Reentry

I  just woke up in my own bed for the first time in a month . Yesterday morning, up at 3 a.m., I drove through the French countryside, village after village, on the slowest route I could find to the airport. The spectacular full moon hovered all the way.  I noticed a while back that if I drove in the country with my windows down I could hear cricket sounds the whole time.

This morning in North Carolina, I drove to the grocery near dawn so I could have milk for my coffee.  Over and over I have forgotten I’m not driving a manual transmission, romping the brake like it might be the clutch.  My Honda seems so doleful  after the fun of rolling over hills in a  peppy little rented five speed.  Leaving the grocery store, I  saw a clerk arriving for work. Without thinking, I lapsed into appropriate behavior for France, where one never encounters anyone in public without acknowledging them with a greeting.  “Good morning” I said.    She smiled, I think with a little touch of surprise, and said the same to me.

In the night I woke up  and the moonlight filtering through the trees cast patches of glow on the floor and walls, and half asleep, it registered on me as beautiful– as the moonlight I’d left.

The yard is green from the rains I missed.  The roses  are in full bloom from the fertilizer I said goodybye with.  Today there’s the gentle cloudy light that comes before a rain.

I walked over to Grier and Kim’s farm to say hello, and they gave me a dozen eggs from their hens, and sent me to pick all the fresh asparagus I wanted from their beds, just  like an early  morning trip to a French farmer’s market.

All morning there have been a brood of wild turkeys grazing in the pasture, right under my nose. And I set the fountains to bubbling next to the outdoor table.  It’s every bit as magical as the view I left behind.

 

Among the piles of bills and letters I came home to, there was a postcard from a dear friend.  It said “She dreams in perfect French”.  I do, sometimes, when I’m around it all day, but it is far from perfect.  Sometimes it’s just a voice speaking nonsense sounds that echo the intonations and rhythms of French speech.  Sometimes it is the odd word or phrase, for no particular reason, like an echo in my dreams, ringing over and over in a kind of random rhythm.

It was a rough ride home, hauling six new paintings, and all my tools and the treasures I found, down concourses, across parking lots, through long lines.  But the actual soul transition  from countryside paradise to countryside paradise is not so radical.  In both places there are thorns attached to every single rose.  In both places there’s  beauty enough to break your heart.

 

Wood Smoke and Roses

 

Twice today I had to climb the steep hill up into the village to the little grocery.  It was my night to cook supper.   At lunchtime I went up to finish my shopping, and then, when I poured my first glass of rosé at 5:00 and started cooking, I realized I had no butter, so I had to walk back.  The distance from our kitchen to the grocery store is the same as the distance from my kitchen back home to the backside of my farm.  Round trip, one mile.  The big difference is that hill.

 

On both trips I admired the flowers blooming everywhere.  There were parrot tulips in one garden, wisteria cascading over a doorway.  Another garden had flesh and fire colored roses. There was a shrub with thousands of bright blue blossoms, and a lilac bush in full glory.  On the five o’clock trip there was smoke rising from chimneys as the chill of evening descended.  All week the tiny airborne seeds of some plant have filled the afternoon air, lit by the slanting light.  They are everywhere.  At first I thought they were dandelion seeds, but on examination realized they were something fuzzier and more cotton-like.  When you look up at the sky, they are always there, like ethereal sprites flying around, looking for some new place to light.

 

At the grocery, the brothers who are cashiers speak impeccable idiomatic English, but I speak French to them, and ask them to correct me.  When I am corrected, I am more likely to learn the right expression.  My French teachers are so good– they know how to make it really clear.  They pantomime the meanings of words for me so they become unforgettable.  The woman at the art supply store demonstrated that the word  “terminé” as we used it, meant to be dead, not ” finished”, by showing her head being severed  by an imaginary knife.  Gesturing graphically at her body, she explained uses of the verb “to be”.  My grocery store teachers showed me,  pantomiming sleep, that I shouldn’t cook dinner in the “nuit”(night).  I needed to cook it in the “soir” (evening) instead.

The ingredients for dinner were amazing.  I roasted a gigantic yellow skinned hen, along with its innards, covering them all with fresh herbs.  From the jus I made a gravy like my grandmother used to make, with bits of hardboiled egg, celery, and the gizzard, heart and liver chopped fine.  The gravy went over whipped potatoes flavored with scallions and morels.  There was sauteed celeriac and a green salad.  For dessert I made an Alsatian bread pudding using apples and pears and my stale hazelnut bread.  And it all started with a duck paté and a rosé, and finished with several really fine bottles of Bordeaux.

Last Sunday I went to Easter mass at the Gothic cathedral in the nearest town.  All the text was printed in a program and because I knew the liturgy in English it was easy to understand the French.  Driving to mass, we passed a horde of Boy Scouts, returning from a campout, with backpacks and sleeping rolls on their backs.  By the time we got seated in church, they began to reappear as altar boys and congregants.  I loved the kind of gangly, familiar way they handled the candles and censers. A large group of them took seats all together beside us.  I’m not Catholic, so the chilly holy water being freely slung by the priest came as a tiny shock. Incense filled the air. I stood under the ancient vaults and absorbed it all as something intensely French, part of a long tradition of the spirit.

Moulin à Nef is on the Pilgrim Trail to Santiago de Compostela.  Every day pilgrims walk by our windows, or rest in the park between the studio and the river.  They walk, as those Boy Scouts walked, toward some spiritual destination.   They walk, as I walk up that long hard hill to the grocery, to learn some hitherto unknown thing, to fill in some missing piece, drinking in, along the way,  France, her roses and wood smoke.

 

For BJ

BJ portrait

What follows is a eulogy written for my college roommate, BJ Brantley Cooper, who left us far too soon, in late November, a victim of early-onset Alzheimers.  We were acquaintances, first, at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and later roommates at Carolina.  BJ met and married one of my best friends at Carolina, and 43 years later he asked me to write her eulogy.  At first I thought I couldn’t put her into words, but the more I thought about it the more I had to say.   She was always, as we had been at 18, dutiful, appropriate, and attendant to the manners we were brought up to practice.  But underneath there was a woman with a hidden spark of wildness, cloaked in a good looking outfit.  When I finished writing I realized I’d used some version of the word “love” ten times.  This is about a person whose heart was truly full of love. I expect that as long as I inhabit this sphere I will always miss her. 

 

BJ Brantley Cooper was born into distinguished old North Carolina and Virginia families. She was raised in the flat tobacco country east of Raleigh by two loving and charming parents. Her early life was full of the grace notes of peaceful and prosperous times. There was contrast in her life, as well. She always had beautiful clothes and her mama took her on the Queen Mary to tour all of Europe when she was very young, but she also experienced summer work in the tobacco fields. She knew how both halves lived, and she had tremendous compassion for people less fortunate, and not a whit of snobbery.

BJ always connected to the genuineness and goodness of people, so her friends were from every kind of background. The common thread was that genuineness. She kept a group of close friends all her life, who remained connected to her by the heartstrings, if not by geography.

One of BJ’s most endearing characteristics was her mischievousness. While at college, she and a couple of girlfriends were given use of a decommissioned sorority house to entertain their dates. BJ was involved in starting a fire in the fireplace which subsequently burned the sorority house to the ground. It was a scandal on the campus of Randolph Macon Woman’s College. I remember that clearly. If you wanted to see her giggle, all you had to do was bring that up. She liked thinking she was the kind of woman who could burn a house down. Rod used to say that if he died a fiery death we should all suspect foul play.

My favorite memories of BJ are in our tiny dorm room at Carolina. Our twin beds were set up so when we sat on them we faced one another. There was nowhere else to sit. We would sit on those beds and BJ would usually be busy writing someone a note. All her life, on monogrammed stationery, she wrote to everyone she loved… a proper lady’s note, spiced with news, a little gossip, perhaps a quip or two in her large rhythmic script. Sitting on our beds we would tell each other funny stories about our eccentric southern families, gossip about the boys we knew, and plan our futures.

A survivor of a heartbreaking miscarriage, ovarian cancer and breast cancer, BJ’s greatest joy was the arrival of her daughter, Brantley. Her desire to love and care for her daughter defined BJ’s adult life. She did every thing she could think of to create a loving and happy environment for Brantley, relishing those years as the happiest of times. She was overwhelmingly proud of Brantley’s beauty, her athleticism, and in the end, of her adult strength and accomplishments in the business world, and as mother to Peyton. And Peyton became the new light of BJ’s life. She invested her sweetness and loving concern in Peyton

BJ’s greatest passions were always directed outward— they were always about loving someone or something else, never about herself. Anyone who knew her well knew her deep love for her pets, which carried over to a love for all creatures. She would be enchanted if she saw a deer, and talk about it long afterward. She would be enraged if she thought anyone was mistreating a horse or dog. She fed the birds. She was completely tuned in to the world of mute living creatures.

Loving Rod, for BJ, was seldom serious. They met casually, introduced by me, and Rod immediately produced his white horse— a red MG convertible,and suggested we all go for barbecue. My memory of it is that he swept her off her feet by carving their initials into a picnic table. Although now, doubting my own memory, I’m trying to imagine Rod carrying a pocket knife.

I think I rode in the trunk that day. There wasn’t much room in that MG for a third wheel. They shared a thousand private jokes. There are few couples with such a strong and abiding friendship as BJ and Rod, or with as much built-in humor. They teased one another, and tolerated one another’s differences. They raised their daughter with the understanding that BJ took care of daily home life and Rod provided the means. Together they made a home of great warmth, beauty and generosity.

They loved to dance and watch movies or Carolina basketball together. Though quiet and even a bit shy, BJ could, if the music was right, become the Ginger Rogers of any evening. The crowd would part when she started dancing. She had a wonderful sense of style, and was always a stand-out at any gathering. She had kind of creativity that bloomed in the way she dressed, the things she curated to be her wardrobe. That was the way she made art.

Rod took care of her, always, with perfect faithfulness and thoughtfulness, especially during her final cruel affliction. He gave large amounts of time and effort to being sure she was comfortable, cared for, and understood by all the people in her sphere. He was her advocate. He fought her decline tooth and nail. And he managed to fill the last few years with as many happy occasions as possible, while also slowly adapting their lives to fit the circumstances.

BJ’s heart was so huge she had to sometimes hide it to keep everyone from knowing how deeply she felt. We will miss that big heart, those wicked quips she could deliver with lightning speed, and the warm glow of her friendship. But she leaves a trail of a million — no exaggeration—laughs, countless days enjoyed in her company, many times when we were in her thoughts and she reached out to us, usually through one of those beautifully written notes. She was the kind of woman who could burn a house down.

Be free now, our thousand-fold courageous, loving friend. Here’s hoping that where you are there are some dogs and cats in need of love. For all the fine things you have left with us, we thank you. Greensboro feels a little less enfolding to me now that you have moved on.

Time out of time, Portugal

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I wasn’t happy to leave France and my friends and venture off into Portugal alone. I knew very little about Portugal, and all travel alone is initially scary. I had read that Portugal has the highest incidence of mortality on its highways of any country in Europe, for one thing. But Portugal has always intrigued me, so I was determined to plunge into it and see what transpired.

When I read descriptions of the cities I would visit— Lisbon and Porto, it was hard to feel enthusiastic. Cities are not the place where I am most comfortable. But they are the places where a culture puts itself on display. When I read descriptions, however, of the Algarve, the less populated coastal area at the southern extreme of Portugal, my spirits lifted and my curiosity was sparked.

I have the belief that if you travel and seek adventures, unforeseen, inconvenient and sometimes unpleasant things will happen to you. I tell myself if I can’t manage them with patience, humor and imagination, I should just stay home. I believe it is important to not even be surprised when these things happen, but to navigate through and spend most of my time counting my blessings.

Once I left the familiar terrain of France for unfamiliar Portugal, the likelihood of mishaps escalated. My first misstep forced me to rent a car in Porto, drive myself out of the city instead of flying,  down the length of Portugal to the Algarve, on those highways I’d been led to believe were so treacherous. They turned out, midweek, to be sparsely populated, fast and perfectly maintained highways and I easily traversed the length of the country in a few hours. BUT, at one point the rental car appeared to refuse to go into reverse, and my GPS refused to recognize the address of my destination. A phone call resolved the reverse issue. I plugged in what I believed to be the coordinates of my remote accommodations. At one point my GPS told me I’d gone 30km too far. So I backtracked and made another stab at finding it.

It was frustrating but also astounding. At moments like this it’s important to remember there are hidden blessings. I found myself in the deepest Portuguese hinterlands where I doubt any tourist ever goes— ever. I was in deep farm country at some kind of edge of the world.

It was parched and many shades of brown. There were no grasses, only brown scrub. I passed a sunburned old man in dusty clothes trying to talk sense to a mule in the middle of a tiny village. The village had a phalanx of older gentlemen seated alongside the main street, watching, guarding and no doubt commenting on what went by (me, in a rental car, three or four times) . I passed fields of sheep and newborn lambs, and fields of sleek goats. The oldest pastures had stone walls for fences but seemingly nothing an animal could graze on.

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The architecture in the farm villages was severe and eccentric. Pristine tidiness was clearly a strong cultural value.The houses were all painted spotless blinding white and trimmed in various bright colors. They all had decorative chimney pots, latticed with designs, and all clearly painted at the end of winter so they were as spotlessly white as if smoke had never passed through them. I drove by agave as big as my car. There were many beautiful ruined stone farm buildings, the masonry of a style specific to the region’s jagged faceted stones. The flat facets all faced the front, creating a smooth surface, and spaces between the large stones were filled with tiny stones.

I followed my GPS until it told me, confidently, to Go Off Road. My excitement was building, imagining how remote my accommodations must be. But when I did finally go off road the GPS choked— shut down. So, I stopped and called my landlord who gave me the name of a village near his home to plug into the GPS which happened to be 70km in the opposite direction. The sun was setting and the route was hairpin curves over multiple mountains. Anyone who drives mountain roads knows a mountain mile is like a dog year. I knew 70 km of mountain roads was going to feel more like 200 km of driving.

Along the way my reward was the stark and unspoiled landscape of Secret Portugal. On one hillside there were dozens of high tech wind turbines, while on a nearby hill there were ancient stone windmills in various stages of decay. Beige hills were dotted with pine, almond and cork trees. I passed an abandoned once-prosperous farmhouse, its front walls covered in azulejos (tile murals) depicting farm labor, all painted in blue on a white ground.

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Just before dark I turned up in the right village. My landlord drove into town and led me up to the perfect getaway: a stone/stucco cottage up on a hillside,with yellow and white striped curtains, wonderful art, a private terrace and a view of the entire plain’s night lights sprawled at my feet. Thousands of warm yellow kitchen and bedroom lights sparkling in the land below, and diamond stars above by the millions were undisturbed by the villages’ lights or the moon. In the morning I woke to discover that the sea was just beyond those lights.

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It hit me hard, in a good way— I realized I was truly happy. Not pretending to be happy, or waiting to be happy. It was a joyous moment. On that terrace the next day I made myself comfortable. Played some Brazilian jazz, lit some candles, opened the bottle of wine my host had provided and looked across the lights to the sea.

Being out of the city I found myself painting and writing. In my sleep one night I wrote a poem and woke up to its words. It was enough to just sit on that terrace perch, above the sea and the towns and watch the sun cross the sky.

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Every day I would choose a little coastal village— the smaller the better— and drive there to investigate. I was less than 200 miles from north Africa, and this region was a place where many cultures crossed paths. The first village I visited had its stark white houses with eye-ache blue trim against the brilliant blue sky. I climbed down a cliff to touch the water and was captivated by the succulents and sea friendly plants that grew right up to its edge.

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The second village had Moorish and medieval ruins. The only wifi available to a traveler in town was at the library. I stopped in the supermercado for provisions and settled on a tame choice— chicken, because it was coated in fiery red pepper and the sign indicated it was locally raised with some degree of pride. Once cooked it brought back the chicken of my childhood, raised by my grandparents on our farm. It was anything but ordinary. I spent the afternoon painting the plants on my terrace and thanks to the blessings of technology, being in contact with all the people I love the most.

Home is precious beyond measure, but I wrapped that evening in a cloak of memory and stored it up to refire my soul when I’m too old to explore anymore. Cypress trees/tiny far away lights/palm fronds rattling in an end of summer breeze/smell of anise, the sense of power, joy, connection, saved to be unwrapped when I am  losing my footing on this earth, to remind me that I am earth’s child and the whole earth has been my lavish, generous, stunning home.

Back to the woods

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Dusk and a half moon. Firefly lights smeared across pasture air. Frogs blanket the higher reaches with a thousand sounds. Steam rises off the land from the long awaited rainfall. It’s as beautiful here as the nights before when we camped alongside a remote creek.

Hiking for hours— climbing past root and stone, finding the occasional gemstone— brown mushrooms the color of a tiny animal, nascent Indian pipes, dragonflies carved from turquoise with black velvet spider webs for wings. We locate four waterfalls and there follows looking at the world from behind sheets of water and speechless stone sitting.

Gordon and Jim

One waterfall has thrown together a beach of stones where a tree grows twisted by the current, but blessed by the slice of sunlight above. Its roots are half naked and unfurl in twists and turns. A perfect Zen garden. I wonder what a Japanese gardener would do were she to see this place. Would she approve or seek to refine it?

Twice I have had the luck to be able to backpack with a grown son. Gordon is determined to bring fine food to the woods. He creates a small oven and makes apricot scones. They are creamy in the middle and doubly delicious because of the setting. He produces a little bottle of homemade maple syrup to drizzle on top. Dick shows him mountain mint which has a citrus note. Gordon brews us tea from it. There are wild blueberries too, and wild strawberries just being hatched.

Jim and Dick teach us their favorite tricks for bringing comfort to the wilderness. They are such skillful teachers that we become avid pupils. Dick pulls out the fly rod. There has been a drought, though and the water is low and more tannic than I remember.

We spend a little time on the white quartz and mica sandbar— the “white beach” which sparkles in daylight, moonlight and firelight. For perhaps the fifth time several of us use the term “otherworldly”.

Too soon, I think, we pack up and head home. I’ve fallen into the timelessness of the mountain forests and any time to leave is a time too soon.

The Magnolia tradition

low fire porcelain– work in progress

Walking to the mailbox the other day I saw the first blossom on my new magnolia tree. It’s been decades since a magnolia grew on this farm. My maternal grandmother, Elizabeth McAlpine Gordon Covington (Bess), member of the DAR and the UDC, believed it her appointed duty to nurture and pass along magnolia trees to all members of the family.

Mama Bessie

 

She achieved this, I believe, by putting a seed pod in a clay pot full of sandhills soil and waiting for the appearance. She would then share the leggy and top-heavy promise of beauty with young couples just moving into a new home, brides and grooms, or any family member who looked to be in need of a magnolia.

In our family there was an ethos associated with magnolias. You NEVER pruned them, or limbed them up from underneath to expose their trunks. They were allowed to be full-skirted, like the belles of the ball that they are.

The front door of Mama Bessie’s house was flanked by a magnolia 30 feet tall. And I still remember my delight when I discovered that a magnolia allowed to grow to the ground is like a ladder. You can climb right up to the top, limb by limb.

When I was a bride, my aunt, on my father’s side of the family, gave me a young magnolia spawned by one of the trees Bess had given her when she built her new home. It was, like me, Bess’ grandchild. I managed to kill that young tree at that young age. Now, decades down the line I know a bit more about how to keep a tree alive, so I’m hoping to rectify my error and get back on board with the family tradition. I’m going to take the seed pod from that first blossom and put it in a pot of piedmont clay and hope for the best.

Green Pastures

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“Pasture” is a wonderful word. It conjures up so many pleasant connotations. I grew up in a part of a small southern town that was called “the pasture” because that is what it had been before WWII. My favorite part of Psalm 23 is the image of God having his sheep lie down in green pastures.

My kitchen sink overlooks a green pasture where I have often laid down. To watch clouds, to feel the sun, to soak up the beginnings of spring, or the endings of summer.

Yesterday morning, as I was washing dishes and watching my pasture a pair of wood ducks startled me by flying in and landing on the fat limbs of an old pecan tree. Just behind them I noticed a pair of deer grazing. And at that moment a pair of goldfinches, male and female, flew up to perch nearby.

On this morning there is a ruby throated hummingbird, drawn to the flame columbine patch at the top of the pasture. I watch him feed and then perch on the Carolina jasmine that sprawls nearby.In recent months I have seen a flock of fourteen wild turkeys pecking away in the pasture, a mighty hawk, and a large owl. I feel like Noah and the pasture is the ark.

In my French class whenever I use the word “pâturage” to talk about my pasture I am always corrected. They recommend the word “champ” or “field” because, I guess, there are no grazing cows or sheep here. Like my childhood neighborhood, it is only a former pasture, in the most literal sense. I continue to inspire correction by using this word I love both in French and in English. There may be no cows, but there are countless creatures who pasture there, including me. I’m just at a loss as to how to explain that in French.

Real Florida

 

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My winter exploring took me, this year, to Florida. It’s amazing that I allowed 40 years to pass between visits to that magical place. We set the goal of visiting the “real” Florida, skipping all the major cities, and focusing on the natural beauty and history.

I’ve been yearning to see the Everglades as I have grown older and sunk deeper into my fascination with wild untameable places. I wanted to camp in it, and travel into it in a kayak. I wanted to sit quietly and watch it unfold. We chose Flamingo campground as a destination, where we could car camp in a casual, relaxed way. The Everglades National Park is so vast that it’s nearly 40 miles from the park entrance to the campground. Located at the southernmost tip of Florida, if you don’t count the little islands below it or the Keys, it feels like the edge of the world. We had packed basic gear and set up a simple campsite with views of the convergence of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, and a nearby eagle’s nest, with both parents working the brood. It’s clear to me that these are the kinds of things I’m supposed to do, because as soon as I arrived I felt a deep sense of relief… a kind of recognition of return to the mother, safety, home, like a world of traffic/road/noise rolled off my back.

We found, as the sun set, that the mosquitoes sprang to life. Lucky for us, they were quiet during most of the daylight hours, but rabid and inescapable once the sun set. We were forced into our tent very early, but that made for a terrific evening of reading outloud and talking. Leaving to visit the restroom in the middle of the night was horrible/beautiful, as it brought hundreds of mosquito bites and billions of stars. Because the land is flat the dome of the sky is complete, with stars all the way down to the horizon. Seasoned Everglades campers had whole suits made of netting, as I will have on my next visit.

The following day, in rented kayaks we paddled an old manmade canal. It was a beautiful, sunny day and great exercise, but we were frustrated by the lack of wildlife there. A manatee did nearly surface at the bow of my kayak, his form echoed by the water he displaced. I saw a very large woodpecker, and a small blue heron on our voyage. We had stopped before reaching the park at a farmer’s market and bought fresh fruits and vegetables, and we feasted on them for lunch: steamed asparagus and fresh tomatoes, strawberries and beautiful oranges, as we watched a pink flamingo fly overhead.

On our last day in the Everglades we made a point of stopping on the 40 mile trip to the entrance, at the various marked attractions. There was a mangrove forest with a walkway that one could follow out to the sea, and another walkway loop through an old growth mahogany forest perched on a hammock in the marsh, lush with ferns and palms. But best of all, there was a road off the main road we took. A man with an enormous camera setup signaled us to stop and pull over. We did, and were amazed by what we saw. Clustered in one tiny pond there were perhaps 10 different types of large aquatic birds, and a tiny crocodile. Across the road was the parent of the tiny croc. All the wildlife we’d hoped to see was gathered in one spot the size of my living room. There was a roseate spoonbill and a great blue heron fishing in the pond, while a snowy egret perched nearby. Clusters of storks moved among the other birds. A black bird— a crow perhaps, cut an elegant silhouette from the bright blue sky. Light filtered through the cypress trees and spanish moss and lit up the water. It was a kind of glimpse of paradise, and the perfect coda for our adventure.

Negative space

10413413_10203489949584289_1421277527056230135_nToday my new eight year old existential friend paid me a studio visit.  She carried on a lively conversation, told  a few jokes, and then, very seriously asked   “so, how is your life?”  It gave me a moment’s pause.  I answered her with the seriousness the question deserved.  I told her “my life is joyous”.  End of discussion.

The day before she had told me that being in her new third grade classroom felt like “being in another world”.  I guess, when you grow up with the Aegean as your background you think in those terms.  As an artist I’m always analyzing what is AROUND the thing I’m painting.  Artists call it the “negative space”.  The rest of the world calls it the “background”.  It’s been amusing to me, while here, to see a bunch of dusty hens and a rooster with the Aegean as their negative space, or my landlord, repairing a motor, surrounded by a vast expanse of turquoise water and blue sky.

From the perch of my balcony I can watch the whole village.  Every evening after school children play until dark below me in a playground.   I’m so high up that birds fly below me.  Today the wind was strong and I watched a bird flying in one spot, like a kite, unmoving for whole minutes.  From my balcony I can barely see sailboats and fishing boats, tiny as ants, but I can hear their motors clearly, amplified by the water.  Tired from a three hour uphill-downhill walk I took today– by accident, having taken a wrong turn, I decide to cook supper in my apartment.  There’s one skillet– that’s it.  It’s like camping out, I tell myself.  And I whip up a Greek salad,  kabobs, fries cooked  in olive oil, yogurt with local honey, with a glass (or two) of retsina.

I had intended to walk down to the beach I can see from the studio– emerald green water with smooth marble rocks.  I was told that for the price of an bottle of water  you can have an umbrella and beach chair for the day, but the wrong turn sent me over the mountain instead,to a deserted cove, empty and covered in litter.  There was nothing to do but turn around and climb my way back out.  Determined to find the emerald beach I took several more wrong turns, and ended up having to trespass and slide down a steep hillside  on my bottom.  It was unseemly, to say the least, for a woman of a certain age to arrive at the beach sweaty and dirty as I did.   But find it I finally did, bought my water, got my umbrella, took out my paints, and the rains came.  Nothing would soothe me but a plate of calamari, which I enjoyed in the taverna, watching the rain pour.   The beach will be painted on another day.  Right now there is a very promising rainbow hovering over it.

The Creative Life

When I was growing up, in Huntersville, North Carolina, the kids in the neighborhood all claimed one treehouse. It was actually maybe three boards, nailed across a forked Sycamore branch hanging parallel to the ground. The host tree was immense and beautiful with its outsized leaves and white skin. We would collect there, suspended over the creek that threaded through our neighborhood,  known as “the Pasture” because that was what it had been.

Back then I was transfixed by the movie Swiss Family Robinson — mostly because of the house they fashioned in a tree. I loved the family’s ingenuity and creativity in the face of adversity. Not only did they construct a home out of scrap, but it was better than a normal house!  There was a life lesson in that movie that I embraced right then and there, and never let go.

In 1988  on a sunny Sunday afternoon, David built a treehouse for our little boys to play in. He used scrap lumber of every description– some painted, some not. Some treated, some not. He conceived, in a flash, an eccentric structure to support the little platform up in a hundred year old pecan tree. It was strong enough to hold an adult, so we all went up there occasionally. I took to making lunch and pulling it up in an egg basket on a pulley after preschool many days.

When the boys grew up and started driving and dating, and bemoaned their lack of funds I suggested they invite  girls for dinner in the treehouse. Each boy, in his turn, learned to cook and serve dinner on high, complete with candlelight. I occasionally took friends up there for dessert  after dinner on ground level.  Grown people always got a kick out of being invited to climb a ladder for their dessert. Once up there, they usually wanted to stay. I like, too, to have very young friends up  for tea parties. It’s fun to wonder what I might have thought when I was 5, had an old lady had invited me to tea in her tree…

Lately the much-loved treehouse has been showing its age. Due to its creation at the hands of a  construction pro, it lasted way longer than its parts would have predicted, but, after 25 years it had reached  an existential juncture.  As the universe around me seems to operate, I discovered just the composite flooring I wanted for the treehouse, damaged and reduced to almost nothing at the lumber yard, so I bought it and set about planning the resurrection. Stewart, my youngest son,  had some time off, so I asked him if he’d be on board for the treehouse project. He was completely enthusiastic,  because he too has the gene for wanting to make things.

By the time he arrived I had done some of the obvious demolition in normal power-through mode, but Stewart stepped in, and as naturally as drawing breath,took over most of the strategy and the three dimensional thinking. I did the cutting, he did the structural repairs, holding me to very strict standards. Climbing up one of the 40 times I ascended yesterday, I flashed back to earlier days, and having  sandwiches in the treehouse when he was little. I rejoiced to be re-experiencing just such a summer afternoon but with  grown Stewart. Increasingly  he  was excited about the job he was able to do,  and about the fun of problem-solving, as was I. He told me his older brother may have redone the barn but that the treehouse remodel was going to be his.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about our little farm is and always has been its collection of derelict buildings.  They call out to our creativity and invite us to reimagine what they might be, how they might look, and how they might serve us. They school us.  We have all learned amazing lessons in creative  thinking, self sufficiency, the use of tools and follow-through from  tackling our various projects.  Had we lived in a modern house I doubt we would have explored some of the things that now bring us so much pleasure.

I  used to be terrified of  circular saws.   My beau at the time, was helping me by  repairing my  rotten kitchen floor.  Saturday came to a close, and we had a disagreement.   I found he’d left his saw behind.  My ferocious self-sufficiency kicked in to keep my anger company.  I became determined  in that moment to prove to myself (and him) that I didn’t need a man to run that saw for me–that girls can handle their own problems.     Not long after I became the proud owner of  my own circular saw, purchased at a garage sale for $5 from a lawyer who had sawed through its electrical cord.  I  repaired the cord, and we — my saw and I–have become very good friends, spending many hours locked in common cause.  If I’d had a normal kitchen floor I’d have one more fear to haul through life!

Marked as a child, the first time I saw Swiss Family Robinson, I can’t imagine any home more apt for me and my offspring than the “island” of our little farm where we landed and  had to figure things out.