Slice #19: Author Visit – Ji Li Jiang

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

                             ~ Muriel Rukeyser (American poet and political activist)

 Author of, The Red Scarf Girl, Ji Li Jiang shared her story of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) with our middle schoolers today. She spoke of her family’s experiences under Mao’s rule – a time in which the youth of the country were recruited to help shed old traditions (Four Olds) and spark a revolutionary mentality that would lead the country into a position of power and strength.

Through tears, Jiang revealed how her contented life was turned upside down when it was discovered that her grandfather had been a landlord, classifying her family as “Black” – opponents of the Communist ideology. It didn’t matter that Jiang was ranked top of her class and was loyal to the Communist Party – she no longer was acceptable. Friends and opportunities disappeared and they became victims of the Red Guards scrutiny and accusations. At one point, Ji Li was faced with an impossible decision, when she was expected to denounce her father in public for his alleged counterrevolutionary activities. Was she to stand by her father or save her future?

Facing her audience, Jiang expressed,

“Use your own mind and follow your heart to find the courage to make your own decisions.”

She reminded us that leaders are human beings and that it is our job stand up when power is used to abuse. A powerful and important message; it was an honor to receive Jiang’s story.

Slice #18: “Anarchic Foam”

Joan Miro

In 1977, French sociologist, Roland Barthes, published his autobiography. In it, were lists of his thoughts accompanied by his thinking on his thoughts.

In the section named, J’aime, Je n’ aime pas, Barthes lists what he likes and does not like, and then explains how our personal preferences in life are really of no relevance to anyone.

“I like, I don’t like: this is of no importance to anyone; this, apparently, has no meaning…this anarchic foam of tastes and distastes, a kind of listless blur…obliges others to endure me liberally, to remain silent and polite confronted by pleasures or rejections which they do not share.”

Thanks once again to Shaun Usher in his Lists of Notes, for allowing us to peek into the corners of brilliant minds. Barthes’ list caused me to take pause – to wonder about my own “anarchic foam of tastes and distastes” I impose on others…

I like: dark chocolate, ice cream, salads draped in a melange of vegetables and seeds, flowers of all kinds, scented candles, Jane Austen, the classics, living in my head, Lewis Carroll, poems that make me work and wonder, some classical music, Degas, the promising smell of pages in a book, Siri Husvedt, passionate conversations, traveling to new places, sitting on the deck with my family, hotdishes, the lake, teaching, cool breezes, playing with words, laughter, losing track of time when reading, a marriage that is as comfortable as a favorite cardigan, watching my youngest skip and twirl through life – my middle child handle life’s obstacles with wit – and my eldest transition into adulthood with ease and beauty, Rothko, the satisfaction of completing a challenging task, a comforting cup of tea, getting lost in thought, the feel of earth in my hands when planting flowers, sharing a glass of wine with friends, Vermeer, the smell and feel of a baby in my arms, Chagall, the ocean, shells, walking barefoot, learning, the feel of a great pen in my hands…much, much more…

I don’t like: onions, the use of “I” in conversations, procrastinating, apathy, placing my thoughts into boxes, cleaning, dresses, large parties, large parties with people I don’t know, small talk, being made to feel small, political bureaucracies, deadlines, dancing or singing in public, exercising, rap music, feeling insecure, having to expend more energy than necessary (known as exercise), making lists of what needs to be accomplished, people finishing my sentences, traffic, storms that threaten destruction, intolerance, being in the spotlight, feeling invisible, whiskey, high heels, gossip, waking up to an alarm…

I agree with Barthes that my “anarchic foam” is of no importance. I certainly would not want others to feel subjected or obliged to my idiosyncrasies. However, as I reflect on what has appeared on my lists, it is with great appreciation that I realize my “likes” are a result of being “confronted by [the] pleasures or rejections” of those I love and admire. Their world has expanded the beauty within mine.

Slice #17: Noteworthy

Shaun Usher, Lists of Notes

For my birthday, I received a beautiful book by Shaun Usher called, Lists of Notes. In it resides notes of all types from all types of interesting people. Usher claims our daily chaos is managed through lists. It is our fastidious manner of noting what needs to be accomplished or considered that keeps our world spinning on its axis.

While leafing through its pages, I stumbled upon Mark Twain’s list of the American fare he longed to consume after traveling around Europe in the 1870s. According to Twain,

“The number of dishes is sufficient; but then it is such a monotonous variety of unstriking dishes…Three or four months of this weary sameness will kill the robustest appetite.”

Twain goes on to suggest a multitude of meals that he would like to “be hot when [he] arrive(s). Here a few of the meals on his list…

Radishes. Baked apples, with cream

Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs.

American coffee, with real cream.

American butter.

Fried chicken, Southern style.

Porter-house steak.

Saratoga steak.

Hot biscuits, Southern Style…

At the end of his list, Twain includes another note, “Ice-water — not prepared in the ineffectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.”

While Malaysia’s fare is not in the least monotonous, by the end of the year I crave dishes that remind me of home and my Midwestern roots. Each summer, our family of five, descends on my parents’ home in Minnesota – settling in for a minimum of six weeks. We spend many an evening eating our dinners on the deck overlooking the back garden. It isn’t just a meal, it is an event – a time to reconnect, sharing the year’s events and laugh with one another.

About a month away from our arrival, my dad and I begin corresponding over what summer meals should “be hot when we arrive.” Here are a few that end up on the list…

Mixed vegetables on the grill – a blend of asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms, beans and onions.

Grilled salmon prepared with white wine, chili flakes, oregano and thyme.

Smashed potatoes topped with butter, parmesan cheese and thyme.

Rhubarb crisp, hot from the oven.

Apple pie, hot from the oven.

Fish caught straight from the lake, fried in batter.

Wild rice hotdish (affectionately known in our family as “glop”).

Tater-tot hotdish (I wouldn’t be Minnesotan if this wasn’t on my list).

Rib eye steak on the grill

Corn on the cob

Fresh berries of all kinds (raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries)

Nectarines, plums, peaches, and fresh apricots.

Tomatoes from the garden with fresh basil and mozzarella.

My mom’s baked chicken with mashed potatoes and fresh peas.

Roast beef with glazed carrots and potatoes and gravy.

Homemade vanilla ice-cream with a variety of toppings.

Diner style breakfasts with fried eggs, bacon and country style sausage.

Much, much more…

The hours spent preparing each meal, savoring flavors, lingering at the table, and cleaning up together are hours I look forward to the year round – certainly noteworthy.

Summer is fast approaching and my chair on the deck awaits me.

Slice #16: No Regrets

Today, I am a half century old. While searching for advice on how to live the second half of my life, I stumbled on an article from The Guardian, “Older and wiser: Carol Ann Duffy introduces poems of ageing.” How perfect!

Although I felt many of the poems were relevant and meaningful, it was poet, Nina Cassian, that led me to wondering what I would regret not accomplishing in my lifetime.

What I Regret

by Nina Cassian

. . . never having heard the voice of the Dodo bird . . .
. . . never having smelled the Japanese cherry trees . . .
. . . never having punished the lovers and friends that
deserted me . . .
. . . never having asked for honours that I deserved . . .
. . . never having composed a Mozart sonata . . .
. . . never having realised that I’d live long enough to
regret all the above . . .
. . . and much, much more . . .

It is my wish that I turn potential regrets into realities. Here’s to the second half of my life!

What I Might Regret

by Me

. . . never having learned how to play the violin . . .

. . . never having the confidence and courage to attempt publishing an article . . .

. . . never having felt wet, cool clay in my hands while bringing it to life on a pottery wheel . . .

. . . never having spent enough time holding hands with those I love . . .

. . . never having let my guard down to dance like no one can see me, and sing like no one can hear           me . . .

. . . never having worn a ball gown and played the role of a princess . . .

. . . never having locked up my many insecurities and lived life to the fullest without worrying . . .

. . . never having taken a leap of faith to see where life leads me . . .

. . . and much, much more . . .

Thank you to all who push me out of my comfort zone, encouraging me to be a better person.

Slice #15: Symphony of Conversations

National Audubon Society Songbirds

Today, I completed my certification from the Adaptive Schools Foundation Seminar: Building Collaborative Capacity in Systems. It has been a productive and mentally exhausting four days. Arriving home at 4pm on a Sunday, it was all I could do to situate myself on the couch in my favorite room overlooking the jungle that spills down the hill of my back garden.

Closing my eyes, a symphony of birds filled my thinking – taking my thoughts on flight as I reflected on the craft of conversations.  Chirruping to one another, a variety of songbirds gathered to sing the praises of the day’s events, harmonizing the beauty with the coos of the zebra dove.

This call of the Sirens, lured in the warblers to add depth to the dialogue, which in turn, invited the long, low, spaced whistles of others -interjecting differing points-of-view.

Occasionally, a shrill call sliced through the air, quieting the crescendo of the conversation. Conflict quickly dissipated, however, as the songbirds, once again, asserted their harmonious voices – spreading joy.

Slice #14: Heavenly Promises

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

As Winter takes it final bow in the state of my home country, Minnesota, I remembered the early days at our family cabin up north…

I remember gathering handfuls of bluebells that dotted the woods, announcing Mother Nature’s return from her winter hiatus. Wrapped in light sweaters, days were spent with the warmth of the sun on my face as I lounged by the lake listening to its icy waters lap the edges of the dock, thawing my frozen state of mind. The sky, a kaleidoscope of color, slipped to cobalt, lulling me to sleep with its heavenly promises of beautiful days to come.

Slice #13: Beyond the Back Porch

Inspired by one of my favorite Billy Collins’ poems, Where I live…

Henri Rousseau

 

Beyond the Back Porch

 

The bungalow nests amongst copy-cats on a hill.

There is a small-patch of back garden, a fence running through it,

supporting burgeoning bougainvilleas of pink, orange and white.

Towering, sturdy red bamboo stand guard in each corner.

 

Beyond the lean, back porch,

the jungle consumes a hill; spilling into the neighborhood below.

Interrupted by more look-a-like bungalows,

the jungle fights to take its place and remain in charge.

 

Most days, life, like the jungle,

fights to maintain control over my peace of mind,

but for now, I sit on my couch,

staring out the picture windows that make up my wall

 

watching the sun paint the sky with hues of

pink, orange and amber.

listening to the busy chatter of songbirds, and the

call of the frogs building the crescendo of their symphony.

 

I am grateful that the city

hasn’t won the battle;

bestowing me with the wonder of

abounding life.

Slice #12: Armed with a Machete

Daily writing is a Herculean task. My mind has not rested since March 1st when the Two Writing Teachers set the Slice of Life Writing Challenge in motion. I spend my days rummaging about for a worthy topic – readying myself to receive inspiration from even the most inconspicuous moments of my day. Before drifting off to sleep, I search the corners of my mind for tiny morsels that may have been overlooked. Still nothing, I wake up wondering, and the cycle repeats.

Empty-headed, yet determined to uncover a topic, I combed through a multitude of books on the craft of writing at the bookstore. An hour or two elapsed as I stood on tired feet leafing through hundreds of pages – skimming content for answers. Instead of finding answers, I found others, well-known others, that understand my pain.

When flicking through Bird by Bird, I discovered Anne Lamott feels the same way I do about writing. It was if she crawled inside my thoughts and took up residence,

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve thought that there was something noble and mysterious about writing, about people who could do it well, who could create a world as if they were little gods or sorcerers. All my life I’ve felt that there was something magical about people who could get into other people’s minds and skin, who could take people like me out of ourselves and then back to ourselves.”

I read on. Lamott talks about writers carrying around wonderful ideas, but when “they sit down and write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one…every major form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout – the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion…” I can relate to this. I believe Lamott and I are going to become good friends. She is one I can commiserate with.

Before I decide to surrender, giving in to the insecurities writing evokes, Lamott consoles me by telling me all good writing starts bad. Right. I have that step down.

She also stresses that despite your disdain over the outcome of your attempts, you MUST keep writing. Every day. Every day at the same time to train your subconscious to produce. Lamott warns that this routine isn’t without its challenges. She even goes as far as to suggest arming yourself with a machete to hack away all the negative voices that will crowd your mind preventing you from producing beautiful prose.

Others shared their war stories with writing with me and offered sage advice…

Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark

Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively

Siri Husvedt, Living Thinking, Looking

Phillip Lopate, To Show and To Tell

Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

I didn’t find a list of topics, but I did find kindred spirits and new beginnings. I packed their suitcases and took them home with me.

Here’s to developing daily writing rituals armed with a machete.

 

Slice #11: Choreographed Conversations

It has been a little over a year since Alzheimer’s stole my mother-in-law away. As her birthday approaches, her visits to my memories have become more frequent, filling me with a longing for her boundless optimism and warmth to be present in our lives once again.

Our visits were always met with great joy. Her laughter reached you before the door flew open and outstretched arms swept you into a warm embrace. Cheerful chatter followed you into the kitchen as you glided into conversation sprinkled with exclamations, questions and more laughter. Listening carefully, her hands would shape the conversation.

Clapping her hands together with delight would encourage a faster pace that brought more laughter, more detail. A crescendo was encouraged when throwing both hands up in the air with a tilt of her head and a hearty laugh, while bringing her right hand to her chest or lips would direct you to slow the tempo of your story down and allow you to feel its rhythm. These choreographed conversations brought unity and harmony to our family. I miss them.

Not only did her elegant hands bring music into our lives, they also brought beauty. Gently gripping a pastel, her long fingers would gradually unveil their vision as they moved across the paper – a blend of beauty and emotion to hang in our memory. I miss her presence in the clutter of her studio.

In the last couple of years of the disease, she fell into herself. Our visits found her statuesque in her recliner, her hands still in her lap. Her laughter imprisoned. It was my turn to outstretch my arms and fold her fading body into an embrace. It was my turn to attempt to conduct our conversation and bring beauty into her life.

If I was fortunate, her eyes lit up with recognition and a laugh escaped bringing back great joy. I miss her.

Slice #10: Searching for Confidence…

John Tenniel’s illustration, “The Jabberwocky”

One of the books I am currently reading is a compilation of Siri Husvedt’s essays, Living, Thinking, Looking. In “Searching for a Definition” Husvedt defines ambiguity in all its uncertainness.

The passage, “Ambiguity, is what I want most…And because it is at once a thing and a nothing, the reader will have to find it, not only in what I have written, but also in what I have not written,” led me to thinking about my story. What has life written for me so far, and what stories remain to be told? What is it that I need to discover? Reveal?

My answer – confidence. I search for its definition…

Confidence: hails from the Latin root fidere, meaning to trust, which, over time, moved into Old English meaning to have faith. Its prefix, <con-> adds an intensifying effect to this trust – connoting a blind faith of sorts. A leap that is necessary if you are to live with confidence.

Confidence requires balance – just the right amount. It is not quite self-assured; it is not quite arrogant. Too much, and you are left with a false sense of confidence. Too little, and you are left paralyzed. Confidence can’t be found in a command, a dream, hope. It springs from a desire to grow, a motivation. As illustrated in faerie stories, Confidence dons its armour, with poise and composure, facing its nemesis head on, “…be bold, be bold, but not too bold.” Confidence recognizes that the enemy is to be appreciated and respected if it is to be defeated.

The lucky ones are born with confidence. The rest of us battle doubt, sometimes for a lifetime. But if armed with our “vorpal blade,” existing dragons can be slain and confidence won. I swear an oath of allegiance; I trust and have faith that life’s monsters can and will be defeated.

Confidence is what I desire – for myself, for my children, for my students, for all.