Inside Out

Grace Church. Manhattan.

As I write this, my little Cape Cod village is experiencing its first snow, and even after all these years, I marvel at the way it transforms the familiar, quickens the senses, jolts me awake. A brown, bare world turns itself inside out, and all I can do is stare.

This past weekend, I had occasion to visit Manhattan to celebrate my sister’s birthday. New York is at its most wondrous in December, its most generous. Windows at Bergdorf Goodman, windows at Sak’s, windows at Macy’s are bursts of splendor and imagination. Christmas trees sparkle with a fairy-tale radiance. The air is slightly acrid with roasted chestnuts mounded in foil-covered bowls on vendors’ carts. And everywhere, there are throngs of people inching along the sidewalks, jamming subway cars, clustering in front of those spectacular windows.

In this city, I am often overwhelmed to the point of shut-down. Sometimes all I can do is keep moving, my knee aching, my senses blurred with the enormity of it all, and the quantum leap I have taken from my quiet life in a town that boards itself up for a long winter’s nap, where the December silence is as deep as the ocean that surrounds it.

New York is like a police siren, electric as a hot wire twisting down a Main Street bereft of lights. I look for places of refuge in the midst of the cacophony: the third floor of the New York Public Library, the second floor of ABC Carpet & Home, the way-back stacks at the Strand bookshop. Places to reclaim my senses after constant assault, so that I can surge again into the mad carnival and let its over-the-top-ness make me bigger, stronger, more alive.

All day Saturday, the first snow drifted down on New York, adding another layer of enchantment. Walking up lower Broadway after dinner in a charming little Italian restaurant, I saw this church (appropriately named “Grace Church”) through the falling snow. There are moments that bring us up short, moments when the world turns itself inside out, moments where there is nothing but the moment. Sometimes it happens when I’m looking at a painting or into the eyes of someone I love or hearing a poem or listening to the wind in the dried oak leaves, sometimes just the smell of new snow will do it.

Grace Church, with its mystery and grandeur, its tangle of haunted forest, snow curving around the walkway to the gothic door took me to a place beyond even New York, to a place where there is only rejoicing and awe, wonder and magic, complete, sacred stillness. Grace can do that, dig itself deep, make its way right down to the soul. Turn us inside out.

 

Ye Olde Renewed Dress Shoppe

Come Right In!

The idea of a Dress Shoppe (spelled just like this) has captivated me this afternoon, and the building too has taken hold of my imagination. I took this picture in a sleepy little town in upstate New York, one of those countless Main Street villages displaced by malls and expressways, now given over to moribund antique shops, For Rent signs, empty sidewalks.

Some wayward, stubborn part of me believes these towns can revitalize, can rise from the dust of neglect and the trammelings of “progress,” believes that the stately brick and iron buildings with their poetic transoms, signboards, cornices, and columns can be reclaimed. They are just too beautiful, too original, to remain obscure, unused, uncared for in our increasingly uniform box store/Internet world.

When I saw the Dress Shoppe door in this lost town, I thought about a magical place where dresses would spin and twirl from the tin ceiling or hook with rusty, twisted hangers from faggots of sticks, or adorn turn-of-the-century mannequins with bedsprings for heads and feathery crows perched on their shoulders. I thought of snippets of poetry clinging to hems and surprising fortunes under large round stones.

There would be autumn leaves on the floor. Birds’ nests on the shelves. Shutters, old doors, cloudy and corroded mirrors on the walls.

The dresses would be mostly black and netty with tulle and starched underskirts. Many would be recycled, made fresh again with fripperie and frou-frou, or simply plain as a single curved line down a white page. There would be shoes too, my kind of shoes: thick soled, thick wedged, balanced…no ballerina flats here, nothing so vacuous or insubstantial. Socks, the only color allowed. Socks woven in slices of citrus or honeybee stripes. Socks patterned with witch brooms or bearing tercets of poetry, images of subway cars, freight trains, farmhouses.

At the Dress Shoppe, we would hold morning coffee meetings to discuss impossible French verbs and ingredients for secret charms. Someone might come in and teach us how to make soap or write an irresistible love letter. At the slightest provocation, we might break into song or do a little dance. Cats and dogs always welcome.

The old building would sing too, and then, the building next to us would pick up the refrain with a hot cross bun shoppe and across the street, the library would hold evening soirees among the biographies. And building by building, the town forgotten for the past forty or fifty years would wake up, shake off its lethargy, make itself known to a world so acutely in need.

 

Summer of Love

Golden Apple

It’s mid-September, and the dark falls by seven now. Mornings are chilly and soaked with dew. Mums and pumpkins vie for space outside the supermarket, and brown leaves from horse chestnut trees drift down Main Street. We are turning inward again, in spite of summer remnants: overflowing window boxes, warm waters, blue, blue sky, and yes, yes, yes tomatoes.

We wait through long, listless, humid days when fans whir, the newspaper folds into itself, and tiny spiders spin instant corner webs. We wait through traffic jams, parades, side-yard weddings, craft fairs, and general hoop-la until the day when the first red tomato hangs plump on the vine, a jewel of vast proportions.

In all their ripe, lucious, chin-dripping glory, tomatoes are spreading across kitchen counters, building on windowsills, spilling over farmstand bins. Brandywines, Big Boys, Early Girls, Cherry Drops, Bumble Bees, Mr. Stripeys, Grandma’s Pick. Tomatoes, infused with all that August sun, sit heavy and warm in your hand and smell like everything that is good and pure on this earth.

The French used to call the tomato la pomme d’amour or love apple, believing that this exotic fruit had aphrodisiac powers. Adding to its allure is the tomato’s rightful place in the nightshade family along with tobacco, eggplant, peppers, and the deadly mandrake. The Italians called them pomi d’oro or golden apples, the fruit of temptation in Greek mythology.

Their greatest temptation seems to be that few of us can eat only one. And once the tomatoes begin, eating them once, twice, three times a day is essential just to keep up. Tomatoes grow prolifically with ardor and heat. One plant can yield anywhere from eight to twenty pounds of love apples. In September, my friends with gardens are busy stewing and saucing, slicing and canning and distributing tomatoes all over the neighborhood.

The very best thing to do is pick that first tomato and eat it right there in the middle of the garden or open field. Let it drip, let it burst and splash and juice, let its tiny seeds fall on your shirt, let it fill you with warmth and well being and memories of another sweet summer. Golden apples. Love indeed.

All Too Soon

Empty Hammock

August is the fastest month. Three weeks feels like three days. It’s supposed to be a month that flows like honey and molasses and maple syrup; the hours are supposed to have that kind of texture and consistency. Languid. Warm. Unending. Listless, even.

Instead the whole month feels a bit like a ride on an old-fashioned Tilt-A-Whirl, swirling wildly round and round in a blur of red basket and dizzy with visitors, unread books, things left undone. And now there are crickets and tree frogs jammering away in the earlier twilights and there are tomatoes weighing heavy in the backyard gardens and pots of asters and mums lining the entrance to the supermarket and suddenly I want to wear heavy shoes and plaid skirts.

September looms with its fresh, blue mornings and brisk, starched attitudes. Indolence is frowned upon. Beach paperbacks lined with sand are left to yellow in faded canvas bags and though the rose of sharon blooms the maples wither. A leaf from a chestnut tree falls on Main Street. All too soon.

And that’s why next year, I plan on living August the way it’s meant to be lived. Sleeping late on sultry mornings and eating tomatoes in open fields and buttering up that ear of corn and reading on the porch until the stars come out. I’m going to swim more and take an outdoor shower now and then and let the tiny spiders spin away in the corners and go to fairs and concerts and maybe even to a spangly, tacky t-shirt store with the rest of the tourists who flock here, living summer consciously the way vacationers do.

There are still a few August days left, and where I live, September has lovely summer-feeling days. But the mood is not as lighthearted and shadows fall faster and darker on the lawns and one by one, the lights go out in the big summer houses. We are left with memories of traffic and parades, of weddings in side yards, the fragrance of fried clams and wilted roses, the longing for a time when summer stretched out like Dorothy’s yellow brick road all the way to the wild, blueberry moon and all the way back again.

 

The Raining Rain

Under the Wilderness

From Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor of Vogue: “I think when you’re young you should be a lot with yourself and your sufferings. Then one day, you get out where the sun shines and the rain rains and the snow snows and it all comes together.”

I have been a lot with my self and my sufferings this past spring, though I’m way old enough to be out where the rain rains and the sun shines. It’s like a tossed salad of sufferings: a leaky roof, an aching knee, numb fingers, a bit of pure adolescent heartbreak sprinkled on top like a bite of chive. Not big-time, major-league, macro sufferings, to be sure, but enough to satisfy me.

This is familiar territory. Quite comforting to kvetch with a friend about the trials and tribulations of keeping up an old house and yard: spiders, pollen, rotting boards, peeling paint, ticks, ice dams, stopped-up drains, wet cellars, ancient wiring. Quite comforting to swap notes about creaky joints, nanosecond attention spans, proper noun oblivion, necessary naps. Quite comforting to write a poem or two to drench the heart in further woe, slip on it like a mossy stone.

All of this worrisome stuff is weirdly satisfying, a dose of personal Schadenfreude. The greatest danger is that negative satisfaction might become habitual, a worn pleasure track in the brain. Since I have no intention of becoming one of those cranky, peevish old ladies besting each other in a match of misfortunes, I respect what Vreeland has to say here: “Then one day, you get out.” Out of so much with your self. Out under the open sky where the elements have their way with you. Out where some days take your breath away, others leave you limp as a wet towel.

I am blessed with friends and family who do brave things: travel to Europe alone; run Art Centers; read their poetry to an audience though their fingers tremble; drive a friend to chemo; work with special needs children and adults; listen with compassion to people battling addiction; pile flowers and birds’ nests in their hair; make art; make a commotion; or make a safe, peaceful place that welcomes every weary soul.

In the end, it all comes together, as Vreeland says. Once out in the fresh, wild, scary world where the snow snows and the sun shines, the cloistered dwelling of the self begins to feel like a hobbit cottage cluttered with teacups, crammed with knick-knacks. You hit your head on the beams. There is little room to breathe. So you step outside. See the moon coming up in the wilderness of sky. Flap your squeaky elbows. Do a creaky little dance. Trust in the raining rain.

Necessary Objects

Door on Stairwell

Door on Stairwell

I haven’t figured out what it is about old doors that makes me so happy. I want to hang them on walls, from ceilings, lay them flat as tables and desks, prop them up anywhere they can be propped. I found this tall, narrow one leaning against a barn at a yard sale and felt that instant connection I’ve come to trust and rely on with both people and objects. I can’t remember how I got it home but those are the details, the mechanics, we forget in any love affair.

At first it wanted to be hung horizontally on the big wall over the little sofa but that meant making decisions about several pictures, mirrors, paper wreaths, and shutters currently claiming that space. It also meant painting the living room, not only to cover scatterings of holes, but because the door insisted on a different color. So the door looked around and decided the stair landing would do. I was relieved, though some day, it may get restless and command a different perspective.

When we make connections with objects, they tell us a lot about their histories, character, preferences. In no time, this door said that it used to open on a supply closet in a doorbell factory. When the factory closed, the door was salvaged and ended up in a garden shed next to a broken window where it suffered the elements for years. Now it’s in vogue; it knows  it; and it wants what it wants: namely, to be admired, cared for, adorned, and positioned for viewing.

I am only too happy to oblige.

It’s mid-May and spring is here in earnest. Like the brisk green wind tossed with cherry blossoms, I too am restless. Since there is no visit to Paris or Venice in the immediate future, I have to make do with enjoying my new old door and moving furniture around in the living room, a completely satisfying activity.

Henri Matisse believed that objects commune in “sympathy” with each other. Respecting that sympathy is essential, so when I move a chair or angle the loveseat to face a different direction, my eye looks and my heart listens. The Miss Havisham chair relishes its new home by the fireplace; the platform rocker is delighted to look at the dining table. And everyone enjoys each other’s company.

It all started with the door, but spring may be the real impetus behind this dance of chairs and curtains and tables yearning for fresh perspectives. Sometimes this season lets us know that things have stayed too long in one place, and it’s time for a shake-up. “As within, so without,” the saying goes. Everything in me pronounces, “Yes. Indeed.”

Simple, Good Things

April Stream

April Stream

Our Town by Thornton Wilder has always been one of my favorite plays. When I need to be reminded of the gifts I’m overlooking, gifts often right in front of me, I read these lines from Emily Webb, who returns to life for one precious day, looks around in wonder, and says this:

“Good-by, Good-by world. Good-by Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

Only after dying and returning to life for that day, does Emily wake up and realize what was always there, reminding us to take note of the gifts as they are being given: a cup of coffee, a book, a reading chair. And certainly, in New England, the whole blessed month of April when the brown days are bursting into yellow, and the air smells green. Shedding coats, hats, scarves, we leave the rooms we have built around ourselves in the dark, inward months.

In spring, I reconnect with something once easy, now more difficult: a complete immersion in the moment. Not a thinking moment but a being one. Sitting in the sun today on the back steps, feeling its warmth on my face and arms, no shoulds or yearnings are intruding on the moment. There is only sunlight, warmth, gratitude. Simple, good things.

Talking with a friend this morning, we wondered if we’re living up to our days, not wasting precious minutes with worry and want, recalling that in childhood, it was like breathing to climb a tree and be a pirate or make a home by an April stream. The moment provided all we needed; there was no disbelief to suspend. It’s a curious paradox that the older I get, the more the child wants to surface, rattle the pots and pans, eat the ice cream first, surprise a me that has forgotten how.

Perhaps that’s why we want to declutter, even move to smaller places. Somehow we think that in paring down our possessions, we’ll find that simpler life that holds so much appeal. And what is a simpler life really than a life lived in each moment. No need to move to another land or across town or even rearrange the furniture, unless the moment calls for it. Promises joy.

Completely Floored

A Floor Like This

A Floor Like This

I like this floor because it has a face, and if I didn’t know it was a floor, I would think it was a painting. I could look at it for hours and be happy. There are stories in this floor, layers of them, limited only by my imagination. Workboots walked here, also bedroom slippers and ballet shoes, sturdy oxfords, sneakers, stilettos, galoshes, bare feet. Perhaps someone made love on this floor, danced on it, died on it.

With a floor like this, everything in the house behaves differently. Pictures feel free to swing on fraying cords. Chairs rearrange themselves in snug corners. Pots and pans fly out of airless cupboards and announce themselves to walls. Walls want to be in a state of gradual undress, a shred of wallpaper here, a glimpse of lathe there, plaster cracking in spidery patterns.

A floor like this permits a delicious abandon. You can track in mud or snow or have stones caught in your boot soles. You can spill vinegar, black coffee, spaghetti sauce. You can waltz all night in pointy shoes, pile the books. move the chairs, play the music loud. A floor like this thumbs its nose at vacuum cleaners and mops. It swallows up cat hair, dust bunnies, seed husks from the canary cage.

It is not coddled (no mandatory shoes at the door). It is not privileged and polished to within an inch of its life. It is not scary and perfect. It is, above all, humble, and it’s in this humility, this willingness to be of use, that we find its originality, depth, beauty.

My sisters say they want to be used up at the end of their lives. Wrinkles, grandchildren, hearts that have lived and lost and loved, bundles of memories, some sweet, some raw, the willingness to be helpful whenever they can, my sisters live this. I have a note here saying that if you have a gift or talent, don’t hoard it, spend it extravagantly. If you’re a poet, write. A painter, paint. A teacher, teach. A runner, run. If your gift is compassion, kindness, patience, tolerance, so much the better, since every day offers opportunities for its expression.

Your gift, like this floor, gets better, stronger, richer with use. And somehow, some way, the world does too.

A Simple Life

Cottages & Kings

Cottages & Kings

There are houses that haunt me, that linger in the back rooms of my heart. I saw this cottage last weekend at a sale: the estate included a grand house facing the water, this guest house, and a barn with two apartments upstairs. The property had sold for a few millions, and it was rumored that everything would be demolished and replaced with the sort of house now seen along the water: huge, pristine, and empty most of the year.

Intrigued by the small size and the house’s scrappy garden, I went into this dank, neglected cottage with its galley kitchen, rectangular living room, bedroom, tiny bathroom. One step over the worn threshold, the dream began in earnest. In this fantasy, I have whittled down my possessions to those things that are either useful or beloved. Every chair, table, plate, picture, book, fork, and spoon is essential to the happiness of daily life. One tiny closet holds all my clothes: winter and summer.

This is an illusion of grand proportions, since I live in a more spacious house that doubles as my factory/studio and is artfully chock-a-block with orphaned chairs, estate sale detritus, innumerable black dresses, paint-chipped shutters and doors, as well as all the tricks of a collage scrapper’s trade. Mixed in with this cool stuff is the near and dear: a portrait of my mother as a baby, grandma’s ledgers, friends’ art, and boxes of family photographs.

When I think about downsizing, I immediately head for the bag of corn chips, the jar of dark chocolates, or the door. A task of such Herculean proportions seems as overwhelming as making croissants, repairing the roof, writing a novel. I read the little book about taking each object in hand and asking, “Does this bring me joy?” Often it’s hard to say…joy, no joy? On this old door doubling as a work table, there are lots of things that don’t exude joy but they’re used: stapler, pens, scissors, a calendar, notepads, printer, and computer. Admittedly, along with these are a number of things that please my eye. Joy, maybe not, but delight, yes.

I love the minimalist fantasy though. It’s simple. I live alone. I have a cat. I wear black dresses and Doc boots. I read good books. I eat kale and beet greens. I write poetry. I sleep well at night. I am understated and self-reliant. I stay mostly in the moment. I walk every day. My house is spare and spacious in spite of its small size. Nothing is extraneous; everything is essential.

Joy or no?

 

The Angels Are Out Collecting Stars

Angel in Pointy Shoes

Angel in Pointy Shoes

To all my dear Readers,

I am taking a break from writing for a bit after a long month of enduring a virus that just won’t quit and has me by the throat.

In these tumultuous times, there is so much to say, so little to say. I return again and again to the present moment and to ordinary things: toast, shoes, books, the sky, apples, paper, wing chairs, water, snow, the wind, friends.

Thank you for your kindness, your patience, your faith.

Be well. I am with you always in spirit.