When I lived in New York, in Manhattan, the morning news would often bring word of an overnight homicide. I would pause to hear where the body had been found, where the shots had been fired, and, once assured the location was, as it often was, down on the lower east side, or up in Harlem, or on the platform of a subway line I never took, I’d resume getting ready for work.
I was not alone in this habit. It was a way to cope with living in a city that could be dangerous. We’d reassure ourselves: oh, okay, not here, not in this neighbourhood, not where I live, or where I work. It’s over there, or up there. It’s sad, but I’m safe.
Early on, didn’t we cope with mass shootings in much the same way? With horror, but ‘not here’ relief? Angry, outraged, empathetic, but, well, it happened over there. Not here.
One morning, Anderson Cooper appeared on television in front of the restaurant where I’d had dinner not twelve hours before. Some kid had shot his way through windows and bodies at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, a place I knew well.
In the wake of tragedy, people often say they never thought it could happen to them. That morning, I realized it’s not that people think they are blessed, or special, or set apart. It’s that no one expects Anderson Cooper to broadcast from their street. No one expects to be caught up in a media maelstrom. No one expects to drive down their Main Street between a funeral for still another child and a wall of police cars and media vans. No one expects the President of the United States to be sitting in a classroom of their high school working on words for their torn and bleeding community.
But more and more and more of us find ourselves in a similar position. Two more communities in just the last twenty-four hours: El Paso and Dayton. It’s here. It’s us. It’s now. It’s Anderson Cooper or one of his colleagues about to stand in our neighborhood.
After Newtown, the feeling was that the conversation would, finally, change. It did not. Agonized parents discovered that no one paid attention if it was ‘only’ about gun control, or ‘only’ about the lives of tiny children, so they added mental health to the equation. To little effect.
I grieve. With each new shooting, I relive that December morning. I am not alone. Survivors and residents of Newtown and Las Vegas and Parkland and Columbine and Orlando and more, and now El Paso and Dayton, and the list will grow, do the same.
This is our national consciousness. This is what we share.
I drove! I rented a car in Vilamoura down in the Algarve last week and drove for the first time here!
Not having been behind any wheel in well over a year, and having watched Portuguese drivers zip about, I was tentative. But, I thought, if I can drive in New York, I can drive here, and, as my son told me when he was first learning, it’s just not that hard.
But. The unfamiliar car, the unfamiliar villages, the unfamiliar roads, the unfamiliar laws, the unfamiliar kilometers, the steep, narrow curves, the British voice in the GPS, and those roundabouts. Roundabouts abound. Every few feet, it seems, even in the wilds. More than once I’ve circled round and round the roundabout that connects the rest of Massachusetts to the Cape trying to negotiate my exit. It’s downright embarrassing.
Nevertheless, I set out. I gave Liz, what I called the British GPS woman, names of random towns along the coast, along the Spanish border, in the interior, intent on seeing places off the main roads. I eased into roundabouts, eased around corners, eased up and down hills. And then remembered, I’m good at this.
Over the course of two days, I drove over three hundred kilometers. I didn’t slow down for any reason, not to photograph the fields of wildflowers, the sleek, handsome goats with the herders in their caps, the road lined with white-barked trees, the beaches, the mountains, the occasional ruin. I didn’t eat. I didn’t go to the bathroom. I didn’t stop. I drove. I took those corners, those hills, those roundabouts.
Someone mentioned it was good I’d rented a car, gotten out of my comfort zone. Ah. No. Not driving was the uncomfortable zone. I’ve found my way back to this good place, and feel ten years younger.
Feeling young might also have something to do with my riding again, something I thought I’d forever left behind. Here I am with Estrela, Portuguese for star.
I’m already planning my next adventure. In May, I think, and June. And July . . .
Saudade: This Portuguese word specifically expresses the longing that accompanies missing something that has been lost or is out of touch. Saudade is an accurate expression of what I’ve been feeling for the woods I grew up in, wandered in, played in, walked dogs in, rode horses in, and got lost in. I hadn’t realized, or had been afraid to acknowledge, the extent to which they nourished my work even as I rarely mention trees or woods or even the outdoors in my stories.
For the last decade or so before moving here, I reveled in the moment to moment changes at Holcomb Hill, in meadows emerging from winter into spring, erupting into summer, and settling back into fall. I felt a hunger any day there hadn’t been time to take the dogs there. On winter mornings, I’d put cleats on my boots to take Eddie and Butch and then Annie to the icy fields, even if it was too icy for them to go very far, just so I could see the sun gleam across frozen, untouched expanses. How I miss that.
Years before, while still living in the city, I kept a horse at a stable in Westchester County. I’d get up on weekend mornings to ride in Pocantico Hills, a vast park, to explore its hills and paths on horseback, a huge tract of woods with ponds and fields and trails, sometimes lush and green, sometimes red and gold and orange, and sometimes white with snow.
During the winter, after a fresh snowfall, I’d get up extra early, to be the first with my mare through the powder. It was exhilarating. Like nothing I’d experienced in my life, and like nothing I’ve experienced since.
As a child, I played in a nice patch of woods behind my suburban house, a patch that seemed as big as a world to me, with my secret forts and cottages and stories. Summers, I’d visit my grandfather and roam in the woods behind his house. Later, I sometimes drove north from New York City when the maple sap runs in March, to meet my father at my uncle’s, where they were doing the hard work of gathering that sap and boiling it into maple syrup.
In Connecticut, on simpler days in my writing room, I’d watch the sun play through what I thought of as my woods, the more than two acres of woodland I could see from where I sat, as the sun stretched at low angles across trees’ knees and thighs as the morning began, rose along their chests and arms through the day, and, sinking towards sunset, left the clouds high above their heads pink and gold. How I miss that.
There is something wrong with the trees here. Their bark and branches and crowns don’t look right. I’ve tried to like them. I’ve taken their pictures, sat under them, drawn them. But come on. Is this tree not crazy?
Are these even trees?
Except for one, they’ve disappointed me.
This one, an ancient fig, with huge roots that extended some forty feet in interesting patterns, and with branches arching so widely a concert was held under her last year, was destroyed last fall in the hurricane. I haven’t been to the gardens where she lived since.
There is so much right about Portugal, I don’t like to complain. I hardly seem like a nature person, and some parts of me are quite urban, so I’ve mostly kept this saudade to myself. But it’s been leaking into conversations, and leaking into dreams. I even began to think I’d have to find a town other than Coimbra, a more rural town, a greener town, to at least attempt to satisfy the yearning.
Last week, I ran across Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mangroves”, written after she’d left her northern woods for Florida. I almost laughed.
About the mangroves, she says, “Mostly I walk beside them, they discourage entrance.” And,
The black oaks and pines
of my northern home are in my heart,
even as I hear them whisper, “Listen, we are trees, too.”
Okay, I’m trying.
I know what she means.
Last Sunday, friends took me for a ride through Coimbra surrounds where in fact I’d been some months before and guiltily thought, ‘nice, but . . .’, or, in Oliver’s words, ‘Admiring is easy, but affinity, that does take some time.’
During the latest drive, keeping her poem in mind, I sat back and recognized the very different drama of Portugal’s countryside. I’m not drawn in yet, I didn’t long to get out of the car and explore the paths, but the poem’s last line resonates, as the mangroves speak to Oliver:
We are what we are, you
are what you are, love us if you can.
This poem extends to more than trees, of course, to place and people, to culture and identity, but for now, for me, it’s trees. It’s helping.
After invigorating months of house guests and travel, I turned the page to 2019 with nothing of note written on it. Writer friends were filling their blogs and social media posts with plans, such as finishing a novel or finding an agent. Also, this: accumulating rejections. I’d seen this sort of thing before. Buried in failure are successes. No pain, no gain. You can’t win if you don’t play. It’s all in the numbers. I know.
But submissions are tough. The odds are against you. Even the smallest literary journals contend with hundreds of manuscripts. Large ones, thousands. Agents are bombarded with queries. And, you are asking a stranger, a faceless stranger, to pass judgement on what you have spent weeks or months, possibly years, agonizing over in the privacy of your writing room, in the privacy of your brain.
While involved with moving and the paperwork and tasks of adjusting to life here, as well as writing, I gave myself a pass on submissions during 2018. My inbox was full of opportunities, but I let deadline after deadline go by. I pretended to forgive myself. I made all kinds of excuses. But I felt guilty. I am guilty. I haven’t been working hard enough.
With a wide-open calendar, I’ve had to decide whether to look at it in a state of panic – yikes, my calendar has no distractions or plans! – or in a state of glee – my calendar has no distractions or plans!
Back when I was part of an advertising team pitching new clients, a typical success rate was roughly one new client for every ten presentations. Sometimes we’d pitch eighteen with no success, but then be awarded the next two. Sometimes we’d get four fairly quickly, but then nothing new for months. When I was regularly submitting short stories, my acceptance rate was about one for every twenty-five submissions. One of my stories was accepted by six journals. Others were never placed.
I have managed rejection. I can do it again. I will do it again. As you are my witness!
I managed to click submit once in December. Rejection came yesterday. So I’m already one step closer.
Wish me luck! No. Wish me perseverance.
One morning not long ago, I glanced toward my kitchen window to see my cat, Hezekiah, standing on the wrong side. Could it be? Maybe I was mistaken. I wasn’t. There he was. On the other side of the glass, balancing on the blanket I’d flung across the clotheslines strung high above the ground.
A kitten weighing less than two pounds, four floors up, while I stood frozen a few feet away.
The window slides open in both directions. The crack he’d squeezed through wasn’t wide enough for my arm. Opening the window further might startle him and cause him to fall. Coaxing him back through the narrow crack didn’t seem likely. I had no choice. I’d have to open the window. I’d have to reach for him. I’d have to be quick. But the moment I stepped forward, he spotted me and leaped off into space. I reached the sill in time to see him crash through the branches of the tree in the garden of the building next door. White tufts of fur floated down after him.
Here’s the clothesline and the tree:
I was shaken. And mortified that I’d somehow let this happen. What now? Call the police? Did they rescue cats in Portugal? Pretend I didn’t know anything about any cat in any garden? Wake the neighbors? Pound on strangers’ doors?
I’d have to pound on strangers’ doors.
I’d never seen the people who live in the building next door, one with huge wooden doors and an old-fashioned knocker. No buzzer. No intercom. And perhaps no one who spoke English.
The door stood open a few inches. I pushed it open a few inches more. Inside were three more formidable doors, these without even knockers. One was street-level, one four steps up to the left, the other two steps up to the right. Which one? I tried them all. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. I went back to the street, looked up at the building’s shuttered windows, went back up to my apartment, and peered down into the garden as though Hezekiah would magically appear. I paced.
Determined, I went back to try knocking again. Finally, I heard steps on stairs behind the street-level door. A woman peered out at a distraught woman sputtering mangled Portuguese. Meu gato. Seu jardim. She shook her head, no, no. She knew about the same number of words in English that I knew in Portuguese. Armed with Google Translate, I was able to explain my cat had fallen out of my window into her garden. She was doubtful, but after a few charades and much frowning, she let me in and led me down six steep steps and through a labyrinthine apartment to her garden door. When she opened that door, I fully expected to see my dead kitten splayed on the paving stones beneath her orange tree. I realized I should have brought something with which to scoop him up. (And then what? A dumpster? Dig a hole in the nearest park with a spoon? After dark?)
But no cat.
She had by now indicated that she feeds ten cats – I’d seen them lounging on the roofs below – so at least I’d found myself a cat lady who’d have some sympathy – if she believed my story, about which she was still clearly doubtful.
I called. “Hezekiah. Here kitty, kitty.” No answer. Of course. There wouldn’t be a solution as simple as this. He was too scared, or too hurt, or too dead. The cat lady – Marianna – promised to keep an eye out for him. I showed her a photo. I told her I’d be back. I managed to wait until the afternoon before bothering her again, this time with his carrier in hand. I was a nuisance, but she led me back through her labyrinth. I spent several minutes in her garden, poking among boxes, chairs, pots and planters. No Hezekiah. Just two or three of her huge curious cats. Perhaps one had lunched on mine. The woman indicated there was no way out of the back alley, so if he was there, he was safe from cars. But, what if . . . he’d squeezed through a barely open window. Perhaps he could open doors. So I wandered up and down neighborhood streets.
Nothing. Only a poster for someone else’s missing gato.
Badly injured, he’d probably crawled into some corner to die. I hoped he wouldn’t suffer too long. Or, if he’d miraculously survived, he’d likely prefer the company of Marianna’s cats to a solitary human’s and decide to stay. One way or the other, I was resigned. He was never coming home. I went back to my apartment. I threw out his food, his dishes, his toys. I emptied his litter box. Wondered if I could donate the unopened bags of food and litter to the local pound. It was best, I decided, to cut ties, put him out of my mind, move on.
At five a.m. the following morning, his distinctive and piercing yowl woke me up.
I found him looking up at me from the ledge of the third-floor balcony of the apartment next door. The THIRD FLOOR! It took a few moments to register. I wasn’t seeing things. Or dreaming. He was there. Looking up at me. Complaining. Imploring. Loudly. What was wrong with me leaving him out all night?
Astonishing. He not only knew where he lived, he’d scaled the wall in an attempt to get back. No, he hadn’t somehow clung to the balcony on his way down. It’s recessed, and I’d witnessed his fall. And, no, he hadn’t climbed the tree. The tree’s crown stops a full floor below the balcony and its nearest branches are several feet away.
You can see the ledge in the tree photo above. It’s that white bit in the middle of the right hand edge.
Five a.m. was much too early to knock on doors. I considered completely crazy things – lowering a sheet fashioned into a ladder, for one. Thankfully I realized that moves like that were likely to make the situation worse. I was afraid he’d wake someone up with his yowling and that the someone would put him out in the street. Or that he’d try to make it up on his own, and fail while scaling the final floor and attempting to cross horizontally to my window. I backed away so he couldn’t see me and begged him to shut up.
By 8 a.m. I could wait no longer. Once more, I stood before those three doors. Should I try Marianna? Try to guess which of the other two led to the balcony? I knocked on them all. No one answered. Not even Marianna. I trooped back to my apartment. I was writing notes to leave on the doors when I heard the motorcycle often parked next door start up. I raced to my window overlooking the street. Opened it wide. Waved frantically to the driver, called out, “Stop stop!” Over his motor I yelled, “Meu gato sua veranda.” He frowned, but said, “My mother, my mother is home. Knock on her door.” Which door? But he sped away. Again, I knocked on them all.
Finally, finally, Marianna. If possible, even more dubious now. Nevertheless, I convinced her to let me inside so I could point to where I’d seen Hezekiah. All the way through her labyrinth, she said no, no, not possible. From her garden, I pointed up. She said impossible.
“Sim, sim,” I said, “I saw him, I heard him.”
“No, no,” she said.
And then, he saved himself: He yowled.
Marianna’s jaw dropped. Her eyes lit up. “Ah, um gato!”
Together we pounded on the other apartment doors. When there was no answer, she went out into the street and called up to the windows. As if in a movie, a woman appeared, put her elbows on the sill, and looked down at us standing in the street. It took Marianna several minutes to convince the woman there was a cat on her veranda. She kept saying, no cat, no cat, there’s no cat on my veranda.
“Please. Just look. Por favor.”
With a shrug, she disappeared, and was gone so long I thought she’d either given up or chosen to ignore us. But then, there she was, in her doorway, carrying Hezekiah. He was cold, but not nearly as scared as I thought he should be. As I settled him into his carrier, Marianna cooed over him and told me to feed him and get him warm. The two women laughed about seven lives. Seven lives? It’s nine in the States. No, here it’s only seven.
Together we decided he’d already used six.
The moment he was home, he went to the window to look down to where he’d been. With wonder, or perhaps longing.
I’ve never had much patience with hair and haircuts. Just cut it, I’ll say. Straight across. I’d leave salons with my hair wet, because, after all, I was only heading home or to the barn or out to walk the dogs. My Connecticut hair person knew not to take it personally. I owned a hair dryer, but rarely used it, and never bothered to dry my hair completely. I’d show up at classes with my hair still damp, and frequently walked the dogs in the winter with my hair frozen solid. Here in Portugal, I didn’t so much as bother buying a hair dryer.
A distinct cultural difference between the U.S. and Portugal, and one that made me feel immediately visibly American, is the way women of all ages here take care to look put together before they leave home. U.S. women do dress beautifully, of course, but mostly for work, or special occasions. Day to day, it’s jeans, sweatshirts (admittedly my first choices), PJ bottoms on my college students, women buying groceries in sweats or yoga pants. Not here.
It’s true that jeans are more ubiquitous with younger women this year than last, but there is something more polished about the young women here than many of the college students I was familiar with, where dressing down was the statement to make. Even more striking, women my age and younger dress. Not like Parisiennes, where women magically turn scarves into sculpture, but neatly, every day, for the simplest errands. Dresses, skirts, matching jackets, nice sweaters, a little jewelry, carefully combed (and dried!) hair, heels – even on these hills and cobble stones! – instead of cross trainers. Even the older women I see leaning out of their windows to chat with neighbors have taken care with how they look, how they present themselves.
What is so very different about our attitudes? Is it how we feel about ourselves? Others?
Enter Alexandra, my new hair cut person.
As was my habit, I told her to cut my hair straight across and not to bother blow drying, but she said, gently, “You’re a lady. We’ll dry your hair.” That gave me pause. (The word ‘lady’ is one of respect here; it’s not a “Hey lady, move your car.”) I sat back and let her. Seeing oneself as a lady? All the time? Is that the difference? Portuguese women are strong individuals, the young women impressively self-assured. Being a lady isn’t a sign of sweet submissiveness. So, is looking nice a statement of strength? As Alexandra was finishing, and had my hair looking unusually nice, I laughed and said, “all dressed up and nowhere to go.” She said, “You do it for yourself.”
It is said that American women dress for other women (not for men). If true, this might mean we are dressing for show, to be seen, not necessarily to be ourselves, or to feel good about ourselves as we go about our daily lives, but to satisfy a role, to make a public statement which may or may not be true. If so, what does chronic dressing down mean?
American media go to great lengths to convince us to spend time on ourselves, to not completely lose ourselves in our jobs or in the care of others. And it’s true. If we don’t, we do lose our sense of self, and with it some measure of self-respect. But the fact that we need to be told to bother eating well, or to take a moment for makeup, or to change out of sweats. What does that say? Why, for American women, does taking time for oneself equate with selfishness, and bring on guilt?
Portuguese women don’t seem to need to be told. Taking care with their appearance isn’t something to apologize for, and it isn’t only a reason to show off or make a statement. It seems to be a simple statement of self-respect and respect for the society of which they are a part.
I’m all for casual and comfortable, but what does it say when a student shows up for a class in PJ’s? Or a woman shows up at Big Y in sloppy sweats? What does it say about what we think about that campus or that grocery store or that coffee shop when we show up in yoga pants? Wet hair?
When Alexandra said, “We’ll dry your hair, you’re a lady,” I felt it was her way of saying you are welcome here, you belong here. Don’t shy away.
I bought a hair dryer. I’m using it.