Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Waiting For the Best to Come Again

As Joss Whedon is to television (for me) and Jim Gaffigan is to comedy (for me), so Jack Gilbert is to poetry (for me). And word is quickly spreading through the internet (updated even to Wikipedia now) that he died earlier this week.

Sometimes there are artists who you're sure are speaking directly to you when they are working in their medium. They have labored for hours, days or years over a scrap of dialogue, the turn of a stanza and even though the moment of laughter or insight runs through you quickly, there is something of that understanding that never leaves you, that feels like an ongoing relationship that is always happening.

Jack Gilbert was one of the few poets out there who always seemed accessible in both his work and as a human to me. I had no trouble sharing him with other people and loved passing him along through a bookstore. Accessibility is such a dirty word in the art world these days. It seems to be synonymous with simple or cheap, but Gilbert was neither. He was, I think, one of the most well-rounded philosophers of our time who was just as concerned with living well as he was with writing (not always the paradigm for an artist). He was responsible for one of the best days that I’ve had in 2012 (reading his book of poems by the lake while wearing a white dress and drinking iced coffee), crystallizing the pain and recovery of several break-ups, and he gave one of my favorite Paris Review interviews. He’s one of the books that I keep bedside for sleepless nights and one of the people that I quote for boldness or quietness (“but anything worth doing is worth doing badly”).

I had this idea of meeting him one day (the way you do with all the people that have created things that made you better at becoming yourself). The scene goes something like this: we have been introduced through some literary connection and a friend (knowing my fervor) has set up a meeting at a tea shop somewhere near Union Square. Gilbert's white beard is a wispy halo around his chin and he smiles and the brief time that has been set aside for me passes quickly with us talking the whole time. But I realize as I’m departing (re-wrapping my knitted scarf around my neck), that I haven’t asked him hardly anything; that he has been asking me about my favorite books, who I ask to read my work, what my favorite part of having a conversation is, gothic themes that I found in Jane Eyre that I continue to introduce inexpertly into my own poems. And the afternoon is gone and I’ll never ask him all the things that I should have liked to have known about him.

Kind people often leave our sight quietly and too quickly.

I'll never meet him now, but (in a way) that doesn't matter. That is not him, but that is my idea of him (borne from art). And I am grateful to have known someone like that. I am glad that he lived such a good, full life and that he populated it with poems of subtle compassion and exquisite grief. For all of your moods, good poems make good company. 

Waiting and Finding
by Jack Gilbert

While he was in kindergarten, everybody wanted to play
the tomtoms when it came time for that. You had to
run in order to get there first, and he would not.
So he always had a triangle. He does not remember
how they played the tomtoms, but he sees clearly
their Chinese look. Red with dragons front and back
and gold studs around that held the drumhead tight.
If you had a triangle, you didn’t really make music.
You mostly waited while the tambourines and tomtoms
went on a long time. Until there was a signal for all
triangle people to hit them the right way. Usually once.
Then it was tomtoms and waiting some more. But what
he remembers is the sound of the triangle. A perfect,
shimmering sound that has lasted all his long life.
Fading out and coming again after a while. Getting lost
and the waiting for it to come again. Waiting meaning
without things. Meaning love sometimes dying out,
sometimes being taken away. Meaning that often he lives
silent in the middle of the world’s music. Waiting
for the best to come again. Beginning to hear the silence
as he waits. Beginning to like the silence maybe too much.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Strange Currents

Two costumes deep and nowhere to wear them. A few bags of check-out counter candy run-off in a last minute panic that trick or treaters were going to come by our apartment door. I may put on my Angela Chase costume all the same and eat Almond Joys with Jordan (heheh – Jordan) while we watch Hocus Pocus on the pull-out couch. This will have to be enough holiday for now, because keeping pace with multiple lives is an exhausting business: work, writing, French class, cooking, fires on the beach, old friends coloring the west coast with an odd sort of implied time travel. Maybe I’ll pull it together for late-night Halloween karaoke. It’s possible… but I doubt it.

The kitty surveys her carnage.
The cat has eaten my Mac cord.  Literally must have swallowed pieces of it while I wasn’t watching, because not only is it in chunks, it is substantially shorter. She is a strange bird these days – racketing from room to room like a furry, white comet making little chirruping noises as she goes. She follows me while I fold clothes, clean the mirrors, look for my keys and she finds various perches from which to observe and evaluate my behavior. She is tolerant, if not affectionate, but oddly more involved and invested in the goings-on of the apartment than she ever was back in Seattle. And now she’s eating electrical accessories when they’re plugged into the wall. I worry about her.

I worry about all of my time on a motorcyle, too. In my experience, the most dangerous thing about being on a motorcycle is also one of the best things about it. Not the speed or the risk, either. It is the quiet of it. Not, certainly, the quiet of the engine or the wind that harasses even the most smartly buttoned leather coat or the roar of other irritable cars on the road – the internal quiet. Without music or conversation, there is really nowhere for you to spend time but in your own head. On a long enough ride, you can take some truly meditative journeys and find yourself at the top of Mount Diablo a bit surprised at having arrived on a peak from which you can see most of the surrounding country. One considers the validity of one’s contribution to her job, the state of climate change, whether our democratic process has really imploded, if living up to one’s potential is actually that satisfying, the regrets of past conversations. It is possible that you speak of this to no one.

Traveling to Pittsburgh in the fall means pumpkin carving and friends and the smell of leaves that reminds me of a brick-buildinged campus that is almost a decade in my rearview. It means that people I love have made a small child that has the most perfectly pink lips. This small human and I looked at each other: me, considering the first very tenuous weeks of her life that brought her here to my lap and what it will be like for her to grow up in a generation that has always known Facebook. I wonder what her prom dress will look like. Her trim little shoulders seem to shrug when I sit her upright on my thighs and frown over these thoughts.

Sandy in Nantucket, MA
Much of my family (real and chosen) is back East – scattered from Maine to Massachusetts, New Hampshire to New York. They stayed away from their windows and hoarded water in their basements with a resigned New England air as Hurricane Sandy pummeled the coast this week. My mother lost power quickly enough, even though they never cancelled her classes that she taught at school that day. My cousin on Nantucket Island sent photographs of water flooding the port and Main Street and surrounding the lighthouse of Brant Point. My pregnant cousin is still without power, ferrying herself and the rest of the family to the community center to periodically recharge their phones and shower. It is possible that they won’t have electricity before the election on Tuesday. A close friend’s basement flooded waist-high in Brooklyn and their car bobbed down the street and away.
With my hair like this...
it hurts to look at me.

These are the things that I’m thinking about on my couch while wearing a plaid shirt and black leggings, wondering whether it’s really a complete costume if I don’t dye my hair red. I’m thinking about the disparate driftwood of experience that is making up the lives of the people I know, feeling (as ever) a bit overcome.

Look, it’s a strange year and we’re caught in strange currents. Nearly everyone I know is living their life at a higher volume than they’re used to; making bigger moves and maybe vibrating at a slightly higher frequency as a result. People are moving, quitting their jobs, writing their novel, buying houses, having children, sitting in hospital waiting rooms, falling in ill-advised love, and going back to school. Maybe it’s 2012 and there’s an enormous prophesied bird-dragon headed right for us, maybe I’m in my thirties and so are many of the people that I know and love, and we’re going through those big life changes that we’ve been hearing about all these years. Or maybe I’m thinking too much. Maybe it’s not all as connected as it seems. But troubling as some of these realities are, I like thinking of my life as more comprehensive and inclusive. The boundaries between me and you don’t feel quite so linked to geography that way.

Last Saturday a small pack of East Bay kids crossed the bridge and headed for Ocean Beach: three scientists, an architect, an ex-theater kid, and a socially ungainly writer who would be the oldest person in the group. We dug a hole in the sand and built a fire that evening.

I’ve never made a fire on the beach (though I’ve certainly spun fire and watched fire spinning by sunset before on the shaded, well-trafficked beach of Golden Gardens in Seattle). But simply watching a flame swallow branches and old cardboard is better than most forms of entertainment that I pay for (internet, film, shows, museums). It is a pleasantly primal experience to hold a stick and marshmallow near a flame and watch it brown. The fire stays in your clothes for days afterwards, causes you to lean into strangers, share blankets, lick your fingers of small dabs of chocolate. It feels more permanent than most things in our commercial break world.

Just another pack of strangers discussing the weather, politics, stories we’ve loved, times that we’ve been left, nicknames we’ve adopted (by the way, I now refer to Jordan as “zombie”), all edging around the borders of vulnerability wondering what’s too much to share or say.

But what if nothing was too much and you could just say what you meant at that moment? What if you could tell strangers that you were lonely and have them put a blanket around your shoulders? What if you could tell the girl with the glasses that you think she laughs better than most of the people that you’ve known in your life? Maybe you could talk about what faith is like, where it gets lost, how difficult trust is, how grateful you are. What if simply saying things out loud felt like a solution? Perhaps that could be California in October.   

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Endeavour Tour

Yosemite: that rich part of our natural landscape that has hosted humanity for thousands of years. The Ahwahneechee lived there, the Europeans arrived in the 1800s, railroads showed up in 1907, 89% of the region is designated as wilderness area, 20% of California's total plant species can be found within its boundaries, and it was the first park identified by the US government for preservation and protection.

And yet, when I tell anyone that I'm planning on spending the weekend camping there, the first thing that anyone brings up is the hantavirus. I am happy to report that, so far, I have survived my time there.

Which (hanta, aside), it turns out, is still a little surprising. I mean, with a renewed commitment to unembarrassed, wild "yesses," of course you agree to go camping for the weekend in the Yosemite region. It is not until after I've agreed, however, and I'm buying quick-dry trousers at REI for the first time that it occurs to me that I haven't been overnight (no-car) camping since I was about 16. This could lead to some embarrassing vulnerabilities, I realize and uncomfortable admissions about my own capabilities. I am only marginally comforted when I remind myself that this excursion is only for two days. I cannot fully humiliate myself in that time, I hope.

Sometimes there is unexpected value, however, in distance from experience, I think. There is a rare pleasure that attends remembering something that you haven't done in a long while and are pleased to discover that you can do: fitting a large backpack to sit at your hips, scrambling up a long, rock-riddled white tumble of hillside (the carrion of former glaciers), tying your hair back in your mother's old pink-flowered scarf hoping that you don't twist an ankle in your inappropriate sneakers. About thirty steps in, I was wheezing, cursing my former smoking habit and wondering how to confess that I'm not going to make it when I realized I needed to loosen the strap across my chest…  My fully expanded lungs, it turned out, were more than equal to powering their way over the rust red-clinking-talus trails. No hyperventilating necessary. It is funny how simple the solution is sometimes.

It is often this way. With a great deal of doubt and a review of past failures, I say "yes" to something that I am unsure of. This silent deliberation, followed by a resolute step forward. These choices have led to heartbreak and embarrassment and new cities and great loves. Few things worth their salt are earned at the value of "maybe."

And this is also how I come to learn things. It seems that I can only love a city after I have left it. I would like to currently ignore the maladjusted psychology implied by this observation in favor of telling you that Seattle is a city worthy of being appropriately grieved. I have only been in California two months (two flattering late summer, early autumn months, to be sure), but returning to Seattle for just one weekend – as much as it is an affirmation of my new life begun 1,000 miles south – is a sweet symphony of sensory experiences that I love: the smell of falafel on University Ave at lunch time on a weekday in the fall, the spongy and spindly couches at Seattle’s Best Karaoke, the warm bag of fresh fried donuts from the Pike’s Place market tumbling about the grainy bottom of the cinammon sugared paper bag, the jets of red layer-cake sky at sunset as I drive north to see my friend’s new house. I remind myself I’ve left, because by leaving I have affirmed how much a part of me all of these things have become. I think, in this blog I have implied that we are the (mostly invisible) things that we carry with us (the language, the friendship, the rare artifact), but it turns out we are also the things that we leave behind. But that is part of the risk of saying “yes,” I suppose, as well.

When one of the guys at work comes into my office on Friday morning and says "you want to go see the space shuttle?" - even if you have no context for what he is talking about, you say "yes" before you're even out of the seat.

Which is how I ended up at the Eastshore State Park in Berkeley on a bright September morning last week. The park extends for miles along the East Bay shoreline and the north end is a small cluster of hilltops where Saturday morning parents can take their children to fly kites. There are unexpected and spectacular views that take in the San Francisco Bay to the west and the hills of Berkeley and beyond to the east. This Friday morning, there were clusters of fleece vests and sunglassed people who had all turned their gaze to the Southeast where a small, steadily-moving smudge was coming towards us through the haze. We might have looked like cult followers awaiting the return of the mother ship and in spite of the distance that we were from the Endeavor shuttle being toured through the air, the atmosphere was that of awed expectation.

The Endeavor shuttle has clocked more than 122 hours in orbital flight, hosted 25 missions in a ten-year career and is now returning to a terrestrial home after a celestial existence. And, apparently, it's now being tugged through the skies of west coast cities to celebrate its retirement. We can come out onto our hilltops and city vistas and wave. Here it was on its farewell tour, just 1,500 feet above us, barely discernible, but everyone on that hilltop was dopey-grinned and shielding their eyes against the morning sun in what appeared deceptively like a salute.

The shuttle was piggy-backing this journey on the back of a NASA jumbo jet that made a serene loop North and then back South and at one point passed over the Golden Gate Bridge on a rare barely fogged morning. This white-tailed slow-moving object seeming to float in the sky between the two distant red bridge peaks made us all turn to watch its progress. Nobody gasped or awwwed for the moment, but that was the feeling all the same as the shuttle departed and headed south.

NASA’s shuttle fleet is being retired, marking the end of an era of pioneering space exploration.

The soundless jet retreated over the sun-burnt hills and cloud-streaked sky, and I heard someone say “there is no replacement for the Endeavour” and this information struck me as a sweet-sad hymn. It’s not the end of our age of space insight, of course. We are, after all, roving the surface of Mars, visiting space stations, slowly putting our toes into this unknown pool – all lit by a moon that we were on forty years ago. But it was nice to stand on that hill with strangers, listen to the wind on water from the Bay, sip my morning coffee, and see the legends that we have made retreat in other untraveled directions.

Friday, August 24, 2012

To Risk Forgetting

At the very moment I am starting this blog, I am waiting to go on a ride. A ride at sunset on a bike so large that it can pin a man down. It has been a long time since I tried organizing my American life back into words and it occurs to me that strangely, it is somehow more difficult to process with jobs, and apartments, and responsibilities slowly rolling into view. I think about the highlights, the small things: the bus ride that got me here. On the way, I saw a man on a unicycle at a stoplight and a restaurant where people have to order their food as though they are praying. The West Coast of America often seems so polluted with quirkiness that it feels deliberate.

The effect should be that everyone is so wonderfully offbeat, that everyone else is free to be themselves, but that is not always true. And in my first few weeks in this city, I find that I am more shy and reflective than I am ready to tromp along the pathways of Lake Merritt wildly spinning my fire poi. I am approaching this new city perhaps with a little hesitation.

There is a hat shop along Haight Street in San Francisco that has been a family business since 1895. Sure, they might have shops in all of the major American cities now (including the one that I just left), but there is something warm and personal about the staff that help my mother and I pick out a hat for her husband in the Goorin Brothers hat shop that makes me feel very comfortable, even gabby with the smartly suspendered employees.

As so often happens when I am shopping for someone else, I end up shopping for me. I pluck at brims along the rows of plump mushroomed gatsbies all in a stack or leather-molded fedoras when I come to the women’s sale section and find a fawn colored drop-pin hat with a tiny trim of black polka dotted ribbon.

When you are already deeply wading through moving debt, it is easy to convince yourself of one more frivolous purchase and of all the things that I have acquired over the past several weeks (sauce pans and their lids, ashy blue pasta bowls, a sofa, hangers, a grown-up-person television), somehow this is the most important.

Sometimes, for me, a piece of clothing is the place that I’m inhabiting. When I buy it, I remind myself of where I am, who I could be here. When I was in Paris, it was a black pencil skirt with tiny slashed pockets angled in just at my hip bones. When I was in Swizerland it was a string of blue beads that I found next to a postcard rack at a street market for four dollars. When I was in Gibraltar it was a ripply pink dress with the thinnest coffee-colored belt to match the polka dots. It went well with the wind that came off of the Mediterranean.

People recognize these pieces on you – they are the things that people comment on: “what a nice dress,” they say, “that necklace suits you,” “I love your scarf.” And, it helps, of course, that you do look fabulous in these things.

Here, in San Francisco, it turns out that “me” is a clean white cap that looks both retro and hip. It is the color of my sleeping cat’s fur. It comes close over my ears, somewhat muffling the already garbled loudspeaker voice of the bus that conveys me and my mother back to the Beaux Arts ferry building at the end of Market Street. It is soft and the brim is just enough to keep out the sun. The woman across the aisle from me on the BART to the East Bay leans forward and smiles conspiratorially, “I like your hat.”

In City Lights booksellers, by contrast, there is a general air of amused sentencing. I overheard a UC Berkeley boy flirting with a girl by giving her a quiz, questioning her on Alice Munro’s short stories and the cashier high fives me when I correctly identify the music as “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” from Kill Bill as though I’m an initiate in his club. But upstairs is a second floor nest dedicated entirely to poetry with a view to a building where white stone figures are spreading their arms wide in some sort of transport of ecstasy or simply appearing to pull taffy between their outstretched hands, delightfully out-of-place statues that would be better served on a church in an older country. I purchased a copy of Jack Gilbert and a fresh sheaf of postcards.

These little selections of life become your impressions and then your beliefs about a place, about yourself. For instance, I will not be surprised if my first few weeks here come down to a crème brulée gelato purchased in the North Beach area that led to a small plot of picnicking green in Washington Square within pealing distance of Saint Peter and Paul’s cathedral which chimed briskly (almost mechanically) on the hour. Lying there in the grass with a breeze and sunshine all muddled up in my wrinkly warm shirt, I put my head on my purse and this half hour nap may become all that I remember about that afternoon, that day, these first few weeks here: listening to the well-oiled bells with my eyes closed in the sun.  

I’ve been contemplating “forever” (as I tend to do) and wondering about all of the unmourned terminated things out there in the world. The last bus ride on a discontinued route, expired sloshy bottles of cream leaning as cross beams in the garbage, the last time an old woman goes outside to fetch her mail. Sometimes I think that I hold the permanent so holy simply because it is a monument to all of the finality that will go out of the world unnoticed. Potentially my own. And all of the things that I will forget in this year of firsts and explorations and meetings and partings. No ceremony to their departure from my memory. But I suppose that is what is required of a person willing to change, the readiness to forget and not preserve everything, but carry forward only what is necessary.

The ride we end up taking at sunset is through Tilden Park. He tells me this and I smile bemusedly. Simply the promise of a motorcycle ride is enough to get me out of the house, but I imagine that it is going to be a rather tame (and brief) outing when the destination is a park. I picture a plasticine playground with woodchips, maybe a dog run and a tennis court. If I’m lucky there will be a climbing rock with a view.

But it is not that kind of park, Tilden is one of the oldest parks in the area that takes in not feet of territory, but acres. 2,079 acres to be exact that are a shelter and sanctuary to natural wildlife and flora. It takes over 200 maps on their site to give comprehensive coverage of the area. Though none of this is apparent as we’re approaching the park along Canon Drive with its washed out two story houses built against the rock, blurry in the mist and I am dubious in spite of promises that it is a beautiful park. It is not until we are within park grounds and out of sight of the suburban Berkeley Hills that a sudden, incredible expanse of ridges with trees reaching far into an rolling bank of mist pouring through the sky that I realize this is not a park, but a separate world. And this is, perhaps, when I begin to fall a little bit in love with California. The park receives millions of visitors a year, but it was not a place that I knew was there to be found.

Although the afternoon and evening in the East Bay have grown gray and overcast, the ride through Tilden Park is a curvaceous, expansive journey that seems to cover about four different climates. I was shivery cold as I clung to the back of the driver and moments later was sweating under my helmet in the evening sun. The road swept out at drastic angles and flooded down into ravines, valleys, and reservoirs. The hills were seeming waves of movement in scrubbed greens and golds.  The kind of hills that people imagine when they think of California wine country. Its tall-reaching trees in the fog remind me of mournfully brisk mornings in Hawaii, its sweeping hills with comprehensive vistas remind me of walks in Andalusia Spain, in its shadows I can recreate the mossy rainforests of Washington State. It is like so many places that I’ve visited and like nowhere I’ve ever seen.

The instinct I have is to pull out a camera, get it all on film, process it and preserve it, but I am glad that there is no camera and that this is not an option. Because I will have to actually be here instead: leather jacket wind-beaten on my body, long dips and arcs with peek-a-boo views to lower lakes and distant peaks. I can’t go back to this moment on a Facebook post or photo album, so I have to be here now instead and risk forgetting it.

But I don’t think I will.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

City of Bridges

“You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien

First View of Pittsburgh
Two weeks ago, I was seated on a threadbare, checker-patterned tram cushion while the weak Belgian rain streaked the windows as I passed the Palais Stoclet along Avenue de Tervueren. Two weeks ago, I was having Movenpick ice cream with two of my best girl friends as we passed La Bourse and I considered how the worst part of returning to America was the lack of Swiss ice cream.

For two weeks, I’ve been back on the other side of the Atlantic. This return has included typical American fare and fanfare: miniature golf, amusement parks, hot dogs, barbeques, coconut cream pie with real macaroon crust, baseball games and buffalo wings. In short, an abundance of indulgence.

And though I’m now in my own territory, though it’s my own country and a city that I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve visited, it felt like I was being reintroduced to American culture with enthusiasm by my Pennsylvania family, as though they were reminding me what I’ve missed. I’m surprised at how much old friends can close the gap in time between the cobblestones of the Grand Place and your ride down a rollercoaster, being just as silly as you ever were.

At Kennywood Park
One never feels so integrated into a place until one is dirty with it. After spending a day at Kennywood (Pittsburgh’s amusement park), I felt positively shellacked in the dirt and germs of its people and in this way re-Americanized. But I was also satisfyingly exhausted from the screaming and hand-holding on magnetically-powered loop-de-loops on this large-scale playground.

Kennywood is a unique amusement park, one of only two amusement parks in the world that is listed as a National Historic Place. And although the selection of diversions is largely relegated to the traditional roller coasters and arcades common throughout the nation, it was once also home to dance halls, public swimming pools, and bandstands (probably more like this when my father went there when he was six-years-old) - all of which were open, available, and designed to be accessible to the working class. Because Pittsburgh has always been a dedicated working class city.

Which means the City of Bridges (as it's called) is also host to a cast of characters that you’re both endeared by and terrified to identify with. Take for example, the man walking down Beacon in a pair of black and gold Steelers parachute pants, no shirt, sporting a pony-tailed “skullet” (you know - where they’re bald on top but with long flowing locks tied at the base of their neck) and the crowning piece: bright white neck brace propping up his head as he walks down the street smoking a cigarette. That man is most likely a good example of what we call a “Yinzer.”

Back to the Land Where Sandwiches
Are Bigger Than My Face
Yinzers are classic Pittsburgh folks, speaking a dialect that is apparently the most difficult and muddled of all the American dialects. They don’t say “did you eat yet?” – the phrase instead comes out “Jeet jet?” They don’t say “I’ll have some eggs and stuff,” they say “I’ll have eggs n’at.”

And the most puzzling of all: “yinz.” The Pittsburgh version of “y’all.” Except at least “y’all” is a contraction for “you all” and “yinz” is short for “you unz.”… Which doesn’t make any sense. And if you meet the right yinzer, it doesn’t matter how much they insist they are native speakers of English, you might not be able to make out a word.

But all Pittsburgh people are extraordinarily genuine, down-to-earth and warm. In my enthusiasm for buying a piece of Gullifty’s coconut cream pie, I left my debit card beeping in the ATM slot as I ran down the street to meet up with my friends and check the restaurant hours. I didn’t even realize my mistake, just sat there jawing over the pie options when a large-framed man in an orange shirt started waving his arms and making his way down to us.

Kennywood Sunset
“Hey,” he called after us, “you left your card. You left your card!” He waved it in the air and my friend Sakena charged up the street and retrieved it for me. This was the exact same mistake that I’d made that resulted in my previous debit card being stolen. But I was spared that particular travesty this time around by a kind and concerned Pittsburgher.

It’s a strange place with quirks lurking in unexpected places, which I’m reminded of on my first day back over lunch at the classic Primanti brothers deli. Sean, in discussion of our friend Chris’ new fixer-upper home tells me that the house includes a “Pittsburgh cellar.”

“What’s a Pittsburgh cellar?” I ask.

Pittsburgh Cellar
“Well,” Sean elaborates and spreads his hands, a trilling edge of excitement to his voice the way there always is when he’s explaining local history, “well, it’s a totally bare, undeveloped basement, that looks like it’s a cell. It’s low ceilinged with what we call a ‘Pittsburgh Toilet’ at its center; no walls, no privacy, just hanging out there in the basement.  Sometimes there's a shower nozzle. Just standing there in the middle.”

The image of a center stage, un-concealed toilet strikes me as both creepy and embarrassing.

It turns out (like so many things in the old Steel City) that this is a vestige of industrial times. The former coal miners and steel workers, apparently, when they’d come in from the mills back in the day often entered through the basement to clean the day off of them instead of tracking the dirt and grime through the house – they washed up and went to the bathroom first thing when they get home and emerged upstairs as the clean fathers of the house. So, many older houses in Pittsburgh have this feature – a grimy, de-industrializing area still standing there in the center of their basements.

I take another bite of my Primanti Brothers sandwich (a sandwich bigger than my mouth) and smile. “Ah, Pittsburgh. Ah, America.”

Pittsburgh Skyline from PNC Park
But really, what it comes down to, when I’m thinking about my love for Pittsburgh - what makes me happy to be there - it’s about something more elusive and unexpected. Something that you don't notice, but instead realize. Something that was best exemplified on this most recent trip during my first trip to PNC Park to watch a Pirates-Mets game.

There we were, enjoying incredibly overpriced and fatty food as well as beers before, during, and after the game. And although I’m a Red Sox fan in my heart, I can’t help but shift my allegiance for a game as I make my way into the disturbingly empty stadium. Nothing matches Fenway as a cathedral to baseball, but I immediately loved PNC, because it offers one of the best seats to watch the sun go down as you view the Pittsburgh skyline. The Pirates also offer some ridiculous and silly pageantry, including four people dressed as pierogies that raced around the field between innings and a call from Kiera Knightley on the big screen saying that the Pirates should not go down without a fight before the final inning.

And, if you’re not familiar, the Pirates are one of the oldest teams in baseball. Overall, the Pirates have won five World Series and lost two (most of those victories dated to a very long time ago). And after some success in the early 90s (making the NLCS three straight years), the Pirates have now tracked 19 consecutive losing seasons to date, the longest in North American professional sports history.

Pirates at Work
And yet the fans that were there watching the Pirates lose on that weeknight, leaned forward in an intense conspiracy of hope - applauded loudly for each run, standing when 
Andrew McCutchen split a bat and shot forward towards first, and resigned themselves to each out, waiting for the turn that never came. And then we all departed the stadium for the bar for conciliatory, hopeful drinks where we told ourselves the things the consistently thwarted tell themselves, "there's always the next game, the next season. Next time will be different." We smile grimly at each other and decide to believe in spite of everything that's come before. 

I don't know how you stay a Pirates fan after all this time, but it made me realize that there is an opportunity here in Pittsburgh for a tutorial on hope.

Some of the most difficult and worthy things in our life require unreasonable, even unfeasible hope - whether it's the idea that romantic love is possible or the belief that your book might someday see publication - sometimes we have to believe, cheer ourselves on in spite of repeated defeat. If after nineteen years you can still enjoy the process of watching a team try and fail, you can sustain the unreasonable and exquisite belief that anything is possible. 

First View of Seattle After Five Months
And Pittsburgh is a city that does that repeatedly, a failed industrial city always re-inventing itself, trying and always lagging. And the people that I know there are some of the most fervent and loving optimists I know - which is a quality so undervalued these days, it's worth my fierce defense. It makes me think that it's one of the best ways to return to America. 

I say that I’ve returned to America, but I wouldn’t say that I’ve returned home. Or I have, but it is no fixed point right now - it's just a continuing rotation of people to say "hello" and "goodbye" to. And in this way, travel continues. 

Farewell, Pittsburgh - thanks for reintroducing me to my country.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Returning Home

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”
Pat Conroy

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cities Like Me

Who says that you have to choose
between a night out and writing?
On Friday night, just as the sun was going down after an abnormally bright Brussels day, I cut up a baguette in a kitchen with three other women. I had on a dress that I had purchased in a shop along the main square in Gibraltar. We were talking about cooking, kitchens, the way our mothers prepared meals. I looked over at A, who is almost always on her way to or just finishing with another smile, who at that particular moment was glowering down at the hand mixer that was refusing to work as she made homemade Mascarpone for this going away party. L deftly held a knife and taught me how to peel oranges in the Spanish fashion as we assembled a fruit salad. R was already through with the entire bunch of bananas and arranging nearly 40 Euros worth of cheese, which I couldn’t wait to consume after I had finished doing L’s hair.

No matter where you are, there is nothing like being in a kitchen with a group of laughing women in the hour before a party. Especially a farewell party where you can already feel the loneliness of living very far from people that you’ve come to love. 
Farewell Party

But that has been the feel of things since Wednesday when I finished typing the final words of this first draft of my manuscript.

It feels like the last few weeks before graduation. When everything takes on the sheen of anticipated nostalgia; the way my heels tangle with the cobblestone, the throaty, whole-mouth sound of French down the bar from me, the snap of the market tents folding up in the afternoon, the grassy dry taste of a cider served in a champagne glass. All of it now marked by the ticking clocked I’ve abandoned wearing.

View from the Party
In five months, I have visited eight countries, enough so that the TravBuddy widget tells me that I have now seen 9% of the world. I have written about 80,000 words of a strange work of fiction, more than 100,000 words of journal entries, I shudder to think how many pounds I’ve put on, so we’ll leave that number out of it for now. And then we can reflect on how inadequate those numbers are. On how there is no measure for the feel of a dress flapping in Mediterranean wind under Mediterranean sun or what the rain sounds like while writing on the top floor of a four story apartment in the south of England.

I have liked (or let’s not be coy here, I’ve loved) the cities and people that I’ve met over the course of this journey intensely, and each of them in their own fashion, caressing quirks and failings in particular – because somehow these are the things that make me love something. I’ve loved them as a tourist loves anything – with a wet, eager wonder at the newness, sometimes pleasantly daunted by the strangeness. And I’ve also loved myself a little more, maybe hated myself, too.

Take, for instance, the day I sat in front of the computer to work on my book and composed, instead, self-applauding emails to you all day talking about how well it was all going in order to make it true. Take the day I vomited in the middle of a French-speaking grocery store in front of some very kind and bewildered Belgians (yeah, ask me about that story sometime). Take, for example, that comatose day I stalled out on Chapter 8 while I considered the sudden death of my friend (very far away) and the range of beautiful work that he left behind because he put paint to canvas with such dedication.

Central Station Farewells
Not every day is the day you’re following your dream, sometimes you’re a graceless house guest, a washed-up tourist, or a talentless hack faking it in order to survive the afternoon. And if I wrote you an email on one of those days and told you how beautiful everything was, how good I felt, how the book was progressing, perhaps including an Oscar Wilde quote as though I were worthy of sharing an industry with him, it wasn’t exactly untrue, but it might not have been what you were picturing. I’ve fabricated a few things for you from time to time in order to to make them true for myself and in order to make it through the final pages. Which I have now.

But I swear that every day, even the days that I failed were the best days of my life because I had something to live up to even if it was just the view of the stately illuminated spire of the Grand Place here in a city that has become my home: Brussels.

Promotional Art Car Instrument... Thing
Yesterday afternoon, before putting my friend John on a train back to Paris, a group of us toured through two museums, intermittently punctuated with about five different café stops. Along the way, there were two artfully wounded cars that were smoking, painted, and dilapidated and rigged to make music when you interacted with them. There were oblique references to some parade that will take place later this week after I’m gone, but the connection that these musical wrecked cars have to it is unclear. But people, including us, were still stopping to watch and play the cars without the need for an invitation or explanation.

These are the things that make me smile as L and A set to rehearsing some sort of spontaneous and makeshift song on the car and I sigh to myself, “Ah, Belgium.”

Brussels (Belgium on the whole, really) in spite of the important role that it plays on the continent, despite its history and personality will never be a destination European city. People end up in Brussels mostly and it makes a case for itself and you either embrace it or you move on. Brussels offers itself, nothing more.

12th Century Belgian Painting
that proves Gay Pride Celebrations
have long been the norm
Think about it: Rome, London, Paris. These cities need not introduce themselves, their presence is anticipated, felt, announced on every corner, their personality is well-known from the get-go – they offer you an idea and they are delivered to you. Brussels, on the other hand is another thing entirely – as an international melting pot without an inherited definition – a young country even by American standards (whose independence was not recognized until 1839) – Belgium simply shows up and is itself, and gives you the strangest hidden corners, both new and old, at odds with itself, and very, very quirky. You don’t expect anything from Belgium, you discover it and because it didn’t arrive with a preconceived notion attached to it, your time with it can be entirely yours, something you make for yourself from a buffet of Belgian artifacts.

Beer, chocolate, fries, mussels, lace and comic books. These are the traditional Belgian associations. Godiva chocolate, the Smurfs, even some of our finest diamonds - these high and low delights emerged from gray, complicated cities.

Brussels Basilica of the Sacred Heart
Which is something that I love about it: its delight and its sincerity, its lack of perceived notions, association, or affectation. You have to want what Brussels has to offer to love it, which is a strange assortment of personal collisions: the butcher that chased my friend down the street when he forgot his wallet, the Belgian punks spilling beer on themselves, threatening to piss on the Metro and then holding the door open for an old woman, an impassioned defense from any citizen on the ninth art: comic books (reminding you of the indignation of incredibly gifted and fit girls who would knock you out were you to suggest that cheerleading isn’t a sport – of course it is). But it’s also the strange Atomium on the skyline (built for the World’s Fair in 1958), the smoking car band promotions on the street, the green art deco Basilica (which my friend L remarked was such a strange, sci-fi stylized church, it looked as though Star Wars fans or Rocky Horror Picture enthusiasts might be more comfortable holding conventions there than the world’s Catholic faithful who might come here to marvel at one of the ten largest Catholic edifices in the world), it’s the sun-glassed young Green who’s shouting poetry in French and Dutch during Brussels' Gay Pride celebration, it’s the old couple at the local market that stops to listen to the live brass band interpretation of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” It doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t always sophisticated – but it might just offer you more than you expected. It is allowed to be unusual, to contradict and redefine itself. Which is its problem. And its grace. And sort of the challenge for everyone I know.

Or maybe I’m just coming to the end of things. Maybe I’m just observant in that acute way that you’re only capable of when you’re in grief or joy.

Random Statue on the Way to the Basilica
I like Brussels, because it reminds me of me: unassuming, awkward, a little weird, a fusion of all of the best of the people that it has met, sometimes gloomy, but overall on the verge of laughter at all times.  You have to get to know it to like it and it offers you what you weren’t looking for instead of what you expected to find.

Which is a trend that I think will continue in the coming months.

And, if social media is the new platform for life updates and if blogs are the accepted channel for personal press releases, I should say now that when I return to the states that I am not staying in Seattle. I’ve been offered a position in San Francisco, which I am taking and I will be moving there in mid-July. 

I’m thirty, I wrote a strange book, I have a suitcase full of chocolate and shoes and beyond that, nothing is really certain.

Which means that things remain to be discovered and the boundaries of self-discovery are really only restricted to the borders of your heart, which, if you want it to, takes in quite a lot of territory.

The farewell party thrown by my friends on Friday night was a small affair by some standards, but it had all of the earmarks of a good time – an overflowing food table, dancing, an array of Belgian beers, and a great view.  And so maybe the moment you leave home for another city is a bigger departure than you had anticipated and maybe all love and all travel are just a series of cycling greetings and farewells, but it’s worth the hardships if it means you end up raising a glass with your favorite French family or dancing to Adele at three in the morning while overlooking the city skyline with your friends.

And so this is what it feels like to finish a book and come home.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The View From Here

Marina at Queen's Way, Gibraltar

It is a hot day in Gibraltar, there are numerous pinwheeling black kytes and seagulls riding wide-shafted wind turbines that allow the migrating birds to float rather than fly across the Strait of Gibraltar into Africa. I have a glass of iced Diet Coke next to my right hand and the sound of long barges belching their way across the water, the shrill peeping of numerous birds, and the twanging stringy sighs of sailboats in the marina are my orchestra while the sun sets.

This time one year ago, I had just quit my job and just started planning this trip. I had a meeting that lasted late into the night, followed by karaoke, and then pancakes at Seattle’s incomparable Hurricane at four in the morning. I woke up at eight the next day to put on overalls and paint a one-of-a-kind bar against a wildly inappropriate deadline.

Or let’s go back further almost a decade ago when a group of friends living in a dorm called South Highland (THAT’s where the email address comes from, by the way) threw me my first surprise birthday dance party in our common room there in rural Meadville, Pennsylvania (home of Dad’s Dog Food factory, the birthplace of the zipper and a college called Allegheny). I ran upstairs to put on some appalling 80s dress and stayed up until four with my friends back when we never got tired – before there was Facebook, before Bush got elected (again) and before we all thought an evening of Battlestar Gallactica was the height of recreational entertainment. I thought then that 30 would be a quiet time. I thought I would have a family, maybe a book published, I thought that I would have a career and a dog. None of these things have come to pass.

Instead, I’m speaking to you at the precipice of three decades in what has been the most peculiar and extraordinary year of my life.

Main Street, Gibraltar
Gibraltar is an eccentric and beautiful place. I’ve had some of the strangest encounters of my trip here. And if you’ve been privy to the behind-the-scenes of this blog and this voyage, you know that’s saying something.

For a few billion years, the 1400-foot limestone hulk that is the rock of Gibraltar was largely ignored. It was unpopulated apart from monkeys, birds, and wild buzzing insects moving between sea and sky. It’s just 2.6 square miles of coast, the north of this small spit of land sharing its border with Andalusian Spain.

Yesterday, A took me out of Gibraltar to Castellar de la Frontera – a small municipality in the Cadiz province over the border in Spain. Crossing into Spain itself was about the easiest border crossing I’ve ever done. Basically you open your passport as you roll slowly by a guard’s window in a line of cars to cross the border into La Linea – the line of traffic, of course, has to pause entirely whenever one of the flights to Gibraltar airport arrives from London since the runway actually crosses the highway leading over the border. There simply wouldn’t be enough space unless they multi-purposed their road.

Castellar de la Frontera, Spain
Castellar is centered around an old medieval castle-turned-town on the top of a hill. In the 70’s, the town became a hippy colony with a few well-bearded German bohemians still living there today, selling soda pop, ice cream, or ashtrays with cannabis leaves hand-painted in their recesses. There are inbred stray cats climbing orange trees on the ramshackle little roads around the ruins and we stopped into a white-washed stone house where we ordered Tapas in the early afternoon.

Castellar de la Frontera, Spain

The entire countryside is spread out beneath the castle with views down the coast to the Rock along “the Med” (that’s what the locals call the Mediterranean). The whole rolling hillside and the wide, white rippling lake look like a Goya landscape. The view from here is tremendous and I had one of those moments where you feel like you’ve been brushed into a painting.

Today, we used the 70-degree weather to tour the Rock that is Gibraltar, beginning with the “Ape Den” (which is actually a misnomer, since it turns out that they are actually “monkeys”). The Barbary Macaques though, are actually a much-prided point of interest on the island and are considered to be Gibraltar’s unofficial national animal and the only primates on the entire European continent. There are about 300 of them that roam all over the rock throughout the day – these shaggy creatures that are this dusty rug color with ballooned and wobbling leathery butts that waggle a bit as they amble from one point of shade to another. And although every few feet another sign tells you not to feed the apes, the animals seem not to have taken any interest in this rule and are very insistent. As we came around the corner, one jumped on the hood of A’s little red mini and tried to crawl in the window searching for grocery bags from Morrison’s.

Barbary Macaques
They loiter along a stone pullout, at the end of which there’s patio area littered with fruit scraps and feces and this seems to be where the monkeys are fed each day. And apart from maintaining the tourist attraction that is one of the four stops on the “Rock Tour” of Gibraltar, there is also some mythology surrounding the monkey that encourages the residents here to take care of them, which states that as long as the Gibraltar apes reside on the rock, the British will hold Gibraltar. This mythology was actually threatened in the 1940’s after the second world war when their numbers dwindled to a mere seven and Winston Churchill ordered that the numbers be replenished and the population nurtured. So they were there today, in the brutal heat as I wandered up to sit next to them and then shrieked when they came too near, these monkeys that pre-date the trading stations we’ve set up now, whose families stretch back to Africa and are far more comfortable in the company of strangers than I will ever be.

We climb back up the steep rock road and head towards St. Michael’s Cave, passing the Pillars of Hercules at the National Reserve check point. The Pillars of Hercules is really just this oversized golden medallion placed between two columns, but its legend lends so much more romance that the stalwart monument implies.

Pillars of Hercules, Gibraltar
The Pillars of Hercules are threaded throughout various  mythologies. When Hercules had to perform his twelve labors, the farthest west he ever made it in the effort to complete his tasks was supposedly to the two “pillars” that span the strait of Gibraltar – one of which stands sentry on the north face on the rock of Gibraltar. The Romans said that Hercules had to cross a mountain in order to complete his tasks, but in order to cheat the task of climbing the mountain he just busted right through it (such a dude…) and created the Strait of Gibraltar to connect the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. According to Plato’s re-telling Atlantis was just beyond those pillars (meaning that as far as they knew – nothing was beyond those pillars) and in the Renaissance the pillars were said to warn “Nec Plus Ultra” (Nothing Further Beyond). This used to be the end of the world.

The road leads us up a few more steep paved hills until we reach a slope that is host to what appears to be a shanty town of cement and wood buildings. Upon closer inspection, I find that they aren’t really as ramshackle as I originally thought them to be, but it seems appropriate that the ticket entrance to a cave would somewhat resemble a mine shaft. And this is how you enter in St. Michael’s Cave.

St. Michael's Cave (which my phone doesn't
really photograph well)
St. Michael’s Cave is a hollowed out network of limestone stalagmites and stalactites housed within the Rock of Gibraltar 300 meters above sea level. Its dripping and deep ceilings glow with multicolored dappled hues of green and red and vibrant rooster comb gold. There are steps ranging all around the cave – the first cave I can ever remember being in, incidentally – that lead you up and then down and the whole thing smells damp and vaguely acidic and the sound is incredible. They actually use a section of the cave for concerts and have full auditorium seating because the acoustics are so sweet and heightened. They’ve hosted jazz concerts, cellists, vocalists and have another event coming up at the end of May. At one point, all of the tourists had gone from the cave except us and I settled down in one of the plastic red seats in the hall just listen to the water drip.

Highclere Castle, England
And that’s just two days of castles and caves. It speaks nothing of a solitary ten-mile walk through sun and sleet to and from Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey). It doesn’t tell you how in a subterranean kitchen in London, two women gave me a make-over (from the styling of my bangs to my new pen name). It doesn’t tell you about my detour to Devon and homemade chocolate fondant. It gives you no sense of the vast amount of life changes I’ve made seemingly without realizing it in the past year: the job I’ve left, the job I’m taking, the rainy city I’m leaving and the foggy city I will try and make my home, the lovers lost, the boots I’ve worn clean through, this trip that has taken me 6,000 miles away to re-acquaint me with some of my favorite people from my past and introduced me to some of the most deeply gracious and intelligent people that I had yet to meet in my life.

Everyone said that it gets better at 30 – all of the things that troubled you: the flailing gestures at directing your life, the stumbling romances, the watery sense of self – all of that gets better after 30. That’s what they say anyways.

But it turns out that it really doesn’t matter to me whether or not this is true. Not as much as I thought it would. I am happiest, it turns out, when I have no idea what things will look like; when things like being jammed up against a vintage, foot-smelling Samsonite suitcase on a train while traveling on Easter Monday are coupled with the bristle-brush, yet velveteen feeling under the pads of my fingers when I ran my hand down the back of a monkey this afternoon. When there is no accounting for what comes next or the combination of events that are possible. I don’t know what the view looks like from the future. And I don't mind.

View to Morocco
But the view from here? It’s almost evening now. Streetlamps and green-lit windows all along the hillside and up the Rock are coming on like glittering sea stars and the slow moving traffic of boats, yachts and barges through the water are cutting waves into the heat. The wind is tossing the birds and the entire sky is marbled violet. And through the last of the fog, I can see Morocco from my window.