Monthly Archives: August 2013

PLUM CRAZY

August 25 2013

It would seem that wherever one is in the northern hemisphere, there comes an evening or two in late August, when Autumn sneaks in for a preview; a slight chill carried on a sudden breeze that has you wondering whether to reach for a shawl or a sweater; the way the trees shiver, and something else, intangible, yet palpable.

It happened here this week, in spite of daytime temperatures in the high 80’s. And you can see it in the garden; a weariness in the blossoms as if the pressure to keep producing is just too much. Fields of sunflowers are already bowing their heads in readiness for the guillotine. I’m not ready to bow my head to another season yet, although I do long for rain and the relief from the daily, sometimes twice daily, watering routine.

We travelled to another valley yesterday, some forty minutes from here, to lunch with new friends. A New York couple, she a photographer and he a writer, would be a good fit if only in the sharing of careers, but added to that mutual understanding, is a profound love of Tuscany.

Deep in the countryside, they have built a simple home on an exquisite piece of land, which they have worked with all the passion and courage of the contadini: from the outside forno, fashioned from the clay earth, to the terraced land, the vegetable garden, stone embankments and the pruning of the olive trees. Not to mention the nurturing of a plum orchard, the fruit of which surpasses any plum in memory.

We were joined by two other couples comprised of 3 Italians and a Brit, hailing from Milan and Florence, and all connected in various ways to the world of photography. We lunched on homemade gazpacho, meatloaf cooked in the forno and a devastating plum crumble; the oil and wine also from their land. Everyone spoke English and Italian although it must be said that the Italians beat us soundly in their proficiency of English. Nonetheless, there was a nice, musical give and take of sentences begun in one language and finished in another. And, added to the delight of this isolated gathering, was the joy of a little boy, the son of the Italian couple; this little family, a breathtaking triad of beauty, good humor and intelligence.

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These rare social moments that we partake of are not always as stimulating as was this one, but when they are, they allow us to step out of our isolation and reconnect with the outside world in exactly the way we wish to i.e., with the give and take of curiosity about the other; an egoless meeting of the minds and hearts, and the pleasure of a momentary love affair between a 2 ½ year old boy and a 67 year old woman.

By the time we were devouring the plum crumble and a chocolate pear cake, a sudden squall arrived and we scurried inside for coffee. Then, as is often the case here, the sun came out before the rain stopped, disappearing as if to let the rain finish its act, before returning in time for us to play a little unstructured soccer; the democratic prize being a raiding of the plum trees before departure. Oh, the plums. The newly fallen, hot-skinned, succulent-fleshed, wicked plums. And the firmer fruit, picked from the branches and carried home for jam-making.

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It was 6 in the evening when we drove back to our valley, the air sweetened by the rain, the sun already lowering, the hills rolling one after the other in textures of corduroy, grain, and shabby velvet, their colors, here ochre, here sand, the occasional faded green and how about that rust-hued one over there with its deep purple furrows, all radiant in the evening light.

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Unfortunately, the squall on yonder valley had not visited our dales and so I donned my gardening boots and wrestled with the hose for half an hour, whispering encouragement to the valiant plants. Joel, meanwhile, prepared a salad for our supper. For dessert: pecorino cheese slathered with plum innards.

 

THE SEDUCTION OF THE MUSE

August 18 2013

When we started this blog, nearly two and half years ago, the idea was to share our creative process as artists, as well as to give readers a peek into what it’s like to fly the coop at a certain age. At that time, we were beginning our discovery of Provence having been commissioned to make a book about it. The subsequent book, Provence: Lasting Impressions, was published in September of last year.

Between the completion of the book and its publication, we realized we had fallen in love with Provence and, having already been carrying on a love affair with Tuscany for nearly two decades, decided to really fly the coop and spend this year dividing our time between the two; an experience, like most love affairs, that has proven exciting, liberating and at times daunting.

We’re now in the dog days of summer in Tuscany. It’s Sunday and the two of us are sitting under the huge shade trees behind the house although by noon…a few minutes from now…it will be too hot even here. And then we will retreat into the cool of the house, most likely to our studio where we spend most afternoons working side by side on our individual projects.

Until about six weeks ago my creative process consisted of collaborating with Joel on the Provence book, writing for the blog, painting, playing pianoand decorating the two rental houses (here and in Provence) in order to make them “ours.” This summer I added gardening to the list, an experiment from which I have learned much about the Tuscan earth and its climate; what works and what takes too much work. As a result, I will never grow another petunia as long as I live. I have 5 varieties here, which means that in order to keep them lush with blooms I must deadhead approximately 500 of them daily. To which I say va fan’ culo accompanied by the appropriate gesture of a smacked bicep and forceful fist.

My most successful plantings reside in an old wheelbarrow, which when the brutal sun threatens to fry them, I wheel into the shade. The roses, as long as they are watered every evening, thrive here, as does lavender, geraniums and verbena. The nasturtiums had their moment of glory before battalions of black aphids devoured them. It didn’t help that I planted them in galvanized metal containers, which turn into baking tins by noon. Most of the herbs are a no-brainer, although surprisingly, basil is a bit fussy. However, my peperoncini plants, grown from seedlings, are loaded with their little grenades, enough fire to season soups, stews and sauces for years to come. Perhaps my proudest accomplishment is a tiny oleander that I found struggling in a pot. I decided to put in the ground in an area behind the house that could use some floral camouflage.

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I dug it into the hard clay soil 2 months ago when it was a sickly four inches tall. I did cheat and add a bit of fertilizer and watered it faithfully the first month. It is now more than a foot in height and has already grown 4 new trunks. What pleases me about this is the Tuscan-ness of it. A hardy tree that once established needs no further care, it will be here long after I’m gone. But frankly, the rest of the garden is lucky that I have a hard time shirking responsibility because really there are times lately when I wish it would die overnight. Why? I’m writing a novel.

So, here’s the truth about the creative process, and it applies to every discipline whether visual arts, performing or writing: it is the most all-consuming and self-indulgent mode of employment. Many people over the years have asked me what makes some people artists, to which I reply, we have no choice. It has nothing to do with talent. It is a never-ending urge to communicate from the uniqueness of self; the need to express, sometimes, if rarely, to invent a new form or idea, but more often to find a new way of translating what we already know or feel. It is also the need to deconstruct; to tear away at beliefs, to expose truth and its oft accompanying shame. In the extreme, the creative process can insist on shock, which too often for my liking, takes the form of gratuitous vulgarity and violence. Whatever the form, once a creative idea takes hold, there is absolutely no way of cramming it back in the box…unless you’re a masochist or a coward, in which case you are not an artist.

History is filled with examples of the consequences of the singularly selfish business of being an artist: marriages, children, and often finances, suffer. I am guilty of all three in my past. So we count ourselves lucky to be in this moment of our lives: our children are grown and whole, our finances are simple and stable and our marriage, rather than suffering from lack of attention, is enhanced and supported by our understanding and respect of each others work.

The other thing about being an artist is that there is no down time. Everything you do, see, hear, think, feel and eat is grist for the mill. It is life lived both intensely connected and yet at a remove.

Having spent many years in the practice of dance, painting, and music, I can say that no matter what the discipline, the seduction is the same. But having spent 45 years writing, I can also say that writing is the most solitary of them all. With the other disciplines you are often, with the exception of the visual arts, in collaboration, and even as a visual artist you are capable of holding conversation and discourse with other human beings. But if you are writing fiction, it’s much more difficult to engage with people, because if you’re doing a good job with your novel then the characters therein are always more interesting than anyone you know.

I cannot wait to get to my desk each day to find out what my 6 characters are going to do and say. So I ask for your understanding and forgiveness for not posting as often as usual at the moment. In fact, please excuse me now…I must go to my desk.

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A LOSS OF CIVILITY

August 8 2013

Yesterday was the last day of my 66th year on this amazing planet. I have no idea what that really means or even why I’m mentioning it, although I do remember feeling a little regret yesterday morning, not so much regret at time passing, but more of a silly sort of regret that I hadn’t noticed before the symmetry of 66 combined with my birthdate of 8/8, a momentary lapse into magical thinking that made we wonder if I had missed some numerological opportunity during the course of the past 12 months.

Birthdays, numbers, time; simple arithmetic that we try to manipulate in order to make aging more acceptable; the trickery of certain numbers like the way that 67 seems so much closer to 70 than did 66. A relative of mine suffered a stroke on Sunday. At 71, one could say she’s closer to 70 than am I, which is about as much sense as numbers make. It was a relatively mild stroke, but it has shocked the whole family, myself included. How very arbitrary and fragile life is and when we look back over the span of our lives, who among us can say they didn’t waste some of that precious time.

Although I have often stated that nothing is a waste, that everything happens for a reason and that it takes whatever it takes to get us where we’re going, I have to confess that I’m now more inclined to believe that’s a load of claptrap. Isn’t it possible to have both acceptance of what is and regret for some of what was?

For a few days before my birthday I was a tad irritable and feeling somewhat overwhelmed, both of which I’d like to claim are due to ticking off another year on the calendar, but that isn’t the case, in fact I feel quite sanguine about this birthday, not to mention grateful. No, what’s really going on is that I’m writing a new novel and as a result I have 6 fictional characters in my head at all times. They are talking to each other and to me pretty constantly, fortunately in English, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for communicating with “real” people, including my dear husband.

This novel is the first fiction I’ve written in 10 years, in fact, I was convinced that I would never write fiction again, having fallen in love with the essay form and also because for the last decade I’ve been highly focused on being in reality. But about 6 weeks ago these characters, that had originally inhabited a short story I wrote some 15 years ago, suddenly clamored for attention. Evidently their lives, much like my own, extend beyond the short form.

It’s too early in the process for me to want to share in any detail the outline of the story, but I can tell you that it has at its core the role that belief plays in our lives. One of the characters believes in civility; a rather old-fashioned word, much as is chivalry.

Civility: an act of courtesy and respect; consideration of others. Even the definitions sounds antiquated. Remember when young people on trains and buses got off their asses and offered their seat to an older or pregnant person? When was the last time you saw that? I’ve stood from downtown to uptown in subway cars filled with seated young people and it just doesn’t occur to them. It’s not that they look at me, or a pregnant women and think, forget it, they’re not getting my seat. No, they’re so self-involved that the idea of civility is not a part of their vocabulary.

We like to think we live in civilized countries, those of us who reside in America or Europe. Perhaps having lived on both continents I have mistakenly measured the civility I grew up with in Europe as being greater than that of America. However, I was disabused of this notion a few days ago when waiting in line at the checkout of the local supermarket.

The place was packed as it was about to close for lunch, one of a few remaining civilized traditions that still continue here. Suddenly there was an awful clatter and perhaps 20 people turned to look at its source. A customer had knocked over a display of Tic-Tac’s, sending perhaps a hundred of their plastic containers all over the floor…and then he or she just kept on walking while everyone else turned away. I could see the accident waiting to happen; a customer turning the corner of the aisle, stepping on one of those slippery little boxes and going for a cropper. So I put my two shopping baskets on the floor, knelt down and started picking up the boxes. Eventually, when I was almost done, another customer helped. When I finished, I stood up and found that the woman who had been directly behind me in the line had take this opportunity to kick my baskets aside and take my place.

I was already pissed off at the person who’d refused to take responsibility for having knocked over the display but now I was incensed. I started searching for the language to express to this local woman exactly what I thought of her, but then decided that action would speak louder than my Italian and picking up my baskets I squeezed in front of her, a rather uncivil act on my part, which further underlines the domino effect caused by an ever-increasing disregard for other people and their property.

This example of the lack of civil behavior bothered me for hours. And saddened me. The erosion of civility is a loss beyond measure. It chips away at the soul and deprives us of the most basic of human abilities; the regard and respect of others, without which it is impossible to go all the way to love. And really, love is the only way to go.

So, to all of you, our dear readers, I thank you for being in my life; for being such open receptors to my thoughts, concerns and observations. I count you as one of the many gifts on this my 67th Birthday and look forward to sharing more of each precious day with you.

 

 

Maggie’s Birth Day

Today Maggie reached a beautiful pair of numbers; 67.

To celebrate what this year has been since we came to Europe on January 1st, first to France and now here to Tuscany,  I will show you some of what she has been doing and how much fun she’s had along the way.

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More to come

GARDEN VARIETIES

July, 29 2013

I joked to a friend the other day that I deadhead my plants nearly as often as I cut my hair, which can be hourly! So, it was with some trepidation that I left my babies for two days last week, to go to the sea.

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As we are in the middle of a heat-wave, I took the precaution of putting some of the pots and containers around the back of the house which not only faces east, but is shaded by three huge leccio trees. I also made arrangements to split watering duty between Silvia for the first evening and Luana for the second; the watering taking a good half hour and necessitating the wielding of a 150 feet of hose.

So, off we went to La Residensa Pineta, our third visit to this little inn by the edge of the coast, a place we have come to refer to as ninnananna, or lullaby, and although we spent less than 48 hours there, it truly felt as though we’d had a week’s vacation. A vacation from what, you might ask, to which I would reply, mainly from insects.

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A couple of readers recently expressed a little envy of our time here in Europe and although I may at times write of death and disagreement, I suppose it’s true that this site is often a report of the wonder and adventure of this moment in our lives. I found myself a little defensive at first when I heard one person say that it’s sometimes hard to read about all the good times we’re having. If this were a novel, it would be a total bore, and maybe it borders on that anyway, but what I really want to say is hey, we sold our house, paid off our debts and decided to ride the wild horse of liberation. The reason for writing about it is to encourage, maybe even, dare I say, inspire.

Inspire what, you might ask? To which I would reply, to listen to yourself; to hear what it is you keep saying you want or wish you could do and find a way to do it. Yes, I know, there are limitations, for all of us, and as we age, the limitations of loss of loved ones and physical mobility and health indeed limit desire and hamper the manifestation of dreams, in which case we must dream anew.

Joel and I are extremely aware of our good fortune, some of it having come from making good decisions and finally accepting the true responsibilities of life, and some of it no doubt for reasons we can never know. But we are daily aware of the possibility of imminent loss of the other and this spurs us to be even more honest, with ourselves and with each other…to be honest to the point of what could be called selfishness, not only in order to make the most of each day, but hopefully to strengthen ourselves so that whoever is left behind is a whole person capable of surviving grief while continuing to live whatever is left of life to the fullest. But I digress, wildly.

Let me disabuse any reader who thinks we are living in Paradise. We’re actually living on a farm in the middle of a heat wave. There are 50 head of cattle, an unknown quantity of sheep, goats and chickens ergo a vastly unknown number of attendant insects. By the beginning of last week we had reached a Zen place of being able to sit outside with our lunch or dinner without swatting at any of the hundreds of flies landing on us, and our food; although we did become mass-murderers inside the house where no fly has the right to life. We actually got to the point where we were announcing our kill count to each other and wondered if perhaps this was how the Mafia came into being.

What we couldn’t rise above, if you’ll pardon the pun, was a type of insect that mysteriously seems to have escaped being named; a rather excellent example of the level of Italian denial when confronted with anything they are powerless or unwilling to change. These insects make no-see-ems look like blimps. They are particularly fond of the ear canal where they not only relentlessly tickle, but also produce a whine so high-pitched it sounds like the scream of distant murder. They also seem to have a strong liking for my hair gel which they feasted on one evening while I was watering, leaving behind 32 bites on my head, bites the size of chickpeas and which caused my entire scalp to itch with such intensity that I resorted to antihistamines and a valium.

Fortunately, like all horror, insects have a time limit. We know from last year that these insects vanish after a couple of weeks. Not so the black aphids which are devouring my nasturtiums, nasturtiums which, until 2 weeks ago, were the glory of the garden and the envy of the locals. So much for pride.

And so much for control; when we returned from the sea all was not well with the garden. Evidently a mere 2 hours after we left, a storm arrived. It lasted for 2 hours, blew out the fuses, turned the area around the house into a lake and the attendant winds knocked down almost every plant, including one of the climbing roses which I had rescued from drought and disease. It was 8 in the evening when we pulled up to the house and I immediately donned my boots, wrapped my head in a scarf and went to work. As the saying goes; what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger and so it is with plants. Everything survived and within 2 days of trimming everything back, new shoots and buds, leaves and branches were pushing back out into the world. We humans are no different.

However, it has changed my thinking about gardening, or rather, my desire for it. When we left our seaside garden on Cape Cod behind nearly two years ago I was heartbroken. Now, when we move up the hill next year the garden there will consist of banks of rosemary and lavender, both of which grow abundantly well with absolute neglect. We’ll prune the olive trees, tend the existing roses and dig in the ones we have here. And, judge me if you will, but I will most definitely be putting in an automatic watering system.

I am not only too old for children, I’m also too old for pets and plants. I’m at peace with becoming a selfish old biddy and want only that in my life for which I am capable and willing to be responsible.