wayfinding

In the morning, we went on a walking tour organized by my son’s school. It was led by a local activist and public scholar who pointed out a series of markers that had been erected in the city on sites of significance to African American history — the site of the Olney Street Riot in 1831, a plaque commemorating the site where Sissieretta Jones lived — and as we walked, he talked about his own work a bit. His daughter, charming at inquisitive at 3 or 4, trailed behind among us. It was a perfect day to walk. Trees in full bloom, the air warm and faintly perfumed. 

Later, with friends, we spoke about creative work — dedication to it, making the time, putting in the hours, as it were. I have been working steadily, if slowly, on this new book, trying hard to stay out of my own way. 

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Yesterday, I copied a series of first lines from Renata Adler’s Speedboat, to to try learn something about her sentences. There are countless examples I can point to but something about a line like: “There is a difference, of course, between real sentiment and the trash of shared experience” that gets to the heart of the matter with speed, precision, and the recognizable clipped tone I have come to associate with her. 

This morning, I returned to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Each time I pick it up, after some time away, I expect and fear that it will not be as I remembered it, that it will have deteriorated over time. And each time, I am surprised anew by its intelligence, its lyricism. Its ability to string together events and ideas that at first seem so disparate — with such ease. 

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The places we walked were not unfamiliar. We began at an intersection I drive past nearly every day, and none of the sites where we lingered were wholly unknown. Walking the streets however, in this particular configuration — from the east side to downtown and back — was not something I have done many times before, and certainly the route was winding and without the purposefulness with which I would usually be traveling. 

There are obvious messages here — about slowing down, taking the time to truly observe what we take for granted, to attend to the familiar to see it anew, and so forth. But part of the purpose of the tour, I think, is also to remind us of what is suppressed or missing in the way we understand our surroundings. Every historical marker, every sign, every wayfinding system, every street name, every building erected, does so in a certain context and is laden with a particular set of values and assumptions about its use and usefulness. 

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In the evening, we went to the opening of a friend’s installation, which, among other things, documented aspects of the experience of the earliest Colombian immigrants in Rhode Island. In the interviews he’s conducted and recorded, there are stories that have not been heard before, which would otherwise be disappeared, erased. 

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Our guide ended our tour talking about the kinds of projects that have yet to be undertaken, for the usual lack of resources, time, and will. I think of my own eagerness to start things and how quickly — at signs of adversity — my energy flags. 

Along the way, our guide made a reference to one of his own teachers, an anthropologist who had made an offhand comment about recent archaeological discoveries in Egypt. “Oh, they’ll be finding stuff there for years,” he said. Our guide mentioned this for the perspective it brought — that we are constantly in the process of discovering new truths, unearthing new stories that have been — intentionally or unintentionally — untold, silenced. There is something there for me, I think, about taking the long view on work. Longer, perhaps, than one might imagine possible.