The Burial

We buried Richard Adams in the garden, in the late afternoon of a February day.

I read a passage from Watership Down, the author of which our departed was named for, and my husband, also named Richard, read a page of prose he had prepared. Then there was nothing more to say. A wind swayed the branch of the tree above, causing a small brown bird to leave us.  The bell of a bicycle was heard from the street some meters away. I saw that the top button on my coat had become loose.

Earlier that day, the Richard who is still among the living dug a small grave some distance from the house, where it is very still and quiet. I watched him pile earth on top of earth from the window in the dark parlor, where it was safe. I held Richard Adams in my arms. His body was cold and heavy. His fur felt soft in my hands.

Then it was time.

After the burial, we walked in silence to the house, where the stillness was even louder than at the grave. Richard went into his studio to view the finished work. I prepared dinner, and afterward we fed our beastly bellies with the flesh of an unknown animal. We drank the wine which we had bought from the little store.."a very good vintage, Madame"...We didn't speak of Richard Adams.

That night, I dreamt of running through the thick grasses of an unknown land. The sun beat down upon my back and I searched frantically, until at last I came into the coolness of underground. Weaving and scratching my way through the tunnel, I came upon a light, and passed through. This brought me above ground again, and into the heaviness of a human girl, whose body was now my own. I wasn't able to make use of the legs nor the tongue, so I crawled in silence until I reached the safety of a new tunnel, where inside, I passed back into my own rabbit flesh once more.

I didn't tell Richard about my dream. We ate bread and raspberry jam for breakfast, and drank coffee with cream.  We did not speak of death or of life, or of sacrifices made.  We looked at the painting in the room where Richard Adams had been a life, still. It is a beautiful painting, and it tells the truth. Many months, years later, it tells this truth, while I, simple in my parlor, speak of dinner and tea and loose buttons. I read books and hang laundry to dry, and worry over spilled wine.

But, sometimes, just before sleep, or while stirring a pot by the kitchen window, or when alone by the fire in our dark parlor; sometimes, then, I can think only of a small patch of earth in the garden, and the gentle, spiritless body buried beneath.


The 500 Blows

I have spent  a lot of time underground. In fact, I calculated today that in the year 2008 alone, I spent an estimated 500 hours on a New York City subway train, or waiting for one in a station. In 2009 I spent less time on the subway, as this was the year I moved to Paris. Yet, even so, there were many nights and days spent beneath the earth, both in America and in France. And I can't account for the hours. I sometimes feel as though they were stolen from me, or worse, deleted from existence.

My earliest train memory is of the Long Island Railroad. It  was here where I spent some time as a child traveling with family on day trips to Manhattan from my uncle's home in Queens, and years later, from Rockville Centre. I remember most clearly the transfer station, Jamaica, where we would wait, my mother and uncle and I, for a connecting train. It was also here, as an adult living in Brooklyn, where my husband and I often waited patiently to transfer to the train that would, from here, screech its way into the small town where family lived.  The total travel time of 90 minutes began at the Atlantic Avenue station in Brooklyn and ended in Rockville Centre, Long Island. At least it was above ground.  Besides, these were fond memories. Especially the journeys of childhood. Then, the trains seemed to travel faster, and you had the sense of actually going somewhere. Somewhere exciting. Maybe you were going to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, or to take a carriage ride in Central Park. Maybe there was snow on the ground outside, and in that split second of descent, just as the train is plunged into the darkness of underground tunnels, your window fills with white light, and this stays with you forever.

But then, you grow older. And if you should happen to work for a living and live in the city, you will probably spend a greater portion of time than you desire on a train. I certainly have. I know that I was most often going from home to this or that terrible job. I was sometimes meeting friends, or going to the market. I know that the journeys were necessary ones;  I just wish they hadn't kept me in the dark for so long. But, if I try, maybe I can salvage some of the pictures from the black mass of time.

I have a still, deep, blue tinted recollection of a glimpse of the Brooklyn Bridge at dusk, a single moment I didn't realize at the time was imprinting itself upon me. I remember one summer evening sitting across from my husband, happily exhausted from a day at the beach. I wore my blue dress, which was damp at the hem, and the saltwater still burned on my calves. I also recall vividly that September afternoon when I was told my father died, and the excruciating 20 minute subway ride home. As an opposite train passed, I glanced out of the window and briefly met the forlorn gaze of a stranger, who is a stranger still. Then there are less significant memories. A forgotten bottle on the floor of the car, rolling involuntarily between the black boots of passengers. A tired advertisement for a credit card company. The red crease in the crook of my arm made by the bag I carried. A feeling of having left something behind. This must be what we call Time.

As time elapsed, those hours by train accumulated into a sense of heaviness and fatigue, much like a series of blows to the head. I grew weary. So heavy and weary, that when the last train left the station on the third of July, and I dropped my metro card into the trash as my husband pulled me along toward JFK airport, I felt the weight of 500 hours drop away. And then I slept. I slept going over the Atlantic Ocean without opening the window. I slept in an airport chair under the midnight sun of Iceland. The moment we arrived in our Paris quarters, I collapsed onto the bed and slept some more. For many months, I slept for a few hours in the middle of the day. People crept by, suspecting I was sick. No, I told them. I have just been on too many trains.

On this New Year's Eve, looking back in time is as important as going forward. I am happy where I am, and try not to worry too much about the future. I have learned, mostly the hard way, to value time. Perhaps this is just a part of ageing, or maybe it's the result of too much underground thought. I can't remember much about my subway travel or what I may have been contemplating during all those waiting hours. I imagine I  thought about someone I saw or something said, what I would eat for dinner, how I would make it and where I would buy the ingredients, where I had been and where I needed to go next. I'm sure I thought I had plenty of time to do it all.

Like I said, I can't account for the hours. I just know they are gone.


The Odd and the Crazy

"You have to distinguish between things that seemed odd when they were new but are now quite familiar, such as Ibsen and Wagner, and things that seemed crazy when they were new and seem crazy now, like Finnegan's Wake and Picasso." - Philip Larkin

A good friend of mine sent me this quote, and it seems particularly appropriate today, to the art world as a whole, and even the world at large. My husband, a classical realist painter, (who is also responsible for the beautiful photograph at left), wondered aloud yesterday evening if his latest paintings might be rejected for their somewhat morbid oddity. They are a series of beautifully rendered fowl, and  parts of fowl. They are exquisite, though some are a bit eerie to behold, with their bodiless heads and wings, now resting flightless and soundless on fragile bones spread before you. They are birds whose heads and wings I see only briefly in life, before they are severed and tossed away, and I have never looked closely at them until Richard requested I buy our hens and pheasants intact at the market.

Sometimes he paints the entire body, as with our latest  faison, but usually he paints only the head, wings, and feet, the body already having been made into dinner. Experiencing this act of looking closely at our food, a teaching of Michael Pollan among others, is important to us. If we can't look at the animals we consume, inspect every part, understand the value of the life they lived, how and what they ate, then see and consider them in death - how the feathers feel, how the neck becomes flaccid and almost pathetic in the hand - if we can't do that, well, then, what business do we have eating them? Thus, it is important to look, and therefore that eerie quality in Richard's paintings is there for a reason. It reminds us. It connects us to our food, and we can't look away from that. So I say to him, yes they are odd, but they are beautiful too. And the oddness has become familiar to me, because I see it, and I understand. This is part of what makes them great art.

What is crazy, and what always seemed to be so to me, is the blindness and complacency of man. People who accept whatever comes their way, be it a vacuum packed bird which led a life of imprisonment in a tiny cage wallowing in and eating its own merde, a dangerous vaccine, bad design, filthy sidewalks, propaganda to make them buy anything and everything, (you too can have fake eyelashes!) and of course, ridiculous, unskilled, very bad "art". An example which always comes to mind is Jeff Koons (who has never even held a paintbrush). So, hey, even though the world has given us masters like Degas and Rembrandt, who spent a lifetime learning the skills which made them great, why don't we just include in that category we call Art a large, inflatable pink rabbit? It doesn't matter that he didn't make it himself, or that it's absurd and insults your intelligence; it's art now! And you should pay a million dollars for it! Sadly, people do. They do pay, and they accept the crazy as the norm, because we have allowed a few marketing gurus and businessmen to tell us how to think. Now that's crazy. The truth is, Jeff Koons seemed crazy in the 70's and he seems crazy now.

What's even crazier is that this is all a part of how we are deceived. If we could really see, awaken each day with fresh minds free of the burden of constant advertising, maybe we would look at an inflatable Koons toy and say, you're calling yourself an artist? Are you crazy?! Maybe we would be able to see the labor and skill that goes into art. Maybe we would always look at our food and think, is this good for me to eat? Is it right or wrong to eat this and why? From where did this animal come and how was it slaughtered? Is this chair I'm sitting in made well, and with skill? Do I value it? Or did I just accept it because it's the latest style? But I don't think most of the world can ask those questions anymore. Maybe it's what they've put in our water and all those packaged bags of salad and single slices of cheese. If we're too tired to slice our own cheese, well....all in all, a clever way to get us to quietly hand over our paychecks.

There was a time, I think,  when people looked at the world around them; at the earth and the bounty it provides, at the meaning of learning a skill, of thinking for one's self. My grandmother knew how to raise and kill her own chickens. Most people now can't even butcher one. They think "chicken" is something they are entitled to, and comes in tidy plastic wrapped packages. The chair I'm sitting in needs to be re-stuffed and reupholstered, but only a cluster of fine upholsterers are left in the western world. That's because when we were all watching television, a large company decided to make cheaper chairs, fill them with Styrofoam and tell us cheaper is better. And everybody went for it. The companies profited, but did we? I think I'd rather learn how to build a chair myself  to tell you the truth, or pay someone who still knows how to use his hands and make something solid.

As I sit down to dinner tonight at a table made by a person, not a machine, and I eat the flesh of a bird who was sold to me at a fair price from a farmer I trust, I would like to offer up a toast. Here's to those of you who value quality and beauty. To those who know how to draw an accurate figure, who know the skills of painting, who know how to sew, how to grow vegetables without chemicals, raise animals humanely, build a table, make a fire that doesn't have an electric switch. Here's to the people who make wine with terroir, write literature and music, hunt, forage, bake their own bread. To those who still value knowledge over reality tv, and therefore know how to spot the odd from the perpetually crazy. Here's to the ones who truly see, and  know the parts equal a greater whole.


The Wine Files in Paris

I haven't been counting the days between then and now; that is to say, since I last wrote here, though I am well aware more than a year must have slipped away. Some of it passed quietly by with ease, and writing would have been no more than an unwelcome interruption to my delirious play, which for the most part took place in Soho in Manhattan. There has been bountiful laughter over many glasses of wine. Other parts of the year were not as kind - cruel, even. Thirty was difficult. Difficult, but generous too. I even made it to thirty-one relatively unscathed.

So, moving forward as we humans are wont to do, life has ushered me out of New York for a while, and I write to you from my fireside in Paris, France. The days have just begun to hold that certain coolness in the air from which a sweater lends only minimal protection, and everything is becoming very clear and clean to see and also to breathe. We are alert to a certain virtue of Fall, which gives us a little nudge to make haste, as the days are drawing shorter. My husband, Richard, and I can no longer count on those long days of a northern French summer, where it is light until 10 p.m. And each day is getting shaved a little more, drawing us away from the badminton court a little sooner each day, so that sometimes we become too wrapped up in our work and forget to go outside in time to play. Today was one of those days. I missed my light, my chance to play.

As I sit here by the fireside looking out onto the empty lawn (where we will surely play tomorrow!) I anticipate making my first tartiflette, a dish whose richness I don't really deserve after a sedentary afternoon in chairs. But I am determined to create and recreate every French dish I can learn here, and sometime around the hour of eight I begin to lay out my ingredients, procured twice weekly from my local farmer's market, and I survey the situation. This evening I have potatoes, heavily coated in a thick layer of mud, which I wash but don't bother to scrub. I have onions, I have creme fraiche and vin blanc, and I of course have lardons, which the butcher kindly diced into small pieces for me, despite the threat of the sharp knife dangerously close to his already badly wounded fingers (and this in itself warrants a whole other post which will soon follow). Lastly, and most importantly, I have a beautiful creamy morceau of Reblochon cheese, whose melting point has reached the sublime in culinary arts.

As I sip my Morgon, I can smell the fat and onions crisping atop their potato pillows. They are slowly submerged by a rich blanket of Reblochon, which leaves behind only its rind, creating a delicate crown of crust. The wonderful aroma is filling the first floor, and my Morgon and I are eager to take a peek inside the oven. To distract myself I practice the language of my new country, and Richard brings wood up from the basement and arranges the logs. I anticipate the warmth of the fire and reflect that I never had a working fireplace in New York. In the city, it wasn't practical I guess. I also didn't have Reblochon cheese, and a butcher never once offered to dice the lardons, had I been able to find them. I'm also quite sure that a bottle of Morgon would cost more than six dollars there, and wouldn't be available at the little market down the street.

Yes, things are certainly different here. What is the same is the passage of time, though I am less aware of it. I know we have a Fall with golden leaves, a pharmacy on every corner, and 365 kinds of cheese to choose from. And when I sit by the fire and try to remember all of their names, and smell the Reblochon bubbling in the kitchen, I can't say I miss New York at all.


The Old Vines Spoke of Home

On the eve of my thirtieth birthday, a few short weeks ago, I dreamt that the world was enclosed by infinite darkness. I wept because I knew I would not see the sun again, and because now nothing would be able to grow. The soil, the essence of life, would no longer bear trees and fruit, but serve only as a vast grave. Then, the moon came out and tried to take the place of the sun, to light my corner of the world. I explained to the moon that it wouldn't work, because it was the sun that lights the world, and things must be as they always have been. When I awoke, none of this made sense and I found myself safely in bed, the sun I've always known peeking through the bamboo shades.

Looking back, I believe my dream revealed my fear of change at entering a new decade of living. I know that change is inevitable and essential, and life is constantly reinventing itself. Yet, people need constants; something eternal as the sun. I am excited at the prospect of my next thirty years-the experiences, new friends, wines, the uncertainty that is as exciting as it is terrifying. But along with these new years, these unknowns, I must also have some sound things to depend on.

Just as burgeoning possibilities will undoubtedly hold a future of happiness and exaltation, it will also unavoidably hold despair, anger,grief, chaos. There cannot be light without darkness. My husband is forever reminding me that beauty cannot be perceived unless it is contrasted by ugliness, as joy is more profound when we have known misery. These opposing forces are always in a state of flux. Beauty then, for me, often lies in what is constant. By constant I don't mean the monotonous, I mean the perseverance of the universe; the continuation of a lifelong dream; a fifty year marriage; a thirty year old vine, twisting it's way toward the sun. These are fundamental, and I am enamored by the faithful endurance of it all. I depend on and long for this kind of beauty.

This year, turning thirty, I wanted a wine that would somehow encompass all of these things. It needed to be complex because life is complex, but it also needed to be straightforward and unpretentious. It needed to show maturity, a sense of place, and have great depth. Most of all, it should show resilience and speak of the earth in which it grew.

As always, I needn't have searched long, since the wine I was looking for I found right under my own nose, harvested in local soil. The wine was Lenz Old Vines Merlot, 2001 vintage. I learned that the winery was founded the year I was born, in 1978, and the vines that produced the beautiful Merlot were as old as I am. So it was meant to be. And what have we to show for all these years, those vines and I? I have spent many days contemplating my faults, my achievements. The old vines, though, have been quite prosperous, and the wine showed every nuance of character I had been searching for. When I tasted it for the first time, I felt at home. Just as home feels, it didn't confront me with strange new tastes, or speak of exotic places. There was in its flavor more earth than fruit, and an elegance that demanded respect. It had weathered time, and now, lovely and graceful and mellow, it would tell me all about life on the North Fork. A beautiful journey under the sun and the moon and the rain.

Some people tasted the wine and were equally enchanted, while others didn't seem to notice it at all. This is the nature of quiet beauty; a whisper rather than a loud voice. I don't claim to be wise at thirty, far from it. What I know is this. There will be occasions when I will be titillated by the aroma of new oak and young, bright fruit. It is like being romanced by the moon, which has its time and place, if only to contrast the brilliance of the sun. For most of the days that remain for me, though, I will continue to seek out the beauty of tradition, here among these legends, these old vines.