Presence

As often happens, I meant to blog about Prague as soon as I got back. But then I got busy, and after a few days so much had happened that it no longer felt like the most pressing topic.

Which, funny enough, ties in quite well with the thing I wanted to blog about in the first place: being present.

Usually, when I visit a city, I look up a museum, or a castle, or a big ole church to go see. I find a park to sit in for a while. I track down the best street food I can find. By the time I leave, I like to have found a favorite spot to be my own, private landmark.

Prague felt different. I looked up the usual famous sites when I arrived, but as I set out to explore, I quickly lost interest in doing anything else.

To start, I kept getting disoriented, which rarely happens to me. I’m used to European cities, from the small ones with their narrow streets and winding, organic layouts to the grand capitals with their broad avenues and sprawling town squares. But Prague fell into an odd middle ground: modest enough to be largely without the wide thoroughfares of its Imperial neighbors, large enough to retain the sense of an endless, medieval labyrinth.

On my second day, I camped out for a coffee under an awning to avoid a slight drizzle. Once it abated, I resumed wandering for over an hour, eventually stumbling into the old town square, with its street performers, astronomical clock, and Gothic architecture. When I left the square, I picked an alley at random, walked a hundred feet, and suddenly found myself back where I’d had coffee earlier that afternoon.

Which was only one of about a dozen times this happened.

The weather was spotty, but I didn’t mind: Prague is as enthralling under overcast and rainy skies as in sunshine. Enchanting by night. I think I could even enjoy winter there.

And then there were the buildings themselves, each with their own charm and character, painted in a wild juxtaposition of colors: baby blue, dusty pink, green tea, gold, black. Some with with murals or designs, others with gables and arches, the whole such an eccentric hodgepodge of styles that its very eclecticism became a unifying theme.

As my weekend wore on, I came to realize that all I wanted of my time was to exist: to soak in the atmosphere, absorb the environment, bask in my surroundings, and remember. To slow down and forget about the rush. To be at peace. To make time for the present moment, and all the joy that exists there.

On walking

Given my druthers, I’d only ever walk.

Walking is by far the best mode of transportation, if enjoyment constitutes the primary ranking criteria. (Where time and distance are concerns, it has obvious limitations.)

Trains make a close second, and among vehicular travel are clearly the most civilized way to see the world: plenty of space, the ability to walk around, refreshments readily available.

Busses are awful. You can never be really sure where they’re taking you. What if they make an unexpected turn at the next intersection? Suddenly, you find yourself in a strange part of town with no connection to where you were before and without a convenient map to help you get back to where you came from.

Trams are much nicer, because you can always follow the tracks backward, which might be practically unfeasible, but it lends some psychological security to the adventure.

There is here, of course, a distinction between private and public travel. Things like trams, busses, and trains can only take you places where many other people also want to go, which is limiting. But then even private modes of transport get sticky.

Bikes and I share a strained relationship. I’m sure they’re fine for many, but I’m equally terrified of being hit by a car or else hitting someone with a car myself.

Cars share the freedom of bikes and walking, but with the added responsibility of being terribly dangerous: they’re the only method of transport I engage in where I stand a reasonable chance of accidentally killing another human being though my own negligence or ill luck. It doesn’t help that I judge the risk of every activity relative to that of driving a car: while it helps mitigate my fear of statistically unlikely events, it has made me more anxious of driving. Really, the biggest benefit driving holds over other transport is that you can sing super loudly and be reasonably sure no one else will be bothered if you miss a note.

Singing while walking is an excellent pass time, which I highly recommend if there’s no one around to overhear you. I once had an awkward moment when singing “Wish You Were Here” while walking down the road, only I didn’t realize there was someone behind me until she was too close and I was already too far in for me to stop without it being awkward, so I kept going as she slowly overtook me, and then passed me, and then slowly moved further ahead of me down the street, and it was just the two of us the whole time, her not even looking my way, and me singing Pink Floyd.

But, awkward encounters aside, walking is glorious. When I’m home and driving everywhere, I often begin to feel listless after a week or so. I feel like my mind gets fuzzy, as if the humidity in the thick Michigan air is soaking into my brain and slowing everything down. But I’m beginning to think it’s because I walk less. Which means less sensory input: no ground beneath my feet, no wind in my hair, no sunshine on my face. Fewer smells as I travel through the world in the sealed-off chamber of my car. And so much more freedom to think.

You can’t really think when you drive, because part of your mind has to be focused on not killing yourself or others. And most public transport requires similar taxes on your awareness: when’s your stop? Who’s around you? And waiting is tedious. What’s the point of walking from point A to the station, waiting for transport to arrive, taking said transport from one station to another, (possibly switching stations in between,) and finally walking the last distance from the station to point B, when with a little more effort and possibly equivalent time you could just walk the whole way?

I walked at least twenty miles this weekend, and I haven’t felt this rested in months.

Spontaneity

I’d been thinking about making a trip to Prague, but deliberately not buying a ticket until yesterday, which is why I’m on a bus today, writing this post from my phone, which is only one of the firsts in this sentence.

Prague is also a first, as is traveling in Europe by bus.

I think this might also put me ahead of my mother in our world capitals race: she had a head start and has been keeping up by coming to visit me wherever I go. We share London, Edinburgh, Washington D.C., Rome, Paris, Helsinki, and St. Petersburg (if you’re being generous in your definition of world capitals). She has Tokyo, Warsaw, Mexico City, Stockholm, and Amsterdam on me, but I have Moscow, Berlin, Reykjavik, Bratislava, Vienna, and soon to be Prague on her. Did I miss any? (Sorry, mom, we both knew this day would come.)

Anyways, I can’t really say this trip is super spontaneous. I’m not really a spontaneous person, usually. I think about what I want to do for a while, plan out how I would make it work, assess if it is practically and financially viable, and then decide if I want to do it or not. And then once I make up my mind, I’ve already done all the planning I needed to do to make it happen. So, not really spontaneous so much as decisive.

Or maybe it’s just my own particular brand of spontaneity, one that somehow manages to be thoughtful and planned, if only in very short order.

I packed three books: a notebook, a sketchbook, and an actual book with words already in it that someone not-me wrote. This last (Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton) weighs almost as much as the rest of my luggage combined. I have my phone, an Internet connection, a hostel to sleep in, and money to feed myself. Or in other words: everything I need to survive and be happy for two days.

Part of me is amazed that I really can just walk out my door with a bag and a book, take a bus to another country, and hang out in a foreign city for a weekend. Shouldn’t there be more to it?

Maybe asking that question is what keeps us from doing more things: the assumption that it’s more complicated than it is. Which is not to deny the hard stops that really do make some things not work: money, time, prior obligations.

But sometimes, the assumptions we make about how hard a thing is blind us to what’s doable.

So if you have a little breathing room, some space to test your possibilities, to stretch for your aspirations, maybe that’s a good question to ask: what could you do with what you have, if you wanted?

The fantastic familiar, as viewed from atop a hill.

There is a bend in I-94, just past Zeeb, as I head out of Ann Arbor, going west.

It marks the boundary of my territory—the area that I know best. I know that beyond Zeeb lies adventure.

There’s aways a landmark to border my territory. When I was younger, that border was a line of pine trees. They rose beyond the edge of our property, beyond even the edge of our neighbor’s property, because ours sloped down a hill, and then theirs sloped up a hill, and then there were the pine trees, and beyond them the sky. And somehow, even though I knew as part of me, that concealed behind those pine trees was a house or two, a private dirt road leading down to Textile, and some farmer fields, what I believed was that on the other side of those pine trees lay Narnia.

When I lived in Germany, the boarder of my territory was a tiny town called Altdorf. I could see it from my balcony, perhaps half a mile or a mile from the house where I lived. When I went walking, I walked in the territory between Altdorf and Holzgerlingen, amid farmer fields, with a few trees, some nice roads. I only actually walked as far as Altdorf once or twice. Never beyond. And although I remember Altdorf as being a pretty (if otherwise unremarkable) little town, I also remember it as a place I consciously, and for no particular reason, never went, simply because it was beyond my territory.

In Edinburgh, I remember first arriving and feeling the clostrophobia of only truly knowing a few blocks worth of space. My world felt so small. Eventually, my territory grew to encompass the distance in which I could comfortably walk in a large circuit in a single day: from my flat, to the Royal Mile, down to Hollyrood Palace, up Arthur’s Seat, down the other side, as far south as Blackford Hill. I used to sit on Blackford hill and look out toward the Pentlands.

And even though I knew that beyond the Pentlands lay Lothian, and the Borders, and England, what I truly believed—and to some extent still do—was that there lay Narnia.

The Extraordinary Heroism of Sir William Topaz McGonagall

Recently, I’ve come to love the idiom “put your money where your mouth is.”

Basically, it means “do what you say you will,” but I like to think of it in terms of stated preference vs. revealed preference.

If you aren’t familiar with those ideas, they basically mean “what you say you want” vs. “what you actually want as indicated by your behavior.”

i.e.: I say I want to become fluent in 12 languages, but I actually want to spend my free time reading about Taylor Swift’s style evolution on BuzzFeed.

Someone once suggested to me that a great deal of happiness depends on the gap between your stated and revealed preferences. So I set out this summer to close that gap in my own life by sending myself to Austria for two months to try to up my German proficiency. I set out three very simple goals for my trip:

  • Sustain myself financially through my freelance writing
  • Learn German
  • Don’t be miserable

It’s been a questionable two weeks: I’ve barely gotten enough work done to keep up with my deadlines, the German is foundering, and I’ve been fighting the usual uphill battle against crippling homesickness (which could take several blog posts in its own right, because it’s hard to justify feeling down when you’re in a gorgeous city and essentially living the dream).

In short, I feel as if I have set myself up for very public failure. It’s not a comfortable prospect.

All of which brings me to the titular hero of this post.

At some point during my Edinburgh years, I came across one of Scotland’s most infamous poets, Sir William Topaz McGonagall, fantastically titled “Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah,” who bears the distinction of having written possibly the worst poem ever to be published in the English language. It is impossible to read about Sir William’s life without developing a sort of fondness for him. The poor man was a godawful poet, although he somehow remained blissfully ignorant of the fact his entire life, despite often performing in front of crowds who were allowed to hurl eggs, herring, and stale bread at him during his recitals.

But the point here is: Sir William actually was a poet. He wrote poems. He staked his reputation on his ability, and he gained a reputation for being “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius.” But he was more of a poet than anyone else who spends their life dreaming of writing poetry and never actually doing it.

By all this, I don’t mean: “keep trying because if you put in enough effort you will eventually succeed.” Trying at anything would be a hell of a lot easier if you were guaranteed success at the end. What I do mean is: failure is better than not trying. And not temporary failure, either: total, definitive proof that you are bad at something you staked your entire identity on being good at is better than spending your whole life saying you’re going to be great at your supposed passion and then watching Netflix instead.

Granted, Sir William was also delusional, and perhaps would have lived a better life had he been more self-aware. But his poetry is a concrete fact of existence: he actually wrote it, which makes it more real than the conceptual poetry of those who say they will write poems but never actually do.

Stated vs. revealed preferences says nothing about the quality of the work you produce, the lesson is simply that you should either do the things you say you are going to do, or else you should stop saying you are going to do them. Do or do not.

And fail spectacularly if you have to.

Keeping my friends close

One day, a few years ago, I got on Facebook and found out that someone I knew and cared about had died.

We weren’t in close contact. She lived in a different country, and while I’d seen her a few months previously, we had barely spoken. There’s a small chance I might have seen her again someday. A much greater chance I would never have seen her again at all. And then she died, and even though it’s been over four years, some days I still get pretty down about it.

Without Facebook, I might never have known the end to her story. Some days I’m grateful. Somedays, not so much.

In the past, most of us lived our lives blissfully ignorant of the ultimate fate of our brief acquaintances. We had to work to maintain our distant connections. We had to really care in order to find out what happened to them. Now, our past relationships—however transient the connection in person—live on well past their expiration date. Until they don’t.

I recently culled my Facebook friend group for possibly the first time. My criteria was: if you died tomorrow, would I care?

I went from 498 friends to 473.

That’s a lot of people who could die and make me sad. But also a lot of people who have touched my life for the better. So I’m trying to make a habit of remembering why I keep these connections in my life. If I see someone’s shared an interesting article, or gone through a major life event, or liked my post, I take a few seconds to think about that one positive memory that keeps them on my friend list:

That class we took together.
The taxi ride we shared.
Those few months we were coworkers.
The drink they bought me which I never managed to reciprocate.

There’s a lot in the world to be scared about these days. A lot that can tear you down and rip you to pieces. So keep your friends close, and forget about your enemies.

action and identity

I wrote a blog post on “finding yourself” recently, and I discovered an interesting word exercise. Think about this:

When we define ourselves, we usually use a word construction that goes: “I” + present tense “to be” + noun.

E.g.:

I am a writer.
I am an artist.
I am a sister.
I am an adventurer.
I am a linguist.

I somewhat hate this passive, present-tense verb-of-existence form of identification. One does not verb anything other than “being.” Boring. Static.

We hang our essence on the peg of some other noun.

Try instead:

I write.
I draw.
I love my family.
I travel.
Languages fascinate me.

Doesn’t what we do say more about who we are?