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.

Hot Flash Fiction 13: Eternity Beckons

Photo: Science by CandlelightEternal life has always been the masters’ magnificent goal; no wonder that great magister and alchemist Osteodaimon was also determined to solve this elusive mystery himself, to plumb the Stygian depths of knowledge collected by the most piercing minds and intrepid souls ever to walk this dangerous earth. He began with years of reading, apprenticeship, exploration, privation, and experimentation. What Osteodaimon learned most quickly was that the process of becoming immortal was in fact incremental; it was a long series of tiny steps and grand leaps, of fallings-backward and soaring upward, all of which took him through both his long and arduous life of study and also a few strange periods of stasis, in which, all told, he began this mystical transformation of his into one truly able to transcend death. Many and terrifying were the missteps and passages, rites and elixirs, incantations, and the heart-shaking, wrenching feats of bravery and agility required of his profound intellect and the ever-disintegrating body that sought answers from that abyss.

One winter’s night, when he had traversed the grueling routes both between his birth and the ninety-two cycles of the seasons that already marked him as uniquely time-defying by his ancient era’s reckoning, and between the smoothly un-furrowed innocence of youth and his avidly acquired brilliance, he recognized in the ice crystals forming along his lashes the last increment required to complete his journey. Carrying the tinctures and potions that would preserve his last bits of mental and physical strength for the ritual, he set forth in the falling snow and moonlight to go farther into the frozen wilderness than he, or anyone, had ever plunged before. He began to notice as he went forward that the slower he moved, the faster the vastness of ice seemed to recede before him, until it was clear that his pace of progress was directly opposed by the increasingly swift passage of time. He knew that his own final breath was hardly a hairbreadth ahead of him, racing both toward him and away, and that only by letting the speed of it catch up with the glacial slowness he himself was approaching, at exactly the right juncture, and by taking the last dram of his precious medicine at exactly the same instant, could he affect the perfect circumstances for his final transformation.

Osteodaimon finally marked the spot. He lay down on the bottomless swath of blue-black ice, took the last draught of his alchemical magic into his gaunt grey mouth, and stopped. He became fused to the ice there instantly, his eyes made into a pair of wide, dull mirrors for the relentless moon and faded stars of perpetual polar night.

When he returned to himself and forced his eyes to focus again, his vision was oddly fragmented, and he sensed that he had drifted from his last stopping place far more than he had imagined he would have done. But the new place, also moonlit and cold, was pleasant enough, and he knew that soon his vision would clear and the slight buzzing in his ears would pass as he regained his strength. His sense of physical power, indeed, astonished him immediately as it returned; it was not only as though he were young again but as though he had new and exhilarating powers that would easily surpass those of his remembered early years, when he had labored so mightily in his pursuit of conquering death. This new Osteodaimon was a super-being to be reckoned with, and he took off at great speed to see what he could now accomplish in this next passage of his life.

It startled him how quickly he was able to go from place to place, how he seemed now to see things from so many new perspectives and rarely wearied of dashing about, looking, stopping to sup cold water or wine, or have a little food when he chose, but endlessly pursuing the delights of his renewed life. We cannot be sure, for history has failed to record all of the details perfectly, but it may be that it was only a matter of days, or at most weeks, before he realized that he could no longer read.

This proved a surprising disappointment that he would attempt to address soon enough. Not quite soon enough, perhaps, that he was ever able to learn the story of how, in A.D. 1867, a small group of botanists on the steppe discovered a perfectly preserved man encased in ice at the edge of a receding glacier. How the intrepid scientists chiseled their magnificent find out of his tomb in a manageable block and labored to drag it back to their fledgling university by sledge and wagon and train. How they built an ice-house museum room for the express purpose of preserving and examining this amazingly lifelike ancient man. How, one awful night in 1871, the city and that little-known museum in it were consumed by fire. How the ice-entombed mystery man had been spared cremation himself only because the conflagration had taken so long to melt his ice block that he remained weirdly, wonderfully intact, his eyes dully mirroring the moon once again.

Surely Osteodaimon could not have learned how to read again even in time to make sense of the tale that followed, of the chaos after the city’s destruction that prevented anyone from having further sightings of this miraculous time-traveler that had so clearly been the earthly form of the great magister and alchemist himself. Even if he had been able to read again, there would be no document to explain that his ultimate disappearance meant neither that he had finally ceased to exist nor that his old ideas of perpetual life being possible were entirely incorrect, for in the days and weeks immediately following the Great Fire, there was far more concern for removal of dangerous debris and rescue of injured and homeless known victims than for tidying up the remnants of an obscure museum. Had there been a witness to record it, there might have been something that Osteodaimon could hope to learn to read, something telling him that his thawed remains had rotted in the post-apocalyptic drear of an abandoned building, showing no more activity than the usual decay and natural recycling would show.

He might also, of course—had he been able to read it—thought that perhaps the early philosophers and proto-scientists were not entirely wrong but only slightly misdirected in their belief in spontaneous generation. For he would have found in the documentation of the ice-man’s progress that feeding on his mortal remains had been the usual generation or two of avid creatures that led to his emergence, eventually, as revivified carbon in the form of a blowfly. Once alive, always alive, but not, perhaps in precisely the way he had long imagined it.Digital illustration from photos: From Here to Eternity. Maybe.

Get Me Some Book-Larnin’

Drawing: Samuel ClemensJust because I have had the benefit of a decent education doesn’t mean I am smart. We all know that it’s entirely possible to have any number of degrees and diplomas, plaques and endorsements, letters and titles decorating your name and still be a complete fool. Idiocy is a far less rare condition than the number of high school and university graduates would have us believe.

Indeed, I have read a great quantity of writings during the course of my life, but I would never go so far as to say that I am well read. Among other contradictions to that claim would be my incredible slowness as a reader, both in speed and in comprehension: as a multifaceted dyslexic, able to turn words, letters, numbers, directions and relative spatial placements all inside out and upside down without even trying, I can easily spend four times the amount of energy and hours reading that any decent reader would need to get through the same amount of text. And of course that doesn’t guarantee that I will actually understand what I read in precisely the way the authors intended.

A more important reason that I don’t consider myself well read is that I have managed to conquer only a relatively small segment of the library most scholarly and literate persons would consider to be well written, informative, accurately researched and defended, or just plain must-read, important stuff among books. Long before I knew why it took me so long and so many tries to read a mere paragraph, let alone a book, I was required to tackle a handful of the so-called Classics of literature, and a bit of contemporary contenders for the title as well. It’s just as well I didn’t imagine I had such an anomalous reading style or that it was considered a disability by others, because I might have had yet more frustrations and difficulties in trying to fit the mold of how one was expected to overcome such things, instead of finding that by plodding through in my own backward way, I became attached to some of the books and stories to an equally unexpected depth. Whom should I, as a struggling reader, admire most among authors but those champions of the dense and complicated, say, Charles Dickens and Robertson Davies.

On the other hand, it’s probably less surprising that I also favor the purveyors of the most outlandish and appalling and ridiculous, from Ogden Nash, Evelyn Waugh, and Edgar Allan Poe to Mark Twain, S.J. Perelman and Franz Kafka. This part at least makes some sense, if you tend to believe I’d read writers who reflect something of my own mind’s workings or the weird ways in which I see the world. In any event, this latter crew might explain a little more about my tending to choose the least arduous paths in life, since I find a certain sort of familiarity in the strangest of their inventions and so can perhaps navigate their writings with a surer strength than otherwise.

So while I may not be the sharpest pencil in the drawer or the most edified of readers, I have at least a few pieces of proclamatory paper in my coffers to prove that I did my homework somewhat dutifully if not doggedly. My degrees don’t confer any special wisdom upon me, but they at least excuse my curmudgeonly attitude about how long it takes me to read my own posts, let alone anyone else’s books and articles and poems and proposals, no matter how brilliant and scintillating and clever and beautiful they are. I’m still trying, but give me plenty of time!

Changing Directions

Digital illustration: Changing Directions

Do I move at the whim of the slightest breeze? Often enough, I suppose. But what really changes my direction in life? Chance? Passion? Accident? Will?

I’d say it’s been one or another of all of those at various times, and perhaps occasionally a combination of elements. What I would say most definitely and commonly is that I have rarely known very far in advance what direction my life would be taking, let alone exactly when. Living with uncertainty is at the heart of the human condition. We can’t know (nor would I wish to know) much of what lies ahead for us. Being an artist, and married to an artist, I have made some choices that guaranteed perhaps an even deeper and more frequent susceptibility to wondering what comes next. While both of us have taught at times, an occupation that has a degree of predictability and dependability absent in most other employment that involves our artistic skills and training, it never prevented the question from arising in other ways.

For me, as a longtime adjunct at the university, it meant that though I’d been there for nearly seventeen years (most of those, full-time) before I stopped teaching, I never had a contract in hand for more than a year at a time, nor was my class load or schedule in any way predestined; I taught what I was asked to teach, when I was asked to teach it. For my spouse, a tenured full professor and director of his division, he still had questions about how he might change and grow as a teacher, never mind whether to apply for or take any of the other positions on offer at other places from time to time.

We are, I think, pretty much the ordinary pair when it comes to that sort of thing. Even now, after many years of doing particular kinds of work at specific places and getting plenty of satisfaction from those various tasks, it doesn’t in any way stop us from asking, What next? Will we continue on the present path exactly as we are just now? Do we opt to  make any kinds of transitions, either changing the way we do what we do or the venue for doing it, or does something entirely new entice and draw our interest? If it does, is it attainable? Is there some utterly unimagined thing lurking just around an unsuspected corner, waiting to draw us in?

At times, it can make me feel as though I can never quite catch my breath or my balance. I tire of asking myself all of these whys, hows and what-ifs, yet I can’t resist scratching at the questions the minute I thought I’d put them to rest for a while. Even when I’m most happy and fulfilled and contented, I always wonder what lies ahead.

And that, of course, is the very heart of that human condition. We know that change is inevitable. We know that some of it will be by our choice, and much of it will be thrust upon us or sneak up subtly and surprise us all the same. And we know that, in some ways, the only guarantee we have is that we will all die wondering. It’s what we do, and it’s who we are.

My First Valentine

Long, long ago, in a state far away, there was a small, screaming infant being baptized by her father, a pastor, on the Sunday that fell on this very date, his birthday. I can only assume that my ornery howling was not the most perfect birthday present he’d ever had, but since Dad didn’t toss me in the dustbin either on the occasion or shortly thereafter is testament to a tiny fraction of the loving kindness he showed me then and continued to shower upon me, no matter how fractious I might have been at times, throughout the following years. That sort of tolerance alone is a good reason I’ve been very fond of the fella from the start. I’d say it’s also a good indicator that Dad always tended to have an excellent sense of humor about the silliness of real life.digital illustrationCommemorating that day is likely a good enough sampling all on its own of the man-of-many-parts that is my father, but it’s far from all. His long career as a Lutheran pastor and then bishop was complemented by plenty of stellar adventures as a leader, chairman and member of innumerable committees and boards from university to seminary to hospital and community. He traveled to and worked in dangerous and war-torn places like Honduras and El Salvador and early-1970s Chicago but still managed to come back regularly and be Dad at home to four daughters and help Mom keep the home fires burning while donning his ecumenical-superdude cape for quick service in his myriad day jobs.digital illustrationBetween his understandable popularity with many folk—even, I daresay, thanks to his unpopularity with a small contingent of people who didn’t approve of his frankness or his willingness to stand up for certain causes, a trait of courage and/or foolhardiness I would happily have had him pass to me genetically—and the careful scholarship that underpinned his good-humored to life, he’s always been a major influence on me. You can certainly see why I would consider Dad as fine a first Valentine as anyone could have. Happy Birthday, dear Dad!

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.

Enlightenment

photoGetting smarter is a lifelong thing, in and out of school–for the fortunate and attentive.

Me, I’m sad at the end of every school year. Those students and colleagues of my husband’s who have become such a big part of our lives and are now graduating or moving on to other jobs or retirement are about to disappear from immediate view. Even the ones who remain close with us after relocating are now to be infrequent contacts rather than the people we happily run into in the hall on a casual basis. I get lonesome for them even before anyone leaves.

The lovely inverse of this, happily, is the ingathering of ongoing and new compatriots as the school year is once more underway. New faces, new voices and new personalities are integrated into the weave of the community and once again it becomes the rich underlay of the year, the pleasant buzz of the bass line, the light up ahead growing ever so slightly brighter as the weeks and months pass and we travel through them.

It’s funny that I sort of forget this changing of the guard between times. Between my years as a student myself, the nearly two decades of my own teaching, and the time spent observing my husband and his colleagues at work, you’d think I would be so irrevocably inculcated with the cycles of the academic and concert seasonal years that I would have a sort of song of it playing internally at all times. In real life, though, I am not so consistently observant.

It’s only when I am right in the moment of it that I recognize what is such a piquant part of my emotional life and I mark these transitions. It’s in these times, in fact, that I most benefit from my spouse’s longtime practice of getting his choirs and groups to sing or play through transitions. In music, this helps performers to internalize a multi-movement piece as a whole and not be stuck performing it as a disjointed, choppy conglomeration so that it loses its sense as a unified entity. It helps a song avoid sounding horribly like a bunch of unrelated anecdotal verses interrupted by further disconnected refrains that act more like speed bumps than gateways between the events of the expedition.

In life, I’m working to find the balance between living and operating while fully engaged in the present, letting that part always be led by the best of the past, and moving toward the best of what is yet to come. I know I’m enjoying the present verse immensely even though some of the singers, players, conductors and teachers of the last semester have moved on to other places and joined in other songs, and I expect that the current moment will lead to yet more marvels of music and camaraderie. I just need to pay attention, follow the score, and be ready whenever a bit part is offered, because I keep humming along in the background and every passage tends to be more illuminating than the last.photo