Monthly Archives: March 2015

A NEW POSITION IN LIFE

March 15, 2015

After 4 days of sun, the faintest hint of green can be seen pushing up from the stony ground around the house. It is what remains of the clover seeds sewn ten days earlier, many of which were washed away the next day by torrential rains. That any of them managed to stay put is beyond a miracle. Tinier than the head of a pin, yet containing a strength beyond measure, these little survivors defied the odds, put down roots and are now pushing their split leaves skyward, teaching me a thing or two in the process. Mainly that it is folly to make predictions about anything; so convinced was I that it had all washed away.

clover sprout

How could anything so miniscule hold fast again monsoon-like rains followed by four days of gale-force winds? Once again I learn that size has nothing to do with strength. Witness our two-story cypress. Planted the same day as the clover, it enjoyed less than 48 hours of erect bearing before it gave in to the wind, its trunk curved like scoliosis of the spine.

bent cypress

All my life I wanted to be like the cypress tree; tall yet slender, recognized by all as an important and striking figure in the landscape. I skirted and flirted with fame, working for Robert Altman in the 60’s; a member of a dance company and a percussionist/back-up singer in a rock band in the 70’s. In the early 80’s I was a radio talk show host before becoming a well-known artist and hairdresser in the Hudson Valley. And then in 1990 I fell in love with fame in the form of Joel Meyerowitz.

As many of you know, 3 weeks after meeting Joel I broke my neck, instantly ending my careers as an artist and hairdresser, although love held firm. Reinventing myself as a professional writer I once again, like the cypress tree, reached for the sky and, like the cypress, gave in to the winds of rejection, each time allowing my spirit to become cowed and then straightening up and heading for the big-time once again. But it’s lonely up there with no support. When the big wind blows you off it’s easy to become dispirited.

But I have my feet back on the ground now. I am my own small seed clinging gratefully to the earth, wedged between pebbles and stones, soaking up the sun and rain and whatever else comes my way until my time comes. Like the clover, I have no idea how much ground I can cover in this lifetime, but there is a sense of relief to be found in a low profile. In hindsight I realize I wouldn’t have enjoyed the price that comes with fame; the lack of privacy and freedom to roam and explore this amazing world in anonymity.

I am currently working with a consultant in New York who is helping me strategize how to get my work out to the people who want to read what I have to say. When she asked me last week what that actually is I told her it was nothing original but something of significance, which is that reality is a 50/50 proposition; that every moment, every possibility, every breath, holds both the positive and negative, the good and bad, the sorrow and the joy. I said I believe that only by being willing to experience the pain can we fully enjoy the pleasure. We don’t have to like the pain, just accept it, feel it and move on.

Personally, having accepted the pain of rejection I am now enjoying the pleasure of true creativity, which is to say, instead of battling roadblocks I am opening to the possibilities that detours have to offer.

The cypress hasn’t much choice; either it stands tall and obstinately tries to resist the wind or, as happened to many of them in Tuscany last week, it is felled. At first I was disappointed that our cypress became permanently bowed, but now I appreciate its willingness to be flexible in order to survive.

As for the clover seeds, I tip my cap, knowing that thousands of them were displaced and came to rest far from where they were sewn. One might say they accepted the pain of dislocation and are now enjoying a new position in life.

 

THE FORCE OF NATURE

March 8, 2015

Spring. Almost. Certainly it arrives earlier here than in New York. But no matter where and when she arrives she’s ruthless. How easily do we get caught in our romantic idea of this season; the season of rebirth? And yet it is as violent as all birth and comes with it fair share of death.

This week, the day after our trees had been planted, the clover seeded, and irrigation installed, spring howled like a woman in labor. Her water broke in torrents and we stood at the window watching rivulets carry new soil out of sight. And the wind! Starting on Wednesday evening, it blew for four days with a ferocity that tore limbs from trees and uprooted cypresses that had held firm for a century or more. And we are as helpless as newborns.

fallen cypress

It wasn’t only trees that lost limbs this week. Mario lost a leg. Mario who’s worked the land all his life, the last three decades of it on the estate up the road where we taught and were married. We always thought of Mario as rooted in the earth, born of it. And now….

Mother Nature, she gives and takes, never more than in the spring when the survival of the fittest is put to the test. Watch her as she shakes the land awake. You’d better be ready when the alarm goes off or she’ll discard you like old bed linen. Was it the wind that drove one of the steers crazy this week, goring a younger one to death? Do we pattern ourselves after the seasons? I certainly feel riled and ruthless these days; one minute alive with new possibility, creative energy coursing through me, and the next caught in my own force of nature as I hack away at the dead bits; the moldering thoughts and stagnant attitudes.

Nature isn’t the only mother getting attention today: it’s Mother’s Day here in Italy or, more precisely, Women’s Day. I like that here you don’t have to be a mother in order to gain respect as a woman. In fact, it strikes me as amazing that in a country so fixated on the maternal, that the power of all women, young, old, married, single, mothers or not, is saluted.

The wind has died down considerably this afternoon but still lashes out in sudden outbursts as if to take the complacent by surprise. Indeed we cut our walk short this afternoon. Reaching the top of the hill we feel the wind lick inside our ears and scurry home to a pot of tea by the fire.

Joel celebrated 77 years on Friday. We spent two hours of his birthday in the hospital in Siena where the dermatologist examined a stubborn spot of skin cancer on his left leg and telling him that the topical medication isn’t working. Come April the knife will be wielded. Another little piece of the self whittled away. And yet how vital he is in this season of his life, a season I refuse to name.

joel at 77

On Friday, not satisfied with wind, nature added an ice storm to the mix causing a power outage in Florence, while here the wind continued its mischief, tearing the roof off of Silvia and Vincenzo’s woodshed. But our new trees held their ground. It will be another week before I know how much clover seed was washed away. Sun is forecast for the next few days and that which remains will start to push its three-leafed greenery through the soil. Of course, I’ll re-sow the bare patches, sticking my tongue out at Mother Nature behind her back, while she laughs behind mine.

In my strong moments, the ones that have forced my sap to rise for a 69th Spring, I don’t really care about winning. I just want to go forward with the best of intentions and let each day be its own reward. The seasons, like all man-made denominations of time, are folly. Life cannot be measured, quantified, or even justified, it just is. Mine, right now, is as of pollen blown across seas and continents, momentarily taking root in the Tuscany soil.

 

 

VICTORY GARDENING

February 26, 2015

Crap on a bun is the phrase I’ve come up with that succinctly describes our February. And now we can move on. I don’t care that February’s not over yet (as of this writing); it’s a short month and I just made it shorter.

I started the day with a bit of a baby weep upon arising before meditating on the possibility of inviting positive energy. Then we mailed my UK Passport application at the local Post Office, which made for a momentary bypass of the positive headed straight for Italian farce. Fingers crossed, we got back on the road, heading to Chiusi to visit a nursery recommended by our dear friend Larry.

On the way we chanced a stop in S. Quirico to see if the bakery had made our favorite bread and crackers. It seemed too much to hope for after a month of Murphy’s Law; especially as every time we went to this bakery in February, it had been futile; the last loaf just sold, the crackers baking for another 2 hours. So, when I entered the shop and saw amongst its honest sweets and savories, 4 loaves and 8 sheets of crackers, I knew the energy had turned. This bread, indeed, the staff of life, not the stuff you spread crap on.

The day was cooling; gunmetal clouds gathering like ammunition, the air electric with winter’s coda. But you can face anything when the scales tip toward spring.

Vivaio Margheriti is the finest nursery I’ve ever visited; a perfect blend of quantity and quality, it stretches for acres. We were ferried around on a golf cart – excuse the mixed metaphor – down lanes and lanes of enormous trees and shrubs and vines, everything beautifully tended. It made my sap rise. If it weren’t for the raw temperature I would probably have exceeded the budget even more. As it was we chose an enormous cypress tree, a mature fig, plus 2 plum trees and a cherry. Oh and a voluptuous honeysuckle vine for over the garden gate.

I love this process of choosing established trees and plants. In spite of their size they become babies up for adoption as one circles them, noting their height and shape, looking for any sign of disease. And let it be known I have rescued many a diseased nursery plant and led it back to health and flamboyance.

Back in the office we met Enzo, the owner, who not only recommended a fine restaurant for lunch, but told us he’d meet us at our house in the afternoon in order to check out our patch. And indeed, in less than 30 minutes after our return, Enzo arrived, having driven an hour as if it were just around the corner. He made some good recommendations, shared an espresso with us, oohed and aahed over Joel’s work and left saying, I thought, that the crew would arrive next week to begin the work.

So, we’re in bed the next morning with our breakfast trays and books reveling in the lazy life when my phone rings. “We’re here,” a voice tells me. “Who? Where?” I ask. “The crew,” comes the reply, “In front of your house.” Jaysus.

And so it was that on Friday 27th February, spring arrived along with an excavator, an enormous flatbed with the trees and another truck full of rich earth. The sky was clear deep blue, the sun strong and I spent the day pruning, weeding and laying stone while the team of 3 men excavated, amended soil and put everything in the ground. What joy! To work in silence except for the occasional buzz of an early bee, birdsong, and the sheep chorus at milking time. The smell of rich earth, the feel of one’s body still strong, the dirt under the nails, the vicious rip from a rose thorn, the standing back and admiring the new additions while envisioning future possibilities.

cypress maggie

cherry jump

 

CHERRY TREE

plum tree

 

PLUM TREE

 

fig tree

 

FIG TREE

Mid-afternoon we stop for espresso and the head guy, Paolo, as if reading my mind, says “Who does the watering?” “Me,” I say, and he groans. Because in spite of the fact that I have chosen only heat and drought tolerant plants, in high Tuscan summer daily watering of some things is a must. This has meant an hour my time very evening which, depending on my mood and any social engagements can be either a meditation or a resentment-filled chore. So of course I agreed to the laying down of an irrigation system that can be programmed. The work will be done on Monday and then an apron of topsoil will be spread around the house and seeded with clover.

Back to nature. Yes, such a cliché. But as a writing professor once told me: beneath every cliché lies gold. The connection to nature, not just walking in it and admiring it, although that has value, but the hands-on wrestling with it is intrinsic to simple well-being. The mind floating free above busy hands; the employment of instinct while gathering age-old knowledge; the rewards and the heartbreak, the relentless march of nature pitted against human will until you are bent over in humility, bowing to the ground. This, to me, is true freedom.

Maybe it’s because the element of victory will always lie with the land. Therefore any achievement one experiences, whether it is the healing of a sick plant, a bumper crop of vegetables or a good season flowering, these achievements are only a temporary harmony between land and lover, and as such relieve us of ego. Every gardener and/or farmer, knows that hard work only takes you so far. The rest is fickle chance. Perhaps what I love most about gardening is this knowledge that exercising my will is only that; an exercise in fertility and futility. It is a rare experience for we humans, to enter an endeavor feeling the relief that there is nothing to win and nothing to claim.

During WWI and WWII those who remained on the home front grew ‘victory gardens,’ so named not because a war would be won, but to boost morale. While thousands were being slaughtered over a piece of territory, those at home worked tiny parcels of land growing fruits and vegetables in order to help with rationing. In America alone, some 20 million victory gardens were planted on city rooftops and backyards. What a shame it took war for people to reconnect with the earth and even more of a shame that in so-called peace-time, this endeavor was abandoned.

I’ve been at war with myself many times, but every time I touch the earth, prune a shrub, feed a tree or deadhead a rose I am totally at peace.

cypress