Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Joies de Vivre

Watching the sunlight glinting on the sea in the small sheltered cove on Angel Island; walking up and around to the high craggy point with the view of San Francisco; all the while breathing in the fragrance of eucalyptus and of pine.  A deeply Mediterranean feel, recalling Portofino, Spetses.  The in-the-moment happiness of wind on the ferry snatching your hat off all in play.

image:  Water

Monday, May 30, 2011

I Don't Know Why I Remember

One of Alice’s writing exercises that has brought out great material is the one that starts “I don’t know why I remember . . .”

Today these are the things I don't know why I remember—

Those haunting daguerreotypes, faces suspended in time, names lost.

The evocative bits of fabric that accompanied the foundlings.

The morning my father lifted me on his shoulders up to the level of the glass cat on the highest bookshelf in the dining room, among the sunlit leaves of the hoya.  Pure joy when I realized that it was Saturday and we could get up late and be together.

The campanile at Mills.  Sitting against the library wall with Melanie listening to it measuring off the hours.

Riding to the school-end picnic at Ghost Ranch in the back of someone’s truck, my hair tangled impossibly by the wind.

The little dimestore turtles in their plastic bowl with plastic island and palm tree that ate lettuce and bits of uncooked hamburger and then nothing, unhappy little creatures, nothing for weeks on end, and then died.

The song I never played for Baccalaureate.  The smell of the lilacs that May evening.

My Mom’s chicken with sherry and wild rice.  And then the grapes with brown sugar and sour cream.  Just for parties.

Granny Belle’s orange pekoe tea.

Uncle Les looking up, smiling, from stringing seed pearls.

Coco Luna sitting cross-legged on her lawn, practicing to be the child Sorrow in that summer’s opera, Madama Butterfly.

Catching minnows at day camp.  Quicksilver in cupped hands.

The lovely Emperor Concerto from across the creek furiously interrupted that summer morning at the cottage up at Russian River.

The gray Himalayan cat named T.S. Eliot who sauntered in my open door one day and wouldn’t leave.

Riding the rope swing over the Santa Fe River, this time of year, with hopeless love in the air and the end near.

Words from the Spoon River Anthology.  (“You’re haunted, you’re hunted, wherever you roam; Spoon River, Spoon River, is calling you home.”)

The little mouse pin with garnet eyes I found and named Stanley, terrified that someone would claim it and want it back. (At the concert in which Evan Ela sang in The Little Drummer Boy.)

The first two lines of Fum, Fum, Fum.

Drinking root beer on the Fourth of July, and lighting sulfurous black snakes.

Writing our names across the darkness in sparkler light.

The skunks living under the cabin on Bone Lake, where I learned to play pool.

Grandma Tressie drinking all of my peach daiquiri.

The writer who made his living as a private cook.

The woman in New Orleans who told Seth and me about her favorite recipe for asparagus:  “You just open the can…”

The starfish my father tried to take home in his suitcase.

The wailing in the rundown pensione on Lake Como in the middle of the night, when I woke, sick, and had to walk down the dark hallway, barefoot, to the shared bathroom with its grimy window opening on a wall of rock.

The luscious glass marbles the Palmer boys kept in an old Folger’s coffee can in their garage.

Somebody playing Albinoni’s Adagio on the organ above us—several centuries—as we crawled in our waterproof archaeology pants through the crypt under the monastery on the St. Bernard Pass.

The flavor of kumquats wrapped in bacon.


image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Church Window, Bamburgh

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Archaeology as Memory

Archaeology at its wisest and least constrained devises narratives about the past, considering the (often scanty) traces left behind and puzzling out their stories (often wrong), the quiet or the catastrophic dramas of their beginnings and ends.  In my novel Reading the Stones, I explore the workings of memory on personal and institutional levels, the ways the Greek myths tell of early wonderment at life, and modern archaeologists work backwards with the myths in mind to try to figure out what in a certain landscape or the fearful unfamiliar world gave rise to the stories that feel like memory itself.

Mar loved all the chance discoveries, the truths she came on for herself within or beyond the stories.  The things that made the pursuit memorable for her—whether a tone of light or a smell or a stolen glimpse into a half-opened doorway on a street named for an ancient shipbuilder; something that amused or touched her, somehow, however small or momentary.  But somehow right for what she was after.  Standing at Epidaurus, within the fragrance of the pines and flowering trees, the humming chorus of cicadas, she had experienced a feeling of immense well-being, and felt that of course Asclepius’s sanctuary had to have been there, the god of healing connected with a place so redolent of health.  Epidaurus would forever after be the pine smell, pitch and gracefully splayed needles bruised to pungency by her thumbnail.  Coming back from Sounion, the place of watching, where she’d gone to see the famous Temple of Poseidon and take her pictures, the bus had passed through what she had immediately thought of as the district of lambs on a spit (grilling, browning, in shop fronts all along the street).  On impulse she got off to wander there and found a taverna called Friends of the Fish—delighted details of Greek life that would stand out in her memory in connection with her journey down to the temple on its high lonely promontory, complementing the overarching story of the heartbroken king.
    And now this afternoon in the leafy arbor would lay itself gently over the faded underlayer of dried thyme and disappointment and be Phaestos for her—laughter playing among the serious old stones, like the children in the grassy wastes of the stadium.  Many truths, and what you want to make of them.  Or what you could.

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Stone6, Lindisfarne

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Forgetting the Questions

Being present means doing one thing at a time.  The thing at hand.  The thing in front of you.  Summer, the sky, the waves.  It means watching those white birds with quick wings Mary Oliver describes; forgetting, for hours, the weighty questions that plague you.  It means embracing gladly the kind of merciful oblivion to be found in complete absorption in the natural world—


Don't think just now of the trudging forward of thought,
but of the wing-drive of unquestioning affirmation.

It's summer, you never saw such a blue sky,
and here they are, those white birds with quick wings,

sweeping over the waves,
chattering and plunging,

their thin beaks snapping, their hard eyes
happy as little nails.

The years to come -- this is a promise --
will grant you ample time

to try the difficult steps in the empire of thought
where you seek for the shining proofs you think you must have.

But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
than this deep affinity between your eyes and the world.

The flock thickens
over the roiling, salt brightness.  Listen,

maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world
in the clasp of attention, isn't the perfect prayer,

but it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt,
is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,

but of pure submission.  Tell me, what else
could beauty be for?  And now the tide

is at its very crown,
the white birds sprinkle down,

gathering up the loose silver, rising
as if weightless.  It isn't instruction, or a parable.

It isn't for any vanity or ambition
except for the one allowed, to stay alive.

It's only a nimble frolic
over the waves.  And you find, for hours,

you cannot even remember the questions
that weigh so in your mind.

 ~ Mary Oliver ~
(from New and Selected Poems, Volume Two)
Look.  Listen.  Be.

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Stone3, Stratford-upon-Avon

Friday, May 27, 2011

I Must Remember

...to pick up my focaccia tomorrow between 10 and 3 from La Biscotteria!

(potato, mushroom, Saturdays only)

images:  La Biscotteria, Redwood City

Forgotten and Remembered Words

From a piece I wrote on Mallorca (which keeps coming back to me), a meditation on the remembered and forgotten words of languages we've spoken once, in childhood or beyond, that live in us unheard or -seen until we find we've need of them again—
Like the colors of an old fresco under layers of newer paint, words of my seventh-grade Spanish begin to show spookily through the later layers of Italian, French. They come almost as soon as we land on Mallorca, as if they’ve been here waiting for me all this time, letting me know I’ve been a long time coming. It is a little unnerving to find them ready to pick up again where we left off. I have not spoken Spanish for more than thirty years, but it was the language I learned first and most comprehensively, subjunctive tenses and all, and here it is again—the words rising effortlessly to the surface, however patchily. Quizás, demasiado, Londres, izquierdo, estoy. Maybe, too much, London, left-hand, I am (if only temporarily). Have they been here all this time, I wonder? What doing, who talking to? What will they tell me?

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Stone2, Stratford-upon-Avon 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Forgetting and Remembering

I had almost forgotten that Memorial Day's upon us—time of remembrance, of honoring memory.  These days leading up to it should (like Lent before Easter) be about forgetting, about letting go the faded clutter of our minds and hearts, clearing the slate.  (And now I remember getting to clean chalkboard erasers in grade school, beating two together with a cloud of chalk dust the result.)

Billy Collins has written funny things about Forgetting, but here's another poem of his about selective remembering—those things we can't forget.

This Much I Do Remember

It was after dinner.
You were talking to me across the table
about something or other,
a greyhound you had seen that day
or a song you liked,

and I was looking past you
over your bare shoulder
at the three oranges lying
on the kitchen counter
next to the small electric bean grinder,
which was also orange,
and the orange and white cruets for vinegar and oil.

All of which converged
into a random still life,
so fastened together by the hasp of color,
and so fixed behind the animated
foreground of your
talking and smiling,
gesturing and pouring wine,
and the camber of you shoulders

that I could feel it being painted within me,
brushed on the wall of my skull,
while the tone of your voice
lifted and fell in its flight,
and the three oranges
remained fixed on the counter
the way that stars are said
to be fixed in the universe.

Then all of the moments of the past
began to line up behind that moment
and all of the moments to come
assembled in front of it in a long row,
giving me reason to believe
that this was a moment I had rescued
from millions that rush out of sight
into a darkness behind the eyes.

Even after I have forgotten what year it is,
my middle name,
and the meaning of money,
I will still carry in my pocket
the small coin of that moment,
minted in the kingdom
that we pace through every day.

—Billy Collins

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Tombstone, Stratford-upon-Avon

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Being Unsettled

the embodiment of calm

We are unsettled in our bookcases and cars, our lamb Korma and chicken with caramelized onions and fennel, our tenors (become baritones), our May temperatures (like early March), our nine o’clock (like seven), the bulldozer parked where the rose vendor should be.  The usual order of our lives has been upended.

The constants are our quails and our Midsomer Murders, Pilates on the lawn looking up through pine boughs and following the even parallel track of a vapor trail into the blue beyond, the depths (yet in the heights) of calm.

image:  Sheep and Pine Trees. Evening light, looking south towards Culter Fell, Chris Upson

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Only Things

The only things that might get me through today are the bag of chocolate-dipped amaretti I bought last week, and Jussi Bjorling singing Ombra Mai Fu.  It’s definitely a day of defeatist thoughts, despite my best efforts.

Comforting thoughts:
a little pot of sage
Whole Foods chicken curry
red peonies
my favorite denim skirt
a cottage by the sea

Defeatist thoughts:
a little pot of sage I won’t remember to water
a leaking paper carton of Whole Foods chicken curry
the bunch of red peonies I couldn’t afford
my favorite denim skirt that’s too tight at the waist
the cottages by the sea that have already been rented

image:  Peonies

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Joies de Vivre

Musky patchouli soap lathered along your shoulderbones and skin, slowly, on a soft fine-net shower sponge.  Patchouli, the fragrance I fell in love with around seventh grade (a little stoppered bottle of patchouli oil).  The word from Tamil, the essence from distillation, the associations temples in the East gleaming with copper, bronze, and dusk- blue tiles.  The slight friction of the sponge is heavenly, the sudsy soap calling to mind the Billy Collins poem.

image:  soap suds

Friday, May 20, 2011

Italian Festivals

Yesterday's festa Italiana at our office, with biscotti and wood-fired pizza, made me wish I was off in Italy this week enjoying all the festivals there.  Among them, these—

Polenta Festival, the second Sunday in May, is celebrated in the main square of the Piedmont town of Avigliana.

La Barabbata is celebrated May 14 in Marta on the shores of Lake Bolsena. In this procession, men wear costumes representing the old trades and carry their tools while white buffalo pull floats carrying the fruits of the trades.

The Festa dei Ceri, a candle race and costumed parade in Gubbio takes place May 15 and is followed by a Historical Cross-Bow Exhibition on the last Sunday of May.

St. Rita's Procession and Candle Festival is May 21-22 in Cascia in Umbria.

Infiorata di Noto, a huge festival with flower petal art displays and a parade, takes place in Noto, Sicily, the third weekend of May.

The Flower Festival of Bucchianico in the Abruzzo includes a re-enactment of a 13th-century military stratagem with a parade, the third Sunday in May.

Pinocchio's Birthday is celebrated May 25 in the Tuscan town of Pescia. Pictures of Pinocchio Park in the village of Collodi, near Pescia.

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Gondola, Lago di Como

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Being Present

I have taken to heart a caution this week that we shouldn’t wait for life to happen—this is life, now, whether we like it or not.  We shouldn’t wait until we’re feeling better, to do thus and so; we shouldn’t wait for the rain to be over or our mood to be better or a good hair day.  We should be fully present in the moment, whatever the moment is.

I’ve been guilty of that the past few months, and consciously so.  I’ve felt my favorite months of the year slipping away while I kept hoping that the weather would get nicer, warmer, sunnier, and in the meantime let the blossoms come and go without particularly remarking.  That’s sad—I’ve lost a whole spring that way, not just some days or weeks of dissatisfaction.

Contrarily, today as I was hurrying to get from one appointment to another, wishing that I could move faster and hurry myself to the next place I had to be, I felt a sudden rush of well-being come over me, entirely unexpectedly, and was slowed to a stop in the moment.  I realized I was surrounded by lavender, warmed by the sun, and bathed in a delicious fragrance, a sense of abundance, earthly and spiritual delight, a present [pun intended] from the universe.

And then again, as I got to my next appointment, the biscotteria where I was to pick up my order, I was delighted by the fragrance of the baking biscotti, the orange and lemon and chocolate, the amaretti.

Life is good:  be there for it.

image:  The Italian wine Vin Santo with its traditional food pairing of Biscotti, Paolo Piscolla

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Towards the end of the day yesterday I marvelled at the extreme blue of whatever flowers those were outside Nordstrom’s, Love-in-a-Mist maybe, the kind that used to inhabit my old garden and re-seed themselves each year; an intensive course of blue like an intensive language course, full submersion in color instead of in words, letting one’s whole idea of the world, one’s very being, be shaped by the medium of expression—in this case that blue.

It was a moment of gladness in the ongoing sameness of the chilly rain, the otherwise again gray day.  Love in a mist literally.

images:  Nigella damascena, Love-in-a-Mist, Wildfeuer

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Places I Would Rather Be

On this gray day in May?  In the wonderful soapy Istanbul of Billy Collins's poem, drinking mint tea and contemplating grilled lamb after the pleasures of a good cleansing of body and of soul.


It was a pleasure to enter by a side street
in the center of the city
a bathhouse said to be 300 years old,
old enough to have opened the pores of Florence Nightingale
and soaped the musical head of Franz Liszt.

And it was a pleasure to drink
cold wine by a low wood fire
before being directed to a small room in an upper gallery,
a room with a carpet and a narrow bed
where I folded my clothes into a pile
then came back down, naked
except for a gauzy striped cloth tucked around my waist.

It was an odd and eye-opening sensation
to be led by a man with close-cropped hair
and spaces between his teeth
into a steamy marble rotunda
and to lie there alone on the smooth marble
watching the droplets fall through the beams
of natural light in the high dome
and later to hear the song I sang –
‘She Thinks I Still Care’ – echo up into the ceiling.

I felt like the last of the sultans
when the man returned and began to scrub me –
to lather and douse me, scour and shampoo me,
and splash my drenched body
with fresh warm water scooped from a marble basin.

But it was not until he sudsed me
behind my ears and between my toes
that I felt myself filling with gratitude
the way a cloud fills with rain,
the way a glass pipe slowly fills with smoke.

In silence I thanked the man
who scrubbed the bottoms of my feet.
I thanked the history of the Turkish bath
and the long chain of bathmen standing unshaven,
arms folded, waiting for the next customer
to come through the swinging doors of frosted glass.

I thanked everyone whose job
it ever was to lay hands on the skin of strangers,
and I gave general thanks that I was lying
facedown in a warm puddle of soap
and not a warm puddle of blood
in some corner of this incomprehensible city.

As one bucket after another
of warm water was poured over my lowered head,
I stopped thinking of who and what to thank
and rode out on a boat of joy,
a blue boat of marble and soap,

rode out to the entrance of the harbour
where I raised a finger of good-bye
then felt the boat begin to rise and fall
as it met the roll of the incoming waves,
bearing my body, my clean, blessed body out to sea.

(Billy Collins)

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Turkish Baths, Mallorca

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Joies de Vivre

A little rustic sangria made with a glass of ordinary red wine, a little Cointreau, and the juice of a thick-skinned orange someone has given you.  Serve over shaved ice, in a favorite glass.

image:  Sangria at Lunch, Seth Anderson 

Saturday, May 14, 2011


I like to think the term arch-angels tells about some kind of gentle deities of those portals which rise gracefully skyward both in peopled cloisters and in ruinous abbeys—enabling passage, flight.  A family, maybe, and maybe amiably dysfunctional; or a guild.

And an arch-villain, then, is one who prevents passage, blocks the openings, prohibits rise.  (And don't we all know at least one of those?)

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Mallorca Arches, Miramar Monastery 

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Picture and a Thought

For Friday, a picture and a thought.

The picture is of the lovely green bottles of Mallorca, big as a hug; the green glass demijohns with something of the opalescence of Roman glass.
The thought:
It’s not easy to tell which end
is which of a resting snail.

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Demijohns, Mallorca

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Places I Would Rather Be

On the Seine at Vernon, with Bonnard, on this day desperately in need of his colors and peaceful eye.

image:  Pierre Bonnard, The Seine at Vernon, Art Institute of Chicago

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


About to start my day with morello cherries, I’m told that they are even finer soaked in grappa.  Be still, my Italian heart!

I remember buying a whole kilo of cherries in a mountain village in Crete and eating them as we drove, sowing new trees with the spent pits.

image:  philadelphia cherries, Michael Ströck

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Color of the Day

My color of the day—and week—seems to be blue.  Love this archdeacon's brilliant blue door in Durham, and wish I were back strolling the cathedral close and having supper at the Almshouses before returning to my castle for the night.

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Blue Door

Saturday, May 7, 2011



I've been enjoying Yanabah, a Navajo tea made from the southwestern herb greenthread.  Iced, it tastes rather like peppermint, and offers an aromatic whiff of the desert.

image:  Bundles of Leaves, Stems, and Flowers

Friday, May 6, 2011

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cinco de Mayo

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

I am reminded of my visits to Mexican mercados, which were foreign and therefore magical to me. 

My first trip out of the country was with my Spanish class in tenth grade, all the way to Mexico City by train.  In the mercado there I was enchanted by onyx chess pieces smooth to the hand, embroidered cotton dresses other girls bought long as graceful shin or golden ankle bone, light lace-winged butterflies of silver filagree about to fly, and then contrarily great sides of beef hanging heavy and raw from ceiling hooks. 

In Mazatlán five years later, during spring break, I sat in the shade of a canvas awning in another mercado and ate fish soup with pungent cilantro, drinking a lukewarm cerveza or maybe Coca Cola in a little clouded bottle wet from the cooler, held for a wistful moment to my temple.  I was flushed with too much southern sun, and the cotton dress I bought myself, with its elaborate embroidery of flowers, felt rough against my sunburnt skin, the foot I’d cut on coral while snorkeling and daydreaming of love and the slow songs of George Harrison back in Los Angeles.

I’d been on my way to those foreign, immanent places always already.  Back in childhood, early as memory, the dusky smell of the big paper flowers in the Old Mexico Shop down one of the narrow streets behind the cathedral in Santa Fe, the hammered tin boxes and frames, the smoky mirrors within, promised me all the markets I could want, and other unimaginable transformations that would someday with the bright threads of the hand-embroidered dresses and their sad-eyed makers come.

Witchery of the best sort.

image:  Artesana textil de Puebla, México, Codo

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


This speaks—nay, sings!—to my need to rid myself of my burden of stuff.

"Simply Imperfect is a fully revised and updated edition of The Wabi-Sabi House, aimed at moving past our belief in life, liberty and the pursuit of stuff to finding beauty in austerity, serenity and authenticity." (Mother Earth News)

And I do adore this illustration of Wabi-Sabi in the home:

"So wonderfully Wabi-Sabi"

Monday, May 2, 2011

Places I Would Rather Be

Having my "author's photo" taken in Mallorca, rather than tackling endless long-neglected piles at home with no end of my lifetime's flotsam anywhere in sight.

Clarity is all I ask.  Clear surfaces (and depths) bring a clear mind.  And breathing space.

image:  Tina Horne, Son Marroig

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Walls Seven

Walls can provide joyous uplift, too, as above,
or safety, as in this bit of Robert Browning's poem,
Andrea del Sarto

That length of convent-wall across the way 
Holds the trees safer, huddled more inside