Friday, December 30, 2011


For Christmas this year, Alex gave us a board game entitled The Settlers of Catan. It involves earning victory points by building settlements and cities across an island map. You trade cards which represent sheep, ore, brick, wood and wheat. On one level the game is like Snakes and Ladders, or that polar bear game where you jump across the ice floes. On another level it's more like Risk or Chess.

So apart from the cooking and the celebrating and the giving out of presents, we've huddled around a game board all week long, asking questions like "Who has any sheep?" and "Who has wheat for wood?" I've enjoyed asking questions like this. I like how wood and wheat, even virtual wood and wheat, have come to hold new meaning. I've embraced our addiction to the game, and I think we all admit we've been addicted - me and Rozzie, Alex, Elliot and Ali, to our huddle around the table.

For me it was mostly about camaraderie. I haven't formed strategy so much as rolled the dice and bought what I could - the odd Development Card, piece of road or settlement. Rozzie pointed out that she could almost imagine herself taking a country walk along one of the roads she'd built -past fields and woods and meadows full of sheep.

For me, it was very pastoral, the settling of Catan. It was mentally challenging too, but above all it was pastoral.

We needed few breaks. When Atli telephoned from England, Rozzie asked him to phone back later - "Sorry darling, I'll explain later. We're playing a new game call the Settlers of Catan!" When Alice suggested taking us all out to dinner, we happily ordered in, and ate our take away Chop n Chicken while we played. And once a game was over, after a walk or a game of ping pong, we found ourselves a little antsy until someone had the courage to ask if we were up for another round.

Several evenings, after Ben and I went to bed the kids continued playing until the wee hours of the morning. Ali looked it up on line and read about championship games - and decided that our most recent game was on the same level. Ben said the house had taken on the quality of a ski lodge. Ali pointed out that in several days he had only been out of the house once when we went to the cinema to see The Artist.

But the final game we played was not the same. Maybe it was a defense mechanism on my part. I was sorry to see the beginning of the end of this game time together.
I suffered a heavy blow when Elliot cut my road in two -"sorry Mum" but he needed to win some points. Then Ali won. After Rozzie won. And Alex won after that. And I had a profound realization - This was the story of my life.

It felt as if I had been playing Snakes and Ladders all through my life - happy to be one of the players in a game entirely determined by chance - while other people had minimized the element of chance by strategizing, and setting their sights on winning from the get go. They started out with one aim in mind and that was to win. They didn't care how cute the game was, or about the feeling that we were wandering down country lanes. They played the odds to their advantage - they captured ports and traded heavily, building up their cities and their holdings.

Christmas was coming to an end. All of us, for several days had been in Never-never land. And suddenly it was over. Today Clare left to go to Iowa, and Alex went to New York, and Ali returned to Canada. Rozzie has gone back to Oxford and Alice is back in Hingham Massachusetts. In one fell swoop they have left the house.

Ben and I spent the day vacuuming and mopping floors and doing loads of laundry. Apart from the Christmas tree and a few remaining mince pies, the house is restored to its pre holiday status. Elliot is still here for the next two weeks, with his friends all home from college. But all that cooking and drinking and giving of presents is over now - and so is all the settling of Catan.

Hey - anyone up for a game?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


I was in the Giant supermarket for a carton of milk, when I saw a local character – I’ll call him Charles – leaning on his zimmer frame walker, in the next but one check out line. I wasn’t in the mood for Charles, and I was in a hurry. I wanted to get back home to the house that has recently filled up with family. I’ve been acquainted with Charles for maybe fifteen years. I often stop to talk to him – or else he stops me. Sometimes I drive him back to his apartment, because he relies on the kindness of people like me to get where he is going. He is old and fairly immobile. Sometimes he asks or hints at his limited means, and I give him a little money. But I was in a rush, so at first I didn’t acknowledge him, thinking perhaps he might not see me. Since it is Christmas I felt well and truly ashamed, as I carried my provisions past where he was standing.

Then he noticed me.

“Hey!” he called.

“Oh hi Charles,” I said. “How are you doing?”

Turns out, he was hoping to buy some new corduroy trousers and needed two hundred dollars – he needed three pairs of trousers and they were expensive, “and I never seem to have any money.”

“It sounds very hard,” I said.

“It is,” he said. He was waiting for somebody else, there at the supermarket, somebody who had promised they might be able to help him.

Outside the Salvation Army guy was ringing his bell – and wearing an apron emblazoned with the words I am a bell ringer. “I would have thought that much was obvious,” Rozzie had observed.

“Charles,” I said, remembering the Christmas spirit. “I might be able to give you some money. But I don’t want the Giant employees to see us here and think that you are panhandling.”

“I don’t want that either,” Charles said in his shaky voice.

So I gave him what I had and we chatted a minute or two longer. He told me he was celebrating Christmas with people from the church. “Oh that sounds good,” I said. We parted on our usual friendly terms. And yet I felt ashamed. I wondered if I had given him the money to make myself feel less guilty. Or if I was doing what I could – or if I was doing something less than I could- because all Charles needs is human kindness, dignity and the ability to cope with his needs. That's what we all need, so why should I patronize. But there again, I could do better than I do.

The following day, Rozzie, Elliot and I along with my good friend Helen went to Old Town Alexandria to see one of my students in a production of A Christmas Carol. Before the show we wandered around King Street and did a little shopping. Rozzie found a spectacular blue parrot studded with beads and feathers to decorate our tree, and feeling very happy with the purchase, Helen said she’d treat us all to cupcakes. At the coffee counter in a little buzzing establishment off the main drag, Rozzie tried to get the waitress' attention, and gasped. “Jane?”

The girl behind the counter startled. “Roz!” she cried.

What a strange coincidence! It was an old friend from college who she hadn’t seen for several years. They exchanged pleasantries and decided that since Rozzie is back for the next few weeks, they must certainly get in touch. Yes, they absolutely must. Rozzie took Jane’s number, we said goodbye and left with our coffees.

Then as we were heading to the theatre, Roz remembered. Jane might have unfriended her on Facebook a few months back, although she couldn’t be sure. And wasn’t it a little strange, I put in, that Jane didn’t remember having met me, since she was our house guest in Rome for a week several years ago? Maybe Jane was feeling awkward. After all, she was at work. Or perhaps she was down on her luck. What did Roz and Jane have in common any more, we wondered. Was it a good idea to get back in touch?

Today Ben, Alex and Elliot moved a tall shelving unit from Elliot’s room, back to the basement, which Ben and Alex have recently remodeled. They moved a chest of drawers into Elliot’s bedroom, and a small table out of it, then a drafting table out of Alex’s room and into the basement – and a desk from the basement into Alex’s room, and a bedside table from the basement into Elliot’s room and a drum kit out of Elliot’s and into the basement.

At the end everyone felt irritable and uncomfortable. Elliot became a bit stroppy. He didn’t like it. Rozzie hugged him. “What’s the problem,” Ben asked. “We moved the stuff into your room as a temporary measure when we were redoing the basement.”

It turned out that it was just that Elliot’s room was getting further away from being his room. He’s been away at college and is understandably less invested in it than he was before. He sees now that the house and he are moving in different directions.

I know how he feels. Rozzie knows and so do Alex and Ben. That’s what happens when you move forward with life.

The Christmas holiday requires you to step back into a person you might have outgrown, or you might not feel like being just now. Sometimes you aren’t sure you want to reconnect. Sometimes you’re sure you do, but how can you do it, when you are a different person? You struggle to be charitable because that’s the Christmas spirit.

Monday, December 5, 2011


Last Christmas Eve it was too cold to stay outside on the terrace under the string of colored fairy lights. So we went indoors, and still dressed in coats, sitting in the narrow living room, the tree a haze of light, ornaments and the smell of pine, we decided on a game. We’d pick a Christmas, any Christmas, and go around the room telling stories.

Alex began by recalling the Christmas we spent in Venice. He was about twelve at the time and in his search for holiday gifts, went to the Christmas market in the square to join the bustle of Venetian last minute shopping. It was here he found a cloth bumble bee on a spring, bought it, wrapped it, and thought it just the thing.

Next Rozzie told her recollection, also of that Christmas spent in Venice. We had gone to San Marco Square. How cold it was with the smell of the canal. We went to Florians for tea. And she saw on the narrow lane near the bakery, a sock emporium, a place with beautiful socks for sale. In the window a mannequin’s leg, with toe pointed, had made a deep impression. It showed off a beautiful stocking, and at fourteen, she said to herself: This emporium is where I must buy socks! I must be a person who buys socks in a place such as this!

Elliot’s memory was also of that Christmas – of opening his present, a bag of plastic soldiers, which he played with all Christmas morning.

When I think of that Christmas, I remember it as bitterly cold and damp. The flat had heavy curtains and we ventured into the narrow streets and meandered wherever they took us, over bridges in the cold, filling our nostrils with the smell of canal water.

I had a cold. I remember feeling that I wanted to tap into something beyond ourselves. In visiting Florians Café, I was hoping to pick up some of the aura that Henry James had felt a hundred years before. I knew it was a stretch and that I had to force it in order to make myself feel what he had felt. Unfortunately Ben had been unwilling to play along, thinking the place too expensive, which of course it was. This is what must have put him in a mood.

So my children and I remembered that Christmas in Venice. What we wanted it to be and what it actually was. And somehow as we remembered, our stories combined with the story of the first Christmas itself, and with the story of that Christmas soon to be, in Falls Church, Virginia.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


A walk in the woods is like prayer - letting go of yourself in the presence of harmony. Hope is not the best place to settle. At some point it becomes irrelevant unless as a stepping stone to faith. When I walk in the woods it restores my faith.

I used to spend a lot of time trying to understand the Bible, attending and participating in church services. I don’t do that any more. And today as I walk in the woods I am thinking that maybe I ought to go to church after all, because it’s Thanksgiving, and in our church that was the custom – to go to church and after listening to a few readings and singing several hymns, members of the congregation were invited to stand and declare thanks.

But today as I’m walking in the woods, I'm declaring gratitude, only without others listening in – and without listening in to what others are thankful for.

I’m also thinking about my father who has been gone now for ten years. It hardly seems possible. I feel his presence today as I walk through the woods. Is it pure fancy or is there something to it? Maybe it has to do with a certain hymn my mother and I sang to him while he was, as a friend recently expressed it, making his transition. In those final hours together, praying with him and telling him we loved him, one of the hymns we sang was a thanksgiving hymn.

This is the day the Lord hath made, be glad, give thanks, rejoice! Stand in His presence unafraid, in praise lift up your voice.

We sang to the melody of Mendelssohn’s first Song without Words.

Today in the woods, where all the leaves have fallen from the trees, I heard birds singing. I also saw two deer crossing the path –a young buck and a doe. And later on a murder of crows settled in a neighbor’s trees.

It felt like March, with the birds and the sun and the green grass swept of leaves– much less like November. It was as if we might bypass winter altogether and head straight for spring. Would we miss winter if that happened, I wonder?

Last night Alex and Elliot and I read Psalm 46. I was showing them how the 46th word in is shake and the 46th word from the end is spear, hypothesizing that the bard himself had hidden this puzzle for us to find – that perhaps he had worked on the King James translation of the Bible. We got onto that because it was James I who gave his name to Jamestown and the James River in Richmond, and Elliot has come up from Richmond for the holidays.

Anyway, it’s Thankgiving. The turkey is in the oven and the family is gathered and I am feeling faithful. Hope without faith might well be irrelevant. It's best to move forward from that stepping stone, and one way of doing it for me, is to walk through the woods, leave myself there, and come out of the other end with a blessing.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


This is a wonderful debut novel - by Bonnie Nadzam.
I highly recommend it. Click on the title to read my review,
from earlier this year.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Talking with my son ALEX, a fire safety engineer on The Temple Of Transition, at this year’s BURNING MAN FESTIVAL

Alex and I were talking about magic – serendipity or the illusion of it – and as we often do these days, got onto the subject of The Burning Man Festival in Nevada. This year, he helped build the temple and then helped burn it down.

Amazing, I said, that the temple was constructed in order to burn it down. Reminds me of the artist Andy Goldsworthy. The very thing that brings his work to life, also brings about its destruction. The sun illuminates his ice sculptures and eventually causes them to melt. Once he constructed a hive out of driftwood at the convergence of two river currents so that when the tide came in the whole hive gradually floated away – stick by stick, to join the current, until it had gone.

But Goldsworthy says this doesn’t feel at all like destruction. It feels, instead, as though he has touched the heart of the place. Something magical.

When I went to Burning Man for the first time last year, I did feel I had touched on something magical. This year was very different.

Because that sense of everything being spontaneous was actually carefully organized behind the scenes?

That’s just it. This time I was on the organizational side of things – first helping to build the temple and then working out how they’d burn it down on the final day of the festival.

Furthermore, I got to go out last minute to do the surveying for the temple because I had some experience from my degree and so we went out there to the middle of the desert when there was nothing and helped lay out where the site would be and where the different temples would be.

So how was this experience different from your first experience, the year before?

For one, the temple was a very different building when I went the first time. It was called the Temple of Flux and it was natural forms – a canyon kind of thing. The theme of the festival was Metropolis, so in contrast, the temple was a canyon of natural forms.

It was very very moving the first year. And that particular quote that was written across the temple itself - not just the things I wrote on it – but the things you would read from other people.

What was written on the Temple of Flux?

“Be yourself because everyone else is already taken.” And that obviously had a big impact. It was in huge letters on the Temple of Flux.

That made a big impression.

It’s hard for me to describe why it was so particularly important to me. But I guess that at the time I went to the festival maybe I had been trying to be someone else, I don’t know.

I had a very pure experience of the festival as a participant at that temple, going by myself. But this year I arrived on site, and helped build it. I know about the building at all its stages – the engineering of it, thinking about how it would burn. It was a very different perspective.

What exactly was the design this year, again?

One central tower that was I think twenty-six feet across on the inside and then a hundred-and-twenty feet tall and five sixty-foot towers surrounding it, which were at each base, the footprints of them, like sixteen foot across –

In any case, there was one giant tower surrounded by the other towers, with ramps and cloisters connecting them.

The building was the spiritual heart of the festival. Although the festival is named after the 'man' the temple epitomizes the spiritual experience of Burning Man, whatever that might be.

The theme this year was Rites of Passage so it was the Temple of Transition. The different towers represented different things. Clockwise around it went Birth, Growth, Union, Decay and Death and the central one was the Temple of Gratitude. Just those names, in and of themselves, can suggest what the festival goers, The Burners, would write on the walls, how they would choose to remember or transpose their emotions onto the building. And then those are released at the end of the festival with the burning of the temple.

It was always moving and powerful to be there but in a very different way this year. It was moving and wonderful to see how successful the temple was….

What do you mean?

Every time you went there, the central area was full of people lying on the ground looking up at it, and people all around being very emotional and writing moving and personal messages all around it. That was the intention of the building, but I didn’t feel like I was able to connect to it as a pure spiritual or emotional symbol because I knew it as a building.

In that regard, almost like a character and an example of how it had grown. I would walk around and know I had hammered in certain plywood in a certain location or had a certain conversation at another spot during the building of it. It was like the building itself was a relic of the experience I had or was having as opposed to a conduit of emotion for my everyday life.

That’s how I feel about my sculpture. I don’t want to look at it once I’ve done it!

Being part of the creation of the experience wasn’t a psychological vacation, or it wasn’t the transformative experience it was before, where it almost felt like I was in a dream or a magical place. My inherit curiosity about how it was done led me to be involved in it and consequently to see the man behind the curtain, if you will.

But you built it knowing it was going to be burned down~ so what was that like? Did burning it down, in a sense, hold the magic of the experience for you?

The night of the burn, maybe ten or fifteen minutes before the actual burn, was probably the climax for me. It had been such a stressful day, trying to organize with the Burning Man people, delegating tasks within the crew and dealing with different personalities and all that sort of thing. By the end of it I was just exhausted, not just by the day, but by the week of Burning Man and the two weeks prior as well – when I’d been building the temple. So I guess in a way it was the apex of the anticipation of it all.

What happened?

There were ten or fifteen minutes left. The whole temple was sealed up - the different outer towers and the inner towers and the wood and fuel was loaded into it – scrap wood, fuel and things. I realized we hadn't yet placed the fuel on the actual ramps and there had been this kind of concept of having fuel running down the ramps.

So basically I went in, last minute with two other guys, with some bags of paraffin and cellulose lactose, which was stuff we had left over, and went back into the temple for the last time. It was surrounded by the festival goers waiting to see it all burn. And we were up on the viewing platform putting down this paraffin and scattering the rest of the cellulose lactose and being able to smell the fuel that was already in there, particularly in the central tower….

Didn’t it feel really dangerous?

I was in charge of the risk assessment of the fire plan – and the Burning Man ethos is all about taking care of your own safety and things like that. But yeah, it did feel dangerous.

We did what we needed to do and quickly got out of there because it definitely smelled dangerous.

It was one of those unbelievably unique experiences of this temple - the last thing to be there. I arrived when there was nothing. And then I got to be there on it and literally be able to be surrounded by all the messages that people had written and the fuel and see it in its final incarnation before it was committed to flames.

And when you looked down, and you saw the crowds, what did that feel like? What did it look like?

I was surrounded in all directions in the middle of the desert by a dense crowd who were all waiting to see this building go up. It was amazing. I guess it was that moment of anticipation you have being in a play, the feeling of being behind the curtain and hearing the crowd on the other side of the curtain, but this time it was reality. It wasn’t like a play or a performance. We were actually burning it down. All the people who were waiting to watch it burn, had very real emotional investments in the burning of it. So there was a mix of responsibility with this, almost playful frivolity! That feeling of running around and scattering fuel around and seeing the crowd around you, and knowing that where you’re standing won't exist in ten minutes.

It must have been amazing!

It really really was. But the main point is that the purpose of the temple was to be the spiritual heart of the festival. For me, the truth for all architecture, and one of the things that drew me to buildings in the first place, is the amazing power buildings can have, the art of creating environments and settings. To understand how these environments are made and seeing them realized is my true passion. But in this case, this removed me from being able to appreciate the building as it was intended to be experienced. The uniqueness about that last 15 minutes however is something I'd never have been able to experience if I had held on to that certain type of magic.

There's a difference in letting a building serve you, and being one of the people who creates it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


My neighbor Jacky and I were walking our dogs the other evening, when we met a man heading down Meridian Street, a dead end. Up by the top of Hallwood, Jacky and I usually cut through a path to the back of Jacky and his wife Sara’s house.

"You folks from the neighborhood? I was just visiting a friend down here," he said. "Name's Bill English." We reached the corner house. “But I live over this way – so I’m going to take a very old shortcut through these woods…” He had an affable manner and looked to be in his mid forties.

"I didn’t know you could cut through these woods," I said.

The property on the far end of Meridian Street extends to the sound wall for route 66. There are trees and a creek which runs along on our side.

"Sure you can, Amanda,“ Jacky said. “That’s where all the deer come up from."

"That’s right," said Bill.

"Also foxes," Jacky said. He was holding his head on one side, like the country squire, trying to size up our acquaintance. The men seemed to take a liking to one another – being about the same age and friendly disposition.

"Yup," said Bill, "there are a number of dens back there as well."

Jacky has a way of engaging people on our walks – Janet who is watering her trees, or Nancy who is moving to DC, or Hank on the corner of Gordon whose basement flooded a couple months back. So we stood with the dogs while Bill told us his family had been in the area many years "since back when all of this was woods," he said. "In fact, there used to be a house back here designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.”

"No kidding!" Jacky said.

"When they put in Route 66, they took the whole thing down, numbered all the pieces and reassembled it up on 95," said Bill.

"Hey, is that the Pope Leighey House?" asked Jacky.

"Sure is."

"I know of that place. I’ve seen signs for that many times," he said. "And you have too, Amanda."

"Have I?"

"It's on the way to Ikea."

"It was Frank Lloyd Wright's idea of a working man’s house – built around 1940 for a guy in the newspaper business," Bill told us.

"How incredible," I said. "And right here in our neighborhood?"

"Right here, where the road continued through before they put in the highway. See how the trees on this side are thinner than the ones over here? That’s because the road went straight on though."

When I got home, I looked up our neighborhood on Google maps and saw that there was indeed a sizable wood behind Meridian. To think it had been there all this time – and we'd owned a property one block away for twenty years, but I’d never even thought to explore it!

Last Sunday I told Ben and the boys all about it, while we were sitting outside enjoying the autumn sunshine. I had a notion I wanted to explore those woods. Alex and Elliot were carving pumpkins on the terrace and Ben was relaxing with a cigarette. "But why are you so interested?" Ben asked. "Do you think you’re going to find indigenous peoples back there?"

The boys and I laughed. "That’s right," they joked. "People who have stopped having their newspapers delivered – and have been waiting there all this time to reestablish contact."

"Who knows what you might find," I said. "Don’t you think it’s interesting?"

"Not really, Mum," said Elliot. "I’ve been in those woods many times, and there’s nothing special about them."

I didn’t believe him. They had captured my imagination, like a secret garden. I loved the idea of Bill English cutting through those woods, as he had since boyhood. And also the idea of that special house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, right in the middle of our neighborhood.

So two days ago, on Friday, Alex was going down to visit Elliot at VCU – they were going to a Halloween party, and after my sculpture class I said I’d drive him down. It would be a chance to talk on the way to Richmond, and a chance to think and listen to music on the drive back home. Then, once we got on the road I had another idea. "Hey," I said to Alex. "How about visiting the Pope Leighey house!"

Alex thought it was a splendid idea. We got off the highway and followed the back roads and the signs until we found ourselves at an estate called Woodlawn – where the Pope Leighey house was now constructed.

The estate was a throwback to another time, apparently an old slave plantation – but we parked the car and went up the brick path and inside bought a ticket for the tour.

A crumpled man sat in the corner of the visitor’s lobby. “Tour will start at 2:30," he said. "So you can wait up here or…"

“Can't we stroll around the grounds?” Alex asked.

"Sure you can," he said.

Down a winding path, past many silver maples in full autumnal splendor we found the house nestled at the bottom of a hill, on a stretch of grass.

It was constructed of brick and timber – long wide planks laid horizontally – so that it appeared more expansive than it really was. The front door was sheltered by an overhanging roof – and the layout was simple and inviting, reminiscent of the houses we had recently visited at a sustainable architecture exhibit in Potomac Park.

We strolled around, looked into windows and waited on a bench, chatting, until the same crumpled man from the visitor's lobby ambled towards us and welcomed us into the house.

We found ourselves in an open vestibule – with brick floors – off to the left was the bedroom wing, like a row of ship's cabins – but down the steps in front of us was the expansive living area – small kitchen to the right – storage space on the left side of the stairs, obscured by wooden hinged planks that harmonized with the rest of the timber interior.

The house was aromatic and woody with light pouring down through the many small windows set one on top of the other for visual interest – in a stencil pattern reminiscent of native American artwork. The furniture was module – we were told that the several identical tables positioned in various different parts of the house, could be laid end to end for large dinner parties – and that chairs – all identical simple and comfortable, could be positioned at the table or arranged like a sofa.

Large french windows near the dining area and off the living area, as well as in the bedrooms, invited the outdoors into the home. They could be opened entirely, expanding the living space into the terrace areas.

We chatted with our tour guide, and asked many questions, told him why we were so intrigued by the place.

"Imagine that!" he said with pleasure. "You’re the first visitors who have ever come here from that neighborhood. But funnily enough, an intern was trying to pinpoint where the house might have stood only the other day. We couldn’t locate it on the map. We thought perhaps it was on the other side of 66."

Alex and I were able to tell him exactly where the house had stood, and how long we had lived there – and how the houses in our neighborhood built in 1947, seven years after the Frank Lloyd Wright house, had evidently drawn just a little inspiration from this place, with their concrete floors, cunning use of space and underfloor radiant heat. Our houses were built from post war materials - and although they are decidedly blue collar dwellings, they were built to last - not with frills or ostentation, but with integrity and thought to their design.

All the way to Richmond, Alex and I mused about the little Pope Leighey house. Even when we got into horrible traffic we didn’t much mind – because we’d made a connection to the past that had entirely captured our imagination.

Today when Jacky, Sara and I met up to walk the dogs, as we usually do on a Sunday morning, I told them about the visit. Instead of heading to Haycock Woods we decided to check out the wood where the Frank Lloyd Wright house had been located.

It felt a little magic – slightly like stepping into Brigadoon –as we followed the path along the end of the creek and into the woods behind the final house on the corner. The ground was full of brambles and undergrowth, but we found a path and on the other end, Jacky wanted us to keep going. There was a house – and he thought it might belong to our acquaintance, Bill English.

We found ourselves on a private road, running beside the woods which buffer us from route 66. And here we found several small and interesting houses, shaded by the trees.

"I think we should all move here, don’t you," suggested Sara. She loves to pipedream like this – imagining us all going to Mexico, for instance. Last week she was contemplating property in Bulgaria – "You can get amazing villas there for really good prices~" This was right up her alley.

"I like this little stone one," she said. Further along, we passed an old style ranch with white clapboard sides and wooden decks around it. The trees arched across the road providing a beautiful golden light.

"We can tell Ben that we've found our indigenous people after all," she joked as we stepped onto the main road – and found ourselves next to a familiar Korean church.

We walked back to ours – and had a cup of tea and biscuits on the terrace. "I’ll have to run down there," Ben conceded, when we told him all about it. "It does sound interesting."

For more information, or to visit the Pope Leighey House:

Saturday, October 29, 2011


My friend Yelizaveta P Renfro recently published a wonderful short story collection with Black Lawrence Press. It is more and more difficult for books to see their way into print these days, so I thought it would be fun to hear about her journey, here on my blog. We sat in my back garden a few weeks ago, with children and husbands and other writer friends - and later, I asked her some questions.

Your book of short stories A Catalogue of Everything in the World has the subtitle Nebraska Stories. But how much does this setting really bear on the stories themselves?

First of all, the juxtaposition of the words “everything” and “world” in the title with the geographic specificity of “Nebraska” in the subtitle appealed to me. I liked the notion that Nebraska could somehow contain “everything,” or that Nebraska was some sort of microcosm of a larger whole. I wrote all the stories while living in Nebraska, and Nebraska as a location, as a place, was certainly on my mind while I was writing. And I think that the opening and closing stories, which frame the collection, deal deliberately with Nebraska as a place. The rest, however, are probably not geographically bound. I suppose part of my impulse in applying that subtitle is rooted in my attempt to hold onto Nebraska, since, as it turned out, I ended up leaving. I guess, in the end, it’s up to the reader to decide: just how much are the stories about Nebraska? How much does setting, place, have to bear on our lives? It’s a question I’m still very much engaged with, especially in my nonfiction. In fact, the questions of where to live, and for how long, and what exactly is “home” are ones that I am likely to return to again and again.

Your stories often have an edge – or more than an edge (!) – of menace about them. Where does this come from?

My first literary influences were classics of Russian literature read to me—in Russian—by my Russian mother, a literature professor. I remember being horrified at the conclusion of Chekhov’s “Sleepy” when a young nursemaid murders a baby so she can get some sleep. Gogol’s “Viy” is even more terrifying, and his other supernatural tales are also quite menacing. Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and Tolstoy can be extremely disquieting in their own ways. The cumulative effect of these early influences was that they left me with a pervasive feeling that there is always suffering, tragedy, hardship, or sorrow around the corner. I think my early years were permeated with this sense of dread, of menace, as you rightly call it. It’s not that something horrible has or will happen to you, but only that it might, at any moment. And in my fiction, I suppose, I often imagine what will happen if some of the things that might happen actually do happen.

In your story “Lenten Rose” Rose says, “The old old urge to tell stories and write things down is driven by shame or glory. Often, it’s both.” Do you believe this to be generally true, or true of your own impulse to write?

When I wrote that line, I wasn’t thinking that it had a general applicability, or even that it reflected my own motivations for writing. I felt that it was true for the narrator in that particular story, both because of her own secret shame and also because of her encounters with young men who fought in World War II and who seemed to be telling her stories that were grounded in those impulses. I wouldn’t say that those same impulses apply to my own need to tell stories. If you asked me, I’d probably say that my impulse to write is rooted in a need to make sense of my experiences in the world—though such a statement is a lot vaguer than Rose’s. I wish I could boil it down to glory and shame, but I think that usually there’s more going on in the telling of a story.

By the way, you seem to love lists. Can you talk about this a bit?

Lists are everywhere. They scream at us from supermarket tabloids, delineating everything from the top ten leafy green vegetables of 2011 to the worst-dressed celebrity dogs. Our days are full of lists. Lists are often the primary way we obtain and store information. How many of us scroll through news headlines or lists of status updates on Facebook? No one can possibly read all the news; we must largely rely on just lists of headlines. And then there are the planners and calendars and to-do lists and shopping lists that dominate our lives. And yet, lists are also literary. They can be high art. Homer and Whitman made lists. So did Milton and Thoreau and Melville. They have a place in poetry and prose. We can make lists of groceries or angels, lists of debauched talk show hosts or notable trees. Lists can be lofty or petty, profound or banal, and sometimes both at the same time. I really got interested in lists when one of my characters began to attempt to catalogue everything in the world. Hey, she’s onto something! I thought. And I’ve been making lists and thinking about lists ever since.

I also notice that you've written a lot about trees lately, and in this collection there’s a character whose neighbor is slowly killing off his trees. What's with the trees?

I love trees. I’ve loved them my whole life, but I was only beginning to discover this as I was writing my short story collection. Trees do appear in the story “Tree Roots,” as you mention, but they don’t make a significant appearance anywhere else in the short story collection. Since then, I’ve written a whole essay collection about trees. It’s about a lot of other stuff as well—working at a cemetery, spending the summer at a Soviet Young Pioneer camp, covering the police beat for daily newspapers, growing up in the Inland Empire of Southern California, traveling with my daughter—but what brings all of the essays together is that they’re all in one way or another about trees. The book is my life in trees. The collection is currently unpublished, but most of the essays have appeared in various journals. I’m looking for a publisher. What’s with the trees? I hope there’s a publisher out there who thinks my answer is worthy of a book contract.

Do you have any particular habits or routines, when you are writing?

I have two pronounced habits: I often wait until the last minute to get anything done, and I tend to underestimate the amount of time it will take me to write something. You’d think I would learn, but I haven’t. I write when I have the time—that is, when the kids are sleeping or at school. The trade-off is I don’t do housework—or I should say, I do as little housework as I can possibly get by with. The house is in a perpetual state of entropy. I find keeping the house clean and organized an insurmountable task. If the house was clean—really clean, top to bottom, with everything put away—I would spend all my time on its upkeep, and I wouldn’t get anything written. So twenty years from now when I look back, I think I’ll have more satisfaction knowing I’ve spent my time writing something than keeping a clean house. It’s all about priorities.

When my house is clean, it's usually a sign that I have writer's block!

You do the writing if you really want to. Even if you have a job or kids, you still do the writing. If you don’t do the writing, it’s because something else is more important. I wrote most of Catalogue while holding a sleeping or nursing newborn in one arm and typing one-handed. It can be done. The question is: do you really want to do it? Or would you rather have a clean floor? Would you rather take a nap? My habits or routines can be boiled down to: get the writing done. But still, I have so many unfinished writing projects piling up! I can’t keep up with myself. And sometimes, I would just rather take that nap.

And what have you been reading lately? Which authors do you particularly admire?

I have a list of books I’d like to be reading, which is perhaps ten times the length of the list of books I actually get read. It’s the same question of time (read a book or clean out the fridge?). I’ve been reading more nonfiction than fiction recently, partly because I’ve been writing more nonfiction. A novel I recently finished that I loved was Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I admire most of Ian McEwan’s work. Of course I love the vast Russian novels of the nineteenth century that you can lose yourself in for days. I love the Modernists, especially Virginia Woolf. I concentrated on the Modernists for my Ph.D. exams. Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, John Dos Passos, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, James Joyce, and many others are among my favorites. Just as I can’t keep up with my writing, I can’t keep up with my reading. Right now on my nightstand you’ll find: The Best American Essays 2011, The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman, Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, and The Bird by Colin Tudge. That’s what I’m reading right now—and yes, all at the same time.

The book publishing business is changing a lot– with the advent of e-books. Any thoughts?

Ask me a decade from now, and I might be able to tell you something useful. Yes, the publishing business is changing, and we’re in the middle of that change. My book just recently became available as an e-book from Dzanc, but I don’t have any numbers yet to share about sales or readers’ responses. Personally, I have a sentimental attachment to books as material objects, as corporeal entities made of paper that I can hold in my hands.

Me too. I'd much rather read a physical book~

For me, the reading experience is different if I’m reading a hardcover with deckled pages versus a mass market paperback versus my old college copy that I’ve annotated in the margins. I could wax poetic about this for pages (or would that be screens?). Yet I admit that e-readers are very handy, and there are times when getting a book on an e-reader is a lot more convenient than hunting down a physical copy.

Well, this is true. I hope printed books will continue along side e-books...

I wish I could tell you something that would illuminate the future of book publishing, but all I can really say is: keep reading. However you do it, just keep doing it. The book is not dead.

Thanks, Lisa, for these stories, and the conversation.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I logged onto Facebook for the last time on Tuesday, not quite knowing it would be the last time. I did it as always, by reflex, unaware how much I was ingesting this diet of fast food friendship. I scrolled through my news feed, ticking off boxes- ‘liking’ people’s posts – and then, as you sometimes do when you find yourself at a very big party and cannot seem to blend in, and nobody interesting wants to talk with you, I suddenly decide to duck out the back gate, and run down an alley, and into a field.

I don't know why I did it, but it felt exhilarating. I know those who want to see and talk with me will do so in calmer, safer places, without so many people overhearing. So I ran across the greenscape into a wide open blogosphere, and sat down on an open page.

And see, now you've stop by~ So here we both are, just us two. I’ll be happy to visit you over there, on your blog ~ or even in your real live garden~ or even in mine~

We can breathe and detoxify our minds.

There again, who will read this story, unless I publish it on Facebook?

Friday, October 14, 2011


When I'm tempted to grumble because I have to do all the housecleaning here, I remember what it was like to have help. Sometimes it wasn't so bad. Except in Rome, when Pepito was our housecleaner. I actually never hired him. I hired his wife, Helene, as she was recommended by someone at the embassy. But she did a bait and switch. Said she’d take the job, and that if she couldn’t make it, her husband might fill in occasionally. But Pepito showed up the second week, after which I never again saw Helene.

Pepito explained that he was working for us because Helene could not do our cleaning job. She was too frightened of our elderly Labrador and wire-haired Dachshund. “But don’t worry, ma’am. I work hard.”

Other embassy families had hired Pepito before, and we needed the help. I was teaching a full load of courses at American University of Rome, and our apartment was enormous, with plate glass windows and marble floors, which required special cleaning. Pepito understood all this. He was also good at beating carpets, and heavy lifting. He was a whiz at cleaning bathrooms. And he was honest.

But if you were home on one of his afternoons, you had to count on lots of interaction. He’d appear in the room with a vacuum cleaner just as I sat down at my desk. “Afternoon ma’am.” Then after vacuuming, he’d systematically remove every piece of china from the cabinet in order to polish it, chatting to me all the while.

He spoke of a former ambassador from another country that he was working for. He chatted about the Philippines. He talked about the dogs. He and Helene used to keep dogs, but sadly they were stolen for their meat. “Yes,” he said, “This is very common in our place.” Sometimes he talked about black magic and the spells that had been cast over him. These spells had been responsible for his health troubles the previous year.

“The quack doctor. He comes from our place,” he said, meaning the Philippines. “He can call mosquitoes. All my body have inflame.”

He paused, leaning against the table with his duster in hand. “They put a spell in soft drinks, so your stomach will grow like this.”

“Who are these people?” I asked.

“Disciples of the devil. They study how to become a witch. According to the quack doctor there is a school in our place and they can learn how to become a witch there. Yes ma’am. My only armor is my body. Every day the rosary.”

“Hmm…” I turned back to my work.

Pepito lingered. He chuckled awkwardly. “They make your egg so big,” he said. “Your egg get big, like that. My quack doctor gave me something to avoid that.”

“Pepito, I’m glad you were able to undo this horrible spell, but I really must get back to my grading.”

“Yes ma’am. They make your saliva a pungent odor and your eyes you cannot open.”

“What! What are you talking about?”

“Yes. It is real, ma’am. They do it so something is moving in my body. My superficial skin.”

“Wait. What exactly is a superficial skin?”

“Is how they enter. Always on your feet, they enter.”

“They enter through your feet?”

“Yes,” he said. “In my superficial skin.”

For four years, Pepito mopped our floors and vacuumed the rugs, cleaned the windows, the marble floors and the bathrooms, and polished the furniture in our apartment. I paid him well and he was reliable. “Only why is Pepito so annoying?” Elliot asked.

When Elliot came home from school, Pepito greeted him loudly, exactly the same way every time. “Hello!” he cried. “Hello, handsome boy ~ha ha ha!” Sometimes he showed up very late and flustered, having been detained for a special function at the foreign ambassador’s residence. This meant he was still cleaning at ours when Ben came home from the embassy. He always stayed the allotted length of time and this was all the better if he got to talk to Ben, especially when Ben turned on the television. That was his cue to come in and polish the furniture, making comments on the news broadcast, and asking Ben’s opinion on current affairs.

“Why do you keep him?” Rozzie asked when she visited between her college semesters.

I did consider replacing Pepito. But it seemed unkind to fire someone simply for being annoying, especially since he needed the work.

When it was time for us to leave Rome, Pepito presented me with a severance calculation, neatly tallied up. It was the work of a genius. It had been done by his wife, Helene.

“What!” I cried, in horror.

“Yes,” he said. “This is legal, according to Italian Labor law.”

“But you worked two afternoons a week,” I cried. “And I’m not your sponsor…”

“No, ma’am…”

“… or even your primary employer! The foreign ambassador is your sponsor. So why do you expect a severance package from me?”

“Ma’am, this is legal,” he said. “Helene did all the calculation.”

I looked at the neat rows of numbers – every holiday in the last four years accounted for; he expected payment for them all. “Why didn’t you tell me as we went along?” I asked. “If you expected to be paid for holidays, we could have discussed it before you began, and I would have paid as I went.”

“Ma’am,” he explained. “This is how we do the calculation.” He was also charging us for his transportation to and from the apartment, for four years in a row, in addition to a month’s extra wages while he looked for new work. Wow, I thought. If only my university teaching paid this generously; I should be so lucky.

“Does everybody pay you like this when you leave their employ?”

“Yes ma’am. Everybody,” Pepito said. “They are good people.”

I checked with the embassy colleague who had originally recommended Helene. She acknowledged that it didn’t seem fair. But Pepito was right; all this was legal according to Italian labor laws, even for part time employees.

Pepito’s severance pay worked out to well over two thousand euros. I handed it over in cash, as he requested and then he counted it out. “Wait, Ma’am! This is short,” he cried.

“It certainly isn’t!” Then he watched carefully as I counted it out once again.

“Ah, yes,” he said. “It is correct.” He seemed downcast when we said our goodbyes. But I was determined to keep my temper. Maybe I was just cowardly. Or maybe I had put up with his quirks so long, that it seemed silly to end badly. “Goodbye, Pepito. And good luck to you,” I said.

For once in his life, Pepito was speechless. He left without a word. But my superficial skin was absolutely crawling as I shut the door.

Friday, October 7, 2011


My sculpture teacher Chuck was in better form today than he was last week. Last week I was a little bit worried about him, because he’s old, of course, and his health is not so great. But today as he limped round our work stations, he seemed fairly comfortable. He was wearing a corduroy blazer, which Harriet said made him look distinguished.

“You need to work on the hands,” he told me, when he got to my piece. “And put some clay on the upper lip. It looks a little flat. And you may want to build up the nose a bit. Although the rest of it is looking good, kid. You’re coming tomorrow, aren’t you?”

“I’ll try,” I said.

I love to come in twice a week. That way I spend a full day a week working on sculpture. Several hours, four days a week I’m busy teaching writing, but lately I don’t spend much time working on fiction. Having said that, during a break between classes yesterday, I sat under the trees on a bench, reading Catherine Brady’s Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction. For the first time in months, I felt excited about reworking some of my stories.

Trish, on the far end of the sculpture studio, is building a tall abstract. Behind her stands a full sized skeleton. Light pours down from the skylight. Everybody is calm and quiet today, absorbed in their work, and in the middle of the room, a naked woman, our lovely model, strikes what Harriet calls the “Little Mermaid” pose.

Behind our model, shelves of our work is drying under plastic.

Barry is making a bust this time. He always has more tools than everyone else – a bucket of brushes and knives. He takes his work seriously all right, although whenever a good song comes on the radio, he can’t resist bobbing up and down to the music. The rest of us always smile at this, and exchange glances.

Livia has colored her hair and looks very chic. She’s working on a bust as well. She’s a sculptor and a painter, but she also poses for us, and next week she’ll be our model.

Harriet is struggling this week. She started her piece over again from the beginning today. Chuck says she has to get more curve into the back.

Cindy is working on a smaller scale, and as usual her work is beautifully articulated. Next to her Susan is doing her thing. Her work is sort of blocky, always with a small head, and frequently leaning very far forwards. Next to her, Fran works silently. These are the mainstays of the group.

Silent work. So much good comes out of silence. Ben got us tickets to the Synetic Theater production of Macbeth last week. We were absolutely stunned, captivated for every second by their powerful, silent and eloquent production. How is it possible that a silent production of Macbeth, with none of Shakespeare’s poetry, can be the best production of that play we’ve ever seen? What does that say about words?

A few weeks ago, I showed my students the TED talk by John Francis – who walked the earth, refusing to ride in motorized vehicles, after he witnessed an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. He remained silent for seventeen years, and learned a lot from silence, mostly, he said, about listening.

Listening to the clay.

That’s what we’re doing here. That’s what Charles, the elder sculptor in our class, does when he takes his time setting up, sitting on a chair, with gloves on his hands, reflectively. He likes to capture the gesture, and to keep his work simple. He spends a lot of time sitting on his chair. But what he puts into his work is so good. It holds up enormously.

“How are you today, Charles?”

“Oh,” he says with a downward inflection. “I’m all right.”

A quiet day in the studio. Everybody working. Trish with silver hair and silverly laughter and the other Trish next to her. And lots of new people too – working hard at their pieces.

This is what I did today: I let go of words, and of myself. I learned a little bit more about how to see. I partook of the most basic form of expression - articulating with a bag of mud something that I saw. I worked on the curve of a hip, and the slight curve downwards of the line of the thigh. The underside of foot – the sole with its complicated mapping – the heel – the creases underneath – the proportion of toes – and distance between them.

I worked on the profile of a face, and the way it slants backwards. I took a bit off the tummy – and angled the armpit and the short inward line towards the breast, a hollow above the collar bone, the long crease running across the trunk, below the breasts.

So absorbed did I become in what I was learning, that I didn’t care much about the end result. I have no particular attachment to that. Because after I’ve finished this piece, I’ll move on to the next.

I’d love to get that exploration back into my writing. Maybe it will happen by applying the ideas in Catherine Brady’s book. But maybe it doesn’t matter so much as I thought. Writing is a wonderful and important way to communicate. But it isn’t the only way. And it isn’t the only thing.

Silence often says more than words.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


First there was an earthquake. We were evacuated at college for that one. Then there was a hurricane. The winds didn't blow as strongly as predicted in our part of the world. But now here comes the fire – burning bright at Burning Man far away in the Nevada desert. And Ben, my husband is going out to join them. He leaves for the festival tomorrow, very early. Our son Alex has been out on the playa for weeks already, helping to build the temple there this year - the central edifice of the city. He’s also the fire engineer on the temple burn which marks the end of the festival. It is to be a week filled with joy and art installations and draws 50,000 people. Alex’s blog – can tell you more.

Alex wanted Ben to see what it was all about, to experience the ethos of being yourself –because everyone else was already taken. And when he produced a ticket, how could Ben refuse?

Ben flies out tomorrow morning, culminating a miraculous confluence of events – which involves his retirement from a job he’s held for the last two years. He will rent a car and drive across the desert, and Alex will be at the gates to meet him.

I cannot imagine going to Burning Man myself. I gather it is a fun fair that goes on for a week – neon, installations, and many, many people – scorching sun and no escape. But I witnessed what the festival did for Alex and what an epiphany he experienced last year. I hope it will be, not just enjoyable for Ben, but also life affirming.

Our daughter Rozzie is visiting from England before she begins her PhD at Oxford. For the last week we’ve been taking forest walks, and going to cafes, talking about books and cooking together. Meanwhile, I’ve begun the new semester and have one hundred new students to teach.

So now we are helping Ben to pack, finding things from the impractical and whimsical to the functional and necessary – a tilly hat, a stocking cap, a scarlet cape, goggles to keep the sand from his eyes.

The weather is green and shady here in Virginia. The cool air is finally moving through. So why go out to the Nevada desert? I know that biblical figures have wandered the desert, and often found answers to the deep and urgent questions in their souls. So I hope that Ben will find some answers there. But also, I hope he will thoroughly enjoy himself!

One last thing: with the earthquake and the hurricane of the last few weeks, I find myself reciting a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. We sang it at my father’s memorial service. This is the verse that keeps running through my mind:

Breathe through the pulses of desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Ben and I wanted to escape the reality that Elliot was leaving for college. So Ben bought a package deal to this old world Virginia hotel called The Homestead in Hot Springs. It included two nights and four free activities. We could enjoy falconry – or fly fishing, or hike the trails. Ben could play golf, and I could go to a spa. Better to spend a few days at a spa, than to slide sadly into the role of empty nesters. That was our thinking as we rolled up for our two-night getaway in the Allegheny Mountains.

First impression: the size of the place! It was a red brick world unto itself, the enormous central tower flanked by multistory wings, and the only real establishment for miles around. Think Emerald City, except in Virginia and made of red brick.

Apparently The Homestead has been around since 1766, and Jefferson came here, as well as many other presidents. Calvin Coolidge visited here, and Woodrow Wilson honeymooned in these parts, and Nixon and Ford played golf. There are miles of trails and rushing rivers and three important golf courses – including The Old Course, made famous by Sam Snead, the Cascades and the Lower Cascades.

We stood on the massive veranda, where southern gents sat with their ladies, and then passed into an enormous cathedral-like hall. It was buzzing with guests – most of them leaving as we arrived. The hall was lined with chairs, lamps and tables. A pianist played soothing melodies and people ate sandwiches with the crusts cut off and sipped iced tea with lemon.

We walked for miles down corridors of trellis patterned carpet in pink, green and chartreuse, past divan after divan, princess chair after wicker chair arrangement, past little tables set with checker boards and wooden jigsaw puzzles, down the long breezeway of endless empty sitting areas.

Finally we located our room on the third floor, down a further length of carpeted corridor, overlooking a wall of green mountains. We sat on the balcony and had a glass or two of wine. I told Ben – as I stepped through the narrow French doors, “I think these doors that are half width are very nice.”

Ben said, “You’re just desperate for something little.”

But enough of relaxation – we had to book our activities! Other guests were walking along brick paths with their swimming things, or being whisked in carts and shuttle buses to various golf courses and other outdoor activities. So off we went to the activity coordinator’s desk. Here we discovered that if Ben was going to play two rounds of golf, our options were limited. How about fly fishing? Well, the clinic counted for one activity – and that didn’t get us near the water. So instead we decided on falconry, sport of kings. Wouldn’t it be amazing to try falconry? When would we ever do that again!

Turned out, after we located the falconry cottage just beyond the gates of the spa, that falconry wasn’t covered by our particular activity coupons. It was an exception to the rule. Instead, it would cost us almost $200 more~ Oh, never mind, we said.

The attendant apologized. Who booked it for you, she asked desperately. It doesn’t matter we said, turning back towards the spa. But evidently the attendants were in constant telephone communication – and they all knew our names – and when Ben got back to the activity coordinator, she’d already had the bad news. What could she do to change it?

Meanwhile, I escaped to the indoor pool. I had an appointment for a reflexology massage in another hour and was determined to enjoy myself. The indoor pool was in a Victorian conservatory, painted in pistachio and cream. It had tall windows, and 19th century tiling, and so many piles of rolled towels it could have accommodated hundreds – except not a single other person was there to enjoy it.

So I swam in the pool by myself, back and forth for half an hour, before Ben joined me. We’d hold onto the activity coupons, he decided. Perhaps we’d visit the Jefferson Pools on our way back home.

It was time for my spa appointment. I entered a world of pan flute music and bird song, was wrapped in terry cloth and padded around with cups of iced water. I lay on a divan, hit the steam room and then had my reflexology massage, where I remembered that sensation can sometimes be a place. It leads you to a different place.

By the time I got back to our room, I had become a warm puddle of nothing at all. I had been brainwashed. I was a Homestead believer. Now I only wanted to lie in bed making love. Let’s not go out. Let’s stay here forever. Let’s order room service.

But Ben, who hadn’t been to the spa, was by this time feeling spooked by The Homestead. “Let’s escape from The Homestead,” he suggested.

Eventually he persuaded me to go for a walk – he was looking for anywhere different to eat – anywhere smaller, that was not connected to the Homestead. At Sam Snead Pub I had snapped out of it somewhat and couldn’t stop marveling over the size of the place.

“What I cannot understand is why is it so big.”

“Why did they think that they should add on an extra wing,” Ben asked. “What were they thinking?”

“They were thinking Titanic,” I said. “It’s like the Titanic. The place feels like the Titantic after it sunk.”

“It’s more like The Shining.”


“I can’t imagine that it could ever operate at capacity…”

“And think of the upkeep!” I was imagining someone’s job – probably a whole crew’s job was to go around changing light bulbs. “And there must be a whole other crew that goes around the bathrooms – and the vacuuming – imagine it – all the polishing that has to be done…”

“And at every turn there’s someone deferential calling you by name – ‘have a good day Mr Duffy.’ You feel like you’re being watched.”

“Because you ARE being watched.”

Even when we went into the village, and walked down the street, we felt they were following us and wondering why we wanted to get away.

We passed the President's Room - a huge dimly lit smoked glass and dark carpeted stretch of clubroom with nobody in it. We went into the pub downstairs for a nightcap.

“Imagine working in this place. It would be a nightmare. The only place around for miles. It’s a world – a whole world. You’d never escape.”

The waitress seemed defensive when I asked her about The Homestead. She said there was also a paper mill that employed more people than the Homestead did. But when they wanted some action they drove to Roanoke.

“What’s in Roanoke?” I asked Ben.

“Nothing. But it’s the nearest place for miles.”

“It’s like the Magic Mountain. I feel like I could turn into Hans Castorp. You’d come here thinking to stay a few days, seeing how strange it all seemed at first, and then you’d end up here for years, unable to get away.”

Both mornings we got up early and went to a golf course- the Old Course which Nixon played, and on the second morning, to the Lower Cascades course. We sat on the enormous veranda with our coffee, before setting out. Why was it so enormous? That’s what we couldn’t understand. Because hardly anyone else was here.

“This place is like a cruise ship.”

“There are some people who take holidays like this all the time.”

“I don’t think we’ll come here again.”

“But it’s good to get away. From home and from the Homestead.”

And it was lots of fun driving a little cart across the beautiful golf courses while Ben played – a truly beautiful setting. The grounds were superbly landscaped and well maintained. And in the early morning, dew sat on the grass and the sunlight was filtered, and the looming green mountains looked as if the day has been polished up all for them.

When we finally checked out, we felt free. Except there was a big lorry following us down the road. “Do you think it’s someone from the Homestead? Do you think they’re following us?”

“Come baaack….”

Anyway, we still had two remaining coupons, good for a visit to Jefferson Pools.

The pools are fed by hot springs that have been visited for two hundred years. We pulled off at the side of the road – in front of some old wooden structures, shacks really, including two circular wooden buildings shaped like circus tents – white and paint chipped, ramshackle, and all the more delightful because of it.

There’s a men’s pool and a women’s pool – but we’d arrived at the end of the family soak time so we could go in together, and opted for the men’s pool which is apparently deeper - seven something feet deep – and containing 43,000 gallons of water.

Inside is a wooden walkway round the pool, with old wooden dressing rooms leading off round the edge. The building has a kind of maypole in the center and the roof is partly open to the sky– with slatted wood, falling to pieces. Several people float around in the pool, holding florescent noodles.

It smells like minerals. We change and step down the rickety, moss covered stairs. The water is warm but it isn’t frothy or fast moving like the hot springs in Italy. And wow, we are taking the waters.

We float around, looking at each other. Ben’s head floats around in front of me. “Is this better, Manda? Do you like it?”

“I do,” I say.

The only sound is of moving water, coming from the overflow – which is a water massage, the attendant informs us.

I go to take a look and discover a little well. You climb inside, as if into a chimney, and there’s this big pipe spewing the run off from the pool at full blast. You sit on a wooden stool in the chimney/well. I tried it for a few minutes, and then went back to the pool itself. People talk in whispers here.

What a strange place. And what’s going to become of us empty nesters? And who really cares?

For now we’ll float silently on our noodles.

Friday, August 12, 2011


It’s hot and it’s August and our fifteen year old labrador Hannah, died this week. She couldn’t stand up any more and had lost interest in food. We knew it was her time, but that didn’t make it easy. Ben was up in Hingham. So Elliot and I carried her in her bed out to the car and drove her to the vet to be put to sleep. We said our goodbyes to our elderly companion, and stroked her head, and held each other, sobbing. When we drove home, Elliot said, with tears streaming down his face, “well, that wasn’t so hard.”

I was so distracted when we got back home, that I left the keys in the car. I left the car running all night long and didn’t discover this til morning, when Rene Campos came to trim the ivy and the hedges. He said the car was running. It’s dangerous, he said. Be careful.

Elliot owes me money, and since he hasn’t been able to get a summer job, except for the odd neighborhood lawn mowing, I hit on the idea of having him pose for me. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been sculpting a bust. I purchased two blocks of clay with more grog in it, a more textured clay than the clay I work with in my classes. It holds its form better, and is stronger once it’s fired.

We work on the sculpture every day, about an hour each time. I’m looking at the youth shining out of Elliot’s face – the smooth contours of his cheek bones and his forehead. This is my beautiful son. I’ve loved and mothered him for eighteen years, seen him grow into a young man. And yet he is still so young! Hannah the dog had been in our lives almost as long as Elliot, but she died in old age, and Elliot is my youngest, and in two weeks time he’ll be going off to college.

My older children tease me. Alex suggests I put this bust in Elliot’s bed after he's gone to college, resting on his pillow. Rozzie jokes that I am like Judith Starkadder in Cold Comfort Farm, and that I will mourn the departure of Elliot as Judith mourns the departure of Seth for Hollywood! But Elliot and I know better. He’s excited and I am thrilled that he’s going off to college. He knows that Ben and I are sure he will do splendidly.

After the death of one of our beloved dogs, I’m grateful to lose myself for an hour each day, in sculpting Elliot’s face. I’m trying to capture subtleties. It isn’t easy, I tell him, to sculpt someone you love. You’re more picky about the likeness.

Elliot is patient and he makes a good model. “Want to get in some sculpting now?” he’ll ask, coming into the kitchen. Then he will sit, and he will turn when I ask him to, and hold the expression and thought in his face.

Since he’s going into theatre I believe it’s a good skill to have. He might find modeling to be a good paying gig when he’s a struggling actor. Most of the models I work with during the year are actors or artists of one kind or other. And most of the actors I know have often modeled. Even I have modeled.

So here I am, immortalizing Elliot in clay.

When Ben returned from Hingham, we buried our dog’s ashes in the back garden – down near the apple trees and the blackberry bushes. Hannah used to gorge herself on blackberries. How we loved Hannah; we got her in Brussels when Elliot was a toddler and now she’s gone. Elliot, in his own way, will also be leaving us soon.

We must look for continuity...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


All week I’ve been obsessed with a nest of baby cardinals on the vine outside our bedroom window. I first became aware of it watching cardinals swoop into the clematis on our terrace. I heard chirping from my bedroom and looked out of the bow window to see a beautifully constructed nest.

I wish I could live in that nest in the vines – all green shade and sunlight – high above the terrace, safely tucked against the windowpane. There were three tiny birds inside – scrawny ugly things – with long scruffy necks. I looked in just as Mr. Cardinal swooped in to feed them. I saw his red feathers flapping and the three little pink boat mouths upturned, receiving the offerings before he flew away.

Mrs. was more cautious. She evidently didn’t want to draw attention to the nest. Often she waited in the silver maple – an orange flutter of wings in the branches, cocking her head prettily, before taking a circumvented route, landing on a branch below the nest, and then flying up to feed her young.

I watched the babies when the mother was away. At the beginning of the week, they draped their heads over the side of the nest like finger puppets without their puppeteer. But when the mother returned they sprang to life, straining towards her with upstretched beaks, amid an outcry of tweeting.

On Tuesday they were louder still. And bigger. It didn’t take many worms down the gullet to grow these birds. They even began preening themselves in the nest.

By Wednesday the mother seemed bolder and the father less evident. During the morning, I watched her swoop in and interrupted my writing to listen to an outcry of tiny peeps. I couldn’t stop myself from repeatedly stepping carefully to the sofa in front of the window to get a good look.

Minutes on end were spent holding my iphone in front of the nest hoping to catch the mother in action – but she was too cunning for me. Besides, I didn’t want to frighten her off.

Soon the baby birds were too big for the nest. The mother became more bold, swooping in repeatedly, not to feed but to move them along. One baby launched quickly. I watched it flutter across the air to the nearby silver maple. The other two spent the morning moving gradually from nest to vine. They were no longer scruffy but their feathers remained colorless, their tiny heads tufted in fluff. Their beaks were ugly white lines on the front of their bug-eyed faces. And what a lot of squeaking they did! By 3 o clock they were chatting up a storm - back and forth – one peeping three times – the second weaker bird answering more briefly. The mother swooped in from various angles – demonstrating every conceivable way you could fly from the nest – to a branch of a near by tree – in the other direction to a different branch, or to a window ledge.

The babies flapped lopsidedly, giving the suggestion of a sideways yawn, with wings like cobweb. When they preened I got a glimpse of their raw scruffy necks. When they lost their balance they fluttered in order to right themselves and in this way gradually moved to further branches, stood on these branches, tweeting back and forwards for an hour. They began to riff on their tweeting, taking on a different rhythm – while the father in the branches, seemed to keep watch.

The nest no longer looked cozy. They used it now only to move across to the other side of the vine – and didn’t seem inclined to settle in. The mother was tireless. Only once did she stop to feed the smaller one– but most of the time seemed to be taunting them to hop towards her before swooping off.

The cardinals looked bigger by the hour. When I returned from the supermarket at 4 only one was left. It was the weaker of the two – the answerer – now silent and alone. The father came twice with something green in his beak and then flew away. After which the baby began to sing again. The mother had disappeared entirely. But somewhere in the silver maple came an answer from another baby bird. The remaining baby sat on the vine without moving. It began to rain but he kept chirping through the rain and out the other end of it.

He fanned his feathers. The feathers didn’t look great. They gave the impression of grey stockings with ladders and holes in them. He peeped in an iambic metrical rhythm, with a final unstressed syllable thrown in for variation:
u-u- /u-u-/ u- / u- / u-u-u- / u-u- / u-u / u-u-u-/ u-u / u- /u-u-u- /u- / u-u /u-u /u-u-u-

The distant bird was less responsive. Maybe he was fed up. It was like he was out of radio contact and the fledgling was sending messages in Morse code. Come in. Come in please.

At 5 the bird fell from his perch in a spasm of flutters – landing two feet down the vine. After a silence it began working its way up to the aforementioned rhythm of tweeting. And kept this up for half an hour.

I watched until 6. What was wrong with me? The flight of this baby bird had become at once the most momentous and the most trivial possible thing I could focus on. Birds take flight all the time. Why should I care? But even Basil the dachshund kept watch, sitting on the sofa with his head cocked, just as transfixed as me. Then Elliot came home and watched with us as well.

Finally we gave it up. I went downstairs to put some salmon in the oven. I sent a message to Alex about his Burning Man blog. And when I stepped out to see the vine from the terrace, for some reason I couldn’t see the bird. I darted back upstairs, looked at the perch where he’d been for the last eight hours. Only to find he had gone.

It’s like when someone dies. They don’t want you to see the crucial moment. When my father died it was after a day of sitting beside his bed. He waited until me and my mother were out of the room for ten minutes. That’s when he left us. It was the same with this bird. It didn’t want us to watch the flight.

But I could still hear him on the terrace. I am so familiar now with his little song, his call and response – that I can identify it amidst the other birds. He’s either in the silver maple or in the hawthorn tree. I can hear but cannot see him, no matter how I try. I can hear the rhythm of the song of the last baby bird: u-u-u-/ u-u- / u-u- / u-u-u-u-u-

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Forrest McCluer, a friend and sculptor who lives across the street, needed help this afternoon. So he asked my menfolk – husband Ben and sons Alex and Elliot, to help move one of his pieces. Alex and I had an errand to run – involving sculpture clay and a belt that holds water bottles. But Forrest’s activity would be first on our list of priorities, and we realized it might be a significant commitment, when we saw that two other neighbors, Sean and Greg, were also enlisted to help.

I went along to watch and to document the process with Forrest’s camera.

In his front garden, Forrest has arranged several geodesic spheres in a bed of pumpkin plants. But through the gate and in the back we found what he wanted them to move. It was one of three massive spheres in his yard, two constructed from computer parts. The piece in question was entitled “Bones,” made from the rusted frames of thirty PCs. Another sculpture, displayed further back in his garden, was assembled out of the case covers from these same PC’s, only this one was called “Skins.”

The task this afternoon was to mount ‘Bones’ on its axis between two steel columns set in concrete slabs. The guys would do this in phases, Forrest explained. First they would lift it, to be sure that they could. Then they would raise it above its working mount, and down onto the ground. Next, they would walk the sculpture backwards, towards Greg’s property line, so that the central pole, on which the sculpture was to be mounted, could be moved and then centered. Forrest would have to whack at the mounting pole hard with a mallet, to get it into position. And finally, two metal and timber fittings would be threaded onto the pole and slotted into the columns. Thus the sculpture in its final position would be able to spin on the pole across its axis.

The men gathered round. Each one grabbed a different part of the sphere – or rather, a different computer frame. “Ready?” asked Forrest. They were ready. “One, two, three lift~”

They heaved. And they put it back down. They rested. They agreed what they would do next. They lifted it again. They became tired and sweaty. Greg and Sean’s dogs often got underfoot. “Get outa here!” Sean cried repeatedly. At which his enormous German Shepherd trotted away briefly, only to return.

“How long did it take you to make this one, Forrest?” I asked, at one point, while they rested. Forrest was busy unscrewing bolts from his working mount.

“This one took him a long time. A very long time,” said Greg.

“How much does it weigh?” I asked.

“Three hundred pounds?” suggested Greg.

“No~” said Elliot.

“There are thirty computer cases on this one,” said Forrest, finishing with his bolts. “And they don’t weigh that much.”

“Two hundred maybe?” suggested Ben.

Forrest said, “I’m going to put a web cam on this one here.” He was pointing at “Skins”, the other geodesic sphere, constructed out of computer case covers. He wanted it to become an interactive kinetic sculpture. It was set in a permanent bed, circled by a stone wall.

“Okay. You guys ready? This time we’re going to walk it back towards Greg’s house,” Forrest said. “Ready? One two three…” and they lifted; they walked it back. The sun blazed as they set the sculpture on the grass.

Everyone needed a beer. In between lifts, Alex talked about Burning Man. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m on the team for the Temple burn.”

“I’ve had my eye on Burning Man for the last ten years,” said Greg. “But I never got there. This your first time?”

“No, I went last year,” said Alex. “But I’m going out to the desert in the next few weeks to help construct the temple.” He was moving around affably on his feet as he talked and swigging on a beer. He had his hair in a mohawk and was wearing shades. Ben sat on a chair and drank his Rolling Rock. Elliot sat too, resting his elbows on his knees.

Alex explained that the central structure of the Burning Man temple was going to be 120 feet tall – and that 24 flat bed trucks were required to bring in all the prefabricated panels out to the desert for construction.

“So you’ve seen the design?” Forrest asked. Alex explained the temple would have five towers around the central structure, each 40 feet tall. It would be in the end, the second largest monolithic timber structure in the world.

“And you’re building this so you can burn it.” Greg’s question was more of a statement, full of admiration. Forrest laughed with delight.

“The man is burnt on the Saturday and the temple is burned on the Sunday, and that marks the end of the festival,” Alex explained.

“So, Forrest,” I said. “What about this one here…” I was referring to his third, new sculpture, evidently under construction.

“That is part of my virus series,” he said – “I’d been working on these computer pieces for ten years and was trying to figure out what I could do next, when I hit on the idea of a virus. I said oh my God – They’re the same shape!”

The guys had to get back to work on “Bones”. The central pole needed to be positioned so that each end was equal in length. Ben located Forrest’s tape measure. They did the calculations. Forrest whacked the end of the pole with a mallet. His t shirt became wet. It was hot and exhausting work. “How many more inches?” he asked – as Greg measured the pole at the other end.

“Half an inch more,” he said.

Forrest gave his end of the pole another whack with the mallet. Greg measured his end.
“Perfect,” he said.

One more lift. The guys positioned themselves, each grabbing one of the computer shells. “One, two, three lift!” They walked it into position. They set it into its mounts.

And rested.

“Let me get a shot of you,” I said, “– all in front of the sculpture.” I took the picture with Forrest’s camera.

“Okay,” said Forrest. “Who wants to give it a spin?”

I took more pictures with my iphone as Sean and Alex posed inside the sculpture, and as they set it spinning. “Do you mind if I blog about this, Forrest,” I asked.

He laughed. “Sure,” he said. “Go right ahead.”

Greg had to get back home. Ben also crossed the road for our house. Alex, Elliot and I stayed chatting with Sean and with Kelly, Forrest’s youngest daughter, who is a good friend of Elliot’s, and who came outside to join us.

Alex talked about his Masters thesis in Fire Engineering, about Burning Man – the heat, and the tents and the camps – and the way the grid of the city was organized. He talked about the magic carpet rides –and how after the fourth day of the festival they all said to each other,‘how are we going to do life differently from this? This is clearly what life is meant to be!’

Kelly sat on a chair and listened. “Hmm,” she mused. “Now I know why you’ve never told me about this.” She looked up at Forrest.

“I was sheltering you,” he joked.

For more information on what Alex is doing at Burning Man, check out his blog:

And see more about Forrest McCluer’s sculptures at:

Saturday, July 23, 2011


That’s what it is today in Falls Church, Virginia. 105 degrees.

I walked Basil, my wire haired dachshund, in the Haycock Woods at 7 in the morning. And Ben went running. It was our one and only shot on the day. We had to get it in before it was too hot to go outside. Then I went down to the farmer’s market for handmade soap, and lettuce and tomatoes (ours have finished), and for a large slab of focaccia and a dozen free range eggs. Don’t ask why, but they seemed a good idea.

Everyone in the market was wilting. The air was like an unmade bed of stale sheets. If God was in His right mind, He’d have tossed today in the bin. This one is too burnt. This one is a dud. Then He would have moved right on to another, better, fresher day.

But a young bearded man, played his fiddle on the corner of the market nonetheless, and the merchants in the farmer’s market smiled. “Stay out of the heat,” they all said.

Afterwards I went to the library and sat in an air-conditioned corner. I read Half A Life in one sitting. Then I drove back home in a melted car with my checked out book, The Finkler Question.

I sat on the scalding terrace with Alex. We didn’t know why we were doing it. Because it was there, I suppose. To experience extremity. Yesterday Alex got a mohawk and it looks quite good and his mind is full of Burning Man because he’s going to Nevada in a few weeks time, as one of the fire engineers for the Temple burn.

We sat on the wooden chaises longues watching the sprinkler water the grass. For the first time this July, the cicadas were silent. Only one was trying to get things started. He was like a party guy at a game, when everyone else is too hot or defeated to do the wave. Or else he was the guy at a rock concert trying to get people to clap together. Come on, everyone. Let’s make a noise. If we do this now, people will know forever all about the Cicadas. We will be legend!

The other cicadas were too hot to join him. They’d all lost heart. Fuck off, they said with their silence.

I had turned on the sprinkler, thinking of the grass, yes, but also of the birds. Alex and I watched it circle and splutter. “Water is amazing,” I said. “It adds so much!” And then we laughed and laughed. Call it gallows humor. I know it isn’t very funny. But a few robins at the far end of the garden emerged on the grass. “Do we dare believe our eyes?’ they seemed to suggest, as they hopped towards a mirage of sprinkled water that turned into real water. As the sun blazed down…

Then Alex and I went back indoors. We checked our email. We drank more water. We read. I ventured outside to pick basil from the garden. I made a salad which no one felt like eating. Ben came downstairs after a nap. “I keep conking out,” he said. “This is like a snow day. Except with heat.”

It was just too hot. We wanted it to end. There was nothing else for the day to do but end.