Reach what you cannot: An Interview with Sherri Moshman Paganos

In my ongoing and most pleasurable if quixotic quest to capture the precise charms that make people fall in love—and stay in love—with Greece (impossible, yes, but still, προσπαθώ [I try]), today I interview essayist and poet Sherri Moshman Paganos, who first stepped foot in Greece in the late 1970’s and returned to live permanently 30 years ago.

Sherri Moshman Paganos at Nea Makri, near Marathon
Sherri Moshman Paganos at Nea Makri, near Marathon

What a powerful initiator into love of Greece: Kazantzakis. As you said last year in the Greek-American Greek News, “Even before I came to Greece, I had felt an almost mythical connection with Crete from reading Nikos Kazantzakis’ autobiographical novel Report to Greco.” This book has been on my you-know-this-will-be-life-changing-so-why-haven’t-you-yet-read-it list for years now. How about a tantalizing précis to send all of us to the bookshelves? Which passages have been seared into your mind?

Yes, I’d say the book really connected me with Crete, though I think the spiritual connection has much to do with reading it at a certain stage of my life. Honestly I think if I picked up Report to Greco now, I might get a little impatient with Kazantzakis’ excesses of emotion. Still, don’t take it off your life-changing book list! A précis of the novel? Hmm, that’s a bit like asking for a summary of a Christopher Nolan or David Lynch film, but I’ll give it a try!

Kazantzakis is telling his story to his Cretan spiritual ancestor El Greco, one of his heroes, along with Odysseus, Christ, Buddha, Nietzsche and Lenin (interesting list!) It’s called an autobiographical novel because although the events in his life are there, more important, he’s looking back on his spiritual and intellectual life journey. Orwell once said that “an autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.” But in an autobiographical novel, the events may not be true. The method “by which I confront reality,” Kazantzakis writes, “is brighter, better, more suitable to my purpose.” So he embellishes the truth if he thinks it makes a better story or it helps prove a point. It’s a book to savor, like eating yogurt and honey, for along the road to maturity he has many parables and philosophical musings.

But for me the best part of the book is how he uses the language of the senses to evoke a feeling; here’s a description of his childhood, where he’s reading the saints’ legends to his family and to others in the town:

A house in Myrtia, the village where Kazantzakis was born. Thanks to the "Travel to Crete" website for the photo.
A house in Myrtia, the village where Kazantzakis was born. Thanks to the “Travel to Crete” website for the photo.

“each evening I sat on my little stool amid the basil and marigolds of our courtyard and read out loud all the various ordeals the saints had endured to save their souls. The neighbors congregated around me with their sewing or work-some knitted socks-others ground coffee or cleaned mustard stalks. They listened and little by little our courtyard began to ring with the lamentations for the saints’ sufferings and torments.”

Kazantzakis wrote Report to Greco toward the end of his life and sensed that he had little time left on this earth. He yearned to beg from people, not for money, but for time. “Alms brothers! A quarter of an hour from each of you. Oh for a little time, just enough to let me finish my work. Afterwards, let Charon come.” Charon came too soon, before he had time to polish some of the rough points of the book. But I think the rough points hardly matter.

When he was born in 1883 in Iraklio (Megalo Kastro then), Crete was still under Turkish dominion, which affected him deeply. His paternal grandfather fought the Turks and his father was always described as dark and frightening, while his mother’s family were full of light and joy. These two strains tugged at him throughout his life, along with other contrasts, those who are pencil pushers like himself contrasted with men of action, like Alexis Zorba, who he immortalized of course in his novel Zorba the Greek.

Life at this time was a grim sort of existence (“life rolled along noiselessly—serious and sparing of words”), and the beautiful and sublime were always mixed with harsh reality. He writes about a massacre that occurred when he was a child (“for the first time my childish mind saw life’s true face behind the beautiful mask of sea, verdant fields, fruit-laden vines, wheaten bread and a mother’s smile. Life’s true face: the skull.”)

The grave of Kazantzakis, in Crete.
The grave of Kazantzakis, in Crete.

Some people feel everything deeply, others go through life with blinders, they don’t notice the colors of the sky, the shape of the moon, the almond blossoms, they don’t question what the purpose of life is. Throughout the book Kazantzakis is a restless soul with a “hungry heart” like his hero Odysseus, the Ulysses of Dante and Tennyson, who can’t rest from adventure and can’t stand to stay in Ithaca once he finally arrives. Life must be an “ascent,” a word he uses often in Report to Greco, a struggle. “I vowed never to shut myself up inside four walls of an office, never to come to terms with the good life,” he writes. Most of us do end up inside four walls, but we identify with that yearning to escape. We follow him in his travels around mainland Greece, Mt. Athos, Italy, the Sinai, Jerusalem, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, and then always his return to his beloved Cretan soil. He’s searching for meaning in life but he always grounds us in the senses. “Within me, even the most metaphysical problem takes on a warm physical body which smells of sea, soil and human sweat,” he writes. Odors especially matter to him as a young boy, and he identifies villagers by their smell (one neighbor always smelled of cinnamon, another of warm soil): “The sense of smell was the very first to grow firm within me. It was the first to start establishing order over chaos.”

The power of the book is how we see ourselves in so much of what he writes—not only in our own searching for answers about our life on earth, but in the curiosity of the child, in the rebellion of the adolescent. In one passage Kazantzakis asks El Greco for some advice. His spiritual ancestor answers him “Reach what you can.” Kazantzakis is disappointed and asks him for something more difficult, more “Cretan.” The answer he receives: “Reach what you cannot.”

The faros (lighthouse) in the port of Chania.
The faros (lighthouse) in the port of Chania.

And with that, you’ve moved Report to Greco to the top of my summer reading queue; one never knows just when Charon will be waiting. Another excuse, too, to give Eleftheroudakis some business as soon as I land in Athens. But what about your own writing? Kazantzakis has been a longtime influence. How so?

I love the way he distills experience with sense details. Right from the first lines he gives us a writer at work: “I collect my tools: sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, intellect,” he writes. “Night has fallen, the day’s work is done. I return like a mole to my home, the ground.”

As writers, we wonder how to “glean” from our “teeming brain” experiences from our life. Seemingly insignificant details spring into our minds from “the trap door of memory,” as Kazantzakis calls it. He gives the following details he recalls from his own life:
“a flowering pomegranate tree near Kalamata, a fragrant Santorinian melon so big I could hardly put my arms around it, a swarthy little girl selling jasmine in Naples, the joyously triumphant clamor from the wooden clogs of a widow dancing at a wedding in the courtyard of her house, the two great arcs formed by the eyebrows of a Circassian woman in Moscow.”

All these rich sense details make his experience of the world become ours. Kazantzakis seems to like these lists of images that bring happiness, or that characterize a life. In his novel Christ Recrucified, when old captain Fortunas dies, he struggles to remember his myriad experiences, but all that comes to mind is one afternoon sitting in a garden with “a little fine rain, three friends, a few red flowers.” You can see in the book what molds one into a writer. I see young Kazantzakis much like Joyce’s character in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the child who loves words, the child all confused about the world around him and its strange rules. Kazantzakis as a boy mixes people in his “yeasty childhood mind”: Christ and his grandfather blend into one, his teacher and an angel unite, and his mother blends into their pet canary and the acacia flower. Even to this day, he writes, “I can’t smell an acacia or hear a canary without feeling my mother rise from the grave and unite with the fragrance and the canary’s song.”

Greece is a fertile birthing-ground for writers for this very reason—the intensity with which it educates one’s senses. How has living there shaped your writing life? (I’m thinking of course of the landscape and culture and language and literary history but also of the human connections and the practicalities of the writer’s life—e.g., writing communities and outlets for publication).

Beyond the inspiration from the landscape – the light, the sea, the pine and cypress forests – and the Greek people, I think living here helped me break into publishing some of my essays and articles on Greek life in the magazine Odyssey. I didn’t really send anything to Odyssey though until 2006 – in the meantime, I was filling notebooks with observations about Greek life. Raising my children and teaching took up all my time though, both at high school and freshman comp classes at the American College of Greece. After reading a stack of student essays on say, the use of technology in education, can you sit and write something creative? Here I miss creative writing groups and classes, which I was involved with in New York. I’m not saying they don’t exist here, but they’re harder to find or take part in. The catalyst actually for my submitting to Odyssey was a creative writing class I sat in on at the college. Basically I hate to admit it but (like most people I guess) I need a push to make me work.

In My Report to Greco, the lovely elegiac essay you wrote for Odyssey, we learn about your initial voyage to Greece. Tell us about those first captivating moments.

My first glimpse of Athens was in the darkness of 4:30 a.m., arriving on a flight from London. I made my way to the Plaka, followed the steps and the homemade wooden signs up to the Acropolis, and there watched the night sky soften and slowly bathe with light. Sunrise on the Acropolis wasn’t a bad way to start my love affair with the country.

So: in those days you could walk up at any time? No gates? 

Sherri's own dampstained copy of Report to Greco with the glancing El Greco.
Sherri’s own dampstained copy of Report to Greco with the glancing El Greco.

Well, I don’t remember a gate, but there must’ve been one! You know how the haze of the past can obscure your vision. I can see clearly though climbing on the Parthenon. I also remember that the city in August was hot, noisy and chaotic, and the next day I found myself on the overnight boat to Crete. The journal of the trip I called (what else?) “In the footsteps of Zorba.” At the time, I and other tourists harbored a secret wish to dance syrtaki with Anthony Quinn barefoot on the beach in Crete. (Five years ago I was lucky enough to meet and interview the film’s Oscar winning cinematographer Walter Lasally on the same Cretan beach near Hania where much of Zorba was filmed.) Everywhere on the trip I carried Report to Greco with its reddish cover showing an ethereal-looking El Greco glancing to one side. Over the years, the picture of El Greco on the dampstained crumbling cover has grown ever fainter as if he’s not giving up his secrets so easily.

After this brutally cold and depressingly long winter in Minnesota, I long to return to Greece—next week, readers!—soak the warmth into my bones, and dive back in to all the pleasures of the Greek summer you detail in the Greek News interview: outdoor cinemas, no-hurry voltas at sunset to bask in the sudden goldness of it all, lingering taverna dinners. What are you most looking forward to this summer?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOf course, we didn’t suffer anything like your winter, but still, summertime has so many treasures. I love how everything moves outdoors. I can’t wait for the usual summer concerts, theater, summer cinema; every June I’m waiting for the outdoor cinema across the street from my house to come out with its summer schedule. Watching a film under the stars, smelling jasmine, honeysuckle and basil, surrounded by the deep pink of the bougainvillea shrubs, is one of the great summer pleasures. Other summer pastimes I (and so many others) look forward to: drinking frappé in a cafe, preferably sitting by the sea, swimming, reading whatever what I want, just enjoying dinner on my balcony in the evening, surrounded by my plants, talking with my husband, listening to music, feeling the dryness of the air.

Finally about food, there’s too much to say, but briefly: summer fruit and vegetables in season. Food that’s fresh with taste, without worrying about light or low-fat! To add to the catalogue of simple pleasures: eating chatopodi sti schara (grilled octopus) with fresh lemon squeezed on it at a fish taverna on the beach under the brightness of the moon: is there anything else you need to be happy? Now I’ve mentioned two of the three foods in the title of Christopher Bakken’s book, which I can’t wait to read.

Approaching Loutro, in southwest Crete.
Approaching Loutro, in southwest Crete.

I’m usually looking forward to taking the slow boat to Crete (Hania and the southwestern part) or to a Cycladic island where I love the starkness of the landscape and the pungent smell of thyme. This year there’s an irony in my summer plans. I’ll miss four weeks of the Greek summer; of all places I’m going on a cruise in Alaska, the birthday treat of my father turning 90 in August, so I’ll be shivering in the Alaska glaciers. (But a happy birthday to my Dad!) Even though I wrote this poem “Birthday Wish” to myself, inspired by the Cretan landscape, I dedicate it to him. It’s a wish for calmness that I also dedicate to Kazantzakis!

Birthday Wish

On my birthday let me be as serene
as the seagulls gathering in the sea at Kyani Akti
bobbing in the gentle waves
till one, then others flap their wings soaring to the sky
circling till they return to their lazy languid sea rest.
No hurries no cares no worries.

Let me have the wisdom of the nearby river,
the winter snows of the Lefka Ori mountains
melting, feeding into the sea, let the coldness
the strength flow into me.

Give me the lushness of Spiros’ garden,
palms, fruit trees, banana leafs open to the sky,
rhythms of the sunset over Souda Bay,
later the rising of the waning moon.

And make me like the hardy almerikia,
tamarisk trees bending by the sea
sending out salt through their feathery leaves,
offering the gift of shade, of coolness
enduring the harsh dryness,
trees of survival and grace.

* * *

And then I’ll be back again to dive into the Aegean…

One thought on “Reach what you cannot: An Interview with Sherri Moshman Paganos

  1. Great interview-I have read several Kazantzakis books, and a few years ago holidayed in Crete and visited his grave. This took me back.

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