Monthly Archives: January 2015

IF THE JOY IS IN THE DOING…

January 26, 2015

This time last year we were wintering in Provence and I was busy plotting and planning the to-do list for our return here to Tuscany in the spring. By the time we arrived in April, I had a 2-month program lined up for the house and garden. While much of the big stuff was accomplished in time for the June arrival of our kids, there were still many things not ticked off. But we had decided to enjoy what we’d accomplished thus far, allowing ourselves to bask in the leisure of summer. Every once in a while I’d look at the remaining list, add more to it, murmur ‘tomorrow,’ and ignore it until the next time.

Lately, however, it’s been getting to me; the feeling of not accomplishing what I set out to do. I’m sure much of the frustration comes from not yet having acquired an agent, never mind a publisher, for the novel. Some of you may remember that a couple of months ago I let go of this need, i.e., the need for ‘success.’ Most of the time since then I have felt at peace and grateful for what I have, as opposed to wanting what I don’t have. But I’m not all the way there yet, evidently.

The truth is, living with someone as successful as Joel, while no longer rubbing salt into an open wound, can still have the capacity to irritate the new scar. Especially when publishers actually come to him, asking him to make a new book. Then my pettiness and resentment get pricked back to life. I find myself mumbling, ‘What, 20 books aren’t enough for him?’ and ‘Why always him and never me?’ If I’m not careful, or worse, if I’m not honest, I can start to hate him just a little, as if in finding fault with him as a mere human being it will diminish him as an artist.

This feeling of being stuck on the bottom rung of the ladder to artistic success while Joel continues to ascend, leads not only to frustration at not getting where I want to go, but to the sadness of being left behind by my mate. In those moments I can feel lonelier than if I were alone.

I seem to slip back into this type of negativity more often that I’d like to admit. However, for one who is always spouting off about ‘progress, not perfection,” let me remind myself that it takes me far less time to take responsibility for my thoughts and their subsequent behavior than it used to. After a few days of this childishness, I realized that the joy is in the doing and therefore more doing must be done. So I went back to work on the house and garden list, because it’s something I can accomplish, and accomplish well.

Where to start? It seemed obvious to me that having become exceedingly irritable it would make sense to get rid of the damn fridge whose steady build up of ice rivaled my own…not to mention its constant whine which, I hope, exceeded mine. As the new fridge came only in white, I arranged for it to be delivered on Saturday when the forecast was calling for sunny mild temperatures; that way we could transform it outside, with cream paint. Done!

The man who delivered it resembled a garden gnome. I was outside when he arrived, taking care of something else on the list: pruning. “O, Brava!” he exclaimed. “Un giorno perfetto per tagliare.” A perfect day for pruning, and he came right over and helped me, showing me a couple of tips along the way. Too bad he’s not in publishing, I thought, but quickly replaced it with ‘this is why I’m here and why I love it so. Because here nature rules, and here we help each other tame it.’

An hour later the fridge was in place, its logo covered with one of my collages. Done!

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Joel got inspired and said ‘let’s finish the kitchen drawers and doors.’ Something we had intended doing when they were first installed, but instead they had remained unfinished knotty pine, which we detested on a daily basis for 8 months! Joel applied the calcio and I followed behind rubbing it in and marking it up to look ‘natural.’ Then I applied a thin coat of wax et voila! Done!

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New cushion covers, done! Pruning of all six climbing roses, done! Pruning and cleaning of the herb garden, done!

This morning we awoke to a roseate light that imbued our bedroom with womb-like comfort so delicious that we breakfasted in bed. A quick review of the NY Times informed us that the city was bracing for a blizzard. An hour later I was in the garden hoeing weeds from beneath the pomegranate tree, reveling in the mischievous play of an easterly wind whose nippy edge rivaled the brilliance of the sun.

I marveled at the two-tiered tenacity of the weeds the roots of which had managed to find their way a foot down through the stone and clay ground. I thought about how hard I’ve being trying to work my way up and it occurred to me how superficial was my desire. Maybe of more importance is the fact that I am putting down my own roots here. I thought about the value of the weed as opposed to the worth of an exotic bloom. I thought how fragile and short-lived is the latter, as opposed to the thriving nature of the former; the fleeting decorative life of a blossom versus the longevity of the weed and the way in which weeds co-exist and in so doing hold the earth in place. And as I hacked away at the last patch I realized how much I had loved this vibrant circle of crabgrass and thistle and clover; the only sign of life in the winter garden. And suddenly it was no longer the season of my discontent.

 

WHAT PROFIT RIDICULE?

January 20, 2015

A disconcerting start to the year, filled with terrorism, confusion and hesitation. Let me work backwards from there.

I’ve hesitated to write about the horrendous terrorist attacks in Paris partly from confusion and partly from cowardice. Again, let me work backwards.

My cowardice has to do with not wanting to pay the possible consequences of expressing an opinion that seems to be in the minority. Certainly, when one finds oneself wanting to make a disclaimer up front, it smacks of cowardice. My disclaimer being that I most certainly do not approve of any form of terrorism; domestic or global, religious or otherwise. And let me be clear that I believe in the right to free speech. But I am not Charlie Hedbo.

The confusion I have around this event has to do with not understanding exactly what people mean when they say “Je suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie.” Are they really saying that they, too, believe in and practice ridicule? Is ridicule a form of free speech that furthers healing amongst believers and non-believers, have’s and have-not’s, natives and immigrants?

Frankly I find ridicule to be its own form of cowardice. Easy to sit at your desk and point a jeering finger at those who have less, or who are misguided and disenfranchised; who feel that the only thing they have left to cling to, while housed in peripheral slums, is their religion and the traditions they brought with them to the New World. And then, when you’ve drawn your violent cartoon and inked your condescending righteousness beneath it, you go home to your nice apartment in your genteel neighborhood, believing you have made a difference in the world?

Does one deserve to be murdered for this behavior? No, of course not. But I ask, is there not a touch of arrogance in assuming that there will be no consequences for this type of behavior?

Were any of you ever ridiculed on the playground? I was. I remember once being picked on by a small group of peers who earned their feeling of superiority that day by ridiculing me for the pattern on the fabric of my little skirt, which I had, until that day, seen as abstract shapes in the form of  the letter “E” but which “they” deemed to be the devil’s tail. I remember the surprise of being singled out in such away. The instant feeling of being an outsider and the helplessness to convince them otherwise. And I remember, as I walked home alone, thinking up ways of getting even.

Whenever we ridicule others we are always implicitly saying that we are superior to those we ridicule. Whatever happened to reaching out a hand to those less fortunate and less evolved? All those millions of people around the world who marched wearing the label “Je suis Charlie” what message did they think they were sending? Did anyone stop to think how Muslims might interpret it? Were all those people saying that they believe in, and practice, ridicule?

What other message might have been worn that instead of pitting “us” against “them” might have begun the long slow journey toward understanding and compassion? Because that’s what it takes…if you really want to change something this huge it takes understanding and compassion…and a long, long, time. Certainly a lot longer that it takes to draw a disparaging picture accompanied by a written smirk. If that’s free speech it’s terribly disappointing. Certainly freedom of speech is the right to express an opinion that differs from others. But what we say, how we say it and when, makes all the difference in the world.

So easy for we Westerners to judge fanatics as stupid to be willing to die for religion, but is it any less stupid to die for the right to ridicule?

For sure there is work to be done in Muslim communities and, hopefully, as seen in England after this latest act of terrorism, more Muslim leaders will start taking the responsibility to educate their youth as to the difference between faith and fanaticism. In the meantime perhaps the rest of us might pay closer attention to the way we label ourselves as well as others.

And in the end, what does ridicule achieve except a greater distance between us? How many people who’ve suffered ridicule have been changed for the better by it? It seems to me ridicule is cheap, in that it preaches to the already-converted. Although sadly, the price Charlie Hedbo paid for the right to practice ridicule was anything but cheap.

LOITERING WITH INTENT

December 6, 2015

Today is Epifania (Epiphany) here in Italy, yet another festa. And like all festas here, it’s serious business, which means no business. I doubt there’s a shop or office open anywhere in the land, something my dear Joel, being a New Yorker, finds hard to believe, perhaps even disconcerting. Me? No. Love it. Official permission to loiter.

I’ve actually been loitering for three days. Feeling the desire to write and yet having nothing in mind, I’ve allowed myself to simply do whatever occurred to me next; whether it was making a pot of soup, gluing bits of wood to the bottom of the cutlery drainer in order to cure its soggy bottom or going for a walk along the winter lane.

On Sunday I read a review of a collection of essays by Charles D’Amboise. The collection entitled “Loitering,” was reviewed by another fine essayist, Phillip Lopate, who opened by saying:

“The great promise of essays is the freedom they offer to explore, acknowledge uncertainty, to evade dogmatism and embrace ambivalence and contradiction… to engage in intimate conversation with one’s readers….to uncover some unexpected truth.”

In order to loiter one must indeed embrace uncertainty, a state which most of us do our best to avoid as often as possible, which may be why we view loiterers with suspicion. But I prefer to go with the dictionary definition that refers to loitering as ‘waiting around without apparent purpose.

It seemed to me, on Sunday, that this would be a wonderful gift to myself. A gift of rebellion in the face of 68 years of subscribing to the judgmental warning from parents, teachers, spouses, and peers that to hang around aimlessly is a sin that will lead to a permanent character defect. Well bugger ye off all ye puritans.

One of the great rewards of going willy-nilly through a day is that you stumble on things that might cause an epiphany. For instance, one might discover that apart from being the 12th day of Christmas, the Epiphany was the day the three kings arrived…royalty… always late. But way before they arrived, in fact circa 1996 BC, the Egyptians celebrated the winter solstice on this day. One might also, while loitering through the pages of the latest New Yorker magazine, come upon an article by Adam Gopnik in which he paraphrases the French philosopher, Pierre Bordieu:

A dominant class reproduces itself by enforcing firm rules about what is and is not acceptable, and creates a closed, exclusive language to describe it. Those who have power decide what counts as art, and to enter that field at all is possible for outsiders only if they learn to repeat the words that construct its value.

I couldn’t agree more. And I felt that this observation tied in with the Lopate quote.

Let me try to explain. A couple of weeks ago, I received 2 more rejections from London agents and a surprising thing happened. Their rejections had absolutely no negative effect on me. Quite the contrary; their comments made it perfectly clear to me that they had read my novel as agents, not as readers; that they are part of a dominant group that decides what is and isn’t art, and as the outsider, I wasn’t speaking their exclusive language. An epiphany! Exactly the result I had hoped to gain from loitering.

Of course, there is a fine line twixt loitering and procrastination. Yesterday I made some notes for this essay, thrilled not to actually have to write it. But by this afternoon my capacity for loitering reached its limit and I entered the realm of procrastination. I felt much as I did 13 years ago when I first attempted to write said novel, i.e., that I was not well equipped to explore and articulate its inherent complexities. Yet, with Lopate’s, encouragement I have attempted, this afternoon, “to engage in intimate conversation with my (one’s) readers, to uncover some unexpected truth.” Essay, as a way toward epiphany.

And let us loiter around the word essay for a moment, which has at its root “to try.” For me, the unexpected truth of today’s attempt is that loitering once in a while is a way of experiencing the random quality of a day. The beauty of loitering, is that it distorts the concept of time because it has no aim, and only in aimlessly wandering can we be surprised by the timeless interconnectedness between every thing, and every one…

 

    AH…

December 31, 2014

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions decades ago; I’m not sure whether it was because I was tired of setting myself up for failure or whether it was the realization that resolving to do the best one can on a daily basis results in an accumulation of small deeds and accomplishments that make for a simpler more conscious way of life…as opposed to some glorified idea of success and perfection.

However, like most of us, I find it impossible not to feel the marker of time that the end of year represents. In fact, I find it interesting and valuable to take a moment to glance back at what was accomplished in the course of 12 months, with regard to both the tangible and the ephemeral. Much like making a gratitude list, this contemplation is a way of appreciating what one has accomplished instead of always focusing on what one should do next.

In terms of the tangible, I’d say I’ve had a bumper year: Living in Provence the first few months, making a home and garden in Tuscany, revising and submitting a novel for publication, holidaying here with family and friends, 3 trips to Paris, 2 to New York and 1 to Germany, increased my knowledge of the Italian language and became an Italian resident. I also began a new body of construction pieces, the latest of which, could possibly depict how I feel when letting go of the need to speak in any language!

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Along the way I made mistakes: I hate the fridge we purchased; its retro-ness out of proportion to the rest of the humble kitchen, with handles that look like some useless decoration on a 50’s Cadillac.

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And I spent far too much on a chair-bed when really a folding cot would have sufficed for the 2 weeks that our 6 year-old grand-daughter spent here. I mean really, what’s the use of an armchair without arms? EBay anyone?

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I made a few mistakes in the garden too: wrong roses in the wrong place, broom not pruned at the appropriate time and so on. Badminton proved a big mistake too, bringing out a competitive streak in me that I thought I’d let go of years ago: the result being a sprained ankle and a “tennis” elbow that still talks to me in agonizing tones.

I could go on, but the trouble with lists is that they reduce life to small items as opposed to seeing the bigger picture. So, when I look back 2014 as a whole, I would say I accomplished 2 things of personal value. The first was finding the balance between manifesting and letting go of the material. By that I mean that I was aware early in the year that I only wanted to acquire objects for our home that had a specific and necessary function. No matter how beautiful an object might be I had no longing for it if it had no use. Ditto clothing.

I bought a white straw hat in 2013 because it was “hip” and I liked the way it looked. What was I thinking? I hate hats. Never wear them. This one had been sitting on a hook the whole time and I was about to give it away when I realized it would make a good shade for a lamp we bought…another mistake. The hat functioned well in terms of form but its whiteness cast a cold light. So this morning I made a nice strong pot of English tea pour it all over the hat et voila!

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This kind of achievement gives me a lasting joy, greater than purchasing a new lamp.

The second accomplishment, and the most challenging, was letting go of the need for fame and recognition. A lifelong desire and pursuit at which I consistently failed and in so doing, self-inflicted a sense of worthlessness that actually had no basis in reality.

All this to say that what I had long-known intellectually to be true, has finally become part of my inner being: that is that material wealth and/or fame have no value compared to spiritual evolution.

For sure there is much I would still like to accomplish: the daily practice of yoga and piano, more rock gardens, a fruit orchard, library shelves, the writing of the next novel, a visit to my brother…and a new fridge! But the reality is it’s only Wednesday. Tomorrow is only Thursday.

The daughter of a good friend died yesterday after years of struggling with the breakdown of various organs, the result of years of addiction when she was young. She lived her clean and sober life one day at a time, resolving to become a more loving, kinder person, in spite of years of pain and suffering. This she accomplished. For her I light a candle.

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All photos by Maggie

To all of you who kept me such good company throughout this year, I wish you another, filled with gratitude, one day at a time.  With love, Maggie.