A friend told me that the world is going to hell which sounds like a big inconvenience. He also said that in spite of this inconvenience, it’s like the powers-that-be keep giving us superhero movies to keep us distracted; but then again, he said, we keep buying tickets to them so maybe we like to be distracted, especially in these increasingly uncertain times.
It got me wondering whether all films are naturally, inherently escapist by definition.
I admit there’s a spectrum, a seemingly big difference between a documentary and an action movie, but then again to say any film is escapist suggests one person’s life and experiences are somehow more real and genuine than those of another; and more specifically, that someone watching a film, no matter the film, is having a less genuine experience than someone, say, working their nine to five.
Is there any real science in determining something like that? Is listening to a story strictly an act of removing ourselves from our own day-to-day experience, or is the act itself ultimately not escapist, since it’s technically part of our day?
The more important question may be whether it’s escapist to be enjoying the company of friends, or good music or taking a nice evening stroll and not worrying about our problems. Is it only a problem when we do more of the former at the expense of the latter, when we do more of what we want to do at the expense of what probably needs doing?
Is seeing a film or reading a book really a means of getting away from our own lives, or is it a more subtle manner in which to view our lives through the experiences of other people, regardless of whether or not that experience is fictional?
Are not the same or similar psychological forces at work when we’re hearing a friend, family member or acquaintance relate a situation happening in their own lives? How much of the act is pure voyeurism on the part of the audience, and how much is a deeper attempt by the audience to better understand itself?
The steam rose ominously from the surface. The pools were clear and strikingly blue, beautiful to look upon like the water in Crater Lake, that collapsed volcano in Oregon whose fresh water continually forms from the annual snowfall.
Crater Lake has its own volcanic history, mostly thousands of years in the past. Here in Yellowstone, of course, that history is ongoing, as its volcano is still very active; and I was constantly reminded of it from the geysers, hot springs and prismatic pools I faced that afternoon. Beautiful indeed, deceptively so. Look at them for long enough and you might feel that slight inclination to jump in. Don’t be fooled by the undeniable beauty. Contact with that boiling water would be excruciating and possibly fatal. I recalled the sirens of Greek mythology, who with their enchanting voices lure sailors to their own shipwrecked doom on the sirens’ rocky shores.
Yellowstone National Park stands atop an active super volcano. Its caldera mainly encompasses the perimeter of the park. Nearly all its marvelous and most defining physical features, like its geysers and springs, are owed to this continuing volcanic activity. The scientific consensus is that we’ll have plenty of indicators, like earthquakes, before an eventual eruption. It’s an ominous fact that’s hard to ignore.
Even so, one can ultimately learn to surrender and embrace the sheer majesty of a place so unique and teeming with life, no matter how volatile the source of that life may seem, or how violent its natural, topographical history. Here you’ll find a precious, expansive wilderness home to a wide variety of wildlife iconic to the American west. The mighty buffalo, the elk, big-horned sheep, wolves, wolverines, bobcats, coyotes, otters, badgers, mountain lions, and of course that solitary king of the mountain, the grizzly bear. And that’s just the wildlife. Yellowstone offers one of the most incredible natural landscapes in all the world that includes a vast array of geysers, Yellowstone Lake, and another one of my personal favorites, that serenely beautiful waterfall cascading down the marvelous Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
At Midway Geyser Basin, I continued past a few of the crystal-clear pools on the basin and towards a hulking mass of steam rising from the southern end. As we approached, it blew toward us like a dust storm, enveloping us to the point where we could only see a foot or two in front of us. It cleared for a flashing moment and then thickened again.
The warmth felt nice. A welcome change to the chilly mountain air of the early afternoon. We continued as the steam cleared again at random intervals for short windows of time just long enough for me to get a glimpse of what stood before us. A shot of blue, then orange and red. A wondrous vision that I might have regarded as mere fantasy were I not catching my first glimpses of it right then and there. The steam cleared, and I saw it in full. The Grand Prismatic Spring.
I never lost sight of the fact that I was walking atop an active super volcano, and yet somehow the recognition didn’t fill me with dread but with a rush of joy. My only impulse was to stay and listen and feel, for I felt as close to the planet’s core as I’d ever been and may ever be. I could see it as a threat to my own human existence, or I could view it as a natural part of the living, breathing planet that is my home.
Gratitude eventually cast out any lingering fear. I was grateful for the National Park Service, as I’ve been on so many occasions, for existing, for preserving places like this for us to enjoy and experience. The moment was made all the more poignant by the fact that I was in Yellowstone, our first national park, where I stood face-to-face with the beating heart of the earth. In my own way, I guess I did jump right in after all.
I’ve always found music to have healing powers. That’s probably why I play it and why anyone plays it, let alone listens to it. It’s what I think about when I hear classical music in particular. I think about it’s ability to heal, empower, lift people out from the darkness of their times or individual situations and believe in something enough to keep moving forward, embracing imperfection a little better than they did before, while simultaneously striving to improve.
Europe has a long history that embodies that very human struggle, as so much of it is well-documented for us to read about and learn from so that we can walk forward ourselves with a greater understanding of who we are. It’s no surprise then that classical music is so inextricably tied to European history and to a specific region in particular, whose own history proved no less volatile at the time classical music reached its creative height.
I’m talking about Central Europe; and when you consider the fact that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Strauss, Schubert, Chopin, and Liszt were all born in this region—either in Germany, Austria, Poland or Hungary, nearly all of them within the same hundred-year period, you cannot help but reflect on the state of the continent at that point in time, or at the very least, wonder whether there was something in the water. It was a time, after all, that witnessed the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon, among other historical milestones.
Anyway, it was inevitable, as I walked down the streets of Vienna on a clear and beautiful morning, that I reflected on that history. I put on my headphones and listened to Mozart’s 41st “Jupiter” Symphony, as the cool morning breeze brushed against my face and I started into town.
For anyone arriving into Vienna for the first time, pick your favorite composer, make a playlist, put on some headphones and press play. Trust me. You owe it to yourself.
I’d just arrived from Budapest very late the previous evening, so I was only getting acquainted with Vienna for the first time that morning. From the way I was strutting, classical music might have seemed to be the last thing I was listening to in favor of Bruno Mars or maybe even, by the looks of me, Stayin’ Alive by the Beegees. But no, I was listening to Mozart.
I was on a music high. Just two nights ago, I’d gone to see my first orchestra play in Budapest at the State Opera House. I knew it then, just as I know it now, that the experience was life-changing. As a musician, it kicked open the door to a universe far greater than any I’d expected to find. The musicians, of course, played in perfect harmony, with illustrious style and profound feeling, and revealed to me in the span of an hour, a world of limitless creative possibility. And yet more than anything, I remembered just how deeply the music was rooted in history, in the collective human experience.
It was in that spirit that I progressed onward to Vienna, this city that became the uncontested capital of the art form, the seat of the former Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nearly all of the musicians and composers I previously mentioned lived and worked here. In particular, two of my favorite composers who also, arguably, might be the most recognized: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Beethoven’s apartment, where he lived and worked for the better part of ten years and composed some of his most exceptional work, is in the middle of town. The floorboards still creak. The staircase is windy. The building is well-kept but still smells musty enough to make it easy imagining living there at the time, hearing the keys of a piano sounding throughout the stairwell, being played by a master, slowly losing his hearing and yet still earning his living, still finding the will to continue, as ever, perfecting his craft.
If you walk in, you’ll find the piano still remains, as well innumerable drafts and sketches of compositions, preserved in cases of glass for anyone to come in and read. For me, the experience was surreal.
I knew that Mozart’s former apartment was still in the city and available to see, but I never did get to it. In fact, I figured the more worthwhile experience might actually be in his hometown of Salzburg, stepping into the house where he was born and raised and instructed in music by his father, who himself was a musician.
Salzburg is most definitely aware of its heritage and favorite son, as the several souvenir shops around town will show; along with its “Sound of Music” fame, but that’s for another kind of trip. When you walk inside the old apartment, you’ll find a few trinkets the young Mozart would have played with, not least of which include his own violin, as well as other household items and furniture used by the family in those early years. You’ll step into the room in which he was born. You can read letters exchanged between he and his family during those years where he played for kings, clerics, and noblemen, traveling around the continent before eventually moving to Vienna.
When you hear something like that, it might seem especially preposterous even to consider that Mozart and Beethoven, each recognized globally as a genius in their own right, could still have led lives that were in any way similar to our own. But for me, that was actually the greatest souvenir. When you step into a place where someone lived and worked, it has a funny way of bringing you closer to them, rather than farther away.
These men were, ultimately, just people. It’s one very simple yet crucial fact I took away from my time in Central Europe.
Of course, greatness is a matter of perspective. But if we define it simply in finding joy and self-affirmation in doing what you love, while simultaneously creating some component of that feeling for anyone who happens to see or hear what you do, and be moved by it, inspired by it like I was hearing that orchestra play in Budapest, then maybe greatness isn’t quite as inaccessible as we tell ourselves. It takes practice and work, and when you remember that these men in creating their art likely experienced the same doubts we all experience in life, it’s something that brings you closer to both the artist and, if you listen just right, to humanity as well.
*Hey everybody, thanks for reading! Here’s one of our own personally curated playlists of classical music, made for your ultimate listening pleasure. Of course, feel free to reach out to us for any further recommendations. We’re happy to assist. Thanks again and enjoy!
The rain-soaked streets were quiet that evening. I don’t remember whether it was a weekday or weekend or whether it even mattered to anybody. I remember being excited to get to the Notre-Dame Cathedral and walk along the banks of the Seine, across its bridges and back again.
Before I reached the river, I spotted the peak of the Eiffel Tower shimmering in electric light over the rooftops to my left. I was hearing music too. People singing and guitars playing. Flames over stove tops and candlelight in restaurant windows. People were laughing, lovers young and old holding one another, kissing in the still, cold night.
Man I couldn’t believe it, but somehow this city was already turning out to be everything I ever imagined and hoped it would be, which was saying a lot.
Ever since that first evening I’ve found it difficult to write about Paris. It could have something to do with expectations and some inflated idea of what an account of my time there ought to be and sound like. Many have written of it and will continue to do so, and I’m not sure whether I have anything particularly novel to add to the ongoing conversation but I can try.
What surprised me about Paris was that it met and more often surpassed every expectation I originally had of it from years of reading stories in countless books or seeing it in film and other media. Expectations were high enough to make it seem as though disappointment were inevitable, but like so many others I too fell in love with the city. Now during what are hopefully the final days of lockdown and travel restrictions, it sits among the top of my list of places I look forward to seeing again, not too long up the road. So maybe it’s no accident that I’m finally writing this now, years after that first night, since a city like Paris represents the opposite of everything most of us have experienced for the past year.
Where many of us understandably might be at a point where we’re re-evaluating our lives and no longer taking as much for granted, Paris is a place where nothing seems taken for granted and where every detail is savored and art, beauty, fine food and good company are given the priority they deserve.
Take the parks for example. Not only are there plenty of them, but they’re all beautiful and they stay busy with groups of friends gathered there on any given morning, afternoon or evening, sitting atop a picnic blanket enjoying wine, good food and ultimately the added company of everyone else sitting across the lawn of the Champ de Mars or along the hillside below Sacré-Coeur.
Or take the restaurants and how uncommon it is to see one that doesn’t have tables out front with seats positioned side-by-side, facing town instead of each other, so people can enjoy not just the company of the person with whom they’re dining but the feeling of being out in their neighborhood and appreciating where they are and where they live.
Then again, you’re equally apt to see someone sitting alone at one of these cafés having lunch or enjoying a coffee (no laptops) and out in their city in the company of strangers, in the company of neighbors, and in the broadest sense, in the company of fellow citizens and human beings, all participants in this grand experience of life and living.
If such a person can learn to recognize this and to cherish it, they may still be alone in that moment, but I can almost guarantee they’ll feel a lot less lonely.
We’ve heard the phrase work to live, not live to work. I wonder whether to someone in Paris, the phrase might sound silly not because it isn’t true but because it’s so obviously true. For here it’s an understanding that seems second-nature, as obvious as any other common realization made generations ago and now never given a second thought.
In the days ahead, after more than twelve months of lockdowns and social distancing across the world, I’ve got a feeling Paris is about to become a lot less exceptional, at least in this regard.
I write on the backs of napkins I write on scraps of tissue paper for you ought to not sweat the fancy jet the time yet, no or the old lessons of propriety don’t stack that shelf full of fancy volumes, neither no, don’t overload the head with journals with their pages crisp and clean with the ribbons in between if you’ve got paper and you got a pen then write it down and let it all flow and ease the weight from within your head you’ll thank me in the end
I was thinking about the Headspace app, and how for me, it was the real introduction to mediation. It’s a great app for the beginner, and it does a wonderful job at making something long-considered esoteric more approachable and welcoming.
I started using it in early Spring 2016 and I continued meditating consistently for the next 2-3 years.
The experience taught me how to better handle my thoughts by adding some context and theory to what I probably already knew intrinsically—the simple idea that thoughts come and go and that there is no need to attach ourselves to them unless they are useful.
Simple enough, theoretically, though not necessarily easy to grasp.
The problem I ran into was that I got preoccupied with the notion of how I thought it should be. That is, how mediation should be and how I should be having started the practice.
This of course only led to more thinking, which inhibited me and had me second-guessing myself on matters I’d already more or less settled. How I approach my creativity, chief among them, but really a broad range of matters from how I relate to people to my morning routines, from how I dress and to my taste in music
Those hiccups might seem unfortunate, but maybe they were necessary in order to stand on more solid ground further on up the road.
I’m beginning to see how that sort of thing happens from time to time.
I think I’ll be living in Santa Fe soon picture me walking ‘long a New Mexico road that Pueblo adobe & streetlights of candlit brown paper bags on a winters night me and the moon and You standing before St. Francis cathedral yea I can see it I can see that being my little midnight ritual at the end of every Saturday evening
Political discourse like broken leaves
Stands in the shadows of laughing trees
The root of evil
Disguised as greed
Only as old as Adam and Eve
Cannot die but it must be beat, and
What comes to pass, what’ll come to be
Sings from deep within you and me.
Like a lion you are
A golden heart
As old as time
Though unborn, just thunder in the dark
Younger, less experienced
His untested mark
The test to wait
Through the blood
The great flood
Many years in the deepest recesses of Noah’s old ark
No angels for you, no
Just those in your soul
We’ll see what you do, unprotected
You’ll need help through the rain
Deep within the grain, your skin screams in pain
They may give you the whip, they may call you insane
And in the dark of the night, few will call you brave
Yet in the dark, like a lark
Goes right to your soul
In the quiet night, yea
In the murdering cold
A voice, quiet choice
Calls out, says you’re not alone
To love your brother, all you got is each other
It’s all you each will ever know.
Soon the voice dies
Some crucified, their eyes
Said to watch from the sky
You feel a need to keep the dream, carry on
Though you question why
Whether you do it, or not
Remains up to you
All you want’s your own life
Nice wife, and your own
bit of fruit
The choice seems clear, then
And it seems quick
Keep the people out, yea
It’s them that are sick
It’s them that rape, pillage
And crack the whip, indeed
A wise man knows when to quit
I won’t cast stones
I’ll just build me a wall
Better to be dressed to kill
Than prone to crawl
And yet every time night falls
Through your window view
You won’t play the fool
You want what’s owed to you
You know you’ll have it all, if you just forget
The voice in the night every time the sun sets
But rich or poor
Still you feel unborn
You got love
But who’s it for?
When you realize a sobering truth
That love itself is no great virtue
To the courage that came first
Living in a dream, still deep inside of you
You wake in a cold sweat, it’s hard to forget
All the gold you own, and the possessions you’ve kept
But you leave it all behind and step out in the night
Soon the sun’ll come a-rising and you’ll enter the fight
And each and everyone will ask you “Whose side are you on?!”
They’ll worship and abuse you, and still you’ll carry on
Through the rain, there’s a thunder
And that rain’ll come hard
Yet still, you’ll stand together
With your brothers in arms.
A few years back when I was still in Europe, people were persuading me not to go to Budapest since we’d heard news that the city was flooded with refugees seeking asylum from war-torn Syria. But I had roots there and I’d never been as to close to it as I was then. It was only a 7-hour train ride from Prague, so I decided to go.
The roots I’m talking about are through my grandfather on my mother’s side. Though I never met him, I feel like I’ve known him all my life through the stories I’ve heard and through the music–the Hungarian violin and the old gypsy csárdás, which are a type of folk dance native to Hungary made popular long ago by the Romani gypsies.
Whether it takes me to Castilla or Budapest, it seems I’m guided by that music and the unrelenting thirst for movement and experience it seems to inspire. Here I was now, years later, paying homage to my own gypsy blood, riding a train and vagabonding through Europe for close to a month already, finally making my way to a place–much like Castilla–that felt like my homeland in more ways than one.
When the train pulled in to the station I looked out the window and caught my first sights of the city. I’ll admit, I half-expected to see angry mobs raising all sorts of hell like it was the Bastille at the start of the Revolution.
Yet as I looked out, I saw nothing particularly remarkable. The station was quiet. Nearly empty. I stepped outside and saw fellow passengers leaving the train, some being greeted by friends and loved ones. I saw a few kids hanging out by the cafe and a few more outside, skateboarding around the courtyard. Whatever chaos had been unfolding in the preceding days and weeks had gone now.
I thought for a moment about the media and it’s tendency toward sensationalism, as it sometimes ignores other news for the sake of news that will keep us interested or drive up their ratings. I do worry whether it might become the boy who cried wolf, if it hasn’t already; as today I consider those who still have trouble grasping the urgency of climate change, or COVID-19 for that matter.
In any case, however things went down here, it appeared the refugees had either moved on or disappeared into the city blending in with everyone else. They were only people with the same essential needs and aspirations as the rest of us. And the more I recognized that, the more I thought about those qualities that truly defined a country.
Was it borders, or something less tangible? Maybe something not quite set in stone but in constant motion, rooted in history but still vulnerable to change by the passage of time, or by the influence of an outside world–one that can never be kept outside for too long.
If the latter was true, then I figured countries were a macrocosm of the individual human experience, which would ultimately make borders something of an illusion.
I hoisted my bag over my shoulder and stepped out onto the streets, the sky turning a bright pink as the sun set behind the hills and day faded into evening. The air had grown cool. I could hear a violin somewhere not too far away.