Pretty much The Gift of the Magi IRL

This is my own personal Gift of the Magi story, only instead of a husband and a wife, it involves a brother and sister. (And instead of their giving up what they most cherish to give the other something to complement what they most cherish, this one involves no such sacrifice on the part of the sister.) (That sister would be me.)

A few weeks ago, my brother asked me where my collection of short stories titled Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie was. He hadn’t seen it on our bookshelf, and he wanted a story to use in one of his classes. I looked at the bookshelf and around the bookshelf and under the bookshelf, but I couldn’t find the book. My heart sank. I loved that collection. Where could it be? My brother said he thought it had been in my ‘give away’ pile back when I was preparing for our move to Chicago. I couldn’t believe that I had done that, but I was in an intensely minimalist mood at the time, alternately taking truckloads of items to the trash can and Salvation Army. Maybe Blasphemy was one of the casualties– maybe in my zeal I had given it away because I saw it as excess weight. The thought made me sick.

After texting my mom to look for it at my parents’ house and making a note to myself to look for it when I was home over Thanksgiving, I resigned myself to the fact that I had stupidly put it in the wrong box and would have to live without it from now on. (I have a fatalistic view of my personal library.) Not one to let people down without a guilty conscience, I found a PDF version of a story that would work for my brother’s class and emailed it to him. He didn’t end up using it but said it would have fit perfectly. I felt a little better.

A couple weeks went by, and one day, when I got home from work, I saw a book-sized package on my porch, addressed to my brother. We order a lot of packages, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary to find one there. I set it on our kitchen counter for him to see when he got home and went about my evening. What was weird to me was that after he got home, when I looked at the package, I saw his name crossed out and my name written above it. I was 90% sure that wasn’t how it was when I brought it inside, but because my brother plays innocent during pranks, I– true to form– doubted myself. He just said they must have made a mistake and that it had my name on it, so it must be for me. I shrugged, finished whatever I was doing around the house, and finally opened the thing. To my honest-to-goodness surprise (albeit not to anyone else’s), it was Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie. A brand-spankin’-new copy. There was even a note inside:

Hi Alyse, An early Christmas present, in case you run out of reading material before then. I had a feeling you’ve been looking for this one. Sincerely, definitely not your brother

It was so sweet, not least because he did it without expecting anything in return. My siblings and I don’t usually buy Christmas gifts for each other; we usually just pick a name or (like this year) don’t buy anything at all. I tried showing my gratitude, even though it seemed weaker than how I really felt, and when he went to the bathroom, I went to the shelf to find a place for it.

I stared at the puzzle for a few seconds before spotting a book that looked like the perfect size for the one I would be replacing it with. I stepped forward, put my hand up to pull it out, and right before I did, I read the spine: Blasphemy. By Sherman Alexie.

The book had been there the whole time.

I yelled. (Because Caleb was busy at the moment, I had to yell through the bathroom door to tell him what happened.) I wanted to melt into the ground. I felt terrible. He had done this incredibly thoughtful thing, and then I had to ruin it by making it redundant. Back into the package and through the mail the book had to go; between the legs went my tail. He came out of the bathroom, and we came up with all the reasons we had missed it the first several times we looked for it: the writing was small, the spine was white when we were looking for a blue one, there was nothing to catch our eye, etc. Yet it had been the first book I went to move when I got the new one. Kills me.

By now it should be clear how this parallels the Gift of the Magi (as in, not much). There is a common thread, though: two people sacrificially getting each other what they no longer need. My brother got me a book I thought I had given away that I actually still had, and I got my brother nothing (which he definitely didn’t need). But no matter how sad it seems, in the end in both cases, there was nothing left to do but laugh. (Actually, I don’t really remember how The Gift of the Magi ends. Let’s just say, for the purpose of this post, it ends with them laughing.) So laugh we did.

The best books that I read in 2016, pt. 1

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This year has been a record year for me in terms of number of books read. I am well past eighty at this point, and October isn’t even over yet. So I’ve decided to make two separate posts with my book recommendations from this year: one for the books I read between January and August, and another for books I read from September to December. For obvious reason, part 2 of this installment won’t be up for a few months, but in the meantime, part 1 should provide some worthy reading material for those in need of a good book recommendation.

 

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

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A short collection of thoughts (meditations) on the color blue and its relation to life and love. Philosophical, honest, and thought-provoking. I loved its poeticism. I’d love to revisit this one at some point.

“For to wish to forget how much you loved someone– and then, to actually forget– can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.”


After Birth by Elisa Albert

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This was the book that actually got me started on making these book lists public. I wanted every person I knew to enjoy the perfection that was this book, and I didn’t know how to let them know. So I decided to make recommended book lists from previous years’ readings so that by the time I got to 2016, it wouldn’t seem weird or out of place. This is a short novel about the first year after the narrator gives birth to her only son, and it covers themes of female relationships, societal expectations of women (in general and for child-rearing in particular), marriage, and parenting. It was exactly what being a parent was like for me: the depression, the isolation, the love for the child while craving my own life and independence again. I loved this book. I think every new mom should read it.

“Another day gone, okay, and I get it, I got it: I’m over. I no longer exist. This is why there’s that ancient stipulation about the childless being ineligible for the study of religious mysticism. This is why there’s all that talk about kid having as express train to enlightenment. You can meditate, you can medicate, you can take peyote in the desert at sunrise, you can self-immolate, or you can have a baby, and disappear.”

 

Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest

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A collection of poetry centered on the mythology of Tiresias, who was born a man but spent seven years as a woman before being turned back into a man and being blinded. The poems are part prophecy, part confession, and some of them gave me chills. The best one, I think, is “Man Down,” which touched on accessing the male and female within us all– a very Jungian idea. I would love to read these again to understand them better.

“And he saw then: no matter how far you have come,

you can never be further than right where you are.”

[from The Man Tiresias]

 

Freud’s Blind Spot, edited by Elisa Albert

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An anthology of essays about siblings in all their various forms and intimacies and strains– my heart is still aching from the last one. Some were not very interesting to me (probably because they don’t resemble my own sibling relationship), but many more were funny or poignant or spot-on with my own experience (“Who Will Save Us Now?” by Nalini Jones could have been written by my older sister). The introduction alone– about the editor’s own siblings– was heartbreaking.

“The story of my siblings is the story of who I am. I suppose this is true for all of us. How do we write the stories of who we are? If there were only one answer, life would be very, very boring.”

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“It can’t be easy to be related to us. By which I mean me.”

 

thx thx thx by Leah Dieterich

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A cute and creative collection of thank-you notes to both animate and inanimate objects, they made me see some things in a new (and grateful) light. I loved how the author phrased some of them and how annoying situations were reframed to have some positive aspect.

“Dear Restraint,

Thank you for allowing me to refrain from asking questions I don’t need to know the answers to, like “do you love her?”

Best, Leah”

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“Dear Morning Bathroom Visit,

Thank you for making room for breakfast.

All best, Leah”

 

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

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There was so much to this book– though it’s not long– that it’s hard to summarize: it’s about Solnit’s difficult relationship with her jealous and psychologically-trapped mother and how it becomes easier as the mother goes through the stages of Alzheimer’s towards death; it’s about the power of stories and the various ways we can interpret the facets of our lives and weave them into the stories we tell; it’s about light and darkness and change and loss and acceptance. It was beautiful to get wrapped up in the labyrinthine writing. I felt more expansive reading this book.

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.”

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“Maybe the word forgive points in the wrong direction, since it’s something you mostly give yourself, not anyone else: you put down the ugly weight of old suffering, untie yourself from the awful, and walk away from it.”

 

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

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I already wrote a post on this one, but it’s going on the list anyway. I love how well Palmer connected the various threads of her life– her job as a living statue in Harvard Square, relying on friends and fans for help in every way, her marriage, her mentor Anthony’s sickness, trolls– under the themes of asking, trust, connection, and empathy. She seems like such a genuine, chaotic human, and I believe her when she writes about the love she feels for her fans (and people in general). This was such a heartfelt, occasionally heart-heavy book. I loved it.

“And another local journalist wrote an op-ed wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far. Wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far? To erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the possibility of understanding. To erase the possibility of empathy is also to erase the possibility of art. Theater, fiction, horror stories, love stories. This is what art does. Good or bad, it imagines the insides, the heart of the other, whether that heart is full of light or trapped in darkness.”

 

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

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A collection of really short stories (including letters to organizations, dreams, and pieces inspired by the letters of Gustave Flaubert), they were both entertaining and perfect snippets of life. I loved how succinctly something could be said and still tell such a full story (sometimes just in two lines). 

“Her Geography: Illinois

She knows she is in Chicago. But she does not yet realize that she is in Illinois.”

 

Incarnadine by Mary Szybist

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A lovely collection of poems that made me think about how I could experiment with my own poetry more. I loved Szybist’s wording, the way she transitioned so seamlessly between the spiritual and the carnal. Stunning and incandescent. I will definitely be re-reading these.

There were so many things I wanted to tell you

Or rather,

I wished to have things that I wanted to tell you.

What a thing, to be with you and have

no words for it. What a thing,

To be outcast like that.”

[from Long after the Desert and Donkey]

 

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

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Another comic drama about Bechdel’s life (as a sort of prequel to Fun Home), this one is about her relationship to her mother (as opposed to her father, which is the basis of Fun Home). I am always blown away by how layered her storytelling is– how it can bounce back and forth while maintaining a coherent story and a relevant thread of literature to tie it all together. The specificity of her life is what makes her story so relatable. She is so good.

“But I am not ultimately interested in writing fiction. I can’t make things up. Or rather, I can only make things up about things that have already happened.”

 

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

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A journal of her son Sam’s first year, it brought me back to my first foster parenting days of feeding the babies and watching with love and awe as they grew while feeling lonely and exhausted all at once. It was also terribly sad when she found out her lifelong best friend was diagnosed with cancer. But Anne Lamott writes about everything with grace and humor. 

“I naively believe that self-love is 80 percent of the solution, that it helps beyond words to take yourself through the day as you would your most beloved mental patient relative, with great humor and lots of small treats.”

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“Actually, backwards is just as rich as forward if you can appreciate the circle instead of the direction.”

 

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

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A paradigm-shifting, earth-shattering book about mass incarceration in the U.S., its racial roots, and how it has created a racial undercaste. It was somewhat dry, but it is nevertheless so essential. We need a revolution here– I have no doubt about that. Every politician (and citizen, for that matter) should read this book. We need the change Alexander is calling for desperately. (And the fact that she ends the book with a long quote  by James Baldwin only strengthens my stance.)

“The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion. A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial difference.”

 

When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

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A collection of poems that range from the author’s brother and his meth addiction to her lovers to life on a Native American reservation. They were stunning– heartbreaking and lovely and so easy to get absorbed in. The stories they told and images they conjured (like the one about why she doesn’t ask her brother about flowers) were captivating. 

“Angels don’t come to the reservation.

Bats, maybe, or owls, boxy mottled things.

Coyotes, too. They all mean the same thing—

death. And death

eats angels, I guess, because I haven’t seen an angel

fly through this valley ever.

Gabriel? Never heard of him. Know a guy named Gabe though—

he came through here one powwow and stayed, typical

Indian. Sure he had wings,

jailbird that he was. He flies around in stolen cars. Wherever he stops,

kids grow like gourds from women’s bellies.

Like I said, no Indian I’ve ever heard of has ever been or seen an angel.”

 

Mr. West by Sarah Blake

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I borrowed this from the library, but I want to keep it as my own. These poems about and for Kanye West that coincide with the author’s pregnancy are amazing– they touch on privilege and racism and Internet trolling and motherhood, and some had me in tears on the train. They make me want to root for Kanye (as the poet does), to miss his mother and long for her presence again in the world. This book is beautiful.

“Recently, Kanye compared himself to Emmett Till again.

On one website, they explain: ‘discussing the VMA incident… he compared the backlash he faced to the murder of Emmett Till, the Chicago teenager who was killed for whistling as a white woman in Money, Mississippi.’

People have been outraged, but Kanye must

feel a connection to this boy. And because of Kanye,

Emmett’s story is on the internet again and again, 65 years later.

Kanye knows what appropriation is.”

[from In Song]

 

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

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This collection of essays from Sedaris’ life was just as hilarious as the others I’ve read. (Naked belongs on this list, as well.) From sneezing a throat lozenge onto the crotch of his airplane seatmate (with whom he had gotten into a fight before she went to sleep) to quitting smoking while learning Japanese in Japan, his stories are so perfect in their self-deprecating, how-could-this-happen way. He is by far one of my favorite authors.

“Like most seasoned phonies, I roundly suspect that everyone is as disingenuous as I am.”

 

Rising Strong by Brené Brown

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I had been putting off reading this because I read an Amazon review that described it as basically the same as Daring Greatly, only in a different order and less organized. But that is so far from the truth it makes me mad. This book is wonderful– it is about the process of failing, uncovering the stories we make up, getting curious about our emotions, and then integrating what we learn into our lives. It felt so much like what I do while also unearthing some hurt and shame I’ve been carrying. I cried. I journaled. I think everyone should read this. We would all be so much better– our relationships would improve so much if we put in the effort.

“I believe that what we regret most are our failures of courage, whether it’s the courage to be kinder, to show up, to say how we feel, to set boundaries, to be good to ourselves. For that reason, regret can be the birthplace of empathy. … Regret is what taught me that living outside my values is not tenable for me. Regrets about not taking chances have made me braver. Regrets about shaming or blaming people I care about have made me more thoughtful. Sometimes the most uncomfortable learning is the most powerful.”

 

You and Yours by Naomi Shihab Nye

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A beautiful collection of poems that ranges from gardens and airports to the injustice of war. I love how Nye always brings the focus back to humanity, to pointing out what governments and media have chosen to overlook. So sad, so hopeful, so wonderful.

“Suicide bombers, those tragic people driven insane by oppression, do not come out of vacuums. … Why is this almost never considered in the news? Sometimes where everything comes from is just as critical as where everything is going.”

 

The day Aunt Juni died

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I had stayed home from work, ready for the news that was to come before I’d eat my breakfast. The weather was grey and rainy all day, as if it knew to dress for mourning; it seemed to be crying the tears that weren’t coming out of me. Immediately, pictures were being posted and family members were tagged, honoring the life Juni lived and displaying our grief so others would see it. And for some reason, I posted a picture of a Polish church instead of Juni, not mentioning her life or her death anywhere except in private texts to my siblings.

I spent time journaling about Juni that evening, remembering her personality and my connection to her, about how I’d sat in her hospital room for the week of my spring break the year she had her aneurysm, about how she used to grab my butt and talk about my figure before I even had a figure to talk about, about how she texted me to ask for pictures of all of my tattoos after I sent her a text to let her know I loved her toward the end of her life, when she was in the hospital yet again for something having to do with her stage IV cancer. She spent a lot of time in our house while we were we growing up because she was my mom’s best friend. I knew her as my aunt and knew that her presence was a source of support to my mom in a way their five brothers weren’t really. I knew that they had a special connection and that that connection involved goofy skits and loud laughter and a lot of things I didn’t know.

So the day she died, I didn’t feel it was my right to feel sad. It felt too self-indulgent, as if I was bringing the spotlight on myself when it should remain on Juni and those closest to her: her husband, her sister (my mom), her kids and grandkids, her brothers. What right did I have to grieve? I could be there for the others, but I couldn’t dismiss their pain by bringing attention to my own. It just wasn’t my place.

Yet even as I was feeling this way, I was thinking about the ridiculousness of it. Of course everyone can grieve in his/her own way. Everyone should mourn the loss of any life, not just of those they know but those they will never know, too. I know that I have the right to grieve for my own aunt, but I just didn’t feel like I did. (The irony of making it about me while claiming I don’t want to make it about me is not lost on me. I’m sad, and now I’m bringing attention to it. What a hypocrite.)

I think that it’s easy to ignore sadness and, through some bizarre alchemy, use it as fuel for anger or motivation to get things done or numbness even. I try not to do this in my life, but the day Juni died is proof that I do it nonetheless. I want to be there for those who are deep in their grief, but I’m afraid that as long as I’m afraid of my own, I will be afraid of theirs; that when I’m in the middle of such raw and open hurt, I will just want to run away.

But what I think will really happen is that their grief will touch my own in a way my isolated life hasn’t allowed yet. When I am surrounded by my kin, these people who loved Juni fiercely and who are unafraid to show it by how deeply they are grieving–just like she so openly loved and grieved– I will no longer be able to separate myself from my own sadness, and instead of running, I will be there alongside the rest of them under the heaviness of it all.

Her service is tomorrow. My brother and I are going to Southern Illinois tonight. The feelings ball will get rolling soon. But right now, I’m sitting on my bed, writing about how I’ve felt these past couple of days. I wish this post had been less about me and more about my aunt. She was really something. She liked what she liked without worrying about anyone else’s opinion; she was loud and eccentric; she loved laughing. She was a wonderful, caring woman. I am only her niece. But I know she loved me, just as everyone whom she’s ever loved knows it. And I loved her, though that is often much harder for outsiders to discern. So no matter how I may act or what I may feel I’m worthy of, I do know this: I was lucky to have an aunt like Juni. There is no one like her.

On Twinsters and dreams

The other day, I watched the documentary Twinsters on Netflix. It’s about two Korean adoptees who were separated at birth and had no idea they were twins. All their paperwork from Korea omits that fact, and even their foster parents in Korea had no idea. One was adopted by an American family with two older brothers (biological sons of the adoptive parents), and one was adopted by a childless couple in France. They found each other (unintentionally) with the help of YouTube and Facebook, and then they became like normal twins, with their own language and way of being together. It was sweet and had no agenda for or against international adoption (allowing me to keep my stance and still like the movie).

But the end got a bit heavier and hit me to the core: the twins traveled to Korea for a Korean Adoptee Conference, and during their trip they met the women who had fostered them when they were infants before they were adopted. The twin from the States had met hers the previous year, but it was the first time for the French one to meet hers. The impact it made on her was profound: she had been raised as an only child and felt that she only started existing the day she was adopted, that no one loved her or even cared whether she existed before then. Having now met her foster mom she suddenly realized that she did exist before and that people did love her and want her in the world. She was crying, and I was crying.

She said exactly what I used to say when I explained what I did as a foster parent (in my head, at least, back when I was doing it): that I was an unknown, never-to-be-remembered-yet-essential part of the babies’ lives and that no matter who loved them after me and whom they would credit with their lives, I was filling that small portion with love and care; it’s just that they would never know it. So for the girl to recognize it, it was as if she was recognizing me and what I had done for babies like her. It was what I would want them all to realize, that there was never a point in their lives when they weren’t known and loved.

Yet the very night I describe all this to my little sister and boyfriend, I have a dream about the little girl I fostered who felt most like a daughter to me, the one I tattooed in the form of an elephant onto my side. In this dream, I was her caregiver again. We played in a living room, and she had some words that she could say now. We were tentative, re-acquainting ourselves, but my love was just as strong. I adored her. I ate something and went to sleep and woke up a little while later, realizing I had someone else to take care of and that I hadn’t fed her or put her to bed. I walked down the stairs, my heart in my stomach, and I saw toys and trash strewn around, as if a two-year-old had been left to her own devices and what was left was evidence of my negligence. I heard her crying and went into the messy living room to find her lying on the floor amidst all the junk in her own pee. Her diaper was beyond full, and she was so exhausted but so uncomfortable with hunger and piss that she hadn’t been able to fall asleep. I knew then that I would never be forgiven, and I picked her up to hug her, holding her close to me. I changed her and put her down to sleep, but she couldn’t sleep in her crib, either. So I just decided to hold her in my arms and walk around until she did fall asleep. She had gone quiet by the time the sun came up.

I still can’t shake the sickening guilt.

There is an inextricable link between my feeling like what I did as a foster parent was of incalculable importance and feeling like I failed in truly living up to that. It doesn’t matter how it evens out logically. It is just something that’s there, inside, leaving me raw whenever it’s touched.

I guess this is where I could write about what it all means, what exactly I feel and the root of all this sadness. Maybe it’s just too personal for me to do that, or maybe it sits too closely to the nerve that causes such pain and leaves me so drained. What I can say is that the most meaningful experiences of my life have never been easy to describe or categorize. I know foster parenting certainly isn’t. But rarely has someone put it into such resonant terms as the adoptee in the film, and rarely have I felt so affirmed. I may have unresolved emotions, but that is only because life, as long as we are living it, will continually and frustratingly be unresolved as it unfolds. I don’t have closure, so I have dreams. I’m just grateful to realize that I will occasionally have more than that.

 

James Baldwin on race

What is there to say? I have nothing to add to the conversation (and in fact think there are already too many voices competing for attention), and I’m not sure where I’d begin even if I did. Things are sad; though, as many have pointed out, they are not new. I do believe something is happening, that there is a rising up, a wave of revolution, that has been shaking up the foundations and is getting big enough to really do something, but I don’t know how to show my support without looking like I want the spotlight. So I will use someone else’s words to do the speaking, and who better than those of James Baldwin– one of the sharpest, most perceptive thinkers and artists who have ever existed.

The situation of a very racialized America is too often diminished to statistics and to neighborhoods to stay away from. It is not humanized; it is not understanding. It is seen as a problem to be dealt with that never seems to go away.

This is why his [the Black man’s] history and his progress, his relationship to all other Americans, has been kept in the social arena. He is a social and not a personal or a human problem; to think of him is to think of statistics, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence; it is to be confronted with an endless cataloging of losses, gains, skirmishes; it is to feel virtuous, outraged, helpless, as though his continuing status among us were analogous to disease– cancers, perhaps, or tuberculosis– which must be checked, even though it cannot be cured.

It pains me to think that this next part is true. It shames me to know that in so many ways it is.

Time has made some changes in the Negro face. Nothing has succeeded in making it exactly like our own, though the general desire seems to be to make it blank it one cannot make it white. When it has become blank, the past as thoroughly washed from the blank face as it has been from ours, our guilt will be finished– at least it will have ceased to be visible, which we imagine to be much the same thing.

No matter how far we may go to escape the horrible chasm we’ve caused by placing so much on the difference between races and so little on the efforts to truly see each other, we will still be caught on the edge with no bridge to get us across.

One must travel very far, among saints with nothing to gain or outcasts with nothing to lose, to find a place where it does not matter– and perhaps a word or a gesture or simply a silence will testify that it matters even there.

What are we doing to each other? Why do we try to ignore the past? Are we really that deluded that we think our future can be any better, doing what we’ve been doing?

Negros are Americans and their destiny is the country’s destiny. They have no other experience besides their experience on this continent and it is an experience which cannot be rejected, which yet remains to be embraced.

Our dreams are not strong enough on their own. They need more than good intentions. We need to stop obliterating each other and expecting Black people to obliterate themselves for the sake of superficial harmony.

… we will set our faces against them and join hands and walk together into that dazzling future where there will be no white or black. This is the dream of all liberal men, a dream not at all dishonorable, but, nevertheless, a dream. For, let us join hands on this mountain as we may, the battle is elsewhere. It proceeds far from us in the heat and horror and pain of life itself where all men are betrayed by greed and guilt and blood lust and where no one’s hands are clean. Our good will, from which we yet expect such power to transform us, is thin, passionless, strident: its roots, examined, lead us back to our forebears, whose assumption it was that the black man, to become truly human and acceptable, must first become like us. This assumption once accepted, the Negro in America can only acquiesce in the obliteration of his own personality, the distortion and debasement of his own experience, surrendering to those forces which reduce the person to anonymity and which make themselves manifest daily all over the darkening world.

We have so much work to do.

A typical night out

My brother invites me last-minute to an art exhibit. I say yes because my only plans for my Thursday night were to read more of my book and, I don’t know, eat an egg for dinner or something. So I get home from work to change, and my brother drives us to the exhibit. On the way, he asks, ‘So do you know what this is about? Did I send you the info?’ He had not. We arrive half an hour early because we live in public-transit-time, not personal-car-time, and hang out at a nearby café to feel a little less like losers.

The art exhibit turns out to center on art pieces done by artists based on essays about freedom written by prisoners. Three of the artists share the essays they collaborated with and the inspiration for their pieces. The teacher who hosts the event and who taught the class the essays were written for shares her experiences and inspiration for the exhibit. One of the Jon Burge torture victims is in attendance. Everyone is spellbound and serious. It is both humbling and energizing.

At the end, I wait in line for the bathroom while my brother waits to speak with one of the artists from the panel– the whole reason we are here in the first place (because he saw on Twitter she was doing this tonight, and he wanted a reason to meet her). He keeps handing me his empty plastic cup and then taking it back, either because he’s confused about what we’re doing or he really just can’t get his mind to focus on anything other than meeting this person, anything like, say, finding a trash can. I finally make it into the bathroom, and as I’m opening the door to come back out, I feel a cold sensation in my pants on my thigh, close enough to my crotch that I think I somehow missed a drop when wiping. I’m embarrassed but keep walking out because I figure my pants will absorb it and also because I don’t want the long bathroom line to have negative feelings towards me for holding it up. As I walk, the cold feeling starts to spread. I think that maybe my body is revolting and peeing without my knowing it– without my even feeling it– and is somehow moving up my thigh instead of down, and by now I’m in the middle of the room with all these people milling about with this humiliating bodily insurrection going on in my pants but all I can do is keep looking down at my crotch to see where this wetness is and surreptitiously touch myself to check for it until finally, finally, my hand ventures far enough north that I tug on my jacket and feel the cold slithering up and out. Only then do I realize that I had simply tucked the bottom of my jacket into my pants when I was done in the bathroom and that the cold was just my zipper touching my skin.

I find my brother talking to the artist woman and stand looming to the side of her until he introduces us, and when he has gotten his fill of meeting-and-greeting, we walk to car and drive home. I forget about the pants incident entirely until we’re getting out of his car, and when I tell it, it doesn’t elicit the laughter I think it deserves. I had thought I was peeing cold pee, up my pants! I had thought I was losing all connection to my body! I had had an existential crisis in the middle of a crowd, and no one had noticed a thing! At least I’m laughing. I guess some things just aren’t as funny to other people.

Justification for couchsurfing from The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Over the weekend, I read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, which (as her writer-husband Neil Gaiman put it) is part memoir of her life as an artist (from street performer to singer/songwriter) and part manifesto of her belief in the power of asking and all that it entails (giving, receiving, listening, seeing, gratitude). It was addicting.

Because the book was so rich with insight and experience, to write about it all in one post feels either too overwhelming or to simplifying. It would do the book (and Amanda) a disservice. So I am focusing on a sliver of the book here, and if I decide to write more posts on other portions, I will do so.

As a touring musician, Amanda has relied heavily on the generosity of her fans for anything from food before a show to a place to stay the night after one. Her descriptions of her couchsurfing experiences and her explanations for choosing them over staying in a hotel struck a chord in me– I have relied on the generosity of complete strangers to house and even feed me during my travels, and I love how much trust can grow when given the opportunity. There is nothing like sleeping in someone else’s house to make you aware of both the differences between you and others and of all that connect you at the same time.

Couchsurfing is about more than saving on hotel costs. It’s a gift exchange between the surfer and the host that offers an intimate gaze into somebody’s home, and the feeling of being held and comforted by their personal space. It’s also a reminder that we’re floating along due to a strong bond of trust, just like when I surf the crowd at a show, safely suspended on a sea of ever-changing hands. It can feel almost holy, looking at somebody else’s broken shower nozzle, smelling the smells of a real kitchen, feeling the fray of a real blanket and hearing the crackle of an old steam radiator.

In such an unfamiliar yet homey environment, the creative mind can find sources of inspiration that aren’t available in the well-known corners of one’s own home or even in the clean bareness of a hotel. I vividly remember the feel of the various bedrooms and living rooms I’ve stared out the windows of and how easily I could picture myself in new situations and in different lives, as if the change of scenery was not just the reason for a change of mood but also for a change of being. The empathic shift of perspective that couchsurfing invites can be drawn from long after the surfer leaves and can act as a much-needed catalyst for a formerly stale imagination.

Staying in your own home can be corrosive and stifling, especially for creative work. The surroundings can smother you with the baggage of your past and the History of You. Staying in a hotel can be a blissful blank slate. There’s no baggage, just an empty space onto which you can project anything. But staying in a stranger’s home can inspire like nothing else. You get to immerse yourself in the baggage of someone else’s past, and regard someone else’s mess of unsorted books piled up in the corner of the living room.

But aside from the fertile soil for creativity and relationship building that is couchsurfing, it also comes with plenty of awkwardness and uncomfortable moments, which Amanda touches on in a passage that made me laugh out loud with how true it is:

It’s not always all rainbows and unicorn bedsheets, though. Couches come with people who own couches. Sometimes people just aren’t good at the dance, and can’t tell when the performers need to stop socializing. In those awkward situations, you smile wearily, edge politely towards your toothbrush, and make the best of it, hoping the hint will be taken. I will hug you. I will love you. I will genuinely admire your kitchen cow collection. But when it is time, please let me go the fuck to sleep.

While my memories are almost entirely positive (or awkward), people often express hesitation and even fear when I bring up my couchsurfing experiences and intention to have more. Is that safe? What if something bad happens? They could steal from you or hurt you or rape you or something! And they’re always right– something bad could happen. I could get hurt or raped or stolen from. It’s never a guarantee that I nothing bad will happen ever, but especially when I trust someone during my most vulnerable moments, like sleeping on their couch and showering in their private bathroom. Yet, just like Amanda writes in her book, trust isn’t trust without the risk, without my choosing to trust while knowing that my choice could go one of two ways: well or terribly. And Amanda’s advice for when it goes terribly is perfect:

There’s an inherent, unspoken trust that happens when you walk through the door of your host’s home. Everybody implicitly trusts everybody else not to steal anything. We leave our phones, our wallets, our laptops, our journals, and our instruments lying scattered around our various mini-couchsurfing campsites. To my knowledge, I’ve never had anything go missing. I’m often asked: How can you trust people so much? Because that’s the only way it works.

[…]

When you openly, radically trust people, they not only take care of you, they become your allies, your family. Sometimes people will prove themselves untrustworthy. When that happens, the correct response is not: Fuck! I knew I couldn’t trust anybody! The correct response is: Some people just suck. Moving right along.

It also sometimes happens that the hosts have far less than the guest, and the discrepancy can be uncomfortable, if only because it doesn’t feel fair that the one with more should be relying on the one with less. But instead of guilt, which invalidates the host’s generosity and fails to acknowledge the profound gift that it is, Amanda writes about gratitude, which serves to humble the recipient and place the gift of generosity at the forefront of consciousness in such situations.

How is this fair? I thought. These people have so little. I’m being treated like royalty by a family living in poverty. It wasn’t guilt that I felt; that would have been an insult to their generosity. It was an overwhelming gratitude, more than I knew what to do with.

Of course, you get more than just graciousness when you couchsurf.

Things you get when you couchsurf that you don’t get in a hotel: The rattling sound of pots and silverware in the morning. Bathrooms with ratty, beloved mismatched towels. Leftover birthday cake. Dark hallways humid with the smells of baking. Looking at the weird shit people keep in their medicine cabinets. Cats to pat, who are at first standoffish then decide they love you at four a.m., when you’re finally asleep. Walls of Elvis plates. The recaptured feeling of having a sleepover party. Dodgy electric blankets. A chance to try on hats. Morning coffee in a wineglass for lack of enough cups. Children of all ages and temperaments who draw pictures for you. The ability to make your own toast. Record players. Wet grass in the backyard sunrise, where the chickens are roosting. Out-of-tune pianos and other strange instruments to fondle. Candles stuck to mantelpieces. The beautiful vision of strangers in their pajamas. Weird teas from around the world. Pinball machines. Pet spiders. Latches that don’t quite work. Glow-in-the-dark things on the ceiling. Late-night and early-morning stories about love, death, hardship, and heartbreak. The collision of life. Art for the blender. The dots connecting.

It’s hard to explain what compels me to continue to couchsurf after years of doing it, but it always boils down to connection and tightening the web of trust that is often invisible to those who haven’t experienced it. Amanda Palmer captures it brilliantly in The Art of Asking, which I would recommend reading for these reasons and more, wholeheartedly.

Rainer Maria Rilke on love

This is part of a series of posts in which I am separating passages from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet into the major themes I found in his letters. I selected the fewest excerpts for this theme, but I found them to be so essential and relevant that ‘love’ deserved its own post.

In this one, he describes a general love, one that is simple and all-encompassing, no matter how much we are growing internally and expanding in thought and solitude. We need to meet people where they are, have understanding for those who don’t understand us, and feel full with love and respect for our parents and those whose love for us has been unconditional:

But the individual can make them clear for himself and live them clearly (not the individual who is dependent, but the solitary man). He can remember that all beauty in animals and plants is a silent, enduring form of love and yearning, and he can see the animal, as he sees plants, patiently and willingly uniting and multiplying and growing, not out of physical pleasure, not out of physical pain, but bowing to necessities that are greater than pleasure and pain, and more powerful than will and withstanding. If only human beings could more humbly receive this mystery which the world is filled with, even in its smallest Things, could bear it, endure it, more solemnly, feel how terribly heavy it is, instead of taking it lightly…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.

 

He goes on in a separate letter to explain the necessity of becoming who we are—through solitude and introspection—before trying to merge with someone else. The best love comes from two whole, solitary humans choosing to live their lives alongside each other, coming up with their own way of being (as there are no rules for how love should look from one couple to the next). He also throws in his ideas on the equality of women and how incorporating our feminine characteristics into our sense of self (and into relationships and in society) will expand our capacity to love each other:

It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation…. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances.

[…]

Whoever looks seriously will find that neither for death, which is difficult, nor for difficult love has any clarification, any solution, any hint of a path been perceived; and for both these tasks, which we carry wrapped up and hand, on without opening, there is no general, agreed-upon rule that can be discovered. But in the same measure in which we begin to test life as individuals, these great Things will come to meet us, the individuals, with greater intimacy. The claims that the difficult work of love makes upon our development are greater than life, and we, as beginners, are not equal to them. But if we nevertheless endure and take this love upon us as burden and apprenticeship, instead of losing ourselves in the whole easy and frivolous game behind which people have hidden from the most solemn solemnity of their being, then a small advance and a lightening will perhaps be perceptible to those who come long after us. That would be much.

[…]

…someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.

This advance (at first very much against the will of the outdistanced men) will transform the love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another, no longer one that flows from man to woman. And this more human love (which will fulfill itself with infinite consideration and gentleness, and kindness and clarity in binding and releasing) will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.

For more from Rilke, read excerpts from his Letters on the themes of solitude, sadness, and writing.

Rainer Maria Rilke on writing

In a way, the themes of writing and of solitude in Letters to a Young Poet are intertwined: advice for the latter is mostly in regard to the former, and any advice for the former includes some of the latter. But I tried extricating them the best that I could because there is something to be gained from each, so below are some excerpts of Rilke’s advice on how to become a good writer.

After asking ourselves whether we have to write or not, we should then write out of that necessity rather than for praise or for anyone else. There is always enough material in life for our art as long as we are creating it out of a compulsion to create, as long as we are digging into ourselves and our worlds and not seeking outside compensation:

There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse…. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty. Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. And if out of this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.

 

Again, he reiterates that outside opinions should not shape our art or writing and that allowing life to compost inside of us and to come out when it’s ready is the best way to stay genuine and sincere in what we do:

But let me make this request right away: Read as little as possible of literary criticism. Such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are clever word-games, in which one view wins, and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them. Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentation, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!

 

So, while we should be wary of literary criticism, doubt can be a useful tool in our writing and artistic repertoire as long as we train it. This is one of my favorite passages on training the critical eye to be helpful and productive rather than destructive:

And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers – perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.

For more Rilke, read his advice on sadness and love.