Words from the Road: Autumn in NYC
Notebook Entry on Walt Whitman and Brooklyn
Autumn in New York
“From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, […]
I inhale great draughts of space, […]
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me.”
- Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”
Excerpt from My Travel Notebook
From these words of Whitman, I received my electric blessing and headed to New York City for the draughts of space and loos’d contemplation. I dreamed and woke in the red-bricked and sagging sanctuary of Harlem. It's Autumn and I have visions of writing in Central Park, galleries, bookshops, the kind of pausing places you can get both lost in and found. New York is a city of poets and writers serving as home to some of my favorite voices: Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Marie Howe, Truman Capote, Langston Hughes, etc. That energy gets in the walls and calls to the literary imagination. In turn, New York is a city of readers. Books appear in subway cars and cabs, in earbuds and splayed open with thumb and finger. Bookshops are where the holy is frequented by worshipers of the word.
Strand Books functions much like an ant colony, intelligent and burrowed into channels with members crawling over one another to get where they are going. The higher up the floor, the quieter it gets. At the top, in the rare book room I find a haven of wide silence and leather spines in which to interview my selections. At the independent bookseller, McNally Jackson, I splay my notebook on one of the single serving writing tables that encircles the cafe. The wall is papered with book pages and suspended are whole volumes run through and electrified for the extended metaphor of illumination. To my left, an oxford blue button down sits with fists of hair in his hands, boots laced to the ankle, and a yellow legal pad that sputters with words like a cold engine. Each time I look up, another young man joins the circle, the same blue button down, the same analogue papers, the same mouth muttering fresh words and dreaming in the language of Greenwich Village.
Who We Are is What We See
Travel and writing have long been paired in my life. Amidst the call to the road is a deep desire to keep a notebook, to be an observer. Lest this be understood as passive and casual work, to observe is an embodied endeavor of the soul. Perception is soulful. What we see should bear the marks of who we are and in turn should mark us. As William James reminds us, “My experience is what I agree to attend to and only those things which I notice shape my mind.” While I would contest plenty of unconscious phenomena inform our minds, these words speak to me of the responsibility we have to attend and actively shape our being in the world which is always an integrated mixture of mind, body, and soul. Who we are is dynamically formed by who and what we are in relationship with: lands and languages, foods and faces, memories and minds. To travel then, is to put our body in a new web of contexts and connections. In the playful rearrangement of our everyday routines, the tempos and milieus that form us come into focus. We get a chance to notice that our lives might be otherwise. Traveling well transforms the thin boundary between the inner and outer landscape, giving us access to imagine, think, feel, and respond to novel sensory information.
Where the body goes, what it observes and feels, this is the root of meaning and its inheritor language.
Lessons in Observation: Lenses in the Galleries
Notebook Entry on MoMA and Matisse
Pilgrimages within pilgrimages led me to New York and The Met and MoMA housed a particular mind of importance to me: Vincent van Gogh. As I sat with The Starry Night and Wheat Field with Cypress and Self Portrait with Straw Hat, I was struck by how many people engaged with iconic works of art through a screen. I myself took several photos as references for sketches and mementos for further reflection. However, in the presence of the real, with all its brushstrokes and unbridled colors, many simply snapped a photo and moved on content with a representation.
Artists have long made viewers aware that they are engaging with representations of the world. Not least of which was Rene Magritte’s iconic Tyranny of Images in which he labeled his painting of a pipe with the words, “This is not a pipe.” The images we conjure, the language we use is never the thing itself. All art is a kind of representation or interpretation, just as our lenses for seeing, thinking, and expressing ourselves are interpretations.
It made me curious, with rampant and rich photography at our disposal and a digital-social world that feeds on an infinite scroll of images, perhaps our vision is not underworked, but overworked, our seeing not atrophied, but fatigued. The tyranny of images has become that we are bombarded with representations of representations. We see at the expense of transformative observation.
Representation isn’t inherently a bad thing. To travel to another landscape, to consult the faces of others, to see the world through another culture’s art and language re-presents the world to us. We are given an opportunity to see and see again. However, implied in that opportunity is that we do the perceptive and porous work of letting ourselves be changed and impacted by what we see. It is only then that we have a chance to respond, sometimes in language-making, sometimes in image-making, always with further meaning-making.
Ursala LaGuin once taught, “We writers are the raw nerve of the universe. Our job is to go out and feel things for people, then to come back and tell them how it feels to be alive, because we are numb, because we have forgotten.”1 Whether you circle the globe or never leave the town you were born in, we have the opportunity to be travelers, observers, seers from the outside of things where all good material for writing resides. To be a traveler is to feel. To be a writer is to feel on behalf of others. Both require that we use the bright and wise organism of our bodies as we observe and make meaning all along the road.
1. Luis Alberto Urrea, Tolfink Was Here: On Ursula K. Le Guin and Me, http://luisurrea.com/2018/01/tolfink-was-here-on-ursula-k-le-guin-and-me/, January 24, 2018.
Notebook Entry on The American Museum of Natural History
Recommended Bookish Destinations in NYC:
Bowne and Co. Stationers
Goods for the Study
Housing Works Bookstore and Café
i, too Arts Collective in The Langston Hughes House
The New York Public Library
The Writing Room