One year of travel brought us into great silences.  We lived as digital pilgrims, working online so we did not have to live in one place and could seek these instead.  Remembering them together has revealed surprising associations.  Here are some we witnessed.

In the cathedral of bullfighting, the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, a twelve-thousand-strong audience united in one wish for ten-minute spells.

You can scrub yourself in silence, in coffee, with a dozen others, in a German bathhouse, so that after the instructor's voice, after he has distributed the grounds in three-finger-width cups and explained what to do, you fall to contemplation of your own naked body one handful at a time and only momentarily recognize the susurration that has overwhelmed the hissing of steam.  The grounds percolate under your sweat as you listen to everyone scrubbing.

A Berber nomad in Morocco enchanted me with hints of a tragic story but when I asked if I could record it, fell resolutely silent.

The street outside one of Mozart's houses in Vienna, a narrow channel through beige eight-story imperial facades, itself a museum, the Peace Museum.  There is no music and no one is there.

On a train in northern Italy with my father-in-law.

Anticipating the Perseid meteor shower, you creep slowly out of where you're staying in rural Holland so as not to disturb your hosts and go lie on your back on a dyke in the early-early morning, riled into giddiness by years of Augusts that you tried and failed to escape city lights.

Discreetly, you raise your camera to your waist—it's Van Gogh's last palette!—but the guard catches you.

Before the Parthenon.

A busking owl in Edinburgh that blinks and swivels.

Matterhorn's impassive, clouded face.

The copy of The Scream in Oslo, a mouthful of truffle pecorino in Testaccio, Rome, all these silences rise up around things that seem to have meaning and envelope you and the moment, a sign that you have found the experience you have been looking for, your senses have found something outside yourself to gather on, like the purple mountain peak in its mist.

Some Airbnb hosts are quiet; I always seek connection.  Once, in France, in Bordeaux, we stayed with two chefs, a couple, she Italian and he French.  My request that they teach us something to cook went over better than I could possibly have dreamed, and every night we took turns preparing favorite recipes together and for each other: risotto, pho, fennel au gratin, and duck.  Finally, our stories told, our mutual gratitude clear, we just drank the Médoc.

I was teaching an IELTS course in a refugee camp in Greece, under a tent.  A twenty-year-old girl, a civil engineering student hoping to resume her studies in Europe, started crying.  I had asked one of the practice speaking questions for the exam: What is something you have read in a newspaper recently that surprised you?  She answered telling how her classmates were killed.  The rest of us in the small class sat there—a man who had brought his three children and pregnant wife by rubber boat to the island of Chios, another young IT student who had not wanted to perform the compulsory military service in Syria.

Silences have borders.  We recognize more easily when they break but only with effort recall if we wish to when they begin—and only with more effort still why.  As you approach Freud's office, only the rim of each step glows in the dark stairwell from light cast above, and you think of all the people who approached before you and what drove them, what stories they told themselves ascending that staircase, and what inside, and then to gain entry through his doorway, you press his loud, startling buzzer.

The concentration of the crowd watching the bullfight in the Real Maestranza erupted into shrieks before I saw what was happening: a man stumbled from having leapt over the wall into the ring, pulling his sweater off and baiting the bull with jittery sideways steps.  In his excitement, the bull stumbled too, at the crucial moment, and a swarm of bullfighters bodily lifted the man and carried him back to the edge, where, as soon as he reached the barrier, blows rained down on his face with the precision of aficionados who had gathered to mete out their dismay.

Two weeks earlier, we had sat in the arena with a guide and friend who let us in when no one else was there, one day before the opening of the season, for which even four hours waiting in line had not procured us tickets.  We were awed by the swept yellow sand, the setting sun cleansing the stone stands—the silence, of course—but then even our friend fell silent.  In had walked Morante de la Puebla, by chance.  Our friend whispered that he was the top bullfighter in Spain and had not performed in Sevilla for over two years.  His retinue stopped at the edge of the sand, while he crossed to the center by himself.  No one breathed a word.  He contemplated the arena for minutes, touched the ground with the toe of his boot, arms behind his back, sat in one of the alcoves lightly and lit a cigar.

Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights commands a total and pure silence that most galleries earn only by custom, because the preponderance of its detail and the urgency of the crowd pressing slowly forward force you into complete acquiescence before its world.  You notice that the creatures in paradise gathered by the pond, the animals imaginary and real, are reading books, and look like they belong in hell, but store that away to tell later and rush on to spot the next curiosity.

Ivan Illich, in "The Eloquence of Silence," writes that, "properly conducted, language learning is one of the few occasions in which an adult can go through a deep experience of poverty, of weakness, and of dependence on the good will of another."  I relied on a nun from Kenya named Esther to help me practice Spanish, because every time I tried to order from the brusque Sevillano waiters we most interacted with or initiated conversation with any other local, my silences swelled into excruciating embarrassment or they automatically switched to English.  She was patient.  Eventually I graduated to sitting down on benches in my favorite square next to likely kind old men who were staring off.  The moment before I asked, haltingly, whether they would mind letting me practice speaking with them, was always pregnant.  I dreamed of confessing to a priest in my favorite cathedral.

Lots of Norway is just silence.

Realizing suddenly that the Moses of Michelangelo is only just around the corner from where you're staying, while you stare down at the map in disbelief.

Kneeling at C.S. Lewis's grave and a cat crosses the churchyard toward you, seemingly aware of your warm tears.

The biggest gothic cathedral in the world, whose volume swallows your voice, even if you try to comment, your throat stretched looking upward.

The line of tourists that passes through Anne Frank's house, so quiet you can hear the creak of your own cautious steps.

The city archivist in your ancestral homeland, who flicks through microfiche for you, in my case in Düsseldorf, without finding any record of your great-great-grandfather, forming the words carefully in his mind that will disappoint.

The stumbling blocks in Berlin: gold-plated cobble stones bearing the names of the deported and murdered that are being placed daily in front of their former homes by an artist who has been working for years.

A host in Sweden, in the Old Schoolhouse in the Enchanted Forest, who was working on an art project about loneliness in his wood shop.

There is a man that earns his living by standing perfectly still, staring straight ahead, dressed as Jesus.  He holds a cross on his shoulder, wears a white tunic, draws lipstick blood down his forehead from the crown of thorns he has made from coaxial cables and twist ties, and collects many euros.  He has long hair, a beard, and piercing blue eyes that don't see you when you stare back.  I did manage to break his silence after repeated encounters, and he told me often people come to him and whisper things they want to say to God.  His silence shields him then until they eventually go away.  As we talked, he retreated unexpectedly back into his work, ending our conversation without a word by staring right past me.

Once, we were swept up in a procession down a street at night a week before Semana Santa.  Sevilla's alleys are narrow, yellow, and there is no escape sometimes.  Everyone carried a four-foot candle.  We passed with them into a square and looked into the surprised faces of spectators who had gathered, found our way to the edge, and walked home in a daze.

The satisfied crossing from Switzerland, when the low sun dapples an empty train car and you enjoy your pungent mountain cheese without fear of disturbing other passengers and you're too tired to speak.  Out of the Alps into civilization again, with sore drowsy pleasure and wine straight from the bottle.

In the Globe Theater in London, the actor who played Macbeth strode to the edge of the stage in a light drizzle and called out the soliloquy, "... a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing"—but held before hissing "nothing," longer than we imagined possible, till his silence hurt, put all his silences to work, the gathered silences he had known poured into that moment, a silence we had not expected to be given and now will always treasure.

Family and friends with whom you do not travel.

December 2016


some distant spain

"Who has not set out toward some distant Spain, some momentous goal, or some glorious realization, only to learn at last that he must settle for much less?"—Martin Luther King, Jr.


Luminaries I love sought Spain.  Virginia Woolf came.  Martin Luther King, Jr. sympathized with Paul's yearning to, but as far I know, neither of them actually made it.  Hemingway, of course.  I saw his beard painted on a wall overlooking a cliff.  Columbus, for all his travel, rests unexpectedly in the Catedral de Sevilla.  Orson Welles is somewhere nearby too.  Jonah almost got to Cádiz—but not quite.

For me it was the Lost Generation that awoke the unsettled desire to see Spain.  Their revelation was that you could choose expatriatism.  That writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald decamped for places of wonder to stimulate their art fascinated my adolescence just outside Chicago, where wonder only ever sprouted from gaps in the pavement twenty years into the lifespan of the subdivision.  That you could conduct your life more like a work of art than a commute has animated mine since.

When I stand in a tapería and consume pork loin and salmorejo, I realize I'm feeding a starvation from youth, the same material way I ever learned.  I want substance but only barely comprehend what I've missed and how to find it.

Spaniards are, of course, just like anyone else.  I've lived enough places now to know that what Hemingway seemed to find is a mirage.  Ultimately, they chase mostly the same things that Americans do, if of a slightly higher quality.  My longing for Spain and all it could mean, all these years, thwarted by detours, may never settle finally in any physical or philosophical fulfillment.

Yet, something I read just before coming shifted the course of my pilgrimage.  Jane Addams came to Spain.  She studied medicine, some say, to allow her travel.  After college, her exploring and learning dragged on and on, but curdled the instant she watched a bullfight.

Shaken, "it was suddenly made quite clear to me that I was lulling my conscience by a dreamer's scheme, that a mere paper reform had become a defense for continued idleness, and that I was making it a raison d'etre for going on indefinitely with study and travel. It is easy to become the dupe of a deferred purpose, of the promise the future can never keep, and I had fallen into the meanest type of self-deception in making myself believe that all this was in preparation for great things to come."

She went back to Chicago and founded Hull House, a settlement house for immigrants.

I'm surely "going on indefinitely with study and travel" myself.  Now I'm here, I wonder what will become clear.  Will I go on preparing "for great things to come?"  Will my heart find sustenance?  Will I go to Cadiz? 

"How familiar is the experience of longing for Spain!" said Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 2016


An Open Book

I hope my family buries me like a Maya king, with a book on my chest, still open.

Some years ago, never mind how long, I was fortunate enough to be unemployed.  Eager to capitalize on the opportunity, I took a job that paid $9.00 per hour but peerless wealth per lifetime—through Craigslist I became a driver for a mortuary service.  When bereaved families called, my company would page me their details.  I would leap out of bed—or whatever quotidian activity engrossed me—throw on a suit and tie and fire up the black Ford F150 that had four stretchers in back, in case the night got particularly busy.  I had keys for half the funeral homes in the city.  My duties entailed lifting, wrapping in plastic, delivering into freezers, toe-tagging, wiping sludge from mouths and noses, and generally divesting families of their loved one in as seemly a manner as possible.  I learned to move quietly and deliberately under watchful eyes.  I learned about death.

One evening, my partner and I arrived at a gray townhouse with two people standing in front.  I stared into my notepad while asking the rote questions of name, date of birth, etc.  This way to be both respectful and efficient worked at cross-purposes: I never shook the feeling that the two qualities could not be further from each other.

"What was the time of death?"  I already guessed something AM.  Silence made me look up.

The man turned to the woman and then off to the side.  "Tuesday?"

All we had were gloves and face masks, I found out, leaning on my palms against the lid of the F150's tool hatch I had never yet opened.

The living room, full of boxes, was dimly lit by sunset through the door which we instinctively held open, lingering; her blinds were all drawn.  Square, oblong, petite, some hundreds of boxes covered furniture and the floor, neatly arranged on the dining table, wobbly piled on the couch, some opened, some closed, stacked around, on top of, and behind but not in front of the TV.  A slender linoleum path through the clutter led into her hallway.  Every box was labeled QVC.

Then there she was.  Surrounded by boxes, she rested on one elbow on her bed, one knee drawn up, the other foot planted on the floor and had no eyes.  Hostesses exchanged bracelets on the television, which was still on.  Her mouth was open, head drawn back.  The phone number on the bottom of the screen flared golden for a moment as a set of earrings spun.  My partner noted how the air conditioner pointing directly at her must have been what preserved her so well.  Except the eye sockets and blackened fingertips, her body looked normal.  She had passed comfortably then.

It fell to me to lubricate her fingers with a squinch of liquid soap and remove all the rings; otherwise none would budge.  I leaned close over her face to reach the clasp of her necklace.  As much as possible I avoided eye contact.  The sockets were black and red, a blur.  There was almost no odor.  I took off the earrings.  She was dressed in a teal blouse too close-cut for her round body and cuffed black pants.  We lowered her onto the white bag my partner had unrolled on the floor.  The smell of plastic usually smells stronger than the smell of death.

We maneuvered her through her belongings out into the dusk.  The stretcher could be adjusted to wheel upright, with her body strapped by seatbelt, without which we could not have navigated the angles of her hallway.  We loaded her directly into the F150 and then went back to close the propped-open screen door of her townhouse.  Her family had already gone.


Life Itself Is a Quotation

Previously published in ITBE Link Fall 2015  →

"There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay." —Virginia Woolf


While teaching composition to international students at DePaul University this past year, I fell into a ritual that I would like to share, a way of making habitual the aim of every language course, a novel path to “entering the conversation.” Every class, I write a quotation at the top of the board. Even though my long arms create a minor spectacle, the students may not notice the first time, when I invoke Sinclair Lewis: “Writing is just work—there's no secret. If you dictate or use a pen or type or write with your toes—it's still just work.” From there we free write, because “any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop,” reminds Annie Dillard. We workshop, because “revising is like cutting your own hair” (Robert Stone). We revise, because "beginning again and again is a natural thing" (Gertrude Stein). We proofread, because, as Mark Twain points out, “writing is easy.  All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”

I quote, because “truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person; it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (Mikhail Bakhtin). The more disparate the voices I invite into our collective—the more they vary in their register or origin—the more we all feel like Caliph al-Ma'mūn, who said, “I want to join in, so get me a pot of ink,” and less like Kurt Vonnegut, who said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” “For excellence, the presence of others is always required” (Hannah Arendt).

Taken out of context and placed so willfully inexplicably at the start of a lesson, these epigraphs carry with them, just by their mysterious presence, two implicit messages: “there is so much more to a book than just the reading” (Maurice Sendak), and “our histories cling to us. We are shaped by where we come from” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), even—maybe especially—when we are hard to understand. “I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself”—and my students—“to understand another person” (Carl Rogers). “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write” (Joan Didion)—or to read, which “is like conversation with the finest men [and women] of the past centuries” (Descartes).  

These extracted thoughts do not fit comfortably; “thought[s] may be compared to a cloud shedding a shower of words” (Lev Vygotsky), obscuring the otherwise simple .ppts they ostensibly illustrate. “Life is not a paragraph” (E.E. Cummings). Nor can "the written word ... be defended when misunderstood” (Plato). And “we [still] have not learned the simple art of living together” (Martin Luther King, Jr.). But, “properly conducted, language learning is one of the few occasions in which an adult can go through a deep experience of poverty, of weakness, and of dependence on the good will of another” (Ivan Illich—whom you have to read right now.  Just stop reading this and go read him). And “the new must be dovetailed into the old as it were, if it were to endure” (Jane Addams). And when it is, when quotation is woven into text, “writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar” (E.B. White). The chemist turned writer Primo Levi knew firsthand, and I trust him, that “distilling is beautiful.”

Whether their relation to the day's lesson veers explicit or esoteric, “there is always something essential that remains outside the written sentence” (Italo Calvino) that pulls students—inevitably noticing I begin each class silently writing—into inquiry. “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it” (Flannery O'Connor), so I try not to dispel their curiosity by directly addressing these epigraphs—unless, of course, they ask. “Wisdom begins in wonder” (Socrates).

Some might argue all this philosophy goes over the heads of freshmen, and of second language learners in particular, but I agree with Thoreau that “we may safely trust a good deal more than we do.” In fact, I would take one step beyond him, reach further up onto the whiteboard, and urge, with Paulo Freire, that “apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” “Study is cheered by nothing more than hope,” teaches Quintilian. And “hope is like a path in the countryside,” according to Lu Xun. “Originally, there is nothing—but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears.”

A world in which only useful things are studied would be sadder, poorer, and perhaps even more violent.
— Primo Levi