Monday, October 29, 2012

HURRICANES AND WOOLY MAMMOTHS

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

THE flexible ABUNDANCE OF SPACE

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

ADVANCED IDENTITY

One of my favorite blogs is http://advancedstyle.blogspot.com/  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

THERE'S THIS CLOAK...

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

HOARDERS AND THE HISTORY OF OBJECTS

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.