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14th January

The soothing pleasure of the known

I’ve always thought of myself as an adventurous person, going to live in France at a young age and then moving to the United States and Mexico. When we travel, Felipe and I like to get off the subway at random stations just to see what we’ll encounter. We go to open air markets and bazaars, and we try local dishes in restaurants off the beaten track.


I also enjoy the appeal of the unknown when I receive files of candidates for our grants. I’m intrigued by the videos; pieces by artists from China, Azerbaijan, or Bangladesh that are often about subjects I’m not familiar with and filmed in ways that are new to me.


But lately I’ve had an urge to go back to the places I know and to repeat what I’ve done many times before. For our upcoming trip to Asia, I’ve booked the same hotel room in Luang Prabang that we’ve been to on our past trips there. I’m already looking forward to sitting on the balcony in the early morning hours and see the hills half-covered in mist while listening to the chanting of monks in the temple down the road.


It feels like coming home when the waiter at my favorite restaurant in Barcelona asks me if I want to order the same as always. And last night I started to read “A Book of Common Prayer” by Joan Didion, a novel I must have read at least a dozen times.


Unlike before, I get just as much pleasure out of describing the familiar as imagining things to be discovered, perhaps even more. Has my stock of memories grown so much in these sixty-eight years that it is beginning to inundate the number of things I can fantasize about, like an overflowing reservoir? Could that be a remnant of the pandemic, when life was restricted, and will it therefor wear off with time? Or is it simply a sign that I’m becoming old?


I used to shudder at that thought. I don’t see myself as an old man. But I’m starting to wonder what’s so wrong about being old. My friend Joep Lange wrote in a book he gave me on my birthday that growing older is a privilege denied to many; less than a half year later, shortly before his sixtieth birthday, he was dead.


Tonight, I’ll delve into my crumpled copy of Didion’s book, knowing that doing so is a true privilege.

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