Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Monday, December 28, 2009

Travel Envy

I have a friend who is heading off to India for a month and she's invited me to come over and help her pack. "You're an expert packer," she says. Briefly I ponder hiding liquids and sharp objects in her luggage. I've just bought my daughter a ticket to Egypt - graduation present. And my friend who lives in Tokyo says he's spending January in Thailand.

I know that envy is one of the seven deadly sins so I've tried to keep it in check. Freud would be proud of me, but, when it comes to journeys, I have to admit it - I have travel envy. I'm never really happy for the friend who got that great assignment to Istanbul or is spending her sabbatical in France. For my last sabbatical I broke my leg and spent it on my sofa as my daughter wandered through Fez, where I was to join her.

I try to hide it, but when R takes off each Christmas for Vieques or V rents that place in Key West, I want them to slip me into their suitcase. I want to go along too. I don't want to read the blog from the Loire Valley or the magnificent photos of spice markets Kate sent home. I want to leave now. But of course I can't. Not this moment anyway. I still have about fifteen portfolios to read and evaluations to write. I am deluged with assorted requests. I feel as if it's winter in Fargo and I have to keep digging myself out.

Meanwhile our neighbors across the street, who've been living for the past year in an old olive press in the South of France have returned. They share with me that unfortunately they had to move from one end of the olive press into a place on the other end. I am trying to find the unfortunate part in this as I nod my head in faux sympathy.

People can tell me about their film deals, the third child that's on the way, the fact that they just dropped twenty pounds, I am genuinely happy for these people. I think good for them. But just tell me that you are heading off on a bicycle through Sicily and I start to fall apart. Once I could just pack a duffel and walk out the door.

The other day my cousin told me this joke. A priest, a minister and a rabbi were discussing when life begins. The priest said at conception. The minister when the child is born. And the rabbi said when the dog dies and the kids leave home. Sadly our beloved dog, Snowball, has recently died and our daughter has sort of left home, though she occupies a studio apartment in our house. So I am thinking it is time to just pack up and go.

I was thinking that thought about two weeks ago. I felt as if I couldn't sit still. I found myself, staring at random maps. Going back to Dr. Freud, there is something about adolescent turmoil (which it seems I can't grow out of) and the desire to escape. The adolescent, struck with a barage of emotions, cannot contain himself/herself. I too feel stuck, my own emotions bounding. So I woke up one day last week and turned to my husband. "I want to go somewhere," I said. In fact I told him I had to go somewhere.

"Where?" and then I said, "Istanbul."

It seemed like a good place to test my travel legs again, crossing back and forth between Europe and Asia. So I booked passage. I'm going to cruise the Bosphorus, perhaps journey up to the Black Sea. This is a part of the world my ancestors came from.

My legs are restless. I know it's a syndrome, but in my case it's a compulsion. I don't want to go packing for my friends and imagine my daughter, negotiating the medinah in Fez. Travel envy, like real estate envy or money envy or even penis envy, is just one form of misery we have available to us in this world. But at least with travel envy (certainly unlike penis envy) I can actually plan and pack my bag and walk out the door.

More than just wanting to do this. I have to do it. As with writing, travel is both a pleasure and a compulsion. I am echoing here the 94 year old artist, Carmen Herrara, whose work has just now received recognition. I like this idea of something being both pleasure and inner necessity.

Yesterday at a memorial service for a beloved teacher someone read these words from a Hebrew prayer: "Birth is a beginning. Death a destination. And life is the journey in between." Time, I suppose, is awasting. And so I must be on the road.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Wreath: A New York Christmas Story

A long time ago our neighbor, Martha, offered to give my husband and me a few hours of relief on a Saturday morning. She invited our daughter, Kate, who was six at the time, to go with her to the farmer's market at Grand Army Plaza. Normally Kate and I went to market together. We liked to haggle with the maple sugar man or taste the hot cider. Often we brought home more than we could carry. In truth I'd wanted to go with her that morning, but Martha offered and we thought Kate might enjoy a little adventure. I gave her five dollars and a small shopping bag. I asked her to buy apples, something for herself, and a surprise for her dad and me.

An hour or so later she returned, rosy cheeked, and shivering. She had the bag of apples, but she was also laden down with a much larger bag. Reaching into the bag, she pulled out a beautiful Christmas wreath, made of fresh pine and pine cones, sprigs of holly and tied up in a red ribbon. The wreath filled the house with the scent of woodlands and distant, wintry places. "It's a wonderful surprise!" I told her, though I could not imagine how she could have afforded it. "How did you get this?"

"Tell her," Martha said to my daughter. "It's your

And Kate explained that after she bought the apples and had had some cider, she saw the woman selling wreaths. She couldn't explain this to me, but she had to have one. It was a cold, blustery morning and the woman was wrapped in a down coat with a scarf covering her face. Kate could not tell if she was young or old, pretty or ugly, fat or thin. In fact, she couldn't remember a thing about the woman, except that she was bundled up. Kate told the woman that she very much wanted a wreath, but she had hardly any money left. The woman asked to see what she did have and Kate emptied her pockets.

I know what she held in her outstretched palm because I have seen it many times myself. She had colored pebbles and bits of aluminum foil she found on the playground and quartz she'd picked up on trails in the park. She had a few shiny pennies, bottle caps. Maybe a marble or two. The kinds of things she gathered as she moved through the world.

The woman looked at what my daughter held out to her. "That should be enough," she said. And she took the treasure and gave my daughter a Christmas wreath.

That afternoon we felt uplifted and strangely blessed as we hung the wreath from our front door. We all agreed that we wanted to thank the woman. During the week, Kate worked on a drawing of a polar bear with a wreath around its neck. The following Saturday we set out with the drawing which had a child's "thank you" scrawled across it.

When we arrived, we saw a woman, selling the same wreath that hung from our door. But Kate said that she was not the right person. She was sure of it. We combed the farmer's market, but there was no one else selling wreaths so we returned to her. "We are looking for the woman who was here last week," I said. "She sold my daughter a wreath."

But the woman shook her head. "We weren't here last week. This is our first time this season." We asked if she knew of anyone who might have been selling wreaths the week before. We explained that we wanted to thank her. But the woman shook her head again.

Though we went up and down the rows of merchants, asking if anyone remembered the wreath seller, no one did. Strangely, Kate seemed neither disappointed nor surprised. We never found the woman who had accepted a child's treasure in exchange for a wreath. It was as if she'd never been there at all.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Caper Caper

Last summer, after a glorious trip through Spain, with pit stops in France and England, we ended our journey on a friend's terrace in Rome. These were people we'd met a few years before when we swapped our house in New York for a medieval tower they own outside of Florence. They'd become our friends and, when they learned we'd be flying home via Rome, invited us to spend the night.

It was one of those hot Roman nights, the first of August, and they prepared dinner on their terrace. We loved the terrace from the moment we set foot on it. It was filled with plants and had a view of one of the most historic neighborhoods of Rome. Over cocktails, Giancarlo and Sophia told us that they loved our terrace too. We have a deck in Brooklyn that sits beneath the branches of a huge oak tree and we eat our breakfast and all our dinners out here in the summer. And we all joked that for our next exchange we will swap only our terraces. As we savored our first course, a vermicelli al pesto, served with an outstanding Friuli wine, they shared with us the story of their terrace - a story that might have been funny if it hadn't led to criminal charges.

Sophia and Giancarlo (I am changing their names here) live in a landmarked section of Rome and, when they tried to restore a small structure on the terrace and build a shower in the maid's room (a self-contained room at the top of the apartment where we slept), a disgruntled neighbor accused them of making architectural changes with in the historic district. The punishment for this in Rome is four years in prison. Their lawyer told them that perhaps, if they did various things (i.e. bribe the right people), they could get off in two. Thus insued a four year legal battle, right out of Dickens, but it had us laughing our heads off, particularly as Sophia described crawling under police tape in the dark of night to water her plants.

As the wine kept flowing, a dish of veal with tuna arrived. It was delicious and, as I was complimenting it, Giancarlo pointed to the caper bush from which they had picked their own capers. As he showed us their caper bush, he said that the thing about caper bushes is they are almost impossible to kill. At his wife's urging, Giancarlo began to regale us the story of the presidential palace and the caper shrub. A story I have come to refer to as "The Caper Caper."

It seems that the presidential palace was to be repainted entirely white and some general spiffing up was going on and, as a result, a caper bush which grew in the front against the wall of the palace had to be removed, which is was. The palace was painted a shimmering white and everything met with the approval from the highest echelons of the government, but soon after a matter of weeks, the caper bush began to reappear, its tentacles reaching out from beneath new plaster and paint. This time a presidential order was issue to remove the plant and a crew was brought in who dug it up and carted it away. The damage on the front of the palace was forgotten until a month or so later when the plant reappeared.

No one could believe it had survived its uprooting so now a crew of botanists and exterminators and who knows what arrived and they poisoned the plant and everything around it. The damage on the palace was repaired and the matter was forgotten. Until three months later at the end of summer when, yes, once again the caper bush - that Rasputin of a shrub - began to send its branches out.

It was at this time, I believe, that efforts to destroy this resilient creature ceased and the plant itself seemed to become some kind of metaphor for all of Italy (I am not clear about what the metaphor means exactly...)but at any rate the plant has been left in peace and it grows and bloom quite contendedly in front of the presidential palace where it has always been.

Giancarlo said we could go visit it if we wished and we would have but time was short and we had finished the eggplant in tomato sauce and drunk an amazing Marsala dessert wine as we ate chocolate and peaches and we were all tired, though now the night was cooler and we just settled back on our friends's terrace as the cool breezes rustled the branches of the trees and there were even stars that night all over Rome.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Doctor Freud said...

Last year I went to Vienna to do research for a novel. I hadn't really wanted to go to Vienna. It wasn't on my wish list. But part of this book is set there and so I need to go. And in fact we wound up falling in love with the city. We spent literally days in front of the paintings of Egon Schiele (a brilliant artist who died of influenza in 1918 at the age of 28. His "Death and the Maiden" is something I will never forget.)

We were supposed to also go to Budapest and perhaps Bratslava. In fact we had changed money for Hungary. Every morning we woke up and said, "Okay is this the day we go to Budapest." But we never did. Instead we roamed this city of wide avenues, imperial architecture, dirty black crows. A city of cafes and gardens, of Schiller and Beethoven. We learned that it was here at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts that a failing art student, named Adolf Hitler, began to listen to the speeches of Vienna's mayor, Karl Luger, and his own ideas would be shaped, even as his art career dwindled.

I couldn't help but think about what would have happened had he been a successful student of art. We roamed this city. It was cold, late March, but the sun shone, and every day we sat out, searching for another cafe, another great museum, the cobbled streets of the Judenplatz. The Weisbanhoff station from which Jewish children left on the kindertransports. All of Vienna became mixed in our minds. On Bergasse Street we visited the Freud Museum.

We walked into the dark, stone courtyard and wound our way up the cement spiral staircase where Herr Doktor Freud, that interpreter of longings and dreams, once lived. We entered the grand old apartment where he lived with his wife and six children until even he was forced to flee the Nazis, carrying with him his final manuscript for the pyschoanalaysis of the Bible. There on the wall of his study I found this quote on travel.

Freud writes: "When I recall the passionate desire to travel and see the world by which I was dominated at school and later, how it was before that desire began to find its fulfillment...This was linked up with the limitations and poverty of our conditions of life in my youth. My longing to travel was no doubt also the expression of a wife to escape from this pressure like the force which drives so many adolescent children to run away from home and family. When first one catches sight of the sea, crosses the ocean, and experiences as realities cities and lands which for so long had been distant, unattainable things of our desire - one feels ones like a hero who has performed deeds of an improbable greatness."

Sigmund Freud sees in travel its inate escapism. The desire to flee one's longing, one's implacable desire. Jonathan Swift is perhaps more direct, and humor, in Gulliver's Travels when Gulliver reflects upon his Master, Mr. Bates, and how Master Bates encouraged him to go away. My students blushed when I spoke to them of Master Bates, but still the meaning wasn't lost on them. That the adolescent needs to flee the self-referential world in which he or she lives.

It is interesting that they now call those years after college and before one settles into one's life work and domestic partnership the Odyssey years. What better metaphor than to evoke the greatest traveler, the traveler upon whom all future journeys were made, Odysseus. Of course his travel was of necessity. He wanted to sail home and, despite many obstacles and detours and temptations in his path, he managed to do so.

Indeed a significant part of the journey is the return. The lost, the disappeared, this is not the journey of moving past an ononistic exist into one of mutuality and dialogue. Clearly all the male heroes mentioned here needed to get away in order to grow up. The Sirens tempted Ulysseus, but it was Penelope who awaited him at home. I do not care if travel is about escapism. It is satisfies an ancient need, a longing and a desire. I'd rather find mine on the road than in a squalid bed with a stranger. Master Bates encourages Gulliver, who is in fact gullible, to set off and find himself.

I doubt that Herr Doktor Freud could have said it better himself. I have found that I can't not travel. I do better in motion. When I am planning a trip, all the aches and pains mysteriously leave my body. I am in flight mode. One I had this wonderful dream. Perhaps I have put it in this blog before, but I'll repeat it if I may. I dreamt that I was flying. I was flying all over the world. Over mountains and deserts and seas and jungles and places I'd never seen or knew existed. And I couldn't get lost because my belly button was equipped with navigational redial. I simply had to push it and I'd fly home.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Just before sailing

I am itching to travel. I can't stop thinking about it. I just want to go. Many many years ago I published my very first short story in a journal called "Just Before Sailing." A friend named Ron Horning published this and, well, it always seemed fitting. It is nice to think that my first story was in a publication that dreamed of sailing.

Lately I've been dreaming too. It's not that I haven't traveled in recent years, but, well, I haven't had an adventure. Something unpredictable. Surprises. In the spring of 2008 I had a sabbatical from the college where I teach and I was off to Morocco, Spain, and parts unknown when I broke my leg ice skating. Since then, and now that I am finally healed, I am longing to go. Istanbul, Morocco, India await me.

Already I am making plans. Just today I told a student of mine from Calcutta that I want to go to India. She began planning my trip. I've found myself, gazing at maps. A sure sign. When I was younger, my mother used to say, "Oh oh, Mary's looking at maps again." Sending out feelers. Everyone writes back. They know a hotel, a restaurant, a place I must see. I am ready. I am so ready. Chomping at the bit.

If you could go anywhere, where would you go? In a restaurant near our house that we like to frequent the owner is going off to Cambodia for six weeks. He does this every year. Namibia last year. He takes off with his girlfriend and has no idea where he'll end up. He just knows where he'll land. It has been years since I've been able to do this. Pick a place on the map and fly there. But I am ready to do it again.

My leg is healed, my daughter is grown. I think of my own mother who at the age of 85 walked the Great Wall of China. And then I see the photo I took this summer of this little boat, about to set off, for somewhere. Anyway. Wherever it wants to go.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Life (Not Wife) Swapping

Part of what I like about house exchanges, beyond the cost saving and convenience, is that you get to live inside someone else's life for a couple weeks. You get to shop at their markets, visit their pharmacist (or doctor as I once had to), sleep in their bed, maybe borrow a sweater on a cold night, and perhaps if you let your imagination roam, take on their story. Or find one of their own.

We have done twelve swaps thus far (with more planned) and each time I've managed to eke out a story or two. In Barcelona we had this secluded house with a swimming pool, but people kept showing up. Maids, the pool man, the Culligen man. The gardner and hedge cutters. We'd wake up in the morning and there'd be a small man in powder blue shorts, standing just feet from our bed (the pool man). In Todi I thought I heard voices coming from the cellar of the old medieval tower where we lived. And later the owner told me that indeed that cellar had a dark story of its own.

In France on a cold afternoon I slipped into a woman's sweats and, over lunch in a nearby restaurant, learned the sad story of a girl who'd died a tragic death, leaving her parents bereft. In Ireland there was the drama of the missing calf and the discovery of something at a local aquarium, known as a "mermaid's purse." And in Belgium, perhaps the strangest of all, we stayed in a house where an old woman had died just weeks before.

You don't find these kinds of stories in hotels where strangers make up your bed and waiters bring you your meals. Stories take time to evolve. Not just days, weeks, and sometimes even years. But each of these narratives came because we lived somewhere. We had walked into a world we didn't know.

As my teacher, John Gardener once said, we were the strangers who came to town. And everything unfolded from there. I don't want to think of that sad family in that balloon hoax (who were trying to get on that reality TV show, "Wife Swapping"). I prefer life swapping - switching tales, not partners, and walking for a brief time into someone else's dream.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 old piece I wrote about Ireland when we did our exchange with a family from County Clare.

Irish Mist: Reflections on Irish Weather

As I sit at the seaside home we have come to on the West Coast of Ireland, I contemplate the fog. It has been thick and gray for the past three days. Before that it was mist. In the weeks we have been here we have spordically seen the sun, and always, it seems a day when we are traveling.

It's not that we weren't forewarned. Friends gently urged us to take all our rain gear. An ardent Ireland traveler told me over drinks in early July to bring a wool dress. Wool, I thought. It is summer. I came with a kind of naive disbelief. Like anyone setting off on a perilous course, I was sure it wouldn't happen to me.

But there were warning signs when we arrived. An illuminated sign, showing a couple, relaxing on a Caribbean beach, said "It's easier from Shannon to take your summer sun holidays in 2002." Only briefly did I ask myself: why would they need summer sun? Then on the Aran Islands as we took a ride, shivering, in a pony cart with a cold mist in our faces, our driver turned to us in the laconic Aran way and said, "Well, at least you got a break in the weather." I was unclear why this was a break until we spotted a souvenir t-shirt. It showed a sheep, dressed for all four seasons. In three he was dressed for rain and in the fourth he wore a snowsuit.

The past few weeks during which it has been too cold to head to the beach, which is why we came here, have given me time to think about the Irish character and its relationship to weather. Descended from the ancient Celts, a loosely organized band, the Irish have maintained a fierce independence, a rugged sense of resignation, a twinkle in the eye, and a strong sense of the here and now.
In America we live by our ten-day weather forecasts. Indeed the language of our weather reports has a kind of poetry to it: Early clouds soon open to bright sun. Cold front moving in will bring crisp, breezy day. We want to know all things before they happen and our weathermen seem to make promises they can actually keep. Many times I have planned my life based on the Yahoo weathermap. Indeed our weathermen are minor celebrities and we all know Storm Field (great name, of course) and Al Rolker. We are sometimes amateur meterologists ourselves. If I call my father in Milwaukee and tell him it's raining, he says, "Oh, you'll get our sunshine tomorrow." And he's always right.

But who's an Irishman or woman to call. Their country is no bigger than Cuba. If the mother from Cork calls her son in Galway and says, "What's it doing up by you," chances are its doing the same as down by her. A waiter in Connemara put it this way as we slipped into a restaurant to escape the driving rain, in Ireland you get all four seasons in one day. An Irish friend offered this up as the Irish forecast. If it's sunny in the morning, it will rain by the evening and vice versa.

My husband calls this the ten-minute forecast. As we sit home on a cold, foggy afternoon, playing a l983 British edition of Trivial Pursuit the question presents itself. What is the name of a person who studies the weather? And we all realize that, unlike how many eyes does a bat have, this is not a trick question. The notion of an Irish weatherman is a bit of a paradox to them. At the very least he seems irrelevant.

My Canadian husband is befuddled by this. Weather is the first thing we discuss with our relatives. It is the major topic, especially when people can't say what's really on their minds. For example we received a letter from a childhood friend who wrote the first page on the weather (How little snow we've had this season) and the second page moved seamlessly into the break-up of his marriage. My husband is perplexed by the Irish seeming indifference to their climate. To him it's like a country whose economy is on the brink of collapse and everyone hides his money under the mattress and goes merrily along.

But even in this fog and chilly air, I think I see. Ireland remains true to its pagan roots and mysticism and superstition abound. As we watch a blazing red sunset, a neighbor joins us and said, "Red sun at night; sailors delight." But in the morning when nothing has changed, we alter it to "Red sun at night in Ireland isn't right."

One night a flock of birds appears. Thousands and thousands soar overheard. As we run out to see, a neighbor's child turn to us and says, "It will be hot tomorrow. We learned this in school. When the birds come in flocks, it will be hot tomorrow." But the next day when it is just as cold as it has been we are left to ponder the efficacy of the Irish public school system.

I ask the mother of a friend who lives in Tralee what an Irish weatherman does for a living and she replies, "Oh, they just cover all the bases. A little wind, a little rain, a little sun, a little fog." Yet no one seems too upset by this. Indeed no one thinks very much about it as they blithely put on their slickers and move their livestock or plough their fields, as they take children for walks or even swim in the sea which we saw people doing several times in rainstorms. There are no predictions here. No "what will come tomorrow." Anything goes.

It is what I have come to admire about the Irish character.

In pubs they sing of shipwrecks and brokenhearts and the heroes of Ireland, but no one sings of the weather. The only person ever to discuss the weather with us in any detail was a despondant Hungarian innkeeper and a neighbor who kept asking cheerily, "So what do you think of our Irish weather." We did once listen to about a dozen takes of Ella Fitzgerald singing "Stormy Weather" and thought the tape was stuck until we realized it was the restaurant's idea of a joke. And it's not lost on us that their number one liqueur is called Irish Mist.

But to me it all goes back to those Celts who cast their lot with an unyielding land, but also believe in fairies in the Liss. To them this land where little grows is magical and they have clung to it fiercely through years of oppression. They aren't going to be bothered by a few drops. They will strike as defiant pose and carry on. They will head to their pubs for a pint and a song.

I know when I will next see the sun. When my plane lifts off in a few days. Meanwhile this fog which sits outside my window is nothing to them. It will come. It will go. And it has a beauty of its own.

* * *

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.

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.