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The Soul of Place: a writing exercise

Has it ever happened to you to fall in love with a place–your own neighborhood or an exotic locality glimpsed from a train while on vacation? There’s just something in the atmosphere that has an irresistible appeal compounded of colors, scents, sounds, textures, even the taste of the air.

Maybe, taking a wrong turn in a strange city, you have come upon a shady square or a house for sale that captured your imagination, but you can’t really say what attracts you so much.

That row of yellow bicycles parked by a crowded café with live music playing, those red geraniums on a windowsill where a sleek, black cat is snoozing and a green shutter is half-open, the chic nonchalance of people passing by with baguettes tucked under their arms?

stairs-quay

The scene triggers a fantasy in your mind: If you could just move there, something truly interesting would happen, and the story of your life would change.

Perhaps there are cherished locations in your past, the view from a mountain peak, a beach house overlooking a raging surf, or a rocking chair by a fireplace that made you feel content and at peace, or empowered and adventurous. Some places, whether indoors or outdoors, make us feel cozy and safe, inclined to daydreams. Others lift our spirits to unthinkable heights, urging us to go beyond our limits, physical or mental.

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There are sacred sites that can cause us to weep with remorse and humility, infuse us with joy, even make us feel immortal.

Then there are other sorts of places where we become uncomfortable, on edge, oppressed, even panicky, anxious to get out of there quick—If we stay too long, who knows what bad things could happen to us there?

If you have ever had experiences similar to these, chances are that you have been touched by the power of place.

Some anthropologists suggest that our attraction to (or repulsion for) certain places derives from a deep, unconscious attunement to our environment, hearkening back to when we were all nomads, in search of suitable habitats and dependent on our instincts to lead us to water, fertile hunting grounds, or other sources of food. Back then we had a much more visceral response to our universe; we sensed where we were likely to thrive, and where not.

That instinct is not dead in us today, but we may not pay enough attention to it. Perhaps that’s because much of our lives, at least in industrialized countries, is played out in what French anthropologist Marc Augé has called “nonplaces”: those anonymous, deracinated spaces of shopping malls, airports, computer screens that look the same all over the world.

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Typical ugly nonplace

Yet the desire to be rooted in or connected to a real place on the earth, a community, a physical world of our own, stems from a very basic human need.

The power of place isn’t necessarily life-enhancing. It can be threatening or devastating, pulsing with negative and positive charges that may change valence according to our personal point of view. Architects, city-planners, garden-designers, interior decorators, and before them priests, shamans, and geomancers have always known that our environment  can be shaped to elicit certain feelings and moods, promote health or sicken us, or encourage certain behavior.

They have also been aware that in modeling the landscape or constructing a building they must work with a creative force inherent in the land itself, known in the ancient classical world as the genius loci, usually translated as the “soul” or “spirit of place.”

Most people today might define this term as the atmosphere or ambience of a locality or as the emotion or sensation that it evokes in us. To the ancient Romans, instead, it referred to an entity residing in a site and energizing it. It influenced all life forms present on a site and  was manifest in everything existing within its range of action, from bodies of water to houses, social customs, patterns of speech, artifacts, recipes, and works of art.

Have a look around your neighborhood, your house, your workplace – what  energies are operating there and how does your environment influence you? Consider for a moment a place that you love or hate, or that you feel emanates a power. How would you describe or define its genius loci? If the soul of place had a voice, how would it sound, what stories would it tell?

If you are a writer or artist — how can you feed your creativity by attuning yourself to the soul of place?  Here’s a preliminary exercise to try.

WRITING EXERCISE: Discovering the soul of a place

Gazing at green hills and golden wheat fields from the ramparts of an old Etruscan town, D.H. Lawrence remarked that the view not only was beautiful, but had meaning. This English writer, often considered the founder of the modern novel, was a keen believer in the soul of place and thought it derived from biological, chemical, and cosmic influences operating in a site, affecting the psychology and behavior of individual human beings and entire populations living there. In Lawrence’s view, our well-being and creativity depend on the life-force manifested in our habitat, but centuries of technical progress have separated us from that force and shattered our wholeness, resulting in the aridity of modern life. One theme of Lawrence’s fiction is the sacred link between identity and place and the devastation that follows when that link is broken.

Still, he believed it is possible to reconnect to that power and absorb it into ourselves, if we can just find our spot on the planet. Much of Lawrence’s writing career, which he once defined as a “savage pilgrimage,” was a search for the fountainhead  of the life-force: Italy and New Mexico were among the places where he found it.

Are there places that give you a sense of wholeness and empowerment, or where you feel really you? Others where you feel depleted, sad, or even anonymous? Make a list for both categories then choose one from each category to work with. Reflect on the essential qualities of each place and the origins of those qualities, then write a short text of 200 words for each place you have chosen. Describe the atmosphere, narrate an episode that happened there, describe your feelings, or simply make a list of impressions, people, or things you associate with it.  Put your texts  aside for a few days, if possible, revisit the sites you described, then go back and re-read what you wrote. Have you learned something new about yourself?

Adapted from  The Soul of Place A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci  (Travelers Tales, 2015)  by Linda Lappin.

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2020 our life in pictures

January 2020

January found us in Paris, enjoying evening rambles, and the company of friends.

February 2020

In February, lakeside walks at Bolsena, our carnival rituals (frappe!), and Sergio’s presentation of “Debt” and “Il debito” at the Detour Cinema club in Rome, our first and last social gathering of the year! Links to Sergio’s videos, and a little discussion about them are found here https://www.pokkoli.org

March – April 2020

On the way out to do the shopping

March & April, hard lockdown in our Rome flat. We baked, wore our masks, watched the moon rise, and observed our neighbors sunbathing on the balcony below us in Rome.

May 2020

The Pantheon just after lockdown ended. Nobody about!

In mid- May we were allowed to leave our neighborhood, and so we took some lovely walks in the center of Rome. I visited my two favorite monuments — the Pantheon, totally deserted, and the marble foot, subject of one of my short stories.

June 2020

seeing big trees again was a blessing

At the end of May we were allowed to leave Rome to enjoy lakeside rambles in Bolsena. It was such a joy to see big trees and blue water again for the first time in 3 months. We returned to our village home and enjoyed the small pleasures of country life. Freshly picked cherries from a neighbor soon became a pie.

my little hydrangea garden

July – August 2020 the great escape!

lavender fields approaching capalbio

In summer, trips to Capalbio, socially distancing at the beach, and a quick jaunt to Grottammare in our new car, Ladybug, who barely fits into our parking space.

L’ultima Spiaggia, Capalbio

September- October 2020

hunkering down in the village

Early fall found us in the village, getting ready for winter, but not without a little fun.

Alas Poor Pumpkin, I knew him well.

November 2020— loving lake Bolsena

November –– sunny days we walked along the lake– enjoying a magnificent autumn, and superb local olive oil. On rainy days, we stayed inside and counted the covid cases.

time to get the new oil

view from the bedroom window

December 2020

walks in the countryside outside the village

December finds us here in the village, taking walks through the countryside, and even making a quick jaunt to the sea on a sunny afternoon. We assembled a new presepe, and my new book came out, with much rejoicing and some gnashing of teeth.

tarquinia — a day at the beach!
Sergio’s new presepe

Mid-December brought the birth of my new novel! You can find it as an ebook on all formats, and in print from amazon. More print versions to come. Here is the Amazon link.

And now the end of the year will find us here, sitting before the fire, thinking of friends far and near, all of whom are socially distanced, and wondering when we will be traveling again, and sending good wishes for holiday cheer and a new beginning — despite all — to friends and family everywhere, and to all of you who are reading these pages.

The Christmas Presepe

It’s just like a presepe, people say of the village where I live half the year – a massive hunk of chiseled grey rock on which hundreds of tiny stone houses, domes, and towers have been built, with cellars hollowed deep into the rock face itself.   Approaching from the old road snaking through hilly terrain, you catch sight of it,   checkered window squares aglow above a mossy canyon.

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it looks just like a presepe!

Presepe  is the name given to the Nativity Scene – the Christmas crèche,  where by Italian tradition, the figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the wise men and  farm animals are placed  in rustic settings –with the backdrop of old stone barns and houses, like the ones still standing here. St. Francis has been credited with creating  the first presepe in 1223, at the Appenine hermitage of Greccio.  St. Francis’ presepe wasn’t a fixed tableau assembled from  life-sized figures or miniatures.  Wanting  worshipers to see “with the eyes of the flesh” Jesus’s birth in a humble manger, he  set up a straw-filled crib,  placed a portable altar on it,  brought in an ox and a donkey, and celebrated mass there on Christmas eve.   From there the tradition caught on, mingling faith, folk-art, local traditions, and pageantry, eventually becoming the heart of the Italian Christmas.

In the past, Christmas trees were a rare sight in Italian homes. The presepe was the household Christmas decoration. You built it yourself, changing it every year, out of brown paper, cardboard, moss, pebbles, and  twigs, mirrors, electric lights, star-studded dark blue paper for the night sky.  The more ingenious equipped them with running water,   mechanical figures, and music.   In addition to the main players, dozens of extras were attendance – angels,  shepherds,  huge flocks of sheep, and often the figures of wood, plaster, or papier maché,  were passed down like cherished heirlooms. In celebration of the medieval corporazioni,  many statuettes  represent  the different tradespeople bringing offerings to the newborn Christ:  the chestnut vendor, the woodcutter, the laundress, the wool spinner, the weaver, the baker, the fishmonger.  Presepi from different regions and artistic periods have their distinctive flavors, with Naples being the queen of presepi, with an entire street, San Gregorio Armeno, dedicated to the artisans who produce the settings and figurines, some still authentic, but most, these days, made in china.

 

In Naples, where life=theater and theater=life, the presepe mingles  the sacred and the profane, for each year celebrities are added to the crowds of worshipers scattered around the crib. Obama, Sarkozy with Carla Bruni, Osama Bin Laden, Francesco Totti,  the football player, are some of the past stars, embodied in collectible statuettes you can buy in the shops along Naples’ presepe street.  Recentlym Donald Trump, Pope Francis, and Kim Jong-un have made an appearance, slipped in among the Three Kings. The late football star, Diego Maradona, appears this year in Neapolitan presepi as an angel.

The presepe may actually have pagan origins, for the figurines are akin to the Penates,  the statuettes  that the Ancient Romans kept in their kitchens, symbolizing gods of abundance, which they put on the table at dinnertime.  They are also related to the Sigillum, literally “small image” of the Lares,  the ancestral spirits celebrated in Ancient Rome and Etruria on December 20th in a festival known as the Sigillaria, when figurines representing spirits of dead loved ones were exchanged, and often displayed at home in miniature settings.

The presepe has also been at the center of our Christmas celebrations, too, ever since we rediscovered our passion for miniatures and pageantry after a visit to San Gregorio Armeno, where my husband renewed his connection to his Neapolitan roots.   Our presepe  is constructed from odds and ends collected over the months, like Styrofoam cubes, soup bowls,  candy boxes, and  is dedicated to a changing theme related to the year’s travels or place-based obsessions.  We’ve had Tibetan stupas, Sardinian nuraghi, Etruscan necropoli, and  New Age menhir sanctuaries. For several years,  the emphasis was on the Cyclades!

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Our presepi often reflect our yearly travels and place obsessions. This one was inspired by Santorini!
presepe bank of greece
Another Presepe in Cycladian style.
ikaria presepe
This presepe commemorates our 2 trips to Ikaria. Baby Jesus rocks in a little red boat and the star of Bethlehem comes from the beach of  Faros.

In addition to the regular characters present at every Christmas pageant, we also have a turtle, a unicorn, a pilgrim from St James’ Way, a tiny elk, several pigs,  Saint Michael the Archangel, and an E.T.  all gathered to celebrate the birth of the semi divine human spirit, born the very same day as the Mithraic Sol Invictus!

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characters from our presepe
This year’s presepe drew inspiration from part of the Villa Albani -Torlonia in Rome, rediscovered on a recent walk.

Loving Modigliani:The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne

An elusive figure inhabits the sundrenched rooms of Modigliani’s Montparnasse studio in Rue de la Grande Chaumiere. She sits quietly in a corner, sketching, paces the corridor with a heavy step, waits at the window, looking down at skeletal trees in an empty courtyard. From Modigliani’s many portraits of her, we recognize the otherworldly gaze, the coppery hair coiled like a geisha’s, the unflattering hint of double chin. It is Jeanne Hébuterne, Modigliani’s companion and the mother of his daughter, Jeanne Modigliani. 

Until October 2000, when her artwork was featured in a major Modigliani exhibition in Venice at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, not much was known about Jeanne Hebuterne, except for the tragic story of her suicide in 1920. She was a promising young artist, fourteen years Modigliani’s junior. Much too early in their love affair, Jeanne became pregnant with their first child. She was approaching the end of her second pregnancy when, destitute, abandoned by all but Jeanne, Modigliani died of tubercular meningitis on January 24, 1920. Unable to face life without him, she tumbled backwards out a Paris window forty-eight hours later, and at the age of twenty-one, exited a world she had but little known. In the years that followed, Jeanne Hebuterne’s papers were scattered, her artworks and possessions secretly guarded by her brother, Andre Hébuterne.”

Thus began my 2004 essay, Missing Person in Montparnasse: The Case of Jeanne Hébuterne, nominated for a Pushcart prize, which explored the life and works of the mysterious Jeanne H, whose first public exhibition was held eighty years after her death.  That show was the beginning of what became almost an obsession for me – researching Jeanne’s life and the reasons why her work was obscured from public view.

My new novel, LOVING MODIGLIANI recreates Jeanne Hebuterne’s life and her afterlife – her amazing transformation through time from shadowy figure to an icon of identity recovered.  The narrative combines myth, mystery, historical research, diary, and fantasy through a method novelist Gigi Pandian has described as “page-turning” and “genre-bending.”  Writer Don Wallace, author of The French House, sums up the book as “a love story, a ghost story and a treasure hunt through the decades for a lost masterpiece,” and concludes: “The result is a novel of high originality, page-turning pace and a poetic precision so impeccably deployed that the book unfolds like a living, breathing, 3-D spectacle in the reader’s mind. “

The publication date is scheduled for December 15,2020. The book is currently available on Netgalley as an ARC – For my friends and readers who follow me on Magic Library, I am making this open widget available on Netgalley for a short time.  This widget will allow you to download a free advance review copy of Loving Modigliani. Those of you who already have Netgalley accounts can just click and go. Those without will need to make a free account if they wish to download the book. If you are downloading for your kindle, please be sure to download the mobi file.

https://www.netgalley.com/widget/293041/redeem/6a3ae8cf2d3968e2fc0f9f6d5da2d60728615dd76a233ceeb01417e73d168137

Happy Birthday Katherine Mansfield

Oct 14, 2020 marked the 132nd anniversary of Katherine Mansfield’s birth. Born in New Zealand, “ a little land with no history,” as she once described it, she moved to London definitively in 1908. She had studied in England previously from 1903-1906, and had hoped to make a musician’s career there, but soon discovered she had no real talent for it. The petite, plump girl in glasses lugging a ‘cello up the stairs to her unheated bedsitter was destined to find other means of expression for her immense talents and ambitions. No one back in New Zealand who had read her girlish writings — some of which had shocked her elders — would ever have imagined that she would have changed the face of modern English literature.

Traditionally Mansfield has been seen as a pioneer of the short story in English. Some detractors have tried to lessen her reputation in recent years by overemphasizing her debt to Chekov. Feminists and gender studies scholars, like Angela Smith, see her as a representative of “liminal experience,” that which lies beyond the fixed boundaries of gender, identity, self. Friends and biographers alike have puzzled over her penchant for “playing” with many masks and names and with the mendacious lives that seeped from her fiction into fact and then back again.

Her death in January 1923 at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau is an enigma to many – how did she end up there and why? Reading the last stories, the last journals and letters, one finds many glimpses of her hunger for a more “permanent core” of self which attracted her to the teachings of Gurdjieff.. Perhaps this is what Virginia Woolf alluded to when, writing of Katherine’s diary, she remarked, “ But writing, the mere expression of things adequately and sensitively, is not enough. It is founded upon something unexpressed; and this something must be solid and entire.”

The Prieure where Gurdjieff’s institute was housed.
Mansfield died there in January 1923

Gurdjieff

A few of Mansfield’s stories may seem dated today – but most have stood the test of time. Many are masterpieces: The Woman at the Store, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, The Fly, Prelude, The Man without a Temperament. Her journal, diaries, and letters remain among her best loved works – and, like Virginia Woolf’s diary, give us a full portrait of Katherine as a woman as well as a writer. The moods, flashes, experiments; the epiphanies and the anxieties , the make-overs and the mistakes of a writer’s working life are all there to be pondered, sifted through, studied, absorbed.

Though Mansfield lamented the “fragmentary” nature of her work – and strove despite the pressures of her illness continually for a higher level of achievement, many readers find a mysterious “wholeness” and sense of unity in the stories, diaries, letters, and fragments all taken together, in a seamless coalescing of art and life. Mansfield was not only a story-teller – she herself was the story, a story whose quality fascinates and yet refuses to be defined.

This may be why she has appeared often in the fiction of her own day and later times as a “character.” She appears as Gudrun in DH Lawrence’s great novel , Women in Love and as the protagonist of his late short story, “Mother and Daughter.” She appears as Walter Bidlake’s pitiful wife in Huxley’s Point Counterpoint. More generous snapshots of Katherine appear throughout Woolf’s diary and writings, showing us how deeply Mansfield continued to influence her, even long after her death. Nelia Gardner created a fictional portrait in an early fictionalized biography: Daughter of Time. CK Stead gave us a portrait of Mansfield’s early years, in Mansfield in 2008, the same year I published Katherine’s Wish with Wordcraft of Oregon. Several more have followed.

Though I consulted innumerable sources in my research while writing Katherine’s Wish, the most fascinating of all was James Moore’s incomparable study: Mansfield and Gurdjieff, by now a collectors’ item. What is it about her story that obsesses us so? The brevity of her life? Her fragility? Her nonconformism? We find so much of ourselves in her stories and especially in her diaries and letters. But she won’t be pinned down to any one identity, or to any of the many stories we weave about and around her. For though she belongs to many, she is possessed by none.

Katherine’s Wish, available from Wordcraft of Oregon

The Soul of Place

Has it ever happened to you to fall in love with a place–your own neighborhood or an exotic locality glimpsed from a train while on vacation? There’s just something in the atmosphere that has an irresistible appeal compounded of colors, scents, sounds, textures, even the taste of the air.

Maybe, taking a wrong turn in a strange city, you have come upon a shady square or a house for sale that captured your imagination, but you can’t really say what attracts you so much.

That row of yellow bicycles parked by a crowded café with live music playing, those red geraniums on a windowsill where a sleek, black cat is snoozing and a green shutter is half-open, the chic nonchalance of people passing by with baguettes tucked under their arms?

stairs-quay

The scene triggers a fantasy in your mind: If you could just move there, something truly interesting would happen, and the story of your life would change.

Perhaps there are cherished locations in your past, the view from a mountain peak, a beach house overlooking a raging surf, or a rocking chair by a fireplace that made you feel content and at peace, or empowered and adventurous. Some places, whether indoors or outdoors, make us feel cozy and safe, inclined to daydreams. Others lift our spirits to unthinkable heights, urging us to go beyond our limits, physical or mental.

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There are sacred sites that can cause us to weep with remorse and humility, infuse us with joy, even make us feel immortal.

Then there are other sorts of places where we become uncomfortable, on edge, oppressed, even panicky, anxious to get out of there quick—If we stay too long, who knows what bad things could happen to us there?

If you have ever had experiences similar to these, chances are that you have been touched by the power of place.

Some anthropologists suggest that our attraction to (or repulsion for) certain places derives from a deep, unconscious attunement to our environment, hearkening back to when we were all nomads, in search of suitable habitats and dependent on our instincts to lead us to water, fertile hunting grounds, or other sources of food. Back then we had a much more visceral response to our universe; we sensed where we were likely to thrive, and where not.

That instinct is not dead in us today, but we may not pay enough attention to it. Perhaps that’s because much of our lives, at least in industrialized countries, is played out in what French anthropologist Marc Augé has called “nonplaces”: those anonymous, deracinated spaces of shopping malls, airports, computer screens that look the same all over the world.

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Typical ugly nonplace

Yet the desire to be rooted in or connected to a real place on the earth, a community, a physical world of our own, stems from a very basic human need.

The power of place isn’t necessarily life-enhancing. It can be threatening or devastating, pulsing with negative and positive charges that may change valence according to our personal point of view. Architects, city-planners, garden-designers, interior decorators, and before them priests, shamans, and geomancers have always known that our environment  can be shaped to elicit certain feelings and moods, promote health or sicken us, or encourage certain behavior.

They have also been aware that in modeling the landscape or constructing a building they must work with a creative force inherent in the land itself, known in the ancient classical world as the genius loci, usually translated as the “soul” or “spirit of place.”

Most people today might define this term as the atmosphere or ambience of a locality or as the emotion or sensation that it evokes in us. To the ancient Romans, instead, it referred to an entity residing in a site and energizing it. It influenced all life forms present on a site and  was manifest in everything existing within its range of action, from bodies of water to houses, social customs, patterns of speech, artifacts, recipes, and works of art.

Have a look around your neighborhood, your house, your workplace – what  energies are operating there and how does it influence you?

Writers and artists, whose job it is to interpret and recreate reality,  have long been intrigued by the concepts of the genius loci and the power of place. Through different artistic media, they have sought ways to capture the qualities or mood of a location, to find the links between landscape and identity, to show how places can shape our personality, history, and even our fate.

At the same time, many literary and artistic movements have tried to illustrate how the outer environments of human beings mirror their inner ones. Writers and artists know that whether we are looking outward or inward at our surroundings, they have a lot to reveal to us about ourselves, our present, past, and future.

Consider for a moment a place that you love or hate, or that you feel emanates a power. How would you describe or define its genius loci? If the soul of place had a voice, how would it sound, what stories would it tell?

If you are a writer or artist — how can you feed your creativity by attuning yourself to the soul of place?  Here’s a preliminary exercise to try.

WRITING EXERCISE NURTURING PLACES

Gazing at green hills and golden wheat fields from the ramparts of an old Etruscan town, D.H. Lawrence remarked that the view not only was beautiful, but had meaning. This English writer, often considered the founder of the modern novel, was a keen believer in the soul of place and thought it derived from biological, chemical, and cosmic influences operating in a site, affecting the psychology and behavior of individual human beings and entire populations living there. In Lawrence’s view, our well-being and creativity depend on the life-force manifested in our habitat, but centuries of technical progress have separated us from that force and shattered our wholeness, resulting in the aridity of modern life. One theme of Lawrence’s fiction is the sacred link between identity and place and the devastation that follows when that link is broken.

Still, he believed it is possible to reconnect to that power and absorb into ourselves, if we can just find our spot on the planet. Much of Lawrence’s writing career, which he once defined as a savage pilgrimage, was a search for the fountainhead  of the life-force: Italy and New Mexico were among the places where he found it.

Are there places that give you a sense of wholeness and empowerment, or where you feel really you? Others where you feel depleted, sad, or even anonymous? Make a list for both categories then choose one from each category to work with. Reflect on the essential qualities of each place and the origins of those qualities, then write a short text of 200 words for each place you have chosen. Describe the atmosphere, narrate an episode that happened there, describe your feelings, or simply make a list of impressions, people, or things you associate with it.  Put your texts  aside for a few days, if possible, revisit the site you described, then go back and re-read what you wrote. Have you learned something new about yourself?

(adapted from The Soul of Place, by Linda Lappin)

 

Read more in The Soul of Place A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci  (Travelers Tales, 2015)  by Linda Lappin.

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Review of Shelley Buck’s new memoir: India Bound

 

There are places that move through time so much faster than anywhere else.  A large part of the world straggles behind, striving to catch up with the latest technology, fashion, trend, conviction.  Other places instead move ponderously slowly, and even seem to go backwards.  Though they may often be remote or rural areas isolated by bad weather, poor roads, or dearth of communication lines – sometimes they are hidden within your own bustling neighborhood – a shop, diner, or street,  that seems to be stuck in another era, while rubbing shoulders with the contemporary.

Sometimes traveling, you come across pockets of the archaic out of which surface customs older than the hills, modes of thought and behavior that make no sense today– even influences and forces invisible to the modern eye  yet which shaped the beliefs of entire cultures and epochs.  Once you have been in contact with those atmospheres, you can never quite be the same, for you now know that what we call reality is a shifting fabric of conflicting truths.

It was to such places Shelley Buck travels in her new memoir  India Bound, the Making of a Woman  Journalist.  

The book opens in Northern Europe where the author has gone to recuperate from her overland trek  to India and Nepal, recounted in East.  Adrift and in transition, still reeling from the whirlwind of her Eastern experiences, she isn’t yet ready to return stateside to the world of work, study, family, career or to the political ferment shaking up America in the early 70s.  Her old self has sloughed off but a new one hasn’t quite grown back.  Wandering from West Berlin to Stockholm, sampling the lifestyles  — austere but progressive Germany – purist, nature-loving Sweden, she compares their values with those of her own middle class background of comfort and privilege. After hanging out on the hippy fringes, she  lands a job  teaching English composition on a US army base and spends her free time in a darkroom,  pulling prints of her travels, mainly portraits of the people she met.  As timeless eyes stare back at her across a gulf of centuries, she realizes she must return to India with a new goal:  to become a journalist.  She must learn how to make sense of the pieces—the impressions– she has picked up along the way, fit them against a background of greater understanding.  “Who had been the watcher, the I of those adventures? “ she asks. The only way to find out is to make the trip again.

Now that she knows the ropes and the route of the old Silk Road, she sets out again with a friend. This time, along with camera equipment, she lugs along an Olivetti portable typewriter in her backpack –  and a letter from a contact in the US asking her to do some research on day care in Asia. The typewriter and letter are talismans, proof that she isn’t just another hippy tourist, but a journalist on a mission.

As she trundles from Goa to Bombay with newly found friends in a battered VW camper or journeys in a purdah train compartment on her way to Delhi, she snaps photos, scribbles notes, keeps her eyes wide open.  The short chapters are vignettes of the small epiphanies of travel –  minimal encounters which convey telling details about a person, a place, or a people at an unrepeatable moment in time, “images of ordinary people’s ordinary lives.” Shared meals in welcoming households,  puddles of red  splashed at the Holi festival, an emaciated boy dead in the street, an exchange of clothing at a market – her old Swedish wool sweater for a gaudy, gauzy tie-dye skirt and a blouse with pointy breasts.  An elfin woman herding geese  gestures to ask: has she a husband, a baby?  “These are images of my companions now, the people of my world, met face to face.”  These moments of connection to local people flash against a turbulent backdrop of political unrest and growing famine about to engulf India.

As in her previous book reviewed here, Buck is keenly aware of the status of women in the countries she visits.  With sympathy she observes a teenage bride dressed in gold finery, furious about her fate but powerless to escape in impossible sandals.  Or a young mother whose Madonna-like face is full of tenderness for her child and yet also full of wistfulness for the freedom and opportunity she will never experience, unlike the young western women she hosts at her home.

When money becomes scarce and a check sent by the author’s parents is stolen at a Bombay bank, she finds herself dispossessed and disenfranchised:   “Halfway swallowed into the women’s world,”  and “starved, ill, frightened by the non-arriving money, battered by the famine, the street life, the precursors to the emergency that will be declared by Indira Gandhi for a reason I can’t clearly understand.”   Still even in impecunious circumstances, the presence of a camera dangling around her neck gives her an identity, a mask of authority needed to safely navigate the world.

Learning that a Swedish friend is in India, enjoying “an unrecognizable, unattainable freedom,” she comments,  “he has been climbing in the Himalayas…where the gurus live, with an Indian friend, also male.  Viktor has made an entirely different journey, a journey in a man’s India, it seems to me just now.” A man’s India of physical and spiritual adventures, not subject to gender-bound restrictions, which she has subtly noted all along the way during her journey into woman’s India.  But even while teaching in Germany, there had been an episode. A soldier had complained that she had given too high a grade to his wife’s composition – a wife must be kept in her place, her self-expression moderated, even in the west. Or so it was in the military culture of the mid-seventies from which the author fled.

With one dangerous exception, a violent episode on her return trip, the drama of this narrative is mostly internal, as Buck learns to  live “amid conflicting realities.”  “Events had taken place that just didn’t fit in what I knew to be true of reality. Or even believed to be true.”   She learns to exchange her western one-pointed vision for the pointillism of the bee’s mosaic eyesight, to capture truth from myriad details, the way women have sewn quilts, piece by piece into a whole, for generations.  The attainment of that vision is her new goal as a journalist.

As she was leaving India, the country was plunged into chaos during the Emergency and  the Viet Nam war came to an end.  A short time afterward, Soviet troops moved into Afghanistan, and Khomeini seized control of Iran. These events  changed forever maps and borders for the young backpackers who once streamed overland along the Silk Road to India in search of illumination, drugs, or simply a more magical reality.

“India Bound,”  doesn’t mean “Heading for India” but rather “tied to,” or “linked,”  “I am starting to become bound into the kaleidoscope of worlds that co-exist and intermingle in this place,” she writes.   What she gives her reader is a patchwork of these intermingled realities, often with a telescopic approach to time moving forwards or backwards, in a whirl of color and sensations, of people “met face to face” who now, so richly drawn by the writer, also dwell  in the readers’ imagination,  ghosts of a vanished world.

 

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Review: A Soul Inside Each Stone, Poems by John Tripoulas

A Soul Inside Each Stone  by John Tripoulas

Published by Dos Madres Press,  2016  www.dosmadres.com

In these moving, introspective poems, ancient myth, modernism, daily island life and the raw elements of sun, sea, moon, and rock combine with masks, ruins, and airplanes to create a revelatory, personal landscape –Ikaria, the poet’s home and ancestral homeland to which he returned from his native Ohio to become surgeon general.

His book,  written from his rough island outpost,  is divided into five sections.  Part 1, “View from the Emergency Room”  begins and ends with a journey,  offering pictures of village life, including–aside from rustic olive presses and local taverns–acerbic  glimpses from the hospital and the morgue. In Part 2, “Time Without End,” the journey deepens to myth – in these place poems, Tripoulas celebrates that addictive quality of Greece – where two or more timelines unexpectedly converge in an ordinary location. A metro rumbling over a buried altar, a beach where ancient bronze bodies come ashore, a mountain trail where the Germans invaded “to devour the ancient land” yet ending up with “nothing but stones,”  Ikaria with its predisposition toward falling, are all places where we’re likely to stumble into a time warp, and possibly into eternity.

Speaking of the Byzantine ghost town, Mystras, Tripoulas writes, “Here beside its ravaged walls/ one draws in air/ that Helen once breathed, / a drug evoking/ time without end.”   In such realities a mosquito may be a harbinger of the underworld, the moon,  the mask of Agamemnon, a blind girl on the metro an incarnation of Kore.

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Part 3, “Twice Told” takes us even further into literary landscape, retelling stories from Homer and Dante. In  Part 4, “Stone Song,” the core of the book, the tone shifts to an elegiac mood. These are poems for the dead and the lost, for fathers, patients and heroes, where stones like votaries conceal souls within.  Here the deeply personal, the mythic, and  literary allusion  resonate together in powerful poems, such as  “Sailing to Alzheimer’s” – truly a country for old men.  “I closed the barred door/ turning the lock/ that keeps  the old man/from wandering to the rocks.”  Or in the more intimate portrait of his father, “Bikes.”

The poems in  the last section, the “Disquieting Muses” (the title comes from De Chirico’s painting of sinister dressmaker’s dummies and Plath’s remaking of it) deal with creativity, death, madness, and  inspiration, evoking epiphanies from the lives of Lord Byron, Cavafy, Rupert Brooke, Chet Baker, Monet, and from Tripoulas’ own life,  waking in a storm  to write the “poem of his house.”

Just as currents ripple the surface of the sea, undertows of literary influences from Homer to Yeats, from Keats and Coleridge to T.S. Eliot, Donald Justice, Charles Simic and A.E. Stallings  tug at these poems from below to create complex eddies of meaning.  In “The Prince of Asine,” Tripoulas pays homage to George Seferis’ great poem, “The King of Asine,” telling of a search among ruins and potsherds  for traces of a person Homer mentioned only once,  hoping to touch “with our fingers his touch upon the stones.”  Seferis’ futile search for a palpable sign of those who have gone before seems to peter out in a wasteland.  Tripoulas’s poem (like the whole book itself)  is a reenactment of Seferis’s empty  quest  -and suggests that the element of stone can never  transmit the warmth of a vanished touch from the antique world.  Rather, as  he hints in “Mystras,”  it is the air we breathe — the same that Helen breathed — that allows this transmission of live sensation  to occur across time.   Breath – Pneuma– is the soul but it is also the voice – speech, poetry. It is the soul inside each stone.

Enigmatic, rich, reflective  these are poems to live twice in. Tripoulas’ book is a wise companion to take along on a trip to Greece where you may savor the poems in the settings that inspired them, or to read nestled in an armchair, dreaming of the  Aegean, the bluest sea that ever was.

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Summer Writing Workshops in Greece: Imagine an Island for Writers

 

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Summer Writing Workshops in Greece  Imagine an island awash in a turquoise sea — and your own writing room with a balcony overlooking the blue. Yes, sort of like Lawrence Durrell, when he wrote  Prospero’s Cell.  Imagine working intensely for a few hours at your desk, then plunging into the sea to revitalize your brain and body. Imagine workshopping your new fiction and essays together with writers from all over the world and sharing exquisite meals of fresh produce, fish, and cheese, accompanied by the robust reds and tangy white wines of this sunbaked soil. These and other impressions are all yours at the Aegean Arts Circle  where I had the pleasure of leading workshops for a couple of years. This year’s group is taught by Kitsi Watterson. Previous teachers include Thomas E. Kennedy, David Lazar, and Robert Owen Butler. There may be a place or two left. Contact Amalia Melis at the website linked above for information.
If you can’t join the fun this year — try your hand at these exercises from my 2016 workshop  Ten Writing Prompts on the Theme of Islands

Or check out this video interview with director Amalia Melis here

If you’re heading for Greece for this workshop or just for fun, check out this free guide to the 100 best things to do in Greece  assembled by Jen Miller.

For more writing exercises focusing on place, see Linda Lappin’s The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook- Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci, winner of a Nautilus Book Award in Creativity.

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The Ultimate Artichoke Recipe

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In Rome, artichoke season opens in the  early autumn with the arrival of little violetti – from Sicily,  followed as winter rolls in by the prickly, spiny Sardinian magarosa  resembling purplish, armored tulips.  These triumph till spring, when the fat, Roman globe artichokes flood the markets. The season peaks between mid April and early May,  so we may enjoy one last glorious feast  of this noble vegetable with its bitter, pungent taste of spring, its budding promise of summer bloom  to devour with  gusto and not one iota of guilt.

So many places I love in Italy have their artichoke specialties    from the  bronze sunflower- like mandala of the  deep fried  carciofo  alla giudea – a traditional Roman delight served  in the famous restaurants of Rome’s ghetto  — to the rustic, filling artichoke and fava soups  I first tasted  at  the  Pensione  Isolabella   on the island  of Ventotene  on a cold  stormy spring night when high seas spattered  the windows.    Or  the tiny pickled hearts of  the carciofi tardive sometimes called  figli,  hardly bigger than a quail’s egg, blanched in vinegar,  seasoned with fennel, pepper, and preserved  in olive  oil  to be eaten as an accompaniment to  unsalted Tuscan  bread.   Or the chic slimming salad of  thinly sliced raw artichokes and flakes of parmesan cheese, dressed with lemon and olive oil, which  they  used to serve years ago, at one of my favorite restaurants in  Rome  Da Luigi just around the corner from  the Chiesa Nuova.

In my long sojourns  in Rome, I  have accumulated dozens of artichoke recipes for spaghetti, crepes,  soups, garnishes,  involtini, quiches, stews,  torte rustiche, and phyllo dough concoctions,  but it was only recently that I happened upon what  I consider the  ultimate artichoke recipe:  the hearth-roasted artichoke, as suggested by hearth and wood oven expert, William Rubel, in his extraordinary cookbook dedicated to hearth cooking,  The Magic of Fire.

The satisfaction given by cooking on an open hearth is something elemental and primeval, I suppose, stirring childhood memories of cook outs and campfires, fantasies of survival, of  living in a cabin hidden in the woods, of which Gaston Bachelard speaks so poetically in his philosophical study of houses, The Poetics of Space.

If such reveries tickle your imagination,  Rubel’s  book, of which I will offer a fuller review on a later blog, will be perfect bedtime reading.  Here amid recipes of complex baking, roasting, and stewing techniques for the open hearth  used by our ancestors in the olden days, I came upon a page of suggestions for hearth-roasting a variety of vegetables, including artichokes. (Rubel’s book, originally published in 2002, recently got a mention in the New York Times for its discussion of egg spoons).

The procedure is a simple one.  Get a fire roaring and let it burn down to a pile of embers, and while the flames are crackling,  prepare your artichokes for roasting.   First, wash the artichokes well, remove the stem,  and nip off the tip. With a knife, dig out any fluff from the core, but leave the outer leaves on.  Then beat the artichoke against a hard surface,  such as   a marble table top,  or kitchen counter   to flatten it a bit and open up the leaves.  Into the heart and in between the outer layer of leaves,  pack fresh herbs (tarragon, parsley, chives, fresh fennel, dill, fresh thyme, mint or mentuccia, the wild mint growing everywhere along country lanes in Italy, or santoreggia,  a wild herb that favors dry walls), slip in finely chopped garlic and capers, and then dribble olive oil in the heart and in between the leaves.

Using your fire thongs, nestle each artichoke right on the embers, and cocoon each artichoke with red hot embers.  The outer leaves will scorch, but the heart will cook slowly, and in roughly 20 -30 minutes, they’re done. Cooking time depends on the heat and quantity of embers. Remove the artichokes, dust off the ashes, peel away the charred outer leaves, and voilà,   a unique  gastronomic experience.  The artichoke, slightly al dente, retains its characteristic pungent flavor  with the addition of a delicious smoky taste mingled with fresh herbs.  A wonderful accompaniment to grilled lamb.

In Velletri near Rome, a festival is dedicated to ember-roasted artichokes – La Sagra del Carciofo alla Matticella, where huge braziers are set up in the piazza in mid April to prepare these delicacies for hungry crowds.  Matticelle are bundles of clippings from the grape vines after the vineyards have been pruned, once used to heat humbler homes in winter, but also for cooking on the coals. The clippings from different grape varieties impart different flavors to the food.

More about artichokes

Artichokes are renowned in Italy for their curative powers, especially the leaves, which French researcher Jean Valnet cites in his Cura delle Malattie con Ortaggi,  Frutta, e Cereali  as having  a beneficial effect on bile production, liver health, and cholesterol.  The many varieties of artichokes are akin to cardoons, and common thistles,  such as milk thistle, known  cardo mariano,  which, according to Mrs. M. Grieve’s  Modern Herbal  (1931) once upon time was commonly cultivated in the kitchen gardens of England as a salad plant.  Giovanna Garzoni, still life painter to the Medici family in the seventeenth century, often used them in her compositions.

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Blogger Mary Jane Cryan celebrates the Artichoke Festival of Ladispoli, providing interesting anecdotes about the history of this favorite vegetable, http://50yearsinitaly.blogspot.it/    For an amusing video tutorial on how to make spaghetti  ai Carciofi,  see Sergio Baldassare’s  You Tube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EnxZDgbips&feature=relmfu