Walking through Javier Orfón’s exhibit El ojo de arcilla of ceramics made entirely from clay he’d harvested around the Puerto Rican archipelago was the best kind of indictment: How much do I talk about the earth without actually touching it?
Orfón created true-to-life renderings of caves, of women who keep Taíno artisan traditions alive, of ají dulce, berenjena, calabaza with a little lizard walking along its ridges—the fruits of an island made with its soil, as always. The works were displayed at Santurce gallery Hidrante close to the ground if not on the floor itself, forcing you to get low to look, as though you yourself were stalking through a cave or mining for clay in a riverbed. The vegetables were framed by the stone work of the artist’s cousin.
My astrological chart is all water and air, a touch of fire in Mercury, and I’ve been thinking about that (among many other things) since experiencing his work. What does it mean to be so rooted in a place that you dig into it, create from its dirt—not just food, but art? The farmer, the ceramics artist—I didn’t think about these as related, though I constantly want to prove to everyone that food is part of something larger, culturally and ecologically. Here, Orfón (with curator José López Serra) did just that. To view this work is to be grounded, in the truest sense of the word.
When I was a kid, I was encouraged to maintain my zest for life, which expanded with every glimpse of my precious globe and small introductions to the existence of new places. My grandpa brought me a book about the Little Mermaid back from a business trip to Japan when I was small (I still have it) and I thrilled at knowing there was a story inside the characters I couldn’t comprehend.
On the first vacation I can remember, I was 9, and we were just driving upstate. But that there were any mountains at all there was amazing to me, a person who’d only ever really been on Long Island and in New York City. I freely expressed this amazement, being 9 years old, and my dad told me “not to lose it.” We went to a rather run-down amusement park and I ran around saying, “This is the best day of my life!” and he told me, again rather ominously, “Keep having them, kid.” He was younger than I am now with two children, so I understand his perspective better from my current vantage point, but it’s true that I was often far more enthusiastic than other people about everything. The last day of fifth grade saw me recording interviews with everyone on my TalkBoy—I refused a pink TalkGirl, of course—apparently already a journalist, and I asked my teacher Mrs. Sweeney what she’d miss most about our class: “Alicia Kennedy’s enthusiasm,” she said.
At 12, I went on my first plane trip with my family to visit DisneyWorld and an uncle who’d moved to Florida. When I was 14, a freshman in high school, I went on an orchestra trip to France guided by Franciscan monks. I spent all our free time in Paris pacing the street and having a fit because a friend was just trying to hit on a cute shopkeeper and all I wanted was to go to a record store, but still: I was convinced this was the beginning of a long life of cosmopolitan travel, of the excitement of running to catch a bus in Lourdes with a plastic bag full of fries because we lost track of time. Instead, it was the last time I’d use my passport until I was 31.
This part of my life, which we can consider “the middle,” was when life attempted to beat the enthusiasm out of me, and it almost worked—it’s certainly why I have a cynical eye on the value of traveling, because all it really reflects is one’s earning power in an inequitable economic system. Between financial burdens and a relationship that went on too long, I didn’t get out much at all. But the middle isn’t important right now.
When I was 31 and used my passport again, it was to go to Spain on a trip paid for by a winemaker. The next month, it was a two-week trip to Italy with family that completely drained my meager savings (until I moved to Puerto Rico, this was the longest I’d ever been out of New York), and the next, it was to Scotland for whisky tasting.
From 2017 through my move in 2019, I traveled somewhere pretty much every month. These professional opportunities (some personal), about which the ethics were and are always dubious, suddenly began appearing in my inbox at just the right time: after my brother passed away at the end of 2016 and I needed not to wallow, not to continue having panic attacks. The way to do that, I found out, was to keep moving, to always have another trip to look forward to. Now that I’m in one place and I’m not allowed to move, I have to ask myself what the continued value could be of flying around the world when I’m not trying to outrun my grief. (To be honest, I’m always trying to outrun it—it’s still fast enough to catch me, to put me in bed.)
What do I get out of traveling? Escape from my usual surroundings, a return to my youthful exuberance—remembering what it’s like to be thrilled by a new sight, what it’s like to simply breathe new air and feel reborn. Do I deserve that? Why don’t I get that from the dirt I call home? Traveling for traveling’s sake, more than anything else, is something that doesn’t sit right with me, that I can’t quite justify. I grapple with the ethics of it and land only at the selfish answer that it gives me something I need, keeps my enthusiasm alive. It keeps me engaged at that childlike level, high on life, mentally and physically distanced from “the middle.” It feels, more than anything else, like something my brother is pushing me toward, a correction to my life he’s been making from the beyond. Or that could just be a convenient excuse no one can argue with.
There’s something about being a writer that makes going places feel less like traveling, in the grand sense, and more like simply putting one’s brain somewhere new. It’s about observing and documenting, not judging or explaining. It’s about a new perspective from an old vantage point—because it’s true: wherever you go, there you are, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll have an honest relationship to the world and its inhabitants. I’ve heard people wonder when they won’t be immediately clocked as a gringo, and it’s like, why would you ever expect that? You can’t overcome yourself but you can adjust your gaze.
(Here is where, I guess, there might be a distinction between a tourist and a traveler, though doesn’t that too have a lot of classism to grapple with? Though isn’t the most important aspect of travel the effect you have on the place you’re visiting? Can that effect ever really be positive? Is travel always selfish?)
“Most likely we travel to exist in an analogue to our life’s dilemmas. It’s like a spaceship,” writes Eileen Myles in The Importance of Being Iceland. I read it right after I first traveled alone, and this paragraph has been a prayer ever since. “The work for the traveler is making the effort to understand that the place you are moving through is real and the solution to your increasingly absent problems is forgetting. To see them in a burst as you are vanishing into the world. Travel is not transcendence. It’s immanence. It’s trying to be here.”
When I was in Madrid, the first place I went was an old sherry bar, where people were smoking and jovially arguing on a Monday afternoon. It was a thrill, a thrill for which I’d studied, making sure I’d be able to properly order, properly pay for glasses of manzanilla poured from dusty barrels. You could taste the dust. Because my understanding of the world was purely mediated through media, I imagined Pedro Almodóvar coming in and standing next to me. I walked out tipsy and happened upon The Prado, half surprised to find out it was real. In the museum, I was confronted with sculptures of the heads of Lazurus’s sisters, to whom the priest compared my sister and I during our brother’s funeral. I’d gotten away, but I was right there: that’s when I learned and internalized that lesson. I saw my grief as a burst and allowed myself to continue on.
Does having been places mean I know more, understand more? No, I simply have more stories, more routes to stories. I have more context. I went to Buenos Aires last year ostensibly to eat vegan food but what I was really there to do was put my body, my brain, in the context from which the novels of Cesar Aira and music of Gustavo Cerati came. It makes the writing better, the music more legible. I don’t know what, if any, big tourist spot I was supposed to go to in Buenos Aires, but I remember how the sun went down while I was in the museum of modern art and the way it felt to wait for a taxi on a bench in my mom’s old leather jacket. I remember how the light hit the trees, which seems to be different in every place on the planet. (What is the significance of painting or photography if not the documentation of light? I think, too, of Orfón, documenting the earth.) I remember a big early lunch at Sacro, a bottle of wine and the whole beautiful restaurant to myself before my flight.
From times in Edinburgh and Guadalajara, I remember drinking too much and staying up all night with fellow writers, taking notes on cocktails until it was clear the best thing I could do was be present to the experience. In Barbados, I recall the frustration of all I knew I wasn’t seeing. Everyone went in the ocean; I read on the beach. In Mexico City, so many novels I had read unfolded around me.
“I would embrace the fragments,” writes Andrés Neuman in the introduction to How to Travel Without Seeing, my favorite book of travel writing. He calls this work “the poetry of the immediate” and “the radical astonishment of the first time,” which requires “a certain degree of ignorance.”
“I would accept that traveling means, more than anything else, not seeing. The only thing we have is a glimmer of attention. Our small corner of happening. We wager everything, our poor knowledge of the world, in the blink of an eye. … Writing as a method of capture. A need to trap small realities on the go and interpret them in real time. Like a net that seeks to fish its own waters.”
I was watching some episode of Parts Unknown recently and Bourdain said he arrived ignorant and would leave ignorant. What we make out of endless ignorance is what matters, I guess.
When I was that enthusiastic kid, experiencing the world through reading, movies, music, magazines, I was obsessed with the contributor pages of the latter—the places where people had their headshots and glamorous-sounding bios. I wanted to be those people; eventually, I became a version of them. Every dream that comes true always feels more complicated in reality than it did in the imagination. I’m shocked to find out how forlorn I am at not being able to travel right now—how uncomfortable I am with being grounded, how restless, how sustaining I’ve found the unsustainable.
Despite my care for the earth, my love for it, it’s not in digging into home that I find joy and meaning. That’s why it’s so nice to step into the work of someone who is grounded, embedded, like Orfón—to see what I’m missing, or rather what I lack. It’s in going, going, going that I find those things. Water and air, water and air.
This, I can’t justify. This, I just have to live with. Wherever you go, there you are.
Next Monday’s newsletter will be a less personal continuation of today’s, with insight from writers and those who’ve answered my survey about travel.
This Wednesday, the paid subscriber discussion will focus on how people are thinking about travel during a time when they cannot really do so.
Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Lisa Donovan, whose memoir, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, came out at the beginning of August. We’ll talk baking, writing, and mezcal as truth serum.
Nothing—I think!!! I just wrote and wrote and wrote last week after the week prior being a week of reading and note-taking.
But! I and many other excellent people are going to be giving talks over the course of months for the German symposium by Die Gemeinschaft, called Das Symposium. Get a ticket! My talk is called “The Potential of Catastrophe: How New Narratives in Media and Kitchens Can Transform the Food System.” In it, I will thread together a lot of the ideas I’ve been publishing and writing toward in this newsletter.
Speaking of Buenos Aires and art, I really enjoyed Maria Gainza’s Optic Nerve. And I read quickly through Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Inadvertent, as a means of not diving into My Struggle, Book Two. I finished and loved Neuman’s Fracture, which is about catastrophe, ideas of home, translation, and trauma—his best novel, I think.
A lot of tacos. A lot of cashew ranch dressing that I made using basically the tahini ranch recipe from Superiority Burger, but with cashew cream in lieu of tahini, on salads. Israel, my boyfriend, made this pizza crust from King Arthur even though I told him to make the “crispy cheesy pan pizza.” But it worked out better! Because we could bake it in our new 20-inch Lodge cast-iron pan that I flipped a shit about finding at Marshall’s. A Caesar salad wrap—a ’90s throwback for Tenderly!