Essay - Ingrid Johnson

We knew her as Hebe on Arete '91, watched her rock to Mozart around the Drake track. Ingrid Johnson did not fake words. Maybe that is why she ran around with that particular guy on our team for awhile? Ingrid graduated from Evergreen State College in 1996, completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University in 2000, and then began teaching literature, creative writing and composition at Modesto Junior College in California.

Along with teaching, Ingrid says she loves writing poetry, gardening, and especially roaming the wilds of the Sierra Nevada and the Pt. Reyes peninsula with her husband, Dimitri, and her daughter, Zoe. The essay will tell of her love for Greece, which is enhanced by their living in Modesto.

Ingrid is a great Arete veteran, one we benefited from in 1991, and now approaching 16 years later, are rewarded again.

Bill Taylor

Arête and Back Again

If you are lucky, when you are 17, “promise” is what others say you have. You yourself would probably call it “hope.” Now, older, you look back and it isn’t any longer about what you might do, it is about what you have done and what you haven’t done. What things did you choose to do with your “promise” and what doors did you end up closing? In what ways did hopes become reality, and in what ways did the very concept of what you had to offer the world totally change?

Now at 33, I am sitting in my car with one mountain range on one side of me and one on the other in California’s Great Central Valley. A little over a month ago, I stood with my husband and daughter in the twilight, listening to the waves of the Aegean lap their songs in Navplio, Greece. In that moment I realized how much I--all of me, not just that bundle of muscle we call heart--would miss that place when I was gone.

Where did such an attachment to Greece begin? What caused such an aching for pure aesthetic beauty, such a wish to wander over old stones instead of new concrete? We never know what is ingrained in us, in the fabric of our bones, and what is created. But I do know when these particular feelings began, where they have their roots. And it is in the quiet, Persian-rug decorated, dim-lighted, warm and book-lined home of Mr. William Taylor who started many students on a journey that became Arete ’91.

We were 16- and 17-year-olds and being asked to deeply consider the words of Nietzsche, Kazantzakis, Dante. In the words of Nikos Kazantzakis in Report to Greco, “We laughed without cause because we were young; we grieved without cause, again because we were young. We were like fresh unspent bull-calves who sigh because their strength is strangling them.” These words last for me probably because of that undirected teenage angst I felt at 17 and the poetry built into my bones by sensitive parents. And no class in high school really tapped into these big questions. At Arete meetings and on our trip to Europe that summer, our heads spun in wonder at what we were reading, being asked to think. What did we believe? Had we ever considered our own non-being? Surely these are some of the concerns that keep the teenager up at night, but not, of course, put into those exact words. We were given new words not of our own minds to wrestle with and contemplate.

And then the trip itself, to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Austria, Italy, and Greece. A trip that now brings back memories of searching in the heat of a Greek summer for Artemis’ temple where Iphigenia was sacrificed; going for a run in Turkey, looking out at Gallipoli where a modern battle had been waged; sitting and eating our soup in an restaurant in Sofia, meeting people who had never met Americans. We were jostled out of our comfort zones, asked to consider lives so different from our own, invited to wander streets of little villages we had never dreamt of. And in those little old Byzantine churches, on those windy hillsides with only a lone donkey for company, we confronted all the same questions we had tackled in Mr. Taylor’s living room, and new ones.

So of course I want to trace how, 15 years later back in Greece, these questions struck me as I listened to Zorba’s music and caught the fever for Greece that many great writers have attributed to the light, the sea, perhaps even the Greek siesta or the Mediterranean delicacies: olives, fresh bread, tomatoes, Feta cheese. What captured me this time was not so much about words, about reading the Iliad and then finding myself at Troy or at Aulis. This time it was more about the human experience: watching my daughter wandering the shores of the Aegean everywhere we traveled, so curious she could not stop herself from running on the stones, caring nothing for getting sun burned, staying close to her parents or eating lunch. My husband training like a madman through knee injuries and shin splints to run the Athens marathon. And me, so lost in beauty that I didn’t want to go home, so lost in my studying of the language that sometimes I even lost the need to translate, so enveloped in sun I lost the need for any shoes but sandals.

How did my life change those four months in Greece with my family? I soaked beans because I couldn’t find them canned, had my mother-in-law show me how to make Greek manestra, got by without a car, a washing machine, a telephone and anything anyone might term an extensive wardrobe. And I was happier, freer and addicted to ruins. “Where should we travel next?” became a familiar question.

And how did I think of these ancient and modern Greeks differently than I had when I was 17? I knew about pain. Your whole view of history, the human race and life itself is considerably altered by that. Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Odysseus, Penelope—if you let them become people to you, not just part of a myth, then it is your heart that is opened up as well as your intellect. Having known the pain of divorce, miscarriage and childbirth in the years since I was 17, I could now say I knew more of the world, of real pain instead of undirected teenage angst. At 17, you suffer because your concept of self hurts: you don’t know who you are or who everyone else is for that matter, and it troubles you to the pit of your soul; at 33 you’ve seen enough to know how angry the human heart can be, how if feels when it is raw and splayed open by loss, and you are hopefully wise enough to know that others’ pain hurts just as yours does. That is why as a mother I cannot help but be troubled by dying Iraqi children, by dying children anywhere, anytime in history: I know what pain is and I know what love is and how, then, can I not feel the abject horror of death? If life has taught me anything, it has taught me about my fellow humans: Greeks, Americans--we all have the blood of culture and our ancestors, and even of war, flowing in our veins. These arête themes, found in all great art, world religions, literature, poetry . . . these are the eternal themes.

But we must ask ourselves what we can choose and what we must simply submit to. As Americans, choice is often our road, and so, ironically, I can throw out and disdain the parts of American culture that hinder me, trouble me: materialism, consumerism, lack of respect for tradition and elders. And in Greece I can find the antithesis of these things: the widow using the old Feta containers as planter boxes, the people in the villages wearing the same clothes until they are actually worn out, the teenager with so many piercings who crosses herself on the bus ride through Athens when we pass by a church. These things, with my whole self, I can love, I can miss, I can try to find in my own life here, in California, the place growing up I thought must be the best place there was. I have learned more now and am humbled and strengthened and glad, for that opportunity to get out of my own bag of bones for a minute and see and think and experience. Just one of the many gifts of travel, of arête.

Ingrid Johnson
April 2007