A favorite quote from Wendell Berry…

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Sleepless Nights

Last night I had a sleepless night.  Not that unusual for me but when it happens I’m always surprised. It is as if my mind can’t stop moving though my body has.  Or at least though it tries to do so. I got my novel in yesterday and can’t seem to know what to do with all the energy packed up inside of me. As a friend once described it, I’m like an unemployed samuri, searching for my next mission.  I have no idea what to do with my sword.  And at the moment I can’t think of much that I want to say or even write.

Given that I was having a sleepless night I decided to read Elizabeth’s Hardwick’s thinly disguised novel by that same title.  Sleepless Nights.  But I must admit that reading it just made me more awake.  I realize that I was filled with longing.  It is a desire that it is hard to describe.  As I said to Larry this morning, I want to fall in love with life again.  Not that I’ve fallen out of it, but between the fact that our daughter’s dog tried to eat my parrot, my daughter had a bike accident, she had a reading, my back hurts, Larry is at the skin doctor, hoping for a clean bill of health, I can’t wash dishes, I’m feeling that all of this is just getting in the way of where it is I want to go.

And where is that?  Do I need to make a mileage run to Paris or LA to calm my wandering soul?  I think of the Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Questions of Travel.”  Do I need to go there to think of here?  I heard a line from Faulkner last night on, of all places, Criminal Minds (they do good quotes) and it was something like how we don’t have to surpass the past or the present.  We have to surpass ourselves.  We have to do better at every moment.

I wrote in my journal last night circa 2:30 a.m. that I am bored.  Bored of all the above.  The dogs, the dishwasher, the meals to prepare and clean up after, the shirts that need mending, the things that need to be thrown out but never are.  The pair of shoes I’ll never wear again.  I’m tired of casual hellos and breathless good-byes.  But if depression is anger turned inward, isn’t boredom just a form of depression?  Aren’t we turning something in instead of turning it out?

My therapist whom I’d been seeing on and off since 1980 died in July.  It was a heart-wrenching grief that grabbed me.  Who would always be at the other end of the phone call now?  Who would explain to me what boredom really meant?  Then I had a dream the other night.  I dreamt that somehow I was at a party on Park Avenue and Jane was there.  I was stunned and told her that I thought she’d died, but she told me she didn’t; she’d recovered.  “So why didn’t you call me?” I asked her.  “I was waiting for you to call me,” she replied.

I went back to reading Hardwick.  The following lines jumped out at me.  “The beginning of June was hot.  I took a journey and, of course, immediately, everything was new.  When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist.”  The phlox bloomed in its faded purples.  On the hillside, phallic pines.  foreigners under the arcades, in basket shops.  A steamy haze blurred the lines of the hills.  A dirty, exhausting sky.  Already the summer seemed to be passing away.  Soon the boats would be gathered in, ferried roped to the dock.”

What does she mean?  When you travel…you do not exist.  I feel as if I exist so much more when I travel.  As if I am perhaps alive for the first time.  But I think that what she is saying is different.   It think what she’s saying is similar to what Camus meant when
he said when we travel, we are the most afraid because we no longer have all that baggage with us – our job, our social standing, the people who prop us up on a daily basis – indeed we no longer have the props, that make us who are.

I think Hardwick is saying that once we are out in the big world, all those things that we think make us who we are no longer exist and we just become one with the whole roiling mass of life.  It can be terrifying.  And exhilarating.   Once Andre Malraux said words that the effect that it is not so astonishing that we have been thrown at random among the profusion of stars.  It is astonishing that we have been able to fashion images of ourselves sufficient to deny our nothings.

It seems to me that that is what we do in our daily lives with our friends and our dogs and our phones and take-out food and lovers and jobs.  We fashion images that enable us to deny our nothingness.  And it is only in travel – and perhaps I might add in sleepless nights – that we can come to the realization that we do not exist.   Not as these distinct entities we think that we are but rather as a particle, the petal of a flower, a drop of rain within the vastness and endless hours of it all.

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Spelunking Into Ourselves

Yesterday I went with a dear friend to see Audra McDonald in Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill and when this amazing show ended my friend turned to me with tears in her eyes.  She said she could not bear the tragedy of Billie Holiday’s life.  And I told her that I could not believe the wonder of her gift.  It was an odd moment.  My friend riddled with sadness and me with admiration and, I’m not going to lie, even a tinge of jealousy. 
Don’t we all – well at least those of us who are artists – in some way want to dig that deeply, but the fact is how many of us can?  To me it is a little like spelunking.  I’ll only go so far and then the darkness, the narrowness makes me stop.  Fear takes over.  This is something I’ve puzzled over for most of my adult life.  There are moments when I have dipped that far down and it has terrified me. 
I recall many years ago seeing Equus on Broadway.  It was one of the first plays I saw when I came to New York and there was one line and one moment that has never left me.  The play, for those who may not know it, is about a boy who blinds six horses with a railroad spike.  Clearly the boy is insane and most of the play takes place in the asylum where he has been sent along with the fleeting images of the horror he has committed.  There is a moment when the psychiatrist says (and forgive me I do not recall the context), “I can cure him of his madness but I will take away his passion.”
Isn’t that the tightrope all artists are walking?  Between our madness and our passion.  It is a delicate balance, to say the least.  While Flaubert told us to be ordinary in our lives so that we may be wild in our imaginations at times I find it difficult to reconcile the two. 
It brings us back to the age-old question.  Do artists have to suffer?  What was it about Billie Holiday, Piaf, and most recently Robin Williams that made them so destructive?  I suppose I’m one of those who always go back to the mother.  That somewhere in our core we are shattered.  
On the other hand Billie Holiday had a loving relationship with her mother and in the play it seems to be the revoking of her cabaret card after she pleaded guilty to a felony she did not commit.  But Billie was already hooked on heroin so again who is to say.  Is it the art that makes us dig deeper until we have perhaps dug our own graves.  Or is it the art that is our rescuer and enables us to climb out of the holes of despair, at least for a time, in which we have found ourselves.
I don’t know.  I have my thoughts, but I cannot know for sure.  Once a read about a Harvard study that showed that creative people remember their childhoods as unhappy, even if they were not.

I still see my friend, her eyes welling with tears over the tragedy of Billie’s life.  And I feel myself in the audience in awe of her gift, and I think that the truth lies somewhere in between in a place few of us can ever really understand. 

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Dreaming of San Sebastian and beyond…

Much to my dismay it is August in New York and I’m finding myself at home.  It seems that, for reasons I don’t understand, I have no place to go. This year I’ve been to Thailand, Key West, Hong Kong, Barcelona, Mexico, Chicago,  Macau, Red Hook and yet somehow it isn’t enough.  Why doesn’t someone invite me somewhere?  Why do I do better in motion?  I always have.  And yet the artist needs to settle down.

This painting is of San Sebastian.  I did it last night while watching the news.  I’m not sure why I needed to listen to all the miseries of the world as I painted this serene setting, but for whatever reason I did.  San Sebastian is the closest I have come to a home that isn’t my home.  And so I long for it.

So I’ve been reading Paul Nizan in French (something I haven’t done – reading in French that is – since grad school).  Aden-Arabie.  And dreaming of the far away, the beyond, the elsewhere, the not here, the exotic, the Far East, the imaginary cities, imaginary landscapes, places I remember, places that are no longer what they once seemed to be.  My head is full of nostaglia which I believe is a form of denial.  As if some place else is better than here.

Isn’t that what Elizabeth Bishop says in “Questions of Travel?”  One of my favorite poems that states the paradox of travel.  “Think of the long trip home.  Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”
Or as my mother said when she put me aboard the SS France for my junior year abroad, “You take yourself with you.”

My mother wasn’t the world’s wisest woman but that was a wise saying – one I carry with me wherever I go.

But for now I am going no where fast and so I am dreaming of other places.  Why can’t I relish these final dog days of summer?  Why do they call them that anyway?  I think I remember that it doesn’t really have to do with dogs.  Now I’m dreaming of Labor Day and the bustle of the fall, the busy-ness of it all, and soon I’ll be yearning for the days when I found myself with little else to do except dream and paint images of places where I no longer am.

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What Gets Left Behind…

A few years ago Larry and I were heading to Paris for a week’s vacation.  We hadn’t been away in a while and I was feeling rather stuck, in need of change.  It was to be a working vacation – as many of ours are. I’d packed my clothes in a wheelie that we’d carry on. But the important things were in my black backpack. My journal, my paints and pencil kit, the book I planned to read (IQ84, I believe), our camera, my meds, my makeup, and several manuscripts of stories and a novel I planned to work on in the cafes.  Just a week, but that was what the doctor ordered.

We loaded up the car and drove to Newark where we’d park in long term parking.  A van would pick us up there and take us to the terminal.  As we’re unloading the trunk, I’m counting the bags.  And it takes a few moments for it to sink in.  Because my backpack with all my work and my journal and writing tools isn’t in the car.  “Where’s my backpack?” I asked Larry, my voice trembling.

“I thought you took it?”

“I thought you were loading up the car.”

So began our sinking argument that would travel across the ocean with us.  He said he was packing the car; I thought he’d see my backpack and put it in.  We struggled for a solution.

Did we have time to go home? Could we order a car that would go to our house and our tenant could give it to the driver who would bring it to the airport?  All kinds of options were considered and discarded.  A car did pick up the backpack but got stuck in tunnel traffic.  And so I was going to be flying without any of the tools of my trade into a great unknown and in a very bad mood.

At Larry’s suggestion we went into a bookstore at Newark.  I bought something I thought I might read.  I don’t remember what it was at the time.  And then Larry pointed out that they did have small journals and I could buy some pens.  “It’s something,” he said.

To me it was nothing.  I wanted my journal.  The one I’d been working in.  The one that contained all my notes for the stories I would soon be writing.  Still I bought it, assuming all that would be in would be my venom.

We barely spoke on the flight.  Upon arriving we went to a pharmacy where I began the tedious job of reconstructing what medications I needed, what I could get over the counter, what my doctor in the US had to fax in a prescription for.  All this before we even got to our apartment.

At last we went to the apartment.  It was small but cozy right in the Marais.   We were exhausted and though normally we’d try and stay awake to fight the jet lag instead we tumbled into bed, waking just at dusk.  “Come on,” Larry said, urging me out of my anger and lethargy.  “let’s take a walk.”  As is often the case with my husband he had an ulterior motive. He recalled the store on the Boulevard San Michele that sold art supplies and ever so gently he steered me in that direction.

I had my little journal with me in my pocket, though I had yet to write a word.  Normally I write on the flight, but not on this one.  Before nightfall I found myself in the store where I bought a small watercolor kit, a few pens, a glue stick.  Then we wandered over to a cafe where we drank several glasses of wine.

The next day we woke to the sun shining.  I pulled my little collection of supplies together and off we went, heading no where in particular.  We bought some coffee and croissants and plunked ourselves down on a spot near the Seine.  Beside us an elderly couple were making out.  A child played with a ball.  An accordian player got on a loop of romantic Parisian songs.  It wasn’t long before a Japanese bride and groom appeared.  She wore a bright fuscia gown with black fishnet stockings and a black veil and he was in white sharkskin with an odd shaggy dog hairdo.  Their photographer crossed paths with three guys who told us that they were shooting a music video for Julien Clerc. A green balloon floated by.  Somehow the bride and groom ended up in the music video.  We wandered over to la Flore de Ile for ice cream.

It was late when we staggered back to our little apartment where we ate olives, grilled toast with goat cheese and smoked salmon and sipped Bordeaux.  Why we hadn’t killed one another I didn’t know but life was starting to feel good again.

Over the next week I did none of the things I’d planned.  I worked on none of the stories, or the novel.  I didn’t continue my journal.  Instead I started something new.  A small Paris Journal.  In time I came to love its size and compactness.  The pages absorbed color well.  And I could do what I truly love doing best. Sitting in cafes and bar, scribbling, drawing, painting.

I found myself oddly unencumbered.  No enormous tomes to read, no work staring me in the face.  It was as if leaving that heavy bag behind enabled me to travel light in so many ways and that was what the journey should have been about from the start.    

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Get Lost!

My husband and daughter are on a long-planned road trip.  They are going to run in the Nova Scotia marathon in Barrington, Nova Scotia.  They are driving up the coast to Maine, then on to New Brunswick, taking the bridge across to NS.  Yesterday late in the day I received this first text from my daughter on the road.  “We”ve already lost something.”  I envisioned credit cards, running shoes, a wheel off the car, something essential to their endeavor, but when I ask what she wrote back.  “The map flew out the window.”

I was fairly certain which map that was.  The carefully annotated one of New England that we’d had in the car for about ten years.  I’m not sure if we ever really used it, but I know that Larry who was somewhat apprehensive about this trip (long drive, grown-up daughter, 26 mile race, etc) told me he’d marked their route.  He had it all planned.  He’d showed me the four pages of mapquest directions (drive .05 miles, make sharp left on to the ramp, drive .03, etc).  Of course I probably would have done the same thing, but I teased him a bit. I told him then to just throw it away.  Just drive northeast, I said.

When I heard that it was the map that they lost, I was, of course, relieved, but also I felt oddly happy with this news.  I wrote back to Larry.  Here is the message of the map.  Get lost!
Getting lost in this day and age isn’t that easy to do.  In fact it requires some reverse skills.  No GPS for instance.  No smartphone Google maps. In Morocco in the Sahara we used a GPS for the first time.  It kept saying, “Wrong road; turn around” until I unplugged it.

Matt Gross who was once the frugal traveler for the New York Times and now has gone out on his own wrote a series for the Times about just this theme.  He began in Tangiers.  He traversed the city with no map, no guidebook, no guide.  Just following his nose.  Matt wrote about doing the two things that he loved most:  sitting in one place for a long time and doing nothing; ambling without destination.

There’s a word for this in French.  You call someone a “flanner.”  He walks without purpose or plan; he has no where specific to go and nothing to do.  You walk for the sake of walking.  And in the process you can get lost.

I’ve never been one for itineraries.  Once we were planning a trip with dear friends and as we were planning it it was becoming clearer and clearer that they were people who had plans and we weren’t. There’s a famous saying by the founder of the Dada movement – I think it was Tristan Tzara – who said that not having a plan is a plan.  I like that notion.  It is my plan not to have a plan.  In the end we do best traveling alone.

God’s curse to Adam was “You will be a restless wanderer.”  The words “travel” and “trip” in fact come from the term Latin term tripalium which was a form of Roman torture similar to impalement.  Nobody knows how tripalium morphed into travail in French and travel in English.  How impalement transformed itself into a Eurail pass.  One other interesting detail.  If you Google tripalium, trip advisor and trip planner come up right after it.  I’m not sure what this means.  Though I would say that for me any plan is a form of torture.

For me the pleasure is in the wandering.  It is in the moment when, as E.M. Forester wrote so beautiuflly in “Room With A View” you are visiting Florence without your Baedecker.  It is when you cancel the guide. Or when your map flies out the window.

I believe that for Larry and Kate the fun has just begun.  It is the difference between taking a trip and traveling.  And once you allow that the journey is the destination, and the map is not the real way, then there’s no telling what you’ll find.

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Old Woman in Hong Kong, leaning on a wall…

Larry says you’re a poem, not a story, but it is your story that draws me in.  We saw you when we arrived and now you are here again as if to mark our leaving.

You stand by the wall, peering down, morning after morning – watching the people as they come and go.  The parents, taking children to school, lovers who’ve just tumbled out of bed on their way to work, husbands and
wives, mother going to market, nannies with babies.  Dogs.

You watch them all as you stand at your wall – your caregiver at your side.  I imagine that you are standing on an egg crate, some kind of a box, just high enough for you to perch your elbow on this wall.

In this sea of high rises the wall that surrounds you stands out.  It is low, perhaps not six feet high, made of stone.  Behind it I can see houses, trees.  I like to think that it is a small village, a remnant of the past, and when you are gone it will be gone too.  If we come back in a year or more, I’m sure this enclosure in which you dwell will be torn down.  It cannot survive you.

I long to peek behind, to walk in the door that is always open on Mosque Road.  I peer in and can see the shabby huts that comprise the neighborhood where you dwell.  I am curious.  I want to know what goes on behind this wall.  I want to see where you live, to walk in your garden.  I want to step inside your trailer or your house.

Instead I watch you, watching.  If someone waves, you greet them.  Otherwise your eyes just follow the flow of the escalators, the sea of humanity that flows by as we sit across the way in a cafe, watching you watch them.

Life streams by and you are old.

What is your story?  Or is it a poem? Is the caregiver your daughter as I’d like to believe?  Or a loyal daughter-in-law?  Have you loved someone?  Is he gone?  When did he leave you?

My eyes are filled with tears as life passes you by.  You are my mother.  When I look back, you are already turning to leave.  

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Nostalgia has no place for the woman traveling alone.  Our motion is forward, whether by train or daydream.

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I’m not sure this post requires any explanation but perhaps a little context.  In Thailand our last morning with friends we went early in the morning to give offerings to the monks in exchange for their blessings.   Then a few hours later at the airport, leaving Bangkok, we were always blessed – by Ronald McDonald.  End of story.  

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Blackie: South Dakota, October 1986

Last week my daughter, Kate,and her boyfriend moved into a new apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  It’s only a few minutes away, near the water, in a place we love.  Her dad and I wanted to help them get settled so we began going through things around the house that we thought they might need or enjoy.  Also, full disclosure, we were happy to clean out the basement and her room a little as we move into this next phase of our lives.

Digging in the basement yesterday I found this photo that I shot almost 28 years ago.  It had hung in Kate’s room for years but after she graduated from college, moved to DC, and then to LA, it had stayed behind and finally was relegated to a stack of neglected framed artwork.  When I found it yesterday it was covered in dust, but I brushed it off and there it was once again.  Blackie.

It was in October, 1986  I had gone to South Dakota to visit my friend, Dan O’Brien, and stay for a while on his ranch.  I was almost six months pregnant and my life was, more or less, in shambles.  My partner of many years didn’t want to get married and I’d decided to go it alone.  I had no idea what this meant and I had no idea what lay ahead.  But it was beginning to occur to me that, unlike a sweater from Bloomingdales, I could not take this back. 

I had for most of my adult life avoided decisions, commitments.  I’d managed to be fairly undecisive in everything except my desire to be a writer.  That was my one constant.  My work.  And now I would have this child.   I assumed that this trip out to Dan’s would be one of my last journeys for a long time.  Maybe years.  I assumed that a child would alter my life so that it was no longer recognizable to me.  

I read once that cowbirds need to go where the buffalo roam.  Their entire food supply comes from the mites on the buffalo’s back.  And so they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds because cowbirds don’t have time to be parents.  For years I’d just assumed I was like the cowbird.  I had no time for parenthood.  And now here I was, very pregnant, and very alone.  

As I walked through the fields around Dan’s place, a loyal dog named Jake stayed with me and I’d decided that if Kate was a boy I’d name her Jake.  I was alone in the fields on this day except for Jake.  Dan was off somewhere, riding the range.  There was this moment when the sky was dark and a streak of golden sunlight came down.  

I got the image I wanted.  This wasn’t photoshopped or instagrammed.  It’s just the way the sky and the fields and Blackie looked at that moment.   It’s one of those moments I’ll never forget and I am so grateful that I was able to capture it on film.  This wasn’t my last journey, not by a long shot.  In fact when Kate was born in late January, the first thing I told the labor room nurse was that I used to be a travel writer.  “Make her sleep in different places,” was her advice to me.  “She’ll go anywhere.”

So I did.  I made Kate sleep in my bed, in baskets and even drawers, and sometimes her crib.  And the fact is she will go anywhere.  And for years she roamed.  When she moved out west, I thought that was where she’d made her home.  That was where she’d be.

Now she lives a few minutes away and this morning I drove Blackie over to her new place.  I had a car full of other things – artwork from her room, bits of furniture.  She wanted the furniture but didn’t want any of the art.  “I brought Blackie,” I told her.

And she said in that childlike voice she sometimes uses, “I want Blackie.”  So now he is back with her and she is back near us.  As with any journey that isn’t exile, there is always the moment of return. 

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