The Paring Away

The twistings and turnings of the road. Although I am in one of the most beautiful cities in the world where all the senses are pleased, my stomach has been in a knot with shame and regret for two days. The road is a great teacher. It keeps paring down the ego and then and paring it down some more, right to the essentials. It finds the places where the material is weak and chips away at it until we have learned how to make it whole and pure. It cleans us.

The Sufis say that first God whispers in our ear. If we don’t pay attention, the second message is louder and more intense. If we still don’t get it, then it becomes a blow to the head. It’s best to pay attention the first time, even if we are tired, even if it feels like something too difficult to accomplish. If it needs to be repeated, it will become much, much more painful to take care of the second time. It will have a much greater cost. The third time—maybe it kills us. Who knows?

I bought a new cell phone before I left the US. I debated not using it until I settled in France, but my old one was acting up a bit so I pulled out the new one. I wanted to take some good photos that first real day in Portugal, as we travelled up the Douro River from Porto, to the rolling countryside of the Port wine vineyards. I violated my rule of never putting a phone in my pants pocket, ever, not even if it were more convenient for takings photos. We had just had our nice lunch at a table with women from Brazil and couples from England when I dropped it in the toilet. It was quick. I fished it out instantaneously and dried it. That night, I put it in rice. It was all in vain. It was fried.

I was devastated by my own stupidity, my own carelessness. I had struggled with this inattention for as long as I could remember. I thought I had gained some wisdom from this teacher of mine. But still, it catches me. The cost becomes greater the further I venture in life. When I was very young, the cost was mostly my own. I covered it. I learned to compensate but not, evidently to become its master.

I let the shame come full force to greet me in private. The cost of such error needs to be kept as close as close, but it inevitably spills over to those who should not have to bear the price, to those we love most. I must have the grace to bear the brunt as quietly as I can, to continue to appreciate all that is given to me moment by moment. It would be churlish to become churlish about it.

I bought another phone, surrounded by the wonderful good graces and wisdom of my partner. I used it happily. I took photos and videos of Seville in the midst of the overwhelming celebrations of the holiday of Corpus Christi, the streets packed with people in their finery, their children in expensive dresses and suits, bands parading through the streets, priests processing in front of the beautifully decked statues of Jesus and Mary. I took a video of a white pigeon for my soon-to-be-five-year-old granddaughter. I was resolved to not make mistakes. I protected the phone. I made sure I was putting it in the correct place in my purse. I talked to myself about it continuously. Habits. Formation of habits. I made sure to turn on the GPS so I could track the phone should it get lost or stolen.

The next morning, we traveled through the crowded streets to get our train tickets for the next day, pushing through the crowds seeking the blessing of all the holy displays in the streets, I, taking videos as we went, gay with the spirit of the moment, my partner pushing ahead, eager to avoid what to him carries the poison that has created hatreds and meanness.

Once we arrived at the station, we waited and waited for our turn at the counter. We were tired out, so I took out my phone from its place of security to check the buses for a return to the center of the city. Our number was called and we went up to purchase our tickets. Tickets for Granada in hand, we caught the bus back to the area of the big Cathedral. We stopped at an information kiosk and as we were leaving, I checked my bag. The new phone was gone. I checked in every conceivable pocket of the bag. Nothing. I’m afraid I broke down and cried on my partner’s shoulder right there in the street, people streaming past laughing and talking.

Now in Granada, having left my sunglasses on the train when we suddenly had to disembark to a bus for the rest of the trip, I will go and buy another phone. I guess I need it. I want to take photos. It seems very difficult to take care of the daily needs of life without the connections a phone provides to the network around us. It is part of my connection back to my family and friends. The knot of fear and shame will need to continue to teach me.

Shame is not always something to reject as invalid. The impulse is to hide. I am doing the opposite. The critical moments will come when that knot begins to relax and my vigilance is lowered. I will have to develop a structure that will catch me when I am most vulnerable, when I am tired, distracted or surprised. I will make this the practice of remembrance, thinking always of where it is, where I am, where it is in relation to my breath—a spiritual practice.

Now I will go out into the beautiful sunshine of Granada. The streets of the Albaicin where we are staying wind in and out under stone arches, up stone stairs, along narrow sidewalks paved with black rounded stones set on end. Up to where the views of the Alhambra touch something inside you that unlocks and springs open, where the scents of jasmine, jacaranda and roses in this late spring make your head swirl with joy. Up to where magnificent views of the still snow-capped Sierra Nevadas unfold from small walled secret gardens inside the hidden villas, the Carmen of the city.

And then we can stroll over to the gardens named after Garcia Lorca, and maybe see the museum made in his old summer house here, down avenues with brass plaques on the sidewalks announcing the names of the streets we are crossing–Calle Colcha, Calle Joaquin Costa, Calle Puente del Carbon–down an avenue lined with red roses that look like abundant crimson geraniums over which arch the vibrant Ginkgo and Linden Trees. Past buildings with the most amazing decorations of tile, with rococo stone carvings and Moorish balustrades, with huge doors of wood and brass and leather. Where, in this week of the holiday of Corpus Christi you might see a little girl dressed in a beautiful flounced red dress with mantilla prancing along next to her parents and grandparents or a young woman dressed as if to go to the bullfight, dark or light, transformed, graceful, elegant in a spring-like dress with flowers and lace and swishing hems. Or suddenly a bevvy of elegant men, dressed in dark suits and white shirts, followed by a group of men singing, sporting their team’s bright yellow jerseys, each group stopping soon in their favorite taberna for cervecas, talk and laughter.

And maybe later I will be able to take photos of some of this. But they will never be the same as the vivid images, coated with emotions and with the impressions of my muscles, with the subtle scents I will be able to inhale, the sounds of birds I will hear inside that vast space of mind when I recall these days. My heart will search these files in my dreams.

dav

Seville, Andalucia: The FIrst Night

Somehow Memorial Day passed in the US without any ripple in the rest of the world. Spain. After living in Portugal for three weeks we are in Spain. The difference is immediate. Seville. The land of the mantilla, the bull fight and evidently Catholicism. This is where the Inquisition started and today, nuns walking the streets in a much more evident way than in the devout land of Portugal, we have arrived, unawares, for the region’s most important religious holiday.  Half the people of the city of Seville seemed to be ducking into one of the churches on every other street, churches that seem to hide behind walls and blossoming on the inside, to take some special communion of the Eucharist of something unknown to me.

As we sit in the late afternoon at a table on the sidewalk at one of the innumerable cafes, drinking a beer, the breeze blowing, cool. Two nuns walk by in habits, one very small, perhaps a dwarf, the other, tall and dark skinned. I see the small one only from the back, her shoes sturdy and brown just where her skirts end. She is surging ahead, almost dancing. The tall one strides to keep up and I see the side of her face, smiling as she turns up a street towards the opening of a church enclave. She is pleased to be with her friend. Somehow, I have no idea how, it brings back the memory of two horse-drawn carts full of gypsies we saw trotting at a fast pace up the hill past the Intermarche Hipermarket in Lagos one morning as we waited for the bus. Each cart carried five or six people, all adjusting themselves getting ready for what awaited them of the day, one or two faces with expressions of irritation, everyone somehow in motion, urging the horse or tying a skirt, adjusting their position next to their brother or sister or uncle or aunt. We waited a while longer for the bus. After some time, another cart came by up the hill at full tilt with a young man tossing the reins, late for wherever the others were going.

It is 10:30 and we are in bed in our hotel and since 8 pm, marching bands have been parading through the streets in some magnificent battle of the bands in honor of something, which I presume to be associated with a saint. It is a community. We don’t have this where I come from.

Since at least 7:30, the whole city has been alive, having nothing to do with this festival.  I have discovered it is the lead up to the day of Corpus Christi, practically the biggest holiday of the year.  We have stumbled on this huge festival in Seville, totally ignorant. The city is packed. Thursday it is the holiday itself, starting with a mass in the morning at the huge Cathedral of Seville,  Tonight, there are people out on the streets everywhere. Every other taverna and restaurant, of which there seem to be thousands, is packed with people drinking wine, sangria and beer and eating tapas but mainly talking and talking and talking…and laughing. And there is music from many places. Everyone who is not sitting with people in a cafe or talking with someone they’ve run into on the streets is walking down the street or stopped leaning against a wall talking to someone on their cellphone. Sometimes someone sings somewhere.

The bell in the nearby church just tolled eleven times. The street has gone quiet. It seems everyone has just gone in to bed. There will be stragglers, odd young couples having stayed late with friends, coming back across the cobbles, talking softly.

Otherwise, there will be garbage trucks during the night, a motorcycle here and there till early morning. Tomorrow summer may come to the Andalouse. There will be more parades in the street at odd times. More displays going up in unpredictable places on the streets, dark red velvet banners hung from balconies. The streets will be crowded, cars and motorcycles driving every which way, backing up, trying to negotiate corners never meant for cars, even tiny ones. 

Salema, The Algarve

The water of the Atlantic off the coast of the Algarve is an indescribable mixture of exquisite light greens, luminous, almost chartreuse, catching all aspects of the light, turquoise and darker hues of blue. Walking along the water on the sand of the beach, with the gentle waves wetting your feet as they churn with sand, the particular vibrations of these colors create a kind of ecstatic lightness of being, a sweetly, softly singing kind of joy.

As I look out over the huge, flat expanse of the water, somehow more quietly laying itself out to a line of the horizon than the vast, moving, wild waters of the Pacific, I can understand the longing to move out across them that inspired the navigators of these shores to launch themselves out in boats, ancestors of these fishermen still putting out into the sea, now pulled and pushed by a big tractor.

We walked out along the cliffs, past the luxury condos and modern townhouses that now cluster on the hillsides, to the rough tracks filled still in late May with wildflowers and the sweet and spicy fragrances of seaside foliage and the blooming rockroses and the sticky gum cistus, yellow and mauve straw-flower-like hottentot figs, purple wild gladioli and toadflax, pink catchfly, the vibrant red-tufted vetch and an occasional flowering jacaranda tree that catches us unaware with its sweetness. We step out towards the crumbly edges where my vertigo begins to take hold, just to peer down at the variations of color in the rocks and water below where the minerals in the stone make astonishing purples, greens, yellows and maroons against the light and dark greens and luminous blues of the gently spraying waves.

We climb back up through the lines and lines of luxury homes made to “blend in” with the indigenous architecture, up and up to the boundary of Salema to peer over towards the village of Figueira where tomorrow we may try to go to the beach of Furnas.

The Countryside of the Algarve

It’s been two weeks and a bit more since we closed the deal on the farm. We’re on the train in Evora, Portugal, waiting for it to leave the station. It will leave on time. We know that from experience now. The trains and buses run on time in Portugal. Two couples from Iowa have met each other in the station and are talking about their families at the front of the car. The flavor of home. The accents stand out for me as if the words were written in cartoon bubbles with caricatures of Americans speaking their lines.

Our two days in Evora gave us the flavor of the place, saturated with the sounds and smells of pouring thunder and lightning storms, purple jacaranda blossoms set delicately against both blue skies and grey, and an occasional orange tree still in bloom, the fragrance from just a few blossoms seeping secretly into our nostrils as we walked past, intoxicatingly sweet.

For us, it was not a place for sight-seeing. We stayed in a hostel tucked away in a courtyard near an old church, slept, ate and took walks to get acquainted with our surroundings. We found the ruins of the Roman temple in the middle of town and near it a lovely park with a view over the countryside where tourists and townspeople alike gravitated in the late afternoon during a wonderful interval of sunshine and clear air. Praca do Giraldo with its fountain, church, banks, cafes, pastry shop, and mysterious large lump of marble in the shape of some strange part of a human limb led into streets lined with luxury shops where people from the countryside come to do a little window shopping and be enticed to buy the things their small towns can’t provide. The tourists, too, help support this flow of cash into the regional hub.

One of the hosts at the hostel, Margarida, lives with her husband on a farm 30 kilometers from town. Just like back at home, it seems that farmers need to supplement their income with a job in town. She talked about the pigs, sheep, goats and horses and the grain they grow to help feed them. Yesterday the thunderstorms, evidently rare here, finally made it to her farm and “only my farm” where the all the dogs suddenly whined and barked to come into the house all at once. “Terrible!” she said. “Too much rain!” “The climate is changing!”

The conversation shifts from this pivot point to a discussion of the politics of our respective nations. I say that I am already forgetting Trump. She commiserates with my difficulty but says, “He is president because enough people voted for him. Here, we did not get the president the people would have voted for. We elect our assembly. Since some Communists got into the assembly the government had to make a coalition. The leader they selected isn’t one the people would have voted for directly. It doesn’t feel like a real democracy.”

I didn’t go into the reasons the government of the US doesn’t seem like a democracy either, but we agreed on the importance of government taking care of the most basic rights of human life—education of its young people and care for the health of all. She is clear that her country does these things well. I tell her that many Americans fear the nationalization of health care, scared that it will lead down the road to the nationalization of all services and therefore to Communism. She replies, “Maybe it’s just because I’m a European. I believe these things should be a function of the government. They are basic rights. People here believe that with me.”

Now we’re passing a small town where the oak trees of the rolling plains seem to congregate at the boundaries and a huge stork is perched on top of a palm tree next to the ruins of a stone house. Suddenly, I wonder how I could be doing this. How I can be free of jobs, home, possessions, stability, taking a train through a countryside I never thought I’d see. The first night in Evora when the rain streamed down outside our open french doors and the thunder crashed, I cried as if I were the emotion of the storm itself, streaming, exploding, subsiding again. I let it come. The second night I slept soundly until the early morning when the church bells rang five times in the dry, dark air before anything else seemed to be stirring. Margarida insists on driving us to the train station and won’t accept money for gas. We have a pastry and coffee while we wait and then climb aboard our first train of the day.

While we wait for our connecting train in Pinhal Novo, we start up a conversation with a retired couple from Wisconsin at the station cafe when we share a moment of delight watching an old man ride an electric tricycle up the marble ramp in the station, swerving playfully a bit from side to side as he went smoothly out of sight at the top.

They and another couple are also heading to Lagos. We carry our conversation to the platform where we all wait for the train, commenting on the concrete rails on the train track. Turns out the husband worked on the railroad In Colorado one summer during college, laying track. He notices these things now. After that, he was clearly a professional of some kind. We never talked about what we had done to make our livings.

He talks instead about the fifty acres of former farmland they bought when they moved out of town some years ago. It’s about 30 miles south of Madison WI.  I tell them that, coincidentally, this is not far from where I lived  out in the country in 1976, when I was starting graduate school at the Univesity of Wisconsin in Madison. They are intrigued.  We talk about how they’re trying to return their land to prairie and struggled for the first years with the brome grass the farmer had planted to counter erosion. I learned that this kind of grass creates a sterile environment where nothing nests or feeds. They burned it two years in a row and pulled it from everywhere that it mounted its invasions. Now they’re hiring someone to come in and plant a mixture of prairie remnant seeds, heavy on the milkweed to encourage the Monarch butterfly population. When they moved there they’d discovered that, to their surprise, the land around them was owned by people with similar interests. We talk about racoon, orchards, deer and sustainable agriculture until the train pulls up. Nice folks. We could know them. There are so many people we could know.

What kind of home will we have tonight in Lagos? Who will we meet? What will it look like around us in the town? Nothing is determined. A few small things are beginning to come into focus about the people and the country where we travel. What I am doing here is still one of the unknowns. To travel and then return to a familiar life is one thing. To travel in order to create a new pattern is another.

The sun was out in Pinhal Nouvo. Now from the train window the rolling hills, covered with tufts of low oaks and some taller pines, are shrouded with mist. There are no dwellings in sight anywhere. Even in this country, smaller than the state of Pennsylvania and much denser in the webs of its history, there is seemingly endless countryside.

The Mysteries of Porto and Coimbra, Portugal

The light reflected from the Ria Mondega is illuminating the front of the train station across from where I sit in the dining room of our old hotel, having a meia de liete , a roll with cheese and linguica and yogurt. It promises to be one of the first truly hot days of summer. The sky is totally blue, unlike yesterday’s cloudy start.

This is our fifth real day in Portugal, not counting the first which was spent in the blur of travel. We’d landed in Porto and made our way to the guest house where the owner and his son met us at the door. With tremendous gentility and sweetness, they had welcomed us and let us get settled. Underestimating the level of our jet lag, we’d gone to have a light dinner in the neighborhood restaurant, where, at four o’clock, a tall, gaunt waiter had met us upstairs and informed us sadly that it was too early for the fish. Exhausted, more drained than hungry, we ended up having his “friends downstairs” pack our order of pork ribs and grilled chicken as take away.

Back in a lovely room in the north end of Porto, we fell onto the beds and slept, I,  waking a few hours later to gorge on the grilled chicken and then sleeping again. It was not only the day of travel hitting us, but the three weeks of non-stop work to clear the farmhouse of practically everything. My intervening three-day trip to see my son receive his PhD two thousand miles away from our former home was now a blur, his face and the swirl of so many contradictory emotions coming to me in dreams.

Porto began to show itself to us the next day as we walked in the late morning down the hills toward the River Douro. Still cool at the beginning of May, the sun came and went from behind the clouds, the weather perfect for walking around a town full of workers tearing down and rebuilding the insides of countless buildings, old houses lining every street with faces mute and blank, concealing the noises and the depth and breadth of life inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grandfathers guided their toddler and preschool grandchildren through winding streets where the sidewalks were paved with thousands upon thousands of small rounded rocks in many patterns. Here too in Coimbra, all the sidewalks are the same—each street a different variety, color and pattern of stone. Some complain that these traditional streets collect garbage  between the stones and are therefore unhygienic. However, I have not seen as much dog shit here as in Paris or even as on any one of the urban trails back home in Bellingham, WA.

As I walk, I imagine the workers on hands and knees, placing stones, chatting non-stop and laughing to the accompaniment of the clang of their tools pounding the stones into the gravel, working their way along beside the hundreds of doors that lead into the caverns of lovely, unseen homes inside.

But there is a mystery in these cities of Portugal. It is now evening, and we have rested and gone up the hill in Coimbra to the famed Botanical Gardens. Originally started by the university in 1772 as a place to experiment with rare species and teach the medical students about medicinal plants. it is now run down an neglected, much of it closed to the public. Fountains that must have been lovely oases in the lush greenery do not flow. Ponds with goldfish are filled with algae where teenagers cavort and try to feed the fish Oreo cookies, perhaps with felonious intent. Everything is overgrown with weeds. The stones of stairs and tables are broken and lying in pieces. The blue tiles on the sides of the seating areas are cracked and falling from the wall. Exotic trees are dead and brown or dying. The greenhouse is closed to the public and looks as if very few professionals visit to care for the browning plants inside. The whole place has a miasma of neglect. Strangely, there is a modern bathroom near the greenhouse and a couple of workers using leaf blowers and a pick in a desultory effort to clear away a few small weeds and sparse fallen leaves on the verges around the greenhouse, as if in an attempt to deny the wild growth spreading everywhere.

 

 

In the overgrown bamboo forest, two workers are inexplicably in the process of constructing a traditional stone pathway through the bamboo, while the poles of bamboo encroach on the ancient buildings and choke the ponds and fountains. The hammer on the stones makes the same sound I imagined the workers had made while laying the stone sidewalks of Porto. Accompanying the ringing taps of the hammer, unfamiliar birds sing in this wildness while domestic apple and pear trees, somehow pruned during the winter, are suffering from lack of water and nutrients in the soils, weeds taking firm hold on the terraces where the fruit trees seem to be making their own lonely effort to survive.

 

 

 

Internet research on the reasons for this neglect seems useless. Everywhere in the two cities we’ve visited so far the stones of monuments and beautiful old buildings are blackened and full of moss. But there is construction everywhere, private renovation of ancient buildings for apartments, new stores going in on old streets, facelifts on crumbling buildings with wrought iron balustrades. But none of it seems to be municipal work. It is clear that the economy of Portugal suffered a heavy blow in 2010 and 2011 after the crash and with the European Union’s instigation of austerity measures here and in Greece, but all indications are that the recent trends are upwards.

Fundamentals appear to be fairly strong. The Centrist Left Wing government is stable and continues to have high approval ratings. In 2012 they began pushing back against austerity and seem to be managing well. The people are working and seem fairly upbeat, despite the perceptions of some other travellers I’ve read that the Portuguese are depressed and rude.

What is the source of all the neglect? I asked the night manager at our hotel if he could tell me why so much of the Botanical Gardens are closed. He replied that the gardens are owned and run by the university as a research area and those areas that are closed to the public are typically areas where experiments are underway and should not be disturbed by tourists. I thought to myself that the research, in this case, must be into the effects of benign neglect on non-native plants. I suppose there might be a Secret Garden grant from the government for such study.

The reason for the take over by weeds and the unchecked effects of water, wind and corrosion there and in the nearby municipal gardens still eludes me. Perhaps the priorities of this socialist government are rightly placed on the care of its people rather than on its municipal parks and monuments. There are also many wild preserves in the countryside and mountains of Portugal. Maybe these (and the cafes and bars) are the refuges of the populace.

Meanwhile, still puzzled, sitting here under an umbrella at a table of the Cafe Santa Cruz in the late afternoon sun, I will enjoy the Fado of Coimbra, which seems to be more chauvinistic and folkloric than the Fado of passionate longing sung in Lisbon. I will sit and feel the sun mixed with the breezes from the Rua Mondango while bats begin to fly overhead in the open plaza around the ancient church where the light is golden for a few more moments.

This way. Come!

An eagle came to perch on the upper branches of the cottonwood tree on the farm that would soon no longer be our home. It was a magnificent bird, mature, head strong and white as white. It was watching, head turned towards the house as we sat in our bare dining room on the only chairs left in the house, looking out on our penultimate evening to the barn where the setting sun had once again turned the fir planks a soft lavender. Our purple barn. As I went out across the yard to get one of the last boxes from the barn’s huge dim interior, the huge eagle, still in the cottonwood, called its screeching call, piercing notes echoing slightly in the cooling air.

We worked steadily from early the next morning till late that next night, emptying the last things from the house, and then the last things after that, hauling them to the small storage space or the dump. Then cleaning the house. The weeds in the garden wanted to be pulled, but I passed them by as I walked to the mailbox, ignoring their cries. The rose bushes wanted to be pruned of their winter damage and those that climbed, tied again against their supports, but I told them they would have to wait for someone else to guide them.

Exhausted, working till the last minute, we drove away down the road to our friends’ lavender farm a half mile away. We pulled up the drive behind the lavender fields to the little trailer the sister had parked next to her rescue cows and hauled our last boxes and bags into the tiny space to sort during the next twenty-four hours. Our friends down the road had invited us all for dinner and, after a quick rest in our little haven, we drove there to sit in the garden and watch the evening spread over the white volcano in the distance. On the way back to the trailer after dinner, we passed our usual turn to the farm—home. It hit me unexpectedly–right in the chest. “We’re never going home to our bed.” I tried to choke back the tears but they came of their own volition, hard, breathless. “I knew this was coming,” I said. “I knew it would hit me at some point. I just didn’t know when.”

In our bed in the little trailer after an exhausted short sleep, I awoke to swirling fears, a seemingly endless expanse of dark possibilities, ruin, homelessness. I pulled the thoughts in. I made them hush themselves in the darkness and I went deeply into my heart and the heart of that huge expanse. I went deeper and deeper, wider and wider into the silence.

By the time the first birds began to chirp, the ones that see the light with some inner eye before the sun’s rays begin to penetrate, I was ready to fall into sleep. “You’ve done the work. Now rest.” I slept and dreamed and woke up to the soft sounds of cows munching grass and geese calling as they flew towards the fields beyond, I calmly joyous, ready to laugh.

And here we are on a plane flying over Manitoba, lakes and square fields patterned on a tapestry rug below. I’m thinking how I woke this morning for the second time, after getting up in the night to attend to all the last minute things I hadn’t been able to do, to the chattering cries of another eagle, unseen, somewhere to the morning side of the little trailer. A joyous rousing. A call to come and take part in this marvellous moment. So I did. And made coffee. And smiled at Walter who was turning over to sleep just a little while longer.

And as our friend drove across the border to Canada and up the highway in British Columbia on our way to the airport, two more eagles, one soon, one later, flew across our path and north, their white heads shining. “Come,” they seemed to say, “This way. Come.”

The Going Out

 

 

 

Now it’s a rush of wings, a flight towards an open door. The farm is sold, all but the signing on the dotted line. The airline tickets are bought and paid for. The objects that remain must be dealt with, each held in the hand and a decision made—in the trash, to a friend, in one of the few boxes for a small storage space, in the small suitcase. Overwhelming.

But soon everything will be done. The things designated or sold will have to be dispersed within days, the eyes looked into so many times looked into again, deeply for a moment, and the body that somehow contains that world held close and then released, the ache of longing coming to take up residence in my heart.

We will be homeless for now. All that we retain must be needed either for the journey of a few months or for the time when we will send a few boxes across a continent and an ocean to a place where we will settle again, perhaps grow some vegetables, plant some fruit trees and live for however many days we have.

Just as when we leave this body, we must discover what is important to retain, what is most precious. What we hold on to is not what we think we might possibly need someday, the insurance against some contingency, but what clings most adamantly to our essence. Over these past few weeks when things have come in a flood, wiping away every moment of space in the time of my days, it is my writing that I have yearned for from waking to sleeping. It has become an essential element of life, as necessary as the act of participation, the absorption of all that beauty in whatever combinations of elements await me in that time between the opening of my eyes from the world of dreaming and when they close at night.

One type of waiting may be over, but another more encompassing period of waiting remains. That waiting before the going out, that waiting each day for the closing of the eyes, the dreams, the deep quiet, the encompassing silence, the loss of all objects that cling, all thoughts that stick to the space of the mind, all emotions that swim in our waters. Gone. Gone. Letting it go.

Breath

 

(A POEM FOR MY GRANDDAUGHTERS TO GROW UP ON)

 

Breathing.

Listen.
The world is breathing.

Breathe through your ears
Breathe through your eyes
Stretch breath out
Beyond the skies.

The ocean is breathing
Breath never lies
Its rhythm like wind
that soughs and dies
Speaks of the weather
where the water sighs
at the end of each wave
that the tempest tries
to smash on the shore
Without pity
contrives
to continue its swing
with whatever the moon tides can bring.

Feel what it feels
This huge enterprise
of breath going in
of breath going out.

The wind breathes
with gasps,
with sighs and
with songs.
Who knows to what
tense it belongs?
The present. The past.
None of them last.
Just the breath
Breathing the breath of the vast
Breathing along with the breath
of birdsong
Breathing the air
Breathing the light
Breathing along through the death of the night.

Breathing the phrases of music
on keys
of pianos and harpstrings
and in wings of the bees.

Breathe with it all
Breathe with it, please.

 

 

 

 

A Window in Time (Part 6): Greece Itself

 

 

Even bareheaded in the blazing sun, baked as if in an oven, the grace of the Parthenon seemed to me exquisite, unbelievable as an edifice made of hard, unyielding marble. The columns, in their orderly placement, with such rhythm of number and proportion, created the structure of the washed out universe of white heat there on top of the world.

We wandered for awhile, Ion sometimes pausing to sit on a smashed pillar or on a rock while we explored. My friend and I made our way toward the Porch of the Maidens. There we stopped, sweat suddenly dripping down my sides as if it had been pooling for that moment, a sensation I had first noticed with astonishment as a twelve-year-old back in New Jersey at the height of the humid summer. But here I was in Greece, not New Jersey, away from my parents and the familiar streets, on top of a huge rock that had been there for aeons even before the first village had established itself somewhere down below. There I was amid the bones of buildings that had been built over decades by laborers unknown more than two thousand years before. Yet it felt more present than the buildings surrounding me day after day in my other life. The women of the huge statues around the portico dwelled in some dimension more real than the one I occupied. I yearned for it.

My head was becoming very light from the heat. I think it had begun to pound. I had to sit down for awhile on one of the huge pieces of marble once part of the huge complex of buildings. They had stood for hundreds of years and then gradually, with the pull of gravity, the blasts of wars and winds had fallen where we now walked. I could feel their tremendous weight as I put my head down between my knees. I had never known heat like this. It did strange things to the mind. The thought occurred to me that there is a seeming geometric difference between one hundred degrees and one hundred and twenty. I don’t think we even had water.

I don’t remember the walk down the stairs or what happened for the rest of the day or two we spent in Athens. I remember only that we tried to get out of the heat of the streets and sleep in our room at the Y. At least in the white space of that room, there was no sun beating down on our heads.

Arrangements were made and we were on a bus together to Glyfada, Ion’s hometown. We probably drowsed in the heat next to the open windows, through a nondescript landscape of towns with lines of shops and apartments, small hills in the distance and the smells of garlic and cooking meat drifting in as we passed souvlaki shops. When we jumped down from the bus in Glyfada we could feel the way in which the sea took the edge off the heat that had been oppressing us. We walked through the streets of the town, away from the water past small homes built of stucco, surrounded by walls of cheaply manufactured bricks or metal grill-work fences.

Now a suburb of the sprawling city of Athens, then it was a resort town where traditional Greek life continued away from the bustle of tourists at the seaside. It felt like a small town, surrounded by hills where families kept gardens with grapes and vegetables beside their one or two-story homes and widows dressed in black carried baskets from the market.

We were to stay at the home of some friends of Ion’s, in their garden in fact. We went there first to knock on the door and see if they were in. The parents came out, so happy to see Ion, gesticulating, the old man putting his hands around Ion’s face and kissing his cheeks, his wife hugging him with tears in her eyes. They were overjoyed to greet the two Americans, my friend and I, and called to their neighbors in the next house to come and meet us. We sat at a rickety table in the garden, under a grapevine that climbed over an arbor made of metal poles. The wife brought out cold drinks of homemade lemonade and cookies from the local shop and we sat and watched the couple chat with Ion as gathering neighbors came to sit on an assortment of plastic and metal chairs and, in turn, watch us.

After a while, the old man walked us to the other side of the house where he proudly showed us two old metal cots he had set out for my friend and me under trees where grape vines climbed and hung their bunches of fruit here and there. It was truly a delightful, somehow exotically simple setting. We put our bedrolls on top of the springs and stashed our packs underneath.

We went back to join the small crowd that had gathered in the front yard where he poured us small glasses of transparent Ouzo, made milky when he poured water from a ceramic pitcher into each glass. We toasted, raising our glasses and looking around at the faces in the small circle, to our first repetition of the Greek word Yamas! Ion explained that our next stop would be a cafe in the town near the water, popular with young people. There we would meet his friends.

As we left, opening the gate and walking into the stone-paved street, he stopped and, putting hands on our shoulders, turned us towards him.

“Listen to me now,” he said. “You are going to meet some of my best friends in the world. We grew up together. One of them has a father in the police force, another has a mother who works in the mayor’s office. Be careful what you say. I trust them, but you never know who else is listening or what they might be thinking.”

A bit mystified, we both nodded, wondering quietly as we followed.

We walked back out to the streets of the town and down towards the water, towards the restaurants and hotels for the tourists of the “Greek Riviera”. We saw little of this. Ion lead us to a street away from the main thoroughfare where a smaller restaurant and cafe sat on a corner with just a bit of a view of the ocean.

As we approached, a few young men got up from tables outside and waited for Ion to cross the street. When he did, they came up to him immediately, embracing warmly and slapping each other on the back. They ushered us to a group of tables where several young men and a couple of women were sitting together, glasses of beer and ouzo and cups of Turkish coffee on the tables. They all rose and greeted us, the women embracing us, woman to woman, and the men shaking hands. They were all warmly happy to see Ion and excited about meeting his two American friends.

We sat and drinks were ordered and probably a plate of olives and snacks. The sky was an absolute shade of blue and the glimpse of water behind us sparkling in shades of indigo and turquoise. The air was much softer than the blazing heat of Athens. We chatted in English with many pauses for translation. As the afternoon passed slowly by, we began to feel quite relaxed with these new friends. Someone got up to go to the store to get cigarettes and the conversation shifted a bit. One of the men was asking about the atmosphere in the US. Ion translated. “What’s it like there now?”

I began to answer by explaining how I felt about our new president, Nixon, and his stance on the Vietnam War, my friend adding a comment about the demonstration that May. The man who had asked the question seemed quite interested in our response and turned towards Ion with to ask another question for him to interpret. While my friend and I had been speaking, I’d noticed the other men in the group turning to each other with looks of furtive anxiety. One suddenly leaned in towards me and said quietly in English,

Don’t say anything more. We can’t talk like this. It’s not safe.”

Ion pulled his chair close in towards mine and my friend’s and, leaning forward as if he were thinking about something, said in a low voice as if speaking to the floor,

“This is what I was talking about. We can’t talk politics. My friend was foolish to ask his question. There are people here with connections to the police. We should just get up and leave now as if we had planned to all along.” He put a hand on my arm and we both stood up.

The whole group responded, standing up and taking the last drinks from their glasses, embracing and shaking hands to take our leave. As we walked away from the cafe, one of Ion’s friends, long hair caught up in a ponytail, slim and tall, turned to him and said,

Why don’t I give the girls turns riding on the back of my motorcycle? I could show them the view up on the hill.”

Ion came up beside us and asked whether we’d like that. Gazing quickly at each other for some confirmation that this was alright, my friend shrugged, raising her eyebrows slightly and smiling for the men. I said,

Sure! Sounds wonderful!”

My friend was the first to hop on the back of the small white motorcycle. Waving, they took off up the road. A couple from the cafe had come to join us where we leaned against an iron fence, waiting together on the edge of what seemed to be a small park. Ion smoked and chatted with them in a mixture of English and Greek, translating some bits here and there. After a few minutes, it became clear they were talking about plans for the next couple of weeks, the final days of summer break. The plans seemed centered around making a trip to the island of Mykonos. They weren’t sure whether they could get away but they thought it would be a splendid place to take us. They talked about a tent he could borrow so we could all camp on the beach.

After a long while, the motorcycle roared down the hill, my friend smiling, her hair streaming out behind them like a fluttering yellow banner.

“What a great ride! You’ll love it! It’s so beautiful up there!” she called to me as she slid off backwards, finding her footing on the pavement. Her face was shining with the joy of it.

She hugged the driver around his shoulders and waved back to him as she came to join us. He looked over at me and motioned for me to get on. I ran up and, as I settled in behind him he said,

“Remember my name? It’s Yanni.”

“Yes” I said, as he turned and shook my hand.

“I remember now.”

“Hold on around my waist,” he said.

“Ever been on a motorcycle before? It’s curvy up here. You have to hold on tight.”

A memory of the long motorcycle rides through the countryside with my good friend back in my hometown, stopping for ice cream in our special spot out of town, flashed through my mind. A round burn mark inside my left calf was a lasting reminder of the first time I’d dismounted from the hot bike. My friend had taught me how to lean in with the curves and how to hold on just tight enough around his leather jacket. Protectively, he had made sure I had the security of a helmet. Here, my head was bare in the free open air. Nervous, yet excited, I told him,

“Yes. I have. I’m okay.”

I pressed myself in against his back, reassured by its firm, steady strength. He turned the bike and started up the hill.

The air rushing by was hot and fragrant with smells I had never smelled anywhere else but Greece. As we leaned through a pocket of fragrance, I yelled into his ear,

“What’s that sweet smell?”

He turned his head just enough for me to hear and yelled back, “Jasmine.”

The air was filled with wafts of its sweetness. The view of the ocean to our right was exquisite, the particular hues of the blue sublime in their combined intensity, transforming the world. A wave of happiness washed through me and rested there as we whizzed past the graceful dark pines and exotic palms with their strange bark, the wind now cooling me and sending a shiver up my back and into my bare shoulders, filling me with a physical, animal joy. Recklessly, unlike me, I threw up my arms and tilted my head back to look up into the endlessly vibrating sky.

I’m in Greece!” I thought, “In Greece!”

A Window in Time (Part 5): Greece, The Arrival

There is a purpose to this exercise. It is an exploration of that interior space where imagination and memory meld their etheric essence. It is a practice, a meditation.

http://Embed from Getty Images

We were gliding. It was a big boat, full of people but, although they must have rocked us gently, the waves meant nothing. Once we were away from the busy harbor with its sandstone and buff-painted buildings shining along the shores, it was only the presence of dark blue sea and islands, first in a kind of mist on the horizon and then in the bright glare of the full day’s southern sun, gliding past like mythic backdrops. Lovers leaned against each other on the benches on deck. Children ran with a parent in their wake. I was already entranced.

The four of us claimed two benches linked back to back by spreading out our meager gear, sitting near a young man carrying a guitar without a case. We sat together or walked when we felt the urge, our Greek friend chatting with other passengers from time to time, interpreting for the rest of us in mixtures of French and English. As the sun set and the night sky thick with stars emerged, the sea around us became infinite, pricks of pure white light in swaths poking through the black ink.

All the other visions of that journey are lost in that spreading well of night. When consciousness returns, we have made our way from Patras to Athens, most likely on a bus that went for hours through the night. My fresh, sharp senses were filled with the incredibly sweet fragrances of the countryside of Greece—the smell of grapes and jasmine mingled with the scents of roasting lamb and garlic and rosemary. It was a revelation that awakened something deeply joyful in the middle of my chest and spread a wash of light in my head. And then we were there, in Athens, Syntagma Square in August of 1969.

We naively had waltzed, as young Americans could, into a country that, with the tacit approval of the CIA and the American government, had been under the rule of a right-wing military junta since 1967. The huge photos of its appointed Prime Minister, Papadopoulos, dominated the square and were present everywhere. Back at home,  concentrated on the war in Vietnam, finishing our high-school years, we had no awareness of the iron rule of military law in this country rarely discussed in the news, the torture going on its jails, the exile of countless journalists and politicians and the repression of civil rights. Now it was jarring, somehow inexplicable in the context of this city both modern and ancient.

In Athens itself, what evidence existed of this horror was behind closed doors. The atmosphere in the streets seemed flowing and free. It was not until we travelled with our Greek friend to his hometown south of Athens that we began to feel the palpable pressure of repression.

In the heat of the full day, our friend led us through the huge square to one of the spreading streets leading away from the vast open space into the wide avenues of the city. On the ferry, he had told us of his plan to stay a couple of nights at–of all places–the YMCA of Athens. the safest and cleanest cheap place to stay. He asked us to join him. He had stayed there many times before on his way from the ferry to his family home in Glyfada.

He navigated us down the sidewalks of Stadiou Avenue, lined with tall white business buildings, and into another street that began to feel more contained–first-floor shop doors opening one after another into small groceries, restaurants, clothing shops, cafes partially filled with people. It was not a city of crowds, but yet had a sense of a vibrant humming of human life. We were tired and hungry. It was almost unbearably hot, well over a hundred degrees. The pavement oozed with the smells of concrete and asphalt and piss, the beautiful smell of roasting meat and garlic wafting from somewhere on the sides on every block.

One more turn and down the street. In front of us gleamed, in the hot sun of the late afternoon, a three or four story building with many windows, modern, lined at street level with white pillars–the Y. We checked in at a desk on the first floor and paid for four beds, two in a women’s room and two in a men’s.

My blond friend and I climbed the white wide stairs up to the big room where several beds were made up with simple coverlets and pillows. We seemed to have the place to ourselves. It was stifling hot, with a ceiling fan turning slowly and big windows facing out onto the air above the street, open on their sashes as far as they could go. Everything seemed to be white and spacious, the heat, the walls, the beds, the sounds of traffic and occasional shouting voices in the streets, horns, the pulsing ambulance sound of European cities. It felt like swimming in waves of heat, wanting badly to come up for air. We lay down on two of the small beds near a window in this sauna of white light and sweated into a drowsy state and then sleep.

We may have slept on and off until a hot morning light seeped into our confused washed-out heat dreams. We dressed and went downstairs to the cavernous cafeteria. Our two friends were already sitting at a table with bowls and plates of food spread in front of them. Our curly headed Greek/English friend, Ion, playing host in this country of half of his DNA, came over to show us how to order. There were ceramic pots of white yogurt with a skim of yellowish cream on top, figs, grapes, white bread in hefty slices, pats of butter, honey in a pot to drizzle by the spoonful on the warm bread, and cups of hot Turkish coffee. The yogurt was the creamiest, smoothest, most deliciously tangy sweetness I have tasted in this life. We ate well, enjoying the bounty of cheap fresh food, chatting about plans.

We were only there for a day and another night. We chose to go directly to the Parthenon.

As we walked out the front door onto the street, the force of the heat hit with all its weight. Though still fairly early in the day, the newspaper vendor where Ion stopped for a copy of the English language newspaper told him that the thermometer had already hit 43 degrees Celsius. As we had travelled across Southern France and then Italy, I had begun to shift my sense of the relative temperature scale and now could gage that anything over 32 was really uncomfortable. This was already orders of magnitude above that tipping point.

We walked along wide avenues and then down more winding streets, older, more packed-in, the huge rock of the Acropolis topped by the graceful columns of the Parthenon always within view, always a presence, the orientation point of the universe of this strange jumble of a city, messier and more complex as it approached that nexus.

We wandered, stopping to look at vendors’ stalls, talking as we walked about our trip to Ion’s hometown on the coast the next day. I was young. I remember little of the heat’s oppression, but I do see the steps up the side of the huge rock cliffs as we began our climb to the Acropolis, the height stretching upwards, Ion translating the remarks of a Greek family, also climbing, that the thermometer had reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  On another day, a climb that would have meant little to bodies still unaccustomed to limits now felt almost insurmountable under the burden of the sun’s fire.

But here we were at last at the feet of the Parthenon. Breathless with the climb, we stopped for long moments to adjust our senses to the vastness of this spreading plaza, seemingly littered with huge boulders, broken columns and monumental marble buildings, partially in ruins. The sense of ancient beauty, ancient poetry, was like a fragrance of light incense over everything, wafting up and disappearing in a miasma in the burning heat. The etheric beauty of yesterday’s trip over the deep blues of the sea, the islands purple as we watched them glide by, still present like a refreshing taste on the tongue, offset the heat and the enormity of the climb upwards, even in its subtlety. 

It seems to me that the same self that I can touch now was stirring deep inside, gathering itself still, soaking in through skin dripping with sweat the experiences swirling around it, rather astonished as always to be there, as to be anywhere on earth.

As we had climbed, the image of the Parthenon floating somewhere behind my eyes was a presence well before we emerged at the top of the hill, a plane of rocks, columns and carved human forms. As we took the last steps, it felt as if we were emerging from a dark sea into the air above. That climb, that emerging from a place of rough, heated rocks and sweaty effort to a level place with stretching vista has echoed in my dreams, transforming over time.

And then there it was, huge, spreading in the near distance before us, a perfect rectangle somehow still despite what had fallen or crumbled from its remains. A symmetry of suggested space, looming there against the bright blue sky, it existed in a place in time and space that was mysteriously part of a continuity of the universe within, vast, containing now the turquoise sea, the fragrances of jasmine and grape, the sounds of waves, the smells of a classroom now in some time past, the call of the voices of strangers, the pricks of light in the ink of night.

http://Embed from Getty Images