FutuRetro

One of the things I so love about travel and touring is getting a much more powerful sense of history; standing in and on the places where events and lives long past have happened, whether grand or insignificant, utterly changes my understanding of those people and occurrences. My first trip overseas, that Grand Tour I was so privileged to take in college with my older sister, was an awakening I never expected. I hoped the trip would be a cure for my sophomore blues, and indeed it was, beyond anything I could have planned or dreamt before, but more than that I was startled by how connected I felt to history.

The drizzly and cold autumn day when we visited Canterbury Cathedral was atmospheric enough in its way, but I remember standing on stone steps worn into a soft bowl by the thousands of footsteps that had passed over them in the centuries of its existence, looking up into a palely gold ray from a lamp, seeing the motes of dust whirling in it, and feeling that time itself was floating down around me in delicate pieces, that the spirit of every person who had ever set foot on that same smooth hollow in the stone was present there with me in that very moment. It was almost as though I could hear their voices and see the scenes of the past play out in the faint gloom around me, all overlapping and yet perfectly present. I felt my own place in the whole of the human timeline in an entirely different way than I ever expected, tinier than ever, yet surprisingly more concrete and tangible.

This was reinforced later in the same journey many times, as we passed through or visited (not necessarily in this order) England, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland and stood in the very footprints of many a person, going down the winding passages and cobbled side-streets that had seen multitudes of significant moments long since fled. As this was the first time I visited Norway, the rooting ground of my ancestors from every branch of my family tree, it is no surprise in retrospect that many of those potent realizations came to me in that place—but as usual, hindsight is ever so much clearer than was my youthful wisdom in those days. It was moving, more meaningful than I can express, to get to know the relatives in Norway with whom my family had maintained contact: my maternal grandfather’s sisters and brother-in-law, nieces and nephew. These were days before cheap telephonic long distance, let alone email and internet communiqués, so we had only briefly even met most of these people when they visited America once in my younger years, yet they not only took us in as visitors, Tante Anna and Onkel Alf kept my sister and me with them for a full month and took us to see the family’s two longtime farms, the graves where many of our ancestors were sleeping underfoot. This was incredibly touching, a genealogical history lesson, but the more so because it was taught by the eldest of our remaining family there.

What moved me the most, in fact, was when on arriving in Oslo at our mother’s cousin’s home before we even came down south to be with his parents, we explored the great city a little on our own during the days, while he was at work and his wife and children off having their own day of adventures. It was all so humbling and so magical to feel for the first time that I understood a tiny bit more of my own family lineage and how our people fit into the larger world. We did visit many of the obligatory and famous tourist sites, knowing that there was no direct link to our ancestors, only cultural ones. So I was quite stunned when we visited the Viking Ship Museum and, standing before these ancient vessels, I was absolutely electrified with a sense of shared history coursing through my veins. My forebears were undoubtedly humble subsistence farmers, not the bold and violent and adventurous Viking strain we know through film and television, never mind through the great Sagas—but I felt for the first time something connecting me to those long-gone people all the same.
Photo: Enter the Time Machine

By now I have traveled a fair amount more. I have been on this planet more than twice as long, and I think I might even be a little bit wiser through my experiences in that life than I was back then. But I approach every narrow stone passageway, every weathered door, every window with its rippling antique panes presenting everything that’s beyond them like a warped post-impressionist fiction of itself, I expect to learn something not only about what is there in front of me and around me, but what is inside me. And I know that I will learn something, too, about how I fit into that larger, and ever so mysterious, world if I am wise and patient and alert enough to notice it. So much has gone by. So much remains ahead, yet unknown.

Ever Heard of Foodie Thursday?

Well, now you have.

It’s been a busy autumn chez Sparks. No excuses: in the flurry, I flat-out forgot to put up my food post on Tuesday. Sigh. I didn’t stop being food-obsessed, just being on schedule. So here we go, better late than never. I would give you a big silly grin, but yeah, my mouth is full again. Photo: Blue Bouquet

What I meant to say on that long-ago-seeming-day-which-was-Tuesday, was that I do like this time of year in particular for its masses of officially sanctioned excuses for partying. There are of course the big national and international celebrations of things spanning from Halloween/All Saints/Dia de los Muertos to Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the various New Years; in my family, five out of the six of us have winter birthdays as well. It’s not that my family and I are in any way averse to celebrating with a good meal, a party, or any other excuse for eating and drinking good stuff at the drop of a hat, but it’s extra nice when nobody else questions the need for such an occasion either.

My parents upped the ante this winter by both entering the glorious ranks of octogenarian excellence, so since my three sisters and I don’t all live close to them anymore, we’d long since all agreed it made sense to look toward next summer (2015) for a family get-together to mark their ascensions to this great new height. All the same, nobody in our clan has any respect for leaving an excuse for a party just lying there unused. So Sisters 1 and 3, who do live near Mom and Dad in Seattle, helped them plan a big party on Mom’s birthday weekend so that our parents could have their local siblings, nieces and nephews, and a few special friends together. I made up the digital invitations, since I could do that from my remote location, and because I’ve long done such design tidbits for family events as a way to be involved when I couldn’t otherwise be on hand to participate. But our Seattle sisters did the yeoman’s work on the whole thing.

We kids did up the ante a little, though. Sister 4 and her husband sent an email to the other three of us a couple of months ago, announcing that they had bought plane tickets to fly over from Norway for the November party and surprise Mom and Dad. We sisters were surprised, too! My husband, with three concerts and more rehearsals to conduct on either immediate side of the party date, couldn’t get away, but with a batch of saved air miles, I could, so I planned to fly up from Texas and join in the fun. Once all of our tickets were bought and the wheels set in motion, the real challenge was not only to see if there were any small things 4 and I could do from our bases of operation but to see if we and our partners could keep a secret for seven or eight weeks, a dubious probability at the best of times with our talkative bunch.Photo: Pink and Green Bouquet

We did. We let one of Mom’s sisters in on the secret so that she could help get our parents in the right place at the right time when the day arrived, and my spouse’s parents knew, because they were invited too, but despite a couple of close calls, nobody slipped up irrevocably. Part of the larger plan, once we’d decided to add in this surprise element, was that there would be an immediate-family-only lunch on Mom’s actual birthday at Sister 3’s house. Dad, Mom, Auntie and Uncle, and sisters 1 and 3 were to have a nice, low-key luncheon date to mark the day and wrap up any last-minute details for the bigger open house party the next day.

Sister 4 and her husband and I flew into Seattle on Thursday the 6th. It was wonderful to have a reunion of the four sisters, our first in at least a couple of years, and to convene a few other members of the immediate family—3’s husband and one son, with the other son flying in from college on Friday—that night and to laugh up our collective sleeves over our plot. In keeping with the family tradition of combining food with fun, this first evening was spent at 3’s house, slurping bowls of a beautiful, creamy winter sweet potato, kale, pasta, and sausage soup (based on Martha Stewart’s recipe) while taste-testing a couple of good single-malts the Norwegian contingent had picked up on a duty-free spree en route.

On the 7th, Mom’s birthday, we got lunch ready and in the oven and fridge and then spent a little while nervously skulking past curtained windows to escape any unexpectedly early arrivals’ discovery, and as the parental entourage at last approached, three of us ducked into the back bedroom, where we giggled like little kids and perched on the bed to avoid making the creaky hardwood floor give away our presence. Auntie got Mom settled into her favorite armchair so we wouldn’t have to explain her absence at the next day’s party as the result of an aneurism, and we finally strolled out to say Hello to our startled parents. Their faces remained in virtually the same blankly surprised expressions for a fairly lengthy, attenuated moment.Photo: Mom's 80th Birthday Lunch

Lunch broke that spell. We feasted on marvelously simple steak, lemon-dill oven-roasted salmon, salt-baked potatoes, green salad with a fresh blend of herbs and creamy lemony dressing, green beans, and buttered peasant bread. Classic, delicious, and with a handful of their kids on hand to help, an easy way to feed our parents well on a meaningful day. We worked a bit more on the details of Saturday’s open house event, but 1 and 3 had covered all bases so thoroughly that we were all able to make an early evening of it and rest up for the main event.

Sister 3 had found a wonderful venue, a community center run by the parks service in a beautifully renovated vintage power station right next door to the church where our dad had grown up. All five of Mom’s siblings and Dad’s only sib, his brother, and all of their partners, were on tap to come. So did some of the sibs’ kids, and even a handful of grandkids joined the gang; with the friends who came, we totaled just over fifty in attendance. We saw many relatives we’d not seen in years, many of them as surprised as our parents at seeing us there like long-distance apparitions. I think I can safely say that the party was everything Mom had wanted, that Dad was also happy, and that we all felt pretty chuffed at pulling off a great success, especially at not blowing the surprise.Photo: Birthday Buffet

But again, food was central to the grandness of the day, and once more, that was thanks to the wise planning and [literally] tasteful choices made by our Seattle sisters. The buffet spread’s main dish stars were ginger beef and sweet walnut prawns from our favorite local  Chinese restaurant, accompanied by a wide range of finger foods and sweets, many of them bought ready-made from various shops and stores. We had just about enough food on hand to feed 250 guests. So we kept up that family tradition, too. And we all left the tables full and fulfilled.

Who knows what we’ll get up to next summer. Only sure that it will include much eating and drinking. And probably lots of childish giggling and telling secrets, which I think are a mighty nice lagniappe for the whole meal, whatever it is.

The Bones of the Beach

I grew up pretty near the Pacific Ocean. It was a matter of a couple of hours to get to its shores from home, and mere minutes’ drive to Puget Sound, and I have always loved any chance to spend time along the water. At home in Texas, it’s not so easy: there are a few man-made lakes within a short drive, with a few public beach spots along the edges of each, most of the time too hot for strolling, and that’s about it. So that recent trip to Puerto Rico was a brief but lovely reminder of what pleasure I find in wandering the beach when I can, absorbing not only a bit of salt water through my happy bare feet and the tangy air through my expanding lungs but also the great sense of history and adventure inherent in all of the findings strewn along the tidal brink.Digital collage: Beachcomber's Trove

Despite being so much a water-baby at heart, I’ve never so much loved open water swimming—after all, my people are the pale, easily fried folk of Norway who transplanted to the familiarly brisk spank of the coastal waters to fish and farm and forest-hunt as they’d done back in the old country. But I’m drawn all the same to explore the tide-pools and comb through the heaps of hidden-and-revealed treasure that line the beach, sucking deep breaths of sea breeze happily right down to my soul. I love to see all of the bits of shell and bone and stone piled up and intermingled with molted feathers, ship detritus and the petrified lace of corals and seaweed. Every tiny piece seems to hold such a storied past that I can stare and sift and dream endlessly.Photos: Beach Bones

What caused that lone shoe to wash up here from unknown shores? Why are those pieces of sea-soaked driftwood burnt but not in the fire pit, rather appearing like a dragon-singed skeleton in a distant heap down the shore? How did so many colors of ghostly and sandblasted beach glass come to bejewel the line of the tide together? Who were the creatures that fished the shore and left bleached fish bones here, a crab shell there? When did the storms kick up such a foment of foam that the inland side of mean high tide has a gloss of it lacquered firmly across the surface of its sand? Where are the children whose sandcastle ruins are still tucked behind the biggest boulders on the beach, waving flags of leaf and kelp from their stunted battlements? And most importantly, when can I return to the beach to stroll and dream of such things again?

Twists of Fate

It shouldn’t surprise me, as little sense of direction as I have and as seldom as I have an inkling where my path is leading, that I end up in some weird and completely unpredictable spots at times. Take the time I was at a luncheon with the queen and king of Norway. It’s entirely safe to say that they forgot the occasion right about the minute their motorcade zipped off with its Secret Service escort to ship them back to the White House for their next performance. Having lunch with a bunch of foreign academics, even if it’s coupled with getting a doctoral degree (Queen Sonja was receiving an honorary doctorate for her humanitarian work) and having a permanent outdoor sculpture dedicated in your honor is so yesterday. Like that kind of stuff doesn’t happen to royals every day of the week. I, on the other hand, don’t have that sort of thing occur very regularly in my life and found the events of the day pretty memorable.

photo

(Left to Right: King Harald V and Queen Sonja of Norway; Pacific Lutheran University President Loren Anderson; Gene and Esther Grant, donors; the Rev. David Wold, Bishop and university board Chairman; li’l ol’ me, sculpture designer; David Keyes, professor and chief fabricator of the sculpture; Frank Jennings and other assorted faculty and board representatives. That’s the sculpture, Generations of Oak, behind me.)

It was amusing to take part in the bizarre hoopla that takes place when an assembled group of citizens in a country that takes itself far too seriously as being above such things as royal-worship (erm, Have you not looked into the mirror, O nation of celebrity-slavish fools?) gets a chance to suck up to the high and mighty of another nation. To experience the hilariously artificial and probably pointless stiltedness of security instruction from our friends the Feds; to shake hands with other humans who have been designated super-important and wonder why they would bother to shake hands with me–or, admittedly, I with them–and to hear all of the earnest speech-making and watch the well-meaning maneuvers; all of this was really educational indeed. That it was so for me in the context of the university where I taught was certainly not lost on me. I almost felt like I should get some undergraduate credit in sociology or anthropology for being involved in my little way.

But I’ll admit that most of all, it was entertaining to realize that through no particular virtue of my own I had once again stood in a spot that others might envy and reaped unearned rewards that would remain in my memory-book for a long time to come. Just call me Lucky.

Real-Life Mysteries

While I’m on the subject of mystery stories (see yesterday’s post), there’s a true one that I hadn’t ever heard of until recently that almost defies imagination, even generations later. But that’s what true mystery stories do, isn’t it.

The story of a female immigrant serial killer/mass murderer, born in Norway but made in America, was a hideous and irreconcilable tale of horror and crime in the 19th Century and remains one today. Belle Gunness, who is believed to have killed all of her own children, two husbands and a handful of suitors, not to mention an accomplice or two of her own along the way–possibly executing as many as forty people in her lengthy crime spree–is surprisingly little known nowadays. I fear that this may be because we have so many other hideous and oversized monstrosities and real-life mystery stories handy to horrify and mesmerize us that many likely get pushed out of memory by the current ugly news. Undoubtedly the advent of World War I‘s dreadful specter was a factor in overshadowing a single murderer’s story rather immediately on its discovery.

All the same, once I knew of it, I found the woman a compellingly repellant subject for another mystery story illustration, being a subject worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe style drama or, yes, a true-crime cinematic epic. Though it was one of those news stories that ‘rocked the nation’ when uncovered a hundred years ago, the tale of Belle Gunness is relatively obscure nowadays. There have been a few generally tepid and mostly heavily fictionalized stories, books and movies based on the horrors wrought by this one woman’s apparent sociopathy and the trail of blood left in its wake, but it’s remarkable to me that such a grim, terrible story is scarcely known on a wider scale anymore.

Frightening, dark, and perhaps an indictment of the worst of human nature in general, yes–but I think perhaps part of the reason I find mystery stories so gripping is because I think they remind us–again in that somewhat ‘safe’ and detached format of past-history or fiction–that brilliance and the abyss are constantly in conflict in the human heart and only by understanding this and being willing to examine it in ourselves can we have a chance of rising to beauty and shunning the grotesque urges that we might have–and, if we’re truly fortunate, catching up the would-be wrongdoer in humane and forgiving and healing arms before she can ever fall so far. That’s my hopeful fiction, and I’m sticking to it.

digital collage

La Belle Dame sans Merci of the prairies, Belle Gunness. What fearful horrors shaped this woman’s inner darkness?

Today, I present Belle Gunness, a truly fallen woman and black widow whose mystery may never be fully unraveled, for your contemplation. May we never see her like again.

Amazing but True

Some years ago on this very date there was a shift in the universe. It wasn’t exactly an unexpected one, in the sense that it had been foreseen for about nine months, but surely its full grandeur could not have been predicted. And not everyone on earth knew right away what a wonder had occurred, because the wild and wonderful event in question was the birth of my third sister.

digital painting from a photoWhile she was, like the others–I can’t speak for Big Sister‘s first two years except upon having studied pictures of her effortlessly spectacular adorableness before my own appearance in this plane of existence–charming, pretty and charismatic from the start, there was no way of knowing in advance just how fabulous she would prove to be. That’s the thing about siblings: they are inherently outliers to our frame of reference until their influence on our lives appears in real time. And like our two other sisters, the youngest was her own brand of greatness from the start.

What we quickly learned was that she had a uniquely clever and witty point of view and was rather fearless about besting her trio of big sisters in many a moment simply by sitting back and watching our various adventures, figuring out where we might have gone a bit astray with them, and powering on ahead when her turn came. This was perhaps most evident to the rest of us when she would check in with our parents on whether a particular action of any of ours that seemed just a little outrageous was in fact worthy of our getting in trouble over, and if not, then couldn’t she do it, too? [I am not entirely certain that she wasn’t occasionally disappointed when we weren’t in trouble for the activity in question, but that’s a topic for another day.]

And Little Sister wasn’t very old at all when some wise guy quizzed all of us girls on our life’s plans. What did we intend to be or do when we grew up? Undoubtedly he was looking for some nice, pat conventional answer like Teacher or Nurse or some superlative man’s nice little wife, but my littlest sister’s response was unhesitatingly ‘Amazing but true!’ We did not quite grasp at the time that this was indeed both a plan and a vocation, but by cracky, she turned out to have gotten it exactly right. In all of the years since, she has been and done many things, accomplished a tremendous amount, continued to be charming and beautiful and charismatic, and absolutely has embodied a life’s saga that despite being utterly Amazing is still entirely True. We can all vouch for both aspects.photo

She has been, in various turns, an outstanding student, a fine violinist, and an intrepid traveler; all three of my sisters studied and/or worked overseas at college age, and this youngest met and married our superlative brother-in-law while doing so and has now lived longer in Norway than she did in the US. She speaks Norwegian not just like a good student of the language or even like a person whose lineage encouraged her to hone it to refinement but like a native-born speaker, which prompted one of her nephews in his youth to proclaim her the Smartest Sister in our family. Since I happen to think each of my sisters the Smartest One as well as the Most Fabulous (and if you can’t do that kind of math, refer back to my post on Auntie Ingeborg’s science of favorites) I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment. My sister has been an administrator, translator, friend, daughter, wife and mother, and much more. She has navigated the waters of an adventure-filled life with both nerve and verve and I still marvel at her excellence every day.

So, on this anniversary of that auspicious occasion whereon she first graced us with her presence, I can say as I always have and always will that her arrival completed the set of our family in ways that we could never have expected or would have dared to wish, and filled any empty spaces, even where we didn’t know they’d existed, with a rare form of love and happiness. I thank her for this gift of herself. And I wish for her many, many more years of being as Amazing as ever!photo

Maybe not Captain of My Own Destiny, but at Least I’m on the Crew

mixed media on canvasboard + textWhen I was a young artist-in-the-making, it irritated me to no end that people who saw my interest in art and knew of my Norwegian roots often instantly assumed that I was a big fan if not acolyte of Edvard Munch, Norway’s best known artist. Besides that my knowledge of Munch’s work was pretty nearly limited to ‘Skrik‘ (‘The Scream’) and what little else I’d seen even in passing was not at all to my taste, I took it as an insult and a frightfully narrow-minded view of my potential. And that, my friends, was the capper, because it implied that I was not in charge of my own future but predestined by my ancestry to be a pale imitation of somebody I wasn’t particularly fond of or impressed by in the first place. I was jolly well going to go my own way and choose my own muses and inspirations and, most of all, I was absolutely not going to be told what to do and when and how to do it by some ghostly abstract borne in my bloodstream.

As a very fortunate young pilgrim, I did manage to get to the Old Country and spend a little time rooting around my ancestral stomping grounds during my undergraduate studies. I got to meet and spend time with my great-aunts and various other relations and visit the house my grandfather helped build for his elder sister, our Tante Anna, and the family farms–the sylvan Ovidsland property with its tidy white house and taller red barn set in among the slender birches, and the more remote summer pastures of Eitland, a smaller and more rustic place on land with a sweet little lake for fishing up dinner. I was able to see the headstones of relatives long-gone, outside the little church where many of the family had attended services for many an age, and walk paths and travel roads where many of them had trod and ridden for ages before that.

oil on panel

Eitland, painted by an unknown family member or friend in the early 20th century.

It was a rich and rare opportunity to both visit the places of my family’s past and to live among my Norwegian family in their current places and way of life, something that few people get the chance to do and that I will treasure for as long as I live. Because it did change me, and change my point of view. It may seem strange, but some of the greatest change happened in completely unexpected ways; I was not especially surprised, though quite pleased, that getting to know family I had not known before and see the world from which my grandfather in particular emerged to live in the States (my other three grandparentsancestors all came from other parts of Norway, where we had less constant and present contact). But I never imagined that simply setting foot in the country of my ancestors would move me as it did. I could never have begun to imagine that I would be so struck, feel such a palpable and somehow heart-wrenching connectedness on standing in front of the amazing Oseberg ship in the Viking Ship Museum of Oslo–but I was; I did.

And I was truly astounded to discover, when I–a little reluctantly, perhaps–went with my sister to visit the Munch Museum that I not only found Edvard Munch’s work much more technically impressive and more profound, his life story and the stories that gave life to and were expressed in his work more impressive and thought-provoking than I had ever dreamed I would allow, but indeed, there was a lot more that I found simply compelling and even, startlingly, appealing. First of all, the guy could draw. He could paint, make prints, tell stories. He was, dammit, gifted and actually worthy of the attention. How very annoying of him, really. Because then I had to come back and re-think what I was doing a little bit. Was it so terrible to reflect something of our however-peripherally-common ancestry in my own work?

I had, if anything, a new appreciation for how much I didn’t wish to emulate his life, with the illness and suffering that marked life for and around him. But to take, as he did, what life presented and put it through the same filters of self and vision and thoughtfulness and surrealist whimsy and passion–that might be precisely what could make me more, dare I say it, myself as an artist. Who knew.

So by the time I set about making the collection of artworks for my master’s degree exhibition, it was an amusing ‘closing of the loop’ to find quite a number of people observing the works in preparation and in the finally installed show coming back to that same old observation that had used to frustrate me so. ‘Has anybody ever mentioned how much your work is reminiscent of Munch’s?’ It was even amusing to me to realize that, though the subjects might stray from his, though the media were sometimes decidedly different and the techniques concomitantly skewed to fit them, and though most of these viewers had no inkling of my ancestry, apparently there was a little something making its way up from my roots to the surface of my art.

Somewhere along the way I had also started to grow up a bit and begun to figure out that we all, inevitably, have less control over our own destinies than we fancy we do, and that that’s not inherently a bad thing–that life will always surprise us and challenge our grand plans and hopeful dreams and carefully charted paths. That the very things we can’t predict or control help to guide and shape us into things we might never have imagined we could plan or wish to do or to be. I guess I just took a longer and more convoluted route to letting my little commonalities with my fellow Norwegian artist Edvard show through; being dead, he could spare the time to wait for me to catch up. And once I got comfortable with the idea of seeing a hint of him in the mirror, I didn’t feel like screaming anymore either.digital painting from an acrylic painted original