Thursday, August 13, 2009

Time to Talk

In my introductory piece, "Delayed Introductions," I compared my blogging experiment to the trial of a new relationship. I have to admit now that I'm still very confused. After watching the movie Julie & Julia and seeing the clear theme, direction, and deadline in the character's blog, I've come to view my project as more scattered and incomplete than ever. The nice thing about Julie Powell's blog (from the movie) is that it had a beginning, middle, and end; one main topic; and an obvious audience: foodies and meandering 30-somethings.

My blog, on the other hand, officially began several weeks after I started writing, has no mid-point, or projected end. It jumps from cultural relativism to self-awareness, and from activism to poetry (both mine and that of other people). It has no clear audience at all. This is not meant as a pity session. I'm not asking for praise. I simply want to acknowledge that I am no expert. This medium does not fit as snugly as a journal, and most likely never will. It's more difficult than I thought to switch from a process focus to a product focus. I'm carting my writing back and forth between my blog and journal, changing language here and emphasis there. It's like a custody battle, in which neither parent has won.

Nevertheless, the experiment goes on... no matter how tiresome the carpooling. I just can't help thinking it's an inherently selfish pursuit.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Creative Identity

Last night, a friend asked me what I live for. I love questions like that. I said I live for writing, relationships, and exciting ideas.

"You're a writer," he said. "And I'm a musician, and E. is an artist. Everyone else just goes along and sort of enjoys life, but they don't have identities. There aren't enough people with true identities in the world." Interesting idea.

The identities M. spoke of concern creation, usually born through processing: "I write to understand the world," "I play to empty my mind of clutter," or "I paint to escape." He speaks of people who feel deeply enough to become overwhelmed and seek creative outlet. For such people, art is like a well-executed trip to the bathroom. They become full of words, experiences, and emotions and look forward to a good, cleansing dump. After the climatic release, they ascend into an abstract, floating state of calm. Some compare it to a high, and in fact, some of the most far-out products have been created in this state. But for the artist who undergoes this process out of personal, spiritual need, the product is a delightful after-thought (sometimes drawing questions like, "Did I produce that?"). It's all about the process, the ride.

But not everyone's identity is tied to creative outlets. Some people enjoy a variety of pursuits more casually. Most prefer to stay more surface-level in their interactions with the world. How would M's definition of identity apply to these people? Would identity be based on profession or one's place in a family? Would it be based on personality or a combination of these things? How necessary is it for people to go deep within themselves and reach these glorious, cleansing epiphanies? Does it make the world a more meaningful, productive place? Do these people have added power and perspective? Are their identities truly dominated by their artistic outlet, or are all identities too complex for such simple definition?

What would the world look like if we all had to process and create?

People Pensieve

I held the receptacle
As he emptied himself of words and stories
Until the retches smelled like roses
and sounded like milky baby burps.

Alas, he rests peacefully,
I'll bear his burden for awhile.

The Green and Red Project

Something exciting is happening in Glen Rock, New Jersey! Teenagers have emerged from under bags of potato chips and tangles of gaming cords. TV-glazed eyes have regained their sparkle and mechanical voices have broken free from drone. Liberated, these kids frolic down the streets of their town-- clad with hammers, sanding machines, and paint brushes-- to David Bowie's "Dancing in the Streets." So happy are they to be creating functional art in the summer sun!

Susanne Rabens, of R=U Properties, LLC, has built a corps of teenagers to competitively improve residential properties in Glen Rock by making them more environmentally-friendly and by building the furniture and designing the landscaping. A magical thing has taken place as students let their creative juices flow, different generations from the community interact, and people work toward a common goal. While I poked fun at the stereotypical teenager above, the dear friend, M., who told me about this idea is more like one of my heroes from the Winking Circle than anyone else. I am excited to follow the progress of these students and their homes-- and to share the perspective below:

"The first time I met Susanne Rabens was at Glen Rock's local bagel shop where I am an employee. She was rushing about searching for teenagers to get involved in the Green and Red Project. At the time I thought nothing of it, just some eccentric woman running up and down the streets of Glen Rock spouting some kind of nonsense.

Many months have passed since that day and it turns out that none of her talk was nonsense. The Green and Red Project has blossomed from the small bud of 11 Glen Rock teens acting as board members to a small army of about 55 oily and hormonal students from Glen Rock High School. I enlisted as well and have so far worked on a variety of projects, from tearing up floorboards and knocking down walls to attempting to make candles out of old light bulbs and shelves out of books.

The amazing amounts of creativity I've seen on the project are mind-blowing. The artistry of many employees is to be admired by all. Many a boring piece of furniture has passed through these young hands and been transformed into an explosion of color and helter-skelter design. This is extremely unique furniture. A coffee table that somehow reminds me of Finland, and occasionally Sweden or the dresser that makes me crave Skittles with its bright and flavorful colors. You won't be finding anything like this at Pier 1.

The community this project has formed is also another example of the outstanding qualities of the project. Truthfully, it doesn't even feel like work anymore, it's more like living in some bohemian commune and going to improve on it every day."

- Macauley Davis

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Questions of Travel- by Elizabeth Bishop

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
--For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
--Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
--A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
--Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr'dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
--Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
--And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?"

Meditation on Place 2- Nowhere Like Home

My friend, H., was recently talking about her village in Namibia. There is no electricity or running water, but people live happy, full lives, surrounded by family and connected to the land.

After studying around the world, in countries as diverse as Germany, New Zealand, Fiji, Mexico, and the United States, and working with development agencies in Washington DC, she has come to feel strongly about perceptions of places like her village. "People think that our lives are backward," she said, "But we do not feel that way. They try to give us things and change our infrastructure, but many would prefer to be left to their ways."

I have included the collection of pictures below to show the vast array of homes around the world. None is inherently better than another, and the ways of life that each represents should be respected, rather than judged or changed. We owe this to our fellow humans, and the Earth cannot sustain us any other way.

Belari, Pakistan

Berber home, Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Jerusalem, Israel


Khayelitsha Township, South Africa

Khayelitsha Township, South Africa

Chennai, India

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Shanghai, China

Lantau Island, China

Dominican Republic

Milot, Haiti

Embera Village, Panama

Limon, Costa Rica

Rondo, Spain

Warsaw, Poland

United States

Nova Scotia, Canada

*I took the pictures that enlarge when you click on them. I found the others on an educational website, which has eluded further search, and thus citation.

Puberty on the Scale of the Planet

I really enjoyed this blog post on the New York Times website. It gives an interesting perspective on our stage of human existence.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Crossing Paths with Janine

Last night, Z., H., and I cooked chicken enchiladas for a woman named Janine, her one-year-old son, Jermaine, and two new friends, Tom and Karen. Janine and Jermaine are staying in the church we’re attending for the summer, while Janine gets her feet on the ground. Each night a family makes them dinner and another sleeps over in the church. We did not know quite what to expect going into the evening, but we were excited to connect with new people.

We ate in a nearby house that the church owns, at a table set "lavishly" with baby carrots and ranch dip, SunChips, salad, and the various juices and teas that people have left after their meals. Janine said that she was allergic to spice and couldn't eat the enchiladas, so Karen scrounged for something in the refrigerator. The first few options did not work, but eventually we found something she liked. At first the conversation at the table was forced, and I felt like the whole system was patronizing: everyone fawned over the baby, questions were c-l-e-a-r-l-y articulated, and Janine struggled for space. Yet, barriers fell as the meal progressed, voices dropped into normal cadence, and the interaction became more genuine.

Janine told us about her five brothers, one or two sisters, and “no good” father from Africa. She connected with H., who is from Namibia, with her African roots. She told us about how she works in her son’s day care, and Tom and Karen wondered if it was the one they had sent their kids to, many years ago. We told her about college, and she told us about how she is pursuing her degree. She wants to be a police woman, and her face lit up when Tom told her that the renowned local police chief also grew up in the city and had a child when she was young. As we talked, Jermaine sat quietly in the high chair and observed the scene. Karen commented that he was so well-behaved and how that’s a sign of a good mother. Janine said that was she was so happy when she found out that she was having a boy that she nearly fainted. Boys are so much easier, she said. They don’t want to grow up as fast.

The conversation moved to Michael Pollan and the local food movement. Z., H., and I had gone over this with Tom and Karen the night before when they ate at our house, but we brought it up again in light of the new foods. All of a sudden, Janine piped up, “You can never trust what you eat. All those chemicals in the food! It’s better to grow your own food.” I smiled to myself. Here the three of us were, subconsciously wrapped up in our educations, opportunities, and promise, discussing a movement perceived as elitist by some, and Janine was right there. She got it all. Her statements made me realize, once again, that people are inherently similar. We might dress or speak differently. We might face different challenges, but we want the same safety, belonging, and joy. While I had wondered before if Janine would feel bad about taking our food, the thought seemed irrelevant now. We were not giving her charity. We were opening ourselves and sharing a meal, just as we would with any dinner guest. She was no less than us because she could contribute fewer material things. In fact, with a degree in the works, a full-time job, and a well-behaved son, she has a lot for which she should be proud.

After dinner, Z. and Tom went into the kitchen to clean up, and H. and I took Jermaine for a walk to give Janine a break. Not yet two, the boy already had a clear personality. He was shy at first, but gradually he would smile. He liked to close the dishwasher, help push his stroller, and carefully lock the front gate. When we returned him to his mother, we felt a warm affinity for him and for Janine. Our paths had crossed by chance in the over-planned improvisation of life. We locked eyes before she turned toward the cold church and we got in Tom’s car to go home. I did not know until the end of the night that Janine was younger than me.