Monday, November 30, 2009

On Swapping Homes

A number of years ago, more than a dozen now, a friend inquired at a basketball game of Kate's, if we'd ever considered swapping our home. I said no I hadn't and wasn't sure I'd want to. "Well," she said, "this very nice family from France wants to visit and we're already going to Spain."

She gave me the website and I told her to take a look. And I did. I saw this crumbling French farmhouse, surrounded by wheat fields and a garden that seemed to be from Eden. A vision from Manet.

So we made an exchange with the Massons, our first exchange family. We met the Massons in Paris over an espresso and croissant. They handed us the keys to their son's apartment in Paris, to their farmhouse in the Loire, and to the Renault. We gave them a Metrocard, a subway map of NY, and the keys to our house. That was it. We said good-bye.

This was the beginning of what has become more than a dozen exchanges for us. France, Belgium, Catalonia, San Sebastian, Florence, Todi, County Clare. We have lived in all of these places. One of our most recent swaps was to a second home of a Madrid family. It was by the sea in a place called Mojacar. Mojacar is a white washed city where Arabs, Jews and Christians once all got along. It is a steep and hilly place and was difficult to navigate with my broken leg, which I had at the time. But I loved being by the sea and a part of me felt as if this was where I belonged.

I will share more stories on Mojacar and our house swaps from time to time. But we like to live in a place when we go there and we have lived in all of these. I am happy to talk about house swaps with anyone who wishes to engage me. I believe more and more that it is the way to go. Especially with a family.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Desire Paths

The other day I was walking to my office at the college where I teach. It was one of those glorious November days we've been having and I decided to leave the sidewalk and cut through a small wooded area. It is a little faster this way to my office but the truth is I wanted to walk through the woods.

There is a path there, a path worn down by others who have walked this way, and on nice days I like to take it. As leaves and bark crunched beneath my feet, I recalled how as a girl I had more or less lived on such paths in Highland Park where I grew up. Along the bluffs of Lake Michigan and into the woods these paths had been blazed by Native Americans long ago and indeed our middle school was called Indian Trail School because of these paths.

There were also trees, which we called Indian trees, which had been bent to mark the paths, and they grew this way, humpbacked, not straight up and tall as a tree is supposed to grow. But these trees pointed to the trail and I followed the trails whenever I could. When I was quite young, I darted along these trails, imagining that I was an Indian scout, a brave, a pioneer girl. I had many "Little House in the Prairie" type scenarios that rumbled around in my head. At times I was a horse and in fact when I stepped on the path last week, what I first thought of was how as a girl I galloped along these trails, pretending to be a horse.

My mother never worried where I was (I'm not sure why, though I usually had my dogs with me). I never got lost or ran into anybody I didn't want to run into in all my years of wandering through the bluffs and ravines of my hometown. On the path to my office, I thought about those first ventures I made into the wild. I was never frightened and I was content to be alone.

Whether as a wild horse or pioneer girl, these were my first small journeys into the world. I made them along these paths, which in fact have an official name. They are called desire paths because they are made by the footsteps of those who want to go this way.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Blown Glass, Red Hook

I took my students in my Writer and Wanderer class on a field trip to Red Hook. They took the train into the city, then a subway, and then the free Ikea ferry. I met them with apple cider and string cheese. We hung out for a few hours and, among other things, found a glass blowers studio. Naomi Bishop took the photo on the below. I couldn't resist trying a watercolor which is above. It was a beautiful day - sunny, windy, and mild.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"...I have never in my life been on my way anywhere, but simply on my way...

The quote is from Samuel Beckett and the picture is of Beckett, satchel over his shoulder, walking away, and my husband, Larry, beardless and well before I knew him, notebook under his arm, also on his way. Beckett on the street, Larry beside railroad tracks, smiling at someone.

The viewer has no idea where they are going or why, but perhaps they don't either. These images have long hung side-by-side on the large bulletin board I keep in my office at home. I'm not sure where I got the Beckett image, but I know I stole Larry's from his bulletin board in his office downstairs.

I stick more or less everything on this bulletin board, layers and layers of notes to myself, but these have stayed up for a very long time. I have a long association with both men. My cousin, Barney Rosset, of the Grove Press was Beckett's editor.

The story goes that in the early 1950s Barney read "Waiting for Godot" and thought it was going to be the most important play of the 20th century. He wrote Beckett to tell him so and asked Beckett (whom Barney always called Sam) if he'd meet with him and discuss Barney becoming Sam's US publisher. Beckett wrote back a cryptic telegram that told Barney to meet him on a certain night at the Ritz Bar in Paris and Beckett would only have an hour.

So Barney hopped a cruise ship and in a week or so was in Paris (I am taking some liberties here) for their meeting. The hour Beckett allotted Barney turned into a very long drinking night and a life long friendship. Indeed I have a cousin I am very fond of, a lovely man named Beckett Rosset.

I met Larry in Richmond, Virginia, a place I haven't traveled to before or since. Our paths crossed in a classroom. I was coming from California where I was living at the time. He drove down from the North. In this picture Larry is clearly on his way. To Tahiti perhaps, or Nicaragua, or San Miguel de Allende before he showed up in the Glaston Residence House where visiting athlete teams were housed on a college campus in Virginia.

Our paths could have crossed in any one of a number of places (We just missed one another in San Miguel. We were a few months apart in Nicaragua). But, as my mother said, when a Canadian drives to Virginia in an unairconditioned car in a heat wave, then it's meant to be. And so it was. Anyway here are two writers and wanderers, setting off on their journeys, on their way...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On Stories and the Road

I'm going to repeat once more what my teacher John Gardener said because it continues to resonate for me in almost everything I do. There are only two plots in all of literature. You go on a journey or the stranger comes to town. Or as Stanley Elkin put it more succinctly when referred to science fiction: They come here or we go there.

I have also written how women, for so long denied the journey, awaited the stranger. Vermeer clearly understands women awaiting the stranger in so many of his portraits of women, especially those who stand in front of maps of a world they will never see. But I come from a more fortunate generation of women and I have gone a lot of places.

For me a journey is quite simply a story unto itself. In a sense it comes ready made, at least the literal story does. On the road things happen. You meet people. You take a detour. A bus drops you off at the wrong stop. Someone offers to help you find your way. And you find yourself in the middle of a narrative you had never anticipated.

Take the instance of an old story of mine that I remain very fond of. "The Typewriter." It appears in my collection THE BUS OF DREAMS. A number of years ago I traveled through Europe with my then boyfriend who insisted on carrying a typewriter to an old friend of his family. We were supposed to spend six weeks backpacking, but now the typewriter took over our entire trip. We had to be careful with it. We couldn't leave it alone. He had to carry it. Anyway it became a story. I wrote the first several drafts out in a very literal fashion, but it didn't work. Then I returned to it, after a long time, and realized that the typewriter had to become a character. It had to know something that the couple carrying it does not. And once I took the story out of its literal realm and allowed imagination to come in, the story came together for me.

I've met many odd people and found many stories on the road. Last year I stayed in Sicily with a woman whose house was decorated with old dresses she once wore to prom and things like that. I know she will find her way into something. A few years ago we did a house exchange in the Loire Valley. It was the coldest summer in recorded history and, despite the blazing fire in the fire place in mid-August I was freezing. So one day I tried on a sweater that belonged to the woman we were exchanging with. It was a perfect fit. I tried on her sweat pants. They fit too. I began walking around the house in her clothes. I started thinking to myself "What if all her clothes fit? What if I just moved into her life." A story called "Exchanges" (published in DAEDALAS) came out of that "What if."

I am always asking myself what if I push myself further. What if I make a character do what I would never do. What if you go to Belgium and the old lady who lives next door, the mother of the man with whom you have exchanged, dies while you are on holiday? See my story, "The Dead Woman." (In TRIQUARTERLY). The possibilities for narratives are endless. So many stories and novels I love involve a journey - ROOM WITH A VIEW, ENCHANTED APRIL, SHELTERING SKY, POISONWOOD BIBLE, and of course the classics - THE ODYSSEY, GULLIVER'S TRAVELS. MOBY DICK to name a very few.

You go on a journey and, by definition, something happens. Some stories, such as Paul Bowles disturbing "A Distant Episode" show what happens when we push ourselves beyond the natural limits of travel as does Joseph Conrad when he penetrates the HEART OF DARKNESS. But whether you are writing as E.M. Forster or Bowles, the task is still to push your material beyond what you know and to bring imagination to bear.

In terms of telling stories that is. To ask yourself "What if that person I traveled with actually was a shady character?" "What if the old woman died while we were staying in their house?" What if you went somewhere and decided never to return." Falling in love, growing up, losing your innocence, facing mortality. All the greatest themes of literature can come from the stories and people we meet, no matter how fleetingly, on the road.

I met a man once in an airport who wore a button on his shirt. The button fell to the ground and I picked it up to hand it to him. He explained to me it was a picture of his wife. Seven years ago she walked out the front door of their home. That morning she had made everyone breakfast. She had attended a child's performance at school. She went to work, came home for lunch. And then she left. No signs of a struggle. No money missing. She'd left behind her purse, phone, everything. But she'd locked the door and walked away from her life.

To this day her story haunts me. It is one I cannot fathom and also cannot forget. This is a woman who appears to have walked out of her own life. At times when I cannot sleep I wonder what was the journey she embarked upon.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What I love about Vermeer...

For a long time I've been trying to figure out exactly what it is I love about Vermeer. The luminosity, the attention to details, the contemplative women. But I knew it was more than that. While I can certainly appreciate technique, I felt that the answer lay in the content. Recently the Dutch, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of their arrival in what was known as New Amsterdam, sent one painting - a fact that my daughter, Kate, found charming. The famous "Milkmaid."

I went to the Met and saw it, and it is beautiful, but what I paid the most attention to was a painting I know quite well. The Met owns it and it is perhaps my favorite painting in the world, also a Vermeer. "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher" which I have posted here.

What I love about this painting is its sense of anticipation. A longing to be elsewhere. The open window, the woman, poised, but not moving. And then what I noticed upon closer inspection a map of the world. In several of Vermeer's most famous paintings - including this one, "Officer and Laughing Girl," and the widely interpreted "Woman in Blue Reading Letter by an Open Window," - there is a woman, sitting or standing, with a map of the world behind her.

In one painting she is speaking with a man who appears to have returned from a journey. In "Woman in Blue" she reads a letter, appears to be pregnant, and stands before a table of books and again the map of the world. While I love Vermeer for his meticulous technique, his ability to capture the moment and emotion, what I love the most is that he understood women. He understood their longing to be elsewhere and their inability to go. It is right there. In every painting almost.

Of course this exists elsewhere in art. When I read The Palace Walk by Mahfouz, I was so struck by the woman who marries, is taken to the home of her husband, and, thirty years later, has never gone outside since. The claustrophobia of her life. This is the definition of imprisonment, isn't it, and that is what is so terrible about prison. Clearly it is a circle of Hell. You can't leave.

I have said this many times before, but a beloved teacher of mine, John Gardener once said that there are only two plots in all of literature. You go on a journey or the stranger comes to town. For centuries women were denied the journey, but their longing was palpable. They wanted to leave but they were trapped by the circumstances of their lives. Vermeer understood this. He painted it over and over again. I cannot thing of a more poignant depiction of this than his maps of the world and the women who stand, immobile, captured, before them.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The photos below

All the photos below, which I took, are from my Latin American years. The late 70's. I will post these from time to time. I realize there is no actual order to these posts. No narrative line. Not a story. There is a randomness. But I think of the Navajos for whom past, present and future all exist together in time. This is how it feels to me with my life on the road. As my father said when he turned eighty, "My whole life lives inside of me." I wish it was all a straight line, but it isn't and so I will do these posts as they come to me. Right now as I write this, I am dreaming of the future. Where I will go next. I am considering a nomadic existence. Selling everything and moving to Spain. That probably won't happen, but I feel a restlessness settling in. Perhaps that is why, for now, I am writing about the past. Because it feels like the present.

At the Honduran border

From the Guatemala highlands, I traveled on to Tikal, then back to Guatemala City where I got a bus to Honduras. There were ruins I wanted to see and I wanted to visit the Bay Islands. The war in Nicaragua was going on as well as Salvador.

At the bus station in Guatemala City the ticket seller refused to sell me a ticket to Salvador. "There's trouble there," he said. So I went to Honduras. My friend, Epigmenio, joined me.

Somewhere along the way a father and his retarded daughter got on. Later soldiers searched the bus. People got on and off. Then we heard the crying. The bus driver stopped and walked all over the bus. The father had abandoned his retarded daughter.

People next to me said this happens all the time. The father had just walked off the bus. We traveled all day, then got dropped off somewhere near the border, a village where we slept on straw mats and ate a chicken someone killed for us. At five in the morning a pick up truck appeared and we rode in the back across the border.

Once in Honduras we walked around and found these cows. I took this picture of Epigmenio with the cows. It was the first moment of peace after a long, difficult ride.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Men at prayer - Chichicastenango, 1979

That day when we were in Chichi, these men were on a pilgrmage. Normally I would not take this kind of shot (part shyness, part respect), but it was outdoors and very smoky. I always found this image haunting. There was something very pure about the moment.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Chichicastenango, Guatemala - 1979

We heard there was trouble in Huehuetenango so we didn't go farther north. Instead we stayed near Panajachel. I'd gone down to Guatemala from Mexico with only a name on a slip of paper, Jack Flax, and a rendez-vous date with three friends.

Jack Flax, it turned out, coincidentally knew my Uncle Sidney and he let me stay in his guest house. It was a cozy cabin in a garden. Jack had left his wife behind in Minnesota so he could live here. My other friends showed up one at a time at the Blue Bird as we'd arranged.

A few days later we all took the bus to Chichi, as it was called. I was doing a lot of photography then and I took these pictures of the women in the market place. This was thirty years ago. A whole cruel civil war would follow. But already we heard the rumblings. A week later from the highlands I would head to Tikal. In Tikal there was a huge rainstorm and fish were swimming in the street. A few days later I was on a bus, heading into Honduras.

I have not been back since and I have no idea if anything still looks as it did then.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Because some of you have asked...

People have asked me if the paintings and photos that appear on this blog are mine. The answer is yes. I will from time to time be using other people's images, but unless otherwise indicated they are mine. For decades photography and watercolors have been a part of my process as a writer and wanderer. I have found, and have encouraged my students to find as well, that the visual can be an important component to language and at times words just aren't enough.

Henry Miller was one of the writers from whom I drew, and still draw, inspiration. He wrote every morning and painted at the end of his day's work. It was an important part of Miller's process as well. These images of mine, such as the one below (entitled "Woman") have lain for decades in drawers and old portfolios. There was a brief moment when I contemplated being a photojournalist, but then something terrible happened.

A friend wanted to do an exhibit of my best photos and I put together a slide sheet that contained my favorite images from Tibet, Latin America, Siberia, and so on. My daughter was an infant and my life was chaotic and somehow, I still don't know and probably never will, that slide sheet (perhaps tucked into newspapers being recycled) was lost. I searched for them for years. I couldn't believe they were lost. In some sense I still keep thinking they will show up. Along the way I gave up the idea of sharing any of these images, especially black and whites from Mexico, with the world.

The heart went out of it for me. Writing seemed easier to hold on to. The visual felt more transitory. I could hold an indea in my head. But not a picture. Still I had the pictures and also had begun the drawings. I had no idea what to do with them. Then a year ago, during my sabbatical, that a friend suggested I find a way to preserve and combine the visual work I do with my writing. It was also around that time that I shared with my daughter some of my photos she had never seen from the late 70's. She also encouraged me to digitalize this work.

So for the past several months, I have been going to a copy shop and having various images that appear in this blog scanned. Then this past weekend my husband, who knew I had many things I left that I wanted to preserve, bought me a scanner and it has become a new toy. But more than that it has given me a way to archive, and remember, some of the work from decades ago. I spent a lot of time this weekend, going through portfolios of photographs, slides, drawings, some from thirty years ago.

It makes me remember my father. When he turned eighty, he called me, and said that he didn't know how he got to be so old. He told me that he'd had a dream the night before. He dreamt that he was a little boy and that it was the night before he moved with his family to Nashville where my grandfather took over a dry goods store which would, as with all my grandfather's other endeavors, fail.

In his dream he was sleeping between his very fat aunt and his very skinny uncle under a heavy cover. He told me how that whole night he was hot and couldn't breathe. And he thought the night would never end. Then in the morning his parents gathered them all together and they moved away. On the phone he began to cry. Then he said, "My whole life lives inside of me. I'm 80 years old and I remember everything."

Yesterday it seemed as if I was remembering everything too - all the journeys I've taken, the friends I've met, the stories I've heard. The people who have shared a part of themselves along the way. So I am sharing, and will be sharing more of them, here...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

DELAYED BY FROG: speaking in tongues

People often ask me why I travel where I do. Mainly to Europe and Latin America. The answer is really quite simple. I go where I do because I speak the language. Though I cursed it at the time, it helped that I had to take five language exams for my would-be doctorate in comparative literature. French, Italian, Spanish, a smattering of German. At one time I tried to learn Hebrew.

And, a while ago, I could get by in Russian. I can't explain why I have bothered to learn so many languages except to say that I like to talk to people and I've found that when I'm on the road it is easier to talk with others if you speak their language, rather than expecting them to speak yours.

At times I worry that I am like that schizophrenic Louis Wolfson whom Paul Auster discusses in his brilliant essay, "New York Babel." Wolfson spoke many many languages, but he could not bear the sound of English which was his mother tongue and did everything he could to avoid it. I believe he actually wrote or spoke several languages simultanously but not English. However I think my case is more benign. Since I can remember I've loved languages. I love to hear them, read them, speak them. I'd have to say that one of my greatest pleasures is to see a work of mine translated into another language.

For example this blog is now in fifteen languages. I find that utterly amazing. I have to thank my mother at least in part for this. She had a deep, and frustrated, desire to see the world, and she was adamant when I was in grade school that foreign languages be available in the public schools in Illinois where we lived. And while she waged her battle, which she eventually won, I was sent to study French with Monsieur la Tarte.

Monsieur La Tarte was an old French man who for some reason lived alone in a house apartment in Highland Park where I grew up. He seemed sad to me so I always felt rather badly when I didn't study. I tried my best. I used to go to his house once a week on my way home from school. I'd sit at a wooden table across from this old man who also suffered from numerous facial ticks, saying over and over again, "Je suis une jeune fille." "Je veux un verre d"eau." And so on.

Monsieur La Tarte's poor head twitching back and forth as I tried to follow along. A few years later my mother scooped me up after school and drove me to the passport office in downtown Chicago.

As we waited for our passports, a woman, dressed like a gestapo officer, marched up and down the room, shouting orders. Though I was terrified, my mother found this very funny. Years later I understand that it was her thirst for travel and the world, and her sense of humor, that enabled her to laugh at this moment. She had decided that we were going on the grand tour of Europe. Me and my mother along with her friend, Marion Moses and her daughter Linda. Linda and I were reluctant travelers.

I had other things I wanted to do that summer and Linda was in love with George and all she did was write him letters and wait for his at each hotel. But, the point of all of this is to say that I spoke French in France. I was fifteen years old and found myself negotiating taxis and tables in restaurants. One doorman referred to me as Miss America. But I greeted him with proper bonjours, and, as we were leaving, au revoir.

I didn't think much about my love or proficiency in language until my senior year in high school when we were giving numerous aptitude tests in math, English, and languages. The language exam we took was in Kurdish. I never was sure why it was in Kurdish but I think it was not a single word in Kurdish seems to correspond to a similar word in English. At any rate we were given a sheet of Kurdish grammar and vocabulary and given a time to study it. Then we took the exam. I didn't do particularly well in the other aptitude tests, but my language scores were off the charts and my guidance teacher, who until that moment had dismayed at my ever doing anything useful with my life told me to go to school and become an interpreter (something I did consider briefly before I went into comparative literature). She also wanted to have me retested because apparently people who do well in languages should also do well in music and math and math I can definitely say was not a strong point on my SATs.

I seem to be rambling, babeling away here, something I've tried not to do in this blog before, but the fact is that I have over the years studied many languages (At Columbia I took romance philology with poor Mr. Ferguson who was a kind of genius in the dipthonization in Sardo Logudorese and other esoteric romance languages and dialects) and I have traveled to many places.

When people ask me where I learned Spanish, I tell them the truth. I learned on the streets. In the marketplaces and chatting with kids and neighbors. Same more or less with Italian. I think the real secret of learning a language is not to be afraid of making mistakes. I know my tenses are wrong and I probably get the masculine/feminine wrong all the time, but, unless I say something outrageous, I don't really care.

Last year an Italian friend was coming to stay with us, but she was going to be late. She sent me an email whose headline was DELAYED BY FROG. After I recovered from picturing a giant reptile in the middle of the Fiumacino runway, I knew that she had made a language error. But she was a good sport and we laughed about it over some very good red wine. And her English is very very good! I rest my case.

On feeling lost...

An Italian friend writes..."My father used to bring me around town when I was a kid, with his bike he used to bring me to new places that, even if they were close to home, seemed to be so far away that I always felt scared and wanted to go back home. But he kept going, he never brought me home when I asked him to, and right now, at the age of 27, I think this way of forcing me to see beyond my limits helped me and taught me not to be scared of new places."

I liked this and thought I'd share it.