Tag Archives: kindness

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.

 

 

 

THE LIGHT IS CALLING

NB. I have held off publishing this post for a week because I felt torn as to whether this was an appropriate time to share some of the content. Today I decided to go with it. Why? Because I trust that my readers are capable of accepting that the nature of reality is complex; that we have no control over any of it; and that while it is important to acknowledge the negative, it is imperative that we return to the positive.

30th October 2016

abstract

Good news! I got out of the wheelchair 10 days ago after another round of X-rays showed excellent healing of the fractures. And I was determined to get out the damn brace, in spite of the doctor telling me I needed to wear it for another month. Another month? Are you kidding me? I was out of that wheelchair so fast and moving across the room, waving the “broken” hand at her. “Look,” I said, “Don’t treat me like a 70 year old biddy.” “Look,” I said, showing the 6 inch scar from my once broken neck. “Look,” I said, doing a stiff-legged pirouette . “I was a dancer, I know my body.” I won.

What joy, to return the wheelchair and crutches, to throw out the plastic bedpan, to walk through the garden gate and down the steps, to be able to navigate the whole house again. Sure, there’s work to be done, probably another couple of months of physiotherapy before the shockingly wasted muscles return to normal. Sure there’s pain. I’ll take it, with gratitude on top.

Two days later we took ourselves off to a local spa for 5 days of thermal waters and massage. Situated on its own hilltop in the Val d’Ocia, Castello di Velona is not only gob-smackingly beautiful but has a staff that is as kind and spirited as they are professional. My wonderful physiotherapist visited 3 times to give me treatments and work me out in the water and it was amazing how quickly the knee and hand achieved the next level of recovery.

spa-pool

panorama

I’m always slightly embarrassed to share these kinds of privileges. Perhaps its because, just as I don’t want to be viewed as “old,” neither do I want to be seen as privileged, when in fact I am both. It has to do with judgment, of course, and judgment always separates us from each other. I’m proud of my working class roots and am grateful to have experienced poverty as an adult. The range of experiences I’ve had in my life have, I hope, made me a more compassionate woman. Still, I’m always quick to let people know that my life wasn’t always so blessed. Truth is I’m not that comfortable around lifelong “haves.” I like when the dirt shows.

Talking about dirt, I’d like to comment on the response women receive when they finally talk about sexual harassment years after the fact, the response usually being one of disbelief, as in, “If that really happened, how come she waited so long to report it?” The same response is also leveled at men who were raped as boys by priests or teachers. I’ll tell you why we keep it to ourselves: because we know nobody wants to believe such horrors. Sure, there are, and always will be, false accusations and there will be men who unjustly suffer as a result. However, it’s time we listened to each other. All these women coming forward with regard to Bill Cosby and Donald Trump, they need to be heard. How easy it is for people to say, “Oh, these women are just trying to cash in on some fame and fortune now.” Maybe some are…but ALL of them? Come on. The reason we don’t come forward at the time is exactly because these are powerful men and who wants to be “raped” all over again in the press or in court.

There are a lot of ways to suppress the voice of women…as Hillary Clinton well knows. But I say, watch out. People are rising up against injustice now because as Michelle Obama says, “Enough is enough.” Whether you are a black citizen fearful of being shot by the police or a woman afraid of being raped and then accused of making it up, the time has come to get it all out in the open. So, here’s my rape story.

I was 21. Living in Vancouver. I’d just lost my job and desperate for money, took a gig as a cocktail waitress. My shift was from 5pm to midnight. My ‘uniform,’ supplied by management, was a green satin mini-dress that barely covered my breasts or my bum. At the end of my shift I would go to the staffroom to get my bag so I could smoke a cigarette while adding up the tabs and tips, then I’d return to the staffroom to change into my street clothes and catch a cab home.

On the 5th night, I finished up and went to change only to find the staffroom locked. Deiter, the maître d’, said the manager must have thought I’d already left and had locked up and left, taking the key with him. Deiter, who was very tall and slim but athletically built, had struck me as very professional; courteous, but distant. He retrieved a man’s raincoat that had been left in the cloak room, gave it to me and offered to drive me home I gratefully accepted. I lived about 20 minutes away.

About 10 minutes into the ride he asked if he could make a quick stop at his apartment to get something. I said ok. He parked the car in front of his building and said why didn’t I come up for a minute. I said no thanks. He came around to the passenger side, pulled me out of the car, put his hand over my mouth and dragged me up two flights to his apartment. Terrified, but trying to play it cool, I asked if I could call home to let my mother know I’d be late (my mother lived in England). His response was to rip the phone out of the wall.

It was now about 1:30 a.m. For the next four and half hours he raped me. While he raped me he told me his parents had been Nazis. While he raped me he told me how he’d take care of me for the rest of my life. While he raped me he told me I could never speak to my family and friends again. While he raped me he told me he’d buy me new clothes. While he raped me I pretended to be happy.

At around 6 a.m., he finally fell asleep with his arm across my chest. It took me nearly an hour to inch out from under him, freezing every time he stirred. When my feet finally hit the floor I ran, grabbing my bag and the raincoat, I ran naked down the stairs and out into the middle of the street where I waved down a VW. The driver said, “Get in the back.” I started to explain. “I don’t want to know,” he said, and drove me to a taxi stand.

When I got home I called the police station. After I finished telling the cop what happened he asked, “Did he come in you?” “No,” I said. “Nothing we can do then,” he said and hung up. I ran a hot bath and sat in it for a long time.

rape

When we got home from the Spa, Silvia and Vincenzo were harvesting our olives. What goodness, to see these farmers, who are also our landlords and neighbors, up in the branches of our trees, doing what has been done here for centuries.

vands

Goodness is what we must turn to every day now. It’s time to turn from the drip-line of the “news.” It’s not new. Like goodness, the dark side has been with us forever. The details may change but the story is the same. Those who are fearful of owning their fear will continue to be the bullies, terrorists and dictators.

silvia-1

Yesterday was a turn around day for me. The night before I had shared with Joel that I was afraid of becoming more negative with age. That there was something about the accrual of events during the last couple of years that had wormed its way into me: the robbery, my months long illness, then my daughter nearly dying, then Joel being incapacitated for months and then these recent injuries. That steady drip had me unconsciously beginning to brace for the worst . It’s a thin line between bracing for the worst and starting to seek it out. I realized yesterday, that I had been indulging in tapping into the continuous cycle of negativity we call the news. I decided to stop. I’ve cast my vote, I’ve donated money, and beyond that it’s out of my control. No matter who wins this election, that which we fear will continue to exist. Better to rejoice in the perseverance of beauty and kindness.

Two days after the olives were harvested they were taken to the local frantoia to be pressed. We would have gone but we’d invited new friends we’d met at the spa to come here for tea. I made a pot of verbena ginger, the verbena picked fresh from the garden. We nibbled on pecorino cheese and pan co’ santi, the annual harvest bread studded with raisins and walnuts. We talked of creativity and openness and the beauty and light of Tuscany.

This is the good news we must spread: that light is everywhere and when we turn to it and absorb it we become it and reflect it back into the world like the sunflowers and the grapes and the fresh-pressed olive oil, glowing with goodness in the new day.

oil

 

GIVE AND TAKE

28th August, 2016

garden

There’s a sense of freedom one associates with summer, starting in childhood when the last bell of the school term heralded weeks of play, not to mention liberation from school uniform and all the pressure of learning. If one was lucky there might be a family holiday complete with an ice cream every day. But mainly it was day after endless day of play during which one learned all that can never be taught

Now, summer feels tired. The garden is tired, the farmers are tired and so are we. An ongoing heat wave imprisons us for hours in the cool of our stone house – for which we are grateful – and one feels cheated. More than that, there is an underlying threat of violence; the violence of nature. Whether it is Zika courtesy of a mosquito, or Lyme’s Disease via a tick, or the ground opening up beneath one’s feet.

cracks

On Wednesday morning we woke up to the news that an earthquake had disappeared people and towns and history and beauty, some 70 miles from us. The whole country has been sad for days. As if we didn’t already feel sad and frightened from all the global politics and terrorism, mother nature drives it home with an earthquake. Suddenly we feel betrayed by the one thing we foolishly believe will always be a source of comfort and, yes, freedom.

Summer, for many of us, equals nature; swimming in ponds and seas, riding bikes or ponies along lanes, throwing a Frisbee in the park, listening to the last birdsong of the evening floating through the bedroom window as we drift into sleep. That nature can obliterate us in the night, without forewarning, is to be reminded that nature can be a mean mother.

We had appointments and errands in Siena on Wednesday. Even on the hottest day it’s narrow medieval streets provide shade. But on this day the shade provided no solace. A shadow has been cast upon the land. There is something about this tragedy that carries the inevitable with it. Italy is basically a long, narrow peninsula whose spine is weak, flanked as it is by 2 major fault lines making it the most seismic prone country in Europe. We live outside the earthquake zone and because we are on elevated ground outside of the village, we are also outside of the flood zone. The village however, is not and has suffered 2 major floods in the last 4 years, the first of which knocked out 2 bridges and upheaved roads, the waters rushing through the streets and up through shops and houses to a level of 4 feet. As I’ve said before, there is no such thing as safety.

Yet just as crisis carries the possibility of opportunity, so tragedy provides the opportunity to express kindness and generosity. Our town, along with almost every other one in this country, mobilized a donation center immediately. Ours is a small , working class town struggling to survive its bankrupt government. Yet there we all were on Thursday and Friday, lining up with our bags of clothes and blankets, toiletries and cleaning supplies. Young and old working side by side; organizing, boxing, labeling, many of us weeping. On Saturday volunteers trucked the supplies directly to the victims.

donations

 

Every nation, when a crisis hits it, likes to think it is the most generous, the most courageous, the most organized. It’s a shame we have to claim national ownership of such human attributes. Whether it is impoverished Greeks helping refugees out of boats or refugees helping Italian victims of an earthquake, we are all capable of stepping up to the plate. As much as Mother Nature takes, she also gives. For we, after all, are nature too; each of us struggling to make it through another day, another heat wave, another random act of violence.

Who knows why some of us have an easier time of it than others? Who knows why this rosebush is dying from the heat.

dying rose

While 3 feet away, this tiny thing clings to a stone wall, optimistically growing roots that have no hope of reaching earth. Perhaps it’s investing in the future should the day arrive that a strong wind displaces it, carrying it back to the earth.

succulent

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.

abstract light