Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Islamic scientists predicted the computer chips

My hosts

When every Sunday rolls around, I ask myself why I'm not making it to church. I ask myself that question almost every single Sunday, and have for years. Since college, actually. I read John Updike's lauded article about faith, and he mentions slipping into a pew each week, almost despite himself, and I wished I could get that far.

What's hard for me about church is the same thing that's hard for me about living in a rural area—community. It's difficult to break into any community, especially to find a place where I belong among people of faith. What I loved most about living in a major urban center was the complete anonymity. No one knew who I was. No one knew what I was buying at the grocery store.

Here, people do. I feel judged for my choices—the tomatoes in the dead of winter, the bedraggled package of blue cheese shipped from who-knows-where, the day-old bakery wheat bread, unsliced. It's not so much judged as observed. As someone accustomed to anonymity, observation feels like judgment. I worry the same thing about church here, that my choices--of clothes, boots, peripatetic lifestyle—will be judged.

As Immortal Technique says so eloquently, it makes me want to "dead 'em all then escape in green Chevy." If only I had a green Chevy.

I wish I could just accept myself enough to make the choice to belong, no matter my differences. I keep thinking about this xerox-copied anti-Muslim treatise someone distributed at the YMCA before I left Chattanooga. It said that Islam wasn't a religion, but a full, 100-percent, total system of being, in its truest sense. I keep thinking about it, because that's the way I want to live my life.

A total system of being--that's what being a person of faith means. Faith is the most fundamental part of my existence. No matter what I have faith in, that's how I determine how I live my life. Some people believe in capitalism. Some people believe in status, prestige. Some people believe in mere matter in motion, in science, in hedonism, in just having a good time.

The first thing is what we believe. Everything else comes afterward. We're not all that different after all, the gentle citizens of Aroostook County and I. "Y'all are my sons like Ibrahim and Ishak," says Immortal Technique. Maybe so.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The creatures of Prometheus

People ask me why I blog sometimes, and besides blogging being a calling card for me as a writer, I do think of it as a literal web log, similar to the logbook I kept on my boat. Then I tracked the variance of the weather, my location, my mood, and Secret’s mood. When I go back and read posts from the past, they carry me right back to that moment in time, and I’m glad that I kept that record, if only for myself.

Some posts become touchstones, as this one did. I wrote it on the train, when we were home for the holidays from the boat. One of the great things about being back in Maine is that I have access to my old library, including that book, The Spell of the Sensuous, which has continued to be influential in my thought, even as I’ve been away from it for the last several years. My quotes from my last posts were epigraphs from it, and I’ve been rereading excerpts, especially thinking about it in the context of land.

I consistently think about the way he explains the way aboriginal Australians view the earth, as profoundly differently than we do, not as mere matter, but as the literal bones and blood of their ancestors. Their spiritual life takes place in something called “Dreamtime” when, “The earth itself was still in a malleable, half-awake state, and as Kangaroo Dreaming Man and innumerable other Ancestors wandered, singing, across its surface, they shaped that surface by their actions, forming plains where they lay down, creeks or waterholes where they urinated, forests where they kicked up dust, and so on. Eventually, having found an appropriate location, or simply exhausted from the work of world-shaping, each of the Ancestors went ‘back in,’ transforming himself (or herself) into some physical aspect of the land.

“Each Ancestor thus leaves in his wake a meandering trail of geographic sites, perceivable features in the land that are the result of particular events and encounters in that ancestor’s journey, culminating in that place where the Ancestor went ‘back in,’ metamorphosing entirely into some aspect of the world we now experience.”

I find myself wondering as I traverse this landscape, walk across the spine of this land, about the native people who lived here. Who were they? I don’t even know what tribe lived here, how they survived. I can’t imagine living outside during the winter here, yet people must have found ways to cope. That knowledge is completely lost. They must have told each other stories about this landscape, known what people are buried here.

My floundering for a place to belong becomes a larger cultural struggle. My blood is mixed. My grandfather Zodhiates came from a Greek island off the coast of Cyprus, Zodhia. Zodhiates means “of Zodhia.” My great-grandfather Douglas was of the Douglas clan of Scotland, so much so that my great-uncle was named Douglas. My name, Jenks, is Welsh. But I belong to none of those places. They no longer own me. I don’t know their stories, I don’t know the bones hidden in their land.

I’m realizing that being homeless is a larger American symptom, and maybe even a larger global symptom. Here’s the question David Abram asks:

“How did Western civilization become so estranged from nonhuman nature, so oblivious to the presence of other animals and the earth, that our current lifestyles and activities contribute daily to the destruction of whole ecosystems—whole forests, river valleys, oceans—and to the extinction of countless species? …How did civilization break out of the participatory mode of experience known to all native, place-based cultures?”

Place-based cultures. The alternative that we’ve chosen is homelessness. We are a homeless people, who have stolen our land. Maybe my hunt for a place to belong echoes a larger one, our larger hunt as a culture for a place that we belong. Because only when we can find that, when we can begin to look at the land as a living, breathing entity, can we begin to find our way across it as a civilization.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bridgewater, Maine

Branches in winter

I’ve been following the curve of the road back to the end of the land every day, except Sunday. Some days, when it’s above 40, the snow is damp and soft and I sink through up to my thigh in some places. Some days, when it’s closer to 30, like today, I can walk across the icy crust of the snow and head to places unknown.

I’ve been visiting this piece of land for seven years now, and I know it pretty well—where it arcs and curves north above the gravel pit to the beaver pond, where it opens up into the big wide field they call Strawberry Field, where the hill rises behind the washout, and how it looks on the other side. I feel like I know it.

“We must stand apart from the conventions of history, even while using the record of the past, for the idea of history is itself a western invention whose central theme is the rejection of habitat.” --Paul Shepard

“I wonder if the Ground has anything to say? I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said?” –Young Chief of the Cayuses tribe, upon signing over their lands in 1855

I know I don’t truly know this land, or have any possession of it. But if I continue to follow its lines, every day, don’t I love it better than anyone else? It’s almost like the only dignity is to be found in treating the land itself with compassion and love, to listen to it, to be mindful of it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Aroostook County, Maine

On the bus yesterday, I rode eight hours up from Boston, watching the snow accumulate along the sides of the road. Piles and piles of it, growing along the highway. Here, in Aroostook County, the biggest county east of the Mississippi and the northernmost county of the continental United States, spring is a long way away. I went for a walk today, trying to balance my body on the crust of ice atop the four feet of snow. When I postholed, breaking through the crust to the soft stuff underneath, the snow came above my knee.

It’s beautiful up here. Today, as I walked the sky turned lavender as the wind changed. Even a quarter of a mile into the woods, I could be hundreds of thousands of miles away from the nearest civilization. It feels like I am. I’m writing in a little office, a view out the window of the snow and the pines, but with no idea how I’m going to connect this to the internet. I’m hoping to set up a dial-up internet connection. (If I’m posting it, it’s because I have.) Doing it old school. Cause that’s just how I roll.

This was the point of coming up here. Among the points. Solitude and silence are a writer’s lifeblood. I’m hopeful, given enough time and silence, that I’ll be able to accomplish something extraordinary.

One of things I’ve been reading, or was reading before I came up to the frozen north, was the biographies of Nobel Prize winners on the internet. It’s an odd thing to do, I know. I’ve always been a compulsive prize follower. I back-check Original Screenplay Academy Awards every year the Oscars roll around. When he found me poring over my encylopedia’s list of the Pulitzer Prizes for fiction, my dad said I should rethink my degree in chemical engineering.

There have been only four women writing fiction in English to win the award: Pearl Buck, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, and Doris Lessing. Shockingly, all of them were products of two cultures, the marriage creating a third culture, its own. Pearl Buck was the child of missionaries in China, thrown out by the Boxer Rebellion, and she spent her life writing novels about China and the intersection of Asian culture with the west. Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing were both raised in countries that were not their own—Gordimer in South Africa and Lessing in Iran. They both spent their adult lives wandering, hunting for a home, and interpreting their experiences through their fiction.

Morrison inhabited her own space as an African-American writer, finding that space on either end of the hyphen in the divided word. It’s bold of me to claim that she inherits the assignation of a third culture, but more and more as I read my favorite African-American writers they find that same space where Morrison lives, balancing the demands of their home culture and the alien culture in which they live. That’s the tension that occupies her as a writer. “I don’t belong here,” she says. “I don’t belong anywhere else, so I have to stay here. You can’t tell me this home is mine.”

It’s encouraging for me to look at these writers, and have a moment of recognition. They were successful as writers and as women precisely because they didn’t belong. Precisely because they occupied that place of homelessness. They found that tension and they lived inside of it and they used it to create art. Instead of fighting against the feelings of loneliness, of loss at leaving a place I loved, I can use those feelings to inform my work. The point is to transform the woundedness, to come through it, and to end up on the other side in great joy.

As Toni Morrison herself so eloquently said, "My project rises from delight, not disappointment."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ann Arbor, Michigan

When I arrived in Ann Arbor yesterday, I thought that the rejection letter I had received from the University of Michigan graduate school was already behind me. After all, I knew from the definitive MFA blog that people who were accepted received their letters on February 22. I knew that only 22 out of 1000 applicants were accepted last year, and only half of those in fiction. Generally, 70 percent of applications are for fiction rather than poetry. Those are long odds—11 out of 700. “Don't take it personally,” my professor from Tennessee said. It seemed good advice. I thought I had made my peace.

Tonight, though, as my friend Sonia and I wandered the streets and coffee shops of downtown Ann Arbor, it began to irk me. We sipped lattes and Thai iced tea, and I eyed the bespectacled and bescarfed students that surrounded me. Which of them were already MFA students? Which were professors? Had any seen my work? Had they roughed up my precious manuscript? Read three lines and scoffed?

Sonia and I also went to our first Bikram yoga class today, the original hot yoga. First impression: a carpeted room, heated to 105 degrees, filled with close-packed bodies sweating for 90-minute classes, six times a day, is extremely stinky. The first goal of a Bikram practice is just to acclimatize, to condition oneself to actually spend 90 minutes without leaving the room. It’s one of those limitations that can end up bringing freedom—I had to let go and just experience the heat, experience the feeling of being present in those conditions. Let it go, I kept telling myself. Let it go. Let your expectations for your body (and olfactory organs) go.

Which is what I need to do for graduate school, too. Let it go. I’ve put off applying for so long because I was afraid of this exact scenario. If they said no, what would that mean to me? Would it mean I’m not good enough? Would it mean I should give up? Of course now I know it doesn’t. It just means that it’s not the path for me now, at this time. It means I’m not ready yet, or that there’s a different opportunity around the corner. I need to let this program at this time go, to throw it like a stone into the river and let the water to flow by. “We step and do not step into the same river,” Heraclitus said. “We are and are not."

Everything flows, he also said. Nothing remains still. Let it go. Practice, as Patthabi Jois said, and all is coming.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Great Grandma Jenks and her first garden (Grandpa always grew them before)
Grandma in her garden (my sister's photograph)

My grandmother sleeps this evening a floor above me, in my aunt’s day room, hooked up to oxygen and a catheter. She’s on three kinds of morphine, but still sometimes grimaces with pain in her sleep, when she feels the tumor pressing against the tender tissue of her lung. Last night, I made her boneless skinless chicken breast and potatoes for dinner. She looked up at me, smiled, and asked, “Is this one of your gourmet meals?” She ate every bite. Food has always been her favorite thing, and she’s keeping that joy till the end.

Tonight my grandfather sleeps five miles away, in the special care unit of a nursing home. He’s hale as a horse at 92, but his mind is slipping. Today, as I joined him for his lunch, he repeated the story of the flight he’s scheduled to make to California tomorrow, to speak to first the entire country, and then the entire world. He shook his head at the difficulty of it. “I just don’t think I’m qualified,” he said. “I don’t want to embarrass the president. I don’t want to make a fool of myself.”

The irony did not escape me. He was so concerend with not embarassing himself, as he was revealing his most vulnerable side to me, his granddaughter. I drew him back around to topics I knew he could manage—his garden of forty years, the farmstead where he grew up, stories from the boat. He asked me why I wasn’t married yet. “I’m an independent woman, Grandpa,” I said.

They’re both fading. I’m mentally preparing for this trip to be the last time I see both of them. I could be wrong—I hope so—but in some ways I know they’re preparing for their departure. My grandma asks her pastor why it’s taking so long, and I understand that, too. I don’t want her to end her life of faithfulness with excruciating suffering.

I’m glad to be communing with them at the end of their lives, but I prefer to remember them the last time I saw them at their own house. Grandma cooked a vast feast for a group of us, me, cousins, and assorted children—wilted chard, zucchini bread, sliced raw tomatoes, and blanched green beans with butter. Along with, of course, a ham and scalloped potatoes. An everyday meal in her house. Four ingredients from her own garden, and this was only two years ago. The cancer was already growing in her body.

Grandpa has a picture of that garden, from that year, on the wall in his nursing home. He stands, with a straw hat, between the cabbage and tomatoes. Maybe someday, when I’m eighty, someone will take a photograph of me, standing between my rows of cabbage and tomatoes. And I hope that at the moment that photograph is taken, I remember both of my grandparents, and this day.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The rain drops

En route from Chicago, Illinois, to Grand Rapids, Michigan
186 statute miles

Traveling today on the Amtrak, I was able to review some of my old emails, including one that forwarded to me this review of an essay I wrote for the House Studio. Bizarre, to see my deeply felt and carefully constructed article disposed of like so much garbage. And oddly encouraging, in that I don't feel the criticism as deeply as I would have even a year ago. It doesn’t bother me as much as various other rejections, like the one I also received yesterday from the graduate school at the University of Michigan.

One of the books that I read while “adventuring” on Secret was Silence, by Japanese author Shusako Endo. In the novel, a Portugese priest named Father Rodrigues travels halfway across the world in order to evangelize the Japanese. Instead of being nourished by the rich food of faith upon arrival, he finds discouragement, disappointment, and filth. He reviles the Japanese he is supposed to be serving. He flirts with, dancing ever closer to, the seductive poison of apostasy.

Eventually he is imprisoned by the Japanese authorities, to whom any kind of proselytism is illegal. As he sits in prison, images of the face of Jesus and the face of Judas Iscariot flash before his eyes, and he tries to decide whether or not he will walk on the face of Christ when it is presented to him. Thematically, the novel explores the silence of God in the face of his believers’ persecution. Does God accompany followers experiencing adversity, or does he abandon them? And do we abandon him in turn?

That’s apostasy. While I am sympathetic to the priest’s struggle, I refuse to admit that questioning the literal inerrancy of Scripture equates me with him. I am willing to admit that my last post was borne more of that kind of doubt and fear than out of a true spirit of faith. In college, I was taught the concept of the hermeneutical circle, a circle of faith inside which a person is completely alone, forced to make the decisions of life by herself. An atheist, inside of the circle, decides that all of life is purely matter in motion. A Jungian decides that the endless layers of synchronicity he encounters mean something deeply significant about archetypes and the subconscious. A Christian stakes her life on the death and resurrection of the person of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, simply and solely that.

The biblical prayer is: “Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.” I struggle to find my own faith inside of my doubt. I have no other choice. All of us step out in faith, insulated inside the bubble of our own hermeneutical circle. All of us who sit in condemnation are solely responsible for our own choices, our own belief system.

I continue to doubt, walking away from my life as it was. Walking into the unknown, as Father Rodrigues did, forces me to doubt, forces me to throw myself on the goodness and grace of God. The choices I’m making also mean that I’m again walking away from people I care about and love, and walking a path that my family and many of my friends don’t always approve of. That’s difficult. A cognitive tension that I don’t think will ease with the passage of time. I’m trying to walk that line.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Don’t you want to feel your skin on my skin?

I feel alone right now, and broken. I walked away from my Chattanooga life a week ago and already I feel like I have made a bad choice. I walked away from my life there, and for what? For faith and a vague promise of redemption?

God said: all things work together for good for them that love Him and are called according to his purpose. He said: worship in Spirit and in truth. But I feel lost. I’m letting go of things, and it’s almost as if I’m letting go of too many things and now I’m left alone, driftless. I have cast off, and now I am being cast off myself.

How can I go through life alone? I see my sister’s life, her challenges and the things she has given up, the compromises she has been forced to make, but at least she has a life partner that she can count on, children who receive her love willingly. What do I have? Only the language and not the kiss.

“The fear I've known, that I might reap the praise of strangers, and end up on my own.”

It’s this constant fear that somehow there’s something wrong with me, that I came out wrong. I have to be in some way twisted, if I’m forced to drive away everyone who ever loved me, to pursue some high-minded ideal that isn’t real the way people are real. I feel abandoned, even though I’m the one changing, shifting my life, my boundaries, my space. Conflict about my life choices, from people in my life whom I love, makes me question Christ’s plan for my life. How can I believe that God loves me if the people He brings into my life don’t treat me with love?

I guess it’s a matter of letting go of the people who don’t treat me with love and drawing close to my heart those who do. God brings people into my life who care about me, but sometimes it’s difficult to pay attention to those people, to let go of those whose approval I desperately crave, whose approval I will never get. I have to have faith in Christ, that He is bringing change into my life for a reason, even if I have to journey alone. I also have to have faith that the things that happened in the past happened for a reason.

Clearly, I had an intense experience of surrender at my sister’s church this morning. I’m trying desperately to hold my life with an open hand, to hold it open to God’s will, but I keep wanting to close my fists.

It just hurts so bad. Change is brutal. Painful. Like I’m shedding another layer of skin.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Oak Park to Warrenville, Illinois and back

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of my start date on the Appalachian Trail. I can hardly believe it. My life has changed profoundly since then, and I’m proud of myself for the journey that I’ve been on, the progress I’ve made. I’ve compromised since then, but not on fundamentals. Not on the kind of life I want to lead the most.

I’m still pushing forward, chasing the dream—despite obstacles thrown in my way. This week with my sister and my friends has been nourishing, constructive. I wrote in my journal that spending time with my sister feels like water in dry ground. We draw energy and connection from each other. We’ve had our challenges over the years but we’ve come to a place where both of us have grown as people and are able to accept each other as we are and not as we wish we’d be.

Also, we’ve been doing a lot of yoga. We’re making jokes that we’ve turned her 900-square-foot apartment into a yoga retreat, where we just mess around on our mats for as long as we can convince the girls to sleep. Then we talk, we regroup, we assess, we debrief. It’s intense watching her living the life she’s living, raising three girls in a tiny space. Evangeline, her third is six weeks old today.

It’s almost as if she has to do yoga to survive. The only way to deal with two of your three children screaming bloody murder is to stay focused in the present, in the immediate moment—deal with the child at hand and believe that the other ones aren’t going to kill each other in the meantime. To let it go. I’m realizing how many things mothers have to let go. That all women have to let go. That everyone has to let go.

I’m realizing what extraordinary sacrifices these women make, among them my friends. As I’ve grown older and become less competitive, less defensive about my own life choices, I’ve realized that becoming a mother is just a different choice. I realize more and more why so many women don’t become artists. It requires such a tremendous sacrifice of one’s core self to be a mother. Not that it’s not a legitimate choice, but it is a real choice. As much as I love my nieces, I’m still not sure it’s a choice I’d make.