Thursday, February 28, 2013

Keeping an Eye on the Sky


The sky began to tilt,
a shift of light toward the higher clouds,
so I seized my brush
and dipped my little cup in the stream,

but once again I streaked the paper gray
with a hint of green,
water began to slide down the page,
rivulets looking for a river.

And again, I was too late—
then the sky made another turn,
this time as if to face a mirror
held in the arm of an outstretched god.

—Billy Collins

image:  Sky, Christie B. Cochrell

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

But Suppose

"Liberation beckons us within everything."
—Li Song
Some days it is enough to be aware of the enormous mystery of life, and others, I need to plunge in, follow the clues, attempt to solve.

There is no solution, of course—only endless puzzling.  Some days the idea of knowing, of figuring out, seems like the liberation I’m seeking (freedom from bafflement, from ignorance, from contained and unenlightened thought); but in the end, I think, it’s accepting the mystery and never-knowing that’s the liberation of Li Song, and the almost baffling happiness of Rilke.

“But suppose the endlessly dead were to
wake in us some emblem:
they might point to the catkins hanging
from the empty hazel trees, or direct
us to the rain
descending on black earth in early
spring. ---

And we, who always think of happiness
rising, would feel the emotion
that almost baffles us
when a happy thing falls.”

—Maria Rainer Rilke, Duino Elegies

image:  what beckons; photo:  The Beauty of Arts

Friday, February 22, 2013

St. Apollonia, Winnie the Pooh, and the Myth of the Sown Men

“I want to see an elephant hunt down a man for the sole purpose of collecting his teeth, while a chorus of typewriters sings songs that praises the bananas for their wisdom, leadership, and their high levels of potassium.”
—Jarod Kintz, I Want
I am ruminating on teeth, after having three pulled.  No tooth fairy has come in the night to pay me for them; I see I’m going to have to find my own recompense.  Time off work certainly counts, as do the pleasures of carrot juice and mashed potatoes, not to mention chocolate pudding.

But further, with time to explore the subject, I learn that the tradition of the tooth fairy goes way back.  “In northern Europe, there was also a tradition of tann-fé or tooth fee, which was paid when a child lost their first tooth. This tradition is recorded in writings as early as the Eddas, which are the earliest written record of Norse and Northern European traditions.”  The Wikipedia article goes on to say that parents tend to view the myth as providing comfort for children in the loss of their tooth.  That makes good sense.

Less easy to understand, except viscerally, is the motif in Greek mythology of sowing teeth—dragon’s or alternately serpent’s—and harvesting warriors from them.
“Two batches of Spartoi were sown. The first were those of Thebes, sown by the hero Kadmos [Cadmus, a Phoenician prince] from the teeth of the sacred Drakon of the spring of Ismene. He cast a stone among them as they were emerging from the earth and they fell to fighting. Only five survived the battle, who joined Kadmos in the founding of the city of Thebes. 
The second batch was sown by Iason (or Jason) in the fields of Kolkhis on the Black Sea. The task was demanded of him by King Aeetes, from whom he and the Argonauts had come to fetch the Golden Fleece. Like Kadmos he threw a stone among these earth-born warriors and they fell to fighting.”
In a fascinating rumination of the sort I love, Robert K. Temple in The Sirius Mystery attributes this myth to the ancient “sacred game” of punning, of cloaking truths by use of synonyms (perhaps like Cockney rhyming slang?)—in this case, truths connected with the lore of the dog star, Sirius.  The name of one of the sown men was Udaeus, “of the earth,” which was closely related to the Greek word meaning “to bite,” and specifically, the biting of dogs.  In Egypt, from whence the doctrine of Sirius came, the word for tooth has exactly the same hieroglyph as the word for Earth—which, tilted, is the sign for the dog star.

More directly, the classical legends of Cadmus and Jason have given rise to the phrase "to sow dragon's teeth." This is used as a metaphor to refer to doing something that has the effect of stirring up disputes.

Not surprisingly, teeth have a long history of use in African, European, and African American magic.  As in the myths, they’re associated with biting, rending, or obtaining things through forcible means.  Some people, it is said, bind a tooth with a personal item of their worst enemy and conjure the foe to lose his teeth.

I like the loss of Winnie the Pooh’s “sweet tooth” in this punning video, Nothing but the Tooth.  I especially love it when they try to put the tooth back by tying it on with string.

Off to resume my inner dialog with Saint Apollonia, patroness of dentists since her martyrdom in Alexandria, and to daydreams of crusty deep-dish pizza and toothsome roasts.

image:  Saint Apollonia, Rood Screens of East Anglia

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Yellow Days

As in India, we were told, they have the Pink Days, we’re now having our Yellow Days—the five acacias along the driveway in full bloom, and their upstart offspring, mere slips slipping along the fence between our yard and the professor’s next door; and then (that long-ago then) the wash of yellow mustard weed washing the hillsides of their winter glum, transfiguring the rows of ascetic black crosses of the dormant vineyards.  The mustard weed washed my despair away back then, when I fled my winter confinement for the promises of life and wakening across the valley in the blue-tiled town named for wildcats.

I don’t think I own one single yellow shirt or skirt or sweater, not even socks.  And yet yellow has meant hope and freedom and promise to me, since that discovery of the mustard weed that distant January.  And it is radiance, pure and simple, in the paintings of Bonnard.

I love that “Bonnarding” has become a verb tense, meaning wandering around and adding yellow to paintings.

"Sometimes, having mixed one of his burning hues . . . and applied it to the work in progress, he would wander around the house from canvas to canvas, finding little places where he could insert what he had left over.’  Bonnard was also known to retouch his work even after it had left his possession:  ‘I always carry in my pocket a little box with some colours ready in it.  When I come across one of my canvases that displeases me, out comes my little box, and I fix it.’  In the most famous yarn of all, the artist once persuaded Vuillard to distract a guard at the Musée Luxembourg, while he surreptitiously reworked a painting that had been hanging there for several years."

image:  Pierre Bonnard, Bouquet de mimosas

Monday, February 18, 2013

Places I Would Rather Be

My thoughts are here today, planning my next Mallorcan mystery.  And then, realizing that I have a friend with a house nearby, and plans for a writing workshop . . . occasion for scheming and daydreaming, since there's likely no way for me to join the archaeologists working on the Roman forum.

While back in California it's gray, a day off with no lure to it.

image:  Ancient Roman Theatre, Pollentia, Mallorca

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Circling the Wagons

Crushed by discouragement late yesterday, I’m gathering things around me this morning that make me feel happy and brave.
  • these Matisse red onions
  • warm hot cross buns, with custard and raisins and bits of red candied cherries
  • the thought of Café Sabarsky (that indulgent Viennese coffee house), in uptown Manhattan
  • a recipe for Treviso style spareribs, pan-roasted with sage
  • an old Josephine Tey mystery, The Man in the Queue, to reread under a flowered quilt
  • the young Luciano Pavarotti singing “O Dolore
  • half-written stories I want to finish
  • the phoebe out the kitchen window

image:  Henri Matisse, The Red Onions

Thursday, February 14, 2013

From My Heart

Happy Valentine's Day!

“I will love you as a shingle loves falling off a house on a windy day and striking a grumpy person across the chin, and as an oven loves malfunctioning in the middle of roasting a turkey.”
—Lemony Snicket

“I will love you if you abandon the theremin and take up the harmonica and I will love you if you donate your marmosets to the zoo and your tree frogs to M. I will love you as a starfish loves a coral reef and as a kudzu loves trees, even if the oceans turn to sawdust and the trees fall in the forest without anyone around to hear them. I will love you as the pesto loves the fettuccini and as the horseradish loves the miyagi, as the tempura loves the ikura and the pepperoni loves the pizza.”

—Lemony Snicket


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

An Unwritten Page

A day off, on which I can write anything.  

What will it be?

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Cape Cod

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Phrase and the Day

“The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?” 
—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

image:  Gustav Klimt, Island on Lake Atter

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Always Meant to Meet Here


This morning I saw suddenly
on the road ahead of me
the moving question mark of a snake,
black thumb of a head lifted,
some ancient node within the dark hood
urging the long thin body forward,
sensing its way
through its slippery existence
as it had been doing since birth,
slithering toward our moment of intersection,
the swishing passage no longer hidden by grass
or the wet cover of leaves,
but its entire length visible now
in the pure daylight of this dilated second,

just as I had been moving toward it, too,
all my life,
in my own upright, warm-blooded way,
walking the long sidewalks, riding trains,
leaning on the railing of a ferry,
or as today, driving a country road,
which from the air would look like a snake itself
curling through the dense green woods.

No moment was given there
spacious enough
to brake or swerve within,
only time enough to keep my line,
hoping without hope,
knowing, as I needled through the instant,
that the two of us had always been meant to meet here,
my curved line crossing his
as on some unknowable graph
spread out on a vast table
under the glare of a hanging lamp
a relentless diagram,
millions of faint red lines
forming millions of tiny squares.

—Billy Collins, from Picnic, Lightning

Welcome, Year of the Snake.

image:  Fossil Snake

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Last Ride of the Tiger Tickler

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, but “the Last Ride of the Tiger Tickler” seems a good way to see out the tiger we’ve been riding all this year, the Year of the Tiger; descriptive of our situation at the end of it.
“It reminds him of a tale the elder monks told him once, when he was a youngster: the Last Ride of the Tiger Tickler. There was, according to fiction, a man who came upon an untended tiger cub. He took it home and raised it, and, when it was fully grown, he took to riding into town on its back. He steered the beast with a silk handkerchief: he’d lean forward and flick the tiger’s left or right ear to make it turn, or brush its nose to make it start or stop. Of course, the tiger, brought up on milk and honey lapped from a bowl held in the kind man’s hands, didn’t know any better, so he went along with it. Disregarding the tiresome details of the tale, when the Tiger Tickler mistakenly rides into town on a different tiger, who despite similar build and markings has a radically different opinion as to the rightful place of mankind (namely in, not on), everybody gets eaten up.”
—David Whiteland, Book of Pages
Ours has been a friendly tiger, for the most part.
“There is a tiger in my room,” said Frances.
“Did he bite you?” said Father.
“No,” said Frances.
“Did he scratch you?” said Mother.
“No,” said Frances.
“Then he is a friendly tiger,” said Father. “He will not hurt you. Go back to sleep.”
—Russell Hoban, Bedtime for Frances
Following the tiger tracks, through the valleys and hills of the past twelve months . . . where is it we’ve arrived?
“The one certainty in tiger tracks is: follow them long enough and you will eventually arrive at a tiger, unless the tiger arrives at you first.”
—John Vaillant, The Tiger:  A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
I can’t say, with any certainty; can’t tell the moral of our year’s story, either.  If the weather keeps us in this weekend, by the fire, under quilts, pouring tea from our rose-painted bone china pot, that will be good to ponder.

image:  Tigress photo by Ashley Vincent; all photos copyright National Geographic Photo Contest.  Matador Network

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Eating Light

“There is a bench in the back of my garden shaded by Virginia creeper, climbing roses, and a white pine where I sit early in the morning and watch the action.  Light blue bells of a dwarf campanula drift over the rock garden just before my eyes.  Behind it, a three-foot stand of aconite is flowering now, each dark blue cowl-like corolla bowed for worship or intrigue:  thus its common name, monkshood.  Next to the aconite, black madonna lilies with their seductive Easter scent are just coming into bloom.  At the back of the garden, a hollow log, used in its glory days for a base to split kindling, now spills white cascade petunias and lobelia.

I can't get enough of watching the bees and trying to imagine how they experience the abundance of, say, a blue campanula blosssom, the dizzy light pulsing, every fiber of being immersed in the flower.

 . . .

I would not call this meditation, sitting in the back garden. Maybe I would call it eating light.”

—Mary Rose O’Reilley, The Barn at the End of the World:  The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd

images: Campanula Rotundifolia, Plant World

Campanula poscharskyana, Great Plant Picks

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Of Kings and Car Parks

I have been truly thrilled this week by the awaited confirmation that the bones found under the Leicester car park are indeed those of King Richard III—someone whose story has engaged me ever since college, one January when I took a class called “Royal Scandals” which considered various historic mysteries which have never been and may never be solved.  I was as rapt by the apparent wrongful defamation of the man with only evidence made up by Tudor adversaries (which was then of course made famous by Shakespeare and passed on as unquestioned truth rather than the fine fanciful yarn it was), as by the mysteries of Dorothy Sayers, investigations of another learned sort made by Lord Peter Wimsy, which I discovered that same winter.  Josephine Tey’s investigation of the Richard mystery in The Daughter of Time is one of the most compelling books I’ve ever read.

Finding the lost king, with his scars of final battle, is why I love archaeology.  The wonder that the past can speak again, can pick up the story where it trailed off into silence, five hundred years later.
“The discovery of King Richard III is nothing short of miraculous, an emotional link to a bygone age.”

Finding the bones of a lost king beneath a city car park—there’s a strange thought, but whimsical.

Whether it will correct the bad rap Richard’s been stuck with isn’t certain, but as another comment in the press release says, “This is a unique moment in history. Richard III has been found and can now be given a reinterment with dignity and solemnity, something denied him these last 500 or more years.”

And as food for thought, as you go back to watching Laurence Olivier in his over-the-top rendition of the fictional monarch:

Richard III was an innovative king of England; initiatives such as the Council of the North, an early example of devolution, lasted until the mid-seventeenth century; his legal reforms continued long after his death, with some still embedded in our laws today. Noteworthy aspects of his reign include:
• being the  first king to use English to swear his coronation oath and to record acts of parliament.  
• a commitment to fair play in the judicial system: his actions and proclamations stressing that his laws were to be administered impartially without delay or favour, thereby helping to establish the legal principle of ‘blind justice.’
• development of an early form of Legal Aid, which provided support for those unable to afford lawyers by allowing people to make direct petitions to the Royal Council. Under Henry VII this became the Court of Requests.
• introduction of bail, thereby initiating the legal principle of ‘presumption of innocence.’
• active encouragment of the fledging book printing industry, a policy reflecting the king’s own personal interest in books.

images:  Facial reconstruction from a 3D scan of the Greyfriars skull created by Professor Caroline Wilkinson of Dundee University and commissioned by the Richard III Society.  Image copyright: The Richard III Society
Christie B. Cochrell, Window at Barnard Castle constructed by Richard III

Friday, February 1, 2013

People I Might Like to Be

The girl with her blond hair in a French braid carrying a satchel of schoolwork.

The man who holds the Stop and Slow sign (easily reversed) for the road crew on the hilly stretch of the curvaceous back road; now stopped himself for half an hour to stand in the oak shade and eat a taco scented with cumin, oregano.

The Hawaiian worker clearing spring weeds in the private vineyard where they’ve planted sixteen rows of Cabernet Sauvignon.

One of the three friends walking with an old golden retriever, like something out of an Anne Tyler novel only not in Baltimore.

Or myself, maybe.  Stirring the cinnamon and kalamata olives into my Greek stew, my hands smelling of chopped garlic and the pink roses I’ve just settled into a pitcher.