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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
“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.
Art should be as
generous as that.
Should quiet its tongue
Or have I explained myself
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 Footnotes, December 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.”