That's a question many people who care about me asked: "What? You're going to Baltimore? " "Sure, I'd reply. Why not?"
Toward the end of summer, 2014, John was happily tending to the problems of grass growth and tree pruning in our yard, having just retired from his post as a medical educator at Vanderbilt. The phone in his office rang, and after a bit, he came out, a bit sheepishly, and said that Johns Hopkins needed him for exactly one year. He had worked there for years before coming to Nashville, and they wanted him to open a new office, integrate it with other programs, hire staff and a director, and then leave. "How do you feel about going to Baltimore for a year?" he asked. I think he expected me to say, "No way!" or "We'll see each other on alternate weekends." But I said, "Let's do it! It will be an adventure!"
I love getting to know the textures and character of a city. We rented an apartment right on the Inner Harbor; we made a list of the furniture we would take and the things we would need, and on November 14, we loaded up two dogs, Carly, an Irish setter, and Lily, a lab mix, and pulled out of our driveway.
And get to know Baltimore, I did!
It's a wonderful city, born of a rich history, vibrant in its own unique ways, friendly, cultured, varied, and rife with problems caused by inequality and ingrained racial attitudes. Friends and my children were afraid we wouldn't be safe, but I never felt threatened. I walked and walked, the way I like to see a city. I photographed.I got to know my step-daughter much better. I walked dogs along the harbor. I finished a full draft of my book. Then I drafted it four more times.
I made friends and met up with old friends who lived there, and they shared their town with me. I am grateful to them, and I am grateful for the opportunity to try myself out in a new place, mostly in solitude, working, then taking a break to explore, to converse with the city.
I wrote the Fell Street Footnotes as a way to keep in touch with friends at home and in many other places, and, I admit, to ground myself. Here they are!
Fell Street Footnotes
November 23, 2014
I Live a Theme of Labyrinths
We walk the dogs each morning just at the sky’s waking, its lids warm at the edges of its dark dream through space. We first pause at the astro-turf plots specifically provided where Lily and Carly perform untrusting sniffs, then we four string along the brick walk along the wharf, then the sidewalk along South Wolfe Street to the Thames Street Park, defined on the far side by Aliceanna Street. Row house apartments square off the little green space. Part of it is a playground with a wrought-iron fence around it. A gazebo centers the park and is surrounded by a square of leaf-carpeted grass. When we arrive, we witness the opening scene of a play: first, the tailored woman pulled along by a mid-size Schnauzer; then, crossing from another direction, the sleepy girl with pajama pants, boots, a knit cap with ear flaps and pompoms on yarn strings. She walks an English Bulldog pup. A well-groomed pregnant woman and her blond husband arrive from down Thames Street with their young Goldie, patient with him and with each other, though work awaits them. And we enter the scene and the play and the community of day. I coax Lily, more interested in smells than her duty, and I stand apart. John manages Carly, more interested in play than her duty, and chats with the others about dogs, their work, Baltimore’s character, and such, and we cross again the brick streets and walk home, all four of us with more energy, the sun fully up and coloring the sky now. We have articulated the first labyrinth of the day.
We buzz ourselves into our building, trot the dogs to the elevator, excuse our clutch of bodies and leashes to those we share the passage with, and enter the maze of corridors and doors of our floor, the second floor. Turn left from the elevator, turn right. Walk fifty steps, turn right at the dead-end and we are the first door on the left. #211.
There’s a theme of 1s and 2s and 3s in our lives at present. We come from a Nashville house # of 123. Our new zip code is 21231, and our apartment is 211. It’s possible, I like to think, that the Universe is simplifying our numerical life, as though we are more likely to get lost, with so many other new things to navigate, when our numbers contain more than three different digits. I admit there’s a comfort to it. And some whimsical humor.
If we turn left rather than right from the elevator room, we find the door to the very convenient garage, and, following the corridor ninety steps to its dead-end and left turn, we arrive at the room containing the trash chute. Then, one returns 100 steps along the labyrinth to 211, its center. (If a person were to look down, not ahead, she would find the hallways a hellish maze, dead-end after dead-end repeated in the squares of carpet, green and gray vertical lines in one, horizontals in the squares on each side, so every step might be blocked. But that is only if one is nurturing an obsession. Hop-scotch from one to the next. Don’t look down, even if your book’s theme has to do with labyrinths and that’s mostly what you think about. Follow the pathways home.)
But the centers of labyrinths have also their labyrinths, ancient patterns or flowers. Just so, this apartment, where the arrangement of our furniture in this small space forms paths and dead-ends. Dog beds and the sleepers upon them block ways. It is not uncomfortable or unattractive. On the contrary. But it is, I admit, always a puzzle in which every piece must fit in its place in order to work, and every step must be deliberate.
While I can relax a little about numbers, I put my brain-cell- enhancing energies into finding my way among the streets of Fells Point and beyond, in the car, where I note with great intention landmarks and record street names and orient myself to the city’s NSEW grid of byways. In the apartment, arranging too many, imagined-essential, objects in only a few cabinets and shelves is an intricate task. New paths are forming in my brain. I can feel them, a busy re-routing and tunneling through thick matter to daylight.
Traveling a labyrinth, centering, redirecting the way we see things, taking the observations or the understanding, or the calm of knowing, outward to new work—this is the process that creates, that keeps us birthing ideas and art and ever-new life. Puzzling. Deciphering. Wondering. Exploring. Discovering. The journey in, journey out. I’m feeling downright alert. Often exasperated, but alert and alive.
Morning on the Inner Harbor
951 Fell Street
Home. What is home? What does it mean to comehome? We consider this apartment a temporary home, a pied-à-terre, a place to put our feet, to landwhile we live in Baltimore for only a year. Yet, I call it home for now, and John and I home-in as surely as a sparrow to its slip-shod nest built only to last for a short season of birthing and pushing the babies out of and flying on to the next landing spot—other times, other climes.
Of course, we have brought furnishings and personal items and rendered our place homey, hardly slip-shod. yet we play the board-game of adapting, of compromising, of, indeed, impermanent dwelling. Nevertheless, now it is home, and when we returned from two days in D.C. with Mary and Bob in their wonderful new house—a space designed to harbor the spirit in light and serenity, a minimalist and artistic arrangement for deliberate living—I breathed a sigh of pleasure when we opened our door and were home.
Perhaps it is the familiarity of the things I’ve lived with and that hold in their threads and surfaces my smell and the traces of my touch. Maybe my footsteps find their ways around the maze of living space without the constant re-boot of pathfinding we use in a space not claimed as our own. Most of all, my notion of home is that it provides the gift of time to do one’s own creative, messy work. I might call it the gift of easy containment, the space and solitude and utter selfishness of a chosen home, like the sparrow’s nest.
Looking at the term solitude, I find it doesn’t necessarily mean, in this instance, aloneness in a strict sense. Even with others, I can carry on in solitude, if the others and I have made a kind of contract, knowing each other’s rhythms and routines and needs. Family is a solitude of several, moving in such familiar ways that I may be comfortable in my ways, in my work.
It isn’t the possessions, though familiar ones may bring a quicker adaptation. I don’t think, however, that our things are the trick that turns a new space into home. What one can carry in a backpack is enough, I am convinced. Ten years ago I spent the summer in Assisi in a rented farm cottage on the side of Mount Subasio not far from the Porta Cappuccini. The house had once been a stable and hayloft, converted into an in-laws’ house across the garden from a large family house. The daughter of the doctor and pharmacist who lived there was in charge of renting the now-vacated cottage--fully furnished bedrooms upstairs and a living room and kitchen down. I arrived, received the big keys to my own entry gate from the street, and moved in. I plugged in my borrowed laptop and a portable printer, set out paper, journals, pens, a couple of dictionaries, unloaded a suitcase of clothes and toiletries. I bought a few candles, stocked the refrigerator with milk, cheese, wine; put fresh fruit in a bowl, staples for cooking in a cabinet. Learned how to light the stove. Learned that the beams in the bathroom above the tub were quite low-- painful. That the little dog, Ettore, would bark most of the night and that Oscar the cat would twine my legs while I wrote, sitting on the stone porch in the afternoon. I walked along the road past the Franciscan monastery where I could hear a basketball thumping on pavement and went into the city and mapped streets and destinations in my head. And when I came back to my gate, and the key turned true, I breathed the sigh of homecoming. The nest fit, took me in for that season, contained me, let me be selfish.
It was true when I was twelve and beyond into the teen years, too, come to think of it—how home can be made of little. My bunk at camp was not unlike my house in Assisi. Home was the shared cabin door, my own top bunk, my hewn-wood shelf of pens and paper, stamps, toothbrush, hairbrush, books, diary, harmonica. Climbing up there, I reached my defined space, where I turned pages, mulled over the oddities and confusions of life—a place to go out from, a place to home into.
Fell St. at Fells Point, Baltimore
Santa Lucia Day, the feast of lights, and, in Northern Italy, la Befana with her donkey, leaving small gifts in the shoes of young children: Ding, ding, goes a tinkling bell, and we know she’s come to our house. For a while my children and I lived in the country outside Bergamo, and we took this tradition home with us when we left. A donkey in a suburban Nashville neighborhood was more improbable to sell than in our country village where everything seemed like a story, but we played at believing and still, on cue, recount the sequence of events on those many December 13thnights.
I wonder now what observances we will take home from this year in Baltimore. But today, it’s rather like Santa Lucia Day for us. John came home with an enormous, heavy basket from Del Pasquale’s. It contained wine, olive oil, bread sticks, Genoa salami, marinara sauce, pasta, truffle chocolates, and amoretti. He’d won the door prize at a Hopkins faculty party. The basket was wrapped in a flourish of sparkly cellophane and tied with silver ribbons.
(I remember Italian ribbons: I am waiting with restless children and packages in a small store in the late afternoon while a fastidious clerk ties an ordinary purchase with elaborate care, curling each ribbon, handing it to me with pride and a few niceties and hard candy for the children.) We plan to cook a January dinner with the ingredients of this not-so-ordinary package for the party’s hostess.
Bread: texture a balance of crusty and soft, a secret within a protective skin. As it transforms from dust to paste to malleable solid, it becomes a body between my palms, my fingers, the heel of my hand, and then, with the chemistry of the planet it begins to grow on its own, to take on character, puff itself up, leaving behind the dust it was born from. Making bread is an agreement to copulate and incubate and give birth and raise and let be, just like parenting, like friendship, like life. Aromas transform, the fleshy to the intimately perfumed, enticing and lubricating that organ the tongue, the mouth, and ah, satisfying. Dogs croon as they pass our apartment door. Neighbors would like to have what the aromas suggest we’re having.
Someday someone will see this date as an old date, early century, and here I am, seeing it as brand-new. Christmas, the season of brightness and burden, has passed, and then the lazy week-end, and although the New Year’s holiday will call for a celebratory, culinary, and social pause, this morning presents a return to order and to work. And perhaps these rhythms will seem quaint to those dipping into the past that is my present. John took a bus to his office at the medical school. I put a pen to paper. We live with dogs and divide our day with taking them out, bringing them in on leashes that cross and tangle, scrubbing them down with rough towels, offering treats shaped like soylent. Fresh fruits grace my work table: apples and lemons and one lime in a blue bowl. Three candles. Three smooth stones. Ah, the comfort of “three.” The comfort of a blue bowl, of this paper, this pen. These anchor. They are the door into and out of the labyrinth of each day. These are the details of today, the containers of our early century’s intimate history on this point of land.
Thank God I am still keeping on! I like what I am doing, what yearnings push me from within, what experiences and observations inspire new words and stories and enrich perceptions and stimulate growth from without. I love each new day and its possibilities, each new night and its serenity or mystery or challenge.
I do not like the trouble of argument and miscommunication, defensive reactions that mark territory: my responses or those of others. There is much that can crease the harmony of a day, a moment, an event. Alas, in myself there is much I don’t like and can’t seem to correct permanently. There’s my disclaimer.
And then, there’s this: The world I live in has perhaps more shallowness than truth, more deceit than honesty, more laziness than alacrity, more complacency than inquiry and passion. Humans are indolent, by and large, and when they have been raised with hopelessness or anger or a gray tone of acceptance, when oppression or inheritance of habit has blocked curiosity, nothing remains but selfishness. I see why many stay stuck as toddlers wanting to be picked up and fed and indulged and sometimes throw large, dangerous or disruptive tantrums when they are ignored. I don’t like the self-righteousness that can arise out of religion or culture, or the excuses they provide for fights over power and territory that destroy human lives and break what I dare to consider the contracts of community. But despite all the chaos and anger on the planet, I still find life delectable in my little spot here, privileged and largely protected in my bower. What can such as I do, with my limited understanding?
The resolution that heads my list is this: to put words that matter into the stream, to do it with a passion and attention that will serve to shift the balance of egocentrism to an expansive holding of hands and engagement with the spirit of humanity. I resolve to drink more deeply from that stream, myself, each day.
Work: it’s the best thing for being sad. It’s the best thing for liking this life. Through work, I am always learning. Thank you, Merlin. Thank you, T.H. White, whom I am altering slightly for my own devices.
Here’s the whole quote from The Once and Future King:
“The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind cannever exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
A week after my first visit to the National Aquarium, I sat waiting on a bench across from the staff entrance. I had a 10:00 invitation issued by Ken Howell, curator of the Tropical Rainforest, to “see behind the scenes.” I sat in the shadow of this imposing glass building and felt the weight of the World War II submarine Torsk, with its frightening toothy grimace, and The Chesapeake, an historic bay ship, behind me. The sign, “Amazing Things Happen” flapped above on a banner and another, on a fixed sign, signaled “Immersion Tours.” How could a day begin more propitiously?
Gifts: I figure I must open to them if I am to have a rich life and attend to them if I am to have a deliberate life and pass them on if I am to live a gracious life. I don’t, always, but this gift landed graciously in my lap and now I’m compelled to try to deliver it forward, ignorant as I am in the field of biologyI enjoy imagining that that is the message of the Motmot, the bird I’ve pictured here, a name always repeating and unforgettable: come back again and again and see something new every time; and in the call of the Screaming Piha: live every juicy morsel of this life and at the absolute top of your lungs.
Those poison dart frogs had intrigued me, so Ken took me first to the tanks where the team is nurturing them. I’d been confused that the frogs I’d thought I’d seen earlier didn’t match the pictures I found online. It turns out that these guys come in many colors: greens and reds and yellows stripe their bodies like a schoolyard of children. They show curiosity when I come close, then go about their business on twigs and leaves. Their tanks are labeled so that the nurturers know who is who, dates of birth, types, names. I learned that the mothers take their tiny hatchlings way high to a bromeliad where its leaves hold rainwater that will be the tadpoles’ home until they grow their limbs. She feeds them her unfertilized eggs everyday until they grow large enough to climb out on the leaf’s edge and begin their adult lives. In other, smaller, tanks live the groceries: tiny crickets that serve as food for the family. I watched a woman sorting and managing in whatever way that serves the cricket breeding and keeping. A volunteer, she comes twice each day to serve the critters in this area. Devotion, for frog and human, it seems, requires twice a day attention and plenty of work.
I was struck again and again by the labels on all the pens and tanks back in the workings of the aquarium. Each one, a name, a history. Birds, frogs, fish. A female piha peered down from a limb in a big wire cage. “She’s been annoying her husband,” Ken said. “She’s been attacking him, in fact. We thought we’d give him a few days of rest from her.” He seemed to be gossiping about his neighbor.
We talked about the way we think about the animal kingdom, as individuals or as groups. Should we name the calf? Should we attach ourselves to the apparent affection of the ray? Many biologists believe firmly that we should not think of animals as we think of humans. They are their own kind. Yet, we see connections and similarities everywhere we come in contact with animals, no matter how exotic, slithery, ferocious, or adorable. We hunger. We need mates. We fear. We desire comfort and shelter. We live only a little while, with jobs to do while we live. And now and then, we connect with a species not our own. Now and then a line is breached and we touch. Not unlike, on another plane, we connect with grace people we’ve always thought were exotic, slithery, ferocious, or simply adorable. We find that they are more.
When Ken sent out a notice a while back that Joe, the two-toed sloth, who had been at the aquarium for some thirty years, had died, notes of grief arrived from staff members by the numbers; grown adults cried.
We stepped through heavy doors and across shallow puddles and around cylindrical tanks to observe the clown fish and the spikey back and white ones that are endangered and the yellow ones. I will search their names. We went another way and spoke to puffins, up close and personal from our place behind the scenes. At the South Pacific coral reef, the calciferous matter that binds a reef spread even to the pipes and floors behind the tank. Nature and its critters will have its way—if we connect, care, and help them. If we realize that if they are endangered, We are endangered. Each individual of us.
The Screaming Piha
Here’s a note about Lily, a suburban dog, from whom I learned:
to the very boundary
of her leap-ability
caught that red ball.
I finally met a friend of mine—whose truck I’ve been photographing for a year. A blue kayak sits bound to the roof of his silver Tahoe. Sometimes I find it in front of a blue door, sometimes across the cobblestone street in front of the red door, usually on Fell Street, occasionally on South Ann or even Wolfe, depending upon traffic so near Thames where tourists and tavern-hoppers cruise for a parking spot. But he’s clearly a resident, and I’ve bet on the blue door, deeper blue than the hopeful sky –blue kayak—deeper, more anchored for the spirit of a man who still keeps a wild-river rapid in a safe place in his mind.
I have snapped it in snow, in the steely sun of winter, in the season that at last brought out geraniums potted with potato vine spilling over rowhouse railings, although his house—I’ve thought it was his house—has no railing, only two steps to raise its main room above the level of land and harbor—just an honest door, a step up to enter, against an old harbor home rising three or four floors. Honest like the truck with tis kayak on its sleeve, like love and hope and yearning and keeping.
His name is Van, a vagabond’s name, in a way, I thought, smiling when he told me. Children ready for a birthday party were spilling out of the silver truck; they had crazy hats on their heads, some having become pirates, some firemen, some outright princesses. He was corralling them, a little flustered, and I parted the sea of them and stuck out my hand and told him I’d known him for a year, though he didn’t know me, and that my affection for his truck and his kayak (transferred of course to the ghost-owner of these) had led to a series of photographs at every season.
He seemed not to mind, seemed shifted a little, there in the midst of his duties with the small children, and we exchanged first names, and I crossed the street in front of his truck and blue kayak and wandered home on down Fell Street toward the sun and wind of the harbor’s rim.
Hope springs eternal!