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The First Date at Princesa do Castelo (It Happened Like This…)

The streets layer themselves; they collide; they diverge; they wrap around and meet; they hover over each other. They are multi-textured and multi-colored: slate, white, marble, cobbled, asphalt, rose. They know the beginning of tales: Senhora Fernanda is reading a book; Senhor Joao is smoking a cigar; Joana is cuddling her cat; Pedro is smoking a joint with his girlfriend; Mateus is drinking coffee at a round table; Carla and her lover are caressing. The street conceals and binds.

There’s a vegetarian café on the street, Princesa do Castelo, inviting pedestrians to enter. The walls are alternately orange and yellow; the tables and benches, wood; a giant red and white mushroom protrudes from a wall; Bob Marley issues from the speakers, “If you know what life is worth, you’ll look for yours on earth.” The menu: salads, soup of the day, nachos, hummus, noodles, quiche, desserts, fresh juices, alcohol.

From the heaving street, a couple enter, order two pots of tea, and settle into the banquette. They are new to each other.

“Where are you from?”

“XYZ. You?

“ABC. Have you been there?

The same small talk being practiced in cafés worldwide: ‘What’s your…do you like…where do you…when did you…?” The questions and responses fall and connect like stones in a wide river. There are some that will be needed to get to the other side. Some will pile into boulders– insurmountable and difficult to process; some will be held onto for safety.

He orders more tea; the laughter grows; the volume of the whispers increases; the energy of new attraction/lust/flirtation palpitates.

“That was good.”

“Yes, it really was.”

They rise– together– and step onto the wreathlike street. With them: white petals racing, a dog running (with its owner trailing), four men playing dominoes, all connecting.

If you know what life is worth, you’ll look for yours on earth.

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From The Snapshots in Your Mind (You Need to Remember)

You need that summer, that early summer, of which you’ll recall you lived your life as a dream. You found that “impossible” was a myth– a foolish construct you made.

On a cool day, when the seagulls swoop in easily, and pedestrians pull their cardigans closer, you’ll think of the moment when it struck you that you were caught between youth and old age. The young will seem more precious.The old will seem more precious.

The substance of years will captivate you. Your empty hand will remember the grasp of an old woman who held onto it all the way up a hill. She taught you seasons– she was winter. Her laugh will echo in your mind; how heartily she bellowed when she called herself a “mentirosa.” She lied to you about having six husbands, but she had only had one, a “very impatient one.”

Maria Idalina. If said slowly, her name evokes a darkening sea, music created with strings, a flock of silver in flight. Her size and stature belies her strength. Walking sticks attached to her hands, she stops, and teaches you how to say in Portuguese, “I have plans today, I’ll meet you tomorrow.”  What phrase could be more handy?

You must remember that summer where red blossoms fell off trees like bees fleeing hives. Rapid and straight. Remember: the air was clear; the gold orb, hiding; that flirtatious look you received; passersby gliding; how quick you were to say, “Teach me.”

You need to remember how lifting your foot in step sometimes felt like ballet; how you skipped, unable to contain yourself; how smooth, condensed milk, rice and cinammon slid down your throat; how you thought a coin could bring you luck. Remember: the uneven pavement, the bells striking, the shaking umbrella, the light rain. Remember how each departure brought new beginnings.

Remember the one who said, “You’ve traveled a lot, met many people, so you must know that sometimes when people say, “I was just joking,” it’s because you didn’t laugh.” How young and wise he was.

Once upon a future in your life, years from now, you will remember that summer. When the clock strikes then, you’ll need, need, need to draw the marrow of that summer from your bones.

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Maria Idalina

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The Load Grows Lighter: A Day at Gulbenkian

On a Sunday afternoon, when the sun is streaming through raised shutters, and nature is beckoning, “Come to me,” get up, and go. Give yourself to trees, to art, to birds, to lakes, to wind, to the sound of twigs snapping beneath your feet. Go to Gulbenkian park in the middle of Lisbon.

Take the Red Line to São Sebastião and within the concrete walls, you will find an oasis. Vamos passear! Walk around the lake; throw a volcanic rock in a pool; see the ducks spreading their wings; notice people sitting under the open sky eating juicy plums, reading, plucking their guitars, practicing their love. Practice your love.

Peer at hearts carved into ancient trees; wonder at the impermanence of romantic love; wonder if the Marie that wrote, “Marie loves Rik 2006,” still loves him in 2015? Observe the peace. Listen to the story of another:

In the past, I had one heart. I gave it to my lover– the whole heart. “Here, take it,” I said. I didn’t learn from a previous heartbreak. When she left, the heart was gone. I suffered. All that was left was air, but I couldn’t lift my head to get some. It’s not the way to do things.

A day in Gulbenkian isn’t enough. There are museums, gardens, terraces, an ampitheater, films being shown, photography exhibitions, musical performances, an art library, a cafeteria. There are tapestries handwoven in wool, silk, gold and silver threads to gaze at; intricate ivory carvings to wonder at; and all of nature giving itself to you on a warm, spring day.

I had one heart, and then it was gone. I trudged up and down the hill to my house with a heavy load on my back. I thought, “Why is this my life? It’s so hard.” Then, one day, the load became lighter. I was becoming free. I don’t have one heart, but many. I have no lover, but I have love– strangers, friends, family. 

Nature gives; nature heals; nature teaches– Gulbenkian is a large classroom– the grace, the birdsongs, the fresh air, the new buds, the towering trees, the silence. Everything rests– even the quivering, ungraspable ripples in the pool.

An elderly couple exits the park dressed in their Sunday best. When she opened her eyes this morning to face another day, she possibly said, “How marvelous! Here we are again. What shall we do?”  “Let’s stroll around the gardens of Gulbenkian,” he responded. “Let’s stand for a moment near the lake, close our eyes and feel the breeze that will kiss our lids. Let’s practice our love.”

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Lady and Child Asleep in a Punt inder The Willows - Sargent, John Singer
Lady and Child Asleep in a Punt under The Willows
– Sargent, John Singer
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Flora –Carpeaux, Jean-Baptiste
The Dance, (*Tapestry from the set "Children Playing)
The Dance, (*Tapestry from the set “Children Playing)

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Sleepwalking Down Rua Da Graça

If one were to stand in the middle of the side of the sidewalk, while listening to music seeping through the walls of a high school, that would make no sense to observers. Yet, if one were to smoke a cigarette, while idling and listening, that would make sense.

If one were to look at the clothes of others, while they drifted in the breeze on a clothesline, that would make no sense to some. The clothes are colorful, varied, intimate and hint at the life inside: within lives a man and woman; there’s no child; they wash clothes often or they have few clothes, because so few pieces are on the line; the woman is petite; the man has a simple job that requires brown pants. A simple line, a simple life.

If one were to ponder the fairness of things, that would make no sense. Why was Walter Scott shot in the back eight times? Why would there be a campaign to raise money for the man who shot him? Who was wronged? Why do people starve to death everyday in a world of plenty? Why do we voraciously read horrific news everyday and dismiss goodness?

Some say, “The world’s a terrible place.”  That makes no sense. Wonderful people do small and grandiose acts of kindness everyday with no recognition. Videos of us helping and loving each other rarely go viral.

If one were to criticize you everyday, and the loudest in the pack were you, that would make no sense. “You’re old, you’re fat, you’re skinny, you’re too dark, you’re too pale, your hair’s too coarse, your hair’s too fine, you’re weak, you’re too short, you’re too tall. ” Stop the nonsense. You’re nothing but beautiful. (Ask yourself, “How could I have failed to recognize the wonder of me?”)

If one were to fail to recognize the excellence of this day, that would make no sense. A breath ago, someone lost this: the smell of orange and jasmine, the pulsating sun, the falling of the last cherry blossom for this season, the tenderness of a hand on a shoulder, the satisfaction of a meal, the smile of a stranger, the sounds of glee from the depths of a child, a song bleeding in the air. All happening without rhyme or “sense.” It makes no sense that sensitivity makes no sense to so many.

With the realization that the “me” that was the time considering itself a separate entity is only a dreamed character, a manifestation of Consciousness, the mind turns away from objects and gets focused on the “I AM.” That is the true vision of Reality.Sri Ramana Maharshi

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Roberto and Fernando
Roberto and Fernando
at Rendezvous Vintage
at RendezVous Vintage– Rua Sao de Vicente, no.16
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People Watching in Churrasco Da Graça in the Early Afternoonmb

What is it to be a couple? To sit in a restaurant with another in the early afternoon; to drink a carafe of white wine; to share a large fish and eat in silence? Is this the life of the couple after the children have been raised and everything has been said, if there were children at all?

He asks, “Toma um café?” She doesn’t answer, because she’s flipping through the guidebook. “Duas cafés, por favor,” he says to the waiter whom he has signaled.

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What is it to be the child in a group of five women? To be beside your mother, to smell her perfume, and listen to the conversation over your head and out of your understanding; to grasp words and think you understand? The mother blows a spoonful of  soup cool and gives the girl a taste. The conversation carries on. She pulls her mother’s hand, “I need to go to the toilet.” What is it that a tug will lead to an answer; when one asks the other gives. What is that certainty and when does it end?

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What is it to drink a large bottle of champagne at 1:50 p.m.? To celebrate something important or maybe just to celebrate being alive today at 1:50p.m? What is it to be dressed in old clothes, yet order the most expensive thing on the menu? “É um bom dia?” “Sim, é ótimo!’ The champagne glasses half-full; the eyes brighter; the gestures more emphatic.

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What is it to sit at lunch with your aged parents? To have a lunch of salmon, roasted potatoes, broccoli, beans and wine? To be the only son? To help your father stand when the meal is over; to hold onto his arm, even he’s been standing awhile, just to feel his flesh? What is it to know him now, in this moment, and feel his breath? “O que uma boa refeição!”

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What is it to be the waiter? To observe seven tables; to bring bread and a menu again and again; to hear the low buzz of the tables, but only snatches of words? What is to stand for hours while everyone sits; to see all and not be seen; to hurry to a raised hand? What is it to see people’s lives played out at small wood tables: break-ups, proposals, anniversaries, breakdowns, celebrations?

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And, what is it to be loved, to be hated, to be observed, to sit across from someone, to observe, to sit across from someone you want to love– but don’t, to sit beside someone you adore, to drink champagne in the afternoon, to watch, to watch, to wait?

Being a Black Man in America

Dear Friends,

I have two brothers. I haven’t seen either of my brothers in years, but I imagine they are as I remember– kind, funny, generous, handsome, sappy, slightly irritating, intelligent, dependable. My brothers are five and twelve years older than me, and were just as big brothers should be– protective, caring, impatient and tough. They both now have families of their own, and countries, lifestyles and interests have distanced us, but when I think of good, beautiful men, I think of my brothers.

We left Kingston when I was eleven, thus my my brother M was 16. At 16, and he’d deny this, he loved Whitney Houston, as much as he loved Guns and Roses. He played on his high school’s soccer team, raced on the swim team, drew wonderful pictures, drove around in a blue Pinto (which he hated), and had a typical suburban life. As the only black boy in his high school of 2000 kids, as far as I knew, he faced no discrimination. On the weekends, he went to parties, dated some peppy girls, and was always with his two best friends– Andy and Bob. Only my brother can tell his story, but from what I saw, his life seemed great.

We were the black family in our neighborhood, and I remember my father telling my brother one day, not to get too close to a particular girl in the neighborhood, because she was sexually active, and he didn’t want any “problems.” One would think that my father meant he didn’t want my brother coming home saying that he was going to be a dad, but that’s not what my father intended at all. My father is explicit, so no one ever had to guess what he means. He said, “Don’t forget you’re black, and if something goes wrong, you’re at fault.” My brother was outraged, perhaps for a myriad of reasons: a) Color was never an issue for him, and now he was reduced to being “a black boy” b) He wasn’t interested in that girl sexually. c) My father may have been brash in his delivery. (Perhaps, wasn’t outraged, and only my memory of the night gives him that feeling.)

Growing up in Kingston, we were never called to examine our race, our blacknesss– there was no need. Everyone in school, on the street, in the neighborhood, at church, in the country, were varying degrees of blackness, brown-ness, and cream-ness. We could be ourselves, just a child, just a person. You never know the feeling of such a warm embrace until you leave it in the autumn. It was surprising to me that my father would give my brother such an admonition in the nineties– after all, it wasn’t the 60s in the South, right?

In the U.S, there have been such a spate of racially motivated incidents that they have pricked something in my consciousness. I can’t say that I never cry, but do so so rarely that it takes me aback when it happens. I’m not sure what was tapped in me today, but when I watched the video of UVA student, Martese Johnson, on the ground, being rough-housed by two cops, it broke my heart. This happens every day, and when these incidents happen, I think of my brothers and all the other wonderful men that I know, and the ones I don’t, and think, “Why is this still happening in 2015?” Being a Black man in America in 2015, despite definite changes, still seems to be a reason to watch your step.

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Love,

Val

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On Birds: Listen Closely to the Blackbird

My dear friend,

You are the part of myself that I don’t yet know, so instead of asking “How are you?”, the question is “Who are you?” Please take your time in answering, since there are so many layers to the question.

You may laugh and say, “But V, you know me!”, to which I can only shake my head and disagree. There are aspects of you that I know, but I wish to know more than your name, age, first job, employment status and marital status. Those things have nothing to do with you,  and thus are meaningless.

So, tell me, who are you? What brings you joy? What excites you? What’s your definition of success unrelated to money? Where have you been in your dreams? Do you now recognize that your body is a sacred space, your chosen place? Do you see that we’re all leaves on one tree? If you were a color, which would it be– has the name been created for that color yet? If you could be anywhere in the world, would it be where you are now?

I stood on the balcony for a long time this afternoon, and looking down, I saw a boy on a scooter pull up next door. He parked and started walking– quick and sure. Then, he looked up at me, and I saw that he was in his fifties or thereabouts. He wasn’t a boy after all, but he is a boy to his mother, a middle-aged man to his wife, and an old man to his grandchild. I tell you this so that you know not to trust your eyes; they tell you only so much.

A blackbird stood cawing near me just now, looking east and west, ready to fly off. I have no idea where he’ll go next, but I asked him to give you a message. Listen closely to the next blackbird you see.

You’ve written that you miss me, but I must tell you that I don’t miss you. My heart holds you, so how can I miss you? Missing you would be like missing the hand I’m writing with now. Do you understand?

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All my love,

Val