Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The word

For the past five years I have been choosing a word for each new year, rather than making resolutions. Last year's word was "discover" and I did pretty well at keeping it in mind and made some good discoveries in 2013. I started changing some things about my artwork and trying something new and there were a lot of discoveries along that path. Most of my words of the year have been high-minded words of change and betterment and such a word simply didn't present itself when I started contemplating a new word for the coming year. Not that I am no longer in need or change or bettering, but perhaps I am just too tired out by all the discovering I have been doing this past year to summon enough energy for a word that challenges me very much. Some days I feel like maintaining is challenge enough. But no, I am not choosing "maintain" as my inspiration! Can't set the bar that low.

So I asked myself what good things did I discover this past year? I discovered recycled fabric and over-dying and I discovered a more spontaneous, but still planned, way of working. I discovered (re-discovered, actually) the joy of small hand-worked projects and found objects and texture. I discovered, on a trip to Ecuador, the joy of rediscovering old memories and even discovered the equator anew! I discovered yellow. Well, I didn't discover it really, but gained a new appreciation for that most inspiring of all colors. I made two quilted pieces with yellow skies and discovered that if the sky is not really yellow maybe it ought to be. And so, that is my word for 2014. Yellow.

And I added it to the studio wall along with the past years' words, so I will remember.

And I will use yellow to add hope and light and warmth to the world whenever I can. I think yellow is too often dismissed as a lightweight in the color spectrum, but I think it sheds its beautiful light on every other color in a composition. Golden, warm yellow—it's more than a color. It's an attitude and the aura I plan to surround myself with this year.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve

I am sitting here at the end of this busy day, eating a cookie and enjoying the tree and the quiet.

Today I was peeling oranges for the cranberry salad I make every year (my mother's recipe) and it occurred to me that even more than the smell of the Christmas tree, the sharp, spicy smell of oranges is the smell of Christmas to me. For most of the year I mostly ignore them, but at Christmas I like to have a bowl of them in the house, especially the little mandarinas.  Did you always find a little orange in the toe of your sock on Christmas morning? I did. Nuts, too. In the shell–walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, almonds and hazelnuts. I looked for unshelled nuts today. They were always in a big bin in the produce department in the grocery store. You shoveled all you needed into a paper bag with a big metal scoop.  No more. There are no bins of nuts in Portland grocery stores. Only small, sealed cellophane bags containing pecans or almonds or hazelnuts. When did that happen?

When I was a child we went to church on Christmas Eve. When we were really small we went, bundled in warm coats and mittens over our pajamas, and fell asleep in the car on the way home. The warmth of the old Methodist church, the smell of the candles, the glorious music ("for unto us a child is bo-orn...") put me into a kind of sleepy trance. And then the smell of oranges. As we left the church, headed out into an often cold, snowy night, each little Methodist child was given an orange.

When my children were small we had chili on Christmas Eve and went for a ride in the car to view the Christmas lights, then read The Night Before Christmas from my childhood copy. I wonder if there is a particular thing or smell that they most remember. Maybe the orange and the nuts in their socks. Maybe that Santa always left a new toothbrush in their sock. 

Tonight I watched my granddaughter prepare tea and cookies to leave for Santa, along with a beautifully illustrated thank you note to Santa. She is hoping he will leave her a special doll, which was always my favorite gift from Santa. I can't wait to see her happiness when she opens that gift.

And so, Merry Christmas, Solstice, Hanukkah—whatever you celebrate. I wish you the gifts of lovely memories from the past and joy in the current moment, and a delicious cookie and music and peace and—if you want—the sharp, spicy smell of oranges. It's the smell of Christmas, you know.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


We have been home from Ecuador for a week today, but I still close my eyes and see Ecuador and I still don't feel fully here and settled. It takes me awhile to come down from a trip like that.

On the last day we were there we went to the equator. There is a big monument and museum that is on the equator and commemorates the first Geodesic Mission of the French Academy of Sciences. We have been there and taken our picture straddling the line marked to show the location of the equator. But, guess what? Modern GPS measurements have shown that the equator is actually several hundred feet away. Oops. So this time we went to a different equator. This location is a smaller, but much more interesting attraction where we were shown a variety of "proofs" of the unique nature of the equator. For example, supposedly an egg will balance on the head of a nail right on the equator due to the equalization of the centrifugal pull of the poles.

Ray was able to balance the egg right there on the equator, but we have no idea whether the same thing is possible anywhere. There was also a demonstration of how water emptying out of a little basin into a bucket swirls in a clockwise direction south of the equator and a counter clockwise direction north and does not swirl, but drains straight down over the equator.

It seemed a fitting way to end our stay in Ecuador. That night we went out for a wonderful dinner at a beautiful old Hacienda overlooking the lights of Quito.

We think this was our 6th trip to Ecuador, but it had been 7 years since we were last there. We saw a lot of change since that last visit. Prices are higher, for one—but it is still a very affordable place to visit. The biggest changes were infrastructure improvements. The roads are vastly improved. A new, modern airport has replaced the old one. All the messy overhead wiring in Quito is being put underground and new sidewalks are replacing the terrible, dangerous old broken pavement all over the city. Things look cleaner. New construction is going on everywhere and a subway system is under construction in Quito. The buses are cleaner and newer. We were less excited to see more and bigger malls, American franchises like McDonalds and KFC and thousands more cars and jammed up traffic. But nothing is changeless, and life moves forward for us all. Life, perhaps, is better for the average Ecuadorean than it was 7 years ago. Thankfully, there is a spirit that has not changed. The people of Ecuador continue to project pride in their culture, their art, their history. It is a warm and colorful and generous culture and that treasures family above everything. You are greeted with a kiss on the cheek and a hug and great affection each time you meet.

Travel to such a different culture awakens awareness. Details matter. Life on the street is a visual feast. I always feel nearly overwhelmed by the visual stimulation. This past week has been a gradual, and often melancholy process of letting go and moving back into my own life. I sometimes feel I should try to understand and make some logical sense of the experience, but it is impossible. It exists in fragments and images, now memory. I wasn't sure I really wanted to go back to Ecuador—why not see someplace new? But we went for practical reasons and found new vision and renewed beauty. This one will stay with me for a long time.

And as for that practical purpose that took us back to Ecuador—our son Andy's dental work—it was an unqualified success. The Dr. was excellent. The work is beautiful. We are really pleased, especially Andy.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Wood sculpture in San Antonia de Ibarra

I find it fascinating in Ecuador that there is so much art being made and that each small town seems to have its own specialty. Near the city of Ibarra is the small town of San Antonio de Ibarra where the specialty is wood carving. The little town is full of shops and galleries offering everything from elaborately carved furniture to wooden spoons and kitchen utensils. The city park boasts two large carvings of fanciful birds, which on closer inspection, are actually children's play structures.

Aren't they wonderful? There is a slide inside the body of the bird.

This is in one of the better galleries with very finely carved work. And here is the studio in the back of one of the galleries. The garden out back was wild and wonderful.

We wandered through many of the shops, watching work in progress in many of them.

Then we came to a shop that produced saints and holy figures for churches. Upstairs was a workroom where old, damaged saints (santos) were waiting to be repaired.

The worn and damaged faces were haunting and beautiful.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Salinas and the Chota Valley

We took a little day trip from Ibarra out to Salinas in the Chota Valley. It was a small group excursion on a kind of trolley-like vehicle that travelled on the old train tracks. It was full of Ecuadorians and us, and we had a charming guide named Christina, who pointed out the interesting sights along the way and filled in the historical details. She used a microphone for her narrative in Spanish and came and huddled with the three of us to repeat, in English, what she had said.

During the Spanish occupation of Ecuador, many slaves were brought from Africa. This history of slavery is similar and as brutal and disgraceful as it was in the United States. When the slaves were freed, they settled into two distinct areas in Ecuador—Esmeraldas on the coast and Salinas in the Chota Valley. The Chota Valley is a rich agricultural area and there are salt mines in Salinas, both of which provided work for the former slaves and their descendants.

Here we are headed into one of several tunnels through the Andean mountains. Small and very dark inside. Did I ever tell you about my tunnel phobia....?

The train trip was pretty spectacular, running along the edges of deep chasms, through beautiful verdant fields of sugar cane and past colorful flowers and cacti.

The train crossed that skinny little bridge you see up ahead. 

The little town of Salinas was windy and desolate. It appeared to be rather poor, with few shops or businesses. At the little train station we were met by a troupe of teenage girls who were dressed in traditional dress and performed several traditional dances for us, inviting us to join in.

We had a very simple lunch in Salinas then then went to the small ethnographic museum. We had a Spanish-only guide, but managed to understand most of what she told us about the sad history of slavery in Ecuador. 

Display of "people who inspire us" included Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Anon, Malcom X...

Really great day and a part of Ecuadorean society we had known little about. You may have gathered that I am kind of hooked on the Ecuadorean churches. The one in Salinas was probably the simplest we have seen, but very lovely in its own way.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ibarra—the White City

I am falling behind with blog posting. Our access to WIFI is sporadic and we have been doing a lot of posting to Facebook and communicating with family, so the blog tends to fall to the bottom of the list.

In Ibarra we were interested in colonial architexture. Ibarra has been known as the "white city" of Ecuador, for its lime-washed white buildings in the historic district. Many remain white, others have been painted other colors. 

There is such a sense of time and layered history in the old plazas and churches, even including the bits of old paving around the buildings.

The white walls of the old buildings seem to be an open invitation to graffiti, which was mostly crass and an ugly intrusion into the dignity of the old buildings. Occasionally something caught my eye in the jumble of images.

This face with the word "mestizos" appeared numerous times around the city. "Mestizo" is the word for the the majority population of Ecuador—people of mixed European and Indigenous blood. I don't know if this graffiti is simply whimsical or represents something topical or political. I like the image.

And the ubiquitous Che lives, indeed, in Ecuador.

The other tourist attraction we were told not to miss in Ibarra was the ice cream that is famous there. It is called Helados de Paila and contains fresh fruit purée, cream and egg whites. It is made, by hand, on the premises in small batches, beaten in a copper bowl.

This poster in the ice cream shop tells the history of the famous recipe handed down through a family. And, yes, it was incredibly delicious!

My favorite church in Ibarra.

Monday, December 09, 2013

La Estelita and Ibarra

We have never been to Ibarra so we needed Ani's help. I had found a Hacienda in Ibarra in our guidebook that I thought looked interesting. I had a mental picture of an old colonial hacienda converted into a charming inn. "No" said Ani. " I know the place. It is not good. I know a newer place—very nice. I guarantee you will like it." I trust Ani, but was a little disappointed. I was hoping for old Ecuadorean charm, not something new and shiny. 

La Estelita is literally on the top of a mountain, with a stunning view of Ibarra. It is owned by a family who has created a place of pure beauty and charm. The adult son, who drove us from Otavalo, told us of he and his family hand carrying stones to the site that would become the extensive stone paving and pathways and stairs. The main building houses a restaurant that people drive to from Quito for the food and the view. At night, and in the morning, the clouds roll through, wrapping the mountaintop in a dreamy mist. Ani is always right.