doorways and other openings

Arch,  VeniceDoor Thief, VeniceRectangles & Arches, VeniceDoor, VeniceOrange, Mustard Windows, VeniceArch, Venice
Door, VeniceDoor, VeniceWooden Arch Walkway, VeniceColumns, VeniceRome_StPeters4Doorway, streets of Rome
Doorway, streets of Rome

les portes, a set on Flickr.

i’ve been composing an entry about accidental and incidental encounters that can serve as doorways and openings to new ideas, long forgotten notions, inspiring friendships, and hidden aspects of self. while writing, i remembered this collection of photos i had taken last autumn while visiting and walking through venice and rome. like the photos of benches in australia, doors and doorways became an accidental obsession that kept capturing my attention at various turns and corners. more on doorways and openings to come…


Where do we put our words that have nowhere to go? Sometimes we let them fly, either via speech or through the (too?) numerous other outlets we have readily available at our disposable — many of them instantaneous in delivery when wait time may be the prudent course. I remember one incident during graduate school when a friend of mine, out of love for me and in a protective move, had written a note of encouragement intended for my eyes only but that found it’s way to the person who was being obliquely maligned in the note. Of course, this unintentional blunder found its way back to me and I took two lessons to heart: the need to develop artful re-framing skills and the related art of silence; some causes of frustration, like fires, are best fought with a deprivation of oxygen.

But some things cry out for an audience, any audience. One such outlet might be — 17 pages of letters, notes, missives of unrequited love, anger, hurt, whimsy, and more at have been collected and curated into an ongoing collection that I can’t stop reading. That human beings hurt — become hurt and hurt one another — is not surprising, but encountering yet another account of hurt never ceases to have a sobering effect. (I’m fighting the urge to break out into a bad impression of Michael Stipe from my seated position at the local tea cafe, so instead I’ll just point out that he and his ex-bandmates were right: “Everybody Hurts.”) And in the spirit if full disclosure I will admit that a few did make me laugh…

aspiring to the french stylings of a toddler

language learning is fascinating doings… especially when you realize that as an adult who is learning or re-learning a new/foreign/second language, you are still going to be bested by the average, 4-year-old native speaker. et voila, capucine!

humble pie sure is tasty 😉

A funny thing happened…

Two months ago, after a dangerously quick Google/Yelp/Bing search, I decided to take my chances with a new hair stylist — we’ll call her Sam — because the woman who usually cuts my hair (and who has done so for the 17 years) had already left town and I was itching to be rid of at least a foot of the stuff before leaving for my Australian adventure. It was a Friday when I got this itch, the Friday before the Saturday when Irene was set to wreak havoc of hurricane proportions along the Eastern seaboard (which, as it turned out, was less havoc and more nuisance for us Northeasterners). So there I sat, as the winds whipped and occasional drops turned into a steady drizzle on the floor-to-ceiling windows on the second floor of a brownstone-turned-hair salon, on that Saturday afternoon in the black leather swivel chair as, with each snip of the shears, I slowly began to recognize myself again in the mirror. So why, two months later, I got another itch to trim up the bob I’m not quite sure, but as I reflect on my latest trip to visit Sam the stylist, it is starting to become clear that the reason had little to do with hair…

Sam is twenty-one, self-described “pin straight” hair (that a wavy-head like me can’t help but covet), considers herself to be fairly hip and edgy and changes her hairstyle and color to echo and embody these identity markers. When I saw her this week, half of the jet black  hairs had been saturated with the color of perfectly ripe pumpkin — “Halloween hair!” she exclaimed when I commented on the brightness of the orange. It was brighter when I first did it a couple of weeks ago, she said. I didn’t let her know that I had already seen the tiger stripe photo posted on Facebook. (As a rule I tend to err on the side of keeping my multifaceted, info-consumption practices fairly quiet outside of my immediate friends, who know this about me and seem to like me anyway, thank goodness!) She pointed to her roots and showed me where the color was beginning to fade to varying hues of blonde and, in some places, edging toward the color of a young tomatillo. Cool, huh? Sam asked rhetorically, as she swooshed the black drape around and fastened the snap buttons around my neck. In the spirit of polite conversation, I asked her how she was doing — actually, I asked how her day was going. This is where the morning took an interesting turn, transforming a regular haircut into something not quite nefarious, but far more engrossing and startling than I had anticipated.

Her morning, it turns out, had been anything but routine. Sam had spent the night at her mother’s house, which was almost 45 minutes away from where the salon was located in the city. I didn’t get the specifics on why she had decided to stay overnight instead of returning to her apartment that she shares with her boyfriend and which is only 20 minutes away. The reason didn’t seem important in comparison with what was troubling her at the moment. Her step-father, whom she later described as the “big guy, the protector” of the family, had left the house extremely early that morning. Sam became aware of this fact when she received a call from him on her cell phone at 9:00 am — her wake-up call. I couldn’t figure out why he was calling me instead of just coming into the room, she said as she pinned up my hair in three sections in preparation for the first cut. As it turns out he had gone to attend to her “crazy ass aunt,” her sister’s mother who had gotten herself into some kind of trouble — from Sam’s description, it seemed that the aunt had suffered what might be considered a psychotic episode, which her son, Sam’s 14-year-cousin, seems to have inherited. In fact, what began as mere small talk transitioned almost instantly into a compelling narrative when Sam worried aloud whether her young cousin was on the path to becoming a serial killer.

This initial set up of the story had taken up about 5 minutes, during which time an initial section of my hair had been cut in a manner resembling the “shorter than a trim” request I had made when we first discussed what was to be done to my hair. Much to my surprise, I found myself enjoying the feel of a bob that resulted the first time Sam had cut my hair — it was not a style that had suited me in the past but that I was embracing along with my newfound appreciation of my hair’s tendency to curl every which way. As she began to launch into the story of her cousin, however, I stopped paying attention to the cutting and my attention became instead ensnared in the various contours of this young man’s seemingly incessant dilemmas. His 19-year-old girlfriend was pregnant; he has a history of lying to family and friends and families of his friends; she described one incident that shocks me too much to document in writing; and has suffered consistent and unimaginable forms of abuse at the hands of his own parents. She paused, as if making the same connection I was in the same moment, and wondered aloud how such a boy was ready to be a father. Together in silence — I sat and she stood — we took in the weight of her question in the midst of the airy, light-filled space.

For the next 30 or so minutes I learned more details about this young man — about his older sisters who continued to carry the guilt of leaving for college while he stayed home with their mother and his father; about the grandmother who used to have some influence over him but who had also recently joined the ranks of the other adults in his life whose pleas and admonishments had little effect; about how he had gotten kicked out of more schools than she could remember; that even he knew that spending a night at Sam’s mother’s house was a temporary safe haven from the unsafe home he shared with his father; that he had begun to show signs that are associated, at least on television programs and other forms of popular culture, with sociopathic behavior (animal cruelty, steely composure). My only interruptions were to help her story along, to fill what threatened to become awkward silences of over-sharing with gentle, non-probing follow-up questions. Does he see his older sisters often? Does he go to school? Has he shown interest in any activity? Like my compulsion to eavesdrop at the slightest whiff of French being spoken, I am helpless to resist stories, especially about teens — stories about their complicated and complicating lives — helpless even, apparently, in a situation when sharp, shears are being used at lightning fast speeds in dangerous proximity to my head.

We eventually moved on to talking about the salon owner who was getting married this weekend and who was also busy opening up a new salon somewhere. She told me about a prestigious accolade she had received for her styling efforts. I learned about the new stylist they had hired and the endless search for another one to try and meet the demands of a growing salon. It was during this coda in our dialogue that I realized exactly how much of my already short locks she had lopped off. Sam’s giddiness, as she told me how much I was going to love this cut even more than the last, kept me from becoming too bothered that it was considerably shorter than what I had imagined. It is, after all, just hair and will always grow back. The same cannot be said of children who are robbed of their childhoods.

Early in graduate school, my friends and I would joke that after having peered through the specter of Foucault’s panopticon and seeing the world through kaleidoscope eyes, we could never [insert appropriate popular culture activity] without at least a glimmer of heightened awareness again. Likewise, it appears that simply “being” on sabbatical does not free up my inclination toward listening to the tales of others. I can no more turn off my deep interest in stories than my mother can resist forwarding to my email an endless supply of uplifting sayings and anecdotes. And maybe that’s ok.

I almost ended this post with the previous sentence, which would have been an incredibly self-centered thing to do and would have missed the real point that is less about a hair cut or the lenses we wear (that, if we’re open to the possibility, are also constantly evolving). What stayed with me from that morning of anything-but-routine personal grooming was the sheer force of our attachments and how we carry them with us, in both conscious and unconscious ways: the ways we embody them in how we move our hands (regardless of whether we happen to be holding very sharp instruments), change our breathing, in the dilation of our pupils, our postures — isn’t it just like our bodies to give us away. In sum, it was a humbling reminder that our stories are only partially our own and they very much live in the narrated truths and memories of others and vice versa (to very loosely paraphrase the much more eloquent sociolinguist, Charlotte Linde).

on the impermanence and the beauty of autumn

Taken near small lake in the northwest section of Central Park, Autumn 2010

john keats apparently expressed this ode to autumn following a walk. his hand written scribbles of poetic compositions — p.1 and p.2 (thank you, wikipedia!) — are especially delicious as they reveal that most writerly of dilemmas: word choice. autumn is beauty, substantial even as it is fleeting, both delicate and a beacon of strength.

To autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines[10] that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


October 20th has been enthusiastically and fondly called a National Day on Writing. I learned about this a few days ago when I started seeing the hashtag #whyiwrite appear in my twitter feed, and it got me thinking about the many possible responses to that implied question. A search for the hashtag yielded a steady stream of earnest, humorous, reflective, inspired, and inspiring results. Here are a few of my favorites:

neilhimself Neil Gaiman
Because I can lie beautiful true things into existence, & let people escape from inside their own heads & see through other eyes. #whyIwrite

jenniferweiner Jennifer Weiner
Because I love it. Because I don’t have a choice. Because it makes my readers happy. And because it pisses off the literati. #whyiwrite

MaryAnnReilly Mary Ann Reilly
Time comes into it. Say it. Say it. The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. — muriel rukeyser #Whyiwrite

LimestoneKush Matthew Maize
Therapy #whyiwrite

MrFlynnWave Rob Flynn
Why I write? Beats Algebra. #whyiwrite

kjda kjda
Because otherwise I will never know anything. #whyiwrite

neilhimself Neil Gaiman
Also it’s really fun. #whyIwrite

These responses turned my thoughts, once again, to the meditation course where writing was not allowed. My roommate, with whom I finally had a conversation after spending ten days together in silence, shared her friend’s failed Vipassana experience: he endured the silence and the stillness for 8 days before leaving. Among the reasons he cited for his early departure was an exchange he overheard between a fellow meditator and the assistant teacher in which the former requested permission from the latter to write down an idea he described as “great” and was apparently told that there were no “great” ideas.

Having spent twenty days of my life in utter silence and struggled with this same tension — namely, the fear of forever losing an idea — I understand both perspectives: the feeling of urgency when the “perfect” idea blossoms into coherent form as well as the perception that such moments are constant and fleeting and future moments of inspired prose need not necessarily suffer for the many we might miss in the present. And when people ask me to describe the hardest part of “being silent,” it is the spirit of the tweets above that come to mind — resisting the natural urge to document a precious few of the thousands or millions of electrical impulses that flutter across and in between the various parts of our grey matter and that we are cognizant of in the form of images, sensations, recognitions, glimpses, memories, inspiration, meanings, questions, and more.

In an earlier post, I alluded to the frequent bouts of paralysis that threaten to settle in and get cozy in the form of the dreaded writers block. It seems that these blocks tend to rear their ugly heads at moments of writing insecurity, as in “What could I possibly say that someone has said more eloquently, more thoughtfully, with better data or drawing on more interesting anecdotes?”  For me, these moments occur when I encounter writing that moves me in inexplicable and almost haunting ways — such as the patient writing of three writers who are in heavy rotation on my virtual bookshelf at the moment: WG Sebald, Andre Aciman, and Teju Cole. I’m thinking through a separate post about these three authors — all men, born outside of the US, whose use of the English language is captivating, illuminating, and often revelatory — but I name them here in the spirit of #whyiwrite to note that observing others’ artful treatment of words can also be freeing, almost an invitation to join their chorus of observations – large and small, shared and unique, lived and imagined – from our own horizons and vantage points. #whyiwrite

Why do you write?