Thursday, November 29, 2012

in the room with raphael

crowds of people pulse on all sides of me, their body heat pressing into me, hearts thumping, their fingers pointing at walls alive with color and history. wide-eyed, they sigh and speak a babel of languages, their heads and necks tilting back—snap, crack—for a better view, first in the pinacoteca, and then in raphael's rooms. there it is, the school of athens and, oh god, higher still, heaven in a ceiling. at times i think i cannot breathe. there are too many people. i remind myself inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.

i attempt to take a few pictures with my iphone—after all, how often does one encounter the stanze di raffaello?—but i am not really in the mood. am i coming down with a cold? a raw rain runs clear rivulets across the vatican museums' windows. i position myself by backing away from the throngs toward an empty area near the wall, being careful not to touch the wall. (i have already been chastised once for touching by roman guards in the castel sant' angelo.) the window area is cordoned off, but i feel better with a view of the damp day beyond the crush.

my blah mood starts to disperse when i notice a couple intent on studying the artwork. i try not to stare, but they stop right in front of me. i pretend to be interested elsewhere, yet i am curious. my eyes can't help returning to them, to her smooth white skin and wavy reddish-blonde tresses, to his intelligent eyes and shapely bald head. there is nothing outstanding to behold in these ordinary people, but something about the strangers that i can't quite figure out gives me the sudden urge photograph them. that's the odd thing about it—i am rarely moved to take deliberate snapshots of people i don't know.

the second i see them, i realize they are unusual subjects. he leans into her, gently, slowly, his hand touching her hair, his head touching her head—but no, it's not a tender moment he seeks, it's the audio guide—while she looks up. after he gets close enough to her to hear, they do not move. they stay frozen in the spot they have claimed for themselves, her eyes fixed on the ceiling, his eyes fixed on me (well before i even lift my phone). it's as if they are simultaneously posing for me, but not posing for me. yet that can't be, that's not it. they are listening, absorbed by a voice in their ears whispering a language they understand, explaining the details of what their eyes witness.

i try not to be obvious; i turn and take photos of the frescoes—but what to focus on with this overload of detailed stimuli coming from walls and ceiling? so i just do it; in the blink of an eye, i do it, i do what i have wanted to do all along—i turn back around and touch the camera button.

there is this uncanny sense i have—an idea, a ridiculous idea, perhaps, but a fun one and one that seems like it could be true—that this man and this woman make their living as actors, not because they are dramatic or seem to be striking a pose, but quite the opposite—because they are relaxed and comfortable and, above all, quiet in their own skin, in their own space. it is as if they are alone, not a tourist in sight, in the vast, ornate, renaissance chamber, as if they belong standing where they are standing, and they themselves are on view, an audience sitting in darkness just beyond the walls of raphael's room waiting to applaud.

the man and woman are in position—they just are. they inhabit—more than that, they own—this piece of air.

i can't help clapping in my head.

Monday, November 19, 2012

our house

with thoughts of home, family, friends and the holiday season in maine.....

our house is a very.....(excuse me, but i could almost insert the word very two more times and then you could, maybe, hum to the tune of the crosby, stills, and nash song our house " a very, very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard, now everything is easy 'cause of you...." except i won't and you needn't hum because it's not exactly what i mean right now anyway, but it's a wonderful sentiment—and a true one, except for the two cats, although in the past we have owned cats....), as i was trying to say before i interrupted myself, informal house.

i don't want to leave the impression that our house is some sort of idyllic paradise where one is free to do as one pleases—where anything goes and extreme and somewhat louche informality rules—where one can, metaphorically speaking, sleep all day, lounge around in one's pajamas, guzzle six-packs of maine's best IPA, roam through the house in muddy boots, and leave a trail of wet towels and dirty underwear and socks on the floor.

no, no, no, not that kind of informal. far from it. we are ordinary people trying to live a simple lifestyle, and we have the usual list of things that conspire to give us headaches.

this sounds confusing—it's actually quite simple. it all comes down to one thing: i think i am a wretched hostess.

oh, i can cook, and i am most welcoming, but after the first round of food and drink i frequently neglect to offer my guests more food and drink. (that's where the husband comes in. he's a great jeeves—he tends to these details...well, mostly he does.) i get so involved and distracted by fine people and interesting conversation that i forget to play hostess. that said, now this can be said: a lot of times around here if you need or want something you have to ask for it, and because of this deep flaw in my character, i tend to prefer (except at thanksgiving) serve-yourself pot luck or casual buffets.

but, come to think of it, maybe i'm not that flawed, not that wretched a hostess. maybe it's a means toward the informality i love, a subconscious tactic to get family and friends to relax and feel at home. translation: dig through the fridge, open random and unfamiliar cupboards, rummage where you will but please, if you need something, don't ask me—just help yourself.

at the heart of my concept of casual, at the core of my notion of laid-back, is the centrally located, historically significant, front door knocker.

hereabouts, the nonexistent front door knocker.

we don't have one, never have, probably never will. (although i like interesting door knockers—that  stern one up there looks as if it might bite. what, exactly, is that thing? a not-so-welcoming-looking, part human/part beastie which appears to have come straight out of dickens' a christmas carol?)

we don't have a doorbell either at what is technically the front door (it broke, we never fixed it). we hardly ever use the so-called formal front door entrance anyway. instead, people go around the side of the house on a curving path through the garden and into the screened porch to the back door.

once upon a time, a time in the days of yore—and if your house was large enough—the back door, or side door, or any door that was not the front door, was considered the entrance for servants and trades people only, to be used for the daily drudgery of domestic tasks alone—upper crusty people would never have entered there.

i don't view the back door as a lowly door. it is the only door (other than the garage) that we use, that family and friends use, on a regular basis. around here there is no stiff ceremony, no tradition of the traditional front door. (by this i don't mean to imply that people who use their front doors are stiff, formal traditionalists—most people i know use their front door most of the time. oftentimes it's the only usable door. our use of the back door is only meant as an example, a symbol, of our informality.)

so that's it. holiday or not, we'll greet you—and our sweet black dog will greet you, too—at the back door, the door for all people, with no fuss or formality, just an unpretentious and friendly welcome into the heart of our home.

Friday, November 16, 2012

the readers

in these days of ours, these crazy days of ours, when they make an announcement along the lines of yes ma'am, it's true, the big box stores will be open on thanksgiving day (for the first time in history—i'm actually surprised it took them this long to conquer the holiday), i can do nothing but sigh and sigh some more.

does everything, everything, in our society have to be linked to the marketing of products and the spending of the green? i need it, i have to have it, it's the latest, it's the biggest, it's the best, it will be on sale that day, it will be sold out if i don't grab it now and on and on. society's psyche, our very souls, coaxed in specific directions—aided and abetted by those persuasive entities that are paid to get inside our heads—causing us to believe we need to possess a surplus of material objects.

i've decided that instead of ranting about this any more than i already have—i really have no patience for rants, especially after having endured so many nasty political ones lately—i will go on a love spree.

i say, if you have to buy something, buy books. or take turns borrowing and lending books with friends and family. for the love of books, for the love of beautiful words, enchanting art and nourishment for the mind, get books for your children, your spouse, your grandchildren, your parents, your siblings, your nieces, your nephews, your friends.

ye gods, for the love of those you love, be still, stay home, snuggle and read a book.

just like kevin and aidric—hang out together. lift open the covers of books and turn the pages—kevin and aidric highly recommend the giving tree or tiki tiki tembo or fox in socks or chicka chicka boom boom or curious george or make way for ducklings or time of wonder—to name a fewand lose yourself in the vast landscapes that you will discover in there.

we'll see you when you find your way back.

~ photo of my grandson by aidric's mommy, alexandra mcaleer

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


it wasn't until the next day, after jet lag had subsided and i could properly take in the neighborhood where we were staying, that i noticed dense stucco-like patterns spattered on objects in very specific areas around the ponte sisto, along lungotevere dei vallati, up via arenula and into the park near our hotel.

i like to think of what i saw as organic graffiti, but these graffiti artists didn't arrive stealthily in the middle of the night armed with spray paint. they arrived promptly at 4:45 in the afternoon and their work was brazen and bold and loud, loud because there were so many of them.

what were they called? where did they come from? why were they here?

i should have noticed the clue—a foretelling right there on the wall—when i opened my eyes after that first delicious sleep. a previously unnoticed golden hued print of a flock of black birds (no artist's name given) hung near the left side of the bed.

after a day of gorging on seeds and bugs, anything in the fields outside the city, tens of thousands of starlings could be seen, and heard—this is called murmuration, the indistinguishable blending of all those bird wings and voices which, the first time i heard it, i thought was rain—heading back to rome to roost in the large plane trees that lined the tiber river and the park outside our door.

the birds swirled and glided, swooped and dropped over the rooftops like sooty snowflakes, each movement in their ever expanding and contracting ballet fascinating and mysterious to those for whom it was a novelty. to the locals, the birds were merely messy pests.

truly wise people opened their umbrellas when walking for more than a minute under a canopy of trees vibrating—yes, and i mean vibrating—with starlings. the birds' bellies were, after all, full from a day of feasting.

unless, that is, they didn't mind becoming stuccoed like the sidewalks and cars, and the occasional head or handbag.

Monday, November 12, 2012

use or freeze by

what remains are tall, straight-backed trees—dark statues on view until may—displayed in the hushed gallery of autumn's forest. the bright colors vanished (although this year, due to a lack of cold nighttime temperatures, the usually fiery colored maples in our yard were merely a ho-hum-so-so-washed-out red) right along with the built-up anticipation of the season. how i looked forward to those colors and to sweater weather, to the crisp tang of mcintosh apples, hot cider, and the snap-whoosh of fall wind spinning the leaves in a whirling carousel of motion.

colors i don't look forward to with eager anticipation are the insidious shades of gray and green that are hiding—make that residing—in my refrigerator. they're inhabiting what's been pushed toward the back, living and multiplying in forgotten jars and plastic containers containing the dregs and leftovers from weeks and weeks ago (how many weeks ago, i am ashamed to say) that i have ignored with a scrupulous avoidance similar to my avoidance of edges—edges of high places like cliffs and the tops of tall buildings. (although years ago i crossed the aptly named knife edge on mount katadin, facing my fear of precipices by staying as close to the middle of the narrow pile-of-rocks trail as possible. i tricked myself into believing that there was a middle when, in reality, no such place exists along most of the dizzyingly narrow ridge between pamola and baxter peaks.)

one of my favorite things about maine and new england is the change each season brings. call me crazy, but i think i would be bored senseless in a perfect paradise world of forever hot and warm and green and nothing else, no in-betweens, no extremes (except scorching heat), no variability, only the same brand of tropical sun and air day in and day out. what grows in tropical climates stays visibly growing for four seasons. that's it. not much anticipation for what comes next.

in maine, though, anticipation for what comes next is always ripe, even if, for now, the dormant kernels of life are hidden and will remain hidden for some time to come. they must wait—and i must wait with them for winter to have its turn—before waking up and announcing their appearance, making a grand show-stopping entrance into yet another season of change.

in my refrigerator the storyline is different.

dynamic new life forms are at this very moment hard at work, increasing their numbers by patiently building sprawling colonies of puke-colored fuzz in a few tablespoons of leftover rao's tomato and basil sauce, or cabot farm cottage cheese, or on top of boneless chicken breasts well past the "use or freeze by"or "best by"dates. these densely packed communities—a biology experiment unfolding right in my kitchen—live in an ideal environment, a utopia of jars and packages. they have no idea about the cataclysm that's about to annihilate their population. but i do, as i clutch a giant hefty trash bag and—grimace! shudder!—force myself to swoop into the depths beyond the open refrigerator door.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

connecting the dots

If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard,
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went—
Then you may count that day well spent.

But if, through all the livelong day,
You've cheered no heart, by yea or nay—
If, through it all
You've nothing done that you can trace
That brought sunshine to one face—
No act most small
That helped some soul and nothing cost—
then count that day as worst than lost.

—George Eliot, Count That Day Lost

walk with me, if you would, through the old, narrow cobblestoned streets of the centro storico—historic center—of rome.

look here, along via giulia, where aristocrats lived, as well as famous artists who created great works for some of rome's palaces and cathedrals—men like raphael, cellini and borromini—for a close-up view of renaissance urban planning. what mankind accomplishes! the year 1508: this street would be the longest (1 km) and straightest rome had ever seen.

look up. michelangelo's arco dei farnese. the arch was supposed to connect the palazzo farnese with the villa farnesina directly opposite across the tiber river, but that feat of grandeur never happened. maybe the money ran out. who knows. now there is only this lovely, ivy-covered section of michelangelo's impressive design spanning the street above our heads.

further along via giulia, a stone face mounted on a wall, also from the renaissance—as is so much in old rome—the interesting fontana del mascheroni, fountain of the mask. the chin and lower lip are stained a sick green like a verdant vomitus from the mouth where water spews out. they say the fountain flowed with wine in the old days when via giulia was known for its street parties.

see that heap of clothes on the park bench in the piazza benedetto cairoli on via arenula (benedetto was once prime minister of italy)? in front of another burbling fountain? it's a man. men sometimes sleep here during the day, sometimes at night. when it rains they disappear. the unmistakable odor of urine permeates the exterior of a shed in the corner of the park.

on the ponte sant' angelo, be sure to notice a head-to-toe bronze metallic statue man sitting with a bronze umbrella over his head. another guy with a large brimmed hat is spray painted entirely black. unmoving. they really look like real statues. human statues in this city of statues. i saw them yesterday near the forum on the via dei fori imperiali.

don't miss the man—it's always men, never women—who plays "drums" on many various-sized plastic pots and buckets. he's quite good. the sign beside his money jar reads donations for a real set of drums.

in the campo de' fiori square, location of rome's oldest outdoor produce market (since 1869—it was previously used for public executions), observe a talented musician who strolls among the market vendors and serenades the tourists with his guitar. after a few songs he walks toward the ristorante tables and around the scurrying waiters to where tourists sit with their cups of espresso and glasses of wine. he smiles and holds out a cup of his own. i offer a few coins—grazie, grazie—and smile right back at him.

humanity in a foreign city. foreign, but the same. linked points of humankind—everybody, anybody, me, you, him, her, them—connected to one another under the same setting sun.

Monday, November 5, 2012

there once was a wall

bayham abbey, united kingdom. june, 2011.

a long, long time ago the roof tumbled down, as did most of the walls—not all at once, of course, but gradually—after the place was dismantled, abandoned, and left to decay. but because it was set in such an idyllic spot, people cleaned up the debris and—with great foresight—left the ruin in its natural state to be enjoyed by those who might find their way to the abbey one day in the future.

wild rabbits were among the first to arrive. they made themselves at home—witness the many rabbit holes!—and multiplied in what became a well-tended park surrounding the abbey.

they were the only other visible life forms besides myself, my husband—who i no longer actually saw, as he had disappeared into the ruins—and the young man minding the gift shop and collecting the entrance fee. at first i didn't notice them—the wild rabbits blended in perfectly with the browns and grays of tree trunks and rocks and woody bush stalks and ordinary dirt that were fixed at rabbit level around where the abbey stood. i picked out one of the descendants of the original rabbits and as i watched it, it watched me, its head in constant motion bobbing in the grass, its eyes simultaneously on me and the sweet green vegetation comprising its late afternoon snack. this went on for some time—we were both equally patient.

while the rabbit grazed, i leaned against a wall and enjoyed my reverie in the sunshine.

sanctuary—i sensed it under the dome of the sky. the remains of the walls that once surrounded a house of worship now surrounded me. within the pewless wreck, little hints of glory and joy. i shaded my eyes against the sun and scanned upwards. i imagined a choir loft filled with chanting trees—evensong in leafsong—as hymns of summer wind strained through outstretched branches. i read words of praise in a book, the book of crustose, lichen etched over blocks of stone. once, inside of what had been whole walls, a long-vanished altar had proudly claimed a spot on this earth. years later, opportunistic roots dug into ancient slabs of rock—rocks with a determined faith that, even in decay, held fast. once an altar stood where animals now deposited their own offerings.

the rabbit stopped nibbling choice shoots of grass. suddenly, it turned and fled.

as i walked under archways and lingered in the outlined shells of former workrooms, i saw the shadows of hooded monks laboring, baking their daily bread, brewing the daily beer. i wasn't inclined to compare the shambles i observed with exalted spaces boasting fine stained glass, paintings, and statuary, hundreds of flickering candles illuminating precious gold and silver, cold inlaid marble floors, perfectly white altar cloths and heavy chalices filled with blood-red wine.

i had no need for the established trappings of respectability—no. i was satisfied being a congregant in a broken place, a place that had been humbled and brought down. it was here, that spirit of peace—that unchangeable old thing—and remained with me in the land of crumbling rocks and snakelike roots and countless creatures. it held me the way nothing else could.

~ when i got home from italy over the weekend i was glad to find the house exactly where i'd left it—that beast, hurricane sandy, hadn't blown it down while i was away (although, sadly, on the jersey shore houses were blown to smithereens). except for a lot of sticks and oak leaves littering the yard, there was no evidence a monster storm had streaked through here. the power didn't even go out in our neighborhood like it usually does. (jim, our electrician, joked a bit after he finished installing a generator for us. he said the generator was probably the best insurance against power outages.) with travel on my mind, i wrote this piece about a previous jaunt before i left on this most recent one.