En Route: Traveling as (Un)raveling

It’s stories’ fault.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve endowed solitary trips–via bus, train, airplane, what have you–with a particular sense of anticipation, of wonder, that has never really come to fruition on any of the actual trips. It used to be a major let-down. It still would be, if I hadn’t come to regard the fact with a dull indifference.

But, still, deep down, I long for wonder.

And I tell you–it’s stories’ fault.

Because in stories, characters’ physical journeys almost invariably go hand-in-hand with some significant reality unfolding in their lives. Maybe they’re traveling to a parent’s funeral, or to an ex’s wedding. Or maybe they’re going to school for the first time, or visiting a family member who’s moved far away. Or maybe they’ve decided that something’s got to give, so they’ve purchased a plane ticket to a random destination, thrown caution to the wind, and said to the universe, “Here I am. Come and get me.”

And so often the trip itself constitutes a dynamic event, offers up some memorable image, becomes a prelude (or maybe even the main action) of some profound Thing that is going to happen to this character. Whatever his or her life has been, this trip marks the point where it begins to unravel, to fall apart, to break into pieces so that it can be remade into something new. Or, at the very least, the trip gestures towards something inside them, something long dormant that might be on the verge of waking up. So maybe they fall asleep on the train, only to be waken from their nap by a complete stranger who’s going to change their life forever. In this way there’s a magic in traveling–a spontaneity, a danger, a hope of revelation. Anything can happen. And, in stories–anything does happen.

I’m sure things happen to people all the time on real-life trips, of course. I guess it’s because I’m always on the look-out for the literary that the literary never quite happens to me. Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or Boy) never actually plops down next to me on the bus and changes my life, you know?

I guess that’s what I get for relying on other people’s stories (especially of the cinematic variety) to give structure to my own narrative. In fact, real stories–real, live, honest-to-God, literary things–are probably happening to me every moment; I’m just too busy wishing my life were more like a movie to realize it.

So if I really long for wonder, I probably ought to create it myself.

And hey–who’s to say I’m not the Manic Pixie Dream Boy on the bus? Worth giving it a shot, right?

…Oh, who am I kidding. I couldn’t be Natalie Portman if my life depended on it.

Maybe I’ll just take a nap instead…

Posted in Life, Narrative | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Crying Over Spilt Rilke

“You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet


Courtesy of Knud Odde

I recently came across a used copy of Letters to a Young Poet, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time now. As I was leafing through it in the book store, I noticed that there was a page number written somewhat emphatically in yellow highlighter at the top of the first page: “PAGE THIRTY-FIVE.” Naturally curious, I turned to page 35, and it was there that I found the above excerpt highlighted in yellow.

Reading it, I got goosebumps. Tears welled up in my eyes. Standing in a used book store in the middle of the day, I suddenly found myself in a state–if that makes any sense.

That passage was something I needed to read. And, for reasons I won’t go into, I needed to read it at that particular time. I didn’t know what to do with it, really–I still don’t–but I think that’s what Rilke’s saying, after all. We’re not supposed to know what to do with our sensations or experiences or doubts all the time. And that’s okay, because maybe we don’t have to. Maybe it just takes time. Maybe, as Rilke puts it, “everything is gestation and then bringing forth,” and we just have to suffer through the gestation part before we get to the bringing forth part.

I finished reading Letters yesterday, and it didn’t take long for me to see why it’s so well-loved. Rilke writes with such honesty, such kindness, offering much-needed reassurance to those of us with particularly turbulent or reflective inner lives. He acknowledges the darkness and the doubts that we as young creative types are likely to feel, but doesn’t condemn those feelings or attempt to cure them. Instead he tucks them snugly into bed with us, acknowledges them not only as natural but as beneficial, as companions, as key ingredients for our growth.


Sketch by Leonid Pasternak

For Rilke, as uncomfortable as the present might be, and as uncertain as the future always is, our experience of both is exactly what it needs to be. He writes, “the future enters into us in this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens”–and what a difference that point of view makes. To view the future not as something external and adversarial that happens to us, but as something from inside us, something that springs from within so that no matter what it is, we might acknowledge it as being manageable, tractable–in our wheelhouse, as it were. Something we’ve been preparing for our entire lives, whether we realized it or not.

But until the future’s ready for us, what can we do? Like the excerpt says–and like some stranger somewhere highlighted in my copy years ago, perhaps thinking that someone like me might pick it up someday and read it–there’s no use trying to force the answers. All we can do is let them gestate deep inside while we struggle along with the questions.

And yes, it’s going to be a struggle. But if we can appreciate the struggle for what it is, maybe even learn to love the struggle–well, that’s half the battle right there, isn’t it?

(On a final note, although I’m convinced I would likely have come up with it myself eventually, I’d be remiss not to give credit for the milk/Rilke pun to my pal Matt Barbot. He coined it before me, but it was just too good for me not to use. Thanks, Matt.)

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Inaugural Space Jockeying

“Begin to forget it. It will remember itself from every sides, with all gestures, in each our word.” – James Joyce, Finnegans Wake


Courtesy of Aubrey Schwartz

The other night I attended a staged reading of an obscure stage adaptation of Finnegans Wake. It was about as inscrutable as you’d expect, notwithstanding some valiant (and, to varying degrees, successful) efforts on the directors’ and actors’ parts to introduce some narrative concreteness to the proceedings. Joyce’s words, vibrating as much with lyricality as with nonsensicality, jostled up against one another with verve and (as far as I could occasionally tell) wit. 

They–the words–seemed almost to want to leap out of the structure of language itself, to escape linguistic constraints and reach another realm entirely. I haven’t yet read Joyce’s more notorious works, but based on what I heard on the stage that night, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what he was trying to do. To break free, to expand outward. To find space.

I think that words can be kite-like connectors between us and the atmospheres for which we yearn. Maybe even more than kite-like, depending on how buoyant the words are. They’re like gentle crowbars we use to break through into the sky. I think that life on the ground gets so crowded that we use words to try to pry everything apart from itself so we might have some room to breathe.

Or maybe it’s the words that want room to breathe, and we’re what they use to pry everything apart?

“Begin to forget it,” Joyce writes. “It will remember itself.”

Well, since I can’t hold onto anything forever, I ought to get more comfortable with the inevitability of forgetting. But I also have to believe that my words will remember themselves someday. Someday after I die, after my own Finnegans Wake.

And for that to happen, I have to let them pry themselves out of me in the first place.

Wish me luck.

Posted in Literature, Theater, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment