Last week, a British court ruled that ethical veganism qualified as a philosophical belief under British law, and that ethical vegans deserve the same protections as those who hold religious beliefs. Consider us pleasantly shocked. And also delighted to realize that the stone-cold departments of religion and philosophy aren’t as impenetrable as we thought.
While reading this week’s interview with Joan Frank, we found ourselves mesmerized by the depth of her thoughts on travel—don’t have expectations, invite newness, take risks, embrace the disorientation and discomfort, seeing how others live helps us better understand ourselves, as well as her beautiful ideas on what makes a place home. Amazing stuff.
But our aha moment came when we learned that Joan believes travel to be the most passionate, permanent education possible. Doesn’t that sound like philosophy to you?
Kristine Morris reviewed Joan’s new collection of essays, Try to Get Lost, in the January/February issue of Foreword Reviews, and notes that “the book highlights the deeper questions lurking behind the travel urge: ‘Where should we be? Why?’”
Travel as philosophy. The philosophy of travel. We like the sound of that and just added the moniker “Professor” to our travel agent’s name on speed dial.
Enjoy the interview.
I’m really intrigued by the title of your book—it speaks to me about what I think of as being the best way to travel: to actually “get lost” in the new place—to toss out preconceived notions or expectations and immerse oneself in it. And then, allowing for a sense of disorientation, simply attend to all we see and experience with intensity, curiosity, and openness to being continually surprised by what we discover. Can you tell us what the title of your book means to you, and how you view approaching a new place?
Titles, to me, are intensely tricky terrain. Too many titles, sad to say, do their works a disservice. I’ve always felt that a title should suggest the essence of a book’s central gesture and vision—but should not clobber or stab. It should pulse faintly with talismanic mystery, with a numinous aura. I think that’s why titles discovered later, in the text of a work, often succeed best. They function as both a clue and a key.
In writing the piece about the city of Florence, Italy (“In Case of Firenze”), I wanted to express the impulse that can overcome us in a foreign city: to wade out into it without knowing much, without forethought or expectation, for the sheer adventure, inviting newness. Americans, particularly, want control, to assure safety and comfort. Inverting that reflex (trying to get lost) felt needed and right. Initially, this collection was to be titled In Case of Firenze, for the Florence piece. But that lacked punch. When the actual command, “try to get lost,” repeated twice in that essay, it drew my eye, and I knew (with sharp thankfulness) it was my title.
It seems to me that there’s a whole group of people out there who are always looking for “someplace else” to be—a personal Shangri-La, a Neverland, or on some days, maybe even another planet. This urge, this feeling that we don’t quite fit in where we are and need to find a “better fit,” can be uncomfortable. After many years of travel experience, what might you say to these people?
What might I say to people seeking a better fit somewhere? “Welcome to the human tribe!” Because it feels like such a primal drive in us: the curiosity, the longing; above all, the storytelling (to ourselves and others, even as fantasy) about Elsewhere or Yonder or The Great Far Away (the title of an early novel of mine, quoting the answer Georgia O’Keeffe gave when asked what she painted). You’ll note, I hope, that one of the epigraphs for this collection is from the song “We Move Around,” from Stephen Stills and the band Manassas. Its opening lines: “What do we do, given life? We move around.”
What is it that makes a place feel like “home” to you? Not necessarily in the sense of reminding you of the past, but in the sense of welcoming you, filling in the gaps that loneliness wants to fill, bringing comfort. Is there just one such place for you, or are there many, with each one meeting a different need? Has travel changed your understanding of the meaning of home?
What makes a place feel like home? Any answer I give here really can’t stand as a prescription or definition for others. People’s needs are too variable and complex, too subjective, too personal. The topic of what makes home is forever being parsed, and shows no signs of ceasing to compel us. For me, these are the basic elements: acclimation to a particular landscape; a familiar configuration of people and structures; basic physical, spiritual, and emotional comfort. And surrounding all this, some natural beauty. In short: a safe, private base.
We gain a lot by traveling, especially when we stay in a place long enough for it to work its way in and change us. But there’s loss involved, too—I’m thinking of how we may lose our illusions about our own country; our habits and ways of doing things that seem so “right;” “stuff” we’ve accumulated; ways of thinking that no longer serve us; the ease of the familiar; and maybe even people that we’ve been close to. If we keep moving on, we’ll shed some of the same things again. We may even learn to travel light. What have your experiences of loss and gain in traveling taught you, and has it all been worth it?
What’s lost, what’s gained, by traveling? Is it worth it? No question: huge losses and gains occur when we travel—if we are porous to them—in the form of a constant barrage of expectations being shattered, while at the same time other comprehensions flow in (the nature of time, life, humans, the earth or water upon which we stand or sail or over which we fly). I believe it’s all worthwhile, especially (but not exclusively) for the young. You have to see, internalize, and assimilate your fellow beings’ lives to better understand yourself. “One must know the world so well before one can understand the parish,” declared Sarah Orne Jewett, great friend and mentor to the immortal Willa Cather.
What was your most embarrassing travel experience? The happiest? The most meaningful?
Most embarrassing: speaking about California food to smiling administrators at an elegant French lunch, bragging that we had access to organic foods raised without preservatives. The problem (it’s happened with others) is that in French, “preservatifs” means condoms. Our hosts said nothing, but exchanged merry glances.
Happiest: standing for the very first time with my husband before the Grand Canal in Venice, having just emerged from the train station with no clear idea of what I was about to see. I felt like Dorothy beholding a full-color Oz for the first time. The water was the blue of lapis lazuli, gondolas and ferries busy along it, and the palaces lining its banks like fabulous old jewel-bedecked dowagers from a dream. Electrified, I wept. There are moments when you grasp that you’re unaccountably privileged to be able to see what you are seeing. That was one of them.
Most meaningful: After many years away, I went swimming in my favorite spot at a beach in Hawaii, where I’d spent crucially formative years establishing a self, a community, and an inkling that I might soon commence a writing life. The water felt just as it always had, as did the waves and currents and wind. It was like swimming in amniotic fluid. I marched out of the salty water, sat down on a felled log beside my bemused husband, and sobbed and sobbed: for the past, for my luck, for my dead, for the wonder, tragedy, and glory of the life I’d known. (“A joy to live with,” is how my wry husband describes his weepy mate.)
In your book, you mentioned that as you’ve matured as a writer and as a reader, you now linger over what your younger self once rushed through—descriptions of place: landscape, flora and fauna; buildings and rooms and weather; and you wrote: “Maybe place controls us because we are made from it, and we feed our remains back to it,” and that, “we owe our natures as well as our reading and writing lives” to the places, real or fictional, that formed us. What brought you to this increased appreciation of descriptions of place, and in what way has this impacted your writing? How do you make sure that such descriptions of place don’t slow the pace of your story too much?
I’m pretty sure we view time differently as we age. When we’re young, we’re impatient (no surprise). We want, in reading and writing, to rush to judgment, cut to the payoffs, savor what we consider the sexy bits—dialogue or sex scenes; definitive action or startling psychological revelation. Later, we come to understand that simply dwelling in time confers voluptuous luxury; that a setting itself conveys revelation—also a silent witnessing that is Godlike, pervasive, patient beyond knowing, like a faint vibration. These awarenesses teach. Natural beauty (however harsh or cruel) likewise teaches—a kind of chastening. (Read Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, or Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book for stunning examples.)
For my own work? Feeling a need to “plant” the reader alongside myself in the palpable thick of it, I set out to make the descriptions that urge themselves forward in my head. I can’t worry about anything beyond that. Only that it must feel right. It must feel integral. It must please me. The French have a wonderful quote from some calmly unrepentant king: “Car tel est mon beau plaisir.” (“Because such is my particular pleasure.”) I may cut parts of the writing later, but in the making, the surge must have its way.
It’s rare to find a writer who is able to simultaneously, and beautifully, grasp both inner and outer experiences and bring both to life in words as well as you do. And you’ve described how you can see stories unfurling in your mind in response to something as simple as the place where two edges of wallpaper meet. What is there in your background or past experience that inspired and nurtured your sensitivity, imagination, and ability to see beyond the superficial?
I was reared in a teacher’s household filled with wonderful books, music, paintings, and passionate reverence for art in all forms. But at age 11, I was permanently walloped by the loss of my mother, a probable suicide (sketched in “Cave of the Iron Door”). That one-two punch made me a lifelong hot mess. One editor asked me: “What’s it like wearing your organs on the outside of your skin?” In fact, I have no skin. I’m an emotional hemophiliac. But this quality proves intensely useful and effective in making art: the world goes straight into the bloodstream and comes out through our hands onto the pages.
Your book is so realistic about the dreams and illusions around travel and the gritty realities of its discomforts and cost that I could feel every nerve on “red alert;” every broken fingernail and blister; every ounce schlepped through airports, down to the weight of a single toothbrush. And laundry! “Unsurprisingly, dryers in distant lands—if they exist—are weak,” you wrote. “Do people there just walk around damp?” And yet, you still call travel the most passionate, the most permanent education possible. Why? And how might those for whom travel is not possible avail themselves of some of its benefits?
The collection tries to answer your first question by suggesting that basic human decency triumphs, most of the time, over all else. Most people are busy trying to earn a living, to feed and love their families. That’s what the young need to see, and take into their very bodies. For those who cannot travel, I’m less entitled to speak. But one of the essays in this collection remembers my time in West Africa, and how people there of all ages dreamed of places they could never see, imagining thrilling qualities those places offered that they themselves would choose, given the chance. Does a dream give nourishment? Does it make us better to imagine more powerfully?
Another of your award-winning books, All the News I Need, takes a look at mortality, among other topics. How has going eye-to-eye with your own mortality affected your urge to travel and experience new places, people, and cultures? And, as a writer, how do you look at art’s ability to keep us going when, as each day goes by, we are coming ever closer to inevitable endings, including our own?
These have long been my central obsessions. And I’m of an age now where there’s no blurring the reality of my own sharply limited time. I’ve seen others respond to this reality in many ways: escape, defiance, depression—in some cases, furious artistic production. (“The late works” of any number of artists constitute a special category, properly revered.) Try to Get Lost admits straight out of the gate that I’m less inclined to travel now. My energies have shifted: there’s a reflex to economize them, consolidate them. I’m also troubled by the carbon footprint of travel, but that’s a separate discussion.
As to art’s contribution to mortal awareness: it’s as indispensable as food. It tells me the eternal verities—the stuff people have been thinking and feeling since they could stand up and carve or shout or paint. And latterly, new, younger voices are contributing vital understandings; vital experience; powerful, distilled information. I look to art more often now, and more deeply, for the truth that abides. In that truth (however horrible) is the deep satisfaction of recognition, of knowing that a big bunch of humans, across untold swaths of time, saw and wondered together at the world we knew. In the essay “Little Traffic Light Men,” and in the collection’s coda, “I See a Long Journey,” that comprehension should ring out. It gives me relief to consider it, every time. I hope readers feel it, too.
Can we ever really “go home” again? Have we, no matter how far we go, ever really left?
Can we ever really go home again? My instinctive thought: no. Time’s a river. We can, however, hold memory close. We can wander through its rooms and meditate upon its infiltration of us. Have we ever really left? Again, my instinctive response is, at inmost levels, no. It’s always part of our DNA.
What would you most like your readers to know about you and your work? What is the message you hope they receive from reading Try to Get Lost?
My driving obsessions are with time, mortality, the mystery of our existence—the way, consciously or not, we assign moral weight and even moral agency to these concerns—and with a strange quality of inevitability about our lives’ arcs, felt both in retrospect and as a prescience.
In my stories, novels, and essays, I’ve tried to convey the wonder prompted by these givens, together with the rejoinder they imply: “How, then, shall we live?” To be exposed, growing up, to a continuum of human effort fuels my own insatiable effort to connect: to see, know, be met. By being as true to my perception of the human moment as I can—to “love the questions,” per Rainer Maria Rilke, allowing them to open out—I am taught, and hope my reader is, too. Something is felt or understood by both writer and reader that was not available when we set out.
Finally, I accept that we all long for a summarizing idea or feeling that we can carry away from a written work and share with others. For that, I used to cite Katherine Anne Porter’s description of her work as “a moral and emotional collision with a human situation.” But these days, I’m more inclined to quote the late, beloved E. B. White, whose declaration about his oeuvre I hope also seeps through all my own work: “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”