Fell Street Footnotes, December 29, 2014

Bread

Bread: texture a balance of crusty and soft, a secret within a protective skin. As it transforms from dust to paste to malleable solid, it becomes a body between my palms, my fingers, the heel of my hand, and then, with the chemistry of the planet it begins to grow on its own, to take on character, puff itself up, leaving behind the dust it was born from. Making bread is an agreement to copulate and incubate and give birth and raise and let be, just like parenting, like friendship, like life. Aromas transform, the fleshy to the intimately perfumed, enticing and lubricating that organ the tongue, the mouth, and ah, satisfying. Dogs croon as they pass our apartment door. Neighbors would like to have what the aromas suggest we’re having.

Fell Street Footnotes, December 13, 2014

Santa Lucia Day

Santa Lucia Day, the feast of lights, and, in Northern Italy, la Befana with her donkey, leaving small gifts in the shoes of young children: Ding, ding, goes a tinkling bell, and we know she’s come to our house. For a while my children and I lived in the country outside Bergamo, and we took this tradition home with us when we left. A donkey in a suburban Nashville neighborhood was more improbable to sell than in our country village where everything seemed like a story, but we played at believing and still, on cue, recount the sequence of events on those many December 13thnights.

I wonder now what observances we will take home from this year in Baltimore. But today, it’s rather like Santa Lucia Day for us. John came home with an enormous, heavy basket from Del Pasquale’s. It contained wine, olive oil, bread sticks, Genoa salami, marinara sauce, pasta, truffle chocolates, and amoretti. He’d won the door prize at a Hopkins faculty party. The basket was wrapped in a flourish of sparkly cellophane and tied with silver ribbons. 

(I remember Italian ribbons: I am waiting with restless children and packages in a small store in the late afternoon while a fastidious clerk ties an ordinary purchase with elaborate care, curling each ribbon, handing it to me with pride and a few niceties and hard candy for the children.) We plan to cook a January dinner with the ingredients of this not-so-ordinary package for the party’s hostess.

Fell Street Footnotes, December 1, 2014

Home

951 Fell Street

Home. What is home? What does it mean to comehome?  We consider this apartment a temporary home, a pied-à-terre, a place to put our feet, to landwhile we live in Baltimore for only a year. Yet, I call it home for now, and John and I home-in as surely as a sparrow to its slip-shod nest built only to last for a short season of birthing and pushing the babies out of and flying on to the next landing spot—other times, other climes. 

Of course, we have brought furnishings and personal items and rendered our place homey, hardly slip-shod. yet we play the board-game of adapting, of compromising, of, indeed, impermanent dwelling. Nevertheless, now it is home, and when we returned from two days in D.C. with Mary and Bob in their wonderful new house—a space designed to harbor the spirit in light and serenity, a minimalist and artistic arrangement for deliberate living—I breathed a sigh of pleasure when we opened our door and were home.

Perhaps it is the familiarity of the things I’ve lived with and that hold in their threads and surfaces my smell and the traces of my touch. Maybe my footsteps find their ways around the maze of living space without the constant re-boot of pathfinding we use in a space not claimed as our own.  Most of all, my notion of home is that it provides the gift of time to do one’s own creative, messy work.  I might call it the gift of easy containment, the space and solitude and utter selfishness of a chosen home, like the sparrow’s nest. 

Looking at the term solitude, I find it doesn’t necessarily mean, in this instance, aloneness in a strict sense. Even with others, I can carry on in solitude, if the others and I have made a kind of contract, knowing each other’s rhythms and routines and needs. Family is a solitude of several, moving in such familiar ways that I may be comfortable in my ways, in my work.

It isn’t the possessions, though familiar ones may bring a quicker adaptation. I don’t think, however, that our things are the trick that turns a new space into home. What one can carry in a backpack is enough, I am convinced. Ten years ago I spent the summer in Assisi in a rented farm cottage on the side of Mount Subasio not far from the Porta Cappuccini. The house had once been a stable and hayloft, converted into an in-laws’ house across the garden from a large family house. The daughter of the doctor and pharmacist who lived there was in charge of renting the now-vacated cottage–fully furnished bedrooms upstairs and a living room and kitchen down. I arrived, received the big keys to my own entry gate from the street, and moved in. I plugged in my borrowed laptop and a portable printer, set out paper, journals, pens, a couple of dictionaries, unloaded a suitcase of clothes and toiletries. I bought a few candles, stocked the refrigerator with milk, cheese, wine; put fresh fruit in a bowl, staples for cooking in a cabinet. Learned how to light the stove. Learned that the beams in the bathroom above the tub were quite low– painful. That the little dog, Ettore, would bark most of the night and that Oscar the cat would twine my legs while I wrote, sitting on the stone porch in the afternoon. I walked along the road past the Franciscan monastery where I could hear a basketball thumping on pavement and went into the city and mapped streets and destinations in my head. And when I came back to my gate, and the key turned true, I breathed the sigh of homecoming. The nest fit, took me in for that season, contained me, let me be selfish.

It was true when I was twelve and beyond into the teen years, too, come to think of it—how home can be made of little. My bunk at camp was not unlike my house in Assisi. Home was the shared cabin door, my own top bunk, my hewn-wood shelf of pens and paper, stamps, toothbrush, hairbrush, books, diary, harmonica. Climbing up there, I reached my defined space, where I turned pages, mulled over the oddities and confusions of life—a place to go out from, a place to home into.

Fell Street Footnotes

FROM A YEAR IN BALTIMORE

Fell Street Footnotes
I Live a Theme of Labyrinths

We walk the dogs each morning just at the sky’s waking, its lids warm at the edges of its dark dream through space.  We first pause at the astro-turf plots specifically provided where Lily and Carly perform untrusting sniffs, then we four string along the brick walk along the wharf, then the sidewalk along South Wolfe Street to the Thames Street Park, defined on the far side by Aliceanna Street.  Row house apartments square off the little green space.  Part of it is a playground with a wrought-iron fence around it. A gazebo centers the park and is surrounded by a square of leaf-carpeted grass. When we arrive, we witness the opening scene of a play: first, the tailored woman pulled along by a mid-size Schnauzer; then, crossing from another direction, the sleepy girl with pajama pants, boots, a knit cap with ear flaps and pompoms on yarn strings. She walks an English Bulldog pup. A well-groomed pregnant woman and her blond husband arrive from down Thames Street with their young Goldie, patient with him and with each other, though work awaits them. And we enter the scene and the play and the community of day. I coax Lily, more interested in smells than her duty, and I stand apart. John manages Carly, more interested in play than her duty, and chats with the others about dogs, their work, Baltimore’s character, and such, and we cross again the brick streets and walk home, all four of us with more energy, the sun fully up and coloring the sky now. We have articulated the first labyrinth of the day.

 We buzz ourselves into our building, trot the dogs to the elevator, excuse our clutch of bodies and leashes to those we share the passage with, and enter the maze of corridors and doors of our floor, the second floor. Turn left from the elevator, turn right. Walk fifty steps, turn right at the dead-end and we are the first door on the left. #211.

There’s a theme of 1s and 2s and 3s in our lives at present. We come from a Nashville house # of 123. Our new zip code is 21231, and our apartment is 211. It’s possible, I like to think, that the Universe is simplifying our numerical life, as though we are more likely to get lost, with so many other new things to navigate, when our numbers contain more than three different digits. I admit there’s a comfort to it.  And some whimsical humor.

 If we turn left rather than right from the elevator room, we find the door to the very convenient garage, and, following the corridor ninety steps to its dead-end and left turn, we arrive at the room containing the trash chute. Then, one returns 100 steps along the labyrinth to 211, its center. (If a person were to look down, not ahead, she would find the hallways a hellish maze, dead-end after dead-end repeated in the squares of carpet, green and gray vertical lines in one, horizontals in the squares on each side, so every step might be blocked. But that is only if one is nurturing an obsession. Hop-scotch from one to the next. Don’t look down, even if your book’s theme has to do with labyrinths and that’s mostly what you think about. Follow the pathways home.)

But the centers of labyrinths have also their labyrinths, ancient patterns or flowers. Just so, this apartment, where the arrangement of  our furniture in this small space forms paths and dead-ends. Dog beds and the sleepers upon them block ways. It is not uncomfortable or unattractive. On the contrary. But it is, I admit, always a puzzle in which every piece must fit in its place in order to work, and every step must be deliberate.

While I can relax a little about numbers, I put my brain-cell- enhancing energies into finding my way among the streets of Fells Point and beyond, in the car, where I note with great intention landmarks and record street names and orient myself to the city’s NSEW grid of byways. In the apartment, arranging too many, imagined-essential, objects in only a few cabinets and shelves is an intricate task. New paths are forming in my brain. I can feel them, a busy re-routing and tunneling through thick matter to daylight.  

Traveling a labyrinth, centering, redirecting the way we see things, taking the observations or the understanding, or the calm of knowing, outward to new work—this is the process that creates, that keeps us birthing ideas and art and ever-new life. Puzzling. Deciphering. Wondering. Exploring. Discovering. The journey in, journey out. I’m feeling downright alert. Often exasperated, but alert and alive.