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

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Almost Over… 

Four days of fog, heavy wind, cold rain and what happens to people on what was to have been their dream vacation of riding horses, hiking, driving through splendid vistas?

Add to this the lack of a proper bed, aching, brutalized joints and a ridiculous load of laundry and you have, “I wonder what the suicide rate is in Iceland.”

the lounge section of a sofa made long enough by the addition of sofa pillows and an arm chair — all the real beds were up stairs from hell that could only climg on all fours.

stairs from hell

Lois hit the wall yesterday; I hit it the day before when I couldn’t ride horses and had to go “home” in the sodden grey day. I had resources, but I still felt lousy because my body isn’t able to do everything I wish it could any more.

And it can’t be over soon enough.

Today the sky lifted some and as we drove from Hellnar to Rekjavik blue skies emerged, the wind died down some and it was altogether more pleasant. We went to Thingvellier — the site of Iceland’s government from Viking days. I learned of it from reading Njal’s Saga and it has fascinated me for more than fifteen years. It is in the geographical center of Iceland — which the Vikings knew — and it is, coincidentally an enormous rift along a fault line where the North American and European continents are pulling away from each other.

image

The Thingveller photo by Lois Maxwell

Travel is a great teacher, both of new lessons and reminders of those we have forgotten.

Iceland

In Switzerland, when someone asked where we were going next, and answered, “Iceland,” the response, universally, was;

ICELAND?”

Now, in Iceland, all I can do is laugh at that.

We arrived at the airport in Rekjavik where we were to pick up a car we were renting from the same person whose vacation home we’re now staying in. The car is an older Grand Vitara with the clutch from hell. The vacation home — which is nice enough, and located on the dramatic and wild Snaefellsjokull Peninsula, has no bed down stairs, and horrific stairs to the top floor, so I am sleeping on a make-shift bed assembled from the lounge part of a sofa, sofa pillows and a chair… The weather is abysmal and makes sense of every bleak Icelandic film I have ever seen. The wifi doesn’t work except on my friend’s lap top which I am enjoying the use of now.

The landscape is beyond beautiful, exceedingly dramatic, and I like it very much. Icelandic horses are all around, including on the menu. This makes sense to me as there are at least as many horses per square mile here as there are cattle in the San Luis Valley — but I would find it difficult to knowingly eat horsemeat. The small Icelandic sheep wander everywhere. It’s lambing season and the tiny ones follow their mothers into the road.

Lois went to ride Icelandic horses yesterday. I went, too, but when I saw what I would have to do to get up on one (which isn’t far, mind you, these are small horses) I knew it wasn’t going to happen for me so I returned to our “haven” to watch the rain and further plan the feature film I’ve begun which will be called “Icelandic Clothesline.”

This trip has made me very, very aware of my physical limitations and the top of my list right now is finding out about joint surgery as soon as possible after I turn 65.

I love Icelandic sagas, and we went to Bogarnes to the Settlement Museum and saw museums of both the settlement of Iceland and Egil’s Saga (which I love). The museum was really a work of art, original and evocative and brave.

In the photo above — taken at the Settlement Center — Skallagrim, Egil’s father, is telling Egil (the little boy) that he cannot go to a party because he’s too difficult to deal with even when he’s sober and impossible when he’s drunk. Egil is three…

Not having internet and not being able to get around easily and comfortably, and having recently walked and stayed in the “ancestral valley” in Switzerland has renewed my interest in the novel I started writing last year and it might just happen that the Schneebelis make it to America after all.

 

 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.”

Deer in the Headlights

Ich Liebe die 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

Going to See the Dalai Lama

Any halfway decent physical journey will be an emotional one. Many who like to travel go out seeking transformation. Some philosopher guy wrote somewhere something like, “To travel is to be born and to die every minute.” I don’t remember who; I just remember what. Some people travel to far away countries and never leave home.

I’ve done a bit of traveling to faraway places, but some of the most transformational journeys did not involve leaving town. When I was in my 20s I desperately wanted to get out of Denver and see the world. I was profoundly influenced as a child by a couple of books and watching Lowell Thomas Presents. I remember watching him meet the Dalai Lama and thinking, “Wow, that’s about as faraway as it’s possible to go. I want to go that faraway someday.”

But there I was, stuck in Denver, working an office job, plodding through life, waiting for something to happen, not knowing how to make things happen, and not even knowing what WAS happening all around me. Some great stuff was happening, but I couldn’t see it. I was single-focused blind on SOMETHING SOMEWHERE SOMETIME in spite of the good reminders left in coffeehouse toilets saying, “Pee here now!” (Sartre) One afternoon, a friend, the secretary of an amazing man, Ved (Ved was actually trying to date me but he was so far away on a completely other plane that I didn’t notice that’s what he was doing) called to say Ved had gotten us tickets to see the Dalai Lama, that very night. There was a reception and then the Dalai Lama would be speaking. What? In Denver?

We went.

He had been invited by the Naropa Institute and the University of Denver College of Law (where Ved was a professor). At that time, the Dalai Lama didn’t speak English, so he had an interpreter. People who wanted to ask him questions wrote them on index cards so they could be translated. He would answer them after his talk. He spoke and his interpreter shared the Dalai Lama’s words with us. It was a great speech. He spoke about being discovered to be the Dalai Lama when he was a baby and moving with his family from China to Tibet to start learning his job. He spoke about finding one’s way through the dark forest of life. He said that each person has his/her own unique way through this forest and it is one of our life’s purposes to find that road. He said no one can tell us what our road will be, that finding the road is why we are alive. He then spoke about having left Tibet and rebuilding the community in Ladakh, in India. He spoke at length about the political situation in Tibet — in those days, 1980, it was very, very dark and the People’s Republic of China had only begun digging itself out from under the detritus of the Cultural Revolution.

I did not know that, in just a couple of years, I would live in China, but I wanted to. I was studying Chinese. My teacher was an English professor from Beijing Technological Institute who was studying at the university from which I’d just earned my MA. It was clear to me that the Dalai Lama’s agenda was creating sympathy for Tibet much more than giving spiritual guidance to people in the audience. His spiritual message was clear; it was every man for himself in that regard. He couldn’t tell anyone what to do.

He was right.

The time for questions came and each question was a version of “What is the way?” He looked through several cards and said, “You are all asking me what is the way. I have said I cannot tell you your way. That is why you are alive. You must find your way.” Then there was a question about Tibet and then this trick question, “What did you learn when you left China and moved to Tibet?” It was another way of asking, “What is the way?” The Dalai Lama laughed. His eyes sparkled. He grinned. He answered, “Tibetan.” Then he giggled.

That night I spoke on the phone with my Chinese teacher and told him about what the Dalai Lama said about the Chinese invasion of Tibet. My teacher had the Chinese line down pat. “They were living in poverty, very backward, living in superstition. All their wealth went into the monasteries who took from the people and gave nothing back.”

I didn’t disagree with my teacher, but I thought, “I imagine the people thought they got something back.” I didn’t know, but it seemed they loved their Dalai Lama and had a right to be whatever they wanted to be, even if it was backward, ignorant and superstitious.

I did all this traveling in the space of two and one half linear miles. Interestingly, within that same distance, a few months later, I also met Lowell Thomas. And, on a Colorado ski slope 70 miles away, the very next winter, I met Sir Edmund Hillary.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/journey/

719, Riff of Coincidence…

 

July 19 (719) was the day I retired from a career of more than 30 years.

Two months later, having sold my house, I took off in a rented van (never driven a van), with three large old dogs, some possessions (the book on how to move across country said put irreplaceable possessions in your car, not in the truck) expensive art supplies I got in Switzerland years and years ago. I set off across the hot southern Arizona desert, up the lush corridor to Flagstaff to a nasty Motel 6 that did, at least, allow all three dogs in my room. From there up and out through Arizona’s hypnotic northern desert, with its wild horses, wild rocks and a sweet Navajo waitress in Dennys who said, “You look tired.”

I was driving through the American landscape, driving to freedom, driving from what I perceived as failure and betrayal into a larger world dominated by natural landscape. Shiprock rose ever higher on the horizon to the northwest. Herds of tame horses ran alongside the van. Small flocks of sheep lounged on the low slopes of a butte. Then…

1

North.

Green fields. Neat farms. Slo-mo McDonalds in Cortez. Young Indian cowboy dad says to me, “This is taking forever,” he’s worried about his hungry kid and I’m worried about the dogs in the car.

Small town, small town, green valley, a Colorado I’ve never seen. A Colorado I want to see, but I must drive. South Fork tonight, a cabin, sleep, a place to walk the dogs. Mancos, Durango — no, this is not where I want to live, I erase the glimmer of possibility. Bayfield, Pagosa Springs (beautiful!). Many of the places I pass are possible homes though my sights are set on Monte Vista, I am not locked in yet.

The pass, Wolf Creek, lingers in my memory of other people’s conversations as being “dangerous” “Yeah, yeah, we had to go over Wolf Creek!” “Oh God. How was it?”

Beautiful, smooth, even, empty. My pass. On the west end a fantastic waterfall, on the east end? Home? Maybe?

 

 

I arrive in South Fork at the cusp of fall. Aspens turning, first higher in the San Juans, then gold creeps down the elevation to the Rio Grande valley. The river flows not far from the field where I walk my dogs. I watch it change color from black to blue to golden in the light. I love it. Rio Grande. The words are romantic and beautiful. I love the drive down from South Fork to Monte Vista when I have to shop or look at a property. Tense times; where will I live? But the beauty around me is a balm on my uprooted soul.

cropped-13.jpg

In the Dewey Decimal system 719 is “Natural Landscapes.”

That turned out well 🙂 And, what’s more, 719 is the area code here!

 

You might like a map!

You might like a map!

Morning alpenglow

Morning Alpenglow from my front porch.

Wildlife refuge

Monte Vista wildlife refuge, August, 2014, south of my town

 

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https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/circle-of-five/

The Wanderer

Daily Prompt: The Happy Wanderer by Krista on March 19, 2014: What’s your travel style? Are you itinerary and schedule driven, needing to have every step mapped out in advance or are you content to arrive without a plan and let happenstance be your guide?

“What is your quest?”
“I search for the Grail.”

I used to believe I was a wanderer, a traveler, never settling. My friends would say I’ve been out there more than most, but I wonder about that. It seems I’ve stayed at home a lot, making a living.

I just want exposure, Peter! Don’t you understand? I want to see the world!”
“You’ve already had more exposure than most people will have in their lives and you’ve never been anywhere.”
“You have so you know that! I haven’t. How can I know?”
“There’s nothing out there any different from here.”

This desperate longing for faraway places began in me when I was a little kid, reading Seven League Boots by Richard Halliburton. I sat on the back porch of a short train crossing Wyoming. When I got my chance years and years later to go somewhere, finally, it was China. My thesis adviser, by then my friend, said, “What dark night of the soul makes you want to live in Dickens’ China?”
“I want to see the world,” I told him.
“‘“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…'” he replied. “That’s John Milton, Martha.”

I’m up early this morning preparing for a trip. I awoke thinking of what it was like to go to Europe, just ten years ago. Pack a bag, hope for the best, arrive and? Well, you can plan yourself silly, but plans are like wishes; they don’t come true, and if you’re a true traveler you know that. Plans — beyond the necessary — just keep you at home, keep you from arriving in any new place. “It is necessary to travel. It is not necessary to live.”

“You can’t get there from here.” Always true. The “there” in your mind is never there. In the going, you change and what you imagined changes with you.

This journey? Ah…just as we wander through life, life wanders through us, and time. We manipulate the future by traveling. Jack Kerouac said (something like), “90 percent of Americans try to solve their problems by going on the road.” In medieval times, such journeys were to sacred places, pilgrimages, the intentional quest for forgiveness in an act of penance, transformation. Travel relieves us of ourselves. My journey this morning will not be that kind of journey. I’m going in the other direction, but still, as with all journeys, it is a journey into the future. I hope I learn what I need to know.

Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,

I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)

and

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/daily-prompt-the-happy-wanderer/

Einsiedeln (Poem a Day)

Cleaning house, packing and throwing things away I happened on the only copies of some of my poems. I wrote this one after my first trip to Switzerland in 1994. It’s strangely, eerily, prophetic.

Einsiedeln
Martha Kennedy, 1994

The sky dragged through the roof and
hung there living angels and God in in palpable plaster
my heart jams and stops in fear
church bells complete my panic
we walk outside to ancient stables filled with horses
familiar smells, medieval hinges and names upon each stall
the harness hung eternally
life in work and feed and necessities unchanged
we walk behind, up the hill to the true forest
of childhood bedtime stories
and in the darkness between the trees and
the arching light above the mystic cowbells
I learn the holiness of effort and why we ran.

I had not — until that time, ever been in a Catholic church. I was raised to fear Catholics and to shun — passionately — idolatry. I did not know the history of my family, but I knew that my mom was raised with no books on Sunday but the Bible, church twice each Sunday and once on Wednesday, a staunch and fierce Protestantism. Something held on and when I entered the unbelievably (to me) ornate baroque cathedral at Einsiedeln (not a good “first Catholic church”) I was honestly frightened. In fact, everything in Zürich frightened me. The whole time I was there, I couldn’t wait to get out. I felt stifled, trapped, held down. 

Now I know who my ancestors were, that they were Swiss Anabaptists living not far from this cathedral, actually, living in the borderlands between one sect who despised them (the Swiss Reformed) and the Catholics. I know now that they WERE chased into the forest and practiced their faith secretly, perhaps in these very places. I’ve wondered often if there is a little voice of them inside me that’s opened up their world and told me their stories.