Thursday, February 16, 2012

LOOKING THROUGH WINDOWS


My neighbor Jacky stopped by with his labrador Charlie this evening, to see if Basil the dachshund and I wanted to go for our usual walk. We go almost every evening, although lately I've been slacking off. Too many other distractions: going to Richmond for Elliot's performance in Elephant Man; saying goodbye to Alex who is en route to Sydney Australia for his first serious job, even as I write this. All that's been going on, as well as my teaching schedule.

But we set off for our walk again this evening, Jacky, me and Charlie and Basil, past familiar neighborhood houses, their lights shining through windows. Yesterday on our walk we encountered a man who was thinking of making an offer on one of the houses for sale in our neighborhood. Jacky said afterwards that, "We gave him the fire-hose version..." a full on blast of everything we loved about our neighborhood - its safety and convenience, great schools and Saturday Farmers Market. We even noted the McMansion upgrades, which we privately scorn.

Tonight, as we passed one of those McMansions, we saw a single kitchen light on the ground floor of an otherwise darkened home. We saw the silhouette of an elderly man eating from a bowl, with chopsticks. "What a picture," I said. "What does that tell you?"

Further down the road, looking into windows - "Don't you love it," I said to Jacky. looking through the lighted windows of a neighbor's split level stucco house, its ocre walls, hanging pictures, the shadows of plants.

"Reminds me of the Hollies song Look Through Any Window," Jacky said.

"I don't know it," I told him, so he hummed a few bars while Charlie the dog took a poop. After a little more conversation about Graham Nash and my brother Robert, we parted as usual, on the corner. I walked down Gordon Avenue to our house - past the corner renovation - and our next but one neighbor's newly painted split level with turquoise front door, a collie asleep in the doorway, down to my own house with its faded wreath on the blue front door, its view through lighted windows of book case, sofa and paintings.

I remembered then The World According To Garp -- how Garp and his wife liked to hire a babysitter so they could peer through the windows of their own home and watch the life inside.

Objectification. That's the pleasure of looking through windows. You look into a frame and form an impression. Impression is a beautiful thing, because it allows you to fill in the details with the best things from your own imagination.

As I write this, Alex is en route to Australia. And when I open my own front door, Ben is downstairs, hooking up audio equipment. It's the final stage of his basement renovation. For the first time in the history of our house, the basement has been swept and painted to its furthest reaches and corners. Music floats up as Ben plays the first vinyls we owned as a couple. A recording by Roxie Music, for instance - of "our song" .... Wont You Take A Chance With Me.

One of the things that happens when you have an empty nest is that you realize you and your partner are actually separate people. With others in the home, Ben and I became a single body, a single entity. I outsourced things to him and he outsourced things to me - and together we worked as a unit.

But now that we're alone we are back to being individuals. Separate people, looking at each other and rediscovering each other's separate identities.

I saw my home through the windows as I came in from my walk with Jacky. I heard music from the basement. It seemed to purify our household from the roots.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

CONNECTIVE TISSUE


One of my shoulders has been hurting since Christmas. My sister in law Clare bought me some hot patches at the CVS, and those helped for a while. But I should probably visit the doctor, and I haven’t done that yet. My husband Ben thinks it’s a problem of strained connective tissue – the result of being pulled by Basil the dog when I walk him on the leash.

I’ve also noticed a strain in my neck on that side when I sculpt. My mother in law Alice says, “Darling! Just you wait til you get a little older.” Alice is visiting this weekend and we went to the Phillips Collection this afternoon because she hadn’t seen Renoir’s Luncheon Of The Boating Party in years. Strangely enough, I was only at the Phillips a few nights ago with my friend Ananya.

We’d gone to hear Yusef Komunyakaa read his poems inspired by a current exhibit “Bonnard to Vuillard" photographs and paintings by post impressionists. Afterwards Ananya and I sat in the reception room talking about writing. Ananya is deep in revision of her novel, while I am feeling a little fed up with writing. It’s the connective tissue that always gives me problems. The connective tissue in my work.

And it’s the connective tissue that leads to my experience at the Phillips Collection today, looking at the beautiful photographs by Maurice Denis and the paintings inspired by them. A tiny photo of Matisse in his studio captivated me. I thought to myself – that’s him – and when that picture was taken he was the man, rather than the name. A painter in progress, not the final verdict.

When we gazed at Renoir’s Boating Party –Alice, Ben and I – we saw those luscious figures in the prime of their lives, not a single hard line in the painting. Alice recently gave me a copy of The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal.  We were both amused and delighted to understand the background of The Boating Party painting, explained in that book– the fact that the man in the background wearing a top hat was the author's ancestor Charles Ephrussi from whom he inherited a netsuke collection that included a delicate ivory hare with amber eyes.

Back to connective tissue. The hardest thing to write. This evening, my friend Robyn, a writer, read me one of her chapters over the phone. It was funny and rambling, charming and honest, and then pulled all together with something profound. In addition to this, she told me her agent says that what her book needs is more connective tissue.

“And that’s so hard to write,” I said. I know this from writing my own book. Easy enough to write the sections that have to be there – dramatic moments and major scenes between characters – but to make those scenes connect, to pace the book, so that important scenes appear when the reader is ready for them – this requires art. To make connective tissue link the parts we want them to link – so that they don't sag or feel like stuffing. Or worst of all, feel painful.

Connective tissue has made the movement of my arm seem effortless up until now. It is also what makes a simple comment profound - standing with Alice, who I’ve known and loved for almost half my life, looking at Paul Klee's The Arrival of the Jugglers: "Ellie would love this,” she said, speaking of my youngest son, her grandson.

“I was thinking the same,” I said.

Connective tissue is the art behind family life. It’s the weave behind a strong marriage too. It isn’t big dramatic moments that make a marriage work. It’s the parts in between that link them – the ones you disregard.

How for instance, we rely on Ben to go off and get the car, leaving us warm in the gallery, watching snowflakes fall in huge great chunks of white. Alice has come to see the Renoir, and now I remember another Renoir exhibit twenty five years before with her own mother – Ben’s grandmother, a painter in her own right. We used to call her Grandmere, because she came from New Orleans. She was old when I met her – but not much older than Alice is today. “This is where the color begins…” she said as we entered the final gallery of that Renoir exhibit, twenty five years ago.

But all this is background. It isn’t the main narrative. It’s just connective tissue. What we forged without thinking, to make up the story of our lives.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

AWARENESS OF TRUE HAPPINESS


I'm watching The Hours and I don't know why I'm doing it. Because tears are streaming down my face. Why is happiness so frequently elusive? And a moment of true happiness, author Michael Cunningham suggests, usually takes place on the most ordinary morning in a life, when the person living that life may disregard the moment. It passes them by.

We do not always consciously acknowledge moments of happiness. Instead, we tuck them in our back pockets, barely aware of their beauty, thinking they will declare themselves only once they add up. We expect them to build upon each other.

Sometimes they do. And sometimes they don't.

When I look back, my conscious moments of happiness are moments tinged with triumph and gratitude. Taking my first shower, after the birth of my daughter, in Caracas. That one stands out as extraordinary. It had to do with recognition: Your life will never be the same.

My life has been full of happiness and I know this and feel it. But there is one simple moment that stands out in my mind. It was a moment of conscious happiness. I was aware of it at the time. In 1993, I traveled from Moscow to Buenos Aires. I had traveled alone, except for my baby, Elliot. Ben had stayed in Moscow with our older two and I went to visit some of my dearest friends in Argentina. The miracle of being able to make this endless journey with an infant son, to see beloved friends, all the way from Russia, seemed to me extraordinary. There I was. I had arrived. But more than that, I'd returned. I had made, what was for me, an epic journey.

My conscious moment of happiness took place in a courtyard cafe with my friend Pedro Grieco. It was an ordinary morning in Buenos Aires. It was the kind of perfect weather I must have lived a hundred times in the four years I lived in that city. But now I was here once again, partaking of something extraordinary. We sat at a table. Pedro was writing postcards, and I was opposite with my infant Elliot, then just four months old. Nothing was expected. We ordered coffee. Here I was at the furthest reaches of the globe, and I felt the peace of the moment. Acceptance. Nothing expected that couldn't be given freely.

If you had to pick a moment you were aware of pure happiness, what would yours be?

Friday, February 3, 2012

LIFE AS A WRITER (last three months)

rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection submission rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection ACCEPTANCE rejection submission rejection submission rejection submission rejection submission submission submission submission submission submission submission rejection submission submission rejection submission submission

Maybe it's a blessing?

Recently I heard Jonathan Franzen describe reading as the 'quiet alternative'. Beautiful! I treasure the silence when you curl up with a book, in the intimate communication between writer and reader.

But I'm having doubts about this blog, and the purpose of my own writing. The constant rejection, in a world so full of tweets and blogs and self promotion has me reevaluating what it is I'm doing.

On the way to the vet this morning with my dog Basil (who cannot pee, after his prostate operation), I thought to myself, "She who tweets the loudest and most frequently, often has the least to say." I pulled up at the vet, next to a man in a white van. It was early morning. He was dropping off the ashes of deceased pets.

Inside I explained to the vet, "He hasn't peed since we brought him home on Friday." She's a compassionate but sensible woman, the one who put our dog Hannah to sleep back in August.

"And I worry about that," she told me. "What do we do with people after prostate surgery? We put the catheter in and we leave it there, until the prostate shrinks back down. So that's what I'm going to do with Basil. He will have to stay over night and then Dr Rogers can reevaluate him first thing Monday morning."

I signed the paperwork, and left with Basil's collar and lead. I drove back home, still thinking about silence. About the verses in 1 Kings " ... a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice."

I think it's time that I shut up and listen for that still small voice (in Spanish it is sometimes translated "a whisper"). I won't be able to hear it, if I clog up the airwaves with drivel!