Climate change is a ravaging beast, it brings us horrors and once in a while, tosses us a bone. We woke up to a disturbingly beautiful and warm day for mid-January, when we traditionally are buried in snow and battle extreme cold.
These aren’t the dark days, but they are the cold days.
Not today. We are heading out to buy a snail and perhaps some red shrimp (foragers) for our tank. Next weekend, Maria and I are hosting a Snail Party, an exclusive band of snail lovers who want to study snails and talk about them.
Yes, it sounds strange, but I am one of them, snails are a big surprise to me, interesting and more complex than they appear. Maybe we can form a snail club. Hopefully, we’ll get to walk in the woods this afternoon with Zinnia and Fate.
I was drawn to the light on our stone steps and the shadows around our trees. Tomorrow, we’re going to Stockbridge, Mass to see some of Maria’s contributions to the Tiny Pricks exhibition, traveling around the country.
Artists from all over are contributing their favorite quotes from the President.
They hope to create a material record of the Trump administration. Stockbridge, the home of Norman Rockwell, is just an hour away. Maria has several quotes in the exhibit.
I was inspired by the work of Edward Hopper in my photography.
His work was the first time I saw a great artist embrace the idea that some of the most beautiful things in the world, some of the most evocative, are the simplest – a gas station open at night, curtains blowing into a house in the wind.
Hopper’s themes – the tensions between individuals and the conflict between tradition and progress in both rural and urban settings, are themes he always returns to.
Those are also my themes – the unseen and unheralded portraits of people and things not usually considered by the poobahs of culture to be art. I see his ghost in my Strong Woman pictures and in the timeless faces, restaurants, and diners of rural life.
I am grateful for my iPhone, and I see that the world is now full of photographers, many of them quite good. But so many of these images are narcissistic. I can’t see Hopper doing a selfie, and every single thing in our lives is not necessarily worth recording.
I take lots of photos, but as few of them are of me as possible. I am not the most interesting image in my world.
Photography and art are much more democratic now, but that doesn’t always mean they are better. I often feel overwhelmed by the images I see.
The poignancy of a rural culture struggling to live in an urbanized, disconnected world.
Norman Rockwell was often dismissed in the same way – it has been suggested he is not a real artist, whatever that means. But no one I know of captures the real emotion in everyday life and places better than these two radical artistic rebels.
This morning, I saw our kitchen curtain blowing in a light breeze, and I grabbed my iPhone X – which I purchased as much for its outstanding camera as anything else. (If you are me, and you consider a camera of this quality costs between $2,000 and $3,000 dollars in the outside world, then the iPhone is a bargain.)
Hopper lost popular and critical favor in the wake of Abstract Impressionism- Jackson Pollack and Wilhem De Kooning – symbolized that movement.
Hopper did in painting what I hope to do with my photography (sadly, I am no Hopper), he painted and sketched and captured the feelings familiar to most of us – what one critic called “the triste of embedded existence, the solitude of the self.”
By the time Hopper died in 1967, he was popular again, the world had come back around to him. His work was often so simple, yet so emotional. There was something sad and beautiful at the same time in his paintings.
I feel this solitude of the self often when I am taking a photo like this one in the kitchen. I think of Hopper, and I think this is an image he might well have painted, in different tones and color, of course. I think of that soft breeze lifting the curtains and caressing my face.
Often, I think of an ocean or a prairie on the other side, or an old farmhouse.
It’s a simple scene, but yet it evokes something much deeper and more universal.
The movement of a curtain in the window – Hopper loved lace curtains, not Frida Kahlo colors – suggests the gentleness of life, and also the loneliness of being a human being. It is also iconic, we think of other times, and other places.
It also takes it out of ourselves, and the relentless narcissism of the digital world.
This photo is of a waitress named Robin, she works at Jean’s Diner in Hoosick Falls, where Maria and I go for oat bran pancakes (and a couple of bacon strips) every Sunday morning.
I was delighted recently to go there for lunch and order nice fat whole belly clams, something I never expected to find in Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
Robin was startled to hear that I put her photo up on my blog recently, she came over to thank me and said she had no idea who I was.
I am nobody, really, I said.
“Oh, no,” she answered. “You are somebody, one of the customer’s mother called her from Maine to tell her that the diner was on your blog, and she e-mailed the owner too.”
It’s true that Maria and I are in love with the place.
They have good food, globs of character and the best and most old-fashioned service one could hope for.
Robin has our coffee and tea waiting for us when we sit down, she knows what we like. No matter how crowded the restaurant is, the food comes quickly and there is no stare-down for the check.
The walls are lined with patriotic slogans, calls to honor our veterans, cheesy slogans, and amateur photos of truckers and farmers.
Farmers with their big bellies and plaid shirts fill the stools at the counter, kidding with Robin and their buddies. Older women sit in tables, a sea of white and gray, their hair natural and unadorned.
Everybody calls us “hon” and goes to some trouble to make us feel welcome. They always shout “hello” and “thanks for coming.” There is a timeless feel to diners like Jean’s, Norman Rockwell would have been happy to pick his models there. It could easily be the 1950’s at Jean’s Diner, there is nothing to give 2019 away.
The atmosphere is no accident, Jean has passed on, but her daughter Kelly revered her mother and keeps her spirit very much alive.
Robin is the new “Bog Kelly Nolan” in my mind, she is a strong women, she is competent and responsible. Kelly and Robin are different people, but there is much that connects them in my mind.
Like Kelly, Robin deserves to be recognized, and as a photographer I love her face, it is open and warm, it has great strength and character. Robin patrols Jean’s diner like a prima ballerina sails across a stage. She is everywhere doing everything, and it never looks like work, sailing in and out of the kitchen non-stop. She never loses her smile.
In my life, the wheel turns and when one thing ends, another seems to begin. I have learned to let it happen naturally, which it does if don’t mess it up. (The Bog closes, Jean’s appears, the Bog re-opens, I stop working with RISSE, Bishop Maginn looms out of the mist).
The other day Allyson posted a message on my blog which read “all the subjects you write about are a part of your life, they are connected by your life, and they illuminate your life, which is why I read your blog. Write on.” Thanks, Allyson.
Kelly is a part of my life, so is Robin now.
This is not a local blog, but a national one. I am mindful that most of my readers will never see Robin working or eat at this diner, so full of character and feeling. Robin says some people have stopped by looking for her. But I’m notoriously fussy about what goes on my blog.
I write about my life, as Allyson suggests, and the things that illuminate my life, and I believe the photographs I put up about people like Robin and Kelly and Sue Silverstein speak to much more than me and my town.
These are people of great character, they work hard, respect what they do and the people they serve, and seem to me an integral part of the American character. They also have love in their hearts.
It’s not just about the town, these people have universal relevance, they are in every town, we all know some people like them. You will never see them on the news. In our twisted world, it is impossible for them to get much recognition for what they do.
I love to do that.
People like Robin seem to have a special kind of pride in their work, they go far beyond what they need to do, or are even expected to do.
You may remember Kelly, the much-loved bartender/waitress/manager, table clearer at the former Bog Restaurant. I took photos of Kelly nearly every week and posted the on the blog. I miss her. I loved her radiant smile but also greatly respected her competence and sense of responsibility.
The Bog shut down a few months ago, and just recently re-opened , Kelly works on Friday nights (it’s too crammed for me to go there Fridays) but otherwise she has moved on, she’s working as a receptionist for a car repair shop.
Our paths rarely cross, and I doubt I will see a lot of her again. That’s the nature of my life, people come and go, I’m not good at looking back.
But I owe her a lot.
Kelly was a more influential figure than one might think. When she told me she had taken her sick and pregnant dog to the vet to save her life, and had a $1,300 vet bill, I shuddered to think how many drinks she would have to pour to pay that bill. I didn’t have the money to do it.
I asked the readers of the blog if we could help her pay it. Two days later, I brought her a check for $1,500 dollars. She was flabbergasted.
I was stunned to see what good a blog can also be used for. I believe everyone with a large blog following or millions of Twitter followers might consider using them for good as well as for trolling, sticking their nose in other people’s business, or raging at one another.
I love that Maria uses hers to support people, especially women, as well as sell her art.
Kelly gave birth to the Army Of good. The rest, as they say, is history.
Of all things, the portraits I most love to take are are of strong and competent women. In my town there is really no functioning general media any longer. People like Robin and Kelly are rarely, if ever recognized, but there is something heroic about them to me.
Taking these portraits of people who are not often seen is the things I most love, and hopefully show that blogs can be useful for more than ranting or navel-gazing.
Maria and I went to Brandon, Vt. Friday morning, to the Vermont Knitting Mill to pick up her newest batch of yarn, this time all in beautiful colors, all dyed. She was dazzled and delighted. She will put them up for sale on her Etsy Shop sometime over the weekend, you can check on her blog for details.
On the way to Brandon, we stopped at one of our favorite places, the Wooden Soldiers Diner in Fairhaven, Vt. I’ve really never had a more delicious breakfast – an egg sandwich (english muffin), two strips of bacon, home fries.
The atmosphere in the Wooden Soldier is right out of Norman Rockwell. Policemen at one booth, young couple at another, old men gossiping at the counter. Patricia runs a classic diner as well as can be done.
There is a lot of literature about the emotional toll of being a mother and wife in our culture, and in most of the world.
“The Cost Of Living” is a brilliant addition to the genre, it is about how the British author Levy (Hot Milk, Swimming Home) escaped a suffocating marriage at the age of 50 and set out to begin to take herself seriously as an artist and a free person.
The critics are calling this a “post-feminist” memoir in that it moves to re-define feminism in a different and very personal way.
“It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end,” she writes. “Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early 21st century.”
In this context, she sets out alone to expand her life and vision. She had two daughters, but they do not appear often or distinctly in this book, and that is sort of the point. She is not writing as a mother, but as a person.
After her divorce, Levy becomes a poor writer working and freezing in a friend’s shed to support her two daughters. She reject’s society’s conventional ideas about what a woman is expected to do with her life.
The memoir is, in many ways, the story of every woman throughout all of history who exhausted herself and her love and labor making a home or growing up in an oppressive family, living a life that turns out to serve the needs of everyone except herself.
Right away, the book struck a deep chord for me because this was for much of her life also the story of Maria, my wife, lover and great friend and partner. The memoir became personal for me because at ever turn, I began substituting Maria for Levy and almost every time, it fit perfectly.
Reading the book, I felt I was on two parallel journeys, not one.
The story of the suppressed woman seems sometimes to be almost universally true to me, even in the homes of good fathers and decent husbands and caring brothers.
Suppressing women seems to be an almost biological function of being a man, even if it is sometimes unintentional, and we know it is often quite intentional. There are just too many women telling the same story. Sometimes, I think that is what all of the “populist” turmoil in our country is about.
“The pain of the contemporary middle-aged male who, having failed to entirely suppress women, perceives himself as disempowered is a delicate matter,” writes Levy. So it is.
Like Levy, Maria has spent a lifetime fighting for her identity and figuring out what it is.
She was suppressed not only by one husband, but also by her family, who simply could not celebrate her identity and individuality or accept it. When there is trouble, Maria doesn’t really know how to get angry, an important defense mechanism for individuals and oddballs. She asks herself “what is wrong with me?”
Mr. Rogers, our fantasy teacher and friend, told children that they were all special, each in her own way. But society at large never quite got the message.
Schools and parents often push gifted and creative children away from their bliss and make them feel stupid, ashamed and worthless. What is so wonderful about Maria is not that she is like everyone else, but that she is not like anyone else.
But no one ever told her that, so she didn’t know
The people around her could never see it that way or convey to her the wonder and beauty of it.
For decades, she felt shamed into going to Sunday dinner every Sunday of her life, the idea of saying no was a trauma.
Levy, confronted with similar emotional suppression, made the same decision Maria did, and just as late in life. At all costs, she had to break away and learn how to be herself and love herself.
Eventually, Maria broke out and stopped going to Sunday dinner. Without it, her family had no way of communicating with her. They stopped calling her or seeing her or knowing much about her.
Free of these invisible chains, she began to live her own life.
The farther she got from those dinners, the happier and more fulfilled she was. The further Levy got from her marriage, the more she found the freedom and independence she wanted.
Without saying so, or perhaps even knowing it, Maria’s family essentially disowned her, shunning her without ever quite saying so. We love you, she was told, please come back to our dinners. That was all she was told.
That’s what parents are taught to say to children caught in cults.
That was as far as any conversation ever got, and now, there are very few conversations.
Every morning, Maria goes out into the pasture – sometimes in her wedding dress – to shovel out the manure and put it in our pile. Every morning, she affirms her own identity, looking very much her own ever evolving self, and looking nothing like any other farm person, male or female, who shovels manure every morning.
Someone wrote me recently to compliment Maria on her “fashion” sense and suggest she was a very different kind of “farm wife.” I guess that is so. Whenever I hear the term, I think of change.
I don’t think of Maria as a farm wife, the term seems outdated to me. I have met many women on many farms who still call themselves farm wives, and who refer to their husbands as “my farmer.”
My friend Carol Gulley and I have had several conversations about this, she sees her husband Ed as the dominant figure on their farm, and calls him “my farmer,” she writes about him in that way and openly sees herself working and living in support of him and her family.
Yet she is just as much a farmer as he is, works just as hard, milks as many cows, shovels as much manure, drives in a tractor just as long, and I cannot imagine describing her in any other way than as a dairy farmer, just like Ed.
Ed would be the first to say she is just as much of a farmer as he is.
There is an individual choice here, but more and more women are rejecting a system of work and life in which men – and families – find different ways of suppressing and dominating women, even if it is not their intension
You don’t have to just beat someone to abuse them, you can just as brutally damage their sense of self.
Joseph Campbell often wrote about a phenomenon he witnessed in his teaching career (so have I) in which men and families so often suppressed the creative desires of women by encouraging them to stay away from art and creative, by shaming them to get “safe” jobs or “day” jobs, have children, push aside their bliss and ambition and do what is expected of them.
“What else was there to do?,” asks Levy in her memoir. “To become the person someone else had imagined for us is not freedom – it is to mortgage our life to someone else’s fear.”
These women, Campbell said, invariably ended up living “substitute” lives.
The lucky ones came to their senses later in life, he sayd, like Levy, and pursued their passions and callings. The men in their relationships often had to be shed, so were their families.
What is beautiful about the Levy book is how wonderfully she captures the interior process of this new kind of apolitical and solitary liberation, a new way for women to look at their lives.
Maria’s revolution is quite internal, quite personal: she brings her own style and fashion sense to her art, dress, friendships, to everything she does, it is her mark of identity and individuality. It is the opposite of a group.
In the first years of our marriage, I went to a number of family functions with her, and I saw what she means, and I saw that she was right. I couldn’t be myself either at those dinners either, and no one seemed to care who I was or what I was about.
We were just expected to be there because that was what everyone did on Sunday afternoons.
Eventually, and with great pain and anxiety, Maria stopped going to family functions. It did feel like leaving a cult, it took months before she could find the strength to do it.
She still talks to her mother often and visits her frequently.
Her family will only say they love her and wish for her to come back to the family dinners. When she hears this, she feels once again like a sick ward in a mental hospital or cult, they assume she must be broken or sick if she insists on being herself.
Like Levy, Maria always felt that her family and her first husband did not know who she is, and did not want to know who she is. It’s especially ironic, because that’s all she really wants from them, it costs nothing and is a basic human right, and she will never find it because they will never offer it.
They cannot help but suppress her, she is simply too different, and it is what they know.
Levy and Maria both reached the same conclusion, they each had to set out alone to find a new way of living. It is a long, hard and wrenching process which Levy captures in this short but powerful memoir.
There is no doubt her that Levy is looking at the world in a different, post-feminist way.
She found contemporary feminism a sort of tired masquerade, an elaborate costume she no longer has any interest in wearing. In “The Cost Of Living,” Levy begins to notice the ways in which women instinctively defer to men, or accept being dominated and suppressed or ignored by men.
Her memoir plunges deeply and skillfully into the artist and the philosopher’s personal struggle to reconcile sexual love and conventional marriage with intellectual and personal liberty.
The long and entrenched idea of family and marriage is breaking down all over the world, women are looking beyond these ideas for fulfillment and love and work. They don’t care to be suppressed any longer.
In a way, Levy’s book, like Maria’s life, is a poignant manifesto for a new way for women to live in the post-Rockwell world, where we will all have to paint a different picture of their lives.