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.


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?

untitled fiction – part 1

note & disclaimer: while i’m away on my very silent, devoid of communication, meditation retreat, the magical powers of the future scheduling function will allow me to roll out piecemeal my first attempt since college, i think, at writing a piece of (unfinished, unedited, unrefined) fiction. i was inspired by last year’s nanowrimo (that i learned about from the lovely t), during which these words were penned. until now, i’ve been the sole creator and audience of this loopy tale (as sole as one who has lived in the world, had conversations and experiences with people, and carries those moments around, some of which are sure to seep into other moments, conversations, experiences, and writing). but i plan to attempt nanowrimo once again this november so clearing this out of the mental hopper might be a good idea. the disclaimer is that none of this is based in my lived reality with the exception of the very first line that i once said in response to a question someone asked me under very different and far less complicated circumstances. so in a way this is both an attempt to fulfill kesey’s invitation to write what i don’t know (see top of this blog) and ebert’s advice to think about what i’ve seen and how it affected me and not fake it. the acts of writing this and then rereading it a few days ago for the first time in nearly a year also echo the truisms about writing that some readers have generously noted in their comments on this blog, including writing as retreat, as source of both pain and elation.


Part 1

“What would you do if I said yes?”

I hadn’t rehearsed the line; it just came out.

I hadn’t planned on lying to her, so i guess this was just penance. Just penance indeed. It didn’t seem fair that she would get her way again, so what could i do but lie.

Was it a lie if half of it was true? And more importantly, why had I felt l couldn’t tell her the truth.  Or, perhaps more momentously, that I could even bring myself offer some of the truth?

We hadn’t always had the best relationship, my mother and I.  I usually couldn’t go two days without thinking about something awful she had done — some social crime or faux pas she had committed — that I was still cleaning up today.  The lime green dress she had worn to my best friend’s father’s funeral when I was twelve. Her insistence on accompanying me to my after-school program that was only a short, ten block walk from my school, and then complaining that she had to leave work early to do it.  The birthday parties she threw for me, despite my protests, with wildly inappropriate games planned: a) what color would your flame be if you were on fire? (the winner was usually the person who could make my mom laugh the most); b) “smell this”, where she had my friends smell what almost always was rotting or moldly food in her fridge to determine both its fate (stay or trash?) and its origin (are you sure this used to be an orange?) – there were no winners for this game; c) pin the tale on the goldfish — there are no words, only memories of innocent fish swimming out of fear of stabbing-by-thumbtack.

So I lied. They weren’t always earth shattering lies.  Just conveniently placed half-truths that allowed the really big whoppers to seem as normal as auburn leaves on a cool, November day.  The first time I lied, I wasn’t sure what I was really doing.  I just knew that it felt good to swear that I had no more M&Ms left to share with her — my mother is diabetic and occasionally needed a quick sugar fix because, of course, she routinely “forgot” to take her pills.  At the age of eight I didn’t have a full grasp of the consequences of sugar highs and insulin lows and vice versa.  But I’m pretty sure I knew I was doing something just a little cruel. And as I watched my mother’s arms flail progressively more rapidly as she tried to keep her concentration on the road in front of her, I felt a rush of warmth wash over me.  I would soon come to be addicted to this sensation — one of power and control over circumstances, another person’s life.

But this isn’t one of those “my mother and I were enemies and now we’re friends” stories.  Nor is it a harrowing tale of the pain and suffering I’ve endured as my mother’s daughter.  No, this is just a retelling, in parts, of a woman on a quest to find her mother. Because surely there’s no way I crawled out of that woman’s vagina.

Stay tuned for part 2…

writing lives

  • 3 musketeers bars and the hypnotic bass beat of “every breath you take”
  • new year’s eve and an evening of cole porter tunes
  • a good book and ready access to google and wikipedia for the all important insta-reference searches
  • fresh mozzarella and tomato with basil
  • heck, any melange of tomato, cheese, and grain-based substrate (tortillas, crusty baguette, magical bread that a nearby cafe brings in from a bakery in germantown)
  • year-round ceiling fan and a thick blanket
  • slightly runny eggs and toasted multigrain bread with raspberry jam
  • sparkling conversation and hot tea with honey
  • ice cream and ice water

with one exception, i still indulge in all of these combinations of things/foods/experiences with regularity. i’ve long been fascinated by how things combine — not just foods and ideas, certainly those are elevated on my radar, but also items of clothing (as worn by others mostly and less on me), gestures, images, people, furniture, sounds… more recently, as perhaps recent posts might suggest, the determinism that accompanies some combinations continues to hold my attention, especially as they become entrenched in our social consciousness and can come to have a profound impact on daily actions and interactions as combinations become labels become intractable indictments — but that is not the point of this post. i’m not yet sure what the point is, but i know that for the moment, i want to focus on something other than the social ills of labeling and categorizing and stuart hall’s multimedia treatise on race and the insidiousness of an ethos of “matter out of place.”

there is another combination that i have long enjoyed that has been absent in the pop culture landscape for over twelve years now, and that is the pairing of gene siskel and roger ebert. this may seem like an odd segue to the original odd couple of movie review and film criticism royalty, but the atlantic’s recent article about a new book by the prolific roger ebert, life itself, brought back my memories of watching the two men bickering on the movie balcony stage set. in an earlier post i quoted from an everlasting meal in which tamar adler makes a simple observation: we all need a little seasoning to be most ourselves. and even though ebert is astute and critical and witty on his own, i enjoy thinking about how siskel coaxed out of his balcony buddy some musings and observations that might have gone unnoticed, unsaid, or a different direction altogether. ebert said as much in an interview last year. (how many more examples of learning as social do we need before schools listen? sigh…)

but that is not the point of this post, either. it is, i think, found in a quote that the atlantic excerpted from life itself in which roger ebert is reflecting on being asked to review the film persona:

On writing about “impenetrable” art“In 1967, new in my job at the Sun-Times, I walked into the Clark Theater and saw Persona. I didn’t have a clue how to write about it. I began with a simply description: ‘At first the screen is black. Then, very slowly, an area of dark grey transforms the screen into blinding white. This is light projected through film onto the screen, the first basic principle of the movies. The light flickers and jumps around, finally resolving itself into a crude cartoon of a fat lady.’ And so on. I was discovering a method that would work with impenetrable films: Focus on what you saw and how it affected you. Don’t fake it.”

those last two lines sound like they are shouting to everyone who has ever attempted to utter or pen a single word. how can we write truthfully? that isn’t to say that we don’t embellish or invent or imagine fantastic tales of impossibility, but, like the pair note in clip about back to the future 2 to which i linked, how might retain in our writing perhaps a nugget of that which offers moments of connection and a glimpse of recognition for the reader. they ought to talk more about writing alienation (read: boring your readers!) and less about the five paragraph essay (which can certainly induce writing alienation). how do we move from faking it — in our letters to family, cover letters for jobs, personal statements for tenure, field notes academic articles, policy statements that are filled with assumptions and pairings to which even the most attila-the-hunnish among us wouldn’t adhere — to writing as offering, writing as work in the world.

here’s another choice nugget from ebert, who has suffered through thyroid cancer that left him literally unable to speak audibly with his voice, but as he writing continues to demonstrate, he continues to talk with his audience:

On why writing matters to him now“What’s sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. Unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments, and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment’s notice. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.”

ebert’s reflections remind me of andre aciman — another writer like w.g. sebald whose words literally transport you to another world with a quiet steadiness, at once gentle and jarring descriptions, astute yet painful allegory –who seems to practice as well as embody this studied and steady ethos of being present in one’s writing, trusting one’s memory, moving simply through ideas (but not necessarily without complexity of relationships between those ideas) — recalling one’s first memory of lavender for example (see this video of aciman on writing, the lavender reference is at the 4′ minute mark). i think perhaps what these and many other writers, whose writing is available in the form of published texts as well as blogs and interviews, overwhelmingly advocate is a practice of writing itself as a start to writing. just write.* even if it’s crap. even if what you write on sunday is long gone by the time you write a conclusion on friday. of this anne lamott’s musing in bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life are particularly insightful:

You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well go ahead and get started.

in the ever present and ongoing existential crisis quandary in which i find myself, i wonder if perhaps there are other questions we might ask of ourselves and one another (instead of the ones we often pose to kids and derivatives of which we ask during polite cocktail part small talk: What do you do? Where do you work? Where do you live?):  how did you write your life today? which page of your story did you work on this afternoon? with whom are you spending time? with whose words and ideas and actions do you resonate, disagree, find joy? how are you living your life?
(i know, i know: i’m not getting invited to any parties any time soon. but i swear i like to wax on about my collection of boots and latest teen angst tv discoveries, too!)

ebert’s implication that what may be more important than the actual writing is where and to whom the writing may take you is a lovely and fulfilling thought. [insert flood of memories of reading and writing and conversations about readings and writings here…] and so perhaps ebert’s title is apt as suggestive of another lasting combination:

writing and life, itself.

*despite this recent spurt of obsessive blogging, writing the lives of others — which encompasses a great deal of my writing todo list — continues to paralyze especially as the desire to write justly and without freezing the dynamic realities of people’s life narratives rings loudly in my ears. and so perhaps writing this post and reading ebert’s book is an attempt to take some of that good advice myself.

learning to look behind the shadows

Why it is that we — humans, adults, academics, Americans, citizens of the world, all of the above — forget that this, all of this, is not only a game but also completely made up. I said as much to a class of mostly early-twenties (I’m guessing, based on their pop references, social media proclivities and digital histories) graduate students during a class discussion this past spring.  We were broadly discussing the seemingly blind adherence to policies and the oppressive weight of testing that binds teachers’ hands and risk-taking inclinations. I wanted to get us/them out of this potentially-lemming-like complacency so I blurted out, “it’s all made up!” and I was referring to the classroom where we sat, the fact that they subject themselves to being formally evaluated by me at the of the term even as we spent most of the term engaged in collective endeavors, even the fact that we were all complicit in maintaining the discursive practices that uphold the very policies and systems that seem to bind our hands – at the end of my unplanned albeit gentle rant I was facing a sea of slightly frightened faces. I think I had freaked them out just a little bit. But at what point does the moment cease to be ever in service of the next moment? The rhetoric of “doing well” has launched me into a new phase of my existential crisis quandary: we are told to perform well in primary school to pave a smooth way in secondary school; excel in secondary school in order to gain entry to college; do college well in order to graduate with employment in hand; exceed expectations on evaluations* to get promoted to get a raise, and then another; acquire and accumulate — things, money, assets, social networks, status, power, influence; retire and, before you die, leave your offspring better off than when you were their age. Is it possible, at this point in human history with so much so deeply embedded in the fabric of being human, to imagine schooling that is not solely premised on social mobility?

When I recalled this story to a student the other day, she immediately blurted out, “It’s like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave!” Not being a Plato scholar, and only having read The Republic once and not very recently, I had to refresh my memory — luckily Amazon has made this text and many other books deemed to be in the public domain freely available for the Kindle app and a quick search brought it all back. And so, in Book VII of The Republic appear the following words in an exchange between Socrates and Glaucon:

Glaucon: “How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?”

Wherein Socrates responds a few speech turns later: “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of images.”**

In urging for a peeling back of the curtain I am not advocating what most fear at first whiff of this sort of chatter: anarchy. I am not an anarchist nor do I think an unexamined approach of anger and destruction toward the social world (which is unfortunately what anarchist derivatives descend into) is right or good. Although I do enjoy a healthy bit of chaos that keeps us free from lapsing into complacency. Frankly, I blame (thank) my parents who took it upon themselves to give me, as my first book, an encyclopedic volume titled, “Tell Me Why.” The seeds planted in the pages of that seemingly innocuous book were especially volatile – I began reading my world through the lens of why.

I also wonder, like the Fresno superintendent who recently turned down his usual salary for the next three years in order to put most of the money toward early childhood education, “How much do we need to keep accumulating?” Such a question seems verboten in a social landscape of Bigger.Better.Faster.More. Why is life in a big house and all its social, discursive, cultural, economic trappings deemed qualitatively better and thus a greater source of educational motivation than other dwellings, ways of living, being? And why, oh why, do there continue to be posters of “cars, mansions, and money” lining the hallways of schools? Why do we keep glorifying the image of a  “better, richer, and happier life?” (my emphasis). Just because cultivating one’s sense of flourishing and intrinsic motivation is difficult, we shouldn’t cede this job to the idol/idle worship of extrinsic motivation. Has the financial crisis taught us nothing?

This existential crisis quandary of mine has been endured by family and friends, alike, and I am thankful they haven’t cut me out of their lives (yet!). The Plato reference and others like it, both temporally and spatially vast, give me pause and, perhaps ironically, great hope. If there have always been humans who have wondered about the fallacy of social life, and yet there have always continued to be those whose entire identities have been based on upholding, strengthening and broadening the reach of the naked emperor, it is oddly reassuring on the one hand to feel support across space and time for this less popular narrative. On the other, conventions of social mobility as *the* driving force for our social institutions, and especially schools, not only continues to distress me but is actually detracting from the tremendous potential schools hold as sites of meaningful engagement now and not just for the meaningful engagement they can serve as prep areas.

Perhaps Muriel Barberry has an answer and she brings it to us in the mind’s eye of a curious if somewhat precocious 12-year-old girl living with her bourgeois family in an upscale apartment building who befriends the building superintendent in whom she finds a kindred spirit: both are struggling with the notion that they are not what the world so desperately wants them to be, with their contradictory aspirations, practices, and ways of interacting and imagining (or not).

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, is full of much more nuance than I have allowed in this brief note, so while I continue to think about it I’ll leave you with two delicious clips from the film adaptation that delighted me equally (and made me newly appreciate the Oscar category of “adapted screenplay” – truly hard stuff to do well!)

The meeting of Mme. Michel and M. Ozu (who could not love a Tolstoy reference? Especially as it transpires between these 2 characters.)

Paloma filming Mme. Michel (ah, Paloma. She is charmant and, through her unassuming curiosity, coaxes out the charm in Mme. Michel.)

* When I was a postdoc, I had the opportunity to sit in on course taught by a colleague who until that point I had known only as a co-author of a text that moved me out of my own complacent funk as a graduate student — for the ways it spoke to the thoughts that had not yet emerged from the recesses of my mind and the groundwork it laid for much of the ways of working and thinking and seeing in which I engage now.
** The slightly longer excerpt of the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon:
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
Very true.
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
That is certain.

the awkward politics of going public

the ways in which adolescents make themselves known has long been a source of fascination for me, even (i suspect) from the time i was an adolescent myself. i would watch my peers preen for one another, show off the latest jelly shoes and bracelets, steal some unsuspecting boy’s jacket as a way to get on said boy’s radar (only to be blacklisted by same said boy as unstable and a jacket thief), stay after-school to clean brushes for the art teacher, or leave some artwork in conspicuous places (sometimes in the form of spray paint on walls or pen tattoos on desks). my own “get in trouble at school at your own risk/peril” upbringing gave me pause and kept me firmly in the “good girl” status throughout my schooling years.

long before j.k. rowling popularized the idea, i spent much of childhood and adolescence under my own cloak of invisibility. so quiet was my speaking voice, that in high school my teachers would admonish others who mumbled as belonging to “[my] school of speech.” i didn’t mind this because the alternative, it seemed, was to be typecast in the way some children are (when others are given — either unwittingly or intentionally — the creative space to be many things and try on different ways of being) as early as 5 or 6 years of age. i suppose i was typecast in a different way: the quiet one. at least until sophomore year in high school when i met my friend j who sat in front of me in the row closest to the chalkboard. and quietly she would write notes to me and i, cautiously — oh, so, cautiously — would write back, and not without the occasional giggle. it seems simple now, but the chalkboard back then really was a new modality with which someone was asking me to communicate and participate. sure, i was mildly reprimanded, but i’m pretty that my sophomore year english teacher was far more delighted that someone had gotten me to transgress anything in some way that she let us continue our “secret” communication.

today’s communicative landscape is far more multifaceted — i’ll spare both of us the trite listing of tools, gadgets, and platforms used by “today’s youth,” but suffice it to say that it sometimes makes me long for the days of the artfully folded note slipped between hands in a crowded hallway and just as stealthily unwrapped, digested, and relished as talk of hemingway or cosines filled the air all around the room. these artifacts of communication helped to create those alternative, special, intimate spaces within the busy and occasionally chaotic energy of a somewhat large, public high school.

today’s professional landscape, the academic terrain to be precise, can sometimes feel like the same crowded, high school. and all around are people doing what they can to be known, only the scale and scope of their endeavors reaches far beyond brick and concrete structure where many of us spend four years of our lives. do the archetypes so cleverly portrayed in countless movies about high school and other popular culture texts (some of which are listed here) — and which are at the center of more than a few scholarly inquiries (penny eckhert’s ‘jocks and burnouts‘, betsy rymes’ ‘conversational borderlands‘, and doug foley’s ‘learning capitalist culture‘ are a few that immediately come to mind) — hold true outside of the circumscribed temporal and spatial boundaries of secondary schooling? can we think of the class president, with her plastered on smile and eagerness to please while ruling the roost, who circulates currently in our midst? or the all-star, multi-sport jock with his/her proven track record of earning measurable accolades in seemingly unrelated endeavors — always restless, running 10 miles or writing an article, before the medal/ink from the last one is even cold/dried; adrenaline is never in short supply for these folks, it seems. then there are the ones who are given some moniker of royalty at one of the various group gatherings — often the proverbial triple threats who, like the all-star jock types, continue to move forward and laterally almost at the same time. they have become known, are known; how will they continue to be known, and for what? what is it the tangible fruit of this “becoming known”? is it personal or for the sake of the “team” which in some cases might be the communities that are at the center of these various projects and endeavors.

as a high school student, i dabbled in more than a few activities but my role in them is telling: sure, i was involved with the school play but save one small stint on the stage, i spent most of my time in the sound booth; and i practically lived and breathed the school literary magazine and very reluctantly included a few pieces of my own, but my real joy was laying out the magazine and watching the pieces speak to each other. my ‘crowning moment’ occurred during a state language competition in which i had to recite a poem in french — for an audience of one, because they called us in individually to perform our prepared pieces. i had practiced the poem — really a fable in poem form written by jean de la fontaine — for hours, perfecting my gestures, head movements, inflection of my voice in rhythm with the meter. (i believe i performed part of it perched on a chair. yeah, i was into it.) with the exception of this post, i don’t think i’ve ever shared this information outside of the people who were present that, which included our french teacher and the few students who were also involved in the day’s events, each of us budding francophiles.

this brings me back to the question that motivated this post: must we, as academics, cultivate our skills as performers as we figure out this gig? is it enough to go quietly about the work that moves us? publication is certainly one arena in which most of us do publicize our work, within the boundaries accorded to us by journals, conference review panels, and editorial boards. but the same gadgets and gizmos that are offering ever new platforms on which adolescents are telling their tales and hocking their (identity) wares, many of which i enjoy greatly, are presenting the same platforms for grown-ups to tell tales and hock wares.

can those of us who preferred the corners, rich as they were, in our adolescence avoid participation in the centers if we want to thrive and do justice to/for/with the people with whom we work? do we sacrifice access (to potential collaborators, funders, employers) when we eschew the acts of making known in which some of our colleagues engage, that may (definitely) give us pause? are we naive to trust that good work will reach wide audiences?

i would be remiss if i didn’t disclose that i, too, tweet, blog, and use facebook, and have used these and other outlets to inform about and solicit support for youth performances and related events, to share fruits of collective labor, and to spread the word about friends’ and colleagues’ books/projects/causes/and other artifacts in need of wider audiences. so perhaps my own angela-chase-like reticence is what is both holding me back and also sparking the chagrin i experience when i encounter extreme-self-promotion*. there must be a happy medium, but in the meantime all of this talk of high school has made me hungry for a teen angst marathon. and speaking of angela chase


*the “extreme” in “extreme-self-promotion” has its roots in a phrase my mother once used when kindly requesting that i inform one of my younger siblings about the dangers of premature physical involvement while dating.  she called it “extreme physical contact.” i squirmed and later (many years later)  laughed, and now i wonder whether she might have been onto something… there is such a thing as too much too soon.