Geographies

by Jeff Oaks

“…the most interesting travel has nothing to do with cruise lines and restaurants. It involves entry into worlds other than your own. You don’t have to go very far to do that,” says Adam Hochschild in his essay “Travel Writing.”

I’ve gone pretty far, though. I’m at present sitting in a Costa Coffee off Princes Street waiting for Waterstones to open so I can look at who’s who among the Scottish writers. Or maybe I mean, I can get a sense of what’s up with them. I’ve got a few writers to look for already–Kathleen Jaime whose essays I want more of, James Robertson’s book 365, which is a collection of short stories he wrote, one a day for a year, that mix myths, tales, history, and the present (or so I’ve been told), and a book I’ve forgotten the name of but have been seeing all over town lately–its cover has a woman and a bear afloat in a round boat. 

I’m drinking a chai latte, which I accepted although I’d ordered a caffe latte. My voice is still thin here, small, nervous, afraid of mistakes. I’m grateful to get the chai, since I like it just as well. Outside, it may or may not rain. Big gray Scottish clouds have been curdled the horizon that yesterday was pure blue. The threat of rain makes me want to stay in and sleep, but I did that a bit yesterday to burn out the last vestiges of jet lag and the work of the first week of classes and hikes through the city. There are things to see.

I am glad to say I now have one circle of Edinburgh geography in my head. If I leave the apartment and turn left and keep walking a bit, I run into the main shopping district, Princes Street, and if I turn right after the Walter Scott Memorial, I can be in Old Town and the Royal Mile (which our great guide for The Book Lover’s Tour, Allan Foster, referred to as the Tartan Ghetto), and which if I turn here or there leads me to a number of useful stores and cafes, and off of which there’s a right turn that takes me to the University of Edinburgh grounds with its bookstores and green spaces. Another turn takes me almost directly back to the apartment. As if I’ve made a journey around the world. Really, it’s a circle of comforts. 

Part of the work I’m trying to get students to do is to push out from what’s comfortable to write about and think about. This past week, we’ve worked on the uses of description, making self-inventories, and practicing associative thinking. They’ve all been writing both consciously and unconsciously about places where a thing or place opens up a world of possibilities. No doubt this is due to all the fantasies they’ve read or seen–Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe, Outlanders, Highlander, James Bond–which haunt this city. Some of them have been surprised at the things that have appeared as they wrote.

I don’t believe in the idea that art must always shock or disturb. There are arts that return us to ourselves in ways not necessarily conservative or nostalgic. There are arts that can re sharpen us when we’ve grown dull from a lack of challenge. The shock might be how far away we’ve grown from our original goals, I suppose. Not all art needs to outrage or court controversy to be powerful. One student wrote about a fern growing, as many plants do here, in a crack in a concrete wall. He leaned into that small plant’s struggle to survive and smelled an enormous forest. 

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