Thoughts upon a mid-fifties birthday....

Arthur Rackham

When is one officially "old," I wonder? To me, being "old" seems to come and go, present one day and not the next. There were times as a child when I felt as old as the hills -- and there are times now when I feel like the downiest of fledgling chicks, still flapping my wings, and still just beginning.

Brian FroudOf the two photographs below, the first was taken when I was in Second Grade, in Manville, New Jersey; the second was snapped by my husband in our Devon garden this autumn. The Atlantic ocean, and nearly a half-century of time, stretches between the two. What surprises me is not how much I've changed during those years, but all the ways that I haven't.

"The great secret that all old people share," wrote Doris Lessing, "is that you really don't change in seventy or eighty years. Your body changes, but you don’t change at all. And that, of course, causes great confusion."

An old neighbor of mine, sharp and vigorous well into her nineties, would have disagreed with this, however. She felt that changing as you age is exactly the point. "The thing about growing older, dear," she once told me, "is that you don't ever stop being the age you were, you just add each new age to it. So I never envy the young, because I'm still twenty years old myself, and thirty, and forty, and so on. By the time you're my age, you have so many selves to be, and draw upon, and enjoy, that I can only feel compassion for young people, who still have so very few."

Time

Sometimes I'm actually glad that health traumas caused me to doubt, at times, if I'd live to grow old -- for aging to me is precious and magical, and I'm grateful for it. Thus I love these words from rock-and-roller Pat Benatar's memoir (Between a Heart and a Rock Place):

"I've enjoyed every age I've been," she says, "and each has had its own individual merit. Every laugh line, every scar, is a badge I wear to show I've been present, the inner rings of my personal tree trunk that I display proudly for all to see. Nowadays, I don't want a 'perfect' face and body; I want to wear the life I've lived.” 

Fidelma MasseyTime writes across the body in a language that we must all come to know as we grow and age: the language of experience, loss, revelation, endurance, and mortality. Today, I'm simply thankful for the roads, dark and bright, that brought me to the miraculous present; as well as for the unknown roads, dark and bright, that still lie ahead of me. I'm another year older. I'm travelling a little slower. I carry multitudes inside. But I'm here, well-ringed like the oak trees of Nattadon Hill. And I am only just beginning.

Tilly and the Oak

Fairy Godmother by Brian FroudThe paintings above are by Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud. The sculpture is by Fidelma Massey.


On friendship

Friendship

"Friendship has never seemed both more important and less relevant than it does now," writes in a beautiful essay on friendship for the Paris Review. "The concept surfaces primarily when we worry over whether our networked lives impair the quality of our connections, our community. On a nontheoretical level, adult friendship is its own puzzle. The friendships we have as adults are the intentional kind, if only because time is short. During this period, I began to consider the subject. What is essential in friendship? Why do we tolerate difference and distance? What is the appropriate amount to give?"

She then goes on to explore the friendship between writers Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, and the sculptor Wharton Esherick. You can read the full essay here.

Considering how important friendships have been in my own life and in the lives around me, I find it baffling that the joys, sorrows, and complexities of friendship (and for me personally, women's friendships) have not been a central theme in literary and other arts. Yes, the ocassional book or film (and, rarer still, painting or song)...but the numbers are small compared to works dedicated to romance, family dynamics, and personal journeys in which friendships are fleeting or relegated to second tier roles.

Friendship, 2006Yet for many of us, our friends are family; and often, in the early years of adulthood, it's friendship that lasts while romances come and go. Meeting someone with the potential to become a close friend can feel almost as giddy as falling in love; and certainly the end of a friendship can be just as painful as divorce. Sometimes worse.

I'd like your help today in recommending works of art (in all fields) on the subject of friendship. For example, my favorite novel to date on the subject of friendship is Elizabeth Wein's brilliant Code Name Verity, a gorgeously written and harrowing story about the friendship between two young female pilots in World War II. To me, this book captures the absolutely intensity of the bond between best friends. My favorite memoir on the the subject is Testament of Friendship by Vera Brittain (author of the better-known World War I era memoir Testament of Youth). This beautiful book is about Brittain's deep relationship with fellow writer, feminist, and politcal activist Winifred Holtby. (Close runners-up would be A World of Light by May Sarton, a fascinating book in which the author looks at the friendships that formed her world from her mid-twenties to her mid-forties; and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, about her complicated, rather difficult friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy.) My favorite biographical work about friendship is The Red Rose Girls by Alice Carter, about the artists Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley.

And you? What do you recommend on the theme of "friendship," in any form of art?

Ellen Kushner, Terri Windling, and TillyGood friendships aging like good wine: The photographs above, from top to bottom, are of me and my dear friend Ellen Kushner back in the 1980s (photographed by Beth Gwinn); Ellen and me again in 2006 (photographed by Nina Kiriki Hoffman); and the two of us here in Chagford, where she's been visiting this week along with another beloved old friend, Delia Sherman (Ellen's wife), and my new friend Kathleen Jennings. (The third photo was taken by Delia.)


The things that save us

The trees of New York

"Sometimes it is the smallest thing that saves us: the weather growing cold, a child's smile, and a cup of excellent coffee."  - Jonathan Carroll

It's been a difficult week, in terms of dealing with the Life Stuff that has brought me to New York -- but any week that ends, as this one has, with Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Catherynne Valente, Theodora Goss, Lev Grossman, Kat Howard, and C.S.E. Cooney sitting in the the livingroom at Ellen & Delia's flat (where I'm staying) talking about books and the art of writing can by no means be considered entirely bad. It's good to be back in the publishing community again, even under these less than ideal circumstances.

It would be all too easy to focus only on what's difficult right now, ignoring the gifts that the city throws up daily: friends and colleagues, good American coffee, the particular frisson of walking down streets that echo with years of one's personal history. I miss my home and the woods of Devon with an ache as physical as heartburn...and yet there is also value in rediscovering the person that I used to be, back in the days when this was home and these were the trees I walked among. I didn't want to make this journey. But I'm here... and I am thankful for these gifts. These friends. And the damn good coffee.

Sometimes it is, indeed, the smallest things that save us.

Kaffekopp


Tune for a Monday Morning

Today's tune  is "Love is Making its Way Back Home" by Josh Ritter; the wonderful video is a stop-motion animation (made with over 12,000 pieces of construction paper) by Erez Horovitz, Sam Cohen, and Sarah Graves of Prominent Figures.

I'm actually writing this post on Sunday (it's scheduled for automatic posting tomorrow), because by Monday morning I'll be in London, en route to the airport, then New York City. I love New York, where I lived in my twenties as a young book editor, and where I still have many good friends and colleagues, so I'd normally relish a trip back to Manhattan -- but this particular journey is a daunting one, necessitated by the difficult Life Stuff that my family and I have lately been dealing with. Howard, meanwhile, remains in Devon, looking after the pup and the homefront.

I don't know how long I will be in New York, and I don't know what this blog will be like in the days ahead. The blog, like my creative work, is deeply rooted in my wanderings through the leaves and brambles with Tilly and the rhythms of my quiet rural studio...but now my Country Self must be set aside while an older, sharper part of me, the Urban Self, comes to the fore. The road ahead leads into Uncertainty...which is another name for Mystery, and therefore (I remind myself) not always a terrible thing. I'm uncertain of what the coming weeks will bring; I'm uncertain of how my work will progress or of how this blog will function. I'm uncertain of many things, except for the need to be strong and go forward.

Maya Angelou once wrote: “Because of the routines we follow, we often forget that life is an ongoing adventure....Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art: to bring all our energies to each encounter, to remain flexible enough to notice and admit when what we expected to happen did not happen. We need to remember that we are created creative, and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed.”

Morning on the hill

And so here is this morning's prayer, offered to the rising sun from the crest of our hill, sweet Tilly perched on the rocks beside me:

May I see every journey, no matter how daunting, as a mythic adventure, a quest, a story unfolding, a fairy tale in which even the smallest of heroes finds her way through danger and the dark of the forest...and faces down dragons...and wins love or treasure...and then goes safely home once again.

Tilly, February 2012

Dulac

Today's tune goes out to Howard.


At the gate

Gentle Readers,

We're entering a particularly difficult stretch of the Life Stuff that is affecting me and my family, so my on-line time is going to be quite limited in the weeks ahead. This blog will keep going, for--in a quiet moment--I prepared a number of posts in advance (like the one posted earlier today)...and I'll still pop in to read the comments in response, but I may not have time to respond to comments while we're in the midst of the storm. Be assured that I appreciate them all the same.

I look forward to the day when the storms are behind us, and I can return to this blog (and writing! and art!) properly again...