Frank Lloyd Wright: Beginnings

In keeping with my new-found passion (to visit as many Frank Lloyd Wright [FLW] buildings as I can), I went to Oak Park a week ago to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s first home and studio. I found the experience both anticlimactic and bracing.

As an artist preoccupied with words, languages, and story telling, I often take nourishment from other forms of art–looking for particular narratives or themes, or the emotional resonance of the work, or the intellectual energy of specific choices. In my life, I have been greatly moved by painting, poetry, theater, architecture, landscapes, dance, textiles, and pottery. I’m very receptive to beauty, movement, light and joy, and also melancholy.  Thus my favorite seasons are Spring and Fall (could I call them renewal and maturity?).

I very much enjoyed my afternoon in Oak Park because it encouraged me. In museums, we typically encounter artists at the height of their powers, when they have worked out their concepts and executed their master works. Retrospectives allow some insight into the creative process over time, but the works selected remain the most polished and impressive. Seeing Mr. Wright’s early accomplishments reminded me that the person who would later author the amazing FallingWater had his own slow creative evolution: Refining ideas, tuning concepts, using an iterative approach to his work. Mr. Wright seems to have had sophisticated taste from an early age, and to have collaborated with master craftsmen who excelled in their own right. I believe that this dialogue between artists invigorated his work–it certainly invigorates mine. But I was reminded that even great geniuses have moderately sized successes in the beginning. The homes I saw were lovely and impressive, but they were first steps in a very long journey. Stamina and dedication over time are key ingredients–it’s helpful to remember these aspects for my own creative journey.  OakPStudioHere are visitors on a tour of his studio, which is next to his first home. I enjoyed visiting the studio more than the home because it was a working space, but also a marketing space, so he had made it clever–with modular stations that could be moved around–and a bit grand, with lots of natural light, high ceilings and low hanging ceiling pieces that were anchored by an interesting pulley system.

Having been so impressed by the work of his late career, it was instructive to see work from the beginning of his career and consider the through-lines, the preoccupations and themes, that withstood time.

Some themes (according to me):

  1. Light versus dark–where light is allowed and where light is limited in his spaces.
  2. Containment versus expansion (this the tour guides emphasize as compression and release)–narrow hallways leading into large rooms or outdoor spaces.
  3. Privacy versus view–setting high windows in busy neighborhoods that only show trees and sky as a view.
  4. Geometry and order–lots of repeating themes and patterns.
  5. Spaces within spaces–creating little rooms within larger rooms–like the high-backed dining room chairs he preferred, creating a center of intimacy during dinner. Or delineating sub-spaces within larger rooms, so there is a reading/library corner, and a music corner within a larger living room.
  6. The primacy of the living spaces over the bedrooms, kitchen, or bathroom spaces.
  7. Finding the right furniture for the space and the theme of the space. There are story-telling murals on the walls of his Oak Park home, which influence the rest of the furniture, colors and patterns in the rooms.
  8. A dislike for clutter. Working after an era with more elaborate decorative patterns and fabrics–FLW’s style is relatively sparse and geometrical.
  9. Fitting homes into their landscapes, creating a dialogue between man and nature–Organic Architecture is the term Mr. Wright coined, with FallingWater as the preeminent rendering of this philosophy.

Mr. Wright belonged to a Unitarian Church in Oak Park, which was a relatively new suburb to Chicago in the 1890s.  He built many homes for others in his congregation–there are about 30 FLW homes in the area, and there are about 20 on the walking tour near his studio.FLWFirstMayaYou can see the rapid evolution of his taste through his early houses. This grand home was at a time when he was experimenting with Mayan decorative themes.

FLWFirstJapanThis private home illustrates his interest in Japanese temple architecture.

FLWFirstPrairieThis private home is considered the first of his prairie-style homes–which feel to me Japanese influenced, with an added concern for the privacy of the family, protecting them from onlookers. (Strangely prescient considering the number of visitors to Oak Park circling the streets scavenging for his legacy.)

Visiting FLW’s home helped me understand why his later designs have such limited and oddly placed windows. When Mr. Wright moved to Oak Park, it was mostly plains and dirt roads, with very few houses. However, over his ten years in the neighborhood, the lots started filling up with new houses, and he soon had a next door neighbor, uncomfortably close to his dining room windows. He filled in his original windows, and installed high windows in his dining room, so he would still have light and privacy. This experience must have been formative because privacy for homeowners really influenced his architectural choices going forward even for homes with many acres of land in rural areas like the Kentuck Knob house.

I can’t wait to discover more of his mid-career designs like Taliesin in Wisconsin.

OakPInsignia

Art & Nourishment: Frank Lloyd Wright

It’s been an exquisite banquet of stress in graduate student land of late, as I wrap up the eighth and final consecutive semester of my part-time MSW program. (Starting in September 2011, I’ve had classes in Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall and now Spring. The experience, drawn out, exhausting, was chosen by me, and I am glad to reach the terminus of this particular leg and start off on new pursuits in new directions.) Enough with the whining.

And now, a refreshing serving of good news. I had a rather vivifying, soul-searing encounter with the work of Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) two weekends ago.

FallingwaterVisiting FallingWater in Mill Run, PA, did great soothing and inspiring things for my soul, my mind and my heart. When those aspects of me are basking in the comforting presence of beauty and vision, my body tends to do rather well also.

Art! Great art. It’s practical magic (for me).

The snippets of stories about FLW reveal a complicated egomaniac with impeccable taste and a pretty amazing imagination and understanding of light, space, materials, human function, the need for beauty, functional design, community, and communion with nature. Neat.

I also visited Kentuck Knob, so I had two homes, designed two decades apart by my new friend FLW, to give me a sense of his trajectory as an architect and designer. There are bones to pick with some of his choices. He was a man’s man in a man’s world. His family rooms and incorporation of outdoor spaces are awesome, but he (seriously) neglected bedrooms as spaces (his are quite small), but more gravely, his bathrooms and kitchens are really tiny–my interpretation is that he did not take that aspect of the human experience into much consideration. In FallingWater, the whole house is oriented to the outdoors, and this is clear in his design, every room has a large terrace–you are constantly being ushered out and closer to the stream and cliffs.

I had wanted for years to see FallingWater. When I first learned of its existence, it sounded like an improbable miracle. How could a building be ushered into being out of my dream? Maybe wanting to live directly over a stream in the woods is a secret ancestral dream, a common hidden human notion? In any case, the concept resonated and I was terribly excited to go there in person and measure my immense hope to the physical space.

I knew I would respond to the experience, but I did not expect to be so moved. His intent is everywhere. His taste is pretty much flawless. I love his fabrics, his furniture. The whole world should live like this.

FallingWater is right out of the future and it was designed in the 1930s.

And then there’s the very homey Kentuck Knob, which had an interesting coziness and warm darkness to it. It has an understated front and a proud prow of a living room, jutting out into the hill below.

kentuckKnobThat was two weeks ago, a bit before Spring sprang into its fullness, and now, before the tender baby green leaves peek out, we are showered in an outrageous fullness of flowers. I thank thee Cherry Blossoms–cheerful hopefulness embodied.

SpringFlowers

The Thought of India

Even though it was six months ago, I still get asked “How was India?” The question is so huge, it leaves me either rambling or wordless. The scope of the question might be, “What are your thoughts on being a woman?” Or perhaps, “Tell me about your childhood?” (Childhood I could tackle, that’s a narrative I have shared and shaped again and again throughout my life.)

I keep hoping my seven weeks in India, or the country in my head, will finally become manageable, just an epic travel experience. But the flashes of color and feeling that rise up in my mind when I hear the word India aren’t so easily packaged for external consumption.

So here’s what I’ve got, just a few more reflections that I hadn’t yet articulated, or that have crystallized further.

1. I have never left India. It has been inscribed within me. My emotional relationship with what I know of the country reminds me of my first love. There were many beautiful and many terrifying moments. I know this is all cliche, but cliche is sometimes the best way to express something universal: All that is left are my memories, and the way my senses and perspective were transmogrified. I resemble my prior self, but I am someone else.

2. Intellectual and emotional humility. There are many forms of wisdom, many of which do not issue from formal learning.

3. It’s okay not to know where I am going. I have hungered for states of certainty for a long time. India obliged me to become a bit more flexible. I may not trust the road, or the driver, but I can trust that the journey will maintain my interest, and charmingly, most outcomes will be harmless or at least manageable (and some enchanting). Near helplessness is a very uncomfortable state to inhabit for seven weeks, of course (if necessary) I had a privileged kind of relief at my disposal–my wallet.

4. The state of understanding another being is not to be taken for granted. Neither the being, nor the understanding. There are many ways of being understood and many ways of being misunderstood. These are in constant flux, even within a lasting relationship. Triangulating meanings across languages and cultures exposes the many gaps between us. It also exposes how amazing each moment of rapprochement really is.

5. Resilience, resourcefulness and desperation are all incestuous cousins. They are awe-inspiring and they distasteful. Making use of very little can be really moving. It’s also awful to witness because it proposes a reality that cannot be argued with.

6. Whatever can be done with a human body is being done. Yay. Boo.

“Yay. Boo. Yay.” would be a fitting (highly reductive) three-word answer to everything I witnessed: 7. My moral self was never at rest. I was constantly trying to assess, understand and evaluate both my experience and the experiences of those who were around me. I was trying to give it value(s). For example, as a westerner, beautiful things could be bought, but the buying and the beauty were both imbedded with multiple other meanings–colonialism, US imperialism, privileges of race and class, my astounding amount of education and its basic uselessness in this context, the smugness of my wallet and its credit card contents, plain commercial lust, my responsibilities as a tourist, my responsibilities as a human being towards others. What each of my gestures, commercial or non-commercial, said about my identity and my intentions, about the countries I come from, and how I perceived the country I was visiting. What each gesture from Indians also represented as a comment on our interaction.

I have never felt more morally sketchy. Being back in the U.S. is so much more comfortable. Here I can nurture an illusion of living more or less as a “good” person. In India, walking down the street, I stepped over bodies that might have been (but I dearly hoped weren’t) dead.  In the U.S., I have a slightly better sense of the boundaries of what I can and should or might do in any given circumstance, and what the basic order of things is supposed to look like among my countrymen… I step over fewer literal bodies.

8. There is hope. We will each have to find our own.

Re-Entry

photo(1)Everybody talks about the culture shock of going to India, but no one I spoke to did justice to the psychic shock of returning home to the United States. Everything is simultaneously familiar and alien. Right now, when a CVS invisibly opens the door as I approach it, I feel like I’m entering a magical cave of delight. I expect sprites and fairy dust. But it’s only candy, crackers and beauty products inside.

After the magic wears off, I think about the nature of a society where even the doors don’t need to be pushed open.

Which brings me to the big thing I noticed at the Zurich airport, sharing a gate with college kids coming back from a trip to Africa organized by their church: Americans have the luckiest body language on earth. The at-home-in-the-world vibe I get when I see Americans amble around–that’s the most shocking thing of all. The kind of luck and plenty that makes that body language possible is astounding. Is my walk so entitled and confident? Is this what people see when they see me? The uncomplicated joy in being, the expectation of great things–these are all conveyed to me in the simplest movements, like a young American man reaching into his pocket.

I had no idea. The only reason I have an idea now is that I have walked streets where most I walk past are scraping a bare minimum of a livelihood together. They are not starving. That is the good news.

Back in the U.S., my privilege has many aspects. Since I’ve returned, sometimes my privilege is the delight of ever-present climate control; sometimes it’s the perfect taste and texture of ketchup. Or eating bare vegetables (no curry), fresh from a city garden. Every day, it’s the marvel of flushing used toilet paper away: Such a little thing, which provides such freedom–I never have to think about my bodily waste or the huge systems of infrastructure and public health that I benefit from every time I yank on the flush handle.

Many times in my life, I’ve been taught about the invisibility of privilege to the privileged. I get it now (a little). I get how lucky my society is. I get how lucky I am. And I have a sense of what’s left to do. How much work is ahead.

Awake, Dreaming the Taj Mahal

DreamTajThe Taj is a waking dream. It is a building on the shores of a river, in a specific town, but I think it functions better as an apparition and a dream. I couldn’t really enter the Taj (technically, yes, I visited its obscure heart, but it didn’t help me make sense of the experience), I could only see and relate to the Taj from a distance, from the outside. There are so many pictures of the Taj Mahal, it was steeped in my mind long before I went in person. Up close, it no longer made sense: I lost all perspective, all sense of scale; it swallowed me in its vastness. To encompass its beauty is to keep it far away, inapproachable, in that sense it is a great flirt, you want to come closer, but can’t. The real payoff is in the longing for the Taj, glimpsing it from afar. Maybe that’s why I particularly loved seeing the Taj Mahal from the vantage point of Agra’s Red Fort—the Taj beams beautifully in the distance, changing color with the light.

SideTajI don’t want to discourage Taj visitors. Going in person to see the Taj Mahal first thing in the morning is a great way to start the day because it keeps the night’s dreams alive. Seeing the Taj Mahal shapes the day into a silent dreaming space.  I had a delectable nap after my visit. I slept contented, filled with beauty and grand plans.

The Taj Mahal Quest

I have spent six weeks in India over two visits. I have never seen the Taj Mahal. In November 2011, I came to New Delhi and spent a week. The only day I had off from the conference I was running was a Friday. The only day of the week the Taj Mahal is closed is Friday. I spent my last day in India touring Delhi and saw many marvels.

No Taj Mahal, however. I came all the way to India and I did not see its most famous site (which was only a few hours away). Many of the attendees who came to my conference did see the Taj. I tried not to be bitter. I tried to tell myself this was fine. This was okay. I didn’t have to see the Taj Mahal just because I was in India. I’m sure lots of tourists who have been to Delhi haven’t seen the Taj Mahal. Right?

In the last two years, I have not met a single person who has seen the Taj Mahal who thinks it was anything less than amazing.  (I keep asking because I’m still trying to rationalize my prior failure.) I’m happy to say that my time has come.

I’m in India. In terms of Taj touring, I’m somewhat inconveniently situated in Kolkata. The monsoon is getting underway.  This weekend I will take a taxi to the airport at the pre-dawn crack, then take a plane, then a taxi to a train, then a taxi to the Taj or my hotel, depending. I will see the Taj Mahal. I hope to see it at sunset and again at sunrise.

When I went to buy my New Delhi to Agra train ticket at the Kokata Foreign Tourist Counter, I waited 1.5 hours on a sofa chair. I made friends with an Iranian scientist and has a speed round geopolitics chat. When number 43 was called out and I finally got to speak with the train booking gentlemen, they spent 20 minutes trying to convince me that I really wanted to take a bus (they did not sell bus tickets) instead of the train. I held firm. I wanted a ticket that said Agra. I wanted a ticket that guaranteed I would get to my target town on Saturday afternoon. I had to argue and plead. They disagreed with me repeatedly. I held firm. They finally gave in. I have a one way second-class train ticket! They would not sell me a ticket back to Delhi. They insisted I should take a bus–that buses were common and easy to find; that a bus would be more convenient. This remains to be sorted out. I don’t know if I can get back to Delhi and then Kolkata on Sunday (despite my plane ticket). But I do know I will see the Taj Mahal. Or at least I’m as moderately confident about it as I am about any other aspect of my life in India. Further updates to come. Wish me luck.

Details and Weaknesses

My written french is abysmal, so when I wrote to my french grandma that Kolkata was pretty interesting, she chided me that I needed to try harder to convey the experience. The fact is that it’s very hard to explain what makes the city so captivating, so exhausting, so worthwhile, so magical, so frustrating, and so bittersweet. My time in India is complicated, layered meanings for each banal, charming and/or brutal experience. The details of the every day are impossible to recount, there’s just too much happening, too much observed, too much forgotten: There’s the way the taxi swerves to evade the brightly colored trucks, the nonchalant dogs in the middle of the road, the irrational confidence of the pedestrians putting their palms out to stop cars, the god statues and pictures and flowers in the altars found on the dashboards of the taxis and auto rickshaws, the altars on the side of the street, the small dishes made of leaves used to eat chickpea curries at roadside stalls.

Everyday I experience how internally inconsistent I am, all the tensions between wanting to be open to others and wanting to preserve myself. This is in parallel to the multiple contradictions of my external environments–are strangers being kind, are they in need, are they ignoring me or swindling me, or reaching out in friendship? Will my toes hit another brick in the uneven sidewalk in that tiny moment I am distracted? I navigate small pleasures and small displeasures through always changing, chaotic, stop and start, tempos. The pace is a rush, the pace is a crawl: the moment will stretch and I will feel old, but then soon it will be evening and I will be young again. Time cannot be tracked. Was it morning yesterday? I’m a bit dizzy with the array of surging and ebbing flows: the lifeforms, signs of their passing, signs of their decay (my own).

I’ve had frequent bouts of feeling suddenly overwhelmed by smells. The smells aren’t offensive, just strong: today it was the smell of baking cookies. Previous days, it’s been the smell of curries, beauty products, garbage, or flowers. Any of these might suddenly make me feel out of control, and just as quickly, if I remove myself, five minutes later I’m utterly fine. It’s the unpredictability that frightens me.

Equally mysterious are my range of reactions to the heat. Yesterday, I was immobile. I was wedded to my air conditioning. The thought of full sun made me fearful.  Today, in the sun, I was almost fine. I didn’t become drenched in sweat until evening came and I had been sitting still for hours. Sometimes there is nothing left of me. I am a shell crawling to the comforts of a cold shower.  Sometimes I am abundant, and resilient. It’s my repertory of weaknesses, blooming in Kolkata. The city abounds. I cannot keep up. I can only be, a little bit at a time, and then a lot, quickly. And then I sleep. Blessed sleep before the web of life absorbs me again in its colors.

India: Dream Continent. Kolkata: Dream City

Here’s one of my theories about travel: For every major city known around the world (think London, Hong Kong, New York, Cape Town, Kolkata), there is a dream version of the city which lives in our minds–a dream composed of impressions, movie clips, song lyrics, images, fleeting conversations and travel fantasies. Equally, certain (sub)continents are stamped with dreamed exoticism. For example India and the strange assortment of reactions news of my trip engendered in friends and family.

parkI do not know when I started wanting to visit India, but I remember telling a cab driver in Philadelphia that India would always be there for me–eventually my time would come. (This conversation took place 10 years ago.) But the feeling was stronger than that, I wanted to experience the India in my heart and mind. Was I really having a relationship with a country?

cowsNow that I am here, I feel close to Kolkata. I feel an affinity for the city’s abundant spirit, its in-your-face attitude, its generosity, its speed, it’s intensity. It’s a tropical New York. It is nothing like New York. I worry about my love for India. I wonder how self-serving this love is. Do I adore being “Other”? Being noticed? I think about how tourists use foreign spaces as fun-house mirrors for their egos.

greenburbsIs going to India a cliche? At least I’m not in an ashram. I am living in Kolkata, walking its sidewalks, taking its metro, eating its food, finding a tailor, navigating commercial interactions and human exchanges of all durations and intensities.

I think about the India stereotypes and how Kolkata does and does not fit my pre-arrival ideas. Yes, it’s abundantly dirty and polluted–water, streets, exhaust, the generic dusty grime that covers everything and gets in my ears. No, I haven’t been confronted by many beggars. Yes, it is an assault on the senses. No, the smells can be quite lovely. No, there are no wild monkeys. Yes, there are dogs everywhere, but mostly they nap. There are also a few cows. Yes, westerners stick out and are stared at. No, the people aren’t always friendly (but then I wouldn’t expect New Yorkers to be constantly friendly.) Is it safe? Yes, I think so. Do I feel comfortable walking alone? Sometimes, by daylight.

trashReal Kolkata is both more familiar, and less exotic than dream Kolkata, but it is also more mysterious beneath the commonplace surface. I am never sure what really happened, what was understood and what was not, after I have an exchange with a local. We meet on fields of stereotypes, each expecting the other to play a role, and then we try to become human to each other, to surprise, or control the interaction. As a privileged foreigner surrounded by real need, my “purpose” is to be ripped off, but to try to be reasonably ripped off. I don’t know enough yet to be able to bargain wisely, but I trust the knowledge will come in time.

busMy dream Kolkata has become my real Kolkata. It is more vibrant, more human, more complicated and more charming than I had hoped for.

Argonauts/The Future

It’s been an intense period of “what next?” I’m trying to figure out what would be nice to see happen in 2013 and 2014. It’s requiring spreadsheets, some dreaming, some internal negotiations, conversations with multiple parties, overcoming fears, and letting some of my hopes run free (which tends to make me antsy).

Plus, this rummaging in my hope closet has been accompanied by a thick layer of mucus– three consecutive colds in a row, despite the constant hand washing.

Most days it feels like my heart is beating a zillion beats and my mind is a layer cake of different flavored thoughts, some pink, some grey, some sweet and fluffy, some grittier.

Often I’m just grateful I haven’t lost my hat or gloves in the course of the morning commute.

The good news is that I’m one of several Argonauts, all shipmates in the MSW program, pursuing our individual journeys, but sticking with each other, side by side. Our circumstances vary, but our targets vastly overlap: To become kinder and more thoughtful in our humanity. To connect with our selected communities. The skills we’re being taught are great. And the experience is, more often than not, surprising. Richer, simpler, more demanding, more generous, more layered than anything I could have anticipated. It’s nice to know that this is a place I want to be, both intellectually and emotionally.  My new professional community is pretty delightful. So I’m spoiled, I’m stretched thin and I’m in good company. 2013 Ahoy.

A Peculiar Displacement

I love Sumerian guardian figures–curly hair, bushy beards, wings, and I’m sure what used to be colorful frocks. The world they come from is heavy with scents I will never know. I feel for and respond to them how I might if I met a living fairy. I am especially fond of the giant winged bull men that guarded major entrances. They are found in the corners of large museums, next to the Egyptian wing–and I have grown to love them most among their ancient Mediterranean basin peers.

This sense of the familiar joined to excited disquiet mirrors a taste of my time in the UK–I think I’m plugging along just fine until I’m handed a menu — there are many expressive and alien words full of promise on each list of foods. I’m still reeling with joy at the words “Eaton Mess” which is apparently a delicious meringue concoction.

I’ve tasted piccalilli (which sounds like a toy and a flowering edible vegetable to me). There was a dessert in a Bath pub I wish I’d obtained the spelling for–I can only reconstruct the sound of the word loosely as Belzebub. It had brandied prunes over some sweet cream or pudding.

I’ve had the joy of following two wonderful guides around–a Rita at St Paul’s and a John in Bath and they let me peer obliquely at ancient British mores — the mix of the proper and the improper which is reproduced with other angles and overtones in the American lands I inhabit. I love the colors and the tea and the sly whimsy and humor of these folks in their gray misty lands.

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A friend of mine aptly pointed out today that what we deem exotic can be found anywhere–true enough. Oh the lovely unknown.

Dream Cities

I have been to London. But I have spent far more time in the London of my mind, which has been richly fed by many-faced narratives. That London was nourished by children’s tales where bears roam train stations, children fly out the window, and there are suburbs named Narnia and the Shire. I am simultaneously full of London at War–Churchill’s London, the unseen London of Downton Abbey, Virginia Woolf’s London. Not to mention Dr Who’s many Londons and Sherlock’s London, both old and new. There is of course, James Bond’s London, fierce and sexy.

London is one of my many dreamed cities (Hong Kong, New Delhi, Rio, Oslo are others), places that feel familiar through sheer force of cumulative narrative, photographic and cinematic record, a place known to all and a place unknown, full of potential.

So additively: London is charmed, London is posh, it reeks of danger and is stuffed with royalty. Also, it smells like tea. Or chimney sweeps. It tastes like curry, and fish and chips, but also of scones, berries or marmalade, and clotted cream. (There’s no lovelier word than marmalade–it’s a sweet grandmotherly jam with good intentions.) It sounds like double-decker buses screeching around tight turns and the pigeons of Picadilly circus. It has mist-fogged parks, and large black taxis, where I can sit backwards if I please.  This is a city of conquerors and immigrants. Many flavored, many tongued. It’s chic, it comes from the future, it has all the elements I most love in large cities: embracing both transience and permanence, beholden to a deep sense of place, a dark history, romance, statuary and old stones, layers of tragedy, funny words and funny habits, an excellent transportation system, a river, and good eats, and of course, the pursuit of the arts. Can’t wait! Ta ta for now.

Gifts

I have some singular gifts, for example, my ability to do very little, for several consecutive days, during vacations. I really luxuriate in stillness. I seem to have two main modes–running around and inert. Being unchained from my to-do list gives rise to the inner dreamer. The contrast is interesting, I feel most philosophical at the peak of the gift giving season.

Here’s my vacation self, which I adore, but am a little embarrassed by: This Sylvie-shaped sloth excels at napping, sleeping, drowsing off, half dreaming, being warm, having something sweet on the tongue, taking salty breaks from the sweetness, eating rich meats, and eating seafood. Not to mention the holiday beverages. My winter holiday self indulges in a rich (and languorous) sensory buffet.

My drowsy late December self also ponders the meaning of gifts–those I developed, those I found, those that were innate, and those that appeared by luck.  Tis the season for giving and receiving, but also a time for assessing the “wealth” in my life. My most treasured assets are my human relationships, be it the solace and humor of friends, or random conversations with strangers, or encounters with wisdom through books.

I am gifted with the love in my life. Then there are all the fun trappings of the holidays, cherries on the sundae of solstice indulgence: melted cheeses, hot meats, old music, new music, blues and jazz, wrapped packages in bright paper and ribbon. I like to wear glitter on my eyes, add light to the darkness and warmth. I make it a practice to be thankful for love and kindness each day, but it’s also fun to be thankful for ephemeral material surprises. Gathered with family and friends, I see all that we hold, all that we share, all that we own, all that we gift.  It’s a joyful time.

Happy Potato Chip

Two weeks ago, I was waiting for the trolley on the way to work when I saw a man walking on the tracks, holding a soiled roll of toilet paper. He had clearly thoughtfully placed a crap in the full privacy of the tracks. He was coming back, muttering to himself, and as soon as I saw him, my heart jumped. Heart in throat, I surveyed my fellow travelers on the platform switching for the trolley. No one seemed to mind the man walking on the tracks. I looked down the tracks to see if a trolley was coming and if he was in danger–so far, no incoming trolley. I was about a minute in to my time on the platform–I contemplated my options as the man continued walking down the tracks — he was still muttering to himself and the lights of the coming trolley were in the distance, now a few minutes away. I reviewed internally what I knew about crowd behavior, and the behavior of the man. I contemplated what I could do. He approached the edge of the tracks, stepped onto the platform, lost his balance, windmilled his arms, and then got himself back onto the platform. He came towards me, still walking close to the edge of the platform. I was rifling through my mind–how could I approach him kindly and invite him to safety? He was likely psychotic, and perhaps paranoid, muttering to himself constantly. I tried to approach him with kindness–in the most non threatening way I could–and I waved him toward me as he explained as he walked along the edge of the platform as the 34 trolley approached that he was not something (I can’t recall), he was a “happy potato chip”– and he took a step forward, and the trolley pulled into the station, and we both got on, and we were both safe, and I did not know what the day would hold, but my part was done.

Open Spaces

I have four delicious days with no urgent deadlines or projects. I’d get this kind of satisfaction from traveling to Tahiti, receiving two daily massages for a week, or… being able to metabolize meals made of nothing but red wine, bacon and dark chocolate with no impact on my weight.

I honestly don’t know what to do with myself (well, besides the floors, I should be mopping the floors). I’m experiencing a rare breed of mental restlessness: somewhere between itch and cottony feeling.  I’m a bit dizzy with the temporary freedom. My dizziness will blog.

I’m valuing several kinds of space this week. Mental space for one.

The road is another. I love motion. I always feel full of potential when I’m covering vast distances. As we prepare to travel to this year’s thanksgiving destination, there will be asphalt space, wheels turning, speed, and the fast of the road will be overwritten by the fullness of a home.

There is also the space of identity, of personal reinvention. I’m enjoying my training in social work, though it certainly is daunting, the array of listening and speaking skills: the mastery of thoughtful, kind inward gaze and outward being. If I consider the array of choices I’ve made, few feel as momentous or as close to my heart’s desire as working toward this professional degree.

I can honestly say I want few things out of life. (I mean, I want vast experiences, and physical comfort, always.) My goals, however, are few: I want to adorn my life with friends; I want to commit to my partner; I want to write; and I want to become a therapist.

Everything else that is dear to me is pleasure and luxury. The right to determine what to do with my time, I’ll admit, is the ultimate luxury.

 

Humbled by my Humanity

Now that my time is parsed, sectioned, subdivided, and carefully annotated to account for every one of my multiple (and seemingly endless) obligations–I have to confront the obvious, which I love to pretend doesn’t apply to me: I’m human.

If I can reconcile myself with what might seem like an obvious proposition, then, what does being human require of me? What are my human obligations, rights and responsibilities?

And importantly, why do I shy away from being human?

Also, if I think I’m not human. What Do I think I am?

1) Requirements (inherited in silence, sometimes found in science or faith): Humor, Love, Passion, a dose of patience, a notion of hope, a heaping ladle of curiosity, a kind center, a practical turn, a Glass (neither full nor empty- realism tempered with thoughtful optimism).

2) Rights/Responsibilities: ecstatic moments; a longing for intimacy-sometimes beautifully fulfilled by forest, friends or lovers; the quiet solitude of pain; the quiet peace of reflection; knowing moments of perfect sun or rain. Long dimness in fogs-bodily, intellectual, heart generated, or atmospheric.

3) The shying away–I shy away because the weight and wonder are troubling to encompass.

4) What do I think I am? I do not know, but I enjoy it.

Human–a term I sometimes equate with great failure, and yet a term that trembles with generous potential.

I don’t feel sufficient for my humanity.

And yet.

As another human helped me see: So it goes.

Final question: is this a poem?

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The Shores Of Philadelphia

I’m leaving West Philadelphia for Northern Liberties. I’ve lived on the western shore of this city for almost twelve years – its the longest time span I’ve ever spent in a single neighborhood.

I used to fantasize about which Philadelphia neighborhood I would leave for, and then the idea of leaving became totally absurd.

I love the crunchy artistic punk environmentalist, bicyclist, young kid established family grad student african immigrant vibe of the place. There were at least seven distinct ethic or specialty eateries within two blocks of my home–during Baltimore Dollar Days, the crowds wantonly bypassed the Subway offerings for locally sourced ice cream or samosas. We did not dance in the streets when the Phillies won the World Series, but we did when Obama became President.

I love the architecture, the gardens and trees, the devoted neighbors who organize block parties–it’s part transient, part lifers. It grows and organizes itself in a dance. The firehouse at 50th and Baltimore that used to be a market now holds Dock Street Brewery–Philly Car Share offices became sliding-scale Community Acupuncture. There’s plenty of DYI and community art events.

I’m leaving for Philadelphia’s eastern shore – five miles and a river away.
It’s a new life, with other communities full of artists and urban innovators. I’m leaving for love, which is the only pull strong enough to take me away from the place where I finally started taking my writing work more seriously.

It’s a joyful new beginning and a weird time for me. The seven years I spent on Cedar Avenue are the longest consecutive stretch of time I’ve spent under the same roof in my entire life.

I’m already familiar with the outlines of my new home, but I will have to dig deeper to find my communities and spaces, the places where I stop by and waste time browsing or conversing. I will have to learn who I am becoming against this new urban mirror.

Sorting the Physical Self

Tonight I finally opened one of my two mystery “old file” boxes I’ve been lugging around from apartment to apartment since the mid 90s. Boy, I was organized back in the 90s. I found traces of my old New York life, one of my many partially discarded and partially digested selves. I uncovered my original birth certificate in a plastic sleeve surrendered to me by my mother many moons ago. It’s got that great 1970s type and is printed on a green piece of paper.

I always joke that I own nothing other than my own body.

Several boxes of books say different. Also, I had no idea I had so many knickknacks until I started the classifying process. Belongings: books, clothes, bathroom, kitchen, entertainment, appliances, files. a few odd bits of furniture. And a surprising number of borderline useability objects–they’re totally well intentioned, but kinda cluttery and worthless. I’m also surprised at how well sorted my random piles of papers are.  A light notion of a sketch of sense emerges gradually as I handle them again. I can tell I was really trying hard during prior organizational drives. Tonight’s drive will be more authoritative, I congratulate myself assertively.

Sorting is part delight, one third confusion, a smidgen of embarrassment and of course, there’s the back pain. I have to be really strategic in how I utilize my compromised muscular resources.

There’s also the dawning reality: my belongings are a sharp mirror: time, money, friends come and gone. Old address books. Former employers and former health plan details.  I’m finding long letters sent by college friends. All sorts of unsorted pictures. I’m trying to classify the modes, moods and feelings of my existence so they can be boxed up. It’s weird boxing your being up. You want to act all detached. These are things. I don’t believe in things.

I am sinking in things. At the same time, I’m emerging clearer as my self, oddly. I can’t fully explain the paradox, but rediscovering my long journey as I clear out from my longest lived home ever, ultimately fills me with pride in who I’m becoming (not that I’m puffed up about it, I’m just cozy glad).

 

Champagne/Lava

I haven’t written in months. My head is starting to feel like the cork in a champagne bottle. The pressure of unexpressed things is building steadily. First it manifests as a nagging need unmet–the perennial itch I can’t scratch, or at least won’t scratch yet. Then it becomes an annoying flood of ideas. Half-baked images, random notions, elusive dust of stories sometimes floating sometimes ramming into my mind; then the dust becomes a snowball, and gathers momentum: story potentials nag me, they poke at my consciousness, they try to get my attention. I tend to wait for this pressure to become near unbearable. If there is other stuff in my life, like an impending move, distracting me from my writing, the pressure becomes volcanic, painful to my psyche, and then in a moment of torment, I finally surrender.

Today, I am writing something new again. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.

Life or Writing

It’s been a full week since I beat down my first year of grad school into submission. I remember last Thursday like a distant dream: the other me and her journey, now complete. It feels like a million years ago. It feels like another reality. My priorities have quickly been rewritten. I’m now in the full throes of planning a household integration project with Lovely Boyfriend. The endless question presents itself: to live or to write? I can’t do both. If i don’t live i have nothing to write about. If i don’t write, life loses a full dimension of flavor. It’s the serpent eating its tail. Oh serpent: You’re everywhere.

In better news, I just got published in Forge Journal. That eases the discomfort of the perpetual existential crisis about my artistic identity.

Undiscouraged

Now that I’m more diligent about sending pieces out, I’m getting volumes of rejections–several a week in fact. Most don’t say much, but a few say things like, “We enjoyed reading and discussing your work; in fact, it made it to the final tier of the editorial process. Although we are going to have to pass this time around, please don’t let that discourage you.”

Relative to the typical rejection letter, this note is great. But what’s missing is the information I need as a writer. What did my story do or fail to do? How can I make it better? (Okay, I’ll concede that making my work better is my job, but still, I thought I had it worked out or I wouldn’t have sent it–obviously, outside help is needed!)

In fact, I’m getting so many rejections that my tape-rejections-to-the-wall project had to be discontinued because the sheer weight of the paper was making the pile crumble down the wall onto my printer.

I’m full of hope though. I still haven’t heard from 40% of the places I sent the piece–this means my story still has a shot. I’m also learning, again and again, that the editorial review process needs must occur at geological speeds. I’m hearing in late June about stories I sent out in early January.  Imagine how many life changes I could make in six to ten months! I could have mastered a new hobby, like knitting, by the time the last rejection for my January submission gets to me.

I remain, yours, undiscouraged. (Furthermore, nine days from now my summer classes will have ended and I will finally take up writing again.)