Monday, April 28, 2014


what I wanted to be

Have I ever mentioned that when I was young I wanted to be an archaeologist?  (I also had a crush on Steve Martin and wanted to be a stand-up comedian, but that's a story for another day.)  I've come to believe that buying and selling secondhand books shares some characteristics with archaeology - the searching and researching, the sifting, finding, theorizing, and the drawing of conclusions.  And also that reading, and painting too, is like an archaeology of the soul - involving as it does a certain kind of getting down to basics, while uncovering bits of knowledge about the world and one's self.  It all helps to make sense of this life, in the context of all life.  We piece broken things together somehow, and every bit counts.  This has been on my mind recently because Ryan and I just attended a meeting of a local archaeological society, and also spent time in a nearby museum examining local artifacts and experiencing some contemporary art which grows out of these ancient traditions.  For the past two summers, we've also volunteered briefly on local archaeology digs, and this has been very pleasing on so many levels.  Something feels like it has come full circle for me - it truly is never too late - that girl who wanted to dig in the dirt is quietly happy.

And my reading continues, also most satisfyingly.  After finishing the new Patrick Leigh Fermor book, I immediately went into the book room and pulled this off the shelf.  I bought it a few years ago because I thought it was so beautiful, and I finally read it for the first time this past week:

Athos: The Holy Mountain by Sydney Loch (Lutterworth Press 1957).  The lovely dust jacket unfolds to double-size and is printed on both sides, with an image of the whole mountain on the front, a map, and then extensive text of a guide to all the monasteries of Athos.  And tucked inside the book are these photographs from 1959 of a family from Salonika.  The girl has fourteen candles on her cake.  The flames are still lit in the group photo, and successfully blown out in the other: 

The family's address is on the back.  Should I return the photos to them?  How old is this girl now, and those young boys?  Why did their photographs get put into this book and why did I find the book in a local book barn here in Maine?  Did her birthday wish ever come true?  What did she want to be when she grew up?  Did she get there somehow?  Speculation that feels like archaeology.

Sydney Loch, the author of the book, emigrated to Australia from the U.K., survived Gallipoli and wrote a book about it, lived in Greece for many years, volunteered During World War II for the Quaker Relief Movement, and died in 1955.  His equally fascinating wife, Australian and humanitarian Joice NanKivell Loch, finished the manuscript of this book for him after his death.  She lived on until 1982, when she died at the age of 95.  Their amazing home - I mean, wow, holy crackers! look at it! - was this Byzantine tower in Ouranoupoli, the village closest to the border of the Holy Mountain.  It's now a museum.   

But I feel like I've said so much already and I haven't even talked about the book itself yet - Loch writes of his travels on foot and by boat all over and around the monasteries, villages, and hermits' caves of Athos with an intelligent, kind eye that makes his prose a pleasure to read.  He is particularly interested in art and manuscripts, and describes one monastic librarian this way (p.199):

"He had no scholarly understanding of the valuable books and missals he kept, but was devoted to them, and lifted them down to show to the right sort of visitor with the pride of a parent showing off children.  He loved to turn one large leaf over on its neighbor, letting in air and light upon old illuminated lettering, and disturbing the amiable ghosts of old scribes and painters; shades asking the charity of half an hour's attention to move again after centuries of death."

Books - asking to be read!  I love that passage - again, it feels like a kind of archaeology.  My favorite parts in this book describe the people who live and work on the mountain, both the monks themselves and the men from "the world" who cross the border to fish, farm, harvest, visit, or beg.  There are wonderful thumbnail sketches of these people throughout, and this leavens the few places where Loch can become mildly pedantic concerning architecture or religious history.  But those places are very few indeed.  Loch so obviously has a fellow feeling with other pilgrims of all backgrounds - though not a monk himself he is aware of the presence of the Divine all around him, in the holy landscape he describes so well and spends over 25 years living beside and visiting himself.

Up next - new to me, one of the few of his books I didn't yet own - but after reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's reaction to it I wanted a copy, badly:

So I tracked one down online (yawn) and it arrived in the mail a few days ago, thanks to an independent secondhand book seller in North Carolina.  The Station - Athos: Treasures and Men by Robert Byron (Knopf 1949), first published in 1923 when the author was just 23 years old and had fallen in love with all things Byzantine.  Isn't this copy perfect in its shabbiness?  I love it.  I'll start reading it this evening, while thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up, like that girl in the photographs wishing on her birthday candles.  I remember that feeling so well, don't you?  I wish I had known then that I didn't have to be something.  Instead, I could just be.   But I'm glad I know it now!

What a great surprise, and joyful too, to see Loch's book in your post Sarah. (I must say that I agree with Dan: the previous one was fabulous as well).

That book is a favourite (published by Molcho Bookshop in Salonica?)

SL setting off on foot for his pilgrimage. The all night vigil in Konstamonitou with snow and bishop Ierotheos presiding (I could send you some photos...). 20 years -ahem- ago I was there.

And the tower (never been inside); I usually have my early morning coffee opposite it, waiting for the boat to enter the Mountain (last time: 4-5 years ago).
They were an amazing couple devoted to the village and its people.
Dear Antony, thank you greatly for your reassuring comment - I was a bit nervous about writing in any kind of detail about someplace I knew you'd been (and I haven't, and never will), especially someplace so meaningful. It has been sublime to read back-to-back accounts of these writers' journeys around Athos. And, I did start to read Robert Byron's version a few hours ago - it promises an equal yet different level of fascination. More on that soon.

I knew nothing about the Lochs before reading this book, and then wondering how she managed to finish his manuscript, and what brought them to Greece in the first place. Yes, amazing.
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