Monday, August 31, 2009

I'm back on the east coast.

This afternoon as I walked home, I heard the crickets in the little flowering plants along the path, like hundreds of chiming bells. The sun was finally shining, and the perfume of fresh-cut grass drifted into the air, and I knew summer hadn't let go yet.

Now I'm in bed, but the crickets are still singing outside my window. The woods ring with their chorus. Trees make the best concert hall.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


In these moments when the fragile tangle of our love unravels, I retreat from your pain. I continue the patterns that began before we tore ourselves apart. You, you are crying in bed. My words of comfort run dry, and I run away, back to the kitchen where life follows a recipe. The ingredients are combined already, so I have only to stir, and stir. Butter and sugar and egg and flour, cocoa and vanilla and leavening, they combine into this sweet dough. It clings to the metal bowl and licks my fingers, leaving them greasy. The pressure of the fork forces dry and wet together. Dusty dry ingredients try to escape the mixture, but this is my mission, a task I can actually accomplish: I will leave nothing out, allow no imperfection. Stirring is simple, the same gestures over and over.

And you, meanwhile, are asking me questions I cannot answer, those questions that pivot on "should" and "why." I keep stirring. My fingers are only equipped to grasp spoon and fork, not to reknot these tangled threads. Besides, I can only see them when the sun shines just so. How can you ask me to tie things back together?

And you, you ask the dog if she wants to go out, you finish cooking the rice balls, you wash your dishes. Your silence: it is the wish that this web were not so fragile.

The oven finishes preheating, the balls of dough are arranged on the cookie sheets in orderly rows. I know the cookies will come out in perfect circles. The dough melts uniformly, and solidifies where it sank. The cranberries and pecans stand out like boulders in the sea. But cooking proceeds as prescribed, and no one can complain about these circles of sweetness, right? If I do the dishes now, maybe I at least will have played my role right. I wash everything. Watching the soap and sugar swirl down the sink, I wait for the kitchen to be restored to order.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Hiking with K.

Turning a corner, we passed the trees whose branches had constrained the horizon. The vista unfolded before us. Hill layered beyond hill. Trees clothed each ridge in green, but the distance veiled the mountains in blue. The closest hillside glowed green, but the farthest lines of the earth were deep blue like the night sky.

The hills rippled below us, an ocean of rock and trees, limestone and pine and oak. I wanted to sail across that sea, to rise on the wings of the dawn, to drift on the air currents like the hawk that floated below us. We never saw it flap its wings. It only drifted in gentle circles, spiraling like our conversation, which rose and fell from the present to the distant past and into the near future, glided peacefully from the mundane to the profound.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lauren Winner on Clothes

From a theological (though also practical) book with a scandalous title:
The power of dressing is also the power of narrative. For our clothes tell stories, and it would be naiive and irresponsible to pretend otherwise. [...] That is why we enjoy clothing so much, of course--because we reinvent ourselves and our narratives when we try out a new look. So the question for the Christian is not an absolute one about skirt length, but rather something about communication. What kind of stories do we want to tell ourselves and others through our choices of clothing?
(Lauren Winner, Real Sex, p. 77)
I've thought before about the fact that clothing is a message, but I'd never phrased it as a narrative, which is a more meaningful notion. Yes, a love letter is a message, and the gospel is a message. But a stop sign is also a message, and the recording on your phone is a message, and the words repeated over and over again by the bored train announcer, "Mind the gap," are a message. A message can be utterly trivial and mundane. A story cannot. A story has to have some person or people who do something: characters, action, conclusion. It can be a bad story, a pointless story, but the minimal story is more complex than the minimal message. The false story that the Tooth Fairy comes still means more than the true message that the toothpaste contains fluoride. If my clothes are a story, not just a message, they matter more than I want to admit they do.

Because, in fact, I don't like to think about what my clothes are saying. One day I want to just put on the first thing in the drawer, whatever fits most comfortably; another day I want to dress up and look good, for no reason. I don't want my clothes to give away stories about me, to tell my secrets. When I'm wearing an old t-shirt and unflattering shorts, I don't want people to decide I don't know how to dress, or think I'm lazy or childish or careless or unaware. When I'm wearing a fitted shirt and an interesting necklace, I don't want people to assume I'm dressing up for someone, or that I'm overly concerned about my appearance, or that I'm looking for attention.

I don't want my clothes to say anything. I just want them to be fabric sliding across my skin, curtains covering me, colors reflecting the light, patterns for my eye to wander across, shadows and shapes.

I don't want to be judged. I want to slip by on the sidelines, fade into the forest. I want eyes to slide across me without sticking. I don't want the whistles, and I don't want the whispers.

But at the same time, I want the acknowledgment and affirmation of the people I love. I want you to see I'm ready to face the world. I want you to see I just want to lie on the grass and climb the trees and absorb the sunlight. I want you to see me as an adult. I want you to see me as beautiful. I want you to see me.

I'm afraid to believe I'm inventing a story of myself every time I dress. I'm not responsible enough, conscientious enough, to decide what identity I ought to convey. I know myself, but I don't know myself in a way I can summarize. I know myself the way I know California: I recognize city-names, I've driven up and down the state, I feel the pull of home when I see the golden hills and the fog-covered sea; but I couldn't draw you a map or tell you the population or the distribution of economic activities or the specifics of the government. I don't have the kind of declarative knowledge it takes to distill a self-portrait, much less transmute it into a style of dress. I don't want people to decide who I am based on the story I make up for them: I want them to watch how I live and figure out who I actually am, because I don't trust my capacity to tell them what they need to know.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Random quote of the day

"Japanese orthography shares with English the distinction of being the worst of its class, except that instead of being the worst of a good lot, it is the worst of a bad lot." Wm. Hannas, Asia's Orthographic Dilemma (p. 27)

Comments like this one make me feel justified in having failed in Japanese elementary school. There are just so many characters to memorize and to copy over and over and over. As bad as I am now about coping with boredom, I was far worse as a kid. Not surprising, then, that I couldn't finish homework that was to copy x number of characters 20 or 100 times each. Ah, what fond memories of first grade...

Anyway, Hannas's critique of the Chinese writing system makes for a fascinating and entertaining read, partly because he is so vehement in his vituperation. He speaks of the Chinese characters having distorted and imprisoned the languages that use them. Because of the kanji, he claims, "the Japanese language itself was bent out of recognition" (39). If I recall correctly, he also says that all the memorization of characters impedes the scientific and academic progress of Chinese scholars. Hyperbole, just maybe? But so many Americans think all Chinese characters are just so cool and efficient and logical that it makes me extra-happy to read a book that vigorously rejects that idea.

Friday, August 7, 2009


One minute I'm biting into a red and green globe, piercing the striped skin to slice through crisp white flesh inside. The apple cracks and splits, snaps into chunks that crunch apart between my teeth.

Moments later, the twisted core lies between my fingers, yellow and brown and soft. A seed slips into my palm. Its dry surface shines.

How can these both be apples?

Thursday, August 6, 2009


It is too easy to drift through a day thinking about other places and times, barely seeing and hearing the immediate world. Smells, though, I can never ignore. They root me in the present moment. Today, starting a pie, I cut two sticks of butter into cubes. When I picked them up to add them to the flour and sugar, the cubes left my hands shiny and butter-scented. I rinsed off the grease, but the smell of butter stayed with me as I mixed together the tart dough. The recipe called for whipping cream, so I pried the carton's mouth open. Even before the silken liquid poured into the light and air of the kitchen, its perfume drifted up to mingle with the scents of butter and flour. Subtle smells, but they drew me deep into their realm. I thought of nothing but pie, pie, pie.

The dough mixed and rolled out, the peaches and rhubarb chopped, we arranged everything in the tin. The fragile dough had to be treated gently, but the fruit didn't suffer from being jostled. Golden chunks of peach tumbled into the pie shell. They glowed with nectar. Sections of rhubarb, polished by juice and sugar, tossed themselves among the peach cubes like rubies. The other circle of dough settled quietly over this mound of treasure, and we pinched the pie closed.

Then the pie squatted in the oven for an hour, sending out the aroma of cream and peaches and butter and sugar, in irresistible clouds of scent. The smell of a baking pie is not subtle. It filled the kitchen, and my mind. Nothing else mattered. I would have been content to spend that entire hour staring into the oven, drunk on that golden smell.

Hours later, I've tasted the pie, eaten it. I can feel it still in my belly. It is a comforting presence. The memory of its smell, though, tantalizes rather than comforts. I will be haunted all night by the ghost of the scent of pie.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Quote from David McNeill

"Communication [is] a matter not only of signal exchange but of social resonance and inhabitance in the same 'house of being.'" David McNeill, Gesture and Thought.
To communicate, you have to inhabit the same mental space as your interlocutor. Set up camp there, unpack your suitcase. Make it your home: learn where the silverware is kept, find out what time everyone wakes up, operate the microwave or, better yet, do a load of wash. You have to feel the nuances that shape any particular word. Learn the stories whose light illuminates the world for that person you want to communicate with. To really understand someone, you can't just drop by and chat. You have to inhabit--stay in--their home: in their structure of existence, their safe retreat, the place patterned by their habits and filled with the objects they treasure. You have to be a guest in their mind.

And that is why we don't usually communicate deeply. When we don't resonate with each other naturally, it takes a great deal of effort to interpret the signals we pass back and forth between our distinct houses of being. Often it's impossible. Which I suppose is why, when I meet someone with whom social resonance comes easily (someone whose 'house of being' has a similar floorplan to mine?), I am so anxious to stay in communication with them.


Sunday morning is always for church. But what is church for? Sometimes I just go and evaluate, and nothing real happens in me. I fidget: twist a strand of hair, look up semi-relevant Bible verses, pick at my fingernails. I can't keep my body still, much less my mind. I'm not really there, I just wake up for a couple of good songs and then fade back into restlessness.

But there are other days when the reverberation of the organ infiltrates my bones, when my gaze clings to the stained glass windows, when a word from the pastor takes root in my thoughts. Stillness seeps into me. I wake up.

Sometimes I open my eyes to joy that I have been rushing past. Sometimes I wrench the blindfold off and my eyes burn in the light. Sometimes, instead, they burn at the darkness in my heart. But tears wash away the scorch marks, because the whole church reminds me: love is not a function of my achievement or failure.

The sermon today was about unresolved conflict. I am very good at avoiding conflict by forgetting what I want and need. A day or a week or three months later, I finally understand that I can't go on like this, and then I have to unwrap the conflict, deal with it. Another quarter of the year later, I finally begin to realize how much I am hurt from that season where I folded up my soul and put it away in a drawer. I had to face that hurt today. I don't like that I am still hurting from things that (I think) shouldn't be on my mind anymore. I don't like that burying pain hasn't made it disintegrate and sprout into something new and beautiful. Instead it is still lying under the surface. When I try to plant something else, the shovel runs into it.

But I don't have to heal myself. My survival is not contingent on doing everything right. God is not contingent on anything. We sing in church, "Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens. Your faithfulness stretches to the sky." I need to keep singing that song.