Wednesday, August 26, 2015

of stars and tsunamis

I am sitting on a rooftop in Arch Cape, Oregon, surrounded on three sides by the crowns of pine and fir, one papery birch at my back. Before me lies a mist-smudged horizon and between us the cold Pacific, incessant and majestic. Overhead the sky is a dark, cloudless blue. The first night we were here, after everyone was in bed, I climbed the ladder to close the roof hatch and happened to look up. An intricate light webbed the space above me, perhaps a deck light reflecting off millions of wet pine needles. I screwed my eyes to make sense of the ghostlike streaks and stopped with a bolt of fear. The Milky Way lay parallel to the roof, a pale arc in the dark vault of ever receding space. What I understood as something near was instead our galaxy; the reflection of light off needles the burning of a million suns.

It's been twenty years since I last saw the Milky Way like this, bright in a moonless sky. The face of night seen as humans have seen it for two hundred thousand years at least, but unfamiliar enough to momentarily unlatch my breath and set my heart thundering. As if my heart wasn't thundering enough.

I shouldn't have read the article. I quickly flipped the page when I first saw it in the New Yorker. I ignored links to it on Facebook, the accompanying blood red map. I've heard this before, earthquake to hit Portland, skyscrapers tumble, bridges collapse. Twenty-year-old fears reared their gigantic heads: friends sleeping in tents, withdrawing wads of cash from the bank, stocking up on bottled water. I was at the beach on that day, in the mid-1990s, when some outspoken Evangelical man predicted--based on a dream--that a massive earthquake would hit Portland. I fell asleep imagining the water being sucked out from shore, leaving fish flopping and exposed like in the story of the Seven Chinese Brothers. And then a roar, a wall of water.

But that was then. Heck, now I've lived through two nice rattley earthquakes, nothing major. I was just outside of Manhattan on September 11th and watched the towers fall on television--the broadcast sound cut out while grainy images of smoking buildings and things falling from the sky shimmered silently on the screen. Less than ten years later I waited in Washington Heights for Hurricanes Irene and Sandy pass through Manhattan, each time stocking water in the closets, filling the bathtub.

But what the New Yorker earthquake article predicted was something far worse. And it was no dream; it was good science and vivid storytelling. And I read it, heart racing. A few days later I drove down to the beach for a few days with my dear friend Julia, all jittery. And now, less than a month from when I read the article, I am here again, enjoying two full weeks at our favorite house in Arch Cape.

Let us say that while the days have been generally relaxing and mostly wonderful, I am nonetheless on edge wiggle-wise, jumping at the noise of a truck downshifting or the slam of a door. Mid-conversation I find myself assessing my location, panickedly rehearsing what I'd do if the room started to wobble, the trees bob, the sand boil. The locations of children appear before me first, then husband, shoes, purse. A calculation on whether my iPhone is worth it. Or the beach tent, in the back of the car. The tsunami maps appear, the names of roads and alphabetized meeting places. (I drove the route on our second day here). I see myself dashing upland, grasping my son by the hand. I calculate the minutes I have until I hear the wave, high as the second or third floor this beautiful house. I take consolation in that, according to Google Maps, the walk time to high ground from where we sleep is only four minutes; the run time must be less.

Each morning I thank the earth that it continues to sleep, stuck; silent rock jammed against silent rock and staying so. I have three more nights to sleep perched next to the beautiful Pacific, and as much as I have enjoyed these two weeks of blackberries, tide pools, creeks washing out to sea, ice cream, and quaint beach town grocery stores, I will be happy to get in the car and drive out of this godforsaken tsunami zone. A hundred miles back to Portland affords me the luxury to worry about earthquakes minus tsunamis; and I will take that hundred miles thank you very very much.

Friday, July 24, 2015

a corner in harlem

On my street in Harlem, October 29, 2009, © Amber Schley Iragui

I'm not sure I should write this. It is difficult. It is full of potholes and heartbreak. Heartbreak that is not particularly mine, but to which I stand witness. There is a young man standing on a corner in south Harlem. It is an early November evening, and violet light deepens in the shadows between the buildings. He is looking at me earnestly, shifting his weight back and forth between his feet. He is smartly dressed, a messenger bag slung over an unbuttoned pea coat, with tan corduroys and brown wingtips. He is asking me for something. My mind is jogging back for an answer, coming up with answers which will not do--not for him. I don't have an answer. He speaks gently, as if to assure me, but also with an edge of desperation. He's sure I have the answer. I am uncomfortable and afraid. I don't know if he will let me go home, let me walk the few short blocks toward Central Park and my infant son with his sitter. Part of me worries that the young man will follow me; part of me longs to help him--but his questions triggered a mental avalanche. What he wants is reasonable, but the implausibility of him asking for it from me lodges between us. There is too much between us. I walked home, but he remained standing on that corner in my mind for six years now.

I sit before an open window of a beach house. Beyond the scaly limbs of a shore pine, a shallow beach rises toward electric lines and low shingled homes. A stretch of Hwy 101 bisects the seaboard and from where I sit the sound of passing traffic is just slightly louder than the sound of the surf. Yesterday, before driving west two hours to the Pacific ocean, I saw one person of color. He was working at the car rental where my friend Julia and I had hired a car, and he explained that it was only his second week on the job. He was well dressed, overdressed even, as he walked with a clipboard around the white economy, apologetically checking for dents and scratches.

I do that now, count the black people I see. The day before yesterday I saw two: a mother with a magnificent afro and flowing orange gown pushing her fairer-complexioned toddler, similarly afroed, in a grocery cart. They were leaving the market as I was arriving, and she was narrating their departure in motherly sing-song. The day previous I saw no Afro-Americans, although a Hispanic family of four walked by our home around lunch time. And the day prior to that I espied a black arm resting on the window ledge, in a car ahead of me one lane to my right.

I recently moved home, to the eleventh whitest city in America, from New York City, arguably the most diverse place to live in the US. My husband and I moved here to be near my family, but also because the school situation in New York City was frustrating. For one thing, the students in my son's kindergarten class, at a public elementary in upper Manhattan, were primarily Dominican. It was by no means a bad school, the principal--a diminutive Afro-American woman who glowed in pastel cardigans--was a stellar leader. I whole-heartedly adored her. But the natural concerns of a school with a majority-Dominican student body (for whom English was mostly a second language) were at odds with my goals for my son. I just wanted him to like school, to love his teacher, to associate learning with positive emotions. I didn't need to "bridge the literacy gap"; whether or not he learned to read in kindergarten was irrelevant to me. After months of fighting with him over homework, and regular reports on his failure to learn to read, it was clear his education wasn't going the direction I'd hoped. He disliked school and I began longing for a simpler, and more appropriate, educational environment. And so, for that reason and others, we moved to Portland, Oregon. To a tree-lined neighborhood with craftsman homes and a novelty butter shop. A neighborhood with antique malls and boutiques selling linen smock dresses and raw-crystal jewelry. And not a black person, not a brown person, in sight.

It took a few months for it to sink in that I didn't see many non-white people in my day-to-day activities. When I'd moved New York in 1999 it took a few months to realize that the cloudy weather I was accustomed to in the Pacific Northwest wasn't going to appear. Ever. In New York it was mostly going to be blue skies. And now moving home it similarly took awhile to register the homogeneity around me. The cashiers, baristas, gas-station attendants, receptionists, garbage-haulers, even my friendly postman, were all white, mostly tattooed, and generally thirty-something. The families transitioning through the homeless shelter where we volunteered were surprisingly all white too. The parents and teachers at my children's new school were white. One child in my son's class had olive-complexioned skin. Blink, blink: one child was a wee bit not white looking. So I started noticing the people of color I saw each day--I spotted a young black man with dreads riding a skateboard north on 33rd, another young black woman crossed Williams at the slow pace I associated with people crossing the street on 125th in Harlem. Once a day, or once every-other-day, I saw a person who was, or could pass for, black.

I'm not sure what I think of this. I'm sad. I'm sad for the loss of color and I'm sad that this loss of color makes life simpler and less exhausting. Life is flattened, less beautiful but easier. School here is good for my children, they love their teachers and classmates and excitedly relay what they are learning. Playdates do not involve bridging inscrutable social barriers, or a require tireless diplomacy. When I express my concerns for my son's education with teachers or other parents there is nodding and recognition. We are on the same page, a mostly white page it seems. And I chose this page, dare I say fled to this page, out of frustration and fear.

When I moved to South Harlem in 2008, a few months before my son was born, I had already lived in New York for nine years. I loved the diversity of people and languages in New York. I loved the Jewishness, the way you could go just a few blocks and find an entirely different ethnic group, a Puerto Rican barrio aside a Polish enclave. I enjoyed the way people in New York asked "what I was"--a baffling question in any other American city. So when we moved to a renovated building on 111th street, between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass, I expected much of the same. To me it just seemed like we were moving near our parish so that Charles could be on time to church and I could be late with minimal hassle. Columbia University was close, and Central Park was one block away. It was an easy commute to work. I hadn't considered Harlem at all.

But we did live in Harlem, albeit a rapidly gentrifying corner of it. And almost immediately I sensed the hostility. Not from the black tenants in our building, who were young and upwardly mobile, but from the people on the street who felt my presence meant the displacement of their people. I was used to being largely ignored by black people, a geeky white girl in glasses with long brown hair. But suddenly I was visible to them because I represented the white people taking over. I didn't understand this; I didn't self-identify as the white people taking over. At that time I was mostly concerned with the things first-time mothers are concerned with: lack of sleep, nursing, teething, high temperatures, what happened to the person I'd been before I'd had a child. I was walking to Duane Reade to get more diapers not to make a point about race relations. Not to flaunt my white privilege. I don't think I'd even heard that term, white privilege.

But despite my foggy brain something of what was happening around me did sink in. I found myself packing my son into his stroller and heading south, out of Harlem. Away from where my presence meant anything. I walked to the Duane Reade that was farther away because it caused less anxiety for everyone. And there was also the fact that when I stayed in Harlem I was asked for money, more than once with the preface, "I'm not going to hurt you, but..." A black man once yelled at my husband, across a street: "You rich white people moving in and pushing us out! You know that!" I also noticed something else, black people attributed far more importance to my actions than I did. I often stopped to take photos of light falling into empty lots between buildings, but whenever I did someone would pass by and make a comment like, "Gonna put a building here?" or "Is that lot going up for sale?" It took awhile for me to register that when black residents saw me taking a photo they thought I was in the position to own, or sell, the empty lot--or at least I was working for someone who was. I wanted to say, "Look I'm just some bedraggled mother who likes to take photographs. I can't buy and sell New York real estate." But over time it became clear that for them that I was in that position, that somehow being white made me eligible, in some way that they weren't, to buy empty lots in Manhattan.

Which brings me to the boy on the corner and what he wanted that November evening. I was raised poor, in poverty that was, at least economically, more severe than the average black Harlem resident. My parents, while more than qualifying for food stamps, never applied for them because food stamps meant not depending on God. We prayed that God would provide our modest mortgage payment, because often my parents didn't have it. And sometimes money did arrive in a white unmarked envelope, brand name groceries in brown boxes. We also prayed that the gas in the tank of our car would stretch like the oil in the widow's jug in the First Kings story of Elijah and the famine. We were homeschooled because our public school was abominable and there was no money to live elsewhere or for the unbelievable luxury of private school. I do not want to dwell upon this too much, but suffice it to say that what I carried with me to New York and into Harlem was the sense that I was far less privileged than most people. And although my adult choices, and education, had propelled me out of poverty I did not feel particularly entitled. I had arrived, a white woman with a baby and a hardworking husband, in Harlem because Harlem was conveniently located and had reasonably priced housing. And I arrived into a Harlem coffee shop with free wi-fi where I was busily working on freelance design project when I realized my babysitter's hours were nearly up. And I stood, stowed my laptop, and headed for home--noticing as I did so that a young, well-dressed black man had watched me get up, had got up also, and had followed me out the door. I noticed that he followed me to the corner, where I stopped and he stopped and I gripped my laptop bag tighter and he turned to me and asked, politely, what work I did and how I got my job and that he was looking for a job and didn't know how to get one. He said he'd applied and applied and never got any responses. He said he'd finished college but still couldn't get a job and that he'd been to libraries and read newspapers and asked friends. And he wanted to know how I'd gotten my job and what I did to get it. And did I know of any jobs he could apply for?

And that is when it first occurred to me, foggily, as I paced back through my life for some answer, some bit of direction, that while I had risen a good way in my life due to university and wise choices and good friends and a few moments of serendipity, the culture I'd risen into was my own. I did not have the obvious barrier he had. The world I now inhabited, old Harlem residents aside, held no animosity or fear or anxiety on my part. I stumbled over a memory of a job posting I'd accidentally come upon a year after graduating from university that sent me to a small publishing company. And the publishing company didn't hire me but offered me an unpaid internship. And when the internship was done, a part time job, and from there a friend sent me a job opening at a publishing house in New York. And my godmother happened to know the director at the publishing house, and sent a letter of recommendation. And here I was, gainfully employed doing work I loved, with a home and a husband and a baby. And while it was not impossible that a similar train of events could happen to this young man within the circles he inhabited, there was something more--what exactly I couldn't say--between myself and his reality. Between where he stood, earnestly asking, and my minor successes, backing away unsure.

I wish I could say now that I took his name and number and helped him find a job. I didn't, though. The street was dark and my babysitter needed to catch the train, and I needed to nurse my son, and I was awkward and anxious standing there. Why was he asking me, I wondered, and not someone more obviously qualified to help? Charles told me, later that evening, that I should have taken the young man's number and he would have called him. Why hadn't I thought of that? Maybe I hadn't thought of that because when his questions revealed to me the gulf between us, a gulf I hadn't acknowledged was there until that moment, I was left off balance and speechless.

Other people have written eloquently about this gulf, about the difference between the reality of Afro-Americans and white people in this country, and that is not my purpose here. I write this because it is mine to stand witness. To acknowledge my part in this sadness, and my flight nonetheless from gazing too closely at it. A year or so after the incident with the young man, when I was pregnant with my daughter, I begged Charles to let us move someplace less stressful. Less black. Where I didn't have to face animosity walking down my street. We moved up to Hudson Heights, a diverse but predominately white (and Jewish) neighborhood in the Northern reaches of Manhattan. A cliff overlooking the Hudson river with nice parks and large apartments. And then, when the school situation there seemed less than ideal, we moved here--to the eleventh-most-white city in America. Where the number of black people I see in one day has never exceeded the digits on one hand.

The young man still stands on the corner in Harlem. I still don't have any answers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

what it is like to be married to my husband

I am still suffering under a nasty cold that I've had for over a month, but that is not a story anyone would care to hear. More interesting is my husband, the enigma—my "handsome oppressor" and a first-rate goofball. I could go on in this way trying to describe with contradictory words (for example, both principled and devious) the kinds of adjectives he brings to mind. But no.

All I wanted for lunch was chicken broth soup. He wanted Mexican. But since tortilla soup was not even going to cut it, we headed to a favorite restaurant—a comfort-food place with a bustling lunch crowd. However, they were only serving clam chowder. We moved onto a second, yet more bustling restaurant: they were also serving clam chowder and something called beer-cheese soup. Yuck? So we moved onto a third, and completely empty, restaurant that did happen to be serving a chicken-broth based soup. We sat down and ordered.

And yes, my husband did give up on the Mexican food idea for me, and yes, that is also what is it like to be married to my husband, but no that's not what I'm writing about either. About half way through our meal Charles looked up and said, "Wow, this place has gotten busy!" Indeed it had, all the booths were filled. He then said this classic Charles thing: "We probably helped to pick-up the business by coming in!" (I'm not sure he used the word probably.)

So: we do things and they have a direct and immediate positive influence on others. This is what is like to be married to my husband, because he is always saying things—and doing things—in this way. Comments like this used to ricochet around me in their incomprehensibility: either this man was horribly pompous or merely ridiculous. I couldn't tell which. Or both? Inside my more comprehensible universe, if a restaurant crowd picked-up around one o'clock in the afternoon it was because that happened to be when people were hungry, not because we were seen eating there.

Here is a little story to sum up this difference:
A miserable-looking gent is sitting on the side of the road with a sign that reads help me. I walk by. I look at the man and wonder: is this is a man I should help? I consider my realm of influence; I try to gauge how much time and effort I have to give vis-a-vis how much he will need. Ultimately I decide to help (for the record, more often than not I'd probably just continue on my way). I sit down beside him and ask about his problem. I try to empathize. I try not to offer solutions but to hear him out. I begin to feel a little down myself, because his problems seem insurmountable. But I'm there and I can listen. I eventually excuse myself and tell him I will pray for him and will be by to check on him tomorrow. This all takes at least an hour.

A miserable-looking gent is sitting on the side of the road with a sign that reads help me. Charles walks by. He stops and says hello and engages in some light conversation. He reaches a hand down and helps the guy to his feet. He walks with him to the corner and points him in the direction of a coffee shop. Then he reaches into his pocket and gives the man a twenty and a comradely pat on the back. He goes about his day. This all takes at most ten minutes.

I used to think I was totally in the right, right? Obviously. But it's been eight years of arguing with Charles and blinking in disbelief. Lord God, it hasn't been easy to see things from his perspective, but I think I am finally getting it. I'll take that twenty, thank you.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

look down, shoot feet
2007 – present

Lens cast down—a glimpse of coat or skirt, shod feet, an expanse of sidewalk. I shoot this way habitually, as a way of passing through space with a camera. A modest way to capture beauty without making a production of a posed shot, or requiring that others stop and smile. Simply using what I have on hand (or foot). Over time I have collected quite a few of these shots, a few of which are shown here.

Most of these were culled from my album, Looking Down on Flickr:

With Rachel, walking to Union Seminary, red China flats; Manhattan, 2007.

Inside the new location of St Mary Magdelen's, then under construction; Manhattan, 2007.
Kitty litter, blue coat, brown leather boots; Crestwood, 2007. I was single and had time to shoot things like kitty litter.

In Oregon for my mom's wedding; Arch Cape, Oregon, 2007.

Pregnant with Isaiah; Manhattan, 2008. Things are about to change.

Now little feet show up in my looking down photos; Barbados, winter 2009.

And the things that come with little feet. Like peacock feet and gray play doh. Manhattan, 2011.

Shooting down is also a way to distance myself from the urgency of tears and tantrums. Traveling while pregnant with Genevieve. Just a hint of the sturdy sandals we bought in Germany; France, 2010.

At the playground with Genevieve, beaded flip-flops; Upper Manhattan, 2011.

My favorite green flats. Fort Tryon Park, Upper Manhattan, 2011.
Sometimes my feet are still unaccompanied, here contemplating a snarl of sea-litter on the shore of Barbados, 2009.

Or picking rosehips. Forest Beach, Cape Cod, 2011

Beside our favorite stream. Arch Cape, Oregon, 2014.

Here I am hardly alone—at my Mom's home in Olympia, Washington, 2010.

Enjoying a soak in a Japanese furo, accompanied by my best friend. Volcano Rain Forest Retreat, the Big Island, Hawaii, 2011.

Favorite green flats again. Wave Hill, Bronx, New York. 2012.

Sometimes the shots are accidental. Hudson Heights, NY, 2012.

And some are posed. Cabrini Blvd in spring, with Genevieve, fox rain boots; Upper Manhattan 2013.
Date night on the High Line, Manhattan, 2013.

At home in Hudson Heights, Manhattan, 2012.

In Japan to see the Gallahers, with Charles and my first pair of Frye boots. Kyoto, November, 2014

Earlier today waiting for brunch, with Genevieve and chalk. Portland, 2015.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The landscape I know

Sometimes I cannot remember where I am. I cannot remember if I'm in Oregon or New York. For example, I just read that Jonathan Safran Foer lives in Brooklyn and I thought Of course and I pictured Brooklyn as a grayish spot on a map, a hub of brownish buildings cobbled up over sidewalks lined with black garbage bags and London Plane trees, all far east across the continent. And then I thought, No, it's just across the East River. And just a few days ago I thought of London Plane trees and how their hardy leaves make good ghosts and that we should go pick up some to paint for Halloween and then stopped because I don't know if London Plane trees grow in Portland. I think they don't. Because I was in Portland then. (Where we have two enormous healthy elm trees that make as good company as the Hudson River, but that is another story.)

The story today began with a trip up the Hudson to Cold Spring, NY, where we bought pottery and dress-up clothes. We had duck with fennel and guinea hen with apple ragu for lunch. The leaves along the Taconic were orange and yellow, and sometimes blew across the road. The sky in the afternoon turned dark blue-gray and splattered us with some heavy drops, but not too many. There were barn sales and tag sales and traffic. And I said it was odd, the way I love the Northeast landscape. The old rocks and huge deciduous trees, the soft hills and majestic light. It makes sense to me. Woods with little underbrush and white three-story farmhouses. Its odd because I still feel like I'm a foreigner here; all the memories of these places were made by my adult mind in the last 15 years. And even though I've repeatedly visited places like Rhinebeck or Saugerties or Cape Cod I know I don't exactly belong. That is not to say that I do not drive like a New Yorker, or expect people to be direct and knowledgeable like New Yorkers, but that in my heart of hearts I am not a New Yorker.

And it is the opposite in Oregon. I feel that the landscape is my own, not because it makes sense to me or is beautiful, but because I just know it. Because as we drive the geography reveals itself like the shape of my own arm. I know where to turn for Canby without knowing that I knew where to turn for Canby. I can guess that the trees in the orchard we are passing are hazelnut, but I wouldn't have known three minutes ago how to describe a Hazelnut tree. Not the way I could describe a Linden, Honey Locust, or Copper Beech. New York is my adult mind. Portland holds my child's mind, a mind that holds far more than I knew.

Years ago my Dad came to visit me in New York, and then we drove out near Akron, Ohio, where he was born and raised. And as we rode down wide, flat lanes lined by brick houses so far back from the road that the lawns seemed oddly large, he would tell me things like, This is where Aunt Anna lived or This is where we sold flowers on Saturday or This is the road to the old coal mine. And while the landscape seemed hot and yellow-green and sort of all-the-same to me, it spoke of different things to him. I wonder if he has felt like Oregon is a foreign country all this time.

To my adult self the hills around Portland are dark and spiky and a little unfriendly. They seem too new and the deciduous trees too small (and too few). There isn't any schist lying around sparkling, not enough rock in general. I despair of split-level or ranch homes or slanty-wood-fronted buildings. I despair of people who never disagree with you, of people who drive slow. People who drive as if they are apologizing for their carbon footprint with timidity, No, no, you go ahead. At least the bicyclists are worth their salt and seem to think the point of transportation is getting there.

And yet, despite all this, Portland is where I belong. The land is connected to places and people that are my own. The roads lead to Dad's house or Mom's house, to the old nursery, or by skate church, or near my high-school, or my university, or Saint Nicholas. Hippo Hardware hasn't changed, nor all the strip clubs, or the coffee shops. I pass the place where I fell out of Dad's truck and Heidi yelled Amber's dead! and I felt myself all over and thought I don't think I am. I live a few blocks from the dry cleaner where I worked two afternoons a week in high school. I don't feel even remotely foreign there.

I think of the children's book by Allan Say, many times read to my children, Grandfather's Journey. When the grandfather was in Japan he longed for California, and when he was in California he longed for Japan--and when the grandson grew up and moved from Japan to California he felt much the same way. (Allan Say, coincidentally, lives in Portland, Oregon.) And I too, long for a different landscape: for golden magnificence of New York when I am in Portland, and for the damp clean of Portland when I am in New York.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

I remind myself of the point, publicly

I just finished another Alice Munro paperback, Moons of Jupiter. I bought it in a sleepy bookstore in Manzanita, when we were down at the Oregon coast for the last week of holidays. My children were in the store with me, and they were not using inside voices. They begged me to buy toys from the children's section, jumping up and down while holding various packages of brightly-colored things. Genevieve was bouncing directly under my nose in order to compete with the height advantage her brother was using to lobby for a set of dinosaur books he held (without bouncing) in my face. It was over their whining heads that I spied Munro on the shelves. I felt the book and I shared a secret, as if the scene with my children was something we were both observing: my exasperation, their insistence, my longing for a quiet book to hide myself with. I bought the book and not the toys.

Sometimes I think about how I'd be described if I was a character in an Alice Munro story—makeupless in print dresses and boots, long messy hair with gray roots, direct conversation, practical second marriage, extra baby weight, a longing to escape social gatherings, a vague unease and pride about how my life's turned out. It's not terribly flattering, but comforting all the same. But I would want to leave it there—no sifting through the contents of my mind to reveal the weaknesses and unsolvable entanglements. The whimpering and prejudice.

One of my dear friends has given up writing her blog, and so doing made me ponder why I still post here. Why do I write this blog? I suppose the answer is simple. I want—need—to write, and I prefer writing here to writing in a private journal. I've kept a journal since I was eleven. Five years ago my journals were damaged in a flood, and as I flipped through their water stained pages I felt I needed to stop. It is easy to be lazy, repetitive and pathetic in a private journal. Writing online pushes me to avoid complaining, to find a solution to a problem, or make sense of chaotic lived experience. That is to say, I write here for myself. I know there are a select few people who do read my blog, and I am pleased with a little readership. I am not writing for a general audience, even if the site is available to anybody (or any bot) with an internet connection. Thankfully, I am not popular and so can pretty much write as I please.

Writing connects me to myself, and it also connects me to others in the same way I connected to the Munro book at the sea shore bookstore. The part of me that began writing journals at eleven was borne of reading. Books were my childhood friends. Authors and titles I read in the years before I went to high school—most of which I haven't seen in over thirty years—appear without effort:
Elizabeth George Spear's The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Bronze Bow, The Sign of the Beaver; Marguerite De Angeli's Thee Hannah, The Door in the Wall; Elizabeth Enright's Four-Story Mistake, Return to Gone Away; L. M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon, Anne of Green Gables; E. B White's Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpeter Swans; A. A. Milne's The World of Pooh; Daniel Pinkwater's Lizard Music, The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death; C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia; Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. 
These books, and many others, provided me with a way to make the world sane. They gave me templates for feelings and experiences I had not yet had. They directed me to what was important: honesty, friendship, laughter, curiosity, loyalty, endurance, love. They reassured and inspired me. And it follows that my writing does some of this same work now. I remind myself of the point, publicly. 

Photo credit: Azrasta, Flickr

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

tragedy, humility, sauerkraut

A raccoon is on my roof eating Asian pears. It is dark, and everyone is asleep—besides me and the raccoon. Every once and awhile a pear drops with a thud and then I hear a scamper or a dragging sound. In the morning there will be half-eaten Asian pears on the ground. It is also garbage night, which means that every hour or so a car pulls up in front of our house and someone pokes around in the bins at the curb. In Manhattan people did this all the time, pushing grocery carts heaped with black bags of cans and bottles, like a troupe of homeless Santa Clauses moving along the trash-bag piled sidewalk. I recognized the regulars. But I haven't gotten used to it here. Should I stick my head out the door and say hello, as a security measure of sorts? Or—more reasonably—let them delve in peace?

Tomorrow is the first day of school. A cute little school with cute kids and well-dressed parents, the teachers kind and friendly. Everyone speaking French, unsnobbishly. I will drive my children, with their lunchboxes packed with healthy food, in their well-chosen clothes, to their white-and-yellow private French school. And then I will get a latte. Meanwhile the world is in horrible, horrible shape. Iraq! Ukraine! Gaza! Ebola! For a few weeks I refused to register the events in Ferguson, Missouri because there was just no room for them in my head. Sorry, glass full of tragedy already. I am having a hard time reconciling my life with the world at large. I am fretting over the ingredients in the seaweed snack packs, the too-largeness of of kids' yogurts containers, what kinds of grasscloth roller shades to purchase; meanwhile people are being beheaded. Worse things. I suppose this has always been the case? I fret about my little problems while somewhere else people are fleeing for their lives, hiding their children in garbage cans.

I could just cry. Which I do to little end. What can I do? The atrocities of ISIS are beyond my circle of influence, though clearly not beyond my circle of anxiety. A few weeks ago our priest circulated a letter written by the metropolitan entitled A Pastoral Letter Concerning Violence and Extremism in the Middle East. I read the letter, which may be a first for me. OK, I didn't even read it, I skimmed it, but for long enough to find this:
If we are truly concerned about the strife in the world today, let us begin by overcoming anger in our own hearts by striving for meekness and humility. If we are upset by the violence and destruction in the Middle East, let us direct our energy to bring peace to the conflicts within our own families. If we are horrified by images of human beings injuring and killing one another, let us offer an image of Christ by giving alms to those in need in our own neighborhood.
That's the spirit. I'm not pretending that I come anywhere near this in practice. I can think of a few ways I could have overcome anger in my heart and been more humble in the last few days, heck, the last few hours. But I can take sausage and sauerkraut to my Dad. I can read my children the same book for the fifteenth time. I can sit with my son when his anger overtakes him. I can let my daughter wear pink and purple together. I can be patient when Charles and I have yet another of those conversations where we seem to be talking entirely past each other about the same exact thing for five minutes. I can feed raccoons; I can stop fretting about trash-pickers, grasscloth shades, seaweed snacks. I can be grateful for the good life that's been given to me.

Because it is a good life. And of course, there are some things I can do:

ACRO Mosul Appeal
Samaritan's Purse