The importance of foolish acts, a Kafkian explanation

On Tranquility I often indulge in the luxury of early morning reading and scribbling over coffee and the quiet sound of wavelets lapping over the sides, with Beta running and jumping around for his morning workout and Kate beside me laying still in her slumber.This morning it was windier than usual and I was reading The Castle by Franz Kafka with the soundtrack of the rig whistling.

There are books that I constantly re-read because they are like labyrinths, offering every time a fresh point of view and a chance for meditative inquiry. The Castle, an incomplete novel published postumous by Kafka’s friend Alex Brod, is one of those.

The twisted snow-covered roads of this imaginary place and the grotesque behavior of the community that inhabits it make this book a literary puzzle, that sits in my memory as a real place that I like to go back to and visit, and the trip is never the same.

The following passage of the book, never really struck me as particularly poignant before, but this morning, during the umpteenth visit to the castle, I could not help but transcribe it in my notepad, amazed by what I found in it for the first time:

“And they indeed were walking on, but K. didn’t know where they were going he could make out nothing, and did not even know whether they had passed the church yet. The difficulty he had in simply walking meant that he could not command his thoughts. Instead of remaining fixed on his goal, they became confused. Images of his home kept coming back to him, and memory of it filled his mind.There was a church in the main square there too, partly surrounded by an old graveyard, which in turn was surrounded by a high wall. Only a few boys had ever climbed that wall, and K. had so far failed to do so. It was no curiosity that made them want to climb it, the graveyard had no secrets for them, and they had often gone into it through the little wrought-iron gates it was just that they wanted to conquer that smooth, high wall. Then one morning -the quiet, empty square was flooded with light when had K. ever seen it like that before or since?- he succeeded surprisingly easily. He climbed the wall at the first attempt, at a place where he had often failed to get any further before, with a small flag clenched between his teeth. Little stones crumbled and rolled away below him as he reached the top. He rammed the flag into the wall, it flapped in the wind, he looked down and all around him, glancing back over his shoulder at the crosses sunk in the ground. Here and now he was greater than anyone. Then, by chance, the schoolteacher came by and, with an angry look, made K. get down from the wall. As he jumped he hurt his knee, and it was only with some difficulty that he got home, but still he had been on top of the wall, and the sense of victory seemed to him, at the time, something to cling to all his life. It had not been entirely a foolish idea, for now, on this snowy night many years later, it came to his aid as he walked on, holding Barnabas arm.”

The foolish goal that K. achieved it was not only a mere itch that needed a scratch, but a pillar of his life, something he finds himself going back to in a moment of difficulty, following his confused thoughts during the hard walk in the snow. It was a small insignificant victory, but it was important to him, and the teacher’s blame and the hurtful consequence of K.’s act did not cancel the emotion of feeling greater than anyone in the present moment, the sense of victory over an ordinary desire,  that proves to be useful many years later.

This passage reminded me of the importance of such foolish events in life, and that what we consider lacking good sense or judgement, may be exactly what we need. Similarly, I often ask myself about the sense of what I am doing afloat on the ocean in this small boat, if what I am doing is anything but a foolish act.

I try to rationalize and find excuses, motivations, sometimes to answer other people’s curiosity, sometimes for my own dead reckoning. The easiest, maybe the only true answer is that this is what I want to do, and I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to do it. Why not?

Keeping up on an unscripted path is a difficult thing, as goals and specific objectives may fade into the background and the everyday happenings are hard to put in perspective. I look around me to find  outside affirmations that I am on the right path, to shake off doubts and fears.

Don’t we all struggle, one way or the other, to find a way in life? How can we understand if our inner voice is telling us the truth? How do we learn to trust ourselves when it’s so reassuring to listen and follow other people’s opinion?

Maybe foolish, sometimes unimportant acts can be what we truly need to walk on.

An example of this intrinsically human condition came from a tall, white-bearded guy that we once met over soft drinks in front of a gas station.

Kris Larsen struck me as an absolutely eccentric and resourceful voyager, and only after he was long gone, sailing his way back to Australia, I found out that he was not just an old sailor with rather interesting stories, but also a terrific writer, fine artist and craftsman.

Serendipity introduced me to Kris for the second time during a recent vietnamese dinner with sailing voyager, author and friend James Baldwin. He  had also met him long ago in Madagascar during one of his circumnavigations, and shared more interesting stories about this unique human being.

Later, reading  James’ article, I  found this beautiful passage of his book Bicycle Dreaming, a tale of his trip across the Australian outback on Kracken, a recumbent bike he assembled out of scrap parts:

This whole ride from Darwin had no meaning for anyone besides myself. I achieved nothing worthy, yet it filled me with pride. It’s a shame that these days you can’t just put on your shoes and go on an expedition any more. It has to have a socially relevant goal, it has to be in support of some charity, dedicated to some noble cause, well connected, word has to spread out, blog, website and school curriculum informed regularly by satellite phone, sponsors roped in. Why can’t you just stand up and say: ‘I am going because I feel like it. Because I’ve been dreaming of it for years?

I smile when I read this passage, as I also am trying to do my thing, run my own race, and even if sometimes it does not make any sense, I am confident that maybe one day, some of its foolish episodes, its unique lessons will come to aid in the moment of need or give unexpected inspiration. Or not.

In any case, I am pretty sure I will remember it as a sweet ride.

In praise of Public Libraries

Public libraries are the best places in the whole civilized world. You may think I am exaggerating here, but the service they provide is invaluable, and I am very happy to visit public libraries wherever I roam. They have always been a friendly place for me, where I can entertain myself or do some hard work, or simply pass time. In fact, during my travels they serve as refuge and nomadic workplace.

You can really enjoy libraries only if you have spare time, a luxury that few people in the world can afford nowadays. For this reason children and kids are natural inhabitants of public libraries, as well as elder people. Public libraries are one of the few last public spaces in this privatized world, you can walk in even if you have no money, and you are not invited to buy stuff. A wide range of services are available: a collection of media for any use, free access to the internet, toilets, water fountains, comfortable seats warm/cool place to rest. All for free.

Limbiate Public Library
Limbiate Public Library

I experienced libraries from different point of views, throughout my life. As a little kid in Limbiate, my hometown in Italy, I was an avid reader of Game books and mystery novels, expecially the Alfred Hitchcock presents seires, the one with the three little detectives. I clearly remember walking to the library every Saturday morning, listening to my walkman, and swap books. I was a better reader then than I am now. When the wastrel era of adolescence arrived, the library became the perfect spot to meet friends and to squander time that could have been more profitably spent studying. I was quenching my thirst of knowledge wandering around the shelves without a plan, and absorbing what was catching my attention. I have always had this feeling of wonder when facing a wall of books, with my eyes and my legs following the succession of titles. I was also there few years later when studying was not an option anymore and I had to pass exams while attending university. In the library I would feel more concentrated than at home and the presence of peer students with a common destiny reinforced the motivation to study. Finally I also realized one of my dreams: after being an user for many years I had the opportunity to work for Limbiate’s library, and there it’s where I started to deal directly with users.

Brooklyn Public Library in Greenpoint
Brooklyn Public Library in Greenpoint

Because libraries don’t make distinctions of age, race, mental and physical ability, class or income, the users of a public library constitute a rich and heterogeneous group. And that’s where a good librarian has the most arduous task. Managing the human relationship in such a diverse environment is no joke. Sometimes I think that the job of a librarian incorporates the one of a social worker, a cop, a psychiatrist, a nurse. He/she is not only a person who knows how to catalog media and knowledge and where to find what you are looking for (an incarnated Google). Librarians also have to deal with the humanity that finds refuge in this last outpost of public space.

shhLibraries are free public spaces but this doesn’t mean they don’t have rules. The most important rule, which is the fundament of this institution, is to be quiet. I find this truly amazing. You can’t have this in Starbucks or any other secular place. Everywhere else, there’s violent chatter, loud speaking on the phone, blasting music. What’s better than having the right to say <<Shh!>> to people who threaten your concentration and peace?

Beside this very important one any library has its own set of rules, which are often very different. Anyway after reading some of the Rules and regulations found online there are common (and sometimes funny) rules. Sleeping is usually forbidden and enforced by staff (as I witnessed in Savannah, GA at the local library). Now I consider myself lucky that nobody kicked me out for sleeping with my head on a book more than once during my hard study time. It probably makes a difference if you are holding a book or a newspaper, or if you simply crash in an armchair. But there are lucky exceptions. In Boulder, CO Public Libraries, it is forbidden to “down, doze or sleep in any library facility except this rule shall not apply to children“. Rules of Common Decency are requested to all visitors everywhere but some libraries gets very detailed as it happens in New York Public Library “you must wear clothing and shoes in the Library, and your body odor must not be so offensive that it disturbs others.” Lakewood Public Library, OH prohibits “loitering in the Library without making use of its materials is not acceptable. Aimless wandering through the building or anywhere on the grounds is likewise prohibited“. I wandered too without making use of the materials, and more than once, but maybe I looked like I was in search of a book.

There are so many funny rules out there, if you want to read some here is a link.

Today, in the era of Internet and E-books, public libraries are facing difficult times, as some people may think they are becoming obsolete. However there is a great difference between server stored digital media knowledge and libraries. A library exists inside a physical building, often a fine example of architecture. It has bones and muscles, but it also has heart and blood, the real people that keep alive this important institution. We surely can keep studying and reading books even without libraries, using screens instead of book pages. But we would be terribly alone, isolated and lost in a digital void. That’s why, whenever I have a chance, I go to public libraries. We all should support them.