Every once in a while my writing does not keep up with the bears I make. This year I have already knitted 75 bears and I would like to just list the recent ones, the ones I knitted after my Mediterranean Cruise and have not mentioned yet in this blog. Some don't even have names yet. But all of them have a soul, which is most important. I wrote about this in a piece for my memoir group and would like to share it here. I have to add that it is a conversation with my imaginary shrink whom I invoke when I have questions, but no partner to discuss them with.
Body and Soul of a Mother Bear
"Of course I know how to make a pompom. I knit button holes and i-cords, short rows, Kitchener stitch, and picot bind-off. I crochet shells and trellises and popcorn. I sew mattress stitch and back stitch. I stuff and sculpt and measure and snip, knot, weave, unravel, and redo. I've made over 400 bears for the Mother Bear Project; each with two arms, two legs, a head, and a body. That's at least 1,440,000 stitches. Add to this scarves, beanies, skirts, backpacks, flowers, and headbands and you end up with two million stitches."
Dr. Steinfeld seems amused by my outburst. He stabs his note pad with the tip of his pen and I watch tiny black dots amass like dark stars on a pale blue sky.
"Yes, I realize you've familiarized yourself with all the steps it takes to become an outstanding craftsperson. Have you invented a new stitch."
That's like asking a painter if she has invented a new color. Not fair. I pout. Maybe Steinfeld has gone senile. When he retired a few years ago I really missed him. And I was always happy when he emerged from his hermitage to give advice in difficult situations. But I hadn't requested his presence to solve this question for me. Let me explain. The other day I filled out a questionnaire that asked my status. "Are you an artist," it wanted to know. And I checked "yes." Afterwards I hesitated for a moment, not quite sure that I had made my mark in the right box. But I soon dismissed my insecurity and continued filling out the document.
Then, suddenly, here he is. My imaginary shrink has come out of retirement to give me a test about my artistic abilities. I thrive on the leaps and bounds of my own imagination. But I feel awkward exposing my crazy, excited self to the rest of the world, especially when I see a brow lift, or a mouth begins to form a question, stops halfway, and resorts to a smile. I have a hard time explaining the spinning and swirling of ideas, the search for images, for innovative expressions. If I could convince him, wouldn't that, once and for all, allow me to call myself an artist? I no longer participate in just a conversation, but try to satisfy the expectations of an interview that will determine my classification within a coveted group of peers. I focus on the dotted writing pad while I emphasize each word.
"Every one of my bears is a three-dimensional journal entry! A multi-faceted odyssey into my beliefs, my memories, my aspirations, my hopes."
The pen stops in mid air. "Explain!"
I sit down and look into his blue eyes. I note a slight smile and recognize the old familiar face of the man who has always been my friend, no matter what silly words came from my mouth.
"Some entries are plain for everybody to see. Like the bear I made in Bob Marley's honor. It tells you that I love Bob Marley. That I love his music, his words, his looks. All of him. The bear wears the colors of the Jamaican flag. In my photograph he rests on a Marley t-shirt. While I knitted him I thought of my trip to Jamaica and told him that I had sat on Bob Marley's bed.
Other entries are coded. Take a group of pink bears for instance. I am a compulsive person and I must feed my habits. When my pizza binges became a no no as per my doctor I had to find other ways to feed my wild appetite for ordinary things. I happened to have a lot of pink yarn in my stash and so I started to pig out on pink. How many bears would I be able to knit in two shades of pink and some white yarn? I knitted day and night. Fifteen pink bears, then the frenzy was over. Do you understand what I am trying to say?"
"Did you ever knit your love-hate relationship with your mother?"
"I built an altar to my mother. I splashed love "en plein air" by recreating my mother's garden. With daffodil and sweet pea. But then I also addressed the pain she caused me with a group of bears I named "Purple Rain and Lavender Pillows."
I tap on a list on my iPad. He knows how much I rely on lists. If it isn't on a list it might not even exist.
Yarn in various shades of purple. Prince song title. Purple rain lyrics Rainer Maria Rilke poem. The drawing of a window. Beads of rain. The meaning of the color purple.
"You see how a synthesized color-texture-word-image experience is beginning to form? While I made the list I hummed 'Purple rain, purple rain, I only want to see you laughing in the purple rain.' I noticed the difference between deep purple and lavender. As if something had softened the stronger color. A line from Rilke's poem about Mary's death popped into my mind. I read the poem again. Rilke says that Mary was like a lavender pillow buried for a while, so the earth would pick up her scent in its folds, like a fine piece of cloth. Death and sickness would be eased by her fragrance. All these fragments eventually translated into a bunch of purple bears which I photographed through a piece of glass that I splashed with purple water color."
The thought of rain had pushed itself to the forefront during a previous drought. Sometimes when I swim in our outdoor pool, ideas fly past me, like fluffy, winged color patches in the path of a summer wind. They say 'hurry, hurry, catch me before I'm blown back into your subconscious.' They stretch, ball up, tear into frilly remnants. They flicker in hot pinks and reds or undulate in deep sea blues. Close to the edge of the pool they seem saturated with the sun-laced greens of ancient forests. That day purple rain thoughts dissolved into a lavender dance only to return later, once I was home, close to knitting needles and shades if purple yarn.
"Did you know that my mother coded the lives of her children into a wall hanging? And that she embroidered a tablecloth with her favorite literary quotes? I still have a pouch she inscribed with a mathematical puzzle. I name bears after people I admire. Family members. Painters. Writers. It is the most straight forward way of letting the world know who is important to me. For Marc Chagall I knitted five bears, Chloe, whom he illustrated, his wives Bella and Valentina, his lover Virginia, and his daughter Ida. They wear dresses that simulate stained glass. For Vincent van Gogh I made four bears in a group I named Heaven Above Arles. I painted a yellow Pollock panel and matched a bear to it. Called it 'The Boy who Escaped a Painting.' I recreated the von Trapp family from "The Sound of Music." It took weeks of planning, viewing, editing, collecting yarn snippets, doodling Dirndels, tracing Lederhosen, before I knitted the first bear. All the while I sang 'How do you solve a problem like Maria?'
I make up titles for my bear journal. The Melonberries! Bears in fruity colors. The Ice Bear cometh! All bears are white. Flower Power! Naming my daughter's twelve favorite nuns. Fun to Be on the B List! Bears wearing accessories that start with B like beret, belt, bandana, bag, boots, beanie, bikini, and bloomers. One bears the description 'Blond Bistro Babe in Black Boots with Boogie Bag.
Around Christmas, one year, I created a puzzle with thirteen bears. I called it 'They wage wars and I make teddy bears.' Standing in a row, next to each other, their names spell out 'Peace on Earth!" And for each bear I created a persona in a poem. "
"What are you working on right now?"
"Right now? After I finished bear 400, Rosa the Dancing Queen, I began to knit a white beanie with holes for the ears of a bear. I made pink pompoms. This morning I knitted a tiny blue skirt. I'm making baby bears. Did you see the picture of the little refugee boy who drowned in the Mediterranean? His dead body washed ashore. I can't get over that just yet. I am going to knit baby bears and give them Arab names until I am able to wake up in the morning without thinking about little Aylan Kurdi."
The doctor doodles a black spiral. I take a deep breath.
"Of course I am a good craftsperson. As I've told you, I've knitted two million stitches into bears. No, I have not invented a new color, but I have combined colors and patterns and decorations to make each bear unique. I have also talked to my bears, have taught them how to hug, how to comfort a child in need, how to tell stories, how to imagine a kinder world. All my bears know that Nelson Mandela is my number one hero. They have instructions on how to celebrate his birthday and they learned about humility and treating everybody as equal."
"Can you give me a piece of that yarn?" He points to my teddy bear DNA bottle that holds snipped-off ends in every color.
Aylan was wearing a red sweater when he died. I am afraid of making a red-sweatered bear. But I pull out a piece of red yarn. Dr. Steinfeld ties it around my left ring finger.
"What's that for?"
"Just a reminder."
While I stare at the little red bow on my finger he gets up, pats my shoulder, walks away. From a distance I can hear him say something, something I can't quite make out. The spiral, left behind on the kitchen table, crumpled into a pale blue little ball, when unfolded and straightened by my hand, has captured all the black dots in its ever-widening path When I later google my memory I am pretty sure I can hear him say, "You are an artist!"
Bear 394 Amalfi
Bear 395 Olivia
Bear 396 Phillis
Bear 397 Queenie
Bear 398 Tealie
Bear 399 Alex and Bear 400 Rosa (This is a special pair to me. They are the only bears that have black fur, so far. Rosa is the Dancing Queen and her partner Alex, well, we don't know if Alex is a boy or girl, but Alex is very important to Rosa, and that is all that matters. Alex and Rosa met under a tree and later they began to dance together.)
I will present the rest of my new bears in a separate group. You never know when the iPad says "too much" or WiFi suddenly resents my file and dumps it.
Sitting at my favorite coffee shop, investigating one of my earliest memories of ruins, I learn through google that the Tinkstätte in Heidelberg, that is the name I had written on the back of the photo in 1951, is not a leftover from ancient times, but a Nazi era celebration site. Why had my teacher, Frau Sommer, taken us there on one of our school outings? Did she tell us the truth about the amphitheatre? How is it possible that my love of ruins began at a place that Goebbels opened as propaganda venue? A place of Nazi blood and soil mysticism! A place I should despise, but instead honor as precious memory.
For many years I have traveled to, touched, and photographed ruins, old stone structures, walls, castles, fortresses, theatres, graves. When I hiked Hadrian's Wall Path in England I spent ten days, walking during the day, and thinking about what I had seen in the evenings. I connected, piece by piece, the stone wall parts and castles and garrisons while I discussed their history with other hikers brought together in common sleeping quarters in farm houses along the way. Hadrian's Wall was once the frontier against barbarians. It took fourteen years to build the wall and it is the largest structure built by the Romans. Not a whole lot of it is left, but walking next to the pieces felt electrifying.
On the other hand, I only spent an hour visiting the Great Wall of China at Badaling near Beijing, though its relics are spread across many provinces. It was a huffing and puffing steep ascent to the top, a quick look around, and a busy retreat back down for a group photo. I probably should not have any feelings for the Great Wall of China, but - as it happens sometimes with a short affair - its image lingers.
A totally different approach was my one month rental of a small house in the walled town of Dilsberg, Germany. I wanted to and did, explore the same ruin at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. Fully immersed into the history of the town but also totally aware of its present, I took daily walks to the castle, followed by a leisurely climb of its circular staircase, and a long panoramic look from the very top at the landscape, far and near. Through discussions, nods, and smiles I bonded with the overseer, who was also the ticket seller and chocolate bar dispenser. It was an unforgettable month.
There were, of course, many other ruins. I roamed WW II bunkers and other defense structures for a week in St Peterport on the island of Guernsey taking hundreds of photos. Over the years I revisited the castle in Heidelberg a few times. I had used to play hide and seek with friends in its woods while I was still a student, but never paid much attention to its history. In Marrakech I chatted with beak-clapping storks that built nests on top of the ruins of El Badi Palace. In Cairo I nodded to the sphinx while admiring the pyramids. I have come to think that modern Greeks whitewash their island ruins; it is difficult to find a structure that does not look bright and cheerful in the sunlight on Santorini and Mykonos. Corfu is an exception; between strong coffee and gelatto I found plenty of rusty pipes and old window shutters to delight me.
This time, on the last day of cruising the Mediterranean, I took a daylong group bus tour along the Amalfi coast. We left the Salerno harbor at eight in the morning, visited a farm where we learned about pressing olive oil, making mozzarella and limoncello. At lunch time I ate pizza in Sorrento before getting back on the bus for the last part of the journey - Pompeii. The afternoon was dedicated to Pompeii.
Pompeii hit me as a different kind of ruin. A somber one. Until now the ruins of castles and churches and fortresses and theatres I visited were the remains of official structures, the homes of kings, military institutions, religious or public gathering places. Many of them are the product of gradual deterioration. Hundreds of years of decay. When I entered them I often heard the echo of laughter, voices that cheered on athletes or saluted an emperor or prayed to gods.
Though I entered Pompeii with a large group of people and all the exhibits and rooms and individual sites were filled with and surrounded by tourists, I felt as if I was visiting a graveyard.
I didn't hear Pompeii laugh.
Pompeii, all of Pompeii, died in 79AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted and covered it with tons of ash. What I saw was human agony and fear and panic, preserved by lack of air and moisture, for fifteen hundred years before its initial discovery. Eventually dug up and exposed to the merciless heat and bright light of the Mediterranean sun and a daily stream of curious visitors. Archeologists filled the cavities left by bodies with plaster, immortalizing the shape and position of the dying human or animal. Pottery, frescoes, graffiti, design and architecture give insight into the daily life of first century AD Roman families.
Looking back on that afternoon in Pompeii and comparing it with other ruins I am pulled back and forth between death and life. Thinking of an equally hot and crowded afternoon at Ephesus, Turkey, I smile. I had taken my teddy bear Tyana out of my backpack and photographed her sitting on a public toilet, under the statue of Nike, and in front of the library. I had followed the tourist guide's flag, had listened to his jokes and historical expertise, had walked for hours across uneven terrain, never tiring of all that I saw. Ephesus was a center of life. I imagined learned citizens standing between the shelves of the library, pondering philosophical questions, while artisans and craftsmen tended to their shops and women scooped small children into their arms.
My coffee has gotten cold; a breeze swirls through the palm fronds across the street; I am the only customer still sitting outdoors at the coffee shop, and my thoughts wander across marble, and limestone, across granite and sandstone and bricks.
Young people are celebrating the night of the witches at the Tinkstätte; a man's head is bent over a parchment at the Celsus library of Ephesus; a baby cries while ashes cover Pompeii; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe awaits his friend Kniep in the Taormina amphitheater. I am a small child in the Black Forest, waving good bye to the storks before they leave for Marrakech. And then, suddenly, I am 76, holding on to my cane, leaning against an olive tree in Pompeii, pondering death from heat stroke in the ruins.
I observe how images of life and death mingle, not tethered to opposing ends of linear time. History records events in chronological order, but reality creates, destroys, rebuilds, adjusts, mixes, imagines on a much grander scale. Simultaneously.
With a bit of smugness I note that I did not die in the ruins of Pompeii. And I wonder if there are other ruins still waiting for me.
Tyana has posed in front of the statue of Hans Sachs in Nürnberg, Germany and next to Hans Christian Andersen in Solvang, California. She has fallen off the castle wall in Dilsberg, Germany and has sledded in Truckee, USA. She has climbed the ruins of Ephesus, Greece and has entertained little girls in Jamaica. She has posed on top of the welcome sign in front of Emily Carr’s house in Victoria B.C. and has waved from the rocks of Abiquiu, New Mexico in search of Georgia O’Keeffe.
I have dragged my bear, Tyana J LittleString, over mountains and I have dragged her across restaurant tables.
A picture in front of the twisted tree. Click!
One more with the yummy plum cake. Click!
Sorry, a bit of snow in your face for effect. Click!
Wait! Let me stick the knitting needles into your back to make you stand up straight. Click!
Oops, glad she didn't fall into the river. So much wind here. Did I get her fall? Did I click?
But, it seems that Tyana has come to the end of her traveling days. I have to admit that I have become a bit short-tempered. Probably because I don't bend as easily as I used to at the beginning of my travels with Tyana. It takes patience to pose a bear. It takes space in the suitcase to bring along her outfits for each day. And, it takes energy that I now have to invest into placing the cane in the right position to allow me to maneuver on uneven ground. This last trip has shown me where my priorities have to be during travel. On stairs. On railings. On minimal luggage. I have to concentrate on making the right move.
I feel a little sad and every time I look at her I feel guilty. She has comforted me in the lonely, windswept hills along Hadrian's Wall. I remember the day it rained and I clutched her under my torn plastic raincoat. I remember putting on her nightgown and setting her on the bed that evening after we reached the end of the 83 mile hike. I think of some of the islands we have visited: Guernsey, Victoria BC, Corfu, Santorini, and now Mykonos, Malta, Sicily. The hop on hop off bus rides we have taken, the ships we have cruised on together. Busy cities we have walked. Prague. Berlin. Munich. Marseilles. The hundreds of photographs I have taken of her. On tables, benches, trees, rocks, bushes and snow piles. In high grasses, by lakes, under bridges, on castle stairs, and in front of museum entrances. Important events in my life have included Tyana. The last time I had chemo therapy. The day I placed a rose in front of Herr Goethe's house in Weimar. The night I thought I might have a heart attack in St. Peter Port, Guernsey.
How can I dismiss her?
And just what is the right move?
And here are a few pictures, in no particular order, or about any particular time. Just pictures.
What amazes me most is that I can google Tyana J LittleString and will find hundreds of pictures of her travels.
One of the pleasures of every trip is coming home and looking at a map to see where I have been. Yes, sometimes this can also be a disappointment, when I find out about spots I haven't visited because time was short, and realize that a few extra steps might have taken me to this hidden gem or that famous statue, or to a location I had not considered or known about when I planned the trip. Looking at a map of Taormina now, I am sure I saw what I had set out to see. I walked Corso Umberto from Porta Catania to the point where Via Teatro Greco took me to the Greek Theatre, my main interest. I had taken a "do it on your own tour," a one and a half hour bus ride from the harbor in Catania to the bus depot in Taormina, at which point we transferred to an elevator that spilled us right near one of the town gates, where our guide, Number 27, explained we would meet again three hours later. I was, after that, on my own in a sea of people that moved slowly along the narrow shopping wonderland that is the Corso Umberto.
Teatro Greco is one of the ruins that has long occupied my mind. Not only because Herr Goethe visited in 1787, or because Richard Strauss was there, or Thomas Mann, Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence, not only because the amphitheater is a Unesco cultural heritage site; Taormina resonates from deep within, from a childhood story or a romantic book I read as teenager, I can't remember the source, but I keenly feel the beauty of the town, the historical relevance, and the natural fortress-like setting between mountain as if I had been there before. This is the reason why I spent almost two of my three hours there.
Goethe was sitting on one of these steps in May of 1787. He had come with the painter Kniep, by mule, and he climbed to the highest seats, later to sing the theatre's praise in the "Italian Journey," claiming that it was an enormous masterpiece of nature and art and that one would have to admit that no group of people could find the same anywhere else.
And D.H. Lawrence once said: "One feels as though he has lived here for a thousand years ... not that Taormina is waiting just for me, it waits for all men."
I had that feeling, a humbling and yet happy feeling. Yes, Taormina had waited for me, too. Since my balance problem did not let me navigate to the highest spot, I sat on one of the stone seats about one third up and reflected on what I had read, what I imagined, what was in front of me. When a mother daughter pair took photos close to me I asked the young girl to take a picture of me and though she included a heap of trash bags behind me I am glad she stamped me into the unforgettable scenery. Looking at loudspeakers and other miscellaneous equipment surrounding the podium I wished I could be here for one of the nighttime performances of Carmen or La Bohème in September. Or listen to Il Volo sing "O sole mio" under the stars.
On my way back to the meeting point I stopped at Piazza IX Aprile, the town square, to gaze into the beautiful blue sea below and just before I reached Porta Catania I stopped for a quick ice cream, observing that the sun melted it faster than I could eat it.
The crowd had not thinned; it moved just as slowly as it had earlier, and I, who could spare no time to linger, found it hard to push through, almost stabbing people into their heels with my cane. I arrived with three minutes to spare and the elevator took me back down to our bus. The number 27 flag was waving back and forth announcing that it was time to leave.
"Oh dear Herr Goethe" I thought, almost saying it out loud, "what would you say to the changes Taormina has undergone."