29th July 2017
I’ve been thinking about the blog for a couple of weeks, but have been so engrossed writing a new novel that I was afraid I might dissipate the energy needed for that if I shifted gears and came to this. But then, the other night, we set our dinner plates on the outside table and the evening light illuminated both the simplicity of the meal and the metaphor of it; the metaphor being that it symbolized all that we hold dear about living here.
The frittata was made with eggs from the farm on which we live, the zucchini captured in their rich mixture also came from the farm, ditto the tomatoes. The frittata was seasoned with herbs from the kitchen garden in front of the table. In other words, the ingredients of our dinner came from within a fifty-yard radius of our house. You can’t get much more farm-to-table than that!
And as I looked at our dinner, it occurred to me that I could write something that simple and that wholesome to post here That not everything has to be profound or provocative or pithy, unlike the writing one undertakes for a novel which must have all those ingredients if it is to be of literary worth.
Sometimes I find it amazing how complicated a simple life can be. And we do live simply here. Ours is not a villa. We don’t even own it. Our days are a routine combination of engaging in what it takes to survive. By that I mean we are not farming it out, apart from a house-cleaner once a week and a gardener who mows the grass, also once a week, it is we who shop and cook and clean and launder and weed and water, prune and deadhead, stack and carry firewood. And I’m grateful for all of this; for the physical ability to be able to do it and for the connection it provides me to engage with the world and feel my place in it. Where it gets complicated is when I am not creating something. If I am not writing or painting I feel myself to be next to nothing. In the space between creative projects I tend to focus on all that I haven’t accomplished in life and then the daily routine I just so fondly wrote of becomes a chore I resent.
People often ask “What does it take to be an artist?” (Insert writer, dancer, musician etc.) and I say, one doesn’t have a choice: you either are an artist or you are not. And if you are an artist then it will enthrall you and consume you, thrill you and torture you. And whether or not the world will want whatever it is you create you will have no choice but to create or feel worthless.
Does the farmer feel this way? That he/she has no choice? Is he born to it? We watch Vincenzo and Silvia work from morning until night year round. A never ending cycle of planting and watering and harvesting, of milking the sheep, slaughtering lambs, bottling wine, putting up tomatoes and on and on. Like creativity, it doesn’t always go well and when it doesn’t you see the strain and the doubt on their faces.
Why do we humans insist on our identity being dependent on what we “do?” And why do we separate some of what we do into the “worthy” column ad the rest into the “mundane” column? Why should the business of survival count for less than achieving fame of some sort?
Libera and Fortunato, wife and husband in their 70’s, live up the road from us. Along with Fortunato’s brother they farm acres of land; growing wheat and grapes and olives, plums and apricots and every vegetable under the Tuscan sun. In winter they prune and stack and mend. And every day I watch them going along at their rhythmic, unhurried pace, with nary a thought for celebrity or riches. They are the last of their kind and when they are gone they will take with them centuries of living to survive. And they will take with them knowledge that we don’t even know exists.
But we are each of us who we are. As much as I might wish to truly live the simple life I was born an artist. I have a need to communicate. I write because I will burst if I don’t and because through writing I can find my way to who I am and in so doing maybe connect with others. So, the not easy part of living this simple life here in Tuscany is that no-one here really knows who I am. I write in a language that nobody here speaks. And when I am not in the act of writing I can dwell on this and feel a lack of identity. So I am writing here, today, to say thank you to those of you who read me. To say, hey, I don’t have a lot to say today except, “Hello.” And I’m grateful to have this to come to whenever I want, because it’s not like writing novels. Or at least it’s not for me.
It’s been three years since I wrote my last novel: From Dusk to Dawn. I started it the year we moved here and went on its wild ride all summer. Then I spent months looking for an editor with whom I worked the following year. That was followed by months of submissions to agents, without success. So then I hired a copy editor and a text designer, working with them for months until I finally published my novel. Then there were a series of readings. And then my daughter nearly died and the novel ceased to exist for me. Only my daughter’s existence mattered. When she finally recovered enough for me to return here it was with the fearful eye and aching heart of a mother. The book was dead to me and I felt the likelihood of writing another highly unlikely.
I began to stumble, to doubt myself, to question the validity of living the simple life on a farm in Tuscany. And then, in the spring, unbidden, a fully formed character appeared to me, trailing a cloud of dust behind her. I knew her immediately. Her name is Felicity and every afternoon she and I duke it out at my desk. I have no idea where it’s going, nor do I care. I’m merely grateful to be writing with abandon, with no “success” in mind.
This is what it means to be an artist. And thus engaged, the artist is once again connects to the world around her, grateful for a summer evening, a frittata and salad and the realization that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it fully.
For when you peg the laundry to the clothesline you are pinning yourself into the fabric of that moment; the moment you will never have again; the moment not worth doubting or judging but simply being in. As Libera will be when she dries the seeds from this year’s tomatoes, hopefully to sow them next spring.
With love to you all,