Spring Awakening

What one wants to get rid of, the other needs

They make gardens an apothecary’s delight. Everything is there to see, lined up by season. White, yellow, purple is spring’s first curiosity.

And there it is: that feeling, the center of everything. Life is a crumpled piece of paper. The return of a season you so vividly remember.

Shit, it was just last year.

Today is a day of blooms, like happenings. Years stepping on one another. Banalities stay fresh within your travel logbook. Events become banal, like a pretzel bought from a street vendor. Or stick out like black swans.

Stella walks me through the garden. Like a premonition, the summer plants are already pushing up. Tiny greens, with that strength of knowledge. Crocus petals fine as organza don’t mind a night frost.

See? Often the frail ones surprise you.

I am in Prague. This is a northern spring. It comes hesitantly, beaten back too often by frost and a sudden, irascible snowfall.

Shock is not always negative. In an instant you can go from death of winter to rebirth of spring. It turns out life had not expired after all.

Nature says: What is banal? What is significant? She too has been keeping abreast of technology, running simulations of her own. Her video games imitate the ultimate reality. The eternal recurrence. The theology of beauty.

T.S. Eliot said

April is the cruelest month,
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land,
Mixing memory and desire,
Stirring dull roots with spring rain.

It is unpredictable, like the shadow of a bird in flight. Spring is a double agent. It’s on two sides. The cold of winter it has just left behind. The warmth of summer it has not yet tasted. Like a dish in the making, like a thought carrying destruction or resurrection. Like a petticoat.

Prague is an ancient town. You can easily feel the cold stench of the plague striding through its narrow alleyways. And then the other side, the city of three emperors, the wide avenidas of pomp and circumstance.

Am Grunde der Moldau wandern die Steine
Es liegen drei Kaiser begraben in Prag.
Das Grosse bleibt gross nicht, und klein nicht das Kleine.
Die Nacht hat zwölf Stunden, dann kommt schon der Tag.

That Brecht song I love to sing.

Prague is a city every architect has to visit. Just as you cannot skip spring. Prague was never destroyed by a modern war. It is as old as a sigh in the history of man. It reveals its past in hidden bites. You become obsessed with discovery, fascinated as you would be with the secret worthiness of the person you have fallen in love with. It reveals itself as different sides of a coin spun between the fingers. It does not divulge its sources. You have to be the eyes’ detective.

I was invited to Prague when Vaslav Havel was a young president, just after the liberation. There we were his guests. The food was catered from Germany. I lost my suitcase and had nothing to wear for those festive four days but my travel suit. Even for the gala. I hadn’t found a replacement. I stuck a red rose into my lapel for a change. I was the guest with no clothes.

Nowadays you can buy things in Prague, but not back then. Literally nothing. The Prague of today is so very worth the trip of discovery.

I am back in the US, in my domicile near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Here Spring is immediate. The sun is borrowed from Morocco. The daffodils cannot wait. Huge trees are cloaked in pink veils. The days are impatient. Crocuses open in slow motion for you to witness. A divorce: the winter is forgotten, like it never was. Turkeys, peacocks, forget it all. They pull up their frocks for the girls to see muscle. It’s not cruel, this southern spring. It’s ready for sex. Just feeling high. Spring is a drug. It needs no invitation, just take it.

I’m a rooster, can’t you see, says the fat turkey.

Hourly the colors change. The mood is like an espresso, strong, concentrated for the moment. Who cares?!

I take off my clothes just to feel.

Everything starts in spring. Even Monica Lewinsky is back from hibernation, with a litany of explanations.

Yes, spring is the time you invite a lover. Be at ease, he’s waiting too.

Jessica took spring vacation in Greece, the Greece of a while ago. When she fell in love with a tall, handsome man there, a perfect specimen in flesh and bone, she had little time to get to know him. See, it was springtime. She asked his maid about his habits.

Oh, said Elvie. He always eats spaghetti. An act of wisdom.

The clock’s hand jumps. The time is running on time. Spring is the diving board. Spring possesses the dreams. It is the chance for resurrection. There is something about procreation in the air. People are shouting.

Go for it!

Mother Tongue

The familiar as wakeup call

I have not heard much yet. The driver’s face suggests Turkey. He nods when I tell him.

He drives fast on the autobahn, 180 km/h, as if a fugitive. In his hurry we pass everyone.

The landscape flits by, familiar, like a hat. It is March. The grass coming up from beneath snow and cold is already green. I see gigantic windmills in the distance. They feel brand new to me.

I get on the phone to make my first call to Eva. Her voice is so clear and clean and from the North. I feel right away that I am plugging back in to my motherland. The language does it more than the landscape.

Eva is a trained opera singer. She can play with her voice like a magician. She inhabits the secret. It is a stream of words which echo to me with the precision of a conductor’s baton. Already I feel I have arrived.

The landscape changes. We leave the rectangular fields through which a network of autobahns has been plowed in all four directions of the compass.

The first row houses, small gardens, fenced-in villas, small ones, pale facades of office buildings. We enter the outskirts of the city. No people. At the stoplight stands only one person, with a dog. The suburbs are impenetrable. Cars parked in front of garden doors. Very clean, no paper on the street, none littering the carpets of green. It feels as organized as a prison yard.

I fall asleep. For me it is two in the morning.

Here is hotel, the driver says to himself, waking me up.

Yes, I’m here. The language wraps around me like a scarf in all its nuances of dialect.

Alles klar, says the porter. When I left, no one was saying that. It’s in vogue now, like No Problem.

At the fruit stand, the woman.

Hmmm, it smells good, I say.

She says nothing. She looks at me as if I were a burglar. I pick up an apple to start an assemblage of fruit. But that rattles something in her Stoic leaves. She steps towards me:

Ja, wo kommen wir denn dahin, wenn sich jeder bedienen würde? Ja, Sie san’s gut. Hier bediene ich!

Oh God, good God, no self-service! She looks at me like an enemy. I dare not buy more than that apple. I have been let loose in Bavaria. The dialect is my home. When it is shot directly at you, it can be like a bulldog’s bite. It has a plain, direct quality. It is piquant, like Knödel, Wurst and sauerkraut.

I have an invitation to a vernissage. A huge collection of jewels on velvet breasts, masterpieces of inexhaustible beauty. Centuries have left no blemish on them. The quality of eternity lies here in the bleached light.

The room is full, like the waiting room of a train station. Outside are the smokers. The calm air of winter/spring. I know many of the guests, or did when they were younger. Now they are transformed into a reality. That is what life does. It hides nothing.

That warm familiarity of the faces, characters around me, marks me paradoxically as a stranger. Our tone, the octave of language, uniting me with a chorus from long ago.

There are dogs below vitrines, sniffing at each other. The kind you can take to dinner. They don’t start a fight. They hang out under the table, curled up in dreams, until you kick one of them by mistake. That very European, or very German, dog culture. Dog people, pleasing themselves. In Prague, in Vienna, in Paris, Rome, Madrid.

I am on the arm of a nephew. He adores me. It is sexy here, a blur of times past. I admire what became of him. An expert in precious stones and those royal goldsmiths. He strips away the years between us with the gesture of a centaur, a god of illumination. Apollo riding by the shop window with joy in his heart. Joy, fantasy and fulfillment. Pin it! That gorgeous guy. I squeeze his hand and give him a kiss. I want to spend this evening with him. We are related through the precious glass of the moment’s joy.

Then there are the other friends from long before, their faces marked a bit by the life they missed. That everyday, that well-known, disguised trot.
Give me more.

How do you do it? You are still the same after all this time.

Hmm, hmm...

I am a beast, I want to reply. I spit out what I don’t care to digest. I stick to the elixir. I am working at it, spinning a yarn with whatever is at hand.

The weather never gets my attention. I cannot change it.

We end up in a restaurant. My nephew and I sit close together. Everybody can see we are spending this hour in love. A tassel of time we have torn away. That illusory trick of a circus that employs us. We are acrobats of our senses. Our minds laugh. We have nothing to lose. Sometimes he kisses my forehead.

It is nothing, and it is all of everything. It is the essence of the soup, the ingredients.

For now.


The cosmetic vanguard - wear them with pride

A new way of seeing the body, the self, embracing it. A new cosmetic consciousness. It’s an attitude. It comes across as a positive statement, a piece of fashion.

All cultural events come down to chemical changes in our cells, our neurons. All events leave mind-altering traces, and those are the changes in our consciousness.

The long result of years tells other tales too.

I return to a bright afternoon in the city I left for another. The streets offer me a polite bow. From a window I hear music, thin and high-pitched. The statue of Max Josef, his green frock, reminds me of summer. At his feet, a flowerbed without flowers. Little dachshund lifts his leg.

I see a figure of a man coming closer. Its familiarity feels ancient, something from distant youth. But now his body has expanded, engulfed his self.

It takes an act of courage to visit the one I once knew. I remember him as a superior youth. Where are his scars? The one I knew is hiding within that mass of flesh. Life has bullied him. I feel denuded.

All culture is really an art of scarring. Bodybuilding is the same. You break down the muscle fibers and they reconstitute themselves on a new plane. You become a gladiator, it happens in fragments of time.

Physical and mental culture can be linked in a scar. The dramatic events change us. All is scar, really, everything that leads a cultural environment: friendships, death, marriage leave a trace within us, scars of the times. We wear them and show a way to survive everyday life, show we can still carry on, in fact, can transform it and master it.

I have a scar. Yes, in the middle of my forehead. A bit to the left, as if I had designed it. What led to it?

I am burned by the sun, now kissed by the sun.

In the doctor’s office I am beside myself. He has to figure it out: an unconventional way to close the wound.

And then it happens. While the stitches heal, my whole attitude changes. I see my face as part of the whole, like the combination of a safe hermetically locked in convention. Now I hold the key to my new attitude.

You are magic, a man I once called Panther said to me. A fragmentary token of a moment in his convictions for me. It left a grand gesture to believe in, an invisible inner scar, a beautiful one.

Scars happen as long as you live.

Valentina wears a scar in her face, on one of her brows. I don’t need to know where it came from, how it got into her skin, what innocence had to be left behind.

Our facial expression becomes a “brand”, our posture, our walk, our gestures, the development of our personality, all of it penetrates insignias into the skin of life.

A wound left by the end of a love, left on our tissue of sensation, so deep you feel you cannot recover, as if you exist too deeply. Your life feels like nothing, like worthless clothes, like shredded leaves. Your breath is short, your steps without arrival, circling the labyrinth of a thinking animal. The scabs of the wound are thick.

You walk outside without sky. Compromises litter the sidewalk, regrets you step over. The world has changed into a blunt, ill-timed question. There are visions of despair lowering as streetlights.

But then Time, that merciful god, holds your hand. Hmm...yes, all scars heal. My dogs shuffle around me for attention. I begin to exist. In fragments, like a puzzle on paper, my steps become firm. Notes are written everywhere. I will never go there again, that abandoned loneliness.

Yes, yes, but it awaits you, your future, like an untouched dish.

The survival. The anthropology of practice, pertaining to an ancient rhythm in the scar tissue of my existence.

Then: miracles are the most natural thing.

My scar reminds me to turn all negatives into positives.


Be the flame, not the moth

They were always there. Surely Cleopatra was one. Marilyn Monroe had a plan. She had to outmaneuver the other starlets. Her promiscuity was more businesslike. She made it to the top of the heap: just -- hmm, her heart was too fine. That’s costly. She was brave. She didn’t care for convention. Hmm...she was one of the ones who got burned.

I’m in Santa Monica. We drive north. A bit of highway and suddenly the exit to the left, where the ocean awaits. Dos Pueblos orchid farm. An alley with ancient Morton Bay Fig trees. Giants, really. Three dinosaurs.
When we have passed them, I turn in my seat to look back as they shrink into normalcy and then vanish, like an oversized unreality. Something whose existence one made up. And there are the abandoned greenhouses, once an orchid grower’s delight.

We get out of two cars. My granddaughters, Viva and Luna, model themselves on the 40s. As they walk by the glass walls, their identity is effortless. Heels and red lips. They are as tall as their tall mother.

I’m sitting inside a jungle with Micheline Pitt. She looks up from her hands. Her hair is in a 40s wave. A small feathered hat sits on one side like a tease. Her suit is blue, very blue, and as if fastened to her body. Her features are strong, set in porcelain skin. One wants to keep her.

I’m in her kitchen. She holds a knife in her hand, cutting onions. -- No, I’m imagining all this.

She bends down to open the stove, to check on the roast. She is wearing high heels, a leather skirt, very tight. A blouse, open so I can see the anatomy of a heart tattoo atop her decollete, on that soft valley of breast. She checks out the set table, counts the glasses.

We are eight, honey? she asks. Don’t overdo it, darling.

It is an ordinary household, celebrated in her care of herself, the way she moves. She wears rubber gloves, like a surgeon.

There is a culture in all of that, a culture of joy and ease. I’m sure she is not always happy. But then she knows why not. The rest is about herself. The image of her body, floating by a shop window. That delight of self-creation, recognizing what you’ve got. When you know it, everybody knows.

I notice all pinups are very concerned about their bodies, as we all should be.

They are true feminists. You can borrow lipstick from them. They look to one another for inspiration. Flagbearers. They love parades.

I see ice blocks swimming on the Hudson. No kidding. It is romantic, something out of Dostoyevsky. Smoke frozen above roofs.

I knew a pinup in the 70s, here in New York. She was the lover of a department store owner. Her pink mink decollete was cut in the form of a heart.

Luna and Viva, Michelle and myself are strolling among the glass houses. Clouds rush along their panes. Our reality changes with the light of the moment. We stand still to be photographed. Our solidarity is not interchangeable. We soldier our individuality.

Luna is 13. She likes herself in wide sailor pants. Viva’s hair is pink. We don’t confide in one another. No, we’re just solitary. Feminists. We are individually united. It is about generosity of heart. We are transparent, like the glass house, like the sky, the eye of a fish. It is a primitive skill, understanding one another.

We are pinup warriors, with the vulnerability of a good fighter. Pinups are considered good luck charms for the troops.