Category Archives: travel

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.

 

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

YESTERDAY, TODAY, TOMORROW

18th September 2016

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Sometimes, when I write the date, a distant bell rings, tolling across the fields of memory, carrying its faint whisper of something once significant and I try to catch the tail end of it and trace it back to some event, or place, or person that make its mark on me. Today’s date brings nothing to mind, in and of itself. If it were tomorrow I could say, ah, yes, 46 years ago I married my daughter’s father. Or if it were the 12th I could remember yet another divorce after which, to my great surprise, I left the lawyer’s office, bent my head to the steering wheel and sobbed; not just over the end of yet another marriage, but at what I presumed then, aged 44, was the last chance of making a successful one. Twelve days later, on 24th September 1990, I would meet Joel, once again proving that presumption is a fool’s waste of time.

September seems to be full of endings and beginnings: summer, autumn, vacation, school, the world before and after 9/11; and now, for some people, the end of walking nonchalantly in the Chelsea district of Manhattan…and the beginning of what?

The sun is blazing through the window now. Lower in the sky than a week ago, it hits me in the face as I write. We’ve had a small fire going most of the day, having lit it this morning while the rain beat on the roof, bringing a chill from the north. Then the sun would suddenly arrive, illuminating the rain bejeweled garden and we’d let the fire go, only to rekindle it 10 minutes later as the next bank of charcoal clouds delivered another torrent. This time accompanied by a strong wind that threatened to snap the rose tree. We saved it just in time with the aid of a broom.

broom

And so the day has been, between one season and another, back and forth, much like we were on Friday. We had been scheduled to leave early that morning for Porto San Stefano from whence we would take the ferry to Giglio and from there, the small boat to our favourite inn. We’d been looking forward to it for weeks, a last, summer fling of sea and sun, swimming, lolling, reading and hiking. Oh, we kept saying, won’t it be great not to have to shop, cook or do the dishes for a whole week. Ha!

Thursday night, suitcases packed, fridge emptied, the inn called to say a severe storm was headed to the island. The small boat would never make it. Not to worry, we said, we’ll come on Saturday. We spent most of Friday watching rain and wind beat on the garden. We also kept checking the weather for Giglio but it remained consistently bleak, with 4 of the remaining days we’d be there either cloudy or raining. So we cancelled. Talk about glum. We were like sad kids. Even though we were aware that it was hardly a tragedy, the disappointment was sharp. It took us hours to let go. Hours of trying to figure out where else to go: Capri, rain; Amalfi Coast, rain; Florence, rain. The whole frigging weather map of Europe was one big gloomy cloud.

So Joel baked a plum cake.

plumcake

And the post lady delivered a terrific DVD, that I’d ordered weeks ago and forgotten about. We had lamb in the freezer and Silvia brought the last of the tomatoes from her garden. We unpacked our suitcases and put away our disappointment, grateful to be “stuck” in this paradise.

goldhill

rainlight

Gratitude: so much more rewarding than disappointment. Disappointment is all about the future; I wish, I want, I’m going to…. Gratitude is all about now: I have this, now. I am here, now. I am alive, now. Sorrow? Sorrow belongs to the past. There’s not much we can do about sorrow. Any fully lived life will contain it. We can do something about disappointment, although it’s not a 100% possible achievement. We’re human. We will continue to make plans, and they will continue to provide as much disappointment as gain. But gratitude; that’s a choice, even for the downtrodden and the abused. I realize that may sound glib and somewhat rich coming from someone in my fortunate position, but many of the Nelson Mandela’s of the world, and Holocaust survivors, have told us they made it through the unimaginable by focusing on the smallest crumb of gratitude.

Talking about crumbs…the plum cake was delicious. And talking about gratitude, I’d like to recommend a documentary available on Netflix: “Hello, My Name is David.” Let me know what you think.

 

 

 

LIFE IS A PIÑATA

15th August 2016

glass

I arrived at 70 last Monday, having trekked towards it for months, only to find it a moving target which, when I finally hit it, broke apart, spilling sweetness all around me.

Swing

We had arrived in Edinburgh a few days earlier, having decided some while ago that the opportunity to spend time with dear friends while partaking of the Fringe Festival was a befittingly unique adventure with which to celebrate, on the 8th day of the 8th month, entrance into the 8th decade of my life. As the time for our adventure neared and the Tuscan temperature soared into the mid 90’s, we began to look forward to the bonus of a week in the 60’s with the occasional rain shower. I’ll just to a quick leap forward here to say that it took us about a day and half of shivering under an umbrella to begin longing for the Tuscan sun and our newly acquired ‘dondolo’, which had arrived the day before we left.

dondolo

But what a week it was! Edinburgh, city of granite and spires, yet only ever a walk away from nature. Our exquisite room in a Georgian guesthouse, complete with a Michelin starred restaurant was only 10 minutes from the city center and yet was almost as peaceful as our Tuscan home, looking out, as it did, to the garden and a slop of wild nature. www.21212restaurant.co.uk/

gardensketch

Back in my drinking years, I was partial to a generous pour of single malt, neat, before dinner. In fact, whisky was the first drink I ever ordered; 15 years old in a pub in Liverpool about to go see the Beatles at The Cavern. I had chosen whisky because I associated it with masculinity and courage, 2 elements I thought I might need to make it through my teens. Even now, I can feel the knife of that first sip, hitting me between the shoulder blades. Although I wasn’t tempted during our stay, I could certainly appreciate the need for its amber glow amidst the dank grey stone, along with the rhythmic insult of rain slapping your face as the umbrella inverts itself beyond function.

edinburgh

Yet if scotch is inseparable from Scotland’s image, it is the warmth of the Scots themselves that is the true spirit of the Highlands. Literally everyone we encountered was kind, quick witted, chatty, and down to earth. From the entire staff at 21212, to taxi drivers, train conductors and the hundreds of people organizing and manning the Fringe which, by the way, was also celebrating its 70th birthday. Three thousand acts ran hourly at 400 venues from 10 am to 10pm everyday with a precision that belied its casual appearance. It is an event without equal and beyond comprehension and I heartily recommend it to all.

We saw 4 modern dancers perform exquisite choreography with such emotional connection that all four of us wept. We saw improv and jugglers and a ventriloquist, all of whom transcended their medium. We saw our friend Gideon Irving perform, My Name Is Gideon, his second year at The Fringe. He is an intimate performer who cannot be labeled: a musician, magician, comedian and story-teller with a deep streak of generosity and love. We saw a bare-bones play depicting the memories of children of war and the refugee crisis which had us sobbing with grief. We saw a Muslim comedian from Australia who gave us permission to laugh at the absurdity of racism and terrorism. And we saw one truly awful one-woman play which was so excruciatingly bad that my friend Viv and I got a near uncontrollable fit of the giggles…in the front row!

On the Saturday, we took the half hour train ride out to North Berwick where our friends were staying in a house swap. A beautiful, unspoiled seaside town famous for its golf course, it is during The Fringe host to the Highland games. A mighty gathering of 3000 pipers and drummers filling the air with controlled savagery. An interesting juxtaposition to our experience of the warm hospitality of the natives, and a reminder that we are none of us far removed from our own barbarism.

berwick wall

n.berwick sea

buspipers

Did I mention the lobster?

L1002853 Maggie Lobster Sm

My birthday began with Joel presenting me with a book he had compiled of lovely impressions of me written by family and friends. A gift that will indeed go on giving should I ever have a moment’s doubt that my life has been of some small worth to others. And then there was the bracelet. The one he gave me on my birthday some 20 years ago. The one I wore every day until it mysteriously disappeared from wrist 2 years ago. For a moment, as I opened the box, I wondered how and where he’d found it. In fact, he’d found a photo of me wearing it, blown it up and taken it to a jeweler in Siena who replicated it.

Of course, nothing can ever be replicated. Loss is loss. And although a bracelet can’t be compared to a baby, nevertheless I experienced the same pang upon seeing it as I felt when my second daughter was born and, in the perfection of her being, experienced another layer of what I had lost when my first daughter arrived stillborn. But the gift of love surpasses loss, as I have come to know from the ever-deepening relationship with my daughter and the profound love my husband constantly shows me in his desire to try to make up for all the loss I have experienced.

So, I came home either a week or a year older, however one wishes to view the mad attempt to define time in a linear manner. In any case, it’s good to be home to the warmth, the light, the garden, the sun-warmed tomatoes Silvia leaves outside our door. And, truth be told, it is a relief to have arrived at this moment. To have finally let go of the need to appear younger and instead embrace the wisdom of my years while still allowing feelings of irascible youth to bubble to the surface. So what if the neck is its own crepe scarf…a smile in beyond measure.

scarf

If I am left with a lasting image from The Fringe it is this: Centre stage, caught in the spotlight, a swirl of smoke gradually dissipates revealing a piñata attached to a rope. Slowly the rope is hoisted, the piñata ascends and as it reaches it apex, 3 jugglers leap into the air taking wild swipes at it until, like life itself, it breaks open and sweetness rains down.

pinata

TIME TO BE

 

5th June 2016

bliss

I replace the empty cartridge in my fountain pen and wonder how long it will be before I do that again. In the 5+ years that I have been writing for this blog I have also revised one novel and written another. During this time I have refilled the pen perhaps a thousand times; each time with a sort of elation as if the empty cartridge was proof of achievement and the new one full of ink and promise of the continuing journey of discovery that writing has held for me for 50 years.

emptyink

Since I last wrote here, we have had friends with us for a week, then a few days of solitude before the arrival of the first round of family. Once again I am reminded of my limited capacity to spread myself between time with those whom I love, time to garden, and time to write. The latter is always the thing I let go of; sometimes willingly and sometimes with resentment.

joelanton

maggieanton

It is letting go that I now wish to embrace, for one can only let go willingly: letting go with resentment is a contradiction in terms. I have broached this subject before, both here and in conversations with Joel. Yet as I approach my 70th birthday (August 8th) I find myself face to face with my continuing refusal to:

let go of achievement

let go of the idea of success

let go of the pain of rejection

let go of choosing the path of rejection

let go of the resentment at not gaining outside recognition

let go of regret

And for sure I feel regret for having sat alone at my desk for 25 years plugging away at something that been a constant source of failure in terms of achieving a publisher. For the past year I have been alternating between letting go of all of this, while continuing to experience a stone of bitterness wedged in my core. So, obviously I wasn’t truly letting go. Why? Because letting go always requires one to feel the pain of attachment. It requires one to head into terra incognito. It also requires one to take responsibility for having chosen to cling to a path of resistance.

I was talking with my daughter-in-law this morning and in so doing we discovered that our shared fear of rejection does not diminish with age. But, as we agreed, what can change is the choice to invite it. All of us have our childhood wounds, raw beneath the scar. The stories differ, but the impressions of misconception are the same. The interpretation that we come up with as children more often than not has us deciding – way back then – that the fault is ours. Because what child can bear to believe that adults could act so cruelly without good reason? And so these beliefs about ourselves form our identities: e.g., I am worthless therefore I will always be rejected.

But as adults we really do know better. We just have to be willing to re-educate ourselves each time we slip into default mode. For me the deeper question now is why do I have to perpetuate unhappiness when my life is filled with such bounty? Is it some ancient superstition that happiness equals death? On the other hand, who gives a fuck? Why not cut to the chase and cut out the behavior already?

Ten years ago I found myself in a similar situation and then one day I had the vision that I had created my own tightrope; a thin wire that stretched from my core way into the distance where a landing platform atop a ladder was barely visible. I realized that this thin wire which I had been treading had narrowed my perception of reality, whereupon I reeled myself in, sat on the landing with feet dangling and surveyed the enormous, thrilling landscape of my life.

The next day I booked a flight to London, took the train to the foot of Cornwall and checked in to a small, family run hotel on the edge of the cliffs. I took no paints or pen with me. On the first evening I was ushered to a table-for-one by a window looking out to a garden and the sea beyond. The innkeepers had placed my chair facing into the dining room, probably thinking that by so doing I would be able see and communicate with the other diners.

With the innate wisdom that we all possess, I knew that was the last thing I wanted. I had no interest in communicating with others nor did I want to tell my story one more time. I simply wanted to be. So I took the chair and switched it to face out to sea, my back turned to everyone. For 3 weeks I said, Good Morning, Good Evening, Goodnight, please and thank you. Already 17 years sober I was always the first to finish dinner, which allowed me to enjoy a half hour of solitude by the fire, in the small adjoining sitting room, sipping a cup of chamomile tea before retiring to my room.

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Each morning, after breakfast, I would wander the cobblestone streets down in the village, buy a sandwich and with it and a thermos of tea would stride out across the cliff-tops. For 3 weeks I “did” nothing except be. I “did” what I truly wanted from moment to moment: sat on a rock here, a boulder there, climbed down a cliff face and sat on a rocky ledge being with the birds and the sea and the cliff. I interpreted nothing; attached no meaning to anything; had no desire to describe my experience of the world to others through writing or painting or conversation. They were the happiest 3 weeks of my life.

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On the penultimate day, I took a taxi to the village of Zennor and told the driver to return for me in 4 hours. I walked the ancient paths, sat on a boulder to eat my lunch, the sea my constant companion. At one point, further along the cliff, I came to a narrow wooden footbridge. I unwrapped a bar of chocolate, my childhood favorite, and experienced utter bliss nibbling on it while watching a small gorge tumble down from the moors, down over the moss covered rocks between fern adorned banks; watched it disappear under the bridge before emerging on the other side where it rushed in wild abandon to become one with the sea.

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The time has come for me to detach like that again. To put down my pen and just be. To feel the release of contained energy and let it take me where it may.

I had thought last week that I would like to take a break from the blog this summer and spend my time selecting and editing the best essays from the last 5 years, and who knows, maybe at some point I will do that. But today I am choosing to take a break from writing…period. I am choosing to let go of the attachment to achievement and merely be.

Writing the blog has been a gift to me, and from what I hear from some, a small gift to you. I have no idea who most of you are, but I have felt you out there and have welcomed your company. I’d like to think that this is just a summer hiatus but that, of course, would not really be let go. Still, I am merely human and therefore would ask you to wait a while before deleting me. I’d like to think I’d be welcome back if I so choose.

For now, I bid you adieu. The pen is empty, the fire unlit.

emptypen

fire unlit

SEASON TO TASTE

15th May 2016                                SEASON TO TASTE

stallerose

One of the many aspects I love about living in Tuscany is the equal division of the seasons. I thought about this again over our Sunday English breakfast this morning, a tradition for us, along with the accompaniment of Vivaldi’s Oboe Concertos. Perhaps only someone living here could have composed The Four Seasons, in which each movement is given equal weight. Here, each season is apportioned 3 months, a measure of time that allows for total immersion into the separate wonders that each season offers.

I had been concerned while in New York that I would miss spring here this year. In New York, as in most of the North Eastern States, spring and autumn gets a brief fling before jumping straight into full blown summer. Autumn, likewise, although extremely beautiful, still lasts but a few weeks before giving way to 5 months of never-ending winter. But when we arrived here mid April, spring was just gearing up; less than 3 weeks into the season it still had another 9 to go and I have been reveling in every one of them.

me&jasmine

The days are warm enough to work in the garden in a long sleeved T shirt, the evenings cool enough for a fire. Sudden torrents of rain are followed by breathtaking light that seems to come up from the earth as much as it comes down from the sky. What joy to watch the lavender send its yet to open spears into the air; the roses burgeoning buds gradually scenting the air as the unfold. The gaura in the rockery is still a teas of wands whose flowers will dance like butterflies right through the autumn.

The garden, which I stated 2 years ago, looks as if it were here forever and is finally becoming the wild place I’d hoped for; a garden that looks un-manicured, even though it takes work to look that way; a place that blends with the majestic landscape beyond its borders.

before the garden


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I grew up on the south coast of England, on the Gulf Stream; a temperate place that also had 4 equally apportioned seasons. I love the rhythm of living inside nature’s time, each season long enough to bask in, yet short enough to make one look forward to enjoying the next.

Earlier today we lay naked on the sun terrace. Now the sky has darkened against which the pink of the roses climbing the arched entrance to the garden seems unbearably tender as the petals shiver against the gunmetal clouds. A rumble of thunder heralds rain and soon we’ll make soup and light the fire.

sculpture

All this beauty we breathe in every day and for us it makes a huge difference to our sense of wellbeing. For, let’s face it, life happens no matter where one lives. Beauty or no, I still had to have a bridge put in my mouth. The surgery to remove the failed implant, along with what was left of the surrounding bone, was a traumatic experience, perhaps made more so by the stress of Z’s illness. Oh, and anyway, let me be honest, I’m terrified of dental work, having had more than a fair share of nightmarish experiences dating back to the first at age 5 with the school dentist. So, couple the terror with the challenge of finding a new dentist in a new land in a new language and you might get the picture. Finally, I started making inquiries with Italian friends, one of whom turns out to be terrified of dentistry also. So, off to her dentist I went.

Wow! We walk the cobblestone streets of Siena to the medieval building that houses his state of the art practice: 3 waiting rooms with Italian designed furniture; 5 treatment rooms, one just for kids; smiling, loving assistants, and the dentist himself a kind, thorough, reassuring man….and he speaks English!!! After a consultation I made an appointment for last Friday and left feeling relieved.

Yet when the day arrived, terror came back for a visit. As always, I like to name the terror: What are you afraid of Maggie? Oh, that’s easy: pain, teeth crumbling because they’re too weak to support the bridge, something awful will happen like the drill penetrating my brain, or my heart will simply stop. Oh…I’m afraid of dying. Why? Because I like it here, because I like being alive in Tuscany and I don’t want it to ever end.

Talking about this Joel last night, we shared how each of us has reached an age where death makes its presence felt on an almost daily basis. It’s a strange presence, unbidden, a shadow that comes out of the shadows. And we cannot mathematically change the fact that we are in the winter of our lives. A brutal season winter; and yet glorious, the world laid bare to the bones and we with it. Shorter days giving way to lazy, cozy nights; the sense that one’s labor is over and each day is an opportunity to be present in that that day and that day only. And so we drove through the glorious countryside to the centuries old city and I thought, well, if today is the day, how lucky am I that it came down to this: well loved and surrounded by beauty.

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The procedure wasn’t fun. I particularly hated the use of the hammer to remove the crowns…nothing regal there! But the needles went in like feathers and a little potion of something relaxing was offered, followed by 15 minutes of being massaged in a leather recliner while the anesthesia took hold; the room semi-darkened except for soft light that cycled through the colours of the rainbow. As I opened my mouth the dentist said, “Don’t think about the past.” Forty-five minutes later the bridge was in and Joel took me for a gelato.

It seems to me that winter is the season of acceptance; acceptance that everything must end: each petal, each spear of lavender, every tree and field, a tooth, a dream. All will be replaced, as will we. But until then let’s revel in the courageous cycle of spring.

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NB. all photos for this post are by Joel Meyerowitz.

 

 

 

 

IN THE SHADOW OF LIGHT

 

March 20th, 2016

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So often, when I sit down to write, the phrase, I don’t know where to start, comes to mind. It is the first clause of that sentence that paralyzes: I don’t know. Remember when you were a kid and the teacher asked you a question, how hot and cold you would go as you mumbled, “I don’t know,” as if that declaration was a confession that proved how stupid, lazy and hopeless an individual you were. We humans don’t do well with not knowing, and in the moment when the realization arises that we don’t have the answer to something it can easily close off the expansive arena of possibility and pitch us into the terror of the abyss.

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Someone close to me (not Joel) is ill. For the sake of anonymity I will call this person Z. Z has advanced Neuro-Lyme disease which went undiagnosed for 15 years. Z nearly died from adrenal failure 3 days before we arrived in New York. Lyme disease, which has been an epidemic for 30 years, at least, still gets less attention than the Zirca virus has received in a few weeks, and yet has just as serious consequences. Lyme, contracted from the bite of a deer tick, is known as the Great Imitator. Tricky Tick, I call it. It can mimic, among other things, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease and severe mental dysfunction. It can also affect the thyroid and adrenals. Yet testing for any or all of these things could come back ‘negative.’ An example: An MRI of Z’s brain showed it to be in “pristine” condition, yet at the same time Z was unable to recognize the numeral 2.

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For the last 2 weeks I have been accompanying Z in I-Don’t-Know-Land, doing my best to accept not having any answers while maintaining the belief that Z will continue to navigate this hazard course until the boat rights itself and sails into safe harbor. We’ve put together a team of doctors and healers and Z, who is courageous beyond words, is surrounded by love and support. But the truth is still, I don’t know. So how does one relax into that, because really, none of us “know” anything. Sure, 2 and 2 make 4…don’t they? I don’t know. What if 2 is unrecognizable? Do two 2’s still add up to 4?

I always like to say that I write in order to discover the next question, so that I can find the answer. But what Z is teaching me is that there is a fine line between coming up with an answer that might save your life today and letting go of the need to find the answer to everything, in the mistaken belief that it will save you from ever dying. Years ago, a friend of mine’s mother was diagnosed with incurable cancer. She and her husband spent the next 3 years of their lives travelling to Mexico and Canada to find a cure. Her days were filled with hourly supplements and self-delivered injections. Then one night she died of a heart attack.

I’ve been in New York for 2 weeks and 1 day. During this time Joel became 78; I gave a reading from my novel and cancelled two other events in order to be with Z; I have marveled at how so many millions of people are able to live in a city, oblivious to the daily demands such stress puts on a person’s physical and mental well-being.

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I have witnessed the horror of America’s misogynistic, racist, class-prejudiced medical system and been heartened by the humanity of a couple of doctors; I’ve travelled back and forth  between Manhattan and Brooklyn more times in one day than I have in the previous 3 years; I have peeled an apple with my front teeth in a crowded waiting room in order keep Z from crashing before lunch; I have visited with friends who’ve listed patiently while I recounted the tales of the day and I have seen the sun glint off more steel and concrete than I can handle.

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And I have watched sunset’s light play on the walls of our apartment, reveling in the mystery of shadows.

birdIt is here, in the shadows, that I find an answer to today’s question, the question being: how do I live with serenity in the not-knowing. The answer being that there is nothing to be afraid of in the dark anymore than there is in the light. Knowing, not knowing, each carries the illusion of safety. Life, in any given moment can be experienced as a dangerous journey or a mystical adventure. Believe everything…know nothing.

LOVE

14th February 2016                           LOVE

 

Love. What is there to say? That love is all you need? If only…And what are we saying when we say “I love you”..?

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Can love be conveyed through words? Many have tried. Love letters abounded for centuries, written in complex sentences, feelings of love explored in the dark of night; in the trenches, from the prison cell, in a young maiden’s room; candles guttering with desire, casting shadows on the page, ink drying in the form of love. Now we have the emoticon.

A friend sent me a photo this morning. The photo, taken by David Goldblatt in 1964, during the apartheid years in South Africa, shows a young boy standing behind his nursemaid who is seated on concrete border. His hands rest gently on her cowed shoulders. Her left hand reaches being her to clasp his left foot; a gesture of forbidden love that grounds him. Far away the Beatles sing, “Love Me Do.”

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David Goldblatt   A Farmers Son with his Nursemaid. 1964

For some reason I had no sense of this day’s approach. Normally a hopeless romantic who can spend hours making some love token for Joel I never gave it a thought this year. Maybe when you reach our age and still experience being in love then that is all you need. There is no need to make something that represents love…there is no stand-in for love. Sadly, there are many alternatives: hatred being the absolute enemy of love drags in its wake its lesser disciples; judgment, envy, greed, prejudice and all the variables that fear engenders.

The month of February seems to have crept in the back door while I wasn’t looking. One minute it was Christmas, the next it was January and we were living and loving it up in London and time seemed to standstill while it filled itself up with goodness and then suddenly it was 5th February and time to return to Tuscany. And we came home full of all the love we and been given, our own rekindled, so it never occurred to me that this day was upon us until yesterday, when Joel could no longer contain his excitement about the gift he was to give me this morning.

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He found it a month ago in the back room of an antique shop in Florence. Wrapped in dusty old newspaper it had been left on the shelf, so to speak, for who knows how long. This morning, wrapped in gold paper and tied with string, it sat on the kitchen table. I picked it up and felt the weight of it, the kind of weight that has metaphoric import. Tenderly I unwrapped it and found it to be the 2 halves of a brass mold in the shape of a heart. It made me gasp. The one half, contained the plump mound of heart, the other its mirror opposite, concave and empty; the two halves necessary to each other. The two halves making one heavy heart…and whose heart is not heavy these days?

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I look at these 2 hearts, the one so full and bursting, the other empty, waiting to receive and I wonder how many times some wafer of metal was placed between them. I see the hearts pressed together, and in their yearning to touch they impress themselves onto a blank material, the material forced to yield until it takes on the shape of love; the new heart perhaps then filled with chocolate, again and again, until there are enough to fill a box tied with red ribbon and given to a young woman who sucks on the sweetness, longing to be filled with its aphrodesia, unaware of how much work it takes to make love.

And that young boy, is he still alive? And if so, does he still feel the imprint of his nursemaid’s hand; her love given against all odds.

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SLIP STREAM

 

 

6th February 2016

elephant eye

Yesterday we returned to Tuscany after 2 weeks in London and I was surprised by the sadness I felt to leave my “hometown.” Perhaps it’s because it was the first time in many years that it actually felt like my hometown and not like a mutant offshoot of New York. It would seem to be another example of how important it is not to cement anything or anyone or anyplace into a once-and-for-all judgment or ideal.

London is the place I ran to when I ran away from home at 16. I had no idea then that I was about to spend 3 years living in the place in the world. London in the 60’s was equivalent to Paris in the 20’s; revolutionary, wildly creative, ‘mod,’ avant garde; A thrillingly reckless time in a once staid city of bowler hats. In truth, it was also overwhelming in that it still carried, along with its anything-goes new image, a deeply rooted class distinction and prejudice, the hierarchy of which deigned that those of us on the lower rungs would never gain acceptance into the loftier realms, nor enjoy the freedom and privilege such status bequeathed to its heirs. So, on the one hand, I might go to bed with anyone, irrespective of class, but breakfasting together could well be out of the question.

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Now, 50 years later, I launched my new novel there, a homecoming I could once have only dreamed of. What a thrill, to sit in the beautiful lounge of a friend’s house, the fire gently burning and read from a narrative that takes place before another fire in another lounge. How apt that the novel’s central theme is the nature of personal belief, why we have them, and how they affect one’s life and the lives of strangers and loved ones. I, who would never have believed that one day I should hold sway in such a home, never mind provoke discussion.

light transport

The gathering was a mix of family, friends and strangers from different backgrounds, yet in modern day London we all have the right to freely express ourselves. To the 6 beliefs in the novel 6 more were added in the discussion that followed my reading: altruism, empathy, dreaming, individuality, family and responsibility. I only wish we had discussed them at greater length. But what I am most grateful for is that this little book has the ability to make people think.

pip novel

The other reading was to standing room only audience of 130 + at the Photographers Gallery Bookshop. Not a place where one would normally expect to read fiction. At the director’s request, I was able to find a way to tie the novel in to photography as well as to the essay I wrote for Joel’s new book: Morandi’s Objects. And I must thank both Morandi and Meyerowitz whose coattails I gladly held in order to gain entry.

london reading

After reading the essay, Joel gave a beautiful talk and power-point presentation describing how he has journeyed from street photography to the still life. Then I sprung back up before anyone had a chance to sneak out, inviting all to strike the downward facing dog pose, or let out a primal scream in order to energize the reading which I cleverly (I thought) presented as a series of portraits, choosing to read a short childhood flashback into each of the 6 characters lives. And joy of joys, no-one left and many bought books!

I was 19 when I left London with a cheap blue suitcase and 2 pairs of shoes, to begin what I thought at the time would be my around-the-world-in-2-years trip. I never did make it back home as I had assumed I would, to live out the rest of my life. Over the intervening half-century I have visited England many times, experiencing varying degrees of belonging, outsider-ness, familiarity and sometimes, unrecognizable traits of stupidity in a nation once known for its common sense. This time it felt as though the city and its populace had settled back into the best of itself, taking those values along in a manner both positive and creative. There is an air of tolerance in the city, which nicely goes hand-in-hand with an acceptance that anything could befall us at any time.

And what joy to speak my native tongue…English, not American or Italian. Only by living in other cultures amid other languages can we fully understand how much we are formed and influenced by the place in which we grew up. These familiar pieces of ourselves we pack away in order to take on the new. Some of them, mothballed as they may be, stay intact and like a pop-up sponge soaked in water, can be revived and put to good use.

Maybe because Joel and I have now lived in Tuscany for 2 years, a life uninhabited by a lot of friends or ease of language, it allows us to slip easily into the city current; to be surrounded by friend and make new ones, to pop off to the theatre or cinema on a whim, to say yes to dinners and museums or dash off to Portobello with Pip.

portobello

Talking of dinners and museums, on our last day we did both and each beautifully underscored the importance of diversity and the acceptance what we have different needs at different times. We fell in love with each other all over again as well as falling in love with London. It was about people really. We felt as though we had been reminded of a part of ourselves that had been up in the attic for a while and we both wanted to bring our intact selves home to the farm. So we made a dinner party for 14 in the little rental flat and wrapped ourselves in laughter and friendship.

new friends

old friends

Earlier in the day we had visited the Royal Academy to see the glorious exhibition: The Modern Garden; From Monet to Matisse. For 2 hours we were inside nature and light as we entered the artists’ gardens. Even then, a hundred years ago, they were speaking of the need for nature as the antidote to the brutality of industrialization and city life. Not to mention war. A whole room was give to paintings Monet made while surrounded by WWI, the wall text, and I paraphrase, quoting Monet’s statement that if the savages wanted to come, then let them kill him in front of his life’s work. A modern garden indeed.

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And now we have returned to ours. The sun, low but not yet setting, rakes the hillsides startling the winter crop into virulent green; the olive groves a shimmer of silver in the still air. In the garden, the rose plants are sprouting their first new leaves and there is much weeding to be done in the Mediterranean beds. Rain is forecast for the next three days; a wonderful excuse to lay low by the fire, to read, to paint, to write. By Tuesday the earth will be softened, making those weeds easy to pull. London will be a memory and the river will rush onward to the sea.

waterbottle blues

NB.  A gentle reminder that my novel : From Dusk to Dawn is available as hardcover or e-book from:  Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound. Tell your friends!

Cover and Maggie

IN SPIRIT

28th December 2015

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Days, weeks in fact, of fog have shrouded the valley here; fog, dense and alive, ominous and mysterious…and very wet. It is as though the rain can’t be bothered to form itself and instead has lowered its clouds to meet the earth in a steady soak of mist.

3fogtreesThe only people around here who are grateful for the fog are the farmers and me. The farmers because the winter crops depend on autumn rains of which there have been none for 6 weeks. But this density of mist-laden air, day after day, is a slow steady soak on the earth and mud boots are in order. The chingiale are pretty happy, too!

chingiale

I am experiencing a certain glee that the fog exists outside of my brain for the first time in months and for sure the best Christmas gift I received was the return to full physical and mental health. And whereas during the months of illness I was unable to escape the mental fog, now when the mystery of real fog turns to gloom we just hop in the car and visit hill towns where we explore secret alleys, shop for groceries and sit at sunny tables enjoying a coffee.

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How fine is the line between the mystery of a softened landscape and the fog of confusion? The former a gift that we are free to enjoy because we are aware of what lies beneath; the latter, a somewhat scary experience because it feels like it is reality.

To be unable or unwilling to see clearly are human states we all reside in from time to time and who is to say when it is appropriate to wait it out or when to take action? However, it is best to remember the damage that can be done by any of us if we refuse to accept these moments of confusion and instead insist we have the answer. The documentary, “The Fog of War,” comes to mind and the horrendous loss of life brought about by confused ‘leaders’ whose fragile egos insisted they knew best. In that war it was Vietnam, but any war can be substituted as an example.

But let’s leave the fog for now, get in the car with good friends and drive to Bagno Vignoni, the ancient roman Spa village where a sunny outside table is waiting for us along with wild field greens picked that morning, followed by slow roasted pigeon tender enough to be the dove of peace.

It’s the day after Christmas, although it is still very much Christmas here in Tuscany where there is no confusion as to the meaning of it. Gift-giving here is minimal and more than likely will be culinary: a hand-woven basket of homemade jams, bottles of wine and vin santo from a neighboring farm, a rich egg-y panetone – the traditional Christmas cake – this one made from a grandmother’s recipe. Decorations are humble; a simple string of white light, some red berries, a few pine cones. My favourite tree this year is in the piazza in Montalcino; simply decorated with white paper plates on each of which is written a quote about peace and love…quotes from around the world.

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Nicely stuffed with flora and fowl, we drive on and up to Pienza an exquisite Mediaval town known for its cheeses; fresh or aged, wrapped in straw, or leaves, or ashes; spiked with peppers or truffles, or oozing cream. The day after Christmas here is the day all the relatives get together and so the cobblestone streets are full of generations of families. Sharon and I find a shop with hidden drawers filled with ancient fabrics from Turkey. Museum quality, we drool over each one as the young shopkeeper tenderly removes them from their slumber.

In the piazza an age-old game is taking place between the village men. Discs of dense fruitcake 6” in diameter and 1” thick, are flung down a long table at the end of which a man with a ruler measures how close each throw comes to the edge. The roar goes up for one that teeters half on, half off. Across the piazza Silent Night drifts out of the old church. We enter and stand with a couple of hundred Italians as the choir and small orchestra tell the ancient story. Once again I think of the refugees looking for a place to sleep, to eat, to give birth.

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And once again I feel gratitude for the life I have…and sadness…and confusion…surely there is something I can do to help?I’m posting a link here to a wonderful article by Mandy Patinkin.

http://time.com/4155058/mandy-patinkin-ted-cruz-princess-bride/

It seems to me a lot of confusion is manmade, (women, too) as a way of masking fear. Good old fear; the root of all evil. Perhaps instead of writing a list of New Year’s Resolutions we should write a list of all that we fear and read it out loud to ourselves and someone else. Then, once we’ve had a good laugh at a) how unfounded some of our fears our and b) the absurdity of living our lives trying to prevent the things we fear, perhaps then we could ditch the shame and pride and write a gratitude list and maybe even find the courage and generosity to share some of our abundance with those in need.

Which reminds me of a Christmas Eve here many years ago. We went to the midnight mass in the village church and listened as perhaps 20 villagers, one after the other, walked up to the lectern and spoke of what the Christmas spirit meant to them. The one that has stayed with me ever since was from a woman who was then the age I am now. She said, “The spirit of Christmas is giving to those you least want to give to.”

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To all of you I give my thanks, for your love and loyalty and for the unseen but very much felt energy that I receive from you. I wish you all peace and love, kindness and courage for 2016.

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