Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mrs. Kleenex Part 2 -- the Asleep-y-on

A couple of days into our journey out of Istanbul, it was Rolf's turn to get a migraine. It hit him hard one evening but the "aura" lingered for a few days, making him feel very low-key throughout our stay in Bergama, the site of ancient Pergamon.

This meant that I did a lot of walking around, buying necessities and meals and generally negotiating the place on my own. My experience of the marketplace was different, this way. People kept offering me things for free: as I handed over a few coins, vendors would still be stuffing my bag with extra fruit or pieces of cheese, handing me sweets and tastes of this or that and refusing payment.

I went for a late lunch in one restaurant, and found I was the only customer. The waiter kept hovering around with a worried expression on his face: Okay? Something wrong? No! The meal's delicious (which it was). I ate with exaggerated enthusiasm and held up my fork to punctuate, knowing I was being watched anxiously by the whole staff. When the bill came I thought they must have made a mistake in my favour but the cashier pushed change back at me insistently. So sorry! Very sorry!

Word may have spread that I was just no fun to bargain with. Either that, or I had stumbled (literally!) into an area of Turkish merchant culture unmapped in the guidebooks. Instead of struggling to get the best deal, the opponents vye for who can be the most self-effacing and apologetic. It's all a performance of one kind or another, I guess.

Even though I wasn't sick, I slept for long hours, in Bergama, nodding off about 9 p.m. and waking eleven hours later. I dreamed, vividly and very happily, with a common theme each of the three nights: lots of people were wishing me well. But they were not always living people. My mother and grandmother were there, and Shirley and Ted Franklin, dear friends and surrogate parents. I knew they were dead but that didn't seem to matter. They were mixed in with the living, the division between life and death obliterated in the dream world.

The morning of the second day I learned that the ancient Asklepion, up the hill from our guest house, had been a temple of healing in Greek and Roman times, and that visitors seeking health would go there and sleep. Their dreams would be interpreted to determine diagnosis and a prescription for healing. The Asklepion was dedicated to restoring health, but -- from one account I read -- they knew how to hedge their bets in those days: 
no one deemed to be terminally ill would be let in!

I set off to see the ruins of the Asklepion. The weather had suddenly got warm, and I walked up the steep hill shedding layers and tying various bits of clothing around my waist. Bergama is surrounded by ancient mountains worn down into steep hills. The hillsides are verdant -- it's only May -- the green grass dotted with patches of poppies, daisies and some kind of brilliant yellow flowering bush. Deciduous trees are in full leaf and there are stands of slim, elegant cyprus. On that day, the sky was overcast and moody, but patches of sunshine would be visible in the distance, illuminating different sections of the hillsides dramatically.

Ruins have a funny effect on me. They can seem really insignificant; incoherent. I don't understand why so much care and trouble is spent on preserving them. Build new things with the money, I think. Houses, theatres, schools, hospitals. Ruins remind me of art history -- a subject I failed. I am suddenly in a lecture theatre looking at endless, excruciatingly similar, slides while a teacher drones: "Look at the flow-ing lines!" So what?

And why bother to go there, stand around in the relentless sun and look at a bunch of crumbling stones? I don't like to think that any place holds special properties. As far as I'm concerned, the specialness is all within us and we project it outward. It seems dangerous to think otherwise. Wars start when people think they must possess or live in a certain place. But just as suddenly, the impact of being in a place so ancient will strike, and I can feel the -- okay, I'll say it -- energy of all that's happened there, physically emanating from the stones.

At the Asklepion, I realized how important it is to "be there": to smell the air of a place, to see the surrounding mountains and vegetation, to see the way the light hits. The Asklepion is so perfectly situated. I can well understand why people went there to feel better. I put aside the information book I'd brought with me and just wandered around, aware of the various tourist groups and school kids coming and going. I climbed to the top row of seats at the amphetheatre and looked out over the whole site. The call to prayer sounded from the town, while at the same time, marching music was broadcast from a nearby army base. Chiming in with the call to prayer was some kind of ad or public service announcement which began with the first few notes of what we know as the "happy birthday"song. While all these separate sounds echoed off the mountains, a shepherd with a small flock of goats crossed the ruin and went up into the hills.

I was struck, then by something that hadn't occurred to me before on this journey. Strange because the connection is so obvious. The ruins of ancient Greece are a mythical place for me in more ways than one. Jarvis Collegiate, where I went to high school, had a strong classics program, run at that time by Ron Payne. He taught Latin and Greek and a grade nine course called Classical Civilizations. He told us that, at fourteen, our minds were so immature that we could not write properly; nor could we properly form our thoughts to ask questions. It would be better if we could be frozen solid for the next three years, until we reached a more reasonable age, but since that was not possible, we should sit and simply listen as he told us the stories of ancient Greece and Rome. Each evening we would read over the stories he'd told us, in a text book.

He told us, of course, about Pergamon, Ephasus, Troy, Miletus, many of the sites which are situated in modern-day Turkey. I don't remember the details of the talks, but only the sensation of a veil lifting. A veil of what I would now call depression. Suddenly, I'd be awake, interested, curious, alive instead of numb. Talking to classmates, many years later, I learned that those classes relieved the private hell of adolescence for many kids besides myself. 

I could go on for a long time in a tribute to Mr. Payne, who for the next five years continued to lift that veil of depression, for me. But suffice it to say that in his classes I understood -- without being able to put it into words -- the connection between teaching and healing. I knew, by my own very physical sensations, that a good teacher is also a healer, and vice-versa.

I also encountered -- again without being able to articulate it -- the idea of the wounded healer. For Mr. Payne was not what anyone would call a healthy man. He was probably in his early fifties when he taught us. His thin body was stooped, his face, deeply lined and pasty, and he smelled of cigarettes with a faint undertone of booze which he was likely sipping all day in his instant coffee.

If someone was struggling for an answer -- particularly to an easy question -- he would advance on the poor student, step by step, threatening a fate worse than death. "If you don't translate that word by the time I reach your seat ... I'm going to BREATHE ON YOU!"

As adolescents, we had no trouble recognizing the strategy: stave off cruel teasing by making fun of yourself. We also recognized that Mr. Payne was kind, fair, and deeply wanted each of us to succeed. When he told us those stories about ancient Greek cities, he would sometimes say: "You can go there, some day." At the time I didn't particularly care if I ever saw Troy or Miletus or Athens. But I like it when he said things like that. They meant that the world was big, bigger than whatever private agonies I was going through, and that I'd get out, grow up, and feel better some day.

No comments: