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Posts from the ‘The good’ Category

Baja


Welcome to Baja California, land of the Id,

where  languorous waves pummel the beach with pugilist fists,

where sacred vultures scour the skies and skeptical scissor-tailed frigate-birds circle,  refusing to roost;

where milky puffs signal the lust of  bachelor whales, and bat-winged modula shoot from  shallows and drop, with  skin-smarting  slaps, into the waves;

where slick seals glide, thrusting whiskered snouts into the liquid air, and pelicans play tug-of-war with hides stripped from the flanks of noble marlin;

where dark-skinned, big-hipped women with tumescent thighs mince the pavement in heart-piercing heels, and sweet-talking romeos of real estate seduce with offers of free beer, free money, free love;

where the yucca’s turgid stalk thrusts pods swollen with honeyed petals into the beaks of orioles the color of sunlight, and hummingbirds dive into the heart of fiesta hibiscus,  sucking the luscious nectar of life;

Where white-bellied  men in baggy shorts guffaw from despair and women, bloated with shopping, ogle young bucks  clutching Coronas like bottles of  mothers’ milk,

and  spidery rebars rise from concrete pilings
while  Steinbeck’s Mexicans still glumly lurk in the pounding murk of the taverna.

Roots


In one of Oahu’s many botanical gardens, I wonder at all the ways plants anchor themselves,  at all that complicated engineering  of their roots. Looking at them, I can’t resist the urge to draw parallels and parables: the many ways  plants and the many ways  people  have of sending roots into the substrate. Some grab at the earth with muscular fingers, leaving a lumpy fist above ground. Others  rise from a tepee of columns.Here’s a kind of blade, narrow and high, gracefully extending from the trunk for six feet and then tapering abruptly into the soil.

Here the roots  meander like the veins that stand out on the backs of my hands.

And these are an absolute promiscuity of roots, some belonging to the host ficus, others to the guests that dropped in and then decided to take up permanent residence, and all of them are now intertwined and companionably thriving, incapable of imagining how they could ever have conceived of living apart.

The banyan tree — and I suppose other, related plants — have this clever way of dropping roots from branches and then those roots seem to stiffen into buttresses that both support and nourish the horizontally spreading limbs, making a tree that seems to be many trees: an entire labyrinth of tree trunks.

I should have photographed the several banyan trees in the park in Ala Moana, Honolulu, but I was in such a red-hot haste to get to the ocean and take my kilometer swim in that perfectly placid water of a temperature so in tune with my body’s that I felt wrapped in a silken, salty caress as I pushed and pulled my way through the gentle resistance of the current.

Swimming off Ala Moana was like a dream of swimming: effortless, safe, restorative. Around me, coming and going, were other swimmers, silently parting the waves with their crawl strokes; and standing surf board paddlers, also silent, gliding with each stroke of the oar, their weight balanced on  springy knees and feet flat . Beyond the line of reefs, the water was still for a long spell, and only farther out, beyond another row of reefs, giant breakers curled and crashed. Surfers were small lavender silhouettes suddenly rising out of the waves and just as suddenly sinking into them. Beyond them, the grey shapes of freighters slid across the horizon. Turning my head in the other direction, I watched clouds boiling down the sides of the green, sharp mountains, and in the distance, the bare, brown prow of Diamond Head.

I feel welcome in Oahu, and I welcome Oahu into my heart. There’s an intimacy here that comes, I think, from the proximity of the beach. Everyone congregates on the beaches. Tiny children of all colors pick up games in the shallow water and laugh with delight. Parents play with them. Workers interrupt their day to take a swim, or walk or run. There are clean, dry bath houses at regular intervals, with showers that have spigots for adults and others for children (or feet) and everyone washes off in public, and towels off, and gets dressed. In tents scattered across the park lawns, under the Norfolk pines and the banyans, three generations of families reaching to third-cousins, sprawl on blankets and chairs, grilling pig, feasting, playing games. A church group performs hymns for the homeless, who blissfully sing along. Nine species of birds stroll unconcerned among the people, cleaning the lawns, singing, drinking water.

Brides and grooms, both in white and festooned with blue leis, come to the water and pose for their private photographer, who studies how to position them so that other bridal parties won’t be in the picture.

I like the way Oahu makes me feel rooted to the land, the sea, the air, the people, the earth. I’ve not experienced such a sense of kinship in a land as I do here (well maybe in Africa). The generous sun spreads tolerance and good will, though there are signs posted, here and there, protesting the proliferation of large hotels and agitating for separatism.

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Mainland Chinese troop through the shopping arcades and malls behind a guide, and emerge from the high-end designer stores burdened with  bags. They shop for designer originals. We, on the other hand, buy designer knock-offs from the Chinese. It all makes some weird kind of sense.

Oahu


Turtle Bay, Oahu, Hawaii, is loud with waves  that first appear like long folds on the  ocean. I sit on my lanai overlooking the mighty Pacific rolling in sonorous waves, ten, twenty, thirty feet high, majestic, slow, taking their time to crest and unfold in a rich white froth, leaving behind their advance a royal carpet of white leopard spots.

 

Migrating hunchback whales spout and breach. A pack of surfers bobs in the swells. Two mynah birds look in on me and fly back to their fronds in the coconut palm. I tour Oahu in a convertible, marveling at the mountain cones, so steep, so inaccessible, so green. Georgia O’Keeffe painted them and now I can never see them without seeing them through her eyes.

This is a photograph, and reminds me how my fingers itched the whole time I was driving and watching these mountains unfolding. My fingers itched to be holding a brush and moving it across a huge sheet of heavy watercolor paper. They still itch. Only I need to wait until tomorrow.

And this is Georgia O’Keeffe’s reading of the mountains, at once representationally “accurate” and entirely idiosyncratic, passed through  her gynocomorphic filter.

I stop at one of the dozen shrimp shacks for a plate of grilled shrimp, snatched fresh out of a breeding pond from under the eyes of outraged egrets.While snapping the heads off the shrimp and cracking their greasy shells, I study a lizard crawling  up a pipe.

The colors are searing in the powerful light. All around me, people are be-heading, de-veining, de-shelling shrimp and talking about tagging turtles, counting whales, the cost of property, the flies, the afternoon’s game results. I like this island with its gentle manners. I like it when boys call me “Auntie” and grizzled surfers pocket joints a store clerk slips into their hands as they saunter past him, in front of the all-night market, so very cool and nonchalant. I like the sound of “Aloha” and “Mahalo” and the later, as I swim my daily kilometer, the quiet, dignified way my fellow swimmers slide through the waves and the surfboard walkers paddle by, their eyes intent on the horizon, their feet flat against the surface of their thin boards, dipping the blade of their long oar into the water without making a splash. A fish pulls against the surface water , dragging a V of ripples in its trail.

 

I gorge on passion fruit, rambutan, star fruit, guava, papaya, pineapple, lychee, and small bananas from roadside stands.

A giant turtle swims with me in the sheltered inlet ringed by sand the color of my daughter’s shoulder. Time stretches along with the shadows under the banyan tree.

Two pregnant girls come to the Christmas bush at the exact moment I do. They lay a wreath on the stump barely visible on this photo, and then strike poses against the bush, so that I have to amuse myself photographing leaves and storm drain covers and more leaves as I wait for the to move on to another setting so that I get a clear shot of the bush.

Later, in one of the many botanical gardens, I admire the subtle palette of the eucalyptus tree and the ferocious aggression of tropical plants, opportunistically colonizing anything to hand: fig trees and dirt and stumps and piggy backing on each other , making huge, fleshy leaves to trap the photons and turn them into brilliant green and pack the air with oxygen and shelter swarms of extremely light and silent mosquitoes that are preternaturally nimble, drawing blood as if in passing and leaving behind a fiery itch that in a few hours will swell into entire cordilleras of desperately itching bumps running from ankle to thigh and wrist to shoulder.

The insects drive me from plant to plant, so I choose not to read the signs so that I can at least snap some quick shots. I get careless with the focus.

The reds don’t so much pop out as shout, demanding admiration.

I am happy to oblige them. They are so clever in taking such fascinating forms and doing such inventive things with their stalks and stamens.

There’s not much of a twilight: maybe half an hour, tops. But that half hour is a miracle of effects every bit as breath-catching as fireworks. I like it when the light is fading from the garish brilliance into something muted and transparent, like Da Vinci’s famous sfumato that the restores of his Virgin and Child and St. Anne at the Louvre

ruined, according to some critics, by going at their work with far too much zeal.  Enchanting Oahu.

Back under the Tuscan Sky


First, there was a smear of light and then the moon burst through the mist, and now, my second night on the outskirts of San Gimignano, listening to Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (The Tolstoy scene) , I am eye to eye with the full moon, flanked by Venus, both of them in the upper right corner of the window. I kept waking up last night to watch the moon’s white light washing the hills and valleys.

I am home again, and have just left home,

and another home before that. I’m restless, driven by the sense that life is short, that there is everything to learn yet, everything to see, and so much to experience. The sad thing is that this restlessness cuts me off from the people who are closest to my soul and heart, and so there are halos of hollowness around the core of my soul and , in my heart, a scooped out feeling, like the center of a cantaloupe when you’ve scraped out the seeds.

 

In New York, over breakfast is the best time to talk with my mother, after she’s pushed her hearing aid deep into her left ear. Since June, her hearing has gone from bad to worse, so now she can only tell what I’m saying if I put my lips right up against her ear and talk in a normal volume. The tumor that had grown on her right aural nerve twenty-five years ago left her deaf on that ear and gradually, after the surgery which was otherwise successful, the other ear has been fading. She can hear her toy poodle, Pika, barking that high-pitched, ear-splitting little dog bark every time the phone rings or someone’s at the door.  But she doesn’t hear me when I come in at night or get up in the morning, and I touch her gently on the shoulder so as not to startle her, and give her a kiss and tell her, in her ear, that I love her.

My mother’s homelessness did not really, deeply, end until my father died. She found the closest thing to a home in NYC, since the 1960s. Cosmopolitan NY, jam-packed with rootless immigrants, a cacophony of languages, smells, skin colors, hair textures, big lips, little lips, round ears, long ears, round bodies, hard bodies, scars from wars, from facelifts; elegant, sloppy, zhlubby, preppy, nerdy, clothes; madmen picking at themselves, old women with  brushes tangled into hair: that NYC made my mother welcome, and she opened up her heart to it and loves it to this day. I could never pry my mother from NY.

While my father was alive, she was ill at ease at home, in the apartment she found for us on the Upper West Side, because:he needed quiet. He needed to vent. He needed to worry. He needed tending, feeding, nurturing, proof reading, soothing.  He was an active volcano. In a good and a bad sense. He was gregarious outside the home, and pathologically private at home. That meant that guests were not welcome. My sister and I were guests once we left to start our own lives. When we came back for visits, he was jealous of the time my mother spent with us, and we introduced disorder, discord, and a distraction. For all that, he loved us all deeply; he was just too “high-strung” too “fine tuned” for family life. When, at last, he died, peacefully, peace came to my mother too. I suppose that is sad. She had always dreamed of a home life, like the one she remembered from her childhood and adolescence:  guests, children, relatives, acquaintances, colleagues, friends, needy strangers. The walls of home were a semipermeable membrane: they kept the growing children in, and brought the world to the dining room table.

One day in June of 1961, on her first visit back to Ljubljana since May 1945 — when she had fled and lost everything (home, friends, family,  future, language, culture, books, photographs) — Nina was walking down Poljanska street, in the old neighborhood, feeling, she says, like a ghost: invisible, detached, a specter from another world. A tiny old lady in a black coat that had once fit, a pre-war hat and shoes so worn that they made her legs bowlegged, stopped her timidly. “Forgive me, madam,” she said, using the polite plural. “Can you point me to X street?” Without thinking, my mother said, “I am so sorry, madam, but I am not from these parts.” At that moment, she realized with irreversible finality, that she had lost irrevocably the sense of “home”. She still had her mother then, and sisters and nephews and cousins and old friends, but all those ties put together did not  add up to home.

This homelessness is a dilemma to her now, when she thinks about where she wants to be buried. It was not an issue for my father. In the last year of his life, as he slipped farther and farther back into his past, he longed to go home, and we knew that this was not the home on Riverside Drive, but the one far away, in Bela Krajna– in Semič, Črnomelj, Metilka, Novo Mesto.

I now remember his old Teta Anka, ancient aunt to him then, but no older than he was on the threshold of his own death. Her eyes too had also once been green and gradually faded with the decades until they were nearly white, as my father’s were, and as mine will one day be, provided I live long enough.

Teta Anka used to sit at the table in the kitchen and, on warm days, outside under the chestnut tree, at the stone table, breaking pieces of stale bread into a glass of wine and eating them with a spoon.  On holidays the family slaughtered a lamb or a suckling pig and roasted it on a spit outside, roasted it  until  its skin crackled and it took on the smell of  cherry wood. There were bowls of žlinkrofi — dumplings with chopped liver — and boiled potatoes with butter and parsley and vlečena potica (for a list of typical foods from Bela Krajna, see: http://www2.arnes.si/~ssnmcrnom5/bela/ngrgur/index.htm) This, in short, was the home to which he longed to return.

 


When my father’s father died of lung cancer–not surprisingly after a lifetime of smoking Turkish cigarettes on top of being gassed in the trenches of World War I — my mother consoled him by making his favorite childhood foods. These were all very complicated and heavy to digest, but they soothed him in his grief. For two years we age buckwheat groats with cracklings(žganci) and blood sausages with sauerkraut (krvave klobase) and all the dishes listed above.

I wish I had thought of asking him why his father’s death was so devastating. What had those two men left unresolved? What had they not said to each other that last summer together in Trieste, when my grandfather had finally wrestled a visa from the Yugoslav authorities? I remember him as a thin, tall man, bald, with round eyes, and a blue vein that stood out on his left temple. He had freckles, like my Uncle Drago, and he knew everything there was to know about plants.  He took my sister and me on long walks and pulled leaves off trees and bushes and showed us the edges — smooth or jagged, serrated or lobular– and pointed out the bark and the shape of the plants. He plucked some leaves off a bush, one day, and rolled them in the palm of his hand until they turned to mush, and then had me run my hand over it. It felt coarse like sandpaper. He called it the “razor shrub” because it was like a beard in need of a razor.  He cut willow twigs and  bent them and tied them together with grasses to make little huts for us. He liked spending time with us: maybe because we were his only granddaughters;maybe because he knew he was dying, and he had so longed to meet us and get to know us. I was very fond of him.

Among my father’s things, I found a diary my grandfather had kept during WWI,  written in a beautiful, neat hand, in ink, without a single crossing out or blot. It’s waiting for me at home.

 

 

My mother never really got a chance to express the full range of her culinary prowess until the 1960s. In Italy there wasn’t enough money for more than the basics: jota — the Istrian bean/sauerkraut/sausage/elbow macaroni soup in winter, a meal in itself; prežgana župa –‘burnt’ soup, on empty pantry and wallet days, which involved browning flour in butter, adding cold water, rye seeds, a bay leaf, and salt, then stirring carefully to prevent lumps from forming, and finally, breaking an egg into the hot broth. It was easy on the stomach, and so light you barely knew you’d eaten. There was beef broth on better days, with crepe noodles, or fresh noodles, or rice. Minestra. Goulash, beef or veal. Chicken was a big deal. Fried sardines. Fried potatoes. Radicchio. Sometimes veal cutlets. Sometimes the detestable liver. Lots of polenta. Gnocchi – the best were sweet, stuffed with plums, sugar and cinnamon and drenched in melted butter. These were all staples that my mother’d learned from her mother,  typical Adriatic dishes.

In the last decade of her marriage, my mother  came across a Slovene cookbook she’d completely forgotten about for decades. It was published after ‘The War” and its recipes are simplicity itself — nothing like the complicated multiple step rocket-science things that bloat cookbooks today. The author assumed a basic repertoire of skills, a lot of common sense, and a background of growing up around cooks. There are menus for each day of the year, from breakfast through dinner, and nothing repeats. Staggering. Impressive. And my mother’s meals are operatic arias, subtle, balanced, harmonious, with lively counterpoint of flavorings and textures. The last years of my father’s life were culinary Nirvana.

Summertime Needs


Summertime needs:

time, sun, cool nights, starry skies, a full moon now and then and a bonfire on the beach, a loving  man, girlfriends to laugh with and talk over the big questions of life, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, prosecco, cheese, crackers, and a bowl of soup; a happy dog; inspiration; a good mystery and a challenging ‘serious” book, and poetry; music; yoga on the beach; swimming; working in the garden; hanging out with mom and sister and the kids; a good glass of wine; painting; the sound of waves; birds at the feeder; crickets; deep skies and scuttling clouds; a pair of sandals; health; good sleep; lots of guests; new friends; old friends; singing, laughter; sharing sharing sharing!

September has less than a week to go, and I look back on the most wonderful summer in years, filled with family and friends, and  time alone to reflect and work and breathe. I am grateful to you all who’ve made this such a beautiful summer and provided the cushion of love and trust and support so that those days when I was low, I always felt the power and strength of your kindness to me and your love for me.

I think of you all as my own “Starbabies”, like those of my daughter that were made twenty years ago by a woman whose name I’ve now forgotten. She used to sell them at the Nehalem Arts and Crafts Fair every August and we were very sad when, one year, wanderlust carried her off to new experiences.

I am grateful to my feet, whom I finally offered some respect and good sense by putting them into a hideous pair of walking shoes to hike the woodland trails.

They took me from Portland to San Gimignano, to Florence and Certaldo, to Paris and  New York and Chicago,  Manzanita and Albuquerque, Elizaville, Seattle, CleEllum, Bend and Ashland.

From NYC’s West Side Highway, in July, with a full moon hanging out over the Car Wash, to a nameless cove of black sand in Western Oregon

my feet carried me, and I am grateful to them for enduring, persevering, doing their part to ensure that my eyes would see new sights, and my ears hear some of the infinite sounds of the universe, and my nose smell everything from the lemony sharpness of Indian Paintbrush


to the honeyed sweetness of a ripe, fuzzy peach, daring me to eat;

bringing my fingers  within reach of tree moss in a rain forest

and my tongue to the creamy coldness of an ice cream sundae, Tuscan style, on the hot Piazza Cisterna in San Gimignano, with my mother at my side, and a growing number of performance artists mimicking tourists, watched by tourists.And today, the crowning joy of meeting my daughter at the airport, a year, two weeks and three days after her last visit home, the squeals of joy, the laughter, the words tumbling every which way, all distance and separation forgotten, picking up where we last left off as though we had never been apart!

And her father’s generosity to me in picking up the tab on the gardener’s bill, unbidden, and inviting me to redo the cottage on the beach, on his penny, so that we might all continue to reunite in that tiny house that wraps itself around us and keeps our memories and good times dry,  safe, and sound.

Some days are magic!