Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Christmas Deconstructed

We've talked a lot about deconstruction this past year. Deconstructing what it means to be a man, a woman, a person in society, and so many concepts and traditions that have gone unquestioned or unexamined for so long. It's a necessary but hard and often painful process, and just one of many reasons why 2017 has been such a stressful year. Every day, there's something new to be worried or outraged about, or some new problem or issue that demands attention, and it's harder than ever just to make a living. Sometimes I think the motto for this year should be: 2017, Where Nothing is Certain and You're Always Angry.

Anyway, I've spent so much of the past few weeks just trying to untangle all the knots in my brain so I can finally relax, like how my mom used to spend hours combing the snarls out of my hair when I was a kid. Those knots came from lying in the pine straw building tiny stick houses for my plastic Pokemon, but these mental knots come from just being an adult in the United States during one of the strangest years on record, combined with natural tendencies toward anxiety. As a result, I've had a hard time feeling Christmas-y this December, but I've also learned more than ever about what actually brings me joy this time of year, versus what I'm "supposed" to enjoy. In many ways, this Christmas was similar to the one I experienced four years ago.

I'd sit down to watch Elf and soon my mind would wander off to whatever new thing was bothering me that day, instead of focusing on how freaking cute that little puffin in the opening credits is (I have a thing about puffins). I'd sniff a fir tree or drink some wassail and feel warmer inside for a moment, but no less unmotivated. However, holiday cheer still managed to make itself known in some less traditional, more unexpected ways this year. I felt more Christmas-y laughing over a beer at my favorite Ethiopian restaurant, or eating grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup in a church fellowship hall, than I did decorating my apartment. I couldn't afford much in the way of presents this year, so I didn't feel that jolly walking around the mall, but I did feel the spirit walking down the streets of Carrboro one evening singing carols with friends, despite it being 65 degrees, and seeing people come out on their porches to join in the face-to-face giving and receiving of joy without spending a dollar. Like warm weather, spending an afternoon rolling stuffed grape leaves is probably something most people in the U.S. don't associate with the holiday season either, but it wasn't until I dropped everything else for a moment to prepare this meal for people I loved that I finally felt some peace on Earth for a change (though it helped watching snow fall softly outside as I rolled). It was also snowing the day all but one of the people in my weekly song circle couldn't make it to our coffeeshop, but as my one friend and I quietly played Silent Night, with only a piano, our voices, and a 40-year-old guitar, the spirit of Christmas felt more alive in that moment than it had all December.

In this deconstruction of what the holiday season means to me, I learned that what I ultimately enjoy most about it, even when life tries its hardest to get in the way, is that it can be a chance to reclaim the intimacy slipping away from daily life, intimacy with our actions and with the people around us that brings us closer to God, to our communities, and to our humanity, the intimacy of a divine being sharing in mortal suffering. Keeping this sense of full presence in the world and with other people is one of many goals I have for 2018. As hard as it is to live in a time when so many definitions, including that of common decency, are changing or challenged, it's also exciting. We're being forced to take a good, hard look at society's flaws, but we're also figuring out how to fix them, and showing tremendous creativity in the process. 2017 was, in my opinion, a year of great art, especially cinema. May 2018 bring even greater awakenings and creations.         

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Two Wolves

At some point, you've probably heard the story of the Native American telling his grandson about the two wolves fighting inside each of us, one good and one evil, and how the wolf who wins will be the one you feed. There's a version of this fight going on in my life right now, and likely other lives as well, but it goes like this: one wolf is chasing me, trying to kill and eat me. The other wolf is me, and I'm running in circles, eating my own tail.

It takes a lot to fight the battles of the world and the battles in yourself at the same time. How do you fight injustice, oppression, and violence when you can barely squeeze out the energy to brush your teeth and go to work in the morning? At first I thought I might have clinical depression (I recently decided to give up caffeinated coffee when, after drinking an espresso milkshake, I heard a Cat Stevens song and cried for no reason), but now I'm unconvinced, because I'm not constantly unhappy or apathetic. It's just that I'm only happy when I'm allowed to be human. I was happy the other morning, eating yogurt as slowly as I wanted in the warm, sweet wind, and sitting in the soft grass at Duke Gardens, watching ducks paddle through the water and listening to people speak different languages--not understanding, but enjoying the sounds, the cadence. I was happy spending as long as I wanted tinkering with a poem by the ocean, and playing music with my friends after a good meal. And I was happy standing at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, sweaty and sun-browned after a weekend spent hauling my camera gear through gold mine tunnels and up log-cabined hills. Nothing beats feeling sunlight on your skin again after an antibiotic treatment leaves you so allergic to the sun that you can't walk outside for five minutes without a scarf around your ears. Nothing beats letting a sea of mountaintops swallow your problems for a moment, either.

The big problem right now is that carving out the time and space for being human requires saddling and reining in all the forces in my life, body, and mind that try to suffocate that time and space, and shifting destructive behavior patterns as old as my bones, all of which feels like training wild hogs to wait tables in a fine restaurant. It also requires being more faithful in my spiritual practice, which these forces also suffocate. But at this point, I can't even stick to a simple exercise routine because it involves getting up earlier than I'd like to, no matter how great it might feel in the long run. I've drunk the cultural kool-aid of instant gratification, and now I'm getting tired and nauseous trying to purge it from my system.

To me, "being human" doesn't just mean more leisure time--it means doing the things you exist to do, in the way you were meant to do them, and in a way that leaves the world better than you found it, not just the things that keep a roof over your head (if these are one and the same for you, congratulations!). It also means re-establishing yourself as more of a creator and less a consumer--cooking at least some of my own food rather than just buying frozen dinners all the time helps with this. Lastly, it means taking time to relieve the stress on our bodies caused by a society that's rapidly out-evolving them. No amount of company wellness days can change the fact that humans are not built to sit or stand by themselves in one place without sunlight for eight hours a day.

While I'm spinning in my circle figuring all of this out, the wolf outside stalks closer. The news is a game of "who hates whom today?" or "which volatile regime are we threatening today?" or "who thinks I'm not a person today?" or "whose skin color or religious garb was a death sentence today?" or "who tried to make a point with a bomb today?" or "who got shot or stabbed for doing the right thing today?" On one side, I'm being hit with the reality of just how much mental and physical energy it takes to practice what I preached two blog posts ago, and on the the other, the reality of living in revolutionary times. It's not quite as romantic as eighteenth century paintings, Les Miserables, or Rage Against the Machine might have you believe. I haven't lived through a literal revolution yet, but this dark weight in the air, and the tension of global affairs dripping into our daily lives, is enough to make me afraid of one.

Though I'm nowhere near breaking this circle yet, art and spirituality will probably be the two things that help me the most in doing so, especially in those moments when they blend together. I live for those moments. I never thought a church sermon and an episode of Welcome to Night Vale would perfectly compliment each other, but they did on this year's Easter weekend. The latter was a live performance of the podcast I saw in Durham on Good Friday, in which the incomparable Cecil Baldwin energized the audience at one point by stating that being "good" was an action, not just a passive state of being, an idea I've expressed before but often fail to live up to. Later, on Easter Sunday, the pastor of my church proclaimed that we live not in the old world, but in a new, post-Easter world, where love has won and will continue to win, no matter how long the struggle (I'm paraphrasing, of course, but this seemed to me the essence of what she said).

She gave a similarly thought-provoking sermon around Pentecost Sunday, examining the thoughts and emotions Jesus' disciples might have had after seeing their leader and hero ascend to Heaven and leave them to figure out where to go from there. It made me realize that, in a sense, people in my generation (millenials--you know, the people killing Applebee's in the holy name of avocado toast, or something) are having our own post-ascension moment right now, whether we're religious or not. Many of the heroes we grew up with, especially influential artists, are dying off, and we're gradually inheriting more and more of the world and becoming the captains of its cultures and progress. We're coming to grips with the responsibility of being our own heroes at a hostile, polarized point in history.

I don't know when I'll reach that moment where it feels like I'm actually going somewhere and making an impact instead of just spinning around while life keeps moving, but the best I can do right now is remind myself that we live in a world, however oppressive or violent, that like love, this too is possible.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Guts of Mercy

I once read an Advent meditation from a Duke Divinity School professor on the Benedictus, the prophesy of Zechariah in the Bible's gospel of Luke. The professor explains that, rather than God's "tender mercy," a more literal translation of the text reads "the guts of mercy of our God." The memory of that phrase struck me hard this week. Lately our most primal emotions, our gut feelings, have been dug up, and now we're seeing the consequences poke their heads like earthworms through the surface, especially in America. Not all of these consequences are bad, though. You need worms to make rich soil. Also, they're fun to catch because they're slimy and wiggly, but that's beside the point. For me, the past few weeks' biggest lesson was that the most powerful acts of compassion are the most tangible, the ones that expose the guts of mercy: the courage, the labor, and the physical presence it often takes to be truly merciful.

One Saturday afternoon, on the heels of Donald Trump's executive order restricting entry into the U.S. from certain predominantly Muslim countries, I attended a gathering at my church that brought together Christians and Muslims from surrounding mosques. It was intended as a gesture of friendship and tolerance, but also a chance to discuss the differences and common ground between our two faiths. I left a plate of yogurt-covered dates on the food table (it was the best I could do--turns out I can't even make brownies without screwing up), and joined one of several small groups seated in circles around the room. There were no hashtags, no memes, no Internet trolls. Just people, eating and talking. We weren't looking at the balls of light and words and pixels that bounce off the screens of our various devices every day. We weren't typing fiery comments with trigger-happy fingers. We were looking into people's eyes and faces, and speaking with our voices. We had nothing to hide behind that would allow us to pretend that any of us weren't real people.

The most striking thing that came up in my group's discussion was the fact that many people who become radicalized and commit acts of terror or other crimes do so because they've been deprived of their most basic needs: food, shelter, companionship, a sense of belonging, etc. We especially focused on the subject of food and sharing meals, and how much power it has to bring people together for such a simple act. The conclusion was that perhaps the first step toward caring for others and encouraging peace is helping to meet those essential needs for health and survival. In other words, fight the violent instincts poisoning human politics and rhetoric by going for the guts--fulfilling the hunger, thirst, and lack of warmth that society ignores, closing the distance between people with the intimacy of face-to-face encounters. Mass communication is a powerful and necessary tool, but I believe it's only the beginning of resistance, and I doubt it will ever replace the reality of breaking bread together, or personally presenting a gift.

That morning, I had another experience that emphasized my first point. As an assignment for my job, I got video footage of the annual African American Cultural Celebration at the North Carolina Museum of History. It's a really impressive event overall, but my favorite part was definitely the opening procession, which paid tribute to the Jonkonnu celebrations practiced by enslaved African Americans in North Carolina. It didn't celebrate "diversity" as an abstract concept preached in company training videos or slapped on a motivational poster. It was the beauty of diversity made manifest to the senses, in colors, singing, shouting, drumbeats. You couldn't look away from the joy, the power, and the pride being expressed. I had a somewhat similar experience that evening when I attended a friend's Chinese New Year party. I could write a whole post just about the food--the steaming hot pot full of greens and fish and beef, the mountains of dumplings we attempted to fold and pleat into neat little pockets. There were guests there from around the world, and by the end of the night, we were so full and satisfied that we couldn't have fought about anything even if we'd wanted to. The conversations that happened over the food brought their own kind of satisfaction. There are other recent experiences I could mention that would further the point, but they're highly personal and not quite ready to be shared here. Maybe someday.

Physical experiences outside our cultural bubbles and daily routines, face-to-face meetings, and the will to immerse ourselves in them--these are the guts of understanding, and the wind that pushes our sails further toward progress.  


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Declaring Independence

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."--Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

"I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me."--Frank Costello, The Departed

I'd originally planned a post for New Year's Day last year, but got caught up in holiday festivities, and later the inevitable winter ennui oozing from failed resolutions. This never surprises me, since January is a terrible time for realizing hopes and dreams (and February is even worse). Also, 2016 turned out to be a tumultuous year, which goes without saying. In fact, 2015 was really one of the best years of my life, looking back on it. I suggest we take some advice from the trees and start the new year on the vernal equinox, reserving winter for its intended purposes of hibernation and excessive indulgence. Winter is not for huffing and puffing on the treadmill at Planet Fitness--it's a second glass of port, a third log on the fire, and a fortieth episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. It's the season for perfecting your impersonation of a pupa beneath blankets, while the trees wait silent and patient for March. If we listened to trees more, I think the world would be a far better place. It's ironic that this post starts out with a call to laziness and ends with a call to action, but humans are nothing if not contradictory. Anyway, this post has spent a long time gestating, so I'd better get on with it.

Now, let the wild ramble start!

Sometimes I have to be reminded that I'm a person, not a machine who gets in a car every day to go sit and churn out products while consuming other products. We're far messier and less efficient than that, with strange needs like space, sleep, and love. Still, it seems like the things a person produces are often much more valued than the health and well-being of the person themselves--for instance, think of how often people deprive themselves of sufficient rest or exercise to study for a test or finish a project for work. Anyway, these reminders of my "inefficient" humanity tend to come as random headaches and muscle pains, insomnia, and a general boredom with the world so strong that I step outside and sincerely wish that gravity no longer existed. During these restless periods, I also tend to have the attention span of a pinball machine, which leads to less writing, which leads to more difficulty in coming up with clever metaphors to describe my foul temper that arises from said lack of writing. Early this summer, all of these symptoms reared their ugly heads at once after I'd spent several weeks neglecting my gym membership and mostly sitting at a desk in front of a computer, thanks to an unexpectedly tight project deadline.

Thankfully, I was offered a small moment to reclaim my personhood in the form of a two-day trip to Lake Norman in June. I spent it letting my skin drink in all the sunlight it desired, eating home-cooked food, communing with friends, napping with a Bedlington Terrier in my lap, and swimming in the cool water. It's interesting to swim in a place where instead of flat concrete, your feet feel the squishy, pokey detritus of living things. At night I sat on the dock, watching the languid recession of daylight and admiring the strange silence of the lake. Even at my childhood home in the woods, I was used to the subtle yet constant whoosh of traffic from Highway 15-501, but here, the stillness of both water and air was rarely broken. I'd hear only an occasional lap of water against a wood post, the creak of a beam, or my friend's voice as we discussed far-off dreams. Over those two days, I slept better than I had in weeks, and I came home with a new resolution: the needs of my body and spirit will be held sacred above any job, project, assignment, or other worldly pursuit. If I can't accommodate something in my life without sacrificing some aspect of physical, mental, or spiritual health, that thing will be let go.

This resolution is just one example in a long series of what I call "personal declarations of independence." Others include the declaration that I don't have to listen to any person who tells me what to do with my body, that I'll never be silenced for being young or female, that I can view my tendency to listen more than talk as a strength rather than a weakness, that I don't have to tolerate anyone's disrespect, etc. As dust falls on our heads from the world's shaking foundations, these assertions of our own power to grab the wheel of the future and steer (both on personal and societal levels), and to reclaim wildly evaporating freedoms and prizes of progress, become more important than ever. Just the past year alone has reminded us that the recognition of inalienable human rights never simply happens when enough people have good thoughts or intentions. It must be constantly fought for and defended.

There's no doubt that the world is at war right now. People are getting murdered in the streets for being the "wrong" color, the "wrong" orientation, the "wrong" religion, in the "wrong" occupation, for existing. Beautiful, ancient cities are being blown to bits. Political campaigns and discussions have reduced themselves to glorified dodgeball games with less maturity than a middle school gym class. And as all this has unfolded, pundits on the right have been busy distracting us with fear-mongering about bathrooms, pundits on the left with complaints about "beach privilege." To be fair, it's much easier to make a mountain out of a molehill than to actually summit a mountain, which requires courage that whining about how you were "sweat-shamed" for the pit stains on your shirt does not.  

Yes, we are at war, but it's not a war between liberals and conservatives, Christians and Muslims, black people and white people, etc. It's a struggle between people who want to live their lives in peace while letting others do the same, and people who won't be satisfied until the world is so bent and broken that it finally fits their narrow ideals of perfection (to be honest, I doubt even that would satisfy them). Some groups won't stop until even history is twisted toward their will--we've had ISIS destroying ancient artifacts in the Middle East, and we've had American school officials wanting to revise history textbooks to suit their opinions. The allies in this struggle are the European man and the Pakistani woman who'd rather discuss the best way to cook lamb than slit each other's throats. They're the cisgender woman and the transgender woman looking for the right song in the hymnal. The cop who just wants to protect and serve, the black man who just wants to get home. The creators, the doers: people who pour their hearts into things they make with their own hands and their own minds and their own hearts, whether it's a poem, a delicious meal, a well-built coffee table, people determined to be more than just products or consumers of their environments.

Although doing something about a problem in society, rather than just ranting about it or finding less intimidating "problems" to focus on, seems like the obvious way to fix it, it's sometimes hard to figure out exactly what to do. I don't know what to do about some of the problems I listed. When someone commits a crime or passes legislation that harms a certain group of people, I want to post a Facebook status or a tweet showing support for my friends who are part of that group, but I usually end up not doing it because it feels like it's not enough, like it's a lazy, self-righteous thing to do (not saying that it is; it just feels that way sometimes). "Why waste time posting on the Internet when I could actually be doing something to help fix this?" I think to myself, but what can I do about it? One time, I decided to practice what I preached by going to a protest, but I left frustrated. It wasn't as well-attended as I'd hoped, and all it seemed to produce were a few angry motorists when we blocked traffic and a lot more spam emails in my inbox. I got a similar feeling when I attended an anti-discrimination rally sponsored by a music festival, expecting hoards of angry artists demanding change, when it wound up being just a dozen or so people standing under a tent in the rain. I'm less cynical about protests after seeing the incredible turnout at the Women's Marches around the world today, especially since they finally seem to have a coherent platform, but I admit that I'm still a little skeptical of how much change they'll ultimately bring about. I also feel a sense of futility in writing letters to senators and representatives. Again, I hope I'm proven wrong someday, but it seems like most of the time, politicians have already made up their minds, and no amount of writing or phone calls will change them.    

It can also be hard to create something useful or beautiful because it can require such intense focus and dedication. Artists have more tools than ever these days, but we also have so many distractions, and hundreds of thousands of shouting voices breaking the media into skinny, two-dimensional shards we call sound bites, tweets, etc. I recently read some of John Adams' letters and thought about what an arsenal of beauty and venom the English language is, yet we're forced to limit so many of our thoughts to 120 characters. I push a few buttons, and my phone assaults me with so much light and noise and bad news and so many unfounded opinions that my eyes burn looking at it. I've lost count of how many attempts I've made just to finish this stupid blog post in one sitting. Sometimes my mind feels less like a pinball machine and more like a pile of broken, disconnected chain links that I'm struggling to solder into something coherent.

I don't have all the answers when it comes to mending a torn up world or a torn up mind, but as cliche as it sounds, I think it might be the little things that matter most. Look at a shirt where the arm meets the shoulder, and you might see hundreds of tiny stitches holding them together, without a single thread seeking recognition. Sometimes the threads are completely hidden under the hem, but their existence is manifest in what they bind together, which they do with humility and consistency. A friend once said that change happens person to person, and I think he's right. Building chains of kindness and honesty in our daily interactions, and committing to creating something beautiful and satisfying each day, no matter how small, may help save the world. Remembering to be humble in our work would also help. Too often, when someone says or does something hateful or ill-informed, the first response is to flip them off, create an inflammatory hashtag, or write a snarky, holier-than-thou think piece (forgive any hypocrisy here). However, humility doesn't equal passivity or silence. I think of humble activism as walking straight through a crowd of people who believe you are what's wrong with society and blame you for their struggles, sitting in their midst, and not moving, because America is your country too. It's looking after and defending your friends, even if your family constantly tells you they don't belong (and vice versa), leaving an extra seat at your table for someone who disagrees with you, standing and speaking when you're told to sit down and shut up, helping people less fortunate, asserting what you do know while acknowledging what you don't, refusing to look the other way when someone is in trouble, and never, ever forgetting that no matter how low society bows before the five-second video or the clickbait headline, every human we encounter is a web of experiences, genetics, and circumstances so intricate and complicated that they'll never completely fit inside our convenient categories and assumptions. The thing that's so deadly about over-generalization is that it expands like an umbrella over more and more people. If your enemy expands from "imperialists" to "Americans" to "the West," or from "terrorists" to "Muslims" to "immigrants," it just gives you an excuse to hurt more and more people.  Again, person-to-person relationships help combat this. It's harder to hurt someone if you know their mother, if you've kvetched over bourbon on the porch, or if you know what their hands feel like on your face. 

Another form of resistance is to defend your time with an iron fist, the time you need to think, create, learn, and sustain yourself, to be human. We need to be healthy to resist properly. For instance, I never check my work email outside of work; I ask coworkers and employers to call or text me instead if there's an emergency. I'm trying to figure out a workable creativity and workout schedule, and making my home a refuge from the distractions of social media. Also, I'm learning a martial art--what's the point of defending my time if I can't defend my life? Once you make this time, don't let anyone or anything take it away from you. Declare yourself independent of any forces that seek to do so. I know from experience how hard it is to make this time when you have multiple jobs, but even a little creativity is better than nothing. No matter how badly someone treats me, I can still come home and write and sing. The guy who yells "nice tits!" out his car window, or tells me that I belong only in the home and not at the polls or in positions of power because I'm a woman and therefore can't handle conflict or face the truth, will never make me put down my pen or guitar. If we keep working and creating in this way, showing that we'll never stop and never be moved. I believe we'll make those who try to tear us down look like they're just flinging themselves against brick walls.   

I want to close this post by saying I'm sorry, for any times I've looked away instead of facing a problem, ignored a cry for help, kept silent when I should have spoken, jumped to unjust conclusions, or taken the easy way out instead of doing the right thing. I'll do better. The truth is that I do hate conflict, but that's not an excuse anymore. I even have reservations about sharing this post because I'm afraid some people won't like it or might disagree with it, but trying to please everyone is suicidal. The "negative peace" Dr. King mentions in the quote at the beginning really isn't peace at all; it's a constant, simmering tension, but to people who aren't on the receiving end of injustice, it's often still more palatable than walking across the hot coals of conflict and disorder toward real peace on the other side. This can be true in personal as well as societal conflicts. People who are the targets of injustice, however, tread these coals every day. Rocking the boat is not in my nature, but I've learned that if you don't do so when the moment is right, the boat rocks you. 

To anyone who might need a port in the storm over the coming years: my door is always open. I'll have wine, tea, and a frayed 40-year-old arm chair waiting for you.                                 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Cold and Broken Hallelujah: Being Thankful for It All

In the past, when writing on Thanksgiving, I've listed things that happened over the past year that I'm thankful for, looking back on fond memories and trying to point my perspective in a more positive direction. But honestly, this has been a tough year--for me, for many of my friends and family, and for much of the world. In fact, calling this year "tough" sounds like an insulting understatement. We need a word with more weight to describe the personal, national, and global tragedies in the 2015 calendar. We've seen explosions of gun violence, races and religions declaring war on each other, and the sudden deaths of loved ones. On a smaller scale, this year has seen financial trouble, lost relationships, and general dissatisfaction with life. I do have reasons for gratitude, like new friends, publications, and my own place to live, but when I try to acknowledge them, they tend to fall under the shadow of this year's more bitter experiences. As the new year approaches, I imagine a lot of us feel like wet dogs staggering through the door of a new house, panting and hoping for a warm fire after surviving the storm of 2015.  

Though it may be harder to find specific things to be thankful for this year, the past eleven months have taught me so much about the act of being thankful itself. It really is a conscious act, not a passive state of being. It's something I have to remember to do, like picking up fallen bits of cereal from my kitchen floor, before they entice the ubiquitous ants in my hundred-year-old house. It's also a decision, a choice. I've been surprised lately by just how supple life can be in the hands of someone who makes decisions instead of just floating along on the currents of circumstance. My therapist once told me that faith itself is a decision.

I've also learned that being thankful is not the same as picking the marshmallows out of Lucky Charms (speaking of cereal!). It's not about looking for particular objects, people, or events in my life that meet my personal standards of happiness and ignoring everything else. What if nothing meets those standards at the moment? At its core, I think true thankfulness is the unconditional embracing of everything that comes our way, good or bad. It's leaning headlong into both joy and misery, instead of pretending one or the other doesn't exist. It's allowing ourselves to feel anything, and rejoicing in our emotional peaks and depths as signs of life intensely lived, like mountains and valleys in a landscape created with passion. I also think true thankfulness is one of the ultimate acts of faith--it requires trusting that not every question needs an answer, and that whatever we experience, good or bad, will somehow sand off our rough edges and give our stories more flavor.  

Once again, Leonard Cohen captures this idea far better than I in this explanation of his most beloved song, "Hallelujah" (in case you were wondering, no, I'll probably never shut up about Leonard Cohen):

"The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say: 'Look, I don't understand a f*****g thing at all--Hallelujah!' That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings."

I found this on a web page composed entirely of incredible Leonard Cohen quotes, and as you can imagine, this was my response when I first clicked the link:

The particular quote I mentioned rings especially true in a society where nobody can seem to admit they're wrong and so many conflicts seem irreconcilable, a society whose battle cry is "How dare you be human!" This year, it's clear that we're more bent on dehumanizing ourselves and each other than ever. We continue to ignore our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in favor of increased "productivity" at work and increasingly detached relationships, and it feels like every evil force in the world is showing its face at once--hate, fear, ignorance, dishonesty, you name it. All the little social, political, and personal bombs we've planted over the years are finally blowing up.

Another favorite poet of mine (and Leonard Cohen's) is W.B. Yeats, and according to my father, Yeats believed history was cyclical rather than linear. I haven't done much research to verify that, but it's an interesting thought. If history followed a cycle, I sometimes think it would look something like a pendulum, and that this year would be one of the great downswings. On the bright side, that means it's about to swing upward, which makes me hopeful for next year. Hopefully, a day will come when enough people get so tired of all the warring and hating in the world that they all sit on the pendulum of history and weigh it down, stopping the violent swinging once and for all. Hopefully, my friends and I will step out of the furnace of this year as better and brighter people. But until then, all we can do as we keep struggling to change the world and ourselves is draw enough breath, however ragged, to throw back our heads and say "Hallelujah!"    


Saturday, September 19, 2015

End-of-Summer Brain Purge (for lack of a better title)

As you know, I took a long hiatus from this blog over the summer. Though I have done a good deal of creating in these past few months (which flew by with the speed of an unladen African swallow), many things distracted me from writing in this blog, specifically. However, to say that this has simply been a "busy" summer feels so watered down and trivialized that it hurts. This summer, or this whole year, I should say, has been volcanic with change, triumphs and tragedies erupting with almost equal ferocity. It started when I moved from my Carrboro apartment to a room in a lovely historic house in Durham, but that's only the beginning.

I started writing this post at a bed and breakfast in Tryon, North Carolina, a small town in the foothills where F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. This makes sense because, despite its size, Tryon overflows with stories, strange and grand as the peaks surrounding it. Now, I'll attempt to tell at least part of the story of my summer--and the thoughts that sprang from it--in the following series of random journal entries:

1. The weekend before I moved to Durham at the beginning of June, Raisin, my dog of nine years, unexpectedly passed away. He didn't suffer much, but I can't say the same for myself. I spent the rest of that evening wandering between bars in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, texting my friends and struggling to convince myself that not everyone I loved would be wrenched from my life without warning. I know that sounds like a pretty dramatic reaction, but I've found that in a society where human love can be so painfully conditional, there's a special sadness that comes with losing a dog, who expects so little from you. The loss also struck an acute sense of my own mortality. I've been fortunate to not have a lot of loved ones die in my lifetime so far, but the few times it has happened, it's typically been swift and sudden. It's sharpened my awareness of life's brevity like an arrowhead. For this reason, I can't stand talking about things like how I'm going to save for retirement, or doing draining tasks like filling out tax forms and watching half-hour Youtube videos arguing why this movie is better than that movie, or Facebook (even though I still use it entirely too much). Probably half the things I do are fueled by the fear that I might never get to do those things again in my short lifetime.

Also, Raisin, even though you chewed up half my clothes and put a hole in my living room wall with your head, you were the most affectionate dog I ever knew. You were, and still are, greatly missed.

2. Last month, I bought a Johnny Cash album called "My Mother's Hymn Book." It's a collection of old hymns and gospel songs that literally came from his mother's hymn book, recorded late in Cash's life with only his voice and a single guitar. According to the liner notes, out of all his recorded albums, this one was his personal favorite. His deep, aged voice sounds like a tree with many rings, having weathered storm after storm, but yet, as one song goes, "shall not be moved." My favorite song on the album is "Softly and Tenderly," one of my grandfather's favorite hymns. I could almost imagine him singing it as I nearly fell asleep to it on my porch. I listened to the whole album again as I drove to Pittsboro the next day, and it made me tear up. I wondered if this would be happening had 2015 not been a year so fraught with difficulty. Would these songs sound half as beautiful to me if I hadn't tasted some of the hardship they've carried people through for so long? It made me realize that sometimes, we have to be ripped open for things to touch our hearts.

3. I can't express how much my heart goes out to the loved ones of the two journalists killed in the WDBJ shooting. Both had significant others in their lives, and knowing how difficult it is to find true love, I can't imagine how it feels to lose it like that. Whatever is broken in this world that pushes or enables people to cause tragedies like this, we've got to fix it. Now.

4. I think the secret to writing a story that doesn't insult or belittle a particular group of people, a story that isn't racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, etc., is to simply write well. A story that falls into these categories usually involves either lazy, ignorant writing, or had a malicious agenda to begin with. Good writing, on the other hand, naturally acknowledges the dignity and complexity of its subjects, no matter who they are. The greatest insult to a human being is to deny their complexity. People who are offended by good storytelling are just looking for something to get angry about.

5. This summer, I finally read Steppenwolf, and I really, really wish I could have a beer with Herman Hesse. I'd love to see what it's like to talk to someone whose brain is capable of producing something like the Magic Theater (I guess he'd have to be a madman only--haha). I'll discuss this reading experience in more detail in my next post.

6. Sometimes it feels like happiness, like writing or woodworking, is a craft. It must be practiced and developed, and it can't rely solely on things that can be taken away or disappear without warning. It also requires such intense faith, which has always been a challenge for me. Despite what some people might think, I'm a very physical person. I like things that I can see, hear, and touch, so it's hard to find "the substance of things hoped for," and the "evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).

7. I've seen a lot of sentimental meme-type things on the Internet lately listing the qualities of an ideal boyfriend, things like "he hugs you from behind" or "gets you ice cream when you're on your period." That's cute and all, but these lists only scratch the surface. These are things anybody could do. However, they did get me thinking about how I would write such a list myself. I think my ideal boyfriend could be summed up in just two qualities: a. He makes me feel like life isn't a constant performance, like I can take off my mask, get off the stage, and just love him while being completely myself, without fear that being myself will drive him away, and b. He sees the "golden track" that runs through life, the thread of beauty and divinity Herman Hesse wrote about that weaves through the surface of every day living. Not only does he see this thread, he grabs it and doesn't let go, unraveling everything that hides it. He sees the light that gets through cracked things, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen's "Anthem." An additional desirable quality would be that he knows all the words to the Powdermilk Biscuit commercial from A Prairie Home Companion, including the part about Norwegian bachelor farmers. Maybe I should just find a nice Norwegian bachelor farmer.

8. Seeing a happy couple that's stayed together for a long time feels like looking at a postcard of the Italian Riviera. That warmth and security seems like such a foreign, yet inviting place, where you can throw off your coat and shoes, take a deep breath, and be human again. It also seems so far away and unattainable at times. Being in that place certainly wouldn't eliminate the troubles of life completely, but I'm sure living would be much easier having all that beauty right in front of you all the time.

9. The city of Durham has incredible character. So many of the buildings, from the Gothic stone castles of Duke's west campus to the churches and old tobacco factories, command the landscapes they inhabit instead of blending in. You can tell that history happened here.

10. This summer, I finally got up the courage to go and play guitar at a jam session/singalong by myself. The first time I'd gone, back in January, I'd been with someone, which helped me find the nerve to at least join in the singing. I continued going alone for a while after that when I lived in Carrboro, but I'd only sit and listen. Then, several months later, I came back and brought my guitar. I'd never played with other people before, so of course it was scary at first, but now I live for Saturday afternoons when I can go play and sing with such friendly people. It never ceases to make me feel better, partly because it's so self-affirming. I may go there alone now, but I go as a musician.


Thursday, May 28, 2015


The month of May, that intersection of spring and summer, always feels like a time for great change. Around this time last year, I was on my way to Charlotte to film a documentary for a few days, the first I'd ever produced for UNC-TV. In college, this month revolved around the last day of classes and graduation. In high school, it was the month of May Fest, which eventually became Senior Day or something like that. It was a day when upperclassmen got to spend the afternoon in the gym playing ping-pong, chatting on the bleachers, and crawling through an inflatable obstacle course (I'd be surprised if nobody lost their virginity in it). It doesn't sound that exciting, but I remember that, despite its usual musk of sweat and wood varnish, the air in the gym sparkled that day with this electric happiness. It could have been a charge from all the impending adulthood in the room. Summer was so close we could taste it, the peach juice and honeysuckle and the sweetness of the phrase "This is my life, and I'll do with it as I please." It could also have been the fact that I was in love. A few days earlier, as part of our studies of British poetry, my twelfth-grade English class wandered around a small field near the front parking lot, hidden by trees. We each had to pick a spot and write a poem of our own, somehow inspired by that spot, in the spirit of "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." I sat down in the grass and sought inspiration in the cool patches of clover around my legs, running my fingers through them and jotting down disjointed lines about reconnecting with nature, the circle of life, and other cliches. I couldn't concentrate on the ground because I kept looking up at the boy who would become my first boyfriend, wandering between trees with his notebook. If I'd known we wouldn't have to read our poems in class, I might have written something about his contemplative stare, or his cursive handwriting.

My point is that in the past, these crossroads that I've reached in late spring, from decisions about my life and career to new relationships, have generally been enjoyable experiences. However, I'm not sure "enjoyable" is the best word to describe the crossroads of this particular May. I wouldn't call it awful, but I would call it chaotic. It's exciting, but not in the most pleasant way. A few weeks ago, I saw a peony bush in bloom outside the building where I work. For the longest time, the fluffy, white flowers had only been fat buds, but they'd finally burst open that day. If peonies were sentient, I wonder if they'd know what was happening while they were still buds, or if they'd worry that they might always be buds, getting bigger but never flowering. While they waited in the closed darkness of their leaves, would they even be aware of the fact that they're plants, creating such beautiful flowers with only water and sunlight? This illustration of uncertainty basically describes my feelings right now. I like to think that all the considerable setbacks this year has started off with are part of my own personal and artistic budding period, and that plants just handle it a lot more gracefully. I've learned that I'm not as passionate about some of my pursuits as I thought I was, and that I'm very passionate about others that I didn't discover until recently, such as playing and writing songs. This can be both liberating and frightening, since discovering new passions tends to alter current life plans. But, as the saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, make a plan. Basically, I'm not quite as certain about what I want out of life as I was when I first graduated from college, and I'm also learning just how much effort it takes to create your own happiness instead of relying on other people to provide it for you. I'm not talking about material forms of happiness, like food or warm shelter, but a general sense of fulfillment and excitement about life. Forging that sense can be exhausting work.  
Another cause of this anxiety is probably my recent adventure with online dating. I tried OkCupid for about two weeks before I started feeling like a nervous little kid in an amusement park--the kind who decides they're finally going to ride a roller coaster, but freaks out and wants off as they're getting strapped in. The immediacy and shallowness of it felt so unnatural. The site expected me to form an attraction to someone only by looking at a few pictures and their answers to two-dimensional, mostly yes or no questions. It felt like wandering around a car dealership with a pushy salesman. With rare exceptions, love is a gradual process for me. Plus, despite the fact that the site is for adults, the OkCupid copywriting staff seems to be composed of thirteen-year-old girls. I'd get emails saying things like "they're totally into you." Most of the compatibility questions, on the other hand, seem to have been written by thirteen-year-old boys. About three quarters of them are variations on "Do you like to be slapped/gagged/bitten/tied up/fish-slapped/drawn and quartered/stuck in a particle accelerator during sex?" The most interesting thing I found, however, is that most of the top matches I found were attractive in some way, but also had a single, crucial flaw that ruined any chance of a relationship. Examples:

1. A cute, wealthy guy who writes a you a sweet message and speaks fluent Russian, but is also probably a racist.
2. A cute guy who loves music and spirituality, but discriminates against people with mental illnesses (he refused to date anyone who took antidepressants). I don't take them myself, but anyone who thinks taking medication for an illness makes you undateable will get nothing from me but a swift kick in the nether regions.
3. A guy who's everything you want emotionally and intellectually, but doesn't attract you physically. This may be the worst case of all. Sometimes I wish I could just make myself be physically attracted to anybody.  

Needless to say, I ultimately deleted my account, I applaud the people who manage to find love online, but it just isn't for me. Probably the most helpful piece of advice I can offer from my experience is to always perform what I call the "lightbulb test" on someone's dating profile. If you replace the word "man," "woman," "boyfriend," or "girlfriend" wherever it appears, and it makes perfect sense, then the person is probably a jerk. Example: "I'm not looking to replace my current [lightbulb] or obtain a second [lightbulb], but a backup would be swell." Also, on your own profile, please don't describe yourself as a "rad motherf****r."  

The really strange thing is that this personal turmoil has been happening during a major upswing in my TV career. I'm grateful for this, but also puzzled by the contrast between my life at work and my life outside it. Why is it so difficult to achieve success in both at the same time? Lately, my job has had me busier than ever, with more opportunities than ever, and people have complimented me on my achievements. However, this brings me to my second main point, which is that no matter how good other people's lives look on paper, many of us are still freaking out or don't know exactly what we're doing, and the acknowledgement of this shared internal messiness can be wonderfully unifying. I love learning about the struggles of great writers and artists, not because I enjoy other people's misery, but because it reminds me that they're still humans like us, no matter how lofty the heights their work might have set them upon. Frank Capra panicked after winning an Oscar for It Happened One Night. James Joyce's struggles to get Ulysses published and distributed involved battling obscenity charges and sending banned books over the Canadian border stuffed down the front of a guy's pants (is that a literary classic, or are you just glad to see me?). Hopefully I'll never have to resort to such desperate measures to get my own art recognized, but if I did, like many of life's considerable setbacks, at least it would make a good story.