Paradise Has Ice Cream and Elephants

Prompt number 9 in BootsnAll’s #indie30 project:

What is the best experience you’ve ever had while traveling?

What a question. How do you choose? All the amazing, wonderful, joyful things that happen when you travel, and I can pick only one?

Okay, fine then. I pick: Eating ice cream in Spain while a man carved an elephant and threw it into the sea.

I should explain.

In the town of Las Galletas, on the island of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, there is a little heladeria by the sea. And in the town of New Braunfels, in the state of Texas, there is a house that contains my dearest friend Maria–except in the summers, when she goes home to her family in Tenerife, and then she is contained by her mother’s house in Las Galletas. Every few summers I join her there. (Because Keep Austin Weird and all that, but would you rather visit your best friend in Texas or in Tenerife? Yep, I thought so.)

The first time I went to the Canaries, about ten years ago, Maria and I set out on a warm afternoon’s mission: to walk into town and sample her favorite ice cream. We headed down the pedestrian-only shopping streets in the general direction of the sea, and ended up at the promenade beside the narrow black sand beach. “Here it is,” Maria said, pointing to the heladeria. Its sliding glass doors were wide open to let in the ocean air–and the ocean was only about fifty feet away. Tables topped with yellow umbrellas lined the promenade out front. A nice selection of helados tempted us from the glass case. This looked promising. I chose the berry-bright frutas del bosque; I don’t remember what flavor Maria chose, but we took our paper cups and our little plastic spoons and we claimed a table in front of the open sliders.

Helado. Splendid.

Helado. Splendid.

 

As we savored our ice cream (so delicious; Maria was right), we indulged in people watching: mothers herding small children along the promenade; young couples sitting on the sea wall, their arms and legs entwined; grandmothers siting in the shade of the umbrellas, trading gossip in rapid Spanish; British tourists, their pale shoulders and noses turned lobster red by the sun. And a sculptor, carving an elephant.

At some point while we were licking helado off our spoons, a middle-aged man dressed in a black tee shirt and black pants had set up an impromptu studio on the sea wall. He held carving tools, and he was using them to flick slivers of stone off a block about the size of a breadbox. What on earth? I said. We angled our chairs so that we could see better. It took us a while to determine that the emerging figure was an elephant. Animal? we guessed at first. Horse? Dog? we considered as the artist progressed. People stopped to chat with him; some bought him beers. Children stopped to guess; he teased them, told them it was a bird, a giraffe…But as his tools bit further and further into the stone, we finally saw it. Elephant!

Elephant. Also splendid.

Elephant. Also splendid.

I was delighted. I love elephants. I love Spain. I love ice cream. And I love my friend. And this moment contained all of them! Plus the black volcanic sand, the shush of the ocean, the lisping s-sounds of Castilian Spanish in my ears…and then the sculptor hopped over the sea wall onto the beach and directed a couple of his admirers to hand the stone beast down to him. He gripped it tightly, the muscles in his arms straining as he hauled it to the edge of the water–and threw it in.

Oh, no, we laughed, what’s he doing now? Was this some sort of indigenous Guanche ritual, some sort of sacrifice to an obscure pachyderm goddess of the sea?

Not at all. He was letting the waves rinse it off. That block of stone was going nowhere until he hoisted it out of the water and carried it back up to his cohorts. Once he was up on the promenade again, a young woman who had been at the center of his admirers for a long time opened her wallet and handed him a small wad of bills. She smiled once more at the elephant, wrapped her arms around it, lifted it, and staggered off under its weight.

Maria and I grinned. It had been a perfect afternoon. And here’s the very nice postscript: every time I go back to Tenerife, one of the first things Maria and I do is walk to that heladeria, choose our flavors, stake out a table, and talk about the time the man in black carved the elephant right in front of us.

Images: Helado: By Andrés Nieto Porras from Palma de Mallorca, España (Montañas de helado Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons; Elephant: Teresa (Terry) Jackson [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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How to Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag

It’s Day 7 of BootsnAll’s #indie30 project; the question of the day is (fanfare, please):

What kind of packer are you?

What? Too much?

What? Too much?

I like to think that I travel pretty lightly. Though I’m not a backpacker, I usually head overseas with a small suitcase filled with a few sets of mix-and-match clothes, a toiletries bag, extra shoes, a notebook, and a voltage adapter.

Though there was that one time, about 10 years ago, when my life seemed to be falling apart and I fled to Spain to foist my sad and broken self on my friend Maria and her family…

The night before I was to leave the States, I pulled a small suitcase out of the closet, threw a pile of clothes on the bed, and realized that there was no way they were all going to fit. So in my emotional exhaustion, I did the only thing I could:

I got a bigger suitcase out of the closet.

I crammed all my stuff inside, zipped it shut, and hauled it to the airport. Because of storm delays, the bag got lost in Madrid; though I was going on to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, my giant suitcase went to Barcelona. When the airline finally delivered it to Maria’s mother’s house the next day, my friend, knowing that I’m usually an efficient packer, marveled at its size. I just shrugged; I was too wrecked to care.

That weekend, we were to head to the north end of the island to stay with Maria’s sister for a couple of days. “I’ll give you a small bag,” she said, “and you can just take a few things and leave this one here.” I shook my tired head. “No,” I said, pointing to the mammoth. “THIS is my weekend bag.” I simply was not capable of curating clothes and sandals and putting together a weekend wardrobe. So the giant bag got hoisted into the trunk of Maria’s mother’s car along with everyone else’s little totes and duffels.

Yep, I was mocked. Yep, I didn’t wear half the things I had taken. But in the end, it was okay–the healing properties of that trip, the magic of tapas and helado in the middle of the day, the homemade wine decanted into an old Johnny Walker bottle, the drives into the mountains, the walks beside the sea, the wandering amidst the centuries-old architecture–and the ability to rest, to bask, without judgment, in the comfort of an old, deep friendship–made it all okay.

So. The moral of my packing story is this:

Travel heals; so go. Pack lightly, yes. Plan properly, yes. But if you just can’t, if you’re just too tired and sad to think clearly, if you simply have to flee the country or burst into flame, then just take a bigger suitcase out of the closet, and go anyway.

Postscript: The title of this post is from a World War I marching song, “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.” No, I wasn’t around when it zoomed to number 1 on the charts. But yes, I remember it from watching old cartoons in the 70s. It used to be a well-known piece of popular culture. But now…who knows? Thought I’d identify it for the young’uns.

Image: By BazzaDaRambler (… luggage. Uploaded by Oxyman) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Want to Be Creative? Relax. And Look Around.

Archimedes having a Eureka moment

Archimedes having a Eureka moment

Sure, it’s all well and good to talk about being creative, to agree that creativity is vitally important to success in school, to effectiveness on the job–and even to a joyful life (see Glorious Curious To-Do List and Credo, Item #2)–but here’s the fundamental question that underlies these notions: Where do creative ideas come from?

“By looking attentively at old and smeared walls, or stones and veined marble of various colours, you may fancy that you see in them several compositions, landscapes, battles, figures in quick motion, strange countenances, and dresses, with an infinity of other objects. By these confused liines the inventive genius is excited to new exertions.”

That’s our hero, Leonardo da Vinci, giving advice on “The Method of awakening the Mind to a Variety of Inventions,” from A Treatise on Painting, a volume that was assembled from his writings by his assistant and companion Francesco Melzi. The master prefaces his suggestion with an admission that students of painting might find his comments a bit unusual: “I will not omit to introduce among these precepts a new kind of speculative invention,” he says, “which though apparently trifling, and almost laughable, is nevertheless of great utility in assisting the genius to find variety for composition.”

By looking closely and losing himself in the random lines and designs of old walls and stones, Leonardo found inspiration for his masterworks. Other “inventive geniuses” discovered their creative ideas in equally odd places. In 1934,The New Yorker reported that Gertrude Stein was fond of driving around the countryside every morning, with her partner Alice Toklas in the back seat, seeking inspiration in the great outdoors:

“Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn’t seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow.”

Yep; observing cows stimulated Stein’s creativity.

Often, inventive geniuses get their creative ideas in a “Eureka!” moment, when they’re sitting around not doing much at all; in fact, the very term “Eureka” to describe such a moment comes to us from Archimedes, who stepped into his bath, watched the water rise, and realized that he could measure an object’s density by comparing its weight to the volume of water it displaced. The story goes that he was so excited by this epiphany that he leaped out of the bath and ran,  naked and dripping wet, through the streets crying out, “Eureka!”–which means “I have found it!”

J.K. Rowling was pretty much doing nothing, as well, when the idea for a story about a boy wizard came to her:

“I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head…. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one.…I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”

Rowling even credits this lack of a writing tool with helping her to develop her idea for her novel: “Perhaps,” she muses, “if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them.”

When Ernest Hemingway was interviewed by George Plimpton for The Paris Review in 1958, Plimpton asked the writer where his ideas came from. Hemingway talked about the importance of observing the world around him:

“INTERVIEWER: So when you’re not writing, you remain constantly the observer, looking for something which can be of use.

HEMINGWAY: Surely. If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen.”

“The great reserve of things he knows or has seen.” From that reserve come ideas, connections, realizations that inform all sorts of creative work. Shakespeare was of a similar mind, penning these lines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V.1. 12-17):

“The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”

The poet observes, as Hemingway did, as Leonardo did, and out of the “airy nothing” of his observations come creative ideas.

It seems, then, that inspiration comes to us not when we’re chained to our desks but rather in the in-between times, when we’re driving or bathing or wandering about. This speaks clearly to the necessity for taking breaks–for stopping our work for a bit and going out in the world, to relax, to look around, to think and breathe and absorb the landscape. The more we do that, the more material we have in our “great reserve,” and the more easily we can make connections and have realizations that lead to exciting, creative endeavors.

Image: By Giammaria Mazzuchelli (www.ssplprints.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons