Meditation on Precipices

There are a lot of theories about mountains and I don’t mean geological theories or theories about their existence, but theories about the way people perceive them. One theory says that it was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that people started to regard mountains as objects of wonder and inspiration.

“During the 18th century altitude became increasingly venerated…The fresh attitude to altitude was a radical change of heart and one which made itself felt in every cultural sphere, from literature to architecture or horticulture. In the early part of the century, the so-called ‘hill poem’ established itself as a popular minor genre…” (Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind)

Before that they were “mere” obstacles with dangerous precipices people had to cross to get from one place to another.

I don’t agree with this theory, though I do agree that during the 18th and 19th century people did (apparently) begin to travel to mountains for the sake of the mountains themselves, and romantic poetry does love the precipice — as a metaphor at least.

The precipice is the place where the faint-hearted, ordinary, unimaginative, dim and cowardly person NEVER goes. In real life a precipice is a dangerous and scary place with extreme exposure where no one goes unless they must. I get the metaphor — and after reading Zorba the Greek I was determined to “walk to the edge of the leaf” and look over the side. (The Boss’/Kazantzaki’s metaphor for the metaphor of the precipice).

“Some men — the more intrepid ones — reach the edge of the leaf. From there we stretch out, gazing into chaos. We tremble. We guess what a frightening abyss lies beneath us. In the distance we can hear the noise of the other leaves of the tremendous tree, we feel the sap rising from the root of our leaf and our hearts swell. Bent thus over the awe-inspiring abyss, with all our bodies and all our souls, we tremble with terror. From that moment begins…”

“I stopped. I wanted to say “from that moment begins poetry,” but Zorba would not have understood. I stopped.

“‘What begins’? asked Zorba’s anxious voice. ‘Why did you stop’?

“…begins the great danger, Zorba. Some grow dizzy and delirious, others are afraid; they try to find an answer to strengthen their hearts, and they say: ‘God’! Others again, from the edge of the leaf, look over the precipice calmly and bravely and say: ‘I like it.’! (Nikos Kazantzakis/Zorba the Greek

There are some really nasty, scary passes through the Alps. One, the Via Mala (evil way), is notoriously terrifying. Goethe went there on a trip to Switzerland and sketched it. The lyrical lines of Goethe’s ink drawing reveal some of the romanticization of the precipice.

800px-ViaMala_Goethe

In real life it’s more like this:

Via_Mala

Imagine crossing that ice-covered stone bridge in the 15th century early on a late spring morning with the wind blowing.

The trail itself, leading to the bridge, was cut into the side of the mountain and it looks like this:

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Another fun pass from the past is the Devil’s Bridge on the Gotthard Pass. The pass itself has been in use since the 12th century. Before the bridge was built (and that means several centuries) people died trying to get across the river when it was in flood. The story is:

The legend of this particular bridge states that the Reuss was so difficult to ford that a Swiss herdsman wished the devil would make a bridge. The Devil appeared, but required that the soul of the first to cross would be given to him. The mountaineer agreed, but drove a goat across ahead of him, fooling his adversary. Angered by this trickery, the devil fetched a rock with the intention of smashing the bridge, but an old woman drew a cross on the rock so the devil could not lift it anymore.

Turner painted this bridge with a mixture of romanticism and actuality that works for me.

800px-Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_028

The precipice of the mind, however, is another thing. Henry Miller wrote about that, in Nexus.

“Don’t be afraid of falling backward into a bottomless pit. There is nothing to fall into. You’re in it and of it, and one day, if you persist, you will be it…Did I fear unconsciously that if I succeeded in letting go, I would be speaking with my own voice…and would never again know surcease from toil?”

I understand the precipice of the mind and I understand the precipice of the mountain. I am very afraid of heights and it’s a fear I don’t particularly want to face. There are slopes I was always happy to climb and some of them look precipitous, but they were not. The angles were friendly and accommodating, the exposure was doable and I did not have to look down any drastic drops if I did not want to. That is not the challenge life meant for me. As for the precipice of the mind, Henry Miller was right. I have fallen backward into the bottomless pit and there I found liberty.

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

Quiet Morning in Monte Vista, Colorado

Back home again and the lilacs are in full force. ❤  Like most trips, this one was long and strange. The flight was normal for a transatlantic flight; the big difference was that it was half as long as most I have experienced, but none the less grueling. Still, I think of the people about whom I’m writing with their three+ month voyages, death, disease and disaster and I think I don’t have any room to complain.

The dogs are fine. Mindy stayed with Lois’ husband and their three dogs. Dusty and Bear stayed in a nice kennel. Bear was definitely relieved when I picked her up from the kennel and Dusty was ecstatic and told me all his stories from the two weeks. Bear and Dusty are tired still this morning, but I know that by tomorrow they — and I — will be “normal” (for us!) again.

Summer arrived in the San Luis Valley while I was gone — not my favorite season since I hate yard work (I do like gardening) and I vastly prefer cold weather, but we’ll get used to it and be sorry to see it leave when fall comes.

Humans are strange that way.

Iceland was very good for me as a writer and artist. The weather was abysmal while we were in the Snaefellsjokul National Park — a park that circles a huge, sleeping volcano covered with a glacier. Because of the storm that settled on the peninsula while we were there, we didn’t see any of this until we were in the air flying away from Iceland on the one clear day we had during our adventure. It was magnificent. I loved both countries I visited and was sorry to leave both of them, Switzerland because it feels like home to me and Iceland because it remains a provocative mystery, even more tantalizing because of what I did see.

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I love Icelandic sagas, so, for me, the fact that Icelanders seem to love them too and will talk about them was great. While they were digging a foundation for a building in downtown Reykjavik some years ago, they happened on the ruins of a Viking turf long house and so, instead of building THAT building, they built the most amazing museum to house the ruins. There I heard a docent — a young woman — telling another tourist about a funny saga and I wanted to know more. When, later, I asked her, she was so happy to talk about it and she and her assistant found a paper about this saga and printed it out for me. I cannot imagine such a conversation or experience here, but, then, I know that Americans generally don’t go around reading Icelandic sagas for fun. I find this strange because they are way more interesting that Game of Thrones.

Everywhere we went, in fact, the sagas were part of the landscape and I think it’s beautiful that 1) the sagas were written down, 2) they are still valued and loved. They are truly the story of Iceland’s settlement and make, for Iceland, a historical record that does not hide or gloss over or sugarcoat or pervert anything.

 

Big Disappointments

Yesterday was cold and rainy, but I was excited that I was going to meet Mrs. Anglo-Swiss at the main train station in Zurich. We got there in good time, asked where the train from Mrs. Swiss’ city arrived, and waited. She never got off. Meanwhile. Mrs. Swiss arrived at completely the other side of this immense station and waited for us, finally going to the main entrance.  We all waited for an hour or more before giving up. Since I didn’t get a Swiss SIM card my phone doesn’t work as it usually does, but even so I would not have been able to receive messages from Facebook without wifi.

We went to a Starbucks where I logged on and learned the whole sad story. This has made me think aboutour dependence on these machines. 20 years ago we would have been a lot less casual about setting a meeting point but we assumed we’d connect and/or be able to message each other.

The next misadventure was at the little church that inspired Martin of Gfenn — it was locked and there was no caretaker to help us out. We did manage to meet Sonja and that redeemed the day. We went together to the pretty medieval town of Greifensee.

Today we leave for Iceland though, honestly, I’m done with this and would really like to go home.

 Alp Horns

My first visit to Zurich was in 1994 and I did not like the city at all. 21 years later, after many subsequent visits, the city feels like an old friend, even its darker history feels like a poorly resolved and largely forgotten fight between siblings. Just a few years ago, Zurich apologized to the Anabaptists (Mennonites) and even put a plaques beside the Limmar where Felix Manz was executed by “baptism” (drowning) back in the 16th century.

Yesterday we had fewer problems navigating. I drove us over the Uetliberg into the city, parked our car and led Lois through Zurich’s ancient and labyrinthine streets. We spent some time in the Grossmunster, and Lois climbed up the tower. It was a lovely day, a Zurich postcard. There were people everywhere enjoying the sunshine, relaxing at outdoor cafes, kids playing.  


At 5:30 we we to meet a friend of mine, Rainer, and his girlfriend, Kirsten, for dinner. They are both historians, one working in the state archives and the other in the city archives. 

I first met Rainer in 2004 when I was writing Martin of Gfenn. I needed help with the historical accuracy of the story and I found him in a Google search — he had published a paper about Gfenn! When we met that first time, he brought along a map of medieval Zurich. Last night when we met he brought me two more maps — on that is of Canton Zurich (including the tiny village of Obfelden where I’m staying now) and the other showing the Zurich war. They are wonderful!!

Dinner was good, conversation even better, and then, more or less out of nowhere, or so it seemed, four men were standing in the middle of the street playing Alp horns. “For you,” Kirsten said to Lois. I had the same thought. 

I also made more attempts at speaking German and did well enough that Rainer said he didn’t even notice. 

Because the drive home involved a winding mountain road and more navigating, we had to leave while there was still daylight, so we all walked back to our parking structure, stopping on the way outside Cabaret Voltaire for a photo evoking photos we took eleven years ago.


I think most of the time people share elements of their individual experiences. But Rainer and I, eleven years ago actually shared an experience. Meeting last evening we picked up our conversation, returning to those moments while telling our stories of our lives through the intervening decade, here at the “Navel of the World.”

Life’s Labyrinthine Chaos Course

“To travel is to be born and die at every instant.” Victor Hugo

Long ago when I arrived in China with my second husband, and the school where we were teaching did not send anyone to meet our plane, Jim laid down on a bench in the airport and surrendered. His year in China was vastly different from mine, but he remembers it now as the great adventure of his life.

I didn’t surrender. I found a taxi driver willing to take us and our two large trunks to the Bai Yun Hotel. I was exhilarated. The school came and got us the next day.

The frustrations and alienation involved in traveling affect everyone differently, I guess. When my friend came to visit us in China, she was basically freaked out by how different it was, by the suspension of customary values. She was primed to see the evils of communism everywhere and none of its virtues. The dirt, inconvenience, not being able to be a master in communication or even read a street sign drove her to a kind of wall. She blamed me for the ubiquitous cockroaches. She was angry at me for (by then) finding everything normal and accused me of “going along with their horrible system.” Our friendship nearly ended in constant confrontation caused by culture shock.

She felt out of control, alienated from herself, unable to find psychological comfort or ease. She (and my husband also) took hundreds of photographs. Each image tied them to home and normalcy. For both of them it was a way to experience the experience later, when the hard part of living, being, in a different world was over and they had survived it. I’m glad they took all those pictures because now for me, they are memories. That world vanished quickly in China’s rapid development

A few years later she returned to China and having had that first experience was able to enjoy China for what it was.

I’ve been in Switzerland many times and other than the language thing, I feel very at home here. Driving is difficult because the distances between places are so short it is confusing for me, and this is the first time I’ve tried it. BUT I remember my first trip to Europe. I did not like Switzerland one bit. Zurich (where my friends lived) seemed ugly and claustrophobic. It frightened me. I had jet lag — something experience has taught me how to avoid. I never knew where we were or where we were going. Everything seemed random and chaotic and I often felt trapped.

The good experiences in that first trip were the moments when I could slow down the “roller coaster.”

That first trip included a sojourn to Venice. In Venice I rediscovered the posture of the wanderer and the beauty in being born and dying “every instant” that took me to China and stood me in good stead, the willingness to be lost.

 

Deer in the Headlights

Ich Liebe Schweiz but it might not be always mutual. Why? I look like a Swiss grandma but I can’t understand Swiss German. So when a young woman at the grocery store said, €%~€|#%\#}\%#|€%#.£^%!” To me yesterday because I had improperly brought apples to the cash register (no tag for weight) I could only stare at her. Sigh.

Ich bin nicht ein Dumbkopf….

I did a bit better at the airport when the clerk selling overpriced salads told me to order from his colleague because his shift was over. He didn’t speak Swiss German, but so-called high German.

I have actually studied German for three years with Rosetta Stone and yesterday — my first back in Switzerland in 11 years — proved its value at least in the development of the passive language skills, reading comprehension and listening. The problem is I have never tried speaking German. 

We are staying  in a converted 18th century barn owned by expat-Australians. It’s absolutely stunning — as are the owners. It is in the village of Obfelden in Canton Zurich a few minutes by foot from the village in which my ancestors lived. The house reminds me very much of my little stone house in Descanso. The living room floor tiles came from an old church! The floor is heated. 

Living Room Floor


From our window we can see the total romance of the Swiss countryside — and the Rigi, a mountain loved and painted and described in poetry during the Romantic period.  Eight or ten sheep graze in a small field below us, the cheery sound of their bells says “Switzerland.”

For dinner I had Appenzeller cheese and truly good bread and one of the apples of shame. 😬 Breakfast? Yoghurt from Swiss milk and strawberries… And coffee but no Dusty to share it with. 

Today we will be taking it easy. Lois has gone back to bed. I will go out soon to see where the Wanderweg sign outside the front door points and leads. At least my tiny Swiss German vocabulary in the Zurich dialect is Gruezi! = Hello.

Outside the Front Door

South

Ich liebe Schweiz

Daily Prompt The Wanderer Tell us about the top five places you’ve always wanted to visit.

Until I went to Switzerland, I didn’t know the word “wander” meant “hike.” I fell in love with that and with bright yellow “Wanderweg” — hiking trail — signs that cropped up to show me the way even in cities and towns and railroad underpasses. Sometimes the Wanderweg sign is just a yellow slash on a rock with the local canton arms painted on it. Red and white mean you’re going to climb up some hills (of greater or lesser incline and (possibly) remoteness 🙂 ). There is NO such thing in America and there should be.

I love Switzerland.  Back when I was teaching international students — many of whom were Swiss — and I had not been to Switzerland — they really got on my nerves with their endless, “Well it depends!” in answer to a question and their constant comparisons to Switzerland which was clearly  (from what they said) better organized than the world they found in the chaos of California. It didn’t matter to them that San Diego County had as many people as the whole Swiss nation and that Southern California is the “place where world migrations end” (Larry McMurtry, I think). At that time those wrist watches with the rising sun and moon were fashionable and I had one. My colleagues and I had a big joke about that, that these watches were designed by Swiss watchmakers especially for the American market so Americans could tell day from night.

At the same time, these critical young Swiss were also looking for a kind of freedom they didn’t have in Switzerland where society is more stratified and fixed. With the freedom comes disorder and some came to see that was the price they would have to pay. A few stayed in the US, most were all too glad to go home.

Though they could be polemical and arrogant, I liked them. One thing they were GREAT at was going on a hike. I took one student on a hike in the chaparral wilderness park where I took my dogs almost every day. We got to the top of the mountain (pretty much a 1000 foot climb straight up for 3/4 of a mile, no switchbacks) and he said, “Where’s the restaurant?” I thought he was joking until I went to Switzerland and found — guess what — there are restaurants on top of the mountains where you can sit, have an espresso, look out over the beautiful landscape and, if you want, have a schnitzel  and French fries…

I have been in Switzerland many times, and I’m really excited because I’m going back next May. I know there are other places in the world, and, thanks to a really good deal from Iceland Air, on the way home, I have a one week stay in Iceland, a place I’ve wanted to visit ever since I saw photos of the horses. My friend and I will stay in a house in a national park in Iceland  where the scenery is spectacular and Icelandic saga locales are nearby.  I love the sagas and the horses and nature?  ❤

As far as the “stratified” society in Switzerland, I’ve come to understand it better. Chaos isn’t necessarily freedom.

I was eating fondue (yeah people really do eat it there) with a Swiss Medievalist Historian I met from a Google search when I was working on Martin of Gfenn. His specialization was EXACTLY the tiny part of Switzerland north of Zürich where my story was set. He loved the book, had helpful suggestions, we had a sympathetic email conversation and when I went to Zürich in 2005 we met up and spent a whole day in 13th century Zürich. (You can do this if you have an old map and a friend who’s as immersed in the past as you are.) Then I went home with him where his girlfriend had dinner for us. She, also, was a Swiss Medievalist Historian. We had some champagne and at a certain point I was “relaxed” enough to ask tactless questions. Both of them had studied in the US. I could imagine them in one of my classrooms. So I asked, “How do you guys feel about being labeled, ‘Swiss Medievalist Historians’?”

They both cracked up (they’d had a lot of champagne, too). “What do you think YOU are?” they both said at the same time. I laughed so hard I almost fell off my chair. BUT…

I found that — for the first time in my life — I felt that I had a recognizable identity and that I BELONGED. It made sense of the day — which was one of the greatest in my life — sharing — truly SHARING — an experience with another person. I explained this to friends when I got back to the US and the response was, “Yeah, you finally found someone who shares your narrow field of interest, that’s all.”  The thing is, in Switzerland there’s nothing strange about having such a narrow field of interest, but I do know that in the US there’s not much call for a Swiss Medievalist Historian.  It’s also completely normal in Switzerland to take off for the forest or hills or mountain with your dogs for hours and, when you get to the restaurant on the top of the mountain, your dog can go in with you.

 

…and THEN

The next book in the series I’m calling the “Schneebelungenlied” will be about the members of the Schneebeli family who left Europe and came to America. Interestingly, I have some of the actual words of these people from 1739 or so describing the voyage (“sehr hart”) and their life; “I wish from my heart that you could be with us, then you could enjoy the wonderful freedom. Here you never have to take your hat off to someone if you don’t want to. Only the journey is difficult. Anyone who will take the chance and likes to work and can bring money along is much better off here than in Switzerland.”

The man who wrote these words to his cousins back in Affoltern am Albis had lost his wife and daughter on the voyage…

Long ago when I was in Switzerland for the second time or third time, I went to a town, Stein am Rhein, a walled town, a medieval town on the, yeah, Rhine. 😉

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My friend and I wandered around and then we went through a pretty arched doorway to a courtyard with a doorway into a stone building. Above the doorway was painted the eagles of the Holy Roman Empire and in a circle the date, 1623. I was jolted. Already people had left Europe to live forever in America. I saw for the first time with my own eyes what they left behind, and I didn’t think I could leave it. I loved it. I loved Switzerland, the beautiful old towns, the architecture and construction that were so far away from the pioneer homes I’d visited all my life in America that I was really shaken. Most of the people who emigrated were not destitute in their homelands (or they could not have afforded the very expensive voyage or even had the possibility of serving out their fare as indentured servants). For the first time I understood what it must have taken for them to leave at all.

To my right was another archway and steps leading to the river where passengers could get on a boat. At that point, I didn’t know that my own ancestors could have walked down those very steps to a boat that would carry them down the Rhine to Strasbourg, or even to Rotterdam from which they would have gone to some English port and set sail for America. That building could easily have been a customs house or a point of embarcation. It was certainly a government building with the painted eagles over the doorway.

When I discovered the history of my family (after I’d already written a plausible version of it in Savior) and began studying their history, I learned that many of them were Anabaptists. THE BROTHERS PATH, the novel I worked on over this past winter and which I’m peddling on the marketplace, tells a mostly imagined version of what the 8 years of Huldrych Zwingli’s years of power might have been like for six brothers. I knew all the while that I would then want to write about the ultimate journey of the family across the Atlantic.

They were Mennonites. By the time they finally left for America, they’d suffered 200 years of intense persecution by every local government and by every major religion of their world — Lutheran, Swiss Evangelical Reformed, and Roman Catholic. Remembering that small landing dock on the Rhine, the beautiful town leading to it, I can understand how it must have felt for them to leave and how desperate they were.

Today I got two fascinating books to help me with this containing diaries, Bibles, birth certificates and all kinds of first-hand documentation of the journey and settlement. I don’t plan to write much about their lives in America; I plan to focus on the time leading up to it. In the case of my direct ancestor, he married, went to the Alsace for safety with his new wife who, it appears, died in childbirth. He remarried the next year and had three children with his second wife. She and their infant daughter died on the voyage. He arrived with his oldest — my ancestor — and two other sons. I imagine ending the story there with an epilogue which will be the letter he sent home several years later. I like it best when I begin a story knowing the end.

Wish me luck!

Iceland, Patagonia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia

Daily Prompt Tourist Trap What’s your dream tourist destination — either a place you’ve been and loved, or a place you’d love to visit? What about it speaks to you?

“That’s a lot of places, Lamont. Which one speaks to you?”

“I don’t get this ‘speaks to you’ thing. How can I know if they speak to me at all until I go?”

“A little grouchy this morning?”

“Not at all. That’s just one of those New Agey phrases I don’t really get. I guess it doesn’t ‘speak to me’.”

“You know, has resonance.”

“It’s not a sound, Dude. It’s curiosity. I’ve traveled a little bit and one thing I’ve learned about destinations is that when you arrive, they’re never the place you set out for. Whatever idea you have in mind is going to be completely different from the real place.”

“You think so?”

“Well, yeah, I mean if you’re open to the experience and not completely fixated on your idea. Travel, for me, is exploration. It’s not arrival.”

“What does THAT mean? Seriously, Lamont, you don’t get ‘speak to you’ and you come out with something even weirder.”

“It’s not weird. It’s the truth about travel. If you journey to a place you’ve never seen you are fooling yourself if you think you know what you will see. You can read all the literature in the world, look at every website, even talk to people and you still won’t know where you’re going.”

“I don’t get that at all, Lamont. I think you’re just being perverse about the Daily Prompt.”

“I’m just trying to explain why a real destination is always a surprise.”

“Well where do you want to go?”

“Dream or reality?”

“Dream.”

“OK. Well, since this is a dream, I can walk well. I will go to Beirut and rent a 4 wheel and get a great tour guide. We’ll go through the Qaddisha Valley and I’ll be able to see how accurately I imagined it in Savior. I’ll see the ancient hermitages carved into the cliffs, the churches and all of those amazing early medieval structures. And, since this is a DREAM, there has been no modern damage to Beirut. One of the unsung tragedies of these decades of war is the destruction of history. Everyone worries (but not enough) about all the dead people. Not that thousands of dead people is not tragic and unnecessary, it is, but fuck you world warmongers for destroying history and stealing from the future. There. I’ve said it.” (Lamont sighs)

“How do you really feel, Lamont?”

“THEN, I’ll go to Acre and see all that remains of the medieval world there. And on to all the other places in my book. Jerusalem; I would be able to wander freely around Jerusalem with an old map (I have one) and find all the medieval places. Other people are fixated on the “holy” sites. I’m not, especially. I guess my personal holy places are the north gate, the Lazarus Gate, other things…”

AA364455: Manuscripts

“Is that your map?”

“No, no. That is a rather stylized map from the period. I have a real one. Here. It shows the leper postern and many other interesting things from the Crusader period.

IMG_1505

Jerusalem in Crusader times.

 

IMG_1506

Jerusalem_NewGate

A gate built in the late 19th century, coincidentally where the Leper Postern once was.

I’d visit other places, too, that I’ve felt wonder about all my life, places like Petra. But not only. Once I’m there, there would be more and more and more.”

petra-tombs-525239-sw

“So you really don’t know where you’re going.”

“No one does, Dude. The people who insist on going where they’ve planned miss out. I’ve seen those people in Italy — and one of my friends who came to visit me in China was like that. China was NOT what she imagined so she left after ten days. She couldn’t BE there, not in reality. Goethe wrote in Italian Journey as he was looking at art in Padova that he realized that only the brightest stars of art reached all the way to Germany, but that the sky (world of painting) was full of stars. That is what I think about travel. I might have one or two ideas but when I get somewhere there is vastly more than I could ever have imagined.”

“That’s an impossible journey, Lamont.”

“You said ‘dream’ Dude.”

“What about Iceland and Patagonia?”

“Oh, those would be journeys on horseback.”

flat,550x550,075,f

“You’re kidding.”

“Not at all. In fact, I’m pretty serious about both of them. Problem: money and I need more riding experience, but they — one of them, anyway, could happen. I also want to go to Switzerland again — many more times — and maybe read from Martin of Gfenn in the little leper church. But that’s probably not a dream. I want to go back to Italy, too, and I’ve never been to England. I’d really like to go there — to see what there is to see, Dude. Not to have my ‘dreams fulfilled’.”

Gfenn:Rose

“You didn’t answer how all these places ‘speak to you’.”

“I won’t know until I get there, will I, Dude.”

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