Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Distant Episode: Thoughts before Heading to Morocco

In two weeks we're heading to Morocco, and I am incredibly excited. For the past three years I've been trying to get to Morocco, but it has been eluding me.

The first time, in 2007, during my sabbatical, I had a trip planned with my daughter, Kate, and Larry. But I broke my leg and spent weeks on my couch, calling every riad and ferry company and hotel, slowly deconstructing the voyage I had been dreaming of.

Two years later Larry and I were going to sail from Tarifa to Tangier, just for a day or so, so I could, quite literally stick my foot in North Africa, but the day before we were to go, we lost our money "bolsa" with all our ids, except our passports inside. So the day we were to go to Tangier, we were cancelling our credit cards instead.

But this time, finally we are going...and I can't wait. I'm not sure exactly where our travels will take us. For the first time in many years we are traveling without plans, without reservations, except the day we arrive and depart. Almost, but not quite, without maps. I've been thinking about spending a day, if time allows, in the Atlas Mountains.

With this in mind I've been reading Bowles, in particular his short stories. Last night I reread the harrowing, "A Distant Episode." Indeed I'd have to say it's one of the most terrifying stories I've ever read, not merely because a man is captured, tortured and turned into the plaything of a desert tribe, but because it seems as if the man wants to be captured.

I've taught this story in my writer/wanderer class as a kind of anti-journey. The bad trip you never want to be on. But still something compells me to read this story over and over. Just as something compells me to want to go farther and farther, pushing myself beyond where I know safety is.

Again I recall what I wrote a couple weeks ago about God's curse on Cain - You will be a restless wanderer. I don't think I'm guilty of fratricide though my brother might disagree. But still something restless lives inside all of us who wish to keep moving. This is why breaking my leg was one of the worst things that's ever happened to me. Because I had to stop.

Still what is the point of the journey? Is it to have creature comforts we can't replicate at home? Or is it to push ourselves past a limit, past our comfort zone. Into a world that is different and far from the one we know?

I don't have an answer. Probably it's a combination of both. All I can say is that last spring, as I saw the lights of North Africa flickering from Cadiz, it was like being beckoned. And when we feel beckoned, as the prophets knew, even if we don't want to, we must answer that call.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

‎"Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music--the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself." ~ from Henry Miller - one of my favorite wanderers.

Monday, September 20, 2010

You will be a restless wanderer...

Recently for various reasons I've been reading Genesis. In particular the story of Cain and Abel. We all know this, of course. Cain, the jealous brother, kills Abel. This is really the first crime in the Bible (unless you consider eating from the tree of knowledge a crime). In the Biblical narrative God curses Cain by placing his mark on his forehead and Cain pleads with God that he will be killed if men see his mark. But God assures him that this will not be the case. God's curse is a lifetime of banishment. "You will be a restless wanderer," God says to Cain, thus completing Cain's punishment for the slaying of his brother.

This final phrase of God's curse gave me pause. To me being a restless wanderer has always been a kind of blessing, something I embraced in others and in myself. I have never really tried to understand or analyze the roots of this wanderlust. I've always felt closer to Gulliver (who must escape his Master Bates - joke intended by Swift I am sure on p. 1 of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS - and hence sets off on a journey) and Ismael who takes to sea when he feels a sense of malaise coming over him in MOBY DICK. I've always admired the need to get away.

Yet God curses Cain in this way. Thinking about this it occurred to me that the thing about being a wanderer is that there always exists the possibility of return. THE ODYSSEY wouldn't be much of a story if Ulysses wasn't looking for home. Goethe wrote somewhere that being an artist is like being homesick. The artist is always searching for home.

My mind remains somewhat muddled around all of this. But I think the difference between Cain and me (outside of the fact that I haven't killed my brother yet) is that I can return. I recall again those sea turtles eggs in the Gulf Coast. How they were moved to the Atlantic side, packed in their own sand. It is hoped that twenty years from now they will recall the scent of home and return to the beaches where they were spawned.

I have always embraced the restless wanderer in me. And, at the same time, I have always know that I can go home. That, in fact, it awaits me. And this is what God denies Cain. What is the journey if we cannot return? It becomes exile, not a journey at all.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Images from the Storm

After the storm...

Last night a storm cut a swath through my neighborhood, riping the tops off trees. This morning we took a walk to see the remnants of the storm. These images reflect what we saw. The destruction stunned me. I've never seen so many trees down. This storm, whatever it was, clearly had a path. In Prospect Park near Grand Army Plaza trees were uprooted, branches down. The crucifix on the church nearby lost its cross. It toppled on a parked car. And an angel in a church yard lost her wings. Right now I'm listening to the sound of buzz saws. A tree, not ours but our neighbors, is being removed. Two doors down and at least sixty feet high. It fell across six backyards. The tree was planted by Rita’s father eighty years ago when he moved into the house. It is the only house Rita has ever known. I loved that tree. Neighbors tell how the sky turned black, then green. The wind came from every direction. A little girl next door told her mother she thought she would die. Our pin oak, which was on of the reasons why we bought this house, escaped without a scratch.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

On Getting Lost...and the art of the accidental

On Saturday morning Larry pointed to the travel section. "Look at this," he said. There was a huge, and I might add, brilliant spread by one of my favorite travel writers, Matt Gross. It was called LOST IN TANGIER. I love the idea of getting lost. Or trying to get lost which Matt struggles with. It's something I try to do myself and also without much success because, for better or worse, I also have a strong sense of direction.

I also loved the way Matt wrote about Tangier because we are going there in just a month. As I was reading, I promised myself that I would not follow in Matt's footsteps because the point of his article was about not doing that. Still I found myself circling cafes he mentioned and booking a room at the Continental. So it was exciting for me to read, but it also became grist for the mill.

Perhaps because the day before the Times had another excellent piece on an artist named Dan Colen, who uses among his mediums, chewing gum, and he's not adverse to having his canvases dragged face down through grassy fields. One line stuck out in this article. It was on how Colen practices the art of the accidental. He not only isn't afraid for random things to occur in the making of his art, he welcomes it. And, beyond welcoming it, he actually goes looking for it.

Matt Gross, who recently stepped down from being "The Frugal Traveler," (and I won't pretend I didn't envy his life for the past five years) tries to get lost. He doesn't want a GPS or Google map or guidebook ruining the pleasure of coming upon an unanticipated alleyway, a café that serves the best coffee you've ever tasted, a neighborhood where you can watch children playing in the streets. He wants to stumble on to that perfect restaurant or hotel. Or the not so perfect as well. I love his chance encounter when he asks a man what it means to be a father.

Similarly for Colen the accidental in a sense is his art. Whether from chewing gum or grassy fields, he doesn't want to know what his art will be before he makes it.

Once again I am struck at how similar the traveler and the artist are. Getting lost is to the traveler what the accidental is to the artist. It is only when you allow yourself the freedom to get lost or as an artist to allow the random to enter your work that you can truly be creative. Perhaps in a sense creativity is just that. Allowing for the surprise. Welcoming the unexpected. The detour is the journey. Just as the character who takes a surprise turn can become the story.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

When you can't go on a journey...

Sometimes there's no place like home. Rastaman, dancing cops, hot dog stands, a wolf in the fountain (a real hot dog???), barefoot musician. Just another day in the 'hood. So when I can't go away, I try to look around. It's amazing what you can find. Of course this was during the West Indian Day Parade. I couldn't stay long enough to see the wild dancers and the floats, but it was nice, no matter what. Great jerk chicken, rice and peas! And you shoulda seen the NYPD Caribbean band!!!