Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘magic’

Yves Klein: October 1960

Yves Klein: October 1960

That’s the artist Yves Klein jumping off a building in the photograph above. Taken on October 19, 1960, the photograph is titled The Leap into the Void.  The first time Klein leapt, he broke an ankle. It’s my understanding that he considered that first jump—taken months before the October leap—the one that really counted. He jumped again to document the performance, and the second time there were people below holding a tarpaulin in which to catch him. He later created (or his photographers created) a photo montage that made him appear to fly.

I once tried to learn how to fake-levitate. I studied the Balducci method, which involves balancing on the toes of one foot, while the other foot, the one closest to your small, carefully positioned audience, is raised two or so inches off the floor. What the audience sees is a person who is no longer standing on the ground, and you must come down quickly so that they don’t have a chance to look too closely. I had understood that levitation was an illusion, but I was still disappointed, because I was the audience I wanted to convince. I couldn’t quite master the technique, anyway—I don’t have solid control over my toes.

I believe that a little low-level flying or floating would make up for a lot, and Yves Klein did, too. He was obsessed with levitation and floating. In fact, Rebecca Solnit writes about this in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She says that Klein was obsessed with “flight, levitation, and immateriality as well as the sky and the color blue….”

Solnit adds, “[H]e seems never to have stopped being a child in some ways, spoiled, petulant, impatient with restrictions, but also festive, generous, playful, and imaginative.” I think it’s nice of her to include some of the positive characteristics of being a brat.

On his obsession with the color blue, Solnit writes: “In 1957, Yves Klein painted a globe his deep electric blue, and with this gesture it became a world without divisions between countries, between land and water, as though the earth itself had become sky….”

My favorite books feature characters who spend a lot of time alone (or nearly so) with the sea and sky: The Old Man and the Sea, The Life of Pi, Diary of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Ahab’s Wife. Again, it’s about floating.

Ernesto and I spent a lot of time floating in the Gulf of Mexico during our August vacation, even after his mother sent us a message warning of the possible presence of a deadly bacteria in the Gulf. The water was equal parts blue and gray, sometimes rough. We tried very hard to recreate the sound of the waves, but we always ended up sounding like windstorms or shushing librarians or static.

We were working on our surf-noises when the most amazing thing happened. At the same time, we both spotted a reddish, gold-tipped cylinder bobbing in the waves, heading toward us. “What’s that?” Ernesto asked, and I knew at once what it was, because I had been waiting for it my whole life. “It’s a cork in a bottle!” I said, and I raised my arms and danced toward it through the water as fast as I could, hoping that the message inside the bottle would still be legible.

It was not a cork in a bottle. It wasn’t even a cork without a bottle. It was an empty shotgun shell.

Klein died two years after The Leap into the Void, at the age of 34. “Though he was tragically young,” Solnit writes, “His life looks like a meteor, a shooting star, a complete trajectory across the sky, a finished work of art.”

I will never be compared to a streak of light across the sky; I have always been more moon than star. The proof is in my own Leap into the Void­-style photograph from the very same month and year as Klein’s: October 1960. Face, belly, matching knees: it’s as if milk-white moons aligned to create a child.

Daddy and me, October 1960.

Daddy and me:  October 1960.

Still, I believe that even at age one I was contemplating my own possible leap into the void. Certainly I was already floating—rather too close to the power lines, but still. And like the bottle I have always wanted to find in a deep blue sea, I carried a message that I am still trying to figure out how to deliver. Maybe all I need to do is gather my courage, bunch up my shirt, and fly.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The Snow Maiden by Victor Vaznetsov, 1899

The Snow Maiden by Victor Vaznetsov, 1899

A nutshell story.

“I’m thirsting for a little cultural refreshment, Mel,” Daddy said. “I feel like we’ve gone through a long, hard drought with regard to the higher arts.”

Mama looked wary. “What did you have in mind, Frank?” she asked.

“A string orchestra is playing this Sunday afternoon at the Tillbury,” he said. “Why don’t we take the girls and expose them to what I feel sure will be an uplifting experience for us all?”

“They’re forecasting snow this weekend,” Mama warned, but Daddy assured her that it never snowed to amount to anything in January and anyway the car had excellent tires—as she should know, since she had insisted he buy the expensive, high-performance brand that could carry us through fire, deep water, or glacial ice without incident.

That is how we came to be sitting in the Tillbury Theatre just before 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon, with a light snow falling on a day of cold so bitter that only a clutch of folk had gathered for an afternoon of Bach and Tchaikovsky. 

“Cold and snow are ideal for Tchaikovsky,” Daddy said. “It will make us feel like we are there in Russia with him, don’t you think? We should be wearing bearskin hats and coats. Only we don’t have any. Which is just as well, because it’s hot as a match inside here.”

It was warm inside the Tillbury, which is the prettiest theatre in the world. Sitting in it is like sitting inside a red-enameled jewelry box with diamond earring chandeliers. While we waited for the concert to begin, Daddy read to us from the program. This is a habit of his, one that makes Mama clench her jaw.

“Tchaikovsky has said of this particular selection, ‘I am violently in love with it.’ He also referred to it as a ‘piece from the heart,’ and so, I venture to say, it does not lack artistic merit. Always remember, Dixie, that if it comes from your heart, it is a true and beautiful thing.”

The conductor came on stage, and soon the theatre filled with music like warm silver water, until we were all swimming in it, oblivious of the cold and the snow outside. The conductor led us through Bach, then showed us Tchaikovsky as if he were revealing a magnificent dream. Then, In the last Walzer, which was lively, the conductor lost his grip and flung his baton across the room.

Every person in that tiny audience rose, clapping with such vigor that the diamond chandeliers trembled and quaked.  “We were warned there could be violence,” Daddy whispered. “Dixie, go see if you can find that baton.” 

Mama looked as if she intended to contradict this directive, but I slipped out and went to the side of the theatre where the baton had last been seen cartwheeling over the second row. I found it against the wall—a thin gleam of light-colored wood, I thought, with a darker wooden bulb on the end. It felt alive in my hand, and I wondered if it had flown of its own will out of the conductor’s hand, a sort of magic wand.

I crept back to my seat and showed the baton to Daddy as the orchestra completed its encore, a reprise of the Walzer portion of Tchaikovsky. The tiny audience once again stood and roared its approval, as Daddy whispered that I should take the baton up to the stage and give it back to the conductor, who had turned to take his bows.  “I don’t think it’s like a foul ball that you get to keep if you catch it,” Daddy added, with an air of regret.

At first the conductor didn’t see me, and I knew that I would not be heard in the tumult of the ovation. But then he caught sight of his baton, which from his perspective must have appeared to rise from the edge of the stage on its own power, and he smiled as he reached down and took it from me. He tapped me with it, first on my left shoulder, then on my right, and we all went out into the soft white world, lifted up, and shining.

END

For more nutshell stories about Dixie and her family, see: “Father’s Day,” “A Mad Tea Party,” “Ode to Autumn,” “Bearing Witness,” “Collectors of Ice,” and “There Is No End.”

Read Full Post »

lodge in snowWhat we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. – Plutarch

A winter storm bore down hard on the Persimmon Tree Lodge Bed and Breakfast overnight, surprising even the meteorologists. They had assured us hours before that we would get something festive and superficial—the lightest sprinkling of powdered sugar to freshen the ski slopes. Instead, shrieking harpy winds and a curtain of wet snow swept over the county, blotting out the electricity from time to time and leaving my night manager, Raul, and me trapped in the lodge overnight.

Raul napped at the front desk, confident that no one would attempt to check in on this mad night. But I was fearful of leaving my three sleeping guests to the possibility of no lights and no heat. So instead of walking to the owner’s cottage 20 yards away, I napped on the sofa in the main lodge and fed the fire in case the power went out for good. I’d felt mildly claustrophobic for the month and a half since the Lodge’s grand opening. After the initial flurry of transforming a defunct Girl Scout camp into a bed-and-breakfast lodge, the magic was gone. This freak snowstorm had buried the last of it in heavy, icy snow.

At dawn, the wind subsided. I prepared breakfast for my guests, who were excited about the snow and hungry for cranberry nut pancakes and gallons of hot coffee. As they left the dining area tables and gathered in front of the fire, I cleaned up quickly. I wanted very much to go lock myself inside my cabin, but I could hardly abandon Raul. He should have been able to clock out and leave at 7:00 a.m., but he was stuck here until the snow plow came through and cleared the road.

I also knew I should work harder to amuse my guests until the snow plow passed by. If they were too miserable, they might cut their visit short and check out. Pleasant as it was to imagine them gone, bills must be paid. I gritted my teeth and left the kitchen to join them.

Sylvia Lang, a 20-something who seemed charged with more energy than she could safely handle, and the Colliers, a couple in their mid-60s, chatted in front of the fireplace. So far they still saw the snowstorm as a fun adventure. Since they were occupied I decided to plan lunch.

The one bright spot in this dismal day was that I would have to feed everyone until the snow plow reached us. I was apparently a washout as an innkeeper, but I still loved to cook.

I pulled on my parka and high-stepped through the snow to my cottage. Phillip, my morose maintenance man, had cleared the walks twice since 7:00 in the morning, so it could have been worse. I raided my personal freezer and pantry for non-breakfast foods and lugged the box of provisions to the back door of the lodge kitchen. Naturally it was locked.

I shuffled through snow to the front walk, and entered in the main lobby. “Food for lunch,” I explained to Sylvia, Raul, and the Colliers. Mr. Collier perked up.

I pushed my way rear-end first through the swinging door to the kitchen. I had a loaf of homemade bread from the freezer and several cheeses, plus I had scored four gallon-sized freezer bags of Brunswick stew. I peeled the frozen stew out of the bags and into a stock pot and set it over low heat. I would serve the soup with grilled four-cheese sandwiches.

It was tempting to stay in the kitchen, but I forced myself back to the lobby. All was still serene. Phillip had been in, tracking dirty snow and bark as he brought in firewood. I fetched a Swiffer and wet cloth and mopped up his tracks.

I had never intended for people to stay inside the lodge for this long. Persimmon Tree Lodge was meant to be a cozy refuge between bouts of casual winter sports and shopping excursions to the town of Blowing Rock. My role was to provide lovely guest rooms, a delicious breakfast, and hot tea with fresh cookies in front of the fireplace in the late afternoon as guests drifted in from hiking, shopping, or skiing. They were to sit in front of the fire and enjoy a snack before showering and changing for dinner in town. That was my vision. Not this.

After our soup-and-sandwich lunch, the guests moved back to the sofas in front of the fireplace, and I kept them supplied with hot drinks between cleaning up the kitchen and trying to plot out a more substantial dinner. Mr. Collier checked the depth of the snow every hour and reported the results with tedious regularity. Sylvia told the Colliers that she was making a fresh start, having abandoned a boyfriend and a job as a horticulturist at a botanical garden in Memphis. “I want to tend a smaller garden, something shaggy and natural and a little wild,” she said. She had come to Blowing Rock to clear her head and ski until she figured out her next move. I made a mental note to check that Ms. Lang’s credit card payment had gone through safely.

Mrs. Collier explained they were here to add to her collection of dried-apple dolls and look at antiques and quilts and folk art. I could tell that the ladies were nearly at an end to the possible avenues of conversation, but the mere thought that I should be organizing fun activities sapped me of strength.

Sylvia mentioned the possibility of bundling up and taking a short hike up the path to St. Agnes-in-the-Woods Church, which looked down on the lodge from its loftier height and was picture-postcard adorable—one of the reasons I’d chosen the old Girl Scout camp property. I was desperate for them to go do something, so I lied.

“Legend says the church is haunted.” I tried to dredge up a convincing detail, and remembered an actual fact. “On Christmas Eve, the Christ child disappeared from the church nativity scene and has never been found.”

“Never found,” Raul repeated mournfully from behind the front desk. “A Baby Jesus that fits the manger will cost my church $210. Plus taxes and shipping.”

Mrs. Collier clucked, though it was Mr. Collier who was small and birdlike. Mrs. Collier reminded me of an iceberg, with her twirl of white Dairy Queen hair in a peak representing the visible and her voluminous wraps—soft skirts, tunics, and shawls—concealing the more massive real estate below.

“Your church should have a bake sale,” Sylvia suggested. “You’d raise the money in no time. Grace could make some of her wonderful tea cakes or scones and donate them to sell!”

I could?  Raul looked doubtful, too—over the bake sale in general, or in the role I would potentially play, I’m not sure which. “I didn’t know you went to St. Agnes,” I said to Raul, hoping to divert the conversation.

Sylvia Lang said, “We should always help each other when we can. I feel all givey and Christmassy right now. Don’t you think it feels like Christmas Eve?”

It was mid-January, for God’s sake.  

“It does!” Mrs. Collier agreed heartily. She is a hearty iceberg, the type that could sink even a sturdy, triple-steel-plated ship.

“Let’s draw names for a gift exchange!” Sylvia’s lethargy seemed cured. Her eyes shone maniacally in the firelight. I wondered if her new life involved running from a criminal past.

Mrs. Collier turned her head to consider this idea, then clapped her hands once. “Let’s do!” she said. “Raul, can we borrow some paper and a pen?”

Raul had been gazing dejectedly at the snow falling. He snapped out of his reverie and pulled out two sheets of Persimmon Tree Lodge stationery and pens.

“We can’t just draw names with three people,” Sylvia said. “Raul, you and Grace will have to draw, too!”

Like Phillip, Raul always looks gloomy, and now he appeared as unenthused as I was. But these were my precious few paying guests, and I did need to make an effort to keep them happy until the final feeding of the day, so I said, “That might be fun.” I looked meaningfully at Raul, and he nodded.

Sylvia and Mrs. Collier wrote names down on torn slips of paper. Phillip came in to tend the fire again, and Mrs. Collier said, “Oh, our good fire keeper must play, too. What’s your name, dear?”

Phillip looked at me. “This is Phillip,” I said. “Phillip, our guests are pretending that it’s Christmas, and we’re going to draw names and give each other presents.” It sounded remarkably stupid when explained, so I half-expected the scheme to fall apart right then. It did not.

“How are we going to shop?” Phillip asked, glancing toward the window. “I cleared the driveway, but the road to town isn’t cleared yet.”

“Fourteen and one-third inches!” Mr. Collier announced.  

“Oh, we’re not going to shop,” Sylvia said. She was fired up over this Christmas idea. The tips of her spiky dark hair trembled, glistening with some exotic gel. She seemed electrified. “We’re going to find things around the lodge to give each other. We’ll use imagination and creativity.”

“Great fun,” Mrs. Collier said determinedly.

“You find something for me to give, Eunice,” Mr. Collier said.  

I snorted. It had suddenly occurred to me that Mr. Collier was a penguin, and when threatened by a predator he leapt nimbly, comically, onto his iceberg wife. I had seen penguins do that on the Nature channel, and it tickled me every time to see them pop straight up out of the water and onto the ice.

Sylvia held all our names protectively in her long, white hands. Raul, in a fit of creativity of his own that I would not have expected, handed her a canoe-shaped basket that I kept on the front desk. Sylvia dumped the slips of paper in and mixed them with delicate flicks of her fingertips.

“Okay,” she said, “be sure you don’t get your own name, but don’t tell whose name you draw! It should be a surprise.”

I picked last. Sylvia. Great.

Sylvia made up the rules: “The gift must be something here in the lodge or around it. Wrap it as best you can, and meet back here at the fireplace at 4:00.”

Four o’clock was tea and cookies time. It was 1:55 now, and I still had to come up with a suitable dinner for six people. I crushed the Sylvia paper in my hand and tossed it into the fire.

The guests left. Even Mr. Collier disappeared. I looked at Raul and Phillip. “Here are my rules,” I told them. “No lodge property may be given away. No office supplies, no complimentary mini-toiletries, no food from the kitchen. Got it?”

They nodded. Phillip went back outside. Perhaps he would present his giftee with a special piece of firewood. Raul stared thoughtfully into the fire, then went behind the front desk. Sighing, he poked through the trash can with a pencil. I left him to figure it out and went into the kitchen to devise a dinner menu.

My anxiety and irritability began to melt as I peeled and diced sweet potatoes and put them in a bowl of cold water, marinated a semi-frozen pork tenderloin in white wine and fresh garlic, and rinsed turnip greens. I had brought over several jars of homemade applesauce from the cottage; they would be perfect with the pork. As I prepared the food, lulled into serenity by the combination of humming refrigerators and a breath of cloves and cinnamon, my shoulders unknotted and I grew happy again—until I completed my tasks and began to think about the need to conjure a not-Christmas present for Sylvia. I put on my parka and nodded to Raul, still sitting glumly behind the front desk.

“I’m going outside,” I said. “You can look outside for something free, too. Pine cones or whatnot.”

“It is fine,” Raul said. “I am thinking.”

The snow had finally stopped. Something about the complete stillness, the stark whiteness, the feeling of being cut off from everyone and everything in the world, made me want to scream. I don’t know when I’ve ever felt so deeply dissatisfied.

I followed Phillip’s boot-tracks to the lean-to that protected our firewood. Phillip himself was nowhere to be seen, but he had his own hideaways on the property. He was probably in the old barn, with his tools and equipment. It had a little woodstove, and I could see a thin line of smoke coming from the vent pipe.

I looked at the firewood. What the hell was I doing? Taking inventory? All right then. I noted that Phillip had arranged lovely rows of cut oak and pine from deadfall, there was a large stash of purchased cordwood, and tucked in a far corner, an ancient rotting bushel basket held kindling. It was so orderly and abundant that it lifted my spirits, until I realized I had forgotten my mittens. I yearned for them passionately.

A slender, nearly straight offshoot angled down from one of the oak logs, interrupting the symmetry of Phillip’s stack. I took the base of the offshoot in my hand and wrenched it, twisting it around until it broke loose. Freed, it became a magic wand. I closed my eyes and wished fervently, like Sylvia, for a new life. I closed my eyes and waved my oak wand in the air.

Nothing changed. I clambered through the snow back to the lodge and found Sylvia in my kitchen. “I’m snagging some of the leftover coffee,” she explained. She took away the entire half pot of strong, stone-cold morning brew.

I sat on a wooden stool in front of the food prep island and contemplated my oak stick. I felt as if were the only thing I had to hold onto—a sort of handle for the world.

The stick was about 15 inches long, and slightly thicker than my thumb at its base. I peeled the bark away, at first idly, then with more purpose. Like the sudden yearning I’d felt outside for my mittens, I now felt the lack of a magic wand in my life. I was determined to make a real one. I went to the barn and filched wire clippers and sand paper. There was no sign of Phillip.

Back in the kitchen, I put the pork tenderloin in the microwave to finish defrosting. At first I could hear noise from the guest rooms, which I supposed were the sounds of everyone seeking out and preparing their gifts. I thought I heard a distant blow-dryer. Then I became too absorbed in my project to hear anything.

I clipped the handle end of my wand to even it, then sanded it smooth. I whittled a bluntish point at the other end with a paring knife. Even with the sand paper, I couldn’t get all the bark off, but what was left gave the wand character. I had a marker in a drawer that was meant for touching up scratches on the cherry kitchen cabinets, and I used it to stain the unbarked parts a deeper golden brown. I had not felt this sort of deep happiness since the day I had placed the last vintage mixing bowl on the shelves in my dear kitchen, and had looked at it all from the height of my step-stool and felt a surge of pride in all I had accomplished.

I threw my parka back on, ran home—Phillip had cleared the walks again—and dug out a bottle of gold nail polish. It had been a mistake as nail polish, but it was perfection for adding metallic details to the wand: a ring of gold near the handle end, a dot of gold at the tip. I held the finished piece in front of me. It was brilliant.

While the polish dried I preheated the oven for the afternoon batch of cookies and put the kettle on the stove for 4:00 tea. I was humming. Until it occurred to me that I was preparing 4:00 tea and that meant my not-Christmas deadline was an hour and a half away, and I still had no gift for Sylvia.

I ran out to the front desk. Raul still sat there. “Did you find something?” I demanded. “Whose name did you draw?”

“I cannot reveal this. It is secret.”

“What am I going to do?”

But Raul’s dark eyes held no answers, and I realized that I was going to have to make a terrible sacrifice.  “Hand me the stapler,” I said. “Please. And the hole punch.”

Raul lifted the Swingline and with an expert, one-handed gesture he opened it to check the magazine. “It is full,” he said.

I took the stapler, then stopped and looked at him directly. “Dang, Raul, I’m lucky to have you working here. Phillip, too. You both do nice work. He is a wizard with the firewood, and frankly I appreciate the fact that you keep the printer full of paper, and the stapler fully loaded, and you never complain even when you probably should. Thank you. You’re wonderful.”

“De nada.” But Raul almost smiled.

“Why don’t you open up the East Room and get some rest in there? You don’t have to work tonight, of course. I’ll stay in the lodge, and if you like you can stay all night in the East Room. But I’ll pay you for overtime.” He flashed a real smile and took the key.

Back in the kitchen I made an envelope to hold the wand, using two lengths of parchment paper stapled shut along the sides. The back piece of paper was several inches longer than the front. Maybe Sylvia will leave it when she checks out, I thought, as I punched holes in the long end, then corresponding holes in the short end.  I folded the long piece until the holes matched up, and threaded a bit of kitchen twine through to close it with a bow. I used more nail polish to decorate the envelope with what I considered to be magic swirls. I was ready for not-Christmas.

Just before 4:00, I took a plate of dark chocolate walnut cookies and the tea tray to the lobby. By the time I returned with tea cups, my three guests had gathered in front of the fire. Sylvia’s hair looked more electric than ever. She had changed into a long-sleeved red t-shirt with a giant snowflake on front. Mrs. Collier had also changed. She wore an odd purple knitted shrug over a black turtleneck. The noise of everyone gathering in the lobby brought Raul out of the East Room to join us.

Before I could change my mind and run away with my lovely magic wand, I handed the parchment envelope to Sylvia. Her eyes grew large and dark as she pulled the wand from its wrapping. “How did you know?” she breathed. “This is magnificent! Gosh, Grace, I had you pegged as a Muggle. How could I be so wrong?”  Sylvia flicked the wand toward the fireplace, and as if in response the bottom log shifted and broke apart in a fury of red sparks.

“Ohhhhh.” Everyone laughed. Even me. It was impossible not to share Sylvia’s delight.

“My turn.” Sylvia handed Mr. Collier a soft package wrapped round and round with the high-quality toilet paper I stocked in the guest rooms.

As he unwound the wrapping, we were all amused to see Mr. Collier tuck it incrementally into his right pants pocket. “Well, you never know,” he winked. Finally he pulled an exotic silky scarf with an interesting tan pattern. It reminded me of Indian batiks, or the henna patterns on Indian women’s hands. Sylvia explained that she had tie-dyed her white muffler using leftover coffee, then blew it dry with her hair dryer. “It might have shrunk a little in the process,” she admitted. “But I wanted a masculine look. And see? It’s even got your initial. Sort of.”  Sure enough, she had managed a rather crooked Gothic “C” on one end. “I think that’s where I used my barrette on it,” she said. “I ran out of rubber bands. A happy accident.”

“Look at that!” Mr. Collier exclaimed. “Now that’s a neckerchief that will keep me warm and won’t show the dirt.” He wrapped the scarf around his jowls and grinned. We all grinned back.

Phillip came through the front door with two chunks of firewood and a misshapen bundle, a little bigger than a breadbox.  He handed the package to Raul. “Merry Christmas,” he said, in all seriousness. 

“Muchacho,” Raul said awkwardly. He turned the bundle over in his hands, giving it a judicious squeeze. Phillip had wrapped the gift in a piece of newspaper fastened with silver duct tape.

“Well, open it!” Mrs. Collier said.

Raul did, and we were all stunned mute.

“Where did you find it?” I asked Phillip.

“Resting in the cedar tree above the pump house. I walk under that tree a hundred times a day, but I didn’t see it until about an hour ago. I walked to the pump house to try to find a gift, and a clump of snow fell right on my head. I looked up, and there it was. I guess the wind blew it down this way.”

The Christ child, missing from the St. Agnes-in-the-Woods manger scene since real-Christmas Eve, gazed up at Raul with disconcerting knowingness. “We’ll give it back to the church, of course,” Phillip said. “But it was the only thing I could find.” He gave me a sideways glance.

Raul wrapped the Christ child, whose composition swaddling clothes did not seem sufficient cover for a January snowstorm, in the newspaper up to the neck like a homeless guy’s bottle of booze and laid him gently on the hearth. “You have saved my church $210,” he told Phillip. “It is truly a great gift.”

Raul straightened and looked at me solemnly. “This is an auspicious occasion,” he said, “and so I seek a favor from you, Grace. Would you allow my niece, she who is to be married in April, have her wedding reception here at the lodge?”

“She’s getting married at St. Agnes?”

“Yes. St. Agnes does not have the room for gatherings—a hall. There is no hall. But if my niece Miranda could get married at St. Agnes, then the wedding party could come down the path to the lodge and meet here for the cake. There does not need to be dancing.”

I pictured the wedding party, led by a bride in a floating white veil, coming down the path through the trees to the lodge. “How many should the cake serve?” I asked.

Raul dazzled us all with a smile. “You will make the cake!” he exulted. “This is auspicious, so auspicious. I will be the greatest uncle.” He cleared his throat. “Now I have my gift for Mrs. Collier,” he announced.

Mrs. Collier gasped and leaned forward.

Raul held nothing in his hands; he didn’t reach into a pocket. “I have composed a couplet,” he said gravely.

Mrs. Collier appeared as if she might levitate. “You did?” she whispered.

Raul nodded. “Allow me to recite.”

Raul’s Couplet

I am hoping very much that your Christmas is merry,
With gifts piled high—too many to carry.

Mrs. Collier made him repeat the couplet twice more while she wrote it down on lodge stationery. Like Sylvia with her oak wand, she was nearly beside herself with delight.

“Look at you,” I said to Raul.

When she finished the transcription and had hugged Raul savagely, Mrs. Collier handed a bulging, fuzzy striped sock to Phillip.

“It’s a clean sock,” she said anxiously. “The mate had a hole in the heel, but I’ve always loved those socks so I packed them for this trip anyway. And it turns out that was auspicious, too, because you see I unraveled the sock with the hole, and added yarn from this sweater, and made you a pair of mittens to fit into the good sock, like a stocking. I noticed you weren’t wearing any gloves when you brought the wood in, so I thought they might come in handy. I guess they look a little silly.”

“Thank you,” Phillip said. And then he surprised me very much by stroking the sock as if she had given him something uniquely valuable. He fished the mittens out of the sock and held them up. They were an interesting mix of striped sock yarn and Mrs. Collier’s purple sweater – explaining why it was now an ill-fitting shrug.

“You sacrificed your sweater!” Sylvia exclaimed. “That is so ‘Gift of the Magi.'”

“I hear the snow plow,” I said.

Through the large front window, we saw the headlights of a county snow plow churning up the road past the lodge. “You should be able to get out of here now,” I said. “I expect you all have cabin fever.”

“Hey, now, don’t forget about your gift!” Mr. Collier handed me a small package wrapped in smoothed-out newsprint. Inside it was a paperback book about gardening: Cottage Garden Magic.

“Picked it up in town yesterday at Reread Books,” he said. “I just thought the cover was mighty pretty. But the funny thing is, it has your name on it! Look at those first coupla pages. It’s on one of them.” 

I found the quote on the title page.

Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace. ~ May Sarton

“Oh, Grace is crying!” Mrs. Collier said in her hearty way. “It is nice, isn’t it, dear?”

“I’m not crying,” I said. But in fact the firelight blurred into starry suns when I looked at it. I said, “I have a pork tenderloin in the oven, so everyone is invited to stay for dinner here, if you like.”

“Dinner here!” Sylvia yelled, waving my wand madly. “It’s Christmas! We want to be home for Christmas! ‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly….'”

“’Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!” the Colliers sang.

“Stop waving that stick around,” I told Sylvia. “It’s wreaking havoc.”

I watched my wand wistfully, as Sylvia ignored my request and darted about the lobby, continuing to confer magic.

“Sylvia, I wonder if you would like a job here?” I heard a voice say. It was my voice. “You could be my activities director during the winter, and garden beginning in the spring. I’d been thinking about putting in some herbs and flowers, and organic vegetables.” I held up my new book. “A cottage garden.”

Sylvia stopped spinning. “And plan garden activities all summer long—not just for guests, but for anyone in town, with a small fee paid for snacks or something? And in winter we could do pinecone crafts and make natural Christmas decorations for a gigantic tree!”

And we would need to decorate the lobby and arrange tables for Raul’s niece’s wedding reception. The lodge could become the unofficial fellowship hall for the church.

As if she had read my mind, Sylvia lightly tapped my head with her magic wand. “Grace, it will be fabulous! You are a goddess.”

And in that precise moment, I was.

END

Read Full Post »

Magic isn’t always pretty; sometimes it’s intentionally creepy. This weekend I carved our Halloween pumpkin—or, to be more precise, Ernesto used a 2″ bit on his cordless drill and drilled seven holes in about 14 seconds. This method meant that a plug was left behind in the pumpkin, which had to be extracted. And because it was difficult to get a good grip on them, and because they were still firmly attached to pumpkin pulp and seeds and sinew in the middle of the fruit, they did not come out willingly.

“Go get the corkscrew,” Ernesto said, wiping strings of wet pumpkin drool off his drill.  So I did, and when I brought it back outside Ernesto used it to quickly and efficiently remove all the plugs. Once that was done, all I had to do was clean out the holes a bit and then place my rubber rats (three for $1!) in various holes, in various positions. Don’t they look nasty?

Magic is nearly always unexpected. For the past several days Ernesto has been looking for a particular book—One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. We both love that book, and finally last night after several failed attempts to find his Spanish copy amid the ridiculous number of books in our attic, Ernesto asked me to order a Spanish-language copy for the Kindle. I did.

“Here it is,” I said, passing him the Kindle.

He looked at it, then handed it right back to me. “Read it out loud,” he said.

This was a surprise. Because I know the story, I could understand a lot of it, and as I read Ernesto would translate (and correct my lousy Spanish pronunciation), and when it was a wonderful piece of Garcia Márquez silliness we would both laugh. Here’s a sample in English:

At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Gypsies visit the village each spring, bearing magical things that they’ve found in their travels around the world. They bring ice to the village for the first time, and later a telescope and a magnifying glass. But listen to this description of the time the gypsies bring magnets:

A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquíades, put on a bold public demonstration…. He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind the Melquíades’ magical irons. “Things have a life of their own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.”

There are three levels of magic at work here—no, there are four. First is the simple magic of wishing you had a certain book, and then having it in hand five seconds and $5.99 later. Second is the magic of the story that Garcia Márquez tells. Third is the magic of sharing a book that we loved. Each line, first read in Spanish, then explained in English, gave us a chance to enjoy it fresh, and together. I am hoping that the fourth level of magic will happen, over time—that I will begin to learn Spanish, finally. (After Solitude, we have Spanish copies of Love in the Time of Cholera and Diary of a Shipwrecked Sailor, so there is a great deal of Garcia Márquez lying about to further that cause.)

For my final magic trick of the weekend, I made pumpkin pie bars. They have so many ingredients in them that it’s ridiculous—not a long list of ingredients, you understand, but they have an extravagance of certain items: two tubes of chocolate chip cookie dough, seven eggs, two blocks of cream cheese, two cans of pumpkin, and three tablespoons of pumpkin pie spice!  Add sugar and a splash of vanilla, assemble everything in a 13 X 9 pan, and you’re pretty much done. The cookie dough forms the bottom crust, and the spiced pumpkin and cream cheese mixtures are added separately and then swirled. Well, it seemed like too much, but I did it anyway only I held back one of the eggs. The finished product weighs about 30 pounds, but good?  Holy smoke, they are magically delicious. And we have such a huge number of them that I expect they will last for at least one hundred years. I wish I could magically come to where you are and give you some. 

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. 

– Roald Dahl

Read Full Post »

Last weekend we went to the St. Louis Art Fair, which is held just a few miles up the road from us. We bought a pottery sculpture called “Stacked Primitive.” He’s a guy with a sort of Easter Island head, and when we spotted him he had his arms up and his tongue stuck out.  We admired his attitude, and decided to take him home.

The artists, Ken and Pam Larson of Larson ClayWorks, told us that the purpose of this little guy is to say, “Pffffftttt!” to critics. There are even hieroglyphs carved on his base that read For the Critics in Larson ClayWorksese. I expect the Larsons intended him to  razz art critics, but I bet he’ll be equally effective against literary, fashion, and food critics.

I need a visible talisman against negative criticism, because otherwise I tend to let it stick in my head and interfere with my work. This is, of course, silly.  Critics don’t know everything, after all. This fact was proven with a vengeance during the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in fiction competition. Ultimately, in spite of the jurors’ passion for the three choices they submitted to the Higher Powers, those Powers cruelly decided not to award a winner at all!  Stunned by this fecklessness, one of the jurors wrote about the experience in The New Yorker, and concluded:

Utter objectivity… is not only impossible when judging literature, it’s not exactly desirable. Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components (fully developed characters, check; original voice, check; solidly crafted structure, check; serious theme, check) they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.

– Michael Cunningham, “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year

“Pffffftttt!” to the Pulitzer Powers.  What’s wrong with them? I don’t know, but I’m going to try to keep Cunningham’s words in mind as I continue to try to light my own fictional fires. Our cheeky little sculpture will help.

As Ken was wrapping the little fellow for surviving the drive home, he demonstrated how little we understood of its raw power. He proved to be a sort of primitive action figure:  His head comes off, and you can turn his arms so that they point down rather than up. We can even remove his little wooden tongue!  Now I can use him to reflect how I feel about how a writing project is going—hands up, tongue sticking out on a day of triumph and joy. Hands down, tongue removed and placed in a drawer for safekeeping on days of sadness or low spirits.  

To see him in action, you can visit Larson ClayWorks online and check out the video.  Don’t you agree that he, too, contains trace elements of magic?  

Of course, he needs a name….

Read Full Post »