presence of being, gift of presence

Back in the spring some time in the mid-90s, in a stroke of serendipity — and if you’re someone who’s read more than a couple of entries on this blog, you’ll know I keep coming back to that word because the strange constellation of coincidences in the ordinary life continue to… simply astound me — anyway, quite out of the blue, and happily, it would later turn out, for me, I was assigned to work the “Freire event.” This was long before the name Paolo Freire would come to have any real significance for me, but due in part to my insistence on finding work during university breaks instead of going home, I found myself ushering people to their seats and preparing folders to hand out to participants at an international literacy conference in Philadelphia. The sweet reward, in addition to meager pay, was seeing and hearing Freire speak — he passed away shortly after, but for the better part of an hour (as I remember it, fuzzily now) he spoke to a rapt audience. I am ashamed to say that I do not recall with any real clarity the words he spoke, nor can I honestly say that I learned something of note while eating my lunch in the large, hotel ballroom. What I do remember, nearly twenty years later, were the faces of the people seated around me. Some with mouths slightly agape, others who had temporarily lost the ability to blink (it seemed); what I did not fully appreciate then was the experience of seeing and hearing someone utter words and ideas that felt like a homecoming for the intellectual soul. Many in the audience, I later suspected, had grown up with, in a scholarly sense, the writings of Freire — these were people for whom “reading the world” was nascent to their being, and yet who still might have seen or heard something unexpected in the familiar narrative constructions that this septuagenerian was offering. Perhaps I am romanticizing things. A bit.

My understanding of my fellow then-luncheon-mates was renewed and refined when, last night, I had the occasion to sit in the audience as a ninety-six year old Jerome Bruner delivered a plenary address to a packed and equally rapt auditorium of conference attendees. Before the evening session began, which he shared with another speaker, Jerry, as everyone kept calling him, sat on the edge of the stage, his dark brown wooden cane lying next to him and his legs slightly swinging. When the conference organizers conferred about something off to the side, he looked around, looked up, smiled occasionally to himself — not entirely unlike a child or any of us in an unguarded moment. When he was introduced, he walked from his seat on one side of the stage to the podium on the other side without his cane. He moved somewhat slowly, but not as slowly as I was expected, I realized, thereby revealing my own assumptions about nonagenarians. I had never heard Bruner speak before, and what struck me first was the strength and energy in his voice. Had he always sounded like that, I wondered. Once we reach our late teens or twenties, have we acquired our speaking voice for life?

The words I posted yesterday were written by him, are attributed to him, however they feel — I hope you’ll forgive the unintended hubris — like mine. That is, I did not want to take credit for them. No, I wanted instead to mark my kinship with the certain order of like-minded kindreds whose understandings about the world are similarly shaped. This is different than the childlike desire to exclaim, “Me, too!” It is more akin to wondering how someone crawled into my mind. Reading Bruner has a similar effect on me to that of reading work by Maxine Greene — even if the actual words are new, are different, there is a sense of homecoming with each utterance. Even with the ideas that may feel sometimes disconcerting, at times unsettling, they are profoundly familiar and endlessly inviting of further inquiry.

This time, as I sat listening to someone speak with more than twice as much life experience as me — by which I mean, the experience of being a living human on this earth — I listened with a pad of paper on my lap in front of me and a pen in my right hand. I made jottings and drawings and underlined and starred words, while my eyes remained fixed on the looming presence in front of me. He waxed poetically, thoughtfully, and quite a bit snarkily at times, and spoke of an ongoing co-teaching gig at the NYU Law School and some new writing and questions about literature and the law that were beginning — *beginning!* — to intrigue him. I hope that when I’m 96, I’m beginning new inquiries and continuing longstanding ones, too. With his presence, it seemed, Bruner was every bit the exemplar of the notion that life is narrative; he was the living embodiment of a life, lived.

Leaving me to wonder if we will again see the figures like the ones who left indelible marks yesterday — including Bruner, Freire, Greene and Baldwin, Hurston, Foucault, and others — who might leave traces into tomorrow…

narratives matter

Firmly committed to a subjunctive view of the world wherein one is “trafficking in human possibilities rather than in settled certainties” … to pursue “stories of literary merit [that] render the world newly strange, rescue it from obviousness, fill it with gaps that call upon the reader to become a writer, a composer of a virtual text in response to the actual text.”

poem discovery

i thank proustitute for the link to this one. oh the places i’ve already been taken…

apparently, i was wrong. this link did not come from whence i thought it did… how, indeed, do we stumble onto the texts that leave deep traces… the mystery continues…

Consider the Hands that Write This Letter
by Aracelis Girmay

after Marina Wilson

Consider the hands
that write this letter.
The left palm pressed flat against the paper,
as it has done before, over my heart,
in peace or reverence
to the sea or some beautiful thing
I saw once, felt once: snow falling
like rice flung from the giants’ wedding,
or the strangest birds. & consider, then,
the right hand, & how it is a fist,
within which a sharpened utensil,
similar to the way I’ve held a spade,
match to the wick, the horse’s reins,
loping, the very fists
I’ve seen from the roads to Limay & Estelí.
For years, I have come to sit this way:
one hand open, one hand closed,
like a farmer who puts down seeds & gathers up
the food that comes from that farming.
Or, yes, it is like the way I’ve danced
with my left hand opened around a shoulder
& my right hand closed inside
of another hand. & how
I pray, I pray for this
to be my way: sweet
work alluded to in the body’s position
to its paper:
left hand, right hand
like an open eye, an eye closed:
one hand flat against the trapdoor,
the other hand knocking, knocking.


Save for a few odd words I remember from 7th grade, when we had to learn both Spanish and French for one marking period each on the days when we didn’t have “gym” — what physical education classes are called t/here in the States — I don’t really speak Spanish. But I’ve always loved the sound of the word “biblioteca.” Biblioteca. That it means “library” is all the more reason to truly relish this term. Jorge Luis Borges said of this cultural institution, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” I think I have, too. So when I came across this link on my twitter feed to an article about libraries in the margins, my interest was piqued.

Marginalia: Little Libraries in the Urban Margins

In it, the author Shannon Mattern considers the new roles that libraries play alongside the functions they have always served:

“[Libraries] exist not simply to store and provide access to information. Advocates argue that libraries continue to serve crucial civic and social functions, and their tenacious faith is reinforced by a flurry of recent street-level library activity. The last few years have seen the emergence of myriad mini, pop-up, guerilla and ad-hoc libraries, which are part of the phenomenon that Mimi Zeiger, in herInterventionist’s Toolkit series for this journal, calls “provisional, opportunistic, ubiquitous, and odd tactics in guerilla and DIY practice and urbanism” — to which I might add, librarianship.”

What counts, I wondered as I read the words and looked at the images, as a library? The photographic and narrative accounts are stunning and thought provoking, and raise another question: where do libraries exist? Where should they exist; and, by extension, when do they come into and out existence? (That last question is more mine than the article author’s.) Mattern goes on to explore, through interviews with librarians of various types of libraries (that is, little and otherwise) the political context in which the survival of the public library as we’ve always known it is situated. There is tension, she notes, between the little, marginal libraries — like the ones depicted in the fantastic images below — and the efforts of larger library institutions who strive to provide a wider range of resources and support.

“Yet regardless of their aims — whether aesthetic or political or tactical or civic — these projects can’t help but raise big and important questions regarding the protocols of access, the ideals of knowledge and rules of intellectual property, the health of public institutions, the viability of public space and public life, and the definitions of civic values. Some little libraries, self-consciously precious, might seem mainly intended to charm; but ultimately they underscore the great and unbridgeable difference between a phone booth fitted out with books and cushions and potted plants, on the one hand, and on the other, a fully functional and sustainable public library system, with the infrastructure and expertise to serve the diverse publics of a great nation.”

And what about the libraries that we carry with us? This practice is becoming, in one way, easier as our texts are more readily available in digital (read: portable) formats that can be compactly transported via any number of digital devices. But, as I have learned the hard way having spent several weeks and months away from my extended library, you can never take it all when you go…somewhere. There are, of course, drawbacks to this forced distance from one’s personal library. Just the color of a familiar spine can spark an idea, catalyze a connection that might not have existed before; a library can provide the warmth of the best security blanket — the security that comes from visual access to moments in time throughout one’s reading history.

Writing in a similar vein, Liam Callanan has written an article for the Wall Street Journal in which he describes the art of travel (through Paris, no less) as done by the book. In fact, the article is titled, “Going by the (Children’s) Book” and in it Callanan describes the joy that he and his family experienced upon (re)discovering Paris through the lenses of children’s books. They have transported a portion of their library, specifically books in which Paris features prominently, with them on vacation. Implicit throughout his recollection of walking in search of the Madeleine’s residence or the treasures at the center of The Red Balloon is the sense of discovery that can come from ongoing and new forms of engagement with familiar texts — those texts that are like-kin to one person, that are then shared with another.

Libraries, it seems, are ever-lasting. And while their shape, form, location, and even materiality may change, the presence of little corners of the universe dedicated to the intermingling of one person’s printed/designed/crafted words with another’s seems destined to exist. (Yes, I do imagine that when the lights go out in libraries, as well as in book stores, there is a great deal of chatter to be heard amongst the opening and closing of hard and soft covers.)

So, I amend an earlier statement I made about just wanting to pack a carry-on whenever I prepare to leave home for an extended period of time; I’ll need enough source material for a library, thank you very much. What the source material is and what it contains, well that is a post for another time and very likely a different blog.

signs i’m definitely back in london

1. this sign greets me at the tube station —

Announcing: British Biscuit Festival!

2. hulu doesn’t work here.

3. british television is ever at the ready with documentaries about the world wars, reruns of questionable cbs sitcoms, programs about walking, and an incessant supply of fresh prince of bel air episodes.

4. weather mood swings, from needing a jacket and socks to needing little more than tees and sandals — just an ordinary, late spring day in the uk.

5. sunrise is at 4:52. sunset… what sunset? ah, gloriously long lit spring/summer evenings…

preparing to leave and return again

Just six weeks ago I returned to the States and this weekend, as I gathered my things once again in preparation to leave another time, the cab ride home from the airport kept playing in my mind. I had brought my large, green suitcase back with me — along with a promise to only bring back a quarter of the things (thankfully, summer clothing is considerably less bulky than winter items) — and was being driven by a man who was considerably more jovial than I had the energy to fully engage. So I sat quietly, politely answering a few of his questions in the hopes that the rest of the short drive home would be experienced in relative quiet. Even as his questions ceased, the sound of chatter in my mind grew stronger. The solitude of not merely living alone in a small space, but doing so in a country where relative anonymity gave me added license to be still and listen quietly, had fully given way to the all-consuming noisiness this new-familiar city. The visual landscape was jarring, unfamiliar in contrast with the streets I had come to think of as home, in my habit of forming and founding homes quickly. The top of the recently built Comcast building jutted out of the earth like overgrown USB memory stick. Walls of steel and glass and metal filled my field of vision that grown accustomed, in the previous few months, to more muted and less shiny structures and surfaces. Easing back into the rhythms and routines of this home were not hard, somewhat to my dismay. As a result, my noticing suffered. Even with camera often in tow, the urgencies that awaited me took precedence. This isn’t a complaint — merely observation and perhaps a form of gratitude for the chance to gain distance, and in so doing gain time in a profound way; time to attend to the overlooked, time to take notice, time for the to “would love to do” lists.

Thankfully, that time is waiting just around the corner, or across the ocean to be precise. My return to London is imminent and this stretch is structured a bit differently than the last, in large part because it actually has a structure! And there are other significant differences including the fact that the lovely A has relocated to London-town for a long chunk of time. (I seem to be unsuccessful in my attempts thus far in convincing A to begin some sort of semi-public chronicle the adventures to come… perhaps this will provide much needed guilt-fueled inspiration…) And while I am a creature who fully embraces solitude in all of its quiet splendor, communing with old friends in new locales can also be joyful and enriching. This visit, it seems, will be an embarrassment of friendly riches as my travels will be peppered with the occasional rendez-vous with comrades from places near and far.

Leavings, of course, also evoke a heightened awareness of what is being left behind, however temporarily, and this time is no different. As one of my siblings is planning a move to this city in the coming months, this awareness also serves a dual purpose — to notice and also to share resources, city secrets. Among them, the gloriously understated Miel Patisserie on 17th Street — for macarons, coffee or tea, and hands down the best grilled vegetable sandwich I have ever eaten (and I have eaten or tried to consume quiet a few). A gleeful smile from the shopkeeper on a recent walk home reminded me of the treasures to be found inside Spirit of the Artist (SOTA) — it’s the source of most of my wedding gifts and a living testament to the local arts. And in recent weeks, unintentional right turns have brought me face to face with a string of restaurants on Front Street (that were new to me) and Tartes, a pink box of a shop that sells some fantastic cakes, pies, and yes, tarts. (see below for the Google Maps image — see, a pink box!)

Tartes, Arch St.

All of this leaving and returning only serves to deepen my curiosity about our understandings of home — about how complicated a notion that is, and perhaps why there are so many sayings about it: it’s where your heart is; where you hang your hat; different than a house; a place to find peace; a place simultaneously built of love and dreams and where love and dreams are built; a feeling; a destination; a site of challenge as well as joy; impermanent; ever-lasting.

When I was quite young, my parents and grandmother instilled in me that when one turns to walk out the door, even if it is just to go to mailbox to retrieve the day’s post, the appropriate utterance was not “good-bye” or any of its variants. No, it was, translated from Tamil, “I’ll go and come back.” It is perhaps why even now, as an adult, I am drawn to such sentiments in any language: A bientot; See you soon; and in my best Terminator impression, “I’ll be back.” (Aw, the Terminator was such a softie.) But perhaps there’s also a trace of seeking and finding homes and that to be at home in one place does not deny the sense of home in another place or in another’s company. That we are always leaving and returning home.

The “critical” reception of Humans of New York

Because of the existence of Humans of New York, faces are striking me as more beautiful than ever. *All* faces. And to that end, for the past month or so since I first encountered HONY, the true beauty of genetic science and the similarly pulchritudinous coexistence of sameness amidst our human variation fills me with a renewed appreciation for being one among many billions. An embodied understanding of the notion “that which makes us different makes us ever more alike.”

I offer this as more than merely observation or correlation; this is direct causation, never mind that this was a (self)study with an N of 1.

I had started a different blog post to the same effect, that delved more deeply into the fairly wondrous sensation that accompanies the moment when our view of the world shifts ever so slightly, but enough to awe us; when something helps us to make the familiar strange. The human face, I’ve been saying to myself and shaking my head in amazement. So simple, an incredible canvas, the original cartographic instrument.

But an update on my Facebook wall today has redirected this HONY-related post. Brandon Stanton, the guy who is behind many hundreds of thousands of people’s daily delights of the photographic variety, shared the following thoughts in partial response to a frustrating trend that this HONY appreciator has been noticing as well:

Brandon invites the audience to “make HONY different than the rest of the internet.” A provocative surmise, not least of all because such a project could not exist were it not for the internet. Yet his plea is not without foundation. Can a space that, especially once it is in the public domain, no longer belongs to one or a few people still retain any sense of an “original” mission or purpose? Is the democratic impetus incongruous with eviction and banning? Can Brandon just be a guy taking photos and posting them for the world’s enjoyment? (I suspect that the answer to that last question, at least, is no.)

There is safety in numbers, the saying goes, but greater numbers also bring about unforeseen challenges; numbers increase audience, increase others’ awareness where once upon a time a project like HONY enjoyed relative anonymity — or at the very least a dedicated, like-minded audience. In art, such as the Humans of New York project, as in other aspects of life, there appears to be no shortage of people who have made their way as a path of opposition — to others, to ideas, to whole populations. And too often, this opposition is given credibility as being “critical.” Perhaps this is critical of me, but criticality strikes me as an orientation that ought to be more fully immersed in the practices of seeing and looking and observing and unknowing. Of what is one being critical? That is, to merely assert someone is [fill-in-the-blank]-ist, does little “work in the world” other than maybe to advance the visibility of the one who makes such assertions.

Can we identify and describe things using language other than what we might normally use? Or view things from perspectives other than the ones we rely on without much thinking? If there is disagreement about characterization in the HONY portraits, for example, can one wonder about Brandon’s use of wording in his captions from a generous position? (What I would really love is to replace all of the anxiety-laden, content-thin but testing-heavy curricula in schools with ample opportunities for young people to **really** ask questions and pursue inquiries that begin with “I wonder why…” and “What happens when…” and “In what ways…” — these are questions that stay at the point of description, linger in the phase of noticing, instead of leaping to conclusions.)

I will continue to delight in the portraits, even when the captions — that are very often insightful themselves — fall somewhat short of my expectations; I will ease my expectations to prevent hypocritical slippage; and when I do find myself starting to make claims or assumptions about this or that, I’ll look again at the photo and wonder instead about the stories and situations that led to its existence. There’s a different sort of criticality that grows in the forest of narratives. That is where you’ll find me.