Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Traveler Adrift

22 April 2015

From the shores of Lake Victoria, largest lake in Africa, it's a long, long way to anywhere.

From the shores of Lake Victoria, it’s a long, long way to anywhere—except the Equator (bottom sign).

To travel is to dive headlong into uncertainty. Familiar shores are abandoned. The lifeline is cast loose. Habits, styles, expectations: all must be trimmed and stowed away, if not jettisoned altogether.

The traveler is adrift on the sea of the world. She rises and falls with the waves; at times seeing with far greater distance and clarity than is possible ashore. At other times, in the trough of the waves of experience, only the immediate can be seen—and that, unclearly.

Space and time become fluid, evanescent. At one moment the world seems simple, unchanging, like gentle ripples on the surface of the waves. At the next, it surges and rages in complexity and upheaval: white foam breakers on the edge of a reef.

There are islands of shelter and comfort, of course, and from time to time the traveler washes ashore, soaked to the skin from repeated duckings and immersions in foreign wavelets. At such moments, the life of the island has its own allure, as the inhabitants tread a steady round of activities, safely snug and dry. A rest appears in order.

Lamu Town from deck of dhow, off coast of East Africa.

But after the traveler has been ashore for some time, he begins to notice the smallness of the island; the narrow circumference within which the safe, dry life is led. He finds himself down on the shore at night, reveling in the ocean spray on his face and feeling the pull of the tide on his feet.

To the islanders, the sea beyond is at best shapeless and meaningless. At worst, it is a danger. There are storms and crashing breakers, vague wave patterns that cause uneasiness in the mind.

Yet the traveler finds herself drawn ever more powerfully to the water’s edge. Its very uncertainty is a lure. She senses that there—beyond or between the islands—lie meanings and patterns that shape much that the island does. What causes the storms? Can the wave patterns be predicted? Are all the islands the same? What others are adrift on the sea, and why?

The islanders counsel him to remain. “Life is meant to be dry,” they say. “It is in the nature of things. But wetness . . .” At this they shudder. “Wetness means immersion.”

For awhile the traveler listens, swayed by the sheer number of those who believe in the island, and dryness.

But her nights are spent on the shore. Listening: to the wind as it blows across the surface of the shifting waves. Watching: where the moon sparkles and plays and leads a golden trail of enticement over unknown depths.

Is that a voice, distant on the wind? A glimpse of non-island worlds half-seen beneath the shadow of the waves?

How far could one go if one didn’t just drift, but swam?

How wide is the ocean?

The tide pulls. The darkness calls. And then . . .

The arc of a diver

Shoes on the beach

World murmurs softly

Just out of reach.

In the morning the tide returns and washes even the shoes away. And again, the traveler is adrift on the sea of the world.


West Indies, 1970. The barquentine Flying Cloud (Capt. Marsh Gabriel) bobs at anchor in the background.

West Indies, 1970. The barquentine Flying Cloud (Capt. Marsh Gabriel) lies at anchor in the background.

Why I Write in the Physical Sphere

4 April 2015

I carry no weapon but my wits, but a rapier thrust of well-timed words can cut through a whole lot of nonsense. Finding a way to put that on the page, and enter the 5,000 year flow of human writing—pathway to history, to sciences, to shared spirituality and the wisdom of the ages—feels like partaking of a sacrament. Writers are the scribes of eternity. The visionaries of the within.

Ma'loula, Syria—near the ruins of Ugarit.

Syria—near the ruins of Ugarit.

The outward shape of these insights matters as well. In Syria a few years ago, we encountered proud signs, written mostly in hieroglyphs, which said at the bottom “First alphabet of the world, Syria, 14th century B.C.” In Bali, decades ago, we visited a Bali Aga village (these were the inhabitants of the old culture of the island, before the court and the artisans fled there from Java) where we were shown precious hand-carved books written in the ancient script, and still telling the creation story, and the cosmology of the Bali Aga people. Whether it’s the Chinese writing on the back of tortoise shells, or medieval monks scratching out a visual feast of Biblical passages in elaborate fanciful script, the artifact itself is part of the process.

In Tenganan, the best-preserved Bali Aga village, a scribe writes the ancient lontar script in a traditional book of banana leaves.

In Tenganan, the best-preserved Bali Aga village, a scribe writes the ancient lontar script in a traditional book of banana leaves.

Maybe Carl Sagan said it best (he often did): “A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millenia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of times—proof that humans can work magic.”

” . . . the greatest of human inventions,” he says, and who am I to quibble? My own library is far from Borgesian (Jorge Luis Borges has written about libraries that contain all books from all time, cataloged endlessly by pedantic librarians intent on achieving a perfection of order), but each volume holds memories. Memories not only of the words inside, but of the feel of the pages, the design of the cover, the heft in the hand. It is a unit, in and of itself. No batteries to wear out. No electrical outlet required. No monthly fees to retain service.

One of the very earliest delights of my life was opening a book. The words inside were few and, for a time, needed another human to interpret them. But soon I saw how that trick worked! I knew then that I had found a faithful companion, an interpreter of life and lives, for the rest of my natural days. Each day as I board the bus and flip open my latest tome, ready to disappear into another set of circumstances, I sigh inwardly with satisfaction. The voices within the book are rumbling. The outside world has already begun to disappear.