poetry

Reflecting on milestones: 2012

eternally nostalgic

This column first appeared on Stories of Conflict and Love earlier this week. I have always been attached to the process of documentation and the rituals of recording memories. Different notebooks have held disparate thoughts across eras of my life, with their pages threading together class notes on violent conflict in Africa to poetry to to-do lists to workshop outlines to endless nights of worry. For the past four years, I have lived out of a suitcase, shedding belongings and an attachment to 'stuff' and hoarding memories instead. The notebooks have been the only possessions of mine that have traveled everywhere, truly everywhere, stretching suitcases till they bloat. And even though they now sit neatly on a shelf in Boston, there was no arrangement or system to how they were organized. The only rule was that every page had to be filled before a new notebook was commissioned to be my wandering companion.

January 16, 2012 was the beginning of a new notebook, for no reason other than its predecessor running out of pages. On that day, I copied down Mary Anne Radmacher's poem, "Living Eulogy:"

Under that, inspired by Katie, I started making a list. Every year, Katie tracks goals she'd like to meet before her next birthday. Page 1 of this new notebook mirrored that format and, below Radmacher's poem, I started outlining my own hopes for 2012.

Some were laughably simple, almost thrown in there the way you write "laundry" or "grocery shopping" onto a to-do list: for the painless joy of crossing those items off. #12 on my list was "throw a party." There had been plenty of parties in my nomadic life. There was the table dancing in Guatemala---ceaseless dancing on tables, it seemed. There were the nights in Cairo when we all gathered in that penthouse apartment and sang our lungs out to Queen. I remember the night Elijah walked me to Tahrir to hail a taxi and I could still hear Bohemian Rhapsody in the background. But then the moving, the ceaseless moving, took its toll and the parties were mostly farewell parties, for me and for others. #12 on the list was not (just) about buying Solo cups and cheap wine. It was about being embedded in a community long enough, feeling its grounding enough, to host snippets of it in my home "just because." Not because anyone was leaving, not because it was a birthday. Because it was community.

And there were parties. #12: done.

#15: Take a night photograph I am proud of. You see, this one correlated to #25: Learn to shoot my camera on manual. I "knew" how to use my camera on manual. I taught photography workshops for crying out loud. But it always felt a little foreign. The photos always felt nicer on 'automatic'---as though anything nice in life ever came out of automatic. The night photos, in particular, always felt shaky. All of me felt shaky at times this year. Shooting the camera on manual, dragging it along and having the weight of its strap tug on my shoulder at night, was a challenge not because of its mechanics, but because of my own wobbliness. And then Milos happened. Greece and I have the kind of relationship that melts anxiety, such that this photo can be taken, such that elbows can sit steady and skirted legs can plant themselves firmly on salty ground and hair can billow in the wind and I can hold my breath long enough to defeat the blurriness.

#15: Take a night photograph I am proud of. Done. It is not a particularly original image. Add a cat into it, a skewer of souvlaki, and some cheesy reference to "Greece is for lovers", and it's a generic postcard. But it is clear, unshaken, and taken by me, and that makes it a cherished first. Done.

Then there were the trickier dreams. #21: Create a home. This is not a to-do item of the "laundry" and "grocery shopping" variety; it is not the kind of goal one can fulfill by focusing hard enough or trying harder or by finding the perfect rock on a Greek island onto which to perch her elbows to take a not-blurry night photograph. The irony behind this wish is that I did not expect it to be fulfilled until the fall came, and the suitcases were unpacked and put away, and I lived in Boston with the ability to firmly derive my identity from being a graduate student. Jerusalem snuck up on me. It insisted on not being ephemeral. It demanded lasting love. It required commitment: the purchase of the space heater, the unavoidable conversations with everyone on the street from the baker to the laundromat operator. The evaporation of any desire to avoid conversation. I did not think 2012 would hold two homes, but it did. Some would argue that the very existence of multiple homes speaks to the lack of a solid, meaningful one---but, in this case, I'll take the polyamory.

I cannot pronounce #21 done; no home is ever 'done', the process of making one is never complete---let alone the process of creating and sustaining multiple homes in one's heart. But #21 is the kind of item I would never like to cross off a list and pronounce 'done' in the first place. I simply wanted to know it was possible.

Some of the items on my 2012 wishlist stand unfulfilled, but I am determined to give them another try. See #14: Keep an ideas notebook. I have a noisy brain, the kind that I am trying to make peace with, rather than silence. Particularly in moments of euphoria, ideas zoom through it and most of them remain uncaptured, evading me in the moments of calm when I try to revisit them. When Kim sent me a notebook with "Ideas" scribbled on its cover in February, it seemed like the perfect moment to slow down and start jotting down the thoughts born out of elation or enthusiasm before they become too fleeting to ground. The pages of that notebook are still blank. I still want to try in 2013, because I want the mornings after ideas to be just as alive and enlivening. #14: not done, decidedly not done. But still salient enough, necessary enough to stay on the wish list for another year.

Then there were the wishes that remained unfulfilled, but I am willing to let them stand as such. They either became less relevant as the year passed or I grew readier to live without them. I never entered a contest (#7) with my writing or photography in 2012, nor did I send 12 handwritten letters (#25). I wrote new columns in 2012, including this one, and I published photo-essays, but I never quite went through with clicking submit and having my work evaluated by a panel of seriousness. I penned endless cards and thank you notes and Christmas wishes and Congratulations on your marriage, but 12 handwritten letters never quite happened. I could dissect why that was, I could investigate the desire behind those items in the first place, but they do not burn brightly enough any more to necessitate that. As such, #7 and #25: unchecked, peacefully so.

Unlike those items, there were those at which I failed abjectly, and disappointingly. #1: Worry less. In my final Gypsy Girls Guide column, on January 3, 2012, a mere day after my birthday, I wrote that I wanted 2012 to be the "year of the exhale." I knew then, as I know now, that a human being cannot go on worrying at the level and meticulousness that I do. I was aware that it was time to let go of some of the anxiety, of the post-traumatic stress, of the grief, of the intensity of conflict zones, of the emotional minefield of work that I did not know (or want) to do unemotionally. I wrote then:

It is not journeys I long for this year. It is not novelty or fireworks I crave, though I welcome all of this into my life and am open to it if it comes. In 2012, I am willing a quiet mind. In 2012, I want to banish Ray LaMontagne for Damien Rice and his belief that I can “look into my eyes and see that noone will harm me.” Some former smokers say that months after quitting smoking, an exhale comes and they breathe deeply, making it all worth it. In 2012, I am living for the exhale.

2012 endowed me with journeys, novelty, fireworks---and some exhales, too. But I was naive to think that those would come without more moments that cut an inhale short, trigger a gasp, or make me hold my breath till I turn blue in the face. Exhaling was beautiful and needed, but if I am to keep writing, and reflecting, and living with intention---as Mary Anne Radmacher would have it---then I need to learn not only to wish for the exhale, but also to master creating it myself and living patiently with the moments that render it elusive. I failed at worrying less this year. In the scheme of life, this is a more costly failure than having failed at other items on the wish list. I am slowly realizing that in my life, item #1 from year to year will continue to be Worry Less, until it, too, is rendered unnecessary. Until this wish has been scratched off the list, edged off by other priorities, sufficiently conquered, or---perhaps more realistically---until I make peace.

 

A well of goodness

eternally nostalgic

As Ray Bradbury would have it (emphasis mine):

"From now on, I hope always to stay alert, to educate myself as best I can. But, lacking this, in the future, I will relaxedly turn back to my secret mind to see what it has observed when I thought I was sitting this one out. We never sit anything out. We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out."

One of the challenges of being a student again is that I am having difficulty carving out creative space. I am learning, I can feel my cup being filled. The tipping moments are challenging. My mind is still processing all the novelty that has been packed into it. So, in the meantime, here is some of the beauty that is filling my cup . . .

Seeing the world through its bookstores and cafes -- arguably my favorite way to wander.

Steve McCurry photographs the concept of home . . .

. . . and the Harvard Business Review discusses moving around without losing your roots.

The Soulshine Traveler explores disorientation, reverse culture shock, and shifting senses of home.

The lovely Legal Nomads has published her Food Traveler's Handbook. Salivating vicariously.

What do you regret not doing in your 20s? I love learning from Quora, and from other people's questions.

I wish I knew about this 5 years ago, and 10 years ago, and at every point in between: Helping Friends Grieve. So lucky to have recently met the woman behind it, who talks about grief, loss and vulnerability with a raw elegance that resonates deeply.

Harvard recently launched edX, an open-source platform that delivers free online courses. Let's learn together.

I want to experience this.

Passionate about mentorship and women's education? Join the Red Thread Foundation for Women. Talk to me about it.

Look for these films online or near you. Heart-breaking, awe-inspiring, moving, disorienting.

From my school pile, the stuff that makes the mind stretch and the heart race:

Now listening to the Rachael Yamagata station on Pandora . . . and Beirut's Rip Tide album . . . and Cat Power, and Brandi Carlile. Always Brandi.

Thinking of Rumi . . .

"Let yourself be silently drawn

by the strange pull

of what you really love.

It will not lead you astray."

. . . and Neruda, courtesy of darling K, "your memory is made of light."

I am Measuring Life in Photographs . . .

. . . and still weaving Stories of Conflict and Love.

What is making you feel moved these days? Share in the comments!

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading roxanne

Roxanne Krystalli’s passion for gender advocacy, conflict management, and international development has brought her to communities affected by conflict worldwide, where she has designed programs that benefit women in affiliation with international and community-based organizations. This journey has stretched from Egypt to Colombia, from Uganda to Guatemala, from the Balkans to Jerusalem. Roxanne is intrigued by questions of memory and forgetting, attachment and loss, home and away. She is a Joan Didion fanatic and, perhaps relatedly, a perpetual nostalgic. A fervent believer in the power of storytelling, Roxanne documents her journey on Stories of Conflict and Love. "Oh my God, we are going to die."

After three years of living and working in conflict and post-conflict zones around the world, I did not expect to hear the above sentence uttered outside a library in Boston, Massachusetts.

"We are going to die, I'm telling you."

This time it is neither of cholera nor of rocket fire, neither of a mine nor of malaria. You see, we will allegedly die of . . . reading.

"Four hundred pages. A thousand. Eighteen thousand six hundred and fifty eight." People try to calculate the number of pages we will have to read per week to complete our graduate coursework in law and diplomacy. We signed up for this, just as we did for that stint of work in Sudan or Colombia, in Uganda or on the Iraq border, and our freedom to parachute in and---most importantly---out will always make every page turn feel like a privilege to me. Imminent death does not feel like autumnal breeze, the laws of humanitarian intervention, or blank pages waiting for ideas to populate them.

***

If there came a moment of grief for me in this process, it had to do with having Susan Sontag stare at me every morning. It is the first time I can call a bookcase my own since I lived in my childhood home in Greece. It is firmly planted here, as am I---ready for roots to grow past suitcases and for books to gather dust on a shelf in a way that anchors me in place and time. When I celebrated the symbols of permanence, I had underestimated the power of book spines to stare you down on your way to yet another class with "Conflict" in the title.

They stare because they remember the era when you made time in your life for conflict and dreaming, for imaginary journeys and real footsteps in daring directions. It was the era of reading a book a day or a week, of carving out room for writing your own. Susan Sontag has a way of reminding me of previous selves and the reasons I loved them. "Man, you look . . . dead. Dead tired," someone will inevitably remark as I leave the library. Eyes may look weary behind glasses, but they now know to make time for Susan Sontag. She nags quietly from the shelf, making sure I carry the past into the present, forcing me to weave dreams together that previously seemed disparate.

Here is what is squeezed between Fighting for Darfur and Understanding Peacekeeping on those shelves that anchor me:

NW by Zadie Smith. It was neither White Teeth nor On Beauty that cast a spell over me, though I savored both of these books. It was Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays that shaped my understanding of reading and writing as acts of love. In Smith's own words:

"It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art's heart's purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It's got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved."

While Zadie Smith's latest novel is not devoted to advice on words and love, it deftly places one in the service of the other, as she traces the webbed lives of four characters in contemporary London.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. The problem with reading in tiny spurts, with eyes half-shut from fatigue and thoughts of humanitarian law swimming in your head, is that such mental states are not conducive to enveloping yourself in an imaginary universe and allowing it to sweep you away. They do not create the necessary conditions for magic; magic requires time and a desire to give in to a plot, regardless of bedtimes, alarm clocks, or beckoning libraries. Perhaps this is why I so appreciated Cheryl Strayed's ability to create magic out of directness, to bear beauty out of her honesty. This book was the product of an advice column Strayed wrote (anonymously, at the time) for The Rumpus under the moniker "Dear Sugar." One of my favorite Dear Sugar columns gave this collection of essays its name. Read that column here, and dive into the book with---as Strayed puts it---"the courage to break your own heart."

1oo selected poems by e.e. cummings. It was our umpteenth stint of long-distance love. He dropped me off at the airport two hours before writing that email; I landed in Dublin to a message whose  subject line declared "e.e. cummings never legally changed the spelling of his name." So it was E.E. Cummings who, in fact, penned "nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands" and "i like my body when it is with your body." e.e. cummings (no, really, lower case, I insist) feels like autumn, reunions, airports, emails, new beginnings, young poetry, younger selves, hands that are still small, hands that still love another. Susan Sontag

Reborn Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh by Susan Sontag And, of course, there is Susan Sontag, with her published journals and notebooks, edited by David Rieff. Reborn is the one that comes back to haunt me, though I cannot resist As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. Illustrated diary excerpts from the latter are available on Brain Pickings, in case you, too, like to start your day with "Can I love someone . . .. AND . . . still think/fly?" On 11/01/1956, Susan Sontag's diary entry read "We've been discussing the soul." A peak into that soul at the age of 17 and 23 and 39 is a mind-spinning journey. In January 1960, Sontag wrote "Inspiration presents itself to me in the form of anxiety." Her anxiety speaks soothingly to mine, her inspiration kindles my own. If there were a book spine to stare you down from the shelf until you remember your own humanity, this would be my chosen one.

***

Nobody has uttered "oh my God, we are going to DIEEEEE!" when faced with the prospect of reading a thousand pages of Zadie Smith. Eighteen thousand and fifty eight pages of Susan Sontag. Exactly two hundred and forty nine poems of e.e. cummings'. These are not the books for highlighters, fluorescent lights, squinty eyes behind glasses, or bad coffee. They are not the books for bright orange or bright yellow. They are for scribbling in the margins, for crawling under the blanket, for remembering and forgetting. For soft, warm light, open eyes, open hearts.