Arrival at Thasos

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He is the cat of this port: still in grooming training for that macaroon coat, growing into those big-boy marmalade ears. One of the fishermen he’s befriended tossed him a handful of gavros—shiny silvery-skinned fish the size of sardines—but the seagulls swooped in and bullied him away from them. He’s hesitant now—that dazed expression is less an indication of sleepiness, I think, than of still figuring out the world—but he will soon learn, like the gypsy boy who appeared at my shoulder at dinner in Thessaloniki, hand out for money as he’d been instructed, but his face, not yet skilled in masking desires, clearly more interested in the three meatballs that remained on the platter in front of us. “Would you like the keftedes?” we asked. Deftly curling all three with one swoop, he popped a meatball into his mouth and disappeared around the corner to face his own seagulls.

10302215_10100266354011622_8826224667617952272_n When I tell you I’m spending a month on a Greek island, stop picturing those little whitewashed houses, a stark volcanic landscape, a cobalt sea. You’re imagining the Cycladic islands—Santorini, Mykonos, and their kind. Run your finger way up the map of the Aegean. I’m at the top, on Thasos: across the water from Kavala, closer to Istanbul than to Athens. On the clearest days, they tell me, you can see neighboring Mt. Athos, the Holy Mountain, though so far it has remained, appropriately enough, shrouded in a mystical (mist-ical, for the punsters among you: Dad) veil.

You need an artist’s palette to capture precisely all the colors the sea expresses from moment to moment: bottle green to Mexican glass blue to midnight blue. Densely clustered pine forests scent the island. Olive groves give it sustenance and livelihood, while individual trees generously shade each patio, which tend to be built, in the style of Odysseus & Penelope’s house, around the olive trees.

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At Kyria Vaso’s Rooms to Let my front porch overlooks bushes bursting with lilac-colored hydrangeas, roses in profusion, and everywhere, in every pot (not just here but around the village), the exact same color of magenta geraniums, as if they all descended from the same mother.

I’m here for the Writing Workshops in Greece, which has as its logo the octopus, whose gardens flourish in these cove-abundant waters.

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Here’s to becoming like the octopus, which has a naked mind: every ripple of feeling that passes through it is expressed upon its skin. The skin will change colors, like a mood ring was supposed to do, to communciate the octopus’s state of being, flushing this way with rage and that way with love. No layers of reserve to protect them from predators, or from life.

I love to watch them rapt

My friend Nancy collects images of women reading. I think of her every time I see a painting of a woman engrossed in a book or those postcard compilations and calendars titled Reading Women that museums produce.

I fully understand the delight these images bring her, for my own nerdy confession is that I love to watch students writing.

Jeff gazing at Gysis’ “Behold the Celestial Bridegroom.” National Gallery, Athens.

There’s just about nothing that gives me more pleasure as a teacher than strolling about a classical site or through a museum gallery and seeing a student gazing at an object, deeply absorbed in the moment, and then quietly writing.

I love to catch them in moments of rapt attention.

Do you think it’s because I long in vain for these moments at home? It occurs to me that these cherished instances of absorption are far more common—are perhaps entirely—when I’m teaching abroad. Now, to be true, it’s only in this situation that I actually walk about and photograph the students, so I may be overlooking, for lack of documentation and memory, instances at home when students are rapt. Then, too, at the university I am not with them all the time and am not present for possible glorious moments. Although we do a lot of writing in class, what’s all too frequent is to see students unable to sink into the moment, distracted by their phones, their classmates’ inattention, their own restlessness or self-consciousness. Instead of making them feel mentally expansive, the quiet classroom feels constraining, coercive. They grow restive. Absent is the sense of wonder, and nowhere to be found the physical impetus to inspiration (and perhaps the permission or license to become enraptured?) that we have when studying abroad.

The texts in front of them, I realize, when studying abroad or in the classroom, are not what captures them. (Which makes me sad.) When we are on site in Greece, the spaces we are in and the objects we see are the very ones described in our texts, which ramps up the urgency to observe through the observer and to compare notes with Herodotus, Byron, or Patrick Leigh Fermor, and to be present in this moment, to give it  full-on attention—finally—and to feel the enormous rush of energy that comes from that deep attention.

Micki writing on the rocky terrain of Sounio.

Greece is beautiful, complexly layered, demanding of all your senses: who wouldn’t gaze spellbound in its presence? But the research shows that it’s the mere getting away—and, more, immersing ourselves in intellectual practice when we’re away—that has such enormous cognitive benefits to my students. If you are already a fan of study abroad (and I know many of you are), you know how powerfully it improves your cross-cultural understanding: hones your awareness, broadens your reach on global issues, matures your perception of your home country, increases your self-reliance. The latest research tells us that studying abroad even improves our ability to be creative. What’s being discovered supports a lot of anecdotal, on-the-ground evidence: you learn to think outside of your ‘cultural script,’ how to combine intellectual resources from various cultural frameworks, how to generate and apply new, culturally-appropriate ideas–all capabilities that are so vital to seeing, comprehending, and solving complex, open-ended problems. (See Christine S. Lee, David J. Therriault, and Tracy Linderholm. “On the Cognitive Benefits of Cultural Experience: Exploring the Relationship Between Studying Abroad and Creative Thinking.” Applied Cognitive Psychology (2012).)

But for me it comes down, again and always, to witnessing students in those rare moments of rapt attention, of presence. When their faces don’t look anxious or impassive but instead focused, alert, engrossed, with a play of ideas behind their eyes. I collect these images; they are beautiful to me. I like to think that these are moments they too will mull over in years to come; these will be their own spots of time.

More writing on the turf of Poseidon.

Such moments also tend to produce some writing worth reading.

What am I longing for? Presence

What ties all the disparate strands of your life together? When you look back upon all that you’ve loved, obsessed over, sought out, what do those things have in common? What were you longing for?

Take a bird’s-eye look at my life, for instance: from sitting upon hallowed grounds, whether the foot of the Little Buddha in Afghanistan or John Keats’s grave in Rome; from apprenticing myself to the craft of acting to rooting through archives of eighteenth-century performances of Hamlet; to walking through the lower site of ancient Delphi in the misty morning with only stray cats for company, what underlies these experiences? What have I been seeking, been longing for?

This: presence.

Not fame, certainly not fortune, and not sites to check off some bucket list. No, it’s been presence I long for–those moments of feeling stopped in time and yet swept into an all-time; of being, it seems, present to the past; of having a suddenly vastly expanded inner space, or, perhaps more accurately, of feeling a breaking down of the walls between interiority and exteriority.

Let me tell you about one of these times. It takes place when I’m in college, twenty years old, and is one of those so-called “momentous events” that my cognitive psych pals like to study, the events that stick in our minds because they’re coated (and coded) with rich detail. It haunts me so vividly, all these years later, because it is, I think, the first time I was conscious of such an experience of presence and was moved to actively seek them out, however I could, whatever it took, for the rest of my life.

After several weeks in the outskirts of London, studying The English Novel in its Environment, we were given a 10-day break. Ditched by my school chums, who decided to hang out with some blokes they’d just met, I decided to follow through on my own with our plan to check out Scotland.

Somewhere down in the vault I must have photos of this journey but I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine me: clad in a pale-green Pringle men’s sweater that I’d just bought (oversized; it was 1985) atop peg-legged stonewashed jeans and white Keds sneakers. I carried a backpack with clean underwear, white t-shirts, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but otherwise needed little for my adventure.

Scotland in 2011, not 1985, but still moody and atmospheric.

From Edinburgh I headed west on a somewhat arbitrary circuit of Scotland, taking the next train or bus in the station, looking for a room when I arrived in a town. I’ve never traveled so lightly. Oban, Mull, Inverness, Perth (for reasons that escape me) and back to Edinburgh. Glasgow I was scared of; in 2005 I would spend a glorious semester teaching there and cluck at my former self.

Oban is the port city where you board the ferry for the Isle of Mull. On the boat I was visited by a flock of seagulls. They swooped so near, their fat oil-slicked bellies close enough to touch, their wings beating hard against the wind. Have I always loved seagulls or was it this moment that I became entranced? (Note to self: ask your mother. As a child you did have a Jonathan Livingston Seagull t-shirt that you wore to shreds.) You see, they seemed to be calling to me. They seemed to be saying, We see you, we know you’re traveling alone, you’re all right.

And that afternoon as I explored Mull it was as if I saw myself from the seagulls’ point of view while simultaneously feeling a part of all. As if I saw through two different sets of eyes at once. Probably I didn’t speak a word to anyone–my silence not a desire for monasticism but a consequence of shyness and reserve. I walked around a castle–it was for sale, I remember, which struck me as odd–and drank a cup of tea on its lawn.

Not Mull but Stirling, Scotland, but it stirs up similar feelings.

That experience never returned during the rest of my little jaunt around Scotland, however much I longed for it to. It’s remained a Wordsworthian “spot of time,” a charged moment in the history of my imagination that can be conjured up for inspiration and that returns unbidden, from time to time…

Whitby, England, July 2011.

Especially when I see seagulls.