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For spiritual advice, call this number….

Friday, June 29th, 2007

Tonight at 10 p.m. I got a call from a student. I love this kid. He first showed up in one of my freshman comp classes three or four years ago. He failed that class because he quit attending class and didn’t hand in his last few essays. I think he was in jail toward the end of the semester, but I guess he knew I really liked his quirky rogue intelligence and creativity. He showed up again. And again. I think he has taken four or five classes from me now, and he was planning to take yet another one this fall, but tonight, he called and launched what I hope will be a whole new life for himself. Our conversation was delicious. [read on]

Portland, here I come!

Friday, June 29th, 2007

I remain fascinated by the possibility of moving to Portland, Oregon either AFTER a spell of living at a Zen center, or INSTEAD of living at a Zen center. There are three apartment complexes–well, be honest–old folks’ homes (you have to be 62 or older to be considered): run by an association of labor unions, in three different parts of Portland, Oregon. Those who know me well will be screaming NO! You’re not THAT old! But wait. Drop the stereotypes. These places offer nice little apartment-type living spaces (all utilities included) for 1/3 of whatever a person’s monthly income is, with preference given to low income people. I love the politics of that. This could be very good. Fuddy-duddy old rich people would be screened out. Progressive labor union types, rabble-rousers and old hippies could be in. Of course I need to take a look. It’s a shock to my system to think about this option, but it might be the best thing out there. [read on]

Blog breaks and movies

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

Ansie phoned this morning to be sure I hadn’t fallen off the edge of the universe. I was blogging my brains out for a while, and then suddenly I had nothing at all to say. I’ve had several delicious hour-long conversations with good friends far away. Every day is full–of what? Time seems to expand or contract to fit what’s available. When I was teaching five courses and trying to get my last chick safely out of the nest, the hours were filled. Now I’m doing nothing. And the hours are filled. A friend who was just in Portland, Oregon got me excited about the possibility of moving there, so I’ve been on the internet, reading everything about Portland. In a desultory way I’ve been packing, sorting, getting rid of more books, watching movies on DVD, reading, gazing at old photographs, doing yoga, walking, having migraines, and even coming to the computer to read other people’s blogs. [read on]

Wislawa Szymborska

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

I have spent the day with Wislawa Szymborska’s Poems New and Collected, and I am enraptured by her, spellbound and deeply pleasured by her, grateful to her and to Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, who put her words into English. I will spend many more days with her, Inshallah. Her book will have to be squeezed into the small bookcase I have set aside to take to Seth’s house, books I can’t bear to part with. There is a wonderfully engaging photograph of Szymborska on the inside back cover of the paperback edition of the book. She was born a year before my mother, and she looks like a woman full of stories. The first of her poems that shredded my consciousness was “Tortures.” There is another translation and another interesting portrait photograph on a blog here (scroll down a bit, to the third picture and just below it). This version, which I think is a much more powerful translation, first appeared in The People on the Bridge (1986) but is included in the collected works: [read on]

Making judgments

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

One of the joys of blogging, for me, is that I have encountered a few people I’ve never met who have become virtual friends. That’s how it is with Nacho, Dave, Steve, Lubna, Jetgirl, and Stephen, the most frequent commenter on this blog who, because of his frequent comments, is here and now moving up to the center of the blog. At least for today. Stephen and I often communicate by email when we are not meeting on the blog, and I perceive the man I know via email to be gentler, kinder, more humorous, and more approachable (though no less discerning and discriminating) than the man who makes comments on the blog. This week our email and blog conversations have to do with India, where I have never been and he has; with judgment; with my perceptions of “harshness,” and with his beliefs about travelers, ethics, spirituality, and travel writing, his own and other people’s. [read on]

Finishing Holy Cow

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

If I can’t travel every moment, at least I can peer into someone else’s travels. It took me more than one day to finish Sarah Macdonald’s Holy Cow, partly because I’m wrestling yet again with a different kind of beast: a migraine. These have been the bane of my existence since I was in my twenties. Anyway, I have finished the book, and I like it even better than I did initially. Macdonald makes no claims to accurate or objective perceptions, but she describes India in the details that she notices, and she outlines, with hilarious self-deprecating humor, a “spiritual” process many Westerners experience: from revulsion and curiosity, to fascinated involvement, to earnest and naive effort to understand or “try on” certain beliefs and practices, and finally to a position of respectful balance, rejecting what she can’t stomach and incorporating what she can, feeling (sometimes accurately) like a fraud and a dilettante. She walks a sharp edge of cynicism and respect, and I find the way she does that admirable. I also see that those who attack her for cultural imperialism didn’t finish the book. She tracks her own journey from cultural imperialist to cultural relativist, and unless her reader goes with her all the way, that reader will definitely get the wrong impression. Here are some excerpts of her conclusions, for those who may be interested: [read on]

Brain enemas, Holy cows: a book I can’t put down.

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Travel much? Ever worry about the cultural imperialism inherent in “tourism,” especially in countries full of poor people? Two recent films touch on these issues, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Sarah Macdonald wrestles the beastly issues skillfully in a book that is for me a real page-turner. Last night while doing errands (because it’s too hot to go out in the daylight) I came across her Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure. It’s reviewed here (do read the review and all the comments–fascinating!), and I agree with everybody who writes about the book. It’s smug, it’s respectful, it’s loving, it’s arrogant, it’s an Australian woman’s experience of India, her own spiritual quest undertaken inadvertently and against her better judgment, and it is also, as most of the reviewers fail to mention, gut-busting hilarious. I’ll copy out some pieces of the book below the line. [read on]

What Tillie Olsen actually said

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

Today while I was packing books I came across my old paperback copy of Tillie Olsen’s Silences. The paper is brown and crumbly, and the words have been read, underlined, and read again so many years ago that they became part of the way my own brain works. It is a marvel to look at them and think that at one time, these ideas were new to me. Look. [read on]

Mundane complexity and shocking beauty

Friday, June 15th, 2007

I am mired in the mundane: now that Manko has moved out and I am about to relocate to my temporary home in Houston, I must make decisions about LAN phone and DSL service, whether to get a prepaid cell phone (and if so from which provider), in order to “port” my old LAN phone number to a cell phone for those people who don’t read the blog or don’t have email or who I have forgotten to notify but don’t want to lose…and all of this keeps me in front of the computer for many wasted hours. The compensation for these wasted hours is that occasionally, while looking for something else, I click on a link to unexpected beauty. That poem by Szymborska yesterday, and today a reminder of Tillie Olsen, a memorial that reads like a poem itself, and the existence of the book I meant to write in the 80s. Someone else wrote it. Good. [read on]

Why we don’t do it.

Thursday, June 14th, 2007

Met my friend Jake at a coffee house this afternoon, and we found ourselves laughing at all the excuses we make for why we don’t do what we say we most want to do. In his case, paint. In my case, write. We need more uninterrupted time. We need to clean house first. We need a larger space. A smaller space. Unpaid bills worry us. Our kids need something from us. Want to write in the blog first. Our excuses are endless and hilarious, really. Driving home, I heard something on NPR that caught my interest, so I went to their website and ended up stumbling over a feature that includes a marvelous poem that says it brilliantly and made me laugh. Szymborska is talking about people who put off having a child. But it’s about putting off anything we think (or say) we want to do; running our “rackets” as the Forum people say. [read on]