Friday, December 21, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 48 - Indianapolis

When I was growing up the family stories were set piece stories that never changed, even though the family got its identity from a writer.

And maybe they never changed because he was a writer and the stories were written just once and forever – so enshrined that they were meant to always stay in place – unlike stories so alive they grow and change each time an artist steps into them.

Some of my grandfather’s stories were in place before he was born – the woman who would be his mother a heroine in the great Chicago fire, his father a self-made rich man on the Wheat Exchange who read the classics and got his strength from heroic happenings in the Civil War. And some of the stories came straight from my grandfather’s his own life. What he wrote of as a glorious time of leisure and privilege in huge houses on Lake Michigan before everything was thrown into doubt and chaos by the First World War – and also the stories about the settlement house movement and his Socialist politics and the Russian Revolution. All such stories apparently stayed in place in the years when he was politically radical, and were still in place in his final years when his base was a very formal “restricted” summer community in the White Mountains of New Hampshire – one of the last places you would expect to find a serious artist.

As a child I looked forward to having set piece stories of my own that would be as unchangeable as my grandfather’s, and like my grandfather’s would stay in place for me and those who followed me, solid things to keep in mind wherever we might be.

One of them had to do with when at 21 – after years of East Coast life and short happy spells in Europe – I became a wire service newsman and saw for myself that there could be nothing so silly and rear-guard as the flat city of Indianapolis, where I had a room in a brick building next to a Toddle House diner and where I covered mostly McCarthyite right-wing politics, this place where so recently you could not start a political career unless you with the Ku Klux Klan.

And so it was a surprise that I should wind up in Indianapolis when I started writing of places I had loved – places I later lived while young where I would leave my house or apartment in the morning saying to myself I am happy now, here now, in the sort of place I know I should inhabit. Something inside me soared as I walked out from these places.

Walking out of the airy teak house where I lived with Sunisar and then Barbara in Thonburi to step into a small ferry at my river landing across from the palaces and temples of Bangkok. Walking out of my our one-room white-washed house, where I lived with Vannie, my girlfriend from New York, high on the side of the Acropolis. Coming out of a sea-view place to walk along a blue bay in the devious Levantine city of Beirut in a time otherwise of frenetic desperation and deep depression. At these moments – when my spirit soared and I felt I was stepping into a kind of happiness – I would always on some be level be thinking with pleasure and excitement of coming out of the brick rooming house in that most mundane of all cities – Indianapolis – where for the first time in my life I felt free.

But this was something I did not know until I typed it while sitting at an unfamiliar new desktop computer in my mountain view house in Woodstock. Indianapolis, where I was first on my own, covering crazed right-wing politics, making weekend forays into Beat-era bohemia in Chicago, going into a trance in a tiny museum while standing in front of its main attraction, a Cezanne painting, full of mystery, exploring red tile roofs going up a European hillside – in Indianapolis making my own living, dealing with journalists and politicians and labor organizers and girls of the day and of the night, free from family, it seemed, and free from enforced schooling – strangely angry about that family – writing a novel at night when not exploring gloriously seedy night places, and all the while sending off letters to the East making fun of the Midwest. And then years later it all came back while I was writing – how my heart was leaping each time I stepped out of my brick rooming house into places that had no precedent in family lore.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 47 - The Betrothal

That was in 1951, that summer with the Impressionists in Paris. And when everything started to change again three and a half decades later I found myself once more in museum rooms. And again while lying in bed at night I could walk through such rooms and see everything that was on every wall – mostly in bigger museums this time, but much the same thing as in 1951.

It started one morning when I woke up in my small but light-filled one-bedroom Chelsea apartment with a tall, sweet-faced woman younger than me named Bonnie whom I had met recently in an Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting – which was something I was doing that until now would have seemed hopelessly out of character. I had turned my answering machine off before she arrived. When in the night I heard the mechanical, though not the audio, part of it moving I was convinced it was my brother calling to say my mother was dying and I would have to go to Florida to take charge. Me, who was not ruled by family. There was no such call from my brother, though I knew there might have been. The actual call on the machine was from a guy who, like me not long before, had split with his wife. He was wondering if he could sleep for a time in my living room.

Bonnie and I went up to the Met that morning. She had a Walkman, something new to me, but not to many by the mid-80s. We passed it back and forth in the E and number 6 trains. I knew I would remember her if not the Mozart. From 86th and Lex we walked over to the Metropolitan. “Let’s go up to the Met,” I had said, it seeming a properly romantic move since I would be showing her a crucial part of what I thought of, with at this point perhaps insubstantial evidence, as myself.

I felt better than I had felt for years. I was silently thanking someone or something for the fact that I could have yet another adventure like this in this new time when everything was changing . We walked with arms around each other’s waists, something I knew a lot about from thirty years back but not so much as it got closer to the present. In the museum I was going to show her my favorite paintings. But what I found instead was how very narrow my scope was.

I had always, ever since Paris, gone to museums, though I realized on this morning that it had been five years or more since I had been in a museum or a gallery. And I realized that I had not really been a constant museum goer since my first time in New York when my first New York girlfriend, who wore black tights, had been an action painter. That was at the end of the fifties and the start of the sixties, a few crucial years after my time in the Jeu de Paum, years that had spanned college, the army, and a rapid career in wire service journalism.

I led Bonnie to the Impressionists. I don’t know if she saw I was intensely embarrassed. I was embarrassed because I did not know where the 19th century paintings were hung even though I had told her how important 19th century paintings were to me. I asked a guard, just like an out-of-touch tourist would, and we found the Impressionists. And then we went to see the Rembrandts, since I knew Rembrandt from another teenage summer, one that I had spent in Holland. Then I tried to find the Hoppers. I knew Hopper from when I was 21 and a journalist in Indianapolis and roaming Chicago on weekends. I would look in on the Art Institute – where I became fixated upon “The Night Hawks,” that intense and lonely diner scene in late night light that seemed to say everything I had wanted to say about about loneliness and fragile hope in seedy but alluring towns.

There were no Hoppers on display at the Met in 1986. And I had nothing else to show Bonnie. It did not occur to me to ask what she wanted to see. I was hit hard by the admission to myself that I knew so little, did not know what was meant by the High Middle Ages or the High Renaissance, had no idea of what a Rafael or Fra Angelico or a Donatello would look like, and I did not know their places in time. I loved art, but I did not know what I loved.

A few days later I was walking uptown from a dentist’s office on 57th Street. On the radio while he was filling a cavity there had been bulletins about the space shuttle explosion that had just taken place – the space shuttle that carried an appealing woman who was really a New Hampshire schoolteacher. When I was on Madison nearing 75th street I saw I was passing the Whitney. Rather I saw the Whitney had its own building, and had probably had it since some point in the early sixties when I had last seen it in its old small home, which you entered from the Museum of Modern Art. Now it had this big but gentle reddish modern building that for some reason was new to me. And inside I was suddenly listening to a happy old man who said he was a retired banker and was here as a volunteer docent. I followed him, though I had spent most of my life traveling and had always managed to avoid tour guides. He said he had loved art since he was a young man in the city and had gotten to know an artist named Sheeler, who was apparently famous but new to me. I now saw Sheeler’s surprisingly deep and romantic treatments of industrial scenes. And then I came upon Hoppers like those I had sought in vain at the Met. And after that I was standing in front of Arshile Gorky’s portrait of himself as a small child with his mother in Armenia shortly before the mother starved to death in the Turkish genocide. And then I was looking at an abstract Gorky called “The Betrothal," which seemed to be about danger and betrayal, and was more literal than abstract to me, and I knew I was getting connected visually again, to the bad and to the good, in ways I had always wanted. Getting information by induction not deduction. And I did not stop looking in museums and galleries for many, many months, and I only paused in the times, starting a year later, that I was myself drawing and painting.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 46 - Literary Magnolias

I read Keats as if these poems were my Bible. And I thought I could follow the old romantic poets at the same time I tried for the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I thought I could bring literature and life together in this mixed literary way.

When I first began winning debate tournaments I began to think that I would one day be President. But now in this last year of boarding school I was dreaming that one day I would live in one of those garrets of lore in Paris and become a great poet with all that that implied for love and sex and beauty.

I had actually said this to parents while in Paris that I wanted to stay in Paris, and that had set off more ridicule , so I pulled myself inside myself to wait for my time.

These dreams in the midst of this period when so much was falling apart – my young love affair as well as my pride in how I could use logic for noble ends, which had become part of my identity, even though I had not hesitated to override what I believed when I was in a debate tournament.

I would step out of this world, I decided. I was already seeing other girls in vacation times. And also during the vacations I haunted the 4th Avenue used book stores in the city, and found all the books that F. Scott Fitzgerald had published, including the out-of-print short story collections, which to a large extent were about romantic encounters in a romantic version of the South. I was there with Zelda and the magnolia.

At school I became friends with a new boy who joined our class in the last year. I had only contempt for most of his ideas, but who fascinated me, Hans Larson. He was from what he described as a place for the socially prominent, Tuxedo Park. He had gotten his parents to send him to him to prep school because he was making himself into the a facsimile of the sort of people he admired in that rich town. He related without irony, in fact with pride, how they had held celebratory cocktal parties the day Roosevelt died – while he was stuck in an immigrant Norwegian family that ran a plebeian car dealership. He looked just like the rich kids and not at all like the kids in the public schools. A real Jay Gatsby. Hans. I would edit out his politics and his prejudice, things I hated more than ever. Working through the kitchen help, we got our hands on bourbon and drank it in our dormitory late at night.

I decided I would go to Princeton, like Fitzgerald and like others in my very non-Fitzgeraldian family – though I was still a socialist and pacifist. I did not admire anything much that Hans admired except pretty girls. But I would not let anything limit me, I told myself. On some level, I was sure, Princeton would be under the Fitzgerald influence, more Old South than Tuxedo Park. I forgot to check if Negroes would be in my class – segregation in boarding schools being something I had railed against in our school paper. Princeton, in my fantasy would be a dreamy romantic place as far removed as you could be – as far as Tahiti maybe – from the wind-swept Hampshire lake country. Not the gray conservative place I suspected it might be. Hans himself was rejected by Princeton and was headed to what he considered the next best ting, the University of Virginia.

I was in Europe again the summer before college – going on a Holland-American line student dormitory ship to spend the summer in an exchange program in Holland (a venture that took me back to Paris for one last look in the Jeu de Paum). In the ship back I met two welcoming and amusing guys who had just ended their first year at Harvard. They really liked one of the two Holderness boys I knew who were in their class —Dmitri Nabokov , my debate colleague, the wild and brilliant son of a famous father. They couldn’t stand the other, Al Dawson, who was one of the dumb, sadistic, delusional school athletes. I knew for sure that at Princeton it would have been the other way around. I had made a horrible mistake. This would be no place for someone who liked Keats.

But the night before going to Princeton I read my grandfather’s admiring account of the place – admiring even though he was out of step with the would-be aristocratic Southerners who dominated. He seemed to think that on some level they were right and he was wrong. And then I read Fitzgerald’s romantic version of Princeton in This Side of Paradise – and I tensed up, clenched my teeth and all sphincters and concentrated hard to make myself believe that I and the world were not what I really did know us to be.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 45 - Debating & Writing IV

I go into these stories again and again, which is necessary if you are suspicious of pat endings. I have written about that summer in Paris with my parents, my mother’s mother and their favorite, my twin brother Peter, just before our last year at a boarding school in New Hampshire where it had seemed so certain to me that I had come into my own. I go back into old places and write about growing up as the bad twin – unable to read until near the end of second grade whereas the good twin was reading when he was four, and when we started at that boarding school, Georgian buildings in the lake country of New Hampshire, it was just like those English novels I had started to read about the horror of boarding schools, the sadistic athletes, the conspiring masters. I have written about how my life at Holderness had for the first year and a half been like in one of those novels. They ridiculed me and the boys beat me. I knew those English school novels because I had time on my hands in compulsory evening study hall, which was only for the dullest boys. There I was reading – pretending to study but going in secret into Browning and Keats and Shakespeare. I was reading but I was failing all my courses, except English, and they seemed to hate me - not just the boys but also the Latin master who was as sadistic as the boys, the algebra teacher who was really the football coach, the basketball coach who taught history and had us read a text book I could already see was too simple and wrong in its patriotism. And then suddenly my world changed.

This was when I was taken under the wing of the English teacher who was also the debating coach.This was when I began winning all my debates, and simultaneously I started to do well in all my subjects – except Latin which I refused to tolerate. I did so well that I soon had the highest grades in the school, higher than my brother’s. And before the 4th form was over – 4th form being the equivalent in Anglophile boarding school language to the American sophomore year, before that year was out I was on the varsity debate team and I stayed there for three years and led it into bigger places than the little school has every known as I won and won again in each of three years the New England debating championship, and practically no one dared make fun of me anymore.

As I keep writing about it now I tell of how I also found a girlfriend who made me the envy of even the dull athletes. And I write of how in that summer abroad, back with the family again,it seemed I had gone nowhere, my good-boy twin was at the center still and again. My grandmother said my debate triumphs were all very well but maybe it would have been different if Peter had put the same effort into it and then he, not Fred, would be the best debater in New England. And how strange, they said, that Fred has the pretty girlfriend.

I keep going back in my writing into that time in Paris. My world did get bigger then, but being with the family so much closed down. I would wander on my own. It was a stimulating walk through the Place de la Concorde from our hotel on Rue St. Honoré to the Jeu de Pam, which was where the Impressionists were. The Impressionists, whom I had never heard of before that summer abroad. I had never thought much about art beyond Saturday Evening Post covers and the Varga girls in Esquire. It was my mother who first took me to see the Impressionists – which she knew from long ago when she spent her junior year from Smith abroad. But otherwise these painters were outside any context I knew. There was nothing like this on the walls at school or at home. Neither my mother nor any of my elders had before this ever even talked about art.

Sometimes I would go off to a theater I discovered on the Rue de Capuchins where, though only 16 and looking younger, I could see actual naked girls proudly dancing. My main destination, however, did not change. I would go again and again to the Jeu de Paum.

Writing about it years later I am right there looking at Renoir’s girl on a swing who seems to be a girl for me whom I have encountered on a path. I am right there again, and I still see every wall of the museum and still have in my head the precise location of each painting – the exact location still the same for me, though they moved them all to the Gar St. Lazare in the eighties. I am still standing before Monet’s rows of hay stacks and rows of poplars in shifting light and his various aspects of Chartres and the Houses of Parliament – and I am in the South Seas with Gaugin as far from New Hampshire as you can get, but no farther than where van Gogh takes me
to places right herein France. And then Manet, that wonderful girl on on her back on the bed, I still know just where she is. And I know that in the far end of the next room, if I look up and to the left, there will be those picnicking artists again with their stately nude model. My eyes are open.

Writing about that summer, I then come to my last year, 6th form yeard, at school when I again won the big debating championships, and had the top grades, but did it by bluff now, my reputation such that if the judges saw I has unprepared they would not trust what they saw and would vote for my side anyway. And the masters who graded my slick papers for classes, other than English, could not get the conception I had stopped doing the reading .

I write about this time in Paris and my last year in school to understand what had happened because of that summer when it was as if I was back trapped in the place where I had begun. In that last year I even walked way from my girlfriend, it was that bleak and confusing

But as I keep going into the story the emphasis shifts, for I keep bringing the paintings back. As I write, it is not just being thrown into a suffocating place with the parents and grandmother and the good boy brother, thrown back into my old sad place in the world. As I write I spend more time each time with the paintings. As I write, it is as if what really happened had to do with the limits of debating – the ability to look at everything only from the standpoint of logic, to only honor the purely linear, being willing and able to argue with equal cogency and vigor any side of any subject with almost no reference to anything I hold dear. As I write, going back into the story for the hundredth time, it is the taste of art – more than the limits of family – that in Paris brings this phase of my life to an end.

Friday, December 14, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 44 - Debating & Writing III

I and Mr. Abbey, our coach, and Dmitri, my debate partner, left the self-contained boarding school campus long before sunrise and headed off on salted New Hampshire state highways and snow-covered mountain roads in Mr. Abbey's new Ford – the new 1951 model! – so up to date it had a middle headlight that turned when you turned the steering wheel.

We stopped for breakfast at a diner. We took a booth. The snow outside had drifted up to the frosted-covered, chrome-edged windows. I ordered a hot dog – this was freedom!

Waiting for our order, Dmitri and Mr. Abbey were talking and I was looking towards the counter, admiring a soft, sweet-faced, tousle-haired local girl who was sipping something through a straw. Over a fluffy sweater she was wearing a silk jacket with a dragon on the back – clearly from a local boyfriend drafted into the war in Korea.

I am feeling free and I am admiring this sweet local girl in the diner. This is the year I have been bringing back to the school all those plastic and wood and brass trophies, each topped by brass woman, naked though without nipples, who holds a laurel wreath high above her head – these trophies towering over the minor second and third place trophies for ball games that were – before I came along – all that could be found in the school trophy case.

Eating my hotdog, drinking coffee, thinking of the debate tournament ahead, feeling I had climbed high. And over at the pinball machine there is a big local guy my age in a red-checkered ear-flap hat and army surplus field coat. He is looking toward our booth – as if he knows us.

He does. It is Harold. He's coming over. Harold, last seen wearing a necktie and school blazer when he'd been in our 4th form class. Harold.

I'd known he was from a New Hampshire town. Most boys in the school were from more advanced states. And he had disappeared, not come back for 5th form – had been sucked back into this wind-swept landscape.

Harold had been my assigned roommate in Niles House in the worst time. This had been before I learned I could be seen as smart. We had started to become friends, but when the popular boys on the floor poured into our room to beat me, he'd stepped aside and watched, then egged them on. And then – worse than the beatings – he'd moved out on me because I was so unpopular. Leaving me the only boy in the school without a roommate.

In the diner I see Harold walking over from the pinball machine. He has his hand out tentatively, shyly, smiling at us – friendly. Supplication.

In 4th form he'd never been a shy outsider like me. But this time Harold is so clearly not from our prep school, but rather from the landscape outside it.

Harold – so easy to dismiss now in the diner, as easy as it had been to dismiss me before I was smart,

Before girls liked me,

Before I was a reader and a writer and a champion debater who traveled.

Harold hardly suitable material for the life I would lead and the books I would write about it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 43 - Debating & Writing II

I looked around the big meeting room in Livermore Hall - f
olding chairs lined up with leather sofas - and realized more than half of this small boarding school’s students, maybe 50 boys and also eight faculty members, were here. Such a crowd, it seemed, that I might have been speaking in a coliseum. And for all I knew they were as bloodthirsty as crowds at the ancient world's deadly Roman games.

I knew this room well for this was where we assembled to hear outside speakers – some of them silly, like a burly man who was to give an anti-Communism talk but wound up doing card tricks – and some were deadly serious, like the a tall, thin Quaker who knew what was what in China, including that Mao was popular and would win and Chiang Kai-shek was a discredited warlord that Harry Truman should not be supporting. But now I myself was about to speak here, leading off for the affirmative side on whether our government should provide free health care and higher education. I was 15. My voice had not finished changing. A year earlier I had been considered the dumbest kid in the school and was treated that way by everyone except a key teacher – we called them masters – and two guys who had become my friends in spite of how I had been so slow and unpopular. “Speedy.”

But by the time I was poised to speak in Livermore I had,suddenly, and mysteriously, risen right to the top of my class. I had just made the varsity debate team though I was two years younger than even the brightest varsity debaters in other years.

The room was so familiar. Not just for speakers but also as the place the whole school gathered after dinner every night to sing a hymn and hear a prayer. On the walls were murals showing this rolling-hill part of New Hampshire in autumn colors with figures of the future thrown in – a streamlined train and an airplane with four propellers and nautical-style portholes.

Often that year and the next two years I would be standing in this room surrounded by these gentle murals, building up my case, demolishing my opponents, all the while practicing careful eye contact, my oratory soaring to the point where at moments it was as if I could own the room. That’s how it felt. My words covering over the hymns and prayers that had been here – this meeting room across a hall from a smaller meeting room where mail was handed out in the morning – where now I would almost always find a scented letter in a pastel envelope from Sandie, who like me was 15, an hour away in our sister school, St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains – the envelope’s stamp, as on my letters to her, upside down to show the writer was so distracted by love it was not possible to get things right side up – and on the back of the envelope in capital letters, S.W.A.K., which according to custom stood for “Sealed With A Kiss” – something far beyond anything I had thought could happen to me - for less than a year ago I had been the slowest, most unpopular boy in this school, ridiculed with that nickname “Speedy” – me the slow and bad twin, in the same class here with Peter, the smart, good twin – and by some miracle I had drawn even, and in some but not all crucial ways I had passed him. At one moment I’d been flunking my courses, the next I’d shot to the top of the class just as I became a member of this varsity debate team.

And a girlfriend! And I was finally seen as bright. Not popular yet, still often ostracized,but not totally despised – and now here I was, on the spot in this familiar room filled with boys and masters lined up on folding chairs – standing before them – and I had to make the opening speech. Could I carry it off with a voice that was still changing, a voice that had recently gone from alto to baritone and might still crack as it headed down to base? And would I be ridiculed and ostracized even further for presuming that I could get away with it?

Right in front of me were the judges. Mrs. Homer, a woman with a pretty monkey face who was the mother of my confident-seeming classmate Bob Homer and also president of the League of Women Voters in the nearby town of Plymouth – she and two other Plymouth League of Women Voters women, these two very gray, were to judge this debate that would begin the moment I opened my mouth – if I could open my mouth.

Behind me at our table was my debate colleague and friend Ken Kaplan, who was a sixth former, the equivalent of senior, while I was just a fourth former. And at the other table behind me was the Portland, Maine team – Lois and Michael – who last year had carried back to Portland some major debating trophies. These two - the legendary Lois, a beautiful, stately colored girl, though you forgot that fast, and sturdy Michael - the New England debating champions, coached by a craggy man named Mr. Walsh who produced a handbook on each year’s national subject that went out to debaters all over America. The strongest team in New England, and their famous coach too, right here in this room where I was in front of this crowd at this school of mine where I still might be an outcast.

Me – a fourth former – Speedy – lucky to be where I was, lucky to have a girlfriend who necked on those rare occasions we got up to her school or they got down to ours – it all being almost as if I were one of the popular guys. And now my life hinged on this moment in this familiar room with the fall foliage murals where, my mouth dry, I did begin to speak even while remembering that I was the slow, dumb, shy guy who would not know what to say.

Very early on the morning after my victory – we’d won and the League of Women Voters women had named me Best Speaker – I and all the school debaters on all levels were off in a school van with our coach to a practice tournament at a southern New Hampshire high school. No one was calling me Speedy today. They seemed to have dropped the word. Finally!

Peter, who was always prompt, was already in the van when I climbed in. He gave me a long look and said something about a swelled head. He shook his own head, and through a sour smile he said, “Hi Speedy.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 42 - Chapter One

I am in the open ward at St. Mary’s hospital on the island side of the old colony of Hong Kong. I am in this tattered, sprawling open ward for people brought in suddenly – and also, it seems, for charity cases, but non-charity cases too – a place in this overcrowded enclave where you can get a bed quickly and where a doctor, the latest in a series of doctors, allopathic and otherwise, thought I should be.

My new wife was in this same place recently. The rows of beds here must hold 60 or 70 people. For her it was an overdose of hashish, for which I was blamed because the marriage is so flimsy. My bed is almost exactly where hers had been. Across from me there are very old, shrinking people peeking out from their sheets. Chinese people. I am the only foreign devil here – a term not used much in other Chinese cities but still in use here because of the way the colonial British, even at this late date, presume to carry themselves.

When my wife was here it was more interesting across the way. In a bed there, then, was a pale, delicate starlet who, like my wife, had overdosed. The starlet was looking at the ceiling, ignoring the visit of a suave boyfriend, who like the leading men in so many Hong Kong and Taiwan movies, except those that entailed magic, knew how to show his appeal and authority by the way he could half stand and half lean as he watched the irony of life unfold around him. The Hong Kong equivalent of men in French movies who wear their sports jackets draped over their shoulders like shawls. It radiates sophistication and cool, to wear a jacket that way with a half smile on your face, as it does in Hong Kong to lean with confidence and detachment, whether against a table or the back of chair or the head of a hospital bed – with some sad, lovely girl in your view.

But I have no one to look at but the shriveled men and women peeking out of their sheets. And no one seems to know exactly why I am here. I have a low grade fever, have had it for weeks, which my last doctor – a former combat surgeon in a Seventh Day Adventist hospital – said was such a dire sign that, without tests, he put me on an arduous treatment for typhoid. But the nurses here at old St. Mary’s say low grade does not count, so it looks like I am not sick, though the doctor making rounds, a modest grandfatherly Chinese man, wants to look for cancer. I am in a dark haze, unable to collect my thoughts. The one thing no one has said is that all these are physical signs of my deep depression. I do not even know the word. Looking back later it seemed I had all the symptoms, except serious plotting for suicide, and maybe that was because it was so hard for me to pull together coherent thoughts, much less act on them.

I do not know the word “depression.” But I know these mysterious dark times, which can come just as everything is working out, and just as everything is falling apart. These book contracts I carry that define me give me no safety – have nothing anymore to do with me. No more than does my history.

I live nowhere permanently. A few exciting years in Bangkok, a few cloudy years in Beirut, a few in the Balkans, a few in Singapore and now Hong Kong, where I have been before, which I already knew was a two-week city, like Beirut – an artistically barren place where everyone is after money and there are no green parks. In between these times – times of fireworks, times I remember now as being so mysterious as to let in joy – between these foreign times always a few years in New York City, which I think of as my home – sometimes the East Village, sometimes the West Village, sometimes the Upper West Side, anywhere in Manhattan except my forebears’ East Side places. And I am puzzled each time in New York when I head off to adventure in all these thrilling foreign zones (not counting Beirut and Hong Kong), puzzled that I have to push myself through heavy darkness that pours down, each time with no warning that I can catch, and nearly paralyzes me.

And it got worse, for it was never so dark and hopeless as in the time just before I began to look not at these foreign places but at the places of my origin that I had edited out and replaced with foreign places, often war zone places, that I thought could bring definition and safety.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 41 - Debating & Writing I

Not long after Mr. Abbey had let me know I did not have to be seen as dumb and slow and a lesser figure than my brother, he announced in his first year English class that we were going to stage a debate. To us, this was a little like saying we were going to conduct a football game, since debating was the only competition in which this little school had been able, in recent memory, to add to its trophy case.

Joe Abbey, who was both the debate coach and the English teacher, now announced that in only two weeks four of us would actually be in an actual debate. It was only a debate in English class, but it would be judged just as if it were one of those big-time debates in which our varsity debaters took on and beat rival debaters and brought the sort of glory to our school that its sports teams could not manage.

I was teamed up with a kid called Fishbone, so named because he once swallowed a fishbone and it stuck in his throat and he did not tell anyone until weeks has passed and he was hardly eating. Fishbone read a lot, but like me was so behind in his classes that he had to go to evening study hall. Fish Bone and Speedy were teamed up against two boys who had the best grades in the class. One of them was my assigned roommate Peter Churchill, on his way already as a future president of the school – the dark, popular if not happy, son of a big time Boston heart surgeon. The other was my smart twin, Peter Poole, who was shorter than me but always looked people in the eye and always walked with the stride of someone who knows where he is going.

The subject of the debate was federal world government. The time was less than five years after World War II and there were many people saying the world should now be organized in a different way. Fishbone and I were to speak in favor of world government. Peter and Peter against Fishbone and Speedy.

Everyone except the teacher, Mr. Abbey, laughed when I got up to speak. Someone in the back said the word "Speedy," and someone else said "Study Hall versus Room Study."

But we won quite easily.

And two months after winning the debate I was at the top of the class, not the bottom, and going to Saturday events at high schools in other towns where debaters at all levels could took part in practice debates with other schools. At this time I asked to retake my IQ test and jumped ahead 40 points. Suddenly I was on room study. I could spend my evenings doing what I wanted so long as I stayed indoors. I quit Latin and scored high enough in other subjects to rival my twin brother.

But I was still called Speedy that year, and the next year, 4th form year, it got worse. This was when the organized torture went on each night, and my roommate moved out so as not be tarred by my unpopularity. But I kept going to these practice debate events. Mr. Abbey would not, I knew, have included me on those Saturday trips if he did not think I had potential.

I was not winning much. I was shy. Judges said they had trouble hearing me. And yet I was doing it, and Joe Abbey had faith. And I could hardly remember ever not having been on room study.

I was becoming a young master of linear thinking.

Monday, December 10, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 40 - While I Was Away

I was like someone who has sojourned far from a familiar place, and when that person returns he finds there have been earthquakes and forest fires and hurricanes, and although the place has been quickly and carefully rebuilt to cover up the damage, nothing remains the same.

My subject matter, what I had to write about when I returned to writing, bore little resemblance to what my subject matter had been back when I thought I could write an amusing book about the family. Back when I was most interested in my stories that entailed exotic and erotic adventures in foreign lands far from any home or childhood.

While I was off on this sojourn, there had been a great deal of death, some of it metaphorical and some of it literal, as in the suicide of my Cousin Elka, who hung herself in San Diego where her absent husband had been teaching anthropology. I got the news while spending a few duty days in my mother’s brand-new West Coast Florida condominium, which looked like a prison from the outside, the building was so barren, and on the inside if you turned a door knob there was a good chance it would come off in your hand. My mother came into the tiny guest room – where three years back I had left my father dying in a rented hospital bed beside a rented steel contraption called a Hoyer Lift.

My mother had been speaking on the phone with Elka’s mother, my very correct Aunt Peggy, who had called from Scarsdale with the news. I called Elka’s husband, my obese, pedigreed cousin Fitz John Porter Poole. He spoke as if from a hollow place. He seemed to me more resigned than disturbed, and it sounded like it was due less to shock than that the event for him had a matter-of-fact quality to it.

A few hours later my mother came looking for me. She was drinking and beaming. It’s all right, she said. Peggy called me again. My Aunt Peggy had just spoken to Elka’s mother, who had decided everything was for the best. Elka had been such a trial to her family. And now, Aunt Peggy said, she and Elka’s mother were happy that the way was clear for Fitz John to get on with his life.

It was another twenty years before Fitz John shot himself, but I had plenty of new material to work with long before that when I went back to writing.

Friday, December 7, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 39 - Writing of a Sort

I realized later that during that time I was away from writing I never stopped all versions of writing, I carried notebooks with me when I was in museums or in ACOA meetings, or roaming in city and country places I had known in the past, or new places, like Arrezzo and Urbino, that I had never seen before and that I was absorbing visually. I would have an idea and I would write it down. And it would stay there in my notebook just the way I had conceived it in my head.

And so even though I was filling up notebooks with thoughts, writing was still not very useful to me. It did not, like painting now, unravel my life – the only life I knew well enough to place at the center of my art.

By writing down insights and reminders to myself I was not writing. I was journaling – which has become a popular pastime, right up there with scrap-booking. Sometimes it yields results, for it can give an accurate picture of what is happening in the head, and it can be a way to deal with the most crucial matters of the moment in an ongoing life. It can also be useful for future writing. But journaling - unless faked to fool a teacher - means writing for the writer's own self only, and so there is no need to recreate scenes.
Some rigid academics who glorify linear thinking and despise the intuitive still put a journaling requirement in their courses, they consider it that safe.

It is in the process of recreating reality that an artist strikes gold. In the process of going from head to canvas or paper a fixed idea in the head is transformed into something much more.

Towards the end of the non-writing time I went to a weekend “inner child” retreat in which we were all told to “Write a letter to yourself as a child.” I wasn’t writing any more, I thought, but I went walking by a river and I wrote this letter to myself with some emotion and great sympathy, wondering where I had been all these years. And when I read this piece I choked up. But something was lacking. At end of what I wrote I was precisely where I had been when I started. There had not been discovery, just a reiteration of matters already known.

I read the piece aloud and the retreat leader gave a wise look and said “You are writing again.” And later he was still taking credit for my return to writing. But I knew at the retreat that this was not writing yet.

That letter-to-a-child thing. It only went so far – this kind of therapy writing. For it is usually directed, sometimes quite subtly, by the one who gives the assignment. It starts with a conclusion.

And then there was the dark scaly stranger. He had appeared in another therapy writing exercise. You were supposed to write about an encounter with some fearsome stranger who has always been around. So I made the stranger this one-dimensional ugly, bullying bigot. How very satisfying.

A few weeks later, when alone in my studio, I tried a visual response. This was when I started that painting that was supposed to be of this scaly, bigoted stranger who had haunted me all my life. A stranger so simple as to be dismissed. But when I painted him I could not keep him so simple that I could dismiss him and never miss him. I could not keep this stranger in such a safe place. A much more formidable person appeared in the place of the scaly man – this woman with glorious bare shoulders who was looking down on a mysterious, exotic, at the same time lovely and craggy landscape – a landscape which to enter would mean entering the unknown.

In the retreat leader/therapist's simplistic world it would have been said I had found that the stranger was myself. But I was not that woman, although if she were not important to me, were not part of me, she would not have appeared in my art. What I was finding was too complicated for smug psychological dictums. Complicated in the mind when clear in the heart.

All painting at this point was exciting to me. What I did not know quite yet was that writing could be too – which was what I had thought about writing in the first place before the years of living by writing.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 38 - This Strangely Familiar Place

I was almost late the first morning. The very early first period had not quite begun and the halls were crazed – everyone in boots or sneakers, not the grown-up shined shoes we had had to wear in boarding school. And the boys with hair over their ears, or pony tails, not our old regulation short hair. And there were raucous shouts. No mid-century boarding school suits or sport coats or gray flannels or blazers. Everyone rushing, or taking up room being casual. Walkmen. Backwards baseball caps. Lockers loudly rattled. And pretty girls – girls! – many with long silky hair, some in make-up, some with their belly buttons showing –

Teachers as well as kids had to walk around a place in one hall where a boy and girl, the boy the school's only black person, were locked together, here in the early morning, French kissing.

And then a bell and then three squat, thick-necked middle-aged men with crew cuts – looking and sounding like beery drill sergeants – were running through the halls. They were pushing people and screaming orders –
"Keep movin'!"

"Go ta ya classroom!"

Who were they?

Then I realized that these had to be the hall monitors of lore. To me, who had never before been inside a public high school on a weekday, they were like a team of strike-breakers, or Teamsters hired to beat up peace demonstrators.

In my innocence of actual high schools, I'd thought, till now, that hall monitors were the same thing as our floor leaders and house leaders and proctors back in boarding school – well-dressed, crew-cut boys in conservative, diagonally striped silk neckties, chosen from the ranks of the pathologically well-mannered.

I never mentioned Rhetorical Modes in these early morning classes. By this time in my life real stories were a passion with me – not to be messed with, not to be ruined by little constipating tricks of the how-to-write industry.

And just as I never mentioned Rhetorical Modes, I never assigned what the pinch-faced principal wanted – deadly dry, straight-jacketed research papers.

For us, no introduction.

Just the body of the work, wherever it leads.

No foregone conclusions.

And none of the bizarre old rules of grammar – such as not starting sentences with conjunctions and not ending them with prepositions.

No musty school-teacher piety for these girls and boys. Instead, they were taking chances – writing scenes and stories from their own actual lives, stories of hate – love – triumph – abuse – despair – hope – sex – sports – betrayal.

They were getting right at what it had taken me decades to get to in my own writing – writing in which, when I'd finally let it organically unfold, the landscape of my past life had radically changed.

In my own writing, neo-Victorian family members – intelligent, sometimes honored, cautiously Ivy League – family members who had seemed at worst comic in their stuffiness had turned into people who now seemed like characters in horror stories. Despite their veneer, they had left in their wake molestation and addiction and hopeless depression, and the often violent early deaths of sons and daughters.

That was my own writing. In the English class essays I invited I now – within firm bounds of confidentiality – learned of rural, alcoholic, molesting parents – and sometimes real-seeming warm and happy parents too – and the way the school principal had covered up a big drug bust to save his career, and I knew what teacher was faking academic and even sports records for his child, and I knew what girl was going out on the sly with what other girl's boyfriend, and who fucked who and who didn't –

And I also knew from the writing who was having fun, off on adventures through these hills in favorite old trucks and cars, or snow-boarding expeditions, or drug times and shoplifting times, or the up side of dating.

And I came to know from their writing what it was like to be the care-taking daughter of an anti-Semitic state trooper, or the bigoted son of an Aryan supremist druggist, a son who had no place else to put his anger.

And I remembered. My own anger. And so much else. Including seeing the seasons change from my old, tidy Georgian-style boarding school, which was also high on a hill like this homely high school. And discovering Keats and Beethoven and Monet. And, at rare inter-school get-togethers, vertical necking in the name of dancing.

My memories. My own adolescence, now so many years later, coming back to life again here on this hilltop in the Cairo-Durham High School.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 37 - Teaching

It was forty years after my time in study hall, and my time at White Pines, and now I had a problem. I wasn't a teacher. I'd never even considered the academic life. But I was just divorced again, and the money was all gone, and my writing again had stalled, and nothing was coming in. I had to do something. Anything to keep afloat.

I lived now in a bright and airy, recently purchased, heavily mortgaged, mountain-view house just outside the colorful Catskills village of Woodstock, New York. Woodstock, this eccentric place of writing and music and art – sort of like an ideal college town should be. And with the added advantage of having no college in it.

It's also a place with not many ways to make money – and so in my current situation, this lack of a college was also, for the first time, a disadvantage, since it meant one less source of jobs.

So I decided to journey north to a more raw place – the English department of a small community college – low, prefabricated buildings set in a stark and grand northern Catskills area that had once, way back, been marginal farm country. Later it had had a run as a somewhat prosperous summer resort place. That had ended too. And by now it was as impoverished and bleak as some of the New Hampshire landscapes of my youth.

Farmland fallow. Tourist places outdated, dying, deserted – like old New Hampshire.

The English Department chairperson at the Catskills community college looked like someone who had survived it all – tough, gray, ageless, wiry. She was so glad to see me, she said. And wasn't it awful what had happened?

I thought she was referring to the increasing poverty of these lovely but sad and desecrated upstate New York counties her college served (even, somehow, to my own sudden, dangerous poverty and indebtedness).

But it turned out she meant the low quality, everywhere, she said, of present-day young people.

We got my credentials out of the way quickly. I was qualified, it turned out, because recently, pursuing a midlife interest in theology, I had received a masters degree cleverly disguised by the theology department to look like a degree in education.

Then we got on to more immediate matters.

"Kids today are different," she said. "Nobody knows the basics."

She was talking about her specialty courses, English 101 and English 102, both of which entail much student writing. But her students just did not want to write, she said. In desperation she had even asked them to write about what interested them. They had done so, and she had to flunk some of them anyway, including a boy whose interest was, of all things, football.

She had to flunk them because, who cares about young people's self-serving, self-pitying memories?

Then she started talking in a foreign language: "Would you believe," she said, "that young people today don't know the difference between description and narrative?"

I knew the words “narrative” and “description” but had no idea what this woman thought the difference was supposed to be. I knew it could be fatal to writing if you tried to make such a distinction. I was aware, from my own writing, of how a narrative could be propelled by description, and of how a narrative without description would be generalized nonsense. I knew she was talking nonsense – as bad here in this little school as in the supposedly great university I had endured as an undergraduate. Awful, destructive nonsense. But I tried to look solemn. I actually raised an eyebrow. I shook my head in sadness.

"And do you know," she said, "that I hardly see an entering student who can tell the difference between a causal essay and a process essay?"

I put on a look of even deeper sorrow, and said, "This is terrible."

And I was pretty sure I had the job.

At this time I had just begun the Authentic Writing workshops with a weekly group meeting in Woodstock. And I was thinking a lot about my boarding school English teacher Joe Abbey and his love for literature, and the hatred for literature that I had found at Princeton.

And then it turned out that the actual setting of the job was as foreign to me as that mysterious stuff about causal and process essays. I was to teach an accelerated freshman college English course to 16- and 17-year-olds inside something called the Cairo-Durham (pronounced Cay-row-Durham) Central High School.

Three times a week, so early the class would be over by 8 a.m.

Not only had I never been a teacher before this, college or otherwise, I had never attended a public high school.

I went to look at the place. It was a dark, snaking, one-story brick building. It had almost no windows, although it was set high on a hill with what could have been a 360-degree panoramic view of fields and woods and mountains – a hill rising from a village made up of rustic rural bars, all of which had shamrocks on their signs.

These fields and hills and woods and mountains, though not the shamrock bars, so like New Hampshire 40 years back, before I had given up such countryside in favor of, until Woodstock, big cities and war zones.

When I was a teenager and in New Hampshire I had not always seen such landscape directly. I had looked out at southern New Hampshire from the protected grounds of that old-line, Anglophile all-boys boarding school. In the summers in northern New Hampshire I had looked out at it from the protected grounds of the formal summer mountain houses, especially the big house called White Pines, owned by "our kind of people."

Now here I was in the northern Catskills, so many years later, not looking out at such a landscape but actually in it.

I drove up to the college bookstore with my best friend Claude the dog, an intensely personable, low-to-the-ground, adolescent, black-and-white basset hound/terrier. Claude and I now lived alone in my big mountain-view house that the bank wanted back.

I drove up through the northern Catskills thinking of how deep in the past when I'd been in such countryside I'd been an adolescent and my life had seemed worthless, desperate – without hope – until – away from home – a remarkable English teacher saw what other teachers and my Connecticut family had missed – and books and writing saved my life – and the world opened for me.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 36 - The End of Insight

I had lived on writing for thirty years and only been away from it for six. When I came back to the written word I must have thought I could also come back to my old faith in the logic of outcomes. For six years I had been getting my information visually, not from mere words. I had rejoiced in my freedom from writing, which had come to seem such a dry, musty craft. I was a painter and not a writer. And yet now I needed words again, or thought I did.

The changes that had come in my life in this period when I was not writing had led to many surprises, not the least being conscious awareness for the first time of spiritual hunger I felt for realms where I did not have the illusion I could know outcomes before I stepped into them – real life being like real writing in which so much happens that you cannot start with the last line and write into it.

My world had changed so much that at this time I was returning to writing that I was studying at a university – something that for reasons I still respected I would not have gone near in my professional writing years and was very careful about now – and it was a liberal Jesuit place, Boston College – a Catholic world that I had respected intellectually since I first saw it from a tight-ass right-wing Calvinist place -- and also avoided intellectually and now remembered in a warm way because of people I had known people who did not flit the Catholic clichés, people I had known, courageous saint-life activists in places like Taiwan and the Borneo part of Indonesia, and Somoza’s Nicaragua and the Philippines of the cruel Marcoses. And right now I was across the Charles at a place called Weston exploring the 16TH century spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola – and it meant writing again. For the exercises entail stepping right into stories, which might be stories from the past but would inevitably be the writer’s most crucial stories in the present. People I knew now had used the exercises to change their lives – to leave the priesthood or go into it -- to leave or go into marriages – to leave and enter careers -- and I understood the proposition that you could find God’s will if you stepped into your story this way.

But I made a grave error. I thought that with words I could and should bring logic back into my life again now after a vacation from linear thinking. And so I wrote about something that concerned me night and day at this moment. I was about to get married again, this time to a sexually and artistically charged woman with problems covered over by her appeal, a woman with whom I had been conducting an affair. There were obstacles to this connection -- the biggest being the woman’s insufferable good boy son, whom she had had when she was a teenager. I decided I would write about it, and see where I came out.

And I got a good part of the story right. He was indeed a horror, although to his relatives he was a prince. A sociopath maybe. He hung onto his mother like an infant -- a 21 year old infant -- tortured her with tales of blood and disease and masochism in the gay life he led – tortured his sister by working hard to keep up the myth that she was nothing more than a lightweight wild child, when in fact she was not just more attractive than he was, she was smarter, and she was artistically gifted – brains and artistic talent being his own domain, his alone, forbidden for anyone else in his family, much less a vibrant younger sister. I saw signs that he was pushing her, with the help of her strange father, who still looked almost like a teenager himself, in the direction of even street prostitution. Moreover, he was making plans to live with my future wife and me.

And now as I wrote about this – about it more than in it -- I saw an overriding reason why the situation was so upsetting to me that it felt like unmanageable chaos. This awful kid was now pushing the idea he had learned in classes that criticism was superior to art – and that the only good poem, as he had been told at the New School, was one that was written into a well worked out, foregone conclusion. He was the policeman, stopping art and life from breaking out. This son, Jason, had exactly the role in his family that my twin brother, Peter, had had in mine – not the violent sex part but everything else, the good little, the clever little boy who put his sibling in the shade.

And I made the mistake of thinking that this insight was enough – thinking again, as I had before the changes in my life began, that insight ever could be enough. Going against something I knew. And so I did what I had wanted to do in the first place. I went ahead with the marriage, which did not last 18 months.

And I very soon knew I never would never have gotten in it if I had really stepped into the story, which was probably what Ignatius meant – recreated the story rather than buried it in insight.

Monday, December 3, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 35 - The Last Line First

For six mostly happy years I thought I was not a writer.

During this period of not writing the whole landscape of my life, past and present, was changing. I moved from New York City up to Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains, but that was not the whole story. It seemed to me I had lived too much of my life in a linear world involving words. And then words were suddenly useless, and nothing was happening on a straight line.

This change in direction began in the eighties when, while living in Manhattan, I realized I felt less and less connection with what I thought of as my life. Maybe I had had only moderate success with my writing but my identity was mixed up with being a writer. I had enough money. I had this book my friend Max and I had written on the horror of the Marcos Philippines (one in a string of my published works). It was in a bookstore window I passed on Fifth Avenue. A divorce had come through and my social life was picking up. I still had connection to the literary world. I was putting together plans for new book, including one on great rivers of the world and one making fun of California. An editor was pushing a new project that treated my often very dark childhood and family as amusing and happy. There was no satisfaction in any of the projected writing projects that I had thought I wanted so badly. It all felt more like an ending than a beginning, more like death than life.

I was struck with the realization that it had been twenty years since I had written without a contract and advance money. Worse, it had been nearly as long since I had started a book, fiction or nonfiction, without knowing what I would say in my final chapter. Publishers need outlines before they write checks. The outlines are mainly to convince their hard-headed sales people that there will really be a book one day. They are kind of fake, these outlines. But I had been following actual or imagined outlines for years. And nothing was changing. There was no discovery. I began to think of writing as plodding and distant. With new acquaintances I started to hide what I had done for a living.

And then something else came into focus. I had always thought of myself as being extremely visual, but now I became aware that it had been many years since I had been inside an art museum. So one morning a new girl friend and I took the subway up to the Metropolitan.

Almost immediately I was spending time alone in museums every day – and was still doing it a year later when I signed up for courses at art schools all over town and became, in mid-life, a full-time art student. Now, I thought, as I roamed about town with my portfolio, no one will take me for a writer.

Operating in visual worlds I found I had no control over what I was doing. It was a relief. I could not use paint and colored pencils to force conclusions and keep terror at bay the way I had taught myself to use words. Maybe an artist with years of academic training could keep up the illusion of control with images the way I had done it with words. But I did not have those years of training. Anything could happen.

I would see something in color – for instance, the horror of blood red against a Flemish or Dutch aqua sky – in the Met; I would be led to that same color combination in an angry East Village feminist crucifixion scene, and that mood would lead to the dark dangerous forests of Hobbema at the Frick, landscapes that I had once thought uneasily should be comforting. Hobbema would lead to the sickly landscapes of Theodore Rousseau at the Frick and the Brooklyn, and then on to the sacred, evocative nature scenes of Daubigny at the Brooklyn and back at the Met again, and then on to visual connections resulting from black between Manet and Goya and Murillo, and then the pure color of Monet at the Met and the Guggenheim and the Modern, the same Monet who had moved me decades earlier in Paris and then been lost to me. And from Monet I would go to Hopper's sunlight on buildings and his wife's grand naked body at the Whitney, then into the horror world of Gorky and the chaos of Pollack, and the lively erotic bronze nudes of Matisse and the strangely evocative but stylized bronze nudes of Archipenko, and the terror of Franz Kline abstract figures, and the deep longing in Joan Mitchell abstractions. Surrealism, I learned, could be as real as realism and abstraction could be too. I did not study art history. I did not know if anyone else saw what I saw. I just looked.

And it was now that the art I saw and made became mixed with images in my dreams, and mixed too with my memories of all the scenes of my life. My stories began to change. For example, episodes of family violence, from suicide to child molestation, no longer seemed isolated incidents in overall stories that I had recounted as amusing. I had found that, though it seemed it could be a great career boosting move, I could not write a word of a projected project in which I planned treat myself and my family so lightly that all darkness was removed.

Lies no longer seemed unimportant. And maybe this was why for the first time since adolescence I had a sense that spiritual talk was not always nonsense talk. And so I eased into spiritual areas I had dismissed as not fitting my plans – worlds I had dismissed maybe even to the extent that my family of origin had dismissed people of all races including even the race they thought of as their own. (I had once spoken with pride of how I had spent a total of seven intense years in the Far East without having a single spiritual experience.)

Then art led to nature, and I realized how far I had come from forces whose power had once put me in thrall. It is hard to visit the Brooklyn Museum without going to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, hard to do the Met or the Frick or the Guggenheim without roaming in Central Park. I found myself spending time in nature in a seamless transition from what I had been doing in studio classrooms and in galleries and museums.

I went beyond the parks – to Vermont and New Hampshire, to New England mountains and lakes. And there seemed no good reason not to live in countryside again. One day I drove up to the Catskills to check out the Woodstock School of Art. I found myself in the surrounding mountains, alongside streams and ponds. As it became clear I would stay I started to know joy and terror I had kept at a distance living in cities for so many years. It had been an array of places, from Bangkok to Beirut to Athens, but always cities, always walking on concrete, not real earth, nothing like the dangerous earth I now remembered – as paintings became mixed with recently salvaged memories, and with dreams, and the present reality.

My stories, now out of my control, took many directions. What I had dismissed as silly I now saw as deadly, and what I had thought of as beyond possibility began to seem real. In this way the landscape of my life, past as well as present, changed. Now nothing was more important than getting at the stories that were most real, which were not always the stories that fit into the imposed frameworks I had accepted.

And now when I started writing I never knew exactly what direction the writing would take. What was happening in the writing now was a very concrete version of what had been happening when in a painting I tried to portray enemies with a dark scaly figure of horror – and the painting took such a different direction.