21 February 2011
The 51st day of 2011
This morning the Stone Sage Lion and the rest of the inhabitants of the terrace had changed costumes. Everyone was dressed up in garments made of light snow. It was a frosting of sugar snow, which made one of my favorite trees look like a cupcake with fluffy icing. I asked Susan to take a picture of it when she arrived, before it all vanished.
This is the kind of day that reminds me of a happy time I spent one winter with friends in a Vermont farmhouse. The house was located in the region known as the Northeast Kingdom, an appropriate name, as it is a place unto itself. We spent long hours together interrupted by writing – which was supposed to be the point of our being together in Vermont. However, there were times when the pull of the beauty of that winter, the temptation to venture out for even short walks, and the return to the fireplace and the good food and talk became overly seductive. Perhaps I didn’t accomplish as much as I had hoped but the memory lingers as one of the best winters of my life.
Last week I officially moved into a new home. I name things, or more correctly, I rename them. This home is called From this Terrace. I moved in with the Stone Sage Lion, and my friends and colleagues Susan Springer Anderson, the artist and Michael Markham, actor-artist. However, it is only the Stone Sage Lion who is always with me, as protector and companion. And the home is a virtual one, not a real one. It does not exist anywhere except on my own laptop and on computer screens, laptops and other electronic devices of this 21st century. Moving into this new Internet address made me think quite a bit about what home and hearth mean to me now.
My laptop has become my hearth during these last several years. Many miles separate me from dear friends. My health has kept me from doing much traveling. Work and financial constraints have made it harder for all of us, well and unwell. I’ve missed the kinds of contact and connections that were so present that winter in Vermont. But through email and other offerings of the Internet, I’ve not been alone and not lost touch with others. In some instances, friendships have deepened. During the book tour, signings and lectures that accompanied the publication of Dancing at the River’s Edge, I met many new friends, and they have become an important part of my life. In most cases I won’t see them again. Some of these new friends and I will probably never meet because they live in places as far away as Australia and a few are not well enough to travel at all, or strong enough to accept visitors easily. Yet, these bonds are strong and grow stronger each month. They came into my life through my original website or because they heard a radio program or saw me on television. Then, they Googled me and found out how to reach me.
I will not spend the majority of my life in this 21st century. I am a woman of the 20th century, and perhaps that was a motivation for me to move into a 21st century residence and to invite Michael and Susan to live with me in virtual space. These two much younger friends and collaborators are gifted, energetic and inspiring. And they don’t let me lapse into the habituated attitude – “I just can’t figure out any of this technology stuff. I give up and I’m not trying again.” Slowly I am becoming a part of the century in which they will live most of their lives. They patiently tolerate my need to use 20th century language to describe what we’re doing together in From This Terrace. It is a residence to me and not a website. The terrace is open for visitors and they’ve come and said they’re happy to be “here.” But is “there a there” here? –With apologies to Gertrude Stein who once said of Oakland “there is no there there” – she was wrong about that city which is very real and where I once lived.
But what constitutes the real now? And what is virtual or ephemeral? My dear friend Toni Bernhard, the author of How to Be Sick, is no less essential to my daily rhythms and the hope with which I begin difficult days just because we have not met in person. We have of course met in the ways that matter because we are able to come to one another around the hearth of the 21st century whenever we have the energy. And when one of us is not at the hearth, the other checks in to see how the other is doing, and how we’re feeling and what’s happening. At its very best, that’s what the technology of this second decade of the 21st century offers us. It can bring us together, soul-to-soul, comfort us, and provide a relief from anxiety, isolation or suffering. We can also share our triumphs and I am able to participate in the family rituals of others. My laptop-as-hearth is a place of shared intimacy and community. It is very different from that fireplace in Vermont. However, in the past week since we flung wide the doors to From this Terrace and invited everyone to come and visit I understand that this too is real.
I still hold open the dream that I might return again to a winter like the one I spent in the company of dear friends in the Northeast Kingdom. It was a time of deep communion with one another, making meals together, eating as a family of friends and talking endlessly. Reaching out to touch the arm of a person I loved, laughing about absolutely nothing and absolutely everything. Sleeping in late, to be awakened by the aroma of freshly made coffee and something ludicrously sinful being baked in the oven in an act of grace and love by one of the friends. Each morning we would take our second, or third, cups of coffee and tea, sit around that blazing fire and read what we had written the day before. The criticisms given were constructive, tough but kind. We gave one another what a writer most needs – enough encouragement to give relief that you’re really not writing the sequel to the grammar school primer: SEE SPOT RUN. And a healthy helping of serious analytical and stylistic evaluation that made each of us want to do better work – to move beyond where we had been, and write for the light of day.
The most accomplished and indeed the only truly famous writer in our group had a favorite line about breaking through into new terrain, pushing forward to find a stronger and braver voice as a writer – “take your damn foot off the brake” — his phrase became our communal mantra. We would take leave of the hearth and go forward into the day separately, absolutely alone in the space we had designated as our sacred space and write, well or poorly. But then at the end of the day, we would return to the fire and the warmth of our bonds, talking not of what we had written but of the work of writers we loved, plays we would see a thousand times if we could with a particular cast, movies we hated, or loved.
Too many of the people from that Vermont winter have moved now to addresses where I can’t reach them by any human means, even this technology. But I think of them often as I open up the laptop-hearth and begin my morning ritual of tea and email and then proceed to the work of writing. This isn’t what I do instead of what I did then but it is what I do now because I am enabled by the 21st century and because I am also limited as the years progress, and situations of all sorts constrain and restrain me and my friends, new and old.
As I began to think about the design and construction of my new residence on the web, Michael and I talked about my resistance and finally surrender to the possibilities of this time. He surprised me when he wrote this email to me later:
When you spoke of communication and our heads spinning with all this information I started thinking about my time in South Africa. From the moment our team met to bus out to the campsite– we were singing. We didn’t stop singing until we left. We sang before meals. We sang during meals. We sang around the fire. We beat the ground with our feet. We stretched our hands to the air. There was song in everything and everyone. Then there is modern America, with our attention always drawn away and down, into a phone or a screen. — Michael
Michael went to South Africa in September of 2009 for two and a half weeks. He worked with kids at Camp Sizanani, a partnership between Global Camps Africa and HIV/SA. He was part of a project of ASTEP — Artists Striving To End Poverty (www.asteponline.org).
During his time in South Africa he took many pictures. I’ve included three of them for this week’s reflection. One around a campfire, a natural hearth, singing and telling stories – and there’s one of Michael with some of the kids at the camp. And finally, we end this 51st day of 2011 with Michael’s photograph of a South African tree, he’s decided to call “Grace.” I loved this photograph so much that it now belongs to me and hangs on the wall in the room just to the left of the terrace door the Stone Sage Lion guards.
I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s back to the business of living and working. See you next week and throughout the week as well. And then, we’ll gather together next Monday, around the fires, large and small, or sit under the trees real and mythical, as we continue forward – together and alone into and throughout 2011, our first year of the second decade of the 21st century.
© 2011 Alida Brill From This Terrace