Month: April 2010

Pondering in Zurich . . .

Pondering in Zurich . . .

April 29, 2010 Have you ever been so tired you just don’t feel inspiried? Here I am finally with a real internet connection, and I can’t think of a thing, witty or clever to say, just that I’ve been traveling day-to-day. Venice, to Vienna, to […]

Internet, internet where are you . . . ?

Internet, internet where are you . . . ?

April 26, 2010 I’ve detoured off the path of my parents’ journey and traveled across Austria to Vienna, a city I’ve wanted to see ever since my study of music in college. Access to internet has become harder and harder to maintain on this trip. […]

Thinking about story . . .

Thinking about story . . .

April 19, 2010

I have been thinking about story today, about what qualities I attributed to my mother and her story telling, and how those qualities differ from the way I tell stories.

I suppose all this pondering is to be expected since my mother just died, I am a writer, and I am in the mythic land of The Continent, Europe, the wellspring of my mother’s most treasured stories—whether they were her own spun from memory and imagination and shared round a table, listeners held rapt by her words, eyes, gestures, or those of the writers she read, stories set in Europe.

Somewhere in all this pondering is a convergence of knowing and understanding, and I could feel the edges of it scraping up against my heart as I rocked and rolled through Tuscany today on a regional train from Florence to Siena.

Siena

I imagined the stories my mother would tell of the stone houses dotting the countryside, the lives lived in them, the gatherings and family intrigues, food cooked and shared, friends welcomed, days spent working the earth. She would paint it all with vivid details of gates and paths, flowers and furniture, plates of cheese, bottles of wine, hearty laughter, colorful clothing.

But these are not my stories. I can not imagine them, have not lived them, do not want to live them. I only wanted to imagine them because my mother told them, because I got to watch her lips work the words, her eyes enliven the images with some private dream of possibility, her hands paint the air the color of sunset.

And now she is not here to tell them.

Where then does the power of her stories end?

Where does mine begin?

Ancient stone

Ancient stone

April 17, 2010 I am sitting in a wifi cafe in Florence. These are not nearly as common in Italy as in America. I am freezing. I had forgotten how cold cities constructed of ancient stone can be. They retain the cold, reflect the cold. […]

Michelangelo

Michelangelo

April 15, 2010 I sat for an hour in the Sistine Chapel today. I have been there before, and I felt blessed to be back a second time. It is a place people visit once if they are lucky. I have been doubly lucky. My […]

Caravaggio

Caravaggio

April 14, 2010

Saw the Caravaggio exhibit today (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610) at the Scuderie del Quirinale. Big crowds. Great exhibit!

Only about twenty-five paintings, but they were perfectly representative of what the exhibit terms the three phases of his life and creative work. You can really see the changes from the young painter Caravaggio to the tortured soul he became, and the painfully humane, transcendent art he created toward the end of his life. (He was only 39 when he died.) The palette changes, the use of light, and the subject matter.

The use of light is inspired, even today—reproductions in books simply do not do justice to these paintings. There is a luminosity and dimensionness that is lost.

The faces he paints are infused with horror, compassion, contentment—all are rendered so that the face looks as if it is a human across the room from you.

the_musicians_by_caravaggio.jpgMy favorites were some of the early paintings, like The Musicians. These early images are so rich with potential; you can just see the talent pulsing in the young artist. But the later, dark paintings haunt because you can tell this is a man who painted right out of his complete torment and hence empathy for the human condition. He feels what goes onto the canvas; you know this, and so the painting becomes bigger than life. It becomes life.

Truly a stunning exhibit, despite the crowds.

Couldn’t take in much else. Sat on a bench in an out-of-the-way park I’ve discovered, frequented mainly by Romans, read a contemporary mystery novel and listened to the chaos that is Rome roar around the walls of my little green world.

Swimming in language

Swimming in language

April 13, 2010 I am in a sea of sound, the elegance of Italian, the gutteral punctuations of German, the fluidity of French. I am in heaven listening and listening and not talking. All around me the pulse of Rome is padded by voices like […]

Roma

Roma

April 10, 2010 I made it to Rome. Plane was late leaving America. I’ve been up for for about 32 hours. I fall asleep at the keyboard, and my head tumbles forward, if I pause to think, so I keep my fingers moving . . […]

The Weight of Our Stories: A European Manifesto

The Weight of Our Stories: A European Manifesto

April 5, 2010

My mother was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, metastasized to the bone, on January 14, 2010. Forty-five days later she was dead. I spent those last days with her, as companion, caregiver, friend, daughter, cook, nurse, and gate keeper to all who wanted access but to whom she denied it. I was the border police.

It was a horrible and brilliant shining journey, and I was spent at its end.

To understand the next piece of this story, you may need to be an animal lover, and if you are, you will “get” why I am taking off for new horizons . . .

Nine days after my mother slipped to the other side of the Veil, my beloved kitty cat, E. Flynn, my best friend in all the world, and really, all I had left, was killed by a car. Flynn was a like a dog in kitty clothing. He ran and jumped and played, went for walks with me, climbed to the highest limb of any tree just to show me he could do it, then flew to the ground. He had one bad eye, injured when he was abandoned in the beginning of his life, a little less than a year ago, and I called him Pirate Flynn. He did not know fear.

When he died, so close to my mother’s departure, the world went quiet, like huge cotton balls had been stuffed into every cranny around me. All I could think was: I must go away.

And so off I go to Europe with one pack on my back and a railpass in my pocket. This is not such an odd thing to do any more, but then I am not 20 years old, or even thirty . . . or forty . . . .

But why Europe? Why not China, or Haiti, or Mexico?

Before I learned my mother was terminally ill, I was working on a book of literary nonfiction. At the core of its concept lies a journey my parents—both dead now—took when they were twenty-three and twenty-five. Off they went to the Continent by steam ship with bicycles. Soon they discovered the bikes were too much trouble and they sold them, taking up what all the young Brits and Australians were doing at the time: auto-stopping, a precursor to the wave of young people hitchhiking Europe in the 1960s and 1970s.

But this was 1951, six years after the end of the Second World War. The Continent was still devastated, and there were no Americans on the road. None except my parents, it seemed.

That trip shaped my life. What my mother, Nancy, and my father, Bill, saw, and felt, and learned fueled the parents they became two years later, first with my brother and then another three years later with me.

Our home was filled with art, decorative items, fabric, and dishes influenced by that epic journey—another oddity, because the location of our home was small town Nebraska.

But more, my childhood was woven with my parents’ tales, the adventures of two young rogues. And it was the weight of those stories, what they named as valuable, that has been at the center of decades of my decisions. Really, how I chose to live my life—all those years I had parents.

I am looking now for the next story, for a way to put all that has gone before into some new context, and to name that which will guide all that is to come.

As I set out to trace the spine of my parents’ journey, I am looking too, for the missing pieces of a book that waits completion.

I’ll be posting here as I go.