Quotidian Update 71.3.7.v — Phone Conversation with My Cousin

Zürich from a tower of the Grossmunster

“Well sweetie, we have osteoarthritis everywhere in our body. It’s in our genes.”

Suddenly it all made sense, the pain and fatigue I felt walking with Teddy in the Big Empty on Sunday evening.

“Do you find it’s worse when the weather changes?”

“I think so. The weather was changing.”

Since my cousin’s daughter found me on Facebook a month ago, I have had family. I already had my family that I put together on my own, but now I the other kind of family with shared childhood memories and relatives. I spent an hour on the phone with my cousin yesterday. It was kind of miraculous. I don’t know when we’ll be able to see each other, but this is pretty awesome as it is.

She had just finished reading Across the World on the Wings of the Wind, the whole mammoth trilogy of Savior, The Brothers Path and The Price compiled in one book. She had so much to say about it. The best thing — to me — was that she found Savior, the first book, too short. She’d wanted more. “I loved it. That book grounds everything, the family, there in the castle, all of it.”

Of course it’s HER family as well as mine.

“I didn’t know we were Swiss. I thought we were Scots/Irish.”

“Mostly. We’re mostly Scots/Irish. But yeah. Swiss too.”

“I had no idea.”

“No one did, well my mom thought Grandma was Pennsylvania Dutch, but I don’t think she knew what that meant.”

“Why did she think that?”

“Grandma has a few strange turns of phrase.” My grandma said a few every day sentences in German syntax, like “Put on the table the bowl.” I don’t know if my mom had read a novel or studied or what but she’d heard those and developed a theory. When it comes to it, I’m not sure we know our parents all that well.

“I loved your books,” said my cousin.

I was a little sorry she’d bought the books because I was going to send them to her. I just don’t have them all and Amazon isn’t rushing to fill random book orders from authors who don’t make them any money.

We gossiped about family, talked out the changes in the 20 year interval since we last saw each other, and talked about dogs. She has always had dogs and right now has Mini-Aussie puppies.

Today four years ago I was in Zürich. I don’t know if I will ever go back, but I hope so. Whatever small part of my DNA or ancestry or whatever it ultimately represents, it occupies a large part of my heart. I will always wonder (though I wrote about it) how my ancestors felt leaving. Relieved, I guess, scared, but I can’t believe some of them wished they had not had to go.

Nothing really going on which, given the times in which we live, is OK by me.

Featured photo by Lois Maxwell

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/05/20/rdp-wednesday-fatigue/

The Best Library of My Life — St. Gallen Stiftsbibliothek

On a winter’s day in a deep and dark December in 1997 I opened a door way that led into a gaudy rococo structure that housing thousands of books I could never read.

It was the Library at the Abbey of St. Gall in St. Gallen, Switzerland. I had just dipped a toe into my personal medieval period. I’d recently read How the Irish Saved Civilization (which I’d bought because I thought it would be funny…) by Thomas Cahill, and I was excited to learn that a couple of Irish monks — Columbanus and Gall — had crossed the channel in little round boats and carried the Bible (and other books) up the Rhine. Gall got pneumonia at what is now St. Gallen and left Columbanus on his own to journey to Italy. Apparently Columbanus was a irritated with Gall for being such a sissy, but pneumonia is no joke…

Columbanus and Gall on Lake Constanz (dem Bodensee)


Gall set up a hermitage and a small library with a few books and he gathered followers and saved souls. He is the patron Saint of Switzerland. His animal friend is a bear. The story is:

… that once he was travelling in the woods of what is now Switzerland. One evening he was sitting down warming his hands at a fire. A bear emerged from the woods and charged. The holy man rebuked the bear, so awed by his presence it stopped its attack and slunk off to the trees. There it gathered firewood before returning to share the heat of the fire with St Gall. The legend says that for the rest of his days St Gall was followed around by his companion the bear.

At first, the library itself disappointed me. I guess I wanted to open the door and enter the 8th century or something. The current library was built in the 18th century. I find it very difficult to see anything in a baroque room, and the Abbey Library is one step beyond baroque — it’s rococo. It’s so full of embellishments and ornaments that my mind becomes confused.

Main hall of the Library of the Abbey of St. Gall

But once I got used to it — and librarian came to talk to us (we were the only people there) — I stopped trying to see through the gold and stucco and began to see and understand where I was. He showed me a medieval map of the world.

8th or 9th century CE map of the world

You can see that it’s oriented (ha ha) to the East, the rising sun — Christ. All the three continents are surrounded by sea. The map is less for navigating physical space as it is for navigating spiritual space. This is a somewhat unusual medieval map of the world because it doesn’t SAY Jerusalem is the center, but it is. I saw a couple other maps on which cities were drawn, and Jerusalem was always depicted as the largest city and had tall, shining towers. Although I didn’t understand at that moment, having only at that point dipped one toe into the medieval world, that the physical and spiritual worlds overlaid each other and that the physical world was but a metaphor for spiritual space.

Of all the amazing things this man explained about the books in the glass cases, other books on the library’s locked shelves, and books too old and fragile to be touched at all was that there are some written in languages people don’t know any more. Apparently researchers are working on that, but I thought at the time that it is incredibly sad. Here are words written in very difficult circumstances, with oak-gall ink on parchment with quill pens, stories, ideas, beliefs, philosophies, knowledge and experiences that their writers were desperate to transmit to the future. And there the three of us stood — my friend, the librarian and I — discussing how no one could read them.

He took us into a hallway behind the main room — it was modern, gray and white — with doors along it. “All these rooms have people working on this problem.” Just then a young woman wearing white cotton gloves came out of one of the doors and greeted the librarian. I got a vision of busy young people in white gloves behind all those doors struggling to decode old words. I wondered what they would find.

Of all the wonders in the library, though, for me one of the most wonderful was the inscription written in Greek over the entrance which, thanks to Michael J. Preston, I could read on my own.

Medicine Chest for the Soul

I continued to pursue St. Gall in various places in Switzerland that winter, including a trip to Basel to see the Gallus Portal at the cathedral. I learned a lot — not the least of which that ignorance is a wonderful wonderful wonderful thing because once curiosity is awakened, and you chase knowledge, you will get more than you possibly could have imagined.

I didn’t know HALF of what I was looking at that winter, but on my second to last day, my friend’s mom told him to take me to visit a little medieval church near where they lived. The church is in the village of Gfenn, outside Dubendorf, both north of Zürich. And the rest? It’s historical fiction. ❤

Lazariter Kirche im Gfenn

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/09/18/rdp-wednesday-library/

Self-Archeology

Discovering all those letters I sent my mom from China was a huge surprise. I thought I’d thrown out everything in the Great Purge of 2015. Writing the blog posts about my experiences was fun. Transforming them into something like a coherent book was difficult. Integrating the letters was emotionally intense and when I was finished, I was drained, exhausted.

It’s very strange meeting yourself after 35 years or more and that’s essentially what happened.

Some of what I found was inspiring, some was simply informative, some of it showed me how consistent I have been through time. We are more than the sum of our experiences. We’re also something intrinsically, fundamentally.

Most of all I saw how deeply I loved China.

I also saw the virtue of ignorance — if I’d known more about China and its history leading up to 1982, I might not have gone. But I didn’t know, so I was open to being told by the people around me. In my mind was a vague memory about the Cultural Revolution and, of course, the Beatle’s song, “Revolution,” but as none of that had any meaning to me as a teenager in Colorado Springs, I didn’t pay attention.

When I returned from China I literally read everything I could find, had friends in China send me books, went to LA’s Chinatown to buy books, had a friend in Macao send me books and used the library at San Diego State. I desperately wanted to know where I’d been. It was important, ultimately, to do all that learning away from China and away from the influence and commentary of my Chinese friends who’d all grow up “under the Red Flag.”

For a while I felt that I’d really failed my life since the only great thing I’ve done was go to China for a year, the only adventure but then I thought more about that. What’s an adventure? Yeah, I have regrets over many of the choices I made. I think that’s just part of living long enough to be able to look at your own life as if it were a book. We make some choices because we really don’t know better, or don’t have a clear view of our essential selves, or think we’ll live forever and have time to make it up.

This is the third book I’ve written about my life. All of them are show a character who’s utterly consistent. It’s interesting because several years ago I never imagined writing about my own life experiences. I thought writing memoir was self-indulgent and self- important. Again, a completely consistent aspect of my personality. The very thing I mock or say I would never do is probably the next thing on my agenda.

The most wonderful thing I found in all those letters was this. You need to know my mom didn’t want my brother or I to be artists. She said over and over “Art is a four letter word in this house.” But, the poor woman gave birth to two artists. She thought all artists were Van Gogh, insane geniuses who couldn’t be happy and who sliced off their ears. Still, I wrote her this:

“Dear Mom, I think art (you can cover your ears if you don’t want to hear about A-R-T) if it’s any good has to be about something. If you just stay in the same place and do the same things always you’ll write one story and make once picture over and over and over…so maybe I’m in the process of preparing to make something.” October 13, 1982

Hell on Wings, Part Two, Parigi (Paris…)

Once we landed at Charles de Gaulle, and I was rid of my two extremely annoying row-mates. Each gave me a cordial good-bye and growled at each other.

I exited the plane to see a young man holding a wheel-chair while the mink-clad Nonna sat down in it. “Are you my savior?” she said to him in heavily accented English, accented with Italian. Her fifty+ years living in Las Vegas with the man who’d fallen in love with her after the war, an Army boy liberating Genova, hadn’t smoothed a bit of that away. “And you! Goethe! Dove vai?” I’d met her on the flight from St. Louis to New York. I carried a large biography of Goethe. She’d greeted me on that flight with, “Goethe LOVED Italy!!!” and we had become traveling friends…

“Genova.”

“Oh that’s RIGHT! Andiamo insieme!” She took my hand and somehow I felt privileged (do not ask me why — I couldn’t begin to answer that question).

“Can you carry this for me?”

“Sure.” I took her brown-paper wrapped package, and only later wondered why, as she was on wheels, she didn’t just set it in her lap.

“It’s jelly.” Like hell it was jelly. It was a mink jacket.

The good thing about accompanying one’s Italian grandma as she is whisked through an airport in a wheelchair is that you are whisked through, too. We were taken directly to the Alitalia desk. “You talk to them. You’re young, and I’m not sure I can communicate well.”

Again, mysteriously, I felt honored. I didn’t think, “Whoa, you’re the native speaker. I’ve just learned a bit of Italian from friends in Switzerland and a CD rom!” Completely confident, I went to the desk and explained our situation. I was answered in Italian and all went fine. Finally our ordeal was over…but not really. We had not gone through customs. We did not appear to be international travelers, in spite of our American passports. Our marginal but adequate French, her flawless and my adequate Italian, our appearance (mother and daughter?) provoked no questions. We appeared to be just another bi-national family returning to the home country. Later we would pay for these moments of fluidity and ease, but for now? We got nice seats on the next plane out.

All the seats on the small Alitalia flight over the Alps were equipped with what I’d call “mandatory” entertainment. We had to watch Mr. Bean whether we wanted to or not. By then La Nonna and I had been traveling for 22 hours. We were hungry and dehydrated and had reached a higher plane of human understanding by that point — or much lower. Hard to say. “Non me piace. What ever happened to peace and quiet?” La Nonna grabbed the steward and said, “Si prega di spegnere la nostra televisione.” (Please turn off the television)

Mi dispiace, signora. Non posso. Lei vuole qualcosa di bere?” (I’m sorry, Missus. I can’t. Do you want something to drink?”)

Si, si. Grazie tanti.” She thanked him but with an edge in her voice that said clearly, “You cannot pacify me with wine or Coca Cola.”

We flew over Mont Blanc — it was amazing — and then over Monte Rossa. The plane soon began its descent into Malpensa. We got off the plane and walked across the concrete (no wheelchair for La Nonna this time; she was strengthened by the air of her home land). “See, Goethe? La terra di Garibaldi! The air of liberty!”

Who was “La Nonna” you are no doubt asking, and what happened then?

The Season

Frost per se is pretty rare here unless we get fog and that will coat every small branch, every wire on a fence, every stuck tumbleweed in crystalline magic. This is a high desert and usually there’s not enough humidity for frost to get a decent chance. When it does, it’s most beautiful on top of snow, making sharp small prisms. If we have a few very cold days in a row, the prisms grow, and it seems they will last forever.

It’s a cloudy morning here in the back of beyond, and I have company coming. Snow is in the forecast (from 4 pm to 5 pm) but it’s snowing in the San Juan Mountains so Wolf Creek Ski Area is getting a fresh dusting. That seems to be winter in the real west. Nothing happens, no one I care about is driving, until someone needs to go to the hospital or I have guests, then it snows. 

I knew that when I moved here. 

Yesterday we had a little tea party. One of my friends is facing some tough stuff and the tea party was a way — our way, I guess — of letting her know that we’re here and care very much. I think she probably felt that. I hope so. Messages like that are conveyed in offers of help and willingness to drive. It’s an oblique language that tries to say, “I’m really sorry you have to go through all this. I hope it’s over soon and that everything turns out well, but now it’s hard and we’ll do whatever we can to make it easier.”

The thing is, no one can really DO anything except be willing to do whatever we can when the moment arises. 

Meanwhile life everywhere goes on. Life this weekend in my town means Christmas. Tomorrow we have a pancake breakfast, visits with Santa, a craft fair, caroling, a parade and fireworks. My guests will be coming down to partake in the wonder of it all and I will be very happy to see them. Bailey — my short-term golden retriever — will be coming with them for a visit as will Reina, a brilliant Australian shepherd who used to be my dog. 

As they drive west over the pass, my neighbors will be driving east toward some of the difficulties they are now facing. I wish them all — and everyone else — safe travels. 

Life in Colorado. My friends will be crossing La Veta Pass which is a few miles east of the + sign.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/11/30/rdp-friday-frost/

Caran d’Ache

When I moved here four years ago I followed the instructions of every moving company and put my treasures in the car I drove myself. My treasures were Lily, Dusty, and Mindy (dogs), and my art supplies. I especially treasure two sets of Caran d’Ache materials — watercolor pencils and Conte crayons. I know that never in my life would I be able to replace the sets. I don’t use them. I work with a smaller set (40) and I replace each pencil as it wears down. These colors are made in Switzerland.

A long time ago I had a Swiss family. It’s a long story — pretty interesting one — but I’m not telling it here. For a few years, I spent most Christmases in Zürich with them. Often, I was given cash as a present, and one year I went to the Glatt (big shopping center in Wallisellen) and bought a giant sent of watercolor pencils. One year I wasn’t able to go to Zürich, and when my friend returned to California from time with his parents, he gave me my Christmas presents. One was the set of Conte crayons.

I have a set of Caran d’Ache gouache that I used once in a while and a set of oil pastels I’ve never used. So far they haven’t fit my technique.

For me these colors are wonderful in themselves and in the way they connect me to a time in my life that was these colors.

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https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/10/10/rdp-wednesday-color/

Verona…

I like Italy, but I’ve had so many Italian experiences I don’t know where to start or what to write. I don’t know how it happened that Italy and Italians took such a large role in my life, but that’s how it happened.

I’ve been in Italy several times — I haven’t traveled around much as I tend to be more an “intensive” than “extensive” traveler. I like to BE somewhere for a while and get to know it and experience some of daily life. In 2004 I decided to follow Goethe to Verona — the first place on his Italian Journey where he saw an actual Roman ruin. Now that I’ve been around a bit, that seems kind of odd since the Romans were everywhere, but that’s his story and if he likes it, that’s fine.

In Verona is an amphitheater where all the usual bread and circus stuff took place some millennia back, but more recently, at the end of the 19th century, Giuseppe Verdi thought it might be cool to stage his new opera — Aida — in the Arena.

In 2004 I got to hear it and it was really wonderful to be in that place as the sun set and the music came up — the spectacle directed by Franco Zefferelli. I was in Verona for a month, studying Italian and wandering around so I went to see Madame Butterfly, too. For Aida I bought expensive seats. For Madame Butterfly I sat on the sun-warmed marble seats carved carefully for the comfort of ancient Romans. A lot more comfortable and way more fun!

 

Me Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly, Verona Arena, 2004

 

A storm came up in the last act and they cleared the Arena. As I walked down the steps leading outside, I could really imagine hundreds of ancient Romans leaving some gladitorial rout. Outside, the rain fell gently and I walked back to my apartment, under the fragrant Linden blossoms across the Adige. Thinking of it now, I cannot choose what of all of that was most lovely.

 

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/06/21/ragtag-daily-prompt-21-italian/

Ghost Ranch

Back in the late 70s I discovered Georgia O’Keefe, learned about her life, sought her paintings and admired her very much. I am no longer that young woman, but I think of Georgia O’Keefe as kind of a hero. She found her place and did her thing. Right now, at 66, I think that’s heroic.

So, when my friend came down with the Airdyne, my new exercise bike from the 1970s in nearly pristine condition WITH racing stripes, we decided to go to Georgia O’Keefe land which is 2 hours and 20 minutes away more or less.

 

 

We stopped first in Abiquiu where O’Keefe lived — but her house and the painting exhibit that goes with it wasn’t open. We had a nice lunch and then headed further along to the Ghost Ranch, the setting of many of O’Keefe’s landscapes.

 

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O’Keefe’s Painting and Correlative Landscape

 

 

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Dormant Cholla Cactus

 

Honestly, I found it a little odd. Ghost Ranch was originally a dude ranch and now it’s kind of a religious retreat marries tourist attraction, but it was beautiful with many well preserved adobe buildings from the turn of the 19th century.

We drove back to Monte Vista over Cumbres Pass — through some of the Southern San Juan Mountains. There was quite a bit of snow — not for this time of year (it should be much deeper) but it was lovely to drive on a clear and plowed mountain pass with no traffic and snow on the ground. The scenery was amazing. I don’t have photos because I was driving.

I might go back.

And…thanks to the cortisone shot, I walked 1.3 miles without a cane. I went up and down stairs. I kind of ran. I’m beginning to understand on a non-intellectual and more visceral level how repairing this thing is going to be great for me. 🙂 ❤

 

I’ve Been to Hellnar and Back

A year ago I was in Iceland with a torn-but-healing (but still painful) Achilles tendon, the side-effect of taking the sinister and evil antibiotic, Cipro. The house where my friend and I were staying was nice, but, for me, problematic. It was in the town of Hellnar on the Snæfellsnes peninsula at the foot of the Snæfellsnesjokul, or Snæfellsnes glacier.

The only beds were up these sadistic and space-saving “Norwegian” stairs. Because of my tendon, I could not climb them.

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Stairs from Hell

I slept on a makeshift bed I assembled from the lounge end of a sectional sofa and an easy chair.

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“Sleep”

 

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The plan had been to stay in a comfy house in this national park and ride Icelandic horses and hike.

I pause for a moment of grim laughter.

I discovered I could not mount and dismount the horses and this was required if I were to ride them. I thought I’d just get on in the stable or paddock, ride around and get off when we returned. No. There was a moment when I was in the barn, standing more or less against the back wall, supposedly finding a helmet that fit, when the guide said, “We will be getting on and off the horses several times.” I looked across the crowd of Icelandic horses between me and the exit, wondering if they were as indifferent to the random movements of human beings as I had read. They were.

My friend had a nice ride. I think it was the high point of her journey.

Meanwhile, back at the house, I sat at the kitchen table, watched the sea birds and the wind, and worked on my novel.

My upbringing stood me in good stead in Hellnar. When I was a kid, if I complained, my mom usually answered me with, “You’re going to like it whether you like it or not.” 

All the while we were there, the weather was abysmal — four? Five? days of rain and sleet. The wind blew so hard that the rain “fell” at a 90 degree angle. In this midst of the gray and bleak — which I kind of liked, seeing it as an “authentic Icelandic experience,” I was inspired in a most Herzogian way and decided to make a documentary film. It’s only a minute and a half, but believe me, it seems a LOT longer…

 

I never saw this volcano or the glacier that covers it except from the airport in Rekjavik as we were leaving. Far, far away, glowing gold and white in the reflected sunlight, the glacier and its mountain laughed at us as we got on the plane to go home.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/survive/

Orange Juice

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a young woman (me) who was so filled with wanderlust that she (I) got giddy just looking at a map. I had dreams of striding across the world in a pair of Seven League Boots, no, not like the kitty cat, but like Richard Halliburton

My boyfriend at the time had traveled — a lot for a guy his age — and on his own. He was also, as a person, nearly as exotic as anyone could be without being another species altogether. Peter had gone to school in France, had traveled in Italy, Morocco and Tunisia. He spoke French and Italian fluently, graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard, and dreamed of being a writer.

One evening, before we went out, he introduced me to Campari Soda, with a twist. “Not a squeeze, a twist.” He was emphatic.

The drink was beautiful, bubbly, a perfect shade of alizarin crimson. The afternoon light shone through the glass.

“Try it. Lots of Americans don’t like it.”

I tried it. I loved it.

“Do you find it bitter?”

I did, but that was good. I was a fan of Vernors Bitter Lemon, for godssakes. I thought of Stephen Crane (it was grad school, I was studying literature). “Makes me think of Stephen Crane,” I said.

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“No, what?”

“A poem.”

“Are you sure,” he said, “that American literature IS literature? How can you know that you’re thinking of an actual poem?” He grinned. We were steeped in academia and both of us knew it was bogus. Whether America HAD a real literature was still disputed by some (non-American) scholars who argued America hadn’t been around long enough to develop a real culture and, therefore, had no real literature. It was all derivative.

“There’s another drink that’s good. Mix Campari with orange juice. In Italy they call that an Americano because of the obsession Americans have with drinking orange juice every morning.”

Fast forward nearly twenty years. I’m walking up a street in Wallisellen, a small town near Zürich, with a friend. We’ve just been to Co-op, a grocery store. I’m carrying a six pack of liter bottles of orange juice. As we pass windows, store windows, office windows, people wave and nod. In at least one, someone mouths, “American.”

***

 

The poem:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
Stephen Crane

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/bitter/