Jetlagged in Zurich & where I’m headed next.

rhythmic-landscape-on-lake-geneva-1908On the plane ride from Boston to Zurich I met a girl named Desiree who was flying home to Bern. She had been visiting her boyfriend (a Mexican-American serving in the US Air Force). She missed him already, and I told her I missed my guy, too, even though we had only been apart for a few hours.

When we got off the plane, she helped me find the shuttle train, those quiet and sleek trains that seem to have been installed in every major airport. I was asking her about Switzerland—do you like living in Bern? what is the best thing to eat while I’m here? what’s cool about Zurich?—and when we got on the train, she pointed up with one finger. Her eyes were the kind of pristine china blue that inspires men to write longwinded rock ballads. “Listen,” she told me. “They play cows and the sound of birds and that big instrument that you blow? That big one that is shaped like a…” here she used her hands to draw a large swoop in the air. “That’s Switzerland,” she said as the sound of mooing started playing over the intercom. She laughed.

Earlier in our conversation, I asked her what she liked about America. She said a lot of things, but my favorite was this: She said it was just like the movies. She wanted to go to a house party, having seen so many on screen. “Those red plastic cups!” she exclaimed. “Solo cups,” I provided. “I love them, too.” I asked if she got to play beer pong, and she said yes, and even though this sounds silly—your country has cows, mine has house parties and drunk college students—it made me feel infinitely better about America. We’re the country of flip cup and Hollywood and boyfriends in the Air Force and lots and lots of land.maggia-delta-before-sunrise-1893

I’m in a Holiday Inn in Zurich now. It’s a 24-hour layover before I fly to Oslo. I can’t sleep, because my body hasn’t figured out which knob to pull to reset and rewind its inner watch. I spend the day wandering around the city. I spent hours in an art museum (more on that another time) before walking aimlessly around the streets until my feet hurt from the cobblestones and my mind felt foggy. It’s a Sunday, so all the shops are closed, but it was 50-something degrees out and it seemed like the entire population had come out to celebrate. I walked across bridges, back and forth crossing one side to the next, like I was lacing up a shoe. On each bridge, I stopped to look south, out to Lake Zurich, out to the Alps. I’m always looking toward mountains.

Tomorrow I fly to Oslo. From there, I go further north. It’s as though I harbor a compass inside my ribcage, an iron needle that hums and worries when it’s being ignored. Ever since I was a little girl, I have always fantasized about the far north, the arctic, the cold, the clear truth of ice.

I’ll be there soon. Zurich was lovely, and I miss America already, but I’m excited for Finnmark. I hope to write more on this blog while I’m there, so whoever is reading this… I’ll see you again soon.

Images by Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler, who may just be my new favorite artist. He believed in something called “parallelism,” a system of symmetry and rhythm that connected people to the landscape and created world harmony. (I think? I’m not sure I fully understand.) His work reminds me of the Viennese Secessionists (my fave) and I spent a very long time in a room with his paintings today, just staring. Today was a good day. 

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Things with wings and grief like fire.

At_Night_Achile_CasanovaI’ve been thinking a lot about bats lately, which is due in part to working at Islandport Press (I’m a contributing editor, one of my many part-time positions). Islandport is a small Maine publishing house that has produced many great books, including  a very charming board book written by my co-worker, Melissa Kim. This particular book, published in a partnership with the Maine Audubon Society, is about the daily life of a little brown bat. It is cute and funny and full of science and I really adore it.

But it doesn’t sell quite as well as other picture books—sweeter picture books, ones with earth-bound animals like cats and horses. And I’m not sure why. Is it because bats aren’t as cute? Because bats are scary and gross? Don’t kids want to read about the only mammal capable of true flight? Haven’t they heard of Stellaluna? I was a girl who loved bats—I can’t be the only one of my kind.

And now that I’m thinking about them, bats seem to be everywhere, including in my memory. Several years ago, I was visiting a friend in Austin following a horrible heartbreak. I was devastated—filled with a kind of grief and desperation that I hadn’t known before, the kind that climbs from your stomach to your heart and back again, trailing hot fingers of pain through my torso, up and down and up and down. Few things brought me joy, but the bat bridge did.

In Austin, there is a bridge that connects the two sides of the city. The walkway below the bridge smells earthy and strange from the guano, so much of it. Bats roost below, clinging to the bottom of the man-made cavern. Every night at twilight, bats stream out from under their hanging spaces. Hundreds, thousands of creatures, wings spread, chirping, devouring the night. bats_austinI was so taken by the bats that I went back the next evening, and again the next. The sight soothed me with its strangeness, its utter unfamiliarity. I felt better, watching those bats. Less lonely somehow.

Now, years later, I am married to the man who once broke my heart. I’m as far from Austin as one can be and still be in America. I wonder if I will ever see those bats again—if I will ever need them, like I once did, to heal an aching heart.

[Top image: At Night by Achille Casanova (1861-1948) medium unknown.]

Two Nice Things: Joy Kichi’s glass botanicals & I’m going to Colorado!

Joy Kichi Glass Art Cactuses
Joy Kichi Glass Art

Today I stumbled across Joy Kichi’s instagram account, where the artist shares her amazing glass cactuses and botanicals. Check ’em out! 

I’m really feeling the southwestern vibe this morning, which makes perfect sense because I leave for Colorado tomorrow. Garrett and I are going on our (belated) honeymoon to the mountains. I’m looking forward to…

Your wild is tame compared to these reindeer-riders.

05-mongolian-reindeerOne of my many 2016 goals is to get in touch with my wild side. I don’t mean my party-girl-stay-up-all-night self (no, I know that bitch well enough already, thanks) but my moss-sniffing, leaf-eating, earth-worshipping wild side. The side of me that revels in storms and licks the rainwater off my face. The side that dreams of bears and sleeps under the stars.

This part of myself is also loud and a little unruly. She feels everything and she reacts quickly. She knows her place in the world and loves it (she’s joyful, that wild girl). She’s dirty and willful and perhaps even sometimes a little obnoxious. But she doesn’t give a fuck. Because that’s what being wild is… to me, right now.

But as I write this, I am reminded of the actual wild folk on this planet, the people who live off the land for twelve months of the year. Compared to many people in this big world, I’m the tamest little shrew that ever lived, typing away on my laptop, safe in my bed, miles from any the real wilderness. In many ways, I have an easy life, a cushy one that allows me to grow fat on my butt and fingernails too long for manual labor.reindeerriders1

I know “easy” is relative. I know one way of living is not superior to another. I know I am romanticizing the nomadic, of-the-land lifestyle that many people lead by necessity. But I do think there’s something I can learn from listening to my wilder side. I think there’s a lot the earth can teach me; so many things the world has yet to reveal.

Today, I am gazing at pictures by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, a Harvard-educated photojournalist and scholar with a Phd in Mongolian and Tibetan languages. He spent over a decade living in Tibet and the Himalayas, documenting the lives of nomadic tribes and herders. He captured women riding reindeer and men communing with bears. He documented a girl and her fawn and a boy gazing proudly at his trained eagle. He lived amongst these people, learned their habits, and depicts their wild lives with compassion, honesty, and just a little romance.

Mongolia_Reindeer_PhotographyThere’s nothing wild about looking at pictures on your computer screen, but it is very inspiring. Check out more of his work at MessyNessy or on his official website. 

Iceland is magic.

Andre-Ermolaev_Iceland_photograph
2015 has been a strange year for me. It’s been a year of very high highs (engagement! book deal!) and very low lows (cancer. surgery.) and all the forward motion has my head whirling. So, I did what I always do in times of stress: I booked it outta there.

I’m writing this from Iceland. I’m staying in a little wilderness pod on a peninsula in western Iceland, about an hour or so north of Reykjavik. I’ve been to Iceland before, but I didn’t get to truly experience it. Now, I’m traveling abroad alone for the first time in my life and I love it. I’ve been here for less than 24 hours, but I’ve already swam in an outdoor public pool, took a sulfur steam bath, climbed to the top of Reykjavik’s highest church, tripped into a waterfall, and hiked over a Viking ruin. It’s a little lonely being here by myself, but in a way I really enjoy. I talk to myself. I eat what I want. I take naps in the car. I ignore all itineraries because the only one I need is in my own damn head.Andre_Iceland_photography
Anyway, for the next five days, I’m going to be bumming around the Icelandic countryside looking for hidden folk and snacking on delicious cheese. (Seriously, the cheese here is like nothing I’ve ever tasted—creamy beyond belief, flavorful yet mild. Mmmm I want more just thinking about it.)

In the meantime, please check out some of my previous Scandinavian-themed blog posts:

1. A post about “Friluftsliv” a rad Norwegian word that means connecting to nature, soaking in the wilderness, and feeling peace from green things.
2. Have you ever heard of the Jolabokaflood? It’s a holiday tradition that I think is absolutely BRILLIANT. (Also, did you know Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country on earth?)
3. A little bit of imagery-inspired fiction (or to use a title I don’t really like, “Old Finnish People With Stuff On Their Heads)
Iceland areal shot
And finally, the pictures above are by the very talented photographer Andre Ermolaev. Seen from above, the Icelandic landscape is even more otherworldly (and trust me, it’s pretty surreal already). His photographs look like beautiful abstract paintings. He captures the natural beauty so wonderfully, with striking compositions and colors that really sing. Check it out.

Let’s go to Greenland.

Summer in Tasiilaq
Summer in Tasiilaq

It was created in beauty. One October day the temperature drops 50 degrees in four hours, and the sea is as motionless as a mirror. It’s waiting to reflect a wonder of creation. The colds and the sea glide together in a curtain of heavy gray silk. The water grows viscous and tinged with pink, like a liqueur of wild berries. A blue fog of frost smoke detaches itself from the surface of the water and drifts across the mirror. Then the water solidifies. Up out of the dark sea the cold now pulls a rose garden, a white blanket of ice blossoms formed from salt and frozen drops of water.

I’ve wanted to go to Greenland ever since reading Smilla’s Sense of Snow (a gorgeous mystery novel excerpted above that I highly recommend). Today, my wanderlust got a massive boost from Visit Greenland‘s awe-inspiring Flickr account. I have never seen so many gorgeous photos of ice and snow! There are thousands of images of glaciers glowing pink and blue, colorful homes and starry nights, wild foxes and bears and seals, and native people proudly showing off their homes. I picked a few of my favorites, after the jump: Continue reading

Skeletons of saints, covered in gems.

- Waldsassen, Germany, detail of St. Gratian. The Basilika at Waldsassen holds the largest extent collection of presumed skeletons of martyrs from the Roman Catacombs still on display..

When a man in a German village approached Paul Koudounaris during a 2008 research trip and asked something along the lines of, “Are you interested in seeing a dilapidated old church in the forest with a skeleton standing there covered in jewels and holding a cup of blood in his left hand like he’s offering you a toast?” Koudounaris’ answer was, “Yes, of course.”

I’ve been waiting my entire life for someone to ask me that question! Preferably an old crone with chicken feet that poke from beneath her skirt. She’ll ask me to come with her in cackling tones, then she’ll lower her voice and lean forward. “My name is Baba Yaga,” she will whisper, her breath smelling of burnt sage and rotting meat. “I know,” I’ll say. “I’ve been waiting for you.” She will nod, folds of her red calico headscarf falling around her wrinkled face and glinting eyes. “Come with me, child. Into the forest.”Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 7.10.23 PM

But dang, some people have all the luck. Koudounaris is a photographer, author, and art historian. He has a really rad website called Empire de la Mort that you can check out here. For a more intellectual take on his work, go read the piece at Smithsonian.com.

In Norway they call it Friluftsliv; in Maine we call it everyday life.

Ken Douglas Norway 2My love for all things Scandinavian continues with the word friluftsliv. What is that unpronounceable string of syllables, you ask? It’s a Norwegian concept, and there is no direct translation in the English language for what it means (in case you want to drop it into conversation, it’s pronounced free-loofts-liv). But anyone who lives in Maine will recognize the feeling—it’s that sense of being connected to nature, of feeling part of the greater world, of being outdoors and breathing the air, knowing that with each breath you are taking the exhalation of trees and droplets of lake water and even the matter of mountains into your lungs. Ken Douglas NorwayOkay, I’m editorializing a bit. Friluftsliv means “free air life” or “open air living” and it is similar to the concept of allemannsretten, which literally means “all men’s right” but is often translated as “freedom to roam.” (Did you know you can camp on anyone’s land in Norway, so long as you’re a certain distance from buildings? Free roaming for all!) Coined relatively recently, in 1859 by poet Henrik Ibsen, friluftsliv is a way of living that brings us into close contact with the great outdoors. It’s about connecting with nature, living in harmony with the green things that grow around us. Like the Danish concept of Hygge, frilutsliv provides another barometer for happiness—an alternative way of approaching harsh winters. Don’t hibernate—celebrate!

Scandinavian culture is so fascinating, and the longer I live in Maine, the more I appreciate their cold-weather wisdom.

Read more about this untranslatable word at Mother Nature Network (there’s also a short documentary at the link, which is great for procrastinating/feeding your wanderlust).

Images by Ken Douglas.

A very merry approach to death. 

merry cIn Romania, there is a place called the “merry cemetery” or in Romanian, Cimitirul Vesel  (cimitirul=cemetery; vesel=joyful, jolly). In the place of tombstones with their solid, solemn permanence, the Merry Cemetery uses wooden crosses, made from oak and painted by local artist Stan Ioan Pătraş, who started the tradition in 1935. (Since his death, his apprentices and followers have kept it alive. Now the graveyard has over 900 crosses, all decorated in the same bold style). Each headstone tells the story of the person buried beneath it, but not in the usual “here lies beloved Mary, wife, mother, and churchgoer” format. No, instead of providing brief, impersonal sketches of the departed’s life, these crosses are decorated with irreverent poems that focus on the follies and foibles of the dead, the colorful details that, in a more staid and stoic society, would cause the corpses beneath to roll over in shock.

This is, I think, the most interesting thing about the Merry Cemetery—aside from the folk art paintings and the striking cerulean hues. This is a place where death is allowed to be funny, even joyful. The dead don’t lose their personalities; instead of being placed beneath bland and anonymous pieces of granite, the dead lie below brightly colored tributes to their idiosyncrasies. A critical mother-in-law is remembered in a rhyming epitaph for her sharp words and wit. A known womanizer is immortalized for his favorite vice. (“Ioan Toaderu loved horses,” reads his headstone, “One more thing he loved very much / to sit at a table in a bar / next to someone else’s wife.” I believe it rhymes in Romanian.)

merryc2I’m afraid of too many things, which is perhaps why I love this approach to death. It seems natural and human. Consoling, in that strange way (I think dark humor is comforting, even when it’s a bit terrible and offensive—it takes the sting away from real terrors). The moment I saw images from the Merry Cemetery, I remembered a book I once read about Frida Kahlo that describes the artist’s feelings about death. Obviously, the visuals call to mind Mexico’s Day of the Dead, with its sugar skulls and dancing skeletons, but I think the resemblance goes even deeper than that. According to this book, Kahlo saw her death as a figure that was always close, always waiting for her, a thing that loved her, and wanted to see her home. It was her skeletal shadow. If you look at death like this, like Kahlo did and perhaps some Romanian artists do—death isn’t the enemy. Just a friend that you don’t want to meet right now.

Images via Flickr here & here.

Jason Brooks puts Paris on paper.

paris005Fashion illustrator Jason Brooks has just managed to bump Paris onto my “worth it” plane ticket list. I never really wanted to go to Paris. I’ve always been more attracted to isolated places, like Alaska or Siberia, than big, beautiful, old cites. Though describing it now, I realize I do like those crowded places, too. Just Budapest, not London. Philadelphia, not LA. I’m picky, I guess.

But I am veering too far off topic. Jason Brooks is publishing a book of his sketches of Paris. They are, by their very nature, wonderfully romantic. How can a drawing of a street be romantic? I don’t know. It just is. That’s the entire point of Paris. It exists solely for the macaroons and tulips and rainy, hazy days, and the entire idea of Spring in Paris and love in Paris and that lady who fell in love with the Eiffel Tower and married it. Clearly, she took it too far, but Paris has that je ne sais… Ugh, I’m sorry. Just look at his book.

dear paris