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 – www.burningmen.weebly.com 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-