Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Plum Farm

Driving south from Chicago we take the Indiana Skyway. It's not the most beautiful road in the world, but it is a familiar one to me. I grew up with this flat terrain, these generic highways that hug the lake.

After an hour or so, we come to Michigan City - a depressed working class town that now lives from its outlet mall which is placed strategically next to its nuclear reactor. The shoppers as they zip from Calvin Klein to Anne Taylor ignore the huge steaming chimney behind them, but it is difficult to miss.

Though I have no idea how I'll get this home, I buy a flawed LeCreuset pot for a third its price, then we push on. Then leaving Michigan City behind the road turns buccoli. Farmlands and roadside stands appear. I can buy jelly or corn. Plum Farm is just ahead. A sign tells us so. As we drive in, we have to honk because deer live on the property.

We drive in, past the sculpture of the wild boar, the stag in the field, through the line of pines. We may as well be driving into a house in Provence. A few decades ago my cousins, Mike and Donna, bought this old plum farm. I have seen pictures of the original house and grounds. There are a few out buildings, a shed, a barn. The house itself holds little promise.

But Mike and Donna have an eye for beauty and they began lovingly restoring this farm. Mike is a former antique dealer from Chicago and Donna whom he married just before he was shipped off to Korea was a decorator and is, in my opinion, a very fine watercolorist. Beyond that she has an eye for antique bird cages and odd chicken ceramics and carvings, including one she believes comes from a French carousel and hangs in the middle of her kitchen. Artists need retreats, quiet places to create and think, and Plum Farm is mine.

I don't go here the way I go to say, Paris or Spain. It is not an adventure per se. After all it's only two hours from Chicago. But we like to go here when we can or when Mike and Donna let me. (Not that they have ever turned us away). Larry and I like to stay in what Donna calls "the barn." I believe it is an old honey shack, but it has its own kitchen and comfy sofas.

Mike and Donna leave us coffee and muffins and often we'll find a bottle of vodka or some white wine on chill. When I visit, I am really away. Away in my own head that is. I can read and write and paint here and they let me. At a certain hour, usually well past morning, we'll move into lunch or drinks or the evening news. Cocktails. Whatever, but in that early part of the day I am left alone in this old renovated barn.

When I'm here I think of Henry Miller and the places where he was most at home to write and paint such as Big Sur. At the end of each day he painted. He loved it when his children interrupted him, but mainly he just did his art as he chose to do it. Plum Farm enables me, and Larry, to do this. It is not only that we are more or less left to our own devices. Nobody really bothers us until we are ready to be bothered.

But this alone is not what draws us here. It is that beauty is every where. In every corner there is some ceramic pitcher, an ancient bird cage, a wagon wheel, bowls, a comfortable chair and light where you can read. You look out into the woods and there's a stone carved horse. A bubbling fountain. Prairie grasses. Wildflowers. Books and music and paintings and French country furniture. Magazines about drawing and art.

Over meals of grilled steak and sweet corn we'll talk about Obama or some British crime series that they love or swap family stories, often poking fun at people we know. Donna and I share a love of the Vienese artist Egon Schiele and we might talk about him or she will show me pictures. For entertainment we play with their cat, Amy.

A year ago Larry and I went and it rained for four straight days. We thought we'd have to build an ark. We had gone for Mike's birthday and we had to wear waders to walk from our shack to the car. The rain was a strange addition and after a while I think it depressed us all. But this summer we went with Kate. It was the most peaceful time I can remember.

I go back to Miller when he writes in one of my favorite books of his, THE COLOSSUS OF MAROUSI. He cannot get over the beauty of Greece, yet he understand that "voyages are accomplished inwardly and the most difficult are made without moving from the spot." Or as my mother said when she put me on the SSFrance in 1968, you take yourself with you wherever you go. I cannot just head off to Greece, or board the SS France.

But Plum Farm grounds me. It helps me find the thread back into myself and my work. As George Eliot once said so astutely, the hardest part of being a writer is pulling your chair up to your desk. Getting started. But to get started you have to be able to be with yourself. Plum Farm is one of those places that allows you to turn inward. Several of my own artistic journeys have begun here, though I don't think Mike and Donna know that.

Every artist should have a place where they feel this way - alone with yourself, but knowing that people you love are nearby. I painted these sunflowers the last time I was there. Mike had put them in a vase in the barn and they were waiting for us. A huge vase of sunflowers. So I painted them. I sent Mike and Donna a card of these flowers, but made a copy for myself. Moments at Plum Farm are luminous and I want to hold on to them. Forever if I could.

But Plum Farm is for sale. Mike and Donna want to spend more time in Chicago and Plum Farm requires a lot of work. If I could find a way of turning it into an artist's colony, I would. I keep trying to think of ways...But for now I never know if the next time is the last. Donna is slowly selling off the things she's collected over the years such as the giant wooden farm shovels that were in our shack until this past summer.

So this past summer we went with Kate. She stayed in the main house and loved being there. On our last day Kate and I went for a long swim along the shore of Lake Michigan. The sun was setting and the light was golden. Gulls had come to roost in the sand. Ahead of me Kate's head bobbed in the brilliant, Midwestern light.

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