Nester Versus Nomad. Which Are You?

Snowfall has its silent beauty, but as March days breath deeper, the first rains of spring patter and tap the poetry of awakening.  The rhythmic rattle on the cellar bulkhead hypnotized me into a sleepy haze last night, and I dreamt of eddys and gushes and gurgles and whirlpools, but when I woke this morning at my sister’s house, the romance of thaw and melt drowned like the Wicked Witch of the West.  Streams cut gorges down the driveway, carrying away gravel and gutting a narrow bend down to axle-width.  Dirt roads are gullied, riverbanks ragged and schools shuttered.  In the basement, a laundry basket and litter box bob next to flower pots, scrap lumber and that last bottle of Chardonnay we were saving.  Worst of all, the furnace, hot water heater, washer, dryer and dehumidifier are Katrina’d under more than a foot of murky water.  Lucky for us there’s cordwood and a sump pump to rent.  But wouldn’t it be nice to just call the landlord?

My real estate obsession began in the mid-nineties as I fantasized about buying, renovating, and selling houses as a means to a financial end.  I audited the New York State realtor’s class and skipped certification because I didn’t want to sell houses as a vocation, I just wanted to understand the process and the legalities.  After years of renting, I finally bought a charming 1929 Arts & Crafts Bungalow with hand-milled kitchen cabinets, (now extinct) American Chestnut trim, and gorgeous hardwood floors on a corner lot.  What a feeling to own a little piece of the world!  It was all mine.  No downstairs neighbors, no sharing the driveway, no cheap remodels.

But you know the story…

When I finally sold it, almost 10 years later, I was glad to be rid of it:  shovelling the sidewalk, replacing the roof, painting the clapboard, cleaning the attic, spackling the plaster, replacing cracked windows, mowing the lawn, spring/fall cleanup, paying for insurance, fixing the plumbing…if you’ve owned property, then you know:  all mine means ALL mine.  Picking out Bee Balm Red to paint the library is fun, cleaning up the electrician’s mess is not.

Although a happy renter now, I can still imagine doing it again…shopping at Brimfield Antiques Market for treasures, finding just the right shade of Farrow and Ball, designing the Japanese bath I’ve always wanted.  I can picture an orchard of peach, plum and crabapple trees, rows of raspberry bushes and the long table set for 12 with handmade napkins and vases of wildflowers.  I see the writers and artists retreat in the renovated barn and a couple of guest cottages down a stone pathway.  However, visualizing your dream home is like visualizing your soulmate – we don’t conjure the hiccups and crashes, just the bear-skin rug in front of a wood-burning fireplace.

So I wonder…is it worth it?

As the coda of my hibernation approaches, I think of how I want to spend my money and my time.  Spring signals a new cycle, and I contemplate the lightness of living simply versus the responsibility of stewardship and maintenance.  Both have their merits and drawbacks.

Given your druthers, which would you prefer? To be or not to be – Lord of the Manor?


Dismantling Youth

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin. My soul.  Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.  Lo. Lee. Ta.”

When I was 20, maybe 21, signing up for yet another semester of Humanities at the local community college, adulthood perpetually as imminent as the red button, the Cold War was unknowingly about to end.  In a desperate ploy to hang on to childish things, to look cool in the eyes of others, I graffiti’d a pair of white Vans with titles of Vladimir Nabokov novels in red magic marker.  Save for that  stunning opening paragraph that even now astounds me by its physical lyricism, I hardly knew who Nabokov was, much less Stanley Kubrick or James Mason, who together brought Lolita to the screen.  Smitten as I was with the younger intellectual skateboarding boys on campus – with their long hair and side-parts, lanky surfer bodies and West Coast fantasies – I scrawled ‘Bend Sinister’ across the left shoe and ‘Invitation To A Beheading’ across the right, in true contrarian embrace-the-enemy fashion.  What’s that mean? they’d ask, as we’d hang out in concrete basement bars, pretending we were old enough to be there, but not so grown up to be confused with the proletariat drinking their dollar and a half draughts during dusky happy hours.

God forbid our fraud should slip.

While Michael, boyishly cute and charming and the one I had the maddest crush on, played aloof, I did my wiliest to mirror his nonchalance (therefore showing him how much he really wanted me) and instead tried impressing his friends with arcane Soviet trivia.  When I found them gawking over stacks of nudie magazines one afternoon after class, I casually mentioned Nabokov’s penchant for getting published in Playboy, proving that yes, men really did read it for the articles and they should, too.  Were any of us planning on graduating and growing up at some point?

We never saw that our restless energy was held in check by end-of-the-world-as-we-knew-it propaganda.  What young adult wanted to stake claim in an era of Reagan and Gorbachev and the crisis of missiles?  We did as we were told:  good little Communist-haters, except that we weren’t.  We were too naive, still, to really understand anything, so we played on both sides of the rail, never knowing when the train was going to race down the tracks and split everything in two.

Meanwhile, I taught them to play chess, (the Russians were masters, right?) and we’d plot moves until dawn, taking rooks and pawns and they taught me to say “Prost!” as we toasted with cheap vodka;  it wasn’t until I went to Germany years later did I realize that I didn’t have a trademark on affectation.  In time, our attempts to dazzle each other with bluster and bloc fizzled, but as the breezes of destiny blew, it turned out we all just really loved being together.  Especially Michael and I.  Ultimately, we paired off, whirling around in a magical wonderland with passionate abandon, leaving the group behind.  For months, we were intoxicated by the blindness of bliss, closing our eyes and diving deep enough inside to feel lo. lee. ta.  in each other’s mouths.

Eventually, the other boys all said goodbye, scattering off to four-year universities or low-paying jobs in nearby towns.  Michael and I remained, still partly caught in the stickiness of our infatuation, but somehow sensing a shift in the wind.  That fall, with legs entwined, curled up in front of the TV, we watched the Berlin Wall come down, governments toppling like dominos, the only world we ever knew crumbling, and we tried to imagine life without impending nuclear catastrophe and its fear we unwittingly swallowed. The structures that had defined us were no longer.  Where do you go when you can go anywhere?

As we planned our escape to California, as far from New York as we could  imagine, tragedy struck.  There was an accident and his brother died.  All spells broke.  The world had changed;  nothing would ever be the same.

The stranglehold of the eighties loosened and catapulted us into our futures.  The cocoon of youth dissolved.

He left for Hollywood, alone.  I never saw him again.


Finding I Ching In A Bowl Of A-L-P-H-A-B-E-T Soup

Read a poem.  Everyday and out loud.  Watch it blow your mind wide open, seeing an icicle or grief or a creeping, crawly insect for the first time.  Poems never fail to introduce, to transport.

In the mornings, on my way to the coffee pot, I pluck a book off the poetry shelf, flip the pages and randomly stop.  I read, aloud, revelling through the author’s imagination.  My day takes on a lyrical hue, balancing out my lists and paragraphs and the order I’m imposing in my daily routine.

What I’ve yet to do in this ritual is pen my own.  I used to.  Often and with passion.  I took classes at the New School in New York, crafting words from the recesses of my mind.  I dreamt of standing on stages and performing at poetry slams.  I went to readings and pined for particles of courage that I heard before me, but was too shy to overcome.

I found one of my poems today, probably written a decade and a half ago.  I restrained myself from updating it, choosing instead to share the words of a younger self.

Finding I Ching in a Bowl of Alphabet Soup

She throws her sticks and starts her day
to the gods she begs
for relief, for resolution
of her retreat from life.
vain preparations begin
vibram soles not gripping
the earth underfoot, skidding,
she lives in a melting ice age.
probing ancestor’s maps on shredded handmade paper
no floral gift-wrapped starter kit
for a lady-in-waiting.

The sky pitches a tantrum, wailing
its legs on the earth’s green carpet
screaming for her to understand.
does she miss the day?
burrowing into paperback romances,
into dirt analyses,
crawling the subterranean labyrinth,
lingering in line
for a license, a blood test, an endurance
reading the myopic letters,
ignoring neon proclamations:
she glances down at tomorrow’s soup
at last, startled by the Ouija broth,
a message of what her life is not:

Thank you (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

Being mobile is proving to be a posting challenge. For most of my adult life I’ve kept a journal while traveling the world, but being away this week I find it tricky to balance new electronic habits with old itinerant patterns.  I’m not complaining however – I know I live a charmed life.  While I catch up with friends in Brooklyn and family in bucolic northwest Connecticut, I’m quite aware of how lucky I am.  I not only live in a beautiful place but also get to pick up and go pretty much whenever I want to.  I’m brimming with gratitude for all that I have.  And I’m not the only one…

I recently came across the blog of Gabriela Munteau, who does publicly what I’ve done privately for the past three years.  Each day she documents 5 things for which she is grateful.  Fodder for her practice comes from attention to gifts that can be so easily overlooked.  Blessings large and small make an appearance in my daily appreciation list, too, and it has transformed my outlook on life.  God is in the details, yes?

As I’m gallivanting around this month, I want to share today’s list of what I’m thankful for:

1)  My best friend.  I can show up anytime and there’ll be a home-cooked meal, a glass of wine, good conversation and a comfortable bed.

2) Kale, and not just any kind, but lacinato (or dinosaur kale) that was already planted and tended in the garden I inherited.  All I have to do is pick, chop, and saute it – with just a bit of extra virgin olive oil.  It’s so tender and flavorful it doesn’t even need salt or pepper. It is easy being green.

3) The New Yorker.  It is my favorite magazine, and not just because I like Susan Orlean, Sasha Frere-Jones, Elizabeth Kolbert and Hendrik Hertzberg.  It’s because the articles are never continued on page 76.  I so appreciate being able to read a story from start to finish, one page to the next.

4)  My dilettante tendencies.  On the drive down to NYC, I was listening to an audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell’s “What the Dog Saw.”  In it he says that the tough part about being an author is overcoming the natural human tendency to be disinterested in things.  My incessant curiosity, then, clears one of those writerly hurdles.  A tenfold appreciation for the never ending “Why?”

5)  Newman O’s.  Go ahead and try a side-by-side taste test with an Oreo.  You’ll never go back.

‎…They Had A Hi-Fi Phono, Boy Did They Let It Blast…

I pop into The Red Barn Thrift Store in Woodbury today, enticed by the 50% OFF EVERYTHING sign.  The usual tchotchkes abound, along with mismatched dishes, bodice-ripper paperbacks and racks of seasons-old granny blouses.  I scan the room, and just before I’m about to leave, a box of dusty albums draws me in.  $1 each.  I flip through… Loggins & Messina, Bee Gees, Barbara Streisand (The Christmas Album!)…  Nah.  And then I spy a few gems that end up coming home with me:  some Broadway musicals, a couple of 1950’s soundtracks, and a half-dozen classical recordings.  Oh, and Perry Como.  Five-fifty total.

When was the last time I bought an LP?  1984?  Does anyone under 25 even know what an LP is anymore?  Unless you’re a DJ, I’d guess not.  My last turntable broke sometime around college and I never bothered to replace it.  I was already on to CDs by then, and I haven’t even bought one of them in years either, not counting the random gift.  So why now?  Not necessarily nostalgia, as this batch of vinyl was mostly recorded before I was born.  Rather, it’s the turntable in my furnished rental house.  I wasn’t even the one to discover it – a friend recognized the retro record player hidden in plain sight … and now I can’t get enough of that ol’ scratchy sound.  I even stumbled upon a specialty record shop in nearby Camden that has a pretty outrageous inventory – Balkan gypsy music, original 60’s folk, early bebop.  I’ll be their best new customer.

In the meantime, if you happen to catch the crackle of It’s Only A Paper Moon, knock on my door.  You’ll know you’ve found me.

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