My grandmother, the tweeter

I awoke this morning with a question: would my grandmother have tweeted?

She passed away before twitter was even a germinating notion and before email was as ubiquitous as it is now. The most prevalent form of social media were the conversations during which she and I would dissect plot and motive from a recent episode of “Murder She Wrote” or “Hunter.”

But she was a correspondent. True, she had a readership of just one: her younger brother who lived in India. But to him she told the news of the day, of the goings-on in her corner of the States, and general musings about her quotidian observations. She wrote in Tamil, a script I only recognized by shape but whose meaning eluded me. Sometimes my grandmother would translate what she was writing; only now does it occur to me that she could have been lying! I doubt it, but…

If she were to tweet, I bet she would have adopted a less publicly public persona. That’s not to say her tweets would be protected. But they might be somewhat disguised, and her twitter handle would likely hearken back to the days of early email usernames when people relished in concocting absurd monikers for themselves, a time when anonymity reigned supreme (rather than the branding and self-marketing that marks today’s norm).

Some options:

@Kalpathi4eva (she was born in the village of Kalpathi, and so…)
@Hunterfan (self explanatory)
@Breadupma (would take too long to explain)
@Loosekanji (so would this)

As for the content, I wonder if her tweets would contain bits of song she would often invoke to underscore a point, draw out unexpected contours of experience, or simply as an excuse to break up the afternoon. Or might they be quotes from the Bhagavad Gita or the Ramayana, two books she read and reread incessantly? Or perhaps, if she were to continue with her flaneuse-like tendencies and resume circumambulating our childhood neighborhood as once used to do, perhaps she would recount odd bits of conversations that caught her as she passed by — below, snippets I overheard during last night’s walk:

 [Young man to a young woman he was walking with]: “Do you smell that?” deep breath “I love the smell of late evening in the spring.”

[Teenage girl crossing the street with two girlfriends]: “Omigod, I am fat. No, I am. I am! I am fat.” Over her friends’ protestations: “That’s rubbish.”

[Young woman sitting next to a young man on a bench in the park]: “I’ve never had a one night stand.”

[Two men standing on the corner smoking cigarettes, the one with worried eyes did the talking]: “Have you heard anything? Has there been any communication?” The other shakes his head.

So, would grandma have been a tweeter? I can’t say for sure, but given the way the platform keeps people in the forefront of my mind’s eye, I’d like to think so. 

Senioritis

Sure, the colloquial meaning of the word refers to an attitude of slacking off often found among the behaviors of high school seniors — and occasionally college seniors — who are nearing graduation. It is the lame duck period after college acceptances have been confirmed and graduation is not threatened, when the motivation to perform according to the rules of school decorum and expectations is dangerously low. I experienced a significant bout of this myself when I was seventeen, causing one of my teachers to worry that I may have to sit for a final exam instead of being exempt, a reward given to seniors who received “all A’s” in each of the four marking periods; I was poised to receive a “B” in my English course, a class I loved and looked forward to, but I had simply run out of words. I could write no more. I had no words left to produce the perfunctory papers that were required of me and my fellow students. It was also the class in which I discovered and read (and re-read) Anna Karenina; and verbally dressed-down a classmate for his insistence on literary insouciance. It had been a relatively good four years, but I was done. And I was ready to move (on).

But, I digress… and as we(e) academics are wont to do, I am opting to take a perfectly familiar notion like senioritis and imbue it with yet another meaning. (Take heart that I haven’t gone the path of creating arbitrarily complicated language for perfectly simple notions. Well, not here, anyway…)

I am referring to the character that gyms take on between the hours of 11:00a – 12:30p and 2:00p – 4:00p — the quality of being overrum with silver foxes tending to their arthritis, looking to soothe their bursitis, searching for exercise elixirs to ease other their joint pains as they commune with fellow septua– and octogenarians.

These are the times of day when I most love to visit the gym. Gone are the early morning, pre-work runners; missing are the mid-day warriors whose presence spreads out across the weights and the bicycles — these are times of the day when the gym is a place to engage differently. Some seniors take a class in the group activity room, raising a five-pound barbell in the air for six or eight repetitions, laughing all the while with the others in the room. (Oh, how I secretly wish to join their cult – the carefree, the years of institutional malarkey behind them.) Others seem to get lost on the elliptical machines, intentional in their workout gear and sporting headbands, knee-braces, and the odd wrist band. And still others are giving the un-retired a run for their money, literally, as they outpace their younger counterparts on the treadmill or climb artificial stairs with ease. What sets these retirees apart is the absence of hunched shoulders, tightened faces, teeth grinding, and the scowl that the others wear — those who must return to their desks/cubicles/offices/trucks/ and other sites of labor. In the locker room, the stories they share are tender, nostalgic, and wickedly funny; not all, but most.

Perhaps Senioritis is not slacking, but instead a slackening of the vice-like grips that govern our lives otherwise – a release of obligations, a recognition of the arbitrariness of social order, a reduced adherence to what were once strict rules of living…

…and the more than fifty shades of gray… their beautiful locks in all shades of gray, proud demonstrations of time gone by, of lives having been lived and being lived.

Viva la Senioritis!

A Christmas story

My father’s birthday falls about a week before Christmas and for the past several years my siblings and I have had some local chocolates delivered to his place of business. There is much fanfare, his employees are also able to participate in the fun, and the delivery makes the day memorable for all involved. This year, as he was approaching a milestone birthday, I thought briefly of doing something different — that is to say, ordering a delivery from somewhere different. The town where I spent my childhood, and where my father still lives, is not entirely devoid of clever gustatory options but since taking my leave many years ago I am less familiar with what those options may be. So after approximately two hundred seconds of google-mediated soul-searching, I opted to stay with tradition. Not being tethered to a sense of tradition in most of other parts of my life, this decision was therefore more practical than sentimental. However, all that changed after a phone call.

I rang the local chocolate shop on the weekend prior to the big birthday and proceeded to explain my request. I wanted a one-pound box of sugar free chocolates (for my diabetic dad) and a box of other chocolates (for his non-diabetic staff) delivered to his office. The voice on the other end of the phone balked. Wha– Um– We don’t do deliveries…? She said in that inflected manner in which statements sound curiously like questions. I explained slowly that I had been placing the same order for at least five or six years now and each time it is a delivery order. Um…. hold on. [I can hear some conversation on the other end between my telephone interlocutor and her colleague (collective age, 35… I’m guessing…) and then returns, with a gasp, to the phone] Yeah, we don’t deliver…? Um, but you can call Sue on Monday. She can help you…? I thanked her for her assistance and then on the following Monday morning, I placed a call and had the most pleasant chat with Sue:

Me: Hi, may I speak with Sue please?

Sue: This is Sue.

Me: Hi Sue, this is [me] and I’m calling to place an order for delivery for my dad’s birthday.

Sue: Oh! I was waiting for your call! How are ya? How’s your dad?

Me: I’m doing well and so is he, thanks. And you? You must be busy this time of year.

Sue: [pause] Yeah… well, I hope it gets busier. [pause] Well, what are we putting together this time? The sugar free box, right?

Me: Yes! And also something for his staff — maybe you can help me with this.

Sue: Sure — so the one-pound assortment – Sugar Free! I always remember [i think i hear her smiling] and I’m putting a label on it, too — and then, do you wanna put together a tray of other goodies? We’ve done a few for some local law firms — we package them up nicely with cellophane and wrapping — the whole works. It’ll be great.

Me: That sounds really lovely. Thank you — I think they’ll enjoy it. [pause] Do you need the address?

Sue: Nah — I know where it is — on the second floor, right? Yeah, not a problem.

I give her my payment information, and spell out the names for the card, and thank her again for her help.

Sue: Oh, it’s my pleasure. And thank you for thinking of us.

We hang up. Her last words linger in my mind as I recall her response to my query about how busy they must be: “I hope it gets busier.” And suddenly I am overcome with a deep (albeit somewhat fleeting) sense of sadness. All of the chatter in the mediaspheres about fiscal cliffs, taxes on small businesses, the pundits and politicians waxing (non)philosophic about the pl/fight of the middle class — all came into stark relief in this small moment. Business decoupled from finance, businesses as staples of communities, businesses as dependent upon and depended on by citizens. In a world dominated by Amazon and the like, it’s easy to forget (or at least it was for me) the importance of the smallness. Local is not mere ontology or discursive opposition to global — local is quotidian, local is lived, local is in many ways global itself. (I’m resisting the urge here to pontificate further on this notion: What is globalization but a series of connected locals?… You’re welcome)

Now, I’m no purist nor extremist (nor any -ist, really) — I won’t stop using Amazon, but in the moment of my conversation with Sue, and our follow-up exchange (below), the bigness of small moments moved me deeply. And I’m reminded of the fruit and veg stand on Southampton Row near the Sainsbury’s where I bought fruit for several months last year; and the series of coffee shops around my home in Philadelphia that are not franchised, some of which are host to artwork by local artists including:

  • Chapterhouse – where there’s an exhibit by Lynette Shelley and Eleanor Grosch currently ongoing
  • Red Hook Coffee – currently hosting a photography exhibit by students from Fleischer Arts til January 20th.

*****
Later the same afternoon–

Me: Hi Sue, I saw you called.

Sue: Oh yeah, I forgot how to spell your dad’s last name but then I remembered right after I called you.

Me: Ok, great. Did you need anything else?

Sue: No, it worked out fine. Your dad is so cute — as soon as I walked in, he looked up and said “She never forgets.” And he looked so happy. And we put the cookie tray in the main room for everyone to enjoy.

Me: Thank you so much. Really.

Sue: Well, thank you for thinking of us and using us. Have a good holiday.

Me: You, too.

It turns out that they do not, in fact, deliver. Except for this delivery each December. For the past few years, and, if I can help it, for the next several to come.

****

May 2013 bring continued glimpses of humanity, joy, and small moments that make up lives…

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Seen on a wall, on a small street in Philadelphia

Slip and fall

 

The almost-gash on my leg, just below my knee, refuses to bleed. The indentation, the size of a large staple, taunts me as if it is daring me to take a closer look, knowing full well that the sight of actual blood would induce swooning. So instead, the capillaries along the two-inch abrasion scream silently, the bright maroon from a few hours ago now settling into a brownish wine color. Another, smaller patch of this strange hue sits just millimeters below.

It’s not the pain or the embarrassment that lingers after a fall. No, it’s the split second between realizing you’re about to fall and the moment you begin your descent. The heart, perhaps out of self-preservation, holds its breath. We’re falling, it says, steadying itself before bracing for impact. It’s that instant that reoccurs, the memory of the moment just prior to losing all control that leaves the most indelible mark on the mind and in the body. It’s a recognition of fear about which we can do nothing but succumb. Powerless.

Let me go back a few hours, back before I had cause to wonder how early my doctor would be able to see me Monday morning.

Friday, the 23rd, the day after American Thanksgiving. To the internet and consumerist world, it is Black Friday. For me and three others with whom I passed the time this afternoon, it was a respite from the busy-ness of ordinarily hectic and over-scheduled days. All of us educators and researchers; three of us faculty at universities and the fourth a junior high teacher; all of us, despite our geographic distance, are ever in conversation with one another.

I snapped the second plastic buckle into place and adjusted my scarf before swinging the bag over left shoulder. What I was wearing as a scarf was a large, rectangular, thick cut of green wool that my grandmother had used as a shawl. Along the edges thread has been woven back and forth to resemble the shape of flowers or something else in the flora family. Folded lengthwise, I could wrap it around my neck a few times or, as I was wearing it this time, I often left one end hanging low in front of me and flung the other end across the opposite shoulder. As I started walking toward the door, I was filled with a soothing bliss, a flashing remembrance of the last several hours spent in the company of friends and colleagues with whom I had attended graduate school, with whom I enjoy talking and thinking about and imagining new questions and ideas that arise from our intersecting threads of inquiry.

We sat in the corner, occupying two small tables that on one side offered seating in the form of a curved cushioned bench with a tall, arched back covered in dark fabric, and on the other side could accommodate chairs. I had noticed the clusters of food scraps that rose up from the dark, vinyl floor like mini-landfills here and there, but, other than making a mental note to avoid them I hadn’t paid them much mind. During the course of the afternoon spent at the cafe where I once was employed for 36 hours, and to whose food preparers I almost completely handed over the responsibility of meal preparation during the year that I was writing my dissertation, I had successfully maneuvered my way to the counter to order a total of two cups of coffee and a scone. The service had been pleasant — not overly impressive given my very simple order, but worth noting all the same.

My friend, who would be giving me a ride home, walked a few steps in front of me and I had no reason to think anything was out of the ordinary… and the next instant, I was gripping onto metal and plastic poles that had been set up to direct traffic to the salad station. Down I went, but not before gliding uncontrollably for what, in that instant, felt like an unending spell of torture — the ground mocking me as I struggled to maintain some semblance of an upright posture before recognizing that pain would be unavoidable.

Perhaps I should have stayed down for a few more seconds, but in that most powerless of moments, the only thing the body wants to do is return to normal. How bad can it be, you think, fully aware that your shock impulses have taken over. There is an inexplicable impulse  to smooth your hair, to dust the unbelievably filthy floor dirt from off of your jeans, and then, while all of this maneuvering is happening, a glimpse of crumbs on the floor. A patch of wet crumbs. The culprit. So harmless looking. A non-issue had the crumbs never been dropped, or had they been swept up in a more timely fashion.

And it was perhaps this latter point that brought the manager, who was working his very first shift, rushing outside while my friend and I waited for our ride. Was I ok? Was I sure? What was my name? First name? Last name? And my number? And my address? But I wasn’t comfortable sharing my address. Oh, well my supervising manager will ask me for it. My head was reeling, I wasn’t all quite there. Thankfully, my friend had the presence of mind to ask for the manager’s card, noting that I would get myself checked out and be in touch if necessary. The man shook my hand asking, Are you sure you’re ok? Do you promise?

My friend later told me that I had inadvertently used the magic words that no business wants to hear: Slip and fall. It was the simplest explanation. And yet, they carry with them the ominous promise of legal action. Litigious action was the furthest thing from my mind as I inspected my leg at the scene of the crime incident. A visible scrape, some swelling, the promise of an abrasion and no doubt a scar to come.

Our bodies carry stories. And now mine carries a reminder of one more.

Stories people tell me (1)

I can’t promise this is exactly how the storytellers worded them, but what follows is how I heard the stories unfold. Below, the first of three heard this past week.

Story 1 – graduate student, my office, in response to a remark about the black plastic bag containing the student’s belongings:

“Yesterday, while standing on the subway returning from [the place I work] to campus, I saw an older European man coming toward me. I assumed he was European – German, maybe – because he was wearing shorts and I guess that’s what I assume when I see shorts on a grown man in October. As he walked by me, trying to find a more suitable place to stand is what I thought to myself, his feet tapped mine. He mumbled something that resembled an apology, but I can’t be certain. After taking pains to circumambulate me, he stopped so that his back was now inches from my face. His shirt was tucked into his shorts, and then, without warning, I see [at this point, the student makes a hand gesture that, in the States, is occasionally used when singing the nursery rhyme “Itsy Bitsy Spider”] … a bed bug. And then, before I could get over my shock, another one crawling up the other side of his back. At this point, I’m thinking, ‘what do I do?’ because I can’t exactly yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded subway car. As I think, I begin to slowly inch backward, ensuring that the space between us is steadily increasing. What did I do? I got out of the subway car at the first opportunity! But then, realizing that I had further to go before getting where I needed to go, I hopped back onto another car on the same train and hoped that the man with the shorts had not been there first. And so, when I got home, I emptied the contents of my bag and washed it, which is where it is now and which is why I am using this black plastic bag to carry my things.”

Kerala travelogue 3 – Part 1: The Cyprus Edition

(this one’s been in the hopper for a while, unfinished, because there was always more to add. it’s still not quite where i want it to be, and still unfinished, so i offer you here one part of a multi-part reflection that connects kerala with cyprus and the uk through the simple thread of human hospitality and the impetus for story-sharing)

****

What is your hyphenation?

This was the question posed to me during an exchange about identity markers, labels and categorizations — those that are asserted as well as those that are given. It was March and I was enjoying the warm embrace of Cyprus when this set of transnational interactions transpired via twitter direct messaging, and while in this island mecca I found myself, quite unexpectedly, invoking my recent trip to India with startling regularity — startling to me given that my ethnic origin is rarely on the tip of my tongue or the first site of reference. And yet, as I found myself in the company of my friend, the very lovely and peerlessly hospitable S, and her charming and incredibly warm family, I was immediately and frequently moved to share tales of my recent travels to India and the stories they evoked of memories and long-forgotten family traditions. Conversation in the form of story-sharing was the apt garnish to the preparing, consuming, and communing around food that characterized a large part of my time in Cyprus.

On my first night in Larnaca, the town where I spent three of my six nights in the island nation, I was taken to a restaurant that was known to S and her husband from the time of their youth; a place that despite the immediate blanket of low light that greets its visitors, is filled with brightly colored paintings and other artwork — some of which, S told me, were made by the owner herself, who greeted my hosts with an air of familiarity, not quite the intimacy of family but certainly not the reservation of strangers. So consumed with our conversation had I been, that I was literally caught off guard by the flavor of the tomatoes in the salad. Tomatoes! Fruit in vegetable’s clothing that I rarely, until that night, ate fresh because years of mealy, overripe, flavorless varieties had made a jaded tomato eater (read: avoider) out of me. Tomatoes were, until that night, strictly relegated to the sauté pan for stir fry or tomato sauce recipes.

It would not be an exaggeration to state, plainly and without hyperbole, that first taste of tomato was nothing short of a gustatory revelation. No, a revelation. Period.

The next night, with not-too-distant memories of a familiarly strange flavor on my mind, I was treated to a homemade dinner of two traditional Greek soups: Trahana, made with the dried and sour wheat cakes and halloumi cheese and a second soup made of lemon, egg, and rice, the name of which escapes me at the moment. Once prepared, the soups joined the salad, asparagus dish, a pastry-type appetizer, and bottle of wine already placed on the neatly set table around which S’s parents, brother and sister-in-law, spouse and little V had already gathered. As the soups and libation flowed, so, too, did the stories – of living in Larnaca, of being forced out of the now-Turkish occupied northern section of the island, of being a teacher in Cyprus – and the questions – how was I enjoying myself? Was I born in the United States? How often did I visit India? What was my plan for the week?

In this scenario, I was the linguistically disadvantaged one, with nearly zero Greek words in my language knapsack – it was just on this trip that I learned that “ne,” contrary to phonological leanings – means “yes” – and my hosts bridged our language gap with ease, sharing stories, asking questions, answering my questions, and making me feel completely at home. It was here when I was first aware that I was reaching into my deep stores of childhood memories and recent conversations with familiar and unfamiliar strangers while traveling through Kerala.

There is a kinship between these countries and its inhabitants that was rendered in the abundant offerings of food, in the understood practices of talking over one another to communicate a point, and found in the unspoken transitions between hospitality and communion. When learning about the preparation of food, I shared my own early experiences of learning to cook alongside whomever was in the kitchen – very often, this was my grandmother, who catered to my particular and fickle adolescent tastes. And no story of my grandmother is complete without the added detail that she was my very first roommate, personal storyteller, and witness to my earliest dream-state ramblings and pontifications.

The dining table is a gathering place, a get-to-know-you spot, a place in which to learn about the world and debate its great possibilities and unspeakable disappointments, a mantle on which to lay the intersecting storied histories each of us weaves.

We traversed the small but culturally expansive terrain, S and I, and stayed overnight in the mountain village of Kalopanayiotis. I fell in love with this tucked away cluster of homes and homestays much in the same way I was enchanted by the tea plantations and hills of Munnar. In both places, the roads twisted and wound their way from one side of the mountain to another. Unlike the “only in Kerala” imagery of construction happening (quite literally) at the speed of one grandmother carrying a large stone on her head at a time, Kalopanayiotis was even less hurried in its existence; and unlike the countless shacks and more makeshift housing structures found on the subcontinent, the Cypriot village homes that we saw all had doors and small gardens and, I suspected and fantasized, an endless supply of halloumi cheese in their refrigerators.

But places, no matter how picturesque, gain meaning and memory through the people who pass through them. And on the morning we were set to leave the village, S and I encountered a woman that I know neither of us will forget. She looked to be at least seventy – we later learned that she was well into her 80s – and was standing at the foot of a small bridge and holding a bag as we approached after visiting the nearby church. The grey of her hair that was half visible underneath the scarf that was tied around her head matched the shirt that was tucked into a long, black skirt that was topped a black apron – as if she had left her house with great urgency; I imagined food that was in the process of being cooked and wondered how long she had been in possession of her apron, acknowledging that it could might also just be a fashion statement.

Her smile was instant and grew even wider when she spotted S; she took a few steps forward and said hello and in Greek asked S if we were visiting the village. For the next few minutes, the two Cypriots talked and I could tell there were questions being asked and answers being proffered; S occasionally paused to translate for me in the middle of bemused laughter at this situation that would turn out to be a highlight – not only of this trip, but also of the sabbatical thus far. The animated chatter stopped abruptly and the woman linked her arm with S’s and began walking, with me following alongside them. As we walked, S quickly filled me in: the woman was newly widowed, her husband had passed away just 45 days ago and she was returning home from visiting his grave. When she learned I was visiting from America, she told S that her brother lives in San Diego, that she had visited him before, and that another brother makes his home in Madison, WI. It turned out that the brother in the Midwest was known to S and this instantly made her like kin to the old woman who insisted we accompany her to her home for some food and drink. There was no argument that would be worth launching in the face of such staunch conviction. For a woman in her eighties, she had an impressive gait that she did not break as she turned back and shouted to her friend Antigone that she had “found some company!” and was going home. (S translated this, as well, in between her own laughter at the woman’s joyous declaration.) Antigone, just a few years younger than her friend, it seemed, quickly followed suit.

Once we reached the woman’s home just steps away from the other side of the bridge, we were treated to an assortment of Greek sweets and pastries and homemade iced tea served to us by a younger woman who appeared to be a housekeeper, while our host shared photos of her children and grandchildren during momentous occasions in their lives – graduations, weddings, anniversaries. (I was involved in a rather peculiar exchange with the woman’s youngest son, which I will save for a future post as it contributes to my ongoing musings about how the world views the US.)

The offerings of food and stories and memories that were being made to us was reminiscent of the impromptu visit my travel companions (one of my parents and my spouse) and I had with an octogenarian living in the village where my grandmother spent her childhood. In fact, the woman lived next door to the home where my great-grandparents raised most of their sixteen children, only about half of whom survived to reach adulthood. My grandmother was the youngest daughter and she was closest in age and in communication with the brothers who were immediately older and younger than she. The woman answered our knock on the iron bars in front of her door verbally first before making her way to the entrance. She paused as she looked up and listened as we announced our presence and purpose of the visit. Once she had made the connection – that we were relatives, descendants of her one-time neighbors – she turned the lock and joined us on what amounted to her front porch (or stoop, depending on your geo-linguistic preference).

Dressed, as my spouse pointed out later, in her Wimbledon best, she instantly began to recall stories of my grandmother, her parents, and her siblings and their various comings and goings. As she talked and gesticulated and directed her attention alternatingly at each of us, she interrupted herself briefly to ask her nephew – who was visiting from Canada and who, dressed in sweatpants and a tee shirt was clearly not expecting visitors – to bring out bananas that were in her kitchen. He obliged and our protestations were in vain, and so we obediently consumed the mini-bananas that are indigenous to this and other warm climates, as we listened and laughed and allowed ourselves to be temporarily transported to another moment in time.

[end of Travelogue 3, Part 1. Part 2 coming soon… including tales about my great-grandparents, village hospitality, and how this all relates back to a peak hike in Sheffield via a discursive pitstop back in Larnaca.]

Our eyes are always adjusting

Charlie Chaplin was supposed to be performing silly gestures on the large screen in the auditorium. At least that’s what my classmates and I had been told by our teacher about the movie we were watching just before the winter break. Or was it the day before spring break? Does The Tramp have a designated season? No matter — he is only relevant to this story because of what he represents in the longer narrative about my ability to see. I was in the eighth grade, sitting on a wooden seat that folds down to accommodate the occupant, in one of several dozen rows filled with the thirteen and near-thirteen year olds, and as the film reel flickered high above us onto the wide screen on the stage, I was hit with a startling reality: I couldn’t see. The black and white masses bled into one another creating, in the wake of their forced union, pulsating figures of grey shapes for which no other name but “blob” would fit. What was Charlie doing? Was he dancing? Bouncing? Running away from comic villains? For half of the movie, I sat quietly, stunned by this realization — a combination of anger and bewilderment consumed me: hadn’t I been able to make out the details of Spartacus and Ben Hur that were shown just months earlier on the same screen? Had I been squinting then, too? (And no, I can’t quite explain my middle school’s penchant for showing impressionable schoolchildren epic-length films featuring aged or long-dead actors resurrecting the tales of ancient Rome.)

Once the stupefication wore off, I asked my teacher if I could visit the nurse’s office. I was thankful in that moment to have built up a lifetime of trust in the form of obedient student behavior. She let me walk myself there. I can’t remember whether I pushed or pulled the door, or whether there was a door at all, but I recall the nurse asking me to sit on a cold, metal stool, hold a spoon-shaped piece of thick plastic over each eye and read the letters arranged in lines of decreasing size from top to bottom on the opposite wall of her small office. My eyes failed me, let me down when I needed them the most. An eye test! And all I could read was the large E at the top of the chart.

Within days I was outfitted with contact lenses. The eye doctor I was taken to by my mother treated adults, mostly, and was convinced that I, being a teenager, would not want to wear glasses. He insisted, to my mother rather than to me, that I should just start wearing contacts from the beginning. I was torn. I had secretly harbored fantasies of being a proud owner of eyewear, and displaying such hardware in public. So on they went, these tiny, bendable, plastic saucers that were tinted just enough to be seen and handled, but not enough to affect the appearance of my dark brown irises.  For those who haven’t worn contacts, the phrase, “You won’t be able to feel them” will seem like a bald faced lie. It isn’t. And just like that, these flexible plastic discs disappeared into — or rather onto my eyeballs and, barring a handful of incidents when one went missing somewhere into my eye socket, sight has been a managed and manageable part of my life. Laser eye surgery, with its promise of being able to wake up sighted, intrigued me, but only momentarily. At some point in my deliberations, I began to appreciate my less than 20-20 eyesight as a gift — the ability to not see, to obscure, to redouble my efforts in honing the other senses. The option to visually check out (an option I have selected on more than one occasion during group classes such as zumba — in other words: the ability to be aware without risking a glimpse at my lack of coordination).

To put it simply, I had a handle on my sight.

Oh, but the fates are funny and they play with the very things you not only hold dear, but take for granted.

Yesterday was a delightful day, an easy day spent in the company of friends and a visit to an enchanting bakery (that I will blog about later), that included hearing about interesting and thoughtful research about teaching and literacy taking place in Tanzania, and a stroll through the Upper West Side of Manhattan on the way to pick up my new glasses at a local eyewear retailer (a far cry from the old ones I had been relying on for evening reading, when my contact-wearing eyes would tire, the same that M said made me look like one of this country’s founders; this comparison was not made as a compliment). What happened when I slipped off my contacts and placed the new specs onto the bridge of my nose can only be explicated in the following hurriedly composed prose-poem:

The world is a funhouse, no mirror required.
Circles bend into oblongs,
pillars and buildings appear miniature,
and squares have not retained their structural integrity.

Turning my head quickly is only an option
If I don’t care about interrupting the path of an oncoming car,
or bike or passer-by.

The man at the counter sees me,
I am visibly reeling, trying to strike a balance between
giddiness at this strange sensation and
being perturbed at the possibility that my prescription
has been botched.

It takes a while to adjust, he says in my direction,
looking past me, and then
looking at me expectantly because he is ready to close out the account;
It’s because you just took off your contacts,
he tries to convince me.

Bollocks! I want to exclaim,
but then I remember I’m neither British nor
the protesting type.

At his request, I lean in toward him over the counter between us
and he assesses the fit.
They fit, he says. They look good on you.
I can’t disagree.

Another stroll around the store while he and his co-worker,
whose very short hair defers to her
shoulder length copper earrings,
keep an eye on me.

Blinded by my own vanity, I accept the glasses and
walk out the door onto the sidewalk
full of hurrying walkers who have no time for people
waiting for their eyes to adjust.
I know how they feel; I was one of them just ten minutes earlier.

Twenty-four hours have passed.
I feel my optic nerve. I don’t know what it’s doing,
but its presence on my consciousness is
unnerving.

But it’s the height that unnerves me the most.
The pavement below appears to be miles away,
I feel seven feet tall,
or what I assume a seven-foot-tall person might feel like,
less a sense of towering over things and more like
soaring, unbounded, or
floating
not merely inches, but whole feet above the ground.

This part I like.

I’m going to give it a week.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to embrace my inner Gulliver,
in this suddenly-new, Lilliputian landscape.

eve

The hour is late, although I suspect a few more will pass before I can surrender to sweet slumber — and even that will feel like too little, as the alarm is set to twinkle well before what seems like a humane wake up time. L and I were talking this weekend about the ever alluring “else” — that is, what else we’d be doing if not this. The “else” game is intoxicating and one that cannot be kept at bay when the hours that spill out in front of you are unfettered for days on end. But now, the “else” game feels like a punishment. Still, we played. There were other “wheres” that came with ease, but as for “what”… despite a year-plus spent pondering this very question, I came up empty. Initially. I realize that within mere hours of returning to campus, I had been transported back into the rhythms of others — ones that were tuned to manic frequencies, with every beat seemingly consequential, each transition or hiccup leading only closer to an impenetrable wall of agitation.

Tonight, on the eve of the new school year, I settle once again into the realization that is strangely comforting: this is exactly what I would be doing. Almost. I would eliminate all of the administrative duties, the negotiating of adult petulance (for which I have little patience and even less sympathy), and abolish most of the meetings that are currently mandated, if not by force then certainly by social pressure.

But the bulk of this gig I would want to continue — some of the teaching and especially the research that affords time spent with young people which yields stories about which I do want to continue composing artifacts and narratives.

But if I had my druthers I would do less and limit the extent to which I had to manage projects and be instead steeped in the doing — doing the work rather than talking about the work (which can also be the work, itself… sometimes). (However, with great power… or so the saying goes…)

My delusions are not of grandeur but rather of increased simplicity.

Perhaps in a society that swallows whole ideas like the four-hour work week and obsesses over talent as a commodity more desirable than consistency or effort, doing less and simplicity are counterintuitive. Doing less is swiftly translated into decreased revenue and fewer luxuries, not only for the self but also for those to whom and for whom you may be responsible or answerable.

Immediately my mind drifts to the documentary series “Alone in the Wilderness” that chronicles the experiences of Dick Proenneke while he is living in the Alaskan outdoors. Over the course of countless pledge drives on PBS (the public broadcasting service in the US), I have watched the entire series at least a few times, and each time I catch a glimpse, I stop — mid-sentence, mid-phone call, while drying dishes — and listen to his tales of not merely surviving, but living off of the land. Proenneke films and narrates while also living the experiences about which he is crafting stories. This video excerpt below, that comes from the second video in the series, documents Proenneke’s return to the cabin he had built a year earlier. Simply put, he takes his leave of the civilization with which he was familiar to pursue nature’s beckoning calls. For extended periods of time. Away from the everyday. To something else.

Proenneke also sets out on a new life after the age of 50, like Duncan E. Slade’s turn to art education. (I’m making a mental note to pay extra attention when my 50th birthday rolls around for whatever life changes come my way.) His narration is unhurried, keeping in harmony with his patient practice of living in the wilderness.

Unhurried. But purposeful. I think I remember writing something about this earlier this year.

So I’ll seek out unhurried but purposeful ways to be responsive as new students share their anxieties or as colleagues threaten to spiral deep into their own frustrations. I suspect a visit or two to Dick’s cabin couldn’t hurt, either.

Happy new year!

in honor of centenarians

Birthday.

“Another year closer to death!” some comically cruel cards remind the recipient.

A way to mark the passing of time.

An excuse to gather with friends, family, and loved ones; take time for a nice meal or hike or visit to the spa; be kind to oneself; be kind to others.

A Jehovah’s witness would take no notice at all. An American president receives a card electronically signed by millions of his nation’s residents.

There may be cake or ice cream or both, as has become custom for kids and the kid-at-heart population here in the States and in many countries worldwide.

A childhood neighbor of ours, who was of Russian descent, once told me about a special bottle of vodka he was expecting in honor of his birthday.

I suspect being born on February 29th would pose a bit of a challenge.

In Vietnam, everyone’s birth is celebrated on New Year’s Day, a day called Tet. Only newborns are given a celebration on the actual day of their birth.

My grandfather would have turned 100 today. I mentioned his birthday a few weeks ago, ironically enough in a post that was published on my grandmother’s birthday.

Had he been alive, we might have sent in his name to The Today Show on which centenarians are given a birthday greeting by the rapidly aging Willard Scott.

If he was a British resident upon his centenary, he would have received a customized message from Her Majesty, the Queen.

I occasionally wonder what he would have made of this world in which we live, now. In the past three and half decades since his passing, nothing of the world he knew at the time of his death has remained. His family has migrated to distant lands, the country of his birth is, in some ways, unrecognizable (although the village of his birth, seen below, looks remarkably untouched — save the motorcycles casually parked along the side), and from I have been told about his demeanor, he might have had a difficult time understanding a society in which celebrity haircuts are front page news while wartime chicanery with fatal consequences is buried deep within the fold. And what explanation would he offer in making sense of a nation with more than a billion residents that is consistently among the lowest medal earners in the Olympic games; perhaps he might have said that he and his countrymen spent their time pondering other matters and would have elegantly evaded the question with a question of his own… clever bugger.

Birthday greetings, dear young man.

Perinkulam, Palghat

Plucked and re-seeded

It’s not the heat that hits me first, it’s the promise of a different temperature that the pilot announces a short while before our descent into the Philadelphia airport. His voice is nasal in tone — but not nearly as filled with ennui as the flight attendant who had first caught my attention, mere hours ago, when he had begun his ritual of food/beverage/and dutyfree-related announcements by describing the MOW-hee-TOES and COZ-muh-PALL-it-unz that were available for purchase — a tone that signals, perhaps, a lifetime practicing non-alarm. How does one talk with steadiness, not necessarily aprosodic speech but certainly lacking the expected inflections of everyday speech, I wonder as I allow this uninvited intrusion into my viewing of the “Hunger Games” (yes, I finally watched it…). He lets the passengers know that the local time was blah-blah-blah, we’ll be arriving in blah-blah gate, and passengers with connections should blah-blah-blah, and the weather on the ground is 38 degrees celcius, or 99 degrees fahrenheit.

I very nearly fall out of my seat. I left this and am returning to this. It was not an altogether unexpected number — ninety-nine (because, while I had converted many of my ways of being while living in London, I was still loyal to the non-metric system and Fahrenheit temperature scale) — but having been immersed for so long in a cool, British summer, I could not even avail myself of a recent memory of such heat in preparation to re-enter the American northeast summer climes. And, as we know, mental preparation is key for transitions of this magnitude. Is it a wonder that immigrants to foreign climates go just a little bit mad when trying to settle into new environs. One hardly knows where to begin when everything is so unfamiliar. But that was not entirely my case, so I patiently wait for the airplane entertainment system to resume so I can put this latest bit of information out of my mind once again.

Avoidance. Classic.

Plane journeys rarely bother me, and for the most part this transatlantic flight is no exception. I am asleep well before takeoff, have two empty seats next to me that allows me to use a second tray table on which to place drinks while I use my own for more important matters like completing the in-flight magazine crossword or reading more of Cutting for Stone (in preparation, I should add, for a book club conversation with some sharp reading critics and even though the book was my choice, and even though I am fully with the plight of Sister Mary and wondering about Matron’s past, I allow my eyelids to close, not out of boredom but out of sheer exhaustion: once again, on the night before an important appointment — a presentation, meeting that I have organized, or travel with a definitive departure time — I have barely slept, too consumed was I with making sure the preparations for leaving had been carried out effectively). And like this, in between nodding off, drinking ample amounts of water, viewing two and half movies — and no, I did not expect to enjoy “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” as much as I did, although I suspect it had less to do with the story, which was ok, and much more to do with the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy who I find to be utterly charming and disarming in their portrayals of whatever character whose life they have animated on screen — reading bits of C4S (not my abbreviation, but I like it so I’m stealing it; thanks, sis), and pausing to appreciate the laughter of my row mate three seats over, who must have been watching a steady stream of comedic options while also reading The Economist (although perhaps he was laughing at the absurdity of the current state of world economics?), I arrive at the final fifteen minutes of the flight journey when suddenly a young woman dressed in a faded, Florida orange colored tee shirt designed somewhat like football jersey with the number 89 embroidered in white on the front, is being ushered into my row. My row. I have my crossword and pen in hand because the entertainment system has been switched off, and if anyone knows how the second half of “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” ends, please don’t tell me because I am now committed to learning the narrative conclusion of this sweet tale, as well; the girl in the orange top and long shorts, clutching a bag and wearing a grey backpack to match the dismal expression on her face, asks if I would mind sliding over so that she could sit on the aisle. I happily slide, put down the armrest that I had moved up earlier to allow myself the illusion of greater luxury, and fasten my seatbelt. To say my new row companion is flustered would be grossly underselling the lifetime of anxiety, nervousness, and fear that she appeared to be carrying on every inch of her, even after she set her large backpack on the ground in front of us, which the flight attendant promptly put in one of the overhead bins with space.

I kept it at my feet before, she starts to argue, worrying that she will miss her connecting flight to Chicago. The flight attendant is undeterred and so up goes the pack in the compartment just across from the young woman. My eyes remain fixed as ever on the crossword. What is a six letter word for morsel? Without encouragement or provocation (from me, that is) she begins: they told me when we boarded that I would make my connection. I’ve taken so many flights, this is the only one that’s ever been delayed. Ever, I desperately want to ask her with a half cocked eyebrow, but something stops me and this time I half-nod in an attempt to gesture toward communication without actually having to say anything. She continues: I should’ve gotten the woman’s name at  Heathrow, but they probably know her. I have less than fifteen minutes to get through immigration, get and re-check my bags, and make it to the next flight. At this point, she is facing me, making no mistake that I am her intended and targeted audience. I am not immune to suffering so I turn to her and ask how far she must walk. Just to the next gate, she says, but quickly reminds me of the steps that precede this deceptively simple task: immigration and re-checking. The young woman continues to narrate her frustration, peppered with idle threat-like declarations aimed alternatively toward the airline and its workers, assertions about her past travels with countless other airlines, appall at being told that no agent would walk her to the front of the immigration line so that she could make her connection nor would the airline hold the plane for her. I interject this time, wondering aloud, less to her specifically and rather in a manner more akin to the out loud musings of someone who is prone to doing so, what logistics would be involved to personally escort each person with a connecting flight to the head of the immigration line. She pauses, but only for a second before educating me that while others may have connections, theirs are likely a few hours from the time we will land rather than mere minutes away. I am eager to bring this tedious exchange to a close as I find myself growing increasingly frustrated with the entitlement and superiority oozing from this young woman’s every word. Perhaps your flight to Chicago will be delayed, I say optimistically and also somewhat ruefully as I note how often the windy city has delayed my connections. I try to avoid it like the — but I’ve never been delayed in Chicago, she declares with authority. And I always into and out of there on time. Always. The word carries weight. At least four times and every time my flight has been on time, she says with affirmation. Oh, I think to myself, young in age, young in flying experience. And then it becomes clear. Someone is coming to meet her Chicago. “They” — never he or she, only they, as if she has adopted Sweden’s recent penchant for gender neutral pronouns — are driving four hours to pick her up, they  are driving through rush hour traffic, they aren’t going to wait; parking in O’Hare is so expensive; they’re driving fours there and then back, to Iowa.

Oh, she’s afraid. Telling her that it’s not her fault, that “they” can’t be mad at her, and that perhaps she can buy “them” a nice dinner to ease the pain of waiting does nothing to assuage her anxiety. They — this time, the airlines — better pay for a private driver to drive me home because I know they (who is picking her up) are just going to go home.

She is afraid, of disappointing, of the wrath that she fears awaits her, of having to answer to someone when the events of the day are out of her control. And so she seeks bodies on which to place blame. First the agent in Heathrow who guaranteed her connection would not be missed. Next, the attendant who noted plainly that no special considerations would be made for bringing her to the front of the immigration line nor, in his opinion based on years of experience on the job, would they hold the plane for her, even though Norwegian Airlines did so when she very nearly missed one of her European connections earlier this month. And finally, in the immigration line where she ends up behind me even though she was the first one to fly out of the plane when the cabin door was opened, she continues to narrate out loud the injustices placed upon her by airlines and all the rest, and in the very midst of attempting to hasten this stage of the process, the girl in the orange tee shirt pauses in front of a woman wearing a badge, who is directing the passengers pouring out from the longer, snaking, single line to form short lines in front of the individual immigration officers’ booths, to ask for her name. The girl from Iowa in the orange tee shirt wants to write down this woman’s name, this woman who did not allow her to cut in line so that she could make her connection to Chicago. Curiously, the agent on the ground turns her name badge around in a manner that seems to obscure her name. She gestures toward a point far off to her right and tells the girl in orange from Iowa who is trying to make her flight to Chicago that she can go talk to her superviser if she wants, but that she is trying to do her job, and by the way everyone is trying to make a connection.

I pick a line and lose track of the frightened and frustrated girl in orange from Iowa flying to Chicago. I don’t know it then, but home is still a long time away — agents leave their booths, return mysteriously a short time later, switching lines only proves futile so I stay put in the second line after heat-infused-hubris gets the better of me once, bags make their way to one of three carousels making it seem as if baggage handlers were having their fun with us — so I stand quietly, occasionally check my phone that I have finally just switched back on after a two month hiatus, and think about the girl. And then about the impulse to blame, to judge, to evaluate all in the pursuit of a bastardized notion of justice; how much of it, I wonder, fully self-aware of my own tendencies to fall victim to these actions, is based upon fear? If this young woman did indeed miss her flight, she could have easily been rebooked for a later flight, but the travel was not the issue. The pick-up ride, the “they” who was driving four hours, was the root of her anxiety. So then, while standing and waiting with my fellow passengers for the plane’s worth of luggage to materialize on the accordion-like metal panels of the baggage carousel conveyer belt, my mind wanders and wonders about the girl some more. Was this a pleasure trip taken against the will of the mysterious “they”? Did she leave on bad terms? Is she returning to bad terms? Is she arriving or returning? Is she a “half empty” sort? Or “half empty” by circumstance, under protest; that, were one small thing to be different in her life, she might be a “half full” type?

Finally, suitcase, carry-on, and computer bag in hand, I prepare to brave the real heat outside. I can handle this, I think when the steam finally reaches the most inner capillaries and saturates me hot air inside and out. The taxi driver puts my suitcase in the trunk, shuts my door, settles into the left hand side driver’s seat and starts to leave the airport. To my left, a flight of the same airlines that brought me here is taking off and I wish a quiet good luck to the girl from Iowa. I hope she can handle it.

hastily sketched notes on the train to Cromer

The two-carriage train pulls way from the station with slow revving of the engines. Like an extended cough, one that makes no dent in the conversation between a father and his boys in which the former is laying out the plan for the trip he has planned for all of them to the north coast that includes looking at the beach but not walking along the water and some fish and chips for dinner at Cromer.

Another diesel-shaped chug escapes from the machinery apparatus that makes the engine move.

A different boy emerges in the aisle and snaps a photo of the group with a disposable camera. I didn’t think they made those anymore.

The father takes a sip of something hot from the metal top of the stainless steel, insulated flask — likely tea or coffee he had prepared before setting out for the two-day journey with his boys. A few other young men, some also fathers, seem to be a part of this group, and they nod along while slightly smirking as they listen to the older man who is now starting to spin tales of his previous visits to the coast.

Another roar of the engine, a tired roar that could only barely be called a roar. The chugging is palpable, vibrating the seat cushions as if to publicly declare the effort the pistons and gears are putting in to get me and the other passengers — numbering no more than 50 by my quick estimation — to station stops between Norwich and Sheringham.

The heaving train starts to huff now, like an over enthusiastic tennis player who cares not about distracting the player on the other side of the net. We are moving steadily north. Lush greens of the landscape on either side peppered with crops of varying colors. Wheat, it seems, as well as something that grows tall like well-behaved grass.

Along the side of the railway tracks, plants lie with their roots turned up to the world, neatly arranged in haphazard patterns. This was clearly the work of human hand and not the hand of nature, as was the case across other parts of England earlier this year.

Salhouse. A bare stop, nothing fancy but still with a cream-colored metal bench on which the weary or lazy might wait for the approaching and departing trains.

And more wheat fields. Or is it dried grass? The lemon-tan color is a drastic departure from the brightly green colored fields filling the windows on the other side of the train. Spinach? This trip is clearly telling me I know next to nothing of plants, edible or otherwise, while they are still in the ground, unpicked, still growing, that is.

The sight of power lines has become surprisingly unsurprising.

I don’t know where to look when the trees and greenery closely hug the train path, offering no vistas. Only suffocating embrace.

People live here. And here. And over there.

The dad has not stopped talking. He is entertaining his boys, sharing with them the gems of his everyday wisdom, offering advice about model cars, upkeep of one’s bike, the best way to cook a trout while camping (hint: the frying pan is key).

A mosquito falls on the table in front of me, tumbling more like — as if escaping from the web of an invisible spider. The average life span of a mosquito is ____ days. This one’s demise might have come too soon at my hand, not intended in malice but rather in an attempt to save its soul.

Now dad is debating the benefits of cooking with butta versus maargereen. Are parents programmed to always assume a pedagogic posture? Is it hard wired in humans such that the arrival of progeny transforms the most measured among us into babbling, incessant narrators of experience, information, wisdom, advice, meta-analysis? Reaching in and bringing out our inner entertainer?

Shoots of some recently planted crops are visible on this only partly cloudy day. Or is it partly sunny?

The train conductor stops in front of my seat, a credit card machine hanging from her should on a think, shiny, black, braided strap. My ticket sticks to the table and I make three attempts before successfully lifting it off the table. In one swift movement, she accepts the apology I offer for my clumsiness, punches my ticket, and hands it back to me.

Pea shoots? Perhaps.

What does the in between landscape look like elsewhere? When there isn’t tree cover or greenery for miles?

A rusted out carriage behind tree cover, like out of an episode of Little House on the Prairie, the wooden wheels are large to hold up the short, tunnel-like canister on top that was once the color of Union Jack blue and that now look mottled from the weathered iron.

This train on the Bittern Line pauses in North Walsham to pick up and drop off passengers. As many get on as get off. We break even. The dad sings a few bars of a song that causes one of his boys to slap his hand over his own face. One of the boys looks back at me. And looks away, shyly.

A wispy cloud that looks stained with newspaper ink edges closer to another that is the embodiment of sea foam, more robust in holding its shape.

The dad provides information, offers encouragement, asks questions, shares memories, makes observations, shows emotions, confesses childhood transgressions as the red and brown rooftops of clustered neighborhoods pass us by.

The roadside spinach is starting to look good.

Gunton. A bit fancier than the other stations, with a proper brick station house on one side and a covered bench structure on the other.

We are approaching the water. I can feel it.

I can also read a map.

Wire affixed to wooden posts along the tracks mark the boundaries of the farmlands. Keeping us out or the owners in, I’m not sure.

The blinking blue light tells me two things: that my iPad has connected with some satellite somewhere to determine our location, as we are inching ever closer to the North Sea. And second, that I have betrayed my mission to seek out Lowestoft. For now.

Suddenly along the line of shrubbery, amidst greenery no one looks after but that makes plain its existence with avid growth, there appears a patch of Foxglove. Lavender, the color of ice cream I once ate in a garden café – the flavor was lavender basil, the silky texture formed perfect scoop-shaped globes in the earthenware dish — with flecks of white inside. Or perhaps it’s not Foxglove. I’m no whiz at flowers, neev-uh.

Ferns are the silent kings of the roadside forests.

We pass under the arch of a beautifully crafted, brick bridge. The image of bricklaying hands flashes in my mind.

“I see the sea!” “I see the sea!” “I see the sea!” “I see the sea!”

and now, in technicolor

when it rains…

… sometimes it pours and sometimes things look shiny and new. this week, in the city of light both were true and in the glimpses of sun and dryness amidst the mist, the landscape of sound came truly alive.

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i spent this visit — and if you’re keeping track, that’s three times to paris, which sounds obnoxious only until you realize that it’s a mere 2.25 hour train ride from london and there are people who do this every weekend! and as some of you know, in my real life i’m used to a 2-hour journey to and from homes, so… — staying in the 13th arrondisement and while my walks took me to both familiar and foreign corners, i enjoyed getting to know this neighborly section of paris in a new way, learning its contours of art on walls and through window arrangements.

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the 13th is a bit removed from the center of town, not that there is an exact center per se, so perhaps it is more apt to describe the region around maison blanche in the words of a colleague who has lived there for several years: an area alive with immigrant communities, particularly from east asian countries, where the thai, laotion, and japanese restaurants are owned and operated by people from those respective countries. hues of skin were darker here, with predictable tropes of valid citizenship and belonging thick in the air as strangers and emigrants seek to be recognized as citizens. to emphasize the varying forms of exoticizing and ostracizing behaviors he has witnessed, my colleague told me a story about a conversation with a teacher while picking up his children from school. he is american and in this first exchange with his eldest child’s new teacher he was praised for raising his children as bilinguals. he said he later laughed because many of the parents all around him were also raising their children as bilinguals, however their “other” language — the primary language being french, of course — was something other than english (or american, as the rest of the world refers to our ways of talking). as an american he is both fetishized and kept at a distance. whereas he is expat, his neighbors are immigrants. will either ever really belong in a land where its inhabitants, like in many other parts of the world, are caught up in ongoing battles over who has the real right to be and live and own pieces of the earth?

this conversation weighed on my mind as i mind as i wandered, first south and then into pockets of winding streets near the bastille and then the next day deeper into the 13th where at one point i found myself standing on the corner of hope and providence — that is, at the intersection of rue de l’esperance and rue de la providence.

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and on these walks i encountered moments and signs that reaffirmed for me the familiar adage that our differences are what we have in common; they are what unite us.

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as usual, i walked with no plan and found my way into the jardin du palais royal, listened to church bells ring the eglise saint-sulpice — and once lured in, i and many others who had taken refuge from the rain were treated to a magnificent organ concert. i think the organist was showing off, and rightfully so! — and stood with the audience that had spontaneously gathered around a man playing a piano in the middle of one of the bridges that connects ile de la cite with ile st louis.

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i had not yet made it to shakespeare and company on this visit, so after the evening concert i wandered there on my last night in paris and listened as lydia davis read some of her very short stories for which she is apparently famous. i was not aware of this author before that evening, but apparently she lives in new york and is somehow affiliated with nyu — all this, according to the young woman who ardently and somewhat nervously read the introduction she had prepared in honor of the author.

LydiaDavisReading

listening and seeing and looking, i kept returning to the same thought over and over again. it was a riff on what has continued to intrigue me, and at times anger me, about the ways in which humans treat humans. each of us is bizarre in our own way; what makes one person’s strangeness any better or worse than another’s? someone tweeted a comment the other day about an average new yorker meeting as many people in one week as a medieval person would have met in a lifetime. i have no idea whether that is true or not, but i have to believe, even in the smallest town that time informs geography; that we must know that our occupation of a plot of land is temporary. there were others who came before and others who will be here after we’re no longer living in our house, this neighborhood, a particular state or country. could it be that time is just a maypole standing still and watching as we dance around until our ribbons come to an end?

during the rainy sunday, i sat for a while in cafe de flore, where baldwin is said to have written a draft of go tell it on the mountain. the symphony of voices faded into the background as i read studiously from my ipad and wondered how recently the red leather seats might have been reupholstered and whether this was the arrangement of tables, chairs, and waitstaff during the time of baldwin’s visits. i had left my copy of j.m. coetzee’s disgrace in the hotel room so i started reading pigeon english by stephen kelman, which i had learned of while sitting in the audience of someone’s conference presentation earlier this month. (i didn’t take a photo this time, so you’ll have to mash the next two together, and foreground the backgrounded cafe de flore, to imagine the rainy cafe scene i’m describing to you.)

2 Cafes -- de Flore and Deux Magots

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i hope my ribbon has a lot of length left to it, if only to appreciate much more of the fantastic ways that others have decided to spend moments of their time — that is to say, by taking in and engaging with their words and music and other forms of art. and if by some chance i’m able to add some of my own to the mix, then how sweet that would be. maybe those hippie-dippy, flower children really had something…

presence of being, gift of presence

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

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

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

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

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

narratives matter

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