“Late in her life, when we fell in love
I’d take her out from the nursing home
for a chaser and two bourbons. She’d crack
a joke sharp as a tin lid
hot from the teeth of the can-opener,
and cackle her crack-corn laugh…”
Poem by Sharon Olds, Grandmother Love Poem
I prefer prose to poetry, but Sharon Olds puts words into my mouth like foreign foods. I don’t know if it is animal or plant, but I know it is good, it is so perfectly right. Reading her poems is like recognizing the half of me that only I know about. That inner self held tight, held down, held hidden from the surface of proper behavior.
After the Rape in Our Building
“The day after we heard about it,
We made love, in the morning, he entered me
And I thought, It’s not so bad, I could hardly feel anything,
Just something hard going in and out of me
Somewhere far away down my body
Like something seen from a distance, an ocean liner
Going down twenty miles away…”
Olds is strong, she is direct, she “carries the reader through rooms of passion and loss”. A lot has been written about Sharon Olds, that she has a raw language, that she transmits truths about violence, and sexuality, and relationships in families. For me she illuminates places most of us keep comfortably dim or covered, so they seem not to exist.
Sharon Olds’s jolting images heighten my creativity. There is an emotional beauty in her chilling tragedies. She infuses evil and cruelty in the secret corners of her poems. We understand that her childhood was very painful, but what an invincible spirit!
“My bad grandfather wouldn’t feed us.
He turned the lights out when we tried to read.
He sat alone in the invisible room
in front of the hearth, and drank. He died
when I was seven, and Grandma had never once
taken anyone’s side against him,
the firelight on his red cold face
reflecting extra on his glass eye.
Today I thought about that glass eye,
and how at night in the big double bed
he slept facing his wife, and how the limp
hole, where his eye had been, was open
towards her on the pillow, and how I am
one-fourth him, a brutal man with a
hole for an eye, and one-fourth her,
a woman who protected no one. I am their
sex, too, their son, their bed, and
under their bed the trap-door to the
cellar, with its barrels of fresh apples, and
somewhere in me too is the path
down to the creek gleaming in the dark, a
way out of there.”
Sharon Olds is a stunning poet who speaks to me. I have all of her books which I read often. And each time her words, coming from a place that is real, and opaque, and dark, give me clarity. She makes me want to paint, because my brushes are what I have. Her words are my colors, her images are my dreams.
“As we made love for the third day,
cloudy and dark, as we did not stop
but went into it and into it and
did not hesitate and did not hold back we
rose through the air, until we were up above…
…on the crest of the mountains, one huge
cloud with scalloped edges of blazing
evening light, we did not turn back,
we stayed with it, even though we were
far beyond what we knew, we rose
into the grain of the cloud, even though we were
frightened, the air hollow, even though
nothing grew there, even though it is a
place from which no one has ever come back.”
She takes me to that place, then she releases me.
A doorway in Rome, Italy
Painting has always been my own particular potential. For 30 years, I lived for painting, obsessed with it. When I was not painting I was daydreaming about images, composing them in my head. I painted all the time, alongside cooking the meals, helping the kids with their homework and during our constant moves from one country to another. To sleep among my paintings was beautiful, so I could see them first thing as I woke up.
The porch at my old house in Washington, D.C.
Everything about painting excited me: The smell of turpentine. Forming the shapes on the canvas bit by bit. The triumph of finishing a painting, and hanging it on a wall. Seeing it becoming infused with the life I gave it and then giving it a name.
"Private Pleasures", at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
I am a realist painter. I paint what interests me. Everyday objects. People. Interiors. Landscapes. Fruits and vegetables. Beautiful things and scary thoughts. Every painting is my composition of photo images from many different places and times, and persistent thoughts that result in a different story for each viewer. I love letting people tell stories to themselves.
Mint tea on a Portuguese verandah.
In the 80’s and 90’s realist painting was unfashionable. If you painted beautiful objects, you were labeled square, conventional and traditional by critics who wanted to see the abstract or the outrageous. The public was told to believe that “art” was only far out and extreme forms – and done by artists that the critics approved. Yes, art, like all culture, is also political. But not everyone follows what critics recommend. Nearly every painting I did was bought almost before it was finished.
Several reflections of my daughter.
It takes me a long time to complete a painting. I have never been able to do more than about 12 large paintings a year. The image of what I want to do usually forms slowly in my mind – often over months or years. But sometimes it bursts out fully developed like Zeus from the head of Athena. When the images are clear, I sketch the thinnest of lines on the canvas, notations only. Color is my guide. The images take shape with paint and color. If there is a central figure, I paint that face first. If I get it right, I know the rest of the painting will fall into place. Weeks later, when I am finishing the last details of the painting and cannot bear to be in front of it any longer, the release of completing it is total. I have been called an aesthete. So be it. I always thought that if I could add a touch of beauty to the world – and still touch on every story -- what was wrong with hat?
A chapel window in Sintra, Portugal.
The above is a reflection on my very first entry when I started blogging in June. Now I’m back in the studio, sorting out my next painting, so I wanted to show you some earlier ones.
An old coach entrance to a building in Madrid.
But the other reason for bringing up painting is that I decided to recognize some of the very talented people I have come across in the three months I have been blogging. I call this recognition “Moonlight”. I have been puzzling about the image and here is the final result of a number of sketches.
Moonlight in this case represents the glorious brain-sharpening, mood-enhancing experience one feels when reading or seeing something inspirational in other blogs. Something that sets the tone for the rest of your day, puts a smile on your face, stimulates your work, or makes you feels awesome about life. It is not often one feels wonderful. But some days, some blogs do just that.
I want to give “moonlights” to all the special blogs I encounter.
There are no obligations attached to the recognition. But if you feel like it, you can pass it on to whoever has also given you that something special, what in Spanish they call “eso”, or “it”. Whatever “it” is that lifts your spirits and helps you to up your mental game.
”Moonlights” go to three talented artists I very much admire.
These “moonlights” go to wonderful photographers:
“Moonlights” for wonderful people with a lot of pluck:
“Moonlights” for blogs that delight me:
In the future I will be handing out more “moonlights” to other bloggers who inspire me.
It took us 4 days to reluctantly depart from Nuno’s place in northern Alentejo. For privacy reasons, I did not photograph any of the people invited – except for a fleeting image of Jeanne – or his house. But I had free reign to photograph any detail.
The days were a constant swirl of activity. Nuno pulled out all the stops. The food was earthy, country elegant and wonderful. September is vindima time in the northern Alentejo, and the grapes were being harvested for Nuno’s limited production organic wine. We rode in calèches and took long walks in the country side. There was horseback riding for the aficionados, exciting conversations, music, and last but not the least, all eyes were on Jeanne and Nuno.
Luisa, the pretty maid, seeing us go on another outing.
Our dog Maxi loved the freedom.
The vindima workers.
Forget about cars. Caleches are the way to move around.
The children from Nuno's school watching a puppet show.
Meals were always in different settings. Breakfasts on the terrace, lunches on elegantly set tables among the trees, dinners in the main dining room or on the porch, picnics under the cork oaks, elevenses. We did not stop eating. Guida prepared fantastic meals with vegetables and herbs from the house garden and meat from the farm’s chickens and sheep. We ate Sável from the nearby river. Sinful and divine desserts. The food was typically Portuguese country and finger licking delicious.
Breakfast on the terrace.
A hearty vegetable soup.
Guida's pasteis de nata, the typical Portuguese cream confection.
Freshly baked chicken empadas.
Fresh Alentejo tomato soup, made with requeijao, a rich cottage cheese.
Chicken in a red wine sauce.
An orange flan
Nuno’s passion, the Lusitanian horses, are magnificent, regal, symbols of the eternal. They are beautifully proportioned, holding their heads high as if to be crowned. I just stared from a distance. I know nothing about horses, but anyone can see that these are superior animals, made to be ridden by the greater gods of Ancient Greece.
Jeanne and Nuno, what can I say? Nuno is completely smitten by her, and I think Jeanne is equally over the moon. In fact she stayed on in the Alentejo, and Nuno will be driving her to the airport when she returns to Paris. Are they going to get together and live happily ever after? I doubt it. Nuno loves his place and is not a moveable beast. Jeanne loves her life and I doubt she is about to give up her profession and freedom. But I think their romance will continue, in the Alentejo, in Paris, or anywhere they arrange to meet.
With dusk creeping a little nearer every day and August coming to an end, we gave a last dinner party before closing up the house and heading back to Madrid. We invited six friends, who met each other for the first time.
Sofia and Duarte, architects in Maputo, on holiday around Europe.
Jeanne, a “musicienne” from Paris, here on holiday.
Patricia, an Argentine yoga and meditation teacher recently moved to Portugal.
Nuno, a land owner in the Alentejo, and an inveterate bachelor.
Miguel, a Portuguese journalist just back from the US who came without his wife.
Us, Celeste and Bob.
With this highly diverse group, the conversation was eclectic:
M- America is seething with change. It’s the only place I have seen where people walk around with assault rifles outside a war zone. The gun situation is a cancer in America’s society. But it is a country with guts. The deep national debate over health care is amazing, both for the health care mess and for the determination to make it work better.
B- It is an exciting time in America. I think Obama will get health care reform, but the vested interests are strong and they are making it as costly as possible for him.
S- And with Fox News and other radical Republicans constantly breathing down Obama’s neck, criticizing, spinning, doing everything to make Obama have a political failure, it takes real steel to prevail.
D- But Obama is doing so much right. Africa is waking up to America again. My God! Bush was so incompetent. It is so important to the rest of the world to have a good American President. His color matters for some things, but when it comes to his intellect he is universal.
J- You are so turned to America and I am so involved with Portugal! Today I visited the Palácio da Fronteira. Il est d’une telle beauté, so beautiful. I was completely taken by its fabulous collection of azulejos.
C- There’ s a book in French, “La Frontière”, with the story of “le bestière”, those bizarre animals from the XVIII century painted on the azulejos.
P- I heard Maria João Pires play Beethoven’s Fourth Piano concert there. I remember being completely taken by the atmosphere in the palace, and this fragile woman at the piano, entranced and precise.
J- I played Schumann’s Piano Quintet with Maria João, inoubliable!, an unforgettable experience for me.
D- That’s what we miss most living in Mozambique, the culture, museums, concerts. For instance, to see Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in a scenario like the Regaleira Palace, in Sintra. It worked so well in the garden at night, the island was real amidst the thick foliage.
C- Prospero doing his magic in the mysterious garden, Miranda appearing on the tower, I can’t think of a better background for that play.
D- Living in Maputo is beautiful, but it doesn’t have the intellectual depth of Europe. Will we ever get there?
C- Don’t knock Lourenço Marques. I am who I am today thanks to growing up there. Granted, I am not the same person I was then, even though I thought then was forever.
J- This is a muqueca de camarão we are eating, isn’t it? I remember having it in Salvador de Bahia.
P- Right now I am in Brazilian heaven. Who was the cook?
C- I did it. Is it too spicy?
B- Actually Celeste climbed the tree for the coconut, cracked it open, drank the water, then straddled the coconut stool and rhythmically shredded the flesh. So sexy.
C- I wish I did….
N- (Whispering) Tell me about Jeanne, she is so interesting, is she married?
C- (Whispering) She was married, but going on tournees all the time took its toll, and they separated. I don’t know if she has anyone now. Why don’t you ask her?
J- Dites nous Nuno, tell us what it’s like living in the Alentejo.
N- Mainly, I breed Lusitanian horses, which are bought by Arabs from the Gulf. But my current passion is restoring a fifth century convent I bought with the economic crisis, and I am opening a school for poor, rural children. The school will teach music appreciation, as well as literature, science, mathematics and languages. It would be wonderful if you could do a concert for the kids while you are here.
S- It does help to have the means to do all one wants. It is a different story when you are limited economically like us.
P- That’s not true. Look, I am 54 and own nothing. I left an easy, familiar life in Argentina and I am starting again in another country. I emigrated only with my expertise -- yoga and meditation classes for executives. It helps increase productivity and alertness. I am signing a contract with the telephone company in September to limber up the suits.
J- How about your family in Argentina?
P- The glue that holds a marriage together, sometimes it’s messy and embarrassing, so I cut entirely with the past. I guess you could put my inner age at 18!
C- Here’s to second chances!
S- To leave one’s country with only a dream, and begin again elsewhere at 54, yes, very daring.
M- We all know that success, power, fame, and especially happiness come with expiration dates.
B- Not necessarily. You have to know when to stop and, like Patricia, re-invent yourself.
D- As they say, think globally, live globally.
C- Patricia, why Portugal, why did you leave Argentina to come here?
P- It is an easy country to settle in, and things are going well for me. I may not be here forever. Let’s see what the future holds.
D- I cannot conceive of living outside Maputo, with all its problems, it is the place that makes the most sense for me.
S- Me too.
C- Bob and I like to move and start again. It is a challenge to learn a different language, make a new home, make new friends, plunge deep into a new culture. It keeps us on our toes. We both have portable professions. As long as I have my easel and books and the dog is happy, that’s where home is.
J- Paris is where I always return to, my center of gravity. But I travel constantly for concerts. Ideally I spend half the year in Paris and half on the road.
M- My wife would love to leave Portugal and go live elsewhere, but my work is here with the paper, I have the job I always wanted. I suppose I could take a year off to write. But not yet, maybe in some years.
N- I am perfectly happy in the Alentejo, I am one of those people who don’t travel well. I am like a tree, my roots go deep. When I am in another country I miss my house and my horses, the special smell of the air in the fields, Guida’s delicious cooking. I only travel for music, Prague’s musical festival, operas at La Scala, for me music is the main reason to travel.
P- When are you having a show, Celeste?
C- I am starting a new art project when I return to Madrid. I will be totally involved with it, won’t have much time for blogging or anything else.
B- She has been blogging all summer.
J- C’ est vraie? But you must give me the link.
N- When do you leave for Spain? Would you like to spend the weekend at my place in northern Alentejo? I think you will enjoy the horses, do you like horseback riding?
B- The weekend would be great, on our way back to Madrid.
M- Perfect, I will count on you for lunch on Saturday. It is near Avis, about an hour and a half from here, I’ll email the map with directions.
B- I’ve always wanted to explore that area more.
C- We have our dog with us, is he also invited?
N- Of course. Jeanne would you like to come with Bob and Celeste? It will be another Portuguese experience for you. And of course Patricia, Miguel, Sofia, Duarte, you are also invited.
S- We leave tomorrow for France, but we would love to come another time we are in Portugal. I am crazy about horses too.
P- I am giving a yoga retreat this weekend, too bad.
M- My wife arrives Saturday, maybe another time?
N- Jeanne? I hope you can come.
J- Avec plaisir, but I don’t ride horses.
N- Madame, I will take you in a calèche to see my vineyards. Would you like that?
J- Bien sur!
P- Celeste, tell us about this art project, please.
C- It is too soon to speak about it. I will tell you more when it is underway.
M- Do give me the recipe for the muqueca, I want to cook it for my wife, she loves everything spicy and exotic.
C- I will post it on the blog.
Muqueca de Camarão (for 8 people)
3 tablespoons Dendê oil (red palm oil, a staple in Brazilian cuisine)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 ½ cups coconut milk (bottled or canned)
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 large tomatoes peeled seeded and chopped
Salt and fresh red cayenne pepper
2 lbs of peeled shrimp
Bunch of coriander, chopped
Heat the dendê oil, and softly cook the onion and garlic until translucid. Add the salt, lime juice, tomatoes and cayenne. When barely cooked, add the coconut milk. Simmer. After the sauce thickens, add the shrimp for about 3 minutes. Switch off. Let it sit for a while, or better still, cook the muqueca the day before. Then, just before serving, heat it up and add a good amount of chopped coriander. Serve with Basmati rice.