Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I don't know if anyone has been here in years, but if you have, I now write here.

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Monday, May 13, 2013

babel


Reader

I am sorry I haven’t written in so long. I realize I always apologize for not having written and I hope you continue to forgive me for it.

It's warm out now; almost summer. February is long gone. The winter seems like it never happened. 

I have not written because I am having trouble writing. By saying I am having trouble writing, I mean I am having trouble thinking.  I think mostly through writing and only once I have written about something do I feel that I have truly lived it.

I have not written because I am overwhelmed by my inability to chronicle it all. I realize it might seem strange to have existential consternation about something that hardly anyone reads, and is inconsequential in most ways, but I look at writing as so much a part of my ability to internalize and understand the world that things build up and I feel that any attempt to explain it would be deficient. I would rather not write about something than write in a way that impoverishes it.

Reader, do you remember when I first wrote to you when I came to DC? About making ideas happen? I had no idea what was in store for me in the next nine months. And if I did, I might not have even come. But it's good I didn't know, because these were the things that had to happen. 

I wanted to write about what the past nine months have taught me about integrity, humility, and resilience. I have learned a lot. I have learned that it is difficult to stay positive when it seems like things are falling apart.

Somehow it seems like everything falls apart at the same time.

I have learned that there is only so much disorganization I can manage in my life, but as time goes on my perception of my ability to manage has evolved. The disorganization seems to be on a parallel trajectory to what I can manage, and each ascension in disorganization is matched by ascension in my ability to manage it. 

The most important thing that I have learned is to see the rarity in things where other people would see only tedium or pain. I am continually overstimulated by life, and there are these little things that get me all the time. At a few points it has been these things that have sustained me.

If I have a talent, it is appreciating those moments when they happen for their singularity. I consistently attempt to create synthesis, to create order where there is none. But lately that has eluded me, so what I have is moments crystallized in time. 

***

On Valentine's Day I had a bad cold. I showed up to the restaurant I work at wearing the wrong shoes. I hadn't been home all day; where I was temporarily living was under construction and I had to be out of the house by 8:30 am when the construction workers would come into my temporary room and continue to knock walls down. This was doubly problematic because I was currently unemployed except for working evenings at the restaurant, so during the day I tried to write at small cafes until I had to go to work. I tried to read too, but my concentration was at an all-time low. I switched between Nietzsche and the Economist to feel as if I was still learning, which didn't add up to an uplifting experience. All my clothes were in a pile on the couch and I had no idea where most of my stuff was. We could only use the water, in one shower, at certain times and having four roommates made that difficult.

I showed up to the restaurant that evening wearing shoes that my manager said were not appropriate for work (he wasn't wrong in that statement, they were borderline slippers; I had no idea where my work appropriate heels were and wearing them for my six hour shift while feeling horrible seemed unappealing). I took the inflated heart balloons from behind the bar to the patio and started tying them to the railing. I didn't care that it was Valentine's Day, but I did care that I felt that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being homeless, I was at a 6 and sliding upward. 

I wondered why I had decided to move to a city that was currently draining my resources and my mental well-being. It seemed ironic that at that time last year I had been in front of a class full of students three years my junior and had been paid to teach them. I wondered how I could have been considered qualified to teach anyone. I thought of living at home over the summer; working at Nordstrom and feeling completely unstimulated but very content. I was well-dressed and making money, and when people asked for recommendations on what jewelry they should buy I could respond by explaining that Chanel's runway show had established faded neon as THE fall trend. The shoe trend was toeless heeled boots in the burgundy color we had coined "oxblood."

I thought about the night before, Ash Wednesday. I knew that was when I got the cold. It was an evening of freezing rain and I had gone to a Spanish mass in Columbia Heights. There must have been more than 200 people in the church and the service was two hours. I speak Spanish but the Mass made no sense to me.

I thought about that, and my mind went far away from the Lebanese restaurant in the Northwest quadrant of Washington.

I tied heart balloons to the patio railing and tried not to detract from the festive environment.



During the most tumultuous times I got advice and encouragement from people who spoke to me with the idea that everything would work out for me because it had for them. I always appreciated the sentiment and entertained the idea in the moment but it slept away from me at night. Sometimes the intensity of the darkness at 3am made it impossible for me to sleep. 

I told my friend about the negative effects that stress has on me, from insomnia to a racing heart to getting sick. He said, Wow, since your body is so in tune with your mind you are going to need to fulfill your destiny; your health is at stake.



I had the option of going home. That door never closed on me, and knowing that made the situation exponentially more bearable. That option, though, seemed tantamount to giving up, and that has never been a habit of mine.



The next day I woke up and did basically what had become routine over the past few weeks. I came home in the evening to change before work, and noticed something on my desk behind the sheets of tarp. It was a bouquet of flowers with the message "Happy Valentine's Day! Here's to waking up with a smile (sorry it's a bit late)." It took me a moment to register who could have gotten in my disheveled room to leave it, and remembered the construction worker who generally woke me up in the morning so they could start work. I attempted to make conversation with him while still being half asleep and trying to get everything I would need for the day out of my room. I had thought of myself as barely functioning during those mornings, trying to suppress my accumulated exhaustion and frustration. I had never thought that the small talk even made sense. On February 15th my Valentine's Day turned around.


***


I joined a writing group that meets every week to read each other's work. On the first night I went, we all went to a nearby bar after the writing and editing session. "We are drinkers with a writing problem," the group leader explained. Only a handful of people had driven, so as a loose collaboration of relative strangers we all crammed into the cars. I was in a car with two people who had been in my smaller writing group, including a retired professor, who was driving. When I got in the back I noticed that there was a bag full of band-aids, gauze, and antiseptic. When we parked at the bar I asked him if I could have a band aid for a burn I had gotten on the inside of my forearm the night before. I had gotten it at the restaurant taking bread out of the oven and it had been stinging all day. "Of course," he said.

I was fumbling with the gauze and scissors as he parked. He closed his door and came over to me and extended my arm to expedite the process. I winced as the skin around the burn pulled. I rolled up my sleeve and he looked at it; it looked worse than it had the night before.

"Good God girl, what'd you do here? This is going to scar." He took the antiseptic out of the bag and applied it. His hands moved deftly. I asked him if he was injured, because I felt bad using his medical supplies if he needed them.

 "No," he said, taping a piece of gauze firmly over the burn. "My wife has leukemia and her skin gets fucked up because it's really delicate. I help her put these on at night."

"I'm so sorry," I said, taken aback. He had finished the bandaging and took my backpack out of the back seat. He insisted on carrying it into the restaurant, even though I told him the pain had mostly subsided. I thanked him for the ride, for bandaging up the burn and for carrying my backpack. The burn started getting better after that night. In the restaurant I asked if he was ever scared to write about things that were personal. He said no; what writers can offer is truth. Writers contribute by exposing themselves. He said if you water it down, what's the point? 


***


I talk to customers at the restaurant all the time, and once in a while I meet the most interesting people. One person came in reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; he was a psychologist from the convention across the street. I told him it was one of my favorite books. He had just started it, and he asked me questions about it and what to expect. I told him I loved it, but it was sad. Most great books seem to either have a sad ending or very sad elements to them. I told him about how I wrote a report on it in high school, and focused on the religious symbolism pervasive throughout it.

We talked about literature and he liked a lot of the same things I did. When I told him Anaïs Nin was my favorite writer, he said he had slept in her bed. I looked at him blankly for a second, because he did not appear to be older than 35, and Anaïs Nin died in the 70s. He explained that he had lived in France and worked at a bookstore that was popular for writers in the 1920s. There was a historic guest house still open somewhere in the winding streets of Paris where Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin used to stay.  It sounded like the French version of the Chelsea Hotel.  There is some kind of visceral connection from sleeping in someone's bed, even when they're not sleeping in it.

***

Reader, I told you I do not have synthesis. As I watch the bright refractions of the late spring sun falling in sheets on the Potomac, I feel grateful for all the moments it took to get here, even the bad ones.

What I have learned is that sometimes things are difficult. When the situation became very demoralizing, there were always indicators that things would get better. There were always these moments.  If at times it's difficult to see them, just keep your eyes open and eventually it will get easier.

I learned that life is ultimately enriched by passing moments of sorrow.  Light, shadows, and darkness must all exist at the same time. Life is comprised mostly by what you give attention to.

People say it's the little things, and it sounds kind of trite. But it truly, truly is the little things. And really, they're not little things. They're big things but we don't notice them and that trivializes them. But they are there, every moment we are awake and even when we're half asleep.


                   















































Sunday, February 10, 2013

pilgrims


Reader

I write to you now on what I have selected as my new year. I am using the unisolar Chinese calendar and honoring deities. Also, this is the year of the snake and I was born in 1989.

The last few weeks have been difficult. I didn't like the way my new year had begun; recovering from strep and disillusionment. I was reading about a quarter life crisis. I put myself into basic survival mode. 

I also read the The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides about how four students from Brown managed their first year after school. One was manic depressive and got married and then ran away. One traveled to Europe and Asia to see what the world was like. 

I decided that since doctoral school is currently improbable because of a dual lack of focus and resources, I would educate myself in a way that did not commit me financially or temporally. I decided to attend lectures at the Woodrow Wilson Center while also seeing everywhere that I was as a place to both learn and observe. I decided that both were equally valuable.



"I've been looking for the ultimate reality but right now there are a few mundane realities I'll settle for." Eugenides 


I picked up more shifts at the restaurant and spoke to the owners about my interest in moving upward within the business. I talked about marketing ideas and stayed late to learn the accounting procedures involved in recording and tracking sales at the end of the night. I trained in the kitchen and spoke in Spanish all day. I was promoted to maître d'.

I listened, a lot. I listened to customers talk to me about their days and where they were from. 

I spoke to the ambassador to Jordan of the meaning of morality and the necessity of writing without expectations of how it will be received. 

A man eating alone spoke charismatically about what he thought the future held for me and gave me his card to stay in touch. I googled him when I got home and read that he had been forced to resign from a large university for soliciting a prostitute while writing and touring for a children's book. I threw out the card.

I talked to the police officer on the Woodley Park and Adams Morgan beat while I was handing out hummus and coffee. I talked to him about what he had seen working in a rough neighborhood in Memphis and told him about my uncle who had taken a bullet for Ronald Reagan during an assasination attempt by John Hinckley. I explained that my uncle was fine; he was now police chief of Orland Park. After I finished the story he said "Well, shit, I'm going to keep a special eye on you. Are you out here all by yourself?"

My coworkers told me about marriages for citizenship that ended in police intervention and unpaid child support. The first time I overheard a conversation about an unconventional marriage arrangement I didn't get it. I didn't figure out what she was talking about until she said that after the papers came through he left her and asked for a DNA test to get out of paying child support.

I heard about childhoods in Morocco, Lebanon, El Salvador, Belarus, Montenegro, Egypt. They told me of international schooling and of civil war. 

I drank with two lawyers from Poland en route to Qatar and we saw Jill Kelley at a bar in Georgetown. A young consultant told me about her time being unemployed before being hired by Ernst and Young. She told me she worked in a restaurant in Washington, D.C. and she struggled to make rent. She said that she knew it wasn't easy, and told me to remember it will all make me a stronger and more interesting person.

I talked to a provost at an esteemed university right after he found out he was one of three educators from the United States selected to speak at a conference in Brussels about the future of higher education in the European Union. He was ecstatic and I was too.

I asked someone where he had worked prior to his current job and he told me an intersection of two streets. I didn't ask any more questions.



There have been fleeting moments in my life when I have felt more alive than I thought was possible. It seems to happen more while I'm traveling; probably because my senses are heightened as I see everything for the first time. Like all my nerves are on the outside instead of the inside. I remember a few hours after I arrived in Rio de Janeiro at the apartment where I was going to stay. I opened the shutters of the window over the Garden District to see Christ the Redeemer glowing in the plush Brazilian night, vaulting into the night sky.  I started crying I was so happy. I had made it to the image on the poster above my bed in Champaign. I remember wishing I could preserve the feeling and experience it again later, when I started to see regular life as mundane or restrictive, so I could remember what it felt like to be so free.


In The Marriage Plot two students talked about why time seems to go by faster when you're older. They concluded it's because as you get older, each minute, hour, and day is a smaller percentage of the whole as you continue to live for more time. You live longer and you are defined by more time and more experience; you become a patchwork of sensory memories and everything runs together. 

Sometimes that built up experience also causes you to feel things with less intensity.



A friend once told me that you can't relegate truth to one sphere of life or type of experience. He said that you have to search for truth and meaning everywhere, and learn from life in all the ways it can teach you. He said a lot of people tend to focus on a certain part of the whole as being more representative of fundamental truth and importance, but that is not accurate. He said to learn and observe everything around me all the time. Everything is worth it.



The first lecture I attended to furnish my education was entitled "Religion, Politics and Culture in Latin America." It was at 9am on a Wednesday. I couldn't sleep the night before and my desire to go had decreased significantly as I realized how late I was going to be working that night. The choice was taken out of my hands when I woke up at 6:30 am as my roommate's alarm clock pierced through our drafty house. I dressed quickly but attempted to look presentable. I walked out into the freezing January rain and started the walk to the metro. 

About two blocks away from my house my boots lost traction on a soaked sidewalk grate and I fell hard onto my knees. Falling didn't hurt that much because my legs were numb, but my knees started bleeding profusely.

I got to the metro and two trains went by that were crammed with people. I was embarrassed that someone would see my bloodied knees and feel uncomfortable with close proximity so I waited. 

I got off at the wrong stop. I walked 1.5 miles in the rain to the actual stop where I was supposed to get off. 

As I went through the security at the Woodrow Wilson Center the security guard stopped me with an emphatic exclamation that I should go to the nurse in the building. I told him no thanks, it wasn't really that bad and I was late, and he insisted on handing me his water bottle and a bunch of napkins to clean it. I thanked him and walked through security several times until I removed every object that was setting off the alarm.

I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My appearance had deteriorated. My hair and coat were soaked and the blood had coagulated at my knee, making it look much worse than it actually was. My head was pounding and I entered the lecture 40 minutes late, doubting the whole idea was at all worth it.  

I pulled myself together and listened to academics talk about the instinct to draw boundaries between religion, politics and other sects of society and the reality that in life those bleed together.

They talked about the place of religion in human life, about a sense of quest in contemplating what the spiritual dimension of a person's life provides and what it limits. They said that religion gives people a place to interpret what their lives are about. They talked of how to situate the idea that religion and violence are often intertwined. 

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend a few weeks before about the presuppositions that religion utilizes. About how faith gives answers to the hard questions and a sense of purpose and community. He said a commitment to any ideology completely will provide answers to difficult questions, but to fail to examine these answers is to miss the point. A life spent questioning and analyzing was challenging and perplexing, but by considering and thinking and evaluating, understanding will become more nuanced and closer to what is real. 



"At this time, infatuated with Nietzsche (and half asleep) Leonard didn't want to get into this argument, the truth of which wasn't that all religions were equally valid but that they were equally nonsensical." Eugenides


Many people can not accept something as vast, inclusive and timeless as God or morality. So we have imbued ideas with divisions to make them more comprehensible. We have distorted semantics. We have drawn lines and created false dichotomies. We have understood religion as power. We have waged wars and justified exceptions to morality to contend with difference. We have often utilized religion to acquire or to condemn lifestyle choices. We have made 'religion' by subjecting it to human error and in that way we have reduced it. And the idea is irreducible.  

"If you read any of the mystics, or any decent theology— Catholic, Protestant, kabbalistic— the one thing they all agree on is that God is beyond any human concept or category. That's why Moses can't look at Yahweh. That's why, in Judaism, you can't even spell out God's name. The human mind can't conceive what God is. God doesn't have a sex or anything else." Eugenides 



The scholars at the lecture spoke of the confluence and divergence of religion and morality. They spoke about the rise of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism, victims of violence and victims of fear of violence. They said they were not here solely to build theories, but to use theories to illuminate and understand. They talked about pluralism, microstories and liberation theology.


"The entire class was full of coop types, vegetarians in overalls and tie dyed tshirts. The bias of these kids was that Western religion was responsible for everything bad in the world, the rape of the earth, slaughterhouses, animal testing, whereas Eastern religion was ecological and pacific. When they were discussing the concept of ahimsa, he offered the observation that the Sermon on the Mount made roughly the same point. His point, again and again, was that truth wasn't the property of any one faith and that, if you looked closely, you found a ground where they all converged." Eugenides




The scholars said you learned what you truly believed when you were confronted. They said injustice is a historical construct, not something that was supposed to be.

I listened and listened and listened. 


"Gandhi used to write fan letters to Tolstoy. He called Tolstoy his 'great teacher.' So you're right. Martin Luther King got nonviolence from Gandhi. But Gandhi got it from Tolstoy, who got it from Christianity. So Gandhian philosophy really isn't any different from Christian pacifism."

"Are you saying Gandhi was a Christian?"

"Essentially, yes."

"Well, that's wrong. Christian missionaries were always trying to convert Gandhi. But it never worked. He couldn't accept stuff like the Resurrection and the Immaculate Conception."

"That's not Christianity."

"Yes, it is!"

"Those are just myths that grew up around the core ideas." 
Eugenides


Tonight, at the restaurant, I attempted to explain to a couple why I am so fascinated by religion. The couple asked me what it was about it that drew me to it. I told them it had always been part of my life, but as I traveled I started to wonder how divergent the different faiths were that I encountered. I told them that I had initially learned about religion through the construction of difference,  through learning of conquest and through comparison. I told them that I understood why it is often more intuitive to draw divisions than to understand underlying connectedness. 

I said that I was interested because I want to see where the foundations and desires all intertwine. I said I wanted to get rid of my own lens and see things as they really are. I understand that not every option is morally equivalent and there are entrenched institutions that have taken hold. But I have also seen that what people really want from life is mostly to be happy, and for others to be happy too. I said it was a big idea.



I said that, while have made 'religion' a more comprehensible idea by subjecting it to human interpretation and agenda, we have attempted to make it more accessible. But this has done the opposite. To see religion for its underlying connectedness is the the simplest thing of all. 




Reader, I hope this makes sense. What I mean to say is not that all religions are the same, but to say that there are foundations that they share that connect them all. 


What I have gotten from  all this is that our results are shaped by our intentions. We will see what we want to see and the world will show itself as it is believed it to be. By seeing the universality of different interests, beliefs, and realities the world will be a more whole and complete place. What I have gotten from this is that the overriding theme of life is dictated mainly by what you give attention. If you decide that everything fascinates you, the world will never cease to be full of wonder. The world will show itself as sacred if you see that within it.

I told the couple at the restaurant that if I could make my life about understanding these ideas everywhere, I would be happy. They said "We'll pray for you."