Once, there were two brothers who farmed a rice paddy. When they came of age, one brother announced, “I will now seek wisdom and enlightenment by traveling the world.” The otherbrother announced, “I will become wise while staying right here.” The traveling brother donned his pack, and left. 40 years later, the traveling brother returned, a halo of enlightenment surrounding his visage. “I have seen cities and villages, deserts and seas, affluence and destitution,” he proclaimed, “and I am enlightened.” The other brother turned, and a halo of enlightenment was also illuminating his visage. “I have never left this plot of land. I have watched the sun rise and set over the same hills, the plants sprout and wither in the same earth, the waters rise and fall in the same river. I am enlightened.”
I heard this parable in high school. I have never again heard it anywhere since, and the exact words have long since escaped me–but yet, as I have beaten my own paths through cities and villages, deserts and seas, mountains and steppes, the message and question have stayed with me. What is the source of growth and wisdom? Is it something we go into the world and seek through a variety of experience–or is the potential to grow a power that we had inside of us all along?
Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.
Poem by Antonio Machado. Referenced in the novel Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
I always admired my goal-oriented friends. They had 10-year plans outlining their career trajectory; graphs predicting their millionaire status by age 30; real estate purchases and investments charted; and one individual even delivered a “quarterly report” on his vaunted progress toward his inexorable success. It was charismatic, visionary, and I was drawn to it, aspired to it.
But applying their approach to my own life never worked. I could rarely see more than one step ahead of where I was. Trying to determine my destination in advance that way felt inauthentic, ingenuous, a bit self-absorbed, in a way that I couldn’t articulate. I was satisfied with my work and play and life. Yet in the back of my mind, my seeming inability to set and commit to a big goal left me feeling inadequate in relation to my hyper goal-driven friends. I assumed that, despite my contentment, my efforts weren’t as good–because they didn’t obviously add up to an audacious outcome.
In time, I learned to resolve this internal conflict. Now, I can see that I just have my own approach, it just happens to be quite different from the one followed by my goal-oriented friends. I call it a process-oriented approach.
In my approach, I don’t try to define in advance the outcomes of my efforts, and then reflexively prescribe myself the process and practices that will get me to that outcome. I have come to believe that this goal-oriented approach has some major flaws. What if I don’t enjoy the work, the lifestyle, the process of reaching the goal? What if I don’t want to make the world conform to my singular vision of myself? What if I want to serve others rather than make the world serve me? What if I had to ignore other opportunities, neglect curiosities, and delay many a great many gratifications in order to stay on track toward my goal? And worst–the question that always plagued me when setting goals–what if, after everything I’ve invested or sacrificed, the destination isn’t what I thought it would be?
Instead, I order my life the other way around: I start with the process and leave the outcome open-ended. What activities, tasks, and projects do I like doing and being part of? Does the work I’m doing enable me to support myself? Am I interested and challenged and enriched by the work I’m doing and the play I’m engaged in? How often am I bored? How often am I challenged? Does my work and leisure time align with my values and principles? Do I have freedom and autonomy, but also the embrace of a community? Does my work generally support efforts that aim to expand beauty and fairness in the world?
These questions–not “where will I be in 10 years”–are my guiding ones, and they have worked for me so far. In fact, a recent article vindicates my approach. According to one professor, the process-oriented approach not only has the potential to provide more overall happiness in life. It can also get you to outcomes in the end:
…I recommend … an alternative approach, which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you’re really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.
I’ve become content with my lack of discrete goals and comfortable with the possibility that my existentialism-infused, process-oriented days either may, or may not, add up to the “big goal” that my goal-oriented friends’ will. But I will have lived each and every day in a way that suits my interests, challenges me, captivates my imagination, and aligns with my values. To me, that in itself would be a worthy goal.
On the beaches of Vancouver were scattered hundreds of iridescent, opalescent purple shells. From a distance, they looked like shards of the sky deposited by the purplish sunset. Close up, you could see the delicate violet gradations and subtle shades.
They attracted me, so I picked them up and collected some in my pocket, and took them back to the room where I was staying. I envisioned handing them out to the friends and family I’d see the next day.
But, when I looked at them the next day, they were dull and chalky. Taken out of their environment, they lost their luster.
In the end, I returned them back to the beach, where they could once again soak up the color of the sunset.
You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.
You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.
… I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English degree you’ll say: “Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire”; or maybe just: “Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.”
Cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. People have remained attached to unachievable fantasies of the good life–with its promises of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality–despite evidence that liberal-capitalist societies can no longer be counted on to provide opportunities for individuals to make their lives ‘add up to something.'”
“Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes.”
— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
When I was a student, I attended boarding school in a cold Midwestern town where it snowed a lot and often. After a big snowstorm, the roads would be impassable by car, so I would take walks through the middle of the streets. It felt transgressive and a tinge anarchistic, to be a pedestrian strolling where normally only automobiles could pass. I would recite poetry or entertain apocalyptic fantasies of being the last person on earth. I could have been the survivor of an apocalypse because I was always alone, the only one treading the snowy street of the small town.
In the aftermath of a snowstorm in New York has the same transgressive feel. Stores, restaurants, and workplaces shut down. Snow gets plowed from the roads and piles up on the sidewalks. Transport stops on the roads. Blizzard winds roar over the Hudson and whip through the city streets into fierce wind tunnels while streetlights alternate colors impotently. We can live without cars and buses and streetlights–what other institutions can we tear down? What if the entire city got buried in snow, and a new city was built on top of the clean white layer?
In New York, I still walk in the middle of the street during a snowstorm and entertain these fantasies, but the difference is I am not the only one in the middle of the street. There are sledders and tobogganers; joggers; dog walkers; hide and seek players; football catchers; hooligans climbing on mailboxes; sirens in the distance and Latin music emanating from 24 hour delis. The streets empty except for people roaming through them are still subtly anarchistic and apocalyptic, but I am no longer alone at the dissolution of society and the end of the world.
“It’s no longer true that when it rains everyone gets wet. I call this skyboxification… Something similar has been happening in American life throughout American society throughout this last three decades. Against a background of rising inequality, putting a price on everything, commodifying every aspect of life, has the effect of driving people apart, leading the affluent and those of modest means to live increasingly separate lives… This isn’t good for democracy, it’s a corrosive effect, this relentless commodification and inequality, together are corrosive of the sense that we are all in this together. Democracy doesn’t require perfect equality. It does require that people from different social backgrounds, different walks of life, encounter one another in common spaces of everyday life. This is what teaches us to negotiate and abide our differences. This is how we come to care for the common good, to feel that we’re all in this together. So in this subtle but cumulative way, the relentless commodification of life, together with rising inequality, have undermined the social solidarity, the commonality, that democracy in the end requires. This is one of the dangers of the unquestioned embrace of market thinking and of market logic.”
with your second last name
gone missing from your mailbox,
school ID, and learner’s permit.
It is hard to explain to your relatives
back on the Island.
Your mother says,
you had it
when you left home,
where is it now?
You cannot claim
to have misplaced
your mother’s surname.
–“Crime in the Barrio” in Call Me María by Judith Ortiz Cofer (via)
“Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”
Weeks ago, I was proctoring an exam at my university’s law school. Everyone was stressed but one student was especially frantic. She had claimed a spot in an exam hall based on the first letter of her last name, but the official exam listing had assigned her to a different room. She was disputing it with the head proctor: “My last name is de la Rioja, Rioja, not de la. I should have been assigned to this room, with the R names, not the other room with the D names.” The head proctor was indifferent. “You need to tell the administration to change that.”
Some time ago I was getting dinner with a public school teacher. This person was white, but she worked in predominantly low-income black and Latino neighborhoods. “You would not believe the names!” she commented blithely.
During add/drop period at the beginning of a semester at my university, professors at my graduate school often begin with calling attendance. It should be quick, but it always takes twice as long as it needs to because of professors stumbling–apologetically to be sure–over the names of international students. The Chinese sanguinely provide their American names. Even I generally call my classmates by their “American names” if they provide them, and in Nagaland, I often interacted with people I met through their “Christian names” rather than their given names.
People’s identities are complicated–certain parts of our identities may come to the foreground in interactional certain contexts, sometimes prompting different variations of our names. But the patterns of whose names tend to be changed, and in what ways, by whom, and with what consequences, is clear. Is this a world we want to create–one where cultural backgrounds are erased and given dominant-culture replacements? A world where a supposedly global-minded educational institution does not know how to handle its international students’ last names? A world where certain names are written off as difficult compared to an arbitrary standard?
I say no, and that we all have reflection, self-work, listening, and targeted learning to do to put a stop to this erasure in the domain of one of the most intimate words that an individual possesses–their name.
Photo: “Lady Liberty” by SETH at the Museum of Public Art, LA
“I’m not a national at all. How could I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept? … Histories are real, cultures are real, but countries were invented. … All experience is local. All identity is experience. I’m not a local. I’m multi-local… My experience is where I’m from. What if we asked, instead of ‘Where are you from?’–‘Where are you a local?‘ This would tell us so much more about who and how similar we are.”
To be clear, nation-states (countries) are just as “real” as cultures and histories. Culture, histories, and nations are all social constructs. All are “invented concepts” that are real in their effects and consequences. A nation may be newer, larger, or more abstract than a culture or a history, but fundamentally, nations and cultures are the same types of conceptual thing–all are social constructs based on shared cultural knowledge.
The crux of the matter, though, is this: given a wide range of social constructs at our disposal, which constructs more accurately reflect and describe our individual identities? Nationhood, as we all assume when we ask “Where are you from”? Or something like “locality”?
Jodhpur, a city in the state of Rajasthan, was a highlight of my 1.5-month-long trip to India. Jodhpur and its people delighted and astonished me, right up until the final hour before departing. This is about that final hour.
The morning of my departure from Jodhpur, I was rushing to grab my luggage from my hotel in an effort to catch a bus to the next town. I was taking a familiar route through the “Blue City” and passing through familiar streets. But this time, something caught my eye. Or rather, the absence of “something” caught my eye. Real estate and living space were valuable in this historical, touristy part of the city; where there weren’t commercial and residential buildings, there were temples and shrines galore. Yet here was a space, a gap in the urban sprawl, with no low rises or spires piercing upward.
Even more puzzling, stone steps beckoned up to this negative space, as if to a pedestal–but evidently with nothing on display. So, somewhat automatically and unconsciously, I ascended the stone steps, not expecting anything at all. And I gasped out loud.
Beneath my feet opened up a yawning, massive trench, so deep that its darkened bottom could not be discerned from my vantage point, its vastness so shocking that I experienced vertigo. The sound of flowing water, which I had not even registered before, rushed into my ears. Streams poured out from innumerable spouts–some animal-shaped, some seeming to seep from the rock itself–trickling down along dozens of dizzying stories of exquisitely carved tiered levels and stairs and collecting into a pool at the bottom of the trench. This pool sat at the base of a massive, monumental stone archway several stories tall. The stone at the bottom of the structure was dark with discoloration, giving the impression that the watery opening in the earth continued into infinite blackness.
I once described being “surprised” in Thailand, but surprise connotes that you have at least a minimal level of expectation of events to come, which are then contradicted by reality. Here, I could not say I experienced surprise–bewilderment would be more accurate, as I had no reference point for what I was looking at, no expectation for what it could be. Taking in the entire monumental sight of it, in that moment, the only corresponding image my mind could muster was to a Legend of Zelda video game I played as a child–which says something about the mysterious and mystical aura of the place. There was no signage, was no one around to inquire, and my guidebook had made no mention of this massive architectural trench.
Of course, I did not give up, but began exploring, walking along the edge and descending as far down as I could go without being fearful of falling in. My exploration revealed some clues. An old sign requested visitors to “remove shoes,” suggesting religious significance. Yet the place was in a state of abandonment, the grounds were too gravely and dirty to possibly walk on barefoot (even by local standards). At the same time, the water and the structure were not actively dilapidated or polluted with refuse–this fact being quite remarkable as all other negative spaces in the city were filled in with makeshift landfills.
My exploration yielded few answers, just more extreme bewilderment–and twinges of fear, as the deeper I descended into the trench, the more I felt that the inexorably flowing water and vertiginous depths were drawing me down into their subterranean maws. I climbed out and eventually caught my bus, leaving Jodhpur without solving the bewildering architectural mystery. In fact, I did not find what I had seen until long after leaving India and returning to the U.S., when I spotted an article in one of my social media newsfeeds.
Of course, many readers will have known, without my exhaustive narrative, that I had stumbled onto a bawdi, a “stepwell.” They have a long history in India serving dual purposes as water storage and sites of worship, but today they are neglected and under-appreciated in all their functions, even tourism. As photographer Victoria Lautmansaid, “They could be next to a shopping mall or at a popular tourist spot, and you wouldn’t know about them.”
It is truly unfortunate that stepwells are undervalued by locals, that they are falling into neglect and disrepair, that many visitors leave Jodhpur and India without experiencing the awesomeness of a stepwell. But the one small upside is that, for now, stepwells are capable of truly astonishing and bewildering those who are fortunate to stumble onto them.
A common question formula, especially in Beginner English lessons, is “Where would you rather live: in the mountains, or by the sea?” The assumption is that these are opposing choices, and selecting one reveals something elemental about you.
I’ve lived for a time by the sea before, but this month has been the first and longest stint I’ve lived in the mountains. Being here has made me challenge the assumption behind that dichotomous question. The mountains and the sea appear different, on their surface, but experientially, have remarkable similarities.
This month, I’ve been in Northeast India–a mountainous Himalayan region thrust between Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, and China–staying in a village about 4,700 feet above sea level. Just as by the sea, here in the mountains, the landscape is vast and your gaze extends as far as it can reach, with the far distances eliding into pastel watercolor versions of their nearer selves.
Like the seaside, the mountain landscape seems still and unmoving, but really it changes imperceptibly, moment by moment, as clouds shift, the sun moves across the wide sky, small figures in distant villages conduct their daily business, and bluish smoke rises from kitchens at suppertime.
Like the seaside, adverse weather is truly extreme. When it rains, it drenches. Relentless rains pour down in buckets all night. While leading a class at one point, the rain on the metal roofing was so loud that it was impossible to hear my own voice, let alone make it heard to the students. When it’s not raining, it is wet. In the distance you see a cloud, and a minute later, your world is enveloped in a shroud of condensation: you are inside the cloud. Living inside a cloud takes some getting used to, such as not being able to see past five feet in front of you, and the reality that your clothes simply never dry after being washed.
On the seaside, it seemed to be an assumption that some things would have to be rebuilt anew each year after the onslaught of winter monsoons. Here also, recovering and rebuilding from rains is a near-constant effort. The Himalayas are young mountains made of still-loose sediments. Consequently, roads routinely collapse from the sodden weight of water and mud, a phenomenon called “sinking roads.” Landslides have been known to down whole houses, or schools. Just as power outages were to be expected in my former town on the seaside, electricity here is categorized as “regularly irregular.”
Like the seaside, mountains elicit that fundamental sense of reflection, insignificance, and awareness of one’s own small place in the wide world.
There are, of course, meaningful differences between my experiences on the sea and in the mountains, but sometimes expected unity is more interesting than expected difference. Or, as they say here in India, there is unity in diversity.
So maybe it is time to rewrite that question based on anthropological findings; from now on, I will ask my English students, “Would you rather live in a desert, or in a rainforest?”
Recently, the Village Voice published an article: “Twenty Ways to Die in New York.” Though comprehensive, it misses one crucial way, possibly the way that most intensely structures my daily life. That way is: electrocution by metal grate.
When I was an impressionable child visiting New York City for the first time, I heard a harrowing story. A woman stepped on one of the many metal grates or vents that dot the city sidewalks. Typically this would not be a storyworthy occasion but on that day, a wire had broken loose, touched the grate, and electrified it. The woman who stepped on that grate was electrocuted and, according to my memory, died instantly.
Whether or not this story was true, it was still clear in my mind when I moved to New York last year. At first I avoided walking on all iron grates and vents, either consciously or unconsciously assuming them all to be potential hazards in the urban landscape.
However, in the months since, my relationship with metal grates has become more nuanced. Specifically, they come to symbolize Risk, and how I respond to Risk depends on my mood and state of mind. If I am confident and happy, I stride over the grates with gusto. I taunt life: Things are going great, just try to mess this up. Or: My life is and has been full and interesting, and if ended now I would have nothing to regret.
If I am stressed, anxious, sad, or insecure, I avoid stepping on the metal grates. Life is already going badly enough, why make it worse? Or: I’ve accomplished nothing with all the opportunities I’ve been given, wouldn’t dying now be shameful? Coming home late at night, I avoid walking over the grates, as if being electrocuted is the biggest threat at 1 a.m. on Broadway.
If I am bored, the metal grates seem especially able to draw my attention, and as I approach them I psych myself up. What if the next grate is the one that’s electrified? I place my foot on the grate and feel a thrill through my spine, not of electrocution, but of excitement.
There is one attitude I can never have towards metal grates, though, and that is apathy or neutrality. Measuring and balancing risk always requires some kind of calculation and judgement.
That is why, to this day, with every encounter with a metal sidewalk grate I must examine my entire psychological state and philosophical outlook.