Travel Like a Chipmunk

Photo: Lolitas

Not the most predictable of sights in Boston. Unless you happen to have a kawaii-Lolita events calendar on your desktop, maybe. But just getting out for a meander might also find you on the heels of a trio of Lolitas. 

The idea of having ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ has appeal. It has many useful applications. A life enhanced by travel needn’t be dominated by such notions, though, or I risk being too fixed, both where I have landed and in my expectations and experiences wherever else I go.

Like most people, I suppose, I find comfort in the familiar, in anticipated pleasures and good things I expect, but—especially when I travel—there’s another sort of wonder and happiness that abounds when I can let go of these supposed needs and just allow life to happen.

From my very first major sans-parents sojourn, the privileged joy of an undergraduate “sophomore sabbatical” of untrammeled European travel with my older sister, I’ve continued to discover the enrichment and the thrilling frissons of serendipity and surprise. Hearing a great performance by a renowned orchestra in a glorious concert hall is well worth saving and planning for, of course, but even its excellence is not more fulfilling and memorable than following an unexpected tune through the byways of a foreign town to find myself joining the local crowd as they cheer on a community parade, marching bands blaring and uninhibited children dancing alongside.

Making the pilgrimage to a must-see historic site with the hundreds of other tourists is often not only worthwhile but sometimes enhanced by the very circus-like atmosphere engendered by the regimented masses. But it can barely compare with, never mind eclipse, the almost clandestine delight of having the ‘inside scoop’ from a city native who directed me to a certain narrow side street to knock on a certain undistinguished door, to borrow from the house’s owner a wonderfully heavy antique iron key that unlocked a creaky gate around yet another corner and let my sister and me into a stone-walled, fog-shrouded, hidden ancient cemetery there. That side-adventure on my first big travel expedition was every bit as gorgeous, astounding, meaningful, and artful as the historic sites on the trip, yet as far as I know, it remains unknown outside of its quiet Irish neighborhood. Making reservations and having tickets for the plan-able parts of that journey were both predictably well worth the time and effort, but a couple of hours spent wandering with my sole travel companion among the storied gravestones in that magnificently green and weedy private burial ground, and then climbing the narrow stone spiral up the tower ruin in that enclosure, peering through the mists out of its mediaeval arrow-slit to catch glimpses of the dark houses outside the walls—that was a sweet afternoon no amount of planning could have bought.

Nowadays, my favorite parts of most travels remain the random and coincidental joys of going down appealing alleys on a whim, following the sensory lures of a wafting scent here, a fugitive melody over there, a flash of color or a movement more felt than seen on my periphery, that can pull me off course in a curious second, redirecting my attentions to livelier things. That’s how I’ve found myself in a cafe kitchen helping the chef pipe his handmade ricotta filling into cannoli while ostensibly just grabbing a bite of supper before a baseball game, or watching the splashy finale of an unadvertised international fireworks competition from a perfectly positioned hotel room balcony; how I ended up discussing the virtues of tuna salad sandwiches with a television actress in an airport security line, stumbling onto and being escorted off of a missile site, standing backstage and meeting Lord Whatsis before the opera, and learning from the groundskeeper at a Victorian-style public garden how he grows weeping mulberry trees from cuttings.

Like the chipmunk that found its way into the building when I was walking up the hallway toward it just the other day, by merely rambling aimlessly in an attempt to get myself oriented in unknown surroundings I sometimes discover I’m right in the middle of a fabulous new treasure-house of wonder.Digital illo from a photo: Intrepid as a Chipmunk

Toddler Etymology

Digital illo: Just Swissin'Ever wonder where little children get their surprisingly sophisticated or apropos neologisms from when they pop up with those odd comments seemingly out of the blue? I know I do. I’ve spent enough time pondering the verbal magicks of the offspring sprung from sisters, friends, and relatives, to think that there is something more than mere chance at work some of the time…but, what? Sheer serendipity seems inadequate to explain how logical or fitting or uniquely unlike what one ought to expect from these kids such prodigious pronouncements can be. From what ineffable sources does infant etymology spring?

There’s one goofy expression long used in my family that makes a fine example, I think; I hadn’t even thought about the oddity of the word and concept in ever so long, but when it came to mind as suited to an occasion arising just the other day, I pondered yet again how such things can arise. The story behind the word/idea is that my youngest uncle, at the time still sleeping in a crib but definitely speaking—as the youngest of six children in a not-very-wealthy household, I can imagine this was a useful space-saving device as much as anything else—was heard to be stirring one morning but hadn’t clambered out of the crib. So his mama, my grandmother, made her way in to see whether her boy was actually up and about or had merely made a sound in his sleep.

It seems he was in an intermediate state, still not fully ready to get up and attack the day, but not deep in dreams anymore either. When asked what he was doing, his response was that he was “just Swissin’.” That seemed to require a bit of clarification. “What?” His response: “I’m not asleep and I’m not awake; I’m just Swissin’.” For the longest time, I thought of this invention as being the equivalent of behaving like the Swiss—existing at neither extreme but in a neutral space between the two. But later, it seemed to me that if he’d had the slightest contact with a real Swiss person, he could well have had a different reason for coining the word. In German, the similar-sounding word “zwischen” means “between,” and what could possibly be a better way to describe the state in which one is neither waking nor sleeping, but in that suspended animation reaching from one state toward the other?

The problem with this delightful theory’s seeming perfection is that if that little boy who became my uncle was hearing anything other than English spoken around him in his American home, it was most likely Norwegian spoken between his parents or other older relatives and friends, given their roots. So how did he invent and name that neat little idea of his? I can’t begin to fathom. But after having made that unexpected connection myself, long after the fact, I relish all the more our continued family use of the word Swissin’, and I thoroughly enjoy knowing that it is even better suited to the status of being neither-here-nor-there than any other single word I can recall. Is it the work of a brilliant linguist or the most excellent of accidents in speech? Neither; it’s just Swissin’.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I didn’t know if I should tell this secret, since it wasn’t entirely mine to tell, but now that I see she posted about it too, I can brag that I will have a fabulous family of new neighbors in just a few months! This is the second time I’ve gotten to meet blogging friends in the real world, and the second time it’s happened because they moved to the same town where I live, a double bonus in my experience. First, it was the estimable man and marvelous photographer/artist Ted Griffith who arrived with his lovely wife and landed in this place that’s turning into a tiny hotbed of blogging, apparently. I got to tell you about that happy crossing of paths earlier.

Now I’ve also had a fantastic visit from the fabulous Marie and her charming and delightful husband and granddaughter, who will move into this same town, just down the pike from us, along with another two members of the family and brighten the north Texas landscape yet further. What a superb and unexpected benefit of blogging. Life is so full of happy surprises!

I suggest you have a nice visit to both of their blogs, tout de suite—Ted’s very inspiring photography and photo-based artworks can be found at Ted Griffith’s Blog and Marie’s world of wonders resides at (for now, anyway) her own little corner of Rhode Island. I’m just guessing there may be a quick little change of blog title somewhere in Miss Marie’s future, if you know what I mean.

The more important purpose of my post today, of course, is to celebrate that serendipitous joy of worlds colliding in the happiest of ways. I have been the blessed and blissful beneficiary of many of the marvels of this ever-smaller world’s confluences and connections. There’s such joy to be found in the miraculous meetings of the wildly interconnected world, and it’s amazing how often the seemingly unrelated threads and paths of our existence meet. What’s not to like about finding the commonalities and happy relationships between us by having our separate and distinct journeys intersect in unpredicted and wonderful ways!

Digital illustration: Confetti

Let’s throw a little confetti and a ticker tape parade in honor of serendipitous connections, my friends!

Just Another Tall Tale

I May be Texan 2

I never thought to come to Texas, even for a visit,

But serendipity is not predictable, now, is it?

And if I might not so have planned—don’t have a longhorn cow—

Turns out it was a fine surprise to land here anyhow.

graphite drawing

Does this make me a second-hand cowhand?

Signs of a Good Trip Ahead

That wonderful invention the GPS is generally a generous gift to a diva of disorientation like me. With my myriad forms of dyslexia all interlocking magically to make it virtually impossible for me to find my way practically anywhere past my own mailbox, it’s nice to have a personal assistant, albeit a computerized one, telling me how to get from Point A to Point B and beyond. And I do love a good road trip, when the opportunity arises.


You are Here, but There’s No Here Here

But even our GPS (sometimes fondly called Peggy Sue after the lady who first helped us find our way around our new home, town and state) in all her digital wisdom can’t find everything. Sometimes, as on the above-pictured occasion, she has no more clue where her driver and passengers are than they do. And you know, it’s kind of amusing to me. Not only does it amuse me to look at the GPS screen and see it telling me that I am a little red arrow flying through the air in the vastness of uncharted space, but it’s weirdly reassuring to me that my lack of omniscience is far from unique in this world. All the same, I do appreciate Peggy Sue’s selfless assistance when it’s needed and available.photoOn the other hand, there’s plenty to be said for going forward without knowing what comes next. In life, it’s just plain inevitable–prescience of any sort is in mighty short supply. On holiday, going with the flow is often the perfect way to have a rich and full adventure, and even the occasional mishaps stand a chance of being fodder for both present delight and reminiscent hilarity. On the pictured ‘flight’ across uncharted Texas territory, my spouse and I were so happily absorbed in relishing the sights along the unknown way that we both failed to notice one of our other digital auto-assistants signaling us that the supply of petrol was diminishing, until it was seriously questionable whether we’d make it to a gas station before the tank ran dry. We knew we were in the vicinity of Seguin (a place we’d been through a few weeks ago) and crossed our fingers that following the intermittent signs to town would get us to a refilled tank in time. Not only did we make it in time, we had a trip in a time machine on the strength of that refueling. The little bit we’ve seen of Seguin has a remarkably somnolent sense of being stuck in time, and not even strictly one single point in time but rather as though everyone in the whole town has dragged his or her weathered boots every step of the way through its history, and everyone in turn has stopped off at a different spot in the past before picking up speed and rejoining the flow of time. Past and present meander in and out of each other and the buildings and land around Seguin and beckon us, in our turn, to slow down and enjoy the oddity of being off the map and off the tow rope of time simultaneously.

photoWe didn’t stop quite long enough to buy wrestling tickets, mind you, but the lure of the unique and the mystery of moving ahead without any inkling of what might lie ahead kept us rolling along all the happier when we were securely back on a full tank (once we found one of those vintage petrol pumps that was fully functional and deciphered the toothless ramblings of the guy sitting in his lawn chair ‘instructing’ us through our transaction from across the lot). If we hadn’t been to Seguin, we’d never have experienced its time-capsule marvels, potted around wondering how on earth a town that size could survive with so few gas stations, or gotten to see the World’s Largest Pecan, a sculpture on the lawn of City Hall that is probably really about the second or third largest representation of said nut in the US and possibly about the second or third least decorative sculpture (sorry, Seguin!) upon which any town proudly bases a promotional motto. Strange? A tad. Stuff I could easily have lived a long and healthy life without seeing or experiencing? Perhaps. But I’ve no regrets that our particular turns in the road took us there and led us to all of that fun, plenty entertaining even without wrestling tickets.

Rising above the Ordinary

Red sky at morning: Sailors [Shepherds], take warning!

Funny, isn’t it, how we become so attached to our superstitions and assumptions about our daily experiences and expectations. If we put too much stock in signs and portents, isn’t there just a little bit of a chance that we might do the safe and predictable and wrong thing and end up so very much smaller and less interesting than we might have become had we taken a chance? Seems like it might be ever so much smarter to take a chance at growth and improvement and looking for enlightenment, don’t you think?

mixed media + textLightening Upward

Nothing do I covet,
nothing lack and
nothing seek–
except the serendipity of Light

that cuts the darkness open,
transforms blackness
to less bleak,
and with its glinting stars sweetens the night,

that makes my thoughts reach higher,
afire indeed
to reach the peak,
enlightened now, and gladly there alight.

Imagine! There could be some lovely opportunities and surprises in store for us all if we open our eyes and look for whatever light can leak through into our ordinary, dim and easily influenced expectations. At the very least, why not choose the challenging and positive and exciting interpretation when those old signs and portents show up again?

Red sky at night: Sailor’s [Shepherd’s] delight!