Monthly Archives: May 2014

THE WORTH OF EMPTINESS

May 14 2014

We’ve entered a moment of slight hatred of each other. Is hatred too strong a word? Maybe, although, in the moment after my dear husband has completely misunderstood me, once again, in that moment when I find myself violently sticking out my tongue behind his back, I think it fair to say that is a moment of hatred.

These last few days we have started behaving much like over-stimulated babies behave come 5 o’clock. Except in our case there is nobody to feed us, soothe us and tuck us in to bed. We’re both shattered from 6 weeks of physical work, not to mention the constant expenditure of mental energy it takes to navigate, in Italian, online orders, follow-up calls, delivery directions, in-store queries for everything from screws to curtain rods to extension cords, cup hooks and masking tape. All of this ordinary business of life can be somewhat exhausting when you’re on home turf, in another language, the feeling of having been lobotomized can just about bring you to your knees. You do not want to know about varnish remover, square meters of carpeting, nor for the sake of your sanity, as well as my own, will I describe the joys of gardening on shale and I do mean on, not in.

Not that there aren’t moments of shared hilarity. Like when trying to purchase a vacuum cleaner, aspiro polveri, one asks instead for a machine that will suck up the poor, aspiro poveri; the latter machine perhaps available globally from your nearest corporate agency.

And then there is the hilarity that is Mirco, whom I have nicknamed Smirco in honor of the constant, slightly imbecilic grin he’s been wearing ever since we first met him 19 years ago. Then, a teenager working in his father’s grocery store, Mirco has for the last 12 years owned his own hardware store. A slightly bent 6’4”, now married with children, he yet retains a puckish innocence somewhat reminiscent of Roberto Benigni. And, if Benigni had a hardware store it would probably, much like Mirco’s, perform like a one-ring circus with a clown standing in as ringleader.

No matter what you need, be it a nail or a power drill, plan on being in the store for at least half an hour, during which time you will be well entertained. This morning, two women ahead of us were desperately trying to buy 3 flowerpots. We watched as Smirco first tried to find them, the grin expanding in response to his eventual achievement in so doing. We continued to watch as he tried to find how much they cost, shuffling through a foot high pile of papers before shrugging his shoulders, the grin twitching at its corners as he told them to take the pots now and pay for them tomorrow. Meanwhile the shop had filled up with half a dozen local men who demonstrated the entire repertoire of facial and gesticular expression….all of it directed at Mirco who, still smiling, managed to find steel wool and a wire cutter for us before, with what looked like unbounded joy, he informed us that yes, he did have curtain tie-backs, but he didn’t know where they were. We should come back tomorrow.

27 May 2014

I look at the date on which I started writing this blog and have no understanding of time whatsoever. Was it only 2 weeks ago?  In any case, during this period we not only secured the curtain tie-backs but affixed them all to their various walls. I hope not to buy, make and hang curtains for a very long time, if ever again.

I’m writing to you from our loft studio, sitting at my new worktable, which arrived yesterday along with Joel’s identical, slightly smaller one. Of German contemporary design, we chose them because we wanted to lighten up the space. For me, who has always cherished old things for the stories they carry, this is the first “new” surface I have written on. I chose it because I wanted a clean slate, so to speak. In the past, I needed the company and comfort of tables and desks that came with their history, perhaps because I arrived into this world, this time around, as an adoptee, and therefore without history.

The worn surfaces that have supported my writing for more than 46 years were stand-ins for my unknowable ancestors. I am grateful for every one of them. Can, as I write now, conjure up many of them and feel and see their dents and scratches, burns and nicks. Yet as soon as these images arise, they disappear, much the way the face of a long-gone loved one comes into focus for a second before fading into the blur of memory.

Yesterday, while showing our friend Gianni some of my artwork, I found myself describing (with a Mirco-like smile of pleasure at being able to locate enough Italian to be understood) how all my life, until I became sober, I had felt empty inside and that the only thing that had saved me was the greater emptiness one must enter in order to make a work of art. Pre-sobriety, I nightly emptied a bottle of brandy into me and in so doing, emptied myself of self. Longing to be swallowed whole into the unknowable, I never experienced it as the abyss; I was not the Alice who fell into the tunnel, but the one who went through the looking glass. There, I would meet the muse and bring back some message that could pour itself wordlessly onto the canvas, its completion giving me a temporary sense of worth.

What I realized last night is that I am no longer afraid of my emptiness because it is only by being willing to empty oneself of self (ego) that one can become the vehicle through which art can journey from darkness into the light; a mere vessel open to receiving and pouring forth.

Not that I have become egoless. It might take another incarnation before I am ready to let go of the material self and be of service in the spirit world. And so, while I wait for the next round of revision necessary for taking my manuscript to the next station on its interminable journey toward publication, I pour myself into the making of home and garden. For sure, partly so I have something to show for myself, but also because it is an essential part of my evolution. When the last twig is woven into this nest I will once again become the vessel in which to hatch new visions and watch them take flight into the great emptiness of the universe.

The new fridge arrived last Friday. The handcrafted, old wooden gate was installed on Saturday. The week before, with the help of Joel and friends, I made the first raised flower bed, planting it with rosemary, lavender, plumbago, thyme, sage, among other native, aromatics. Since I last wrote we’ve painted walls, sanded and refinished furniture, wired new lighting, and spent two days in and around Florence where we were taken on adventures by local artisans.

L1004954

L1004981

L1004991

L1005035

 

Gate and Roses

All of these accomplishments have give us joy, along with tired aching bodies, and those ridiculous moments of childish hatred. But nothing has given me the kind of quiet pleasure that I experience sitting at this new desk. While I will always love and honor rustic objects from the past, welcoming them in with a tip of the hat, I no longer need the history of those I’ve never met as a way of consoling myself for never having met those from my own history.

Now I can sit at my empty desk with my empty self and receive new stories, new images, which of course aren’t new at all. They, and many others, are waiting there, on the other side, waiting to be given life again, however momentary it might be in this fleeting world; their worth having nothing to do with us, or for that matter, with anything we conceive to be of worth.

 

ARRIVAL

April, 23 2014

3 armoires,

2 sofas,

1 sofa bed

1 chest of drawers

4 bedside tables

1 fireside stool

1 bathroom stool

1 antique bathroom cabinet

2 studio desk chairs

1 hammer

1 electric screwdriver

1 bag of nails

1 bag of screws

1 load of firewood

1 old outdoor table

2 shelves

3 olive trees

1 lemon tree

2 roses

There are so many arrivals in life, some of them so upsetting we can’t wait for their departure. But yesterday was one of the good ones. Yesterday we arrived in Tuscany.

We actually got here on Wednesday of last week and went straight to work unpacking, rearranging, making lists of what was needed, taking down shelves from here and putting them there, making the shower door from the old metal window shutters we portaged from France, putting up curtains…well, you know, the list is long as is always the case when making a home. And I admit I’m a maniac with it, not only because I have such a clear vision of how I want it to look, but also because I want it to be done so I can enjoy living in it.

Making a home is one of those projects the implementation of which I find hard to enjoy. I feel driven, like a bird feathering its nest in time to give birth, flitting about with nails in one pocket, string in another, here a hammer, put the mirror there, no, up a bit on the left and that chair looks terrible there, it has to go; and on and on, while my body is screaming “stop already.” I try, I really do. I make a pot of tea and sit on the couch and within a minute I’m up doing the next thing and the next. Wisdom? Transcendental Meditation? Patience? I practice them all to no avail. I am a madwoman and stubborn with it.

All those years ago, when I broke my neck, the neurosurgeon told me that my life would be forever changed and that as I aged I would experience the consequences of the injury. I can see him now, siting at his desk looking straight at me as he spoke and I remember feeling the same shiver of fear I’d felt when some two weeks prior, he had, upon looking at the emergency room X-rays, informed me I would probably never walk again. But he’d been wrong about that and so I decided he was wrong about repercussions later in life. But truth be told, in the 23 years since then it’s been a rare day without pain to some degree. Most of the time, like everyone else, I suck it up and go forward choosing to feel gratitude for life with pain as opposed to no life. But every once in a while there is something that gets the better of me, from a thyroid destroyed by radiation in the weeks following the accident, to neck and shoulder pain as a result of the nerves being flayed on impact, to the latest, and frankly most unacceptable inflammation of wrists and thumbs making the simplest of tasks, like unscrewing a bottle cap, to the manly work of humping boxes of dishes and sacks of earth, unbearable.

The latter type of work I have always prided myself capable of, to the extreme. Like moving an upright piano from one side of the room to the other…4 weeks after breaking my neck and while still in the halo vest. So I’ve been a tad pissed these last few days. And frightened. The combination of which drives me to do more in absolute denial of reality. Not to mention that the only thing separating us from our cousins the gorillas, is the thumb.

Maybe it was this anger and fear, combined with Ibuprofen that brought on a feeling of absolute dread yesterday morning. I was sitting at the kitchen table unable to see and appreciate how much we’d accomplished in a few days. Instead all I could see was how much more there was to do. I looked out the window to the landscape I love and felt nothing…and then, dread. An, oh, shit, we’ve actually moved here, kind of feeling. We’re not just playing at spending a year in Europe…we’ve actually moved to Tuscany….to a farm…way out in the country. And for one icy moment I thought, what if we’ve made a mistake? Here we are, just the two of us, alone in a foreign land. Now what? And then I saw the cows ambling across the pasture down to their watering whole and the dread was gone.

We put the soup up to warm, hung a couple more curtains and then my dear husband said, let’s take a walk. The light was calling and as put on my old boots I stepped into my Tuscan self. We walked past the leccio trees and the red rose bush, opened the lower gate and walked over to the hay barn. Stepping inside its grainy perfume we felt our sap rise, felt the strain of the last couple of weeks disappear into the evening air. Hand in hand we walked down our country road, stopping to watch a flight of birds lit by the low sun, watched as they stitched a silver thread across the landscape, the hills so green it grazes the eyes, the banks of the road a profusion of wild onions, lilac, whitethorn and buttercups.

L1004673_hay

L1004641Birds

Back home we lit the fire, which had been built for us this winter, and curled up with our soup, followed by local strawberries and cream. I looked around, saw the new couches, the renovated kitchen, the old rugs, the candlelight and suddenly I was home. I mean, really home. Like I’ve never experienced before.

L1004522_home

It’s a humble home made with love by Silvia and Vincenzo and filled with our love. We have just what we need and no more, and it turns out that living this simply is enriching beyond words.  And what luck that we arrived in time for the annual antique fair. For 4 days our little village was filled with treasures from all over Tuscany. The dealers took over empty shops and cantinas and we found a bunch of things, or as they say here, un sacco di roba, we needed for the house, all of which look like they’ve been here forever.

And another piece of luck: in the house adjoining the farm house, some 50 yards from us, lives Giovanni and his wife Maura. Giovanni is a man of all trades, having built our fireplace, installed the bathtub and renovated the kitchen during our absence this winter. Now he is doing all those necessary jobs like shelves and hooks and mending the deck chair and soon he will begin work on making our platform bed with built-in storage drawers.

But here’s the thing; we drove up to the house last week, past all the familiar twists and turns, parked the car, came in the gate and stopped in our tracks. There around the pergola and the new patio Silvia and Vincenzo had put a red ribbon, the scissors lying open on the table in readiness for the cutting.

L1004508_Ribbon

It was really in that moment that I came home. It was just too much happiness to absorb and so, in my usual manner, I distracted myself form happiness until the moment arrived when I felt I had earned it.

 

Departure

May 1 2014

HELLO, Dear Readers!  Yes, we are alive and well and cannot believe that it has been a month since we posted. And, from your emails, evidently many of you can’t believe it either. We have, as you will read, been in the middle of a very big move from Provence to our permanent (not that there is any such thing) home in Tuscany and although I did write a piece two weeks ago, we literally have not had time to post it. So you will now receive 2 separate (outdated) posts, titled DEPARTURE and ARRIVAL. A third will be posted this weekend. So, when you see Feeling Our Way Around twice in your mailbox today, know that they are two separate pieces. With thanks for your patience, we continue…..

PART 1

14 April 2014      DEPARTURE

22 boxes

4 trunks

5 suitcases

1 professional printer

3 rugs

3 bedside tables

1 end table

3 lamps

4 baskets filled with utensils

1 fire tongs

1 brazier

1 chair

2 tired people

And off we go! The moving van will arrive in another hour and the loading will begin. Tomorrow we leave Provence. Sad to leave. Happy to go. As my friend, Susan, wrote me from Norway, we are going from paradise to heaven, taking all our French treasures to our Tuscan farmhouse. And the treasures are not only material; we are taking with us the memories of shared adventures with dear friends.

JM moving truck

These friendships range in age from just a few weeks to 3 years and yet these connections are as deep as any. It’s part of what I love about getting older; everything becomes so essential. By that I do not meant that it is essential to have everything. Quite the opposite. It’s more of a whittling down to the essence of one’s own values and needs and in so doing one attracts kindred spirits.

I have often heard people our age…and younger…say that it’s difficult to make new friends when you get older and I wonder why people believe that is so. It’s certainly not our experience. I think the challenge of aging is not to surrender to the tendency of clinging to the familiar, as if to let go would mean being lost to the world. Perhaps we hope that by staying still, by not rocking the boat, we will somehow ensure safety and the avoidance of loss. But loss is a daily occurrence; from the loss of cells and hairs to the loss of loved ones and all the many losses in between. Yet gain, if we are open to it, is constant, whether it’s another sunset, a personal revelation, or a new encounter. Sad, happy, loss, gain, new old, Provence, Tuscany…bring it all on I say.

We had our last lunch with Sharon and Paul. They brought – along with their love and good cheer – one of the most amazing roses I’ve ever seen. It came from their garden so it’s quality should not have been a surprise. What was a surprise was that a rose so bold and decorative should also carry a scent as sweet and deep as any rose I have yet met. The longer I look at this creature the more I see it as a metaphor for our friends; strong and upright, yet slender and graceful, its delicate color hard to pin down. And like them it keeps on giving; the perfume, essential.

Rose

All photos by Maggie

We talk and laugh over a lunch of fridge-emptying leftovers with just enough ice-cream for Sharon and I; a shared addiction, we do not consider offering any to our men. We say goodbye ten times, another hug and then the last look…

Our newest friend here, Jutta, whose loving massages have gone deep into our cells, leaves a present for me inside the gate, a beautiful poncho for the Tuscan spring evenings. How good it will be to feel her embrace even at a distance.

On Friday evening, our friends Paul and Caro invited us, along with Paul and Sharon, to their exquisite home for dinner. We have written of it before, a 13th century monastery part of which they have turned into a B&B inn. We sat in the Cure’s garden in the sweet evening light, drinking juice pressed from the fruit of their orchard and for those who imbibe, a rosé from a neighboring vineyard. Paul, an expert Provençal cook, had prepared, amongst other delicacies, a cod seviché marinated in lemon juice, cilantro and red peppercorns, accompanied by a salad of shaved fennel and avocado.

At a table of 2 French, 3 Americans and 1 Brit, I’m proud to report that the Brit won the word of the day after a gaelic discourse on “wobble” for which there is no French, nor American, translation. It’s a lovely word, wobble. Jelly, or jello in American, aspic in French, wobble. As do babies learning to walk and children learning to ride a bike. A chin can wobble, too. Unlike shiver or tremble, wobble has a benign quality, a moment of uncertainty that nonetheless has the energy of holding things together just long enough to get steady on your feet or ride that bicycle hands free.

We’ve had a wobbly week but we’re up for the next leg of the journey.