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QUINTESSENCE

Thresholds

Shadow, Ancient Greek Amphitheater, Licata, Sicily

BOTH WORLDS

Forever busy, it seems,
with words,
finally
I put the pen down

and crumple
most of the sheets
and leave one or two,
sometimes a few,

for the next morning.
Day after day -
year after year -
it has gone on this way,

I rise from the chair,
I put on my jacket
and leave the house
for that other world -

the first one,
the holy one -
where the trees say
nothing the toad says

nothing the dirt
says nothing and yet
what has always happened
keeps happening:

the trees flourish,
the toad leaps,
and out of the silent dirt
the blood-red roses rise.

- Mary Oliver

This is a beautiful time of year. Even if you stand, as many do, on the threshold of crisis, unsure of your next step, may you find comfort as I have found comfort in Mary Oliver's words..."out of the silent dirt the blood-red roses rise." Take a moment. Leave your work, set aside worry, abandon ambition, step gratefully into the world. We exist at the threshold of possibility.
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An Archeology of Lives

I have looked and looked
for myself,
not sure

who I am, or where,
or, more importantly, why.


- Mary Oliver, from A River Far Away and Long Ago

I was having a conversation with my daughter recently on the many ways her college major in Art History prepared her for medicine. The study of art was a path of joy for her, a genuine, lifelong passion. But an interesting thing stood out for her - the unexpected ways one passion bridged to another. Art History became a foundation for the study of medicine. She spoke about the ways understanding, cataloguing, researching, and appreciating art teaches you to notice details; trains you to retain enormous amounts of relevant, sometimes incomplete data; underscores the importance of provenance (diagnosis); and the subjective role of interpretation. Learning to see, she said, comes before knowing what it is you're looking at.

This thought has stayed with me. Not long ago I had the experience, as many of us have, of helping someone close down a house. The house was on the market, the marriage unfortunately ended, the kids grown and moved away, and the "stuff" of the house worn and unneeded. As I helped to sort and toss, piling things for charity, for the dump, for their kids' storage, I thought about all the ways in which our stuff stands as this great, strange emporium of our lives. An archeology: A personal imprint left behind of those who owned and used these things. A room of more than 200 used 1000-piece puzzle boxes...were these owned by someone who loved intricate problems, or an extremely lonely person? Baby gifts in their original wrapping, never given. Canning jars in multiples, light bulbs, winter tires. A wine cellar with an impressive collection hidden behind a messy and cluttered junk room, rarely visited. An unfinished library. A cross-bow. A broken violin. A VCR. Bulk stale chocolates. Mismatched diningware and drawers and drawers of holiday tea towels. Chairs for cats to shred, but nothing for people. Hand-made baby Christmas ornaments. Fake flowers still with the price tags on. Souvenirs from travel neither worn nor displayed. A dog's ashes in an unmarked canister on the mantle.

Our lives speak a strange truth about us through the things we are drawn to, find precious and collect. Even more is said by the things we ignore or leave behind. Are we hoarders? Believers that everything, even junk, has some value and nothing of value should be dismissed? Or minimalists, too burdened by objects to invite them in? Maybe like our parents we are sentimentalists, carrying the objects of generations around with us like human "family attics."

Kristine Trego, PhD, Professor of Classics at Bucknell University and underwater shipwreck archeologist, told a group of us in the Mediterranean about her work on ancient Greek trading vessels off the coast of Turkey. From the most mundane daily objects in a ship's galley she is able to gain insight into the lives of those from long ago. A weighted candle cup. The earliest known "computer" for navigating. Small good luck charms. Food from multiple lands that might indicate the origin of the crew or the ship's trading path. She spoke about our tendency to collect, a passion shared with many other species as it turns out. Inside an almost perfectly preserved amphora on the sea floor they disturbed a small octopus. Inside his "home" were other artifacts from the nearby wreck the divers were interested in recovering. But when they reached in to remove an item, the octopus would reach out and pull it back. This tug of war went on without end, much to the amusement of the divers; finally prompting the crew to make a rule in honor of such tenacity such that no one could eat critters inhabiting the objects of the wreck. Bad karma, the thinking went. These sea dwellers were the "archeologists on site" before we were.

I've often wondered at the public appeal and strange melancholy of thrift stores, yard sales, and auctions that follow the emptying of a house. Perhaps this mix of emotions lies in the exposure of the contents of our jars. What did we cling to in our lives, treasure from the world around us? When we are gone or move on, without this context once-important things seem to diminish and lose their luster, take on a disposable, used fragility. Yet the stories speak. We turn the objects over in our hands, wondering what on earth someone would do with a crate of deer antlers.
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QUIET by Susan Cain

"If you're an introvert, find your flow by using your gifts. You have the power of persistence, the tenacity to solve complex problems, and the clear-sightedness to avoid pitfalls that trip others up... So stay true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don't let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy death, don't force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multi-tasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you incalculable power to go your own way. It's up to you to use that independence to good effect."
- Susan Cain, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking," Broadway Paperbacks, 2012.

Susan Cain published "Quiet" in 2012 and her book has sat on my bed table, waiting it's turn in the stack. The title of the book intrigued me and, left me feeling unaccountably defensive. I was, I admit it, reluctant to delve in. Quite right in guessing this unassuming, deeply researched book would shine a spotlight on precisely those aspects of myself I work very hard to "counterbalance."

Yes, I am an introvert; pretending, like thousands of others, to be at ease in the company of many - whether in a packed room, online, giving a presentation, navigating a crowded world. Over the years, roughly since the first grade, I observed our society rewards extroverts - the more social, vocally confident, group-oriented and popular, the better. So what to do if you are quiet, a book-lover, comfortable in solitude, drawn to a best friend not a posse? Fake it.

Susan Cain exposed my game. Her multi-faceted research explains the bias against introverts and how introverts cope in an extroverts' world. How introverts selectively use the tools available (for example, presentation and performance coaching, the written word, and online media) to function comfortably in an increasingly noisy, in-your-face connective culture. Organizational studies for "Quiet" (spanning an examination of the purposeful extroversion championed by the Harvard Business School, to the upper echelons of corporate and military America) exposes key ways the strengths of the introverted personality are frequently maligned or overlooked; the extremes to which extroversion is so highly valued for its confident hubris that others will follow an extrovert, right or wrong. Her work includes studies of reward feedback on human behavior, the effect of dopamine on the brain, and the linkage between the development of social appreciation for the characteristics of extroversion and the push for success in sales. Look a bit deeper however, and studies reveal the unexpected, quiet triumphs of non-charismatic thinkers in what are, after all, results-oriented paradigms.

Cain's work highlights the importance of knowing the difference between introverts and extroverts and appreciating the contributions of both styles of personality development. Her point is to know yourself and play to your strengths. Cain quotes Albert Einstein at the beginning of a chapter, "When Collaboration Kills Creativity" - I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork... Full well do I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person should do the thinking and commanding. As a writer, an admitted introvert, and the parent of at least one happily introverted child, this declaration of independence in the pursuit of creative achievement has great meaning to me personally. Instead of instructors worrying about whether little Suzy or Johnny interfaces well in elementary school group-time, perhaps we should pay attention instead to what our children prefer to do and how successful their efforts are.

Cain's point is that there are great strengths in what introverts do best that should be encouraged and allowed to flourish. Where would we be without the well known introverts of our world? The Van Goghs, Wozniaks, Einsteins, and Kafkas - even Theodore Geisel (Dr. Suess)... We are a powerful mixture of biology (psychological inclination) and free will - to work and perform in the ways we function best, to collaborate effectively not blindly, to focus on personal effectiveness, not frustration. And above all, to be at peace with ourselves. Cain quotes Anais Nin in her final chapter and it feels fitting to end this review of "Quiet" with Nin's words - Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.
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Pillars of Time

Temple of Hera, Valley of Temples, Agrigento, Sicily
In travel, as in most exertions, timing is everything.
- Paul Theroux, "The Pillars of Hercules"

A good book is the kindest of companions. It accompanies one through airports, ferries and waiting, the inevitable delays and rain, cafes and sleepless nights, sunny shores and sweet mornings, shiny as new pennies. I happened upon such a wondrous book - now dog-eared and creased, pages fat from days of arid hikes followed by sea-going humidity, ably ringed in coffee stains - in the travelogue penned by Paul Theroux, THE PILLARS OF HERCULES (Fawcett Books, 1995).

A prolific and gifted novelist and essayist, Theroux is no stranger to journeys of open-minded discovery. His book was everything I wanted in a book to accompany me on a journey through the middle Mediterranean. A study of ancients: from the Spanish Steps of Rome to Pompeii, skimming the Amalfi Coast, touching Capri, exploring ancient Sicily to at last sail on to that pivot of ancient maritime history, the Island of Malta. A "Grand Tour" (within the given limits of modern work schedules) to explore these ancient shores and empires long gone, the temple remnants that stand alone, washed in watercolor sunsets. Prehistory 3600BC to citizens of Pompeii crouching in tombs of volcanic ash; from the artistic and architectural lineage of Greek and Roman temples to the scintillating hidden waters of the Blue Grotto.

Although it is a fat book, a good three inches, the essays span Theroux's explorations beginning at the mouth of Gibraltar following the northern European shores of the Mediterranean, to return to Gibraltar once more; arriving on the opposite shore via the southern Middle Eastern and North African coast (linking the so-called "Pillars of Hercules"). I debated carrying such heft, considered its burden in my pack. But as I explored these ancient lands some 18 years later than Theroux, I found his observations enabled interesting comparisons. Much had changed in the way of modern conflicts and outlook; yet in the geography itself, and its silent mysteries, not much at all. We still stand in the long shadow of the ancients.

I find it absolutely remarkable to come across a ruin older than I can imagine; to speculate on what the object once stood for, outlasted, represents in the modern context. I find it unspeakably touching, for example, that a nameless prehistoric culture on the Island of Malta constructed, with great deliberation, rolling 1200 pound slabs of stone on round boulders of rock, a stone temple with a view to a distant island framed beautifully between the standing pillars of the main altar. I find it moving, in the simplest of contexts, that these people celebrated what is beautiful, the fecund cycles of the equinox, left behind simple stone necklaces and clay figurines. That wherever humans have been, we build, plant, pray and gather around the hearth, leaving our stories behind.

Theroux is a literary wonder: an encyclopedia of literature and history dovetailed with a cynical yet surprisingly genuine ability to be touched, surprised. He is snarky, witty, and absolutely true to the telling detail that delivers the world in glance. I found him a terrific companion on my own curious travels. A point of reference on both modern context and subjective understanding. I will be sharing my own thoughts on my travels in the next few essays, so if you're curious, stay with me over the summer as I ruminate from a 21st Century perspective on the ancient empires.

Which reminds me to note some of the great books I gathered, many from a nifty travel-oriented bookshop, Longitude Books in Plymouth, Minnesota (www.longtiudebooks.com). If you are venturing out yourself, consider any or all of these terrific reads and references:

ON THE SHORES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN, Eric Newby
ON PERSEPHONE'S ISLAND, Mary Taylor Simeti
THE SPIRIT OF MEDITERRANEAN PLACES, Michel Butor
ANCIENT SHORE:DISPATCHES FROM NAPLES, Shirley Hazzard & Francis Steegmuller
D.H. LAWRENCE & ITALY, D.H. Lawrence
ITALY, A TRAVELER'S LITERARY COMPANION, Lawrence Venuti
EVERY DAY IN TUSCANY, SEASONS OF AN ITALIAN LIFE, Francis Mayles
THE MEDITERANNEAN IN HISTORY, edited by David Abulafia

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