Feeling good

After my last post, and especially at the dawn of a new a year, it seems fitting to hit the reset button and start at a different starting point.

Musings to come in a subsequent post; for now, a three-part pairing of music, prose, and photography.

Music courtesy of Nina Simone, singing “Feeling Good.”

Prose courtesy of Herman Hesse, writing about trees.
(My favorite excerpts in bold)

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them,whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”

And see here for more on Hesse and trees and notes on wandering and belonging.

Photography courtesy of yours truly, taken during yesterday’s mid-afternoon walk.

20140116_153005Happy New Year!

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serenity now

i’m not a very religious person, so instead of the serenity prayer some people may be familiar with, i offer here the serenity doctrine that better reflects my current state of mind

hoochie mama! hoochie mama! 
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When the inner crazy peeks out

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

It’s one thing for your internal, often NSFW (no, not in that way) proclivities to have made a safe and comfortable home inside the recesses of your mind. I am referring here to those bits of yourself you save only for yourself and, on occasion, “lucky” family members, ie communicating while hungry (read: impatient and unabashed snapping tendencies); disliking an idea without a good, sound reason (read: there’s no way I’m working with __________) — and I’ll stop here, lest all my secrets be revealed…!

But it’s an altogether other and problematic thing when these once-hidden proclivities (read: just plain bad behavior) begin to make an appearance in the form of verbal and physical expressions that others in your orbit do not associate with their sense of you, nor you with your own sense of self.

So, the dilemma: When does preservation of one’s sanity, in which some of the crazy peeks out, trump maintenance of one’s known persona?
(and the real question: Why and how is it that some people are endlessly able to get away with behavior so egregious, it borders on pathological?)

In popular culture terms:

  • Twerk queen Miley Cyrus — sure, she’s gotten a good amount of flack, but her “youth” seems to buy her free pass after free pass, in large part because covering her flaws keeps many people employed.
  • Anne Hathaway is mercilessly eschewed in the mainstream press for being too aloof (and perhaps for not twerking enough…). Her great transgression: a reputation as a bit of a diva and not giving the press too much attention. Egad! {eye-roll}

At the precipice of the aforementioned storm is where I find myself, and the tumble downward into a frenzy of activity seems daunting and unavoidable; my natural inclination is to avoid all such madness at all costs, but I do not have that luxury at the moment. And so for the next fortnight, I will ride what I will imagine in my mind’s eye as a benevolent incarnation of Hokusai’s Great Wave — if I make it out alive, I’ll report back from other side.

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Mad dash (or, the Storm before the Calm before the Storm)

Yesterday, I awoke with a start — what day was it? Where was I? What time of which day was it?

And then, a calming thought: it was only Saturday. Despite two previous days free from meetings and human conversation — a kind of bliss that only few people can truly appreciate — it was just the start of the weekend. I was newly thankful for the holiday long weekend, into which breathing space was inserted into the days before the usually panicked-laced Sunday.

I have never fully appreciated the Thanksgiving break before — the holiday arrives at an awkward time for those who live by the academic calendar: much too late in the semester to provide the respite usually sought in the middle of October and too close to the winter break to feel like anything but a burdensome obligation to be a human being in the presence of family, many of whom cannot understand why you’d rather be sitting quietly, listening to Bach’s Cello Suites in the dark than engaging in human interaction of any type (ok, that might just be me). And, in another version of this solitude seeking, that we might relish time to attend to the many mundane items that linger, patiently awaiting proper attention (anything from writing letters of recommendation, completing revisions to articles, reading drafts of students’ dissertation chapters, to returning emails that have been languishing in your inbox).

It’s not that we solitude-seeking academic types (with newly acquired administrative responsibilities) would rather be doing any of those things, but we recognize that whole days free from meetings are like found time, blissful pockets of unscheduled time where wandering thoughts intersect with the ever-present and ever-growing todo lists, creating space for some much-needed self care — in my case, largely in the form of sleep and at least one meandering walk — within which to address these aforementioned mundane todos.

And so the mad dash of semester-end frenzy begins. December 1st. December 1st.

As the storm/calm/storm sets sail, my mind floats back a couple of weeks to the memorial service that was held in honor of a colleague who passed away this summer. Words were spoken in honor of this colleague, words that nearly brought back to life his intellectual heft and generosity, and, perhaps most importantly, his tremendous humanity. (Nearly.) How many storms and calms did he witness? Did he cause? Did he navigate? What came through most loudly — in stories, in memories, in photographs, poems, quotations, and artifacts — were the many ways this robust man embraced all contours of life. When does one learn to do this? When does one cultivate the practice of keeping the forest and the trees in perspective?

And then, this past week, a small victory. A glimpse of possibility. A hint that days, weeks, months of seeming triviality were laying the foundation for… something. And like this, a hint of humanity is restored (my cryptic recollections, notwithstanding).

So let the storms come. It must mean that there’s a calm ahead.

and enjoy the Cello Suites

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Proof it Sometimes Pays to Do Nothing — a very short story

Tuesday, 7:33 or so in the pm; if one tried, the barest hints of the passing day were still visible (or maybe that was just wishful thinking).

Groceries slung over my shoulders, nestled safely inside my unintentionally socially conscious canvas bag, I stare into the headlights of oncoming traffic and assess that I have at least a few minutes before the M11 approaches ready to take me to my destination.

I take out my mobile phone, lean against the glass wall of the bus stop, and search for a nearby Verizon store; reception is a foreign to my device. Perhaps, I hoped speculatively, they might suggest something that would put an end to the pirouettes and yoga poses I must perform in order to have a conversation inside my apartment.

And in a flash, my mobile device — the one I had just been admonishing for its lackluster performance of late — is lying on the asphalt a few feet in front of me. A fellow passenger, rushing to catch the slowly departing M7, knocks my balance and my phone and we both are temporarily startled. The screen on my misbehavin’ phone is shattered (and no, not metaphorically); thankfully, I fare better.

And then momentary panic: never have I had a broken phone and the idea of paying for a replacement was loathsome to me.

I enter the Verizon store today with trepidation, bracing myself for the dollar signs output in my future. Do you have insurance, the young man at the front entrance asks me. I’m not sure, I answer, fully convinced that I most definitely do not.

20 minutes, 3 customers, 1 paranoid toddler (who was convinced that his mother had brought him to the doctor’s office) later, I learn the following: I do have insurance on my phone; the deductible is minimal; my new phone will arrive tomorrow.

The moral of the story: apparently I forgot to either opt in or opt out of something, and for once it worked in my favor. Thank you Zeus or Hera or whichever Greek mythological figure is responsible for forgetfulness.

May everyone forget just enough for his or her own good today.

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When all my words have been stolen by the waking hours

Keeping Quiet
Pablo Neruda

(trans. Alastair Reid.)

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,

I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead

and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

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The refuge of quiet

First, I started writing to my siblings. Then I started writing to one friend, and then another friend, and then a colleague with whom I am friendly and a few friends who are also my colleagues. And each time I found myself writing a version of the same sentiment again and again:

It’s only day 1, and I’m already exhausted!

Like many schools, colleges, and universities around the country, our semester officially kicked off today. It was a day that I was dreading — not because there was necessarily anything new to anticipate (as one of my siblings noted, this would be my ##th first day of school — actual number not necessary), but precisely because I knew what the day’s activities would entail: talking, talking, and more talking.

Susan Cain, in her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts, offers an elegant yet dramatic overhaul of colloquial understandings of introverts. Long has conventional wisdom implied that introverts share certain characteristics — e.g., shyness, quiet, and even being submissive or demurring in social settings. In her book, Cain argues against this overly simplistic classification and suggests instead that introverts, too, possess qualities and abilities often associated with extroversion — e.g., out-going personalities, ability to engage in public speaking, penchant for collaboration — however the impact on them is quiet different. Whereas extroverts may thrive on and draw energy from these (hyper)social interactions, introverts, Cain proposes, actually have energy drained from them in these same activities. Thus, the performance is the same; the effect varies significantly.

When I first read them, Cain’s words and propositions comforted me. She provided language I didn’t have when students or family members would comment on how comfortable I seemed in a highly social setting, while teaching, or giving a presentation and my reaction would include some version of how little I remembered about the event. I have gotten used to the looks of horror when I freely admit that as soon as I begin giving an academic presentation, for example, I slip into a form of auto-pilot/blackout and have to trust that whatever is coming out of my mouth is at least remotely related to what the audience was promised. (So far this has worked most of the time…)

And when I read her recent blog post — Ten Tips for Parenting an Introverted Child — I instantly wished for a time machine so I could place the piece in the hands of my well-meaning parents for whom the notion that public performance was a terrifying concept was hard to comprehend. For them, like many parents, I suspect the desire was to share with friends and family the fruits of the labor they supported in the form of musical lessons, purchases of instruments, and more; for the introverted child, however, the meaning lay in the practice and not the performance. Cain’s reframing also explains why, when the situation calls for it — as in the desire to succeed in a profession that is saturated with many forms of teaching and publication, or reciting poetry in a high school french language competition — it is possible for the introvert to perform. (Only after many years, did I myself come to appreciate this disjuncture in a productive way such that now, more than 25 years after my first lesson, I have begun to re-learn the piano. Just for myself.)

Cain’s thesis also gave credence to the routine I have developed of returning to my apartment after a day like today — eleven nonstop hours devoted to meeting new students, answering questions, greeting faculty colleagues, meeting with current students, attending to administrative issues… — and feeling utterly helpless to do much more than come home, throw together dinner from whatever is lying in my fridge, and sit quietly on my sofa eating, listening to music, or watching something inane on my laptop.

Anything… Just as long as I don’t have to talk.

Happy new year!
(To all my dear friends and family who are endlessly tethered to the academic calendar.)

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Sun-day Afternoon

The song playing in my mind (and now on my laptop) is “Tuesday Afternoon” by the Moody Blues, although for the better part of three hours I was singing “Sunday afternoon” to myself.

Tuesday, afternoon,
I’m just beginning to see, now I’m on my way.
It doesn’t matter to me, chasing the clouds away.
Something, calls to me,
The trees are drawing me near, I’ve got to find out why?
Those gentle voices I hear, explain it all with a sigh.

I’m not sure what it was about a Tuesday afternoon that moved Justin Hayward to pen these words — the same could’ve been said about today, an afternoon with just the right dose clear blue skies streaked with fleeting, white clouds, with gentle breezes whispering softly and getting just a bit frisky with my hair as I strolled to a local park to enjoy one of the finest sandwiches (or, if you’re in Philly: hoagies) this side of the Atlantic. At its warmest, the temperature began in the low 60s and rose to a respectable 80 degrees — mention-worthy in late August, when phrases like “heat wave” and “oppressive heat” are the norm.

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Perhaps my pre-emptive nostalgia comes from the realization that this is my last summer Sunday of the year. Next week, this time, I will be cleaning out my office (long overdue) in preparation for the start of the coming academic year. The summer days in Philadelphia draw to an end as the slow frenzy of New York City prepares to takes it hold. The challenge this year, as it always is, will be to keep the stupid frenzy at bay.

What distinguishes stupid frenzy from, say, beneficial or even useful frenzy you ask? In simplest terms, the degree of agita that it induces. It is why I work hard to avoid all known persons during the summer (save my friends, of course); to wit — while walking out of our main building last week (during one of my 24-hr visits to the city for semester-related prep), using guerrilla-like maneuvers, I rerouted myself three times when I spotted oncoming agita from afar. Call me a coward, but I was the better for it.

Of course, an active embrace of one’s inner zen is probably the more healthy approach. I’ll work on it, and in the meantime, as summer recedes into the land of memories, the Moody Blues can soothe my soul.

 

And now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a bit more sun to be had on this summer afternoon.

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View from the top

Birth order, mental health experts claim, is not insignificant in its effect on personality and sense of self. Much attention is given to “middle child syndrome,” made popular in the States with three simple words: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!

Thankfully, a more resilient portrait of the middle child was offered in Kate’s post from earlier this year: The Littlest PA: A Story Of A Middle Child

Youngest children, it may seem, have it the easiest. Parents are tired, have too much else to focus on, thus creating many cracks for the youngest to slip between. Our so I would surmise.

I’m neither the youngest nor the middle. No, I am the eldest of three and by a good number of years. Far less, it seems, has been written and pondered about the eldest of a brood. What little I have read has focused on our ability to just soldier through and get stuff done.

But no depiction of being the eldest sibling had rung truer to me than this list posted to the Buzzfeed yesterday.

21 Photos Proving That Eldest Siblings Have The Toughest Job In The World

(#s 8 & 12 ring especially true…)

‘Tis true… we eldests so have it tough. The only thing I would add to the list is the truly challenging task of breaking in our parents. We are proverbial path clearers. It’s why we take just a little bit of credit for everything awesome thing our younger siblings accomplish — and in my case, that list is quite long.

You’re welcome, little sibs.

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Sunday morning cafe

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I get lost in words — on the page, spoken by others around me, the new ones that swirl with the old ones in my head.

Smells, sweet and savory, waft in my direction and then move swiftly away.

The occasional eye contact with a stranger; reading someone’s lips while pretending to listen intently to whatever is(n’t) streaming through my silent headphones; the random utterance or facial gesture that reminds me of my grandmother (she would’ve turned 90 yesterday).

Über concentrated forms of distraction.

Incarnations of bread and water.

Avoiding people/dogs while acting like I’m not bothered by (scared of) them.

Mind wandering, thoughts out of nowhere; a long standing dilemma eases naturally as if the answer was present all along; at peace with where I am.

This must be what church is like.

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It’s too hot

This was about to turn into a rant about heat, humidity, and the horribly oppressive weather the east coast has been suffering for the past several days…

But instead, I’ll just share a few pics from the weeks I spent in the bosom of the cooler climes of the UK (which is going through its own warm-up at the moment).

From the lovely, blustery, picturesque walk that K took us on in the Peak District, near Sheffield:

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A view of the Tate Liverpool, where I took in the Chagall exhibit:

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And a view of the pier from inside the museum:

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A beautiful sandstone temple erected in Wembley (including a couple of closeups of the carvings; all pieces shipped from India and assembled on site):

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Taking a wrong turn on our attempt to walk back from Wembley:

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And then rejoicing at the sight of the #7 bus:

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Finally, a slice of the heavens on the way back home:

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When next I am in London…

More advice from the movie maestro:

Roger Ebert’s lost book The Perfect London Walk

In which he writes, “I felt a freedom in London I’ve never felt anywhere.”

In this we are in agreement…

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A tale of two Wimbledons

Wimbledon — Take 1

Tuesday, Wimbledon Day 2. The travelers are weary, but spirited. Picadilly from Russell Square to District Line to Wimbledon transfer from Earl’s Court. The travelers are surrounded by even more spirited event-goers: faces painted, outfits coordinated, paraphernalia adorning the body.

Southfields Station. The masses alight here, briskly making their way toward the Way Out and down the road to the correct entrance. The one where those without tickets go.

Volunteers greet the newest queuers with a smile and a hand pointing then in the right direction. Crowds of people organized into an orderly line that moves slowly, steadily. Around a tent while a woman sells copies of The Guardian with a complimentary sample of sunscreen.

Suddenly the story becomes clearer. The crowds are Massive. Many thousands have already been queuing for hours.

The green flag marks the end of the line… way, way, way, way, way, way in the corner of the field. A volunteer hands out numbers to mark each arrival’s place in line, no matter how late. The time is 10:15. The situation does not look good.

WimbledonTake1

10K people ahead of us. Outlook not so good.

40 minutes pass. The travelers decide to ditch the effort and return the next day. But, not ones to waste a journey, they walk back, all 9.1 miles, from Wimbledon to Russell Square — via Wandsworth, Battersea, the Chelsea Bridge, Pimlico, Westminster, Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, and Holborn.

Whew.

Wimbledon — Take 2
A story in pictures

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Arrived at 6:15a and already 3K+ people ahead of us!

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Wimbledon crowds

MurraysAnOstrichAmirite

He may be a champion, but he favors an ostrich, no?

DjoksOnYou

Djokovic goofing around…err, practicing (in the light blue)

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The changing of the ball girls and boys

SloaneStephens

Sloane Stephens (USA)

RajivRamAndAwesomeLineswoman

My favorite and uber precise lineswoman during the Rajeev Ram – Juan Monaco match

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Requisite Strawberries and Cream

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Fans watch Roger Federer on the big screen from Henman Hill (colloquially renamed Murray Mound)

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Brighton beach memoirs

Ventured out to Brighton today to gather with some colleagues; this was the view from our Brighton colleague’s flat:

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What must be the sensation of looking out and seeing the tide ebb and flow ad infinitum just steps away?

Upon my return back to micro-flat, I happened upon a reading list that somehow felt apropos — not only of the conversations I’d spent the day having, but of the academic culture here in the UK. It’s called “Best Summer Books And Their Corresponding Drinks” (special shoutout to E, who will also appreciate the tenor of this compilation).

And so another day has passed. My erratic sleep/insomnia remains. What lies ahead? A bit of work, a handful of meetings and conferencing, and, if weather and schedule cooperate, a bit of the local tennis scene.

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Happy Solstice!

Each year the solstice creeps up as if by surprise — or maybe that’s just in my case. Solstice traditions abound, yet I am familiar with none save at a superficial level. What I do know is that on this day (June 21st) in this location (London) with an early sunrise (4:43a) and late sunset (9:21p), we are set for 16 hours, 38 minutes, and 20 seconds of sunlight.

The only question: what to do with all that daylight? Especially when the weather forecast is London-perfect: in the mid-60s (F) and sunny with a few clouds expected to join the party (see below for what the sky looks like now, as seen from my micro-flat window).

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Had I planned better, I would be on hour 5 of an eeeearly morning visit to Stonehenge rather than the sufferer of solstice insomnia (awake since just before sunrise) typing away on a chair. Ah well, no matter.

Today’s agenda then: stay outside as much as possible, wander to at least one new place, and sneak in a bit of work (but not so much that it tramples on outside wanderings), and not dwell on the “so close yet so far away” view that might have been…

Stonehenge sunrise photo, from the Clacton Gazette

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