Festive Times: On Ass-Kicking and Imperfection

•August 20, 2011 • 1 Comment

My mother’s friend Willie used to say he wished he had himself an ass-kicking machine.

While I don’t know exactly what Willie had in mind, I imagine a vertical wooden board, say the height of an average man, with a pole that goes from, let’s say the height of an average ass to the ground.  This pole has a shoe attached to it.  The customer then stands in front of said ass-kicking machine, pulls a cord, and kicks his or her own ass.  This machine is located in Willie’s garage and after the cathartic ass-kicking, he invites you to grab a cold beer from a cooler and hang out for a while.  I think about this machine a lot.  Did I mention that my internal critical voice often times gets hoarse from over-use?

A couple days after arriving in Medellín, I began to long for that machine.  I timed my trip to Colombia to coincide with the Festival of the Flowers, one of Medellín’s biggest parties of the year.  My first attempt to go to any of the festivities—the classic car parade—felt like a failure.  I didn’t really know where I was going and found myself wandering alone down a sidewalk that dead-ended into the interstate.  After I found my destination—an underwhelming patch of grass—I realized I had needlessly arrived two hours early.  When the parade finally started, I pulled out my camera, determined to get really wonderful pictures of the parade to redeem the dud of a morning.

Memory card error.  I felt like such a loser.

It didn’t help matters that I had spent the past couple of hours watching families, friends, and couples enjoy each others company, engaging in some of my favorite past-times—eating street food, kissing under trees, and drinking beer for breakfast.  Being alone in a crowd is an extremely vulnerable act.  In The Gift of Imperfection, researcher, storyteller, and my new-best friend, Brené Brown, suggests embracing vulnerability is a necessary task for living an authentic and wholehearted life.

Voluntary vulnerability is counterintuitive to most people.  It’s also, according to BFF Brown, an act of ordinary courage.  I cannot begin to count the times in which the fear of vulnerability has dictated my life decisions, large and small.   There are times, of course, when we cannot avoid vulnerability.  Being undressed is perhaps our most vulnerable moment, thus serving as a template for anxiety dreams and horror films in which our vulnerability is ridiculed, shunned, exploited, and maimed.  How frightening is the authenticity of the essence of ourselves, without the armor of our managed appearance?  Max Weber described the ceaseless work for the accumulation of possessions as trapping individuals in an iron cage or a “shell as hard as steel.”  This shell of possessions does not have to be material; instead we can encase ourselves in the garb of attempted perfection as we trade in the currency of our own image.

Every time I fantasize about that ass-kicking machine, it’s when I’ve lost my cloak of self-protection of attempted perfection.  It’s when the semi-fictional version of myself clashes with the naked reality of me.  It’s when I’m living in the conditional and subjunctive—I could have done better, had I only done something different, but I didn’t and now I suck. Where’s that ass-kicking machine again?  Most of the actions of our lives, however, reside in imperfect tenses of what we really do and who we really are instead of the projections of improbable to impossible versions of alternative realities.

How much better a fantasy would it be if, when I made silly to serious mistakes, I skipped the ass-kicking and went straight to the beer?  To Willie saying, “come on, baby girl, it’s alright, just hang out and have a drink.”  It would be moving from the self-flagellation of the failure of not doing it ALL right to the comforting quality of being alright.

For several months, I seriously contemplated getting the words “forget your perfect offering” tattooed on my forearm, believing a permanent reminder to avoid perfectionism would be cheaper then Paxil.  An inability to decide on the perfect font, however, prevented me from scarring myself with the wisdom of Leonard Cohen.  (Perfectionism, may, at times, have its benefits.)

Embracing imperfection may be an act of faith in something bigger than ourselves, faith that our big and small errors won’t end the world, faith that we’re not the be-all-end-all of our own life, or anyone else’s, for that matter.  Imperfections are a testament to our unfinished status, to the fact that we are works-in-progress, that we have miles more to climb before we’re through.  They are, as Leonard Cohen says, “the cracks in everything,” the ones that let the light get in, the ones that could even illuminate the way towards a more radical acceptance of our naked selves–as loveable, as attractive, as enough.

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Circle Games

•August 6, 2011 • 2 Comments

I started this blog four years ago.  At the time, I was living in Northern Ireland and preparing to move back to the U.S. to start a PhD in History.  Before entering the golden cage of academia (perhaps more reminiscent of fool’s gold then anything else), I had lofty ideas about the wonderful things I could do once I had moved back to the states—learn how to play the mandolin, make jam and start a community co-op (I still think In a Jam is a good idea), and write for pleasure.  The reality of course work and the general stress of life didn’t factor strongly into that equation.

Four years later, I’m finally writing again.  It’s not a coincidence that this correlates with the end of my coursework in both History and Cultural Anthropology, and the beginning of my dissertation fieldwork in Colombia.  Looking back at where I was four years ago and what I was thinking about, I’m aware of the themes that emerge—the making and remaking of home, the value of community, the oft-illusive but nonetheless essential struggle for justice, to name a few.  These are the issues that frame my dissertation research on the process of remaking home after conflict.  These are the topics that form the foundation of my life, they are the wells I draw upon and seek to fill.

It is tempting to see a sort of symmetry in these stages of my career and life.  When I  started this blog I was processing what it meant to come home and make home.  Now, I am struggling with leaving and remaking home while also studying how those facing hardships I can barely imagine turn the immediacy of emergency into the slower struggle of recovery and reconstruction.

Perhaps it is instinctual to search for symmetry. The measurement of facial perfection, if one believes in such a thing, lies largely upon the spectrum of symmetry on which features fall.  So many narratives of continuity and wholeness—yin and yang, the wheel, the circle of life—revolve around the perfect symmetry of the circle. For St. Augustine, the geometry of god encompassed a circle whose center was everywhere and circumference nowhere.

The symmetry of the circle, full or otherwise, might best be relegated to the realm of the divine.   In the past few months, I’ve found myself often repeating one of my favorite last lines in a book.  Alexandra Fuller ends her memoir about growing up in Rhodesia, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dog’s Tonight, with a staunch rejection of symmetrical thinking. “This is not full circle,” she offers.  “It’s Life carrying on.  It’s the next breath we all take.  It’s the choice we make to get on with it.”

This line means something different to me now then it did four years ago when I first moved to Durham and was living alone in a strange new place.  Yet I find myself on similar terrain, alone in my apartment in Medellín ruminating on how to make meaning out of my choices and forge connections in this next phase of my life.

Perhaps my life, every life, folds back upon itself–not in the perfect symmetry of a circle but instead in spirals, scribbles, and scrawls.   Getting on with the business of life generates patterns and themes we continually repeat out of habit, interest, desire, and compulsion that at times offer the illusion of return to places, emotions, events, and ways of being that no longer exist.

There’s a difference, however, between revisiting and returning, especially if return is seen as an act of restoration.  Revisiting who I was four years ago is to temporarily alight upon past moments, a past person.  Life carries on, though, and has landed me back at a computer, struggling with desires for perfection and profundity that are both unnecessary and unachievable.  Life carries on, in oblong and asymmetrical meanderings through mistakes and pain and triumph and joy that we struggle to understand and contain within patterns that offer the illusion of closure.  I’ve always turned to T.S. Eliot to help me begin or end papers, a sort of go-to cure for writers block.  I began my personal statement for graduate school with his well-trod quote on the the symmetry of travel and return—“We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.”

This used to inspire me.  I used to think this was possible.  Now I see it as part of my desire to place my wandering into a pattern that offered the wholeness of a beginning and an end, especially one that promised a pot of golden knowledge at the destination.

And now I see it as part of the useful mythmaking that both provides order and constrains our lives.  It would be comforting to believe that the end is the beginning, to believe in the victorious homecoming of a knowledge-filled return.  It would also be a big spoiler to a story whose ending has not yet been written.  Now, I see the place that I’m in as neither beginning nor end but simply where I’m at, my temporary habitat.  Which is actually how Mos Def defines home—“It ain’t where ya from, it’s where ya at.”

And it’s good to be home.

Durham in Wonderland

•January 22, 2008 • 3 Comments

The night before it snowed
two men were killed
and several others shot
for reasons not yet known. 

And the city awoke
to southern streets
Kissed
with cold complexities. 

That fall unique
and quickly melt
into puddles of
nuisance 

Sludge and mud
to be scraped
off boots
before entering the house. 

In the morning
a thin shroud
Blankets
this small town. 

With an innocence
Undeserved
yet offered
all the same. 

The addicts and the elderly
the pushers and professors
Watch from the window
and Witness 

An ephemeral absolution.

Table For One

•August 23, 2007 • 1 Comment

“This is not full circle. It’s Life carrying on. It’s the next breath we all take. It’s the choice we make to get on with it.”
-Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dog’s Tonight

My mother calls her life a sacrament of interruption. Growing up, the door was always open. Each day would begin with the fear and possibility that came with never knowing who would grace us with their presence and their problems. Solitude was an unknown entity for me. When I graduated from college, however, I moved to Nicaragua. There, I was constantly surrounded by people. All the same, I felt a loneliness that was as foreign to me as the strange country that I was supposed to be calling home. I had no real reason to be there, no purpose or direction except for the faint sense that it had been the right decision at the time—cold comfort and no substitute for a loving coterie of family and friends. It was the only time that I lived in fear, the only time I was ever attacked, the only time I cried myself to sleep on a regular basis. It was also the only time I ever lived alone.

After Nicaragua, I lived with my family in the home where I grew up, in an intentional community in rural Georgia, with a roommate in Gabon who has probably heard my stories more than my fiancé, in a shared student accommodation with seven other people in Belfast, and finally with Gareth in a wonderful little cottage in an idyllic seaside town. Several months before leaving Northern Ireland, I began searching for a place to live in Durham. While the process consumed me, it never came to any resolution. It was only when I was in Durham looking for a place that I realized that I was scared to live alone.

While I have many weaknesses, dependency has never been one of them. After almost a decade of bouncing around to new places around the world, I came to pride myself on my independence and adaptability. It came as a shock to me that I might be frightened by something so simple as finding a place to live in my own country, in my own region even. Gareth and I drove to Durham several days ago. It was 105 degrees. Before we even got on the interstate, I had somehow managed to douse both of us with gasoline due to a broken gas nozzle and my own special ability to do amazingly stupid things. When we arrived, Gareth was appalled by the Spartan accommodations I had chosen, a cinder-block duplex with no ventilation in a neighborhood scared him.

In the few days that he was here, we explored the city together. We ate good food, saw good movies, even bought a good house. In the back of my mind, however, I envisioned how I would feel when Gareth would leave and I would be alone in a place reminiscent of a bomb shelter or township home. In my mind’s eye, I saw a prison door closing; in my mind’s ear I heard the clang reverberate and reiterate my lone status. When he left, however, the anticipated fear never arrived. Instead, I felt an unexpected relief for the opportunity afforded to me to read, to sleep, to drink beer in my very first piece of purchased furniture (a seven dollar red camp chair complete with a convenient drink holder) and listen to the noises of the neighborhood. I sat in my solitude surrounded by the hum of the wall unit air conditioner, the thud of a basketball on the asphalt, the buzz of the crickets outside and was reminded that I was not alone.

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It Takes a Village to Raise a Wizard

•August 5, 2007 • 1 Comment

The condiments and salad dressing aisle of any major grocery store in the United States can be a pretty stressful place. Would wasabi mayonnaise be the correct compliment for roast beef, or might the horseradish honey mustard give it just the right kick? The eternal quandaries of the playground of consumerism. Each time I return to the States, I am so overwhelmed by the options afforded me that I become paralyzed by choice, and often return home from a shopping excursion empty-handed.

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This time around, in order to avoid my inevitable failure, I made my first purchase a buffer from all others and from the outside world in general—I bought the last Harry Potter book. For this reason, my first three weeks back home have been all but devoted to the final escapades of imaginary wizards in a children’s book. While I did make time to see my family, play with my niece, and run the requisite errands, I would quickly scurry back to the warm and protective shield of a make-believe world. What I saw there was as frightening and familiar as the bustling and confusing world I was trying to escape.

Harry Potter is a deeply traumatized child. As the narratives in each story grow increasingly complex, so does the suffering of one young boy, a child who must suffer in order to save the rest of the world. It would not have been surprising if Harry had used his angst as a reason to hurt others – if he had turned his pain outward, projecting it at the world that has damaged him. Yet what stopped Harry from turning to the dark side, from devoting his life to crime and black magic? So many children in our muggle world are similarly traumatized; so many children suffer through situations that adults should never be forced to face. Some of them turn to gangs, some get pregnant, some get addicted, and some—a few—fight and rage against their circumstances and make it through. Why?

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Harry has no parents, lives under the constant fear of death, possesses the rather sinister ability to talk to snakes, suffers from being the topic of slanderous gossip, and is used as a pawn in adult games and power plays. But he has one thing going for him—community. He is surrounded by people who love and nurture him. They might not be perfect and a lot of them are weird. Some are criminals and misfits; some shine too brightly and dance to a different drummer. But they love him and protect him and offer to give up their lives for him. They are his family.

I look around and see so many children whose lives will probably not work out well because of circumstances beyond their control. I wonder what we could do to alter their trajectories if we weren’t too busy being distracted by the small details of our own lives. I wonder if we would have more time for the individuals around us who need our help if we spent less time in the overstocked aisles and overflowing shelves of shopping malls and grocery stores. I wonder what would change if we decided to prioritize relationships over things. Our lives are filled with distractions, both voluntary and compulsory, that prevent us from creating communities that might just be the saving grace for other people and even for ourselves. In the world of Harry Potter, magic coexists within the ordinary human world; the muggles, however, are blind to the magic that surrounds them. If there’s one thing to learn from Harry Potter, it’s that we have the power to alter circumstances through our own caring if we open our eyes and our hearts to those in need. That’s our muggle brand of magic.

Leaving Belfast, Part 2: I am Jack’s Cold Sweat

•July 14, 2007 • 1 Comment

A couple nights ago, I couldn’t sleep so I sat in my living room with my computer on my lap, searching on-line for a bed. Insomnia was a constant throughout my childhood. My parents were political activists and I absorbed their conversations about nuclear war, the abuses of the Reagan administration, the threat of toxic rain, or whatever issue was currently on the front burner of their ire and converted these themes into persistent nightmares. Later on in life, I learned to channel these dreams into my waking interests and, for the most part, my dreamscape became far more banal and my sleep far less arrested. But lately, something has gone terribly wrong.

My dreams are terminally boring. I wake up in the middle of the night with the dreadful realization that my REM wanderings consisted of me scouring the classifieds for houses in my price range. Instead of seeking inspiration for a more imaginative sleep state, instead of reading poetry or teaching myself how to make mosaics or finally tackling the Portuguese language in the wee hours of the morning, I trawl through the dredges of the internet for free home furnishings that would no longer be available when I would actually need them. I engage in pointless acts of futility in the hopes that I will bore myself back into dreary dreams. It doesn’t work.

The narrator of the film Fight Club had a similar existence to mine until he blew up his apartment. He described his condition as becoming “slave to the Ikea nesting instinct.” I have become a slave to the “free stuff” section of Craig’s list. It has become an obsession to search for the components of projects I will never engage in. “Someone has free tree stumps in Cary, you must uproot.” Hadn’t I always wanted to make stools out of the rotted stumps of North Carolina piedmont pine? “Free magazines in North Raleigh, Better Homes and Gardens, People, and US Weekly. First come, first serve.” That would work perfectly for that decoupage project of the coffee table that I do not yet own. And so the search continues.

Possession accrual, real or imaginary, can be an attempt to tether ourselves to a present that is far too rapidly becoming subsumed into the past. The present moment can be a terrifying thing. If I pay too close of attention to the moment at hand, I can actually feel my life slipping away. And so I engage in the persistent project of distraction, engaging in an extensive exploration of the imagined topography of my future all to avoid the reality of what is right before me, which is now.

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Falling asleep is our daily act of cutting the cord to the present. We dream of tomorrow and wake up in today. If drifting off to sleep is a forced act of faith, then insomnia is the victory of fear over necessity. It is also an untenable state. Eventually, I have to stop the housing search, give up on the pursuit of free dirt to be found somewhere in the Triangle area, and submit myself to the sweet and scary abyss of the unknown. Late last night, I read Christopher Lydon’s farewell to the listeners and readers of Radio Open Source. He quoted the end of Emerson’s essay, “Circles”:“Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath or covenant to secure it against a higher love. No truth so sublime but it may be trivial to-morrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”  Then I took a Tylenol PM and fell asleep.

Leaving Belfast, Part 1: The Things I Carry

•July 1, 2007 • 1 Comment

“The things they carried were largely determined by necessity…. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RTO, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Ray Kiley carried comic books…. Necessity dictated.”

Tim O’Brien, from The Things They Carried

For nearly a decade, I have lived out of suitcases and one unfortunate back-pack that has graciously suffered being tied to the tops of school buses and pick-up trucks, stuffed in the belly of trains and dragged down dirt roads, silently keeping company alongside dead goats and live chickens. Throughout my twenties, I have carried most of my possessions on my back. The contents of the bag evolve as the representations of what I hold important or necessary shift with time, location, and my own whims.

While I love my bag, I despise filling it. Packing puts me in either a fugue state or one of irrational anger. I sulk and rant; I find time to clean underneath the sink; I sit and read the classified sections of six-month-old newspapers. Anything not to pack. It feels profoundly demoralizing to see what I own. The sum total of my worth seems entirely incoherent. The ephemeral nature of value confronts me as I attempt to remember why I own what I do and make the trickier calculation of whether these unfamiliar possessions might hypothetically serve me in the future.

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I once saved several hundred dollars so that I could buy a place on an Air France flight for a suitcase filled with paper. I thought that one day I might need my notes for lesson plans in French or folders with the grammatical structures of various little used-African languages. To throw them away felt like it would be a negation of my work and therefore an invalidation of myself. The suitcase now collects dust in a corner of my parent’s house. As I’m packing to leave Belfast, I engage in the same debate, sifting through graded papers and notebooks filled with grandiose ideas, wondering if that essay could indeed be adapted for Harper’s or if, perhaps, there are any universities waiting to snap up my plans for the creation of designer masters programs.

My bag is filled with unfinished plans and unachieved goals. My bag is filled with unmet potential and unrequited dreams. The jumble of straps on the outside, whose purposes are still unknown to me after all these years, often feel analogous to the incoherent paths I have taken in the past decade. And yet I know that those straps are there for a reason just as I know my previous actions and choices, seen from afar, form a loosely coherent, if a bit tangential, set of interests and passions that inform my present and inspire my future.

As I prepare to install myself in one single location for the next five years, to bind myself to one person for the rest of my life, to engage in studies that will hopefully afford me a career, my green back-pack and its contents remind me of my nomadic past. It is dirty and mildewed and it should be retired to greener pastures. But the bag and its contents are what keep me tethered to my myriad pasts, they are the trinkets and tidbits of memory and I think I’ll have to carry them with me for a little longer. Necessity dictates.