Thursday, May 29, 2008

holy spaces in ireland

As the airborne seeds dance in the wind like tiny glowing fairies, I sit in the ruined kells priory. We ambled along Irish countryside to get to kells from kilkenny. We hitchhiked, picked up by the sweetest old lady whose car was overflowing with fresh flowers from the market. As we sat among the blossoms she told us of her village, kells, the new 'uncharacteristic' real estate, and of her famous race horse. She let us off near the stream and told us to go along the river, around the old mill and it'll be just beyond that. wow. when's the last time you've gotten directions like that?

We ambled along the clearest creek I've ever seen, lined with fresh spring buds. It was the kind of creek I imagine you'd dip into on a hot summer day, swirling between the water lilies and swans and drinking it straight anytime you got thirsty. The grass was crisp and bright and green, the dew drops slipped onto our toes as we passed along it. We came upon the old mill, still operating, and just beyond it stood the castle-like towers of the ruined monastery. Erected in the dark ages, monks used to walk these halls, pray in this chapel and think about God, life, and existence.

Within the walls is a large rolling meadow with dozens of sheep and lambs scattered upon it. The babies are experiencing their first spring, tumbling on their new awkwardly long legs and mowing the grass like adorable puffy white lawnmowers. I sat under a flowering tree and watched them play, sit, drink milk from their mother. I felt like a milk maiden, hiding from my duties to take in the beauty and warmth of the new spring sun. My long hair blew in the wind and the sun shone lightly on my back, warming me.

And now I sit here, in this ruined place of worship. The arches of what were walls and windows are being flooded with the afternoon sunlight and I can imagine how human beings could devote their lives to learning and meditation and worship in a place like this.

Alas, the monks eventually left this place and the rocks they assembled into walls and holy spaces are slowly returning to their place in the earth. The tombs are eroding, turning into rocks and then sand and then soil. Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. A verse from the bible that these monks might not have known well enough.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

on Proust and travel in Paris

A prompt in a contemporary french newspaper: a scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed, and in such a sudden way, that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people... what would be its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm?

Proust: I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies it - our life - hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.

But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! if only the cataclysm doesn't happen this time, we won't miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Mrs. X, or making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn't happen, we don't do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn't have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.

*an excerpt found in a book on Proust in an english bookstore in Paris

we are humans. finite but far-reaching creatures, we assume our lives will go on forever and as this assumption lies burning in our subconscious, we deaden inside, losing the desire to think and feel deeply, to explore and to love. Travel is the conscious acknowledgement of my finite-ness, the fact that everyday that I live I am one day closer to my death and it oughtn't take a perceived catastrophe to confront this truth. I must constantly move my feet on this trip, move my body through the world, and I am aware of my life's lack of routine and knowing always of my decision to be here now.

By behaving this way I fall into the anti-routine, a place where the catastrophe of death becomes more conscious, and I explore my place in my life on a daily basis. I know almost every hour of every day of this past two months that I am young and I am seeing the beauty and intellect of Europe, of western history, while politics and economics allow it. And I, like Proust, must work to retain this awareness throughout my life - through routine and change, happiness and trauma, good and bad - I must live this day as if it were my last, and to beware of the endlessness and risk of the unconscious routinized life of which Proust speaks.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

resurgence of wonder in paris

This post may make you nervous, but dont worry, mom, its totally safe.

In Stockholm, Amsterdam and Paris Alex and I couchsurfed. What does this mean? you ask. well, it means that we meet up with a total stranger and stay on their couch or extra bed. In exchange, we make our couch available to people when we are not traveling. It was only a tiny bit scary at first; but after the first 5 minutes, when you get a sense that the person is not crazy, it immediately becomes rewarding. Not only do you get to save money, but you get to exchange ideas, make new friends, and learn about the world through the people in it.

In Stockholm it was Andreas. Slightly gothic, befitting the Scandinavian youth stereotype, and very much into the Smashing Pumpkins, he was such a friendly fellow. We all talked late into the night about swedish socialism and american capitalism, and all of the politics that make them work. He told us of his free education (up to college), no health care bills, and his government funded job making educational television on Swedens public access channel. Oh, how I wish I were Swedish!

Then, in Amsterdam, we met Robb, a cal tech postdoc working on particle physics. We talked about LAs music scene, the presidential race, and we acquired a scientists insight on the energy crisis. Oh! and he took us out for a Dutch beer with his German girlfriend.

Finally, Gabriela and Angel in Paris. They are Brazilian students (sociology and journalism, respectively) earning their phds with an exchange year in france. From them we learned about the life of the Sao Paolo working class, the effects of multinational corporations on south americans, and how they hope for change in our country as it will bring change in theirs.

I am radicalized by the ease and beauty with which these people have opened their lives and homes to us. Nearing the end of our journey, I am feeling a resurgence of love and wonder in the world and the people it contains.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

clean beauty in stockholm and joy in amsterdam

From Prague we moved on forward to Berlin, or so we thought. We got into Berlin, saw the wall, the place where Hitler shot himself, and then realized Alex forgot his retainer in Prague. Oh, lord. Okay, so risk his teeth shifting and then having to find a dentist to get another retainer molded OR spend the next day that we were supposed to spend in Berlin going back to Prague. We chose the latter. Kind of absurd to be reliant on a strange molded plastic mechanism, isnt it? So, 5 hours back to Prague then another 5 hours returning again to Berlin and then a 2 hour break and then a night train to Malmo, Sweden and then a 15 minute break and a 5 hour train to Stockholm. Whew!

Luckily, train travel is super not stressful and we had our night cabin to ourselves and it was mostly pleasant for having to go that far for that long. Stockholm was beautiful. Clean, neat, happy. The land looked to me like northern wisconsin -- which is probably why a lot of swedes ended up there -- filled with red barns and flat land, lots of glimmering lakes among forests of thin pine trees. I felt like I fit in there. Lots of tall beautiful blondes, not what i am exactly, but sort of how I see Lindsey. Alas, it turns out that in very well run countries with not much sightseeing you'd rather dream of living there than be a tourist there. So, we cut out a day of Stockholm and headed to Amsterdam via Copenhagen.

Just in the short while we have been here the experience has been filled with wonder and awe. Bikes everywhere! Barely any cars only buses and trams and bikes and people fill the streets. The canals are rife with young and beautiful large dutch people, rowing their boats and their newly-browning skin glowing in the afternoon sunlight. When we tried to get on the bus the driver said it was free today (i think informally because no other native amsterdammers knew about this), and everyone was in such high spirits about this spontaneous phenomena that they kept filling with laughter everytime someone else got on the bus and received the pleasant news from our jovial captain. To top it off, he picked up his microphone and told the bus he was thinking of Louis Armstrong's famous song and began to sing "the colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of people on the BUS, i see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do, they're really saying I LOVE YOU -- I love you, I love each and everyone one of you, my bus riders." And as I look over past all the faces just beaming with glee in unabashed and unironic happiness, a little girl who looks like a younger version of myself and is also dressed up like a priness smiles at me as the setting sun shines behind her head and illuminates her golden hair, throwing a halo around her angelic face. Then I look out the window behind her and see the famous statue that proclaims I AMSTERDAM. This can't be real.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

bureaucracy in prague

So, now I know what Kafka was talking about. The bureaucracy of eastern europe, namely the former communist countries, is outrageous!

Alex and I had just gotten into Prague. We were excited. We were happy, ready to see the gem of central europe. After a few poorly marked signs and hard to find ATMs we made our way onto the metro. We bought a 90 minute ticket, or so we thought. We waited around at our hostel for a ridiculously long check-in procedure with some Thai students in front of us in line and then finally got our room and headed out to the city. We finally got back on the metro to go into the historical district and as we slipped off into the crowd two burly slavic men stood at the bottom of the escalator, checking tickets. Ours was 30 minutes less than valid. Not knowing this, I took our tickets out of my back pocket and presented them with confidence. He pointed to the clock, the 75 minutes on the ticket, took us to the posters that explained his badges and the penalty that was about to be forced upon us. A whirlwind of both disbelief and clarity ensued.

There was no way out, we were about to get fined, and I cannot believe it was over such a small thing as this. shit shit shit. ugh. no! 90 dollars. A days' budget. Bureaucracy. The men seemed to get a sick pleasure from walking us over to the atms, holding our American passports. Getting thieved by bureaucratic thugs is somehow more rewarding than getting robbed by the poor. They aren't desperate, they don't need the money, they are just doing their vicious jobs and holding us accountable to their flawed system.

Friday, May 2, 2008

radical politics in Dachau

note: this post may or may not be filled with radical politics. if you are offended by radical politics, please stop here.

Today I went to a concentration camp five miles outside of Munich called Dachau.

Nothing can prepare one for the experience of visiting a concentration camp. nothing. no books or films or songs or pictures can capture seeing their barracks, prisons, torture rooms. I cannot describe to you the insights gained. I had thoughts of man's nature, the universality of brotherly love, and of mass complacency, the power of man post-industrial revolution, the ease with which indoctrination happened and happens. still today. with you even. My comprehension is still very fuzzy, but I know the outlines of the story and to me it is scarier than any tales of ghosts and demons and vampires.

People who are suffering become easily swayed, and most people follow the masses. Hitler took advantage of these two facts and once he gained the slightest majority (his party won by only a few percentage points), he granted himself supreme power and made laws as he saw fit.

Now, I don't know about you (here comes the radical part), but I see this happening still today. The Chinese are blocking the press and starting 're-education' for monks about the situation in Tibet. Chavez is trying to become dictator for life. Our president used American suffering to launch a war that had no basis in reality, and then our military tortured people there, and we are detaining prisoners without a right to a trial.

All it takes is a bit more widespread suffering (maybe the looming economic crisis on the horizon?), and a bit more rightist leader and we are on our way to another third Reich.

What makes me particularly angry about all of this is that the Right then is the same as the Right now. They have the same stances, almost identical. And everyone can stand back and denounce the holocaust as if it were some anomaly of history. But its not. It was people who were conservative as we find conservatives today getting too much power (not that the far left wasn't as bad, wanting to use violence to incite revolution, but they were always too split to gain a clear majority).

I just want you to be aware of this. See the suffering and understand its causes, look into your own nature and recognize the tendencies to hate, and also those to love. Try to trend towards the latter.