Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
During the winter of 1971/72 I lived in Crete. Full of anger and disgust, I had gone there to find a clarity missing from Nixon’s America. I also went to pay tribute to Kazantzakis, the great Greek writer who traveled the world but always remembered the flowering almond trees of his native island. Crete is famous for its ancient Minoan ruins, and rightly so; seeing them, one’s imagination is never the same again. Yet I remember these things just as well: the old men who seem to come out of the hills, to be a part of the hills themselves, so rough-hewn they look — unshaven, dark, deeply-lined, frequently they wear the high Cretan boots made of smooth leather, vrakes, and a scarf of black fringe over their hair which, askew, looks like a woman’s black stocking; the women in mourning black, a few still hiding their faces; the young women married to older men, so many in Crete — they often help their husband in his shop; the fat children one sees everywhere, who, it appears, always wear short pants — these fat children, undoubtedly poor children who eat a great deal of bread, have smooth hairless skin and are quite friendly; the affection displayed between men as they walk down a street with their arms about each other; the cats which are everywhere, multi-colored cats, too many of them — one hears the cry of starving cats walking down any street at night; the idiocy of Cretan drivers, honking all the time for the slightest of reasons, their horns seeming shriller than American horns — and occasionally a horn which will have three or four notes making it somewhat musical, and at the same time, exasperating; the number of three-wheel trucks for small hauling; the bell of three notes which rings before a movie begins and when the intermission is over; the off-key chant of the pistachi vendor during Charles Bronson movies; the peculiar ferocity of Cretan dogs towards foreigners — all the dogs bark at us as we walk past the yards in which they are tied miserably to a pole; the presence of sweet shops everywhere with their extraordinary choice of goodies — perhaps the fat children wander into these shops after school; the matchboxes in the gutters, the April 21 emblem torn off, a crime if one is caught; the women constantly bent over their short brooms, besoms actually, pouring water out of a cup and sweeping the debris into the street; the sheep tied up in yards, bleating pathetically; the common color of old rusted cans and limestone hills; the young children who know only a few English phrases and words: “Are you English,” “bye-bye,” “hi,” “tourist tourist!” “yes”; the tea man with his hand tray carrying hot milk, tea, and coffee to the businessmen in their shops; the mongolian idiot Cristos who lives and dances at the bus station and is taken care of by the entire city of Rethymnon, and who was once committed to an asylum until a petition of city-people sprung him out; the men smoking in doorways of shops, the women working on needlepoint in bad light; the lemon trees in December and January with their green lemons turning yellow; the cafes filled only with men and soldiers on leave; the men and women congregating outside an appliance store on a holiday evening, or on Sunday night, watching the Lone Ranger on television, both a recent arrival in Crete; the stink of oranges amidst the garbage; the anti-Communist posters set about the town with their images of women and children fleeing from the sword of the workers’ party; the picture of Papadopoulos in all the government buildings — such an ugly little man with popped eye brows; the absolute lack of hurry among pedestrians in the street; the simple grave of Kazantzakis with its wooden cross and epitaph; the peculiarly angelic quality in the voice of certain young women — their eyes shine and their voice springs from the top of their throat, like an orphan’s voice, fragile and easy; the fishermen who ask us to step on board and eat fish with them and drink wine — and when we have come aboard and have a plate of fish in our hands, who leave us to ourselves as they go back to their task of net-mending; the old man who fell down in the street one day like an old tree; the baby sheep who frisked his heels high in the air on main street when the smell of almonds was everywhere.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Sometimes my best traveling occurs when I sit still and hardly move a muscle. For instance:
I like to visit where you’ve been, to go through a book that once you read and notice points you underlined and where the binding broke as you pressed it open. Of course I know the story of where and when you picked it up, long ago when young, alone and lonely. You bought in paper what eluded life and left behind your thoughts and movements there upon the page. I know you now before we meet.
I like to visit where you’ve been, and sometimes when you’ve gone away, I’ll steal into your room. Even empty, you leave behind so much of life.
They’re notes left out upon your desk of projects, actions, dates and I know that somewhere you move about and smile. I hear your laugh and how you get enthused.
I sit in your rocker, slowly back and forth, a human pendulum marking off the beats, remembering in the darkened hearth quiet conversations, and (I have to grin) our more disastrous exchanges that somehow always pass.
Eucalyptus, sandalwood, white ruffles, crystal rainbows, feathery green plants, sunshine, patchwork quilt. Memories enfold, just as slipping on my mother’s robe puts me in her arms.
Distance exists in the strangest manner. It’s there before us as the turnpike stretches forward in its trance. Yet distance vanishes, in the swelling up of memory. Or sometimes people stand side by side while distance opens between them. Distance is a strange beast. One moment it rears up to devour, the next it lies slain by the tenderest impulse of the heart.
I was sitting in a chair at Sunday School. I was listening carefully to the teacher. My right elbow jutted out. My hand rested on the desk. The teacher must have said something funny, because the boy next to me hit his elbow into mine. For a moment, I became dizzy. A blackness moved from the corner of my eyes to fill them to the center. I was no longer in school. I found myself sitting at home in another chair. I was about to speak. The entire room impressed me as real. I could see the surroundings perfectly. Time was not passing.
I opened my eyes, which had been closed. I was back in Sunday School.
I don’t know how, but I was in two places simultaneously. If I could understand it, I could be in Europe now, without airfare. The irony: only my elbow knows that travel secret.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
(This is for Louise Pope)
I remember being very small and dozing off in the car on the way to Grandma’s house. I’d spend hours watching the grass and roadside rush by in parallax rates of speed, frozen briefly when I blinked my eyes the right way, until the humming vibration crept into my head and hands and bore me off to blurred, shimmering lands of stop and start dreamtime. After a while, fifty miles per hour seemed crawling slow, and, as I aged, car travel became an unendurable confinement which burned the sense out of my feet and made them tingle from poor circulation.
When I was older, maybe nine or ten, my mother got the notion to take up pottery and continue her foreign language education. I think she was getting sort of crazy teaching sixth grade students all day and going home at night to a spiritually impaired, pasty-faced bozo of a husband and two freaking chemically imbalanced little monsters of children — my father, sister and self, respectively. I’m not sure exactly where my consciousness was then, or even whether it really existed yet, but poor old badgered Mom’s need to get out and be, kind of helped me too. Suddenly there were handmade things around, and strains of music — Beethoven mostly — in the afternoon and suspicious new foods that weren’t just reconstituted glop or thawed chunks of fillers and dye. There were books too, about far-away places, and magically spoken snatches of languages I could not speak. We were traveling away from our superficial selves, to a place I now know as that tranquil heart of hearts insane people seek. Sometimes.
As years passed I muddled through school, zombified on school days, T.V. afternoons, and my own shallow imagination nights. During all this forced exposure to cultural mediocrity, I read reams of science fiction and took to riding my bicycle instead of doing homework. The more time I spent wandering around the back roads of the country on a bicycle, the less time I spent studying algebra-ish equations. Thus I came to know the taste of dust and the smell of hot rain hissing on pavement, the feel of wind in my slitted eyes and riding low over my bicycle, perched precisely on the stripe of white at road’s margin.
My senior year in high school, I took large amounts of any drug I could lay my mitts on and turned all of my English papers in at least three weeks late.
After graduation, I spent a year doing something totally alien to all my prior experience. I worked. And right poorly at that. But the money came in and I kept on doing it and after a while I learned not to waste time so. And then I began traveling in earnest. My voracious but not too selective reading included the classified section of the end of each Mother Earth News. Mostly I would look for strange alternative stuff that struck me as really absurd, but one day I noticed a little blurb about an orchard that was looking for apple pickers in Wisconsin. I wrote them a letter, and they sent one back. The next thing I knew I was riding a bicycle through dirt-poor coal country, corn fields, and sooty Cincinnati. I met people. I grew some. I did some abysmally stupid and asinine things. I earned two thousand dollars and promptly drank it up. I came back. And somewhere up there under the weird northern lights I just decided never to ride in an automobile again unless it was unavoidable.
I suppose that as time progresses I grope less blindly, do less unbalanced wandering in my head. I can’t really define my travel as having gotten me anywhere useful quickly or efficiently, but I have made do and that is a good change. I have chosen the quiet way of rhythmic breathing and cool, clean streams going down to the sea over the roaring din of fume-choked interstate ragged madness.
This past September I set out to ride my bicycle from Carolina clear over the land to the Pacific Ocean to see a sunset. I suppose it was an admirable goal, but I never got past Eastern Tennessee. I wandered around the Blue Ridge Mountains and across North and South Carolina for three months instead. Soon as I hit the parkway on my second day out, some undefinable thing just clicked into place. It was as if traveling with a set destination just would not do for the kind of traveling I had in mind.
There is a certain self-contained exuberance in skimming along between the immensity of the earth and the fluidity of space. When I travel I cannot feel this exuberance so readily walking or driving as I can when biking. It is more intense and overwhelming by far than any perception-altering drug can ever be, something akin to Watt’s magical oceanic heartbeat, or making love. But it is not intellectual; nor is it exactly that kind of sensuality. It is howling down a mountainside in mist, between great marbled rocks dripping, to shoot abruptly into the muffled, disconcerting blindness of a long tunnel, and then to hurtle free into a piercing blue void. And it is exhaustion, dripping, sweating up an interminable grade until one’s legs and lungs seem burning, powerless jelly, to pause and watch the shadows of clouds dart effortlessly across and behind the mountains.
There is a certain self-contained exuberance in skimming along between the immensity of the earth and the fluidity of space. . . .
There is a certain self-contained exuberance in skimming along between the immensity of the earth and the fluidity of space. . . .
There is a room full of Rembrandts in Washington, D.C., and I heartily recommend that you see them.
They are in the National Gallery and I discovered them several years ago when my husband Paul dragged me to look at “French Impressionists” when I really wanted to be looking at “Contemporary Artists of California” across town.
So I was slinking around the National Gallery, unreceptive as hell and pouting, when I looked up into this radiant face, a young woman wearing a strange headdress reminiscent of the get-ups worn by Episcopal nuns where I went to high school in Sewannee, Tennessee. Which put me off.
The portrait was called, “Young Woman Holding A Pink,” though the flower was clearly a marigold. And I was turning to Paul to make some snide remark about that. But he had wandered off, and instead there was another radiant face — a man in a Turkish headdress, of about 50, youth and age and a very uncompetitive, kindly confidence in his face, with eyes that seemed to be telling me, “Don’t be afraid to calm down. Give this a chance.”
Radiant face — it’s a Rembrandt cliche. And I’m not going to try to explain it in terms of light or technique. I don’t know enough about art to do that. But what’s involved is extraordinary. I mean, people don’t look like Rembrandts everyday. You can see that clearly by just walking into the next room where they have all these Vermeers, beautiful portraits of women writing letters, weighing cheese, looking up from eating fruit salads. All very candid and you look at them and are immediately on home territory — yes, you’ve seen people looking like that, just naturally beautiful in the course of everyday.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person actually looking like a Rembrandt — though I think I can say something that describes the quality in one particular painting. It is called “The Apostle Paul” and shows him at his desk with books and papers. It is late at night (I think), and he has pushed himself back from his work. Maybe he has just stretched. It’s a peaceful picture with all that excited light. And though I’m not really sure anymore which apostle Paul was, obviously he is a man with tremendous tasks and capable of handling them. I was reading Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time at the time I discovered this painting, and I thought immediately that she might have looked like that late at night when she was working on her statement to the House Un-American Activities Committee — knowing she had to tell them off, thinking about their tremendous power to ruin her career, not wanting to get Dash Hammett into more trouble — scared some, but relishing being principled, and awfully capable and motivated by strong stuff inside.
That’s radiance — a portrait of someone strong giving something good their best shot.
I saw the Rembrandts most recently with a friend who is a painter. She had never seen Rembrandts in person before, and it was wonderful to hear her marvel, pointing to the arm of the Apostle Paul’s chair, saying, “That looks like wood because there are ten colors worked together to create the roundness and warmth.” We talked about his studio production, how he would paint the faces and hands, leaving the rest to apprentices. We could just hear him saying, “Use ten colors on the arm of this chair — don’t just draw a few lines and go to lunch.”
There is no charge to get into the National Gallery though you can give a donation, and that seems only fair. If you go on the weekend and you get there early, you can find free parking on the ellipse about five blocks away. And if you go on a weekday afternoon, after five, there is free parking again on the ellipse. But the morning is really the best time for the Rembrandts. Between nine and one the light through the skylights unlocks tremendous warmth and power. Later in the day, they seem less true — more like reproductions of themselves.