Monthly Archives: June 2016

A House in Maine

A photograph may be a little more complicated than you think it is at first.

Maine-House001(grgam).jpgMaine House, ©Lawrence Earley

This is a picture I took about 30 years ago of a house along the Maine coast. It’s a small photograph, 5¼ in. x 8 in., made from a 35 mm negative, and I’ve matted it on an 11 in. x 17 in. board. It’s something that I enjoy looking at quite a lot.

I like the different tonalities in the photograph, first of all—the gray tones contrasted with the garage’s bright white and the stark black of the small racing horse medallion. I like the comforting way the dark tones of the foliage almost cradle and protect the bright garage. From one perspective, there’s a great deal of comfort imagery in the photograph: the fence enclosing the property from the front, the screen hiding the interior of the porch, and the aforementioned foliage surrounding the garage from behind. This seems to be a photograph of interiors, safe interiors, a place where you are protected from people like me, the photographer, viewing from the outside.

What else is going on? It’s got a nice, slightly off-kilter balance to it. It doesn’t particularly say Maine to me in a clichéd or trite way. What it evokes to me now (and perhaps when I took the picture) is a sense of a well-ordered space.  That sense of order is present in the photographic composition and it’s also in the space maintained by the people who live there. Perhaps the scene said to me, “What a nice place to live.” My wife and I had recently bought a house and perhaps I had the house on my mind.

I’d like to sit on that porch in the summer. Would there be a porch swing there? There should be, or a rocking chair, perhaps. Perhaps the chair makes a slight noise on the wooden floor as it moves. I would be reading poetry in this space, not that I read a lot of poetry but I think the silence within that space would reward a reading experience in which you pay attention to the words.

But isn’t there another way of looking at the photo? It’s not one that I was immediately aware of, but it’s there, I think. Couldn’t this be an image about fear? All the doors and windows and gates are closed. It’s a walled space, a walled castle minus the moat. Then there’s the fence with the sword-point tops; the closed windows of the building on the bottom left; the opaque screens on the porch; the porch protected by two buildings, each of them closed up tight. Couldn’t this photo be saying “Keep out!”? Despite the homeliness of their wooden construction, aren’t these solid structures like defensive walls?

This is a good example of how enigmatic a given image can be, like a Rorschach inkblot which you can read in two or more ways, depending on how you’re feeling at the time or on your basic personality type. If you flip back and forth between seeing the scene in the photograph as protective and comforting, or closed and defensive, it’s a little like the famous optical illusion in which you either see an old hag or a pretty young woman.

A simple photograph may not be so simple.

 

 

 

Scenes from a Roman Piazza

Life in the Piazza

On an April vacation in Rome, my wife and I rented an apartment in Trastevere, an old working-class section of the city just across the Tiber River. It has become a tourist attraction in recent years because of its narrow walking streets, many restaurants, reasonably priced rental apartments and closeness to old Rome. Our apartment building was just off the Piazza di San Cosimato. We spent many hours watching the varied life there.

It didn’t take very long to realize how important this public space was to the neighborhood. In the wee hours of each morning Monday through Saturday, the fruit and vegetable venders convened to assemble their tables, unfurl their umbrellas and ready themselves for another market day in Trastevere’s only outdoor market. By sunrise, the fishmonger and cheesemonger, the butcher and even the bookseller had opened the metal doors to their stalls and crowds of buyers began to purchase what they needed for the day. By mid-afternoon, the venders had begun to fold their umbrellas and collapse their tables and pack away what remained of their goods.  Their day had come to an end.

_DSC4270.jpgMarket at Piazza di San Cosimato (mid-morning) ©Lawrence Earley
_DSC4305.jpgPiazza di San Cosimato (mid-afternoon) ©Lawrence Earley

But into the morning hours and throughout the day, small children accompanied by parents or grandparents moved into and out of a gated playground at one end of the triangular-shaped piazza.  And in the late afternoon, older children had returned from school and many of them gathered in the piazza. The teenaged boys played soccer. One boy served as the goalie near the cheesemonger’s locked stall while the others tried out their best moves to kick the ball past him, or, as happened often, over the stalls and into the street beyond. There didn’t seem to be many rules governing what they were doing. There didn’t even seem to be a game going on, or scorekeeping. Freelancing seemed to be the rule. A boy would kick the ball into the metal door of a stall, and when it bounced back another boy would command it, dribble it around a while before unleashing a terrific kick that banged off the stall doors again. Players left the field and sat on a wall every now and then, kibitzing with others, then hurtled back into the fray, heading a ball in the general direction of a goalie. Groups of girls flirted with the boys at the edge of the piazza. There seemed to be many centripetal and centrifugal forces operating in the piazza, as boys and girls ran in and ran out.

One of the places they ran to was the sidewalk cafes that lined the piazza. Knots of adults often gathered at the tables at this time, sipping coffees and colored drinks and talking animatedly. Sometimes the boys or their female admirers would detach from the piazza and run across the street to sit with a parent or grandparent for a while. The adults pretty much ignored the children, talking and smoking and sipping at their drinks, and after awhile the children would rejoin their mates.

In the early evening, the children slowly began to separate and head home. But well into the night, couples strolled or hurried through the piazza on their way to a restaurant or their homes.

 

Italian Voices

One morning we went to the piazza to shop for fruit and vegetables. We bought a couple of apples and oranges, and then stopped at the cheesemonger’s stall to find cheese for lunch. Unfamiliar with the Italian names of the cheeses, we hung back, inspecting each cheese and trying to decipher what the names suggested. Other buyers jumped ahead of us and made their purchases. One of them, a mother with a two-year-old girl in her arms, approached the cheesemonger and auditory mayhem broke out. Five or six elderly ladies began to croon at the child in vowel-inflected voices. The cheesemonger himself blew kisses and uttered words of ecstatic love. The choosing and wrapping and buying of cheese were abandoned as everyone at the stall expressed their amazement at this little girl. It was as if they had never seen one before. The little girl herself remained unimpressed throughout. We watched all this, enchanted both by the girl and the music of her admirers’ voices.

The Italian language is so musical that men and women seem to savor every syllable, their voices rising and falling even when sharing everyday matters. But when stirred by emotion (this little girl is so cute, the mail hasn’t come, Mama has died), voices take on a new enthusiasm in piercing sounds of appreciation, sorrow or anger.

As mother and daughter moved to another stall, hosannas of high-pitched good-byes followed them, but then life resumed in a lower key. People huddled over the rows of cheeses once more and their voices became murmurs. But wait! Mother and child have returned and the clamorous demonstrations begin all over again. Now the child realizes that she likes all this attention. She looks directly at individuals and points coquettishly. The response is gratifying to her and she points at others. Soon, cheese purchased and in hand, mama and child walk away. We are finally able to make our purchase. It comes to 5 Euros, 31. We pay 5 Euros.

“A discount for you!” says the merry cheesemonger.

 

Sweeper

After an afternoon of shopping in Trastevere one day, my wife and I returned to our apartment. Renee said she wanted to nap, so I said I’d grab a coffee somewhere. I took a table at one of my favorite cafes that looked across to the Piazza di San Cosimato. We often stopped here on our return from a day’s activities. We’d drink a Prosecco if it was late in the day, or a Café Americano or orange drink in the mornings and early afternoons.

It was about 3:30 or 4 p.m. I ordered a coffee and began to read a book by the British novelist Barry Unsworth that I had picked up at an English bookstore that morning. The piazza was empty. The fruit and vegetable sellers had already left. Tables, boxes and umbrellas were gone. Between the café’s outdoor tables and the piazza was a narrow one-way street occupied by an occasional noisy motor scooter or car on its way to the shops on the other side of the piazza. There was a nice feel about the day and I enjoyed my book and coffee.

From time to time I looked up and noticed a solitary city employee in his orange uniform sweeping up the refuse from the morning’s market. He wore a military haircut and had tattooed arms, and he carried a long broom and a shovel. He pushed fallen lettuce and cabbage leaves, the odd tomato or apple into a small pile, wheeled his trash bin over and shoveled the litter into the bin. He worked deliberately, moving from one island of refuse to another. You wouldn’t say he was working hard, but he wasn’t dogging it either. He was doing a job. I’d look up from my book and the man would be moving slowly across the piazza.

As I watched him, I realized how unusual the scene was. The man was employing a broom to sweep up refuse. How quaint! How delightful! How quiet! Where I live in North Carolina, no respectable yard and grounds man uses a broom or a rake any longer. They use powerful commercial backpack blowers with a dangerous decibel range that requires operators to wear ear protectors. Hardly a beautiful summer morning back home is unmarred by the jarring sound these instruments make. Two or three workers will gather at 7:00 am to chase a few candy wrappers, some cigarette butts and a lot of dust from a small parking lot. In the fall, when leaves drop, they blow them into the streets. These big blowers may be efficient at what they do, but they don’t seem to do much. Mostly what a blower does is noisily move trash somewhere else, usually to someone else’s property.

But here in the Piazza di San Cosimato, a single man employed a simple tool to remove debris from a large public space, and he didn’t break the silence of a pleasant afternoon to do it. I watched him close in on the last pile of refuse, shovel it into the bin, place the bin and his tools in the back of a small truck and drive away.

Grand Canyon Shakedown

“. . . it commonly took members of [Robert] Scott’s South Polar party several hours each morning to put on their boots. Day and night they did miserable, niggling, and often fatal battle with frostbitten toes, diarrhea, bleeding gums, hunger, weakness, mental confusion, and despair.” (from Annie Dillard, “An Expedition to the Pole,” in Teaching a Stone to Talk)

Minus the frostbitten toes, diarrhea, bleeding gums, hunger, weakness, mental confusion, and despair, that sounds a lot like the seven-day rafting trip I recently took through the Grand Canyon. Okay, I didn’t have to struggle to put on frozen boots every morning, but the daily torture of the sand in my sandals grinding the tops of my sunburned feet . . . there are no words for the torment. And though a few of Scott’s team were sometimes forced to eat human flesh to survive, I ate Eggs Benedict one morning. I don’t like Eggs Benedict!

Don’t let that breakfast suggest that this rafting trip on the Colorado River was a boutique experience. This was no Huck Finn float down the lazy Mississippi, no paddleboat trip in a city park. This was a challenging trip through some of the most fearsome rapids in the country. And though we were more or less safely attached to the boat, those of us who dared sit in the bow seats or forward on the pontoons experienced frequent inundations of 48-degree water that left our teeth chattering. Did I forget to mention the heat of a desert sun (or how it felt so good after being doused)?

thumb_IMG_1228_1024.jpgphoto courtesy Stuart Graves

Many of us will remember the near constant routine of getting on and off the boat, for one thing, often a clumsy exercise that left us envying Jacob’s barefoot leaps and bounds. Forming a “Conga Line” to unload the cots, chairs, kitchen equipment and water buckets, followed by a search for an unclaimed camping spot amid sand, cactus and ankle-twisting rocks. Assembling cots was like solving a Rubik’s Cube for some of us. All of this before we could get back to the beached boats for the ingredients of a well-deserved Happy Hour.

The next morning, the whole routine in reverse—without the Happy Hour. And we did that every day for six days. The horror! The horror!

I exaggerate . . . I think.

What was the lure that drew thirty-two of us to this river experience? Why did we come from Vermont, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Houston, Texas, Washington State, and California (so many!) to float 188 miles over six days through 100 rapids? What did we want from a trip like this? What will we remember?

For me, rafting through the Grand Canyon was nowhere near a bucket-list item. My purpose was to spend a few days adventuring with long-time friend Bruce Firestone. But what gradually focused my attention over the course of our six days on the river was the visual record of deep time (as much as 1.8 billion years in some spots) written in stone on the Canyon walls, and of the violent forces of fire and flood that birthed and shaped the Canyon. Day after day I contemplated the wall and its ruined temples and castles. Heaps of rocks at the river’s edge looked freshly fallen but might well have come to rest 10,000 years ago. I learned new words to express epochs of time—Toroweap, Coconino, Tapeats, Zoroaster Granite—and I came away humbled by the meagerness of our own human lifespans. Rome’s 1,000-year history is insignificant within the longer sequences recorded on the Canyon wall. The totality of human history probably doesn’t equal a single stripe in the mile-thick stack of stone.

It was almost depressing to think of how we figure in such vastness, but after the close-call I had on our hike to Havasu Falls, I came away with one perspective: Our life may be only a mite of sand on Earth’s vast beaches of time, but it’s all we have, and it’s far too precious to waste.

Surely, what all of us will remember were the moments just before sleep overtook us when we lay on our cots and watched the overwhelming sky-show of stars and constellations wheeling above us. As we closed our eyes, the sky still glowed with the sun’s last glance, and when we awoke in the early morning hours the western side of the canyon wall was already brightening with the promise of a new day. These memories will remain.

If there’s something else that will remain as well, I think it may be a sense of accomplishment. This was often hard going despite the magnificent meals Dave, Lars and Jacob produced three times each day.  On any given day we might broil under a hot sun and shiver from splashes of icy water. There were the twice-daily routines of setting up and taking down camps, loading and unloading boats. And then the sometimes difficult hikes and climbs along tricky paths through side canyons.

But in the course of just a few of these days, it seems to me, a village was being formed. Our evening conversations in the “fire circle” as well as chats in the boats and along the trails helped join names to faces and personalities. By the end, we weren’t separate individuals from hither and yon—we were a community. Our six days together proved that time isn’t only measured by the ticking of a clock that will inevitably run down, but by shared experiences that add depth and meaning and maybe even joy to our short lives.

It wasn’t easy, but it was a trip to remember.