Friday, September 2, 2016


The cheese man is packing his parasol into a grey canvas sleeve.  The olive man is talking to the fois gras man and we in the cafe underneath the trees are talking to each other. We are drinking rose.   Francois writes his postcards. Rozzie is annoyed at Rilke and reads out passages. Then we are talking  about the enigma of arrival and the enigma of happily ever after and there are other conversations all around us, in French and Basque. Also a baby is crying in the background.

On other days we have walked with Noreen and Bardan from their house to the beach. We have taken that long walk sometimes twice a day,  down the grassy path and up across the road and down the hill past a little school and the field which once had donkeys, through the underpass and into this square and across to the bakery to buy our pain au chocolat. We stop at the overlook and gasp at the breathtaking view - then head down the winding path and steps to the beach.  And then comes a favorite interlude: drinking our coffee and eating our pain au chocolat, talking and watching the water.

Later, we might swim.  But today we are not swimming because it feels too hot. Also Noreen and Bardan have gone to a lunch party.   So we came to the market to purchase supplies for an evening picnic.  And now we have them and now the market is closing.

There are beards and earrings and flip flops, tanned arms and faces. Here there are bottles of perrier and laughter and coffee and in the square beyond the cafe is a lot of packing up and stacking up of left over boxes and produce.

Some of the children are bored by now, but the day continues with its hot blue sky and red slate roofs and green leaves pruned to reach upwards.  I love the solid dark red of the balconies. 

In the sunlight and shadow of the town hall entrance, children scamper round the pillars playing peek a boo.  The view through the archway is shaded and empty,  it's the only empty place,  framing its distant view of hills, sea and sky.

The panama hat seller calls it a day and heads through the archway, leaving the stage of Place Sauveur Atchoearena. A child sits on the steps and mists his face with water.  The air smells ripe, like melon.

The frowning brown girl in an orange halter, her neck and arms covered in tattoos, sits at a cafe table with sunglasses on her head, eating pizza.

White vans pull in behind to take away crates, collapsed awnings and left over produce.

A mother and daughter at the next table wear big summer hats. They are chatting with the tall thin woman with tattooed arms and yellow framed glasses, who balances a crate on one hip.

Tired children are hauled up and carried home by their mothers.  The waiter in an apron straightens chairs, his tray full of glasses and bottles.  A pretty girl in a blue t shirt and cap sweeps the paving, her gold hoop earring glinting in the sun.    Then down comes the hand painted sign Marche Gourmand. 


Dear Stranger,

I found your triple band Cartier ring on the beach in Bidart.  It was dusk and I was walking with Noreen.  The beach was practically deserted.  I left for America early the following morning.  I now have your ring on my finger.  Contact me here and give me the inscription and I will gladly return it. 


Thursday, August 11, 2016


Mechanicals and Fairy kings
My dear friend Charlie Weber just sent some photographs he'd taken of our Midsummer Nights Dream party this year. I feel compelled to share them - as well as a few others taken over the years, of summer celebrations, friendship, fairies, lovers and mechanicals.

Doth the moon shine that night we play our play?

Sometimes Ben or Elliot and others organize readings from the play.

There might be sparklers or even fireworks.

One of the things I love most, is that younger members of our party, have grown up coming here on midsummer night.  Val, who is getting married next month, was remembering this year how she came to the party as a child and danced around with sparklers!

Helen blowing bubbles - and Molly watching

Charlie - who took the best pics on the blog post!

About ten years ago, we celebrated in Rome.
 Walter came from London and rearranged the apartment while I was out purchasing the wine and cheese.  The place looked like a set by the time he had finished. Lucy also came from London, wearing a good amount of glitter and are Walter and Lucy and above them Silvia and Noreen chatting together in their fairy wings.

Last year Alex flew in from Australia. That was a beautiful moment.  My sister in law Clare drove up with him from New York.
Elliot and Alex

And Louise can always be counted on for some kick ass fireworks, fairy wings, recitations - you name it.  Noodles!  This year she brought all kinds of noodles!


There's something about being under the trees as the moon and fire flies come out.

How I love thee. How I dote on thee!

Saturday, August 6, 2016


So what have you been reading? I love it when somebody asks me that question - or when I can ask that question and hear some interesting answers. Although I  won't be on holiday myself until late August when I'll visit my dear friend Noreen in Biarritz,  I'm already wondering what should I bring her.  I work in a bookstore! Surely I must find something unusual. Here are a few top choices.

 Han Kang's The Vegetarian winner of this years Man Booker International prize, was a favorite at our bookstore this summer. Several colleagues were reading and discussing it, so I also picked up this electrifying, erotic story about compulsion and damage.  It's told from several points of view and centers around Yeong-hye, who after a series of troubling dreams, announces she's becoming a vegetarian.  But her traditional Korean family sees this decision as subversive.  Then her brother-in-law, a painter,  secretly recruits her for his art installation and paints her body in flowers. Who is damaged? And what does it mean to take a stand? And is Yeong-hye the blank canvas everybody thinks she is, or is she more complex than her well-adjusted sister?  I was riveted by this story from start to finish, and utterly drawn in to its peculiar world.

Which brings me to Hanya Yanagiharaso's A Little Life- National Book Award finalist and runner up for the Booker Prize. This hefty novel follows a circle of New York friends from their twenties into their fifties. One of them is scarred by childhood abuse and trauma. He's also a cutter, so the scarring continues. If you thought The Vegetarian was a heart breaker, try this on for size. I found myself wondering if it is ever possible to love a damaged person out of their damage and beyond it. How we want that answer to be simple! Accompanying these characters through their struggle is at times Dickensian, if not downright Voltairian in scope, but in the end, maybe my question about damage no longer makes much sense.

And now I desperately need something light! That's where Geoff Dyers' White Sands comes in.  I zipped right through these essays for their intelligence, humor and range. If you liked  his collection Yoga For People Who Cant Be Bothered To Do It, you will enjoy this too. His essay on visiting the northern lights is laugh out loud Dyer at his best.

But my favorite read of the last several months has to be Magda Szabo's The Door.  It's a story of  fierce loyalty and deep incompatibility between Magda Szabo  and her housekeeper Emerence. Magda is an important writer devoted to the life of the mind. But Emerence is a Hungarian peasant, immaculate, tireless, and with rules that are set in stone. You will become thoroughly engaged in Magda's struggle to find intimacy with this woman who although very close to her heart, frequently drives her to distraction.

And by the way, look out for an upcoming release - Szabo's novel Iza's Ballad  newly translated by George Szirtes- in another New York Review Of Books edition to be published in October.

Another lovely book I picked up this season was I Refuse by Per Petterson. His Out Stealing Horses was recommended by novelist and friend Anna Jaquiery.  In poetic, unpretentious and precise language,  it delivered complex characters facing down their demons  And here, a chance early morning encounter, rekindles painful memories for two friends who have since grown apart. Petterson is great on the deep longings  and the essential loneliness of his characters against a sparse Norwegian landscape. It's a trip worth taking.

I'd also like to recommend Elizabeth Strout's My Name Is Lucy Barton for  its smooth as silk psychological complexity and heart.  Also Bonnie Nadzam's new novel Lion. Loved her debut Lamb.  So want to love this too.  But  I have to confess, I'm still only half way through...

And let me give a final shout out to Lara Vapnaya's latest novel Still Here. When Russian friends living in New York struggle to find meaning in the digital age, one develops an app called Virtual Grave, designed to maintain a dead person’s on-line presence.  But is the virtual grave technology itself?  Vapnayar’s best pages return to Moscow, where a messy and difficult experience is vividly recounted.

Happy Reading everyone!

Sunday, July 24, 2016


Our tree before it became a mob scene
A little downy woodpecker used to hop down the tree trunk in front of our terrace. He was on his way to a log of birdseed which we'd hung on a branch. It was specifically intended for birds like him, because it included hot peppers.  Squirrels don't like hot peppers but evidently birds can't taste them.

Our woodpecker had a system. He'd hop down quite deliberately and then when he could see the birdseed, he'd cock his head prettily before alighting on the feeder.  Cardinals and other small birds also visited frequently.  But the larger greedier birds couldn't get a grip on this bird feeder - and we liked it that way.

Then I was somehow convinced by the kind woman at For the Birds in McLean that I should buy a different bird feeder - with a grill and a stand that woodpeckers would be able to land on more comfortably.  I could also purchase a whole crate of bird seed cakes in one go. It would be cheaper and much more efficient.
friend or foe?

The unfortunate result was a mob scene. The whole bird feeder was flocked with noisy birds which before I hadn't noticed. At first I thought they were starlings but after a quick internet search I realized they were grackles.  Grackles are considered to be pests by farmers because not only do they flock but they fight and squawk and can destroy a crop in a matter of days.  In our case, they left droppings all over the patio furniture. I had created a monster!

So I took the bird feeder down, returned the bird seed cakes to the shop in Mclean and bought another roll of hot pepper bird seed - the one that only little birds can alight on. "Grackles are a pain," said the woman in the bird store.  "If you can figure out how to keep the grackles away from your feeders, we can make a lot of money." She told me her friends made fun of her sometimes - because she puts out seed to encourage the birds and ends up shooing them away.

I learned that neighborhoods can change, depending on what is there to attract them. I've also realized lately that there is another neighborhood emerging in the human population, with huge houses taking the place of large wooded lots.  Across the street they've just finished cutting down all the trees and shrubs, so they can lay an enormous foundation for a five bedroom, multiple bathroom house.

One street over, where I often walk the dogs, there are three empty houses side by side. One that used to belong to our neighbor Ted is slated for demolition. When Ted was younger, he walked his dog around the block and often stopped to chat.  But when his dog died, we didn't see as much of him - unless it was when he stepped out of his back door to throw peanuts for the squirrels.  A few months back, I routinely saw him making his way down the front path and holding a long stick with pincers on the end. He used the pincers to pick up his newspaper.  Then he made his ponderous way back and closed the door.  Ted passed away this spring and his house is now empty with a big developers sign in the front.

very old fashioned, but this was Ted's home

So the other morning, when I was walking the dogs, I decided to take a peak into Ted's garden. It felt a little intrusive, but also harmless - like visiting a secret garden from the past. After all, how many visitors will this garden have before it is no more?  Just outside Ted's sun room on the concrete porch, I saw a table with his old glass ashtray.  This must have been where he did his day dreaming.

In the back there's an enormous silver maple, also a brick path wending its way to a birdbath.  It's a path to nowhere, beautiful because it is something to follow with your eye, into the trees, across the grass. It is redolent with the past and with imagination.
Ted's tree and his path to nowhere

The house directly next door to us is also empty and it too will soon be torn down.  Sometimes I go into their back garden, just to pay tribute to someone else's dreams.  Because this is what a home used to look like, with plenty of room to dream.
These trees will soon be gone
Nowadays, people's dreams seem very different. And when developers dream, it starts off looking like this.

construction site across the road


Wednesday, April 27, 2016


A purple flower for Prince
Prince is gone and nothing compares to him.

 His stunning musicianship and prolific songwriting, his showmanship and overt sexuality, all of it felt so electric, so alive. But I feel the loss because of his vulnerability, which seeped through his every performance. Also because all of him - the whole package - is linked in my mind to younger days and my first encounters with Prince in the 1980s.

 It all goes back to Ben and me visiting our friends Peter and Kathy in their tiny cottage in Hull, Massachusetts. It was 1982. The vegetable garden was bigger than the house itself and Peter played for us the 1999 album.  Prince, he said, was playing all the instruments. As we listened we couldn't believe it. We were immediately hooked.

We were living in New York. I was working at NBC and Ben was doing construction for our friend Frank.  A little bit later, I got a job at the New Yorker.  We'd been living in an apartment in Crown Heights - not the coolest of neighborhoods (except on Labor Day when they had a massive carnival parade). We were living in the middle of a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood, which had little in terms of ambiance, but everything we wanted in terms of light and space.

Fortunately we found other kindred spirits. Our upstairs neighbors were muralists - Tim and Andrea Biggs, and soon they became our best friends.  We went everywhere together - to art galleries and parties, to gigs at the Ritz - and we sat up late into many an evening talking about life and politics and art and music and everything under the sun.

Our friend Frank was our life line - he had a loft in Chelsea, which he had renovated from scratch. We would hang out with Frank and his girlfriend Peggy along with Tim and Andrea and our friends Bronwen and Felix, and Frank's best friend Giancarlo - also a struggling actor.  And there was also our friend Rob, another struggling actor.

When Purple Rain came out, Ben and I immediately went to see it.  The film itself didn't interest me much, but I was totally bowled over by Prince's performance of Purple Rain at the end.
Meanwhile, my brother Robert's band Til Tuesday was about to have its hit single Voices Carry.  They had signed with Epic. This was our life and things seemed to be happening.

Then Ben got a job in the Foreign Service and that was the end of our New York life.  We moved to DC and then to Caracas, Venezuela and beyond.

But Prince continued to be the background music of our lives.  In Caracas we got his album Parade and played it incessantly in our enormous penthouse apartment underneath the Avila mountains. When I hear it, it brings back the terra cotta tiles, the view of the mountains, our beloved dog Stjohn, us expecting our first child and this whole new world we seemed to have created for ourselves.

When we came back to the States on home leave, along with our newborn daughter, we stayed with my parents in Brookline, Massachusetts. My sister Stephie had her hair in a punk rock style - dyed blond. My brother's band Til Tuesday was all over MTV along with Sinead o Connor singing Nothing Compares to U -another Prince song.  Having been overseas, I had never heard it.  "Oh," said my father Derek, when the song came on, "here's that lovely Irish girl..."

This is what I remember when I remember Prince.

Now of course we're all grown up. Tim passed away and Andrea still lives in New York. Our friend Rob runs a theatrical salon in Park Slope. Frank and Peggy are still together with two grown sons.  Felix lives in Park Slope as a producer and songwriter. Peter has happily remarried after many years alone, as Kathy died very young. Bronwen lives and works in Maine. And Giancarlo? Well, he became a star.

My kids (and there are three of them now)  are the ages we were then.  But somehow in my mind, Prince remains the same. In my mind, he didn't age.  To me, he was eternal.

Saturday, April 2, 2016


Our cherry trees hardly blossomed this year.  I was still waiting for them to peak  when I noticed the leaves were already out. So they blossomed, kind of - but not in the spectacular pale pink mist of previous years.

Pretty yes, but not spectacular

But we also have two small apple trees down at the end of the garden and for years they haven't blossomed at all. When we first planted them, I was told by a horticulturist  at Merrifield Garden Center not to allow them to bear fruit - but instead to pick the blossoms off - until the trees grew stronger.  It wouldn't be good for them to bear fruit when they were young, he said - much like pregnancy in a teenage girl, it was too big a strain on one so young.

That was five years ago. But this year, we fertilized the trees. Lo and behold, I just walked down to the end of the garden and found that they had blossomed!  Blossoms in spring equals apples in fall.  So - finally, finally I think our apple trees are ready to bear fruit.
apple blossoms, a sweet promise of apples!

It might be a stretch, but here comes my metaphor.  I'm thinking of course, about writing practice.  You see, I've been working hard at a manuscript which is taking a very long time, and it's still not quite ready to bear its fruit. But yet there are other things I write - things that I have put aside, or written off the cuff, which are almost ready to go right away.

As a writer - as a creative artist of any kind - you never quite know what will work and what will not.  I just had a conversation with my son Elliot about a song he'd written. He wrote it hastily - didn't pour in his heart and soul - and yet people respond to it more than to other things he has labored  long and hard to produce.

That, I told him, is the story of my life.

"People love proficiency," Elliot said. "In the case of this particular song I knew how I could make it shitty and catchy!"

Evidently this is true for other artists too.  Augusten Burroughs, who I had the pleasure to introduce last week for a reading at Busboys and Poets - spoke about his book Sellevision - over which he'd labored long and hard.  But why didn't it sell?  So he handed his agent his journal about trying to stay sober - something he'd written only for himself. Turns out this was precisely what WOULD sell.  And it became his best seller Dry.

Check it out here Augusten Burroughs at Busboys and Poets.

I guess we've come a little way from my story about the cherry trees.  All I really mean is that you never know what will blossom. You never know what tree you plant will actually bear fruit. So keep on planting.

As I told Elliot - I have the feeling that things we work hardest at are really about how we learn the craft.  But when we do stuff quickly it's less self-conscious - we throw it away - and somebody is bound to catch it.

We are always learning our craft.  Always getting better at it. Maybe something else we produce, while we are deep in the craft of that precious manuscript -  maybe something from the heart but more off the cuff will blossom in surprising ways.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


 'Let go or be dragged,' goes the zen proverb. So my New Year's effigy this year was about letting go.  The aim is to let go of toxic relationships and expectations that stultify when they don't come to fruition. Because of all the things that make up our lives - some are impostors, and holding onto false comforts and expectations might be less an asset than an impediment as we go forward.

I'll never find inner peace dragging all this!

Turns out I also had to learn to let go of a treasured possession - a black pearl ring to which I had attached several degrees of sentimental value. Ben gave me the pearl when we lived in Caracas, and it was set on a ring given to me by my mother's step-mother when I was sixteen.

I had this ring on my finger when I was working in the bookstore two days ago.  Then I lost it. I had spent the morning re-shelving and reorganizing the Arts and Crafts books at the far end of the store. I had then called special orders and shelved many individual books behind the cash registers in the front of the store. I had also been down to the receiving room, for a stack of Fates and Furies - and piled them on the table of neighborhood favorites. Then there was a mishap with several special orders, which fell behind a pile of cartons when I tried to remove them from a shelf in the receiving room. It took several minutes to gather up the fallen books, before carrying them up to the main floor.  I was calling special orders when I looked at my finger and gasped.

The pearl was gone.  Two empty prongs grasped nothing.
an empty ring

I checked the desk and floor around me. I went about the rest of my morning scanning the carpets - hoping in vain to find it. What chance did I have of recovering what looks from a distance like a small black bead, somewhere, almost anywhere, on the floor of this enormous crowded bookstore - or downstairs - in the receiving room.

Heartsick and feeling foolish for having worn the ring to work in the first place, I tried to resign myself to its loss. I didn't tell any of my co-workers.  Let go or be dragged.  Then I thought,  you know, it will be very interesting to see how this all turns out. I actually looked forward to the end of the story - whatever that might be. Because when you let go - isn't something wonderful supposed to happen? Otherwise, what's the point!

At lunch I took the band  with its empty prongs off my finger and put it in my bag.  Maybe I'd get a different ring, one to mark a turning point in my spiritual growth.

a sad moment

I see many hands during a day at the bookstore - hands across the counter signing for purchases.  They are sometimes well manicured hands, and also sometimes uncared for, hands with clean well shaped nails and hands with colored varnish or with bitten nails. There are fingers adorned with rings and empty fingers on old wise hands, and young smooth and inexperienced hands. I saw a hand with a beautiful beaded ring that day - ruby red circles of beads. Maybe I'd get one like that, I thought.

Later that afternoon, my co-worker Rhonda came up, agitated, to the cash registers. She was picking things up and putting them down and tipping aside the trash containers.

"What are you looking for?" I asked.

 "Remember when you took a phone call for me earlier in the day," she said, " and it was a customer asking about the book a month program? Well, I took down a list of all the books she wanted. But now I've lost the list.  I can't even remember the customer's name and it's very upsetting."

She moved the pens and staplers on the desk. I looked down at a box of plastic bags beneath the counter.  On top I saw a small piece of paper with a handwritten list. "Is it this?" I asked.

Her face burst into smiles.  "It is! Oh, thank you!" she cried, drawing me into an enormous hug. "I've been looking for that everywhere! I owe you one..." she said.

Well, if that could happen for Rhonda, I wondered what would happen for me.  I remembered once, many years ago, I was fiddling with my wedding ring in a movie theater and it fell to the floor. I heard the sound as it fell to the ground, but I couldn't find it.  After the lights came up, I was still unable to locate it on the floor around my seat - and afterwards my son Elliot and I, along with the cleaning crew, combed the empty theater up and down the rows looking, to no avail.  Finally, I surrendered.  It's gone, I thought. And then as I stood at the front of the theater - diagonally across from where I had been sitting when I lost the ring - and three quarters of the length of the theater away from my seat, I looked down. On the floor before of me was the ring.

Were the fairies playing tricks on me? Was the universe having a joke - or was God trying to teach me a lesson?

I remembered this experience as I returned to the cash register where I had been working.  Something then impelled me to step back.  As I did, my eyes fell on the carpet underneath a table.

And there, in the middle of the floor, was my pearl.

a pearl of great price: the lesson I learned