I’m riding a train this morning to work. Not the subway but an actual train from Philadelphia to NYC. It brings back potent nostalgia for Barcelona.
When I was a teacher I would take a regional train from BCN to Molins del Rei. I didn’t mind the commute, in fact I got excited every time I got on the train. I got excited because I was SO new that I could feel myself getting better every class I taught.
I also loved the small amount of money. I can’t remember but I think it was about €60. I got paid daily, in cash. The day that it was enough to cover rent that month, felt like such an accomplishment: one more month I could make it as an immigrant.
In the United States right now that can be a heavy word, immigrant, but to clarify my circumstance: I moved to Barcelona with two suitcases of clothes, a good amount of savings and a plan to support myself teaching English. I used my savings, taught English, but was unable to secure a visa. So, being undocumented really limited my travel. I couldn’t hop around Europe as I hoped, but Catalunya was enough for me. I also couldn’t go back to the USA until I was comfortable with the possibility I’d be barred from coming back to my new home in Barcelona.
When I filled my envelope under the mattress markered with RENT, the rest was mine. Each day I went to work was another 40 to 60 euros for cheap beer, jamón serrano, galletas Principe, wine, subway tickets, pay-as-you-go cell phone “top ups.” They had ATM style kiosks around shopping centers where you type in your phone number, insert the cash, and then your available balance on the phone gets updated. Wow.
So, each time I got on a train I would look out the window and soak up the sequence of quotidian landscapes. I didn’t know how long I would be there. Each day was an exciting step and I just wanted to keep going.
I can’t help comparing this feeling to present day. Now I ride a train and feel that nostalgia, but rarely look forward to work. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the daily reward and the Pavlovian effect has worn off. I definitely need work to pay the bills, but it’s no longer a day-to-day survival. I also don’t feel that daily progression that I did with being a new teacher. Now I work with a big company that only dares take incremental steps toward some undefined goal of “generate more money/customers.” Most employees aren’t needed for a specific day like a teacher is required each day for a class to happen. My work is spread out over the course of weeks, months, and then I don’t see a final result sometimes for a year.
There isn’t an inherent negative to taking the long view. In fact sometimes it is most valuable. [The Long Now Foundation] I also recall feeling a little lost in Barcelona, taking life in little pieces, with no idea how they added up to a big piece or what the next big piece should be. I’m sitting here on the train again, no longer at a loss for the big pieces, but missing the delight of the little ones.
Perhaps writing is one way to get them. Actually writing this very message feels like mixing the pallet of big and little, but to get meta about it, the act of writing is small in itself. I like that.
“In mere Time, all things follow one another, and in mere Space all things are side by side; it is accordingly only by the combination of Time and Space that the representation of coexistence arises.” Schopenhauer, 1813
A friend sent me this book with the note that it’s one of his favorites and still picks it up again once in a while. That last part is most impressive to me, since I never read anything twice – there’s too many books in the world! I could immediately see why this one might be so re-readable.
I won’t give much background – descriptions and summaries you can find online – but I think I first heard of Rilke from the podcast Entitled Opinions. He was some German poet that left a lasting mark on his era, but I didn’t know much more than that. I know it’s sad, but I never pick up books of poetry. I guess I don’t know how to read it. Maybe it’s because poetry is work, and unless you sit and think and feel for a few days with the words in your mind, it never goes deeper than the surface. A story however will do the work for me, and I have a character to follow down deeper into some other experience. I would completely recommend this book to anyone that feels the same about poetry. This is Rilke’s only novel, and it holds my hand (somewhat) to where I need to go – as novels do – but along the way I can get an idea of some of the beautiful poetry out there that I’m missing.
Here’s my favorite paragraph so far. The only context that you need is that there’s a bit of fog in Paris.
“What such a small moon can achieve. There are days when everything about one is luminous, light, scarcely defined in the bright air, and nonetheless distinct. Even the nearest of things have the shades of distance upon them; they are remote, merely sketched in rather than bodied forth; and all things that do indeed partake of the distance—the river, the bridges, the long streets and the prodigal squares—have absorbed the distance within themselves and are painted on to it as upon silk. Who can say what a slight green vehicle on the Pont Neuf might be at such times, or some red bursting forth, or even a mere poster on the fire wall of a pearly-grey group of buildings. Everything is simplified, rendered into a few exact, bright planes like the face in a portrait by Manet. And nothing is of slight importance or irrelevance. The booksellers along the Quai open up their stalls, and the fresh or faded yellow of the books, the violet brown of the bindings, the more commanding green of an album: all of it is just right and has its worth and is a part of the whole and adds up into a fullness where nothing is lacking.”
An observation and its moment are equally unique. Language is a time capsule for observations.
I’ve felt very awake in my awareness of new observations. Most preciously, I heard feedback about who I am at work. My advisor shared with me a collection of peer observations.
I am always ready to defend my idea of myself. Seeing how rare it is to have considered observations about myself from those I respect, I forced my guard down. I listened.
Later the same week, I happened upon a composer. I heard an inspiration and felt again nostalgia of the unknown. Ryuichi Sakamoto somehow introduces me to the past and carries a limp trail of the future with each phrase.
Each musical sentence is brief. I can imagine each bit standing alone in conclusion. Yet each turn is a natural extension. Most valuable to me: the space between is where my mind wanders.
Putting my observation into language is slowing down the experience. Music and reading and watching are all conversations. The spaces in the moment you craft is where the exchange between the observer and the moment happens. The music, book, video, pastoral view will not respond to me. But the following moment will be different after the space between allows me to wander.
His solo piano feels like Eric Satie, which in a direct way, inspires me to play piano again. The nostalgia is for being in Japan, and the many parts of my life when I watched a touching movie or show from Japan. These descriptions are failing my visceral mash of memory.
Finally picking up a book has added another feature of inspiration to my week. Several Short Sentences About Writing is a self-evident title. I don’t expect to be enthralled with an academic book. I’m absorbed in it, and I no longer believe it’s “academic.” It’s a fascinating treatise on cutting the fat. Say what you say, while respecting the reader.
I’m certain that all of the above reads awkwardly. I’m doing things differently.
I’m trying short sentences. I’m trying to say everything. I think the idea of a short sentence is not to force it to a certain length,
but to remove every bit until you can remove no more.
Like a beginner, I see myself mimicking the author’s style. I’ll soon find room for his advice and my voice in the same sentence.
What you don’t know about writing is also a form of knowledge, though much harder to grasp.
Try to discern the shape of what you don’t know and why you don’t know it,
Whenever you get a glimpse of your ignorance.
Don’t fear it or be embarrassed by it.
What you don’t know and why you don’t know it are information too.
Verlyn Klinkenborg (more excerpts)
I’ll leave you here. It feels good to be inspired again.
It’s amazing to have three inspirations at once!