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.)

What it takes to write

In her piece for the New Yorker titled, “How I get to write,” Roxanna Robinson describes the precious, sacred morning time between the end of sleep and the beginning of writing. The time — or more precisely, the space, the gap in the day when remnants of slumber still linger before the day’s demands become all-consuming.

I brush my teeth, get dressed, make the bed. I avoid conversation, as my husband knows. I am not yet in the world, and there is a certain risk involved in talking: the night spins a fine membrane, like the film inside an eggshell. It seals you off from the world, but it’s fragile, easily pierced.

The “fine membrane” of the previous night is one I want to stay with for longer than I usually am able to, save during breaks and time away — that is to say, physically away. While I don’t agree with all of what she writes (i.e., I love breakfast and, when I allow myself to indulge, truly enjoy the taste of coffee) —

I go down the hall into the kitchen. I don’t like breakfast, but it’s necessary to get through it in order to get to coffee.

I drink instant because I don’t care how it tastes, all I want is the kick. And I don’t want to wait for perking or dripping.

— I do have a deep appreciation for her articulation of the importance of undisturbed times to delve deeply into the gossamer hints of thought that require space to germinate and sprout.

So I don’t read the news or listen to it. Nor do I make a single phone call, not even to find out if the plumber is actually coming that day to fix the sink, which he has failed to do now for five days in a row. One call and I’m done for. Entering into the daily world, where everything is complicated and requires decisions and conversation, means the end of everything. It means not getting to write.

The reason the morning is so important is that I’ve spent the night somewhere else.

This is nowhere I can describe exactly, only that it’s mysterious and limitless, a place where the mind expands.

****
Being awake and ready for writing and being awake in order to be social are two utterly different things. My family knows this well…

****

Still more daily routines of writers were made available recently by Maria Popova over at brainpickings.org:

The Daily Routines of Famous Writers

including, Ernest Hemingway:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

Maya Angelou:

I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work.

Don DeLillo:

I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.

William Gibson:

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

Anaïs Nin:

I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.

and, for E, the wise musings of Benjamin Franklin — seen here in this graphically organized daily routine:

Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule

and now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare to sleep so that I can get up and write.

Snow’s white

Snow started to fall, started to zig and zag maniacally at the whim of the winds and all at once. The first snowfall — that is, the first snow burst of the season.

This was another day that had forgotten how to end. Conversations bled into one another, the clock kept time, but an hour fast because I had not found the time to turn the hands back. For months it had been five minutes slow. And now, keeping time 55 minutes faster than everyone and everything in the surrounding office suite — somehow, that felt all right.

Finally at a few minutes past 10:00 at night, I walked out into the flake filled air and it felt like bliss. This photo — the original is below the doctored one — was one of the first I made that night with my camera’s phone. The frenetic moisture that drenched the night was no deterrence and soon after reaching home, I turned right back around — stopping only to pull on my waterproof boots and grab my slr. Those pics turned out terribly. But for those several minutes, there was no deadline looming, budgets to approve, and the like. There was just a sepia world that awaited…

…recognition.

tragic flaw

We all have them, those personality traits or characteristics that we can’t shake no matter how many self-help books we read, conversations we have with friends, meditation retreats we attend… For some, the trait is being too closed off, putting up boundaries for fear of being disappointed or hurt or angered. For others, the opposite is true — those whose hearts leap out at the first sign of another human being, less than desperate for human contact, so willing to give kindness to friends and strangers alike. I have friends who fit both of these categories, and others for whom saying yes or no is near impossible; still others whose ability to listen to a story of yours was predicated upon the opportunity to top it somehow (Ok, I’m not friends with any of the latter any more.).

I used to think my tragic flaw was procrastination. Last minute is when I did (and still do) everything, it seems. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I working until the very possible moment, working on multiple projects at once — because, while saying “no” is not a problem for me, I can’t quite pass on something that feels right and true and what a friend calls “soul-giving” — and more often than not, working past whatever deadline has been determined. (It doesn’t help to have an overdeveloped sense of how made up everything is… thereby making deadlines seem even more arbitrary than they already are — yet all too real in their made up arbitrariness.) But in this past week, while mired in the aforementioned book deadlines and conference proposal deadlines and grant deadlines and teaching and meetings and email responses and the re-revving up of the reference letter requests and, and, and… an all too simple thought occurred to me. My tragic flaw isn’t waiting until the last minute, nor is it taking on too many projects (for which I only have myself and my very persuasive, overachieving friends to blame — you know who you are…) — no the problem is perplexingly simple: while I have learned to collaborate well, I have not learned to delegate.

Being a “boss” was never a role that appealed to me. It was a different spirit of a university that drew me in, initially. Anne Carson, in describing John Henry Newman’s view, notes that

This gives one great pause — the pursuit of a “useless” existence, and all the trappings that come with claiming such a pursuit, such as accusations of elitism and myopia in the face of a world so burdened in many corners with the mere struggle of survival. But “useless” in Carson and Newman’s estimation is not without purpose; it is without predetermined use.

In this spirit, collaboration exists not only with others, but with the words and ideas of others as well — the “getting lost with abandon” nature of falling into a text or conversation — the full embrace of how artist Tacita Dean describes the experience of reading Sebald:

“He takes you down these poetic cul-de-sacs. And you don’t care that you’re being led nowhere, of course, because you learn so much on the way.”

Is that what a university is for? To be a space where education can be lived, at least in corners and whispers (if not completely out loud), free from agenda or tethers? (I know, I know, I hear it… the preachy-bordering-on-whiny; bear with me.) In her essay, which is titled “The Idea of a University (after John Henry Newman),” Anne Carson continues her simultaneous explication and wondering about knowledge and universities, and because I like her way with words so much I will simply reproduce them here:

In its most beautiful sense, a university setting can be one that nurtures inquiry for the sake of inquiry — a place that embraces, for instance, an ethos of research that is inherently collaborative, collective, and participatory.

But ever at the ready are those elements of the “institutional apparatus” that do not merely maintain but also earnestly endorse the status quo — and it is surprising how much paperwork the status quo requires!

Instead of sitting for hours upon days with transcripts or field notes or revisiting video or in the company of curious adolescents (who never fail to remind us old adults about the true nature of humility), I find my days increasingly taken up instead with decisions about topics too mundane to describe even obliquely. These are the times that try muggles’ souls. Suffice it to say that if someone approached me with an offer to become a painter’s assistant in a seaside Maine town or work in a hat shop along the Seine, I would leave in an instant.

Delegation, it seems to me, requires a certain degree of detachment wherein the task supersedes the person as the valued object. Is there a way to delegate humanely? And do shipbuilders or surgeons even worry about such things? And is not this worry about delegation merely a manifestation of a “use”-driven agenda rearing its ugly head? What does it matter whether the way our department assesses students’ [insert learning objective here] matches or meets the expectations determined by [insert state agency here]? (Would it be terribly wrong if I filled in all of the boxes on all of the grids with a simple “Trust us, it’s good.”?) Wherein delegation so often, but not always, is in service of running a more efficient machine — Sebald’s own words come through here:


For a response — of the sort in which a weary traveler’s nod at a passing delivery boy is done so in recognition of the doing that must be done in the moment in which it is — I turn a final time to Carson’s essay:

An earlier draft of this post once ended with a worry about how one achieves the ability to delegate. But then I took a walk, sat in the company of people who soothe my soul, took another walk, and had yet more conversations with friends and texts (which have become like friends, themselves) and have arrived at the conclusion that I’m going to continue collaborating, learn to delegate in service of that collaboration, and that it may be quite all right to remain inadequate when it comes to complying with the status quo.

In fact, I’d think it rather tragic if this flaw were to, say, suddenly disapparate

friday poem break

Between Going and Coming
by Octavio Paz

Between going and staying
the day wavers,
in love with its own transparency.
The circular afternoon is now a bay
where the world in stillness rocks.

All is visible and all elusive,
all is near and can’t be touched.

Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.

Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.

The light turns the indifferent wall
into a ghostly theater of reflections.

I find myself in the middle of an eye,
watching myself in its blank stare.

The moment scatters. Motionless,
I stay and go: I am a pause.

first days of school

Each August, before the start of the coming school year, while my parents were busy reminding my siblings and me about the importance of doing well in school and making sure each of us was equipped with the necessary accoutrements to face the coming onslaught of new subjects and homework and a surefire method for covering books with brown paper shopping bags, my mind was fixated on notebooks. It must be that the organization of one’s class notes is drilled into children’s minds from an early age because it was the decision that caused me the most anxiety. One multi-subject notebook? Several single-subject notebooks? Loose leaf paper that could be inserted into a neatly organized binder, ready with tabs for each subject? Different colors or the same? Spiral or composition style? I remained unsettled in this annual mental juggernaut for as long as I was allowed, ultimately making the decision at various points throughout my life to try out all of the above configurations. The only decision that has remained consistent for most of my post-pre-teen years is the commitment to college-ruled rather than wide-ruled paper; all bets are off, of course, on the occasions when I choose no rule at all.

This past week, many children in the northeast and many other parts of the country returned to school. They joined their counterparts in warmer climates who were entering their second month of the new year. Following my anxiety-ridden post earlier this week, I was launched into a schedule that unwittingly became a repetitive chorus of 12-14 hour days. Meetings blended into more meetings — in offices, the hallway, impromptu caucusing on the way into and out of the bathroom; and students with whom I hadn’t spoken in a long while aired their welcomes peppered with grievances, while incoming students wove anxiety and confusion into their enthusiasm. Orientation was a blur and I’m not entirely sure what I said or did, other than that I forgot to include more than a few pieces of crucial information. But what is really crucial? What are these men and women doing in a graduate program? How is it that they find themselves here, or there, that is, in that not-too-warm room while the air conditioning unit hanging out of the window high above the room whirred and occasionally grunted as my colleagues and I performed our annual ritual of autobiographical storytelling.

Suddenly, it was my turn. And my only thought, as the fifty new faces focused on me, was that exactly one year ago I had been on my way from Tasmania to Sydney. No, that wouldn’t do. I am [insert my name here], I started to say. And I teach [these courses] and my research is [about this]. And then, as I had done in the beginning of the hourlong program orientation, I welcomed them, and reassured them about their decision to enroll in our program. It was the latter that they needed to hear.

This week was also marked by the news coverage of the Democratic National Convention, as nearly everyone is jabbering about Bill Clinton’s stemwinder. I say that word now with a false ease; until the surplus of speech-related commentaries that saturated every media space following his DNC moment, I really had never heard it before. Or perhaps it’s fair to say that I had never taken notice of the word. (Who can really say for sure that they have never heard of a word, for we hear much of which we take little notice.) Is it really surprising that our former president lingered on the stage, in his inimitable way of captivating a crowd while explaining policy tedium, for near fifty minutes?

A report claims that Clinton admitted to Sandra Fluke, after he congratulated her for her speech, that he was nervous before taking the stage for his. “Sir. Please.” she is quoted as saying in response. But I can believe it.

This strange phase of reentry is overwhelmingly marked by what it is not and what it is missing: slowness, stillness, solitude, silence. These are not my words. That is to say that while I had felt a renewed kinship to these words throughout the past year, I had not said them out loud, all together, to anyone. They were shared with me by a colleague who I saw in the hallway after we had each finished teaching our first class. Both of us had also just finished a year of sabbatical. In the screaming mess of details and minutiae that was swirling around us, particularly at the beginning of the academic year, those twenty minutes in the hallway felt like what I imagine the experience of floating to be: time suspended, an unfettered sensation, yet not all together away from this earth, but temporarily free from the leaden feet we wear to keep ourselves tethered.

She said it out loud: nervous. She was nervous. I was nervous. About expectations, about holding on to what felt so natural for the past year, about finding a way to fit in without becoming the versions of ourselves that were so of this world… in which, somehow, the details not only mattered, but became all consuming, or worse: character defining. To live and work without giving in to the quotidian urgencies that insist on churning out products — forms, email responses, and more. [deleted: some thoughts that bordered too much on whining. That is a definite don’t for this space.]

Much was made of the fact that Clinton ad-libbed many parts of the address delivered to the convention delegates in Charlotte, North Carolina — speaking nearly 5200 words while his prepared remarks were only around 2900 words. He fulfilled his role, his obligations, his expectations… his way. Of course he was experiencing some nerves beforehand. He has the tricky role — or is it fortunate irony? unfortunate challenge? — of being seen as both establishment and maverick.

Slippage into the expected is all too easy.

This year, prepared with a stock of 6×8 lined notebooks and the soliloquy of a stemwinder I’ve been narrating for myself as a form of accidental therapy to treat the previous years of academic pathology, I’m going to remind myself to go off-prompter more than occasionally. I suspect it’s the only way I’ll survive.

forever sabbatical?

The title of the post is somewhat misleading. Sabbatical implies a break, an alternative from the norm, a hiatus, rest from work, a gap. In fact, I have regularly, albeit somewhat jokingly, referred to this past year as a gap year, that tradition in which many high school graduates — less so in the States, and more so in other parts of the world — use the year between high school and college (or university) to travel, see and be in the world in a different way, commune with strangers, and live… whereas the time until then has been dominated by the completion of a series of largely predetermined benchmarks in pursuit of graduation, higher education, or some other objective on the academic trajectory. In this way, we are not so different, those grads and I.

But does a sabbatical ever continue ad infinitum? Is sabbatical a way of life? Can a gap year transform into one’s everyday for longer than may be the social norm? Surely, these are the concerns of the spoiled and coddled? For there are people who roam the earth without any one particular geographical tether not only for a year, and not always by choice, giving rise to the persistent to the question of where any of us really belong.

For the family who blogs at Snaps & Blabs, life on the road has been ongoing for the past 500+ days. In their own words:

This blog is about the life of two vagabonds and their three children, right now traveling around the world on a shoe-string budget.

I started following them around their 500-day mark when someone, yes, tweeted it and of course now I can’t say who or in reference to what. And I am enchanted by their journey as much as their — and when I say “they” I only have the writer’s voice, the group’s representative, to go on — approach to this fantastical adventure on which they have embarked. In addition, the photos they post, most recently from Norway, also provide technicolor windows into this world of ours.

To some, this may seem like uprooting and disruptive. I think, however, of my dear friend A who, with family in tow, is spending a year (maybe more?) in the UK. Their peregrinations are giving form to nascent notions that are not yet ideas, those that are planted in the imagination by the very movement and meanderings that nurture them, creating new roots rather than destroying the original set.

The Snaps and A and the other brave souls who find homes in far corners are embodying Socrates’ famous claim that he is “a citizen of the world.” Believing and enacting in this spirit are entirely two different realities.

For the rest of us, who must resume a slightly more predictable rhythm (for the time being at least) and for whom physical travel in an ongoing way is not realistic, perhaps the lesson is to carry on our persons, at all times, the ethos of this breather from the quotidian — to sabbatical, as in an active claim of respite.

“We only know that to live is to live for.”

Much in the same way that the writings of Transtromer and Calvino found their way onto the dashboard of my mind’s eye, so, too, have the words of Paz once again surfaced and made themselves known. This time, they were delivered via a single tweet and seemingly unrelated (although who am I to say with certainty?) email. Below is the last poem Paz published before his death, whose words sing with a kindred beckoning. It’s hard to know why some arrangements of words formed from letters can speak to hidden parts of one’s being, while others never will. (And why the same words will never really be the same each time we read them.) And why so many of the word arrangements I have encountered these past twelve months, which have invited my mental meanderings to alight for a time, have been penned by men and so few by women; this is not a totalizing statement, just an observation of one person’s readings of late. One wonders, therefore, how the temporal, social, cultural structures of daily life can catalyze or inhibit the sort of commitment — that is, a detachment from quotidian concerns of the administrative nature — that allows someone to remain authorialy suspended in a state of magical realism; or, put more plainly, to whom does life accord the gift of time?

June Jordan, during a reading and discussion at the Kelley Writers House in Philadelphia many years ago, stated that writing of possibility was a luxury that writers like she, who wrote out of urgency, do not have. I am horribly misquoting, of course, but it is a sentiment — the tension between urgency and, by implication, patience — that has stayed with me for over a decade. That’s not to say, of course, that urgent writing is free from possibility, nor that Jordan’s writings, which are full of magic and realism, are merely journalism-turned-poetic prose. [This is one of those times when I realize I’ve gone down a rhetorical garden path and I’m not quite sure of the route that will lead me out. Thus, I will segue inelegantly.]

Perhaps it is also worth noting here that the references to the male writers who have marked the passing of this year — Transtromer, Calvino, & Paz as well as Sebald, Cole, Ondaatje, & Berger, and let’s not forget Borges and Marquez — largely came from men, themselves. I’m not sure why or whether this matters. Nor am I overly concerned that this means anything more than in the cradle of their words and the worlds they conjure is where I am resting for now. Specifically, I find myself facing the few pages that remain to be read in Disgrace by J.M Coetzee and once again I am resisting reading them; the end, of the book and, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, of this time abroad, is near.

A recommendation: Take the time to read through Paz’s poem (below) and, if you will, allow yourself to read it out loud, as a whisper or a shout or something in between.

Response and Reconciliation
Octavio Paz

Ah life! Does no one answer?
His words rolled, bolts of lightning etched
in years that were boulders and now are mist.
Life never answers.
It has no ears and doesn’t hear us;
it doesn’t speak, it has no tongue.
It neither goes nor stays:
we are the ones who speak,
the ones who go,
while we hear from echo to echo, year to year,
our words rolling through a tunnel with no end.
That which we call life
hears itself within us, speaks with our tongues,
and through us, knows itself.
As we portray it, we become its mirror, we invent it.
An invention of an invention: it creates us
without knowing what it has created,
we are an accident that thinks.
It is a creature of reflections
we create by thinking,
and it hurls into fictitious abysses.
The depths, the transparencies
where it floats or sinks: not life, its idea.
It is always on the other side and is always other,
has a thousand bodies and none,
never moves and never stops,
it is born to die, and is born at death.
Is life immortal? Don’t ask life,
for it doesn’t even know what life is.
We are the ones who know
that one day it too must die and return
to the beginning, the inertia of the origin.
The end of yesterday, today, and tomorrow,
the dissipation of time
and of nothing, its opposite.
Then–will there be a then?
will the primogenious spark light
the matrix of the worlds,
a perpetual re-beginning of a senseless whirling?
No one answers, no one knows.
We only know that to live is to live for.

II
Sudden spring, a girl who wakes
on a green bed guarded by thorns;
tree of noon, heavy with oranges:
your tiny suns, fruits of cool fire,
summer gathers them in transparent baskets;
the fall is severe, its cold light
sharpens its knife against the red maples;
Januaries and Februaries: their beards are ice,
and their eyes sapphires that April liquefies,
the wave that rises, the wave that stretches out,
appearances-disappearances
on the circular road of the year
All that we see, all that we forget,
the harp of the rain, the inscription of the lightning,
the hurried thoughts, reflections turned to birds,
the doubts of the path as it meanders,
the wailing of the wind
as it carves the faces of the mountains,
the moon on tiptoe over the lake,
the breezes in gardens, the throbbing of night,
the camps of stars on the burnt field,
the battle of reflections on the white salt flats,
the fountain and its monologue,
the held breath of outstretched night
and the river that entwines it, the pine under the evening star
and the waves, instant statues, on the sea,
the flock of clouds that the wind herds
through drowsy valleys, the peaks, the chasms,
time turned to rock, frozen eras,
time maker of roses and plutonium,
time that makes as it razes.
The ant, the elephant, the spider, and the sheep,
our strange world of terrestrial creatures
that are born, eat, kill, sleep, play, couple,
and somehow know that they die;
our world of humanity, far and near,
the animal with eyes in its hands
that tunnels through the past and examines the future,
with its histories and uncertainties,
the ecstasy of the saint, the sophisms of the evil,
the elation of lovers, their meetings, their contentions,
the insomnia of the old man counting his mistakes,
the criminal and the just, a double enigma,
the Father of the People, his crematory parks,
his forests of gallows and obelisks of skulls,
the victorious and the defeated,
the long sufferings and the one happy moment,
the builder of houses and the one who destroys them,
this paper where I write, letter by letter,
which you glance at with distracted eyes,
all of them and all of it, all
is the work of time that begins and ends.

III
From birth to death time surrounds us
with its intangible walls.
We fall with the centuries, the years, the minutes.
Is time only a falling, only a wall?
For a moment, sometimes, we see
–not with our eyes but with our thoughts–
time resting in a pause.
The world half-opens and we glimpse
the immaculate kingdom,
the pure forms, presences
unmoving, floating
on the hour, a river stopped:
truth, beauty, numbers, ideas
–and goodness, a word buried
in our century.
A moment without weight or duration,
a moment outside the moment:
thought sees, our eyes think.
Triangles, cubes, the sphere, the pyramid
and the other geometrical figures
thought and drawn by mortal eyes
but which have been here since the beginning,
are, still legible, the world, its secret writing,
the reason and the origin of the turning of things,
the axis of the changes, the unsupported pivot
that rests on itself, a reality without a shadow.
The poem, the piece of music, the theorem,
unpolluted presences born from the void,
are delicate structures
built over an abyss:
infinities fit into their finite forms,
and chaos too is ruled by their hidden symmetry.
Because we know it, we are not an accident:
chance, redeemed, returns to order.
Tied to the earth and to time,
a light and weightless ether,
thought supports the worlds and their weight,
whirlwinds of suns turned
into a handful of signs
on a random piece of paper.
Wheeling swarms
of transparent evidence
where the eyes of understanding
drink a water simple as water.
The universe rhymes with itself,
it unfolds and is two and is many
without ceasing to be one.
Motion, a river that runs endlessly
with open eyes through the countries of vertigo
–there is no above nor below, what is near is far–
returns to itself
–without returning, now turned
into a fountain of stillness.
Tree of blood, man feels, thinks, flowers,
and bears strange fruits: words.
What is thought and what is felt entwine,
we touch ideas: they are bodies and they are numbers.
And while I say what I say
time and space fall dizzyingly,
restlessly. They fall in themselves.
Man and the galaxy return to silence.
Does it matter? Yes–but it doesn’t matter:
we know that silence is music and that
we are a chord in this concert.

endless summer nights*

ok, it’s not quite summer but as the calendar approaches the solstice and the days get longer, the effect is especially glorious on this side of the atlantic. i’ll post a few pics of the very late setting sun soon, but for now just want to share the forecast for tomorrow evening’s weather:

sunny?! at 9pm! bliss, no matter however fleeting.

june really is the noon of months.

 

*bonus points if you were expecting an homage to one mr. marx — referring, of course, to the 1980’s pop star and not the 1880’s** philosopher.
** double bonus points if you let it slide that i took some poetic license with karl since most of his writings were published earlier than his death in 1883.

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…

48 hours – part 1

“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.  (One is unable to notice something — because it is always before one’s eyes.) . . . And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein

The question of what moves us — to say, do, think, imagine, and more — is an awesome and seemingly unquenchable one. I’m not sure, then, what moved me or what led me to the annual LSE Literary Festival, itself an inspired and energizing collection of panels, discussions, and events across a large variety of topics and perspectives. This is not the image I had in my mind of the London School of Economics. A cousin and acquaintances a few times removed attended the institution as students and I have met a colleague from there at conferences, but it remained in my imagination as a place of study of all things financial and economic. I was judging the book by the cover (which itself is a fantastical and unexpected adventure). Over the course of 48 hours, however, I was treated to a veritable “deluxe buffet” (Vegas style, that is, because cornucopia or smorgasbord don’t quite cover it; if you’ve seen a Vegas buffet, you know what of what I speak) of ideas that, strangely, increased in degree of familiarity and immediacy in relation to my own work as the two days unfolded.

On Thursday afternoon, I attended panel discussion about social class in England whose speakers used as their discursive springboard the publication of the book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones (2011). Talk quickly turned to questions of media representations of “the working-class” over time and the ways in which fictionalized media portrayals shape and are shaped by political press and public policy. Mr. Jones opened the discussion with fiery eloquence (the kind that leaves us when we leave our youth, and let us hope that never happens) and wove together a database-worth of facts, dates, policy decisions, and popular culture references for the first twenty minutes. One assertion at the heart of his contextualizing preface for the book’s existence was that “working class” has come to be seen as a slur in a world in which middle class – wealth, access, and the Bourdieuian notion of dispositions – is seen as the primary aspiration. (Hello social mobility, you old and never aging friend.)

Next I walked, in a bit of daze if I’m being honest, into a screening of two poetically-minded films and a reading of poems joined together by the theme “Poetry Unites.” It didn’t seem at all coincidental that one session should follow the other, as talk of increased divisiveness in the world and questions of who benefits from persistent demonization and criminalization of one set of practices were implicitly addressed by the collective readings of poems and poetic musings of an array of children and adults, alike. In a recent interview with the Al-Jazeera network, Kwame Anthony Appiah echoes another take on the tension that was the connective tissue across both sessions as he wisely notes, “We’re all citizens of the world, but we’re all different. And that’s a good thing.”

Same, different, unification and division. I sat with these thoughts while hearing from the filmmaker Ewa Zadrzynska, about her film “My favorite poem” and the larger project on which this film is based. Several participants in succession responded to prompts in the form of memories, narratives, recollections, and anecdotes that were filled with gesticulations, tilts of the head, eyes that were roving or quietly fixed on a spot somewhere above them as they got lost in their own memories. Each person in the film shared a rendition of his or her favorite poem. I wish I had written down the name of each of them, of any of them. But all I could do was listen, as they performed the words with voices that rose with the evocation of anticipation and moved their bodies in rhythm with the poetic cadence. One girl, aged nine, began to read a poem in Polish about a monster from a large book with a greenish cover. By the middle of the multi-stanza piece, she began to connect the words to one another and by the time she had recited two-thirds of the poem, she was in full song and wearing a broad smile that took up the entirety of her thin, heart-shaped face. The Poetry Unites film project was inspired by a similar project initiated in the United States by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky called the Favorite Poem Project. Unlike the American version, Zadrzynska’s film project was intended to focus more on the people than the poems with a particular interest in those who were otherwise shy to share their lives on film. Poetry, she says, was a conduit for visibility. All of her participants eagerly talked about poetry in their lives.

I moved again when I listened to Philip Gross read from his recently published collection of poems entitled, “Deep Field,” that was written in response to his father’s loss of language due to deafness  — his father, who once spoke multiple languages, now struggles to communicate in one. Gross wondered aloud, as he gathered himself in between his readings, “Where is a person when they aren’t with their words any more?” His was a deeply human and communicative question that felt at once intimate and universal. This framing of the query distinguished it in tone and meaning from others that related to more clinical aspects of aphasias or to linguistic ability and grammatical correctness. “Their words” suggests something held close. Each person has words. What happens when those words, each one born out of moment of need or play or discovery or pain or joy, that were once felt and used and relied upon, suddenly or gradually cease to exist? He was referring, it seemed, to a linguistic ghost limb.

Perhaps not ironically in the least, I found myself having — as in holding, experiencing, undergoing, feeling, witnessing — a philosophical moment. As if in that moment, even the platelets zipping through my veins understood in a new way the “know” in the statement “I know that I know nothing.” Attributed, either in this or a related form, to Socrates, this quote has played like a theme song since I first encountered it in this form less than a few years ago. But sitting in the audience, as talk of the way poetry can illuminate even it as makes oblique the very thing we wish to understand – as if, like the Magic Eye 3D images demand, looking beyond at what is not there in order to increase the clarity of the image hidden in plain sight – I felt awash with knowing. That is, I was keenly and viscerally aware, if only for the briefest of moments, that in fact, I know absolutely nothing. Is this perhaps because there is nothing to actually know in a world that is constantly changing? Or perhaps after all this time on earth, have I  come to realize that I have in fact gathered nothing that you can actually know in the possessive sense of the word? But I am not a philosopher and these are musings for another post by another author.

The applause to the session hung in the air that had just previously been filled with poems and talk of poems. As the audience walked down either aisle of the lecture hall, an LSE student was at the ready with a copy of “Around the world in 80 lines” – a collection of four-line, philosophically-minded poems; a publication of Philosoverse, a group of students at LSE who are interested in the intersections between philosophy and poetry. I was indeed “struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.”

And then off I went to be a judge for a poetry slam. More on that and Part 2 to come…

leap!

Everywhere I turn, tv-wise and elsewhere, there is much being made about Leap Day. I don’t think I ever thought about the day quite as much as I have in the lead up to it, now just hours away. It was Leap Year that was always in my mind. That calendrical anomaly of Gregorian gerrymandering in which a day was added to the year and we all accepted it. 365 instead of 366. But Leap Day. How would we treat this extra day that has been tacked onto the end of February?

Today, I overheard a conversation between two women, presumably friends, who were discussing this rare event, the extra day. Perhaps you should propose to your boyfriend, the one with shorter hair said with her American English to her friend with longer hair who responded in her British English, “Who, me? That’s a laugh.” Not too far off, however, according to the lore of Leap Day traditions.

Earlier in the day, while waiting for an Americano at a Caffe Nero near the north end of the Waterloo Bridge, I overheard a young man who looked to be in his twenties enthusiastically regaling his older, female friend with his plans for his day off. She seemed less enthused than he, but this uninspired response did not seem to dampen his spirits. It’s Leap Day, after all.

The general spirit seems to be that when given an extra day such as this, we might do that which we might not otherwise do. But I wonder: do we know ourselves too well to let ourselves do something out of the ordinary? Dare we break our rhythms and routines? And to what degree? A change of socks or a different flavor tea for some; a new language or whole identity for others. And something in between for the rest of us, I reckon.

In the spirit of leaping, I reprint here the poem by W.H. Auden I originally included in a post made just as I was preparing to leave my New York apartment for the year. That seems like a lifetime ago, and I can only help that I withstand this steady seduction that London is performing on me so I might return to that city once again.

But tomorrow, Leap Day, is a different story. Which story, that’s yet to be seen…

And now, without further ado, Mr. Auden:

Leap Before You Look

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.

The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.

The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.

Much can be said for social savior-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

– W. H. Auden

must do lists

We all have them, must do lists that we enact even if we aren’t aware of them. That list of things we do to acclimate ourselves in new surroundings. For some, it’s connecting with friends and family, for others it’s seeking out and dining in local restaurants. Apparently these are mine:

– cafes and coffee shops, scouting and frequenting, for writing and people watching in

– grocery store comparative ethnography, which yes, involves registering for a points accrual card

– walking, aimlessly and with purpose — the purpose being to achieve enough of a sense of directionality that any point I know where I am on the imaginary map in my mind. For HP fans, yes it’s my own version of the marauder map and I am the moving dot.

– book stores, for book viewing, greeting card purchasing, conversation having – libraries, not just visiting but signing up for a membership card

– public transportation, for riding to rest my weary feet when I’ve walked too far, and for those accidental encounters like the one last night when an enchanting 4 or 5 year old girl, telling jokes replete with utterly beguiling British inflections, was tugging at my dress and tickling me by the end of our 10-stop-long ride together, much to the embarrassment of her French father. For my part, wary of not wanting to encourage small children’s interactions with strangers, kept my distance but could not help but laugh along at her endless string of “guess why” jokes. In a similar scenario that took place a few years ago in New Orleans, another girl around the same age struck up a conversation with me, en francais, on a hotel elevator and by the end of the 33-floor ride, was inviting me to accompany her and her father on their afternoon visit to the zoo.

And of course, starting to talk like the locals. I can’t really help it if I start my interactions with a friendly Hiya, now can I?

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!

good tidings and good intentions

woody guthrie‘s new year’s resolutions (via @boingboing)

woody guthrie's 1942 new year's resolutions

i especially love the sketches made to emphasize the resolutions — see for example next to #31, the outstretched hug and kiss (Smack!) to the world on the bottom right.  and #15 — “Learn People Better” — couldn’t we all use a lesson in that?

enjoy!