Green pastures

February 27, 2012

I spent a lot of this past weekend out in fresh air (mostly walking from place to place), and it was nice to see a greener side of New York. The past month I have had more than a few daydreams about our apartment building somehow being magically transplanted to the middle of a forest or a meadow.

I am missing trees and grass and squirrels, and I miss walking down the sidewalk with one person instead of 500.

All of the noise and the rush makes me feel a heightened possessiveness of my things, my body, and especially my time. With any free time I have between classes and my internship, all I want to do is be alone in my quiet apartment and unwind.

And while I know that relaxation is a good thing, and quiet is so necessary for me, I also know I have been treating all my time as if it were my own. I have been forgetting that time is a gift, and so I have not been a good steward.

My new friend Suzi gave up her Valentine’s Day by organizing a birthday surprise for me, even though we’ve only known each other for two weeks.

Christian gave up his Monday afternoon to help me scrub the water stains out of my floor with toothpaste.

My boss at the agency gives up her time (which she really does not have enough of) to answer my questions, and give me thoughtful feedback everyday.

But I am reluctant to change. I wonder how I can sacrifice when everything in me wants to hoard. I wonder how I can see small, everyday graces when I am too busy trying to stay afloat amidst the skyscrapers and the subways.

It probably has a lot to do with trust. And a lot to do with these simple words, the beginning of perhaps the most-memorized Psalm, which I still do not fully understand:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside the still waters,

He restores my soul.”

Psalm 23:1-3a



A few loaves

February 13, 2012

“Writing is like giving away the few loaves and fish one has, trusting that they will multiply in the giving.”

– Henri Nouwen, Reflections on Theological Education (via Luci Shaw’s essay “The Writer’s Notebook”)

Writing wise, this last week was rough. We had to pitch ideas for our semester project in our “Publishing & Being Published” class Thursday, and we were only allowed to say one sentence (a logline, as they call it). I was planning on writing non-fiction essays about my parent’s first couple of years in Africa (I had even begun to interview them), and not at all looking forward to sharing my idea with the class.

For one thing, I know from being at my internship only a week now that personal essays do not sell, because personal essays are not interesting to anyone but the person who is writing them. Fair enough. (Although actually, I love reading personal essays. But I suppose most of the ones I manage to get my hands on–the famous ones–are the exception to the rule.)

The thing is, I really wanted to write these essays. Not because I had anything I wanted to say, and not because I think other people would enjoy reading them, but because when I write, I learn. And I wanted to learn more about my parents, and more about Africa.

But I was terrified to pitch my yet-to-be project, because just the idea of “pitching” gives writing this performance aspect that I find tear-inducing. And so it went badly. (Don’t worry. I didn’t actually cry.  At least in class :)) Not because my teacher was insensitive, but because this is a class about publishing and “the market,” and so I left the studio feeling really weighed down. I felt this enormous pressure to make my piece “worth reading,” and that was never what I wanted it to be about.

And so, after a few hours of panicky, angry thoughts, I decided to switch my project to a less emotionally-charged one. I was too stubborn to consider switching at first, but Christian helped me realize that this just isn’t the environment for the type of project I wanted to do.

I just e-mailed my professor with my new pitch for a novel (a novel that I do not have in me yet, save a few character names), and I am praying that Henri Nouwen is right. I believe he is, and I have found his words above to be true so many times before.

I think it will be good to escape my own inner world for a while, and to enter someone else’s. Of course, I am worried that I won’t have anything to say once I get there, but that’s how writing is supposed to be…not recording, but discovering.

As painter Jasper Johns says,

“I think that most art which begins to make a statement fails to make a statement because the methods used are too schematic or artificial. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying, not what you set out to say.”

– Jasper Johns, in a 1965 BBC interview

“In fact it was difficult in the extreme for me to understand those young women for whom New York was not simply an ephemeral Estoril but a real place, girls who bought toasters and installed new cabinets in their apartments and committed themselves to some reasonable furniture.”

-Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That”

Since I will only be in New York City for a few months, I do not have to even think about buying any furniture. But when I came across this line in Didion’s essay a few days ago, I still felt I could sympathize with her in a small way.

I just signed up for an account with a grocery delivery service a few days ago (I know, I know… but delivery only costs $6! And the grapefruit is so juicy!), and even that felt like too big a commitment. Creating a login name and password for FreshDirect means that I plan to order groceries again from them, and the fact that I plan to order again means that I plan on still being here, in New York City, the next time I need groceries.

The simple question “How is New York City? You liking it there?” baffles me. All of a sudden I am directly linked to this foreign thing, this city I have heard about all of my life, and I should have something to say about it. I ride the subway every day, I intern on 5th Avenue, but in my mind this will always be just a “visit.” And that makes sense. Doing a 3.5 month program here does not mean I will tell people that I “lived” in New York City. Maybe I “stayed” here, or “studied” here, but not lived.

According to Didion, even if I were here indefinitely, my mind-set might not be that much different. She argues that, for those of us not from here, there is something inherently uninhabitable about New York City:

“To those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (“Money,” and “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters”), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”

New York City will always be romantic to me, just like Southern California. Not because I haven’t stayed in NY or LA long enough (though obviously I haven’t), but because I lived 20 years hearing street names and seeing postcards before I ever went to either place.

Now I walk on the streets and take my own pictures, and more than I would guess, they match the ones I had in my head.

Times Square

9/11 Memorial

9/11 Memorial

Chelsea Galleries

Chelsea Galleries

Our studio, before anyone "moved in"

Probably my favorite part of the studio...the kitchen. Free coffee all the time.