November, 2010 archive
Too many days are dark like this November sky in the last few months, pulling my mind into strips of heavy worry. Dissertation blues, family squabbles, hormonal ups and downs. It’s all rather dreary and hard…
And so I take a walk. I leave the house, walk down a steep hill, the concrete clean from last night’s rain, sidewalks strewn with yellow and green leaves. I walk over Market Street on a bridge, passing a woman talking loudly on her cell phone, her dog giving me a suspicious look as if to say, “are you the one making my owner act like that?”. I climb stairs, wind along a small trail past an elementary school, and along a flat, residential street that hugs the side of the hill. I smell paint, and pass a man spray-painting a lamp gold, brown hands holding the metal against a sheet of plywood in his sunny garage. Finally, I reach the last set of stairs, up the mountain, and I’m there, at the top of one of the peaks (there are actually 4), surrounded by panoramic views of the city, bay, ocean, and a sky full of clouds.
I walk up and down the four peaks, sneakers slipping on old, weather-worn wooden stairs caked with mud. The hills are bare, no trees, just scrappy bushes and bright green fall grass, which always pushes up through the dry summer grass this time of year. No one else braved the possible afternoon rain, so I’m alone. I see scrappy, brown birds with bodies as small as plums, hopping about in the wet grass. I see a fat, mustard-colored banana slug, sliding along the rocks.
At the top of one peak, I stand, braced against the whipping wind, trying to stitch a 360 degree picture on my phone.* Between the cold and wind, it’s hard to hold still, and many pictures have fissures of overlapping color, shape, sky. I play with vertical panoramas, adding layer upon layer of sky to the glowing pre-storm horizon.
Then the rain starts, but I keep turning in circles, trying to take a full 360 degree panorama of the city. My hands are cold, raw. I put on a fleece headband and tighten the strings in my hood. The rain comes from the northwest, hitting my hood with a hard “thwap thwap thwap”.
So I head home. I walk down the last hill, noticing how the view of downtown San Francisco is obstructed by a sheet of rain. I can’t see the downtown towers, only vague outlines, and the gray blur of water falling in the distance. I cut right to follow the path, my shoe slipping a little in the dark mud. When I reach the street, I cross, and rejoin the path down the last hillside to a neighborhood street. I look downtown again, and the rain has passed. Market is clear all the way to the Ferry Building. The skyscrapers of the financial district stand tall once again, and I can even see the East Bay hills beyond.
The rain has stopped up here on the hill too. I walk home, considering how a storm, a mood, can come and go so fast. I can’t stop saying to myself, “see, it can all change in a moment, a storm can blow in, rain pelting down, and if you focus on your path, one foot in front of the other, by the time you have a chance to look up again, the storm has passed”.
*I took the panoramic pictures with a fabulous iphone app called “Pano”.
It’s hard to talk about wanting a family, and not having it yet, and being in the in-between space of wondering what to do next. At every turn there’s advice. Give it more time. Get help right away. Try acupuncture. Take this test. Avoid that test. Try homeopathy. Eat better. Drink more water. Drop caffeine.
And of course—relax. Always that.
Everyone wants to help. And lots of it is good advice.
But none of it helps with the feelings that come along with “trying” and not having anything happen. Like rowing a boat with holes in my oar, pushing hard against the current and finding myself only swept further downstream, each month is a little harder than the last. Isolation becomes more comfortable than trying to talk. It’s easier to spin around in my boat, burrow deeper in, try to patch up my oar and keep going alone.
It’s easier to change the subject and talk about sunsets.
Like how the sinking sun lit up the clouds on our way home from school last week, made the downtown buildings glow like Mordor. How the deep pomegranate red turned to persimmon orange, reaching out to engulf us. How cars inched across the Bay Bridge, and instead of noticing how slow it was, we all turned our eyes to the sky and enjoyed the journey.
What do you find hard to talk about with the people in your life? What helps?
Or how about you just tell me what’s making you smile today, ’cause I’d love to hear about it.
Remember “The Ugly Duckling” story? Do people still read that story to their children? I loved that book as a kid, the idea that the poor ugly duck who everyone teased would turn out to be a swan, the most beatiful of them all. It spoke to the ways I felt awkward as a kid, like I didn’t fit in. Watching this swan last weekend, I was remembering the story. Look forward to reading it to my own kids, seeing what it means to me now, 25 years later.
Taking the camera with me a lot lately, finding that looking through the lens, framing light and color, is a break from the ups and downs. (Here, from the back of a convertible on the Bay Bridge–which I’ve crossed innumerable times, and never taken pictures of.) Writing and walking a lot too, finding pause and rest from mood swings in putting words to page, walking up and down hills.
Listening to new music, The Boxer Rebellion, loving how their beats and voice resonate with my moods.
Thinking about a series where I post pieces of writing I’ve been working on here, once a week. I like the free flow of blogging, that captures where we are, today, in photos and words; but I also love reading blogs where people post more crafted writing, less often, and have imagined doing that here. I think of it as a way of developing and sharing something from the pages and pages of writing I do every day and never show anyone.
“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, p.xii).
This is true of research too, when the research is about life and meaning and our social world, as mine is. It’s the wonderful thing about my work, what makes me come back and keep working on my dissertation and imagining that I can dedicate myself to this work. While I was doing fieldwork last year in Barcelona, there were days where the writing and ideas and deeper meaning of what I was seeing were all coming together and flowing like swollen rivers in spring.
Yet it’s also true that writing in academia can be as uncertainty-provoking as any other kind of writing. You obsess and try to start and worry over whether your ideas are worth anything. You write ten different versions of the same first paragraph. You try and fail to institute a morning writing routine, and then you try again. You do other kinds of writing, hoping it will spark new ideas and ways to connect the academic work to questions and struggles people have in their real lives.
I’m in the midst of fall fellowship applications for my dissertation year, trying to get started on yet another iteration of a personal statement, selling who I am and what I do for far-away committees of people to evaluate. Maybe because of all the uncertainty of this process, this poem Anne Lamott quotes in Bird by Bird also resonated with me and made me laugh at the obsessions of the writing process (just substitute advisers for friends and approval for affection!):
We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is in on it
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.
(by Phillip Lopate,
Quoted in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, pp.11-12.)