Friday, December 30, 2011

george and the labrador gang

i must say there is nothing quite like a house full of people and dogs at christmas. this year we made a new dog friend named george—george belongs to megan—and james brought along harper and we all nestled under one roof for several cozy, relaxing days after christmas; george and his crew traveled by car from texas to maine. together with lille and lizzi, the dogs provided great entertainment, a touch of drama, and lots of laughter. [click on the images to enlarge.]

george is a 20 pound who-the-heck-knows-what-kind of dog breed. on boxing day we went to denny's house and took a long walk in the beautiful snow-covered forest with 3 of our 4 dogs in residence plus ollie, luc and addie (we were sad that the only one of the lab siblings not present was montana)—6 humans, 6 dogs. george was seriously outnumbered by the labrador gang, but being surrounded by the big dogs didn't phase him in the least.

the labrador gang

georgie porgie puddin' pie

guess who led the pack of labradors most of the time? george. guess who had the littlest, stumpiest, sturdiest, most reliable legs that hastily carried him once again to the front of the troop of humans and canines if he happened to lag behind for a second to sniff the forest's tantalizing smells and lift a hind leg to mark the spot? george.

and his rather murky past? george is a scrappy survivor from the mean streets of texas city. one day around his fourth year of life, abandoned and unwanted, he was scooped up from those streets by the dog-catcher (a.k.a. the canine control officer) and placed on doggie death row where the date he was due to be euthanized was quickly approaching. but then—phew.... just in time—in walks megan, and it could be said that on the day megan arrived george's life finally began in ernest.

george is truly a great little dog—calm, quiet (unlike some of the labs!), well-behaved, and oh-so-loyal.

all's well that ends well, georgie boy.

and so we go on to celebrate a brand new year for you and for the rest of us, george.

happy new year, my dears!

image credit: the labrador gang. christina wnek

Thursday, December 29, 2011

advanced photography in one lesson

she asked me to help her with part of a photography assignment she was working on at college. what do i have to do? i asked.

just be yourself, she answered, and started clicking away.

no, no, no! how can you take pictures with the house such a mess. let me clean up first.

i'm not taking pictures of the house. i'm taking pictures of you. besides, who cares.....

but it's all gonna be there in the background, all the clutter.

or something like that. i don't remember everything, but i remember enough. she said what she needed to do was to grab reality, to show what's honestly—painfully—real, to examine life the way it actually presents itself—my unwashed hair, the overflowing ashtrays, the piles of unfolded laundry, dishes and pans on the counter smothered with encrustations from last night's dinner, the stacks of books on the sofa, coffee table, floor—everywhere those all-important books!—read, unread or partially read, the must-read-before-i-die! books, books in yet-to-be-opened boxes from amazon, borrowed books highly recommended by friends—this was reality, according to her.

while she was busily catching the light, capturing the mood, seeing with her mind, allowing life to be be be exactly as it was in the moment, i was the subject she followed around and had to keep instructing to stop posing, act natural, just keep doing what you're doing.

i was the subject with a toothbrush in my mouth, an old sweater pulled over my head, the car keys jingling in my pocket, my backside out the door.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

just reach into the hat....

on the evening of christmas day we have a tradition: our family always gets together with my husband's mother and his sister's family for a meal and more (the and more part is the lively part—i'll get to it in a second). the tradition started way back when all our children were infants, and even though our families have grown to include the husbands, wives and children of the original children, several of whom live far away, we still manage to gather for dinner at one of our houses.

hopefully the tradition will continue on in some fashion in the scattered pieces of the clan in the years to come—but who knows. at the very least, perhaps a few old stories from christmases past might always be recounted at christmastime. for example: remember the year grandma got the silky black thong in the yankee swap? and all the young women were trying to trade like crazy (translation: kill) to get it? and a certain young lady got them and brought them with her on her honeymoon the following summer?

oh yeah, that's the and more part of our tradition—the yankee swap, every year like clockwork.

and don't anyone try to change that tradition, don't even attempt to voice an opinion indicating that maybe since the family is growing and spreading out over so many states maybe we ought to consider discontinuing the yankee swap. if you dare suggest such a thing, i give you fair warning: some members of the family will bite your head off and make you feel so ashamed for suggesting a change in tradition that you will just wanna crawl in a hole and die. i won't mention their names on the internet—*cough*christina, *cough*alex, *cough*hannah—but these people know who they are and what they are—yankee swap junkies.

in addition to stuffing our faces with food and drink, we always play our official christmas game and that game oftentimes leads to other (unofficial) games. (that's a subject for another post.)

you know the game of yankee swap: everyone brings an inexpensive, wrapped gift (under $25). we all pick a number out of a hat (we often have almost 20 people) and go in order to take turns to choose a present of our choice, either a wrapped gift from under the tree or one of the gifts that someone has already opened. (that's right, you heard me correctly—we steal people's gifts on christmas.) the highest numbers are obviously the best (more choices), the lowest numbers, the worst.

sounds like a nice game, huh? well, you've obviously never taken part in our swap (anyone is welcome. you're invited; come on over—just bring a wrapped goodie with you.)

you see, our swap is a highly competitive version of yankee swap—a cutthroat, killer yankee swap. all in the wonderful spirit of christmas, right?

every year there are always the gifts that turn out to be rare and sought after. real economics is involved here (and you thought this was just a game for dummies)—you know, high demand, low supply kind of stuff. people will practically tear you apart from limb to limb to get these gifts.

i've already mentioned the lusty black thong. another year there was also a lovely string of highly desired F*R*A*G*I*L*E hanging leg lamps for the christmas tree (rent a christmas story). and once a chubby orange goldfish in a stunning bowl (the fish died a few days later), a bunch of tickets for a car wash, a board game called the simpsons (oh.that.andrew), a set of screwdrivers, and small, battery operated helicopters (those were seriously fun).

aren't all of these things worth fighting over on christmas day?

it's exhausting.

but we are sure to have a fun time and a wonderful christmas, even with all the bruises, scratches, and torn clothing.

on that note, merry christmas everyone!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


outdoors these red berries, which cling tenaciously to their branches long into winter, are little spots of festive cheer, shiny ornamental clusters in an otherwise dull gray and brown landscape.

moose, deer, rabbits, other small mammals, and birds eat winterberry. also known as fever bush, the plant was used for its medicinal properties by native americans. the berries are (supposedly) slightly toxic to humans, but if they're harvested after the first frost their toxicity is reduced (supposedly).

i placed some of the winterberry stems i got in a vase. i also made a centerpiece for the dining table with short and long needled pine and winterberry. jeez louise, i really hope no one is poisoned by my holiday decorations—everyone will just have to be on the lookout for any stray berries which may have fallen onto their plates!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

over the brenner pass

after strolling around bolzano and saying hello and good-bye to the 5000-year-old iceman (his story is interesting: he died—perhaps was murdered?—in the alps not too far west from brenner and is remarkably well preserved in the south tyrol museum of archeology) we left our rental car in bolzano, took the train and headed out of the dolomites and into the kitzbuhel alps toward st. johann in tyrol.

our railway journey was uneventful—we shared our compartment with an elderly italian couple who spent most of their time in the dining car—but the scenery was lively—absolutely picture book pretty. as the train wound through the mountains i thought i would be able to capture some images of the tall, pointed firs lining the mountainsides and the fairy tale villages scattered in the valleys below. (some of the evergreens were not even ever green—they had turned a sunny shade of yellow; the sprinkling of huge, intermixed green and yellow "christmas" trees was an unusual sight.) what was spread out beyond the windows looked like a festive christmastime tableau, even without any snow on the ground. but the train's windows were filthy so, sadly, no pictures from the train.

we stayed in a quaint, old austrian inn on the post road.

there was a small shop in the village which had a window display of traditional austrian folk costumes for sale. very pretty, but where on earth would i ever wear one of these dresses except perhaps to a costume party?

here is a chalet i saw as i walked along a lake in the tyrol. with a little snow added to the scene the house and setting would have looked very christmasy. i could live in a once-upon-a-time, happily-ever-after storybook cottage like this one.....

couldn't you?

Monday, December 19, 2011

a christmas tree surprise

every family has their own holiday and christmas traditions, and searching for and selecting that "perfect" tree is certainly an important aspect of getting ready for celebrating the season.

ed and i pick out our christmas tree together (when our kids were little they helped, too), but we don't have a tradition as far as where we get the tree. in past years we've purchased trees from the freeport rotary club or our local plant nursery, or we have found trees on our land or ed's mother's land in harpswell.

the bought trees are always tree farm lush and perfectly formed with dense fingers of needles and a thick coat of branches. the wild trees are more of the charlie brown variety—thin, scraggly, lots of space between the branches (ornaments actually hang better and are more visible on these evergreens), sometimes a gaping hole on the spot where a branch should have grown but couldn't because the tree didn't get enough light or nutrients or something.

personally i have a fondness for imperfect, unwanted wild christmas trees, but we often end up buying  a tree because it's easier—we can be awfully lazy—if we don't feel like going all the way up to harpswell and searching for one, cutting it down and dragging it out of the woods; or if we don't have any trees that are the right size in our woods in freeport.

one year i sent ed out alone to get a tree (i believe that was the first and only time he's gone by himself). i don't remember why i didn't go—i was either sick or busy doing something else. he promptly came home with a fine 10 foot tree he purchased from a church fund raiser.

as we put up the tree together—me making sure it was straight in the stand and ed tightening it securely—i looked up and noticed something on a branch in the interior of the tree. when i leaned in closer i discovered a lovely, well-shaped, 5 inch bird's nest. ed had unknowingly bought a christmas tree with a real bird's nest hidden in it! i kept the nest in the tree and put in a little stone bird. since then, when i see abandoned bird's nests or ones which have fallen on the ground, i save them and place the nests in the christmas tree, a small bird nestled in each.

i've never in my life, either before that day or after, found another christmas tree that carried the marvelous surprise of a beautiful nest tucked in its branches.

i wonder, have you?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

icy reflection

the black truck is parked under the trees in the driveway. not much going on unless you want to count the pine needles that are falling like snow, covering the asphalt, the dry crackly leaves, the green (!) grass, the rotting plant stalks, the truck's hood. pinecones are falling, too—vast, sticky crowds of them—their pitchy scent as fresh and powerful as the pine needles.

more pinecones are gathering on the ground than i have seen on this patch of land in 30 years. every few days i rake dozens into the woods off the driveway. does this mean a harsh winter is on its way? are pinecones significant harbingers of what's coming, sent down from the old white pines before the blizzards, the howling northeasters get here, to tell us to watch out, stock up, get out our woolies, hibernate in front of a good wood fire? or are they simply the tree's surplus, shed as new cones form?

still i keep thinking why so many this year?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

dusty pages

how do i compose this note to you?

i stare down into my scalding cup of tea. steam dampens my cheeks, my lashes. my vision becomes misty. i run the back of my hand over my eyes.

absent-mindedly i flip through the pages of a dusty, old book as if looking for.....what? a guide, a how-to manual, a roadmap, some definitive answer to the way the letters of the alphabet should be arranged to reach you?

the pages are yellow. the spine is cracked. my hands shake. a spot appears on the paper and is absorbed. i am lost. the words i was shaping shift and slink like phantasms back onto the night.

Monday, December 12, 2011

the visit

buy some flowers or a bottle of wine to bring to the lady of the house and we're off.....

here we go visiting again. 'tis the season for visiting. visiting is something we do all year but during the holidays a lot more visiting seems to take place with dinners, parties and just plain casual dropping by—real old-time mainers refer to this as a door-yard-call—to say a quick hello.

not so long ago—before the invention of electricity —people didn't have many relatively inexpensive leisure activities to participate in during their spare time, so preparations for afternoon or evening visits were elaborate and taken very seriously. people left calling cards, made detailed plans, filled up their social calendars. the visit was a significant event in daily life.

i got thinking about what was once the fine art of visiting and how important it is to spend time with people. in the 21st century we don't concern ourselves too much about that. (why would anyone categorize visiting a fine art?) perhaps we don't think too much about anything we do anymore because we have so much going on, so many distractions and demands on our spare time—health clubs, shopping centers, computers, cell phones, ipods, radio, t.v.—that no one gives serious thought to any of it. we simply do what we want to do.

nevertheless, in a world with so many choices, visiting should, perhaps, be elevated in status to a fine art once again. and what about the conversation, that back and forth, give and take? it ought to be a fine art, too. often people find it difficult to focus on their friends and the conversation going on around them because they're distracted by talking on their cell phone, fiddling with apps, playing games or texting. the gadget gets the undivided attention, not the human beings, and conversation suffers.

you could argue that getting together on skype or any video chat is good enough to count as visiting time. i would agree—to some degree it does—especially when there's no other way to get together. yet there's really no substitute for being in the presence of actual, three-dimensional people, surrounding yourself with family and friends.

taking the time to call on people and to talk to them, to be immersed in the company of people we are fond of, at the holidays and beyond, is to participate in a kind of social art—a rather civilized art—the truly fine art of the visit.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

riding with the contessa

italy. october 2011.

somewhere in the october distance
in a patchwork of nourished rows and turning vines
a reflection curves, spins
off metal, penetrates my eye
comes at me, alighting from the misty golden
heaven of hills—olive, basil, rosemary, cypress—as if
i am staring at a some kind of priceless painting
capturing a wild, refractive, and bold medieval light
shining past centuries and on and on and i shield my eyes with my hand
and i am alive and pressed with a hefty gladness
a gift, an unexpected prize that comes with the day
this welcome day, how much there is of it
in the moments before drumming hoofbeats west of bologna
near casina announce a cloud of warriors i can feel in my chest
riding, riding toward me away from sky and falling sun.
i see her at once fearlessly leading the ranks of men—
matilda of canossa, la gran contessa—clad in armor
her face riven with pride and lust for the chase
strands of her long brown hair lifting, unfurling
like airy banners waving triumphantly
with each rise and fall of her horse's hooves.
i smell the beasts' sharp sweet sweat
hot breath sucked in and out of power machines
hundreds weighted with rippling muscles
all knees and heels, hocks and fetlocks
gouging the fields to seek an enemy—to repeat the humbling
of an emperor who had groveled penitent in the snow—
soldiers bearing swords and daggers protect the quattro castelli
the apennine stronghold, the golden road that curves through
the mountain pass to matilda's doorstep.
block the teuton onslaught! through the rush of bodies
the spraying saliva and blood of men and animals
i hear cheers in the twilight—witness another october....1092—
glorious shouts of victory fly up through the vineyards—
henryVI is beaten!
fling him back across the alps
from whence he came!
i stand alone
instant silence dropped
on this primordial bed compacted with these fallen bones
planted in soughing rest, deep and light—wistful, wistful—
powdering the earth, oh soft, soft.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

a stroll through an outdoor market

oh the incredible colors and smells—large hanging bunches of bright red chili peppers and fresh papery garlic. pomegranates, oranges, lemons, limes, grapes, flowers, roasting chestnuts. fresh breads and pastries and an incredible selection of local cheeses. (i'm getting hungry as i write this.)

i could have strolled back and forth in bolzano's market all afternoon, up the via goethe and over to the piazza delle erbe off the piazza walther—you wonderful passeggiata, i'm glad you turned up and i could savor you once again.

the market in bolzano (northern italy near the austrian border) is marvelous and filled with all the right foods. the people who live in bolzano are bi-lingual and speak perfect italian and german—trilingual if you count their own local german-ish dialect which i could not understand. (every mountain valley and village speaks the official national language plus a gazillion different mishmash dialects —it can get audibly confusing.) the culture is a mix of italian and tyrolean. i loved the fact that the restaurant menus were in italian and german and not english.

i finally (!) managed to find a place not crawling with americans.

on that early november afternoon we had a big lunch and ended up feeling so full we decided to skip going to dinner and instead bought cheese, bread and fruit at the market. later that evening when we had finished our simple "dinner for two" we went out and enjoyed a glass of wine. i believe it was as close to a perfect day as you can have.

and the people watching was great, although it was a little too chilly to sit outdoors.

Monday, December 5, 2011

the sweetness of doing nothing

there is this thing the italians call il dolce far niente. translation: the sweetness of doing nothing.

these people really know how to live.

il dolce far niente has nothing to do with laziness. quite the contrary, it has everything to do living life deeply and well—with slowing down and savoring life, lingering with the little things, getting out and drinking in the magic of the moment.

try it. do like the italians do. stroll through a garden, stand there, look around, touch the plants, the flowers, the statues, the water. smell them. visit an art gallery, a museum. meander through an open air market and along the colonnades of an outdoor shopping arcade, and then up to a piazza.

when you get there relax at a table for two, drink some nice local italian wine or a cappuccino. enjoy the view. watch the people go by (watch the world go by!) and then find a restaurant, order an antipasto and a primo (healthy whole foods) and eat slowly, as if your life depended on slow not fast.

there is another italian word related to this view of life—the passeggiata or the promenade. the idea behind this word is simple. everyone—young, old, couples, entire families—should get outdoors on weekends, stroll along, and take in their surroundings. italians wander and observe, chat and gossip, flirt and window shop. and eat.

the nice part about living life with gusto is that you don't have to travel to italy or anywhere far away to do it, and it can cost next to nothing. you can enjoy this outlook on life in your own area, neighborhood, town.

i find this manner of absorbing life, of living it to its fullest at a slower pace, of taking time for visits, passeggiatas and eating food—with sundays reserved as a day off for most shopkeepers—to be wonderful, civilized and healthy, unlike the wild wild west of american indoor shopping malls and fast food/junk food emporiums that are rarely closed and where the shopping rush is insane and sometimes dangerous (i'm thinking of the barbaric attitude surrounding the christmas season where mobs assemble outside stores which open at midnight after thanksgiving).

is the point of living, the way to find happiness and fulfillment in life, to be derived from a continuous, mad, addicted shopping orgy?

this crazy kind of hurry up culture is virtually unknown in italian society (or the rest of europe for that matter) and it used to be unknown here—italy's slower lifestyle is the way life used to be in the states. what happened? can we ever get back to what is real and slow down, focus on people, families, meaningful dialogue, and enjoy the simple things in life, instead of squandering existence on our plastic, artificial, unhealthy, fast, fast, fast shop-til-ya-drop mentality?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

zooming around lago di garda

the drive along the western shore of lago di garda surprised me. i expected early november in northern italy to be chilly and the mountains on both sides of the lake to be covered in snow.

instead, it was warm—there was not a speck of snow even on the tallest dolomite peaks—and, in addition to olives and grapes growing on every spare patch of ground (including almost vertical groves clinging to the mountainsides; how sturdy and tenacious the plants are—and that description also holds true for the  farmers who tend these crops), there were sunny, bright lemon and orange trees full of fruit, and clusters of palm trees greeted us, making the lakeside seem like a mini tropical paradise.

the towns surrounding the lake enjoy a climate influenced by the tall peaks and garda's warm water—they are in their own mild micro-climate.

low clouds persisted on the day we motored along the shore in our little lancia, zooming through tunnel after tunnel carved out of solid rock at the edge, at the precise point, where the mountains meet garda. then we ascended the steep, snaky roads up to tignale and montecastello.

the frighteningly narrow roads—with plunging rock precipices directly outside the car window—hairpin turns and blind corners created an interesting excursion, especially when the weather turned even cloudier and we encountered bicyclists along the way. looking at the positive side, it didn't rain so we didn't have to add slippery roads to the already treacherous drive.

but on a more negative note, the images i took from almost 2000 feet above the lake at montecastello do not clearly show the lake below and the mountain peaks on the eastern shore due to the poor visibility. yet even with the cloud cover the views across the lake were stunning and our explorations up there made for a great day.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

please hide the americans

after dinner was over, the flight attendants turned down the lights and the passengers read or watched movies or slept. i found myself dozing on the journey from washington to rome, not really falling asleep, not dreaming or drooling or snoring, but trying to locate some sort of state of rest, i guess you could say. i would love to be able to sleep sitting up on a plane, but it's impossible to get comfortable enough to get any real z's in fun economy seats that don't recline and are always generally stiff and uncomfortable.

somewhere in the midst of my small mock rest some visions started floating around in my head. they were not pleasant ones.

later, as the sun rose on a new day in italy, and i watched its fiery glow on the eastern horizon through the ice speckled window while we curved around liguria, past the apuan alps, and down toward rome, i experienced some more visions—this time wide awake ones—and again, they were not altogether pleasant.

i was envisioning americans, and oh how i hoped i would not end up in hotels with lots of them; and oh how i crossed my fingers and wished i would not hear their american voices on every street corner and in every restaurant; and oh how i just wanted to enjoy italy, listening to and seeing italians—that shouldn't be too much to ask for, right? italians in italy?—and be away from seemingly ever-present americans.

i don't dislike americans—ha, i am an american. it's just that sometimes american tourists can be a bit, shall we say, much—a bit loud, a bit demanding, a bit embarrassing, a bit off-putting—i'm an american and proud of it—instead of just blending in and going with the flow. i think trying to blend in, doing what the italians do when you're in italy, is what a good tourist should do.

brush up on your italian and put it to good use greeting shopkeepers, innkeepers, and restaurant employees with a buongiorno or buona sera, and hopefully more, instead of simply assuming english will automatically be spoken (which it will, because italians do). your accent gives you away, but at least you're trying.

and don't expect restaurants and italian hotel rooms to be identical to those in the states (unless you stay in a marriott. how icky/grody!). americans get whiney when there are no french fries and humongous steaks at dinner (expect a lot of veal, soups, and fresh pasta), no bacon and home fries at breakfast (instead you will find fresh crusty breads, cheeses and fruit), and no elevators or air conditioning in hotels (too bad you'll just have to climb the stairs and throw open the shutters in the evening).

holy moly, grow up people! don't you travel to experience something new and different?

i want to say ye gods, just chill, slow down, enjoy a different lifestyle, absorb the culture you're in, why don't ya?

if you're not willing to behave yourselves, please don't let me see or hear any of you americans while i'm traveling in a foreign land—keep yourselves well hidden and out of my sight.

Monday, November 28, 2011

after the feast

after the feast, that day of thankfulness for life and loved ones, i looked back at thursday's hours and was reminded of short days and long nights, of endings and beginnings, of the cycle of seasons and the rapidity of decades.

was it really so long ago—important dates: 1621 for the religious observance, later in the 17th century for the yearly september feasts offering thanks for successful harvests, 1941 for the designation of the official thanksgiving holiday, the last thursday in november—or something like it if you need more facts—when the pilgrims ate their thanksgiving feast of fish, deer, foul, squash, berries and nuts on long tables outdoors in a plimoth clearing, and invited about 90 wampanoag indian friends to be their guests (i've been told the wampanoags brought the venison)?

can you see them in a grassy field, english folks of both sexes adorned with fresh, white collars, the men wearing tall black hats, the women in black or white caps, and their native guests in buckskin, beads and feathers?

was it really so long ago when i was a little girl? back then it was mostly family around my parent's thanksgiving table, but occasionally friends would gather with us, too. this year at our house, in addition to family, we had a friend and business associate from china as our thanksgiving guest.

my mother was an excellent cook; the cooking would begin on tuesday and everything was made from scratch. what i remember most were her desserts—pies and cakes—and her mashed potatoes and gravy. i see her stirring and measuring and adjusting flavors, adding a pinch of this or that. when mum started to become ill, her memory fading, her fingers stiffening, i asked her to show me how she made her gravy so that we would always be able to have gravy the way memi (what my children call their grandmother) made it. she laughed and told me there was no recipe, or more precisely, there was no exact recipe, only the ever-so-slightly-changing variation of a recipe that came out of her head each thanksgiving.

she stood patiently beside me and recited her gravy process, and as we hovered over a saucepan together, mum stirring with a wooden spoon, me scribbling notes with a pen, we came up with a wonderful version (perhaps it's the one from thanksgiving 1973?) of her gravy. it was on the table last thursday.

this year before dinner was ready i suggested that maybe one day we should use picnic tables in the yard and eat outside like the pilgrims at that first thanksgiving feast. (had we done so this thanksgiving we would have been setting up our tables in a muffled winter wonderland surrounded by heavy snow which weighed the pine branches down, and hauling platters of food as we trudged through 8 inches of the white stuff which had surprised us the day before.) not one person enthusiastically embraced the idea; alas, no pilgrim types in this group.

every year we prepare for days and the food is gobbled up in a flash.

time burns down and disappears like the candle tapers on the table.

and speaking of burning down, the day ended with a bit of excitement. i opened the chimney flue and lit a fire in the living room fireplace after we finished our meal—well, that is, i thought i had opened the flue. (just let me add i have been lighting fires in the fireplace for 30 years and this is the first time i have had flue issues.) the fire was burning nicely but after 5 minutes the room began to smell like woodsmoke, we could see some smoke above in the loft, and our eyes started to sting. i could have sworn the flue was fully open, but obviously it was only partially open.

i reached into the fireplace with a poker and pulled the lever forward. the smokey wisps stopped sneaking out of the firebox and were sucked up the chimney. we had to vacate the room, open the windows, and sit in the family room. no damage occurred but it still smells a bit like a smokehouse—though not at all unpleasant—as if hams ought to be hanging and curing from the beams.

i promptly had some grey goose to calm my nerves.

i'm glad to report the rest of the evening passed without incident.

Monday, November 21, 2011

the eloquence of woolly bears

it is what i feel when the darkling sea spreads
the flow endearing itself to me, deep inside
my veins cool, my bones warming, as it presses in there.
my awareness aroused, it rises to the surface
cascading over the edge—a rush out of the gloaming—
pooling at my heels.

the words we utter are the entirety of what we are—listen
to the soundbut they are nothing, really, measured against
the eloquence of black-striped russet woolly bears shuttling
across the path giving deafening praise to hibernation



compared to the way the red maples fill me: those trees
covered with purple, the ones next to them pink
over there, yellow, and these at the end
resounding red and orange, the serenade
of their saffron-pumpkin-lemon-pomegranate leafsong rising
up and up. no mere tra-la-la—how do they manage that?
aren't they all the same kind of maple?—but wondrous
notes marked in the spaces within
the sweet lines of air scaling the sky.

i am so small.

it is what i feel when i realize this: if i walk
through a forest, stop in a bright clearing, scatter flower seeds—
any species foreign to the resident bumblebees—i will become
a witness to the infinite cycle of existence.
it is no secret—
bees will visit each flower that unfolds herself
explore every one, even the strange ones.


i am left speechless.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

portrait of sally

i asked "in what universe could the humanity, family integrity, and honor of slave owners count for more than the humanity, family integrity, and honor of slaves?" my answer was that we americans have lived in that universe since the founding of the country and have only recently begun the process of moving beyond its boundaries.     annette gordon-reed the hemingses of monticello 

the portrait of sally, a remarkable piece, should begin as an outline
offering barely a glimpse of a woman-in-the-making—first
a teenager in london: abigail adams murmured to no one in particular
sally's nature is good, and the parisians smiled
nodded and offered tres jolie to look at—while tom took her
shopping and carefully selected outfits after she was left alone
to be saved at sutton's house: inoculated, feverish, muttering nonsense.
not to worry—sally survived, no visible scars.

the paint wet but already fading by the time she arrived back
at the mountain, his home and hers, to pose for 38 years.
sally, the much younger half sister of his beloved dead wife—
resembling her always with her fine carriage and creamy skin—
her loveliness a perfect mixture in the palette of dusky rose
and lily—reigned, a faux wife, her crown shattered, trodden
under the boots of dark-flesh traders, her humanity strangled
by the noose of southern law but revived by her man
the king of monticello.

still her portrait hangs incomplete.

it's difficult to see you, sally. you've become a smudge. i'm sad
to say the picture of you is missing from museums—
in this universe it's starkly nonexistent—stolen
from us before a light sketch could ever be drawn
with this bit of charcoal on this scrap of paper.

but elsewhere out there it exists, sally, i know it exists.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

up the stairs in italy

in addition to bidets in every hotel bathroom, italy also has a lot of stairs both inside and outside. few small hotels have elevators so i walked up 55 stairs (i counted) in siena after checking in, and up again after going down 55 stairs for breakfast—and again, up and down, up and down, several times a day.

in the hill towns of orvietto, montepulciano and siena, and the more mountainous tignale, stairs are everywhere. if you want to get to visit these places you have to go up, sometimes by car and then eventually on foot. alleyways between buildings go up (and back down after you go up), cathedrals are up, piazzas are up, restaurants are up, peoples' homes are up. of course not every "up" is reached by stairs. the cobbled roads go up, too. but stairs are inevitable. you go up hundreds of them in places built along the steep sides and tops of hills.

italians eat well and drink well (and so did we in our travels around italy)—hearty soups, wine and cheese, meat and olives, vegetables and desserts—bring on the antipastos, the primos, the secondos, the contornos, the dolces!—but i rarely saw a fat person in italy. the fattest person i came across was german.

italians are fit people. they walk a lot. they walk up a lot. who needs a gym when you spend your day tackling hills and stairs in order to get from here to there.

Monday, November 14, 2011

the rooftops of siena

i wake up before sunrise just like i do when i'm home in maine. my brain doesn't seem to register that it's after midnight there; nice, no jet-lag issues.

but the difference between when i wake up in my own bed in maine and when i wake up in a strange bed in a foreign land comes down to the moment i pass from eyes-tightly-shut-sleep to eyes-mostly-open-alertness. unlike when i'm at home, the first morning i'm in a new place i don't lazily turn over, slide deeper under the covers, and squeeze my eyes shut again in order to extract a few more minutes of warmth and softness and peace before the day officially begins.


i simply can't do it. i can't roll over and go back to sleep

i'm too excited by the thought of smelling foreign air.

especially since my room is a few floors above street level in a city perched high on a hill overlooking the rolling toscana landscape of vineyards and olive groves.

instead i leap out of bed. (ok, i admit that's a disgusting thing to do at such an early hour—my husband is so totally appalled by my uncivilized leaping out of bed at this indecent time of the morning that he expresses his disgust by remaining an unmoving, mute, almost mummified-seeming kind of lump on the other side of the bed—especially since there is absolutely no need to get up yet.)

he can sleep. i, on the other hand, walk across the room, open the curtains, unlatch the interior wooden shutters (they are everywhere in italy) and then the windows and stick my head out to breathe deeply and look at what morning has to offer in the medieval italian hilltop city of siena .

ah, the view, the view (with no screens to block it!).....

in a city where all the buildings are fairly low, being at the top of one of them lets you see things like the black birds (are they ravens? crows?) do, as they swoop and dive and ride the air currents around siena's rooftops at dawn.

i am thrilled that the window faces east. here comes the sun.

i love the old red-tiled roofs that slope down toward narrow, cobbled passageways, many of which i later find out are actually one-way "roads" barely wide enough for small fiats and lancias. i discover this fact as i am rudely pressed against a building waiting for a car to pass.

beyond the rooftops is the rolling countryside shrouded in early morning mist. amazing to think the view has not changed that much in hundreds of years.

another good reason to jump out of bed in the morning like a madwoman.....

Thursday, November 10, 2011


bayham abbey, sussex, united kingdom. june, 2011.

ever read lines of light
through an opening, watch them
arc like cilia tending
to the surge that bends them
and moves sustenance along?
ever try to see the real thing below
the surface before it shifts and nothing
but the trivial is left?
difficult that, but not impossible.
i am being nourished, my eyes narrowed
to living slits, hardly needle sharp, yet
pricking their way down tunnels
sucking in what ansel
and edward, those f/64's
were worked up about.
they were on to something—click, click
the rich deepening of fields.
my field isn't deep. there are gaps.
i'm squinting fast
blinder than i ever was
blind then
blind now
needing more, trying
to hold on to something, anything, as i lean in
closer to the edge and crash
through this pinhole, rabbit hole, squeezed tight
at the end, prying out the miracle
stuck in my inner eye of a see! see! see!
revelation on the other side.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

the group

by 10 pm the wedding reception at the club is raging. the booze is free-flowing and working its magic. a flock of slim, blonde wives and ex-wives cluster, chatter, compete. the talk is about tennis, clothes designers, and their mutual friend tina. sean's ex-trophy-wife, nicole, presides over the tina gossip. tina is a no-show at the wedding. voices lowered, for this is not common knowledge: tina's in brazil with felipe.

later, in the ladies room, the group of friends surrounds nicole, their breath warm as feathers. nicole's crying. she's drunk again and slurring felipe's name. the women warble soft, clucking syllables, comforting sounds released from deep inside their throats, in an effort to soothe her.

a month after the wedding reception, the group meets for lunch at the club. the waiter serves sauvignon blanc and takes their order—the usual, salads all around.

nicole looks like a total wreck, all crushed skin and twisted make-up. she's in bad shape.

they believe nicole is in love with felipe. they know she's hurting so they try to console her. finally one of them decides nicole needs a good slap of honesty and speaks the words the whole group is thinking, their minds working in tandem.

felipe's with tina now. you've got to move on, nicole. forget felipe. he's not worth it.

nicole turns in the direction of the speaker, stares at her, yet not at her. instead her eyes bore into a blank spot on the wall beyond. she closes her eyes. when she reopens them they are round and hard and dry. nicole looks directly at the group of women.

she finds her voice and in a cold, lifeless tone she says he's not the one—it's always been her.

~ hello my dears. i'll be away for several days, taking a break from computers and telephones and such—so deliciously unconnected!—and the blog will pause for a short intermission. in the meantime i'll snap a few more pictures and scribble some more stuff and nonsense, and maybe some stuff which is not nonsense—i'll be back in a flash.....promise.

Friday, October 21, 2011

here kitty kitty

i look soooo good.

the mice have decided to take over my daughter's house. many mice. many many mice (easy math, right? 10 or more offspring born every two weeks times all the mature female offspring of the offspring of the offspring of the offspring minus a few casualties equals a ton of mice....well, ok, maybe she doesn't have that many....). they are under the kitchen sink and in the drawers and in the walls and one brazen mouse even scampered across the counter in the daytime. another mouse ate half an avocado! my daughter is using mousetraps and they're working, but she needs some more help. so.......

here kitty kitty. yesterday i picked up a kitten for her. it is my pleasure to introduce you to buster. tomorrow we're taking him to his new home in vermont to scare a bunch of mice with his fierce good looks.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

phloxie poppers

standing in monday's warm sun, a good stiff breeze ruffling the oaks and poplars—the only trees with leaves still displaying a resoluteness and fixedly holding tight to the branches—i overheard a steady pop! pop! going on in the greenery.

the first time i heard that odd sound was years and years ago when my garden was new and i was new to gardening. gardening—that wonderful mucking about in pungent soil and tangles of weeds and fall's dead leaves, that exploration of the hidden worlds of smooth roots and bumpy rhizomes and chubby worms alive under the ground—and a love for the outdoors are in my genes. i am descended from generations of men and women who worked on the land, their own (in recent history) or belonging to the neighborhood duke or lord or whatever other landed gentry, and made their livelihoods from crops and cattle and horses and sheep (lots of sheep) .

when i garden my hands become dirty and sandpaper rough (you don't want to touch my sea urchin-like palm and fingers—i should wear gloves but i rarely do because i need to feel the good earth), my nails split (no glamorous nail polish for me) and crusty with black soil like one of those old farmers but not really, since my garden patch is smallish and unmechanized and suburban. there is no rise-up-at-dawn to milk the cows here; there is only me. my husband does not garden. he is without a green thumb but he helps me with heavy hauling and cutting—any yard work requiring a chainsaw and bigger muscles than i have.

and the pops? those were phlox seedpods—small, oval, ripe, ready—the ones which have gone from green to brown—wantonly bursting again and again in the afternoon sunshine (always in the sun's heat, never on a cloudy day) providing food for birds, mice, moles and voles and sending forth an unwavering new generation.

Monday, October 17, 2011

yoga and fish oil

~ for all the couples struggling with infertility—who feel like they are the only baby-less ones in a world filled with babies—as they anxiously wait for 9 months to are not alone.

there is a woman i know, who, in her teens and twenties, rarely noticed babies. she never oohed and aahed and cootchie-cooed like many women do when they see an adorable infant belonging to a stranger.

then all of that changed. now when this woman is at the grocery store or the hardware store, driving past playgrounds or taking her morning run, babies are all she sees. babies are everywhere. the majority of her friends have babies. she's got babies stuck in her brain and she can't get them out.

so it goes when you're married, in your early 30's, ready to start a family, and the damn clock is ticking and ticking. you've been trying to get pregnant for 20 months. you have a great reproductive endocrinologist who has tested you for everything and there is nothing today's medicine can find wrong with you. the doctor pronounces you physically fit. diagnosis: unexplained infertility.

you've tried IUI. nothing. now you're trying IVF: sticking on patches, popping pills, giving yourself daily injections, emptying out the hormones and filling yourself back up with hormones, trying to swamp your ovaries with lots of lovely eggs with the hope that some of them will fertilize and turn into embryos or blastocysts.

in 20 months you've gone from feeling a roaring panic and anxiety and dread to a dull achy sadness.

a few well-meaning family members and friends try to help you get pregnant (whoa. hold on. i think her husband has that under control!) by saying things like just relax and don't think about getting pregnant (how ridiculous is that? getting pregnant is always on your mind!) or maybe you're too thin or maybe you run too much, honey or my friend got pregnant doing yoga and eating fish oil.

some days you just want to cry.

doesn't anybody realize babies come from sperm and eggs, not fish oil and yoga?

some women are quick to point out you haven't been struggling with infertility that long, not as long as my sister's neighbor's cousin—your situation isn't that bad, don't worry (after all, worrying can make getting pregnant difficult!) you'll surely get pregnant soon.

some days you just want to scream.

other people shy away from talking about infertility; they are at a loss for words, reluctant to navigate into the unknown or mistakenly labeled forbidden-offlimits-taboo territory of infertility.

but, my oldest daughter, you must always remember this: those of us who love you, who are closest to you—your husband, parents, sister, brother, cousins, friends, and other relatives—are there for you, embracing you with gigantic hugs and humongous kisses.

we know the best thing for you is for us to ask how are you doing? and then simply listen, and squeeze your hand, and, on occasion, cry along with you.

and then, as it always does, your mood will turn brighter and you will be hopeful again......

visualizing those handsome little swimmers finding those cute little eggs and dancing the night away.