Friday, September 03, 2010
Thursday, July 01, 2010
This photo of my garden bed shows Foxglove (left -- flowering), catnip (front), bee balm (right), mint (in the colored containers) and towering Feverfew.
A drawing of the Foxglove blossoms.
The bee balm, which I originally thought had not wintered over, proved me wrong with these gorgeous red blossoms.
A sketch of Bee Balm.
A view of flowering Soapwort (ugly name -- gorgeous flowers). Soapwort leaves have been used as soap since the Renaissance.
Soapwort blossoms will surprise you with their delicate perfume.
First-year gardener Michel grew some fine irises this year.
A bouquet of Feverfew.
My neighbor Susan's herb garden.
Shannon's colorful creative patch.
Jon's Buddha, appropriate for the Garden Guru.
Small apples from a little apple tree Jon planted.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
But the new odd thing was not something within the library – at least that’s what Johannes thought at first. A subdued, soft-spoken man in his early sixties, he had lived in some of the world’s greatest cities – Berlin, London, Singapore, New York. The only child of a wealthy couple, he had attended private schools. The three of them lived off the income of a successful furrier business. He had traveled extensively with his parents and never felt the rancor or rebelliousness many children in circumstances similar to his had harbored. He loved them deeply and when they grew older he had spared no expense in prolonging their lives, first in retirement communities, then in assistant living facilities. The business had long since been sold, and it cost what remained of their entire fortune to provide them with the best care throughout their extended old ages. Now he lived hand-to-mouth, working as a security guard at a hospital where he earned barely enough to maintain his minimal expenses and the cheap studio apartment he rented over a downtown coffee shop. He was neither bitter nor happy, but was resigned.
One of his greatest pleasures was the library. Its storehouse of books, computers, music, newspapers and magazines – all for free – represented an enormous treasure to him and he had suffered during the time it was temporarily downsized for a year and then closed for over a month during renovations and expansion. It wouldn’t have been an exaggeration to say that as far as he was concerned, if for some unthinkable reason the library had closed for good, it would have meant the end of his existence.
The first time he sat in the luminous glass atrium under the uncanny lamps in that lofty space, he was so overwhelmed he couldn’t focus on the sections of the old New York Times he collected at work, but found himself sipping coffee and simply absorbing the refined atmosphere, watching the people who drifted past like bright fish in an aquarium, letting his mind drift in fabulous directions. The splashing sound of the newly restored Little Water Girl fountain in the entranceway outside was most hypnotic. During his second visit he managed to read a bit more (collected stories of Maupassant this time), but was still so entranced that he found himself drifting into a meditative sense of complete comfort and well-being. The third time he sat in the café, he read more steadily, growing accustomed to his new haven. But this was when he first noticed something odd.
He had been sitting and reading, sipping coffee, gazing occasionally at the dark-red Victorian brick facades across the street. He had strolled past those buildings hundreds of times and had never realized that rows of small, mullioned windows of colored glass glittered in the sun on some of the upper floors. In fact he was quite sure they were new. Yet how could that be? He had never noticed them before. He shrugged it off as one of the many self-deceptive tricks of aging. Perhaps he had just never studied them from this angle. In subsequent visits, however, he noticed other changes across the street – since when had there been a blue awning over the coffee shop, for example? And on the second floor of the public market, which had recently withstood its own renovations, he could clearly see windows crammed with trees and flowers, when he knew for a fact there were only lots of tables up there lined on the interior by a pizzeria and other vendors.
The next day, before he went to the library, he stopped at the market house, mounted the long wooden staircase to the second floor, and found it to be exactly as he had known – an open room with tables, chairs, and stalls with clever names such as Kamasouptra, Peanut Butter Jelly Time, the Pie in the Sky Pizza and Rock City Coffee Roasters. No plants, trees or flowers in sight. Well, perhaps there had been some sort of special event, he reasoned. The city was constantly transfiguring itself in that way.
He was immersed in the tail end of one of the French tales and was feeling rather sleepy, despite the dark roast he was imbibing. When he looked up a sort of carnival in the square had commenced – people dressed in bright festive clothes were strolling about and children – a multitude of children – were playing some sort of game with large green balls and hoops. There was music too – an accordion player and a guitarist and a singer and ladies dressed in fancy dresses were dancing, swinging to and fro, accompanied by men in striped shirts. How completely odd this was. Some sort of Society of Creative Anachronism, he supposed. But it looked positively Parisian – a far cry from medieval jousting or Civil War skirmishes. Excitedly he grabbed his book and went inside to the circulation desk where he approached Babette, the former dancer. “Look,” he gasped breathlessly, “In the square. Over there. What’s going on?”
Babette looked up from her pile of books. She gazed past him and then looked up. “Mr. Kappel,” she said mildly, “That’s nothing but some kind of protest going on. Nothing that unusual. Are you feeling yourself today?” Her look of confusion turned to one of apprehension, and then concern. “Perhaps you’d like to sit down.”
“Oh, no, no, quite all right. I just dozed off for a moment, I’m afraid,” he muttered and staggered off, out the door and onto the sidewalk where he could clearly see that yes, indeed, there was a scraggly mob of people with picket signs, protesting health care reform or the incessant wars or excessive taxation. There were no musicians or costumes or children playing with hoops. He immediately went home, called in sick to his evening shift at the hospital, and lay down in the dark with an ice pack on his forehead. He feared he might be losing his mind.
He didn’t venture back to the library for several days. He took brisk walks, bought expensive salads he couldn’t afford and sat in the coffee shop below his apartment. But everything was as usual, the same buildings, the same sorts of people, everything in its place. No sudden changes or manifestations or hallucinations. Perhaps he had fallen asleep that day. The more he walked and the more spinach he ate, the more he was convinced that was the case.
Still, he felt apprehensive the next time he entered the new archway and walked past the newly restored statue of the young girl with the bare feet, an endless spray of water pouring from a bowl in her hands to the basin below. He returned the Bowles, smiled broadly at the librarians and took his time selecting a book from the special section of books recommended by the library staff – The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald, a novel he had always meant to read. He signed it out, carried it into the bright café, took off his heavy wool coat and gloves and sat down at his table. It was late April and unseasonably chilly outside.
Casually he sat down, crossed his legs and commenced reading about life in England: “At the end of September 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live. For some 25 kilometres the road runs amdist fields and hedgerows, beneath spreading oak trees, past a few scattered hamlets, till at length Hingham appears, its asymmetrical gables, church tower and treetops barely rising above the flatland. The market place, broad and lined with silent facades, was deserted, but still it did not take us long to find the house the agents had described.” He pretended to be absorbed in the narrative, though the truth was he filled with trepidation, afraid to look over at the square. Afraid of what? Afraid that things would have changed, or that they might be the same? The second he considered the latter possibility he immediately raised his woolly, silver head.
The changes were vast this time. It was a new city, grown from within the old. The square itself had become a park with tall flowering chestnut trees that looked to be at least 100 years old. And the people – he could see immediately they were European. The bleak old Victorian buildings had given way to lovely, colorful houses painted in blues and greens and yellows with slanting rooftops and window-boxes.
This time Johann didn’t even consider sharing his vision with any of the other patrons or the staff. No, now he was quite content to sit and watch the transmogrification of the past, present and future as it unrolled before his eyes – a miracle of time and space that defied all reason and yet, he realized, made perfect and absolute sense. He turned back and gazed around the cafe. The other patrons, a mixture of young, middle-aged and elderly Portlanders, including two Somalis, and one Cambodian, were all immersed in their own separate journeys through time.
Sunday, June 06, 2010
Here are some drawings I made of some of the BCG garden plants:
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Graywolf and I walk around the cove, along the boulevard. It is brisk and windy and he has his woolen hood up. Not that anyone can see him anyway, except me. Lots of children have invisible friends. Then they grow up. I guess I didn’t. Grow up, that is, in that way. Graywolf has been with me since my earliest memories. We have been together for decades now. And it suits me fine.
There are two other people who can see him. One is Grady, the old man who lives next to the community garden where I grow herbs and flowers. He can see him as well as I can, and he talks to him. This is reassuring, in a way. It’s how I know I’m not insane. I mean, I know I’m not, anyway. But still, it’s an added proof. The other person is Bessie, a homeless woman who lives out of a shopping cart and talks about celebrities like they’re her friends. “That Tom Cruise, he’s a humdinger, we had crew-sants at Dunkin’ Donuts,” she says. I buy her coffee. She turns and says “thank you” to me and then turns and says “thank you” to Graywolf. He bows and kisses her hand. She giggles like a teenager.
Graywolf likes to curl up in the closet or on the bed at my feet. And he vanishes sometimes, when he senses I need some real alone time. But he always comes back. He goes when I need him to, and he comes back when I need him to. It’s quite the perfect arrangement. You think I’m lying. But it is the truth.
I’m no prude, I’ve been with men. The one who lasted the longest was Spice, a prep cook at a restaurant, DJ on the side. He was just a kid, with pale vampire skin and a mop of tousled black hair. Friend of a friend. Graywolf didn’t approve. Graywolf thought he was a “rotter.” He’s English, Graywolf.
One morning Spice and I were lying there in my bed and he was still asleep – wild coal hair splayed on the pillow next to me, mouth slightly open, like a baby, his scent of tobacco and kitchen and sweat mingling with the freshly laundered cotton sheets. I was awake, watching a little woodpecker circling the tree trunk outside my window and suddenly it occurred to me Graywolf was right. Spice was a loser who ultimately cared not a whit for me, nor I for him really, though we had our fun.
I saw through the whole situation in an instant, like fogged lenses growing clear. I dumped Spice. And it was the right thing to do. After all, I have the extreme privilege of not needing anyone.
Graywolf is about six feet tall, give or take. He wears mustard yellow pants and a green shirt. Also a gray velvet cape with a hood that clasps at the neck with a brass clasp that has an interwoven Celtic design on it. I’ve asked him a thousand times what it stands for, what it means. “Nothing,” he says, but I know that he’s lying, that it stands for something important and essential and if I knew what it was I would unlock his secret and perhaps that would be the end. So I don’t press it too hard. We all need our secrets.
I work in an insurance office, processing claims on a computer. I do research, make phone calls, fill out endless data on endless computer forms. It’s boring but it’s a job. While I work, Graywolf prowls around the office or wanders around the city. At night he tells me stories about the curious things he’s seen and I write them down in a sketchbook with cream pages and a black cover.
I wanted to be an actress. But I didn’t have the right look, or so I was always told. Too plain, too unremarkable, too nondescript. I blended in too well. OK, not talented enough, either, I guess. I’m willing to admit it. The closest I ever came to local fame was being an understudy to Carolyn Lonhurst, who played Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter at the Rivertown Theater Company. Perhaps you saw it? But it was awful, like being a shadow and I hated it. I was so close to The Stage, it was tantalizing, yet it was just out of reach, anguishing. After that I gave up on my dream. I still help out painting scenery and sewing costumes because I like the color and frenzy of opening night. Graywolf and I stay late sometimes and dress up in the costumes. I like watching the plays and knowing my invisible work is contained in the tiny stitches and the acrylic backdrops.
Graywolf has long shaggy fur the color of twilight with all its shades and gradations. His coat is unbelievably soft. He wears his pants long and he walks with a swagger, which is amusing, because he’s not aware of it. He has green eyes, the color of jade from a distant time, from deep within a mountain or a story. When the light hits them they are iridescent and supernatural, like a dark place being illumined. His hearing is acute. He can hear a hawk circling in the bay three miles away.
He has his own quirky personality but he rarely gets on my nerves. He is deep and flat, a bottomless well, a picture card that moves. Quiet as fog, quick as a tongue. Soft spoken. A creature of few words. His form ranges from opaque to transparent. When the sun shines through him he looks like a hologram. Yet he can also achieve full solidity. I stroke his fur, which smells like cardamom.
He was born, perhaps, from a fairy tale. As if the wish became so strong it emerged into reality, fully clothed, gentle, fur-clad and unmasked.
I love him the way you would love a cat or a dog – simply and wholly, in a way it seems impossible to love another human. Sometimes I wonder what will happen when I meet someone I want to stay with forever. How could I tell him about Graywolf? How could I not tell him about Graywolf? It would be a challenge to have a marriage containing three, especially when one of them is invisible. I admit the possibility that Graywolf is the reason I am still “alone.” On the other hand, I suppose it keeps me from falling into something that isn’t real, as so many people do, out of fear or loneliness or a bizarre sense of purpose.
I was not an only child like you might have assumed. I have two younger brothers, Isaac and Michael, athletic types, one in college, one just finished. Our parents are not divorced. My mother is a teacher’s aide and my father is an optometrist, which means I own an assortment of glasses in all kinds of fancy frames. I like gauzy skirts, fancy feather pillows, spiderwebs, dark chocolate, warm rainy days, napping during rainstorms, film noir, pasta, the moon, beeswax candles, Loretta Lynn and Jane Austen. I like hanging around with the Goths sometimes, though I wouldn’t consider myself one, though I keep one front long streak of my short black hair dyed either bright red or dark purple, depending on my mood. I pin it back when I work in the office and no one seems to care. Half of them have piercings and tattoos anyway. What is unique eventually become mainstream.
Graywolf and I walk along the quay in a warm autumn drizzle. It is my favorite time of year, soft and vivid, confetti leaves drifting down from the passionate trees. Scarlet and copper. Still, warm, humid. His soft paw clasps my hand. There aren’t many people about except for a few indomitable joggers, a couple of bicycles whirring past. The day passes into dusk and the new faux old-fashioned black streetlamps come on and the colored lights sparkle in the black water. The sky clears a bit and Venus peeps out from behind the clouds, white on gray. It is a dream. Even though I am an insurance claims clerk and a failed actress, I have never felt ordinary. Nor have I ever experienced true loneliness. Some sadness and some gaps perhaps, but never the piercing kind of absence I think most everyone in the world feels at some time or another.
What is Graywolf? Is he a spirit, a phantom conjured by my own imagination? Yet two other people are able to see him, perhaps more I haven’t met yet. Did you ever read the poem “The Tables Turned” by Wordsworth?
“Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things--
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art,
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.”
My theory is this: there are portals in this world that connect us to other worlds we know nothing about. Occasionally we glimpse these other worlds, even in science, but because our methods are inherently flawed, because our thoughts are inherently flawed, we dismiss them. We deny. We do not see. Once in a blue moon one of these portals slips open, something passes through, and someone is born with the ability to see it, to feel it, to know it. When we get older, “reason” takes over and the portal closes. I am blessed. For whatever reasons, this particular portal has never yet closed.
It is Saturday morning and we go to brunch at Humdingers, the vegetarian restaurant on Temple Street. The irony that I am bringing a wolf to a vegetarian eatery is not lost on me. But of course Graywolf doesn’t actually eat. I love this place. It is crowded today but we manage to get a tiny table by the window, a table for two. I slide the other chair out with my foot so Graywolf can sit down.
I order coffee and a spinach and mushroom omelet with rye toast and home fries. I wonder why they are called home fries. Humdingers consists of a large room with red booths and tables, potted plants and huge seashells from tropical seas lining the window sills. The walls are bright yellow with pumpkin trim. It is bright and chaotic. There are striking new paintings on display today, a series of small 10” x 10” acrylics in pale birch frames. They are landscapes and cityscapes with one element in common – there is a small red fox in each one.
I sip my coffee and scribble in my sketchbook, designs for an opera about Graywolf’s imagined childhood and transformation into a “spirit guide,” for I’ve decided spirit guide describes him more accurately than wolf.
A flash of orange-red. Baroque. The smell of burning food. The ruddy waitress with a large tattoo of a spider on her upper arm, her blonde hair pinned in a turvy on her head, rhinestone nose ring aglitter, scuttles over, bearing my steaming turquoise plate. “Who did these paintings?” I ask. She nods towards the kitchen. “Dishwasher. Busboy. Jarrod.” She vanishes back into the steaming kitchen. I eat my heavenly eggs laced with fresh fungi and spinach doused with ketchup, staring at the small painting over the table of downtown buildings and passersby, including one red fox dressed in an old-fashioned black suit. I am in love with this painting.
We start going to the Humdingers for brunch on Sundays, though it is an added expense I can scarce afford. We spot Jarrod, the dishwasher/busboy. He is medium-height, thin and lanky with a shock of black hair that flips over his eyes, which are dark, darting and intelligent. Pale skin, rose almost girlish lips, delicate nose, something shy and jittery yet affable in his manner. He glances at me, I glance at him. I guess you could say we are flirting. Graywolf stays mum, stroking his beardish chin fur and humming along with the pop tune on the radio. A flash of red from the kitchen, the smell of burning toast.
We’ve been brunching for about a month and a half and it’s winter now, approaching Christmas. The streets are lit with lights in the shape of tangerines, lemons and limes. The store windows are filled with driftwood trees, red ribboned rocking horses, negligees and calendars. Humdingers is packed. Jarrod is running around bussing tables and helping set them up. His paintings have come down and been replaced by photographs of indigenous Guatemalan children dressed in bright woven clothing. I am sitting at my regular table, my crumb-and-ketchup strewn yellow plate empty, sketching in my sketchbook. There’s a line outside the door on this overcast Sunday, but I’m taking my own sweet time. I’ve earned my spot.
Jarrod approaches the table, whisks away my plate.
“Wait!” I command and he stops, stands still, waits. I’m at a loss what to say next.
“I like your paintings,” I say. “Do you have a studio?”
“Can I come visit sometime, see more?”
He nods, looks down, looks to the left, toward the clattering kitchen. Then he moves quickly, bearing his heavy plastic bin of plates and silverware. I sit frozen, staring into my empty cup. I don’t dare look up at Graywolf. I can feel the blood in my face. Suddenly Jarrod reappears. He is standing there in his splotched apron, his black sneakers. He hands me a wrinkled card from the restaurant. I turn it over. There is a time, a place. I nod and he is gone.
Next Saturday afternoon Graywolf and I walk through a freezing drizzle to a grim brick building behind a faltering white Church of God. The front door is unlocked and we slip inside and go up the wooden stairs to the third floor, a varnished hallway lined with doors. We go to the last one and I pause until my heart slows to a somewhat normal rate, then knock lightly. The door swings opens. A tea kettle whistles on a hot plate. Jarrod walks over, ushers me in. “Hello,” he says, his face brighter today, not so pale. “Welcome,” he says to Graywolf, shaking his paw and grinning. It dawns on me that he has been able to see Graywolf all along, throughout those many brunches.
The room is dim, but in the corner I immediately notice something curled up in an old green armchair -- a red fox in an old-fashioned black suit, its piercing black eyes glittering like mica.
Friday, January 22, 2010
I rode Apostol, the tame reindeer, along the trail that had been packed by sleds through the woods to the village. It was very late, past one o’clock in the morning. Blackie-Olek was dying, and I was a coward. Clumps of snow sparkled in the firs. I felt like a ghost riding through stars.
The village was asleep in the snow-filled valley, awash in a moonlit fog. Feral cats darted through the pine tree grove in the cemetery. A gang of crows squalled in their roost in the nearby woods. The sky was an eerie lavender color, heavy with prayers of snow. Shards of moonlight streamed across the endless white fields.
I hitched Postol to the railing of St. Michael’s, the little white church that looked as if it had grown out of the snow banks, its green onion dome topped by its gold painted wooden cross. I crept inside and took off my boots, using the flint and steel from the wood box to light some char, and lit a beeswax candle on the altar. I knelt and prayed a poem of my own making to an invisible god in the silent frozen room with its yellow pine floor and walls like an empty beehive.
Afterwards I led Postol around the side and put him in the crooked barn. Felt my way into the small house that smelled of wood smoke, trout and rosemary, crawled into bed next to Lassi and fell asleep until noon the following day.
When Lassi got back from fishing the next day and I’d finally woken, we ate fresh baked honey bread and smoked salmon with his mother, a gaunt woman with a disapproving mouth and a nose like a hook. Lassi went fishing with his father and brothers every day of the year as long as there wasn’t a blizzard or a hurricane.
Lassi and I decided to take Postol to the river. I was fourteen and small and my reindeer had a saddle. I had the freedom to come and go as I pleased. My grandfather didn’t care where I went, what I did. He said I was a wise soul, he trusted me, I should do what I wanted. What harm could come to me in the woods or the village? I could not get lost in my own home, could I?
It was another long winter filled with endless snow and frigid winds. Lassi and I walked down the path to the river, through the wide corridor richly festooned with fresh chandeliers, lamps, candelabras and antlers of snow and ice. The most gorgeous palace you’d ever see. Lassi’s blonde hair peeked out from under his red knit fur-lined hat. I didn’t mention Blackie-Olek, who had slept with me in my bed since I was three.
As we walked, Postols knees clicked and his hooves cut the snow. We should have brought snowshoes, but we floundered along, falling and laughing in the white frozen meadow that glittered like crystal and mica when the sun finally came out.
Then we heard it –thunder -- and a huge herd swept into view instantly, surrounding us, crashing through the snow and the pines, huge liquid eyes and steaming breaths topped by crowns of antlers. Take off his saddle, Lassi said, he wants to go. He won’t be able to live, I said, he’s used to eating from my hand. Do it, said Lassi, uncinching the saddle and taking off the bridle with swift motions I barely saw. Postol shook his huge head and gazed at the reindeer who had slowed down to paw the snow and graze, ignoring all of us. He turned and looked me in the eye and a flint-like spark of wildness shot up through his brown orbs and entered me, travelling through my bones. A distant shot and the herd panicked and fled, gone in a mad rush of hooves, dung and fur. Postol went too, I couldn’t even pick him out from the herd. I felt a burden lift, replaced by a spreading sensation of air, light and infinite forest. Life would be worthless without magic, I whispered.
Seventy years later I can still see myself in my fur coat and hat standing on the riverbank next to Lassi, who died the next autumn in that very river. He never was a strong swimmer like me. And I certainly never saw Postol again, nor any other reindeer for that matter. It was the last year they came that far south. Things change quickly. It only took a few years before no one believed there had ever been any reindeer at all.