Wednesday, January 2, 2008

End of the Tale/Tail of 2007

Why Can't Christmas Be Like This?

I made it through Christmas without consorting with poinsettias - those red, pink, white flowers that one dumps in the garbage after Christmas. They grew wild in my garden in Uruguay and in most semi tropical areas. But they wilt and wither in pots, usually long before Christmas arrives, and especially if they’ve been whisked through freezing cold air to get into your house. When it comes to Christmas celebrating, my house is a Scrooge. My heart and soul aren’t, but in my old age I’m downsizing decoration for any holiday. Best to give that money to someone who needs it.

If there is one given in my life - beside debt and worrying about weight - I’ve kept my passport up to date for the past fifty years and use it. I’ve always been an unintentional world traveler, and now I can add eco-traveler to my credits. This past year was a festival of international airports for me. And I still have my luggage. Amazing. Frankfort was a horror show (changing planes) trying to find out where I was supposed to be. Heathrow was a nightmare - I lost my bifocals - and was not happy with only one carry on (including your pocketbooks. Are they nuts?) Mexico City’s airport was to die for with all the top designers represented in boutiques. Don’t dally but go for the gate area. Still the best for me is Memphis’ own. Where else can you get Randezvous barbecue ribs and Elvis memorabilia in pleasant surroundings?

In 2007, New Years began in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, studying poetry with some of the greats - Jennifer Clement, Mark Doty, and favorites of mine, Irishmen Paul Muldoon and Glyn Maxwell. I learned more about poetry from Jennifer than I have from anybody although I still haven’t tackled the publishing carousel as she suggested. Subject matter in quaint San Miguel was everywhere, especially hanging out in the town square where the pink Roman Catholic Cathedral celebrated by turning on its lights for the New Year, one of the only nights of the year it does such. I followed this up with a stay at Casa Que Canta in Zihuatanejo where I suffered the best facial of my life given by a young Thai lady who pats and never rubs in the creams. I sadly discovered that deep sea fishing is a cruel sport - the fishermen-guides whopped the beautiful sailfish we caught to death with a baseball bat - so he wouldn’t suffer or hurt us? Blood splattered all over me and the fishing boat. No one squirmed, just hosed down property with salty sea water.

In pursuit of poetry in January, I joined Miles Coon’s Palm Beach Poetry Festival, which is really in Delray Beach, to study with the maestra Heather McHugh, who was nursing the flu, spent a lot of times at a Starbucks and joined a great friend for dinner at the Brazilian Court Hotel’s CafĂ© Bouloud, a top ten in America. When I was just a toddler - in the forties - my grandmother leased a corner room there for her winters in Palm Beach. It has fancied up its luxury tag, but the gardens are still beautifully manicured patio to patio and dramatically lit in colors for tropical nights. Worth Avenue is still best viewed at night with credit cards left in the safety box.

After such infusions of poetry, I settled into volunteer work back in Memphis, being trained as a CASA (court appointed advocate for abused children), and became a division chief for the volunteer probation officer service at Juvenile Court. (I’d been a volunteer probation officer three years.) And my favorite ministry remains as chaplain at Reconation Academy, the lockup facility for juvenile girls, where with Peggy Miller, we teach crochet, knitting, and all sorts of seasonal crafts. But what launches each week in the right direction is offering the short chapel service each Sunday morning at 7 a.m. for the homeless of Memphis. In the basement of Calvary Church, volunteers serve about 150 clients a breakfast of eggs, bacon, homemade biscuits and grits but first we pray, read the gospel, and sing "This Little Light of Mine." In March, I was honored with a Jefferson Award for volunteer service, a national award sponsored locally by The Commercial Appeal.

A trip to Los Angeles for an AIDS fundraiser dinner in the exotic home of two designer friends offered a day at Sea World (in San Diego) to bond with dolphins, and even ride one, As I held on to the dolphin’s dorsal fin with a life grip, I knew this was a divine moment, and I would not slip off - the female dolphin slightly slowed down as I was moving my grip higher. I felt I could do this every day. Why is there such a longing to communicate with the animals? I want to believe I'm harmless, although man use and abuse wild animals with unbroken spirits. When living on a coffee shamba on the outside slopes of Ngorongoro Crater near Karatu, Tanganyika, in 1963, we’d often round a curve in the dirt road to slide into the rump of a slowly wandering elephant on. My instinct was to jump out of the landrover to chat with the beast, but my first husband, who knew better, (his father was a "white hunter"), had backed up so fast I couldn’t get out of the open topped landrover in time. Why are we always the enemy? We had a pet gazelle named Bokkie, and looked into the possibility of raising an orphaned elephant or warthog, but had to flee Tanganyika because of the revolution in 1963.

Dolphins at Sea World trust paying "tourist invaders" only because their trusted trainers let them know it’s okay. For a hefty fee, we learned to give signals and to be splashed with ice cold water by jovial new aquine friends. Wet suits give little protection against cold water temperatures that must be maintained for dolphins, Orcas and other sea creatures, but you imagine you are warm as the water slowly sleeps through the fabric and hits your skin. And we were warned, don't try these things if you run into dophins and whales in the seas.

In June I scratched a long time itch to see Iceland. And there I found an earthy heaven - hardly stepped off the Icelandic jet near Reykjavik when I was swished off to the Blue Lagoon, where I found a kind of lolling peace floating in the hot thermal waters cleansed by volcanic rock. Go early, before the crowds, and sign up for a massage

It’s given for two hours in the waters themselves using creams and scrubs made from the salts taken from those waters, and at one point you are held up by two pool tubes (macaroni things) floating under warm towels in the silence of perfection, your face masked with white salts that come right off the rock floor of the lava pools.

Iceland is a miracle of geography. There are samples of just about every kind of phenomenon on earth from geysers to dramatic water falls, to natural steam baths to dry mountains and frozen glaciers over a corner of which you can ride a snowmobile (I felt as if I was falling off the back end). The entire country is lit and heated by underground thermal steam so there is no waste of energy. (Why don’t we take advantage of Yellowstone Park’s thermal energy?) The countryside is blanketed with purple lupines and lush green pastures are home to Icelandic ponies - the only equestrian breed allowed on the island, i.e. no mixed or pure horse breeds. Icelandic ponies are used for farming, for pleasure riding, and for some competitions. A dream was to ride an Icelandic pony, but the day I left home I fell on my tail bone on a tile floor and cracked it. I won’t bother you with the agony of having to adjust to that on long flights and bouncing in huge four wheel drives with tires taller than I am.

There was an opportunity for whale and puffin watching, but as I rocked on the boat full of tourist ecstatic from seeing a few whale tails breaking the rough seas, I remembered I had spent a morning swimming with white Beluga whales at Sea World - an incredible experience - just feeling the white marshmallow like skin, and feeding their obvious smiles. Life is good.

Iceland is young, chic, full of funky fashion (the singer Bjorg shops at the Crazy Monkey) and the food is creative - for my birthday I ate grilled fresh corvina served with a scoop of chocolate ice cream melting into a salsa. Well, it didn’t work.

Greenland ice floes of summer

From Iceland I was able to spend three nights in Greenland, well, nights that are never night. It’s always daylight in the summer hours. I was flown to Kulusuk in the Arctic Circle and from that tiny airport (with seal coats for sale) I was loaded onto a red helicopter (put on the ear phones, please) and flown to Ammassalik, one of the few settlements on the Western shores where tourism tries to birth. It is not tourist friendly yet (backpacks and hikers boots are the norm): the hotel where I stayed had not seen a supply ship since September. (This was June). Therefore meals were not varied, but almost desperate. There was one crafts artist selling tupilak creatures carved out of walrus ivory, reindeer horn or soapstone found in Greenland’s fjords - a bad luck charm against enemies - in the old days life was conjured in the figure and it was placed in a kayak of the one for whom the death wish was aimed- sort of like voodoo dolls - but watch out, if the spirit wasn’t conjured correctly, it could turn and kill the sender at the same time.

Outside the hotel windows were scraggly looking sled dogs, chained up for the summer months, howling for hunger, burrowing into holes they had dug in the soil as the snow melted, and waiting for happier days when they are hooked up to pull long sleds over the frozen waters. In this tiny town of red, green and blue wooden houses built up and down steep hills, there was always the spectacular views of mountains covered with snow and ice and the gigantic icebergs breaking up in the summer months. It was as if people waited for winter to return since there wasn’t that much to do in summer but kayak, repair and fish. I wondered what my Jackson Hole mountain and rock climbing friends would do if they could flurry on these high peaks surrounding these bays. At least they could start at sea level. A small fishing boat trip through icebergs was like a trip through a royal realm of white and blue fantasy worlds. We watched for polar bears, who usually come out of hibernation in June as ice floes break from bergs but saw none. Another helicopter trip to the top of the major glacier which covers all of Greenland gave me a chance to take a handful of ice from this Arctic Pole area and let it melt on my tongue.

From Greenland it was to London, just in time for the bomb scare. I had been shopping at Liberty’s (a great place for fabric and yarn) one day, and the next it was blocked off for the bomb scare. (I was also in New York City for 9-11.) My intention in London was to catch up on theater and to attend Wimbledon and hopefully pass by and see Roger Federer, a favorite athlete. However, Wimbledon was mostly about dashing out of Center Court to escape a rain deluge by seeking shelter in the food area which was dry but offered a celebrity or two such as Price Brosnan. I had to try strawberries and clotted cream and scones. None was thrilling as the anticipation, alas, certain traditions are only available at certain time of the afternoon. The rules on court during the matches are so strict that even clearing your throat can cause the entire tennis audience to look at you with scorn. Don’t move. Don’t even snap a camera during a point. I left the court and loaded up on souvenirs (there is a huge shop at Wimbledon) for my super-tennis player daughter and my family. Then went for a drive to see chalk horses, crop circles, and the mysterious rock arrangement called Stonehenge, which is so packed with tourist it’s hard to get a photograph of the gigantic stones alone. It was the time of the solstice and no dawn excursions to feel the spirits was allowed. I also shared the rich British custom of high tea with the great lady of flower design, Julia Clement, who is 101 years old but looked thirty years younger, arrived in a taxi by herself, even though she can hardly see anything but the periphery. She is such the ideal representative of a lady, as is the Queen of England, and is just as curious about the latest flower designers and their activities as she ever was. She still writes letters by hand and lives on her own. God bless her.

But the most adventurous moment I had - besides eating sushi with an old friend (she trained me to be proper deacon) at Oh Sushi, where the Russian spy was poisoned - was a fluke: having gone to the theater (Mary Poppins) with assurance by the hotel concierge that I’d have no trouble finding a taxi on Charring Cross Road, I found myself lost in a post-theater rainstorm and taxi drought. There just were no taxis, not on any street. Finally I saw these questionable rickshaws being pedaled by young men. (I had ridden a highly decorated rickshaw once in South Africa) so I asked one if he knew where Claridge Hotel was, he didn’t. I didn’t either. I was desperate. So I asked another and he actually pulled out a map. I couldn’t give him much help - other than it was located near such n such park. But he said, climb aboard (there was a small umbrella to keep off the downpour) and started pedaling away. Well, no one respects these new travel machines - primitive as they are. They do U-turns anywhere, and buses and taxis almost threaten them as they pass. I was thinking of headlines - Deacon Dies in Desperate Rickshaw Ride. Or something. There was no license, but the young man spoke Spanish, was from Colombia, and a football fanatic, so I burst into Spanish and waxed poetic about South American football and other sports. I felt a bit safer, if only for the language compatability. Believe you me, he got me back to the hotel, and I was so thankful I gave him double his original fee. I also saw sides of London I’d never recognize in daylight. God saves.

The real destination of this June-July trip was St. Petersburg, Russia, for a poetry seminar where I was scheduled to study, finally, with the great American poet Jorie Graham, who had been my daughter’s mentor in her college days. However, Ms. Graham did not show (and I was not getting my money back.) She was in a minor wreck in France and cancelled. She had also cancelled the previous year. But this time I was almost there with only two days notice. Not much I could do. (We were told she’d comment on our poems, which she had in hand, and send them to us. I have received nothing six months later.)

At least I was staying not in poor quarters like most of the younger poets, but at a sparkling hotel - Grand Hotel Europa - which gave Russian teddy bears and chocolate bonbons for welcome gifts. The teacher’s aide who was assigned to our poet group was Katie Peterson, a sharp poet on her own, and a sympathetic teacher. I attended the workshops, but set out to know St. Petersburg and of course return to my favorite painting of all times, Rembrandt’s "Prodigal Son", still standing at the Hermitage. So many Rembrandts, so many Gaugains, so many Matisses - including another favorite which, on seeing in person, is not the colors that I had learned from slides as a art history student. Whoever put the Hermitage collection together - Catherine the Great had a lot to do with it - had a good eye. To be in the ornate, gold gilded Hermitage is one of the great privileges of travel in Russia, and don’t forget to buy a souvenir Faberge egg charm.

Food was the glitter here. Caviar at every meal, smoked salmon and fish of every sort, almond cakes to die for, and black bread, which I never got to sample.

There was also a romp in a park with a Russian bear cub owned by a circus, getting the lowdown on Rasputin's final days, visiting an engaging botanic garden and the incredible Church of the Holy Blood where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated . The mosaics that cover every inch of space in the church are a religious art connoisseur’s dream. I lit candles for my sick friends at St. Nicholas Cathedral, which houses ten icons of saints, and learned how to paint Matuschka dolls, (although I have already donated my collection of 230 dolls to Mengei Museum in San Diego), but I was happy to climb aboard the plane to leave Russia after a week. Something snakes uncomfortably there in Putin’s domain. The fashion may be modern, chic, high-fashioned, punk-fashioned (dread locks and piercings) and yet citizens seem to be looking back over their shoulders as if a shadow of history hovers portentiously. There are parades of young women, tall, sleek as models. Men move with men, and are round, serious of face, (laughing only in small groups at meals) and probably members of the Mafia elite, especially those dining in my expensive hotel. In a land where language has nothing at all to do with Romance languages or English, you engage in a silence of information, understanding nothing, not even single words. This was the toughest experience for me. I want to know people of all cultures.

St. Petersburg, I was told, is divided into twelve sectors, each under the hand of a Mafia don. The prices for just about anything are exorbitant and woe if it is imported from another country. Everyone in St. Petersburg lives in flats - there are only eight private houses, once owned by the wealthy royalty. But private houses are illegal now. So everyone is packed in six story buildings, shoulder to shoulder, along canals or wide streets. When I was there, the Hermitage grounds were being set up for an Elton John concert, outdoors.

With a ten day turn around at home, I left for San Francisco for the Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop, but with stops first to visit artist friends in San Francisco and to dine at last at the great French Laundry in Napa Valley. My secret to reservations was the grand dame of Napa Valley vineyards (Schoenberg champagnes) who joined us for the 14 course excursion into incredible edibles: 14 sets of silverware, 14 different exotic white Limoges china (designed by the chef) and 14 glasses of such form and plink the table seemed an offering before Virgin Mary’s altar, lit by blood, a sacrifice through the esophagus. My favorite was the popcorn flavored sorbet and the appetizer, Oyster and Pearls - a saboyan of pearl tapioca with beau soliel oysters and white sturgeon caviar. Sigh. It’s not something you could do every night, or every week, or every month, but once now and then with great friends, it’s worth the price and the drive.

Stuffed at French Laundry

After such a meal, I was off to Squaw Valley to nestle into the Sierra Nevadas once again and be surrounded by the best of poets - Bob Hass, who is the founding father of this group, Brenda Hillman, Sharon Olds, Jimmy Santiago Baca and wonderful Claudia Rankine. En route, Claudia, who rode with me from San Francisco, and I stopped at the art reserve spread throughout barns, a home and in the pastures, featuring all the artists I’ve collected and loved through the years: Bob Arneson, Roy de Forest, William Wiley, Bob Hudson, Bill Allan, Gilhooly, and more and more new ones that keep on making Northern California art the most interesting school of all, in my opinion.

Yes, That's My Body!

At Squaw Valley, it’s always a challenge to create a new poem every day. So I do extreme things - besides bonding with the Sierra Nevada environment, I go para-sailing (talking about getting High!!) And also tried my hand at a trapeze school (you are there 20 minutes) where, upon jumping off the high board, my shoulder snapped (I forgot I had a frozen shoulder, but no longer), and so my swing was cut short - i.e. I couldn’t pull my legs up over the bar to fly upside down. Oh well. At least I leaped. Let me tell you, those safety nets are not comfortable. They are tough and hard and scratchy, but they save lives. The manager of this activity in Squaw Valley is Argentine. South America is all around us.

I made a brief stop in my old home Jackson Hole to visit a invaluable friend and while there I was able to return to Pearl Street Bagels for their great shakes and bagels, to be rolfed again by Natasha, and to try the new climbing gym with my old (young) trainer Augie for a workout. Nothing do I like better than climbing the walls in such exotic gyms as they have in Jackson and getting Thai massages from Elizabeth, the best anywhere. At Louise’s, we had bear scares, (Louise is the West's advocate of bears and all beast wild ) and the elk paraded across her fields in a foggy dawn so I was able to get excellent photographs. A dinner cooked by Jim Williams, my faithful guide to major adventures, resulted in plans to trek to the base camp at Mt. Everest and do the pilgrimage to Mt. Kailas and other places in Tibet and Nepal in spring 08. I’m ready.

Loving the rock walls of Jackson Hole

Settling down at home again has not been easy. But it is time to start major training for the spring 08 challenge. I returned to Pilates, to Kareem, my personal trainer at a gym, not yet tap dancing, but I am back at my daily tennis workout with Charlie. This routine got me in shape for the extraordinary trip through South America which is covered in detail on the blog. Maybe I realized I wasn’t so old as to have to pass up extreme challenges, so I started making lists of the hundred things I wanted to do before I die. The secret would be in getting fit and believing I can do anything if I arrange my habits to accomplish my dreams. No more "you can’t do it because you are female," or because you are too old, or because you are too fat. No more excuses.

I don’t go to movie theaters or bars (I don’t drink). I do watch American Idol, Today Show, Oprah, America Has Talent, and Dance with the Stars, but my mantra is Law and Order, in all its forms. On my safaris, I take DVDs of their programs to watch on a laptop even when television is an option. At home I follow Sunday football, cheering for former Memphis Tiger record setter DeAngelo Williams (who made two touchdowns on the weekend for Carolina Panthers) and for the Titans, but with tough love, I continue to support the worst team in the NBA, the Grizzlies, my own hometown cheer and yearn for that day we might show up in the positive column. I own season tickets to but haven’t yet been to the University of Memphis basketball games. I don’t want to bring them bad luck, just in case. They are number one to all of us.

I’ve had lots of disappointments in 07 but they won’t drag me down. I just want a couple poems accepted in some publication. But regardless, I’m pushing for a more exciting 08 - taking the challenge, and hopefully writing my life story, after so many requests. (My novel the Lolololo Tree is complete but lies asleep in the closet.) Living is all about the adventure, the risk-taking, the faith, the personal "Yes", the Rocky dance at the end of a challenge. It’s not being afraid to touch someone, to carry on a conversation with those who look lost and lonely, and to make life better for some when I can. But most of all, it’s thanking God every day for the privilege of serving Him.

2 comments: said...

I really like your blog, Audrey. And that you show that no needs to stop traveling just because the thatch on top has grown white. Keep up the good work.

Marianne Scott

Aubergine's Dream said...

Wow, what a year! Loved the narrative. Maybe when you get "old", the Lololo Tree can awaken, when there is more time and you have not so many places to go. Love ya, Kathi