Category Archives: travel

Chattering, reading and resisting sleep.

“I liked thinking about people reading books in the Paris metro, since they are underground, in the earth’s dark shadow, in the artificial light of electric bulbs, with the mute, graffiti-covered walls of corridors and tunnels rushing by their windows….”

“Above us, in the airplanes, someone is also reading a book — most often one with shiny covers, devoid of mystery, constructed on simple premises and the sincere desire for abundant royalties, but it may also be that someone up in those expanses is studying a Sufi epic or Dante and will experience illumination.

“And if this reader looks out the little window, he or she will see not black walls, as in the metro’s labyrinths, but the white gleam of clouds, a splendid, perpetually sunlit landscape, and below the threads of rivers quivering like children’s thermometers, strips of highways streaked by cars, like nervous insects, the yellow strips of sand along the sea, the dark smears of forests, sometimes snow-topped mountains, profoundly motionless, self-absorbed, autistic, and also cities chattering in different languages, resisting sleep, glowing even at midnight with feverish neon lights. Above the earth and below the earth, in metro cars and airplanes, someone is always reading books.”

-Adam Zagajewski, in Slight Exaggeration, © 2011

Nowadays most people I see on public transit or airplanes, if they are not chatting with their seatmate or sleeping, are looking at their phones or laptops. You can’t tell if they are reading an e-book or playing a game, or just working.

(I know, I know, it’s the era of masks and distancing, but please humor me. It may be temporarily necessary to do without some beloved activities, but I can still remember, and muse.)

Whenever I see anyone with an actual print book, I find it hard not to stare, to strain my neck and eyes in an effort to see just what author he is interacting with, revealing this private activity so publicly. It’s not voyeurism that motivates me, but a feeling of kinship with other readers, in an era when our numbers are diminishing. Of course, the statistics on reading trends show that a huge number of people continue to read, and I notice a few of them at the library. What’s different about the readers the plane is that I might watch them over the course of an hours-long journey; they are specific examples, and encouraging in a way that statistics can never be.

Zagajewski’s musings made me think about how we readers sometimes look outwardly like the “profoundly motionless, self-absorbed” mountain, when inside we are actually engaged in intense conversation that makes us more like the cities that “resist sleep.” I have a lot of experience with that lately, without going anywhere!

On my solo travels, twice that I remember clearly I was able to talk to perfect strangers about our reading, and I think in both cases the other person spoke to me first. The last time this happened I was looking at my Kindle Paperwhite while in line at Mumbai’s airport security, when a well dressed man next to me interrupted to ask what I was reading. Always honest in the instant, as soon as I answered I felt embarrassed and wished that I had thought to name some other, less boring recent read.

But his question was just an icebreaker, so he could find out why I was in India; talking with him, I forgot to notice how slowly the line was moving. I wonder if I will get the chance again to practice his kind of boldness and make the acquaintance of commuting or traveling readers. I would like to convey somehow my happiness to meet on my journey another lover of the printed word, who might just then be on her way to experiencing illumination.

(All photos found online.)

Ivy, Nicholas and Keith.

Last week I made a quick trip up north to be with granddaughter Ivy on her eighth birthday. At first I thought I would be driving out of our newly cleared and clean spaces into the smoke again, but the skies turned blue there, too.

…Until the evening before I came home, when we went to a lake and it was a little smoky again. But we pretended it was from campfires.

I taught Jamie how to use a needle and thread, and Ivy the blanket stitch. They were very intent on their work and did not want to stop even when Grandma had to go on to other business. I can understand; it really is fun to make lines and designs in different pretty colors while you chat with fellow stitchers.

I gave Ivy her Aunt Kate’s childhood sewing basket which we sorted and organized together; from we don’t know where Kate had acquired many little wooden spools of bright silk thread, the colors of which Ivy began to name on the spot: Cold as Steel, Easter Egg, Pumpkin Pie, Red Osier (which I learned is a species of dogwood), Gold Mine… and many more. I didn’t want to stop sewing myself to write them down. Those silks turned out to be tangly and not very strong, so they were abandoned in favor of the modern spools and adequate colors.

Hoping for someone to bring down crabapples.
Jamie’s desk that serves as the top of a cave.

The last morning, minutes before my departure, I visited Pippin’s always fascinating garden that is mostly behind a tall deer fence. The zinnias are outside, because the deer don’t always eat them. But the dahlias must be inside, because the deer would always eat them.

Tired of fighting aphids and rats who attack my vegetables, and inspired by this celebration of a showy species, I began to think of growing some in my planter boxes next spring. Keith H, above, and Nicholas, below, particularly captured my heart. I used to grow some gorgeous dahlias here, but didn’t really have adequate space in the previous setting, and eventually gave them away.

It only took a little bit of reading about dahlia culture to make me realize that I don’t need another project. No, a much nicer plan is to take the easy and fun route, which is Highway 5 all the way to Pippin’s every fall, where if I time it right I might take in a birthday or two and a dreamy visit with her beautiful garden.

Good shepherds and pink splashes.

I didn’t know the name for it at the time, but one morning last week I experienced an acute and painful case of Cognitive Overload. It was the day I had been looking forward to for two months, when I would drive up to Pippin’s; the day before that I’d started packing my car with the books and food and even a 50-ft garden hose I was going to take to the family there in far-Northern California.

The morning of, I read an article about the coronavirus before I got dressed, and for the next two hours I debated whether I should change my plans. What if I were asymptomatically infected already? I could be the one responsible for bringing the pathogen to a relatively remote area. That was my main concern, and I worked myself into tears not being able to decide what to do.

Eventually all of my daughters weighed in, and the Professor, too. They didn’t just say, “Go ahead,” or “Come!” but they gave their reasons, which helped me choose among my own jangling thoughts and pick a course of action. I went.

I took along a dozen Mars Hill Audio Journal CD’s for the ride because I thought I might catch up on some of the interviews. One of the first ones I listened to was of Alan Jacobs talking about his book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Toward the end of the interview when he and Ken Myers were talking about how thinking takes time and effort, and how “practical discernment must be cultivated and developed over time,” he mentioned a discussion he had with Jonathan Rauch about an aspect of thinking that Rauch told him he hadn’t emphasized enough; here are some snippets I transcribed:

“Jonathan Rauch reminded him of the inability of any one human being to bear the cognitive load of decision making that we are called upon to do every day… there is a necessity to offload some of this responsibility to a reliable and healthy community. Each of us individually can’t know what we need to know about every issue; that means we have to trust other people to help guide us and inform us. We just don’t have the cognitive energy to be able to do this…. that triage is impossible for any of us to do on our own. Don’t listen to the people who tell you to think for yourself. It’s not possible to think for yourself… we are always embedded both socially and temporally…  That can work for us, if we see to it that we are properly and helpfully embedded.”

There I was, driving up Highway 5, peacefully following through on a decision that I had made by offloading some of my cognitive load. 🙂 When I had a husband to confer with, that would have been enough community. Various articles on the Internet aren’t helpful because they aren’t humans in my community, but thank God I am embedded in a family.

In the days since then, I’ve been grateful for other communities that I am part of, for better or worse, and the way they have taken some of the load. We pray that by God’s providence, whether the decisions of our civic authorities are always the best or not, they will turn out for the best in the end. The governor of my state said that everyone in my age group should stay home, period. Soon afterward, the more immediate area I live in came under “shelter in place” orders.

I remember the many years during which I would defer to my husband about many, many decisions that I didn’t always think he made with the most wisdom —  even then I was often glad not to have to think through every last decision on my own; it was enough that I had the good judgment to defer. Maybe my tears last week were partly the cumulative outflow of five years of pent-up frustrations, the weight of a widow’s decision fatigue.

Before I learned of the governor’s edict, I had planned to attend church as soon as I returned, though everyone was debating about the prudence of that, even those of us who know that it’s not through the Holy Mysteries in the chalice that we could share pathogens. It’s all of us breathing parishioners and the surfaces we touch…. Here also I have been relieved of the exhausting effort to have perfect wisdom. My rector, with these words, has passed on to us the decision of our bishop to close the church for at least two weeks:

“Let us realize that we simply cannot know the burdens that our Bishops carry as pastors. We all heard the incredible words of the Savior on Sunday about the “Good Shepherd” in John 10 in honor of St Gregory Palamas, how a true bishop cares for the flock…. let’s remember that the bishop has the ‘mind of the Church’ and so we receive his words, actions and requests with joy, and yes, obedience.”

And Monk Seraphim of Mull Monastery, as he was embarking on a trip through five airports on his return to Scotland, wrote to us:

“This is not our time to ‘shine’ by showing empty courage and adolescent bravado. A Christian shines through humility and sacrifice of one’s self, sacrifice of one’s ‘courageous’ image in the world.

“We are human beings, made of flesh and bones. Flesh and bones can become Chalices of God’s presence in the world, but they can also become ill. As a Christian, my duty is to comfort and to love, to keep myself and my neighbour from harm.”

“Pray for the weak and those most exposed, and try to help any way you can. Forget about ‘playing it cool’ – no one rejoices in our pride except the evil one. Be human. Be a human being, surrounded by human beings, loving them, helping them, protecting them. In this simple, living, non ‘heroic’ attitude is the Cross that will lead to the Resurrection.”

I did try to protect my fellow humans as I traveled down the state. I used so many homemade alcohol wipes at gas stations and rest stops that my hands were in great need of TLC last night. Today I’m resting from the trip, and feeling comforted and joyful because of God’s care for me.

I want to tell you, too, more about my visit and fun with the grandkids, but for now I’ll just mention that I saw a thousand ? or so Western Redbud trees and bushes on my travels. The grass on the California hills is still mostly brown, changing to gray-green in some places, and these bright pink splashes all over the place are also speaking JOY!

Here with snow and a flower.

For many of us our daily lives have become more home-centered as a result of our larger community’s efforts against the coronavirus, and maybe some have more time for blog-reading. 🙂 I might have more time to write something about the mini book club reading Kierkegaard, or an update on my reading of The Plague.

If not for the fact that I drove up to Pippin’s in farther Northern California on Thursday, and my time and attention are devoted to Scout, Ivy, and Jamie for a few days. Oh, yes, also their parents! I’ve not given up on finding the wherewithal to compose a few thoughts and sentences on all the philosophical musings I’ve been doing, including those prompted by a dozen Mars Hill Audio interviews I listened to on the way up — but I’m not counting on it.

Today it’s snowing, and likely will until I go home, but yesterday I saw this lovely Greek Anemone, and send it to you as hopeful sign.