Sunday, November 13, 2011


I am vain; there’s no denying it.

I only post flattering pictures (mostly old ones) on Facebook. My business card photo is probably 15 years old, and it took three rolls of film—yes, film—to get one glamorous shot. I used to wear jeans so tight I had to lie down and use pliers to get them zipped. I wore eyeliner to the operating room when I went for cataract surgery. I dye my hair.

This confessional came up because recently I used the word “slip” to a woman twenty-something years younger than I and she didn’t know what I meant. “Petticoat” was no help either.

Discussing the extinction of petticoats with Nicodemus this morning, I told him about Spanx. Probably I am the last person in the world to learn about Spanx, a kind of super-corset which squashes female flesh. They make Spanx “body-sculpting” underwear in all sorts of forms to fit parts from shoulder to toes. God knows what the things do to your insides.

Before I learned about Spanx, I was curious to notice, looking at pictures of a lovely chubby tango dancer (nobody we know) in a strapless dress, that she had a pleat in the skin between her bare shoulder blades. What could cause such a thing, I wondered. Did she know her skin was pleated?

Now I am wondering if these garments have to be removed with scissors. Can you bend from the waist? Has there ever been a Spanx explosion where the flesh comes tumbling out of the constriction? And is it really worth it to suffer for the sake of looking thinner than you are? (Or younger. With thick eyelashes.)

In the interest of research, I took a look at advertisements for Spanx. No, I am not going to buy any. And, searching for the etymological root of the word Vanity, I looked at the Greek version of Romans 8:20: “For the creation was made subject to vanity...” The word is also translated as frailty or weakness.

You might think vanity would be opting for appearance over reality, or the capitulation to some sort of cultural imperative regarding ideal beauty. But maybe it could also represent an effort to get one’s outsides to look more like one’s inner sense of self. How many people do you know who like photographs of themselves? How many do you know who catch a fleeting glance in a mirror and think “Who the heck is that?”

(Narcissus, from John William Waterhouse painting, Echo and Narcissus, 1903.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Nonda and Ed: This morning’s New York Times reproduced its front page from Nov. 9, 1965, about the huge blackout which happened when we were living on Riverside Drive in New York City. I thought I’d send you a copy of the front page and remind you about what happened that evening.

I was still at work at the United Nations delegation on the lower east side of the city when the lights went out. It was almost closing time for the office on the seventh floor of the Harcourt Brace building and when the power went out, we were completely in the dark. The elevators were not working, of course, so we decided to walk down the steps by the light of various people’s matches and lighters.

Once we were outside, there was pandemonium in the streets. All the subways were stopped under ground, the traffic lights were not working, and every time a bus would come by, people would rush in a crowd to get on any bus going uptown. The office was on about 54th Street and our apartment was on 168th. Caught in the noisy, pushing crowd, I shouted out “What are we all here? Animals?” People were so shocked by this outburst that they actually stepped back and let me on the bus, which was bound for Harlem. I got on the packed bus, terribly worried about you kids, and rode as far as the bus went, to about 145th Street.

Then I got out and walked some thirty blocks through some of the roughest neighborhoods in New York. The only light we had was a little moonlight and the headlights from cars and buses. Pedestrians and cars were going everywhere in a kind of mad tangle, but though everybody seemed to be out on the street, nobody bothered me, I was not robbed, mugged or maimed, and finally I got to 168th and Broadway and crossed the street in the dark, heading down to Riverside Drive.

When I reached our building, I saw a little light on in the superintendent’s apartment at street level, but of course the rest of the building was dark. I knocked at the door and was greeted by the mother of Junior Collazo, Nonda’s little friend and the super’s son. When I looked in, I saw Junior and you two about to chow down on some delicious-looking tamales wrapped in corn husks. Your baby-sitter, Kay, had left you two with the Collazo family and had gone home to the Bronx. By then it must have been about 7:30 or 8 P.M.

I don’t remember what happened after that. I just remember how scared and worried I had been, and what a peaceful scene it was, you two sitting happily at the table, about to eat a delicious dinner by lamplight.

Love from Mom

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Yellow Cello: A Mystery

The yellow cello is a big-bottomed narrow-waisted lady with an elegant hand-carved maple scroll. It was probably made in the mid-nineteenth century, during the lifetime of Johannes Brahms, in Germany. It has a spruce table, a maple back and ribs. Its fingerboard and purfling, the thin strand which outlines the top, are made of ebony. June, the woman settling the estate, did not know what to do with the cello, which had belonged to her friend and neighbor, Norma.

Certainly the instrument wasn’t much to look at, with deep cracks all along the belly, a patch on the front, a deep gouge made by the bow, a badly warped bridge and rusty strings. Through the slightest of contacts—the aunt of a fellow cellist learned about the cello when she struck up a conversation with a perfect stranger in her old neighborhood-- Nicodemus heard about the orphan instrument and went to look at it.

June, herself a lively and alert woman in her nineties, said she had often carried the cello to jobs for her friend, who had died, unmarried and childless, at the age of 94. “I guess that part of my life is over,” she said sadly.

Although the instrument hadn’t been played in ten years, “it was the light of her life,” June said. The yellow lady had been left to Norma by her own cello teacher.

Instrument makers and lovers joke about the Strad in the attic. Such is the mystery of stringed instruments that innocents cannot avoid hoping the violin, viola or cello they have found is worth a fortune. In this case, despite a paper stating the modest replacement value of the cello for insurance purposes, the obvious damage made it seem unlikely that the instrument had any value...

Until Nicodemus played it. And fell in love. And gave June a thousand dollars on the spot and brought the cello home.

Even with the rusty strings and the dreadful cracks (they had been patched from the inside and someone had sprayed lacquer on the face to try to make them blend into the wood) the cello had such a big, warm voice that Nicodemus could hardly bear to stop playing. He played and tweaked, tuned and peered, changed a string and played some more.

He took the cello to Carlos, the fine instrument maker in San Francisco. Carlos took in the condition of the cello at a glance, unscrewed the end pin and looked inside. “Not too bad,” he said, though the accumulation of dust showed how long it had been since the top of the instrument had been removed for what Nicodemus called brutal repairs. Carlos played the cello a little. “Beautiful,” he said.

Sleuthing out the history of a musical instrument is usually difficult if not impossible unless the instrument is famous. In this case, June said her friend had played the cello as principal cellist of the Peninsula Symphony, but even the old-timers at the orchestra had not heard of Norma. The cello teacher who willed the instrument to Norma supposedly was principal of the Oakland orchestra, but the orchestra’s archives do not go back very far. The only other clue to the instrument’s history was the figured maple bridge, stamped with the name Salchow, a New York firm.

June believed the cello had been played in Mexico at one point. She said Norma had sold a different cello to someone in the San Francisco Symphony and that she had given another cello to a student. The yellow lady was the one she kept until the end.

Why was the cello’s label removed? Where has it traveled since 1850? All we really know about it is that at least two cellists loved it and played it all their lives, and that despite its age and trauma, it still sings with a beautiful voice.

Friday, September 9, 2011


“Try To Remember” is the first song in The Fantasticks, the long-running musical show.

Try to remember when life was so tender

That no one wept except the willow.

Try to remember when life was so tender

That dreams were kept beside your pillow.

Try to remember when life was so tender

That love was an ember about to billow.

Try to remember, and if you remember,

Then follow....

We try to remember all of our lives: words, faces, names, times tables. But there comes a time when remembering becomes harder. We apologize for our Senior Moments and worry about Alzheimer’s. And by now we all know or have heard of someone actually stricken with severe memory loss and have heard of the anguish this causes them and their families.

We work at remembering. Mnemonics, named for the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, help us to name the colors of the rainbow, the order of the planets, the music lines and spaces, the Great Lakes: Roy G. Biv for red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet. Mary’s Violet Eyes Made John Stay Up Nights Pondering for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Pluto (lately demoted, but still part of the mnemonic.) FACE, Every Good Boy Does Fine. HOMES.

But maybe we should take another look at forgetting. A touching moment in the original Star Trek episode “Requiem for Methuseleh” ( has Dr.McCoy saying of Kirk’s grieving “I do wish he could forget.” And Spock, placing a Vulcan hand on the head of the sleeping Kirk, says “Forget.”

Mnemosyne was a Titan, a predecessor of the Greek gods and goddesses, and the mother of the Muses. Her counterpart, Lethe, was only a river god in charge of forgetting. However, the shades of the newly dead were required to drink from Lethe, the stream of oblivion named for the god, in order to forget their earthly lives before passing into the afterlife.

When the subject came up last week, Bruce, a brilliant young violinist who never forgets anything, said that in the Chinese culture, not so much urgency was attached to the memory facility of the old folks, or even to their behavior. We hold them in high regard for who they are to us, great-grandfather, great-aunt, not for anything they do or did, he said.

Maybe we cause our forgetful family members unhappiness by urging them to remember, I thought. I thought of conversations centering on some symptom of forgetting which caused sadness on both sides. “She couldn’t even remember her brother’s name.”

Shared memories are integral to our relationships, and yet we loved little children before we had any common memories.

Sometimes I think of my friend Arlene as the Defender of the Aged. She has worked with old people for most of her adult life and once did a study where she played music to nursing home patients believed to be in a persistent vegetative state, the end-stage of forgetfulness. Measurable brain wave activity arose in some of these patients after they heard the kind of music they had liked when they were younger.

“You remember Ram Dass’s book, Be Here Now?” Arlene asked me. “We thought that staying in the present moment was philosophically and psychically something we should strive for. Remember how we all worked so hard at our yoga so we could stay in the Here and Now? Well, these old folks, the ones who can’t remember, they are there, right in the middle of Here and Now.”

Mosaic from the first century B.C. depicting symbols of Apollo (center) Mnemosyne (top) and the nine muses. Clockwise: Calliope, Urania, Polyhymnia, Erato and Terpsichore, Melpomene, Thalia, Euterpe and Clio.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Images and Religion

The various religions I have heard about have strong opinions about imagery in places of worship. Sculptural depictions of religious figures are all right in some cases and strictly forbidden in others. The beautiful calligraphy of Islam may stem from the forbidding of actual images. The terrifying images of Tibetan Buddhism are a world away from Michelangelo or a plastic madonna on a taxicab dashboard.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, for ten centuries one and the same with Roman Catholics, does not allow graven images but embraces the flat, stylized style of painting which is ikonography in the Byzantine style. They believe that the first ikon was painted by St. Luke. (I am retaining the “k” in the word to distinguish it from computer pictures.) The images of the saints have been so traditionally depicted down the ages that many are recognizable by certain traits: Paul, for instance, is balding; John has curly hair. Some of the apostles are bearded and others are not. John the Baptist has wild leonine hair and wears an animal pelt.

Ikons are not objects of worship, but rather are foci for meditation. The figures are always painted with their ears exposed, as if they could listen to a prayer. Many ikons have had miracles attributed to them, of course. Fire walkers in northern Greece hold ikons as they walk across live coals, sometimes in socks, and are not singed. Two ikons I saw last year in San Francisco are said to be emerging from what seemed to be bare boards. (Ikons are painted on wood.)

We became acquainted with Eikonurgia, a Greek ikon-painting group headed by the master painter George Kordis, through an Internet bulletin board. Nicodemus posted a question about gilding which was answered by one of the teacher/painters from Athens in the group. We have been to Greece several times to observe the group’s stunning work in churches and monasteries.

Now the group has come to America for the first time and has been painting a new Orthodox church in Columbia, South Carolina. Through YouTube, Facebook and Skype, we have followed the painting all month. The amount of surface covered with raw pigment suspended in liquid glass, their fresco medium, would be staggering even without the images.

But trying to describe the images is almost beyond me. Starting with the dome, 70 feet above the floor of the church, is a Christ image whose halo is probably five feet across. Thie image is circled by scriptural words in Greek. Below the Christ image is a 360-degree frieze of angels and seraphim among the stars, and a circle-framed madonna and child. Below this are the words of Psalm 104 in English, the Western letters painted in the Byzantine style. “When thou openest thy hand all things shall be filled with good.”

The next tier down has 20 windows, and between each window is painted an Old Testament Prophet perhaps eight or nine feet tall, identified by name. The windows themselves are painted and decorated. On the next tier is the story of Creation, replete with the sun and moon, the oceans, plants, birds and animals. A short narrative in English describes each part of the painting, which continues through the eviction of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. On one of the YouTube videos, a photographer asks George why he is putting shoes on Eve after she has left Eden. “Vanity,” George answers.

Now we are almost on the ground floor, and the paintings are of the four evangelists. As of the latest postings, a painting of the Last Supper is being sketched in charcoal, freehand as always, by George, who will complete the sketches, faces, draperies and highlights, followed by the other four members of the team, who know exactly what to do. Every square inch of the church above the ground level has been painted.

The scaffolding alone is an engineering marvel. “This is the best scaffolding we have ever worked on,” my friend Yotta said (even though she stepped on a nail when someone overlooked an upturned board .)

I have seen hundreds of examples of Eikonurgia’s work, but the Columbia project is surely the most beautiful (and vast) project they have created. Every figure is painted with such care and reverence that, even if you don’t really believe in what it represents, you must appreciate the genius, the energy, the discipline and the faith which has produced the image.

I am reminded of the first time I saw Delphi, the site of the ancient oracle and the focus of any number of religions in ancient Greece. It left me breathless. All the reverence which had gone into that rocky piece of mountain was palpable. You could feel it from a mile away.

Ikon painters do not sign their work except for an occasional “through the hand of...”This morning, George posted a photograph of the ikon in the church dome, taken from outside, at night. The few words which accompanied the picture showed so clearly that he does not consider this his work at all, but only something which has come through him. “Is always there,” he wrote. “Taking care of...”

Thursday, July 14, 2011


“Es muerta,” Antonio says, shaking his head sadly. We look at the tree, trying to see whether any part of it might be saved, but finally decide that it is only good for a little firewood and that it will take two truckloads to cart the rest to El Dumpay.

Antonio only speaks a little English and I speak no Spanish at all, but we manage to communicate through gesture, good will and a little mind-reading. I know that he is not yet thirty but has two sons, one of them twelve, going on thirteen. I know that he is a strict and devoted father who must be home when school gets out and his wife goes to work. He seems to support his parents in Mexico, and more than once has taken in a relative who had nowhere else to go.

Back before he had papers, Antonio went door to door looking for work. I told him I didn’t really have anything, but if he would leave his telephone number, I would call him when I did. He wrote and erased, wrote and erased, and I thought that anybody who wanted that much to get something right would be good to know.

He and several relatives painted my house by hand, with brushes. Antonio didn’t mind washing windows or cars, did all his estimating and billing in his head and never made a mistake, even when he had taken advances for lunch or materials. I worried about how he would keep doing all this when he grew older. I wished he would take an English class or try to get a contractor’s license, but he was too busy working to do much of anything else.

I made business cards for him so he wouldn’t have to keep writing and erasing.

“Maggie, minuto, come,” he says, and I trudge over to the fence where he is cutting up the dead tree with a handsaw even as the sound of chainsaws and chippers blast away from neighbors’ houses. He shows me a decayed stump some eight feet high, two feet in diameter at the top, five inches at the rotting bottom, upright only because it is leaning on branches. The stump had been hidden by the dead tree Antonio was taking out.

“Oh, my God,” I say, picturing orphaned children, Antonio or me squashed as flat as the coyote in Loony Toons. “Be careful! Don’t do anything! Wait until somebody else comes!” Holding my breath, I nervously pull away some logs as Antonio casually clips a few branches, mentally measuring where the stump might fall.

Then he pushes the stump and it falls to the ground with an enormous earth-shaking thud.

“One truck,” he says “for this at Dumpay. Forty-seven dollaria.”

“Not worth it,” I say, and we wordlessly agree to leave the stump where it fell.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Deus Ex Machina

I have an uneasy truce with the machines. This may date from an astonishingly low grade on a mechanical aptitude test I took in high school or from the description of a war against the machines in the Sixties Bible, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf: “(They) praised machinery as the last and most sublime invention of the human mind. With its aid, men would be equal to the gods.”

I have been nudged and bullied into dealing with machines. I had to learn to drive at age 40 because there was no school activities bus to where we lived in the country, and the kids wanted to play football. I can drive if there aren’t too many left turns, but my present car has so many mysterious computerized functions that even the dealer can’t tell why the alarm goes off at random.

In fact, the whole darned house is computerized: The coffee maker, the kitchen range, the television and its remote, the sewing machine, telephones, stereo, alarm clock, answering machine, calculator and camera. Ed gave me a Global Positioning thing after we kept getting lost, and once I get more confidence about left turns, I have every intention of using it.

The turntable which was going to turn all my vinyl records into compact discs, however, I donated to a choir auction. The box had never been opened. Sometimes you have to flat-out acknowledge defeat. I can make compact discs from audio tapes, however, which is a dubious skill since everyone else deals with iPods now instead of compact discs. I have a machine which is supposed to make JPGs from old slides, but I haven’t yet taken it out of the box.

I got my first computer because I wanted e-mail. It took a week to get up the courage to open the box. When I plugged the thing in, it didn’t work, and I phoned up a friend and cried. The problem proved to be the plug, not the computer, and so I have had the usual computer snags and problems ever since.

The newest machine is an iPhone I actually requested for my birthday. To activate it, one had to have the latest version of iTunes on the computer, and to support that, one had to have a more recent operating system than I have. This is what I mean by being nudged and bullied. Meanwhile, I am just using the iPhone as a telephone, and it works just fine.

The phrase “deus ex machina” or “god from the machine”, by the way, comes from Horace, who deplored the Greek tragedians’ use of cranes (machina) which were used to lower actors playing gods onto the stage, where they would neatly wrap up a rambling drama.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Nicodemus and I are taking a Greek class, and while we are struggling with declensions (don't ask) we are learning some interesting things.

About limbo, for instance. Ever since I read Dante in high school, I have thought that limbo was a place, real or imagined, where unbaptized children went after death. In Dante's Divine Comedy, virtuous pagans and great classical philosophers including Plato and Socrates, joined the unbaptized children in this shadowy place. I worried quite a lot about the children in limbo.

Then it turns out that "limbo", which means "margin" in Latin, was a copyist's mistake. The monk copying the scriptural passage was referring the reader to a margin note. The next copyist incorporated the word into the text, and eventually the concept of limbo entered the Catholic catechism, though it was never doctrine. In 1992 the catechism dropped the mention of limbo and in April of 2007, Pope Benedict officially clarified the matter without blaming the medieval copyist.

Now I want to talk about a different kind of margin. Most of my friends who were church musicians have either lost their jobs or have been replaced by amateur volunteers, playing mostly guitars and drums. Not many churches these days play the great liturgical music of the past. There is a question as to whether this is an artistic or an economic decision.

And...the 54-year-old Coastside Chorale which I accompany fell victim to budget cuts in June of 2010 even though a parcel tax initiative benefitting the school district was passed. The local adult school was axed without an apology or any official notice.

Next chapter: The Chorale starts up again in fall of 2010 under the aegis of the understaffed local Parks and Recreation department and operates for a full semester without a class list or any idea what its financial situation might be. Telephone calls are not returned. Four months after chorale members had paid their enrollment fees, Parks and Rec released a portion of the fees back to the chorus, which had salaries and expenses to cover. And then Parks and Rec closed down and their administration was passed to a city a mountain range away from the Coastside.

The San Carlos Parks and Rec intends to increase fees for the fall semester, and the remote administrators want a 40 per cent cut. The Chorale, which just wants to sing, is balking, but they do not have tax-exempt status and need a sponsor for purposes of insurance, director's and accompanist's very modest salaries, music scores and rehearsal space.

"Do you feel marginalized?" I asked the director, who several years back lost her church job.

"Do I..." she stammered. "Do I..." Finally she was able to finish her sentence. "Ever".

Friday, May 13, 2011

If a Tree Falls in the Forest: A Conversation

“Why aren’t you writing?”

“Because hardly anybody reads any more.”

“I think you’ve got your reward system backward.”

“What do you mean?” (I ask him this very frequently.)

“I mean that instead of doing the crosswords as a reward for doing something you don’t want to do, like the dishes, you should reward yourself for doing something you actually want to do, like writing.”

“It just seems pointless to write when we’re living in a time where so few people have the skill or motivation to read.”

“Well, I practice the cello every day. I practice things nobody will ever hear but me.”

“Oh, that’s not true. Everybody wants to hear you play. You play all the time.”

“But I practice because it is what I do. I think you should write because that’s what you do.”


Monday, May 2, 2011


An entire olive harvest was strewn across the parking lot at the church where Master Sinfonia performed yesterday. Birds will not eat the bitter olives, and most cars were parked well away from the half-crushed mess.

When I saw the ripe olives beginning to fall from the trees last month, I was tempted to gather them up and take them home. Then I thought that they really belonged to the church, so I resisted the temptation to harvest them.

This time, it was obvious that the olives were being wasted, so I found a bag and picked up maybe a pound of the best of the windfalls.

A gallon of olive oil costs about thirty dollars these days. Black olives are not cheap. And yet here were all these olives, being wasted. All that was necessary to use them was to wash them well and put them in salt water for three weeks.

In ancient Greece, the Athenians voted whether their patron should be Poseidon, who gave them the horse, or Athena, who gave them the olive tree. The olive branch has come to symbolize peace throughout most of the world.

Here amidst our prosperity, we complain that we are poor, but truly I think our poverty is for the most part one of education, culture and spirit.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Rediscovering Wonder

Sometimes it seems to me that there are currents in space and time which sweep all of us into places and situations where we review, correct, amend, or remember some scene. Or rediscover wonder.

The population of San Francisco is greater than 809,000. The population of Ouranoupolis, Greece, abut 9,000 miles away, is about 900. More than 50 years ago, I spent some time visiting in Ouranoupolis and my son Nonda had his first taste of solid food, fish, at the hands of a woman called Fani Mitropoulos.

What are the chances of my meeting Fani’s nephew (“I am like a son to her”) at an Easter church picnic yesterday, and what are the chances of our discovering the connection? We had reserved a table at the picnic in San Francisco, a celebration with roast lamb, music, all the good Greek things which follow 40 days of fasting and several late-night church services.

We had empty seats at our table, so the man, Neboisa, and his companion joined us. The conversation began in English: “What part of Greece are you from?” “Actually I am from Serbia,” the man said. “We used to look across the border at Serbia,” I said.

“From where?” he asked. “Near Thessaloniki,” I said. And from Thessaloniki, it was just a hop and a skip to Ouranoupolis, the tiny village in northern Greece where the boats leave for Mount Athos.

Fani Mitropoulos was part of the household of Joice Nankivell Loch, an Australian writer and self-trained medic who wound up with her husband, Sydney, in Ouranoupolis in 1922 as staff of a Quaker refugee camp for people displaced from Asia Minor. The couple rented their house and its tower from the monks of Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos , a religious city-state more than a thousand years old .

They worked with the Quakers in Rumania during World War II, but then returned to Greece to assist victims of the Greek civil war. Even after Sydney died in 1955, Mrs. Loch stayed on in Ouranoupolis. She was the only medical person for miles around. People with serious problems who could stand the trip were sent to the nearest doctor, 70 miles away; Mrs. Loch dealt with everything else.

“It’s do-gooders like me who have contributed to the village poverty,” she once told me. “If a couple had four children and two died, which was usual, then the property only had to be split two ways. Now it is four.”

That autumn of 1958, we slept on rope beds, clever contraptions which could be firmed up or softened with a few tugs. We visited the 14-th century tower but did not see the monk’s ghost so many visitors reported. Fani came up with a wooden laundry tub which made a fine bassinet for baby Nonda. We marveled at Mrs. Loch’s six-toed cats, played with her baby goats, looked out upon the blue Aegean sea and watched the sun sparkle on the waves. Currents in space and time: Only a few years ago, Nicodemos made a retreat to Vatopedi Monastery, and Nonda and his family visited Ouranoupolis and took the boat which goes around the coast of Mount Athos. A friend in San Francisco had an ikon of Saint Marina. When I admired it, she said that it had been painted by Fani Mitropoulos.

“Mrs. Loch’s cook?” I asked. “Yes. Fani.”

No women are allowed on Mount Athos, so often the monks would have to hike down to Mrs. Loch for first aid or dinner. Fani cooked for Mrs. Loch, her Swiss companion Martha and their many visitors. She produced huge meals on an enormous wood-burning stove. The day we were there, she milked the sheep and made yogurt.

From 1922 until the 1970s, carpet-weaving, fishing and farming made a modest living for families who were forcibly removed from their homes and livelihoods by wars and political events over which they had no control. As Quakers and peacemakers, teaching trades was for the Lochs a vital part of re-settling the refugees.

The local women were fine carpet makers, but their chemical dyes were gaudy, Mrs. Loch said, and their patterns were unlovely. The monks brought Byzantine carpet patterns from pictures in the monastery libraries. Mrs. Loch, Martha, and Fani sketched out the patterns and gave them to the village women.. They perfected the art of dyeing wool with natural materials, yielding beautiful subtle colors.

Mrs. Loch knew exactly when to harvest leaves, bark, grass and flowers for just the right color. The resulting carpets, while expensive, were so in demand that there was always a waiting list for them. A Greek friend had one of the Ouranoupolis Tree of Life carpets. Fruits, flowers and animals cascaded over the fine wool in colors straight from the natural world. It was one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever seen. Today many of the carpets are in museums.

Mrs. Loch had started out as a writer, and she collected stories from Ouranoupolis for two children’s books about a fictional boy named Christophilos. Any re-telling of a folk story received her full attention. Her blue eyes would light up and she would nod encouragingly. “You mean the knife would never have been used to cut garlic?”

Some years after our visit, Mrs. Loch had a stroke. The villagers went to church and prayed that God would take a month from each of their lives and add it to that of Mrs. Loch. She recovered, regained the power to speak, and was well until she died in 1982 at the age of 94.

Among the many humanitarian awards received by Mrs. Loch (none of which her Greek friends knew about) were those awarded by the governments of Romania and Poland for saving a thousand Polish and Jewish children through a daring escape with the Rumanian underground. At her funeral, the Greek Orthodox bishop of Oxford called Mrs. Loch “one of the most significant women of the twentieth century.”

There are probably still Greeks named Sydney—Seed-nay-eee in the Greek transliteration--, both men and women, from the days the people of Ouranoupolis wanted to honor the stranger who stayed to help them.

(Photographs: The young writer Joice Nankivell; Mrs. Loch, MLB, Martha and Fani’s sheep at Ouranoupolis in 1958.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Need, Disguised As Love

More words have been written about love than any other subject. It is as if love were a cosmic puzzle which we sing about, write and talk about, wonder about, and sometimes obsess upon. I myself am guilty of writing far too much poetry about love. In modern times, people even shop for love. There have always been matchmakers, but now matchmaking is an industry.

As a veteran of the love wars, I have frequently been given advice by my friends: “If you can’t choose between them, you probably don’t love either one all that much.” “There’s a major difference in commitment here.” “I don’t think he’s got what it takes to keep you down on the farm.” Mostly I ignored this advice, sometimes to my peril and embarrassment. Not to mention cost.

The Greeks have two words for love. Erotas is the love which demands union, romantic love. Agape is selfless love, as for God, one’s children, a friend or an old wife or husband. Music and literature are most often concerned with Erotas, which after all leads to the perpetuation of the species. Romeo and Juliet did not live to have to deal with family holidays, bad breath or farts. Cole Porter’s comment on Erotas was that it was too hot not to cool down. The popular American distinction is between being “in love” and “loving”, putting enormous weight on a tiny preposition.

The famous passage about love in First Corinthians uses the word "agape" in the original Greek. Historically, the Greeks have always assumed that Erotas would in fact cool down, and so long-term serious contracts like marriage were based on more stable things.

I am not one to deny the intoxication, power, or mind-bending beauty of Erotas. Look at all that music, art and literature it has produced. On the other hand: Henry the Eighth.

What is it that we need and are so likely to justify in the name of love? We need the basic creature things, food, shelter, safety. We need the psychological things, acceptance, esteem, continuity. We have humanistic requirements: Some indication that our life has meaning, that we have value, or even that we are lovable. We do not want to feel separated. In fact, Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving says that the experience of separateness is the source of all anxiety.

I could be an old poop and respond to “We love each other” with the Logic 101 request, “Define your terms.” But I’d much rather echo the conversation between Tevye and Golde in “Fiddler On the Roof”. “Do you love me?” “Do I what?”

(The painting is Edward Burne-Jones’ Cupid and Psyche, the cover of my latest poetry chapbook, Cupid’s Arrow Gone Awry”.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Believe It Or Not

Things nobody believes: That I found a piglet frozen in the snow at my grandmother's house when I was ten. That a wolf ran between Susan and me while we were outside talking. That I had déja-vus constantly the whole time I lived in Greece.

Things I don't believe: That Charles saw a UFO in New Mexico. That folk remedies are better than modern medicine, though I am willing to try them. That any religion, non-religion or belief system (including my own) has an exclusive corner on the truth.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Cypresses

I have been wanting to write about the Monterey cypresses for some time. Last night's big storm, with its morning aftermath of fire trucks, power company vehicles, neighborly conferences in the road, chainsaws, gave me the nudge I needed.

Only one small branch and a rain of cypress pollen fell in the yard, though there are three enormous broken, hanging branches across the street and a pile of debris, cleared by the firemen, beside the driveway. Most of the trees are a hundred feet tall and getting toward the end of their lives, according to Bill, the tree man.

Whenever there is a storm, I tremble and fret, remembering the many times branches have fallen on the cars or gone through the studio roof. I am almost superstitious about the cypresses, using their cones, which are like golf balls, for decoration, making wreaths from the fallen greenery.

This morning Nicodemus and I dug up a six-foot cypress which was trying to grow in absolutely the wrong spot. We planted it in the southwest corner, where two big stumps show that there were large trees growing there some time in the past.

Each cypress tree has a distinct character and appearance. On the west side of the house there are seven remaining trees: Wendy, Wanda, Willa, Winnie, Wahine, and the twins Wose and Wooth. On the south side, in front of the house, is the biggest tree, Susa, beloved of squirrels. On the other side are the twined cypresses Sara and Sota, where the owls roost and the woodpeckers forage. Beyond these are two dead trees, Sank and Sunk, and one barely alive cypress with one live branch, Surviva.

On the East side of the house are the worst troublemakers, so bad that Bill once screeched to a halt as he was driving down the road, ran in and said "you have a branch up there which is life-threatening." That branch was from Elmer, which has provided many near-misses for us on windy days and nights. His companions, progressing toward the street, are Elsa, Emma, Eleanor, Elsie and Elsalita.

The new little cypress is named Cyprian.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Greek Key

Keys have power. Think about how some people display their keys. Think about what is involved when someone gives you (or will not give you) the key to their house. I remember how hard it was to turn over my keys when I retired from the college, even though there was no reason I would need to open the practice rooms or the piano lab again.

I think it was this feeling, the feeling of someone handing us the key to something important, that made Nicodemus and me so enjoy our first class in Fourth Century Greek. Most of the people I have mentioned this to have reacted as if we were studying Trilobites in Turkestan. Three friends actually understood our enthusiasm, and one of them was the daughter of a Classics teacher.

Every time a New Testament passage comes up, N and I grumble about the various translations, always preferring the King James. The original Greek, of course, is always the same, but it is considerably different from the modern Demotic which we try to practice at dinner time, when we read the Divry’s calendar, with its historic notes, its bad jokes, and its two dates—one Julian, one Gregorian.

The second session of this class happened to be held on a night when neither of us had a rehearsal to attend or a lesson to give, and on a lark, we drove up to San Francisco, found the place, and took our seats. There were about twenty interesting-looking people in the church library, one of them in priest’s black. The teacher was a comfortable-looking woman wearing a beret who proved, in the course of two hours, to have a mind like a fine-honed steel edge.

Nicodemus took notes. I sat with my mouth open most of the time after we did a jet-speed sweep from the Phoenicians to the possibility of a class party in Greece.

So now N is trying to learn his lower-case Greek letters and I am trying to absorb the fact that what looks like an apostrophe is really an “h”, as in hoi polloi, which is pronounced the way it looks in classical Greek, but which is “ee poh-lee” (the many) in Demotic.

Just think: the next time we go to the British Museum, we’ll be able to read the Rosetta Stone!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

No News Is Bad News

We've been heading in this direction for some time. At 8:00 this morning, the newspaper delivery person tossed a two-pound package in the general direction of the house. I took the parcel out of its two plastic bags and prepared to sort out the readable parts of the San Francisco Chronicle, only to find that there were none. The entire package was advertising sheets and circulars.

As the scene grows darker for print media, the Chronicle has resorted to more and more advertising gimmicks: An advertisement page with the newspaper's logo at the top which obscures a third of the real front page. Various ad pages which protrude from the papers ever-slimmer news sections. Inserts made of stiff paper so that the reader cannot turn the page. And of course column after column of screaming commercial messages, more of them when there is a holiday coming up. (In this case, the Super Bowl--that's football for those of you who do not follow sports-- is next Sunday, and much of the advertising has to do with television sets or what is now being called Home Entertainment Systems.)

There was a time when the Knoxville News-Sentinel had a strict policy that no more than one third of the newspaper could contain advertising. But that was when more people wrote for and read newspapers. It's sad.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Cat Mystery

Our beautiful gray tortoiseshell cat Mimi died November 13th, and the only thing mysterious about her demise was how well she hid the fact that she had at least three life-threatening conditions while continuing to eat, listen to music, play with her catnip mouse, all the things she liked to do.

We put her body in a plastic box and buried her up in the corner of the yard I like to watch when I am pondering. We put all her toys in the grave as if she were a pharaoh and might need them. We tossed her comb and food dish and scattered her kibble in the back yard, where the neighbor’s dog promptly scarfed it up, looking about furtively for the huge cat which once chased him away.

I had one dream of her, a silent dream, where Mimi was running up the driveway, south, as fast as she could go.

The mystery is what became of all the cat hair. She had a luxurious coat which shed everywhere, floated in the air, worked its way into the carpet, stuck to the stove, adorned all our clothing, collected in the corners behind the furniture. The day after we buried her, all the cat hair mysteriously disappeared. I thought I would use her brush for my hair as a kind of legacy from her, but when I washed the brush, only lint came out; no cat hair. Our black clothing, once richly enhanced with pale gray fur, no longer had a single trace of cat hair.

Some of this might be explained by the heavy-duty air filter on the furnace, at least the floating and pooling hair bits. But what could get the hair off our fleeces, coats and sweaters when energetic efforts with brushes, vacuums and sticky tape would never quite do it?

Nicodemus says she took it all with her.

(Smiling Mimi card by Christine and Jordan Hosfeldt)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Epiphany 2011

In the darkness out there,

the lights are little worlds:

Headlights of the workers driving north,

miners’ lamps up on the mountain,

the blinking of an airplane, eastward bound,

the corona of a yellow street lamp.

Out on the water, there is a moving light

from a crab boat heading out before dawn.

If there are stars about,

they are hidden by fog

and the moon is nowhere to be seen.

Here inside where love has been

severely battered,

one lone candle flickers.