Friday, January 20, 2012

Zadie Smith, you speak straight to my heart.

One of my least favorite conversation starters is "I have to tell you something, but I can't right now, so it has to wait." Or: "We need to talk. Come by at 5." I will spend the time between now and 5 worrying about the something, the talk.

I have lots of somethings to tell you, but they have to wait and it breaks my heart.

While my own stories are brewing quietly, please read the words of Zadie Smith. They travel with me, stirring me every once in a while, reminding me of why it is that I love the craft of storytelling. In the January 2012 issue of Guernica, she discusses her desire for a different type of storytelling in international development. In her words:
This is no special flaw in the world of development—every large organization has its technocratic lingo and unreadable reports. But it seemed to me a shame that between the highly technical, acronym-heavy documents written within the world of development and the often saccharine self-descriptions of the church workers, there were so few people writing development stories from a human perspective. Stories that were not especially concerned with a man’s eternal soul or his statistical representation, but with his life.
The words jumped out of the page because those are the stories I aspire to tell. 

She goes on to discuss "Writers Bloc", an Open Society-funded initiative that endeavored to send fiction and non-fiction writers to find such stories.  Smith argues: "A writer hopes to make connections where the lazy eye sees only a chasm of difference." The task of these writers was to do just that, to return from the four corners of the world with "reporting without the wonk."

And so Aleksandar Hemon took to Bosnia, Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie to Nigeria, Rachel Holmes to Palestine. Start with Zadie Smith's reflections on the need for this kind of storytelling and click on to the bottom of the piece for the writers' accounts from Pakistan to Haiti and Bangladesh to South Africa.

I have been thinking about the place for feelings in my work, both as a storyteller and as a conflict specialist. I seem to have gathered a lot of feelings along the journey and to have even made my peace with having them. A friend likened this internal peace-making process to "melting icebergs." My melted-in-a-puddle self is particularly exhilarated to read the following in Zadie Smith's piece:
But it is also natural, upon entering the gap between first world and the third, to feel something, to be moved, and to have opinions, to express anger.
Some of you will take issue with the terminology "first and third world" and you will be right. But I will also join you in taking issue with the absence of feelings... with the type of storytelling, work and personal investment in highly vulnerable communities that makes no room for being moved. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Transition smells like roses.

Day 7 of my 365 photo project: Three generations of my family did their homework at the big table. This children's tea set for two still sits at the edge of it, waiting for my childhood self to come to tea.
Conveniently, Donald Miller expresses the following thoughts (emphasis mine) about writing in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years:
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. 
Well, then. If Miller is right about this, I should be a champion writer by now because I am embarrassed to tell you when the last time I left the house was. 

When I wrote about "love, worry and everything in between" last week, I did not expect the "in between" to govern my 2012 so far. Yet, here I am, sitting, waiting, wishing for the visas, and paperwork and permits and boatloads of hope that will bring me to my next project. If you were a college student in the early 2000s, you know there is a Jack Johnson reference in the previous sentence. I have not left the house in long enough to allow Jack Johnson references to ferment. #pleasesendhelp
One of the open tabs on this browser contains an article that tells me how to apply face serum. I need instructions for that, yes. And I have apparently become the kind of restless that is motivated to examine her facial pores and commit herself to their clearing, in an attempt to clear anything, to make space. During the time I spent in northern Uganda, I learned about "boda glow", a different type of face and body treatment. A boda glow is what you acquired after a day of riding motorcycle taxis (boda-bodas) to the Internally Displaced Person camps. The heat, sweat and red dust clung to you, bathing you in an orange glow. My formerly boda-aglowing self is laughing at the face in the mirror that smells like serum and roses.
Rosy faces free of blackheads need to see the light of day sometimes. My blood has lost the tolerance to New England cold it once had. The transition from the Middle Eastern side of the Mediterranean to the Greek coast and its near-zero temperatures has meant I look like I am about to go caroling every time I endeavor to leave the house, in the hope that I can "strap a typewriter to the back of a wide elephant", find a story, write about it and prove Donald Miller wrong. I arm myself with the red mittens Katie knit for me and the hat that makes me look like a smurf and that blanket-like scarf Tais bought for Antarctica, but I had been wearing in the Middle East since November nonetheless. 

The taxi driver asks where I'm going and I give him the address. 

"Where are you going in life, I mean!", he protests. I could write a book about conversations with taxi drivers around the world. 

I tell him about the conflict and post-conflict zones I shuttle between. I tell him about the bureaucracy of waiting for approval, for the stamp that will let you in somewhere and that same stamp that can get you barred from somewhere else. I tell him that tonight, I am going to park myself at a tavern, eat fried zucchini and creamed eggplant, listen to Greek favorites with my favorite Greek women, and wait out the "in-betweenness" with a glass of hmiglyko.

"They should not send women to war zones," he says when he exhales cigarette smoke into the taxi with the NO SMOKING sign. "The people there... They are brutes." 

I am exhausted from arguing. I always argue, with the taxi driver, with the third great aunt twice removed, with People On The Internet Who Think Things Like That. Today, as we drive by the outdated Santas, I have no stamina. I have no fire for the struggle. I stay silent. He continues to smoke, and the guilt eats me up. 
E's mother has always said that "everything happens for a reason." As someone who loved Immanuel Kant in college ("can anyone really love Kant, Roxanne?", Sahil had asked then), I initially found resignation to the decisions of the universe difficult to embrace. Over time, I have realized it is not resignation -- it is trust. Perhaps early January was meant to be the time I learned to apply serum to my face and cared enough (/was restless enough) to do it. Or the time I learned to pick my battles and live with those decisions. Or the time I let go of what I do not control, toss the worry in the letting go pile as well, and just wait, exhaling

It is possible that if the visa and permits come through and I am delivered to my project, and to fulfillment, I will not remember early January. Between powerful experiences, serum that smells like roses and taxis that smell like smoke may not make the cut. But right now, I am still in between. I am still learning to trust, to sleep at night without tossing and turning, to wake up the next day with faith that I can still find life without leaving the house -- with the faith that I can maybe even write about it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Love, worry and everything in between

Blush twinkling lights of my childhood
bedroom reflected in a mirror.

J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons.

In 2011, I measured out my life in plane tickets (32) ...
... in camera clicks (13,302)
... in words written (over 100,000)
... in worry, endless worry.
... in mornings I woke up next to him -- too few, but priceless (hello, Mastercard commercial).

In 2012, I will measure out my life in photographs. One for every day - some taken with Instagram, some with my favorite camera, some sloppy and some dear to the heart. Beth Nicholls once asked me why I photograph. I told her that photography makes me more mindful because it reminds me to really look... to search for beauty (or for surprise, incongruence, contradiction and conflict). That is the purpose of this new project, whose home is at Measuring Life in Photographs. I hope you will join me for the journey.
Some housekeeping notes: The back-end of this website is horribly broken at the moment. Thank you for your patience while I bring the Reading & Listening page back to life. Same goes for the social sharing links that have disappeared from the sidebar. In the meantime:

  • You can follow this website, Stories of Conflict and Love, via RSS here. Some of you are still subscribed to my old domain (Έτσι μιλώ για σένα και για μένα), so for better functionality, I'd suggest adding the updated feed to your Reader.
  • You can also subscribe via email by using the form in the sidebar, right beneath the archives if you wish to receive new posts in your inbox. 
  • You can find me on Facebook here and on Twitter too
  • You can subscribe to my new photo project by adding to your Google Reader or feed aggregator. If you're embarking on your own 366-day photography project, please leave a link in the comments -- I'd love to follow along!
When I created this space early in 2011, I never could have imagined the love, inspiration and community that it invited into my life. I am looking forward to a 2012 of deep breaths and deep exhales, new flights, new heights, and old loves. I am most grateful to be sharing this journey with you.