Talking about my upcoming trip with friends (or strangers) I’m frequently asked if I’m prepared, what am I doing to prepare, etc. In terms of the actual work, I don’t feel very prepared at all. All I know is that I’m going with open eyes, mind and heart. I’ll interact with the place when I arrive and I have faith that something will come of it.
But in the past few months I’ve been doing a lot of reading and I would say that this is an important kind of preparation. Perhaps the best kind. Several of the books and essays have come to me fortuitously, the result of chance meetings or introductions. I’m learning to pay close attention to what appears to be the random stuff — things I encounter that don’t quite fit into my normal scope. This in itself is a great way to prepare for travel.
So here are some choice pieces that have influenced my thinking about the trip. They’re not all directly related (to each other or to what I’m doing right now) but if it’s on this list it’s because something about it feels like it’s working on me. Letting a story, an idea or even just a word resonate for awhile can be enough stimulation.
- A good friend insisted that I read Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. “A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made … The very air closes behind you like water.”
- From this post on Liz Danzico’s always-inspiring Bobulate I learned of the adjacent possible: “The spaces we occupy, the tools we use, and the ideas in our consciousness cast this ‘shadow future’ over us each minute of the day.”
- From the guy sitting next to me at City Bakery on December 4 I learned of the fantastic Greek word “eudaimonia.” It’s at the end of the first chapter of Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, the book he was reading, which I am now reading.
- At 192 Books I picked up Edmund White’s NYC memoir City Boy and I’ve been thinking ever since about how we write our own stories.
- In City Boy White writes of his life-long friendship with poet James Merrill. I picked up Selected Poems and then Familiar Spirits. “Merrill eventually described his poems as ‘chronicles of love and loss,’ and that term aptly stresses his sense of a life lived and understood over time, and links his two recurrent themes. From his college days on, Merrill’s favorite writer had been Proust, for whom the only true paradise was a lost paradise. Love, for both writers, is not fully itself until it is lost, until it becomes memory, becomes art.”
- I haven’t read An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec yet, but the concept of focused and deliberate observation is core for me: “My intention in the pages that follow was to describe…that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens.” The book is described as an artifact of the street.
- A tweet pointed me to this inspiring essay (a speech given at West Point, actually) on solitude and leadership by William Deresiewicz. “So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship.” This also looks good: “The End of Solitude.”
- Steven Heller kindly introduced me to artist Wendy Richmond, whose residency at the American Academy in Rome will overlap with mine. We met recently and thankfully, she instilled on me the importance of cherishing the time and space of the artist’s residency. Her book Art Without Compromise* is an important read for anyone cultivating the state of not knowing.
- Next up: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, mentioned by Wendy in an email. Here’s the TEDTalk where he speaks about flow and ecstasy, or “standing outside oneself.” Very much worth watching.