“Quand tu vois ton bateau partir…”

I’ve known the writing of Cynthia Haven for ages; she’s a literary blogger at Stanford, an expert on dissident Eastern European poets, and now the biographer of French literary critic and philosopher René Girard. Cynthia has been kind to me over the years, boosting my poetic follies and helping me track down scholarly sources behind the scenes, so I’m already inclined to support her work—but after reading an excerpt of her new book, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, I’m struck by how accessibly she writes about philosophical abstractions, and how sensitive she is to the tendency of human institutions to muffle or restrict truly free inquiry:

“I’ve said this for years: in the global sense, the best analogy for what René Girard represents in anthropology and sociology is Schliemann,” said the French theorist’s Stanford colleague, Robert Pogue Harrison. “Like him, his major discovery was excoriated for using the wrong methods. The others never would have found Troy by looking at the literature—it was beyond their imagination.” Girard’s writings hold revelations that are even more important, however: they describe the roots of the violence that destroyed Troy and other empires throughout time.

Like Schliemann, the French academician trusted literature as the repository of truth, and as an accurate reflection of what actually happened. Harrison told me that Girard’s loyalty was not to a narrow academic discipline, but rather to a continuing human truth: “Academic disciplines are more committed to methodology than truth. René, like Schliemann, had no training in anthropology. From the discipline’s point of view, that is ruthlessly undisciplined. He’s still not forgiven.”

I have appreciated Harrison’s analogy, though some of Girard’s other friends will no doubt rush to his defense, given Schliemann’s scandalous character—but Girard scandalized people, too: many academics grind their teeth at some of Girard’s more ex cathedra pronouncements (though surely a few other modern French thinkers were just as apodictic). He never received the recognition he merited on this side of the Atlantic, even though he is one of America’s very few immortels of the Académie Française.

I was once daunted by the numerous checkpoints that stand between academic disciplines in the humanities, and amused by how much talk of dismantling them is mere air. Girard just clambered over them:

For Girard, however, literature is more than a record of historical truth, it is the archive of self-knowledge. Girard’s public life began in literary theory and criticism, with the study of authors whose protagonists embraced self-renunciation and self-transcendence. Eventually, his scholarship crossed into the fields of anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, theology. Girard’s thinking, including his textual analysis, offers a sweeping reading of human nature, human history, and human destiny.

Cynthia goes on to say that Girard “overturned three widespread assumptions about the nature of desire and violence.” You can click through to her blog post to find out what they are, but if you’re fond of scholars who gleefully veer not just into neighboring lanes but across entire freeways of thought, René Girard may be for you—and if so, Cynthia’s new book awaits you.

“The Deadheads got their Jerry, and mom’s got her Barry…”

I’m rarely in sync with the squeaking styrofoam cogs of the news cycle, but sometimes a story turns my head, and I can write about it even after several weeks because it fits a pattern I halfway wish I hadn’t noticed.

Transport us, O muse of blogging, to England, where at the end of last month, the Manchester Art Gallery removed a painting that apparently troubled almost nobody but museum staff:

It is a painting that shows pubescent, naked nymphs tempting a handsome young man to his doom, but is it an erotic Victorian fantasy too far, and one which, in the current climate, is unsuitable and offensive to modern audiences?

Manchester Art Gallery has asked the question after removing John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, one of the most recognisable of the pre-Raphaelite paintings, from its walls. Postcards of the painting will be removed from sale in the shop.

The painting was taken down on Friday and replaced with a notice explaining that a temporary space had been left “to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection.” Members of the public have stuck Post-it notes around the notice giving their reaction.

[. . . ]

[Curator of contemporary art] Gannaway said the removal was not about censorship.

[ . . . ]

Waterhouse is one of the best-known pre-Raphaelites, whose Lady of Shalott is one of Tate Britain’s bestselling postcards, but some of his paintings leave people uncomfortable . . .

We can’t have art making generically identified “people” uncomfortable, now can we?

This story ripened and rotted fast. After seven days of ridicule, the museum put the painting back on the wall and continued to claim that the removal itself was itself an artistic act to accompany a new exhibition. No one explained why that stunt necessitated the disappearance of postcard replicas from the gift shop.

Four days later, I read that concerns about discomfort prompted a major change to the high-school English curriculum in Duluth:

A Minnesota school district is removing To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn from its required reading list because they contain racial slurs.

[ . . . ]

The decision was praised by the local chapter of the NAACP.

Call me crazy, but a town that’s more than 90 percent white is doing all students a disservice by not demonstrating to them that mature, thoughtful readers of any age can discuss fictional depictions of racism without succumbing to emotional breakdowns.

I wish I hadn’t noted so many similar stories in the past year:

Ten minutes of searching will net you many more such examples, without even considering professors getting fired for asinine comments, the toppling of statues—which, yes, are also works of art—by latter-day iconoclasts, or the policing of jokes between friends of different races in the music world.

It’s an old story, this business of people telling other people what they can read, see, say, make, or know, but one thing has changed since my teenage years. The perpetrators used to be finger-wagging church ladies. They called on TV networks, libraries, schools, stores, and museums to restrict or ban books, music, and art. They received an inordinate amount of deference and press attention while trying to stoke moral panic about comic books, rock music, role-playing games, newspaper cartoons, radio hosts, shows about liberal priests, Satanic corporate logos, or whatever other ungodly cultural mooncalf shambled past their porch. Artists, writers, and other creative souls replied, sensibly, that people who didn’t want to read or see certain things could and should change the channel or skip the museum and let fellow citizens make their own choices.

Back then, threats to wall off artists and writers from the public came from the outside. Now, however, the poles in the art world have flipped. Curators, professors, artists, teachers, readers, and students—the people we once entrusted to protect free expression or expected to defend open access to books, art, and ideas—are starting to do it themselves.

This would be an obvious post with an obvious point, except that our cultural narrative hasn’t caught up to real trends. Mrs. Prudeshrew from Spittoon Falls praying in vain to exorcise Judy Blume from the library stacks is no longer a major threat to literature and art. Scolds, censors, control freaks, and prudes are now policing words and works from within, adopting the traditionally conservative position, anathema to them until recently, that certain books and art are virtuous while others are not, requiring the most enlightened and most orthodox to draw clear lines in the putative interests of everyone else. They’re toying with newfound privileges as censores librorum, empowering themselves to determine which creative works are sufficiently inoffensive to public faith and morals to deserve a nihil obstat.

This is why humans crave power. This is how most of us use it when we get it. None of this ever really changes. The assertions of moral superiority, this impulse to nail down sinners and damn the impure, all show that church ladies can come from anywhere, even with no church in sight. I’ll be watching to see if this timidity and moral preening get worse in literary and artistic circles. I want the doors of secular institutions to stay open to unorthodox, offensive, and literally irreverent ideas, without the precondition of a single profession of faith, while I still have the ghost of a choice.

(Avert your eyes! Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, from Wikimedia Commons.)

“Take a weather-vane rooster, throw rocks at his head…”

Last winter was so mild in Maryland that I was able to hike the state’s entire stretch of the Appalachian Trail, sometimes in short sleeves. We’re paying for it this year, with weeks of below-freezing temperatures that have us swapping stories about burst pipes and heart-stopping heating bills. It’s a season for diminished expectations: I’m all too proud of having found increasingly efficient ways to strew rock salt along a 750-foot driveway in the woods.

After last night’s latest icy slap, I took a second look at a translation I made on a whim in 2014. “The Debate Between Spring and Winter” is a derivative bit of Vergilian pastoralism attributed to Alcuin, the eighth-century abbot of Tours and one of Charlemagne’s most influential advisers. At a gathering of shepherds on a sunny spring day, the personifications of cheerful Spring and misanthropic Winter snipe at each other—until two shepherds, young Daphnis and old Palaemon, decide they’ve had enough:

Desine plura, Hiems; rerum tu prodigus atrox.
Et veniet cuculus, pastorum dulcis amicus!
Collibus in nostris erumpant germina laeta,
Pascua sit pecori, requies et dulcis in arvis,
Et virides rami praestent umbracula fessis,
Uberibus plenis veniuntque ad mulctra capellae
Et volucres varia Phoebum sub voce salutent!
Quapropter citius cuculus nunc ecce venito!
Tu iam dulcis amor, cunctis gratissimus hospes:
Omnia te expectant — pelagus tellusque polusque —
Salve, dulce decus, cuculus, per saecula salve!
(MGH Poetae I, 272, 45–55)

Here’s that fragment rendered into alliterative, Anglo-Saxon-style half-lines that Alcuin might recognize, though he’d disavow the diction:

Zip it, Winter,    you wasteful shit,
And hey, cuckoo!    Come be the shepherd’s
Ol’ number-one pal.    Let’s popcorn the hillsides
With giddy seeds    and grazing sheep!
Let’s find us some fields     that are fit for siestas!
Let the bone-weary dream    under drooping green leaves,
While queued at the pail,    the pap-swollen goats
Just beg us to milk them.    Let beaks all warble
Their mashed-up salvēs    to sunny Phoebus!
Faster, cuckoo,    flap thy ass hither!
Luv, you’re the greatest,    the guest of ’em all,
And everyone’s waiting,    Earth, Sea, and Sky,
So welcome, sweet cuckoo-grace!    Welcome forever!

I’ve tinkered with this to reflect less disrespect for Anglo-Saxon scansion, but alas, the tone abides. It’s no translation for the ages, but the restlessness is sincere.

I’ve yet to spot the cuckoos that summer in Maryland, but I look after their feathered brethren year-round, providing a heated bath for chickadees and titmice and mealworms for bluebirds that boing through the yard. They chatter impatiently, ungraciously, when I refill their feeders. I should be insulted—but lately, I know how they feel.

“Joyful as the silver planets run…”

I don’t know how 2017 dwindled into twilight so quickly—but when I look back, I’m pleased by the blog-year I had. Here are the highlights, a savory literary chowder that combines a hearty base of medievalism and a dollop of poetry with a rare pinch of the personal.

While hiking the entire Appalachian Trail in Maryland, I stumbled over medievalism first at the home of a forgotten poet, then in the Gothic chapel of a widow with a penchant for ghost stories, and finally in the philosophy of the father of the Appalachian Trail itself.

I also found medievalism at the federal cemetery at Antietam, where a charming little castle may have been meant to send a message to the conquered South.

The teacher in my household helped me see that the end of Huckleberry Finn makes sense when you understand Twain’s hatred of Southern romanticism.

Scholars made obvious points about medievalism and race this year, but they’re missing the subtler stories, like the six-decade history of Harriet Tubman being likened to Joan of Arc.

What do “Game of Thrones” and ISIS have in common? According to one feminist scholar, weirdly similar assumptions about “historical authenticity” and violence. Speaking of which, let’s keep an eye on the intertwining of medievalism and nationalism in Turkey.

I was happy to praise To the House of the Sun, Tim Miller’s vast and prophetic epic poem about the Civil War. The book is a wild, quirky, humane masterpiece inspired by the world’s great religious and literary texts, and it’s perfect for readers of poetry whose tastes run transcendent and strange.

While celebrating ten years of blogging, I published a book of medieval-inspired alliterative verse about moving from the city to the country—and people bought it. (You can too; just send me an email.)

What do we do with the unrepeatable adventures of the past? If we’re smart, we aim our memories toward the future.

Another blogger turned profound loss into a lesson and gift for the rest of us.

I remembered a professor who told me to “study something lasting.” And so I have.

I wrote myself a note of gratitude for moving to a place with a sense of a community, a reminder that in dubious times, we all still need each other.

As always, thanks for visiting in 2017, no matter what brought you here, whether you left a comment, and wherever you wandered to next. I’ll keep writing in 2018; for now, here’s to a season of prosperity and peace.

“…to keep her from the howling winds.”

Last week I attended ninth-grade “gallery night” at our local high school and came away heartened. Asked to create works of art inspired by something they had seen at a nearby museum, sixty kids wrote lucid statements to accompany their exhibits, and they were required to discuss their thinking with adults who put them on the spot. I liked the countercultural lesson: that art isn’t limited to emotional outbursts or mindless spasms of inspiration.

The teacher in my home reinforces the idea in her English classes. She shows the same kids how to scrutinize poems by Whitman and Dunbar so they can map their facets, imitate their forms, and understand that writing and reading are acts of practiced thought. In recent weeks, they’ve also rafted down the river with Huck and Jim, needled the dithering Prufrock, and held vigil in hospital wards with Frederic Henry from A Farewell to Arms. Romanticism, skepticism, generosity, regret, love, loyalty, loss—part of being a kid is growing into oversized gifts, not least among them the realization that your experience, though uniquely your own, has centuries of precedent.

Unfortunately, the worst times in our lives confirm the value of these lessons. I can add nothing but a preface to this unforgettable blog post by scholar and high-school teacher David Salmanson, whose wife died unexpectedly last month:

People keep asking me what they can do for me, and I keep answering that I don’t know yet. People also keep telling me that I seem so composed and that they cannot believe that I can write and think through all of this, but I can. Indeed, I’ve been training my whole life for it, for it’s times like this that the value of a liberal arts education is revealed. Since boyhood, I’ve read and watched Shakespeare and Rostand’s Cyrano and The Bible. I’ve studied history and art and literature. I’ve done science in the labs and in the woods and I’ve stared into the deepest recesses of the universe in the dark of night with astronomers and I’ve stared into the darkest recesses of my own soul with philosophers. So when the unthinkable happened I was ready. I have 10,000 years of human history providing me examples of how to handle myself in the worst times. It’s a handy thing to have on your side.

This, then, is the true purpose of education. We are, again, in one of those moments in history where the liberal arts is under attack for being irrelevant. The calls for job training and “useful” majors is on the rise again.

Majoring in business cannot teach us how to deal with the unthinkable. It may be a path to money, but it will leave you forever poorer.

Friends of the Salmanson family have set up a fund to help with funeral expenses and a memorial scholarship that gives young women the adventure of a month-long hike in the Southwest. If we can’t avert the unthinkable, we can at least respond with condolence and compassion, and we can support opportunities for others to live, listen, and learn. Someday it may help them bear the unthinkable too.

“Die Nachbarn haben nichts gerafft, und fühlten sich gleich angemacht…”

The fall is a dubious season for gratitude. The farm stands are closing, our garden is nothing but brittle black wires, and the bald forest can no longer conceal its lack of secrets. Wants and needs grow more insistent, and we get too little daylight with which to appease them. Bills accumulate. Grades are due. The skeptic is tempted to wonder if anything follows an age of acrimony and spite, or if this is it this time.

And yet I’m not gloomy, but glad. As much as I take heart in the stark beauty of the woods around our home and the curious creatures that land on our feeders or slink round the porch rails at night, the adventure of moving here has another dimension entirely, one I’ve not written about before: the other people who live here, and how they live together well.

We’ve made our home in a large agricultural reserve less than an hour’s drive from the D.C. border. Most of the reserve was set aside by the county’s liberal government around 1980, but it’s kept viable and thriving by hunters and farmers who tend to lean conservative. This sparsely populated corner of one of the most affluent, liberal, and educated counties in the United States was once a hotbed of Confederate sympathy. Today’s locals rebel against other domestic enemies: the sprawl, traffic, pollution, and pace of the rest of the Washington area. The cause is laudable, and far from lost, and I’m heartened by what transpires on this cultural borderland, where life is neither wholly urban nor fully country. I can take you to a century-old orchard where the apples and pears are so delicious that you’ll swear off grocery-store fruit forever. The proprietors, a family with hard, gnarled roots, will greet you in camouflage pants and NRA hats, happily taking payment from city hipsters and immigrants from nearby burbs. Mutual benefit, you see, is miraculous; it makes everyone nicer.

It also makes the past less potent. When the county was sweating over a 1913 monument to the common Confederate soldier, the local family that still runs a ferry across the Potomac claimed the statue and put it on private land. Most motorists who rely on the ferry (the General Jubal Early) probably aren’t glad that Johnny Reb welcomes them to Maryland, but the next river crossing is 16 miles away, so everyone gets on with their travels, including thoughtful commuters who hand hot coffee to windburned ferry workers on frigid mornings. Nowhere is the untruth of political absolutism more apparent. A community can indeed have a Confederate statue and charging stations for electric cars and a Buddhist temple and “’Drive Your Tractor to School’ Day” when diverse neighbors value common goods: an appreciation for the beauty of parks, forests, and farms; a conception of quality of life that loathes hideous overdevelopment; and mutual pride in one of the state’s best public high schools, an institution that helps the whole hodgepodge hang together.

There’s real need here, but the community tries not to wait for outsiders, least of all politicians, to notice and care. One small but formidable charity (for which I volunteer) runs a food pantry, provides transportation for the ill and the elderly, and helps neighbors pay bills when fate has otherwise frowned on them. Hunters annually donate thousands of pounds of meat; last week, scout troops rounded up more than six thousand pounds of dry goods. One church serves lunch every day to a hundred high-school kids and feeds any hungry souls who wander in. A new charity recognizes the talents of skilled workers among us by providing free home repairs for the elderly. Sometimes the good is wholly spontaneous: Last year, after word spread that a pharmacy clerk, a single African-American mom, had fallen on hard times, this community that still leans rural and white raised $2,000 for her on social media within 48 hours.

I can’t claim this place has no flaws. Liberal regulation can be ruinously stifling; conservative resentment can be petty and crude. Some mornings, the comments on the local Facebook group are cause for despair, and I hear and see plenty to remind me that the Chaucerian pageant of human iniquity tromps through even the pleasantest towns―but almost daily, I witness the alchemy of community. It defies reason, it couldn’t be reconstituted elsewhere, and often I doubt that it’s real. I know its active ingredients: There’s liberal do-gooderism and comfort with proceduralism and bureaucracy that comes from working in nearby Washington, plus a healthy dollop of wealth. There’s a proud, practical conservativism focused on building things, fixing things, and making things grow, plus a skepticism of silly and overwrought rules. There are strong churches, nimble private charities, and a sense of civic responsibility so ingrained that a town commissioner rightly tells newcomers that it’s only a matter of time before the community taps their talents. Left unsaid is the bounty they gain in return; we figure out that for ourselves.

In years to come, we’ll all need to learn to get along with people who aren’t like us, and who aren’t inclined to like us. I’m thankful to live in a place that proves it’s possible. This isn’t the season to contemplate anything less.

“Kindled by the dying embers of another working day…”

“I’ll be surprised if it sells six copies,” I said, and I meant it. When you test the patience of readers with a poem about moving from the city to the woods, published online over the course of a year in thirteen monthly installments, it’s foolish to expect even a trickle of demand for a paperback version. A print book of formal poetry about life in the Maryland woods, inspired by Old English alliterative verse and ancient and medieval calendar poems! Almost nothing is less marketable.

Yet to my amazement, all copies in the first batch are spoken for, and I’m planning to print up a second batch.

If you’d like a copy from the next batch, please let me know! Use my email address, jeffsypeck -at – gmail – dot- com, either to send me $15 via Paypal ($20 if you’re outside the U.S.) or to tell me you’d like to pay in some other way. The price includes shipping. (To browse the first drafts of each monthly installment, click here.)

I’m grateful to everyone who took an interest in this poem when I posted it in 2015 and 2016. It was one of those projects that takes on a life of its own, consuming your creative hours even though you no longer remember deciding to start it. I rarely write about myself, and I doubt I will again—but I like to think this poem is about something quite beyond myself anyway.

Thank you to everyone who’s giving The Beallsville Calendar an unlikely second life in paperback. Like the move to the country it dramatizes, it’s turning out so much better than I imagined.

“The time has come to conquer, and I’ll provide your end…”

Back when Turkey was up for membership in the European Union, pundits wondered: What’s “European” about the Turks? Not my country, not my continent—if the question still matters, then others can hash that one out. It so happens that at least in one respect, the Turks aren’t all that different from their neighbors to the west. I was intrigued, but not surprised, by a grand burst of Turkish medievalism reported in The Economist:

In a mighty motorcade, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, descended on the sleepy town of Malazgirt near the Armenian frontier on August 26th. He came to celebrate a millennium-old victory that Turks hail as the dawn of Muslim domination of these once-Christian lands.

Largely forgotten in the West, the battle of Manzikert in 1071 saw Seljuk Turks, led by King Alp Arslan, crush an imperial Byzantine army said to be twice their size. This Turkic push into Anatolia laid the foundation for the Seljuks’ eventual sucessors, the Ottomans, who took Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, in 1453 and whose empire at its peak extended from the gates of Vienna to the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Erdogan’s commemoration of a 946-year-old battle is a bid to woo Turkish nationalists . . . At Malazgirt, he linked the failed coup to the medieval campaign.

“We faced an assault on July 15th that appeared to be a coup attempt but was actually aimed at enslaving us…[we] fought the same figures as Alp Arslan,” Mr Erdogan told a crowd of thousands, alluding to wild rumours of Western interference. He was flanked by men posing as soldiers, clad in reproduction chain mail and brandishing scimitars. Other entertainment included displays of horsemanship and archery.

[ . . .]

He has been dusting off other episodes of martial history, presiding over lavish festivities that include fireworks and a laser show to mark the Ottoman victory of 1453. At Gallipoli, he has exhorted Turks to venerate their final victory before the empire was defeated in the first world war and dismembered by the victors.

All of this is darkly, depressingly familiar. On June 28, 1989, not all that far west across the Bosphorus, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia spoke at a ceremony to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. The 1389 battle hadn’t been a victory for the Serbs; it was one of a series of defeats that left the Serbs under Ottoman rule for quite a long time. In poem and song, Serb nationalists turned the calamity into a spiritual victory, a martyrdom on behalf of Christian Europe that the West never honored or even acknowledged. To Serbs, Kosovo was holy ground: a battlefield, a birthplace of saints, a homeland pried from their grip in the Middle Ages and denied once more by the region’s Albanian Muslim majority. The battle was so meaningful among Serb nationalists that Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on its 525th anniversary. Yes, Balkan medievalism helped send millions of men to their deaths.

Milosevic’s defenders still argue that the speech he gave that day wasn’t inherently inflammatory, but it didn’t need to be. The location, the date, the conflicts brewing at the time, and Milosevic’s dramatic apotheosis by helicopter all told nationalists a story that cheered them. No one grinds axes without also honing their yearning to use them. The aspiration of Erdogan’s medievalism is the fate of Milosevic’s. That ended badly; this will too.

Diorama of the Battle of Manzikert (via Wikimedia Commons)

“Way down the street, there’s a light in his place…”

In August 2015, with little time for imagination to keep up with logistics, I left Washington and headed west, accompanying a loved one whose career was taking a promising turn. Together we made a home on an agricultural reserve along the Potomac River, surrounded by twelve acres of woods and overwhelmed by farmland, forests, small-town eccentrics, and wandering beasts.

At the time, I had just translated a medieval calendar poem stuffed to the margins with ancient lore about nature, astrology, and country labors. Somehow a tiny whim grew into a commitment as our strange new home dictated a poem of its own, and on difficult terms: I would write a new installment every month for a year. At the request of a few supportive readers who enjoyed the monthly poems as I posted them on this blog, I’ve collected the entire sequence into a 62-page paperback, the most portable form I was able to manage. (I owe huge thanks to my friend Leonore for letting me adorn the cover with a photograph I found so beguiling that it’s framed on my kitchen wall.)

I’d love to put The Beallsville Calendar in the hands of people who want to read it. If you’d like a copy, please send $15 to me via Paypal at jeffsypeck -at- gmail-dot-com, or email me to find out how to send another form of payment via mail. Please make it $20 if you’re outside the United States. These prices include shipping. I wish I could give the book away, but printing and shipping are costly.

If you’re new to this odd project, feel free to fling yourself into the first drafts of each chapter: Prologue : September : October : November : December : January : February : March : April : May : June : July : August.

The Beallsville Calendar is probably the most personal thing I’ve written. It’s also the least polished, and certainly the most indulgent. Fearing I’ve written the verse equivalent of a 24-minute drum solo, I’m tempted to hack and slash through last year’s poetic brambles—but no, I’ll let them be. This poem called me to look closely at sights and scenes that grew wild at particular places and times, and I’m glad about that. If you buy a copy, I hope you find something worthwhile in it: an image that grabs you, a notion that moves you, a passage that gives you a laugh, or something more subtle that leads to a moment of peace.

“But she knows that when he goes, he really goes…”

Twenty-five years ago, I did something I might not have considered if I’d been burdened with uncommon wisdom or more common sense: I rambled around Europe with my best friend, hauling nothing but clothes, a camera, the money in my pocket, and cassettes for my Walkman. We began with no direction, but we’ve steered by the memory ever since.

For weeks, we wandered. We hitchhiked. We let bus schedules and the number of hours till nightfall determine our actual route. We staggered through thunderstorms fifteen miles from bus stops into quiet little seaside towns. We crept with unease through moonlit medieval churchyards. We found lodging even when we didn’t speak the language, have money to spare, or smell like civilized humans. We befriended strangers who cooked us breakfast at midnight; we imposed on startled acquaintances and long-lost kin. We slept on the floors of bus stations and ferry terminals. We got robbed, we had a minor misunderstanding with law enforcement, and we babbled our way out of conflict. We met the gaze of an Irish sea captain who prophesied a dark doom for foreign pilgrims. We jumped Metro turnstiles in Paris, celebrated midsummer on a farmstead in Denmark, downed beer with a Swiss soldier, tried to sneak into a cathedral library in England, and scrambled up a hill in Scotland to watch the sun set over a cemetery on the summer solstice.

No GPS can lead us back to those places and moments in time. We covered hundreds of miles with only two or three maps and a sketchy, error-pitted guidebook―but no cell phones, no transatlantic ATMs, and surprisingly few places that took anything but cash, and rarely the coin of a neighboring realm. Clean, chirpy backpackers bounded through train stations as they flitted from city to city, cathedral to cathedral, but their fellowship never engulfed us. Greater misadventures awaited in dumps no guidebook author saw fit to recommend. Note to young travelers: If the stranger in the next bunk is moaning and wailing till morning, no one at the YMCA will think less of you if you sleep in your boots and perhaps keep a knife close at hand.

I flew home on a Saturday and reported on Monday morning to my job as an assistant account executive for a tax consultancy. From my window, there was little to look at but the nearby highway, but for the first time, the unseen world beyond it felt reachable and real.

Before the summer limps to its grave, we’ll unseal a plastic bag we’ve stowed away for nearly half our lives. It’s full of receipts, ticket stubs, and other evidence of mundane conversations that long ago gave way to myth. The past isn’t just tactile or visual; it had a scent, the hardest of memories to put into words. What unremembered mood might come wafting from those scraps? Medieval people had a nose for wonder: If they opened a tomb and were hit with a sweet, pleasant smell, they were in the presence of the sacred. We modern types love to laugh at that, but it’s easier to honor the truth in legends when you’ve lived through and crafted a few of your own.

When I see us grin in blurry photos, I’m tempted to wonder if our present circumstances live up to our long-ago hopes. No―the older and grayer I get, the more foolish that question becomes. We’ve continued to hike, climb mountains, and stumble through foreign lands, but those just aren’t the measure of life anymore. My friend now runs his own law firm, and he’s testified before Congress. Work has taken him from Nairobi to Jerusalem. He married someone who became a vital friend of mine in her own right, as are their kids. When we sit and talk, I see in their faces the past and the future at once.

Last summer, a ramble around New Jersey ended with both of us reluctantly appearing in a filmed endorsement for an Indian music store. I know nothing about Indian classical music; we just laughed and let it happen. It’s those dumb, sudden moments that feel most like youth, when happy confusion embraces the vain hope that you have an infinite series of wonderful riddles before you. Yes, something is always a few steps behind you, whispering falsehoods to lessen the joys on the narrowing pathway ahead. If you’re lucky, good people are still there beside you, and new ones have joined them who’ve heard all your stories but indulge their retelling. Listen to your own eager voice and hear what it long tried to make plain: you will never stop choosing how little difference there needs to be between looking forward and looking back.