Monthly Archives: July 2017

SIMPLY BEING WHO WE ARE

 

 

29th July 2017

I’ve been thinking about the blog for a couple of weeks, but have been so engrossed writing a new novel that I was afraid I might dissipate the energy needed for that if I shifted gears and came to this. But then, the other night, we set our dinner plates on the outside table and the evening light illuminated both the simplicity of the meal and the metaphor of it; the metaphor being that it symbolized all that we hold dear about living here.

The frittata was made with eggs from the farm on which we live, the zucchini captured in their rich mixture also came from the farm, ditto the tomatoes. The frittata was seasoned with herbs from the kitchen garden in front of the table. In other words, the ingredients of our dinner came from within a fifty-yard radius of our house. You can’t get much more farm-to-table than that!

And as I looked at our dinner, it occurred to me that I could write something that simple and that wholesome to post here That not everything has to be profound or provocative or pithy, unlike the writing one undertakes for a novel which must have all those ingredients if it is to be of literary worth.

Sometimes I find it amazing how complicated a simple life can be. And we do live simply here. Ours is not a villa. We don’t even own it. Our days are a routine combination of engaging in what it takes to survive. By that I mean we are not farming it out, apart from a house-cleaner once a week and a gardener who mows the grass, also once a week, it is we who shop and cook and clean and launder and weed and water, prune and deadhead, stack and carry firewood. And I’m grateful for all of this; for the physical ability to be able to do it and for the connection it provides me to engage with the world and feel my place in it. Where it gets complicated is when I am not creating something. If I am not writing or painting I feel myself to be next to nothing. In the space between creative projects I tend to focus on all that I haven’t accomplished in life and then the daily routine I just so fondly wrote of becomes a chore I resent.

People often ask “What does it take to be an artist?” (Insert writer, dancer, musician etc.) and I say, one doesn’t have a choice: you either are an artist or you are not. And if you are an artist then it will enthrall you and consume you, thrill you and torture you. And whether or not the world will want whatever it is you create you will have no choice but to create or feel worthless.

Does the farmer feel this way? That he/she has no choice? Is he born to it? We watch Vincenzo and Silvia work from morning until night year round. A never ending cycle of planting and watering and harvesting, of milking the sheep, slaughtering lambs, bottling wine, putting up tomatoes and on and on. Like creativity, it doesn’t always go well and when it doesn’t you see the strain and the doubt on their faces.

Why do we humans insist on our identity being dependent on what we “do?” And why do we separate some of what we do into the “worthy” column ad the rest into the “mundane” column? Why should the business of survival count for less than achieving fame of some sort?

Libera and Fortunato, wife and husband in their 70’s, live up the road from us. Along with Fortunato’s brother they farm acres of land; growing wheat and grapes and olives, plums and apricots and every vegetable under the Tuscan sun. In winter they prune and stack and mend. And every day I watch them going along at their rhythmic, unhurried pace, with nary a thought for celebrity or riches. They are the last of their kind and when they are gone they will take with them centuries of living to survive. And they will take with them knowledge that we don’t even know exists.

But we are each of us who we are. As much as I might wish to truly live the simple life I was born an artist. I have a need to communicate. I write because I will burst if I don’t and because through writing I can find my way to who I am and in so doing maybe connect with others. So, the not easy part of living this simple life here in Tuscany is that no-one here really knows who I am. I write in a language that nobody here speaks. And when I am not in the act of writing I can dwell on this and feel a lack of identity. So I am writing here, today, to say thank you to those of you who read me. To say, hey, I don’t have a lot to say today except, “Hello.” And I’m grateful to have this to come to whenever I want, because it’s not like writing novels. Or at least it’s not for me.

It’s been three years since I wrote my last novel: From Dusk to Dawn. I started it the year we moved here and went on its wild ride all summer. Then I spent months looking for an editor with whom I worked the following year. That was followed by months of submissions to agents, without success. So then I hired a copy editor and a text designer, working with them for months until I finally published my novel. Then there were a series of readings. And then my daughter nearly died and the novel ceased to exist for me. Only my daughter’s existence mattered. When she finally recovered enough for me to return here it was with the fearful eye and aching heart of a mother. The book was dead to me and I felt the likelihood of writing another highly unlikely.

I began to stumble, to doubt myself, to question the validity of living the simple life on a farm in Tuscany. And then, in the spring, unbidden, a fully formed character appeared to me, trailing a cloud of dust behind her. I knew her immediately. Her name is Felicity and every afternoon she and I duke it out at my desk. I have no idea where it’s going, nor do I care. I’m merely grateful to be writing with abandon, with no “success” in mind.

This is what it means to be an artist. And thus engaged, the artist is once again connects to the world around her, grateful for a summer evening, a frittata and salad and the realization that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it fully.

For when you peg the laundry to the clothesline you are pinning yourself into the fabric of that moment; the moment you will never have again; the moment not worth doubting or judging but simply being in. As Libera will be when she dries the seeds from this year’s tomatoes, hopefully to sow them next spring.

With love to you all,

Maggie

RECIPES FOR SUCCESS

6th July 2017

I’m sitting on the dondolo behind the house, its canopy, and that of the ancient l’ecci trees, shading me from the sun’s intense heat. Through the branches of an olive tree I glimpse a white towel hanging from the clothesline, its still rectangle resembling a screen waiting for the projection of a film. In the opposite direction, the swing that Grandpa Joel made for our 8 year-old granddaughter’s recent visit likewise hangs immobile. If only I could shout, “Action!” and see her magically appear.

The ten day visit with Sadie and her parents was, indeed, action-packed with day trips, lizard hunting, fly-swatting, garden-touring, outdoor cooking and a whole lot of toilet humour. These annual visits become more precious with the passage of time and although we may miss the day-to-day ordinariness of sharing life lived in the same city the truth is, somehow that rarely happens. Whereas living under the same roof during these visits provides an intimacy and connection that I treasure.

And then, suddenly, everyone is gone: the little family to Venice for a few days before their return to Brooklyn, and Joel to the Arles Photo Festival where he is this year’s VIP artist.

I savor this week alone, even while the house reverberates with the echo of family chatter, it is an opportunity for me to contemplate the importance of family, the meaning of marriage and the necessity of following one’s own path.

I am tempted to go back into the cool of the house, yet I am loathe to leave the cicadas’ ceaseless cacophony, as though if I were to listen long enough I might learn yet another language. These kinds of simple decisions e.g., whether to remain out here with cicadas for company or to retreat to the cool solitude of the interior, are choices that often confound me: either/or; if that then not this; if this then not that. But something is shifting in my subterranean life.

I’m a big fan of Brian Eno and have been regularly listening to one of his CD’s for 30 years now: Ambient 1: Music For Airports. Once in a while I check him out online to see what he’s up to and as a consequence have enjoyed some of his lectures. On a recent online visit I discovered he had, with Peter Schmidt, invented, not so much a game, as an alternative sort of I Ching. It’s called: Oblique Strategies and invites you to meditate on a current dilemma and then randomly choose a card; not as an absolute answer to one’s dilemma, but as an opportunity to think outside the box.

I gave myself all of Sunday to do sweet bugger-all and thoroughly enjoyed it. But on Monday, with a stretch of 5 more days alone, I decided to focus on the dilemma of my creative path. Holding the box of cards in my hands I asked what could I do to find the courage to return to two things I recently started and then stopped. One is a large canvas, the other, a new novel. To my initial horror, the card I picked said, “Would anybody want it?” Nice. Until recently that’s the kind of stupidity I would use as proof of my belief that of course nobody wants it! Well fuck that, I thought, and picked another card: “Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them.” The phrase that came to mind immediately was “Recipes for Disaster. And I literally laughed out loud because a) I have compiled quite a stew of recipes destined for failure and b) by saying fuck it to the first card I already had one abandoned recipe under my belt!

Look, I say use whatever gets you where you keep saying you want to go. If it’s therapy, fine. I Ching, fine. Religion, meditation, yoga, fine. Substance abuse, not so much.

What I love about personal growth is how damn interesting it is. Problems are interesting, every one of them is your own beautifully imagined and constructed detective story. (Unless you’re a refugee.) When I had my therapy practice I felt that a session was a success if I could help the client turn a problem from being a burden of doom into a subject of interest. And if I could help them laugh at the absurdity of it all then they were well on their way.

Like many professionals I don’t always follow my own advice, but with Eno’s help on Monday, I have returned to the novel and am interested to discover how many more recipes will need to be abandoned in order to get out of my own way. And, by the way, the answer to “What if nobody wants it?” is, who gives a fuck, I want it.

Talking of Brian Eno and music, my 10 year-old iPod died last week and for several days I was stuck in the initial stage of grief: denial. I spent those days insisting that I could resuscitate the damn thing by trying to charge it from different outlets. Duh. Then I did the online suicide line for advice on how to fix the iPod in order to go on living. Useless. The choices were: a) by a new iPod which isn’t really an iPod but a glorified iPhone without the phone part, or b) download my music to my iPhone. Foiled again…not enough space. So I abandoned those recipes and went for texting my brilliant daughter who is also still grieving the demise of her iPod but who suggested and talked me through Spotify.

When I write these essays I’m always fascinated by the way they often circle back on themselves. The circle in this one being the importance of family. But there is another circle within that circle: the magic of the Internet without which I would not have discovered Oblique Strategies. And yet another circle within that: Brian Eno. That CD of his I first heard 30 years ago and which has been a source of comfort and inspiration to me ever since, also led me to discover and abandon recipes no longer useful to me.

And yes, of course, the first album I searched for and saved to my Spotify library is Music For Airports, by Brian Eno; made available through the help of family.

With love to you all

Maggie.