Urbino, a Renaissance jewel in central Italy. My first visit there in many years. I knew no one there, nor was I in touch with anyone from my grandmother Antonia’s family—assuming any were left.
One evening, as I was ascending a cobblestone street towards the city’s outer walls, I noticed a group of people gathered around an uncovered manhole. Intrigued, I moved closer. A group of amateur speleologists was about to begin a nocturnal exploration of underground Urbino; to my surprise they asked me if I wanted to join them. Squeezing down the manhole’s narrow, vertical, metal stairs, I found myself in a long tunnel. The guides began talking, but I wasn’t listening, mesmerized by the scattering flashes of their helmets’ lights. I felt I was physically penetrating the past—an imagined past. My father’s city’s past, unknown to him and to me.
Zack was slim and handsome, of mixed race, and from the Midwest. He had spoken early on to me of his “protestant work ethic,” and already in those first weeks, when everybody was drinking beer from plastic cups and enjoying the good weather, I would see him putting his words into action.
I’m thinking of a classic geography text that explains how humans use rivers and mountains to mark their borders. The difference is that rivers help humans come and go from each other while mountains keep them apart. But from the textbook of my own travels, I know this isn’t true. The only real borders are those humans make themselves, in their own minds.
—Suddan Wisudthilak, Thai scholar
Two years ago, I stood aghast at the sight of a little island in the Moei River, the border between Thailand’s northwestern Mae Sot district and Burma, on which refugees from the latter had made their home.
“This is it—this is what they call a no-man’s-land,” said my friend, a local provincial administrator, who’d taken me there. “It’s not only that they lack a military force. For me, it also means there’s no humanity. Just look.”
It’s mid-January, and I’ve come to northern Michigan to see a frozen river layered with fresh snow. On winter days, a long time ago, a young woman skated across this river to be with the man she would eventually marry. She lived in Hancock, a town draped on hills opposite my vantage point in Houghton, which sits on highland and spills, like its sister, to the Portage River. Her beau lived on the Houghton side and worked in a hotel with cupolas and a grand ballroom, two blocks up from where I stand observing the expanse of ice. I can’t understand how she skated after a snowfall, or in bitter wind and blizzard whiteouts.
“…to feel at home nowhere, but at ease almost everywhere.”
“You need to be able to receive beauty.”
I am on the island of Patmos for Easter. Though I haven’t come for the holiday specifically. It so happens I’m off from work because it’s Easter, arguably the most important event in the Greek holiday calendar; Christ’s birth the less celebrated event as compared to his death as necessary prelude to resurrection. Patmos, the island where St. John the Divine is said to have had his vision of the apocalypse, generally feels mournful this time of year. Not infrequently it will be a sun-splashed day anywhere else in Greece while here clouds gather in their overcast greys. I am not a believer, though I’m hard put to call myself an atheist. Perhaps agnostic, with its Greek root, is closest to describing my feeling — that is, gnōsis (knowledge), and so agnōsto (unknown) would make me a believer in the unknown.
In Susan Sontag’s short story “Project for a Trip to China,” the unnamed narrator is invited on a junket by the Chinese government. The project unfolds as a loose association of daydreams, epigrams, facts, and memories triggered by the promise of this future trip.
We are driving through downtown Columbus, away from the Greyhound station. I spent fifteen hours on a bus traveling from New York City to visit for Christmas, a holiday, my mother reminds me, that is not even about Jesus anymore. This is a thought she has reiterated over the years, yet it never prevented her from partaking in the holiday during my lifetime. The absence of a decorative tree and gifts reflected a lack of money, not a rejection of the commodification of religion.
The first empty ring echoed all over the room. Since we had left the island, the phone-bridge had been an effective method to recover some of the sounds that, in their absence, made our exiled evenings emptier. But when they failed to answer, uncertainty and impotence took control. It was still early there. Only the low-pitch whistle of the still-weak wind caressing the tops of the palm trees, that ambiguous premonition that could sway either way. This time it would be real. But not yet.
Día 29 desde el huracán y sin luz. Todavía las jornadas en mi trabajo, por la falta de energía, son más cortas. Mi oficina, a la que llamaba (y ya todas mis amistades conocían como) las catacumbas jurídicas, se perdieron, por lo que nos reubicamos en la biblioteca. Intento llegar lo más temprano posible, para traerle agua fría a mi querido amigo y colega Francisco, para preguntarle a los demás cómo están, si han dormido, a Pabsi si tiene gas y saber cómo siguen su mamá y Lalo (el gato), y a la vez contarles o contarnos todos a modo de terapia de grupo que seguimos a oscuras, que algunos no tienen ni techo, que el gobierno nos amputa las esperanzas en pequeños trocitos, que muchos se han ido, muerto, enferman, emigran, permanecen….
de Las Pisadas Del Insomnio / from The Footsteps of Insomnia