there’s a thread you follow

It pet peeves me when people start blogs and then abandon them. I’ve kept checking friends’ blogs years after their last post, hoping the bug to journal publicly would bite them again. Now here I am, into eight months of not posting. There are many irrelevant reasons why, and I do write elsewhere, on a site that was fashionable in the early 2000s but whose community disappeared after Facebook and after my friends and I got careers or kids. I still interact with maybe a half-dozen people over there, but WordPress is like tagging air with invisible spray paint. The lack of feedback is demotivating.

I just read The Faraway Nearby, a new book by Rebecca Solnit, one of my favorite authors. It’s a memoir, but like a lot of her work, it’s as much about what she has read as it is about what she has done; it’s a memoir of stories themselves. She writes, “Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there.” Writing as solitary hobby never worked for me–every paper journal I tried to keep I shredded. Blogging was a revelation to me that I could run into the woods of my mind and find not mute flora and fauna but people who met me on the other side of my thoughts.

Speaking of solitude and forests, last week I was at a meditation retreat where the vow of Noble Silence extended to reading and writing. Not talking for a week is easy, but not writing is hard. On one hand, I get it–the whole point of retreat is to sink into direct experience, to watch your story without the identification with it that traps you in the suffering of desire and lack. At the same time, though, Buddhism couldn’t exist without stories–whether it’s the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the teachers’ anecdotes during their nightly talks, the narrative structure of the talks themselves, the story of my life and how I came to practice…

In a Vsauce video I can’t stop thinking about, Michael Stevens quotes Fernando Pessoa, who wrote, “Direct experience is an evasion, a hiding place for those without any imagination. To narrate is to create, while to live is merely to be lived.” ?! Pessoa is the anti-Buddha! My writing practice has made me realize I have the power to create my own story instead of being lived by one, but I’m also all too aware of the less empowering narratives in my mind that keep me anchored in the past.

Solnit says, “Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice….We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own…tell stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown.” One of the many oversimplifications we mislead children with is that humans only need three things to survive: air, water, shelter. We leave sex and stories off the list. Without the latter, there could be no learning and no memory (perhaps this is why no one remembers being a baby), but all those needs can kill us in large or contaminated amounts.

Babies must be perfectly mindful beings in that they perceive with direct sensory experience, unfiltered through story. I can’t help but think our “issues” (insecurities, neuroses) begin concomitantly with language acquisition. Stories like “I am ___ ,” “Life is ___ ,” “___ always happens” form as soon as we learn the words for them. I saw a graphic once that looked something like, “Yru’oe slitl albe to raed tihs.” It was from a study showing that as long as the first and last letters of words are the same, people can read them no matter what order in which the middle letters appear. I think this illustrates the danger of stories: what’s in-between our history and our future story (which is only ever desire or fear) becomes a jumble of letters we read according to some preconceived way regardless of what the content actually is. You see what you believe is there. This is delusion, the inability to be in the present moment and see it clearly for what it is. 

Last year, I went to an event for mentors of new teachers. The speaker wrote a book on coaching and identified self-reflection and emotional resiliency as two strengths that help beginning teachers the most. When I was student teaching, we had to write weekly reflections for a methods class. At the time, I thought it was the only thing I was good at and that it was the least important thing to be good at. I felt like I was getting away with something when I wrote my Master’s thesis about vocational calling and teacher identity, using my blog as data. I understand now that reflection was the most important thing all along.

Self-reflection doesn’t come easy to everyone. This year, I read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl for the first time while teaching it to my students. I had no idea that 15-year-old Frank, before she died, went back and revised her journal entries, just in case they got published (she had heard on the radio that people were looking to collect personal accounts of World War II). I asked my students to keep journals while we read Frank’s and interacted with them by commenting on theirs. It always surprises me that this isn’t an easy assignment for all kids. Given the chance to be alone with one’s own mind, not everyone knows how to interact with it. Or this: the first journal I read on the first day of the assignment was about suicide, as if my speech about being a mandatory reporter had been an invitation to a cry for help. I once had a dream I was in my classroom, jumping up and down and shouting at my students, “Writing can save your life!” It was comical, but I believe it’s true.

At the mentoring event, the speaker read a poem called “The Way It Is” by William Stafford:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Solnit uses the metaphor of thread, especially red thread, to show how narration creates and how stories connect us, but her most original and beautiful metaphor is this: “I am, we each are, the inmost of an endless series of Russian dolls; you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you. We live as literally as that inside each other’s thoughts and work, in this world that is being made all the time, by all of us.”

I’m not writing to hear myself talk here (well, maybe a little). I’m throwing you a red thread from the other side of the forest. I want us to live inside each other like Russian nesting dolls. It’s as intimate as that.

the postal worker’s daughter draws email

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:


the night thoreau spent on the internet

The other day, I saw a YouTube commercial that told me my armpits might be the wrong color (!?!). I watched the commercial twice because I couldn’t believe I’d understood it right. Surely it must have been talking about pit stains on clothing. But no, armpit discoloration (!?!) is apparently a Thing I should react to by buying a particular brand of deodorant.

I stopped watching TV after high school. For a long time, the few good things on it didn’t seem worth bearing the commercials for. It’s funny how things change and a decade later, I’m watching high art commercial free on TV and getting so tired of trying to dodge inane commercials on the Internet that I sometimes wonder if the Internet is even worth it anymore.

Technology and materialism are on my mind because I’m teaching Transcendentalism in my junior/senior English classes. Transcendentalism is my favorite unit to teach. I forget sometimes that a lot of adults don’t know what it is, but thanks to greeting cards and bumper stickers, most people know Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century neck-bearded dude who lived alone for two years in a cabin at Walden Pond and stopped paying taxes to protest the Mexican-American war. This was during the Industrial Revolution. Transcendentalists cautioned that new technology–like, you know, trains–was distancing people from nature and each other, that modern conveniences were actually making life more complicated and less connected. It’s crazy how prescient these writings are.

It turns out Thoreau was also a mindfulness pioneer. He writes that he went to Walden Pond “to live deliberately,” and so much of the writing he did there is about noticing and being present. During the Transcendentalism unit, I do mindfulness activities with my students, including eating and walking meditation (the latter is really just going to the beach) to expand their ideas about what it means to be deliberate in daily life. I also ask them to experiment with living deliberately by giving up three “conveniences” for a week and adding one thing to their daily routine that Thoreau would approve of. I’ve had kids give up video games, social media, listening to prerecorded music, makeup, mirrors, microwaves, sugar, driving…one year, a girl camped out in her backyard for a week. On the first day of the experiment, I showed these videos in class to contextualize Thoreau in the present day:

After, one of my students showed me Zen Pencils (an awesome web comic to which you can submit quotes for Gavin Aung Than to turn into comics), specifically “129. Marc Maron: The Social Media Generation” (check it out!). The comic struck a chord with me because I do the living deliberately experiment with my students, and this year, I decided to give up “pointless” Internet browsing and to write something every day. The latter makes the former hard because it means I’m on the Internet when I’m trying to avoid it. But what has been harder is determining what is “pointless” browsing and what isn’t. I told myself I could check email or otherwise use the Internet to actively communicate with people or conduct business. What I was trying to stop doing was cooking dinner with Gmail open, constantly glancing over at my laptop to see if I have a new email or chat. I do this a lot even though it makes me less present for whatever I’m doing and bums me out when I don’t see any new emails or chats.

To complicate matters, in my ongoing attempt to have a rich Internet life without Facebook, I started a song of the day blog on Tumblr. I don’t fully get Tumblr yet and it annoys me to no end that I can’t comment on people’s posts. I understand from a New York Times article that the idea is to promote meaningful, civilized discourse on the Internet, which is cool, but I suspect most people default to liking or reblogging without commentary, which isn’t discourse at all. And yet, I keep refreshing my dashboard to see if anyone has done just that. Is it pointless? If it’s not pointless once, when does it become pointless? More than once a day? More than once an hour? I don’t know. All I know is, in terms of the Internet, I feel unsatisfied. In terms of my experiment, nothing feels different because I don’t think I’m really doing the experiment.

When my class discussed the “Digitals” and “I Forgot My Phone” videos, one of my students commented that technology is just evolution. None of it’s bad; it’s how you use it. This is true. We can use technology deliberately and mindfully or we can become, as Thoreau would say, tools of our tools. But how do we know the difference? I’ve felt for a couple of years now like the Internet is dangling in a crevasse, with knowledge and intimate connection on one side and commerce and social exploitation on the other. Ten years ago, the Internet wasn’t primarily a place for shopping. It was a way for people from all over the world to connect with each other, not over what we bought but over what we thought. We created content out of our own lived experience and imagination. Of course this still happens, but I fear it’s being drowned out by blaring YouTube commercials, reactive status updates, and addictive but empty feedback.

Sometimes, I dream of pirate Internet. Alternative URLs would start with “qqq” instead of “www” and they would direct those of us in the know to an underground Internet, a place where we were in control. It would be like the Trystero in The Crying of Lot 49, another prescient text I’ve taught in my senior English classes.

what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

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.

travelog: cleveland, july 2013

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:

when i’m in the desert, i want to see the desert some more

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.

my top 10 favorite artworks

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).

7. Bill Owens’ Suburbia series

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,_1973_(Today_Series,_%22Tuesday%22)_On_Kawara.JPG/220px-Oct_31,_1973_(Today_Series,_%22Tuesday%22)_On_Kawara.JPG

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?

we were slaves and we were liberated

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.”

say anything

I’ve had a secret blog for nine years. It’s not totally secret, but if you don’t know about it already, you’re probably not going to find out. Blogging is one of three things I’ve experienced in my adult life that has changed my life. At first, my blog was just a place to post online quiz results and a way of keeping in touch, before Facebook, with some people from college. Over time, though, it became much more than that. There is a positive to lack of privacy on the Internet (that is, if it’s carefully controlled lack of privacy). I can say anything on my other blog, and because I have said anything in an interactive forum where people have listened and questioned me and related to me and supported me, I’ve learned to accept parts of myself I never thought I could. I’ve learned to own my own words and the self they represent, not to be embarrassed of shit I wrote there when I was 22 because it was necessary for me to write what I wrote then in order to write what I’m writing now. For me, blogging isn’t just a way of recording the past; it’s a tool for moving forward.

For a long time, I’ve wanted to open up that space, to have a way of sharing the important things that happen there with everyone, not just a select few people. Of course, the irony is that the growth that happens over there is only possible because of the security of the site. I don’t have to worry about relatives or bosses or students or whomever finding it. So about a year ago, I bought this blog with the intention of producing a version of my other one that is fit for public consumption. I still don’t want this blog associated with my real name on the Internet (I don’t want to be Google-able), but the idea is that…well, also about a year ago, I did a radical thing, which was to delete my Facebook account. In a way, I created this blog as a way of going rogue from Fb. Because I don’t have a problem with social networking or curating the self (actually, I love those things); what bothers me are products that are billed as something they’re not, which I came to believe is absolutely the case with Fb. On the surface, it’s a free service that facilitates connections between people, but underneath that, it’s a manipulative marketing tool that exploits a human longing for meaningful interaction in the interest of generating wealth for a small handful of people. I didn’t want to be part of that anymore, but it was hard to cut ties with acquaintances I knew I wouldn’t interact with anywhere else.

A few weeks ago, I dreamed I was uploading some photos to Google+, which I don’t use for photo sharing in real life. I was uploading a picture of someone standing next to a piece of graffiti and got a message from Google that said, “It looks like this person is committing a crime.” In the dream, they froze my account and wouldn’t even let me check my email until I filled out some kind of legal form. The thing about this dream is that it doesn’t seem that farfetched to me. I believe Google’s “Don’t be evil” slogan less and less as the Internet becomes primarily a vehicle for data mining and advertising in the guise of “social networking.” Blogging is, to me, a way of enjoying more of the positive aspects of social networking (self-expression, maintaining and developing friendship, exchanging new ideas) while minimizing the negative aspects (superficiality, lack of controllable privacy, insidious marketing). If you’re reading this and we used to be Facebook friends, I still want to socially network with you, I just don’t want to do it on Mark Zuckerberg’s terms. I invite you to keep in touch with me here.

radical education

There’s an article in The New York Times today about an issue on which I take a strong stance: gifted and talented education (GATE). In education lingo, this is called “tracking,” which means sorting kids into different groups, classes, or cohorts based on their perceived ability level. It happens in almost all schools to varying degrees. In my elementary school district, those of us whose parents signed us up (key phrase there) took some type of logic test at the end of second grade. I remember looking at pictures of a piece of paper folded a bunch of times with holes punched through the layers and having to choose from A, B, C, or D what the pattern of holes would look like after the paper was unfolded. I remember feeling like it was impossible, but I did well and thus the course of my education and life were determined when I was seven years old. For the rest of elementary school, a handful of us got pulled out of class every Wednesday and put on a bus to another school where we did enrichment activities. In junior high, mostly the same group of kids took GATE classes separate from the rest and honors and AP classes in high school. Eventually, most of us went to selective colleges and now have jobs in academia or the white-collar workforce. Everything from our careers to our social circles are largely due to a test our parents signed us up for before we had even memorized a times table. I benefitted from this system, but as an adult educator, I will go so far as to say the system is morally reprehensible.

As much as I might want to believe that I am somehow innately smarter than the majority of society, I know the truth is along these lines: I have a privileged education because I am white, speak Standard English, grew up in a rich town with well-funded public schools, and have parents who made huge sacrifices so that I could be the first person in my entire family to graduate from college. In high school, I sensed something was amiss when I noticed my classes only had white kids in them when the school was half Latino. I TA’d for my AP English teacher senior year during a class he taught called “Basic English Skills.” Instead of reading books, the students were writing cover letters for job applications. This was their English class. The NYT article interviews a parent of triplets, each in a different track (gifted, general, and special ed) at their elementary school. The parent at first suggest that the classes are pretty much the same, but then backpedals: “Leon does seem to be pushed harder, Ms. Bloch said. He is asked to think of things in complex ways, not just to memorize dates of the American Revolution or names like John Adams, for instance, but also to understand relationships between events and people, or to explain possible motives or forces behind certain events, like the Boston Tea Party.”

The article focuses on one aspect of tracking, which is that it helps to perpetuate the de facto racial and socioeconomic segregation that is pretty much the norm in public schools. The article gives a lot of predictable statistics about gifted kindergarten in New York City public schools (i.e., its racial demographics are the inverse of the district’s) and describes the lack of access that students in the poorest neighborhoods have to these enrichment programs. Gifted kindergarten! Gifted kindergarten is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, nothing but privileged kindergarten covered up by language that tells five-year-old children that some people are better than other people.

It is really hard to explain to non-educators (and, horrifyingly, to some educators) what is wrong with tracking. Well, maybe it’s not that hard to explain, but it’s hard to accept that most people have never questioned the ethics of it. When I meet strangers at parties and tell them I’m a teacher, a frequent comment I hear is how it must be nice to be a teacher if you get to teach the “smart” kids. I want to slap people when they say stuff like that, but I can’t because they are totally and pathetically oblivious to how racist, classist, and just plain fucked up the comment is. As an observation, it is, of course, correct–it is nice to teach kids who have been labeled “smart” by the education system. What is disturbing is how people use that label as if were not a label at all but a genuine demarcation between humans without critically examining how and by whom the designation is made and how it shapes people’s identities for their lifetime.

So, on the one hand, I was pleased to see the article because it raises an issue people don’t think about critically enough, but on the other hand, it disappointed me because it doesn’t get even close to the root prejudice here. That tracking segregates schools by race is a problem. But the bigger problem is that we live in a society that teaches us from a very young age that if we can learn to do things better faster, then we are better people who have more value and status. The root of all discrimination is the belief that some humans are better than others, and as long as we believe that, as long as we communicate it to our children implicitly, then there will always be an underclass. And I’m supposed to tell my students, as a matter of political correctness, not to say the word “retarded” for something they think is stupid, as if their society doesn’t judge all of them by a set standard of ability, as if it doesn’t then class them off accordingly.


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