Friday, March 29, 2013

Home: the Place You're From, or the Place You Seek?

This is our eternal question.

I have been "at home" here in my studio at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts for nearly two weeks.  It has been my "home away from home on the range." A writing refuge that has seen me add more good pages to my manuscript that i have managed to create in nearly a year. I've  a few hundred more to go, at least.  Then there will be the dammed re-write.

From my window, I can stare out to rocky high cliffs, and between them and me flows Brush creek, and between the creek and me a wide expanse of mud season, and a layer of trees. Their tips are just beginning to turn the faintest green. Spring is trying to arrive. But it goes more slowly, here, probably because 60 MPH winds tend to keep things nippy. Today hourseback riders and hikers have passed my studio windows, as I try to get a few more hours of writing in before going home to Denver.

Last week we discovered that a stay at Brush Creek is apparently not complete without a visit to the Saratoga version of heaven; the local taxidermy shop.  I found a few friends.

On Wednesday, a few of us took a trek up the trails through the snow to the high yurts.
Specifically we trekked on past the first yurt area higher to Jim's Yurt. It sits in a wooded clearing and is full of dead animals, quite spectacularly preserved, including an albino moose. More about the moose when I can find the picture. 

We trailed moose tracks to reach that yurt. It seemed to be a wounded moose, because we spotted what looked like blood drops all along the route. How wounded, we could not exactly tell. It could be that he has just taken a wrong turn and run into a tree and had a bloody nose. At any rate, we only saw the tracks, not the moose. It did spark discussion of just exactly what would go into a drink called the "wounded moose." Several recipes were developed.


Last night at our farewell bonfire, we watched the full moon plus one day rise over the highest rocks of the cliffs.  It was after 11:00 pm - early by our hours here, where we begin writing at 8:00 am and often go for 11-14 hours, with breaks for food. This has felt like a writer's home; a place where the rhythm of creativity is respected and that which is being created is honored. And where else can a person feel most at home than in a place where who you really are is known and understood?

Long ago I decided that the definition of home probably lies at the core of Salt, Light & Life.  I think I was right.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Salt, Light & Life at Brush Creek

I have decided that the numbers that count are the days and moments for which we are grateful.

I arrived at Brush Creek,Wyoming a few days ago. More correctly, I arrived at the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts for two intense weeks as a Writer in Residency. Bucking the wind west on I-80, I turned south on Highway 230. The land is wide open, sprawling; mountains looking deceptively close. Before turning east onto the long and winding ranch road toward a mountain whose name I do not yet know, I encounter an entire herd of antelope, who seem not the least bit concerned that I had arrived.

On this 15,000 acre working ranch, we are a small enclave on the banks of Brush Creek as it flows down from the mountains above us. We sit apart from the main lodge and many lodge residences. 

We are four artists, two composers and two writers, from all parts of the country. We are the least duded of those on this spread of sturdy log dwellings and expansive barns. Most of the year it caterer to those who can afford $800-1,500/night rooms and we artistic types are trotted out for occasional forays with the guests. We sleep in tiny rooms and we pick up our own food from the resident chef. While we can hike, or climb, use the lodge sauna, ride horses, or cross country ski most anywhere, we have all been warned not to climb the cross-log fences that surround the buffalo preserve.

The lodge is empty on this first day of spring. The snow that has fallen most of the day has stopped and blue sky has returned. A few of my fellow residents went hiking in the snow. While it is probably not the last of the snows, mud season is upon us. This seems a place where moments count more than ordinary days.

I am here to work on my novel. For want of a better title, I call it The Book of Time. It has been in the works for over two years. I don't know if it is really about time, or something else. It includes many of my favorite themes. They are topics I've explored from time to time in this blog; the nature of the universe, the discovery of one's purpose, the edges of eternity, the pursuit of authenticity. I am making headway. More progress than I have in the past year or more.

It is a luxury of time, of place and of space. A combination of focused writing time that I never get (or take), this wide-open space, and a studio all my own. Perhaps the real difference is this studio with my name on it! 

An entire 18'x21' 1880s log studio, with windows on three sides looking out to rugged cliffs and creek, and thick log walls. I have rearranged the furniture. It's elegantly rustic furnishings make me feel as if someone has dropped me into a Southwest Living magazine spread. I don't have a buffalo head on the wall, but I do have a painting of buffaloes!

I am profoundly grateful. If it were possible to stop time inside these moments, I would do so.  Perhaps then I could finish the entire book in this setting.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Crooner and a Gentleman

When the news reached me that Andy Williams had died a week or so ago, I was immediately transported back to a steamy, New York Sunday in July, 1986. To be exact, to the Sunday before the 4th of July when the newly re-furbished Statue of Liberty was due to be dedicated. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and in an instant I was 26 years younger, remembering.

In New York working on television production for my client, a major tel-e-com company, I had a rare Sunday between shooting the commercials and the editing; a whole day all to myself in a city that I loved to visit, but in which I probably would not do well living. My plan was to shop. But first, I intended to treat myself to brunch at one of my favorite New York landmarks: Harry Cipriani in the Sherry Netherlander Hotel. It sits just across from the Plaza Hotel at the corner of Fifth Avenue between 59th and 60th, just off Central Park. When in New York I always make one visit to Harry Cipriani.

I first found it as a seventeen-year-old college student. As a naïve country girl with big dreams, I was probably ridiculously-dressed in too-short mod clothes and able to afford only a cup of black coffee. As a retail assistant buyer I bought desert there; sharing a cheap hotel room with three other poor assistant buyers. As an advertising executive, I could afford to take my clients there; although only a few had my taste for international shoulder-rubbing. You see, Harry Cipriani (whose namesake is the legendary gathering spot, Harry's Bar, in Venice, Italy), is a gathering spot for foreign dignitaries, diplomatic expats and their families, and politicians. I have never not seen a news-maker there. I once walked in to the crowded eatery and was seated at table next to New York Mayor Mario Cuomo.

But this memory is about another moment in this legendary place.

On that steamy, blue-sky Sunday morning I walked in the door to a quieter restaurant looking as chic as I could mange: wearing a white dress, strappy espadrilles, a white, teal and yellow print jacket and a teal Charles Jordan belt. How do I remember? Because of what happened next. A man who had been sitting at the premier position in the restaurant...a round table set back against the padded banquet seats below the mirrors (which is where Mayor Cuomo had been sitting on my last visit), rose and came toward me. He was dressed impeccably, white silk handkerchief in the breast pocket of his perfectly-cut cashmere suit, hair coiffed. Hand-extended, he was walking directly toward me. I resisted the urge to turn around and look to see who had walked in behind me.

When Andy Williams extends his hand, you shake it.

His smile was brilliant, his eyes warm, and he wasn't as tall as he appeared on his TV shows. He welcomed me graciously, leading me toward his table. I realized instantly that he had mistaken me for someone else. With only a modicum of sputtering, I explained that I was not who he thought I was. We laughed. The waiter assumed that I must be “someone” and seated me alone at a small table right next to him. When the gorgeous woman and her entourage for whom he had been waiting entered, I was profoundly flattered to have been mistaken for her.

By the end of our meals, comments had passed between their table and mine, laughter over the mistaken identity had been shared, Andy Williams had sent over dessert and invited me to the table. When I attempted to pay my bill I was not allowed to do so. By the time I reluctantly left the table, I had been invited to be his guest at the 4th of July festivities at the Statue of Liberty, where he was to be one of the musical headliners. We would wrap up production by the third and I had a flight out of Laguardia Airport that evening, back to a house already filling with out-of-town guests. I had to decline, practically kicking myself under the table while doing so.

Andy Williams rose and shook my hand my hand in farewell; always the crooner, always a gentleman. I floated out the door of that magical place into the summer sunshine. When I want to remember, I close my eyes.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Love and Loss at the Olympic Level

I took a sabbatical from blogging. More about that another time.

Unlike most Americans eagerly anticipating the cascade of events which constitute the Olympic games in London, I harbor mixed feelings. 

On the one hand, there is the pomp and circumstance, the sheer pageantry of the games; the Olympic flame lighting the night sky of opening night, the parades of international athletes, the stirring music of the awards ceremonies. There is the games' symbolism; artificially inflating athletic events to represent the pride of entire nations. There is the international flavor of the games; the vicarious opportunity, encouraged by gushing media attention to the gems and exotic treats of the host country, to mentally “travel” to new places. Beneath, lies the slightly unsettling (to me at least) attention placed on physical prowess rather than intellectual agility. This thrilling spectacle called “the games” can make one forget that, at its base, they are about physical excellence, not intellectual ability. Though, I admit that something deeper than muscle mass,speed, or agility may be involved.

On the other hand, the Olympics make me ill-at ease, not because I am competing (I'm not) and not because I don't know people competing (I do, although distantly). My unease is not because I haven't played a companion role to “the games” before (I have; in fact I played a major role for the 1984 Olympic Torch Relay for the state of Colorado). Nor is it because I don't enjoy the spectator sport of watching swimming or gymnastics (I do.) No, it is because the return of this summer's Olympic Games marks the moment in time four years ago when life, for me, took a stomach-turning somersault into a new dimension.

She died.

One moment I am enthralled by the Olympic opening ceremony spectacle in Beijing, China; thrilling, along with the world that Friday night, to the vivid colors, the thousands of drum-beaters, China's militarily-perfect choreography that announced its entrance on the world stage. The next day I dive into the sporting schedule, thrilled over swimming, gymnastics, cycling; riveted to our TV screen, time and reality revolving around which featured sport is up. The morning of the third day, a Sunday, the phone rang. It was my husband's birthday; and coincidently also my deceased father's birthday.

I had just switched on the TV to join the day's event schedule, after retuning from church. The phone rang. I picked it up carelessly; thoughtless, oblivious.

“Janice? It's your sister, Lynn,” her tone was still-sounding, muffled. “Jerol has been trying to reach you.”

“Lynn,” I say “What's....

“Mother's dead.” Two words.

Whether she paused, or it was that the stadium bedrock of my life began to move, I am still not sure. Time and every other reality stopped. “We've tried...your cell phone is off.”
“How...when...” I stutter, shock tumbling my words I stare at the TV screen where cyclists are rushing along the race course. “Why...What?” My voice breaks as I switch instinctively to journalisic terms. The sound of my voice is not mine. The ringing in my ears intensifies and I sit down.

“She didn't show up for church...” My sister's voice sounded gentle, calm. Jane and Ryan went over to the house right after services and found her, still in bed...”

“Was she...?”

“No. She sat up...then she laid back down. They called 911 and Jerol...” My sister-in-law is the church organist of the country church where every sacrament of my life had been celebrated. Of course she couldn't just walk out of church. Of course she didn't send my teenage nephew over alone.

“Was it...the aneurysms?” We had learned earlier in the summer of aortic aneurysms. Two. “But not so big. Not to worry.”

“Probably.” said my sister, the nurse.

“She sat up...then she laid back down...” I spoke the words out loud, trying to envision the event. It was physical, it was human, it was life; it was my Mother's Olympic event. And when she had done that, my Mother died. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. At home. Not exactly alone.

Thus was set in motion a spiral of events and circumstances that continue to this moment. As luck would have it, the day before my Mother laid back down and died, the microwave had died. Until my sister's call, this had been the extent of my angst that day; irritating, but not life-altering. Two hours after receiving the news, undoubtedly in shock, I got in a car and drove four miles to Sears to select a new microwave. I know now that I should not have been selecting an electronic appliance, let alone driving a 2,500 pound car down the road by myself. But habits of caring for a family fly in the face of death. I was intellectually aware that my departure the next day to do funeral plans, would leave my family with precious little in the way of food preparation and a microwave would be necessary.

Unable to cry, the weight of grief pressing on my chest, already hopelessly mired in trying to get the airlines to issue me an open-ended plane ticket, I wandered the appliance aisles. Nearly speechless, caring wads of balled-up tissue, I was unable to comprehend the energy-efficiency ratings and price tags. How much time passed, I am not sure, but eventually I bought a space-saver microwave. The service person carried it to the car. He asked if I was OK, shook his head at my answer, shut the door, and stood there watching me drive away. I'm sure he supposed I would crash before leaving the shopping center.

Arriving home, I remained numb; then began to rage at the airlines that would not confirm my ticket. It was a spectacle played out against the evening's televised coverage of the Olympic games. My son tried to comfort me and took over the fight about my ticket with the airlines. I made a birthday dinner, I lit the candles on the birthday cake, I sang happy birthday to my poor husband, who now shared the date of August 10th with both my Father and my Mother; a birth day and a death day. My husband held my hand. My daughter hugged me. Late that night I packed, then sat down on my bed, exhausted. It was an Olympian effort to lie down on the bed to sleep, as my Mother had to die.

The next day I boarded a plane and flew to Minneapolis to drive to northern Wisconsin to help plan my Mother's funeral. The backdrop for the ensuing days? The Olympics, of course. As plans were drawn up, as extended family were notified and our families arrived, as grand children milled about, as I wrote the eulogy, as people came and went, as graveside final rites were administered, as mountains of food disappeared, there were the games. The backdrop to our sorrow; track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, swimming. Following the funeral and the thank you notes, we begin the impossible task of closing down a life, generations of our family in one country place and as it turned out, for me to close the Wisconsin chapter of my life. 

After the rest left, I stayed on with my sister to clean out the refrigerators, to deal with the plants, to find a home for the cat, to create a plan to end home as we had known it to be. The games ended before our task did. Finally, we too, extinguished the lights in the home of our parents, and on an August day a week after the end of the Olympics, we packed our bags and went home as well. Within a few days the world, which had been economically disintegrating around our grief, experienced a drastic change of it's own.

In the space of that single Olympic month, not only did my Mother suddenly die, but the world's economy collapsed, and I lost my contract marketing job.

Over the course of the following 18 months, not only did I travel endlessly back and forth across the plains between Colorado and Wisconsin to empty the family home, I searching endlessly for a marketing position that has yet to materialize. And in those months my daughter graduated high school and left for college. My son graduated college, got married and he and my daughter-in-law left on an overseas Fulbright. In short order, I learned that “the place” to which I had always thought I would return to write, would not become “the place” with our name on it.

For me, the arrival of the last Olympics heralded the death of a beloved Mother, the seismic shift of the family order, the death of a dream, the loss of economic security, and a profound sense of being set adrift in the world. Struggle became my companion, grief my condition, and loss the daily dose of humility. But perhaps my most important lesson is more Olympic in nature. Now that the time for “The Games” is upon us again, I have come to realize that the most important lesson learned is personal. Were I a swimmer, it could be said that now – finally – I have come up for air after a long time under-water. But I am not an Olympic swimmer; I am a long-distance survivor. I have learned Olympic endurance.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Plenty of Time to Remember

The ancient Celtics had a saying: “When God made time, he made plenty of it.”

That thought probably has no place in a blog that months ago was supposed to get you to a Georgian table, into old Tbilisi, and off to our adventure in Italy. But strangely, it has everything to do with this post. While none of us can know the time we will be given, the strange elasticity of this past year has made me more forgiving of the time necessary to process news and changes, griefs and joys. I believe it is possible for we humans, when we back off the hyper-speed pace of our lives, to rediscover a more human dimension to time; the meaning of which most Twitter and blog posters, intent upon filling every space in time with words, words, words, probably miss entirely. For me, time has meaning. Time serves a purpose, if sometimes only to teach us endurance and that what comes before and what follows is connected only by this moment. A full year has gone by since we departed for Europe and parts east of there, and the memories of the moments there, in that strange yet familiar land, are as fresh in my mind today as they were as they occurred.

So too, are the memories of a sweet family day for our family; our son Nic's wedding to Sora two years ago today.

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It was a beautiful, perfect day and time neither makes it more or less wonderful (although the family now can tell stories about some of the mishaps that occurred prior to the ceremony – much of it to me. Let it not be said that I am missing a sense of humor.) Since we don't have the new address for the couple, this will have to suffice as an anniversary card!

I write this as an homage to what the two of them have become together; complete, strong, and as of last night, I hope, finally reunited in Washington DC. Nic has begun graduate school at the Johns Hopkins SAIS school ( and Sora will spend several weeks with him before departing for her own graduate studies at Cambridge. It is not at all the way many of we baby boomers began our married lives, but it is entirely them.

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Some day in time they may look back at this stage and know how much love and support surrounded them as they continue their adventure. I, for my part, wish that I had as much courage...or smarts for that matter!

For today, I remember the anniversary of their day, and our visit to them last year. And I swear, I'll get you to that Georgian feast I promised...just remember, “When God made time, he made plenty of it.”

Monday, March 21, 2011

Saint Nino, Saint George and the Dragon.

Literally every church in Georgia has paintings and or statures of two venerated saints. They seem to be as Georgian as the bad driving. To understand why, you have to know a little about Georgian history.

St. Nino, converted Georgia to Christianity in 347 AD:


Then there is St. George, the patron saint of Georgia, from which Georgia derives its name.

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Every church and even the statue at the center of Tbilisi's Freedom Square, celebrates St. George. No one is exactly sure if there really was a St. George because the myths about his origins as a powerful figure who protects earthly domains and controls the forces of nature predate Christianity. Those forces (which by the way are often referred to as mother earth) are represented by the green dragon with which St. George is usually portrayed. Stories of St. George are more ancient than our written language, dating to the Summerian civilization 5,000 years ago. Never mind. Georgian's don't care.

Note that the letters “GE”: repeat twice in the name “George”. There's a reason for that. The ancient meaning of “GE” is that which pertains to the earth. That's why you see these letters used in modern words like geography, and geophysics. Now remember that creation myth that Georgians love to tell visitors to their country about? The one about how God saved this special place for himself and ended up giving it to the Georgians? You begin to understand how Georgians feel about their land, their place on this earth and why they like their name!

So if St. George pre-dates Christianity, how did Christianity arrive?

A woman named St Nino (sometimes called St. Nune), converted Georgia to Christianity, arriving from the Roman province of Cappadocia in what is now central south Turkey in 347 AD. In Christian myth, she is reported to have been a relative of Saint George, as well related to the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Known as the “enlightener,” she was both a healer and a healer who preached the Gospel. Notice the droop of her cross? There's a reason for that. Apparently she grabbed the first thing at hand to form a cross and in Georgia, vineyard that it it is, that would be grape vines. Every since that time, you can tell an icon painting from Georgia by the tell-tale shape of the cross.

In a time before England and the Britons were Christian, St. Nino crossed Turkey to what was then called Iberia (today's Armenia and Georgia) and spread the gospel first to Armenia and then into modern-day Georgia. Not a shabby undertaking today, let alone in her day. And we had been standing at the very spot in the cathedral of Svetitskhoveli where she made her first convert and in front of her glass and golden tomb.

After that dive into history, we were hungry......

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Some Doors You Enter for Everyone

A friend called me the other day. “For Pete's sake,” he said. “How long are you going to leave us at the door of the cathedral?”

I was sheepish. “I've been busy. You know... marketing work. My book. I'm being workshopped at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. goals.....gee, you mean people are really paying attention?”

He assured me, people are. ”Well, life got complicated,” I told him apologetically.”Sometimes it feels as if adventure is far away from me. Must have been another person who was there. Not me”

“You made that trip for all of us,” he said. ”Write!”

So again...I am there.


Inside its impressive walls, I done a scarf and we cross the sweltering plaza, enter the massive doors and find ourselves in a towering space, cool; shadowy and mysterious.

Candles flicker, the smell of burning incense is strong. Brass and gold shine below walls of enormous frescoes.
Women swathed in scarves and huge aprons bend nearly double over hand-cobbled brush brooms, a continuous sweeping, sweeping, sweeping that did not stop while we were there. I find myself wondering if they might not be the prototype for the Soviet BabaYaga, the witch with the broom and the house that turns on chicken legs.
Inside the massive space sits another stone cathedral,

perfect in proportion and detail, a miniature of the great cathedral that encases it. It is the site, where in 327 the first convert, Georgian Queen Nana, converted to Christianity.
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Near it, the iconic glass and gold tomb of the Queen herself. I take pictures and again get in trouble – an old man in hat, boots and slavic-looking belted shirt, praying at the miniature cathedral believes that I have taken his picture. I haven't, but back off out of respect.
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Svetitskhoveli is our introduction to the history of Georgia. Here we learned the connection between St Nino and Saint George and the Dragon....

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

From Tbilisi to Mtskheta

Some days of our lives remain – fixed points of reference for all that was before and all that comes after. Our first day in Georgia was such a day....

We can see no fewer than 12 ancient churches from our windows and balcony, plus the modern national cathedral and the president's house. We are located in Old Tbilisi, just uphill from the ancient sulfur baths/banyas. (which will play a big role in activities in a day or two.....) Tbilisi seems a city caught between not just cultures, but centuries. Streets of rubble outside the apartment enclosure gate lead, in only a few blocks, to gorgeous inlaid pavement.


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Still in the clothes in which we arrived (luggage lost, you'll recall) and with aching heads not yet in that timezone, we follow Nic through the streets, over a bridge, down another road, down, down down into the deep Soviet era subway. We emerge somewhere distant, and wend our way back out of the subterranean walkways, where impoverished people peddle the ubiquitous wheels and wedges of the salty, Georgian stinky cheese (non-refrigerated), cheap toys, old clothes and heartbreakingly, their family heirlooms. There is no time to stop, as Nic pushes on, having warned us about the Gypsy children sent out in droves to beg. “Give them food, they can eat it,” he advises. “Give them money, they will never see it.”

We break out into the sunlight, near blinded and wend through a bustling open-air market overflowing with bananas, watermelons, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and garlics and many fruits and vegetables I haven't a clue as to their pedigree.

The bins and pull carts, barrels and boxes follow somewhat orderly lines, but everywhere there are vans in every spare space and people hurrying this way and that, or talking with men standing at the vans. Negotiating, we learn for their destinations and fares. They are the marshrutka of Nic's research (Russian Analytical Digest, Dec. 2010) vans that take people, mail, packages and news from place to palce throughout most of the former Soviet countries.

Nic negotiates. We stuff ourselves into a back seat and we are off, bouncing over rutted roads, stopping to drop off people and pick up packages. There is no air conditioning in the late July heat. Nic points out the American Embassy and the road from the airport we traveled in the early morning hours.

We are on our way to Mtskheta, a village outside Tbilisi in which stands Svetitskhoveli, site of the first Christian conversion in Georgia and for hundreds of years, designated the “Mother Church,” and National Cathedral, before that title was bestowed an a brand new cathedral in Tbilisi.
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Once there we enter the massive building.....

Friday, December 31, 2010

The Memory Keepers

I am a memory-keeper. Are you?

I pause in our adventures in the Republic of Georgia to reflect on the great truth of time. Next week is soon enough to get back to the telling of the tale. Time ran away with me these past few weeks; perhaps it did with you as well. It was filled with holiday songs and Christmas videos, holiday baking and our Wondra traditional meals. Our Christmas cards got mailed after Xmas and this week I finally got calls made to family and dear friends who were on my heart and far away.

Here's what I think. Time counts when the events of time and place are recorded, retold, passed down from person to person, generation to generation. Time counts when the adventures, the lessons learned, the tragedies and good deeds done are recounted. Perhaps we, like that old velveteen rabbit, are made real by the people who love us. But I believe that we remain real when the sound of our voices and the stories of our lives echo through the ages. This I know because the holidays always bring me closer to the stories of my family – the Swedish and Norwegian farmer and woodsman immigrants, the German merchants...and most recently I have learned of the entire Fleming branch that dates to pre-revolutionary war days. Who would have thought?

Days like today remind me that all we really have is today. Yesterday – all the yesterdays – may come back to you as wonderful memories, but they are gone. We don't get the moments and days back. Tomorrow? Well, none of us knows if we are going to be given another day, let alone another year.

We await the arrive back home of Nic and Sora next week, after their sixteen months abroad. At the rate I'm sharing our adventure with you, they will be back before I finish. But the adventure is committed to words. The memory lives on. My role as memory-keeper of past days and our days, is secure. It awaits others to carry it on down through time.
Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Back in Tbilisi Again

Our first views of Tbilisi were in the darkness before dawn, in the back seat of a taxi speeding through a sleeping city. Nic and our driver, pointed out gorgeously-lit public buildings. “Look there! Parliament!

“There – The Sheraton where the revolt took place. It's been repaired.”

“Over there – the Opera House!”

Above everything, high on the hills surrounding the city, the lights of the Georgian TV station and the fortress, Narikala – both bathed in sentinel lights.


It is, we learn, the view from the bedroom window of the apartment as well. In fact, Nartikala is the view from the kitchen window and the apartment balcony as well. The fortress and its fortifications date from the 4th to 17th centuries. At any time of the day it looms large – especially so over Old Town Tbilisi where Nic and Sora live. Tbilisi has many symbols and this is one of the most important.

In reality, we spent most of our days while in Georgia in Tbilisi itself, by turns gracious, grubby, grappling city coming to terms with it's past,it's present and its future all at once.

Tbilisi is a meeting ground, stomping place, rolled-over conquered, conquering, sophisticated, crude, hopeful, fatalistic, tradition-bound, welcoming, cautious contradiction. Here east meets west meets middle-east. Largely over looked by the world, Georgia and its people survived communism only to struggle with democracy, embrace most things west while rattling sabers at our old cold-war nemesis; Russia.

My great apologies for leaving you in Khaketi, on the Grape Road in the middle of a funeral procession for so long! It was a dark place to abandon my readers, but my router died and with it access to my laptop treasure-trove of pictures. (Now that I have conquered the picture-posting thing it seemed a shame to attempt painting only word pictures of our adventure.)

We spent only that one day on the Grape Road, although for some readers it may seem longer. But without that day, I wonder if I could have begin to grasp the spirit of the Georgian people and the shift occurring in this place. It is not just a tug-of-war between east, west and Middle East. it is a struggle to shed the last vestiges of Soviet era machinery and a stumbling, bumbling dash from the past into the 21st century.

It is still dark when we arrive, dragging the one bag that has stayed with us into a dirt courtyard, around cars bedded down for the night and up steep curving stairs to the apartment. After thirty two hours of travel, sleep and wake are at war and for a few hours, sleep wins.

When the sun comes up.......

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Life and Death in Georgia

The procession came from the left, up the incline to the paved road from a cluster of tumbled-together village homes. Nic was up front of the car, bargaining for strings of garlic and onions with several elderly villagers at a makeshift stand, when it appeared.

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As we watch from the car, six men and boys in plaid shirts, carrying an open pine box on their shoulders led the way. Just as they met the paved road, the front man on the near side slipped in the loose dirt, momentarily unbalancing the open casket on their shoulders. The casket lurched, giving us a sideways impression of an elderly face in repose, looking decidedly green-black. He recovered and the procession moved on, across the road and down the far side. It was followed by a straggling procession of women, girls a few men and young children in black, carrying all manner of colorful umbrellas against the afternoon heat. No one looked especially sad.

“Now there's something you don't see every day,” I remarked.

“No,” agreed Sora and was silent a moment. “And not only do they don't embalm here, they still lay the deceased out at home," she added. "Then they summon the family and friends to morn. It can take a week or two for everyone to arrive before they hold the funeral.”

We considered the weight of that information in silence. The heat of the August day there in the car is stifling. It's August. I try not to imagine the smell.

Nic returned from his successful produce negotiations at the village stand.“She was ninety two,” he announced, cheerfully, as our driver pulls out and proceeds slowly down the road and past the casket, being loaded into an ancient hearse. “She was the village matriarch. They said she had a good, long life.”

I set to imagining a matriarch who drank some good Georgian wine every day of her long, adult life, who will return to the earth to nurture her grape vines. While the aesthetics of American life don't encourage most of us to think about death in this fashion, it may be good to recall that dealing with death in this way is quite ecological. Quite green, in fact (no pun intended). In the United states, a slowly growing trend toward green funerals is making a comeback, as a biodegradable reaction to the environmental impact of embalming chemicals, as well as a return to the natural cycle of life.

I'm not sure it will really catch on here. But such is life, and death, in Georgia.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Real Bounty of Georgia

Nic begins negotiations with the matrons for buckets of peaches as the rest of us attempt to stay in the shade along the two-lane paved road..


Trucks, ancient cars, fancy new sport utility vehicles and donkey driven wooden carts loaded with hay, boxes of produce or barrels of something, pass us in both directions. The sport utility vehicles careen around the carts, defying the obvious dimensions of the road width. Looking about, I realize we are not so much in a village, as stopped at a cluster of buildings; probably an extended-family compound. Fields and vineyards stretch out around us, fences lean crazily bordering narrow, dirt lanes. The building materials are varied and ingenious – cobbled together from stone, concrete, wattle, plaster – whatever building materials were available. These people use what they have to create sanctuary.

One of the women trots across the narrow, busy road to the trunk of an ancient Soviet-era car and selecting from this or that box in the trunk, loads another bushel. She hurries back across the road, apparently telling Nic that these have been hand-selected for us.

I pull out my camera to get pictures of the negotiations. Seeing the camera, the matrons are thrilled to pose with Nic and Sora – the Americans who speak Russian. They smooth their aprons, pull off their head scarves, some lower their heads shyly, peaking up coyly toward the camera. A couple of them just downright blush. I suspect that, in their lives, there haven't been many pictures taken of these kindly matrons.

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An excited conversation follows in Russian between Nic and the matrons. Suddenly, one matron turns and runs off down the shady lane at a dead run. I have no idea of her age, but she would have done justice to a high school sprinter.

“What,”we wonder “is going on?”

“They want copies of the pictures,” says Sora, as Nic scribbles something into a tiny pocket notebook. “And she has gone to get the family wine.”

The family wine! So we net not just peaches – but some of that special Georgian amber wine!

Nic pays for the peaches and we get them loaded in the back of the car. Back up the lane runs the matron, waving a plastic soda bottle of the family vintage in one hand and holding in her other hand the strange, bumpy, white-coated cords of churchkhela, the sweet, chewy, Georgian delicacy. Since the grape harvest is just beginning and making these, Sora tells us, takes many steps of dipping, drying and then rolling in sugar, we assume that they are the last of the previous season. And the wine, we learn, will have come from the huge, clay kvevris, or wine amphoras dug right into the ground for aging the family vintage.

Panting from her sprint, but beaming from ear to ear, the matron thrusts the precious gifts into Nic's hands and stands back. Her shoulders straighten and with dignity, she smooths her apron. Everyone nods and bows and smiles. We have been honored with the legendary Georgian hospitality!

I suddenly “get” that the real richness of Georgia is not just it's bounty, but the hospitality of its people. Their very traditions are rich, generous, accommodating. This is a people that appreciates the bounty of the earth, and the spirit of generosity that feeds both stomachs and spirits. Long-suffering, and as we are to learn, often frightfully ignorant of the humanity of their neighbors, they possessing an understanding of the basic human connection...the thread that links all of us is life itself, love and family. That thread is what drew us to Georgia.

It is a thread that links this place and this time to my own upbringing on a Wisconsin dairy farm. Just such hospitality was offered to guests at the modest family farm. I feel a sudden fullness in my chest and tears gather behind my eyes. The image of my Mother, proffering her homemade buns, just-made jams and jellies, still-warm cookies and steaming hot Norwegian coffee to friends and strangers alike in her country dining room, join the images of this Georgian country road. I swallow hard.

Back into the car we pile. Within a few miles we have stopped for watermelons, peaches, then again for tomatoes, and finally for strings of onions and garlic. At that point another pure Georgian experience awaits us.....

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Some Seasons are Meant to Celebrate

Georgia is beautiful; a strange mix of wild spaces and barely-tamed places.

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Its striking mountains, carefully-cultivated vineyards mesh into identity-challenged fields of hay with sunflowers sprouting about, and unfettered cattle roaming the roadsides. (Combine that with Georgian speeding vehicles and you've got steak tartar -- on the hoof.) The land under cultivation is both hard-won and generous. “Georgians,” Nic says, “say that just about anything will grow here, if you just drop it on the ground.”

I have visions of the the Narnian lamp post falling from the sky and taking root here, not as a lone sentinel, but becoming a forest of gas lights!

Our pace on the return is interspersed with produce negotiations.
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The third truth of Kakheti is that when produce comes into season – it is time to celebrate the harvest! The roadsides are lined with families selling watermelons from the trunks of their cars. The sun is merciless. Town elders in long-sleeve shirts perch on wooden benches and crude hand-made chairs, holding umbrellas or squinting beneath make-shift sun shades, next to crates of cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, onions, garlics, leeks, peppers, corn, squash.

Women, dresses mostly in black, fan themselves next to boxes of strawberries, buckets of peaches, heaps of the first grapes and "churchkhela," the Georgian confection created by threading the nuts on long strings,dipping them repeatedly in concentrated grape juice, then rolled in confectionary sugar and hung to dry.

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The result looks a lot like a bumpy stick of licorice or a skinny stick of sausage and is said to contain enough concentrated energy that they were carried on military campaigns. (It must be the original energy bar!)

Sadly, we are too early to attend the traditional, autumn rtveli (wine harvest). The Kakheti wine processing is like no other in the world – labor-intensive and quite different than European practices. After pressing, the grapes, the juices, skins, stems and seeds are all fermented together, yielding a wine that is raisin y, and Madeira-like, with a clear, amber hue. The method is dying out in the region's commercial vineyards, but the family plots and family vintages continue in the traditional way.

A fortuitous stop in a tiny village – well actually it was a few buildings and a lane running back from the highway—proved fruitful. At that juncture stood four village matrons surrounded by buckets of peaches. “Peaches!” Nic exclaimed from his interpreter's seat beside our driver. “Pull over!”
(or at least that's what I assume he said, since he spoke it in Russian.)

The driver braked and careened to the side of the road and out we piled.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Georgian Truth: Life is short – celebrate!

There are days that seem to slow down, whose meaning is apparent, when the value of this short life is measured as priceless.


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Between the heat and my jet lag, I loose track of whether this is one of them or not and only later discover the truth; that all experiences enrich one, if your soul allows access.

The day's un-relenting heat and humidity makes the air shimmer. We are off the main road, following the fence lines deep in Kakheti and our pace is nearly sane. The grape vineyards appear lush. Taking in their endless reach toward the towering Caucasus in the distance, I recall hearing stories of this land's creation.

Georgian's have lived in their land for millennia. Cities like Batumi, along the Black Sea, were occupied long before the Greeks and Romans named the settlements. Georgians have two stories about how they came to live in the land that they call the most beautiful place on earth. Both are intimately tied with the bounty of the land and the unique spirit of this people.

The first story is completely in Georgian character: It seems that while God was busy assigning countries to the peoples of the world, everyone else showed up to get their assignments. Not the Georgians. While this was going on, they were busy having a party. Food and wine were flowing. Joyous dancing and song celebrated life and love. Toast after toast was made and, you guessed it, the Georgians missed their assignment. God finished His work and saved the best land of all for Himself; the bounteous land of Georgia. There, He discovered the Georgians, feasting and celebrating life and toasting God for the abundance they had received; unconcerned about possessing what they saw as God's creation. God was pleased that they recognized the source of the bounty and rewarded them with the garden that He had saved for himself.

Another version says that God was assigning the bounty of the world to the people in it and tripped over the Caucasus mountains, spilling into the lush garden land of Georgia all good and growing things. Seeing that the people cared for it well, he gave the land to the Georgians.

Take your pick.

The Turks, the Tartars, the Mongols, the Nazis and the Russians, among others, haven't always agreed with God. Over the centuries no less than forty invasions and protectorates have tromped over and through this land.

As we approach our next destination, the Alaverdi cathedral on the plains of Kakheti, the humidity actually blurs the lines of the cathedral walls marching off in either direction. The snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus appear to rise directly out of the sweltering valley floor, climbing to astonishing heights in surreal back-drop. Hand tools, of the the hand-hewn wood, museum-quality, stand in a row inside the arched and fortified gate. They have been recently used.
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We descend the broken steps to the courtyard containing a pampered cathedral vineyard and confront a magnificently-proportioned, classic cathedral surrounding by scaffolding. Proud, ravaged by time and battered by earthquakes, it used to be the largest cathedral in Georgia until the new national cathedral opened in Tbilisi. We stoop to enter a low side door, after discovering that the enormous entrance doors are shrouded in scaffolding.
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Upon entering, I get into immediate trouble when I pause to snap a photo. A young,black-robed priest rushes toward me waving his hands, I cannot understand a word, but his meaning is unmistakable. No pictures allowed. I clutch my new digital camera tighter in my hand. If he tries to take it away from me, he is going to end up in a wrestling match!

The ancient frescoes are faint and fractured and in many places, crudely plastered over. Strangely-twisting floor candle holders stand about, most lit. As remote as we are, there are other pilgrims moving about the dim and dusty place, which has clearly seen better days. Here, more so than in the better-preserved churches of Tbilisi, I sense the ancient times and the great faith and fortitude of this people and land.

The cathedral is the far point of our day's destination. Nic fortifies Jeff and Heather with a care package of American comfort food (much of which had arrived in the one bag of ours that actually arrived with us!) before dropping them off and head back north west on The Grape Trail, where more adventures await us.....

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Along the Grape Road in Kakheti....

The road we are traveling isn't just Marco Polo's historic trade route, although the thought that it is, adds some historic dignity to our madly careening pace. This ancient road is also known as “The Grape Trail.” The Kakheti Region is the center of the wine producing area of Georgia and across the former Soviet Union, Georgia is synonymous with wine.

Unlike Russia, it's neighbor to the north and east, where vodka is the national drink, Georgians love their wine. In fact, the official Kakheti website actually proclaims that every Kakheti family has their own family vineyard. I'm not kidding! The vineyards here have been in production for a few thousand years, Nic tells us. It has been said that the spirit of the Georgian feast resides in its wine (“glvino,” from which descends our modern word “wine”). Just as in Italy, which will be our next country, most vineyards are family plots. Every family makes its own wines here, just as every family has its own pigs for its own bacon, a cow or two to make it's own version of the distinctive, salty Georgian cheese, it's own orchards....Self-sufficient, these people.

Oddly, the vineyards through which we travel appear interspersed with corn fields. It's true, even here, that corn and it's not-all-together-healthy by-products, has become the ubiquitous crop of the world, and is beginning to compete for space with other crops. I find myself rooting for the grape vines and I cannot wait to taste the wine about which I have heard so much!

Sill traveling at breakneck speed, we come out of the deep ravine into the fertile Alazani river plains, having left behind the land with its slow, painfully-pumping oil wells. (which reminded us of the drive between Denver and Longmont, Colorado!) This is a land where vineyards come up to the edges of the road, so close that we can see enormous clusters of grapes hanging heavy on the vines, even at our hysterical speeds. Crumbling, ancient fortresses stand sentinel atop the many distant bluffs. In the distance rise the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus. Telavi, where we are headed, is the capitol of the wine region and the site of the ancient fortress of the principality of King Irakli II.

Our speeding carriage begins to climb, weaving in and around hay carts and ancient, sputtering trucks loaded with produce. Through tiny village after village, on into the hills above the valley floor we climb. Some are shadowed by sentinel fortresses above them, others still circled by their own rampart remains, reminders of the need for protection from invaders from all sides. For Georgia has had need of protection through the long centuries.

Our pace finally slows as we reach the high point of the plain – the hill city of Telavi. Into the ancient streets we dive, curving around and through the city center, upwards to the castle fortress. We come to a sharp curve and crane our necks looking upwards at the enormous bronze of King Irakli, himself, astride his war horse, then abruptly swing into the parking lot next to the fortress walls, which house castle, chapel, museum and art gallery. Much of the structure dates from the 11-12th centuries, a time when Georgia, like Italy, was divided and ruled by feudal kingdoms. King Irakli presided over what is called “The Golden Era” when Georgia was at its zenith of self-rule.
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Inside the wall gates, we stroll through the castle vineyard, pay our fee and begin with the castle, coming face to face with the far east. It is an odd mix of European vaulted and domed-ceilings, combined with Persian, almost Turkish, influence in the key-hole doorways and windows and many wide, covered open-air rooms surrounding the central areas.

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The hall ceilings are low (To put it politely, the king was both height-challenged and vain) so passageways and the throne room were designed to make him look taller – the throne room has a dais that placed him above anyone else who entered it.

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Strolling past the ruined chapels, we climb to a pergola walk-way with a spectacular view over the entire valley floor to the distant Caucasus peaks. One could imagine twilight hours here with his royal courtesans. Surely the king could spot his enemies coming at a great distance. We catch a breeze and pause, aware that the possibility that the next buildings are air conditioned is remote.

We are right. On that steamy day the art gallery is stifling and dark, containing mediocre European and surprisingly skillful Georgian oil paintings. The museum is cooler and just as dark, full of the requisite ancient armor, even more ancient tools and clay dining utensils, including ancient “chapi,” the two-handled jugs with short necks and bulbous bodies in which Georgian wine has been stored and served for thousands of years. If this sounds biblical, I think they are!

We cool our heels in the rustling shade trees while taking turns at the WCs, which are nothing more than rooms with a hole in the floor and no paper. Jeff and Heather, a Peace Corps couple assigned to the region, join us for the second part of our day. Before leaving Telavi, our driver, with greater care than any he has shown that day, drives us to the great plane tree that graces the center of town. It is over 800 years old, an enormous, long-suffering giant that has withstood invasions, crumbling kingdoms and seemingly, time itself. Plane trees are a symbol of eternal life in Georgia – lore has it that plane trees were THE trees of the garden of Eden. If so, then the tree plays a role in the stories we hear later that day.

We descend again to the valley floor and travel deeper into the countryside...