The Ghost of Her Anger

IMG_0219C marks the spot on the floor where the body had fallen. She moves heavily from the sunlight brought out by the open windows to the shadowed corner on the right of the sofa. On the floor a broken ceramic ashtray lay in pieces. She doesn’t think now, she doesn’t breathe; all matters less in the quiet afternoon. The air smells of blood and anger, filling up the room like a fog. To pass the time, and to put her thoughts together, she takes a cigarette out of her back pocket, lights it, inhales quickly and exhales slowly through her mouth and holds the cigarette between her right index and middle fingers staring at the stain on the floor and absently stroking the bruise on her face. To the left of where she stands a clock ticks the seconds away. In the bedroom down the hall she can hear the faint conversation of the television, which had been previously turned up to help drown out the crying and the voices of she and M as they argued. M’s body now lay at the front of their bed wrapped in a sheet; the sheet still aromatic with the scent of sweat and sex they had the night before. No trail of blood from the stain where M’s body had hit the floor to the bedroom. She had been carefully conscious of the need to wrap his upper body with a sheet as fully as possible. She had known what to do almost instinctively. A telephone rings in the apartment next door.

 

C thinks of the first time she had met M. They had been students in the same class. She was intent on thinking through the outrageous adventures of an errant knight from La Mancha through a feminist lens, and M was intent on her. M’s persual of C lasted four months, three weeks, and two days before he could finally convince her to have coffee with him one day after class. That all seemed so long ago now as she stood above the stain of his blood on the floor; a stain she herself had caused.

They arranged to meet at a café not far from campus, one that was frequented by students and faculty. C arrived first, deciding to wait for him outside since the day was cool but not uncomfortable. She had been waiting for only a few minutes when she saw him come walking toward her, beaming. His longish hair, disheveled from the wind, his blue jeans and sneakers, his leather jacket and that red scarf he seemed to wear everyplace he went, and which was now an infamous part of his persona, trailing him like some blood red vapor trail. As he draws closer she remembers the feeling of time slowing down, almost as if she (or he) were in a dream, or moving under water; his steps, beaming smile, leather jacket and scarf suspended in midstride, holding its place a second, then moving forward; not in fits and starts, but in some kind of barely perceptible movement. She thinks of him at this moment as a movie star, stepping out of the screen to approach her as she stands in the aisle of some ancient theater. What she recalls through the cloudiness of time is that she sees him and his surroundings in black and white, with the sole exception of his scarf, red against the mono-chromatic street.

He rushes then, disrupting the stoppage of time and embraces her—holding her a bit longer than appropriate, she thinks. They quickly find a table inside. Although she feels as if his gaze never leaves her, M is always a gentleman. He buys the coffee, he waits for her to sit before he does (although he fails to pull her chair out for her—but she is okay with this since such behavior would only embarrass her), he lights her cigarettes. They both smoke continually, she slowly and methodically, he one after the other, in unhealthy succession. M’s eyes never leave her, not even when a friend of his stops at their table to say hello. C feels slightly disconcerted, slightly aroused.

So they sit there, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and talking about nothing. Small talk bores her, but she can’t think of anything to say that might raise the level of conversation. As the afternoon moves on, the shadow from the waning light crosses over his face. “He’s in,” she thinks. “It’s only a matter of time before he asks me home.” He does, and to her surprise, she refuses. She won’t be that easy. The barely perceptible hint of disappointment does little to reduce his charm.

 

C did not intend to kill him it just worked out that way. As she stands there, straddling the stain, she thinks of how the afternoon sunlight catches the shards of the ashtray, smashed to pieces and scattered over the floor like specs of new-fallen snow beneath a full moon in the middle of winter. She does not shake now, she does not sweat. She thinks of how eerily calm she has remained throughout the whole affair. But then it comes, the surging nausea and the urgent need to be sick. She runs to the bathroom and vomits loudly into the toilet. Later, resting her head against the cold porcelain she thinks of how the plumber said that all toilets sweat. Funny, she’s suddenly preoccupied and bothered by the condensation of water on her toilet. Sweating toilets, sweating perfume, sweating blood. How many things in her life are unable to contain the buildup of pressure? At that moment she knows that things will never be the same. It has taken her nearly two hours since she struck M in the head with the ashtray to realize this. Out there, beyond the numbness, she knows that she’s a human being capable of love. She knows that she feels. She was once a wife, a mother, a friend. But now, enveloped in this fog of numbness she realizes what it means to leave one’s humanity behind. By striking M she closes the door behind her, not shutting him up, but shutting herself out. Beyond the reach of her love, of her compassion, of her humanity, lurks the ghost of her anger, lying in wait.

Lying there with her head against the toilet she remembers the first time M had hit her. She was three months pregnant with their first child and M was out late after work. She had intended to wait up for him, but had fallen asleep with the television on sometime after midnight. On the coffee table beside her was a glass with the ashes and stubbed out ends of four cigarettes. She meant to take the glass to the kitchen for empting and rinsing out during the next commercial, but had fallen asleep just as Harry Lime emerged from the shadow of a doorway. The sound of M’s keys in the door woke her. Groggy, she lifted herself onto one elbow, waiting for him to enter. M stumbles through the door and into the kitchen, which looks out into the living room where C lays propped up on one elbow on the couch. The room is lit only by the flickering light of the television. M walks across the kitchen and lays his keys and cigarettes down on the coffee table right next to the glass containing the stubbed out cigarettes C has been using. He looks from her to the glass and back again. Before she has time to register his intention he slaps her across the face. The slap (as she recalls) is not particularly hard, but it is quick. He stands over her saying nothing, not even looking angry. After several seconds, and just as she is about to say something, he begins to hit her repeatedly in the face and on her arms as she raises them to protect her head. In the background the light of the television continues to flicker. Outside, a siren from an ambulance begins to whine, first softly, then louder, until it passes and recedes into the night. She thinks of how this is happening to her right here, right now. She thinks of the absurdity of the situation she now finds herself in; a situation that she might have read about in a magazine or newspaper article, or story that might have been reported on the evening news. She thinks of herself, not as a victim, but as a character from a story caught in an absurd situation. She feels less and less as M continues to pound. Now, thinking back, what C remembers most is the angle of M’s cigarettes and keys on the coffee table and its proximity to the glass containing the stubs.

When she finally emerges from the bathroom she walks over to the stain of M’s blood on the floor. The room has grown a shade or two darker in the waning afternoon. She crosses the floor, carefully stepping over the stain and broken shards of ashtray and moves into the kitchen. She gets a glass down from the cabinet and turns on the sink. Filling the glass all the way to the top (so that the water overflows and comes down the sides like a waterfall), she drinks down almost a quarter of the water and splashes the rest into the sink. She watches as the water trails down the drain. She turns her back and leans against the sink. Over on the kitchen table she notices the remains of their lunch. Suddenly panic overtakes her and she moves across the floor, unconscious that she is following a pattern of light laid across the room by the remains of the afternoon sun. She paces from the kitchen to the bathroom to the bedroom and stands at the door gazing down at M. She bends over him and gently, almost lovingly untangles the sheet from his head. She studies his face and notices that it’s not exactly in pain, but neither does it have a look of repose. She notices for the first time that he isn’t wearing any socks and this strikes her as strange. It’s so unpredictably unlike him not to have something on his feet. Then she remembers that the fight started in the bedroom just as he was getting dressed after his shower. She recalls the faint smell of his shaving cream following him from room to room as the argument started. She had not been a willing participant at first, but she never was. M displayed his emotions as he lived his life, on the surface, where the nerve always lay exposed. She can’t recall what started the fight, but she thinks it was something she said about his outfit, and the fact that he always chose his clothes with great care and attention, “like a woman,” she said. Yes, that’s what started this. She had made the allusion that he took care of himself like a woman, and, since M believed himself to be fiercely masculine, he blew up at her, or more accurately, all over her.

 

At the living room window C gazes down toward the park below. A woman wearing a babushka is walking her dog. C remembers that when she had first arrived in Paris she was astounded by the amount of dog waste everywhere on the street. At certain times of the day it seemed as if one could not stroll the sidewalk without stepping into something. Later, when she had gotten used to it, she affectionally referred to Paris as “Dog Shit City.” She took great amusement in mentioning this in every letter or phone call home. When M and she bought this apartment they did it for two reasons: the view of the city, and the light. In a city that valued space above all else (there was so little of it left that what was left was going for prices that only the privileged few could afford) they were lucky in picking a location that would, for the most part, still remain much the same as it had a century ago. Now, things were changing and they would never be able to afford this place today had it been on the market, had they been looking. But, of course, they weren’t. M’s inability to move beyond adjunct professor status kept them tied to the apartment in a way that suffocated him. He was never shy about telling her that he was suffocating, and she took his outbursts in stride, ignoring them for the most part, but silently keeping track of each time he said it. Now, at this particular moment, as she gazes down toward the park below, she thinks of dog shit, blood, and tears.

 

In all of their years together (now more than twenty) C had never thought of herself as M’s wife. In fact, she hadn’t thought of herself as a wife at all; being a wife was a role she felt she was expected but unprepared to play. She did think of herself as a lover, however. Over the years she had taken many lovers, but always with the stipulation, the personal promise to herself, that she would never have the same encounter twice. Over the course of twenty years she had engaged in over one hundred one-night stands, each ending in the same way: a gesture of farewell in the form of placing a kiss upon the forehead of her lover. The gesture always struck her as maternal, as if she were kissing her children through her lovers and protecting them from what she was doing. She had been good at adultery. It came easy to her and not long after her first affair she began to crave the excitement of sneaking around on M. Not that M would have noticed, since he was busy with affairs of his own. Was M equally as skilled at marital deception as C? C could only think that he was. And in this she drew (strangely enough) much comfort. Had M discovered that C was unfaithful he surely would have killed her, which was why she had not engaged in her first affair until their children were in school. For the first eight or nine years of their marriage C had been the perfect wife: thoughtful, compassionate, sexual (but not sexually aggressive), and obedient. Because she had always thought of herself as a sensible woman, she found it increasingly difficult to argue in favor of leaving him. She would sooner have made a break with herself than tear apart what semblance of a family she had tried to build. It wasn’t so much that M had hit her on occasion as it was his remoteness from their marriage that drove her into the arms of countless anonymous lovers (for she had never asked their names—something she remembered from a Brando film—she didn’t want to know their names, because that would have signaled an intimacy she was more than reluctant to grant on these occasions). Time and again she told herself that it was M’s inability to find a teaching position that kept him on constant edge, and for a great amount of time she did indeed believe this. Soon, however, C found ways to become remote from their marriage as well. And it didn’t take long before either of them felt anything close to love. She had quickly gotten used to being in the background, first to M, then to their children. Although she believed that her children loved her, she had rarely heard from them since they moved away; one child had moved to Spain, and the other to Santa Cruz, California. Both were successful, both were happy, and both learned early that in order to be happy they would have to leave home.

 

It is ten steps to the door from where C is standing, just above the stain of M’s blood. The need to escape, to breathe (she’s suffocating, she cannot get the smell of M’s blood off her) suddenly overcomes her. She realizes that her coat lay just to her right, casually draped over the arm of the black leather captain’s chair M had insisted on buying years ago. She steps over the stain, gives it a glance, then picks up her coat. Slipping into the sleeves she opens the door to the apartment. She doesn’t look back as she slams the door behind her and moves toward the stairs. Moments later, when she emerges from the lobby door and steps into the early evening, she thinks of M in the apartment above. She stands there for several minutes, undecided whether to cross the boulevard or take the metro to some as yet unknown location. Lighting a cigarette, she moves toward the Café Lorre some twenty paces from her building. The seats on the terrace are beginning to fill up, and she glances at the faces buried in their evening papers or their drinks as she begins to walk more quickly down the boulevard and away from her building.

 

Time after time she told herself that if she had been a passionate woman then maybe her life would not have ended up so empty, so devoid of love. She did have love for her children, but it was a parental kind of love: sanitary and safe. She enjoyed the fact that her children, at least when they were young, had loved her unconditionally, as only very young children do. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her children; it was that she had failed at finding a passion for life. She was the organizer, the expeditor, but never the initiator. Her children needed to show their love for her, and they did, long before she could allow herself even that much emotional investment. Once, when her youngest child had slipped down some steps and landed head first into the corner of a wall, revealing a vertical line on her forehead, first white (and the shocked look on the child’s face, as if she was scared she had done something wrong rather than showing the fear of being hurt) then as she began to breathe and cry, the blood came like a deluge down into her eyes, then onto her face and neck, soaking her shirt, C rushed her to a nearby hospital. Waiting for nearly four hours in Emergency, she was surprised to discover that she only felt mild concern for her little girl as she sat in her lap bleeding and sobbing. What C did feel was mild annoyance. It wasn’t so much that she blamed the nurses on staff for keeping them waiting as she blamed the child for placing her in this position. In the darkest, most hidden part of her consciousness she did not want to wait with her child; she did not want to hold and comfort the child. It was not that she had failed to love her daughter; it was more of a mild annoyance at having someone depend upon her for comfort, for love itself. Earlier that day she had arranged to meet a man she had met at the hotel pool for that evening. M had been busy getting drunk in the hotel bar. (M didn’t swim, so taking the children to the pool had not been an option for them.) As she sat there holding her child in the emergency room of this foreign hospital, she thought of that man she had planned to meet and the missed possibility of what that meeting promised. So, it wasn’t that she didn’t love her children; it was more of a remoteness she had trained herself to practice in times of crisis. She would carefully remove herself from the situation as totally as possible. So there, in that hospital, and miles from home, she fantasized of fucking another man while she held her trembling daughter and waited for the attending physician to see them.

 

As evening approaches C makes her way through the Paris streets. At first she wanders down the Boulevard Saint Germain toward the Quartier Latin with the intention of walking around the Sorbonne for a while until she could pull herself together. But she’s walking so quickly and so intently that she keeps on going until she makes it to the Pont De Sully. Stopping to gaze down at the Seine, she takes out her last cigarette and lights it. As she inhales she comes to the realization that she really doesn’t want to “pull herself together.” In fact, as she feels herself coming apart she begins to enjoy the sensation that it brings with it—a sensation of timelessness and spacelessness. It’s as if she was leaving bits of her consciousness behind the further she walked away from M. Coming apart was the answer then. Coming apart would finally set her free from the entanglements of a life she only barely wanted to live.

Coming out of her reverie she begins to move down the Quai La Tourrelle, occasionally reaching up to touch the bruise on her face. She thinks of the smashed ashtray still scattered over the floor and remembers the trip to Marrakech and the hotel from which it was taken. Together, she and M had filled the ashtray with countless cigarette butts as they talked and fucked through the night. It was, she now thinks, the closest they were to being really happy, to being almost normal.

 

C continues walking until she reaches the Quai Voltaire, where she descends a set of steps that lead to a walkway running parallel with the Seine. A slight breeze begins to blow and she pulls her coat tighter to keep herself warm. The further she walks, she thinks, the further away from her life she gets. With each step she tells herself that she’s tossing another memory out of her head. As she threads her way through the other walkers she begins to feel the weight of her life fall away little by little. The street lamps begin to go on as people hurry back to their warm homes. C is left with no one now except the ghost of her anger trailing her along the Paris streets. In the early October evening the wind stirs the leaves from the trees and C thinks that with each falling leaf she is leaving another part of herself behind. As she stops to gaze out over the Seine she starts to feel confined and confused. She begins to take her coat off, and the wind rushes over her. It is a feeling she enjoys, like drinking a very cold glass of water on a hot day. Hoping to sustain the sensation she begins to remove each article of clothing one by one slowly and methodically. Soon she is standing stark naked staring down at the waters of the Seine. She doesn’t notice the people who stop and begin to stare. A small crowd begins to gather around her but she is no longer there to notice. As she gazes out over the Seine she starts to feel as light as air. She thinks of herself as just another dead leaf tossed around on the wind in the Paris evening. When the cold waters of the Seine envelop her she’s smiling.

 

 

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You Want it Darker: Leonard Cohen’s Last Gift

Coming off the worst week in recent memory, a week capped off by Donald Trump’s stunning win in the 2016 United States Presidential Election, one would be hard pressed to find something positive to consider. Trump’s campaign had as its central message hate, hate against nearly everything and everyone who isn’t white. It’s difficult to get one’s head around the fact that a madman will be POTUS, but then, we’ve had madmen serve before, just not this outspoken in hate.

News of Leonard Cohen’s passing at the age of 82 came just hours within Trump’s victory. Talk about being kicked while down. Yet, Cohen’s timing was as impeccable as his style of dress. News of Cohen’s failing health first came to us in a letter he wrote for Marianne Ihlen, a former lover and muse. Part of that letter reads: “Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.” Just two weeks ago the New Yorker published a long piece by David Remnick on Cohen, in which Cohen claimed that, “I’m ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” Social media lit up with speculation as to what Cohen was trying to tell us. He had always had a semi-morbid sense of humor, so we dwelled within speculation for a few weeks. When we finally got the news that Cohen had passed from this life we were caught off guard because most of us were already in mourning from the election.

I have been listening to You Want it Darker, Cohen last album, released less than a month ago, almost continually. I wasn’t that crazy about it at first. With the exception of the title track, I though the songs too slow, too somber. But then, as I continued to listen I came to the realization that You Want it Darker is one of Cohen’s best albums. It’s a work that grows on you, that takes time to seep into the consciousness of its listeners. The poetry informing the work is not a cynical as I first thought. In fact, it’s a realistic take on a life beholding its own end. It’s beautiful and hypnotic. Its power comes from its honesty and compassion for the mind, as well as the body, as we are close to death. The poetry is deeply personal, but it’s also universal and humanizing. Our lives are finite, and the grace and dignity with which Cohen stared down the Angel of Death, and I can only hope that when my own time comes I have the same grace and dignity, is as poetic as anything he’d done. The poetry also comforts us with the possibility that as we step into death the fear of the unknown, of an altogether different way of being, will bring comfort or at the very least, resolve.

News of Cohen’s death distracted us from the madness of the election. I cannot help but think of the timing as Cohen last gift to humanity. True, the world is a lot darker and colder without him, but, thankfully, we still have his music, his poetry, and his somber self-reflection from which we can draw our own strength as we wander through these dark days. In June of this year the New Yorker published a poem, “Steer Your Way,” that ended up as a song on You Want it Darker. The first stanza runs as follows:

“Steer your way through the ruins of the Alter and the Mall

Steer your way through the fables of Creation and the Fall

Steer your way past the Palaces that rise above the rot

Year by year

Month by month

Day by day

Thought by thought”

Of course, we steer our way through all sorts of things during a lifetime, yet most of the time we fail to notice what it is that surrounds us, what informs us on our journey. The music and poetry of Leonard Cohen shed more than a little light on what it is that life can teach us if only we stopped to become aware. The truth is that we are distracted by everything we think of as life, when the fact is that we are unaware of the life as it is happening.

In the song “Treaty” Cohen writes: “I heard the snake was baffled by his sin, he shed his scales to find the snake within, but born again is born without a skin, the poison enters into everything.” The biblical connotations of the song are in keeping with Cohen’s poetic preoccupations. What strikes me about the lyric is that we are all snakes, we are the serpents in the Garden, and most of us fail to notice the change in our lives.

The sun comes up in the morning, and we continue to go round with our hectic and tortured lives. Yet, the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen gave us food for thought in the most humane way possible: he reminded us that to be human is to suffer, but that suffering with dignity is what makes us human. Cohen’s revelatory poetry strips back the cover of the psyche that offers protection from the endless night and hands us over to the revelation. The revelation is in human feeling, human understanding, of what it means to be human.

Au revoir, Leonard.

And thank you for the gifts you gave us.

But wait, there’s more!

I’ve never been one to obsess about getting older. When I turned 30 I felt that I was still in the prime of my life. When I turned 40 I felt slightly older, but no worse for wear. Now that I am just a few years away from turning 50, however, I feel an anxiety about age that I have never felt. The anxiety I feel doesn’t have anything to do with the actuality of getting older, at least I don’t think it does, but, instead, the anxiety is becoming more of a fear with an intense focus. I now realize that I will never have the time to read all of the books I desire to read. Despite this undeniable fact, I keep buying books. This logic can only make sense to my fellow bibliophiles. My intellectual area focuses on modern and contemporary world literature. This means that I feel the responsibility to keep up with those authors who are still publishing books, both fiction and non-fiction. As long as I keep buying newly published books I will never be able to exhaust my working bibliography, a living biography, if you will. This is a frightening situation to face when I know full well that my own time is increasingly limited on this planet. One of the reasons I will never read David Foster Wallace’s The Infinite Jest is that the book is just too long and would demand my attention for a period of time I am not willing to devote to the reading. The same is true for A Book of Memories, by Péter Nádas, a book that has occupied a space on my shelf for years.

I read books like the most serious chain smokers smoke cigarettes; before I’m finished with one I’ve already started another. I never read one book at a time, and especially during the periods when I’m teaching I often read five or six books simultaneously. Some people express their amazement that I can keep the details of all the books I read straight, and I am at a loss as to how to explain this process. But it somehow works for me and I am able to differentiate each book that I read. Perhaps the secret is that I am never reading without my beloved Palomino Blackwing 602 pencil. A great deal of my time is also spent rereading books, sometimes dozens of times. I’ve read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky at least ten times, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (all 893 pages) four or five times, and Hamlet more times than I can count. I’ve even read Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow four times, a feat many readers would consider torture. Each time I reread these works I find something new and exciting in the worlds they offer me. In fact, most of the time a really great book can offer its reader more the second or third time around.

There is always more to read. There will always be another book to locate and peruse, another author to discover. The reading life is mostly a solitary life, often robbing our friends and family of our presence for extended periods of time. Perhaps this is not so bad, since every serious reader I know is an introvert at heart. I read because it’s my job, but that is actually reducing the commitment I have made to a utilitarian function. I have devoted most of my life to literature, and since I find most things in the empirical world intolerable, I lose myself in a book like the worst addict. Perhaps this is why I suffer an anxiety attack every time I step into a bookstore. Bookstores are cruel reminders of all that you will never have time to experience, to feel, to explore. They are cruel reminders of all the books that will be left unread and undiscovered at the time of one’s death.

I’m certain that at the hour of my death I will be surrounded by books, and my last words will be, “But wait, there’s more!”

 

The Anonymity of Cities: A Paragraph

Déjenlo todo, nuevamente.

Lácense a los caminos.

                        –Roberto Bolaño

 

If I were to disappear I wouldn’t choose an island or a mountain retreat, instead I would disappear into the congested streets of a colossal and cavernous city like Tokyo, Buenos Aires, or Mexico City. There is something about being in a city, and a foreign city in particular, especially for the first time that grants the visitor the privilege, or better still, the gift, of anonymity. One can leave one’s hotel (the anonymity of hotel rooms also provide a space where one can disappear) and step out into a sea of anonymous faces, randomly moving among the traffic and the stench of the city and other humans. But on a temporary basis, almost any large city will do, provided one does not live in that city. It’s important to note that if one were to disappear that person would have to have no particular destination in mind, just a desire to move in errant directions trusting to chance. There is a freedom that comes with such anonymity, especially in the age of social media, which has made it almost impossible to be completely anonymous, despite how constructed and false our social media personalities are. Social media and email have transformed us into a 24/7 society, from which there is no escape in order to breathe and to think. This, I submit, is not a form of progress furthering civilization, but instead constitutes a de-evolution (I use the hyphen deliberately) in the human species. We think less when we are always available, since we are asked to make decisions in the time span of a sound bite and off the cuff, therefore making our thinking less complex and more standard or conventional. Whenever I’m writing (writing and thinking have always been synonyms for me) and find myself stuck, confronted with writer’s block, or even under a deluge of papers that require grading, I head to Boston to walk the streets in order to clear my mind. I love to do this especially in the winter when I can bundle myself up in an overcoat, hat, gloves, and scarf, and wander among the people, all of whom seem to have a destination in mind, anonymous and free. Commonwealth Avenue in Boston is a perfect location to blend into the scenery and reel out one’s thoughts to see what will bite. So, to quote the great Bolaño: “Leave everything again. Launch yourself into the streets.”

The Oldest Bookstore in the United States: The Moravian Book Shop

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a small historic village (population just over 75,000), in the Lehigh Valley is home to the Moravian Church, a fiercely Protestant organization founded just outside of Prague in 1457. The Moravians settled in Pennsylvania in 1741 and founded the village of Bethlehem. Today Bethlehem is typical of the contemporary Rust Belt, an awkward juxtaposition of extreme poverty with hip restaurants, breweries, and shops just a street away. It is also the home of Lehigh University and Moravian College.2016-06-26 13.07.42

The Moravian Book Shop (bookshop is split into two words on Moravian’s signs) is located on Bethlehem’s Main Street, perhaps the only street worth visiting, with the exception of its historic buildings that are certainly worth a trip. According to the Moravian Book Shop website, it was founded in 1745 by the Moravian Church and has been in operation ever since. This makes the Moravian Book Shop the oldest bookstore in the United States after a bookstore in Boston on the corner of School Street closed to make way for a Chipotle. One would think that the owners would try to capitalize on this distinction with more effort. Yet, the Moravian Book Shop is ordinary in every sense of the word.

2016-06-26 13.08.37-1The building that houses the bookshop is stunning. Its old, German-inspired architecture is a cousin to the Dutch model one sees scattered throughout Pennsylvania. The bookshop itself is disappointing. Once inside there is nothing to distinguish it from a million other bookstores across the country. In fact, even Barnes & Noble, that Goliath currently on life-support, seems to have more character. The stock is made up of entirely new publications, but because of its size, that stock is severely limited. I entered the bookshop through a door that immediately delivered me into a gift shop selling Christmas ornaments (Bethlehem considers itself “Christmas City, USA”), locally crafted jewelry, and a small café. Once inside I had to make my way past counters of goods before I actually got to the bookstore. It reminded me of a rabbit warren, with its twists and turns, its small pockets and dim lighting. In fact, I have seldom been in a more disheartening and boring bookstore.

It seems that the Moravian Book Shop’s only claim to fame is its longevity. This itself is a wonder in a world so dominated by big chains and global capital. Still, the uninspiring feel to the store once inside left me disappointed. After having visited the oldest bookstore in the world in Lisbon, I came away with the feeling that the bookshop’s sense of history is as ephemeral as a New York City restaurant.

Somewhere Else

IMG_3024It was just over a year ago that I found myself on a train traveling from Milan to Turin in the hopes of conducting some preliminary field research on a possible book project about this northern Italian city. Speeding through the Italian countryside I had just over an hour to relax and let myself gaze out the window. As always, I had a book with me, but it sat there unopened as I scanned the passing fields and farmlands. There is something about traveling by train that is infinitely more relaxing than almost any other mode of travel. My mid-morning train was not busy and I had an entire quad of seats to myself. A family of four was seated next to me. The mother and the father (I presume that they were married and that the two teenagers were their children) were talking quietly with one another while their two children were busy on their cell phones. It’s at times like this, spying on other people’s children, on other families, when I miss my own the most. At that moment, just about twenty minutes outside of Milan, I started really missing my family and longing to be back home. So here I was, on this train in Italy, but mentally I was back in the United States with my family. Yet, when I am home, all I can think about is the next trip, and mentally I am always searching for that new adventure, in someplace I have never been. I look up street addresses on Google, I read about restaurants and bars, museums, bookstores (always bookstores), so much so that even when I am at my computer at home I’m somewhere else. Is this what Odysseus felt on his return to Ithaca, even after all those years? The longing to be someplace else is sometimes so strong that I find myself unable to concentrate on anything I happen to be doing at that moment. It’s a restlessness that I’ve felt since childhood, and it with me nearly every minute of every day.

For me travel has always been about the departure, the planning and the moments leading up to the trip. It’s about the expectations, the movement itself. Traveling by train gives one a sense of being somewhere else unlike any other mode of transportation. There isn’t the sardine can-like feel of air travel, and traveling by car or bus always comes with the stop and go of traffic. Time doesn’t stop on a train, it moves, and stutters its way through the country-side and from station to station. One stops for brief moments at out of the way places on one’s way to a bigger city with a bigger station. At those brief stops there is the short hustle and bustle of activity, of people waiting to get on or off the train. Once things settle down we set off again slowly, and soon we are back in the countryside.

But travel by train is still travel, and unless one is traveling first class all of the time, the actual experience of travel can be anything but pleasant. Some years before, I climbed aboard my first train in Italy, going from Milano Centrale to Bergamo, about an hour away. I didn’t realize that before climbing on board one had to have one’s ticket stamped by a small green machine standing at the entranceway to the platform. Once on board the conductor asked for my ticket. After examining the ticket for a few moments he asked me to step out into the hall. He informed me in his halting English (by now my understanding of Italian, always marginal at best, had failed completely) that I had committed an error and that I had two choices: I could pay him a small fine, or pay a much bigger fine and accompany him to station headquarters in Bergamo. At this point I started to think that I was being taken, and that all he was after was a bribe. I was also highly conscience of the fact that I had left all my luggage, including my passport, in the compartment. All at once I found myself in a Paul Bowles story. Because I didn’t want to push my luck and challenge him on his own turf, and wanting to get back to my luggage as soon as I could, I paid my fine. He wrote me out a receipt, warned me that in the future I should pay attention to proper protocols, and walked away, leaving me swaying there in between train compartments. Later that evening, I looked into railway travel in Italy on the hotel’s computer and realized that he was correct, and that I had neglected to follow protocol. I was lucky, I guess. Milan still has those little green machines, but I purchased my tickets for my next trip before hand and had them on my cell phone. The conductor glanced at my phone and motioned me onto the train: simple, direct, and without incident.

Several years ago I read Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and was captivated. I found someone else who felt the same way I did about train travel. Although Theroux said it in his book much better than I ever could, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. I still find that book one of the best commentaries on traveling by train ever written. It was also Theroux who showed me that it is much more interesting to write about what goes wrong on a trip than what goes right. Many years later, when I met him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I found him to be just as charming as his books.

When we travel, especially alone, we discover things about ourselves that cannot be revealed when traveling with others. Traveling alone gives one time and space to think, to reflect upon the actuality of travel. For me, travel allows me to slip inside my own mind without a responsibility for others. Sitting on that train, moving through space, I was able to exist in many places simultaneously. Perhaps this is why my two great passions in life are reading and travel: both give one the gift of being somewhere else.

Close Encounters of the Literary Kind, Part XI: Toni Morrison

On a cold and rainy day in early April, I made my way to Harvard’s Memorial Hall to hear Toni Morrison give the last of a series of lectures. I had tried and failed to get a ticket to her lecture the day before, but on a whim I attempted to get a ticket to her last lecture, which I thought would be impossible, but somehow managed to hit it right and secured a ticket. Tickets were free but only available starting at noon the day of the lecture. I had never heard Morrison speak in person before, and I was excited and anxious about seeing and hearing the last American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Toni Morrison’s fiction has always been hit or miss with me. I first read her, like most, as an undergraduate in an English class. We read Beloved, a book I heard so much about, but had never gotten around to actually reading. I remember being blown away by the story and the writing. It was a book that, once read, is impossible to forget, for its imprint is too strong on one’s mind. It is a quintessentially American book, every bit as important at Moby-Dick or The Great Gatsby. Yet, most of her other work has left me cold and wanting more. So far I’ve read nothing by her that has stood up to Beloved, and perhaps that is as it should be. After all, it was that book that secured her the Noble Prize in Literature in 1993. If Morrison never writes another word she will still have altered the world of fiction for the better. But I can’t help feeling disappointed by each book she continues to publish.

Toni Morrison was giving the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. The series of lectures was titled: “The Origins of Others: The Literature of Belonging,” a series that was right up my intellectual alley. The series consisted of six hour-long lectures, each of which touched on her overall theme. I attended her last lecture, “The Foreigner’s Home.” Arriving almost an hour early, I was first amazed by the Sanders Theater in Memorial Hall itself. The theater resembles the inside of some luxurious ship from the age of exploration, or an English church. The interior consists mostly of woodwork, expertly carved and built. One feels regal and smart just sitting on its cold and hard wooden pews. There is something warm, yet deadly serious among those pews. Standing before us was an altar of wisdom, more in spirit with the Enlightenment than Puritan pragmaticism. Still, the feeling in the room was more than vaguely religious.

Morrison herself was wheeled out in her wheelchair by an assistant and placed before a small desk. I could hear a collective gasp as she was pushed down the ramp and placed in front of the desk. We were in the presence of royalty, or some living saint, come down from on high to dispense wisdom. All of this is not hyperbole, but the feeling I had as I sat there. Even though Morrison was not my favorite author, or even in my top ten, I never experienced the feeling I had once she appeared in the room. It was as if the Holy Spirit had entered the room and dissipated among the faithful. It was the closest thing to spirituality I have ever felt, and I had an audience with Pope John Paul II who is now a bona fide saint!

Morrison is quiet-spoken, and methodical in her delivery. She never once wavered from her written text, nor improvised. One has to strain to hear her words, even with the microphone attached to her collar. Speakers, even the most famous, do not normally intimidate me but Morrison left me is a feeling of utter awe. Over the course of an hour I was hypnotized by her voice and tuned into her subject matter. I remember thinking that I hadn’t given her books, those I didn’t feel measured up to her reputation, enough of a chance, and I wanted to go out and re-read everything she published.

She vanished as quickly as she appeared. There were no questions, no book signings, and no photo opportunities. She had given all in her lecture, and that was enough. With any other writer I would have left the lecture hall feeling disappointed at not having met the speaker, but with Morrison I felt a sense of spiritual and intellectual renewal. I had been in the same room with her, I had breathed the same air, and inhabited the same space. There was nothing else to say.

I made my way past the crowd to the doors that led to Harvard Yard, and as I emerged from the darkened theater, I walked out into the newly emerged bright sunshine of a late afternoon, shaken and profoundly moved.