Tuesday, September 29, 2009

At Plum Farm - the barn where we stay

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.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Ghetto - Girona, Spain

I wanted to see the ghetto in Girona so we drove there from Barcelona where we were staying. We wandered the narrow, cobbled streets and I stopped to do this watercolor. My watercolor teacher later told me that I don't understand perspective, which is probably true in this painting at any rate, but I don't really care. I like the image.

We went to the Jewish Museum in the Ghetto where we learned such things as "The Jews don't light lights on the sabbath" and "At Passover the Jews eat unleavened bread." The history of the Jews stopped just short of 1492 (the year of the expulsion from Spain) which was actually what we hoping to learn something about.

For a long time I have been curious about this period in Jewish-Spanish history and I was hoping to learn more. Were the conquistadors secret Jews? Was Cervantes as some scholars have speculated? But there was nothing. When I asked about this at the reference desk, the woman there told me that they hadn't gotten to that room yet, but it was in the planning stages. I had a feeling that this was a very long-range plan.

We drove home beneath an orange full moon. It was a long drive back and we got lost several times.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On Improvisation

Yesterday was my friend, Susan's, birthday. It was a beautiful day and we agreed to meet down in Lower Manhattan. We both wanted to be near water. We stopped in a grocery store and bought some humuus and vegies and crackers. We walked over to Battery Park where we had a picnic. For four hours we sat by the Hudson, chatting away.

Then it was time for Susan to meet up with her family who were taking her on the Staten Island Ferry. We said our good-byes, but I was hesitant to go home. The weather was still gorgeous. One of those days hot, sunny days without a drop of humidity that might not come again for a long time. A perfect end of summer afternoon. So I called my daughter, Kate, to see what she was up to, but Kate was almost home in Brooklyn. But she'd left some things she needed at her job in Union Square and said she was heading back out again. I could hear the fatigue and frustration in her voice. I told her not to bother.

I had time on my hands and didn't mind, tooling around the city. Besides the subways were messed up so it wasn't that hard for me to go uptown before heading down. When I got out of the subway at Union Square, I noticed a man on his knees and before him was a large elaborately-patterned drawing on the ground that I recognized as a mandala. A mandala is a kind of Buddhist drawing, made of sand, intended to exist for only a short time. In fact at the end of its making the mandala is intentionally destroyed.

The man was still working on it, laying down some scarlet colored sand so I asked him a few questions and he told me that he never knows what he is doing before he sits down to do it. That his mood and the moment dictates what he will create. He told me that he has spent his entire life learning how to be an artist, but never know what he's going to do until he does it.

I'd have to say that in a sense this is how I begin every day. I know I am going to write and I know more or less what it is, but beyond that what happens on the page is pure seredepity. As I listened to this man speaking, I couldn't help but think how this description of how he does his mandalas is true of every artist. Great cooks who never know what they're going to make until they've been to the market or checked what's in the fridge. Jazz musicians.

Of course it is one of the great myths of jazz musicians (especially as applied to black jazz musicians) that, like Indiana Jones, they are making it up as they go along. The truth is they might be riffing and going off in all kinds of different directions, but it is always within a form and jazz musicians spend a lot of time learning that form. A jazz musician will spend years on the blues scales, the chord progressions. He or she might appear to be improvising, but it is only after years of study and practice.

I guess improv = improve. Sort of. It's that way with writers and travelers, isn't it. Only hacks and tourists know what's going to happen before they arrive. (This is why I have never ever written an outline of a book I was writing). Real artists allow themselves the pleasure of surprise. As Flannery O'Connor once said, if it's not a surprise for the writer, it won't be a surprise for the reader. The cook may not know how these ingredients are going to go together, but somehow intuitively suspects that they will. (Think about whoever invented salty carmel ice cream.)

The art of improv as every comic knows has long been misunderstood. In college I read Frederich Nietzche THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY. I have to say I didn't read a lot of philosophy in college, but this one stuck with me. What I walked away with was this. First the Greeks had Dionysius - that naughty god of drunkenness and passion. But tragedy, and theater, wasn't born until the Greeks discovered Apollo, the god of order and form. The birth of tragedy comes from the "marriage' of these two impulses. Passion within the form that makes for art. So it is with the traveler. You know where you are going, more or less. But it helps if you allow room for detours. And I have often found that the journey, and the novel, can live in those detours.

This past summer Larry and I wandered home from a day in San Sebastian. As we returned to our little village, we noticed a lot of people, wearing purple and orange t-shirts, hanging out in our very very small town square. We were hungry and tired and anxious to be home but I said to Larry. "We have to see what's happening here." It turned out that a local Basque young man had won that day's stage in the Tour de France and our village literally exploded. We wound up spending the evening, drinking, hanging out, and marching through the cobblestoned streets, following the local marching band.

It was an evening out of Felini, but we never would have experienced it if we'd stuck to our plan. And, as far as the writer goes, I recall Michael Cunningham once saying that he sat at his desk five hours every day, no matter what, and eventually something's got to happen. Within the discipline, there is freedom.

Or as E.L. Doctorow once put it, being a fiction writer is like driving down a country road at night, guided by your headlights. You can only see what's right before you. You know what road you are on and where it is taking you. But how you will get there may be another thing. And what you encounter along the way may be a surprise. I went to Kate's work place where I picked up her forgotten items. On my way back through Union Square the artist and his wife were already sweeping up the mandala.

That emphemeral art was being put back into large plastic bags and carted away. I got on the subway and went home. When I arrived, I saw that the tree in front of our house had split in two. It had fallen about ten sections after Kate and her boyfriend walked in the door. Another few seconds and it would have struck them. I guess nature improvises too.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

On Solitude

A few summer's ago I was alone in Prague for a couple of weeks. I was staying in Jana's apartment - a place I'd rented before. It is a small apartment, but with a terrific view of the Castle, especially at night, and a roof terrace where I sun and dry my clothes.

From Jana's apartment I can gaze down at the roof tops of Prague. At night during other summer's I've spent here, I drifted off, gazing at the Castle, illumined until midnight when the lights went out and the city darkened. But this summer it was stinking hot and I was alone. It was in fact the hottest anyone could remember in Prague.

I had work to do so my days were busy, but in the evenings I was alone. Neither Larry nor Kate joined me this time and the few friends I had in Prague weren't around. Normally this would be all right. I'd hang out on the Kampa with all the dachshunds and Frisbee players or sit by the Vlatava, sipping prosecco and writing in my journal. But these activities on this particular summer had lost their appeal. In the evenings especially I found myself at a loss with what to do. Time seemed interminable.

After dinner or whatever I did that evening, I made my way home. But the apartment was boiling. It was unbearable really. And there were no screens (which I often find in Europe) or fan. In order to get any air I had to open all the windows wide. But then, if I had the lights on, the bugs flew in. Thousands of bugs. Big ones, little ones. They took over the entire ceiling. There was one bug in particular, a huge winged flying thing that looked like the alien from War of the Worlds, the first film that terrified me, and it would bang its head into the walls. So I would read as long as I could stand it and then when the insect population overpowered me,

I turned off my lights and sat in the dark, just staring at the Castle. I'd sit up for hours, until the Castle lights dimmed. Somewhere in the building almost every night a woman was making love. (It turns out she was rather famous in the building) I listened to her cries.

I am a person who once prided herself in traveling alone. I went to remote parts of Mexico and Latin America where I stayed for years. I traveled from Beijing to Berlin alone. I wrote about my solitary journeys for years. I never really minded not sharing a meal or walking city streets unaccompanied. I was content just to watch the world passing around me. But now I did mind. Something in me had shifted. I thought these weeks would never end.

I was a different person when I made those other journeys. My DNA wasn't the same. I didn't want to be alone anymore. This was a hard truth to admit, but I didn't want to. I had a daughter, a husband, a dog. A parrot, for god's sake. While I was happy to be away, I couldn't bear the lack of companionship. I wanted my solitude, but was not enjoying my loneliness. And it took me a awhile to make this distinction.

Solitude implies a choice. But loneliness is imposed. It's a kind of stealth emotion. Time moves slowly. Boredom settles in. You find yourself engaaging strangers in conversation like the crazy women back home. Writers, of course, are people who need to be alone. We need that time to ourselves, to stoke up, fan the flames, whatever you want to call it. But I'm not drawn to around-the-clock aloneness.

I like my solitude, but at the end of the day I want to share a glass of wine with someone I love. Prophets in the desert, a tree dormant in winter, the writer at her desk. These are all portraits of solitude, but it is also when the work is getting done. Moses needed his time in the desert, the same way the oak tree in my back yard needs to winter over. The artist needs his or her solitude. But I'm not sure we need to be alone.

I recall hearing once that Shakespeare couldn't bear to write in a room. He had to be out in the world, among people, in the pubs. I've written before in this blog about writing in cafes. How one has solitude yet you are in the world. The solitude of the writer isn't exile exactly. We need it, but it must be self-imposed.

The weeks in Prague, as I pulled the sheet over my head at night to avoid the insects that crashed into my pillow, were endless. And too many nights I found myself, sweating, sitting in the dark. Even after the Castle lights were extinguished, I was awake, listening to that woman's cries.

On Solitude - A Journal Page

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I Love Paris...

Last year I travel to Europe with my husband and a wheelchair. Three months before on the first day of a sabbatical I'd waited seven years to enjoy I went ice skating, and I fell on the ice. The pain was terrible and I couldn't stand on my own, but when the skate guards asked if I needed an ambulance, I said no. I had plans. And I didn't want to waste an afternoon in the E.R.

So I went home and, as my foot swelled, told my husband that I thought I should get an Xray. On the way to the hospital I feel down my front steps, thus finishing the job I'd begun on the ice. I shattered my fibula and was told by my surgeon that I could not put any weight on the ankle for at least eight weeks. This was unbearable. I had journeys planned - to Morocco, Italy, Spain. My husband, Larry, was training for the Rome marathon and I was going to watch him run. I'd booked ferry boats and riads in distant market places.

Instead I sat on my living room couch, watching winter turn to spring. On Easter Sunday I watched family going out for brunch. Then, after ten weeks, my doctor said I could travel. But the truth was I could barely walk. But at Larry's insistence we flew to Europe with the wheelchair, crutches, a cane, and walking boot, and lots and lots of meds. In fact it was impossible.

Our daughter was in Ireland so we spent a few days in a freezing Irish mizzle (mist/drizzle) Larry shoved me through Temple Bar, along its cobblestone streets, dodging many drunken college students on their spring break. Then we flew to Paris to spend a long weekend. I was so happy that I made this journal page as we were landing. It was my mother who first brought me to Paris. She had always wanted to visit the city of lights and she'd named our first dog Renoir. Then in 1968 I live there for a year, the most exciting year of all. Now I try to return as often as I can, but never before in a wheelchair.

In Paris Larry shoved me through the Latin Quarter. My husband, the portrait of patience, like poor Sisyphus, wheeled me to the Tuilleries. I bumped along, not always a great sport. At the Louvre the fire alarm went off and I found myself stuck in Grecian sculpture. We pushed on to Spain. In Spain we had an apartment in an old Moorish town that looked out on to the Mediterranean.

On our first outing we were going to go for a walk along the sea. When we arrived, he went to get the wheelchair out of the trunk, and I told him to leave it there. Slowly I began to walk again...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sketches of Spain

Perhaps it's right to evoke Miles Davis here. There was something haunting and beautiful about this place. Everything slowed down, but I didn't mind the slowness, the empty spaces. The view from our window was across the river to this little town. A small skiff ran between our two villages and we often rode back and forth many times a day. There were good seafood restaurants where we had leisurely lunches of fish, pulling right from the sea. San Pedro where we lived was an open, lively place, but we found San Juan more isolated.

Only a thousand people lived there and they had lived for generations. Basque separatist flags flew from many of the houses, especially during the fiesta time. There was an undercurrent that we sensed, but could not quite describe. Our neighbor explained for us. Half of that village votes for the party that favors ETA. It is a strong bastion of the Basque movement.

As we walked the streets, we observed posters, mainly written in Basque, with hundreds of faces. It seems that the Spanish government had sent prisoners far away from their families and the families were asking them to be returned to prisons nearby. This was a major political issue in the area. We were aware of this tension, but we were taken up in something else. The txacoli that they poured from on high at the bar around the corner, pintxos in the evening, the strange rowing dance they made Larry do on the ground of the plaza.

Then there was the walk through the mountains that the pilgrims take to San Sebastian, the giant freighters, bound for Newfoundland and Kazakstan, cruising by. The rhythmic grunts as the rowers raced by. When the children were jumping from the seawall, I joined them. I knew it was high tide.

Monday, September 7, 2009

On Surprises

As I've said before, I am not a good person to travel with. I don't take tours of famous houses or churches unless it is the only way to get inside. I hated the tour I had to take in order to see the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico or the Villa Louis in Wisconsin. I don't take the audio tours at museums. I avoid any situations in which someone is telling me what to look at or what to see. At least initially I prefer to bungle along in my own way, browsing, taking in what I want to see, and being surprised.

In other words I like to make my own discoveries. The only person I know who feels as strongly about this as I do is my husband, Larry, and I am very grateful that we can travel this way together. Perhaps this comes from something deep-seated inside of me. A stubborn streak, I'd have to say. I recall being at movies with my mother who'd jab me in the ribs and say, "This is the funny part." Or my father who, before I'd even opened a menu say, "They have great hamburgerers here." I want to discover things my own. What is the point of traveling if you don't like to be surprised?

I recall the Soviet soldier who danced in my train compartment as I played Rachmaninoff for him. The pristine swimming pool my friend, Carol, and I discovered in the middle of the desert outside San Miguel. The baker's son who walked with me through the Champs de Mars in Paris, singing the "Bella Ciao." And the Navajo policeman who, for some reason, believed me when I told him my brother's van, which Larry was driving and which my brother had forgotten to register, wasn't stolen.

And then, of course, there are those sudden sightings. The light shining on haystacks in the Loire Valley that really does look like Monet. The moment when the fog cleared over Macchu Picchu. I have always been drawn to surprises. This summer we were in a little town outside San Sebastian, Spain whose beauty astounded me.

Then I learned that Victor Hugo had once been here too. In 1843 he was taking a walk from San Sebastian when he stumbled upon a seaside village ("this humble corner of land and water') and he was amazed by everything he saw. He decided to stay for a while. He wrote: "This magnificent and charming place that all at once has the double character of joy and grandeur, this untouched place which is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen...this little radiant Eden where I arrived by chance..." (from his Voyage Vers Les Pyrannes).

Hugo, who was believed to be visiting a mistress in San Sebastian, stayed in this place until the tragic death of his 19 year old daughter brought him home. Hugo just came upon Passaia, the village where we spent a couple weeks this summer on our own. We stumbled upon it as well, you might say, as well. Friends asked us to meet them in San Sebastian for Jazzfest and we found this little house through a house exchange. I saw pictures and knew this was where I wanted to be. We had use of a car, plans to visit Bilbao and Bordeaux. But in fact we never left.

Each day brought a different surprise. The children leaping from the seawall, the fiesta that last seven days, the little boat that took us across the river for sixty cents. To connect the writer here to the wanderer I recall that Flannery O'Connor once said that if what you are writing doesn't surprise the writer, then it won't surprise the reader.

It is a wonderful moment when you are writing and something completely unexpected happens. Or if you are traveling, and you make an unexpected stop. You see a painting or a landscape you have never seen before. You taste a spice that you know you have never tasted before. A character does something in a book you didn't seem coming. And suddenly nothing is ever the same.

Just from an afternoon in Florence when I had nothing much I wanted to do.