Voyages, vacations, and road trips

To celebrate summer travel, some excerpts from Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn, an American journalist and novelist who covered wars from WWII to Vietnam.

As anyone who travels much knows, things on the road―or water―don’t always go as planned, and that is often where the adventure begins. The focus of these essays are some of Gellhorn’s voyages that didn’t go so well, and include China, Africa, the Caribbean, and Suriname.

The pictures are my own, taken in Northern California.

 

The airline, called China National Aviation Company (CNAC) consisted of two DC3s and three DC2s, elderly machines and no nonsense about comfort. Compared to passenger planes now, these were flying beetles.

We climbed, as if climbing a spiral staircase, in tight jolting circles over Hong Kong until we reached fourteen thousand feet. All lights went off except the dim light in the pilot’s cabin and we crossed the Japanese lines, brightly lit far below. In half an hour, the storm hit us. I had been watching the flickering exhaust flame on a wing, but the wing vanished into cloud that looked grainy and hard as granite. Hail sounded like a threshing machine. Everything froze including the air speed indicator. Roy explained that if the speed dropped below sixty-three miles per hour the plane stalled and went into a spin, but there was no cause for anxiety; he opened his window a crack and judged air speed that way; he’d done it often.”

 

The dinghy was not as long as I am. Carlton put the hatch cover in it, making a peculiar seating or lying arrangement, a convex curve for two thirds of the length then a drop to a concave curve. I spread the blankets on this surface, placed the pillow at one end, slid my legs under the seat and established myself with umbrella for sunshade. All I had to do was duck when the boom swung over.”

 

With a picnic, water and heavy sandwiches, I set off to explore. St Martin was a magic island. Secret white sand coves indented the shore. I chose one far from town, walled in by thick bush that the rain had polished and framed by swaying royal palms. Under a china-blue sky, I sat naked in the shallows to watch schools of fish, recognizing only silver baby barracudas. And waded out to swim through glass-clear Nile-green water, where you could see below to the sand and more passing fish, into silky deep sapphire sea.”

 

[Paramaribo Grand Hotel, Suriname]

“I was swooning with happiness by five o’clock when I settled on a ruptured cane chair in the lobby to listen to the going gossip. At five o’clock promptly the mosquitoes arrived. ‘Union mosquitoes,’ a soldier observed. ‘They work from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.’ They were the biggest mosquitoes I had met anywhere and fearless, they zoomed in to cover one’s arms and legs and died feeding while others replaced those you had beaten to death. When the blazing sun went down, the air refused to cool despite nightly rainy season cloudbursts. The rain was lukewarm, encouraged the mosquitoes, turned the streets into quagmires which dried to deep dust a half hour after sunrise. Between five and six in the morning, there was a very faint freshness to breathe.”

Find the book here

Read about Gellhorn, and the journalism prize awarded in her name, here

Writing what we know vs. going where the writing scares us

A few days ago, wading through a tsunami of belongings at a storage unit, a thought about writing jumped out at me. There is a danger in writing what we know, and I was basically surrounded by the physical manifestation of it.

Over-writing, narratives loaded with enough detail to make the most patient reader wince. I’ve certainly read a lot of work like this and have produced computer files full of it myself. The problem with writing what we know and staying on familiar ground is this: we can end up like guides who know so much about their subject that they can’t get out of the way of the story.

When we’re writing about something we don’t know, something we’re not sure we have the CV to take on, we haven’t got that life’s worth of detail to immerse ourselves and our readers in. It’s like trekking toward a summit we’ve caught a glimpse of. We take only the bare essentials along, and don’t waste energy or oxygen on the unnecessary.

Yes, we have life experience. We have cultural, historical and personal perspectives we can layer insparingly. But we let the path and the scenery speak for themselves, because they are so new, so fresh, and so bare-knuckle present, we don’t want to obscure any of it.

 

Stepping away from busy brain syndrome

…where every detail, thought, and idea is pinned like a specimen to an organizing structure, every minute has its task, and every day has to account for itself in a hierarchy of accomplishments.

 

Sometimes, you just have to drop all that, get away, and drift without a mental itinerary directing every move.

 

 

 

 

 

For me, zoning out in front of TV shows doesn’t help. It makes me feel pinned and immobilized like a specimen on a display board.

 

 

 

 

My definition of getting away means settling down into the depths, away from the noise, long enough to remember how to breathe.

 

 

 

 

Some days that’s made possible by disappearing into a good book or into music that carries me off into its own specific world.

 

 

 

 

Some days it requires a car, a camera, and a country road.

 

 

 

 

 

Writing report:

Nothing was submitted in March. The story I worked on for submission felt a little too incendiary and is getting reviewed, to make sure that it makes its point instead of just setting off fireworks. For April, two stories are nearly completed, in the sense of feeling fully edited and cleaned up, and at least one of them should be ready to send out by the end of this week.

Wisteria & Winter’s Tale

The only connection here is that I’ve been fascinated by them both lately, and thought it was possible that others might appreciate pictures of the flowers and quotes from the book.

Mark Helprin’s writing is as precise as the wisteria blooms and as inspiring as their scent. Reading his work is a solid lesson in great writing.

 

“He had never been in a building. For all he knew, when he opened the door he would see a new city within, as vast and entertaining as the one he had just discovered.”

“Each tower had a minute of free view, after which it would spend the rest of eternity contemplating the shins of its competitors.”

 

“The new year was rolling at them as wide and full as a tide racing up the bay, sweeping over old water in an endless coil of ermine cuff.”

“It would take a day at the blackboard to figure out the theory of this alarm system. He had no hope of controverting it in the dark at six degrees above zero. Impressed and even delighted, Peter Lake went around the side of the house and climbed onto the broad ledge of a window.”

 

 

“Peter Lake had heard Beverly say that the greater the stillness, the farther you could travel, until, in absolute immobility, you achieved absolute speed. If you could hold your breath, batten yourself down, and stop every atom from its agitation within you, she had said, you could vault past infinity.”

“…of all the means to the tranquility he now sought, a quiet snowfall was the most elegant and the most generous.”

 

“…she was familiar with the vast billowing nebulae in which one filament of a wild and shaken mane carried in its trail a hundred million worlds.”

Visit Mark Helprin’s website here, and look for a copy of Winter’s Tale here.

 

Other Voices, Good Reads: Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

If I could afford to, I think I’d buy this book for everyone I know. Noah is a sharp observer—of himself, other people, and the cultures and country they inhabit—which makes reading his book about growing up in South Africa as much a learning experience as it is good, solid storytelling.

One of many highlights is his relationship with his mother, who truly shines here. She is exceptional and inspiring. He’s done such good work in portraying her that any attempt on my part to synthesize or condense will only detract. You’ll have to read his book to have a chance to get to know her—and, trust me, you don’t want to miss out on that opportunity.

He’s perceptive in his illustrations of the irrational, illogical bases behind apartheid, qualities that show up in the way it was carried out as well. But he also illuminates some of the insidious cunning in the way it was structured. He does a great job of illustrating the distinction between making an opportunity available and making it accessible, and also the effects of language, the ways it can both separate people and bring them closer.

This is one of the passages from the book that had the greatest impact on me. He is talking about his relationship with his father and the time they were unable to spend together under apartheid. To me it is also a description of what all systems of racism and “otherizing,” institutionalized or otherwise, do to all of us:

Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them—and that is what apartheid stole from us…”

You can access his website here, and you can buy copies of his book here.

My 2017 writing challenge

2016 was not a good year for personal writing goals. I started this year determined not to repeat that disappointing performance, and it didn’t take much analysis to see the problem. I had to come up with a new approach to writing, or more specifically to a writing schedule.

By the middle of January I’d decided what that new structure would be. In every month of 2017, I would submit at least one piece of writing or self-pub a story on Amazon. There are enough stories, essays, poems and novel chapters on my computer to fill a small library—if they were completed. They need to be revised, polished, finished, and sent out into the world, to see if they find a place for themselves.

This was one of those Ray Bradbury sort of concepts. First you jump off the cliff, and then you build your wings on the way down. In other words, I started with the conviction, not a clear sense of the follow through.

We’re not far into the year, but so far I’ve stuck to the schedule. The February deadline did stretch into early March to accommodate word choices that just did not sit right. The opposing force to deadlines is you can’t send something out until it’s right, or as right as your current skill-set allows.

Two short pieces are being revised for submission in March. There’s also research to do, looking into magazines and sites that might be interested in those pieces. At the same time, I’m working on longer stories to submit in future months. So it’s developing into a three-tier process.

What’s struck me the most over this past seven weeks has been the effect of setting monthly deadlines. These are arbitrary and self-imposed ultimatums, but they have somehow lodged themselves in my brain and refused to be ignored, displaced, or shouted down by whatever else might be going on.

A huge bonus and upside is I’ve spent a lot more time reading online and at the library, enjoying the work of other writers as well as the magazines that publish them. Who knows what the odds are, but there’s always a chance one of them would consider including my work in the publications they spend their own long hours curating.

The time all this has taken has felt monumental. When it comes to restaurant menus, clothes, office equipment, I usually know what I want after a quick perusal of the options. But give me a piece of my own writing to polish and complete and you might not see me for days. Days spent excavating through layers of rough patches and not-quite-right word choices. As soon as the first set of snarls is sorted out, more are revealed.

And speaking of that, I have a deadline to meet.

Immigration—gestures, posturing & walls

(in which Vesta has a soapbox moment, but let me just get this out of my system and we’ll go back to our regular programming)

A poet died last week. Memories of him lit up the Internet. Reading messages from writers and students whose lives had intersected with his, I could feel the traces he’d left along his way.

The poet who died is Tom Lux, and one of the most affecting messages about him was written by Vijay Seshadri, in writing freshly poured from pain and loss. It’s a remembrance of generosity and humane welcome that inadvertently shines a bright light on recent attempts in the U.S. and elsewhere to codify xenophobia.

Not that xenophobia is new, it’s a state of mind with a long and entirely shabby history. But it has attempted to pass itself off as rational in the wake of horrific events like the bombings and murders in Paris and Berlin.

Clearly, there are terrorists in the world. Very likely in every country in the world. We have our own home-grown varieties here in the states. Slamming the gates on individuals based on where they were born, banning members of any religion, will not keep this particular wolf from the door. It’s posturing. It’s throwing sledgehammers at a complex problem that requires precise tools and specialized knowledge.

The deeper problem here is that when we humans feel threatened we do what makes us feel safe, whether it addresses the actual threat or not. We point fingers. We roar. We pound tables and slam doors because it silences the noise in our heads, not to mention everyone within hearing range. This is sound and fury within the tiny neural networks of our own minds, not threat resolution out in the world where it matters.

But here we are, closing the doors. Locking the gates. Putting up walls.

I imagine Lady Liberty, our Mother of Exiles, standing in her harbor, wondering what happened to the country stretched out behind her. A place that once prided itself on can-do independence and ingenuity, the ability to roll up its sleeves and solve anything. For now, that country has decided to act out of its fear instead of its wits.