A few weeks ago, my true love and I were in Buenos Aires. We had been walking that beautiful city, exploring parks, shops and the La Recoleta cemetery (4,800 exquisitely decorated vaults and home to a colony of feral cats!). It was a pleasant day, but when a sudden rain shower threatened, we ducked into what promised to be a lively cafe.
It was bustling and noisy. It was a multilevel cafe, with tables spilling out to the sidewalk and inside. Beyond the inner tables was a broad stairway to a second level that contained the bar, kitchen and additional tables.
The crowd was diverse. There were older patrons leisurely sharing a bottle of wine, perhaps regulars. Nearby was a large loud table of young men and women, in jeans, with a pile of backpacks nearby. There were several small tables of executive-looking men and women in office attire — suits and ties, skirts and high heels — ordering quickly, likely from the nearby commercial district. And us, comfortable and happy to be there.
Nearly every spot on the walls and pillars was decorated. Most of the decorations were from a bygone era — flamboyant, gaudy, eccentric advertisements for soft drinks or fragments of pop culture images like Elvis Presley. I was happy that our corner featured works of Robert Doisneau — the famous kiss, boy with baguette and so on.
I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of a picture that hung above a nearby table:
It made me laugh at its absurdity and brilliance. I was swept away imagining the sounds of the lone cello, the music that only the mountain could hear, the poignance of the act and the commitment of the cellist. I remember taking my love’s hand, caught in a moment of happy emotion.
Later, haunted, I researched the image: this was one of a series of photos of Maurice Baquet by Robert Doisneau. The two were friends and shared a joie de vivre, a spirit of playfulness that feels so very French to me — one of the reasons I love France and its people.
Maurice was an accomplished cellist as well as a member of the 1936 French Olympic Ski Team and an expert mountain climber. The amazing photo was taken at Chamonix; I also found a lovely interview with Maurice (posted by his son the French actor Gregori Baquet). While I had trouble following all the details of the interview, Maurice is positively joyous throughout and it is obvious that he loved this act of making music for the mountain.
I tell this little story to illustrate the power of communication when it evokes emotion. The photo provided lessons — a demonstration of collaboration, creativity, and taking chances on something that might seem utterly absurd, all balanced by the incredible planning, the painstaking artistry, the years of practice and preparation that preceded the act. Risks taken over a lifetime created this image — a tribute to the human spirit, absurd and brilliant.
<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/5837491″>Maurice Baquet</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/gregoribaquet”>Grégori BAQUET</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
Thanks to Gregori Baquet for sharing the video.
Dr. Madeline Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, was in Kansas City recently speaking to a sold-out audience at the Women’s Foundation annual luncheon. I knew she’d have a lot of wonderful things to say, but I wasn’t prepared for just how impressive and inspirational she was.
She was polished and natural, comfortable telling her stories and making strong points based on facts (for example: women are an undervalued resource). Her straightforward approach conveyed power, yet she was also charming. Her diplomatic skills were evident, as was her commitment to service.
I had the sense that her commitment was to a service greater than politics. I admire that. I wish it was not so uncommon or old fashioned to see in our government leaders. Taking an oath of office is a commitment to the ideals and principles of democratic governance, by and for the people. It is a commitment to serve the country, and that is a responsibility and a duty that should override any loyalty to a single political faction.
Much of her talk, I realized later, was about her personal journey and the process of developing a voice. She told of the first time she entered a room as the Secretary of State with a roomful of men, and how she planned to spend the meeting listening and absorbing the situation. But when she sat behind the microphone labeled “United States of America,” she realized she MUST speak. She may not have felt ready, but it was her duty and that gave her confidence to act.
She has a famous quote (highlighted in the luncheon program): “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” In her closing, she offered bits of advice, including an encouragement to invest the necessary time to develop your own experience — don’t be obsessed by the clock, she said. And, she invited all to join her in working toward change: “Refuse to be silent — we need every available voice to speak out.”
Her comments reminded me of something Miles Davis said: “You have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
In both, there’s a sense that perfecting a voice takes time and courage.
Thanks to the Women’s Foundation for this extraordinary event.
It’s from the new biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, by Hermione Lee. She’s talking about the value of painful experiences. It’s a message to take to heart.
You could choose to put painful experiences out of mind quickly. It can be a kind of coping mechanism to push aside pain, to set the memory out in the weather so rain and wind over time will erode the sharp edges of the experience.
Or you could turn that painful experience into an obsession, holding it tightly at the forefront of all thoughts; turn it over and over, endlessly examining the experience and reliving the anguish.
In an interview, Hermione Lee shares that she likes to use a motto from biographer and novelist Victoria Glendenning: “Nothing is wasted.”
Lee says: “It’s a very reassuring and consoling idea, even if it isn’t always true. Think of those terrible phases in your life when you’re just grinding along, or you’re missing your way, or everything seems arid and disappointing. It helps if you can say to yourself, ‘But something will come out of this.'”
Penelope is right — it’s what you do with the experience that matters. It’s better to embrace an experience, to explore it fully, and understand it. You don’t get over it, you use it. You find the balance to own the experience, accept vulnerability or failure or betrayal, recognize loss, hold fast to your moral core, find sustenance there. You may not lessen the loss (all pain is loss) but you can save it and use it as a lesson for future acts.
I’ve been struggling to understand how to reconcile two alternate human traits — how we can be so fragile and yet so resilient.
It is so little to be missed. Just a breath, really, and then the delicate, insubstantial wisp of life is gone. Utterly gone.
It may be that we are always in the presence of death. It may be that some see and feel it more closely than others; sometimes we may not notice it all until it is within our immediate circle. We forget about it until we cannot ignore it.
I have mourned the loss of many friends recently. I have been surprised and saddened; I have cried for the gaping loss and emptiness. I have cried for my own loss and for the loss of others who loved the dead and now go on alone.
And yet… elsewhere, expecting to see death, I am surprised by the display of enormous willpower and unknown strength. The tenacity of living.
In the midst of frailty, in the feeling of being breakable and insubstantial, there can appear a vast power of living.
How strong we are.
How fragile we are.
This week, in my garden, I found my early spring bleeding heart plant bowed with snow. It had been a freakish snowstorm, and now it looked so sad I turned away, not wanting to dwell with the image. The next morning, the snow had dropped away and the pale crimson blossom stood out brightly, still full and healthy.
Today it was bobbing and bouncing in the breeze , and I imagined it stretching gently, equally happy to greet the rain as the sun.
It came to me as I was thinking about a funeral, or really, a wake that we attended this weekend.
It was for a good friend, and it was almost too much to think about that he would no longer be there. I was sad for my own loss, but I was heartbroken thinking about his family, especially his wonderful wife who adored him.
I was thinking about how sudden it was. I mean, we had just been planning dinner. I still had his last email in my inbox — waiting for a response.
I was thinking about why it shook me: no more email, no chatter, no jokes, no goofy videos. (One of my favorites was Jay Leno interviewing the woman who performed CPR on a chicken. It lived.)
I would miss his droll wit, his absolutely perfect use of expletives –timed and punctuated for maximum effect (usually hilarity, although sometimes used in admiration). I would miss his laughter. He loved to laugh.
I already miss his support. He would make me feel like I had the world in my grasp. And I would believe him, too, because he was that kind of guy. I felt loved; he was that generous, so generous I now believe everyone who knew him felt that.
So at the wake, we all laughed until we cried. We laughed at his old jokes, his long stories, his vast interests in even the most obscure things (Laser egg art?) and his belief that he was surrounded by the most interesting people in the world.
And in those few moments, we were. He had, once again, transformed us all.
Harry and Betty were dressed to the nines, he in a navy suit with a bright red tie and she in an equally bright red dress. The family, three generations worth, were gathered to celebrate their wonderful marriage. The evening was focused on dinner, but the real treat was the storytelling.
The evening started with a serenade by a flock of young men from the same fraternity that Harry had attended 75 years earlier on the same campus. The boys dutifully came into the room and sang their fraternity and college songs — a lovely gesture, even if some looked like they couldn’t wait to fulfill this obligation and get on to the bars. The measured nonchalance all melted away when Harry stood to meet and talk and shake hands with every one of the young men. We were close enough to hear him thank each man, and then with a wink and extra handshake, give each his trademark advice: “Try to have a little fun every day.”
That motto came up several times during the many stories about Harry and Betty — as a Marine Corps drill instructor visiting a favored young cousin who was unhappily strugging in boot camp, to graduating kids, to young couples on the occasion of their wedding. It was a philosophy that served him well as his family reflected on a lifetime of many, many laughs. There were stories of legendary root beer floats, kids’ memories of childhood stories, the bequeathing of a favored couch to a grand-daughter. (Harry to grand-daughter as the couch leaves his house for hers: “I hope you have as much fun with it as we did!”)
The “Try to have a little fun every day” philosophy isn’t hedonistic as Harry applied it; this was an act of service to others and a reminder not to take yourself too seriously. Bringing a smile, a laugh, to another is a noble act and a kindness. It is the sign of a welcoming heart, it is a gesture of sharing, a recognition of common humanity and emotion.
I can still hear Harry saying it: Try to have a little fun everyday.
I’ve been lurking lately. Silent, but not absent.
This summer, I met a lovely woman. She was smart, open and vibrant, with a welcoming manner that invited and encouraged more interaction. She was curious about others, observant and thoughtful. She was recently married, and was exuberently in love and delighting in the intoxicating feeling of knowing that you are deeply loved. She was beautiful, vibrant, happy.
I knew she’d had health problems and she became ill again not long after our first meeting. I was hoping for good news, as I wanted to see her again and get to know her better. I was away, on a business trip, when I saw an email noting the news of her death.
I was shocked and saddened, surprised by the suddenness and finality. I felt cheated, I was angry at my loss — I wanted her as a friend. Then I felt sadness for her husband, her beloved. I haven’t been able to shake the sense of loss. Instead, it flows in like an unexpected tide, at small instances. Gone too soon.
* * *
I was in Colorado recently and over the course of three days, I saw the beautiful aspen leaves in the trees on the mountainside progressively turn from green to yellow. I saw them shimmy in the breeze. They remind me of laughter.
I also saw the mist awakening, slowly rising in the morning in the mountains. It’s one of my favorite sights, when the clouds come to visit us close to ground offering a taste of sky, a message of solace.
On the last day, we were treated to a glistening coat of snow on the mountain tops.
* * *
On another trip, also in Colorado, I am leaving the car rental lot at the airport, and approaching the security gate, I see two little wild bunnies. It’s all concrete, as far as the eye can see from there, and yet, these two little warm creatures scamper to hide behind a curb. They’re incongrous, but appear to be quite accustomed to this asphalt environment. I pull up as gently as I can.
I hand the paperwork to the man at the security gate and tell him about the bunnies I just saw. He looks a little surprised, but grins. “I feed them raisin bran,” he said, as if confessing a sin. He goes on to tell me more about them; one is quite young and the other quite brave. They watch for him, and he feeds them. They’re not pets, but they are companions.
Thank you for taking care of them, I say as I drive away.
* * *
The suddeness of the loss of my would-be friend gave rise to thinking about other losses — the ones that slip away a little at a time, like dreams fading. We were driving across Oklahoma in the very late hours of the night, close to dawn. The stars were brilliant, like I haven’t seen in ages. Then, all at once, one of them raced across the sky. A shooting star.
As dawn began to appear, I could see the frost on the ground, and later, mist rising from the low lying areas. Such a combination — ice and dew and fog.
I think of my sister, who used to love to sing in the car. And then she stopped. It’s still her; she’s still the same — but just a little less. Does she miss singing? Or would it feel foreign to her now? Maybe it was just the shooting star portion of her life. What else will be gone when I see her next? At least I got to see the shooting star.
New York City.
Gritty. Dazzling. Crowded. A little shabby or forlorn in places, a bit unreal in others. Oh, but it’s wonderful. Two minor vignettes from a recent trip:
After four days in NYC, I feel like I’ve caught the rhythm of the place. I’ve visited many of my favorite haunts already, so what to do?
We were sitting in the lovely lounge at the Yale Club, enjoying after-work drinks, when I spotted a discarded New York Times near our table. Odd that it hadn’t been picked up, but there it was and so I read: Forró Tonight!
The article “A Two-Step Invasion of Brazilian Energy” gave enough description of the forró phenomenon to intrigue us. So apparently this music and dance craze is sweeping the hot clubs in NYC, but what appealed to me was the description of it as the “music of maids and taxi drivers.” I can relate!
Best of all, a big show tonight. So off we go to Lincoln Center, to “Mestres Do Forró Nordestino: Tribute to Luiz Gonzaga” at Damrosch Park. It turns out that the show is a tribute to Luiz Gonzaga on the centennial of his birth.
The music is a cross between samba and Cajun, a saucy, can’t-stand-still kind of music. And since it’s Brazilian, it’s more sensual and sexier than you can imagine any accordian-fiddle-drum-triangle combo can be. Forró is danced in pairs, sometimes close and tight, sometimes wild and loose. Always joyous.
Gonzaga is the grandfather of Forró, and all the musicians seemed quite proud to be paying tribute to him and introducing his music to New York City on a hot summer night. We saw Walmir Silva, who reminded us of some of our old-boy rugby friends, and also, the extraordinary Quarteto Olinda in their first New York City appearance. Hope you’ll take a listen (here for Quartero Olina or find other forró from your favorite music site).
We join the throngs of joyous dancers under the stars. We leave, sweaty, and happy with a new beat in this grand city.
We’re leaving McSorley’s in the Village (a special place, see previous posts about McSorley’s 1, 2, and 3). We hail a cab and greeted by a young man with a handsome, round face, and a big toothy grin.
“Hello!” He greets us like old friends, completely open. “Where do you want to go?”
Grand Central Station, we say. “OK, OK,” he says, still beaming. “Where is that?”
Wha? We’re laughing now. What? You’ve never been to Grand Central Station?
“No,” he says. “You see, this is my first day on the job. I am new at this.” His English is good, but halting — he is from somewhere else. And the big smile again. “Do you know how to get there?”
I tell him, and I’d like to believe he learns at least a couple of the major thoroughfares on the way. He gets us there safely, and we give him a healthy tip and wish him luck in his new job. I can still see his face smiling back at us; he’s positive that all will be well.
I worry about him later, but then I think of his smile and his attitude.
He will do fine.
I spend as much time outdoors as I can. It’s been such a gorgeous springtime, I’ve had lots of excuses to be out — planting, weeding, rearranging, cleaning up, etc.
The other day, I was in the backyard, working at my planting bench. A rabble of butterflies — five or six — came along, swirling and twirling around me. Then suddenly, they stopped and lit on me.
I stopped, too. No movement at all, just breathing in this moment, when I was …chosen… by four or so butterflies. They rested a bit, walking some, an occasional slow open and close of the wings. It lasted only a couple of minutes, and then on cue, they all rose twirling away.
They left me feeling privileged and happy, belonging in the moment.
A few days later, just at nightfall. We are sitting outside with a glass of wine, reviewing the day and waiting for the moon to rise.
A neighborhood cat breaks the quiet with an athletic leap to the top of our six-foot wooden fence. She is alarmed, fur turned to bristles, and she is watching something intently.
We are silent watching the drama unfold. A red fox slips into the yard; this was the cause for the cat’s alarm. The fox makes a quick and effective reconnaissance of the yard, coming within a few feet of us, then quietly lopes out the same way.
Meanwhile the cat has used the opportunity to sneak away from the fox. The moon rises without incident.
One bright morning, three mallards came to visit our pool. There were two males and a female, caught up in some kind of tangled relationship. The two boys appeared to be rivals, occasionally swaggering toward each other, sometimes honking. She sat above the fray, literally, on top of a brick wall.
The males took turns swimming, and at one point the female also decided the pool looked inviting.
Then all at once, the three arose in a bustle and were airborne, all in a pack. And gone.
Another night, another glass of wine, sitting outside with my love. This time, we are sitting at a small bistro table, near a small garden. The oriental lily is massive and fragrant, right at eye level.We are positioned to catch the last bit of sunlight.
The sun sets, and dusk takes hold. Soon, our bats are swirling and diving, performing pretend dive bombs all around us, always pulling up at the last second. We marvel.
But then something is too close. Right in front of me, now beside me. I freeze and feel chills race up my spine. I’m afraid this bat is entirely too close.
But then, I see it at the lily. It’s not a bat at all, it’s a hummingbird, dropping by for dinner at the lavish pink lily. Less than two feet from my face.
I think I can hear the soft whoosh of its wings, but I might be imagining it. The tiny wings are moving so fast that they look out of focus, fuzzy in the waning light. Again, a tiny bit of nature pays a visit and leaves full of wonder, feeling lucky and enriched for our experience.
All around us.
So glad to share the world with them.
(A tribute to Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, and charming butterflies everywhere.)