Sunday, October 25, 2009

There is a hum of contentment here. We are all busy about our own things, happy in our interests and passions, in the comings and goings of our individual, overlapping lives.

Once, when we were planning yet another move, we sat in the parking lot at Bel Air. I said, "Dad, we're pretty mobile people, all of us here in America, but especially us here in this car. We have to say goodbye a lot." Painfully didactic, even in my mid-teens, I explained how I saw it: "We say goodbye a lot, but we don't have to say goodbye to each other, right? We bring us with us, always together. Like 'flittenloops,'" I said, coining a word. "We're rings with wings: we bump into other people sometimes, and other times we leave, flitting off to the next best thing. But the loop itself, well, that doesn't change. It has integrity, self-sufficiency."

I haven't always been as grateful for this unbroken circle as perhaps I should have. But then there are Saturdays that remind me: this is really where it's at. Right here. Where home and heart are bound together with graciousness, humor, and the willingness to care.

Friday, October 23, 2009

This is why Oregon

Across the heavy, sweet scent of red wine in plastic cups and over the ticking of found-object clocks they read to us. We are a small crowd in folding chairs; they, two finite voices grasping at the broken wholeness of the world, speaking of rain and sex and cancer with wryness, love. "The words are better heard out loud," I said later. But I like them in my head, too. Because voice or not, there is a tenderness here that makes me feel at home.

I was born here. Or I moved here only a few years ago. But we all belong in this fertile valley with its fish and fields--its friendliness.

Just a gathering in an art gallery on a drippy Thursday evening, here to hear. Our tastes are alternately divergent and overlapping, but I think it safe to say that we share at least one thing: an appreciation for the streets we walk and a thankfulness for the familiar outlines of the everyday. Oregon is our Promised Land, the blessing we grew up with, a choice we made.

On Meeting Sylvia, After Reading Her Journals

There was anger in that sudden rush of words:
Red ink pouring over dumb page
To rage against the intolerable turning of the wheel
Beneath which you were broken, battered, crushed.

I watched speechless:
Blank face playing field for your emotions,
Empty heart too full to hold it all,
Like wax--impressed by desire, drama, tragedy.

There is a weight to all this desperation:
Hot irons flattening creases in the soul
To press thoughts growing round and bulging out,
To stop, mold, remake when really wrinkles are better.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Communal jigsaw on the third floor

The staff in charge of archives and exhibits have scattered puzzle pieces across a table in the foyer at the top of the stairs. The signboard reads, "Communal jigsaw," and people have paid attention to it. Over the past four weeks, and in the intervals between my treks up and down those stairs, the puzzle has grown, the pieces have melded, blotches of color blend together and take on significant form. No one ever works at it for very long, but somehow, between hours spent studying for exams or stressing about the problems of the universe, progress has been made.

A few weeks ago, someone told me, "You were more honest today than you've ever been. Not," she hastened to add, "that you lie as a matter of course. But just that you actually told me, for the first time, what you're really thinking."

I have, I suppose, a reputation for reserve. When I said goodbye to my coworkers at my first job before moving to Oregon, one of them said, "Look at her! You can tell she has English blood in her--so calm and reserved." That is, not especially emotional, at least not in public.

Let's just say that communal puzzles don't tempt me much. Their publicness--the way they unfold and develop in plain view--scares me a little and makes me feel vulnerable. I am convinced that I will be happier if I simply walk on by: if you don't make an effort to put the pieces together, then you can't fail at the attempt, right?

But my conviction is crumbling. I might be wrong about this puzzle-thing, I guess. The communal jigsaw might be an acquired taste, but that certainly doesn't make it a less worthy or desirable one. I am more than willing to admit that the process of matching shapes and sorting colors finds its justification when conducted in public contexts: personal pursuits are more significant when we are willing to work on them with others, and if we are willing to admit that perhaps our individual visions can be enriched by the contributions of the person piecing things together beside us.

That doesn't mean it's easy to leave our quiet puzzle corners behind (or even that we ought to completely forsake those private goals). It's just to say that this morning I walked past a table on the third floor, and I thought that at least attempting a contribution to the work in progress was probably more honest and beautiful than refusing to stop and try.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Alcove with a view

Study in Autumn from the third floor of Hamersly


The weekend is over. All the donuts are gone and new homework assignments are tapping insistently on the door. Nothing new here; but that's the beauty of this season, isn't it? I told my family yesterday, "This is what I love about fall: it's here every year, and I'm still excited to see it."

I began my day today with two reflections on life and happiness.

The first talks about the connection between monotony and contentment (HT: Sriram):

In its essence life is monotonous. Happiness therefore depends on a reasonably thorough adaptation to life’s monotony. By making ourselves monotonous, we make ourselves equal to life. Thus we live to the full. And living to the full is to be happy.

The second reflection, equally important, is about riding out the in between times:

Years ago I heard a message about suffering and how at times we have to wait before we will have a song to sing. That message was by Jill Briscoe who happens to be friends with my dear friend Steph (whom I haven't met yet, but I hold her dear to my heart nonetheless.) She heard the same wisdom from her friend in this way: Oh, Steph. This is just the Selah before your next Psalm. Don't miss this or you won't know the next song. The Selah. That is where I am living right now. In that space between the praises.

So this is where Monday finds me: living monotony contentedly, just doing the next thing (ad infinitum), ready for praise or Selah-space--whatever happens to be coming my way next.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Flavor of a Saturday

A long day, intermittently gray and rainy, punctured by a morning thunderstorm, lulled into evening by a sweet wind and clearing skies. I spent the early hours of the day reading through The New Yorker. Piping hot homemade donuts and freshly ground coffee were grace notes to a series of engaging articles. My favorites? The ones about football, children's literature, and publishing, of course!

In "Offensive Play," Malcolm Gladwell develops a fascinating comparison between football and dogfighting:

At the core of the C.T.E. research is a critical question: is the kind of injury being uncovered by McKee and Omalu incidental to the game of football or inherent in it? Part of what makes dogfighting so repulsive is the understanding that violence and injury cannot be removed from the sport. It’s a feature of the sport that dogs almost always get hurt. Something like stock-car racing, by contrast, is dangerous, but not unavoidably so. . . . So what is football? Is it dogfighting or is it stock-car racing?

"The Defiant Ones" is an astute review of contemporary children's read-alouds:

Anxious parents—the midnight Googlers who repeatedly seek advice from experts—learn that there are many things they must never do to their willful young child: spank, scold, bestow frequent praise, criticize, plead, withhold affection, take away toys, “model” angry emotions, intimidate, bargain, nag. Increasingly, nearly all forms of discipline appear morally suspect.

The publishing article is, unfortunately, not linkable, and I don't have my hard copy at hand, but suffice it to say that I am disillusioned with Alloy and its packaged plots.

And lest I forget, there was this whimsical, yet insightful commentary on the "Nobel Surprise":

If President Obama really had to get a gift postmarked Scandinavia this month, he would probably, on the whole, have preferred the Olympics. At least at the Olympics the judges wait till after the race to give you the gold medal. They don’t force it on you while you’re still waiting for the bus to take you to the stadium. They don’t give it to you in anticipation of possible future feats of glory, like a signing bonus or an athletic scholarship. They don’t award it as a form of gentle encouragement, like a parent calling “Good job!” to a toddler who’s made it to the top rung of the monkey bars. It’s not a plastic, made-in-China “participation” trophy handed out to everyone in the class as part of a program to boost self-esteem. It’s not a door prize or a goody bag or a bowl of V.I.P. fruit courtesy of the hotel management. It’s not a gold star. It’s a gold medal.

We can take it as a sign of what a lucky fellow our President is that winning the Nobel Peace Prize has been widely counted a bad break for him.

When I wasn't reading The New Yorker, I was rereading parts of the Consolation of Philosophy, pondering the implications of doing and having one's own in Plato's Republic, and celebrating a sister's 11th birthday. She's the only person I know who requests a bag of birdseed and then, upon opening it, hugs it like it's packaged in diamonds. Then again, as my brother said this evening, "We're not geeks. We're just enthusiasts."

Happy end-of-Saturday!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Learning to breathe

Last year at this time, I was still fresh from Germany, excited about the prospect of an expanding life, ready to conquer work and classes and the world at the drop of a hat--confident that I could do anything and everything all at once.

A year later, I am feeling a bit more circumspect. I cut work hours, sidelined some extracurricular activities, planned to study earlier, sleep longer, eat more; not because I think that I'll really be able to use my time more effectively by doing (or not doing) those things, but simply because I want to be able to enjoy the things on which I am already spending my time.

There are still days when I feel guilty about my decisions, as if I'm not doing everything that I'm capable of, or as if the things that I do get done are somehow of less worth simply because they're not crammed in around an everlasting more. But I'm holding on to some of the most comforting words I've heard so far this term. When I told someone about the changes I'd made to my schedule, he at first said what everyone else does: "I wish I could do that." And then he added, "But you know what? I could do that; we could all do that. It's choices we make and priorities. Prioritizing."

So far, I've been happy with those choices, these priorities. It has been a long over-due exercise in not burning the candle at both ends. And while I don't begrudge other people their busyness, I am deeply grateful for the longer moments that I now have in which to live and breathe and learn.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Good rain

The rain has arrived, exploding against the skylight windows of the third floor of the library, dashing briskly against the pavement, rolling through the heavens on steady currents of wind. It muffles the tap-tapping of our boots and the sussurence of falling leaves; dodging the sharp edges of sunbeams and shards of blue sky, the rain is, I think, here to stay.

I'm buying more coffee, digging through the closet for sweaters, bemoaning my perpetually cold hands. And I'm starting to wonder if perhaps, after nearly four years in Oregon, I should consider investing in a rain jacket. I've finally gotten used to carrying an umbrella; I've fallen in love with scarves. But a jacket?

It's not a bad idea.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Brief remark about stereotyping

Will you indulge me for just a moment? Allow me to hop on my soapbox for a few minutes before I relapse into the serenity of the school week?

I'm not going to say that stereotypes aren't convenient and expedient ways of taking the world in hand, of categorizing in a jiffy and putting everything in its place. But I would like to say, with all due respect, that they aren't the last stop on this train of life. At an interview this past Friday, I had occasion to mention both my major (Philosophy) and my educational background (homeschooled K-12), and my interviewers were incredulous. "There are not very many homeschoolers that could be philosophy majors," one of them said, amazed. And I smiled and nodded, and the interview moved on.*

But I've come back to that moment several times in the past few days, because it still startles me when people are surprised at what it turns out a homeschooler can do; it bothers me that what I consistently list as a personal educational advantage, others view as a disadvantage that I've somehow, miraculously, overcome. I've become so accustomed to the success stories--the homeschooled students I know who are studying to become doctors and lawyers and educators and musicians and engineers; the ones who are pursuing or have already obtained rigorous degrees in Classics and Great Books; the high schoolers who are Eagle Scouts and athletes and confident, apt debaters--I'm so familiar with all of this that I find it hard to believe that anyone could interpret the success(es) of these students as a fluke--as the lucky outcome of an unfortunate upbringing.

Because, really, it wasn't luck. My ability to think outside of the box or to listen to other points of view was not something I accidentally picked up on the wayside. It was cultivated through careful training: through the deliberate posing of intellectual challenges, through the development of productive methods of questioning and answering, through exposure to a broad range of ideas and opportunities. And, surprisingly or not, this experience is not uniquely mine.

I don't want to argue here about the relative merits of public and homeschooling, nor do I want to say that homeschooling is always, everywhere the best option for every family (it isn't!). All I know is that for some of us, homeschooling worked and continues to work. And if some of us are becoming philosophy majors or know how to think critically or are, in the best sense of the word, tolerant, it is not by any means an accident.

*I should add, lest there be any misunderstanding, that said interview was one of the best I've ever had. My interviewers were kind and witty and articulate, and the hour I spent with them was entirely worthwhile.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

From the chapbook

In which Nietzsche wins the award for most colorful metaphor:
The Platonic dialogue was, as it were, the barge on which the shipwrecked ancient poetry saved herself with all her children: crowded into a narrow space and timidly submitting to the single pilot, Socrates, they now sailed into a new world, which never tired of looking at the fantastic spectacle of this procession. (The Birth of Tragedy)

Walking in song

A week ago we walked in song. Halfway through the 27 miles of our bike ride, the shadows began to gather and gloom swirled up around our feet. As we stumbled along the tortuous curves of the bike path, we turned to song, dogmatically counting the beats of childhood melodies and hymns with our wet, tired, aching feet.

We had planned to be gone for five hours. Now we were faced with the prospect of another eight--one hour for each of the miles we were traversing so arduously by foot, in the dark. The air was wet, we were bruised, but somehow our spirits were unflagging. We spouted sonnets, dished out trail mix, cracked jokes like there was no tomorrow.

Of course we knew there would be a tomorrow and a next day and a next. But there was something freeing in walking among those dark shapes of trees and the scruffy mask of ground cover, knowing that we didn't know when we would get out, knowing that there was nothing for it but to move forward on our own two feet, one song at a time.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


We talked today about Mozart and Beethoven, and about the source of artistic inspiration. Some artists, like child-prodigy Mozart, work in a fever; barely sane, they lash together color and line and texture, wind strings of notes about each other, produce, somehow, a complete and perfect product without once stopping to revise. Other artists--Beethoven, for example--are revision-oriented; beauty is the product of countless hours spent painfully working and reworking individual lines of melody.

Now, I'm no artist, and I know little about music, but I do know a kindred spirit when I see one. And today--well, and this week and the months before it--I'm feeling a distinct pull to Beethoven's side of things. I'm a reviser; I write drafts of things and then tear them apart. I worry too much when I type--what if there's something I'm missing, or a point I desperately need to address, or what if this is, in the end, just pointless? I am, I guess, easily discouraged.

But discouragement is not the same as giving up. And because it's Thursday today, and not Tuesday evening, I can say that even discouragement can be conquered. In my case, that meant slashing my work schedule in half to give myself more time to think and breathe, and disciplining myself to sit down for multiple hours at a time to stare at the computer screen--something I should have been doing for the last six months, I know. But maybe it's not too late to give it another try.

If you need me in the near future, I'll be on an undisclosed floor of the library, typing intermittently, collecting words and sentences and paragraphs on a white screen, and reminding myself occasionally that even Beethoven had to rethink and revise.