I’d rather be here…

Institutional malarkey be damned… memories of Venice soothe my nerves. How long before a plane takes me far from here?

Venice, curved building
Venice, Cannaregio, Alps in the distance
Venice, Vegetable market
Venice, Canal

Kerala travelogue 3 – Part 1: The Cyprus Edition

(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.]

eve

The hour is late, although I suspect a few more will pass before I can surrender to sweet slumber — and even that will feel like too little, as the alarm is set to twinkle well before what seems like a humane wake up time. L and I were talking this weekend about the ever alluring “else” — that is, what else we’d be doing if not this. The “else” game is intoxicating and one that cannot be kept at bay when the hours that spill out in front of you are unfettered for days on end. But now, the “else” game feels like a punishment. Still, we played. There were other “wheres” that came with ease, but as for “what”… despite a year-plus spent pondering this very question, I came up empty. Initially. I realize that within mere hours of returning to campus, I had been transported back into the rhythms of others — ones that were tuned to manic frequencies, with every beat seemingly consequential, each transition or hiccup leading only closer to an impenetrable wall of agitation.

Tonight, on the eve of the new school year, I settle once again into the realization that is strangely comforting: this is exactly what I would be doing. Almost. I would eliminate all of the administrative duties, the negotiating of adult petulance (for which I have little patience and even less sympathy), and abolish most of the meetings that are currently mandated, if not by force then certainly by social pressure.

But the bulk of this gig I would want to continue — some of the teaching and especially the research that affords time spent with young people which yields stories about which I do want to continue composing artifacts and narratives.

But if I had my druthers I would do less and limit the extent to which I had to manage projects and be instead steeped in the doing — doing the work rather than talking about the work (which can also be the work, itself… sometimes). (However, with great power… or so the saying goes…)

My delusions are not of grandeur but rather of increased simplicity.

Perhaps in a society that swallows whole ideas like the four-hour work week and obsesses over talent as a commodity more desirable than consistency or effort, doing less and simplicity are counterintuitive. Doing less is swiftly translated into decreased revenue and fewer luxuries, not only for the self but also for those to whom and for whom you may be responsible or answerable.

Immediately my mind drifts to the documentary series “Alone in the Wilderness” that chronicles the experiences of Dick Proenneke while he is living in the Alaskan outdoors. Over the course of countless pledge drives on PBS (the public broadcasting service in the US), I have watched the entire series at least a few times, and each time I catch a glimpse, I stop — mid-sentence, mid-phone call, while drying dishes — and listen to his tales of not merely surviving, but living off of the land. Proenneke films and narrates while also living the experiences about which he is crafting stories. This video excerpt below, that comes from the second video in the series, documents Proenneke’s return to the cabin he had built a year earlier. Simply put, he takes his leave of the civilization with which he was familiar to pursue nature’s beckoning calls. For extended periods of time. Away from the everyday. To something else.

Proenneke also sets out on a new life after the age of 50, like Duncan E. Slade’s turn to art education. (I’m making a mental note to pay extra attention when my 50th birthday rolls around for whatever life changes come my way.) His narration is unhurried, keeping in harmony with his patient practice of living in the wilderness.

Unhurried. But purposeful. I think I remember writing something about this earlier this year.

So I’ll seek out unhurried but purposeful ways to be responsive as new students share their anxieties or as colleagues threaten to spiral deep into their own frustrations. I suspect a visit or two to Dick’s cabin couldn’t hurt, either.

Happy new year!

the possibility of what can be seen

If photography is about seeing and showing, then could photo editing have something to do with the possibility of showing and what is seen? I’m not talking about the endless scandals of hazardous photoshopping in which a model’s ribs, hips, or appendages have been eliminated for the sake of preserving some strange ideal of “beauty” or, quite simply, to market and thus sell things. No, I’m referring to the art of photo editing in which a digital image taken of the world is made to look somehow celestial, even as it maintains a representation of this reality.

In short, I have been captivated recently by the work of Leanne Cole, a photographer whose blog is full of such artful photographic treatments. What first brought me to this blog escapes me, but I know that I keep revisiting it and at first I didn’t quite understand what I was seeing — only that I was full of questions about how and what. Only later did it become clear that what I was seeing were artistic renderings of photographs.

Here’s an image of Leanne‘s that I absolutely love, in large part because of its Hopper-inspired quality:

Counter

The red face of the counter corner is, of course intriguing, but with each look — and there have been many — the street, the back of the road sign, the lampposts and trees become increasingly interesting. And the wooden floor, weathered and reminiscent of the surface being meticulously attended to by Caillebotte’s scrapers: (image courtesy of Musee d’Orsay website)

The Floor Scrapers (Gustave Caillebotte)

But Leanne Cole does not keep her secrets secret. She has shared some of the photoshop techniques she uses, including posts that offer excellent tutorials full information about sliders, layers, masks, and more. I haven’t tried it yet, but, inspired by her technique of seeing and then seeing again I present a respectfully doctored image of a stone staircase near the beach in Cromer (manipulated using the basic exposure, contrast, and saturation functionality allowed by iPhoto).

Cromer Beach Stairs (edited)
Cromer Beach Stairs (original photo)

How to explain the strange fact that the first image is what I recall seeing when I first decided to take this photo? Has a camera yet been invented to do what the eye seems to do effortlessly? That is, processing color and shape and shadow and scope, all while triggering memories, intertextual connections, and adjusting for light exposure.

Hung on the walls of the cafe from where I write are paintings, several of them by the same painter, most of which depict people in naturalistic settings — next to foliage or biological life of some sort. The painter’s brush and palette of paints here work in the same way that the mouse and video editing software does in the images above. An entity exists in the world, and instruments are used to render a version of it — never can a painting or photograph or film or even exact replica be the thing, itself. So, if all representations are, at most, approximations of the truth, why not dabble in the practice of creating entirely new worlds with their own truths? That is, to conceive of photographs as paintings, as not merely captured or clicked, but composed long after the shot is taken.

What kind of photography is this? In a world of instagram filters and readymade schemes anyone can apply to enhance a photo, what is this practice of carefully manipulating an image to create an altogether different artifact? Are we all just auto-tuning our pictures?

In John Berger’s words, “Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation.” In asking questions of photographs, therefore, we are implicitly questioning the photographer who is implicated in every image, in every choice made to document or not, and in doing so, to “bear witness.”

What does one do with a manipulated photograph? How do we read an image that has been stripped of color? Whose shadows have been augmented or minimized? Haven’t photographers always dabbled in photo making? In deciding how long to let an image burn onto the photo paper or how quickly to take it out of the developing liquids — no image is free from mediation, yet the chase for some unreal sense of purity persists (though not among photographers, I suspect).

For the inspiration, for the provocation, and for the beautiful work, my thanks to Leanne.

“Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” — Emerson

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.

i miss…

the brollies and the wellies,
greens, parks, squares, and closes,
rain mist so fine you won’t need that facial appointment,
(nor the aforementioned brolly),
because the sun will be shining soon enough.
just wait. (and we/they do.)

a ten-minute, guilt-free visit to the tate, and the modern,
saying hello giacometti and a nod to pollock,
eyes filling with the remnants of architectural epochs
while strolling across the bridges,
blackfriars, millennium, waterloo, london, and the rest.

walking. twenty minutes in either direction offers entry
into different worlds. budding gardeners, ballerinas, and
mysterious, magical storytellers in twickenham; just down
the road from the gardens, kew and park, richmond;
celebratory ubiquity of horticultural penchants —
in the yard, in a palace, ’round the corner, on a bus.
playgrounds, swings, slides, toy soldiers,
midday snacks, secret passages, midday pints and half pints,
before or after long walks
hither, elsewhere, and everywhere in between.
walking, with abandon.

trains that transport passengers to another time,
the new built into standing memories of the old,
making “now” a mere accident of colliding timescales.
slipping into and out of high streets, creaky corners,
one step towards colonized delicacies,
another in the direction of heights of fusion.

busy, car-free streets,
irony as a default position,
questions out loud, causing discomfort or otherwise,
free to be you and me
(not the usual politics of identity;
a whole new set to ponder — refreshing, frustrating)

relative anonymity,
geographical obfuscation,
quiet,
the unknown.

(the denouement has begun.)

Plucked and re-seeded

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.

Avoidance. Classic.

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.

hastily sketched notes on the train to Cromer

The two-carriage train pulls way from the station with slow revving of the engines. Like an extended cough, one that makes no dent in the conversation between a father and his boys in which the former is laying out the plan for the trip he has planned for all of them to the north coast that includes looking at the beach but not walking along the water and some fish and chips for dinner at Cromer.

Another diesel-shaped chug escapes from the machinery apparatus that makes the engine move.

A different boy emerges in the aisle and snaps a photo of the group with a disposable camera. I didn’t think they made those anymore.

The father takes a sip of something hot from the metal top of the stainless steel, insulated flask — likely tea or coffee he had prepared before setting out for the two-day journey with his boys. A few other young men, some also fathers, seem to be a part of this group, and they nod along while slightly smirking as they listen to the older man who is now starting to spin tales of his previous visits to the coast.

Another roar of the engine, a tired roar that could only barely be called a roar. The chugging is palpable, vibrating the seat cushions as if to publicly declare the effort the pistons and gears are putting in to get me and the other passengers — numbering no more than 50 by my quick estimation — to station stops between Norwich and Sheringham.

The heaving train starts to huff now, like an over enthusiastic tennis player who cares not about distracting the player on the other side of the net. We are moving steadily north. Lush greens of the landscape on either side peppered with crops of varying colors. Wheat, it seems, as well as something that grows tall like well-behaved grass.

Along the side of the railway tracks, plants lie with their roots turned up to the world, neatly arranged in haphazard patterns. This was clearly the work of human hand and not the hand of nature, as was the case across other parts of England earlier this year.

Salhouse. A bare stop, nothing fancy but still with a cream-colored metal bench on which the weary or lazy might wait for the approaching and departing trains.

And more wheat fields. Or is it dried grass? The lemon-tan color is a drastic departure from the brightly green colored fields filling the windows on the other side of the train. Spinach? This trip is clearly telling me I know next to nothing of plants, edible or otherwise, while they are still in the ground, unpicked, still growing, that is.

The sight of power lines has become surprisingly unsurprising.

I don’t know where to look when the trees and greenery closely hug the train path, offering no vistas. Only suffocating embrace.

People live here. And here. And over there.

The dad has not stopped talking. He is entertaining his boys, sharing with them the gems of his everyday wisdom, offering advice about model cars, upkeep of one’s bike, the best way to cook a trout while camping (hint: the frying pan is key).

A mosquito falls on the table in front of me, tumbling more like — as if escaping from the web of an invisible spider. The average life span of a mosquito is ____ days. This one’s demise might have come too soon at my hand, not intended in malice but rather in an attempt to save its soul.

Now dad is debating the benefits of cooking with butta versus maargereen. Are parents programmed to always assume a pedagogic posture? Is it hard wired in humans such that the arrival of progeny transforms the most measured among us into babbling, incessant narrators of experience, information, wisdom, advice, meta-analysis? Reaching in and bringing out our inner entertainer?

Shoots of some recently planted crops are visible on this only partly cloudy day. Or is it partly sunny?

The train conductor stops in front of my seat, a credit card machine hanging from her should on a think, shiny, black, braided strap. My ticket sticks to the table and I make three attempts before successfully lifting it off the table. In one swift movement, she accepts the apology I offer for my clumsiness, punches my ticket, and hands it back to me.

Pea shoots? Perhaps.

What does the in between landscape look like elsewhere? When there isn’t tree cover or greenery for miles?

A rusted out carriage behind tree cover, like out of an episode of Little House on the Prairie, the wooden wheels are large to hold up the short, tunnel-like canister on top that was once the color of Union Jack blue and that now look mottled from the weathered iron.

This train on the Bittern Line pauses in North Walsham to pick up and drop off passengers. As many get on as get off. We break even. The dad sings a few bars of a song that causes one of his boys to slap his hand over his own face. One of the boys looks back at me. And looks away, shyly.

A wispy cloud that looks stained with newspaper ink edges closer to another that is the embodiment of sea foam, more robust in holding its shape.

The dad provides information, offers encouragement, asks questions, shares memories, makes observations, shows emotions, confesses childhood transgressions as the red and brown rooftops of clustered neighborhoods pass us by.

The roadside spinach is starting to look good.

Gunton. A bit fancier than the other stations, with a proper brick station house on one side and a covered bench structure on the other.

We are approaching the water. I can feel it.

I can also read a map.

Wire affixed to wooden posts along the tracks mark the boundaries of the farmlands. Keeping us out or the owners in, I’m not sure.

The blinking blue light tells me two things: that my iPad has connected with some satellite somewhere to determine our location, as we are inching ever closer to the North Sea. And second, that I have betrayed my mission to seek out Lowestoft. For now.

Suddenly along the line of shrubbery, amidst greenery no one looks after but that makes plain its existence with avid growth, there appears a patch of Foxglove. Lavender, the color of ice cream I once ate in a garden café – the flavor was lavender basil, the silky texture formed perfect scoop-shaped globes in the earthenware dish — with flecks of white inside. Or perhaps it’s not Foxglove. I’m no whiz at flowers, neev-uh.

Ferns are the silent kings of the roadside forests.

We pass under the arch of a beautifully crafted, brick bridge. The image of bricklaying hands flashes in my mind.

“I see the sea!” “I see the sea!” “I see the sea!” “I see the sea!”

and now, in technicolor

views from the end of june

from paris to amsterdam to utrecht to sheffield (via london), via trains, planes, boats, and cars, the end of june has been a bit of an academic whirlwind. the soft landing of the hospitality of friends and no-longer-strangers was especially welcoming — more on that (and peak walks and pub lunches) to come.

amsterdam
amsterdam

amsterdam

amsterdam

amsterdam

utrecht
utrecht

utrecht

utrecht

utrecht

sheffield
sheffield (derbyshire)

when it rains…

… sometimes it pours and sometimes things look shiny and new. this week, in the city of light both were true and in the glimpses of sun and dryness amidst the mist, the landscape of sound came truly alive.

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i spent this visit — and if you’re keeping track, that’s three times to paris, which sounds obnoxious only until you realize that it’s a mere 2.25 hour train ride from london and there are people who do this every weekend! and as some of you know, in my real life i’m used to a 2-hour journey to and from homes, so… — staying in the 13th arrondisement and while my walks took me to both familiar and foreign corners, i enjoyed getting to know this neighborly section of paris in a new way, learning its contours of art on walls and through window arrangements.

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WallArt

the 13th is a bit removed from the center of town, not that there is an exact center per se, so perhaps it is more apt to describe the region around maison blanche in the words of a colleague who has lived there for several years: an area alive with immigrant communities, particularly from east asian countries, where the thai, laotion, and japanese restaurants are owned and operated by people from those respective countries. hues of skin were darker here, with predictable tropes of valid citizenship and belonging thick in the air as strangers and emigrants seek to be recognized as citizens. to emphasize the varying forms of exoticizing and ostracizing behaviors he has witnessed, my colleague told me a story about a conversation with a teacher while picking up his children from school. he is american and in this first exchange with his eldest child’s new teacher he was praised for raising his children as bilinguals. he said he later laughed because many of the parents all around him were also raising their children as bilinguals, however their “other” language — the primary language being french, of course — was something other than english (or american, as the rest of the world refers to our ways of talking). as an american he is both fetishized and kept at a distance. whereas he is expat, his neighbors are immigrants. will either ever really belong in a land where its inhabitants, like in many other parts of the world, are caught up in ongoing battles over who has the real right to be and live and own pieces of the earth?

this conversation weighed on my mind as i mind as i wandered, first south and then into pockets of winding streets near the bastille and then the next day deeper into the 13th where at one point i found myself standing on the corner of hope and providence — that is, at the intersection of rue de l’esperance and rue de la providence.

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and on these walks i encountered moments and signs that reaffirmed for me the familiar adage that our differences are what we have in common; they are what unite us.

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as usual, i walked with no plan and found my way into the jardin du palais royal, listened to church bells ring the eglise saint-sulpice — and once lured in, i and many others who had taken refuge from the rain were treated to a magnificent organ concert. i think the organist was showing off, and rightfully so! — and stood with the audience that had spontaneously gathered around a man playing a piano in the middle of one of the bridges that connects ile de la cite with ile st louis.

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i had not yet made it to shakespeare and company on this visit, so after the evening concert i wandered there on my last night in paris and listened as lydia davis read some of her very short stories for which she is apparently famous. i was not aware of this author before that evening, but apparently she lives in new york and is somehow affiliated with nyu — all this, according to the young woman who ardently and somewhat nervously read the introduction she had prepared in honor of the author.

LydiaDavisReading

listening and seeing and looking, i kept returning to the same thought over and over again. it was a riff on what has continued to intrigue me, and at times anger me, about the ways in which humans treat humans. each of us is bizarre in our own way; what makes one person’s strangeness any better or worse than another’s? someone tweeted a comment the other day about an average new yorker meeting as many people in one week as a medieval person would have met in a lifetime. i have no idea whether that is true or not, but i have to believe, even in the smallest town that time informs geography; that we must know that our occupation of a plot of land is temporary. there were others who came before and others who will be here after we’re no longer living in our house, this neighborhood, a particular state or country. could it be that time is just a maypole standing still and watching as we dance around until our ribbons come to an end?

during the rainy sunday, i sat for a while in cafe de flore, where baldwin is said to have written a draft of go tell it on the mountain. the symphony of voices faded into the background as i read studiously from my ipad and wondered how recently the red leather seats might have been reupholstered and whether this was the arrangement of tables, chairs, and waitstaff during the time of baldwin’s visits. i had left my copy of j.m. coetzee’s disgrace in the hotel room so i started reading pigeon english by stephen kelman, which i had learned of while sitting in the audience of someone’s conference presentation earlier this month. (i didn’t take a photo this time, so you’ll have to mash the next two together, and foreground the backgrounded cafe de flore, to imagine the rainy cafe scene i’m describing to you.)

2 Cafes -- de Flore and Deux Magots

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i hope my ribbon has a lot of length left to it, if only to appreciate much more of the fantastic ways that others have decided to spend moments of their time — that is to say, by taking in and engaging with their words and music and other forms of art. and if by some chance i’m able to add some of my own to the mix, then how sweet that would be. maybe those hippie-dippy, flower children really had something…

biblioteca

Save for a few odd words I remember from 7th grade, when we had to learn both Spanish and French for one marking period each on the days when we didn’t have “gym” — what physical education classes are called t/here in the States — I don’t really speak Spanish. But I’ve always loved the sound of the word “biblioteca.” Biblioteca. That it means “library” is all the more reason to truly relish this term. Jorge Luis Borges said of this cultural institution, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” I think I have, too. So when I came across this link on my twitter feed to an article about libraries in the margins, my interest was piqued.

Marginalia: Little Libraries in the Urban Margins

In it, the author Shannon Mattern considers the new roles that libraries play alongside the functions they have always served:

“[Libraries] exist not simply to store and provide access to information. Advocates argue that libraries continue to serve crucial civic and social functions, and their tenacious faith is reinforced by a flurry of recent street-level library activity. The last few years have seen the emergence of myriad mini, pop-up, guerilla and ad-hoc libraries, which are part of the phenomenon that Mimi Zeiger, in herInterventionist’s Toolkit series for this journal, calls “provisional, opportunistic, ubiquitous, and odd tactics in guerilla and DIY practice and urbanism” — to which I might add, librarianship.”

What counts, I wondered as I read the words and looked at the images, as a library? The photographic and narrative accounts are stunning and thought provoking, and raise another question: where do libraries exist? Where should they exist; and, by extension, when do they come into and out existence? (That last question is more mine than the article author’s.) Mattern goes on to explore, through interviews with librarians of various types of libraries (that is, little and otherwise) the political context in which the survival of the public library as we’ve always known it is situated. There is tension, she notes, between the little, marginal libraries — like the ones depicted in the fantastic images below — and the efforts of larger library institutions who strive to provide a wider range of resources and support.

“Yet regardless of their aims — whether aesthetic or political or tactical or civic — these projects can’t help but raise big and important questions regarding the protocols of access, the ideals of knowledge and rules of intellectual property, the health of public institutions, the viability of public space and public life, and the definitions of civic values. Some little libraries, self-consciously precious, might seem mainly intended to charm; but ultimately they underscore the great and unbridgeable difference between a phone booth fitted out with books and cushions and potted plants, on the one hand, and on the other, a fully functional and sustainable public library system, with the infrastructure and expertise to serve the diverse publics of a great nation.”

And what about the libraries that we carry with us? This practice is becoming, in one way, easier as our texts are more readily available in digital (read: portable) formats that can be compactly transported via any number of digital devices. But, as I have learned the hard way having spent several weeks and months away from my extended library, you can never take it all when you go…somewhere. There are, of course, drawbacks to this forced distance from one’s personal library. Just the color of a familiar spine can spark an idea, catalyze a connection that might not have existed before; a library can provide the warmth of the best security blanket — the security that comes from visual access to moments in time throughout one’s reading history.

Writing in a similar vein, Liam Callanan has written an article for the Wall Street Journal in which he describes the art of travel (through Paris, no less) as done by the book. In fact, the article is titled, “Going by the (Children’s) Book” and in it Callanan describes the joy that he and his family experienced upon (re)discovering Paris through the lenses of children’s books. They have transported a portion of their library, specifically books in which Paris features prominently, with them on vacation. Implicit throughout his recollection of walking in search of the Madeleine’s residence or the treasures at the center of The Red Balloon is the sense of discovery that can come from ongoing and new forms of engagement with familiar texts — those texts that are like-kin to one person, that are then shared with another.

Libraries, it seems, are ever-lasting. And while their shape, form, location, and even materiality may change, the presence of little corners of the universe dedicated to the intermingling of one person’s printed/designed/crafted words with another’s seems destined to exist. (Yes, I do imagine that when the lights go out in libraries, as well as in book stores, there is a great deal of chatter to be heard amongst the opening and closing of hard and soft covers.)

So, I amend an earlier statement I made about just wanting to pack a carry-on whenever I prepare to leave home for an extended period of time; I’ll need enough source material for a library, thank you very much. What the source material is and what it contains, well that is a post for another time and very likely a different blog.

preparing to leave and return again

Just six weeks ago I returned to the States and this weekend, as I gathered my things once again in preparation to leave another time, the cab ride home from the airport kept playing in my mind. I had brought my large, green suitcase back with me — along with a promise to only bring back a quarter of the things (thankfully, summer clothing is considerably less bulky than winter items) — and was being driven by a man who was considerably more jovial than I had the energy to fully engage. So I sat quietly, politely answering a few of his questions in the hopes that the rest of the short drive home would be experienced in relative quiet. Even as his questions ceased, the sound of chatter in my mind grew stronger. The solitude of not merely living alone in a small space, but doing so in a country where relative anonymity gave me added license to be still and listen quietly, had fully given way to the all-consuming noisiness this new-familiar city. The visual landscape was jarring, unfamiliar in contrast with the streets I had come to think of as home, in my habit of forming and founding homes quickly. The top of the recently built Comcast building jutted out of the earth like overgrown USB memory stick. Walls of steel and glass and metal filled my field of vision that grown accustomed, in the previous few months, to more muted and less shiny structures and surfaces. Easing back into the rhythms and routines of this home were not hard, somewhat to my dismay. As a result, my noticing suffered. Even with camera often in tow, the urgencies that awaited me took precedence. This isn’t a complaint — merely observation and perhaps a form of gratitude for the chance to gain distance, and in so doing gain time in a profound way; time to attend to the overlooked, time to take notice, time for the to “would love to do” lists.

Thankfully, that time is waiting just around the corner, or across the ocean to be precise. My return to London is imminent and this stretch is structured a bit differently than the last, in large part because it actually has a structure! And there are other significant differences including the fact that the lovely A has relocated to London-town for a long chunk of time. (I seem to be unsuccessful in my attempts thus far in convincing A to begin some sort of semi-public chronicle the adventures to come… perhaps this will provide much needed guilt-fueled inspiration…) And while I am a creature who fully embraces solitude in all of its quiet splendor, communing with old friends in new locales can also be joyful and enriching. This visit, it seems, will be an embarrassment of friendly riches as my travels will be peppered with the occasional rendez-vous with comrades from places near and far.

Leavings, of course, also evoke a heightened awareness of what is being left behind, however temporarily, and this time is no different. As one of my siblings is planning a move to this city in the coming months, this awareness also serves a dual purpose — to notice and also to share resources, city secrets. Among them, the gloriously understated Miel Patisserie on 17th Street — for macarons, coffee or tea, and hands down the best grilled vegetable sandwich I have ever eaten (and I have eaten or tried to consume quiet a few). A gleeful smile from the shopkeeper on a recent walk home reminded me of the treasures to be found inside Spirit of the Artist (SOTA) — it’s the source of most of my wedding gifts and a living testament to the local arts. And in recent weeks, unintentional right turns have brought me face to face with a string of restaurants on Front Street (that were new to me) and Tartes, a pink box of a shop that sells some fantastic cakes, pies, and yes, tarts. (see below for the Google Maps image — see, a pink box!)

Tartes, Arch St.

All of this leaving and returning only serves to deepen my curiosity about our understandings of home — about how complicated a notion that is, and perhaps why there are so many sayings about it: it’s where your heart is; where you hang your hat; different than a house; a place to find peace; a place simultaneously built of love and dreams and where love and dreams are built; a feeling; a destination; a site of challenge as well as joy; impermanent; ever-lasting.

When I was quite young, my parents and grandmother instilled in me that when one turns to walk out the door, even if it is just to go to mailbox to retrieve the day’s post, the appropriate utterance was not “good-bye” or any of its variants. No, it was, translated from Tamil, “I’ll go and come back.” It is perhaps why even now, as an adult, I am drawn to such sentiments in any language: A bientot; See you soon; and in my best Terminator impression, “I’ll be back.” (Aw, the Terminator was such a softie.) But perhaps there’s also a trace of seeking and finding homes and that to be at home in one place does not deny the sense of home in another place or in another’s company. That we are always leaving and returning home.

in other words, stop sitting so much

As if in a mystically orchestrated cosmic response to the Slate article on (lack of) walking, The Atlantic Monthly has published a short piece describing an Australian study that reaffirms the findings of many other studies that have come before it: sitting too much is bad for you. Or, as the title of the article states plainly: Confirmed: He Who Sits the Most Dies the Soonest.

A few choice excerpts from the piece:

It is now well accepted that too much sitting is unhealthy. Studies in the last few years have found that death risks rise when people watch spend more leisure time in front of a computer screen or TV or simply sit too much.

In other words, people still need to exercise, but it’s also important to spend less time sitting.

And of the new study of more than 200,000 Australians the author notes:

Its most striking finding was that people who sat more than 11 hours a day had a 40% higher risk of dying in the next three years than people who sat less than four hours a day.

Sure, the critically skeptical reader might argue, as some of the commenters have, that the protocol was flawed, that there was not enough consideration made for the small amounts of walking one might within one’s own home, and so on. But perhaps this is missing the larger point. If we find ourselves sitting consistently for more than eleven hours a day, should we be worried? All of these studies are premised in large part on the implicit notion that all humans have a desire to live as long as possible. That, too, may not necessarily be true for everyone.

(warning: unintentional riff on mortality starts here)

During my travels last summer, I watched an Australian television program about a tribe in South America whose members lived a life largely removed from what most of us are familiar with as an image of society. Their average lifespan was little more than three decades, not because of health-related issues or poor nutrition or another factor that might be one of the usual suspects that are the inhibitors of longevity. One man who was interviewed said that he had prepared a poisonous drink for himself that he was ready to consume as soon as he received confirmation that his beloved had died; she was ill at the time. This story, at least within the limited scope of this short documentary, was not atypical. The abbreviated and edited narratives of tribal members brought the phrase “life worth living” into new focus.*

Far from being a morose glimpse into the lives of a relatively cloistered community, the narration and video documentation underscored the purposefulness of life, the intentionality of attending to what one is compelled to do, whether by necessity or desire. Implicit, and occasionally stated outright, was a message of living collectively with one another; wherein life was seen as delicately interwoven with the lives of others. This was not a go-it-alone adventure. One wonders, in this frame, how much living one can do from the vantage point of one’s couch. If we are to sit then perhaps we might seek out a bench in a locale where, before one sits, one must journey at least a little.

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* This was supposed to be a quick recap of an article on sitting, thus my apologies for yet another mini-treatise on mortality. Having time on your hands to think in solitude has an unexpected set of effects on one’s musings; I have a renewed appreciation for and an embodied understanding of Walden than ever before.

To conference

Does one attend a conference? Participate in a conference? Learn from or at a conference? Go to a conference? With increasing frequency, these gatherings of people who presumably share some elements of inquiry or interest in and about the social, cultural, and/or natural world resemble X Factor with a dose of that “guess the suitcase with the amounts of money” show (hosted by Howie Mandel and animated by his, ahem, assistants), rather than an exchange of ideas or posing of questions. Instead, the interactions are too saturated with worries about showing up at a session because of the social repercussions of not being seen, performing a “knowing” self, and an embodied eschewing of any trace of fallibility. (We’ve all gotten so cool.)

When people are preparing to make the journey, sometimes necessitating multiple modes of transportation, the use of passports, foreign currency exchange, with what expectations do they walk out of their doors? And are conferences places where we can still be inspired? Or is there such a primacy placed upon performance and preening, that we have lost our way as learners?

This is not the whole story, of course. The ethos of conferring, communing, and reconnecting with friends and colleagues still does take place. And it is the shared sense of returning to intellectual homes while gathering the metaphorical timber with which to build new additions to this author’s house (nod here to the very excellent essay by Amelie Rorty titled, “The Ethics of reading”) that continues to be my experience at these shindigs — due in large part to intense time spent in the company of people who are ever my teachers, inspirations, laugh partners, and with whom there is great joy in conversation. And, as the pic below inspired me to consider, it gives me pause to remember how, even as time moves on and the topography of our lives is ever-changing, our memories can be made alive again in new ways; and as we hold the past with us, in what forms and with what postures/materials/practices of responsiveness is, at least in part, up to us.