If you grow up in the shadow of a perfectly circular Moorish fortress, can you ever truly leave?
Portugal is the narrow sliver of an empire standing watch on the edge of Western Civilization and the End of the World. When the Romans invaded, conquering Celtic lands, one river they reached, Rio Lima, was so wide, they could not see the other side. The soldiers were convinced it was the river Lethe, and the underworld was on the opposite bank. It took the general, crossing on his own, calling each soldier individually by name, to convince the army to follow.
Never mind that Portugal was actually a gateway out of the cradle of civilization for our species. In addition to making a home for several early hominid species simultaneously, our earliest consistent expressions of art are found there. End of the world, indeed.
From this littoral frontier launched armadas of half-crazed sailors, perhaps not unlike the Greeks in their skillfulness, to explore the unknown in search of riches. They were the first Europeans to circumnavigate the globe. Sitting on the shores of Lisbon today, watching recreational boats sail in and out of the straits, the baseline skills of the average sailor are still quite remarkable. It must be a point of pride for this tiny nation, who turned outward for power instead of inward.
And so it is that we find ourselves looking at farm real estate in the most interior of the interior of the country. You get the sense from Portugal’s history that its riches were predicated first on a counter-alliance with the British against Spain, then on the plundering resulting from its discoveries and exploration. Portugal does not seem to have grown rich from the tax base of its villages, unlike other European countries. While fealty certainly played a role, geography and geopolitics suggest instead that villages provided young men to crew tall ships to conquer the world and bring back gold, enriching the court.
Perhaps the persisting microeconomies in the countryside are leading people to leave again in times of economic crisis. The Portuguese have regularly been a migrant population in Europe, from the exodus of Jews to the South of France during the Inquisition, to the population of countries like Brazil, to the ports of Los Angeles, the whalers of Monterey, and the widespread housekeeping enterprises we see today in more prosperous Western European countries. From Portugal, people flee. And now, with an aging population, declining birth rate, and urbanization resulting from an infusion of tech investment, quintas stand empty.
The quintas in the countryside run along Roman roads, atop early Celtic settlements, the vestiges of which still remain with large vertical rocks popping up in the most unexpected places. The Roman roads today take you to the pilgrimage sites of Compostela and Fatima, or to the bakery, which in all likelihood is two villages over because the baker retired two years ago.
I don’t like the idea of repopulating an emptying countryside with foreigners bent on idyllic exploitation of another culture. But with the Portuguese being such enterprising expatriates themselves, it cuts the guilt a bit. In my family alone, we have a significant amount of inexplicable Iberian heritage, and a mystery birth out of wedlock. That isn’t to say that we have Portuguese heritage, specifically, but I let my mind wander when I was there.
I felt my grandfather walking the Roman road through the vineyards, and in the vegetable garden surrounded by fruit trees and chickens in sandy Alentejo. Standing on the edge of Belem, watching the sailboats tack against the wind to head out into the open Atlantic, I imagined my potential forefather fleeing a village to face the sea for the first time, then running rampant through North America. Was he afraid of the constant surf? Why was he so restless? Did he think about his mother when he got to America? How and why did he leave steady work on the docks for such a pastoral inland area? What made him, in a distinct possibility given what we know, a terrible human? Would his mother have accepted my great grandfather as her grandson if she knew? Would we be Portuguese today?
Home, a sense of place. That is what drew me to the desert and began to unravel decades of shoulds. What should home be? What should travel be? Don’t be surprised if I go back to discover more of Portugal, as a piece of my own home puzzle.
One of my biggest self-critiques of life right now is that I seem to have tapped out professionally. I can do a permutation of any number of things over the next couple decades, but I’ve done the number of things. I keep looking for opportunities for professional growth, and find that the leadership seminars and personnel crash courses never quite ring true. Do they ring true to anybody? I can’t say. But I’m not one to settle.
So I’m looking for something new. If you follow this blog, you know I bought this house to seek authenticity. If you talked to me two years ago, you would recall me seeking clarity. Now I’m looking to act on what makes my heart sing. My art mastermind program is helping with that. It has a strident recurring theme - new growth is terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.
Artists do it anyway. They make the work. They hang it on walls. They dress up in the “show wardrobe,” they put on lipstick. They show up at the opening. Then, depending on the mood, they stay and jubilantly chat the night away, or they run.
I’ve done both. I love a good reception. I love meeting new people. But with the wrong vibe, with my vulnerability on the wall, I’ve also ghosted as fast as I could. What, am I supposed to stand there smiling next to my piece while everyone else talks to everyone else because I’m the only one who came solo and doesn’t know anybody? See what I mean? That didn’t make my heart sing.
Yesterday I dipped my toe into something that I never believed I was “(insert whatever word you like) enough” to do. Since January, I’ve been painting rock faces, doing studies, using them as a tool to explore abstract expressionism, and then I watched Free Solo. I’m far from the first artist to be hit like a ton of bricks by that movie. But watching it right after drawing three iterations of the face of El Capitan really struck a chord. I felt like I knew how the face of the rock felt as it divetted in and out. And watching the film, I felt it was possible to walk forward vertically.
So I thought I’d get tactile with these rock faces. There is so much climbing in Joshua Tree, and I have many friends who have recommended it to me. But I haven’t rock climbed since I was a kid accompanying my ringer brother to the climbing gym, saying “I don’t have the arm strength” and playing second fiddle while he raced to the top of the wall each time. A few weeks ago I found myself clamoring up to the top of a rock formation to take (this) photo, and I thought to hell with it. By touching and feeling and maneuvering the rock face, I will be able to incorporate that into Abstract Expressionist Mark-Making.
I spent more money than is reasonable on a chance to learn new parts of the park, meet new people, and scramble up over rocks with someone who knows how to react when she sees a rattlesnake. Fittingly, we started off at the Rattlesnake Canyon trailhead in Indian Cove. And it was more than worth the money. For the first time in a long time I did something I’m not good at on purpose, and learned.
I pushed through fatigue, fear, and fitness. In a very uncharacteristic way, I executed on some physical limits when I hit them, remembering that discretion is the better form of valor. I sought tips on what I would need to do to improve. For the third time in as many months, I was told I looked fit (where did that Nicole go off to?). And I learned that it isn’t all in the arms. In fact, your four limbs are four points that are equally necessary. My biggest lesson learned: Put all of your weight onto your foot so that you don’t slip. As a former soccer player, for whom “arms” were never a thing, that was empowering.
I want to do this more. I know so little, and my muscle memory is so untrained, that this is an opportunity for growth. Who would have ever thought that I could find so much motivation for something I’m not naturally inclined to do?
I have a couple of these out-of-the-comfort-zone experiences on the docket. The reason is, I’m saying “F it” to waiting for groupwork or codependency. I’ve never liked those things anyway. There are perks, but existentially they feel like settling. I might rent a satellite phone, but I’m doing what makes my heart sing come hell or high water. I get no satisfaction out of 44 hours of my week. So I’d better damn well grow through the rest.