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Thordis Simonsen, founder of the Museum of Authenticity, on living a bold, creative & courageous life

(Publication Date: 1.13.24)

n this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, Adam Williams talks with Thordis Simonsen, the founding director and curator of the Museum of Authenticity in Salida, Colo. 

 

Thordis is a painter, photographer, writer and curator. She’s the author of three books, including "You May Plow Here."

In this conversation, Adam talks with Thordis about how she came to leave a career as a school teacher to go live in a small Greek village, where she would spend years interviewing villagers and documenting their life in photographs. Never mind that Thordis did not know Greek.

That initial experience would lead to Thordis selling her Ford Pinto station wagon and buying dilapidated sheep stables in that Greek village with the proceeds: $2,000. She would spend 10 years rebuilding that stone structure by hand into a house for herself, and participating in a 40-year relationship with that village. 

SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT

The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.

 

Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org

 

Thordis Simonsen 

Website: museumofauthenticity.org

 

We Are Chaffee

Website: wearechaffee.org

Instagram: instagram.com/wearechaffeepod 

Facebook: facebook.com/wearechaffee

Instagram: instagram.com/wearechaffee

 

CREDITS

Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams

Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray

We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin

We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby

Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom

TRANSCRIPT

Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service.

Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.

 

[Intro music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (00:17): Welcome to We Are Chaffee's Looking Upstream: a conversational podcast of humanness, community, and wellbeing rooted in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams. Today, I'm talking with Thordis Simsonsen. I think it's difficult to adequately describe or encapsulate Thordis in a few introductory thoughts here, but I'm going to give it a go.

(00:36): She is many things. She has done and is doing many things. By my estimation, Thordis is bold and creative and compassionate. She's thoughtful and resilient, persistent, she's courageous, and she has many stories to tell because of all of that. Thordis is the founding director and curator of the Museum of Authenticity in Salida. She's a painter, a photographer, writer, and speaker. She's a book author. She's, well, as I said, many things. And no matter how many descriptors I list here, I feel it's somehow not enough.

(01:11): In this conversation, we're going to scratch the surface of some inspiring experiences and stories. If nothing else, I think that might spark your curiosity to know more, and then maybe you'll even go visit the Museum of Authenticity and have your own direct experience with her.

(01:27): Among other things, Thordis and I talk about how she came to leave a career as a teacher, first of biology, and then of cultural anthropology. She went to live in a small Greek village. She had a grant for a project there, one in which she would interview villagers and document life as a photographer. Nevermind that she did not know Greek.

(01:48): That experience ultimately would lead to her selling her Ford Pinto station wagon and buying a house in that Greek village with the proceeds: $2,000. And nevermind buy a house, we're actually talking about a stonewalled structure with dirt floor, no roof, and it had been used to stable sheep. She would spend 10 years rebuilding that structure by hand into a house for herself and ultimately participating in what would be a 40-year relationship with that village.

(02:17): Thordis did learn Greek along the way, and she became the stone mason that she needed to become to rebuild that house. That she leaped into this 40-year adventure with no prior experience for that work, that's essential to who Thordis is, and the inspiring way in which she lives her life. Of course, this is not the only story from Thordis's life that we're going to talk about, but there's so much here that I chose to introduce you to her by way of putting a spotlight on that one incredible piece.

(02:44): So there's much more ahead, including details about the exciting limited edition re-release of her book, You May Plow Here. The Looking Upstream Podcast is supported by Chaffee County Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority. It's available on all podcast players, and the show also airs at 1:00 PM Tuesdays at KHEN 106.9 FM Community Radio in Salida. And look for the monthly We Are Chaffee column in the Chaffee County Times and the Mountain Mail.

(03:10): Show notes, including links and a full transcript of this and all Looking Upstream conversations are available at wearechaffee.org. You can support the podcast by following and engaging with the We Are Chaffee Pod account on Instagram, and We Are Chaffee on Instagram and Facebook. Enthusiastic ratings and reviews on Apple and Spotify are also helpful, and they're greatly appreciated. Now, here we go with Thordis Simsonsen.

[Transition music, guitar instrumental]

(03:46): Hello, Thordis. I am so happy to have you sitting here with me. Thank you for joining me on Looking Upstream.

Thordis Simonsen (03:51): Hey, Adam. It's great to be here.

Adam Williams (03:53): You are living such a rich and fascinating and full life. So many stories, and I'm so excited to talk with you. And we don't have time to lose here. I want to jump right in.

(04:03): And there's a really big one that I think people are going to be fascinated and inspired by. Let's start there. It's the House in Greece. Let's talk about that. I'll let you just take it away and tell the story how you want, when you bought it, why you bought it?

Thordis Simonsen (04:18): All right. First of all, let me thank you for saying I am having a rich and interesting life, because a lot of people, myself included, start out saying I've had, and the fact is I'm still having it, and I'm so thankful for that, so-

Adam Williams (04:33): I agree.

Thordis Simonsen (04:33): ... thank you.

Adam Williams (04:33): It's a conscious choice.

Thordis Simonsen (04:35): Pardon me?

Adam Williams (04:35): It's a conscious choice. Yeah. I say it that way because I realize it's not done. You're in the midst of it.

Thordis Simonsen (04:40): Right. Yeah. Even at 79. Yeah. The house in Greece, people love to hear about that. In 1984, after living in a village in Greece for two years, I decided I wanted to have a home of my own to go back to. I loved my life in the village, and we can talk about why.

(05:01): But I searched for what I call, in quotes, the appropriate house, and ended up purchasing a roofless house. It had been abandoned for many decades. It was used to stable sheep. So I was 40 years old in 1984 when I made the purchase. I spent long seasons each summer restoring the house, stone by stone, by hand. I did all the stone work. I loved the project because it gave me an opportunity to discover the depths of my ingenuity, and in doing so, learn things about myself that I didn't previously know.

(05:55): And I'll give you an example. I cut a hole in the wall to put a window over what was my kitchen sink, and probably most listeners know how much we appreciate a window view when we're washing dishes. And so I cut this hole in a wall, it's a couple feet thick, and I needed three identically arched pieces of rebar. And I'm thinking, "How can I bend three pieces of rebar?"

(06:31): Typically, if it were one piece, I'd stick a rebar rod in a hole in a brick wall and bend it, or bend it in the crux of a tree. A plumber taught me how he can bend pipe. And my house sits on the edge of a ravine, and across the ravine, I noticed in my neighbor's yard a steel drum, and I go, "Oh, that's handy. I'll bend the rebars on the steel drum."

(07:03): So that's not a typical part of people's experience, and I love the opportunity to think creatively like that because it's the sort of thing, an experience we don't have in school. It's not something we are tested on. It's not something that we learn about ourselves.

Adam Williams (07:29): So much learning happens, I think, in the doing, and in experiencing life, right? It's not in the classrooms. That just gets us our start, and then the rest of life is about problem-solving.

Thordis Simonsen (07:39): Pretty much. Yeah.

Adam Williams (07:40): So let's back up a moment, and I want to know what took you to Greece? Why did you go there in the first place? And then what all ultimately led you to say, "Wow, I think I want to have a property here. I want to keep coming back here"?

Thordis Simonsen (07:55): Yeah. I went to Greece for the first time in 1974, when I was 30. I'd been teaching biology for a number of years, and I decided that I'd like to teach a class in cultural anthropology. I thought it would be interesting to go work horizontally rather than go into more depth of biochemistry or whatever.

(08:22): And so I came to Colorado after five years of teaching, and I was hired at Kent Denver School to teach biology, and I asked the headmaster if I could teach a class in cultural anthropology. I had never studied any anthropology, let alone cultural anthropology, but I realize now that it was one of the earlier things that I did without credentials. I taught the class without ever going to school. Rather than go to school, I got the idea that I wanted to live in a village somewhere for the experience of village life to draw upon in my teaching.

(09:07): So I had met a woman who lived in a village in Greece, and I wrote to her and asked her if she could find a room for me to rent, and I did that in the summer of '74. My first trip to Greece, I spent a number of weeks. Then I came back and I taught the cultural anthropology. And after a number of years and after my first book, which I'd like to talk about, I decided that I would like to go to Greece for an indefinite time, and rather than be a visitor, be the honored guest, that I'd like to be a participant.

(09:48): So I went to Greece. In 1982, I left the classroom, and have not been in a formal teaching situation since then. I left the classroom, I stayed in the village for two years. I had a small grant to document the village in photographs and narratives.

(10:10): I tell this story on myself. Two things about that. One is that I forgot to carry a one, and so I ended up getting a grant for $4,000 instead of five. That was proof you work before you submit it for a grant. And the second thing is that I received the grant to interview villagers and presumably translate the interviews and edit them.

(10:38): And the foundation that gave me the grant, the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust, in Massachusetts, gave me this grant without ever even asking me whether I spoke Greek-

Adam Williams (10:50): That's a big question.

Thordis Simonsen (10:50): ... let alone could read it or translate it. So I had the grant and had a wonderful time participating in village life.

(11:01): The upshot of this, what turned into a two-year experience, 1982 to '84, leading up to the house purchase, was that I wrote my second book, Dancing Girl: Themes and Improvisations in a Greek village Setting. And the book is comprised of stories villagers told me, stories I tell about the village, gossip I overheard about the American girl, that would be me. Stories about the house, stories about gender roles and all kinds of things.

(11:40): And that book is still available. It came out in 1991, and I published it myself with some photographs, and it seems like it's a timeless book. It's very poetic.

Adam Williams (11:56): That touches on-

Thordis Simonsen (11:57): Very poetic.

Adam Williams (11:57): ... some questions that I actually already have, which is how were you received in this small village? And by small, I don't know how many people we're talking about. But how were you received not only because you were an American, you were from the outside, but maybe as a woman who was there alone and undertaking this, I think, significant project to rebuild these sheep stables into a living home?

Thordis Simonsen (12:21): Mixed bag. And I will say I had a neighbor woman who pointed her finger and shaked it at me because I was doing men's work. I rented a house for $35 a month while I was working on my own house, and she came by one day when I had a saw in my hand, a hand saw, I was cutting down a window and replacing some framing in the window of the house I rented, because it leaked so badly, and, "Men's work," she said. "Men's work."

(12:57): So probably she was threatened by the fact gender roles were pretty established in the village at that time, and women made soap, cooked. Women did everything, really, even sometimes plow. On the other hand, Lambi, who delivered a load of something or other to my house, and I rode up to the house with him in his big dump truck. And I turned to him and I said, "Oh, Lambi. I have to get all these materials down the 600 meters to my house." And I said, "It's not work for a woman." And Lambi said to me, "Oh. The work's the same, the pay's the same. [Greek 00:13:51]. And you have taste."

(13:55): So the men applauded me. The women also embraced my presence, I have to say, especially at the beginning when I was more visible around the village with my camera on recorder. They would vie for my company at their dining tables, and of course always serve me at least twice the normal serving that other members of the family would be served at a meal. So my favorite quote, quoting myself, is this: "The women, and in fact the villagers in Alika, embraced my presence ultimately."

(14:45): Well, first let me back up. So I broke all the rules. I was a woman doing men's work. I am a spiritual person, but I'm not affiliated with a church, let alone Greek orthodoxy. I'm a woman who's not married and don't have children. And they would say, "Oh. Why don't you marry?" That's a whole 'nother story. "Who will take care of you when you get old?" So they noticed, you know? So why did the villagers embrace me? They embraced me because we all have feelings that need to be expressed and a spirit that wants to be set free.

(15:25): So on that note, that you've asked, Adam, about reception, strangers being embraced, the presence of strangers being embraced. If you don't mind, I'd like to make a segue and back up to my first book-

Adam Williams (15:42): Sure.

Thordis Simonsen (15:43): ... You May Plow Here: The Narrative of Sarah Brooks. The book came out in 1986 after I spent 10 years interviewing a woman named Sarah Brooks. This project began the same summer I went to Greece for the first time, so that summer of 1974 was hugely pivotable for me.

(16:13): So Sarah Brooks worked in the domestic service. She cleaned for my parents, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle. Ever since I was four years old, this was in Cleveland, Cleveland area. Sarah Brooks had migrated from Alabama four years prior to the time she began working in our household.

(16:36): When I sat down to have lunch with her on my way to Greece for the first time in 1974, I said, "Oh. I'm going to Greece to experience rural life." Something like that. I wish I knew the exact words. She started telling me about her life in the country in Alabama where she was born in 1911 and raised on a 53-and-one-third-acre farm her father owned. We're talking about an African-American woman. We're talking about a family-owned farm, not a subsistence farm. It was a subsistence farm, but not a sharecropping situation. A story that is not unique, but has not been told enough.

(17:35): So Sarah Brooks had been in my household. This was '74, and she began working there in '48. And all those years, she had an inside view of me. She knew-

Adam Williams (17:35): Wow, yeah.

Thordis Simonsen (17:48): ... me intimately, but I did not know her. I knew she loved her mother and her father and her stepmother; I knew that she loved to go to fishing in the branches, she called them, little streams; and I knew she went to church. And that's about it. I'd never been to her house. She came to our house once a week.

(18:12): So when I first heard her story, I said, "Oh my goodness. I don't have any blank tapes. May I run to the store and get some blank tapes and come back and record these stories for the students in the anthropology class that I'm going to start teaching in the fall?" She said yes. So I came back, and she spoke for about an hour. I think I might've asked her one question the whole time.

(18:40): I played the tape for my students. Now, Sarah Brooks came from the storytelling tradition, and this woman engaged a remote student audience that would hear her stories months down the road with a plum. She's a brilliant storyteller. So I listened to the tape, and I go, "Oh my gosh. We need to hear more from this woman." So I asked her if we could make a book.

(19:08): I had never in my life thought for a second about making a book. Like the house in Greece, I had never in my life thought about restoring a house in Greece by hand, by myself, over 10 years. Which is to say, in retrospect, I've become a great fan of doing things because we have the passion to do it and we have the persistence to do it. Not because we have a degree and not because necessarily we even have the experience to do it. We can always ask.

(19:54): I had grown up with a dad who was a hobbyist photographer, and I used to go into his dark room when he was printing, and so I had gotten into black and white photography by the time I had sat down with Sarah Brooks. And I had been exposed, I had stumbled across Dorothea Lange's book, The American Exodus, which included text that her husband provided for the book of her photographs. If you know Dorothea Lange, very famous-

Adam Williams (20:30): I do, I do.

Thordis Simonsen (20:30): Yeah. Depression, dust bowl-era photographer. In fact, when I got a degree in a master's in teaching at Johns Hopkins, and the head of the department came in one day with the Museum of Modern Art Monograph of Dorothea Lange photographs, and I said right then, if I could ever create moving, engaging photographs such as hers, I would like to be a photographer.

(20:57): So I was interested in photography as an activity, as an occupation, if you will. So I thought, "Whoa, I can go to Alabama and make photographs of the vestiges of the mule farming way of life that Sarah Brooks is telling me about." And I thought that would be the substance of the book, the main focus of the book, and that it would be accompanied by quotes and texts from Sarah Brooks.

(21:28): The situation flipped as I spent time with her, and I interviewed her over 10 years. Eventually, Norton published the book, and I'd like to get into the present for a moment. Norton published the book, and then Simon & Schuster picked up the trade paperback rights, and then it went back to Norton. And the trajectory of this book, which was praised by newspapers all across the country back in 1986 when it came up, it lost its momentum.

(22:02): So a year and a half ago, I managed to acquire the rights for the book back from Norton. And right now, I am on cloud nine, because a life, well, a dream of mine since 1986 when the book came out, without any photographs, after that was my initial intent to have a book that featured photographs, I finally had the opportunity to put together a beautiful book with 33 duotone photographs of the vestiges of mule farming I made in Alabama on four trips during the 1970s.

(22:43): And that book is now available. It was shipped to me here in Salida a week ago tomorrow. I'm presenting a reading and discussion at the library in Salida. My website is museumofauthenticity.org. We published the book in conjunction with the museum.

Adam Williams (23:06): You've given me a lot to go back to, to dig into. Some of it touches on things I knew I wanted to ask you. I almost don't even know where to begin again, because again, your life does have so many threads. We can pull on any one, start to unravel, and spend hours there. This house in Greece, I think you ended up having for 40 years. That relationship with the village for 40 years, I think that's fascinating.

(23:28): There is a connection for me in you going to Alabama to do this work. I love that you connected it to Dorothea Lange. I wonder if you feel like in some sense, you got to have that experience for yourself and do something similar to what she did in being able to document life that others, most of us, have no idea happened, or is happening? Do you feel connected as a photographer and a storyteller in that way to the influence that Dorothea Lange had on you?

Thordis Simonsen (23:57): I don't know if connected is the word I would choose, but I would certainly say influence, that it was an influence along my way. And just like I'm a visual artist and I paint, and at one point, I was working in oil pastel, and there's an image I can think of right away where the sky was reminiscent of a Van Gogh sky. I didn't intend to mimic him, but I certainly own that I was exposed to Van Gogh when I was a kid. And being exposed to Dorothea Lange, I know that was an influence in my work.

(24:44): And I'd like to tie together something we were talking about before about relationships with the villagers, for example. And I went to Alabama the year after my first trip to Greece. One of the things that stunned me was the way the rural people in Alabama, as well as the rural people in Greece, did receive me. So there's a picture in the new edition of You May Plow Here, a photograph of me making a photograph of one of the Alabama women. I am dressed in a striped polo shirt, white painter pants, and top-sider shoes. And if that doesn't tell a story, here is a privileged, preppy, white girl interacting in the Black community.

(25:49): And those folks, just like the villagers, they embraced my presence. So I would ask myself why? There was a line that I read a long time ago in a book listeners may or may not remember, because it was a bit ago. It was Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. And he wrote in that book something to the effect that when we're in a world different from ours like that, we aren't evaluated for our past or our future, even. People see us for who we are at that moment and how we're relating to them.

(26:37): And I came to the village in Greece with interest. I returned to the village many, many times, and it's the same way for Alabama. In the 1970s, I went there four different times to make photographs. I would take photographs back to the people I had photographed the previous season.

(27:02): Sarah Brooks' mother, stepmother, and her father were very receptive to me, and I learned that her birthday, Sarah Brooks' stepmother's birthday, was going to be when I was there. I took her a birthday cake. Turns out it was the second birthday cake she'd ever have. But sincere relationship-building interest.

 

Adam Williams (27:30): I think curiosity, sincerity, humility-

Thordis Simonsen (27:30): Humility.

Adam Williams (27:34): ... goes a long way when we walk among other cultures, whether that's in this country or it's around the world. Thordis, you and I have so much in common. Creatively, our interests, our influences. You mentioned William Least Heat-Moon and Dorothea Lange. I have both of those books that you mentioned on my shelves.

Thordis Simonsen (27:54): Cool.

Adam Williams (27:54): Met William Least Heat-Moon, and said, "I want to do a road trip like you did." He said, "Go do it." And I got a fellowship similar to what took you to Greece and got to do that. You and I truly could talk for hours and hours on so many things. I love that you're tapping into so much that has meaning to me here.

(28:11): And I think there can be inspiration for others. And one of those key points of inspiration in my mind is what it takes to leap into these sorts of experiences, adventures, whatever word you want to use, and that it sounds like you use something like trusting intuition to be willing to do it, rather than some sort of overthought, overanalyzed approach.

(28:35): And I want to get your thoughts on whatever you consider that urge, be it intuition, or a spiritual calling, or however you look at it, to leap when these opportunities present themselves?

Thordis Simonsen (28:48): Leap. I like to say I leap before I look.

Adam Williams (28:55): Has that always gone well? Have you ever had a landing that you're like, "Oh. Well, okay. That wasn't the one. Let me try something else"?

Thordis Simonsen (29:02): No. I've been fortunate in that way. So I remember somebody once said that I was searching, and I go, "No, I have never searched." My situation is, well, we were talking the other day, and I'll bring that up as a segue into this, but I was saying that some kids at an early age decide they're going to be a doctor or a lawyer or a farmer, whatever, and end up doing it, and have very fulfilled, happy lives doing what their original thought was, if you will, or origin of themselves as an adult. I didn't have that. Oh, yeah. I feel like I almost came into the world without a conscious idea of what my life would be like down the road.

(30:09): There's a Jungian psychologist who tells a story, as I understand it, that's told in the Talmud, that during our gestation, that the story of our lives are imprinted in our being somehow, and that at birth that is erased, and we spend the rest of our lives rediscovering what was written. And if anything, that's how I feel my life has evolved.

(30:41): So let's just take the book, You May Plow Here, which I love to talk about. I got the idea after talking with Sarah Brooks that I'd like to make a book with her story. I asked her if she would do it. This was not part of a preconceived plan. I did not have a preconceived plan ever to become a stone mason, let alone a stone mason in a village in Greece.

(31:12): So what has happened to me as I look back is that an idea has presented itself, and I just never ask, "Can I do it?" I don't ask that. I know I will, and I do. I've been fortunate in being able to do that for a bunch of reasons. I'm single, I've had the freedom to move around, if you will, to say yes to things.

(31:45): In addition to that, one of the most significant messages that I ever was given in my life was, as a child, my sister would come home with As on her report card, and I would come home with Bs, as in boy. My mother would say, "Don't worry. You can do other things."

(32:06): And my third book, Dances in Two Worlds: A Writer-Artist's Backstory, which came out 12 years ago, I won the Colorado Book Award with that book in creative nonfiction, it's 20 personal essays and 50 paintings of my own work that were made during the same 20-year period. And I bring it up just to say there's an essay in the book, Dances in Two Worlds, titled Other Things. And the story begins with my mother telling me I can do other things, and then I riff off that and tell about how that's influenced my life. My mother gave me permission to do.

(32:55): I just feel like, in a way, it's been a blessing in a disguise, because maybe I've done an awful lot, and of course, there are trade-offs. You know? I don't have a family. I'm not in a committed primary relationship, not traveling the world as some people might. I get involved with something, and then end up working on it for 10 years. The interviews with Sarah Brooks, that was a 10-year project. The restoration of the house in Greece was a 10-year project.

(33:32): Then I purchased the museum property here in Salida, the Museum of Authenticity, 10 years ago, right about 10 years ago today, just about, and it was seven and a half years in remodeling that building to open the Small Museum of Art and Culture in Salida. So I don't think I have another 10-year project in me. I'm pushing 80 now.

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Adam Williams (33:59): I think this is really interesting that you have stuck with ideas for as long as you have. And the context of where I'm coming from on that is I think probably in a similar way, I have lots of ideas, lots of things I want to create, ways I want to create, project ideas in mind.

(34:17): And I am kind of in awe of how you have been able to leap into these ideas and say, "I'm going to commit to this," and then you stick with it for 10 years. Or just being part of that village was ultimately 40 years, even though the building piece was 10.

(34:34): And I'm curious for your thoughts on that, and if that's ever been a challenge to you? And maybe specifically with the house and project in Greece, did you ever say, "Oh. Why am I doing this? Why am I really doing this? And why do I keep making the effort to come over here or to be here and keep putting myself through these challenges?"

 

Thordis Simonsen (34:53): Yeah. I can think of one example. I don't ever remember experiencing that with any of my three books or my artwork, but there was a time restoring the house in Greece, it was the ninth season. It turns out I spent nine months there that year. The previous year, I'd been there five months, the previous years before that, four months during the summer, doing the stone work, 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The villagers did criticize me, some of them for working on holidays, okay?

(35:31): I went back the ninth season to lay stones on the dirt floor of the house in Greece. This house had four stone walls when I found it, four stone walls that were in disrepair, a window, two doors. It was deteriorating. People like to say, "I built a house in Greece." I didn't. I restored one, but I can see why they say I built one.

(36:10): So the floors were dirt. I discovered a pile of flat stones in a field down the way from my house that had been planted in olive trees. And to do that, the owner had dismantled a wheat threshing floor. So all these stones were in a pile. "Oh, wow. Look at those. That could be stones for my house." And there were some humongous stones. I mean, they could be up to four or five inches thick, and two, two and a half feet in diameter, but natural flat stones.

 

(36:55): So I asked if I could have them, and some village boys brought four dump truckloads of stone, dumped them at the road above my house, and I had to get them 60 meters to my house and over the window ledge for the upper room. So I rolled them, I flip-flopped them, I walked them, and I got them to my house, and I had these stones. And then I have to put sand on the floor, and I had to make a level floor that drained a certain way, because I put a drain in each of the two rooms the house had.

(37:29): Oh, brother. So I go back the ninth season and I have these stones ready to lay on the floor. And I look at that job, I start working on it. I was dealing with this big stone slab. I had to lift it, and put a little more sand, then lift it up and take a little sand away. I was on my knees. It was such a daunting job. And I just go, "Ugh. I don't know if I can do this." I was so close. I paid to have the roof put on. I paid people to build the windows and doors. I paid somebody to install surface wiring, and that was either soon to come or had just happened.

(38:10): And there I was. I had this floor to put in. I just said, "I don't know if I can do this." And I actually, I asked the universe for a sign. Am I to finish this job or not? And so I left, and then I left. I was done.

(38:34): I came back the next day, and I had some plastic sheeting that I would lay over where I had put in mortar so it wouldn't dry too fast and crack, and I did start back to work. I guess I trusted maybe that a sign would come at some point, but in the meantime, I was going to keep working.

(38:57): And this humongous praying mantis, it was white and it had warts on it, and it landed on this piece of plastic just right next to where I was working. And it looked up at me, and I go, "That's the sign." And you ask, "Why was that the sign?" And I say the answer to that is that I knew that the praying mantis was the chief god of the African Aboriginal people. So that was my sign. I already knew that, and so I continued work.

(39:41): And the cool thing is, and you have to read my book Dancing Girl to learn more about this. But it turns out years after I started working on the house, I learned that a neighbor of mine was born when their mother set stones on the earthen floor of this very same room I'm telling you about and bore her. And so you can read more about that in my book.

(40:04): But we're talking signs now, and not frustration that might lead me to give up a project, but this was a sign that led me, kind of confirmed that I would buy the house. So here I am looking for the appropriate house. I'd looked at several. One was too pricey, one had too many Greek owners spread in America and Australia, and it would be too complicated.

(40:31): And then I find this ruthless house, and it was sitting on a hillside two miles from the water with an unobstructed view of the sea. And I love to tell the story. At some point, I looked back and people say, "What made you think you could fix this house by yourself when you've never had any experience with stonework, and you're in a country where you barely know any Greek, and you're learning it word by word?" And by the way, I did think, "Well, I've learned Greek word by word. Maybe I can fix a house stone by stone." Maybe I thought that.

(41:12): But anyway, the day I saw the house, it was in the afternoon, and I went into the village and asked, "Who owns this house?" And they told me, and I went to find Lambi, and by this time it was early evening. And I found Lambi. And in Greece, you don't just knock on the door and say, "Hey, Lambi. I saw your house. Can I buy it?" You spend time visiting and expressing your interest in them and valuing this time together.

(41:45): So we sat down, they served me refreshments, we had this long interaction. Finally, I realized that the time had come, enough time had passed, that I could politely ask Lambi, "[Greek 00:42:06]? May I buy your house?" This story is also in my book Dancing Girl. So Lambi said yes. No. He said, "I will think about it."

(42:19): And on my way back to the house I rented in the village, I witnessed a shooting star. Almost makes me cry to tell this story. I witnessed a shooting star that crossed the heaven with just this remarkable speed and light, and I took that to be a sign. "If Lambi says yes, [Greek 00:42:46], I'll buy it.

Adam Williams (42:49): With signs, I wonder if there's a spirit of openness, and that you in some sense wanted to continue on that floor, right? And you wanted to be able to buy that house. And then we see it in that way and we feel affirmed by the universe. And I think there's an interesting and nice spiritual connection in that.

(43:08): I also want to ask you about permission. You mentioned your mom gave you permission, which I think might've been rare at that time period in particular, rather than, "No, you are a young girl. You're going to grow up and do this, or just get married," or what have you.

(43:23): And I think a lot of people of any era today included feel that we need permission from someone before we can try something different, before we can be who we feel like we maybe really are. And we don't necessarily recognize that the permission can and maybe most importantly ought to come from within ourselves.

Thordis Simonsen (43:44): Yes, but I was very fortunate because I had parents who role modeled living a full life and drawing on their resources. My mom, when I was very young, was a graphic artist. Her medium was silkscreen. Then she took up weaving, and then she took up some other things after that. But my mom was not a mother who would bake cookies and throw parties for my sister and me.

(44:34): I'm the third in a line of women, my mom's mother, my grandmother, and my mom who lived at a time when they didn't have permission. My grandmother was orphaned around her college age, and her friends arranged for her to marry someone. In that day, she wanted to go to college. She did go to college, but not the one she wanted to go to. She had two children right away, and that became her life.

(45:11): Now, that's not to say there aren't women you read about who go off and have adventures. The Lady's Life in the Rockies, I think? The story of the woman who traveled the Rockies by horseback, back in that era, or maybe a little before. I mean, they're examples, but typically we're talking, yeah. And my dad was a chemical engineer and went to the office every day, but he was a woodworker. He was a black-and-white photographer hobbyist, so that also gave me permission.

(45:50): So I had it easy. I had it easy, and I had it easy in another way. My parents were not wealthy-wealthy, but they worked hard and they weren't big spenders. And when I went to Greece, my parents made sure that I had health insurance. They paid for the roof of my house. Oh, I should tell, just so listeners don't get the wrong idea.

(46:18): You're probably not thinking that the house cost thousands of dollars, because it didn't have a roof and it had dirt floors, but I had sold my six-year-old silver-blue Pinto station wagon when I left for Greece. And after staying two years, I purchased the house with the money from the sale of the car. That was $2,000.

(46:39): The roof cost $5,000. My parents gave me that money. My parents paid for my first book to be printed. My second book to be printed. I published it myself, but they paid for the publication. And the book sold, but they didn't ask for that money back, so that's another way that I had the freedom to leap into things.

Adam Williams (47:08): I want to ask a question about some of that. You've acknowledged being privileged. I would have to acknowledge to whatever extent, certainly as a white male in this country and in the world, I would have to acknowledge that there is some inherent privilege for me.

(47:21): And so a question that I think is important, and that I ask myself sometimes from that position is, when is it right and good for me to speak and share a story, like what you have done and are doing with Sarah Brooks and these mule farmers and the photographs? And when is it that we should step aside and make sure we just make way for them to share their stories when we're dealing with these issues in society?

(47:44): Have you given thought to that? Or has anybody challenged you on you're speaking on behalf of a marginalized portion of our society, but you're a privileged white person? Why is your voice the one we should be hearing?

Thordis Simonsen (47:57): Well, I'm only speaking for myself, and I am acknowledging the shoulders that I stand on. And I'll give you a great example. I love acknowledging that I stand on the shoulders of Sarah Brooks, the narrator in my first book, You May Plow Here. Sarah Brooks role modeled storytelling for me, and I think that fact that I did become a writer after editing her narratives can in part be accounted for by the fact that I listened to her for hours and hours and hours, and heard her storytelling.

(48:37): And in line with your questioning, I think, here I am, a white woman, who edited Sarah Brooks' story. There's a musical in that book. Somebody might get permission to create a musical production, You May Plow Here. I would not want a white person to do that. I would want an African-American person to do a book about this African-American woman.

(49:12): I mean, I wasn't looking for this project. It presented itself, and I said yes. At the time, I never asked myself, "Oh, I'm a white woman. Is it okay for me to be the editor of the narrative of an African-American woman?" No, I never asked that. But I've had wonderful experiences around that because I took Sarah Brooks a number of times to give a program with me on the book. And a lot of times, it was with the photographs that we were traveling.

(49:45): And I remember one time very distinctly, we were sitting there signing books afterwards. We were sitting side by side, and an African-American woman came up, and not only did she not ask for my autograph in the book alongside Sarah Brooks' autograph, but she didn't look me in the eye. Now, I understand that, and it's very important for me. I'm very grateful that I've had this opportunity to experience that.

(50:15): And right now, I have just received the reissue. I have 750 limited-edition copies of You May Plow Here with the photographs sitting in the store room at the museum, ready to go out into the world. And here I am, a white woman, once again presenting this book by a narrative of a Black American woman. It's her life. We could talk for quite a while about that.

(50:44): But I just want to say that even as I have invited people to purchase a book and donate it to one of the 107 historically Black college and university libraries, as a token expression of resistance against the current wave in some places of removal of books from library shelves and school curricula, I'm asking myself, "How do African-American people feel about me, a white girl, woman, making that opportunity available to people? Do I ask African-American people to participate in preserving this story of their history? Or do I ask white people to participate as a way of expressing resistance to other people's objections to Black history as it should be told?"

Adam Williams (52:01): I think there are times for us to certainly help, right? Because sometimes, we need to be a conduit that helps open up the audience to more. And I think asking the questions that you're putting out here and clearly have thought about, as I do with things that I do, I think is very important.

(52:19): And to sort of model, these questions need to be asked and considered, and wherever those lead us in answers. We have just a little bit of time left, Thordis.

Thordis Simonsen (52:19): Can I just-

Adam Williams (52:29): Would you have an added thought?

Thordis Simonsen (52:30): Can I just say the critical thing is to be truthful, to be empathetic, to listen.

Adam Williams (52:41): I agree. Yeah. Thank you for adding that. I want to ask, maybe as the last question with the time we have left, about legacy.

(52:50): Given the books, given your place for 40 years in that Greek village, given what we're talking about with Sarah Brooks and your documentation of what was then a fading way of life in Alabama, the Museum of Authenticity, do you think about legacy and what all of these works leave behind or create in others who come to this and feel what you have done and continue to do in your life?

Thordis Simonsen (53:20): I think about legacy a lot, particularly as I get older. I think in large part because I don't have children, although I can't imagine how people's relationship to children affects their need for legacy.

(53:35): I thought that the museum would be my biggest legacy, if you will, and I hope it will outlive me. And I should say that I need help with that because I have a very inadequate endowment set aside for the museum, so I'm going to need help making its future possible after I leave the planet.

(54:01): But as I've worked now recently on the re-release of You May Plow Here, I have heard myself saying to myself and to others that I feel the most important legacy I have created and will create is the book, because it reaches way beyond my personal sphere to the history of Black life in America and the future of Black life in America. The introduction to the photographs that I wrote for the book places Sarah Brooks' narrative into a broader context.

(54:47): I am so grateful that I've had the opportunity to make a platform for her to speak, and that just feels like a very important thing that I've done. And I'm just really grateful to have been able to do it.

(55:07): And I want to say, maybe this is the last word, I don't know, but yes. I have done a lot of things, and people say, "Thordis, you're talented. Thordis, you've created so much." All these things, and I appreciate it, I take it to heart. It motivates me. I'm sure it's kept me going.

(55:24): But when push comes to shove, when I die, what I'd like to be written on my tombstone is, "Hey. Thordis was a generous, thoughtful, caring person." That's what I'm hoping for.

Adam Williams (55:43): I'm grateful to you for sharing some of your story and some of the threads of these stories with us here today, Thordis. Thank you.

Thordis Simonsen (55:51): Thank you, Adam.

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Adam Williams (56:05): Thanks for listening to the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream Podcast. If our conversation here today sparks curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode's show notes at wearechaffee.org. If you have comments or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado, who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at info@wearechaffee.org.

(56:25): We invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream Podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also invite you to tell others about The Looking Upstream Podcast. Help us to keep growing community and connection through conversation.

(56:41): Once again, I'm Adam Williams, host, producer, and photographer. John Prey is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN 106.9 FM, our community radio partner in Salida, Colorado; to Heather Gorby for graphic and web design; to Andrea Carlstrom, Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment; and to Lisa Martin, Community Advocacy Coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative.

(57:03): The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream Podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. 

You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org, and on Instagram and Facebook at We Are Chaffee. Lastly, until the next episode, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, share stories, make change.

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