Travel is a vanishing act, a solitary trip down a pinched line of geography to oblivion.
Paul Theroux

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Book Bound

            Can you remember where you were when you read certain books? I almost always can. I look to the bookshelf before me now. The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram is the first book I see. 

          Where was I?

           An image arrives instantly: a wheely chair in the adjunct faculty office at the community college. It was winter, and the ground was frozen outside. 

           The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood? A college dorm room strewn with empty mugs and textbooks, rain streaming down the windowpanes. And Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi? A pink couch, of course, in a Cambridge apartment in summer. My boyfriend and I had just broken up.

            I think we all, to some degree, have this ability: to send ourselves to where we were when we read the books we loved.

            It’s something I hadn't given much thought to. When I browse in a bookstore and recognize a book I’ve read before, I don’t often consider where I was when I read it. Rarely do I reflect upon where I was sitting, or where I was living, or at which crossroads I stood then. I do not stop to think what that book gave to me at that precise moment in time.

            Instead, I ply my mind for the plot, the characters’ names, the themes presented. Did I like the book? Would I recommend it to my mom, an avid reader? Would I recommend it to my dad? I take pleasure in seeing familiar titles—not, perhaps, because of my own, unique experiences reading those words, but because I like being a part of a bookshelved world. It is a world I can rely on: in any English-language bookstore anywhere, I know I am eventually bound in my browsing to encounter the face of a friend.

            And these friends take us on journeys, some of which we never forget. All writing, my professor Philip Graham once said, is travel writing. All writing has the ability to transport a reader to some other time and place, be it a parched desert in the years of Christ or the locked bedroom of a 14-year-old girl. Adolescence, Graham said, is surely one of the loneliest journeys we each ever take. This is why we love books: they help us to find meaning in the chaos of experience.

            Yet are we paying enough attention to our journeys, as the reading of the book is taking place? Are we consciously noticing the ways in which the book informs decisions we make and things we say? Do we notice patterns and make connections, tying the author’s words straight to our own chaotic experiences? 

           What do we take from the books we read?


            When I was twenty-two, I worked in a hotel for six months after college and saved up enough money to buy a round-the-world plane ticket. Just before Thanksgiving, my brother drove me to the Boston airport. I was bound for Hong Kong, and had done very little planning and no preparatory reading. My friends threw me a going-away party the night before, and I hadn’t slept at all. At the airport, my brother kissed me good-bye and tore off gleefully in my car, his for six months, and then I was alone, the morning still dark and very cold. My head beat and my hands shook. I looked at the ticket in my hand and felt my heart sink. This wasn’t how I imagined it to be—already, a desperate loneliness, and I hadn’t even left the States.

            In Hong Kong, I suffered from horrible jetlag. I woke every morning at three and tossed and turned until four, and then I sat out on the roof of my hostel and watched the city twinkle awake. I had never felt so lonesome. I had no idea what to do with myself; I couldn’t communicate; I couldn’t find anything, even with a map. People looked at me strangely, and so I wandered the streets very early in the morning and felt self-conscious. I wrote weepy emails home and wondered how I would survive six months of this.

            And then I opened Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt.

            It is because of that book that I can remember so vividly the way Hong Kong smelled and sounded. It was muggy there, the air thick and winey, fishy in places by the late afternoon. Salt blew off the sea. Gulls screeched, and boats in the harbor blew their horns. My hostel smelled like cigarette smoke and old newspapers, and the curtains were always closed so that the place sat in a simmering, crowded gloom. In the very early morning, the scent of lilies blew in through the single open window. The girl in the bed next to mine came in very late and slept a restless, whimpering sleep. All of this I recall as if it happened very recently. I think of Angela’s Ashes, and my senses remember Hong Kong.

            Of the book itself, I recall vague details: the narrator’s desperate, hopeless childhood; extreme poverty and alcoholism; abandonment. I remember Limerick’s gray, dirty streets, the freezing Sunday masses, the sour smell of pickled dinners, the Christmases with nothing.

            But I do remember the book’s humor, and its hope. I remember the way an adolescent Frank scrimped and saved, rose in the morning and passed out in bed at night and watched men throw his mother around, and still he survived. I remember how, by the light of a waning headlamp, I finished the book and wept. I slept deeply that night, rising with the sun and not before it for the first time in a week.

            The book kept me from giving up, I realize now. It kept me from getting on the next plane home, and it forced me out of the relative safety of the hostel. If Frank could survive, you can do this, I told myself, setting out. I took a ferry to Lantau Island and rode on a bus there for hours through a tiny fishing village and a silver city built into cloud forest. On Lantau, standing beneath the largest Buddha sculpture in the world, I couldn’t believe where I was.


            In Thailand, buses could get you anywhere, as long as you had time and patience to spare. I made my slow way up and then down the country, inching towards Burma and then back towards Malaysia. In the daytime, the buses were always crowded, four or five to a seat and people standing with animals and children in the aisles. There would invariably be a child on my lap, and the heat would rise and the hours would lengthen. Yet there was always something so calm about those buses. Thais are quiet and slow to anger.

            I read The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith on one such journey. We were travelling down Thailand’s narrowest passage, its tail. The bus left Bangkok in the morning, due in the city of Trang by midnight, and all the while, I read. The sun was warm through the windows, and a gentle breeze blew. A little girl sat perched on my lap, her hair in braids, her hands folded across her body. Eventually, she closed her eyes and slept against me. I read about a grassy Botswana savannah, a friendly community, a no-nonsense lady detective called Hetty who sings to herself, O, Botswana, my country, my place.

            I don’t have to look the words up to write them here, though it’s been ten years. I will always remember that line: I was a continent away from home on a bus in Thailand, and yet the words sung inside me as well. I also felt, however temporarily, to be in my place. The tone of the book matched exactly the Thailand that stretched alongside the road, yellow and green beneath an amber afternoon sky. The occasional sea. The words fell in tune with the way the ride felt, jostling along in the fading afternoon, the passengers’ heads lolling in sleep.

            A man in a beach hut on the island of Chang Mai gave me his copy of Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist in exchange for a piece of cake wrapped in foil and two lukewarm Beer Changs. Of that book, I remember round pebbles, a desert city, a wandering boy. I remember spare prose, a search for a treasure, a long journey home.

            And I remember a white-sand beach and creaking palms. I cannot think of The Alchemist without also thinking of the man’s beach hut, the dreadlocks in his hair, the jam-packed ashtray by his bed, his sandy floor. I remember shells lined up on the stairs, a jagged painting of birds and water, and I remember the man’s deep, quiet voice. Our feet were bare. He was born on the beach, he told me. Without The Alchemist, I might have remembered far less.


            In India, I felt it my duty to read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I expected to slog through the book, published three-quarters of a century ago, but found I couldn’t put it down. Everything I saw matched the texture of the book: the sounds of the streets and markets; the smells of sugar and spices and sweat; the rocking of the train. I noticed caves the color of clay, and my train once passed through a desert strewn with bones. I saw the marshes of Goa and the Karnataka coast; I turned the pages.

            India shook me. It shakes, I imagine, any traveler from the West, anyone used to quiet streets, gray cement, hushed voices, and personal space. The noise and color and sheer press of people everywhere jolted my system. The trains were late and crammed, and people slept on cots in rows on the sidewalks. My two eyes weren’t enough to see everything. I was always overwhelmed, and people stared at me constantly.

            At the end of A Passage to India, the British Mrs. Moore watches from the deck of a ship as India shrinks away. She has had a bad go of it, and she is ready to leave. On a train pulling into Mumbai, through the neighborhoods of sprawling slums, I read Forster’s words:

 …Presently the boat sailed and thousands of coconut palms appeared all around the anchorage and climbed the hills to wave her farewell. “So you thought an echo was India; you took the Marabar caves as final?” they laughed. “What have we in common with them, or they with Asirgarh? Goodbye!” (210)

            I heard the palm trees everywhere after that. Their voices made me stronger somehow. In freezing Manali, I did what I could to stay warm, eat well, and exercise, and by Rajasthan, I had stopped noticing the stares. I learned to look instead for the beauty each place offered: in Rishikesh, I stayed for free in an ashram, practicing yoga in the morning and walking by the ice-blue Ganges in the afternoon. Jaipur showed me an ancient fort, a wild market, a farm at the end of dirt roads where, for three weeks, I weeded vegetable gardens. Rajasthan gave me blue roofs, golden sunsets and cream-colored walls, a color palette I will remember for the rest of my life. I can go there any time: the city is there in my mind, the pale wash of it stretching beneath that ever-blue sky. It is like looking at the sea. Forster’s words whisper sometimes to me still: So you thought an echo was India?

           Nowhere else, I suspect, could I have listened so closely to his words.


            That year, my books were my guides, my protectors, my supporters. They were my therapists and friends, and they showed me how to drink in all that I saw and write it down, to open my heart to the kindness of strangers, and to be grateful for where I was and what I had.

            And so I cannot think of Thailand without also seeing Botswana in the afternoon light, or Hong Kong without seeing Frank McCourt as a rugged little boy, finding laughter in a gloomy room that smells of cigarettes and molding newsprint. Of India, I remember Mrs. Moore, and what those palm trees said to her. A bus brought me someplace, and a book brought me someplace else. The two journeys are intertwined; forget one, and I will lose both. My memory relies on the books I have read; like a library catalog, they have helped me, all along, to order the chaos.

            When I returned to Boston, I noticed that I felt more comfortable being alone. I found myself needing fewer clothes and simpler food than I had before, and I no longer minded crowded rooms or jam-packed trains. I lost my watch and didn’t buy another. I rejoiced in seeing old friends, and it was easy to be present in their company. I felt grateful for them in a way I hadn’t before.

            And when quiet came to me, I stopped to listen. When a stranger smiled, I smiled back. I found I could summon again the calm I’d known in Asia, when only the books in my hands knew where to find me.

            Look to your bookshelf now. Where were you with those books? Who were you then? What did you want? Who were you thinking of? Remember the books, remember yourself, and don’t try to separate the two.  Let the books be a part of the narrative of your life. Make them yours.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

What is Reading?

This is reading:

The Secret Lives of Books, by Jena Priebe (on view now at the Mass MoCa)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Take a Ride Down a Winding Road

It's the Blue Ridge Parkway, everyone! From the heart of the Great Smokies (heart-stopping) in North Carolina to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, this road is a sliver of calm in our hectically  bountiful nation. I took a little drive on the Blue Ridge just last month, and here is what I found:

And here's what I did not find, dear readers!
  • Traffic (though I hear that changes come leaf peeper season)
  • Honking horns
  • Billboards advertising hamburgers, cheeseburgers, God, Children's Lives - all popular billboards in OBN, I've discovered
  • McDonalds
  • Cops
'Twas a wonderful time, dear readers. A wonderful time. There are hikes and picnic places and blooming flowers. There are turkeys. There are little bed and breakfasts, and there are rainforests. There is so much beauty, your heart will swell with embarrassing patriotic pride.

Drive some or all of the Blue Ridge Parkway if you can, when you can. It's not going anywhere, and our tax dollars are paying. Bring a lover or just your own lonely heart. Bring your worries so that you can lose them. Drive a silent, winding road - it turns out they still exist. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Marriage for All!

One huge step forward, everyone!

Here's to our country, for finally making gay marriage legitimate. It's surreal on many counts, especially as I learn the news through my laptop in a remote adobe house on the New Mexican plains.

Beneath the Gay Marriage Triumph article, the Times showed a Tweet roll. One Tweet said, "I'm proud to be an American."

And I thought, "I'm not."

And that was a terrible thought, I know, I know.

Except that this decision is being made far too late, later than it should have, and this issue is in fact, in five out of nine very important minds, a no-brainer.

OK, maybe not a no-brainer. Much careful thought and all of that. But still. I suspect, deep down, it was a no-brainer.

Meanwhile, decades have dragged along. Gay couples across our bountiful nation have, for far too long already, endured lifetimes without rights or recognition. We're real late in the game when it comes to developed nations, and even many developing nations. The issue of gay marriage has been covered in the media to an extreme degree, drawing our nation's attention away from other critical national and international issues. In short, we have wasted so much time. This should have been decided long ago.

Are those the wrong things to think? Should I simply be jubilantly happy? Should I be weeping tears of joy, and not of frustration? Should I be seeing this as a global triumph and not a national one, not as closely tied as I might think to my identity as an American? Should I keep in mind that the whole world, besides dear Holland (and even that only happened in 2000!??), is late in the game?

I remember a day years ago when my friend Sam and I stumbled accidentally into Buenos Aires' pride celebration. Gay marriage had been legal for about a year in Argentina, and this was a wild fiesta: funky, rootsy, and wholly organic. We drank beer and shouted and cried. We made friends. We didn't just watch the parade, we WERE the parade, just the two of us plus about a million giddy Argentines, marching down the Avenida de Mayo towards Congreso.

May America know such bliss, if it doesn't already.

Hooray for the gays!

Thursday, June 18, 2015


"At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively."

President Obama, 1 PM today


My uncle is proud of his guns. My students write essays about their fathers' guns. My New Mexico neighbors all have guns. The people of Dannemora, one hour north of my parents' house, feel safer these days with guns. Our Constitution protects our right to have guns. Our country, in so many ways, is defined by guns. 

We should be ashamed. Guns shouldn't be our right; they should be something we all fear and hate. Too many white young men with crazy eyes go into public places with hidden guns. I work in a school, and some of my students wear baggy clothes and have shifty eyes, and I'm not afraid to say that I'm afraid.

To the people of Charleston, I send my love and prayers, but even if we all send those, it will never be enough. Every life matters. Put down the fucking guns.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Humble Stumblings

Read the June issue of Numéro Cinq, everyone!

And not just because DG has been kind enough to publish my humble stumblings, but because the whole issue will be beautiful and fiery and, if I know DG as well as I think I do, more than a little bit sexy.

So from where I sit in lush and steamy Carthage, Tennessee, I raise my glass to you, Doug: for putting my essay, "American Roads," on the Cinq, and also for using a better picture of me this time than the one I foolishly provided for you when you published "On White." Little did I know my name's Google results would forever show, first and foremost, a picture of me preparing to drink water from the Ganges.

Meanwhile: Happy June, dear readers! Summer on.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Morning After

Do you sometimes feel like you can't check the Facebook without seeing some beaming new mom, some tiny newt, some proud papa you knew a million years ago in high school? Is your fridge so covered with birth announcements and baby shower invites that you can't find the handle? Is the man getting you down? Are you just downright feeling old? Have you simply read one too many Jennifer Weiners?

Okay, maybe not, maybe not.

Maybe, after a long semester and a long winter and a long week, that's just where I am right now.

Anyway, it was all those things and so many more, until I read Elisa Albert's After Birth. 

Yes, my squeamish readers, it's about birth. Yes it's about being sad afterwards. Yes it's about being white in the first world with a good man and a good job, a good degree, good friends. And yes, yes, there is whining. There is bitching. There is menstrual blood.

Pick up a copy anyway, friends. Male or female, I don't give a sucky banana. Want to know what it's like to give birth and then have to inhabit this world? Too bad! You need to learn anyway! Too many new American moms are made to feel helpless, afraid, alone, torn apart, and sucked dry. Do you wish for a friend, a good listener, a good storyteller, a fighter? Do you wish someone would laugh in your face and shake you by the shoulders? Do you want to read something sneaky, deviant, angry, and true? Are you ready for a slap in the face and a bite on the ear?

All right, then.

Go visit your friends, the book shouts as you hold it in your hands. Don't leave new moms alone!! Don't assume they're okay! Don't fret when you see their beaming faces on your News Feed! Don't be jealous! Don't feel inadequate! Just go on over there now, and bring food!

Albert writes that giving birth "is not at all dissimilar to the time surrounding death: periods of profound change and transformation that demand our complete attention." She tells us not to be so afraid of giving birth, of asking for what we want, of seeking a second opinion, of letting ourselves truly feel. Let's let our bodies do what they have always known how to do. Let's trust ourselves. Let's read this book, and then let's make more books like this one.