Guest Post: Edmund Sandoval, Headwaters

Back in late April of this year, I picked my mother up from the airport in Portland, OR, the town in which I lived at the time. She’d flown in from St. Louis, MO, the nearest city to my hometown, where she still lived with my stepfather. My hometown is Carbondale, IL, and it is a two-hour drive from there to the airport in STL.

Carbondale isn’t really close to anything. Within its borders is a hospital, a library, chain restaurants, a dying state university. The university mascot is the Saluki, a breed that traces its origins back to the Fertile Crescent; the regional nickname for Southern Illinois is Little Egypt; fields of soybeans sway to the horizon; there is a small town named Cairo at the bottom of the state and the locals pronounce it like this: kay-row. Carbondale is an ethnically diverse town, containing white and black and brown folk. It is mainly poor, country rural, with strains of moderate wealth strumming through it here and there, owing to the dying university, which, at one point, was quite the opposite.

My parents moved with my brother and me to Carbondale, the Dale, as it is known colloquially, in the mid-1980s. I have vague recollections of those days. Somewhere, there is a photo of the four of us perched atop the hood of the brown Honda Accord my father purchased once he started making decent bucks as a doctor of cardiopulmonary disease. My parents divorced when I was young enough to not recall my age or where I was in elementary school. I’d say right around third grade. That sounds about right.

The day in PDX was gray and cool and free of rain. It was springtime and the river by my apartment was swollen and its murky waters had swallowed a portion of the park that ran along its southern shore. My mother flew out because I was finished with Portland and was gearing up to drive across the country to Chicago. I’d already quit my job and sold my sofa and packed all my junk. My mother was gonna be my co-pilot. We’d never taken a trip of any kind in close to two decades. I thought it would be a fun experience for us both. My mother’s only condition was that we leave the set course of travel in order to witness the headwaters of the Missouri River. The route to Chicago was about twenty-two hundred miles, a distance we planned on covering in four days. Zip zip.

As it goes, we’d not done any kind of serious travel since my brother and I were kids and could not drive and my mother the only one behind the wheel of the ‘94 Chevy Cavalier (gray paint, gray upholstery) she’d inherited after the passing of her mother. The trips we took in that car was this one : back and forth from the Dale to Hawthorne, NJ, any number of times, until I was an adolescent. Hawthorne is the last town my mother called home until she moved away for college and the rest of her life.

For about the past ten years, my mother has consistently informed my brother and me that she would be damned in and in hell before she spent more years living in the Dale than the age she was when she moved there. As it turns out, 2017 marked that cutoff. Sometimes she’d wonder aloud where those thirty-three years went. Like, I came here young, son. You know.

My mother grew up in New Jersey and when she says radiator or coffee they tumble out as rad-ee-ator and caw-fee. Before she had us kids, she’d dreamt of being an airline stewardess. I write stewardess as that was what it was then when she’d had that dream. It was a dream she could not pursue as she did not meet the height requirement listed by the airlines. Over the years, my mother has been a flautist, a mental health case worker, a teacher of sorts in the Carbondale Public School system. The last job was one she held in disdain and the one that would carry her into retirement. Just as she’d languished in Carbondale, she languished in a job that gave her no sense of joy or accomplishment. It was time, finally, to get the heck out of Dodge. I don’t think it was a month after her last day of work ever that she and my stepfather put the house up for sale. I thought it was bad timing. In Illinois, at that time, and now, the powers that be were working hard to fuck it up big time. For nearly two years, the state functioned without a budget. The university creaked and cracked a bit more and stopped hiring. Nobody held their breaths. When they got the house appraised, its value had dropped by almost a third when they last checked its worth. But fuck it, they said, and put the For Sale sign out in the front yard.

I’d left for Portland in 2014. I’d been living in Madison, WI, prior to the move. I spent three years in that town. And they were hard years and seemingly without end. I was sad most of the time. I hated my job and, yet, I found salvation in it, as I was able to hunker down in my cubicle and write by day and week, and churned out stories by the gross. I drank slowly and carefully. I went for runs and stayed up late. One unfortunate evening, I renounced writing, and dumped all of my notes and other writerly ephemera into a number of the plastic Woodman’s grocery bags I employed as trash bags. Another evening found me slumped in a miserable heap by the small waterway situated between the Lakes Monona and Mendota. I held a lot against that town, including that it was in Lake Monona that Otis Redding and most of his band perished on a snowy winter night five decades ago. It was a fucked up and transformative time, in many ways.

There wasn’t much to do in my apartment by the time my mother and I pulled up under the bridge that hulked overhead. There was some sweeping that needed done. The refrigerator was ready for a scrubbing. Mainly I needed to send my books across the country via the post. To make a couple runs to the Goodwill. So we went for a late lunch and talked about my brother and other things.

I’ve never been much of an adventurer. The last long trip I took prior to driving to Portland was when I drove to visit my brother when he lived in New Mexico. He was living on a farm and the scene that I came upon when I arrived there in the wintertime afternoon eight years back was of a woman stretching a fresh hide with a solution of brain matter and other intoxicatingly strange ingredients. I would later learn that the brain in that bizarre stew was once possessed by the owner of the hide that was strung about the two posts that held it up like a suede flag. From that time forward, I made it back to New Mexico once more and then spent the next six or seven years putzing in Illinois and Wisconsin.

My mother was a traveler once. To some degree. We’ve not talked about her youth much. Her twenties and all. I do know that she traveled to Russia, at one point. The USSR, I guess. That she’d been to England and traveled on a hovercraft over some isle or another. She’d seen Europe. And Nicaragua, the country my father hails from. With my dad, they skipped from city to city, from somewhere in New Jersey to St Louis to Tallahassee and then, finally, to Carbondale. She’s been to Cairo, also, the real one, in Egypt. That trip, I’m certain, was the last real one she took in the last fifteen or so years. She went with my stepfather. Their friends were living there. One of these friends is a poet and artist. There is a print of his artwork above this computer, for instance. It is picture of doorways. In the past five years, my mother’s travels have been to two sections of the country: Oakland, CA, and West Milford, NJ. In Oakland is my brother, his wife, and their kid. My mother went out there a lot as she was having a damn good time being a grandmother and all that jazz. Especially as my bro and I had for the longest time said we’d be damned and in hell before we would join any partnership that would result in a kid. But things change. New Jersey is where my mom’s siblings reside. She went there a lot in the past five years because her kid brother, Tom, got cancer, which he would succumb to in the spring of 2016.

I enjoyed my time in Portland until I didn’t. And the time spent driving to the city. Back then, I’d forgotten of the vastness of the country. It had been years since I’d driven more than five hundred miles in any one direction. The major highways I took to Portland from Wisconsin took me through Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. There was also an excursion into Wyoming. The original plan was to check out the Devils Tower in that state. I’d long admired its weirdness. Its jutting out of the earth like a huge striated button just waiting for some humongous god or monster or something or other to come by and push it back into the soil. But there was a motorcycle hangout going on when I’d be passing through, and even the KOA camping sites were going for a hundo or more just to lay a tent down. I went into Yellowstone instead. And saw bison lumbering around like mobile sofas clad in rotty brown shag upholstery masquerading as fur.

My mother and I loaded up my car on a rainy morning in Portland. The rear of the car was packed with dishes and sheets and clothes and my stereo. Not much more. Toothpaste and toothbrush. I was excited to shove off and get going. I left a kitchen table behind. My bed. My landlords said, Heck, just leave em. We’ll find someone who could use em. My landlords were from STL originally, and were friendly, and still Midwestern, and drank like college freshmen, and often fought in the early evening, and were awake by the times the birds creeped up from their tepid slumbers. Every few weeks, I’d take my recycling out and shake my head with wonder and astonishment at the blue bin brimming with empty handle bottles of gin and vodka and thigh-sized bottles of red wine. But lots of us have been there, and are there, and will be.

I was excited because on the opposite side of the country, my partner, Jeanne, was packing up her belongings and preparing to shed the life she lived in order to start one with me. She was living in New York City, NY, the biggest city in the country. Similar to me, family would be helping her drive across the country. Her sister-in-law had flown from Santa Cruz, CA, to load and steer her across one thousand or so miles that lay between NYC and Chicago. Because you can kind of do whatever you want in NYC, they parked their rented Budget truck right on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building.

For the longest time, I’d simply assumed that my folks, all of them, would not uproot from Carbondale. They’d just been there for such a long time. It was less than an abstraction and more like a patent untruth. Because, ya know, thirty-three years isn’t a minor collection of years. It’s three decades. In that time I went from a preschooler crying and clinging to a chain link fence to a grumpy high schooler to a grumpy college kid to a grumpy adult to, improbably, to me, at least, a pretty happy thirty-something copywriter with a supportive and lovely partner.

My mother and I talked about many things as we sliced across the country. We talked about my prospects in Chicago (I didn’t have any), my partner Jeanne, the way my life imploded/exploded in Portland and how trust is a fickle thing. We talked about the house and how it refused to sell itself. We talked about my stepfather and his age and how he was getting along. We listened to Serial and it was new to us because we are both resistant to new things a lot of the time. We saw not a single bison. We saw mountains and snow and trees and rivers. We counted license plates. We stayed in dirt cheap Airbnb rentals. One of them was miles removed from any road or highway and tucked in a canyon. We did not drive fast. We drove fast. We did not drive at night. We marveled at the vastness of the country. As it happened, we took almost the exact same highways I took to get out of the Midwest in the first place. At one point, I paused to reflect on that. How momentous it seemed, to be retracing, to be going back, to be bidding adieu to all that horror and sadness. At the same time, I thought of my mother and her need to escape. Because I know what it’s like to live in a place you don’t want to, and to have the feeling that escape is beyond the scope of what is possible.

The headwaters of the Missouri River weren’t much to look at. The more so when you think of its length, some two thousand three hundred miles and change. Which is approximately the number of miles my mother and I drove. My mother was ecstatic to be there. I could see why. That something so vast, something capable of reshaping the land over which it flowed, could have so simple a beginning, and that, if you followed it, if you let yourself be carried by its waters, you’d come to an end.

The house sold last month. Some young guy bought it. I’ve never seen him. It’s the last weekend of the month of July and this afternoon I’ll drive back to the Dale and help my mom and stepdad pack up whatever things they didn’t sell or give away. My partner is coming with me and we’ll lift boxes and furniture together. They’re moving to Florida, my parents and stepdad. Far away from the Dale, and Oakland, and Chicago, and New Jersey. It’s a place, though. And there are Palm Trees. And the Gulf of Mexico.

#ArtLitPhx: Historias del taller escritura creativa en español

This Friday our former student editor-in-chief, Ofelia Montelongo will be hosting the final Spanish creative writing class and workshop at Las Palabras book store. Ofelia created the group over the summer and this is the students’ chance to read the work that they have been working on. Las Palabras libraria is located at 1738 E Mcdowell and the reading starts at 7 PM. Click here for the Facebook event and more information.

Guest Post: Anthony Varallo, Welcome the Interruption

Anthony Varallo bio photoAs far as I can remember, it started about ten years ago, right around the time we finally broke down and got Wi-Fi in the house, after years of saying we would never get Wi-Fi in the house—who needs Wi-Fi in their house?—this strange new phenomenon so subtle and so barely noticeable that, at first, it didn’t even feel like a change at all; it felt like what we had always known: the wish to be interrupted.

It occurred incrementally, the wish, starting out as little more than an occasional habit.  My first recollection of it was sitting at home one night and trying to read a book without being able to follow what I was reading.  I kept re-reading the same passage over and over again, or turning to the back cover to read the blurbs I’d already read a dozen times, or checking the author’s photo for no real reason.  I got up and fetched a glass of water.  I made myself a snack.  I read the book’s jacket copy again, trying to remind myself what I was reading.  I opened the book again and realized I had no idea what I’d been reading for several pages.

And then I did something I’d only just begun to do: I grabbed my laptop computer from my bag, placed it beside me, and started it up.  Maybe, I thought, I should check my email.  Yes, good idea.  Maybe someone had emailed me while I was reading my book, and I hadn’t even known it, and that person was now sitting somewhere, eagerly awaiting my response.  Think of how thoughtless I would be if I continued to read my book without even knowing that someone had emailed me.  What if it was something urgent?  Surely the person who had emailed me something urgent would appreciate how quickly I responded to their email.  Impressed, even, by my availability and interest in their urgent problem, even—and this part they wouldn’t know; how could they?—as I sat in my home trying to read a book I was having a hard time following.  Thanks, they would say, for responding so quickly.

So, I sat my computer beside me and checked my email, a position that allowed me to keep the book open across my lap, should I want to keep reading it.  Three new emails arrived, all junk.  I deleted them, and then returned to my book, with the sudden sense that someone was watching me, perhaps approving of what I had done.  I had paid attention to the world around me all while secluding myself from the world, too.  No more lazy, introverted, solo reading for me, like I had done for so many years; no, I would read my book and be attentive to my email at the same time, in case anyone emailed me something significant.  That’s what a thoughtful, caring person would do.  Who would try to read a book while neglecting the world around them?  A wish to be interrupted crept into my consciousness, without me quite realizing it somehow.  I’d acquired a new taste for something, even if I didn’t know what it was exactly.  Someone, somewhere, interrupt me.  Please.

Nowadays, I seek interruption whenever I can.  I keep my laptop open to email, weather, news, and baseball scores.  I open my web browser before I pour coffee into my coffeemaker, before I make myself a slice of toast with peanut butter, before I would even think of reading a book.  When was the last time I read a book first thing in the morning?  Did I used to do that?  I can barely remember now.  These days, so much of my reading is done online, that the line between “reading” and nearly all other activity has been thoroughly blurred.  Eradicated, even.  To the degree that I’m nostalgic now, writing this essay, for a time when I read without my laptop nearby, without Wi-Fi up and running, without a new email demanding my attention: a special, low rate on a hotel I stayed at once, years ago.  A coupon for savings on pharmacy products I do not need.  Another petition to sign.

I look back to that time when I could read innocently, without the need for interruption, and wonder if I’ll ever return to that kind of simplicity.  And I would wonder about it even more, and question, perhaps, what it all means, but I’d rather not think about it now, with the day just starting up, my coffee still warm.  Plus, I need to go check my email.

Guest Post: Adrianne Kalfopoulou, The Unhoused

Children's shoes lying on the floor

 

If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer

The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

 

In her 1943 essay “We Refugees” Hannah Arendt explains the predicament of the suicide that “in their own eyes” feel themselves as having failed life’s standard. Having given into despair in themselves, they die “of a kind of selfishness”; the failure of how to define, or redefine, one’s self-worth given the loss of assumed standards makes for the quandary: “If we are saved we feel humiliated, and if we are helped we feel degraded.” This quandary speaks to standards of citizenship and social belonging that in turn speak to systems of society and behavior that are radically reconfigured in the lives of displaced peoples. The refugee being a prime example of such, one that Girogio Agamben in his 2008 essay “Beyond Human Rights” argues as “perhaps the only thinkable figure for the people of our time and the only category in which one may see today… the forms and limits of a coming political community.”

I am learning of how standards are reconfigured in a year of working with Afghan families living in a school building in the center of Athens. My assumptions of dignity and belonging are changed as I am gradually invited into these lives. It begins with an invitation to have tea on the spread blankets that cover the floor of a classroom, where we leave our shoes at the blanket’s edge. Mattresses are pushed up against walls; some pillows are on the floor. I’m urged to use a pillow as I am a guest but I shake my head, saying it’s not necessary, only to realize this creates confusion and a look of disappointment, so I accept the pillow, and drink the sweetened tea. I have a bag of raisins with me. There’s a feeling of comfort and hospitality, as we drink the sweetened tea and share the raisins. We discuss the fact that some of the children are attending the Greek public school. I’m asked if I will find a dentist for a 3 year old whose top front teeth have all rotted. It will be her birthday at the end of the month. It is not the date on her paper but the one her mother gives us in April. When I’d asked her father he said he wasn’t sure what the date of her birthday was. But her mother knows, and tells me. We plan a party. I still have a string of lights with me, a cluster I’d forgotten to bring to the Christmas party we had in December. I plug them in and they start flickering, this makes Heniah, who takes a quick intake of breath, laugh. She keeps plugging and unplugging the lights as they flicker in their nest of color.

Changed circumstances will change how we see what we see. These small living spaces are made unexpectedly new. Even the city is made new. Omonia square where buses and metro stops make for intersections and gatherings, where information on squats, cell phones, fake passports, border smugglings, and plain old advice on everything from medicine to asylum petitions are hawked. It is also a world where Unés, one of the refugee children I’ve grown close to, notices things I’ve never paid attention to. He pauses in our walk along a crowded street as someone who is selling potato peelers loses his grip, and the peeler skids across the pavement, Unés picks it up, checks the blade and gives it back to the man who is surprised anyone would pick up the now broken peeler, and thanks him. We pause at a pet shop because one of the puppies catches Unés’ attention. There’s also a snake and a parrot on display. When we leave Unés points to a huge ice-cream stand with its exaggerated plastic cone. I must have seen the thing too many times to remember because it sits just outside the metro stop, but this time I see it as he does, and smile.

We speak a mix of English, Greek, and Farsi words, a jumble of emoji symbols, VIBER and WhatsApp emoticons and letters. There is salam, “hello” and bedrood, “goodbye”. Thanks to the weekly games and books and songs in English that Alicia, Judi, Eirini, Stephanie and other volunteers and donors have made generously available some of the children are now speaking in near-fluent English phrases. We have become as familiar to them as they have become to us – Rocha, Heniah, Unés, Narghes, Rakia, Azize, Maedeh – we know each other’s names, even ages. Judi is asked why she isn’t married, and if she was ever married. I’m asked if I have any children. One afternoon I show a video on my cell phone of couples dancing tango at the studio where I go. I’m asked if I do this too, Azize and her sister would like to come with me, next time I go. We go to a Luna Park where there are bumper cars and a Ferris wheel, and high-flying space-cars in which Heniah, fearless, pushes on the gears so the air-borne car will go higher. She is giddy and I am anxious. Maedeh, who is 14, comes with me to a play my daughter is in. It is Ramadan and she asks if she can skip the fast since she will be walking in the heat to the theater. Her mother is okay with this, and she dresses in white tights and her scarf and tells me you can tell the difference between Syrian and Afghan women by the way they wear their scarves. The Afghan women wear them more loosely around their heads, less tightly folded around their faces. There’s a moment in the play when the top comes off one of the actors, it’s a split-second; the actor is a statue that comes to life, her white, spray-painted breasts are bared. On our way back to the squat Maedeh will mention it, that the actor “lost her blouse” and I will nod and ask if she will tell her mother and she says she might which makes me think I may not be invited to take her daughter anywhere after this, but ask then if it surprised or bothered her. She shakes her head and says, very simply, “This is Europe.”

*

In Agamben’s essay he references Arendt’s point that one of the things the Third Reich ensured before Jews and Gypsies were sent to the extermination camps was that they had to be “fully denationalized…stripped of even that second-class citizenship to which they had been related after the Nuremberg Laws.” Agamben is making the point that the concept of the nation-state founded as it has been on assumptions of citizenship and national belonging was a way to draw the line between what lives were “doomed to death”, and which remained with human, legal, rights. He argues the point first put forward by Arendt in relation to the Jews. He notes that “What is new in our time is the growing sections of humankind are no longer representable inside the nation-state – and this novelty threatens the foundations of the later.” In other words, human rights as they have been historically tied to citizenship are now, as he explains, “Beyond Human Rights”, an insufficient insurance, or reflection, of our humanity.

I get a message from Heniah’s brother, who is 12, that her birthday party will be at 2:00, and would Judi and I like to come. Like the invitation to tea I feel it’s important to go, and want to celebrate my fearless 4 year-old’s day. I pick up a lemon pie that looks fancy and some paper plates, cups, plastic forks, party hats, and arrive after Judi. We’re invited to sit on the floor in the classroom that is now the family’s living space, the wide blankets are cleared and what was once a school desk is brought in so Heniah can sit there and blow out her candle. We’ll wait for the guests, mothers and their young children who arrive from other squats, and camps, some from as far as the Malakassa camp, where mostly Afghan families are housed; everyone arrives with a small gift, wrapped in colored paper. There are clips for Heniah’s hair, colored plastic bangles, a coloring book. There are balloons taped to the walls and the Christmas lights I’d brought are hanging from the blackboard where they have been taped. Heniah has had her hair in tiny braids so that now curls all around her face, and Rocha puts new clips into it.

Girls braiding hair

But what is most impressive is the 3-layered cake that’s been prepared for the guests. My bought lemon pie, while delicious, is nothing compared to this chocolate cake, which Heniah’s mother, Azize, has made.

There is excitement as people gather. The women shed their veils and change into clothing that would make them indistinguishable from anyone else in the city. Sleeveless dresses, skirts, loose shirts with low necklines. Azize puts on make-up and earrings. When she wears lipstick I think she looks like an Italian film star, but I’m not sure which one, maybe Monica Bellucci. There is music, and then dancing; the women pull me up from the floor where I’m sitting to join them; Raikia shows me how to move my arms in a slow, sensual wave, I start to laugh, feeling awkward at first, but then happy. The children are also dancing in a circle.

Children dance in a circle

Judi asks me, “who do you think is happier in a moment like this, a group of women in the UK or US or these women?” I say, without much thought, that I think right now this gathering is a very happy one, and that everyone in the room is enjoying themselves. When Judi asks Maedeh why there are no boys, or men, she says they are never present at the women’s parties but that they are not missed either. Judi asks if she wouldn’t want a boy to dance with if she liked him, and Maedeh gives an emphatic “No!” and tells us when the time comes, her father will find a boy for her and will ask her if she likes him, if not he’ll find another one. She says two boys waited for her sister who is 19; “one waited for nothing” because Mina didn’t want to go to him, and now there’s another in Sweden. Maedeh is matter-of-fact, “If a boy wants to wait and I like him then we can get married when we ready.”

We share stories, and our lives. When Maedeh speaks Judi and I expect that she and perhaps some of the other women would wish to have some of the choices we in our western worlds assume are the better ones, and find out that’s not the case, that things are also less patriarchal if more gender-specific, than what we assume. For example, Narghes, who is also 14, tells me it is her mother who will pick the wife, or suggest someone, for her older brother, because her father is dead. She tells me her father had taught her to read, and wanted her to learn languages. At some point in our conversations, I share a anecdote from Greek Orthodox weddings, that the liturgy uses the quote from the Bible about the wife fearing her husband at which point the wife stamps her husband’s foot in symbolic resistance. Azize and Maedeh look suprised, and ask why a wife would be told to be afraid of her husband, I say to remind them of who has the authority, they tell me both have, but each has a different kind.

There are other ironies and surprises; that we communicate across language and culture in ways that reinvent our language and culture. My VIBER messaging with Narghes was a mash-up of discourses, and went on from our first month of friendship. When she messaged me that she’d like a pair of black tights if I could find them for her, to when the family moved to the Malakassa camp, and finally got their papers under the family reunification law to go to Geneva. We shared hundreds of texts, emojis, voice messages, in our digital exchanges –

Bai Bai [Bye Bye] – Narghes writes, Okey [Okay]; You vato slip??? [you want to sleep???]; Hi you kam tomoro [you come tomorrow]; Andrstan [Understand]; vat taim you kam [what time you come]; Hi Adrianne you kam tomoro my mazr koking for you [you come tomorrow my mother cooking for you]; Ined nmbr hosin and maide [I need number hossein and maedeh]

*

The nation state, says Agamben is in demise, borders are being contested, people are being smuggled through at costs that sometimes include their lives, certainly the EU is in crisis, and the refugee influx has magnified what Agamben explains as the “unstoppable decline of the nation-state and general corrosion of traditional political-juridical categories.” But as Arendt said of the Jews in 1943, “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples – if they keep their identity.” These families, unhoused, as they are from country and citizenship are examples of this challenge; rather than feeling themselves as having failed life’s standard, they show us how the standard is life itself, as in sheer life, as in what it means to continue with the traditions and values that shelter us.

Narghes’ mother wants to give me a gift, it is a black patent leather bag someone has given her, and she thinks I might like it. She also ties up the bag of raisins I’ve brought because there are still some in the bag, but I say I want her to keep the raisins, and she says tashakor [thank you]. My proximity to these lives has made the obvious newly tenable, and newly proximate.

References:

Girgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights” Open 2008/No.15 Social Engineering http://novact.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Beyond-Human-Rights-by-Giorgio-Agamben.pdf

Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees” in Altogether Elsewhere, Writers on Exile. Ed. Marc Robinson.

https://www-leland.stanford.edu/dept/DLCL/files/pdf/hannah_arendt_we_refugees.pdf

All photos by Adrianne Kalfopoulou

 

Guest Post: Alissa McElreath, Flying Lessons

Silhouette of small plane against the clouds

Photo by Alissa McElreath

Three weeks ago I stood in a grassy field in Bunn, NC, and wondered – not for the first time since September – how it could be that I was so impossibly far away from my sixteen-year old son. Oh, I could see him: a dark cross moving slowly across a backdrop of fluffy white, but he was some 3,000 feet above me, gliding soundlessly, on his first solo flight.

Solo. Alone. Just a boy and an airplane, the way he must have dreamed it a thousand times over from the day he could first hold a toy plane in his hands and zoom it through the air. He’s worked so hard since he started soaring lessons this past fall. I’ve had ten months to get used to the sight of him in the sky. The first time he flew with an instructor I felt my stomach drop away in a sliding lurch as they took off in tandem with the prop plane. At 3,000 feet the tether was released, and there they were: gliding in graceful loops above me and there was simply nothing I could do.

Standing in that field on that important, incredible, milestone afternoon, I could have burst open with a mixture of pride, terror, and, once he was safely on the ground again (textbook-perfect landing!), an outpouring of relief, but I didn’t. Most amazing of all to me at that moment was not that he had survived this incredible achievement because of course he had done so remarkably well, but that I had. This whole journey, from that first flight to the day I watched my son fly solo, has been one long and obvious metaphor for the process of letting go. It shouldn’t have been much of a revelation to me that day in the field, but it was.

Parents, of course, are very familiar with the bittersweet piling up of milestone after milestone after milestone – familiar with the lump-in-throat choking back of emotions that follows the first steps, the first lost tooth, the first day at school, the first broken heart, the first job, the first driver’s license, the first metaphorical, or literal, spreading of the wings. Writers are also very familiar with the process of letting go – we have to be, or we won’t survive very long. As a teacher, I have to help my creative writing students understand that if they want to succeed, whatever success as a writer inside or outside of the classroom looks like to them, a big part of the journey is about letting go. They may have to steel their hearts and cut loose a beloved character, or passage, or shiny sentence (my students always love it when I pull out the “kill your darlings” quote). They might have to delete pages and chapters, and save certain ideas for some uncertain future time. When they are more confident writers they may send their work out into the big, wide, world but then they will have to let it go, for obsessing about it will drive them mad.

I tell them that sometimes moving forward as a writer can mean letting go of the dream you have for one story, or book, or poem in order to allow another to take root and grow. But I wrestle with this advice even as I give it, because letting go of a dream – even if to allow for room for another – seems fundamentally wrong. If we let go, don’t we risk losing what we need and want the most for our hard work? Yet, it makes sense that we have to let go in order to move forward – if we spend too much time mired stubbornly in any one particular version of our dream, anchored to one spot on the ground, turning around and around in circles, we risk going nowhere.

There was a time this fall when I was ready to chuck it all in – this writing business, that is. I am only now beginning to emerge from a sort of delayed onset mourning over the shelving of my latest book. After acquiring an agent, after two rounds on submission, an almost-offer, a handful of near-misses, I had to let it go, as so many other writers have had to do with their own work. I thought I had handled it all quite well– deluded self-preservation, maybe? The loss suddenly became raw this past year, in ways it hadn’t been initially. Up until very recently I was wallowing in that self-pitying phase of the process that I suspect many writers know well – the one where we hunker down miserably, and declare that we are done with pouring our hearts into stories that no one will read. The one where we want throw away the bits and pieces of writing begun and abandoned, and select and delete the files on our computers (I may or may not know anything about this, mind you) that make up the digital roadmap of a journey to nowhere. I didn’t want to set aside that book. Shelving it felt like beginning again, except several steps back from the place where it had all begun. Somehow, I had become too focused on the outcome and not on what I had learned along the way. I thought about this after asking my son what the best part of flying solo had been for him. He shrugged. Being able to do it, he told me. Using all the stuff I know. Being capable, qualified, and confident, and putting the work and courage and persistence into doing what he loved to do the best. For me, being able to write means I must move past the what could have beens and should have beens and focus on using the stuff I know in order to do what I love the best.

As it turns out, you can let go of things – and people, too – and have them return to you again. You can let go of one dream to make room for a bigger one. You can let go of years of hard work on a favorite book, but know that its spirit is housed in another one just emerging. You can even send your heart some 3,000 feet up into the air and watch it glide effortlessly into view, closer and closer – first a small, impossible shape, until there it is, come back to you again.

 

#ArtLitPhx: Lit Happy Hour, Culture as Weapon

On Thursday August 3rd, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art is hosting Nato Thompson to speak about his new book, Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life.

Cover of Culture As Weapon book

Culture As Weapon by Nato Thompson

Tickets are $7 and the event is from 5:45 to 7 P.M. Thompson works for Creative Time, a nonprofit organization that commissions large and adventurous works of art. In the book he reveals the ways art and culture are used to influence society and constrain dissent. Find out more about the book here. And you can purchase tickets to the event here.

Guest Post: Robert Detman, Letter From Japan

On Not Knowing

 

View of the roof in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

From the window of our Tokyo hotel, we overlook an economics college on whose balconies and roof deck congregate about a dozen students. A couple of them throw a football; some go off and stand alone on the roof to smoke cigarettes. I haven’t seen a lot of activity at the school today, compared to yesterday; it’s a Friday evening. As I scan the brick facade, in another set of windows I see a man practicing what appears to be agile karate moves. When I look again, the group is making their way down to the fifth level deck. Several in this group run around, in what appears to be an aggressive game of tag. Much good-natured yelling and hooting is going on.

It doesn’t matter that this is Japan. It could be in New York City and I still wouldn’t know what those kids are doing, although I’m culturally closer to understanding the activities of a group of American college students.

I’m writing this near the end of almost two weeks in Japan, and what has struck me about the country is how little I know about what I see around me. As well, how in the dark I am with the language, having picked up some while here. But as this is rudimentary, I struggle to communicate.

A few observations: How are the streets so clean they look like you could eat off them–yet how can there be no trash bins to be found anywhere? Why the high-tech toilets with a control panel that looks like it requires a Ph.D. in rocket science to operate? How come I can’t find any fruit and when I do, it’s outrageously pricey? Why are there only five brands of beer (all Japanese, all lager)? Why is everyone in such a hurry to get where they are going, at any time of the day (even the Metro signs read “Don’t Rush” in English)? In the Tsukiji fish market—a warehouse about the size of three football fields–where will all that fish go? And what is the obsession with baseball, and American jazz, the latter of which is like muzak, it’s everywhere. As are vending machines.

Photo of Robert Detman on the streets in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

For a Californian who is making his best effort to match the symbols on the map with the ones he sees on the street signs, this is Japan.

The people, I should add, are generally nice, even uncannily respectful. An old man shook my hand when I held the door open for him. Japan is a curiously orderly society. I’m reminded of what first intrigued me when I watched Chris Marker’s 1983 experimental film, Sans Soleil, which is only indirectly about Japan, but contains enough enigmas about the country to pique a writer’s curiosity.

Looking out my hotel window, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. I get that lazy voyeuristic survey, waiting and expecting, or not, to see something, all of which would barely register in my awareness but for the fact that I am curious.

So much of my writing practice is inward looking. To write is to imagine. Usually I write fiction, or I write about what I am reading. I often write on what I’m thinking about. The notes I make for myself are a few steps removed from my attempt to put them into a context where I might utilize them.

I’m much less versed in the task I set for myself in Japan, writing about what is happening around me. As I want to document my trip, I attempt to catch myself in the act of noticing. This could be too obvious, perhaps to the point of self-consciousness. But on the other hand, it is not, because I lose myself in the unfamiliar, the people, their mannerisms, the general conforming of a populace to local customs. Being 5500 miles removed from my usual day to day experience, I am immersed.

There’s not much practical use I have for these observations, unless of course I can apply them to a character, but it’s hard for me to see how I would extract from the general, into the particular. And to know a character, I need particulars. To inhabit an unfamiliar culture means that I can’t really know what motivates people, nor in what I’m going to find. I’m trying to do this without any Western bias of interpretation, yet the process of observation seems to get me no closer to understanding.

This dovetails with a notion I have about the writing process: writing is so generated by unknowable impulses that it cannot help but enfold a mystery. And because of this, the result itself, whether fiction or nonfiction, is often an illustration of the process.

Photo of bikes in the street

Photo by Robert Detman

On the other hand, so many writers seem to pay lip service to this notion of not knowing what it is they do—am I making the mistake of trying to demystify the process?  I’m only concerned if it takes away the motivation, or places undue expectation on what I will write.

The workings of writing are unconscious. If I know ahead of time what I’m going to write, why should I bother to write it? I let the mechanism work unimpeded. Writing is 99% not knowing what I’m going to write, and 1% knowing only that I’m going to write. The unknown for me—and I’d suspect, for a lot of writers—is in, what will I write?

But to return to the economics college roof deck. I still have no idea what those students are doing. I have seen, and will see, before the trip is out, many more things I have no clue about, and have no basis for understanding. And so I make notes.

I love the inherent mystery of not knowing. Maybe this is what keeps me writing. Maybe I never know, even after I try to convince myself of what I’m writing, what I’m writing about. This is a metaphor for my experience in Japan. It’s also a metaphor for my writing. I remind myself that the more I write, the closer I get.