Thursday, November 16, 2017

TALKING TURKEY



Thanksgiving is approaching and it’s time to answer that question you’ve been asking yourself all these years.  What is the origin of the word “turkey?”  Turkeys are indigenous to the New World (i.e. not Europe) so when the early explorers arrived somebody had to name them. 
Here is the theory that I ascribe to in my new novel, Gateway to the Moon (to be published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, April 2018).   While there is no historic proof, this is at least a good story.  What is fact is this:   In 1492, as he was preparing to sail and discover his sea route to China, Christopher Columbus hired a man named Luis de Torres to be his interpreter.  De Torres spoke five languages, including Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic.  His real name was Yosef ben Ha Levi Halvri (Joseph, Son of Levi, the Hebrew).  He was a converted Jew and, many believe, a secret or crypto-Jew.  Crypto-Jews were those who continued to practice what the Spanish Inquisition called “the dead Law of Moses” at great risk to themselves.
Columbus believed he was soon going to enjoy the grand palaces and riches of the Great Khan.  Never mind that Columbus was basing his plan on the writings of Marco Polo, who narrated his tales to a French romance writer in a Genoa prison.   And that the journey of Marco Polo had happened two hundred years before Columbus set sail.  Columbus was determined to become famous and get very rich in the process.  But he needed an interpreter to speak with the Jewish and Arabic traders he would meet along the way, who would lead him to the Great Khan.  So he hired de Torres and on August 3, just days before the Jews who failed to convert to Judaism were to be expelled from Spain, de Torres sailed with Columbus on the Santa Maria. 
Some eight weeks later when Columbus and his men arrived in the Bahamas, expecting to be greeted by the entourage of the Great Khan, with offerings of gold, they were met instead by the naked native Taino people who spoke Arawak, and offered them trinkets and parrots.  Columbus was certain that he had arrived in Mainland China, then known as Cathay.  After days of waiting for the emissaries of the Khan to come for him,  Columbus sent de Torres and another man named Rodrigo Jerez inland to find the palaces.  Instead de Torres and Jerez came to native encampments where they took smoke into their lungs via burning leaves stuffed into a pipe.  They are said to be the first “white” men to smoke tobacco – a practice that did not interest Columbus at all.   It is also said that de Torres feasted on a large native bird that was sweet and delicate.
Now this is the part that may or may not be an invention, but de Torres did not know what to call this fowl.  He could think of no other name so he called it tukki which is the Hebrew word for parrot.  So it is possible that the bird that we will be brining, stuffing, carving, gobbling, and in some cases (in a tradition that I find rather creepy) “pardoning” is actually named for the tukki.  Though I can’t really imagine eating a parrot.  I have a pet parrot, and she is very intelligent.  I don’t think I can eat anything that talks.
But whatever you do or whatever you devour, have a Happy Thanksgiving.  And when the conversation lags or the L-tryptophan makes everyone sleepy, you can share this juicy tidbit around your holiday table and get a lively conversation going.     

turkey painting by MM  Nov. 16, 2017




Me with Tigers


Monday, November 13, 2017

First and Last: For Larry. Two Poems

The first poem, "Final Approach," I wrote while sitting in LAX almost thirty years ago in 1988 waiting for my then boyfriend, Larry, to arrive for a visit.  I was skeptical and full of doubts.  I felt certain that nothing would work out for me, and that this would just be another disappointment.  The second poem, "You Were A Fisherman," I wrote last month in Portugal while we were on vacation.  These seems to go together.  

Final Approach

As I sit at the airport,
Awaiting your flight
I think of how many before you
Have come and gone.
How many gates and terminals
Others have crossed
Moving in and out of lives.
I have kept vigils before
Over those who come close
then disappear.
Like a specter, drifting away,
and I have my own version of this.
Leaving without a word.
Touching down and taking off.
In my heart I go close,
Then fly off to other lands - 
Islands where silver fish
Feed out of my hand -
and I have seen you come and go
A Million times or more,
In disguises of beasts,
Pirates and wizards,
In the night like a stalker
You've landed in my dreams
And planted memories of moments
Yet lived my nights restless
With your promise.

But they have just announced
Your final approach
As I hurry to write these words
And wonder if this won't be
for the last time.
There is talk of fog,
A radar landing.
Remote control bringing you in.
But a calm comes over me
As if this were my last moments
Alive on this earth
and I am at peace
with all I have done.
I feel you touch down
In perfect visibility,
and I spread my wings
To take you in.





You Were A Fisherman

It came to me this afternoon
At lunch in Nazare.
What I hadn’t understood
In all these years.
Gazing into your sea-green eyes.
How else to explain
Your fear of water?
Of the ocean’s depths.
How you have felt the tide
Tugging at your toes
And so none of us drowned.
It was in your other life
That you were a fisherman.
You sailed the Atlantic
Your hands slimy with fish;
Your briny breath.
You were a fisherman
As you stood above the dark swirls
Just before I pulled you down
As you caught me
In your web,
In your tangled nets. 

Porto on Paper


For years I've kept travel journals.  They used to be just writing but in the last fifteen or twenty years I've begun adding a visual component.  I sketch and draw in them.  And for many years I never was able to do any painting or drawing that didn't happen inside the pages of the journals.  But lately I've started to feel constrained.  I've been wanting to go beyond the journal.  And yet for some reason I seemed afraid of paper.  As a writer I rarely have that dread of the blank page but as a painter I did.  Some of my concerns were practical.  What if I ruin the painting?   Then I've ruined the page.  And what should the painting be about?  As a writer I've never had a problem with the blank page.  I could almost always fill it and besides writing paper is cheap.  But good watercolor paper, let alone canvas, that was another matter.

But I've been digging deep.  Trying to take some risks.  I've been spending a lot of time for various reasons reading about Joan Mitchell and looking at her glorious work.

About ten days ago I put a large sheet of watercolor paper on my painting table and there it sat, staring at me.  But yesterday late in the day I had an idea for something I wanted to do and so I did it.  This painting of Porto.  It is big.  About 28"x 14" and it's on paper, not in the journal.  I feel a bit the way I did as a young writer when I finally opened the drawer where all my poems had lain for so many years.

I can't exactly explain why this felt so good.  Why it feels so good to not be afraid of paper, of mistakes.  Just letting it happen.

Again to repeat the Tahitians.  They have no word for art in their language.  The closest thing translates to "I'm doing the best I can."

Enjoy whatever it is you are doing.  There are no mistakes.  They are just steps along the way of learning.  

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Morning Fog in Porto

It was early when I took my walk
along the banks where gulls
cried but I could not see them.
Morning fog was everywhere,
Obscuring the river, the buildings, the road.
Yet this suited my mood.
My fuzzy head, my uncaffinated soul.
The worries that had kept me up
Uncertain of what lies ahead,
Regrets that lay behind.
But here on my morning walk
I could only see what was right before me.
What was ahead was cloudy and hidden.
What was gone, forgotten.
Across the river cyclists in orange vests
Shot out of the mist like flames
Flashing like a promise or a dream
Then they too are gone
and once more I can see
almost nothing at all.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Listening to Scheherazade

The other night I was making dinner and listening to classical radio.  It is my routine to do this.  I can't say that I am actually listening as much as just letting the music work its way through me.  I didn't hear what the announcer said about the piece he was about to play but the moment I heard the opening refrain I knew what it was.  I don't have very good music recognition. I might be familiar with a work but I can rarely name it.  But in this instance I knew right away.  I put down whatever I was doing, picked up a glass of wine and sat down and listened.

It was a piece of music I hadn't heard in fifty years but I remembered the last time I heard it.  It was on my twentieth birthday in 1967, and I was in love with a boy.  I'll call him Steve. Steve had a girlfriend back home who sent him brownies that were still warm and knitted winter sweaters for him.  But we were lab partners in biology and we had spent a lot of time today.  We did an experiment in which we created a window in an egg and watched as the chicks grew.  Night after night we'd go to the lab and look at our chicks.

Steve and I spent much of our free time together, studying, or just having fun.  One evening I returned to my dorm to find a giant branch waiting with my name on it.  I'm not really sure why he left half of a tree for me but my dorm was impressed.  One weekend we road the MTA from Cambridge through Boston. We'd get on different cars and run into one another, pretending we hadn't seen one another in years.  We were thrilled to find one another again.  This made the riders very happy.  And on the night of the Boston blackout we stood on the roof of the library for hours, shivering in the cold, huddled together, watching until the lights came back.

But always between us there was the girl back home, making her brownies and sweaters.  I really didn't even know about her until one weekend when he told me he wouldn't be around.  His girlfriend was coming to visit.  He said it matter-of-factly but he knew it hurt me.  We hadn't kissed.  We hadn't touched.  But he knew how I felt.  And I think he felt the same.  And so the months of our first year of college wore on.

And then it was May, a beautiful month, the end of the school year.  It was the time of exams and it was also my twentieth birthday.  Steve asked me out for that Saturday night.  I didn't mention that it was my birthday but I was thrilled.  We went to a party, then we went into Boston and out to dinner. We walked all over the city.  And at the end of the evening he asked if I wanted to go back to his dorm.

I had a curfew but I don't remember what it was, and I'm not sure I cared.  Anyway I said yes. As we were walking towards his dorm, I told him that it was my birthday.  He was completely distraught.  "Why didn't you remind me" he asked.  "I feel like an idiot," he said.  I told him he shouldn't.  I told him that I'd had one of the most wonderful nights of my life which was, and in some ways still is, true. I was young and in love and not much else mattered to me.  But still he kept shaking his head, telling me how terrible he felt that he'd forgotten.

 As we were walking through the cinderblock corridors of his dormitory, I said I had to use the bathroom and he told me to meet him in his room.  And a few minutes later when I walked in to his room, it was dark.  Candles were lit.  There was a cake. And Scheherazade was playing on a turntable, and it played over and over that night.

We didn't make love.  We didn't lose our virginities.  It was in fact a fairly innocent night under the circumstances.  We wouldn't become lovers until many years later, long after he'd married his girlfriend, and they had children, and then broke up - and then only very briefly.   And the next morning Steve came to my dorm and told me that he was committed to the girl back home.  And I told him it was all right.  I understood.

Deep in my heart I know that Steve and I weren't meant for one another.  But we had that one moment.  That night.  That perfect night.  So that evening a few nights ago I sat in a chair in my kitchen, not making dinner, but remembering a perfect night just as I remembered the bars to a piece of music I had not listened to in fifty years.


Monday, September 4, 2017







"A good traveler has no fixed plans

and is not intent on arriving."


                    Lao Tzu

Dear Theo








"I've attempted a night sky."

       Vincent Van Gogh to his brother in a letter. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A House Cat Observes the Sun Set



I have always been drawn to the tension between home and away.  






Everybody should be quiet near a little stream

and listen...

                                  Maurice Sendak


Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Tale of Three Cities

Actually there's not much of a tale, but here are paintings of three cities.  Whenever I go to a new place, I try and do a painting of it.  These paintings only exist in my travel journals.  At times I've tried to repaint them from the journals on to paper but it is never very successful.  For whatever reason the journals seem to be the only place where I feel completely free. Though I have started to work right on paper more, especially when I'm home, I love doing this work in my journals.  These are, in order, Mojacar, Spain, Auvillar, France, and Matera, Italy.


"There is no blue without yellow..."

In a letter to Theo, Vincent Van Gogh once wrote, "There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in the blue, then you must put in the yellow and orange too, mustn't you?" 

I was stunned when I read this.  For a long time I have been doing watercolors.  I've never really studied art, though I've wanted to.  But then I've never really studied writing either.  I just read a lot, all the time.  And I also looked a lot.  And for whatever reason when I paint I almost always use a lot of these three colors.  But especially yellow and blue. 
My mother loved blue and yellow.   Our living room was always some blend of those two colors. Yellow curtains, blue chairs.  She had a good eye.  She also had a degree in fashion from the Art Institute of Chicago but was never able to work in fashion.  But she had a decorator's flare and an artist's eye.  And our house was a study in blue and yellow.

I read once that the painter, Joan Mitchel, used a lot of blue and yellow.  Joan was the first wife of my cousin, Barney Rosset, founder of the Grove Press.  So I know a lot about Joan.  Her biographer posits that when Joan was little her mother had yellow curtains, as did I, and if she pulled those curtains back, she could see Lake Michigan.  As could I. 

So blue and yellow and orange.  You cannot have one without the other according to Van Gogh.  Or my mother.  Or Joan.  Who knows why the eye must see what it sees.  

I am painter really.  I don't know a thing about drawing.  But I love color. 

Most of my paintings are done in my travel journals on the road.  But lately I've been more sedentary so I am trying to allow myself to be in the travel mode and paint on a small card table upstairs when I am home.  

On thing that helps me do these is the Tahitian definition of art that translates to something like I'm doing the best that I can.  That's all we can hope for, isn't it?