Monday, May 9, 2011


Since I got to Glasgow, I’ve been stopped at least twice a day by people needing directions. I barely know this city, so only once or twice have I been able to help at all. I just smile and say sorry, I’m new here, too. They smile and go on their uncertain way. I don’t mind these little encounters, but I am always tempted to return their question with mine: Why, on a busy street with scores of people passing by, did you decide to stop me?

As long as I’ve been old enough to wander around the world by myself, I’ve been a magnet for people who have lost their way. It doesn’t matter if I’m rambling around my home turf or thousands of miles away in a completely unfamiliar city – I’ll be the person who’s asked for help. I’ve always found this baffling, since I don’t exactly stand out in a crowd. I’m an average-sized, quietly dressed woman. I’d like to think it has something to do with looking exceptionally intelligent, but I suspect it has more to do with looking exceptionally harmless; also, aimless. I am an ambler by nature. Even when I have destination and an arrival time in mind, I tend to walk pretty slowly and let the things around me catch my eye. No doubt that makes me seem more approachable than the majority of people, charging along as if they were off to battle.

Ironically, I don’t often ask for directions myself. Unless I’m late for a job interview or some other important rendezvous, I actually like getting lost. There’s a wonderful little thrill in the moment when I realize that I don’t know where I am, and have no idea how to make my way back to familiar ground. It’s liberating, and creates a feeling of being wide-awake to the environment. Suddenly, I have to pay attention instead of cruising around on autopilot. Sometimes I deliberately seek the experience, in the spirit of the dérive – a concept that, if anything, has become even more subversive in our increasingly virtual world.

A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know.

From "Coda" by Basil Bunting

Wikipedia on the dérive

A Parisian Street Scene with Sacre Coeur in the distance, Luigi Loir (1845-1916)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"The trout leaps up from the water"

The trout leaps up from the water,
and if there is sun you see
the briefest shiver of gold,
and then the river again.
When the trout dies
it turns its white belly
to the mirror of the sky.

From "Damselfly, Trout, Heron" by John Engels

A Trout Rising, Joseph Crawhall (1861-1913)

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Color of Night, among other things

I am a little shocked to see that it has been almost a month since my last post. In spite of my good intentions I seem to keep wandering away from the blog. I've been literally wandering, in fact, which is one of the reasons I've neglected BitterGrace Notes. At the moment, I'm sitting in a nice little hotel in Glasgow, not far from Kelvingrove. Glasgow is beautiful now, sunny and reasonably warm, flowers in bloom everywhere--quite different from my last visit in gloomy, cold December. This is a great city in any season, though. Since I arrived last week, there have been two great global media frenzies (the Will & Kate nuptials and the assassination of Osama bin Laden), both of which seem to have left Glaswegians completely unmoved. I love that.

Before I hopped across the Atlantic, I spent a few days in Chattanooga, covering the Conference on Southern Literature for Chapter 16. (My posts are here, here and here.) It's a great conference, very small and friendly, and features members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Wendell Berry, Allan Gurganus, Dorothy Allison, Ann Patchett and Natasha Trethewey were just a few of the names on the line-up. It's held every 2 years, and any Southern lit fan should attend at least once. Mark your calendars for 2013.

The panther-wielding maenad who adorns this post is there in honor of a new novel by one of the writers featured at the conference, Madison Smartt Bell. I interviewed Bell about The Color of Night back in February, and now that the book's out I've written a review. (You gotta read at least one to find out what maenads have to do with it.) I can't recommend Bell's brilliant little book highly enough. It'll scare you and make you think, not necessarily in that order.

Furious maenad, 490-480 BCE