Corregidor Island, off the coast of Manilla in the Philippines, is balmy but windy, a ceiling fan in Florida. I’m hiking limestone bluffs pot-marked with WWII pillboxes, some say live ammo, and blobs of sunset-colored avian called “mango birds” that flutter in and out of sight. Underneath me is a bunker I’m trying to find. It is multiple airports in size, and I gambled I could stumble on it. Lost, I look out from one of the islands many palm-saturated hills and see a statue tumoring from the beach: General George “Doug-out-Dug” MacArthur. Below the bronze feet, are the words, “I shall return.”
The story of the Immovable Ladder is this: it was left on a balcony of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem by a careless mason in 1750 and has sat there ever since. The six orders of monks, in whose ruthless stewardship the church is kept, have divided the church into blocks of turf, which they guard with fervor, and sometimes with fists. It’s unclear to which sect the balcony (and by extension, the ladder) belongs. Any attempt to answer that question would be a threat to the delicate status quo that keeps the monkish violence at bay. And so the ladder sits. Undisturbed.
Sandy showed us how. She placed the shovel’s tip a few inches from a tuft’s base. Angled the handle back a bit, just enough to loosen the grass before she lowered, hand-pulling. This way, she explained, down to the source. Awards went to the biggest pile, longest root (you cannot burn grass off the dunes; the network just shoots back again), cleanest area too. Tawny tips waved in small breeze from the lagoon, off the lip of sea. But the grass is pretty, C said, and somebody murmured, agreeing. He traced the rake in arcs, looking down, but couldn’t swirl it far. European beachgrass (Ammophila arenaria) grows in clumps from rhizomes that spread four meters each year, so it’s no surprise beachgrass defines large stretches of Pacific coast. Pretty till you get a spine in your glove, E admitted, wincing. Until you get down close.
I found a book by Georges Perec called Tentatived’épuisement d’un lieu Parisien, or An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris. I like Perec very much. He loved word games and wrote crossword puzzles, and very often invented challenges for himself in his writing. In 1969 he wrote a book—La Disparition—in which the letter “e” does not appear. It was translated into English, also with no “e’s” but since the literal translation—The Disappearance—has three “e’s”, the English title is A Void. In 1972 Perec wrote Les Revenents, in which “e” is the only vowel in the book. Perec died of cancer in 1982 when he was only forty-six.
St. Joan of Arc classroom and cloakroom revisited, 2018
Queens, New York
The very sound of it was foreign to our ears. Who wore cloaks? Vampires. Stealthy spies with hidden daggers. And men in top hats who appeared in movies and old-fashioned story books. Certainly no one we knew as first-graders at St. Joan of Arc—except, perhaps, for the nuns whose sleeveless black capes swirled in their hurried winter walks through the schoolyard to the convent. But their habits covered every inch of skin up to their necks; even their brows were partially obscured by fabric stiff as cardboard and white as their bony hands—the only other flesh exposed. So, on second thought, we couldn’t really say we “knew” the nuns when their very bodies were concealed and their lives outside the classroom a mystery.
Inside Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum, there is a quiet passageway which serves as a spatial juncture between the Nazi era and the Soviet one. There is only one exhibit in this place: an enormous metal globe, encircled by wooden framing and encased in glass. Its lands are tinted municipal yellow-brown, its seas faded cyan. This particular globe may once have belonged to Ribbentrop, Goebbels, or perhaps Hitler himself. This is not a shock; Hitler’s actual desk rests in the preceding room, about forty meters behind you. You have therefore already experienced such a flood of icy association; an anxious dread similar to when you behold a steep precipice, or pass by a policeman toting an automatic weapon.
An hour from Marrakesh, a car delivers my friend and me to Imlil for a day-hike in the High Atlas Mountains. Judging by the heavy-gauge North Face jacket and ice-climbing boots worn by our guide Abderrahim, it’s clear I’ve miscalculated trekking in Morocco in February. I scan the snowy peaks and wonder how I will fare in my paltry jacket and no hat. And there he is. He sits patiently, about five feet from me, looking timid and cold. His head tilts downward, and although there is no eye contact, I sense he knows I’m there. I’m overtaken by a swell of tenderness and yearning, and I say to my friend, “I think this guy just AirDropped me his heart.”
It’s a conundrum—where to put the baby in the grime—how to remove him from his blanket and place him on anything in this room. This room is what my husband and I get for $99 a night on Trip Advisor at .2 miles from the Philadelphia airport. The hotel sits in a strangled urban desert—a place bereft of tree, water, flow—a sprawl of light and concrete. This is a hopeless place for trapped people, meant to curb the anxiety about the most unnatural of journeys.
I am a trespasser. It’s difficult not to be one when so much of the hills surrounding the Finger Lakes of New York are owned by so many, “somebody else’s.” Even the abandoned Tenny’s Farm, with its heaviness of barren barns and feral fields, is stitched with Posted signs. Nearly daily I hike, or ride my pony, along the top of Grimes Gully with its whispering waterfalls below, to the end of the the Old West Hollow Road: an echo of a carriage road overgrown and barely remembered. It’s not really the end though, it’s a path dismembered by a twelve-foot-high fence that surrounds hundreds of acres of private deer reserve. I press my face to the cold wire, longing for the wide trails that continue inside there. Just being here, though, I’ve passed numerous signs. I am trespassing.
I’d been backpacking solo for twenty days in the mountains of Colorado, only a biography of Mozart for company, when my feet finally got the message up to my thumb that they were tired—so blistered, and achy, and sun-deprived and tired. My thumb, being a crafty little digit, waited until the trail crossed a road, then sprang into action with all the springiness a thumb can muster. One minute I was a resolved nature pilgrim, the next a common drifter hitching a ride to junk food.
What pulled up beside me almost instantaneouslywas not so much a Suburban as a rumbling patchwork of rust and mismatched panels. The tailpipe, or the little left of it, screamed a warning of danger, but its cries fell on my feet’s deaf ears. I stepped to the lowered window, thinking of ice cream and nothing besides ice cream.