Saturday, July 22, 2017

 

a divine work of art


Oh, it is a fine morning indeed.  It is one of those mornings I believe with all my heart that life is a splendid adventure.  I am feeling this way for many reasons, but the one I will mention here is this:  I just discovered that Mark Helprin's new novel is imminent.  Paris in the Present Tense.  Publication date October 3rd, 2017.  The Overlook Press.  Advance reading copies are roaming free in the world as we speak, and as usual I am torn between tracking one down right now or living with the delicious feeling of anticipation until publication day.  Am leaning toward the latter.  Worth waiting for:


He isn't everyone's cup of tea, I know.  His themes are romantic and immense and emotional and his writing is lush.  But he is one of the few authors whose words I will always read.  I've carried on about his work for years, here and elsewhere, and hope to continue to do so far into the future.  Even though I must say that the publisher's description of this novel rings an alarm bell, for me - it mentions that the hero (a seventy-four-year-old widower) falls in love with a woman a third his age.  Hmmm.  Not my favorite plot twist, by any means, but I am willing to proceed with trust.  Because the author is Mark Helprin.  And his fiction is redemptive and loving, and is never about just one thing.  Spoiler: it's about everything.

This recent essay, "Falling into Eternity" - from the journal First Things - is a fine example of his style and writerly fearlessness.  A sample:

"Let us say that you ride in a train from Paris to Rome. With one glance out the window, you take in such an enormous amount of visual information that in mechanical terms, it would be expressed in terabytes. Wherever you are now, look ahead, and then close your eyes. You can reproduce only the most skeletal detail. After you have watched the passing terrain for ten hours, what you have seen, down to blades of grass and millions of sparkles on a river flowing toward low sun, would, if reproduced in coded form, fill all the libraries in the world a thousand times over."

Another, describing one of his near-death experiences:

"Falling into the crevasse, I saw, as if for an eternity but in no more than seconds, galaxies of sun-sparkling particles that followed me after I had smashed through a deceptive crust of hardened snow, the latter phrase a perfect metaphor for what is here asserted. Weightless among a thousand golden stars, I felt neither fear nor regret, but rather the assurance that everything made sense, everything was ultimately just, and all would be redeemed in a perfect, timeless universe, a divine work of art."

This is his writing, in a nutshell.  A journey he invites you to take, and at first you simply gaze and gaze at the beauty he describes, as if through glass.  Then somewhere along the way you cross over and travel with him, as a willing companion, believing in the divine order of things, even (and especially!) in the face of much evidence to the contrary.  He revels in exquisite details yet never loses sight of what all this detail signifies, and points to.  His work is metaphor-rich and a delight to those of us who are starving for that very thing.  What?  Enough praise?  Wait until I actually read the book, you say?  Okay, okay.  ;O)    

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

 

*believe*


Summer?  Fogged in, here on the coast of Maine, so I'm taking the opportunity to write about life and books.  Busy doesn't begin to describe the recent weeks.  So much of everything.  Highlights and lowlights, in no particular order.  My painting show opened and closed, my sisters and I scattered my father's ashes in the ocean, visitors came here to see my studio, and I spent several weeks on nearby islands, painting, as summer finally came to stay.  This season feels so short, and to be honest I am a bit panicky about it being mid-July already!  Books are taking a backseat to the great outdoors, at the moment, while I make the most of the good weather.  That hasn't stopped me from amassing stacks of good stuff to read someday, and even making my way through a few recent publications.  Still having a terrible time concentrating on much besides politics, though.  I do something, read something, then check the news, do something else, check the news again, take care of some chores, news again, work a bit, more news, onward throughout the day.  And so onward throughout day after day of this nauseating administration.  I try to believe (and I do! I do believe!) that truth and justice and the rule of law will prevail, so I don't tear myself to shreds from anxiety.  I keep writing to congresspeople, of all parties.  I keep looking for inspiration and solace in nature, in painting, in books.  And I'm glad to say I often find it.  But oh, what a time.  I know I keep saying that, but it keeps being true.

My summer reading list looks much like my winter reading list did.  Because many of the very same books have been on it since then.  Including a few wonderful things I couldn't wait to read, or so I thought months ago, because here it is months later and I still haven't read them:

Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray 2016)
Keeping On Keeping On - Alan Bennett (Faber & Faber 2016; contains more of his diaries!)

I mean, I cannot believe I haven't read these yet.  I ordered them from the U.K. right when they were published last fall, that's how badly I wanted to read them!  But then the election happened and my joy drained away, for a long time.  I postponed them again and again, and that's still where I am today.  Several other worthy volumes I also want very much to read, but lack the impetus to pick up and start:

Quicksands: A Memoir - Sybille Bedford (Counterpoint 2005)
The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food - Judith Jones (Anchor 2008)
Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table - edited by Amanda Hesser (Norton 2009)
Family Piles - Nigel Colborn (Cassell 1990; about owning British country houses: "Learn to anticipate and enjoy disaster.")
Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton / A Reader's Memoir - Dawn Potter (University of Massachusetts Press 2009; reading and transcribing Paradise Lost, in the small town of Harmony, Maine!)

These sit in a pile in the book room, waiting for me.  But, it's not all bad news, in my reading life.  A few books that I did manage to finish this winter sent me off looking for more, from their various categories.  Bruce Springsteen's fabulous autobiography Born to Run (Simon & Schuster 2016; I am not a huge Springsteen fan by any means, but WOW what a great book) convinced me to attempt a few other celebrity - for lack of a better word - musicians' memoirs, and thus I find myself face to face with the following:

Boys in the Trees: A Memoir - Carly Simon (Flatiron Books 2015)
Life - Keith Richards (Little, Brown 2010).

But they wait too.  I used to read a lot of biographies and autobiographies of Hollywood people - filmmakers, actors.  And a renewed interest (Russia, Russia, Russia...) in the works of John le Carré means that my to-be-read stack now contains the diaries of the actor who portrayed his George Smiley so perfectly:

My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor - Alec Guiness (Viking 1996; his diary from 1995-1996)
A Positively Final Appearance: A Journal 1996-98 - Alec Guiness (Viking 1999)

Again, they wait.  Those I will get to, soon, I think.  Diaries and politics also come together in this next book, which I have read the first 150 pages of, and am now stalled out on, even though the entries are compelling and are teaching me a lot about British politics:

Mrs. Thatcher's Minister: The Private Diaries of Alan Clark (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1993; I was so happy to stumble across a copy of this in a local bookshop - I've heard about it for years - one of the great contemporary diaries.)

So, those are a whole bunch of books I haven't read (or finished) yet.  How about what I actually have read lately?  For the first time:

De Profundis - Oscar Wilde (The Unicorn Press n.d.; I now need a complete version, since this early edition was heavily cut, I presume to protect living persons, and one in particular, to whom this long letter from prison was addressed.)

Utterly heartbreaking.  I wept for him, as I read.  "All trials are trials for one's life, just as all sentences are sentences of death..." (p.110)

It hit me so hard that it took me a while to figure out what to follow that up with, and I didn't read much at all for a short (me being me, it was short) while.  I went from the sublime to the ridiculous - but actually not, if you think about it:

The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year (Henry Holt 2014)
Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture - Andy Cohen (Henry Holt 2012)

He kept me so entertained for so long (days and days!) that I immediately sought out his most recent:

Superficial: More Adventures from the Andy Cohen Diaries (Henry Holt 2016; currently on page 190, with 160+ pages to go - I am reading slowly because I don't really want to finish.)

I will admit I only picked up The Andy Cohen Diaries because I came across it at a used book emporium and glanced at the introduction, and in so doing discovered that this Andy loves The Andy Warhol Diaries (as do I;  Warner Books 1989) and wanted to start keeping his own version of them.  Being as he is a New York (and elsewhere...) partygoer, a celebrity with celebrity friends, the host and producer of various tv shows, and all-around Chatty Cathy.  His diaries are current - he's watching youtube videos, hosting his shows, texting, kvetching about his parents, sharing his life with his dog, since he has no steady life partner or husband.  All that plus buckets of celebrity gossip - his books are continuous spates of name-dropping.  In fact, in the introduction to The Andy Cohen Diaries he says he "...literally almost called this book Diary of a Name-dropper." (p.2)  He also says, and this encapsulates exactly why I am enjoying his books so much, that "Sometimes - like life itself - these chronicles are funny, sometimes dishy, and sometimes even a little sad.  And sometimes they are really, really shallow.  Because sometimes life is shallow.  I understand that and have accepted it.  I hope you will too." (ibid)  Warhol did the same, and his diaries are a similar combination of the ups and downs of real life, even if you happen to have shaped your real life into a very famous one.

Speaking of famous people, and celebrities.  The last book I will mention today was just published and I immediately bought it and immediately read it:

Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens - Eddie Izzard (Blue Rider Press 2017).

What is it with me reading all these new books??  So unlike my typical behavior.  Usually I am reading some eighteenth-century letters or a memoir from the fifties.  And current publications or bestsellers I might get to eventually.  Some years after they are published.  But.  I love all things Eddie and gladly set aside everything else to READ THIS BOOK again I say IMMEDIATELY.  Comedian, dramatic actor, marathon runner, political activist, transgender human being, citizen of the world, he describes his life as he speaks his comedy routines - in circuitous, footnoted detail, using a metaphorical world map with many detours, all worth exploring.  He apparently doesn't think he's all that interesting, though:  

"Real life is actually a lot of boring things with occasional spikes of interest.... My life is lots of boring bits with occasional spikes of interestingness.... My life story got a nomination for trying to be interesting, even though I know the truth."  (p.3; he is referring to the Emmy nomination for the documentary Believe, made by Sarah Townsend about his life.)

His book is mainly about belief in oneself, about having dreams and not allowing reality to take them from you.   Making your dreams reality, in fact, and cultivating the stamina to do so.  A brief clip of him speaking about Believe Me convinced me to buy the unabridged audio edition, not just the hardcover book itself, because I love his voice, and hearing him tell his story in his own voice will be a joy.  As much of a joy as his comedy.  And frankly even better, because the book isn't all that funny - it begins with the primary tragedy of his life, and he goes on from there, into great detail about his struggles to find his place in the world.  This is a brave and beautiful book.  Just by being, he helps me believe.  He spells it out, regarding both the documentary and memoir:

"I'd already thought that it would be good to do a film about my weird life, despite the fact that wanting to make a documentary about yourself means your ego has obviously run amok.  (Footnote: *Not to mention when you decide to write a book about yourself.)  In my defense, the reason I agreed was: I felt I was doing things in a slightly different way from the norm and I thought maybe that difference would (or might) be interesting or helpful to people who were having trouble believing in themselves enough to get their things going."  (p.275)

Oh, it is helpful!  It is one of the primary reasons I read at all, especially memoirs and diaries - how do other people figure it out?  Life...?  May I borrow some of your courage and bravery, to figure it out for myself?  As much as it can be figured out...?  I'm trying!

Eddie Izzard spoke about Believe Me and read excerpts from it in Boston last month, on his book tour, and what was I doing that day?  Where was I?  If it had been any other time, I would have been there, no question.  But the date fell during the week I always go to this one tiny island in Penobscot Bay, to paint, all alone.  I was there again this year, and stretched out my week to nine days.  This is my tenth year on the island - a milestone.  I have been making a body of work about this island and my experiences there - paintings, a diary, maybe it will all be a book someday.  I have to be there!  I have to believe in myself and my projects!  But oh, if it had been any other time, I would have been in Boston, rapt, a quiet fangirl sitting in the darkness somewhere out beyond Eddie Izzard's footlights.  Believing.  In myself, and in all of us.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

 

consolation prizes


Hi friends.  Apologies regarding the dearth of posts of late.  I am having the hardest time finding my motivation.  I say that, even though I actually am getting tons of things done.  Just not here.  Instead, in my painting studio, and soon to be out of my studio.  That is to say, I am nearly ready for my next solo show (details on my painting blog).  Sixty paintings.  I deliver them to the gallery in two weeks.  I also have in hand a 24-page color catalogue for the show, and a pdf of same, if anyone would like such a thing (send me an email).  During these final stages of preparation I have been deeply grateful for whatever internal mechanisms we humans have that allow us to move forward, toward our dreams, even during difficult times.  Which these certainly are, in so many ways.  I want so much to stay in bed with stacks of books and snacks and funny movies to watch, and shut out the ringing telephone and emails and alarming feeds from twitter and facebook and the terrifying news cycle.  But there they are, clamoring for attention and energy and sucking so much of the joy out of our lives.  For many of us, I should say.  I keep hearing that some voters - fellow citizens of this great country of ours - are apparently fine with what's happening in Washington, D.C., and approve of the decisions being made there.  How about that.

Anyway.  Here we are.  Some days I feel able to cope, and I do, and other days, not so much.  At my best, I am outside planting lilac bushes and spring flowers, and off painting, and in reading and watching uplifting films and shows, and listening to great music, and being with wonderful people I care about.  All those things that make life worth living, no matter what.  And I've found I can wring every little drop of consolation possible out of any bit of uplifting information within reach, when I remember to reach for it.  Such is life - often a strange battle, of advance, retreat, advance retreat.  And surrendering to circumstances - waving that white flag - I give up, I give up - then rising, and taking stands once again.  With consolation prizes firmly in hand.

All the books I've read lately feel that way, or seem to be about that very thing.  Struggle-struggle-struggle, then uplift.  Repeat.  Adversity shaping experience.  Adversity working as an engine to propel.  And, the stronger the adversity, often, the greater the propulsion.  In my own life, my determination to create things and have them matter to people other than just myself is very strong.  I'm not going to go into why, even though I have that (mostly) figured out at this point.  Since I'd rather talk about other people and their much more successful efforts.  Besides, they illustrate my point better, I think.

And now I'm struggling to come up with how to do just that - the books I've read in recent months have been all over the place, subject-wise, and yet still have this common theme, and I am not sure how to frame it into some digestible, sensible, logical, mini-essay that will become the final version of this post.  I guess I will say that the stories I am gravitating toward are all the same, in the end.  They are all about human beings experiencing adversity, processing it somehow, and then, at the very least, living through it.  Or, best case scenario, out-and out-triumph.  Maybe that's what many great books are about, though...?  Or simply what I need to see in them.  My own takeaway after reading, which then helps me navigate my life.

Examples?  Okay.  One, today.  I did finally finish reading the published diaries of Frances Partridge.  Remember her?  We spoke of her last fall.  I loved her diaries, they really have it all, and then some.  I don't think I'll be giving anything away when I write about them and say (spoiler alert, just in case) that she lives through harrowing times and experiences.  Long story short, here we go.  She falls in love with Ralph Partridge when he is already committed to a love triangle with Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey.  Carrington and Strachey both die tragically, and Frances and Ralph live on.  As conscientious objectors, through World War II.  They have a son.  The war ends.  Ralph dies.  Then their son dies.  And Fanny lives on for decades.  Mourning, and living.  And writing.  And taking pleasure in whatever she can, barring physical love, because for her, Ralph was it and anyone else just wouldn't be.  Her seven volumes of diaries and her accompanying memoir of earlier days Love in Bloomsbury: Memories (Little, Brown 1981) are fantastic.  Life in London and around Europe, days filled with friends and music and art and literature, and behind that, always, loneliness and her decision, made over and over again, to keep living.  I took many pages of notes from her diaries - copied them diligently into my own - but it seems too long ago now to go back and root them out.  I've let too much time go by and the loose ends would simply lie there and not tie themselves together neatly, the way I hope to do when I write.  I will say that I keep her books in a tidy row next to the diaries of James Lees-Milne, on shelves in our upstairs hallway, and whenever I walk by them, which is daily, my heart lifts a little.  They feel like a primer in how to carry on, on how (like I've already said) to find every little bit of consolation going and make the most of it.  Right now, when I'm trying to follow suit, that means a great deal.

p.s.  I had to go find at least one quote from Frances Partridge, to end with.  How about this, from volume VII, Ups and Downs: Diaries 1972-1975 (pp.90-91, Orion 2001):

"Feeble efforts to fight back at life, but it's a tough adversary....  Pleasures:  listening to Brahms' First Piano Concerto; reading, remembering suddenly very vividly the extraordinary feeling of a door opening on to a fresh landscape full of spreading paths when one discovers a new author."

I can't say I've been listening to Brahms, but I certainly know that reading-feeling.  A way forward.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

 

omg


Speaking of George Smiley!  I don't know how I missed this before now, but I just found out that John le Carré has written a new novel.  One that not only sounds eerily appropriate to our current socio-political situation, but also may tie up the loose ends he left hanging over twenty-five years ago, regarding many of his most beloved characters.  This feels like it could be one of those books - you know the ones? - the books you weren't sure you would ever live to read, primarily because the author hadn't written them and never would.  For all sorts of reasons.  And then, at this late date... WELL.  I mean, well, well, well!  To say this makes my day is putting it lightly.

Hinting about what's to come is a wonderful note from Penguin editor Mary Mount, encapsulating the experience of reading his new manuscript for the first time:

"As the light faded outside on that November evening, I realised that this had been one of those rare days I had spent doing exactly what I imagined I would do as an editor when I first started in publishing: simply sitting in a room and being completely transported by a remarkable manuscript fresh from the author’s hand. I felt enormously lucky to be one of the first people to read A Legacy of Spies."

A Legacy of Spies.  Publication date September 5, 2017.  Cannot.  Wait.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

 

no fooling


Welp.  What a time (I think I've said it before but it bears repeating).  No jokes on April Fool's Day because I haven't got much of a sense of humor at the moment.  I wanted to write here in March but have been too busy eating my heart out with anxiety about the state of our country and have gotten distracted from wonderful much-missed plain old daily life by, oh, let's see, Intelligence Committee hearings on C-SPAN, apocalyptic news feeds, and various conspiracy theorists galore, on social media, in the news, and in print.  Which I do not feel embarrassed about in the least, since we do actually appear to be involved in an honest-to-god conspiracy, of truly epic proportions.  Fascinating and terrifying.  The real news wasn't apparently enough for me, either, since I turned last month to my own bookshelves here at home and re-read John le Carré's splendid Cold War fictional trilogy - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People (Knopf 1974-1979), and a book of interviews with him to boot, Conversations with John le Carré, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman (University of Mississippi Press 2004).  Then, this afternoon, I stopped by a local bookshop and promptly pounced on one of the first books to catch my eye:  The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, a memoir by John le Carré (Viking 2016).

Nonfiction from this author is scarce - cannot wait to read it, may have to start tonight!  I mean, the very first chapter is entitled Don't be beastly to your Secret Service!!  Perhaps we should we send copies to the White House?  Yes?  But wait, does anyone currently there read books??  (Rhetorical question.  Cruel, too.  Sorry... not how I like to be, but...)  I also bought Trevor Noah's memoir Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Spiegel & Grau 2016), which I cannot wait to read as well, because The Daily Show is one thing that is helping salvage my shipwrecked sanity right now, but I will save discussion of that for another day to focus instead on SPIES and RUSSIA.

First, the Smiley trilogy - the height of the Cold War, writ large by an author who denied for the longest time that he had ever been anything other than a boring, run-of-the-mill foreign service lackey.  Average guy.  Not actually a spy, nothing to see here.  Until he said oh well, yes, actually he was a spy.  For a while.  Not too long.  Oh, okay, years.  But when he made enough money from writing novels he quit that game for good.  I am happy to report that the series has aged well.  I loved these books when I first read them circa 1990, and before that, when I was even younger, I remember being frightened by the quiet horror of the British television series starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley.  I think the first book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, remains the best of the three.  Even when you know whodunnit, the gradual building of suspense and downbeat denouement is still masterful.  The whole storyline is a thing of beauty - characters and their motivations drawn so well.  The second book is more of a James-Bond-y type story, with exotic locations, various dishy and/or sketchy women, and a truly cinematic ending.  The third book is almost overkill, and its ending comes too soon, I think.  It felt too easy, or rushed, or something, even though the plot itself is as neat as a pin.  But I must make allowances for the fact that I may simply have wanted the series to continue instead of stop.  What all the books hinge on is moral culpability.  And the balance of power between adversaries (both the U.K. and Russia and individual spy versus spy).  And honor.  And how those things are almost - *almost* - beside the point in a field of endeavor such as spying.  It's a mighty fine line, apparently.  To wit, John le Carré says, in one of the interviews from the Conversations book I mentioned, in response to the question about whether or not being an intelligence officer gives you a sense of superiority:

"At a time when I was one, it did.  It is the feeling of being the only person with a pistol in his pocket - although I did not actually carry one.  It is the feeling of belonging to an elite that does questionable things so that the average person can sleep in peace.  An heroic self-image.... you are doing the questionable things also because the criminal side of your nature is called upon.  It is an enormous pleasure to organize a burglary with the support of your government.  A double pleasure."  (p.112)

He goes on to say, regarding the fictional hero he disliked very much indeed:

"...I have never seen James Bond as a spy.  Rather, I consider him to be a child of the western economic miracle, with a license for extreme misbehavior in the interest of capital."  (p.116)

Again, fascinating and terrifying.  Those quotes sum up, neatly, why I am not in a joking mood right now.  Particularly regarding "...extreme misbehavior in the interest of capital."  BOOM.  Insert political rant here?  I think I will let it go, instead.  There are enough of those within easy reach of anyone, across any platform at any given time, and the world doesn't need one more.  Suffice it to say, indictments cannot come soon enough, in my opinion, for anyone who will merit such things, in this allegedly treasonous administration.  If many (persons, indictments), so much the better.  Apologies if that sounds idealistic.  I can't help myself.  I want so much to believe that justice works slowly yet thoroughly, no matter what.  If that makes me a fool, there I am, it's a good day to be one.  I'll end with a quote from John le Carré's father, again from the Conversations book - le Carré tells us that his father said, when standing for Parliament, despite being a conman and shyster of the highest order:

"'Ideals are rather like the stars.  We cannot reach them but we profit by their presence.'" (p.166)

And, idealism intact albeit shaky, I must mention just one more thing:  it was WONDERFUL to browse in a bookstore today.  I recommend doing just that, when overwhelmed or otherwise.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

 

zeitgeists?


Hi friends.  Checking in for the first time in a while.  The past few months seem to be full of things I never thought I would see or do.  Or not see and not do, as the case may be.  For one, my attention span is shot, so I haven't been reading books much.  (Brief pause to let that sink in for a moment.)  But about a week ago I had a change of heart, or we could call it an attitude adjustment.  And I needed one, because despite attempts to the contrary, I found myself focusing more on difficulties and problems and not enough on bright sides and solutions.  One thing I did read, merely a tiny sniglet of a factoid, helped me turn a corner in that regard.  I read that the population of the United States is only a little more than 4% of the world's population.  4%!!  I don't know why I thought it was much more than that, all these years, but I did.  So I examined why I thought that, and concluded that I am just as susceptible to propaganda and patriotism as the next person, and had thus bought in to the idea that this country is somehow the biggest and perhaps even the best (despite evidence to the contrary).  And, in my comfy bubble, I have also been sadly ignorant about what's happening in countries besides this one, other than the most basic facts, and sometimes not even those.  Another egotistical insular American, that's me!  In my own defense, the news in this country has truly been fascinating and disturbing, and right now it is mighty hard to look away from, for any length of time. In fact that's mostly what I've been reading, and watching.

Another turning point that assisted me in my attitude adjustment has come from the massive response to the inauguration of the current president, and its aftermath - from environmental groups, social justice groups, concerned citizenry, elected officials at all levels of government, the free press, other countries - the list goes on and on and so do the protests and actions, for the foreseeable future.  So I am taking heart because I now know that good people are working on all levels, in so many ways, however they are able to.  For my tiny part, I have been writing to our congresspeople from Maine.  Regularly.  About all kinds of issues, people, and concerns.  Something I have never felt I needed to do before, except regarding a few particularly egregious happenings in our recent history.  Again this realization made me examine my own biases, and conclude that as a white, middle-class resident of a quiet rural town in a beautiful state and a free country, I have had it pretty damn good in this life.  So far, I have been bumbling along, doing what I wanted to do, loving life for the most part.  Even when our country was at war, for god's sake, when I should have been more active, I haven't felt that I needed to protest, or contact elected officials, much, or donate money to causes that were already supported by so many other people.  Or worry about the fate of our country and democracy in general, beyond the usual.  I always voted, and thought that was somehow enough.  Perhaps it once was.  But now, what an upheaval!  Clash of the zeitgeists!  Can you have more than one zeitgeist?  Or rather a new zeitgeist, a very vocal active one, in opposition to a different zeitgeist, a quieter, stonewalling one?  Both seem to be in full swing.  Progressive and conservative.  Tree hugger and... not.  The majority of citizens in this country and the Republicans currently in the driver's seat.  I don't need to name names - and frankly I can't even type one particular name without a strong feeling of physical revulsion, so I won't - but I will say that the latter is systematically chipping away at so many things I care about.  Not to mention at the fate of us all, on this planet we share.  Where this will lead, I can't imagine.  This is not a drill.  This is not a cold-war spy novel.  I remember writing a long report about Watergate, for a class in high school.  I was fascinated then, and remain so now, with how everything unraveled, slowly but surely, for those in positions of great power.  Today, I am feeling relatively cheerful about the distinct possibility that something similar will happen again, and soon.  Meanwhile, upheaval and chaos.      

Here is an upheaval of a different kind.  Although, when I think about it, not really:        


It's a literal upheaval.  Because when I last saw it, a month before this photograph was taken, the big rock I am sitting on was ten feet behind me and ten feet up, and was still attached to the ledgy area right behind me.  What happened...?  The ocean came in, the water came down, the ice worked in the cracks, the January thaw was particularly warm this year, a few tides were incredibly high, and BOOM - one stormy day set it free.  I wish I had been there to hear and see it happening, but it was enough to come around the corner and see the new version of things, a few weeks ago (that's snow next to me, by the way - this was not a warm day!).  I have been sitting on this particular rock, on and off, for several years.  It's one of my favorite places to paint - a small corner of Acadia National Park.  One rocky ledge - I know it well and have spent some very happy days with it.  And now - things have changed.  The Gulf of Maine is warming and acidifying.  The sea level is rising.  The shorelines are eroding.  Many species are in trouble.  And things we thought would last forever - seemingly impervious ledges among them (not to mention democracy) - are in flux.  In the months ahead I'm still going to sit on this rock, to paint and gaze out to sea, and watch sea ducks.  It's just that, along with so much else lately, my perspective and my viewpoint will be different.  As I question myself, educate myself, work for the greater good, and support those who are doing likewise.

I do want to mention one book I managed to read recently.  It took me a while to get through, but the drought hasn't been total:  The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate - Discoveries From a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books 2016).  This interview with the author gives a taste of what the book contains.  Read it, and the book, and be amazed, if not stunned, at how much there is still to learn about this home of ours and everything in it.  Gives me hope, and brings wonderment, too.  Which in turn helps me keep things in perspective, and helps me keep my face to the sun, even when it seems difficult to do so.      

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

 

clear, bright, and life-enhancing


This winter finds me with no long-term winter reading project in mind.  And not even a hint of what one might be or entail.  In fact until now I completely forgot that I usually have such a thing at all.  I think I'm still stunned by the election and its aftermath, and recent family events, and may remain so indefinitely.  I'm doing my level best to stave off despair and frankly I would love nothing more than to devote myself to some worthy and sublime reading goal.  But I'm not sure I have it in me, this year.

However, last night I did finally feel caught up enough with everything else to at least start to address my current stack of to-be-read books, which have been patiently awaiting attention throughout November and December.  I may have even overheard or at least imagined a quiet clearing of throats, coming from their direction - Ahem, me next, please - and so picked up the largest and most comforting-looking of the bunch.  The Kitchen Diaries II by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate 2012).  I have wanted this book ever since savoring the first volume some years back, and in a splurgey moment of largesse this fall, I ordered volumes II and III (Fourth Estate 2015).  They are beautiful to look at and a pleasure to hold in the hand.  I bought the U.K. editions, so I don't even have to worry about whether or not I need to make any of the recipes within, since the recipe amounts are all in mysterious (to American me) notations such as g, kg, and ml.  So I read the prose and study the recipes and let the worrisome feeling of I-really-should-try-this-recipe (no shoulds, please, let's just banish them from this new year) slide right on by.

I've written about Nigel Slater before, a few times, but for anyone who might be asking, Who is this Nigel Slater?  One of the only people I regularly read on Twitter, that's who.  He has written a food column for two decades and his recipes and cookery books and tv shows make me think about food (and life) in wonderful ways.  Many of his recipes are simple, with few ingredients.  And his books all have the kind of around-the-recipe commentary that I love.  They remind me in a funny way of the Mrs. Appleyard books that mean so much to me - wry, gentle, smart, autobiographical.  About cookery, yes, but really about everything.  Nigel Slater describes himself this way:    

"I am not a chef and never have been.  I am a home cook who writes about food. Not even a passionate cook (whatever one of those is), just a quietly enthusiastic and slightly greedy one."  (p.xi)

And, specifically about beginning The Kitchen Diaries II, right now:  the lovely thing about starting to read someone else's diary in early January is that the diary in question also begins in early January.  So the reading feels in harmony with daily life around here, not just pleasantly unfolding on the page of someone else's faraway life, at any old time.  A few examples:

January 5:

"The day that precedes Twelfth Night is often the darkest in my calendar.  The sadness of taking down The Tree, packing up the mercury glass decorations in tissue and cardboard and rolling up the strings of tiny lights has long made my heart sink.  Today I descend further than usual.

The rain is torrential and continuous.  I clean the bedroom cupboards, make neat piles of books and untidy ones of clothes ready for the charity shop.... You would think that this day of darkness would be predictable enough for me to organise something to lift the spirits..."  (p.12)

January 6:

"My energy and curiosity may be renewed but the larder isn't.  There is probably less food in the house than there ever has been.  I trudge out to buy a few chicken pieces and a bag of winter greens to make a soup with the spices and noodles I have in the cupboard.  What ends up as dinner is clear, bright and life-enhancing.  It has vitality (that's the greens), warmth (ginger, cinnamon) and it is economical and sustaining too.  I suddenly feel ready for anything the New Year might throw at me."  (p.13)

The soup recipe follows and looks easy and frankly fantastic.  No measurements needed, even, if you are comfortable estimating and tasting as you go.  His generosity and his readiness for the year ahead lifts me in turn.  I hope, so very much, that I will be able to meet the challenges ahead.  I will start the way I always do, with today.

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