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Later that month….


Here’s what’s been going on in my body and soul the last fourteen days.

I came down with giardia, which I only just diagnosed.  For  ten days I blamed my detox regime for the  sluggishness and lack of appetite and the weird waves of the sort of euphoria that  accompanies the body’s being taken over by a virus. I suspect, without any scientific basis whatsoever, that the “high” I feel a few days before flu symptoms appear is  connected to the fiesta fever of  noxious microorganisms partying in the hospitable environment of my cells.  This time, though, the “high” presented as a heightened sensitivity to color and form, a sharpening of vision and an odd lexical alacrity. Words I hadn’t used in years, and certainly not in the context of Tuscan life, bubbled to the surface of perfectly banal conversations.

But detoxing couldn’t explain all the other symptoms.

The aha moment came on a walk with Ilona, the woman I’ve befriended who lives up the street, and whom I call  Diana-and-the-hounds, in honor of the two white German shepherd bitches she keeps by her side at all times. We stopped on  the dyke overlooking the lake chorusing with frogs. I had one of those body memory moments, when the cells bombard the cognitive part of the brain with the bulletin: you’ve had this metal-in-the-mouth, sand-papered-stomach, no-appetite, nausea, loose bowels, malaise, and chronic fatigue before, buster. Neahkahnie. 1990. Spring. AAAAH- HA! Giardia!

Thanks to the Giardia Club website <http://giardiaclub.com/giardia-symptoms.html&gt; , accurate diagnosis confirmed and re-confirmed a few minutes later by the Doc, who sent me to the farmacia with a prescription for a protozoacide. Not much progress  yet. The one good thing about giarida is that you lose weight rapidly, since you don’t feel like eating and everything you do get down goes straight into the hungry mouths of the little suckers lining your entire alimentary canal. I can just hear them munching and slurping down there. I’ve dropped 2 kilos in ten days. How’s that for swift slimmin’?

I’m a regular in the vivaio (nursery) across from PAM, where I’ve bought endless flats of geranium, daisies, lobelia, vegetables, etc.  There were no raspberry plants.  Instead lassooed a datura, misnamed, of course (it’s actually a brugmansia, but that distinction is evidently of rather recent vintage). I’ve always loved their extravagant and fragrant blooms, not realizing how very toxic — in various ways– are the parts of this plant. We’ll see how it does.

 

Postoffice closed through Wed morning, thanks to May 1st “ponte” holiday. “Ponte” or “bridge” refers to amplified holidays during which all of Italy is on the road, and all business are closed, thereby eliminating any rational motive for the massive migration of peoples. Cars circle endlessly until arrested by a snag in the traffic, at which point all exit  vehicles, unpack multi-course meals, and carry on — eating, drinking, arguing, and sleeping — as if in the privacy of their own homes. Tourists innocently park cars in seemingly permissible stretches of weed alongside country lanes and return from sightseeing, several hours later, to find their windshields plastered with pink fines. I am opting to stay put, holding out for late afternoon lull in rain to go for my customary ramble in the woods, groves, meadows, and dales, perchance to spot a shy deer, find a porcupine quill, and, god forbid, rouse a boar.

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Spring cleaning of the soul


I’ve shut down to do spring cleaning of the soul.

It started with the visit to the Grotta Giusti, with a  descent into the Dantean Paradiso, Purgatorio, and Inferno of the spa’s chthonic chambers. The caves wind down into the center of the earth (of course!), lit by spots that throw monstrous shadows on the corrugated walls and ceiling. The footing is slippery and slick from the drip of condensation and the hundreds of slippered feet shuffling this way the last one hundred-and-fifty years. It’s nothing as dramatic or terrifying as the Carlsbad Caverns  of New Mexico, which are petrified and crystallized into the negative of premillennial pounding surf.  There are also no bats.

There is a kind of strange mold growing on some of the rock faces, probably stimulated by the weak photons emanating from the electric lights. At either end there is a deep well of brilliant blue water whose surface is disturbed at very long intervals by a drop that slowly forms until it grows too heavy for whatever forces hold water molecules together, detaches from the ceiling, and lands with a solid plop. Wooden folding chairs are set at various intervals for those wishing to meditate or collapse. I did so in “Inferno,”  tucking myself  into the  antique chaise longe that was most deeply set into the overhang so that I was cocooned with porous rock. A large clock faced me. I propped my feet up on a low stool, thoughtfully provided, leaned back, and closed my eyes. The heavy canvas robe felt protective on my bare skin. The hood fell low over my eyes, and my hands, tucked deep into opposite sleeves, were as secure as the arms of a lunatic in a straitjacket.

The silence seemed complete. The electric clock – unlike the one in my kitchen in Il Pianerottolo — did not click. The air felt heavy and exceptionally soft, soothing, and filled with something I couldn’t really identify. Bit by bit sounds began to emerge out of the silence.  A slight creak of the chair joints. A distant drip, drip, drip. The surf sound that’s always inside my ears. The thump, thump, thump that turned out to be my heart doing its work. A light stirring sound, that might have been air shifting microscopically as someone entered the grotto a half mile away. I felt myself  — my “Self “– slipping away layer by layer and swirling gently into something soft, warm, glowing and dark at the same time, and profoundly restful. I don’t know how long I was in that state before the sound of someone sitting down beside me brought me out of what I now know was a profound trance. That was the start of my journey of spring cleaning.

The linfodrenaggio (or lymphatic draining) treatments stirred things up physio-chemically. Italian spas use the German Vodder method, which is somewhat more aggressive than the very light touch that I’m accustomed to.  Things began to move around and flow through my body. Fawn  then unpacked her kit of crystals and got to work at either end of Domenico’s memory retrieval exercise. I am, it turns out, quite suggestible.  I really hadn’t seen myself years ago as someone who would go in for all this sort of “processing” . I would have brushed it aside as “woo woo” New Age delusion. Now I’m not so sure. There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

For years I’ve had a sharp pain  between my shoulder blades, where wings might have sprouted on an angel. It feels as  a knife is being plunged and twisted. This is the pain I’ve known since childhood, when I would lie in the darkness of the crib in which I slept until the age of five, listening to the rise and fall of my parents’ voices in the kitchen or — once we had more than just the kitchen and the bedroom — in some other room of the apartment.  First their voices were a hum, alternating between the deep baritone of my father and my mother’s soft contralto. Then the baritone swelled and rose in volume and resolved  into a sharp  clap of thunder. That was the signal for the fusillade to follow: an increasingly violent, percussive series, spitting out rage, words filled with “rrrrr’s” , rhetorical questions extorting from my  mother — futile, mollifying replies, filled with tears and imploration. The night thickened around me and I lay rigid, listening to the  volley. My father’s accusations  my mother’s incoherent explanations, father’s challenges, mother’s timid solutions, each exchange inflaming him to greater fury, fueling his wrath and — I now know, but then felt with the child’s profound wisdom — his tragic sense of helplessness, his grief and protest against a world opposing his will at every step and turn, intractable to his desires and his own life plan. What could my mother do in the face of such despair? What could he do but rail against the gentle woman he had wooed, pursued to death’s door, and married and loved as he loved his own soul? The pain in my back grew white-hot, my arms and legs ached with the strain of trying to make it all stop, make them stop and realize that the answer was not in turning against each other, but in agreeing that yes, the world had let them down, big time, and left them with only their brains, hands, and love to shape their tiny piece of the universe into Eden.

It never happened that I made them stop. I don’t know, really, or don’t remember, how those violent explosions suddenly ended. The silence that followed was even more terrifying. I was afraid they had died; that someone had died. Then the sound of my mother’s weeping came to me. I was relieved to hear her cry.  I was relieved to hear her cry. Her quiet sobs of despair came to me as a happy sign that she was alive. And the knife turned in my back. Where were my father’s tears? Had he used them all up in his anger? Had his despair burned away in the auto-da-fé of his wrath? Pity for them both ringed my eyes, but I didn’t cry, not then, in my crib, not twenty years later, at 560 RSD, when the ritual continued to repeat itself, always with the same impact on me, until December 28th, of the year before he died, when my father’s titanic rage took him to the psychiatric ward of St. Luke’s Hospital.

I left home and chose to move 2,978 miles west to insulate myself from the rhythm of these outbursts and the knife in the back.

When, in 1980, I met the man who would become the father of my daughter, he took me, on our first date, to see a film called “A Knife in the Head” (1978 Messer im Kopf, dir. Reinhard Hauff, starring Bruno Ganz).

Intuitively sensing the spot where my soul pain centered, my mother would quiet my unstoppable crying fits, brought on by not getting my way, by turning an invisible lever in my back, between my shoulder blades. I realized this connection when Fawn did her third “treatment.”

My sleep, this week, has been wretched. The April rains have come, and with them, an insidious damp cold that these thick stone walls and tile floors amplify. The paths across the fields are liquid mud. When I walk the dog, my rubber boots collect huge chunks of Tuscan clay and I drag them through the tall grass to clean them. THe clay is so heavy it pulls my boots clean off my feet. I need a brisk walk to get the blood flowing and fire up the inner furnace.

In my sleep, my mouth falls open. My teeth dry out and the lining of my mouth turns into sandpaper. My bones and joints ache. My dreams turn this into a crippling weakness that make it impossible for me to walk. I struggle to get to the lecture hall to deliver a lecture on a topic I prepared years ago. I think it’s in my laptop, which I left where? In my office? in the lecture hall on the podium? It’s an agony to drag myself from one place to another, to fumble with keys, squinting in the dark and groping to insert the key — always the wrong one — into the lock. Students have read the lecture from my laptop, and no one wants to listen to me deliver it. I have no microphone and my voice is barely audible to me. Evaluators are sitting in the far corner, grading my performance. I am washed up. Done. Put out to pasture. I can barely walk out of the building, more ancient than the ancient mother of a colleague who, in the meantime, has parlayed her position into a promotion, a luxe apartment with a chef, a maid, and a dozen perks. I meet up with the “man in my life” and he mocks me in my decrepitude and tells me all those “quality women” he’s been meeting and dating have pushed me out of his life. I see my father’s handsome profile somewhere in all this and am suddenly sad because I know, in my dream, that one day he will die. I have nowhere to sleep. Someone’s relative was given the bed in my room and now the sheets are filled with stray black hair and damp with his sweat. The balcony, shaped like a walnut-shell, takes up most of the small house. There is nowhere to store the pieces of Lego’s and ToyMobiles my daughter’s collected that I must put away. Too many stairs. Should I fly to Chicago and buy a skirt set? I can’t walk. I can’t talk. No one wants to love me.  I get up six or seven times in the course of this miserable night, each time to pee, drink water, and collapse back into  bed. This is my psychic equivalent of picking the splinters and slivers of past traumas out of the living soul.

 

How many more nights like this before my soul’s house is in order?

Easter!


Stiff wind raking  pines,

heavy clouds, distant thunder,

rain,

dark patches multiplying on the flagstones,

lizard peering out of flowerpot, I am

restless

sensing another life beginning.

 

BACK!


 

I’ve been waiting for them to return, and today they’re back: the swallows of San Gimignano, darting impatiently from cypress to rafters, singing, conceptualizing their new nests. There’s also a full moon, and  a full-throated chorus of toads, and the vines are putting out their first leaves and the cuckoo is not yet back.

Life is sweet.

Strange things…


It happened again when I picked up Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Knopf 2011), a book I’d seen on the shelf in my apartment since last fall, but resisted reading because the back cover blurbs were hyperbolic and the author is roughly my daughter’s age. Reading published authors – especially celebrated published authors –who are half my age, is something I really, really abhor doing. A tightness spreads from deep inside my gut and moves up to my lungs and then rams into my heart, and I’m having a panic attack . My brain puts on a slide show of the passing years in reverse, focusing on the wreckage of projects begun and abandoned by the side of my life’s road. My eyes turn inward and I see myself shrinking to the scale of an amoeba, which is about how  I rank my “significant accomplishments.” I despair of ever having the kind of flashes of brilliance that somebody like Karen Russell shows so early in life. Where do these young writers pick up their insights into the soul and into the secret chambers of life? Where, in fact, do writers mine their knowledge? The longer I live, the more I marvel at the miracle of human creativity: in music, painting, architecture, fashion, cooking, writing, engineering. Where do  these bursts of inspiration come from? How do these people tap into the strength of character and will to  snatch those  fugitive sparks of brilliance, and use them to turn the dead wood of words and paint and bricks into a flame of life?

Karen Russell: your book  bowled me over, perspectival tricks and narrative ruses and scaffolding  myths, and most of all: your characters! EXTRA: not since Nabokov (fall 1976 to summer 1977) have I met more unfamiliar words and more syntactical twists that eject me from the ruts of repetitive structures into entirely new combinatorial possibilities that let me see the pieces of the world making sense in new ways. Your metaphors are zany and proliferate like the Melaleuca quinquenervia the Army Corps of Engineers introduced into the Everglades  that you use as your setting.

I don’t get half of them as I race through the chapters, and I’ve dog-eared most of the pages for the next time I  read your book  more slowly, with a dictionary and Google on hand. You trust me ( your reader) to be up to the challenge of keeping up with you. You withhold information that any creative writing teacher will tell you needs to go up front. Still,   you get me to trust you, so that I “let” you tell me in your own way and in your own good time everything that I need to know (plus more). You tease me into speculating about what you might be driving at, and you give me the fabulous treat of letting me fill in the blanks. The brain, as the “man in my life” always says, loves to solve problems. You, Karen Russell, give my  brain what it loves.

For four  days Swamplandia! lived with me. I read it over breakfast,  lunch,  tea,  dinner, and  at bedtime I jumped under the sheets with it like a horny teenager. . I slept with it right next to me. I dreamed the book, the characters  growing into my dream life and when I opened the book again in the morning, I had to backtrack to the point where my dreams had taken off to touch base with the world Karen Russell was creating and keep it distinct from the one  in my subconscious.

Books with the power to do that to a reader are rare.  The writer who can use words to such great effect is a  magician. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve fallen under the spell of a book. This one put me under. I’m sorry there’s not more to it. Karen Russell: what happens next? I want more!!!!!

So I go to you-tube for a recording of your first book so I can listen to it while working on my next painting. But the woman  reading St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves has  that high-pitched, little-girl-silly voice that all American women are adopting (for God knows what reason!?!!) that  I can’t bear.

What I’m actually avoiding writing about is the bizarre conversation I had last night on the phone with “the man in my life”, whom I called on impulse as I hovered over the giant sheet of watercolor paper waiting for the ink to dry. I had the impression of a person actively resisting me, saying all the right things that on paper would signal that yes, I am deeply loved, respected, cherished even. But all that was said through clenched teeth, without a smile, without joy, through a lead shield of resentment. Maybe he’s afraid of me? Maybe he thinks of me as toxic? Maybe I should just stick with my resolution to keep away from him and stop intruding in his life?

The fellow tells me about all the women he’s dating, “quality women,” successful professionals in responsible positions making good money, living in big houses, wishing he’d not move so slow. He tells me he’s having a good time, that he’s happy. He says he’s happy for me as a “human being” because I am doing what I have longed to do and I am at peace, but the tone of his voice says something else entirely. He tells his clients that he trusts human beings to do the right thing, but he constantly tells me he doesn’t trust me. He wraps up the conversation by telling me what deep pain he feels when he talks to me. I struggle to make sense of all the contradictions and finally have to admit that it’s all about perpetuating the contradictions of his childhood, the discrepancy between the words and the deeds,  and the paralyzing power of double-binding. In reaching out to him, I am replaying the same dogged reaching out of the child-me to my father, who handed out disapproval and denial like preventative medicine.

Why, he wants to know, do I choose to be so far away from him? The number of miles indexes the force of the fear he inspires in me. In his case, what I fear is the toxic drip of his distrust and disapproval. I hate that sting of his disapproval and distrust. And I also need to experience it, over and over again, like St. Francis of Assisi experiencing his love for the Christ through the pain of his stigmata. Roman Catholicism taught me to love  pain — my own pain — by promoting it as beauty in every  mural, painting, sculpture, and icon in every church, chapel, basilica, and cathedral I’ve ever visited in my life.

Maybe, and this one I have to think about, there’s something useful about this Catholic fixation with the pragmatics of pain. As a chronic Pollyanna who tries to see the sunny side of every dark hole, I sure hope so. I was thinking about this at Palm Sunday Mass while I was studying the frescoes in the San G Duomo that are all about suffering, pain, self-sacrifice, penance, expiation… starting with God having his own — and only — Son murdered. What’s with the filiocide? And how does this “logic” of pressuring people into being “good” by guilting them about Christ’s martyrdom actually work?

Paraskeva, aka “Suocera” (mother-in-law), has been doing a bang-up job scraping calcare from the bathroom walls and fixtures. Tomorrow will the third day of this work. I pick her up at 11, stop at the Cooperativa for supplies, and install her in the main house. Years and years of grime are coming off the walls of this old house. Spring air is moving through the rooms, the armoires, drawers, under the beds, behind the frames, slipping into the new cracks spidering across the plaster.

 

As I’m falling asleep, I’d best wrap this up before I wander off into some penumbral state …

A waste of time…and money


I run after my thoughts,, but they scatter and take off faster than I can catch up with them. There they go, bobbing and weaving in the distance while  I stumble along, waving my butterfly net and catching air , disgusted that instead of clearing a space in the time clutter of my day to lure them to this page, I’ve been running errands, and not even complete errands, but pieces of errands and deviant sidelines of errands shooting off from the main line into thickets of the superfluous.

I drew up a list of things I intended to do on my run up to Florence today, and by the time it was all over, half of them dropped off the cliff, and now I’ll need to do another drive, another day. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s not all that important or even necessary to supply throws for the bedrooms,  another frying pan for my kitchen, a strong light for the drawing table, and maybe a tabouret for the paints, and a composting bin, and candles and a vase to replace the one that got chipped when the wind heaved against the branches of cherry blossoms and knocked the tippy vase on its side on the granite pavers. None of that warrants another drive up Si-Fi and A-1 (Roma-Bologna). tolls and  gas, which now costs 69 Euro per tank of this supposedly  “fuel-efficient” VW economy car I leased for  four months.

What a contrast today is  to yesterday’s Palm Sunday with its sighting of the fox and the porcupine’s gift of a quill,  the bullfrogs’ gutteral moan rising into a roar. The pheasant, fat and resplendent in his Renaissance plumage, explodes from the underbrush and I shy like a skittish horse. A hawk dives across my path so close I can see the mouse that’s dangling from his beak.  I carefully step across a  triple line of ants intent on their urgent business, whatever it may be,the incoming ones sidestepping to avoid their outgoing comrades, brushing antennas in passing, entomological equivalents of hi-fives. Yesterday was all about being present, attending.

That focus gave me the energy to write, to make a large ink and watercolor drawing that turned out well. But today everything was off kilter. I slept longer than I had planned, attended to the mail and finally locked the gate behind me at noon, which meant that I arrived in Florence just minutes before the “fine” shops closed for lunch.

I parked the car in the garage beneath the Central Market, climbed the stairs through a miasma of stale piss, and ignored the middle age man relieving himself against the wall. (Pissing men were the theme du jour: there were enough to warrant keeping count, including a companionable pair carrying on a spirited conversation by the side of the road while pissing as cars whipped past them.) All that male pissing made me even more uncomfortable with my own bladder, which begged to be relieved as I pushed through the stalls of scarves, gloves, leather jackets, handbags, and Tuscan pottery. I saw my chance when I bumped into an elegant woman exiting a crowded cafe and intuitively knew that she had done the female equivalent of side-of-the-road micturating. Men do it in the road. Women use the toilets of cafes, hotels, and restaurants.

Because the place was crowded, I made the  assumption the waiters wouldn’t notice my heading to the back of the establishment. But I was wrong. The owner stormed after me, lecturing me on the etiquette of peeing without patronizing.  If I’d been younger, I would have been mortified, but  at my age, I am insulated from vanity. Whom do I need to impress? Japanese tourists in deep culture shock? Overweight Americans  lining the street map up with the sights outside the window?   The waiters?

Nobody. Myself. Miss Dry Panties 2012!

Yesterday the sky was so blue it frightened me with the riddle of an eternity my brain is not engineered to grasp. When I walk over these hills, my mind goes blank. I am a sensorium. Ears listening. Eyes watching. Nose smelling. Skin sensing. Tongue tasting. My feet perform Olympic feats of balancing, propelling, supporting, rolling from heel to toe on the dusty paths. The soil is cracked down to bedrock, like the skin of Georgia O’Keeffe.

I make it to the shop: Bojole! Just where it’s always been. The lights inside have been turned off. An East Indian with a bad complexion grins up from his bucket of yellow paint which he’s applying to the wall above the entrance, and tells me to come back in three hours.

Bad timing.

Ten days or so ago…


March 23, 2012

I’ve skated over the name day of my maternal grandfather, Joža Lovrenčič. Every year, when the feast day of Saint Joseph came around in pre WW II Ljubljana, Joža put on his “salon” attire: (salonska obleka) : tails, fine cambric shirt, poetically knotted silk tie, cufflinks, pressed, striped trousers and light, lacquered shoes and prepared to receive well wishers.  Antonia, his wife, had ordered many cakes, pastries, and cookies from the city’s finest confectioner. All the vases in the house were filled with spring flowers. The children dressed in their Sunday best: the girls all in navy blue sailor dresses, the son in a navy sailor shirt and pants. Antonia pinned up her long, dark hair in a heavy bun at the nape of her neck. The dark colors of her silk dress brought out the olive of her eyes and the fine alabaster of her skin. In her ears were the heavy gold hoops with four gold balls on each that I now have, in the safe deposit box. I confess right here that to me she always looked like a pirate wearing those earrings because in the photograph of her that I most remember her by , she is wearing a scarf tied over her head, low over her eyebrows and knotted in the back and she is grinning rakishly at the camera. I remember her wearing that scarf , a dark, v-necked dress with sleeves rolled up to the elbows, a dark apron covering the front, and her thin – alarmingly thin feet in heel-less slippers, generally brown with a plaid lining, when she came out of the house in her tilting walk, crossing the uneven pavers through the garden to embrace us. Her eyes were always red and filling with tears. She cried and smiled at the same time. She had perfect, large white teeth and thin lips that parted in a big smile, always hovering at the point of turning into the grimace of tears.

Twenty years before those memories began to form, Antonia, on the feast of St. Joseph, welcomed her husband’s colleagues, friends, relatives, his students from the gymnasium who adored him and came with flowers and congratulations. On some years, they gathered first on the street outside the family house and serenaded their beloved professor with traditional songs, among them some whose words he had written that had passed into the canon of traditional songs

Every year of my life, since his death, on his name day, my mother Nina made a bouquet of red carnations and rosemary and set it into a vase before his portrait, and lit a candle. So too this year.

I am sitting now in a chaise longe next to a swimming pool filled with cold water on a hilltop overlooking the southern Italian town of Canosa di Puglia, where I’ve helped my friend track down the birth records of her grandmother.

The birds are in full throat, and heavy clouds are massing in the east, from the direction of the Adriatic. The place is called Cefalicchio Country House.  Set in “biodynamic” vineyards, olive groves, pastures, and gardens, the “masseria” belongs to the widow of Niccola Rossi, Canossa’s most distinguished family. Signora Rossi is a refined lady of 92, born in Athens of a mother from Rhodes (hence the extensive collection of navigation charts of the waters surrounding Rhodes in the Casa Piscina, where we lodge). She lives on the piano nobile of Palazzo Rossi in the center of town, in a sprawl of twelve-foot ceilinged rooms filled with Greek and Roman pottery, a bust of Isabella d’Aragon ( one in a line of illustrious ancestors),everywhere books (both leather- and paper-bound, the latter fragile and yellowing), mirrors, Murano chandeliers, delicate murals, tile floors, tapestries, a motorcycle helmet, and the basket of strawberries we brought.

This spot is a retreat from the taxing tour of Pompeii’s ruins yesterday, which left a heaviness of head and soul behind. The city –as – graveyard is swarming with spirits still seeking peace, disturbed after a millennium –and-a half of uneasy rest beneath tbe debris from three thick “phases” of volcanic eruption, each inflicting a distinctive kind of death (from collapsing roofs; from asphyxiation; from burial by ash). They lie, preserved in plaster of Paris casts that reproduce the precise moment of their death. We are witness to the most intimate moment in their lives, when terror exposed their absolute human frailty.

Grotta Giusti


Grotta Giusti, Monsummano Terme (Pistoia)! Finally: a real visit to a spa! A gift to myself for my leap year birthday! Guests in pink robes and white-and-pink slippers shuffling around the Beaux Arts halls and public rooms with frescoed ceilings and green Murano chandeliers! Fifty minutes in the subterranean caverns named for the chapters of Dante’s Divina Commedia: Paradiso, Purgatorio, Inferno!  We don white coarse cotton robes and, like penitential monks, descend into the torrid depths to sweat out of our pores the sinful toxins of our appetites. In the chtonic silence, we sink into an insensate delirium, losing all sense of time, space, and self. We enter into a drugged state of mind that leaves us profoundly relaxed. An hour later we sink into  padded chaises longes in a spacious lounge and sip our tisanes while studying the fleshy jungle plants clinging to the rubble wall.

What is more magnificent that a holiday at a spa? What could be lovelier than the tile murals of the graces welcoming spring? The etchings of Roman gods (Bacchus! Neptune! Zeus! Hera! ) presenting a line-up of ideal physical types.

ruin


 

Maybe because my body’s on the verge of turning into one, I’ve developed a fresh interest in ruins. After ten years of walking these hills, I find an abandoned road on the far side of the olive grove just up the hill from my house.   I follow the faint ruts through an oak copse, my boots crunching the acorns underfoot. Some broken branches lie across my path, but otherwise, the going is smooth.  There’s a touch of the sinister about the dark shadows beneath the heavy branches. Up ahead, where the thicket thins to a rash of broom, a deer is grazing. A pair of pheasants clatter up from the brush, startled by my curious poodle. And then, suddenly, around the bend, there it is: a sort of clearing, filled with a brilliant light, and the creamy yellow and warm sienna of old walls.

Up from my childhood floats the delicious feeling of entering a hidden, secret space, full of possibilities and promising free rein to the imagination. I can be anything here. I can feel the presence of the life that once flowed through these walls.

Brambles are growing up around the stones and I make my way carefully, carrying the small dog so he won’t snarl in the thorns or pick up burrs.Lizards scurry away into cracks. A  bumblebee roars past my face on is way to the wild primrose poking out of last winter’s layers of leaves.

I think of Dorka, who died two weeks ago and is now two weeks into eternity, and how much I miss those daily calls to her and taking my little insights and experiences to her, and having her listen so attentively to what I have to say, and share her own thoughts, and then cap the conversation with a ripple of jokes and a reassuring verbal hug.

i then follow my thoughts to my daughter’s father who, though kind and generous and respectful to my mother, never allowed himself to develop the sort of close relationship with her that I cultivated with his mother. He does not call her, does not make frequent visits across town to her — or even infrequent visits when actually, it would be so easy for him to do so, and it would mean so much to her to be honored by him and accorded the attention and courtesies the relationship of son-in-law (even son-outside-of-law) to mother-in-law deserves.That neglect of his rankles me still, as much for the slight to my mother as to myself and his daughter.

And never in all these years has he shown my sister’s children — his daughter’s cousins — the consistent generosity and attention that he lavishes on the children of his wife’s sister. Aside from a shared holiday here and there — the Oregon coast, the South of France — nothing. And that pains me as well. I interpret that inattentiveness as a comment on my — and my blood relations’ — value. We are not valuable, not worthy of regard (in both senses:  “being noticed” and “being taken seriously”) .

I thought of none of these things while poking around in the clearing in the oak wood. Then I was busy filling in the possibilities of rebuilding the roof, restoring the beautiful vaulted ceilings, patching the walls, putting glass in the windows, installing plumbing… electricity. The old garden still had some feral survivors: a woody rose, a sprawling prickly pear cactus, a grid of cypress, stone walls…

Spring wind


The spring wind started up in Manhattan last week and died down when the moon filled out and took up position between Mars and Venus. That, I understand, is something that rarely happens. That unusual planetary configuration, combined with the fullness of the moon, made us all nervous and a little crazy. A pipe burst in the wall between the two bathrooms in my mother’s flat on Monday morning. We had no idea. The hissing in the wall sounded exactly like the neighbor taking a shower, though it seemed to me to be a very long one. At least, I thought to myself, she’s not on her treadmill, running as she does every morning.

The front door was open, as it usually it on sunny mornings  to let in more light and air. All at once four large men burst through it. The dogs screeched in alarm. My mother, roused from her morning paper, clung to the kitchen door. When startled, she can neither see nor hear. In her mind, these four men were Gestapo  from sixty years ago, blown in by a universal ill wind.

Over the ruckus I made out, ” Leak … water… downstairs…”

Scott, the Colorado Virginian, was in the lead. Since he took over as the general manager, he has turned the two buildings into Alcatraz with his relentless micromanaging and micro-bullying of staff and residents. Signs banning various types of behaviors are constantly going up. Lucy, the housekeeper from Dominica, goes about her Sisyphean mopping intent on the number of  months, weeks, days and hours left before her retirement. Jose submits to quarterly surgery just to get away from Scott.

The General Manager has a pale, large  face pocked with scars. He rolls up his shirt sleeves to show off huge, knotty  biceps scrawled with tattoos. His voice and  bearing are a relic from the Army. Once every two weeks or so, after a feeding, he displays his six-foot python in the lobby to intimidate the parents of small children.  Quirino, the second in command, is a rotund, bald Italian from Campana, a forty-year veteran with the buildings. He can fix anything, except Scott’s temper. The other two fellows were outside contractors:  Absolute Plumbing and something starting with an “m”.

Before I could pull on my pants, they were already taking down the shower curtain, emptying the vanity, unscrewing the medicine cabinet, the dogs biting at their heels, my mother telling Scott that he is the most unpleasant man she has ever had to deal with.

Everything about the morning was wrong, especially the fact that my mother had left the door open and the dogs free to wander in the hall — this after she had just received a warning from Scott and from the Housing Office. The extreme emotion of the moment relaxed the dogs’ bowels. Instead of depositing their poop on the piddle pads, they left it right in the path of the workers, and peed in the hall. I rushed around mopping and whisking away the “Tootsie rolls” before Scott might slip on them and tighten the screws on my mom . As it is, she lost a whole week’s sleep after getting the official warnings.

My sabbatical is turning out to be the year of bathroom remodeling. First was Neahkahnie. Then — San Gimignano. Next – Portland, followed by Cabo San Lucas, and then – NYC. What else?

I thought that as long as they were tearing a hole into the  bathroom wall, we might as well try replacing the old fixtures, the tile, the vanity, the medicine cabinet, the paint job. Mirabile dictu — this is exactly what they did, which is why I delayed my departure by a week.

All this time, a steady west wind was blowing across the mid-Atlantic states, carrying the first wave of pollen that lodged in the tiny receptors of my nasal cells and told my sinuses to produce massive amounts of histamines.

By Friday , everything except the medicine cabinets and the grip bars was in place, at least in NYC. In Portland, the icon painter is still  applying white paint to the  risers, the five thousand six hundred and thirty-two feet of trim (including the baseboards and half rounds), thirty-two walls, and  ten ceilings (depending on how you count them). The window in the Neahkahnie bathroom still needs to be replaced.

The prevailing winds spend us across the Atlantic and released us roughly into the landing field in Munich. They fought us the whole way across the Alps and battered and pummeled the plane as we descended into the narrow airport of Florence. The wind at San Gimignano pruned  branches from the pines, firs, cypresses, olives and plums, sang through the trees, banged the shutters, and tore through my jet-lagged sleep before scattering the morning clouds and dispersing the veil of smoke from the fire in which the brothers Pollini burned the cuttings from their vernaccia vines.

It’s night again. The wind is still for now.