Category Archives: existence

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is an absolutely fantastic novel. And that’s coming from someone who’s had a hard time reading fiction for several years now. I’ve been the most critical reader, scouring the first 10, 15, 20 pages for a piece of dialogue to fall flat, for text that tries too hard, or for a lie. Normally, I’ll find a reason to set the book aside within the first few pages. Often in the first paragraph. (I hope my own readers are more generous.) I’ll admit that the first 50 pages of this book were slow for me, but I love Idaho, and I found myself wanting to spend more time in the state and, therefore, more time with the book. Every line, every description, every detail served a purpose. Nothing was wasted. There were endless revelations about the human spirit.

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reading Idaho in Idaho

My struggled with fiction has had to do with plots lines that are too predictable (or intentionally unpredictable for no good reason), common tropes are overused, and characters are flat. As a result, if I do read fiction, it tends to be stuff with no discernible plot line. Idaho has a plot line. Very much so. But it is as artful as the text.

If you grew up in the Inland Northwest, if there are old pictures of you as a child standing in the back of a old Ford, a photo taken when you are covered in tamarack dust, stuck to you from the can of Coke you drank, while you are waiting while your parents stacked firewood into the back of the pickup, and smell of honeysuckle and chainsaw oil thick in the air, and then if you went to school in the Palouse, and spent summers high up in the Idaho mountains, a little worried about getting lost among the old Forest Service road, but thankful from the break of intellectual work, while you marked and hauled old logs to the truck to burn through the winter in a fireplace that would melt and permanently scar the skin on your forearm, and if you take every opportunity, every summer and spring break, to drive back to those empty Blue Mountains, and if you knew the boredom and insight of an isolated childhood in the rural Northwest, and if you think you’ve actually met Emily Ruskovich, been introduced in passing by a friend, an acquaintance, in Moscow, Idaho, while you were practicing yoga across the state line, or at the farmer’s market, or in the little shop, where you ate a coffee and bagel after having ridden your bike eight miles along the Chipman Trail. Perhaps she was a student, or maybe you two were alone in a used bookstore and shared a knowing glance, seeing that you are the same, both with freckles, red hair, and dark eyes, but you think you are different, but you are not so different, and you should read this beautiful, beautiful book that she has written.

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Transit by Rachel Cusk

I continue to enjoy Rachel Cusk’s work–a constant good amid chaos. I read Outline a few years ago and The Last Supper just this winter. Transit makes sense of The Last Supper.  Her observations on the human condition are unique and accurate. Her characters are honest, and sometimes they tell the truth.

image from amazon.com

Here are some lines I liked:

  • “[S]he was too obviously based on a human type to be, herself, human” (3).
  • “It was an interesting thought, that stability might be seen as the product of risk; it was perhaps when people tried to keep things the same that the process of decline began” (27).
  • “[S]omeone who cared about him once wrote that it was impossible not to reject him, that the friend himself has rejected him, that something about him just made people do it” (138).
  • “Fate, he said, is only truth in its natural state” (256).
  • “I felt something change far beneath me, moving deep beneath the surface of things, like plates of the earth blindly moving in their black traces” (260).

I’ve felt these subtle moments, sometimes after years, and it’s such a relief.

Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović

Walk Through Walls is Marina Abramović’s extraordinary story. I mean, of course it’s extraordinary–it warranted a book. And it did. Abramović gives the account of her tumultuous and abusive (my word, not hers) upbringing, replete with political upheaval and familial strife–inexcusable even given the PTSD and OCD that pervades the family dynamic.

Image result for Abramović walk through walls

image from amazon.com

I continue to be interested in reading about powerful women, women who live lives that are very different than the ones they grew up in, women who were able to imagine and create a way for themselves with the degree of freedom and autonomy that their art requires.

Recently, in an interview, I heard Patti Smith say that the artists path is a spiritual path, that pursuing it and making art is a spiritual experience. In that the making of art puts me in a meditative state, which is a spiritual experience, I agree.

Abramović writes honestly, even self critically, about the spiritual and emotional experiences of her life, and the relationships in which she engaged, and even contributed analysis on her painful patterns and what they might suggest. It was all very honest and real and shed some light into my own painful patterns and what can be done about them (hint: probably not a lot).

So many of the artists I’ve been reading about have traveled extensively and have sought esoteric (at least to a Westerners view) spiritual rituals for self growth and healing, engaging in shamanic treatments in Brazil, learning telepathy from Aboriginals in Australia, and completing months-long meditations in India.

Lately, I’ve wanted to have more meaningful interactions in my work. Abramović’s work empowers me to do so. Her art is really weird, and many might view it as sensationalistic, existing only for the sake of shock and awe, but in reading the book, I was quickly and easily persuaded that performance art is very much art. It’s complex and provocative and does all of the important things that more traditional art does.

For as much as her most intimate relationships brought her pain and betrayal, Abramović heals these wounds for herself and others (her audience and her students), time and time again. Perhaps I can find ways to do more of the same in the work that I do. At least I can try.

After reading the book and being inspired by her story, I felt more emboldened to live my life in a way that was more fully authentic to who I am. So currently I am working hard to change a few things about my life, bringing it more into accord with my essential self, trying to set things up in ways that are more conducive to my well being, and wearing these big sunglasses that fully protect my eyes on the top bottom and the sides. (I wore them yesterday while browsing a plant nursery, and it felt great, and zeros effs were given.)

I thought I marked more passages (I know it did!), but in the end, this is all I could find:

“Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do” (182).

“If animals live a long time together, they start loving each other. But people start hating each other” (290).

reflect, learn, grow

I’ve had the strangest, most vivid insights to memories for the past week or so. I take my down time very seriously, but my normal breaks and long weekends have been thwarted by events, activities, business. Despite the lack of breaks, my psyche has very much wanted to reflect, learn, and grow, and so I’ve found myself doing that between long car rides, and grading, and presentations, and deadlines.

I remember spring of 2012. I remember the color of the grass, the park, the feeling of the sun on my skin. I remember feeling completely balanced and warm and hopeful about the future. I remember walking. I have a picture of myself in a tie dyed t-shirt, very little make up, rounder cheeks, and I look so fully and completely myself.

I remember summer of 2015. I’d finally started to turn a corner, thanks to the companionship of my mom’s long stay that spring. I began to drive. I drove to the Oregon coast for my cousin’s wedding. I then made a solo road trip up the Oregon coast, to Seattle, for a really good visit with friends, then over Snoqualmie Pass, which I hadn’t traversed in years, through south eastern Washington, driving without navigation, getting lost, listening to this old Reba CD that’d been gifted to me by some circuitous means, and feeling fully and completely myself.

I am on the precipice of change. I’ve felt it coming for months, and the momentum has been building, the pace has become staggering, but, oddly, here at the edge, I still don’t know what the change will be, or what it will look like. For the past month, I’ve been plagued by nonspecific anxiety. However, in the past week, much of the anxiety has faded away and been replaced with these memories of better, stronger times. It’s as though, with change on the horizon, I am reminded of my best self, perhaps so that I can do a better job of creating it more consistently moving forward.

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purple camas flower in Oregon

A Lotus Grows in the Mud by Goldie Hawn

I can’t remember where exactly, but Goldie Hawn’s book, A Lotus Grows in the Mud was recommended to me while I was reading some respectable piece of literature, and so I ordered it and set it aside for a month or so. I finally got the chance to read it over spring break, and it was surprisingly delightful–thanks in no small part, I’m sure, to “co-author” Wendy Holden.

Lotus Grows In The Mud

image from powells.com

Hawn has led a fascinating life, and her book really tries to get at some of the wisdom she’s gained in this life. And, you know what? Some of that wisdom was pretty darn inspiring and insightful.

Here’s what impressed me–Hawn follows her purpose, even when it is not obvious, even when she has doubt, even when others criticize her and roadblocks threaten her faith.

When I think about my purpose in life, I often have doubt and uncertainty. However, the predominant narrative one hears about one’s path is that it is easy and clear. But, that hasn’t been the case for me. I was an English major because I liked reading, but that seemed incidental. Now, I’ve made an entire career out this. I love practicing yoga because it is good for me, but a lot of times I phone it in, or have to talk myself into going, and sometimes I don’t go at all. I’m never the most flexible, most enlightened, or coolest person in the class. Still, I trained to teach yoga, and I’ve been teaching it since 2008. Most days when I enter into that classroom to teach, it feels really, really *right*. Same goes for the garden, for writing, for my friendships, for My Love.

So, I loved the message of her book. She was brave. She did hard things. It made me feel like I could be brave. I could do hard things–all while making a living and having Kurt Russell unexpectedly waltz in and save me in the final hour and then stay for the remainder of my decades. Yeah, I’ll have what she’s having.

In perfect timing, just as I finish this book, I see that Hawn is teaming up with Amy Schumer in a new film called Snatched. It looks lovely and hilarious, and I can’t wait to see it. I love seeing mother/daughter duos (that’s in the book too).

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

I needed to read something artistic, and so I finally read Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I read it quickly. (It did not need to be read slowly.) It seemed like I’d read this book before. It reminded me of Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines, but not as beautiful as that in terms of the sentence. It was beautiful, though, and smart–one of the best books I’ve read in the genre. I had little patience for the sexual aspects of the book. That’s me though. Lately, those inclusions seem cheap. I used to “get it.” Adding the sexual gave writing that perfect blend of raw and mystery. Anymore I only want to think about birds and botany.

Bluets - Maggie Nelson

image from wavepoetry.com

 

Lines I liked:

“My Thought has though itself through and reached a Pure Idea. What the rest of me has suffered during the at long agony, is in describable” (Mallarmé 2-3).

“Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal” (62).

“…the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it” (62).

“For some, the emptiness itself is God; for others, the space must stay empty” (86).

“…ask not what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet” (86).

“As a rule we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more more painful that we expected” (87).

“She is too busy asking, in this changed form, what makes a livable life, and how she can live it” (88).

“Imagine someone saying, “Our fundamental situation is joyful.” Now imagine believing it…Or forget belief: imagine feeling, even if for a moment, that it were true” (89).

“When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing, but of light” (95).

Words/concepts that inspired further study:

  • the male satin bowerbird
  • International Klein Blue
  • samsara
  • the jacaranda tree
  • the Tuareg
  • The Oblivion Seekers

The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk

Since I read Outline by Rachel Cusk, I’ve wanted to read her earlier book The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy. I finally got the chance to finish it this winter. Cusk’s genius is in her observations. She has some of the most shockingly astute and artfully articulated insights on the human condition that I have ever read. She also has a vast vocabulary, which she integrates beautifully into her writing: inchoate, lachrymose, acolyte, obeisance, balustrades.

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image from goodreads.com

The book comments on foreign travel, staying, getting sick of a place, hating and loving a place, connecting, awkwardness, presence, living in the experience, and art, and an eye, and the moments between people that capture the feeling or meaning in art.

Two thirds of the way through, I’ll admit that I wanted a bit less description of some of the art (though I can see that it was necessary). I wanted more of the human interactions, the mistakes, the moving, the descriptions of the land, the houses, the people. This wasn’t a joyful read, but it was quiet and thoughtful, which is what I needed.

Just a few lines:
“In this it is the artist who is God. And it is a strange kind of proof we seek from him, we who are so troubled by our own morality, who know we will all eat a last supper of our own” (53).

“Now our violence is diffuse, generalized: it has been broken down until it covers everything in a fine film, like dust” (148).

I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala translated by Ann Wright and edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray

I first learned about Rigoberta Menchú when I was getting my undergraduate minor in Spanish. I think I might’ve even read excerpts back then, but I was a few pages into this book when I realized I had definitely never read I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala.

I Rigoberta Menchu An Indian Woman in Guatemala

image from powells.com

At first, I thought it would be too painful for me to read. Lately, I’m always on the lookout for books that substantive, but aren’t too stressful–a difficult balance. But the book drew me in as a voyeur of indigenous life. I was fascinated to read about perspectives and beliefs so different from the world I live in. Like a typical imperialist, I even felt nostalgic for some of the rituals, customs, family, and deep commitment to and love of community (I write this all self-critically). I was also moved by the extreme poverty and suffering these people endured.

As Menchú grows up, the political climate in Guatemala becomes increasingly violent. Unbelievably violent. Once I was committed to the book, I was also committed to reading through the deaths, gruesome tortures, and murders of her loved ones. I was also struck by how recent this history is. Menchú is still alive today, and Guatemala doesn’t seem so far away. These human rights violations felt real and close to me as I read. I couldn’t help but think of the protests and violations that have played out over the last year here at Standing Rock. I couldn’t help but think of the political discord in our own country and the fear surrounding the newly elected leader and how quickly political systems can turn.

To have the firsthand account of someone who lived through this struggle is an unbelievable gift to humanity, so that we all might be  to be able to understand how politics, governments, war, and economies can change and be changed.

The political influence is clear in the retelling of her story. She becomes much more radicalized throughout her life as a direct response to her incredible suffering. As I read, I thought of the power in naming something. She doesn’t really learn Spanish until she is in her 20s. That kind of illiteracy makes a person vulnerable to radicalization from a church or a government. In this case, the reader can see how Menchú was exposed to the language of Communism while acquiring the Spanish language. At the same time, the ancient way of her home culture has some very…communist…ideals. The community is the family. Family and community are prioritized over all else. Each family has their own land and their own food, but they share very generously with the community, even when their own livelihoods suffer. This is their ancient way, but her literacy also emerges as Communism takes hold in South America, and the reader is left wondering where the community mindedness ends and the political influence of Communism begins.

I’m not exactly sure how I ended up reading two books back to back with such a clear connection between Catholicism and Communism, but I did, and it was fascinating, and heartbreaking, and Rigoberta Menchú’s story is a “must read” for all informed citizens of the world.

The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

As usual, I’ve had a hard time finding the right thing to read lately. I want something that’s light and easy–a break from difficult scholarship. But, I also want it to be substantive. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day was the perfect solution during the holiday break. First of all, I had to read it with a title like that. (When I saw her face on the cover, I also knew I had to read it.) Secondly, I am always fascinated with and inspired by women who are doing things a little differently than the status quo, and Dorothy Day certainly has. The book is about her experience with community and the sacrifices she’s made in pursuit of her beliefs about the best way to live.

image from amazon.com

The first two-thirds of the book was of the most interest to me personally. In the first third of the book, she writes extensively about her childhood, about her friendships, her family life, and the reader can see the subtle ways these experiences influenced the choices she made later. Her descriptions of various little girls she befriended seemed tedious at times, but I think it helped make her larger point–that these connections and interactions we have with people are the stuff of life and far from inconsequential.

Next, she wrote about being a young women, her unconventional “marriage,” the birth and joy of her daughter, and the decisions she made to convert to Catholicism. In this section, I was deeply interested in her relationship with her partner and her response to her baby. I identified much with those very human experiences, even though I haven’t had them myself exactly.

The last third dragged on and I had to force myself to finish. I didn’t identify quite as strongly with her decision to convert to Catholicism. Like much of her thinking and decision making, as a reader, I sometimes had a hard time understanding her motivations. She’s very matter of fact about everything, and I found myself responding, “Yes, but…” That said, I love her unapologetic descriptions of joy and love earlier on, and I don’t need her to explain “why.” Still, the social activism, the writing, and the experiences with various people are a part of her story, but I was less interested, in part, because it was less about her and more about them.

Here are some insights I gained from reading the book. Day is unfaltering convinced that we must live together. After living alone for the bulk of my adult life, I am feeling ready to not live alone. I have felt loneliness and fear–something that was quite rare for me throughout my twenties. That’s fine. I was pursuing other things. Now I’m in a new stage, and I want to live in meaningful relationships. I have a much stronger urge to connect to other people and invest in them. In this way, Day’s message really resonated with me at this time.

Here are a few lines and ideas worth further consideration:

  • One hundred years ago, there were free medical clinics. If you were not poor, there was also affordable medical clinics that were a little nicer.–I can’t imagine how freeing it would be to go through life knowing that, should a major medical event occur, you could go on living without being forever indebted to a financial institution. We are living in fear or modern slavery.
  • Much of Day’s life’s work is in writing and writing for The Catholic Worker, and she understood what I am only being forced to understand now, which is just how crucial freedom of the press is and how important it is to communicate with the masses in this way.
  • “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore” (285).
  • “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that that only solution is love and that love comes with community” (286).

By the end, I sort of just wanted to rise with the sun, and garden and bake bread, and pray and read and meditate, and wake the next morning to do it all over again.

2016: the year in review

My 2016 “best nine” according to IG.

2016 was a whirlwind year. I loved. I worried. My heart shattered. I got sick. I figured some things out. I remembered “authentic self” stuff that has helped me re-engage with my values and interests. And so I got better at being me. I worried some more. I got better. I loved.

Now, as with most December 31sts, I feel quieter, more restful, more peaceful than celebratory, or loud, or exciting. These are long, cold days. As a species I think we’re supposed to be lying low, eating root vegetables, and conserving energy to get through winter. Still, in a little while, I’ll probably pull on my giant fuzzy snow boots and be with the smiling, happy people.

In 2015 I traveled. I felt blocked creatively, and so to occupy myself, I tried to say yes to all of the people I loved, and even liked, and ended up making a few long road trips and even made a solo detour on a trip to visit my best friend and ended up seeing more of the Oregon coast than I’d ever seen before and felt small next to the tsunami warnings and did wheel pose in the warm sand with my mom, whom I love so much.

I felt like my urgent travel mode was coming to an end in 2016, but I still ended up traveling a lot. I flew to Louisiana. In February, I road tripped back to Utah through Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado (in the snow!). Then I flew to Houston for a conference that ended up being a good bonding experience with my colleagues, even though I was also really emotionally raw during that trip. I made a quick trip home for my nephew’s birthday (a date I rarely get to make because of my work schedule). Later in the month, I attended another conference in Atlanta. The conference was great, but the trip felt a little solitary. When school finished up, I took off to the high mountains of Idaho, and then made my annual trip to Oregon, came back to Idaho, and then I did another quick trip to Utah.

Before school started, I road tripped to Phoenix by way of the Grand Canyon (a first for me!), Flagstaff and Sedona. In Phoenix I ate some of the best pizza of my life, drove on to the Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, where I had last been 15 years earlier on my way to a school trip to Mexico. That trip, and the saguaros, left an indelible mark on my psyche, and my return to them did not disappoint. After having my face melted off by a lovely little jazz quartet, I went on to Las Vegas, where I ate at the Peppermill because it’s iconic, and I had recently seen Jerry Seinfeld interview George Wallace there for his show.

After school started, I did a quick long weekend in Seattle to visit the loveliest of people, where I felt the humid, highly oxygenated air wash over me, and after that I went back to Las Vegas for a nice little conference that also felt quite solitary, and after that I went to San Diego for another conference, but this time I also got to walk along the warm California beach and see some of the city and just detoured (quite) a bit in general.

So, there was a lot of travel, and I was grateful for the good company I was able to keep, and I felt highly motivated at times, editing, grading, book reviewing, and proposing all manor of scholarly work. I also rested. I ate tomatoes and zucchini that I grew myself. I knitted, and I read, and I put seeds out for the birds. There’s more of course, but for now, this is probably all I need to say about 2016.