Wednesday, September 29, 2010


What do you do when you're sick at home but certainly not so sick that you can't stand up and open the door, and you want to be getting things done but they aren't actually so pressing that you can't take some time off from them, and then you hear a knock on the door?

And then what do you do when, peering through the peephole, you see that the person on the other side of the door is a friend that you've heard did some terrible things this summer, which he has concealed from you and which you do not intend to bring up? What do you do when you look at your friend, and you see him through a cloud, a shifting fog, a cold mist? and when you hear his name, and the sound in your ears is accusing voices and the weeping that follows betrayal? and when he reaches out to hug you, because you are sick, and his touch feels cold because he has become a frozen wasteland to you--because of one story, because of a few minutes' telling?

But it's not because of a few minutes, not because of one story. The wasteland was revealed in that rapid parting of the clouds, in those lightning flashes that lit the barren landscape. But the transformation came day by day, in the accumulation of decisions: conscious decisions, clear decisions, irreversible decisions. The deceptions fell on the land like a million, billion snowflakes. Each lie is different, but each lie freezes in the same way.

What do you do when the friend is not the person you believed him to be? What do you do when a head-cold intersects with a cold heart? How do you thaw the tundra?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Ramadan primetime

[I'm taking an Arabic course, and one of our recent assignments was to watch and comment on this video. It was a really interesting experience. Here's the part of my personal response that I actually wrote down:]

I found this video segment fascinating. There are so many things to comment on that I'm not sure what to put in this post. There is an image that particularly struck me and which I think captures the central contrasts in the video: a satellite TV dish in the foreground, and a weathered pyramid in the background, against a cloudless blue sky. This image juxtaposes the old and the new, the monumental and the trivial, the artistic and the technological. These juxtapositions run through the video, because the video speaks about the modern incarnation and experience of an ancient tradition that is still vibrant but which has changed immensely since the days of its inception.

These contrasts are particularly powerful because of the remarkable contrast inherent in Ramadan itself. Ramadan originated as a religious discipline and festival together, characterized by spending the day in fasting and the nights in feasting. Fasting is self-denial in a primal and powerful form, whereas feasting is a celebration that sets moderation aside for the sake of something greater. Today, so many other layers of juxtaposition are also included in Ramadan, particularly in the television of the season. Religion and entertainment rub shoulders. The local community experience of watching TV in a room together melds with the global community experience of talking to your mother in Cairo who has been watching the same silly soap opera as you, for this special month. That ridiculous soap opera stands next to the serious social commentary of Ahoor Al Ayn, a show to bond over but also argue over.

The primetime TV experience of Ramadan seems to supplement the religious tradition in many enjoyable and worthwhile ways. But at the same time, modern life inevitably detracts in some ways from older ways. The TV programs allow for globally shared storytelling, but at the cost of eliminating the local and personal storytelling that used to be so prevalent in cafes during this season of communal celebration. The price of global bonding is the loss of specific local bonds. The tradition of storytelling lives on, but the storytellers, as people you could actually run into on the street, die out. You can probably tell that I find this sad.

But at the same time, there are lots of things to admire about Ramadan primetime. If a society is defined or revealed by its television shows, I might rather be part of the society of the Ramadan primetime shows in this video than with the society of the primetime shows that appear on my television.

Inspiration via Typo

From an NYT article online: "... in Japan, where they have been growing anxiety ..."

Japan has an especially good climate for planting and growing anxiety, but it will grow anywhere. It's a hardy weed that shoots up quickly and comes back after you cut it down, because its roots go deep into the secret places in the land, and they grip the soil with matchless determination. The stalk breaks before the roots let go; your hands slip, torn by the thorns, before the roots give up.

Plant peace, water it diligently, but none of its flowers will open if anxiety flourishes around it, blocking out the sun. Peace bears glorious blossoms, but its petals tear on the thorns of the weeds, and its leaves need the Sun. Peace will die in your garden if you keep growing anxiety.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The wrong sort of morning

There is nothing left inside, no images. Words come, but they are colorless, lines and scratches. I dreamed I rode a tiger, played in a fountain, but I awoke blank and dry. (I want to call out, but what can I say? How can I ask you to reach out to me, when I don't even have the energy to open my hands?) I am ashamed to be this death-dry desert when so much rain has fallen on me. I should be a garden, but the trees have withered into twigs that lie broken on the ground, lines and scratches in the sand that might have been soil once. The ghosts of promised fruits linger in the dry air: the scent of flowers that bloomed and faded.

The truths in the music, the words in the Book, roll across me. They slide away before I can absorb them, water-droplets on a windshield, leaving lines of water like messages in a script I can't read. My mood is the color and shape of water. In the time it takes for the clouds to dissolve and then rush back together, this shallow pool of water shows a thousand images, a million colors. My mind is the sound of the wind through the leafless trees, lines and scratches that bear no fruit.

"I need Thee every hour."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Walking the Talk

So many words today, and so many footsteps. I went running: fake running, on a machine, wheels instead of a road. And I went walking: fake walking, to pass the time as the words passed through the phone. There were other phone conversations today. I lay in the sun on the scraggly grass for one, as the ants investigated my legs. For another, I sat in a bus stop, the metal bench cold under my bare feet. Why do I sit still for some conversations, but roam and roll like a tumbleweed for others?

The steps combed through the words, untangling some sentences and ripping out others, which drift away across the night air. When my feet stop moving, the words have all been brushed out. The sentences lie neatly, smooth and glossy. The conversations are in order. I can look in the mirror and be pleased with the light that reflects into my eyes.

I took so many steps today, without traveling anywhere. But I am happy to be where I am.

Monday, September 13, 2010


From this sharp piece by Thomas L. Friedmen:

“The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation,” wrote Samuelson. “Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.” Wrong, he said. “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.’ ”

There is a lot to Samuelson’s point — and it is a microcosm of a larger problem we have not faced honestly as we have dug out of this recession: We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.

Makes me wish I'd read a book that my dad often cites, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, because I have a feeling this would be apropos...

But doesn't this sound more like something you'd see in a conservative Christian magazine, ranting about the disintegration of a nation that was founded by great men, than like something you'd see in one of the country's largest newspapers, published out of the city known for its rich diversity? New York Times, you surprise me.

On a more contentful note: I think the real epidemic is a shortage of purpose, and a surplus of despair and boredom.

In primary school, kids don't participate in class because they're thinking about their future careers--they participate because of much more immediate effects, such as: having fun, wanting the approval of authorities, being interested in the world. Again, in secondary school, students don't become diligent in school because they want to get rich later--they work hard because they believe in something, whether it's environmentalism, preservation of historical artifacts, good-student-ism.

Without a sense of purpose, without a narrative for your life, what's to structure your time and thoughts? You'll be pushed around by your moods and your circumstances, and sometimes, class or work or marriage or whatever just won't seem worthwhile, and that will be all the loss of incentive it takes to let it gradually fall apart. If you don't have a sense of what the whole show is about, nothing in it will hold your attention. That's what I call a breakdown in values.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cicada Season

[I scrawled this poem on the back of a bookmark over the summer, and just rediscovered it...]

When the sunbeams fall
on the trees like a rainstorm, and

the breeze brushes
the green leaves, and

a buzz begins,
and boils up--then

under the humming maple,
I am the silent audience
for summer's symphony.

Longer Books! [Question of the Day]

What's one book that you were sorry to reach the end of; one that you wish had gone on for twice as many pages?

Oh, I could list so many. But here are just a few:
  1. The Hounds of the Morrigan
  2. Watership Down
  3. The Lions of Al-Rassan (Thanks, Tia!)
  4. The Neverending Story (If only it would live up to its title! But its point is that life is the best story, so I suppose I shouldn't complain.)
  5. A Man in Christ (the only non-fiction I'm seriously listing)
  6. I almost want to list Anathem, but that book was definitely long enough (at 928 pages) even though I wanted the story to keep going. 1,856 pages would be far too many.
  7. I also kind of want to list Letham's Trinity, because I got so much out of every chapter of that book, but as above, the book was long enough (800+ pages), and it would have been seriously demoralizing to take 8 years to finish a book. Four years is long enough.
  8. Tia's novel!!! Only half of it was finished so of course when I got to the end of it, I was quite sorry, and wished for the other half of the pages...
Suggestions for fiction I should read are quite welcome!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

[Tuesday is Fireday in Japanese]

One unfortunate word, and a handful of ill-starred incidents; one frightened girl, and a hundred conversations that burst into flames when her eyes were closed. She doesn't dare blink anymore, and her eyes are drying out.

But eventually, she has to sleep, and when she does, she dreams.

She sees the wildfires through her eyelids. Before she even wakes up, she is running. Before the spark is even struck, she is running: all it takes is the tinderbox, the flint. The grass on the golden hills is dry. It rustles and cracks as she passes through. She sprints across the slope, staggers, sobs. The heat of the sun is strong on her skin. Summer is stuck here, caught in the long grass. The sun is a hole burnt through the hard blue sky.

She doesn't look back, the girl who keeps running and tumbling, squeezing her eyes shut. She doesn't want to see. She hears the roaring of the conflagration in her ears, though she's not sure: is it her blood pounding, her heart crackling? The merciless sky doesn't soften. She feels it glare down on her, and she won't meet its gaze. This is another reason she keeps her eyes closed, when she can.

Finally she falls. Scraped palms, scratched knees, lungs grabbing the air, she finally opens her eyes. Heat waves squiggle over the hills behind her, and a haze of cloud drifts there. She is too far away now to see if the cloud is smoke, if heat is streaming up from licking flames. She is too far away to tell if the fire she saw with her eyes closed ever burned through her skin to set the hills ablaze.

She blinks, and the flames kiss her again, and she vows never to sleep anymore, or at least not to dream. But you can only watch for so long. The spark will fly in her mind again soon, and she will wear her feet out running.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Energy level: [Question of the Day]

How energetic a person am I?

It all depends on what kind of energy we're talking about... Let's just say it's my subjective sense of energy.

But it still all depends. Who am I hanging out with, and what have we been talking about? (If it was a group, my energy level has probably plummeted--or rather, a foot-tapping and chocolate-eating kind of anti-energy has probably polluted me.) How much did I sleep, and what did I dream? What have I been eating? (If it was all vegetables and fruit, with healthy doses of spice, I should be feeling great.) Is it sunny outside? Does my apartment feel inhabited?

I don't think that my identity/self/soul has an energy level, as though the essence of my being were an electron getting bumped up and down the orbitals as it spins wildly around the nucleus (the kernel of life?). No, neither lethargy nor euphoria are intrinsic to who I am. I think that what is intrinsic to who I am is, rather, the predictable ways that my energy level rises or falls in response to particular situations.

As far as outward manifestations of that energy level, though, I am consistently closer to "calm and quiet" than to the loud, fast-moving energy that I associate with a sugar-high. When people try to say what kind of animal I would be, they never name the twitchy, jumpy animals, like squirrels or frogs or dalmatians or gazelles. Instead, they tell me I am a pony, or (my favorite) a red panda.*

*and then there's the one person who has called me a whale and a stegosaurus... but I'm taking those out of context.


[I've got an honors undergraduate thesis to do this year, and I had to write up a letter explaining what I propose to do. Here's the little essay I wrote:]

Art refers back to other art, and literature is no exception. Literature written in English rests on a canon not only of other English writing but of classics from the Greeks and Romans. The Iliad and Odyssey, ancient Greek epics, belong to the body of literature that has deeply shaped English writing, past and present. A knowledge of these poems and the mythology that accompanies them can enrich a reader's experience of a much greater body of literature, from the Roman masterpiece the Aeneid, to Dante's revolutionary Inferno, to modern books like James Joyce's Ulysses.

Moreover, these epic poems describe timeless human experiences: patriotism, friendship, love, voyage into the unknown, the return home after a long absence. In exploring ancient accounts of these experiences, the modern reader can find that the writing still resonates with present-day emotions and events. Subsequently encountering those experiences in personal life, then, the reader can recall the attitudes and expressions given to the experiences by the ancient writer. This recollection can add new meaning to events that might otherwise seem mundane, or bring comfort in the face of daunting challenges. These poems can thus add another dimension of meaning to personal experiences. In the case of the Iliad and Odyssey, the discovery of this resonance is particularly powerful, because the original author and audience are so far removed in time and space. The writer/reader intimacy, forged across so great a contextual gap, roots the modern reader in a broader human identity.

The surest way to really know an artwork is to imitate or respond to it. For my thesis project, I propose to read the Iliad and Odyssey closely, and write a collection of poems responding to the epics. By interacting with them this way, I hope to absorb their literary and emotional content, to carry with me into the rest of life and into the rest of literature. In addition, I will create a small body of my own artistic work that interacts with the larger body of literature as well as expressing some of who I am at this moment in life, when, like Odysseus preparing to set off for the Trojan war, I am poised between my “home” of [insert college name here] and the voyage of graduation and entrance into the world at large.

[Apparently I am one of the very few students from the honors college who got cleared to do a creative project... I am grateful.]

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

[Quote of the Day:] Secret Self

I've been doing a lot of reading and a fair amount of talking lately, and not much writing. As a reflection of that, here is a quote from a book that I finished recently, which made me ponder and brought me peace: Seasons of Celebration, by Thomas Merton.
Personalism is the discovery, the respect, but not the cult, for this deep reality. [...] The great paradox of Christian personalism is this: it consist in something more than bringing to light the unique and irreplaceable element in the individual Christian.

On the contrary, Christian personalism does not require that the inmost secret of our being become manifest or public at all. We do not even have to see it clearly ourselves! [...] Christian personalism does not root out the inner secret of hte individual in order to put it on display in a spiritual beauty contest.
This comment about "the inmost secret of our being" brought me relief in an area that I hadn't even realized I was feeling tension. The goal of self-knowledge always seems desirable to me, because understanding myself has often brought me clarity and peace--or at least calmness. The untangling of my emotions has brought the stillness and emptiness which together allow for a dreamless sleep, and which I have often sought.

But seeking has not always meant finding. Unwinding the knotted threads has not always brought understanding, which often seems too slippery to grasp. Moreover, even if understanding somehow falls into my open hands, and does not pour out through my fingers, communication may prove impossible.

This predicament is made worse by the feeling that knowledge I can't express is no knowledge at all. What good is reflection if it doesn't bear fruit: actions or at least words? If I can't make myself understood, or if I can't even understand myself, I have failed. At least, that's how I tend to think. Hiding and secrets come naturally, and so I've struggled against them and treated them as the enemy.

But Merton sanctifies secrets and mystery. He places mystery at the heart of holiness, and secrets at the heart of personhood. In that light, I can stop struggling to smooth out the shadowy folds of my self. It's okay to be a secret; it's okay that God only knows me through and through; it's okay that I don't understand.