This place could be beautiful

Shanghai Falling (Fuxing Lu Demolition) 2002, Greg Girard

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

— “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith in Waxwing via Hannah Rosefield

Photo: Shanghai Falling (Fuxing Lu Demolition) 2002, Greg Girard

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No Hay Camino

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Caminante no hay Camino

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.

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Difficult Names and Cultural Erasure

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It begins
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.”

–Warsan Shire

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 

Lavinia

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Sana gitme demeyeceğim.
Üşüyorsun ceketimi al.
Günün en güzel saatleri bunlar.
Yanımda kal.

Sana gitme demeyeceğim.
Gene de sen bilirsin.
Yalanlar istiyorsan yalanlar söyleyeyim,
İncinirsin.

Sana gitme demeyeceğim,
Ama gitme, Lavinia.
Adını gizleyeceğim
Sen de bilme, Lavinia.

I won’t ask you not to go.
You are cold, take my jacket.
These are the loveliest times of the day.
Stay with me.

I won’t ask you not to go.
Still, you know.
If you want lies, I will tell you lies,
You’ll be hurt.

I won’t ask you not to go.
But Lavinia, don’t go.
I will keep your name a secret
Even you shall not know Lavinia.

–Özdemir Asaf, 1957

Years ago, a friend recited this poem to me. He himself heard the poem from another friend, who in turn must have learned it from someone else before her–a teacher, a professor, a romantic interest. I forgot about the poem until yesterday, when the first lines jumped out at me from a wall near Galata Tower. Now, I am posting it here in the spirit of passing on what was passed on to me.

Poetry Pilgrimage and Dover Beach

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My two favorite poems are “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats and “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. Though they are both by British authors of the Romantic strain, they are almost complete opposites in terms of their message. The former poem, which I call my life insurance, insists that the pains and indignities of life are transitory, and the real nature of reality is truth and beauty. It was one of the first poems I memorized and it appeals deeply to the philosopher, artist, humanist, and optimist in me. Arnold’s poem, with its progression from a serene coastal evening to a chaotic field of war, claims that the essence of the life and the world is pain, confusion, and suffering. “Dover Beach,” therefore, speaks to my cynical side, which thinks that truth and beauty are convenient constructions and that the best we can hope for in life is to find some shred of solace and refuge in one another. Together, these two poems encapsulate the extremities of my worldview.

So naturally, when I visited England in the spring of last year, I wanted to make it a poetry pilgrimage. I would view the Greek pottery that inspired Keats’s verse, and I would see in-person the cliffs and beaches of Dover which inspired Arnolds’ pessimistic lines. The Greek pottery was easily checked off with a stroll through the British Museum’s antiquities collections. Dover took more time and effort–a couple hours’ train ride from Waterloo station, a brisk walk through the town of Dover, an entertaining detour through Dover Castle, an hour of being lost between the castle and the coast, and then some wind-whipped hiking to reach the best viewing points of the cliffs and beaches.

But I knew it would be worth it, as I had high hopes thanks to Arnolds’s scintillating description in the first stanza of the poem:

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

I had in mind a tiny town perched directly on an endless pebble beach, kissed by ocean waves, the water in turn wrapped in a gray sky. I would hear the “eternal notes of sadness” in the “grating roar of pebbles.” Since it wasn’t nighttime, I wouldn’t see the “fair” moon or feel the “sweet night-air” but I would see the gleaming light on the French coast beyond the straits. And I would witness the cliffs of England “glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.” I would be able to experience being inside one of my favorite works of art.

The reality was quite a bit different. The cliffs were not nearly as glimmeringly white as Arnold suggests. Sometimes they were chalky white, sometimes a grungy brown. There was no grating roar of pebbles; when we descended to the bottom of the cliffs we found the stinky beach too clogged with seaweed and mildew to whimper, much less roar. There was no light gleaming from the French coast; the sky was so overcast we caught only a momentary glimpse of France. My travel companion who accompanied me to Dover was quite amused at how far art and expectation diverged from reality, but I was devastated.

In retrospect though, I realized that this divergence was perhaps the most fitting homage to the spirit of the poem. Isn’t disappointment and disillusionment the over-riding theme of “Dover Beach”? And in the end, apart from the expectations set up by me and my poetry pilgrimage, we had an entirely enjoyable day in Dover. We drank mead and ate seafood, wandered through the castle, hiked through thoroughly impressive and expansive landscapes, managed to see France (a rare sight through the coastal fog), explored a shipwreck and odd WWII-era fortifications on the beach, and then anointed our late-night return to London with a fish and chips dinner. If you don’t go to the town expecting the Dover of 1851–when the poem about it was written–it’s really a pleasant day trip, much more optimistic Keats than pessimistic Arnold.

Bring me everything

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Bana insanlar getir,
Her biri geldiği yerin tesellemecisi olan.
Bana hayallerini getir,
Yaşarken beni baştan ayağa sen yapan.
Bana kendi belleğimi getir,
Hasretle karşılaşmayı beklediğim.
Bana her şeyi getir,
Her biri bir başka şeyin her şeyi olan.

Bring me people,
May each be the storytellers of their home towns.
Bring me your dreams,
These dreams that turned me into you, head to foot, as I lived.
Bring me my own memory,
That memory I yearn to meet.
Bring me everything,
Each thing the everything of something else.

–Handan Börüteçene, 2008, extract

Striking poem on memory, time and the interconnectedness of life that I found displayed alongside an installation at the Istanbul Modern. The full poem is below: Turkish text provided by Evrenin Dunyasi, translation from Istanbul Modern.

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New Year miscellany

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birthday card

“i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises”

–Lucille Clifton, from “I Am Running Into a New Year”

The above text (above the lovely poem) an excerpt from a birthday card given to me on my birthday (which happens to be on the first day of the year). Good friends always somehow have a clearer image of who we are, and our flaws, than we do ourselves, don’t they? Or at least, an intriguing image–I never would have suspected that my knowledge of halloumi cheese (which has a higher boiling point than other cheeses and can therefore be fried) was a notable and possibly essential part of my personality and character, but there it is.

Anyway, as the card suggests–don’t all of our self-improvement goals come down to doing less of the bad, hurtful, counterproductive things and more of the good, creative flourishing things?

Whatever good you want to do more of this year, and whatever bad things you are trying to do less of, best of luck achieving that as we run into the new year.

Photo source: unknown

Service and love

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Even
After
All this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,

“You owe me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.

–Hāfez, 14th century Persian poet

The other day, coming home late from work, I was thinking about my students and how much I love them, in an unconditional way that I have never quite experienced with anyone else. When I pass by them in the hallways, or see them circled around me nestled in their desks, or when they come up and chat with me during break times, my chest warms and my hearts lifts and my stomach flutters. I am filled with this urge to help them and support them and serve them–and become a better person in order to better help them–even though I don’t get anything in return from them by doing so.

“I really want to meet and have more students,” I thought that night, “so I can teach them and help them, because every student I’ve taught I loved, and I want more students to love.”

And I realized at that moment–it’s by helping people that we grow to love them unconditionally. There is a connection between service and love. We learn to love, and grow to love others, through service.*

It’s a mysterious connection–I have not come up with a logical progression of thought as to why helping others leads to this profound empathy and attachment–but somehow, I know it’s true and I know serving others is going to have to continue to be a theme in my life.

*Just like the Jesuits at my school always said!

Life insurance

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

–“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” final stanza

I’ve learned and forgotten dozens of poems, but I always ensure that this one never slips my mind: “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats. I intend for it to become so ingrained in my memory that, even when I am 70 or 80 or 90 years old and have lost my my memories, my relationships, or even my identity, this poem will still be there, deep down and unforgettable. If I have to forget everything, then I want this to be the last thing I remember; you could call it my life insurance.

Photo: manuscript of the Ode from here.

Yearning

All the materials of a poem
Are lying scattered about, as in this garden
The lovely lumber of Spring.
All is profusion, confusion: hundred-eyed
The primulae in crimson pink and purple,
Golden at the pupil;
prodigal the nectarine and plum
That fret their petals against a rosy wall.
Flame of the tulip, fume of the blue anemone,
White Alps of blossom in the giant pear-tree,
Peaks and glaciers, rise from the same drab soil.

Far too much joy for comfort:
The images that hurt because they won’t connect.
No poem, no possession, therefore pain.
And struggling now to use
These images that bud from the bed of my mind
I grope about for a form,
As much in the dark, this white and dazzling day,
As the bulb at midwinter; as filled with longing
Even in this green garden
As those who gaze from the cliff at the depths of sea
And know they cannot possess it, being of the shore
And severed from that element for ever.

— W.H. Auden, “The Images That Hurt”

Lately I feel dissatisfied. I know I want a life in which I can support myself and provide value to others. I know I want a life in which I produce more than I consume. I know I want a balance of security and spontaneity. I know this is what I want, but as a 22-year-old I don’t yet see the steps to get there. I can’t connect my present with that future, and the lack of connection engenders a restlessness and a yearning that hurts at times.

At those moments, this poem by Auden is what comes to mind. I recite it to myself to calm myself down when I get restless and overwhelmed thinking about the kind of person I want to be and the kind of life I want to have.

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Beauty

“Salads are more useful than flowers,” said the housekeeper.
“You are wrong,” replied the bishop. “The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” Then after a pause, he added, “More so, perhaps.”

— Victor Hugo, Le Misérables

Is the bishop right? I think so. Useful things may give us a means to live, but beautiful things give us a reason to live. Utility is at least as important as beauty.

Top: Portrait of a Woman by Leonardo da Vinci; Bottom: manuscript of “Bright Star” by John Keats