Thursday, May 28, 2015

Notes on the Need for Beauty

I am feeling fragile at the moment, drawn and quartered by impossible demands, and find myself in need of beauty.  I am inspired by this book, which I would love to tuck myself under the shabby chic coverlet to read, to draw up my own notes on that compelling, urgent need, as real as thirst or vitamin-deficiency.

And I find others' thoughts on beauty, on how it's won, often as not hard-won, from despair, clouds, windstorms—exactly those things I'm fighting.

“ . . . you can
drip with despair all afternoon and still,
on a green branch, its wings just lightly touched
by the passing foil of the water, the thrush,
puffing out its spotted breast, will sing
of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.”
 (Mary Oliver, “The Poet with His Face in His Hands”)

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.”  (Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds)

“Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.”  (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross)


image:  Coeur de Lavande en Provence

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Season to Taste

It is an in-between sort of season, summer set going (or about to be) by the Memorial Day weekend, but a distinct chill in the air, even midday.  I wear two sweaters and a robe, mostly, today long sleeves with jaunty stripes.

The archaeology has started already on Crete, and I remember the year I was there, this week and on past my birthday—staying on the north coast in the Venetian harbor town, eating Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts for breakfast in the pink café next to the Turkish bathhouse where Zorba’s Bouboulina worked (or cheese or wild green pies from the market shaped like a staurolite), prowling the Minoan ruins, eating fresh trout at night on Mt. Ida after negotiating impassible roads—no more than goat tracks, all of rocks and climb—given directions by revenant shepherds who vanished completely afterwards, elusive as the villages imagined by the mapmakers beyond the little beehive tholos tomb.

And June, which is it nearly, but not yet, and yet again years past, in Santa Fe meant roses.  Peace, Tiffany, Garden Party—all the old-fashioned names; and doors open at last after the months of snow and tumbleweeds and dreariness, with only screens between us and the sound of sprinklers, birds; long idle summer mornings out of school, reading, collecting rocks (quartz crystals, amethyst, chalcedony, maybe a bit of glassy black obsidian, or moss agate), and then, soon, horseback riding on long shady trails at Bishop’s Lodge, hilly trail rides on my favorite Dusty, the palomino.  In junior high, pining for all the boys I madly loved and wouldn’t see again until August.  Mock orange in fragrant bloom outside my bedroom there, those childhood summer nights and days—and now, this year, I have a bush against the side fence here, but not as heavenly somehow.  The buds reluctant, and the odor faint, like brittle faded flowers pressed in books for remembrance.

The wind unsettles me; I can’t lose myself either in the present or the past, or find myself, either; my writing stalls.  I make indifferent tarts that should have been better; the evenings disappear much sooner than they ought; I’m in some sort of fugue state, bumbling my way to what?

I’ll make a summer reading list, and finish the story I’m writing.  I’ll decorate a tart with edible flowers, copying another’s inspiration.  I’ll make bread with sunflower seeds, tagine with apricots.  I’ll study something new (Estonian, or the bassoon), travel to England, walk along the shore with Oliver Mtukudze on my iPod, watching the impossibly white herons conjugating water, articulating grace.

I’ll season things to taste—chili from Santa Fe, wild sage from those hillsides in Crete, mint from my planter box with blue glass balls that add distilled color and light.  And in that season just ahead will be picnics and garden parties strung with Japanese lanterns; Peruvian coffee cupped in cold hands beside a mountain creek running with snow-melt underneath long sandstone Anasazi caves.

Stirring with wooden spoons all afternoon— tweaking the recipe—adding a pinch of cinnamon—soon it will taste exactly right.

image:  Yinova Center

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Keeping Things Well in Hand

The past makes me much happier than the future, because it’s not nearly as scary.  What happened there, horrific as it might have been, has already happened.  Though a new light may be shed on things long past and in our minds decided (new Minoan palaces dug out from a thyme-scented hillside in the west of Crete; lost plays by Shakespeare uncovered under floorboards; a love child of some virgin queen traced through a line of DNA—or letters—or a cryptic record in a parish church), it mostly can’t hurt us, can’t send us toppling into a dizzying unknown.

It’s in the yet uncharted seas of what might be coming at us, beyond our least control, that monsters swarm.

I’m perfectly content to linger in the deepest caves of Lascaux, El Castillo, Sulawesi, Argentina, marveling at the mystery of the painted animals there in the dark, bringing the rocks to life; the mystery after all familiar and as true to me as my hand print.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Morning Miscellany

Some things that come to mind or eye or hand today—

. the favorite picture of us sitting on the fountain’s edge at Mission San Luis Obispo, with the stone bear fishing with big gentle paws in the water behind us

. a book of daily meditations for women “who do too much”:  a gift from a high school friend I haven’t seen since having dinner with our families on the Kona Coast one Chinese New Year, at a long table under the palms with sea turtles nearby and paper dragon

. Stendhal’s Promenades dans Rome

. the black pottery rabbit from San Ildefonso Pueblo given to me by the English Brigadier General who taught us Latin

. Lost Songs of the Silk Road

. a mango

. my mother’s toucan socks

. Santa Fe clouds

. this window at the old pottery shop at Allied Arts, one of my first forays into photography

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Pottery Shop

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

But Still

"When in doubt, simply be still. Stop, breathe, inwardly listen. Repeat this many times every day. Being still and quiet is the ultimate spiritual practice. Keep it this simple and you will see the results for yourself. But you must actually do it, not just think about it. Stop, breath, and inwardly listen to the listening. Repeat this many times every day."
There are many kinds of still, yet all I think related.

A still, the noun, is a container—something in which you distill liquids (almond liqueur, orange peel and coffee grappa, fennel or rose elixer . . .); the method of distilling things, getting at their quintessence.  It is the chamber, the vessel, in which the ultimate spirit of things quietly and wordlessly collects.

Still, the adverb, means continuance.  Still listening, carrying on, present.  “I’m still here.”  In the depths of the herb essences, the humming verdigris of temple bell, enduring quietly behind the busy hubbub of life scrambling desperately forward.

But still, another adverb, gives a gentle protest.  “I’m listening.”  “But still, you’re not hearing what I’m trying to say.”  It counters asking for a deeper stillness, a liquid stillness offered in exchange.

And then there's still more, still stiller, as still as it is possible to be.

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Clay Bird

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day Flowers

The velvety petunias, a sultry deep purple, hanging on the arbor in my patio in northern California, here, now, remind me of those others long ago in Santa Fe, in my mother’s front flower bed below the porch.  Remind me of how horrified my mother was that day when—either under her orders or in a moment of offhanded kindness, seeing something that needed doing and wanting to help—the neighbor lady from across the street and I picked off all of the spent petunia flowers from her tidy row of plants, there every summer for the neighborhood to see.

Only we didn’t know the nature of petunias, then, either of us, and ended up picking all of the new buds off, because they’re the same general shape, softly wrinkled and tubular, as the blooms that are done blooming for good.

How could I know?

How couldn’t I?

For all the ways I let my mother down over the years—failure to see, impatience, clumsiness—I’m sorry and I’m sad.  Learning the world and its beings (ourselves maybe, always, above all) has at its heart the indelible tragedy of failed attempts, of well-meaning not good enough, of those buds picked unwittingly too soon.

That purple carries the beauty of heartbreak within its joyful wholehearted beauty; and the pungent smell of the (yes, really) wilted flowers which I’ve picked just now, with infinite and rueful care, is redolent of the losses that fill every moment to the brim, spilling over, releasing the anguish that is always one but not the only essential part of the whole.  Absolving.

For in the end, I’m sure, my mother laughed.  After the scolding and the exclamations of how stupid we had been, it all came right again, and from disgrace came grace in moving on, seeing the pain and loss informing the next buds.

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, Purple Petunias

Monday, May 4, 2015

Three or Four Possible Sunday Mornings

I.  We sat yesterday morning in the shade-dappled garden and breakfasted on buttery croissants and jam—a seedy raspberry my aunt put into jars last summer, just picked from her berry vines.  We slept in late as always on Sundays, then went out barefoot, tousled still, throwing on one of the threadbare cotton robes that falls mid-shin or my favorite soft yellow sweatshirt with its overlong sleeves rolled, taking coffee and books, Italian mugs and the cafetière to set with just-cut roses on the breakfast table.

II.  Or so it should have been, and might have—if we weren’t both on diets, one against sugar (even in deliquescent light-filled ruby guise) and the other against butter and fat, like Jack Sprat and his wife; if the shade wasn’t gone, the trees all felled by those engaged in some blood feud against all hapless foreign-spirited creatures with leaf and bark; if we hadn’t been wakened by the goats next door as soon as it got light, or by an early rabid leaf-blower or weed-whacker or demolition crew on overtime, which left us riled and cross and as always lately unable to get back to sleep, to brace ourselves, restore ourselves for the onslaught of yet another week of thankless work.  Coffee we had, all right, and books, and what was left of wishful thinking, wistful hopes, but all the rest was fiction (unskillfully self-published at that, not Henry James or Colette, Vladimir Nabokov or Eudora Welty).  All “rust and stardust,” as Nabokov said.

III.  The truth lies somewhere in between, or elsewhere.  Shade there was, but not of trellised roses in an English garden with graceful old trees over the croquet lawn.  My olive-dappled corner and the chunk of shade thrown by the house which he likes to sit in, a stretch of cracked concrete between and maybe a lizard or two.  My breakfast was tamales, quirkily, no healthier than croissants but a treat of choice from time to time, remembering May Santa Fe mornings; and his, the usual cinnamon-scented oatmeal.  The robes utterly real, the mug from Montreal, the coffee from a drip filter, the table and roses made up in this case though never impossible.

 IV.  Variations on the perfect Sunday morning.  The New York Times at a café with notebook/ laptop writers everywhere and big lumbersome dogs.  Moroccan eggs on Columbus up on Central Park West.  Sourdough pancakes (shaped like Jefferson Airplanes, my father’s whimsey), drenched in crabapple syrup.  Scones and friends on Canyon Road.  A simple picnic by the creek with thermos, or just sitting one long-ago time across the purling water from a cabin with open windows and doors from which the Emperor Concerto spilled.  Cazadero, deep summer.  The church bells on Lake Como, heavy shutters thrown aside.  Good solid Lutheran hymns, or murmuring from the Zendo under the pines.  A sliver of a moon washed out from the pale, bluing sky.