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/

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

Last evening, looking for distraction from the election, I found myself watching a British art history documentary about Hans Holbein. The “guide” was Waldemar Januszczak, not my favorite art historian (he’s ugly, I’m superficial) and I ended up having one of those strange experiences of seeing a painting on television that I saw in real life in a city I visited but barely remember. The show is “Holbein; the Eye of the Tudors” and this is the painting:

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Christ in the Tomb, Hans Holbein, Basel Art Museum

I was on a search that day for anything medieval and related to St. Gall. One of the doorways of the Basel cathedral is called the “Gallus Portal” because it is medieval and the carvings all around it tell the life of St. Gall, Switzerland’s patron saint who also happens to have been an Irishman.

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Gallus Portal, Basel Cathedral

I was barely tuned into the fact that Nietzsche had lived in that city for quite a while and a person I had studied at some point in my education, Erasmus of Rotterdam, had also lived there. I didn’t know then that I would come to admire Erasmus very much; I didn’t know then his connection to Thomas More who is, allegedly, someone in the dim recesses of my family tree.

So there I was last night watching this strange chubby loud Waldemar Januszczak make (to me) gratuitous pop culture allusions to tie his viewers to the not-so-arcane history of the Reformation. As the show unfolded, I discovered that Waldemar Januszczak and I had some biases in common. Waldemar hated the Reformers for one of the same reasons I do; they sacked the churches, destroyed the art, and left them barren. What Waldemar had failed to research is that it was not Luther who reformed Basel; it became part of the Swiss Reformed Church — a reform movement begun in Zürich by Huldrych Zwingli and instituted in Basel by Zwingli’s friend, Johannes Oecolampadius These guys were not sympathetic with Martin Luther at all… They were distinct reformations with distinct doctrinal differences. Luther and Zwingli passionately disliked each other.

I wondered if it were so hard to do that research and get that right? The most common reader review of The Brothers Path is that the readers know nothing about this part of the Reformation. Some are interested by it; most are bORed. Many reviewers admit to skipping over the “God” bits. This would be most of the book since it’s about a religious revolution and one of the main characters is a priest turned reformed pastor, another is a religious fanatic and another a simple man of faith. For that matter, we have the Zürich reformation to thank for John Calvin, from whose religious philosophy many of the Protestant religions were born — Presbyterians, for one. I pretty much hate that stuff, but I’ve written about it, sympathetically, I hope. It seemed — seems — important to know where it came from, what world and why. ANY-hoo…

Waldemar made some important points, such as for a guy like Hans Holbein whose bread-and-butter was religious art, the Reformation wasn’t the best historical moment.

And swirling all around the beginning of “Hans Holbein; the Eye of the Tudors” was Basel. The cathedral. The day I visited it in 1997 it was January, a snowy day, and we entered the front doors and a silent man with sparkly eyes swept the snow from our clothing and handed us felt slippers to put over our shoes. We walked around the dim, red stone church. I felt its ancient solemnity; I did not notice (and wish I had) the defaced sculptures on the walls. Thanks to Waldemar Januszczak, I saw them last night. That wintry day I also noticed the tomb of Erasmus. A tiny bell far in the distance of my mind rang softly and when I got home, I checked out In Praise of Folly and read it, this time really, not just for a test in some obscure class. The book was in Latin and English.

Hans Holbein loved In Praise of Folly and drew whimsical illustrations in the margin. I got a bit annoyed with Waldemar  when he didn’t seem to realize that was pretty conventional behavior; perhaps Waldemar had never seen a medieval illustrated manuscript? That was — to my eyes — what Holbein had done, simply finished the book. After all, printing was new in the early 16th century.

So what’s the point?

At the end of the show, Waldemar spent time on one important and amazing painting, The Ambassadors.

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Holbein died of the plague when he was in his mid-forties bringing home, again, the point that “art is long, life is fleeting.” The things which concern us today, frighten us today, will soon be forgotten completely and someday, a few hundred years from now, someone will comment on the events that have concerned Americans so much this past year. It will be a passing footnote in a longer story.

And he will get the facts wrong and most people will not even notice.

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

 

 

Smokes, 1994

The summer afternoon thunderstorm left streams between the cobbles. They reflect the acidic green neon of the Hard Rock Cafe sign above my head. This Hard Rock Cafe is not one of the international chain of Stratocaster strewn designer hamburger joints from La Jolla to Abu Dhabi. This is a labyrinthine dinge palace replete with a jukebox playing Aerosmith, Nirvana, Metallica, old Black Sabbath and Alice in Chains. The bartender splashes Hurlimann beer into glasses and hands them to the adolescent customers who otherwise sit on their high bar stools, rolling long Euro-joints of hash mixed with tobacco shaken from eviscerated imported Marlboros.

When I go outside, the smoke follows me; I sit in my own layer of it, tobacco, beer, the heavy sweet hash smell. My first trip to Europe is an exclusive tour of Zürich’s post-adolescent hash bars, concealed park benches and castle ruins. I take a deep breath of fresh air, washed in the rain, the wind and the evening. People pass, earnest and young, in black clothing, everyone, and everyone is smoking.

Although I’m bored and depressed by the scene, by everything, I don’t think of leaving. My ride, my DATE, my LOVER is one of the teenagers inside, and it isn’t like he’s going to drive ME. He will certainly emerge so completely fucked up he’ll demand I drive HIM home. Besides, I have no idea how to get anywhere, either on the tram or in a car. Zürich is a maze, a scary, dark and twisted tangle of identical streets with no landmarks and no horizon. It’s a living Giger painting. Giger even lives here; he’s drawing from life. I sit on a bench and prop my feet on a flower box that has Switzerland’s only dead geraniums.

I stayed inside long enough to beat the local high-scorer on the Tetris game in the corner and then beat my own high score twice. As I played, I wondered what sense it makes to be in Switzerland playing Tetris. There is something very wrong with that. I’ve never been in Europe before.

To my left, down the street, only a little ways, is Zürich’s one McDonalds, a magnet for all the American-culture idolators of the Niederdorf. A Big Mac is about $7 US, fries $3, but the milkshakes are much, much better than any I have ever had anywhere. There is really something about Swiss cows.

A boy and his girlfriend sit down on a bench near mine. He lights her cigarette. She inhales deeply.

“Could I bum a cigarette?” I ask, in English.

“Are you American?” the boy asks, shaking  a Marlboro toward me. I take it and lean forward for a light.

“Yes,” I answer. “Danke.” Smoke rises between me and the green rivulets of light threading down these solemn cobbled channels to the river.

***

Part of a collection of autobiographical episodes, each centered on a cigarette. I’ve had a dozen  cigarettes in my life, each attached to a particular moment that called out, “This is one! Bum a cigarette!” So…my smoking is more in tune with the Native American tradition that treats tobacco as a sacred herb.

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