the new rash of MY GOD IS AN AWESOME GOD bumper stickers around town. Does God need advertising to promote His awesomeness, these days? Or is this a suggestion that someone else’s version of God is less than awesome? To state that God is awesome seems to me to be a statement in redundancy. But I digress . . .)

In between viewing Venus with a cardboard box balanced on my head, I chatted with John about the cosmos and took photos of the remarkable light that accompanied the Venus transit. Again, as with the solar eclipse (see blog of 05.21.12, “Spangled in Crescents”),  the light darkened and colors became more intense. A mystery moved through the woods. This is not poetic license but is based in decades of observation of this mountain, its weather, lights, flora, fauna and passing mysteries. The sky again took on a rich, textured lavender blue, shot with silvery-gold photons.

I will not call my experience yesterday awesome. But I will say that something awesome was moving through our world and across our celestial ceiling. Something of which we were largely unaware but which was composed of total awareness. In the marrow of my bones I felt a shift, as if transiting Venus were the finger of God/ess, flipping a switch or turning a dial a few notches or wiping away an old dispensation. If that sounds too airy-fairy, well, I guess I’m trying to say that mysteries abound—and my God/ess is an awesome God/ess, too!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Death and Potluck

My life-long friend, Michael, did a double take at my reference, the other day, to having attended a funeral/potluck. Since he grew up at the foot of the mountain and I grew up at the top, with our budding lives located not more than a couple of miles from one another, as the buzzard flies, I would have thought he’d be the last person amazed by the conjunction of the two events. It demonstrated to me how insular our little community on the mountain is. We have our ways. Our customs. Even the slow gentrification of the neighborhood and in some cases, of ourselves, has not altered some fundamental Big Hill traditions, one of which is the funeral/potluck.

If you’ve read Commune of Women, you may recall Pearl’s remembrance of her childhood friend’s death in the mill yard. That segment is based on the death of my own first friend, who did die at the sawmill that’s just a mile from my home. My father made her coffin and my mother made her a little yellow organdy dress, one I’m sure originally was meant for me. My mother and the ditch tender’s wife, Alice, dressed my friend and laid her out. The funeral took place in her parents’ home and I can still remember my surprise at how small the coffin was, sitting there on the front room table. It was my first funeral. I was 5.

That family has their own state-licensed cemetery. For 60 years, now, I’ve been traipsing through the long grass, along with a crowd of my neighbors, up the hill toward the grove of oaks that overarches four generations of graves. Our cars line the narrow county road. The women carry cake plates and salad bowls and platters of deviled eggs, of which we are relieved by younger members of the family, who ferry them off to long tables set up in the shade. The men carry shovels.

Some folding chairs are set up in front of the little brown brick chapel, to accommodate the older folks, among whom, for the first time, I found myself at the latest ceremony. Everyone else gathers around. All generations are present, from the oldest, in their 90s, to babes in arms and well-scrubbed and beautifully dressed children, some of whom will serenade us with songs and guitar music. The family reverend says simple and heartfelt things about the departed. We pray. We sing old hymns, the favorites being “In the Garden” and “Amazing Grace.” We sit with our arms around one another, for comfort. We sing from our hearts.

The men, family and friends, carry the homemade coffin down the slope from the chapel to the grave. They stagger a bit because of the uneven ground; because some of them are old but still strong in a sense of communal service; because the coffin is made from boards from the mill and generally outweighs the collective bulk of the pallbearers.

There is no fake green grass hiding the heap of red soil next to the grave. There is no lowering devise straddling the grave’s maw. Two hemp ropes are laid across the opening. Two stout 4 X 4 posts lie along its length. The coffin is set on the posts. The men take up the ropes. At a nod, the coffin is lifted, the posts are withdrawn, and the coffin is laid onto the ropes. Slowly, it disappears into the soil of this mountain, as the men pay out the ropes. A final prayer is said. Traditionally, the chief mourner throws in the first handful of dirt. Then the men all grab the shovels they’ve brought, and they bury the dead.

There is nothing to shield one from the finality. All the trappings supplied by the  modern funeral industry are absent, even elaborate floral offerings. In the early days, they were too expensive and it was unspoken that they were a waste of money that could be better spent. Now, after so many decades, it’s recognized that there is no need. The departed ones are honored in timeless ways far more profound.

Slowly, as the men labor over the mound of dirt, people drift toward the food tables, or stand chatting in the shade of the oaks. We catch up with one another. We greet new babies, hug old neighbors we haven’t seen since the last funeral, share our stories of the departed ones. Old animosities are laid to rest along with the departed, at least for the day. Plates are heaped. Recipes are passed and plants thinned from gardens promised to one another.

 Against all odds of alienation, age and indifference, our little Big Hill community reaffirms itself. We found ourselves, one more time, in eternal verities of communal aid and caring, in the affirmation of life after life, in the honor of lives well-lived close to the earth and through honest labor.  My own parents were buried in this fashion. The men of this mountain dug the graves, lowered the coffins that David built, and shoveled the dirt in over them. It’s an honorable way to leave this plane, attended by caring people who lay aside their own concerns for a day to bring what they have: their food, their shovels and their love.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Off to the Farmer's Market

I'm off to the farmer's market, this morning, and so grateful for the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables available there. The farmers and gardeners work hard to bring this wonderful produce to us and I like to support their efforts. It's also fun to connect with friends who I usually only see in the produce aisles of Savemart, during the winter. The farmer's market is one of the healthiest growth edges of our community or, I assume, of any community lucky enough to have one. It represents the re-establishment of an ages-old tradition that dates back into the mists of pre-history. The reasons go beyond the primary one of obtaining food. The passing of information, creation of alliances and strengthening of a sense of community are all part of it. Wherever you are, if you're within striking distance of a farmer's market, I hope you'll give it a whirl. Oh! and here's another benefit: since David and I started eating only organic foods three years ago, we've haven't been sick at all. No flu, colds, nothing. So for the sake of your health and for the joy of community, I hope you'll get out and support your local farmers, today. You'll be supporting yourself, too!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Voodoo Lily Time, Again

Last year around this time, I published the post, below. Well, it's Voodoo Lily time, again. My friend Glenn just sent me the above photo and promises another, of the entire group fully blossomed out. One scarcely knows whether to admire these things, or to keep a safe distance. It's one of the things I love about life: there's always something mysterious and alluring, cropping up right in our own backyards!

May something strange and wonderful unexpectedly blossom in your life, today!

Who Do the Voodoo? Lily Do!

A lily blossoms, over mountain and vale, at all ends of the earth.
 -- Jacobe Böhme

Of all flowers, lilies are my favorite. The lush, spotted throats of the lilies are, for me, the epitome of feminine beauty. Although they are quite common, they always seem rare and exotic, like flowers from the deepest Amazon jungle or from another planet.  Because of its great beauty, should it surprise us then, that the lily symbolizes the rise of the age of the Holy Spirit?

Perhaps this attitude comes from my childhood. My parents pioneered on this mountain, when there was no water, electricity or telephone. My father brought water to the house he was building us by re-digging by hand over a mile of ditch system that originally had been dug by Chinese labor during the Gold Rush. What little water arrived by this languid means was muddy and filled with leaves and dead insects and collected darkly in a brooding sump in the backyard.

My mother struggled valiantly to raise gardens and managed through diligence and pure aesthetic hunger to create the beds that I still tend. Even given the poor soil of the mountaintop, which is about two inches of tough red clay overlying mother rock, with marauding deer and rabbits ever threatening the nighttime authority of our dog Spike, and with water sufficient to literally dribble from the hose, my mother managed to lift up bouquets of Sweet William, Canterbury bells, foxglove and Shasta daisies, and at the back of the southern border, a drift of orange daylilies backed up by an enthusiastic Cecile Brunner rose that hoisted herself up into the nearby apple tree and bloomed, twenty-five feet off the ground.

In the lily world there is scarcely anything more humble than these simple daylilies, yet the fleshy, pumpkin-colored petals were a sensual delight of my childhood. In later years, I named my favorite cat Mademoiselle Lilli B. Catroux I and her successor—who proved herself to be a reincarnation by refusing to eat at the new site of her bowl, which I had moved because I always stuck my foot in it while preparing dinner; refused to answer to any name but Lilli; and steadfastly maintained the odd habits of her former incarnation—Mademoiselle Lilli B. Catroux Too. Characters in various writings took on the name Lily or Lilianna. And my own name, Suzan, is derived from the Hebrew word for lily, shoshannah, a fact I learned long after my love for that flower had been established.

So, when my friend Glenn recently emailed, offering to send me a sample of an exotic lily that had mysteriously sprouted in his yard, I was intrigued. They are called, he said, variously, Dracunculus vulgaris, Dragon Arum or
Voodoo Lilies. Now, maybe somebody out there could resist a Voodoo Lily, but personally I cannot.

When a foot-long mailing tube arrived from Glenn last week, I wasted not a moment to open it and withdraw the paper-wrapped contents. Here is where, as a writer, I fail you, dear reader: I cannot quite describe to you my reaction when pulling the Voodoo Lily from its carton. Within the paper swaddling lay an object?—a creature?—a plant form? marvelous beyond the power of words to convey.

Imagine a stalk, neatly cut off with garden sheers, at one end, and sporting an egg-shaped 3-inch knob at the other, studded in pea-sized bright green seeds. Attached to the stalk is a squiggle of dried leaves like medieval script risen off the page into 3-D and having an orgy with itself.

It is lying, now, on the Victorian marble-topped table in the sunshine, like the lost scepter of a fairy queen; or a fetish from the hands of a very wise shaman; or sea wrack tossed up from Neptune's palace. It seems to me its prototype might have been created in gold by the Minoans. Or possibly it sprouted from a seed dropped from the stars. I so appreciate that Glenn left its crazy squiggle of dried leaves intact, as I feel it may be calligraphy that tells the secrets of the universe, if we could but decipher it.

This strange and wonderful plant has given me pause. I ponder it. I think I adore it. In it the marvelous inventiveness of nature seems to have outdone itself in creating beauty, mystery and power annealed. The Voodoo Lily has worked its magic. I am enthralled.