Friday, July 30

Four Rivers

Riverside — © Andrea Orioli at

Rumi says …
A lover has four streams inside,
of water, wine, honey, and milk
I know, for my love is four rivers.
I have swum their currents,
rested and slept on her shores.

On the breasts banking the river colostrum
mauve founts spray drops of ambrosial light
and starbursts curdle in the milky way.

The river melliflu rolls and sings
in her humming wax throat,
pistil lips pollinated by a twilight kiss
bear my swelling nightfall sting
and whisper blossoms in the honey melon morn.

Succulent banks of the river vulva,
grooved channel of wine where lips
squeeze grapes and drip their juice
on sleeping oysters.

From the banks of the river virga,
her eyes watch like fruit hanging
from plum trees planted in a gentle rain,
plums that know the minutiae
and minuets of morning dew,
the penetralia of upstream waters,
the fate of the moon flicked raindrops that fill
my begging bowl with their silver glint.
                      © Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow

Drinking from the Holy River — © Mitchell Kanashkevich at

I will be away for a few days. Vacation time. My rivers and me are going to look for a fine summer spot to do some serious skinny dipping … or plump plum plucking ... or some such fun. I'll see you all on my return.

Friday, July 23

We'll be seeing you around, Barry ...

Barry in a meditative moment
Yesterday brought the dreaded news that our dear blog friend, Barry Fraser, intrepid explorer of myriad marvels and pains of life, has passed away. Although we all knew this was a harshly real and perhaps imminent possibility, word of Barry's death comes as a shock nonetheless and packs a painful wallop, somewhat softened by the beautiful and courageous way in which his wife, Linda, broke the news on Barry's blog yesterday. Thank you, Linda. The calm and tender bravery of your message, the refusal to give cancer or death dominion, and the forward-looking plans on a simple rite to remember Barry are stirring and ring so true to the spirit he evinced throughout this ordeal.

Some of you have been following Barry's blog, An Explorer's View of Life, since before he was diagnosed with cancer back in March 2009. I first 'met' him in February of this year as part of what quickly grew into a worldwide bell-chiming campaign to celebrate the end of his chemotherapy sessions (for more on that ritual click here). I was very new to blogging at that time (a couple of months) and the experience opened my eyes to how powerful and meaningful blogging could be as a means of developing a caring community of friends. Real friends, not virtual buddies. Genuine and raw feelings, not cyber emotions. The outpouring of affection and support for Barry was stunning and inspiring. Overwhelming was perhaps the word he used most often to describe the effect on him.

And was it all for naught? That is the cruel and vexing question posed by his passing just a few short months later. You may rush to remind me, and rightly so, that the answer is no, that compassion, friendship and generosity are never futile or vain or wasted. But when we hear this grim bell tolling its wretched knell, that uncouth question clangs heavily in the air and clings to our thoughts about our own lives and destinies as well. I would like to find and offer lofty words to beat back that stupid question, but forgive me if for this one sullen moment I merely acknowledge its presence. The bell's peal will fade, I know, and fatten the silence left by many others.

The death of a friend sends us on a punishing and lonely climb up a mountain of memories suddenly heaved up at a crazy angle, crowned by the foreboding ridge of death that overhangs our ascent in its cruel shadow. To mourn is to scale that last vertical bluff before the summit, the toughest part of our journey. But once we manage to reach the crest and turn our pained eyes and hearts away from the cliff face to see the landscape of our friend's life stretch out before us, our fatigue is lightened and we know the painful climb was necessary to bring the fullness of vision only won atop such summits.

So what can we see in the landscape of Barry's life? What do I see in the blogscape he has left us? I see a tender, warm-hearted and friendly storyteller, graced with wit, a probing curiosity, a gentle self-deprecating humor and a generous heart. Whether teaming up with Linda to share a bit of lore about his local community on their Friday My Home Town Shoot Out blog, or narrating family history or recalling his grandfather on a Sepia Saturday, he was always a fascinating raconteur. Although the ravages of the disease took a brutal toll on his body, he had the game spirit to keep on blogging nearly every day. And his writing was almost always upbeat, with a striking absence of morosity, self-pity or bewailing his fate. While many of us will whine about writer's block or the frustrations and rigors of getting published or how harried work and home lives leave little time or peace of mind for writing, he just kept writing to share his thoughts with his blog friends.

On some days his blog completely ignored the disease. One fine example was the delight he could take in an unexpected moment shared with some blue jays on his back deck. A simple epiphany of sorts. And when he did discuss the worsening developments on the medical front, he was able to coax a laugh out of dire situations that would simply crush less hardy spirits, like finding humor in the semantic nuances of "palliative care" or drolly boasting that he had become a veritable industry when describing the entire community of doctors, nurses, and caregivers assembled around him just to keep him going. How fitting it seems that he began his very last post, written just four days before he stopped breathing, by saying "Today I flew" in a joking reference to the hoist used at the hospital to get him into his new wheel chair.

Rumi wrote that the dead grieve not for their deaths, but for the way they lived. I do not know what griefs or grievances Barry may have taken with him. I trust they are few and light to bear, that they will not burden his flight. He is a man who has brought much love and light to his family and friends and to our blog community, where he will be dearly missed. We have been fortunate to bear witness to a life well lived, to have been fellow travellers on some of his explorations.

Lindsay on a wooded path. All photos from Barry's blog.

Barry, I'd like to think that you are still exploring ... just up the road a piece, a road that all of us will travel. Your beloved dog Lindsay will scamper up the trail after you. The rest of us will dawdle and linger a while longer on the path, so excuse us if we take our own sweet time before joining you. It is not that we don't miss you, it's just that we are so enjoying our journey here, in large part because it has been made ever richer by the likes of you.

Fly in peace ...

Monday, July 12

Tomatoes at dawn

Voice of the Nightingale — La Voix du Rossignol
(1923 film by Wladyslaw Starewicz)

You stay with me, Larry. You can carry the basket. I’ll hold the tomatoes in my apron like the little chickens in the henhouse and then you put them in the basket. When it’s full, carry it to Ramón … he’ll box them at the end of every row and pile up the boxes on the donkey cart.
Look, that is one is ready. Just right. Pinch the little stem right next to the tomato, just a little pinch and twist, right off the vine. Good! When the tomato is ready, a tiny pinch and twist will do, no need to yank … Doesn’t that smell beautiful? Those are little green sighs the plant gives off when you find the tomatoes. That smell is green, a little sour, the way green is. True green. Morning green. Just when you think your nose is so full of the dawn grass and dew and couldn’t possibly hold any more fragrances, you shake the vine and touch the tomato, the leaves sigh, and the air turns green. It caresses your cheeks and floats into your nose, right up to your eyes. Breathe it in. You feel how it gets up there right between your eyes? Keep it there awhile. It’s better than coffee this early in the morning. And the damper the plants, the more that fragrance will stay with you. Yes, pinch right there, see? … Right between your green eyes.
Look how they hide under the leaves. Look for them with your hands, shake the vines a bit. That’s it, gentle but don’t be afraid… brush the leaves like you want to tickle them. They laugh and they sigh. We can’t hear them, but our noses can. That’s the way. Good.

Don’t worry about the water, the wetter the better. Dew on glorious days like this is medicine. A tweeting bird told me just before sunup that today was a magnificent day for finding the best tomatoes. The very first thing I saw when I woke up was a nightingale on my bedpost. Singing! Singing for me. He was looking right at me and singing. You know, I said “good morning little mister singing bird”, and he didn’t get frightened or fly away. No, the tiny thing just kept warbling his morning song. And when he was finished, I laughed and hummed a lullaby, an old Asturian lullaby that I used to sing to your mother. The same one I sang to you the other night, the one with the great big crashing thunderbolts when we played games with the candle shadows. Remember? And he stayed there while I hummed. Then he chirped some more and we did a chorus together. When we were done, l laughed and clapped. He took a little bow right there on the bedpost, very respectful, a real gentleman, and then he flew out the balcony. Just flitted away in a blink. So I knew today was special and we had to come. I told your Tía Tutul, “María Jesús, we have to go down to the patch right now with Larry and his cousins and pick tomatoes today”. We can have breakfast afterwards … A glorious day.

This is like playing hide and go seek with the tomatoes, except they really want you to find them. They’re just playing. The leaves aren’t as happy when you find the fruit, but they understand that the tomatoes have to go. It’s not a bitter sigh, just a bit of farewell sorrow laced into the sweet laughs. Just make sure you tickle them. Now the tomatoes definitely want you to find them. They fill up with the sun all day and with the night air and the morning mist and they get so red and plump and full of themselves that they’re near to bursting. And they will if we don’t find them. They’re so plump and proud … they’re just playing silly when they hide. I bet the tastiest ones are the worst hiders.

Now smell your hands. What do you feel? Promise me you won’t forget that smell all day, even when the sun is higher and hotter. You can sigh it out the rest of the day, little by little, breath by breath, tomato by tomato. Then at lunch when you meet that green perfume again in your salad, your smile will say “Hello mister green air and plump red tomato, I know you!” and I’ll see it in your smile. Promise me, alright? I’ll be watching … and I’ll give you a wink.
When you write home later, tell your mom you got up early with abuela today and came to play hide and go seek with the tomatoes down in the north patch just past the apple orchard. She’ll remember that. Oh yes, she’ll remember that. There are days when it seems they all want to be found at the same time… caress and tickle those leaves … she’ll remember. Gentle, don’t squish. Good, good.
No, not yet. Those aren’t ready, but you’ve got a good eye, they will be soon. Tomorrow or the next day, we’ll get them then. They could win a prize. They’re bigger than your hand. Bigger than my hand. Bigger than Ramón’s hand! Remember the spot. Remember.
Our daughter María writing her memoirs at the age of two in Mareo (1995)

This piece is for this week willow’s magpie tales prompt on “tomatoes”. It is inspired by the memories of early mornings picking tomatoes at Mareo, my grandmother’s farm in northern Spain on my first summer there at the age of 11, a summer that changed my world and life. The fantasy world abuela created for me and her six children and large and loving brood of grandchildren and great grandchildren is still very much with me, and I continue reaping those tomatoes and recollections today. The German poet Rilke once wrote something to the effect that the genuine homeland of every man is his childhood. This is the only kind of 'patriotism' I practice. The only one nightingales sing of in the sleepless dawn.

Abuela — four generations illuminated
by Saint John Eve's bonfire (1979)
This memory stroll back to the tomato patch has touched off a gentle riot of reminiscing about the farm … the barn where we sometimes slept as an adventure on full-moon nights … gathering hay and riding the hay wagon … milking cows brought warms squirts of fresh milk arcing to splash teeth, lips and cheeks and run down my chin … the apple orchard was my preferred reading room, I would climb up an apple tree and spend afternoons reading there …

Abuela sunning herself on the terrace.
One of my last photos of her.
 I think I will make this the first in a series …

To see what other magpie tales participants have done with their tomatoes click here.

Wednesday, July 7

I write what I feel to lower the fever of feeling

Fernando Pessoa (Lisbon poet, 1888-1935)
What could anyone confess that would be worth anything or serve any useful purpose? What has happened to us has either happened to everyone or to us alone; if the former it has no novelty value and if the latter it will be incomprehensible. I write down what I feel in order to lower the fever of feeling. What I confess is of no importance because nothing is of any importance. I make landscapes out of what I feel. I make a holiday of sensation. I understand women who embroider out of grief and those who crochet because life is what it is.
— Fernando Pessoa

I live in my wife's hometown of Albacete, a small provincial capital in the region of central Spain known as La Mancha, in the middle of Don Quijote country. The name comes from the Arabic al basit, meaning flatlands. And that about summarizes it: a rather nondescript modern city, with little in the way of the charming old quarters, monuments and buildings associated with most of the country's other historic provincial capitals. No complaints; it is a comfortable easygoing place to raise our daughters, and we have been living quite well here since transplanting ourselves many years ago from Madrid, which is around 150 miles away.

Ah, Madrid, I could go on and on (and probably will). Together with New York, it is the city that best defines me, and generously hosted a long happy stretch of my life. María and I met in Madrid and still spend much time there, prowling museums, parks, plazas and restaurants, always happy to revisit the many years we lived there. But today I wanted to introduce you, briefly, to a village called El Griego, around 35miles south of Albacete. A hamlet, really, with no more than a dozen homes nestled in la sierra, the hills, amongst pine trees, almond and olive groves. We had a house built there ten years ago and it is my preferred spot in the world for long hikes, barbecues, star gazing, mountain biking and luxuriously long lunches and endless wine-doused evening conversations with our good friends there.

Yours truly, biking in El Griego last winter
One day this past spring, I took an early morning walk through some olive groves at El Griego. While foraging for I know not what inspiration amongst the sturdy gnarled trees, I tore open a large succulent orange. Immediately the misty dawn air became alive with the pungent fragrance of the orange. I was struck by the contrast between the crisp tangy scent of my morning fruit and the soft muffled mist air of the olive grove. And so ...

I know the tangy scent of orange peels
released into the cradling mist as bells.
I learn how distant a lover’s echo feels
as I call down the bottomless old well.
A secret roams the ancient olive grove
and whistles absence in the morning wind.
As rainclouds gather strands that songbirds wove,
alone, I sing off-key of love untwined.

No fruit in my song, no water down the well;
only the whispery wings of a turtledove
disturb some leaves and stir the pungent knell
to join the matin carillon above.

No ringing peal to mark my passing times,
today is only tolled by citrus chimes.
© Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow

Brian Miller, Leslie Moon and Peter Marshall have started a new blog called One Stop Poetry. One of their featured activities is One Shot Wednesday, a place where poets can meet and share their poems. Visit them to see other poems linked to the site this week.

The Pessoa quote is from The Book of Disquiet (published by Serpent's Tail, 1991, translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
Gratitude: Thanks to Ruth at synch-ro-ni-zing for your kind help and input on this poem
Bashful disclaimer: There really are turtledoves at our house in the sierra. After all, who but a fevered romantic could put one into a poem like this if there were not?

Thursday, July 1

A stroll in Madrid

Under a sycamore tree
a garland of six teenage girls
slung around a sidewalk bench
are practicing skittish dance steps.
They peer over,
ponder and ignore me
as I wander by
on my tightening drumhead.

Suddenly …

There is someone wildly happy in me.
Don’t know who he might be, he left no name.
It’s not me shaking the lovesome tree,
but I am so full and glad of him just the same.
© Lorenzo — Alchemist’s Pillow