Monthly Archives: May 2012

LETTING GO

28, May 2012                  
Is there anything quite as sweet as opening your calendar to blank squares? Days of them. Weeks, actually. Nothing. No obligations, meetings, events, dental appointments, useless cocktail parties, errands, pap smears, funerals…It’s down to the basics now: shop for food, cook it, eat it. Hang the laundry on the line. Time to take new roads and let go of old thoughts.

We’re in Bonnieux for a week or so before meandering down to Tuscany for the rest of the summer. We’re staying in the exquisite studio apartment next to the one we spent two months in last autumn when we were gathering the last morsels for our Provence book. Our friends, Sharon and Paul, slaved all winter to make this piece of heavenly perfection, thus we have christened it, Bliss.

From it’s tall window, now open to the early evening, I watch the cypress tree which, if you position yourself just so, stands in the middle of the frame; an exclamation mark that needs no point. I am mesmerized by its erect posture; a stalwart column, the spine of which is hidden inside the flesh of its upwardly directed branches, branches that are also hidden inside the soft clusters of needles so that the whole tree seems to undulate in the breeze.

     Maggie’s photo
This combination of sturdiness and fluidity speaks deeply to me; a message from nature as to how best to exist in the world. I am grateful for its presence and could have used such a reminder last week. Maybe then I wouldn’t have focused on negativity like a spoiled child who, in the demand for perfection, holds onto resentment for not being instantly gratified.

We spent the week in Sanaray-sur-Mer, an authentic fishing village on the French Riviera. We spent a day and a night there last spring and fell in love with it, so were looking forward to returning. I was dreaming of a week overlooking the sea, sunning and writing, while Joel busied himself with the PhotoMed Festival and the installation of his exhibition in Toulon. Ah, the folly of expectation.

Our hotel overlooked a parking lot and a highway. I sulked for days. And nature’s message that week was basically ‘f–k you, and take this.’ It rained nonstop for the first 3 days. I’m talking rain that, because combined with a vicious mistral, renders an umbrella useless. To venture out is to be drenched from head to toe in 30 seconds. So I didn’t venture out. In my – I thought – superbly economical packing (one big suitcase for nearly 4 months) I omitted socks and boots. Mais biensur….summer on the French Riviera and Tuscany. Who-da-thunk?

But, as we know, nothing is forever. And so the rain eventually stopped, the sun came out, the festival began, Joel’s exhibition was a huge success, as were our 2 presentations, from our Provence book. 


We dined in a vineyard beneath a lilac sky; boated to the tiny island of Bendor where we snuck away from everyone and sunned naked on a rock overlooking a boat-free sea. 

We also discovered a little back street Patisserie in Sanaray, with 2 outside tables, which served the finest croissant and perhaps the best cappuccino in France, liberally laced with dark chocolate. And so we spent our last few breakfasts there, having first stopped in the hotel’s breakfast room to swipe a couple of bananas and hard boiled eggs. These moments of discovery when traveling are, for us, the finest gifts. They place us, ground us, and put the perspective back in reality.

And so the week passed. We gave our last presentation on Saturday afternoon, packed the car and, armed with a rotisserie chicken, a ficelle, and the making of an organic salad, pointed the car toward Bonnieux and an empty calendar.


ROCK-A-BYE-BABY

14, May 2012              
I seem to be searching for home – something I’ve been doing either literally or metaphorically with some regularity all my life, but why now? I have a home. A lovely one: an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Is it because we are leaving it on Friday, for nearly 4 months? Is it because I’m feeling upended by recent events? Or is it because, when I raised the shade of our bedroom window this morning I found myself looking longingly down to a small roof garden, the lush greens of which felt like balm to my sorry soul?

                Maggie’s photo
This little patch of greenery, really no more than 12’x14’, growing atop a 5-storey brownstone is – save for glimpses of the river – the only sign of nature to be seen in our immediate cityscape. I’ve looked at this green patch often in the 3 years we’ve lived here and have never once seen anyone in it; either tending it, reading a book or sunning there.

Why did this little roof garden cause such sadness this morning? After all I will soon be living on a farm deep in the Tuscany countryside, watching the sheep come over the hill at dawn and the cows amble down to the pond late afternoon. Apart from the rare passing of a car on that country road, the only sounds we’ll hear are birdcalls, the rustling of leaves, sheep-bells, the lazy mooing of cows. Once in a while a thunderstorm will arrive, followed by 15 minutes of torrential rain hammering the cracked clay soil, quenching the summer crops.

I long for this, and it will feel like home to me while there. Just as in the 2 weeks prior, I will revel in the Provencal countryside whose bounty of produce will seduce us daily. So why be sad? I know how fortunate I am to enjoy these experiences. And I mean ‘fortunate’ not lucky. I didn’t get this life through luck, but through sobriety and willingness to look at a lot of unpleasant qualities in myself: qualities that I often deceived myself with by refusing to take responsibility as an adult; often deceiving myself into believing there was something innately wrong with me, or that I was irreparably scarred by adoption, by the mental cruelty of my mother and the emotional distance of my father. It took me more decades than I like to admit to finally say, ‘so what?’ to the past and engage with the present.

The path to this life I now have was long and devious of my own making; much of it lived by the results of one misguided decision after another. All of them made, at the deepest level, unconsciously. Yet with enough courage to keep rising up and thereby convince myself that rising up time and again was the proof of my worth.

On the one hand there’s a great distance between choosing Happy Hour at a bar that has free cheese and crackers and living sober in an elegant apartment with a full fridge. But it’s only the time it took me to travel that distance that is long: the distance between denial and consciousness is as short as the time it takes to admit the former and in so doing, enter the latter.

I have lived the past 23 years sober, with a wonderful mate, intimate friends and deepening relationships with our children, in a variety of nice homes. Yet I can still experience a sense of homelessness on days such as this. Perhaps it is a new awareness of death that is triggering it and the fact that almost everyone says they want to die at home.

What is home? If it is, as the saying goes, where the heart is, then we’re always home. Personally, for me, it’s where the hearth is, a fireplace being a prerequisite.

As a child, the fireplace – or within a few feet of it – was the only place to feel comfortable in winter. In summer, home was the outdoors. The fireplace of my childhood represented not only physical comfort but physical intimacy: the four of us, until my brother left home when I was 8, and then the 3 of us until my father left when I was 11, would gather around it listening to the radio, reading, darning, doing homework. It also heated the water tank for the bath, the pipes to which in turn heated the linen cupboard. To this day, the sight of smoke curling from a chimney makes me want to enter its abode, pull up a chair and stay.

And stay. I think that’s the hankering for home that’s gnawing at me these last few days: a constancy of place, a knowing that ‘this is it’ and making a commitment to it. To wake up each day and fling open the same window to the same view, observing the subtleties of its un-sameness, the way the light falls, the changing colors, not just of seasons but of the hours, as the light turns the hill that was lilac at dawn golden by noon and blue by nightfall. To live simply, with  few necessities and meaningful objects. To tend the same garden, walking its familiar paths, nurturing the plants along the way. Yes I’d like to venture out into the world when the desire arises, but, oh, the return to home, to one’s bed, to the old copper kettle and the hearth.

Home for me is as much about what lies outside the door as that which dwells within. I like to walk out the door and be in the land, not on the street.

I’ve had a lot of homes, or places where I received mail: approximately 65, in fact. Some I ran from, some I was thrown out of. Most were rentals, a handful ‘owned.’ Some I furnished with crates and other materials found on the street, an aesthetic I much preferred to any that came already furnished. Every single one of them I did my best to nest in, once tearing up 2 huge sheets of foam into tiny pieces with which to stuff hand-sewn pillows. Here, a silk Salvation Army scarf, thrown over an ugly lamp; there, a remnant of fabric thrown over a soiled sofa.

Escaping to London at 16, from my parent’s home, I stayed for a few weeks in a women’s hostel where I shared a room with 3 other women; the room furnished only with single cots – lockers out in the hall housed our clothes. I personalized my corner of the room with a small sheepskin rug, a present from my brother, and some 100 matchbooks and boxes from all over the world which I had been collecting for a couple of years, many of them sent from pen pals in other countries. I can see them now, stuck or pinned to the wall like a crazy atlas: my first attempt at setting the world on fire. I would lie on the lumpy mattress and gaze at that wall as if it were my hearth.

I’m told I have a knack for making home and it’s something I love to do, but now I’m looking to come home to roost. I’ve been flying the coop since my blood mother tossed me out nearly 66 years ago and feel like I’ve spent my life looking for the place that can hold me in place.

But perhaps I’m fooling myself. Maybe I’m one of those restless souls still looking for the cradle I never had. If so, I have further to go in shortening the distance between that bit of denial and the consciousness that today’s reality is the only home to inhabit.

GOOD GRIEF

6 May, 2012                 
A few days ago, someone asked me “Why grieve?” My first response was shock not by the question, but that there is such a question. Why Grieve? My second response was ‘because I’m human’ and I don’t mean that in a smart-alecky way.

I’ve thought about this question in the ensuing days and it strikes me as a provocative and interesting question; the kind of question Murray, who died recently, might have asked, being the great provocateur that he was, the absence of which I grieve.

I don’t view grief as a negative feeling, just one of the many in the human range: joy, sadness, anger, bliss, frustration, envy, lust, disappointment, pride, satisfaction et al., all of them to be experienced as they arise and let go of. I wouldn’t want to spend my life stuck in any one of them, yet value each for what they can teach us about ourselves.


Of course, one of the difficulties with communicating through written or verbal language is semantics; how one person defines a word may be quite different than the way another does. So let’s go to the dictionary.

The Webster dictionary defines grief as: mental anguish as a result of the loss of someone or something. The Oxford defines it as: intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death. The Webster definition causes me some grief. It’s that phrase ‘mental anguish’ which implies a fragility of mind bordering on insanity. I experienced that kind of grief when I lost my first child at birth.

I was 24 and my grief was both visceral and mental. The visceral part was more acceptable to me: it was the animal shock of the loss of the life I had been harboring, readying for on the most primal level. I remember saying there was a hole in my arms where a baby was supposed to be. The body, my body, so totally prepared for the job of mothering, produced milk for nearly a month after she died. The mental anguish was perhaps more human than animal; the sense that somehow I must have been responsible for her death, that I had done something wrong. Her name is Amy Katherine.

Now, after all these years and subsequent deaths of parents, loved ones and yes, a few dogs, I’m more aligned to the Oxford Dictionary’s definition: intense sorrow caused by someone’s death. And why would we not want to feel that? Well, because it sucks actually. The actual feeling of grief, when it hits you full blast, brings you to your knees and feels in that moment like it will never end.

Perhaps the question is not so much ‘why grieve’ – which implies there is a choice – so much as will you let grief become your identity? When you fall to your knees will you choose to remain felled or will you keep rising up until, by so doing, grief recedes, like all feelings.

Perhaps some people hold onto grief as a way of keeping the loved one alive to them. Perhaps the grief accompanied by mental anguish has to do with regret. I don’t know. What I do know is that my journey through grief over Amy’s death was long and deeply spiritual. It was a journey that gave me the opportunity to examine my beliefs and misconceptions about what our time on earth means. It moved time and space in ways I still don’t fully understand and showed me how little I would ever understand about life. It melted the man-made boundaries between here and there, before and after, life and death. And here is where language really becomes useless, because there are no words that can describe the experience of existence beyond our mortal realm.

How else to explain that the first time I saw a heron come to land on the lake, by which I then lived, I understood that Amy’s spirit had been too gentle for this world and that I had done nothing wrong. The gift of Amy was not to be manifest in earthly accomplishments but in visitations once in a while during the course of my life; a gentle breeze that teaches me to connect with my own gentle spirit – a lesson in which I am of continual need.

If I had buried my grief along with her, would I have evolved this way, to the point where that grief is no longer – nor has been for many years – necessary?

Yet grief for a life not yet lived is different than the grief we feel for the lives we have lived with, be they parent, mate, or friend. If we are fortunate, grief is attached to the real loss of shared life: the laughter and tears, the disagreements and disappointments, the inside jokes and intimate conversations, the tender smile, the kiss on the nape of the neck, the folding of underwear not your own.

Grief is what we fill the space with until we are able to step back into the ongoing river where we will inevitably be carried away and forward into our new lives. For sure, some grief’s are harder than others; the grief we feel at the death of any loved one with whom love was unrequited or in some way thwarted is grief multiplied by all that never was and now can never be. Yet even that grief can be the vehicle through which we come to terms with the imperfect nature of life on earth.

Grief is a good thing, as long as we don’t choose to live in it for the rest of our lives. But the journey through it is solitary and personal and as varied as life itself.

  Photograph by Maggie Barrett