Tuesday, August 26, 2014


FIND OUT WHAT LOVE IS” beckoned a sign on London’s South Bank, along the Thames.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist the invitation, but the building was closed for the night, & I was leaving London the following morning, so I’d have to find out for myself the secret to love.

My lovely niece, Natty, & her boyfriend had taken me for a walking tour of downtown London at night. It was two days before I boarded the MV Explorer in Southampton. We wandered around the South Bank & discovered the invitation to love was a summer event consisting of art installations, romantic black & white Hollywood movies, rides, activities, & even outdoor furniture designed to bring people closer together. The goal was to explore love—not just romantic love, but the more sophisticated, complex, subtle ways the ancient Greeks viewed love. At least six kinds, each offering us food for thought:

1.     Eros. Sexual passion. Not seen as totally positive, but more as an uncontrollable force that can lead to danger & madness.
2.     Philia. Deep friendship. Loyalty, camaraderie—this kind of love was valued more highly than eros, & considered more trustworthy. I’m not sure how the ancient Greeks would have viewed Facebook friends!
3.     Ludus. Playful love. The joyful exuberance of children & young lovers. A sweet innocence we should strive to recreate in our lives.
4.     Agape. Selfless love. Love for all humanity. Perhaps the highest form of love. It was translated into Latin as “caritas,” which later became our: charity. The concept of lovingkindness & compassion to all.
5.     Pragma. Longstanding love. The mature love of couples who have been together a long time & who have withstood trials, sufferings & joys … & managed to stay standing. A beautiful idea that our culture doesn’t value enough.
6.     Philautia. Love of the self. This is a tricky one because it can be split in two: 1) overwhelming love of the self that leads to narcissism, constant “selfies,” & putting oneself first at all times; & 2) a necessary, important self-awareness & tenderness to one’s self. We can’t care about others until we learn to care about ourselves.

All this recreated on the South Bank! As we explored, it struck me that I’d found the underlying theme for this voyage, & for my travel blog: to travel by sea the way the ancient Greeks did, to seek out fellow & sister humans, & in the words of E.M. Forster, “Only to connect.”

Sunday, August 24, 2014


The MV Explorer, a floating university, & my home for the next three & a half months.

We are docked in Southampton for the next few hours, setting sail at 1700 hours (5:00 pm), Sunday, August 24th, for St. Petersburg, our first port. We'll travel to fourteen countries.

I'm writing this at a coffee shop facing a pedestrian street with food stands-- my last minutes on dry land for the next week or so.

I've had a couple of days to explore a bit of Southampton, & I particularly enjoyed the Old Town near the harbor. Apparently both the Mayflower & the Titanic sailed from here. Hmmm....
Hope our voyage will be a safe one in all respects.

I was fascinated by the many mentions of Jane Austen, little plaques announcing that she went to her first dance at this hotel, or spent time with her family at another spot... kind of like "George Washington slept here."

Anyway we have all boarded the ship-- that's 620 students from all over the world, 45 faculty & staff, 14 Lifelong Learners, & 330 crew members. That's a full house, my friends. Tomorrow morning, classes begin, & just to give you a sense of shipboard schedules: while at sea, classes follow an A Day, B Day schedule. No weekends, no days off. I'll be teaching 3 courses: 2 sections of Travel Writing, & 1 of Creative Writing: Fiction.

I spent a day in London before coming to Southampton, & while there, got inspired & developed an idea about how I want to structure my first-ever travel blog. More about that in my next post.

Meanwhile it's been all about adjusting to life on the ship again. This is my third voyage, but each one is different-- the voyagers, the itinerary, your own goals & desires during the trip.

 Coming down the gangway for the first time in Southampton.

I look forward to meeting new people, forming new connections all over the world, making new friends & seeing life & our world from different perspectives. Travel is learning about yourself while you are learning about the world. And traveling by sea-- well, there's something about facing that view-- the sea & sky-- that gives you space to dream & imagine new realities & possibilities.

So ... here's to possibilities! I hope you'll travel along with me, & let me know if there's anything you'd like me to write about or anything you'd like to know! Till next time ....

Monday, August 18, 2014


Four years ago I had a major cerebellar stroke. That stroke taught me how to write.

Fear and ancient anxieties grew a dark forest between me and my writing desk. If I mustered the courage to battle those strange wild creatures who lurked in that forest and get myself, my bum, into the desk chair, the quiet blankness of that space soon filled with strangling tendrils that shook me with … Well, perhaps some of you recognize it. Sometimes such fairy-tale images help give expression to that simple little thing some folks call “writer’s block.” I never liked that phrase. It seemed to trivialize whatever it was that grabbed hold of me. I’ve spent a lot of focused time not-writing. I’d become an expert at Not-Writing.

And then I had the stroke. After the ICU, after the all the tests, after I finally came home, I trucked off to Physical Therapy three times a week. There, I learned the secret to life … or at least to the freedom of writing.

The key lies in the rhythm. Not the rhythm of the words, the sentences (though that’s important, of course). The rhythm of time — of minutes. Therapy sessions lasted an hour. One exercise for five minutes, then the therapist would stop me.

“No, I can do more!” I insisted. But they made me stop.

A minute would pass. I’d stand, ready to do more work. But the therapist insisted that I rest for a full three minutes at least. Then, more work was allowed.

Five minutes on — Three minutes off — Five on — Three off — Five - Three. For an hour. This felt very wasteful to me. I only had an hour. Shouldn’t I make the most of it? With their little five-three system, I was getting only about thirty-five or forty minutes of work!

The therapists explained: The brain learns best is small bits. When a young child sticks her hand into a candle flame for the first time, she jerks her hand back and her brain registers “burn! hurt!” and learns not to do that flame thing with the hand again. If you work your brain too hard, re-learning all these things after a major brain assault, your brain actually learns not to do the things that hurt. The key is to work just long enough, just until the edge of the hurt. Then rest. Really rest — long enough to “forget” the work. The Rhythm Principle: Wash, Rinse, Repeat. It works!

So I began to apply the rhythm-principle to my writing practice. That primeval forest, those gnarling beasts—they were all in my brain, not in front of my desk. I’d been trying to “push through” the pain through sheer grit. Now I began to treat my brain—and my self—with more respect. I set a timer. I would write for eight minutes, then reset the timer and rest for seven minutes. Three or four rounds—a one-hour writing session. I eventually got up to a twelve-three format. Write for twelve minutes, rest for three. An hour every morning. And the most amazing thing happened.

I began to write. The pages piled up. Within a month I had a whole stack of rough-written pages. It was not painful! I found myself wanting to add an hour in the afternoon. It’s hard to be really awful in just twelve minutes. Ok, some of the pages were awful. But only twelve minutes worth of awful. Rest, forget, “rinse”—the next twelve minutes were, well, the next twelve minutes. Not the proverbial Great American Novel. Just the next twelve minutes.

Find your rhythm! Pushing through can be great if it’s getting you somewhere, if you’re running high on caffeine and imagination. Those manic stints can be invigorating and hopeful. Rest will follow. Rest must follow. The rhythm works in both micro and macro versions. I’d looked for a way to be “stable”—to write consistently, in a concentrated fashion, neither flying too high nor sinking into the doldrums. What my stroke taught me is that sometimes it’s best to alternate deliberately between ON and OFF. Finding my rhythm gives permission to both work and rest, to highs and lows, to energy and weariness. And, for me at least, finally makes writing possible.

Virginia Wiles

Friday, August 8, 2014


Sixteen years ago I sailed around the world with a single bra. If you don't wear a bra, try to imagine leaving for a 3 1/2 month voyage without something you need, that you wear everyday, particularly when traveling & hiking.

We embarked on the ship in Vancouver. Two hours before we set sail across the Pacific Ocean to Japan, I searched my suitcase for a bra. What the  ... Where were they? I emptied the suitcase & stared at the mound of clothes. No bras. Not a single one.

I shut my eyes & pictured my bedroom so far away. My bras were tucked inside a satin pouch on my dresser. Why, why had I set them aside? What madness had possessed me? There they were-- my lovely rainbow of bras in cotton, silk & satin-- & there they'd stay, serenely awaiting my return.

I had 2 hours to find more bras. With my 12 year-old son in tow, I raced to a downtown street, but for some reason, I found only 1 lingerie store that carried a handful of bras as an afterthought. Strange, sturdy little bras with a red, white & blue insignia in the middle that looked like a tiny Canadian Mountie. I bought 1. I'll buy more in Japan (I told myself).

Ten days & 3 typhoons later, we arrived in Osaka. I'd washed & changed my 2 bras everyday, but the harsh ship water had already faded the Mountie. As soon as I stepped on land, I went in search of a bra.

I can't explain the scarcity of bras in Osaka. Or Saigon. Or Penang. With my son at my side (sorry, Avi, hope I didn't scar you with this quest), I searched for what was apparently the most elusive item in Southeast Asia: a bra, size 36B.

Not huge, not tiny, but medium-- right? Average.

Not in Southeast Asia. Not 16 years ago, before Victoria whispered her Secret to the rest of the world. Back then, one of these stores would have seemed like a mirage:

A grim realization soon emerged. There were so few bras because the need didn't exist. By the time we arrived in Hong Kong, my 2 bras had lost their shape, the straps were fraying, & the Mountie looked like a grizzled old man. At this port, if no other, I'd find a bra. We docked at a shopping mall, for God's sake! And I had a handwritten note in Chinese: "Bra Store".

We made our way through colorful narrow streets crammed with people to a shop that indeed displayed lingerie in the window. I handed the saleslady my note. Behind a curtain, she & another woman examined me with a tape measure. After many fervent gestures & loud exclamations, one cried, "Ah! You need Queen Mama size!"

Me? Queen Mama?

With another Chinese note, & clutching my son's hand, I ventured down the chaotic streets, including one filled with birdcages & singing birds, to a tiny shop next to a man who sold squirming eels & squid.

An ancient woman read the note & nodded. She went into a back room & eventually returned with what appeared to be a small white knapsack, crisscrossed with bands & wires. "Queen Mama," she said proudly.

It gave me an odd shape, weirdly flat yet pointed, & was so tight she stretched it with a tool that reminded me of a dentist's probe.

Friends, I bought it. I'd have bought 2, but there was only the one, waiting in storage for Queen Mama to arrive.

I had many adventures during that voyage-- I crawled through the Cu Chi Tunnels, entered a Temple in Penang where the Priest threw a basket of live snakes at me, & dined in Saigon with a French woman who had spied during the war & whose young lover serenaded us with a mournful rendition of "Love Me Tender" on his guitar.

By the time we arrived in Italy, months had passed & I'd grown accustomed to my faithful 3 companions. We'd been through a lot together.

Ten minutes in Rome & I found a lingerie shop. Another 10 minutes, & I emerged with 2 shiny new bras. No Queen Mama, no Mountie. No giggling saleslady.

Almost too easy.

On my next voyage, I forgot to bring ... well, that's another story.

In a few hours I'll leave the US for 4 months. I stare down at my open suitcase.

I wonder what I'll be in search of this time.