Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Living better stories

This post is part of a new series on Stories of Conflict and Love called Books Well-Loved. In it, I will share quotes, impressions, and insights from the books that have touched me. 

Book and Author: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Don Miller
When I read it: On the first week of January 2011
Where I read it: Next to a sleeping Elijah, in Be'er Sheva, Israel
Favorite phrase: "the emotional inheritance of stories"

One way I will remember 2011 is as the year when I acknowledged my fervent belief in the power of storytelling. I still struggle with the labels: Writer feels too big, blogger feels too writing-from-grandma's-basement-in-my-pyjamas-about-what-I-had-for-lunch. Photographer feels too big, essayist too unearned with a pinch of pretentious. Storyteller, though, with all its intentional ambiguity, all its room for growth, all its invitations for multiple media and their-crossover, and all its magic -- storyteller fits. 

Fittingly, then, the first book I read in 2011 was Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Miller earned a spot on the NYT Best-Selling Author when he published Blue Like Jazz in 2003. Following the success of that book, a production company approached him about turning the collection of essays into a film. That is where A Million Miles in a Thousand Years begins. After some fairly blunt feedback from the screenwriting and film team, Miller realizes that to tell a better, more compelling story, he needs to live a better story as well. 

That articulation has been perspective-shifting for me because it implies bi-directional forces in storytelling. We, readers of books and viewers of photographs and films and dance performances, the quintessential story consumers, know that storytelling can shape the life of the reader or the viewer, but we do not often think about how telling our own story shapes us. We often think that we have to live, LIVE, REALLY LIVE to have some full story wells to draw from, but we rarely think of our stories themselves as instruments and vehicles to better lives. That is exactly what Don Miller did in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: He tied living and storytelling, and committed himself to improving both, side-by-side, with a keen and open eye for the way in which the two influenced one another. 

One of Miller's starting premises is loud - and comforting to those of us who have put boarding passes aside for a while and are indeed writing in a basement in our pyjamas: 
A lot of people think a writer has to live in order to write, has to meet people and have a rich series of experiences or his work will become dull. But that is drivel. It's an excuse a writer uses to take the day off, or the week or the month off for that matter. The thinking is, if we go play Frisbee in the park, we're going to have a thousand words busting out of us when we get back to the house. We're going to write all kinds of beautiful prose about playing Frisbee. It's never worked for me. Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer while still in her mother's womb, wrote one of her books in a concrete cell. She says most of what a writer needs to really live they can find in a book. People who live good stories are too busy to write about them. Nobody ever strapped a typewriter to the back of an elephant and wrote a novel while hunting wild game. Nobody except for Hemmingway. But let's not talk about Hemmingway. 
I want to argue with that -- after all, it is harder to write about the ceiling tiles of the basement than wild game hunting -- but the image of the strapped typewriter on the back of an elephant disarmed me. That paragraph does not serve to tell writers to be complacent or to turn off the ignition; rather, it is a wake-up call to be alert, and to remember that the world of imagination is always alive. Rather than encouraging his readers to not go search for the elephants and the wild games and the thrills, Miller does quite the opposite -- he empties comfort of its appeal: 
Humans are designed to seek comfort and order, and so if they have comfort and order, they tend to plant themselves, even if their comfort isn't all that comfortable. And even if they secretly want for something better.
And to dissuade us from experiencing the disappointment of going, going, going without a question that we want to live in, Miller offers this:
It made me wonder if the reasons our lives seem so muddled is because we keep walking into scenes in which we, along with the people around us, have no clear idea what we want. 
I have found joy in not knowing what I want from a place, an opportunity, a door in life... I think there is a real value to not knowing, and to embracing the (dis)comfort of that. Embracing that brings with it an openness to the stories that may present ourselves along the way, to the stories that we wish to weave out of unfamiliar paths. 

There can be a discomfort to storytelling, for the writer, the photographer, the subject, the reader, for whole communities at once. My favorite genre of writing, the personal essay, often feels like navel-gazing, like a guilty indulgence in the admission that my personal life's story may be of interest to someone outside myself. Miller, with a few best-sellers under his belt, has the following to say about this sentiment: 
You get tired of thinking about yourself all the time when you're a writer. Or at least when you write the kinds of books I write. It gets wearisome, all the bellyaching and feeling and thinking about the world and how you interact with it. Everything's a mirror when you're a writer; the computer monitor is a mirror. Who thinks they are so important they need to write books about themselves? Who are these people who write about themselves, and how did I become one of them? 
That is what Miller does beautifully in this book: He asks questions of himself and his reader, and then experiments with the answers in a way that prompts you to get off the couch and join him. He spares no words when describing the magic of storytelling, the beautiful simplicity of love on some days, or the attributes of a good storyteller. And for those of us who may be tempted to take our bubbling youth and cram it with as many life experiences as humanly possible in an attempt to make sense of the world, to build a story, Miller says this, gently:
I don't think memorable scenes help a story make sense. Other principles accomplish that. What memorable scenes do is punctuate the existing rise and fall of a narrative. 
I am still on the hunt for all of that: looking for sense, building the narrative, collecting the memorable scenes, spinning the yarn of all of it together. If you are too, Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is a good companion on your journey. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What gets you excited?

I have been thinking about passions, about the dedication to causes and people that sustain us. I was incredibly touched by Akhila Kolisetty's post about what gets her excited, what drives her and moves her. She was inspired by Diana Kimball's insightful musings on this issue, who in turn was inspired by Anthony Volodkin (of Hype Machine fame) asking how he gets excited about new ideas and companies. One of the ways I get excited is by reading stories. Hearing what makes other people come alive plants seeds in my head and moves me to action, while also prompting me to ask the questions.

Summer 2010: Roxanne and Meghan on a ferry to Marmaras in Halkidiki, Greece
Introducing Meghan Johnson
And so, with thanks to Akhila and Diana and Anthony Volodkin for the idea and inspiration behind this format, I am introducing you to a woman whose life story fuels my faith in humanity. We met on the first day of our first year at Harvard. Both pint-sized women, we were sharing a bedroom so tiny that it was fit to be a dollhouse more than a dorm room: if we reached our arms out when we were lying in our separate (tiny) beds, we could hold hands. Even though years have passed since those freshman days, we continue to walk by each other's side in life, holding hands, supporting one another as we unravel our stories. Meghan embodies the delicate combination of brilliant and compassionate, funny and sensitive, giving through both her acts of service and the contagious power of her energy. Until recently, she worked in the financial sector and has now opted to take at least one year off to engage in service-based travel around the world. Her first stop is Peru. In her own words, this is her story.

What gets me excited, by Meghan Johnson

I get excited about travel.
Shocking, I know.  I’ve been reading a lot about the philosophy of travel as my departure for Peru approaches, which actually breaks my cardinal rule to not over-analyze things that bring me great pleasure.  There are books and essays galore out there, full of tips and warnings:  At all costs do not behave like a tourist, but do not embarrass yourself by thinking you can be a local.  Do not wear Tommy Bahama t-shirts, but do not stop bathing either.  Do not restrict yourself to the beaten path, but don’t you dare venture off your porch without traveler’s insurance and these eighteen nifty gadgets!

As if the gravity of quitting my job to travel wasn’t reason enough, all of this nomad-philosophizing has caused me to reexamine my own motivations for traveling.  I don’t think I am traveling to “find myself”, which a few people have jokingly asked me.  I don’t need to see every country in the world.  It’s not a new desire or a last-ditch effort.  It’s the fulfillment of a dream. My younger self pored over encyclopedia articles and travel books, wondering what it might be like if I were a 12-year old girl in Cairo rather than New Jersey.  For me, traveling is akin to stepping through the wardrobe into a favorite book and meeting beloved characters in person. It’s about making sure not to disappoint that 12-year old girl and the promises she once made to herself.

I get excited about my body (and yours).
That’s right. You heard me.  I’m a big fan of it.  It hasn’t earned me a bedroom in the Playboy mansion, but it has carried me a long way, and I owe it a big thank you.  I spent a lot of years complaining about it in high school and college.  I still slip into that mentality occasionally, but now I’m mostly in awe of everything that it can do.  It has hiked small mountains, run a full marathon, twisted into pretzels in yoga class, danced through the night, and healed itself innumerable times.  I take on physical challenges because I can; I am young and I have two legs that work, and for that I am supremely lucky.  So I will keep running, twisting, dancing and playing to the best of my ability to keep this incredible machine conditioned for as long as I can.  Health is a gift I refuse to waste.

I get excited when I find that I can respond in a foreign language without having to over-think it.
Languages delight me.  Just ask Roxanne how many times I’ve tipsily begged her to teach me Greek words that I’ll probably never have to use.  I love trying to pronounce new words, the way they roll around on my tongue, how nervous and proud I feel when I finally let them leap out and greet the world.  And when words turn to sentences and then to conversations, well that's just magic.  I would happily replace Julia Roberts steeping in the bathtub with an Italian-English dictionary in Eat, Pray, Love (preferably without the depression or divorce).   In my own travel tale, language, rather than food, would be the first tasty indulgence I’d seek abroad… followed by a few madeleines and macarons to round out my pronunciation, of course.   

I get excited about art and the creative process. 
"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the middle of distraction." - Saul Bellow

Bellow's definition doesn't exactly specify whether it's the consumption of art or its creation that achieves this stillness. Personally, it's both. Art brings me back down to the ground when I'm panicky or overwhelmed. Creating art, even more so than viewing it, settles my mind and draws out a silent prayer.

That’s not to say I’ve mastered the process.   I’m usually petrified by it.  Years have gone by without producing a single work.  On my desk sits a charcoal and pencil portrait that I drew on a whim four years ago.  It took me eight hours of very-much-arrested attention, during which I toiled and huffed and scribbled and scratched, and ultimately loved every painstaking second.  I keep it close by because the memory of the process brings me pride, despite the fact that it earned me a whopping zero dollars and few accolades.  It brings me back to the state of devout focus required to bring it to life.  It gives me faith that I can do it again.
By Meghan Johnson
I get excited about people who get excited about things.
I firmly believe that excitement and passion are contagious, as are apathy and lethargy.  I love being around people who are engaged and inspired.  I don’t care if your passion is makeup application, horseback riding, or jazz flute.   As long as it is doesn’t hurt anybody, own it. Share it.  Sing it from the mountain tops.  Let your freak flag fly.  We need people who get excited about life and live it boldly, in their own way.  By sharing your excitement with people around you, you’ll infect them with curiosity and energy (and maybe annoy them a little bit by being so darn happy).  Whatever it is that makes your soul shine, pursue it and inspire others in the process.

***
Meghan is chronicling her journey at Soulshine Traveler. Now, do tell us, what gets you excited?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Reflections from a country on the verge



I do not eat fish.
Or Kalamata olives.
I call pouring milk into cereal or seasoning pop corn "cooking."

In some senses, I am a fraud of a Greek. If passports were earned on the basis of national stereotypes, my Greek one would have been revoked by now. And if not on the basis of disappointing foreigners by not wearing a toga and sandals every day, then certainly on the basis of my having whined all over the internet about how I am struggling to call my birthplace a home.

I do not watch TV here any more because real-life news resembles the most imaginary 'reality shows' in America. The whole country is on sale - if you were waiting for the right moment to buy the Port of Thessaloniki or some archaeological spaces or an island or two, this is your time. Inquire within.

There is a default watch, a ceaseless and invisible countdown clock that measures time until the country falls apart. Nobody is quite sure what that would look like, but we all know to be on the look-out nonetheless. Some think it will look like Argentina in the 1990s. Others think we will have to establish communes with shared responsibilities of cooking and living off the land to survive. Yet others, from the union of taxi drivers to the fans of a Thessaloniki soccer team, are taking to the streets to protest. What are they protesting? Anything from standardized cab fare to unfair soccer match refereeing to social injustice at large.

Like with any crime, everyone is wondering who "did it." Who brought us to the point at which corruption, bribery, bureaucracy and raging, blind taxation have won over meritocracy, the creation of opportunity, the fostering of innovation and the encouragement of effort? My generation of twenty-somethings, most of whom have not had a job in Greece and many of whom are still waiting for the universities to open or books to be printed in order to formally obtain their degrees, blame the generations above them. "We have been on this planet too little to have had time to mess it up."

I do not participate in the displays of public anger, not because I am not civic-minded or enraged about the social injustices here, but because I have come to firmly believe in non-violence. Earlier this summer, I found myself studying non-violent conflict and civil resistance. One of the points that recurred in the discussions was that when movements become violent, they often alienate individuals who would have affiliated with them on ideological grounds. Right now, I am that individual. I refuse to pluck sidewalk tiles off their place so I can throw them during a protest march. Another recurring point in my summer-time study was that when fractions of a movement become violent, they mar the message for the rest of the movement. Indeed, that is the case again: Students in my city have protested non-violently and yet, most protests now bear connotations of angry people, water hoses, and tear gas, overshadowing both the message and the means of those resisting peacefully.

I was on my way to a concert last night - a concert that featured bouzouki and baglamas and the sounds of growing up in Thessaloniki. The five women with whom I attended realized the leader of the opposition is speaking near the concert venue. "I hope we do not get tear gassed," said one of them and proceeded to continue getting excited about the vocal attributes of the lead female vocalist.

Through studies of history and social anthropology, I have often encountered the view that 'children' growing up in a recession, Depression or other hardship often become cynical parents. One of my greatest fears is becoming the parent who says no to a reasonable request from her child because "when I was growing up, did you know what we had to face?!" The self-righteousness of I-have-less-tender-memories-than-you-and-you-will-have-to-suffer-the-consequences makes me cringe. I asked one of my friends here if she thinks people are becoming cynical. Her name  means Joy. In our group, we also have Zwi, which means Life, and our fair share of Maria's and Eleni's to still be Greek. Even my name is incongruent here; one of the women with whom I shared wine and music last night noted that I should start my own home-made handbag line with a name like that.

My friend thought about whether living here during this time is making her cynical and she said: "Look, Roxanne. If anything, I think it is making me more of a romantic. I think about the things nobody can take away from us. I think about love and affection and friendship and sharing wine, whether it's at a tavern or from the grocery store, or whether there's no wine at all and we're sitting at the benches with our friends. There are some things nobody can take away from you, no government, no economic crisis, no austerity measures - and you remember these things right now."

It is these women's beliefs in romance that makes me believe. It is their commitment to finding and creating joy and laughter even while the invisible clock of default is ticking in the background that feeds my faith in humanity. It is their kindness, their curiosity about the world beyond, their desire to get up and fight for themselves every day that replenishes my hope. I got to know these women as my cousin's classmates and everybody's cousin is a cousin of yours here too. They have embraced me with warmth and with their lack of cynicism. They have counseled me to turn off the TV, put on music, pour a glass of wine, and breathe into a paper bag when it all gets too much. They sang next to me while Yiota Nega crooned Eleftheria Arvanitaki's song, Edw na meineis: "You should stay here." I may not eat Kalamata olives or fish, but I have found the little slice of Greece that is still resonant with my memories, I have found the Joy and Life and Elenis and Nikoletas and Ioannas who will keep me coming back. Now the trick is to stop ourselves from imagining what the country will look like next time I get off the plane.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Enough with the fashionable gender stereotypes


“Who has time to do homework when there is a new Justin Bieber album out?” That was JCPenney’s product description of a shirt for girls aged 7-16. The shirt read: “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.”
Then Forever 21 created a shirt for young girls that read “Allergic to Algebra.”
Both shirts have been withdrawn from the market, following public outcry. In the Feministing community blog today, I write about gender stereotypes, fashion and education. I would love to know what you think! The tag line is broken on Feministing, so I currently appear as Ms. First Name Last Name, but rest assured that these words are coming from me about an issue I care a lot about. Also, if you do not have an account at Feministing and wish to comment, you may either sign up for one or share your thoughts on the subject here.
***
Updated: The winner of the Ordinary Sparkling Moments give-away is Mary Leach. Mary, congratulations - please send me your mailing address! And thank you all for sharing your moments of joy, for they made me joyous. Have a beautiful weekend!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Books well-loved

In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time. - Ralph Waldo Emerson, via Snarkmarket
Emerson has marked my life. On a tender afternoon in Cairo years ago, between hugs and giggles, I started bringing up one of Emerson's passages on happiness in Self-Reliance. "Emerson once said...", I began and Elijah stopped me with a kiss and some indignation. "Emerson once said?! Emerson? Really? Now?" A few months later, I received a hand-made card, whose pages consisted of sheet music. On one page, the following words were scribbled:
Emerson once said... I love you... 

I now know that when Emerson resurfaces in my life, I need to pay attention. And in the quote Snarkmarket selected above, Emerson perfectly describes the process of nodding enthusiastically while reading familiar truths expressed masterfully by a stranger and a kindred spirit at once. Emerson came back to me when I read Christine Mason Miller's Ordinary Sparkling Moments: Reflections on success and contentment. 

My most beloved books are life stories: personal essays, memoirs, biographies that pierce the veil of "I shouldn't write about this" and talk to the reader as though she were sitting across the writer at a coffee table. We sit with Christine through this book as she speaks of kindness, to self and to others, of entrepreneurship and success, of ideas and creativity, of friendship and loneliness and fear and companionship and love. She does all this with words like these:

Or these: 

What most moved me about Christine's book is that it is a book well-loved. Christine made every page. Not 'wrote', not 'typed'. She created all of it: the background, the handwriting, the collages, the details behind every collage. Every mark on the page, from the illustrations to the layout to her actual handwriting, came from her. In this post on her website, she even discusses observing the printing press churn out her creation. And then after she made them, she sent them out into the world lovingly with her 100 Books Project, planting copies around the world for strangers to discover and chronicling this process of sharing a work of love.

In short, she made magic. 

Every page made me want to linger a little more: First I took in the words, then I poked at the background, then I tried to identify all the layers of paint, of color, of materials, of meaning. This book made me want to love and reminded me of truths I thought I knew and lived by, but had never quite articulated myself -- indeed, as Emerson said, "great works of art [...] teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side." 

On a recent trip to Cuba, a beloved friend and colleague and I were talking about what our 'one word' would be. You know, the word that permeates and imbues all we do and all we are and all we hope to be. Hers was 'create', an honest reflection of her spirit, her drive, her idea-filled soul, her desire to leave something in this world. She looked at me, smiled, and said "yours is 'love', isn't it?" Our words -- create, love, learn and all the other words Cuba and that conversation had room for -- co-exist harmoniously in Christine's book and they find company among other words: fear, inspiration, desire, friendship, beauty.

This book made me want to return to what is true, to what I know, to what I want to learn. It made me want to make a well-loved book of my own. When the still pages of a book come alive and stir in you a longing to experience the sheer joy of creation, when they motivate you to leap and to love, then you know that you have not simply finished a book. You have made a life companion.
***
So, tell me: In which ordinary moments do you find joy?
Leave a comment and I will draw one reader at random to win a copy of 
Ordinary Sparkling Moments: Reflections on Success and Contentment. [also available here
You may also visit Christine at her site: http://christinemasonmiller.com/
The give-away will close on Friday, September 16th at 5 PM EST. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The summer school of life

"Do you always have to learn something?", a friend asked on a walk around the Guatemalan town of Antigua.

"Well... no. If I do not learn something, I need to be moved though. Shaken in some way. Affected."

That was my response -- a true and honest answer, stemming from a place of shame. Part of the hope of my journey in international development, conflict management and a life on the road was that I'd be able to unlearn some habits. I had deeply hoped that I'd make a new friend somewhere down the line who wouldn't be able to guess that, at an earlier point on the same line, I had been the kind of goal-driven, lesson-driven, achievement-driven person who would likely get an ulcer by age 30. My walking companion in Guatemala met the girl who would climb a volcano on six hours notice, but saw straight through her and discerned the girl who always needed to learn something along the way too.

Two summers have passed since that conversation. The changing seasons brought a certain clarity to my response during that walk. I have realized that I learn most vigorously when I am moved. Being shaken, affected, and moved are not alternatives to the lack of a lesson for me -- they are the best way for the world to teach me and for me to pay attention.

I have returned "home" to Greece and have been thinking about what "home" means, home in quotation marks. I woke up two days ago to glistening red roofs, a purple sky, and a shy sun. The fall looks good on Thessaloniki. With the glistens and the purples, it also a brought a sense of urgency to capture the learnings and unlearnings of this summer so that the magic of being moved does not wash off with the first rain.

This summer, I danced salsa in a square in the middle of a city and drew joy from the giggles after stepping on your loved one's foot. [He should have worn close-toed shoes, that's-my-story-and-I'm-sticking-to-it.] I drew joy from the way a coral dress fluttered with every sway of the hips.

I learned a thing or two about loyalties, in sides of armed conflict or in families.

I realized that time silences soreness and saturates fondness. No memories of self-suppression float to the surface when a glorious Harvard Square morning greets me any more. The glory fully registers now and with it, it brings relief.

This summer, I went to my first Sam's Club... and my first Lowe's... and my first CostCo. I spent 6.5 hours at IKEA in a day. For someone who is not attached to stuff or purchasing, that is a personal best (worst?).
This was the summer I fell in love with Kroger and its maple walnut ice cream.

I fell in love with August moons rising out of the Ohio river, Kentucky storms and United Dairy Farmers milkshakes.
I defended vanilla as a milkshake flavor and as an occasional life-style choice. Not everything needs to be triple-chocolate-hazelnut-with-extra-pink-and-dotted-sprinkles.

I pet my first shark (and found out what kind of shark I would be at my weight if I were a shark at all.)

This was the summer I was driven to the airport by a clan of people who would serenade me with a Brandi Carlile sing-along as I walked away. This was the summer I'd baffle a TSA hand luggage screener with the tupperware of muffins squeezed in there. This was the summer I marveled at how the families you find along the journey of life can supplant the memories of the families you were born into or those you lost.

Whom am I kidding -- this was the summer of Brandi Carlile.

And of Chihuly. Glass miracles.

I remembered confidence: You know some things. You have come to deeply know them, through trial and error, and effort, and sleepless nights and just plain intuition. Listen to what you know and lead with it.

I remembered optimism. Thank you, Tali Sharot, for your "tour of the irrationally positive brain." I remembered that I am at my most optimistic when I am surrounded by the comfort of books and the igniting spark of ideas.

I drank bubble tea till it came out my nose. And gorged on cupcakes and burritos and everything else on my Food to Eat in America list. And I already miss the cilantro and the frosting.

I comforted a crying child, and sometimes became the crying child too.

Children are rib-achingly funny. I became grateful to the ones who taught me something I really should have learned earlier in life.

I was deeply scared and deeply scarred by the realities of the work that we do and the stories that haunt us even after we board the flight "home." I have never been more scar(r)ed in my life. Part of me is still scared.

I met strangers on planes and buses and dove hungrily into their loveliness.

I worked on perhaps the hardest project of my life so far, and am still sworn to secrecy about it. I unlearned everything I thought I knew about international development and learned a thing or two about reliance: about leaning on those on whose life boat you are a guest, and about leading with love.

I tried 'writer', 'photographer' and 'storyteller' on for size, and decided to keep them all.

I thought about behavioral neuroscience, empathy, and compassion. Alone, and in relation to each other.

I experienced the sheer joy of being in JFK Park in Harvard Square and exhaling because your body, your mind, your community and your hopes are sharing a zip code -- even for a bit.

I got sick of life in a carry-on bag, and of the clothes in it.

I watched friends buy homes, make homes, nest in homes -- and I wanted that. I wanted the putting in of the drywall and the venting about how the roofers are late again. I wanted it for more than a minute.

I sat at the "fun table" at the closing of an academic/professional seminar. I wondered where I was for all the other fun tables of my life, and promised to seek them out with fervor in the future. The clinking of the glasses still echoes in my ears.

I learned about non-violence, civil resistance, and movement formation and allowed that to nuance my understanding of conflict. I had to reteach myself how to learn in a classroom, squinting at Powerpoints, turning off the urge to do 17 things a minute and just paying attention. Beautiful things happen when you pay attention.

I met some of my "blogging friends", as Elijah calls them, as though they were imaginary. And what do you know, they are not only real, but also present, engaging, and full of life and love.

I missed and I missed and I missed, to the point of frustration. I missed him, and then we were back. Sitting at the same breakfast table, my heart returned to its rightful place. Now I miss him and I miss him and I miss him again, but the breakfast tables of the fall are giving me hope.

I shed skin next to old and loved friends, making room for all of us to grow together, and allow one another to grow into different women than the girls we were when we met. I danced in their living rooms with them, ate ice cream on the steps of libraries, and drew with crayons on brunch tablecloths. [Paper tablecloths, people. We are not in the vandalism business here.]

I sat at a table with a trusted mentor and friend. I felt my heart explode with gratitude. I love moments when you can feel the mind stretching, the heart muscle growing a little bit bigger to accommodate the bliss.

I asked the hard questions, sometimes too urgently, sometimes too circuitously, sometimes in that deep voice that comes from a soft and vulnerable place inside.
I walked and I hugged and I kissed my way to some answers.
I had to reteach myself to let some questions hang.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Storytelling through staring

A tuk-tuk driver, whose vehicle is decorated with a heart, glares at me in Agra, India.
The theme of photographer Ed Kashi's latest exhibit "Eye to Eye" is eye contact. Kashi sorted through his old photographs and deliberately selected images in which individuals were looking directly at the camera. James Estrin of the NYT Lens Blog asked Kashi: "Why is it so upsetting when someone is looking at us?" Kashi responded:
I think it is because we do not want to exist in our pictures. After 30 years of being a photographer, I don't know if it is a conceit. I don't know if it's self-delusion. But there is this idea that if somebody is looking into the camera, then somehow it's inauthentic or it's not a genuine moment. We don't want anyone to think we were there. 
When Estrin prompted Kashi to explain why, he responded: "Because it breaks the fictional notion that it's a candid moment; it's a human document; it's real."

Kashi had many more beautiful words in this interview about 'candid intimacy' and "the pure, pure joy in being engaged in the craftsmanship of photography. In a recent conversation with Kate, a dear friend and constant source of inspiration, we both expressed fascination with the idea of the invisible photographer. There has recently been a lot of conversation about the invisible storyteller at large -- the need for the storyteller's "I" to melt away in order for the subject to come to the forefront.

But can it ever? Is there value in pretending the photographer wasn't there? That the subject did not see the camera? That the writer did not feel anything when she heard the story and was a mere cataloguer of one reality as it was told to her?

The stories that shake me to my core, be they visual or written or musical, make room for all the people whose lives were woven into them: photographers, subjects, writers, interviewees and all their feelings too. I find distance far more fictional than the reality of someone looking at the camera. For me, the 'candid intimacy' of which Kashi speaks lies in acknowledging that as storytellers, we are affected by the stories we tell and that, committed to lack of bias and accuracy as we may be, we bring our lenses into our stories. That does not render the story impure in my eyes; it gives it a pulse, a soul and a life.

A visible photographer, a visibly excited subject: Christmas Eve 2010, Thessaloniki, Greece (photo by Elijah)
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This week, I reveled in the delight of many storytelling resources. How Matters interviewed Marc Maxson of the GlobalGiving Storytelling Project (part I and part II). Kurt Vonnegut talked about the shapes of stories. And Lens Blog linked to Ed Kashi's marvelous photographs of individuals staring straight into the camera.

 Enjoy... and tell me: where are you in your stories?