When you can’t go far, you go deep. – BR. DAVID STEINDL-RAST

Oh, Di, you wrote: “…you don’t presume to know me. A gift beyond rubies!”

Isn’t that true?

Writing today, when across the ocean from me there are events taking place that I don’t know how to think about – much less talk about. I don’t have a perspective from which to add anything meaningful to what needs to be said – I don’t even know what needs to be said – or done – or witnessed. From the one view, I was and still am entangled in the privilege that has blinded me to other people’s realities. I was a complicit participant in the culture – but haven’t been for 27 years now.

To be clear: I haven’t been a participant of the culture – it does not, however, mean that I am no longer complicit in the problems of that culture. I know that.

So, as I write this, I hope you will keep in mind that I am fully conscious of the narrowness – the “whiteness”  – of what I am going to write about. I’m in no way trying to be reductive about the pain in the United States. Or anywhere else. I’m not claiming to have any perspective on a bigger picture.  I think that our stories are woven into something so large we can’t conceive of the whole.

I’m often at a loss of how to handle the truth of individual insignificance, and still be reverent of the individual.

And that was a weird little disclaimer to give myself permission to brood today, wasn’t it?

I was struck by your words: “you don’t presume to know me. A gift beyond rubies.” I have been thinking about the fact that maybe this is the greatest gift we can give anyone. Strangers, yes: to learn to live comfortably with  (or simply live with the discomfort) of the mystery of “the other”. To let it be. That is quite literally poetry, isn’t it? At least according to Keats. The negative capability necessary in human relationships is the opposite of prejudice.

And I suppose requires us to catch ourselves as we form our thoughts, as we interpret what we hear and see. It makes me laugh to think that my goal should not be to become a “good judge of character”. But rather, to allow myself – not to be child-like at all – but to suspend judgement: to stop, hold, wait. No wonder so many religious paths have a practice of abstaining from one thing or another. I guess, for me, the question is where the strength/faith to withhold judgement will come from.

I think about how it is actually easier to practice this kind of negative capability with strangers than it is with the people we love. We want to pin them down. Even when that means pinning them down as “good”. We feel safer “knowing” them. Secure in knowing who they are – and we are silly enough to think of their unexpected behavior as betrayals.

Isn’t it ridiculous actually that we have this tendency to be surprised by other people? We either say they have changed, or fault ourselves for misjudging them. The former is inevitable, and the latter an absurd mental calculation, in and of itself. Maybe we are at our most judgemental with our children. Boxing them in probably gives us a sense of control over the way their story will play out. Even when the story we write for them is dark, we can at least feel prepared.

I don’t know – am I the only person who goes through life trying to set up narrative safeguards?

I have always thought your returning to New Zealand was courageous. I get this image of room behind a closed door. The door has a long slit of a window. Probably an image of a scene in a move – an asylum cell. The window is so narrow that the people viewing it from the hallway never see the whole person in the room. They see just a strip of hair, shoulder, hip, shoe. And they make their notes for the day.

Did I tell you that once I got ahold of my psychiatrist’s notes and he from an hour session he had written: “Hasn’t brushed her hair today. Had a fight with her boyfriend.”

It would make for a good story if I said that he upped my meds that day, wouldn’t it?

Are the people who thought they knew you “back when”, allowing themselves to meet the person you are? You having come home the same stranger to them, but now trailing long, beautiful stories that smell of simit and tea, basel and salt water – and of things for which I have no names or associations.

I wish I could draw. I would sketch you. Just sketch, though.

My aesthetic preference has always been biased toward the quality of the lines, not the photorealism. Not even the symbolism.

Gestures.

I cannot go home. But before my grandmother died I remember the moments she would occasionally say something over the phone – something simple – she would tell me that she did not really know me. Which made me feel more seen than I had ever felt.

Are you experiencing that? Maybe that is too intimate a question.

Your talks with Jimmy do sound like holy moments unto themselves. I wonder – this awe we have when we are confronted with the familiar/mysterious expanse of sky or the songs that come from the total darkness and the thrill of knowing/not knowing their source. Am I right in thinking you are one of the people who finds this same awe when you sit with other people and open yourself for their stories?

I suppose there is a value in knowing the “right” perspective when taking a portrait. But there is so much more beauty in the candid shots that reveal as much of the photographer’s openness as they do the subject’s.

I am so happy not to know you, Di!

And this year has not been off to the best start. A lag, and a rush, and dealing with new realities.

I read today about  – was it Seneca? – who admonished people for waiting until 50 or 60 to begin living life intentionally. And there was something about focusing on being present, not on accomplishments. Of course, the people telling us this have all accomplished enough to say such a thing.

With a straight face.

I arrived in London on the 23rd of December,  and ran down the escalators at every tube station. We ran 17K on Christmas Eve, and I woke up with runner’s knee on Christmas morning – only to bicycle across London to see the boys anyway. Now, two weeks and one painful New Year’s run later, it’s clear there will be no marathon for me in February. It’s a blow to my confidence.

And not the only blow to my confidence this month. There are work issues, other health issues. There is aging, which is probably somehow related to both.

There was a storm. And I find that I’ve let myself slip into an unproductive/objective (not present) perspective.

I’m behind in my correspondence.

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On the way to Synesvarden. Before the fog rolled in.

Today I prodded E. to head out for a hike. (Another thing on my holiday to-do list was to get a new winter hiking jacket. Not done. After 20 minutes, my coat was soaked through. Thank goodness for wool.)

We headed out to Synesvarden, which seemed like an ironic name for the spot today. White: a 360 degree view of white. We take what life brings us. Today, it came a few meters at a time. The cold-stiff orange and yellow tussocks, the granite rocks that might be coated with ice. Shadows that grow into figures that mumble or holler, “good day” as they pass.

There was a dog barking somewhere in the forest, and we circled back to find her. But she went silent.

Isn’t there a culture that conceptualizes the future as something that comes at us from behind to overtake us? Maybe they are the only ones to have it right. All this planning, all the mirages we see ahead of us. The clump of earth that should be frozen, but that rushes suddenly from behind to slip into the present, under your foot, in the form of soft and giving mud. And there you have it: the irretraceable moment that is a wet sock.

There have been bright moments. Moments that shine a bit, like glassy eyes after half-a-bottle of wine. And I keep telling myself this will pass. This grief.  Because that is what this is. It seems by body understood it long before my mind caught up to see what the problem was.

There is more to this new challenge: the surrender of ambition, the letting go of childhood dreams that were based on values that I may have never fully accepted, and don’t accept now. Fears can stand in the way, no doubt, but fear can also deflect the original aim of an ambition.

“Because we didn’t get enough love of children.” That is probably more of a paraphrase than a quote, from a fiction character in a musical.

There is that moment. When you get to the brink of where you deliberately headed, and you realise: this isn’t at all what I really want.

Coddiwomple: to wander purposefully towards a vague destination.

It’s time to admit it: to live intentionally doesn’t have to involve ambition. There is purpose in being in the moment, in being in the white with wet socks, and mist in your eyelashes.

 

 

Kjære Di,

You mentioned the church bells in Genova and the calls to prayer in Istanbul. When I think about these kinds of things in my own life – the church bells in Stavanger, the live singing coming from the minarets in Skopje when I was there for a conference – I think about the necessary silence that surrounds them. Lying on the floor of a rented room in Skopje, I heard the singing long before dawn: the song was strange and comforting simultaneously. In Stavanger, those 12 years in the house near the church, the bells were like a grown-up call to recess: Sunday.

sheepOut here in Jæren, I don’t hear the church bells. But it is quiet, and the sparrows’ chatter outside the window punctuates the silence in the same way. With the same reverence. And on weekend hikes, there is the ubiquitous clanging of sheep bells. A somewhat strange, irregular music, but comforting, too. Like a lifeline into the wild. Did I tell you that every hike we have been on this fall has had us stumbling upon sheep skeletons?

Perhaps we are both drawn to seek the foreign as a way to recapture wonder and awe?

You wrote, “Mostly it’s not human nature to leap when you are safe.  Mostly.”  Maybe there is something wrong with us? The restlessness.  I guess in my case it has to do with a mistrust of the sense of safety.

And then there is the fact that I love nesting, but hate being nested. Being busy, being occupied with the ordering of things gives me an illusion of control. Once that flurry of activity is over, the illusion is broken. I feel vulnerable.

I think that is why, content as a I am in so many ways, I have flashes of envy when you share your experiences of arranging your new life. I want to move house again. Which is absurd. Instead: yesterday I decided on a new bookshelf for the living room. So you see, I need a healthy adventure soon.

E. and I were in the east part of Stavanger Friday night to see a production at the arts center. They are renovating the whole section of town. I guess the proper way to describe it is to say there is a gentrification of the old working class neighborhood. Posh little cafés, and gyms with big windows so everyone can watch the people on the treadmills – or the people on the treadmills can be watched. I’m not sure what the thought was behind that design, to be honest.

The old arts center has had a facelift, though its still appropriately whatever-the-current-hipster-term-for-“shabby chic” is, if shabby chic is already passé – I don’t even care to keep up these days. Hipster is probably passé by now. At any rate, sleek apartment buildings have sprung up all along the water. Grassy parks that look in reality just as they did in the drawings in advertisements before they were built.

What is taking me by surprise is that I have absolutely no interest in any of it. I would rather explore the rocky beaches out by the lighthouse south of here. I’d rather roam the lived-in spaces in East London on a weekend. Feed the pelicans. I would rather spend time where things aren’t carefully designed not to match in just the right way – maybe go seek out on of your beloved bazaars in Istanbul. Things that are not preplanned. Places that grow organically, as chaotic as humans are. What is the point of moving into or even through something that is already in perfect order? How gawd-awful boring.

And distancing: the place would never be mine. And I would never fit in well.

I guess that brings us back to belonging and not really belonging. The safety of the familiar, on the periphery? I don’t know, that seems paradoxical. It’s the wildebeest on the periphery who get eaten, isn’t it?

So tell me more about these doubting Genovese.  They aren’t eating you alive, are they?

Much love,

XO Ren

Di’s Reply


This is one of a series of public letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.

Kjære Di,

Last night I was up half the night. After meditation, I’d rolled over only to return to the storm that’s been in my head for weeks now. I scribbled page after page of notes. Looking at them this morning, they are mostly incomprehensible. Last night I’d solved all the world’s problems in the outline of an amazing novel.

But this morning my head is quiet again. And I have no desire to write a novel of any sort.

I’ve been staring at the computer screen wondering if this is the end of it, or just the eye of the storm. To be honest, I am not  sure which I am hoping is the case.

I’m eating chicken soup for breakfast. E made it for dinner last week, his own recipe with garam masala and apples. I froze the leftovers. I have mixed feelings about him becoming such a good cook.

Breaking my own rules, I’m eating in the bibliotek-ette. I’m wrapped in the blanket that you gave me when you came up to visit me two years ago. Winter is coming. (Boy, that phrase is ruined, and I don’t even watch Game of Thrones).

Yesterday I went to a friend’s theater production downtown. It was an evening of storytelling by seven women, from seven countries. So, I thought of about you.

Some of these women were war refugees, some economic migrants, and some came for love. Some had been here a couple of years, some nearly twenty, one woman – as she put it – arrived at her birth.

It made me realize that I’m not an ex.pat. I don’t know when I transitioned to immigrant. It was a gradual process, and when I changed my citizenship three years ago, only a conscious acknowledgment of the fact. I have set down roots here. Not my children; they both call foreign countries “home” these days. So maybe the image I am looking for isn’t setting down roots, but becoming entangled. With the landscape. I am more at home now walking these moorlands, than I am walking on sidewalks anywhere. More at peace, that is – if that is what “home” is: peace.

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One of “my” beaches. From Saturday’s run.

I was listening to a guided meditation last night and there were the sounds of waves in the background. And songbirds. I’m not an ornithologist, or even a halfway decent bird-watcher, but I know the call of a thrush from that of a gull, or a tern. It took me a minute or two to figure out what was causing the dissonance I felt: there are no songbirds on the beaches where I run. This wasn’t the sound of my beaches.

I suppose I have always been quick to fall in love with people. But not places. This relationship grew over time. And took me by surprise.

I feel like Golde in Fiddler on the roof. I suppose I love this place.

When I got my divorce a few years ago, I hadn’t considered that I would stay in Norway. Now, I don’t consider leaving. This is where I found my strength.

I was thinking that this is so different from your whirlwind romance with Genoa. Your immediate recognition that it was “home” – for no apparent reason. So far from your New Zealand landscape. What has drawn you there? What is it that continues to seduce you?

And what has given you the courage to strike out and follow your heart – not after a lover  (although we’ve both done that in the past)- but after a “home”?

XO Ren

Di’s reply



This is the first in what I hope will be many public letters to friends – friends I hope will write back to me on their own blogs. Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.

In regard to casual sexism*, “Imagine how you’d feel” is never going to be a persuasive argument in this discussion. But I don’t think it’s because of a lack of empathy. It’s because of a lack of perspective.

On both sides.

I believe it’s extraordinarily rare to find a person who doesn’t long to be the object of someone’s desire. (On one’s own terms, of course.)

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A scene I capture in Milan a few years ago. It has stuck with me.

And the uncomfortable truth is that female beauty is power. It is influence. A woman’s beauty is often equated with a man’s wealth in our culture. There’s a reason that the most common tactic to attack feminists is to disparage their appearance: Ugly. Old.

“Envious.”

And there’s a reason those attacks so often silence some of us (okay, possibly just me) momentarily. We stop, look honestly at our envy and question ourselves, “Wait, wait…” Then we come to our senses and realise envy of that particular power is not that big a deal. It is both fleeting and utterly circumstantial.

And dangerous.

Because it’s also like walking around with your million dollars hanging loosely around your neck  – on the end of a garrotte.

I have been twenty-something and the center of attention in a roomful of influential men who were ostensibly impressed by what I had to say. I wasn’t gorgeous, and I am not saying those situations were complete farces (I’ve always thought of myself as somewhat intelligent), but being an attractive-enough twenty-something was always a foot in the door, at the very least.

Although these days I have to be “aggressive” to get anyone’s attention, I wouldn’t be twenty-something again for the world. Because, now, when I do have people’s attention, I can be sure it’s because of the content of my ideas. I don’t have to doubt myself. And once I have wedged my foot firmly in that door, I no longer have to worry about what’s on the other side.

I honestly believe there are some good men out there who don’t understand the pervasive sexism in our culture because they are blinded by their own envy.

“How would you like it if I said you had a great ass?”

It is easy to imagine the power of being desired. The kind of desire that leads people around by the nose. That keeps people up at night. That causes them to make stupid decisions, to act impulsively. Even young girls recognise and want that power.

So much Power: it sells everything from chewing gum to automobiles. It’s face has launched a thousand ships, and when painted on the sides of bombers, it kept morale up in the face of death during wars.

Men who say that they would take it as a compliment really cannot imagine that such beauty could be the cause of humiliation and powerlessness. With an entire culture that puts so much store in women’s youth and beauty, how can we blame these men for their lack of imagination in regard to that particular question?

“How would you feel if women whistled and called out, ‘Hey, sexy!’ whenever you passed by on the street?”

Complimented?

Well, yeah. Because those men know that a woman who is not sexy or beautiful is failing at being a woman. Just look at the magazines women read. Let’s not pretend this is simple.

On their own, a few cat-calls are a few cat-calls. In the context of our culture it contributes to systematic oppression. In this case the devil is not in the details, it is in the sum and context of the details.

Men are judged by their accomplishments (which I admit carries with it a whole other bag of questionable values, but irrelevant in this discussion). Women are not.

Youth&BeautyR/NOT ACCOMPLISHMENTS,theyre theTEMPORARY happy/BiProducts/of Time&/or DNA/Dont Hold yourBreath4either/ifUmust holdAir/takeGarys

–  Carrie Fisher

It’s confusing when we are told we should be valued for who we are. I am not exactly sure how to divorce accomplishments from “who we are”. Do we divorce DNA from “who we are”?

I’m still working on all of that.

But I do know “who we are” should not be objects for other people.

Still. As a woman, I admit that losing that particular power has been a painful process. I know that I am not alone in this experience. We women go broke, cut ourselves up, and inject ourselves with poisons to avoid it.

And isn’t that simple fact an indication of how difficult it might be for men to “imagine” that being seen as an object of desire isn’t always desirable?

There has to be a better way to discuss this. For all our sakes.

Let’s not pretend the issue isn’t more complex than an imaginary turning of tables would have it.


*Please note, if you haven’t already, that this post is about casual sexism – not sexual assault. I know that these issues are connected, but they are also distinct. To conflate them is to accuse the hundreds of thousands of good men (and women, by the way) who contribute to casual sexism of something far worse. These same good men and women would rather bite their own arm off than sexually abuse someone. Ignoring that will get us nowhere but stuck in our defensive corners.