"Do you like stories?" he asked. "I've got a 60-second one that I can tell you in 59. And it even begins with Once Upon a Time," he added for good measure, as I stepped closer to his tented space at the Bentonville (Arkansas) Farmer's Market.
I had stumbled upon the town square of white tents on Saturday morning as I waited for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to open at 10:00. Bins of fresh vegetables, bars of goat's milk soap, farm-fresh eggs gathered from humanely-raised chickens, and jars of Ozark honeys and jams surrounded Pop's Southern Sourdough table. All tempting, but no one offered to tell me a story.
Once Pop (Dan Maestri) said the word story, he didn't have to say another word. Not a single word to entice me toward his loaves of homemade bread or spiraled rolls slathered with cinnamon. Little did he know that the word story to a writer is a magnet. He could have been selling cilantro, which I hate, and I would have been all ears.
"Once upon a time," he began, "when I was teaching school, "one of my students brought me a loaf of bread her grandma made. It was some of the best bread I had ever tasted. I asked for the recipe. Her grandma sent me the recipe and something even better, a piece of her sourdough starter."
"She'd had that starter for 50 years. . . 50! And I've had it for 25." He paused momentarily for the math to sink in. "This bread here," picking up a loaf of rosemary sourdough, "has the same DNA as bread made 75 years ago." Then he lost me in the biology and chemistry details – yeast, lactic acid bacteria, metabolism, fermentation . . .
As someone who's never baked a loaf of bread from scratch, much less tried to keep sourdough starter fed and happy, I can't begin to appreciate Pop's commitment to his breadmaking. What I can appreciate, through, is the sense of history his loaves and rolls represent. Generations of hands repeating a process to bring bread to their tables, to feed families and friends – perhaps a hungry stranger or two.
"My bread's a little different from the West Coast variety. I put a bit more sugar in mine," Pop offered, which reminded me of my grandmother's cornbread. She always added sugar to the batter. I wondered if that's what makes Pop's Southern Sourdough more southern. Regardless, it makes for a good story.
I selected a loaf of rosemary garlic (no garlic in today's batch) after Pop spiced up his story with details of chopping fresh rosemary himself and sprinkling it in the dough.
"You can eat it as is," he explained, "but it'll be a tad doughy. "It's best to bake it for about 10 minutes until it's nice and brown, then slice it up and dip it in olive oil."
Seemed like a perfect ending to me, except that I should have bought two loaves and a cinnamon roll while I was at it.
** Pop's Southern Sourdough Bread is served on selected days at Eleven Restaurant, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas
During a recent visit to The British Museum, London . . .
I thread my way through packs of school children, up the stairs to the fourth floor, past the mummies to the not-nearly-as-popular Prints and Drawings room. The door is locked. I press the small black button to the right, and moments later a woman’s face appears in the window. She unlocks the door, pops her head out – ever so slightly – and says, “Yes?”
“My name is Twylla Alexander, and I have an appointment to see Mary Delany’s paper mosaics,” I explain, in the most library appropriate whisper I can muster.
“Oh yes, Ms. Alexander. I notice you’re on the schedule. May I see your identification?”
"Identification?" I wonder, but dare not ask.
I present my passport then enter my name and address in a leather-bound ledger atop a mahagony lectern. All so wonderfully proper.
The research librarian, Angela Roche, ushers me into a long rectangular, two-storied room of paneled walls and hushed tones. Four other visitors are scattered among tables pouring over books, so intent in their research that not one looks up as we walk in.
“All is in order for you,” Ms. Roche says, pointing to my official spot at one of the tables.
“Here is one box (10 pieces) of Mary Delany’s collages, a pair of white gloves and a magnifying glass. Be sure to lift, never slide, the frames. As you know, they are over 200 years old and quite fragile. And by no means, no photos. (Imagine Queen-like British accent).
A year ago, I had never heard of Mary Delany (1700-1788), had no clue that she had created a new art form of paper collage, that she had produced almost 1000 botanically correct flower “mosaiks,” (as she called them) — all after the age of 72!
Then the cover of Molly Peacock’s book, The Paper Garden, caught my attention while browsing the shelves of a bookstore in Portland, Maine. A delicate pink rose in full bloom, surrounded by a host of pink buds, looked like a delicate watercolor. But it was one of Mary Delany's creations, crafted entirely of cut paper – layer upon layer of meticulously cut paper.
Every afternoon for a week I sat on a bench on Portland’s Western Promenade, reading Mary’s story. I copied her quotes in my journal and sketched Maine’s spring flowers in the margins. I collected my own specimens and pressed them between pages.
I became inspired, energized by a woman who died 230 years ago! A woman who walked her talk, even when she literally couldn't get out of her chair. She proclaimed, "An ingenious mind is never too old to learn."
I was determined to meet her – or rather her art – stored in box upon box in the British Museum, when Drew and I visited London next year. I felt as if Mary had sent me a personal invitation.
I scour Mary's mosaics through the magnifying glass, taking notes in my journal, marveling at details, until I reach the final frame, The Opium Poppy, created in 1776. I sit back in the creaky wooden chair, take off the white gloves and allow the beauty to soak in. I imagine Mary, at age 76, cutting and gluing at a table beside an open window, with a brilliant red poppy spread before her. She is totally in the flow as the morning sun shifts from table to floor then melts into shadow.
I (gently) hold the same cardboard frame that Mary once held and feel her presence. For a moment, we are connected. I sense her vitality, her resilience, her ability to reply "why not?" when a creative voice speaks of new possibilities. Qualities that travel through time – and cardboard – to me.
I smile at her across the centuries and mouth, quietly, "Thank you, Mary." I tidy up my space, walk back past the mummies, skip down the four flights of stairs and out the front door. It comes as no surprise as I pick up my pace, that I feel as if I could do. . . anything.
Sarah and Rosa...
in Celebration of Black History Month (February) and Women's History Month (March)
Elko, Nevada isn't exactly on the road to somewhere else, at least it wasn't for me when I began the
3 1/2 hour drive from Salt Lake City on May 7, 2014. I rented a car at the airport and splashed my way along I-80 through thunderstorms, which threatened to blow me onto salt flats stretching as far as I could see. I persevered because I knew that Sarah was waiting, and I was eager to meet her. After a year of trying to coordinate our schedules, she was expecting me at 11:00.
Sarah Sweetwater was the 42nd woman I visited on my 50-state journey. Forty-one women before her had shared their stories of creating labyrinths, stories intertwined with their own personal journeys. The only thing I knew about Sarah was that she had designed the labyrinth at Elko Peace Park, along with another community labyrinth in Ely, Nevada, plus one of her own – with the help of students, grandchildren and friends. I was on my way to walk the labyrinths in Elko and to hear her story.
What I didn't expect to find was an artist...and a subject I recognized immediately.
A woman on a bus bench.
Paused at a pivotal moment in American history.
"My intention in positioning Rosa in a half standing, half sitting position," Sarah explained, is to emphasize her intention. She was intentionally taking a stand on sitting."
Through Sarah's lens, I leaned forward and greeted Rosa, a Black woman living in the Jim Crow South, who had had enough. Enough indignity. Enough injustice. Enough!
"Watch," she seemed to be instructing me. "Watch me... sit."
She sat, fully aware that she would not rise – not this time – when the bus driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white person. By taking a stand, she ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which ultimately resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling against racial segregation on buses.
Rosa Parks was not the only woman of courage that Sarah sculpted. Cast in bronze only a few steps away stood her statue of Sarah Winnemucca, a Paiute woman, whose voice became a strong advocate for the rights of Native Americans. And commanding a table just inside the entryway sat Maya, a graceful goddess carved in white Carrera marble - "a compilation of womens' power and strength," Sarah said.
Rosa's face stayed with me for the next two years as I finished my travels and completed the book. She seemed to be asking something of me, but I couldn't determine what. I wrote Sarah to ask if she had found a home for Rosa. Impatient for an answer, I Googled "Sarah Sweetwater Rosa Parks" and to my shock and deep sadness, stumbled upon Sarah's obituary. She had died of cancer a year and a half after my visit.
Thanks to Sarah's daughter, Alice Digenan, I learned that Rosa (now bronzed) resides in Picture This Gallery in Elko. Alice is searching for a permanent home for Rosa, where her mother's talent and Rosa's message are accessible to a larger population.
I've continued to contemplate what Rosa, through Sarah's artistic vision, asks of me, and perhaps asks of each of us. I hear their voices, raised in a common refrain:
"Honor your own strength and move forward!"
In gratitude, dear Sarah and Rosa, I continue on my path – with heightened intention.
Sarah in the center of the labyrinth she created with family and friends.
Portland, Maine - March 4
Daughter Katherine was pushing granddaughter Hazel in a stroller from downtown Portland to our condo about a mile away. I was strolling beside them, admiring the turn of the century (20th) architecture while bemoaning the fact that no one builds houses like this anymore.
"Check out that house over there," Katherine said pointing to a stylish tiny house across the street. A house for books, not people. A Free Little Library!
"I love those!" I exclaimed.
Katherine, who gets more excited (if possible) about books than I do, was two steps ahead of me as she maneuvered the stroller down one curb and over the next.
She opened the tiny door, and we took turns rummaging through the collection. Towards the back, she found a set of Geronimo Stilton books that she thought Hazel's brother, Robert, might like.
"Pretty cool the way someone built this house to resemble the original," Katherine noted as she stuffed the books in her bag.
"What original?" I asked, turning my head in a clueless sort of way.
"The one behind you."
"A-ha!" Moment #1 - It pays to step back... and look at the BIG picture.
Kotor, Montenegro - March 10
I left Portland the next day to fly to Montenegro, where Drew is continuing his interim year as Head of School at Knightsbridge School International in Tivat (Read more on 10/4/17 blog posting.)
We spent the weekend in the nearby town of Kotor, showing his brother Dwight and wife Simone the sights. Kotor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, parts of its Old Town dating back to the 12th century. Many of the buildings look every bit their age, but one in particular interested me.
Unlike its restored neighbors which house restaurants, shops and hotels, its fragmented facade is overrun with vines, plants, trees and pigeons.
From the vantage point of our hotel window, I could focus on the building's details, especially the pigeons' comings and goings. While most of the population flitted between windows and roof (what remains of it), one pigeon stayed put. He/she stayed in his/her. . . pigeon hole.
"So that's where that expression came from!" I announced to anyone who would listen.
Of course, I wanted to interview that pigeon, ask the obvious questions:
Why are you pigeonholed? How do you feel about being pigeonholed? Do you stay there because you want to or because others have pigeonholed you? But, unfortunately, there was no pigeon translator available.
"A-Ha!" Moment #2 - It's equally valuable to step closer... and look at the details.
No matter what the location or situation, life keeps reminding me to pay attention.
(Find more about "Paying Attention" Part 1 and Part 2 on previous postings.)
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.