As for oceans, I sailed a few, then flew over, over my own story, to a little town in Mexico where a sailor was particularly good looking, and discovered a bar and met in there a woman caught between two people, a foreigner who was drinking too much, and a young girl, both attracted to her and to the soft wind, outside, with the sound of the ocean touching the beach.
There are days when the storm refuses to break out and in those days pains are born within my limbs and behave like spirits with a will of their own, leaving me helpless against this invasion. Once, I was crossing a garden, a huge one planted with tulips whose color was red-wine, dispersed among iridescent blue flowers with leaves still retaining the dew. I thought: on such a day, a person from history, to whom I’m particularly attached, looked at this space and welcomed this kind of weather. She was a queen exiled in France amid brutal surroundings. She was banished, later, and died in Cologne.
Often I buy books on houses and start, page after page, to move into different apartments, or dwellings that make one wonder if glass walls separate us from nature or if they are meant to make us feel at one with the trees. My favorite trees, around houses, cabins, shacks…, are oaks.
People are here to betray. There’s a person who loved me to death, not to my death or hers, but to the death of a person I loved. So, when she aged, my resentment made me speechless. I let her guess why I was angry, and that was punishment enough. I wonder who invented the ugly word “punishment”; it was probably God who established the word, and the deed.
A straight line, I was taught, was good for hanging clothes, but I saw wires that were crooked and used for crowns of thorns. I also saw a cage with wires that were intended to protect a canary from predators, the cat and the dog. One morning I found the bird dead from lack of water. I had the night before watered the garden, thoroughly, but had forgotten to fill the little can with the precious water it demanded.
On Sunday bells toll and women in black are swallowed by a white structure that I never enter. These creatures come out of the church with, on their faces, the same expression that they had previously and they smell of incense and wax. That’s how it is, on this island, and elsewhere.
Hotel rooms hold a fascination: there’s a sense of loneliness that I sometimes experienced in them that still does haunt me. How did I survive that feeling of void, or rootlessness, or uselessness, that possessed me more than a few times in cities such as Paris and New York? How did I climb that wall of nothingness to attain a perspective from which a next day was possible? But houses can be much worse, they can be pierced baskets from which one’s life oozes and drains into the gutters. I discovered, by chance, in a book, that Thoreau‘s attention was transfixed by permanent structures. The forest, the boat, the fresh air were not enough to give him serenity…he was constantly looking for a house!
Television works differently from cocaine: it dumbs the spirit and creates a kinship with cartoons. Children have grown tails and are asking to perform in Disneyland and parents hurry to agree. Soon, governments (I mean the few that will remain) will have no trouble running a depleted planet.
Sound research has proved that people pollute the world and, as they’re part of it, pollute themselves…. Immaterial people probably exist on other planets, and we’re eager to get in touch with them. They won’t need olives, bread, or a Mercedes sport car…and I doubt that our ideas will be of any interest to them…they may have better ones, or none at all. Who knows?
I have established a sound relation with the universe. Of that, I’m sure. I move freely between the sun and the moon, I go further, I plunge into black holes and emerge intact. I ride on comets, count galaxies. I’m on speaking terms with light-years, all this since I traveled in a matter of seconds to the Universe’s edge and suspected that the strange movement that I witnessed, once there, was the beginning of an abyss.
I think about water, often: I can’t hold it in my hands for any length of time, cut it with a knife or understand why it runs with such a happiness. We think that something is certain, but then a little screw is missing, nothing works, the mind remains bewildered. Still, when I love water, I have no problem coming close to its being.
Those who make in no time billions of dollars stop eating, drinking, fucking, buying flowers…they spend time dreaming of more money.
Some don’t dream, they kill. I met people of that sort in a restaurant in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. One night I was in that special place with good food, and there was a table with three beautiful women and a man whom I recognized having seen him in newspapers…quite often. His hair was glued to his temples, he had make-up on his cheeks…. He was speaking in the accent of one of the North-African countries I know, and exuding much venom. Against one of the walls of the restaurant was a table occupied by “people-watchers,” and they were at front-row and showing it by being loud. Their pleasure was sickening. To the left of the entrance I noticed three guys, three thugs…. They had a mountain of food under their noses and were conspicuously enjoying their dinner. Something stirred in my stomach. They were bodyguards, obviously, and certainly armed. This was not a hunting place, but it had all the elements of the leftovers of a hunt.
My house, this place and body
The sun shines through my windows with no difficulty as they are wide open. I try to touch the light but it disappears at that very moment; all I do is make shadows with my fingers. Then I think that the world is somewhere else, in Mexico, in India… Why should it always be in a named place? Why should it, altogether, be?
The same person
Am I my body, and/or my soul, and does an angel define us otherwise? But when I carry pain whenever I’m awake and wherever I go, the question becomes serious. An acute awareness of oneself is not always a blessing.
It’s always back to my favorite thing: the weather. Since childhood, I’ve listened to thunder because it is awesomeness itself. I also always loved soft rains, their sexual appeal with no sex involved…no jealous lover can ever suspect the competition they represent. When one cloud passes over another, I tremble and when a patch of blue pierces a grey sky I soar like an angelic figure.
Some rains are deadly: they announced an apocalyptic meltdown, the cosmic ocean’s self-destruction. They make us lose all points of reference by creating pools in which all specifications drown. They push us back to our abstractions and in that dismal state of affairs we err in cities carrying the knowledge of that disaster as baggage. Hotel clerks get suspicious and refuse to give us a key. We wander for a while in some train station and when we have a change of mind we re-enter the city and spend the night walking.
But what about the inner tempests where high seas of anger unleash their fury against the mind? Mind and stomach merge in those times, fuse into deadly rays, probe the inner soul as no hurricane can do to the Atlantic coasts. These inner lands sometimes take the shape of real territories, Syria, Lebanon, California…where we live inside and outside the self, not distinguishing a missile hitting a house from some devastating thought. The onslaught of History on the brain creates storms which batter the imagination with more destructive power than any cataclysmic weather. Some of us are familiar with these private disasters which accumulate and become daily bread and daily experience.
One apple is sitting in a blue bowl of stoneware made by Eileen Curtis. Every surrounding thing moves away from a collection of objects which were attracted to a square shelf. Do they feel at last secure in that setting or are they, for their misfortune, and rather like me, unable to rest? They form a beautiful unit, that only painters can appreciate, to the point of giving the rest of their lives to reproduce, sometime, somewhere, with any material at hand, the ecstasy of the apple and of the bowl.
I particularly love Fra Angelico, Angelico while painting angels. He does not paint them, he creates angels who have, thus, escaped God’s creation. He sprays gold on their hair and around them. Each time I went to visit him, he was absent, out of Florence, not yet in Sienna, on his way to Arezzo, just back from Padua but not yet at home…. I rest my hand on one of his painted walls and feel his angel’s flesh, the one who forever announces the coming of a baby. People like Angelico do not come in number.
My house my cat my company
Let me have the courage to say that all three belonged to my mother, because that’s true, a reality which has shaped my health and desires. Her cat, named Bijou (as I have already said), slept in her mosquito net. She loved that weight hanging over her sleep. Bijou had a huge house for her promenades: arched windows for watching mice in the garden, armchairs covered with damascene velvet for her claws, a kitchen stove to warm her bones. I didn’t live in that house, with that cat, or in my mother’s company, I just crossed all these entities like a draft of air.
Dimensions have swelled up and industries spit columns of smoke and hatred. Hating has become a passion so intense that it is burning us with it. We dress our enemies with silk and cotton, manufacture shoes for their feet, feed them chestnut paste, burn incense on their altars, provide salutations, write music for their ears…and then, then…we are either eaten by them or we lose interest.
More vital data
The U.S. Government is gathering vital information about all the country’s dogs. Because citizens are already being over-processed, many computers are idle and many people out of jobs. The good government of the people, by the people and for the people, has decided to become a caring institution for animals, too. It is starting with dogs. Much research is done on the laws of classification for these particular creatures. There will be problems with spots and food habits, but they will be solved as they arise. Cats are waiting for their turn with the kind of apprehension that Third World populations used to have when they saw coming towards them the first cameras and tapes carried by strangers. Doctors are keeping track of viruses and poets of rabbits. There’s nothing to worry about. All this will make death look merciful.
One day I gave an orange to a monkey and what did he do with it? He ate it. I was surprised. I expected him to play with it, smell or squeeze it, thank me for it…I don’t know. Somehow, I was disappointed. I realized that we, humans, are trained like singing dogs, tamed like dying lions, programmed to think and hesitate. My monkey took the orange and, in a moment of perfect intelligence, he ate it.
If the business of life is happiness I will describe for you my linen sheet: it’s soft and cool, and flexible. I will say it’s friendly. Friendly to me, and to whoever visits. Then I will look at a wall, a wall in the desert. You will call it a ruin and I will disagree and the dispute will shatter our pleasure. In Cash Creek, California, the river is young and capricious. It talks to the sky, envelops young girls with its curls, arouses young men with its smoothness. There, in Yosemite, the deer rest a knowing eye on the ferns. The snow is a protective blanket, until the sun comes out again and is amazed by all that white beauty. But in some places, like Nebraska, people burn their clothing out of boredom. They haven’t moved far enough West.
That same person
His name was Charles, and he disliked his name. He called himself Peter. Peter? Petering? Saint Peter’s? It was his uncle who had named him Charles, after his own grandfather. Unsure of the fitness of the name, Peter took another one: Vassili. When people started addressing him in Greek he felt embarrassed; he couldn’t go to Russia for a similar reason. He also thought that the United States was big enough in which to disappear…. As he loved Beethoven, he re-christened himself Ludwig, with some pride.
But it turned out that his neighbor, who had grown up in East Germany, was originally called “Ludwig,” but on naturalization day, had chosen “Charles” for his new, American, self. The postman confused the two Charleses. Charles the first, who kept getting mail in his old name, grew paranoic: he feared losing his girlfriend to this other Charles, who, he thought, was responsible for the problem…. He went back to calling himself Vassili. Now, thinking he was a Russian immigrant, nobody talked to him. As a good Catholic he went to St. Peter’s Church in Santa Monica, where he had moved a while ago. The ocean was beautiful in his neighborhood, with its blue lines and white hair. Somehow, though, everything was upside down in his life. His anger and his confusion caused him to lose his job at the garage where he had been a specialist in brakes and transmissions. Eventually, like many other people on that particular day, he died. A cousin paid for a tomb. They had to inscribe his name on the marble head-stone, and there were many family discussions over the phone. So, to find peace, they decided to inscribe on the grave marker: “Here lies Ludwig Vassili Peter Charles Gregory-Smith.” The Gregory-Smiths had come from Uptown, Delaware. Our man was the only one of that name who had ever reached California.
On television, the model of D.N.A. looks like a simple design made of two copper wires, twisted gracefully. Could it be that Shakespeare rose out of such a configuration of electrons? And what about Egypt? Do countries rise from hidden forms, and can it be that, when the forms are twisted wrongly, there are wars, massacres, collective hallucinations? We will find out. Everything will be found out, explained and discarded. I wish that the breeze, the warm and low desert wind, the sand dunes with ripples remain, with the sun very low, either at dawn or at dusk.
Every time the year makes a full turn, it’s April, squeezed between two interesting months. Sausalito’s weather, in April, is indecisive: the ocean gets to be fluorescent in a maddening way, and the mountain remains green, bottle-green, a color in which there’s a memory of yellow. The weather is not dramatic. It’s rather tuned to the American sense of comfort. It is not balmy, not yet: never in April. It is a month that slides through our fingers.
But in Greece, it’s something else. Everything in Greece happens outside the rest of the world, probably because it’s there that Christ is resurrected for real. And he brings back with him an ecstasy of marine colors, of silvery clouds, fragrances from the days of the gods, and a lot of candles for the fingers of unsuspecting children.
When we don’t know simple things, such as why flowers grow secretly, we divert our attention to beaches. Then, having exhausted the possibilities of these flat surfaces – not so flat, not so bumpy – our mind wavers, floats over undefined terrains and, most often not landing anywhere, returns to its seat and habitat just to discover that new ideas are waiting for their turn to take off.
I go often to Rodeo Beach (which for decades I called Cronkite Beach), watch the little ducks and leave them to their destiny, and listen to the ocean. Oceans are the kind of place I would inhabit (but if I had been a whale it must have been light-years ago), so I stand, sometime hurting, and face the waves. The wind plays its games with the pelicans, and the red-wing black birds sound their little trumpets. They greet each other with an effervescence which enchants the hour. But nowhere as by an ocean does Time speed by. Everything is in constant, visible change. There’s more than color to such an environment: there is our desire to embrace the emptiness which shelters all these events. But that “emptiness” is immense. So we lie on the beach, talk to it, kiss it…grains of sand try to find their way into our mouths. We spit them out.
A visitor to Sausalito may very well be impressed by a billboard with a big eye on it, informing him that he just crossed into a nuclear-free zone. Would that quiet his fears? Does it mean that, if and when the Golden Gate Bridge is reduced to a memory, fall-out will stay away from our hills? A few Unitarian ladies whom I know pretty well believe in the power of the will. They’re luckier than I am. In the meantime the police are chasing rabbits away from gardens, because the cops consider them a serious traffic hazard. In general, the police are rather decent. In the few decades I’ve lived in this town, they have killed but one person: they chased a young man out from the Seven-Eleven store and shot him down. He was holding in his hand a chocolate bar that he had just purchased.
Oh yes! That very same institution which protects the (smug) residents of Sausalito harasses the most interesting man I know in the area: My friend Ross, who lives a few streets down the hill from my house and to the north. He’s a veteran of the Korean War from which he returned broken, in fact shattered. A woman took him in, turned him into a craftsman, like herself, and together they made local history. Their big shack became the rallying point for many painters and a few stray writers. There was pride in being there.
That place has retained its magic although inhabited by an absence. Eileen died twenty-five years ago. The same friends still come to see Ross, sit around the same table, and think of her. We go there to bring Eileen to life in our imagination. I can watch Ross stir up big logs in the formidable iron stove. What I really see is Eileen’s gaze when he was doing exactly that, when he was building a fire not only in the stove but in her body and her mind.
He’s still somewhat like a vulnerable Hemingway, an old leftist with guns in one of the cupboards, a pacifist who would kick, as he repeats it, the teeth out of America’a military. While he’s probably the last old adolescent speaking from the sixties, he does invest some money in mutual funds to make sure that his dwelling will not go without repairs. A craftsman he remains, but Eileen’s unfired last pots and plates keep gathering dust. He continues to make his own ceramic vases, and sculptures inspired by China, making the old Chinese surfaces of smoothened buddhas…but he remains best at growing salads, onions, raising a few chickens in his lush garden. When Eileen was around, he used to paint on her pots frolicking baby elephants, long-eared rabbits, or deer. She used to look at his incredibly blue eyes and hear his Lincoln, Kansas, stories…. The one he repeats most often is how, at eleven or twelve, he accompanied his grandpa in the robbery of a grave; how grandpa, like a skilled dentist, pulled a gold-covered tooth out of a dead man’s mouth. When he pronounces the mythic word ‘Kansas’ he stands with legs apart and torso slightly forward, as if to say that that’s where America’s center of gravity is to be found.
Ross drinks and laughs, and people around him become alcoholics; but as they have already lived a long life, who can blame them? Russell Chatham, indeed, of his generation the greatest painter of the West, a champion of fly-fishing and of writing about fly-fishing, used to come and sit at that rectangular table, which wine has stained and thinned down the years, and serve up his own catch of salmon with a laughter echoing Ross’s…. Eileen’s blue stoneware pots are always filled with the garden’s apples and pears, a few lemons hiding among them: Russell has some in Montana, Bill and Sally took theirs to Somocolonia, in Tuscany, Tom regularly eats his corn flakes in them, and Arden as regularly fears breaking one… Mine are in this house which faces the mountain, they are in a closet and in my memory, where they live with Eileen, who made them; and Ross is in Portugal this summer, drinking, sometimes falling, has been working for the last three years on a sculpture representing Vasco da Gama, which he wants to offer to the little town by the Atlantic where he makes his alternate home, now that he doesn’t anymore go to Morelia, Mexico, because, as he says a few times a year, that’s the place where Eileen took him for their wedding.
House, my breath and window
Houses are made of windows held standing by walls. All kinds of things enter not through doors but through windows wide open on a clear sky. That’s the way Gabriel came in to scare the Virgin. It was not, though, on a Halloween night… Jesus was born, and not yet born, and Mary was confused. Fra Angelico lived next to windows, celestial ones. He framed them with gold and took the walls away. He left shimmering lights with patches of pure red. Balls of fire and crowns made of diamonds bring their own light to his paintings; that is, if we can call the apparitions that he makes visible, ‘works of art.’ They are not due to artifice but to secret forces of nature, those we seldom deal with. His angels play trumpets while we think that we are listening to Pergolesi. These trumpets are angelic toys. Their sound comes through my window and becomes a breeze on my face when I lie, in spring, in some room away from my usual home and hometown. To one’s innocence Fra Angelico brings his breath and gently puts out the candles. Then, the sun shines with restrained benevolence.
On Sundays, there are no government meetings, no declarations of war, and, in some cities, no buses.
Final vital data
As we are products of a family, we feel compelled to talk about it in order to define ourselves. It’s just a habit. That’s probably why I watch intensely movies about animals. The animals I like to watch are usually monkeys, tigers, lions, elephants, whales and dolphins. Each of these has characteristics I would have loved to have. They represent the possibilities of Being distributed among the whole animal species. But on a day I will never forget I saw on my television chimpanzees climb trees and jump from branches to branches. The particular light of the moment in which they had been filmed imparted a sense of unreality. It was as if acting were involved…and I started thinking that soon, when human behavior will be responsible for the disappearance of most of the animals that live on earth, ‘scientists’ or ‘artists’ will replace them with virtual animals, so that we will have holograms of lions in the zoos, three-dimensional elephants in the movies, with dangers included…, rubber whales in museums and dolphin-like illusions performing in the sea. I shivered, suffered an incredible bout of anguish, felt bitterness on my tongue and weight in my limbs. I have the firm belief – and that contributes to my chronic insomnia – that it’s already late if we want to avoid the disasters that we are preparing for ourselves.
Why is there sadness in the idea of education? We are creating new coercive dogmas and new idols. But, some would say, there are the poets! Yes, there are the poets and there are the readers, and the dreamers, and the lovers…and they constitute the new continents to be discovered.
He was chaotic: he used to forget his name and tell people he was a baron; and when they wanted to know from which estate he came, he would answer, in his Greek accent, that he was German. He would embark on a winding description of the Rhine’s southern trajectory and then forget the names of the cities the river was supposed to cross. He did, once, convincingly, explain why his Greek island was green in all seasons. We did see pictures of his mother and two sisters, but as nothing was written on the back of the photographs, we had no reason either to believe him or dismiss everything he said. His hair was never combed. My impression was that he always slept on his left side, because of so many things…. He was not cross-eyed, no, but his eyes were, each, looking at a different distance. They gave a dreamy look to his face which endeared him to women. He loved women, he used to say, but he spent his days with young men, playing billiards in Alexandria. At least, that’s what he told me. When I tried to speak Greek with him he answered that he didn’t understand the language, and when I showed surprise he laughed, beautifully, and said that he had had a nanny from Smyrna who had given him her own accent when he was a child, and that the accent had never left him. His English was Shakespearean and his French from Marseilles and Nice. We saw him spend money but he never invited any of us to dinner.
The first person
You could see her from any street, through different angles, and then let yourself go to your dreams. They used to come from afar just to spend a few hours with her. In non-airconditioned cafes, I spent hours looking at her through the windows, contemplating her beauty which belonged to a realm of being all her own. In the summers I would go down a winding street and then reach her and, taking off my clothes in a tall and narrow cabin, would enter her and swim.
I find apples in the market of any city that I visit. I find them also in contemporary paintings, or notice their ominous presence in Renaissance murals and tapestries…. Who chose that round and fragrant fruit to signify sin? It’s unforgivable. Some sadistic person must have decided to spoil our pleasure, for ever, for an apple tree is the king of trees. Apples hang like little green worlds and, sometimes, when we come too close, they blush. In the spring, their costume of flowers replaces, advantageously, the melting snow. My familiarity with them started in the hidden paradise that the Barada Valley used to be, west of Damascus. Nobody will ever find it, not even on a map, for the little village of Bassimeh had a few houses made of bricks, with dusty floors; and there was almost no visibility, even during the day, for the valley’s bed is made of the river and is a torrent in winter, a dry bed in summers…. The children used little stones for toys, and they hit each other with those tiny weapons until a ‘grown-up’ would show up and stop the games. My uncle owned a piece of land which was either flooded or dying of thirst, and he felt happier there than anywhere else in the world. So did I. In a corner of that land covered with the river’s sound, there were a few apple trees that he called an orchard. And that place was my own paradise.
There’s a church which isn’t a church, with paintings which aren’t paintings, and, if I hadn’t found my paradise already as a child, I would consider that church to be a place of ultimate ecstasy. I discovered it at random. From the railway station I was heading for Padua; the baggage felt heavy and the hour non-descript, so I entered a church I had just noticed, just to kill time. It was Giotto’s Chapel. Instead of being ‘killed,’ Time was resurrected as a sacred visual poem, as I entered that blue heaven with its buzzing angels and its imminent day of Judgement. My day of Judgement had arrived in that Chapel of the Scrovegni and I was saved.
When would some anarchy ever erupt in this chartered, measured, and parceled world where living has become theatre? Of course, there’s misery, plenty of it, in countries of the southern latitudes, with ways unacceptable to Paris, barely tolerated in London, nonexistent in Mexico…. But misery does not create creative chaos; on the contrary, it dreams of order, rows of bread, straight lines of water, well-defined bank accounts.
I will need the primeval chaos that spat out stones in the Mediterranean or gave such an energy to the Indians of the Americas that they ran from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic as if they were on an extended promenade. To think, think, and why? My friend Bob knows only what his owl tells him, and Joanne Kyger discovers every morning the existence of a world devoid of questions.