5 days. Solo in Paris.

Months before I arrived at the little hotel with its red geraniums, I was in Paris on an assignment for the Travel section of the New York Times. I had five days and a headline: “Solo in Paris.” The story was up to me.

To find it, I went walking. Each morning I left my hotel in the 9th arrondissement, just east of the apartment where Proust wrote much of Remembrance of Things Past, and didn’t return until I had gone some twenty miles in whichever direction whim and croissants (and olive fougasse and pistachio financiers) took me. It was April, and like any tourist I saw monuments and statues, naked nymphs, and gods among the roses. But alone, with no one at my side, I was also able to see le merveilleux quotidien, “the marvelous in everyday life”: a golden retriever gazing at a café chalkboard in Montmartre, as if reading the daily specials; boxes of pâtes de fruits arranged in grids like Gerhard Richter’s color charts. The city had my full attention; I was attuned to the faint whir of bicycle wheels and the scent of peaches at the street market.

Although I was traveling without friends or family, each day brought passing companions: bakers, maître d’s, museum greeters, shopkeepers, fellow travelers. The hours were unhurried and entirely mine, like the “limitless solitude” the poet Rilke described in a letter to a friend; “this taking each day like a life-time, this being-with-everything.”

Only, it wasn’t a lifetime—it was five days. On the last morning, I slipped through a gate on rue de Rivoli into the Tuileries. Sprinklers flung water into the air. A man with a wheelbarrow bent over a bed of long-stemmed tulips. John Russell, the British art critic, once wrote that the rue de Rivoli seemed to say to mankind, “This is what life can be . . . and now it’s up to you to live it.” That’s what those days in Paris said to me. I wondered when, or if, I’d see the tulips again.

On assignment, I would play detective; partake of everything, get up early, record the details, do the things that felt strange and uncomfortable. But the assignment was over. Months passed and back in New York, the days grew shorter. Yet my head was still in Paris. It wasn’t a matter of missing cream confections flirting in the windows of boulangeries. I missed who I was in Paris—the other me, Stéphanie with the accent on the “e”: curious, improvisational, open to serendipity.

Finally, I took a long weekend to think about why I couldn’t let go of that particular assignment, why alone in Paris time seemed to be on my side; why my senses pricked up; why I was able to delight in the smallest of things and yet failed to see and feel with such intensity at home. Friends loaned me their empty house near a bay on Long Island where on an autumn afternoon I stepped off a bus with a week’s worth of reading and Chinese takeout. Without car or television, I spent days orbiting between a bench on the front porch and an oversize pink wing chair at the head of the dining room table, like the one at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in the 1951 Disney film, eating vegetable lo mein and reading about different experiences of solitude. I plumbed newspaper archives and Gutenberg.org. I ordered used and out-of-print books. I wanted to know what scientists, writers, artists, musicians, and scholars thought about alone time, how they used it, why it mattered. Sometimes I walked a dead-end street to the bay. Other times I would lie on the wood floor in a patch of sun, staring at the ceiling, trying to deconstruct those solitary hours in Paris. There was something there; some way of living that I’d failed to fully grasp, let alone carry with me to my own city.

~ Stephanie Rosenbloom, from her “Introduction” to Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude (Penguin Publishing Group. June 5, 2018)

Driving I-95 S. With Ray…

9 p.m. Thursday evening.

2.5 hours of sleep the night before – the body (and mind) have quit. I’m done. It’s done.

An eggshell blue Extra Strength Tylenol PM caplet rolls in the palm of my hand.  Please. Work your magic. Free me of this Mind. These thoughts. These chains. This swirl. This madness. Just let go.Of me. Please.

And it does. I find Goldbarth’s layer on layer, down and down. And down I went.

5:40 a.m. this morning.

I blink to clear the plume of narcotic, misting Tylenol PM.  Both hands grip the wheel – Steady DK, Steady. There’s a giant Semi to my right, Transpro Intermodal Trucking Inc., Bensalem PA, and a five-foot high barrier on my left…thousands of pounds of concrete which I can reach out and touch.  Lane feels tight. Walls on both sides close in. Steady DK. Steady. I reduce speed to 55, glance in the rear view mirror, wait for oncoming traffic to clear, and swing the car across two lanes. The convoy of trucks and early morning commuters stream by – all racing to beat The Rush to Manhattan.  Not today Friends. Not today. I’m out.

6:05 a.m.

It’s me and a floor of empty offices and desks. The air conditioning is humming. The overhead florescent tubes buzz. I log into my PC, wait for the gremlins to load. While I’m waiting, I flick through WordPress posts.  It’s Ray on the rural roads in South Carolina.  My eyes scan his post, my pulse slows, the body softens and I’m swept away in “Take the Backroads“:

“There is something refreshing about making your way through cornfields, strawberry fields, horse farms and peach orchards at 50mph or so. It is much more relaxing than driving on the Interstate at 75mph and being passed by 18 wheelers…I made my way the thirty-two miles from the meeting back home, I drove, windows down,  through a large cornfield as the sun was setting. The air was fresh and sweet and since there was little traffic, I was able to drive well below the posted speed limit, breath deep and take it all in. When I was younger, I never would have done that. I probably should have.”

Yes Ray.

Yes.


Notes:

  • Inspired by : “One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important… There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.” – G.K. Chesterton, Robert Browning (Thank you Beth @ Alive on all Channels)
  • Photo: via Mennyfox55

Flying Over I-40 N. And leaning in.

bear-plane

4:15 am. In Uber, bleary eyed. Please, no small talk. Absolute silence will score a larger tip. I think about letting him know, the thought vanishing in 3 seconds. Inhuman.

Air conditioning dries the skin, sticky from the early morning humidity. It’s summer in Dallas.

SiriusXM is set to Symphony Hall, playing Bach or Tchaikovsky or Chopin. Wrong side of 50, and you can’t tell one composer from the next. Kyo Maclear: “Die knowing something. Die knowing your knowing will be incomplete.” Makes Sense. I sit in the back seat wondering why this is so difficult, how I’m so badly twisted. Keep running, or Die ignorant.

AA1150, DFW to LGA. 6:00 a.m. boarding. 6:35 am departure, 11:09 am touch down in NYC. And beat the soul sucking rush hour traffic. Home. Soon. Weekend. Body tired, let’s go, and softens.

First flight out. Airport opening. TSA agents. Airport personnel. A youth soccer team from Argentina. I find a seat outside of the Admiral’s Club, which does not open until 5 a.m. A Google alert flashes flight delay to 10:30 a.m. No!

I rush to call American Airlines to find another flight – the automated message says due to inclement weather, hold times are longer. “We will return your call in an estimated 38 minutes.” 38 minutes. You’ve got to be kidding me.

A second Google alert flashes, my flight is now delayed to 10:45 a.m. It’s 4:55 a.m. now.

I’m first in line as the doors are unlocked to the Admirals Club.

“Is it weather? Or is the delay due to an aircraft maintenance problem.”

“Sir, it’s aircraft maintenance.” Oh, no. Estimates for departure times on maintenance problems are notoriously bad. [Read more…]

Riding Amtrak 2151-2172: Baltimore.

Five days gone. 4 memories remain. Freeman Dyson’s memory: Unreliable. Selecting. Rearranging. Forgetting. Embroidering. Inventing.

Scene 1: 

My assistant. So grateful to have an assistant. So grateful for her. Two introverts in well plowed furrows. “Are you sure, you want to go there and back same day? 7 hours on train, in 10 hours?” I look up. She knows the answer. There. Back. Exhaustion traded for sleep, sleep in my own bed.  Book it.

I’m waiting on the platform for Amtrak 2151 leaving at 7:54 am to Baltimore. It was for Dickens, and it was for me:  “One of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”

Scene 2:

She boarded at Penn Station. Student. Maybe 20. She’s determined, bangin’ away on an old model MacBook Air. Wireless white earpods pumping in music, she’s bobbing her head. The cover of her notepad: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Biomed? Engineering? Medicine? She snaps the laptop lid shut, turns her head to the window, leans back, closes her eyes and lets the morning sun warm her face. Confident. Ivy leaguer. At peace.

It’s Thursday, three days later, and I’m deep into Irvin Yalom’s Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir. I wouldn’t be caught dead seeking therapy, but this, ‘this’ memoir is well within bounds.  I’m back on the train, Ms. Johns Hopkins sitting across from me, and me, I’m so Irvin Yalom, so wanting to repeat that trip: [Read more…]

Sunday Morning


Upon arriving in the huge, landlocked country of Mongolia—more than seven times larger than Great Britain—you may be taken aback by the runaway developments in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Ever since some of the world’s largest gold and copper deposits were discovered, some within 70 miles of the city, Mongolia’s economy has taken off like a rocket…But then you hear that more than half of the 1.4 million people in the capital still live in settlements dominated by gers (a traditional style of yurt, like a domed felt tent), sometimes in shockingly simple conditions…

As soon as I ventured out of the city and began bumping across the level, otherworldly steppes of Mongolia, in fact, I realized that nothing I’d seen in 40 years of traveling across Asia could compare with its great, heart-clearing stillness. Within 30 minutes of the hyper-malls, herders will welcome you into their gers to share a feast of marmots, roasted sheep and freshly boiled goats’ heads, much as they might have done in the time of Genghis Khan, the warrior who masterminded the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. If the horsemen who rode all the way to Europe to extend that empire were to return to their ancestral spaces next week, they’d feel right at home.

Part of the special beauty of rural Mongolia is that it redefines everything you thought you knew. A road, I realized as soon as I was jouncing past Bronze Age burial mounds, is a red-dirt scratch across the void; a sight is a jeep the size of an ant, inching across the horizon. A town in the steppes could pass for a subway station almost anywhere else; once, after hours of nothingness, I stopped at a ger camp to find that it also served as a meditation space, a car-repair shop and a leather-tanning workshop. No wonder. Gazing out miles and miles in every direction, I could catch nothing but emptiness—vast enough for the mind to go anywhere (or nowhere at all)—and the sound of the wind, whipping in my ears…

Mongolia haunts a visitor as few other destinations can. After I’d returned home, the power of stepping out of my luxury ger in the Gobi to be met by a 74 million–year-old volcanic outcropping, the eeriness of knowing that dinosaur bones were all around, had gotten inside of me, like a shared dream I couldn’t shake.

In a world flooded with distractions, Mongolia returns one to something ancestral. The clock has little meaning here. Days turn into an ageless cycle of random moments, scanning of the heavens, simple meals, long journeys. Often I didn’t know whether I was traveling into the past or the future. I could simply tell that this was a place that everybody would recognize, if only because it’s somewhere lost inside most of us, lodged like the people we once were and might one day again become.

~ Pico Iyer, excerpts from The Heart-Clearing Stillness of the Mongolian Countryside (wsj.com, February 27, 2018)


Notes:

  • Inspired by Maggie O’Farrell in “I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death“: “When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was read to me and Alice sighs, “Oh, how I long to run away from normal days! I want to run wild with my imagination,” I remember rising up from my pillow and thinking, yes, yes, that’s it exactly. The school trip showed me that it was possible to ease this longing, to sate it. All I had to do was travel. After he had sailed around the Mediterranean in 1869, Mark Twain said that travel was “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Neuroscientists have been trying for years to pin down what it is about travel that alters us, how it effects mental change. Neural pathways become ingrained, automatic, if they operate only by habit. They are highly attuned to alterations, to novelty. New sights, sounds, languages, tastes, smells stimulate different synapses in the brain, different message routes, different webs of connection, increasing our neuroplasticity…I sensed this, at an instinctive level, at age seventeen. That unassailable flood of novelty, the stimulus of uncharted territory, the overload of the unfamiliar, with all synapses firing, connecting, signalling, burning new pathways. I have never forgotten that bus ride from the airport into the centre of Rome, my first sighting of the city. And I have never lost the thrill of travel. I still crave the mental and physical jolt of being somewhere new, of descending aeroplane steps into a different climate, different faces, different languages. It’s the only thing, besides writing, that can meet and relieve my ever-simmering, ever-present restlessness. If I have been too long at home, stuck in the routine of school-runs, packed lunches, swimming lessons, laundry, tidying, I begin to pace the house in the evenings. I might start to cook something complicated very late at night. I might rearrange my collections of Scandinavian glass. I will scan the bookshelves, sighing, searching for something I haven’t yet read. I will start sorting through my clothes, deciding on impulse to take armfuls to the charity shop. I am desperate for change, endlessly seeking novelty, wherever I can find it. My husband might return from an evening out to discover that I have moved all the furniture in the living room. I am not, at times like this, easy to live with. He will raise his eyebrows as I single-handedly shove the sofa towards the opposite wall, just to see how it might look. “Maybe,” he will say, as he unlaces his shoes, “we should book a holiday.”
  • Photo: Frederic LaGrange – “Still Waters.” A full moon rises over a pond near Buir Lake in eastern Mongolia, near the Chinese border.

Flying South Southwest to DFW. Non-Stop. (Not Really)

airport

7:39 a.m. I have an hour to kill waiting to re-board and I’m searching for a photo for this post. I find it on a site titled “Under Heaven.” Isn’t that a coincidence. The photo is a near replica of the skyline that I see from the waiting area at Philadelphia International Airport. A patch of bluest of blues. An orange strip lining the horizon. Sun beaming in through the floor to ceiling windows. A Monday Morning Wake-Up Call. I live. I live. I live. I live.

7:15 a.m. The flight attendant states the estimate for the aircraft repair is one hour. We are asked to take our luggage and deplane. Because 1 hour is an estimate and you know how these things go. But, no one, and I mean no one is complaining.

7:00 a.m. It’s silent in the cabin. I mean Silent. It’s a long approach to the runway. Back wheels bump bump on the tarmac. Front wheel taps to follow. Reverse thrusters slow this 183,000 pound Airbus A321 bird. Whatever thrusters are, I’m grateful. The passengers begin to whisper and the plane taxis to the gate. I’m grateful for Philadelphia. The Liberty Bell. Rocky. Steak & Cheese Sandwiches. The Eagles. All of it. 

6:44 a.m.  The Captain comes on the intercom. “I have control of this aircraft.” And he stops. WTH does that mean? As opposed to being not in control? Noted that he didn’t say: “this is a routine maintenance issue.” I steady my hands, both trembling. No! No! No! No! I’m not ready to leave yet. I’m not looking for a room at the top of the world tonight. Four Seasons. Westin. Marriott. Red Roof Inn, anything. But not there. Not now. Not yet. [Read more…]

Riding Metro-North. With Holy Cow.

Morning. Today. 5:01 a.m. First train to Grand Central.

Dark Sky reports 33° F, feels like 25°.  Feels like: Not Spring. March 5th.  Spring backward. Falling and stumbling forward.

I wedge myself into a two seater, nudging the occupant awake. (Same occupant who was sprawled across two seats).  He’s annoyed. I’m annoyed that he’s annoyed. I’m way more annoyed. 

I glance up at the few unfortunates standing in the vestibule. Now they should be annoyed.

But for the low throb of the annoyances, and the giant overhead heaters blowing through the vents, the train car is silent. No talking. No whispering. No paper shuffling. Nada. Silence.

It’s as if Jack Kornfield blew the whistle and yelled Go: “It was the silence, stopping and taking a breath, opening the heart, seeing that the whole planet, and everything on it, is holy.”

And at that moment, the lead-weighted shoulders are freed.

The soles of the feet, through the leather soles of my lace-ups, feel the vibration of the steel of wheels on the steel of the tracks, bumping along with the rhythmic skip of steel on steel at the ties.

The seat under me is soft and shifts with each rail tie.  The train car rocks, my body sways ever so slightly left and right and then back again. My knees gently knock on the seat in front, first right knee then left.

Feet, knees, palms, seat — sensations are elevated.

I close my eyes. Drift off, and float along on Kornfield’s holy train.

His holy car. Holy Cow.

I awaken to the conductor’s announcement: “This station is Grand Central. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.”

Meditation? Nah.

Mediation is not for real men.


Notes:

Riding Metro-North. Delayed, but it could (always) be worse.

Wednesday morning. 5:46 a.m. I step out, lock the door and step it to the station.

8 minutes to the 5:54 am train to Grand Central. A six minute walk. Tight.

I’m a few hundred feet away and the overhead speaker signals a five to ten minute delay. Naturally.

  • 6:00 a.m. No sign of the train.
  • 6:10 a.m. I set my bag down. No sign of train. Other commuters stir impatiently.
  • 6:15 a.m. No sign of train.  A second wave of commuters stack up on the platform waiting for the 6:16 am. train.
  • 6:25 a.m. No train.  Announcement over the speaker announces further delays due to “police activity.” I check Twitter for a Metro-North update. 10-15 minute delays, my a**.  I keep on reading…and the edge comes off. Slip and fall? Jumper? Heart attack?

[Read more…]

Flying Over I-95 N. In Magic Kingdom.

Is that Magic Kingdom? Disney? Yes. Were you there? No. But Yes, in gusts of memories as I sat in a large ballroom at the J.W. Marriott in Orlando, listening to a speaker discuss “Cybersecurity in the Modern World.” Fastpasses. Teacup. Turkey legs. Splash Mountain. The monorail train ride to the park, Eric’s favorite part of the trip. The body aches, as I carry him on my shoulders along the parade route so he can see over the crowds. It’s a Small World (afterall).

It’s the late afternoon flight departing from Orlando — the 5:41 p.m. on jetBlue #1694.  “We will be boarding in a few minutes. This is a full flight. We are oversold and looking for volunteers to take the next flight.”  A morning flight was canceled “due to inclement weather in New York.” Why ‘inclement?’ Why not ‘bad’? Or ‘stormy.’ Or ‘wintry.’

A large crowd mills around the gate, impatient. “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong. Can you tell which thing is not like the other by the time I finish this song.”

Mom’s, exhausted, shoulders slumped, have large bags slung over their shoulders. They watch their children run around the waiting area, others are consumed on their handhelds. Dad’s sit and watch loops of CNN on the overhead TVs.  Moms, Dads, kids, holiday, Disney and then me — the Suit, work.

We board.

We lift off. [Read more…]

Driving I-95 N. With Raheim.

AA2263. DFW to LGA. Early Friday afternoon, start of a long weekend, Board flashes: “Delayed“.

It’s been a long week.

Sorry about the delay folks but we were late arriving in Dallas and we had a minor repair that we had to take care of. We’ll see if we can make up time.”

He’s makes up time.

The giant steel bird, a Boeing 737-800, does a slow gentle turn over Manhattan, the Empire State Building is adorned in red and green holiday ribbons, the stage lights of Time Square light up the hulking scrapers, the grid layout frames up the streets and neighborhoods.

The plane tilts its wings softly, leaning in towards the city. Here pal, get a closer look at the Big Apple. Whaddya think, cool right?  I’m a drop of water, a drop in something so vast, so incomprehensible…

The video monitor on the seat signals 10 minutes from destination. Altitude: 8,000 feet

A text messages flashes: “Sir, my name is Raheim. I’ll meet u at Upper Level. Text me.”  I text back: “Haven’t landed yet. Didn’t check luggage. Should be ~30 minutes.” Indicator flashes: “Read.”

Miracle. All of it.

[Read more…]

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