Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More of Redhook

I can't seem to get Red Hook out of my mind. I didn't know until last weekend that Redhook marks the end of the Erie Canal. That families who worked the transport barges on the canal came down to Redhook to winter and put their children here in school. Then when spring came, they scooped the kids up and headed back north again.

We also learned last weekend that much of Red Hook is slated for demolition and development. The former clown who owns the educational LeHigh barge, (where he lives with his wife and two children) moored next to Fairway said that there are plans for a mall to go in between Fairway and Ikea. Apparently what had once been an historic working dry docks where battleships were still being serviced is now Ikea's parking lot.

So I keep going back to Redhook for more images and because I don't know how much longer it will be as it is now. In fact I have my own fantasies of living there, beside the water. But it seems that others do too. Some of the buildings, such as the long brick buildings on the pier, have been landmarked, but there are acres ripe for chain stores and high rises and then, as the former clown told me, the light will be blocked.

That is one of the things about Brooklyn. The low rise buildings, the light. This is the world of Elia Kazan and On the Waterfront. Soon the former clown said it will all be gone and he will be living in shadows.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Red Hook, Brooklyn today...

Sitting at the water's edge, it is a noisy world. Everywhere there are sounds. A helicopter churns overhead as a cruiser rushing past. The ferry streams by and somewhere in Red Hook there is a fire. I hear the siren. Two guys behind me, talking trash about their jobs. In the distance a fog horn sounds. A girl on her cellphone passes and I know her whole story. Above gulls squawk. And there's a clanging that never stops. It must be from the hooks and chains that hold the boats in their moorings, but it echoes across the harbor like bells, like a call to prayer.

Our "Staycation"

Proust said that travel isn't about seeing a new place. It's about seeing with new eyes. Larry and I both had a week off, but we didn't go anywhere. We had what Oprah calls a "staycation." We ate in a Basque restaurant and drank Viennese coffee in Manhattan, but our best time was biking around Red Hook. These are some of my photos from today.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Best You Can

The Tahitians don't have a word that means "art." The closest expression in their language translates to something like "doing the best you can." Ever since I heard this it has become a kind of mantra to me.

I try and apply it to my own work, to my students and anyone who shares his or her work with me. If we live with the idea of perfection, we will never do anything. The notion paralyzes us, but doing the best we can, this is possible. I recall a friend many years ago who said he wanted to write like William Faulkner. I told him I just wanted to write a good scene or so every day. My friend ceased writing long ago, but it appears that I am still plodding along.

Toward the end of his life Romare Beardon, the Harlem collagist and painter, said that he didn't know how he'd done so much work over his lifetime, but he just did a little every day. Perfection has too much ego attached to it. A Cuban friend once told me that if your ego gets in the way of your art, "you are damned for all eternity." This seems a bit extreme, but I understand his point. If we do our art because we care about what others are going to think of us, if it is a way to achieving self-esteem (or money, fame, etc.), it will never work out. But if we do our best because we really enjoy doing it, then what is to stop us? Doing our best is really about trying very hard.

To paraphrase Ted Kennedy in his posthumous memoir, if you really like something and you keep doing it, you will eventually succeed. I like to write. I truly enjoy it. It helps me take the muddle inside my head and make something coherent out of it. (Another quote I've lived by - Alberto Moravio. "Life is chaos. Only literature makes sense.") It has taken me years to realize that this is perhaps the only real reason to want to write.

A while ago, perhaps ten years, I began coloring in my journals. I started doing it because I had had many fiascos with cameras and I wanted to record what I saw without a fear that it would somehow self-destruct. So I began to paint. Nothing fancy. Just playing really. I had no idea what I was doing, but I didn't care. I'd taught myself to write (no MFA), so why not paint? Channeling Henry Miller seemed like the way to go. Since threatened with damnation by my Cuban friend, I've felt it was good to have something you like to do in which you have zero ego investment.

Cooking, gardening, ice skating (until I broke my ankle) for me were a few. I'm sure other people have their own. The painting became that kind of a thing. It was also a place where I started to feel very free and I found it also freed up my writing. I began just scribbling in my journals on lined, not very resilient paper. After a while I got better paper and switched to an unlined journal, which I use now. I thought I could never write on an unlined journal, but I am doing it more and more.

The journals I use now I got in Florence and the paper is very good. When I run out, I'm not sure what I'll do. At any rate for now, for the next year anyway, which is about how long it takes me to complete one, I'll have this one and I'm sure something else will present itself before long. Last year I went to Mexico and took a drawing class with Sue Siskin, a fine watercolorist and artist who lives in LaManzanilla. You can see her work on line.

Sue taught me to do contour drawing. "Be a bug," is what Sue said. Pretend you are crawling around the edges of whatever it is you are seeing and don't look down at the paper. So I drew this image, the one above, from Sue's terrace. It is the view from her house. Then I colored it. And I liked it. It was, shall I say, the best I could do.

I am reminded of that moment in "The Rose Tattoo" when a woman shows Marlon Brando a bad landscape painting she has done. He looks at it and, in his Marlon Brando way, says nothing. But the woman replies, "I know they aren't very good. But I feel better when I do them." It was a very simple thing to say, really, but I can't think of a better reason to make art.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reflections on the Cowbird: Traveling with A Child

When bison roamed the Great Plains, the cowbird followed them. It lived off the insects on the buffalos' backs so as the buffalo traveled, so did the cowbird. Because of its itinerant existence, the cowbird made an interesting adaptation. It laid its eggs in the nests of other birds. Then moved on, leaving its fledglings to be hatched and raised by the hosts. The cowbird never saw its young.

Years ago I was a kind of drifter too. Within reason I went where I wanted. I stayed as long as I could. My father once mailed letters to me care of every US embassy in Central America. My favorite letter contained a newspaper clipping of an automobile accident. My father wrote, "This is your friend, Linda's car, which flipped over six times on the highway. Thank God she was wearing her seat belt. Hope you are safe too."

Back in the States a friend who knew my wandering ways admonished me. "Don't have children. Your life will never be your own again."

And then all my free-floating came to an end. I had a child. I was sailing down the Yangtzee River when I conceived my daughter. I was on a journey that was taking me around the world through China, to the TransSiberian railroad, through Mongolia, Siberia, the then Soviet Union, on to Poland, Germany where I flew home from Berlin. By the time I reached Moscow, I was sick and tired. In Leningrad I roamed the canals during White Nights like some mad Dostoyevskian character. A young female Russian doctor who befriended me confirmed what I already knew. "You're pregnant," she told me. She brought me oranges - small, brown and hard - as I was heading off to Poland. "You will need your strength," she said.

During my pregnancy, I nested. I built bookshelves. I pierced my ears. My cousin assured me that I'd written my last book. While I was in labor, I turned to my nurse, "I used to be a travel writer." And the nurse replied, "Make her sleep in different places and she'll go anywhere with you."

So I did.

Of course I put Kate in her crib, but she also slept in my bed, in a dresser drawer, on the floor. I stuck her in her car seat and we drove around the California desert for the better part of a year. In some burnt-out desert town a man offered to buy her. "She's not for sale," I said. I had car trouble and asked at a house for help. The man there offered to let me spend the night. He had a double bed, attached to the roof of his house. "You can sleep under the stars." Kate went everywhere we went.

Where I'd once traveled alone, now I felt more like a moving caravan, gypsies, wending our way through the world. When I went to Cuba on assignment, Kate and Larry accompanied me. Her second teacher asked Kate to keep a journal of her time away. Unfortunately I was arrested at the airport in Havana, put under house arrest, and deported to Jamaica five days later.

In her journal Kate drew pictures and wrote captions which she shared with her class. "In Toronto we had a snowball fight." "In Valladara I bought a straw hat." "In Havana the police took my mother away." Still my child remained intrepid. A publisher wanted me to write a book about Africa. I asked Kate how she'd feel about living in Kenya for a year. She replied, "Fine, but I'd miss you." I had to explain to her that her father and I were in fact coming along.

At another moment in my life I would have seen myself as the hapless cowbird, drifting, unfettered, never looking back. But after Kate was born, I made sure that the pilot of whatever plane I was on had pictures of his grandchildren on the dashboard. I had never minded the dangers of the world; now I feared them, not for myself, but for her. I never understood before that you can love someone else more than you love yourself.

But it is true. There was a trade-off I made long ago. But there has also been enormous gains. After all even the cowbird, a bit of a menace really, has learned to adapt yet again. The buffalo no longer roam. So that cowbird tends to sit on the backs of grazing cattle and sheep. Its journeys don't take it so far either. I will travel again and I will go far away.

Soon perhaps.

But I will always remember that moment in Jamaica to where the Cubans shipped us. We checked into a hotel to recover from our ordeal and I took Kate down to the sea. There was a coral reef right off the beach and I showed her how to use snorkel and mask. Putting her face into the water, she kicked around. Then look back up at me. "It's a wonderful world," she said.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On Memory

I read somewhere that people tend to live in places that remind them of their childhood. Or more specifically a place where they felt safe as a child. And I suppose when we find one of those places our child-like side take over. We are awed. We become stubborn. We never want to leave.

This summer in San Sebastian was that way for me. The fishing village where we lived on the fyord by the sea, the tiny boat that carried us from one side of the river to the next (this watercolor shows the river and village across the way; the little boat too), the Basque festival that went on for eight days, the morning swims I grew to love (just walking out the door and into the river that led to the sea) and our nights roaming San Sebastian itself.

I loved the crescent shaped beach that wove its way around the city, the fact that we could stand at the edge of the sea with the city, filled with jazz and nightlife, behind us. We could swim all day, take a shower right there on the beach, and head out for the evening. The tapas, the txacoli (that great effervescent wine).

As I have written before in this blog I fell in love. And, as lovers do, I was devastated when we had to part. I went home, I got back into my routine, but mostly I was just going through the motions. For weeks I could not understand why leaving San Sebastian had been so difficult for me. And why I couldn't leave it behind. Surely I had left other places and moved on.

We have done our exchanges for over twelve years. And before that I have traveled for decades. During our exchanges we actually lived somewhere. Florence, the Loire, Cataluna, County Clare. Each time we cleaned the house, we stocked the fridge. We left, sadly at times, but also ready to move on. But this time was different. This time I hadn't wanted to leave at all and I felt as if I had a hole in my heart.

Two weeks after returning, and with a sense of longing that had not abated, my family and I went to Chicago to visit family. We were going to Plum Farm, which I have written about before, but my cousins, Mike and Donna, agreed to loan us their Chicago apartment for a night or two. They live not far from where my parents used to live before they moved to Milwaukee. An apartment on Lake Shore Drive that overlooks the lake. Though I had been to Chicago many times over the years, I had not stayed near the lake which I loved as a girl.

As a child in summer in the town where I lived I swam in it almost every day. And then when my parents moved to the city I went to the lake each day when I visited. The tug of Lake Michigan has never left me. Now in that car, as we were toward the lake, we came upon the Oak Stret beach. I saw the blue crescent, the city behind me with its jazz and nightlife.

In the morning I walked right outside and jumped in the lake. It was a Proustian moment for me. A taste of my own madelaine. In the cold waters of the lake that I understood how lost I'd felt leaving San Sebastian. After all these years I'd come home.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

On Getting Lost

My father had a tremendous fear of getting lost. He hated it if we didn't know where we were. This was one of the reasons why we always had to travel on highways and interstates. Back roads were not for my dad. Not that we traveled very far anyway. We'd go to Liganeer, Indiana where his friends had a house on a lake. Or we'd drive up to the Dells. But that was about it for my dad. Travel made him nervous. Getting lost made him afraid.

So from an early age I put myself in charge of the maps. I'd sit, AAA map open on my lap, deciphering which way we should go. Once in bumper to bumper traffic, I told my father that if he took a certain exit and we drove a different way, we'd be all right. Well, we weren't really moving so he agreed. Perhaps I was ten years old, but I'm not sure I ever saw him more proud of me as I navigated us home. From that moment on I've made sure to know more or less where I was, but also I wasn't afraid of getting lost.

I like maps. I like having them and looking at them. I enjoy thinking about where I want to be. But I am also content to travel without them. I am also happy to put them aside and follow my nose which has gotten, over the years, to have a fairly good sense of direction. A student of mine shared this quote from Michael Ondaatje which perhaps says it best. "All I desired was to walk upon an earth that had no maps."

It was my mother who took me on my first real journey. I wasn't much more than thirteen when she came into my room and told me to get dressed. We were going into the city. "To the passport office," she said. Because my father refused to travel with her, I was drafted. A few weeks later, as my friends were heading off to cottages on lakes and summer camp, I was reluctantly on a flight to Paris. We stayed at the Hotel Vendome where my mother ordered peach melba and washed her feet in the bidet. Then on to Rome where we both laughed at the bus driver who kissed his wife and baby good-bye in Rome and kissed another woman hello in Florence.

By the time we reached London my mother was tired. We'd been traveling together for three weeks. As our taxi sped through the streets of London, we passed a fruit cart. And my mother said, "Oh, I'd love some of those peaches." A few minutes later we were at our hotel. We checked in. My mother told me she wanted to rest. She lay down and she fell fast asleep. But I wanted an adventure, not a nap. So I set out. I had more or less memorized the route. A right here, a left. But I really didn't know where I was going. And I didn't very much care. I kept walking until I came to a big square which I went around. And there was the fruit stand.

When I got back to the hotel, my mother was sitting up, waiting for me, as I lay a bag full of peaches and plums at her bedside. "How did you find that fruit stand?" she asked, incredulous. "Didn't you get lost?" I followed my nose, I told her. I backtracked. In truth I didn't really know where I was going. Perhaps I got a little lost, but I didn't much care. Except I wanted to bring my mother back some fruit. Some of the best things in my life have happened to me when I didn't know where I was going. Or even when I was lost.

When I missed the last metro in Paris, I spent a whole night, wandering through the Champs de Mars. In Italy I have lost myself on winding streets that seemed to double back on one another. It has never much mattered. For me that is where adventurers begin. That train you didn't catch, that passing comment made by a stranger. "Oh, if you're going to so and so, then you must see..." How often we have taken a stranger's advice and not followed our maps. And how often this made all the difference.

I think of Virgil in Dante's Inferno which begins with those ominous lines, "In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in the dark woods where the straight way was lost." It is only by being lost in hell that Virgil makes his way to paradise. Not knowing exactly where we are isn't such a bad thing. After all in life we are traveling more or less without a map. Or we throw ourselves into the hands of pyschics who profess to see the road we cannot see. But I think it is a good thing not to know what's ahead.

As E.L. Doctorow once said about writing fiction, it's like driving down a country road at night. You can't see farther ahead than your headlights. And Flannery O'Connor understood the importance for both the writer and the reader of surprise. As a writer and as a traveler some of my happiest memories come from the moments when I wasn't entirely sure of where I was going or where a certain road might take me. Sometimes to a dead end. Sometimes it takes me to a vineyard or a view of the sea. Since that day with my father in the car I have learned to trust my instincts.

Often the journey, like the story, happens in the detours and digressions. I don't think we should be afraid of not knowing where we are. Unless there is actual danger, I rarely am. Once I had this dream. I dreamt I was flying in space and that I could go anywhere. I was flying and flying like a migrating bird. But I could never get lost. My belly button was equipped with navigational redial. I just had to push that button and I'd fly home.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sheer Whimsy

When I did the drawing and wrote the poem below in les Jardins du Luxembourg, I was in a wheelchair. Even I find this hard to recall, but it was the spring of 2008 and I had broken my leg in February. Larry and I were determined to travel and so we did, but Paris with its cobbled streets and uneven terrain was particularly challenging so I spent much of our days there in the wheelchair.

We were coming from Ireland where the weather had been what the Irish refer to as a mizzle (drizzling mist) for days. But on this day in Paris the sun was shining. It was that first warm day of spring and the French were out in force, lying in the sun, basking around the fountains. It took a while, but we found two seats (though I would soon relinquish mine and sit in the wheelchair again to help two lovers out, desperate for a chair).

At any rate I was happy. Utterly happy. So I did this drawing and wrote a somewhat silly poem, but it expresses the mood of the moment.

Les Jardins du Luxembourg

I wanted chairs
by the fountain
and chestnuts in bloom.
I wanted April
and sailboats
and ice cream dripping
down my arm.
I wanted the frail man
who walked alone
and the pigeons
too fat to fly;
the blind girl
and the stale bread.
Even the shade
that came too soon.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Images based on Folon

Wasting Time in Florence

Was it Bertrand Russell who said that the time we spend wasting isn't wasted time? I think of this often when I am doing the crossword puzzle (on which I can spend a ridiculous amount of time). It is my chief rationalization. But the truth is, as I've said before, I enjoy doing what many people consider doing nothing. I would have to count it among my favorite things.

A few summers ago we were in Florence. Larry had left early to return to work and Kate and I had a few days to kill. We had plans. Every day we made plans. A museum to see. The Duomo. We'd never been inside. Some little out of the way places. Cortona. But every day we found ourselves more or less doing the same thing. Sitting at the Gilli Cafe in the Piaza della Republica, doddling in our journals.

We were actually intending to go somewhere and do something. We made some valiant attempts in that direction. Across the Ponte Vecchio. On the other side in fact we saw a river rat and Kate made the comment that we'd seen that same river rat six years before in the same location. Then we went back to Gilli's. The waiters grew accustomed to us and we ordered on a regular basis. Espressos and corneti for breakfast, some cool drink in late morning, mineral water with gas, maybe a salad (or maybe we went elsewhere), then back to Gilli's, prosecco, wine. And so on. One day we stayed for six hours.

We became a kind of amusement. A diversion among the staff. But in truth we were happy, just doodling, writing, watching the world go by. There was a bull dog named Ed. Ed had an owner who lived nearby, but basically Ed liked to hang out at Gilli's. He was huge. The biggest bull dog I have ever seen. Three times the normal size. It wasn't unusual for us to spot Ed, heading towards the Ponte Vecchio or just lying around Gilli's like he owned the place.

One afternoon as we were doing nothing a handsome boy appeared in a balcony across the way. He seemed to set his eyes on Kate. That evening somehow they met and went out for drinks. Later Kate confessed. The boy wasn't nearly as mysterious and intriguing up close as he'd been from our table down below. We have traveled to many places since - Mexico, Costa Rica, Prague. Yet we think of those days at Gilli as among our best travel days.