Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Blithesome Step Forward*



Yielding to impulses and yearnings that always seemed inexplicable to me at the time, I photographed, I wrote, I painted, I engaged in stonework. I traveled without map or preconceived destination. Perhaps this explains why, after hearing it, I forgot about the question that “came out of the blue” upon waking on the third Saturday before New Years day, 2013: What would a satisfying third third of my life look like?

road to Salida
Rather than acknowledge the question, I got in my car on what was a soupy gray morning in Denver and headed south-west on route 285. I had brought along a friend, and we intended to circle through Manitou Springs for lunch before returning to Denver. Two hours out of town, we realized that we were too late for lunch. We decided to extend the drive down the highway we had been traveling before turning back to Manitou Springs for an early dinner.
           
The grim atmosphere of Denver had already given way to sunlit skies and clouds of mist enveloping the magnificent peaks of the Collegiate Range. Three hours down 285, we reached Salida, a town I knew slightly. We stopped with the intention only of stretching our legs. But when we approached Pinon Real Estate, housed in a brawny corner bank building in the heart of Salida’s historic district (one of Colorado’s largest), my companion asked, “Would you like to see whether they have something?” You see, this dream-keeper had remembered the decades-old fantasy I had shared with her a few days earlier—living in a space that would double as a studio/gallery. I have silently watched for such a space in a residential neighborhood in Denver for years.

124 E 2nd Street
“Ok,” I responded mildly, still not remembering the question about my “third act” put to me only a few hours earlier. A curly headed realtor with a New Zealand accent disappeared into the gaping bank vault and returned with a single flier: a 1050-square-foot single storey commercially zoned brick building dating to 1900. After discussing the property, we left Pinon Realty and returned to Denver via Manitou Springs, but not before driving by 124 East 2nd Street. I was smitten at first glance.

In retrospect, I understand that when I returned to Denver from Greece in October and wrote the blog post “For the Love of It,” I was beginning to acknowledge that my life in Elika will draw to a close before I “stop reaching.” And I have observed of late that I don’t much like the mood I slip into when out and about in Denver. After 40 years, the city has outgrown me—the traffic, the noise and air pollution, the intensity, the loss of beauty. So, influenced as much by the “push” of these two factors as the “pull” exerted by a jewel of a property in a gem of a town in Colorado’s “Banana Belt,” I have heeded Kenneth Grahame’s advice. “Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new!” *

Today, twelve weeks after the fateful question arose—on the first day of spring 2013—I have been handed a key, and I have opened the door facing me.

Of course, I had to purchase property insurance along with the property. Not surprisingly, agents at all three of the offices I approached asked me the same question: How will you use the building? “How should I know?” I wanted to protest. “I’ll know when I get there,” I hedged. I have already acknowledged an array of possibilities beyond residence: an exhibit space for art and artifacts, a storefront for the sale of my books and visual art, a studio, an event space, a center for creativity workshops including Astra Writing in Salida. I am frightened by this unexpected turn in the road. At the same time, to borrow again from Kenneth Grahame, “...to-day the unseen [is] everything, the unknown the only real fact of life.” **

Renovations will require several months; I expect to take occupancy in early fall. Watch for notices on my website and facebook pages, and please come visit.

* The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, chapter 9: Wayfarers All, p 134.
** p 125.



Tuesday, October 23, 2012


For the Love of It

wall before chink/pointing
To reach the front door of my house in Elika, I must pass through a narrow opening between the upper corner of the building and the end of a stone wall I raised to demarcate what has come to feel like a scared precinct on a hill. Late one afternoon some two years ago now, I had pruned the wild olive tree that grows just above the dwelling. As night fell, I gathered armloads of cut branches, rounded the corner, and moved through that passage intent only upon tossing the branches downhill and calling it a day. But as I stepped through the opening, I heard a menacing hiss that stopped me in my tracks. A second hiss confirmed my worst fears—a snake alerting me to its presence. The sound came from the face of the house not an arm’s length away. But in the dim light of dusk, I was not sure I would be able to pinpoint its source and do the deed that would prevent the viper from delivering the bite—then or in the future—that I understood would be venomous. Nevertheless, I dropped the branches and ran for my broomstick, the only defense I had on hand.

I had been visited by a hissing snake on two occasions in the past, so I knew it would be long and coiled up, head raised cobra-like. Evoking the skill of Artemis, I took aim at a small ledge in the wall where I thought I could make out the shadow of the threat. I summoned my courage. I delivered a fatal blow.

I was lucky—this snake was removed. But the niche–an invitation to future dangers—remained. I vowed then and there to chink and point that area of my wall at first opportunity.

That opportunity presented itself recently. I arrived in Elika two weeks ago, settled in, and set to work. My goal was to repair about one and a half square meters of wall that had been damaged by years of seasonal downpours. The first day at work, I dug out loose chink stones and dry mud, hosed down the area, and then collected and placed new chink stones to fill holes. The next six days, I mixed batches of mortar from sand, cement, a lime source called asvesti, tint, and water. Working six to eight hours a day, I filled even the tiniest spaces in the surface of the wall with mortar while setting the new chink stones.

for the love of it
The effort of digging out the hard mud mortar. The effort of finding enough stones the right size and shape to fit gaps in the wall. The effort of mixing the dry ingredients into a thick consistent paste. The discomfort of laboring under a scorching late summer sun during the long hours required to complete a job that cannot be hurried. Why did I bother? Was the possibility of another hissing serpent reason enough?

Not really. I chink and point for the pleasure of practicing techniques I have mastered over time; to experience the communion and quietude of what has become for me a Zen meditation; to breathe life into something by restoring it to its original beauty, here creating a tapestry of dancing stones; to honor a forgotten race of builders and their forgotten way of life, as well as the dying man who, by selling me the house, entrusted its care to me.

I don’t recommend this work to others. And although I finished chinking and pointing the interior walls of the house years ago, before the roof went on, I now know that I will never complete the restoration of the exterior walls myself. I purchased the house when I turned 40. I now approach 70. I am no longer willing or able to expose myself to the treachery of balancing for hours high on a ladder with stones and mortar and tools in hand in order to complete the work. But I also know that, as long as I am able, I will not stop engaging and reaching—for the love of it.




Monday, June 25, 2012

Sitting on Top of the World—
Dances in Two Worlds Wins Colorado Book Award 


Indepencence Pass
“So I was sittin on top of the world just laughing with my feet hangin down....” This line from my first book, You May Plow Here: The Narrative of Sara Brooks (Norton, 1986), began cycling through my mind when I drove over Independence Pass on my way home from Aspen to Denver two days ago. The line appears in the story “Laziness’ll Kill You.” One time, Sara and her two cousins got into a dispute about something while they were working in a field on the 53-acre farm her father owned in Alabama. Although she was the troublemaker that day, when her father walked up, he “give the others a good whippin, an that excluded me. So I was sittin on top of the world just laughing with my feet hangin down and knowing I was in the wrong.” This is one of my favorite lines from You May Plow Here—no wonder it came to mind as I crossed the Continental Divide at 12,096 feet.

Aspen, Colorado, 22 June 2012
Sara Brooks’ delight sprang from innocent and harmless childhood mischief. My delight springs from knowing that my book, Dances in Two Worlds: A Writer-Artist’s Backstory (Fundamental Note, 2011), has just won the 21st annual Colorado Book Award 2012 in creative nonfiction. The Colorado Book Award is given by the Colorado Humanities Center for the Book, state affiliate of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. I celebrated the award at a reception at the Aspen Institute Friday afternoon and over wine and dinner at a sidewalk café with three new friends that evening.

I take pride in the award and what it represents: a lifetime of acknowledging my fears, listening to my intuition, and hard work. None of my three books would have been possible, however, had it not been for the family, friends, and teachers upon whose shoulders I have stood. Not the least among them was Sara Brooks herself. By telling me her stories and entrusting the editing to me, Sara Brooks awakened the storyteller in me. Ultimately, she gave me Dances in Two Worlds, and she gave Dances in Two Worlds to you. The book is available at http://astragreece.com/publications.html

Monday, May 28, 2012

Oh! My Sweet Greece

Elafonisi Island off the coast from Niela's village

I am back at home in Denver after two weeks in Greece. I am listening to a CD I purchased on my way out of Athens: Oh! My Sweet Air by Stamatis Spanoudakis. I listened to a cassette recording of these synthesized liturgical instrumental songs every night as I fell to sleep during the two years I lived in Greece from 1982-84. Even though I had not heard this music since my switch to CDs years ago, I recognized the first note when I heard it play at the music store. Oh! My Sweet Air will ease the transition between the two starkly different worlds I inhabit—from the sound of tolling bells and water lapping on a pebble beach to leaf blowers and lawn mowers; from the sight of dark-leafed orange trees dotted with bright rounds of fruit and hillsides bursting with yellow-blooming broom to shouting billboards and dull asphalt; from the lively fragrance of jasmine and wild thyme to exhaust fumes deadening the air; from the measured pace of a seaside walk to a frenzy on the streets.

I traveled to a Greece that has suffered much this past year, a Greece that will suffer even greater assaults before this economic/political storm passes. An occasional scar from the rioting that occurred in Athens when reforms were instituted this past spring can still be seen if one scrutinizes the facades of buildings around Syntagma Square. Numerous storefront vacancies were harder to miss. And the incomparable Benaki Museum is now closed on Mondays as well as Tuesdays.


The tide is far from turning, and yet there are signs of tenacity everywhere: a new vegetarian/vegan café and a kicky new coffee shop around the corner from my Hotel Adonis in Athens, and a new antique shop on the pedestrian mall; upgrades in all the small hotels I stayed in; new small wineries winning gold and silver medallions at international competitions for their velvety smooth wines with complex flavors and long finishes. And a people known and honored since the time of Homer for their warmth and hospitality do not even now lay their burdens on their guests. On the contrary, I and other travelers in Greece were struck by the heightened warm greetings, generosity, and good wishes. And more importantly, I heard repeated assertions from the Greeks themselves that they have survived worse things—that their spirit will never die.

talented and spunky chef Eleni at Avra Hotel, Kiparissi, Lakonia

In spite of all Greece's challenges, local food continues to be fresh and flavorful, the wines are now better than ever, the landscapes and seascapes triumph, the history of course only deepens, and the people teach resilience and hospitality by example. In other words, just as every note of Oh! My Sweet Air is as evocative as it was the first time I heard the album decades ago, the Greece I have just left is fundamentally the Greece I have known since my first trip there 38 years ago—and I love it still.

I simply wanted you to know. And, on behalf of my friends in Greece, I invite you to spread the word.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Resilience. Tenacity. Grace.

Balboa Park, San Diego, February 2012

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Possibility


In 1984 when I was 40, I purchased a house in a village in Greece. It was a roofless dwelling used only to stable sheep. I did not ask myself whether I could restore the house; I simply knew I wanted to and would. Repairing the walls stone by stone with my own hands, I plumbed the depths of my ingenuity, I met the limits of my physical strength and endurance, I confronted my loneliness, I paid tribute to my father who brought out the builder in me, and I avoided my mother’s reach long enough to discover who I am.

Years after the roof went on and the door was hung, images of the house appeared in my paintings. But, ironically, I have spent precious little time there since the structure became habitable. What, then, made me undertake the restoration? Possibility, I think. What have I brought away from the experience? An understanding that potential resides within each of us, and—if we are fortunate—we develop it into something wonderful.


photo credits: top, Thordis Simonsen, 1984; bottom, Betty Hurt, 2004

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Being There

This is the window I recognized in painting #114 shown in the 4 July 2011 post. It belongs to the "sheep corral" I purchased in the Greek village, Elika, in 1984. The purchase was motivated by an inexplicable urge to have a village home of my own to return to after having rented there for two years. At the time I committed myself to the house, I had no idea what my relationship to the village would look like in the long run. Indeed, since taking occupancy in 1991, I have returned often to Greece as an independent small-group travel guide, but I have spent precious little time under my red clay-tile roof. This year I spent only 10 days in Elika.

When I used to consider my relationship to the house, I thought of it in physical terms—walking the footpath to my door, pruning my two olive trees, mixing mortar and setting stone. Being there, that is to say. But my understanding changed when I began to see evidence of the house in paintings I made while residing in my other home in Colorado. Every image in my oil pastel gallery on my web site, for that matter, represents some aspect of my Greek experience: the house, a chapel built over a spring, a heather-clad hill under a fall sky, an olive tree. True, I immersed myself in day-to-day village life side-by-side with my neighbors and am referred to as an Elikiotissa—a woman of Elika. True the house restoration has been a hands-on project spanning many years. Still, I was surprised to learn through the painting experience that, while the window in the photograph above looks out to sea, the opening depicted in painting #114 is a window into my soul.