Update and Photos From A Sunday Walk In Oxford

I am in Oxford, England as part of the Bread Loaf School of English program offered at Oxford. Last summer, as some of you may recall, I was at the Santa Fe, New Mexico campus and that was an “interesting” experience to say the least. I wrote a very little bit about that summer here.  I wouldn’t be here this summer without Middlebury College’s insanely generous funding for educators. It’s a true privilege and I am grateful beyond words.

I really like the Oxford experience so far. I am enrolled in the James Joyce course taught by Jeri Johnson who is a Joyce expert; she is also brilliant. I really like that the classes are more like seminars, only 6 of us in there, and we don’t meet in a “class” but in her lovely office which is covered, wall to wall (literally), with books. I also like that it is understood that there is no way we could ever know as much as she does about Joyce and so she is not there to coddle our opinions and feelings. She is like a floating bowl of knowledge and I actually feel inspired to listen to her. The Santa Fe experience was a bit awkward for a variety of reasons, the primary one being that Jamie’s family is from there so it was strange to pretend to be a visitor in a town that is already familiar. Sometimes I felt like a spy listening in on others’ conversations about Santa Fe or New Mexico and some of these chats were annoying. The Oxford experience definitely feels more independent and “graduate”-school-like as compared to the Santa Fe experience at St. John’s College. This had a lot to do with very childish behaviors by some of the New England students who came to Santa Fe to get a “spiritual spring break” fix and felt disappointed when the mountains didn’t speak to them.

 

My last post was in March. It feels like ages between March and July. I actually forgot the password to this website log in! True.

Since March, Jamie and I hosted my parents in Albuquerque for my birthday. We had a wonderful time with both of our families. What a gift to hang out with your parents as friends in  your adult years! Then, we found a house. Then, we got approved for a loan. Then, we closed on a gorgeous house that’s exactly what we wanted! Then we packed! Then we moved! Then we set up house! All while everything else was going on at the same time since life doesn’t really stop when you are buying a house. Allow me to say just this much: buying a house is unlike any other thing I have ever gone through. It is an excruciatingly intense process that has you on your toes the entire time. We got very lucky; as in “angels competing to help you” kind of lucky. Every single person we worked with, from our realtor Theresa at the Ingles Company, to Bob at Bank of Albuquerque, to many, many others in between, was a ray of light guiding us through this very complex process.  We are so blessed to call these people are close acquaintances and friends now.

There is much to say about being here after Brexit, much to say about how the writing process is similar to the home buying process, there is much to say about what I have been reading in the last six months, much to say about Joyce and Ireland and how it relates to the British colonization of Pakistan and India, much to say about not writing enough, much to say about growing as a writer and reader, much to say about outgrowing blogging but still wanting to post some thoughts in this space, there is much to say about much, and when there is so much to say, it’s hard to know where to start.

But I do know where to end this post. I received some photos from Shayne which he shared from his walk somewhere in the countryside of North Carolina. And he sent those while I was on my walk to Port Meadow in Oxford. And what struck me about his photos was that, if I didn’t know any better, they could have been from a city in some country in Africa, a village in Pakistan, or right here in Oxford. The earth doesn’t care where we are, the color green doesn’t care which latitude and longitude defines borders. As the poem below says, “It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much/ and too little.”

 

 

“The World Has Need of You” by Ellen Bass from Like a Beggar discovered thanks to Writer’s Almanac.

 everything here
                  seems to need us
Rainer Maria Rilke

 

I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple.

 

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Vallecito

Four hours north of Albuquerque, past Aztec, New Mexico and Durango, Colorado, exists this magical place called Vallecito. Our neighbors have a cabin there and they kept nudging us to go check it out. We didn’t believe them given people have a tendency to say many things to sound generous and this is the Air B&B age where people charge as much money as they can only to have another stay in a closet, so no we didn’t believe them. But they were serious! So we decided to go explore.

It was a beautiful drive–all of New Mexico is just breathtakingly beautiful–and a wonderful stay. We soaked ourselves in stillness. This was much needed. So much has happened, mostly all good but just so fast, since March. Not to mention this September marks my 3 year anniversary away from New York, New York. Of course I have been back in between (which will continue) but still…

What do I miss the most? My yoga practice with Marco Rojas. It wasn’t yoga, it was some kind of dance akin to Bharata Natyam. I miss my friends, naturally, who are like a second family. I miss my neighborhood before it was completely gentrified to the extent it can hardly be recognized.  But there is so much I don’t miss. I don’t miss what it was becoming and has become. I don’t miss not being able to afford it and write too. My sister and her husband are there now for their medical school rotations and I hear their experiences and I am reminded that to every person the New York they know is the New York they are in now. They don’t know about the bodega that doesn’t exist. They don’t know about the barber shop that disappeared. They don’t know about the restaurant that got swallowed to build a new office. And so it goes…

 

Redefining or rather defining what is my relationship with this blog and its generous readers/supporters has been another reflection that I didn’t or rather couldn’t tend to till this weekend away. When I started this, I didn’t have former or current students who were subscribed or who would stop by to read my thoughts. I certainly didn’t have their parents keeping up with it every now and then. Although I have always been very conscious about what I share, this has added another dimension of filtering that I am still navigating my way around. Moreover, social media has morphed into something I can’t really relate to like I once did so what I share here and any links I share on Twitter have begun diverging in ways I didn’t anticipate. I suppose all of this is good in the sense that the writing that needs to happen will happen as drafts that lead to something beyond here.

That being said, I do enjoy sharing whenever I can and I am grateful for those who continue to keep up. Enough said.  Here are some photos to mark the beginning of Fall.

And here is to people like our neighbors who are lighting up the world with their generosity and love despite the world falling apart in so many ways all at once.

 

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Around Albuquerque…

It has been the most full summer in awhile. The Middlebury program ended in July, then I participated in the 48 Hour Film Festival in Albuquerque (which was a lot of fun and a huge learning curve when it comes to writing), immediately thereafter I went to California for my mother’s birthday (an impromptu visit!), then a few weeks later she visited us in Albuquerque.

Not to mention July and August are filled with birthdays which happen on the same days in both of our families.

Here are some photos.

-a.q.s.

 

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Flamingos at the Albuquerque Zoo

 

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Sea Lions at the Albuquerque Zoo

 

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Although I have been to Botanical Gardens before, the one in Albuquerque has an entire section dedicated to healing herbs!

 

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Children’s Fantasy Garden in Albuquerque

 

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Magic Man at the Rail Yards Market in Albuquerque.

 

 

I also took my mother to Los Poblanos lavender farm around Albuquerque where we had lavender water and lavender gelato. You can read more about it here and see other photos here.

 

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Summer of 2015: Bread Loaf School of English

Is there anything sweeter than June?

Of course there is. It is July and August! It is an entire summer dedicated to reading, writing, and being in a place where the exploring has no end.

Greetings from New Mexico!

 

In September of 2014 I sent an email to those subscribed in which I shared my extensive research related to MFA and Phd. programs and my reasons for not wanting to attend either. However, I mentioned that I was quite taken by Middlebury College’s graduate school, Bread Loaf School of English, for a variety of reasons, reasons that I didn’t share.

I didn’t think–didn’t have time to think–about any of it becoming a reality until February of 2015. Looking back on it, September of 2014 till February of 2015 is hardly any time in between but because of so much that happened in that short amount of time, it feels like lifetimes. In March of this year I had a very honest  exchange with the admissions director: I was not some teacher confused about what I “really wanted to do” when I grew up; I was extremely picky about workshops and such, having attended only two to date (one in Prague in 2011 before Auguries and one in March of this year hosted by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency in Big Sur); and my definition of “community” was very old school, basically sans the digital static; and the idea of more debt for yet another degree wasn’t exactly exciting. I was so taken aback by her patience, kindness, and sincerity regarding all my concerns, that I decided it was worth applying with all my  heart. Where there was one real human being there had to be others, right?

I began my personal statement essay with: “Are you a writer who teaches? Or are you a teacher who writes?”

I ended that essay as follows:

In February of this year I had the opportunity to present my work of last two years with my phenomenal students in a rural community in California at the CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) conference in San Jose. On the final day of that conference we were given a long quote by John Steinbeck, part of which I share now, the part that answered my question.

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

It is my hope that during each summer of attending Bread Loaf I will find a community of avid readers and learners, which will make me a better writer. My experience at Bread Loaf will be one of joy and it will help me be of service to my students. It would also provide for a shared reading experience that I would cherish beyond any classroom.

Essentially, if I was going to go back to graduate studies, I wanted the cake and I wanted to eat it too and that too without calories!

Ask and receive.

So, here I am. Very grateful for this opportunity to become a better writer by having a shared reading experience.

 

In other news, Vusi and I are almost done with www.realthinkingtree.com (it will be live in a few days! It’s has been a huge learning curve for me to create a digital platform like this and I couldn’t have done it without Vusi). I created it to share my reading and writing strategies with parents and educators as I continue to grow in this profession. I feel it is imminent that educators across the United States (and the world) utilize the Internet to share what they are doing (or what they are unable to do, even if anonymously) to help one another given what’s at stake here, the future. Here is an excellent post on the demise of the artist-teacher.  What makes www.realthinkingtree.com unique is that it is also a safe platform for students–from anywhere–to connect with each other (and with me) about their thoughts on reading, writing, and learning because students’ voices are missing from the learning conversation.  In order to make that possible, we had to review COPPA, a federal law that regulates activities of users under 13. COPPA requires parental consent before signing up on sites “that may attract children under 13”. In the past I have only worked with older students, but while I was living in California I had the unique opportunity to work with an amazing group of 5th graders. They will now be in 7th grade and in case they find me (many have!) and want to sign up I had to ensure it was done properly. What’s interesting is that both Fakebook and Twitter are able to bypass COPPA by stating that they are not platforms which attract children under 13. I wish that was true! More importantly, I wish there was better enforcement of these regulations given the dangers of younger folks signing up on social sites.

 

Finally, here is the podcast interview with Jessican Ann Media where I talk about writing, auguries, yoga, community etc. I have received some wonderful feedback about it and I am grateful for the opportunity.

 

Bread Loaf.

I am enrolled in two courses for this summer. The first course is “Nuclear Southwest: Literature and Film” and is taught by Jesse Aleman. I have been reading this assigned link as a warm-up to the background on the Atomic Bomb. The “interdisciplinary course examines the literary and cultural fallout of the atomic Southwest—a constellation of texts, images, and film that confront the nuclear era with protest, critique, fear, survival, and humor.” Last night I watched two assigned films, one of them was Trinity and Beyond (available on Hulu ) and the other was The Moment in Time: The Manhattan Project (available on YouTube). Both films show the uncertain days of the beginning of World War II when it was feared the Nazis were developing the atomic bomb and the migration of a group of nuclear scientists to Los Alamos where the first atomic bomb was detonated. I am very lucky that my in-laws, both in their 70s, are actually from New Mexico and have seen many parts of the state, including the changes to their hometown Santa Fe, which provides for another rare perspective not offered in a textbook or documentary film.

The second one is “Indigenous American Literature” and is taught by Simon J. Ortiz! I was first introduced to such literature by Prof. Bud Hirsch at University of Kansas. I have written–not as well as I can now– about that much younger self here (the shorter version, our first conversation) and here (the longer version, our last conversation before Prof. Hirsch died too soon). Reading these two older posts about an even younger time in my life brought tears of joy. I wish I could tell Bud that I am enrolled at Bread Loaf and I will be taking a class where we begin the session by reading the exact same book which I read with him, Ceremony by Leslie Mormon Silko. Silko is originally from Albuquerque and among many other well-deserved acclaims also  “self-published her multi-genre book Sacred Water: Narratives and Pictures (1993) under her own imprint (Flood Plain Press).”

Moreover, I wish I could tell him that his letter of recommendation didn’t just land me in law school, but because of that experience I met another great professor who became a wonderful mentor and remains a dear friend. That I had a lot of questions after his death but now I know I was never lost and he always knew that. Most importantly, I wish he could have met Jamie, my best friend, the love of all my lives, and I could tell him I finally “get” what he meant by a “love that just doesn’t quit, no matter what life throws at us, a love where you are in love always.”

His loss doesn’t make me sad like it once did. If anything, it confirms that there are no mistakes, and there is indeed some invisible trajectory following commands, whispers from our deepest chambers, that we can’t always hear.

So, I will be reporting from “The Land of Enchantment”, New Mexico, this summer. That is, when I am not reading and writing!

I am re-reading Fahrenheit 451 and other Bradbury stories again because I plan on teaching them. Re-reading Ceremony after over a decade. The rest of these are not Bread Loaf readings but my own! Hope I can do it! I am almost done with the Stinging Fly issue and it is fantastic.

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.

Still Sundays: Ghosts of Elsewhere

October 12, 2014

 

I have been traveling in other worlds lately. The worlds of William Maxwell and Frank O’Connor’s words. I am in Ireland and in New York but I am still here too as I stare upon Elsewhere.

“Elsewhere” is always a place in Lahore or somewhere in South Africa. I see corners of streets from “Elsewhere” if the sunset’s light hits the smog on the leaves a certain way. Some days, the quiet on a street after the cars leave an intersection takes me to this “Elsewhere” to which GPS coordinates don’t exist.

I have lived many lives and when it comes to “Elsewhere” I have lived them more than once in this very lifetime.

I sometimes wonder if I am everywhere but Lahore on purpose, at least in part unconsciously. Some secret resolve to keep oneself protected from such depths one can’t claw out of, at least not without bleeding. How much blood can you shed for the past? It requires immense strength to pull your entire body weight to toss yourself over the other side of a wall. Now, add to that weight the additional poundage of memories, good ones, of a world that doesn’t exist anymore, not even in pictures that can now be touched to insta-glorify even garbage.

I think of William Maxwell’s words, thoughts, dispositions, in his stories, interviews, anecdotes about him, and his letters and editorial notes to Frank O’ Connor. I relish the characters in Frank O’Connor’s stories; I have been reading many of them, almost all of them. “Ghosts” is a remarkable piece of art, sheer genius in my opinion.

“They could go looking for ghosts, but he had ghosts there inside himself and I knew in my heart that till the day he died he would never get over the feeling that his money had put him astray and he had turned his back on them.”

That’s how it ends, that story, and that’s how it stays with you forever.

The ghosts within us, of our other selves, that remember different worlds, aren’t scary but they are persistent. They don’t haunt us for the sake of nostalgia but as a plea to save the present.

 

Anyway, I think of William Maxwell and others and can’t help but wonder if any of them could ever relate to the stories I want to write, characters that don’t belong to one city, characters whose edges can’t be neatly cut according to most MFA programs that follow a trend even when they try so hard not to follow one. More importantly, I wonder if any such editor exists now. What I mean by that is, editors who hold their current positions because they are or were writers first. I mean, take the current editor of The New Yorker, Deborah Treisman, I can’t seem to find any creative fiction she has penned despite being part of the literati long before taking on the role as an editor. (Side note: I use The New Yorker just as an example, not as some implicit attack; perhaps it is not fair to mention an example of a magazine whose fiction I don’t read, it was a very different magazine before the 90’s. This is not to say they haven’t published authors who deserve their public or literary reputation, but one doesn’t have to read The New Yorker to “discover” them).

 

But perhaps there is hope after all? The recent Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to an unknown author (to me and probably majority of the United States’ readers), French writer, Patrick Modiano.  Lucy shared an article with me which sheds light on the current creative conundrum. Horace Engdahl, Nobel judge, part of the Swedish Academy, hopes “the literary riches which we are seeing arise in Asia and Africa will not be lessened by the assimilation and the westernisation of these authors.” The article in The Guardian continues, “Engdahl slammed novels which ‘pretend to be transgressive’, but which are not. ‘One senses that the transgression is fake, strategic,’ he said. ‘These novelists, who are often educated in European or American universities, don’t transgress anything because the limits which they have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist.’”

What precisely constitutes as “westernization” is a dated concept in itself in my humble opinion. It’s not as easily defined as it once was. The advent of social media has changed the landscape in many ways, but in as many ways Internet and social media have brought this change, in equal amounts, thanks to people’s self-absorption everywhere, they now know even less about the world outside of their mobile devices and computers.

 

Frank O’ Connor’s Ireland reminds me of Lahore.

“I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people merely because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said; but that doesn’t mean that the stories themselves were inspired by events in Ireland. Many of them should really have English backgrounds; a few should even have American ones. Only language and circumstance are local and national; all the rest is, or should be, part of the human condition, and as true for America and England as it is for Ireland. The nicest compliment I have ever received was from a student while the authorities of the university were considering the important question of whether I was a resident or non-resident alien. “Mr. O’Connor, I find it hard to think of you as an alien at all.” (Steinman, Michael, ed. The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O’Connor and William Maxwell 1945-1966. 15. New York: Knof, 1996. Print.)

 

Writing stories makes feel less of an alien on this planet, where geographic divides don’t make sense, given the human condition, made of ignorance, sufferings, joys, dreams, are as common throughout as the oxygen we need anywhere to stay alive.

Sometimes I feel this digital space will be known as the place where I recorded my challenges “to get it down right” till I finally got it down, even if not right, and I could care less because there would be no more ghosts.

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.