Monday, December 13, 2010

The journey has begun...

The other morning bright and early I got up to go get my visa to India. It was a freezing cold morning and I'd bundled up. I had a reservation and, surprisingly for me, I arrived on time, only to find a line out the door. I thought the fact that I had a 10:40 reservation would be relevant, but apparently it was not. The guy before me had a 9:40 reservation. It was going to be a long morning and I had to get to work.

I was perhaps fifteenth in line so I thought I should go up and tell the Hispanic guard with the walkie talkie and wire in his ear that I had an appointment. A woman in a fur coat with a red-dyed fur hat was putting on her mascara behind me and I asked her if she'd hold my place. "I'm not in line," she told me in a thick Russian accent.

As I approached the guard, a Russian man (the husband of the woman in fur, it turns out)with a lot of dandruff was shouting at the guard about not having an appointment but needing a visa. The Russian man was going into a long, complicated story about his documents and his need to travel, but the guard would have none of it. "Go to the back of the line, sir."

Just then an elderly Indian man approached and said that he too had to get a visa and he couldn't wait. "Do you have a reservation, sir?" the guard asked. The man replied he did not but he required a visa. "But do you have a reservation." Once more the man said he did not. This elderly gentlemen was nicely dressed with a cap on his head that looked "ethnic" to me. I'm not sure how else to describe it, but the matter took a kind of cultural turn. This gentleman began shouting at the security guard.

Meanwhile the Russian was still trying to explain his problem, but the guard began shouting back at the Indian gentleman that he needed a reservation. Around me a Sikh in an orange turban was yelling into his cellphone in a language I did not know. Other people of Indian descent were also on their phone, some crying, some begging for documents from family members. "I need my birth certificate," I heard one girl sob. "Fax it to me."

When the elderly gentleman refused to take no for an answer, the guard called upstairs for backup. "I need help down here," he said. When a woman appeared, he shouted in Spanish, "I need some one to tell this crazy asshole to go away." I'm not sure who understood him, but I did.

Finally the manager of the visa venue came outside in his shirt sleeves on a freezing day. "No walk-ins, absolutely no walk-ins. You must have a reservation," he shouted in a distinctly German accent to the angry elderly gentleman and the Russian man who were now both screaming.

There was lots of rumbling from the crowd. Some people left. Many did not have a reservation. The line shortened.

Things settled down. After about half an hour, I was first in line. I was told to turn off my cellphone and prepare my documents, which I did. Then I got upstairs where there were two more very long lines, one that snaked around, and one where you had to wait to get your documents examined.

After about fifteen minutes a woman asked me to come up to the front. She looked over everything. Said all was in order, but I didn't have enough pages in my passport for the India visa and therefore I was denied.

"What do you mean?"

"You need visa pages in your passport. You have only one page available. You need two."

"But no where did it say I needed two."

"Well, you do."

This is what I get for traveling so much.

I was told I had to go to the US passport office and there I would be issued new pages or a new passport, depending on what I preferred, but that I would have to make an appointment for this and that could take several days (which it did). Before leaving I thought I should make another appointment for my visa, but on the way to the computers, I ran into the manager who asked me my problem and I explained about my passport pages.

He nodded, then made a sweeping gesture of the room that was filled with the troubled, turmoiled masses, snaking slowly around in their lines. "Why don't you just mail your application in?"

"May I?"

"Why would you ever want to come back here again?" The question for him was clearly rhetorical, but I couldn't help but note the disdain in his voice. His message to me was coded. Because it was clear to him that I was white and educated and many who frequented his establishment were not.

I made a mental note that I would not mail my application; I would return in person if I could.

As I walked out, the Hispanic bouncer asked me why I was leaving so soon. "My passport doesn't have enough pages."

He shook his head, his voice filled with pity. "That's a bummer," he said.

On the packed subway, heading to Grand Central, I needed to write some of this down, but I had nothing to write on. So I took out a piece of paper and tried to scribble notes on the pole. A young man of mixed race asked if I wanted to sit down. "No, thank you. I'm getting off at the next stop."

"But you're trying to write on that pole." I shugged and he held up his hand to me. Not knowing what else to do, I high fived him. He looked a little stunned, then he burst out laughing. "I was holding it up for you to write on it," he said.

As we pulled into Grand Central, I wished him a good day. On the train to work I nibble from the snack bag Larry had prepared for me. My purse is always filled with all kinds of things - gloves, water bottles, snacks, pens, life savers. I wasn't paying that much attention. I was reading and nibbling. Then I ate a dog treat. Apparently I also had a bag of these.

I sat back, gazing as the train crossed the Harlem River, a part of my commute to work I always love. So, I thought, the journey has begun...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Room with a View

This morning I was working on my itinerary to India. I wrote to the travel agent who is helping me and told her that in Varanasi I wanted a room with a view. I thought about this a lot after I wrote it. While traveling, I am hardly in my room. And yet, like so many of us, always want a room with a view.

Last spring in Istanbul my husband and I moved downstairs three times because the first room with a view was only available for two nights, the second, one floor lower, for the next two, and then, when he left me and went home, I found myself living on the street level. As Larry said, "we're moving down in the world." But what makes us suffer the inconvience of moving just for a fleeting glance of the Sea of Marmara.

Well, everything, I guess. We all want a perspective. A vista on the world. I am the kind of person who will panic in a stuck elevator or an MRI. But give me a view and I can breathe - if I can see the world. This was never made more real to me than when I agreed to wear a Winnie the Pooh suit at a children's book fair. The mask went over my head and I literally stopped breathing. Someone had to take over.

"Don't fence me in," has sort of been my motto for a long time. We all need it. Open spaces. A sense of freedom. Last summer L and I stayed in the south of Spain in an apartment that was billed as beach-front, which it was, but, for reasons to complex to go into, it actually had no window that looked out on it. The living room in fact was completely enclosed. My fantasy of standing on a balcony, looking out at the Mediterranean, dashed.

E.M. Forster understood this as much as anyone. When Lucy Honeychurch and Miss Bartlett arrive at their pensione in Florence, only to learn that the room with a view that had been promised to them was not available, the women are crestfallen. "I wanted so to see the Arno," Lucy says. It is of course Lucy's search for a room with a view that leads her to opening her spirit, to visiting the Santa Croce with no Baedeker, to experiencing life in its rawness, and, ultimately, to opening her heart and falling in love, as we all knew and hoped she would, with George.

In Forster's book there are many views and not just of the Arno. One character comes to "view" another in a new and special way. Someone does something with the "view" to doing something different.

So despite the annoyance I have sometimes caused my family (in the Caymans when I made us switch from a room with a pounding AC and a view of the parking lot to one that at sand level that looked at the Caribbean; in Istanbul when I made us change room three times just for a glimpse of the sea) they have in the end come to see the pleasure in seeing. Visual openness can lead to an openess of heart and spirit. And the two will go hand in hand.

I am excited for the journey ahead. I am looking forward to my view of the Ganges. And beyond.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Traveling in the Shadows...

For a long time I have been interested in negative space. Not what is before us, but what is not. Not the object, but the space around it. For me many journeys are like this. It is not what is in the itinerary, but what happens in between. Not what we planned for, but what we didn't anticipate. There's a quote by Henry Miller that expresses this is another way. Miller says that our lives are shaped as much by those who refuse to love us as by those who do. This is a kind of emotional negative space. Not what is, but what isn't. Not what we see, but what is implied.

On our recent trip to Morocco we hired a guide. From the minute I laid eyes on him I knew it wasn't going to be a good match. I wanted stories. All he could tell me were facts. It was obvious from his demeanor that he had told these facts over and over and they meant nothing to him. When we were near the presidential palace, he asked if I wanted to take a picture. I didn't. I'm not interested in snapshots. But out of politeness I complied. In the middle of my snapping the picture, he took the camera from me and pushed the button himself.

He wanted me to see what he saw. What he assumed every tourist wants to see. He would not have understood if I told him that what I wanted only exists in the shadows.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Journey as Surreal...

Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that to him there was no such thing as magical realism. What people saw as magical in his books actually happened to him. Part of his youth was spent growing up in a large house where many relatives had died. When Gabriel was bad, his grandparents never punished him. They just locked him in a room with so and sos ghost.

To me every day life can be quite surreal. I recall the swimming pool my friend Carol and I found in the middle of the Mexican desert. Pristine, full of water, but when we got in to swim in the cool, soothing waters, a campesino arrived and told us that we couldn't swim in his patron's pool. Where the campesino came from and where his patron was remain mysteries to me. Apparently the patron didn't have the funds yet to build the house, but he had dug and filled the pool.

This picture above reflects one such moment. Larry and I were late to get the ferry to North Africa. We raced to Algeciras which had the slow ferry (as opposed to Tarifa that had the "fast" ferry; I wanted to sail into North Africa the way the Phoenicians did). At the terminal we learned that there was a ferry leaving in ten minutes and another in two hours, which meant that with the time difference if we took the later ferry we'd arrive in the middle of the night.

We tried to grab two tickets, but two Moroccan men were having visa issues in front of us. Finally they stepped out of the way as we purchased our tickets to Tangier. The ticket clerk phoned the ship's captain to say that two passengers were on the way. As we were led, racing to the huge vessel which could easily hold a few thousand people, I asked the woman guiding us if we were the last passengers. "No," she told me, "you are the only passengers."

I made her repeat it twice. "Unicos??"

As you can see from this photo, except for a few truckers who had cargo in the hold, we are in fact the only passengers. We are standing alone in this enormous ship's cafe. Two hours later we docked in what would not be Tangier ("I was misinformed" - one of the many lines from Casablanca I recall)but a place call Port du Med. We ambled alone down the gangplank to greet the solitary customs official who waited for us in an empty parking lot.

In the 1930's Andre Breton went to Mexico to teach surrealism to the Mexicans. He wanted a table on which he could do his work and he asked a carpenter if he could make him such a table. Breton drew for the carpenter an architectural drawing of a table - diamond shaped, two short legs in front, long in back. A few days later the man returned with a diamond shaped table built to architectural perfection with long legs in back and short in the front.

Shortly thereafter Breton left Mexico and returned to France. When asked why he was leaving, Breton is reported to have said, "I have nothing to teach the Mexicans about surrealism."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gibraltar behind me; North Africa ahead...

Here I am in the middle of the Straits, between Europe and Africa, sailing into Tangier as the Phoenicians did. Well, almost. On a cargo ship. We were the only passengers on board.

Friday, November 26, 2010

My journal and me...

Every journal I write and draw in takes on a character of its own. Normally I find a journal I like - leatherbound, with lines, without - and use that same journal for several years. But lately I've been given journals as gifts such as the one in this picture.

It was given to me by the wonderful students in my writer and wanderers class. They put a map of the world on the cover, made dots where they'd each been, then each did a page of original artwork and writing. It was a bon voyage gift because we were saying good-bye as a class, but I was also going off on some adventures of my own.

At first I had trouble using this journal. To me it was a precious gift, one I was afraid of damaging in some way. I'm not sure when it was - maybe on the fast train to Malaga, maybe on the ferry to Morocco. Or many right here at the Cafe Centrale at the medina in Tangier that this journal became mine.

By I know that from this moment on - this cup of coffee, this morning of writing and drawing - I lived inside this book as I have on almost every journey I've ever taken. I can't call them trips. Trips are something else - they seem shorter and planned. When people say "have a good trip," the assumption is that you're going to actually arrive in a specific place. But a journey. Ulysses went on a journey. Gulliver, Ismael. These were all journeys. They are open-ended. There is room for error.

I don't think I've ever taken a trip in my life. I've lived in the detours and the surprises. Nothing planned has ever mattered to me that much in the end. It's always the unanticipated that I love.

So this journal. It took a little while, but I lost my fear of damaging it. Of hurting it in some way.

I think it was right here that morning in Tangier after a good cup of Morccan coffee that this journal, and this journey, became mine.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

There's No Place Like Home...

I've often wondered if I clicked my ruby slippers together, where would I end up? Back in Illinois where I grew up, in Boston where I came of age, in New York where I've lived my adult life. Would it be Paris where first slept with a man, albeit a crazy Italian bakers son who marched through the Champs de Mars as 2a.m. singing the Bella Ciao partisan song or Mexico where I learned some lessons that have never left me? Rome when I became a writer? Basque Country where I dream of living?

What is home now and where is it? At times I feel badly that I really don't know. If someone said, decide. Where would I land? Where would any of us land? As I got off the plane from Iowa this weekend and watched all the travelers with their wheelies, I thought how we are all moving all the time. We are global villagers. We know how to pack, roll our luggage. We know when to power down our phones. We don't stand on docks any more with our steamer trunks and entourages.

So where is home? Where the heart is? Where we were born? In a way this picture on an Iowa crossroads, surrounded by fields, with a sign that reads "BROOKLYN" sums it up for me. Home is a series of intersections and crisscrosses and memories and all the places I've been and people I've known and loved and forgotten and lost. The animals I've seen and the foods I've tasted and the wine I've sipped. It's all the crazy things that have happened or haven't happened or I've wanted to make happen. It's a drunken night in Paris and a full moon setting in the Sahara. A sea cucumber swallowed in Beijing and a remembrance of my grandmother's brisket, tasted so many years later in Tangier. It's all the stories that have zipped through my mind; and the others that made it to paper.

I guess if someone put a gun to my head, I'd say that the Midwest is home. If I clicked my heels together, it's probably where I'd end up. But then I was just there this weekend. I gassed up at a place called Kum & Go. I drove behind a school bus, and almost rearended it, as I read its warning sign: "IT IS UNLAWFUL TO PASS THIS VEHICAL WHEN GIRLS ARE FLASHING." As I passed it, I saw that SCHOOL BUS had been painted over and "TIME WELL WASTED" was in its place.

I stopped at a rest stop outside of Des Moines. When I came back, someone had stuck a fake severed finger on my windshield. It looked very real. I hightailed it out of there fast.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


I always tell my students that if you don't know your ending go back to your beginning. Or in travelers terms given enough time and space most things will come full circle in this world.

Here's just one small instance. I met my husband, Larry, 23 years ago in Richmond, Virginia. My life was a mess, but he would not be thwarted. On our first date we drove to a theater to see Bull Durham. We always recall that night fondly. Me with my barefeet on the dash of his unairconditioned Honda or whatever it was.

Many years, many journeys later we find ourselves in Morocco where we are spending our dirhams (amused that the abbreviation for dirham for some reason is MAD which I always think means the Madrid airport which in airport jargon it does). We are spending them on food and hotels, on a rental car and trains, on a camel trek and scarves, and on a carpet we had no intention of buying, but paid for it anyway in many many dirhams, just to escape (and now I understand why people sign forced confessions. I would have signed anything to get out of there).

So we are spending our dirhams, recalling Bull Durham, and then realized that our flight home which was on a mileage ticket took us to NY via Marrakech, Madrid, London and then Raleigh-Durham where we missed our flight to JFK and had to spend four hours contemplating whatever if anything this meant in the grand scheme of things and though, exhausted and Larry in fact sick we agreed that it meant nothing there was still a certain symmtry to it all and anyway I like it when something in this world comes full circle even if it took us 24 hours to fly home.

Of course this isn't an end for us but just the start of a new beginning, but it was nice to have that layover in Raleigh-Durham to contemplate this and oh so much more...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Been to the desert..."

In this case a camel with no name.

Apparently they don't give them names, though once Kate rode a camel in the US named Rosalie, which coincidentally is my mother's name. I'm not sure that "America" (the band) had it right. Can't see how a horse would have survive.

We barely did for the six or so hours we were plodding from dune to dune with a brief layover at an oasis where a man in a fez showed up with cold Cokes. It was hot and my camel wasn't nice. Well, I guess I can't blame him.

The town where we stayed was once a French foreign legion outpost and really this was no joke. We could see Algeria. I kept thinking that if something happened to our guide, Mohammed, we would survive.

Though our camels had very very big flat feet. They look as if they are designed to make a lunar landing, which I think in a sense they are. While I can't say I like the creature, I have developed a respect for them.

That night we were exhausted. I am still having difficulty crossing my legs.

Morocco - A Human Face

Over the next several weeks I will be posting images and text about our trip. I found myself especially moved by the Moroccan people who were overall extremely generous and kind. This man works in the tannery. They have been making leather in this way for the past 1100 years. He stands in a dye pit all day, stomping on hides.
More images of the tannery, and the rest of Morocco, to come soon.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

From Thurber to Berber

Domesticity's getting me down. I feel burdened by the tasks. Maybe it's the hound dog we adopted two weeks ago. As I'm taking shoes out of his mouth or watching him bury bones in my garden, I keep hearing Elvis in my head. Meanwhile at the same I'm packing to go to North Africa, into the desert, as far as I can.

There's a disconnect here. How can I be feeding pig ears to Thurber (named after James Thurber who loved hounds)and reading the map of the Fez medina at the same time? But it seems that I can. I recall how Indiana Jones could teach his classes in archaeology, then take off his glasses, put on a pair of chaps and go chasing the lost Ark.

I can identify. My students don't really know this side of me. As they head to the library or Connecticut for their few days off, I'm going for a camel ride in the Sahara. Once a student of mine went to visit his brother in Hawaii. The brother happened to have a magazine lying around that had a picture of me, dressed in black, riding a white horse through the chaparelle. Apparently the student turned to his brother and said, "I think this is my professor."

I'm not going to lie. I am ready for a change. I need to get away. I've just sprayed bitter green apple into Thurber's mouth so he stops eating my chair. Upstairs I've got my camera charging, my paints and brushes packed, my journal (the beautiful journal my writers and wanderers made for me this spring) ready to go.

I am filled with excitement. Anticipation. And yet I don't want to be cut loose. I don't want to be one of those balloons that floats away into the sky. The truth is I want to be tied to someone's stroller.

I recall speaking to a friend the other day about this. I told her that I'm not interested in just wandering. I don't want to be a nomad with no address. For me it's the tension between here and there, home and away, that makes all of this interesting. And by this I mean life.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Lost in the Desert with a Pen and a Hat

A recent news story captured my eye. A couple of weeks ago a man was found who'd been lost in the desert for six days. He had no food and water with him and little shade though temperatures had soared close to a hundred degree. Yet beyond being dehydrated and sunburned he was fine. He attributed his survival to the fact that he had a pen with him. And a hat.

The hat did not help him because it provided shade. Rather the man, who had no paper, wrote on it. He wrote notes to his wife and loved ones, advice, instructions, declarations of love and friendship. When he began to run out of space, he devised a code so he could shorten his messages. But still he kept writing. He told his rescuers that if he hadn't been able to write, he would not have survived.

Many writers have attested to the same thing. The poet, Irina Ratushinskaya, survived a Soviet prison but writing her poems on bars of soap, memorizing them, and then taking a shower. She left the prison with dozens of poems, all inside of her.

On a less dramatic note Paul Auster writes in his wonderful essay "Why Write?" about meeting the great Willie Mays and not having a pen with him for an autograph. After that, Auster says he kept a pen in his pocket wherever he goes.

I have often found myself, on the subway or a plane, desperately digging in my bag for a pen. It seems I can survive any long flight or travel delay if I have paper and pen. (I have never tried my hat, but I'm sure if necessity dictated, i would.) If I was lost on a journey, imprisoned, if I was in a situation for which there is no obvious escape, I would survive if I could write about it. Perhaps this is why I write compulsively when wandering. It is how I hold the universe together. In essence it is how I survive.

So the message about the man lost with only his pen and his hat really hit home. It is an allegory of sorts. To wander is to write and to write is to wander. And when we are lost in a desert of our own making, this is especially true.

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!!!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

on the Shores of Lake Michigan...

This is me and Kate, relaxing on the shores of Lake Michigan. We're in Milwaukee, visiting my mom. But someone had dragged a picnic table down to the sea and bolted it to a broken-up concrete dock. Sitting at this beautiful place I thought that I wanted to make time stop. I wanted to stay here forever. A young couple were walking by. Perhaps they weren't older than sixteen. He had a lot of tattooes. She was a petite Asian girl with a fair amount of facial piercings. And I asked them to take our pic w/Kate's phone. Which is what they did. They were very nice about it and told us to have a good day. Which we did.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

After Seeing Matisse in Morocco

I have always been interested on the impact of travel on the artist. How seeing new things makes us produce new things. Flaubert in Egypt, Lady Montague in Turkey, Hemingway in Spain. And so on. Travel gives the artist a new perspective. A different angle on the world. It gets us out of our rut. I'm not entirely sure why this is so, but it is. Perhaps it is just literally so. We see with different eyes.

There is, however, a favorite quote of mine from Proust. Travel isn't about seeing new places. It is about seeing with new eyes. I love this quote. It makes me think about a book I am reading now. A wonderful meditation called "The Sounds of a Wild Snail Eating." The bedridden author who cannot go anywhere is given a wild snail by a friend who picked it up in the woods. "I thought you'd enjoy it," the friend said. The narrator then spends the entire book observing her snail. With new eyes as Proust would say. And I'm sure he'd approve of her meditation. It is as beautiful and evocative writing about stasis that I have ever read.

But for those of us who can walk through portals into new worlds the newness of places enriches us. And it was clear it did so for Matisse in Morocco. I have always loved Matisse. In my own paintings, such as the one above, the influence is clear. (I feel influence and imitation are perfectly legitimate artistic endeavors. Enriching in fact. Think about the Picasso/Matisse rivalry. Only wonderful art came of it.)

Back to Matisse, I love his sense of color perhaps more than anything. The way he balances colors. And his blue paintings. The shapes. There are some amazing images in the MoMA show. For me Matisse remains fresh.

The other day Larry and I went to see the Matisse show at MoMA. I had no idea when I went that Matisse had spent time in Morocco and that it had a big influence on his art. The coincidence is that we are going to Morocco in October and it was amazing to see the kind of work - the new colors, composition, the shapes - Matisse brought to the work he did after being in Morocco. And many of these works were completed years after he returned.

It has always been a kind of cliche that travel enriches us. A junior year abroad, a travel to the continent, a journey into farther, less familiar realms. But the fact is, it does. We do see things differently. We gather material with our eyes, our noses, our ears. In Matisse's notebooks and letters we see the sketches he made for what would later become his Morocco paintings, including the famous Les Moroccans. I love seeing the germs of ideas in travel journals.

I feel as if our journey to Morocco has already begun. And we only had to ride the D train to get there.

Les Moroccans - from the MoMA Matisse catalogue

Matisse conceived this "souvenir of Morocco" in 1912, stretched a canvas for it in 1913, and returned to the composition late in 1915, only to start again on a new canvas in early 1916. Black is the principal agent, at once simplifying, dividing, and joining the three zones of the canvas: the still life of melons and leaves on a gridded pavement, bottom left; the architecture with domed marabout, top left; and the figures, at right. Next to a seated Moroccan shown from behind, the large curving ocher shape and circular form derive from a reclining figure in the sketches. Above the shadowed archway, figures in profile may be discerned in the two windows: at right, the lower part of a seated man; at left, the upper part of a man with raised arms. Matisse built up the surface with thin layers of pigment, the color of the underlying layers modifying those on top. Painter Gino Severini reported that "Matisse said . . . that everything that did not contribute to the balance and rhythm of [this] work, had to be eliminated . . . as you would prune a tree."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I Met A Traveller...

Yesterday I was leaving Milwaukee, heading back to New York. I'd spent a rather difficult weekend, visiting family, and I was ready to get home. I checked in and had a little time to kill. Not that much, but enough for a glass of wine.

I stopped in at the Brewhouse, but the bar was kind of full. I jockied a bit for position. Then a nice young man with glasses who was reading a book made room for me. He gestured to a chair beside him and I settled in. As I ordered my Pinot Grigio, I noticed that he was reading a very old book of poetry. I could see that its pages were tattered; its binding was leather.

As he sipped his Scotch and chased it with a beer, I couldn't help but comment. "That's a very old book you're reading," I said.

The young man nodded and told me that he'd just picked it up at the unusually fine used book store, "Renaissance Books," that sits in the middle of Milwaukee airport. I never actually know what that bookstore is doing there, but, to the delight of my husband and me, it sells a lot of fine, rare editions - even as it sits beside the Harley Davis memorabilia store with a Starbucks across the way. Whenever I have a lot of time to kill at this airport, I usually spend it in that store. "I like poetry," he said.

We chatted a bit about books and travel. He told me he likes to pick up books wherever he goes. I glanced at the beautifully engraved leather binding, the crumbling yellowed pages. He wondered if it might be a first edition. The thought struck me as well. "You should have it appraised," I told him. "It might be worth something." I told him how my daughter, Kate, had picked up a very rare Gustave Doree illustrated Don Quixote at a stoop sale and it turned out to be quite valuable.

He turned to the frontespiece where the date "1860" had been written in by hand. "Yes," he mused, "You're probably right." He paused. "But I'm going to keep this one." I watched as he fondled the leather cover, protected by an acetane jacket.

"You're right. I think you should."

Somehow we got to talking more about travel and reading and languages and how much he wanted to learn more languages and how he was interested in art and sculpture. Whenever he had time on his hands, which wasn't that often, he looked at art. I asked him where he was going and he said he was going to Delaware to visit his mother. He hadn't seen her in many months because he had been deployed for the past nine months.

"Army?" I asked.

"No, I'm a Marine," he told me.

"Oh, that's great," I replied, turning back to my wine. Then I looked at him again. "Isn't it kind of unusual for a Marine to be reading Shelley?"

He smiled at me, "Yes, it is..." Then he began to talk, telling me how he's a geek Marine. How he's always loved poetry and art (and how he wants to write poetry which didn't come as a surprise). He'd been on Okinawa for the past year. It was a dry, dusty place. I asked him if he'd seen action. "No. I'm an aviation electrician." My mind wandered to St. Exupery - the war pilot who was also a writer. He wrote The Little Prince, of course. The plane he went down in in l943 has recently been recovered.

We spoke a little longer - about keeping journals. I told him that I was a writer and I always kept a journal with me. He asked how he could get his poetry published. I told him to read "Best American Poetry" and send poems to the magazines listed in the back.

He thanked me. "I'm a warrior," he said. "I'm supposed to have a warrior mentality, but I'm conflicted...I'm not sure."

"You should write about that," I told him. I mentioned Stephen Crane, Wilfred Owen, Enri Remarquee, Tim O'Brien. The chroniclers of war. There's a precedent, I told him. And I don't know whose writing about this now.

He smiled. "I will," he told me. "I'm going to write about that..."

I realized I was late. Very late for my plane. We shook hands. His palm was moist, sweaty. A sign of nervousness, I believe. I didn't ask his name and he didn't ask mine as I dashed off, wondering if he'd start sending out his poems. If I'd read a memoir from a conflicted warrior someday...

I raced towards security, begged my way towards the front of the line, put my shoes and belt back on in the area Milwaukee called the "Recombobulation Area" which I loved. I ran to the jetway where I narrowly made my flight. As I tumbled into my sea, the words rushed through my brain...

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.[1]

Perhaps one day my marine will write something like that...

It was one of those chance encounters we have on the road every day. At a cafe in Rome, on a ferry dock in Honduras. You meet someone and share with him something about where you've been, where you're going. A word of advice, or warning might make all the difference. We never know if we've helped a person move past despair, out of doubt into hope. As I said to my friend, Susan, yesterday afternoon, we never know if we've helped someone find a path.

On the flight the woman beside me was sharing a huge bucket of fried chicken with her son. Across the aisel an enormous woman with a woven pink scarf wrapped around her head sang hymns all the way to New York. I didn't really mind. I thought about my Marine. I wondered if our chance encounter would make a difference in his life. He'd made a difference in mine.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The only way out...

is to write your way out...

Someone said this to me once and I know it's true.

There was a dream I had many years ago. I was living in Cambridge, in grad school, and pretty miserable. I dreamt that I was walking down a Paris street and inside I saw Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, sipping campari and sodas. The name of the cafe was Lascati Ogni Speranza Voi Que Entrate. The "Leave Behind All Hope Ye Who Enter Here." Which is what is written over the Gates of Hell in the Inferno (I was studying Dante at the time).

But I wanted to be a writer so I went inside. I sat at a bistro table and ordered my campari and soda too and as I did my bistro table and I fell into a deep, dark hole in the center of the earth. Clearly there was no way out. Suddenly six men arrived with a coffin which they placed before me. When they left, I understood that my fate was in that coffin. I opened it and the coffin turned into a rolltop desk with paper for eternity.

Shortly thereafter I left graduate school, packed up my few possessions, including my typewriter, and moved to New York.

This is a painting of my friend, Matthea's orange typewriter. I sketched it one day when I was over. I really love her typewriter (the real one). It is small, simple, and bright as a setting sun. It made me think of a journey I took many years ago with my then fiance. We were going to go backpacking through Europe for six weeks, but he decided to bring a typewriter to a friend of his mother's. An old woman, living on an Island in Greece...I'm not going to go into that whole story right now except to say that I wrote about it in my second collection of stories. A story called "The Typewriter."

Writers have to write. Whether it's yellow pads, journals, typewriters, laptops, it is what we do. Someone once gave me the ten ways that you can recognize if you are an alcoholic and they had substituted the word "write" for the word "drink." Do you write in the morning. Do you feel you have to write every day. If you don't write, do you get irritable or even angry.

I answered yes to all. I am sure many of you would as well

As far as I can tell, it is the only way out of the hole.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Writer and the Wanderer: The Goldilock's Syndrome

The Writer and the Wanderer: The Goldilock's Syndrome: "Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and had no idea where I was. As the room came into focus, I saw the bed, walls, windows. ..."

The Goldilock's Syndrome

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and had no idea where I was. As the room came into focus, I saw the bed, walls, windows. But where was this room? In a small hotel in Istanbul, in the South of Spain. Was it at my cousins' farm? Was I home? I didn't know where the door was or the way to the bathroom.

Then, slowly, it came to me. I was in Amherst, attending a friend's wedding. But I had been sleeping in so many beds in the last several months that it took a while for me to be sure. I have taken to calling this "The Goldilock's Syndrome." A kind of traveler's cognitive amnesia. A little like "If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium," but not quite.

This comes, I think, from a deeper place. The confusion, at least in my experience, isn't just about place. It is also about time. Am I a little girl again? Do I need to get ready for school? Is my daughter home? And where's the dog. Perhaps because I move around so much, my coordinates in time and space are often confused. Some day I wake up a teenager in love. Fortunately I have never projected myself far in to the future.

Last night at the wedding Larry and I were talking with one of our hosts. He is an optical engineer and he was explaining how he had been working on a lens that sees into the past - millions of years into the past, in fact - at galaxies that existed before life began. And he said there is actually a way that one could see into the future. There is a way that one lens can bounce of another. Like the Navajo, I said. Past, present, future, it all exists in one vast continuum of space and time.

So perhaps I was waking up in that hotel room in Istanbul. An apartment in Paris. Some funky Mexican town. I was sixteen. I was thirty. My heart was broken. I was home. Or I was with my husband, in a B&B in Massachusetts, a little hung over. The bathroom was to my right. The exit was behind me.

Once I located myself in time, I was able to locate myself in space.

But for just a moment I could have been anywhere.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A sea turtle remembers home...

Last night on the news I heard a fact that stunned me. It was a feature on how rescuers are saving the Gulf sea turtles. They are harvesting the eggs a few days before they are due to hatch and shipping them over to the Atlantic where, if all goes well, in a few days they will emerge unscathed and make their way to the sea. The fact that startled me was this. They pack the eggs in sand from the Gulf so that hopefully the turtles will recall the smell of home and return to the Gulf in twenty years time to breed and lay their eggs once again. I could not believe this detail of nature. That the turtles will recall the smell of their sand and it will lead them home. And in twenty years. Think of all that Ulysseus went through in just ten years.

This proves something that I've always suspected about the traveler. Home imprints itself in us, perhaps even more so than those who never leave, in ways we cannot imagine. I am sure that we have all had dreams of flying. I have them quite a lot, though often it is more like swimming in air. In one dream I feared I would get lost, but then I understood that my belly button was equipped with navigational redial and all I had to do was press it and I'd be home.

For many many years I had a kind of repetitive dream. I was in a jungle, a desert, walking down a Paris Street, and suddenly footprints, a way, a path in the snow would appear, and I'd follow it and it always took me back to 105 Hazel in Highland Park, Illinois where I was raised as a child. Not a particularly happy childhood, yet, for whatever reason (perhaps trauma as Alice Miller, the noted psychologist, might say) I kept going back. In my dreams at any rate.

And it turns out that people tend to buy houses or live in places that evoke some secure part of home. And just recently when visiting my cousins at Plum Farm, I had a long drive to Milwaukee to see my mother. My cousin Donna made me a tuna fish sandwich with pickles in it on white bread. As I was driving, I pulled off into a rest area and ate my sandwich. I mean, it was tuna fish, not the madelaine, but my root are Midwestern, not Combray. Still as I was eating that sandwich, I was eight years old, home from school, at summer camp, wherever a child might be. I was back as surely as if I'd flown there.

So as I write this, I think of those little travelers. The sea turtles. How far they will journey. How big they will grow. And yet imprinted inside of them, forever, is the scent of home.