Visiting the Deep Past

Finally, I have managed to shrug off the strangeness. I have found a level of ease with everything from starting a new painting to driving a different car. Yesterday I explored outside my circle of familiarity, traveling to a village about 10 km away to see a storied chapel, and really, to visit another time altogether. We drove on looping rhythmical roads over gentle hills, surrounded by nothing but agriculture.

Lachapelle was the destination, with only about 100 inhabitants. Its centerpiece is a thousand year old chateau Templar. Beside it sits a tiny Baroque chapel built in the 18th century, inspired by an Italian opera house. Its sponsor hired an ébaniste who spent many years creating the tiny church adorned with panels and pilasters, gilded and faux marbled.

There were large panels depicting scenes from the Bible and an enormous lecturn with carved eagles to hold the huge communal hymnal.

 

There was a guide who spoke only French, so I struggled to understand the complicated history of this jewel-like chapel. Women and children were seated on the ground floor in those days, and there were diminutive provincial rush-seat chairs that converted to kneelers for each of them. Some had initials from the original supplicants written with brass nail heads.

Men stood in the balcony. There was a stark difference between the high style of the chapel itself, and the beamed and rustic balconies in the rear.

Our visit was initiated by friends of Moulin à Nef, who live nearby. They are also friends of the current maître of the chateau.  He appeared in the church during our visit, and invited us to see the oldest part of his chateau.

The word “chateau” is French for “castle” and in most cases, in ancient times, that meant a fortified position on top of a hill where one could be protected from invasion. Vincent’s chateau surveys all the countryside for miles around. Because the land below is so valuable for agriculture, there are no intrusions from commerce or infrastructure. Just curving roads among hundreds of fields in cultivation, a few old trees, some tile roofed farm structures, and the sky. The one utility line is strung between weathered and knotted grey tree trunk poles with no particular attempt at uniformity.

It was a fine spring day and the village was spangled with blooming roses, irises and wisteria. The magic of it all was feeling as though we were having the same experience one might have had in that same place a thousand years ago.

The chateau’s owner, a retired pilot, explained to us that he’d persuaded his wife to allow him to chip away at an area of the wall in the entrance hall because he thought there might be something interesting in back of it. He, in fact, uncovered a thousand year old massive fireplace. He opened up another wall and discovered a kind of ancient sink where vegetables might have been washed— a stone basin that drained through a hole in the wall to the outside.

He showed us a favorite antique find— an elaborate turntable he’d found in Brittany, asking us what we thought it might have been intended for. Elaborate and polychromed, there was a group of cherubs carved into its ceiling. He explained that it had been installed in the outer wall of a convent, with a bell alongside it. If a woman gave birth to a child out of wedlock the penalty would have been death. It was designed so a woman might have rung the bell, placed the infant inside under the watchful eyes of the carved and painted cherubs, and then turned it, delivering her baby to the nuns within, the woman being neither seen nor recognized.

We ended our day on the terrace of our friends’ remodeled farmhouse. A large and rambling structure, their home was built long ago to fit its environment and serve practical purposes. It is now the warm place where they gather friends and family together. Besides the excellent company, amazing food, the view of miles and miles of farmland, and a stunning sunset, I was most captivated by the exposed ages-old beams and their irregular and quirky arrangement.

They were like large abstract sculptures coming out of the ceiling. When gaps developed, someone hundreds of years ago had created a patch to reconnect the beam to its load.

It reminded me, exactly, of the ways Charles had patched the beams in my own barn. It seems as though a carpenter’s practical wisdom is timeless and universal, passed in some mute fashion across continents, from century to century.

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.

 

Good Food

Thursday nights in this little French village, the old hotel that clings to a precipice overlooking everything else plays host to a tiny organic market in the lobby. A couple of farmers sell their home grown carrots, cauliflowers, mushrooms and homemade breads. It’s on the honor system and you do the math. Meanwhile, on the terrace the hotel conducts  tapas night with local wines.

We  picked a table on the end of the terrace, and turned our backs on the setting sun, after filling our bags with homegrown vegetables. We had the remarkable tapas and the lovely soft wines to go with them. I watched a troop of Boy Scouts walk down the street below—every one a beautiful child.

The sun had been hot at midday and it seemed the whole village, including me, had been out absorbing it. The Boy Scouts all had rosey cheeks to show for it. A little girl bounced up to our table, playing some game of chase and said her hellos to me— “bonjour madame”, with the flawless formality she’d been taught. When we turned around we were shocked to see the whole village behind us on the terrace enjoying all the same things. We ambled home through the old marketplace, slowly descending to the riverfront where our studios are.

 

 

The night after, I made a soup of the shiitakes I’d bought. Every time I’ve prepared something from the local market the taste of the soil trapped in the vegetables astounds me. The simplest carrot is like no other carrot. I made a roux and added the carrots and spring onions, saving the shiitakes for last. We cooked some sausages that had been beautifully crafted, and served them with some freshly dug potatoes mixed with creme fraîche, and put together a salad from the spring lettuces we found in the market. There was rosé to start, and a fine old Bordeaux to end. We sat outside in the ambivalent air— not sure if it wanted to be warm or cold. We let the wines warm us, and had the most remarkable night. It was one of those nights when your judgement is clouded by your consumption, but also one of those nights you want to remember forever.

Somewhere before dawn each day, my farmer genes wake me up with the local rooster. I love that the air is always full of two sounds— that rooster, and a mourning dove. There’s the chalk scrape rooster sound and the warm come-hither dove. In the sky, in the dark, there is a close-to-full waning moon and Jupiter. There’s a down comforter, and those great casement windows without screens that are wonderful to fling open in the middle of the night. Never one to sleep in, I find I could hang out under that comforter for a very long time, only lured out to drink some espresso.

 

This morning I barely made it out of bed in time to greet my luggage which finally arrived five days after I did. It was a race to do what was most important first— assemble a stretcher, and put together a canvas, gesso it, and set to work on the painting that had been hanging out in my brain for several days. I even ignored the costume change that was long overdue, and the luxurious shower with my actual toiletries, until I felt I had some work underway. Now it’s midnight and I can’t pry myself out of the studio. Here’s to dreaming up some time-stretchers to make this moment last.

Mining in France

 

 

Staring at a stucco wall struck by sunlight, covered in vines, I find myself beside a river, beneath a hill, in the agricultural belly of France. It’s a rare opportunity to briefly live and work in this warm light, surrounded by a thousand kinds of patina. For a month I have a residency at Moulin à Nef in Auvillar. It is the French outpost of the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. VCCA is one of the midwives who delivered me into my current state as an artist. The opportunity to live and work in their community for the first time was a watershed. I am hoping that Moulin à Nef rolls over me in as powerful a way.

 

My studio is tall and wide with 6 foot windows and mottled walls stained a pale jade. I have suffered all the vagaries of travel in the last five days with canceled flights, lost luggage and bad rental car contracts. The first thing I plugged into an outlet blew a fuse and then I turned around and slipped on a throw rug. Five days after leaving home, I’m still wearing the same outfit, and trying to figure out how to be an artist in the absence of my materials. Somewhere in Boston, or maybe Madrid, there is a hard shell golf case filled with stretcher bars and canvas, and every color of the rainbow. And I am here, disjointed as though missing my beloved. Aimless and lost.

 

My son challenged me, upon saying goodbye, to pretend I was on Mars— to loose all the familiar bonds, including, he said, the bond to the self I know. I’m beginning to think that there is some divine plan at work to divorce me from my supplies and plunge me into some deeper mining. Yesterday I prowled the Super Marché for kids’ art supplies and came out with some too pale, too tiny markers and pencils. I spent the afternoon by the river making marks, pushing the inadequate materials to speak. It was a challenging and stimulating exercise with a kind of odd, fresh success.

My first night here, we residents and the directors enjoyed a two hour dinner talking about our lives as artists. I said something about how handy it can be to be creative, and how, as a teacher in secondary school, I discovered there was no budget for supplies so I taught my students to paint using discarded house paint donated by Lowes, on pieces of packing cardboard. The directors were in the midst of installing Ikea cabinets in a pantry, and set the packing cardboard aside to be recycled. I asked if I might have it to work with.

In the early hours of the morning I had a vivid dream. Long and elaborate, and completely remembered, it bore powerful images of home. Someone from my past came for a visit and spent the night, sleeping bolt upright in an armchair. In the studio that dream is feeling very close to the bone, and is being expressed in cardboard.

 

My favorite line, in all the poetry I have ever read, may be the line from Mary Oliver, “You do not have to be good.” Oh, really? What a relief. Words to live by.

As the first born southern daughter of a first born southern daughter going back seven generations of first born daughters, I have some deeply embedded notions about how good I must always be. So today, I revolt and cut cardboard at random, allow that it does not have to be good. If I am lucky I can reach inside and pull forward the mysteries of that dream.

The Big Barn

It is time to turn my attention to my 1949 barn or watch it crumble to dust. I’m starting with a new roof. The last one was installed 67 years ago. It doesn’t leak yet, but, it soon will, and I have an itch to set things right.

The barn has called me down into the pasture many times in the last few weeks. There was junk to be discarded and damage to be assessed. I drove five truckloads to the recycling center, and uncovered some buried treasure… well, my idea of buried treasure: a door to replace an ill-fitting one in my house, rescued by my dad in the 60’s from a home being torn down in Myers Park. I tried to move it. It must weigh 100 pounds. Above it, in the loft, are the parts of a grand staircase he also retrieved, its ornate bits and pieces curled up in a corner. Someday I’m certain I will find the perfect place to use it.

There’s my great-grandfather’s farm wagon to dodge. Lumber rescued from around the farm lies racked up on the sides of the barn, some of the boards very old, from trees cut manually with a two man cross cut saw and then milled here on the farm. The loose knit loft floor is pine boards, most of them over a foot in width. Old handmade ladder back chairs hang from ledges, and bits of straw and dust get stirred up with every step. There’s an octagonal oak hardware bin in the loft that used to be a working member of the general store. It held thousands of bolts and screws so nearby farmers could find that odd bit they needed. All that mingles and communes with saddles, a watering trough and other reminders that animals once lived here.

Charles is a builder of barns and everything else besides. We are old friends and while he is still in the barn business I want his to be the hands that set my barn right. Charles knows barns. He spent all his younger years being a champion bronc rider, and now, in his middle years he looks unchanged and moves around the roof like a young man, tirelessly, day after day, with relentless energy. Charles could convince me that some things don’t change.

I paint in the studio at the top of the hill while the men remove the rusted tin from the barn roof and store it for another project. A brilliant shiny new shell takes its place. The barn sits deep in the bowl of the pasture. When I step down to speak to the men, I feel the change in altitude in the air and the sounds shift from highway noise to thousands of frogs croaking in the little wetland below. The March light is bright without leaves on the trees to soften it, and it’s immersive— the light, the frog calls, the damper, cooler air. The late afternoon light comes through the stripped rafters and casts a mesh of shadow pattern.

Any day that sets something right in a sacred place is a good day. Any day that ends in the pasture with the sun raking through the trees ends right. I add this day to my large and growing collection of very fine days.

The Nature Cure

 

I’m just back from a few nights around a campfire with great friends. We were on a late winter island getaway. One remarkable moment after another— so many I tried to make a list. When I read it out loud it sounded like a poem. “sea grass, dunes, sugar sand, wet sugar sand, sea”.

One scrap of conversation sticks out in memory: my friend Janet’s comment that she felt like a kid getting to play outside til dark. We watched armadillos and possums cross paths with squirrels and raccoons, and the light’s thousand ways of filtering through the live oaks during the various times of day. The understory was all young palm trees and cardinals played among them. Some crows worked the higher regions.

 

One of our days we rode bikes partway up the island, along the beach, to visit an abandoned mansion from the gilded age. When we got there no one was around except one docent who was having a conversation with a woman in pigtails and a wide-brimmed hat, white fisherman’s boots and large comfortable camouflage pants. She had created a kind of uniform with pockets the right size, where they were most needed, salvaged from other garments. She had a kind of pencil holder attached to her hat, decorated with a bird’s feather, ready at a moment’s notice . She reminded me of us— Jim with his necklace that has a lightweight knife on it, so he never has to search for it, or the bracelets he made us of woven cord, so if the need arises we always have 8’ of cord with us. Her uniform served her purposes.

Janet struck up a conversation with this woman, since she was in the middle of reading the book about her life and recognized her immediately. She was, in fact, the person dubbed “The Wildest Woman in America” in the subtitle of Will Harlan’s book about Cumberland Island, Untamed. Carol Ruckdeschel is, at the very least, one of the most interesting women in America. She talked about her daily observations of the island’s three scattered bald eagle nests, but she is more famous for her work in defense of the sea turtle, and her influence in having the island protected as a National Park. Carol is a self-taught biologist of some reknown, and has devoted her life to marine conservation, and the conservation of Cumberland Island.

The thing that struck me most vividly in this meeting was her eyes. They were lit from within. Make of that what you will. A life of selflessness and connection to the wild world seemed to have served her soul very well indeed. She had a kind of indelible human beauty. Janet and I were both mesmerized. She was annoyed by any attempt to discuss her life, and urged us more than once to go to wildcumberland.org if we wanted to connect in positive ways to the island. Janet and I concurred later that we had both sensed that we should not ask her for a photograph. She clearly wanted only to promote her goals of  conservation, and not herself.  It was an extraordinary life event I will capture only with words, while hoping to pass along the core message… go to wildcumberland.org.

We had backpacked on my first trip to the island, hiking a few miles before pitching our tents, but this time we modified the plan to make it simpler for a larger group. We camped close to the ferry landing so we were able to haul larger tents, more bulky groceries, and things like camp chairs. I hauled a bag of art supplies down to the island, but really the work of art was done in resting my hands and letting my eyes and mind play. There was one brilliant vignette after another. When I returned home the work in progress in the studio took on a new clarity. It’s so strange how that happens. I could suddenly see, in every painting of the five I’m working on, the flaw, the weak spot, the potential for flight.

We set up a really comfortable camp. For me it was a chance to experiment with the mechanics of going down later for a week by myself to paint. We watched the sun pass over. The moon was huge, just past full. The stars looked like sequins between the limbs of the live oaks… the image I’m most anxious to play with. We had bonfires with live oak and cedar. The sea was the background noise— just the other side of a series of tall dunes.

We told stories from childhood and realized with a little shock, how much of another time those stories were. Mostly, the whole time I was in those woods I felt a huge sense of relief. It was such a blessing to leave the pettiness of life in America behind, and steep in the density of the real and raw world. I found myself content, less anxious, less busy reaching to satisfy some kind of need. Just calm and glad.

I’d drop behind the crowd hiking or biking and find myself  with word after word bubbling up in some litany of thanksgiving.  I return a little bit healed, a little bit encouraged, loved back into breathing by something bigger than I am.

The Bradford Store

For ten years I have lived my idea of a fairy tale existence. It ignored the obvious— the world spinning by at 60 miles an hour, and focused instead on life turned inward on our family farm. The Farm is a term that can refer to my old homestead, or to the working farm and home that belongs to my brother and sister-in-law, Grier and Kim, or to the historic totality.

Our little compound is bisected by a busy highway that was a dirt road before the Depression. As most of the farmland around us has been ceded to other uses, The Farm has become, every year, a greater anomaly. I loved, always, that we ignored the obvious.

Ten years ago, Kim and Grier had the Bradford Store moved off its original foundation, back onto higher ground in the middle of a field and turned their hobby of growing massive vegetable gardens into a business.

The old counters were freshly painted, the ancient floor cleaned and polished, the wood stove put back into commission and the Bradford Store started the business of dispensing love and good food, in that order.

Some businesses really do run on love. It could be a hot dog stand or a repair shop or, in this case, a local foods store, with the common thread that all decisions flow through a filter of love. The driving force is not profit—instead everything every day is done in the name of love of one’s fellow man. And that’s how it was with the Bradford Store.

My witty former husband coined a southern phrase we all use with regularity about all enterprises— “can’t nuthin be easy”. It’s not a question. It’s a statement. Even if it looks as easy as falling off a log, it will not be. And the Bradford Store, standing tall in a vast garden of flowers, pouring love into every transaction, selling the very best food the earth has to offer was, behind the scenes, a tough job. Kim worked six days a week for ten years, and often checked in on the seventh day. Every year nature provided a new pestilence to make harvesting crops difficult to impossible. It could be hail, a late frost, or a deadening drought that lasted the whole summer. They endured them all.

Meanwhile I was one of the many beneficiaries. Kim and Grier’s love and hard work showed up on my table day after day. I could step across the road and find food that had been growing 15 minutes earlier, take it home and shock myself with the intensity of my own dinner. Kim, the brilliant cook and food curator, taught me more about food in ten years than I had learned in the previous fifty. The milk she drove four hours a week to bring to the store literally had the flavor of sweet pasture grass. The eggs came in a dozen colors and have spoiled me for anything less.

Kelly, Kim’s right hand, brought in fresh made breads daily from her farm. The corn meal came from a historic grist mill. And when combined—these ingredients from other businesses that were also run on love— the result was food nirvana.

Kim surrounded the store with acres of flowers, the soil so rich some grew as tall as me. My mama, in the early years, living at The Pines retirement community, would come out, sit on the store’s front porch and create unique fresh flower arrangements, sold in Mason jars. She loved working with flowers, and the store and Kim and Grier, were her lifeline to the larger community, to family, to companionship. My son Stewart had the privilege of working at the store as a teenager and came away with many important life lessons in horticulture, customer service, salesmanship and hard work as did many other local teenagers.

When I was a little girl, my grandfather operated the Bradford Store. It ran on love when he was alive too. It served as a kind of community center for neighboring farmers.

The store was home to one of the few telephones in the community. A family friend told us how she would come to the store to talk to her fiancé who was off serving in WWII. Papa had a roll top desk full of receipts and ledgers listing items sold on credit. He also had a “pet” blacksnake that lived under the store to keep it pest-free. When holes in the old floors appeared he would patch them with a piece of advertising tin.

On the front of the building my dad, as a boy, painted the words “Free Air” beside the pump for filling tires. When I was young that always cracked me up, because, back then, air was always free. The ground outside the store was literally paved with multicolored bottle caps from sodas, and a life-size cardboard Santa drinking a Coke was the primary Christmas decoration. There was a bench out front where Papa would sit at day’s end, the sun setting behind the store.  And on one afternoon, back in the 30’s, my great-grandfather Will, the store’s founder, died peacefully inside its walls while reading Zane Grey.

Kim and Grier, from love, knowledge, courage, imagination and boundless enthusiasm, have built something that will always live in memory for hundreds if not thousands of people. I think of all the little children I have seen come in the store, or sit on the porch with an ice cream, and wonder if their memories will be as sweet as mine are— if 50 years from now they’ll talk about what it was like.

Seeing this era come to a close makes me so glad for my tired family who have given so much to so many. And glad for the thousand images in my head of bounty and beauty, kindness and community that came from running on love.

 

 

The Mattress

 

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Four months ago I set out to clear my house of clutter. For forty years I have lived in the same place, with barns and chicken coops and rooms aplenty for collecting stuff, so this is no mean task. My sage son Gordon suggested I start with duplicates.

As I gathered up my duplicates/triplicates/quadruplicates I began to see myself and my fears and sadness, cloaked in crazy, from some distance. I had three garlic presses, two blenders, three rasps, four sewing machines, two coffee grinders, four curling irons, five wire whisks, seven t-squares, and three rabbit puppets for starters. Against some projected future shortage I was holding onto dozens of sheets and blankets. I had an addiction to containers for storing things. Lots of them were empty and taking up space in the dusty and cluttered attic. Every time I opened the broom closet two or three of my six yardsticks would tumble out onto the floor.

 

 

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A lover of history, I’d become the repository for lots of artifacts from our family’s past. There was a totally unorthodox baroque clock in the attic that my father, the GI, had “liberated” from a bombed-out German apartment building at the end of WWII. In my father’s eyes, the clock was magnificent, but it was actually a crazy pastiche of little portraits painted on porcelain sandwiched between furbelows of brass. It was an object that was hard to love. But it spoke of a moment in time— the end of a horrible war and my dad as a very young man. It conjured up the image of a devastated country. It no longer works as a clock. But it serves as a link to 1945 and my father, and his quirky idea of what was desirable.

 

 

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There was an afghan in the attic made by my maternal great-grandmother, Granny Gordon. She knitted and crocheted miles and miles of yarn and thread into useful household objects, but this afghan is probably the ugliest thing she ever made. Chocolate brown, grass green and pale yellow, no one has ever used it or displayed it, but I have stored it since I first became its guardian. It has lived in a cedar chest in the attic where it has not seen the light of day for 40 years.

 

 

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I rediscovered a box of textbooks and notebooks owned by my great uncles and my grandfather, from the early 20th century. They grew up in this house sharing the upstairs bedrooms. Two of them went off to medical school and the attic holds their chemistry notes and their drawings of microorganisms. Two of them studied agriculture and I have their drawings of plants. One studied business, and the only daughter studied to be a teacher.  I’ve come to know them by examining their notes, their handwriting, the things they studied. My grandpa, Hurd Bradford, Sr. served in the Navy in WWI and there were homesick letters to his mother in a tin box. There was a naval uniform that belonged to my father-in-law, an intrepid submariner in WWII, and a painting by a great aunt who studied art in New York around the turn of the century, technically proficient but lacking any sense of the life she lived, and riddled with holes.

 

 

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My mother, always a respecter of history and the bearer of many family tales, years ago handed off a goose feather mattress made by my paternal great-grandmother, Mattie Dora Worsley Staton. Grandmother Staton, as we called her, had raised the geese, killed the geese, plucked the geese and sewn this mattress. And it lay in my attic for 40 years. Mama and I both respected the hard work it had taken to make this mattress. Among my papers there is the last will and testament of another ancestor who bequeathed her feather mattress to one of her children as if it might have been a house or a car. It was, in its time, an object of great value. I asked my son, my clearing mentor, what to do with this mattress. His response was “let me think about that one”.

I told the story of the mattress to my dear friend Suzy, who also loves history and collecting, and she set me free, assuring me that the mattress was by now alive with mites and other invisible creepy things. That was all I needed to bag it up and haul it away. She suggested that I take a scrap of the ticking that contained it, and save it as a memento. I decided instead to remember Grandmother Staton by saving the mattress in prose—in digital format.

The attic holds so many stories I will never have time enough to tell them all to my sons. On some day in the future I imagine them up there, sneezing, cursing and tossing. They are, to a man, minimalists. I am, as they say, a maximalist. Never have I felt my role so powerfully as connector between the world as it has been for generations and the world as it now suddenly is. I write to lock some of it down.

Slowly, open spaces are appearing. I have driven truckloads to the dump, and station wagon loads to the Habitat store. Every week on pick-up day, my trash can is full. Freeing myself from attending hundreds of objects is a thrill. I revisit each thing. I decide what will happen to it in the Digital Age and if it’s worthy I find it a new and awkward home, or I write to lock it down.

A Bear Island Anniversary

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I was standing at a counter filling out paperwork to camp on one of North Carolina’s barrier islands when the ranger reminded me what day it was— May 15, my 40th wedding anniversary. In 40 years I’d managed to reconfigure myself from the wearer of the long white gown to the bearer of the backpack full of gear.

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Nothing beats an island for turning inward. I found my campsite behind a twenty foot dune. Everywhere blackberry bushes grew absolutely flat against the ground, the white sand reflecting heat and light to ripen the thousand shining berries. It was a milk-and-honey moment. Scattered among the blackberries were blooming yellow cacti. Beyond that, live oaks and scrub sculpted by wind and weather— beach bonsai.

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The wind was constant and it was hard to light my stove and keep it burning, but I nestled between two dunes and cooked supper while watching dolphins breach close to shore. For dessert — foraged blackberries.
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There was the outbreath of sound coming from the ocean, but muted by dunes and in the thickets many birds calling to one another.  Colors shifted in the shadows cast by the dunes.  Backlit by a softspoken sunset the dunes turned lavender, and the grasses jade green.  As soon as the sun slipped away I sank into my sleeping bag. Not long after, a group of coyotes began to sing together close by. It was a sound-surprise– mournful, sustained, intoned by several voices.  I wondered if they would sing all night, but it was just one brief incantation, a couple of bars, and I never heard from them again.

 

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Numb from driving, from noise and the world, I settled into a kind of deep inertia. I spent the next day sitting on the beach and staring out to sea. Instinct told me to make this trek, and which book to grab on my way out the door–an amazing choice, as if it had been curated just for this moment.  Not a novel, but a book about reverence, nature, and living a spiritual life in a human body. I liked that part best— how walking, cleaning, loving, driving, cooking –the everyday things we do with our human bodies, are how our spirits are accessed.

 

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At the end of  the day I felt a little more alive and took a beach walk, discovering shells and seaweed like Medusa’s hair. A formation of 25 pelicans flew overhead, and a shorebird went plunge fishing nearby.

I began to notice there seemed to be a noise louder than the sea, but the murky sky hid the source from view. Later I found out that arms and bombs are tested at Camp Lejeune nearby. A fisherman told me that a bear had swum over to live on the island and changed his mind when the bombs started.

Camping is a lot of fun if you like puzzles and solving problems. There is always some hurdle you have to overcome using whatever odd bit of stuff you happen to have with you. Cooking in the wind became a little easier as I began to figure things out. My son Gordon taught me to carry a 3-M tape that can be anything from a bandage that will not come off in water, to the hinges that hold a windscreen made out of art panels together. My windscreen did the trick and I was able to make noodles with Alfredo sauce, and marinated steak, one at a time on my tiny stove.

Then there was chocolate and moonlight and a few bright planets. I had fun sending a group text to my sons, with a little video of my surroundings.  We talked about gear and what was working in that environment and what wasn’t. They gave advice. They made me laugh.

My backpacking mentors, Dick and Jim, had taught me well and my first solo trek was almost flawless. I had everything I needed except binoculars and a windscreen, and brought very little that I didn’t need. That’s what my mentors call good planning… nothing extra. I was lucky to have such excellent teachers. They gave me the gift of confidence.

On my third day I painted the dunes and the sky on the panels that had been the windscreen. I experimented with a big brush and speedy application. It was challenging as the paint dried as soon as it touched the surface .  If I slowed the drying  sand would blow into it. One piece picked up so much sand I had to wash the image away. As it is, they all feel like  sandpaper to the touch. The more I painted the more I wanted to paint.

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The last afternoon it began to rain. I sat under my sun shelter and worked on capturing the soft grays during the long afternoon.

Back in an actual house the next evening, I found the television grating and the road traffic too loud. I didn’t want to connect to the computer and the urgent emails related to business.  I saw how badly I had needed that return to self. The contrast was stark. Just sitting and watching the sea. Reading. Painting.  All five senses firing. I felt some mysterious opening in the vicinity of my chest.

 

January Magic

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I used to think January was the grimmest month, fit only to be endured.  But I’ve changed my mind in the last few years.  Now I think of it as crystaline and ripe for adventure.  It’s the perfect time to build a fire in the fireplace and throw a party– draw people out of their caves to experience something wonderful.

The Moving Poets had the same idea, because they hosted an intimate evening of art last weekend in a log cabin in the woods in the center of the city. I knew it would be an amazing way to spend an evening and I was not disappointed.

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There were four art experiences set up in the cabin, as well as an open studio going on out back. Jason Watson’s wonderful scroll took up one long wall. It refused to be strictly rectilinear, and curved and meandered instead. There were grommet holes at random places across the long stretch of heavy paper to hang it by, and it was elaborately and wonderfully drafted and sculpted.

The first live performance was by Tanja Bechtler and Robert Teixeira— a rich collection of Spanish music for guitar and cello. They played above our heads in the cabin’s balcony, and the sound coming from behind us was flawless,sure and spirited. They were soon joined by Talia Buitrago and Daniel Arrendondo, dancers who performed Argentinian tango improvisations based on the music.

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I knew it would be a magical experience, two married couples— musicians and dancers, performing ensemble, but it far surpassed anything I could have expected. Interestingly, the tango revealed itself as a reflection on relationship. I had presumed it would be sultry and athletic. It was far more. I became fascinated by the interaction as much as the actual dance. It was a very pure experience of communication and trust. The music and dance were the rarest of things: perfect marriages.

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What followed was a performance of a new piece— a tantalizing sample of a work by the Poets based on plays by Samuel Beckett, planned as a collaboration with the theater department of Cambridge. I had selfishly nabbed a center front row seat so I could lose sight of everything but the art, and could capture it with my camera to share online. This dance performance was happening three feet in front of me. Proximity and the dancer, Alyce Cristina’s skill left me overwhelmed.

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Nothing puts joy in a day like art, with artists’ ideas taking unexpected turns and making everything seem fresh and alive. It reminds me of all that is good in us. I welcome the news that the Moving Poets are planning more performances for our city in coming years. There’s been a void where they should have been.

And they know exactly what to do with January.