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.)

out from refuge

The rains fell hard the past several days, allowing the sun to peek through with some regularity just this weekend. As if following in barometric symphonic succession, the muses seemed to be on strike and the familiar rhythms of lexicon and discourse fell out of tune. In short, this spell of solitude of mine appears to have cast its own spell on my abilities to communicate outside of my head; and thus, while retreating within and time for introspection and reflection bring forth ample riches and goods, the greatest consequence is also the ugliest: getting out of practice in being with the world. I experienced something similar when re-entering non-monk-like status after the Vipassana course in the fall, but unlike that stretch of inward quiet, this stretch of several days has been characterized by a desire for quiet while needing to perform in public.

A self-imposed digital hiatus and a stint in London’s villagey ‘burbs has provided much needed balm for a bruised soul, an afternoon of which was spent amidst the scenery below. Regularly scheduled blog programming that was heretofore unwittingly suspended will now resume. While the gears are turning and ideas brewing, enjoy these pics (and look closely at the first one):

Look closely

Afternoon sleep

Marmalade, the colloquial name




stories we find amidst intersecting worlds

Each day, if we bother to listen, the world stands at the ready to teach us something. Yesterday, while attending one of the numerous and if not state-sanctioned then certainly state-encouraged diamond jubilee street parties, I had occasion to glean a bit of insight about the ever-imbricated relationship between England and the United States. I was a guest of my friend A — you’ll remember, the one who is a crafting wiz, who inspired me to try cooking enough food on one day for a month of meals (although I only ended up cooking enough for a week – I don’t know if that means I eat too much or if I cooked too little…), and an endless source of laughter and wisdom in all forms — and unlike A and family, I was not given a blue sticker to wear. The guests, you see, wore red stickers. So we could be easily identified and booted, perhaps? I doubt it would come to that — everyone was not only very nice (and a few were more than a bit sauced) but they were full of tales and musings about the street, about the street party — “there hasn’t been one in the 48 years I’ve lived here!” exclaimed an enthusiastic woman unflinchingly wearing a tiara — and about the jubilee overall. Children had their faces painted, a steady stream of musically inclined neighbors took to the microphone to croon some tunes, plastic stemware and open bottles of wine and other means of imbibing were featured prominently along the long line of tables, and the bunting. Oh there was bunting hung with care, as far as the eye could see. Triangular Union Jack flags hung from plastic twine along the fronts of houses, overhead like streamers, and decorated the eating areas and more than a few women’s skirts and men’s shirts.

When the hour struck just past six in the evening, everyone began to stand at the behest of the already-standing who flapped their arms enthusiastically upward. So we stood and from the musical end of the street streamed a familiar tune. I was moved to stand a bit straighter and words started to come out of my mouth. What I was unwittingly singing, as was A, were the words to a song that children in the States are taught in school known as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” But why would they be playing that in this near-London town? Everyone around us, it turns out, was singing different words and so A and I kept our voices quiet as we kept singing. The tune of the American patriotic anthem is the same as the British national anthem “God save the Queen.” How this fact either escaped me all these years or failed to materialize in my memory as a known fact, I’m not sure. But I didn’t fret and instead enjoyed this quietly transgressive, oddly historicized moment in which a song can hold such a multitude of meanings. It was a light moment, a celebratory one … and yet, with the fates and acts of world’s humans not too far from the collective consciousness, I couldn’t help but acknowledge, however momentarily, John Berger’s implied admonition “A singer may be innocent; never the song.”

In that moment, however, I chose to stay present and revel in the delightfully (and more than few ghoulishly) painted faces, the neighbors being neighborly, and the consuming of foods and tunes. As an outsider — and particularly as the Jubilee festivities and commentaries about the festivities are going on — the oft-cited notion that at some point in human history the sun never set on the British empire is one that isn’t too far from the front of my mind. More than a few of the news presenters commenting on the Jubilee throughout the day’s televised coverage implicitly referred to the complicated relationship of England with the rest of the world throughout the years, of the tension involving such displays of extravagance at a time of relative worldwide austerity, of the long history of public perceptions and commentary about the presiding Queen. The overwhelming visual scene, however, was one of masses of people simply enjoying themselves.

Earlier today, my travel companion, who was particularly eager to take in the pageantry, and I wandered down to the Thames. Clearly we did not arrive early enough to secure a coveted viewing spot and after attempting to see something — anything! — near Waterloo Bridge, we made our way to Blackfriar’s Bridge, closer to the end of the day’s flotilla. That’s right, I said flotilla (and I will likely say it again).  Although I jokingly noted that the thousand strong fleet of seaworthy vessels making their way down a seven-mile stretch of the Thames River had been organized in honor of A’s arrival and, coincidentally, birthday, today’s flotilla is actually a long-standing royal tradition reminiscent of this painting by Canaletto depicting the boat-filled Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day (circa 1747).

Canaletto’s “London: The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day”

In a post that has not yet made it out of the drafts stage, I started to talk about traveling and seeing new places with familiar faces. As happy as I am for A and family to experience the many riches this city and country have to offer, I am especially overjoyed to have a small chance to overlap with their time here and to see again and anew what has started to become slightly familiar; and at the same time, to relax into the comfort that comes with shared prior experiences, conversations, and affiliations.

One of A’s new neighbors who was sure to introduce himself to us, perhaps because we were outed as “new” and therefore “different,” was particularly keen on making it known to us that where A had taken up temporary residence was a “very good neighborhood” and good place to live, safe for families, a place without worry. I thought again about his earnest pitch while walking as one among the purported 1.2 million revelers on the London city streets and couldn’t help but think about all the moments in which we humans are constantly trying to find audiences for our stories and for the chance to get the stories across in just the right way. What are the stories to glean, then, from these snaps taken in town today — I offer them here sans captions:

happy birthday, a! 🙂

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.

responsibility of privilege

No one warned me about the guilt. It was all happy, happy, joy and fun. The time, they would emphasize, to do this and that and so much else. To contemplate, to reflect, to breathe, to become rejuvenated. To be free from here, they would earnestly repeat where “here” referred to a panoply of campus-related ills – pettiness, politics, and policies chief among them. But at no point was there ever any mention that being saturated in the time to do this and that and being free from that and this would result in an almost shame-like posture when someone would ask What do you do? What are you working on now? It was easy enough to sidestep the whole truth until someone in the know would proudly announce “She’s on sabbatical!” I have never wished for the earth to swallow me whole more than when such a moment occurred soon after talking with a friend from grad school who I ran into at a local grocery store. She was with her two toddlers, a packed schedule, and wondered aloud why I was in Philadelphia on a Wednesday. The guilt, perhaps, stems from the realization that everyone could benefit from the gift of this time – to have time, to take time, to find a new relationship with time.

And there is certainly time. Blissful time, seemingly boundless and nearly uninterrupted time. And with that time comes, also, the possibility-turned-obligation to notice things that were merely blurs in years past. In the house, in the news, in one’s own life and the lives of others. This is not idle time. No, to be sure this is hyperaware time during which a strange hyper-vigilance about everything and anything is emerging.

But this was not always the case. The first few months were, as has been documented here, what I assumed the sabbatical might be. Joyous. Magnificent expanses of possibilities of how to use one’s time. New forms and spaces of seeing. And what I feared – the paralysis that has been shown to follow in some post-tenure cases – has so far been avoided (rapidly knocking my knuckles to my head, on the faux-wood table in front of me), replaced instead with a flow of ideas inspired in no small part by the reading that this sabbatical-time affords.

So what has changed. People, for one. That is – and I know how bad this is going to sound – during the month of December ample time was spent with family, both immediate and extended, and also fictive – those individuals and family units whom I have known for decades – for whom a sabbatical is not only not common parlance but the concept of a break in the quotidian rhythms of life has no basis in reality. Adult obligations still persist in most people’s lives even if work-related ones are greatly diminished. I mused about as much with a friend recently while saying out loud how unimaginable it seems to me now that there are some people who can mentally manage the spate of home repairs and general home maintenance (of all kinds, structural, personal, familial) while also managing to fulfill their professional desires.

At this point, the word “choices” was silently screaming from a dark corner of my brain. For a person who lives relatively regret-free, this was a strange moment. Some with whom I engaged in conversation during these past few weeks seemed to view my very existence as confusing. I could understand this, because when I have to say out loud how I spend my days and the commitments to which I have chosen to give my time, the words are quite outside of the norm for most people. What are you going to do? How are you spending your time? You’re going where? For how long? By yourself? Their questions were asked not in malice or with disdain, but perhaps with the nascent curiosity of an ethnographer who is truly struggling to make sense of  something (or someone) thought to be so familiar that now seems to be something (or someone) strange. Yes, I will think of these as short-lived, ethnographic inquiries that were premised on the notion that there are norms and that in part they were being flagrantly flouted by this strangely situated, micro-social phenomenon called a sabbatical.

And deadlines. Whereas I wasn’t naïve enough to think that a sabbatical would actually function as a time-stopping, invisibility cloak, I was blanketed in a relatively luxurious amount of time free from immediate demands of the writerly kind. (And no, Nanowrimo was not the same at all.)  And now I am eye-deep in three writing deadlines that fall in the next two weeks. Apparently sabbatical has done little to abate my proclivities to procrastinate, despite how early these Todos begin. It probably doesn’t help that I also keep adding items to my plate, that seems magically (read: incorrectly) larger than before July 1st.

I am left then with one simple, familiar thought: With great privilege – like this relatively unfettered time – comes great responsibility.

That seems a nice idea as any to bring 2011 to a close. And while you out there in your respective corners of the world will be preparing to embrace the new year, I will be feverishly writing to meet one of those aforementioned deadlines (12/31 – did I mention that?), and pondering how to live and use this time responsibly. Thankfully I didn’t completely lose a day like the people of Samoa.

Happy New Year!!

Bonus: the smooth sounds of Nancy Wilson. enjoy!

manhattan triptych — part 1

Renunciation Form

You –
of flesh, blood and bone,
who art without paper bearing apt signature –
have been relieved of your existence.

I –
seated comfortably (as I shift uncomfortably) behind double-plated, bullet proof glass,
practicing the cacophonous melody of my protest song –
can’t help you.

The full weight of a paperless life bears down
as the outdoor dampness swirls toxically with
ancient spices and newborn impatience
in the belly of the building’s foundation
as flag and facade are displayed proudly above.

She –
shielded by the laminated wood of the plastic coated, paper adorned, chest-high barrier,
purporting to provide information –
might help you.

The woman in lavender and pink,
her hair the hue of water that has been sitting for too long in rusted pipes,
wills it not.

Did you read—
Have you visited—
Oh no, not here—
words force their way out of her mouth,
she’ll show them; off she walks, mid-sent—

Paperless existence.


cafe bleu

A cafe that does not offer free wifi is a rarity in these parts — northeastern United States. Yet La Colombe, tucked away with a touch of Euro-snobbery on 19th street, between Sansom and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia is a cafe that is staunchly without wifi. The outsider is easily marked when he asks without reservation, across the small yet spacious room, “What’s the wifi here?” and his question is met with looks of bewilderment laced with a sort of pitying as if to say, “Oh, you poor sap with your wifi dependency. You’re clearly out of your element here. And is that *iced* coffee in your plastic sippy cup?” [internal eye roll — that’s when you look straight at the person but inside you are totally eye rolling.]

The plaid shirt and jeans wearing fellow to my left, also seated at one of La Colombe’s non-tiled table tops, confirms my “Um, I don’t think so” shake-n-nod and we both share a glance into which is built an affirmation that neither of us would ever raise such a question; perhaps wondering also who let this poor bloke in. (See, euro-snobbery latches onto you even if you are perfectly nice in other domains of your life!)*

Plaid Shirt, who like me was texting and presumably emailing or engaging in other communicative practices that one does on a smart phone just minutes earlier, resumed typing into a word document open on his laptop screen, already filled with words. He’s a double-spacer. This stands out to a longtime single-spacer — how can you know what you’ve written when it literally goes off the viewable page? Next to him, a woman with chin-length hair that is almost evenly salt and pepper, stands up as she prepares to leave. Her navy coat goes on atop her navy turtleneck, jeans that are a perfect medium blue held in place with a complementary chestnut belt, and a navy blue scarf that is sheer on one side and has a velveteen leaf pattern on the other.

Most everyone in the cafe is sitting alone at a table for two, along the wall leaving the inside seats empty. Some of us with laptops in front of us, others reading a book — sometimes two at a time — with a notebook where notes are scribbled in between meaningful glances upward, to the right, straight ahead… in search of a word, inspiration, a plan for lunch…

The navy woman was dressed much too warmly for today when the sun is doing more than merely smiling down; it has warmed each molecule of air. I would appreciate the warmth more if the exterior of our house was being painted in this gorgeous weather. Instead, I am awaiting confirmation from the painter so that we can schedule a start date. Today! I want to exclaim. What is the number of phone calls after which eager morphs into nuisance?

Coffee refill: $.50.

I am usually a tea drinker and even in the height of my coffee consumption (these were known as the Cosi-dissertation years when I consumed more shots of espresso in a three year period than most people might or should consume in a lifetime) I was a “fluffy” coffee drinker. My 20 ouncers were only a quarter to a third actual cocoa bean and the rest was sugar-free flavored syrup and steamed milk, but never foam. I loathe foam. But here, in La Colombe where the even the average schlub is in his Monday smarts and spectacles are de rigueur, and writers writing are the plentiful attraction whether in digital or analog form — here, I drink coffee. Oh sure, their lattes are divine and even finished off with that coveted fancy leaf design that is the result of the artful pouring of steamed milk into expectant espresso. But the coffee beckons, served in sizable coffee mugs bearing the same set of designs that adorn many of the small table tops and served most often atop a mis-matched saucer. Before the no-smoking laws went into effect, my lungs and hypersensitive nasal passages wouldn’t allow me entry even as I longed to join the throngs of writers writing, with their shaggily disheveled hair, array of canvas sneakers that might seem ironic in another cafe, and horn-rimmed glasses. Now, seated amongst fellow clickety-clackers and croissant snackers, surrounded by a new collection of paintings that echo the melancholy of the burnt tomato colored walls, I feel a strong desire to sit back and light up.

*Although it is probably self-evident, this post was sent after I left La Colombe and relocated to a wifi-friendly spot. Totally worth it.