Sunday, January 12, 2014


the key to our future

Yesterday it rained hard and all around the Silver Maple which stands in front of our terrace the ground turned to mud.  The dogs track mud into the kitchen whenever they come inside but we don't want to talk about the mud right now because the question is more complicated.  It isn't just a matter of  planting grass seed. We've talked about this problem many times and as we talk the conversation quickly develops into a much deeper problem, the problem of how much longer we're going to stay in this house.

The need for grass around the Silver Maple calls into question the future of the Silver Maple itself.  The tree is dying and it doesn't look that great right now, being winter, but we are trying our hardest to keep it alive for as long as we can.  It's our favorite.  It was here when we bought the house. Its leaves have sheltered our terrace since the children were small.  We have sat beneath it on countless evenings and in all seasons and we've watched the cardinals nest in its branches and the woodpecker  peck against its trunk and we have a photograph of our daughter Rozzie and son Alex standing underneath one of its boughs back when they were five and seven.  Now they're in their twenties.  We don't want the tree to go.

But if we contour the land and put in new sod, it really means we should take the tree out first. The root system is so close to the surface and so expansive at this point, that the grass never grows underneath it well.

But if we take out the tree, that calls into question the terrace, which will no longer be shaded and therefore won't be so peaceful or friendly. We will have to put in an awning and an awning isn't as lovely as a tree and besides, an awning is costly - and what we've really talked about doing when the tree dies, is putting an addition on the back.

We always told ourselves that if that tree came out, it would be time to put in the beautiful room we've always imagined - the one with windows onto the garden - the one that would allow us to entertain more comfortably in the winter months - the one that might have a fireplace. This is a logical development of the property. Our neighbors have done it, because all these properties are deep ones, but we haven't done it because of the tree.

And yet that isn't true.  Because why would we build on an extra room at this stage of the game?  The children have moved away and yes we are happy in this house but don't imagine staying here forever. We moved here because of the children, and have lived here on and off for twenty years - in between foreign service tours.  But we can easily picture an urban life - the life we lived in New York or Boston before we had children.  Or if not that, a life back in Europe -  in the UK or Belgium where once we were so happy. Or who knows where? Our children are spread across the map and so are our friends.

This is what we talk about when we start to talk about grass seed.  It seems this tree holds our future in its branches and if the tree dies all bets are off.

This afternoon we took the dogs for their usual walk. The rain had stopped and the weather was warmer. Also we had to pick up my jacket at Sara and Jacky's house - where we had dinner last night.  As we rounded the corner from Hallwood onto Brilyn, we found Sara outside digging, her back bent over a tiny hole.

"Hey!" she said. "I'm planting trees!"

We laughed.  The trees in question were currently sticks. I remember when she got them last year and they were even thinner. "This one is a Crape Myrtle," she said.  "And this is a Washington Hawthorn," showing us a twig in her hand with a tiny green dot on top.

"Wow," I said.

"And take a look at the Red Bud."  In another bed in front of the house stood an actual tree. 
"It's huge!" I said.

"I know," she replied, "And it only started out as a stick."  A new thought crossed her face. "Do you want some? I have a Bur Oak inside, and a Northern Red Oak.  And I don’t have room here for an Oak."  We laughed again at the tiny saplings.

Ben agreed we should take some 'trees' and we went inside and I got my jacket back and we chatted with Jacky who was standing in the hallway with his dogs, and Ben thanked them both for the lovely evening last night and they said they had enjoyed it too. Then Sara  gave me three sticks wrapped in a plastic bag. "Is now a good time to plant them?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "You want to plant them while they're dormant."

We finished our walk. Jacky texted me to tell me that one of the saplings Sara had given me was a fast growing Northern Red Oak which will grow 60-70 feet. The others were a Washington Hawthorn and a Bur Oak.  So if one tree falls another three will be planted.

But what about the grass seed?

view across the garden in summer

Monday, January 6, 2014


I stared at Jalene all day long.  For two days in a row from 10 am to 4 pm with only a short break for lunch,  I stood at times three feet from her face.  I stood as close as I possibly could and stared for hours at the shape of Jalene's mouth, the depth of her eyes, the contour of her cheeks.  And as I worked on her mouth, and looked at it, and looked from my clay figure back to her flesh and blood mouth, and back to my clay figure once again, I was sure I must be getting it right.

But I wasn't.

At least, not as naturally as I thought.

I measured the distance between her eyes with calipers, from forehead to nose, from one ear to the other, then from nose to chin.  Something was off.  For one thing I had made the mouth too tight and grim. Also, the head was narrow, and the hair not full enough. Why, I asked our teacher Flick.  "What have I done wrong?"


He stood in front of my stand to study my sculpture for a moment or two.  "One thing I see right off is that the forehead needs more contouring. Also you will notice that the upper lip puffs out a bit here and interferes with the laugh lines here... and her bottom lip in the corner goes in a little bit. It tucks underneath.  Often," he said, "the way the mouth is held makes a big difference to capturing a likeness."

Flick  then said he often finds that he can see what's wrong with his pieces when he looks at them in the mirror. "You go along," he said, "and you know it isn't right but after a while your mind gets used to it."

So our minds get used to looking at what we've created and then they cozy up to the image just as far as we've got it.  It's rather like listening -  up unto a point.  We listen to what people tell us and then, when we think we've got the idea, we stop listening, because we are trying to say our own thing about it.  We want to put our own stamp on what our interlocutor has said, and so we find we've had enough.  Now we also want to be heard. We want to be taken on board.

For this same reason people often make their sculptures look like themselves. The face we are most used to looking at is our own. Our own face seems the most normal of all faces on the earth, so subconsciously we try to resolve other, different faces into our own.  Some people even go so far as to fall in love with people who look like them.  You've seen people do this, haven't you? Couples who look like each other? Aha, they've said to themselves. Here's a face I can trust.

Maybe this happens in other areas of life as well.  Maybe we always resolve other people's problems, other people's situations, through the window of ourselves.

Thinking about this depresses me no end. I just want to see people freshly! But whether I want to see them or not, all the time I am importing my preconceived ideas, blending them with my old ideas until nothing is really new to me at all. It's  all just a hodgepodge of what I know and what I think I want to know.

There were six of us in the workshop this weekend. Looking around at our work at the end of the day I was interested to see who had captured what.  Some of us captured things in Jalene  that others hadn't thought to capture.  Nobody got it right. But also nobody got it entirely wrong.