“Talking about love is like dancing about architecture.”*

(I started the rumination below about Love some time ago but couldn’t get traction. Then I got a new batch of mushrooms and……(KIDDING!!!))

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What on earth do I know of love?  What I don’t know has filled journals spanning decades.  Until I stopped because I realized one of many truths: writing about it brought me no closer to it.  Reading about it was marginally more useful, if only to discover all the other blind describing their piece of the elephant.

But yesterday, a voice said, “Write about love“ and I have learned to listen to that voice; when I don’t, I usually end up being very, very sorry.

So…….

“Talking about love is like dancing about architecture.” — Elvis Costello

What is love?

a)  Baby, don’t hurt me. b)  A battlefield.  c)  Like a rock.  d)  All you need.

Before you answer, consider this:  At first blush, English seems like a fairly stupid language.  We have one word for the condition that governs our hearts, sways our days, forges our bonds, breaks us open, makes us stronger.  One tiny four-letter word.  But that is because this one word is like J.R. Tolkien’s  The One Ring: it rules the rest by the complexity in its simplicity.  It is inevitable, impossible, invincible…. and indescribable.  Which is why I will try.

One must be very careful when one chooses to write about love.  In general, whatever you focus on tends to increase. And, like any force in the universe, love, when invited in, especially after a long wait on the porch, tends to put its feet up on your furniture, eat all your snacks, make itself comfortable, stay a while.  Love lights you up like radium, widens your field of vision, tears you apart, again.  Dangerous, heady stuff.  Not to be denied.

And from that realization, it can grow like Jack’s beanstalk: overnight.  You learn a lot.  You soften around the edges.  Food tastes better, and you begin thinking again about healthier foods because you want to be alive longer.  The sun feels deliciously warm on your skin, now sun-blocked.  Colors begin to sneak into your all-black wardrobe, like my blue-cuffed Guido shirt.  And my other Guido shirt. (!)  You become lighter than air, hotter than fire, more solid than earth, clearer than water, faster than light.  Or at least you so imagine.

You must.  Be very.  Careful.  And.  Very.  Brave.

You start to see everyone in your life — and I do mean everyone — in a new light.  Some old hurts may heal.  You find myself feeling softer, more compassionate, in general, and more loving toward certain people and situations in particular.

More importantly, you also begin being more gentle, compassionate and forgiving with yourself, giving yourself the freedom to let more peek from underneath the protective covering you know so well.  You could argue, in fact, that all love starts — though, obviously, should not stop — with self-love.  For if you do not love yourself, how can you love someone else?  If you do not know your own heart, how can you seek to know that of another?  But when you know your heart, you must be able to pole-vault and/or crash through those barriers that silence the sharing of it, especially the old ones erected for threats no longer present.  You can not let your heart be afraid.

So.  Love is not this, OR this, OR this, OR that.  Love is this, AND this, AND this, AND that.  It is all.  It is everything.  While we are limited by our own perspectives and desires, and, thus, do not see the bright and magnificent whole, we are all connected in a grand design.  And we grope and grasp to find that piece that, connected to ours, helps form a larger piece of that design.

And then one day you hear a voice; perhaps it is singing, or laughing, or maybe it just calls a name, a name that’s yours.  Or it’s been calling you all along but you let it be drowned out.  Pay attention, because you didn’t think a voice would call you again. Because you didn’t know you were meant to answer to it until that very moment.   Because it didn’t sound the way you thought it would sound.  But, finally, because it is the voice meant for you, the ears of your ears awake, and the eyes of your eyes are opened.

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The Scotland connection…

Whenever it comes out in conversation that Scotland is the one place I go on a regular basis, I get a look followed by a question disguised as a comment: “Funny, you don’t look Scottish”, noting my Asian features. So, over the years, I have honed an answer that satisfies most. I say that I go for the “Ss”: scenery, salmon, solitude, single malts, silence, short-bread, and serenity. And it’s the truth, though not in its entirety. Few wonder why, aside from the alliteration, all the inedible reasons are reflective and solitary. Now, after my last trip, I can tell the full story.

 

Once upon a time, “Over the Sea to Skye” started, not with the short ferry-ride – now replaced by a bridge — from Kyle of Lochalsh, but on Platform B, Track Two, two hours east in Inverness, the capital of the Highlands.  A noticeable transformation would take place during that train-ride: shoulders would lose their urban tension and brows their work-plowed furrows. Some attributed this magic to a quality in the light that blended lochs, land, and sky into a soothing palette of purple-grays and greens. Others swore it was in the cathedral-clouds contemplated while tea and scones were served on the gently jiggling bone-china. I believed it came from the increasing stillness — palpable even through the window-glass — beckoning with its gift of unobtrusive and undemanding companionship. Whoever was right and to what degree is unimportant: this is how enchantment always began.

 

In the year I would turn forty, I was at Inverness Station when I noticed another traveler waiting to commence that journey. She was slender, gloved, and elegantly attired. Her clothes were not only sensible for an outdoor holiday in early May, but also stylish and not particularly Scottish. As she was turned away to read the train-announcement boards, my casual look missed her face, reflecting instead off a cascade of hair the color of the burnished copper-stills at Edradour, my favorite distillery at the time. I felt no disappointment. I already knew extraordinary faces and now avoided them in the same way that a man in a life-raft will yet avoid drinking sea-water. Neither quenches their respective thirsts, and succumbing to either is only a prelude to disaster: ask any survivor. I had no interest in the distraction of even an ordinary face.

I was on my way to Skye for photography, hiking, and a tour of Talisker, whose whiskey Robert Louis Stevenson had described as “ The King o’ drinks”.  While these were not necessarily solitary activities, that was how I had wanted them to be on this trip.  Self-employment provided the ability to vagabond away periodically and so, I looked forward to multiple days of absorbing enough of Scotland to last until the next trip.  A warm bar and a long-finish single malt after a day of hill-walking were my only desires, and those would be in abundance on Skye. It was not a tactical retreat to regroup after the last extraordinary face. (For that, I had reread tales of innocence and betrayal while listening to La Traviata and Billie Holiday.)  It was a strategic move to smother a pervading loneliness by deliberately being alone, to test the theory that an excess of isolation — like piling more blankets on a feverish body — would break its hold.

My idle glance continued downward to her luggage. Next to a paint-box and travel-easel leaning against her crossed legs was a distinctive piece that converted from backpack-to-roller-to-shoulder bag. It was manufactured by a small company in the Colorado Rockies that prided itself on careful craftsmanship and hi-tech design. I knew this because my own, in a different color, was already on board the train. Bemused by the coincidence, I raised my eyes, caught by the movement of her head turning forward again.

The face was anything but dull, as I should have hoped. The individual features were unremarkable – lightly freckled cheeks, the obligatory eyes, nose, mouth – yet as quickly as my eyes completed a confirming survey and returned to the whole, the sum was still greater than the parts. I was becoming entranced by this pleasing phenomenon when a man crossed between us, his swaying sailor’s gait blinking away the spell.

Re-focusing for a last look, I saw that her attention seemed absorbed by something beyond the luggage carts and schoolboys clustered around a vending machine. Reflexively, I followed her sight-line to see……just the blank far-wall.  Swiveling back, curious, I was stunned to recognize in her expression something I couldn’t name, yet feared never finding. Propelled as if by an unseen hand, I rose and found myself, moments later, feather-light standing before her.

The eyes that rose to question the intrusion were not blue…. and I was relieved. Blue eyes had once been pheromonic and inescapable: in their thrall, I would forget that the iris was only a cover, like the atmosphere, over both the wonders and dangers beneath the surface. Blue eyes had not guaranteed more marvels than perils or more brilliance and substance in the inner-person. It had taken a succession of disappointments to inoculate myself against their draw.

These eyes, speckled with shimmering disturbances like the wakes of small boats, were light-gray. I did not — in fact, could not — look away. And as they drew me in, I felt the same sensation that had enveloped me earlier that week standing at Glenfinnan by Loch

Shiel.

Barely past sunrise, I had scanned a landscape without another human being visible yet felt their presence, constant and steady, like the stiff wind hunching low the sparse vegetation. In that glen, with its vista of amphitheater hills sloping down to the water’s surface, Bonnie Prince Charles had waited one August morning in 1745 for the Highland Clans to answer his summons. They came, too few to seed a rebellion, too many to avoid the tears, but just enough for the hope of an independent Scotland to be despair deferred. It was a place where beauty was inter-woven with sorrow for the deaths to come at Culloden the following April.  I also knew, then, that she had to be Scottish: she had Glenfinnan eyes.

Without a thought to the consequences — without any thinking – I blurted a line from a movie I had never seen but which now, improbably, emerged from my subconscious as being the only thing to say:   “The man you are not waiting for does exist.” and held my breath.

I had flung off my load of blankets and run, naked, into the unknown.

————–

We never made it to Skye.

We missed that train, the one after it, and the one after that.

By the third day we had stopped checking schedules. Or pretending we cared. The decision was effortless, like our connection: we both understood that staying with our respective original plans meant shortchanging them and ourselves. Going then or later didn’t matter: in our state of grace, Time was not a river taking away unrealized experiences: Time was a pool into which we could dip our hands and have all we needed.

We chose the obvious: an extended “intermission” at a self-catering cottage we found, after a few days of searching, on the shores of Loch Lochy for her sabbatical. The place had all that mattered: a desk with water-views for me and a large shed with skylights set up as a studio for her. It was the right size for two people who wanted to be together.  From there as a base, we could reach even as far as Mallaig and a boat-ride over to Knoydart for hiking.

Chekhov wrote that people who are happy don’t notice whether it’s Summer or Winter. While it’s true that we didn’t care about the condition of the furniture or the water-pressure of the shower, we celebrated how the early cold that year banished the swarms of Summer midges. It meant that we could sit outside late into the evening as sunset in that latitude was well past 10 p.m. in August.

Stop. 

Close your eyes and take a moment to recollect a “best day” of your life.  Now open them: I wager that, whatever the activities or people conjured up, what made it qualify is that you would change nothing about that day.   Close your eyes again and imagine having that “best day of your life” feeling every day.

Imagine also, in an instant, every day following it be its opposite.  It happened shortly after the daily sun-shower by which, we joked, the village’s clocks –and our post-lunch routine — could be set.  I would read on the couch – and invariably surrender to sleep – and she would go to the studio for a few hours.

This day, her back-and-forth between it and the kitchen, with the attendant clinking of kitchen utensils and rasping of drawer-slides, had kept me from dozing off completely. I may have mumbled a complaint in half-sleep, because she made a detour: I know that I didn’t dream the weight of her hand on my right-shoulder for balance as she leaned over. Or, more lastingly, the tickle of her breath on my ear whispering: “Sorry, sweetie, just a couple more things for tonight. Go back to sleep. I love you.” I had been pestering her to show me the watercolor – the subject a surprise – she was finishing for my birthday in a couple of weeks, and she had finally agreed to give me a preview that evening.

I woke to the insistent call of a horn, a sound incorporated into a dream of Roland at the Pass in Roncesvalles.   Getting up, going outside, and spotting, in the distance, the top of the truck from which it came, took only moments. It was just visible at the last curve and rise of the single-track road on which our grass and gravel driveway fronted. I yelled in the direction of the studio that I was going to have a look, but didn’t get – or expect – an answer: she usually wore headphones while painting, a habit from city-living and neighbors who didn’t share her musical tastes.

As I ran, shouting, the horn stopped and I saw the driver step out of the right side, wave his arms like a man doing jumping-jacks, point to something out of sight in front of the truck and disappear toward it.  I remember the unevenness of the gravel through the soles of my sneakers, but not what I was thinking. Approaching, slightly breathless from that hundred-plus yard run, I saw one of our rented Raleigh bikes and felt the nausea at the same time.

Even before reaching her, I knew by the driver’s babbling that it was too late: there was too much red on the road, and too much stillness. Reliving those next few minutes is a return dive into a world of numbness – but, blessedly, without details.

The inquest was mercifully brief, as was the subsequent trial: though the curve was old, the road was wet and the lorry-driver new and “high”. It was surmised that the weight and sway of the two wine-bottles in the string-bag hanging on the bicycle’s handlebars had unbalanced it as she swerved to avoid the oncoming — and speeding — truck. As she skidded on the loose stones, it was just Fate that both had turned in the same direction . Wearing gloves – the mid-November Highland weather had finally turned wintry – probably didn’t help her grip on the bicycle’s handles.

I thought I’d care about the verdict, but all the fury was gone by that point, along with every other feeling.  I kept the bicycle’s basket in the basement of my house in Philadelphia until her red had faded enough to blend with the peonies she once had painted on its sides. I measured my recovery by how often I checked and somnambulated through the next two years as the the line “… the thing strongly seized has turned to dust / and darkness takes my heart..” from a Conrad Aiken poem became an unwelcomed earworm.

Last year, returning to a beach near Gairloch, I placed the basket in a pyre and watched its sparks and embers dance  Skye-ward into the night sky and waited for the ashes to wash West with the tide.

The watercolor, I finally framed and hung, the rainbow colors of the hand-loomed silk scarf  I had given her having passed from promises half-filled to a testament for those that had been.  Sometimes, as I rush pass it on the way out the door and catch my reflection on the glass, I am, once again, on a train to Inverness Station.

image

For Helen, I had held my breath for seven months, two weeks, and four days.

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October 10, 1994

Tibetan monks spend months painstakingly placing each grain of sand in its predestined place to create their dazzling Mandalas, a tribute to and lesson about patience, beauty, and impermanence.

The years (1992-1994) it took me to select and re-select the words for the account  above made it both my personal Mandala and an act of faithfulness to and meditation on the memory of a time and happiness that was too perfect to last.  Or, as Michael Cunningham put it in “The Hours”, his novel – and novel “take” – on Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”:

“It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and (one) is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later to realize that it was happiness… There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more.  Now (one) knows: That was the moment, right then.”

“Facts”, I once wrote in a poem, are “….fish with hooks already in their mouths…”  Writing this served – unwittingly and unexpectedly – as a study in the timelessness and power of emotional memory, my own naïveté about its effect, and the unintended consequences of personal exploration via story-telling.  My fish all swam toward the same truths: unexpected love encountered, lost, and mourned.

Some drink to drown them, but my sorrows (unlike me) were great swimmers.  What had  started as a straightforward travel account with a Scottish setting, was  hijacked by what was really on my mind (and heart) at the time.  Eventually, I recognized that this was actually a gift and gave it free rein.

My great love for Scotland, grown from countless trips over decades, which formed an inexplicable soul-level connection, was being returned by it in this form: as the setting – the comforting, the familiar, the immutable Highlands – through which to deal with a loss that took place an ocean away from there, on domestic shores.

Thus, every photo, word, and sentiment about Scotland and its history and landscape is factual and true, as are the scarf, the watercolor, the red-haired artist, and my broken heart….. but no one died.  (The death was a literary device for expressing both the finality and the agony felt.)

April 5, 2011

I am transferring the story to this blog, as the fire of December last has made me want to find safe “places”, particularly non-physical, for those items that survived it and I don’t want to lose.

I hope H. L. is alive and in good health, still painting marvellous watercolors, living in a place by the sea, and happier than my love could have made her.  And that our love and time together was real.  It’s the only unanswered question worth asking, for this Yehuda Amichai poem best describes its legacy.

Posted in Edradour, Gairloch, Glenfinnan, Loch Shiel, Loch Tay, Love, Pascal, Rashomon, Skye, The Hours, The Scarf, The Scotland Connection, women | Leave a comment

Some favorites from The Barnes collection

What can you say about a place that has 181 (!) Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, and 46 Picassos among its holdings, all of them unlabeled (!) and hung in an idiosyncratic manner reflecting a personal and unique philosophy about art? Volumes! And art critics have.

The relocation of the collection of the Barnes Foundation from his original home in Merion, Pa. to a millimeter-accurate reconstruction of its interior within a larger, $100 MM modern structure on Philadelphia’s “museum quarter-mile” was controversial in the extreme.  Like every other Philadelphian, I have an opinion, but that’s not the the subject of this post.

I am one of those who has benefited from the move:  I became a member at a level that allows entrance without prior appointment.  Given that visitors over the past decades had tight capacity-controls and required reservations far in advance, this is a profound change in accessibility. It’s the only way to be able – finally! – to get to know the collection even a little bit.  (There are over 4,000 items, but that’s including every hinge, key, lock and miscellaneous artifact that caught Dr. Barnes’ fancy.)

My most memorable visit was in the month of my 40th birthday, almost a quarter-century ago, when a woman (an artist herself) with whom I fell in love deeply and madly made me look at Bonnards differently… but that’s another story  for (and of) another time and life.  My most recent visit – yesterday – also served as the beginning of a personal project: to “capture” my personal favorites.

Woman Seated on a Red Sofa – William Glackens   (Never confused with his “Nude on a Red Sofa“, for obvious reasons.)

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My knowledge of Glackens is limited and mostly gleaned from reading about his relationship with Dr. Barnes. (They were friends and he was one of Barnes’ advisors/agents about what artists to collect.)   Knowing little about him allows the work to speak for itself without the baggage of the maker’s reputation.  (It’s the same reason I like movies starring little-known actors.)

It’s the body language and expression on the woman’s face that distinguishes it for me.  She’s absorbed by something yet self-contained and at ease.   She doesn’t appear to be waiting for someone, yet has ceded most of the couch, placing herself at one end.  And in that positioning and in that empty space beside her is her story.  And that makes it a painting I can look at again and again.

Moorish Woman (The Raised Knee) – Henri Matisse, 1922-1923

Moorish Woman (Bended Knee)

Of Matisse’s many paintings of odalisques, this one is absolutely my favorite because the subject, a subjugated woman stares at the artist with a pose and look that is the opposite of her state.   Her expression is a cypher, her body’s nakedness and brazen angles a study in secure acceptance of the self: she owns herself regardless of her legal status.  She hides nothing, is ashamed of nothing: her dignity is intact.  And Matisse captures that.

Two Figures On a Path –  Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1906

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Aside from the relative size of the figures and their gender, we know nothing else about them: their ages, their conversation, their lives.  And so, this mother and daughter – my conjecture (and probably the most universal one) – stand-in for all the mothers and daughters who have taken a woodsy walk together on a fine Spring or Summer day and bonded over everything from a  shared silence to spoken secrets.  And that warms my heart.

Luncheon (Le Dejeneur) – Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875

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How charming his expression, how swaddled she is in heavy linen, how delicious the bouillabaisse in the tureen must have been, how proper the whole scene….

This is the lunch at the beginning – the rosy, innocent beginning – that bookends with Degas’ Le Interieur at the other, unpredictable end.  The link will take you to the Degas and its story… or one version of it.  Once you’ve read that, you’ll understand.

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Chuva (Rain) – A fado by Mariza

Having added the capability to embed videos into my blog, I feel like a kid with a new toy.

A “fado” is a type of Portuguese folk song that has at its center a longing for something/someone gone and remembered.  It’s melancholic though not necessarily sad.  You don’t have to have an “old soul” or know loss to appreciate the genre, though it helps.  A fado rekindles memories and emotions while also being a vehicle for dispersing their force in a safe way, like a lightning rod.

Of the present day fado singers, none is as talented or well-known as Mariza.  Here she is performing Chuva (Rain).  The lyrics, in translation (not mine), follow.

Rain

The ordinary things in life
don’t leave with a longing for what’s passed,
Only the memories that hurt
Or make us smile do

There are people that remain in our story
in the story of our life
and others whose names
we barely care to hear again

There are emotions that give life
to the longing that I bring with me
Emotions that I had by your side
and I lost a little ago

There are days that leave traces in our souls
and in our lives,
and the day you left me,
I can not forget:

The rain wet my
cold and tired face
And all the streets in that city,
I had already passed by

Ah … my crying of a lost girl
shouted to the city that
the fire of love in the rain
just now died

The rain listened to my secret
and shared it with the city
And now, rain taps on my windows
bringing the longing back

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My first “Coup de foudre”

The French have a term for everything worth noting about life and love.  Especially love.  (It’s beyond my ken how and when they gained this special status with that universal emotion.  Or how deserved it truly is.  But that’s a thesis topic for someone with more time and curiosity.  And a trust-fund since they will never be employable!)  But I digress.

Cleaning up my music library on iTunes this morning, I listened to a song I hadn’t played in years and remembered that it was my first coup de foudre, which is translated literally as “a lightning strike” or “thunderbolt”, with the figurative meaning of “love at first experience”.  It is the encounter with something/someone whose effect is like an electric current coursing through and awakening every nerve to its tip.

If you breathe and can feel, I guarantee that you have had a coup de foudre: a piece of music, a song, a book, a movie, a poem, an objet d’art, a place, and, of course, a person (which would be a “coup de coeur“, the specific “coup de foudre” for love-at-first- sight).  One can’t prepare for (or against) a coup de foudre.  It can be hoped, prayed, and wished for, but that’s just as effective as eating a plateful of oysters in hopes that a lover will materialize.  (If that worked, oysters would have become extinct a long time ago…)

A coup de foudre is a miracle, an affirmation that, somehow, the sum of our experiences  has been rewarded by something that speaks to our whole being and enhances it.  It’s a transfiguring experience, one that will not age or diminish however frequent or sporadic the future encounters with its agent.  Visceral and disturbing in the moment of occurrence, they become centering and enriching once past it.  A coup de foudre, then, is a reminder that even as our lives are embering (thank you Deidra, for the timely image in your poem) with each day passed, our hearts and soul have not.

My earliest coup de foudre is an Irish folk song written in 1884 that entered my life one afternoon, a couple of years shy of fifty years ago, when I was a twelve-year old sitting at the piano avoiding another repetition of a Mozart* sonata.   I was in my seventh year of lessons (which I didn’t mind), and practicing two hours a day (which I did).  As the only twelve year-old Chinese boy playing recitals in a little town in the boonies of my state in the south of Brazil, I was good in the way a talking-dog doesn’t have to recite Shakespeare to be applauded.

For a break from Mozart that day, I picked up a song-book of old English standards that my mother had brought from Hong Kong and began leafing through it, here and there desultorily trying out the first few bars of a song.  I knew a few words in English – my father was already in the US but I didn’t know whether he would be returning or we would join him – but not enough to read and understand anything.  However, one of the few words I could recognize was “love” – I was in deeply in first-love (another story) – and I saw it in the title of a song.

I started sight-reading it, focusing on the fingering more than on the melody the first time throughAnd then a second, third, fourth… I don’t know how many times, concentrating less and less on the mechanics, as my fingers memorized the note sequences.  Technically, it’s not a difficult song and soon I entered that state of being performer and audience as I watched my hands be at-once mine and not-mine.  And then, suddenly, at the umpteenth time at the refrain, it took me over in a way a piece of music had never done before.

Perhaps if I hadn’t been twelve. Or in love.  Or didn’t know what I didn’t know about love, longing, and loss.  But that’s how coups de foudre work.

I don’t remember if it was the same day or soon after, but I translated the lyrics, word-by-word using my mother’s English- Portuguese dictionary.  There is a dim memory of singing it – badly, I’m certain, as I didn’t speak English yet – when my mother was out.

Sometime later I played it for Clarisse at her house on her piano, but I never told her how it had impacted me the first time.

As I have aged, “Love’s Old Sweet Song” has gained in meaning throughout my life, no more so than today, as love is now “... just a song at twilight”.

(A piece of trivia unearthed is that the song appears in Joyce’s Ulyssess as being a song Molly Bloom would sing.)

—————————————————————

The lyrics follow a video of a performance by Patricia Hammond (mezzo-soprano) and Michael Brough (piano).  She has a beautiful voice so it’s a shame that it’s not well miked.

The lyrics:

Love’s Old Sweet Song

Music by J.L. Molloy;
words by G. Clifton Bingham

Once in the dear dead days beyond recall,
When on the world the mists began to fall,
Out of the dreams that rose in happy throng
Low to our hearts Love sang an old sweet song;
And in the dusk where fell the firelight gleam,
Softly it wove itself into our dream.

Just a song a twilight, when the lights are low,
And the flick’ring shadows softly come and go,
Tho’ the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes Love’s old song,
comes Love’s old sweet song.

Even today we hear Love’s song of yore,
Deep in our hearts it dwells forevermore.
Footsteps may falter, weary grow the way,
Still we can hear it at the close of day.
So till the end, when life’s dim shadows fall,
Love will be found the sweetest song of all.

Just a song a twilight, when the lights are low,
And the flick’ring shadows softly come and go,
Tho’ the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes Love’s old song,
comes Love’s old sweet song.

Audio only, a better-quality recording by Morris and Bouckom:

12 Love’s Old Sweet Song

__________________________________________________

* Something by Mozart would become a coup de foudre late in high-school in New Jersey, when I saw the film “Elvira Madigan”, which used his Piano Concerto #21, K. 467 as the theme.  This video below uses the footage wherein the theme enters.  Neither the video or audio portions do justice to the film or the music.

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Fired Works

There is a brilliant, sad and powerful poem by Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli poet who should have been a Nobel-winner, with these lines:

Once a great love cut my life in two.
The first part goes on twisting
at some other place like a snake cut in two.

I was reminded of it a few days ago when I came across the skeleton of a poem I never completed at the time of the event, over twenty years ago.  The pain was too fresh and too deep to control and shape, desperate though I was for the catharsis of externalizing it into a poem. Finding the draft fragments re-animated the memory and feelings, with the Time that has passed quenching and taming them enough to finish the work. Whether it has tamed them too much and dulled the result, I leave to you to decide.

Fired Works

One evening last week,
I saw you cross 17th Street
as my taxi waited
(two from the front)
for the light to change.

My heart burst,
not with the elegance
of the sky-filling blooms
we watched from my roof-top
on the Fourth of July,
but with the chaos
of fire-cracker snakes
thrashing the side-walk
on Chinese New Year.

Afterwards,
just shreds, red shreds
stuck underfoot,
little bits tracked
to
every
corner
of
the city.

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Sky-diving: Terra Firma…NOT!

I started this account of my one sky-diving experience some years (!) ago…. and finally finished it last night.

Any story where a man takes risks beyond the ordinary usually involves a woman.  On those occasions, “fool” and “man” are as interchangeable as two tire lugsand with equivalent IQs.  In this case, it caused me to suspend a deepseated fear of heights and to jump technically without a parachute — from an airplane flying at ten thousand feet over a desert sunset.  Other places to visit were higher on my list than Tucson, Arizona: Macchu Picchu, Easter Island, the ruins of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Troy VIIa, but none had a woman I could have loved.  So it was that I found myself there one August some dozen years ago. 

 Pamela and I had met in that curious relationship of client and consultant: her company had paid me handsomely for the privilege of not listening to the advice they bought.  I was married at the time and we became good friends, good enough to remain connected even after she had moved across the country years later.  I was no longer married by then, but any fantasy I might have harbored was exactly that, a fantasy since the reality was so much better: a solid friendship.

I had gone to Tucson to help Pam celebrate a milestone.  She was turning forty and feeling unsettled about the past and uneasy about the future.  Anyone could see the stunning preRaphaelite looks and hear the deceptively softspoken voice, but it took spadework to uncover one sharp negotiator, two difficult degrees (engineering and a Wharton MBA), three unhappy jobs, and one man after another selected in her fathers image.  Having shed both the jobs and the men, she was in the first year of studying medicine, that Faustian pact to do harm to oneself for six years in order to do good for a lifetime.  I was not worried about her: swimming with corporate sharks had sharpened her natural feistiness for the inevitable runins with the bureaucracy of a medical school.  Pamela had the grit to thrive in that environment without losing her innate gentleness of spirit or purpose.  She would make a doctor that could be trusted.

It was during the ride from the airport to her house after my flight from Philadelphia that she turned toward me and asked: “Do you love me enough to jump out of an airplane?” 

No.  That’s what I wish she had done: posed a question whereby she could be gained with a simple answer.  “But noooooooo!!“, as John Belushi used to say.  Her actual words were a matteroffact: “Let’s go skydiving tomorrow!“, delivered with her usual smile and musical lilt. 

Being seated and belted into the car reduced the shock: I did not stumble as I would have, had we been walking.  Feigning interest in the Tucson skyline bought a few moments, moments filled with the image of a falling body accompanied by a prolonged deathshriek ending with a thud.  “Sure“, I replied instead, with a silent gulp. 

What else could I have said?  “No“?  It was out of the question.  Consider the forces at play: her personal milestone, my lack (still) of a suitably significant birthday present, my Machismo-byosmosis from a Latino childhood… and the only acceptable answer was my eventoned: “Sure.”  All the doubts were invisible, the screams inside my head muffled by a thick male skull.  I don’t know why I slept soundly that night, perhaps because a part of me was convinced that it would be my last. 

The next afternoon, I wrote a “justincase” note attesting to the free will exercised in my decision and my love for life and for my daughter.  I placed it on top of my suitcase in the guest-room and felt both better and foolish.  It brought me some satisfaction that, at the very least, the insurance company wouldn’t be able to claim madness as a reason for avoiding payment.  And then we left for  Sky-Dive Marana, the jump center at the edge of Tucson.

The instructors and jumpmasters were two young men who carried themselves with the selfconfidence of the insane.  Swaggering I would have understood: it was their nonchalance when speaking about the number of times they had jumped that was unsettling.  Yet, as thorough as they were in explaining what we could expect, they were also liars: that first step out of the plane  (Put your right foot onto the wing strut, hold onto the door frame with your left-hand and then push out.) was not the most difficult part of the jump.  By that point, the decision had gone through umpteen “…a hundred visions and revisions which a minute will reverse…” (to quote T.S. Eliot) during the hardest part: the slow, spiralclimb of the Cessna to jump altitude. Why had I thought that it would be like stepping into an elevator, pressing the button for “10,000 feet” and being whisked up, almost instantaneously, in relative comfort?  I hadn’t wanted time to relive my decision, especially as I was positioned.

Picture kneeling (prayer, optional) in a space the size of an old-fashioned claw-foot bath-tub.  Now picture a large man attached to your behind, er…..behind you and attached, via four points on his chute harness, to your NO-chute harness.  (Yes, no-chute harness.) Linked like Siamese twins, you have the combined bulk of a champion Sumo wrestler, a Sumo wrestler with four arms, four legs, and — for this intent and purpose — one brain.  (Yours was surrendered when you viewed the safety video, read the release form…and still signed it.)  Above the vibrations of the small plane you feel his in-out breathing pressing the front-strapped emergency chute — his emergency chute: you have none! — against your upper back.  This stranger is now your BFF, at least until you are back on the ground, alive and in one piece.  At this point, you would give him anything he asked money, secrets, your first-born because your life is in his hands.  Anything.  All this went through my mind.  And more. 

Everything heard in the hangarclassroom during the previous hour replayed in my mind as I stared at the duct tape on the floor of the Cessna.  I could see where a rivet was missing and, glancing upwards at the pilot, wondered whether someone who appeared to have just started shaving ‑‑ judging by the nicks on his face ‑‑ really knew what he was doing.  Dwelling on that unpleasant thought, I was grateful that the 120mileanhour wind coming through a crack on the door hinge evaporated the sweat on my face as fast as it formed.  My thoughts went back to the pre-jump speech.

“The reserve chute is not effective if deployed below 900 feet”, the jumpmaster had said.  I had noted the euphemisms: “not effective” for “won’t save your ass”, “deployed”, so full of military precision, for “opening”.  Those last 900 feet (three football fields laid end to end), would be covered in five seconds, maybe ten, if there was a partial opening.  In a problem jump, that would come after 9000 feet of freefall, the first six thousand in ecstasy, the last 3000 in increasing panic and terror.  If the altimeters on the plane were right, there would be approximately fifty seconds before certain death.  (I once read a story in Reader’s Digest about a Russian military pilot who fell over fortythousand feet with a defective parachute and survived…..but I had stopped believing in the Reader’s Digest when its editorials kept insisting that Nixon was not a crook.)

The freefall in a sky-dive is unique.  First, it’s not a surprise.  Second, this kind of falling takes time.  It has nothing in common with ordinary falling like, for example, from leaning over the railing of an apartment balcony.  That would be unexpected, an accident. Sky-diving is about as premeditated an act as one can make!  Secondly, there is the duration of the fall.  Look at the nearest timepiece.  Now hold your breath for thirty seconds.  Yes, stop reading, hold your breath, and count to thirty.  Slowly.  Don’t cheat! Your life doesnt flash before your eyes.  Instead, you are a captive audience to a slow-motion video of all those life-events you couldnt remember at $150.00 an hour on the therapists couch.   

In a typical jump, thirty seconds, on the average, is how long it takes to cover the 6000 feet of freefall  (about 1.1 miles).  Like losing one’s virginity — with which, arguably, a first-jump shares many emotions: anticipation, anxiety, terror, euphoria, relief, gratitude, and elation — it can be both the longest and shortest halfaminute in one’s life.  (For the record, losing my virginity lasted….never mind!)

My thirty seconds — no, not the virginity-losing ones — began with the creaky metal door swinging open and the sudden vastness of the unconfined world being laid, quite literally, at my feet.  From that perch, my sense of awe and insignificance co-existed in the same moment… and was abruptly pushed aside by the jump-masters shouts competing with the roar of the engine and the wind: Swing out!! Get your foot planted!!  I found myself half-outside the plane, right foot on the wing-strut, the wind whipping my over-sized jumpsuit into a sail, and straddling..nothing. 

Whether I actually jumped or waddled into thin air by the weight and pull of my BBFF (Best, Best Friend Forever) in the world, I will never know.  Id like to think that I stepped out of my own volition.

What I do remember about the free-fall is a series of sensations.  The flap-flapping noise of the extra material of the jump-suit and the deafening roar and whipping of my ears by the wind, my cheeks concaving from its force.  The pressure of the goggles on my face and the will-power it took to keep my eyes open.  A sense of the mass (the jump-master) attached to my back but without the weight, as we were falling at the same speed.  The cartoonish view of the earth rushing towards me at a terminal velocity of over 120 miles per hour. And, most clearly, a memory of the fear that I would lose bladder-control.

Then, just as my mind was beginning to disassociate from my body, the expected-but-still-miraculous opening of the chute on the jump-masters back!

Instantly, I became a human marionette suddenly yanked straight up by invisible hands and strings as the harness straps, not cinched tightly enough, snapped, then dug into my chest and inner thighs.  A hundred miles per hour of airspeed had disappeared in under two seconds.  I had gone from demonstrating gravity to blessing the existence of an atmosphere as the opened para-sail caught and held the air.  (Although perception of the pain was quickly suppressed by the adrenalin and endorphins, the bruises from the harness would fully develop by the time we had returned home, the outlines so distinct they looked like dark blue tattoos for the first week.) 

After the shock of the 3 to 4 G deceleration, I was just glad that I had checked (and rechecked) that my “family jewels” were tucked out of harm’s way before stepping out of the plane. During the prejump course, Frank, the jump-master, had shouted out the classroom door: “Bill, remember that guy last year in Colorado that Fred told us about?  You know, that firsttimer whose dick ‑‑ sorry, ladies I mean, whose ‘private parts’ got caught between the harness and his thigh?  Fred said the ground crew could hear his scream when the chute opened, and they were a couple of miles away and not even downwind.  Said they’d never heard a scream that held the initial pitch for that long…  Do you remember whether he said they saved it or not?”   Then turning towards us again, “The point of the story is: you might walk funny on the way to plane with the straps on tight, but I guarantee you’ll walk funnier later if you don’t!”  The story might have been apocryphal, but it certainly made everyone with external private-parts wince.  (The women had exchanged glances but kept their chuckling silent, out of respect? Smug superiority?)

As I now floated through a never-before-experienced silence – made even more striking by the contrast to the wind’s roar just before – I started to relax a little.  I dared not look down at my feet, since seeing NOTHING under them could have had the effect of releasing previously-mentioned bladder, and focused instead on being at eye-level with clouds, the jagged skyline in the distance, and the smoothness of the descent.

Suddenly, the disembodied voice of my BBFF came from above and behind me: “See those lines with the handles in front of and above you?  Grab them with your hands and pull the left one or the right one to go in that direction.”  I did as he commanded and made us go in wide back-and-forth turns designed to bring us to the landing-zone near the hangars.  At some point, for better accuracy, he took over and I was free to enjoy the scenery.  My BBFF – I have no recollection of his name or what he looked like – pointed out some of the terrain features, none of which made an impression as I was on sensory overload.   (Pamela and her BBFF were not-too-distant, but just far enough to make communication impossible.)

As we got closer to the ground, the reference point of the buildings growing bigger made it seem as if our speed was increasing.  His last instructions were for me to lift my legs up so that his would act as the “landing gear” running to a stop when we touched-down, the para-sail flared back to release the last of the trapped air that is the principle behind how parachutes and para-sails work.  If I failed to lift my legs, then our four legs, close together and without the room to move, would likely trip and tangle as we touched ground.  A 15-18 mph, it would make for a very ungraceful and dangerous landing.

Fortunately, I paid close attention and we landed without stumbling.  Safely on terra firma, I looked up at the sky, the storm clouds in the distant mountains lit like giant Japanese paperlanterns by the lightning within, and marveled at having been a speck against that infinite expanse.

Somewhere, there is a photo of Pamela and I – still in our jump-suits and wearing the skull-tight jump head-gear – grinning ear-to-ear against a background of sagebrush and a deep-blue sky. 

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Paris on my mind..

“We’ll always have Paris”, Bogart said to Bergman in Casablanca..… and tears roll down the cheeks of both the hard-boiled and the heart-weary. We don’t just understand, we grok, for Paris is the birthplace of loves, not the least of which with the city itself. And what Bogart would say about the Maltese Falcon is truer still about Paris: it is “The stuff that dreams are made of”.

IF Hoagy Carmichael had written “Paris On My Mind” instead of “Georgia”, it would be the earworm playing in my head. It happens periodically, as Paris is a virus against which there is no vaccine and for which, once infected, the only remedy is a visit to ease the symptoms…. until the next outbreak. I know this from having gone from a small-town boy in Brazil to whom Paris was as out-of-reach as the moon, to something even more improbable: an adult who once ran its Marathon one perfect April morning and has walked its streets in every weather and every season of the year and heart.  Once is not enough. Or even my dozen times.

In the film “The September Issue”, a documentary about the assembly of the September 2007 issue of Vogue Magazine, there is a segment in which a senior editor, a former model herself, is followed around Paris scouting locations for a photo-shoot. As the chauffeured car meanders the streets, the camera never leaves her face. We note – in her half-smile, a curtailed sentence, a tear squinted back – not the memories themselves, but their revelatory bubbles, hints of her private Paris. It made me realize how mine – and likely your – experience of Paris is as a palimpsest: a papyrus written, scraped and written over, yet with all layers still showing: the new wreathed through with the old, faded and distinct at the same time.

Its first appearance in our consciousness, like the first raindrops, presages differently for each of us. For some, Paris will be barely noticeable, the few drops – a photo here, a news item there – brushed off easily. For a minority, it means getting out the umbrella of unimagination to defend against the torrent to come, for Paris is pervasive, unavoidable.

But for the majority …. for the majority that first picture book about the adventures of a little Parisian girl (or an overheard story, or perhaps a souvenir snow-globe or miniature Eiffel Tower from a returning visitor) will be the beginning of something marvelous. Over the years, as the occurrences increase in number and variety, the bits and pieces – from the iconic to the obscure, added deliberately or by chance – shape that layer’s complexity and topography. We note the reverence, the wistful tone, the knowing look of a shared secret in the eyes of those who have experienced it. It’s a Paris where history and fiction mix and stroll together, where little Madeline dances Gershwin with Gene Kelly, Curious George climbs La Tour Eiffel, The Three Musketeers charge the barricades, and Napoleon applauds Piaf singing Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien

Yet it all makes sense and feels natural.

Paris, then, becomes a state of mind, both a bank vault for real  Continue reading

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When in Scotland…..

It seems apt, as I am in Scotland this week, that I finally “finished” the poem below enough to make it visible to other eyes. In truth, I rarely stop tinkering with a poem, hence my output of completed ones is extremely low.

This one began years ago when I realized, during a conversation with a friend as we were enduring a blizzard in Philadelphia, just how much Scotland – particularly the Highlands – had gotten inside me. I was startled, as we talked about where we’d go to escape the January storm, that my thoughts turned to Scotland and NOT the warm climes of my childhood: Brazil. It was curious, as the latter should have been an obvious – if not automatic – choice.

Some of the lines and images came easily and quickly…. and then it bogged down as I became caught up in the crafting process. It’s the ugly part of writing, the one where I know what’s not working, where the Lover-of-Words debates the Keeper-of-Truth-and-Purpose ad nauseum. In this case, the truce lasted years, until tonight, when a combination of making some changes plus sheer exhaustion at the impasse led to this late draft.

I most worried that the references would be unknown, in turn, to readers who don’t know “things” Brazilian and “things” Scottish. The solution was a change in MY attitude: allow for the reader to figure them out. Or not. Either way, the important recognition was that an artist/poet creates to release/satisfy themselves, not the audience. I enjoyed the process though the result is more “clever” than emotionally strong as a poem. (I know my weaknesses and the difference between a good and a bad poem.)

The concluding three-line verse is still problematic, though the first two lines are part of that original inspiration. I like that image: it’s also how my piled-up books look. Until tonight’s editing, the last word was “stillness” and not “Scotland”. I may go back to it. What do you think?

“Go where in January??”

Winter has cored warmth from the air,
taken Summer’s seed for sowing
far into April’s winds,
and shivering salarymen,
from Tokyo to Saskatchewan,
turn eyes to tropical firmaments.

My own thoughts flow, not southward

to mango groves
where my child-self yet stands willing
the ripened fruit to fall;
to caipirinhas sipped on the sly,
the slurry of liquored-ice creating
a fairyland behind the eyes,
but eastward

to a Highland windscape of crofts
abandoned since ’45;
to unsheepish flocks that block
the tracks that pass for roads;
to Mallaig docks where sailors stand,
like the saints with up-turned hands
in church windows along the Clyde,
their shared silence a single lament
for shortened days and abrupted sailings to Skye.

Beside my bed,
a cairn of books contains
the hundred words for Scotland.

————————–
Aug. 15 – On second thought, it’s an awful poem: I fell in love with some lines and rhymes (“salarymen” and “Saskatchewan”: c’mon, that was good!) and lost sight of what’s important, that it SAY something worth saying.  But it doesn’t. It’s dull, it’s vainglorious. And I am leaving it here as a reminder to myself.

Posted in Loch Shiel, Loch Tay, poetry, Scotland, The Scotland Connection, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment