Monthly Archives: August 2014

August 27 2014                      ABOVE IT ALL

I finished the latest round of revision of my novel on Sunday, a nearly 4 month, highly focused, intense process of work with a British editor who made me re-consider many aspects of the craft of fiction writing; a process which included killing off several interior passages that I was quite fond of in a wow-look-what-I-wrote kind of way. Nine times out of ten she was spot on and about halfway through the revision I began to see/understand how her edits and comments revealed both the narrative and its psychology in a more telling, as opposed to showing, way and quickened its pace to the kind of immediacy necessary for a can’t-put-it-down read.

When I finished I wept. I wept for the characters and I wept from the endeavor. And then I scooped a generous amount of vanilla gelato into a mug, lightly sprinkled it with salt and topped it off with locally made crumbled chocolate. How nice, I thought, that tomorrow is Monday and I can just laze around. Wrong.

Monday turned out to be the first of a few days of weaning 20 lambs from their mothers and the first day of milking the ewes. The agonizing sound of separated lambs and ewes had the effect that listening to an orchestra tune up for 8 hours non-stop might have, in that their sonorous bleating was completely devoid of harmony, not to mention suffused with anguish.

L1008099 L1008100

We were rescued, as is so often the case, by our dear friend Gianni, who offered to take us on one of his adventures the next day. Joy of joys. We left the house about 9:30 and decided to head up into the mountains toward Amiata, about an hour south of here.

Of the many things we love about Tuscany, one is the enormous range of terrain, from rolling hills and valleys (our terrain) to vineyards and the ubiquitous fields of sunflowers, to rocky foothills somewhat reminiscent of Provence and on up into chestnut tree country and tiny, tourist-free villages. And on, up, up into the forested mountains, the air as fresh as crisp autumn, the light darting and flitting through the firs and pines. Enormous moss-covered boulders (oh, how I wish I could have some of those for the garden!) guarded the mouths of caves and grottos. A scattering of swiss-chalet style vacations homes, already closed up for the season and iron poles, painted in stripes, lined the winding road; an indication of the winter snows to come.

By the time we reached the peak we had our jackets on and Gianni not speaking English, we were fully immersed in Italian; enough to understand that he was looking for a very special woodsman. And so it was that we suddenly pulled off the road and, following Gianni’s pointed finger, saw 3 beasts of burden loaded with recently felled logs; the beasts standing next to a huge pile of wood, standing in the dappled light waiting for their master. A whistle and a yodel and here comes the woodsman. We watched as he gently coaxed the animals to place their forelegs on the logs at the base of the pile and then with one tug on a rope, the logs fell from each side of the saddle, the animal deftly stepping back to avoid injury to its hooves and ankles.

L1008121 L1008129

So, the animals: bred from male mules and female horses; a gender specific combination of brawn and brain.

The man: 42, a basso profondo operatic voice; a medium-height, compact body.

L1008146

A curved knife worn like a tail, and a combination of intelligence and spirituality, the evidence of which – in this digitally described, consumer driven world – replenished all hope.

L1008134

This man had made a conscious decision to find a way to earn from nature without being beholden to anyone. He and his beasts can reach into the highest part of the mountain’s forest where no machine can go. His relationship to the land and his animals is profound and at the end of the day he puts the money in his pocket. I tell you, I’d like to spend a day with him.

When he finished telling us his story we watched as he roped the animals together and then man and beasts as one, disappeared into the mystery.

L1008157

What on earth can you do to follow that? Well, it helps if you’re with Gianni because you might find yourself within 8 minutes in what appeared to be a ghost village, walking in the door of a non-descript building and into one of the finest restaurants we’ve yet experienced. It being Monday and lunchtime, the place was deserted but for the maître d’ and the chef who appeared to have been waiting for we 3 musketeers.

We’re talking serious kitchen here. Right up there with the finest in Manhattan. Gianni asked the chef to make us a light lunch from whatever he wanted. We could have stopped with the oil and bread plate, it was that superior. But we soldiered on through the melt-in-the-mouth raviolini, the steamed veggies and a soft-boiled egg cooked to within a second of perfection, all nestling inside a cestina of cheese-laced pastry. It may sound mundane to follow that with a mille-foglie and 2 little chocolate tortes accompanied by frutta di bosca, but really we 3 were rendered speechless. A perfect mange-au-trois.

L1008175

L1008181 dessert

To say we came home the back way is insufficient. Our friend knows every white road in Tuscany and took one after another through the summer-bleached hills, an adagio of a journey reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero, which came, at one point, to a sudden halt. Gianni, whose ability to see what others can’t is equal to Joel’s, told us to roll-up our windows and then, putting the truck in reverse, backed up some 15 feet to a small metal sign swarming, if you’ll pardon the pun, with bees, evidently having mistake the rectangular sign for a hive.

L1008210 Bees

And how best to end such a day than to visit Sanantana, the monastery whose interior was chosen to make one of the most rapturous scenes in film: The English Patient; Juliette Binoche, hoisted with candlelight, swinging from fresco to fresco.

L1008213

A day of beauty, of enlightenment, of rapture and laughter. A day of love. What finer reward for months of revision at the desk. And is it any wonder that it was followed by a night of dreaming in Italian.

 

August 10 2014               IT DOESN’T ADD UP

Another birthday came and went. Good lord, the numbers are daunting. Unlike Jack Benny who was perennially 39, I’ve decided to just eliminate the second digit. As a result I am currently 6 and will not be 7 for another 2 years. This way I can act my age, no problem.

Truth is, I vacillate emotionally between single and double digits. Many years ago, when in my early 30’s, I lived for a while with a French folk singer who was then in her 50’s. Having been severely beaten by a boyfriend, she took me in while I awaited the court date. Two ex-pats, we had many a scathing discussion about life in America and at one point she uttered the great French exclamation, “Buh,” she said, “America is the only country that will go from infancy to senility without ever reaching maturity.”  A quote that could easily apply to me.

Age, aging, death….why are they so unacceptable? Do any of us really want to live forever? Well, sometimes I do. It’s all so endlessly fascinating. I’d like to bear witness to our children and grandchildren’s lives; would love to see the garden 50 years from now; would be amused to see what new flavors of ice cream will be invented in the year 2050. And what about all the things one still hasn’t got around to? Like, Greece, India, Morocco, Stromboli, performance art, musical compositions…what about the parachute jump I never took? The arias I’ve never sung..?

But I’m not 6. And along with all the joy, sorrow too accumulates. Yesterday a friend tells us of a friend whose daughter just found out that her 8 week old baby is brain damaged and as she utters those awful words I imagine the future stretching out, rolling out like an interminable carpet with no end in sight. And which of us who’ve reached a certain age want to stay around for melting ice caps, African plagues and infinite wars?

Who the hell invented counting anyway? What an ironic and futile system of quantifying life. With numbers come comparison, the great divider between young and old, poverty and never enough.

My birthday is 8/8 and like much else in life I long ago discovered that by turning reality on its ear I could pretend it was something else. In this case, flip those 8’s and they become the infinity sign…twice…a bit of magical thinking that I could indulge in whenever I needed to feel born under a lucky star.

Well, why shouldn’t we rail against the dying light? For all its meaninglessness, for all its disappointments, for all its aches and pains, life is, if you let it, the ultimate eye-opening, mind-altering journey. Sign me up for the next leg.

Rock

 

Rock of Ages                                                                                                          Photo by Maggie

August 2 2014                         THE ART OF FALLING

                                                for Amanda, with thanks

I sprained my ankle a week ago. Playing badminton. In the dark. Don’t ask. We were having fun…until I found a small crater in the lawn and then down I went like an old English spinster.

The last time I sprained my ankle I was 15; racing toward the finishing line in the 100 yard dash and over I went. I was carried back to school by two sixth-formers, one of whom I had a crush on. The boys held hands to form a seat for me, while I held on to them, an arm around each neck. Further details upon request.

As a four-year old my ankles were so weak and spindly that the doctor advised my mother to either put me in leg irons or send me to ballet. I am most grateful she chose the latter, a rare act of kindness on her part, which not only strengthened my ankles but awoke in me a sense of poetic expression and the profound understanding that action does indeed speak louder, and truer, than words. Because, by the age of 4 I was deeply confused by the discrepancy between that which I was told was true and that which I sensed to be true.

Perhaps it was this distrust of the spoken word that eventually turned me to writing in the innocent, if futile, attempt to gain purchase with language, if only to hold myself accountable. The distrust of language increased throughout my school years, when something as simple as a teacher ridiculing me in front of the class for having written, in a short story, of a bird singing in a dark forest. The teacher laughing as she told the class that everyone knew birds didn’t sing at night. How I wish I’d had more courage than shame. How I wish I had stood right up and refuted her before turning to the class and singing the plaintive notes that drifted through my bedroom window; notes so achingly sweet as they left the branches of the hawthorn tree and floated out onto the summer air of a near dark sky.

In my teens the hypocrisy of language as practiced by men of the cloth further entrenched my distrust. And then, of course, there were the ultimate lies of love affairs, myself by then, as accomplished a liar as the next.

However, anything to do with the body and the world rang true to me; athletics, dancing, swimming, running for a bus, skipping rope, hanging upside down from a swing and, certainly making love. Those moments when every cell in one human being communicates with every cell in another…the wordless look of recognition before truth becomes unbearable to uphold; the gaze averted, a cigarette lit.

I did all the right things for my sprained ankle…rest, ice, compression, elevation, arnica, ibuprofen, but injuries are always a drag and I don’t do well sitting around. Of course, I’m grateful it’s only a sprain, no torn ligaments, nothing broken. I like to think that all those years of dancing taught me how to fall. I remember well last week, the exact instant that the edge of my foot reached the edge of the crater and the ankle began to give, how I instinctively let my body keel over in order to take the weight off the ankle.

I had a similar experience many years ago, when still dancing professionally. Hitching a ride to my waitressing gig, I’d put my then 5 years old daughter next to the driver in the cab of a pick-up truck, before sitting next to her, my back to the door as we chatted. As the truck went round a bend the door flew open and I can see the look on my little girl’s face as she watched me disappear, the swift knowledge that I was positioned in such a way that within less than a second the back of my head would hit the tarmac, the ease with which I tucked chin to chest and swiveled my torso slightly in order to roll on impact. Well, yes, there was a hell of a lot of bruising, but I didn’t break my neck.

Yet as instinctively smart as I can be physically, that’s how stubbornly stupid I am when it comes to accepting that the time required for us to heal properly applies to me, too! So, this afternoon, having done the laundry, gone to the Saturday market and made lunch for us, and a houseguest, the old ankle swelled up and sent me to the couch where self-pity and a whiff of depression sat next to me.

As we know, the cure for depression is action; something impossible to take when sprawled on the couch with an icepack. Well, I thought, if I can’t take action, let someone else do it for me. And so it was that I turned to the great dancer, Sylvie Guillem and watched her in a series of YouTube videos. I watched her soar, her body singing through the air, undulating movements arcing through arabesques and sudden contractions, a ripple forming in her throat from where, left unspoken, it surged along her arms, arching her torso with longing, liquefying her limbs into extensions that reached beyond her toes, the movements truly ethereal; a fleeting truth to be inhaled.

Once again ballet strengthened my ankles, sending me out to the garden, to the joy of bowing to pull weeds; a curtsey to the roses, their petals falling, falling, to the sunbaked earth.

Click on this link to witness the art of falling, as practiced by Sylvie Guillem

http://youtu.be/2YSlk9l1qKg?list=PLvZkJ6U3suSVwIZOSrUEDcrs1OU_ZqRAL