Okay, this isn’t the promised Part 3 of my meditations on being in Unity, New Hampshire, with Hillary and Barack back at the end of June, which, God knows, is by now a yuga in the timing of political dialog today… Lord, I may never write part three at this rate, just incorporate the ideas into something else.
At any rate, something lighter, today.
About gills. Bear with me.
It’s the day before David goes back to L.A. again, again for a couple of weeks of film work (editing video footage already shot, shooting new film). He leaves grudgingly; he doesn’t want to leave the garden and Vermont, both at the height of perfection at this time of year, and we are in one of those phases of thoroughly enjoying each others’ company. But once he gets there, since he does social-activist work he loves, he’ll be almost completely into that world until he returns. Which I like, by the way. I like that he does work that is meaningful per se, and meaningful to him. And I like that I do the same, in my own way, and that neither of us is mooning around unproductively missing each other.
But here and now, today, it’s the garden. The garden we started in the spring. Now it is almost fall and
the garden is bursting, overflowing. It’s beside itself, and I am beside myself with it. Left, the world’s most unflattering picture, taken by my darling neighbor Gaelen. This was a day she came by last May (when David was last in L.A.) to help me tie branches together to rig up bean pole tepees — note the overall bareness of garden. And below, a picture David took of me this very morning, next to those self-same bean-poles.
How can so much explode, so greenly, so quickly, in such excess? Keeping what’s there weeded, putting in a fall garden (a gamble, in Vermont, but worth it — OH did I have some gorgeous lettuces last year before frost), and harvesting harvesting harvesting, pickling, freezing, eating… a lot to do.
This, plus writing for a living, plus the annual New England children’s book writer picnic which is coming up in about a month and will be held here so I’m trying to clean my house in baby steps with my favorite never-fail technique, relentless incrementalism. Plus periodic calls from my mother’s caregiver because my mother is very confused these days about where I am (and when I call back she starts out by saying, in a tone of astonished wonder, " But how did you find me?" ). She needs frequent reassurance: that she’s there, that I’m here, and where "here" and "there" are, which she then forgets again pretty soon, gets worried, and needs reassurance again.
Given the basal metabolism of life, I sometimes feel I’m a faithless blog-keeper. I’m working on not feeling guilty about this: basically I can feel guilty about anything, since there are so many people and activities I love, writing this blog among them, that I can’t possibly give all of them anything like what they deserve. So no matter what I’m doing, there’s something I’m not doing. Recipe for guilt, which takes the fun out. And I like fun. So I’m just gonna press delete on blog-guilt. Oh-kay! Much better.
I don’t seem to have the knack of writing quick, down, and dirty, supposedly a big part of blogging’s laissez-faire nature. Maybe someday.
Back to the garden.
Writing about, and showing pictures of, your garden may be like talking about, and showing pictures of, your grandchildren — a subject of endless, obsessive fascination to you and your partner, but not of much interest to anyone else.
I’m particularly in love with cauliflower, which I’m growing for the first time in my life. It’s a very coy
vegetable. Cauliflowers keep themselves to themselves, modestly swathed in curvy gray-green leaves, shyly hiding their efflorescence. Then! All of a sudden! They BURST open — extravagantly huge white tight almost explosive heads. Ready to go, not there yesterday, here today, come on, let’s get a move on, hot to trot, hello, world, here I am, I’m a cauliflower, there’s not a second to waste! (Left, a cauliflower on the morning of its first appearance. By evening it will look like a bridal bouquet).
Ever since my friend and neighbor Deborah Krasner (pictured; she’s a cookbook writer / kitchen
designer / olive oil maven / and creator of "culinary
Vermont" and "culinary Italy" travels), introduced me a couple of years back to roasted cauliflower, one of those couldn’t-be-easier to make, unbelievably delicious astonishments that have no right to taste as good as they do, I have been cauliflower-crazed. Have eaten fields-worth of cauliflower.
And David (along with everyone else I’ve ever fed roasted cauliflower to) is as fond of it as I am. Hence, we grew a lot of cauliflower this year. A whole lot.
Now that the formerly diffident cauliflowers are revealing themselves, we eat a head each night. I don’t think cauliflower would freeze particularly well (cabbage family relatives usually don’t, in my view, and I’m so spoiled by the perfection of them picked ultra-fresh and then roasted). But I am going to pickle a few heads of cauliflower, solo and in some mixed pickles…
Besides the cauliflower, there are the tomatillos, another first-time growing experience for me.
Incredibly sexy visually, I think: just look at that picture: that lit-up, veined green lantern-like ball, hanging, heavy, again encased but in an entirely different wrapping than the shy cauliflower. I mean! If the cauliflower is female (which to my eye it is), the tomatillos are male, exceeded only by figs in their maleness. (Okay, testicularness). Figs — don’t get me started on figs and how much I love eating them.
The hot pimento peppers are further down the same row as the tomatillos. I can’t, in this telling, leave
out the fecundity of those pimento peppers. Never, ever have I had pepper plants, of any variety, so completely covered with peppers. I held the foliage aside for David this overcast morning, so he could photograph this profligacy.
Actually, David and his camera are what I wanted to write about.
As I said, he’s leaving tomorrow. As always before a departure, there’s too much to do. Things he wants to do, has to do, thinks he has to do, should do, needs to do, wants to do because he knows I’d like him to do.The bluestone front step which cracked during frost heaves last winter has been waiting to be put back together (a project started in July). The special masonry hooks so I can hang my blue Le Creuset pots against the back of the old chimney in the kitchen instead of them cluttering up the space under the counter (hooks bought three weeks ago).
But flights wait for no man, or woman: there’s packing. Getting in the "A" group on Southwest which requires hovering online at the milisecond of the 24-hour-before-departure mark. And finding the fancy electric toothbrush of his, the one with the 53 heads which he seems to have misplaced, and has torn the house apart looking for, and issued an APB on. Remembering to remember the cell phone charger. Getting all the invoices from the work he did the last time he was away working submitted and mailed off before he goes off again, because otherwise it’ll just get postponed and maybe never again will those receipts resurface…
All this being so, how come David spent maybe an hour taking pictures in the garden this morning?
And how come, when I made breakfast following his horticultural photographic orgy, he started taking
pictures of that, too? I’d baked his favorite Irish Soda Bread, left, as a pre-departure treat; plus I’d made an omelet over which I spooned an very odd-looking but delicious cheese sauce, very strangely tinted pink because it had garlicky beet greens and chard plus their magenta potlikker in it.
(Note to my Southern friends: Spell-Check just suggested "parrotlike" as a substitute for potlikker! Note to everyone else: although the link I just gave leads to an essay on collards in which pot-likker is described as the water left over from cooking those particular greens, I’ve always understood it to be that water — ambrosial but earthy, with a dense mineral taste, soul-satisfying — which remains after cooking any variety of greens. Beet greens equaled pink potlikker, and, since I used that liquid in the cheese sauce… Well, take a look, a few photos down).
Anyway, so I’m sitting there at the attractively set table on the screen porch, waiting to eat my breakfast
(which is getting cold), get on with my day (which, though less pressed than his, is also full). Both of us aware of all the stuff he has to do and the clock is ticking and —?
He keeps taking pictures. I make a move towards the bread.
"No — just one more, please, before you cut it. No, wait!" And, "Everything you make looks so good I just want to document it!" Oh, yeah, good line, David. Flattery will get you nowhere. "But, David, " I
harumph, "if I knew you were planning to take pictures of it, I would have sliced that nectarine and fanned it out, not just glumped half of it on each plate. Plus, those soysage patties, they’re over-browned… " Unsaid, exasperatedly: actually, David, if I knew you were planning to take pictures for twenty minutes I just would’ve made some something cold, and brought a book…
I sit. I wait. I shut up.
But what I’m thinking, and what I know he knows I’m thinking, is, given that he has a to-do list the size of a dirigible, is this the best and highest use of David’s time? Couldn’t he just take one or two quick snapshots, does it always have to be this prolonged thing?
Now I don’t even have to catch myself to know what a stupid and unproductive way of thinking this is: I know it! I know that while it is a typical way partners think about each other, it’s also a major reason for the typical mediocrity of so many relationships. I know that when, thanks to therapy, self-confrontation, and a whole lot of development, I first discovered I had made myself into something unpleasant — the designated authority on what Ned, my late husband, should do and how he should do it ("May I make a suggestion?" ""What you need to do is —" ) — and then quit doing and being this, just deleted this awful know-it-all-ism, well, at that point Ned’s and my already-good marriage went so far beyond good that it was just off the charts.
Oh, why do we think we are such experts on what those we claim to love should do! The arrogance underlying this! Shouldn’t it be self-evident that the other is an other, and that others do things
differently than we (in our great wisdom), do? Why is this so hard to see? Who anointed us judge, jury, and king of another person, another person we supposedly love (and yet, are so often busily trying to improve)? Oh, the oblivious, well-meaning arrogance of the lover, or parent, or friend!
At least I know this for what it is, thanks to all the time Ned and I put into Relationship School.
Even while feeling all this, I’m watching myself feel all this, shaking my head internally, not so much at David as at myself for having those feelings about David. Even as I’m watching him, even as I’m watching my internal self yammering, "He should… what he needs to do is… why isn’t he…" at the same time, with the better part of my over-active brain, I’m thinking, "Come on, Dragon! Get with the program! You didn’t spend all these years with Ned to be so dumb! Just stop it!"
And then, one of those sweet unlooked-for small miracles. You, or I, can’t "just stop it", no matter how often we see that that that critical "I’m-only-trying-to-be-helpful" yammering is counter-productive at best, and at worst, the cruelest folly, a tragic waste of life’s essential moment-to-moment opportunity for sweetness and self-awareness.
But sometimes the yammering stops itself.
As I watch David circling the table, leaning in close, pulling back, I recall times he has stated, or not stated but somehow let me know, in that weird way that couples can do, his disapproval of things I was doing as not being the best and highest use of my time.
Why, with the mortgage looming large and a book deadline even larger, was I spending hours writing and rewriting and editing and linking a blog post for which I was not getting paid, and which not all that many people would read? Or, why was I working on the scrapbook / visual memoir I occasionally give myself over to (so much interesting visual detritus from Ned’s and my complex and long shared life, surely it ought to be used, organized, allowed to tell its story, so interesting in fact that when I get into it I just… I look up, and it’s getting dark, and holy shit, I haven’t eaten breakfast!)? Or making the mixed media found-object art I sometimes
do, which I will never show in a gallery, never sell, never "use", never display, which I just do for myself, which is not particularly "good" — but then, that is not the point, is it?
No, it isn’t. The point is doing it. The point is, all these seemingly non-pressing, non-income-producing activities, zoning out, zoning in, for much longer than is conscionable or rational need doing. By me. I need, at times, to do them.
I can’t explain it. I can’t defend it. I can’t even understand it. Nor do I even want to explain, defend, or understand. I just want to do it. Because it’s essential and feeds everything else I do.
And suddenly, watching David, I get it. (This, the getting it, is the small unlooked-for miracle). He just wants to do it. Has to. It’s essential for him and feeds everything else he does. Period.
At times he needs to capture images on film, the same way I have to write, or collage, and for the same kinds of unreasonable reasons. Why should he have to explain this, to me or anyone else?
Inside me, as I sit, there’s a sudden, almost audible click of realignment, the psychological and emotional equivalent of a chiropractic adjustment. Instantly I’m relaxed and happy. This acceptance goes way past intellectual understanding. It’s so spacious in here! Impatience, exasperation? Gone. Replaced by: loving David. Loving life. Loving breakfast, and the Irish soda bread, and the pony-tailed sixty-eight year-old guy circling the table, moving objects in and out of the frame. Loving the weird pink cheese sauce, the blooming purple hostas and the bees buzzing them, loving the distant monadnocks of New Hampshire visible across the field, even loving the spare cat-box on the lawn (I’d emptied it last night, when it was raining, and left it out to be rinsed by the pouring rain and then dried by the sun this morning).
You can’t edit this stuff, see. It’s flowers and mountain and cat-boxes. It’s exasperation and then, suddenly, truly apprehending the essence of someone, and feeling, oh, what a privilege, to see them and know them. It’s loving. It’s love.
Loving the mystery of how we know what we know, and how we discover things that we don’t yet know that we know: i.e., the creative process.
Just as I had to mess around with the posts about Hillary and Barack to know what it was I thought, so does David, at certain moments, have to take pictures, and in a certain way, over and over until he gets IT, the mysterious single shot which may or may not realize the ideal he is reaching for.
Like me with writing, David is compelled to do this reaching without knowing what it is he’s reaching for until he gets it. The same old home truth of writing / living.
And, basically (though non-aggressively), at such a moment, well, fuck
the "A" line at Southwest and breakfast getting cold and needing to pack. Fuck the tyranny of the urgency. This is more
important. And important trumps urgent, or should. Not always, but sometimes: much more often than we let it.
When David and I finally sit down to eat our breakfast, I tell him what I’ve come to. Without thinking it through, these are the words which come out of my mouth: " Taking pictures is the way you breathe in the world."
Breathing in, as a fish, in water, takes in oxygen. Remember I told you to bear with me about gills? Here we are: gills. We are in the world as fish are in water. How do we take in what we need? How do fish do it? Maybe "how" doesn’t matter, only that we do, that we can, that we, like fish, have a way to do this. And must, if we are to live. That we each have our own gills, each of us. And, while meaning no respect to those miraculous physical human gills known as lungs, I think we have another, non-physical set of lungs, or gills. Sure, we can live with just the physical set. But without inhaling and exhaling with this second set, we are not fully alive; we "laugh, but not all of our laughter, and cry, but not all of our tears," in Kahlil Gibran’s words.
As we eat, David tells me about his first camera, a German Rolleicord which he received as a Bar Mitzvah present in 1952, or maybe it was when he was confirmed a few years later at Temple Beth Hillel (I didn’t even know Jews got "confirmed" …I thought it was just little Catholic schoolgirls in their white dresses, like I used to see and envy in my mostly Catholic grade school.).
David tells me about taking pictures with the Rolleicord when his family returned to the East Coast from Southern California, where he grew up. Philadelphia, Boston, Washington DC, New York… Though born in Philadelphia, he’d had no memory of it. On that return visit to Philadelphia, he tells me, he was never without his new Rolleicord. He remembers the Liberty Bell, and Faneuil Hall, and the Capitol… all as framed through the camera lens. "And what was there at the very beginning for me still is, " he says. He tells me about how, when he was a graduate student at Berkeley, the San Francisco Parks Department had a free community photographic studio at Duboce Park, with lots of darkroom space. How he used to spend hours there. "Even the chemicals were free!"
And he talks a little about taking pictures generally. "The composition is there, " he says, "but it’s infinite until you find it. Moving the frame is what allows that inherent composition to be revealed. A lot of people, now, do cropping after taking a picture, but, doing it when you’re taking the picture is different. It’s like… I remember, exactly, being in Venice, this must have been in 1959 or so, and there was this couple on a bridge overlooking one of the canals. And everything was gray. The sky was gray, the water was gray, the paving was gray, the stone was gray, but it was all different shades of gray… And I knew somehow that by looking through the view-finder I would find a certain frame that would impose, or reveal, a particular reality. And I did. And when I got it I knew. I still do that. It’s like, everything else gets pushed to the sidelines. You’re, in a sense, cropping reality. And when you’ve got it, you just know."
Breathing in the world, breathing out. Seeing, cropping. Taking in, releasing.
‘Spirare’, the Latin root word from which spirit is derived, means, literally, ‘breath.’ But it has a larger implicit meaning: breath as life, as divine spark. When we expire, we leave the world with our last out breath. When we conspire with others, we breathe with them.
And when we are inspired, we take in something which transforms, elevates, and surprises us. Which, in some way, ennobles us.
And then we let it out.
That, on reflection, is what I think I meant, without fully knowing it at the time, when I heard myself say to David, "Photography is the way you breathe in the world."
The cosmos — small "c", the flowers, I mean — have been exceptional this year. I’m growing a variety
new to me this year. The flowers have the most extraordinary tubular fringed petals, left. Picking one a couple of months back, I looked at those pale
pink delicate ruffle-edges petals, the shades of yellow making a perfect mandala at the center. And I just sort of fell in. Utter stillness. Maybe just a few seconds, but absolute. Looking at the flower, seeing beauty – the beauty of the cosmos. When I came back to thought, I thought about how, in the Gita, Krishna (an avatar of God in this telling of the universal story) says, "Wherever you see beauty, see Me."
So maybe that was "cosmos" a lower-case c, maybe an upper-case. Who is to say?
Later I saw David gazing at that same flower — through a camera. Absolutely still, absolutely focused. David, who is anything but a reader of the Gita, the Bible, or any other wisdom text, who is categorically not a meditator, church-goer, thinker about spiritual matters, and so on. But there he was. Click, click, click: he was letting the flower, and the act of seeing (through the lens) take him there.
Or There. Who is to say if that —That — destination is lower-case or upper-case?
And so we breathe in, and breathe out, the world. And when we do, nothing is wasted.