Category Archives: friendship

THE RISING OF THE SAP

 

16th February, 2018

 

Call it hibernation. Otherwise I have no idea why I haven’t written here for so long. I’ve had no desire to do much of anything for a few weeks, although I did spend one week feeling bad about that. But then I surrendered. It’s mid-winter, an appropriate time to lie dormant, like much of nature at this time of year. And once I surrendered, I thoroughly enjoyed curling up on the couch, gazing at the fire, reading, watching BBC dramas and just generally being a lazy cow.

I do realize that I am fortunate to be in a position to be able to give in to this burrowing. Lord knows, I remember well the many years when, like the majority of us, I could afford no such luxury. Yeas of Upstate New York winters; up at dawn to ready my daughter for school, scrape the ice off the windshield, pack the lunch, and after dropping her off, driving the often treacherous mountain road to work. We do what we have to do when we have to do it.

I also remember that every year from about mid-January to mid-February, that while I was able to perform my duties I was often grumpy or depressed during that period. So, yes, I count myself fortunate to enjoy what is probably a natural state of being at this time of year. Here, in Tuscany, while the farmers don’t exactly come to a full stop, they, too, have slowed down. This is the time of year for repairing and pruning, neither of which, barring rare freezing temperatures, require those who work the land to be continually looking at the sky in order to beat a storm before it damages crops.

It’s an adagio time of year, a time for replenishing our tanks. And so, having embraced lethargy for a few weeks I’m suddenly raring to go! I’m back to work on a canvas and have jumped back into the new novel. Like nature, my sap is rising.

The garden, too, is showing signs of awakening. All the roses, climbers and bushes alike, are already sprouting new leaves.

I’m one of the gardeners who like to let it all go wild in the winter, even though it makes for what other gardeners might consider a mess of dried stalks.

By leaving it to itself I get a lot of volunteers in the spring; new plants sprouting from wind-blown seeds appearing in unexpected places. Some of these I leave where they are; they have chosen well. Others I find poking their heads up in places that will serve neither them, nor us, well. Like the baby Gaura I found yesterday, right in the middle of a path. These cheeky strays I will ease out of their comfort zone come spring and relocate them where I hope they will agree with my decision.

I love this time of year in the garden; love the smell of fallen leaves rotting into the earth, in many cases providing added nutrients. I love poking around in flower beds and borders to see what’s hiding. Like the tiny clusters at the base of the Autumn Glory sedums, their glory long gone even though they hold their rusty heads high.

Yesterday I discovered that a swath of ornamental grasses have made babies this winter (so much for lying dormant!) How sweet to see the newborns sheltered by the adults.

And how easy it is to be seduced by all these sightings into thinking that spring is here. This is the time of year when a lot of early pruning takes place, so I decided to get a jump start on the roses and looked forward to doing likewise with the olive trees last weekend. But the locals knew better. No need for a meteorologist here…just pay attention to the farmers. Fortunately, my young assistant, Giovanni, arrived on Saturday making that particularly Italian ‘tsk’ sound between the teeth. Born and bred here, and with a degree in agriculture, he told me no pruning for two weeks, a cold snap is coming. And sure enough, four of the last five mornings we’ve woken to a hard frost. If I’d followed my impulse, the roses would have been killed off before theirs cuts had a chance to heal over.

Nature is my teacher when it comes to patience…a virtue I was not granted at birth. There’s a big difference between instinct and impulse. Instinct has surety; impulse has desire. I have good instincts for the most part, but my impulsive behavior has gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years.  So, yes, I was a bit pissed off at first; Mother Nature interfering with my impulse like that. Now what to do with my rising sap? Well, fortunately I have a canvas to prune and a novel to fertilize.

Living here in Tuscany I’m aware that my internal rhythms are being fine-tuned by nature. I’m learning to take my time, knowing that one day it will run out and that I, like everyone, will become a finished work in progress. The canvas that I have now almost completed has taken a year. This is the longest I have ever worked on a painting. But it took that long to go from this:

To This:

The two pieces of canvas attached to the larger canvas, on which I have written a poem, in English on the left and Italian on the right, are the canvas slings that were on the two deckchairs that Gianni made for us the first summer we came here…in 2011. Last year, the wooden frames rotted beyond repair, and yet I could not discard the canvases. They seemed to hold the essence our time together and the journey we have made since settling here.

These were our halcyon days

When we entered the mystery,

Taking our youth through the

Gossamer membrane lit bright

By the afternoon sun.

And we journey on:

Two Inshalls, reclining

In the ephemeral dusk.

 The novel, which I stated last March, has far to go, unlike the previous one, the first draft of which took 6 months. What I am learning by living deep in nature, is that everything has its time: its beginning, its growth, and its death. For most of my life my fear of death made me feel that I must continually be achieving something in order to be alive. Now, as well as having revised my notion of success, I am also letting go of the need to achieve, or rather, I am coming to understand that everything we do is an achievement. Including hibernating, without which the slow rising of the sap runs the risk of being spent before its time.

With love to you all.

Maggie

HAPPY MONDAY TO YOU ALL

3rd December 2017                         HAPPY MONDAY TO YOU ALL

A couple of weeks ago I had the urge to write a simple essay for the blog based on a typical, ordinary week in our lives, here in Tuscany. And then, like so much in life, the urge got side-stepped, in this case by two, almost back-to-back, visits from young friends. Now we are alone again although the house still resonates with their loving, thoughtful, invigorating energy.

Although Joel and I have each other, nonetheless we live a fairly isolated existence here. Weeks can go by in which the only English we speak is to each other. And so these occasional visits are essential, not only for the exchange of new ideas and points of view, but also because, speaking for myself, I get to experience different aspects of myself which perhaps lie dormant during the periods in which Joel and I are dependent on each other and, while happily so, it is natural to fall into habits of communication with each other which, while rich in their own way, are also slightly limited, in terms of how couples create a language of their own.

Our first visitors, a couple in their 40’s from California, newly in love, brought not only the exquisite energy of that love, but also the energy of early mid-life; a stage in which wisdom, experience and loss have already shaped us to some degree. It seems to me to be a stage of life in which one is at a crossroads where the choice is between turning to a sort of jaded wariness or else choosing the preservation of hope which allows us to go forward with courage and belief in our dreams. The latter quality was abundantly evident in this couple and as a result they had kept alive their younger selves which, coupled with the physical energy still available at their age, completely rubbed off on us so that it was as though we were 2 teenage couples double-dating.

It would have to be said at this point that I am completely capable of acting like an idiotic teenager even when alone with Joel…and often do! But there is something about sharing this energy with younger people that is not only a load of fun, but which reminds us that age is ephemeral; that we each of us carry within us every age we have ever been and it doesn’t matter if the wrinkles and the creaky joints say otherwise, the truth is we can experience the inner energy of our childhood, or teens or any decade, whenever we want. To that end I believe it is vital to have friends of all ages because we need each other to awaken to the fullness of our being.

Our second visitor is in his mid-twenties. European to the core, he speaks four languages and laughs in all of them. He is the type of young person who gives you hope in these dark times when all news is bad news, when we are bombarded with the vile behavior that humans are capable of. It is joyous and encouraging to spend three days with such a young person who is capable of serious thought; of willingness to look at all sides of a situation; who is in no hurry to achieve success. What a gift to be seen by such a one; to feel age disappear. To exchange opinions and stimulate creative ideas. And when was the last time a young man brought you a loaf of bread that he made himself? That offering, to me, was as ancient and symbolic as the gifts borne by the Magi. And, I might add, the bread was fucking fantastic and I’m really cross I didn’t photograph it.

However, I did have the presence of mind to photograph these exquisite orecchiette that our neighbor, Silvia, had just made, with her own milled flour!  Delicate and wholesome, we devoured the lot for dinner with a wonderful chicken liver ragù made by Joel

The time we spent with these friends was the kind of ordinary time I had wanted to write about: shopping for food in various villages, stopping to chat with shopkeepers, hanging with our friend Gianni, preparing food together and sitting by the fire for hours at a time either reading or talking, and of course, much laughter. These are the things we do with or without guests and we are daily grateful for this simplicity. But what I love is to see how visitors, most of them living in towns or cities, so easily sink into the routine of this country life. You can see the surrender on their faces and in their bodies; the shoulders dropping inches, brows unfurrowing and after several attempts to jump up and do the dishes they finally give in to being taken care of.   What they give us in return is a sense of relevancy, of having something of worth to offer and, yes, the feeling that we are ageless.

In a little while I’ll go into the library where two big crocks of olives have been sitting in coarse salt for 2 weeks. It has not been a good year for olives in Italy because an unexpected frost in the spring killed the blossoms. But the three big old trees named after our children were loaded with olives, which we harvested three weeks ago. There were not enough to make oil, but too many to cure for eating so we gave lots away. The rest we washed, drained and put in wicker baskets to dry by the fire. Then Luana came by and showed us how much salt to add. Every evening I turn them in the crocks allowing those on top to have their turn in the salt, which by now is brine. On Tuesday Luana will return to help me rinse them and put them in jars with oil and garlic. Some will get pepperoncino added while others will get orange rind.

Learning this simple ritual is another thread that weaves us into the coarse cloth of this land. It is a simple, timeless chore that marks the passing of another season while connecting us to all that is still good in life.

Wishing you all a positive start to your week

with love, Maggie

ps.  OUR FRIEND IN FLORENCE HAS JUST SENT THIS PHOTO OF THE BREAD HE MADE TODAY!

A NOD TO NATURE

15 November 2017

The sky is darkening early as another storm approaches from the north. I watch two large roses at the garden gate, their heavy pink heads bowed, yet nodding, as if to say, yes, come what may we will rejoice. I cannot imagine how I would keep my own head up in these turbulent times if it weren’t for nature.

I try to have the courage to be honest when I write, although sometimes my opinion might offend others. While it is not my wish to be offensive, or hurtful, neither is it my way to pretty-up my opinions. They are merely mine, and valuable to me as I hope all of yours are to you. I’m referring in particular to the reaction I received recently from three readers in response to a September post in which I expressed my discontent with New York city, Manhattan in particular.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how easily we can touch a nerve in another person? We are, all of us, attached to something, or someone, or some place. Yet while it might be okay for us to criticize our own mother, or city, or country, when someone else does so our backs go up immediately in defense. It would seem that each of us is guilty to some degree in the way in which we barely listen to someone else without needing to assert our own opinion as the only one valid. We see this on a large scale now, with regard to how divided so many nations have become: north-v-south, right-v-left, red-v-blue, Brexit-v-Remain and on and on.

I lived in Manhattan from 1994 to 2013 and it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I also lived there during the 70’s and loved it; loved it for its diversity, its grit, its edginess. Sure it was more dangerous then, but it was also more real, more creative. And even though expensive back then, it wasn’t prohibitive. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, (although actually I don’t believe there is such a thing, either you are sensitive or you’re not), but part of what turns me off about cities in general and New York in particular is the enormous, ever-widening divide between the rich and the poor. I find it hard to see past this in order to enjoy the good stuff, of which there is much: museums, entertainment, fine food etc. But I wonder what percentage of people living in New York can actually afford any of those things? To that point I might better be able to appreciate those who leap to the city’s defense if any one of them had not been privileged enough to own homes in the country to which they can regularly escape the city’s relentless energy.

I mean really, how many people who have to take the subway every day see or experience joy? When was the last time the immigrant who delivered your dinner to your home was able to afford a visit to a museum or take his or her kid to a Broadway show? I remember days when I lived in New York when I would look at the teeming humanity on buses, sidewalks, subways and, yes, I would feel deeply connected to everyone; would feel profoundly moved by the fact that every single one of us had the courage to survive another day; each of us doing the best we were capable of. But these last few years what I more often experience is the pain and stress and anxiety etched on those faces, which, coupled with the non-stop roar of sound brings me to my knees. Maybe it’s an age thing for some of us. All I know it that after three and half years of living on a farm nature provides me with more wonder and joy than does New York. That said, I respect and am happy for those of you for whom the city is still a thrill.

There are some truths that none of us wish were so, but the truth is that for now, at least, America and New York have lost their way, and I find that upsetting. We were just in Paris for five days, lucky us. It, too, is an expensive city, yet it is still managing to hold onto some measure of humanity; some measure of what I call right-size. It’s comforting to see its citizens walking along, baguette in hand; to see tiny shops specializing in ancient trades, to catch a whiff of butter on every block.

But even though I find Paris charming I wouldn’t want to live there, anymore than I would want to live permanently in my home city of London. I just don’t need millions of people around me anymore in order to feel alive. A handful will do…along with those two roses at the gate, still nodding as evening falls.

 

With love to you all

Maggie

STAND YOUR GROUND

 

 

21 October 2917

The pomegranate tree is ablaze in a dazzle of gold; its last hurrah before baring its branches. The tree has lived here for two and half years now and, in spite of the fact that it has yet to provide us with a single pomegranate, it has grown sturdy and full. Rooted on one side of our little terrace it provides us cover in the summer months when we take the sun naked. Not that the farmers are likely to want to see us in our threadbare bathing suits! In the spring it protects us form the early morning chill as we eat breakfast in its embrace.

I admit that the tree is somewhat of a disappointment. I had envisioned its golden boughs adorned with exotic red fruit at this time of year, not to mention having looked forward to eating and juicing them. But plants and trees are like children in that you never know what you’re getting. However, unlike with children, one is freer to uproot a tree and discard it if it displeases. And I did, early on, think about returning this one to the nursery for a refund or replacement. But I decided to keep it and in spite of its inability to bear fruit, nurture it and love it for what it does provide. As a result it has blossomed, not only in the spring when it decorates itself with little red trumpets, but also in girth, and what I experience as a sort of pride in itself; a willingness to grow in spite of its defects.

The garden and I are having a long goodbye this autumn, partly because of global warming. Although this is disturbing, I am grateful to be able to sit outside, even now, at five o’clock on a late October day and witness the miracle of it. Here on this arid, rocky ground – made even more inhospitable by a year of drought and high heat – everything I planted over the last three years has not only survived but grown to the extent that visitors remark on how it looks as though it has been here for decades. There is something about tending a garden that rewards me more than any other endeavor.

Like many of you, I expect, I have been watching the revelation of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of abuse of women. I’m not sure why the backlash to his behavior is gaining so much traction as opposed to the behavior of say, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby (to name a few) all of whom disappeared from view after a relatively short outing. Don’t get me wrong…I’m thrilled that there seems to be some momentum now. But at the same time I can’t help feeling angry that it takes a lot of celebrities coming forward in order for this endemic behavior to be more roundly condemned. Do we only give credence to this systemic abuse when it is validated by “stars?” Why isn’t it enough to be an ordinary woman to have one’s story believed?

I was as a dinner a couple of weeks ago with a dozen people and the subject of Weinstein came up. I was horrified when one of the women expressed disbelief about these women’s stories. Why, she wanted to know, if it was true, had they kept silent for so long? It was all I could do not to scream. Bad enough when a man asks that question, but a woman? I asked her if she had ever experienced such abuse and when she demurred I told her of a couple of the many such experiences I had encountered during my life. I told her of the fear that accompanies violation. How men retaliate when they are accused. How women are trashed in court if it even gets that far. And I asked her why, if a woman has a less than pristine past is it deemed her fault she was raped, or otherwise abused. What is it about the word “consent” that people don’t understand? I don’t care if a woman robbed a bank, it doesn’t make it okay for her to be raped. One person’s crime doesn’t justify another’s.

I’m glad to report that by the time I finished my defense of women as victims and men as predators the woman thanked me for helping her take another view. And this is what we all must do now; we must educate each other. Women have to find the courage not only to come forward as these brave women have who were abused and terrified by Weinstein, but we have to stand firm in all the small ways. And we have to accept that our response, as women, is as ingrained as is that of the male’s erroneous sense of entitlement and superiority. And ingrained it is.

I recently overheard a male friend of mine talking with someone on the phone. This man is a good man and one who agrees with the need for equality. And yet, he too, totally unconsciously, objectified 2 women by asking the host of an upcoming event if he could invite them along, adding, “They’re beautiful.” As if beauty is the guaranteed requisite for women to gain entry…into anything! And yes, I did point out to him that what he had said is an example of how ingrained all this shit is.

It’s an interesting moment in time, isn’t it? Sure, it’s scary sometimes; all the hatred and discrimination that’s coming to a head. So what are our choices? To become overwhelmed and do nothing? Or to just do whatever little bit we’re capable of whenever we can? I personally believe that like the pomegranate tree, we have to stand our ground. Like it, we are less than perfect and yet we have the right to be treated with respect. Like it, when we are forgiven for not living up to expectations, we flourish in ways we might never have imagined.

Evening has arrived and with it, a chill breeze. I watch as the pomegranate sheds its leaves. Like tears of gold, they fall.

TAPPING THE SOURCE

15th September, 2017

For Brenda Bufalino, with love.

 

Waiting for Patti Smith…and this was before the crowds arrived!

We have been in New York City for 13 days. Just being able to write that sentence feels like a major achievement! Really, how do you city people do it? Hey, how did I do it, for 22 years? Even my dear Joel who is New York born and bred and lived here for 75 years – until I whisked him away to Tuscany – woke up the other morning and said, “What the fuck are we doing here?”

Well there are three good reasons why we’re here. First and foremost, always, is to see our children and grandchildren. We “see” them weekly on Skype or Facetime when we are back in Tuscany and for sure it is one of the gifts of the Internet (although there seem to be more cons than pros these days when it comes to the World Wide Web). I’m so ancient that I remember when you had to reserve a time slot with the phone company in order to make an overseas call! And then, if you were lucky enough to get through, you could almost visualize those transatlantic cables running under the sea as the voices of loved ones disappeared only to surface moments later sounding like they had swallowed vast quantities of salt water. So, yes, to be able to touch/click an icon on a screen and not only see the face of your child, or the gap in your grandchild’s teeth, but also be able to hang out, talking, laughing, sometimes crying, even sharing a meal – lunch in New York simultaneous with dinner in Tuscany – is a miracle of technology that allows for meaningful connection in real time.

But really, there is nothing like the feel of hugging your child, or the ecstatic leap of a grandchild into your arms, or watching and hearing another grandchild play classical piano before we all sit down at the same table in the same time zone and share a potluck dinner. Nothing will ever make-up for physical presence. My daughter and I shared one of those mother/daughter days last week, the kind we do so well. Bopping around Soho and Little Italy, trying on make-up and boots, admiring each other in a new pair of jeans, linking arms under an umbrella and talking about everything over lunch.

What joy to have Joel’s son stop by this morning so we could give him a birthday hug; to see the love between these two beautiful men.

We are a combined family to which the terms ‘in-laws’ and ‘step’ are no longer attached. We all belong to each other and to be in the same space at the same time is a blessing beyond words. For this alone we brave the horrors of the long haul flights, the physical depletion of days of jet-lag, the noise and filth and fear and aggression of the city, and hope we have the stamina to do so for the rest of our waning years.

The second reason for being here was the opening last week of Joel’s stunning show at the Howard Greenberg Gallery, much of it never-before-seen work, including a room of Joel’s latest photography. If you are in New York please go see it. It will inspire and revive you. www.howardgreenberg.com

And last, but never least, we came for our friend Brenda Bufalino’s 80th birthday celebration (do Google her, although, ahem, like most artists her site is a bit out of date, there are also some good YouTube videos to be found). What to say? Where to begin? For me personally, it began in 1973, when, shortly after the birth of my daughter, I began taking modern and jazz dance classes with Brenda and within a few months became a proud member of her first dance company.

It was Brenda who let my creative genie out of its tightly corked bottle. And it was Brenda who a few years later, seeing me headed toward the world of addiction, wrote me a letter saying she was concerned that I wasn’t building my “inner temple.” I remember reading those words and being pierced by their truth. I remember knowing then that those words would haunt me until I either paid heed or died. It would be another 13 years before I began breaking ground for the foundation of that inner temple and while it may have a few leaks here and there it is nonetheless erect, intact and a place of ever-evolving inner peace, morality and compassion. So yes, Brenda saved my soul, too.

But this really shouldn’t be all about me. This is about Brenda. So let me try to describe her to you. She is a force of nature. She is the most courageous woman I know. She is a true artist who never gave up, who created through a failed marriage, motherhood, in the face of poverty, uncertainty, critical judgment, sexism, ignorance, fierce competition, the inanity of celebrity parading as art, and yes, through illness and the aches and pains of aging. Brenda just kept going. Creating companies, choreography, music, books, ceramics and even at one point. her own line of dance clothing. As a young woman determined to overcome her fears she bought a horse – the creature she was most afraid of – and broke it herself. And she’s a generous artist; teaching, inspiring and encouraging generations of dancers. She’s a harsh mistress, demanding the very best of all of us who are lucky enough to be invited in. She teaches not just the highest level of technique but encourages us to develop our own vision. She has always been ahead of the times creatively, while being right on time rhythmically. She’s beautiful, absurd, magical, sexy, witty, indomitable and inimitable. She is a visionary who continues to perform and teach Master Classes around the globe.

The celebration was hosted by friends on the grounds of their country home. The weather was grey and damp, but the spirit was sunny and warm. A huge tent housed a jazz band and dance floor and as some 100 or so family, friends, dancers, musicians and patrons gathered around, Brenda took to the floor. She named just about all of us, slotting us into the different eras of her life and honouring our contribution to it. And we kept looking around at each other and feeling the ongoing river of which we are a part; the overlap, the passing of the torch, the incredible DNA of the Brenda Bufalino Tribe. And the ghosts were there, too; early deaths, suicides, the missing.

When we were all accounted for Brenda turned to the band and with a-one and a-two and a-there she goes, singing that jazz, baby. The voice like aged cognac; deep and round and full of spirit. Then the mike is put to rest and those feet pick up where the voice left off, the feet a voice of their own; the footwork precise and innovative, the taps made to whisper and rattle and snap and trill; the accents coming where you least expect them and yet so right. Her feet are speaking, singing, drumming; the vocabulary is multilingual and there is just no way Brenda is 80!

If you go back to my post of 23rd April this year, entitled The Gift of a Lifetime, you will remember that Brenda is one of my seven “sisters” whom I took to St. Ives, Cornwall, for 5 days. Half of the sisters live in Europe and were unable to make it. But here is the other half.

Scout, Vivian, Brenda and me.

So, yeah, to hell with the city. To hell with politics and greed and sheer stupidity. It doesn’t matter where we are as long as we have each other, as long as we honor the truth of history, both personal and universal. As long as we show a little kindness everyday, especially in cities because they are harsh; the lack of space, of peace, of nature, it’s not really how we’re meant to live.

Joel and I will be happy to return to our Tuscan farm, to bathe in the goodness of the land, the light, the simple pace of life lived without the desperate need for fame and fortune. But we sure will be sad to leave the physical comfort and abundant love of family and friends.

P.S. I’ve been hearing from a number of you that you are missing hearing from me more often. I miss you, too! I will try to get back to a more regular routine once I get home. But know that I have, for the last few months, been completely engaged in the writing of a new novel. It’s an intense ride which leaves me physically shaking every day. So please bear with me. And please, it goes both ways…I’d love to hear from you, too!

with love to you all, Maggie

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.

 

LIFE IS A PUZZLE

18 June 2017

 

This week we returned for our favorite Tuscan island. Twelve days of simplicity and beauty. Twelve days without even having to decide what to eat; la mamma cooking 3 meals a day without ever once repeating a dish. Every dish sourced from the family’s organic garden and animals on the property or from their farm on the mainland. And perhaps most wonderful of all, twelve days without news and without touching money.

The days were spent climbing up and down 300 stone steps to either of the two coves where, between meals, we read and swam, and did a bit of writing before climbing the steps up to yet another delicious meal. In the evenings, if we wished, we would join the other guests – anywhere from a dozen to twenty – on the patio where we would all look dreamily out to sea when not commenting on our good fortune to be in such a place of love and peace. Once in a while some of us would venture into philosophical talks that focused on non-aggression.

One evening a woman from Puglia serenaded us with Italian folk songs, accompanying herself on the guitar. At one point, seeing that one of the workers had joined us, a young Spanish woman who spoke not a word of Italian, she sang an old Spanish folk song for, her voice graveled with soul, the young woman weeping as I held her hand.

Twelve days, spent with strangers, mainly Italians, but also a couple of Germans and Scandinavians; all of us proving that it is possible to live in peace and harmony. The German couple had spent their honeymoon there and now, 25 years later, had chosen to return for their anniversary. Somehow the proprietors remembered the meal they had served them all those years ago and served it again at dinner the night of the anniversary. We watched as tears streamed down the wife’s face, the husband smiling so tenderly. And then more tears, when the staff, singing all the way, marched from the kitchen carrying an enormous chocolate cake to the couple’s table.

So, why, oh why, did I check the news upon returning home, finding among all the dismal articles of political and corporate corruption and greed, the horrendous news of the Grenfell Tower inferno in London?

When my daughter was deathly ill last year, I became addicted in the darkest moments, when all was beyond my control, to a digital game on my iPhone. The game, Cubes 1010, consists of a grid made of 10 x 10 squares outside of which 3 shapes at a time appear; L-shaped, oblong, linear, cubes, each with its own color. The object is to keep slotting them into the grid in order to eliminate completed vertical and horizontal lines. It’s called a puzzle, but that’s a con. In fact it’s unsolvable. It’s actually an unwinnable game in which you keep score against yourself. I have deleted the app from my phone many times, but after a few months, when not wanting to face something or the other, I find myself sucked back into it again. As I was this past week, after letting myself get sucked back into the news.

I hold dual citizenship in England and America, two countries that make me glad I now live in Italy. While far from perfect, and currently suffering a crop-damaging drought, nonetheless its citizens daily rescue fleeing refugees from the sea. My homeland, England, while of course still having many admirable “native” citizens, is also a country whose values have drastically changed over the last couple of decades. Those of us who watched Absolutely Fabulous back in the 90’s may have found it hilarious then, but actually it was a horrendous depiction of the vacuous,narcissistic greed of the newly rich: A class of people that has grown enormously in London, which is now one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

I was born at the end of WWII. The first 4 years of my life we lived on rationed food. I remember seeing streets of bombed out houses, partial rooms dangling mid-air, peeling wallpaper a fluttering dream. I was probably 10 before war stories – in print, on film, or overheard in grown-ups’ conversations – ceased to be a regular topic. Stories of cities bombed for 5 years; stories of people returning from work to find their whole street, families and neighbours gone. Stories of how the King and Queen refused to leave Buckingham Palace but instead remained there in solidarity with their people. Photos of the Royal couple walking through the rubble; the common folk dancing in the streets; the British spirit a finger in the eye of the enemy.

After WWI council houses started being built, somewhat uniform but with local design variations, all adhered to local authority building standards. They called them “Homes fit for heroes,” and more than a million of them were built between 1914 and 1938. I had several school friends who lived in these houses, which, on the inside looked much like the house my parents owned: clean, orderly, wallpapered, fireplaces, new appliances etc. They looked like this:

Now they look like this:

Grenfell Tower was an example of what today’s council housing looks like. “Managed” by a private sector company on behalf of the local council, it stood between the 2 richest boroughs in London. Don’t you just feel for all those filthy rich fuckers who had to “put up” with such an eyesore in their midst? Not to worry. The local council and management company agreed some couple of years ago to resurface it so it would look nicer. Never mind that its tenants were still, after years, complaining of leaks, faulty wiring, rodent infestation etc. But hey, as long as it looked good when you got in your fucking BMW a block away, off to make another million in the financial district, or have your interior designer come over and renovate the kitchen you just renovated 2 years, who gives a shit?

I know, I know, some level of this inequality has always existed. But aren’t we supposed to be evolving? I mean really evolving, on the spiritual level? What the fuck? Twenty-four floors of immigrants, some having escaped horrors in their homelands, trying to better themselves. Working minimum wage jobs and going to college and then, like disposable waste, incinerated as a result of flammable cladding used to beautify the exterior.

Yesterday I spent an hour losing game after game of Cubes 1010. Each time I started again I thought maybe if I could just do it right I could keep fitting all those shapes and sizes into the grid until, what…? Until the rules of the game changed and instead of elimination I would finally be able to house diversity into a completed grid where every shape and size and colour would finally slot together in harmony?

If I was 10 years younger and living in London I’d house a couple of the now homeless. Instead I’ll resort to sending money. I won’t be playing Cubes 1010 anymore. Better to tend my garden and redouble my daily effort to praise beauty and be grateful for all the love in my life. Better to spend my time trying to be a little kinder to loved ones and strangers alike.

 

 

 

YEAH!

20 May 2017

I’ve been a bit grumpy lately, although Joel might choose a more specific adjective. Is one born with a short wire? Or does it get shortened with age? Whatever. What I do know is that when I find myself spending more of the day acting like one of the seven dwarfs it’s time to explore the genesis of my grump.

Mid-April of this year marked our third anniversary of living here year round and during this time we’ve turned a primitive barn on a patch of barren gravel into a sweet home amid a glorious garden. A nice achievement and one I’m personally proud of. Also, over these years, Joel has become more and more in demand throughout Europe; creating a new body of work, several books and many shows in England, France, Germany, Austria and Italy. I am truly happy for him. It took a lot of courage for him to leave his native New York after 76 years and to see him be rewarded like a rock star in Europe puts a grin on my face.

So, why so grumpy Maggie? The answer is twofold: the first part has to do with the way in which we’ve stopped being here in Tuscany in a certain way. By that I mean that the constant attention necessary to making a home and garden does not always allow the freedom to enjoy it or to leave it. I think of the couple of summers we spent here before it became “ours” and memories come flooding in: day trips with Gianni in his pick-up, driving up river beds and over fields; taking all the white roads, stopping in villages not on the map, shopkeepers everywhere hailing Gianni.

Back then it seemed like we walked this country road daily, picking bunches of wildflowers, talking to the cows, waving to the odd passerby. Lunches were long and lazy, evenings spent sitting on bare stony ground in a couple of old deck chairs gazing at the surrounding hills, chatting away with each other, or friends, or the farmers. I look back on that time now and it seems so innocent and we, so young.

Now, as I sit in the dondolo (the outdoor divan-swing) a brief, sudden wind shakes the l’eccio trees and dried leaves rain down with a pitter-patter. Birds, nesting in the hedgerows are ceaseless in their chatter; a cock crows is cock-a-doodle-do and I am instantly here in the way in which I most love to be.

Why is it that we so easily get caught up in the business of life that we stop experiencing its true luxury? I’ve been wanting to sit right here, doing exactly this, for days, weeks actually. But instead I keep doing and adding chores, getting grumpier with every load of laundry, every grocery shopping, the pulling of weeds, pruning of roses, replenishing candles, bringing in firewood and on and on. And as I write that list two things strike me: a) that it is a list of privilege and b) I could put off doing any one of those things and turn to my creative expression and the world would not stop.

So, today I’ve made the commitment to re-see life in Tuscany; to tell you that this week alone – and this is a typical week here – Silvia, the farmer’s wife, has brought us baskets of spicy salad greens grown from seeds that our friend Scout gave her. Luca and Antonello, the stone masons, were here every day putting in my little stone stairway, remodeling the outdoor fireplace, placing stepping stones in the gravel path and widening the rose arch at the garden gate.

 

Two of those mornings, Luca brought us eggs from his hens and Antonello brought us a can of his olive oil. On Sunday, Silvia brought us a fresh baked ricotta cake, the ricotta made from their sheep milk, the flour ground from their grain.

 

One day, feeling the accumulated stress from the fallout of a challenging situation in Joel’s New York studio, we decided to go to one our favorite village for lunch at a friend’s restaurant : www.osteriadelleone.it in Bagno Vignoni. What joy to drive the half hour there, through the ever-rolling hills, the olive groves singing with their new green leaves, poppies and sulla staining the fields scarlet and ruby; the greeting by Antonio and his staff, the wild salad and roasted pigeon as superior as ever and the promise of linden blossoms soon to come.

Tuscany. This ancient land still hanging on to its culture; the lack of greed or need for fame; the acceptance of imperfection in government and the economy, while generously sharing whatever they have. On our way to dinner with new friends we stop up the hill to buy a couple of bottles of Libera and Fortunato’s homemade wine; pure grape, no chemicals. Here there is no talk of Trump and the abysmal state of America. Here the farmer puts a piece of grain between his teeth to see how far it has to go before harvesting it. Gianni and Luana come for dinner. The fire is lit, the room aglow with candles. We sit for hours talking intimately and with ease, amazed that we can now do so in Italian.

Joel has joined me on the dondolo. He, too, is writing…an introductory essay for his new retrospective book. It feels like a perfect moment. It’s been a busy year for him with three books in the works plus six shows. Which brings me to the second reason I’ve been feeling grumpy. Three books and six shows entail a lot of work at the computer and whole days go by when he is upstairs working away in front the screen. This is not a judgment; who, at 79, wouldn’t what to be in such demand?

No, the issues are mine. Issues of envy and resentment and impatience. Issues that are endemic in women of my age married to famous men. Women of my generation, unlike the current one, weren’t brought up to believe we had the right to our own desires and direction. And I am shocked to find, at this stage in my life, that I still feel the need to either wait and serve, or rebel. How ridiculous. I mean really, if it makes Joel happy to spend stretches of time at his computer then good for him. But when do I find the courage to stop complaining and simply go about my own business? What’s stopping me from creating, or taking day trips, or simply sitting on the dondolo, writing, listening to the birds and counting my lucky stars that this is where and what my life has come to?

How easily we humans can ruin our own good time. The ‘why’ of it surely has to stop being examined after a while. So one had a crap childhood, or grew up in a repressed culture; so religion taints us with guilt or shame; so we suffer illness and injury, the loss of loved ones, the failure to attain a dream. So what? We’ve come this far; each of us with our own struggles and disappointments and with each day the distance left to go is shorter. So let’s stop each day, look up, look out, breathe in, breathe out. How does it feel to “be”? What would you change? And when?

Neuroscience has proven that we carve pathways, or ruts, in our brains by habitual thinking. If we want to get out of the rut we need to change the way we think. I’m thinking Tuscany’s a pretty good rut that I have no need or desire to get out of. The rut I intend get out of is the one I’ve spent a lifetime carving by thinking that I pretty much have to destroy myself in order to have the right to live.

The sheep are getting their second milking of the day. A might chorus of baa-ing issues from the barn. Maybe it’s a Tuscan thing, but it sounds to me like they’re all saying “Yeah!”

 

 

Our wedding anniversary, 18 May 2017

NB:   Here is a the link to the latest Podcast with Julie Burstein and myself. Please let me know is you are unable to open it.  Also, let me know what you think of it!  With thanks and love as always. Maggie.

 

 

 

 

THE GIFT OF A LIFETIME

23rd April 2017

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ T.S.Eliot

It’s been a long spring, joyously so for the most part, although too hot at the start, so that the garden has a slight air of weariness, as if too much was asked of it too soon. But, oh, the bliss of returning here after two weeks away and finding the wisteria weeping from the porch roof; its perfume a swoon to the senses. I once called wisteria ‘the queen of ambiguity,’ only to find when translating that essay into Italian that here, in this gender specific land, it is masculine. Perhaps there is a botanical reason for this, but after spending a week in the company of my 7 best women friends, I can’t but think that the gender-choice was decided by some poor man unable to cope with its maternal sorrow.

Last year, shortly after I turned 70, I was sitting at my desk asking what I would most like to give myself as I entered my 8th decade. The answer came immediately: I wanted to spend time with all the women who have been of support and encouragement and inspiration to me throughout my life, including 2 who, although unknown to me less that 6 years ago, have gifted me with their wisdom and poetry, mainly through emails. And I wanted to spend this time with them in the one place on this planet to which I have been deeply connected, in this lifetime, since I was 3 years old.

It is the place I returned to on my own for decades, as a painter, and as a writer and as an ex-pat living in America. It was the place I could call my own; where I could feel my ancient spirit awakened by the wind and the sea as I walked for miles and hours upon the tufted cliffs, clambering down to my ledge to disappear into the sea spray along with the birds. It was the sense of belonging that I’ve always felt there that drew me there. I, who until a week ago, had no knowledge of my ancestral roots, felt instinctively that I belong there on those wild Cornish cliffs and moors.

The response to my email invite was swift: a chorus of Yes, although one would eventually have to drop out due to family illness. Yet even she was there, as you will later see. Over the course of the winter, I started envisioning what it was I wanted to share with these women; I wanted them to witness a part of me that they had never known; the part of me that comes from a sense of belonging as opposed to a sense of yearning.

Over those winter months, the ‘program’ evolved slowly, without pressure or need; a mix of walks, studio and museum visits, outdoor theatre, a cream tea on a farm by the sea and a private figure-drawing class in the famed studio of the St. Ives School of Painting. All the events were as rich an experience as we could have hoped for. But it was the conversation that held the ore. And we mined it at breakfast, lunch and dinner…interspersed with a few tears and much bawdy laughter.As Vivian observed, in her 70+ years she had never experienced sharing meals for 8 where every single time the group conversed as a whole. There was no splintering into pairs, except sometimes when we were walking. At table a topic would be presented or arise and then it became a pow-wow.

No-one, besides me, knew everyone else in the group prior to this adventure. We hail from 4 different countries: England, France, USA, Italy. One other beside myself has lived as an ex-pat, originally hailing from South Africa. The youngest, whom I’ve known for 23 years, is 47. The oldest, whom I’ve know for 44 years, will be 80 this year; the rest of us filled in the intervening decades. And so it was that these 7 women met for the first time under the big clock at Paddington station at 9:30 on 3rd April. By the time the train delivered them to St. Ives at 4pm, they were a unit. And after a few tears upon seeing them all together, I stopped being the leader and just became one with them.

At Paddington Station

Our diversity in age and background was our gold, not to mention our diversity in careers: one human rights barrister/judge; one actress/film-maker/interior designer; one dancer/writer/ceramicist; one photographer/poet; one musicologist; one therapist/quilter; one antiques dealer/innkeeper/shopowner, and myself. And let’s not forget Julie, who couldn’t come: podcast producer/author/ceramicist. We are all mothers; and we all mothered each other in the best possible sense. Half of us are married. The other half lives singly as a result of death or divorce. We are all mighty.

On our second afternoon Julie joined us via Skype to lead us in a fireside tea meditation. She had taken a single piece of brown clay, embedded with blue stripes (for the sea) running its length. Then she rolled it like a jelly-roll and cut it into 9 pieces which she hand-formed into little cups. Reserving one for herself, she had sent the remaining 8 to the inn and in her Skype presence we each randomly chose from the box. Following Julie’s instructions, I placed all 8 cups in a circle touching each other and A, whose 70th birthday it was that day, pour the tea in one unbroken flow and then we sipped in silence. Julie also joined us via Skype a few evenings later when A presented 3 exquisite pieces of music by Chopin, Debussy and Ravel.

Was it only 5 days and 5 nights? Or did we live forever among the ancients? All I know is that I am still feeling bereft of their company. And I do know that each of us experienced something vital: sisterhood, womanhood, our formidable strengths and our tender vulnerabilities; no competition, no judgment. This is something many women are missing in contemporary life. Only we women can bear each other’s sorrow, cup a hand around it and urge each other forward.

Two weeks later I am still feeling the upheaval that such a deep connection brings once severed. Then again, while the physical connection has been broken the emotional one can never be severed. Which is why, perhaps, it came as no surprise, a week ago, to discover via DNA testing, my ancestral heritage: Scandinavian, thousands of years ago; then Munster Irish and Southern English and most recently, Southern English…right there on the Cornish cliffs, where I once and always belonged.

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. T.S.Eliot.

drawing by Maggie