Monthly Archives: August 2012

ATTACH THIS

August 29 2012                       
It’s a fine line between connection and attachment: the former having become fashionably acceptable in a ‘spiritual’ sense; the latter having become a baby-boomer no-no, whether as a result of Buddhist belief or self-righteous anti-materialism. I do get it, but really, do we have to pretend to be so hard and fast about these things?

Isn’t attachment a natural part of being human? First there’s the umbilical cord, then the breast, and on and on and yes, it is most definitely advisable to detach from such things, but why do we have to go a step further and insist that attachment shouldn’t even exist in the first place? What, exactly, is wrong with attachment? How many times do you hear friends and gurus warn, “Don’t get attached,” but ‘connection’ is ok. We’re allowed to connect and are often judged harshly if we don’t. The dictionary defines connection as “a link between one thing and another,’’ while it defines attachment as “affection, fondness or sympathy for someone or something.”

Why is this coming up right now? Well, we’re finding it wrenching to leave here. We’ve become attached, you see. More than that, our roots have grown deeper. Of course, this would be one reason why we Westerners decry attachment…it can cause pain when letting go. And there, I think, we have the real problem: the need to avoid pain.

Don’t feel bad, someone said the other day when, in response to their inquiry as to how I was I replied that I was sad to be leaving. “Oh, don’t feel sad,” they said, “You’ll be back next year.”  What the hell is wrong with feeling sad? Why wouldn’t we be sad to leave this exquisite place and these halcyon days? It’s not like I want to commit suicide. But how do I know if I’ll be back next year?

I think life, if it is to be fulfilling, is a series of connections, and attachments, followed by letting go and detaching ; some of the detachment being delivered by outside circumstances of loss and death and some being a matter of choice. 

Joel and I don’t have to leave…we can pretend we have to and in so doing experience the detachment as something unfair, even cruel. We could say, well Joel has to pick up his awards and I have to have a tooth replaced, the NY apartment has to be prepared for rental next year and on and on with the list of ‘musts’. But really, we could just as well have the awards delivered, I could go toothless for another year and the apartment could be rented as is, albeit for less money. And don’t think we haven’t, in some mad moments, decided to do just that. But it turns out we are just as attached to the idea, or belief, that returning to NY and fulfilling these things will make our lives so much freer in the future. What hubris.

Whereas the real attachment to NY is family and friends…and aren’t we fortunate to have such bonds? And to have such attachments in more than one place? The sadness I’m feeling now is simple: I feel a connection here, to place and a way of life that I simply do not feel in America.

It rained on Sunday. After 4 months of scorching sun, it rained. We stood outside and watched as the storm gathered itself, coming from all directions, the sky darkening and bruising. Lightening struck in two places at once, the thunder progressing from grumble to BOOM. The first drops were hesitant, like an overdue guest wondering if the welcome mat was still out. And then, unable to restrain itself it staccato-ed and then lashed, and I ran out into it, stood there in the already flooding gravel and, like the earth itself, tilted my head back and opened my mouth. In less than a minute I was drenched and, joy of joys, cold!


But it was that brief period after the rain’s hesitation, when it committed to a downpour that made me realize how attached I had become to this land. Why? Because I cried. I cried as if I was the land. Just as, during the prior weeks, I had groaned in parched sympathy.

In moments like this, when, for want of a better phrase, we are at one with the universe, connection and attachment do not exist.



Our African Summer

August 25 2012                        
It’s hard to believe that what we’ve come to call our African Summer is drawing to a close; we have a week and a day left, 2 days of which will be spent breaking camp. Then we’ll leave these voluptuous hills behind and make our way north to Nice where we’ll drop off the car before flying to London the following day and 3 days after that, the long haul to New York City.

We will have been here exactly 3 months, during which time we breakfasted out in the cool air of every early morning. We will have made some 30 to 40 trips across the hot gravel to hang the laundry, marveling each time at the wonder of our lives that brought us to this clothesline in this vast expanse surrounded by these parched hills, the form and colour of which never diminishes but rather intensifies each day; the hills themselves going from vibrant green upon our arrival, to the blonde-gold of their hay-days and finally, to the greyish greenish splendor of the tilled earth. 

We have communed with these hills for many hours, during all hours of the day and night, and with each communion have received the blessing of their abiding beauty. We’ve spent the blazing afternoons upstairs in our studio writing, photographing and drawing and when we became too shut-in, drove to the town pool for a few laps or luxuriated in the comfort of the air-conditioned car as we made our way along the white roads to new villages, or the pecorino farm, or the cool dappled woods of Vivo D’Orcia. We’ve stumbled along the scalding cobblestones of noonday Siena in search of sheets, or pastels or a cooler pair of pants before rewarding ourselves with lunch at the sensational Osteria Del Loggia, each lunch outdoing the prior one.


We’ve read and napped and bickered and laughed. We’ve played with friends and gazed at the stars. We’ve walked the dusty road in the cooling air of early evening, the earth reflecting and radiating the day’s heat; the earth cracking open, the cracks widening like upturned mouths pleading for rain. 

We’ve watched crops fail in the relentless heat. Gardens, normally abundant with tomatoes, summer vegetables and fruits, have withered, their produce shriveled and without taste. Trees are dying, everywhere. Here on the farm, the hydrangeas gave up long ago. The cows ran out of water and had to be relocated. Two nights ago a fox killed one of the lambs. A serpent ate all the hens’ eggs. And still Silvia and Vincenzo work from morning until night, hoping their water supply will last until the rain comes. Hoping rain comes. It’s been 4 months.

Yet the innate generosity of the people never dries up. Everyday the basket outside our door is filled with something from the farm even thought there is not half of the abundance of last summer, even so Silvia puts some eggs in the basket, a few tomatoes, some peppers, a couple of zucchini, a handful of green beans.

Everywhere you go you see the prayerful hands accompanying the moan of “Mama Mia.” We are all in agreement: the change has arrived. We have, every one of us, contributed to the decline of the environment. And how will we adjust? Already vineyards are being planted in England. England! Will Tuscany become the new Africa? And what will happen to Africa?

But this is not a place I want to enter now…the realm of negativity is self-perpetuating. Better to return to the moment; to be grateful for the whirr of a fan, to sip an espresso with a dollop of chocolate gelato in it. The day is young and we grow old in it. A nap perhaps, or how about we go off to look at Lucignano, a village we recently heard about, knowing that when we return the day will have surrendered its heat once more and before us will stretch the long sweet evening; sitting under the trees, watching the bright flash of color from the hills salute the setting sun.

Let’s take the summer soup outside, a hunk of homemade bread and sheep’s cheese, oh, go on, a few olives and some dried sausage won’t go amiss. Do you hear the cows? What are they going on about? Listen…is that a nightingale? And oh, look at the stars…

Our African Summer

August 25 2012                        
It’s hard to believe that what we’ve come to call our African Summer is drawing to a close; we have a week and a day left, 2 days of which will be spent breaking camp. Then we’ll leave these voluptuous hills behind and make our way north to Nice where we’ll drop off the car before flying to London the following day and 3 days after that, the long haul to New York City.

We will have been here exactly 3 months, during which time we breakfasted out in the cool air of every early morning. We will have made some 30 to 40 trips across the hot gravel to hang the laundry, marveling each time at the wonder of our lives that brought us to this clothesline in this vast expanse surrounded by these parched hills, the form and colour of which never diminishes but rather intensifies each day; the hills themselves going from vibrant green upon our arrival, to the blonde-gold of their hay-days and finally, to the greyish greenish splendor of the tilled earth. 

We have communed with these hills for many hours, during all hours of the day and night, and with each communion have received the blessing of their abiding beauty. We’ve spent the blazing afternoons upstairs in our studio writing, photographing and drawing and when we became too shut-in, drove to the town pool for a few laps or luxuriated in the comfort of the air-conditioned car as we made our way along the white roads to new villages, or the pecorino farm, or the cool dappled woods of Vivo D’Orcia. We’ve stumbled along the scalding cobblestones of noonday Siena in search of sheets, or pastels or a cooler pair of pants before rewarding ourselves with lunch at the sensational Osteria Del Loggia, each lunch outdoing the prior one.

We’ve read and napped and bickered and laughed. We’ve played with friends and gazed at the stars. We’ve walked the dusty road in the cooling air of early evening, the earth reflecting and radiating the day’s heat; the earth cracking open, the cracks widening like upturned mouths pleading for rain. We’ve watched crops fail in the relentless heat. Gardens, normally abundant with tomatoes, summer vegetables and fruits, have withered, their produce shriveled and without taste. Trees are dying, everywhere. Here on the farm, the hydrangeas gave up long ago. The cows ran out of water and had to be relocated. Two nights ago a fox killed one of the lambs. A serpent ate all the hens’ eggs. And still Silvia and Vincenzo work from morning until night, hoping their water supply will last until the rain comes. Hoping rain comes. It’s been 4 months.

Yet the innate generosity of the people never dries up. Everyday the basket outside our door is filled with something from the farm even thought there is not half of the abundance of last summer, even so Silvia puts some eggs in the basket, a few tomatoes, some peppers, a couple of zucchini, a handful of green beans. Everywhere you go you see the prayerful hands accompanying the moan of “Mama Mia.” We are all in agreement: the change has arrived. We have, every one of us, contributed to the decline of the environment. And how will we adjust? Already vineyards are being planted in England. England! Will Tuscany become the new Africa? And what will happen to Africa?

But this is not a place I want to enter now…the realm of negativity is self-perpetuating. Better to return to the moment; to be grateful for the whirr of a fan, to sip an espresso with a dollop of chocolate gelato in it. The day is young and we grow old in it. A nap perhaps, or how about we go off to look at Lucignano, a village we recently heard about, knowing that when we return the day will have surrendered its heat once more and before us will stretch the long sweet evening; sitting under the trees, watching the bright flash of color from the hills salute the setting sun.

Let’s take the summer soup outside, a hunk of homemade bread and sheep’s cheese, oh, go on, a few olives and some dried sausage won’t go amiss. Do you hear the cows? What are they going on about? Listen…is that a nightingale? And oh, look at the stars…

THE ESSENCE OF KINDNESS

August 18 2012                     
Two or three weeks ago, I wrote that one of the reasons Joel and I flew the coop was to experience ourselves in unfamiliar places in the hope that we would “discover the unfamiliar in ourselves.” But today I discovered something and as a result would like to amend the quote to: “uncover the familiar, which has become unfamiliar.”

Both Joel and I are interested in the essence of people, places and things; that characteristic at the core of everything which is essential to being and without which we become unrecognizable, unfamiliar. I suppose another way of defining essence is “true nature.” Joel, for instance, has been working – and continues to – on a body of work called “Elements” in which he tries to connect with an element, say water, in such a way that he can capture with his camera the essential nature of it. Who knows what is really at the core of that? What is it about water that makes it so essentially itself, not in scientific but spiritual terms.


Today, what came up for me is the way in which I have defended against an essential part of myself until it has become more like a hardened, unyielding nut.

We all do this to some degree, depending on our backgrounds and the stories we weave from them. And we do this in relationship, too, allowing some element of the relationship, which in the beginning was an essential part of what attracted us, to become a bargaining chip, withheld without honest explanation as to why: an implicit “if you don’t give me such and such, then I won’t give you such and such.” All it takes is that first nick in an old wound and off we go,

Joel and I seem to be entering a phase of our journey into the unfamiliar where we are discovering our nut. The details are not necessary, suffice it to say our nut is as defended and painful as anyone else’s. And we’ve been tricky with it. By that I mean we’ve got away from acknowledging it on the deepest level because (a) we have a relationship that is rich in many other ways and (b) because we are each, in our own way, able to mask it, or in the worst moments, blame each other for things that seem embarrassingly trivial but which, in fact, we have built into magnificent armor against the pain of truth.

So the familiar in me, that has become unfamiliar, is my essential kindness which I have managed to cover up, gradually hardening myself until, in the places where true kindness is essential, I show only judgment and anger. Again, when I say essential, I mean the quality that most defines a person place or thing. By hardening against our essence we become unfamiliar, especially to ourselves. 

Today my husband showed me such kindness in the face of my withholding that I found myself melting. It was painful, as melting must be, to begin to feel how far I had come from my essential self while over these same years making so much progress in other ways: getting sober, becoming a better mother, earning a Master’s degree, starting a business, writing and performing a play, becoming a life coach, publishing books, creating financial solvency (and, when it came easy, showing kindness to others). And for sure all these things have merit. But they also can become the things we flaunt in order to cover up the one thing we refuse to admit.

Maybe the heat has been good for us, helping to soften resistance. Maybe having my daughter here for 10 days was a gift beyond words; the 3 of us learning how to be with each other in a way we’ve haven’t experienced before. There was a lot of kindness going on. And, maybe, this Flying The Coop thing was an even better idea than we thought it would be.

You see, we have nothing to blame anymore – if you don’t count two and half months of mind numbing heat. Well, there you are, maybe mind numbing was another necessary element. We can’t blame New York. We can’t blame the stress of debt. We can’t blame having to be on a schedule. We can’t blame death. We’ve reached a station on this journey where the only person on the platform is one’s self.

My teacher once said that in any difficult circumstance between people, the person in the room who has the most emotional capability at that moment must take responsibility.Today, I admit that in the one place where emotional responsibility had been needed in our relationship, I fell short.

It was Joel, who, in this essential place where we had become estranged from ourselves, and therefore each other, showed true kindness, and in so doing helped me reconnect with my own.

WHEREVER WE GO

August 1 2012              
As someone once said, “Wherever you go, there you are.” To which I might add
“Sh-t happens, everywhere.” I say this because, I, like most people, still harbor the tiniest illusion that either I, or some yet to be discovered place, can transform me; all I have to do is make the right choice.

I think, and I know Joel would agree, that when we decided to Fly the Coop we had an idealized vision of how that might be, and why not? After all, if you don’t believe that what you’re going to is going to be better than what you already have, why would you choose to go?

All of us set out on journeys during the course of our lives. For some the journeys may seem limited: starting school, leaving the parental home, embarking on a career, marrying, annual vacation. Yet all of us have hopes and dreams and yes, expectations, of how these journeys will enrich us. 

Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be everything and go everywhere. For years I lay in bed for probably half and hour before sleep took me, envisioning myself as a prima ballerina, an opera singer, an Olympic athlete, a bride, and a mother.


It is an amazing capacity we humans have to create these cinematic visions of ourselves where we are at once the writer, director, camera person and protagonist, projecting our heroic futures onto the screen of our inner eyelids. Over and over again, we wake up. Perhaps in the course of that next day some of us inch a little closer to manifesting those visions.

I have just finished reading a wonderful novel by Claire Messud, “The Last Life,”
A novel that raises questions of identity and belonging, themes that are of great interest to me, along with the question as to whether there is such a thing as choice; this question being one that I have spent decades insisting that yes, there is always a choice. But is there? And do I need the answer to be ‘yes’ because I am a proponent of self-responsibility, or because I need to be in control?

Messud gives an exquisite example of this unanswerable question toward the end of her novel. The protagonist is recalling an event from her childhood when she climbed to the top of a fountain while her parents looked on aghast as she ended up in the murky water below. Rushing to pull her out they asked her what happened, she said, “I was falling, so I jumped.”

I love the determination of that child who chose to experience what started out as an accident, as something self-willed. But then in order to fully explore the nature of choice one would have to ask if there was a moment when she unconsciously chose to fall. Is there such a thing as unconscious choice?

Joel and I were falling when the crash of 2008 happened. You could say we were victims of the economy, but that wouldn’t be true. We were self-made victims who had been living beyond our means. But like Messud’s little girl, when we became conscious that we were falling we decided to jump. Our choice was to downsize and it was a process that took three years to fully understand and implement. And, like the little girly who ended up in the murky water and suffered her parents judgment and displeasure, we too had to disappoint some people on the way down to reality. 

During that period we made a lot of conscious choices: to move out of an expensive rental, to reduce a staff of 5 down to 1 and to sell our house by the sea in order to pay off all debt, to sell our car, and to give away many material possessions. We pored over spreadsheets re-assessing what we spent our money on. It was excruciating and liberating. We landed on our feet, but it was not a free fall.

So we’ve chosen to live in some foreign countries for a couple of years because we want to experience ourselves in the unfamiliar in the hope that in so doing, we will find the unfamiliar in ourselves. But, wherever you go…


And those events that are beyond our ability to choose…the weather, flies, tourism, diminishment of silence…? How do we find a way to acceptance and peace with it all?  For me choice lies in the recognition of the moment, which on a good day can yield immeasurable bounty. Take yesterday for instance.

We breakfasted outside, as usual, in the cool of early morning. Then, surprisingly, it felt too cool. So I chose to go around the side of the house and sit in the sun for a while. Then it got too hot. So I chose to walk around the back of the house, a choice I have, inexplicably, never made in the morning before, having designated it as our evening place. But the shade under the big trees was just the right temperature so I fetched my book and Joel, and we sat for some 3 hours reading, remarking once in a while how nice it was to be comfortably outside during the day. As the sun revolved around us, we moved our chairs to the lower level where the breeze still existed, enjoying lunch there and a few more chapters. Finally, when the sun won, we surrendered to the cool of our bedroom and an afternoon nap and then moseyed into town for a swim and half an hour of basking in the now temperate evening sun. Dinner was a bowl of lentils and vegetables from the farm, with fresh peaches for dessert. 

It was a simple day. Exactly the sort of day we Flew The Coop for. The sort of day you can experience anywhere…if you so choose.

SILENCE…PLEASE

JULY 28 2012                              
I just had to ask Joel for the date. At least I knew it was July. Still, on hearing that it’s almost August I had one of those but-how-can-that-be moments. We left New York mid-May and now….Joel said, let’s not talk about it. So I won’t,

We just got back from one of our vacations within a vacation, or as a friend of ours calls it “The luxury-slum shuffle.” Not that we’re living in a slum, but it is basic here on the farm, and that’s the way we like it. But every once in a while these 2 old codgers feel like lazy lizards, especially this week as we are somewhat wrung out for the anxiety of our granddaughters surgery, which we are pleased to report was successful. So, we packed our overnight wheelies and drove 5 miles to Bosca Della Spina, a lovely bed and breakfast inn with a swimming pool and a fine restaurant open to the public. I had taken my niece there a few years ago for her birthday and we’d enjoyed a memorable dinner overlooking the valley, the fairy tale Etruscan village of Murlo twinkling on the next hilltop.


The restaurant is still good and the whole place, which was successfully renovated a few years ago, has managed to marry a harmonious blend of contemporary interior design with its medieval exterior. And the establishment itself, seemingly run entirely by women, has pulled off that hard to do and rare to find blend of laid-back efficiency. Although for a moment we thought it might prove to be a bit too laid-back.

We had unpacked and donned our swimsuits by 2:30 pm and headed down to the lovely pool for an afternoon of sun, shade, swimming, reading and above all, peace. Only to find that 3 French families travelling together had abandoned their 6 kids, ranging from 8 to 12 years old, poolside while they, the parents, enjoyed a late lunch on their private terrace.

The kids were atrocious, as unsupervised kids tend to be. Lord of the Flies comes to mind. They were screaming and yelling and jumping non-stop into the water with such force that we and the only other couple were intermittently soaked. It was impossible to contemplate entering the pool without risking life and limb – they had taken over.

Within minutes I turned into an indignant, self-righteous elder, bemoaning the lack of discipline and respect in today’s young parents. I tried glaring, from which I have yet to obtain a successful result – and I’ve got a pretty mean glare. I tried looking at the other couple for support…nothing. Although Joel, good tempered soul that he is, was beginning to get riled.

I lay there for a while debating with myself, the whole live-and-let-live, just-relax-it-will-pass, you-were-young-once, don’t-make-a-fuss-you-just-got-here etc., etc. But I kept coming back to, what the hell, we’re all paying guests here, we have a right to the pool, too, and frankly if you want to let your kids scream all afternoon take them to the public pool or the beach, but not to a small inn deep in the tranquil countryside. I was encouraged by Joel who, after 45 minutes said, I’m giving it another 5, then I’m going to the front desk.

I hate confrontation. I hate having to ask for fairness. I want everyone to behave in a decent, kind manner, which is pretty rich when I think back to some of my outlandish drunken episodes of a couple or three decades ago. When did I become so perfect? Besides, what if they tell me to f—k off, or worse, tell “everyone” what an old biddy I am? Well guess what? I am an old biddy, and I’ve looked forward to reaching an age when I can reprimand young people for their selfish behavior.

So, I’m lying there rehearsing my opening salvo to the parents when I see the 2 older boys ripping vines off the wall and shoving them into a run-off from the pool. Armed now with their criminal behavior – an accusation so much more persuasive than, “Your kids are too noisy,” I went in search of their parents whom I found on their terrace, nicely rested from a leisurely, kids-free lunch complete with wine.

I zeroed in on one of the mothers who, with a ballsy stare, confirmed that oui, les enfants terrible belonged to them. I informed her of the boys’ behavior and received the gaelic glare. So I took the epee and shoved it in a bit further, suggesting that ramming the pool’s filter with foliage was probably not a good idea, d’accord? And then, with pounding heart, held her stare until she blinked first and agreed to see to it. Score 1 for the old biddy. Within minutes the children were called to order and I am pleased to report that when they returned to the pool, much subdued, I had the pleasure of hearing one of the kids say to the rest, nodding in my direction, “It was the blonde one.” No mention of an old hag.

It was then that Joel seized the moment to reclaim the pool by entering it and swimming formidable laps. The kids watched in sullen silence and then, seeing that Joel was just hitting his stride, they slunk away. The next morning they were all gone and we spent a lovely peaceful couple of days in and out of the water.

As I mentioned recently, I’m reading “One Square Inch of Silence,” a book about the vanishing silence of nature. When we think of the sounds of nature we include, along with the sound of wind and waves, the sound of animal voices and we do so for the most part with pleasure. We humans are also part of the sound of nature and as such our voices too can give much pleasure, whether it is a beautifully sung aria, a mother talking tenderly to her child, or a peal of laughter.
Many years ago I lived next to a school in New York and loved the high-pitched, high-energy sound of the kids on their break. Who knows, maybe it is easier to enjoy that kind of volume when you know it is finite, or maybe part of the pleasure is that it reminds us of our own childhood….the good bits. Or maybe it’s that there is a place for everything and when sounds come from their organic place they resonate with us. When you go to a public beach you expect to hear the roar of the crowd meet the roar of the ocean, the energy seems right. When you are by small pool overlooking a Tuscan valley shared by a few paying guests you expect peace and quiet.  Aah, expectation.

Like everyone before me who has reached their later years, I am experiencing a world changed from the one in which I grew up. The loss of peace is one of the hardest for me. I grew up in an era where very few people on our street had cars. We had no refrigerator, no phone and no TV until I was 10 and then only on weekends. Think about how much “noise” is eliminated by the absence of cars, fridges, phones and TV’s. When was the last time you entered a store or a restaurant or any public place and heard no music playing?

As I sit here at my desk I hear the clickety-clack of Joel’s computer keyboard, the fan whirring, the farm’s tractor. Once the tractor stops, if I were to turn off the fan and ask Joel to stop typing, I would here the scratch of my fountain pen, the wind in the trees, the wood doves cooing. A cow might moo, a rooster crow…

So imagine our joy yesterday evening when sitting on our terrace in the tiny village of Lumpompesi, we heard the silence broken by the hooves of two horses being ridden up the narrow street.