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Who was Cassandra?
In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.

the cassandra pages
words, pictures, and a life
Sunday, March 14, 2004  
...CommonBeauty's series of letter exchanges about childhood which continue today. I'm the second guest, writing a response to Tom of The Middlewesterner about growing up in farm country and about a childhood injury.

AND A THANK YOU everybody who wrote and surprised me with comments on yesterday's poem. It's an experiment for me to post poetry, which I haven't been writing at all lately. I'm much more confident in my prose, probably because I've shared it much more. This poem was several years old and I was very curious if it would meet with silence or comments. So thank you, maybe this will spur me on to write and post some more (sometimes I think I only write poetry when I'm unhappy, so a different impetus would be good!)

2:54 PM |

Friday, March 12, 2004  

Persephone Inspecting the Garden

One month ago, she ate
the last of the pomegranate seeds
on the way back from a trip to the compost bin.

Snow covered her path
and the orange peels and eggshells
lay frozen together on their bed of winter greens,
but still she sensed a stirring underfoot
and a warm, liquid rising in the tall willow
as if to a shy face still unaware of its beauty.

Today, thin emerald blades of chives
sprout brushlike, from bare earth;
pale prepubescent nubs of rhubarb
push forth, prepare to blush.

Kneeling down, she pulls the golden coverlet of straw
from autumn’s last chrysanthemums,
plunges fingers in the soft dark earth,
feeling for the living stems.

Bending close, she listens
in that space between the growing thing and earth,

hears her mother’s voice.


7:52 PM |

Thursday, March 11, 2004  

The season changed today. No doubt there will be more snow, thick and heavy, demoralizing but fleeting, but today's sun and warmth - hot enough to feel here on my face as I type five feet away from the window and penetrating enough to send cobalt blue rays from the tulip-vase across the sugar bowl with its blue-tinged cubes, across the teapot, and onto my hand - have sent the snow into alarmed retreat and urged the first green shoots out of the frozen earth. I am euphoric.

Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk in the hilly woods nearby. "How was it," asked J. when I got back. "Nice, a little icy - but so dark!" I told him. He smiled. "That's your refrain these days," he said. "I should set up some lights and shine them on you." I smiled, wanly: "They have to be daylight lights." But today -- today dawned clear and bright, with the promise of real warmth. When J. came bringing me coffee - my eyes still tightly closed - I heard the swish of ski pants. "Ah!" I said, jumping out of bed. "Good for you!" "Can't resist," he replied. Shortly after he left we had a major power outage, caused by a squirrel, probably, scampering around the transformer on the pole outside the house. I conferred with my neighbor and stood outside with him for a while until the power company truck came, both of us relishing the rays of unfamiliar early-morning heat. "We have March sun in Iceland," he told me, "but it never warms you like this. It's just too... far away." Later I read and wrote, worked on my book-making project, made a light lunch, and then went back to the woods for another walk.

Today the woods were bright and airy, shot full of yellow light falling on moss-covered stumps and old stone walls and casting deep blue shadows on the receding snow. The path up the hill was treacherous so I climbed up through the trees, past a flock of lichens alighting like white butterflies on a decaying trunk; piles of deer scat in a stand of Christmas ferns; a fallen white birch, peeling pink and gold. The little brook sang, tinkling like glass on its steep descent to the still-frozen pond below.

The woods is mostly old white pine, beech, birch and hemlock, fairly open on the southern exposure and dense and dark to the north. In one spot, though, it opens up; the conifers are widely spaced, the canopy open. The forest floor here is covered with several species of Lycopodium (clubmoss), and a few little tree-like forms of princess pine stood proudly, emerging from the snow. Faded ochre leaves, bleached by the winter, clung to the beech saplings along the trail and lay scattered on the snow like so many golden coins. Imagine, I thought, being moved by riches such as these - leaves that even a starving woman couldn't boil for a stew, leaves stripped of every green cell, worn down to skeletons, and yet so beautiful in their varied colors of beige, gold, wheat and straw that I am lingering here like a guest at a feast. At the top of the hill, the deep woods begins again, and in the semi-darkness I found brownish-purple pyramids, two feet tall, of pinecone scales at the feet of the towering white pines - leavings from a winter-long banquet eaten high overhead. It reminded me of an old communion hymn that stuck in my head for the rest of my walk, and which I have no problem appropriating for the squirrels:

This is the hour of banquet and of song/
This is the heavenly table spread for me/
here let me feast, and feasting, still prolong
the brief bright hour of fellowship with thee.

5:12 PM |

Is it spring that has loosed the tongues and brought forth the running sap to flow in our pens? There are jewels on the web today, please go and gather some for yourself:

There's Tom Montag at The Middlewesterner, having breakfast with newfound friend Clayton Olson at a cattle sale barn in Rugby, ND (?).

There's Dave at Via Negativa, hearing the tundra swans - my God, what a beautiful piece of writing.

And over at CommonBeauty, an epistolary treasure on the archaeology of childhood is being birthed - one of the most original and lovely collaborative projects I've yet seen on the web.

We are lucky people.

12:29 PM |

Wednesday, March 10, 2004  

A cliche, I know, but they've been cheering me up all day and I wanted to share them.

4:26 PM |

Some Girls Want Out is an article from the London Review of Books by Hilary Mantel about "spectacular female saintliness", but in particular about female saints who starved themselves.

In this long, troubling, sometimes creepy, and fascinating article, Mantel considers women portrayed in four books, The Voices of Gemma Galgani: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Saint by Rudolph Bell and Cristina Mazzoni; Saint Thérèse of Lisieux by Kathryn Harrison; The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty by Helen King; and A Wonderful Little Girl: The True Story of Sarah Jacob, the Welsh Fasting Girl by Sian Busby.

"Starvation was a constant in these women's lives. It melted their flesh away, so that the beating of their hearts could be seen behind the racks of their ribs. It made them one with the poor and destitute, and united them with the image of Christ on the cross... Like her medieval predecessors, Gemma Galgani received the stigmata, the mark of Christ's wounds. Like them, she was beaten up by devils. Like them, she performed miracles of healing after her death. When you look at her strange life, you wonder what kind of language you can use to talk about her - through which discipline will you approach her?"

She tells of their lives, which are bizarre regardless of how you look at them, but then - and this is the truly fascinating part - considers "holy anorexia" in relationship to the anorexia epidemic of today -- what common factors might be at work? What options for control did these unusual women have, and why were they exercising them? Were these saints also trying to evade their sexuality and femininity? Why did the church find their actions so problematic, and why are we so profoundly disturbed by young anorexic women today while we allow young men to exert other kinds of destructive control over their bodies?

"Bell and Mazzoni demonstrate how potentially subversive Gemma's physical eloquence was. The saint first affected by the stigmata was Francis of Assisi, but it has afflicted many more women than men. It insists on the likeness of the believer's body to that of Christ. It argues that the gender of the redemptive body does not matter. It undermines the notion of a masculine God. It shows that Christ can represent women and women can represent Christ - no wonder it makes the church nervous. There is a trap the church has created for itself - it wants Jesus to have a gender but not sexuality. Under the loincloth of the crucified Christ, what would you find? Only a smooth groin of wood or plaster. His ability to love has to centre on some other organ..."

"Anorexia itself seems like mad behaviour, but I don't think it is madness. It is a way of shrinking back, of reserving, preserving the self, fighting free of sexual and emotional entanglements. It says, like Christ, 'noli me tangere.' Touch me not and take yourself off. For a year or two, it may be a valid strategy; to be greensick, to be out of the game; to die just a little; to nourish the inner being while starving the outer being; to buy time..."

Perhaps not before-dinner reading, but I'd love to hear what other people think. As for myself, I've never been able to fast very much, and never had any urge to, but I am very fond of a young woman who struggled with anorexia throughout her adolescence. I don't pretend to understand it; all I could do was catch glimpses of possible reasons, speculate privately, and try to let her know I loved her for the unique beauty and spirit that she seemed to despise in herself. I recently read a memoir by an Episcopal priest about her own anorexia, and it failed to explain much beyond the fact that this young woman, too, hated herself. Mantel's well-written article gave me a new perspective; she asks more questions than she answers, and gave me a lot to ponder about women, our bodies, and the offerings we choose to make of them.

4:18 PM |

Tuesday, March 09, 2004  

Ashura in Karbala.
Photographs by Ali Khaligh from (some of these are pretty bloody, so be forewarned).

To better understand what you're seeing in these photographs, read Nancy's vivid description of an Ashura observance, at under the fire star.

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments on politics and Cassandra. I never had any intention of radically changing this blog, and your feedback reinforces that, as well as my own hunches about what people like and don't like about this site. I sure do love you and your honesty. Thank God for opinions and people who aren't afraid to express them!

I've been on a cooking binge, trying to stock up the freezer for days when I/we don't have time. This afternoon I made a big pot of beef and celery khoresh, a Persian stew flavored with turmeric, dried lemon, fresh parsley (tons of parsley), tomato paste, chili, and dried mint. It's very good; you eat it on rice with yogurt. And I made a pot of spaghetti sauce. And a lot of jasmine rice. Whenever I dip my hand into my small container of dried lemon, with its dark brown, uneven, somewhat soft and pungent pieces, I wonder if these lemons were spread out in the sun or on a radiator somewhere, the way Shirin talks about. "We picked them from the trees in the courtyard," she told me, "and set them out to dry. And then you crack them with a hammer and break them into little pieces." The flavor they impart is entirely different from lemon juice - dusky, complex, and very sour.

A few other recommendations:

Maria's post on Martha Stewart, "Dust Bunny Blues", over at alembic.

Yesterday's Fresh Air interview with world religion scholar Karen Armstrong, about her new memoir, The Spiral Staircase. I've found Armstrong's books pretty dry, but this memoir of her life as a young nun and her dislocating re-entry into a world of Vietnam protest, hippies, and the Beatles sounds fascinating. As a young woman she was also diagnosed, after five distressing years, as having temporal lobe epilepsy, the same disease as Dostoyevsky - which can cause "religious" symptoms.

Neal Ascherson's riveting essay on Georgia (the one in the Caucasus), "After the Revolution", in The London Review of Books. Don't miss the part about the Dmanisi , tiny hominids who lived in what is now Georgia 1.7 million years ago.

Evan Maxwell's letter about journalism and blogging, from the LA Times (thanks, Marjorie!)

8:21 PM |

Monday, March 08, 2004  

GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE (across the Hudson River, just north of Manhattan)

One of my favorite structures, both because I think it's beautiful and because seeing it means you're almost there.

5:28 PM |


I'm curious - how do people feel about political discussions on this blog? (I know, it's my blog, but you are my guests, and we're into radical hospitality, remember?) I have no intention of making this a political blog, for reasons I've stated before, but occasionally there is something that I feel I want to say, or a pertinent link to share, especially when it has to do with the other topics that we frequently focus on here, such as religious pluralism or world culture. Some people have felt the need to apologize to me for making heated (well, not even heated!) remarks in the comment threads. You know, it doesn't bother me at all. If you were all here in person, we'd argue about all those taboo topics: religion, sex, and politics - but I doubt if we'd come to blows. Especially because the readership of this blog is quite diverse, I gratefully encourage and welcome all of your views, and all I ask is that people be respectful of one another, as you almost always are.

But how do you feel about the topic in general? As I told one commenter, I started this blog in reaction to my own burn-out after two years of intense political and peace work, especially regarding the Middle East. I purposely want people to come to The Cassandra Pages and find something that makes them feel better, not worse, and to discover kindred spirits who still believe there is value and hope in thinking, and art, and compassion for one another. On the other hand, I think we all are trying to grapple with today's world and trying to gain understanding and help each other through a very difficult time. So how do you feel about politics - do you want to see it here or not?

5:25 PM |

Sunday, March 07, 2004  
It's been a long weekend. Friday night we curled up in bed and watched "Frida". Saturday, my usual housework day, I did everything I could: cleaned the bathroom, did the laundry and ironing, tidied up the living area and then spent most of the afternoon in the kitchen, making some food for the week ahead (some aromatic chinese beef spiced with star anise) and the meal for that night's dinner with three of our Muslim friends - salmon with a crushed cumin/coriander seed crust and spicy citrus salsa; a pilaf of kasha, onion, carrot and orzo; green salad; French bread; Arabic pastries from Montreal and Iranian ones that Shirin brought from Los Angeles, along with strawberries for dessert. J. made his mother's famous sambusek, deep-fried pastries filled with cheese, scallions, and parsley. The guests stayed until nearly midnight discussing Iranian politics, the Iraqi constitution, various Shii and Sunni beliefs about jinn, the spirits who gave rise to the term "genie", and telling hilarious jokes from Iran and Morocco. We also got into an intense discussion about Mel Gibson's "Passion" (which none of us had seen yet) and issues of language and authenticity in the Bible and in Muslim hadiths; at one point we had four different reference sources arrayed on the table along with the dessert as we looked for parallel passages in Luke and Matthew.

Shirin, who loves to laugh and tell stories, told about how one time when she had a cast on her arm she woke in the night and it itched so much she thought a jinn had gotten hold of her. She tried to pray, but found she couldn't say the name of Allah - it was like "the jinn had stopped up my mouth". She got really scared; they were living in a house surrounded by woods at the time, and jinn are supposed to live in the woods. Finally she remembered a sequence of chanted prayers that led up to the name of God again and that time she managed to get it out - and she said whatever was holding her tongue let go, and she was all right. "If it hadn't let go I would have gone crazy and I was worrying even then that my husband would put me in a home for insane people. See, I never would have met you!" she said to me, tragically. "What would you have done?" she said, laughing, turning to her husband.

"Kashke kashtan sabz nashod", he replied. "It's a Farsi saying, translated loosely as "I planted an 'if', and it didn't bloom."

Today - church and choir beginning at nine, then a drive to Concord for the formal investiture of Gene Robinson as the Diocesan Bishop of New Hampshire, taking over from the retiring Bishop Theuner. It was a very happy occasion, more of a family" affair for the diocese itself than the consecration was, with much less pomp, fewer media and security forces, and more personality - but by the time we got home, we were both very tired indeed. I'm hoping for a happier and more restful week to come.

10:10 PM |

Saturday, March 06, 2004  

A photo journal following two Iranian Shiia pilgrims during their stay in Karbala, Iraq, from the BBC. Karbala is second only to Mecca in holiness to Shiia Muslims. This couple had gone there for Ashoura, the commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein in 680, a grandson of Prophet Mohammed. (Hussein's tomb is in Karbala.)

I came to Karbala six months ago, at the first opportunity after the war, with my two sons," Mohsen said.

"That time we crossed the border illegally, walking eight hours across mountains, guided by people smugglers.

"This time we travelled here more comfortably by bus. The border is open to Iranian pilgrims during Ashoura. You don't even need to show your passport."

4:45 PM |

Friday, March 05, 2004  
The Middle East and Kerry

From Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo) an analysis of the difference (little) a Kerry presidency would make in the Middle East:

Kerry asserts that, "history and our own best interests demand that the United States maintain a steady policy of friendship and support for Israel." In December, he lambasted former front- runner Vermont Governor Howard Dean for proposing that the US adopt an "even-handed" approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tellingly, Kerry said that, "Every candidate who aspires to be president should know that Israel is a democracy and our closest ally in the region."

For Kerry, the burden of renewing stalled peace talks does not rest on Ariel Sharon, who "is willing to make peace" but does not "see a committed partner in peace on the Palestinian side". He believes, instead, that the violence is triggered by "militant Palestinian groups bent on destroying the peace process," rather than by Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza.

With this understanding of a cycle of Arab aggression and Israeli self-defence, it is only natural that Kerry insists that "Palestinians must stop the violence -- this is the fundamental building block of the peace process." After this step, Israel should "alleviate hardships on the Palestinian people", a move which evidently does not involve dismantling the separation wall or the vast majority of settlements.


From Conscientious, a remarkable, raw tour of Chernobyl today by a Kawasaki-riding young Russian woman whose attitude toward risk is as worth reflecting upon as the images she shows us. (Be sure to keep clicking "next" at the bottom of each page.)

The word CHERNOBYL scares holly bijesus out of people here. If I tell someone that I am heading in "dead zone"... you know, what I hear.. In best case- "are you nuts?" My dad used to say that people afraid of a things which they don't know. Dad is nuclear physicist and he also says that of all dangerous things he can only think about one, which is riding on fifth or sixth gear on my bike. In any way, dad and their team work in "dead zone" for last 18 years. They doing researches from the day when nuclear disaster happened. The rest of guys in a team are microbiologists, doctors, botanists.. etc. I was 7 years old back then...

5:10 PM |


GRAND CENTRAL STATION, from the outside

Well, it had to happen eventually - I kind of crashed yesterday. This has been such a stressful and hectic period, and yesterday the tiredness and disappointment and anger all added up to a miserable afternoon, and a non-restful night. Arrayed around the edges of my consciousness was a jeering line-up of doubt-devils, taunting me with "You'll never write a book without that deadline!" "It's too late for this subject anyway!" and "Nobody else will want to publish it!" Today, however, I feel like I'm getting back on track, and realizing that one way or another, I'll find the right project and the right focus. In fact this morning I thought, wryly, how good it was that none of those pitchfork-jabbing comments had been "Ha,ha, and guess what? Your writing is no good!" Progress! I think I've vaporized that one.

Nobody's mood is being helped up here by the weather, which is uniformly grey, drizzly, and clammy-cold. It's just about the ugliest time of year too, with the mud, road sand on the rotting snowbanks, splashing mud puddles, and a winter's worth of debris emerging from underneath the snow. March is a season of enduring, and of hopes raised and dashed and raised again.

But realizing that I suddenly have the prospect of some TIME is quite astounding. Last night I went to choir rehearsal for the first time in three weeks and started catching up on a folder-full of new music, including a Bach cantata we're performing at Evensong at the end of March. I also not only stepped foot in my studio, but did a pile of ironing that had accumulated in there, dusted off my bookpress and sewing-frame, and began work on a small handbound book. I've been playing the piano - Bach and Mendelssohn - a little every night this week, and knitting an inch or two on my grass-green Gansey, now almost two years in the making. I know I won't keep all these activities up, but right now they are absolutely restorative. And tomorrow I intend to get back to writing about something other than myself!

3:10 PM |

Wednesday, March 03, 2004  


I took far too many pictures in New York; in a day or two I'll post some to the photoblog part of this site. I hadn't been in Grand Central Station for a long time; it was shiny, squeaky clean with newly-added (I think) gigantic American flags. For those who haven't seen the many movie scenes shot here or had their own romantic encounters, "meeting by the clock in Grand Central" - that's it, in the center - evokes memories of a lot of leaping and crushed hearts. Overhead is a big dome painted with the constellations. And the Oyster Bar was on strike.


That's the Chrysler Building rising above the reflective surfaces of other skyscrapers on East 42nd Street as we headed out of the city. At the end of this street is the East River, and the United Nations Plaza.

8:16 PM |

Why, oh why, didn't I take my camera with me to the polls yesterday? We went to vote around suppertime. In our town, voting is held in the high school gym, which you approach along a sidewalk lined with candidates and their spouses and friends, holding handmade posters and coffee cups, trying to keep warm. Yesterday was a pretty nice day here, so the dozen or so campaigners weren't bundled up beyond recognition, and we shook hands and greeted neighbors on our way into the polls.

The school gym is a typical one with bright fluorescent lights, a hardwood floor, and blue-and-white banners for each year's basketball teams hung on the walls. It smells of sweat and wrestling mats. The bleachers were folded up, and the voting booths set up in a long line against one wall, side by side, rickety aluminum legs holding the shelf inside, and faded red-white-and-blue vertically striped curtains, hip-length, on a rod at the top of each booth. The voter checklists were arrayed on tall, slanted plywood display boards, and members of the Board of Civil Authority were stationed at several strategic places in the alphabet, ready to check us off. (This voter checklist is the only official place where my last name is the same as my husband's - why, I can't remember.) "Democratic or Republican ballot?" they asked, after making a pencil mark next to our names. "Democratic," we replied, and went to the table where we were handed three ballots - a lavender one for the presidential primary, orange for local elections, and tan for the school board. Most of the local contests had only one candidate listed for each office; for "lister" - the folks who determine the assessed value of each house for the town's grand list - there were no candidates at all, just a write-in space. One of our neighbors was running - passing out blue cards with his name on it in the gauntlet outside the gym - so we wrote him in.

When I came out of my booth there was a long line of voters waiting to feed their ballots into the electronic vote-counting machine. A young woman, holding her little girl by the hand, took the place in back of me in line. "What are we doing, Mommy?" the daughter asked.

"We're taking our ballots and waiting in this line so that we can put them in the machine."

"What's a ballot?"

It looked like a pretty good turnout. I always like seeing who shows up; there were quite a few people we know, including old-timers coming out of the woodwork, and many we don't. The woman in front of me, in a cabled handknit sweater, was talking about her woodstove, and how if she were single she didn't think she'd have one. In front of her was a young man in a Harley-Davidson motorcycle jacket and a black kerchief, carefully arranging his ballots.

As we left the gym an elderly friend came in from outdoors. "Clyde is running out of cards," she said. "Are there any more lying around in here?"

"There were some in this garbage barrel," I told her, not admitting that was where I had put mine. "Here, let me scrounge for some." I bent over and riffled through the contents of the big trash barrel, near a table where young girls were selling Girl Scout cookies. I pulled out all the blue cards I could find while J. looked on, amused.

"Here," I said, handing her a handful of cards.

"Great!" she said, with a big smile. "That will hold us for a while."

9:09 AM |

Monday, March 01, 2004  


Out for a drive, midday; nearly 50 degrees here. These were the first sap buckets I've seen this year, hanging on some old maples near the road, with a russet-colored farm horse nearby, staring at me. I also had my first mud-driving of the year, when I started up a dirt road and wisely turned around before I couldn't. No one who hasn't experienced "mud season" can imagine it: frozen roads turning to mud, sometimes a foot or more deep, with ruts that freeze overnight and thaw to create mires that one can only navigate by getting a fast running start and hoping for the best.

Half of me is still in the city; this juxtaposition is pretty extreme. On Sunday afternoon we walked down the street to the congregational church parish hall, where there was a retirement party for our postmaster, a woman we've known for years. It was real small-town Americana: fifty people sitting uncomfortably on chairs around the edges of the room, awkward and funny speeches, a surprising poem from a shy woman, a spontaneous song, a tribute by the guest who had flown in all the way from Wisconsin, the red-white-and-blue crepe paper decorations, the little American flags on the tables, the sheet cake - half cake and half icing -made by a local person in the form of a big letter with stamps and address and cancellation, the church ladies patiently waiting in the kitchen doorway for the speeches to be finished so they could pour the coffee. It was good to be reminded that people can be simple and sincere.

I'm tired. But it has been good to have a little time to knit and play the piano. Last night I played through Bach's First Partita, not particularly well but enjoyably, and tonight played partway through the Second. My fingers feel stiff and my technique, such as it is, is rusty, but the feeling and the pleasure are there. I wonder why I go so far away from music sometimes, when every day has fifteen minutes that could be devoted to the oasis that it creates, but music itself contains the answer: it is the silences between notes that make music come alive.

10:44 PM |

Sunday, February 29, 2004  


Could anything be more heartening than having a group of supportive friends like those of you who have written and commented in the last few days? Or could there be a better reason for taking the high road? The only better thing would be having a big party with all of you there. Thank you so much.

If I had a trumpet, I'd play you an extended riff, like the music that wafts out of The Blue Note, maybe the most famous jazz club in Greenwich Village. Our close friends live around the corner. When you come out of the subway onto West 3rd, you pass the handball courts and the parking garage, and then the clubs start, along with the neighborhood groceries and little restaurants. Unlike 42nd Street, uptown, where the dealers and hookers and bums have been shoved out and replaced by cops, here the Village seems unchanged. Late Thursday night, after our meetings, we were glad to come downtown to more familiar territory, where improvisation is favored over strategic decision-making, and raw art still an appreciated currency.

10:17 PM |

I'm so relieved! There will be a five-second delay in the broadcast of the Oscars so that any unexpected indecency can be scrubbed. For the British take on our foolishness, read No sex, please, we're American from today's BBC.
10:09 AM |

Saturday, February 28, 2004  

NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY. The banner reads "Russia and the World".

Well, we ran into three problems with our book contract. The first was a completely unexpected bombshell: the sales manager insisted that the book needed to be completed not by the end of July, but by the end of MAY in order to make the annual religious bookseller's fair, and have a chance of being reviewed in Publisher's Weekly and in major newspapers. She's probably right - but why weren't we (and the editor) told that before we came up with an approved schedule? The second problem was money - we would be underwriting the cost of the book to a very significant degree even after the advance, and the accelerated schedule would make that cost even greater and more disproportionate. And the third, and to me, most serious problem was a clear indication that there would be editorial interference with the content and tone of the book. This is, after all, a book about integrity. I'd like to preserve mine as well.

So we didn't sign, and will make a final decision soon after talking to some other people. I'm disappointed but not devastated, and grateful that I'm 51 and fairly savvy, as opposed to being so eager that I would have leapt at any chance and found myself in a mess.

Thursday was a strange day. In the morning I took a long walk by myself up Fifth Avenue, all the way to Central Park. I passed the New York Public Library: there's a photo of me there, next to the lions, from my very first trip to New York when I was five. I walked past Rockefeller Center, and stopped to admire the window displays at Saks, and listened to the bells reverberate off the skyscrapers from St. Patrick's Cathedral at exactly 10:00 am. I gave some change to a homeless man sitting in front of a fancy store, and waited for the next light next to a woman in high heels, a sable coat, and carrying a big Vuitton handbag. That's New York: all the extremes, all at once. As I stepped onto the pink granite tiles that form the sidewalk in front of the Trump Tower, a young woman came toward me talking earnestly on her cell phone. "You can't believe it," she was saying to someone far away. "This place is just - awesome."

I thought about being that little girl in front of the library, dazzled by Manhattan; about how she turned into a bookworm; about all those New Yorker magazines my family had read for years; all that talk of the literary scene; the dreams of one day writing a book myself. There was no telling what would happen in our meetings later that day, but I knew that a board of New York editors had read and liked my writing enough to recommend pubishing it, and that there was a contract in my room, ready to sign if I wanted to. It was a beautiful day, the warm morning light shining on the buildings, cool air on my face as I walked, light on my feet: it was a great feeling, and the memory of it will stay with me. That night, after the meetings , I felt sad and disappointed and angry, but I still felt like I was part of this great city in a new way, a way I never had before. Or maybe I felt like I could finally take it or leave it; that I was less dependent on its steely, glassy, lofty judgment, and that I'd arrived at a different definition of success.

10:22 PM |

Friday, February 27, 2004  


ASH WEDNESDAY FURS (Outside St. Patrick's Cathedral, Fifth Avenue)

We made a very good presentation but came home without making a deal; more news on that front tomorrow. But in blogging news: Cassandra and Language Hat got together for a drink close to the New York Public Library, and she would like to report that LH is just as erudite, charming, and amusing as you would expect from his blog, that he arrived wearing a hat, has good taste in beer, and that he had just bought a book from the Library sale (which she never got to, sad to say).

New York was exhilarating and exhausting, and we're glad to be home.

8:58 PM |

Tuesday, February 24, 2004  


Fortune cookies, Montreal-style (I've flipped the paper over in the second view).

I hope these, from last weekend, are accurate. We're heading to the Big Apple early tomorrow morning for two days of meetings and talks about the potential book and the contract details. We'll be giving a presentation on Thursday morning to the corporate, editorial, sales, and marketing people and having a business meeting later in the day.

It will be good to be in the city again. We haven't been in New York for a year; the last time was for the big demonstration against the Iraq war last February 15th, and that was a day trip - down on a very early bus and back late that night - a cruel way to encounter and be yanked out of our favorite city. Yes, I do love New York best, but it's too expensive now for us to even consider living there or going for more than short visits. Still, there's no other city like it, and I look forward to feeling that pulse again - camera in hand.

5:22 PM |

Monday, February 23, 2004  


The light streaming in from the south is so dazzling it burns my eyes, and I have to get up and walk away from the window. I carry the teapot back into the kitchen, and crouch down, cat-like, to stretch my back, looking out in the other direction. Here on the north side the world is still cool, caressed by long blue shadows of trees. Elliptical snowshoe tracks lead to the bird feeder -- and delicate hopping tracks lead from the feeder to the cherry tree. The shadow of the feeder sways against the snow, and behind it, stiff wheat-colored stalks of hosta click dryly against each other. Out in front, by the street, water is dripping over the stone wall, and moss softens, greens. But here the tears of the weeping peaberry are frozen like a Russian heroine's, abandoned on the steppes, listening for wolves.

4:20 PM |

Sunday, February 22, 2004  

All-night grocer, Montreal. We double-parked here while J. ran in to a place called Al-Taib - ("Good") on the other side of the street to get Middle Eastern fast-homecooked-food.

Last week at this time we were driving back from Montreal. This morning the preaching went well - I was relaxed, and people were open and responsive. It was World Mission Sunday, and I spoke on "Re-Thinking World Mission", saying basically that the time for Christian mission to convert people is over; mission now needs to mean learning to respect and get along with each other - especially Christians and Muslims - despite differences.) Later we had brunch with the priest and her partner, I ran some errands, took an unusual (for me) nap and then we worked. It was pretty warm today - over 30 degrees.

Shirin just called from Santa Monica where she's vacationing and having a few job interviews. All winter she's been pining for Shiraz and telling us, "There really are warmer places to live, you know." When we go north for a break in the middle of winter, she just shakes her head and says, "you're crazy."

"I'm not coming back," she announced today on the phone. "It's like June here. Flowers everywhere. The bougainvilla are blossoming, the impatiens are tall, almost gone by."

"I know," I said, a little sullenly.

"I told my husband he can come back and sell the house. I'm staying here."

"You don't love me," I said. (She likes this sort of banter; it's very Middle Eastern. I've learned how to do it as a means of self-preservation, like learning how to refuse food. Otherwise it gets done to you.)

"You can come visit. "

"Now I know you really don't love me, if you're talking like that."

"It's easy, you just get on a plane. You wouldn't believe how beautiful it is out here, flowers, warm..."

"I do know. My California blogger friends have been posting pictures and talking about blooming trees. It's awful."

"No, it's great!"

"You can't move. If you move I'll starve."

Silence. "Oh."

"I mean it. What will we eat if you go away?"

"OK." She's laughing now. "Then I guess I have to come back."

She doesn't know I'm serious!

8:47 PM |

Saturday, February 21, 2004  
Ivy, who writes one of my new favorite blogs, Tonio, and others have been talking about authors giving readings, about stagefright, about how much talking the writer should do by way of explanation or introduction. It's all very interesting to me, since I used to have really bad nerves about reading and public speaking, but have (mostly) gotten over it just by dint of performing and reading again and again. I think maybe you just wear the fear out, or the kindness and generosity of strangers softens the edges enough that you can cope.

I remember being forced to enter a prize-speaking contest in high school by my social-studies teacher. We had to write, memorize and deliver a ten-minute speech from the assembly-hall stage to the entire student body. The topic was "What the Flag of the United States Means to Me", and the sponsor of this annual contest was the American Legion. Out in the back somewhere were judges who scored each contestant, and the winner went on to the county level. It was 1968. Great topic for those years, wasn't it? I have no idea what I wrote, but I remember practicing and practicing, feeling like I was preparing for my own execution. Right before the speech, I was walking down a school hallway and somebody opened a door into the side of my head. I stood in the wings of the auditorium, with an ice pack pressed to my ear, knees knocking, palms sweating, sure I would either throw up or faint. When it was my turn, I went out, gave the speech, didn't forget anything, and rushed off the stage in relief. An hour later, when everyone had finished, the judges announced the winner - it was me. I was in shock - that meant I had to go through it all again. At the county level, I started my speech and delivered the first paragraph, then two out-of-order sentences, and went mute. I stood in the center of the stage while my best friend and prompter tried to find the cue; it remains one of the longest pauses of my life. She finally whispered the right lines, I went into auto-pilot, finished and came in last.

Tomorrow morning I'm preaching at the 8:00 and 10:00 services in a friend's Episcopal Church, and actually looking forward to it. Preaching has to be one of the weirdest forms of literary performance; although I'll have my written text I'll try not to "read" it word for word but to use it as a guide. But you never know exactly what's going to happen with the spoken word, or so it seems to me. The audience is always different and impossible to judge beforehand; sometimes indifferent, sometime receptive, occasionally right there with you.

I'm very grateful when I get the opportunity to read my work or speak in public. You learn a lot about your writing in a very immediate way that isn't even apparent when you practice: the awkward phrase stumbles across the room; the uncertain statement sounds metallic and brittle when spoken; you inwardly cringe at excessive wordiness you never quite noticed, and fall into the gaps left in your logic; you trip over missing beats in the rhythm of phrases. It's humbling but illuminating, and still some dear person usually comes up afterwards and says something sweet, and if you've managed to reassemble your wits you can say a simple "thank you" instead of some self-deprecating remark you'll regret all the way home.

8:41 PM |

Friday, February 20, 2004  

CORN SNOW forming on the porch roof

Awoke this morning in a very cheery mood. "I'll get the coffee," said J., emerging from our six-inch-thick down comforter and leaving me there to snuggle for a few more minutes. "Oh!" he said, passing unde the bedroom skylight that gives us a view of daylight sky to the south, and the moon and stars at night. "It looks like a summer day." "What do you mean," said the sleepy voice from the bed. "Hazy, a few high clouds, bright sun. Looks like it's about 70, and headed for a 90-degree and humid."

These are the kinds of mind-games we indulge in up here during February and March as insanity plays about the edges of our cooped-up, frozen consciousnesses. The actual temperature was 10 degrees, and from my window, as I sit as the desk with my coffee, already feeling my feet grow cold, I can see the snow-covered roofs and lawns that the skylight view hides. But in a way, he is right. The light is changing now, not just in duration but quality: brighter, higher, and a different color temperature. Maybe I wouldn't notice that as much if I weren't married to a photographer who talks about color temperature. But I find that we are highly sensitive to the most subtle changes in light, and in environmental sounds - and this is from a bumbling human perspective. How much more we would notice if we were finely-tuned, by habit and the imperative of survival, to our natural environment.

Yesterday morning, an unfamiliar bird sound. Just a few notes, and it was gone - but a redwing, I think. Something I haven't heard for many months, and may not again - he's very early. But the willows are turning yellow, and the snow is "rotting", as we call it up here - turning old and crystalized, breaking up into the granular spring consistency called "corn snow". It won't be long before the first sap buckets hang on the knarled old maples, and the frozen ground yields mud.

8:46 AM |

Thursday, February 19, 2004  
A poem by Peter Balakian from Sad Days of Light. I found this one at The Legacy Project, which is a repository of visual and literary art created in response to the great losses of the last century. Balakian's book of prose, Black Dog of Fate, tells the story of how he finally pieced together his own Armenian heritage and the harrowing story of what had happened to his people. My mother-in-law gave us this book, in lieu of telling the story herself. It always reminded me of giving a child a book explaining sex when the parent cannot bear to talk about it, except that this book explains death. (Balakian is a professor of English at Colgate University, and he has also written some very beautiful and funny poems.)

For Grandmother, Coming Back

For the dusty rugs,
and the dye of blue-roots,
for the pale of red stomachs of sheep,
you come back.
For the brass ladle
and the porous pot of black
from your dinner of fires,
I call your name like a bird.

For the purple fruit
for the carrots like cut fingers
for the riverbed damp
with flesh,
you come back.

For the field of goats
wet and gray,
for the hoofs and sharp bones
floating in the broth,
I wave my arms full of wind.

For the tumbling barrel
of red-peppers,
for the milled mountain of wheat
for the broken necks
of squash fat and full of seed,
I let my throat open.

9:28 PM |

Wednesday, February 18, 2004  

Several of you seemed interested in the Armenian heritage I mentioned in the last post. My mother-in-law was a refugee from the genocide in which her father and nearly all her male relatives were killed. She and her mother and two small brothers were fortunate to be helped by some American representatives of Near East Relief, who helped the family flee by boat to Alexandria where there were refugee camps. Her parents were both professional people who spoke many languages fluently and had some western education in Europe: her father was a doctor and translator and her mother a nurse. The father had been kept alive by the Turks for his usefulness as a translator, until one day when he was taken away and executed. There is only one picture of him that survived; my husband looks a lot like him.

In the family, we didn't talk about these things very much, mainly because my mother-in-law didn't want to instill hatred in her children by telling horrible stories of the past. Instead she would show me beautiful embroideries she had made or been given by the Armenian refugee women during those early years in Egypt, or make all of us feasts of food drawn from the cuisines of Armenia, Lebanon, and Syria. She was a very fine cook, and an articulate and literate woman, and finally wrote a remarkable memoir during the last few years of her life. She was a Quaker and always worked for peace, coming with us to Women in Black vigils in protest of the Intifada and the Iraq War even when she was too weak to stand.

With one of her granddaughters, she went back to her childhood home in Konya several years before she died. She said the Turkish hosts and bus drivers were lovely people, but no one knew or told the truth. Passing some landmark, she would say, "Wasn't there an Armenian church here once?", or some such remark, and the guide would always answer, "Oh, no, there were never any Armenians here."

Still, she loved the trip, and we all treasure a picture of her there with her beloved granddaughter, beaming, in a field of poppies.

8:54 PM |

Tuesday, February 17, 2004  

TURKISH TEA at "Merveilles d'Istanbul"

My husband, who is half Armenian, finds it difficult to enter Turkish establishments, but as we walked into this tiny restaurant he said, "It's all right, I don't need to let the past affect everything about my life today." The restaurant was run by one man, working alone, and on the menu, which came to the table in a small, tooled leather cover, were many dishes my mother-in-law used to cook. We ordered two versions of kebab; cut marinated beef on skewers for J., and the ground, spiced lamb-and-veal on flat skewers for me. The wonderful kebabs came with a shredded carrot salad dressed with vinegar, a salad of lettuce and onions, and fried potatoes so good that we each saved them for last. But the best part of the meal was the tea; perfect, fragrant, amber.

Here is Osip Mandelstam, from his Journey to Armenia:

"The Armenian language cannot be worn out: its boots are made of stone. And of course its word is thick-walled, its semivowels seamed with air. But is that all its charm? No! Then where does one's craving for it come from? How to explain it? Make sense of it?

I felt joy in pronouncing sounds forbidden to Russian lips, secret sounds, outcast - and perhaps, on some deep level, shameful.

There was some beautiful boiling water in a pewter teapot and suddenly a pinch of wonderful black tea was thrown into it.

That's how I felt about the Armenian language."

8:14 PM |

Monday, February 16, 2004  

The anti-Lebanon Mountains, Bludan, Syria, from a site (this amazing web!) devoted to longhorn beetles (Cerambycidae) of the West Palaearctic*, and accounts of expeditions to find them.

A Postscript on outdoor eating, and Food and Place

Last week, at the retirement home, my father-in-law slowly made his way to the table carrying a plate of food from the lunchtime buffet. "Ah," he said, sitting down heavily. "Chili con carne." To my surprise, the usually bland menu had included chili, and it was spicy.

"It's good," I said.

"Yes!" he replied, eating a big forkful. "I have such happy memories of chili con carne." He said the word as if he were tasting it, in his Damascene accent, more as if it were Italian than Spanish. I raised my eyebrows; this was not what I expected. "You see, we were in Bludan once, myself and two of my students" (he mentioned their names, both people we have met who are now old men) "and we had hiked up in the mountains all day long. We made our camp for the night, and made a fire, and one of them brought out a can of chili con carne and heated it over the fire. That was our dinner. And it was so delicious! So wonderful!" I watched him eat his chili against a backdrop of other white-haired residents, some in wheelchairs, in the bright light of a midwinter noon, snow piled against the windows outside. "Ah!" he said again. "It brings it all back. The smell of the bougainvilla, the clean air in the mountains. Our youth." In all our meals together over twenty five years, I never remember my father-in-law eating chili. We ate Middle Eastern food, or Chinese food, or more-or-less American food- under protest - like what he was served now nearly every day. I wish I had known. Food and memory are indelibly linked for him, and my husband and I know that the stories a meal sometimes triggers are no longer infinite. It made me happy to watch him, one forkful after another, eyes partly closed, remembering.

*in case you were wondering what the West Palaearctic is, as I was: "The eastern border is formed by the Ural mountains (Russia), and passes southwards through the Caspian Sea and the north-western part of the Persian Gulf; the southern border runs through the Sahara desert and integrates the massifs of Hoggar Kibo, Air, Tibesti and Ennedi as well as a large part of Saudi Arabia. Canary Islands, of course, are part of the West Palaearctic region too." This particular expedition went to Syria and Turkey, and there are some other lovely pictures.

4:49 PM |

I'm guest-blogging on GLUTTONY today, as part of the series on the vices at CommonBeauty - so I hope you'll go there!
11:03 AM |

Sunday, February 15, 2004  

Back home, laden with baked goods from the Belgian boulangerie/patisserie we discovered down the block, and various Arabic breads from our favorite grocer. But it was not only the food that delighted my eye: above is a very small selection of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of fine and decorative papers available at Omer de Serres, a huge art supply store near UQAM (University of Quebec at Montreal). If you can believe it, I didn't buy a single sheet.

We hardly ever just take off on the spur of the moment, so this felt like a few stolen days in the middle of intense work. We slept and slept, in spite of a terrible bed that sank toward the middle both from the ends and the sides and was both small and short - the price of a last-minute reservation in the non-luxurious hotel we frequent there. We like it, though; as another guest told J., "I stay here because it's so close to all the art." The Place des Arts, Montreal's relatively new performing arts complex which also houses the contemporary art museum (this link wasn't working tonight; I'll check again tomorrow), is just a short walk away. The latter is one of our favorite places in the city, and we saw a fine show of political art by Dominique Blain. (It was, I have to add, not only political in content but good art as well; usually I would find such a show heavy-handed but she won me over.)

Has anyone seen a new Hungarian film called "Hukkle" (that's Hungarian for "hiccup")? Bizarre, original, and wonderful - but I'd love to hear what someone else thought of it.

9:39 PM |

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