During these travels, I have renewed my enjoyment of swimming, energetically speaking, through rivers, oceans, and seas unknown nor consciously chosen by allowing circumstances to guide me. I’ve been traveling this way for six months now, commencing with a loose plan and one-way ticket. I left Oregon at the end of July, headed to Western Colorado and the summer monsoon rains, where I recorded the life stories of Greek Orthodox elders. These gave astounding insights into a high desert community where the Greeks (along with Italians, Bulgarians, Mexicans, and African Americans) were considered outsiders by the dominant culture of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. One woman I spoke with, whose father was the first Greek man in Grand Junction, told a lovely story about how the Greeks, Italians, Blacks, and Mexicans, who all lived on the “other side of the tracks” played and ate together, a multicultural childhood where the only real enemy was the racism they faced from those white Protestants on the other side of the railroad tracks. I was surprised how the elders never really called it “racism” or bigotry, but rather it was the subtext, unnamed, and merely dealt with as they worked their way to better situations. Many of the Greeks in the intermountain West travelled there to work in the mines of Utah and Colorado, eventually saving enough to buy land and livestock, sheep primarily, and grew great ranches in the high desert region of this area. The church was their anchor, the community center point, and their protection against those who would exploit and exclude them. These stories and accompanying portraits inspired me to expand this idea into a larger project, tentatively entitled Faith, where I will gather stories and portraits from other faith communities west of the Rockies. I find their stories fascinating, particularly as a way of community-building amidst exclusion from the dominant culture.
Following the week-long story gathering, I headed to the desert and mountains in northern Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho where it rained. And it rained. And it rained some more, just in case I had missed the point. I write that lovingly now but trust me, camping in the rain—and not some light drizzly rain like we have in Oregon most of the time, but drenching downpours accompanied by 40mph winds—is a real challenge when all I wanted was to commune with the wind and sun. Reflecting upon it now, I do believe I was simply exhausted from years of work with almost no breaks. Years of struggle, both existential and financial in equal amounts, and I needed to sleep for a few months in total isolation. Like the bear paw tattoos that adorn my shoulders, I was in need of deep hibernation. My journey since then has supplied this much needed rest.
An interesting and unexpected observation I’ve made while traveling is that now, as a middle-aged woman, I slip through passport control much quicker than I did as a young woman. This is a distinct advantage I hadn’t considered after years of remaining stateside. I am no longer considered a potential threat to any country. I suppose my greying hair marks me as a settled individual, content with—or at least resigned to—my circumstances, whatever they may be. I find this strangely funny. I also find this disturbing on quite a few levels. The assumption that, as a woman ages, she is no longer capable of radical acts is patently false as well as offensive. It’s also thoroughly enjoyable on a pirate, “fuck you matey” level. I could be a walking revolution and they would just pass me through because I’ve got grey hair and wrinkles. It’s quite nice not being grilled about where I’m going and for how long. Now it’s just a “thank you madam” and “have a nice day mam.” Except once on a bus from Paris to London. That crossing was like the old days: "What are you doing traveling around? Do you have a job?! How much money do you have? Where is your return ticket?" A long, uncomfortable silence after I responded, "I'm traveling because I enjoy it. I'm visiting friends and watching people's pets, I'm taking photos, I'm reconnecting with family. No, I do not have a job right now. I don't have a lot of money, but I have a check coming in ten days..." He gave me that officious stare that only government employees can have and finally stamped my passport for a (second) six month stay in the UK. Do not enter the UK via bus--even though on certain lines it can be less than half the cost of a train and there are no real weight limits for your baggage like when flying.
I suppose the fire of youth has been tempered somewhat by life’s mighty hammer—tempered in the forge of life, so to speak—but my iron will is stronger than ever so if I was to do something radical, it’s more likely that I’d do it now than when I had my entire life in front of me and the thought of imprisonment (or worse) seemed a right waste of a life. I suppose I was a bit more mouthy when I was younger, or at least more likely to say what I’d still say today, but in a louder and more ferocious way. Now I can keep my cool when I’m upset about something (guess I did learn something in grad school: "don't get emotional, use your emotions to drive the research and let the facts prove your point." Thank you, Dr. Curtin for always simplifying everything and making such sense). In the past, I often felt like a roman candle with a wick halfway lit most of the time. I have much gratitude for my friends who would tether me when needed. I’m also grateful for a generally laid-back take on the world, a live and let live mentality that is, for the most part, fairly low maintenance. But please don’t cross me or mine because then all hell can break loose and the banshee set free.
That thought reminds me of a story that happened about eight or nine years ago. I was in grad school and the kids were about ten and twelve. We lived in university housing—a great old house near the university with rent more than half the going rate in that neighborhood—with two cats and a funny little dog. Next door lived another grad student with two ferocious dogs—one of them a pit bull that had been neglected and the other a black hound from hell; it had been a much-discussed worry of most of the neighbors on the street as to when something horrible would happen if either of those dogs ever got out. They would hang out the front window of her house, barking and snarling at everyone who walked by. In any event, something did eventually happen but thankfully the owner was home when it did.
Two friends of my kids, both aged about twelve, had been hired to mow the neighbor’s backyard, a common summer job for boys their age. As one of them waited to be paid in the enclosed backyard, talking to my kids over the fence, the aforementioned pit bull just snapped and attacked the boy waiting to be paid. He was a big, buff pit bull—large for his breed—and knocked the boy down. Luckily (well, that’s a relative term in this situation) for the boy, the dog attacked from behind, so he went face down on the ground. I believe this saved his life as the dog could not get a mouthful of his throat. The dog scratched at his back, snarling as he tried to bite the back of his neck. My kids were screaming and the woman came running out and jumped over the dog to straddle it. The boy was on the ground, the dog on top of him, and the woman standing over the dog. She grabbed the dog from both sides of his mouth and pulled back with all her strength. This released the dog’s jaw long enough so the boy could get up and away. The woman screamed “RUN!” and I was there to meet him as he got out of the gate because I had seen all this from the mudroom of my house where I had been cleaning and stopped when I heard the screams. This mudroom had windows on three sides and it afforded a complete view of the good-sized backyard and about half of my neighbor’s yard, so as the dog attacked, I grabbed a baseball bat—of which there were many at the time since my son was a baseball player—and ran out the back door, prepared to crush the skull of the neighbor’s dog in order to keep him from killing this boy. My kids later described me as looking like a banshee running out of the house, long hair sticking out in all directions screaming "I’m coming!” with a baseball bat held high. Luckily, I didn’t have to commit my first murder and was there for the boy to fall into instead, who broke down sobbing in my arms as his friend ran home to get his dad. He had large gashes on his back and neck, but luckily all his arteries and digits were intact.
His dad reported the attack and the neighbor was required to quarantine her dog at home for 10 days to make sure he didn’t have rabies before being euthanized (the common practice for dog attacks I learned). During that time, she cried to me numerous times about how she had had her dog since he was a puppy and loved him so much (I always wondered why she neglected him so terribly if that was the case) and she was completely distraught that he would have to be put down. She never, not once, apologized for the attack but instead blamed the kids for “spooking” her dog. She ended up moving in the dark of night from her house on day 8 of the 10-day observation period, never to be seen again. To this day I fear that her dog eventually killed some child in Portland where she had said she would be moving. The boy who had been attacked eventually became a drug addict and, the last I heard, was living under a bridge in Amazon Park. My neighbour would never know this outcome of course but I still sometimes wonder if her carelessness and denial contributed to that terrible summer afternoon that left my kids’ friend irreparably fucked up…
The lovely city of Cardiff sails past me as I ride a bus to London from Swansea, South Wales. I’ve been in the Swansea valley for about a month now…a city that gets a bad rap, like Liverpool or Pittsburgh used to before their rebirths. Industrial cities all three, abandoned by the national power structures but alive with people resilient, robust, and with scorching wit. Swansea, or Abertawe in Welsh, is the only one of those three that hasn’t quite made its resurrection but the heat and fire are rising and it’s only a matter of time now before the great phoenix wings explode into bright, soaring heights. Needless to say, I loved it there. Swansea is filled with music and the energy of artists—always the first to plant the seeds of growth and renewal in abandoned locations. I’m reminded of the call to action, “Plant Seeds and Sing Songs.” Like Oregon, I found a comfortable intergenerational rapport there and one always found time for a cup of tea and a few laughs. This was true everywhere I went in Wales, north and south, where magic is afoot and the old ways are just under the surface. Or in your face, fierce and beautiful. In the north one senses a razor sharpness even as everyone around me spoke soft and lilting Welsh. The North Welsh are very clear about not being English, whereas in the South there seems to be a more blended acceptance of the English. I also never heard Welsh spoken while anywhere in the South, although I know there are Welsh speakers there. But not like in the North where it's the first language. It's been in this latest generation where Welsh has really been reanimated, with nearly all schools in the North teaching in Welsh, which is compulsory for all state-educated students from five to sixteen. This has revived a language all but lost to the English domination of the area when, in the early 15th century, the last Welsh rebellion was stamped out by the English and the Welsh language was forbidden. This was more or less upheld until the Welsh Language Act of 1993, where it was established that "in the conduct of public business and the administration of justice in Wales the English and Welsh languages should be treated on a basis of equality" (Welsh English Language Act 1993, 21st of October, 1993). The early rebirth of the Welsh language is dated to about 1880, but the first seat in Parliament wasn't held until 1966. Welsh millennials and those who have come after them tend to be Welsh speakers now, particularly in the North. In any event, I was inspired by the ongoing determination to reclaim the original culture of the Welsh through language and traditions.
One such tradition was the The Mari Lwyd (Old or Grey Mare), with her skull bare to the moonlight she makes a midwinter journey, going from door to door, bringing fertility and good fortune to the community. The church all but killed this wassailing tradition that occurs between Christmas through to Twelfth Night but it lived on in the Swansea Valley and is being rejuvenated throughout Wales. The Horse pre-dates Christianity and can be connected to the Gallic Epona, the Irish Macha, and the Welsh Rhiannon, goddesses whose realms are healing, fertility, and death.
I was fortunate to be at a gathering on Twelfth Night when the Mari Lwyd made a visit to the gathering for three friends who shared a birthday, bringing with her good tidings for the year. She danced with us until the social club kicked us out and I, for one, felt the old ways meld with the new in a beautiful fusion of light-heartedness and serious magic. I think this combination of playfulness and seriousness is what I find most captivating about Wales. Freedom from an oppressive system using ancient methods, like returning to the source. I like that and seek to integrate this wisdom into my daily life.