Writing

For me writing is still very much an act of faith. Though in the beginning,  it is the most fun. It’s like coasting downhill. I just write whatever I want and I’m so inspired. It’s all wheeee!!!! But there always comes a part where I have so many pieces of the thing, and I need to stitch it together. The messiness overwhelms me. Someone talked about giving up her current project to start a new one and I wanted to say, “NOOOOOOOOO!!” Because that’s always the temptation. I’ve abandoned projects that I probably just should have sat with and worked on. But I guess that’s part of learning. Make some mistakes and start to realize the patterns.

So, there’s always that messy moment where I wonder if things are going to come together. I get up from my computer a billion times because I can’t stand that uncomfortable feeling of it all not working. And then miraculously, or not so miraculously since the whole process at times feels painful, it comes together. I feel like that moment is the reason why I write. There is some kind of big life meaning behind it. Sticking to something that isn’t working out quite right in the moment, having the foresight to see what the project will be in the future, chugging along even when it’s so incredibly difficult and tangled. And how the work seems to be from so much more than just myself. The best work seems to arise when I am able to let go of some control.

Every act of creating is a miracle, and getting to do that is like testing the universe to see if there’s any magic left in it. And so I repeat the process in the hopes of having that happen again and again. But I’ll be honest: sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

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It Doesn’t Have to Be Rocket Science

I told myself this today that updating a blog does not have to be rocket science. All I have to do is write what I’ve been thinking about for the last week. But it feels hard after everything that happened last week in the news.

I’ve been thinking on and off about an article I read a few weeks back called, “Choosing a School for my Daughter in a Segregated City” by Nikole Hannah-Jones:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/magazine/choosing-a-school-for-my-daughter-in-a-segregated-city.html?_r=0

Hannah-Jones talks about the segregated school system in Brooklyn, New York as a microcosm for the education system in our country. How people buy and cram themselves into the good neighborhoods so their children can get into “good” schools. How schools are segregated as a result of housing costs (and a long history of housing discrimination) that it has left low-income primarily black and Latino children out of the more desirable, resource-flushed public schools in the area.

This is one of those articles that I read and stayed with me. Well-researched, especially on the history of segregation/integration in schools, and with a deeply personal angle, it hits all the marks of a resonant, thought-provoking article that really shook me up. When I was picking up my son, when I was reading up on the news last week, when I was cooking, when I was writing, and when talking with friends—it never left my brain because I knew Hannah-Jones spoke the truth. Our school systems are very, very segregated.

She writes, “Legally and culturally, we’ve come to accept segregation once again. Today, across the country, black children are more segregated than they have been at any point in nearly half a century. Except for a few remaining court-ordered desegregation programs, intentional integration almost never occurs unless it’s in the interests of white students.”

I saw it when we were at the wonderful Children’s Museum in Chicago. At the museum we saw groups of kids segregated by race all on their own separate field trips. There were groups of African-American kids, groups of white kids, and even a group of Asian-American kids (they were a Chinese school), who didn’t really mingle with one another. I remember how stark it was to see those divides before my eyes. I went home and looked it up online and found that Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country. From what I see, similar things happen in the Bay Area.

But all the events from last week and this article have gotten me thinking about the racial injustices in our country. I’m starting to see some of the links: housing, education, law enforcement. And I cannot turn a blind eye. Schools play a huge part in this. It’s easy to get our kids into the “right” school system and then completely ignore the problem, but Hannah-Jones throws down the gauntlet when she writes:

True integration, true equality, requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our own children, that can feel almost unnatural. Najya’s first two years in public school helped me understand this better than I ever had before. Even Kenneth Clark, the psychologist whose research showed the debilitating effects of segregation on black children, chose not to enroll his children in the segregated schools he was fighting against. “My children,” he said, “only have one life.” But so do the children relegated to this city’s segregated schools. They have only one life, too.

A parable

Told by Rachel Naomi Remen in Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise:

This was my fourth birthday present, this story. In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. In the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. The wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. This task is called Tikkun Olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world.

And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.

—Rachel Naomi Remen (p 24-25)

Implicit Bias

Recently, there was an On Being interview with Mahzarin Banaji, a professor who studies implicit biases. I liked what she had to say:

I do believe that, in our culture and in many cultures, we are at a point where our conscious minds are so ahead of where our less conscious minds are. Our conscious minds deeply believe in egalitarianism, in selecting people based on things called merit, on talent, and not based on the color of people’s skin, or their height, or whether they have hair on their head. And yet, we are doing that.

And so I like what you just said which is “implicit” just allows us to shed that whole sort of moral encasing in which so much of our values about — “Am I a discriminator or not?” — comes. That I am especially interested in, letting people let go of that sort of sense — “I’m a bad human being.” The title of the book, therefore, has been Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. And the “good people” is extremely important to me. I do believe that we have changed over the course of our evolutionary history into becoming better and better people who have higher and higher standards for how we treat others. And so we are good. And we must recognize that, and yet, ask people the question, “Are you the good person you yourself want to be?” And the answer to that is no, you’re not. And that’s just a fact. And we need to deal with that if we want to be on the path of self-improvement. 

I, myself, am not free from implicit bias. After I listened to the interview, I took Banaji’s test on gender (here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/) and found I have a Moderate bias with regard to gender, even though I am a feminist.

Banaji says, “It is my job to tell people to feel uncomfortable, to squirm, to go back and think hard about where they come from and so on…Because if we don’t, we’ve basically given up the most fundamental aspect of who we are and what we prize and value, and what I believe is at the heart of social change…There’s nothing about this issue that is simple, but I have every faith that we will come out of it if we don’t hold back, if we keep talking, and if we try to understand what the other is saying.”

So, let’s talk about it.

For me, I have been thinking about how I’d like to read up more on the history of Asian-Americans in this country. I’d also like to read up on African-American and Latino history in our country as well. I would like to read up on the construction of race. Also, novels. Read more books by people of different races and backgrounds to feel what people’s lives are like in this country and the world. I would like to write about those books here.

The Ocean

More than 10 years ago when I lived in San Francisco I would run the four miles from the Panhandle all the way to Ocean Beach. I’d look at the waves for a few minutes, and then I’d hop on the 5 and take the bus back home.

The whole thing felt rather absurd to me at the time. First, staring at the ocean—who did I think I was, some kind of star of my own indie movie? Second, taking the bus back. I even recently told someone about taking the bus instead of running those four miles back, and he’d laughed at me. I didn’t feel offended because that reaction felt about right. I felt sheepish about it even back then. Why run halfway and then take the bus home? But there was something important about getting to the end, seeing the ocean and that being the reward in itself.

Looking back I can say now that I was running to see that wide expanse of water that stretched out to make a gray line in the horizon. My body somehow knew that I needed to get out and see that. It was all about that ocean. How free it made me feel, how much it cleared my head, even if I hoped no one would see my eyes fixed on it like it would save me. I can say now that it was some form of prayer.

I did not have any special problems. I was not unique in any way from most people living in an urban city who may have felt a little lost and alone. My biggest tragedy at the age of 22 was losing a close group of friends to hang out with in the city. Painful, yes, but not upending. But it wasn’t only that. Nothing seemed right. My job wasn’t what I wanted to do, even though the people there I can say in hindsight were pretty fantastic. I didn’t know where my life was going, and living around the Panhandle, it was pretty gray, a grayness that seemed to seep into my days…

From the outside my life looks so different now. I’m married, I have my family, I have much less free time, and my social circles feel more set. This weekend we went to Monterey, but I also sought out the beach on my own. I went by myself and let myself get pulled into the spell of the waves. I had forgotten how the crashing waves were so unpredictable and arbitrary, how that made me feel in awe.

It’s not just that the ocean is vast and powerful. This is true, but it’s also that the ocean is extremely beautiful. To see it is to see something of real beauty and life force. It forces you away from the screen, from the emails you need to respond to about what you’ll bring to the potluck. It forces you to pay attention and so you do.

Do you know what the problem with my life was then when I was 22? It was that I was so overwhelmed by my problems, by how my life wasn’t perfect, how nothing was going the way I wanted it to, and how ceaselessly impatient I felt. But here’s the real secret of it all that I realize at 35 that I couldn’t realize at 22: that’s just how it is. I still don’t feel like everything has fallen into place, and I don’t think it ever will. When I stood before the ocean in Monterey, my first thoughts were, “Why isn’t it like this? Why is it like this?” I always feel unsettled and uncomfortable, and I always have this strong wish for everything to line up just so. I hate those jagged, uneven edges.

A part of why I was so miserable when I was 22 was that I didn’t/couldn’t see all the wonderful things I did have in my life because I was so fixated on the ideal, on the perfect. I wanted that perfect romantic partner, the group of friends straight out of the show Friends (even though if I had this in real life, I realize now that I would HATE it), and the glamorous, important job where I got to wear pretty outfits to work. Basically, 22-year-old me wanted to live in a romantic comedy. As a result, I didn’t see all the great things going on around me.

Without the crutch of a group of friends I had known for forever, I was forced to get out on my own, meet other people. My life was so rich, and I was starting over and building things from scratch. I was essentially learning how to interact with new people who hadn’t known me for a billion years. I was learning kindness, and the ways that I was not always kind. But I was learning. I had wonderful conversations with so many people. I got to see plays and go to museums. I discovered Mary Gaitskill at the time and had that mind blowing, “Whoa, I didn’t know you could write like that!” moment. I wandered by myself through the city. I had all the time in the world. And this built the foundation that let me become who I am today: interested in the world, curious, engaged, interested in people. I don’t feel like I would’ve developed this if I’d been more comfortable.

David Whyte says that, “Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given.” Gratitude requires work. It requires thought. It doesn’t happen naturally. So to pull away and just be able to say, “I appreciate, I am happy despite all these other things that will always be up in the air,” is a form of perspective I lacked then. The nice thing about getting older and having lived my life is that I have developed more patience than I would’ve thought possible. I have learned to have faith that what I put into something will eventually pay off. Not in the way I may want it to, but in the end it will pay off in a way that ends up making more sense than the daydream version I had in my head.

But the ocean to me has always been some kind of reset button, some kind of clearing my brain. We’re built to keep striving and wanting. It keeps us alive, but the truly content people, the ones who can really settle into their life, understand the importance to sit back and enjoy even in the midst of the muck and mire because they know too that those good moments will be gone.

Life is not about wishing for another life or other circumstances because I have yet to see truly anyone with a perfect situation. And there is simply no way to avoid difficulties. Look at the ocean and then walk back into that beautiful, messy life that is waiting for you.

Motherhood for Amateurs

I wrote this last year for the San Mateo Mothers’ Club for their Mother’s Day issue, and still very much stand by it:

I had to ease into motherhood. It did not come naturally to me. I did not have the mothering instinct I was supposed to have to know how to breastfeed my son or take care of an infant. In any other type of circumstance being a newbie and learning the ropes would be expected, but I had somehow adopted this pervasive idea that I would know how to mother and that I would be good at it. Of course for me this was completely ridiculous. I had never been around infants or children much prior to this.

So, I turned to the experts, the parenting books, and the articles for the answers. I followed the rules. I read all those articles that began with “Studies show…” and tried to adopt all the various findings all at once (much to my confusion). I tried out various methods but most of them made me feel like an automaton robot, like I wasn’t behaving in a way that was natural to me and that I was expecting the same from my son. And yet I would think, well, these are the experts, they must know more what they’re doing than I am.

I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning after a friend mentioned him. Frankl was a Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist who lived through Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In his book he talks about what of life mattered to him after having so much stripped away and living so close to death in places like Auschwitz. Unlike a parenting book that focused so much on the rules and controlling behavior of children, this focused on the big picture.

A large part of my struggle as a mom came from my decision to stay at home with my son. I felt guilt about this all the time. Did I not Lean In enough? Was I letting down the feminists? Was I setting myself up for a bad future if something were to happen to my husband? The big looming question that was always on my mind was, Did I make the right decision? There was first and foremost the loss of identity as I moved into this role, also the loneliness and isolation that often comes with being a new mom, but I had the hardest time with the lack of respect I felt from some people in my life. And this surprised me. I was still essentially the same person, why did this decision to stay at home make me somehow suddenly less-than in some people’s eyes? Was their judgment of me some kind of essential truth because at times my day-to-day life felt so small and like I wasn’t doing something big or important to change the world?

 One of the things Frankl talked about was about how we rob others of their dignity when we measure them by their “usefulness.” He writes, “But today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful…It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness.”

I’ve thought more about this idea of “useful,” how arbitrary it is and how whether someone falls into this or not can sometimes have to do with what society currently values, how a useful person does not necessarily mean that he or she is a decent person, and how most of us, no matter our job, will struggle with how useful our contributions are to society. Frankl believed that we should focus on measuring people by how they conduct themselves in their day-to-day lives and how we use our dignity and grace to get through the hardships that will inevitably follow. I agree too that this is what should give the shape to our lives.

The truth is that I must learn to exist with the questions and the doubt. The truth is that I won’t always make the right decisions. But if I am able to focus on what matters to me and my family, for example, if I am able to focus on the relationship I have with my son, cultivating and teaching him to love and respect others and himself, I may make a few missteps, I may miss out on a few things, I may regret things, but I’ll know that on the whole I moved in the right direction.

I hope that you too on Mother’s Day love the work you are doing with your family, for your personal and intellectual development, and that you honor yourself and the hard work that you do in all aspects of your life.

Starting Again

The thing about blogging is that I started it in college and I gave it up a few years later. I still remember where I would blog, in the living room of that one-bedroom apartment I shared with a close friend, using the dial-up internet and trying to log into Livejournal, hoping the website would be up and not down for maintenance. I remember staying up late drinking coffee, writing those essays I wrote for my English classes, and always slipping away to write some kind of blog post I thought was so clever or cute and most of the time was neither. But I remember that moment because it was probably the moment where writing was the most magical and it sparked something for me. When I thought, “Oh, I would love to do this forever.” No one had to read it and I would do that forever. I still feel that way about writing.

These moments from ten, fifteen years ago, they still feel so strongly to me. It’s not like you get older and you just forget about these things. I know we’re somehow supposed to because we’re supposed to be mature. Maturity seems to be about hardening, pretending that things don’t bother us anymore. We’re supposed to toughen up and solve all our problems by being positive and proactive, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from getting older, it’s that I’ve realized how much softer I feel towards the world because I think life can be so hard. There is a melancholy to life knowing that things will never stay as they are and that we will lose those we love along the way.

The difference between now and then is that now I would claim my space in a way I wouldn’t have done back then. I remember thinking that how many people wanted to be my Livejournal friend would validate my writing. I remember that strain to be so clever. I remember the way I was always waiting around for permission. I never really got that permission, by the way.

These days I am taking a Life and Career Planning class at a local community college with mostly nineteen to twenty-year olds. Nothing makes me feel older than hanging out with nineteen and twenty-year olds. I don’t think they realize how stunningly beautiful they all are, just by their youth, by the bloom on their faces. We’ve taken a lot of different career and personality tests and it’s been good to see my strengths that I have for so long dismissed. Careers don’t have be so awful. They can have a kind of ease to them when you are finally doing the right thing.

Recently, I heard David Whyte speak on the On Being podcast. He spoke to me so I bought his Consolations book. It is lovely. I would put this book in the hands of every person who walked by, and I swear the world would be a kinder place. But I liked what he had to say about genius: “Genius is something we already possess…To live one’s genius is to dwell easily at the crossing point where all the elements of our life and our inheritance join and make a meeting…Our genius is to understand and stand beneath the set of stars present at our birth, and from that place, to seek the hidden, single star, over the night horizon, we did not know we were following.”

I love this idea of genius already residing in all of us and somehow figuring it out. That resonates so much to me with my class and what I’ve been thinking about these days. I would like to use this space to explore ideas like these more. This is a start.