Friday, January 28, 2011


I stopped ironing clothes sometime in 1973 when Laugh-In went off the air.  It was the only TV program – comedy or otherwise – that was sufficiently engaging and humorous to dampen the dreariness of ironing.  I kept a basket of clothes that needed ironing in the closet, and when Laugh-In came on, I would take the basket out of the closet, set up the ironing board in front of the TV, spray some water on the rumpled clothes and iron until the program was over.  When Laugh-In went off the air, I stopped taking the basket out of the closet every week.  When the basket had been in the closet for a year and the wrinkled clothes in it were not worn all that time, I took those clothes to the Good Will.  Thank heavens polyester was widely available by then.  And I gave the iron to my eldest daughter when she went off to college.
I had never much liked ironing; I always managed to iron a few wrinkles into shirts because they were so irregular and wouldn’t lie flat on the ironing board.  But the job became more onerous after I married, and there were more than twice as many clothes to iron as before.  Moreover, my husband initially insisted that I iron his underwear (undershirts and underpants) as well as his outer garments. “Do you iron your underwear?”  “Yes.”  “You’re crazy.”  “My mother always ironed my underwear.”  “Well she’s crazy too.”  Deeply irritated silence.
That was our first argument.  The week before we were to be married. Too late to change arrangements.  However, after a couple of months, I stopped ironing the underwear, and, if I carefully folded and patted them before putting them away, my husband didn’t notice the difference.  He was annoyed at my deception when I asked if he’d noticed, but he couldn’t complain much if he hadn't seen the difference.  Besides, I was a full-time student in a difficult curriculum at that time, as well as pregnant and chronically exhausted.
A couple of years later, I was standing one evening at the ironing board after having worked a full day in a lab, come home and fixed dinner, done the dishes, bathed our daughter, and put her to bed.  He was relaxing on the couch watching TV, his arms behind his head.  I had the strongest urge to throw the iron through the TV set, although I never thought of throwing it at his head.  But the marriage was in trouble.
For many years (later), I was a single mom with two young children at home.  One year, we had a foreign exchange student who had come from a fairly wealthy European family and his parents had a maid.  His clothes were meant to be ironed, and he was amazed when I told him I didn’t own an iron and didn’t do ironing.  He was annoyed that he had to do his laundry and try to pat his clothes flat when they came out of the dryer.  And he was irritated when he had to go to school wearing wrinkled shirts.  Early that fall, for his birthday, I bought him an iron, an ironing board, and three polyester shirts.  And I taught him to iron, which he did, but only for special occasions.  After he started ironing his own shirts, he went to school in wrinkled shirts without complaint.
I still don’t iron and won’t unless Laugh-In comes back on TV.  Saturday Night Live is just too late just for ironing.  Anyway, I believe I’ve forgotten how.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Lake Atitlan, a pristine blue lake surrounded by extinct volcanoes, is the largest body of water in Central America.  On its steep shores are nestled several contemporary Mayan villages.  In the center of the Mayan highlands, the Maya consider Atitlan the navel of the world (as was Delphi for the ancient Greeks), where humans came forth originally from the mud and waters, and where connection to the spirit world is strongest.  Certainly it is a beautiful spot, with a greater concentration of native Maya than in other places I visited in Central America.  Although these are contemporary Maya, they retain many traditional practices and habits of dress.
The Maya have distinctive facial features, and almost everybody I saw in the villages around Lake Atitlan appeared to be pure Maya, as opposed to mestiso or ladino, as they're called here, which is a combination of Native American and Spanish. The distinctly Mayan features included black, spiky hair, beak-like noses, high cheek-bones, toothy mouths with large upper lips, and dark brows with midline furrows above very dark, slightly slanting eyes.
The day after arriving at Lake Atitlan we spent a day exploring three surrounding Mayan villages.  After taking a boat across the lake to Sant Iago de Atitlan, we rode tuk-tuks (small, three-wheeled motorized vehicles) to the upper part of the village, to the home of the village "Chief-for-the-Year." The current chief has the honor of housing, in his very cramped quarters, the statue of Maximon (pronounced Mashimon), a local Mayan diety.  Maximon is an odd god, one we encountered earlier in Antigua, who seems to have taken hold among the highland Maya.  He is a necktie-draped, ranchero-hatted, cigar-smoking caricature of something rooted in the Mayan psyche (like a finca boss?).  Paradoxically, in the same room as the Mayan deity lay a glass-sided coffin with a life-sized statue of Jesus reclining in it. 
The Catholic priests, who destroyed so many precious indigenous artifacts, were never completely successful in replacing Mayan idols with their own.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Moving into the “new” house has forced me to sift through a lifetime of accumulated things: furniture, dishes, books, records, photos, mementos, and travel supplies…ah yes, travel supplies and travel books and travel mementos and travel writing.
I have traveled as often as possible, and for as long as was reasonable, since age ten when my father took me to the big city of Chicago from the one-stoplight town of Waterford, Michigan, and my eyes were opened to the wonders of the wider world – indeed the wider universe - through the museums and planetarium that dotted Chicago’s south shore in the late 1940s.  They’re there still, although I have not been in that part of the country since my brother moved away from Chicago in the late 1990s.
But I have traveled to many other parts of the country and the world since then.  My first "independent" travel was on a boat (could it have been called a ship?) to Niagara Falls from Detroit when only fifteen years of age.  A friend, aged sixteen, and I decided that we wanted to go to Niagara Falls, and our parents gave permission; indeed, my folks drove us to the boat docks in Detroit.   We each paid for our trip with money we had saved from summer jobs car-hopping at the Dixie Spot near Clarkston, Michigan. I sacrificed new fall school clothes for that trip. After discovering that we had no parents with us, several kindly couples took us under their wings, but we were basically free to go and come as we pleased.  I loved the trip.  I loved the magnificent grandeur of the falls. I loved the sense of freedom and the thrill of unfettered exploration I experienced then. 

But it has not been just the sights of awesome places, the scenes I might try to capture on film, that so stirred my travel-lust. It was also sounds, smells, the feel of the air on my skin, the slant and hue of sunlight., the aura of a place as it penetrated my inner being.   Years later, I taught Anatomy for a semester at the University of Buffalo, and almost every week-end, I went to see The Falls.  They’re still awe-inspiring and stunningly beautiful; I never tired of experiencing the rush of water, the dreadful, thrilling sound like droning thunder as water plummeted and crashed onto boulders below, the mist glistening on rocks and tree limbs and cooling my lungs with each deep breath.  These were mystical experiences, like being in love; I always felt transformed as I left.
In 1956-57, I spent a year studying in Paris, long before it was fashionable for American college students to go abroad as part of a well rounded education.  I studied history and language in French; I spent mornings sketching and painting at the Atelier Julien. I wandered the streets of Paris, taking a new route each afternoon from the Left Bank across the Seine to my room with a family in the 19th arrondissement near Gare St. Lazare.  I stopped at coffee shops along the zig-zag meanderings of those afternoons.  I visited the Louvre frequently.  I crossed bridges and walked through cemeteries and sat in small parks beneath trees under statues of unknown Frenchmen.  When it was about an hour before dinner time, I would find a Metro station and travel underground to Gare St. Lazare. 
I can still see and smell and feel the streets of Paris in some deep recess of my memory.  Someday I’d like to live there again for a month or two.  But that probably won’t happen.  It’s like home or love; you can’t go back.  And I have also traveled to - and lived in - many other places with sights and smells and auras that were loved and left, but not quite lost.

Perhaps the value of a person, place or thing might be measured by the pain we feel as we leave it or lose it.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Presence of Place

Who has not, when alone (perhaps wandering slowly along an overgrown path through woods so fresh and green and sweet-smelling they seemed virginal; or passing, as a traveler, across uneven flagstone walkways of a quiet, quaint, exotic village, the sights and smells of which evoke a most elemental aura; or sitting in a noisy urban park about whose perimeter rise buildings like towers that obscure the sun, man-made mountains crowded with humanity spilling out onto streets and sidewalks)--who has not, I say, in some such isolated moments, experienced a keen perception of the presence of place, a heightened awareness, an intense acuity of vision, of hearing, of smell, which neglects nothing, but focuses first on one thing then on another until one's very being becomes the receiver, the reservoir, the receptacle into which the place and all its exudates may pour. One becomes filled, overwhelmed by the place; one diffuses into it and becomes, momentarily, lost in some ineffable union:  such experiences are the chief joy and solace of solitude. As often happens at such times, being alone, one may wish that another--someone special, that is, a loved one, far away, imagined, or simply anticipated for some future time--were there to share that unique experience.
And when, in the fullness of time and with characteristic generosity and irony, the Universe supplies the "love-of-one's-life" (whom one may encounter in different guises three or four times during a lifetime, who shares one's temporarily elated existence and then drifts away--or else remains, finally to wear away affection and staunch the source of passion), then one may return with the beloved to the place of imagined magic, only to find that attention is so diverted (by the other) that the place becomes peripheral--some vague and hazy backdrop to the more central, current concern. Eyes no longer focus; ears catch only jumbled murmurs; the other's presence so overpowers all scents and senses that the remembered enchantment does not--cannot--recur, and one is incapable of explaining to the companion, looking about confusedly for some clue to its charm, why one so loved that place.
A tip of the hat (and apologies!) to Herman Melville