one-minute vacation
on leaving

It is a terrible and wonderful thing to be an outsider.

To travel is to step outside. Leaving affords an opportunity rare in my insulated world: a chance to be completely out of my depth. Even when I travel with someone familiar, as I did recently with my wife, I may find myself in situations beyond my understanding. In such moments, at risk, I gain the world.

By 'beyond understanding' I mean more than a simple intellectual failing. The challenges of travel, after all, include the trivial, such as the inability to follow instructions or read street signs.

Trivial problems are to be expected, they are expected. Confronting them, the traveler is reassured by the poverty of their scale, and that of their solution: buy a phrasebook, learn to read Devanagari, perform every action with the right hand. No problem. If I get on the wrong train at the border, I will simply go in a different direction. No problem.

The first phrase I learn in many languages is no problem. No problem, because my life will parse itself into the paragraphs of travelers' narrative either way. The greater the snafu, the greater the dryness at its telling. 'That reminds me of this time, in the desert outside …'

Trivial discomforts of dislocation are trivial because they are more than compensated for by the comfort the traveler takes in overcoming them. They do not dislodge my ego; au contraire, they ingratiate themselves to it with borrowed familiarity. They place me in a narrative: I catch myself thinking, this misunderstanding, that fiasco, is one I have read about. I congratulate myself that in proving equal to such woes, I join a fraternity of the worldly.

The wisdom I collect from these moderate failures is only moderately valuable. If I travel and come home with only it to show, the trip was still worthwhile.

But of course, if this is as far as I get, I never really left.

Occasionally, fortunately, the world conspires, and I am shocked into a moment of genuine presence. The occasion is often a personal failure of fundamental understanding, where understanding transcends the grammar of associative consciousness.

A defining characteristic of these moments is that I get that I don't get it.

Not getting it is not easy. I am a prisoner of my ego and my autosycophantic confidence in my own intuitions. A willing prisoner, for I worship my intuition.

But when I travel in a different culture, intuition is a false god. One very hard to dislodge: it has features so familiar I forget it is there. It is woven into and underpins my ritual habits. It is the idol packed most carefully in my pack. Understandably: I want to believe that I understand where I am.

But resistance is necessary if I am to see the world outside my simplifying representations of it.

So the situations I am interested in, that I push myself to find, that I most fear, are those that defy intuition and stymie comprehension. These are often occasions of acute humility.

(One reason I have returned to Asia is its manifest difference. I have an undergraduate's hazy understanding of Orientalism, but I intuit that my romanticization of its difference is perhaps an example of it. So be it, if that's what it takes.)

Traveling, I seek to be shocked into leaving. It is a goal in the same way that insight is a goal of meditative practice. Some of the koan-like paradoxes are parallel: how does one intentionally put oneself beyond intention? Beyond everything. Beyond home and habit.

Recently, my answer has been to shut up and listen. To sit for as long as I can, as silently as I can.

Recording in those moments, I do not capture what I witness. I do not witness what I record. But the recording is preserved as a sign that points to what I will quickly forget.

Returned home, my mind filled with the everyday, I have only these recordings. Every once a while, I remember to listen, and slip away. Surrounding myself with them, I remind myself to attend to the world.

Ultimately this project is about sharing these things.

To listen to my recordings is not to visit the places where they were made. At best, though, listening creates its own occasion for leaving.


grand canyon haiku
sound, art, music

audio restoration at the cathedral
on leaving
how to use this site
an old artist's statement

(diy advice here)


It is worth contemplating that 'the shocking' does not necessarily shock. In Calcutta one can tour the slums. One can sample compassion, perhaps in penance for the license travelers otherwise grant themselves. Suffering does not shock.

But then, when has it? In my city the landscape of human suffering is just as real and unreal as the juxtaposed landscape of privilege.

If not the horrific, what surprises me into what I am calling leaving?

I can answer only for myself: the unexpected detail and the unexpected kindness. The minutia of human behavior or natural phenomena visible only to the lucky voyeur. That which is unobserved when, as I usually am, I am in perpetual physical and mental motion. The revelation of alien patterns of assumption and expectation as deep as my own.

I once explained my occasional struggle to escape the illusion of comprehension this way. I envision myself wearing an iron and leather harness. Radiating out from this harness are many branches. At the end of each is ensconced a burning candle.

Each candle is an assumption, illuminating the world in a particular way I've learned. Try to see through the glare of candlelight.

Darkness falls many ways. It may be thrust upon us, as on September 11. Or, sitting still and attempting to quiet the mind, the candles may wink out.

To be outside, in the dark, is to be at risk. There is often a psychic shock of dislocation. At times one may be at risk physically as well. I do not think that a condition of danger is guaranteed to awaken the mind. There is more to attention than adrenaline. One can grow as accustomed to most anything. The mind is a great seeker of habit, and finding it, remakes intuition to the new order.

Finally: it is a privilege to willingly enter such a state of uncertainty. It is a greater one to have a home to return to. I am grateful for these things.