I LIVED IN A HAUNTED HOUSE IN ITALY

GHOSTS

In September of 1972, a little dizzy with new possibilities after the dissolution of my first marriage, I set off for Bergamo, Italy, to take a degree in Montessori Studies. Housing was the first challenge, as I had three young children and the two colleagues with me added seven more. We had decided to live together and share a nanny, a young woman from Brussels eager for an Italian adventure.

We found out about a villa for rent in the country, and what we discovered, when we arrived, was an 18th century castle once used as a military watch station. No matter that the inside was plain and practical; the exterior, with the lion of Venice medallioned on the face of the upper gallery-spoke to me of a place history had resided in, and still was host of, and we were to be its lucky guests.

We spent an unconventional year there– three women, ten children. Images return to me of all the shoes lined up in the stairway hall, the tiny extra bathroom where bunches of garlic hung from the ceiling, the dank, cold cellar we used as a refrigerator, the saddle of a blue mountain where the weather announced its intentions. It was a positive year, despite a couple of ski injuries, despite the tough academic work, despite, finally, the ghost.

The summer renters escaping from city heat knew about him. The shop owners I met in the village knew about him. The grandchildren of the landlords loved to talk in wavering voices about him. And our au pair left because of him.

The myth of Umberto, as I came to call him, told of a political prisoner of Venice and featured an escape tunnel he built and where his bones were said to be resting unhappily. The children banged a broomstick against all the floors in search of a hollow place that would indicate a tunnel. They pinpointed the bedroom I slept in.

We three students enjoyed and indulged the shenanigans about the ghost until the au pair came screaming to us. After nights of disturbance from him, exhausted, the girl departed. We never heard or saw the ghost as long as the full group lived there. But after the others left, I was acutely conscious of him.

I wasn’t ready to leave Italy. I taught, translated live lectures, and researched. And I lived with a ghost.

What is a ghost but a presence? But one of the voices we carry inside of us? But memory forcing itself to recognize something one has been insensate to? But a spirit embracing or frightening one in the dark? I figured it was a choice, how I interacted with Umberto. I named him my friend and protector and never felt fear of him. After all, there’s really no such thing as ghosts, right?

One night I woke to a palpable presence in the room and found that, as for Ebenezer Scrooge, it was the past come to call. I’ve learned that it always does. We can only set it aside for a period of time, not banish it with a flip of a wrist or a signature on a paper. No matter the reasons for leaving the first chapter of a nearly adult life behind, shrugging and saying how easy it had been, how quickly he’d agreed–I’d hurt him when I might have had the wisdom to help; I’d confused my children, who sometimes wondered if I’d leave them, too, who showed stress in ways I’d tried to brush off as normal; I’d devastated my in-laws; worried my own parents. I’d put myself first. I know the decision was best in a hundred ways, but it wasn’t an act to dismiss lightly. Whatever came out of the dark to awaken me took my hand and led me to honesty, fairness, and a chance at real adulthood. I paid attention.

We are lucky if we have ghosts, I’ve written in a poem. Mothers, fathers, old loves, the aroma of espresso and baking bread. Our own voices combine with the voices of those who’ve helped to form us, urging us on in the dark to be what they have imagined we could be: like the ghosts of Dr. Aden, Mr. Lancaster, that geology-lab partner who taught me to look at details, the Professors Sutton in France, and the view of a farmhouse across a yellow field that pointed me toward a life of art. These are my good ghosts.

Blue Kayak on a Silver Truck

Kayak #3Fells Point HomesFells Point with KayakI finally met a friend of mine—whose truck I’ve been photographing for a year. A blue kayak sits bound to the roof of his silver Tahoe. Sometimes I find it in front of a blue door, sometimes across the cobblestone street in front of the red door, usually on Fell Street, occasionally on South Ann or even Wolfe, depending upon traffic so near Thames where tourists and tavern-hoppers cruise for a parking spot. But he’s clearly a resident, and I’ve bet on the blue door, deeper blue than the hopeful sky –blue kayak—deeper, more anchored for the spirit of a man who still keeps a wild-river rapid in a safe place in his mind.

I have snapped it in snow, in the steely sun of winter, in the season that at last brought out geraniums potted with potato vine spilling over rowhouse railings, although his house—I’ve thought it was his house—has no railing, only two steps to raise its main room above the level of land and harbor—just an honest door, a step up to enter, against an old harbor home rising three floors. Honest like the truck with tis kayak on its sleeve, like love and hope and yearning and keeping.

His name is Van, a vagabond’s name, in a way, I thought, smiling when he told me. Children ready for a birthday party were spilling out of the silver truck; they had crazy hats on their heads, some having become pirates, some firemen, some outright princesses. He was corralling them, a little flustered, and I parted the sea of them and stuck out my hand and told him I’d known him for a year, though he didn’t know me, and that my affection for his truck and his kayak (transferred of course to the ghost-owner of these) had led to a series of photographs at every season. He seemed not to mind, seemed shifted a little, there in the midst of his duties with the small children, and we exchanged first names, and I crossed the street in front of his truck and blue kayak and wandered home on down Fell Street toward the sun and wind of the harbor’s rim.

The Oyster House

Oyster House
Thursday Lunch
The Oyster House

The Oyster House is one of the best restaurants on Thames Street in Fells Point. It’s more pub in appearance than restaurant, but its reputation for quality seafood makes it iconic among all the places to eat in this waterfront neighborhood. We pull up to the bar for lunch with a visiting friend. Behind us are high-top tables scrunched along the wall in the narrow room. In the back a square room opens up to make space for a number of white-cloth tables and chairs, but there is no room in the inn today except at the bar with its elbow-to-elbow seating. At noon the place is as loud and boisterous as on a Friday night: noisy, unruly, a scene in motion, people leaning across small tables and talking loud enough to be heard over the roar of dozens of other conversations and the clatters of service.

Our bartender, a seasoned, burly man who’s seen years on the wharfs or the sea, serves us with a kind of delicacy, almost like a priest making our communion for all appearances dear and individual. “Here, darlin’, watch out, the plate is very hot. No, too hot, don’t touch. Let me place it for you.” He uses his bare hands. “You’ve ordered just the right dessert, sweetheart, you’ll love it (such a tender presentation of berries and crumpets with cream across the beer-laden bar, before he turns to the row of taps, fills a glass with Resurrection, a local amber ale, and slides it to the young guy three stools down).

This is seaport grace, a symphony of multiple compositions: our bartender in motion; the old building, like the others up and down the streets, sighing and bending with its various weights; its exquisitely fresh seafood and strong drink and comfort served the way it has been for two centuries. Tonight the Oyster House will be full, no reservations available, plates rich with Blue Points, Wellfleet, Chesapeake Bay and Chincoteague will be served across the bar and carried on high to waiting diners, and we hope the crowds of twenty-somethings will moderate their drinking before these beautiful creatures arrive at their tables, so that they will taste the slick and sleek of them and that subtle, delicate, luscious character of them. Sip of martini, with Hendricks, slip of oyster. The heart and character of Fells Point begins like this.

Note: Fells Point has more bars per square mile than anywhere else in the United States. And there are fewer than there were 100 years ago. It’s a right merry place.
It’s residential too, row houses and high rises (mostly built out of old seaport warehouses) so parking is an exercise in patience for anyone who drives in to dine.
We have cobblestone streets and old trolley rails, tough on the tires. But it’s worth the trouble, and maybe an Uber ride.

The Way, Early Spring

Gray wraps the morning harbor
and when I raise the blind, I think:
a grim, gray day, the way the clouds
hang straight-mouthed, wordless.
But when I look again, determined,
I see across the flat water buildings
leaning their golds and reds into the bay,
and above these a gull sailing, lifting
first one side, then another, to catch the wind.
Here is the word of white, the word of grace,
the word of a single life out looking for food,
and I remember to call the day good,
to call the gray man with his gray bag
on a gray street good,
the way I should.

Nearly Spring

Nearly Spring

A Right Angle Triangle on Baltimore Harbor

Yesterday the right angle triangle of mast and boom appeared in the square of my window, and I was forced to look out at the day differently, listen to the clank and clang of the harbor with a new ear, believe in a sky defined by the ninety-forty-fifty authority: a fitting rule for that day and onward into this chapter.

Life is full of geometry and we find our days delineated by scores of polygons, each with its own formulas: family, work, friends, passions, education, the enrichment of arts, exercise, nest care, body and vanity maintenance, nutrition, and all those books stacked on a table. The rest of the proverbial iceberg, a polygon of polygons, waits out of sight, teeming with the angled lives of id, ego, and super-ego, that great storehouse of the unconscious and nearly conscious and too conscious. To give it a home, to keep it controlled, we rely on lines, rules, and formulas, and for me, in this age of life, it works to attend to them one theorem at a time, to calculate how much area in my life I will assign to each. It is a daily task. Today: ninety degrees to work, ninety to love and all its duties.

Attention to work I feel compelled to do is like rigging and unfurling a sail. Difficult to begin, each day, but thrilling once begun. I am full of gratitude to the Universe and all that geometric machinery its Mind has put in motion, sustaining me and pushing me forward with a good wind; the family circle and my charted square of friends: the waters and the flags flying on the yardarm. New book coming, new book coming, the square of window and the new triangle moored at my back.

I love the boats!

I love the boats!

Across the harbor

Across the harbor

Love Poem

The Path Home         –for John on February 14th

In this labyrinth
of halls and streets and years
and voices circling back
I find at its whispered center
this home of us.
Here we rise together
in the morning’s frost,
hold close in the wrap of night,
go out the puzzling track alone,
come back the remembered way.
This is the enormity
of our having chosen
the lifelong twists
and turns of us.
Here on the solid ground
of day on day, the world around us,
having found what was sought
yet unexpected,
it shimmers with the breath of light
wherever we may be,
sure as any gated yard,
any lamp shining in a window,
any kindled fire.

 

Gulls, Ice

Sunset at Fells PointFell Street Footnotes 5

March 3 – Ice, Gulls, Spaces

Ice that has blanketed the Baltimore harbor for weeks has turned transparent near the edge, yet far out where the white is still thick, a gull stands and sometimes moves in small, stiff steps. When all the gulls gather, they form a tight circle away from the piers, moving barely, warming in their group, from here silent as a winter painting, gray-white on white, a glance of black.

We are not unique this winter with our snow and ice and with some winter-weariness; but as city dwellers who must walk dogs and pay meters to park and walk stark, now snow-banked blocks to, say, buy printer paper or mail a package, I find it rawer and more tiresome than setting out from my suburban home in Nashville, where less traffic and less incidence of snow and less competitive parking make outings less fatiguing. In that house, a number of rooms and views offer variation in indoor spaces. Also, there, the dogs wander a fenced yard for all their entertainment and occupations, and there, my friends give me respite from the four walls and supply me with news and advice and warm company and stimulus of thought.

 

There, however, in the familiarity and comfort of my true home, I can’t see the water that harbors vessels of every ilk and style, from the little pump-out boat to the cargo ships, from the harbor sailboats to seagoing yachts. I can’t hear the wind chimes of riggings or the cry of gulls as they group on the ice at sundown. I enjoy the noise of our Baltimore neighborhood, its movement on the streets, people scurrying to the bus or the yoga spa on the corner of Wolfe and Aliceanna, to the shops, past bars spilling their patrons and music onto the sidewalks, and the colorful eateries with painted windows defining their ethnicity and offerings.

Like all dog-walkers, I recognize people by where and when I meet them along the way and the company they keep. A man who might be a Ravens player walks his border collie early morning and late night all the way from Harbor East through Fells Point and on to Canton, these distinct neighborhoods that blink their edges along the shore. Sometimes he and I chat about the ice underfoot. Sometimes he doesn’t remove his ear plugs and passes without seeing me. Stella, the English lab puppy; Pickles, the great Dane baby who increases in height perceptibly every day—he trots by with his male person invariably clad in pink pajama pants; Toby the English spaniel with his lovely English woman; Socks, the dachshund mix who dislikes our Irish setter, Carly; Buster, the raggedy golden lab too tall and scruffy to be purebred, such a sweet dog, with his kind young Hopkins medical resident. And so on. Any dog park, any city in the world, offers this sort of acquaintances. I like the urban life, not unlike the electric life of Paris, though not so grand a city. I was about to add Bergamo, another place I’ve planted light roots, but Bergamo is self-consciously elegant and orderly. Baltimore doesn’t pose, although its architecture and art and parks and wharfs breathe a rich and prideful history. A quotidian ordinariness of life, a mix of ugly and whimsical and stunning and ragged and stately make it above all approachable, livable, and always inviting.

In contrast, in our three rooms, I relish a solitude with few interruptions. It becomes, by day, my desk: my pacing and working and reading space—a stage for thinking and making. Oh, it’s all a balancing act as sure as walking on that icy, cobbled street. I miss the interruptions that connect me to friends and family I love and want to bide with; and yet I need the monastic’s cell, what this apartment is by day.

And then, there comes the hour of the gathering-in: He and I. We step our tight cautious steps along the walkway, our movements, if the sleepy gulls should notice in the dimming evening, lean far away from them, black on black, walking those dogs, close to one another for warmth against the white glaze.

Just Another Body in the Water

DSC_0048 Jimmy’s, our place for Sunday breakfast, where the waitress knows how we like our coffee and next door, the blue shop Fetch, bathers and groomers of doggies

DSC_0047The Broadway Market Square

FELL STREET FOOTNOTES #4

February 8, 2015 

We pay our bill at the register at Jimmy’s on Broadway, grab the Baltimore City Paper, and pull on our jackets and scarves as we squeeze past the crowd at the door. Sunday morning: Jimmy’s before nine. After that you have to wait for a table. We take the two-top behind the cement post because it’s toward the back and protected from the cold blasts from the door, and besides, that’s where the waitress expects us to be. Today, it isn’t too cold. Discussing our goals for the day, we set off toward home.

 

Before we reach the corner of Broadway and Thames, up and down the road flash the urgent lights of multiple police cars, two ambulances, an the AirFlex van—I really wonder what that is—and three fire engines. People clasp their cups of steaming coffee close to their chests and gather in small groups in the square and we edge across the street at City Pier. Sirens blast. The pier is for police only. A rescue boat patrols among the Saturday night flotsam while divers bob and search.

 

“Anybody know what’s up?” The sirens keep us jittery. “Eh, prob’ly just another body in the water.” Still, no one is quite as blasé as he sounds. We look over the side of the piers and wonder where footholds might help a person up, but we can’t find any—just some rubber bumpers one might hang onto in the freezing water, the under-pier mallards looking on, curious and wordless. We think of last night’s drinkers, one of whom might have stumbled in. We think of despair—so many homeless; so many loves gone bad–and we think of families, but we see no one who looks personally involved besides considering the hazards of his own living.

Finally, we move on to subjects unrelated to the vehicles revving around us, the noise of the sirens and the blinking lights, and we discover that the man who’s now wandered down the vacated pier with us is retired, has lived in the area all his life, has a daughter who gave him his NCIS hat (“She’s always bringing me some little gift.) and that the brick she donated to the harbor promenade has his middle name spelled wrong, the Anglo one squeezed between Mario and Silvestri, and that, at 83, he just can’t retire. He drives cars for the auto auction house, the one that sells barely used government vehicles on Tuesdays.

 

The three of us spot something in the water. It floats away from us on fast-pushing waves. “It looks like an arm, maybe,” I say. “Just a log, I think,” says John. I zoom to it with my cell phone camera, but the glare on the surface makes it impossible to see what it is. It would be so much more striking were it a dead body, but I don’t say this, banish the evil wisp of wind that suggested it. “People see something, call it in. Usually it’s a false alarm.”

 

“But these rescue units could have put out a three-alarm apartment fire. Shouldn’t they be on call in some other part of the city? And all these police could have arrested a whole mafia ring. Why so many?” Mario shrugs. Others turn back toward wherever they were headed. I think it’s a case of human solidarity—all those big “guns” turning out for the support of a single life. Hospital staff are waiting up at Maryland General, fresh sheets stretched across a wheeled bed. Warmth would be offered. Yet chances that someone would be found alive are nearly zero.

 

Tonight, news has reported the incident as a false alarm with good intent. Someone thought she saw a human being in the water, and she called 911. The firemen put their gin-rummy hands aside and pulled on their shiny protective clothes. Divers rolled out of bed and struggled into wet suits and strapped on tanks. Police officers left the streets for the harbor. And we came to help with our hope for drama and our support for life, two strange buddies in our make-up. Yet everyone stands ready to be a hero, at least. Everyone wants to save a life–at least one.

Fell Street Footnotes, reprint of #1,2,3

February 5, 2015

Below the solid line are the Footnotes to date. Now, I am beginning the blog, as it should be. Look for new posts soon. As always, thank you for joining the conversation!

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Fell Street Footnotes, November 8

 We drove away from our slope of green land, our home we have fenced and planted and pathed and painted; serene and still it stood, still holding us, about to harbor others, and where we will home in again like pigeons released from their mission away.

Saying good-bye to the children and grandchildren and brother and friends I have spent years growing to maturity with, I wept messy face-wetting tears. Yet, I do not regret this foray, temporary and interesting and offering easy trips to touch base with them all. I embrace this venture with enthusiasm as I hold them all close every day. All will be well. Out every window there is something to be gained. (First I typed “windown” by mistake. “Wind-down,” it might be. Mistakes can lead, Freudian-ly, to new avenues of thought. Maybe this is a kind of wind-down of routine, making room for a different energy, more focused on what might be created than an accustomed routine of taking care of domestic spaces and going out on accustomed errands. An energy that swoops into, not out to. Okay, there’s that other, hovering notion of “wind-down”, aging of course; but I prefer the positive thought. There’s always a positive. It’s how we choose to look out the window. I’m ratcheting the damn thing up—that’s my plan.

 

November 15

Seven days since we set out, loaded to the hilt with our possessions, all those things we felt defined us, individually as well as in common. The furniture had gone ahead, and then we’d gathered our books and art and grooming items, our clothes and technology devices, dog food and meds and so on. How many camels would it take us to move from Casablanca to Marrakech? We were only two, yet felt the burdensome weight of our goods. The balance between simplicity, efficiency, clean sleekness of style, which we say we value, and the reality of what we choose to make our lives easy or pleasant or creative or defended against chaos, is not easy to achieve. We own too much, depend upon too many things, and continue to be tempted by attractive home goods and clothing we don’t yet own.

We are not unique. This is Western Civilization, sign of innovation and brilliance of thought and the passion to make new and beautiful and useful objects. But I keep thinking there will be a larger price that what we have paid in cash. It’s not a new argument. We are concerned about the effects of too much ease, the loss of motivation and intelligence when children are too busy, or too mesmerized by, devices and their screens, the loss of silence that we have traditionally considered vital for original thought and problem-solving. Empty space is more silent space.

Things, things, things. One wishes (I wish, in my fantasy) to burn it all and re-boot. But what loves might we miss. The page marked in a book, the candlesticks my brother painted, the blue bowl that holds fruit on the breakfast table, the perfume he likes, the set of tools one might need to hang a picture. The scarves—everyday warmth; or the one for flair. And so on. So…on!

We have undone the packing we’d spent weeks doing, carted out the last boxes, scooted furniture around until we sort of liked the room, tucked kitchen wares away; done that again as we discovered where our hands flew automatically for a wooden spoon or a pot; made the bed with my favorite blue sheets, pulled the shades, called ourselves settled.

Fell Street Footnotes, November 26, 2014

 Private and Public Voice, an argument with myself

 My intention is to communicate with my family and friends while I am in Baltimore this year. I wish to share my experiences and observations and ideas about whatever comes to mind, like a conversation over lunch, over a drink we might share sitting on a bench in your back yard, perhaps during a walk we take together, or around a table with many others. We’ve been here two and a half weeks now, and I have yet to post one of these, although I have written plenty.

I guess it comes down to fear of failure, fear of inadequacy, fear of foolishness. If I were a painter, I would fear a one-woman show: fear the sneers of dismissal, the trained flaw-noting eye, the raised brow of rejection, the sigh of boredom; and I applaud those who risk all that. What I do not dread, indeed embrace, in such exposure, is argument, debate, and advice. If what I write in these notes urges conversation, I will be thrilled. Even a shrug or hurrumph has its place. Yet, whether by way of upbringing or culture or insecurity, I am reluctant to trust my personal thoughts to permanent postings or to impose them. They will not be edited much, as I have other work I’m subjecting hour by hour to concerns of effective writing. So these postings will be of the moment. The stance of a moment shifts the truths we see from another angle, so, as I understand it, truth is rarely static and more rarely universal. It is only a glimmer of understanding experienced by an individual. It is akin to epiphany, although an epiphany presents itself more as a dramatic, life-redirecting event. Considerations of the character of truth and our relationship to it is likely why I write my observations, poetry, and fiction at all. And, of course, I wish to publish that work. My argument is with making public the private notions that feed the poems and stories. But I’m going to do it, trying to do it without apology, because I believe it will force something useful from the dumpster.

You’re on the e-mail list. You will hear from me weekly or so. If you wish not to receive these missives, let me know. It’s quite okay! I’ll probably set up a web page for this later, that you can follow or not, but I’m slow at these things. I’ll let you know.

Best wishes from Baltimore to all those I love and work with. The harbor is swiss-dotted with snowfall this morning. Froth on sailboats.

Fell Street Footnotes

 Early days in Baltimore

 Morning

 21 degrees when we stepped outside, dogs on leash.

A soft light pastelled the horizon and the sky grew

bright and clean-lined, the buildings took on

their defining forms and blinked into their rising colors.

The hunkered boats moved not a muscle,

still as a painting while the city clicked awake,

window by window, footstep by footstep,

the clattery delivery truck on a brick street,

a dog-squabble, the beginnings of language.

 

Night

Late night a fisherman

the tone of water

sits hunched on the walkway

that rims the harbor,

his feet dangling.

 

If he has seen us

with our eager dogs

or senses our nearness,

he doesn’t mark the moment

by flinch or turn;

he is the wharf and the water

and the rising fog where

he will disappear

from our sight

into memory or imagination.

 

 

Lost

 Oh, my sense of direction is poor,

two rights making a wrong,

and the doors on the row houses

turn from walnut to faded green

or maybe hopeful blue

slapped on old wood,

and the markets announce their tired

businesses in languages

I sometimes understand

and sometime not.

The sun shines on these streets

as on mine, puzzle pieces

of living’s colors playing out.

Ageless women and old men

carry home their straining plastic bags.

I know how those handles crease

against the weight of milk

and flour and jars of beans.

When Siri sets me back on track,

all the turns to my temporary home

seem mistaken. North seems East

and West seems South; yet I trust

the voice, and it delivers me.

 

With the release of held breath,

I remember with a little yearning

the bar in Paris many years ago

where I interrupted the after-work ritual

of a brace of men debating life’s wrongs

because I couldn’t find the ramp

to the Périphérie

that would steer me South.

Two of them, bright-faced,

with daughters likely near my age,

came out to the sidewalk,

thumbs on suspenders,

and pointed and conferred

and then one drew a map

with a stub pencil, helped

me figure out my rental car’s

reverse, and sent me on my way.

I am a wealth of images richer

for their sheltering and care,

they, richer for the flattery

of my young smile, my hand in theirs.Being lost, there

is much to find.

 

Fell Street Footnotes, November 23, 2014

I Live a Theme of Labyrinths

We walk the dogs each morning just at the sky’s waking, its lids warm at the edges of its dark dream through space. We first pause at the astro-turf plots specifically provided where Lily and Carly perform untrusting sniffs, then we four string along the brick walk along the wharf, then the sidewalk along South Wolfe Street to the Thames Street Park, defined on the far side by Aliceanna Street. Row house apartments square off the little green space. Part of it is a playground with a wrought-iron fence around it. A gazebo centers the park and is surrounded by a square of leaf-carpeted grass. When we arrive, we witness the opening scene of a play: first, the tailored woman pulled along by a mid-size Schnauzer; then, crossing from another direction, the sleepy girl with pajama pants, boots, a knit cap with ear flaps and pompoms on yarn strings. She walks an English Bulldog pup. A well-groomed pregnant woman and her blond husband arrive from down Thames Street with their young Goldie, patient with him and with each other, though work awaits them. And we enter the scene and the play and the community of day. I coax Lily, more interested in smells than her duty, and I stand apart. John manages Carly, more interested in play than her duty, and chats with the others about dogs, their work, Baltimore’s character, and such, and we cross again the brick streets and walk home, all four of us with more energy, the sun fully up and coloring the sky now. We have articulated the first labyrinth of the day.

We buzz ourselves into our building, trot the dogs to the elevator, excuse our clutch of bodies and leashes to those we share the passage with, and enter the maze of corridors and doors of our floor, the second floor. Turn left from the elevator, turn right. Walk fifty steps, turn right at the dead-end and we are the first door on the left. #211.

There’s a theme of 1s and 2s and 3s in our lives at present. We come from a Nashville house # of 123. Our new zip code is 21231, and our apartment is 211. It’s possible, I like to think, that the Universe is simplifying our numerical life, as though we are more likely to get lost, with so many other new things to navigate, when our numbers contain more than three different digits. I admit there’s a comfort to it. And some whimsical humor.

If we turn left rather than right from the elevator room, we find the door to the very convenient garage, and, following the corridor ninety steps to its dead-end and left turn, we arrive at the room containing the trash chute. Then, one returns 100 steps along the labyrinth to 211, its center. (If a person were to look down, not ahead, she would find the hallways a hellish maze, dead-end after dead-end repeated in the squares of carpet, green and gray vertical lines in one, horizontals in the squares on each side, so every step might be blocked. But that is only if one is nurturing an obsession. Hop-scotch from one to the next. Don’t look down, even if your book’s theme has to do with labyrinths and that’s mostly what you think about. Follow the pathways home.)

But the centers of labyrinths have also their labyrinths, ancient patterns or flowers. Just so, this apartment, where the arrangement of our furniture in this small space forms paths and dead-ends. Dog beds and the sleepers upon them block ways. It is not uncomfortable or unattractive. On the contrary. But it is, I admit, always a puzzle in which every piece must fit in its place in order to work, and every step must be deliberate.

While I can relax a little about numbers, I put my brain-cell- enhancing energies into finding my way among the streets of Fells Point and beyond, in the car, where I note with great intention landmarks and record street names and orient myself to the city’s NSEW grid of byways. In the apartment, arranging too many, imagined-essential, objects in only a few cabinets and shelves is an intricate task. New paths are forming in my brain. I can feel them, a busy re-routing and tunneling through thick matter to daylight.

Traveling a labyrinth, centering, redirecting the way we see things, taking the observations or the understanding, or the calm of knowing, outward to new work—this is the process that creates, that keeps us birthing ideas and art and ever-new life. Puzzling. Deciphering. Wondering. Exploring. Discovering. The journey in, journey out. I’m feeling downright alert. Often exasperated, but alert and alive.

FELL STREET FOOTNOTES, December 1, 2014

 951 Fell Street

 Home. What is home? What does it mean to come home? We consider this apartment a temporary home, a pied-à-terre, a place to put our feet, to land while we live in Baltimore for only a year. Yet, I call it home for now, and John and I home-in as surely as a sparrow to its slip-shod nest built only to last for a short season of birthing and pushing the babies out of and flying on to the next landing spot—other times, other climes.

Of course, we have brought furnishings and personal items and rendered our place homey, hardly slip-shod. yet we play the board-game of adapting, of compromising, of, indeed, impermanent dwelling. Nevertheless, now it is home, and when we returned from two days in D.C. with Mary and Bob in their wonderful new house—a space designed to harbor the spirit in light and serenity, a minimalist and artistic arrangement for deliberate living—I breathed a sigh of pleasure when we opened our door and were home.

Perhaps it is the familiarity of the things I’ve lived with and that hold in their threads and surfaces my smell and the traces of my touch. Maybe my footsteps find their ways around the maze of living space without the constant re-boot of pathfinding we use in a space not claimed as our own. Most of all, my notion of home is that it provides the gift of time to do one’s own creative, messy work. I might call it the gift of easy containment, the space and solitude and utter selfishness of a chosen home, like the sparrow’s nest.

Looking at the term solitude, I find it doesn’t necessarily mean, in this instance, aloneness in a strict sense. Even with others, I can carry on in solitude, if the others and I have made a kind of contract, knowing each other’s rhythms and routines and needs. Family is a solitude of several, moving in such familiar ways that I may be comfortable in my ways, in my work.

It isn’t the possessions, though familiar ones may bring a quicker adaptation. I don’t think, however, that our things are the trick that turns a new space into home. What one can carry in a backpack is enough, I am convinced. Ten years ago I spent the summer in Assisi in a rented farm cottage on the side of Mount Subasio not far from the Porta Cappuccini. The house had once been a stable and hayloft, converted into an in-laws’ house across the garden from a large family house. The daughter of the doctor and pharmacist who lived there was in charge of renting the now-vacated cottage–fully furnished bedrooms upstairs and a living room and kitchen down. I arrived, received the big keys to my own entry gate from the street, and moved in. I plugged in my borrowed laptop and a portable printer, set out paper, journals, pens, a couple of dictionaries, unloaded a suitcase of clothes and toiletries. I bought a few candles, stocked the refrigerator with milk, cheese, wine; put fresh fruit in a bowl, staples for cooking in a cabinet. Learned how to light the stove. Learned that the beams in the bathroom above the tub were quite low– painful. That the little dog, Ettore, would bark most of the night and that Oscar the cat would twine my legs while I wrote, sitting on the stone porch in the afternoon. I walked along the road past the Franciscan monastery where I could hear a basketball thumping on pavement and went into the city and mapped streets and destinations in my head. And when I came back to my gate, and the key turned true, I breathed the sigh of homecoming. The nest fit, took me in for that season, contained me, let me be selfish.

It was true when I was twelve and beyond into the teen years, too, come to think of it—how home can be made of little. My bunk at camp was not unlike my house in Assisi. Home was the shared cabin door, my own top bunk, my hewn-wood shelf of pens and paper, stamps, toothbrush, hairbrush, books, diary, harmonica. Climbing up there, I reached my defined space, where I turned pages, mulled over the oddities and confusions of life—a place to go out from, a place to home into.

 

FELL STREET FOOTNOTES, December 2, 2014

 Saying Much About Learning Not to Say Too Much

–with thanks to Jeff Hardin

 We slid along the rails of Amtrak

to visit our old friends,

took Uber from Union Station

up Massachessetts Ave., Cathedral,

New Mexico to Klingle St. NW,

which I recite to remember

when I decide to take the car.

 

Our greetings: happy and brief,

because we’re just continuing

conversations begun and ongoing

no matter the distance of time.

 

A fine soup warmed us in the kitchen

they have made from the scraps

of a ruined house, the whole place

now made new and modern

and full of hope. High and broad-reaching,

these rooms make nests

you can swing your arms in,

white space splashed with windows

of color like the only right words

chosen for a poem; windows, windows,

inviting light.

 

“Windows”: An exhibit at the National Gallery,

where Andrew Wyeth’s paintings

reveal the stages of looking.

And beyond looking, how to gather the silence,

how to leave out for seeing more

than is there.

 

William C. Williams and Ezra Pound,

Marianne Moore. Black umbrellas,

a couple of chickens, real toads

in a garden. Keats, “That is all

ye need to know.”

 

Mary and Bob and their architect son

have brought, in their house,

something spare from the nothing

of clutter. Haiku, a window

on what can be.

 

This poem, I know, has too much

shoving and pushing in it.

I am off to clean house.

Open windows.

Air out.

Art should be as

generous as that.

Should quiet its tongue

and wait.

 

Or have I explained myself

too much?

 

Fell Street Footnotes, December 13

Santa Lucia Day, the feast of lights, and, in Northern Italy, la Befana with her donkey, leaving small gifts in the shoes of young children: Ding, ding, goes a tinkling bell, and we know she’s come to our house. For a while my children and I lived in the country outside Bergamo, and we took this tradition home with us when we left. A donkey in a suburban Nashville neighborhood was more improbable to sell than in our country village where everything seemed like a story, but we played at believing and still, on cue, recount the sequence of events on those many December 13th nights.

I wonder now what observances we will take home from this year in Baltimore. But today, it’s rather like Santa Lucia Day for us. John came home with an enormous, heavy basket from Del Pasquale’s. It contained wine, olive oil, bread sticks, Genoa salami, marinara sauce, pasta, truffle chocolates, and amoretti. He’d won the door prize at a Hopkins faculty party. The basket was wrapped in a flourish of sparkly cellophane and tied with silver ribbons. (I remember Italian ribbons: I am waiting with restless children and packages in a small store in the late afternoon while a fastidious clerk ties an ordinary purchase with elaborate care, curling each ribbon, handing it to me with pride and a few niceties and hard candy for the children.) We plan to cook a January dinner with the ingredients of this not-so-ordinary package for the party’s hostess.

Fell Street Footnotes, December 29, 2014

Someday someone will see this date as an old date, early century, and here I am, seeing it as brand-new. Christmas, the season of brightness and burden, has passed, and then the lazy week-end, and although the New Year’s holiday will call for a celebratory, culinary, and social pause, this morning presents a return to order and to work. And perhaps these rhythms will seem quaint to those dipping into the past that is my present. John took a bus to his office at the medical school. I put a pen to paper. We live with dogs and divide our day with taking them out, bringing them in on leashes that cross and tangle, scrubbing them down with rough towels, offering treats shaped like soylent. Fresh fruits grace my work table: apples and lemons and one lime in a blue bowl.   Three candles. Three smooth stones. Ah, the comfort of “three.” The comfort of a blue bowl, of this paper, this pen. These anchor. They are the door into and out of the labyrinth of each day. These are the details of today, the containers of our early century’s intimate history on this point of land.

 

Fell Street FootnotesDecember 31, 2014

Bread: texture a balance of crusty and soft, a secret within a protective skin. As it transforms from dust to paste to malleable solid, it becomes a body between my palms, my fingers, the heel of my hand, and then, with the chemistry of the planet it begins to grow on its own, to take on character, puff itself up, leaving behind the dust it was born from. Making bread is an agreement to copulate and incubate and give birth and raise and let be, just like parenting, like friendship, like life. Aromas transform, the fleshy to the intimately perfumed, enticing and lubricating that organ the tongue, the mouth, and ah, satisfying. Dogs croon as they pass our apartment door. Neighbors would like to have what the aromas suggest we’re having.

Fell Street Footnotes, January 1, 2015

Thank God I am still keeping on! I like what I am doing, what yearnings push me from within, what experiences and observations inspire new words and stories and enrich perceptions and stimulate growth from without. I love each new day and its possibilities, each new night and its serenity or mystery or challenge.

I do not like the trouble of argument and miscommunication, defensive reactions that mark territory: my responses or those of others. There is much that can crease the harmony of a day, a moment, an event. Alas, in myself there is much I don’t like and can’t seem to correct permanently. There’s my disclaimer.

And then, there’s this: The world I live in has perhaps more shallowness than truth, more deceit than honesty, more laziness than alacrity, more complacency than inquiry and passion. Humans are indolent, by and large, and when they have been raised with hopelessness or anger or a gray tone of acceptance, when oppression or inheritance of habit has blocked curiosity, nothing remains but selfishness. I see why many stay stuck as toddlers wanting to be picked up and fed and indulged and sometimes throw large, dangerous or disruptive tantrums when they are ignored. I don’t like the self-righteousness that can arise out of religion or culture, or the excuses they provide for fights over power and territory that destroy human lives and break what I dare to consider the contracts of community. But despite all the chaos and anger on the planet, I still find life delectable in my little spot here, privileged and largely protected in my bower. What can such as I do, with my limited understanding?

The resolution that heads my list is this: to put words that matter into the stream, to do it with a passion and attention that will serve to shift the balance of egocentrism to an expansive holding of hands and engagement with the spirit of humanity. I resolve to drink more deeply from that stream, myself, each day. Work: it’s the best thing for being sad. It’s the best thing for liking this life. Through work, I am always learning. Thank you, Merlin. Thank you, T.H. White, whom I am altering slightly for my own devices.

Here’s the whole quote from The Once and Future King:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”