Unexpected travel assignment, a private commission and straightforward enough though I am keeping details away from public spaces. To catch flights in the warm African dusk and land in strange cities at dawn.
The house painters arrived with a gift of clementines, our naartjies, bought at cost price from a local farmer. I make soups — lentil soup, chicken and vegetable soup, tomato and barley soup — and hand out mugs of soup and toast at lunch. The dogs are now used to having house painters around and wag their tails but show no further interest.
As always in winter, rereading the Greek classics in translation and beginning a cycle of Henry James. Leon Edel’s biography of the Master written in a more circumspect time but excellent on the history of New York: the theatres, vaudeville performances and funfairs, the sedate Washington Square, the private schools that a small Henry attended. Immense pleasure of sitting up in bed reading about the witty, eccentric James family while drinking English Breakfast tea and munching on fingers of avocado toast. This is the season for ripe avocados, fresh dates and oranges. And elsewhere it is the season of a new silver-white English lavender, green hedgerows and pastures, dusty sweet blackberries. Carrying the trickster Odysseus with me through airports and on trains.
In August 1913, Freud took a summer walk through the Dolomites with two friends, one of them being perhaps Rilke. In the idyll, Freud and the poet discuss how flowers and nature are prone to destruction and decay and possess an ill-fated beauty. And yet, in contrast to the poet’s pessimistic view, Freud sees value, and therefore a heightened beauty, in transience, arguing that scarcity and limitation only augment worth. He explains that what spoils an enjoyment of transient beauty was an antipathy to mourning.
So there is flight, stasis, transience. The constancy of writing, noting what Henry James is able to suggest in long sensuous paragraphs, sentences that unfold and enfold with stacking and qualifying parentheses, interpollated clauses, full stops deferred. The flight of the mind, swooping and soaring and gliding into untested distances, blue Otherness. What is transparent; what is impenetrable.
H and his girlfriend come around to see how the painting is coming along. She does equestrian training, works on a local stud farm with imported stallions, racing breeds, show horses. He farms fruit and plans ahead for the uncertain future of any farmer in Africa dealing with foreign-owned consortiums and no state subsidies in drought years. She is worried about a horse with a bruised leg. He is worried about his grandfather’s dementia and intractable behaviour. The house painters are happy to have spectators and show us how good the gutters and drain pipes look now in their glistening dark coats of navy-blue and grey. The couple talk about going to Venice on honeymoon before the city with its brilliant cupolas and domes sinks into the Adriatic. We talk about global warming, transience, adaptability. The price of apples and pears, the expense of horse feed. The terrors of international travel with an Egyptian passenger plane blown out of a clear sky. The rise of the far right in Europe’s politics. How good the fresh paint looks on the old cottage, how solid the loft steps are to have survived so many winter storms.
The bliss of having visitors leave, the bliss of coming home again, being able to close the door and sink into a necessary solitude.
Those who lived as if transient and ephemeral in themselves and their fleeting lives, but who have endured. Adrienne Rich on Emily Dickinson, the delicate shy flower of poetic mythology:
I have come to imagine her as somehow too strong for her environment, a figure of powerful will, not at all frail or breathless, someone whose personal dimensions would be felt in a household. She was her father’s favorite daughter though she professed being afraid of him. Her sister dedicated herself to the everyday domestic labors which would free Dickinson to write. (Dickinson herself baked the bread, made jellies and gingerbread, nursed her mother through a long illness, was a skilled horticulturalist who grew pomegranates, calla-lilies, and other exotica in her New England greenhouse.)