As for oceans, I sailed a few, then flew over, over my own story, to a
little town in Mexico where a sailor was particularly good looking, and
discovered a bar and met in there a woman caught between two people, a
foreigner who was drinking too much, and a young girl, both attracted to
her and to the soft wind, outside, with the sound of the ocean touching
There are days when the storm refuses to break out and in those days
pains are born within my limbs and behave like spirits with a will of
their own, leaving me helpless against this invasion. Once, I was crossing
a garden, a huge one planted with tulips whose color was red-wine,
dispersed among iridescent blue flowers with leaves still retaining the
dew. I thought: on such a day, a person from history, to whom I’m
particularly attached, looked at this space and welcomed this kind of
weather. She was a queen exiled in France amid brutal surroundings. She
was banished, later, and died in Cologne.
Often I buy books on houses and start, page after page, to move into
different apartments, or dwellings that make one wonder if glass walls
separate us from nature or if they are meant to make us feel at one with
the trees. My favorite trees, around houses, cabins, shacks…, are oaks.
People are here to betray. There’s a person who loved me to death,
not to my death or hers, but to the death of a person I loved. So, when
she aged, my resentment made me speechless. I let her guess why I was
angry, and that was punishment enough. I wonder who invented the ugly word
“punishment”; it was probably God who established the word, and the
A straight line, I was taught, was good for hanging clothes, but I saw
wires that were crooked and used for crowns of thorns. I also saw a cage
with wires that were intended to protect a canary from predators, the cat
and the dog. One morning I found the bird dead from lack of water. I had
the night before watered the garden, thoroughly, but had forgotten to fill
the little can with the precious water it demanded.
On Sunday bells toll and women in black are swallowed by a white
structure that I never enter. These creatures come out of the church with,
on their faces, the same expression that they had previously and they
smell of incense and wax. That’s how it is, on this island, and
Hotel rooms hold a fascination: there’s a sense of loneliness that I
sometimes experienced in them that still does haunt me. How did I survive
that feeling of void, or rootlessness, or uselessness, that possessed me
more than a few times in cities such as Paris and New York? How did I
climb that wall of nothingness to attain a perspective from which a next
day was possible? But houses can be much worse, they can be pierced
baskets from which one’s life oozes and drains into the gutters. I
discovered, by chance, in a book, that Thoreau‘s attention was
transfixed by permanent structures. The forest, the boat, the fresh air
were not enough to give him serenity…he was constantly looking for a
Television works differently from cocaine: it dumbs the spirit and
creates a kinship with cartoons. Children have grown tails and are asking
to perform in Disneyland and parents hurry to agree. Soon, governments (I
mean the few that will remain) will have no trouble running a depleted
Sound research has proved that people pollute the world and, as they’re
part of it, pollute themselves…. Immaterial people probably exist on
other planets, and we’re eager to get in touch with them. They won’t
need olives, bread, or a Mercedes sport car…and I doubt that our ideas
will be of any interest to them…they may have better ones, or none at
all. Who knows?
I have established a sound relation with the universe. Of that, I’m
sure. I move freely between the sun and the moon, I go further, I plunge
into black holes and emerge intact. I ride on comets, count galaxies. I’m
on speaking terms with light-years, all this since I traveled in a matter
of seconds to the Universe’s edge and suspected that the strange
movement that I witnessed, once there, was the beginning of an abyss.
I think about water, often: I can’t hold it in my hands for any
length of time, cut it with a knife or understand why it runs with such a
happiness. We think that something is certain, but then a little screw is
missing, nothing works, the mind remains bewildered. Still, when I love
water, I have no problem coming close to its being.
Those who make in no time billions of dollars stop eating, drinking,
fucking, buying flowers…they spend time dreaming of more money.
Some don’t dream, they kill. I met people of that sort in a
restaurant in the 15th arrondissement of
Paris. One night I was in that special place with good food, and there was
a table with three beautiful women and a man whom I recognized having seen
him in newspapers…quite often. His hair was glued to his temples, he had
make-up on his cheeks…. He was speaking in the accent of one of the
North-African countries I know, and exuding much venom. Against one of the
walls of the restaurant was a table occupied by “people-watchers,” and
they were at front-row and showing it by being loud. Their pleasure was
sickening. To the left of the entrance I noticed three guys, three thugs….
They had a mountain of food under their noses and were conspicuously
enjoying their dinner. Something stirred in my stomach. They were
bodyguards, obviously, and certainly armed. This was not a hunting place,
but it had all the elements of the leftovers of a hunt.
The sun shines through my windows with no difficulty as they are wide
open. I try to touch the light but it disappears at that very moment; all
I do is make shadows with my fingers. Then I think that the world is
somewhere else, in Mexico, in India… Why should it always be in a named
place? Why should it, altogether, be?
Am I my body, and/or my soul, and does an angel define us otherwise?
But when I carry pain whenever I’m awake and wherever I go, the question
becomes serious. An acute awareness of oneself is not always a blessing.
It’s always back to my favorite thing: the weather. Since childhood,
I’ve listened to thunder because it is awesomeness itself. I also always
loved soft rains, their sexual appeal with no sex involved…no jealous
lover can ever suspect the competition they represent. When one cloud
passes over another, I tremble and when a patch of blue pierces a grey sky
I soar like an angelic figure.
Some rains are deadly: they announced an apocalyptic meltdown, the
cosmic ocean’s self-destruction. They make us lose all points of
reference by creating pools in which all specifications drown. They push
us back to our abstractions and in that dismal state of affairs we err in
cities carrying the knowledge of that disaster as baggage. Hotel clerks
get suspicious and refuse to give us a key. We wander for a while in some
train station and when we have a change of mind we re-enter the city and
spend the night walking.
But what about the inner tempests where high seas of anger unleash
their fury against the mind? Mind and stomach merge in those times, fuse
into deadly rays, probe the inner soul as no hurricane can do to the
Atlantic coasts. These inner lands sometimes take the shape of real
territories, Syria, Lebanon, California…where we live inside and outside
the self, not distinguishing a missile hitting a house from some
devastating thought. The onslaught of History on the brain creates storms
which batter the imagination with more destructive power than any
cataclysmic weather. Some of us are familiar with these private disasters
which accumulate and become daily bread and daily experience.
One apple is sitting in a blue bowl of stoneware made by Eileen Curtis.
Every surrounding thing moves away from a collection of objects which were
attracted to a square shelf. Do they feel at last secure in that setting
or are they, for their misfortune, and rather like me, unable to rest?
They form a beautiful unit, that only painters can appreciate, to the
point of giving the rest of their lives to reproduce, sometime, somewhere,
with any material at hand, the ecstasy of the apple and of the bowl.
I particularly love Fra Angelico, Angelico while painting angels. He
does not paint them, he creates angels who have, thus, escaped God’s
creation. He sprays gold on their hair and around them. Each time I went
to visit him, he was absent, out of Florence, not yet in Sienna, on his
way to Arezzo, just back from Padua but not yet at home…. I rest my hand
on one of his painted walls and feel his angel’s flesh, the one who
forever announces the coming of a baby. People like Angelico do not come
Let me have the courage to say that all three belonged to my mother,
because that’s true, a reality which has shaped my health and desires.
Her cat, named Bijou (as I have already said), slept in her mosquito net.
She loved that weight hanging over her sleep. Bijou had a huge house for
her promenades: arched windows for watching mice in the garden, armchairs
covered with damascene velvet for her claws, a kitchen stove to warm her
bones. I didn’t live in that house, with that cat, or in my mother’s
company, I just crossed all these entities like a draft of air.
Dimensions have swelled up and industries spit columns of smoke and
hatred. Hating has become a passion so intense that it is burning us with
it. We dress our enemies with silk and cotton, manufacture shoes for their
feet, feed them chestnut paste, burn incense on their altars, provide
salutations, write music for their ears…and then, then…we are either
eaten by them or we lose interest.
The U.S. Government is gathering vital
information about all the country’s dogs. Because citizens are already
being over-processed, many computers are idle and many people out of jobs.
The good government of the people, by the people and for the people, has
decided to become a caring institution for animals, too. It is starting
with dogs. Much research is done on the laws of classification for these
particular creatures. There will be problems with spots and food habits,
but they will be solved as they arise. Cats are waiting for their turn
with the kind of apprehension that Third World populations used to have
when they saw coming towards them the first cameras and tapes carried by
strangers. Doctors are keeping track of viruses and poets of rabbits.
There’s nothing to worry about. All this will make death look merciful.
One day I gave an orange to a monkey and what did he do with it? He ate
it. I was surprised. I expected him to play with it, smell or squeeze it,
thank me for it…I don’t know. Somehow, I was disappointed. I realized
that we, humans, are trained like singing dogs, tamed like dying lions,
programmed to think and hesitate. My monkey took the orange and, in a
moment of perfect intelligence, he ate it.
If the business of life is happiness I will describe for you my linen
sheet: it’s soft and cool, and flexible. I will say it’s friendly.
Friendly to me, and to whoever visits. Then I will look at a wall, a wall
in the desert. You will call it a ruin and I will disagree and the dispute
will shatter our pleasure. In Cash Creek, California, the river is young
and capricious. It talks to the sky, envelops young girls with its curls,
arouses young men with its smoothness. There, in Yosemite, the deer rest a
knowing eye on the ferns. The snow is a protective blanket, until the sun
comes out again and is amazed by all that white beauty. But in some
places, like Nebraska, people burn their clothing out of boredom. They
haven’t moved far enough West.
His name was Charles, and he disliked his name. He called himself
Peter. Peter? Petering? Saint Peter’s? It was his uncle who had named
him Charles, after his own grandfather. Unsure of the fitness of the name,
Peter took another one: Vassili. When people started addressing him in
Greek he felt embarrassed; he couldn’t go to Russia for a similar
reason. He also thought that the United States was big enough in which to
disappear…. As he loved Beethoven, he re-christened himself Ludwig, with
But it turned out that his neighbor, who had grown up in East Germany,
was originally called “Ludwig,” but on naturalization day, had chosen
“Charles” for his new, American, self. The postman confused the two
Charleses. Charles the first, who kept getting mail in his old name, grew
paranoic: he feared losing his girlfriend to this other Charles, who, he
thought, was responsible for the problem…. He went back to calling
himself Vassili. Now, thinking he was a Russian immigrant, nobody talked
to him. As a good Catholic he went to St. Peter’s Church in Santa
Monica, where he had moved a while ago. The ocean was beautiful in his
neighborhood, with its blue lines and white hair. Somehow, though,
everything was upside down in his life. His anger and his confusion caused
him to lose his job at the garage where he had been a specialist in brakes
and transmissions. Eventually, like many other people on that particular
day, he died. A cousin paid for a tomb. They had to inscribe his name on
the marble head-stone, and there were many family discussions over the
phone. So, to find peace, they decided to inscribe on the grave marker:
“Here lies Ludwig Vassili Peter Charles Gregory-Smith.” The
Gregory-Smiths had come from Uptown, Delaware. Our man was the only one of
that name who had ever reached California.
On television, the model of D.N.A. looks like a
simple design made of two copper wires, twisted gracefully. Could it be
that Shakespeare rose out of such a configuration of electrons? And what
about Egypt? Do countries rise from hidden forms, and can it be that, when
the forms are twisted wrongly, there are wars, massacres, collective
hallucinations? We will find out. Everything will be found out, explained
and discarded. I wish that the breeze, the warm and low desert wind, the
sand dunes with ripples remain, with the sun very low, either at dawn or
Every time the year makes a full turn, it’s April, squeezed between
two interesting months. Sausalito’s weather, in April, is indecisive:
the ocean gets to be fluorescent in a maddening way, and the mountain
remains green, bottle-green, a color in which there’s a memory of
yellow. The weather is not dramatic. It’s rather tuned to the American
sense of comfort. It is not balmy, not yet: never in April. It is a month
that slides through our fingers.
But in Greece, it’s something else. Everything in Greece happens
outside the rest of the world, probably because it’s there that Christ
is resurrected for real. And he brings back with him an ecstasy of marine
colors, of silvery clouds, fragrances from the days of the gods, and a lot
of candles for the fingers of unsuspecting children.
When we don’t know simple things, such as why flowers grow secretly,
we divert our attention to beaches. Then, having exhausted the
possibilities of these flat surfaces – not so flat, not so bumpy – our
mind wavers, floats over undefined terrains and, most often not landing
anywhere, returns to its seat and habitat just to discover that new ideas
are waiting for their turn to take off.
I go often to Rodeo Beach (which for decades I called Cronkite Beach),
watch the little ducks and leave them to their destiny, and listen to the
ocean. Oceans are the kind of place I would inhabit (but if I had been a
whale it must have been light-years ago), so I stand, sometime hurting,
and face the waves. The wind plays its games with the pelicans, and the
red-wing black birds sound their little trumpets. They greet each other
with an effervescence which enchants the hour. But nowhere as by an ocean
does Time speed by. Everything is in constant, visible change. There’s
more than color to such an environment: there is our desire to embrace the
emptiness which shelters all these events. But that “emptiness” is
immense. So we lie on the beach, talk to it, kiss it…grains of sand try
to find their way into our mouths. We spit them out.
A visitor to Sausalito may very well be impressed by a billboard with a
big eye on it, informing him that he just crossed into a nuclear-free
zone. Would that quiet his fears? Does it mean that, if and when the
Golden Gate Bridge is reduced to a memory, fall-out will stay away from
our hills? A few Unitarian ladies whom I know pretty well believe in the
power of the will. They’re luckier than I am. In the meantime the police
are chasing rabbits away from gardens, because the cops consider them a
serious traffic hazard. In general, the police are rather decent. In the
few decades I’ve lived in this town, they have killed but one person:
they chased a young man out from the Seven-Eleven store and shot him down.
He was holding in his hand a chocolate bar that he had just purchased.
Oh yes! That very same institution which protects the (smug) residents
of Sausalito harasses the most interesting man I know in the area: My
friend Ross, who lives a few streets down the hill from my house and to
the north. He’s a veteran of the Korean War from which he returned
broken, in fact shattered. A woman took him in, turned him into a
craftsman, like herself, and together they made local history. Their big
shack became the rallying point for many painters and a few stray writers.
There was pride in being there.
That place has retained its magic although inhabited by an absence.
Eileen died twenty-five years ago. The same friends still come to see
Ross, sit around the same table, and think of her. We go there to bring
Eileen to life in our imagination. I can watch Ross stir up big logs in
the formidable iron stove. What I really see is Eileen’s gaze when he
was doing exactly that, when he was building a fire not only in the stove
but in her body and her mind.
He’s still somewhat like a vulnerable Hemingway, an old leftist with
guns in one of the cupboards, a pacifist who would kick, as he repeats it,
the teeth out of America’a military. While he’s probably the last old
adolescent speaking from the sixties, he does invest some money in
mutual funds to make sure that his dwelling will not go without repairs. A
craftsman he remains, but Eileen’s unfired last pots and plates keep
gathering dust. He continues to make his own ceramic vases, and sculptures
inspired by China, making the old Chinese surfaces of smoothened buddhas…but
he remains best at growing salads, onions, raising a few chickens in his
lush garden. When Eileen was around, he used to paint on her pots
frolicking baby elephants, long-eared rabbits, or deer. She used to look
at his incredibly blue eyes and hear his Lincoln, Kansas, stories…. The
one he repeats most often is how, at eleven or twelve, he accompanied his
grandpa in the robbery of a grave; how grandpa, like a skilled dentist,
pulled a gold-covered tooth out of a dead man’s mouth. When he
pronounces the mythic word ‘Kansas’ he stands with legs apart and
torso slightly forward, as if to say that that’s where America’s
center of gravity is to be found.
Ross drinks and laughs, and people around him become alcoholics; but as
they have already lived a long life, who can blame them? Russell Chatham,
indeed, of his generation the greatest painter of the West, a champion of
fly-fishing and of writing about fly-fishing, used to come and sit at that
rectangular table, which wine has stained and thinned down the years, and
serve up his own catch of salmon with a laughter echoing Ross’s….
Eileen’s blue stoneware pots are always filled with the garden’s
apples and pears, a few lemons hiding among them: Russell has some in
Montana, Bill and Sally took theirs to Somocolonia, in Tuscany, Tom
regularly eats his corn flakes in them, and Arden as regularly fears
breaking one… Mine are in this house which faces the mountain, they are
in a closet and in my memory, where they live with Eileen, who made them;
and Ross is in Portugal this summer, drinking, sometimes falling, has been
working for the last three years on a sculpture representing Vasco da Gama,
which he wants to offer to the little town by the Atlantic where he makes
his alternate home, now that he doesn’t anymore go to Morelia, Mexico,
because, as he says a few times a year, that’s the place where Eileen
took him for their wedding.
Houses are made of windows held standing by walls. All kinds of things
enter not through doors but through windows wide open on a clear sky. That’s
the way Gabriel came in to scare the Virgin. It was not, though, on a
Halloween night… Jesus was born, and not yet born, and Mary was
confused. Fra Angelico lived next to windows, celestial ones. He framed
them with gold and took the walls away. He left shimmering lights with
patches of pure red. Balls of fire and crowns made of diamonds bring their
own light to his paintings; that is, if we can call the apparitions that
he makes visible, ‘works of art.’ They are not due to artifice but to
secret forces of nature, those we seldom deal with. His angels play
trumpets while we think that we are listening to Pergolesi. These trumpets
are angelic toys. Their sound comes through my window and becomes a breeze
on my face when I lie, in spring, in some room away from my usual home and
hometown. To one’s innocence Fra Angelico brings his breath and gently
puts out the candles. Then, the sun shines with restrained benevolence.
On Sundays, there are no government meetings, no declarations of war,
and, in some cities, no buses.
As we are products of a family, we feel compelled to talk about it in
order to define ourselves. It’s just a habit. That’s probably why I
watch intensely movies about animals. The animals I like to watch are
usually monkeys, tigers, lions, elephants, whales and dolphins. Each of
these has characteristics I would have loved to have. They represent the
possibilities of Being distributed among the whole animal species. But on
a day I will never forget I saw on my television chimpanzees climb trees
and jump from branches to branches. The particular light of the moment in
which they had been filmed imparted a sense of unreality. It was as if
acting were involved…and I started thinking that soon, when human
behavior will be responsible for the disappearance of most of the animals
that live on earth, ‘scientists’ or ‘artists’ will replace them
with virtual animals, so that we will have holograms of lions in the zoos,
three-dimensional elephants in the movies, with dangers included…,
rubber whales in museums and dolphin-like illusions performing in the sea.
I shivered, suffered an incredible bout of anguish, felt bitterness on my
tongue and weight in my limbs. I have the firm belief – and that
contributes to my chronic insomnia – that it’s already late if we want
to avoid the disasters that we are preparing for ourselves.
Why is there sadness in the idea of education? We are creating new
coercive dogmas and new idols. But, some would say, there are the poets!
Yes, there are the poets and there are the readers, and the dreamers, and
the lovers…and they constitute the new continents to be discovered.
He was chaotic: he used to forget his name and tell people he was a
baron; and when they wanted to know from which estate he came, he would
answer, in his Greek accent, that he was German. He would embark on a
winding description of the Rhine’s southern trajectory and then forget
the names of the cities the river was supposed to cross. He did, once,
convincingly, explain why his Greek island was green in all seasons. We
did see pictures of his mother and two sisters, but as nothing was written
on the back of the photographs, we had no reason either to believe him or
dismiss everything he said. His hair was never combed. My impression was
that he always slept on his left side, because of so many things…. He
was not cross-eyed, no, but his eyes were, each, looking at a different
distance. They gave a dreamy look to his face which endeared him to women.
He loved women, he used to say, but he spent his days with young men,
playing billiards in Alexandria. At least, that’s what he told me. When
I tried to speak Greek with him he answered that he didn’t understand
the language, and when I showed surprise he laughed, beautifully, and said
that he had had a nanny from Smyrna who had given him her own accent when
he was a child, and that the accent had never left him. His English was
Shakespearean and his French from Marseilles and Nice. We saw him spend
money but he never invited any of us to dinner.
You could see her from any street, through different angles, and then
let yourself go to your dreams. They used to come from afar just to spend
a few hours with her. In non-airconditioned cafes, I spent hours looking
at her through the windows, contemplating her beauty which belonged to a
realm of being all her own. In the summers I would go down a winding
street and then reach her and, taking off my clothes in a tall and narrow
cabin, would enter her and swim.
I find apples in the market of any city that I visit. I find them also
in contemporary paintings, or notice their ominous presence in Renaissance
murals and tapestries…. Who chose that round and fragrant fruit to
signify sin? It’s unforgivable. Some sadistic person must have decided
to spoil our pleasure, for ever, for an apple tree is the king of trees.
Apples hang like little green worlds and, sometimes, when we come too
close, they blush. In the spring, their costume of flowers replaces,
advantageously, the melting snow. My familiarity with them started in the
hidden paradise that the Barada Valley used to be, west of Damascus.
Nobody will ever find it, not even on a map, for the little village of
Bassimeh had a few houses made of bricks, with dusty floors; and there was
almost no visibility, even during the day, for the valley’s bed is made
of the river and is a torrent in winter, a dry bed in summers…. The
children used little stones for toys, and they hit each other with those
tiny weapons until a ‘grown-up’ would show up and stop the games. My
uncle owned a piece of land which was either flooded or dying of thirst,
and he felt happier there than anywhere else in the world. So did I. In a
corner of that land covered with the river’s sound, there were a few
apple trees that he called an orchard. And that place was my own paradise.
There’s a church which isn’t a church, with paintings which aren’t
paintings, and, if I hadn’t found my paradise already as a child, I
would consider that church to be a place of ultimate ecstasy. I discovered
it at random. From the railway station I was heading for Padua; the
baggage felt heavy and the hour non-descript, so I entered a church I had
just noticed, just to kill time. It was Giotto’s Chapel. Instead of
being ‘killed,’ Time was resurrected as a sacred visual poem, as I
entered that blue heaven with its buzzing angels and its imminent day of
Judgement. My day of Judgement had arrived in that Chapel of the Scrovegni
and I was saved.
When would some anarchy ever erupt in this chartered, measured, and
parceled world where living has become theatre? Of course, there’s
misery, plenty of it, in countries of the southern latitudes, with ways
unacceptable to Paris, barely tolerated in London, nonexistent in Mexico….
But misery does not create creative chaos; on the contrary, it dreams of
order, rows of bread, straight lines of water, well-defined bank accounts.
I will need the primeval chaos that spat out stones in the
Mediterranean or gave such an energy to the Indians of the Americas that
they ran from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic as if they were on an
extended promenade. To think, think, and why? My friend Bob knows only
what his owl tells him, and Joanne Kyger discovers every morning the
existence of a world devoid of questions.