January, 2011 archive
Living in old-town Toledo is a little like living in a museum, the skyline, buildings, narrow stone streets marking an everyday connection to the past like the tapestries and tall thrones of a centuries-old royal museum. The main streets of town are dominated by tourist stores, golden souvenirs, handbags stamped with “Toledo” hanging next to fluffy red polka-dot Flamenco dresses. My father-in-law has made his living selling these souvenirs, walking around town visiting the owners of stores filled with glittering gold plates, jewelry, and long, silver swords. All traditional products from these parts, once handmade in small workshops, hammer meeting metal to pound the old damascino designs, now shipped from factories in China, assembled here.
As I drive into town to visit my Spanish Grandma, I look at the city, the Alcazar and Cathedral standing tall against the late afternoon sky. I think about how living in this museum of a town seems to go hand in hand with conservative values and a desire to keep the past alive, keep the uncertainty of present-day change at bay. Isn’t that what growing old is about, after all? They say we all grow more conservative as we grow older, working to protect what we have, pass on what we have learned to the next generation. When there’s money involved, or power, people hold even tighter, guarded and fearful of the impulsiveness of the young.
Having grown up with little connection to the past, not even knowing my grandparents, living far from where my parents were born, I’ve often felt seduced by the curves of history here, Roman bridges still providing a path across the river, castles a roof over peoples’ head. But it’s the stories that sweep me away, capture my imagination, make me wonder what kind of person I’d be if I were born in a place like this. How is it different to become who you are when so many physical reminders of the past surround you each day?
While packing for our trip home tomorrow, I listen to a podcast I’ve discovered called New Letters on the Air, an old episode from last June where Tobias Wolff talks about his book Old School. He says the book is partly about questions of identity, “how do we become the person we’re going to be”. He asks, “What part does imagination play in that?”
Wolff makes me think about the possibilities for creating who we are; he makes me feel like who we are is merely a question of the bounds of our imagination. At the same time, being in Toledo, listening to my Spanish Grandma’s stories, makes me think about how the past draws boundaries around our experience, colors how we see the present. What do you think matters more in defining ourselves, imagination or the past? How do both matter to you?
My husband is from an old city in Spain, born and raised among stone buildings and wide open Castilian plains. We flew here yesterday, and I spent this afternoon visiting his grandmother while he went to the Madrid soccer game with his dad. I never knew my grandparents, and am in love with this Spanish grandma, 91 and full of spirit and a lifetime of stories.
We talk in her sitting room, in flowered easy chairs surrounded by family photos and the sounds of heels on cobblestones below the window. She’s lived in this same first-floor apartment since the mid-1940s, between the Alcazar and the Cathedral, centers of military and religious power that dominate the Toledo skyline. She tells me about growing up here, going down to the community fountains with a bucket to get water, lingering with her friends talking about boys. Working in her family’s bakery during the Spanish Civil War, trading bread for produce with people who rode donkeys into the city from the pueblos. Going from house to house through tunnels in the walls when it was too dangerous to walk on the streets.
I am going to interview her, record the stories, write a history of her life. When I ask her, she likes the idea, goes and gets a small pad of paper and begins reading me her family history in dates; births, weddings, deaths, where people were from, full names (a mix of Spanish and French from her mother’s side of the family). When she finishes reading, with the last two grandchildren, my husband’s adopted cousins, it’s quiet, and I’m thinking about how much she’d like to write down a great-grandchild in this small family history. “Have faith” she says, as I kiss her soft cheeks goodbye, and bundle up against the cold.
And I feel it, because she is smiling, so full of life, spirited and beautiful after all she’s lived through.
A Sunday walk at the beach. Blue sky, then swooping fog. Sand dollars on sand, white dotting brown. Dogs of all kinds. Walkers in sweatshirts and coats, hoods tucked against the wind. A little girl with a red shirt and long, blond hair, climbing a sandy cliff hand over foot like a monkey. Skateboards seen from below, skidding along a roadblock at the edge of the cliff. Water cold like snow, turning toes red. Sand pipers skittering along the shoreline, feet a blur like hummingbird wings. Deep breaths of salty air. A lone tree, high on the cliff.
“My childhood dream was to start a business, like my dad, and then use the money for a good cause”, says my friend Kate as we pick our way along the hill on a narrow, muddy path. She tells me how her dad arrived here as an immigrant, worked hard to support his family. “We didn’t even have milk money at one point” she says. “My dad had left everything behind in Asia, but he built a successful business from nothing, and now quietly gives back to the community. He’s an inspiration to me.”
It’s Saturday morning, a glorious day already. Blue sky, low-lying ribbons of mist along the bay that come into view as we climb Twin Peaks. We wind up wooden stairs bolted to the side of the hill, climb up to the topmost peak, where the city and ocean sweep out around us. We talk about entrepreneurship, and education, and making an impact.
“I don’t know, sometimes I think making money first is more important than focusing on the cause; once you have money, you can do so much more” Kate says. “It’s true, money is power”, I reply, “maybe it’s better to start by making a lot of money; but the problem is, people sometimes end up losing parts of themselves in the pursuit of money, and they forget about the cause.”
We keep walking, and the conversation turns to other things. But the question stays with me. If you want to do good, does it make sense to focus on making money first, or working for the cause you care about? Can you do both at the same time?
Twice, three times, four times, I’ve opened a new post and then sat with it blank in front of me these past weeks. Not because I don’t write, because I do, pages, every day. Not because I don’t take pictures, because I do, hundreds every week.
I guess I feel some ambivalence about blogging. What does it mean to me? I love reading others’ words, seeing the images from different parts of the world. Reading about books and the writing of people who (want to) write them inspires me. I’ve even become a better citizen, commenting on blogs I read often. But I haven’t figured out what this space means in my life.
From a couple years of reading blogs, I think there are many reasons people blog. To share creative work, find an audience. To remember, capture, words and moments of life. Have conversations about politics. Find, give advice. Mostly people blog to connect in some way, through words, images, ideas, snapshots of their lives, everyday struggles and joys. People blog to set goals, and have company in trying to meet them. We blog to feel less alone, in whatever we do the rest of the time.
I’ve been hearing people say lately that blogging is dying. That it’s “so last year”. What do they mean by this? I think they mean maybe the kind of blogging that is raw sharing, unfocused, venting. Yet from what I’m reading, blogging is quite alive and well. Maybe because I’m drawn to creative (writing, art etc), hobby-focused (cooking, crafts) and support (infertility) blogs these days, and all are spaces that have a real purpose, where the kind of connection that can come from taking parts of themselves and their work and “throwing them on the web”* has meaning for creator and reader.
I’m not sure what blogging means for me as I write this. It changes. When I started buddingscholar nearly four years ago it was about figuring out who I was as a Ph.D. student. Last year in Barcelona it was about escape from the loneliness of working on my dissertation study. And when I started dailyfieldnotes, it was to broaden things, write about my life beyond school. And now?
I’ve been watching this amaryllis grow this last month, and three days ago it started blooming. Watching the green stems and tightly closed buds push their ways up felt hopeful, full of potential. The blooming: it’s bare, wide open, risky, vulnerable.
I don’t know what this medium means, or what stories of who I am will come through here. But looking ahead to the year, I’m resolving to do one thing: write, once a week, and “throw it on the web”, here. Really this is a promise to take the writing I already do, and maybe do some of it here, or else shape it and form it into stories and pieces of a narrative. Once a week, a post. Though I dream of doing it more often, especially posts with pictures, my commitment to myself and the world of blogging is once a week, normally on Saturdays.
When 2012 rolls around, we’ll see what blogging can mean in one year of this girl’s life.
What does blogging mean to you? What keeps you doing it, or has made you stop? Anyone want to join me in my post promise?
*Jon Stewart has started saying this at the end of a lot of his interviews. It implies a casual, quick way to see the rest of the conversations with his guests, but it also suggests hurling and tossing and other things you do with a physical object, and as a metaphor it seems both apt and wrong as a way of talking about what you put online…