The Gift

On Christmas last year my stepfather gave me a gift, but before I started to open it, he said, “Wait. There’s baggage that comes with this gift, Linda.” I know about gifts—after all I am the daughter and step-daughter of anthropologists.

            “All right,” I said, and started opening the wrapping paper.

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It was a coffee table book on Tibet, one that in all likelihood he had picked up from his living room side table. Bill has been fascinated with Tibet since a brief visit there five years ago.

             “I want you and Blase to take me to Tibet,” he said.

I love this man. He married my mother when I was myself a young bride, and they had a glorious and passionate life until she died in 1997. Bill is now ninety-two—I would do anything for him. He is the one person I often speak to about my mother, a courageous woman who remains a constant inspiration to me. Bill always sends me a note on her birthday.

Bill wanted me to organize our trip, not travel with an organized tour like his previous visit. But Tibet is not easy to enter. You have to travel either from Kathmandu or China. Outsiders cannot visit Tibet as one would a western European country, France for example—climbing the Eiffel Tower, visiting Notre Dame, or taking the train to Versailles. Any person visiting Tibet needs not only a Chinese visa, but a Tibetan visa, and a guide to go anywhere outside of the capital, Lhasa. I made contact with a Tibetan guide service, determined that our trip would benefit the Tibetan people.

I asked my daughter, Ariel, if she wanted to join the three of us, and she jumped at the opportunity. We talked about what painting supplies we would take with us and began looking forward to painting together. Meanwhile, well-meaning friends warned me it would be dangerous to take Bill from sea-level to over 12,000 feet.” They had a point, but when I mentioned this to Bill, he waved it off. “I’ll take Diamox and be fine.”

Obtaining our Chinese visas was the first hurdle. For various bureaucratic reasons Bill’s application was rejected twice, while ours went through after some artful arranging. Several weeks passed and the timing was getting down to the wire. Without Bill’s Chinese visa, we couldn’t apply for the Tibetan visas, and if we didn’t do that shortly, it would be too late. I called Bill.

            “Bill, what do you think?”

            “Maybe I’m just not meant to go,” he said.

            “Well, if you’re not going, we’re not going.”

            “Oh, no!” he said. You must go! The three of you must go without me.”

Getting our visas was arduous, but the re-applications, hotel reservations, letters, documents, and day by day plans had worn me out. I’d spent so much time organizing this trip, arranging, choosing accommodations, and so forth, that I was ready to let it go. Bill was the impetus; without him I was no longer sure about going.

I called Ariel and told her it didn’t seem Bill would get his visa in time and we needed to decide if we would go without him. Blase was on the fence because his mother’s health was failing. I didn’t know what Blase would decide. I hoped he’d come with us, but wanted her to know it might be just the two of us.

“It’s fine just the two of us.” she said.

          “We’ll have to be courageous,” I replied.

           “We can do it.”

She wanted to go no matter what. It was decided. Ariel and I would go with or without the men.

Detail from   Journey  , Outdoor Installation by Tristan Govignon at Old frog Pond Farm & Studio. Photo: Robert Hesse

Detail from Journey, Outdoor Installation by Tristan Govignon at Old frog Pond Farm & Studio. Photo: Robert Hesse

Blase visited his mother and after speaking with her and his brothers, he felt more at ease about being away and said he wanted to join us. On Monday, I wrote to Samdup, the person arranging our Tibetan itinerary, wired payment for the trip, and gave the ok to apply for our three Tibetan visas. These were being processed when on Thursday afternoon Bill received his Chinese visa from the embassy.  

I wrote again to Samdup:

                        Bill has his visa. I have attached the copy below. Please add him to our trip.

I didn’t know if there was time to re-apply as a quartet, but I was determined to do everything possible to have Bill go with us. Samdup replied that they needed to resubmit everything, but he would see what he could do to expedite the process. We still have not heard definitively, and our flight to Beijing leaves on Thursday, but we are planning to board our China Air airplane, fly to Beijing, and hopefully to Lhasa.

I still wonder a little, especially in the middle of the night, if we are we supposed to go. But I trust that without knowing the reason, there is something important for us to experience. Ariel and I are excited to share this opportunity with Blase and Bill, to visit a country surviving despite the trauma of its recent history, a country rich in spiritual teachings, one that has already brought so much wisdom to the West.

Cover Drawing by Robert Spellman for The Wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism, edited by Reginald Ray, Shambhala Pocket Library.

Cover Drawing by Robert Spellman for The Wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism, edited by Reginald Ray, Shambhala Pocket Library.

Pointers for a Writing Life

At the farm, for the month of June, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I will concentrate on the tasks in front of me. On the other days of the week, as much as possible, I plan to escape to a rental house on Cape Cod. It’s between Wellfleet and Truro on the ocean side, an area I love and where I have vacationed with my children since they were young. My plan is to work on a book I have been writing off and on for five years and more. I would like to finish it, am feeling the pressure to complete this project—or if it seems not-finish worthy, eject it. Send it over and out into the ethers—delete, delete. After all, it is only electronic bits of information.

But thankfully there is Annie Dillard. In her book, The Writing Life, she says, “Writing a book full-time takes between two and ten years.” She offers me relief. I have not been working full-time on this project. I have two other full-time jobs—art and the farm. She also says:

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight . . . As the work grows, it gets harder to control: it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.

I understand this ferocity. At home, I cannot open the book for it might take over, grab hold of a leg and not let go. When I am on the road, or somewhere else, anywhere really, on a train, in a hotel room, and now at the Cape, for some reason the danger is not present and I can turn to it, dive in, and to my astonishment, do the work I love—the search to shape of an event, or an object, with words. And then there is the book itself, becoming an entity of its own, taking over, devising its own life. The two of us now living together.

I am writing about moving to Old Frog Pond Farm, assuming the care of the abandoned orchard, and committing to bringing it back organically. What got me here? Why did my marriage fail? How has my Zen practice braided through the orchard work? And what lessons have I learned that appear in my art?

            Annie Dillard again:

The strain, like Giacometti’s penciled search for precision and honesty, enlivens the work and impels it toward is truest end. A pile of decent work behind him, no matter how small, fuels the writer’s hope . . .”

Yes, she is right, I do have hope. And then I fall short, I fail as I judge what I am writing. I hear myself say, I am not a real writer. I read other writers whose work I admire and see how my writing lacks their skill. How does one learn to write? Annie Dillard, thankfully, answers this question.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength; that page will teach you to write.

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Other than write, I take beach walks. On my first one, I stopped when I found a horseshoe crab upside down, it’s little pinchers barely moving. I turned it right side up and watched as it began to move. Its long tail spine pointing to where it had come from, its hulk moving towards the waves. It stopped after about ten feet, and I had this sickening feeling that it was dying, right there, in front of me. I touched its pointer, wriggled it from left to right, and it started up again, slowly, another six feet, scraping its way over the sand, leaving its foot-wide trail. We went through this ritual several more times, my teasing the pointer, the crab starting reluctantly to move, but each time it seemed to be moving more slowly.

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When it finally reached the waves, I felt this was its most precarious place to be. It stalled. It waited. The surf poured over its hard shell. It seemed to be waiting for something. Then a large wave carried it into the jumble of surf. I saw was the tail spine, sticking up above the wave, pointing.

 

 

My First Visit to the Farm

Fruit is ripening, farmers are planting, weeding and harvesting, and outdoor sculpture is being installed, but it wasn’t always this way. Sixteen years ago, I read the real estate listing for the property — five bedrooms, a detached garage/barn, apple orchard, and a chicken coop. I was a sculptor, not a farmer, and definitely not an orchardist, but the rentals I looked at were either too small or had no art studio space. That’s when my friend, Elizabeth, suggested I visit the farm; she had grown up here, and her parents had sold the property to its current owners.

It was mid-March, mud season in New England, when I turned off the highway, drove several miles, and rounded a bend on a narrow country road. I saw sad fences and a gray pond. The farmhouse needed paint and the outbuildings begged for repair. Winter’s old snow and patches of bare ground met my eye; nothing green hinted towards Persephone’s eventual rise from Hades.

I shook hands with the realtor and we entered the front door. A brick fireplace filled the living room where a few pieces of furniture had been placed. It didn’t feel like home, for every personal knickknack had been cleared away. I followed the realtor down three steps into the kitchen. Dark pine boards covered the walls and ceiling. There were no drawers or cabinets, only open shelves for plates, bowls, and glasses. Along one wall, heavy pots for making jam and stocks stood like sentinels guarding alien territory. Above a wood-burning cook stove hung a patchwork of blackened iron pans. This was a work kitchen.

We walked up the stairs and I peered into the small bedrooms with sloping walls and chimneys flues. Enough room for my three children. Simple and practical, the house was over 250 years old, and it had never been fixed up to be someone’s modern suburban dream. We entered the master bedroom, and for some reason I thought, If the house has hot water, everything will be fine. I turned on the hot water faucet in an avocado-colored sink, a popular sixties color, and warmth ran over my fingertips.

We walked outside again: I was drawn towards the pond. An American elm towered high above a small waterfall. Her thin hanging branches swayed in the breeze, and reflections rippled over the surface of the water. When so many elms had died all over America from Dutch Elm disease, this one was clearly thriving.

The Elm, May, 2002

The Elm, May, 2002

“Can I see the chicken coop?”

Inside the ramshackle white clapboard shed, I teased away thick curtains of cobwebs. Every surface was covered with slimy white-green chicken shit in varying stages of drying. Some forty old hens squawked, panicked by my presence. I had never been near a chicken, and was as much disgusted as fascinated by their gnarly feet, overgrown toenails, and featherless backs — the feathers, I later learned, were worn away by the roosters’ endless mounting.

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“What’s going to happen to all these birds?” I asked.
“Why? Would you want them?”
Why not, I thought to myself, not knowing anything about chickens.
 “Sure,” I said.
 “I’ll ask the owners for you,” the realtor responded.

The other side of the chicken coop housed a Kubota tractor. It came with the property. This orange machine was huge and I looked away. Alongside the shed, a rickety fence marked the wintered-over remains of a sizable kitchen garden. I loved tending a small garden and growing a few vegetables, but this was a garden that would feed a family all winter. Then, crossing the driveway, we walked into a brown, two-story unheated garage. Inside this empty space I could make a new studio. It would hold all the rusty metal, old tools, and machines I use to make sculpture.

The listing had mentioned an old orchard. “Where are the apples?” I asked. He casually gestured across the street. The road was lined with old apple trees. We walked across the street and followed an old cart road that bordered the orchard. I peered through rows of bare branches.

“What would you do with the apples?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I heard myself say. “I’d have to learn,”
“It’s hard to grow apples,” he cautioned.

I could feel a small delight rise. Pears, cherries, and peaches are all delicious, but apples figure in mythology, history, science, and even religion.  I wondered, could I grow apples?

The realtor and I walked to the back of the orchard to a small clearing near some wetlands. A giant bird flew overhead. “Great blue heron,” he said. I nodded, while peering into a weathered shed. Giant earth-encrusted tools silently stood in their stalls. Later I learned the names — manure spreader, back hoe, brush hog, but at the moment they were as otherworldly as the caw caw of the heron, that ancient pterodactyl.

I didn’t consider the reality of taking over a farm and an orchard. Yet something had happened as I walked the property. This place will keep me grounded, I thought to myself.

Now, sixteen years later,  the stately Elm is a decaying stump, and though a few new Elms have sprouted nearby, no other tree can replace that loss. Blase, my partner, and I are anticipating the opening of the new harvest season, admittedly with a mix of eagerness and trepidation. We love to greet old friends and welcome new people to the farm. We have a crop of apples this year, and the sculpture exhibit is going to be our largest and, we think, our best exhibit yet. But we don’t enjoy rushing to the phone at 10pm, and finding a customer wondering if we have Gala apples, their favorite.

I am more grounded than ever, but like the changing landscape we are beginning to think about what comes next. Change is what we can count on. We are getting older and beginning to feel different pulls. I want to do more art and Blase wants to work more with people. How will we grow and how will our journeys braid together and transform the landscape? Whatever field we cultivate, the heart will surely grow.

The Almata Apple, just picked!

The Almata Apple, just picked!

"What's in a Name?"

Granny Smith, Bramley’s Seedling, and the picaresque Bloody Ploughman are names of apples with unique histories, but I, too, have had my own journey with names. I was born Linda Bess Weiner. When I was a child I disliked my middle name; it seemed too old fashioned. I got the sense from my mother that she really didn’t like it either. The name came from my father’s mother, an overbearing woman. I imagine that my mother must have felt pressured to do what her mother-in-law wanted and thus named me after my great-grandmother. When I was about ten, my mother said I could change it, and we decided together it would be Elizabeth. The initials, LEW, had a nice ring to them, and she gave me a necklace with those letters. We didn’t say anything to my grandmother. However, it never rolled off my tongue without a hiccup of some kind, a hemming and hawing, an exclamation that it wasn’t my real middle name. And then of course the question followed: “What is my middle name?”

After a few years, I simply dropped having a middle name. I was Linda Weiner. It wasn’t a last name that I particularly liked either. There was just too much childhood teasing —  Oscar Meyer Weiner hotdogs and worse. Why couldn’t I have a normal last name? I especially felt this frustration given that my family had now moved from the working class refinery town of Chester, Pennsylvania, to Wynnewood, one of the towns of Philadelphia’s prominent Main Line. My schoolmates attended dances at the nearby Merion Cricket Club, but Jews were not allowed. We got along well enough at school, but clearly there were differences. My name gave away my legacy.

The English apple, Bloody Ploughman, was named after a ploughman who was shot by a local gamekeeper for stealing apples. And the popular, Granny Smith, was named after an Australian woman, Maria Smith, who rescued an apple growing in her compost heap. The Bramley, another English apple, was named for a Mr. Bramley who bought a house from Mary Ann Brailsford  where she had planted a seedling which grew astonishingly good cooking apples. Bramley allowed a local nursery to propagate it on the condition that it would be named after him. I might have avoided planting this apple if I’d known its patriarchal history.

A group of new apples sport the name, ‘Crisp,’ including Honey Crisp, Golden Crisp, and Cosmic Crisp. The “crisp” in the name indicates that these apples have been bred to be particularly crispy, something the early 21st century public desires. One of my favorite new apples is Bonkers, a cross between a Delicious and a Liberty produced by Cornell University's apple breeding program in Geneva, New York. Bonkers is large, extremely crispy and juicy, and very red; and it is scab free, important for our organic orchard. The name, Bonkers, also has some kick, especially compared to other new scab-free apples like Pristine, Liberty, and Freedom.

When I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to live with Paul Matisse, the father of my three children, I told him that I didn’t particularly like my last name. How could I like ‘Weiner’ when I was living with a ‘Matisse,’ one of the most illustrious names in 20th century art? Paul said, “Why don’t you change it?”  I immediately thought of the traditional Japanese poets who often took pen names. The Japanese haiku poet, Basho, over his lifetime published poems using three different names. Basho was the last one he adopted after his disciples built him a little hut and planted a basho, a banana tree, in front of it.

The idea appealed to me and I thought of a poetic name like River, a name taken from the natural world. Paul was quick to say, “No.” I think he imagined Linda River was too close to Joan Rivers or some Hollywood star’s stage name. “It should be a normal name,” he said, and he pulled out the Manhattan phone book, opened it at random to the H’s, and found Hoffman. So I took up Hoffman, and went to the Cambridge courthouse and officially changed my name. It was a sort of declaration that I no longer belonged to my family of origin. I was starting out fresh, a new person with Paul; I was a person without a family history. 

When, twenty years later, I moved to a rundown farm with a large pond in Harvard, Massachusetts, I decided that I wanted to give this new home a name. I was a small frog leaping into a big pond, not knowing what was waiting for me under the water. I named the farm, Old Frog Pond Farm, after Basho’s haiku.

Old Pond

            Frog Jumps

Splash of Water

It felt right to name the farm after a Japanese poem. It connected me to the time when I was living alone in Japan — young, inexperienced, and passionate about the Noh Theater.

Trying on a silk kimono with my Noh teacher, Takabayashi Koji Sensei.

Trying on a silk kimono with my Noh teacher, Takabayashi Koji Sensei.

Naming the farm after Basho’s poem was the beginning of finding a true name, a place where I was grounded in the reality of the soil, physical work, and natural beauty. As I found firm ground beneath my feet, my old names no longer mattered.

Unlike us, an apple likely has no consciousness of its name; it simply grows, producing blossoms, leaves, and fruit regardless of what we call it. But the name can change our perception of an apple and create its market appeal. In a similar way, our own names can make a difference. Some names roll off the tongue easily, others are poetic, or connect us to a much-loved family member. Many people at midlife go back to their full birth name, and discard their childhood nickname, capturing a new identity in doing so. In 2010, I formally took Buddhist vows, and my teacher gave me the Buddhist name, Shinji. Shin means truth and ji means soil or earth. Truth in the soil. One’s Buddhist name is meant to be a teaching, something to aspire towards. I like when I am called Shinji by my Buddhist sangha and friends, and I am perfectly happy being called, Linda, or Mama, or Babe, the name my husband, Blase, uses, or Ama, the name my granddaughter uses.

We have a few seedling apples in the field near the Medicine Wheel with no names. These started growing from pips in the pumice we dumped from our apple pressing two years ago. If they continue to grow, they will each produce a unique variety of apple. Most likely the apples will be small and bitter, but you never know, one of them could be sweet and crisp, or be a great cooking apple like the Bramley seedling. And what would I name it? The Shinji apple has a nice ring, but I think the first seedling apple we grow will be named for my first granddaughter, the Vita Apple, the apple of my eye!