Gazing From Afar at Wasted Days

HAMPL (1)Patricia Hampl’s latest book, The Art of the Wasted Day, carries readers aloft on a tranquil travelogue, packed with side trips, vignettes and what Hampl calls the divine details.  

Along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hampl shines as Saint Paul’s literary royalty, artfully chronicling her travels, from smoky Czech cafes to a quirky Welsh vale and blissful houseboat cruise along the Mississippi.

The meandering pilgrimages follow the Roman idea of honorable leisure. Hampl doesn’t rush her journeys, choosing instead to pace her trips and this book’s flow with fine meals and many reflections. By book’s end, she illuminates what she’s learned, sharing the brilliant whys and ways of wasting one’s days. This is a journey worth taking, a book worth reading.

I confess, though, at times I struggled to stay with Wasted Days. It should have been easy to glide along with Hampl’s fine words. I can hear her cool smooth voice flowing across the page. Reading this amid the overheated cacophony of impending elections, I felt like a rebellious high schooler, challenging the teacher about whether this book was relevant. Do wasted days and leisurely dinners matter when pipe bombs keep popping up in politicians’ mailboxes?  The potential dangers of these elections loom over me like a horror movie. How can I think about leisure?

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Photo: Alec Smith

Hampl admits she also struggles between leisurely solitude and daily busyness. She writes of her ‘skittery mind” wandering on a meditative retreat. She owns up to her endless to-do lists and compunction to be the dutiful girl, the writer who completes every task. She trudges through a blizzard to her university office so she won’t miss office hours. Arriving to find that’s school’s been closed, she stays, and wonder of wonders, a student shows up. He’s relieved she can help him with the essay he can’t write. He confesses that nothing has happened in his life, growing up in Fridley. He has nothing to write about. Hampl reassures him that she wants to read about his Fridley life.

Ordinary life, in Fridley, in flyover land, in Iron Curtain countries, matters, Hampl writes. The little events, daydreams, loves and excursions, the conversations around the kitchen tables, they matter. The small stuff defines our lives. This luminous writer persuades readers that we don’t waste our lives taking time to daydream along the river, to look at a butterfly, or sit at the kitchen table, talking until the coffee grows cold. Instead, we waste our lives by rushing, by always doing, never beginning to slow. Never reaching solitude.

Her Paris Review essay, I Have Wasted My Life, offers a concise version of the book’s central theme. The essay’s title comes from James Wright’s poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”  Decades ago, Hampl thought the poet meant he wasted his life focusing on the little details of butterflies, horse turds and cowbells. Later, she re-considers, deciding that Wright is laughing at the worker bees, those of us who clog our lives with endless scurrying and skittering, to-do lists and worries (those elections…).

After the death of her husband, whose presence drifts through this book like silvery fog, his features intentionally indistinct, her grief achingly clear, Hampl sees the poem in a new light. She understands that it’s only when the poet rests in the hammock, in solitude, his mind “rinsed of ambition,” that he is able to take in life’s fine details. Only then, does Wright realize he was wasting his life by not seeing the life around him fully. Once he opens himself to the butterfly, the horse turds, the cow bells, the poet can exult in his joyful wasted life.  

I begin to let Hampl’s words and meaning wash over me. I reread descriptive passages, beginning to slow down. I think about the graceful meals, the transcendent trip down the Mississippi. My eyes and mind roam the pages, content to visit a quieter place, a place I often gaze at from afar.

This reflective book offers a peek through velvet curtains to an intentional life, distinct from the madding swirl. I can see Hampl, sitting quietly at her yellow kitchen table, the coffee going cold, her mind lost in thought, open to the world.

By book’s end, Hampl’s travelogue transported me to her calmer place. I see that the vignettes, the little episodes of a life that may seem like throwaways, are worth attention. Really, they are the stuff of life.

As Hampl notes, “The history of whole countries, of an entire era and even lost populations, depends sometimes on a little girl faithfully keeping her diary.” The diaries and divine details matter. Hampl’s pilgrimages matter. Just as the places where stories and books live matter.  Places such as the East Side Freedom Library, the home of community histories, cultures and people, Karen weavers and African drummers, Hmong Archives, union members and environmentalists, this common ground gathering spot, this library matters.

This Tuesday, Patricia Hampl, artist of the wasted day, will talk about the importance of stories and place at East Side Freedom Library’s Fourth Anniversary Benefit Celebration Tuesday, October 30, 2018, 6:30 – 8:30 PM, East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul 55106  Tickets are tax-deductible. Please register in advance.

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Japanese Style, An A to Z Guide of Attention to Detail

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YArrows on painted on sidewalks or floors of tourist attractions or crowded train stations steer walkers in the right direction, and prevent unnecessary jostling on stairs or other crowded areas. 

 

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Baskets tucked under chairs in coffee shops and restaurants provide a tidy spot for patrons to stow bags, purses, and coats. Belongings don’t spill sloppily over chairs or touch the floor.

 

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YColor Hunting, the Japanese expression for leaf peeping, is a national sport. Judging from the many shrines and temples with trees arrayed so their leaves compose an autumn rainbow of reds, oranges, and yellows, Japan earns the gold medal in color hunting.

 

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YDust doesn’t stand a chance in germaphobe Japan. Each night at closing time, store clerks at little shops and big department stores drape cloth over merchandise to guard against dust. 

 

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YEggs, hard-boiled, come pre-seasoned and seemingly, almost buttered through the shell.  This Japanese recipe involves soaking boiled eggs in a salty brine for 24 hours or more. It takes loads more salt to flavors eggs this way, but taste a Japanese egg, and you may find it’s worth the sodium. Eggs-cellent idea!

 

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Fortune, good luck talismans dangle from purses and backpacks and adorn doorways and corners. Smiling Buddhas, waving cats, owls and frogs are some of the many engimono, lucky charms, marshalled to herald good fortune. Superstitions pop up often: Odd numbers are good; even numbers are unlucky because they can be divided. Not much is left to chance.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YGardens are as precisely designed as every other treasured art form. Trees, grasses, moss, sand, and stone are arranged to create harmonious landscapes. Japan’s respect for nature shows in its many descriptive words which English lacks: Kogarashi, leaf-wilting wind; shinrinyoku, forest bath; komorebi, sunlight filtering through trees; and mono no aware, the fleeting nature of beauty. 

95686-201505.zoom.aHello Kitty looms larger than Godzilla in Japan. Sanrio’s cute cartoons should nibble on caviar cat-chow, considering that the franchise nabs nearly a billion dollars in worldwide sales each year. Need a toaster to imprint Hello Kitty on your morning toast? How about individually wrapped Hello Kitty prunes? Flip pancakes with a heart-shaped Hello Kitty spatula!

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YInemuri, to be asleep while present, is socially acceptable  napping in trains, classrooms and other public places. A Japanese friend insists that people never sleep on trains. Instead, she says, they’re simply closing their eyes to meditate and seek solitude in crowded spaces. Ohmm.

japan, a lowercase word meaning lacquerware. What other country can boast its name is also an artform? japanning, a 17th century term first used in Europe, describes the art of varnishing metal, wood and other surfaces in the renowned Japanese way.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YKawaii, the Japanese word for cuteness and the appetite for that cuteness, sums up a national obsession that’s gone global. In Japan, kawaii is ubiquitous, from adorable baked goods shaped like bears, cotton-candy soft sweaters with fuzzy pockets and 12th century Scrolls of Frolicking Animals featuring manga-like rabbits, frogs and monkeys. A museum exhibit in Tokyo, the Untamed Mind, explains kawaii as Japan’s love of things natural, spiritual, and playful.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YLeaf cleaning doesn’t require a rake in Japan. A young guy at a Tokyo car-wash used a pair of tongs, the kind Americans use to BBQ, to patiently remove one leaf at a time from a narrow channel along the sidewalk where water from the car wash would flow. At public gardens, workers rhythmically swept leaves with rustic twig brooms, as if they were doing tai chi. A custodian outside a popular shrine ignored the set of twig brooms in his cart in favor of a loud leaf blower. Piles of ways to remove leaves so gardens, doorways, and even car wash sidewalks look meticulous.

20171101_173126Manners matter, at the table, on the street, really, every part of Japanese life. At restaurants, the first items servers offer are hot towels for guests to clean their hands. Before the first bite, even at a snack stand, it’s polite to give thanks for the food by quietly saying, “Itadakimasu,” “I humbly receive.” After eating, it’s custom to say “Gochisousama” — thank you for the delicious meal. One more etiquette tidbit: It’s rude to offer tips to a server, bellhop, or taxi driver. 

“No tattoos” Don’t try to go to a public hot bath if you’ve got tattoos. Inked skin is considered a sign of the Yakuza, Japanese mafia, so tattoos convey an unsavory reputation. Hot spas’ websites and walls include numerous “No tattoo” warnings.

Onsen, Google onson, Japan’s hot spa baths,  and you may see this prompt, “How do you take a bath in Japan?” Japanese people rinse their bodies before they enter baths. Immerse yourself in the Official Tokyo Travel Guide’s pool of facts about the correct way to bathe

20171030_074208Punctuality appears to be a national past-time. Omnipresent clocks in parks, malls, and other public places help people stay fashionably on schedule. Even young kids wear watches. Note, punctuality does not mean being early. When a Tokyo train left 20 seconds ahead of schedule, it made national news. The company apologized for “the tremendous nuisance.” 

Quiet.That’s the sound you’ll hear in Japan’s airports, trains, busy streets and cafes. People talk softly and are far less likely to gab on cell phones in public. TVs and radios don’t blare at every airport terminal, restaurant and mall. Intentional sounds of silence. 

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YRules, tacit and written, structure life in Japan.Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:Y A cute sign at a local Tokyo playground warns children about ten potential hazards of the swings and slide. “Never play with your jacket flapping.” “Don’t play on equipment wearing a backpack. Never use the play structure when it is wet. Never tie any rope or string to the play structure….” Remember to play by the rules!

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Synchronized cleaning, epitomized by Japanese Railway crews whose coordinated cleaning routines keeps bullet trains rolling on schedule. The crews perform in team colors, women in peach, men in light blue, wrist watches pinned to their smocks. Once passengers step off a JR train, crews sweep in, each worker intent on his or her task: remove fabric headrest covers, flip seats forward, smooth fresh headrest covers in place, sweep and bag debris. When the train car passes inspection, the crew gathers and bows. As they leave, each worker methodically touches the right, then left, then right, frame of the train’s door. Once the synchronized show ends, the next set of passengers, in an orderly queue on the platform, quickly boards and the train departs, spruced up and on time.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YToilets, Japanese style, include more buttons and settings than some microwaves I’ve used. Most toilets feature at least three options: a gush of warm water, with choices for temperature and flow, to rinse the front and back of a person’s seat; air, again with controls for temperature and flow, to blow-dry wetness; and chimes, burbling water or gentle melodies, to muffle any unpleasant noises that might occur while going to the bathroom. The water and air wash and dry bodies better than toilet paper, but it’s another element of Japanese toilets that wowed me. Heated seats. As I write this, clenched in a sub-zero Minnesota winter, I long for the warmth of those seats. I need to go back to Japan. Soon.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YUniforms  So many matching outfits! Students, starting in kindergarten, are easy to spot in identical shirts, shorts, pants or skirts, sweaters, coats, hats, and backpacks. School kids aren’t the only whose clothes signal their role. Trains full of ordinary workers dress almost in unison: Men in white shirts and dark trousers, often with jackets and ties; even cab drivers wear suits. Women dress in dark skirts with muted tops. Casual Fridays are a foreign concept. On Saturdays, many students don school uniforms headed to cram schools. In three weeks, I saw just one Japanese woman in a revealing outfit. Modesty is the uniform for all.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YVending machines dispense cold and hot coffee, soft drinks, cigarettes, candy and even batteries in Japan. Yet despite the convenience of 5.5 million sidewalk vending machines, few Japanese eat or drink as they walk. Noshing or sipping on the go is considered poor manners. Japanese people bring their tasty and cheap can of vending machine coffee where they can sit and drink properly then bring the empty can home. Trash cans are rare on Japanese streets. People are expected to be responsible for their own trash, instead of ditching it in public.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YWashi, the craft of Japan’s handmade paper traces back at least 1,300 years and makes UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This ultra thin paper has been used for ledgers and stationery, lanterns, umbrellas, window panels and paper mache dolls. Washi is resistant to bugs, water and rips. Crafting handmade paper one sheet at a time is a painstaking process, truly. Papermakers’ hands are plunged in chilly water for hours. No wonder one craftsman says it’s hard to find young people who want to make washi. They’d rather work with computers than have chronically cold, wet hands.

X doesn’t exist in any of Japan’s three alphabets: Kanji, pictographs of characters, originally from Chinese; Romaji, the Romanized version of Japanese; and Kana, the combination of two phonetic alphabets, Hiragana, for Japanese words, and Katakana, mostly words borrowed from other languages. X-tra credit if you can keep that straight. 

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YYellow sidewalk strips snake along entire blocks of Japanese city sidewalks and through train stations, offering a tactile guide for people who are blind or have vision problems. The bright bumpy paths are another harbinger of Japan’s intentional efforts to shepherd all who live or visit here.  

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YZoto, Japanese gift giving, isn’t just for holidays, birthdays, and weddings. Presents are also given in mid-July, in mid-December (to co-workers or bosses); after New Year’s (to children). Japanese people are expected to bring back souvenirs, omiyage, anytime they take even a short trip. Those who receive gifts are expected to reciprocate, giving a smaller gift, okaeshi, to show their thanks. All gifts should be nicely wrapped, except for money, which is folded three times and placed in special envelopes, noshibukuro. Decorum requires specific kinds of envelopes for different gift-giving occasions, just as there are different kinds of wrapping, and different numbers and colors of wrapping strings for presents based on the various kinds of gifts one is giving. Did I mention there are different kinds of knots for the strings around presents, also based on what kind of gift? Just remember, if you’re going to Japan, bring gifts. And expect to get gifts in return. You’re welcome! 

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A car-free year

Some people trade in their old cars for the latest model. Last year, I donated my 1993 Honda, swapping it for a new car-free way of life.

Fourteen months later, I’m happy to report that stepping out of the driver’s seat suits me.

The best part of being car-free? I see the Twin Cities as bigger and more diverse. Outside the metal and glass bubble of an automobile, I’m less insulated and more connected. I talk and ride with people from more races, ages and classes.

This summer, as I stopped at a red light on my bike, a young African-American skateboarder rode up and started chatting. We commiserated about the lack of a bike path, and the pros and cons of riding on sidewalk. That pleasant commuter conversation between a 20-something black man and a 56-year-old white woman wouldn’t happen if I was driving solo.

Sitting on an East Side bus bench, the woman next to me drinking a midday malt beverage chatted me up. “Baby Girl,” she said, “I like your hat.” We talked a bit and she patted my hand, then leaned in closer, to exchange an air kiss. When her friend arrived, she invited me to join them for a drink. I demurred, and they wandered off.

For years, I’ve dreamed of living in New York. I crave the big city. This year of car-less commuting shows me that the Twin Cities are more urban than I had appreciated.

I’ve ridden crosstown busses packed with people speaking Spanish, Somali, and languages I don’t recognize. I hear what’s on the minds of more Minnesotans, not just what’s on MPR.

Walt Whitman exalted, “I Hear America singing… the strong, melodious sounds.” I hear America on the bus: Other people’s music, singing, chatting, laughing, muttering and fighting. I hear an irate man yell at a young mother to get her stroller out of the bus aisle or he’ll report her. I hear small civilities—the chorus of riders calling in unison alerting the bus driver to stop so some frantic latecomer can board, the passenger who digs for change to pay another rider’s fare. I hear– and am part of– city life.
Continue reading “A car-free year”

Ordinary history: Old glass, worn shoes

After wandering through galleries of spectacular history at the British Museum, I stop and stand in awe, transfixed by a broken window pane. The grayish-blue glass is scratched and missing four fragments, yet it’s intact, still clearly a window pane. This thin square of glass was found in Sussex, England, and dates to Roman times, the 1st or 2nd century BC. A bath house window that somehow managed to survive millennia. How can that be?

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Window pane, 1st-2nd century BC

As I write this, sitting at my desk in Minnesota, I glance out the century-old windows of my house, seeing golden leaves swaying in the autumn sun. Might any of these windows endure for another 2,000 years? I look down at the travel photos on my modern phone, a shiny glass screen that shows me a fractured pane from the 1st century BC.  A window from the past giving 21st century people a window to the past.

The image of that old grayish-blue pane stays with me, more than the Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone, the heralded stars of the astonishing British Museum. Yes, I saw the Marbles and the Stone, and yes, I was impressed. The Rosetta Stone stands as a testament to the power of language. The massive stone, dense with inscriptions written in three scripts—hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek—gave modern scholars a key to understand Egyptian hieroglyphs. The stone helped people today learn what people long ago had written. We can see their stories, even if we cannot hear the original voices.

The museum presents the history of the world, artifacts amassed by a once powerful empire. The collections describe gods and royals, as well as ordinary people. For me, it’s the mundane objects that reveal glimpses of people who lived long ago.

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Iron scissors, 16th century

I see iron scissors from the 16th century and wonder who held them, and what was cut. Textiles, paper, hair? Did some young man trim his red beard with those scissors, as my son trims his beard? Did a weary woman sit by the fire, sewing, with those scissors by her side, just as I, occasionally sit and mend? I see wooden combs and metal tweezers, toiletry items akin to those in modern purses and homes. The bronze and silver Etruscan handheld mirrors would fit in on a 21st century vanity. I see myself reflected in a mirror, first polished in the 4th century. I conjure the woman who owned this mirror, seeing her face.

img_20161013_121630What did she think when she looked at herself? Did she reach for her metal tweezer, her wooden comb? Did she hold this mirror as she applied kohl, black makeup that helped shield her eyes from strong sunlight, much as my sunglasses do? I stare at her mirror and want to know her story.

I walk into another gallery and stare at old shoes, Roman boots from 25 BC, found in ancient Egypt. The examples of footwear range from a foot-shaped lump resembling burnt leather, cracked at the mid-foot; a taupe swath of what seems like a moccasin; and a sorry sole with several holes and a few leather straps, a shadow of a shoe. The sign explains that these military boots were probably caligae, meaning little soldiers, worn by soldiers under the Emperor Gaius.

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Roman marching boots,  25 BC

I know the soldiers’ shoes are just a footnote of history, not the main meat. But the boots bear traces of the soldiers who wore them, average people whose collective footprints shaped history. Their everyday stories, more than the epic battles and ornate coronations, are the history I long to know.

The soldiers who strapped on those boots, the people who used the scissors and toiletries were, in some ways, like us today. They spoke other languages, lived on other continents, yet their lives mirrored in some ways, our lives. They looked in the mirror, combed, cut, or tweezed their hair, laced up their shoes, went to where the powerful people told them to, and maybe, looked out a window, daydreaming. Seeing historical artifacts reminds me that, no matter the differences of time, language, and geography, we are all people, more alike than not, one species sharing one planet.

Art, death, memory

Lots of art, lots of death. That’s how I’ll remember twelve days touring castles and museums, churches, parks and squares in Copenhagen, London, and Newcastle.

So much of the history and art seemed imbued with fear and desire. The fear of death, the desire to be remembered. We don’t want to die and don’t want to be forgotten.

I saw so many faces and names carved in stone, bone, and marble, painted on canvas, glazed on tile. Many of the faces looked distinctive, rather than generic. The king with the spectacular curly beard, the queen with eyes bulging, the guy with a wart above his lip.  Those warts-and-all busts make me think those subjects wanted to be remembered as they were.

Sometimes the art tells us about the subject; sometimes it reveals more about the artist. Museums full of handcrafts connect the maker from centuries ago with those of us who see the craft today. We who gaze at the statues, the silver skull watch jewelry, the beautiful gravestones, we see the work, and can envision something of the maker and the made.

Art offers immortality, a way for people to live forever, or at least a hedge against being forgotten. The fear of fading away is as common now as it was in the days of Egyptian kings and their elaborate tombs. Instead of pyramids, we emblazon schools and hospitals, all kinds of buildings, with names, sometimes in massive gold letters. Many of us pay to have our loved ones’ names chiseled on gravestones, stone memories that remain long after bodies become dust.

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Aurelius Julianus family gravestone

I think of a gravestone of a young child, the son of a Roman soldier at Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. The stone recounts the sadness of Aurelius Julianus, whose wife died in childbirth and a year later, whose infant son died. The soldier’s grief was compounded when he was ordered to a new post, abandoning his family’s tombstones. “May the gods forgive me. There’s no one left to perform the rituals for my dead family.”

Aurelius Julianus feared no one would remember or honor his wife and son. More than two thousand years after their deaths, their memory remains, thanks to a humble tombstone now in the Great North Museum in Newcastle, England. Aurelius Julianus’s love and grief have kept his family from being forgotten.

A simple gravestone or ornate tomb, a name carved in marble or gold, busts and statues, all reveal stories we tell about ourselves or others. The art portrays something of who we are, as well as our fear of death, our need to be remembered.

From Saint Paul to Istanbul

Saint Paul is 4,607 miles from Istanbul, but this week’s terrorism seemed a heartbeat away.

My 22-year-old son landed at Ataturk Airport on Monday, a day before the carnage. Three terrorists. 41 dead. More than 200 injured. The news stories seemed painfully real. I ache for the families of the victims, who were just people going places, people on trips, going to work, just living. Until Tuesday.

I’m grateful my son was miles away from the airport when the bullets and bombs exploded. Still, I’m rattled. When bad things happen close to the people we love, we see how small the world is, no matter how many miles separate us.

Part of me wishes my son had stayed here, in not-so-dramatic Saint Paul. Another part is proud he is far away, exploring the world.The more we travel, seeing different places, people, and ways of living, the better our chances of understanding the world.

So I say, go travel, see the world, go, in peace.