A week when Sebald found me

One evening in December T showed me a manuscript copy of A place in the country, a collection of Sebald’s essays that was originally published in German nearly two decades ago. This spring, the English translation was published (and available May 2nd) and I can finally get my hands on Sebald’s take on Rousseau and others whom, it is said repeatedly, he brings “lovingly to life.”

This past week, articles in the key of Sebald found their way again and again into my virtual inboxes — either via email or twitter feed.

A link to the first — Out of the Shadows — was emailed to me by a friend and is written by Uwe Schütte, a former student of Sebald’s. One line in particular stood out to me and suggests to me something about why the sensibility of this writer strikes such a chord with me.

“I never liked doing things systematically,” Sebald declared in the 1990s. “Not even my PhD research was done systematically. It was always done in a random, haphazard fashion. And the more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way, ie, in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field.”

I was alerted to a second piece by a friend via twitter who I turned onto Sebald’s works and whose father, it turns out, had been an avid reader of the author in the years before his death: WG Sebald: Reveries of a solitary walker. Four writers (James Wood, Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Robert Macfarlane) reflect on the significance of Sebald for them and their work. Macfarlane gets it just right when he says:

Sebald’s seemingly passive prose was in fact – to borrow Marianne Moore’s memorable phrase – “diction galvanised against inertia”

At the bottom of this piece was a link to a third piece — the pièce de résistance, as it turned out — penned by Sebald, himself. And for just the smallest of split seconds the truth seemed like it might be a beautifully crafted nightmare… The Guardian had printed an excerpt from Sebald’s newly published collection and called the piece: A Place in the Country by WG Sebald – extract. And from the first words, I heard his voice* begin to spin a tale.

At the end of September 1965, having moved to the French-speaking part of Switzerland to continue my studies, a few days before the beginning of the semester I took a trip to the nearby Seeland, where, starting from Ins, I climbed up the so-called Schattenrain.

The long sentences stretch out before the reader like a guide, comforting without revealing too much truth at once. The information is meted out in metaphor, location, and imagery that provides necessary details while resisting the trap of over description. Sometimes called wandering, other times called poetic, and often evoking the feeling of traveling from one where to another, these sentences beckon, are invitational and unfolding, are an apt form of the pedagogical (if the reader will let them be so).

I thought immediately of another excerpt, this time from Emerson’s essay “Experience” in which he writes:

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. … We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem. There are always sunsets, and there is always genius; but only a few hours so serene that we can relish nature or criticism.

I often read Sebald as both composer and conductor, orchestrating the reading experience as a transportive one in which a casual glance at a lamp or a stone carving is an instance license to travel through time and space and to feel both local and global resonance at once. Nothing is unconnected everything, which is not to say that everything is necessary connected; rather, he seems to be writing with the purpose to move the reader to consider each words as tethered to a portal of further inquiry. He is an artful master of stringing beads, in the Emersonian sense, and describing while also delivering experience. And yet, Sebald strikes me as one who is free from the trappings of the current academic epidemic of writing as self aggrandizement; his purpose seems to be driven by a different purpose, while maintaining a palpable gentleness and humility.

In the excerpt reprinted by The Guardian, Sebald has written about Rousseau and his affection for the monastic Île St. Pierre in Switzerland. Here, he ponders the ways that returning to the island effected Rousseau’s writing:

Compared with these dark days, the Île Saint-Pierre must truly have appeared to Rousseau, when he arrived there on 9 September, as a paradise in miniature in which he might believe he could collect himself in a stillness, as he writes at the beginning of the “Fifth Walk”, interrupted only by the cry of the eagle, the song of an occasional bird, and the rushing of the mountain streams.

And now, I must order my copy of his volume, which I glimpsed in hard copy during a weekend sojourn with a friend — images, photographs, drawings jumped out from a very abbreviated flip-through. It promises to be as engaging and moving a read as the rest of Sebald’s oeuvre.

*To hear Sebald in his own voice, you can listen to him being interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on the radio program Bookworm, transmitted a few days before his death.

Finding the pockets

Beginnings and ends of semesters are frantic. Middles are not much better. But there are always pockets, and this week was full of the most magnificent pockets — even amidst the height of administrative banality.

Two pockets have to do with teaching, notes of an experience that were foreshadowed unexpectedly several weeks earlier in these tweets by author Teju Cole:teacherunknowing

…and the grace of unplanned and fated encounters.

And a third, an essay by Uwe Schütte about being a student of W. G. Sebald — see “Teaching by Example” that begins on p. 42 of the latest issue of Five Dials magazine. In it, he writes of being a student, learning, being taught, and also of fate. And, a beautiful embrace of the humility of teaching. For instance, of his time with Sebald, the German author who spent most of his adult life in the UK, Schütte writes:

What I learned from him was more than a thing or two about literature. I also learned what it means to be upright and detached in the bonfire of literary as well as academic vanities. And I learned the probably somewhat un-British lesson of speaking one’s mind in situations where it is necessary to do so.

Living by example, really.

shifting materiality of the “work week”

This week, teaching meant being a student — returning to joyfulness, to receiving without the expectation of giving (in the familiar and staid ways), to sharing vulnerabilities through silence and observation, to giving oneself over to the unexpected shapes or sounds that occurred, to being free from expectations of replicability — I return to some favorite words from a favorite theorist:

“Whereas a work has something irreplaceable and unique about it, a product can be reproduced exactly, and is in fact the result of repetitive acts and gestures.” — Henri Lefebvre

3 moments:

Learning printmaking (with paints and “stamps” or plates that we made) under the guidance of the incomparable O.

 

Delighting in the nervous giddiness of graduate students’ verbal and embodied articulations when given the invitation to make movies in class using Animoto.

 

Becoming transfixed by the vocal tenderness of Nina Simone.

 

 

Oh, and the bliss of sharing Sebald with someone for the first time (highlighting is mine) and thus being made, in the process, to revisit his poetry again, anew.

tragic flaw

We all have them, those personality traits or characteristics that we can’t shake no matter how many self-help books we read, conversations we have with friends, meditation retreats we attend… For some, the trait is being too closed off, putting up boundaries for fear of being disappointed or hurt or angered. For others, the opposite is true — those whose hearts leap out at the first sign of another human being, less than desperate for human contact, so willing to give kindness to friends and strangers alike. I have friends who fit both of these categories, and others for whom saying yes or no is near impossible; still others whose ability to listen to a story of yours was predicated upon the opportunity to top it somehow (Ok, I’m not friends with any of the latter any more.).

I used to think my tragic flaw was procrastination. Last minute is when I did (and still do) everything, it seems. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I working until the very possible moment, working on multiple projects at once — because, while saying “no” is not a problem for me, I can’t quite pass on something that feels right and true and what a friend calls “soul-giving” — and more often than not, working past whatever deadline has been determined. (It doesn’t help to have an overdeveloped sense of how made up everything is… thereby making deadlines seem even more arbitrary than they already are — yet all too real in their made up arbitrariness.) But in this past week, while mired in the aforementioned book deadlines and conference proposal deadlines and grant deadlines and teaching and meetings and email responses and the re-revving up of the reference letter requests and, and, and… an all too simple thought occurred to me. My tragic flaw isn’t waiting until the last minute, nor is it taking on too many projects (for which I only have myself and my very persuasive, overachieving friends to blame — you know who you are…) — no the problem is perplexingly simple: while I have learned to collaborate well, I have not learned to delegate.

Being a “boss” was never a role that appealed to me. It was a different spirit of a university that drew me in, initially. Anne Carson, in describing John Henry Newman’s view, notes that

This gives one great pause — the pursuit of a “useless” existence, and all the trappings that come with claiming such a pursuit, such as accusations of elitism and myopia in the face of a world so burdened in many corners with the mere struggle of survival. But “useless” in Carson and Newman’s estimation is not without purpose; it is without predetermined use.

In this spirit, collaboration exists not only with others, but with the words and ideas of others as well — the “getting lost with abandon” nature of falling into a text or conversation — the full embrace of how artist Tacita Dean describes the experience of reading Sebald:

“He takes you down these poetic cul-de-sacs. And you don’t care that you’re being led nowhere, of course, because you learn so much on the way.”

Is that what a university is for? To be a space where education can be lived, at least in corners and whispers (if not completely out loud), free from agenda or tethers? (I know, I know, I hear it… the preachy-bordering-on-whiny; bear with me.) In her essay, which is titled “The Idea of a University (after John Henry Newman),” Anne Carson continues her simultaneous explication and wondering about knowledge and universities, and because I like her way with words so much I will simply reproduce them here:

In its most beautiful sense, a university setting can be one that nurtures inquiry for the sake of inquiry — a place that embraces, for instance, an ethos of research that is inherently collaborative, collective, and participatory.

But ever at the ready are those elements of the “institutional apparatus” that do not merely maintain but also earnestly endorse the status quo — and it is surprising how much paperwork the status quo requires!

Instead of sitting for hours upon days with transcripts or field notes or revisiting video or in the company of curious adolescents (who never fail to remind us old adults about the true nature of humility), I find my days increasingly taken up instead with decisions about topics too mundane to describe even obliquely. These are the times that try muggles’ souls. Suffice it to say that if someone approached me with an offer to become a painter’s assistant in a seaside Maine town or work in a hat shop along the Seine, I would leave in an instant.

Delegation, it seems to me, requires a certain degree of detachment wherein the task supersedes the person as the valued object. Is there a way to delegate humanely? And do shipbuilders or surgeons even worry about such things? And is not this worry about delegation merely a manifestation of a “use”-driven agenda rearing its ugly head? What does it matter whether the way our department assesses students’ [insert learning objective here] matches or meets the expectations determined by [insert state agency here]? (Would it be terribly wrong if I filled in all of the boxes on all of the grids with a simple “Trust us, it’s good.”?) Wherein delegation so often, but not always, is in service of running a more efficient machine — Sebald’s own words come through here:


For a response — of the sort in which a weary traveler’s nod at a passing delivery boy is done so in recognition of the doing that must be done in the moment in which it is — I turn a final time to Carson’s essay:

An earlier draft of this post once ended with a worry about how one achieves the ability to delegate. But then I took a walk, sat in the company of people who soothe my soul, took another walk, and had yet more conversations with friends and texts (which have become like friends, themselves) and have arrived at the conclusion that I’m going to continue collaborating, learn to delegate in service of that collaboration, and that it may be quite all right to remain inadequate when it comes to complying with the status quo.

In fact, I’d think it rather tragic if this flaw were to, say, suddenly disapparate

earliest memory

“What is your earliest memory?” — these were the words embroidered onto a square pillow at the center of a photograph posted by Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade or vintage goods. More often than not, Etsy posts offer both commerce and food for thought and this time was no exception.

Austerlitz, the last book of W. G. Sebald, is a narrative dissection of human memory.

This is the opening line from an article by Jens Brockmeier titled “Austerlitz’s Memory” in which he explores the author’s narrative style that brings forth memory in unsettling ways. In AusterlitzSebald is once again explicating quotidian realities that undergo changes, both subtle and seismic, as Nazi rule upended, evacuated or extinguished the lives of German Jews who had, for so long, been citizens of the very landscapes in which they had become the focus of persecution. Of this now-quintessential Sebaldian prose, Brockmeier writes:

No doubt, Austerlitz demands a serious reader who follows attentively a meandering syntax without clear paragraph structure, a peculiar mixture of the narrative voices of the protagonist and the narrator, several layers of free indirect thought and discourse, and wide-ranging associative chains that encompass extensive accounts of very specific details that may or may not contribute to a labyrinthine plot, if we can call it a plot at all.

For these two German authors, writing at different times, one (Brockmeier) in response to the words of another (Sebald), himself consumed with the responsibility to communicate affectively and still somewhat dispassionately — but not without effecting the reader, nor, I suspect, himself — the narrativized life of a character whose history embodies events experienced by many others living and growing up in the time of World War 2 … these are great burdens to carry, let along to represent in story.

Sebald’s writing provokes a question in me about the significance of poetics and narrative — what if the subject matter is ugly? How does one write beautiful prose about horrific events? The filmmakers of the documentary War Dance — that follows the lives of children who are recruited to become soldiers in Uganda (as part of the L.R.A.), some of whom have barely reached adolescence — during a panel about beauty in film, wrestled with a similar question: “How do you make a beautiful film about a difficult and deeply upsetting topic?” And the film, both narratively and visually, is stunning.

We ought to remember, of course, that some of our memories are not even our own. They have been given to us, pre-wrapped and fully assembled; yet even these take on new veneers with each retelling. Brockmeier has studied Sebald’s writing, particularly the careful attention with which the latter crafts the nature of remembrance:

The prose of Austerlitz intermingles fact (or apparent fact), recollection (or apparent recollection), and fiction (or apparent fiction), making them indistinguishable. What interests me, however, is not the challenge this prose poses for the critical, narratological, and epistemological reflection of these borderlines, but something else: in blurring the borderlines be- tween the documentary and the fictional Sebald seems to come as close as possible to tracing the dynamics of remembering and forgetting.

Remembering is intimately tied to forgetting; I think often of dreams I can’t remember.

In her Nobel Lecture delivered in December of 1993, Toni Morrison reminded her audience of a simple and awesome truth, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

My earliest memory is tethered to storytelling — of listening to stories, of lining up my toys to listen to my stories, of constructing tales about my very origin. Another memory, that I am convinced is more mine than given to me by others, focuses on an exchange I had with my grandmother about purchasing $.25 root beer from the vending machine with neighborhood friends with whom I recall spending large blocks of time while my family and I lived in an apartment complex soon after immigrating to the States; this was less of a conversation than an ardent pitch to convince my older namesake that root beer was not, in fact, a version of beer.

These recollections are always of summertime, of heat, of feeling the hot concrete underneath my feet while walking barefoot along the swimming pool, of riding Hot Wheels and racing miniature cars, of being admonished for having friends of both genders, of learning to speak English but not being hampered by my limited language proficiency, of being four turning five.

But these are the linguistic memories, preserved in my mind as storied chunks; I’m not sure what the earliest sentient or embodied ones are, but I do know that I am soothed by the rhythm of a rocking chair or moving train.

I am rereading Sebald alongside Brockmeier now, in part as a way to return to an essay I began last summer and in part to hold on to the glimpses of my own humanity that I re-discovered in this past year; as a promise to do something, to do language justly, to live purposefully.

humans of kerala

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:

Green Trees

Climbing

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:

Steven Pinker in India, January 2012

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.

Saturation — sabbatical as pilgrimage, part 1

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…