In November, I wrote a bunch of letters to strangers as a volunteer letter artist for Snail Mail My Email, an annual week-long event during which you can submit an email to be handwritten, doodled on, maybe even sealed with a kiss, and snail mailed to anyone in the world.
I come from a letter-writing family (my dad is a postal worker), have had pen-pal friendships all my life, and loved The Jolly Postman and Griffin and Sabine books as a kid, so when I first heard about this project, I got it instantly. So did a lot of other people; I was one of over 200 volunteers who collectively drew 2,000+ emails (the first Snail Mail My Email, created by Ivan Cash in 2011, is now a book). However, I was surprised by the number of people to whom I had to explain several times what I was doing.
“Wait, you’re sending whose emails where? Why?”
The why for me was at first simply that letter-writing is cool, and how novel to put an anonymous collaborator in the mix and be surprised by the result. Ostensibly, the project promotes letter-writing as a more intimate form of communication than email, though I don’t agree that email is inherently less intimate. Communication is about words, the sentiments behind words, and the relationship between the people using them. The device matters but not that much. Email and handwriting just allow for different sensory expression. I love how email enables me to communicate with audiovisuals, but only through snail mail can I include tactile ephemera and maybe even scents. Half the time, my left hand is on a keyboard while my right is scribbling in a notebook or on a post-it, so I don’t need to be sold on the value of handwriting my thoughts. I think letters are equal to email, just different.
It only took my first assignment for me to realize the project’s value is greater than novelty. The first request to arrive in my inbox was a love letter. Over the course of the week, I was floored again and again by the earnestness of the messages I got to relay (and by the eerie tendency of my randomly assigned letters to bear names and locations of personal significance to me). Every request was a sincere gesture of love or goodwill. Rereading and writing each one was like offering metta, the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness extended to all and recited like prayer. When I received a request to answer a little girl’s letter to Santa, I melted. It felt so good.
Being included in two people’s private correspondence felt like a gift and a grace. It made me think about the goodwill we keep inside, the love we don’t say out loud, and how this project encourages everyone to share a private intimacy with more people. I was at a talk tonight about loving-kindness, and the speaker quoted a Mary Oliver poem: “I watched while, secretly / and with the tenderness of any caring woman, / a cow gave birth / to a red calf, tongued him dry and nursed him / in a warm corner / of the clear night / in the fragrant grass…and…I knelt down and asked them to make room for me.” Writing those letters felt like that–making room, being made room for.
There is another yearning this project gets at, which is the human need to make art. As an extreme perfectionist, I worried my letters might not be good enough. It reminded me of when I helped an artist friend paint a mural two years ago. When I started helping, my friend had already painted the outlines, so my job was to mix colors and slather paint on the wall like it was a giant coloring book. At first, I filled in her lines painstakingly, coloring with a uniform thickness so my brush strokes were nearly invisible. As I worked, however, I noticed that where my friend had filled in the mural, there were drips, overlaps, and obvious brushstrokes traveling in haphazard directions. I loosened up a bit, started allowing my brushstrokes to look like brushstrokes, and really enjoyed helping her with her project without fear of messing it up. We talked about perfectionism, and my friend said that sometimes she wishes she was more of a perfectionist because her work would be better. I said, “No! If you were, it would be more likely that your work would not be at all.”
Perfectionism is an armor that shields us from vulnerability and therefore also connection and joy. I am trying to to let go of it, and being a letter artist was a good exercise in that. As I saw other letter artists’ work, I delighted in the little imperfections, like misspellings and smudges. I realize now that maybe the delete button deletes a little bit of our humanity, and I would rather make every mistake with love.
You can see the full photo set of my letters on Flickr. These three were my favorites to draw:
They say when you return from a silent meditation retreat and people ask how it was, it’s best just to say, “Good” and leave it at that unless asked for more. As a blogger, though, I don’t have to wait until people express interest to say what I think. It’s pretty great. And while some things I experienced last week are too personal or difficult to put into words here, there’s much I can say.
I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but one generalization I think I can make is that sitting in silence for a week is a mind-altering psychedelic experience. Think about the highest you’ve ever been, the best sex you’ve ever had, every time you’ve ever fallen in love, and every time you’ve ever been heartbroken or hurt. Now imagine experiencing all those things AT THE SAME TIME and ONLY IN YOUR MIND. It will break you the fuck open.
This was my second year in a row doing this retreat. The first day is like Buddhist college orientation (the retreat is for young adults). Remember your first day of college–the only time in your life when that many strangers freely walked up to each other and introduced themselves? That’s how it is at the retreat, except after you meet all those people, you spend the rest of the week not talking to them or even making eye contact. You wake up at 5:30 every morning to sit in the meditation hall for 45-minute stretches, alternating with periods of walking meditation, breaks to eat vegetarian food and rest or hike, and a teacher talk every evening. You’re not supposed to read. The idea is to see what happens when you have no choice but to be alone with your own thoughts. You know how some people do those cleanses where they ingest nothing but lemon juice, cayenne, and maple syrup for a week? Well, a retreat is like that but for the mind. It’s like flossing your brain.
Sometimes, you floss spontaneous joy out of the gaps–there’s always a point when I find myself thinking, “Everyone should do meditation retreats! My parents, my ex-boyfriends…”–but it’s maybe not for everyone. Spontaneous grief can come out too. Last year, a woman cried heaving sobs in the meditation hall every afternoon. It was hard to listen. I felt a range of feelings bearing witness to a nameless person’s nameless grief. I felt concern. I felt morbid curiosity about what she had been through that made her cry. I felt worried that my experience might be less meaningful because I wasn’t moved to such emotion. I felt guilty for not having a hard time. It isn’t that hard for me to sit for a whole week in silence, which isn’t to say I sit there like some enlightened Buddha. I get bored. I rehash the same breakups over and over. I use my mind as an iPod. I remember telling a friend in high school that I didn’t think I could meditate because I couldn’t clear my mind. I didn’t understand then that that’s the work of meditation practice–you try to clear your mind and fail. Given enough opportunities to fail, the brain eventually repatterns itself. Whatever you suffer from, you practice to learn how to stop.
Retreat isn’t hard for me, but reentry is. What I feel when a retreat ends is even more difficult to describe than retreat itself. The first day of the retreat, I kept making grocery lists in my head. Now that I’m back, the last thing I want to do is go grocery shopping. I feel more alive than ever, which is jarring in a world we’re deadened to half the time. Last year, I tried explaining this feeling to a friend who said a retreat seemed like a lot to go through just to feel out of sorts at the end (this is why they tell you just to say, “It was good”). Since I started sitting retreats, other friends have asked, “Since when did you get all spiritual?” Sometimes, it’s easier to explain to a new friend who I’ve been than to explain to old friends who I am. The answer I rarely give is that I started sitting meditation in 2007 when I was living with an ex-boyfriend who was an addict. The most profound love relationship of my life was ending, and I was terrified of coming home to find him dead. I started meditating to stay sane in an insane situation. What did F. Scott Fitzgerald say about holding two contradictory ideas in the mind at the same time without going insane? In a way, I continue sitting to understand that I once left a man I loved and that I too have been left by men who loved me. I don’t mean to understand why. I mean to understand that.
I’m sure what each sitter flosses out of their brain is different and unpredictable. Before entering noble silence, retreatants say to each other, “See you on the other side.” Historically, I’ve had a hard time with unpredictability, with not being able to see the other side of something I start, especially if I have to commit to starting without that foresight. I wasn’t scared when my parents took me on The Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland when I was five until the elevator doors shut and a voice said, “You can’t turn back now–mwahahaha!!!” I remembered that as I hiked around the retreat center this year. Last year, one of my favorite things about the retreat was hiking after lunch. Normally, I don’t hike alone. I’m afraid of running into a beast or falling down and hurting myself. I did a few short hikes last year but always turned back, not knowing where the trails eventually led. I suspected they all connected, however, and this year, I was determined to find my way all the way around. It took me two tries, and even on the second, I almost turned back a few times. I hiked up hills of rock and chaparral, under oaks, and through tall grass. I hiked up so high I could see the city and the Richmond Bridge. I hiked behind the hills above the center and past the back entry of a redwood preserve. I kept going. I kept going and going until I realized I had done it–I had made the loop! It was, in fact, a loop; all roads lead home. Alone on the trail, I pumped my fists and cried.
And the last night of the retreat, I cried. I cried and cried. I cried myself a headache that lasted into the next day. I think I might have been mistaken to assume the tears I overheard last year were grief. What drove me to mine was what I think Christians call grace: “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it….generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved.” Grace came to me in the form of a thought, an idea that finding love is like tuning a radio. The signal is always there, but sometimes it flickers in and out, and other times it’s just static. Even when it does come in, sometimes the song is shit. But on retreat, it’s like you’re perfectly tuned to a crystal clear signal and the station is playing your favorite music. You feel grace and communion and true love, and I don’t care how cheesy that sounds; it’s fucking true.
I’ve been back for a few days now, and I feel…changed.
I’m trying to smile at strangers on the street and to tune the dial of my heart without being afraid or embarrassed of the static.
I didn’t fly on an airplane until I was 18 years old. At 22, I had been out of the Pacific Time Zone only once in my life. Then I started making up for lost time. In the past nine years, I’ve spent time in Oregon, Maryland, DC, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Costa Rica, Washington, Canada, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Minnesota, Spain, Mexico, Peru, and Kentucky. Some of these are global tourist destinations, some are perhaps unlikely places to travel to from California, but I’ll go anywhere. Ask me to drive with you to a strip mall in an exurb, and I’ll probably say yes. Just to look out a window in motion, no matter the view, is enough.
This month, I finally went to Ohio, the state I did my state report on in third grade. The books we used for our reports made each state seem full of sunshine and roses or, in Ohio’s case, snake mounds and buckeyes. After I grew up, I met tons of people from Ohio in the Bay Area, which confused me until I realized Ohio is a place people leave. A lot of people, anyway.
I went to Cleveland for teacher professional development at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum (which was awesome, by the way). I didn’t know much about Cleveland other than its nickname “the mistake by the lake,” that it has the highest migration-out-of after Detroit and Flint, and is America’s 17th “most miserable” city according to Forbes (what is the point of making a list like that? Who benefits?). The Ariel Castro kidnapping story broke the week I booked my flight, and apparently, another serial killer was on the loose while I was there. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was curious. I live in a city that is frequently portrayed as violent and dysfunctional, so I know that is never the whole story.
In top Southwest Airlines form, the flight attendant tried to lead passengers in a chant (“When I say O-H, you say…”) when we landed. I stayed at the Cleveland Hostel in the Ohio City neighborhood and was pleased to find the Red Line would take me right there. What surprised me, though, was how the train runs through a weedy kind of ravine below the city, and when I got off, no one was at the station or on the street above it in a supposedly hip neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon. I felt both conspicuous and ignored as a pedestrian walking two miles to the Rock Hall every day. Conspicuous in the sense of being an odd sight, like people were thinking, “Why is that girl walking across the bridge?” (an office worker downtown did, in fact, stop me one morning and ask something along those lines); ignored in the sense that no one ever stopped to let me cross the street. The Bay Area has a very aggressive pedestrian culture; it is relatively common here for pedestrians to glare, cuss, and bang a fist on your car if they perceive you to have dissed them or be in their way. At home, I slowly walk out into the street and stare down cars until they stop. This didn’t work in Cleveland; I felt invisible. It was a different culture.
This wasn’t my first time in the Rust Belt, but Cleveland looked rustier, literally, than anywhere I’ve been. It also seemed to have all the worst kinds of weather all at once (hot, humid, overcast, rainy, windy). It is not, in other words, the kind of city anyone would fall in love with at first sight, though in my week there, I came to this conclusion: it’s not that bad. Maybe it was the good food I ate at places like the Westside Market and the Flying Fig or the urban farm I walked by every morning that grows food for nearby restaurants. Maybe it was the magical experience of seeing a Rock Hall librarian play in a Gram Parsons tribute band at a bar that serves hot dogs and tater tots with your choice of 50 different toppings, including fruit loops and peanut butter. Maybe it was the defiant civic pride I sensed in some residents (not as prevalent as “I hella ♥ Oakland” t-shirts but still there). My first day in Cleveland, I stumbled on this blog post by a woman who has to justify her move to the city, and one night, I met a woman at a show who asked me to tell everyone in San Francisco what great lives people have there–big, beautiful houses for cheap, great food, genuine friends. The Ohioans I’ve met in the Bay Area, however, seem to think of Cleveland as irredeemably unappealing, and that has me thinking about geographic identity, about people’s relationships with their hometowns–who leaves, who stays, and why, and if leaving or staying isn’t inspired by the nature of a place so much as the nature of an individual.
Memorial Day weekend was my tenth anniversary of living in the Bay Area, a metropolis of transplants, though as a native Californian, I think I’m more like a skin graft. My hometown in Southern California inspired a soap opera and has a decent public school system thanks to Oprah’s property taxes, yet I hate it as much as any ex-Clevelander I know hates Cleveland. My own wanderlust was borne out of feeling, as an adolescent, trapped in someone else’s idea of what paradise is supposed to be like. As an adult, I’m aware that I’m from a place where everyone wants to go (I’m speaking of California in general here), but I’m unsure of how it has shaped my identity and what, if any, responsibilities are owed on that privilege. At the Rock Hall, I met a teacher from a small town in Illinois who asked me if the following stereotypes about California were true: everyone looks like Barbie (no, but in LA there is a grain of truth to that); everyone’s liberal (if you’re liberal in the Bay Area, your politics will never be challenged, but turn on the car radio while driving through the Central Valley and you’ll hear broadcasts that sound straight from the Bible Belt); it never rains (there were a few days in high school when school got canceled because of rain, seriously, and it rains a lot in the Bay Area during winter).
I didn’t choose California; it was given to me. But it sometimes feels like a gift with hidden costs. My parents, also born here, were basically forced out in their 50s because they wanted to buy a house. The rent for my studio apartment is more than their monthly mortgage and property tax payments combined for a three-bedroom house in Oregon. I can’t help but worry I’m on the same trajectory–building a life in a place I should have a birthright to but is unsustainable. When that woman in Cleveland boasted of the life she has in her hometown, I felt a glimmer of envy for a life I’ve never known and that might be pure fantasy. My teacher salary could be up to $20,000 less somewhere else. Doesn’t that make moving a wash, financially? I think about if I have children, what I want their hometown to be like and if that even matters when, in all likelihood, they’ll want to leave. I fantasize about living where I feel a sense of community, like I’m part of a strong network of like-minded people bonded together by shared space and activity (there are too many like-minded people and too many things to do in the Bay Area for those ties to bind most of the time). But maybe I don’t have what it takes to build that, maybe I’m too introverted. It’s like, wherever you go, there you are. The teacher from Illinois gave me some advice she gives her students. She said the ones that leave their small town for a reason, because they’re working toward something, don’t come back, but the ones who leave just to get away, are always pulled back sooner rather than later. I won’t leave unless I have something or someone to move for.
Downtown Cleveland from the roof of the Cleveland Hostel:
Cleveland is glad you’re here; you, however, are not so sure:
The New Soft Shoe performs at the Happy Dog:
The first week of summer, I took a writing workshop for teachers and worked on a piece about a trip I took to Joshua Tree two years ago. The second-to-last day of the workshop, I got food poisoning and spent the night throwing up, so I didn’t get to finish my piece, which I started right after I got back from that trip. I never have been able to get Joshua Tree out of my head, and I am still trying to finish my piece. It starts like this:
I almost didn’t want to go to the museum. I thought about the nine-hour drive home and how when I went to sleep that night, I’d still feel in motion, like I was driving through my dreams. We read about it in a magazine at the house we rented and decided to stop by on our way out of town.
Everywhere in the desert seems far away from everywhere else in the desert; it’s hard to find your way, even though Joshua Tree, the town, is more or less a grid. We didn’t get lost exactly, but it’s hard to track city blocks that don’t look like blocks. The parcels looked more like campsites with address numbers marking clearings in the sand.
We found the museum and parked across the street. There was a big welcome sign made out of tires, but the letters W-E-L-C-O-M-E were partially jumbled and there were two W’s and two L’s. A newspaper dispenser offered us rudimentary maps and brochures proclaiming Noah Purifoy’s assemblage sculptures “a critical and pubic [sic] success.” We were the only pubic there; it was a self-guided tour.
I said, “…”
He said, “…”
My companion and I went off in different directions. We had a lot to say, just not to each other. For the next hour, I only heard strains of his voice on the phone carried by the wind, fabric whipping around in it, the swish of sand and clatter of wood planks under my feet, a dog barking. The air smelled vaguely, subtly like herbs. It was late March and though the sun looked blazing, it was only almost warm enough. Everything in the desert looked hot–the glittery sand floor, the pointy leaves on the Joshua trees, the few wispy clouds in the sky–but the heat was a mirage. I couldn’t take my hoodie off, but if I stood still in the sun for too long I couldn’t leave it on.
I had to talk him into coming on this trip in the first place. He said the space-like vastness of the desert scared him and nothing was meant to live there. I hate space and knew he was right–I can’t imagine living in a place I couldn’t grasp or grow vegetables in–but for some reason, the desert didn’t scare me, maybe because the lawns of my elementary schools couldn’t be watered in drought years, which were all the years. It got so bad there was talk of trying to desalinate seawater. So chaparral, the color orange, and sand make sense to me, but when I’m in the desert, I can’t stop looking for the ocean.
It’s said writing is thinking, and I want to write about the desert to figure out what I think about it. I don’t remember what I thought about as I wandered in and out of, under and through Purifoy’s sculptures that day, down labyrinthine outdoor hallways of corrugated tin, under old clothes and mannequin heads hanging from low ceilings, inside a gazebo made of electronics parts, past stacked bundles of weathered newspaper, a Newton’s Cradle of bowling balls:
It seems to me now that the desert felt motionless but also moved by something other than wind. Heat moves things imperceptibly, the way glass is a liquid; it just moves so slowly you can’t see. The desert, the sculptures, the whole museum, my life are like this, moving invisibly, like those revolving restaurants I’ve never been to but in which I imagine suddenly looking up from my salmon and seeing a different view. Like the movement of a relationship and how in hindsight you think you can pinpoint when you knew it would or wouldn’t work, but that motion is actually perpetual and gradual.
The day we arrived in Joshua Tree, we visited The Integratron and had a sound bath from a blonde woman named Joanne who wore black-and-white striped arm warmers and rang Tibetan singing bowls while we lay on our backs on the floor of the dome. When the ringing stopped, I didn’t know how much time had passed or if I had been asleep. I wonder if the desert’s space-like vastness is not really a perception of space but of time and movement? If what makes people uncomfortable or enthralled is that its seeming stillness makes you aware of your own constant, imperceptible motion, what your heart feels like beating, your mood as it changes.
A few years back, the author Zadie Smith wrote an interesting article (actually a combined movie and book review of The Social Network and You Are Not a Gadget) in which she reminds readers “that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations….Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)”
It got me thinking about all the things there are to like, who determines what is likeable (in the public list-making sense), and how. Someone else has already set the parameters within which we create identities for ourselves on social media. How would our social interactions and the world be different if we were more often (or ever) asked, as Smith suggests, to list our favorite plants or ideas or buildings?
Or artworks. Artworks affect me. Not all of them, but I have seen enough that I think I can list my top 10 favorite pieces. What I like about visual art that I think distinguishes it from the media (movies, music, books, and TV shows) we are commonly asked to catalog on the Internet is that I am free to spend as much or as little time as I want experiencing an image or object. In a gallery or a museum or on the street, I have control over what I look at, within the parameters of what is displayed. But the parameters are trickier to restrict there–all those venues are also good for people-watching, and at the museum, I sometimes look at my reflection in the frame’s glass to see my own face superimposed on the iconic. I don’t claim to have any special knowledge about art. I’m just a layperson who likes to look at it and think about it. This is a list, in semi-particular order, of what I like, what I still think about years after seeing it for the first time.
10. Rufino Tamayo, The Window
I think of SFMOMA as my local museum, and I’m really sad that it’s about to close for a two-year remodeling project. I’ve been going there since I was 18 and visiting San Francisco during college vacations. I’m pretty familiar with its permanent collection, and The Window is a piece I look for every time I’m there. I’m probably supposed to say I like it because of the intrigue (I do tend to prefer art with an imaginable narrative), but I’ve never imagined a story here. I don’t care why that gun is on the windowsill, who did or didn’t shoot whom. I like this painting for its simplicity of forms and the full moon.
9. Marcel Duchamp, Fountain
Art can be fucking funny. What else can I say? I especially love that there are eight of these damn things!
8. David Hockney, Scrabble
Of course, this piece marries my love of Scrabble with my love of photography. I first saw Hockney’s photo collages in high school or early college, and I guess it was the first time I realized there was a wider range of what photography can do (or what one can do with it).
This goes along with my more general interest in post-WWII America. I once read–probably on a card written by some museum curator–a description of another artist’s (Ed Ruscha’s) aesthetic as “relentless deadpan banality,” and that’s what I get out of Owens’ work as well. His pictures are fairly straightforward depictions of real people in everyday settings, which is reason enough to like them, but it’s hard not to read any kind of cultural criticism one wants into images of suburban housing developments and tract homes. I don’t think that’s the point, but it’s something I could think about endlessly, and that’s why I keep coming back to these photos.
6. The Brown Sisters series by Nicholas Nixon
I’m really interested in how people change over time, in making everyday life into art, and in art that spans time and is unfinished. Nixon’s yearly portraits of these four women (his wife and her sisters, I believe) deal with all of that.
5. Any On Kawara date painting
Speaking of art that spans time and is unfinished, this series is unfinishable and has unlimited yet specific meanings. What happened on that date? Where were you?
4. Diego Rivera, Man, Controller of the Universe (AKA Man at the Crossroads)
I was in Mexico City for a few hours on a layover a year-and-a-half ago, and this was the one thing I made sure to see. The original version was destroyed in the ’30s because those in power at Rockefeller Center didn’t like how Rivera included Lenin in the painting. The story behind this work, everything that’s going on within it, and its dual titles fascinate me. Crossroads indeed.
3. Richard Diebenkorn, Coffee
Another piece from SFMOMA. I identify with this painting a lot. I imagine that I’m that woman, drinking coffee in front of a window that looks out onto the ocean. I feel like it represents some kind of original root or foundation of who I am, where I come from.
2. Michael McMillen, Aristotle’s Cage
The photo above does not do this installation justice, but this cool video starts to. Here are some other angles. It’s in the Oakland Museum of California’s art collection. When I walk into the installation through a screen door and hear its staticky soundtrack, it’s like a world I want to be in.
1. Any photograph ever taken by anyone
Growing up, I noticed the care with which my dad took family photos. The idea that picture-taking is serious business was somehow instilled in me at a young age. Composition matters and you must be thoughtful about it. I would love to do more with my own photography someday, to learn how to exploit or manipulate my environment and equipment to achieve desired effects. For now, I just take a photo a day with a crappy point-and-shoot and post them on Flickr. I like joining communities where other amateurs post their photos a day too. I could stare at almost any photo for hours. It’s hard to explain why, for the vicarious experience, maybe.
I can’t believe I just made a top 10 favorite artworks list that doesn’t include Chuck Close, Joseph Cornell, or any women. Such are the limitations of top 10 lists. What are your favorite artworks? Or what have you been dying to make a top 10 list of that you are never asked to?
I didn’t grow up with religion. When I was a kid, Easter was just about egg hunts, and I didn’t know what happened at Passover Seders until a couple of years ago when an old roommate hosted one at our house. I still don’t know the difference between Good Friday and Palm Sunday or what all those days signify.
Last night, I went to a Seder at which I was the youngest child, so I got to read the questions and find the afikomen. I really like Seders–the symbolic foods, the history lesson, the prompting to contemplate oppression and liberation from oppression. It felt like a fitting, if coincidental (??), end to Lent, a bookend to winter as a meaningful period between holy days. That I am conflating traditions here hardly seems to matter. The upshot of having no religion is the freedom to choose.
Last year was the first time I tried Lent. I didn’t even know what the exact dates were, but for an undefined period in February and March, I gave up thinking about ex-boyfriends. Every time I caught myself thinking about an ex, I had to sing the opening strains of a familiar pop song (“oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh”) in my head. I told myself I was practicing mindfulness. In retrospect, I think I was practicing distraction. In any case, it was moderately successful, and this year, I knew I wanted to do Lent again.
I had already decided to give up meat and alcohol for six weeks when one of my students, an Episcopalian, told me you could also add things to your routine for Lent. This changed everything. I decided to add at least five minutes of meditation a day and an extra yoga class a week. The experience has been profound. I got more out of what I added than what I took away. Although I skipped a few days of meditation (what a sad commentary on modern life that I sometimes felt like I could not spare five minutes), I sat with more regularity than I ever have and discovered that 20 minutes is the ideal length of time for me to sit by myself at home. I honestly felt a sense of inner peace and increased energy during this past month-and-a-half, which I attribute to the meditation and extra exercise.
The meat thing, on the other hand, lasted about halfway through. The first time I broke was right before my period. I went easy on myself, believing it was just my body saying, “Must stockpile iron!” In truth, I am not sure how much I bought in to the dietary restriction and pretty much stopped following it after that. I have always been a conflicted meat eater in that I am not convinced it is morally OK to eat animals, but I am not convinced it isn’t either. I don’t cook meat and believe it is enough to eat it sparingly. Lent reinforced this. I only broke the no alcohol vow a few times and for social invites. I am OK with that too, though I have decided from this experiment not to keep alcohol in my house anymore. I had been in the habit of having a glass of wine some evenings a week, believing it helped me relax when really, it just made my brain feel fuzzy. Lent taught me how comforting it is to have a routine and that you can have healthy routines or unhealthy ones; it is the habit itself that comforts. Thus, deprivation is useless without inserting a positive addition in its place.
It is hard to talk about spiritual calling. I don’t have the vocabulary for it, and my friends are almost all atheists, agnostics, or/and rejected whatever faith they were brought up in. But I believe in god and ritual practice. I get out of these things what I think other people get out of therapy. If I have kids, I want to raise them in some kind of spiritual tradition. At the Seder last night, I thought about how cool it would be to have one myself when I grow up, even though I am not Jewish. Passover, Lent, Buddhism, to me they are all the same, really. Religion is about the liberation from suffering–personal, cultural, etc. In this light, it is impossible to imagine living a life without faith.
“In every generation one might to regard himself as though he had personally been liberated from slavery.”
My dad is a postal worker and the term “going postal” was a joke in our house growing up, a way of diffusing or reclaiming a phrase that perpetuates a hurtful stereotype that postal workers are crazy and violent or that the post office is somehow a dangerous place. Less than a year after my parents moved away from my hometown and my dad transferred to a post office out of state, a woman walked into the facility where he used to work and murdered six of his former coworkers. The woman was an ex-employee, someone my dad had worked with years before. He remembered her as seeming not quite right.
I was a senior in high school when Columbine happened. I remember finding out about it after school on a warm spring day a couple of months before graduation and thinking, cynically, that it wasn’t surprising. There had been quite a few school shootings in the years leading up to that, everyone had seen Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video a few years back, and the shootings always seemed to happen in places I assumed were oppressive–cookie-cutter suburbs and rural backwaters. I felt detached from it all and annoyed with the media for repeating the phrase “trenchcoat mafia.” I don’t remember ever feeling unsafe at my school, like anything like that could happen there. High school sucked, but mine didn’t seem to have a particularly exclusive culture. There were athletes and goths and hippies and no clear popular group to make any “type” or weirdo feel like the only one on the outside. I’m not saying there weren’t outcasts; it just wasn’t an environment that seemed likely to drive outcasts to revenge or insanity. I think we were all pretty privileged to know there was a lot more to life than high school. This is what I remember, anyway.
The charter school I teach at shares a campus with a large, comprehensive high school. Our classrooms are hooked up to their intercom system, which they say they can’t disconnect because what if there was an emergency? Every day, we have to listen to the other school’s announcements and their students being called to the attendance office. We usually talk over it, me shouting the homework or instructions for the beginning of class. This morning, there was a lot of commotion in class, kids bustling to find papers, turn things in, etc., so I could only hear snippets of the announcements, including the other school’s principal saying, “There are things on the news that make us want to cry.” I thought, “Well, yeah, now that you mention it the budget crisis does make me want to cry.” She went on to say something about “peace and love,” which was unusual but I didn’t think too much of it. My student teacher was teaching that period, so I left to go to the bathroom and make tea before sitting down at the computer in the corner of the room and opening up the news to learn of the school shooting in Connecticut. I sat there in a daze while class went on. When I was a teenager, these events didn’t surprise me, but as an adult, each one arrests my heart for a second. Watching the news feels surreal, like I’m watching a dystopian horror film, warning that this is what America could come to. I listen to news analysis that goes on and on about guns, mental healthcare, and media–all of which are relevant–but it is my belief that mass shootings are a virus or a symptom of one, a sign that the society we live in is seriously ill. I do not believe that this kind of crime occurs in a society with a moral compass or in a culture that lives by a value system in which all human beings are treated like they have equal and inherent worth. Mass shootings, I am sure, only happen in a society where people feel alienated by a lack of meaningful relationships and a lack of meaningful work, in a society where the only power available is brute force. Let’s be clear: guns, mental healthcare, media are not roots of anything. These are products of our culture, just like killers are. What do they say about the values we live by? About how and to what we assign worth? I’m not talking about the values we say we live by. I’m talking about where we put our money. Where we put our time. Where we put our eyes, our ears, our energy. What that says about us. We’re all part of this.