When I couldn’t pay my French mortgage in the 2008 recession, my privileges began to be stripped away in tsunamis of catastrophic loss; property and possessions were suddenly gone. After two strokes I began to age at an alarming rate. Living in drastically reduced circumstances meant adjusting to shared accommodations, painful for a hermit like me, but I unexpectedly began to join the human race and its struggles in ways I’d always been able to sidestep before.
Sometimes I think that maybe my paltry struggles are just a necessary education of the heart that together with my little flair for wordsmithing might be preparing me for a different role than the one I planned. I’m pretty sure I would have clung to my insular perch until my eventual graduation to the village cemetery, a charming cemetery, to be sure, but maybe that’s not what the gods intended for me.
I can hardly wait to find out.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to discuss Travel and the Spiritual Search, two things I’ve unconsciously conflated since youth.
Krishnamurti tried to instruct me in meditation in the late 60’s, sitting in Mary Zimbalist’s back garden in Malibu, but I’m admittedly terrible at following directions and his “Just do it sir!” exhortations confused and confounded me. That was me, not quite thirty years old, efforting to ascend, transcend, get “enlightened.” In other words, barking up the wrong tree, which I persisted in well into my fifties.
And then suddenly things switched poles and I began to descend, I turned toward the earth and earthy things—growing things, aesthetic modes, the art of the table, food and wine (it was France), a garden, the smells of the forest and fields, the animals, the star-filled nights, friends and the rituals of conviviality, the rhythms of the seasons, decor in the house, working with hand tools imagining and building things, painting. Living in the body you could say, getting more rooted in the manifest.
I loved it.
Wendell Berry, Thomas Moore and others were helpful in providing a philosophical structure to this life, something I always need. I began to perceive a difference between Spirit and Soul. I had overemphasized Spirit to the detriment of Soul; living in France was a time of correction of this imbalance.
But travel, where does that figure into this? That’s what I’m trying to puzzle out. I’m aware that for me the interesting life has always been “over there”, a bad habit I had from growing up in a family and culture that, I have to say it, bored me. A culture that nowadays is almost exotic it’s so unfamiliar. I dislocated myself at a still formative age so long that English sounds almost foreign now, as do customs and conventions that should be second nature.
Can that be called travel? Is that an effect of travel, too much travel, perhaps?
Back in the day, I didn’t know you could travel around your room. I restlessly transported my body by means of mopeds, motorcycles, campers, planes, trains and ships, always returning unchanged, covered with bumps and bruises on my pride. I was forever the same clueless youth coming and going. Always attracted to foreign languages and perspectives and armed with a gift for imitation, I aspired to become an improved version of myself, but secretly (I keep secrets from myself sometimes) I wanted both culture and enlightenment. You may laugh, but that seemed possible to me.
Coming out of a talk by Krishnamurti in Switzerland once, I caught a glimpse of the promised land and it scared me. Walking back to camp along the rushing river, my mind empty and calm, I suddenly realized I was seeing and hearing a world of technicolor hyper-reality. Every bird singing, every gust of wind in the leaves was a shockingly sudden, beautiful miracle.
And I was the astonished witness only, that in itself a miracle.
That experience touched the root of things for me. There was a long term knock-on effect. In the moment I pulled back from this unfamiliar expanded consciousness, I felt the whoosh of consciousness shrinking to its accustomed dimension, but I had visited the miraculous for a brief moment and knew it was the Real.
A Facebook friend, Oscar Houck has written about the search for love and why we can’t find it. He expresses well the sense of lack we feel, that missing thing that can’t be found.
Maybe that calm empty mind is the key. Maybe we have to deconstruct our cultural and personal conditioning, not through analysis but through simple witnessing to the point where it gives up and dies. Maybe we have attend to what we in fact are without preconceptions. Witnessing the actual, giving up the goal; that mind-shift may or may not happen but the world seems to suffer the lack of attentive, non judgmental witnessing, which may be a kind of love-in-action.
So travel has paid off for me by showing me how full of cliched thinking and received wisdom I was. The mind shift I sought actually did happen a few times, just not the way I expected it to happen, and it has taken decades instead of a few months of my life. Travel is no doubt different things to different people. For me it has been a way to dismantle a false self so that a real voice could develop.
So that I can talk about what I really care about, equal measures of beauty, meaning and social justice.
A Facebook Post:
Over the years I’ve gotten myself out in the world a bit, lived in foreign places and such, but I’m probably an armchair traveler by nature. For me the point of travel is not to transport my body from here to some exotic there, but to effect a psycho-spiritual shift in myself. I have an average curiosity about foreign cultures and climes but what I’m really looking for is that human element my family and culture repressed and is therefore missing or undeveloped.
I’m not ambitious in this regard. I don’t really want to see everything and go everywhere, but some countries have a strong attraction for me, maybe because of my lifelong interests in the arts and history. I happen to know more about their illustrious role in our civilization. Since I’m a confirmed introvert of the most extreme variety, I prefer to stay out of sight and behind the scenes. Desperate times require desperate measures however, so I sometimes can’t help saying my piece.
I was recently advised that a comment I made on someone’s Facebook thread was “offensive “ and the owner of the thread deleted it. Since I never use vulgar or abusive language, I surmise the offense was in the idea I expressed. I was attracted to that thread because it advertised itself as an “intelligent travel blog”. Interest in ideas being my definition of intelligent, I was taken aback. Ideas are things in my world. I like to turn them around to see all their facets; this especially applies to ideas on culture and how the mind works.
But I admit to having a bone to pick with my white brethren. Being 100% European extraction myself, I believe it behooves me to speak up. The current white panic we see is fear of becoming a minority, which frankly I hope to live to see. I would like to see Hispanics, Blacks, Native Americans and other “people of color” take a much larger role in governance and cultural influence in the country. I’d like to see Natives of this continent recover their languages and traditions, I’d like to hear more not fewer foreign languages spoken. “This-is-America-speak-English” is just about the most offensive and stupid meme abroad at the moment, usually put forth by folks who are grammatically challenged themselves—in English.
So, I’d say most of my criticism of our culture is of the utilitarianism, Puritan Protestantism, consumerism, individualism and alienation in which God has been killed so many times that everything is well and truly dead. Dead as a doornail.
If that offends, well I’m sorry, but if you don’t wake up tomorrow paralyzed from the neck down or covered in festering boils, I don’t see how I’ve harmed you. You were just offended.
Having said all that, I like to boost other writers and artists here and elsewhere, so even though I refrain from commenting on anyone’s thread doesn’t mean I’ll refrain from letting others know you have a contribution to make. Since I’m not trying to brand myself or monetize my Facebook pages, I don’t have the constraints of avoiding controversy. I can say what I think.
And I will.
The Why Of Travel
There’s a story of an American businessman gone to Spain to teach new techniques, assuming that at lunchtime on the first day, after a morning laying out the general outlines of his program, they would all have a quick bite from little styrene coffins at their respective desks and then dive into the meat of his system, but instead everyone got up at the stroke of noon and took themselves off to a good restaurant, trying an impressive array of food and wine, never once mentioning business in two and a half hours. Back at the office he couldn’t concentrate—the afternoon was shot, but he had made three new friends and had learned a lot about food and wine.
Thomas Moore says that our sexuality grows more diffuse as we age, that it often extends itself out into the world, especially into food, the way it tastes and how it is eaten. I’d say the Latin countries are already there. Eros was one of the original building blocks of those cultures. You can still see it, even in the modern mechanistic age that is so anti-soul, anti-beauty.
My father worried that his sons would become homosexual if they were touched and held too much and forebade it. I wonder if his incessant telling of stories with no ideas and no endings but rich in physical detail was a substitute for the touch that was missing in his own life.
America is considered a low touch culture; I’ve always gravitated to high-touch cultures like France and Italy. I remember reading authors like Henry James or seeing the film Babette’s Feast, which chose this theme and confirmed to me I wasn’t alone. David McCullough writes about Americans traveling to France in the 1800s, full of trepidation lest they be corrupted by the notorious sensuality of the French (they often were, to the amusement of the modern reader).
We know America has changed and France has too, but I don’t believe the basic optics of each culture have. Those are embedded in their histories and languages.
Travel then for me is not so much motivated by curiosity, it’s more like a prison-break. My determination to live in a Latin country has deep roots, is what I’m saying, which is why I keep trying to figure out how to swing moving back to France. The current political climate has just added impetus to my quest.
(We’ve been tossing around the idea of teaming up with like minded folks and sharing a big house in the French countryside. More about that later).
Cynthia doesn’t share my feelings about American culture. Her grandparents immigrated from Scotland without any Puritan baggage. She thinks I make too much of this “theory“. She’s a big fan of these countries for other reasons.
But sometimes I feel I must be adopted, even though I’m a pretty obvious melding of my artist mother and hyper-lexic father. Ancestry dot com added to the mystery by declaring my DNA 40% French, so maybe it’s just calling me home. Nice image, don’t you think?
I like things being clean and efficient as much as the next bloke, but after a while I miss a certain oomph in places where people take the time to live, where the senses get their due, where the culture values a palate, where there are celebrations galore, where one Iives at a human scale and at a human pace, where a sense of connection prevails—and a thousand other details, like church bells for instance.
How is it possible to live without church bells?
Community, what is it?
I’m 77. I’ve never noticed any disrespect or prejudice toward me because of my age. Remember though, that I’m a lifelong artist. We American artists learn to exist on the margins of a society obsessed with utility and money. How would disrespect for my advanced age look different in how I’m met in the world? I don’t think it would. On the other hand there are numerous studies that show the aged being shunted off and housed in segregated warehouses for the aged, denied in effect the natural participation of a generational role in family or society.
This is becoming common in Western societies, America being one of the worst places on the globe to get old right now. I see the roots of that in a peculiarly American Puritanical utilitarianism. Throw them on the dust heap, the old ones, along with the used plastics, TV sets and cars! This is a culture that has been at war with nature since Plymouth Rock, creating food without taste, cities without beauty, a society without real community, health or cohesion, a seriously degraded commons, and an almost exclusive focus on the struggle for survival. Henry Miller said that at least American artists have the right to starve, that they’re not told what they must write as in the Soviet Union. But this is a far cry from countries that support their culture-creators because they revere culture itself and are willing to aid those engaged in making it.
Undeniably, something mysterious happens to us as we begin to experience first hand the natural forces of entropy in our bodies. Something changes in how tightly we cling to our present physical manifestation. Our spirits are loosened from the tight grip of our bodies, as our bodies come more and more under the control of forces beyond our will. We become conscious of an intelligence and a spirit of adventure in us that is quite independent of our physical circumstance.
For some, getting old is even a release. I’m thinking of women who are no longer the object of the sexual gaze, who may feel liberated to be who they are for the first time since pre-adolescence. But there we’re talking about sexism, not ageism. I’m interested in what happens to people as they get old, on a lot of levels, but especially in terms of community.
I grew up with no sense of community, perhaps as a result of moving so often. Even when my family finally settled in the country not far from Austin, I myself kept moving, first to a boarding school, then back home briefly with my family–I was closest to my horse–then to University. At UT I stayed at the margins, this time of a group of kids on motorcycles with beards. The music was great, but I never felt the sense of community they obviously did. I was not ok with the ticket of admission– drugs, trips. Maybe it was an age thing. I was slightly older than most of them. I loved the folk music, but never got into the Stones, for example.
Starting in ’63 I began my decades long mutation into an American/French hybrid. I turned my back on my native origins and immersed myself in all things French. I lost touch with the U.S., to the point where I finally rebelled and tried to re-establish connections to my childhood friends and my family, not very successfully, I must say. I had always had one foot out the door, and besides, I was too far gone. If I’m comfortable anywhere, it would be in the French paradigm. There I had passed the tests and been forgiven my outsiderness.
France was my first experience of community, and I liked it. It was unexpected. I was completely unaware of my lack of community feeling. But I saw how hard the villagers labored to maintain cohesion in the village where we lived for 22 years. I’ll no doubt be learning what community is and how it works for the rest of my life. Looking at community in the States, I see deep seated problems, especially in the older age group. I’m wondering if there’s anything I can do to create a sense of community with my own compatriots, especially since I have no plans to settle inside the country.
I guess you could say we are part of a little informal community on Facebook, although I almost never comment or engage, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether I post something because I align with it or simply because it’s part of our crazy world. My problem with this thread is that political news has sucked all the life out of the interesting subjects.
I’m seriously considering creating an intentional community on social media or elsewhere of folks who have had interesting lives and are still full of beans. Maybe I could find that element of consanguinity I’ve searched for in vain in America. Not that I would want to restrict it to Americans, I have a lifelong interest in other cultures.
I’m open to ideas.