i’m not a very religious person, so instead of the serenity prayer some people may be familiar with, i offer here the serenity doctrine that better reflects my current state of mind
My father’s birthday falls about a week before Christmas and for the past several years my siblings and I have had some local chocolates delivered to his place of business. There is much fanfare, his employees are also able to participate in the fun, and the delivery makes the day memorable for all involved. This year, as he was approaching a milestone birthday, I thought briefly of doing something different — that is to say, ordering a delivery from somewhere different. The town where I spent my childhood, and where my father still lives, is not entirely devoid of clever gustatory options but since taking my leave many years ago I am less familiar with what those options may be. So after approximately two hundred seconds of google-mediated soul-searching, I opted to stay with tradition. Not being tethered to a sense of tradition in most of other parts of my life, this decision was therefore more practical than sentimental. However, all that changed after a phone call.
I rang the local chocolate shop on the weekend prior to the big birthday and proceeded to explain my request. I wanted a one-pound box of sugar free chocolates (for my diabetic dad) and a box of other chocolates (for his non-diabetic staff) delivered to his office. The voice on the other end of the phone balked. Wha– Um– We don’t do deliveries…? She said in that inflected manner in which statements sound curiously like questions. I explained slowly that I had been placing the same order for at least five or six years now and each time it is a delivery order. Um…. hold on. [I can hear some conversation on the other end between my telephone interlocutor and her colleague (collective age, 35… I’m guessing…) and then returns, with a gasp, to the phone] Yeah, we don’t deliver…? Um, but you can call Sue on Monday. She can help you…? I thanked her for her assistance and then on the following Monday morning, I placed a call and had the most pleasant chat with Sue:
Me: Hi, may I speak with Sue please?
Sue: This is Sue.
Me: Hi Sue, this is [me] and I’m calling to place an order for delivery for my dad’s birthday.
Sue: Oh! I was waiting for your call! How are ya? How’s your dad?
Me: I’m doing well and so is he, thanks. And you? You must be busy this time of year.
Sue: [pause] Yeah… well, I hope it gets busier. [pause] Well, what are we putting together this time? The sugar free box, right?
Me: Yes! And also something for his staff — maybe you can help me with this.
Sue: Sure — so the one-pound assortment – Sugar Free! I always remember [i think i hear her smiling] and I’m putting a label on it, too — and then, do you wanna put together a tray of other goodies? We’ve done a few for some local law firms — we package them up nicely with cellophane and wrapping — the whole works. It’ll be great.
Me: That sounds really lovely. Thank you — I think they’ll enjoy it. [pause] Do you need the address?
Sue: Nah — I know where it is — on the second floor, right? Yeah, not a problem.
I give her my payment information, and spell out the names for the card, and thank her again for her help.
Sue: Oh, it’s my pleasure. And thank you for thinking of us.
We hang up. Her last words linger in my mind as I recall her response to my query about how busy they must be: “I hope it gets busier.” And suddenly I am overcome with a deep (albeit somewhat fleeting) sense of sadness. All of the chatter in the mediaspheres about fiscal cliffs, taxes on small businesses, the pundits and politicians waxing (non)philosophic about the pl/fight of the middle class — all came into stark relief in this small moment. Business decoupled from finance, businesses as staples of communities, businesses as dependent upon and depended on by citizens. In a world dominated by Amazon and the like, it’s easy to forget (or at least it was for me) the importance of the smallness. Local is not mere ontology or discursive opposition to global — local is quotidian, local is lived, local is in many ways global itself. (I’m resisting the urge here to pontificate further on this notion: What is globalization but a series of connected locals?… You’re welcome)
Now, I’m no purist nor extremist (nor any -ist, really) — I won’t stop using Amazon, but in the moment of my conversation with Sue, and our follow-up exchange (below), the bigness of small moments moved me deeply. And I’m reminded of the fruit and veg stand on Southampton Row near the Sainsbury’s where I bought fruit for several months last year; and the series of coffee shops around my home in Philadelphia that are not franchised, some of which are host to artwork by local artists including:
- Chapterhouse – where there’s an exhibit by Lynette Shelley and Eleanor Grosch currently ongoing
- Red Hook Coffee – currently hosting a photography exhibit by students from Fleischer Arts til January 20th.
Later the same afternoon–
Me: Hi Sue, I saw you called.
Sue: Oh yeah, I forgot how to spell your dad’s last name but then I remembered right after I called you.
Me: Ok, great. Did you need anything else?
Sue: No, it worked out fine. Your dad is so cute — as soon as I walked in, he looked up and said “She never forgets.” And he looked so happy. And we put the cookie tray in the main room for everyone to enjoy.
Me: Thank you so much. Really.
Sue: Well, thank you for thinking of us and using us. Have a good holiday.
Me: You, too.
It turns out that they do not, in fact, deliver. Except for this delivery each December. For the past few years, and, if I can help it, for the next several to come.
May 2013 bring continued glimpses of humanity, joy, and small moments that make up lives…
Rather than attempt any written response to the events and aftermath unfolding from the dark day in Connecticut, I’m choosing instead to share a few new finds on the order of the art in children’s books and the worlds they open up — it is where I’m choosing to dwell for a spell.
More information here: Little Big Books: What Makes Great Children’s Picture Book Illustration
including these illustrations
and for those of us who want to know more: A Brief History of Children’s Picture Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling
The truth is, while I personally hate to lecture, I thoroughly enjoy attending them — even when the lecturing occurs in the backdrop of my increasingly confused state of mind. This was the case when the professor who taught a biomechanics course that I took during my early undergraduate years delivered weekly lectures on tensile strength of bones, on torque and tension, and many other related topics, nearly none of which took root in my memory.
One of the only lectures that I recall with significant clarity had to do with the differences between the bones of adults and children. In brief: children’s bones are more flexible.
Physiologically speaking: over time, cartilage becomes calcified bone and levels of collagen decreases. Some bones become fused as time passes, which is another reason that a child’s body contains more bones than a typical adult skeleton — 300 compared with 206.
But these facts are the ones I just googled. What I remember — the story I recall with precision and that I have often produced as a narrative party trick is the following scene:
In the large, newly renovated lecture hall, Prof. X began drawing on the white board with a black, dry erase marker. He reached up high above him and drew a line about two feet wide and then ran the marker straight down, his lines produced a rectangle.
He pointed to the board with the tip of the marker, leaving a floating black mark near the rectangle and resumed talking, gesticulating with all of his appendages to convey a simple and yet remarkably intricate point about the human body: “If you or I were to take a fall, we would probably be badly injured or die. If a baby took the same fall, he would most likely bounce!”
This enthusiastic declaration had a graphic chaser — Prof. X indicated a “bouncing” motion with an exaggerated check mark that resembled the path said baby might take were it to engage in the aforementioned fall. The very notion of bouncing babies seemed to fill him with a peculiar delight that hardly ever surfaced again.
Babies bounce. This was the major takeaway from my three semesters as an engineering student. So while kids fracture their bones more easily, they also heal more quickly. Youth truly is nature’s balm.
And thus perhaps the cautionary notes I received from well-meaning loved ones about aging and bone fragility were not entirely off base.
But bones repair themselves, cuts heal (faster with the aid of some ointment), and we regenerate in many ways, including the fingernails I routinely slice, chop, or otherwise injure when getting lost in a rapid julienne or a distracted dice. (I’ve spent the past two weeks in full amazement while watching nail enamel form where just days ago flesh was peeking through; the shock of hurt, in awe of the heal.)
I suspect that if I had stories of bouncing babies or, as my high school physics teacher used to do, if I had concocted grand narrative metaphors for deceptively simple principles of physics that involved (no joke) action figures, wind-up motorcycles, and homemade ramps… then I might like to spin a yarn or two, as well, during class. For now, I’m comfortable sticking my pedagogical public with questions to ponder and invitations to engage with readings and texts through art and media…
The shock of falling, thankfully, is soothed with the awe of healing.
A friend texted me to say that the images coming out of New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy look like they belong in a disaster film. I couldn’t agree more. Despite the howling winds on Monday night, my neighbors and I came through the storm relatively unscathed, all of us harboring more than a bit of survivor’s guilt as the stories and photographs of the otherwise bright city shrouded in darkness stream across all of our media. The lights were finally turned on in lower Manhattan on Friday night. The photos in the slideshow below were taken on Thursday, just as dusk began to dissolve into evening; I had attempted to meet a friend in the Lower East Side to help with food packaging and redistribution for nearby residents who had been without power or electricity for nearly four days. Using my feet, slowly running subway, and bus, I made it as far as 20th and FDR before realizing that without a flashlight or other light source, continuing on would not be a prudent decision. Before making the trek back home, I snapped a few pics with my phone. In a few instances, I lightened the image to allow some of the background to come through that had been almost entirely obscured by the thick curtain of darkness; the sheer absence of light, of sound, of humans in this normally densely populated part of town was purely suffocating. I allowed myself a few minutes to indulge in this moment, to take in my environs via camera as well as sensorily, before releasing the awe that threatened to settle in — I wondered, then, of what value is awe (at nature, above all else) in a time like this? In a time when awe is better channeled into cleaning debris from parks, from streets, from neighborhoods, much of which is happening throughout the city in demonstrations of humanity and connectedness.
And from the NYTimes: Glimmers of light in a darkened city
When was the time when editors reached out to their authors with such poetic caress in their writing? Take me there…
From the collection: Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence
Other than the familiar retreat of walking or writing (or reading or photographing or cooking), teaching has been the cushion to soften reentry’s crash landing, one that is characterized less by violent or jerking movements and more by a persistent cloud of disorientation. I wrote in a letter to a friend the other day that it is in the space of teaching — one where I have the chance to also be a learner and fellow looker and seer — that I am speaking a language that I recognize and that makes sense to me. The procedural apparatus surrounding those moments is utterly foreign, at best, demoralizing, at worst. This is perhaps what marks last night’s class as especially moving — I take no credit for it except to thank myself for having the good sense to be in collaboration with thoughtful and humane people, two of whom shared stories and experiences with the students in the form of dialogue and an exercise (although to say “exercise” feels diminishing somehow) on reflection and seeing and, quite frankly, retaining one’s humanity in the midst of the seemingly intractable institutional morass.
On that note… Should the time come for me to resign — because at this rate, who knows if I’ll make it to retirement — I should like to think I can be as precise and concise as William Faulkner was in his letter of resignation from his position as postmaster, addressed to his superiors at the University of Mississippi:
As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.
This, sir, is my resignation.
For more, see Letters of Note.
(this one’s been in the hopper for a while, unfinished, because there was always more to add. it’s still not quite where i want it to be, and still unfinished, so i offer you here one part of a multi-part reflection that connects kerala with cyprus and the uk through the simple thread of human hospitality and the impetus for story-sharing)
What is your hyphenation?
This was the question posed to me during an exchange about identity markers, labels and categorizations — those that are asserted as well as those that are given. It was March and I was enjoying the warm embrace of Cyprus when this set of transnational interactions transpired via twitter direct messaging, and while in this island mecca I found myself, quite unexpectedly, invoking my recent trip to India with startling regularity — startling to me given that my ethnic origin is rarely on the tip of my tongue or the first site of reference. And yet, as I found myself in the company of my friend, the very lovely and peerlessly hospitable S, and her charming and incredibly warm family, I was immediately and frequently moved to share tales of my recent travels to India and the stories they evoked of memories and long-forgotten family traditions. Conversation in the form of story-sharing was the apt garnish to the preparing, consuming, and communing around food that characterized a large part of my time in Cyprus.
On my first night in Larnaca, the town where I spent three of my six nights in the island nation, I was taken to a restaurant that was known to S and her husband from the time of their youth; a place that despite the immediate blanket of low light that greets its visitors, is filled with brightly colored paintings and other artwork — some of which, S told me, were made by the owner herself, who greeted my hosts with an air of familiarity, not quite the intimacy of family but certainly not the reservation of strangers. So consumed with our conversation had I been, that I was literally caught off guard by the flavor of the tomatoes in the salad. Tomatoes! Fruit in vegetable’s clothing that I rarely, until that night, ate fresh because years of mealy, overripe, flavorless varieties had made a jaded tomato eater (read: avoider) out of me. Tomatoes were, until that night, strictly relegated to the sauté pan for stir fry or tomato sauce recipes.
It would not be an exaggeration to state, plainly and without hyperbole, that first taste of tomato was nothing short of a gustatory revelation. No, a revelation. Period.
The next night, with not-too-distant memories of a familiarly strange flavor on my mind, I was treated to a homemade dinner of two traditional Greek soups: Trahana, made with the dried and sour wheat cakes and halloumi cheese and a second soup made of lemon, egg, and rice, the name of which escapes me at the moment. Once prepared, the soups joined the salad, asparagus dish, a pastry-type appetizer, and bottle of wine already placed on the neatly set table around which S’s parents, brother and sister-in-law, spouse and little V had already gathered. As the soups and libation flowed, so, too, did the stories – of living in Larnaca, of being forced out of the now-Turkish occupied northern section of the island, of being a teacher in Cyprus – and the questions – how was I enjoying myself? Was I born in the United States? How often did I visit India? What was my plan for the week?
In this scenario, I was the linguistically disadvantaged one, with nearly zero Greek words in my language knapsack – it was just on this trip that I learned that “ne,” contrary to phonological leanings – means “yes” – and my hosts bridged our language gap with ease, sharing stories, asking questions, answering my questions, and making me feel completely at home. It was here when I was first aware that I was reaching into my deep stores of childhood memories and recent conversations with familiar and unfamiliar strangers while traveling through Kerala.
There is a kinship between these countries and its inhabitants that was rendered in the abundant offerings of food, in the understood practices of talking over one another to communicate a point, and found in the unspoken transitions between hospitality and communion. When learning about the preparation of food, I shared my own early experiences of learning to cook alongside whomever was in the kitchen – very often, this was my grandmother, who catered to my particular and fickle adolescent tastes. And no story of my grandmother is complete without the added detail that she was my very first roommate, personal storyteller, and witness to my earliest dream-state ramblings and pontifications.
The dining table is a gathering place, a get-to-know-you spot, a place in which to learn about the world and debate its great possibilities and unspeakable disappointments, a mantle on which to lay the intersecting storied histories each of us weaves.
We traversed the small but culturally expansive terrain, S and I, and stayed overnight in the mountain village of Kalopanayiotis. I fell in love with this tucked away cluster of homes and homestays much in the same way I was enchanted by the tea plantations and hills of Munnar. In both places, the roads twisted and wound their way from one side of the mountain to another. Unlike the “only in Kerala” imagery of construction happening (quite literally) at the speed of one grandmother carrying a large stone on her head at a time, Kalopanayiotis was even less hurried in its existence; and unlike the countless shacks and more makeshift housing structures found on the subcontinent, the Cypriot village homes that we saw all had doors and small gardens and, I suspected and fantasized, an endless supply of halloumi cheese in their refrigerators.
But places, no matter how picturesque, gain meaning and memory through the people who pass through them. And on the morning we were set to leave the village, S and I encountered a woman that I know neither of us will forget. She looked to be at least seventy – we later learned that she was well into her 80s – and was standing at the foot of a small bridge and holding a bag as we approached after visiting the nearby church. The grey of her hair that was half visible underneath the scarf that was tied around her head matched the shirt that was tucked into a long, black skirt that was topped a black apron – as if she had left her house with great urgency; I imagined food that was in the process of being cooked and wondered how long she had been in possession of her apron, acknowledging that it could might also just be a fashion statement.
Her smile was instant and grew even wider when she spotted S; she took a few steps forward and said hello and in Greek asked S if we were visiting the village. For the next few minutes, the two Cypriots talked and I could tell there were questions being asked and answers being proffered; S occasionally paused to translate for me in the middle of bemused laughter at this situation that would turn out to be a highlight – not only of this trip, but also of the sabbatical thus far. The animated chatter stopped abruptly and the woman linked her arm with S’s and began walking, with me following alongside them. As we walked, S quickly filled me in: the woman was newly widowed, her husband had passed away just 45 days ago and she was returning home from visiting his grave. When she learned I was visiting from America, she told S that her brother lives in San Diego, that she had visited him before, and that another brother makes his home in Madison, WI. It turned out that the brother in the Midwest was known to S and this instantly made her like kin to the old woman who insisted we accompany her to her home for some food and drink. There was no argument that would be worth launching in the face of such staunch conviction. For a woman in her eighties, she had an impressive gait that she did not break as she turned back and shouted to her friend Antigone that she had “found some company!” and was going home. (S translated this, as well, in between her own laughter at the woman’s joyous declaration.) Antigone, just a few years younger than her friend, it seemed, quickly followed suit.
Once we reached the woman’s home just steps away from the other side of the bridge, we were treated to an assortment of Greek sweets and pastries and homemade iced tea served to us by a younger woman who appeared to be a housekeeper, while our host shared photos of her children and grandchildren during momentous occasions in their lives – graduations, weddings, anniversaries. (I was involved in a rather peculiar exchange with the woman’s youngest son, which I will save for a future post as it contributes to my ongoing musings about how the world views the US.)
The offerings of food and stories and memories that were being made to us was reminiscent of the impromptu visit my travel companions (one of my parents and my spouse) and I had with an octogenarian living in the village where my grandmother spent her childhood. In fact, the woman lived next door to the home where my great-grandparents raised most of their sixteen children, only about half of whom survived to reach adulthood. My grandmother was the youngest daughter and she was closest in age and in communication with the brothers who were immediately older and younger than she. The woman answered our knock on the iron bars in front of her door verbally first before making her way to the entrance. She paused as she looked up and listened as we announced our presence and purpose of the visit. Once she had made the connection – that we were relatives, descendants of her one-time neighbors – she turned the lock and joined us on what amounted to her front porch (or stoop, depending on your geo-linguistic preference).
Dressed, as my spouse pointed out later, in her Wimbledon best, she instantly began to recall stories of my grandmother, her parents, and her siblings and their various comings and goings. As she talked and gesticulated and directed her attention alternatingly at each of us, she interrupted herself briefly to ask her nephew – who was visiting from Canada and who, dressed in sweatpants and a tee shirt was clearly not expecting visitors – to bring out bananas that were in her kitchen. He obliged and our protestations were in vain, and so we obediently consumed the mini-bananas that are indigenous to this and other warm climates, as we listened and laughed and allowed ourselves to be temporarily transported to another moment in time.
[end of Travelogue 3, Part 1. Part 2 coming soon… including tales about my great-grandparents, village hospitality, and how this all relates back to a peak hike in Sheffield via a discursive pitstop back in Larnaca.]
My office should be declared an archaeological dig site.
I have spent the better part of two hours doing nothing but excavating, occasionally — ok, frequently dusting off folders, books, questionable objects that have not been used or moved in over a year, despite the use of my office by people who were holding together the many loose ends I left when I walked away from campus last summer. Midway through the year I learned that my bookshelves were being used as the backdrop for faculty and student video profiles that were filmed in my office, which explains why there was a large white umbrella in taking up residence in here when I popped in last spring.
Finally, the over-eighteen-inch high pile of papers has been sorted through. Most of it is filling the newly emptied green, plastic, recyclables receptacle in our office suite — and most of it was packaging: envelopes, filler advertisements, plastic wrapping for journal issues, bubble wrap, and more envelopes. I heard forests cringing all around me, their cries cutting through the crooning tunes courtesy of my Carole King & James Taylor Pandora station.
What stayed: copies of research participant permissions that were not filed before I left; copies of grant reports and related materials; journal issues that I have not yet looked through and the ones that contain pieces I have authored or co-authored;
Among the very special finds was a 2009 calendar that features the paintings of life in small town Norway, Maine, all painted by the then-90+ year old Duncan E. Slade. I had spent a week in Maine with my in-laws the previous summer that had included a visit to Slade’s studio, where I first learned about underpaintings, and about the artist’s life, including his decision to pursue a career in teaching at the age of 51. The four of us — Slade, my in-laws, and I — spent the better part of an hour talking about these and a range of other topics, including the strange symbiosis that exists between Philadelphia and Maine. At some point, my in-laws must have gone back into town and had the artist sign the calendar for me, which they presented to me the following Christmas. Gems, all of them. So I let myself take a few minutes to look through the calendar that included this painting for October that speaks to me loudly any time of year.
And then, quite unexpectedly, a piece of notebook paper fell onto the wobbly table top below me. I recognized the handwriting immediately. The rounded letters written in black ball point stood out and coaxed their neighbors to bend slightly, too. Capital letters mixed with lower case throughout this note that was written by one of the secretaries in a different program, whom I had gotten to know when I first arrived at my university. She was a sharer of stories, a sister, a grandmother, ready with a warm embrace, an infectious smile and sweet voice that belied her wicked wit. Walking past and seeing her in the doorway was always a highlight, an excuse to exchange laughter, momentary and agenda-free respites from what can feel like intractable mania. The last time I saw her, the familiar sturdy gait with which she would amble slowly and deliberately through the school halls, had been stripped away in a manner that only life-stripping diseases can do. Her carefully coifed salt and pepper hair was replaced by a closely cropped head of small curls. Thick glasses were a permanent fixture on her face, and they allowed me to recognize her when I attended the farewell luncheon being given in her honor last summer. She was surrounded by people and chatter and food and others who, like me, also hadn’t known the full extent of her illness.
In the letter, she references a conversation in which we discussed her grandson, about whom she was concerned and spoke of often. Hers is a letter of thanks, and she concludes her thoughts in this way:
“I (we, my [dept] coworkers) respect you so much. … Don’t let anything or anyone change you — It’s important to your students and to those with whom you interact. Respectfully, I—–“
Oh, but dear I… you changed me. With your beauty, your grace, your persistence, and caring. And I am ever thankful for that.
And now, back to the big dig.
When Y asked me to reflect on what elements or affordances characterized this past year as simply sublime, I was momentarily rendered speechless. Everything, I wanted to say – that is to say, nothing: no appointments on my calendar for days at a time, no mandatory meetings to plan more meetings (in between which no actual work is accomplished), long blissful stretches of time of silence and solitude (and not only when I was sitting Vipassana), no guilt when spending full days free from agenda with my spouse, friends, or family. A full sense of nothing. No thing.
The answer, it turns out, was far less philosophical. I relished my limited wardrobe, namely a predictable uniform of jeans in some form and a tee shirt whose sleeve length was determined by the weather. It was the denim, however, that was the linchpin, the signifier of time spent away from judging eyes, the reassurance of moving through the hours and on the streets on one’s own terms. Of course, in an academic environment, jeans have become commonplace (thank goodness!) and form the core of my work wardrobe, as well. Ah, but the freedom from a work wardrobe
My penchant for dwelling often in the comfort of denim showed when, last week while walking upwards of seven or eight miles between domicile and commercial enterprises, several times in fact, I was made suddenly aware of a sad reality. The year’s ocean crossings and multi-terrain, varied climate travels had taken their toll on these woven denim relics and had rendered all of my remaining jeans utterly worn (through). And then the other shoe dropped: I needed to shop for new jeans.
It has been years since I stepped foot into a store with the express purpose of purchasing a pair of jeans. I had taken a page out of my father’s book of “find something that fits and buy multiples” – and so I had done just that. Only now, the jeans stockpile was no more. (To be absolutely truthful, there are still two or three pairs tucked away on a shelf somewhere – or now, in a suitcase waiting to be unpacked having traveled back from Philadelphia to New York – that will do in a pinch, but they are one critical assessment short of the donation bag. When will I learn that trends are not for me?)
Syllabus planning, book writing, email responses, phone calls – they all took a back seat one afternoon as I steeled myself for the task at hand. The Center City crowds seemed overwhelming, so used to the quiet of my neighborhood had I become that constant chatter blended with car horns and diesel engines struck a cacophonous chord in my ear. Simply to escape the noise, I opened the glass door of the first store ready with anticipation to be enveloped in the icy cool blast of air conditioning, although it was less of an embrace than a full frontal attack by the air duct register hung above the main entrance.
My air assault was followed by a cloyingly sweet greeting uttered by a salesgirl with an oddly brusque looking face; she took on a completely different appearance when she smiled. This was not to be the place, I determined quite quickly and, with a perfunctory tour around the store, I skirted the glare of the first salesgirl and scurried out without so much as bothering to feel the fabric or decipher the code for the different jeans leg openings.
Similar scenes played out in three more stores, although I did manage to take a few candidates into the dressing room, only to be completely confounded by a) what passes for denim and b) the sheer lack of understanding on the part of jeansmakers about the meanings of words like rise and flare and straight as they pertain to the garment of their livelihood. In short, no luck.
I didn’t intend to purchase jeans from The Gap, nor do I intend this as an advertisement for the brand or corporation. But my curiosity and historical familiarity pushed me to pull open the excessively tall doors that are initially resistant and then, without warning and with encouragement of the spring hinges, augment the motion by swinging widely. It’s a wonder more people aren’t injured for just entering the store.
What happened next was swift, free from overthinking, easy. I tried on six pairs of jeans in a range of waist sizes, lengths and styles. One worked well, the same style name I remember purchasing nearly a decade earlier, but the length was a bit long. So I gathered up all of my things – because by this point in the afternoon on a day full of meetings, gym, and errands, I had acquired an additional few bags of various shapes and sizes that, in addition to my laptop bag, were hanging off of me – and avoided the wider abyss of the store by making a beeline for the jeans display and within a few seconds located the right leg length in the right style and size. Oh, if only that was the end…
I repeated this search and rescue operation two more times and in doing so came upon a strange fact: jeans of the same style, rinse, and size may have different material composition based on inseam. Length!
With the matter finally resolved, and with my new purchase tucked away between my sneakers and old gym clothes, I checked my watch on my left hand as my right found the metal handle to push open the large glass door. 97 minutes. That was the time it took to find a new pair of jeans and to be reminded that despite the industrial revolution and all the technical revelations in manufacturing, individual hands – thousands of them – are never far from the journey taken by the material goods in our everyday lives.
And then I remembered a short film produced by a young man — a teenager — who I met at an academic conference. For his poetic take on hands, take 2:21 minutes and watch this (part of the DigMe video collection):
Sydney Pollack’s documentary about architect Frank Gehry — the one who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the crazy mind behind LA’s Disney Concert Hall, and other distinct structures that demand passers-by pay attention — includes extensive looks at the design process, one that for Gehry now involves assistants who translate his verbal mutterings or napkin scribbles into models. During one scene, as Pollack sits alongside and observes while also videotaping, Gehry and his assistant are cutting and taping pieces of metallic silver cardboard to create a physical facsimile of a building design in progress. Gehry is unhappy with one side and suggests that it needs to become crankier. The solution: corrugation. The clip below is just over three minutes long, and right at the 3:00 mark, as Gehry sees the problem wall come alive anew, he exclaims: “That is so stupid looking, it’s great!” and a few seconds after that, he throws his arms in the air and exclaims “wheee!”
A recent addition to my personal ever-expanding hopper of examples of “adults embracing glee” comes from the Monty Python crew. The sketch is titled “Ministry of SIlly Walks” — it is absurd, some may say overly childish, and yet, with precision commentary about, among other things, the peculiarities of bureaucracy. (I originally wrote that: bureaucrazy…)
Perhaps to be happy can require, at times, a bit of silly — or, as these researchers suggest, a forced smile.
The focus of the post was inspired by a recent one on Kate’s blog about the happiness of nothing (in which she, too, draws from the wisdom of the mighty Python), who was responding to a prompt on Side View’s Weekend Theme: Things that make me happy.
An editorial note: The title for this post was originally going to be “…but every end is a beginning,” which WordPress informed me was already the name of a previous post made almost exactly one year ago, near the beginning of my sabbatical. Thus, the revised title, also from Emerson’s essay “Circles,” follows shortly thereafter the original; the titular coincidence merely reinforces the prescience his words hold.
Jottings made on a subway ride from uptown to midtown.
The hot car. A clear sign that my senses are dulled. Sparsely populated, people fanning themselves, riders sitting still and trying to not move unless necessary — I would have noticed in an earlier time. But I’m not too bothered. My body temperature starts to cool soon enough. And I am in a fairly good mood after a day spent in the company of friends and colleagues with whom laughter is the first language. In between was a meeting with new colleagues that left me feeling as if I could imagine returning, not just to New York and not merely “to campus” but to the actual institution, to the minutia that signifies the elements of the institutional apparatus that I most loathe: arbitrary and seemingly intractable procedures and policies that people — some people — adhere to seemingly without thinking, without bothering to ask why and assessing their relevance in service of some warped sense of justice or equity or efficacy.
Transfer at 96th Street to the express 2 train. Cool car — as it should be, my internal monologue asserts, chiding me for thinking anything else would be acceptable. Still, I am thankful the underground heat is not saturated with the humidity of the days preceding. My thoughts quickly return to the events of the day, to conversation that meandered from art exhibitions about dust to video art and essays, from home improvement projects to projects of self-improvement, that included the sharing of texts of… well let’s just say texts of all sorts… Suffice it to say, my earlier post about a place and its people rang true again and again today.
I think, too, of this time of transition “back” — about the moments of anxiety that arise each time I realize August is looking me in the face, those moments that I was desperately trying to wish into abeyance. The anxiety is the manifestation of a fear that has been building since that day in late June, while walking back to my hotel from an effecting visit to the Anne Frank Museum, when the image of a way of living untethered to a university first surfaced. That is to say I could imagine a life in which the elements that too often are relegated to the margins, in order to accommodate the aforementioned minutia that swells and multiples with little provocation, are brought into the center — fear, of course, is conjured out of anticipation that the minutiae will overpower all else.
So I set my subconscious loose to formulate a plan to form a writerly commune somewhere in the south of France… or in the north of France… or perhaps in that little town in the middle of France… Well, you get the picture — while the plan simmers and coalesces, the mission at hand will be the practice of mindfulness — not back or forward, but here, now. Tolstoy’s story, “Three Questions,” introduces the idea in this way:
It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid, and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.
And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.
In short, Tolstoy, via the king and his quest through the land over which he rules, wonders:
- What is the right time for every action?
- Who are the most necessary people? (Another interpretation: Who are the most important people?)
- What is the most important thing to do?
The answers, we might venture, are, respectively: Now, you, this.
And for the panda lovers, here is a frame from John Muth’s picture book take on Tolstoy’s philosophical offering:
… and few more words from near the end of “Circles”
“The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.”
The phenomenon that is HONY has inspired numerous photographic spinoffs — among them, (the occasionally quirky captions of) Humans of Paris, (the close-up portraits of) Souls of San Francisco, (the “still finding its groove”) Humans of London, and several more — even as its own viewer base continues to skyrocket, from fewer than two thousand “likes” on facebook when I first learned of it, to near 177K at last count. A few months before stumbling onto this project, the act of taking photos had started to wiggle its way back into my daily practice after slowly leaving some years back, save for the photography and video work that is central to certain parts of my work. But living photographically involves more than fulfilling the impetus to document or capture. The work of photographers that slips into my subconscious, taking root in often inexplicable ways, reflects a way of being that is fueled by an incurable fervor for story, taking in the world as it is, as it could be, as it might be, as it was, as it wasn’t, as it isn’t… and creating artworks as offerings of humanity back to humans. These are not the musings of someone who has “studied” photography, who has majored/minored/or otherwise degreed in arts, art history, fine arts, or the like. No, these are just the the observations of someone who is continually moved by the work in the world that photographs can sometimes do, sublimating cliched boundaries of allegiance and affiliation in the process.
Take for example the following few photographs, some that come from photographers I’ve long loved, others from recent discoveries — all that fall within a loose categorization of “street photographer.”
1. From a recently published collection of photographs by Gordon Parks in the NYTimes Lens section that depicts everyday life in during the 1950s and 60s in the segregated South. His quotidian narrative is enchanting, educative, and occasionally startling. Sparks, who died in 2006, would have turned 100 this year; the same would have been true of my paternal grandfather who only lived until the age of sixty-four, the same age that my father is now. The world has a strange way of grabbing our attention, much like the intersection of color, beauty, and disbelief that collide in Parks’ photos.
2. Photographs of children also enchant me. Specifically photographs from another time that seem to recognize the hidden world of children (long before they become overexposed due to the ubiquity of image making means) continue to weave stories long after first glance. Consider these four images together:
The first two photographs were made by Diane Arbus and the second two by Roy DeCarava. In both of their bodies of photographic work, I find a resonance toward empathy for “people who have been sidelined in one way or another.”* They hold a sympathetic eye toward the people about whose lives they produce stories of images. It may be appropriate to note at this point that while I came to Arbus somewhat recently or late, depending on your point of view, Roy DeCarava has been a treasured name to me for nearly two decades, which coincidentally is how long I have known my spouse, the very one who gifted me with The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a collaboration between DeCarava and Langston Hughes that features the former’s photographs of life and people in Harlem accompanied by the latter’s poetic prose.
Until then — that is, before I held in my hand the square-shaped book that would become the text to which I would return time and time again to remember, to learn, to practice seeing with curiosity and with humility — I had taken pictures with the enthusiasm of a child who was allowed to ride her bike around the block unsupervised. The experience remained new with each venture, limited by my own abilities, and threatened to take me to unfamiliar places; and because of this, my eagerness only grew. I had made good use of the dented and damaged Leica that was said to belong to my uncle but that had taken up permanent residence, at first, in the hallway closest of my childhood home, and then, mysteriously, onto the desk in my bedroom. This hunk of leather casing and mechanical functionality is what I used in my first photography course, before upgrading (or was it a lateral move?) to a Minolta x700, the starter of all starter SLRs. All the while, as I tinkered with buttons and learned to process film, I realize now in retrospect that I wasn’t practicing seeing. I still wasn’t looking. The best photographs I took during those relatively early years of my practice seemed to happen by accident. I never mastered composition or framing, and paid little attention to exposure and depth of field — although, of the latter I took copious notes. But the accidental shots were taken, well, quite by accident: the light catching a friend’s hair in a way that just missed making her look like a well lit and haloed angel; shadows and reflections of a lake underneath a bridge in Boston Common; and portrait of a woman named Janie who was a member of the administrative staff in the organization where I worked right after graduating from college. All were shot in black and white, with knowing subjects, and without hesitation.
3. There are the photographic creations that can seem otherworldly, palpable in their ethereality, haunting even. Some of my favorites come from photographer and educator Mary Ann Reilly who brings the affordances of digital media tool together with photographic images in an effort to say something else, something other than what the image or the enhancements could say on their own. Two examples:
4. And another before sharing a few snaps that fulfill the promise of the title of this post. I have mentioned here before the writings of the author Teju Cole — both his book, Open City, and his twitter stream where he composes small fates about news items, largely about the lives of those who have been somehow wounded, occasionally fatally, in another place, in another time. (He explains it better here and here.) Some time last fall, I think, Cole started a second twitter feed from where his photographically inclined self speaks, shares, probes and renders true Thoreau’s assertion that “The world is but canvas to our imaginations.” His travels take him to far flung corners of this earth, yet with his image makers, both digital and analog, he produces visual artifacts that demand second, third, and fourth viewings. An early favorite of mine was of a young woman sitting at a counter facing the floor to ceiling windows; what I first saw, however, was a ball gown, a regal air, the beauty of solitude. The light and shadows crafted reality out of illusion, and what I recall of it now are hues of red and black and, for some reason, the presence of blue. The actual image seems to no longer be online on the flickr page, so you’ll have to trust me and hope that the image appears in an upcoming exhibit somewhere… Meanwhile, I’ll share another favorite that needs no explanation:
And a link to a recent snap from Brazil that, like several others in a collection he has labeled “Spectral Tendency,” a set (in flickr terms) that seems to be creating a full bodied experience with each photo. There is much that coaxes your gaze further into the image, inviting you to lean in, breathe deeply, see the relations between the on screen players in new ways. Another image in the same set was taken just steps from the Tate Modern, and as with the boys from Brazil, the spectrum is wide as well as deep; the layers are playfully endless. These photographs, as with some of those above and the work of others who take to the proverbial pavement (I’m thinking here of the work of Zun Lee and the roving Underground NY Public Library photographer, for instance), are artifacts redolent of photo making that strives to banish the fourth wall; in these images, photography feels less like something “to look at” and more so as both portal and realm through and into which enters, temporarily shedding the immediate present for the possible present. Photographers — those who live photographically — have been, have become, and continue to be my strongest teachers, for they deal in the currency of seeing.
For the past few weeks, with each upload of a new batch of photos to my laptop — itself a version of Christmas morning that foretells of gifts and secret wonders that will soon be revealed — my eyes keep traveling back to the India folder that contains the photos I took during my trip to Kerala earlier this year. They feel different, somehow apart from the other thousands I’ve taken in the past twelve months. Sure, the landscape is unlike that of my other travels, but so is the perspective, the angles, the subject matter. The people. In some of the villages we visited, I was not just photographing daily life, but I became a part of the story. In taking photos, I was also implicitly agreeing to share the photos with the people who were photographed. My last Kerala travelogue will be posted soon, and yes, it will be six months late — so for that reason, I share these photos here, unvarnished, without commentary or further context, save to say that in these images, I feel as if I finally started to see. Each photo suggests a plurality of stories, that is true. But it is the stories that brought them into existence that play on the tiny screen in my mind’s eye when I look at them.
*Sebald once said in an interview: “I like to listen to people who have been sidelined in one way or another,” referring to the cone of silence following World War 2. He seemed to understand at an embodied level that stories were lurking everywhere, some that needed little prodding and others that were more reticent to emerge. What has been profoundly humbling has been consistent encounters with the lives of people — in their homes, their places of worship and work, sharing the streets and modes of transportation, sharing a meal. Sebald, too, placed himself in these spaces, listening as he did with both heart and ear; that’s not meant to over sentimentalize the man, but rather to call attention to his studied practice of attending, particular to wounds that may have been heavily scarred over, barely noticeable in some cases, utterly raw in others. He was, as Cole has described, a poet of the disregarded.
It’s not the heat that hits me first, it’s the promise of a different temperature that the pilot announces a short while before our descent into the Philadelphia airport. His voice is nasal in tone — but not nearly as filled with ennui as the flight attendant who had first caught my attention, mere hours ago, when he had begun his ritual of food/beverage/and dutyfree-related announcements by describing the MOW-hee-TOES and COZ-muh-PALL-it-unz that were available for purchase — a tone that signals, perhaps, a lifetime practicing non-alarm. How does one talk with steadiness, not necessarily aprosodic speech but certainly lacking the expected inflections of everyday speech, I wonder as I allow this uninvited intrusion into my viewing of the “Hunger Games” (yes, I finally watched it…). He lets the passengers know that the local time was blah-blah-blah, we’ll be arriving in blah-blah gate, and passengers with connections should blah-blah-blah, and the weather on the ground is 38 degrees celcius, or 99 degrees fahrenheit.
I very nearly fall out of my seat. I left this and am returning to this. It was not an altogether unexpected number — ninety-nine (because, while I had converted many of my ways of being while living in London, I was still loyal to the non-metric system and Fahrenheit temperature scale) — but having been immersed for so long in a cool, British summer, I could not even avail myself of a recent memory of such heat in preparation to re-enter the American northeast summer climes. And, as we know, mental preparation is key for transitions of this magnitude. Is it a wonder that immigrants to foreign climates go just a little bit mad when trying to settle into new environs. One hardly knows where to begin when everything is so unfamiliar. But that was not entirely my case, so I patiently wait for the airplane entertainment system to resume so I can put this latest bit of information out of my mind once again.
Plane journeys rarely bother me, and for the most part this transatlantic flight is no exception. I am asleep well before takeoff, have two empty seats next to me that allows me to use a second tray table on which to place drinks while I use my own for more important matters like completing the in-flight magazine crossword or reading more of Cutting for Stone (in preparation, I should add, for a book club conversation with some sharp reading critics and even though the book was my choice, and even though I am fully with the plight of Sister Mary and wondering about Matron’s past, I allow my eyelids to close, not out of boredom but out of sheer exhaustion: once again, on the night before an important appointment — a presentation, meeting that I have organized, or travel with a definitive departure time — I have barely slept, too consumed was I with making sure the preparations for leaving had been carried out effectively). And like this, in between nodding off, drinking ample amounts of water, viewing two and half movies — and no, I did not expect to enjoy “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” as much as I did, although I suspect it had less to do with the story, which was ok, and much more to do with the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy who I find to be utterly charming and disarming in their portrayals of whatever character whose life they have animated on screen — reading bits of C4S (not my abbreviation, but I like it so I’m stealing it; thanks, sis), and pausing to appreciate the laughter of my row mate three seats over, who must have been watching a steady stream of comedic options while also reading The Economist (although perhaps he was laughing at the absurdity of the current state of world economics?), I arrive at the final fifteen minutes of the flight journey when suddenly a young woman dressed in a faded, Florida orange colored tee shirt designed somewhat like football jersey with the number 89 embroidered in white on the front, is being ushered into my row. My row. I have my crossword and pen in hand because the entertainment system has been switched off, and if anyone knows how the second half of “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” ends, please don’t tell me because I am now committed to learning the narrative conclusion of this sweet tale, as well; the girl in the orange top and long shorts, clutching a bag and wearing a grey backpack to match the dismal expression on her face, asks if I would mind sliding over so that she could sit on the aisle. I happily slide, put down the armrest that I had moved up earlier to allow myself the illusion of greater luxury, and fasten my seatbelt. To say my new row companion is flustered would be grossly underselling the lifetime of anxiety, nervousness, and fear that she appeared to be carrying on every inch of her, even after she set her large backpack on the ground in front of us, which the flight attendant promptly put in one of the overhead bins with space.
I kept it at my feet before, she starts to argue, worrying that she will miss her connecting flight to Chicago. The flight attendant is undeterred and so up goes the pack in the compartment just across from the young woman. My eyes remain fixed as ever on the crossword. What is a six letter word for morsel? Without encouragement or provocation (from me, that is) she begins: they told me when we boarded that I would make my connection. I’ve taken so many flights, this is the only one that’s ever been delayed. Ever, I desperately want to ask her with a half cocked eyebrow, but something stops me and this time I half-nod in an attempt to gesture toward communication without actually having to say anything. She continues: I should’ve gotten the woman’s name at Heathrow, but they probably know her. I have less than fifteen minutes to get through immigration, get and re-check my bags, and make it to the next flight. At this point, she is facing me, making no mistake that I am her intended and targeted audience. I am not immune to suffering so I turn to her and ask how far she must walk. Just to the next gate, she says, but quickly reminds me of the steps that precede this deceptively simple task: immigration and re-checking. The young woman continues to narrate her frustration, peppered with idle threat-like declarations aimed alternatively toward the airline and its workers, assertions about her past travels with countless other airlines, appall at being told that no agent would walk her to the front of the immigration line so that she could make her connection nor would the airline hold the plane for her. I interject this time, wondering aloud, less to her specifically and rather in a manner more akin to the out loud musings of someone who is prone to doing so, what logistics would be involved to personally escort each person with a connecting flight to the head of the immigration line. She pauses, but only for a second before educating me that while others may have connections, theirs are likely a few hours from the time we will land rather than mere minutes away. I am eager to bring this tedious exchange to a close as I find myself growing increasingly frustrated with the entitlement and superiority oozing from this young woman’s every word. Perhaps your flight to Chicago will be delayed, I say optimistically and also somewhat ruefully as I note how often the windy city has delayed my connections. I try to avoid it like the — but I’ve never been delayed in Chicago, she declares with authority. And I always into and out of there on time. Always. The word carries weight. At least four times and every time my flight has been on time, she says with affirmation. Oh, I think to myself, young in age, young in flying experience. And then it becomes clear. Someone is coming to meet her Chicago. “They” — never he or she, only they, as if she has adopted Sweden’s recent penchant for gender neutral pronouns — are driving four hours to pick her up, they are driving through rush hour traffic, they aren’t going to wait; parking in O’Hare is so expensive; they’re driving fours there and then back, to Iowa.
Oh, she’s afraid. Telling her that it’s not her fault, that “they” can’t be mad at her, and that perhaps she can buy “them” a nice dinner to ease the pain of waiting does nothing to assuage her anxiety. They — this time, the airlines — better pay for a private driver to drive me home because I know they (who is picking her up) are just going to go home.
She is afraid, of disappointing, of the wrath that she fears awaits her, of having to answer to someone when the events of the day are out of her control. And so she seeks bodies on which to place blame. First the agent in Heathrow who guaranteed her connection would not be missed. Next, the attendant who noted plainly that no special considerations would be made for bringing her to the front of the immigration line nor, in his opinion based on years of experience on the job, would they hold the plane for her, even though Norwegian Airlines did so when she very nearly missed one of her European connections earlier this month. And finally, in the immigration line where she ends up behind me even though she was the first one to fly out of the plane when the cabin door was opened, she continues to narrate out loud the injustices placed upon her by airlines and all the rest, and in the very midst of attempting to hasten this stage of the process, the girl in the orange tee shirt pauses in front of a woman wearing a badge, who is directing the passengers pouring out from the longer, snaking, single line to form short lines in front of the individual immigration officers’ booths, to ask for her name. The girl from Iowa in the orange tee shirt wants to write down this woman’s name, this woman who did not allow her to cut in line so that she could make her connection to Chicago. Curiously, the agent on the ground turns her name badge around in a manner that seems to obscure her name. She gestures toward a point far off to her right and tells the girl in orange from Iowa who is trying to make her flight to Chicago that she can go talk to her superviser if she wants, but that she is trying to do her job, and by the way everyone is trying to make a connection.
I pick a line and lose track of the frightened and frustrated girl in orange from Iowa flying to Chicago. I don’t know it then, but home is still a long time away — agents leave their booths, return mysteriously a short time later, switching lines only proves futile so I stay put in the second line after heat-infused-hubris gets the better of me once, bags make their way to one of three carousels making it seem as if baggage handlers were having their fun with us — so I stand quietly, occasionally check my phone that I have finally just switched back on after a two month hiatus, and think about the girl. And then about the impulse to blame, to judge, to evaluate all in the pursuit of a bastardized notion of justice; how much of it, I wonder, fully self-aware of my own tendencies to fall victim to these actions, is based upon fear? If this young woman did indeed miss her flight, she could have easily been rebooked for a later flight, but the travel was not the issue. The pick-up ride, the “they” who was driving four hours, was the root of her anxiety. So then, while standing and waiting with my fellow passengers for the plane’s worth of luggage to materialize on the accordion-like metal panels of the baggage carousel conveyer belt, my mind wanders and wonders about the girl some more. Was this a pleasure trip taken against the will of the mysterious “they”? Did she leave on bad terms? Is she returning to bad terms? Is she arriving or returning? Is she a “half empty” sort? Or “half empty” by circumstance, under protest; that, were one small thing to be different in her life, she might be a “half full” type?
Finally, suitcase, carry-on, and computer bag in hand, I prepare to brave the real heat outside. I can handle this, I think when the steam finally reaches the most inner capillaries and saturates me hot air inside and out. The taxi driver puts my suitcase in the trunk, shuts my door, settles into the left hand side driver’s seat and starts to leave the airport. To my left, a flight of the same airlines that brought me here is taking off and I wish a quiet good luck to the girl from Iowa. I hope she can handle it.
A dry sponge has a limit to how much liquid it can hold, after which point it oozes out more than it soaks up thus rendering it, effectively, no longer worthy of its name: sponge. That moment, just before the hand instinctively forms a fist around the porous thing (is it even an object?) to relieve it of its liquid burden, is the apex for a sponge, the height of its reason for being. For it to have a place of use once again within and amidst everyday activity — for it to have purpose rather than exist as an impending chore — the sponge must be relieved of its contents, even just a little bit will do the trick. Last Monday night I reached this point of saturation wherein the extreme degree of porosity with which I started out on this journey just a year earlier — at which point, I felt literally squeezed dry having purged myself of every last word and interesting idea, and thus desperate to see and be taken in by the world again — was no longer discernable. The moment came when I found myself standing in a churchyard cemetery in Framingham Earl in front of the modest, neatly engraved headstone of W.G. Sebald.
There aren’t many people I know who could comprehend why this piece of the journey was vital. I’m not even sure I fully understand why I found my way there, why not completing this leg of what has been an extended pilgrimage of and for the dead was not an option. Nearly breathless after sprinting the last hundred or so yards of the mile-long stretch of gravely, dusty pavement that connected Loddon Road with the smaller country road on which St. Andrews sits, I stood still, somewhat bewildered and fully spent. That is to say that breath and words had escaped my person simultaneously, leaving me effectively paralyzed. How did I get there?
… is what I wondered, first to myself and then with a friend via short bursts of tweet-like direct messages through Twitter. Too quickly did I fall, willingly, into a life without obligations — or at least somewhat free from the daily urgencies that demand attention and care. It was early into this walk back into living that I thought about Sebald, particularly fitting as I had just completed an intense reading study of his works. How did he walk, I started to wonder. Aimlessly? With a small pack? A satchel like the titular character in Austerlitz? Was his pace brisk or studied? How far could he move without being overcome by the weight of what he saw and the scenes he passed? Did he enter into every church that crossed his path? Take notice of every stranger? Make a note of each plastic wrapped bale of hay or abandoned carriage along the side of the road? What did he make of things? What must the rest of us, all too willing to overlook or not see at all, actively notice with sharper focus?
A man, whose words caused me to sit up straight the very first time I read them, whose life had come to an end much too soon and not too far from where I was standing, had been placed at rest in the earth beneath my feet. To say the feeling was strange would be an inadequate description at best. So I will turn to Sebald, himself, who so aptly notes in The Emigrants: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.” He offers witness to devastating events in history by bringing forward their everydayness, their connective tissue that dissolves the gap of time between then and now, placing us — the readers, the audience — squarely in the midst of the action. It is in this way that a walk transformed into a narrated history of post-industrial devastation and isolation, or how portraits of eccentric characters and their seemingly ordinary concerns — polishing boots, a caretaker preparing meals, parents wishing their children well before a long journey — are in fact tightly woven layers of narrative that hold in them some of the cruelest moments in human history. With patience, Sebald braids together words into prose that unfolds in the form of stories that linger just long enough to be grasped, albeit temporarily, before dissipating once again and thus allowing the unfathomable nature of the lives of others to recede into our near distant memories. We are reminded by him, through his writing, about the passing of time: “The most disconcerting part of it, perhaps, is that life nonetheless always goes on, somehow or other.”
And so it was in Norwich, as it was in Kalpathi and Perinkulam, and Amsterdam and London, Nicosia and Paris — with each step a reminder of lives lived, too soon forgotten. And while ’tis true that I set out to seek a rebirth, a re-beginning, a chance to see anew, to reset some things, it was a walk across lands and back into and out of other times that I was taking. A pilgrimage in the footsteps of the dead, returning to the places of significance for those whose lives have left deep imprints in mine. This has been a walk around the world that has been animated with the stories of the once-alive.
That time has come. The flat’s been hoovered, the fridge cleaned out, last of the laundry finished, and bags zippered and ready for transport and I have settled into the sofa once more to compose a final London note. The hour is quite late but slumber is far from my mind, which is filled instead with a fondness for this town, this piece of land designated as nation for what it has allowed me to consider about home(s), belonging, and what we do between beginnings and endings. What stands to greet me upon my return is unimaginable heat and excruciating humidity, and a reminder that while we may carry the lessons with us, actual pilgrimages must come to an end. For the moment, anyway, this sojourner still has earthly commitments that need tending. Now, being fully saturated with stories, with experience, with words and images, the itch to craft and compose artifacts to put back in the world is slowly returning. And so, the slow squeeze begins…