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Bringing it on home

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

How do other people know who they are? If you know who your father was, does it make a difference in who you think you are? Where is “home”? I’ve been playing Aaron Neville’s latest CD, Bring It On Home,  and it calls me back from this sense of diffusion that keeps carrying me off into the clouds over Portland. “Tell it like it is,” Aaron sings, “Respect yourself.” Last night I listened to a woman read a couple of chapters from her (so far) unpublished (but spellbinding and well-crafted) novel about young gay men in Japan just before the bombing of Hiroshima. She’s certain she was Japanese in past lives–she can dimly but unmistakably remember Japan, and when she lived there (in this life), many of the places she went to for the first time were as familiar to her as the streets of the town in Michigan where she grew up. She knew what was around the corner before she rounded the corner. She attributes that to karmic ancestry rather than genes. What explains affinity?  Some people who’ve never been to Morocco long for all things Moroccan. Others are drawn to Chinese art. Some feel truly worshipful in front of Byzantine icons. I’ve lost all sense of who I am or why I ever wanted to know and cannot proceed with my autobiographical novel right now. I’m letting that be. At the same time I’ve received some terrific emails that also serve to bring me on home. [read on]

Losing my bearings

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

When I chose to retire and move to Portland, I thought I knew, however dimly, what I was doing. I wanted to write full-time. I wanted to be done grading papers written by nineteen-year-olds who didn’t want to write them.  I was worn out by seven-day work-weeks, by short courses I taught during holidays in order to earn extra money, by broken relationships and the relentless difficulty of parenting, and by migraines. Sharply aware that I was on the threshold of “old age” and the dissolution of this mind and body, I wanted some joy and ease before this life was over: time to read, walk, daydream, sit on a park bench in a rose garden. I wanted a room of my own and time to write this autobiographical novel I’ve been composing in the back of my mind since I was seven years old. After a lifetime of Buddhist practice, I thought I was ready to write the answer to the koan, “Who am I?” The first sentence came to me during that ten-day Vipassana meditation course: “I have always wanted to be a saintly person.” It would be a comic epic. As a way of doing “research” for the book, I began in earnest to seek out where this fool who calls herself Kendall came from–who her phantom father was, who her people were, how her pieces fit together. I stumbled into a possible whole new family. Very dramatic, but suddenly I’m stunned into silence. The book disintegrates. I can’t find the central character. She is neither fiction nor non-fiction. She is neither Narcissus nor Goldmund, contemplative nor adventurer, Gentile nor Jew. I look at the pages I’ve written since I came here, and I feel nausea. I’m sick of this story. I feel lonely and displaced. Lost. What am I doing here? [read on]

Race. Part 1.

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

 I’ve tried to make my life my statement about race, even though we’ve known since W.E.B. DuBois said it in 1914 that scientifically “race” doesn’t exist.  Race is not inscribed in our genes, any more than “class” is. But the perception of race exists. People have been enslaved, imprisoned, lynched, raped, tortured, and shot because of the perception of race. People hate each other, fear each other, and make assumptions about each other based on the perception of race. I am racist because I was born White in a system of power based on the perception of race. I’m part of that system. I can’t get out; my skin is what it is, and there is nowhere on this planet untainted by that system. Therefore I choose to work on myself, to be aware and vigilant for ways I embody or absorb racist ideology, and to put the whole weight of my life into the effort to educate myself out of it and to counteract racism in every small way I can. I will always have plenty of work to do, inside and outside. Plenty of people have written about race better than I will ever be able to. But I need to begin putting a few words together, if only to join a conversation with White people about race in our lives. Anybody else is welcome to listen in, chime in, or quit reading now. Very few people read this blog, so what I’m about to say will remain secret. Despite that, I have trepidation. My grandmother told me a version of something Jeremiah Wright’s grandmother told him: “If you keep your mouth shut, you won’t ever say anything to make people think you’re stupid.” He didn’t heed his grandmother’s warning, and neither have I. Whatever it is that I’m about to say will be flawed, imperfect, inadequate, and a work in progress. So here I go. [read on]

Locked-in Syndrome

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

Conjunction of events at the mailbox yesterday afternoon: I received a remarkable letter from a prisoner I’ve known for some years who is 42 and locked-in (in what is called Administrative Segregation or Ad Seg–spends his life literally in a cage surrounded by the din of other men locked into cages all around him); and I received my rental of Julian Schnabel’s brilliant production of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly , which is about Jean Dominique Bauby, who had “Locked-in Syndrome” (he could hear and understand everything, but he was completely paralyzed and unable to move any part of his body but his left eye) as a result of a stroke he suffered when he was 42. [read on]

The power of old books

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Part of my exit from Houston involved getting rid of most of my books. The post office lost the large part of the ones I meant to keep. So I’m just home from the Friends of the Library used book sale, where for a total of $37 I got such wonders as a complete hardcover Shakespeare, an edition of Sophocles, a selection of Chekhov’s plays (in a cherry-colored hard binding published in 1935 with beautiful woodcuts by Howard Simon), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead, a wonderfully-designed old Max Beerbohm, Marguerite Yourcenar’s memoir, some essays, some letters, some biographies, some writers I’ve never even heard of before, and some old friends (how did I ever part with them? in which of my upheavals did I lose them?). Instantly I’m where I was when I first read them–in junior high in Hawai’i, certain I was the reincarnation of Emily Bronte; in high school with a pimpled face and immortal longings in me; as an actress in New York searching for audition monologs; as a single young mother in a rocking chair by a Louisiana bayou, my baby boy in one arm and a book in the other; as a graduate student in Texas, dreaming of a regular teaching job with health insurance and tenure. Old books are like old lovers: dear to the eyes and heart, reminders of such good times.   [read on]

Portland Reads

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

Here’s a shocker, taken directly from Your Library, a publication of the Portland (Multnomah County) Library: “The only library in the U.S. with higher annual circulation than your library, Queens Library in New York, serves a population more than three times the size of Multnomah County….” But I shouldn’t be surprised. One of the joys of living here is that everywhere I go, I see people reading (and not just on their laptops). In coffee shops. On the trolley or bus. Standing in line at the grocery store or the bank. Sitting in the park. And of course at the library and at Powell’s. I finished Julia Cameron’s memoir, a disappointment. Too much name-dropping. Too many cliches. The best thing she does is describe her manic episodes leading to psychotic breaks (which she calls breakthroughs). Apart from that, the general flabbiness of the language suggests to me that she relies too heavily on her Morning Pages (stream of consciousness writing) and too little on careful and caring word-craft. I feel mean (or as Bob says, cranky) saying this, but it appears to me that she suffers from a compulsion to be productive, something from which I hope I’m in recovery right now. She frightens me. I don’t want to write like she does, not for any amount of money. Reading her memoir is a good reminder to me to slow down, write less, and take more care with what I write. Jose Saramago and Proust are the antidote to her flaccid prose, and Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar just arrived today (thanks for the recommendation, Nacho).

The Bearable Lightness of Being

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

The Stars Have Not Dealt

by A.E. Housman

The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:

My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.

But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,

The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.

O grant me the ease that is granted so free,

The birthright of multitudes, give it to me,

That relish their victuals and rest on their bed

With flint in the bosom and guts in the head. 

That comes from W.H. Auden’s Oxford Book of Light Verse, about which more in a moment. Since my last post I have taken more time alone, more time to be silent, time to walk, time to play fetch with my doggish little Abyssinian cat, and best of all, time to read. The result is a definite lightness of being, an easing up, a falling-away of tension and striving. Is that all it takes?  [read on]

Resistance, Motherhood, and Social Networking Profiles

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Recently I’ve been going through another wave of wondering who my father was. My mother claimed his name was Jake Linn and that he was of Russian Jewish ancestry and came from Virginia. She said she met him when she was at Duke University in 1944. Nobody in her family ever saw him and she had no photograph, so he’s always been a phantom in my life. In fact I don’t much resemble the rest of mother’s family physically, so I’ve always wondered where my tall, angular build and my large-faced blondish looks–which I passed on to my sons–came from. When a man named Jake Linn who came from Florida was contacted by a lawyer representing my mother in the 1950s, he denied ever knowing my mother. He could have been lying. It could have been a different man by the same name. But then my mother had, shall we say, idiosyncratic ways of experiencing reality. Her story about my father changed from time to time. I would passionately love to know who he was, to see a picture of him, and to know a little about his medical history. As part of my recent quest for answers, I googled the name Linn and came up with a Jewish scholar named Ruth Linn whose main body of research is “mature unwed mothers” and their choice to bear children, which she sees as a form of “resistance.” Naturally this interested me, as I flatter myself that I have always been about “resistance,” and I chose three times to have children as a mature single woman–once by birth and twice by adoption. So I got Ruth Linn’s book via Interlibrary Loan, and it is absorbing both in the abstract and in my own particular. Eventually I’ll connect the dots to the profile I just created on Myspace. Read on only if you’re interested in this. Otherwise wait till another day and I’m sure I’ll have another topic. [read on]

Yuppie-land Farmer’s Market, Reflections on Living Single

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

It’s a halcyon day in Portland: sunny, blue-skied, a patter of flower petals falling off the trees with each breeze. Portland people with their dogs and kids are out in force. One weather report promises it will go up to 80 degrees F today, and I’m just back from my first trip to the Portland Farmer’s Market (a farmer’s market with its own website–that should have given me a clue). A few photos are here. At this market, one can purchase goat cheese for $15 a pound, a bouquet of flowers for $20, a mound of fresh multi-grain bread for $10, a pound of locally-grown nuts for $16, a dollop of vegan pesto for $9, and mixed lettuces for $8 a pound. [read on]

Writing, Language, Ralph Fiennes

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

This email from Alberto Greenberg, who gave me permission to put it in the blog: “I WROTE MANY SHORT STORIES IN MY LIFE. AND ONE OR TWO LONGER ONES. I WROTE IN SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE. I WAS FILLING MANY NOTEBOOKS WITH THEM. BUT NEVER PUBLISHED. I FEEL HAPPY WHEN I WRITE AND THEN READ IT AGAIN. IT ALL MAKES SENSE. DIFFERENT FROM LIFE ITSELF!!!” We feel happy when we write and then read it again. I love that. It’s a little like gazing at our reflection, but it’s also about what Kripalu’s displaced guru once said: “The most important book you will ever read is the story of your own life.” Big emphasis in Asian cultures on “knowing yourself.” What’s written down, fictional though it may be, since each of us sees everything through individual lenses, is a little less ephemeral. The patterns are a bit clearer (even if distorted) when they’re on the paper, and it’s a chance, as Alberto says, to see sense in it. Different from life itself. M’e Mpho Nthunya once said of her book, “It’s my way to hold my whole life in my two hands.” I’ve been enjoying emails with Alberto, reading his blog, and (completely unrelated) watching Ralph Fiennes films. [read on]