Still Life with Artichokes and Anaïs Nin

By Daliel Leite [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

You’re writing a memoir about Anaïs Nin?” she asked. Really?”

Well, it’s more just an anecdote,” I said. Something you might jot down in a diary.”

Hold it,” she said. Hold it. A diary? You’re too late. Anaïs Nin staked out that turf decades ago. You might even be accused of reverse plagiarism.”

It’s about Anaïs Nin,” I objected. Not by her. And besides, it’s absolutely true.”

Everything Anaïs Nin ever wrote was about Anaïs Nin. So if she’s in it, then it’s hers. She has seniority. But look,” she said, perhaps you’d better just tell me the whole story, Anaïs Nin and all…”

* * *

The story doesn’t begin with Anaïs Nin. It begins with Freya.

I meet Freya one evening at a literary-ish party near the university in Albuquerque. The year is 1975.

A small woman with a shawl over her shoulders stands by a kitchen counter laden with organic chips and vegetable plates. She dips artichoke leaves in low-fat mayonnaise. When she turns, I see a sharp elfin face, pale freckled skin, frizz of dark auburn hair, bright eyes.

“Hi,” she says. She holds up an artichoke leaf. “Did you know that artichokes are thistles, the bad boys of the daisy family?”

“Well, breadfruit is a kind of mulberry,” I point out.

“Sez you,” she says. “I’m Freya.”

I can’t resist showing off. “The Nordic goddess?” I ask.

“No,” she says seriously. “I’m Italian. See? You don’t know everything.”

“Well, I know that Freya is the Norse goddess of love and wisdom.”

“Yes. That Freya is. And she’s in charge of war too. So don’t confuse her with your soggy, fickle Aphrodite.”

“I wouldn’t dare.”

“Freya was born of earth and fire. She’s also called Frigg. Which is not where we get the expression, frigg it. She’s married to Odin, so you know she’s tough and good in a fight. She wears a magic golden necklace called the Brisingamen. More?”

“That’s plenty. I’m convinced.” I hold out my hand. “I’m Richard.”

We shake hands and take our fair-trade wine out to a bench on the back porch. We sit and talk like old friends.

She tells me that she is from Chicago and is housesitting the house of a cousin in Albuquerque. That she is on leave from her job as a junior fiction editor at a certain magazine, because she has grown weary of the stress of big job and big city and Midwestern winters. That she is already much improved after a couple of weeks of the high desert.

I tell her I live in a little retro-adobe house I built, near a village in the mountains north of the city. That it’s a village, and not a town, because it has no commercial heart, only a post office in the postmistress’s living room. That I myself have been trying to write, but my life has gotten stranger than my stories. 

“Does getting strange have to do with a woman?” she asks.

“Yes,” I admit. “Her name is Marcie. We were living together, but she decided my life didn’t fit me anymore—like outgrowing clothes when you’re a kid. Except in my case, I shrank. Anyway, she made me leave—but then she left. So I went back.”

I tell Freya these private things, but I don’t know why. There is something birdlike in her attention. She listens with her head tilted slightly to one side, her pale hand lightly on my arm.

“Why do you call your house retro?” she asks.

“Well, it has a dirt floor, and a woodstove for heat. There’s electricity for lights, but no plumbing.”


“Just a cold-water faucet. And there’s an outhouse. So I’m always on the lookout for places to take a hot shower. That’s really why I came to this party, but I didn’t get here early enough.”

We leave the party at the same time, hug in the driveway. We arrange that I will call her the next day.

And I do call her, from a neighbor’s phone, because I don’t have one.

She invites me over to the house she is housesitting. For a hot shower.

The house is big and grand. The shower is wide and deep and luxurious, like a little room you walk into, lined with smooth pink granite. When I am almost finished, and just standing stupefied under the hot water, Freya walks in—all pale freckled skin, wet lips. Her tousle of hair becomes drenched and heavy. We kiss and press together, and we do not slip on the wet stone. Then we dry each other off and make love in a wide cool bed.

Time subsequently passes, filled with Freya. We trade histories, as lovers do. We talk and walk and eat and drink tea and hold each other. Now, many years later, I cannot remember if we make love many times, or just a few. I cannot even remember how long we are together—if it is days or months or years. No, not years, because it is spring when we meet, but it is never winter.

I do remember a particular important afternoon.

We are in my house. Freya sits on my bed, leans against the rough whitewashed mud wall. She is so bright against the wall I can barely look at her. I imagine her rising and walking away, leaving her silhouette etched forever on the wall.

She pats her bare foot on the floor. The floor is smooth and uneven and cool, the green of stormy sea. “What in the world is this made of?” she asks. “It isn’t dirt.”

“It’s mud,” I explain, “adobe mud, troweled on thick, then oiled and sealed with gym floor sealer. In the old days it would’ve been sealed with ox blood. The room would stink like a slaughter house for a while, but the floor would end up a beautiful dustless brick red.”

We go for a walk, along a disappearing dirt road, across dry hills strewn with skeletal rocks, limestone outcrops haunted by the ghosts of fish. Light the color of old pearls whispers around us. We steer between shaggy junipers, breathing their breath, dust and sugar.

We come to a dry arroyo, a fossil river, the red sandstone sides etched with water carvings like miniature cities. We scramble down into it, then head what would be upstream if the arroyo wasn’t dry. We come to a tall cliff, twenty-feet high, cutting across the arroyo, a waterfall during flash floods. At its base is a deep grotto, and in the shadow lies a still, opaque pool, the color of the sandstone above. Against the back wall a sheen of water slides, drips into the pool—a seep spring, the wound in the aquifer, which bleeds the pool into being.

We splash in the cool red water, then lie naked on a blanket in the warm sand at the edge of the pool. Somehow I am inside her, just as we are inside the arroyo.

But then suddenly—what seems suddenly—there comes a time when the sky daily fills with heavy gray clouds, and it rains every afternoon—short, hard rains accompanied by long thunders and a perfume of wet pine. This is the monsoon of late summer, and Freya is already gone by then, vanished into the haze beyond the Mississippi, back into her mysterious stressful life in sprawling Chicago.

But we write to each other now and then.

So one day there is a letter from Freya, handwritten in dark blue ink on light blue paper. I know it is autumn, because the wind has shifted to the north, and there is a new sharpness in the air.

Dearest Richard,
     I hope this finds you well and relishing the strangeness of your life. I want to tell you about an adventure I had.
     I went to a reading by Anaïs Nin. She is making a tour of the US, reading from her diaries and speaking of her life of art and love and passion. This will probably be her last such tour, because she is not well. At the reading she seemed thin and drawn, but that made the bright flame of her even brighter.
     As I believe you know, I am an ardent lover of her writing, and to see her, and hear her voice, was so amazing and poignant. I found myself wishing I could give her an artichoke. Why an artichoke I don’t know, but I saw myself handing it to her, a fat prickly green artichoke, and she would take it and look at me and she would understand.
     But a big crowd gathered around her when the reading was over, people wanting her autograph or to tell her how much they love her. I didn’t have an artichoke, so I went home.
     I miss you and your sunny mountain.
     Love, Freya

Shortly after getting this letter, I come across a poster at the university, announcing a reading by Anaïs Nin.

On the way to the reading, I buy two big artichokes. Then I sit among many excited people, who all love Anaïs Nin. I have a brown paper bag at my feet.

As she reads and talks, Anaïs Nin lets her bright eyes fall here and there. Once, I feel her eyes touch me like the lightest caress. She speaks in perfect English with a delicate French accent, a sweet smear of honey on pumpernickel bread. She does appear drawn, as Freya thought. The angles of her elfin face are sharp. Her dark auburn hair is piled on top of her head and held with a comb. There are streaks of gray in it, strands of cloud across a flaming sunset. She wears a necklace with a golden sun pendant.

When the reading is over, a small crowd gathers around her. I wait patiently at the edge of the crowd. Anaïs Nin sees me and my brown paper bag. When the crowd is gone, holding close their signed books, she turns to me.

“Yes?” she says.

I hand her the bag. She opens it and looks inside. Laughs a silvery laugh. “Why is this?” she asks, smiling.

I give her Freya’s letter. Anaïs Nin reads the letter and tears fill her eyes. “This is so very sweet and kind,” she says. She holds the bag of artichokes in one arm, like a baby.

“Freya is sweet and kind,” I say. “But good in a fight.”

Anaïs Nin holds out Freya’s letter. “May I keep this?” she asks.

“Of course. It’s really to you.”

She stands on tiptoe and kisses me once on each cheek. Then she is gone. A few days later I receive a hand-written letter from Anaïs Nin.

Dear Richard,
     I want so much to thank you for the beautiful artichokes, and to thank your friend Freya as well. This was a gift of the heart, and that is the best kind.
     Love always, Anaïs Nin

I put the letter from Anaïs Nin into an envelope and send it to Freya. Not very long after, Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell dies, at her home in LA. Her ashes are scattered over wide blue Santa Monica Bay.

* * *

When I finished, she was silent for a moment. I wonder,” she said finally, if Freya would tell it the same way.”

Who knows? I lost track of Freya decades ago. I don’t even know if she’s still alive.”

You know,” she remarked, that letter from Anaïs Nin could be worth something.”

Well, I don’t have it. I sent it to Freya. And I don’t have Freya’s letter either. I gave it to Anaïs Nin.”

Tell me,” she asked thoughtfully, did you ever see Freya and Anaïs Nin together, at the same time?”


Photo at the top of the page is taken by Daliel Leite [CC BY-SA 3.0 (] and is from Wikimedia Commons. Caption: George Leite and Anaïs Nin at Daliel’s in 1946. 

Sound, Air, Water . . . On the Rocks


Like echoes bouncing off the walls of a cavern, appearances interact into one another, creating experience as a constantly shifting composite.” Tarthang Tulku, Dynamics of Time and Space

One day a while back, while switching between FM stations on my car radio, the rich texture of a cello filled the space around me. It wasn’t so much that a melody caught me up, or a rhythm had me tapping the steering wheel. It felt more like standing on the edge of a grove of trees when a strong wind is moving all the branches in unpredictable harmony. Or like standing on a rocky premonitory with waves crashing all around, surrounded by unstoppable water, cold splashes of spray and bursts of wind, as sunlight looks on from above.

Out of nowhere, a phrase appeared in my mind—“A lonely dragon sings”—and I wondered what that could possibly mean. Perhaps that it’s not our memories, or even the contagion of rhythm and melody, that allows us to be present in this living realm? Perhaps it’s only when some forgotten wondering stirs within that we can glimpse the true potential of our lives.

How amazing to be carried along in a human mind as it reverberates with an ambient, sentient aliveness. Usually this experience feels flat and tame—the dinner bell of the preordained and well-rehearsed. But sometimes our familiar surroundings can open a doorway into a mysterious realm that we don’t ordinarily notice.

Perhaps we ourselves are lonely dragons and, stuck in our own forgetting, we dismiss as mythological an ancient understanding.

Tibetan monks chant with tones intermingling in a single throat, like two hawks circling above the fields. But most of us are more like dogs howling along with a passing siren or with coyotes on a distant hilltop, our solitary voices searching for a place within a greater whole. And as we sing our own song, one note at a time, we imagine the chords in the midst of which our own isolated lives might resonate.

Perhaps we will sing in the chorus of Handel’s Messiah. Or perhaps we are dead-set on dumbing down the exuberance of life, so that nothing too inconvenient can surprise us. Then, before we know it, we are more interested in having others “sing our tune” than in adding our own voice to a chorus of shared concerns—preferring to sweep the chips off the table in life’s lottery rather than toss our coins into a wishing well of hope.

A water fall is not the “fallen” water pooled beneath, and there is a cost to living our lives in the shallows of the already happened. Time is always flowing and always manifesting an unfinished symphony in which we play our part.  And when we enter the stream of present, flowing time, the frozen walls of the preordained cannot help but melt around us. When we turn our face into the wind and hear the trees sighing in nearby yards, notice a candy wrapper crossing the street on its tumbling journey, or look up into the grey heavens as the first drops of rain reach us, we may catch ourselves already in the midst of this greater time.

As our conviction that we live in an unresponsive reality calves off its glacier of frozen certainties, we may find ourselves swimming in the midst of a vast ocean world. Whales and dolphins are waiting for us there, ready to resume a Delphic conversation about the well-being of our planet, inviting us back into harmony with the many kinds of intelligence living on Earth.

Was it a bad move to come ashore? Has humanity benefited from leaving our ancestral home, and setting up shop on the shoreline? The daily news accosts us with images of last-gasp dreams expiring in an unwelcoming world: tent cities and refugee camps clustered at the edges of politically-drawn borders; cardboard box suburbs and food lines closer to home. And worse. It seems that humanity is barely wobbling along on its own two legs.

Would our species be better off still living in the ocean: exploring its depths and experiencing directly the multidimensional space of embodied life? Was it an unfortunate blunder when our forebears became stranded at the edges of retreating coast lines? Or did our ancestors endure the pain of a grand evolutionary leap when they waddled on the stumps of stubby fins from puddle to puddle, until at last they managed to gasp a gulp of hot, dry air?

Perhaps it is still possible to pull out a win for this bold adventure, started a few million years ago, when our predecessors—who must already have been dropouts in their fishy livelihoods—embarked on their pilgrimage into an unknown world? But now we are obliged to live with the unremitting pull of gravity, so that giving up and collapsing, like fish flopping on deck, is the siren call of our days and nights. It is not an easy matter to remain upright in the bright air, barely supported by the thin medium in which we now live. No wonder we dream of flying. We still remember a time when we were able to soar upwards toward the bright heavens and plumb the dark depths below, as easily as we now turn right and left on the hard scrabble surfaces of our adopted home.

How rare and wonderful is that feeling of gliding through the medium of our lives. To be able to leap in spectacular arcs of freedom into the sunlight, with the certainty that our Mother’s arms will catch us—who among us, as an adult, lives with such confidence? Who among us would not gladly exchange the forced march of progress and the percussive tramp of invading armies for an effortless glide through realms of light, at one with a community of fellow beings flying alongside?

Humanity’s lack of care for Mother Earth gives testimony to how we have forgotten our own childhood. And forgetting where we have come from is causing us to ignore the well-being of beings who are very likely superior in important ways.

Dolphins use ultrasound to map their environment, to speak with one another, and to ‘see’ interiors that are hidden from human eyes. They have healed humans with gentle and knowing probes of bodies that are nested surfaces for us. And it may be that we are sharing this planet with beings whose use of language is able to comprehend their world, while simultaneously engaging in an intimate relationship with that world. We could learn so much from beings who don’t flounder in sound bites or mistake fake news for true understanding. Meanwhile—with our species’ all too familiar recourse to technology—SETI scans deep space for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, while Earth’s oceans—home to a vastly different kind of mind than our own—largely escapes notice. The Hubble telescope brings the far reaches of time and space closer, but understanding how dolphins and whales view their world could expand our understanding of our home planet and empower us to question the single lane highway along which we are now racing—with no brake pedal on the floor.

When we widen our view to include the teeming biosphere in which our individual lives find their place, then the terrible isolation of being a single entity can loosen its grip.

We seem convinced that, as individuals, we are unable to affect the accelerating, global momentum that drives our lives. Yet the hope of the world still rests in our hands. When we chose to give our time and energy in ways that allow us to remain hopeful about the future, the future will lean in our direction—for the future is not a hidden stronghold but, like Portia’s mercy, the falling rain of time.

I sit with a cup of coffee and gaze out through my sunroom windows into the back yard and beyond, where east-facing branches and chimney tops are touched by early morning sunlight. Suddenly, with an unexpected abruptness, a steady rain of mulberry leaves is drifting past the windows, like huge, green snowflakes, while the world further out seems as remote from the flow of time as a still life painting. If not for the falling leaves, it could be a poster of late fall in New Mexico, snapped just after dawn.

And I wonder why the leaves are just this moment setting sail, like an armada under the command of a single admiral. Is there a clock, embodied in roots and branches and planetary tilt, which one morning announces that it’s time to pack up for winter? Does it even make sense to think of this mulberry tree as an entity able to make shifts in the flow of time? After weeks of monsoon rains pooling beneath the brown lawn, how astonishing that one morning all the leaves are setting sail at once.

I can feel my own agendas rising, with their prescriptions for my morning—do yoga, make breakfast, feed the dogs—and I wonder if, like this tree, I too am rooted in cycles of beginnings and endings, of renewals and leave-takings.

As this tree takes leave of its summer foliage, is it enacting a realization that nothing is ultimately ever lost? Is it acting out an ancient faith that spring will come again, with its new awakenings, just as this morning’s dawn has followed in the wake of last night’s sunset?

Photo by David Filippone.

Trees are so closely linked with our planet and the entire grand waltz of our solar system—their deeply rooted gestures one with the tilting of Earth’s axis, the orbiting dance of Earth, Moon, and Sun, and the circulation of water and the drifting continents—they remind us that instead of floundering in the anxieties of a self who fears the future, regrets the past, and scrambles through the present, we too can join the dance of time.

As I drift among the years of my own life—connected with a wide sweep of time, through parents and children, through the wisdom and beauty that others who have come before have left behind—I feel grateful that I have been called forth from my isolation to join this symphonic poem of beginnings and endings.

Even now, a ship’s horn is sounding dockside, announcing that it is time to slip out on today’s voyage to exotic lands. It’s not a leave-taking so much as an arrival as I run up the gang plank, turn around, and feel the deck vibrating under foot. Whether it’s a cup of coffee with a friend, a trip to Peru, or taking another breath with appreciation, I too am a leaf adrift in morning light, alive and accounted for as I wend my way back home.


Where Did the West Go?

The road stretched straight and flat before me, like you’d see in a sports car commercial or a Dennis Hopper movie. On either side, the land spread wide and open. Not quite flat—with a bit of a roll here and there—dotted with juniper and other unidentifiable desert shrubs. I had been traveling out West for almost six weeks since leaving my home in West Virginia, staying with friends in Albuquerque, visiting National Parks with my husband John, and searching for someplace in this vast region that I could call home. I spent Christmas at the Grand Canyon, celebrated the New Year in Joshua Tree National Park, and camped for two cold nights in the Mojave Desert. But nothing had felt like the real West until then—that moment on the long drive from Albuquerque to Roswell, New Mexico (don’t ask) when I looked around and saw…nothing. Or rather, no one.

Don’t get me wrong—I love the National Parks. In fact, as we jostled for position at the South Rim overlooks on Christmas Day among the Asian, European, Latino, and other tourists, I confessed to John that America’s National Parks are what I’m most proud of about our country. Make America great again? It already is. It always was. All we did was have the smarts not to mess parts of it up. Parts of it.

Since then, I had been searching through northern Arizona and New Mexico in a borrowed Fiat and obsessively Googling communities in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. My goal? Find a nice small town with a nice small house where John and I could plant our not-so-nice small footprints and spend our weekends traipsing through wildlands. When I looked at a map and saw all that glorious green National Forest and parkland surrounding western communities, I figured somewhere out there was a town for us. But as I explored those potential sites on the ground, I found mostly strip malls or ghost towns—chain stores or boarded-up buildings. Other places looked promising, but the specter of future fracking or the legacy of past mining cautioned me away. With the Trump Administration promising more fossil fuel drilling and less environmental oversight, my misgivings grew.

I was getting discouraged. Where was the West I remembered? I had gotten my first taste of it decades ago, standing on the edge of the Beaver Rim in central Wyoming. Until then, I had spent all of my twenty-five years on the East Coast. Eastern deciduous forest and Atlantic surf were my natural habitats. But that summer, as I looked out over the breathtaking emptiness of basin and range, I felt an awe that I never could have imagined. Now, with a few more bumpy miles on my body’s odometer, I wanted to feel that again.

In 2016, the Center for American Progress, in conjunction with the consulting group Conservation Science Partners, released a report showing that between 2001 and 2011, the American West lost a football field’s worth of natural area to human development every two and a half minutes. Because of urban sprawl, energy and mineral development, roads and transmission lines, the landscape that inspired me so long ago has become more and more elusive.

Somehow, on that lonely drive to Roswell, among the desolate plains of eastern New Mexico, I found my awe again. The land surrounding me wasn’t famous for its scenery or valued for its minerals or preserved for posterity. It was forgotten—except, I suspect, by the ranchers who somehow make their living from sparsely scattered herds grazing over a vast parched landscape that can’t handle many head. I saw a few cattle here and there, an occasional car on the highway, and a mystical island of snow-covered mountains off in the distance.

Photo by Amy Mathews Amos.

Maybe that’s the answer, I thought. Find the forgotten places. Soak in the vastness of a western universe without fast food, souvenir shops, drill rigs, or parking lots by going where no one else will go. Fill the soul with a satisfying emptiness that few can find on Earth these days.

But as I finished my drive, reality hit. Forgotten places can get pretty lonely. No friends to dine with, no community to embrace, no airport to whisk me off when work demands my presence. Best to find the forgotten places on foot, with a pack on the back and a burning need in the belly.

My search for a new home continues. I’m beginning to suspect that wherever I land might not be awe-inspiring. But at least I know that, for now, some of those forgotten places still exist. That emptiness matters. And I know that, if I explore far enough, I can capture that breathtaking feeling of vast wildness once again, alone in the middle of nowhere.


Photo at the top courtesy of John Amos.