Saturday, December 29, 2012


 And would it have been worth it after all, after a joyous Christmas Eve with ukulele songs, after the slow waking on Christmas morning, after the tree and turkey and mince pies, after the dog walks, the games of Catan, the coffee cups and wine, would it have been worthwhile, to have rolled up every last crumb of universal time into one ball... have used every moment to its fullest?

The long minutes before you say goodbye often seem like wasted time. You don’t know what to say because you’ve had your fill of celebration and relaxed by now into an easy family dynamic. You're no longer desperate to make your time run.  Instead you are calm in each other’s company, confident that Christmas will last forever. 

So to have done more with those final hours would be a mistake. Instead you sat together on the sofa, daydreaming or talking of nothing special, and you put on the kettle, and lazed away the morning.

The thing about goodbyes is the difference between those final relaxing hours and the final tense minutes when time has run out.  When you hold each other close, knowing it will be many months, and many transatlantic hours until you are together again.   You wasted the final morning packing and doing one last load of laundry, but those hours were better because of it. You couldn’t have soaked each other up another drop, so instead you let it run its course, until you were faced with a final moment. It came upon you suddenly and you hugged each other deeply and held back the tears.

This is what it was like yesterday afternoon when our two sons left for Australia on two different planes three hours apart.  Elliot had been given frequent flier miles to travel there and visit his brother for winter break, and Alex was returning to Australia in time for the new years celebration, and another year of work.

We said goodbye to Elliot first. “Don’t do anything foolish,” I urged him. “Don’t swim in waters infested with piranhas or sharks!”  Laughing, he promised he wouldn’t, while Rozzie said, “is that really the naughtiest thing you can imagine them doing, Mama?”

“No,” I said, “not the naughtiest. Just the one I’d really never forgive, if something happened.”

So he got into the car and Ben drove him to Dulles Airport, while the rest of us went inside and wasted our final hours. It was only Alex and me and Rozzie and the dogs by now, and we were letting time run out until Ben returned in the car, when we went through the ritual of saying goodbye again.

Something about all the time changes and speed between connections, gave the whole experience a through-the-looking-glass quality.  When I picked Alex up a few weeks ago at 9 pm at Dulles I asked what time it was for him.  “1 o clock tomorrow afternoon,” he said.

Now, ten days later, they were embarking on journeys, which would have them miss December 29th entirely. Instead, they’d both be satellites flying halfway round the globe, all through that day, faster than the speed of the planet.

wasting the final hours together
It’s crossing the international dateline that confuses me the most. I don’t think at this point I’m ever going to understand. As a result, my dreams last night were full of confusing images – the idea that by the time they landed it would be December 30 in Australia while still the 29th for us – and that they would then go into a new year many hours ahead of us. The fact that now they have landed and it's still the 29th for us, but isn't for them, and never was.

I woke up in the middle of the night and checked my phone and saw that Elliot had texted me before his final connection, all the legs of the journey having run smoothly. 

We then spent a day watching the snow fall, and waiting for it to stop so that we could walk the dogs. We saw a hawk high up in the trees on our walk and returned to make lentil soup, and to talk.  Then Rozzie checked her phone to find that Alex had skyped her.

He was in the arrival area in Sydney waiting for Elliot to get in too.  Rozzie called him back, and as we spoke to him, miraculously Elliot arrived behind him,  and there they were, united in Australia while we looked at them on a tiny screen on the other side of the globe.  That’s when our goodbyes turned into hellos and the departure didn’t seem so hard.

There are many during this season of terrible loss who would give anything for a glimpse at their loved ones on a tiny screen, just to see that they had arrived safely.  That they had landed somewhere else  after a difficult journey. For them it might be the casual nature of their final mornings together, when they said goodbye at Sandy Hook, that makes their departure so painful. You want to hold them close and make the final hours count for more than that, but making it count for more would have spoken of desperation.  I wish for all those who had to say such goodbyes, to feel that some of the best hours they experienced together as families were hours they chose to waste.  It was the wastefulness of abundance and comfort in each other’s company. Of taking each other for granted. There may be no comfort quite as profound as the company of those you take for granted.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Memory is a powerful and confusing thing, and our dogs might not be able to access their memories without our help.  They live in the present - yet the past is always with them, too.  We remember them in their puppyhood - and what they have meant in our lives as time goes by.

And when Basil our dachshund was sitting beside us, watching the documentary "Sweetgrass" about sheep farmers in Montana,  his head turning back and forth, trying to understand the plaintive baas of the lambs and sheep on screen - this is why we decided to help him to access some memories of his own.

So..ool..." We called. It was the name of our tabby cat who died a few years back. "Ahhhh, Sol!" we cried - as Basil tilted his head back and forth.  The sound of that old cat's name was oh so familiar - and yet, what did it mean?
Sol, the amazing eternal cat

"No," I said. "It's cruel, Rozzie. We shouldn't be doing it."

"Why not?" she responded.  "It's his only way of remembering Sol. And look, it doesn't make him sad.  Look at him! He's only now remembering..."

Basil and Hannah
After that we called our labrador Hannah, who had died two years ago. "Hannah!" we called. "WHAT a good girl..."  and Basil's head tipped backwards and forwards with recognition, and I had to agree with Rozzie, it wasn't terribly sad. It didn't seem manipulative. We were helping Basil to access a memory.

Adam, Basil's new friend
Sometimes memories of those we love gone by, can be painful.  But if we don't remember them, how do they exist for us at all?  And yes, it pains me to think of my beloved father, and realize he should be here and yet  no longer is.  Or to think of my father-in-law or sister-in-law Kate, so present in memory, particularly over the holidays.  But painful though it is, we must remember them and keep them present in our lives.  They are part of who we are - not part of our futures perhaps, but certainly part of our pasts, and according to Ecclesiastes, that which hath been is now.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


If the fox knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one great thing I, my friends, am a hedgehog.

 I’ve always known one thing and one thing alone – the love of reading books and the hope of writing them. To put it simply  - the sublime satisfaction of written communication.  So, in the beginning, I followed a path to develop this singular goal.  In my twenties, I swiftly published and taught writing at Emerson College, working as Creative Writing Coordinator under James Randall, who founded the MFA program.  Later I got a job at The New Yorker – and would have stayed for the rest of my life, (or at least for as long as they’d have me), if not for the role of fox that was thrust upon me.

As a diehard hedgehog, I was forced to wear fox clothing when my husband Ben joined the foreign service. I must give up my beloved job at The New Yorker and move to who knew where.  As it happened, the posting they chose for us was Caracas, Venezuela. 

What happens when we hedgehogs are forced to behave like foxes?   In my case, and in true hedgehog spirit, I took things one at a time. First I learned Spanish. Then I got pregnant.  Then we moved. While in Caracas I honed various skills, attended diplomatic functions, traveled and managed my live-in household help.  Oh, and I also gave birth. Twice! These things changed my sense of identity considerably.

But I wasn’t finished with my foxes clothing yet. After having two children, I moved to Buenos Aires with Ben, where I continued to speak Spanish and then to teach – digging myself in pretty deep with new friends and the local church, doing lecture translations on the side ~ until we moved again.

Our travels took us to Moscow. I had another baby. I learned Russian. And just as I thought I had got that all down, we moved again to Brussels, Belgium where I needed to brush up my French.  After that it was Rome –where I spoke Italian and taught English and tried desperately to come full circle.  I hoped to return to my hedgehog roots and managed to get a literary agent in London. Yes!  Now I'd get back to my writing!

But hedgehog though I was at heart, I had clearly not experienced the hedgehog privilege of burrowing in.  I had not honed the skills I would have developed had I remained at The New Yorker.  Instead, foxlike, I'd been forced to develop disparate talents -  social and linguistic skills, learning to connect with ease to people from different cultures.

And that gets me to where I am today:  teaching at a community college - communicating with students from vastly different backgrounds.  Oh, how I understand these students!  I can see what being out of their comfort zones has done for them as people.  They are wonderfully nuanced individuals with incredible stories to tell, and although they often feel out of their element, I suspect that many of them are on paths of discovery that will develop and enrich them as people.

Probably they long to return to what they know – to burrow in, just as I long to burrow, as we hedgehogs always do.  Even now, in my heart of hearts, I feel myself as a hedgehog.  Others may perceive me as a fox – with a superficial gloss of international savvy and language ability. But to myself I am a hedgehog in foxes clothing.

I am like Mole, on the riverboat with Ratty, longing to return to my burrow… not nearly as confident as my foxes clothing suggests.  I feel fully myself when deep in my reading and writing – and my greatest dream is not to travel the world – (I’ve already done  a lot of that –) but to publish my novel – to get on with my writing career, which seems at times to have been thwarted by an incidental foxtrot.

Probably I’m wrong.  Probably I have far more to say than I ever would have dreamed of saying, had I not been forced to wear fox clothing.

But how does it work in reverse, I wonder? How does a fox in hedgehog’s clothing fare?  Somewhat better, I suspect. A fox in hedgehog’s clothing knows how to play the game, has several talents up his or her sleeve to forward whatever singular pursuit they find themselves engaged in.   They know how to bluff and connive – can talk a good talk, work their contacts and skillfully distill and utilize their know-how, taking it all back to their faux-hedgehog burrow, and making it play to the world.

Foxes easily do the switch.  I admire them for that. If things go wrong, they readily shift focus. It’s second nature to foxes. They know how to roll with the punches.

But maybe we hedgehogs, forced to wear their clothing, end up with a bit of genuine fox in us, after all.

Monday, December 3, 2012


Carol has lived in the house on the corner for years and now she’s selling.   Marnie has lived in another house, around the corner, originally identical, now very different. But she intends to stay there for life.

Carol is selling her place for the land. She just wants to see.  Getting the place up to code is too much hassle and she wants to move out quickly.  Hers is a small corner lot. "It’s not exactly Oklahoma," Ben points out to me, when we pass the sign that says, "Land for Sale".

Carol was a hippie in her youth. Now she is beautiful and fit with grey hair and earrings, and she's always going to the Smithsonian.  

 Marnie is tall, striking and very healthy. She wears jogging pants and loves to talk about architecture. Hers is the greenest house on the block with solar panels and thermal heating and a new roof that keeps in the heat and will pay for itself over time.  She says she’s going to be in this house for the rest of her life, which is why she is keen on getting it, not just to code, but better than that.  They are forever chopping wood, going off to yoga class and eating raw vegetables for dinner. When they bring a dish to the neighborhood pot luck, Marnie’s is home grown broccoli.

 If you pass Carol in the street when you’re walking the dog, she is usually on her way to the metro. She will have been every day to the Folklife Festival, for instance, seen all the dancing, attended the lectures, even on the hottest days.  Even when she thought she might faint, she stayed out 'til past nine and went back in the following day, as there was also a concert she didn’t want to miss and a Star Wars spectacle to which she was taking her nephew. She was planning on seeing the fireworks too, from a hotel roof – "the best spot in the city."

Ben and me and our neighbors Sara and Jacky, who were only up for walking the dogs said "oh" when we heard all this.  It didn’t really matter what we said, though. We weren’t able to get another word in edgewise. Carol doesn’t bother to wait for an answer because she just likes to talk, to fill the air with voices and the hours with activity. She's in a kind of race for life.
I suppose that’s why she’s moving. So that she can be closer to all the exhibits, openings and happenings in DC. She’s always going to some preview of a show – has subscriptions at the Kennedy Center and National Shakespeare Company. If you've seen a production, you can be sure that she's seen it first and has a lot more to say about it than you do.

I feel a little exhausted by both Marnie and Carol.

And now I’m at Sara and Jacky's party, and I find myself in a corner of the room discussing STUFF with Marnie and Carol - how you have so much stuff all the time and you want to get rid of it.  Carol has to get rid of stuff in the house because she’s selling. But then Marnie goes off on a kind of monologue about her mother's things – and how there was a spigot – I'm not quite sure why this is such an important story to tell, but she keeps going back to it, over the course of the conversation. Whenever we wind ourselves off track, she brings the story back to this anecdote about the spigot.

It's important for her to tell us that she was at her mother's house after her father died, and she was trying to help them sort through all the accumulation of years – the things they had, the china and so on, when she saw that the parquet had come up underneath the bureau, because of the spigot that was never mended. They just didn’t use it -  knowing it was broken. 

Except  then evidently someone DID use it, and it caused a leak and the parquet came up. So they had to move all of the china out of the bureau. And her mother loved this china while Marnie did not love the china.  And Marnie told her, "Mama, I don’t want any of this stuff. So make sure you get out all the things you want.

 And then her mum said, "Why don’t you like this china?"

 And Marnie said, "I don’t care about plates. Just because things have been in the family for generations it doesn’t mean they are valuable.

This was the important line that Marnie wanted us to absorb in all its implications. How she had told her mother – and apparently they became quite heated in this exchange - that she was going to take a match to this stuff at some point so that the mother better get out the things that she wanted.

Carol nods and smiles in recognition at the anecdote. They both seem to get it. I guess I’m the odd one out and they have more in common with each other than I thought. Because I just can't figure out what it means.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


HAPPY THANKSGIVING. This has nothing to do with turkey.  It's a photograph I took one afternoon when Elliot was supposed to be studying Algebra II.  I almost gave up hope. He wouldn't focus. Instead he found distractions, such as the one pictured here.  He barely passed the course, and now alas, he'll never be a brilliant mathematician.

But he does enjoy his theatre courses and maybe one day he'll spread those wings and fly out of his chair. I also hope to fly off this page someday, onto a bookshelf somewhere or into your imagination.  Such hopes are not entirely irrelevant.  For though hope cannot effect an outcome, it does keep us happy and thankful.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


Elliot came home to vote. And in the evening, he played the piano.  And a little later on, sitting outside under the fairy lights having a smoke in the cold autumn with his friend Josh, he asked me, "Will you leave me the piano in your will?"

The question both shocked and amused me because its innocence brought into sharp relief my own mortality.  Both of us know that if things go as they should, Elliot will outlive me.  And I expect that life will go on when I die.  But it was the thought of this piano, my piano, something I had brought into the family - it was the thought that this instrument's life would go beyond my own, that hit me with the shock of recognition.

That's why I laughed.  What else could I do? "My God," I cried.

"What!" he said.

It was because I was happy to have him home for twenty four hours before he went back to college, and because I knew that his life had already gone beyond my involvement in it.  And now disingenuously he'd sized up  what might  be left after I was gone - had understood, when it came down to it, as we sat together outside in the garden, when he contemplated us both: Mum, Piano, Piano, Mum, that the piano came up the winner.  I would die but the piano would remain, not the other way round.

And that was just as it should be. The piano had every right to outlive me. After all, this piano, a Petrof, had a certain pedigree and had already survived the fall of the iron curtain. Ben and I bought it in Moscow from Ivan Ivanovich, the head piano tuner at the Moscow Conservatory in 1994.  Ever since it has followed us round the world - from Moscow to Virginia, and then on to Brussels, back to Virginia and on to Rome and back to Virginia once more.  My Falls Church piano tuner took some interest in its origins and looking up its serial number determined it was made in Prague in the 1970s.  I had fancied it older.

Nevertheless I don't know what this Petrof lived through in the 1970's. We encountered it at a dacha outside Moscow.  Alex's piano teacher Marta, a violinist at the Bolshoi Orchestra, took us to see it - along with her husband and Ivan Ivanovich's daughter Svetlana. We met Ivan Ivanovich in the humble living room at this dacha and fell in love with its mellow sound and easy action.

Ivan Ivanovich and his friends wheeled the piano on a cart through the snow, up the road of the American Embassy Compound and carried it up the stairs to our apartment, and when I paid him for it both of us smiled. The transaction pleased us both. Everyone was happy.

It was on this piano that Irina, my Russian piano teacher, taught me Debussy's Children's Corner Suite and Tchaikovsky's Seasons.  Having this piano in our lives in Moscow made all the difference.  For me, it made life bearable.

This is why I well understand that knowing its history of survival  Elliot imagines it will outlive me too, and wants to honor that, and keep it himself until he is old. 

So I told him about a poem called "Ethics" where the poet Linda Pastan poses the question, admittedly tongue in cheek: "if there were a fire in a museum/which would you save, a Rembrandt painting/or an old woman who hadn't many/years left anyhow?"

 I asked Elliot and his friend Josh to picture the scene.  "You're in the Louvre," I said, "and there's a raging fire... what would you do?"

"I would hope," said Elliot, after some reflection, "that if I were an old lady in a fire at the Louvre I'd say to myself I'm dying in a fire in the Louvre... and that would be profound enough for me."

There was once another piano in Moscow.  I saw it at Chekhov's house - an  old upright on which Tchaikovsky had played for the Chekhovs when he visited them of an evening.  Hearing that story at the Chekhov house, I got it into my head that I wanted to play that piano too. I asked the tour guides if anyone played it these days. Dismissively, they said no.  There was a grand piano now, on the premises.

I took Elliot, then an infant, up there in his pram, and with a carefully chosen gift bought at one of the hard currency stores,  I pushed up the road toward Chekhov's house.  I knew what I'd say. I had prepared the words in Russian and practiced them as I walked.   I was going to give them the gift, and ask if I might play Tchaikovsky's Seasons on Chekhov's piano.

It was snowing hard.  And when we got to Chekhov's house - his name still clear on the doorknocker - I was sorry to see the museum was closed that day.

After that I lost my nerve. I never returned to ask if I could play that piano.  I wonder if they would have let me in?

Whatever the case, we're all going to die.  Just let us leave the masterpieces behind us - those we have gazed upon and those we have played. Let them joyously outlive us.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Hurricane Sandy took none of our trees, and for that I'm very grateful.  While our neighbors across the street dealt with flooded basements, all we suffered was a three day power outage.  In the past we've had terrible flooding.  This year was kinder,  except that the house got cold.  Ben was with me on the first night but on Monday he had to return to Richmond - where he's been working round the clock to help get out the vote.

 So I was by myself, making soup on the stove top, and as it happened I went on a little journey of my own.  It was a journey into silence and back in time - to a place without internet access, television, cell phone, electric light or heat. It was a place with very little company,  but it was solitary rather than lonely, and I embraced it.

We had slept downstairs the first night of the storm while the wind howled. With Ben gone I continued to sleep downstairs, in Elliot's old room. We repainted it when he left for college and moved things around. Now it was unfamiliar. The last person to sleep in it was a friend of Alex's visiting from Australia. I covered the greyhound with a blanket, and the dachshund crept under the bedclothes and slept on my feet.

I'd lit some votives.  It was mentally clear in there, peaceful and uncluttered as I snuggled under a heap of duvets taken from other beds in the house.   I also had a flashlight - one Ben had taken to Burning Man last year, and I used it to read.
This is what it looked like, except darker ; )

I became absorbed in a novel by Luigi Pirandello - The Late Mattia Pascal.  It concerns a man with a messy life, who goes on a trip and reads about his death in the hometown newspaper.  His wife and mother-in-law have mistakenly identified the body of a drowned man as him.  So he decides to play along - to embrace a new identity, with mixed and amusing results.

It was such a delightful and engaging book and took me so far out of myself, that I kept on reading deep into the night.  At least it felt like that.  I didn't have a clock in the room so I'm not exactly sure. I only know that time stretched out because it was uninterrupted and the air in the room was cold.

I remembered going to the Argentine pampa years ago - and staying overnight at the freezing cold farmhouse of friends. The lights ran on a generator which was switched off at night, when the maids came around with gas lights.  The mattresses were hard and the bed posts made of iron. That had also been a journey into a different century.

In the morning I dressed quickly in the clothes I'd taken off the night before. Then I heated my coffee on the stove and walked the dogs.  The roads were wet and covered in leaves. There was a downed tree in the newly landscaped garden on the corner of Fisher. It had struck the corner of the roof and brought down a gutter.  The sidewalk in front was a mass of oak branches.  At the other end of the street there were more downed trees - pulled right out of their roots, and lying across the road. This probably accounted for the power outage.

That afternoon, I curled up on the sofa and continued reading.  It was Tuesday, and the college were I teach had cancelled classes.  I read Pirandello into the early evening when my neighbors Sara and Jacky knocked on the door.  They insisted I come out for Chinese food.

It was like being wakened from hibernation and I was reluctant.  I had become agoraphobic.  I said as an excuse that I didn't want to have to blow out all the candles or leave the dogs by themselves.  But Jacky promised he'd help me light them when we returned.

I was glad to get out in the end.  It was comforting to be in the warmth of an enormous family restaurant eating hot and sour soup and peking duck.   But  yet I felt somehow altered by my days without light and electrical contact.  I was a more primitive version of myself, a quieter version. Perhaps I was more self-possessed.  A little bit more centered and less easily distracted.

This alteration continued into Wednesday when I went to work.  I recharged my phone in the car and left the house. We still had no power.  I spoke to my neighbor Forrest who was waiting for someone to come and light his furnace.  Their basement had flooded and he had carried the water logged contents outside to be thrown away.  They lined the curb.  Suddenly I remembered it was Halloween.  Neither Forrest nor I had bothered to get pumpkins.

When I returned at 4 o clock I saw that the lights were back on.  A miracle! And I was glad.  I was glad for my journey into darkness and a different kind of power.  But the idea of a cold and dark Halloween had not been very appealing. 


Monday, October 29, 2012


Now that we're hunkered down waiting for Hurricane Sandy to hit, the house is warm and the dogs are napping and the garden is green and soggy and gold.  The kitchen doors frame the garden and though it looks pretty I'm glad to be on this side of it. No birds are singing so you get the sense of stillness, of the many eyes of birds and animals - peaking out from the greenery.  When I went outside I could tell they were wondering why.

I was doing a final inspection, glad to note our neighbors' old silver maple was leaning away from our houses.  Several years ago with Hurricane Isabel,  a sixty foot tree just like it smashed through our roof.  But this one will only smash a swing set if it falls - and that swing set hasn't been used for years, their son having outgrown it.

I'm  going back inside, with the hum of the house and the napping dogs.

Rozzie texted from the UK.  "I was at a party last night dressed as a wooly mammoth, and went to sleep at 4:30 so I slept in took a long bath and now I'm doing my hair."

We spoke on the phone and she told me the strange journey through the economy of her wooly mammoth dreads.  She and her friend Emma  made the costumes from horrible polyester trousers bought at Primark. As they were unfolding the trousers to inspect them, three people in the store were folding them back and neatly restacking them.  Roz then bought a pair for 3 pounds, took them home and shredded them.  It was cheaper than purchasing fabric.

They made the trunks out of a pair of baby's corduroy trousers, cut down the middle.  That was a little disturbing. But they worked well as trunks in the end, and she could even put a straw through hers and drink.  The tusks were made of paper.

Last time, when we were living in this house during Hurricane Isabel, and a tree smashed through our house, Rozzie was an undergraduate, the only one living away from home.  Foolishly all four of the rest of us slept in the addition part of our house, the part made out of sticks.  Before going to bed, Alex sat on a lawn chair in the middle of the garden, awed by the swaying trees.  The following morning his lawn chair was flattened.

I woke up to the almighty crash in the middle of the night, and we went downstairs and tried to open the front door.  We felt like Jack emerging at the top of the beanstalk, so crammed was the doorway with branches and leaves.  Our neighbor Cy approached from his house with a flashlight. We spoke briefly, before realizing there was nothing we could do about it in the middle of the night. Then we went back to bed.

The uprooting of that tree coincided with our own uprooting. We'd be moving to Italy the following year.  We lived with the uprooted tree, the sudden shock of it.  We lived with the massive wall of tree root and  the hole behind it, and with the friendly roof man, who covered our house in blue tarp and worked up there for months, rebuilding struts and tresses.

 This time we promised Rozzie we'd sleep in the brick part of the house like wise little piggies.  Which we did last night. I drifted off to the sound of rustling rain and dreamed of wooly mammoths.

Monday, October 22, 2012


Sometimes I dream that I've found a new room in my apartment or house - a room I've never noticed before.  I open a door and there it is, a whole new expanse of space and possibility.  How has it remained hidden for all this time, when all I had to do was open a door and discover it?

Except this phenomenon seems to happen in my waking life too.  We've lived in this tiny little house, on and off for twenty years - returning after four years away, or two years away, depending on our foreign service tours.  But when we return we have the opportunity to rethink the space, to arrange the rooms according to new needs and requirements, to choose a different bedroom this time around - or do something new with the kitchen.

A few years ago my brother Robert renovated our kitchen - taking out a counter that had once divided the kitchen from the dining area- and putting in french doors at the far end, where before there had only been a pokey back door.  Suddenly the garden was invited into the room - expanding the space and making it reach further.

Then about  a year ago, I decided to move the dining table into the living room, up at one end where nobody ever felt like sitting - and then to make the dining room /kitchen into a sitting area.  Ben was skeptical as I pushed sofas around the place, took up carpets and repositioned them - (his skepticism may have been because I got the notion at 11 pm), but eventually he did see what I meant.  Miraculously we had discovered a whole extra room, which stretched from the brand new sitting area right to the bookcase in the adjoining living room.  The house was getting bigger and bigger.

Now with Alex off in Australia,  I thought I'd make his room into a library - with a daybed for visitors.  I looked on Craigslist and found the perfect thing, for an excellent price.  We borrowed Jacky's truck and went into Chevy Chase to pick it up last week.  Our neighbor Sean helped Ben carry it into the house. But Ben took measurements and shook his head. "It's never going to fit up the stairs," he said.

Hmm. Time to rethink the furniture arrangement again.  Everything must be reshuffled - kitchen sofa to living room, living room sofa up to bed/library, new daybed to kitchen.

another beautiful space entirely, not my own!

I spent the better part of the weekend taking down paintings and hanging them up in different places, reshuffling cushions from sofa to sofa (~the cushion part almost had me stymied~) moving chairs from basement to kitchen - from bedroom down to basement.  I sat in rooms on various sofas and looked at the space.  I got up and changed things once more.

You'd think the addition of a new enormously scrolled daybed would make the kitchen far smaller.  But instead, the room has expanded to accept it.  When I was taking a nap there this afternoon, I woke to look across the new room with amazement. This house is ENORMOUS, I said to myself. How is that possible?

I mean, it's like Dr Who's telephone booth - or Alice in Wonderland getting bigger and bigger and then smaller and smaller.  It must be all in consciousness - all the room you need.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


One of my favorite blogs is  which showcases various women of advanced age for their exuberant fashion sense. And yet when it comes to admirable women of advanced age, I don't need to look much further than my own mother and mother-in-law.

"Tough act to follow, huh?" asked our friend Kathleen when Ben and I were telling her about their recent visit.  One had flown from California, while the other had taken the train from Boston. The plan was that we would travel down to Richmond for their grandson's performance in Noises Off at Virginia Commonwealth University.

My mother Judy, an actress and director, is now in her eighties. She began her career in London, but has directed countless performances in Boston and its environs, and now works with the Ross Valley Players near Sausalito, California.  My mother in law Alice is also a seasoned professional actress, well known in the Boston theater scene. She made her Broadway debut a few years back in a production of Present Laughter.  The two are long time and very good friends.  In fact Ben often jokes that ours was an arranged marriage - for our mothers were friends long before we met and fell in love, and  even that was on the stage - in a production of As You Like It. I was playing Rosalind, and Ben  Orlando.

What a joy to have these women sitting on our terrace gossiping about their Boston theatre days, sharing impressions of recent productions - and most of all, to accompany them down to Richmond to see their grandson Elliot who is himself a chip of the theatrical block - now studying drama at the School for the Arts.

Our mothers are women not so much of advanced style, as of advanced identity. They have grown richer and more beautiful as they've aged.  Their wisdom, their stamina, their passion for what they love and believe in, their sorrows and their joys, shines through on their faces.

I don't think they stopped chatting from dawn until dusk.  And never was there a more enthusiastic cheering section in a young actor's career- as theirs for Elliot.  "He has such presence," my mother said. "The way he stands!  I can't tell you how many professional actors I've had to coach in how to stand."   Alice lit up a cigarette. "What they will have learned about timing from doing this production is absolutely invaluable," she said.

Before the show Elliot took us out for an authentic Richmond BBQ.

Then we drove to Hollywood Graveyard, mostly for its view of the river, but also to see and the graves of Presidents Monroe and Tyler. 

A tough act to follow? When Kathleen made her comment I said I didn't think of it like that. I was doing my own thing. Nevertheless these amazing women are a living example of how to age well.  It seems to come down to integrity of spirit - a confidence that grows up from the soles of their feet, in being fully themselves. It's less about style than about their generous open spirits, the idea of embracing growth, even when you're 80 - and blossoming into advanced identity.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Once upon a time I was too poor to buy a winter coat.  It was the early 1980's (yes, even then some of us did not benefit from 'trickle down economics'),  and I was living with my boyfriend Ben in a cottage on Billington Sea Road in Plymouth Massachusetts. Our cottage was very cold. So I decided I'd make a winter cloak.  I purchased several yards of navy blue wool and some red satin lining.  Then I sat on our hand-me-down love seat, surrounded by cats, and I cut out the fabric and sewed my cloak by hand.

The garment was a classic, and I have it to this day.  I came across it again this evening while opening the hall closet to take out a jacket and walk the dogs.  And there was my cloak, slipped from its hanger, lying on the floor amongst the boots.

I cannot bring myself to give this cloak away because it holds too many memories.

For instance, not only did this cloak keep me warm that cold New England winter, but I wore it when Ben and I went to the UK, on a trip given to us by his parents.  I wore it to the pub, and on our walk through Bushy Park (where I had frequently played as a child). I wore it to the Barbican Theatre where in the lobby I came face to face with Dustin Hoffman.

I remember thinking I was looking my best (because the cloak was particularly stylish that year. Meryl Streep had worn such a cloak in the film adaptation of John Fowles' French Lieutenant's Woman.) When I locked eyes with Dustin Hoffman I read his intention: Please don't recognize me; keep up the pretense of  my anonymity. But at the same time I was feeling quite pretty, and certain he would recognize this, even though I was truly the anonymous one.

For several years of my marriage to Ben, into his foreign service career, this cloak came along but never was worn. It hung in closets in Caracas and in Buenos Aires.  Then, suddenly, it had a rebirth as a Halloween costume. Our daughter Rozzie aged seven, wore it in Moscow, with her teeth blacked out, (although come to think of it, at seven she was losing teeth anyway, which added to the effect)~ as she went trick or treating on the American Embassy compound.  Then again it was worn by Alex and I think by Elliot too, for various costume parties and Halloween events.  It has remained a staple of the costume department in our home, for the last twenty years.

But once it was absolutely serious. Once I wore it in earnest.

Now it's in the hallway closet, ignored.  I spotted it this evening, only because it had slipped to the floor and was slumped round the boots.

Here it is again,  adorning one of my sculptures.
When I examine the stitching, so carefully sewn, the toggled clasps I fixed onto the front, I see that I made it to last as well as to keep me warm.  It attests to my sense of style even while I had no money. I like to remember that sense of style about my twenty something year old self. That's why I keep this cloak, I suppose, and why I cannot let it go.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Hyperthymestic syndrome is the fascinating condition of remembering every single day of ones life in vivid detail.  Actress Marilu Henner has it.  Pick a date, any date, and she can tell you the day of the week, the weather and what she was doing, as well as historically significant events of that day.

It sounds like a blessing as well as a curse.  You cannot forget.  You must always remember.

 I also possess a vivid memory, but mine is centered around personal objects.  Every object in my house has a history, and when I look at it, I remember exactly how it got here.  I can remember, for instance, that I bought the little pencil holder that sits on my desk, in Manhattan in 1984, when I worked at The New Yorker.  I had it on my desk in the Goings On department. My supervisor, Jane Olds thought it a good sign that I'd bought this pencil holder, because it meant I was settling in.

 Looking around at random objects while I write this blog post, I remember that Ben and I got the wall hanging above my desk in Buenos Aires, from an exhibit of native art. Turning towards the window seat on my right, I see peacock feathers from a tiny shop in the Eden Center - and the vase they sit in which was given to me by Maria Inez from Uruguay. She meant it to be on my dressing table as a reminder of our friendship.

The ceramic planter next to it came from Mesmerelda's in McLean, Virginia where my mother purchased it in 1993, and the lamp that sits beside it came from my sister in law Kate's apartment.  The settee was bought at an antique shop in Falls Church and I remember the exact location I first saw it, how we carried it into the back of the shop and put it in the car, to drive home.  In fact, when I look at each object in this home, its history comes forward and announces itself to me.

In this bedroom I see a batik wall hanging Ben purchased in Siberia; the painting beside it done by Scott Ketcham and given to us as a wedding gift;  the dark chintz curtains, which my friend Marsha gave me in 1995; the clock on Ben's chest of drawers which Pedro and Blanchette gave us when they visited; the bedside tables made of walnut, which came from my grandmother Elsie. You get the picture.  This history keeps me grounded, keeps me knowing who I am.

The other night, we were watching "Hoarders" on TV, Ben, my mother and me.  The hoarder of the day was a painter whose house was filled to the brim with clutter.  His place was stuffed with newspaper, piles of books and numerous unused, broken objects, which he couldn't bring himself to let go.

"Hoarders" intrigues me. Something about their condition reminds me of myself, although during commercial breaks I find myself cleaning surfaces, throwing away magazines and papers, because I want to separate myself from them, and cannot fully wrap my mind around why somebody would ever live as they do, with so much junk. Why don't they throw out their garbage, for instance? Why must their movements be reduced to narrow passages between mountains of meaningless stuff, leading to the bathroom - where they rinse a lone coffee cup, before climbing back over mounds of take away containers, to seek out a bed in the rubble.

Episode after episode, it becomes clear that these hoarders became this way after suffering a trauma in their lives.

The episode we watched the other night showed a painter, who wouldn't dispose of an old iron headboard.  He couldn't let it go because it was part of his soul, he said. He didn't need it, except that every day when he passed it, he touched it, and in that way it had become a part of him.

This got me thinking. What if a hoarder is simply a traumatized person with a very good memory?  What if each of the objects in their home is somehow connected to a piece of their journey through life?  Their objects have become like the breadcrumbs dropped in the forest by Hansel and Gretel. The breadcrumbs lead them to safety, to a time before their trauma, and they need these objects in order to find their way back.

Their trail of objects has become more than a solace. It has become a guide. They panic, these hoarders, when threatened with the disposal of what to others looks so meaningless.  Finally, I thought I understood.

There's a beautiful poem by Jorge Luis Borges about Things. He enumerates various items - a watch, a book whose pages have faded to violet and so forth, and suggests that our things will not only outlive us, but that the memories held in these things is forgotten, and yet also remembered by these objects. Somehow they have more solidity than we ourselves do, and they will never know when we have gone.

Las Cosas

El baston, las monedas, el llavero,
la docil cerradura, las tardias
notas que no leeran los pocos dias
que me quedan, los naipes y el tablero,

un libro y en sus paginas la ajeda
violeta, monumento de una tarde
sin duda inolvidable y ya olvidada,
el rojo espejo, occidental en que arde

una ilusoria aurora. Cuantas cosas,
laminas, umbralas, atlas, copas, clavos,
non sirven como tacitos esclavos,

ciegas y estranemente sigilosas!
Duraran mas alla de nuestro olvido;
no sabran nunca que nos hermos ido.

This is the beauty of things, as well as the terrible pain of them, for those of us who have too many and cannot let them go.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012


My daughter ordered a special pen, white enamel, with a thin silver nib that clicks in and out, and special custom cartridges in a tiny cardboard box. The pen was shipped from Hong Kong.  She tracked its passage across the globe - and when it arrived the unwrapping was almost ceremonial.

"Feel how beautifully it writes," she said.  As I felt the weight of the pen in my hand and wrote my signature across an empty page, I felt the satisfaction of nip pressed to paper,  the delicate  flow of letters inking whiteness. It made the act of writing, the physical act, into a sensual experience, holding me in the moment.  Wonder, not just of creativity but at the physical writing of words.  Wow.  Look what I wrote with this pen!

I'm old enough to remember when all grade school students, at least in England, wrote with fountain pens.  Our wooden desks at Claremont School had inkwells in their corners - small neat holes in the top right corner of the desk, under which there were little bottles of blue or black ink.  When our pens ran out, we would dip into those inkwells and open the narrow metal lever on our pens to draw the ink inside.

That brings me to blotting paper.  This too was an important part of the writing life.  If your pen was too full of ink it made blots - so you had to try the pen out against a piece of blotting paper - and later, since your ink was wet after writing, you laid a piece across your composition paper to dry it.  Ink stains on our school uniforms - on our school ties and clean white blouses were common, especially for the more messy students among us.

Then came pens with cartridges.   I used one of those for years. I remember once writing exams at Wroxton College in Banbury. When I ran out of ink half way through an exam, the proctor noted that most people used disposable pens nowadays.  I was a throwback.

But now a throwback - as in the case of my daughter - feels more like an early adopter.  Rozzie thinks it worthwhile to have a pen that will last. Disposable pens are wasteful, she believes. That's why she purchased this beautiful pen on line - and had it shipped all the way from Hong Kong - along with a special leather case with a zip, in which she will keep the pen, and which will look sweeter the older it gets, nestling in her handbag.

Over the years various people have given me pens.  When I left a job at NBC my colleagues gave me the parting gift of a Waterman pen and pencil set, with a little NBC logo. I kept that set for years, but somewhere between Caracas and Buenos Aires, it was lost.

Then later, my sister in law Kate gave me a blue enamel fountain pen for Christmas. In spite of its beauty, it felt too thick in my hand.  I used it for a while, tried it out for old time's sake, but then I stopped, and then it too was lost.

More recently, my beloved Freddy Bonnart, a retired British colonel who I befriended in Brussels, gave me a silver Waterman pen for my birthday. How did I lose track of it?   Come to think of it, that pen didn't use cartridges but was a ballpoint with refills - and the pressure of its nib on the paper was not particularly special.  It was more the shaft of the pen that lent it pedigree.  It's probably somewhere around the house - in a bedside table drawer perhaps, or in one of the little wooden drawers on this desk. Little drawers behind the computer screen. Drawers I never look inside.

Now I use disposable pens, Sharpies with very thin nibs, in colors that range from purple to rust to emerald green.  Every time I use those pens, or even when I look at them, they remind me of the pleasure that comes from hand writing - the pleasure of drawing instruments too - something I've treasured since  my sister Claudia and I would go down to WH Smiths in Surbiton and purchase boxes of Craypas oil pastels - or colored pencils in long cardboard boxes.  Those writing instruments, especially when they were new, conveyed a special luxury.  It was a sense of expectation - the promise of all the wonderful things we might one day draw with them, or the stories we would write with them, now that we had such beautiful materials in hand.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


A few days ago Rozzie and Atli, Ben and I went to Dumbarton Oaks and wandered round the gardens.  This place has been among our favorites for the last twenty years.  We used to go there when the children were little, so now Rozzie wanted to share it with Atli, who had never been to Washington.

Each garden, terraced down the hillside, forms a different room. There are ponds and fountains, a rose garden, small patios and woodland stretches, and a wide sweep of lawn in front of the house which reminds me of Henry James.  I always imagine Isabel Archer sitting here drinking tea in the opening scene of Portrait of a Lady.

We climbed the brick steps, lined with boxwood, the scent of it perfuming the air.  And every view down every path invited the imagination to explore new vistas. Not overwhelming ones on a grand scale, but contained vistas which seemed somehow achievable.

We sat on a little stone patio.  "This is where I'm going to live," I said. 

"Yes," said Rozzie. "It's decided."  And she took this picture of me and Atli.

I haven't been writing lately.  Haven't been working on stories much. This week I half-heartedly worked on a book review, dabbled a bit with changes in a couple of pieces I'm writing, but mostly I've been teaching and hanging out with Rozzie and Atli while they are visiting from England. We sat outside drinking kir royale, while Ben cooked chicken on the grill, and we watched the dogs race round the garden and talked about everything under the sun.

It's important to nourish the soul. We say that a lot, I know, and it sounds cliche.  But really, it's vital to be kind to yourself. To lift up your head and pause in your work and see what other people are up to, different beautiful work - at the National Portrait Gallery where Ben and I went last week, for instance, or the gallery opening we all attended of painter and friend Sheep Jones. You can't do your own work all of the time; you need to make time for inspiration.

When you feed yourself with beauty you add to the store of that inspiration. I always think the old adage about 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration takes up the point from the wrong end.  Of course it's hard work to come up with original and well crafted writing. But without that 10% inspiration, you risk a still-born story. And by still-born, I mean a story that while technically perfect, doesn't move the reader with its own inner life.

Stories need to breathe. They need to be inspired.  And if you are inspired, you will put in that 90% hard work and it won't feel as painful as you expect!  You will be buoyed along on the swift currents of inspiration.  I'm talking to myself here, perhaps.  And also to one or two friends who are struggling right now with their work. But that's all right.

Another thought: sometimes writing is rather like cooking.  You put something in the metaphorical oven and it just has to cook for a while. You can't take it out before it's ready or keep worrying while it's cooking.  It will be ready in its own good time.  Then, surprisingly, other work comes easily. You whip it up in seconds flat and somehow it turns out without much fuss.

We all have work to do.  That's not in question.  But we must also pause and marvel at other people's work -their beautiful books and beautiful paintings and beautiful gardens too.  Then we can return to our own work full of new ideas and breaths of fresh air.

Friday, September 7, 2012

You Are the Love of My Life by Susan Richards Shreve

You'll fall in love with Susan Shreve's delightful new novel about Lucy Painter and her closely guarded secrets. It is set in Washington DC and my review (linked below) is currently featured on the Politics and Prose Bookstore website as 'Pick of the Week'.


The other evening Rozzie phoned our landline.  She and her boyfriend Atli are visiting from the UK, and had just flown out to San Francisco. They were about to have dinner with my sister Steph and her husband Dylan, their boys Oliver and Emmett, and my mother Judy. 

"What are you doing, Mum?"  Rozzie asked.

 "Watching a movie called The Fairy."

"And Daddy?"

"He's asleep."


"Here, it's almost 11:00," I said.

 "Oh. Well, can't you get on Skype?" she asked.  "We were trying to call your cell phone but you wouldn't pick up."

"Because I was watching a movie."

"Get on Skype," she told me. And so, instead of winding down, I paused the movie, and booted up. I dug out my iphone and logged onto Skype and watched the little blinking line connect to a blue and white head and shoulder/space saver. 

I do like Skype. Alex skypes from Sydney Australia, fourteen hours ahead.  Sometimes he's starting Monday morning while our side of the globe is on Sunday afternoon. He skypes from his iphone, so Ben and I are virtually 'carried' by Alex down his street, in front of the beach. We look up at his face, like little Roo in Kanga's pouch, as he sits on the bus.  He holds his phone to the window, so that we can enjoy the waterfront view whizzing past. Other times, he skypes on the way back from a party, or on his way to grab a Banh Mi sandwich for lunch.  These casual interactions do away with distance. It ceases to exist.

That's why, instead of watching a movie in Falls Church Virginia, I was now going to my sister's living room in San Francisco.  "HELLO~!!!" came a chorus of family voices.

"Hi!" I said. "Can you guys see me..."

"We can see you," said Stephanie's voice.

"...because I can't see you."

"Oh no," said Steph. "And now, we can't see you."

"You're frozen," said Rozzie.  Everyone in San Francisco seemed to be talking at once. "Why is it pixilating?....Oh, well wait a bit...There she is...or was..."

"Where's she gone..." asked my mother's voice.

"I'm still here," I replied a little testily. 

There was a loud guffaw.  The entire family was suddenly helpless with laughter.

"What's going on?"  But the laughter continued and died down slightly before gathering new strength.

 "I still can't see you," I told them.

Which only caused more hilarity. I heard my mother's rich cackle. Oliver was laughing so was Dylan, and Atli...

"It keeps freezing!" Rozzie's laughter was long and sonorous, leaping up in trills of joy as other voices joined her.

On my phone I could see myself.  My image connected to the little white head and shoulder space saver.   I was feeling rather annoyed.

"Try this window..." Stephanie's voice instructed.   "Now click on that...."

I should get back to my movie, I thought to myself.  There was another chorus of laughter.  "Are you still there, Mand?"

"Yes," I said boredly.  "I'm still here."

 "Oh dear!" My mother was almost weeping with mirth.

"What is going on?" I cried.

"That is SO funny!" Steph managed, as she and Rozzie went off into fresh gales. Atli was laughing too, and so were my nephews...

"Oh dear! We keep trying to shut down different windows, and in every window there's another frozen image of you.... of your face looking more and more annoyed," said Rozzie.  She broke off. "Oh look, there she is again!"

 They were absolutely creasing themselves.

"Well, from my perspective, I was watching a movie," I put in.  "Then you telephoned, and now the whole family is laughing at me."

They laughed again.  They couldn't help it. "Sorry," they said. "But your face was so funny."

"You kept freezing with a fresh expression of exasperation."

"And the pictures were so tiny!"

"Well, I'm glad you're amused," I said.

 In the end we decided I should go upstairs and log onto the desktop,  where they came in loud and clear. So loud in fact, that Ben got out of bed, put on his robe and sat on the settee joining the fun.  We could see them all together in the yellow living room, the fire going in the background, my nephews dancing in and out of view, different family faces coming in close and retreating into the background.  Sometimes they talked to us, and then they seemed to forget we were there, and turned to talk to each other.  It was just like being in the room.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Requiem by Frances Itani

Canadian writer Frances Itani's powerful and eloquent novel traces the life of a Japanese-Canadian family struggling to live with the effects of internment after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Read my review 

Monday, July 30, 2012


We've adopted a greyhound from Virginia Greyhound Adoption.  His racing name was Atom Adam but Ben and I have shortened that to Adam.  He was placed with us after a series of screenings and a home visit with two other greyhounds.  They wanted to find a good fit for our dachshund Basil - and that was part of the plan.  We needed a friend for Basil, another dog to fit the family dynamic. The dogs in the family should be more than our dogs. They should be each other's dogs.

Ever since Hannah the Labrador died, Basil has been a little too devoted to me.  I didn't want that kind of life for him. There had to be more to life than me.  He needed a canine companion, and more dimension to his doggy life.

And so we were placed with Adam. Or rather, Adam was placed with us.  What an adorable creature!  He's small for a male, and a beta male at that.  And he likes you to hold his paw. Then when you put it down after shaking, he lifts up his other paw.

He's curious and calming, and there's something very soothing about his presence. Perhaps it is his beauty and thinness, and his big doe like eyes.  It's like having a deer in the home.  He moves so gracefully. His nature is silent, curious and sweet.

Basil really likes him.  We go on walks and they sniff the same things. One is tall the other short. But they're a team.

When Adam goes into the garden and trots around the borders, sometimes he gets the notion to run. And when he does, you better look out.  Suddenly he's eating up the ground.  Our garden contracts beneath his feet, so that he's reached the door before you've even realized he was half way across the lawn.

Yesterday morning when I let him outside, there was a deer in the yard.  They looked at each other for one split second. Then there was a chase! What a picture to start off my day.

Learning the stairs was difficult.  As Ben says, Adam is like the man who fell to earth. Everything is new to him.  But the stairs were a particular challenge. He stood on them, like a terrified faun, as we lifted one hind leg, then moved a front leg forward, speaking soothingly all along - and as Basil waited at the top of the stairs, wagging his tail encouragingly.  It was like teaching someone to dive into the deep end of a swimming pool.  I understood him perfectly.  Because I still can't dive into the deep end of a swimming pool.

The other morning, as I was taking my customary walk around the neighborhood, I passed my Lebanese friend.  Her house is set up like a pre-school - with children's primary colored buckets hanging on her white picket fence - and little playhouses set on the front patio.   There's also a dog bowl of water for passing dogs - like mine.  That's her way of being part of the neighborhood.

"Oh!" she cried, when she caught sight of Adam. "You have a saluki!"

"A greyhound," I told her.

"Same family,"  she said.  She had once been in the Saudi desert, she told me, during Ramadan - in a place where they trained salukis.  All they had in the middle of the desert was Bedouin tents, sand and salukis. "It was one of those pictures you carry in your heart for the rest of your life," she reflected.

I told her I wondered if I might have a thing about legs.  Why was it, I asked her, that I had one dog, the dachshund, with very short legs indeed, and another dog, Adam, with extremely long legs?  What did that say about me?

She laughed.

"As I told my husband," she said. "When you pick a dog, you must chose very wisely. Because sooner or later, you morph!"

As I continued my walk down Tulip and onto Fisher - I thought about what she had said. It was true that people often looked like their pets. But there was absolutely no way on earth I could ever resemble a greyhound.

Then I thought about the photograph I'd taken the first day we brought Adam home.  It was a picture of Elliot holding Adam's leash, and both of them were smiling.  Now that I have an empty nest, it was clear I had subconsciously chosen a dog that resembled my sons.  I had got a dog who was tall, thin and leggy, with pointy features but a very gentle expression!  Yes. That was it.  I'd replicated my sons in the addition of this dog.

See if you agree~

Friday, July 20, 2012


Some of the most eloquent people I know ~ okay, I'm referring to those I was with this morning ~ are absolutely silent.  They are sculptors. They say things wordlessly.

 Speaking as a writer, this is hard to admit.  But the work in my figurative sculpture class speaks volumes. It says more in a glance than most could say in several pages of text.

 We worked today on a standing pose. Livia had a hat on, and stood contaposto, with arms folded across her chest.  You can keep your hat on:  That might be the title of this pose.

Cindy worked, as usual, with clay that had more grog in it - and only used skewers in a Styrofoam base to keep her work steady. "Look over here," Chuck called me from his wheelchair. "Cindy doesn't need any fancy equipment."

He meant the comment as a rebuke, since I was working with an armature for the very first time, and having trouble.  My clay sank down on its frame, and the legs, no matter how much length I tried to give them, kept moving down on themselves like a collapsed blancmange.  They were shorter every minute.

When you haul out those beautiful cubes of fresh new clay at the beginning of a week, it's very tempting to use them in your work. But it's much better to use the left over dried out clay, because it keeps its shape.

In the end I opted not to articulate the legs, but to jam in a block of clay at the base, as a kind of space saver, and work on the torso first.  I'll worry about the legs when the clay has dried out, in a week or two.

Trish left her station and came across the room to help me.  "Do you want some drier clay?" she asked, leaving a massive sausage clump in my hands.  I thanked her.  Trish's work is always good.  She is a pro at abstracts and exhibits them across town.

Another sculptor, working quietly across the room, also managed to do everything I couldn't.  How did she get the legs and the body, with its particular angled posture, to stand up so lyrically? Her work was almost finished by the end of one session, while mine was an undefined blob.

Barry had wisely opted to work only on  the torso and he had captured the angle of the hip and the swell of the buttocks off to one side. He was feeling pleased.  "That will sell," said Chuck.

I tore my effort to pieces and started again from scratch.  "Concentrate on the torso,"  Chuck advised. "Don't articulate the legs.  Work on the upper section."

Meanwhile Charles, our elder statesman, sat beside me on his chair. His work stand was a pile of inarticulated nothingness. "I can't do a thing," he told me. How he wished we were working on a reclining figure! He laughed at his lack of progress,  shrugged his shoulders and tossed away his morning's work.  This was the process.

At the end of our class, Susan had almost finished her piece, in only three hours. She'd captured Livia wearing her hat, with just the right sway and movement to the torso.

Oh, the eloquence of wordlessness! It's a very good reminder to those of us determined to work in the medium of words.  Less is often more. You can say things in silence you'd never be able to communicate verbally.  As I revise my novel this week,  I'll ponder the implications.

Saturday, July 7, 2012


The title of this post comes from John Berger's quirky and wonderful new book  Bento's Sketchbook: How Does The Impulse to Draw Something Begin?  I realized this evening that I've been asking myself a similar question over the last several weeks.  Why do I write about some things, but not about others?

Why did I not have the impulse to document my Midsummer Night's Dream party - where the rain came down and all our guests had to help set up after it had passed, and how that involvement united us;  how Anjali tossed a salad and Elliot and his friends hung lanterns in the trees, and how Felix and Jussara came from New York, and Felix performed a scene from the play, as Snout, 'The Wall'.

Why didn't I write about Charlie Cooke and Elliot performing Demetrius and Lysander underneath the fairy lights - or how at the end of the party, Helen and I lazed in the hammock which we had dubbed 'Titania's bower'.  Or how we set off Stephanie's lanterns, to fly into the night sky like tiny hot air balloons, and one got caught in our neighbor's tree and I thought it might catch fire. And how then Louise begged to know where I'd got them, and left the party in her fairy wings and the evening ended with me and Helen and Elliot's friends at 2 in the morning, passing a bottle of scotch round the kitchen, and telling Kelly how beautiful she was.

I had no impulse to record those things. Until now.

Nor did I record our visit to Williamstown, Massachusetts to see Lucy's play "The Blue Deep" - and all that wonderful family interaction - the Noel Coward moments round the breakfast table reading reviews, and the two trips up Mount Greylock...

Or the boat ride several days later down the North River in Hanover Mass with Peter Moll, where we saw nothing but blue water, reeds and trees and a Constable sky - and boys on a rope swing sailing across the river and dropping like dolls into the water below; or the record breaking heat in Washington DC, and how Helen stayed like a saint to look after Basil the dachshund?

Written in a stream like this, these subjects invite exploration, and yet I had no impulse to explore them in my blog at the time. Why not?

Was I too busy to record them?

In fact,  I did have time.  And as you see, there are colorful anecdotes here that might be embellished and formed into several stories.

Perhaps the impulse to write has to do with your relationship to those anecdotes.  If there is nothing within them that jars you, or you feel you have thought about them sufficiently, you don't much care to write about them.  It is said that conflict is the necessary ingredient to every good story.  Does this mean I haven't had my share of conflict over the last several weeks?

Not true. And yet my recent conflicts do not interest me sufficiently to explore them in a story.  Maybe they feel too pedestrian, or too forced.  The impulse to write doesn't begin (for me) with the journalist's mandate to record things. Nor does it come out of ranting.

Perhaps it begins with something rubbing against my mind. Something that puts me at odds with the material in hand. An image plus an irritation.  It's like with the oyster, irritated by something in his shell, and then spinning a yarn that transforms itself into a pearl. The impulse to write begins with a question - or a thought that demands contemplation.  When you've stopped thinking about it, you find you've finished your story.

There again, maybe I was just too busy writing a book review and revising my novel.  But where did the impulse to revise my novel come from, I might ask?  From the recognition that there is more to explore, and that I could say it better, I suppose. With questions that remain to be answered. Irritations that demand a salve.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


We are planning a summer party - with the theme A Midsummer Night's Dream, and we've invited friends for next week.  So after dinner on the terrace this evening, Ben suggested we should take an inventory of  all the lights we have. He had spread them out inside, on the dining room table, and the collection included a few Japanese paper lanterns and several strings of fairy lights, along with a collection of unopened lanterns called Xu Yuan lights which my sister Stephanie had given us for Christmas. They looked promising in their different sized cellophane wrappings and came in beautiful colors: turquoise, red, pink, purple and white. Each lantern came with a small paraffin block.

"I think the idea is that you light the block, and let the lanterns fly away," I said. 

 But Elliot thought it would be better  if we could anchor the lanterns somehow. He  imagined they would light up when the paraffin blocks were in place, but that we could then tie them down with tent stakes and fishing lines – or string them between the trees.

Already one lantern, the white one, had been opened.  So we decided we would practice on that. We sat outside on the terrace and Elliot read Step # 1 of the instructions:

After the distribution of fuel to packaging equipment Kong Cross wire in the side of the field against deduction presses. The fuel pressure lock firmly.

"Ah," I said, "that must mean you should bend the metal tie and push it through the hole and then twist it into place."

Elliot accomplished this easily. Now what?

I read the 2nd step aloud:

A person Xu Yuan light take up a Top. Another person fuel ignited the four angle.

Elliot lit the paraffin. We stood in the middle of  the moonlit garden with the beautiful white paper lantern billowing up – the lighted paraffin  burning beneath it. With each second, the lantern inflated more completely, until it was a glorious oval.  "Next instruction?"

Wait for that the heat enough light, lantern person lest loose. A top hand changes grips under the light to encircle, Has when the lifting force may let go releases for flying.

"Maybe you should let go of it, Elliot."

"We have no choice," said Ben, " if we want to know how they work.  Let go of it and see what happens."

"Wait," I said, scanning step #3.

Should choose at the option open, calm environment released for flight. No fire ban in areas. The tall building the floor, and soon on have covers under the thing to release for flight must leave outside the airport 10 kilometers from flying.

"That’s all right," said Ben.

 The heat from the paraffin base blazed and by now the fully inflated lantern looked temptingly beautiful. All around the darkened trees, fire flies glistened off and on.

Elliot let the lantern go –

Gradually it lifted, a hot air balloon in miniature, higher and higher, as the fire beneath it raged furiously.

We watched it ascend.   "Whoops..." I said.

The guys laughed wildly.  The lantern was completely out of reach –"there’s nothing we can do about it now."

It sailed above the trees like an alien spacecraft, and then caught a breeze and drifted over the roof of our house,  like a UFO, a firefly spacecraft, a zeppelin. 

I read the final instruction for all to hear:

Xu Yuan light are on the rise, that of the flying, cannot the long time not put, and the Flight not to be append the foreign body.

Ain't that the truth.
By now it was flying high above the road – lifting over our neighborhood – off into the distance, heading to Dulles Airport.

"Do you think it will be all right?" I asked. "What is going to happen? I hope it doesn’t burst into flames."

"It's too late now," said Ben.  We raced through the house to the front garden, and watched it disappear – a distant light by now – like a low flying plane. "I want to find out where it's going."

"I don’t like the idea of you driving off and looking up at the sky, Mum, " said Elliot.

But I didn’t care. It was too spectacular to miss. I grabbed my bag and shot off in the car.

I headed down Great Falls Street and took a right on Haycock.  The road has been newly surfaced and in the dark it was gleaming black.  The sky was dark.  The stars were out and I scanned the sky on  all  sides. It felt like I was all alone in the world, looking up at the sky. But I could see no sign of our lantern.  It had completely disappeared.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Last week, my eyes fell upon the following words in a personal ad of New York Review of Books: "I'm hoping to have a last affair with an interesting, ambulatory 75-80 year old Westchester man." And reading this, I asked myself, is such an ad an example of supreme hope, or of despair?

On the side of hope: What a wonderful message! Love springs eternal. We should never underestimate the ability of life to surprise and confound us. The idea that someone is looking to be surprised by love, at the age of 75-80 years old, fills me with joy and delight.  I know in my heart it is possible. After all, I myself have been surprised by love, so why not at 80?!  This message shows openness to passion and to rediscovery - to that mental and physical connection between kindred spirits, which is ageless. The concept that one might desire another human being, who on the face of it, is too old and decrepit for consideration, fills my heart with hope, joy and energy.

On the side of despair: It's the word 'ambulatory'  that gives me pause.  What is this person imagining in a lover?  75-80.  Can't they do better than that? And can you put out a want ad for passion of this extraordinary kind ?   The kind of affair this person hopes to experience, will come when they least expect it. To look for it in the want ads suggests despair. So they, in their lets say, 70's, want an affair.  Sure. But hoping for a 'last' affair with someone this elderly? And why must it be your last?  An affair with an ambulatory 80 year old would come as a surprise, but frankly, it might destroy him!

On the side of practicality:  Put out an ad for a lover, in your 'twilight years' and wait for the messages to flood in.  You can probably always find sex, if that's what you're looking for.  But love comes by degrees. It comes by surprise, when you're not hoping at all to find it. Rarely when you're looking.  Also at your age, it could prove inconvenient. Interesting, yes. It's bound to be that.  But scratch the hope.

 There again, good luck!

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Right about now, Nick Johnson is floating in the ethos. He's in Canterbury and he's in Rome. He's in Cornwall and here in Virginia and he's also in Sydney, Australia and in lots of other places too, I'm sure.

It's that time of the year.  Our families were particularly close in Rome, from 2004-08.  We celebrated Christmas at the school concert and walked down Via del Corso for pizza afterwards. We shared Easter lunch, met up at school fetes, and at our apartment in Monte Mario, and we also visited the Johnsons at their summer home in Biarritz.   On May Day 2008, we picnicked in the Borghese Gardens and sat together underneath the trees. "And even though we are moving back to the States," I said, as I raised my glass, "we will be friends for life." 

"Absolutely," Nick replied. His eyes shone as we all clinked glasses.  We knew our friendship would last forever.  But this would be our last time together as families.  Our youngest sons - Elliot and Fergus, ran off to rent bikes; Ben and Nick walked together under the trees, talking together and smoking while me and Noreen lazed on the grass, talking as we always did in our easy eternal way, watching shadows pass across the day.
It was May 1, 2008.  On the last day of May, we buried him.

 Here is Ben, Noreen and Nick in Biarritz.

Nick was the principal of St Georges British International School, which our sons Alex and Elliot attended for four of the most important years in their young lives.  Alex graduated from St Georges with a Baccalaureate, and his choice of university and onward pursuits, were guided and informed by Nick.  When he realized we were moving back to Virginia, Nick assured me that Elliot would be fine, because I worried he wouldn't find his niche, being unusual.

"Oh, he will have something special to give," Nick assured me. "Because he'll have had this experience abroad. And they'll pick up on it."  Nick had a way of drawing in his breath and nodding when he spoke, as if to underscore the sincerity of his endorsements.

In Biarritz, Nick and Noreen, Ben and I walked down to the ocean, sat together on the sand, swam and discussed our children and our lives, prepared dinners, lingered in the market square over coffee. We stayed up late into the nights, drinking and singing, while Nick playing his guitar - his son Bardan (our son Alex's dear friend) accompanying him on  violin.  Nick had always been a tearaway, a busker in his youth - traveling across Australia together with Noreen. His free spirit informed his wisdom as a mentor and, along with his intellect, made a deep impression on our sons.

On May 15, 2008, I was driving down the Cassia to St Georges School, when Noreen's friend Rosie phoned.  "Are you driving, Amanda, " she asked.  I said I was and she asked me to call her back as soon as I could.

I parked at the foot of St Georges campus and called.  I looked out at the olive trees, the hills and the pure blue sky. Rosie told me Nick had died.  "He had a heart attack on the way to school," she said. "And they couldn't save him."

It's too painful to recount in detail the days that followed. Sitting with Noreen on the balcony of their apartment, smoking the last of Nick's cigarettes. His shirts were still in the washer.  Noreen wondered if she should put them in the drier, whether she should take his pajamas out from under the pillow of their bed.  I telephoned the British Embassy.  Nick was an important person, and they had to be informed.  Soon Noreen's brothers and sisters flooded in from Ireland.  We sat together, made cups of tea, tried to pretend that life could go on.

Later in Canterbury, we attended his funeral and burial.  I stayed beside Noreen.  Alex joined Nick's brothers and Bardan, all playing music on Joan's lawn.  Joan, Nick's mother, was amazing.  She showed us how to do the impossible: How to outlive a beloved son.

Fast forward, past our later visits to Biarritz and our rendezvous in Edinburgh, past Noreen and Fergus's visit to DC, to the dedication of 'Nick's bench' in Oxford.

We met up for dinner in Oxford the night before.  Bardan was thinner  by now and Ant, Nick's brother was fatter, and both of them had bigger beards.  And then there was an old friend called Doin at the table, and Sue who spoke of her own widowhood. Fergus had grown into himself, and become very handsome.  But all our boys immediately picked up exactly where they'd left off.

I noticed how in conversation, Nick's brother Ant had the same slightly lazy articulation to his words as Nick.  It touched me.  I was thrilled to see Noreen. We sat together like school girls, catching up on our lives.

 The following day was the dedication. We assembled in the Brasenose courtyard. Nick's mother Joan was now 85.   It was a hot morning. My shoes pinched my feet and the sun beat down. People gave long speeches on the grass.

At the designated time, Joan went forward, for her son. "I declare this bench open!" she said.

Afterwards, the college served a wonderful lunch.  In a hall surrounded  by the cloisters of Brasenose, we drank and ate and talked.  Noreen was beautiful with her blue silk dress and now silver hair.  She'd be going off to Zambia to work at an orphanage in a few weeks time. It was hard to believe that the last time I had seen so many of  these people was at Nick's funeral in Canterbury.

His influence continues.  Tonight, Alex telephoned on Skype from Sydney, Australia. "I was just thinking of Nick," he said. "I don't know why but he came to mind. What a lot of wonderful people we've known." 
This is the Johnson family, and a few others, sitting on the bench dedicate to Nick at Brasenose College, Oxford.