Light Branches Connecting

I have been very busy the last 3 weeks. However, I have enjoyed every moment of this new transition.  I couldn’t be more grateful for how things are coming together, as if there is an invisible magic wand orchestrating everything. “Meant to be” is some light, indeed.

 

I took this photo because I couldn’t help looking up to follow the light. I had seen this tree before and yet here was an entirely new world within.

Yesterday in yoga practice a moth was in the studio trying to get out. It was distracting at first because it wasn’t the pretty-kind-of-moth and was initially confused with an “ugly-gross-bug-trying-to-attack-me”.  I wanted to play hero in the class and capture it and release it. As I focused on what I needed to do, I forgot to play hero, and forgot to pay attention to it. I wonder if he found an open window or was eventually transported out. What was he doing inside? Did a moth need a downward dog stretch to redistribute energy within? How does a moth say Om?

I didn’t think of that moth again until just now. I couldn’t help but think that even a creature wired to look for light stumbles into the wrong setting, so how dare we hold onto life’s detours that sometimes lead to darkness instead of light?

Much more to share over the summer!

-a.q.s.

 

Light Branches

 

Still Sundays

Still Sundays.

April 12, 2015.

 

This morning I woke up thinking about the word exile.

When I say the word aloud images of a long dark aisle and an isolated isle pop up simultaneously in my mind.

The word sat there in my head to be grazed by my very cow-like laziness this Sunday morning.

 

I don’t come to writing like I once did because I don’t want to write what I once wrote because I don’t think what I once thought. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Once you grow you have to get refitted for Stillness.

I have developed a resistance to writing in stillness due much in part to the last two years here in California where I would mostly read on Sundays. Any writing has been personal. Not all growth can be shared publicly. In fact, I argue that the deepest evolution cannot be framed, put in words, or even shared. We just show up after that kind of change and the world must adjust.

So in that sense, Stillness and I are reacquainting. Surely, it is me who has changed.

 

The word exile, as defined by contemporary dictionaries, has something to do with being removed or banished from one’s country of origin either by force or circumstances.

In an unpublished essay author Cristina Garcia, who was gracious enough to share that essay with me after I met her at a conference, writes, “It is a severing from one’s homeland, a rift between here and there, a longing unsoothed, the terrible sense of un-belonging.”

She continues in her essay about exile and Cuba,

“This is not to say Cubans are permanently stuck in el pasado, the past. There is too much work to do in the present. Thoughtful Cubans on both sides of the Straits of Florida (and beyond) continually ask themselves: What does ‘home’ mean? Where do I belong? What do I owe the past? The future? What does it owe me? What does it mean to be Cuban?”

 

Exile.

Before this brick of a word landed on my head this morning, a few days ago a couple of things happened.

 

First, I was recently interviewed by Jessica of Jessica Ann Media  for a podcast series she is launching titled Art of Humanity: Fresh Perspectives with Artists, Leaders, Authors, and Entrepreneurs. Although usually I am weary of “marketing consultants” Jessica and I connected because of my blog a long time ago and I have paid attention to her pursuits and efforts. She truly does bring a new level of consciousness and a much needed fresh, creative perspective to the PR business. Hesitant, I agreed, honored that I could add some value to her series. The depths of her questions were a welcome surprise and I am looking forward to the beginning of the series.

During one part of the conversation she brought up my “bio” and the seemingly constant nature of my moving, from one city to another, not to mention from one country to another country to yet another. I stumbled to explain that I was not a vagabond by any means although to an outsider it might appear as such. We moved on to other topics but that part of the chat stayed with me.

Second, a few days ago I connected with writer, Natasha Moni, and in one of our exchanges she brought up the tiny nuance of being a first-generation versus second-generation American. How we connected is a very convoluted story that I will save for another time. She lives in the Seattle area and our email conversation thread is titled, “Books and Things”. I told her I had never thought of the difference and perhaps there is no difference and paradoxically that is the difference.

Third, Seattle based attorney and fellow writer, Charles R. Wolfe, shared with me a recent article by him about the changing face of his city. He writes beautifully about ever-evolving cityscapes and the memories between and impacts beyond. You can find more of his photography and essays at My Urbanist.

His article “Using Urban Observation to ‘Ghost-Bust’ Cities” in the HuffingtonPost.com strung several chords.

First chord: I thought of these fantastic, very moving paintings by Jennifer McDaeth, a Seattle based artist.

Second chord: I recalled parts of A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. This book was a recent Christmas gift from my brother-in-law. I learned about Rebecca Solnit because of a comment by Peter Ciccariello on a Still Sundays essay from May 15, 2011 but it would be now that I would finish reading her book.

 

Here is the music…

 

Charles R. Wolfe begins his essay that while walking on a familiar intersection in Seattle, he “[…]saw a ghost, of a missing building from a boyhood memory—something that Amazon might have retrofitted, today, if it were still there for the taking. Gone from this layered, contemporary scene was something significant to the history of Seattle, the Orpheum Theater […]”

He continues,

“I hold that scene in perspective, because I’m old enough to recall what was there before.

I’m also an inductive, first person urbanist, always looking for context in what I see. Amid urban change, I see ghosts of bygone images, wondering, ironically, about their unrealized role in today’s vitality. This approach, allowing for and explaining the stories behind our redeveloping cities, should not be viewed as antiquarian, academic or obstructionist.

The tool of human memory, discerning eyes and understanding both the pragmatism of the present and the symbolic, collective meaning of a given place are often left behind in today’s discussions of urban solutions.”

 

When discussing her recent art in progress, Jen Macdeath, wrote,

“I completely get this [referring to the Seattle article by Wolfe].  It makes me so sad to see the incredible old buildings being knocked down and destroyed!

 That is why I did my Ode to Piecora’s series as our favorite pizzeria and the entire block was being demolished for new crap condo buildings.

 Ocean [the artist’s daughter] said she is tired of seeing her childhood memories being turned into condos! 

This Seattle doesn’t feel like my Seattle anymore and it breaks my heart!”

 

Exile then is not a mere banishment from one’s country of origin but can happen within cities, communities, professions, and worse without an option to leave that very place that now feels absolutely foreign. What I am talking about is more than mere gentrification, it is a complete stripping away of time itself and vis-a-vis a part of oneself that only exists inside one’s mind.

Rebecca Solnit describes emptiness by quoting another text, “‘Emptiness is the track  on which the centered person moves,’ said a Tibetan sage six hundred years ago, and the book where I found this edict followed it with an explanation of the word ‘track’ in Tibetan: shul, ‘a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by—a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in the flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there. […] As a shul, emptiness can be compared to the impression of something that used to be there.'” (50-51).

 

So here we all are, experiencing this scared emptiness, where we don’t recognize our streets, our schools, our neighborhoods, our professions. We pack and move from one place to another so as to belong to ourselves at the very least. There is no ‘there’ to go back to and nostalgia hurts more than it helps as we move forward.

The corporate take over by Wall Street from one end and Silicon Valley on another, of every single non-corporate industry, leaves no room for the majority of Americans, whatever their ethnic backgrounds. Many of us are now exiled within other exiles.

 

Charles Wolfe ends his HuffingtonPost.com essay by mentioning a link to blended superimposition images of London to show how much London has and hasn’t change and therein lies her charm.

As “Pakistan’s democratic rebirth remains constantly under siege” thanks to Islamic fundamentalists and all “moderates” who look the other way, I can’t help but feel frightened about American democracy.

After all, America has been home for so many in exile that I honestly can’t imagine how one even begins again if the very word exile must be redefined given all that is happening in this country.

 

Cristina Garcia ends her essay by stating, “But like all great loves, a homeland is not something one can ever fully possess.”

And yet we, and only we, can possess this emptiness which serves as a “shul” of all that was once there.

And if we continue writing about it, talking about it, sharing about it, we are bound to recreate that very thing that has been lost.

Perhaps all of this going forward has always been about going back.

It’s about time. It’s about Time.

Still Sundays.

March 29, 2013.

It’s about time. It’s about Time.

My mother tells me the weeks before my birth she had her fingers crossed and continuously prayed that I not come into this world the same day as Pakistan would hang Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.  “That would be so tragic. I didn’t want you to be born on a tragic day,” she says. I wasn’t born on April 4th but it would turn out to be a tragic year. Pakistan, barely thirty-two years into freedom from India and the British, would begin its downward spiral to the dust it is today due to religious fundamentalism and politicians who take western bribes as vitamins.

In a different part of the world the Iranian “Revolution” would take place that year creating the movement for Islamic Fundamentalism as a political force.

In 1998 at the University of Kansas I befriended two twin brothers from Iran who shared the same birthday as me and I would become their de facto twin sister.

1979 would be the worst year for industrial disputes in Ireland involving the Army during a nationwide bus strike, also including a national postal strike which would last for months while my father was in Ireland unable to communicate with my mother about me.

In 2003 for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary while others might have preferred Hawaii or Bali my father took my mother to Dublin and parts of Ireland. He even introduced her to the people (we don’t know how he found them since this is pre-Social Media) who provided him room and board, or more accurately “a room without a wall”, to show her the bike that still sits locked against time, the streets where he drew art to make extra money while he waited to sort the paperwork to pursue medicine as a physician, the Irish people who welcomed him despite him being a foreigner, the post office that never opened again, the cobblestones that received his tears. My father is a very humble and frugal man, and usually you have to convince him to spend money on himself, but this visit he stayed in the most expensive room and hotel in Dublin to note his triumph against fate.

In 1979 U2 would release their first EP album with three songs.

The year would end with the beginning of the Soviet War in Afghanistan that history books would note as having lasted nine years, but as we all know, it continues to this day in one form or another.

I would come into this world 6 years after the United States Supreme Court would decide the landmark decision about a woman’s right to have an abortion balanced against the state’s two legitimate interests in protecting pre-natal life and protecting a woman’s health.

A year before I would be born another controversial landmark decision would set the stage for a series of “affirmative action” cases to further complicate race relations in the United States. In 1978 the Supreme Court would hear Regents of the U. of California v. Bakke and decide for Bakke, a white medical school applicant who was denied admission under the “regular” program while minority applicants with lesser scores and grades were admitted under another review system established to promote minority students. The Supreme Court held against rigid quotas but concluded that race was a permissible factor to consider, among other factors, for purposes of admissions.

Years later, because of the privilege of hard won cases, I would have an equal opportunity to attend law school. Moreover, in 2005, in New York City, I would find myself in a Constitutional Law Seminar course taught by the man who was one of the attorneys who was part of the team that had filed amicus briefs in three landmark affirmative action cases, including Bakke. This professor would become one of the most influential people in my life. In 2015 I would discuss with him the the law as it pertains to the mess that is our education system.

 

Part of the last cohort of Generation X, I came into a very divided world, as if one foot in heaven and another in hell.

 

The last two and a half years in California have pushed me so far deep inside myself that whatever I am to write for the next five years is going to crack a universal bell. My words will be the clapper and you will be the waist of the bell and the sound will be justice.

Henry Miller in his essay “My Life as an Echo” in Stand Still Like The Hummingbird writes about the time he was a personnel director in the Western Union Telegraph Company in New York.

“The four years I spent hiring and firing the miserable creatures who made up the fluctuating force of messengers of this organization were the most important years of my life, from the standpoint of my future role as a writer. It was here that I was in constant touch with Heaven and Hell. It was for me what Siberia was for Dostoevsky. And it was while serving as personnel director that I made my first attempts at writing. It was high time. I was already thirty-three years old and, as the title of my trilogy indicates, it was a rosy crucifixion which I was about to experience.

[…]

What a tremendous relief it was to cease blaming society, or my parents, or my country.

Suffering belongs, just as much as laughter, joy, treachery, or what have you. When one perceives its function, its value, its usefulness, one no longer dreads it, this endless suffering which all the world is so eager to dodge. When it is regarded in the light of understanding it becomes something else.

[…]

To become a writer! Little did I dream, in begging the Creator to grant me this boon, what a price I would have to pay for the privilege.”

 

The last two and a half years have offered me an understanding without which I can not imagine continuing as a writer or an educator.

 

I am getting ready to place another birthday card given to me by my parents on the wall above my desk. The one from the year before sits there too. Held open by thumbtacks, like a bird’s wings, so I can see their words, so I don’t forget their love, support, and faith in me. Also, to have their faith in a God/ Universe visible to me when on most days I feel like inviting God to a boxing ring made of humanity’s bruises. I demand a solution for the mess created by people everywhere! Help me pick it up!  My parents are people who continue to believe despite everything; I on the other hand have to roll the dice on some days to understand all that probably can’t be understood.

The ‘Greatest Power’ is a prayer you can hear yourself. Must hear words out loud.”  A different part of the same card from last year, in my father’s bold, lavish script, reads, “He gives to all those who ask of Him.

It’s not a surprise I would end up marrying a man whose mother believes the same as my father. When we doubt so much we tend to draw towards us those whose faith can see beyond one’s own eyes.

 

As I reflect on the last two and a half years in California and our time here comes to a close, it’s hard not to note a myriad of tiny and huge things that tested every fiber within me that makes me ‘me’.  And somehow I kept going. I kept writing. I kept teaching. I kept dreaming. I kept inspiring. I kept being inspired. What is this “somehow” made of? I was always surrounded by immense love, provided by Jamie, his family, and my family. This love provided the buoyancy needed each day of each week of each month to make it past all the razor-edged bumps hitting against the surface of my essence. Yes, there are bruises, but nothing that love and time can’t heal. That “somehow” has to be love then.

What do I most want this year? Who can keep track of a Universe that gives and takes as it pleases?  I suppose it doesn’t matter as long as there is love and I can be me.

Always hold strong to your faith in the Higher Power who brought you to life…and always be True to Yourself.” That’s what this year’s card says.

Oh the price to be True!
The price to be Yourself!

I am back.

It’s about time. It’s about Time.

There is much to celebrate. We are the ones who save ourselves and we are never alone.

“the immense edifice of memory”

When nothing else subsists from the past,

after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time,

like souls…bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence,

the immense edifice of memory.

~ Marcel Proust.

 

 

My grandmother smelled like lilac powder. Always.

Her skin was a field made from the scent of lilacs. Not how lilac smells now in perfumes but the way it used to smell in powders. It was as if she sweated lilac drops while the rest of us just sweated. Even in her “old age”—she wasn’t that old when she died—the scent of some faint flowery powder prevailed around her thinning skin, sagging one wrinkle neatly folded on another, just resting as skin should. She had great skin. Both of my grandmothers did. But Naani, my mother’s mother, had already passed on before I was born so I can’t attest to how her skin felt other than what can be concluded by looking at photos. My grandmother’s skin was taut even as she got older, it was as if the wrinkles decided to harmoniously distribute themselves in a proportionate net all around.

I wish she hadn’t been such an unhappy person, but what or who was she supposed to be then?

She couldn’t walk, stuck to a wheelchair (my father bought her a quite fancy for those times), as my grandfather would lift her from the bed to help transport her to the bathroom which was specifically designed so she could bathe herself once she had been dropped there, like a bucket. Sometimes he even had to help her. This was also the time they would bicker like birds at dawn or dusk: You can’t carry me–don’t don’t don’t drop me!/Have I ever dropped you?! Have I? Have I? Have I?. Or on days where she had less anxiety, a more humorous version would follow, something like this: You can’t carry me!/What am I doing right now? What do you call this?; I am too fat (she hadn’t quite become a paperweight then as she eventually would)/Well, I am not going to argue with that! Tell that to the cook next time you want Balushahi! The “funny” days were few. Mostly it was a lot of screaming, she always thought somehow she would slip or my grandfather would trip or he would finally decide to “show her how he really felt” by dropping her and teaching her a lesson once and for all. She could never see how he loved her in his own way. Neither did anyone else. They fought a lot. My very handsome grandfather—tall, fit, charming, with hazel eyes speckled with some forest green amusement—and my very beautiful grandmother—tall, broad shoulders to proportionately match broad hips, intense brown eyes and a laugh, when she laughed which wasn’t often, that felt like hearing 1000 simultaneous claps—invented conflict to communicate.

Their back and forth never felt like love to a little girl who was me, but now I know it is some kind of love which makes you carry and bathe a person gone limp due to Parkinson’s. Maybe she always smelled like lilac because she couldn’t walk in the field of dreams. In many ways, she had defied cultural restrains; she pursued medicine and became a doctor in a country where women still have to ask their family for permission to be able to pursue a profession or any work. But in many other ways, I don’t think she was able to do what she wanted. They came from a time and place where people had to give up a lot in order to have some of what they wanted but they still held laughter in their hearts. I couldn’t ask for more loving grandparents even though a lot of my grandmother’s night terrors due to her medications were beyond me as a child and I couldn’t relate to a persistent anger about life. It is true that we understand life backwards and in the process we understand the people we never understood. My grandmother is one such person I am beginning to understand and although I experience random bouts of tears whenever I miss my grandfather, I seldom think of her.

But smells have a way of carrying us to places where memories open like tents, and alone with the fire in our hearts we finally begin to understand.

We finally begin.

 

Update from Prague

July 7, 2014.

The last time I wrote here I shared about “thin places“. In short I had written, “Although my current geographic location is as far away as possible from “thin places” I am grateful for the opportunity to be traveling soon to such places: New Mexico (again), Prague (again), and Paris (again).  Although New York City’s every bench and corner served as a “thin place” for me, I am beginning to find value in being away from “thin places”.

So, here I am.

In Prague. Waiting for laundry to dry.

Actually, I have been traveling with family for one week now.

Prague-Vienna-Budapest-Prague. Today is our last day in Prague. Tomorrow I am off to another one of my favorite places, Paris.

I have been to all these places before. The last time I was in Prague was in 2011 for 4 weeks for my first “writer’s workshop. And to this day, at least for now, last, unless something drastically new about writing workshops is revealed. The first two weeks with author Charles Baxter were very helpful, kind of like an intermittent apprenticeship, quite an alien concept in the Arts today, but the rest of the time was spent dealing with writers’ neurosis about their preconceived ideas about who a writer is and what a writer writes and overall an unnecessary engagement for purposes of actually producing work. I spent the other two weeks writing on my own instead.

Prior to that, I was in Prague for the first time in 2010 with my mother. During that trip we visited Vienna and Budapest for the first time as well. And to this day, words fail me to describe that experience.  I wrote about my “trajectory to Prague” here which took me back to one of my Still Sundays essay where a Greek woman schooled me about the purpose of a greeting and made me promise her that I would visit Vienna. I think that’s where it all began, at least consciously. A random promise I didn’t think I would fulfill so soon. It wasn’t very long after that that we took our first trip to Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.

Although this current trip was by no means an attempt to recreate the same experiences, I can’t help but note how different it has been. For one, I am with my sister and her husband who will be staying behind in Prague for a medical school summer elective and part of the trip was the welcome catching up with them and not the cities. Second, the trip in 2010 was during Fall, a season when the dizzying lush colors shift like dreams, turns on cobblestone streets serve as time portals, and all of Budapest is focused on Day of the Dead around Halloween. In fact, one of my stories is about a character named Arpad and it was born then and there in Budapest. Instantaneous. Looking back on it, so much of what is in Collection of Auguries feels like a creative spontaneous combustion of sorts. I was a volcano of stories decades in the making and then boom! And finally, this trip, unlike the others, I have not shared photos via social media, only with a handful of friends and family via instant messaging thanks to Wifi. The weird bit is that compared to 2010 Internet “cafes” feel like a thing of the past given availability of free Wifi in every hotel and restaurant and yet no sharing with others. I did enjoy the sharing in 2010 but find it intrusive and an interruption now. I will leave that for a separate essay.

 

 

If there are “thin places”, described by Eric Weiner in the New York Times article which I have shared previously, as “locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever” then there too is a “thin time”. Perhaps the use of this idiomatic expression is inappropriate since “thin time” generally refers to a tough or demanding time. Here is another take on “thin places” in this blog post where the writer shares her take on them, “The place itself calls you, draws you into itself, transports you into the presence of the world beyond this world.”  Weiner is correct when he asks, “The question, of course is which places? And how do we get there? You don’t plan a trip to a thin place; you stumble upon one. But there are steps you can take to increase the odds of an encounter with thinness. For starters, have no expectation.”

It didn’t take me long to realize that even if one is roaming about in a “thin place” it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she can penetrate the veil between our lives here and some Grand Mystery that connects us all, the Grand Mystery that confounds as  It reveals. But so much is available if we remain a beginner. I accepted that there is a “thin time” too. A time of  auspicious alignment, alignment of too many things to account for which makes a place “thin” for us to begin with. So, I collected the messages regardless of time and place, which we must do until they are decoded to mean more.

 

 

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Statute on bench in Prague.

 

 

 

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Outside a film museum in Vienna: “It is a misconception that the dead are dead.” ~ Henry Miller.

 

Usually, I find museums boring, but the Albertina in Vienna never disappoints. They had works of Joan Miro and a few permanent Picasso pieces in their collection that I actually liked. I also discovered an artist who is new to me, Alex Katz, and I enjoyed learning about his work. The best part was finding this little card. I think in many ways it sums up my life since 2011.

 

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“The love always finds its way.” or Where there is love there is a way. A card in Albertina museum of art in Vienna.

 

 

It doesn’t take long to note when one has crossed the Pond to Europe: great coffee and wine.

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Budapest, 2014.

 

 

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Restaurant Pest Buda in Budapest, 2014.

 

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Budapest, 2014.

 

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Budapest, 2014.

 

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Budapest, 2014.

 

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Budapest, 2014.

 

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Budapest, 2014. The Vajdahunyad Castle just isn’t the same in summer as in the Fall/Winter but it was beautiful nonetheless.

 

I guess this time I felt compelled to take more photos of Budapest.

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Budapest, 2014.

 

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Budapest, 2014.

 

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Budapest, 2014.

 

My mother spotted this apple tree while we were walking in Buda. And I felt it was truly inspiring given all that is going on in the world right now.

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“If the world were going under tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree.” – Martin Luther

 

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Budapest, 2014.

 

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A French bakery in Prague.

 

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At the only self-serve laundry in Prague where they offer you free, great coffee.

 

It’s amazing the peace of mind clean laundry brings! Perhaps the same peace as planting an apple tree as the world seemingly falls apart due to greed, pollution, corruption, and wars for money. So it is with writing new stories or creating new art or living one’s life to the fullest. You just have to keep going regardless if this world is actually ending or the world you once knew cracks away into fragments of memories.  I have begun several new stories and haven’t found the time to finish a single one. I think that is okay, when the time is right some Auspicious Alignment of thin place and space will command completion and I will stand aside to watch the big boom in awe that I even had anything to do with any of it…

More from Paris, perhaps.

~a.q.s.

Still Sundays

Still Sundays.

Trip to Philly. Maximo Park at The Troubadour in West Hollywood. A trip to Oakland. Beauty in chaos. Mark Nepo. “Thin Places”.

June 15, 2014.

 

There is a stillness that is so rare that it can only be compared to the “green flash” optical phenomenon.

Although this green light, found during sunrise or sunset, is quite rare to witness, airline pilots can see it more regularly when they have an unobstructed view of the horizon. Information presented online is not as reliable as it once used to be, or perhaps I should say easy access to so much information now requires as much research as one had to do in the “non-digital”, pre-Internet times if you desire any accuracy. I contacted an airline pilot who has been flying planes for a very long time and even offers flying lessons and he said he has yet to see the “green flash”. There are many literary references to this light, the most specific being Le Rayon Vert or The Green Ray by Jules Verne where two people end up going on all sorts of adventures in search of this green flash.

 

Similarly, the Stillness that is akin to the “green flash” occurs under the right circumstances and often these come from life slowing to a complete standstill. To an ordinary human being such times often resemble as if  “nothing” is going on, but to those who are pilots navigating uncharted territories, this state, characterized by lack of motion, is not necessarily without progress. Moreover, this “green-flash”-stillness that appears due to a seemingly standstill pause is actually a byproduct of momentum at prodigious speeds.

In many ways since I last wrote I feel I have merely been a desperate passenger who hitched a ride with a stranger called Life that turned out to be a driver who had no direction or sense of speed. Despite all the challenges and disappointments these last few weeks have presented, I am blown away by how much I did that I wanted to do in spite of everything. In the words of John Donne, “Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail.”

 

The month of May began with an intense trip to Philly. We went there to attend my friend Erica’s wedding. Although I didn’t spend much time with her it was a joy to see her and the groom, the wonderful Louis, so happy.

 

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The rest of our time in Philly was spent exploring the “other Philly” that I never visited despite visiting Erica on numerous occasions when I used to live in New York City. This is mostly because the purpose of the visits used to be to catch up with her and not the city. To that end, leave it to our good friend, Shayne, to be the embodiment of the best of Philly. As most of the readers of my blog already know, not only is he a very dear friend, he is an incredible poet and a very gifted singer and pianist. His version of “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” is better than any other I have heard. I heard the sneak preview last night in fact. It was magical to spend time with him and catch up in real time instead of our regular exchanges over distance. His passion and understanding of music is redefining contemporary jazz.

 

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Philly, like any other urban city in America, is beginning to see the impact of opportunities that only favor one class.

 

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Despite the very apparent discrepancies in the city, it is truly a city of love and hope. I am not sure how long before it becomes another uninhabitable New York but for now she gets to be herself, a place for everyone.

 

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After the Philly adventure, it wasn’t very long before we had the wonderful opportunity to check out Maximo Park play live at The Troubadour in West Hollywood. It was a magical night. Despite the exhaustion from everything related to my work—a lot of my fatigue comes from my inability to be on auto-pilot even if my survival depended on it; I am hyper-alert to the deepest unconscious ebbs and flows—I experienced a performance unlike any other I have seen. This band gave everything and more to their fans and the fans equally reciprocated an energy that could be felt with your bare hands. It was also a fantastic experience because the venue was sans hipsters, it was a mature audience regardless of age who didn’t need to abuse substances to get high, the music alone was enough. This is not a “big” band. Yet. I believe they are going to get very big very soon. I am glad I discovered them before that happens. It isn’t about that. They have been around for a very long time and making music regardless of the number of their fans and the fans they have are very real and supportive.  I am grateful to Jamie for introducing them to me; his music collection is the equivalent of the ancient library of Alexandria . The last time I felt this moved at a concert was seeing U2 perform at a small venue in Paris many years ago.

You know a band is good when after seeing them perform live you appreciate their latest release even more. I have been listening to their latest album, Too Much Information, on repeat for some time now. It just doesn’t get old for me and every listen brings forth a different fragment to which I can relate. My two favorite songs, according to the repeat counter on my iTunes,  on their latest album are “Leave This Island” and “Drinking Martinis” although I like all the others equally. It’s invigorating to know that art does this: it turns you into a Phoenix that rises again and again and again. As I listened to the live performance the meaning of the song “Leave This Island” became clearer and clearer—of course this is subjective—sometimes the person you have to stand up to is the you who has given up.

Have you ever been compelled?

Under a spell? From a protagonist

who knows you far too well? Have

you ever been undone by a slip

of the tongue? And betrayed a

side of you that felt hard-won?

 

 

 

 

Still buzzed from that weekend, I hardly had a break before  I left for the Bay Area to visit a very good friend visiting from New York City. She was there leading an education training for principals at a conference in Oakland and her family came along because it was Memorial Day weekend.  I had a wonderful time hanging out with her and her family and I realized just how much I miss my friends. I also had the rare occasion to catch my brother who is very busy with yoga and his DJ gigs. His yoga practice has expanded to another level and I am so inspired despite my own practice lagging. Yes, this is him and not Mr. Ieyngar. What I find the most fascinating about my brother is his ability to work with those who have never done yoga. He is an incredibly intuitive teacher and his communication and patience are unparalleled. And he is only beginning. I am convinced he is going to redefine the practice of yoga in the West.  On that typical Gemini note, he celebrated his birthday a few days ago as he mixed music for many who admire him and music.

 

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Lauren, his graceful partner who is also a fantastic yoga teacher and practitioner, has added wonderful touches to their living space in Lake Merritt which was a welcome sanctuary for me.

 

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I enjoyed my visit to Lake Merritt and I am grateful I spent some time with them and my friends.

 

 

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Since the beginning of June it has been a whirlwind. And I am no whirling dervish who can keep spinning without getting dizzy. In many ways, recent events left me with a very human interpretation of standstill, unable to see beyond the daily undertakings. Therefore, it should come as no surprise, that a woman I befriended during Erica’s wedding reception in Philly, Louis’ friend, also happened to be a fantastic jewelery designer. The pieces she was wearing were so unique. Our conversation that night began with jewelry as “art object” (something about which I have written previously) and became deeper before we went our separate ways. I was very excited to have a very unique piece made exclusive to my tastes–and perhaps state of mind!—before the official website launch. Apparently the demand of her products led to finally creating an official space for her pieces which is inspiring.  She sent me this a few weeks ago.

 

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I am enjoying this ring very much. I love the weight of the silver, a constant reminder there is indeed beauty in chaos and all that weighs us down can also be used to lift us up. No pun intended to the finger.

 

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Ah yes, back to the stillness that is a “green flash”.

 

Last week I received an email from a young woman–well, younger than me anyway— I knew from when I first began yoga with Marco in 2007; she used to work at the front desk and also practiced.  Her email was short and I indeed wanted to know more about how she had spent the last four years in Hong Kong and South Korea. Her recent update had a thread from our last exchange in 2008.  I was pleased and surprised that anything could surprise anymore in this digital age where anyone can get a hold of each other on the “networks” without connecting meaningfully under the assumption that nothing has changed because in some ways digital remnants in blog posts or photos make it seem as life is static. I was delighted to connect again and told her I knew of no better definition of an “angel” than one who begins an out-of-nowhere exchange to lift us from our current perspective and give us another, preferably a bird’s eye view.

My last email to her in 2008 laid out what an awful year that had been and it was only half over then.  As I re-read my own words I was taken by how very trivial it all seemed now yet I had a very clear recollection of each event that had led up to that email. Past is a funny bone that doesn’t hurt when hit against the present.

When I began my reply to her, I quickly gathered there was no way to sum up all that had taken place since 2008 so I created a few bullet points highlighting the major events. The last few weeks’ hours had felt like years and yet I summed it all up in one sentence. Tragedies should either be novels or a sentence, anything in between is wasted effort because life is hard no matter how the coin lands.

I included in my email, “My yoga practice is not as consistent either, but if yoga means to connect with yourself, to yoke with life, to be grounded when you can’t carry on, to bend beyond your wildest imaginations, to be amazed by breath as a prayer to make it another day, then I have done more yoga in one year than I did in seven years with Marco in NYC!” That being said, the one thing about a consistent yoga practice is that it makes you very strong in addition to feeling grounded, and when we are physically strong it makes our perception of events that happen to us clearer. So, in that regard, I hope to practice more regularly. However, right now I am also exploring free weights because it also demands alignment of breath.

So, while others may contemplate the meaning of life or their purpose, I have been wondering what’s the point of being strong and why–and if not why then how—I am so strong. Is it genetic given my parents are nothing short of sparkling warriors who bow to nothing and no one but Truth, equality, and peace? Is it nurtured because I have never known my father or mother to give up? And most importantly what is the point of “be strong”?

The answer came unexpectedly (and yet obviously) towards the end of a yoga class. Francine, who teaches in the Iyengar tradition, ended the class yesterday with a quote from Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening.

As an inlet cannot close itself to the sea that shapes it, the heart can only wear itself open.

One of the hardest blessings to accept about the heart is that in the image of life itself, it will not stop emerging through experience. No matter how we try to preserve or relive what has already happened, the heart will not stop being shaped. This is the magnificent key to health: that, despite our resistance to accept that what we’ve lost is behind us, despite our need at times to stitch our wounds closed by reliving them, and despite our heroic efforts to preserve whatever is precious, despite all our attempts to stop the flow of life, the heart knows better. It knows that the only way to truly remember or stay whole is to take the best and worst into its tissue.

Despite all our intentions not to hurt again, the heart keeps us going by moving us ever forward into health. Though we walk around thinking we can direct it, our heart is endlessly shaped like the land, often against our will.

 

I know of no one else who is more shaped by land than myself. Or so I thought. My friend, and literary comrade, Lucy helped me understand this beyond a mere topophilia. She sent me a link to a blog post where the author talks about “thin places.”  In her post the author mentions an article from March 9, 2012 in the New York Times by Eric Weiner who aptly describes what I have been unable to all these years. “Thin places”:

…places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again…They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.

Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world.

 

 

Although my current geographic location is as far away as possible from “thin places” I am grateful for the opportunity to be traveling soon to such places: New Mexico (again), Prague (again), and Paris (again).  Although New York City’s every bench and corner served as a “thin place” for me, I am beginning to find value in being away from “thin places”. This value comes as a “green flash” in the form of images that flash right before consciousness slips into sleep and dreams that one can barely recall because the mind is too exhausted to remember anything. Images that don’t make sense because one is too tired from the paradox of motion within a standstill state. If “thin places” offer what constitutes as twilight, that awe-inspiring time in between day and night and night and day, then non-“thin places” are the “green flash” seen by only those who leave everything they have ever known to create something truly original. There are no rewards for being strong, that much is true, strength is its own reward. However, it requires valor beyond imagination to last day after day to see the green flash and live to tell others about it so they don’t stop seeking.

 

After I wished my father “Happy Father’s Day” today he said, “Remember, Picasso.”

I replied I didn’t care for Picasso.

And he reminded me about his earlier works.

Then he said, “Remember what Picasso said: “The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.”

 

What I have experienced in non-“thin places” makes as little sense as what the “thin places” offer and now that I have the complete picture perhaps I can truly create a Drood-kind of story about how it really was and is and can be.

“a special state of mind” ~ Marquez

It was during my first trip to Europe, a year before graduation from undergraduate studies at University of Kansas, a year before “September 11” would change travel, when I was first introduced to the works of author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The novel was Love in the Time of Cholera and the time was a train. My friend Dawn who gave me the book before my first trip hopping European cities on trains had said, “You need this.”

I was young and like most, not all, young people I was in love with the idea of love which meant I was more interested in looking than finding and my melancholy stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know the difference. It was a rebellious trip in every which way possible and it would begin a series of events that eventually led to a rebellion with one’s worst nemesis, oneself.

I wasn’t very far into the book when I knew this was no ordinary writer and this was not just a love story. The last time I had been this moved by the writing itself, beyond the story, was when I had read The Great Gatsby on my own, long before it would become assigned reading in high school. I knew without having read any reviews or commentary that I was reading craftsmanship in the ranks of Toni Morrison, William Faulkner etc.

Her stylish attire did not seem appropriate for a venerable grandmother, but it suited her figure—long-boned and still slender and erect, her resilient hands without a single age spot, her steel-blue hair bobbed on a slant at her cheek. Her clear almond eyes and her inborn haughtiness were all that were left from her wedding portrait, but what she had been deprived of by age she more than made up for in character and diligence. She felt very well: the time of iron corsets, bound waists, and bustles that exaggerated buttocks was receding into the past. Liberated bodies, breathing freely, showed themselves for what they were. Even at the age of seventy-two. 

(Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Love in the Time of Cholera. p. 25-26, New York:  Knopf, 1988. Print.).

I was on one of the many train rides and felt this strange, fierce urge within to feel what it would feel like to write those sentences. So, I asked for a bunch of napkins from the little restaurant area in the train and started writing the aforementioned passage over and over again. I knew in the next city I would have to find a journal—I didn’t even have a journal, can you imagine?! But until then I wrote and rewrote those sentences until I felt full. The kind of full one feels after over-eating on a holiday dinner. Then on a different train I experienced another urge: what if I tried to describe people I saw on the trains the way he had? The way in describing how a man touched his eyelashes could offer your a glimpse of Italy’s history? What if…and what if… So I described people as if an artist might have attempted to jot a quick line sketch.

After the trip, upon my return to the United States, with one year still left at the university, becoming any kind of writer wasn’t even in the periphery of my imaginings. I was obsessed with international relations and took as many political science and history courses as possible. Then “September 11” happened. As if I wasn’t already about to burst in half doing splits between two cultures, now I had to redefine myself as the world changed definitions every other month. It was a very chaotic time and I wanted nothing more than to  start my life in the very city where the acts of terrorism took place. And a year later that is exactly what I did. Everything aligned perfectly—beyond human planning—for me to begin my life in New York City. Between the time of graduating and starting my life and work in New York City I read everything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez I could get my hands on. The only thing I still haven’t finished reading is the novel which would finally bring Marquez international notoriety: One Hundred Years of Solitude. I am not sure why this is given I have read even the most obscure of his collections, essays and other novellas. Perhaps now is as good a time as any.

What Gabriel Garcia Marquez gave me is what Franz Kafka gave him:

One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . .” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago.

(Stone, Peter H. “Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Art of Fiction No. 69.” The Paris Review. The Paris Review Mag., Winter. 1981. Web. 2014).

I could write a love story and have it be a report on a country, culture and history! I could tell a political story about love and I didn’t have to fit myself in a niche of a culture that matched my skin color or the color of my passport! Of course I didn’t think of all these things the instant I read his words. That would be a slow coming together. As all of you following this journey since 2010 already know.

A year away from becoming a Nobel laureate and before the publication of the English translation of Love in the Time of Cholera in 1988, Marquez ends the 1981 Paris Review interview by stating:

I’m absolutely convinced that I’m going to write the greatest book of my life, but I don’t know which one it will be or when. When I feel something like this—which I have been feeling now for a while—I stay very quiet, so that if it passes by I can capture it.

 

In 2009 when I began writing to share my encounters with my friends (which eventually led to this blog in 2010) it was because of Marquez’s Leaf Storm which he wrote for his friends who had been his biggest supporters long before anyone knew of his work. I created this space so my closest friends and lovers of stories and words could stand witness to the trial of fragments where sometimes I am the judge and other times the advocate and yet other times a mere stenographer.  And the year 2009 began long before 2009. Somewhere in Paris that summer when I finished Love in the Time of Cholera I sat in a typical internet cafe staring at the email I had crafted to my recipients. I counted the number of people to which the email was going. When I had begun that trip I was writing an email update of my travels to every person I knew whose email address I had. Three months later I was only emailing a handful of friends.  I mean the others had done nothing wrong but I felt they couldn’t relate or understand or appreciate my urgency—literal, acute, grave compulsion—to share those reports of my travels. I didn’t know then that there was a writer in me whose primary task was to ensure I was always in the company of those who could see that writer even though this other me would have laughed at the idea of writing a book, a blog, a thought.

I am grateful for each and every person who has served as a baluster in this journey, this “special state of mind.”

-a.q.s.

 

Pilgrimage to find lavender soap

Still Sundays.

April 20, 2014.

 

I found out about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s death from my mother after I returned from my mission to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Abiquiu, New Mexico this last week Thursday.

My mission was no ordinary mission; it entailed finding this particular lavender soap bar for my father.

A year ago my father received a handmade lavender soap as a gift. The lavender soap was from a gift shop, Monk’s Corner, in Santa Fe, New Mexico which had since then closed due to the unfathomable rents in that city. He loved it so much that he wanted more. Not a problem, right? Everything “lavender” is so commercial now that one doesn’t have to go to a special Ayurvedic store; any chain grocery store is likely to offer several lavender products, including soaps. We got him several varieties from Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Sprouts, and a few other stores that are likely to carry natural products and none were good enough. We even tried tricking him—without success—by taking the packaging off of the soap and presenting it as the same soap he had received as a gift! His intuition is surreal so I don’t know why we bothered. What surprised us the most is that he is not a very particular man yet he really wanted this soap. Perhaps that is not an accurate statement. He is one of the least materialistic people alive and doesn’t ask for much but what he does want he wants and nothing else will do. A trait I am convinced was genetically passed to all of us. After 6 months of trying to find a substitute we were afraid to joke if he would protest by not showering if we didn’t get that soap!  What next?

In December while I was in Santa Fe I contacted the monastery after finding them on the Internet only to learn that they don’t always answer the phone because they are not there to appease tourists since they are real monks! I sent an email which was answered and the reply said they indeed had shut the shop but they still made soaps and I was more than welcome to come and buy or order online. I couldn’t find a way to order the soaps online so I decided to go get them. Except I couldn’t make the trip due to the weather conditions. The monastery is located at the bottom of the Chama Canyon wilderness in northwestern New Mexico, about 75 miles north of Santa Fe, and about 53 miles south of Chama. The problem? It was winter and the road conditions didn’t allow driving on the thirteen miles of dirt road off US route 84 after passing the town Abiquiu.

Now that it is spring I was adamant to get the soap. Once in Santa Fe I called and was so relieved to have had one of the “Brothers” actually answer the phone. I told him about my father’s “soap predicament” as we were now calling it and the story really amused him. He said he will make sure to share this with the monk who makes the soaps. I wanted to know how many they had given it was quite a trek and—I felt sort of embarrassed saying this—I didn’t want to drive there for just one soap. He told me not to feel embarrassed and that he understood because it was not a quick drive. He said there were 30. I told him I was coming to get all of them. He said he might not be on duty to answer the phone but the gift shop is open till 5:00 p.m. and I was more than welcome.

And so we drove from Santa Fe towards Abiquiu, a town most associate with artists, writers, silent retreats etc.

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The drive is truly breathtaking and I can understand why some might come here to find inspiration (which is ironic because essentially what one is doing is creating space to be quiet and therein lies inspiration: within!). The silence is divine and the mountains exhale colors and history. They stand as a reminder of how there was earth long before us and there is a cosmic cycle in which we just happen to play a part.

After passing Abiquiu, a town that didn’t really interest my curiosity but for its beauty which I noted in passing, we nearly missed the dirt road which was to take us to the monastery. There was a small sign that said we had 13 miles to go and those 13 miles took one hour because of the nature of the road, all dirt and very windy. Who thought 13 miles could feel like 13 years! I was in great company so I didn’t mind but one would be hard pressed to ignore how long those 13 miles feel.

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Once there it was worth it.

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We entered the gift shop and there was only one man there, a tourist. I ran to the soaps and grabbed them all. The man inquired about the amount and I told him the story about my father. He said he too wanted one now. I realized I had them all, so I gave him one and asked if he wanted more and he laughed and said one would do. I replied, “That’s what you say now…”

Next: how to pay?

There was no one there. In the corner was a basket in which you could place the correct amount for whatever you had purchased. There were many $20 dollars bills in it. Next to the basket was a small pad on which you could write your credit card information for the correct amount and put in a box so others couldn’t see your information and they would bill your card later.

No cameras and no guards. Obviously, no one is driving all this way and going down a 13 mile dirt road to steal, but I was still very moved.

We did ring the telecom buzzer for someone to come in from their chambers just to make sure we were following the procedure correctly. A joyful and chatty monk named Brother Andre arrived. He was curious about the amount of soaps I was taking. I told him the story and that I was making sure the supply would last until whenever it was possible to buy again. He inquired where my father was originally from and I told him. His reply made me laugh out loud, “Really?! Very cool. I have some Facebook friends in Lahore!” And then the conversation somehow turned to South Africa. I think it happened because I was thinking out loud about getting something for a friend in South Africa and Brother Andre asked where. Brother Andre had lived in South Africa in 2008, specifically Limpopo. The serendipity of connections was extraordinary! And then he told us he was going to be late for prayer except he told us to hurry to the prayer session and we never saw him there. I am not sure what took over any of us but we agreed and we sat quietly to watch the monks chant their prayers and then disappear in their black cloaks.

The soap is handmade by a monk from Mozambique. I know my father would really appreciate this fact.

I walked for a little bit around the monastery. I thought about the recent Supreme Court decision that concluded that money is speech alongside corporations are people. I thought about the recent lunar eclipse beginning a rare tetrad. I thought about watching the eclipse despite being too sleepy and my head ringing. I thought about how powerful alignment feels. I thought about how Google and Fakebook buying and selling private information. I thought about Brother Andre and his Facebook account. A monk with a Facebook account! That thought made me think of the latest extraordinary acrylic artwork by Jamie Berry and what he wrote:

 

Unfettered by the self-imposed, collective isolation of a closed-feedback-loop, connection can enrich our lives and broaden our horizons in ways we never imagined as we realize there’s truly no separation between us. Alternately, when we base our connection on false premises, prejudice, and alienation, it can take us over the edge of a cliff, one after another.  Each of us gets to decide which of these bonds we are creating, and whether our contributions are an invitation to expand or to explode.

 

I thought and thought till I had no thoughts.

Later that day a chance conversation about a dolphin painting would lead me to learn about animal medicine, which in Native American/Indian tradition refers to the healing aspects that a particular animal brings to our consciousness. A spiritual practitioner would show me my “totem” animals. What chance! So many come to Santa Fe seeking enchantment and there I was in an ordinary conversation. People should really try to connect more in the most ordinary ways possible; it’s magical.

 

I began this Sunday by writing an appreciation of my own for Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Pages and tears. He was one of the few contemporary authors who really influenced me beyond writing. His works were an invitation to expand. Perhaps I will share those thoughts another time.

I don’t know whether the world is coming or going anymore. I do know that every day is an opportunity to resurrect the truth. A light that is too bright can’t identify the object on which it shines. We need a light that creates shadows as it illuminates so we know the difference. We must work with human weakness but we can’t compromise the expectation of zeal.

While at the monastery’s gift shop, I randomly browsed this book, among many others that were sitting on a table available for purchase. This book was an adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict. The page I happened to open described “conversatio” as “openness to growth and change, willingness to look at oneself and to be challenged by God and others.” I later researched to learn there are many shades of interpretation of this ancient Benedictine term. The one I came upon by chance makes the most sense for now.

I close the curtain on my thoughts with two lines of many which my father wrote in my birthday card,

“[…]Remember the the Greatest Power lies in a ‘loud’ Prayer […] Remember that every pain and suffering, every hardship, every loss is an opportunity given to us to enable us to grow.”

My father is a a living example of titanium faith yet provided us sky-wide freedom to choose our own beliefs. I am grateful for that.

Maybe, it doesn’t matter if the world is ending as long as we know how to enjoy a lavender soap after fighting the good fight every day.

 

“MYSTERIES, YES” by Mary Oliver in Evidence.

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.

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“I write in service of illumination and memory.” ~ Mark Helprin

I received a wonderful gift this month. A dear friend (and literary comrade—here I just mean the word literary to mean having to do with literature without any yucky modern day connotations) not only sent me a new book but introduced me to a new author (and he is alive!). The book is A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. As soon as I read the first few pages I felt I was home, more precisely, I was transported. Here was a writer who understood cities were as important as characters and sunlight that carves shadows for memories.

“Rome was not meant to move, but to be beautiful. The wind was supposed to be the fastest thing here, and the trees, bending and swaying, to slow it down. Now it’s like Milan. Now the slimmest swiftest cats are killed because they aren’t agile enough to cross streets where once—and I remember it—a cow could nap all afternoon. It wasn’t like this, so frantic and tense…” (5-6)

 

Although the book begins in the year 1964, every time I have visited Rome I have seen that Rome.

 

I haven’t been able to do much writing lately. Writing for me is not a chore or something on the to-do list and yet it demands discipline as if taking one’s insulin shot. You have to do it every day. Even if it is 500 words. And I don’t have time for even 500 words lately. I write in my head, no doubt, but it is not the same. I lived like that for 10 years before I exploded to do nothing but write for 2 years. That time will come again.

Over the weekend I met a woman, probably in her mid-30s at most, who has a professional degree from an Ivy League school and yet she hasn’t been able to find work in her field since 2008. At one point she had two full time jobs and she worked 65 hours. She still has two jobs but maybe not that many hours. She is working on a young adult fiction novel that she hopes to finish by the end of the year.

We talked to her for a little while. We talked about how the government is making things worse. We talked about how despite doing everything you were supposed to do in order to get what you want, you can still be without a job. We talked about a different time.

The next day I woke up missing Paris. I took a hit of nostalgia thanks to a clip on Youtube.  “A short bus ride in the streets of Paris in 1928. Another time, another world.” Then I found a clip from 1930’s making predictions about what the future will look like.

This morning I came across horrible news that “Black and North African railway workers were banned when the President of Israel visited France ‘because they might be Muslim'” and all of a sudden I didn’t desire Paris the same. Except I did. But not this Paris. Just like not this New York City. Just like not this California. Just like not this Rome.

I filed my thoughts under a new turning point for my writing. The entire time I have been sharing my writings here on this digital shelf (which, believe it or not, is under major construction along with the content!) I have openly stated, “I write to understand and be understood.”

Now I want to remember. Not to escape all that is happening everywhere—-from no jobs despite qualifications to corporations ruining education to the Congress failing its constituents to fearing other American cities ending up like Detroit to the disappearance of the American middle class where young kids are writing articles for The New Republic about how hard it is to live in San Francisco on a six figure salary—but just to remember how it can be.  I want to be transported.

 

I share some excerpts from Mark Helprin’s interview in the Paris Review. His thoughts and words deeply resonated with me and I share them here for the woman I met over the weekend. I also share them because I want to keep these words near.

 

 

INTERVIEWER

Why can’t writers be intellectuals?

HELPRIN

It isn’t that they can’t be, but, rather, that being an intellectual is not sufficient, and too many “writers” these days think it is. This is because art has for so long been subsidiary to science, and the creative impulse for so long subsidiary to the critical facility. Why should a baseball player want to be a sports announcer and why would an actor want to write movie reviews? Far be it from me to criticize my contemporaries (isn’t that what Idi Amin said?), but this impulse makes no sense unless you consider that so many writers these days are not really writers at all but intellectuals doing what they think writers do.

 

INTERVIEWER

You don’t like to give interviews or readings. You’re obsessed with privacy. What about your relations with other writers? Do you write blurbs and reviews?

HELPRIN

I remember standing on a rock in the water at Woods Hole talking to my father-in-law, an eminent biochemist, who was expressing his gratitude at being part of the great community of science. Although I understand the benefits of community—for one thing, it enables you to take pride in the accomplishments of others, so you are relieved of the terrible burden of ambition—I don’t partake of them. I am excluded and I exclude myself for a number of reasons. One of them is the nature of the community in which I work. Before my first book was published, I gave it to John Cheever to read with the hope that he would review it for The New York Times Book Review. I still have the contract for the book, a slim volume of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf, who at the time was still paddling about the hallways of the institution after which he was named. Even though the first printing was only five thousand copies, I had appended to the document a table of royalties that accounted for sales of up to one hundred million. I managed to sell three thousand copies of the first edition, which was not as good a performance as I had anticipated. My hopes lived on, however, as I had not had the opportunity to market the work in India, China, South America, Africa, or Russia, not to mention Indonesia, Japan, and many other places where, all told, billions of people make their homes to this very day.

I assumed that Cheever would read the book, think it was magnificent, review it in awe, and that it would therefore be placed on the front page of the book review. This, needless to say, would help in boosting total sales toward the one-hundred-million mark—although, I must admit, I’ve been on the front page many times now (though I may never be again), and sales have not been quite that robust.

He did read the book; he had no choice, he needed our swimming pool. And he did like it and told me so, after which I spent several days raping my calculator. One of the things I was going to do with the money was to buy the New York City Police Department (don’t kid yourself about the feasibility of that) so as to be able to redirect their efforts toward fighting crime rather than living with it. I was also going to see if I could buy Grand Central Station, which I was going to make into the world’s most magnificent studio apartment. Can you imagine my shock when John, dripping wet with heavily chlorinated water, told me that he was not going to review or even offer a quote for the book?

Maybe he just didn’t like it, but what he told me was that he had a book coming out, and a friend of his had a book coming out, and they were going to assist one another. This, he said apologetically, precluded his efforts on behalf of anyone else’s work, so as to maximize the impact. I was struck by a double lightning bolt of anger and shame. Anger that things were like this and that I was excluded, shame that I had hoped to do exactly what it was that had suddenly been done to me. It was no less a stunning lesson in the falsity of the system that judges and promotes books than it was in my own vanity and weakness of character.

I vowed at that moment, spurred on, as is so often the case, by shame, never to review a work of fiction, never to quote for a book (once, I allowed a letter to be excerpted in which I described the author of a very fine book, but not the book itself), never to serve on a prize jury, never to participate, in short, in trading favors—and I never have. Most people who encounter one writer’s recommendation of another, whether in an advertisement in the press, on a book jacket, or in a review, assume that they are witnessing an act of altruism spurred by a disinterested love of literature. Undoubtedly that is sometimes the case, but my experience over thirty years has taught me that most of the time these things are simply exchanged—like wampum—and that in addition they serve as a tool for keeping one’s name in front of the public without actually paying for it. If you are presented as an arbiter of taste, it really can’t hurt you the next time around, can it? In this system, the ideal posture is one of noblesse oblige. The participants want to put their generosity on display as much as their fellows in politics want to make public every ounce of their compassion. It’s good business and it explains why Vinic Totmule says of Joshua X. Belasco, Joshua X. Belasco is perhaps the finest writer in English today, except, of course, for Vinic Totmule, and it then goes on to explain why Joshua X. Belasco is quoted all over the place as saying, Vinic Totmule writes in white-hot prose.

INTERVIEWER

How are you received in academic circles?

HELPRIN

As you might imagine—given that I am absolutely sure of the now heretical proposition that you cannot judge a book by the race or sex of its author. And you can imagine how well I and my work are received in academic circles, when I assert plainly and without apology that deconstructionism, like Nazism or Stalinism, is less a system of thought than a sign of mental illness. In 1975, I went to visit Roger Rosenblatt at The New Republic in Washington. He had been one of my teachers at Harvard and Marty Peretz had been a tutor in Kirkland House, where I had lived briefly a decade before. Roger reintroduced me to Marty by saying, You remember Helprin, don’t you? From the asylum?

He was making a joke that then came true. I had always wondered what would happen to people who spent six to ten years laboring on a five-hundred-page tome entitled “Vaginal Motifs in Etruscan Beekeeping,” and now I know. They go stark raving mad and then they get tenure. In an accident of history, the American university system mistakenly modeled itself after the German rather than the English and then distorted even that. The greatest sin in American academia is to make a generalization. That’s why Oxford and Cambridge seem so civilized in comparison; there, they recognize that life, history—even the deeper currents of science—are terms of art. Here, on the other hand, you spend the best years of your life grinding away at vaginal motifs in Etruscan beekeeping and when it comes time for independent thinking you’re about as ready as the lid of a garbage can.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse to death and I do want to return to your line of inquiry, so let me say in summary that relativism and politicization have so smothered the universities and the world of publishing that to state, as I do, that it is possible to serve universal ideals and appeal, non-politically, to the fundamental needs of human nature by addressing its fundamental questions, is perceived as heresy. The end and the beginning of it is that I dissent from the dominant orthodoxies that cradle the profession I practice, that, despite what some assert, I have never been shy about it, and that, therefore, I find myself not only out of the mainstream, but playing the role, at times, of moving target. As I have an activist nature, I fire back.

 

INTERVIEWER

Doesn’t this lead to overwhelming practical difficulties? A Soldier of the Great War was conspicuously overlooked for awards and for the Times list of notable books. Does that bother you?

HELPRIN

Of course it did, but only briefly. First, you may recall that I have mentioned shame in answering one or more of your questions. I have a very high quotient of shame and I believe in the existence of honor. Even though the magazine piece that questioned my honesty was false in itself, I was ashamed to be taken for the kind of person it portrayed. If you had a reputation for writing bad checks, despite the fact that you had never written one in your life, you would feel very bad every time you took out your checkbook.

And yet, I feel myself responsible for everything that happens to me, even if I’m not. That’s just the way it is. So I feel that the reason A Soldier of the Great War didn’t get any prizes is that it just wasn’t good enough. True, the reviews were so extraordinary that they were suspect. How many times can one be likened to Tolstoy without questioning the standards of the age in which people write this about you? And Germans too, no less. On an intellectual level, I might wonder about this prize business, the crux of which is that I don’t grease anybody, but, emotionally, I feel that it was my fault. And therefore, subject to my control. This is what enables me to wade through these minor adversities. The difficulty that most leads to alienation and despair is powerlessness, and I do not feel powerless. Why? Well, it is within my power to write a better book than the last (not that I always will, but I can aim at it). It is within my power to understand the circumstances in which that book is received. It is within my power to put temporal glory in perspective and to order my priorities according to what is fundamentally, even eschatologically, important. Having done so, being left off a list of notable books becomes somewhat less than a mortal wound.

Second, what you mean by the practical basis, I assume, is the ability to make a living and find satisfaction in one’s work. I have always had another profession. Only of late, in the last hundred years or so, has the world economy become rich enough to support a specialized caste of writers. Most writers have always had other things to do and done them well. I noticed a long time ago that writers who did nothing but write were generally a sorry lot of self-pitying neurotics, and that by contrast, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Chekhov, Yeats, although they may have had their troubles, usually had another iron in the fire. I believe it was Flaubert who said something like “live like a bourgeois, so you can write like a wild man.” I see the opposite of that these days, and also that passion is reserved for politics and reason for literature, when it should be the reverse.

Anyway, I set out to follow an alternate profession. I went to graduate school to study political science and history. I experienced the full spectrum, starting at Harvard, where, despite a general atmosphere of petty insanity, I must admit to finding a very impressive synthesis of the German and English approach. I then lurched to Oxford (lurch, by the way, was the word), where they do beautifully in writing history as literature, and finally thudded down (perfect way to describe it) at Columbia, where the political science department is so quantitative that students who lacked math just sat there like Cabbage Patch dolls.

At present I’m a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute (where I work on military questions pertaining to the Middle East), a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal, where I write for the editorial page. These are wonderful places staffed by brilliant people, and my association with them (the antecedent of them being mainly the people) more than makes up for anything I may forego by being of a different species than that of my literary brethren.

I may be ostracized, but there is no organization to it, so I do manage to keep busy. We’re moving to a farm and I go to bed at night thinking about alfalfa—not the character in Our Gang, but the vegetable. Helping to raise my two children is the best and most valuable thing I’ve ever done and I’m right in the midst of what have been increasingly wonderful years (don’t forget, I’m home all the time). Mix this all up with piano lessons, walking in the mountains, finishing my next novel, writing newspaper columns, making an occasional speech, managing a household, and being married to a lawyer who is a lot taller than I am and very beautiful, and you have a full life.

INTERVIEWER

How important is financial security for the writer?

HELPRIN

As with everything else, you’re ruined by either too much or too little. The question remains, how do you define what is too much or too little? One of the most beautiful phrases in the Hebrew liturgy is Daienu, which is pronounced die-ain-u. It means “enough (for us),” and in the song that is sung at Passover, the idea is that God has given much more than we require. Among other things, this allows us not to waste our lives in continual pursuit of more, and suggests that we should decide what it is that we truly need and then learn to stop wanting.

Of course, this idea flies in the face of materialism, for, in the practical application of materialism—as the current state of the United States illustrates—you can never have enough, and your goals are set not according to an understanding of what is needed but rather only in competition with others (yet another downside of relativism). I have enough. I have always thought that I have had enough, even when I lived in one room ten feet from the railroad tracks, in the Bat Galim quarter of Haifa, and my first wife and I had to share a bathroom with fifty Russians, Turks, and other refugees. And why was I content with what I had in that objectively somewhat difficult situation? Simply because, in light of the real suffering that sweeps continually over the world and always has, in light of the forces that, for me, find their most startling expression in the Holocaust, how could I not be content? How could I be affected by—you brought it up—being left off the list of someone’s favorite books?

INTERVIEWER

It’s hard to imagine what you’ve described as being standard procedure for how to become a writer. Are your present-day habits as idiosyncratic?

HELPRIN

I’m sorry if I always go on at length and then respond to your question summarily, but the essence of the answer is that I work with a great deal of discipline, although I usually take on more than I can handle and often have to extend due dates. I have always been appalled by bohemianism because of its laziness, disorder, and moral weakness. I understand that this way of living is a response to the fact of human frailty, but it leans too far in one direction. Being a little more buttoned up doesn’t mean that you’ll get so brittle that you’ll break. Nor does it mean that you don’t understand tragedy, loss, and, most of all, human limitation.

 

INTERVIEWER

Is dealing with sex in a novel ever a problem? Why in the main is it done so badly by novelists?

HELPRIN

Why would dealing with sex in a novel be a problem? The trick, I believe, as with almost everything else in the world, is to keep it in proportion, to be honest about it, and to be modest. When a man and a woman feel love or infatuation and the ethical codes by which they live permit it, they express it physically. Of course it can get quite intense—hyperventilating and wall banging and that sort of thing—but when it’s over it’s over and you go on to something else.

I think the failures to which you allude can be explained by various complementary theories. Quite simply, if one has no sexual outlet, one will think about sex a great deal. Writers work in isolation and are generally thoughtful people who do not live to satisfy their desires the way people do in, say, Brazil. In addition, the literary culture is also one of failed marriages, odd neuroses, and ill health. If you combine all these things you get less sex than biology might require and so you get musings driven by heat. I find, for example, that I tend to write about food when I’m hungry—it’s only natural.

Another reason may be that, without an intuitive sense of what art is, many people use sex as a—forgive me—prosthesis, just as they use politics, to fill the emptiness in their understanding. And, of course, it sells, doesn’t it, so it elicits a Pavlovian response in writers. It’s like a pigeon pressing the right button and causing food pellets to drop down a chute. Throw in a few tumescent penises and “breasts like upright cones” and you can put in that new swimming pool or make your annual contribution to The Cat Wilhelmina Guerilla Unit of the Animal Rights Liberation Army.

 

INTERVIEWER

I can’t resist asking. Have you ever suffered writer’s block?

HELPRIN

Never happened. Probably because I never had the sense that I was obligated to meet anyone’s expectations other than my own (and I can forgive my own mistakes) or my father’s (which were so demanding that he could never be satisfied anyway). Assuming that you are a professional and that you know how to write, why would you be unable to do so? If an electrician said, I have electrician’s block. I just can’t bend conduit. I can’t! I can’t! I can’t run wires! Help me, please! he would be committed. One thing would be certain, and that is that his paralysis in the face of his work would have only to do with him, and not with his craft. I’m of the old school, I guess, and I would call writer’s block laziness, lack of imagination, inflated expectations, or having-spent-your-entire-advance-in-Rio-de-Janeiro-and-taking-taxis-and-going-to-restaurants-you-can’t-afford-before-you-have-written-a-single-word-of-the-book-you-pitched-to-a-cretin-with-an-out-of-control-cash-flow.

 

INTERVIEWER

A banal but important question: why do you write?

HELPRIN

I share Norman Maclean’s view of literature, although I did not discover him until about ten years ago, long after I had set myself to the task in which he succeeded so beautifully. The motto of my first book, intended to apply to everything that followed, is, “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare,” from the second canto of Inferno in Dante’s Commedia. I translate it, “Love moved me and makes me speak.” Beatrice is explaining to Virgil why she is asking him to help Dante after he has fallen. I have always taken this as Dante’s answer to the Paris Review question of why do you write. And it is certainly mine.

I have no doubt, as well, that it was Norman Maclean’s. Just think of the last line of “A River Runs Through It”: “I am haunted by waters.” Of course, you have to have read it to understand why it is his way of saying, “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare,” but he more or less verified this interpretation in a letter I have that, during the eighties, before Maclean died, was circulated almost like a document of the samizdat. It is from him to a Hollywood producer, and it reads, in part, “The story [“A River Runs Through It”] is . . . my love poem to my family, and in the end reaches into the blind world where one cannot help—does not even know how to try to help someone he loves until it is too late to help . . . . I waited until after I was seventy before I was sure that my hand and feelings were steady enough not to make a mistake in telling this story. No ‘figures’ in the world would persuade me to permit someone else to tell the tragedy of my family without my ultimate approval of the way my family and the way I feel about them are portrayed.”

In 1977, the Pulitzer Prize jury chose to award the fiction prize to Maclean for A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, but it was overruled by the Advisory Board. That year, no Pulitzer Prize for fiction was given, and that year, to paraphrase Andre Maurois, it died (although the body sometimes stirs, such as when it embraced Bill Kennedy).

As for your question, I am asked it quite frequently, as you may imagine. In fact, it runs a close third to “do you write with a pencil or a pen?” and “can you make a living?” I always fail, out of politeness, to point out that the only people who are asked questions like these are prostitutes. No one asks professional water skiers, Why do you water ski? And I have never heard anyone inquire of a waitress or a park ranger if they are able to make a living.

When asked the why-do-you-write question, you are usually expected to present a fairly elaborate theoretical construct graced with ornaments of altruism that veer into politics. A lot of idiots will say that they want to “communicate.” Intellectuals will lust to guide you through their theoretical construct, and you can bet that they’ll have one. First, almost by definition, an intellectual must have a theoretical basis for those rare occasions when he takes action. Second, in a secular world, each artist is a mini-god, tasked with creating new universes between breakfast and dinner. It used to be that if one believed, like Dante or Shakespeare, one was content to imitate the beauties of life and the world, even to praise them. The artist’s task was one of illumination and memory. Now it is one of creation, and look at the difference between, let us say, Mozart and John Cage, or Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett.

This modern impulse, that arose when lack of faith abridged the common language of mankind, has been mainly destructive. My proof of this is simply to contrast the art of modernism with the art that came before it. But even if you look kindly, as I do not, upon what I consider the wrong turn taken at the beginning of this century, you still may admit that each artist now creates his own frame of reference. That is supposed to be one of the glories of modern art and it partially explains why the artist has been an intellectual; he has to spend most of his time explaining, in the new language he has invented, the new worlds he has created. The only problem is that compared to what we already have these newly created worlds are pretty thin.

If you don’t operate according to the conventions of modernism, they write you off as a simpleton, for who but a simpleton these days would not have a complex code, entirely of his own making, that he is ready to flog in a diversity of settings and promote as if it were the political program of a very tiny special interest group? And these days the artistes are so exhausted that they can hardly come up with their wimpy little private codes, so they politicize their work—not only because they’re weak minded but because they’re too debilitated to do anything except follow instantaneous social currents. They simply don’t know how, in the same way that it is unimportant whether or not Roy Lichtenstein chooses to paint like Raphael, because, whatever it is that he wants to do, he can’t paint like Raphael.

Then there is the notion of progressivity, the idea that art, like science, is moving on a linear track and must always go forward—this despite the fact that the overwhelming characteristic of the universe is that its physical laws cannot be abridged, its materials and cycles stay more or less the same, and human history and development are stable enough so that we are just as moved by poetry (such as, for example, the psalms) written at its beginning as by a song written yesterday. If you credit the idea of progressivity, you will always have a facile but careless answer to the question why do you write. You will say, even if you bathe it in modesty, that you are doing your part to advance civilization. Please.

My answer, then, as you may have guessed, is very simple. I write in service of illumination and memory. I write to reach into “the blind world where no one can help.” I write because it is a way of glimpsing the truth. And I write to create something of beauty.

One thing I can say is that I am quite certain that Mozart did not have a philosophical or theoretical justification and explanation for what he did. The music was obviously divine and he went after it as best he could, which, fortunately for everyone else, could not have been better. You don’t have to be Mozart or Shakespeare or Raphael to follow the same lead. But these days, to follow that lead you do have to be willing to go it alone.

stillness is a manji…or charpai…

March 31, 2013

Still Sundays.

I am still convinced yesterday was Sunday. I should have written yesterday. I felt stillness bow from the edge of the horizon to the fingertips of the wind. I should have written yesterday. Today is not yesterday. Today has clouds and nostalgia is not as sweet; the aftertaste of memories has a vengeance. The best stillness is in which you are aware of the only truth that is real: there is only now.

 

Today I will share about a manji. Also known as manjaa, charpai, charpaya, and charpoy.

 

Here is the Wikipedia definition thanks to the internet: char “four” + paya “footed” is a traditional woven bed in the subcontinent of southeast Asia.

Dictionary.com offers that it is a noun that is a light bedstead used in India, consisting of a web of rope or tape netting.

Of course, also thanks to the Internet, we can charge $500 (or more, depends how much you can afford in your efforts to impress imaginary people who don’t really matter to you) for something that actually costs $2.00 to make in the country of origin.  Owning these as decor—not actual use, heavens forbid!— also serves as novelty for the plutocrats. Ironically, often the people who use these cots are villagers who can’t afford anything better.
Digression:
The other day while passing through Los Angeles, I overheard a group of men (producers?) discussing their possible pitches to the funding gods in the entertainment industry. Their topics included: a “reality television” series where plastic surgeons compete for make-overs; a “reality television” series where people buy houses without seeing the neighborhood; and one other asinine idea which I am now forgetting. I was shocked by two things: 1) Their unawareness about the privilege to quite possibly bring their ill conceived ideas to something quite real which the general public will end up watching and 2) One of the middle-aged men was wearing a shirt that had one word on it, ‘unemployed’.
I watched them finish their $12.00 sandwiches and then saw the “unemployed” man drive away in his  very new B.M.W.  I don’t doubt he has never worked a day in his life. I know this with certainty because his idea wouldn’t be so trite if he had.

 

Here is an example of a writer talking about a manji in a blogpost:
I bought this cot from an Indian store. It was too expensive I thought but my mother said it is great quality, very durable. The colors are simple and it really is strong. It brings me such joy. I can feel the cool breeze when I just rest on it. I love drinking my coffee on it. That is so divine. I find it so interesting that the very people who look down upon those who consider this their bed in villages in the Subcontinent of Asia are the ones who like to have one in their houses but not to use—only to show!

 

Here is an example of a poet talking about a manji in a post:
“Manji”
the knots that hold me/I can feel the hands who made them/ like earth/ I understand the sky.

 

Here is an example of an aspiring author writing about a manji and it might have taken him or her three hours to put it all together, and yet these words may never be seen by anyone even if they did find context to breathe in a proper, finished form:

 

Neelo hadn’t seen a manji since she stood on the balcony of the haveli and accidentally saw her father kiss the forehead of the young girl who was brought over the night before as a possible bride for her brother. The manji sat in the center of the brick veranda as two peacocks trod around it, almost knocking the bowl with water in which almonds had been resting overnight. She could hear the fan moving as fast as a spinning top, the blades indistinguishable. The adage “if these walls could talk” is not applicable in some parts of the world; some structures are built so there is no need for secrets.
What would I write or say about a manji?

 

Stillness is a manji, made of the same material I feel on 108th and Broadway.
mangi
I leave you with some words I was playing with earlier this week:

 

Coffee With Jesus

 

I would like to take Jesus out
for coffee.
Who else would he invite?
He would probably laugh at my prayers.
I don’t want to save the planet;
Just myself would suffice.
We would talk about plagiarism:
“Look at the damage it can create!”
Jesus would exclaim.
I would laugh at his aggravation.
I have bigger problems, I’d say.

 

 

This Easter Sunday I am grateful to my father who protected us from religions, taught us to question all books, including his words, so we would grow up to still believe in One Law—called by various names all over the world—as we continue to shine our doubts.

 

A joyful Easter Sunday to all.