30 December, 2008

the divine assails us

While we were hiking in Asheville today, I thought about solitude and leaves and what it would be like to be walking this trail alone. How easy it would be to do business with the self; it seems that all of the anxieties and hopes and fertile ideas would rise to the surface voluntarily out there, in the quietness of the woods.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man." (Revelation 21:3)

I was also thinking about solitude while I was riding the bus. I've been riding it a lot lately, back and forth from work. And I do think it is my favorite part of the day--the chance to sit, silently, and watch the trees pass and all of the people in their cars, lips tight (because no one smiles when they drive), fixed on the next task, the next best thing, and think. I get two hours just to think each day--one hour there, one hour back. And I think about many things: the end of the world, Flannery O'Connor, the way customers hand you change, why America is a Christian nation, how I'll survive in Denver, all alone out west, whether anything can be done to halt cycles of poverty in our city, roadkill, the fountain that never runs, a hawk on a billboard.

"Sometimes God moves loudly, as if spinning to another place like ball lightning. God is, oddly, personal; this God knows. Sometimes en route, dazzlingly or dimly, he shows an edge of himself to souls who seek him, and the people who bear those souls, marveling, know it, and see the skies carousing around them, and watch cells stream and multiply in green leaves. He does not give as the world gives; he leads invisibly over many years, or he wallops for thirty seconds at a time. He may touch a mind, too, making a loud sound, or a mind may feel the rim of his mind as he nears." -- Annie Dillard, For the Time Being

Guion's sinuses were cleared today and, hopefully, the quality of his life will dramatically improve. When I mentioned this in the car today, Grace exclaimed, "He's already a happy guy; can you imagine how happy he's going to be NOW? He's going to be so happy he'll be almost unbearable!"

Raymond Carver was underwhelming and I'm afraid the best I can say for Wise Blood was that it sparked in places and collapsed in others (only two scenes stand out: the man selling the potato peeler on the street and when Enoch goes to shake the gorilla's hand). To restore my faith, I picked up where I left off in vol. I of Virginia Woolf's diary (1915-1919) and started The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene, which I bought at the Carrboro thrift store with J.Clem, who was very excited about it because Guadalupe was on the cover. It's very good so far; I've already fallen for Greene's prose. It reminds me of Shusaku Endo's Silence, only in Mexico. And about 350 years later.

"By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers." -- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French paleontologist

We visited the Hyltons for a handful of minutes before leaving Asheville; ate Emily's excellent baklava and watched Cider do some of her famous performance art and move her head sadly back and forth. And I thought about them in that house, doing Hylton things like making baklava and tea and putting flowers in vases and renewing old friendships, and thought, Such a very lovely, graceful family.

I've been thinking about God more often this week and I want to know where the divine touches the common life. Where does it dip into my day?

The Spirit and the Bride say, Come.

I miss the stirrings of God's voice. I haven't been listening very well.

22 December, 2008

darling scandinavians

There is something very spiritual and grounding to me about opening a pomegranate. Mom bought one at the grocery store on a whim and asked if anyone knew how to open one, much less eat one. Gratefully, Emily showed me how to do it at Bolin Heights, in a bowl of warm water, gently, slowly, and I thought of her yesterday as I separated the ruby gems from the white membrane, watched them sink as shiny red kernels. It is deeply satisfying to peel open and look at; Grace says she's going to try to paint one soon.

While I was working at Main St. Books yesterday, a family came in, speaking a language I could identify as European but could not discern which one. My first guess was a Scandinavian language, but then I thought that was too unreasonable so I thought it might be German. The older couple was followed by four young adults, who all looked around the same age, late teens, early twenties. The boys were talking about Davidson College basketball (I heard the name "Stephen Curry") and I heard the white-blond girl say, "Middlemarch" and "Daniel Deronda" in the back. I listened to them talking and then one of the boys came up and asked, in a perfect English voice (sounded more British than anything else), "What is this music you're playing?" I told him it was the local classical radio station. "It's lovely," he said. "It sounds like traditional Swedish music, like we have at home." I lit up. Swedes! Darling Scandinavians! I was right. I wanted them to stay, to talk to me, and they would reminisce about the rough winters and the beautiful landscapes and we would laugh together and our cheeks would flush and we would become bosom friends and they would invite me to stay with them when I came to tour Scandinavia... but that didn't really happen. The family left, I waved. After they were gone, the radio announcer said, "And you were just hearing a folk ballad from Norway..." He was pretty close; just next door.

It made me wish I could speak to them in Swedish. I have an irrational desire, when I hear people speaking other languages, to jump in and say a few words in that language. I wish I spoke, understood more. My opportunities for doing that here are very slim indeed. (Although, thanks to Guion, I got to utter a few phrases of Japanese last week.)

I'm reading Wise Blood (Flannery O'Connor) now. I think I must have read part of it before because I know this storyline: the cantakerous protagonist, the "blind" street evangelist and his sketchy daughter, etc. But it's O'Connor and she's always rewarding. I am also reading For the Time Being, Annie Dillard's attempt to explain God and eternity through Emperor Qin's terracotta soldiers, French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, sand and the maternity ward of a hospital. She is delightfully strange and swift and hard to keep up with at times. But I really like her. And then there's Matsuo Basho, perpetually fresh and brief. I am about to start Raymond Carver's prized collection of short stories, Cathedral. It will likely be my unseasonable Christmas reading.

Rachel's novel, Noise from Babel, is really good. You should read it, if she'll let you.

I think that's all I had to tell you tonight.

P.S. No! I lied! There are two things I need to tell you still:

1. Craziest thing happened at The Beehive today. I'm ringing up a customer, a man in his thirties. While I am swiping his credit card, this tiny older woman with long stringy grey hair and big glasses is looking at me, and then back at him, and then some more at him. I don't know what she wants. Suddenly, she squeaks at me, pointing at the man, "Is he your husband?!" My eyes widen and I laugh. So does the man. "My husband?" I ask. "No, no, he's not my husband." She looks back at the man and then says. "Oh, good! Because I'm INTERESTED." The man looks at me, terrified, and says, blushing, "I'm married." Her face falls. "That's a pity. Because I was definitely INTERESTED." And then she walks out of the store. That poor man looked scared to death. It was a nice laugh.

2. http://www.blogotheque.net/Fleet-Foxes,4521

18 December, 2008

this shall keep me safe from the hot mexican sun

I think I've said this before, but I am deeply upset at the fact that Polaroid cameras will soon be extinct. (The film is being discontinued. Curses on all digital cameras! They're doing for film what e-mail did for letters.) Polaroids are so beautiful. I hate that they will soon be no more.

Grace claims that everything Dan Haseltine sings echoes. But this is coming from a girl who is reading The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria for funsies. So I wouldn't take anything she says too seriously.

So I finished this month's short story today, remarkably ahead of schedule. Therefore I think it would be a smart move to go ahead and start working on January's short, but I have no idea what to write about. Not even the slightest hint of an idea. I want to try something a little gutsier, without any characters so heavily based on people that I know, and maybe even try something as adventurous as a plot, but I just don't know. I don't know how much my lazy muse can handle.

I also finished Drown today, Junot Diaz's debut, a collection of gritty, lovely short stories about a family from the Dominican Republic and the disillusioning American dream. He's great. I want to read his latest, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Southern Pines was just perfect; I do so love that family.

I found an old notebook of mine today, my speech class notebook when I was 15. I covered the front and back with quotes from my favorite authors at the time. Judging from the notebook, my favorites were Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Shakespeare, and the French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco. I forgot about my teen obsession with Ionesco. Such a random one. I read almost all of his plays and a good number of his essays; I remember particularly identifying with his dislike for Victor Hugo. He was a funny one.

"One can prove that social progress is definitely better with sugar."--Ionesco, "The Bald Soprano"

Our house won some architectural award and while I was upstairs, ironing napkins, I reflected that Mom had made the place look like a page straight out of "Southern Living." It did look pretty today. Kelsey and I hid in the closet, watching "Arrested Development," while people walked through the house, trying to stifle our laughter. One woman burst in on us in the dark and said, "Girls! What a lovely room... oh, dear, well, bye," and then left awkwardly. I don't know what happened.

Grace does not believe that John Jacob Astor went down with the Titanic.

(Title: Buster Bluth.)

15 December, 2008

i killed my dinner with karate

Headed off to Southern Pines to visit the Pratt family for a few days. I am going to be driving the Papa John (a.k.a. the PJ Fars, or "I hate this car!"), which only has a radio (not even a tape player). And so I have become well acquainted with the grave deficiencies of North Carolina radio stations, particularly where I live. Sometimes I just turn it off and listen to nothing. Or talk to myself. Or pray out loud. It's very quiet in that little silver box. The dashboard looks like it belongs in a toy car; there are only three dials on it. Despite my well-voiced complaints, if and when the PJ starts, it's actually quite a nice little thing. It gets superb gas mileage and it's very easy to drive. It gets me from point A to point B. Most of the time.

I found out a few days ago that I was accepted to a copy editing internship and that I have been placed at The Denver Post for the summer. It was an overwhelming discovery, because I had to decide if that was what I wanted to do in a matter of hours, but it is a fabulous opportunity and I feel very honored. Plus, Denver has got to be one of the coolest cities in America, and I've been saying for months now that I really want to live in Colorado someday. I guess this will be my trial run.

Being home has been nice. I've read a tremendous amount, written some, worked, watched good and bad movies.

A fuller entry will come later. For now, I'm off!

(*Joanna Newsom supplied today's title.)

10 December, 2008

shooting down all my dreams

Home for winter break now. Reclined on the couch, trying to eke out a few pages of another story--progress that is slowed by constantly pausing and asking my mom for details about growing up in the South, and whether or not Southern people ate these kinds of things--listening to Sufjan's Christmas songs. Grace is reading a thick anthology of English literature on the adjacent couch, clicking her pen. Kelsey and Sam are playing a raucous card game that involves slamming one's palm down on the table and screaming victoriously and Mom is chopping some kind of pungent vegetable that I can smell from here.

All of the women in the family ridiculed me today when I announced that I wanted to start a garden. Yes, I do not know the first thing about gardening, but I do have Mom's "Organic Gardening" book from D.K. and I think I can learn. I am rather dismayed that things take so long to grow and that late winter is not a particularly fine time to start a garden, unless you want to grow a variety of lettuces and pansies. I am thinking I will start small. A few herbs, maybe. Rosemary, thyme, basil, perhaps some parsley. I would like to prove them wrong. (They also had the same reaction when I told them today that I liked the idea of natural, at-home childbirth. "But you are terrified of pain," my mother insisted. True, but I did say the idea of natural, at-home childbirth, didn't I?)

After working at Main St. Books for a few hours this afternoon, I went to the library and picked up the first two books of my break: The Russian Debutante's Handbook, by Gary Shteyngart, and Drown, by Junot Diaz. Francine Prose recommended both of them in Reading Like a Writer, a list that I am constantly trying to work through. I've read Shteyngart before (Absurdistan) and think he is absolutely delightful. I mummified myself in a blanket after work and read a hundred pages and I like it so far. Immigrants are a perpetual favorite of authors, particularly recent ones. I'm not entirely sure why this is, but I think it has something to do with the fact that they possess a malleable identity that is struggling to define itself while being grafted into an unwelcoming new culture. Even though society may not, literature embraces the helpless alien. And Shteyngart does a masterful job of embracing him, too.

Kelsey just called the four of clubs "the four of clovers." Homeschool. Mom quickly corrected her, adding, "I just don't want you to embarrass yourself when you are playing with your friends."

I remembered the bag of yen that I have stashed under my bed (remnants from the Narita Airport, when I didn't have time to change out all my coins back into U.S. currency) and found an old 5 yen coin, which is not being circulated anymore, and put it on a chain. (The 5 yen coin is a dusty golden bronze and has a hole in the center of it.) I am wearing it as a necklace now and it makes me think of the train and miss Japan. Yes, I even miss the train.

Father is lonely in Atlanta. He keeps calling and asking to talk to the family for no particular reason. He hangs up abruptly whenever someone enters his temporary office, saying, "Bye, there's some loser coming in." Professionalism is not high on his list of priorities, but we love him for it.

One of the best perks of working retail is complaining about unreasonable customers with one's employer.

Christmas is coming very swiftly this year. I think it is because I am getting old.

02 December, 2008

an ending of a kind

There was a bearded man smoking a cigar in the Pit today. He paced in sweeping circles, jingling a jar of coins and holding a sign that read, "Will Work for Caviar." I just don't even know...

Approaching the end of a semester fills me with a shimmering sense of accomplishment; I was thinking about this while looking at the circle of smokers around the flag pole in the quad. Even if my exams are less than perfect, or there are still loose ends to be tied (such as, where am I going to live next year?), I always end a semester with this drumming feeling of aging, growing older, moving on. It would cheapen it to call it strange; it's more chilling than anything.

This was an outrageously good semester overall; the happiest of my college career. I am going to miss it: these four classes, being able to read poetry as an assignment, re-reading novels I read in high school, having free time to just read, finishing articles at the DTH, becoming decently adept at copy editing, getting a story published, having class with Angela every day, Monday Snax every week with Catherine and Emily... I will miss all of these things very much. I am trying to keep myself from a dark and growing dread of next semester, but it seems a futile battle. Next semester is going to be rough for a number of reasons.

"Majesty, Snowbird," is a lovely, triumphant song.

One of the many reasons I like finals week is that I always make time to read for pleasure. This semester's finalists for Books of the End: The Duel, a novella by my forever-beloved Anton Chekhov; Seize the Day, by Saul Bellow, whom I read for the first time in Tokyo this summer; and Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov, which I chose because it wasn't as long as Lolita. (But I will get to her sometime.)

If you know of a decently priced house around this campus that can house 3+ senior women, let me know. I've been having nightmares about what might happen if we don't find one soon (e.g., sleeping in the pantry room where Cider's gargantuan bag of dog food lives).

Going home Tuesday!

(And the earth is warmer when you laugh.)

24 November, 2008

newsroom

The sky turned gray a few hours ago and the bare trees look spidery, unkind. I am finishing up a story in the DTH newsroom now about how graduate students are apathetic about Student Congress (can you blame them?). Keyboards clacking, filtered phone conversations, nails tapping on the desk, wheels of rotating chairs scraping the floor, people talking to themselves, to others. All of the conversations overlapping and running into each other; you can't tell where one voice ends and another beings. Somehow, I like working in a frenetic environment. Not all of the time. Some days it drives me mad; others, like today, I like being in a busy place, even if I'm not particularly busy (as you can tell I'm not now, because I'm blogging. I'm waiting for sources to call me back, chill out). 

I am finally going home tomorrow for Thanksgiving break. I can't wait to see my family, eat at our table, sleep in my tiny, cold bed. I wish I had the luxury to read over the break, but exams are more pressing, and so I will probably have to keep myself from that.

Minutes from today's Monday Snax: A lengthy discussion on every conceivable type of pie; Catherine and I want Emily to give us henna tattoos so we can have an excuse to greet relatives in Arabic at Thanksgiving; today's DTH opinion column made us angry and reinforced previously held stereotypes; Catherine gave a speech about her life and aspirations; Emily ate her marijuana cereal; we all departed promptly.

So happy to go home.

19 November, 2008

family love michael

Two-sentence thoughts...

This has been a week of unusually high levels of productivity. But then tonight I decided to end that five-day success streak by watching five successive episodes of "Arrested Development."

Kelsey turned 19 yesterday. And she was pretty and happy.

You know it's too cold in your room when you have to sit at your desk wearing your coat and scarf. Which is what I'm doing now.

"Go, go, go said the bird: Human kind
Cannot bear very much reality." (Eliot, "Burnt Norton")

I've been working on a new story but I'm not sure whether or not it's actually surviving. I wish Emily would come home from work.

How does one stop worrying about the future? About what happens next?

I like Theodore Roethke, I've decided, even in all with his primordial-slime-and-hyphen obsession. "The Far Field" occupies the poem of the week on our door now.

It is a good thing to talk openly with someone who not only listens well, but also understands keenly. This is one of many reasons I am thankful for Rachel.

Kathryn, Nick and Matt should come home soon. It is strange without them.

"I regret saying some things I shouldn't have said, like 'Dead or alive,' or 'Bring 'em on.'" President George W. Bush, when asked on CNN about the highs and lows of his time as president.

The idea of a publishing internship in New York City this summer is an exciting dream. But does it mean that I would have to walk and talk and dress like that?

I miss my little sister and little brother. I am looking forward to stealing their scarves and ruffling their hair, respectively.

12 November, 2008

i came to this country, 1849

I like watching leaves fall one at a time.

Songs of the week:
"Saro," Sam Amidon
"The Book of Right-On," Joanna Newsom
"Blindsided," Bon Iver

Books of the week:
Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson
Native Son, Richard Wright

One cup of tea, two apples, three successive errors on the front page of The Daily Tar Heel, four meetings today...

Most days I am not very good with people. But most people are uncommonly gracious to me. More than I deserve. I do want to go home. To sit at the kitchen table, motionless, without having to explain or justify myself.

The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.

The pale yellow apple has gray freckles and two adjacent bruises beneath the skin. It is smooth and still, inviting. I recognize that I do not love most people. There is a shelf of clouds in the space of sky I can see, diffusing the blue into white, easing the day into evening.

09 November, 2008

neither plenitude nor vacancy


The campus reaches a pitch of almost unbearable beauty in the fall. I could sit and look at the trees all day long.

Conversation in our room, just now:

Me: "Do you want some toast?"
Emily: "No, I need some food food food. I just don't want to make make it. What... is wrong with me. Why am I using words multiple times? Emily, use real words. Why does my body look like an old woman's? I am only 20 years old."
Me: "Your body does not look like an old woman."
Emily: "What are you typing? I am WATCHING YOU. (Some Arabic word.)"

And this is the general substance and form of our life together.

F. Scott Fitzgerald makes me nervous about marriage, but I like hearing him talk about parties; I think it's his one leading strength. I finished Tender is the Night this afternoon. I read it before three years ago and it wasn't much more satisfying then. Moral of the story: Don't marry your mental patient; it shall be the ruination of you both! Thanks for that one, Scotty.

(Boy, I should be rashly offensive more often! Okay, not really, but I've never had 14 comments before...)

I just had another homework-less weekend; I could definitely get used to this kind of blissful living. On Friday, after unsuccessfully teaching a classroom of first-graders to make origami balloons (kid crumples his paper into a ball and says, "Mine's broken." Yes, child, it is, and I don't have the time to help you fix it), and playing a brief game of frisbee, I went to Southern Pines with Guion to enjoy a really lovely evening with his parents. We spent a leisurely morning at his house (waffles and a walk with the dog) before coming back to play tennis with Kelsey and Dad and then enjoy a fancy dinner of grilled cheese and soup. Then Guion and I went to the Cradle to see Mark Kozelek (formerly of Sun Kill Moon and Red House Painters fame). The opening act, an elderly woman with a few missing teeth and a harmonica, enchanted us with songs of her sexual activity, and then we waited 45 minutes for Kozelek to finish creeping around the room and get on stage. His first three songs were good, from what I can remember, but then it all started to blur together and suddenly I was sleeping standing up. It was as if he played one hour-long song; I couldn't distinguish where one began and the other ended, they all sounded so much alike. But I like going anywhere with Guion so it wasn't at all pointless. And then I got to sleep in today, wake up to swap weekend adventure stories with my pretty roommate, and then go to Brunday Sunch (yes, you're right, I'm still doing all that stuff--frisbee playing, Brunday Sunching) where we sang while we washed the dishes. The combination of all of these little events made for a thoroughly satisfying past few days.

There you have the complete log of my weekend, which has likely enriched your life, no?

I need to figure out what to do with myself this summer. I need money and experience; no fun and adventures this time around. Rather, it's time to get serious about the economy and the fact that I am not going to get a job.

The semester swept by on invisible wings and I am fully astounded that we are broaching the second week of November. While fighting sleep during Kozelek's eternal song, I was looking at Guion's profile and thinking about how quickly time escapes us and how eager I am to be very present when I am with him; when I am with anyone, for some day very soon, we will be far apart and I will wish I had been more attentive, more conscious.

Related words of beauty:

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.

- T.S. Eliot, from "Burnt Norton" in The Four Quartets

05 November, 2008

put your arm around chaos


I've done my best not to write about politics throughout this eternally long election, but I think I can be allowed to now that everything has been decided. America spoke up in record numbers and I can say that I've rarely felt such hope for our country as I do now. Welcome, Obama. We acknowledge that you are not the messiah, and that everything will not be rosy now. But we hope! I hope.

The excitement on campus is electrifying. It's the first time our generation has been a part of something of this magnitude; finally, a president that we actually had the opportunity to choose. And choose we did! Emily just told me that she heard on NPR that 73 percent of young people supported Obama in North Carolina (compared with the 60 percent figure nationwide). This is so huge.

One of the many reasons I'm so excited about Obama is the sweeping support he has received from the rest of the world. His selection has created a groundswelling of excitement from countries that formerly had very poor opinions of the U.S. (Contrasted to McCain, 69 percent of those polled in France supported Obama, 73 percent in Italy, 64 percent in Japan, 66 percent in Canada, 65 percent in Germany... the list goes on and on around the world.) This is enormous for our foreign relations. As Ethan Bronner wrote in today's New York Times:

"Wonder is almost overwhelmed by relief. Mr. Obama's election offers most non-Americans a sense that the imperial power capable of doing such good and such harm -- a country that, they complain, preached justice but tortured its captives, launched a disastrous war in Iraq, turned its back on the environment and greedily dragged the world into economic chaos -- saw the errors of its ways over the past eight years and shifted course."

To close with my personal, all-time favorite Facebook status updates:
- "Canada doesn't sound so bad. :("
- "Now that we're going to become SOCIALIST, I'm moving to CANADA!!"

Folks. That's so ignorant it's hilarious. If you are trying to escape socialism, you shouldn't be going to Canada. (That's the ignorance I was referring to.)

Put your arm around chaos, Obama. Put your arm around chaos.

29 October, 2008

so many territories




Emily stitched leaves together and hung them from our ceiling. They look magical, or "so very Anthropologie," as Sarah H. put it.

I am not actually enjoying Faulkner that much, which makes me feel a little guilty, because I know I'm supposed to, raving about stream of consciousness and all that jazz. But this isn't really stream of consciousness. It's like a waterfall of consciousness, and sometimes, it's just too much.

On Monday, while I was in the newsroom, I overheard one of the editors talking to a new reporter, a girl who recently fled Venezuela because of the intense violence. The editor asked her if it was true that kidnappings were common, and the girl said, "Yes, they are, they're called 'express kidnappings,' because when you stop your car in the street, people will jump in and grab you."
"Really? And then what?"
"They hold you for ransom for a little while until your parents can pay it."
"Oh, so it's not like, scary, or anything?"
A blank look from the Venezuelan girl.
"No. It's very scary. It's a kidnapping."
Duh, DTH, duh.

I decided yesterday that, if I have time, I want to take basic French senior year.

Lately I have been uncommonly productive. This will only last a few days, though, so I'm trying to enjoy it while I can.

I mean, it's just really persuasive. Because I have never been so deeply terrified by a wink before.

“At the approach to the bridge, in the smell of the little restaurant kitchens, there was a confusion of streetcars, of people waiting to board them, of carts crossing the bridge. It suddenly seemed to me that, coming from an inn with this woman, I had nothing to do with a world that had gone on moving without me. The world and I were controlled by separate destinies, taking us in separate directions. A sort of quiet always came over me at evening, but this time the quiet was as of a complete loss of strength, and it brought with it a vague, indefinable sadness. I was not especially sorry to say good-bye to the woman. Nor did I regret a day spent in dissipation. Nor was it that the flowing of the waters somehow moved me. I had exhausted the man-made pleasures that a city has only for those born in it, and now, in the wake of the dream, it was as though I were looking back over the whole long series of dreams.” -- Nagai Kafu, "The Peony Garden"

23 October, 2008

dress yourself for work

Now it is cold.

Lately, I feel spiritually messy. As if my soul needs to have a yard sale. As if I can't figure out which way is God's and which way is the Rest of the World's. It is not so much the loss of faith as it is the loss of direction. I need to pray more. I always feel better when I do. I like what God tells lazy spiritual pilgrims like myself in Jeremiah: "But you, dress yourself for work; arise." Be ready for action; be not concerned with the haziness of your spirit. Rather, chase Me. I am clear. I am direct. I am not a poached egg.

Angela Tchou's cartoons have been bringing me considerable happiness lately. I like being in class with her every day; she liberally applies snark and wit to almost every conceivable topic: corn syrup, John McCain, The N&O, China. Endless fun!

One of the most beautiful feelings in the world is writing a good English paper.

The Sound and the Fury! Wooh! William Faulkner, CALM DOWN!

Sat in Bull's Head today and drafted my good English paper (on "The Waste Land," as you may have guessed from my last post) and watched people when the thoughts weren't coming. There was an old man who looked like actor James Cromwell (you know, the old farmer in "Babe") and he was carrying a bright yellow bike helmet. He sat in the sun and tore strips out of The New York Times. I don't know what he was looking for, but I hope he found it. There was a boy with his hand on his throat who stared out the window, almost without blinking, for ten minutes. And a girl, reading a novel, with the stem of a white daisy across her coffee lid. The boy with the economics textbook and the unpleasantly juicy cough. The other old man in suit and tie who was intently reading the dust jacket to a book.

And all of this is just to say that I like watching ordinary people do ordinary things. As Philip Larkin said, "I like to read about people who have never done anything spectacular." So do I. And I like to write about them too. I have no talent for plot, for inventing characters on quests, for concocting a dazzling mystery or a gripping climax. I am not Francine Rivers and I am not Dan Brown and no, I am not J.R.R. Tolkien and I do not wish to be. Rather, I like writing about people in kitchens, walking to the store, smoothing their hair with an automatic sweep, curling their fingers around pens. Because of this, I know no one will read such things, but this is my fate. And I am happy with it.

I've been thinking about light lately. And how a photographer's responsibility is to look at light all the time. To track the movements of light and predict how it will change. I like that. But every time I look at K. Barge's photos from Spain and elsewhere in Europe, my camera lust flares up again. I want to do the whole photography thing well one day.

Now it is time to gripe with Emily. A fundamentally strong and mysterious woman, she. I love her very much. And tonight I love her especially when her mouth gets away from her and no one really knows what she means. Like abortion sandcastles in the quad.

You, me, and all the kings and queens
Buried in the junkyard
And every time the herald cherubs sing
We rattle with the car parts
I was born to lie here patiently
Be dragged on by the black star
And you were told to glow majestically
And love until your hands bleed
-- Page France, "Junkyard"

20 October, 2008

shantih shantih shantih

"Antonia beckoned the boy to her. He stood by her chair, leaning his elbows on her knees and twisting her apron strings in his slender fingers, while he told her his story softly in Bohemian, and the tears brimmed over and hung on his long lashes. His mother listened, spoke soothingly to him, and in a whisper promised him something that made him give her a quick, teary smile. He slipped away and whispered his secret to Nina, sitting close to her and talking behind his hand." - Willa Cather, My Antonia

I like...
... blogging when I'm supposed to be studying or writing essays
... writing slapdash book reviews
... going home for fall break
... tromping through the high grasses of allusions in "The Waste Land"
... romanticizing Eastern religions
... precision in language
... bringing out my fall clothes
... blogging without complete sentences and paragraphs
... the smell of lilies when I walk in my room
... chocolate
... being able to translate sentences in French on my own. Romance languages are for babies.
... having to read Greek myths to understand Eliot; learning about Tiresias and Philomela
... The New York Times Book Review

I love...
... My Antonia
... knowing Scripture
... that Robert Pinsky (yes, Robert Pinsky!) chose Guion's poem "Camp Easter" as the best in this semester's "The Cellar Door"
... that Saturday is coming

Then spoke the thunder
D A
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms...
- T.S. Eliot, from "The Waste Land"

(*Title of this post is the last line of "The Waste Land." Hindi, also the ending of an Upanishad. Eliot says its translation is equivalent to "The Peace which passeth understanding.")

14 October, 2008

no he didn't


Someone wins boyfriend of the week...
(Lilies + the teacup I bought + VanGogh.)
Deeply disinclined to study for tomorrow morning's exam. I'd rather get in bed and read Zora Neale Hurston or watch "30 Rock" clips.

But I can make it because I'm going home tomorrow! Really looking forward to it. This week has been full of little stresses and successes and I'm frankly ready for the comfortable madness of home.

Meat is the new bread,
Abby

11 October, 2008

chapel hill: the gateway to carrboro

I've had a lovely weekend; my litany of reasons:

1. I met Cider on Friday afternoon and went running with her instead of playing frisbee. We bonded immediately and she told me that even though R.E.B. treated her beautifully, she liked me and was already looking forward to the next time we met. Same to you, love. (Dogs cheer me like nothing else, I've decided.)

2. Had dinner with Emily and Julia last night at Carolina Coffee House. I realized I love the way they speak, both of them: without qualifiers or fear. They see things directly and never cut corners.

3. Got to hear Guion's eloquent and persuasive defense of Anglicanism last night, along with his grievances against the Emergent Church. (And, Mom, we didn't fight about it. Not yet. Although we did argue politely about the Reformation.) I think I understand the traditional service much better now, as a devout non-denominational child. And I like the implications of the centrality of meditation in the service; the de-emphasis on the sermon and focus rather on the liturgy and the Eucharist; I wish there was more of that in the non-denominational tradition. We do not pray and meditate enough.

4. Laughing with Guion

5. Had my first visit to the gorgeous Carrboro Farmer's Market this morning with Catherine and J.Clem. I wish I had the time and money to buy all of this beautiful, organic produce. And study the movements and habitat of Carrboro folk, for they are truly a breed of their own. (You know you're in Carrboro when plastic bags disappear and everyone suddenly has more visible hair--be it dreadlocks, grizzly beards, or armpit hair for the ladies.) I was tempted to buy a plant for our room, though. Maybe next week. After the Farmer's Market, we went to the PTA thrift shop and I got three books (The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene; The Longest Journey, E.M. Forster; The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers) and a teacup and saucer for $3. Glory! I have a complete weakness for both books and ceramics, especially teacups. J.Clem was laughing about how we all "bought ourselves" during our Carrboro field trip: I got books and a teacup; Jonathan bought a espresso maker for his Cuban coffee and an assortment of books about Latin America; and Catherine got a bouquet of unusual flowers and a poster of Lambchop. And those are our personalities, summed.

6. Met Megan at Panera and talked to her for almost two hours. I love and respect her so much. It was so good to see her and I hope it'll happen again soon. It's so good to meet with friends who have known you for many years; they seem to understand one swiftly, without needing much explanation or justification. I can talk about how I feel about a situation or a person and Meg will understand without requiring me to elucidate further, drawing on my past that she already knows. The blessing of an old friend.

7. Studying with Emily in the Union. Always entertaining. Reminiscing about our girlhoods, sister wars. Complaining about Microsoft Word's inconsistent formatting and the general mendacity of textbooks. Watching her push lettuce through her teeth to see where the veins break.

8. Found out we're reading Mrs. Dalloway for my Literary Modernism class next semester.

9. Did I mention I bought a teacup?

And all this, so happy, even though I have a difficult exam looming on Wednesday. But as soon as I'm done, I'm headed home and I couldn't be more pleased with a planned movement in that direction. It's always good to go back.

(Title courtesy of infamous and pimpin' UNC economics professor Ralph Byrns, quoted in The Daily Tar Heel a few weeks ago, when asked to provide a new slogan for Chapel Hill.)

08 October, 2008

who wants to be a book critic?

I am full of a weird, quivering excitability tonight. This is because I am frantically thinking about jobs, the publishing industry, the state of journalism in the United States of America, and whether or not I have a chance. Because of this, I am not thinking nearly enough about my poetry midterm that is happening tomorrow at 9:15 a.m.

I am meeting with the career adviser for journalism next Monday and he is going to tell me what to do with my life. Whether I should stick it out with The Daily Tar Heel or whether I should court Algonquin Books for an internship next semester. What kinds of things I need to be looking for. Whether it's even possible to get a job doing what I want to do (read books and then write about them).

All this to say, I am just telling you that I am launching something, largely in preparation for this mystical, dreamlike career: The Unrehearsed Reader. No one has to read it; in fact, I'm not really expecting anyone to, but I am going to write there as often as I can make time for, so when prospective employers ask me what kind of books I've been reviewing, I can say, "Well, none officially, but I do have a BLOG!" And they'll say, "Oh, a BLOG? How ORIGINAL! You're hired!" At least. That's how it plays out in my mind.

So there you go. I'm going to be writing haphazard book reviews.

I am listening to Bjork right now. Guion would be so proud of me.

Still haven't seen Cider yet. My life is lacking a bit of joy because of this.

I want to say, Chad, I still love you even if you love J.R.R. Tolkien. I think I like to rile you up about him because you get so adorable and boyish when you get angry--all florid and clenching your fists and kicking under your chair.

Life Dream that May Never Be Fulfilled: To live in Colorado for a year.

I am going to create a Code of Conduct for Lenoir. Here are the top 4 rules, as of today:
1. Couples: There is no reason that you need to be holding hands while you are looking for food. No reason.
2. Couples: If you have the exact same hair style, maybe you shouldn't be dating.
3. All people: Do not have high-pitched hug fests in front of the escalator and block all traffic from every direction.
4. All people: If you drop your silverware on the floor, pick it up. Don't kick it under a chair.

Okay. I really have to go study some poetry now. Really.

03 October, 2008

there he is, out in the desert

"... because we're a team of mavericks! *direct WINK at camera*"

Name that quote and "increasingly adorable" vice presidential candidate!

Taking a transcendentalist holiday with the Pratts this weekend. Very excited about living deliberately.

Oh, and Cider is good. Not as good as Lewis & Clark, which is still what I'm going to call her, but it's good.

The House may pass the bailout plan. It may or may not work. The stock market is rising and falling like a vicious ocean. Wachovia was sold, along with AIG and a host of other companies that do things with money that I don't understand. Gas is running out all over the south. Palin is a heartbeat away from the presidency. The world is coming to an end? But maybe not. And even if it is, at least today is beautiful. And at least I got to mooch off of the lavishness of the UNC Creative Writing Dept. last night. And read in the graveyard gazebo one last time. And wake up to Emily, patting me on the head, and muttering sleepily, "Oh, hi. I love you." And watch three episodes of "Friends" with her. And shower. And eat three pieces of toast with raspberry jam.

Even still, I am at peace.

"So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.'" Matthew 24:26-28

27 September, 2008

people should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their rooms

I went for a run at 6:30, in the light rain, in circles around the abandoned campus. I was compelled by guilt, because Kelsey asked me at 5 if I'd go to the SRC with her and I declined. Then I thought about it, and felt, a.) that I wasn't going to do anything more productive with my time, b.) she might be judging me for not exercising, c.) I feel sluggish. It was a nice run. Jens Lenkman and Okkervil River pushed me on, up the slick bricks and around the campus buildings and down stairs. A meager accomplishment, but an accomplishment just the same.

I was filled with envy tonight when I heard that Rachel, Elizabeth and Brittany are getting a dog. I want a dog. I dreamt about them last night, dozens of homeless sweet dogs that I had to guide down dark hallways. Emily mocked me this weekend for saying that dogs brought me a deep sense of joy. (We were going back and forth on what things in life we considered restorative, leading to rest. I still think answering "dogs" is entirely legitimate.) My votes for her name: Kenya, Mecca, or India. Perfect names for a black labrador. Will you let me come over and play with her and walk her? Because I miss having a dog something tremendous.

I finished a short story tonight.

I hate it when every paragraph in my blog entry begins with "I."

"Her mind was like her room, in which lights advanced and retreated, came pirouetting and stepping delicately, spread their tails, pecked their way; and then her whole being was suffused, like the room again, with a cloud of some profound knowledge, some unspoken regret, and then she was full of locked drawers, stuffed with letters, like her cabinets." -- "The Lady in the Looking-Glass," Virginia Woolf

I love reading Time magazine. It fills me with hope for the state of American journalism. I think you will rarely find well-written news elsewhere.

Today Emily and I made a list of all of the great writers we could think of who were homosexual. Basically all of them were. We're fated to be mediocre.

We watched the presidential debates last night, flopped on our stomachs on my bed, riveted, trading commentary over the host's questions (we called him, whoever he was, The Crazy Uncle). Barack calling McCain "Jim" and "Tom": hilarious. McCain giving tedious history lessons when The Crazy Uncle wasn't listening at all: also hilarious. Overall: who can tell who won? I know where my allegiances lie, but I am so deeply Middle Wing that I'm afraid I'm too trustworthy to say. (Emily naturally chose Obama, but tonight namely because of his impeccable pronounciation of "Taliban" and "Iraq" and "Pakistan.")

Hearing: "Lump Sum," Bon Iver, and "Mykonos," Fleet Foxes
Reading: The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James; A Haunted House and Other Stories, Woolf
Eating: the amazing trail mix that Emily made today (dried pineapple, cashews, chocolate chips)
Thinking: I am restful. I like that I am wearing my yoga clothes now, without any intention of doing anything even mildly resembling yoga.

24 September, 2008

let's reckon with the sun

Because someone loves being a poli.sci. major
Emily: "I could talk about the Treaty of Versailles all day long. I don't care who you are, but that's interesting shit."

Reflections on Jesus
Me: "I just don't know where He's coming from; it's so out of the blue."
Guion: "Yeah, it's like He said He wanted to paint dwarves in chocolate."
Me: (wide-eyed stare) ...
Guion: "Yeah, I said it."

Palin in political cartoon
Angela Tchou: "She's a tempest in a C-cup! Oh, wait, I mean teacup."

In other news,

Joyce Carol Oates does not make a persuasive adolescent boy
There happens to be an unnecessary bulge in Jonathan's Korean textbook
We're in the third season of "College," but the DVDs haven't come out yet
I am getting incrementally worse at frisbee
Emily sleeps with a bare foot dangling over the side of the bed
It's a universal truth that you can't get anything worthwhile accomplished in 30 minutes
The world is getting smaller
Taro Aso was chosen as the new prime minister of Japan in a landslide election
Hey, Bush Administration! You can't impose reconciliation!
I actually kind of enjoy News Editing
"The words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living."

Je vis un rêve permanent, qui ni s'arrête ni nuit ni jour.

19 September, 2008

swallowed up by life

I made Irish stew last night with Johnny for the guys, Alex and Shaun's priest. While I so much enjoy everyone who haunts that house, I really love the company of people older than me, and Father Wall certainly provided fabulous company last night. He drank an abundance of red wine and laughed and told us stories about crashing bar mitzvahs and seeing exorcisms and getting slapped in the face by a saint. He walked around their house, exclaiming, "You guys are too much! This is just too much!" And burst out with the same expression when we sat down to eat. There's something magnetic to me about a person who is 50 years my senior; sometimes I get a little tired of hanging out with people who are all the same age. (That's one of my many homeschool inheritances: I often am more at ease around adults and sometimes even prefer their company to my peers'.) I love hearing people who have lived twice as long as I have tell stories. They just have so much more to tell.

"For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened--not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life" (2 Corinthians 5:4). I think that's one of the most interesting (and possibly paradoxical) ways to say that: that death would be swallowed up by life. But it's true; here we are in the Kingdom of Paradoxes.

I might go for a run now. I might not.

Living with Emily is amazing; I love it. Something funny/cute she does: Something you must understand about Emily is that she is impeccably polite and eager to serve. So if I ever offer her something--like a handful of goldfish or a pillow or a cup of tea--she'll usually say, "No, I'm fine," and then offer to get ME something, but I've learned that, in Emilyspeak, this means she'd actually like some. So I just ignore her mannerly refusals and give it to her anyway. And she laughs and accepts it.

Something else I love about living with Emily: coming back to our room after class and finding her there. She sits in the egg chair draped in the yellow blanket and I sit on my bed and we talk forever, laughing, bragging, explaining, advising. She is my good therapy.

The weather is cooler now, desirable, pleasant. I look forward to walking to class because it gives me an excuse to be outside. The advent of fall stirs something electric in my veins.

When I'm not reading novels and poems for class, I am very slowly working through Joyce Carol Oates's Them. So far, I think I like it. It's a nice, tragic American family saga. I really love those. It's what Steinbeck does so well, you know. And I think Oates does it well, too. She may be a little heavy on The Point of This Book sometimes (Women vs. Men), but her style is usually skillful enough that the pecadillo is easily overlooked.

Two girls on our hall last night made a sandcastle. In their room. At 2 a.m.

Thanks to Guion, I am now in love with Bon Iver. You can add him to my list of crushes (which, I would like to point out, is considerably shorter than Guion's, which is currently topping off at about 16. I think I only have six: Andrew Bird, Sam Beam, Sufjan Stevens, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, and now Bon Iver.)

10 September, 2008

in the company

A grim, rainy afternoon. I was standing under a lamppost, waiting for Catherine, watching the streams of people go by with set faces. Emily somehow spotted me and laughed, telling me I looked like a creeper. Catherine soon converged with us and we came back to our room and ate an assemblage of things (sandwiches, hummus, pita, carrots, pistachios) while listening to French and Arabic rap. As we sat in separate spaces of the room, making random remarks, I thought about how good it is to be merely in the company of others. We didn't have to be making conversation; it was fulfilling to just sit in the same room with the two of them, looking occasionally at them, asking a varied question or two, sitting apart and yet we were very much together. That was my impression, anyway.

Received a hilarious update from home from Grace, who informed us that Dad, since learning the triple-step swing at dance lessons with Mom, is convinced he's slowly becoming gay, and that Sam ("Little Bro Peep," as we like to call him), since getting braces, is convinced that he can only eat liquefied foods. Mom is fine and normal and "exceptionally fit," as Grace says. "Doesn't it suck to have a mom in better shape than yourself?" Good to know that things are progressing as usual on the homefront.

Triumphantly finished Moby Dick last week and am now trucking through Uncle Tom's Cabin for the third time. It hasn't much improved. But I find I am more tolerant of Stowe's stock characters, so Dickensian in their black-and-white moral compositions, because, hey, it was 1851. And she wrote something culture-altering, which is more than most of us can say.

I am going to a career fair for English majors later this afternoon. "Isn't that an oxymoron?" Catherine asked. Yes, it is.

I like The New York Times, but sometimes they are ridiculous. Is Kim Jong Il suffering from a stroke, or is that just rumor? Why is the fact that Salman Rushdie was not nominated for the Booker Award newsworthy? Do we really need a full article on how McCain embraces and kisses Palin and Mrs. McCain, contrasted with how much things have changed since Geraldine Ferraro? Probably not. Ladies and gentlemen, the American Press: a dying industry that I hope will still make room for another superfluous voice -- mine.

Playing frisbee is gratifying to the soul. As is a block of medium-sharp cheddar cheese.

30 August, 2008

of whales, grammar, and eavesdropping

Sitting down with a good book and the task of a three-page explication is a deeply enjoyable practice to me. Today I need to operate on the whiteness chapter in Moby Dick and I can't think of an assignment I'd rather have, reclining here in my bed at home, listening to M. Ward and Joanna Newsom (yes, really). Moby Dick has far surpassed my initial expectations. I read it for the first time when I was 16, which I now realize was too young to appreciate anything from this occasionally exhausting whaling epic. I hated it then, but now I've become something of a quiet fan. Melville is full of poetic surprises; you just have to wade through the minutiae to find them. It's worth it in the end, I believe.

One exemplary passage, stuck in the middle of a narrative from Ishmael about being tied to Queequeg while stabbing at a half-dead whale:

"I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your bankers breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die."

I like this observation and it strikes me as very Woolfian; that we are all tied to one another and thus we will all go down together. It also brings to mind what Alex Kirk was talking about at IV last Thursday, how all of humanity is hard-wired for community. Every facet of the human design is dependent upon relationships: biological, emotional, spiritual. And so the gospel has no function if it is divorced from the context of community.

Taking the News Editing class has revived my inner Grammar and Punctuation Stickler and I must admit I rather like having her back. It's like living with spicy, keen-eyed demons, being perpetually on the hunt for various stylistic peccadillos. The demons make you unpleasant to most everyone, and they are only satiated when they strike upon some poor fool's misplacement of an apostrophe or something of the same kind. I try to keep the vocal unpleasantness down to a low murmur, but I do so adore precision in language.

(Things Overheard Last Week)

The Funniest Question Ever Asked in an English Class
"That's ironic, right?" -- some kid who sits near me in American Novel

Decline of Faith in Modern Medicine
"I'm going to take them, but I know they're not going to do any good. Doctors are stupid, Mom, remember?" -- boy in flannel shirt in Lenoir

Evidently, he hasn't adventured in the Midwest
"Yeah, this was filmed in Illinois." -- Guion, remarking on the mountainous scenery of "Donnie Darko." The film was shot in the San Gabriel Mountains of California.

Really? We go to the same school?
"And then, I was like... Ohmygod, Amy! I lost my cell phone! ... Wait. I'm talking on it right now." -- girl, on her cell phone, walking through Winston.

18 August, 2008

for peace comes dropping slow

Coming back to school every year is a little bit like beginning a new life--or at least picking up that life you left behind for a summer. It feels good to fall into the old rhythms and simultaneously create new ones.

Things I have done today that I have missed doing:

Read The Daily Tarheel and wrestled with the crossword
Walked through the Pit and saw familiar faces
Helped a freshman figure out the printing system at Davis
Looked at syllabi for my classes
Made fun and slightly awkward bathroom conversation with new girls on the hall
Sitting in the Connor Quad and watching people walk
Leafed through my textbooks
Called numerous people and said, "Yes, let's meet up sometime soon"
Actually making plans to meet up sometime soon

While navigating the mad mobs of Fall Fest last night with Guion (it was rather like following a powerful magnet; people just attach themselves to him and I think he introduced me to easily sixty people in the span of half an hour) I noticed that I forget how incredibly beautiful and ALIVE my friends are until I see them again. It's not that I don't think of them during the summer; but I am so impressed by their sheer reality when I see them again--a hug, a hand on your shoulder, all of the little physical movements that say, Yes, I remember you; I value your presence. I have missed this. I want to fill up this year with that.

A happy heart.

14 August, 2008

meditations on a gift shop

While working at Mom's store, anchored behind the counter, I have plenty of time to think, plenty of time to memorize every item on the freshly painted shelves in front of me. (The summers are especially slow at the store.) I was thinking yesterday about the different kinds of women in this city, the ones who choose to visit The Beehive. There are glamorous women, tired women, focused women, silly women. They interest me. I wound my cold legs around each other and put on my best and whitest smile, trying to look less like a waxed piece of furniture and more like a useful human, and thought about how women shop, how women interact with another.

There is a particular science to greeting our customers. You have to time it just right--cue a bright "Hi, how are you doing," or "Hi, let us know if we can help you with anything," as soon as she steps in front of the fireplace, taking those slow steps that indicate she's just browsing and looking for nothing in particular. If she is walking quickly and her head is up, you know she's looking for something specific and so you hold off on the greeting until she comes back to the counter with her prey. Once a woman comes up to the counter, I always make it a point to look her in the eye and smile. It's really amazing how much this can change a person. Most women come in with hard, set faces and crossed arms. But once you look them straight in the eye and smile, their faces unfold like flowers and the glimmer of the human surfaces. I love this.

It's most amusing when men come in. Our clientele is easily 95 percent female, and so the rare man who walks in is always accorded special attention. Mainly because as soon as a man walks in, his countenance suddenly switches from Decisive Businessman to Nervous Youth. He knows, instinctively, that he's just crossed over into Woman Territory and there are no masculine comforts for him here. Men usually look lost in The Beehive; women, on the other hand, are clear-eyed and determined. Because of this, my mom and aunt have always said, "You can sell a man basically anything in here. He has no idea what he's looking for. And so you just suggest something and he'll get it." This tends to be generally true. Something about this intrigues me--that there can be a uniquely feminine space, that it can exist or even be created. And that it makes men uneasy. (I wonder if there is an equivalent for women, a purely male sphere that makes women fidget.)

Am studying Leviticus for the next few weeks. A question that was raised in my mind by this morning's chapter: Does corporate sin/corporate culpability for wrongdoing still exist under the New Covenant? I ought to know this, or at least recall some justification either way in the New Testament, but I haven't invested the time in researching the answer yet. It just struck me as curious. Consequences of our sin affect the entire Body (if one part fails, the rest are hindered), but to what extent is this true since we are no longer under the law but under grace? Oh, Leviticus. Who knew you could be so troublesome?

Finished Babbitt and it was fantastic. I am amazed at how little Americans have changed in 80 years; we are still struggling with the same Vision and Ideals, the same conflicting ideas of Democracy, the same family issues, the same fake churches and posturing leaders that Babbitt was. Lewis is right on the money with his portrayal of the deep irony of American Life, which is at once mundane and complex. Excellent book. Moving on next to Dostoevsky's The Possessed and the fall semester of my junior year. Glory! It's hard to believe.

11 August, 2008

faith is an island in the setting sun

Okay, so I underestimated the Midwest. It was far prettier than I remembered, and I had a genuinely lovely few days there, thanks in large part to my family and my Dad's family. We had a relaxing and full time in Ohio and Indiana, filled with lots of laughter, Roachdale, resuscitated memories, corn detassling, and the Olympics. The chances to love and be loved. And then half of us made it back for Paul and Alex's gorgeous and quasi-Jewish wedding last night. They both looked amazing, full of an eagerness that is wholly deserved, since they've been waiting to get married for twelve years. And it was great to see all of the old high school friends, too, to note how we've changed and how we've stayed the same. The convergence of memories and remainders of old lives and all that sort of thing that happens when you meet people you were once intimate with.

Watching the Olympics makes me acquire all sorts of weird emotions. On one side, I love seeing these men and women who are incredibly good at what they do, but on the other, I think most of them are so doped up that it's hard to know who deserves the credit. And then I am humbled by their skill and devotion, and on the other side I'm critiquing them as if I were qualified to. But the best thing I've seen so far, because it was so inspiring and genuine, was the men's 400M freestyle relay. Go watch the clip of it somewhere online (NBC, maybe?) if you haven't already.

Oh, and Kels and I got a car. It's just the most darling, ugly-as-sin little thing you've ever seen. You have to kick it to get it to start in the morning. But I won't complain. It'll be nice to have a form of transportation, however cheap, around Chapel Hill.

What is the What was powerful, as I expected it to be, but not in a cheesy or predictable manner. Eggers skillfully avoids what I think would be a common pitfall of writing about a Sudanese refugee: turning him into a continual hero or model of Faith and Perseverance Against All Odds. Even though that is Valentino Achak Deng's story, Eggers never lets one forget that Deng is, above all else, not much different from anyone else. He's human. We're human. And humans do terrible things to each other, both on that continent and this. Very well-written, highly recommended to those of you who like to read things.

And I really like Gillian Welch. I admit it without shame.

(5 points to the person who can name where the title of this post comes from without Googling it.)

06 August, 2008

the doldrums of the nation

On the verge of heading out--the Family Excursion to the Midwest will soon be underway. I've always really liked appropriating the word "midwest" as an adjective for "mundane; average." Such as, "This book is the midwest of realist fiction," or, "Oh, her style is so very midwestern." This tendency to use this word perhaps suggests my lack of enthusiasm about this last summer hurrah, but I am looking forward to riding in the car with our family (always this ridiculous blend of outrageous humor and deep silence) and reading (bringing What is the What, Babbitt, and Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ). And, of course, seeing family on the paternal side, who are always brilliant, beautiful, and complex.

Went to Charleston for a night with Kels, Grace, Maria, and Sarah. I felt old and ugly around all of them, but they tolerated me and called me Dad. How sweet. We had a great time together, got burnt, sang in the car, and collected a fair number of embarrassing/incriminating stories. As to be expected of any girls' trip.

Thought while riding the bus back from work: Sleeping in public is a grotesquely vulnerable thing. Watching people sleep in public, that is. It doesn't disgust me (contrary to my use of the word "grotesque," which I debated about, but I think it works); rather, I am fascinated to see this complete loss of self and personal composure that happens when people fall asleep in public places. On the bus, on the train, on a bench... it takes great self-confidence and individual abandon to accomplish, I think.

"I want to have a love affair with negative space."--spoken by Grace, while she was practicing sumi-e the other night.

I break into gleaming smiles when I think about seeing everyone again at school; most everyone fresh from abroad, their mouths full of stories and laughter, back in their customary places on campus, the same and yet very much changed. I love being on the verge of joyful reunions.

27 July, 2008

american laze

And so I am home, home, beautifully home.

Isn't it funny how easily one falls back into the rhythm of ordinary life? Magically evading jet lag, I have slipped back into the lazy harmony of the summer I left: a cup of tea for breakfast, sitting at the counter and watching the cars pass, lounging in our bedroom with my sisters, the fans whirring, the conversation fading in and out, punctuated by bursts of laughter, and all is still, soft blue, and sunlight. A happy heart.

Fell in love with a Stravinsky song today. I credit my parents for cultivating this love of classical music in me as a child, and Catherine for rekindling it last year. We used to always play it at home, mainly because Dad loved it and it always lulled Kelsey into a state of transfixion that led to the creation of her nickname, "The Potted Plant." Dad used to play a game with us when we listened, in which we would try to identify all of the instruments being played at that moment.

In the service this morning, I was reminded of this little truth: God spares His own (in re Malachi 3:17). It was so refreshing to be reminded of this by someone else, to pray corporately. How good it felt to pray with others and how long it has been since I have been able to do that! And yet it was almost good, this absence from it, because I was startled by it this morning--astonished by that onrush of collective emotion that strikes my heart to hear others praying; it was suddenly made new again, as if I was experiencing it for the first time.

Almost finished with The Years now. Will move onto The Metamorphosis next, maybe for just a day or two. And then I'll start Babbitt, which I've been saving all summer. Hope it's worth it.

In my circle of friends, saying anything positive about America is shameful. We pass our days passing judgment on the state of the American church, American politics, American foreign policy, American food life, American values, American education. However, I would like to step out of this circle temporarily and admit, freely and for once unashamedly, that living in Japan for a summer made me grateful for America in a way that I haven't been before. I love the creative, pioneering American spirit (which is not nurtured in Japan; on the contrary, it is suppressed very early on in a child's education). I love the American landscape and wide open spaces. I love American music and even American TV. And I love American pizza. Gosh, I love a good, greasy American pizza.

Excited to see everyone again in a few weeks. I have a feeling this is going to be, in the words of VH1, the Best Year Ever.

22 July, 2008

a traveller's sayonara

My last week in Japan! Despite all of the moments of mental misery, these two months have gone by quickly. I am flying out of Narita on Friday afternoon and will arrive at RDU sometime that evening, after having crossed enough date lines to make my mind spin. But I don't mind. At this point, I'd swim home. Still, I survived and I learned so much--not just about the Japanese language, but about God, silence, the Japanese people and their way of life, and myself, essentially. And these are lessons that I wouldn't trade, not even for a long summer at home in my own bed. Perseverance, character; and character, hope, and all that sort of thing, you know?

Diane and I had a marvelous time in Nikko this weekend. Even though it was our compromise for not being able to go to Kyoto, I think Nikko may have been the better place to go. Our hostel was right across the street from the biggest lake in Japan and it was pristine, calm, utterly gorgeous. (You'll have to see the photos for proof; they're up on Flickr.) We hiked all day long (seriously. I think we walked a total of ten miles in a mere two days. We walked and climbed everywhere, because no matter how expensive the buses or trains are, your legs are always free. Up mountains, down mountains, around lakes. You name it; we walked there).

We basked in and around the glory of the lake (Chuzenjiko), trekked up rivers, saw waterfalls, rice fields, the beauty of the Japanese countryside, which is, in my opinion, far superior to the muscular, jarring roar of Tokyo. As Saul Bellow writes in the book I just finished (More Die of Heartbreak): "Tokyo and Osaka are villes fourmillantes, they swarm. Any door you pull releases hundreds of people. You can’t open a closet without finding somebody sitting in it. Lift a manhole cover and they come streaming out. " Nikko was, mercifully, nothing of the sort. We spent three hours trekking around the lake and, to our astonishment and delight, didn't see a soul.

We had no agenda, no places to be at any certain time, and most of all, no homework to finish and no grammar to memorize. It was precisely the rest that we needed and I am infinitely grateful for it. We dipped our feet in the lake at sunset, read books and ate lunch on rocks in a river, watched a child-eating crow carry away our garbage, survived sleeping in a room with five strange men (one who snored like a chainsaw at two in the morning), took photos, enjoyed the strange looks we received because of Diane's old man pants (a story which I'll probably recount in one of the photo captions).

Diane was patient with me, even when I got irritable and stubborn--("Look! We'll just go down this mountain and I'm sure the waterfall is on the other side!" "No. Diane. I am not walking. Any. Further. There is not a trail there and even if there was, the waterfall is not up this mountain. It's down there." She would just shrug and hop down from a ledge, quite nimbly considering the crotch of her pants was between her knees. But even though I was grumpy, I would still like to add that I was right...) I think traveling brings out one’s true personality; it uncovers what you have sitting in the bottom of your heart, both the ugly and the good. This has been an interesting (and occasionally frightening) thing to learn.

So Nikko was grand. I would go again and take you with me.

Yesterday I had fried octopus balls for lunch.

After two months in Japan, I think my English skills have deteriorated considerably, so forgive me if my writing isn't entirely coherent. I imagine I'll need some time back home to re-acquire the ability for creating clear English composition.

Haven't the words to describe my eagerness to see all of your beautiful faces. I am homeward bound!

14 July, 2008

all is calm, all is bright

I stood in the middle of the dark street, hot and flushed after my two-mile run, and looked up at the slightly obscured moon. The clouds had created a halo around it. Pausing there in the road, I found a childish and yet wholly soothing sense of security from these lines that floated to the surface of my thoughts:

I see the moon and the moon sees me
God sees the moon and God sees me

I must have stood there for ten minutes or more, breathing, praying, thinking. The neighbor girl was practicing "Silent Night" on the piano and I smiled, thinking how appropriate the song seemed at that moment. She played hesitantly and yet with the jaunty flourish of an amateur pianist that somehow can make a simple song sound pretty. I was happy to be standing there, sweaty and tired, alone in the middle of the road in a Japanese neighborhood. Just watching the moon. Because the moon--it does not change. No matter how far away from home I might be, the moon is the same.

You hem me in, behind and before...

11 July, 2008

wearing down

The days here pass in a curious succession, alternating between incredibly long (like yesterday) and ridiculously fast (like today). It's hard to believe I have only 14 days left here, although I will admit I am rather ready to come home. Everyone on our program is feeling the same way at this point. I don't think any of us were prepared for just how intense and exhausting it would be to take a full year of advanced Japanese in a mere two months. All that to say, we are very much looking forward to being in Narita Airport on July 25.

There have been sad days, but there have been good ones, too. Wednesday was a sad day, and the sticky gray fog only compounded my gloomy mood. As soon as I got to class I was already on the brink of tears, but managed to suppress them all day long... until dinner. (Dinner is my one part of the day where I get to have genuine conversations with my host mom. It's probably my favorite part of my week, and also the space in which I think my Japanese improves the most.) During a pause at dinner, holding my little rice bowl with a slightly shaking hand, I tried to eke out an apology of sorts: "Watashi wa... warui hosuto-musume ga itte moushi wake de wa arimasen... mainichi, benkyoushiteiru bakari... jikan ga nai kara, isshoni hanashimasen..." and the tears came, silently, without much fanfare, and dripped onto my plate of somen. (Translation, in quite broken Japanese: I am sorry that I've been such a bad host daughter. Every day, I'm always studying, and since I don't have any time, we don't get to talk together.) I think I totally alarmed her, for she looked up with a startled face and then launched into a fifteen-minute homily in Japanese about how I was absolutely fine, how they loved having me, how I shouldn't worry about anything, &c. Really, I just needed to cry, and so it felt good just to do that.

Still, today has been exciting and tear-free. This afternoon, we mixed our class with a class of Japanese students who are taking English to do presentations on our cultures. The Japanese students presented in English and we presented in Japanese. I teamed up with Rebecca and we attempted to tackle a survey of religion in America in a mere five minutes. Despite our limited amount of time and preparation, I think we did a fairly good job. The students who heard our presentation seemed especially surprised to find out the real meaning behind Christmas and Easter, which Rebecca did a fabulous job explaining. Finally getting the chance to interact with Japanese students--to have to use what you know of the language in real time, instead of in a stifled classroom environment--is always energizing to me.

Next weekend Diane and I are taking day-trip to Nikko to see the lavish shrine, famous waterfalls, and monkeys! Very excited. Hope that our hostel won't be as sketchy as it looks and that our trip will be the rest that we have earned.

03 July, 2008

guyasumi: fragmentary communication

On my morning train, I always see the same little girl. She is probably nine or ten and she usually wears a pink hat each day. Like all Japanese children, she is incredibly cute. In the past, when we happen to be riding in the same car, she looks at me with a shy smile and makes a deep bow. I smile back and bow too. I hadn't seen her for a week, maybe, but yesterday morning we were in the same car and she actually sat beside me. When she walked over, we exchanged smiles of recognition. She sat quietly beside me as I read W. Somerset Maugham, but now I'm regretting that I didn't speak with her; talking to her would be infinitely more rewarding than Maugham, who I'm finding rather tiresome now anyway. As she got off the train, she stood and with a bashful wave, turned back to me and said, "Bye!" (In English.) I smiled and waved and said it back, feeling all the more resolved to talk with her next time we meet. The little things mean so much to me here; just that one word and smile from her made my entire day.

Being in Chiba and its surrounding environs has made me incredibly curious when I see other gaijin ("foreigner," especially Caucasian ones) around here, because they are so rare. I always stare at them and try to discern what on earth they're doing in Japan. It's not terribly uncommon to see gaijin at the more bustling tourist spots in Tokyo, but here in the suburbs, we are very few and far between. Today there was a middle-aged gaijin man on the train, carrying on a conversation with the woman beside him, and I was full of curiosity what he could possibly be doing here. It's funny, too, though; whenever we gaijin pass each other, we always stare at one another (much longer than the Japanese stare at us) as if we were wondering the exact same thing, "What are YOU doing here?"

Played tennis yesterday with Diane and Iku, one of the students here at Kanda. The courts were shimmering with the heat and we sweated ("glistened," Diane insists) tons, but it was great fun. Diane and Iku teamed up against me and we didn't keep score but shouted back and forth the whole time in Japanese and English, laughing at how terrible we were. As we played I was reminded that exercise is tremendously important to keep one mentally and spiritually sound. This is something of a motto for my family. After God and each other, maintaining an active lifestyle is probably the next highest priority. It's one that I never really bought much into until this past year, when I started to realize how very true it was. I'm hoping that the rain will hold off on Friday, for I am trying to organize a Frisbee game (which ought to be very interesting, since Frisbee in Japan is only something you do with dogs).

Nana, my three-year-old host sister, is a bundle of energy and raucous laughter and even though she can be "urusasugiru" (too noisy) sometimes, she's a lot of fun and rather attached to me. Whenever I come home each day, she likes to proclaim it to the entire household, if not the entire neighborhood: "MAMA! MAMA! ABBY-SAN KAETTA! OKAERI! OKAERI!" (Transl. Mom, Mom, Abby's home! Welcome home! Welcome home!) And every night, when I say "Oyasumi nasai" to the family, she gets really excited and and jumps up and down, shouting, "Oyasumi! Goodnight! Oyasumi! Goodnight!" (Interchanging the Japanese and English.) Lately, she gets so worked up that she's blended them into one word: "Guyasumi!" Keiko and I always laugh a lot at this, but she's so delighted to bid me good night that she doesn't even notice.

I have a deep fondness for Risa, the six-year-old girl. She is quiet and sweet and I can't even begin to explain her eyes. When she looks at me, I sense that she is perpetually brimming over with thoughtfulness and sincerity ("seijitsu"--something like a cross between "earnest" and "honest"; I like how the two are mixed in the same word); she understands that I don't understand many things. But we carry on little conversations in our own little way and she teaches me new words every day. (Like "pinwheel" and "balloon" and the name of the tree in the front yard, which I'm afraid I've already forgotten.) She praises my kanji and I praise her kana reading abilities. It's a curious position to be in--I can read more kanji than she can, but she knows infinitely more words than I do. So when she asks me to help her read some instructions for one of her art projects, I can read it (notwithstanding the characters I haven't learned yet, which at this point is still about 5,800) but I can't always understand what it means. But if I can read it out loud, she understands what it means.

And so literacy is a very complicated thing in Japan because of the immense difficulty of their written language. Yet Japan is the country with one of the highest literacy rates in the entire world (98% of the population can read). This is really a remarkable statistic, considering that their written language is arguably the most difficult on earth (even more than Chinese, apparently, which is something I was surprised to learn last week; if you want to know why, ask me and I'll explain it to you; I don't much feel like writing it out here). Elementary school children learn approximately 1,000 kanji and middle schoolers learn another 1,500. By the time you reach high school, you gradually acquire another 1,000 or so. So there are about 3,500 kanji in general usage but over 6,500 in the total language. It's bizarre to be in a society where everyone is very well-educated, but you still can't fully comprehend a newspaper until you're in sixth grade. Most of the time it's just discouraging; I feel like I'll never get there. The newspaper is still mostly confusing black strokes to me. (Although I got really excited yesterday when I could actually read an entire article and understand it. An enormous accomplishment.) Can someone please tell me why I chose the most difficult possible language for an English-speaker to learn? I'm beginning to forget why.

In a semi-related vein, I've been feeling a bit glum lately and almost waver back and forth with this feeling that I want to leave. It's not that I want to leave Japan exactly, but I really want to leave these classes. I don't think I've ever felt so mentally exhausted in my entire life. But being able to play tennis yesterday released a lot of those pent up black clouds and I am feeling a bit more optimistic. Especially since I finished my homework for today and am about to take the train back home, which I think might be my favorite part of the day.

30 June, 2008

food life in japan

On Saturday we toured the Meiji Jingu shrine (happened to see a beautiful and solemn traditional Shinto wedding procession there), Harajuku and all of its fashionable madness, Asakusa and the temple and souvenir shops, and Odaiba's packed skyline and peaceful bay. It was an exhausting day, but enlightening; I felt like I got closer to the pulse of the city than I ever have before. I'm still not sure what to make of it, but maybe that's the secret of Tokyo's draw: it forces one to suspend all judgments because even if you try to make them, you'll be thwarted by the sheer dynamism of this place.

Even though it was fascinating to see all of these different parts of the area, I think my favorite part of the day was sitting on the rocks by the bay with Diane, taking off our shoes and listening to the lapping water, squinting to make the skyline look prettier. (*A side note: Tokyo is, by any respects, not a strikingly beautiful place. There is no gorgeous skyline or breathtaking landscape. However, the attraction of Tokyo lies in finding those pockets of beauty scattered throughout the city. I have found them on occasion and they are so refreshing because they are almost always startling. "What! Something beautiful in Tokyo!") We sat there for a while, just resting and talking of many things. We even got to witness two high school boys jump ship from one of the dinner boats, swim to an island of rocks, and proceed to strip down to their boxers, cheering and waving the whole time. This place is never dull, that's for sure.

An excessive amount of photographs from this day tour have been posted to Flickr. Enjoy them at your leisure.

One more aspect of Japanese life that I am really drawn to is hara-hachi-bu: the principle of eating until one is 80 percent satiated. When I asked about it, my host father confirmed that this was a very important aspect of Japanese food life. Basically it means, don't gorge yourself on food; eat proper portions and waste nothing. Compared to American food, Japanese portions seems horribly miniscule--but I think this is a purely psychological reaction, since we Americans have been trained to expect truckloads of food every where we go.

At first, I too thought all of the servings looked tiny, and I was sure I'd still be hungry afterwards, but I've found this is really not the case. Now that I'm accustomed to smaller Japanese portions, I find that they are just right. This is one of the contributing factors, I'm sure, as to why the Japanese are almost all very trim. (I've only seen a few fat people here, and one of them was a sumo on the train, so that doesn't even count.) And why nearly 65 percent of Americans look like blimps. Plus! By using chopsticks, one is not tempted to shovel food in one's mouth, as one does with a fork or a spoon. Chopsticks are brilliant. I would eat with them every day back home if it wouldn't look so Asian-pretentious...

So. Anyhow. I plan on working harder to adopt this philosophy of eating into my daily life when I come home. Who knows? I might even write a book: Japanese Women Don't Get Fat...

26 June, 2008

sleeping on the train

Japanese commuters have this absolutely uncanny ability to fall dead asleep on the train, and then sit up, completely awake, the instant the train reaches their stop. It's the kind of limp, lifeless sleep of babies in the car: the head heavy with sleep that lolls over to one side, only to jerk back up as if being pulled by a marionette's string. They look absolutely lost in sleep. I wish I could take pictures of these people, because it happens without fail every time I ride the train, but I feel like that's something a creeper would do, and it's probably quite socially unacceptable.

But, regardless, it's this fascinating thing to me. Because riding the train is this bizarre in-between time where you are moving from point A to point B and you have to fill it somehow. Most Japanese commuters choose to sleep. The ones who aren't tend to either read or text on their cellphones. But never talk. No one talks.

The sleepers I like the best though. I wish I could draw like Grace, because I'm sure I'd spend my "in between" time on the trains sketching their faces. Whether it's the old man with the heavy cheeks that tremble slightly as the train lurches down the tracks, or the high school girl in her uniform bent almost in half, or the young man with the wild hair who fans his face subconsciously, they are all immensely interesting. Perfect characters. It is definitely the confession of a creeper, but watching strangers sleep on a train is one of the most interesting things to do.

Physical contact with others is something very absent in Japanese daily life. You don't shake hands (you bow, of course) and you never hug. Couples might hold hands, but even that is not quite socially okay. But the train is yet again this strange in-between place, because it's the one spot each day that you are pressed up against dozens of people and there's nothing you can do about it. Even when you're sitting down, your legs and arms are usually right up on top of your neighbor.

I'm one of those annoying people who likes to touch people when I talk to them--like a brief touch on the arm to make a point or a hug or a handshake--and so it's been a bit hard, actually, living in this culture where you touch no one. I can't remember the last person I hugged; I certainly haven't hugged anyone here. And aside from the strange Japanese man in Ueno Park who wanted to shake my hand, I haven't really even touched anyone since coming here. So being on the train is curious--it's like I have to remember what another human being feels like and it's shocking to me.

This morning, I sat beside a sarari-man ("salaryman"--term for a Japanese businessman) who was dead asleep. As with everyone else on the train, his legs and arms were pressed right up against mine. He was nearly bent in half with sleep and as the train swayed, he leaned back and forth until, at one point, his head was actually resting on my shoulder. I'm sure he wasn't even aware of this, because as soon as we reached his stop, he, with this uncanny knack, snapped awake and moved away from me, as if he were embarrassed to be caught asleep. He straightened his jacket and walked off the train and I almost laughed, trying to lasso my thoughts around this strange space of the morning train.

23 June, 2008

gaijin!

Quick story, and then back to answering emails and posting photos:

Every morning as I ride my bicycle to the train station, I take the same route as all of the neighborhood kids who are walking to school. Unlike Japanese adults, Japanese kids--as kids anywhere would do in the same situation--stare openly at me in wonderment; I'm the only white person in the neighborhood. Usually they do nothing more than stare, and so I'll smile and wave, and they smile and wave back slowly, with slightly shocked faces.

But this morning was a little different. I passed a pack of nine- or ten-year-old boys who, when they saw me, shouted, "Gaijin! Gaijin!" and began to chase after me, laughing. ("Gaijin" is a term for a white foreigner.) The group, which initially was only three or four, quickly caught on and soon I was being chased by nearly a dozen little Japanese boys, running as fast as their legs could carry them. Once the last one finally tired out, I slowed down, turned around and waved, calling out, "Ohayo gozaimasu!" brightly ("Good morning"). Their faces fell open in amazement--this ignorant gaijin girl could actually speak a bit of Japanese!--and then they broke out in giggles, leaning on each other in congratulation of a good gaijin chase.

It was a funny way to begin the morning and it made me laugh.

In other news, classes keep me too busy for anything but studying. But I have seen lots of good museums and gotten sufficiently lost in downtown Ueno, so you'll have to see the photographs for the rest of the story...

18 June, 2008

bathing

From what I have noticed, Japan is very much a culture of routine. Once a daily routine is established, it is followed religiously, almost without exception. For example, every morning at 8:30, I pass a tiny old woman who sells huge vegetables next to the futuristic playground. And every morning at 8:30, she is visited by another tiny old woman and her Shiba Inu (the national dog of Japan; they look like adorable little foxes) with the red harness. And every evening at 5:20, as I bike back home from the station, I pass the kid in his karate uniform speeding home, the old man on the bench who takes off his prosthetic leg for a moment, and the circle of women who bring out their dogs to play. Rain or shine, these things happen every day. Dinner at my house here also happens at nearly the same time every night and if it happens to be earlier or later, Keiko apologizes profusely as if it were a grave misdemeanor. You always take off your shoes when you enter the house or a grade school. You always use an umbrella, never a rain jacket, because if you used a jacket, when you get on the train, you may get other people wet. You always use the same set phrases when you leave home, come home, eat dinner, finish dinner, wake up, go to bed (there is no variation in the phrases and if you try to forge one, no one understands what you are saying). You take your baths at night, after dinner.

Speaking of baths! The Japanese style of bathing is amazing. I really wish I could bring it back to America with me, but we'd have to completely refashion our bathrooms. The bath room in Japan is probably the only room in the house that is bigger than it absolutely has to be, probably because it's such an important part of the day. The room at my house here contains a very deep bathtub, a plastic tiled floor, a sink with a long mirror, a detachable shower head, and a number of shelves for shampoo and such. It's about the size of my walk-in closet at home, I'd say. And this is how the bath routine works: first, you rinse your body with the little showerhead and soap up, using as little water as possible (always turning it off in between stages). After you've cleaned all the soap off, you get into the very hot bathwater and soak for awhile--the most glorious feeling at the end of a long day! You have to be certain not to get any soap residue in the bathwater, because it's used by the whole family for rest of the night. Once you have melted away all the stresses of the day, you're done. It's so great; it's probably my favorite part of the evening, right after my post-dinner conversations with Keiko, which I love.

Tonight I am going to a karaoke bar for the first time (really quite apprehensive about that, but it's the thing to do here, so we'll see how that goes) and on Friday we are going to be visiting the Edo Museum in Tokyo. Really looking forward to that. Since arriving here, my interest in Japanese history has peaked and I am eager to learn whatever I can that will shed some light on this curious little island that is so dear to me.

And: Got to talk to Guion on Skype today! Highlight of the afternoon.

15 June, 2008

the sound of silence

There is a stillness here that hangs between the branches of the little trees and blankets the narrow gravel walkways. Even during the busy morning commute, there is a silence on the streets. It lingers on the faces of the people packed on the morning train, pressed up against each other with stoic, expressionless faces. No one speaks. They have a quietness around their mouths that makes me wonder, What is life in Japan? And where does it abide? I seem unable to read their faces, unable to decipher their silence.

Silence is more valued here than it is in America, from what I can discern. It occurs much more in conversation and daily life than I am accustomed to. Living here makes me realize how terribly noisy Americans tend to be. (I am especially conscious of this when we go on tours of the city with my UNC classmates.) Respecting others' needs, even if they are unspoken, is a top priority for the Japanese. I think this is part of the reason why silence is so precious here. I wish I understood so much more than I do.

The Japanese conception of space is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, too. It is a small island (about the size of Montana) with a limited amount of space for the millions of people who live here. So everything is fashioned accordingly--nothing is given more space than it absolutely needs. The rooms, streets, houses, cars, appliances, even books and school supplies are compact, narrow, "tiny," to American eyes. No amount of space is ever wasted. It makes me want to live more in this way when I return to the States.

As I write this, I am sitting at my desk in my room and the windows are open (the Japanese try not to use A/C). The good (and bad?) thing about living in Japanese neighborhood is that all of the houses are pressed up against one another and so you always know what your neighbors are doing. There is a newborn baby a few houses down and I can hear it wail every evening around 8. A young pianist practices scales every morning before I leave to catch the train, sometimes in conjunction with the kid with the trumpet. Right now, I am listening to a father tell stories to his young son. The boy laughs after almost everything his father says. I can't make out most of it, but I know it's something about going to school and losing your obento (boxed lunch) on the train.

This morning I participated in neighborhood trash day. Every June, the whole neighborhood comes out with trash bags and identical white gloves to clean the streets--which, to my eyes, already looked perfectly clean. So everyone picked up leaves and bits of dead grass for an hour. I wasn't very good at discerning which leaves were ignored and which were picked up. I put some photos of trash day on Flickr, if you're interested.

New photos up!

Composed June 15