After an hour circling Budapest trying to find the superhighway, we drove east across dry plains to the border with Romania. Clouds piled up behind the line of security stations. My friend Loren, his head bare, sniffling and coughing, drank water from a 1.5 liter supermarket bottle, and with each swallow I thought: How. Can. He. Drink. So. Much. Fucking. Water? After the border crossing we drove into the city of Cluj and stopped at the central square, curious. I had never seen such a dark place—blackness smeared the buildings. What was it? Soot? I didn’t know. We drove on.
Having left Strasbourg with only a large-scale map of Europe, we had little detail on Romania, and it was the least developed country we visited. Always the geographer, I looked for clues. Was there a more alive place somewhere nearby? We stopped for lunch, crashing a country wedding which smelled quite clearly of sewage. Long hours in the car were nothing new on this trip, but it never occurred to me to get out of the car to walk, run, or just to stretch my legs. The cramped cabin of the Peugeot 207 was not my ideal environment. Enacting one of my maxims—turn left three times—I ordered Loren to leave the highway and turn onto a small, unmarked road leading up a ridge. Quickly we found ourselves in deep forest, without much to guide our next move. Just like the early computer game Adventure, “a maze of twisty passages, all alike”. Again I chose left. The road narrowed and the sun was setting.
We came upon a large building, perhaps a hotel? It seemed abandoned, but there were some lights on and the entrance was passable, although partly destroyed. We explored for a few minutes, wandering expectantly around the dining hall, but found only dust and shuffling ghosts. A strange and again a dirty place. Finally, as darkness overtook us, following a heavily potholed dirt road into a valley, I spotted a small yellow sign. Romanian is a language much like Italian, which I can read even at a distance. Agriturismo. All of our left turns had finally borne fruit: a sane little village with a creek and a church, and a farmhouse with rooms to let and dinner on the table.
I jumped in the water
I swam in a circle
not a small circle!
I fought the current
something that might seem like a battle
but I held the water’s hand
and it pulled me
I pulled myself
I felt free
not for the first time
for the first time
I felt strong
not for the first time
for the first time
I was not afraid
swimmers and surfers don’t talk about sharks
the water of the Pacific is not cold
I swim in my own skin
I embraced the open water
I took in the view of the sky
and the taste of the salt
I rounded the corner
Alcatraz to my right
the Gate in my sight
I went with the tide
and flew with my friends
back inside the arms of the pier
a little safer
but again the current challenged my strength
I had been in the water now
for more than an hour
my right foot was numb
and yet my arms felt long
things always get harder for me when the end is in sight
at a mile and a half I had to pull hard
the tide rushed out through the pilings behind me
the remarkable thing is that I would say that I struggled
but it wasn’t a fight
it was hard
but I loved it
I felt awake and alive
long and lean
warm and wise
once we finished our swim I walked slowly inside
I sat in the sauna for what seemed like an hour
my brain slowly reconnecting
to my body as it thawed
I reflected on a decision I had made only just a week before
to not wait and test the water before jumping in
to not feed my fear by feeling the cold
before feeling the cold
I had said to my self: no hesitation
at the water’s edge
my dad told me not long ago that “I’ve had it easy”
I’m sure that’s his own trip
although it’s true that many things have come easily
I always thought I was just good at… everything
or some kind of genius
and so he’s right in a way
it’s hard to seek challenge
one day in September
I learned something more about what I’ve long said
that I’ve believed it, and felt it, but I didn’t quite know why
One of the first things I remember learning from my father is that you don’t stop in the middle of the trail. If you need to stop to drink some water or tie your shoes, step aside so that people coming along behind you aren’t forced to stop along with you.
This was a basic lesson in situational awareness and respect for others. In adult life I am always surprised when I see someone thinking far enough ahead to accomplish these simple acts of respect. Surprised that is, albeit pleasantly, because it’s so damn rare. In the States we’ve become resigned to the fact that everyone drives in the left lane, seemingly without a thought to the long-lost rule of “keep right except to pass”. In markets and trains and on trails and sidewalks I constantly encounter others simply standing in the middle of the way – and not always because they are staring into their smartphones. Just now I was moving down the aisle of a train with my rolling bag in tow and a woman leaning out into the aisle several rows up saw me approach, looked me in the eye even, and then turned her back to me and continued with whatever she was doing. Now, I’m sure she had something important to do, but when I reached her a few seconds later I had to stop, ask her to move out of the way, which of course caused us both some minor frustration, and then continue on my way. With a little bit of situational awareness she could have simply tucked herself into the row for a second as I passed, which would have given us both the satisfaction of a job well done (on her hand) and being noticed and cared for (on mine).
“Way” means road (check?). It’s impossible for me to imagine really, how one’s brain could operate in a manner so disconnected from others, from one’s surroundings. It’s also one of the basic building blocks of civilization – that is, giving a shit about someone other than yourself. This is part of what makes life better, and in many ways we’ve lost it.
Why waste time being shocked? Fear comes from unfamiliarity. We may choose to reject certain actions of others, but we should not be surprised at the extent of human action.
Anything that has been imagined has been done, and everything that will be imagined will be done. It is impossible to stop the march of progress. We should devote our energy not to dismay but to civilization, the project of bending progress to good.
This ancient phrase – a real occult classic – is attributed to the “Emerald Tablet“, a bit of lost (or invented) arcana that was of great interest to an eclectic series of early alchemists, philosophers and scientists including Aleister Crowley and Issac Newton, who produced the canonical English translation. AASB succinctly encapsulates the idea that “man is the counterpart of God on earth; as God is man’s counterpart in heaven” – and since God and man are one and of each other’s invention, then so are the real and the imagined.
I was in Poland not long ago on a bit of a wild goose chase and as I was preparing to return home, I went looking for a book to read on the plane. I found an English bookstore and the book that fell into my hands was Nicolai Lilin’s brilliant Siberian Education, his memoir about growing up in Siberia’s “criminal underworld”. (The book has attracted more than its fair share of controversy; it is written in the voice of autobiographical memoir and was promoted as such, but the author has since made it clear that it’s ‘literature based on old memories‘).
The book is full of maxims, and one of my favorites is “don’t keep money in the house”. Money is an invention of government, and only used by non-criminals and cops – useful but dirty, and not worthy of welcome in the home. To me this expresses beautifully that home should be a place of refuge from the business of everyday life, and that we should be attentive to what we choose to bring into our homes, into our hearts.
This is not a plea, or permission, for indulgence. While I do enjoy a bit of deluxe now and then, simple things usually do just fine. It’s better to have fewer things, especially since you pay rent on everything you own.
I’m talking about a different kind of upgrade. If something is not running smoothly in your life or your business, it’s time to fix it. The great thing is, you’re not just fixing something, you’re getting an upgrade!
This maxim came to me as I was working to make my business more profitable and ultimately set it up to be attractive to a potential buyer. I was frustrated by many things in those days: accounting, payroll, taxes, insurance, cash flow, the web site, managing offices and staff overseas – the list goes on. I would feel myself spinning in circles as I thought of all the things that needed taking care of, and often I couldn’t bring myself to deal with any of them because the whole situation was such a mess. I was discouraged and disoriented.
Then one day my bookkeeper quit. At first I thought: great, now I have to go out and find another bookkeeper, and it’s not easy finding someone who will work cheaply for a small business. It’s not glamorous work, and I wanted to pay as little as possible.
But then a proverbial lightbulb went off: this wasn’t a problem, it was an opportunity. I had the opportunity to find a real bookkeeper, someone who would provide better service, produce better financial reports, and make my business more professional. And that was exactly what I needed! The next day I called three firms, chose one, and never looked back on that decision. My bookkeeping went from being a headache to a smoothly-running system, and I was able to turn my attention to the next squeaky wheel – and the next upgrade!
Language is magic. We encode wisdom, invent worlds, share our dreams and weave spells with language. Need help finding the right words to capture an idea or a feeling? I love explaining, translating, editing, naming, phrasing and wordsmithing. Read on for more on language, and then get in touch if you’d like to find your magic words!
These days it’s very easy to get nearly perfect information. Google Maps is comprehensive and up-to-the-minute. TripAdvisor covers the planet, as does AirBnb and Uber. If you’re just about anywhere you can buy a local SIM card, turn on cellular roaming, and never get lost or have a bad meal.
It’s no accident that some of my best travel experiences have been guided by crappy, out of date maps. I do read guidebooks and use all the online services, but I also like to leave something out. Read up, and then leave the data at home. Ask around. See what you can figure out from something in another language. Turn left three times. Have fun!