Missing the Cabin

When I am in the city too long and the spring never really comes and May feels and looks like November, I start dreaming about the fields, meadows, mountains, and notches between the mountains in the Northern Catskills.

I miss the mountain air, the smell of the dirt, and peeking under last year’s leaves to see which of my perennials may have made it through winter.

We rent, don’t own, our cabin in the Catskills, and work is being done on the land around the house. The steady rain has made the work harder to do and more destructive of the land. John and I probably won’t get to see what the place looks like for another three weeks.

Meanwhile, in midtown Manhattan, our small apartment on the second floor is dark, and I am waiting for a reprieve–from the dark, from the damp cold, from the confinement in 560 square feet.

I’ve been cooped up for too long. I need to look out without thought on a far-reaching expanse. I need to wake up in a quieter place where the birds congregate and sing. I need to go to bed after hearing the spring peepers perform their sweet-eerie calls.

Patience. Patience. Joan. When will you ever learn.

Some Days I Just Gaze and Take Occasional Photographs

Yesterday I just wanted to look around and take photographs of certain moments as they passed me by: Oliver making very distinct shadows on the pavement during our night walk, a daffodil or two springing up into the sun, small groupings of tulips in pink, purple, and red outside St. Bart’s Church.

Some days images are more important to me than words. Letting whatever is there come into my sight is enough. The visible world that my eyes open on every day unfolds, and I simply let it.

There is idolatry in looking, worship in gazing; and there is sexuality in it as well, just as there is always some sexual desire when a person gazes at or tries to make a painting or sculpture to body forth the bodies around us.

I like to look
to the animals
to the trees
to the bursting out flowers
and the newly budding leaves.

When I just want to observe plant, animal, and mineral life around me, I often think of one of my favorite thinkers, the psychologist and writer James Hillman. I think of an essay he wrote in 1982, “The Animal Kingdom in the Human Dream,” which has had an enormous effect on my view of the natural world (as if there is any other).

Animals figured large in Hillman’s body of thought, and the lecture drew on the many animal dreams Hillman had collected over the years, some from patients. He continued to collect such dreams until the end of his life in 2011. In the essay, Hillman warned against interpreting the animals in dreams as symbols and suggested that we “read the animal. . . . the dream animal can be amplified as much by a visit to the zoo as by a symbol dictionary.” In other words, if a snake comes to you in a dream, don’t think phallic symbol or evil. Go out and observe snakes. Read everything you can about them. Instead of reducing the dream animal, Hillman suggests that we reduce “our own vision, to that of the animal–a reduction that may be an extension, an amplification, of our vision so as to see the animal with an animal eye.” (Hillman, Animal Presences, p.438)

Ultimately, Hillman goes even further, and I love where he goes. Hillman equates the animal in all its physical presence with artistic creation itself: “the animal eye is an aesthetic eye, and . . . the animal is compelled by an aesthetic necessity to present itself as an image.” (Hillman, p. 765).  He says that when animals display themselves through their colors and songs, gaits and flights, they are the original, primordial works of art.

I love this equation and think that it could apply to other living beings, such as trees and flowers, as well.



My Mother, a Stranger, and a Tree

Today is Easter, and many memories are in the air I breathe. One wafts over me: I am attending an Easter Parade with my mother. It is the late fifties. I am seven or eight and wearing a light-weight lavender spring coat (who has one any more?) and a white bonnet with frothy purple flowers above the brim. My mother’s attire has escaped my memory, but I know she has on something equally dressy and very unlike what she or I will be wearing come the sixties, seventies, and decades beyond.

It is too windy and cold to be wearing these scanty items but it is a girl-woman thing, and we feel the need to dress this way for the occasion. I  hold on to my delightful hat to keep it from blowing away. When this memory itself blows away, I long not for that particular time and place but to have my mother by my side again.

And, in a sense, she does become a presence today as I stroll with Oliver down to the United Nations and Dag Hammarskjold plazas. When I first moved into the Turtle Bay section of Manhattan, in 1976, my mother often took the Broadway bus, the 104, down to meet me here for an brisk, inexpensive lunch at the small coffee shop on the lower level of the main building. Then we would check out the not-very-pricey jewelry in the the gift shop. I still have some fragile, dangling garnet earrings my mother purchased for me there. Afterwards, we’d walk out together, and if it was spring, stroll up and down the pathways between rows and rows of cherry blossom trees.

My mother was a lover of trees and these were among her favorites. Later she would do Chinese brush paintings of them under the tutelage of an artist from Shanghai, Lydia Chang. She told me the trees were like fresh laundry on a line. We relished that freshness together.

Those trees were on my mind as Oliver and I walked down 47th Street toward home. Because of a crazy man on a skate board who yelled at Ollie, “I’m going to get your ball,” we stepped into the hidden garden kept by Holy Family Church, which neighbors The Japan Society. I was a bit scared that the man yelling at us would follow us in and actually try to grab my dog’s well-worn tennis ball out of his mouth, but we were safe in this sanctuary.

Oliver likes the secretiveness of the place and the small goldfish pond there. I, too, like to watch the fish swish about, and I also like the sweet sculpture of a young Mary, looking a bit ecstatic, toward the back of the garden.

When we turned back toward the garden’s gate, I saw a tree I’d never seen (or noticed) before, budding and flowering all over with coral-pink buds and fully open blossoms. What kind of tree was it? Should I google it on my PlantSnap app? No, that would alter the mood, and anyway, the answer was immediately forthcoming.

img_3649A woman I figured to be about ten years older than I came into the small garden and stood nearby. She held an iPad awkwardly in her hands and was intent on photographing the tree. “Is it some sort of rose,” I asked her, knowing my ignorance. “No, No,” she said, “It’s a camellia.”

She needed to talk and  proceeded to explain that she had been waiting for the buds to open fully, and that this year, because of the cold, they were late. We began to talk about the City’s hidden gardens and about the splendors of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

I was a little surprised when she blurted out, “That stupid UN.” Then something about how that stupid place had eliminated those marvelous cherry blossom trees.

img_3648This talkative stranger with a heavy Asian accent that was at times hard to follow, did ease my mind, however, when she told me that the trees hadn’t been thrown out. Someone had taken them and replanted them in another garden.