Friday, November 23, 2012

televangelist


Reader

I have been wanting to write for weeks and for some reason the time keeps getting away from me. It isn't really getting away though, it just isn't here. I started a second job and now I work every day, from when I get up to when I go to sleep with only an hour window on each side during the week.  My initial idea to manage the suddenly impossible schedule was the Time-Turner Hermione had in Harry Potter. I realized there is a bus from Woodley Park to Columbia Heights about two weeks after my job started, which actually would have made this transition much easier, but I never realize helpful things like that until someone tells me at a later date with the qualifier, "You probably already know this, but.." and whatever it is followed by, I never knew it.

I'm not complaining about this- I was starting to feel like I didn't really have a pulse at my day job,  getting by on the peaks and crash of caffeine and sleep aids. I was questioning a lot of my decisions following my graduation in May. On a whim I applied to a Lebanese restaurant in a trendy neighborhood in DC, and I started working evenings and weekends. 

One of the things I have not been happy about since I have been here is that I have felt distant from a lot of the people I encounter everyday, and have struggled to really connect with people like I did at home or in the different places I have briefly lived. I have a natural inclination toward anxiety and my time in DC was aggrandizing it. 



I have heard people talk about a connection between mind and body or a connection between the environment and your own existence being essential to feeling complete or happy. All those connections. Only, my problem is that I stop feeling the connections and I start feeling fragmented. And nothing is connected, like I am a different person in my mind from who I am in life.



A few weeks ago I went to a lake house in rural Virginia, when my friends and I left for the weekend to get out of DC.  I could feel the stress start to dissipate as we drove away from the Potomac and its fever, a capital of the free world, the epicenter of American political power. It was like getting out of the force of a magnet.

It was kind of an off time to go to a lake house; at the end of October when realistically it's too cold for summer activities but not cold enough for snow activities. We didn't let that dissuade us, though, and the next day we decided the weather was just a minor inconvenience and embarked on the pontoon with beer and food like the true explorers that we are.

We stopped at an isolated cove near a small wooded island. It was the end of October and only about 65 degrees- too cold for swimming for most sane people.  After we had been drinking, though, we reconsidered and decided that it would be stupid NOT to go swimming and take advantage of probably the last weekend of  remotely possible outdoor lake activities. We stripped off our cumbersome outerwear and jumped into the cold water. 
The sun was slanting through the trees turning the bright orange and rust reds of autumn, and never have I found light to be more of an example of the wave-particle duality it embodies. 

"Standard interpretations of quantum mechanics explain this paradox as a fundamental property of the Universe, while alternative interpretations explain the duality as an emergent, second-order consequence of various limitations of the observer."

The light laid in sheets and had a porous grainy effect that was softening and bathed the objects of its affection like a bright sea.

I don't know how many weekends after, but probably two, Hurricane Sandy grazed DC but didn't draw its blood. I had two unexpected days off work and then started at the restaurant. It was strange because I felt like everything was different after the hurricane passed, although the differences were unrelated to the hurricane but coordinated with it chronologically.


ataraxia \at-uh-RAK-see-uh\, noun:
A state of freedom from emotional disturbance and anxiety; tranquility.


Several of the people I work with at the restaurant are from Lebanon and Morocco and speak Arabic and get a kick out of teaching me little phrases and having me repeat them to hear how horrible my pronunciation is.  One of the first things I was taught in Arabic was "hayatay" or "you are my life." The word reminded me of one of the only phrases I know in French, "raison d'etre." I read it in a book last year, as something that a father told a son.  Then I saw it in a press release at work, "Balancing human rights with responsibilities turns on its head the entire raison d’être of human rights."

على الله (3al-alla)
Can be used (1) when refusing alms to a beggar (as in "God will provide") or (2) to imply misgivings about an outcome.
السباك قال لي انه جاي على طول - على الله يجي دلوقتي (is-sabbaak 'aalli innu gayy 3ala Tuul - 3al-alla yiigii dilwa'ti)


I also saw the word welschmertz, which I have been obsessed with since I went to Brazil and it connected my life back together from Brazil to Champaign to Germany, and now, to Washington, DC.


The main downside to the fact that I have absolutely no time these days is that my inability to write has made me almost physically uncomfortable. The main upside is that I interact with people who really fascinate me, and have a pretty unique experience talking to them because there is not very much to my job aside from making customers feel comfortable and welcome, and usually that involves listening to them. 

it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant. dalí

Twice at the restaurant I have talked to men sitting at the bar at the same end chair, both traveling for work, who came in late in the evening to get food and to drink. The first one, charismatic with a evangelical veneer, peppered the conversation with quasi-religious terminology like "Have grace on yourself," and "let go of the burden you are carrying." I generally find these kind of phrases to be off-putting, but allowed them both because I was working and because they occurred only a few times in well-intentioned advice.  

 The other person sitting in that chair about a week later talked to me at length about writing and worldview and constructivism. He was in sales. He offered suggestions for career growth and strategy and talked about things like the value of time and perspective. His advice was salient and his tone was dogmatic. He made me lose track of the time I was talking to him.  Both the televangelist and the sales person seemed to want to impart advice to me, which happens strangely frequently.

The most resonant advice that someone has given me while I was working was a journalist from Pittsburgh who talked to me about the importance of having lived experiences in order to write. I told him I didn't have enough experience writing, and he said maybe I should work on that, but I shouldn't discredit the fact that I have had experience living. He said that there is no one road to being able to write, because a lot of writers have skills to write but not much to write about. "The beaten path is, I’ve found, generally extremely overrated. Particularly for a journalist, to whom being eclectic is, I think, pretty mandatory," he said to me later in an email. 


One of the recent nights that I went out, I went to a party a week after Halloween, where the costume theme was still present but the hosts decided Halloween costumes were overdone at that point and should not be mandatory, so they made it costume-optional or fancy attire-optional. This resulted in a strange mix of half costumes and half-evening wear which had a weird surreal effect. Like a dream where a lot of what is happening is viable but there are strange details that are off that give it its unsettling hypnagogy. The party took an even more cultish turn when there was a pumpkin thrown from the second floor of the rowhouse ceremoniously, and it wasn't even high enough to make a real spectacle of it. It didn't smash open so they brought it up to the second floor again and threw it over the balcony again at the ground with force.

When I was in Bolivia, the other English teachers and I went on a trip to the religious city of Cotoca; centered around the solitary appearance of the Virgen de Cotoca years ago. When I was there, we went into a shrine where there were lines and lines of  burning  candles melting into the tables and rows of people coming in to light them. I asked our Bolivian guide if we were supposed to light them for a blessing or in prayer for someone, and he said, "No, for wishes." And I said, "Like, wishes for good health or peace or something?" And he said, "Yes, something like that, or something like a new car." One of my favorite paintings is Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, and I bought a rendition of it that day in Cotoca.


A few days ago, as I was reflecting on the new and unexpected presence of religious symbolism in my life walking home, I glanced at a table of posters being sold at a stand between Woodley Park and Columbia Heights and saw the blazing emblem of the Virgin. I asked the vendor in my declining spanish how much it was, and he said "diez," and after looking through the options he had I picked the one with "Ruega por Nosotros" imposed over the image on the bottom and gave him $12, with $2 "para ti." He gave me the picture of the icon and thanked me emphatically with "senorita, gracias y buenas noches!" 


 A few days before, after leaving a concert I was walking home alone the four-ish blocks back to my house in Columbia Heights, an area that is mainly gentrified but with spurts of crime that often provokes the response "That area is not the same as it was 5 years ago!" As I was walking toward my house a white SUV pulled up next to me with four men in the car, and as I was walking quickly away one of them asked out the window where I was going, so I started basically running, and then the man yelled after me "It's ok! We're the Guardian Angels and you shouldn't be walking home alone at this time!"


I stopped and turned around and through the window could see they were all wearing some sort of uniform. I said I was almost home and appreciated their offer but wouldn't need their services although the term "guardian angels" intrigued me. The Guardian Angels then took the decision out of my hands and said, "ok, we'll just trail along behind you then." I said fine. It reminded me of when there was an outbreak of crime on my campus when I was a student and my friends talked about starting a vigilante justice squad, except this seemed more magical. 


The car drove beside me and I decided I should be more thankful for having their protection. I engaged them in conversation until we were within sight of my house, and then I indicated which house I lived in and thanked them for their help and said I could take it from here. They said they would wait outside until I get inside and lock the door. I went inside and locked the door and watched the car drive away. The next day I remembered the event and felt like I was in a movie. I wondered how I could get them to come back at some point, or if they were the kind of illusory fortunate encounter that only happened when you weren't looking for it, and as I thought about it I felt the goosebumps cover my skin like they did when we jumped into the too cold pulsing water in the halcyon light.



                 




Sunday, October 14, 2012

if this is the best of possible worlds

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.
Kafka


Reader

I have never felt a particular desire to shield myself from other people's suffering or from what I see as a potentially disheartening reality. I think it is fair to say that sometimes I seek it out. Not because I want to be unhappy or try to be a martyr or something like that, but because I want to see the world for what it is, and not be confined to my limited experience of it. 

On the positive side, this has given me a keen sense of social justice and of adventure. On the negative side, this desire has also gotten me into situations that I can't emotionally handle. Once I heard someone say that pain often implies growth, and I think there is truth to that. I think I occasionally take it too far, but I think it's impossible to know if you're taking it too far until you're looking back at it. 

"Dear Kit, the key thing is managed awareness of your role in the world and history. Think too much and you know you are nothing. Think just enough and you know you are small, but important to some. That's the best you can do."

When I was in college, I was talking to my friend about some of the things that I have seen traveling and how they have informed my worldview. He asked me if the struggles all around me, the poverty in Chicago and the gang violence and all its problems, also informed my worldview.

I said I had read a book about gang violence in Chicago, and yes, I had thought about that. My friend, who had grown up in an area riddled with gang violence, had a past scarred by the physical and mental destruction it causes. He told me that if I wanted to see the places where the book unfolded he would show me; we could drive through the neighborhood and stay in the car. He deemed this as more or less safe, and while I didn't really know if that was true I agreed. I saw this as a risk but couldn't deny that I had taken other risks.

I feel like if I have a strength, it's been always curious about other people and an unending ability to allow people to show me the world as they see it.

Before my friend and I got into the neighborhood he grew up in he told me to take off the crystal necklace I was wearing and put it in the glove compartment. I did as he said. 

Typically I leave social and political commentary to people who are more informed on the economic, political and historical forces at work in constructing a society. Being in a town where everyone seems to have something to say about everything (Washington, D.C.) has changed my mind about that, but I still hesitate to try to draw synthesis or conclusions from situations that I know I don't really understand. Sometimes I just acknowledge what I know to be true from experience and leave it to other people's interpretations. Even though I filter it through my own lens just by giving the account, I try to keep my voice crystal clear like water running over rocks.  I know that understanding is not complete or whole without having lived something.  But I also know that trying to understand the world isn't limited to things that are easy to confront and accept. Refusing to acknowledge problems and inequities contributes to their inertia and is a large force in creating them.

As we drove through the area my friend told me about the events that had shaped his life there and stay with him now; someone setting someone else on fire during a fight, girls having children when they were still children themselves.  

People think of places as being haunted when they are removed and able to retain their solitude. Sometimes it's interesting to think about the past lives of the places you are in all the time. 

 I saw Eve Ensler speak the other day, and one of the most memorable things she said was that people spend so much of their lives denying what they see and feel and know, and that for any real change to happen people need to be honest about what they have experienced in the world.

I remember riding on the back of a motorcycle in Rio and seeing the favelas sprawl up the mountains with Christ the Redeemer's arms extended protectively over them.

My friend said he can never forget about the things that he has seen or heard; that they still keep him up. He said he can leave it geographically but it will never leave him.

I have a strange ability to recall certain conversations almost verbatim from years ago while still forgetting about things that happened a few hours before.  This selective ability was kind of helpful in grad school, when I had to read a lot and give lectures to my class. It allowed me to distribute what I had been reading and hearing and mentally filing into what I was saying in a way I hoped wouldn't put my students to sleep.

Also when I was a grad student I noticed other grad students' enthusiasm for the word 'pedagogy' and saying REE-SEARCH like RI-SEARCH and in general adopting alternative self-indulgent academic pronunciations for words.  I had one class where an ability to speak using grad school jargon was particularly useful, and when we were discussing different forms and construction for works of journalism I said that the diversity in structure was necessary, and that "If you boil down journalism to a formulaic mold, you wouldn't display the immense diversity that journalism is supposed to reflect that is true in life, and journalism is meant to give an account of different realities. To neglect to embody this would provide an impoverished sense of reality." 

My professor stared at me for a long moment and then said "God, don't you just love the way she talks?" I didn't know if that was meant to be serious or kind of patronizing at first, so I told him that sometimes I hear statements that are beautiful or poignant and commit them to memory and then when I say things histrionically it's basically just stringing together all the things that I have heard after they have mixed in with all my thoughts. To me, it connects a lot of things and helps me find continuity in what I observe. It's not a copy-paste sense of theft, but more like I listen to what is presented to me and I apply it to other things after I have considered and internalized it. The phrase "impoverished sense of reality," after I thought about it, was not something I invented. It was something I heard in an anthropology lecture. 

There are a lot of phrases that have stuck with me from books and things that I have heard and read, and whenever I hear someone say that something was well-said, I mentally insert "but we must cultivate our garden."





Sunday, September 30, 2012

house of cards


Reader

I had a bad cold this week, and despite draining my desire to stay awake past like 8 o'clock, I was on a real roll of expressing my ideas eloquently and succinctly because of a writing assignment at work and even though I feel like I could fall asleep at any moment I am compelled to keep writing and chronicling.


A lot has happened since last time I wrote to you, and I will tell you about the things that seem resonate to me now, and tell you about the rest later. There have been a few things that were interesting that happened to me in the last week, and I will give you a basic overview of what those were, but mostly just what I got from them. 

Last week I had one of my most insane days at work that I have ever had, and it started with attending an event that we had been preparing for basically since the day I started work, when a prominent activist did a speaking engagement for us and I helped with all the media shenanigans. Then we had to go to a press conference for something else we're working on at a different place in DC. AND THEN THAT SAME DAY my friend from college came to visit and we went to Oktoberfest in Dulles, which was technically German land because we were on a Naval Base. I love going to German things and celebrating my heritage. Somehow in the middle of all this debauchery and lack of sleeping I got a cold.



I have developed a compulsion to write about things at almost the same as they happen, and to take a lot of pictures of people at different times when they aren't expecting it. At the park last Sunday, a girl took a Polaroid picture of my friend Ther and I, and she said I could only have it if I scanned it and sent her a copy. She said that the picture evokes a feeling of "Who are these people and what are they doing?" She said she keeps every picture she takes and there is a wire in her room she hangs them on. I like this; I like the idea of collecting images of people like a collector. I think I collect words more than images though, and someone told me the other day that I can make words bleed. I never thought of it like that, and in addition to being a very significant compliment, I like the metaphor. I don't like when people use compliments like "She's nice"because they are banal. 

The park was beautiful on Sunday, because as you know, reader, I am very interested in lighting and the way the sky looks at different parts of the day and year, and Sunday was right near the autumnal equinox so the sun was slanted and golden and enchanting and shadows were really long.

I wonder why skeletons have come to be associated with death. Your skeleton is always there, and it is not created by death but exposed by it.

Having the cold made it harder to focus at work and I felt like I couldn't really breathe a lot of the time but since my week was insane I went to work anyway. Do you know the feeling when you're sick and congested and all food seems gross and tastes weird? I felt like that while I was grocery shopping, and ended up only getting bread, Gatorade and Cookies n Cream Oreos after I walked around the store for 45 minutes because those were the only things that seemed palatable and unoffensive at the time.

The other day my friend told me that when you are very close to someone your heartbeats can sync up with eachother. Synchronization happens like that a lot in the natural world, including fireflies which match eachother's flashes. I remember when I was a little kid I would wonder why all the lightning bugs in our yard lit up together. Sometimes when I get stressed I time my breathing with my watch ticking. I keep it on my nightstand when I sleep so I can still hear it.

Also at work I have been interested in reading a lot about the Middle East and everything going on in Syria. In my last post I wrote about religion being a societal force underlying a lot of movements in history- this paragraph was in an article in The New Yorker, and represents kind of a different viewpoint, how religion can be oversimplified as an explanation for events in history. I really liked it and I thought it said a lot of what I was trying to say much better:

"But the notion that a generalized Muslim anger about Western ideas could explain violence or politics from Indonesia to Bangladesh, from Iran to Senegal, seemed deficient. It was like arguing that authoritarian strains in Christianity could explain apartheid, Argentine juntas, and the rise of Vladimir Putin. Nevertheless, the meme sold, and it still sells. Last week, Newsweeks cover splashed “Muslim Rage” in large type above a photograph of shouting men. Inside came advice on how to survive “Islamic hate.” Cable news channels—Fox and MSNBC alike—showed similar images, hour after hour. By now, many Americans must find nothing remarkable about the conflation of Muslim faith and contorted faces."

I sometimes find The New Yorker to be insufferable, but I liked that synopsis and thought it was well-said.

Also recently someone told me not to let my insecurities play an outsized role in questioning myself. That was funny because I am reading the book Aleph by Paulo Coelho (I will tell you about it when I finish) which talks about exactly that, AND the Trans-Siberian Railway (which I became obsessed with a few months ago and still want to traverse). 

Today I was talking to my roommate, who is really well-traveled and intelligent but extremely down-to-earth, and I said that it seems like when people get some experience they become overly-confident and assured of their role and importance in the world, but when people become more truly experienced they realize the world is not as comprehensible as they thought and maybe have a period of self-questioning or doubt. He said, yes, I think you're right. People who seem to accept the world without a trace of emotional upheaval probably don't really consider its upsetting idiosyncrasies. It is good to accept what you cannot change but people accept things too easily.

Reading about a person traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway in Aleph makes it seem slightly less mysterious and mythical, because it kind of reminds me of taking a bus down the coast of Vietnam, when there were cockroaches and the bus driver openly snorted cocaine when he stopped (only twice during a trip that took almost 24 hours, which was probably the point of the coke). It still was pretty cool though, and when we arrived in Saigon I felt like a real explorer. It was a strange coincidence that I ended up randomly buying Aleph last week, and the last book I read by Paulo Coelho was The Alchemist, and I actually read it while I was in Vietnam. I remember reading it and thinking that someone should have recommended it to me much sooner. Seems like a sign to me, but my flair for the cinematic also leads me to place undue significance on the connectedness of events. Now I want to travel again like I always do.

I bought a real towel today because I have used my Brazilian flag beach towel as a real towel for the past month, and it isn't actually absorbent and I think I have gotten all the use out of it that I can. I didn't want to buy real bath towels though, because something about buying a set of towels seems to imply that I will be staying in a place for a certain amount of time. I don't know why a towel set implies permanence. Also, I realized when I moved to DC that I have too many things. Reader, do you ever get overwhelmed by the accumulation of possessions you have and want to get rid of everything and start over? I feel like that sometimes, but I guess it is a fortunate problem to have. 

I have gone from feeling mixed about living in DC to really loving it. I hope whatever you're doing that you are loving it too. xx