“The Ebb and Flow of Aspen,” a poem by Lori Gurtman.
Weeks before, months after
The longest day of the year
Sunlight streams down
Tourists swell the town
Hotels and restaurants come alive
Patrons spend and businesses thrive
People frolic outdoors
Rafting, biking, hiking galore
Under the stars, swaying to the beat
Concerts entertain crowds on the street
But in the middle of peak season
Locals complain with good reason
Cars, bikes, and pedestrians
Create traffic and congestion
Cooler weather signals transition
And school begins a new session
Dance from Aspen trees
Visitors leave without a trace
Finally, an open parking space
Winter is officially here
The shortest day of the year
Christmas lights shimmer and glow
Mountains pile high with snow
On the slopes skiers and snowboarders abound
Playing like children on a powdery playground
Enjoying après before they dine
Sipping cocktails and fine wine
Smiling proprietors count their bills
Fattening their bank accounts until
Vacationers fly home on jets
And the town once again resets
Snow melts, flowers bloom, bluebirds sing
Earth permeates with the scents of spring
Aspen remains quiet for a little while
As the ebb and flow begins a new cycle
When the clouds of grief clear the way for light.
Death is life’s greatest equalizer. There’s no way around it. We can’t avoid it. We can’t escape it. We will all face it—our own immortality, and the loss of someone we love. It may come when we least expect it, or sometimes we are warned, but rarely are we prepared to lose someone we love. And no matter how many times we are forced to say goodbye, it never makes the pain any easier. I was only four years old when my father died. At the time, I didn’t understand what death meant. I remember a lot of tears, not my tears—but the waterfalls of tears pouring down the faces of everyone who loved my father. The hurt hit me later in life when I began to intellectualize what I was missing. As the years passed, other deaths would fall from the dark clouds that would occasionally pass over my head, eventually clearing the way for the sun to shine when the heartache dissipated.
Death can be ugly, but it can also make space for beauty and love. Rather than feeling sorry for myself, I have found a way—this is something that happens in time—to celebrate the people who are no longer in my life and thank them for blessing me with their gifts. Grief is a theme in my debut novel, Lost and Found in Aspen. It served as fuel for me to write the story. I can’t help but wonder if the book would not have been written if I hadn’t experienced losing so many loved ones. Looking back, I realize it was part of my grand plan—writing about grief because I knew it so well.
Death also has the potential to connect us and bring us closer to the living, particularly those who share similar stories and tragedies. Early in my marriage, my husband didn’t understand what it was like for me to not have a father, until he lost his beloved dad. Mourning his passing together, we came out on the other side––speaking a similar language. Now we put these special men on pedestals, cherishing their shortened lives.
A few years ago, I met a woman named Cathy who had just moved to Aspen. Cathy had a best friend in another state who was losing a long battle with cancer. I had a friend, also far away, who was desperately fighting cancer too. Commiserating over our sick friends is what drew us closer, but losing them is what sealed us together. I remember when Cathy first got word that her friend had passed. I was driving in town and saw Cathy walking on the sidewalk. Pulling over to say “hi,” I took one look in her eyes and knew something was wrong. After she relayed the sad news, I told her to go home, put on her ski clothes, and meet me at the Silver Queen Gondola at the base of Aspen Mountain. As soon as we began our ascent, she shared funny memories of her friend, and then we honored her life on that bluebird day, enlivened by the fresh air and glorious sunshine, carving turns down the mountain. Less than six months later, cancer took my friend’s life. Cathy, of course, was the first person I called to help me with my grief—after all, she knew exactly how I felt. It was our shared experiences with death that connected us, blossoming our friendship.
Growth happens at every turn throughout life. We continually evolve with the passage of time, and facing tragedy forces us on a new trajectory, altering how we view the world. Overcoming sorrow and anguish gives us an opportunity to reevaluate our sense of purpose, our self-worth, our love. I know all too well how it feels when death shoots daggers into my heart, but it’s those same sharp, painful weapons that have also strengthened and opened my soul to be flooded with oceans of light.
Prayer wheels artwork by Nagel-Gogolak.
I am a writer. My friend Nicole is an artist. She claims that she can’t write. I claim that I lack artistic ability. Although our creative mediums are different, we have a lot in common when it comes to pursuing our passions. Both Nicole’s art and my writing are shaped by our personal experiences, our self-identities, and the lenses through which we see the world. Like books, art tells stories. And these stories bring a piece of art to life.
The cover of my novel, Lost and Found in Aspen, is an image of Nicole’s sought-after art, which she aptly named “Prayer Wheels,” made from slices of wood and painted with hot wax. Although the photograph of her wheels is pretty––it doesn’t do them justice. When you admire them hanging on a wall in person, you can feel their energy and the intuitive message each one conveys. Learning about the origin and inspiration behind Nicole’s work enables the viewer to have a better appreciation of the depth and power of her art.
This is Nicole’s story, in her words:
In 2011, I went on a soul-searching trek to the Himalayas where I became entranced by the meditative power of the art in Buddhist temples. The fusion of sacred meaning into visual imagery resonated deeply with me. I was particularly moved by the crowds of Tibetans in Kora, circumambulating the city and spinning prayer wheels while chanting the prayer “Om Mani Padme Hum.” Walking in unison with them, I felt the transformative power of this beautiful pilgrimage. The prayer wheels worn down from the touch of so many intentioned hands, the clicking sound they made as each passerby gently spun them to continue their unending spiral path, the smell of yak butter candles, and the beautiful rustling of colorful indigenous garments shuffling in pace, step after step––awoke my senses.
When I returned to the mountains of Colorado, I started making my “Prayer Wheels” series. I knew I wanted to find a way to capture this spiritual and synesthetic experience through a combination of sight, sound, touch, and smell into a visual image that also incorporated the natural beauty that I have always found so moving and inspirational. The circular wood grain of the log slices and finely etched lines fused with colored wax was the perfect representation of what I had felt on my travels through Nepal and Tibet. And the grain in the wood slice symbolized time, growth, and even struggle––which is pure and authentic.
Several years prior to this trip, a life-altering tragedy had shattered my heart and sent me on a frantic search for connection and deeper meaning in a world that felt empty and broken. Through my art, I began to heal and become whole again. Each wheel I created held a prayer, intention of hope, or a new beginning. It was a journey of putting my heart back together piece by piece. As I added color and ink to create the sublime surfaces, I was reminded of the present and divine moments in life. Just like the pilgrimage in Tibet, every prayer wheel I make holds its own unique intention: wish, prayer, or blessing to be bestowed upon by the viewer, and many pieces come together to form a whole. My work is satisfying and powerful because it merges my love of the outdoors by unifying an intricate collaboration between the artist and nature. When I am arranging all the individual slices across a wall, they become something much larger and lovelier than I had intended. That is where the visual magic happens, similar to a breathtaking moment one feels as they look up at the sun dancing through the leaves of the trees or the dazzling light skipping across a lake as the sun sets on the horizon in a warm summer glow. There is visual poetry that happens in these moments. It is this type of expression that I strive to recreate as I assemble numerous pieces of my work in various sizes across a wall.
For more information about Nicole and her artwork, check out her website: nicolenagelgogolak.com.
“Follow the Money,” a poem by Lori Gurtman.
Follow The Money
Nonviolent offenders fill our prisons
Monsanto grows food with GMO poison
People are dying of opioid addiction
Big banks get away with corruption
Mass shootings are on the rise
Congress puts gun control laws aside
Big Oil batters the Earth with its drills
Global warming threatens, destroys, kills
The FDA approves drugs with dangerous side effects
The DEA ignores marijuana’s medicinal benefits
Affluent schools get supplies galore
Cronyism fuels a divisive class war
Follow the money
The beautiful mountains of Aspen, Colorado.
A few years ago, when my friend Nicole and I came up with the storyline for Lost and Found in Aspen, we felt that our beautiful mountain town needed to be the setting, and it would play an important role in the story. Having both grown up in small suburbs, thousands of miles away from Colorado, we landed in Aspen much later in life, proud to call it our home.
My husband and I decided to move to Aspen on a whim. Life was treating us well. We had two small kids, lived in a suburb of northern New Jersey, about thirty miles from New York City, and we had a wonderful group of friends. But we were bored. We wanted to try something new, give ourselves an adventure of sorts, a different experience. Many years ago, after vacationing in Aspen, we planted a seed in our vision for the future: we would move there one day. The seed lay dormant for a long time, until the opportunity presented itself nearly a decade later. And that was it. We put our house on the market and took off in a U-Haul, like pioneers migrating to the west in search of a better life. Once we settled in our new land, we never looked back.
Almost everyone I’ve met in Aspen has a story to tell about how they ended up in our small mountain town. Some people thought they would come for a little while after college, some stopped in on the way to somewhere else. Ski bums came to ski, and some people were looking to escape the rat race. Regardless of what drove each of them to Aspen, there was something that kept everyone planted in the soil for good, along with a willingness to accept the sacrifices that one must make to reside full-time in an expensive vacation destination. With exorbitant real estate prices, proprietors who are dependent on the influx of seasonal tourists face a greater financial burden. In addition, other than the service industry, there are fewer business opportunities compared to major metropolitan areas, unless you can work from home, you’re willing to travel, or you have a large trust fund. Living in Aspen is a tradeoff: residents have given up conveniences at a cost––for a community that values the outdoor lifestyle, embraces nature’s gifts, and appreciates fresh mountain air.
For those of us who have made Aspen our home, we share a little secret. We innately understand that life is more about collecting experiences rather than a race to acquire material possessions. We are aligned with the ebb and flow of the universe. The tourists swell the town, then they go home. Dancing at the sight of the first snowfall in autumn, we look forward to another ski season. And just when we think we won’t have enough snow, it comes. We race for the slopes on a powder day, giggling down runs filled with cloud-like layers.
Winter is long, but then it melts and the flowers bloom. We hike to the top of the peak and relish in the magnificent views. We bike with the breeze blowing through our hair. We welcome and listen to renowned speakers, scholars, authors, politicians, and live concerts. On a sunny day, we sit outside at a restaurant, sipping drinks and watching a colorful array of tourists walk past. In that moment, we’re happy to be alive, elated to be exactly where we’re supposed to be––appreciative and grateful for the blessed wonders that grace and enrich our souls.
Aspen has given me an abundance of gifts, and this was why I wanted it to play a starring role in my debut novel, Lost and Found in Aspen. I wanted to shine a light—for those who’ve never been and for those who have—and celebrate the small town that gives me so much sunshine.