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On Writing and Feeling

If there are mountains, I look at the mountains By Santoka Taneda English version by John Stevens If there are mountains, I look at the mountains; On rainy days I listen to the rain. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Tomorrow too will be good. Tonight too will be good.

I received this poem in my inbox today and feel compelled to share it. Like many, I aspire to and struggle to live more purely in the present moment. With that struggle in mind, what a serene thought it is that “tomorrow will be good,” and so will today, and tonight, simply because what exists exists, and we are here to enjoy it. I find the poet’s simple, sparse language to be startingly articulate; in its simplicity, it deepens and subtly shifts my thinking about what it means to live in the moment, reassuring me that however scattered or anxious my state of mind, there is an inherent simplicity in having presence of mind. We simply need to be receptive to what surrounds us — “if there are mountains, look at the mountains.” The world does its work for us and we are here, simply enough, to receive the world.

There’s a mantra that I cling to, although I can’t remember where I encountered it, that “There is no pain in the present moment.” When I find myself rushing mentally, I am reminded that so much of human pain is sheer anticipation, cognitive chaos, the firing of neurons generating fear and angst, pain that does not exist apart from the ruminator’s overactive thought process. Which leads me to consider the discipline of writing. I’m sure that the same synapses that cause unnecessary, self-generated pain are the impetus behind beautiful and insightful streams of words. From that perspective, it’s not ideal to strictly limit one’s focus to what is immediate and concrete, but rather to pay close attention to feelings and thoughts that deviate from the moment and channel them into something concrete of their own, such as an outpouring of language.

If writing is a way of embracing our stray feelings and thoughts, allowing us to attend to the present moment of our own, individual, internal worlds, then I could do a better job of it. When a friend of mine recently challenged me to think about how much raw feeling is connected to my writing pursuits, I realized that I could better fuse the part of me that loves the creative act of laying out words on paper with the part of me that is sensitive, susceptible to a surplus of feeling. Sometimes I forget that writing is a tremendous receptacle for pain and joy and a whole range of feelings in between, and when I’m feeling down or up or somewhere in between I don’t think to turn to the page. How great it would be if instead of dumping, or sighing out our feelings of pain into something escapist, we could energize and invigorate ourselves, and validate the feelings we are having, by giving our feelings a voice. Here’s to writing from the heart.

On Growing My Cake and Eating It, Too

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It’s been ridiculously long since my last post! Here are a few of my thoughts on the joys and excesses of eating local, originally published on Food Riot… Is it just me, or is this topic rich with contradictions?

Terroir is the French term — the notion that foods possess an innate sense of place, down to the soil, the air, the shape of the landscape. For example, that a pinot noir grape grown on a farm in Sonoma, California has a slightly different bite than a pinot noir grape grown along the Rio Negro river in Argentina. It’s like the notion, “you are what you eat,” except that before you consume this essence of self, the food is busy becoming what it is — and if you buy into the terroir concept, the essence of food could not be more Scarlett O’Hara-esque — rooted in terra, terroir, the land.

This terroir term makes me think of rap lyrics, a whole range of upwardly mobile artists touting loyalty to their roots. In the world of food, “going local” may strike a hopeful, less defensive tone, but it’s still the same sentiment — “I’m still Jenny from the block” translates into sticking to your roots — quite literally, your root vegetables — putting the brakes on the rather privileged, entitled, modern assumption that “the world is your oyster” in favor of an old-fashioned reverence for your own backyard, and the brand of leafy greens where you were born and raised.

Much like those leafy greens, I suppose that my “taste” is shaped by my environment. On the one hand, I was born and raised in Saint Louis — and in my case, an appreciation for certain Midwestern foodstuffs is somehow built in — cheese (even the much-maligned, processed, Imos-Pizza-topping Provel), red meat and hearty casseroles. On the other hand, as a Chicago resident, I have an abiding taste for Mexican — not the kind you find in Missouri, where the waiter might not be familiar with horchatas. I tend to crave sour, spongy Ethiopian bread dipped in spicy vegetable medleys or Korean barbecue, with its thin, seared meats. My love of onions can take me around the world and back — from Indian curries to Chinese stir fries to Jewish latkes. Actually, scallions alone could do the trick. If I’m starting to sound less reverent and increasingly presumptuous when it comes to this simple, local food thing, what can I say; I came of age during the rise of The Food Network. I’m another earnest member of Generation Y trying to be slow and local, but really, I want to have my cake and eat it too, and I don’t necessarily want to grow my cake in my backyard. Plus, I don’t have a yard. I have a very persistent, slightly manic squirrel running along the rail of my balcony.

Truly, I respect and admire and value this notion of clean, fresh, local food. I’m inspired by Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International, who says that “food is what ought to remind us every day that we are part of nature, that we belong to nature, that we are inside nature — the greatest living system.” Proving Carlo’s point, I had the privilege to enjoy a bullfight “à la mort” (to the death) on the oversized steps of a Roman amphitheatre in Arles, France. This was my second visit — the first time, I opted to watch the bullfighters sort of dance around the bull, no death happening, because I thought it might upset me. But the fight à la mort was not a gruesome experience, it was more of a grounding experience, oddly like clean, wholesome manual labor. I watched the bull reach his fate underneath a pounding sun, alongside little kids chomping on ham and cheese sandwiches. I took a wrong turn on the way out and ended up passing the tremendous, half-suspended carcass on its way into the beef truck. The next day my husband ordered “toureau” for dinner, and there it was, or its relative, on his plate. Yes — that particular day, food was a profound reminder that we live inside nature, much closer to the cycle of life and death than I typically acknowledge.

It was through living in Provence for a short, sweet six weeks that I first experienced a deep appreciation for the relationship between food and terrain. Actually, the impact of terrain in Provence extends far beyond food. For example, I realized that Vincent Van Gogh’s famous paintings from the region didn’t so much exercise artistic license but skillfully capture the special quality of light that exists there, day after day. I didn’t realize until returning to the U.S. that Provence was a destination of sorts, that the richness of the landscape was truly la crème de la crème, as evidenced by certain brands of rose wine or cosmetics companies like l’Occitane. But like many things that hail from Italy or France, the romance and purity of “terroir” doesn’t always mesh with the full-speed-ahead, patchwork-quilt American way. When I come across a green t-shirt that reads YALE KALE or the scrunched up nose of a three year old working his way through a macrobiotic plate, I am impressed by certain Americans’ willful, dogged commitment to eating naturally. We invented fast food, and doggone it, we will just as industriously re-adopt slow flood. With similar intentions, I attempted my first herb garden last summer. I basked in the versatility of kale, the joy of snipping chives onto pasta, the fact that I didn’t need to buy scallions. But there were also times when I felt like the hungry caterpillar in reverse. All I wanted was one, small square of Imo’s Pizza, processed in a factory, delivered in a box. To borrow from another 90s child, Pete Nice, of 3rd Bass, I guess I’m just a product of my environment.

“And The Mountains Echoed”

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 7.12.45 AMWhen I saw this book labeled by more than one independent bookstore as the “best yet” of Khaled Hosseini’s fiction, I was tempted by the thirty-five dollar hardback. I came to my senses and recently finished the e-book. Let me tell you about this over-hyped, but fast and engrossing read. The story is told in clipped, broad strokes, covering multiple generations of multiple families in an expansive, light-handed style that places more emphasis on universalities about familial love than it does on any particular narrative. This “wide-angle” style is different from The Kite Runner. From one sentence to the next, a character’s story might jump forward several decades, or a relationship between two seemingly unconnected characters is established. These hare turns are engrossing, both in a superficial way — tracking the pieces of a puzzle — but also in a more symbolic way, mimicking the reality that life moves with a dramatic momentum that we rarely recognize in the moment. I found myself pondering the idea that we are each born into someone else’s story, inheriting the latest strand of a narrative that we presume to direct.

You Get The Gist

Book-ending the story are the characters, Pari and Abdullah. They are brother and sister living in a remote Afghani village in the 1950s. Their father, Saboor, is so burdened by poverty that he gives his daughter Pari to a wealthy, childless couple in Kabul, where his brother-in-law works as a chauffeur. This sets in motion a sort of chronic separation anxiety — this time it is a literal separation of brother and sister, but as additional characters are folded into the narrative, the term “separation anxiety” requires a broader, more liberal definition, more like a pervasive sense of loss — from the secrets of a Westernized, strong-willed mother, to the bittersweet desire of a young Greek doctor to leave his village, or the confusing fate of being the favored son of a corrupt Afghani official. Quick transitions from character to character, or from one character’s life stage to the next, dramatically reveal how these losses take shape, sometimes insidiously, obvious to the reader but unbeknownst to the characters, and sometimes with sudden onset.

A Book By Its Cover

The title, “And The Mountains Echoed” lends an appropriately cinematic tone to a panoramic novel, full of heartbreak. In his acknowledgements, Housseini attributes the title to a poem by William Blake, called “Nurse’s Song.” He uses the word “lovely” to describe it. The poem has an innocent and and sweeping feel that can be felt throughout the novel, despite the reoccurring theme of loss:

“WHEN the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.

‘Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.’

‘No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the birds are all cover’d with sheep.’

‘Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.’
The little ones leapèd and shoutèd and laugh’d,
And all the hills echoed.”

Echoing That Sentiment

It’s an image of hopeful innocence, emphasizing the transience of human-generated conflict versus the permanence of land and history. Speaking of things that echo, this quote by John Muir from Herbert Smith’s biography sends a similar message about the world’s interconnectedness, continuity with the past, and inscrutability — except nature, not humankind, is his focus:

“When a page is written but once it may be easily read; but if it be written over and over with characters of every size and style, it soon becomes unreadable, although not a single confused meaningless mark or thought may occur among all the written characters to mar its perfection. Our limited powers are similarly perplexed and overtaxed in reading the inexhaustible pages of nature, for they are written over uncountable times, written in characters of every size and color, sentences composed of sentences, every part of a character a sentence. There is not a fragment in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself. All together form the one grand palimpsest of the world” (42).

The most moving passages in And The Mountains Echoed show how characters are inevitably, intimately connected, with each other and with the past, but even so, they struggle to make sense of “one grand palimpsest of the world.”

Words To Drive By Part 5

On Possessing Beauty

IMG_1728There was much beauty to document on our recent trip. From San Francisco’s salmon-colored, hillside homes, to the produce stalls of Saturday morning markets, from ocean vistas to smaller nooks and crannies.

You get my drift. A snapshot or two or 50 becomes inevitable; there is an urge to possess beauty when it is fleeting. We began our slow-twisting descent into Yosemite Valley as I reached the chapter on “The Art of Possessing Beauty” in “The Art of Travel.” I felt a renewed appreciation for the examined life vacation, the notion of author-as-companion tapping me on the shoulder with some timely advice.

This time, the life of John Ruskin is the author’s point of inspiration. An Englishman living in the 19th century, he wrote The Elements of Drawing and The Elements of Perspective. He championed the art of drawing to the English public, believing that drawing was the only way to truly see the world’s beauty.

He was interested in what it meant to see: he valued writing and photography and other methods of “possessing beauty” in so much as they allowed a person to understand and articulate the various factors that made something seem beautiful.

He was acutely observant of visual and sensory details:

“Ruskin was throughout his life frustrated by the refusal of polite, educated English people to talk in sufficient depth about the weather — and in particular by their tendency to refer to it as wet and windy…” (De Botton 227).

He also believed in traveling slowly, in a state of deep concentration, covering small distances at a time. De Botton summarizes the rarity of this approach among modern travelers:

“It is a measure of how accustomed we are to inattention that we would be thought unusual and perhaps dangerous if we stopped and stared at a place for as long as a sketcher would require to draw it” (218).

I am sure John Ruskin would have delicately rolled over in his grave had he witnessed the herd of cars and RVs eagerly stopping at one particular, heavily labeled overhang for the same photo op (like me, below). I am sure our hour-long drive to the campsite, winding through one sun-drenched patch of trees after another, punctuated by the occasional, sparkling stream or stark cliff, could have easily been its own trip, its own portfolio of drawings.

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But for all the dramatic views, highs and lows we witnessed at Yosemite, we did spend one afternoon that felt distinctly aligned with his principles of slow-moving receptivity, lying along the rocks of a very clear, cold river on a thick, hot day. It was the psychological equivalent of being eight years old again, in the dog days of summer — the faded voices of families calling to each other, multiple generations in multiple languages, the crunch of gravel, the mixed smell of charcoal and barbecue, the running of water over rocks, slight breezes cutting through dry heat, sending an occasional shiver through low-hanging leaves.

That is my attempt at a “word-painting,” for which Ruskin eventually became famous. Ruskin believed that describing the natural beauty of a place meant to capture its unique, emotional effect, using emotionally evocative words to enhance the objective, sensory details.

Seems like a familiar idea, even a cliché, that the beauty of a place is tied to the feeling it creates. But when you take that idea to its logical conclusion — all places are beautiful because all places evoke feelings (of varying depth and complexity) — you become aware of how much beauty is available in any given moment, and how much conscious effort (and slowing down) is necessary to see that beauty.

For Ruskin, the conscious effort involved in “word painting” is what allows the writer to see more clearly. Ruskin had a less elevated opinion of photography, but I stand by my mindless snapshots. Capturing views is important in wine country — it allows the good stuff to sit tight, eventually be reopened, shared, and enjoyed anew.

Words To Drive By Part 4

Landscape: On The Country and The City

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The corruption of cities versus the moral superiority of the countryside seems like an outdated, turn of the nineteenth century idea, but it’s one that is convincingly explored in The Art of Travel. The beauty of Yosemite National Park proved the author’s point that “there are concerns that seem indecent when one is in the company of a cliff” (148).

In this chapter, De Botton describes a three-day trip to England’s Lake District, following the footsteps of “a broader historical movement… in which city dwellers… travel in great numbers through the countryside in an attempt to restore health to their bodies and, more important, harmony to their souls” (130).

The Lake District is where William Wordsworth wrote his poems, and by extension, why he wrote his poems, since his poetry mostly praised his natural surroundings. I always thought that poets like Wordsworth got a pass for unbridled, emotional praise of butterflies and sheep and gooseberries; I assumed such flowery adulation didn’t seem “soft” in a more romantic era, but according to de Botton, Wordsworth was mocked pretty harshly for his overflowing love notes “To a Butterfly,” “To a Skylark,” “To The Daisy.”

Wordsworth was equal parts philosopher and poet, meaning that his poetry stemmed from a deep-seated, arguably non-Western belief in the importance of nature to human happiness. He thought cities made people self-centered and isolated, too focused on the social hierarchy and so eager for novelty that their broader, truer sense of interconnectedness was dwarfed. In addition, he viewed plants and animals as “paragons of stoicism,” and thus morally instructive to human beings.

1. Exhausted in the city
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2. Enamored in nature
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3. Morally instructive elephant seals
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As this guy flapped his flanks with sand and let out deep, gutteral groans, these headlines, among many others, made news back home:

  • As Bay Area Strike Idles Trains, Commuters Scramble
  • The Fall of Paula Deen
  • Zimmerman Is Acquitted in Trayvon Martin Killing

The contrast makes this idea, quoted from a nineteenth century book about Wordsworth,  rather charming:

“‘I am sure it would give much pleasure to many of the public if the local, daily, and weekly press throughout the country would always record, not only the arrivals and departures of Lords, Ladies, M.P’s and the great people of this land, but also the arrivals and departures of birds.’”

See De Botton’s thoughts on possessing beauty

Words To Drive By Part 3

Motives: On Curiosity 

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“Instead of bringing back sixteen thousand new plant species, we might return from our journeys with a collection of small, unfeted but life-enhancing thoughts” (111).

In this chapter, de Botton contrasts his own lethargy in Madrid with the insatiable curiosity of a German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. Von Humboldt’s biography (or one of them) is entitled What May Be Accomplished in a Lifetime, which indicates how active his South American explorations were, leading to discoveries in the fields of geology, botany, physics, anthropology, and more. For today’s curious traveler, do facts merely overwhelm or distract? The author quotes Nietzsche:

“Nietzsche also proposed a second kind of tourism, whereby we may learn how our societies and identities have been formed by the past and so acquire a sense of continuity and belonging… He can gaze at old buildings and feel ‘the happiness of knowing that he is not wholly accidental and arbitrary but grown out of a past as its heir, flower and fruit, and that his existence is thus excused and indeed justified’” (110).

I got you, Nietzsche. It’s hard to feel accidental, sharing this view
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or this one
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or even this one
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But to acquire “a sense of continuity and belonging,” the curious traveler might prefer to venture no further than a lazy vineyard, sip slowly, and enjoy the thought that one’s existence is “excused and justified.”

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See De Botton’s thoughts on landscape, the country versus the city

Words To Drive By

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 9.43.51 AMThe Art of Travel by Alain de Botton was a fitting companion as I road-tripped the coast of California this June and July. Unlike a traditional guidebook suggesting what to do in a given locale, it probes the how — asking what it means to travel meaningfully from a historical, philosophical, and anecdotal point of view.

The book has a clever structure: in each chapter, de Botton explores a big, travel-related topic using a guide from the world of literature, art, or history to offset his own travel anecdotes. For example, in the chapter, “On Eye-Opening Art” Van Gogh’s history in Provence enlightens the author’s first trip there. With the help of Van Gogh’s paintings, de Botton finds that this much-lauded corner of the world lives up to its hype, leading to a more subtle, philosophical conversation about the two-way relationship between beautiful places and their representation in works of art.

I found de Botton’s reflections apropos — universal, nimbly working around clichés — as I found myself lazing next to a cold river reading about Wordsworth’s exultation of the countryside, or greedily snapping photos of peaks and valleys, only to encounter a chapter “On Possessing Beauty,” with relevant, reverent quotes such as

“‘I can never stand long under an Alpine cliff, looking up to its pines, as they stand on inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of an enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like the shadow of the one beside it — upright, fixed, not knowing each other’” (229, John Ruskin).

Allow me to share some more of my favorite musings from The Art of Travel, and how they became words to drive by, beginning with  some thoughts on departure and anticipation.

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