30 July '13 by Kimberli, under Photography, Writing.
A new blog has been started to document this project as well as my health status. I’m currently working every other week and in chemotherapy for stage 2 breast cancer. I WILL be okay! The process, and visual and emotional changes, will be documented for a show and book next year. http://friendsofkimberli.com
01 June '12 by Kimberli, under Uncategorized, Writing.
Posted 6/1/12 Life changes quickly as the branches fall away, are broken and sprout anew. Death, divorce, birth… Posted in honor of those who have passed recently – Grandma Grace Records at age 98 and Grandma Marj Cooney at 98. And to my fathers Paul Ransom (2008) & Ross Nida (2012), as well as my birth father who is always present even when absent.
These thought are just my memories and thoughts. Not necessarily accurate. We all have our own realities.
Written May 2006
Mine is a tree of many crooked branches. As a small child, I drew a picture of my family tree. Like many other children my tree was sturdy and tall and there were three branches. One reaching out for my mother and father, another for my 3 teenage siblings and a final one for me. Each branch was straight and lined up perfectly. I was born in Portland, Oregon, but adopted by this family at six weeks of age. My cradle rocked gently.
I am older now, a better artist and my tree has more depth and dimension. It has grown in ways I could not have imagined as that small child. The branches are no longer straight. There are four sets of parents now, 17 siblings, 29 nieces and nephews, many of whom I’ve never met. There are so many cousins. My story is one of adoption, and yet it is simply a story of family. Perhaps not so different from yours. My tree is a real tree with roots held firm in all of it - love, disappointment, joy, nature, nurture. I have had the unusual privilege of belonging to many ways of life and types families. My tree includes cowboys, hippies, professors, high school drop-outs, doctors, meth addicts. We subscribe to Utner Reader and Readers Digest, we support pro-life and pro-choice, we live in million dollar condos and trailer homes. We serve our country, serve on school boards, serve prison sentences. I could prune this tree, simply cut off the branches that do not frame my life. Instead, however, I chose to climb up into it and sit in the center, as I have always done, supported by those who are strong and holding fast to those who threaten to blow away. This is my tree, all of it.
We lived at the end of a long dirt road in Eastern, Oregon. Ten miles outside of Milton-Freewater, near the Washington border. Our two-story farmhouse sat a quarter mile across irrigation ditches from our only neighbors, the Records family. My mother, sister and I used to walk through the cat-tails and milk-weed to that house almost daily. My Grandma Grace lived there. Not a grandmother that came with my family, but one I chose to draw into my tree. She was the one who made me cookies and colored with me. My sister later married her son, the boy next door, and the branches of our families were grafted together even after he died 15 years later and my sister eventually remarried.
As my tree began to grow so did I. My red hair and freckles became more pronounced, my legs stretched at an unbelievable rate and though I was unaware of it, it became more apparent that I did not come from my dark haired 5’3” and 5’9” parents. I was told early on that I was special, that I was adopted, and that I had many people to love me. That there was another mother and father somewhere who gave me to my family as a gift. That my family chose me because they wanted a baby girl to spoil. Throughout my childhood I made up stories about my biological parents because I didn’t know the details – she was a famous pianist, he was in the Vietnam war. She was married and had an affair with my birth father, and both he and her husband wanted me and she couldn’t decide… The stories were always full of love. I don’t remember hating them for giving me up.
At the age of 7 my steady tree shook and the branches bent. My parents divorced, my siblings were all grown and out of the house. There was a bitter custody battle and my father moved with me to an isolated ranch in central Washington hours from my mother. He gave me a puppy to make up for this. I spent long summer days riding my horse alone through hay fields writing songs. In the evenings my father and I would drive 20 miles to the local swimming pool where I would rinse off the day’s loneliness.
My father eventually met a woman from Minneapolis through a personal ad in a horse lovers magazine. She drew pictures of cats for me during the weekend she came to visit. Soon after we all moved to the middle of a cornfield in North Dakota. My tree had a new branch including a stepmother with 5 inner-city kids who terrified me. I watched one of them pull the other down a staircase by the hair our first day as a family. I was 11 and wanted my mother.
I returned to Eastern Oregon. My mother’s arms were held wide open for me and on her finger there was a new ring. My new stepfather was a policeman with two sons around my age. Another branch was added. My mother went from a farm wife to a police dispatcher. Their jobs came home with them each night. I was learning to oil paint, started theater, was in choir – none of the things my family did, but all of which they supported. There was room for me to explore and be different. I was adopted.
Although my family was simply ‘my family’ and I only occasionally gave thought to not looking like them, my mother’s family reunions in Ellensburg, WA, always brought up questions. The real drama didn’t start until I was a teenager. Like all teenagers I said terrible things to my parents. As an adopted child, however, I had the extra ammunition of “You’re not my real family. None of these relatives look like me.” Family reunions seemed to bring on these periods of teenage angst more then most. As a young girl, however, I loved the reunions – all the cousins, my grandma Maudie yelling at my grandpa, “God damn it, Bernie!” and everyone talking at the same time. My favorite uncle, Uncle Art, always had his guitar and drank Jack Daniels from a coffee cup. He never knew all the words to a song, but he could still make you cry. When he passed away, in the midst of my career as a songwriter, I inherited not only his guitar, but his love for storytelling. As little girls my cousins and I would sing and sing under the big willow tree in my grandfather’s front yard. My mother kept a close eye on us there, however. There were things girls shouldn’t learn from their family.
My grandmother once asked my mother how she could love an adopted child. I don’t know if this was because she couldn’t image it, or if she was curious if the love was the same. Or did she not love me? With her seventh pregnancy, in the midst of the depression, my grandmother made a difficult choice. Did she wonder if she had given the child up instead, would it have been loved? We are all complex and our branches crooked.
On my 18th birthday I wrote the letter. Martha was my caseworker at The Boys and Girls Aid Society my entire life. She was the one who handed me over to my parents at six weeks, the squalling baby who instantly quieted when placed in my new mother’s arms. I had kept in touch with her my entire life. Martha held the key to connect my tree with the missing branches. It never occurred to me that I was part of Martha’s job, that she might chose to work somewhere else, retire or move on. Two weeks past before I heard back from Martha regarding the letter. Those two weeks were among the most unsettling of my life. Would she want to see me or reject me? Who would she be? I envisioned a woman in a wide-brimmed summer hat sitting at a café in downtown Portland. But what if she was a drug addict, or a criminal. What if she had married and had never told her husband? What if she was dead? What if, what if? There was no book on this nor anyone else with my exact experience. My sister-in-law had tried to find her birth mother and the woman denied having a child. Martha called, “Your birth mother’s name is Pat, she lives in Georgia and wants to fly to Portland to meet you. You have a half brother and sister. You have grandparents living in Lake Oswego.” Another branch instantly sprouts to life.
My mother, who’s name is Helen, and I pack up the car and head from Milton-Freewater down Hwy 84 to Portland. It’s a very long 4 ½ hour drive. As always, my mother is supportive, trying to calm me, but I see the fear in her eyes. Who is this woman? Will she take my child from me? I stare out the window and try to imagine how my life is going to change or if it will change. We find our way through the city traffic to NW Portland and Martha greets us at the old Boys and Girls Aid Society building. “She’s here,” Martha says. “Are you ready?” My mother and I look at one another and answer together. We start walking down a hallway that must be a mile long. My birth mother, Pat, is walking toward us from the other end of the hall. She’s not wearing the wide-brimmed hat I had imagined. We move closer and I see my eyes in her face. I’ve never seen my eyes in any place except a mirror. Her red hair moves past me straight to my mother. She hugs her and says, “Thank you.” Both mothers cry, I simply watch. I don’t remember the details from that first hour. After the meeting we sit in the park by the river. My mother and I show my birth mother pictures from my childhood. My first birthday cake. There’s frosting on my face. A clipping from a newspaper, I’m 9 and have just won a free throw contest. She tells us how I looked just like her at that age. We show her the academic scholarship to attend Lewis and Clark College. I’m moving to Portland that next month.
My birth mother tells us the story, the real reason for my adoption. It’s not one the stories I made up, but it’s equally as loving and generous. She tells me about my birth father. I have not thought of him recently. I have not thought of anyone aside from a birth mother. Pat is her name, I remind myself. She doesn’t know where he is, but knows that he wanted me and tried to help her during a difficult time. We drive to her mother’s house for a spot of Irish tea. “Just a little visit,” Pat says. The house is full of tall people, my people with my eyes. There is the most beautiful redheaded grandmother. Grandmother? I have not thought about a grandmother before. There is a small sister and brother ages one and three who want to be part of the party and put their fingers in the cake that reads, “Welcome Kimberli and Helen.” There are cousins with gifts and tears. “Who are you people?” my mother and I say to ourselves, all the while grateful to have found so much love. There are flowers in the bathroom and someone yells that someone must have stolen their bra, they can’t find it. The tree grows huge big branches and sets these people on top of them until they later become the branches themselves.
The weekend meeting is just the beginning of a long integration that takes some three years to really come to grips with. There are gaggles of cousins, aunts and uncles, a grandfather who takes me out on the deck for a sipper of scotch when he sees my eyes glaze over. There are the gifts, the newborn bible and the Madame Alexander doll that all girls in this family are given on their first birthday. But this is my 19th birthday. It is, however, my first birthday with Pat’s family and they need me to be a child for a while longer. There are the heartfelt comments so hard to understand. The new great aunt and uncle who tell me they have prayed for me all these years. Like the others, I’ve never thought of them. My birth mother wonders why they never told her about this. No one spoke to her about me after she gave birth at the age of 24. The dam that held that river back stayed in place until I returned 18 years later and the floodgates re-opened.
There are the trips up and down Hwy 84 to introduce family to family. The city family loads up the car for the long trip to visit my sister’s farm family. My Eastern Oregon father, Paul, comes to meet my birth mother for the first time. They could not be more different. My new little siblings ride the pigs. We have pictures, there’s more cake. The tree is growing thick with branches that overlap – nothing grows straight anymore.
We slowly all learn our places and who we are to one another, each filling a new role replacing no one else. My graduation from Lewis and Clark College brings everyone together once again. There is my sudden illness and all branches hold my bed firmly in place and wait for the storm to pass. It passes seven years later. I am 27, two years younger then my birth father when I was born. The tree feels steady and solid again. I talk to everyone about finding my birth father for the first time. I pray he’s not Irish Catholic like my birth mother. My tree is so big already, what if there are more cousins? I ask Pat for his name. She cannot spell it correctly. She’s a PhD, but cannot spell. I’m comforted by this, as I now can blame genetics for my own poor spelling. I go through state records, look up old information, find a social security number and have someone do an illegal DMV search for me.
I find him in Missouri. “Missouri,” I think, “that’s good.” How would I handle more Oregon cousins? His name is Darrel. I have my boss call him. “Hello, did you know you have a daughter in Oregon?” He knows he has a child, but thought I was a boy. “Would you like to have contact with her?” Yes. The answer is yes. He has four sons. Two are my half brothers. He has parents, brothers, and many many cousins all in Oregon. They had not told my brothers about me, and one of them overheard the original phone call. He runs down, yelling, “Dude, we have a sister.” “Shut up and get out of my room,” is their first conversation. I fly to Missouri, step off the plane. This time I’m walking toward my birth father. I don’t see my own eyes in his face, although I do see a resemblance to my flat chest. Genetics again. The meeting goes smoothly, there is no drama. No one steals a bra this time. My brothers wonder about their new sister only between commercials of the football game. It’s all quite normal. I fly home to Portland, continue my life and Darrel calls me every single weekend since then. The branch is firmly in place and grows stronger with each phone call.
I am now 37 and my tree is still growing. I recently married my husband, Louis. He’s an L.A. city boy who doesn’t know a how to milk a cow, but may someday create a vaccine for AIDS. He’s invited all over the world to speak, but his favorite destination is arguably Milton-Freewater and my mother’s Thanksgiving dinner table. He has two sons, now my sons, ages 11 and 17, and each day I am amazed by what it takes to raise a child. Our wedding was the ultimate gathering. Both my mother, Helen, and father, Paul, from Eastern Oregon, along with my step-father, Mike, where there and gave me away. My birth mother, Pat, her husband, my redheaded grandma were there. My birth father, Darrel, and his wife were there. And so many siblings. We did not have a bride’s side and a groom’s side. We simply felt lucky that the groom’s family of 10 did not run away at the site of all of us.
My birth parents, Pat and Darrel, had not seen one another since before I was born. No one knew how that first meeting would go, least of all the bride. I expected a brief an exchange of niceties then off to their own corners for the remainder of the wedding. What happened was the best gift they could have offered to us. They liked one another. Their spouses liked one another. They sat together the entire weekend long wedding and laughed. I have pictures of myself with my birth parents. My only pictures with them. They left no doubt in anyone’s mind that the mother and father of the bride were my Eastern Oregon parents. At the same time, however, everyone understood that my tree was full of parents.
There’s one last branch on my tree. It’s the one Martha, my caseworker from the Boys and Girls Aid Society, is part of. There’s the foster family who cared for me from birth to six weeks. There are the people who did the paperwork, who bought my clothes, who made things work so that an infant could find a home. There are the people I’ll never know who supported the agency financially. They are part of my tree as well. Since I don’t know them, I will thank you instead. Perhaps it was you who made it possible for a farm family to adopt a child because they wanted one to spoil. Not because they had the most money or access to the best education, but purely because they wanted a child to love. I’m not sure that most farm families could afford adoption these days. I’m not sure that most birth mothers could afford to place a child through a non-profit agency when lawyers made such generous offers. What I am sure of is that the work that is done with infant adoption here needs to continue. It needs the financial support to be competitive with the way adoption has changed. What we do here grows branches for children we will never know.
This summer I am invited to many family reunions. My birth father’s family will meet in Yellowstone, my mom’s family in Ellensburg under the same old willow tree. But I’m going back down the dirt road with the cat-tails and milkweed to Grandma Grace’s house. She was the neighbor, the grandma I drew into my tree as a small child. Family is not defined by biology or legal papers but by love.
Mine is a tree of many crooked branches. I imagine yours is, as well.
23 November '11 by Kimberli, under Uncategorized.
It’s raining, raining, raining. It’s two days before Thanksgiving, 2011. I have more important things on my mind than getting my cat to the vet – though she is requiring all my focus this particular November morning here in Portland, OR. “Kitty, get in your box!” I shove kitty into box. Cat in box. Cat in car. Purse on top of car. Garage door open. Drive away into raining, raining, raining, toward meeting at my photography studio with my web master. It’s busy season in my family photography studio. Dry season is dead of winter February/March and heat of summer August/September. One must take advantage of timing in this business and mine is now. Never mind the life happenings. You can wait. Now is the time to work. I can work. So kitty is in her box as I head out toward the studio in the wet, wet, wet with cat yowling at the top of its lungs. “Nice kitty,” I croon. “It’s okay, Lucy,” I whisper. “Shut the fuck up, kitty!” I yell. No difference. Kitty yowls. In the meantime, I venture down my street, I’m bombarded with a downpour from my leaking moon roof. “Shit!” the cat exclaims. Why didn’t I fix that during the glory days of summer? I dodge the downpour and slide to the right. Almost to the studio, but still late for the web master meeting. I reach for the cell phone to call but realize, “Oh no! Not there! In purse…. which I put on top of car in garage right before loaded the damn cat!” U turn, worth at least two driving violations. Looking, looking, looking for camel skin expensive purse along the fall leaf-strewn rain-filled roadways as I retrace the road to my home. Nothing. Nothing inside the house or along the box-filled sidelines of my one-car garage. “Shit!” the cat yells! Must get back in the car and go meet the web master at 10AM regardless. 10AM being the only reasonable hour in my morning even during busy season. I am most creative between midnight and 3AM, but no one understands or respects that, least of all the cat. Wakey, wakey, the cat says to me each morning at 8. My clients like what I create for them during that time, even if they are not aware of it. I’m not a huge fan of my cat right now, and I’m starting to worry about the $600 replacement cost of the lost iPhone, not to mention said web master’s annoyance at being left outside in the pouring, pouring, pouring. I know about iPhone replacement costs, as I once flushed mine down the toilet. This is another story. One which my ex-husband was not amused by, although I found it hilarious. Clearly, there are some areas upon which one should not compromise. Agreement upon what is or is not funny is one of them. This, too, could apply to a cat, I think. I drive back toward the studio. Cat can take no more and expresses her dissatisfaction with the entire situation in the form of an off-load. “Goddamn, Cat!” I yell in my best East Indian accent with a slight head waggle. My little sister would appreciate this as we often tell jokes with this accent – mostly after red wine. I roll the windows down to subdue my gag reflex and it is now raining, raining, raining into my car in yet another way. I double park in front my studio building and leave the cat. Up the stairs in a single bound to the wet raincoat hung in front of my door. My pleasant and ever-patient web master, Ron, greets me with, “I was worried about you.” I love him. We unlock the studio door to the 800 sq foot hardwood calming space and I being to tell him my tale. “First the cat and then the purse and now… “ When all of a sudden we hear a splash. Then a very big splash. I’m on the 3rd floor of a 5-story loft building and there is water gushing through the ceiling onto my external hard drives. “Shit!” the cat yells from the car outside. I throw a plastic shower curtain backdrop over the computer equipment and run downstairs to the management. “Water, computers… you help….” Then run back upstairs to where Ron is managing the deluge. I continue on about the raining, raining, (he’s soaked from standing outside the front door and gets it) and the 10 minutes of missing purse and can I borrow his phone to call anyone…. And you can only imagine the week I’ve had with the call in Seattle and my step-father…. And maybe someone… and, “Oh my God, there’s a voicemail from a kid!” Said kid, “Ryan Rice from Newberg,” and his friends who were just driving down the raining, raining street when and they happened to run across (literally over) my purse (with their car) and thought it might be cardboard but it didn’t feel like it so they stopped and got out (in the raining, raining?!) and tried to take it to the police department (conveniently right across the street), but it’s all locked up so then they found this number on what looks like to be the phone number from my photography company as he’s now calling it realizes he’s calling my iPhone (that’s sitting my purse so it’s not going to do me any good) so what they’re going to do try to find my place (four blocks away) and drive the purse to the street address (that’s on my driver’s license) and then ring the bell and if I’m not there he’s going to call me back to tell me where they hid my purse. Okay? I call him back and say, “Thank you, Kid From Heaven! Please take all the cash in my purse (over $100) and you will have good Karma forever. Thank you, you good Samaritan!” I needed you today. I continue my meeting with web master then head home to collect the purse and soggy iPhone before the vet visit. Poor kitty still in car. “Shit!” is all it says to me. The wet leather purse, iPhone, $100 and my eye glasses are all perfectly fine. There is a smashed to smithereens 25cent pen there as well. Proof that they really did run over my purse. How did I get so lucky today? I think about this Ryan Rice all day. The vet hears his story. My friends hear the story. The cat agrees, Ryan Rice is a good young man. We are grateful for him today, my friends, family and I.
The end of the day comes and the news we’ve been waiting on for the past 24 hours…. My step-father, Ross, has lung cancer. Stage four. Inoperable. We breathe deep – my birth mother, sister, brother in Afghanistan and I. We look around at both the raining, raining, raining and little blessings and are grateful for what we have right now – and tomorrow as well, if we are lucky. Our time together, however long that is. That’s all any of us can say, really. Today, I am thankful for one kid named Ryan Rice from Newberg. Thank you for letting me spend the extra few hours with my family instead of canceling credit cards and buying new phones. Your gift was more than you can imagine. The cat thanks you, too.
17 November '11 by Kimberli, under Uncategorized.
Here’s a taste of the Italy Gallery Show at the KIMBERLI RANSOM PHOTOGRAPHY studio on Nov. 12, 2011. We had a great turn out (1,500 people!), not only for our studio, but for the 25 other wonderful studios in the Towne Storage Building. The Italy exhibition was a hit, along with the family and commercial photography we had on display. We had two slideshows plus 20×30 framed prints, these posts hanging from the 15′ ceiling, as well as lots of wine and cheese. Thanks again for all of your support! You can read the posts about each of these images in the archives of this blog. Let us know if you can think of other locations to show this exhibit! (posted by nathan the intern)
It’s 5:00 A.M. The tethered sailboats sway ever so slightly on the harbor. I sway with them on the cobblestone pier. Jet lag always does this to me. Wide awake at hours that are not usually my finest and unsure on my feet as if I’ve spent days at sea. The boats only mock me as I kneel low to capture the perspective of the fisherman sitting nearby then lose my balance and fall over. He stares down into the water following his line to the world below. I right myself and click the shutter. The masts reflect straight and proud, not with ripples and waves as they did in the images I created in this same exact spot two years ago. I close down the aperture as the sun rises above the hills surrounding Trieste and the slanted rays begin to reach the Adriatic. I turn and face them directly. “Welcome back to Italy,” they seems to say. I’ve missed both the sun and Italy.
I follow the wide flat stones of the pier back toward Piazza Unita, the center square, in search of espresso. The majestic white courthouse and buildings surround the square on three sides, the sea closing in the final leg. It’s an impressive sight. The streetlights fade out and this town at the Northeastern end of the Italian boot begins to stir. Sunday morning, however, is not one for working. I check my favorite espresso shop but it, along with the others, are all closed. The newspaper vendor is the only open door.
The cloud of jet lag that wafts in and out over the next several days descends on me. There is a vague map of this town in the archives of my mind and I turn down a small walking street and take a shortcut to the apartment where I’m staying. I’m sure that my Italian friend, Laura, is still sound asleep. I reach her building by Braille and sleepwalking.
A man with a very well-designed dog reaches for his keys, and I follow him through the heavy wooden doors, many with amazing doorknobs I will continue to photograph, and begin ascending the stone steps to the fourth floor. I read the nameplates on each of the two doors as I reach the second floor and wonder how I missed them before.
On the 3rd floor I see a window outside of which laundry hangs and the orange of the upside-down shirt flutters, repeating the color of the downspout across the courtyard. Funny, I didn’t notice that yesterday, I think. I stop and take a few photos. I hear a top lock click into place as the man and his dog retreat into the apartment below. I wonder why Italians need two locks in a place that feels so safe to me. I arrive on the fourth floor, huffing and puffing, and reach for the keys in my camera bag. I lift them to the lock and jump backwards as a dog begins to bark on the other side. Suddenly it occurs to me that Laura does not have a dog. I’ve followed someone into the wrong apartment building, taken photos of someone else’s laundry and almost tried to enter a random Italian’s apartment. I hurry down that stairs laughing. What would I have said when a sleepy Italian in his underwear, along with his angry dog, confronted me at his door? “I’m that photographer from America who was here before. Do you have espresso”?
I am the reason Italians need double locks!
07 August '10 by Kimberli, under Photography, Quebec, Writing.
Hot, heavy air whips stray hairs across our faces as my host sister Helena’s black Nitro convertible barrels down the Canadian back road like the stallion it is. I hold my camera up and out to take blurred photographs of the mirrored lakes passing by only to capture telephone poles and yellow pavement lines. Memories, not art. I click the shutter at my sister’s reflection in the rearview mirror. Tan and toe-headed as she was in Denmark 25 years earlier. I’ve come to rural Quebec to celebrate her 40th birthday. Her parents, who we both call Mor and Far, have flown in from their second home in Spain and are buckled fast into their leather seats. We laugh together as the construction workers yell out in French, “Hey, look at that Mustang!” Along with the birthday celebration, we’ve met here in the middle of our worlds to share the complicated happenings of the past three years. Such a short time since our last week together in the lakeside summerhouse in Sunds, Denmark. My then-husband and I drinking schnapps and eating pickled herring with my host parents. So much has changed since that time and less.
That lake in Denmark is where Helena and I, in 1986, took a little rowboat and drifted out under the summer’s night sun at 3:00 AM. We were 16, with the entire night sky and future open to us. We used words like hope, desire, trust to imagine our lives. I knew all those words and many more in Danish. I had no need for the words I need now. Words like funeral and grief. No reason then to have words like betrayal, heartbreak, divorce. Our Danish mother called us from the shore. “Come back, girls.” There in the middle of our lake, we hesitated before answering.
The Mustang comes to a sudden stop in Magog, Quebec and the French language I have no words for at all floods in from all sides. We unfold ourselves and emerge like damp butterflies on this new Canadian lake. It’s 2010.
25 June '10 by Kimberli, under Music Lyrics.
I receive an early hard copy of the July/August issue 39 of Elmore Magazine today. The Edge and Jimmy Page grace the cover along with the teaser for an article on House Concerts with a photo of yours truly and a paragraph about the Word of Mouth tour and the book co-written with Doug McLeod. (Photo credit to former intern Micalah Wilson is missing. Click on her link to see more work). I’ll post the article link when it goes live or subscribe to Elmore to order your hard copy of the magazine. You can probably also get it at a Borders or larger bookstore.
28 April '10 by Kimberli, under Uncategorized, Writing.
Funny, my former music life on the road comes back around once in a while. Tomorrow I’m being interviewed by Elmore Music Magazine in NYC. http://www.elmoremagazine.com/ They are doing a story on house concerts. I dug out this 1999 NYTimes article. My book about touring the country via house concerts, co-written with Doug McLeod, was featured in this front page article. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/11/08/arts/acoustic-music-live-from-the-living-room.html?scp=4&sq=neil%20strauss%20house%20concerts&st=cse
I’ll post again when the Elmore article comes out.
26 January '10 by Kimberli, under Music Lyrics, New/Not yet recorded.
Verse //:G/Em/C9/D/G/Em/C9/D// Em/G/C9/D/Em/G/Am/C//
Chorus //G/D/C9/D/G/D/C9/C9/G/D/Em/C9// G/ G/
Tumbleweed Fields – written 9/12/08
You call on the phone
just like it was then
Like we were young kids
and I was your friend
Say do you recall
a tumbleweed field
The years make it hazy
was it for real
I don’t know if it
was tragedy or truth
I don’t know if
I ever made it through
You ask me his name
what does he do
I hope that you love him
like I loved you
Yeah, summer was long here
hottest to date
I don’t think about you
‘til October late
I don’t know if it
was bad luck or fate
But autumn leaves and dark days
remind me of your face
By the time the phone rings
we’ve already lived it
And by the way did life bring
all the love you’d give it
By the way I do recall
We drove all night long
just to get there
Sand on the windshield
hand in your hair
That sky burned afire
that morning was cold
We loved as they danced
tumbled and rolled
I don’t know if it was
promised or proposed
The answer’s still the same
but it’s not the one we chose
By the time the phone rings
we’ve already lived it
And by the way did life bring
all the love you’d give it
By the way I do recall
Fields of tumble weeds
Each night before I sleep
And I make it through
As I lay me down
Wind blows all around
‘til I, make it through
of tumble weed fields
Yeah, mama is fine
but dad passed away
Your children are grown now
what are their names
Long before I went gray
and lines crossed your face
I wondered out loud
who’d fill your space
I don’t know if it was
blind luck or faith
But I found love again
and he walks in your place
By the time the phone rings
we’ve already lived it
And by the way did life bring
all the love you’d give it
By the way I do recall
03 January '10 by Kimberli, under Lyrics, Music Lyrics, New/Not yet recorded.
Standing this side of Goodbye – written 12/2009
Verse II:G I C9 I G I C9 I Em7 C9 I C9 I G :II
Chorus II D I C9 I G I Em I DI C9 I G I Em I C9 Em7 I G II
Bridge II Em I C9 I Em I C9 I G I Em I D I Em I C9 I Em I C9 I G I Em I D I C9 Em I G I G II
One step cross the line
His boots were polished and spit shined
And what a mess they left behind
Just one step cross the line
Sterling bands of steel
Aren’t strong enough to feel
All the ways the heart won’t heal
After sterling bands of steel
It’s just a place you’ve never been
Can’t move on and can’t move in
It’s just the little ways you die
Pull all the stars down from the sky
Standing this side of goodbye
Standing this side of goodbye
You tend to ask the questions why
When no one cares enough to lie
You’re standing this side of goodbye
It’s just a place you’ve never been
Can’t move on and can’t move in
It’s just the little ways you die
Pull all the stars down from the sky
Standing this side of goodbye
You didn’t mean to do it
Said there was nothing to it
But babe, you couldn’t look me in the eye
Voices in my head screaming
No going back to dreaming
I turn and slowly step across that line
To this side of goodbye
One step cross the line
My new boots, oh, how they shine
When love is forward not behind
You’re standing this side of goodbye
It’s just a place you know you’ve been
Can move on, can move in
It’s just the little ways you try
Put all the stars back in the sky
Standing this side of goodbye
No bigger than a hummingbird
Such rapid fluttering
What is it that set your tiny heart pounding?
Faster than mine, faster than mine
Fragile, so easily blown off course
A gust points you in another direction
One vision of red syrup sweetness
As tempting next door or around the world
Your return to my sheltered porch
Rote motion, not allegiance
Patterned migration I failed to see
A minute, an hour, a season, a lifetime
On the wing before you even left
My brightly bejeweled pitcher of glass and plastic
Hangs empty on the hook
Take it in for the winter
Turn it over and over in light and shadow
Make a few small repairs then let it sit on the shelf
When the bulbs break the soil
I’ll return it to my porch and see who flutters by
September 22, 09
The wind whips the weeping willow branches this afternoon
They snap and flicker like the rattler’s tongue
The smell of my grandmother’s house so long ago
Me dreaming I am Cinderella
The scent of lemon meringue pie mixes with willow perfume
Cattail cotton floats in the air
I turn a cartwheel, toes pointed
Muscle memory still strong after so many years
The back, however, not unlike my dreaming
Is more ridged, less flexible
Time has settled the bones in place
I know now when I am dreaming
Stretch, release, make an effort to expand
When it used to be effortless
The wind picks up again
A long strand of red hair slaps my face
I could be lifted away on this wind
The willow branches my carpet
My eyes close, I imagine the view from above
Smell the lemon pie and sticky sap
I know now when I am dreaming
Still, I scan the world below for my glass slipper
Sept 14, 09
NOTE: This blog is written in book form and best read from the first entry backward to the current date. Please continue to check in for upcoming chapters written in Italy and Croatia. I will post the remaining writing and photos over the next 2-3 weeks. Special Thanks to Joni Kabana for the photo on the top right corner of the blog! Kimberli - Portland, OR
Part 12 – Venice, Italy
He presses the length of his thigh tight against my shoulder and runs his fingertips down my bare arm as I sit. The checkered tablecloth is like all the others on the canal front restaurant. Little electric lanterns hang on slack lines between umbrellas poles. The night air still holds the heat of the day. Surely, this waiter did not just do that, I think. Do I wear a sign on my forehead saying, “Newly Divorced?” He smiles as I crank my head ninety degrees to order a half litter of prosecco for Carmen and I. He winks when he brings back the whole bottle. His gold rings flash from his fingers. Evidently we know one another better now as he practically slides into my lap. It occurs to me that this might work well as I’m at least a foot taller then he. Carmen and I exchange soundless laughter. He pops the cork and I flinch. “This is to start out with,” he says.
At the end of our expensive yet average meal, which includes an equally expensive bottle of processo and tip, we rise from the table intending to leave. The waiter rushes over and kisses my check. “Do you stay here tonight?” he asks in a sultry accent. Where else would I go, it’s an island? “Yes, goodnight,” I say and walk away toward the Rialto bridge, the lanterns shimmering off the canal water. I wonder how many times a night he practices this tourist routine. I wonder if he has a wife at home. I wonder if that would have occurred to me at an earlier point in my life. I wonder when I’ll be able to flirt again without being jaded. I remind myself that everyone says it takes time. How much, how long, how many? I wonder. A perfectly good Italian lover – squandered. Or perhaps I’m just getting better at spotting the creeps. I start humming a Lyle Lovett song as we walk into the night. “Look around and you will see. This world is full of creeps like me. You look surprised, you shouldn’t be. This world is full of creeps like me. I wear grandmother’s ring. On my finger, on my finger. She had a tooth of gold.”
Are you Gay or European?
It’s hard to say, especially in Italy where, unlike tonight, I can’t always read the signs. Carmen sings me a song by Legally Blonde – “Gay or European?” In a land where men kiss one another on the cheek in greeting, carry man-bags over their shoulders and wear short Capri pants, I have often wondered. Men buy nice shoes, wear pink shirts, sport stylish haircuts, hold cigarettes between index and middle finger not thumb, and dance in tight tops with arms flung wide. Thoroughly confusing. When men talk to one another here they stand close and often reach across and touch to literally make a connection and communicate. It’s not like in America, where men generally keep a certain amount of personal space, a Zone, around themselves and then punch one other to emphasize a point. American men hug if they are close friends, relatives or Democrats, but they still maintain their Zone. Italian men stand within inches of one another even when there’s no one else crowding them together. There’s another level of connection that would not be acceptable in America except in a gay bar. Italians are wildly expressive compared to Americans. I wonder if this makes the men more intimate partners. If Italian men can use touch as a way to connect with other men, then does that make them more sensitive with women? Do Italian women have the same complaints I often hear from American women, that men can’t just hold them without it leading to sex? Probably.
I’ve made several friends in Trieste and I asked one of them about this recently. “No idea,” he says. This is a very common answer here. “Okay, how do I know if a man is gay?” I think this friend is gay, but then again, I’m not sure. He tells me Trieste is a very ‘friendly’ city. I point out examples. “What if he kisses me on the dance floor.” “Gay,” he says without hesitation. I haven’t been dancing like I was last week in years. The 2AM kind of dancing where the music is too loud and you don’t care who’s watching. “What if he kisses me and then when I tear up because it’s my first post-marriage kiss he tells me he’s also divorced and understands completely.” “Still gay,” he affirms. “Really?” “I mean, really kisses me and wants to see me when I come back from Venice next week.” “Gay, gay, gay.” Then he adds, “We’re all gay.” I wonder if this is just wishful thinking on his part. I’m more confused than ever before, but looking forward to returning from Venice.
It’s now midnight and our last night in Venice. Carmen and I are among the few customers left at our second little outdoor café. I use the Italian words I’ve picked up over the past few weeks with my best fake accent to order sticky-sweet limoncello. It appears before us in small triangular glasses. It’s sugar, vodka and lemon rind, thick as maple syrup. Served ice cold and tart, it’s like drinking a summer night itself. I don’t want Carmen to leave for London tomorrow.
Part 11- Venice, Italy
In the harsh light of midday, the Venetian canal water is the non-color of my interior designer sister’s bedroom. It’s a brown-gray-green if you have to name it, but truly, it’s a non-color. The kind that sets off what’s around it like the red, green and white of the Italian flag or crimson-winged lion flag of Venice. Both flap in the wind as I pass through the canal. My sister likes this color. I prefer not to eat anything that comes from it. No fresh fish for me here. Catch of the day? No thanks. The canals form the dark passages I could paint and are the roads that connect the towns’ walking streets. No cars, only boats and water and whatever the boats leave behind in the water. Imagine hauling everything you need or no longer need, in and out of your city by boat. The ornate black gondolas with their customary blue and white striped sailor shirts and top hats with ribbons do none of this real work. They sing to splurging tourists and remind me of the kindergarten convicts on the bus in Trieste. Perhaps this is really what they were in training for. I only mistook them for baby felons; they were really miniature gondola drivers.
Venice forces me to think more about photography and the lengths I would go to for a good photo. In a place so beautiful, yet so insanely crowded, it’s actually quite difficult to get a great picture. Try as I might, I just can’t get myself out of bed at 5:30AM before everyone else. I want to erase the groups of Germans and Swedes that clutter my shots. I selfishly want to be the only tourist here. I don’t want to be the one who clutters other photographers’ shots. I know they are here because I see them with their long lenses and impatient toe tapping. They’re waiting for me to move out of their photos as I wait for them to move out of mine.
I’ve been here before and always imagined romantic adventures. I’ve pictured gondola rides wrapped in the arms of some handsome Italian. He in his dazzling white linen shirt and brown skin. Me in my spray-on fake tan and skinny jeans that in reality don’t fit. Now my fantasy involves mowing down the throngs of loud tourist with a rapid-fire machine gun. Perhaps that sounds harsh. A simple BB gun carelessly pumped in the general direction of the crowd would surely mean someone would lose an eye in the fun and games. The tourists would scurry off like the sugar ants and cyclists in Asolo, and I would have lovely uncluttered photos. I wonder if I should worry about the underlying violence I seem to harbor as of late. The way I use my butter knife, with it’s short dull edge, to painfully cut in half a six-inch salami sausage. The way I smashed a bottle of South African wine after reading the label without even tasting it. Yes, perhaps I should worry. But I have no therapist in Europe and will just have to mind my primal instincts the best I can. For today, the tourists, and others, are safe. This must be the beginning of my angry stage.
Carmen and I try to lose ourselves in the narrow side streets and alleyways where, on occasion, we enjoy the luxury of being the only ones around. It’s hot, the kind of hot you might expect in Venice during the summer. The kind where you wilt like a flower and absolutely must stop for gelato – twice – in one afternoon. I am gleeful to discover that fruit gelato, which might otherwise be called sorbet, but is somehow much smoother and creamier, does not have dairy. I eat cantaloupe and strawberry, one scoop of each, in a cup. My tiny spoon digs away at the melting mound with the enthusiasm of the energizer bunny. I narrowly escape a brain-freeze. Relief, we can walk at least another ten feet now until we can find a stand-up espresso.
We meet two women who are here on business for two weeks. They tell us of each and every gallery they’ve seen. So much energy for this heat. They have interesting careers that apparently take them to fabulous places and make them money. I have no idea what’s next in my own career. So many huge issues to face. COBRA or health insurance for the self-employed with a pre-existing condition. Now there’s an oxymoron. A new mortgage payment, studio overhead, enough concentration to market to new commercial clients … I’ve been avoiding thinking of this topic and want to delay it further.
They tell us of a month-long art show that is all the rage. “Iceland,” as the show is called is only a short walk from the church steps where we rested with the women-of-perfect-lives. We enter a building that sits facing the Grand Canal. The water laps in through the barred doors and threatens the windows. This is prime real estate in Venice. Just be aware of the floods that cover the ground floor of the city 100 times per year. The artist sits with his paintbrushes and pallet at the back of the room. The model sits in his underwear on an old tattered couch and smokes. Both of them are writing in journals and seem to be in their own worlds. There are empty beer bottles and blank canvasses scattered around the huge space. There are several painted canvasses depicting the nearly naked model smoking what seems to be the same cigarette in various positions. Sometime he drinks a beer or plays a guitar. The artist will do one painting per day all month while the model apparently gets lung cancer and perpetually drunk.
Perhaps this is my next career.
Part 10- Asolo, Italy
It’s morning in the foothills of the Dolomites. Thunder roars like some grand medieval beast above our heads as we climb, step by lumbering step, up the cobblestone pathways toward fortress Rocca. Carmen’s silver bejeweled flat sandals slide her backward across the rocks until they too finally catch her stride. She leads the way as we walk straight up into the forbidding clouds that threaten to open up and wash us down again. Down past the small vineyards that stripe the hillsides. Down past the farmhouses and olive groves to the valley floor. I feel like I’ve already been washed away in a landslide recently. I’m determined to make it to the top of this mountain today. It was not our intention to do this virtual trek when we started this morning.
We walked out of our lovely Villa Vega in summer dresses and earrings on our way to the village Asolo, but were detoured by newly paved asphalt on the one and only road. If we hike up to the fortress there might be another path down the other side, we reason. Off we go. It’s much higher and steeper than we think. We are nearly at the highest point, the fortress just looming above us. The air feels both thin from the altitude and heavy from the impending rain. It’s difficult to inhale. I think of the last song I wrote, the week my husband went away on business to NYC and never called. The time before I knew about his lover. “All the weight of your silent streak. Heavy as granite lying over me.” I try to sing it, but cannot catch my breath. Green figs crush between my feet and the stone. I imagine the purple pulp that will smear like jam under someone else’s sandals next month. I think of the grief she too will likely feel in the future. I squash another fig. This time on purpose and with feeling. In photography I look for patterns that repeat. I haven’t been so good at seeing them in men.
Earlier in the morning Carmen sleeps behind the green shutters on the third floor of our villa. I sit at the picnic table on the clover lawn and think of language. How I slow down my cadence and select my words carefully here. I learn the English words Elisabetta or my other friends know and use those selections when I speak to them. I also listen for their translations, butter – burro, and repeat them to myself. I practice rolling my R’s in a trill, but my tied tongue fails me. When I was young I worried that this flap of skin that connects my tongue to the base of my mouth like the webbed foot of a duck would keep me from French kissing. I spent most of my fifteenth year mortified by the possibility until one night, from out of nowhere, it happened. Imagine my relief!
Now I sit eating dry cornflakes with my tongue-tied tongue. Dry because there is no soy or almond milk, and I’m absolutely intolerant of dairy. No milk, cheese, butter/burro, yogurt, milk-chocolate or real gelato for me. Nothing good! Italy tortures me daily with delicacies I can’t eat and would surely have gobbled down otherwise. But this morning there is brioche. I know it’s full of butter, but it is warm and soft and calling me. I take one small bite very quickly. Perhaps I can fool my body if I eat it fast. Oh, the taste, the melting in the mouth goodness, the cinnamon-sugar apple goo, the pain I’m going to feel in five minutes. I throw the devil back into the breadbasket and cover it with a napkin. Damn temptation! The rest of my dry cornflakes and toast taste worse than before.
I finally push away the breakfast and watch the sugar ants on tiny legs scurry in unpredictable patterns across the long woods slats of the table. The gold and blue painted dishware says, “Made in Italy,” not China, on the bottom and is written in English. I think about the sweet foods I’ve missed here, but also the savory foods I’ve tasted. I eat bread, pasta, olive oil and green olives and watch as the hollows of my cheeks and the lines around my eyes begin to fill in again. Over the past four months I have become as thin as the professional bike racers who train in the Dolomites and travel the narrow valley roads I see below. Their brightly colored costumes of purple and red spandex stand out against the green fields. They, too, scurry like sugar ants as they pedal the zigzagged roads leading to the mountains. We’re all awkward climbers today.
This night ends with Amarone wine. Quite possibly the most delicious thing I’ve ever experienced. Our waiter for the past two nights here in Asolo, at Da Nino E Antonietta, swirls a small amount in bevel-bottomed glasses, then pours it out again, prepping the glasses for their most important hour. I put my nose into the glass. It’s so fragrant – chocolate, earth, something from my childhood I can’t quite put my finger on. You don’t have to drink this wine to become intoxicated, simply inhale. But the taste – the taste only enhances that amazing smell. It is like being transported to another level. I’m feel that dizzy, dreamy intoxication of love after only one sip. And there are many more sips after the first.
To Venice tomorrow.
Part 9- Asolo, Italy
My friend, Carmen Jones, is Betty Boop reincarnated. From the adorable round face to the pixie haircut, Carmen is the epitome of cute. She has flown from her new home in London to Venice in order to escape the rain and spend four days with me. We have taken the $10 train ride an hour northwest of Venice to the town of Castelfranco Veneto. Along the way we pass through industrial towns and family-owned cornfields that line the train tracks. From Castelfranco we are supposed to take an inexpensive taxi ride to the picturesque town of Asolo where Villa Vega, “our villa” is waiting. Unfortunately, I have do not have an exact address to our villa. I do have directions, but only in English. In my mind, the handsome taxi driver would know exactly where our very special villa is in this land far faraway and in addition he would speak English. Our driver knows neither, but is indeed handsome and smiles at us in the rearview mirror while driving us around and around and up and up to the base of the Dolomites. $90 later we arrive at our villa.
Our villa sprawls alluringly across the hillside like a lover observing the vineyards and valley below. She stands a proud three stories tall and claims her place in the countryside like a prima donna, entitled and indulged. From the silver-plated antique hand-mirror that beckons from the entry table to the jasmine that climbs up her garden walls. Our Villa is the perfect Venician courtesan. Quiet, worldly, detached. Her backyard, a blanket of lush clover, a carpet for the hammock strung between two grand pine trees. Love me if you must, she says. And we do love her.
Since our Villa is just outside the village of Asolo, which crowns the hilltop, Carmen and I walk ten minutes uphill along the narrow country road. We scurry off to the edge when the occasional car passes. There are no sidewalks to save us from Italian drivers here. Something that sounds like cicadas buzz. We round a corner to find a spring and spigot with free flowing mountain water in front of the small church. Inside the church walls are covered with the remains of frescos. A candle and the low light of afternoon bring out the dulled pinks and apricots in the paint. We walk past doorknobs that remind me of a man accessorizing. The way some men chose a good pair of shoes or a watch to show glimmers of their personality, whereas a woman can don a red dress or wear fishnet stocking. The doorknobs may go unnoticed unless you look for their magnificence. Solid and strong, unique to each doorway along the walk. This one shaped in a horseshoe, this one a cross. The more we look the more we see. All those stylized knobs on very similar looking doors and houses. It’s as if each was trying to shake your hand and invite you in before the neighbor gets to you first.
We walk past the small shop windows where wide flat wheels of aged parmesan jockey for your attention with low hanging air-dried salami. When we enter the doors the smell is so strong we can nearly taste the red pepper, salts and spices. The Parmesan wheels are so valuable that banks sometimes hold them as collateral on debt here. We climb to the old castle and up around the back gates where we find a café with outdoor tables and no customers. Perfect. We order a glass, then change it to a bottle, of the best Prosecco we’ve ever tasted. It’s so nice to see one another here in Italy. Using lovely long English words and talking fast. No translation required.
We sit together, drinking our wine and looking out at the valley below. The green and red shuttered windows of the village houses are mostly closed against the directness of the setting sun. The church bell high in the tower rings and rings. There’s no telling time by the bell, it simply rings for the sake of hearing it’s own tone. Hundreds of pigeons roost in the abandoned house just below. Their cooing and purring melds together into a low hum. Like the foundation of paint that washed over my blank canvas, their sound settles everything around it and allows the other sounds to be brighter. Layer upon layer – the pigeons, the echoed ring of the church bell, the tizzied twitter of the swallow feasting on mosquitoes. The voices of Carmen and I as we talk in a carefree way of flirty girl things. We sound like we are reading aloud from the same trashy magazines we took to Mexico four years ago for poolside sun. Later in the evening the pigeon sounds also support our voices through more weighty issues and events. We are the kind of friends that do not need to be in constant contact. We pick up where we left off regardless of the time or space between. Carmen was there at my wedding and is here now. How did we get here, I suddenly wonder. To her I am the same, before and after. To me I am not. Carmen says, “I wish could fast forward your life four months.” I’ve been saying I wish I could rewind my life four months. I think about this long into the night. Fast forward.
25 June '09 by Kimberli, under Italy, love, photo, Uncategorized.
Part 8 – Italy
Note: Thankfully, there are no photos associated with this chapter.
I continue to be confused, on a number of levels, when it comes to international plumbing. First, there is the problem with my own plumbing whenever I travel. (Those of highly refined manners or delicate sensitivities may wish to simply skip to the next chapter at this point.) There is the issue of a body being hauled over land and sea, through time zones and possibly war zones, only to be dumped into what may either be morning or night, fed a foreign meal and then being asked to perform as usual. Mine just simply refuses. “No,” it says, “you can not tell me it’s morning when I know it’s night and you just kept me awake like some sex-crazed college student. You didn’t even give me any fun! I was forced to sit in a seat much too small for my long legs, next to a man who drooled on me, all the while listening to screaming cranky children. Oh, yes, you tried to entertain me with those five feature films in a row, but I know better. You really pulled out all the stops with those sleeping pills and when that didn’t work you snuck to the back of the cabin and desperately downed a beer. No, I didn’t get a wink of sleep and I know for a fact it is nighttime. I just don’t know why the sun is rising. Ridiculous!” My Body, with a capital “B,” tells me in a very matter of fact tone. “I’m simply not going to reboot like your beloved laptop! My internal clock is going to shut down until you give me a good explanation for the mayhem you’ve put me through.” And so it goes. Body stops functioning in a “regular” way. The first few days pass, but nothing else does. I try to stay up until night and go to bed when the Italians do, but toss and turn all night. “Nope, not gonna do it,” Body says. I eat and drink according to schedule, but no go. I try to translate Milk of Magnesia to Elisabetta, but I’ve already told her that I’m allergic to milk and now she is also confused.
I go to the pharmacy and they hand me magic powder. “Ok, I understand, just a little powder with a lot of water or there will be a big problem.” I take a teaspoon with a glass of water that night. Nothing the next day. Meanwhile I’m still eating – pizza with eggplant? Sure! The next night, a tablespoon more plus my glass of water. Eating, eating. It stands to reason that if what goes up must come down, then what goes in must come out. Nothing. I’m getting worried. I’ll eat more greens with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Olives are green, right? The problem is there’s also bread and pasta and prosciutto everywhere that just puts a stop to everything. I have a little water with my glass of magic powder on the sixth day. And on the seventh day God created relief and blessed women with their pre-pregnancy figures.
This is not the only problem of this ilk that I face when traveling, however. For the part of my plumbing that always works there is equal confusion. Usually it has to do with how to flush the toilets that look relatively similar to those I’m used to but seem to hind the flushers. There are those hanging pull chain flushers that linger just above my head and out of site. Then there are the most common of pulling knob flushers that sit on the back of the toilet and mock me for missing them. Finally there are the steppy foot flushers that conspire with the sink to hide themselves from view. I can spend hours looking for these flushers.
Worst of all are the truly deceptive toilets. Just evil. For example, the first day I was here in Italy I went to the all-female olive-skinned-nakedness beach where I displayed my lily-white carcass and strikingly male chest. Why I didn’t just go back into the ocean, I’m not sure. But I decided to use the Italian porta potties that sat on the far edge of the rocky beach. I step into one and then immediately step out again thinking it must be the men’s. Then I remember, I’m on a women’s beach. No male porta potty here. I go back in and close the door behind me. This will require some brain power. There is a hole in the floor and around it the plastic floor is molded to run toward the center. Ok, I think, I’ve seen this before. I’ve been here six times, how is it I always forget about public toilets. Somehow I do. I think it’s self-protection, like when a child has a terrible trauma and forgets its past. I decide to go out on a limb. I start pulling down, then eventually give up and pull off, as I can’t seem to figure out how it would work just pulled down. I stand over the hole, facing the back wall and wonder, Am I supposed to do this like a guy? Oh, no, no, no, how silly of me. I’m supposed to crouch down a little like I’m doing a wall-sit at the gym. Now I remember. I look at the wall three inches from my face then down at the hole and then my feet. Wrong direction! I turn around and wall-sit again, facing the door this time. Tighten those abs, squeeze those glutes. How in the world would my mom, after a mastectomy that borrowed muscles from her stomach so she can’t even do sit-ups now – pee in Italy? Would she fall in and get sucked down the tiny hole? And my birthmother with her triple Zs, she would tumble forward and fly out the door. I’m trying to figure out how to both squeeze the glutes and relax the rest when I remember I’m still not doing it right. I have to squat all the way down. Ok, try not to touch the floor now. Oh God, where is the hand sanitizer! I’m so grateful the magic powder worked yesterday instead of today. Thank you, thank you, thank you… I look around for the toilet paper, which is miraculously balanced on a knob over a brown bag of politely rolled up used toilet paper. “How quickly can my American behind get out of this porta potty and back into the ocean?” I wonder.
24 June '09 by Kimberli, under Alps, fibromyalgia, grief, Italy, love, photo, Uncategorized.
Part 7- Italy
I am remembering Mark Andres’ painting class back in 2006 again. We’ve practiced seeing our straight lines and curved. I am looking at a blank canvas when he stops us and introduces the concept of dark and light passages. I am not an impressive painter by any means, but I am amazed at how often I process the world as if I were painting. Since I was twelve and started taking adult lessons, I’ve observed life in terms of what colors I would need to mix to paint it. When I met my biological grandmother at 18, I learned she did the same. We still will look at random things and both say something like, “It needs a dot of red, right there. To anchor it.” So my instructor Mark, with his thick gray hair flopping in his face, tells us to prime our canvases with washes of dark and light paint. He asks us to notice how the darks in the picture connect and form passages, even when they are not literally touching. How the lights do the same when you squint or let your vision blur. How the darkness of the earth ties to the shadows on a tree and moves upward and out of the frame through the browns of the roof on the house. How the light swirling clouds in van Gogh’s Starry Night connect with the stars and move horizontally across the top two-thirds of the painting while the darks cover the bottom third and streak up into the left vertical third. Like the idea of straight lines and curved, I think of these light and dark passages as I shoot photography and as I try to process my life. The lightness of love and trust – melon gelato, prosecco bubbles, sweet strawberries. How they connect to one another and tie together easily once they begin. The darkness of infidelity and disappointment – aged balsamic vinegar, black truffles, blood sausages.
Here in Italy I’m reading a book called the Grief Recovery Handbook. I read it twenty years ago after being diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and spending over a year in bed. At that time I followed the exercises and drew timelines of my first twenty years. Now, at age forty, I’m doing the same exercises again, but have an additional twenty years of life, love and loss to cover. I look at the timeline and see that there have been dark and light passages flowing through it all. The darkness of illness that cycles, the death of a brother that is called up again with the loss of another brother that is brought back by the death of a friend and then another and then another. The lightness of music and periods of good health, friendships and travel. Bright passages of hope and love that connect the lovers and family members to one another and bring them all together in a marriage ceremony. Darkness that inks out everything as the timeline covers the past four months. There are periods that hold together like graphic blocks, bold and decisive with only general memories. Black or white. The are other years that are cluttered with details and whirl together like marbled paper. I am all of this, I think. The timeline becomes a painting in my mind, and the painting becomes a photograph I capture in the uneven doorways and electrical lines of the Venetian Jewish ghetto. The textures, the entryways and exits, the cumulative effects of it all.
Grief and four days
I don’t sleep well these night in Italy. I dream of houses collapsing, the walls falling outward while the family sits silently at the chrome kitchen table. “Move on.” “Put it behind you.” “You’ll find better.” “Time will heal,” are the things people say. I know myself, however. The hole not deep enough to bury, the distraction not sweet enough to sugarcoat and the mask not opaque enough to pretend. I have to process, regardless of well-intended advice. Tonight I was envisioning the past six years as a tall stack of wrapped boxes I carry around. The straight edges of the creased wrapping paper and twirly-twisty ribbon on top. I had taken a walk along the harborside and set my camera on the ground to shoot slow shutter photos of the sailboats in the water. In my mind I took my tower of boxes down and sat it next to me. I imagined the ways in which I could deal with these boxes. I considered several options. 1) tie the boxes together with rope, firmly attach a sailboat anchor to the end, along with my ankle, and push it into the ocean. 2) find one hundred helium balloons, I can’t yet see if they are all black or all colors, and watch the tower float off into the Italian Alps 3) open each box carefully and photography the contents. I know that some boxes will contain gifts, others grenades. Some will hold beauty, others bombs. I wonder how strong I will have to be to do it. How flexible I will need to be to discover what was not as I imagined. “Strong like a memory, strong like a willow in the wind. Strong as you’ll ever be, you will always need to bend.” Singer-songwriter, Craig Carothers
Is it final now? Four days since the paperwork was to be submitted. Four days for the judge to sign. Four seconds – a name on the Blue-toothed dash. Four days of silence. Forty days to move out. Fortieth birthday. Four month in a shocked coma.
Four minutes to book a flight to Italy.
Am I better yet?
Part 6 – Italy
I first met Elisabetta Bonino eighteen years ago while traveling through Italy with my college friend, Mojgan Sami. We were new grads with degrees in International Affairs and backpacks full of tank tops and political theories. Mojgan, with her thick black hair and provocative Persian almond eyes, was traveling between family members who scattered throughout Europe during the Iranian Revolution and fall of the Shah. I was trying out the “affairs” part of my degree. We were twenty-one and twenty-two with a six month grace period before the student loans would come calling. We met up in Paris that summer and then again in Denmark where we boarded a train for Greece to spend six weeks at a Greek wedding party. Why not? I remember Mojgan asking me if I knew exactly how we would get to Greece. “Go to Italy and take a left.” Imagine the roar of youthful laughter when we reached the heal of the Italy’s boot to board a ship and found a large arrow pointing to our left that read, “Greece.”
Sometime before being “doomed and anointed,” as the late cowboy singer Dave Carter might have said, with degrees in International Affairs we had signed up with a travel organization called Servas International. In the long ago days before the Internet, Servas travelers would write letters to Servas hosts in countries they wanted to visit. You would arrange to stay with the host for two to three days. Being the planners we were, we showed up in Rome and called Elisabetta unannounced at 10pm one night. “We’re those girls from Oregon who wrote you a letter three months ago. The boyfriend I met in Brussels last month, the one who was supposed to put us up tonight, didn’t show – could we come stay with you?” Thus began a lifelong friendship and travels between the US and Italy ensued.
Elisabetta is sixty-three years old. When we first met she was an actress, but has since retired and lives on a small pension. She’s the most independent woman I’ve ever met. In just the past few years she has traveled to Mongolia, Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkey – all on her own. I’ve seen photos of her sleeping in cave dwellings and riding stocky Mongolian horses, the wind whipping her headscarf out behind her. When I ask about her former partner of twenty-three years, Adalberto, he has also been to my house in the US and we’ve all traveled together to Canada, she only smiles. ‘I’m so much happier now,’ she giggles. ‘No one telling me what to do. No walking on eggshells,’ is basically what I understand. I wonder if I will be so much happier one day. Although they split twelve years ago, we see him for lunch a few times. They fight like an old married couple and then get to walk away from each other. She laughs about this. Elisabetta is clever and funny even in a second language and through translation. Maybe even more so. She forgets her map, her lists, her book in her fifth story apartment with no elevator and cusses all the way down the street. “I use my head only to grow my hair,” she sputters. I learn to swear like a real Italian while driving with her.
Although I try to be a good guest/roommate, I forget things. These are the things that just don’t occur to me as an American. I can’t remember to turn off lights every single time I leave a room. If you walk from the bedroom to the bathroom and come right back, you still turn off the bedroom light. I forget to unplug the computer at night to save energy. I don’t always eat everything on my plate. I scrape the small bits of leftover food into the garbage when I should save it. I flush the toilet at night and use the hot water to wash my hands. Both of which clatter and clang in the small, one bedroom apartment and wake my friend up in the middle of the night. I drink up all of her precious Turkish coffee, which coincidentally is in the same Il Piatto container that my delicious Italian coffee is in, by mistake. “But it says “@#$%^” on the lid,” she cries. I don’t read Italian or Turkish. I always know where I stand with Elisabetta. Those waving arms and expressive Italian actress eyes tell me everything, even when it’s in Italian. There’s no BS with her. I am in tears one day, lost in my own thoughts. “You okay?” she asks. “Yes.” I lie. “No, not okay, not okay at all,” she says as she comes to the couch and wraps me in her arms like a mother. If she’s frustrated, happy, annoyed with me, I know it and it makes life so much easier than reading between the lines. I have no energy for that right now. Sometime you need your friends and sometime you need your space. Just say it.
I recall her wiping up the spilled wine from the first morning, after the woman downstairs distracted me from my sleep with her orgasm, with newspaper not paper towels. “You weren’t born during the war,” she says to me often. Neither was she, but she was born right after. Italy lost the war. She tells me about how desperately poor everyone was. Her school served split pea soup and a tablespoon of cod liver oil for vitamins everyday for lunch, except Saturdays. On Saturdays they got to savor the delicious diversion of bean soup. Newspapers were torn into strips and used as toilet paper. At home she ate milk and bread for dinner everyday. She smiles broadly remembering her maternal grandmother, who saved money to buy her a chicken leg once. She talks about some people who had to eat cats. Taste like rabbit, which tastes like chicken, I suppose. I imagine my orange tabby at home covering her ears with her paws. No wonder I see so many stray cats here. Stockpiling. I have my cousin, who is watching my cat and house back home, email me a photo of her that night. Not yummy, I think.
Pizza is yummy and I’m eating it Italian style, the whole pizza all to myself, while sitting in the sunshine. Elisabetta has been waving her arms at me and I’ve decided to give her some space and go for a walk – an all-day long walk. While we have made our meals at home most days, I am excited to splurge on a lunch at a sidewalk café. I use the little Italian I’ve picked up to order. I sit there letting the sun burn my bare legs. I want to feel it. Feel a different kind of pleasure and pain than what I’ve been feeling these past months. The yellow tablecloth and hand-painted ceramic wine carafe grace my small table as I watch the green, white and red flag of Italy wave from a cafe across the street. I order a bottle of still, not sparkling, water. One of Elisabetta’s favorite memories from America is of stopping in at a bar to use the bathroom and being greeted by the waitress with a cold glass of water. Water is not simply brought to your table here.
The most perfect specimen of Italian pizza that I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming is set in front of me. Red, red sauce. Delicate artichoke hearts that beg me to love them. Whole succulent black olives, their pits just waiting to be freed by me. I’m so in love with this pizza I need to take it’s photo. The lovely curve of the brown baked edges and the straight lines of the yellow tablecloth. I wait patiently, which isn’t easy, for the feet passing through the background of my picture, to move on. “Run, damn it!” I want to yell. I make sure the focal point catches an olive and the table corner lines up with the bottle. Snap. I cut the pizza into sections then eat every bite using my fork and knife as they do here. After pausing for an eternity to watch the world on my walking street pass, I beckon the blond-haired, blue-eyed waiter, who has little interest in being interrupted from his own wine drinking, over for dessert. My stereotypes of dark Italians are ruined here in Northern Italy. Never the less, blondie brings a lemon sorbet in the most darling delicate glass. I have little time to shoot before the sun begins to melt my sweat subject, and I can resist no longer.
14 June '09 by Kimberli, under espresso, father, Italy, Osmizza, photo, Slovenia, Uncategorized, Wine.
…continued from Italy 4. The Old Man of Ternova
Part 5 – Italy
The light filters in through the fly-proof-velvet front door as the old man from Ternova sets a heavy silver pot on the stove top and lights the flame. It percolates as we are directed to sit at the lace-covered kitchen table. He shows us the room, one of two, one piece at a time. This is our new stove, this is our refrigerator. He draws our attention to a beautiful antique hutch containing the small espresso cups and saucers he will offer up for our coffee. Passed down through his family, he says. He hands me a small spoon and bowl of sugar. The coffee is strong and works to counteract the glass after glass of red wine. It’s a high percentage of Terrano grape mixed with whatever else he grows on his small farm. Black or white wine here. Not red wine or white wine, as we would say. Not a specific vintage, just black or white. Whatever grows on your land. That’s what you can sell during your ten days. It’s some of the best wine I’ve ever tasted. My mouth puckers as the tang bites at the back corners and makes my molars twinge. Again, the red clay has served its true purpose.
I think of how my father told me, in his final year, that he wished he had gone to war with his three older brothers. He says this as we try to figure out where he will live and how my siblings and I will pay for his care. My father, who was twelve years older then the man of Ternova, could have been the soldier who needed his own shoes and denied them to a child. He could have been the GI who taught the boy to say, “cunt.” Instead, he was forced to stay behind on the Washington state dairy farm and manage things for his newly widowed mother who was short three sons. I imagine my father milking cows and making cheese that this man, as a boy, was dying to have. My uncles sending the kid to town for prostitutes, not knowing if they would make it home to wives or perhaps not caring after what they had done and seen. When my father says he wished he could have been there what he means is that he wishes he could have the health care in his old age and not burden his children. My father was not a man of many words. He seldom talked. Period. Perhaps his brothers were the same. Did they ever really tell him about the war as this man was telling me? Or did they protect their younger brother from the realities of WWII? Was it left behind or lived out in silence the rest of their days? My uncles were welcomed home as heroes, but I wonder if they were ever heard as men. What they must have seen. The stories they must have held close. The boys from Ternova they must have met.
My camera clicks away as we enter the back of the house, the cellar, where the smoked ham legs and long, thick sausages are hung. The smell is overpowering, but the light is perfect. The youngest son of this man is my age. His wife-beater undershirt and cigarette give him the look of my cousin Steve who, in the ’70s, rode with a motorcycle gang. This son, however, winks at me as he tries to speak Slovenian with an English accent. He wants me to take pictures of him and his dog. It’s a big deal, these photos of his dog. It occurs to me that these 10 days of life each year are their experience of the world. They don’t own a camera. I ask them if I can email photos back from America. They don’t have a computer, or a phone. I tell them I’ll send them prints. They gather around the makeshift bar, everyone in the yard – cousins, girlfriend, dog and discuss what their address might be. The postman has finished his lunch and wine and vanished. They finally bring out a slip of paper with all the information written in the wrong order. Elisabetta corrects it for me when we return home. I ask why they don’t know their own address. “Didn’t they have to give it to the water company or someone?” “Yes, probably originally.” Then I remember, the old man from Ternova saying, “This farm has been in our family for 300 years.” It’s been a very long time since they hooked up the water.
Salty Sea and Peanuts
Groups of children are equally noisy wherever I’ve been. They likely all say the same types of things in any language, “Ah, he has a booger! Look at his booger! You farted!” The children of this bus must be on a field trip, I think. Perhaps to a prison, as they look like aspiring convicts. Rough little Italians, even at the tender age of five and six. I’ve finally figured out how to buy a bus ticket, boarded my first bus, unraveled the mystery of validating the ticket and then this! Baby felons. I’m off for a cultural excursion to Miramare Castle. Something about Maximilien, Emperor of Mexico, and a summer home. I’m sure it’s all very interesting and would make for beautiful photographs, but what I’m really about today are the beaches I saw when I passed the castle on the way in from the airport. It’s hot. I need cool water and silence. I want salty water and peanuts. Maybe I’ll make it to the castle for some culture later, I think.
As the bus lurches away from the station the prospective criminals begin their assault. They are pushing and teasing as their schoolmarm-ish teacher-guards watch with practiced resignation. If they riot, will the marms react? I’m sitting in my little seat minding my own beeswax, my face resting on my hand so I can plug at least one ear, trying to block out the chaos. I think of my happy-place on the beach. I’m like this around groups of small children. I don’t have the “off” switch that most parents have for babble. I hear everything. Everything. All the time, everything. Children one at a time work best for me. Preferably with a muzzle, in case of an emergency. Then only if they are related to me. Then only on Tuesdays. I can say that because I’m in Italy. Many things happen only on Tuesday. Or Wednesdays after 1pm or every other Friday. That’s just how it is. Try to buy fish here, for example. Only Thursdays mornings on the north facing side of the street.
So we’re on the bus and these miniature jailbirds are caw-cawing away and gyrating like actors in an Indian musical. I’m plugging my ears and thinking, “happy place, happy place,” when I see the one in front of me pointing to someone or something in back of me. He has huge brown Italian puppy dog eyes that would be lovely in a soundless photo. I’m imagining him in print when I see his terror on his face. “Ragno, ragno,” he yells and points. I catch myself before I turn to look behind me at what must be no less then Freddy Kruger himself when I realize that he is looking directly at me. Ragno, I’ve heard this word from Elisabetta’s grandson. Ragno, sounded like Arachno to me. Arachno, Arachnophobia… SPIDER!” the translations runs through my head. Spider in my hair. I fly off my beeswaxed seat and shake my head. The ragno falls to the floor and the children scurry out the door as their stop arrives. I swear I see their black and white striped shirts disappear through the gates. I turn to the people behind me who I’m sure say something like, “You go girl,” though it’s in Italian. The bus is silent the rest of the way to the castle.
I see the castle over the hill and through the woods, and turn and walk the other direction. The water is, indeed, clear and cold and salty. I take out my peanuts, as well as my borrowed red towel, and look for a place to sit here on this “free beach,” i.e., a concrete pier. It’s right next to the “pay beach,” which is the concrete pier a few feet away, but costs ten Euro and includes a lounge chair. As I’m reaching for my book and getting myself situated a chorus of voices says, “Ciao, Luca!” I look up to see the wide-mouth smile of Luca. This young man with Down’s Syndrome soaks in the welcome and then jumps straight off the pier into the water. His mother, lines running deep in her sun baked face, pushes back her flowered headscarf and slides out her clothes down to her thong bikini bottom. She is received as warmly as Luca. It’s obvious that this group of fifteen or so people know one another well. A petite woman with curly blond/brown hair and a killer body looks up at me as I adjust my sunhat and apply more sun block. She asks in Italian if I want her to move her blue jeans and bag.
Thus begins another friendship here in Italy. MariaPia is somewhere closer to my age then the young newlywed couple and gregarious Sara-of-the-red-dress that I met the first night of my stay here in Italy. Though they also play an important part. She is old enough to have her PhD in mathematics, but young enough to still be doing her post-doc work instead of a full-time position. She is old enough to have lived abroad for a number of years, but young enough to want to again. And me? Am I older or younger then that, I wonder. MariaPia speaks English and shares my peanuts – good enough reasons to be friends. We make a plan to meet again – perhaps Croatia?
Part 4 – Italy
I stare intensely into the side of his face as he speaks to Italian to Elisabetta. She translates, but I’m not hearing what either are saying, his words float around my head like clouds of cotton. I’m almost dizzy. I want to reach out and touch him like I did my father, that last morning nine months ago – and I do. The palm of my hand reaches across and settles on his cheek. His brilliant blue eyes, as clear as my father’s were, turn to me. I can feel the stubble of his morning shave and see the patches of white whiskers on the creped skin of his neck. His wife of fifty years must have recommended he swipe his nose with the blade for this special week as well. Dark, empty pockets hold fast on the fleshy mound. When my father could no longer reach up to pull the skin of his neck taunt to one side, he too would cultivate plots of whiskers like winter wheat. Long, thick hairs grew from the cartilage of his ears and ridge of his brow. I imagine his mind, as it wandered at the end, picturing tiny combines mowing down these crops and bailing them into little rectangles to be stacked for the fall feed. Not the rounded bails farmers roll out today. Like this sweet man, my father had a better memory for the far faraway past.
Someone recently sent me an email. If you get a second chance, grab hold of it with both hands. So for the two and a half hours I spent drinking wine, eating homemade prosciutto, fresh bread and taking photos, I held tight to my second chance. In some way this old Italian-Slovenian man became my father – a little visit, if only in my mind.
Here in Northeast Italy there is a very special exception to the normal food and alcohol laws. Families can, for ten days or so, hang a tree branch outside of their family winery or farms, and sell whatever they themselves produce. These once a year outdoor “restaurants” appear and disappear as quickly as you can find them. They are called Osmizza, in Italian, or Osmica, in Slovenian. I call them absolute heaven. A peak inside the gates of country life in Italy. I want to follow every branch and sign down every country road into every little farmyard. But today, we found this Mr. Alberto Skerk on the side of the road and followed him home to his family in Ternova Picoola.
I studied his face and listened to the singsong rhythm of his stories. There in his old blue pants and stripped suspenders, his face was a dried lake bed. I could nearly see where the water had traveled then disappeared. How the childhood he described were the cracks and crevasses. How drawn and gaunt must have been the face of the ten-year-old boy, once supple and plump. I imagine the elasticity of hope that gave way to texture of hunger as WWII took away his father, uncle and food. “We had nothing to eat,” he said. “My mother left us four children with our grandmother as she walked the countryside looking for flour.” I imagine what cold comfort the grandmother may have tried to give them. Here where the limestone rivers run deep into the earth with only a thin film of dirt at the surface. No gardens of rounded eggplant leaves. No lines of cherry trees crisscrossing the land then. Rock and water. “The Germans took my uncle to a concentration camp. He came home a skeleton. They rounded people up off the street, no reason. Just there, in the street,” his large, callused hand point beyond the wooden gate to the cobblestone, “bodies all over.” His shoulders fall forward and his face is dark. “Germans,” he curses under his breath. The war is tactile here.
We sit quietly for a while. We pour more red wine into small glasses. He tells about the first troops to come after that. 3000 New Zealand men in this small village, spilling out over the hillsides. They set up their kitchen, “There…” he points out the same place he did before. Sometimes they had extra food and fed the children. Eggs, bread. “We had no clothes, nothing.” After that the Americans came. “We asked them for shoes. But, no.” He waves his hands in a sweeping motion and the dog scurries from under the picnic table. “Get outta here!” he yells, remembering their words. Did I really just hear that? I’m dumbstruck. This 74-year-old man who wears his years like he’s 90, just opened his mouth and shouted in the perfect nasal-twang of 1940’s American vernacular, “Get outta here!” Jimmy Stewart couldn’t have said it better. The vowels ring with a Brooklyn “ou” and the hard “e.” Then he gets a wily smile and says to no one in particular, “Cunt!” His face crinkles in on itself and he giggles like the schoolboy he would have been when the American soldiers last spoke the word. He wants to know what it meansh but from his reaction I can see that has spent the past 64 years with a pretty good idea. There’s more wine as the postman walks through the gates and has his lunch with the small group of relatives who stand around the makeshift bar. The Americans didn’t give them shoes, he recalls to us, but they did give them a way to make money. The GIs would pay him and his young cousin to go down to the town, Trieste, 15 kilometers, about 9 miles, and bring back the prostitutes. There was no shame, everyone needed a way to make money.
A tiger-striped cat runs though the open farmhouse door. 1898 is carved into the limestone frame. My family has been here for 300 years, he says to us. The old man walks to the entryway and pushes back the coconut husk ropes that feel like velvet and keep the flies out. The cat has come for lunch, he explains. He motions for us to come with him. I grab the camera and adjust the setting for the lowest light I can. Some opportunities don’t come around twice…..
To be continued….
Part 3 – Italy & Slovenia
I’m standing next to my canvas in Painting 101, it’s 2006. I’ve taken versions of this same class for years. It’s like tennis. You keep taking lessons and finally someone asks, “Don’t you know how yet?” The instructor wears baggy pants with a corduroy jacket, a scarf tucked inside the lapel. He has mounds of sloppy gray hair that fall forward over his round glasses as he talks to us, all the while looking over our heads at the wall. He doesn’t introduce himself that day of our first class, Mark Andres, just begins. There is a simple concept he learned through one of his mentors. He will share it with us. We wait. He shifts his gaze to the window. There are straight lines and there are curved lines. That’s all. Look for them. Their patterns repeat. I think of this almost everyday now, both in photography and life in general.
The delicate curve of a petite woman’s wrist. The hard line of a chiseled jaw. The feminine roundness of an eggplant leaf that grows in the gardens here in Slovenia. The masculine straightness of the hoe the old farmer uses to plow his field by hand. Rows of cherry trees in perfect lines crisscross a field. The bending red river of juice that flows from lip to chin after we stop to buy a kilo at the side of the road. Round barrels of wine lined up side by side at the farmers house where we have lunch. The sharp peaks of the Alps rising up through the sky, the soft arc of the stone bridge crossing the Soca River. Straight lines and curved. The way life never goes in a long direct line, but from point to point for some and in great loops and swirls for others.
These lines can also surprise us when we look in the mirror or at one another. Lines that cross my face. The flat line silhouette of a friend’s mastectomy. The unyielding curved edge of a young soldier’s casket. Lines on a map define us as nations and states. Men drew a line through Berlin dividing a city, a people, a family – like here in Gorizia/Nova Gorica. One side Italian, one side Slovenian. A line drawn in pencil, thin and light. Erasable, changeable. A heavy thick line of pen, permanent, indelible. A line drawn in the sand. Cross it and you end a marriage and, of course, he did.
“Look, a land far faraway,” says Elisabetta as we drive from hill to seaside where, on a clear day, you can see the Italian Alps and occasionally the Dolomites. There’s a haze in the distance today and despite the bright sunshine we can see neither. I tell her that I can’t see my place that’s far faraway, only what is immediately in front of me. The future is too clouded right now. I prefer my 85mm lens to my wide angle 24-70mm. Too much information is overwhelming at the moment. I have to look for the bold graphic elements to compose my shots as well as my life. Elisabetta loves this expression, “…far faraway.” It reminds her of Shrek. I think of fairytales, white knights, Prince Charming. I think I might throw up.
It’s Tuesday and yet another holiday in Italy. Republic Day, or something like that, is all the more anyone cares to tell me. We just had a holiday two days ago, as well. There’s another next Tuesday. Then the elections. The children will attend school only four out of the next ten school days. All of this is made up for with school on Saturday mornings. What a drag. But for today, the children are free and we pile in to two cars and head for a day in the Slovenian countryside. Elisabetta, four of her six grandchildren, her son and Argentinean daughter-in-law and one American. As we drive across the abandoned boarder checkpoint, I’m amazed at the ease of crossing. No longer are special papers required, no guards, no guns. Slovenia has been taken into the fold of the European Union since my last visit. Euros buy the children potato chips and sodas at the gas station.
Around every corner there seems to be another castle. Perhaps I am in the land of far faraway, I think to myself. Too bad I didn’t leave my baggage at the boarder. Who was it that said, “Wherever you go, there you are”? That’s my problem now; my mind keeps following me everywhere. I focus on the lines and curves to keep myself present, if only for a while.
This is a perfect place for photography or songwriting. The red clay contrasts directly with the complimentary green vineyards. Color theory at work. It’s so fertile I’m afraid to walk on it. The grape vines and rose bushes could be kudzu. It reminds me of the Mississippi delta red clay. In 2000 I was a touring singer-songwriter who had been on the road in the US for nearly three years. These lyrics “…where the kudzu vines cover up the road signs that nobody reads anyway – ‘cause the only folks here been here for years and they all know these roads inside out,” ring true. These people have been here for generations. They know their roads, wines and wars.
There is the most fantastic turquoise water I’ve ever seen. More of a milky green. Even more vibrant then the glacial lakes I saw in Coopers Landing, Alaska. I remove the polarizing filter from my lens, as I want to make sure there is absolutely no modification of this color. Here along the Soca River the small villages either melt into the clay or sit high upon the white limestone crests of the canyon. That water, the color, is literally unbelievable. The Alps build in a great musical crescendo in the background. One image layered upon the next. The shutter flickers away, but I can tell that I’m not getting anything as beautiful as the simple experience of it all. So I put down the camera and try to enjoy this land of far faraway.
Part 2 – Trieste, Italy
This is my sixth trip to Italy and perhaps the fifteenth time to Europe over 24 years. Until the last few years I had rarely stayed in hotels while traveling. Fortunately I’ve always made friends easily. Friends with couches and spare rooms. Staying with friends has allowed me to temporarily “live,” if only for a few weeks or a couple months, in the places I’m visiting. When I was 16, spending a year in Denmark as an exchange student, my host family brought me with them to Italy for a business trip. It was the first time I was drunk in public. Not the last. Not even the first time I was drunk. That was one year before while in California at a family reunion. My liberal aunts and uncles kept secretly bringing the kids table bottles of cheap wine. I have a fantastic tape recording of myself and my cousin, Deanna, the only two actually drinking all that wine, with a guitar. It was long before I knew how to play. In the same way that passing by a bottle of Cold Duck at the grocery store makes me laugh, Italian food does as well. The part I remember most about the first trip to Italy was plate after plate of Italian pasta and glass after glass of Italian wine thrust in front of me. Eat, Eat! My host father’s handsome Italian business partner had the graciousness to ignore the host daughter, cross-eyed after the second glass, and kept pouring. To this day, the smell of pasta with clam sauce brings back memories of a night spent draped over a small Italian toilet. More on Italian toilets later.
This all to say that I love traveling and in particular visiting Italy. So, yes, absolutely, I’ve read the books, Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes and Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. The latter was high on my list of things to do a few months ago in December 2008 while sitting on the beach in Puerto Rico, just beyond the walls of our five star Ritz Carlton Hotel. After years of couch-surf-travel, I was fully appreciating the luxury of stars, especially several. My husband was next to me, his head covered by a towel to block the sun as he emailed away on his crackberry. Odd, I remember thinking. He has been working so hard these past few months – nights, weekends. He’s always stressed now and his fuse so short. Nothing I do seems to help. I think to myself this must be what they call a rough patch. My wonderfully attentive husband had suddenly stopped asking me to marry him again every other week. We had been together 5.5 years and most of it had been a honeymoon. I didn’t know I could be so in love. However, since he returned from a conference in South Africa three months before, his work has become all-consuming.
So it was, Eat, Pray, Love that kept me company that day on the Puerto Rican beach. I had seen the book reviews and heard the buzz. I love travel stories and had been looking forward to settling in with this one. I’m an avid reader, but hadn’t picked up a book since my father had died four months earlier, then my husband’s godfather after that. I remember feeling grateful that I could concentrate again and that the sadness had finally lifted. Christmas would be upon us as soon as we returned home, and this blue sky and beach was only here for the moment. It was snowing back in Portland, Oregon. As I sipped on my mojito and sank into the story I remember turning to my husband and asking if there was a problem back at work. “No, nothing,” he said from under the towel. I tried to tell him about the crazy author who was sobbing on her floor because she needed a divorce. Even as I sat with my father’s body the day he passed I did not feel that kind of sorrow. I certainly cried, but I did not feel the gut wrenching pain this woman obviously did. Nor could I, quite frankly, relate to it. I continued through the book, noting to myself that the author was a bit nuts, but I loved experiencing her travel adventure and her laugh-out-loud wit.
One and a half months later, back at our comfortable home, I suddenly understood her. Right there on my own kitchen floor. I couldn’t get up, couldn’t stop sobbing, couldn’t breath, couldn’t think. My world was turned inside-out with one phone call from South Africa.
It’s May ’09, four months later now, and I’m here in Italy again – not with my husband as I was two years ago when we traveled to Santorini, Greece and then to Rome to visit Elisabetta. I’ve come here alone, avoiding the finalization of our sudden divorce. I’ve run away just like in the Italian TV news story yesterday. A bride from Trieste ran off with the limo driver right after the wedding pictures. She went to change out of her dress and jumped in the car with the driver instead. I wish I had been the photographer and caught that one. “Keep running,” I might have yelled.
I imagine all this as I gulp down espresso while standing, not sitting, in the café and begin my day.
I took a boat trip across the bay to visit the town of Muggia. With Google Earth you can be there too, although maybe not exactly in the same way I was. You won’t get rained on, nor will you hear the gravelly voice of the old man who has likely smoked for seventy years. The small streets in the center are just as you might imagine them, however. Narrow walking paths between buildings of raw sienna and ocher. Clothes strung outside the window shutters to dry in the fresh air. It’s 10:30AM by the time I arrive and a few locals sit in the cafes and bars. I wandering in and out of the streets looking for a good shot. I discover windowsills and doorways accented with stray cats and tall plastic bottles full of water. The bottles sit on the thin doorway steps, two or three per house. Water delivery? Water for outdoor plants? When I finally ask the reason I am assured that they are there to scare away the stray cats. Hmmm, not working.
On Packing: Never take my advice. I’m terrible at it. I always forget something, sometimes everything. For example, this time I forgot to bring my pants. Here I am, no long pants, no jacket. In my mind it’s always 80 degrees and sunny in Italy. In reality it’s been 91 and humid or 61 and raining as it was today. At least I brought good shoes, very important in Italy. You won’t believe the 4 inch purple heals I discovered on a woman yesterday. Yes, I photographed them, just for your viewing pleasure. Two weeks ago, when I was debating coming to Italy, I sent an email out to some of my girlfriends. Should I or shouldn’t I? Was I sane enough yet? Did I have enough money? Was it a crazy last minute idea and someone needed to bring me back to reality? My friend, Kim Brecko, replied with this, “What to think about except what shoes to bring?” I bought the ticket immediately.
On Photography: On good shoes, beauty and interesting faces. When you see it walking down the street – shoot it. You’re a hunter. Follow it, stalk it, run, skip or push a kid off of his bicycle to get to it. If it’s great and you need to have it in your little photographer hands – it’s almost always possible. Ask, don’t ask, it depends on the situation. I love shooting food and wine. I love it even more when I have something or someone interesting in the shot as well. For example, you’ll see two photos of the favorite local drink here in Trieste, “Spriz Apenol.” It’s a fabulous concoction of white wine or prosecco, mineral water, aperol or campari. Go ahead, try this one at home, kids. Here’s a demonstration. I’m already friends with the waiter at “Urbanis” sidewalk bar. Here’s how it works: he brings me a beautiful local drink and a wide variety of appetizers. I photography them wide open, meaning whoever is in the background becomes blurred, then consume them. Perfect! Then we start all over again.
Part One – Trieste, Italy
I awoke to the sound of a woman’s orgasm. Really, it was beyond impressive. The scream followed by rhythmic howls echoed around the courtyard and up through my open windows. It’s as if she were saying, “Welcome to Italy. We are so glad you’re here.” I look at the clock, it’s 4:30AM. I’m pulled back under by a jet-lagged slumber. I awake again, this time to the smell of espresso. I stumble into the small kitchen where my friend of 20 years and hostess, Elisabetta, is standing at the sink. “I don’t know if you’ll understand this,” I say, “but last night I heard a woman….” She laughs so hard she knocks a bottle of wine from the counter and it shatters all across the kitchen floor. I sit still as she sweeps the shards from around my feet and tells me about the new neighbor. On hot summer nights like last night, when all the windows of the courtyard open to the cool air outside, she keeps the elderly residence awake for hours. I wonder if they are as envious as I am. The smell of spilled red wine mixes with my espresso as I start thinking of the adventure this trip will be.
I’ve come to Italy to heal, to photograph, to shake of the numbness from my body and find joy in the details again. I’ve somehow missed the past four months of my life. Not that I wasn’t there, surely I must have been. It’s just that I can’t imagine it all changed so quickly. More on that later. Now, I am here, on the Adriatic Sea in the very corner where Italy gives way to Slovenia.
I finally get outside with my camera, but I’ve missed the precious morning light. So I began scouting the nooks and crannies of the city. The narrow pathways between old buildings, the zigzag staircases leading up the hills to yellow houses and streets lines with scooters. I look at the sun, where is it now, where would it have to be for the photo I envision? I think of the woman who might walk up the stairs this evening, in her black dress and heals, heading to the cafes that line the sidewalk. I will return to this place several times during the days to come, as I will the other places I’m discovering, to watch the light, the colors and the people who pass. As I am walking by one of my small alleys at exactly the wrong time for good light, I see an old man with a bag of groceries walking through the archway. He’s backlit, so his body is a shadow. I put the camera to my eye, quickly adjust the settings and shoot three shots before he turns the corner and walks back out of my lens and into his life. I subscribe to the philosophy of carefully thought out shots, but when the spontaneous moment occurs – grab your camera and shoot!
When the light is too flat, and I am simply too hot, I decide it’s time to take a break and head for the water. I’m on the Adriatic coast, and from what I saw during the drive along the shore from the airport yesterday, the locals make the most of it. Especially during this May heat wave when we are all soaked with sweat. I’m told that Trieste is known for it’s separate male and female beach. The only one in Italy. Why would I want to go to a all woman’s beach in the land of Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome, I think to myself. Of course, that is exactly where I ended up today. It is also exactly where I needed to be.
Alone in Italy, surrounded by women. I don’t speak their language, they take no notice of me, but as I watch them sitting there in twos and threes or alone, talking, laughing, connecting. Mothers, sisters, friends, lovers. I know I’m in the right place and that these women have as much in common with me as the women who have held me up during these past few months. The ones that have cried with me, made me food and brought flowers, as if someone had died. The ones who listened to my same questions over and over, the ones who came to pick me up off the kitchen floor when I couldn’t stop sobbing. No, I don’t try to talk with these women on the beach, all ages, all sizes, sagging, bronzed, scarred, beautiful in their aged and sagging bodies. I don’t have to. I sit quietly surrounded by and feeling part of them even though I am from the other side of the world. Somehow I know, they get me.
I don’t take my camera to this beach for two reasons. 1) water and Canon 5Ds don’t mix, and 2) my soul sisters are mostly topless and would probably not appreciate their boobs on the internet. I do, however, spend time thinking about how I would shoot. What would be the two most interesting shots? I go through the technical aspects as well as the composition in my mind, then relax and enjoy. It won’t happen, but it’s worth the exercise to think about it.
I sit on the rocky beach, stones the size of plums, observing the mass of femaleness from behind my sunglasses. I imagine my wonderful Irish grandmother alongside the 85-year-old woman I see walking out of the sea toward me. Her great brown breasts resting on her round Italian belly. I can’t help but compare my body to those all around me. I win the prize for being the whitest of the white. I even surpass the babies that sit with their mothers under umbrellas. Unlike this olive-skinned flow of women, I am a neon sign. The first purchase I made when arriving was a bottle of sunscreen. “To avoid cancer,” I tell Elisabetta. The second was a bottle of self-tanner. “To give you cancer,” she tells me. If I’m imaging my grandmother on this beach, then it’s easy enough to bring my birth mother into the image as well. She would win the much contested, but justly deserved prize for the biggest boobs on the beach. I’m not sure of their size, but if there’s such a thing a Z cup then she’s a triple. Evidently, I inherited mine from my birth father. It occurs to me that by the time I return to the US she will have been surgically altered to a C cup. Sometimes bigger is not better. I suddenly regret not having photographed them before I came here. I could have taped the photo between the wide-open space on my chest, “Really, I am related to these.” I could have said. In reality, however, no one on my beach cares about florescent skin or genetic misfortune. I lie back on my rocky towel and close my eyes.
When I finally open them there is a little boy, perhaps two, standing in front of me. In one easy movement he pulls down his swimming trunks and displays his wee wily. He proudly looks around at the sea of women and smiles broadly as if to announce, “Have you ever seen such a magnificent sight?”