Love You Madly

Lately I’ve been wondering what keeps us from being more honest with each other.  Watching people label themselves as one political party or another, one belief system or another, I listen and wonder what stops us from accepting all of it?  My wife heard a story at work the other day that climate change is affected by a mysterious 12th planet and its movement around the galaxy. This explanation was posed as a conspiracy theory.  As we drove through the desert of southern New Mexico, she told me the story and I said, “why not?”  And sometimes I think why not believe it all.  Bible beaters believe that climate change doesn’t exist.  Why?  Mostly what I see is terror at the thought that God may forsake them if they choose to believe something else.  And then I thought why are we so afraid to say we’re scared of someone else’s belief system or ideology.  Why can’t we say, “That idea frightens me and my way of life?”  In our heart of hearts I believe no one wants to inflict more harm on another person. We all know the history and the unsuccessful maneuvering of attempting to make a group of people be something other.  Have we not done this enough to each other, time and time again?

I was pondering all of this honesty and dishonesty as I read Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker.  Most of us have read, or heard the story of Jane Eyre through cultural osmosis, knowing Jane as a young woman who falls for an older man that has kept his mad wife locked in the attic, lied about it and suffered the consequences only to have Jane return her love to him in the end.  A crazy story that for some reason we literary romantics take to be completely plausible, when in fact if a friend of yours came to you with a story like this we’d say she’s crazy dump him and never look back.  But Shoemaker does a brilliant job of taking our implausibility about the beloved Edward Fairfax Rochester and bringing to light all the reasons he and Jane are a match, beginning with his painful childhood, leading to his tragic young adulthood.  In Jane he sees his own heart.  The trusting heart of youth, the hopeful heart of adolescence and the survivalist heart of young adulthood.  But I kept coming back to that question.  Why not just tell her?  In the book, he is desperate to keep her, fearing that the truth will only cause him more pain, more loss, more loneliness.  But it is his fear that really causes him more pain, more loss, and the eventual loneliness he fears so terribly.  It is only when after much pain and destruction and more death, the truth is out and he is finally free.  What makes us fear the truth?  Control over our own lives?  The hard truths are the ones where we risk truly exposing ourselves.  In that exposure we are naked, laid bare, and how will someone else take us then?  We use so much armor to separate ourselves from each other; clothing, ideologies, money, and power, wielding them like swords.  What would happen if we put the sword down and said “I have a mad wife hiding in the attic but I’m really in love with you?”  When I think about it that way, not many of us have something that hard to say.

Carter looked at me seriously.  “Perhaps it is time to make it known who resides in that apartment.” he said.  “People are apt to be kinder than one imagines.”  To Carter it seemed simple, but he had no idea about Jane, or my hopes for a future with her.  And yet – perhaps he was right on one count: the situation with Bertha must change, and change now.  

 

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A sympathetic country

img_0207In a New York Times article from April 24, 2015 entitled, ‘Our Vietnam War Never Ended’ writer Viet Thanh Nguyen states, “The tendency to separate war stories from immigrant stories means that most Americans don’t understand how many of the immigrants and refugees in the United States have fled from wars – many of which this country has had a hand in.” Nguyen addresses these intertwined issues of war, immigration, assimilation and revolution in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, ‘The Sympathizer.’ Starting with the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War is seen through the eyes of a Vietnamese man, The Captain, he is both communist and conspirator. A bastard born to a Vietnamese mother and a French Priest father, he is born into duality, and it becomes his very nature. As a young man he is educated in California, “part spy-in-training, my war was psychological.” Nguyen writes.

Nguyen’s genius prose reveals The Captain’s every thought. The continuous psychological warfare is created in the protagonist’s mind. He is constantly questioning the morality of certain issues, overlooking, undermining, not speaking, acting out – and drinking, drinking, always drinking. This is the state of war. The Captain has two friends, Bon and Man, who are his blood brothers. They share a scar on one hand and any time one of them raises a glass or shakes a hand the knowledge of their pact is tangible. This bond is the only thing that is seeing The Captain through the haze of the fall of Saigon, and the inevitable escape to America. Where he is once again a sleeper spy, watching, waiting, wondering how the boredom will pass and when the next moment of chaos will occur. To break the boredom there are love affairs, assassinations, nights out to hear old songs that were sung in Saigon, and finally the ultimate distraction, a sojourn in Hollywood.

Here America is seen in all her self-absorbed glory. The Captain is hired as a translator for a movie about the Vietnam War. His primary goal is to get speaking parts for the Vietnamese actors. When The Captain first reads the screen play there is only a series of Asians dying and American soldiers speaking. He is successful in achieving part of his goal. But when The Captain and Bon see the movie together in Bangkok, the Captain realizes there is no credit title in the reel for him and Bon further humiliates him off by declaring, “You were going to make sure we came off well. But we weren’t even human.” The Vietnamese experience in the movie is only a shadow of the barrage of American-fueled ideology further reinforcing the American myth of the Vietnam War, and further angering the Captain, bruising his vanity, and allowing himself to question his entire identity.

However, in this novel there is nothing but humanity. There are flaws and disappointments of so many people experiencing loss of country, loss of loves, and yearning for something, anything familiar. While The Captain sips pho in a new Vietnamese restaurant, as the clock above him ticks in Saigon time, he notices that all the tables are full of his countrymen. As seen from the Captain’s perspective there is always a tugging between a world that is lost and a world that is present.

Nguyen’s novel does much more than mesmerize the reader with language, Cold War spy dynamics, and truthful storytelling of the immigrant experience. It raises the question of America’s role in all of it. Nguyen also includes American perspectives. One voice, a white Southern Californian professor, discusses what it means to be Asian, Oriental, Vietnamese, Japanese, or “forever caught between two worlds.” For him it is a study made of human behaviors, witnessed but never felt or empathized, only taking part in the food or the women or both and having no concept what the truth might be. As seen in the novel, Americans are (we are) very upfront with our opinions, at times leaving little room for the truth to spill out from someone with a foreign experience, already assuming, as we are a world power, that we know the answer. Nguyen’s novel leaves lingering questions, “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?”

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Norsk Frustration

imageEverything had become nothing and nothing is everything. This is the statement that came over me while traveling in Norway last autumn. A deep sense that all I was seeing had such deep meaning but was also a bit hackneyed. And yet I have always appreciated the sacred in the mundane. The practice of washing dishes to quiet the mind, a walk at dusk to appreciate the change over from day to night; I believe these simple acts can change perspective. Because so often they change mine.

Norway was mind blowing to me. My girlfriend and I spent days driving through the fjord lands. As each hairpin turn swiveled round we found ourselves eyeing navy blue seas, gray cliffs, moss and craggy rock outcroppings, and finally came upon a famous stave church. Medieval and magical, sadly with a locked door, I stood in the bitter Norwegian wind and admired this landmark. Tucked in a tiny valley, the place of worship and comfort for so many Stave churchthis building had stood for centuries bringing the sacred to the hard working people of this little village. My admiration came to a close when we realized there was no restroom. My girlfriend adopted the stance, I call, the hard lean, which means I need to find a bit of nature or a bathroom pronto. So off we wandered up the street to the local grocery store. Still a bit lost in my reverie, we walked through the automatic doors into the fluorescent lighting and bored faces of local life. After we used the facilities, bought something to eat for dinner, and were walking back to the car we turned to each other with astonishment. Do you think they know they live in such a gorgeous place? We talked and agreed, it’s someone’s every day. It’s often how I feel working in Santa Fe in the summer; I’m not on vacation. Some days your world is beautiful shining so brightly there is nothing to distract your attention away, and other days, the car needs an oil change, your father’s dementia is worsening, it’s snowing in April, and your kid needs help with homework you barely understand.

My girlfriend and I put up a lot of happy pictures on social media but our trip was also full of hard moments and tough talks. Our perspectives were constantly shifting. One moment beautiful the next not so much. I learned more than ever that the sacred is in every moment of the mundane. I could change my perspective, take a deep breath, practice patience, and loving – kindness. But I also realized it is a practice and sometimes I cheated. I was quick to anger and held onto frustration. And my girlfriend cried and then we tried again. Life is mostly about trying again. Everyday there is the intention to wake up and move it forward, to write something worthwhile, to run an extra mile, to excel at work, to fall in love, to be the open hearted person we know ourselves to be.

Throughout my travels I read My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Here is a man who has put his struggles down in deep detail and beautiful prose. For some, their own struggles are enough, but for me there is always admiration for those who put it down on paper. The thing I appreciate about struggling and suffering is it’s unique and universal qualities. Everyone has their own story but we all relate to the feeling. While I don’t always relate to Karl I deeply appreciate his fearlessness, and the moment when the struggle becomes the work.

He raised his coffee cup to his lips and took a sip. I didn’t know what to say. What he said was not prompted by the situation, except that I had just arrived from Norway, and it was formulated in such a way, came in a coherent flow, that it seemed prepared.  . . Whether his assertions were right or not I didn’t know, my intuition was they were driven by frustration, and he was actually expressing what was causing the frustration. It might have been Sweden. It might have been something in him. It didn’t matter to me, he could talk about what he wanted, that wasn’t why I was sitting here.”

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The Whale Inside

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” As I say, it is never not beautiful here.” – The Sea Inside ~ Philip Hoare

  • This drawing from “If You Want to See a Whale” by Julie Fogliano stayed with me from the moment I saw it. I was waiting, waiting for something I couldn’t quite fathom. And I tried to stay calm as millions of ideas swirled through my head over the years. Offers from friends to go to Italy and other far- reaching places never felt right. And I remained in the desert and stayed close to the people I loved. A life of adventure was calling to me under the surface but I remained in my daily routine; work, hiking, making dinners, running to dance class, and soccer, spending time with friends. In the past six months I noticed as ideas starting becoming realities. Flights were booked, plans were made, and people I love left our country within a country (Northern New Mexico) for Spain and Ecuador. On Wednesday I will leave my home in the desert for New Zealand. An idea that has been with me for 15 years will come to fruition. And my heart strings are tugged by the beautiful faces, gorgeous spaces, and places I have called my home. But the wait is over and I’m ready for the whale to surface.
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mi scusi

other languageI have been accused of being a my way or the highway kind of girl. And as long as we’re talking cliché’s I’ll say I’m also an I’ll believe it when I see it and what you see is what you get kinda gal. The cliché is tough. It’s an exaggerated way of looking at anything, putting someone or something in a box and not allowing it room to change or breathe. I’m not a fan of clichés, boxes, accusations or anything that takes away my freedom. Lately I’ve been going for long drives out into the desert trying to breathe as much freedom into my lungs as I can possibly get. My heart knows that no one can take away my freedom. Even if I was trapped in a small room, a jail cell, every moment of every day I am allowed to choose my thoughts. In the spring it seems, choosing freedom is more important than just about anything. In choosing what I think about myself, about others, and about life I like to allow us all wide open spaces to breathe, change and evolve.

All this driving, and fiery freedom-searching doesn’t allow a lot of sit still and read time, so I’m reading short stories. Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language. I adore her and all her writing but this one embodies just what I need right now. Stories that span the globe, an open way at looking at relationships and how we all attempt to interact, care for and communicate with one another. In the first story one young girl’s lust and longing for an English boy colors the choices she makes later in her life. On a small island off the coast of Kenya a woman reconnects with a former lover. She wracks her brain to meld the more exaggerated version of this man with the experience of her young lover. Marciano is brilliant, light, but never shallow, with a sweet way at looking at the world without ever being saccharine.

“We should have this conversation on the beach,” he whispered.  Outside it was pitch black, save for a sliver of moon high in the sky.  Nobody was around and the only sound was the gentle lapping of the water.  They sat very close on the cool sand, their shoulders and arms touching.

“Yes it’s much better out here,” Emma smiled at Luca, grateful that he was her brother, that he was there, close again.  They did need air, space – they needed darkness, to be able to talk about what they’d been avoiding for so long.

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Star-crossed lovers

goldfinchThis weekend I fell in love. And although this is the bookish kind of love that will nail me as a nerd for life, I fell in love with a book. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat. I read and I read and I read some more. While the wind howled, and the moon grew full, I consumed 771 pages. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt has been so well reviewed. However, a handful of people I’ve come across have put it down, wished for it to be over, and not been nearly as enthralled with it as I. All I can say is I’m a fool in love. The magic in this story is the sheer force of words, relentless words forever propelling the story forward. Detail beyond detail displaying rooms, cities, gestures, inner dialogue, all creating a whole world that I willingly stepped into and never wanted to leave. Sometimes a book comes along and you feel that the words flowed through the author. They were the conduit, the scribe, the blessed one that book had chosen to move through. This didn’t feel like that. Craft and consciousness. An amazing combination of fine tuned craft and the ability to see people as they are and as they are perceived. Human nature not at it’s best or worst but in all it’s variations. The proverbial shades of gray. The place we all live in. The places where we live and the places where we hide. The human stage where we lay our scene, a pair of star-crossed lovers attempt to overcome PTSD. Theo, our hero, the young boy we follow as he looses his mother and gains a precious work of art one fateful day. On that day he becomes entwined with Pippa, a red-haired girl, also at the museum. Theo jumps off the page. His voice so strong, his experiences so vivid, his inner dialogue so constant, you are privy to his every thought, as clouded as it all may be. And so why is all this so meaningful? Why do we read novels? Because it seems to be the finest rendition of the human experience beyond the reality of life. And this particular novel is beyond fine.

Here are a few of my favorite bits:

And the fat summer moon shining white and pure overhead, and my love for her was really just that pure, as simple and steady as the moon.

And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.

Though even when I couldn’t see it I liked knowing it was there for the depth and solidity it gave things, the reinforcement to infrastructure, an invisible, bedrock rightness that reassured me just as it was reassuring to know that far away, whales swam untroubled in Baltic waters and monks in arcane time zones chanted ceaselessly for the salvation of the world.

That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.

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walking away

30 girlsRain in winter always feels like the first sign of spring. Pavement and adobe walls are wet and tiny buds on trees are happy to soak up cold water. I’ve been taking long walks instead of running over the past month. Listening to books on audio. It feels so comforting to watch the world slowly come back to life while I walk along listening to a woman’s voice in my ear share her story or someone else’s. My body has been forcing me to slow down, walk, instead of run, feel instead of think, meditate instead of act. Taking it all in and observing, I’m suddenly the tortoise and not the hare. Though there doesn’t appear to be any race I’m in, I’m getting there slowly. Wherever there is. Today I walked along and listened to Thirty Girls by Susan Minot. A novel of Africa, a story of Uganda and specifically thirty girls taken by a rebel army. A story we know and can never know. And Minot gives us both perspectives, the girls and an American journalist in Africa writing a story about them. What prevailed as I walked along listening;  how can we ever know another person’s suffering? We know because we all experience it on some level, but what brings us together and separates us, are sometimes, the same thing.

Here is a moment with Jane, the American journalist reflecting on flying while watching a young man hang glide over the African savanna.

“In dreams when she was flying she could never make out exactly how it was working. She swooped over doorways, looped over trees but felt that at any moment the miracle might stop and down she’d plummet. She’d think in the dream, I better concentrate on staying up. But that wasn’t necessary, you just stayed up. You didn’t know what was keeping you up. It wasn’t in your control, it just happened. Like life.”

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