Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Sorting What I've Seen, Travel Observations

Rather than putting my blog away while on holiday, I'll admit I filter many of my experiences through its lenses. I'm out of sorts if Wifi isn't available; I take photos with readers in mind; and I'm often shaping a post as I fell asleep after a busy day sight-seeing.

As I slip back into my life back home, there is still so much I want to tell you, and to show you. Conscious, though, that you might weary of these travel posts (those iconically interminable 60s/ '70s evenings viewing friends' slides or home movies), I'll be trying for balance between there and here, then and now, words and pictures, long and short. . .

As well, I'm thinking a bit about the impulse to share what I've seen. And about the best ways to do that. I've recently come across two posts that coincide with a conversation I had with my husband on the Via del Governo Vechhio in Rome. Spotting a sad little painting in the window of a now-defunct Artist's space (see it above, through the security grill, and bottom of this post, in more detail, closer-up) I found myself once again stopping to snap a photo, Paul waiting patiently a few steps ahead.  To me, this witty, sad painting told a story about the dusty space in the empty shop behind the closed doors and grill-covered windows -- some artist, or perhaps a collective, had hoped to make a go of a business. The death of the studio (Morte di Atelier) rendered in an image featuring a bleeding heart insisted that there was so much more than brute economics at play here. But most passers-by were doing just that: passing by. I seemed to be the only wayone arrested by the poignant canvas.


I often feel this in my quotidian circle: details that seem revelatory, even occasionally profound, confirm me as "odd duck," overly sensitive, making too much of small details, when I try to share them. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my perspicacious and wise insights (yes, I kid!), are not always appreciated as such if delivered during a family gathering. At best, they probably appear as quirky, if passionate, observations. The conversation is fast-moving, someone in the corner tells a joke, a baby needs to be moved, quickly, away from a wine glass, my emphasis on the light hitting a statue loses its listener, I wonder if I'm being tedious, I feel those accusatory nouns bookworm, bluestocking . . .fragility ensues, which I hide as best I can. . . I leave my description of the woman at a window, framed in apricot, watching the crowd at the Pantheon (see, above), leave it mid-sentence to find a cloth for the spilled wine. When someone eventually remembers that I was telling them something, apologizes for losing the thread, for interrupting the conversation, I pretend I've forgotten what I was saying, and tuck the anecdote away. I grab my own glass, turn into a rapt listener at the elbow of someone else's day . . .

Oh dear, that last is such a revealing paragraph. Will I leave it? For now, yes, I think so. Realize, please, how partial is its meaning, how particular the phenomenon it details, how little it relates to, perhaps 80% of my life. . . .

So, anyhow. . . (coughs awkwardly)
Those posts I read:

The first It's Your Job to Do the Pointing appeared on The Cassandra Pages recently; the title quotes a Guardian article by Oliver Burkeman whom Beth further quotes as having said that a writer "should pretend" to see "something in the world that's interesting" and to which the writer is directing the reader's attention. She goes on to acknowledge that, simple as this dictum might be, the path to achieving it can be complicated:  "Of course, it really isn't that simple. First we have to train ourselves to be people who actually see something: people who are able to quiet down enough that we become an eye, an ear, a sensitive skin, but not so sensitive that we cannot bear it. Then we have to learn how to express what we have learned through our senses, intelligence, and experience. Finally, we have to learn how to give it away - how to point our effort toward the invisible reader rather than back at ourselves; how to become a vessel that fills and empties over and over again."

I'm hesitant to think of myself as "a writer," but, after all, that's what I do here, write. And I am the first to admit that I seem to have been pointing "back at [my]sel[f]" here, in talking so much about my feelings. But I do think that the blog allows me a training space to "be [a person] who actually see[s] something," even if, in this post, I may have diverted my attention from the broken-hearted studio sign of my original observation.

A second post also clarified some of my reasons for focussing on details and wanting to record them; titled The Contra-Flâneur, this was posted on the lovely and erudite (although never tediously so) blog, Parisian Fields. Taking inspiration from an essay by Georges Perec, the writer builds an inventory of what she sees from a window overlooking the intersection of Paris' Boulevard Port-Royal and its Rue St. Jacques. Not only an inventory of the buildings and the vehicles and the trees and the businesses, but also of the many activities she observes, what people are wearing, what they are looking at, with whom are they conversing, etc. As she says, she follows Perec's lead in writing about "what happens when nothing is happening."

And I guess that's much of what catches my eye when we travel as well. In fact, it catches my eye at home, as well, but travel sharpens that eye by placing it in new situations and by giving it a bit more leisure as well as ensuring that there is generally a camera to hand.


All of which is to say that there are likely to be many more sharings here from my four weeks in Europe. And to ask your patience. And to wonder what you do with all the little observations you make as you travel through your day, either at home or abroad. . . .do you try to share them? or do you often find they don't withstand the scrutiny and/or pace of everyday?

21 comments:

  1. I have a lot of thoughts here. I hope you don't mind my hypothesizing a tad - I'll retract anything that's inappropriate. I can only imagine what it was like to be one of 11 children. Wonderful, but also hard to get the proverbial word in edgewise. Then a mother of 4, again, lots of other talkers. This blog is your place to talk, for us to respond as invited. So speak freely.

    In terms of details, and their import, I feel as you do. If we want others to share our reactions, I think it's a question of learning to articulate one's reaction both concisely and universally, connecting the specific and the general. Which ain't easy. In any case, I enjoy and appreciate your increasing revelations of how it feels to be you. Everything makes more sense.

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    1. Hmmm, I can see that my upbringing in a large family might seem the reason for feeling unlistened to occasionally. In fact, I was the oldest (of 12), and I suspect my younger sibs would say I got the soapbox often enough. . .
      But it's worth thinking about, as is the constant attempt to articulate what one observes. As for the connection between the specific and the general or universal, this always tempts, but I always worry about presuming to get there too quickly. But then worrying seems to be my superpower. . . thanks for the hypothesizing, nothing here to retract and I appreciate the push to my own thinking.

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  2. Life is like that. Tiny things matter. Everything else flows by. And you have been to the Pantheon where people in togas chatted in Latin. Puts life in perspective. Shove it, Lady Gaga. Keep writing, Mater. We will keep reading.

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    1. It truly does put it all in perspective. Thanks so much for the encouragement. It's so good to be able to share those tiny things that do matter to me and find that sometimes they resonate with a reader!

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  3. Every little detail of a street can be important to me. The signs, a window where I stop to wonder about the occupant, some connection to a book or a poem are all part of my experience of a city. I often find that even when I have company, I can not share my observations or feelings. Thank you for the Parisian Field link because I lived on Rue St. Jacques for 5 months in 2012 and passed that intersection often. On reading the description and looking at the photos, I felt that I was in Paris again. I think that the blog does provide an opportunity to express those details which will be appreciated by some readers and not appreciated by others. Personally, I always am keen to read about your insights and experiences.

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    1. Yes, the great thing about the blog is that I can spill out my observations and those who are interested will stay to read; those who aren't will just move along. I never need to know I'm being cut off, mid-sentence ;-)
      I'm glad you enjoyed discovering Parisian Fields -- they only post occasionally but what they do tends to dig more deeply into Paris than so many blogs -- they cover history, art, social mores, etc.

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  4. In writing, one's thoughts become distilled as we separate the mundane and the meaningful. It's intensely personal. What speaks to me may not speak to another. It's tricky trying to convey impressions in a gathering where so much is going on. Unless the conversation is focused upon such a topic, a sentence or two seems to suffice and the flow of words moves on. Is it not the poet, the essayist, the painter, the writer who attempts to communicate impressions? The reader becomes as engaged as she likes and is free to move onto other topics at will.
    You are a skilled writer who engages your readers thoughtfully.

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    1. I wrote this last night just before closing the computer. This morning I came back and went over to the Cassandra Pages. An excellent post. Thanks.

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    2. Thanks so much, Lorrie. I'm glad you emphasize context -- I didn't mean to suggest that my family isn't interested in what I'm saying or willing to listen, but the opportunities are not so often there for the exchange I sometimes crave. Here, on the keyboard and screen, I get a chance to really indulge my desire to articulate what I observe.
      Isn't the Cassandra Pages great? You'll want to follow her sketching.

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  5. Please, lots more pictures and anecdotes from your travels. I am especially enjoying them, travelling vicariously through your blog now that our plan to move to Malta for a year has had to be postponed 'til next year.
    Articulating impressions, to crystallise and form them into a small jewels for memory is perhaps more affective and effective in writing than the spoken word.
    Lilibet

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    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Lilibet. And what a pleasure to have a commenter who combines "affective" and "effective" so effectively. It's interesting what you say in that sentence -- I do think that, in the long run, I probably do derive more benefits from writing these observations than I would from simply sharing them verbally at a social gathering. Hmmmm

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  6. Sometimes we get our audience and sometimes not. When on the receiving end of someone's passionate recollection, I try to respect her enthusiasm and enter into her experience- though for many small snippets of life, it's particular to the observer.Those memories will be yours forever even if others don't wholly relate- and as Lilibet wisely notes, they fuel your writing.

    Sharing the love for Beth's blog; The Cassandra Pages is truly special.

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    1. I strive to be a good listener as well. At the very least, even those snippets that are particular to the observer reveal something to me about that observer.
      Thanks so much for introducing me to your friend's blog. Her honesty and intelligence shine from every post.

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  7. I have enjoyed reading about your family travels as only you can tell them. I agree that one's recollections are filtered by one's life experiences and the recollections are personal to that individual. The beauty of this is that each shared detail opens a tiny window on the soul of the writer. Keep writing!

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    1. Thanks so much! This is part of what I was trying to say in my reply, above, to Duchesse's comment, that we glimpse something of the writer's essence in seeing what details s/he focuses on.

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    1. You are too kind! I find this very encouraging, coming from someone who writes so well herself and has such a fabulous blog. Thank you!

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  9. Late as ever to this party, but I have been mulling over how to respond in less than 500 words. There is so much in this piece and, as previous friends have said, you are a gifted writer and express it so well.

    So, re the heightened awareness of our surroundings when we are away: yes, me too and isn't if wonderful? I feel as though I leave behind a layer of skin when I land up in a foreign (in all senses) country. Everything is fascinatingly different and everything is worth pausing to look at for the glimpse it offers of the fabled past and the quotidian present of the local inhabitants. This is probably because, being on holiday, we have the time to stop and stare but I also sense a return to a state of childlike wonder. Time travel indeed.

    Re the sinking of the apercus beneath the waves of family life - yes, me too again. I wonder whether this is down to a conjunction of two states. One is that, regardless of our roles outside the home, our family always see us first as mother, sister, wife and relate to us in that way. (Although I for one was not convinced by Hillary Clinton's insistence that she had to race home from some conference in the Far East to supervise the table decorations for Chelsea's wedding) The other is that we all have our particular professional learned, but now almost innate, skills. For example, a dentist once commented that he sees people not in terms of their faces or figures but in terms of their teeth. May I suggest that as you are an academic, one of yours is that, when a thought or an observation strikes, then you play with it, examine it, throw it around and finally put it into words. Should you be with a colleague then an interesting discussion could ensure but, if in a family environment, by this time the moment has passed.

    Gone on too long again - sorry

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    1. Thanks so much, Ceri, for taking the time to formulate such a thoughtful response. It's the kind of response that makes me feel the vulnerability assumed in writing the post is worthwhile...I do sometimes feel, as much as I know my family loves and appreciates me, that my role as mother can get in the way of being seen. And I also know that some of my habits and my observations are better suited to my university office or classroom. . .
      Please don't feel your comments are too long. Sometimes it just takes time to say things carefully . . .much appreciated.

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  10. You are definitely a writer! "a rapt listener at the elbow of someone else's day"... so perfect it takes my breath away.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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