Category Archives: writing

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.

THE POWER OF CHOICE

 

7th October 2017

I’ve been putting off writing for the blog for a couple of weeks now because frankly I was afraid of what I might write. As I’ve said before, one of the joys of writing, for me, is that it is always a journey of discovery and that by opening oneself to that, one can be pleasantly, or not so pleasantly, surprised by what pours forth. So, I have hesitated to embark on this particular journey because the world is in such an ugly mood at the moment that I felt, well, no-one wants to hear more negativity; we need good news, uplifting stories, inspiring thoughts. Well, I thought, you’d best shut up Maggie and keep your pen capped.

We’ve been enjoying a mild start to autumn here in Tuscany. Sunny warm days in the low to mid-70’s and then that sudden drop around 5:30pm that has you hurrying to don a warm cardigan before going back out to pull a few more weeds and bring in some firewood. We have the fire going by six now, and yet one is still able to have the door open so that one can experience the outside. I love this time of year. A time of between-ness. Of one thing ending and another beginning. And that delicious suspension of time that evening carries no matter the season.

How blessed to sit by the fire and through the open door hear the birds chattering away, hundreds of them, flying into the hedges to bed down for the night. What are they going on about in such a boisterous manner? How I wish I could pull some branches aside and see what they are up to. I like to think they’re catching up on the news of the day and hope that theirs is better than ours. Although like us, I’m sure many of them are recounting tales not only of the beauty they’ve seen mid flight over this exquisite land, but also tales of near misses and catastrophe; all those who didn’t make it home but fell prey to speeding cars, the pounce of a cat, a gunshot.

As soon as I write the word ‘gunshot’ an image arises of hundreds of terrified people fleeing for their lives. All those people who thought they were about to be entertained for a few hours; a temporary escape from the news. And then they became the news. And like a bird, my imagination soars above our planet to visions of suffering so enormous one wants to fly home and bury oneself in the hedge.

The local nurserymen spent the day here yesterday, cutting back those hedges all around the perimeter of our garden. A couple of hundred yards in circumference, they had grown so tall over the summer that they had, in many places, blocked our view of the rolling hills surrounding us. And here, I believe, nature provides us with an example of the 50/50 nature of reality.

On one long side of the garden, in order to see the landscape beyond it, it is necessary to cut the hedges back by about 3 feet. But while they obliterate the view they also hide the power line that runs the length of that border. So, the choice is; do you let the hedges remain high so that you don’t have to see the ugly line and yet give up the view? Or do you cut them and reveal both?

The other reason I haven’t written is because I’ve not been well. Actually I haven’t been well for a few months during which time I chose to grow the hedge of denial in order not to deal with what might by an ugly truth. Let me put your minds at ease; I am no longer in danger. Without boring you with details suffice it to say I have, for the last 14 years had a condition, which, if I didn’t take a little pill every morning, would kill me in 8 weeks.

Just before we left for New York, I finally accepted that all was not well and my choice was to either cut the damn hedge so I could discover what was behind it and perhaps do something about it, or I could stay within the limits of my personal interior and pretend I didn’t really need the bigger picture. I decided to stop hedging my bets. After three weeks of intensive testing via my New York doctor, I’m proud to report that my heart, liver and kidneys are in super shape, with the exception of some slight heart regurgitation…but whose heart is not regurgitating in these frightening times? What wasn’t doing well at all was the thyroid and adrenals, which were close to collapse. I nearly downed my own power-line!!!

The little pill was no longer doing its job, and so an additional one was needed. Frankly it scared the shit out of me and I envisioned myself becoming one of those old ladies with a bedside table full of bottles. And this, I think, is the nub of what I’m trying to uncover in this essay: that our need for perfection, our need to remain forever young and then die quickly and nicely at 90+, our need to be seen as indomitable, as beyond the realm of failing energy and failing body parts, is not only futile, but the energy it takes to pretend nothing is changing gobbles up what precious time and energy we do have left. In other words, if we want to experience the fullness of life we must also accept its limits.

I’m sitting in the afternoon shade of the dondolo looking out to the garden and beyond to the newly revealed view. Sure, I wish the power-line wasn’t there, just like I wish I didn’t have a medical condition and like I wish there weren’t so many evil assholes in positions of power in our world. But I refuse to let the bastards stop me from seeing all that is good amongst us. And I refuse to hide the fact that I m aging. And I refuse to let a condition rob me of the gratitude for the many things I am still capable of doing and experiencing.

We have choices in life. We can pretend that ugliness doesn’t exist; we can accept that it does, but let anger keep us focused on it to the exclusion of all else, or we can accept the existence of the power-line and look beyond it to the greater beauty of the landscape.

With love, Maggie

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.

 

 

 

 

ACTIVATE

18th March 2017

As many of you know…and are perhaps fed up hearing about…I’ve had a bit of an issue with rejection for most of my life. I know I’m not alone in this and certainly for those of us given up for adoption it can be almost a raison d’être, especially if, like myself, you didn’t get the luck of the draw with your adoptive mother.

All of us, to some degree or another, have issues impressed upon us in childhood that we may, or may not, struggle to resolve during the course of our lives. But as my dear friend Vivian, a brilliant therapist, said the other day, “The holes from childhood can never be filled.” So, what to do? And how do we figure out the difference between persevering to overcome these issues, as opposed to the unconscious ways in which we invite these issues to keep recurring in our lives?

I’ve sat at my desk writing for many decades now. The first decade or so I was writing only for myself, and so while rejection may have been a recurring theme in those journals, the writing itself did not invite it. That said, I can be extremely creative when it comes to being self-destructive and if self-destruction isn’t the ultimate rejection, I don’t know what is. Hence the role, in my life, of alcohol, drug addiction, sex, serial marriages etc., etc.

When it comes to 27 years of rejection as a professional writer I’m not sure of the percentages: to what degree did I continue to write and submit work because I thought that commitment, discipline and perseverance would eventually pay off? Or to what degree did I continue because on some deeper level I needed to keep rejection in my life because it had become part of my identity?

I’ve spent the last few years trying figure this out and finally I decided last year that the percentages don’t matter. What really matters is I’d finally had enough of inviting rejection into my life. Period. So I self-published my novel and continued writing for this blog which gives me enormous pleasure because I know that many of you look forward to receiving the latest installment.

But life is tricky isn’t it? Last November, unbidden and unexpected, I was approached by a successful film producer who had been given a copy of my novel by a mutual friend. She told me that she had been waiting for a project that really moved her and that when she read my novel she knew that was it and she asked if she could have the movie rights.

What joy. All those years of struggle were finally paying off. Over a couple of dinners we discussed how to move forward. She was on her way back to her homeland and in a few weeks, once settled, she would ask me to send all required materials. Weeks went by. Finally, I emailed 2 weeks ago to ask if she was ready for the package. The reply was swift and succinct: No longer interested.

The rejection I felt was so enormous it was as though every rejection was rolled into one huge hairball stuck in my throat. In fact, the expression: “something stuck in my craw,” was more than apt as I immediately began to suffer from acid reflux. Our bodies tell us everything.

Now here comes the good part.

Yesterday, our dear friend Rupert, healer supreme, came to give us massages. I told him I had rejection stuck in my craw. And here, paraphrased, was his response. “You have the wrong receptor activated.” Basically, he continued, the receptors which are activated, take all the feelings and experiences and memories deep into our cells and because they are deep in us those feelings, experiences and memories can be activated every time a similar situation occurs. As soon as he said this I felt an extraordinary lightness of being. I suddenly realized that only my rejection receptor had been activated (since birth). As a result, the receptor for success had stayed closed and therefore whatever successes I had achieved in life I’d barely acknowledge, never mind felt.

As he continue with the massage it was as though my life came flooding back to me, much like we are told happens on our death bed. Except now I am very much alive. One after another, the string of my successes lit up and I felt them deep in me: leaving home at 16 and finding my way; overcoming a stillbirth and giving birth to an exuberant daughter; joining a dance company; opening and running a successful hair salon for many years until I broke my neck; ditto painting and selling hundreds of works during that same period. Creating and hosting a current affairs radio program; buying my own house as a single 43 year-old woman. Writing and performing a play Off Broadway; Earning a Master’s Degree at 49; Founding the Tuscany Workshops which Joel and I taught for many years; Overseeing the renovation of an 18 unit apartment building in Greenwich Village; Training for and opening a rewarding therapy practice; developing and maintaining deep friendships; growing a beautiful marriage with Joel; Creating 3 gardens; Helping my daughter through a near-death experience; Moving to a new country and speaking a new language. And yes, writing a shitload of novels, stories, poems and essays.

I’m aware that this list may read like a boast, but it’s not. Not that I haven’t boasted of these things in the past. But therein lies the difference: the boast is the thing we do when we don’t actually ‘feel’ our own success. America currently has a president who is a disturbing example of this; definitely has the wrong receptors activated there!

So, no, I’m not boasting now. I’m sharing with you the joy of this particular enlightenment for the same reason I share other personal growths and triumphs: because I want to say, “Hey, there’s hope for us all!” and because I want to say thank you to Rupert and the many angels in this world who give us their insight and wisdom, sometimes almost at the last minute, when we have just about given up hope.

May we all be each other’s angels, ready to impart our wisdom, lighting up the dark sky with a millions stars of hope and possibility.

With love.

NB.  I am thrilled to announce that my friend Julie Burstein (absolutely Google her) and I have started recording a series of short Podcasts (under 5 minutes). Here are the links to the first 2.  We would be most appreciative of feedback.

WE ARE THE SENTINELS

18th February, 2017                   WE ARE THE SENTINELS

 

Each time I was pregnant I would read the section in Dr. Spock’s book on how to cut the umbilical cord. I would read it over and over, trying to remember where to clamp and where to cut. The thought of having to cut the cord held more terror for me that the thought of giving birth, as if to clamp and cut incorrectly would be the fatal mistake. As it turned out, my first child would be still born, some fatal mistake already made.

My second daughter arrived alive and well and with a striking aura of independence which rendered the cutting of the cord somewhat redundant. That said, when a few days later the remainder, still attached to her naval, fell off, I put it in a little box as if to have eternal proof that we had once been so attached to each other. Of course, it too, eventually returned to dust, as will all of us one day. What I was not prepared for was how the bond between mother and child can never be severed, no matter how either may act toward the other over a lifetime. That bond, as ineffable as a gossamer thread, tugs at the hearts to which each end is connected. So when I said goodbye to my girl a week and day ago, a tremor of distress vibrated between us.

We form so many bonds to so many people and places and beliefs during our brief stay on earth. Sometimes these bonds are rent asunder: think of the refugees. But on a deeper level they resonate forever. We are living in an age where, for many of us, the attachments we have to truth and decency and honor, are being sawed through daily by those whose power is fueled by fear and greed. As much as I couldn’t wait to get out of New York and the US in general, I also felt the pang of attachment as the plane took off. Not only to my family, but the large part of my life spent there. Also, for three weeks I had experienced being part of the mighty, righteous, resistance movement of millions of citizens and would-be citizens as we found our courage to fight for our attachment to goodness. It isn’t a tug of war; the rope frayed long ago. But as the new administration severed one tie to decency after another, the people immediately forged a new one. And the bond between us that we now know to be as necessary as the umbilicus, will not be broken as long as we acknowledge it and fight for it.

Yet, how easy it is to sever oneself from responsibility. How easily I came through the garden gate here in my Tuscan paradise, and felt relieved to be “away from it all.” How easy to believe that here on this farm I am protected; the fire lit in the hearth for my arrival; the fresh eggs on the table; the joyous greetings from friends and shopkeepers, “Ben tornati!” It is deeply satisfying to be here. To see the light play on the vibrant green hills, the roses already leafing out, the birdsong of early spring, the first brave camellia flaunting its crimson petals.

Here, where the attachment to family and food is still the basic attachment to life. I feel the distance between me and my family, but our bonds are strong, too

All week I’ve busied myself with errands and cooking and gardening. The new couches arrived, made and delivered with an attention to detail that reflects centuries of pride in craftsmanship.

My dear Teddy Bear who is as old as I am, traveled in my suitcase and now sits happily in the library, the bond between us unashamedly recognized.

The weather is so glorious that yesterday I lunched outside with friends, the three of us sitting at the old table, the sun so hot we stripped down to T shirts. And in the middle of it all I wondered when was the last time that any member of the U.S. government or the new administration, or the Prime Minister of England, or the European leaders of the far right, or a terrorist, when was the last time any of them enjoyed the bond of friendship, the connection to nature, the attachment to simplicity?

Once again, I urge all of us who are fighting the good fight, to take regular time out. Turn away from your screens for a day; turn your face to the sun. Feel the gossamer threads that link us to each other, threads as powerful as the strands of our DNA. We are giving birth now to our courage and the labor is long and hard. But we can do it. Even from afar. We are the sentinels.