Tag Archives: courage

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.

THE ROAR OF THE CROWD

2nd February 2017

Was it only 2 weeks ago that we left Tuscany to visit family and friends in New York?

I’m sitting in front of a huge fireplace in the Lake Lounge at Mohonk Mountain House. www.mohonk.com As I finish writing that sentence it occurs to me that I’d do well to stay here and write that sentence a hundred times. Not only to be in a moment of privilege and beauty, but to acknowledge that this “I am,” is not followed by “…frightened, overwhelmed and sad:” a state of being which, these days, takes up too large a space. I am sure many of you feel the same way.

Joel and I flew to New York on Inauguration Day and the next day joined nearly half a million people marching in New York. To come above ground from the subway at 42nd and Lexington and be greeted by the enormous river of slow-moving marchers felt like a homecoming to truth and beauty. It took us three and half hours to get to Trump tower and there seemed to be no beginning and no end. We all, I felt sure, would have marched like that until either the tide turned or we were washed out to sea. By now you’ve all seen the photos and signs and hats. Many of you will have been (and will continue to be) part of that global movement that day and if so, perhaps you experienced, as did we, the periodic roar of the crowd which would start miles behind us and, like a tsunami, gather speed and intensity as it rushed toward us. And each time it reached us it stiffened our spines, entered our hearts, rising up through our chests and throats before opening our mouths to release the power of our courage out into the universe. I am thrilled and grateful to have lived long enough to experience the innate goodness and mass awaking of so many people.

My daughter, an ardent feminist since her teens and a Women’s Studies major, is fighting for the cause at the same time she is fighting chronic Lyme Disease. I applaud her. However, it seemed to me that a few days retreat for both of us was in order and so we came here to Mohonk to rest and replenish both body and spirit; this is necessary for all warriors in order to stay in the fray long enough to win.

Mohonk Mountain House is nestled high up in The Shawangunk Ridge, some 90 miles north of Manhattan, but to be here is to feel a million miles from anywhere and in a different century. Mohonk means Lake in the Sky. The lake lies implacable now, frozen over under a fresh layer of snow from yesterday’s downfall. The sky has just changed from grey to blue, the sun determined to make its present felt no matter what…just like us. A young man has just put more wood on the fire. He turns to me, and smiles. “Enjoy,” he says.

 

 

Enjoy. Think about that word. It, too, is a summons to action; to engage in joy. And this we must do. If you were to take a moment now and look around you, what could you find to connect with that would give you a moment of joy for its existence and your own? We are allowed, in this dark moment in history, to enjoy, to smile, to laugh…it is our duty to do so. You cannot be a good warrior if you are not balanced. And if all is energy, then every smile, every laugh, every positive thought contributes to the benevolent energy of the universe; an energy which has and continues to be, powerful enough to have kept us moving forward, (in spite of many regressions) for thousands of years.

Everything in life is 50/50: good/bad, sad/happy, rich/poor, up/down,sick/healthy, dead/alive. And I know that if, like me, you scan the history of your own life, you can remember many negative times which gave you the opportunity to change, to grow, in spite of the pain. So what is this moment offering you that you can be grateful for and act on?

I was talking with a guest here yesterday morning and we shared our horror and fear about what’s happening in America, and around the globe. After a while, I felt that it was going beyond common commiseration and tilting us toward gloom and doom. So I suggested we both take a breath and reflect on the past 24 hours of our lives, much like one is encouraged to do in sobriety. What, I asked, has changed? Are we still here in this beautiful place? Are the lake and the sky still here? Are we loved? Fed? Do we have beds to sleep in and a roof over our heads? We embraced and went our separate ways.

Of course we must stay vigilant and those who are able to must fight the good fight. But there is a world of difference between vigilance and projection. None of us know anything beyond this moment and none of us know the reason why things happen. Shortly after we left Italy an earthquake shifted a mountain causing an avalanche to bury a hotel and all its guests; except for the man who had gone to the parking lot to get something from his car.

There is no such thing as safety; neither is there reason to believe in the worst. We know so much less than we like to assume. For instance, a small group has entered the lounge on an historic tour of the building and I hear the guide say that the lake actually extends underneath this room. And here I was thinking I had the ground beneath my feet. Whereas, in fact, I am sitting over water, under the sky, in front of fire, surrounded by earth. Elemental.

As we reached the end of the march, night fell and someone began to sing, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” As everyone joined in singing I felt myself to be cradled by the sweetness of humanity. May each of you let your little light shine and may each of you feel cradled.

CRADLE OF SNOW

A note to my European readers: I urge you please, please to learn from Brexit and the U.S. Election and start activating NOW, in earnest. Do not wait until your upcoming elections. By then it will be too late to turn it around.

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.

xmastable

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.

presies

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.

bed4thenight

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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THE WHOLE TRUTH

1st August 2015

book of questions

Is ‘blogging’ a form of artistic expression?

Does having a Masters degree in Creative Writing qualify one as an artist?

Is one an artist only if one is creating something from the imagination e.g., a novel?

I turn to the dictionary and find that as a novelist I qualify as an artist; as a blogger, no. And yet, for me, the process feels the same in that I’m creating something that didn’t exist before. But where blogging and writing a novel differ is in the ingredients: a novel is made up of fictitious characters and places…even if somewhat based in autobiography…whereas personal essays for the blog are made up of autobiographical facts. Then again, it must be argued that autobiography is laced with half-truths, because, lord, one must make truth acceptable not only for oneself but for one’s readers. What if the truth is boring? Or offensive? Or painful? I am no different than most; when it comes right down to it I play it safe out of fear that to tell the whole truth will result in rejection.

I have an essay that’s been sitting on my desktop which I wrote for the blog 2 years ago but then decided not to publish as I was afraid it would be too grueling to read. But I feel, now, that to really be an artist is to dare to paint or dance or write the stuff that is distasteful, disappointing, maybe even disturbing to others. If it turns many away, yet reaches one person who needs to see or read such expression in order to feel whole, then surely it is worth the risk. So I take my courage now and go forth.

erasable questions

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the birthday of my stillborn daughter, Amy, who would have been 43 on July 18th. As in most years, I expected and embraced the sadness that accompanies that date as well as choosing to believe that while she never took a breath, her spirit is an exhalation, a gently sigh that has accompanied me all these years. But this year I was unable to shake the sadness and over the ensuing two weeks the sadness entwined with the desolation I have felt at being unable to find anyone who would  help me get an agent, never mind a publisher.

Then, this past Tuesday, I logged onto the NY Times and found, in the Health section, a piece about stillbirth. The article was comprised of perhaps 50 stories from mothers whose babies had been born still. I started reading these stories. All of them gave the date of the babies births, many of them were accompanied by photographs of the mother, and sometime the father, holding their swaddled babies, looking down at them with the fullness of love. Some of them wrote about bathing their babies, sleeping with them, holding them, christening them, photographing them, burying them. All of them said that if this should happen to you, you will be forever changed.

But none of them said what it would be like if you never saw your baby. If, after hours of labor, already knowing your baby was dead if, when she slipped out of your body and you sat up and reached for her to hold her, to kiss her, to gaze upon her that the doctor would put a gas mask on your face and all would go dark; that when you came to in the recovery room, someone would be holding a clipboard over you asking you to sign something. That you wouldn’t know it was an autopsy form. That when you next came-to you would hear a baby cry down the hall and realize it wasn’t yours.

white question

As I scrolled through the stories, the majority of them from the last 15 years, I started looking for dates in the early 70’s, or earlier, expecting to read a story like mine. But even in the one dated 1950 it wasn’t to be found; in that story, when the nurse started to take the baby out of the room the mother called out to hold it and the nurse turned and placed it in her arms. I was looking for my story and I couldn’t find it. But surely, I thought, surely other women suffered the same experience as me? I couldn’t be the only one this happened to. And so I scrolled down to the end of the article thinking I’d be able to add my story there and in so doing help mothers like me feel less alone. But there was nowhere to put it. Closed for publication it said. And I felt an enormous horror; I called out to Joel, “I can’t even get my dead baby’s story published.”

Over the next few days I experienced a hopelessness and emptiness like never before; so vast and all encompassing it was beyond my comprehension. I really couldn’t believe it; that after all these years and all that work I could still end up in this place; a place where I veered between total absence from self to feeling filled with lead. It took me 5 days to understand that I chose to feel empty because I was terrified of feeling bitter.

It took me until today to realize that what I was unable to put into words before, is that I have lived for 43 years keeping at bay what I thought would be too nightmarish to feel, never mind say: that both my baby and I suffered rejection at birth; a sort of howling kinship from which neither of us can comfort the other.

As many of you know, I am on my way to self-publishing my latest novel (today I got the ISBN #) And now, it would seem, I have another story to publish. This one. Today. Here. The story of Amy Katherine:

She lived in me for 9 months. She had a room and a crib and clothes and toys waiting for her. She had my arms waiting for her. My breasts made milk for her for 3 weeks after she died. She had a father and grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. She had 2 Labrador retrievers and a cat. She suffered at the end of her life; the placenta not functioning properly for the last month did not feed her adequately. She was fully formed but underweight and so did not have the strength to free herself from the cord which strangled her 2 days before she was born. Except for the doctor and delivery room staff, she was unseen. Color of hair: unknown. Color of eyes: unknown. Length of her fingers and toes: unknown. Was her nose like mine or her dad’s?

disappearing question

 

Her spirit, too gentle for this world is palpable nonetheless. She, like all stillborns, was an individual, unique human being who left us before she arrived. She, along with all the lost souls, deserves recognition.

I ask those of you who can, to please help me honor her life. Light a candle. Pick a flower. Sing a lullaby. Say her name.

 

Amy Katherine

Died 16 July 1971

Born 18 July 1971

 

THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT

14th June 2015

bench gerani

As a white, middle-class woman, well married to a successful man, living on a genuine farm in glorious Tuscany, I feel immediate guilt and a certain measure of shame when I hear myself complain about some sucky thing ruining my lucky life. How dare I suffer over such a triviality as failing to gain public recognition when women are being publicly stoned for being raped? But the painful truth is that when I am suffering I don’t give a fig about, or a though to those suffering pain beyond compare. No, I wail, ‘why me?’ Like a child I cry, ‘why can’t I have what I want?’ But what I’m really asking now is why the fuck can’t I get over myself? Why, in spite of saying I won’t take it anymore do I keep putting myself in the way of rejection?

I think the answer is multi-faceted, and I think it behooves us all to understand and have mercy for the fact that the places in which we were historically wounded are easily re-activated. But the real work is in accepting that such suffering can easily become one’s badge of honor, or worse, our sole identity. What I’m trying to drum into my childish thinking process is that because I was abandoned at birth doesn’t mean I was born to be rejected. Further, it is important to understand the difference between courage and stupidity.

It is not courageous to continually invite rejection, consider slitting one’s wrists and then rise up once again out of the ashes of a tired story. No, that is stupidity. Or, as the saying goes: To do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result is a form of insanity. I tasted the ash of my tired story this week and it sickened me. More than that, its bitterness frightened me. Is this how I want to grow old, insisting on rejection as proof of my ability to suffer humiliation?

So, there’s that. And then there is the reality that as an artist/writer, one creates not only for the never-ending, thrilling adventure of making something out of nothing, but also to have it go forth into the world. The creative journey, trite as it may be, is like creating a baby: from seed to egg to gestation to birth. And much like making a baby, creating a work of art, once it goes out into the world is much beyond our control.

What I came to realize last week is that I have a drawer full of stillborn babies; bodies of work that came to term but never made it out into the world. Why? Because I’ve continued to insist that they only have worth if accepted by the publishing world, which is a bit like saying your child only amounts to something if accepted by Harvard. What’s really appalling to me is that this insistence for ‘recognition’ goes entirely against the grain of my core values, which is why it causes me pain.

queen mug

One of the things I love about living in Italy is that there is less questing for fame here. The average person doesn’t entertain the idea of marketing or branding themself. When you walk through our village and talk with the butcher, the baker, hairdresser, pharmacist etc., you realize that they understand and are grateful for their place in the community; that being of service on a small, daily scale is of value beyond compare.

Yesterday was a prime example of how very fine this world is when people contribute what they are capable of to the good of others. We hosted, for lunch, the ex-head of Tate Modern (who gave some expert advice on my lemon tree), a Spanish art curator (who helped my shop for the lunch groceries), and a couple who, as well as being art collectors, have started a foundation for research into a rare disease. The foundation’s building will also house an art museum and a program for underprivileged children in their community.

miguel etc

At the same time, Andrea, my wonderful gardening assistant of three weeks, brought his friend Giuseppe here to tackle the assemblage of my greenhouse. Having erected the sides, they were about to attach it to the old stone wall when a major problem literally reared its head. The concrete housing to the electrical system, standing some 10 inches about ground, was totally in the way. Removing its cover, we also discovered a piece of angle iron acting as an electrical ground. What to do?

andrea serra

At that moment, Vincenzo, the farmer, pulled into the farmyard in his tractor. I ran to him, he ran to me and together we ran to the greenhouse. He looked at the problem and gave permission to bury the whole thing level with the ground. This meant that not only did Andrea and Giuseppe have to dig down 3 feet, removing rocks as they went, but that 4 inches of the metal would have to be removed. No, we do not have that kind of tool and neither did they.

But there are many areas of my life where I reject the possibility of failure. So I ran next door to Giovanni who has a garage full of serious tools. Not home. His daughter and her boyfriend were all dressed up about to leave the house for some event. But it would never occur to them not to be of help. Off to the garage she went, returned with the metal-cutting tool and waited patiently while Giuseppe did the dirty…without goggles I might add. Et, voila! One greenhouse!

La Serra

These ordinary, earthy experiences that we are accumulating here are deeply fulfilling. They are shared, direct, experiences of give and take, of ideas exchanged, problems solved, along with laughter, kindness and a generosity than can make you weep.

While the guys were finishing up, I folded, stacked and tied all the packaging materials that had housed the many parts of the greenhouse. The driver arrived to take the art-world people to Florence. And last, but never least, Silvia arrived with the bountiful produce of her labor.

zukes eggs

When I open my eyes and my heart I understand that I have the life I always wanted, a life that no amount of success and outside recognition could ever give me.

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