Monday, December 27, 2010

In Which the Word "Better" Appears Seven Times (More if You Count the Title)

to everything there is a season

In another season, that may as well have been in another lifetime but was only five months ago, my life changed. Or rather, I changed my life. I left my desk job, began this blog, opened an online shop, and registered a business. I named it after one of my tattoos, two tigers inspired by a book of old Chinese ink drawings, alike but unique, placed in a yin yang position as a symbol of both balance and completion.  Since autumn 2002, they have been perched on the back of my left shoulder as guardians and reminders of the spirit of fierce pursuit and wise poise I wish to bring to all my endeavors, but never have I needed to draw upon their strength and grace as I have this year. When the time came to create a signature image for my new professional artistic activities, the obvious choice was some rendering of this old tattoo. After many failed attempts to re-create it, I simply turned my back on the mirror over the sink in my bathroom, stood on tiptoe, and took the photograph you see in the banner at the head of this page. It strikes me now that all the elements that went into this capture – resourcefulness and spontaneity, something familiar, yet requiring a literal stretch to achieve, self-reflection and self-revelation – were ideal auspices for the new life ahead.


In one of those amazing instances of good timing and good fortune that occasionally befall me, the newsletter pictured above, the biannual publication of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, of which I am a graduate, showed up in my mailbox last week. I recalled sending a thumbnail image and a quick alumnae update to their website months ago as I began my brave new life, and that it was the first time I really felt I had anything legitimate and worthwhile to announce to such a readership. Imagine my delight when my image was chosen to grace the cover of the bulletin of a multidisciplinary academic arts program that is now considered one of the best in the country, appropriately one about which most of its students claim “it changed my life!” In January 2003, a few months after receiving my two tigers tattoo on a visit home to New York, and a month after turning 40, I received my MFA in poetry in what I consider my second home, Vermont, after avoiding the perils of traditional schooling for nearly two decades. But this place is nothing if not untraditional. The students are all ages, from all over the country and world, and many have full rich busy lives outside of the arts they are somehow still amazingly devoted to and talented at producing.  They are not concerned with following trends or making it big, just making good work, better work, the best of which they are capable. Then something wonderful happens, and these unprepossessing outsiders, misfits and underachievers start publishing, and showing, and performing everywhere. Receiving this item in the mail was the perfect way to reaffirm how far I have come in 2010 and how far I will go in 2011.

spoiled for choice

One of the things I’ve come to understand along the way is that while I have an inner need for peace, quiet and singularity of purpose, I am always going to be one of those people who can’t just do one thing and certainly can’t do nothing at all for very long. I’ve spent a lot of time this year trying to choose between being a writer, a photographer and a maker of apparently highly desirable crocheted accessories, and have finally decided that Two Tigers Creations is all of those things – written works, photographic works, and yes, even a seasonal line of fiber works that are a little less than art but a lot more than craft. I’m a maker of things. I am happiest when engaged in the process of creation at some level – the planning, the execution, the completion, and the true conclusion in the joy of handing something I made to a stranger and knowing it gives them joy. I can’t and won’t choose between the ways I can do this. If this means violating one of the cardinal rules of self-promotion and marketing, which is to specialize and streamline, the better for the limited attention of the public and dealers to grasp who you are and purchase what it is you have to offer, so be it.  I’d rather enjoy doing three things I love and always feel I am not giving enough time to each, than do just one and always feel I have abandoned some essential part of my creative motives and mission. 

ever onward

This is the week I (and others I’m sure) typically spend time looking back or looking forward, cleaning up or clearing out the old to make way for the new, whether it’s closets and files or a soulsearching review of the year. I do all of that, filling bags with shredded paperwork, and also making lists of what I am proud of and grateful for, and where I found myself lacking, and finally constructing a highly flexible and provisional plan for both my soul’s journey and my practical agenda in the months ahead. I thought I’d share some of this online, as they say that announcing things to the universe by offering them in written form or spoken aloud is a good way of letting the universe know you mean business. And I do mean business this year, literally, because one of the main headings on my To Do list is to Be a Better Businesswoman, right next to Be a Better Artist and Take Better Care of Myself and Others. I have barely begun this list and it already bears the mark of a former library assistant’s zeal for organization, classification and a ruthless attention to detail, so I’ll give you instead the spirit of the Better List, which is to make peace with the ongoing challenge of balancing financial necessities and creative urgencies, including better self-promotion online and off (yes, this means you will see me on facebook soon, just in time for it to be replaced by something else!), revisiting the darkroom skills I learned many years ago among other ways of exploring classic photographic techniques, tools and presentation, a new book of poems and photographs, a calendar, and the item that never leaves my list from year to year – lose 15 pounds!

 yesterday and forever

As for what I am most proud of and grateful for, see above.  Thank you, Brian. And thank you, all you good blogfolks who follow me and support, inspire and encourage me though we have never laid eyes on each other and don’t even share a time zone or in some cases a language or a continent! I wish you the best for a new year full of courageous acts of creativity, good health and positive progress for mind body and soul, and new discoveries and pleasures where you expect them least and when you need them most!  

Gone for the year - see you in 2011!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Decemberfest

Jan Gossart (Netherlandish, ca. 1478–1532)
Christ on the Cold Stone, ca. 1530
Oil on panel

For a long time I felt unfairly treated in the cruelty of my birthday falling within weeks of Christmas. I realize it might be considered petty, even sacrilegious, to feel upstaged by Jesus Christ, as if he were my bratty older brother who got all the attention, even moreso after his well-publicized tragic premature death! But too often my natal celebration was lost in the preparations and distractions of his, and even with the best intentions, paled by comparison and never lived up to its full potential.  Just the way New Year’s Eve can become a desperate mission to have the best day of the year, with all that pressure of not having another chance for another long year, my birthday suffered from a series of failed attempts at the ideal or ultimate commemoration, until I realized that a broader philosophy needed to be adopted. I rejected all norms for birthday fetes, and established a winter festival for which the anniversary of my birth was a mere recommended beginning, and could continue up to, include and outlast Christmas, with no one day bearing the burden of being the last word in seasonal amusements and satisfactions.  My festival has no fixed end, either.  It only lasts until every interested party is partied and gifted out and ready to submit to the deep depression of deep New England winter, which can last until April, so you better have plenty of comfort and joy stored up in advance!

 The Hand of Man - Alfred Stieglitz
American, 1902
Photogravure

Decemberfest 2010 began with a whimper on my actual birthday December 7th.  I had all the right elements in place – had taken a wonderful train ride the day before to my home town and arrived pleasantly drunk on free red wine thanks to the generous car attendant in first class, and gratefully amused by the characters on the Manhattan subway, whose winner for the day was a tall man in a business suit and large furry black coat who looked like a cross between one of the Men in Black and a pimp. He was also wheeling a small rack of large canvases behind him, which looked like his own paintings!   


The Flatiron, 1904
Edward Steichen (American, born Luxembourg, 1879–1973)
Gum bichromate over platinum print

But the next morning I woke to a cold windy gray day, feeling tired and uninspired, and emerged to encounter one frustration after another – museums closed, weather bitter, no desire to walk, eat, shop, shoot or any of the things I associate with a successful day in the city. I went home defeated and had a lovely dinner with my wonderful parents, yes, but all in all the day was dull and unremarkable and I wondered where all that “travel magic” I am always blessed with had vanished to.


December 8th I woke after a bad sleep with the awareness that this was the 30th anniversary of the death of John Lennon. I made a mental note to find time for a brief visit to his memorial in Central Park as part of my day’s itinerary. Then I proceeded to do all I had wanted to do the day before – a visit to Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which was deserted, windless, and warmed by a bright sun in a clear sky in the midmorning that made for ideal high contrast shooting conditions for black and white film.

 
I visited my 115 yr old bonsai in the Conservatory, sturdy, wrinkled old friend I have now greeted in every season for nearly two decades. 

 
I had a wonderful soup and sandwich lunch watching young school groups led through various indoor plant exhibits, from tropical to desert flora, and felt hopeful that future generations will learn to love and value nature thanks to places like this. I even saw some VERY late cherry blossoms outdoors, white, fragile as tissue paper, yet delicately tenacious on the bare trees in spite of 30 degree temperatures.  Every view offered me a photographer’s dream of angles and shapes and light playing with each other. Every listless negative feeling of the day before was replaced with vitality and joy.

 
When I emerged from the subway and entered Central Park at 72nd street, passing the Dakota, where John lived and died, I could see that the police presence and stanchions for crowd direction anticipated masses and possible trouble. I recalled 30 years ago in my old bedroom at my parents’ home uptown listening to a small radio as a dj on the night shift broke the news and then opened the phone lines for callers, playing Lennon songs through the night and sharing shock, disbelief and grief. No tweets or texts back then, just people coming together with real voices and bodies, as they would assemble later on the streets, through the night and days to come, as John would have loved. At the official memorial in 1980, held in one of Central Park’s largest areas for public events, no gathering of thousands in that space was ever as silent or unified.

 
As I said, I meant to file by and pay my respects to the IMAGINE mosaic with its increasing collection of offered flowers and memorabilia, but could not even see it for the people, row upon row, cameras raised high like periscopes, citizens and news media alike. But I moved toward the sound of a strummed guitar just as he gave up trying to play near the mosaic and moved to a park bench off to the side, and soon found myself among a spontaneous Beatles songbook singalong. 


Other musicians arrived, and the crowd instinctively, respectfully parted as they joined the cluster at the bench, a bongo drummer, a mandolinist,  two, three, four acoustic guitarists. And we sang – in perfect harmony – for an hour. If I didn’t have to meet my Dad on the other side of the park at an appointed time, I’d be there still.

 
I had shot my last roll at BBG, and got only one photo of the event, the b&w one above, as I arrived. It never occurred to me to reload and take more, even if now I wish I had captured what happened there. Oh well. I’m not a journalist. The images of that experience are burned in my head where they belong, though I’ve since scoured individual flickr sites and sorted through literally thousands of images, including those of one dedicated photographer who must have been at their station the entire day as the crowd changed faces but kept its numbers strong. There, I did find a few photos of myself, caught in the act and almost lost in the crowd...so I do have proof.  I would like to make it clear here that these photos are not mine and not to be reproduced.



All too soon, I had to leave and meet my father at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a show of to me unknown Netherlandish painter Jan Gossart, a great talent who combined the lessons of antiquity, the upfront humanism of the Italian Renaissance, and the great attention to detail of the Northern masters. His image of Christ, an unparalleled realistic rendition of not an idealized concept but an actual man in torment awaiting his horrible destined end, with a twisted figure based on the massive and muscular yet broken Apollo Belvedere, begins this post. I apologize for using it as a witty visual reference to my birthday rivalry with JC, and now humbly request you view it again for all its raw power. 



 Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Iris, Georgetown, Maine, 1928
vintage platinum print 10" x 8"

Then it was on to another gallery to view the Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand show, a humbling and inspiring experience, as I alternately felt reassured that these great artists possessed the same vision as I do, the same attraction for certain compositions, and troubled that I will never be able to translate that vision into the final results that they were able to produce.  Then again, my results are my own, great art or not.  See Paul Strand above, and me below:


My day ended with another lovely dinner shared at home with my parents, and another trainride the next day, back to Boston, with an equally generous wine-pouring car attendant!  Now that Decemberfest is properly launched, I intend to celebrate for several more weeks. I do not mean by this that I will spend a lot of money and consume a lot of calories and alcohol (not that there is anything wrong with that!) but that for a few weeks I will suspend all “should”s and “oughta”s and instead focus on what feels good, to mind, body and spirit, in whatever affordable and relatively harmless form that can take. I urge you to do the same, and if questioned, say, "it’s okay, it’s Gabriella’s birthday!!"

  Reach for the sky!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Romance of the Rails


Today is my birthday. Because I like symbolic gestures, I’ve scheduled this post to be released at exactly 8:50 am EST the exact time of my birth 48 years ago in a Manhattan hospital.  I will be back in Manhattan at that moment, in the apartment I have known for almost 40 years, many of those as a resident, and no year having gone by without being a guest. I will likely take a long walk in my native town and pass through places my feet have touched and eyes have reflected hundreds of times over the years. Some journeys take you forward; others take you back, but every journey, whatever the gains and losses encountered along the way, is about movement onward.


I write those words with a smile, knowing that I have so often lamented that my life is going nowhere, or going wrong. With the perspective of age, I can now see that it was always going exactly where and how it needed to go, and that I could not be sitting here as the person I now am had any of those gains and losses been missed. I now understand that the happenings I construed as delays or detours or even disasters were all uniquely designed to keep me on track and safely arrived at my destination. But I haven’t always seen things this way. I haven’t always had this philosophical detachment from and faith in right outcomes.  I wanted it all to be as clear as showing up on time with the right stuff and proceeding from point A to point B.  Maybe this is why many years ago I came to love train travel.  It gave me exactly what was missing in my life:  getting somewhere.


 Old Penn Station, NYC, archival photo

I love waiting rooms in train stations. Not only do they have inspiring and expansive architecture, like secular cathedrals erected to the gods of travel, but they hold the history of every passenger who ever left one place and went to another, for business, for pleasure, for family, to experience new things or revisit old ones, to embrace adventures or escape them, to change who they are, or rediscover who they always were. 



It’s all there, in the great everchanging hanging board of destination cities and times, in the sellers of tickets who literally hold your future in their hands, in the great iron horses waiting on the tracks, ready to carry hundreds of souls to their destinies. It’s all there to feel anew as soon as I step into the great vaulted spaces, ceilings high to hold all those aspirations, my footsteps echoing on the polished floors, the air astir with the passing of persons with places to go, the very manifestation of a world of human possibility.

Rain Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway by JMW Turner, 1844

I love the first forward movement of the train when I am in my seat and ready to go. There is always that slight tug backwards and then the first shift forward, like an animal recoiling before it can leap. I feel it in my gut, the way your stomach flutters when you set eyes on a lover, and in my mind I feel that same excitement and contentment of knowing now something is HAPPENING, now I am GOING SOMEWHERE.


But I also love the last moments of approaching the end of the line. For the route I most often take, the Boston to NYC Amtrak, this means my native city coming into view in the distance, and identifying all the buildings I know so well, seeing that crazy impossible cluster of tall buildings and the millions of lives in and around them, all standing together on a tiny sliver of island, and knowing that is where I come from, that is why I am who I am, that is the cityscape whose image is engraved on my heart.  Then we enter the tunnel to pull into the station and those last moments of rushing through the subterranean darkness make my heart beat faster. I am transformed; when I exit the train in Penn Station, I leave behind who I am outside NYC, I become again the determined headlong urban walker, weaving untouchable through the masses of people, more people in five minutes than I normally see in a month back in Boston, like a shark through water, retracing a course I know so well I could do it blindfolded. The electricity rises in my bloodstream. I’m home.


I also love arriving in a new unfamiliar place, the feeling that anything can happen, the focus and acute senses needed to navigate an entirely unknown place and people and get to where I need to be, a hotel, further transportation. I have always claimed that I have “travel magic.” I do a lot of research when I travel, but there is always an element of the unexpected, and when I have taken great leaps of faith that things will work out, they always do, thanks to a combination of my own openness, curiosity and instincts with a lot of help from the kindness of strangers who seem to materialize at just the right time with exactly the right information or services. Knowing I have this luck does not mean I rely upon it, but I have come to embrace that sense of friendly uncertainty as both exciting and instructive. Its application to everything unfamiliar that presents itself to me has been one of the saving graces of my life.

Compartment Car 293, by Edward Hopper, 1938

I also love everything that happens between departure and arrival, especially on long distance train rides. It’s one thing to board a plane and several hours later find yourself across the continent in another time zone having only witnessed cloud formations and the seatback in front of you, and quite another to witness every city and every shift in landscape that lies between beginning and end. A few years ago I had the great good fortune to take the train from New York to New Orleans. My cabin was small and the hours many, and yet, I have never felt time pass so quickly or had more spacious accommodations. The rhythm of the rocking of the train lulled me to sleep at night, and the sight of one town after another kept me window-gazing between the calls for meals in the dining car where I met fellow travelers, train enthusiasts and lovers of adventure.  By the time I reached the final stop in New Orleans, I felt so content and energized I would have stayed on that train and let it take me anywhere. When would you ever feel that way upon leaving an airplane?


There is a timelessness and universality to staring out the window of a moving train, aligning me with all the artists of the past for whom train travel served as a theme or motif, from the French Impressionists to Kerouac to Tolstoy to Hitchcock who understood the romance of the rails, but also aligning me with my own past and future selves. All of life seems like it is on track and making its way from where it once was to where it must eventually be, and that is a wonderful feeling to have in times of such great uncertainty. 

Happy Birthday to Me. And to all of you good people out there, may your travels this holiday season be safe and satisfying!


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Homesick


I was not a healthy child. My earliest memories include the indescribable pain of chronic ear infections and the occasional high fever that required being wrapped in alcohol soaked towels to bring my body temperature down to safe levels.  At a time when most children’s identities were being formed by the sensations and interactions of the outside world, my world often began and ended in the small dark isolated setting of the sick room, a simple place connected to activities and realities beyond only by a window and a door and a very keen almost catlike sense of hearing.

Perhaps this is how I began to accept that in more ways than one, I was different and set apart, because these were often my actual physical circumstances. People were shadowy visitors, coming and going as distant voices and footsteps in the hallway, interrupting my retreat with concerns and comforts, and vanishing. My position in relation to the world was one of inability to participate, albeit it temporary and involuntary. The far greater realities for me were the comings and goings inside my mind, the ebb and flow of pain and strength in my own body.  At a very early age, I knew my own mind and the workings of my body inside and out, I knew that the one provided extraordinary possibiilties, while the other would likely continue to frustrate and fail me, and I knew that my most intense experiences seemed to happen when other people weren’t around.

This past week I’ve been away from home. I started my travels with a bad headcold that got worse every day.  The sickly child I once was has fortunately managed to grow up into a much healthier adult, but I still get at least one bad upper respiratory infection a year, which, if left unresolved, can evolve into something worse, like pneumonia, a risky business for someone with asthma. At the first signs of a cold, I do everything I can to keep it brief. But this time, I was on the road, with changes in routine and surroundings, and fatigued from months of hard work and not taking the best care of myself. In addition, because I wanted to be a participant and not an invalid, I behaved as if I weren’t sick, staying up late, socializing, overindulging in food and drink. The result was I got sicker by the day until I finally had to admit defeat and spend a whole day in an unfamiliar bed, with the familiar companions of a closed door, a dimly lit window, and the bedcovers pulled up over my head to muffle the sounds of my unstoppable head-and-chest-splitting cough.

I wrote recently about how certain scents can bring back entire landscapes of memory in vivid detail, even allowing you to relive the original with intense immediacy. Being sick has this same effect on me. Suddenly I found myself no longer a rational capable middle aged woman being cared for by her boyfriend’s lovely welcoming sympathetic and solicitous family, but a 5 year old girl, curled into a ball crying because all the fun was happening beyond the confines of my sickroom while I was so thoughtless and selfish as to be unpleasantly ill and need taking care of. I felt that same strange blend of isolation, self-pity, guilt, frustration, longing, vulnerability, embarrassment and resentment, and a strong desire to at least be in my own home while reduced to this state. Then I stopped resisting, sank into my misery, and found the same door of imagination opening for me, in response to my door to the world of social interaction being closed. All boundaries of time and space dissolved and in that safe interior place, I was home.

Unfortunately this little crisis of collapse occurred on the morning of Brian’s big opening at Salon Indigo, and I am not a five year old free of responsibilities, so after several hours of fully and unapologetically occupying my mental and physical cocoon, I had to become a self-sufficient adult again, and rally my strength long enough to attend. Exiting my sickroom I felt like Lazarus emerging from the tomb. I was unsteady on my feet, and had almost forgotten how to look people in the eye and speak to them without the protection of a blanket over my face. The very air felt like a personal attack in my defenseless state. I remembered all the times as a child when the fever broke, the bedrest was no longer necessary, and it was time to return to the outside world. And for a moment I felt that same mixture of relief and regret.  

The happy ending is that the reception was a success, and my headcold has loosened its grip on my mind and body. I slept through the night last night without being awakened by coughing. I woke up at sunrise with words beginning to gather themselves in my mind for a new post, one sure sign that I have conquered a challenging experience, the desire and ability to write about it. And I thought of all the writers I’ve read whose childhood memories and memoirs have contained stories of illness, and how those experiences helped to define them as observers and interpreters of life. So, perhaps being a sickly child isn’t such a bad thing, and perhaps as an adult, a forced “time out” is occasionally necessary, a silent agreement between body and mind to re-create those conditions in which the only matters that require attention and action are those of the imagination.

Tomorrow, we begin our travels back north, and in a case of irony all too typical of my strange temperament, now that I am finally healthy enough to appreciate them, I am sure I will miss this place and the wonderful people I've met, and wish I could have stayed longer! December already has a few topics lined up to explore in this blog, which I intended to resume after my return home, but this topic said “me first!” and I had no choice but to listen.  

Best wishes to all.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Far and Away

Approaching a City by Edward Hopper

So. My apologies, but you are just going to have to wait a week or two to read my promised ponderings on the sense of taste! In a few days I am leaving for a much deserved long vacation, on which I intend to make full use of my sense of taste, among other things, and I realize I will not have time for a fully considered post before I go. Instead I wanted to use this space to let you all know that while away I will do my best to keep current with what is going on in your bloglives - if only to diminish the daunting task awaiting me on my return of doing justice to days and days of your good thoughts and images to absorb and properly respond to!

head in the clouds

Someone in blogland recently noted that there exists a perception that if you don’t blog about it, it didn’t happen (thanks Alexandra!). I rarely use this venue for personal reports or announcements. Readers must think all I do is stare at the clouds and think about things, make things, and think about thinking about making things, and then write about writing about it! And dwell in the past (if only to keep its lessons immediate and useful). Perhaps I am nothing but a cloud formation myself, bodiless and elusive. My desire when I began this blog only 3 months ago was to give myself a place to indulge my musings on art and life, in a way set apart from the trivia of mundane concerns, and maybe reach out to some good likeminded souls along the way, by being both intimately confiding and hopefully somehow universal . This venture has more than exceeded my expectations, both as a personal outlet and as a gathering point for others’ enriching insights I would never have found in any other way. 

social networking

Maybe someday soon I’ll join facebook or some other more social network in order to give more access to the side of my life that is not about wordplay and image making. You know, where I can post images or news of events that are actually happening to me in the present as opposed to portraits of inanimate objects and myself at a fraction of my current age.  My life is about to be very much about present events and adventures worth documenting and I suppose they merit their place as well. But before that can happen it is time for some time off. Must remember, even if I bring my laptop with me, that I am on vacation! See you in December and blog on!

Friday, November 12, 2010

The nose knows

The Librarian by Arcimboldo, 1566

In previous posts, I’ve examined and celebrated what can be apprehended by the eye, ear and hand. Not to deny the remaining two senses their due, I decided to write a little about the role of taste and smell sensations in my life, and of course what began as a few stray ideas grew quickly into a long essay! Why would I feel any less passionate or any more reticent about these aspects of a full experience of what life has to offer? Readers of this blog must think I have only two states of being: irrepressible synesthetic elation and craven crippling self-doubt, and that I am a sort of walking library of topics, each of which requires not a pamphlet, but a weighty tome to contain. Not surprisingly, it turned out there was so much to say about these two remaining portals of pleasure, it will require two separate posts, neither of them brief. This week, I consider smell.

doors of perception

I  was so happy to discover in recent times that science figured out what I always knew – that our sense of smell is more than just a simple stimulus processor, but a translator and supplier of complex and provocative information to our brains. Just think of all those receptors in our nasal passages, and how close they are to our gray matter! Just think how cut off and vulnerable we feel with a stuffy nose, even though of all the senses, I’m sure most of us would sacrifice this one first as the lesser, most dispensible tool for survival!

Proust's bedroom, Musee Carnavalet, Paris

Well, Proust was right, turns out, about all that souvenir involontaire stuff, and how a taste of madeleine cookie dipped in tea could lead to a whole insurmountable novel’s worth of memories the conscious mind could never retrieve with such intensity and detail.  As with taste, so with smell.  Not only does our sense of smell carry with it tons of coded information about the world around us we have forgotten in our lazy human way how to process and appreciate, but it also has the ability to create, or re-create, or even anticipate states of mind from this input, both past and present.  We are not just remembering, we are living and feeling the thing itself. Literary motif aside, this makes all kinds of biological sense to me in terms of survival – it is far more effective for quick identification of a friendly or hostile situation if you not only recognize it with your intellect but actually re-experience it in your whole body!

 Dan Yaccarino cartoon, 1993

Funny thing about baked goods and writers and memory. For me it is anything made with lemon extract. I can scarcely write those two words without swooning.  I was going to take a photograph of my resident miniature bottle of this nectar of the gods, but I’m afraid if I open it and take a whiff I may never finish this post, last seen headed for the nearest Italian bakery and blogged no more. In any Italian section of any city, especially during holiday seasons, this is the heady smell that wafts from every pastry shop, blended with a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar. For me it represents not just the items it gets mixed into, like ricotta pie, sesame seed cookies, biscotti, lemon gelato, torrone and struffoli to name a delectable few, but every Christmas morning waking up to that smell lingering long after the oven has cooled and the pots and pans stored away. It smells of everything in me that is undeniably and unsuppressibly Italian. It smells of family, cultural heritage, where I come from, who I am, how I carry on the life of my ancestors into modern times. I do not have a sweet tooth, and in fact have a dietary sensitivity to white sugar that makes consuming desserts not worth the unpleasant aftermath, so I tend to avoid sweets altogether. But still, the smell of Italian dolci sends me into a trance state not unlike intoxication, or stroking a purring cat…I suddenly feel I am in another time and place, another dimension, another life. My eyes close and I hear my grandmother singing. I can feel the soft skin of her wrinkled hands, delicate yet tough like parchment, and her fingers bent every which way at each joint from long years of hard work. I see the little faux pearl buttons on the white cardigan she wore in every season, to take the chill off. I am aware of the progression of images I have of her, changing year by year, growing smaller and duller, like a flame lowering to a mere fraction of its former vitality, but the smell of the things she pulled out of the oven, that rush of warm aroma as the door opened, that will not diminish or disappear, now, 25 years since her death, or ever.


And then there is wine.  A while back, I heard good things about Australian wine and decided to confirm that their enviable growing conditions really were producing reds that could shake my longterm loyalty to the French and Italian vineyards. What I liked most about the Shiraz I soon began to purchase in increasingly expensive and delicious varieties, was the nose. I thought up until then that good wine was all about taste, but really, the first time you pause to inhale the aroma contained in a glass, and then hold that first sip on the back of your tongue, letting the perfume expand and rise before swallowing, you understand that it is just as much about smell. My journey into high end wines ended with a half bottle by d’Arenberg that cost more than any whole bottle I’d ever purchased. I drank it alone lying on my couch, was rendered nearly immobile by pleasure, and after every sniff and sip, exhaled and exclaimed “oh my god oh my god oh my god” followed by “I can die happy now.” Later at my favorite NYC wine shop, I found out there was another year and variety from this same vintner that cost twice as much, only came in whole bottles and was EVEN BETTER. I special ordered it as a birthday gift to myself. When the scent was released from that bottle, it was like one of those sinister yet beguiling cartoon vapors that turn into a finger and gently crook, beckoning you onward…it told me all I knew before, and all that was yet to come, and I was besotted before I even dared have that first taste. What followed defies description. Because, like music, sensations of smell are something you can write about only in terms of how they made you feel. You cannot capture and show the thing itself, its essence is beyond words, and can only be known by experiencing them again. But the wonderful thing about music and perfume, is that once summoned by memory, in all the details that first indraw of sensory information provided, you can indeed experience them again. 

 photo courtesy of BBG

I would be remiss not to pay tribute here to that first and best scent sensation delivery system, the flower. I am so glad that in order to propagate, these beings developed not only such unavoidable visual beauty, but also amazing aromas to get their alluring message across to pollinating insects. I understand the bees' helpless attraction all too well, who could resist? My favorite place on Earth, if you read me you know by now, is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. They have an annual riot of cherry blossoms, they have a lily pond whose picturesque orange fish I’ve photographed and immortalized here, they have all varieties of native and imported trees and a veritable fireworks display of late summer roses, but most of all they have a grove of lilacs. One that has made me exhale and exclaim my readiness for an immediate and happy demise to a degree only outrageously costly Aussie wine can provoke. Lilacs everywhere, in every color from white to dark purple, early and late blooming, short and tall, dense and spare, and every one of them providing an intoxicating perfume that once inhaled makes you want to lie down on the grass and let out a salacious sigh as if you were in an opium den. It feels deliciously indecent. I have more than once leaned into a cluster, breathing deep, and emerging looking around almost guilty lest someone witness my performing some illegal act, or emitting some indecorous sound.  Then I move on to the next cluster, and the next, bold, unseeing, uncaring, like a woman in love.

 close your eyes and breathe deep

To navigate and understand her world, my cat smells everything, rubbing her cheeks on all surfaces both to take in and set down scent. She can’t ask when I come home “where have you been?” Instead she avoids my expectant gaze and greetings and goes right for my shoes, or the knapsack or clothes I shed as I re-enter our home territory.  Once she’s had a good sniff, she proceeds to put her own smell all over everything to claim and familiarize it.  Ah, now it’s okay, she seems to be saying as she walks away and continues to put scent on everything else in her path, as she will do, repeatedly, all day, every day, just to make sure all is well, because all smells well.  Animals can tell who is sick or healthy, friend or foe, approachable or best avoided, just because their nose knows. When and how did we lose that faculty or  the need or desire to keep it sharp? So much can be learned and enjoyed if we only pay attention to what the nose knows.  In this day and age we are very much a culture geared to the visual. I urge you all to take a moment this week to close your eyes, breathe deep, and feel intensely. 

Next week: food, glorious, food!