Vivian Swift is my favorite writer/illustrator. Opening one of her books is an invitation to cozy up on the couch by the window with a cup of honey lavender tea within arm's reach. Her writing makes me laugh and ponder; her watercolors make me sigh and imagine. She typesets the text of each of her books by hand. I feel her presence as I turn pages, as surely as if she were sipping tea alongside me.
Last night I finished her most recent book, Gardens of Awe and Folly - A Traveler's Journal on the Meaning of Life and Gardening. I'm not a gardener per se. I enjoy filling pots in the spring with petunias, geraniums and whatever colors pop out at me as a I browse Lowe's Garden Center aisles. The nine gardens that Vivian highlights, "from Scotland to Key West, from Brazil to Paris," are legitimate gardens, planned and planted with knowledge and intention. But it wasn't so much for the gardens as the journal on the meaning of life that I chose this book.
And on each of her garden journeys, Vivian's insights move me further along my own path.
Join me on three examples:
1. The Square du Vert-Galant in Paris - a big idea in a small space - to which Vivian says, "If you ever start to feel as if yours is a measly 2/3 acre life, remember [this] garden. Then nothing about you, your ideas, or your garden will ever feel small again."
2. Chelsea Physic Garden in London - a garden which has continually reinvented itself since its origin in 1673. Vivian's succinct message: "Things change. Deal with it."
3. A "midnight garden" in Rio de Janeiro - a walk of sausade, or melancholy. Vivian described the feeling in words that touched my own melancholy.
The presence of absence.
For, you see, my mother has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's dementia. As the disease progresses, absence will become more present. I ponder that reality and wonder, How can I focus on what is still present within the ever-deepening absence? I have no immediate answer to my question, but one of Vivan's illustrations reminds me to keep looking... in every present moment, to keep looking.
I've been back in the States for three weeks now, after leaving Montenegro on a sunny day much like the one here, today, at our Arkansas home. Jagged mountain peaks stretched for miles on one side of the plane, blue waters of the Adriatic on the other. I closed my eyes and allowed images of the last six weeks to parade past. . . new friends, ancient churches, three-tiered yachts and motorless skiffs, bougainvillea, pomegranate, palm, magnolia, and a husband doing work that is more a passion than a job.
The windows, which I wrote about in my last post, lay far below; but their reminder to wonder remains a daily intention. What of the second pattern that I discovered as I scrolled through the dozens of photos on my phone? What else had I paid attention to over and over again, and what messages did the images carry for me?
I share a sample of them with you, as I ponder their significance for myself.
Paths, steps, roads - obviously, my fascination with journeys comes forth loud and clear! They remind me to stay curious, to risk the unknown, to be open to what's around the next bend, to take the first step. And one road, on a mountain high above the town of Kotor, Montenegro, added yet another insight.
Drew and I were walking along what, at one time, had been a road leading from the base of the mountain to a smattering of old stone houses. Billy goats and hikers seemed to be its only present-day travelers. As the byway curved and started its gradual descent, I experienced a strong impulse -- to step off the path. A patch of green grass surrounded by trees invited me to pause and pay attention.
So, I stopped, stood and watched quietly as a family of goats skirted the clearing on its way to sweeter pastures, their bells keeping time with their footsteps. Sparrows flitted from branch to branch. Cracked pomegranate skins revealed red seeds ripe for the taking. Jumbled piles of white stones were heaped here and there, stones I intuitively felt drawn to. Without thought or plan, I gathered several in my arms and began fashioning them, one by one, into the ancient design of a spiral. I didn't ask why. I simply felt joy in the act of creating, in stepping away – even briefly – from my continuous flow of movement from one place to another.
The worn, wise road had reminded me to slow down (at least occasionally) and savor moments along the way.
*all photos taken in Montenegro by Twylla Alexander
Have you ever scanned through the photos in your phone or camera searching for patterns? What subjects have you shot repeatedly, perhaps unaware that you were even attracted to them?
Over twenty years ago, I devoured a book of self-discovery by Sarah Ban Breathnach titled, Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. In one chapter, she suggested that her readers create an Illustrated Discovery Journal, blank pages waiting for random images – photographs, magazine cut-outs, museum brochures – anything that immediately said, "Pick me." Sarah instructed us to select without questioning why. It was through this path of intuition and feeling that we would discover our authentic selves, as we reflected on the patterns that filled the pages of our journals.
Throughout the years, I've returned to a version of Sarah's Discovery Journal as a way to listen more closely to my inner voice, the one that so often gets drowned out by the busyness and routines of the everyday. As I prepare to leave Montenegro, I decided to search the scores of photos I've taken over the past six weeks, looking for any patterns that might appear, any insights that might be waiting for me.
I quickly found two, repeated over and over again. I share one of them here and save the second one for my next post. Neither pattern surprised me, but the abundance of both in Montenegro shouted loud and clear. . . . "Pay attention!"
Shuttered, unshuttered, no shutters.
I stop, stare, snap a photo, and at each one. . . I imagine.
I imagine the story that lies behind it – the last person who stood looking out. What was she thinking that day; what possibilities stretched to the horizon; what uncertainties might have held her back?
Who latched the window and abandoned the house to creeping ivy and peeling paint?
Windows . . . remind me to wonder.
*All photos taken in Montenegro by Twylla Alexander
Pomegranates! I never even saw a pomegranate until I was fifty-something, browsing in an open-air market in Cairo. I picked one up, sniffed, and rolled it between my palms until the shopkeeper, who had no doubt seen this clueless behavior before said, "Can I help you, madam?"
"What is this?" I asked.
After a few quick squeezes to soften the skin, he pressed his fingers firmly into the leathery fruit and pulled it apart. Red popped out in all directions. Brilliant, shiny red - of poppies and rubies, cardinals and lipstick.
"Try," he said.
"What? The seeds?"
I could tell his patience was wearing thin; so I picked one, one lonely seed from a mound of hundreds.
That's all it took. The mostly sweet, slightly sour juice burst into my mouth as I crunched the kernel.
I bought that one, three more and came back each week for a fresh supply.
So you can imagine my excitement when I arrived in Montenegro to find pomegranate trees in almost every yard, scattered through open fields and along remote hiking trails. A neighbor kindly shared a handful of her tree's abundance, and I've spent the last hour removing seeds.
Pomegranates make me work for their goodness.
But the reward is worth the wait . . . that is, if I can successfully wait. The temptation is great to pop a few along the way. Just one seed here, a handful there.
Excuse me – sorry to eat in front of you. Come to Montenegro, and I'll share.
There's only one way to find out. I google World-Wide Labyrinth Locator and hold my breath. I optimistically tell myself that the chances are good. After all, as of October 10, the number of labyrinths listed on the Locator was 5455 in 85 different countries.
I scroll down past Mexico, and there it is – Montenegro. I quickly click to pinpoint the exact labyrinth locations and find. . .one. But at least there's one. Where? Hopefully, it's not up one of those precipitous one-lane mountain roads I've read about and vowed to avoid. No! As fate or geographical coincidence would have it, the one Montenegrin labyrinth is in Kotor – the next town over – an easy 20-minute drive from our apartment, in the Cathedral of St. Tryphon. I enlist the help of a new friend, Olga, and the search is on.
We weave our way through the pedestrian-only streets of Kotor's Old Town before the first busloads of tourists arrive. The two-towered cathedral is all ours, silent except for the caretaker setting up racks of souvenirs at the entrance. Strange that the interior of the building doesn't feel as old as the 1166 date inscribed on one of its towers. No ancient remnants of charcoaled columns and chipped facades; but airy brightness of smoothened edges and whitewashed stones.
We would later learn that much of the church was renovated following several earthquakes, the last in 1979. The labyrinth is one of the newest additions, created in 2001 when the cathedral's floor was rebuilt.
I spy the labyrinth immediately – or the center of it – feet away from the altar. Benches cover two sides, but I can make out its octagonal shape. Its gleaming marble stripes of gold and cream feel like a smile, a familiar welcome to this pilgrim seeking its path. A path
no wider than my own narrow foot.
Olga must think I'm crazy when I ask her to approach the caretaker with my request to move the benches so we can walk it.
But she does.
And, miraculously (well, we are in a church), he says "yes."
I half walk, half tiptoe toward the center, balancing myself in more ways than one. Olga, who has never encountered a labyrinth, walks inquisitively around the outer edge.
Just as I arrive in the center and inhale a breath of gratitude, the caretaker returns in a rush, announcing something urgent in Montenegrin. He reaches the benches and begins realigning them. Apparently, the arrival of a tour group is imminent, and our private moments with the labyrinth are over. Grateful for his cooperation, we help him, then gather our belongings and leave.
I turn around at the door and return the labyrinth's smile. I wish it could answer my lingering questions. Who decided to build you? Why? For what purpose? Do people ever walk your path or even know there's more of you hidden under benches?
Questions for another day. Today's joy is more than enough.