Afar, From the Archives, Home

Notes from a Wild Childhood

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My sister and I were feral throughout much of our childhood. My most vivid memories are of cooking food over a campfire by a tepee out in a far, often-frightening, wooded corner of our land; of running through the dappled forests around our house wearing a billowing, homemade gown; of climbing up to the roof by a precarious route that involved an old stone wall and electrical wires to read up in the treetops; of dancing barefoot in the summer rains; of falling asleep on the screen porch to the sound of cicadas; and of hours upon hours spent drawing, painting and writing.

I was, at times, a little careless regarding personal safety in my unguarded activities—I broke my arm, stepped on scorpions, and once jumped off a roof—but I shied away from the truly dangerous, and generally erred on the side of safety. I was rarely bored; I relished every moment of free time I had. I resented school immensely and loved nothing so much as the potential of early Saturday morning. My imagination ran even more wild than I did, and around the age of perhaps six I began to experience the endless flow of words and stories that has yet to abate.

When I was eleven, I somehow argued my way into home schooling. My weeks lost whatever structure school imposed. In addition to the usual subjects, I read voraciously, took art classes, and wrote my first full-length novel (a charming little tale of revenge and friendship). I worked, even then, with the sort of self-motivation that would have never been possible if my time had been entirely accounted for, and with the kind of imagination that can only come of rampant freedom, physical and mental. It was the same impulse that led me to Oxford and into freelance writing, and I believe the same native drive to create (born out of a similarly wild childhood) that drew me to my husband, who spent his youth fashioning exceptionally accurate period weapons and woodland forts.

Of course, we needn’t confine our free roaming to childhood. Plane tickets and passports are all very well, but yards and parks, not to mention blanket forts, suited our purposes then—so why not now?

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Afar

Opus 40

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Opus 40 is the life’s work of sculptor Harvey Fite, who created the sprawling, labyrinthine structure from an old bluestone quarry. Inspired by Mayan ruins, the project began as a place for Fite to display his sculptures before becoming very much a sculpture in itself. For the next thirty-seven years, with little more than hand tools and ancient techniques, he single-handedly toiled over the massive six-acre architectural marvel, before dying of a fall while working on it, three years short of its anticipated forty-year completion.

All this does little to convey any sense of the place itself. It’s a beautiful, circuitous maze in rough hewn grey stone, with standing obelisks and resting pools of murky water. It’s warm rock and deep, cool shadow, winding stairs and steep ramps. Seen from above, it looks smooth and sculptural, but down in it you become lost amid sharp stones and narrow passageways.

Architectural Digest called it “a cousin of Stonehenge and the long since vanished Hanging Gardens of Babylon.” I found it evocative of the stone houses at Skara Brae. But there’s nothing quite like it, and if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Saugerties, New York, go wander.

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Photos, with the exception of the top image, by a dear friend.

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Afar, California

The Tea Garden

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There’s something gently meditative about tea gardens, with their perfume of camellia flowers, the sound of perpetually running water, and the meandering pathways. San Francisco’s is a particularly fine rendition, with carefully pruned trees, painted structures, and a pergola where you can sip the tea in question. I’ve visited a few times, the latest with an old friend on a sunny January afternoon. We wandered and reminisced and, when all our stories were told for the time being, sat quietly together in the companionable, peaceful way that only old friends can.

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Afar, California

To the Sea

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“Some years ago- never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

  • Herman Melville, Moby Dick

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Afar

Seville

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Once, many years ago, I found myself in Seville on New Year’s Eve. The day was spent wandering through fragrant orange groves and overgrown palaces, exploring the wild courtyards and gardens of the Reales Alcazares. In the evening we sat at the corner table of a crowded restaurant, near a pair of handsome Americans who shared their wine with my table of Frenchmen, while people sang Spanish songs in the distance. We watched flamenco and drank sangria until after midnight, when we wandered through the quiet, echoing streets beneath the glowing blue light of so many decorated orange trees.

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Afar, From the Archives, Home

Hold On

Romeo and Juliet, in the Poetry Garden www.bluemesablog.com

I don’t lose things, material things, very often. Through countless travels and moves, I’ve kept a close hold on objects of meaning. Perhaps the rarity of the occurrence makes me regret the losing all the more, when it does occur. Certain things misplaced throughout my life still have the capacity to make me feel a little hollow when I think of them. Just this week I stood outside an airport crying, very uncharacteristically, over the loss of a confiscated pocket knife I had forgotten to remove from my purse. As I did so, I wondered why something so small and replaceable should result in more tears than the loss of things, people, and places of much greater significance.

Why, for instance, do I still feel guilty when I remember dropping and breaking a small animal figurine that I had as a child? Why have I been unable to let go of the memory of a pair of earrings that someone stole, a necklace I left in a hotel room, a tartan blanket lost in the mail, or that pocket knife?

Perhaps because the pocket knife reminded me of my father, the figurine of my mother, the earrings of a journey through Mexico, the necklace of my husband, the blanket of an old friend I haven’t spoken to in many years. The knife can be replaced, the figurine was lost in the jumble of childhood objects, I wouldn’t wear the earrings if I had them now, my husband bought me another necklace, and the blanket—well, that really is gone.

But it seems that even replacing the lost thing cannot efface the memory or effect of the loss itself. Still, why should a broken figurine matter more than a totalled car, or a lost blanket more than a lost friend? I don’t know. Perhaps because in losing these objects, I have also lost the memories they held in association.

Romeo and Juliet, in the Poetry Garden www.bluemesablog.com

Romeo and Juliet, in the Poetry Garden www.bluemesablog.com

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