Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Blooming Heather

Last Friday I checked in with one of my favorite places in Manhattan, Fort Tryon Park. I try to get up there once a month, or at least once a season. It's a different place every time.

Two differences in particular caught my attention this trip. First, with all the leaves gone still, there were long-distance views I'd not fully appreciated before. I'm not sure why; I've been up there a few times this past winter, but for whatever reason, the views surprised me. I didn't really need to see or hear the Westside Highway more (I can get that two blocks from my house, if I want it), but even so the longer vistas fed my need for space nicely, and made familiar places seem new.
Second, when I walked through the garden, the heather - usually a supporting character - was taking its own star turn. This plot of land is called the Heather Garden in fact, and I've always appreciated its lush ground cover in the past, but most of the time other bigger, taller and more spectacular blooms have drawn my focus. This time though, except for some crocuses and what, to my inexpert eye, appear to be crocus relations, virtually the only thing blooming was the heather.

I'd forgotten how many colors it came in, to be honest. Seeing this earthy rainbow, I was reminded of drives through the Scottish Highlands, and Donegal in Ireland. The latter region is known for its multicolored tweed, and once you've seen their hills in springtime, you can guess where the inspiration came from.
I have a soft spot for heather for another reason; one of the best naps I ever had was lying, wrapped in my trench coat, on a bed of it, on the side of an Irish mountain, after I'd taken a long hike. As long as there is some barrier between its scratchy needles and your skin, the branches are remarkably springy. I slept like like a baby.
Mind you, my list of fondly remembered naps is not extensive, but this one was incredible. I'd be tempted to try in Fort Tryon, but there would probably be some objections.

It's fun how seasonal changes always seem brand-new, even as they're triggering fond memories.
Will ye go Lassie go,
And we'll all go together
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather,
We'll ye go Lassie go.
traditional Scots Song.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Favorite Books: The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin:Solvitur Ambulando: It is Solved by Walking.

The summer after I graduated from college, I drove with five friends to Seattle. There were some good reasons to go there, including the five friends, but I mostly chose it because it felt like a leap into the unknown. I'd never been there, in fact I'd never been farther west than a week in Oklahoma, so this felt like uncharted territory. For maybe the first time I knew that my life was up to me. There was no obvious next step, no roadmap for where I needed to go. Other than a general sense that I needed to support myself in some way, I had no idea what I was supposed to do. It was terrifying and thrilling.

With a detour south to Boulder so one friend could pick stuff up at her mother’s place (resulting in a blissful four day stop-over while one of the cars was repaired), we drove west. U2's Joshua Tree is the music I remember from that trip; we never got out to the places that inspired the album, but the wonder and expansion I heard in the music fit perfectly with the scenery streaming past the windows: endless stars arching over the pitch black Nebraska cornfields, the Rocky mountains painted rose and gold by the rising sun, to this day I can never hear In God's Country without picturing the buttes of Utah and a sky that just seemed bigger somehow. The whole trip was filled with a sense of space and motion unlike anything I’d ever felt before.

Then there was this book. For our shared birthday that year my mom had given me Bruce Chatwin’s memoir* The Songlines. In it she wrote "thee is obligated to love this book, because I do!" She needn’t have worried. I was instantly hooked, and the book has become one of my touchstones. People who know the it might be surprised to learn that I’ve been thinking about it recently due to my musings on home and homemaking, but I have. The premise is this; Chatwin uses his first trip to Australia - where he’s hoping to learn more about the Aboriginal beliefs known as the Songlines - as a framing story to examine some ideas he’d been playing with over his many years of travel.

I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen those notebooks, I should set down on paper a resume of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness...My two most recent notebooks were crammed with jottings taken in South Africa, where I had examined, at first hand, certain evidence on the origin of our species. What I learned there - together with what I now knew about the Songlines - seemed to confirm the conjecture I had toyed with for so long; that Natural Selection has designed us - from the structure of our brain-cells to the structure of our big toe - for a career of seasonal journeys on foot, through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert.
If this were so; if the desert were ‘home’; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigours of the desert - then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal’s imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings a prison.
(pp. 161-2)

Now don’t get me wrong; even back then I wasn't completely on board with this. Though I have yet to see a desert, and have been told its dry heat is much easier to handle than the swampy stuff I know and loathe, still, I do not think a life of wandering in one is for me. Nor am I sure I buy the idea of biological determination as he describes it. He chases his thoughts down some fascinating avenues, but I don't always agree with his conclusions. But Chatwin’s larger idea - that human beings are happiest and healthiest when nomadic - resonated deeply with me, articulating feelings that had been brewing in my brain for a while. I've returned to this book many times, and it always strikes some deep chords.

This wasn’t the Paul Gauguin move-to-paradise-and-have-lots-of-sex-with-beautiful-locals approach I was thinking about (though that fantasy had its own appeal). It wasn’t the Thoreau model of simplify-your-life-by-a-pond though it did involve sloughing off excess. It wasn’t the denunciation of the evils of civilization that many people indulge in, even if my fantasy did have me spending a lot of time in wild or rural places. I wasn’t even envisioning a true nomadic journey described by Chatwin as a consistent and traditional migration path - like the earth around the sun - where "time and space are ...dissolved around each other: a month and a stretch of road are synonymous"(p.184). (That has some appeal too, though, in a joining-the-circus sort of way). I think I was picturing something more like what Chatwin himself did, taking space and time to wander freely, physically and intellectually, as life, and his curiosity, took him where they may.

Yes, yes, I realize backpacking for a few years after college is hardly an original idea, and most of us occasionally have the fantasy of running away to see the world, my point is it was hitting me for the first time in a visceral way. I could do it if I wanted. What would stop me (certainly not Mom, I think it’s safe to say)? Maybe I would be running away from making decisions, or an adult lifestyle or some such, but Chatwin had made an interesting life from it, it wasn’t like I had any game plan right then anyway, why not give it a try for a little while? That ‘adult lifestyle’ would always be there to come back to, eventually.

Soon after setting in Seattle I heard another variation on this choice; my first boyfriend told me about friends of his who would pick apples all fall in Washington State or British Columbia, save their money, travel until it ran out, then stop wherever they were to earn more, often by selling their hand-knit sweaters. The idea of doing something like this with another person became a very appealing modification. This seemed like an experience that should be shared.

I didn’t do it though. I got to Seattle, and immediately began building a settled existence, albeit one with no long range plan. Nor do I regret that choice now, though there were times in the past I felt like I wimped out. Only recently have I begun to think that Chatwin's book was shaping my choices more than I realized. No, I didn’t want to wander the desert; green places have never "palled on" me; but the fact is, quite often, I have felt exhausted by possessions.

Probably most of us, when starting out on our adult lives, have furnished our homes in what I call the "Ya Done with That?" style. You know, the hand-me-downs, the dumpster finds, the gifts from friends upgrading their own possessions, that stuff. Well, I never stopped decorating that way. When I moved out of my first home in Seattle, I was a bit distressed to realize I now had possessions I could not move by myself (bed, couch). I lived in the same place for four years before finally getting around to painting the walls and putting up artwork. This came in handy when I decided to move to New York; two weeks after deciding to move I had tied up all strings and left Seattle for good. Lack of possessions also served me well when I arrived in New York, and moved ten times in the first three years. Once again I could carry all my possessions alone, though eventually I could no longer carry them all at once. Essentially I’ve been camping out at some level (insert gay joke here, I got nothin') my whole adult life. It’s just a little weird to realize I’ve been doing it in a single location now for ten years.

Now there are some good reasons that has happened, and many ways little decisions along the way turned into ten years of an improvised yet sedentary life in this apartment. Nor is it entirely a lack of action that has gotten me here; as I mentioned before, I’d rather look at open spaces and clean white walls then at artwork or knick-knacks I don’t like. The screaming visual and aural mayhem of city living means I like a little peace and quiet when I get home.

That said though, I have to admit my camping out (anything? I still got nothin’) might indicate a refusal to commit to this place, whether I mean this apartment, or New York in general. With the exception of the TV, bed, and computer, every other big possession is someone else’s cast-off. I’m grateful for it all, some of it is quite nice actually, but I would miss very little of it if it disappeared. And yes, there are times when it feels like some possessions own me. I have a seven foot tall oak bookcase that occasionally feels like an anchor chaining me here. Even the lease on my apartment has that effect sometimes. You have to understand, by local standards, this place is a prize. The amount I pay for the amount of space I get is a bargain, relatively speaking, and best of all, I got it without using a broker. Someone with my employment history and amount of savings would not luck out like this twice, not here. No, without a sudden windfall, new job or, I don’t know, a rich boyfriend, if I move in New York, I’m likely to be paying much more for much less, while still having roommates. So here I am, camping out in my apartment. For ten years, and counting.

So, I’m thinking about home. There’s home as state of mind (or heart, if you prefer). There’s home as location. Right now though, I’m thinking a lot about home as journey. I think it’s possible to be in motion and feel grounded. I’ve even experienced it at times. Maybe my home is relationships and life experiences more than roots. Certainly the older I get, my network of loved ones spreads farther and wider. Just visiting all of them would be pretty fantastic. I don’t think I’d want to be on permanent vacation; I like working too much, even when I’m not really sure what that work is. But motion and the bare necessities, that holds a lot of appeal.

I don’t think I’m likely to hit the open road any time soon, if ever. I’m feeling my age, for one thing. I once spent three months sleeping, and sleeping well, on a cement floor, but I’m pretty sure those days are over. Regardless though of whether I choose to make this place my home, move someplace else and make that home, or hit the open road, I know two things that can happen now, and will help. First, I need to purge some possessions, possibly even cutting a bit into the meat to be sure I've cut all the fat. Fortunately I love purging possessions. I don't even mind receiving spam email most of the time because that gives me a reason to use the delete button and the recycle bin and I love the delete button and the recycle bin.

The second step is to get moving again. My body and I are barely speaking to each other, and it's all my fault. Well, mostly my fault. I mean in a relationship there's always some give and take, right? Anyway, I'm overdue for a good long walk, and I've finally made an appointment for acupuncture, in the hopes that decades of chronic pain might finally find a solution. Movement, space and health: maybe that's where I find home.

The following is one of my favorite quotations that Chatwin shares from his notebooks.

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it... but by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill... Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.
Soren Kierkegaard, letter to Jette (1847).

*I starred the word memoir only because a few years ago, evidence arose that Chatwin may have fictionalized parts of the Australia narrative, that is, the framing story. Since this in no way affects the deeper themes I value in the book, it doesn't bother me if it is true. I do find it funny that this was one of the two books I gave my British Columbian friend, before I learned his true story. The other book I gave him, The Last Unicorn, explores questions of seeming, reality, and how they affect each other. Life is funny.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Offending the Gospels: Thoughts on St. Patrick's Day

I've shared at least one other poem of Cathal Ó Searcaigh on this blog (last St. Patrick's Day in fact), but I'm not sure I've ever given his biography. He's a poet based in Donegal, Ireland, living at the base of Mount Errigal on a farm that has been in his family for over 300 years. It makes me glad to think there are still ties like that left in Ireland, even after a history of struggle and devastation. He writes in Irish, and is seen by many as heir to a tradition of Irish nature poetry. He also happens to be openly gay, and funnily enough this also ties him to the tradition to some extent.

I saw him read the following poem a few years ago, here in New York. In Ceann Dubh Dílís/My Darkhaired Love, Ó Searcaigh has taken a traditional song of the same title and adapted it for his own use. It's not my favorite poem of his, but when he read it here he amused us all by dedicating it to the Ancient Order of Hibernians. For those who don't know, the AOH is the organization that sponsors the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade, and refuses to allow any g/l/b/t groups to march in it under their own banners. One old sweetheart went on record as saying that allowing gay people to march in the St Patrick's Day Parade would be like having Hitler march in a parade for Israel. You might be interested to know that the first St. Patrick's Day parade ever happened here in New York. There are similar celebrations now throughout Ireland, but they're a fairly recent phenomenon, having been inspired by the bacchanals in the States. All the parades in Ireland, by the way, allow l/g/b/t groups to march openly.

I don't actually get too het up about this particular issue, to be honest. I respect people who do (there will be protests and arrests today, as in previous years), but for me it feels like being refused entry to a party I didn't want to go to in the first place. Nonetheless, in honor of St. Patrick's Day, I would like to rededicate this poem to the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Ceann Dubh Dílís/My Blackhaired Love
My blackhaired love, my dear, dear, dear,
Our kiss re-opens Christ's wounds here;
But close your mouth, don't spread the word:
We offend the Gospels with our love.
You plague the local belles, my sweet;
They attempt to coax you with deceit
But you prefer my lonely kiss,
You hugging me to bring to bliss.
Lay your head my dear, dear, dear,
Lay your head on my breast here;
I'll close my mouth, no detail break-
I'd deny the Gospels for your sake.
translated by Gabrial Fitzmaurice
I happened to find a video of the poet at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yA0cOu_u6Uw
He was featured at the San Francisco International Poetry Festival. In the video he actually reads three poems, accompanied by a handsome fellow on fiddle, and the middle poem is this one; it should be easy to catch, because he pauses before each poem, and you should be able to catch the word 'dílís (pronounced DEE leesh). Seeing the video I was struck by two things: one, it's interesting to hear how traditional Irish music has influenced and/or been influenced by jazz improvisation: two, hearing Ó Searcaigh recite, I'm reminded of recordings of Yeats reading his own work; I wonder if I'm getting a glimpse of oratorical traditions the latter may have been drawing on.
Happy Saint Patrick's Day, my dears, dears, dears.
(Edit: for some reason, blogger is choosing not to honor the stanza breaks in the poem, despite repeated attempts to put them in. Forgive me, Mr Ó Searcaigh, I really did try.)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Drowning in Aloe

Above is my window box of aloe plants before I began the transplanting process last Sunday. These plants have been silently reproaching me for months, possibly years, I don't even remember now, as they've continued to multiply, each plant also growing in size. I was taking it on faith at this point that there was still soil down there; I certainly couldn't see or touch it. I know this is a desert plant, used to privation, and thus probably wasn't as bothered by the crowding as I was, but the sheer relentless fecundity of the damn things triggered all sorts of guilty feelings. There was the New York real estate reaction ('there is never enough SPACE FOR ANYTHING'), the bad parent reaction ('I can't even take care of HOUSEPLANTS') and the sorcerer's apprentice reaction ('by all that is holy, STOP REPRODUCING'). (Ever notice how guilty feelings use a lot of caps? Or is that just me?)
Sunday I finally couldn't take it any longer and decided I'd separate them until I ran out of pots or soil. I figured that would at least take the pressure off. Some expansion is better than none at all, right?
Here you see the result after I had pulled every plant out of the box and untangled their roots. See what I mean about being overwhelmed? There are well over fifty of them.
I think this is the original plant, the one that spawned all the others. It's the biggest and has the longest, thickest taproot, but maybe that just means it was in a really good location of the box (right near one corner). While it is the largest, many others come a close second. These babies have been living here for a long time.
I ran out of pots sooner than I expected, and felt like I had barely scratched the surface, so I cut up some plastic milk jugs and cola bottles to provide a few more places for potting soil. That ran out soon after, though. I could probably afford to buy some more soil and cheapo plastic pots to house the remaining aloes, but then real estate becomes a problem again in a new way; I don't know where the hell I will put them all. With the radiator still working, I can't leave plants sitting on it yet, even though it's right by a south-facing window. I'm a little wary of spreading out over too many window sills (not that there are many left) since presently there are two cats in temporary residence, and spiky plants would be no deterrent to sitting on a sill if a cat so desired. One of them, in fact, might actually enjoy knocking them to the floor. She likes doing that, especially if there's a audible crash at the end. I learned last week that aloe is actually one of the plants toxic to cats so it is simply sheer dumb luck that neither feline in residence happens to be a plant nibbler. In any case, even if there were no cats and the radiator was off for the season, there would still not be enough space for all of them. They need to leave my house.
In the photo immediately above you can see some of the twenty plants that made it into ten pots; almost everyone has to share a pot, but I figure it's still better than it was before. The photo below shows what I stuck back in the window box, and the pile of plants that just didn't fit anywhere anymore. I don't understand quite how that works; they all managed to cram into that space before, but when I tried to put them back (minus the twenty) it just didn't work. The window box doesn't look much better, does it, despite the fact that only about half the former residents returned here.
So. Anyone want some aloe plants? Obviously New York residents move to the head of the line, but I could possibly be talked into mailing some of them domestically. They travel well (desert plant, remember?); in fact that's how the first one arrived here, I believe. There may be laws about transporting plants across state lines, though, so maybe I can't do that, especially now that I've gone on record on the interwebs with my nefarious plans. Hell. I KNOW you're not allowed to do it across national borders, so my apologies to my international readers, both of you. If it were up to me, I'd send them to you in truckloads. These, by the way, are all descendants of my grandmother's aloe plants. They have relatives scattered all across the US, and for all I know maybe some of their kin have made it overseas - or at least across the border. If so though, I had nothing to do with it. Just to go on record.
The satisfaction from completing a long-neglected chore has yet to happen, obviously. Do you sense a tone of panic in this entry? Maybe just a bit. I do love these little guys, actually, and their sturdiness is part of their charm. That reminds me, they're really easy to care for, they get watered once a week at the most in warm months and once a MONTH in cold months; seriously, water them when you pay your rent/mortgage and you're done. SO easy. You don't even have to get anyone to watch them over Christmas if you leave town. OH, and you can use the gel to treat minor cuts and burns, I know some people drink the juice though I don't know how that works so don't ask me, but it's probably pretty easy to find out, I mean you could probably google 'juicing aloe' or something to learn all about it, and then you'd need to have LOTS of aloes so you always had a fresh supply, right? RIGHT?
All right, I'm not going to beg, it's unseemly. But seriously, if anyone in the greater tri-state area wants to meet me for an aloe hand-off, let me know.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Snow Day

Here was the view from my plant window on Monday morning. Turns out the class I was scheduled to model for that afternoon was cancelled, as were most classes throughout the city. We got somewhere between seven and twelve inches of snow, along with some bitterly cold winds. Yeah, I can hear the derisive Canadian snorts from here.

(Canadian Snorts might not be a bad rock band name, come to think of it. For now though I'm still sticking with the one I got via friend Jeff: Ungainly Paws.)

I was only scheduled for one three-hour class, at a convenient location, so it was already promising to be an easy day. Didn't matter, I still became ten years old again, thrilled to have a snow day. Adult concerns did enter the picture, of course. I'm supposed to get paid if a job is canceled with less than a week's notice, but I don't know if that includes snow days.

I repeat, it didn't matter. Thrilled.

To make the day still more special, there was a new sweet pea blossom. So far the vines have been rather coy, letting only one or two buds flower at a time, but it was fun to wake up to the odd juxtaposition of snow and spring flower. Many more buds are ripening now, so with any luck there will be a full explosion of blossoms before too long. Like I said in the first sweet pea entry, everything I get from it feels miraculous.