Sunday, February 28, 2010

A journey to Turino

Perhaps it is the recent Olympics that have reminded me of about a journey I made many years ago to Torino. I haven't given this trip much thought in a very long time, but lately it has come back into my mind.

It was the spring of 1972. I was young and engaged to a Frenchman I met while doing my graduate studies at Harvard. Marc was a business student at MIT. Brilliant, dashing, and destructive, but I didn't see that at the time. I was in love with language and words (which I still am) and Marc shared with me the Alexandria Quartet. I was impressionable. "You are Justine," he told me.

At this time in my life I was embarking upon my graduate career in Romance languages. My goal was to teach a few college courses and have two children. That spring Marc and I went to Paris, then we traveled south to visit his family near Lyons.

Marc stayed a couple days, then he had to head back to Paris, but for various reasons I stayed on with his family. It was clear from the start that they didn't like me. They wanted Marc to marry someone who was, as they put it, "more like them." In other words not Jewish. But I didn't see this at the time. At any rate Marc had to return to Paris and I wound up staying with his family until I could stand it no longer. I decided to travel to Torino where I had a friend.

But I actually had a stranger, more esoteric reason for wanting to go. I was at the time obsessed with the poet, Cesare Pavese. I loved his simple, lyrical lines. And the deep solitude of his verses. I was myself emeshed in the struggle between art and life and Pavese, it seemed to me, had done them. He had had his share of bad love affairs and broken promises. And he had committed suicide in a hotel room in Torino by swallowing twelve packages of sleeping potion. I decided to make a pilgrimage to Torino and to that hotel whose name I can no longer recall. I called ahead and booked a room. I had no intention of commiting suicide, but I wanted to imbibe the spirit of the lost poet, a man who had died, some would say, for love.

On the train from Lyons I sat opposite a man who looked to be unhappy and clearly in pain. We hadn't left Lyons long when he began to speak to me in French which was at the time a language I knew quite well. He told me that he was a musician from Italy and that he hated his life. He had a bad hip and indeed he walked with a terrible limp. He hated being away from his family, especially his wife. He hated touring. He hated lonely nights in hotel rooms. But what choice did he have? He was a musician. He asked me the purpose of my travels and I told him that I was engaged to a Frenchman and that I was going to Italy in search of Pavese. He seemed to understand this. He bought me lunch and we shared a bottle of wine. In Milan he gave me his business card. I was stunned to see that he was Antonio Janigro, one of the greatest cellists of his time, and a sad, lonely man.

I took the train on to Torino where I got a taxi to take me down the long, broad streets to my hotel. My friend would meet me the next day. At the hotel the two desk clerks looked at me, bewildered, when I told them that I wanted to stay in the room where Pavese had committed suicide. "I want to be in the presence of the great poet," I told them in my halting Italian. I think they believed that I was half mad and probably I was, but at any rate I was given Pavese's room.

It was a dull room with brown walls and a cheap wooden bed. A white bedspread and curtains. A view of the street. It was narrow and small. I spent a long, solitary night, battling some demons of my own. I wanted an ordinary life yet I knew somehow inside of me that I was not an ordinary person. I felt things too deeply. Every gesture, every phrase, everything had more meaning to me than I thought it should. And, in truth, in my heart I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write and put things down on paper, but I had yet to see the way. I stayed an extra day, went sightseeing with my friend. I admired the wide boulevards of Torino, saw some of its statues and parks. Then I got back on the train to Paris, flew home, and began to plan my wedding to Marc.

We were living together in Cambridge that summer. It was a hot summer but we were living in a cozy, airy apartment with a lovely bay window that looked over the Harvard campus. I was studying Dante in a summer course with the incredible professor, Dante Della Terza. Every day Professor Della Terza walked into the classroom without a book or sheet of paper and recited the canto for the day, then proceeded to analyze it. This was a man who lived for Dante and I began to live for Dante as well. But Marc and I had plans. I was going to drop out of graduate school and we would move to New York where I'd finish my studies before we settled in Paris.

One day on my way home from Professor Della Terza's class, I saw Marc. He was driving away from our apartment. I gave him a wave, but he didn't seem to see me. He seemed to be in a great hurry. I walked in, thinking I'd prepare dinner when I found the apartment devoid of Marc's things. On the desk was a cursory letter to me and money for the next months rent. I was devastated. Brokenhearted. I cried and cried. I had no idea what had happened. I didn't know what I'd done wrong. I dragged myself to class and home. I had no idea what my life or my future would be.

One Saturday afternoon while studying the next canto of the Infero, I felt as if I couldn't go on. As I lay, stretched out on the bed, my life had reached an impasse. It was a hot day and I remember the stifling feel of the apartment and my deep longing for Marc. I was in the darkest place I'd ever been and was on the brink of despair. I thought I would die of the pain. I closed my book and put my head down. I must have drifted off to sleep because I had this dream.

I dreamt that I was walking down a Paris street when I passed a cafe the name of which was "Lasciate ogne speranza voi ch'entrate." The words written over the gates of hell. Leave behind all hope, ye who enter here. But inside I saw F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway all sipping compari and soda. So I went in. I sat down at a bistro table and I took ordered a compari and soda. At that point my chair sank into a deep dark hole in the earth and I knew I was condemned to this place. But suddenly six pall bearer arrived, carrying a coffin which they deposited before me. I knew my fate was in that coffin and I knew I had to open it so I did. And it turned into a roll-top desk with paper for eternity.

I woke, hot and sweaty. But I knew what I was going to do. Six weeks later I moved to New York City to become a writer. And I have been here ever since.

Friday, February 26, 2010

THE JOURNEY OF MY BOOK: Or why retracing is not backtracking...

A number of you have been asking...You're waiting for the other shoe to fall. Or for the book to show up as the case may be. Well, it turns out that my book which is in itself a saga now has a saga of its own. And after all why can't inanimate objects have experiences. Two years ago when I traveled to Europe with a wheelchair, which I named Duncan, I felt as if Duncan, as he headed off into the cargo hold or hung out by the sea, was having his adventures too. Why not my beloved book?

So I shall begin almost at the beginning...

In 1981 while heading to Greece I picked up a copy of THE COLOSSUS OF MAROUSSI. I read it in Corfu and essentially have been reading it and annotating it ever since. Until I read this book, I didn't know what passion one could bring to writing. It is a kind of bible to me. Or at least it is the book that opened my eyes to the world around me and set me out on a journey into the world in a new way. In search of what Miller himself calls "the finger of mystery."

The other morning, with snow forecast in the air, I set off for my commute to work. I had Maroussi tucked into my pocket and, as I was leaving, my husband, Larry, told me to be careful. "Don't lose it," he said. If he hadn't said that, it wouldn't have occurred to me to lose it. After all in my wanderings and in all its wanderings I had never lost it before. But now I heard my father's voice. One of those admonitations. Don't carry all of that on the tray. You're going to drop it. And guess what? You do! You drop it! Don't lose your book, Larry said. Why would he say such a thing? It's a book I've carried with me on and off for almost thirty years!!! Imagine. How could I lose my book?

On Wednesday while trying to conduct a conference with my wonderful student, James, I began to notice that my book was not in my office. I am sure it was very distracting to James to talk about things that matter to him while I am tearing my office apart. But indeed the book was not there. Slowly I began reconstructing my day and, on my way home with my friend Nelly, it occurred to me that somehow I had left it on the counter where I purchased my iced coffee at Zaros near track 34 at Grand Central Station.

Silently I began to blame my husband. If he hadn't told me not to lose the book, I'd have it now. (Nelly pointed out that this wasn't a constuctive way to think of this situation...) By the time I got home I knew I'd left it on the counter at Grand Central and I was determined that the next morning when I went into the city for a doctor's appointment that I'd go retrieve it.

As I have said before on my blog, I don't backtrack. I will go out of my way not to return the way I've come. It is almost a phobia with me. The way spiders or the dark are for some people. But retracing one's steps, I've decided, isn't the same. When we backtrack, we return empty handed. We just go around in a circle and come back the way we'd gone. But when we retrace, we retrive what we had believed to be lost. My husband isn't good at this. He'll lose his wallet, his keys. Think backwards I tell him. So I retraced my steps.

As many of you who live in the United States know on Thursday we had a blizzard. Still I headed out, but with a detour to the Brooklyn Public Library to find a library copy of Maroussi and met with a snarky librarian who informed me that lesser works of an author are usually in the archives. I could not help but feel insulted not for myself, but for this book which I loved. "This is not a lesser work," I said. "It is a masterpiece."

"Go to history," the librarian said.

In the travel/Greek section which was in history, I found three copies of Maroussi, checked one out and, at last I was on the train. I went to my doctor's appointment. I was on my way to see the orthopedic surgeon who had treated me since I broke my leg two years ago ice skating in Prospect Park. I like Dr. Isaak. He intrigues me. He has a bit of a mystery about him, even to those who work with him, I've learned. No one knows his story. No one knows about his personal life. Yet as Larry said when he walked into my hospital room at four a.m. after I'd shattered my fibula, he has a good handshake.

He had few patients that day. Many had cancelled. Normally I wait hours. I'd brought a backpack full of work and, of course, now my new version of Maroussi. But it was a book I couldn't write in. I couldn't scribble the endless commentary I have going in my head between myself and Henry Miller. A man I think I'd hate in life, but I love him, I truly love him, on the page.

Dr. Isaak looked at a new Xray of my ankle and determined that I'd need yet another surgery. A piece of bone has grown over the ankle joint, he told me. "If it was your ankle..." I asked him.

"If it was my ankle," he said, "I'd take that piece of bone out." As an interim measure he told me he could inject the joint. I have a lot to do in the next few weeks. My teaching at Sarah Lawrence, a trip to Florida for a writer's retreat, a trip to Turkey. I agreed.

"Will it hurt?" I asked.

"Not so much," he told me.

He was right. It didnt' hurt at all and soon I was on my way in the falling snow and wind (the snowicane we were supposed to have) to Grand Central. My ankle, which I'd had trouble with since my accident bothered me, but not so much. I'd be home soon.

At Zaros, I walked in, holding up the library copy of Maroussi in my hand. "Did anyone find this book yesterday?" The staff of workers - mainly West Indian employees who cut bagels in two for office workers all day long - stared at me.

"But you have the book," the cashier said.

"Yes, I know, but this one isn't mine. This is from the library. I left mine here, I think, on the counter just yesterday."

They all shook their heads until a timid, young woman spoke up. "Sonya got it."

"Who?" I asked.

"Sonya, she got it," she said, her eyes looking down.

The manager who was arranging chocolate cakes on the other side of the counter turned to her, his face filled with threatening rage. "What're you talking about?"

The girl repeated that Sonya had my book.

"No she doesn't," the manager said. I turned to the girl who now wouldn't look me in the eye. "Nobody has your book, Ma'am," the manager said to me.

"What do you mean?" I looked back at the girl who now wouldn't look at me. "I'm a teacher," I told the manager. "I need that book."

"Nobody has your book."

I could see that heads were about to roll so I walked away, then paused. It seemed as if the entire staff was conferring. I return to the store. "I'll offer a reward. I just want my book back. No questions asked," I whispered to the man who ran the store.

"Call me tomorrow," he said.

On the way home, as my ankle was stiffening and I was finding it harder and harder to walk, I pondered what had just happened. Clearly Sonya had pocketed the book, thinking who'd come asking for a crumby old tattered paperback like that one. But someone had and the manager didn't want to admit that someone on his staff had stolen and I didn't want to get Sonya fired. In fact I liked the fact that Sonya wanted my book. I'd give her a dozen books if she wanted. I'd take her over the bookstore in Grand Central and let her pick out a few. But I wanted my annotated, lifelong Maroussi back.

By the time I got home I couldn't walk. My doctor hadn't told me that this would be the case. Well, I thought, in the morning I'll be fine. But I wasn't. I woke up and found that I couldn't walk at all. The injection had done something terrible to my foot and once again, as it had happened to me two years ago, I couldn't take a step. In the midst of a long, depressing day I phoned. They had my book. It was waiting for me. "Ask for Allison," the person I talked to said. Then whispered to me, "Allison is a man."

I'd fully intended to go to Grand Central myself and retrieve my beloved book, but I've sent my husband there instead. He has to go that way to work anyway. It is four days and I still can't walk, but my book is coming home after having his adventures, his trials and tribulations. And he's returned with what any wanderer likes to come home with. A story of his own to tell. But just an hour ago I received a call. Larry from Zaros. "They have several books here," he told me, "but not yours."

"Is Sonya there? Ask for Sonya." Apparently there were two Sonya's and none reported for work that day.

I'm coming to accept that my book is gone. Like a favorite stuffed animals to a child or well-worn shoes to a man, this is hard to let go of. I wonder where it is. I hope someone is reading it now. And part of me imagines that whoever has it will track me down and get it back to me. But another part of me worries for its safety. I cannot bear to think of this beloved, tattered volume, tossed in a heap. It was something I'd planned to carry with me my entire life. But if I were to ask Henry Miller himself, I'm sure he'd tell me to just let it go. That is part of the whole point of this book. Miller tells us to pare down. Simplify. Not to need things. He doesn't need anything. He has no money. He doesn't own a thing. He doesn't hold on. But he has an indomitable spirit. And he is passionate about everything in the moment. As he is living it.

But I love this book. I need it around me. Last night I ordered one from Amazon. It feels too soon. I'm still grieving. But there are passages emblazoned in my head and in my heart. I'm not sure that I've learned that much about Greece by reading it and I know Miller breaks every rule of writing I try to teach. But it is a book that has taught me so much. It feeds me like food. Desire is in itself an action, Miller tells us. And I know that this is true.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Writing as a Crime of Passion

Usually my posts aren't exactly chatty, but I've been rereading the amazing COLOSSUS OF MAROUSI by Henry Miller. And so I feel like talking. Just yesterday I was reading it on the subway and the train to work. I told my students that it was incredible for me to reread this book. On the title page I'd written my name and below it "Corfu, 1981" which was the first time I read it.

Miller had died the previous year. It was there on Corfu that I not only discovered Greece via Miller, but I also discovered what it meant to really be in a place and absorb it and what it means to be a writer in the world. I can't think of any book that has made such a difference in my writing life. There are passages in this book that stop me dead in my tracks and I read them over and over again.

One of the things that Miller inspires in me is this thought. Writing should not be a premediated act. It should be a crime of passion. I can't say anything about more this. It is just what I feel when I read Miller, or at least when I read this particular book. If you want to read something great, read the section when he talks about going to the astronomical observatory in Athens and meditates on the role of Saturn in our lives.

And, of course, my favorite quote in the world perhaps from that book. "The wise man has no need to journey forth. Voyages are accomplished inwardly and the most hazardous, needless to say, are made without moving from the spot.

And then last night as I was leaving school I couldn't find my book. I searched my entire office and realized I'd left it somewhere between an ice coffee and my train. I am utterly bereft. Today in this snowstorm I am heading off to try and find my book at Grand Central Station. And also to get a copy at the library. Wish me luck.

Meanwhile my new friend and blogger extraordinaire Alexis Grant has a wonderful blog: Aspiring Author. And she did a nice interview with me. I talk a lot about the writing of travel memoirs, keeping journals, and just writing itself. I am sharing it here.

I hope you enjoy!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

WHAT IS YOUR REASON FOR TRAVEL? Business, Pleasure, Family

Whenever I find this question on the customs form (What is the purpose of your travel: Business, Pleasure, Family) I have no idea how to answer. Most of the time for me, well, basically, it's all three. My work is my pleasure and my pleasure my work and more often than not family is involved so what am I to say? Usually I just check "Pleasure" because fewer questions get asked.

But if I start to analyze the elements, I realize that for most people these are three distinct things. Business is what you do to earn a living and pleasure is how you relax and family is, well, the pod to which we owe our allegiance. But if you're a writer, and a wanderer, it all gets murky. The lines blur. Everything becomes material. Every delay. Every miscellaneous bit of conversation. Every gesture. Every word. It can all fit in there somehow, somewhere.

In graduate school I had a professor who kept telling the class that soon he was going to take a leave. That he was going to travel the world and gather experience for his novel, which I believe he never wrote. Gathering experience is what writers do, isn't it? And every journey whether to Milwaukee to see my aging mother or to the Caribbean with my daughter to look at fish ultimately involves gathering material.

I remember hearing a panel in which three men (Robert Stone, William Styron and someone else - maybe Russell Banks) all talked about their travel experiences. One had been in the Merchant Marine (Stone). I think Styron had been a pilot or soldier somewhere. Russell had his own version of same. And I thought to myself, gee, I'm a woman and I never was on a whaling ship or in a B-52 bomber. Do I have to do this to have experience? Of course not. You just have to move through the world. For whatever purpose you choose. But it usually adds up to some kind of equal parts business, pleasure and family.

Some days I think I'm going to stop doing this. I'm just going to let a vacation be a vacation. But it never works that way. No matter where I am in the world, it seems I must spend the morning writing. Friends who wisely refuse to travel with me ask me why I insist on working on my vacation. And I tell them I don't know the difference. Then I read that while most people experience alpha brain waves while sitting by the side of a pool or smoking a joint artists actually experience them while doing creative work. From a neurological point of view my work is my rest.

Someone once asked William Styron (and if I am wrong about this, maybe someone can tell me who)if he planned to retire. His answer was, "How does a writer retire?" I know exactly what he meant. When my brain stops moving, then I will retire. Or be retired. But for now it is all one thing - one journey - this life I am living now.

Not To Be Missed

Below follows a poem I wrote about Paris and a very quick sketch of the Parc Monceau. The poem is about how whenever we travel friends tell us oh you must see this and you must eat here. All of which I dutifully did until I realized that the best discoveries (in fact in a sense the only discoveries) are the ones we make on our own. As I am starting to plan new journeys to Turkey, Spain and North Africa, I am trying to keep this in mind. And, of course, I always welcome any of those things you tell me I shouldn't miss, even if I never go. Though they will of course become part of my "baggage."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


The Park Monceau, the Jardins du Alfred Kahn
The little canal (not easy to find)
that follows the Seine.
Have peach melba at the Place Vendome;
Walk to Montmartre; see the street where I lived.
We carry the memories of others
Away with us like extra baggage
Scribbled on slips of paper, tucked
into the backs of guidebooks.
We cart the best view of Notre Dame,
a romantic spot where vows were exchanged,
the Pont Neuf at night,
that meal when figs were fresh from a tree,
the hotel with the feather mattress
that resembled a cloud.

Diligent as boy scouts
We have trudged;
Tried to retrace others' steps
Only to find the restaurant closed
Or the fois gras not to our liking
The gardens too precious and planned,
the peach melba too sweet.
At the Rodin we preferred to be outside
in the shade of chestnuts
Than inside, surrounded by ghostly heads.

We thought we knew our friends
and they knew us
and they knew we'd want
small gardens smelling of roses,
museums with delicate pastels,
a restaurant where we could linger
over our anisette.

We cannot sleep the night you didn't dream
or fall in love along a little quais,
taste meringues for the first time.
We cannot find the person you were
when you tossed your head back to laugh
before the tour buses arrived at Giverney.

When I think of all we failed to see -
a simple gesture, an angry look,
love whispered down alleyways,
The hours lost trying to reclaim
That perfect sip of Merlot.

Dutiful tourists
we tried not to miss a single thing
and now we have missed this
and so much more.

Mary Morris

Friday, February 12, 2010

Suggested Reading

Last night, after the recommendation of a friend, I began a novel set in Turkey, entitled THE SEA-CROSSED FISHERMAN by Yashar Kemal. Because I'm going to Turkey soon, I'd asked around for suggested reading. I actually had the book on my shelf, but had forgotten about it until this friend reminded me. As I was reading along, late into the night, I came to a passage that begins: "In the distance, sunk in shadow, its leaden domes, its minarets and buildings only vaguely discernible in the bluish haze, Istanbul was still asleep..." I've attached the page here, though I doubt you can read it. Still it struck a deep chord.

I think it was about 1:30 or 2a.m, but suddenly I perked up. This was the kind of passage I was waiting for. Something that took me out of my bedroom in Park Slope and put me half way around the world. I saw the haze. I heard the call to prayer. My journey had, at least in my mind, begun. This is one of the things I do whenever I'm going anywhere. I look for the stories and novels, the folktales and songs, films and food, whatever I can get my hands on to start getting my head ready for a trip. But nothing is as important to me as the books I read before or bring with me.

I'm not sure when this began, but I recall going to Greece with three books in my bag: THE ODYSSEY, ZORBA THE GREEK, and THE COLOSSUS OF MAROUSI. (My dear Henry Miller again). I crossed Russia with ANNA KARENINA in my bag. I travel to Latin America with Marquez. I rarely recall what a guidebook said and I'm not so good at taking directions or remembering to go to somebody's favorite restaurant, but books. These I take with me. Jane Austen for England, Stendhal and Hugo for France. What a delight it is to reread THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME while relaxing on the Ile St. Louis. And on the other end of the political spectrum, I've read Lorca in Spain and Anne Frank's diary in Amsterdam.

This gives me a feel not only for the sights and the sounds, but the soul of a place. It is the writing by the people who live in and reflect upon their own culture that interests me; not what the travelers or guidebooks have to say. I suppose with Kindle or IPad or whatever digital reading device we will soon be using, this will all be easier. You can be in Mexico and pick up Octavio Paz or Cairo and find Mafouz at the touch of a finger tip. Or Klima in Prague.

But personally I like that process of finding and discovery and deciding which book will suit my mood. I like my way of sampling, browsing. Deciding what book to take where. I know I'll be a convert soon. I'll want to download THE PALACE WALK in case I've forgotten to pack it on my way to the pyramids or UNDER THE VOLCANO as I head back to Mexico. But I've enjoyed the process, the decision making. It's like figuring out which friends you want to travel with and for how long. But no matter what wherever I go, suggested reading goes with me.

Today at the bookstore a clerk recommended for Turkey A MIND AT PEACE BY Tanpinar. Not Pamuk, he said. Read Tanpinar. So I ordered it because this is the best way I know to really understand where I am or where I'm going to be.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Channeling Henry Miller

"Voyages are accomplished inwardly," Henry Miller wrote, I believe, in one of my favorite books of his - the Colossus of Marousi. "And the most difficult are made without leaving the spot." Whatever one thinks about Henry Miller he understood something about art and travel. The journey is inward before it is outward. The traveler and the artist must first conceive and prepare in their minds whatever it is they set out to do in the world.

My mother had her own take on this in 1967 when I sailed to Europe on the SSFrance. I can still see her, growing smaller and smaller as the boat moved from the pier and into New York harbor. I have a picture of her in fact, standing on the dock in sunglasses and a scarf on her head. Her parting words to me were, "Remember you take yourself with you wherever you go."

One of the things I admired about Miller was that he wrote and painted every day. It was his discipline. In Big Sur at the end of his writing time he painted. In the coffee table book on Miller there are pictures of him in his studio as his children run and play outside. Though I have issues with some of his writing, and I wonder if he is still read as he once was, there is a freedom to his work. He is an artist who could let himself go. And I have long admired his watercolors. What I think Miller was able to achieve was that freedom. He had a passion for travel, for writing, and for art.

Two years ago I went down to Mexico to study contour drawing with Sue Siskin. When she told me that she wanted me to channel Henry Miller, I knew I had come to a place where I would learn something. The town where she lived, La Manzanilla, had a large gringo population, but it was still a dusty, funky beachtown. It had its dark stories as well. Some boys who had been murdered at a nearby resort. But I learned from Sue to be a bug. To move the eye slowly across the contours of whatever it you are seeing.

When I think of Miller, I think of an artist who could completely let himself go. That is something, isn't it. It seems somehow hard to achieve. There are always bills to pay and other work to do. Meals to prepare and so on. But when Miller sat down to work, he pushed all of that aside. Ego, passion, ambition. Whatever it was, it is something any artist should strive to do. Miller moved through the world with the eyes of a child. Everything he saw or read or did, every day of his life, it was all fresh to him. It was new. Despite whatever we might think of him as a writer (or his views of women), he encompassed the spirit of the artist and and, for me anyway, has always been a source of inspiration.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Since I was a girl, wandering the woods around my house, I've never liked to backtrack. Even then I made a wide circle through the woods to the path along the lake, doubling back via the roads and ravines that made up the place I called home. In my childhood fantasies of pioneers (which were the first to settle the place where I dwelled on the bluffs above Lake Michigan), the trails only went one way. Mainly west.

I was in a sense a child of the West. The paths I took - there was no turning back. It is a kind of a joke now in my family. Larry knows I won't go back to a store where I forgot to pick up something. If I walk one way into the park, I have to walk another way home. I always feel defeated returning to where I've been, going back the way I came. I am not really sure when forward motion became my "thing."

I have always done better in motion. I prefer to read on a plane than in a chair. I prefer to write on trains than in the comfort of my own home. As a girl my father called me Pigeon because he said I never sat still. Whatever this trait is (and it may just be a biochemical imbalanace) the fact is if I can help myself, I don't like to go back. I rarely do.

Once years ago I was looking for a pen in my father's bedstand and I came upon a pile of maps. Now my father was someone who never went anywhere. He never wanted to so it was odd to find maps in his drawer. I took them out. They were all triple A, marked in blue markers. Some were of the routes he took to inspect the shopping centers he and his brother built. But the one that stood out showed a route north through Canada, across southern Ontario, Niagara Falls, to Boston where I went to school. And then it showed a route home through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana. A circle, the kind I normally like to travel. Perhaps my father knew this. It was one of the only times that I felt he may have wanted a small adventure.

But the sad part about this map was that I never did complete it. I never went back. I never returned. If anything I only moved farther and farther away. I am not sure what this means. I'm really not. I just know that I can never return to where I have been. And I can't go back the way I came. Now Larry and I are thinking of wandering. Maybe even roaming the world. And as we plan, our progress is always forward. Perhaps like the earth we travelers need orbits of our own.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Rites of Passage

When I was a girl, our library had this summer reading program. You got a card with a worm on it. The worm was divided into many sections and wore a mortar board on its head. In other words a book worm. Everytime you read a book and talked with the librarian about it, you got to color in a section of your worm.

I remember riding home from the library with my bike basket filled with books, but I particularly recall the pleasure of returning to the library to color in my worm. I have always loved those things in life that mark our passages. A section of a worm, a milestone in life, and having my passport stamped.

One day when I was fifteen and walking home from school, my mother pulled up beside me. Rolling her window down, she said, "Get in. We're going to get our passports." I had no idea why I was going to get a passport or in fact that I was going anywhere. Or had anywhere to go. However my mother had it in her head. We were going to do the grand tour of Europe where she had never been.

The passport office was one of those dingy bureaucratic places and, as my mother and I sat side by side, me still trying to figure out what we were doing, a woman walked by us. She was goose-stepping like a Nazi and, for some reason, she gave me a Heil Hitler salute, followed by a Bronx cheer. I was frightened and stupified, but my mother burst out laughing. For her it was one of the funniest things she'd ever seen. I believe in some sense our trip began there.

I got my passport and, as with my book worm, it came to me as a blank slate. A tabla rosa. The way a child is born with nothing in its brain. I loved my passport as I'd loved my worm. In Paris in the early morning as the customs offical gave me my first stamp and it made that clicking sound, I knew that I had entered new terrain. Here was the proof. The stamp in my passport. Ever since then I have loved that moment. The click, the stamp, and voila, you have crossed over. You have arrived.