Sanctuary

In many ways, buildings are like people.  As they grow older, they wrinkle, creak and groan.  They become weak.  With age, other people lose interest in them.  They move away, taking away all care and affection with them.

But like people who have become more and more antique, buildings of a certain age become mysterious and eccentric.  They harbor odd secrets; hidden twists and kinks that defy explanation.  Or if there is an explanation, it sometimes lingers close to the unbelievable.  One walks timidly towards its shore, as if it were a lake made of fire.

During these contemporary times we quake with fear.  And in our anxiety we turn to technology to protect our homes.  They are monitored with wires, alarms and machinery; they are locked, bolted and secured with fences and gripped with steel.  We see our threats in the night; we hear the footsteps – the hand on the door, the nails on the window.

But before all the modern devices, the gears and utilities, the engines and the tools, during a vague, historical time, the enemy was more nebulous.  It was part of an obscure and ethereal population, one which cast no shadow and possessed no dimension. It was born from the elements, lived in the shadows and huddled in spectral corners.

So the weaponry that people resorted to was odd, symbolic.  They were designed to pierce the haunting spirits that cast no reflection; the invisible wraiths that gathered outside, their breath collecting on the windows like troubled clouds.  They hid them in the depths of their homes, in the comforting places:  inside hearths, below beds, nestled in the frameworks and timbers of doorways.

Witch bottles, filled with an assortment of curiosities and charms that represented the earth, the body and the home, would be buried deep in the structure of a building.  Witch bottles could contain sea water, earth, sand, feathers, flowers, salt, oil, vinegar or wine:  fragrant, worldly and safe.  Sometimes urine, hair, nail clippings, bone and blood would be added – the remnants of humanity.  Each bottle had its own complex recipe to counteract the nefarious magical schemes of all evil spirits.

The dried bodies of cats have also been found within a home’s walls – posed courant, fleshless and feral.  Their desiccated muscles are still tense – prepared to attack whatever malevolence that would dare permeate the wood and brick of their arid coffin.

Entire skeletal menageries reclined deep inside a building’s heart, like benign parasites.  Rats and horses’ skulls kept their strange and silent vigil, waiting for the inevitable, invisible invasions.

A 14th century English saint once claimed that he had trapped the devil in a boot – the monster’s acrid breath coiling between leathers and singeing the laces.  Ever since then shoes have been closeted in chimneys, under floors, above ceilings, around doors and windows, in the roof – homely icons symbolic of humanity born of the earth.  These waiting collections were the scuffed charms used against the evil machinations surrounding the home trapped inside dark perimeters.

The only outward sign that a house was under spiritual protection were the “witch marks” that were tattooed across rafters and the wooden frameworks of fireplaces and bed chambers.

An assortment of circles, triangles and crosses invoking the Virgin Mary, vague geometric shapes knitted together to create cat’s-cradle-like “demon traps”, they have been found in buildings such as Knole House, the Fleece Inn and Sevenoaks.

Marks have been found scorched and scratched into the dense oak beams beneath the floors of 17th century Knole, in particular near the fireplace, a common entrance for witches and demons with no fear of flame and ember.

Originally built during the 1400’s, the Fleece Inn is laid equally thick with such traps – they have also been found by the door, to keep inopportune devilish visitors out.

In the early 17th century, the great house at Sevenoaks was being prepared for the anticipated visit of James I.  It was shortly after the failed Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 and was a time of national paranoia:  it was not enough that the conspirators were condemned to a traitor’s dreadful tripartite death, or that the new tradition of the effigies of Guy Fawkes burning merrily had been born.  The carpenters working to construct the new state rooms of Sevenoaks took no chances, carving witch marks and demon traps in the bed chambers that had been prepared for James.

Embargoed to 0001 Wednesday November 5 A view of the 17th century 'witch marks' hidden beneath floorboards of National Trust property Knole in Sevenoaks, Kent, which were discovered during a major repair and conservation programme currently underway at the property. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday November 4, 2014. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

They are scattered across countrysides and crooked streets – the old, whispering houses, with their mysteries rattling deep inside them or scored across their fragrant skin.  It is said that some are haunted, and perhaps they are – by owners or patrons not ready to vacate the comforting buildings with their walls of patterned woods.  Or maybe they are troubled by the spirits and familiars that still struggle in the demon traps that were set for them long ago.

Wishes

My father was a jazz disc jockey.  From the early to mid-50’s he was the host of  “Nick’s Musical Nitecap” – his surname robbed of a syllable and a couple of letters in order to put a listening public squeamish at the sound of a full-fledged Italianate  name at ease.

He has a smudged and mimeographed program from the station – KCSB-FM, San Bernardino.

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His photograph is just visible:  dark-haired and pompadoured, sitting behind a Western Electric microphone.

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When he left, he took his favorite records with him:  Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Lennie Niehaus, Dave Brubeck, Lee Konitz.  Some were Fantasy Record releases, printed on gem-colored vinyl.  And now they are mine.  They are still playable and are quite priceless to me, eBay’s opinions be damned.

Now it’s very rare for me to wish I was an older person.  However, I do wish I was an adult in 1953, living in San Bernardino, rather than the nameless hope of a nation that did not know what it was in for.

I’d then be able to listen to my father’s DJ voice, which would have been…articulate?  Mellifluous?  Spare?  Expansive?  How I wish I knew.  How I wish I’d been there; listening to dad wax poetic – perhaps – on West Coast jazz and then hearing Mulligan’s most eloquent alto sax.

I do have photographs.  Bu I wish I had more.  More in number certainly; but also I wish they could communicate more…more about a part of my father’s life that surely rises him to a plateau of Awesome.

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It has been my privilege and great good luck to have heard my father’s voice for many years – but may I allow myself to be greedy and wish for just a few more?  I can’t believe it would be unreasonable.

My father has done, achieved so much to make me proud of him, to make me love him:  from Emmy awards to tomato gardens, from taking us fishing to taking us to Vegas.  So a stint as DJ makes him even more of an accomplishment, and makes a daughter wish she was with him for longer than would be considered realistic.

On this Father’s Day I do wish my father will know these things – my pride, my love, my deep sentimentality, my envy at all of those fans of his that listened to his Musical Nitecap.

I love you dad, and all that jazz.

My Birthday, My Way

My gift:

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My cake:

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My right to look on any birthday gift or cake with all the predatory and possessive joy of a hyena discovering the freshly killed and untouched carcass of a zebra.

So, as tomorrow is the birthday whose age Dares-Not-Speak-Its-Name (they all have been for some time now), my mind does tend to stray.  It strays because I’m old.  But it also strays because I would like to take the time to thank you, my pretty blog friends, for all of your attentions, and to wish all of your own birthdays to be happy and buoyant and to likewise be liberally scattered with many welcome carcasses.

Lillie’s Apologia

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‘I resent Mrs Langtry, she has no right to be intelligent, daring and independent, as well as lovely’.

  • George Bernard Shaw

‘I would rather have discovered Lillie Langtry than America.’

  • Oscar Wilde

Lillie Langtry was a great and unique beauty.  She was considered such a one, in fact, that it became her career.  She was a professional beauty – a profession that could only have been devised during her heyday, the gilded, steely 1880’s. It was a subtle democracy:  a way for society to feast on demure helpings of scandal, and for the tiny rivulets of respectability to trickle into the demimonde.

The PB’s face and form were her invitation – the key to unlock any door, to gain entrance to any party.  Her image was seen daily, on the postcards and photographs that were displayed in shop windows:  desire pressed under glass.  She decorated any room – she gave it cache, and was that new acquisition required by the clever and discerning hostess.

Yet to our eyes, Lillie seems strange, almost coarse-looking.  Her face is broad, with a bone structure that is unsubtle and a profile that is strong and indelicate.  Her eyes are pale and distant.  Her torso is powerful and buxom, disappearing into a waist that is as cinched and twisted as a bound foot.  She seems to our modern sensibilities, graceless and unfeminine.

But we are only looking at a photograph.  Lillie Langtry’s beauty dates to an earlier time – her profile and build were considered classical Greek – ‘Praxitelean’ – her followers likened her to a goddess.  Oscar Wilde proclaimed her “The New Helen of Troy”.  Her Amazonian physicality alienated her from her dainty contemporaries.

Photographs do not share with us her famous coloring; we can only envy those who witnessed it first-hand: the blue eyes; rich, milky skin and auburn hair that set around her neck like bronzed sunlight.

In addition, Lillie’s intelligence set her apart – it set a fine balance, crossing a vast ocean of wit to journey from ribald, to masculine, to a winking modesty.  She was daring, sly and feral.  No photograph would dare show that.

All things considered, she was irresistible.

It is common knowledge – among those who make it a point to know such things – that Lillie Langtry was the first officially recognized mistress of King Edward VII:  an admirer of lovely and witty women.  She became good and lasting friends with his modest but pretty wife, Alexandria.

But Lillie herself had many lovers, as is the wont of a lovely and witty woman.  For her wanderings she has – then as now – been labeled infamous, immodest, a courtesan, a jeweled whore.  But I find this wild labeling, however, to be unfair.

I believe that Lillie was a romantic; she fell in love often, and with great generosity:  as if her latest love would be her last and greatest.  Would we not do the same?  What would we do, what would we give, if we thought we had reached our final love, our final day?

Why, everything.

The Splintered Target

Morning arrived like a javelin

From a dawn that coiled like muscles

Hurled down from the Olympian sun

Crouching like Helios

Behind his blazing chariot

Pulled by horses raw with fire

It pierced the shadows

And they shattered like glass

Into shards of dusky prisms

They were sliced like diamonds

Into a multi-faceted dawn

With one perfect throw

But in twelve hours the splintered target would become whole again

And the haloed god with a crown blistered with dragons

Would raise his mighty arm once more

The Varied Shadows

We Compliment Each Other

During the course of her life, my extraordinary mother has received many compliments.  They followed her then as they still do now – a pleasant enough shadow, certainly.

This is not a surprise.  With her coloring; her clear and sculpted profile; her pretty, dainty mannerisms; her charming wit and subtle observations and her undisputed style…she is in all ways enviable to all people.  They cannot help but burst with envy – couched of course within the framework of the most discreet and modest etiquette.  In other words, they try not to stare.

As for myself, I am not very open with my compliments.  In most cases I offer them up, silent as a waiter, and only if I am in a particularly good mood – if it’s the first day of autumn or if I’m entering a restaurant and there is something more than egg whites on the horizon.

But I am describing situations where I am interacting with strangers.  I hardly ever compliment my loved ones:  I always believe that such observations are assumed, and that they are all mind readers.

And I have never complimented my rare and beautiful mother.

How great a sin is this?  How terrific an error?  Compliments are often considered shallow things; shallow swipes of a needle – an artful tattoo:  symbolic to the skin, useless to the heart or mind.  But a compliment also gives pleasure; it indicates respect and recognition…all the things that my mother deserves.

And here is where I must tell you about the greatest compliment that I have ever received – and how swaddled it is with irony.  Ironic in that it comes from my mother, with her history of admiration, and that it is given to her daughter who has chosen to express nothing.

I was told this twice, in two variants – twin charms that I will wear to the end of my days.

Once she told me once that I was her greatest achievement.  Also, equally memorably, she told me that she believed she was put on this earth to have me.

Now, these things surely go further, deeper than comments on clothing and jewelry – as vital as those things are.  These comments come from a place that is fundamental and parental – a nurturing place of love and pride:  a fierce, mothering territory.  And I have never received anything so moving, or so grand.

And so I said nothing.

What I did instead was bask – in the generosity, in the beauty, in the honesty – my ego purred in the light of her comments like the laziest of cats.  I was too busy absorbing, to offer anything in return.  Which is unfortunate, as I could have said many things – necessary ones; things that made my fundamentally shy and selfish nature squirm in discomfort.

It comes down to this.  That for as long as I could remember my mother has been an indispensable, crucial, and inspiring part of my life.    She shares a light with the stars that I watch every night and long to wear in my hair as a reminder of a beauty so exquisite yet so steadfast.  From the time that I was young and nebulous to when I was adolescent and stupid to my current years when I am just as unformed and stupid I knew that there was no one like her.  It is terrifying how much I do depend on her.

I know that my mother has her times of doubt and sadness – possibly my low self-esteem has been inherited – and I wish I could do more…say more.  A child has few duties, but chief among them is to try to give back all that his or her parents have given them.

So I am trying to, but my hands and heart are so full.  I am laden with a lifetime of gratitude unspoken and unshared.

So Mother, I will begin by wishing you Happy Mother’s Day.  And also to say how much I truly love you.

Beauty And The Brat

Beauty And The Brat

“Black Man, White Ladyship”

Nancy Cunard’s face is a stark and inescapable presence on my wall.  It is arsenic-white and cruel, wracked with a harsh intellect and a furious and judgmental beauty.  Her eyes are wild and pale, surrounded by thick kohl borders. Her fleshless hands, like those of an unconvincing angel, are lightly clasped beneath her chin.

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Equally remarkable are her arms, hidden beneath a cascade of thick bracelets, a carved paradise of wood, bone and ivory.  None of the massive bangles are the same:  they are an exotic anthology of colors and textures, an inviolable river extending from wrist to elbow. They are eloquent accoutrements that weigh heavily on her skin and speak of a desire to escape and explore. Their reflection of Nancy’s interest in Cubism and African culture, her feral, eccentric appearance and her family name were like spurs that goaded the media into action. Throughout the 1920’s her pale and intense face could be seen everywhere.

At first she was mocked for what surely seemed like the artistic pretensions of an heiress yearning for some bohemian freedom.  However eventually fashionable society came to recognize this style, labeling it “the barbaric look”.   But it’s very possible that Nancy Cunard did not care one way or the other.

Her mother, however, cared very much.  She was Maud Alice Burke – an American heiress and influential London society hostess called by the London Times “probably the most lavish hostess of her day”.  She invited to her salons politicians, poets, writers, artists…anyone, so long as they could insure an amusing evening.  She was a supporter of Wallis Simpson – hoping the American would marry her king and so possibly be given a court appointment herself.  She renamed herself Emerald – she would be seen with oceans of bracelets covering her arms in a green froth.  She ignored her daughter when she was a child.  When she was an adult, she disinherited her altogether.

Doubtless, she was displeased with Nancy for many reasons – she was a member of society as well, but the uninhibited society of experimental thought and act.  Nancy investigated the artistic underbelly of the 1920’s, a world of modern frights which would have sent the Bright Young Things skittering away in their rolled down nylons and beaded dresses.

But the one truly unforgivable thing that Nancy did was to be seen – and to move in with – an African-American man:  Henry Crowder, a gifted jazz musician whom she met in 1928 in Venice.  Self-taught, with a career that began in the parlors of the brothels in Washington D.C., he rose to importance when he moved to Europe.

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When she first heard of this association, Maud exclaimed, in tones of high-pitched aristocratic outrage, in a voice trained for the patrician slur:

“Is it true that my daughter knows a Negro?”

It was.  In addition, Nancy became an activist for civil rights in the United States.  She visited Harlem – not to sit with the curious audiences at the Cotton Club, or Gladys’ Clam House (where Gladys Bentley wears a tuxedo and high hat) – but to see for herself the racist attitudes that stewed there and beyond.

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She befriended the mothers of the Scottsboro boys, exchanging letters with them and taking over much of the fundraising involved in their campaign.  This case involved nine African-American teenagers accused in Alabama of raping two white women on a train in 1931.   It was a legal embarrassment:  with lynch mobs, frame-ups rushed trials and bigoted judges.

Three years later she helped edit the groundbreaking Negro Anthology, which she dedicated to Crowder.  It included prose and poetry by African-American writers such as Langston Hughes and George Padmore, in addition to her own account of the Scottsboro case.  The media – still fascinated by her cultural eccentricity – paid such extensive attention to her project that she began to receive anonymous threats and hate mail.  Some were published in the book, though some were not because as she explained, with regret, that they were “obscene, so this portion of American culture cannot be made public”.

But it was in 1931 that Nancy published her most savage assault:  on racism and on the English aristocracy, culminating in an attack on her mother:  an icon for all that was wrong in society.  It was a pamphlet entitled, “Black Man and White Ladyship”.  Lady Cunard’s high-strung query, undoubtedly still ringing in her daughter’s ears, is quoted.  She suggested that her mother attend one of the “choicer lynchings” in the “cracker southern states of U.S.A.”

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The work is full of questions that riddle its pages like bullet holes:

“How come, white man, the rest of the world is to be re-formed in your dreary and decadent image?”

“I believe that no fallacy about the Negroes is too gross for the Anglo-Saxon to fall into. You are told they are coarse, lascivious, lazy, ignorant, undisciplined, unthrifty, undependable, drunkards, jealous, envious, violent, that their lips, noses and hair are ugly, that they have a physical odour-in the name of earth itself what peoples, individually, can disclaim any of these?”

Throughout her life Nancy Cunard railed against society’s racism and the “stultifying hypocrisy” that tainted its sweet shallows.  Her passion was such that it seared the flesh from her bones, until all that remained were her undisciplined good intentions.  At the end of her life she was found wandering the streets in Paris, with nothing left of her triumphant life as political and artistic muse except her wits, twisted into paroxysms of fury.  She weighed 57 pounds.

It Knows Not What It Does

“Naughty!”

In a way it is such a modest admonition.  It is true:  the recipient of such a judgement should cease its damaging ways immediately.  And yet the word also indicates a type of bemused shock; an alarm that is both subdued and charmed.

But I was not bemused or charmed – or any of those show-moving emotions.  I was surprised and angry.  And yet this was the first word that came to mind.

My verdict was directed towards the cat.  She has always looked to me like the very essence of Pet, for which I hope she will forgive me.  Yet she is indeed a very soft and rounded girl.  All muscles and instinct, a velvet trust inherited from her ancestors, have been hidden under a life of grooming appointments and bowls of salmon broth.    All of her wild gifts were forgotten.

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A bell hung from her throat, like a dainty insult.  And she wore a collar bearing a name that she did not want.  She is a domestic animal, yet her blood is unquiet with an undefined threat.  She still moves like a subtle hellion.

I see her most days.  Usually she is in possession of a square of sidewalk, waiting for the warmth of the concrete to saturate her tamed flesh.  But one morning she was most attentive, and I was not included in her hard, golden stare – which occasionally has been my honor.

And then she began to move.  Not run…but to move with the noiseless bearing of a hunter; a half-forgotten locomotion commandeered by the silent, mindless intent of a sociopath.

I tried to warn her intended victim – a mourning dove:  foolish, oblivious and feeding – but its escape was a low, depleted flight.  I watched the savage miscreant’s launch into the air, the arch of her torso and the extended, hopeful limbs.

I saw the gleam of her claws as they singed the dove’s feathers; I saw her gaze expectantly into the sky.   And I stood awhile, waiting to forgive the pet that knows not what it does.

I Should Not Envy Them

“Her name, accompanied as it was by her title, added to her physical person the duchy which cast its aura round about her and brought the shadowy, sun-splashed coolness of the woods of Guermantes into this drawing-room…I came to know many of the Duchess’s distinctive features notably…her eyes, which captured as in a picture the blue sky of a French country afternoon broadly expansive, bathed in light even when no sun shone…”

  • Marcel Proust

Remembrance of Things Past:  “The Guermantes Way”

I should not envy them so; these beautiful, languorous women, collapsed like corseted kittens on their sofas, conversing with their boudoir skin; their soft, fragrant intellect.

Subtle and notorious, these ladies controlled a groveling society that stared into their dance cards and invitations like so many pools of Narcissus.  They held the reins – a silken touch resting on the demimonde’s gilded shoulders.

So I insist that I should not envy them.  But their lives were like honey – thick, lazy, sweet.  Their wealth was undeniable; their seductiveness incurable.  So I do envy them:  for their romantic, animal lives; their velvet wit; their exotic rapture.

By all rights they should by now be long forgotten.  But their images remain – and this alone will guarantee that they will live forever.

I am thinking of one photograph in particular.  It is a famous one and has woven a hypnotic path through my consciousness for many years.  It is known for the beauty of its subject and for the twisting, loving embrace of her gown.

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Ėlisabeth, Countess Greffulhe, Proust’s Duchess of Guermantes, was the Queen of late 19th century Parisian salons.  Personalities from James Whistler to Gustave Moreau to Marie Curie to Edward VII populated her rooms, where the high words of art and science could entwine and grow only to evaporate in the smoke of the King’s ubiquitous cigars.

The Countess was a magnificent creation – statuesque yet sensitive, with an expression full of dignity and incantation.  Her eyes were dark, reflecting a mysterious violet light.  A besotted writer, Mina Curtiss, described them as “The dark purple-brown tinged petals of a rarely seen pansy.”

But we might never have seen her face had the photographer not taken pity on our curiosity.  He has arranged his stately subject so that she stares into a mirror. An expression echoes back at us, as pert as a spoiled school girl’s:   with an upturned nose, the eyebrows arched and mocking.   She might begin a flirtation or a discourse on modern dance…or just as easily pull a competitor’s pigtails.

Her hair is swept into a chorus of curls, crowned with a galaxy of pearls:  the twisting movement continuing through her neck and brought to a stop by the soft plateau of her shoulders. The rest of the photograph is dedicated to her celebrated gown.

It is black velvet, with a latticework of white lilies that travels down her spine, all the way to the hem where it pools into an exhausted garden.  It lies flat against the panels of whalebone and grips the strong slow curve of torso and hips. With the pinched, breathless waist, the outline of irresistible femininity is complete.

Yet the Countess did not like the idea of her photographs being circulated; such invasive reality was a private thing – meant only for an elect few.  She also disliked Proust and his hysterical worship.  Observations such as “in her there is not a feature that can be found in any other woman or anywhere else” – she found sticky, over-wrought and in poor taste.

What would she say if she knew that such envy and admiration would continue unscathed for more than 100 years?  And what would she think of those who still choose to write about her – and who dared commit her image to memory, holding it as they would hold it in their hands?

The Changling

I might have walked too close

Or passed within the shadow

Of the nursery hidden in the trees

For I quickly felt the parent’s rebuke

A pierce and pluck of hair 

A painful scold above me

Intuitive and mindlessly brave

 

I faced my aggressor

In whose amber eyes

Glittered precision and suspicion

Diminutive and vicious dominion

With anger lurking in its blood

DNA waiting to surface

Into the new and pastel colored season

 

Then after a perched debate

And avian consideration

It vanished with invisible decision

And like handwriting that had come to life

But with no pen for guidance

My hair arched and curled in its grip

Destined for a bed built out of shadow and green

 

And throughout the day my head throbbed

Victim to such tiny fury

That rang through the air pealing surprise

But at night though my windows were closed

I heard soft flutters

The gentle murmurings of flight

And the soft crush of feathers across my cheek

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