The tagline that I wrote for this blog when I started it 18 months ago is my tribute to John Dewey, a simple statement that I really believe: because no matter where it happens, school is always in session. School, the “place” we go to learn things from and with other people, transcends walls and calendar days. It is always happening and we are always learning something.
I was reminded of all of this and more when I traveled to France two weeks ago. As I usually do, I brought several books with me, books I really wanted to read. I looked forward to the more than 24 hours I would have to read on the planes and trains we were going to take. But each time I tried to read, I found my attention drifting. Book after book fell into my lap half read and abandoned. I was incapable of doing anything other than looking out of windows, looking through my camera lens, watching the world around me.
Yes, at the end of the school year I am tired — of talking, of thinking, of reading. But it was something else too. There was much to see that actually felt new. In Paris, teeming bags of garbage lined the streets and there was graffiti in surprising places. Armed police men and women stood nearby, watching, ready for what I didn’t dare think about. In Avignon, Syrian refugees stood fully clothed in the hot sun at intersections holding signs pleading for help. News about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union compounded a feeling that things are changing, and not necessarily for the better. Trash, refugees, security risks, crowds, exits, break ups, everything on the brink of something less familiar and seemingly less good.
Of course, much of what I was seeing was actually quite old – perhaps just less familiar to me. Conflict and concern about security goes as far back as humanity itself. Many of the places I visited were once walled off — the stone city of Gordes. Roman ruins in Glanum. The hospital at St. Remy where Van Gogh painted and tried to heal. I found myself taking pictures of spaces and places without people. Windows and doorways, walls and lavender fields, crumbling walls. The specter of the rise and fall of cultures, clashes among the people within them, was all around.
At my parents’ house for a quick pit stop on the way home from France, I woke up early and found myself lingering at their bookshelves. I finally wanted something to read after so much watching, reflecting, resting, thinking. One book shimmered at me, asking me to pick it up. It was Sebold’s Austerlitz, which I knew nothing about and had never read. I opened it up. There was a bookmark with someone’s handwriting on it. It was in the handwriting of my father’s friends from Belgium, where he had studied in the 1960s. It said, “Whenever you pick up this book, I will be with you.” Tears immediately came to my eyes. Yes, I was tired from travel. But my tears were the result of something more. I began reading Sebold’s book and felt my heart in my chest.
Austerlitz is about a man who is searching for his identity. His name is Jacques Austerlitz, and he travels Europe studying cities, fortifications, and architecture – but really he studies cultures, people, and conflicts. Eventually (spoiler alert) we learn that he was one of the lucky children to have been saved from the fires of the Holocaust – sent to England on a kindertransport, he lived a safe and other life while his family perished presumably at Auschwitz.
The character, Austerlitz, is fictional, created by Sebold to express and make real the unreal reality that people can and do disappear from our memory, individual and collective. Books have the power to startle and stun us with their artistry. But books are not the source of understanding — we are, as readers. In order to make real sense of books, and the worlds in which they are created, we sometimes need to look up, listen, and take note of the life and times we live in.
We are called to read — words, yes, but perhaps more importantly, the light in the trees, the faces of the people we love and know, the changes in atmosphere as we travel to new and old places and spaces.