This is the Place

In two weeks, I am flying to Rome.  I’m going because if I died without seeing Rome, I’d be pissed.  I am also going because I am very legalistic and proper, and Rome is the third in the tier of European cities that are must-see.  And lastly, I am going because I am strongly identified with Western Civilization, and I am a Christian by heritage, tradition, and my own love and practice.  Rome is, both physically and psychologically, where Western Civilization and Christianity were baked.  You can frost it or garnish them a lot of different ways, but they are what they are.

More than seeing Great Masterpieces (although I love that), what has blown me away about visiting Europe is being in the same place as someone I love… someone I love who has been dead for a long time.  

In Paris, I visited Chopin’s grave and Hugo’s apartment.  As much as I may try, listening to Chopin’s music and reading Hugo’s books in humble Kansas City, it is hard to believe that Frederic and Victor were real people.  Just people.  People who like all people had beds and noses and then needed graves.  There are a bazillion other graves in the cemetery with Chopin.  I know this because I had a hard time finding his, and I walked past a lot of them.  People are still living in apartments on either side of where Hugo lived.  There was a car parked out front with a carseat  and a sign that said, “Bebe a bord.”

I went to the Globe mock-up in London.  I thought it would be interesting and kind of silly, like a Renaissance festival, but instead it nearly brought me to tears.  All these plays were written by a person, and he (whomever he was) ran around right here in this neighborhood, quite a while ago.  I was happy just standing on the ground that Shakespeare had stood on.  It made me proud to be a human, and relieved me of any worry or competitive angst as a writer.  I didn’t need to be Shakespeare, because Shakespeare had already done that!  And he had done it so well.  I could just be myself, a bad writer, or a sometimes good writer, or give up writing entirely, I mean, whatever I felt like doing was fine.  

So other than eating European food (somehow automatically superior to everything on our continent) and drinking red wine with every meal without looking either indulgent or alcoholic, I am going to Rome to be where St. Paul was stewing in prison, writing fervent letters.  To be where Martin Luther was climbing stairs on his knees and wondering if that kind of penance was necessary or useful.

I am going to be where Keats and Shelley were.  I am too old to love like Keats, and too coarse and cynical to write like Shelley, but there they were, in love and political and Keats sick and probably sweating a great deal.  And writing and writing material for generations of flakes and English majors to swoon over.

There are a lot of dead people to visit.  The good news is that they don’t care if you visit in 1500 or 1890 or 2009.  The bad news is that so many people have lived and died in Rome that I think I will be quite busy.

The Last Frontier

On a day like today, I think about Going To Alaska.  I escaped work by trudging over to the gas station on the corner.  Slowly.  Slowly.  Keeping the snow below the edge of my sneakers, and keeping my feet under me.  I drive a stick.  I live upstairs.  I can’t be breaking my ankle.  It was cold, but I was bundled up well.  I stepped in someone else’s footprints, down the sidewalk.

One of my favorite wintertime games in elementary school followed this agenda: walk in large circles, following a pretend route on a pretend map, and speak solemnly of our preparation, progress, and hope for Going to Alaska.

My friend Eric was a valued member of our expedition.  I still see him occasionally, and he is probably also imagining himself Going to Alaska today.

In those days, children were sent outside for recess every day.  There was some windchill rule (which I never remember being enforced), and if you did not have snowpants and boots, you were not allowed out in the field on certain days, but everybody went outside.  It kept you healthy, all that fresh air.  No one was allergic to snow.  No one had asthma.  The athletic among us played soccer and softball, and nerds like Eric and me, we went to Alaska.

We learned a lot of valuable lessons on these days.  We learned to make our own meaning.  We learned to pretend like we knew where we were going.  We practiced complaining.  These are critical adult skills, whether you are Going To Alaska or Going to Buy a Snickers, as I was today.