Monday, May 07, 2007



My mother, now bedridden, helpless, a moored vessel,
sees travel as mere skittering across the surface of culture.
She wanted only to set up housekeeping in another country.

Wherever she went--Colombia, Brazil--she packed along
her settled way, her ease in baking rolls or chicken.
Now she cannot walk, much less venture onto the llanos.

Her stories have been cast off—or locked inside.
Now I have the power of the word. She needs me.
Occasionally her good right hand reaches

across her placid body to the left arm, inert
on its pillow, to rub or reposition it, coax it
back into action. It’s the most she can do.

Early on, we harbor the fear that someone listens,
and then, the fear that no one does. As I pack for Italy,
my mother says she’s glad she doesn’t have to go.
The great dark outside blankets all of us, outlasts
even the ravages of sunlight, said to be stunning
in Rome. Her voice grows faint over the phone.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Lawrence Halprin

Lawrence Halprin, born in 1916 and presumably now 90, made his mark as a landscape and urbanscape architect, designing for such spaces as Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. He is a traveler who records his observations visually and verbally in a pleasing combination. I first learned about him through his Notebooks: 1959-1971. Like many innovators, he is hard to categorize neatly. Best know for his urban designs, his notebooks demonstrate his interest in a variety of natural and manmade phenomena. His wife Anna is a dancer/choreographer, and he apparently has spent a lot of time exploring connections between his architectural perspectives and her craft. In my travels, I'd like to learn to slow down and take the time that it must require to do observational sketches and notations like this one from a town in Norway (click on it for a closeup):

Smailovic and Graduation

Bill Moran, formerly provost at Francis Marion College/University, gave yesterday's commencement address and received an honorary degree for his past service to FMU and to the cause of higher education in South Carolina. He left our campus to become President of Lander University and retired from there several years ago. He spoke to the graduates about the cellist Vedran Smailovic, who persisted in playing his cello in Sarajevo surrounded by destruction and danger--the one small thing he could do to pay tribute to the innocent dead and to bring some light to the living. He used his talent in the best way he could. Moran's message to the graduates was to take Smailovic's courage and dedication to heart. Make the best possible use of your own abilities, however modest. Bill is an absolutely admirable man. He was fair and firm as a provost, and he never forgot his roots in the English Department. He taught a course each semester, sometimes a freshman comp. course. He has returned to FMU frequently on various occasions. In 2005 and 2006, he attended the lecture series given his name: the Moran Lectures--an annual spring opportunity for one retiring or recently retired member of the faculty to address students and colleagues.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

George Kennan and Travel Notebooks

I've been planning for our trip to Italy, which begins in a week, in various ways. I've made reservations for each night of our trip except the final few days in Rome. I figure we can take care of that when we get to Rome at first. I've also ordered train passes good for any 7 days of first class train travel in Italy. We get a slight break for traveling together. Cost: about $300 each. Also, I've been reading the guidebooks, esp. Lonely Planet. And I've been boning up on Italian history--now, Robert Payne's Horizon Guide to Ancient Rome.

For a couple months, I've been listening in the car to Italian tapes--a conversational series specifically designed for use in the car, so there's no need to refer constantly to a printed book, though there is a text for each lesson. I'm not sure how much I'm absorbing, but it's helpful that there are so many cognates with French, of which I have a fair working knowledge, and Spanish, of which I know a smattering. For the word "but," for example, you can say "ma"(like the French "mais") or "pero" (as in Spanish).

I also prepare for any extended trip by reading accounts of trips taken by others. I have my favorites, such as John Steinbeck's amiable Travels with Charley and Henry Miller's wonderfully biting 1939 The Air Conditioned Nightmare. I'll read anything Bruce Chatwin wrote about his travels, especially The Songlines. But my favorite traveling journal-keeper is George Kennan, whose Sketches from a Life is a selections from journals he kept during his travels as a statesman from 1927-1988. Unlike his many other brilliant books, which are mostly about diplomacy, this one recounts his observations as a traveler. Most of his observations center on Russia, Germany, and other northern European countries--not locations that I feel the strongest attraction to. But he brings the places he visits to life with a sharp eye and a scrupulous curiosity, a constant probing beneath the seemingly ordinary events of everyday life. Here, he's writing in 1984 about Ischia, an Italian island:
I thought, on the way back, of the qualities of this very Italian place: the incongruous mixture of tolerance, naivete, overcrowding, sociability, family solidarity, localism, acceptance of modernism in its most hideous forms and yet with some sort of an inner self-defense against it--life led, in short, in the small dimension, full of pettiness, no doubt, and not without its small cruelties and injustices, but borne along by the broad, wise, disillusioned charity of the Catholic Church, by the comforting familiarities of family life, and by the unvarying, reassuring support of the Christian sacraments. (327)

Often, he begins his entries with a matter-of-fact statement telling where he is or has been, with maybe a quick note on the weather thrown in. But then, he effortlessly takes us deeper. Here, he begins an account of a 1940 walk in The Hague with a startling juxtaposition.

I took another long walk this morning, only to hear a German military band playing on a square to a sizable audience of placid, politely applauding Dutchmen, and to see a place, only a block or two from the legation, where bombs had wiped out most of the inside of a city block.
When you read Kennan, you know he's a thoughtful traveler, not just a close observer, but also a ponderer, a thinker about what he sees. It's the attitude I'd like to bring to my own travels.