Wednesday, December 31, 2003
HAPPY NEW YEAR
As the year fades, a few images in pale blue.
I'm uncharacteristically at a loss for words. This year is impossible to quantify, sum up, encapsulate. For me, it has been the Year of the Blog; that, and you, have been the central adventure and discovery. But, vodka martini in hand, I find no words available in which to wrap these experiences. there is only the awareness of that citrus zest that changes the mundane into the memorable, the mysterious.
We're about to place a call to Reykjavik where our quite wonderful Icelandic next-door-neighbors are celebrating the New Year five hours ahead of us. I think of Jenny and Geoff in Australia; Yuan in Beijing; Nancy in India; Mark in Bonn; Mary in Scotland...Wherever you are, Happy New Year. May it be truly happy, filled with both peace and delight.
Monday, December 29, 2003
I felt stir-crazy today. Wanted to go somewhere. But that wasn't going to happen, so instead I went to the library and got books about far-away places. I'm sure I'll enjoy the books, but what was restorative today was being in the stacks. I love it there - the dust on the black shelves beyond the sliding metal bookends, the dim light until you press the switches for the timed fluorescents, the colors of the spines, and most of all the foreign languages: country after country, worlds upon worlds just waiting to tell me their stories. If only I could read all those languages! Instead I'm grateful for translations, and run my fingers wistfully along the titles that have received no such attention and remain enigmatic behind their covers and their strange alphabets.
Today three books came home with me: The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin; The New Life, by Orhan Pamuk; and Jose Saramago's The Cave. That should do it for a while.
After I got home, J. suggested we watch a DVD he had rented, a German movie titled "Mostly Martha", about a female chef. It was marvelous, but when it finished at 7:00 pm, having watched incredible food being prepared for two hours, I said, "OK, we're going to the store." At nine-thirty we sat down to a dinner of pasta with pesto and sauteed zucchini and red bell peppers, veal marsala, and salad, followed by coffee and cannoli. Lest you are wondering, this is not the usual fare around here, but sometimes you have to seize the moment (and the saute pan). Now I'm glad I can curl up under the comforter with my books.
See that movie if you can.
Saturday, December 27, 2003
I wish I had taken a picture yesterday, for the second day of Christmas, of not just two, but about twenty-two mourning doves arranged in our trees and at the foot of the bird feeder. There is one pair, inseparable, who seem to be "resident" in the back yard, and the others come as visitors, ornamenting the bare branches of the tall cherry tree and keeping up a constant cooing and characteristic whooo as they fly. Actually, now that my mind is running, I wish I had thought to do a "Twelve Days of Christmas", country-style: we could have begun with a great picture of a wild turkey in an oak tree that J. took in the mountains the other day. Instead, you are getting arty shadows on snow!
In truth, I am delaying. Tonight we're invited to an engagement party for the daughter of old friends. It's supposed to be fancy, and I ought to be figuring out what to wear, but I'm reluctant to paw through my closet. My choices are rather limited: a black top and skirt (or pants) with the nice rust-red-and-gold Indian shawl that's usually on the back of the sofa; the same top and pants with a dark blue velvet embroidered-and-mirrored jacket I bought in an Indian import shop in London years ago; a Moroccan djellebah, black with white embroidery, inherited from my mother-in-law; or my Betsy Johnson tight silk charmeuse pants with a similarly-colored matte silk shirt. I'm leaning toward the latter, but I'm afraid to put the pants on, and it's so damn icy everywhere I'm afraid I'll kill myself if I wear heels.
The usual drill is for people to show up at winter parties wearing their Sorels and L.L. Bean boots, which get left by the door and switched for dress shoes; and layers of coats, to be piled haphazardly onto beds, along with babies and small children as the night wears on. It's great if you haven't already had to hike in up a long driveway or dirt road. This party, fortunately, is in town.
You may shake your heads, city-dwellers, but glamour in these parts generally arrives with a sidekick: humor.
Friday, December 26, 2003
Well, Cassandra got a very nice Christmas present – a tiny digital camera of her very own. I’m looking forward to exploring the creative potential of this marvelous device and being able to show you more of my environment -- like these barberries that grow outside my front door.
We spent a quiet day yesterday with J.’s family after getting home very late from the Christmas Eve service at church. Both the Lessons & Carols service and the midnight Eucharist were moving and beautiful this year. Afterwards I thought about them, as I often do, from the perspective of one who is part of the “giving” aspect for the people who show up just on Christmas or Easter, expecting…what? That’s what I ponder. Within the larger community, our church is seen as providing a “real experience of Christmas”, whatever that is. People come to hear the familiar music, to see the candles and the greens and the poinsettias, to hear the story read aloud; to be touched, to remember.
Before every service in our church, the clergy, acolytes, lay Eucharistic ministers, and choir gather in the parish hall to recollect ourselves in silence for a few minutes, and to briefly pray together. We all know that there are people out in the sanctuary who have come for a hundred reasons, known and unknown, and that there may be someone for whom today’s experience is crucial. I always think of that anonymous person, wondering and wishing I could do more to give them the love or comfort, strength or help they are seeking, but I know this is not entirely up to me. Still I hope that they will find some of these things, as I have, in that place.
Coming up the aisle with the choir on the processional hymn for the Lessons & Carols service, I saw many unfamiliar faces in the packed church, some shining with an almost childlike wonder. They looked happy to hear the music, the full organ, to see the crosses and torches, the long lines of robed singers, but these faces were also expectant. What did they hope for? When I could, I tried to meet an eye with my own, to give a little smile and show some joy and welcome instead of mere concentration on the music.
People usually respond with a little flicker of their own eyes and lips. We meet thus for only a second in time. I never know; it seems like so little, but maybe, maybe it’s just barely enough.
Some virtual gifts I was happy to receive in the past couple of days:
A Story of Heaven and Hell (John’s Dharma Path)
Moonlight Water Garden (also via John’s Dharma Path)
A brilliant little essay on consumerism by maria at alembic, cleverly titled “The Mallpractice of Ecomomics”
Butuki wrote meaningfully about the private difficulties of this season, as well as its joys, and I sent him a reply that I want to copy here, since it pertains to all of you:
Even those of us who are surrounded by snow and the semblance of Christmas loveliness have our private sorrows and inner struggles. I, too, keep the depths of my private life out of my blog... In some ways, that's probably not helpful because it may give the impression sometimes that "I'm OK" while others are not feeling OK. Actually I think nearly all of us in this community are prone to depression, self-analysis and criticism, and are highly sensitive to the world and vulnerable to its pain as well as our own. The fact that we come together is a gift, and while we can't hug each other or sit down over coffee or walk in the woods, it IS real friendship, just of a new kind. I'm very grateful for yours!
Thursday, December 25, 2003
MERRY CHRISTMAS to all from Cassandra
Tuesday, December 23, 2003
Just updated my Book Notes.
Strange...just as many readers are coming here, but nobody is commenting. Are other people noticing the same thing? Are we all stressed?
Today I made a lino cut, the first print I've made in ages. Actually, I made the block but didn't print it. There are problems. And I cut myself - of course, I always do - but superficially. Ahhh. Sigh. It feels so good to do some real art, with my hands and not PhotoShop, and it's so impossible to do really good art when you don't do it often. But that's OK, today I was grateful for the process and the unfolding of the work under my fingers.
While I was working downstairs in my studio, the piano tuner was working upstairs. He likes working on my Schimmel upright, and I like him. Afterwards we sat and talked for a little while about his adopted sponsor-son in Nepal, and about Montreal and Quebec City, and about the difficulties of practicing the piano when you aren't taking lessons. Now the piano is across the room, shining, and I think I will go play for a while, now that it is beautifully in tune, before the heating system and winter weather have their way again with its wooden body and metal synapses.
Meanwhile, I wish you could all be here to enjoy this white Christmas.
Tehran market, from tehran24
I'm guest-blogging on "temperance" over at commonbeauty, where there is a series of posts on "the virtues". Take a look, and consider joining in - a few virtues are still up for grabs, and the vices will follow!
Monday, December 22, 2003
Another from Milosz.
They are incomprehensible, the things of this earth.
The lure of waters. The lure of fruit.
Lure of the two breasts and long hair of a maiden.
In rouge, in vermilion, in that color of ponds
Found only in the Green Lakes near Wilno.
And ungraspable multitudes swarm, come together
In the crinkles of tree bark, in the telescope's eye,
For an endless wedding,
For the kindling of the eyes, for a sweet dance
In the elements of the air, sea, earth, and subterranean caves,
So that for a short moment there is no death
And time does not unreel like a skein of yarn
Thrown into an abyss.
from Unattainable Earth, 1986
Saturday, December 20, 2003
Stonehenge. Photo by J.
ECOTONE TOPIC: MYTHIC PLACE
Driving out of London, the detached brick houses and backyard garden plots gradually give way to countryside. Sitting on the wrong side of the little rented car, I watched out the window while my husband, happy in the left-handed world of British motoring, drove west. Lulled by the rhythm of the rolling grassy land - undulating, calm, with hardly a tree -I suddenly sat up, astounded. There it was, in the distance, rising all alone from the Salisbury Plain. My skin contracted into gooseflesh.
This was more than twenty years ago. When we finally arrived at the site, we parked in a lot that had been cleverly designed to the left and below the highway, so that buses and cars would be largely out of sight when you were viewing the stones themselves. We also arrived in the days when you could walk right into the circle of stones. To our surprise and relief, there was no American-style souvenir shop, full of plastic monuments sealed in snow-globes, or reproduced as inflatable life-size replicas. You just walked up some steps, onto a gravel walkway set into the grass, and there you were.
It was a grey, misty English day: perfect for seeing this place that I had wanted to visit my entire life. I hadn't known what to expect; what the scale would feel like, or how the site was situated in real life, not just in pictures; whether it would have power once I actually stood there. And to this day, I can't really describe what I felt. I remember that the stones weren't as big as I had thought they might be, but feeling dwarfed by their massiveness as much as their height. I remember the quiet, and the strangeness that emanated from the juxtaposition of the vast horizontal plain, and these sudden, standing stones, arranged in a way that felt both supremely human, and supernatural. I felt like a visitor in a place I didn't understand, but ought to, on some long-forgotten level. I remember wonder, awe, and mystery, and the sense of a tenuous line stretching from myself back into ancientness, beyond the power of any tools I could summon, beyond language, experience, or reason.
As we stood there and moved around the stones, we heard a low thumping in the earth, far away, and then the unmistakable rumbling of airplane engines. Low on the horizon and then quite near, flew a large military transport plane. We watched as this plane, and then another, and another, moved ponderously in the grey sky through the voids between the stones, while the deep thumps of test-bombing continued in the distance.
It was 1982, during the Falklands conflict, and Maggie Thatcher had the RAF at the ready. Strange. When my father had heard we were going to Salisbury, he told me about being stationed nearby on maneuvers before crossing the channel during the Normany invasion, and how he had once driven his tank through the cobblestone streets of the medieval city. I watched the planes, and thought about him.
We left the site and continued on to the city of Salisbury, where the spire of the cathedral also rises above the landscape. We walked up the same cobblestone streets my father remembered, crossed the cathedral grounds, and entered. The interior was cold, stony, dampâ€¦and lovely in the early afternoon light. We walked around quietly, reading about the site's Norman origins, and the cathedralâ€™s founding in 1220. There were ancient woolen banners above our heads - tattered and faded - and the sign beneath told us, incredibly, that they had been brought back from the Crusades. Nearby, the effigy of a Crusader knight lay above his tomb, and close to him, the body of a Saracen who had been brought back from the Middle East. So not much had changed. My husband and I looked at the tombs, and then at each other.
"My relative," I said.
"And mine," he replied.
Read other responses to "Mythic Place" at the Ecotone Wiki.
Friday, December 19, 2003
AFRICAN ART, 2:00 a.m.
Maybe we blogging insomniacs should establish a 2:00 am chat room. I was owl-ish last night, up on the couch in the living room/library, surrounded by books but unable to sleep. My usual pattern, if I'm going to be restless, is to sleep three or four hours, then be awake for one or two, and finally go back to sleep. Sometimes I use the laptop, but more often I try to meditate, or read. Last night I delved into a book on African art that I bought a few years ago at MOMA: CloseUp: Lessons in the Art of Seeing African Sculpture.
I've looked many times at the stunning photographs in this book, but never read the accompanying essays. Last night I read the first one, by the book's highly-accomplished photographer, Jerry Thompson, who talks about how he "sees" these sculptures:
My knowledge is on the level of servant's gossip - overheard conversations of curators and anthropologists, plus what I have been told in order to make the needed pictures. I know from experience that no amount of careful looking can supply basic information that is lacking...on the other hand, no amount of information can substitute for close looking.
Thompson, however, knows a great deal. He speaks about how we have gotten to such a point of subjectivity in our Western way of "looking", and yet tries to bridge the inevitable gaps by going to the heart of the emotional response many of us have to African art:
These figures seem to be about something they have some kind of content which, whether threatening, reassuring, exhilarating, hostile, disgusting, or too unclear to be classified, has a hold, or exercises a power not on our formal or aesthetic sense alone, but on some deeper sense... Force may be seen as a power larger than the individual, power that comes form somewhere else and passes through the individual, even through the organs least involved with consciousness and will.
Yoruba Sculpture, a tour from the Met, gives an excellent introduction to African carving.
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
Well, there is certainly no impetus to write about the weather here today - sleet and freezing rain on top of snow. I can hear J. outside, chopping channels in the ice so the driveway won't flood and form a skating rink.
So it's back to Milosz. The poems I'm reading and re-reading now are mainly post-1995, some quite a bit later, and they are poems of an elderly man who is looking back and remembering; looking for answers and often not finding any. He's sometimes preoccupied with memories of women he knew, women he loved, women he only saw for a moment, such as a singer in a cafe, but remembers vividly: "No trace of her or of that cafe/And only her shade with me, her frailty, beauty, always."
Of all his concrete memories - the wine and the food, the beaches and architecture - it seems to me that the memories of women are the most poignant. And as a woman, this gives me pause when I think back and wonder about how I might be remembered by men I've known. Men aren't always this honest, or this vulnerable, but I suspect that Milosz is revealing something more universal than I realized. Here is:
In the sun, while there, below, over the bay
Only clouds of white mist wander, fleetingly,
And the range of hills is grayish on the blue,
Apricots, the whole tree full of them, in the dark leaves,
Glimmer, yellow and red, bringing to mind
The garden of Hesperides and apples of Paradise.
I reach for a fruit and suddenly feel the presence
And put aside the basket and say, "It's a pity
That you died and cannot see these apricots,
While I celebrate this undeserved life."
Alas, I did not say what I should have.
I submitted fog and chaos to a distillation.
That other kingdom of being or non-being
Is always with me and makes itself heard
With thousands of calls, screams, complaints,
And she, the one to whom I turned,
Is perhaps but a leader of a chorus.
What happened only once does not stay in words.
Countries disappeared and town and circumstances.
Nobody will be able to see her face.
And form itself is always a betrayal.
Tuesday, December 16, 2003
A while back I was exploring the post-war Polish poets, and I've been thinking of getting back to that. Yesterday I got out my volume of Czeslaw Milosz, maybe subconsciously hoping to find something that would make sense of the bloodthirsty vengefulness of our world as it rubs its cold metallic hands against this season of peace. Maria at alembic was apparently thinking the same way, and she found a very apt expression of this weariness and lack of historical perspective in a poem of Zbigniew Herbert, which I commend to you.
Milosz has a lot to say, and like many of us he is not always consistent in how he views life. Toward the end of his collected works, there are two contradictory poems that he intentionally pairs because they represent this dual nature - the one a response to a woman who criticizes him for concentrating on beauty and finding meaning in the concrete reality presented to his senses at a particular moment. The other is a more inner, angry response to the brutality, suffering, and forgetfulness of the world.
The split felt very familiar.
Those poems are too long to quote here, but here are two short ones that lean toward the concrete:
The vineyard country, russet, reddish, carmine-brown in this season.
A blue ouline of hills above a fertile valley.
It's warm as long as the sun does not set, in the shade cold returns.
A strong sauna and then swimming in a pool surrounded by trees.
Dark redwoods, transparent pale-leaved birches.
In their delicate network, a sliver of the moon.
I describe this for I have learned to doubt philosophy
And the visible world is all that remains.
What is good? Garlic. A leg of lamb on a spit.
Wine with a view of boats rocking in a cove.
A starry sky in August. A rest on a mountain peak.
What is good? After a long drive water in a pool and a sauna.
Lovemaking and falling asleep, embraced, your legs touching hers.
Mist in the morning, translucent, announcing a sunny day.
I am submerged in everything that is common to us, the living.
Experiencing this earth for them, in my flesh.
Walking past the vague outline of skyscrapers? anti-temples?
In valleys of beautiful, though poisoned, rivers.
Monday, December 15, 2003
Cross-country skiing nearby
Thanks to all of you who commented on the last post about handling Christmas with sanity and grace. My true confession: I love Christmas, and always have. At the heart of the celebration are all the best characteristics of human beings: love, generosity, selflessness, joy. It's not the idea that's the problem, it's the implementation - but I was so confused about this that for a long time I thought I hated Christmas. We used to make most of our gifts (including elaborate sewing, knitting, baking, and woodworking projects), sent handmade cards with an original photographic print and a personal note, decorated our indoor tree with handmade ornaments and an outside one with popcorn and cranberry and peanut-butter-stuffed pinecones for the birds. We had the neighbors in for a get-together, organized caroling in the neighborhood for the elderly shut-ins, and sang in the choir at all the extra services, getting home at 1:00 am on Christmas Eve just to rise blearily the next morning and cook a big noontime dinner for the whole family. I'd often end up in tears, or get sick. Such a pile of beautifully-wrapped, non-commercial good intentions: it makes me exhausted just to think about them. And to think that we blamed our fatigue and burn-out on the prevailing commericialism in the society!
After realizing the holidays were making us miserable, for several years J. and I left the country at Christmastime, saving our pennies and flying to England where we spent a very quiet holiday in a London hotel, spending long hours in the British Museum and galleries, walking up Fleet Street to Evensong at St. Paul's, and often having a sort of camping-out Christmas dinner in our room.
During those weeks, I'd stand on the steps of the National Gallery as the sun set at 3:30 pm, gazing out over Trafalgar Square and the huge Norwegian Christmas tree with its lights sparkling in the falling dusk. The solitude and dislocation I felt were immense, but so was my sense of happiness in this city that became a second home, and my gratitude at being able to be somewhere else, knowing it was teaching me things I needed to learn. I saw that I had been trying to recreate the feeling of "perfect" Christmases of my childhood, to erase change and loss, to arrest time. I saw that my natural generosity and creativity had become somewhat confused with egotism and perfectionism, and that I'd become a slave to a list of "shoulds" that no one was imposing except myself. I realized that I could do less - a lot less - and be loved just as much.
Last night we had the first neighborhood Christmas party we've hosted in more than ten years, and it was a lot of fun. I bought most of the food instead of cooking for days. We don't have a tree; in fact the house is decorated with a few fake pine garlands with lights and pinecones, little feathered birds and red ribbons. It looks nice. Most people on our list are getting books as gifts, and I doubt if we'll be sending very many cards at all, now that we talk to everybody by e-mail throughout the year. I'm looking forward to singing, and to celebrating with our families and friends in a low-key way.
We had another big snowstorm last night. It's going to be a white Christmas.
Friday, December 12, 2003
I'm feeling that first wave of Christmas fatigue...maybe it's the to-do list I just wrote out, or the baking projects waiting for me in the kitchen. Or the evergreen garlands that we've been walking over on the floor all week, instead of hanging up in the door and window frames. Or the packages downstairs that need to get mailed. I did get the shopping done early!
We try for simplicity at this time of year, and especially we try not to get caught up in the frantic rush and stress. I think maybe some of that is inevitable, because we DO want to remember and to see certain people. It's the social stuff that makes me exhausted, though: I'm pretty social, but the obligations and expectations always feel over-the-top. We've always made some of our gifts, and try to be sensible about the amount of money spent - after all, I'm trying to get rid of things, not accumulate more, and most everyone in our family feels the same way.
How do you deal with the consumerism, and handle the stresses and pressures of this season?
Thursday, December 11, 2003
We woke to rain and sleet, and as the day warmed, the rain has continued, flattening the pristine fluffy snow. It was dull, grey, and raw all day, and now, with sunset, a fog has come in over the river, blending sky and land and reducing the trees to shades of grey. I have to go out tonight to a long choir rehearsal; we have our annual Lessons and Carols service on the 21st, and an ambitious program for Christmas Eve. As much as I love to sing, going out in this has zero appeal, especially since I know the footing everywhere will be treacherous as the temperature drops below freezing.
The weather was good for something, though: I finished and submitted an article on sexuality and religion that I've been turning over in my head for days. Will they take it? I don't know; my goal was to write it and do a good job. Right now I'm basking in the warmth of completion, drinking a cup of tea, and getting ready to cook some salmon, and potatoes with dill...
LET'S NOT MINCE WORDS
"The other day, I asked my friend and ontological coach, Andrew Hoffman, about what questions his wise old grandfather gave him. On his death bed he left him with one last question: What is the point of your life?"
from gassho (12.02.03)
Dance of the Owl by Kenojuak Ashevak, Cape Dorset, 1978
INUIT LAUNCH HUMAN RIGHTS CASE AGAINST WASHINGTON
Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which represents all 155,000 of her people inside the Arctic circle, said: "We want to show that we are not powerless victims. These are drastic times for our people and require drastic measures."
The Inuit have no voice at the [Milan] conference, since they are not a nation state, but Mrs Watt-Cloutier said: "We are already bearing the brunt of climate change - without our snow and ice our way of life goes. We have lived in harmony with our surroundings for millennia, but that is being taken away from us.
"People worry about the polar bear becoming extinct by 2070 because there will be no ice from which they can hunt seals, but the Inuit face extinction for the same reason and at the same time. " --from The Guardian
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
When he seats himself at the little writing-desk before the window looking over Bristol harbour, his hand feels as clumsy and the pen as foreign an instrument as ever before.
--J. M. Coetzee, Nobel Prize address
I cut myself yesterday on the mezzaluna. We don’t use it often, this sleek kitchen weapon with its ebony knobs and stainless steel blades. I’d taken it out of the back of a drawer in order to chop a bunch of cilantro, and as I pried the hard black plastic guard off the curved double rocker-blades I said to myself, this is a dangerous thing, and just then my little finger came up along the back blade, just so, more swiftly than a thought. At first I couldn’t tell if it was a deep cut or shallow, only that it was clean and bloodless and a quarter of an inch long. I waited, staring, in that shocked space after a sudden injury, and then ran my finger under cold water. Stinging, then nothing. I began chopping the cilantro, and then a large drop of dark red formed and I instinctively raised it to my lips. It wasn’t deep, this cut. I was lucky.
Later in the afternoon I stopped working for a while and read J. M. Coetzee’s Nobel Prize address*. Somewhere around the third or fourth paragraph, another blade descended. This one was radical and entirely bloodless. It sliced through rosy pride and accomplishment, and then through the fat yellow layers of self-doubt and apathy, right down to the blue-white bone. I’m not finished with you yet, it said. I’m not after bone, but marrow.
There’s always something to write about in the back of a drawer, and always better writing out there, waiting to cut us open, to reveal more of the stuff of which we’re made. We can squirm at the last minute, letting the blade stop in those middle layers, or give ourselves up to the knife, rejoicing in language used so well it leaves us panting, avid, undone.
All of this news of Lincolnshire his man writes in a neat, quick hand, with quills that he sharpens with his little pen-knife each day before a new bout with the page.
*thanks to Language Hat for the link
Monday, December 08, 2003
This afternoon, looking out from the top of Killington
Today, a cloudless, warm, bright blue day. J. took off and went downhill skiing (pictures above). I went snowshoeing, and I can't begin to tell you how glorious it felt to be in the woods in twenty inches of snow, chickadees chattering overhead, champagne powder sifting down from the canopy against the dark trunks of tall white pines and sugar maples, and the snow - dazzling white in the sunlight, deep blue in the shadows - an untouched carpet interrupted only by the black, still-running brooks flowing down off the mountain.
Sunday evening's post...I forgot to switch it from "draft".
The snow continued all night: a real Nor'easter moving up the coast from the south and dumping huge quantities of snow inland. When we woke up this morning, the storm had stopped, and there were patches of pale blue in the opaque white northern sky. Reluctantly we rolled out of bed. J. made some coffee and put on his snow gear while I went up into the attic to retrieve my fuzzy turquoise fleece long-johns, purple ski pants, and heavy-duty, insulated gore-tex gloves from the "winter" storage box.
We drank the coffee and headed outside; J. for the snowblower and the driveway, me for the two snowshovels and the front porch and walk. This was around 8:30, and pretty soon the neighbors were all out there shoveling and yakking with us. Next door, our Icelandic neighbors came out with their baby daughter, in a bright red papoose-like down-filled snowsuit, for her first experience of snow.
Across the street, a young doctor who has come back east from seven years working on reservations in New Mexico was in semi-shock. His boys had gone outside this morning, all excited, only to find themselves sinking up to their necks in snow, which freaked them out. The boys had quickly adjusted; their father wasn't so sure, so we gave him the usual pep-talk: "Winter is a given here, the more you fight it, the worse it will make you feel, so you have to find ways to enjoy it, enter into it, LOVE it." He nodded, trying hard to be convinced, while watching the rest of us attack three-foot high hard-packed drifts where the plows had piled snow in front of the driveways.
We shoveled out the elderly widow's house across the street, and talked briefly to the laconic guy kitty-corner across from our house, a life-long New Englander and gifted builder/carpenter who views grass and snow with equal disdain but gets more physical work done than any of us, and does it in a faster and more efficient way. By 10 we were all pretty much dug out, and a few cars were beginning to move down the street.
It's not snowball snow, or snowman snow, it's light fluffy Christmas snow that sprays into your face when tossed upwards in a shower of diamond-dusted sparkles and is so cold and light that it stays on your eyelashes and hair like white glitter. It covers branches and evergreen without weighing them down, and falls off in a delicate curtain at the slightest touch. In a few days it will be packable, or maybe there will be rain and a crust will form, hard enough to send a sparrow sliding on its little feet across what used to be lawn. Today the sparrows were jumping happily in the barberry bush among the red fruits, each with its little cap of white. Nearby, the baby watched the snow being tossed by the busy shovels, felt the first flakes fall on her bright cheeks, gazed at us seriously with wide, unreadable eyes. Iceland gets less snow than this, and is warmer. She doesn't know that yet.
Late in the afternoon, I went to church to sing at the consecration of our newly-renovated building. The bishop showed up in a fine grey suit, clerical collar, and Sorels.
Saturday, December 06, 2003
We woke while it was still dark, and I got up to prowl around a bit. When I came back to bed J. asked if it was snowing yet. "I think so," I said. "The skylight is covered, and it's very still." When light came, our world had turned white overnight. And suddenly, it also felt warmer. This always happens. During the first really cold days of winter, when the ground is bare but frozen, the house feels absolutely frigid, and neither of us can warm up. Then, when snow falls, it's as if it insulates everything. I don't understand this; maybe someone can explain it to me. The thermostat reads exactly the same.
Today I went out to get the mail in my black faux fur hat, pink frou-frou scarf, jeans, and my black down jacket. There was quite a wind, and snow pelting down, but it felt terrific. Looking over the bank at the river, I saw the first frazzle ice floating rapidly downstream, like irregular sheets of translucent plastic laid on the leaden surface of the water. The beaver dam has partially washed out in the recent high waters, but below me I could see ice forming behind what was left of it. The snow -- small icy flakes -- landed on my cheeks and filled up my collar below the scarf. Walking back up the hill in four inches of snow reminded me of a recurrent dream I have where I'm walking in sand or snow, and my legs won't work at all. This wasn't that hard, but it required some effort.
Right now, beyond the window, the snow has turned to fatter flakes coming down at a steady 45-degree angle from went to east. Almost no traffic is moving. Trees, hedges, branches, roofs are iced like gingerbread; there is no color at all except for the black of trunks, windows, rooflines; the rest of the world is white.
When you've lived in this kind of climate all your life, you can usually tell how long the snow is likely to keep up from the texture, the way it is falling, and the silence or lack of it. This snowfall is going to last all day.
Silly Christmas e-cards from BBC Wiltshire
HOW CAN WE KNOW THE DANCER FROM THE DANCE?
More on writers and their lives: A review of a new biography of Yeats, from The NY Times
William Butler Yeats made such charged and explicit use of his life, his passions, his philosophical searchings, his country and causes, and even his failings — no major poet of our time has done it so passionately and few have ever done it — that a biography could just about be constructed out of quotations.
So, almost, could the review of a biography. Starting, famously enough, with "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" Or less famously, with Yeats's remark that "poetry is born out of the quarrel with oneself."
Friday, December 05, 2003
The bazaar at Kerman, Iran (from Tehran24)
A FEW LINKS OF NOTE
Photographs from French prison cells (via Conscientious).
A local review of a gallery show of women's art in Tehran (thanks, Shirin), interesting both for the art and the way the review is written.
Oh, the strange humor of British science: Ancient Fossil Penis Discovered (from today's BBC).
Not that the US is any less bizarre: Breastfeeding Driver Stuns Police, also from the BBC.
And a remarkable post, amandhla, from nehanda dreams, about AIDS, Africa, and the human need for love. Amandhla means power in zulu.
Thursday, December 04, 2003
OOh, some disagreement over the Joy Williams quote in my last post. Good! It's such an interesting assertion she makes. Is it intended to provoke? To be taken less-than-seriously? I see two questions underneath, quite salient for writers who blog: 1) what do we, as writers, want to reveal? and 2) how much does the reader want to know about who we are?
Still quite cold here, snow, ice, shivering in the night. In ten minutes I have to go out to choir practice. It feels like an effort, that winter-kind of effort, of bundling up in layers and wrappings and running quickly to the car, across the road, into the church -- and then listening to everyone else talk about the weather. But once we start singing, it's always all right.
I've been playing the piano more lately. Twenty minutes, half an hour late at night. Bach, mostly, and some modern pieces composed by a friend. I'm out of practice. Still, it feels good to have the keys under my fingers, and time disappears.
Wednesday, December 03, 2003
"If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud there will be no water; without water, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, you cannot make paper. So the cloud is in here. The existence of this page is dependent upon the existence of a cloud. Paper and cloud are so close."
- Thich Nhat Hahn
I DON'T AGREE
"The writer is an exhibitionist, and yet he is private. He wants you to admire his fasting, his art. He wants your attention, he doesn't want you to know he exists. The reality of his life is meaningless, why should you, the reader, care? You don't care. He drinks, he loves unwisely, he's happy, he's sick ... it doesn't matter. You just want the work - the Other - this other thing. You don't really care how he does it. Why he does it."
- Joy Williams
(both quotes via WhiskeyRiver)
Tuesday, December 02, 2003
ECOTONE post for December 1, 2003: “Preserving Place”
For many years I’ve puzzled over the fact that some of us seem to bond with certain places, almost as if a certain landscape, certain paths, certain moments we experience within a place become imprinted upon us forever. Like parents and children, some of us bond fast, and some not at all, and some of us bond to a particular place while others are more egalitarian, spreading their affection and care evenly over all of nature.
I care deeply about the entire natural world, especially the wilderness. But there is one place on earth that seems to have a special hold on me: the land of central New York State and the area around the lake where I grew up, and my parents still live. Driving into the region, there’s a point when I feel instinctively that I'm "home". It’s something about the geology, the particular glacial understructure of the land, combined with its agricultural history, that give rise to the openness of the fields and woods and pastures that roll over the low hills, and cause streams and rivers to flow in the valleys. The lake itself is a small glacial lake of irregular shoreline. My grandfather, his business partner, and my father bought the lake and the surrounding land in the late 1950s and divided it into lots for development. Gradually houses and cabins were built on the lots, but the developers had the foresight to establish a Lake Association whose responsibility was preserving, as much as possible, the quality of the water and the character of the lake. Motorboats have never been allowed, and there are rules for what can and can’t be built, and where, and what can happen on the shoreline or in the water itself. Over the years the lot owners, a mixed-income community of people who now mostly live there full-time, have been pretty consistent in preserving the quality of life and at least sections of natural habitat, despite the construction of homes.
I remember when there were almost no houses on the lake. I was very young, and we’d go up on weekends with a picnic and sit on the shore, fishing, or make a bonfire for warmth in the evening. My grandparents built a cabin, and next to it my father and mother built, with their own hands, the house where they live today. I carried rocks, spread tar on the concrete foundation walls, climbed on the roof, found fossils and just-hatched snapping turtles in the excavated earth. While the adults worked, I explored every inch of the land near the lake and across the road in the woods. I knew where the deepest blue hepaticas bloomed in early spring, and the respectful distance to keep between myself and the weasel’s home so that he would come out, in his brown coat in summer and white in winter, to stare back curiously at this large fellow animal.
I’ve never owned a piece of land, except for the in-town lot where our house stands. In recent years, though, I’ve come to think more and more about the lake house and the woods I hope I’ll someday inherit. During a recent visit back there, I asked my father to show me the map of the undeveloped lots across the road, and then we walked along the boundaries. There were two lots, inaccessible, that had been held by other people for a long time, and during the past few months my father was able to buy them. Now the property is contiguous. It’s not large, but it is the longest stretch of undeveloped property near the lake, and it backs up on cultivated fields that are unlikely to ever be subdivided. My father told me that if I ever needed money in an emergency, there were now several excellent building lots. I’m grateful for that. But my real desire is to care for and preserve this land forever.
As I’ve thought about writing this piece, Thoreau’s phrase “In wildness is the preservation of the world” kept coming back to me. This little spot on earth is barely wild, and it may only be special to me and a few other humans, but I know that I am meant to take care of it, and to take my turn in caring for the lake itself. “In wildness” is its preservation, but also mine. I know that a part of me – perhaps a far larger part than I even realize – would die if the woods turned to grass and human dwellings, or a new generation of lot owners voted to allow motorboats and chemical weed control.
The reason for this is that wildness does not only exist in nature, but in us. We are wild too, living in bodies made of stone and earth, star and water. Our souls remember the connections, even as our minds forget; we dream of water, and branches, and sky.
Monday, December 01, 2003
I was hoping to write an Ecotone post tonight for today's topic, 'Preserving Places". But after a day of writing other things I haven't got it in me, or rather, it's in my head, mostly, but my hands are unwilling to type it out until they and the head that animates them have had some sleep. Instead, I'm going to drink some tea, curl up in bed, and finish The DaVinci Code, which I've been devouring in big fiction-starved gulps since Sunday.
One of the best parts about blogging is coming across posts that just knock the wind out of me with a perfect phrase or a completely new idea, or make me look at myself in a totally different way. Tonight I loved Nick's latest commentary on blogging and poetry at fait accompli, and M.'s reflections on things we want to, but will never do at Mint Tea & Sympathy. At a blog that is fast becoming a new favorite, Yellowslip's prose seems like it gets more numinous every day.
And qB at FrizzyLogic, who insists she isn't that good a writer (she's not only an excellent writer but photographer to boot), wrote a personal essay on the birth of her own blog that was so sensitive, so close to the bone, and so beautifully written I read it aloud to my husband after reading it twice myself.
We're huddled in bed now with two blankets, a quilt, the heating pad and two warm laptops after a day when the sky first emitted little pieces of ice that lay on the pavement like a shower of 2-carat diamonds, and then rain, and then little opaque white pellets, and then snow, all separated by periods of brilliant sunshine. The coming of winter is painfully unpredictable here in New England, and you never know quite what it's going to be like, or how long it will last, or in what shape you'll emerge on the other side. Not unlike the birth of a blog.