Consider the Muse

Those readers who are particularly observant may have noticed a new link in the top navigation bar. The poetry page.

It’s been at least six years since I’ve had a public facing poetry page. The process of creating a new one has filled me with misgivings. I don’t remember the process of selection making feel quite so vulnerable in the past. Perhaps because in the past I had the sense that most of my readers were strangers. Perhaps it is because I feel as if I should have made some progress in the quality of my work since 2000 (which is basically when I was last writing regularly). Perhaps it is an issue of subject matter. My poetry of the past eight or so years feels very different to me than the body of work that came before, though that may be because the work from before is far enough away now that whatever rawness is there feels less immediate.

I think part of the issue is that I feel differently now about my sources of inspiration. There has been a reappearing muse who weaved his way through my work from about 1991 onward. He’s much less of a presence now than he once was, but I still sometimes write things that bear that influence. Aside from the enduring muse, though, my early work had a lot of fleeting influences. The themes that populated my poems remained similar over time but the details changed. It was like I was always building houses, but with different floor plans. And because my sense of self as poet largely matured with that early muse in place, I’ve never felt particularly conflicted about sharing the work drawn from that source of inspiration.

I’m not sure I ever really even thought that much about it until sometime a bit over a year ago when I had an exchange with that early muse in which he took some serious issue with someone (not me) who had invoked his name in the telling of her own story. I was a bit stunned by his anger. I think I had always thought of my poems as being primarily my story with the inspiration as sort of an unrelated piece. More than that, though, I think I’ve never much worried about it because my fleeting influences tend to fade into one another and become unrecognizable within the body of my work (indeed looking back over the years there are many poems I can’t remember the original circumstances of). And when it came to the muse I didn’t worry about it much because I’m no longer making public most of the work that bears the stamp of that influence. Even if I were (and eventually I would like to revise some pieces that touch those stories) I’d still be largely invoking events and emotions of nearly twenty years ago. It’s hard, in those circumstances, to worry too much about the line between one’s own story and the story of others.

In the last seven years, though, a large portion of my work has traced its way back to another source of inspiration. This is the first time since my teen years that any one person has woven their way through this many poems (or, at least, through this many years of poems). And I’m much more conflicted about my relationship to this muse. For the first time it feels weird to tell stories that are not, in many ways, entirely mine to tell. In part this is because the emotions are newer. In part it’s because a lot of the emotions I’m pulling from in these pieces are not healed over, are still very tender to the touch. Unlike the inspiration of my early years–with whom I exchange occasional notes and telephone calls–the recent muse and I are, apparently, quite definitively no longer in each other’s lives. And somehow, again in a way I haven’t experienced before, that makes it feel weird to put those emotions out into the world to fend for themselves outside the context of some ongoing interaction.

If I am going to call myself poet again, though, I need to reassure myself that I am writing poems, that I am moving forward. Taking the deep breath and making them public to the world, letting them go about their way, is part of that process. And so I am trying to let go of my discomfort.

I spent a long time, though, while choosing these poems thinking about what consideration I owed their inspirations. In the end, I decided that, in the case of the poems that were troubling me, I felt most comfortable communicating their existence to the one that inspired them. From there it is out of my hands.

I was amused, then, the morning after having made that decision to read through a backlog of stories from six sentences and come across “The Plagiarist” in which the author plays off the notion of invoking real people in one’s stories as a sort of violation of intellectual property. There is something comforting about knowing that I’m not the only one who worries about my rights to my ghosts.

I know some day I will look back at many of these pieces and cringe the way I look back at things I wrote fifteen years ago and cringe. I hope when that day comes I will still be writing and will have better things to replace them with.

Flirtatious fish and wasted lives

Driving back from a camping trip in the desert weekend before last I noted a hand-written sign along the side of the 395. It read (approximately):

Coy – Goldfish
Available here
Need a Home

I was turning to Brad to ask “what do you suppose makes a goldfish coy” when suddenly it dawned on me that the sign was intending to advertise koi and goldfish. The image of the coy goldfish caught me fancy, though. I imagine a goldfish rendered sort of cartoonish, with a bow on its head, and big fluttery eyelashes. It left me thinking a bit about this piece of Stephen Fry’s where he argues that language should be enjoyable and that pedantry is mostly pointless because we know what people mean even when they say it wrong. (If you prefer the written version, the video is excerpted from this, which I’ll confess I have yet to actually read in its entirety since his use of language appeals to me more when read with an actual British accent rather than the poor substitute in my head). I’ll note that in this case I actually didn’t know what the Coy Goldfish sign meant until far enough down the road that if I’d been looking for koi I might not have bothered to turn back. But still, I take his point. Delighting in the notion of a flirty fish is more fun than railing against spelling errors.

Then last week I was flipping through The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, which I recently picked up off paperbackswap for sentimental reasons. My mother has a large collection of Idries Shah’s books and the Nasrudin stories lived on the side table by the big chair I used to regularly sit in to read. So when I was out of books or otherwise bored, I’d read those. I read them more for entertainment than with any eye to their meanings as teaching stories. And, honestly, I think I picked up this volume with the same intent. It’s a comfortable and entertaining reminder of home more than anything. Nonetheless I paused when I came to a variation of this parable (the text of which I have taken from here):

Grammar

Nasrudin was ferrying a traveler across a lake. As they spoke on various subjects, Nasrudin made a minor grammatical error.

The traveler remarked, “You who wears a turban and calls himself a Mulla-have you ever studied grammar?”

“No,” Nasrudin admitted, “I have not covered that subject in depth.”

“Well then,” the traveler replied,” you have wasted half of your life!”

Several minutes later, Nasrudin turned to the traveler and asked, “Have you ever learned how to swim?”

“No,” the traveler responded.

“Well then,” Nasrudin replied, “you have wasted all your life-for there is a hole in the boat, and we are sinking!”

There are numerous things one could take from that story. The ISHK website offers the explanation that this story shows Sufi rejection of the purely scholarly approach. As someone whose life takes a pretty scholarly bent, I’ll admit I chafe at that sort of interpretation a bit. I think I’m more inclined to read it as an indictment of the sort of thinking that supposes that one sort of knowledge is always essential and should be pursued, even at the cost of other sorts of knowledge.

Aside from that thought–and an additional reminder that I would do well to let go of some of my language pedantry–it took me in the direction of thinking about how to live a life that isn’t wasted, a life with purpose. For many people the work they do for pay is both the thing they spend the most time on and the thing that they hang much of their identity on. I’m fortunate to be able to do work that I think benefits the world a little. I know “statistical programmer” doesn’t sound like a world-changing career path but I do feel like the project I’ve been working on and the ones I’ll be starting on shortly do have the potential to inform public policy and potentially play a part in small changes. It’s not much but it feels more meaningful to me than, say, marketing research. I also happen to enjoy my work a great deal, so on the whole I feel pretty lucky. My work could be more “important” in some sense but it makes its small difference and is challenging, interesting, and leaves me sufficient time and brain power for the rest of my life. In short, I like my job a lot and I am happy.

But sometimes I wonder if that’s enough. I wonder if I am doing enough to make the world a better place. I wonder if I am using what skills I have in useful ways. Leaving graduate school, and my aspirations of academic life, has given me a lot more time to develop hobbies and interests outside a narrow intellectual focus. I feel like, in terms of the story above, my current life gives me room to learn both grammar and swimming (as an aside I’m mostly self taught in both areas, but have amassed enough skill in both to survive most pedants and boats sinking in gentle water ). The problem is that, having relatively recently chosen a life that involves a great more leisure time than the life I once aspired to, I’m selfish with that time. I’m doing the things that I felt like I didn’t get to do while I was in school. And I’m enjoying living, figuring out who I want to be. That’s not a life wasted, that much I know. The question is whether it’s a life that’s insufficiently generous.

That I’m even asking the question, I think, is an indicator of my answer. I don’t feel generous enough. I feel like even if I’m shaping my little corner of the world into a better place, but that doesn’t extend beyond my walls. Sometimes I think it doesn’t even extend beyond the boundaries of my skull. And it should. But I’m not sure where to start, what I want to do given that my energies are limited and I’m, frankly, greedy with my time.

One solution I’ve considered is going back to the church I was once a member of. There’s a new minister and some things that troubled me while I was there seem to have changed. When I was there I was deeply involved with the leadership of the congregation but not with anything else outside the church. Still, being tied to a community where the notion of social justice was important is something that I miss and if I went back I would work harder to find ways to also improve the world outside the walls of the church. I’ve written here about the process of leaving. The reasons I left are complicated and many. Some of it was simply time. Brad and I had started spending our weekends together and since that’s the only time we saw each other I was loathe to take time out of my Sunday. Plus I was exhausted due to my various roles in the church and what my involvement on the board meant in terms of how I experienced the years of institutional churning the church was going through at the time. Both of those things are problems that time has, essentially, solved. There were other things, though, that made me leave. One was feeling like my presence there was appreciated for what I could do rather than who I was. Much of the rest had to do with my ability to navigate certain types of personal relationships. When I was there I was one of the only (if not the only) women under 30 in the congregation. It made me a lightening rod for a lot of interactions I am generally poor at dealing with. Even just playful flirtation is a dance I don’t perform particularly gracefully, when it takes any sort of creepiness my abilities to cope are pretty taxed. Of course since I’ve left two things have happened. I’ve aged (though at 32 I doubt I’ve come even close to aging out of any sort of creepy attention) and other women under 40 have joined the congregation. So many of my reasons for leaving have at least lessened in their importance. There are still, though, pieces of hard hurt in my heart that I’m not sure I can see around.

The years I was there were hard years for me, emotionally, academically. The friends who meant the most to me during that period in my life proved themselves repeatedly unreliable and having to face the various complications that came with my place in spiritual home left me battered and bruised both emotionally and spiritually. I am unsure ultimately whether going back would help bring catharsis and healing or whether it would be a source of new pain and hurt. It is clear to me, though, that the walls I built around myself in those years need to start coming down. I need to open myself more to the friendships I have built since then. I need to find a way to feed the spiritual parts of me that have largely atrophied in the five and a half years since I started cutting my church ties.

Part of me thinks I would be infinitely better off finding someplace to volunteer that is wholly unconnected to that old life but the idea of building new connections is intimidating to me, as is the idea of finding a place that I feel fits me. On the other hand, the idea of starting fresh has its attraction. Of course, there are also other Unitarian Universalist churches closer to where I live now and clearly I could start looking there for spiritual fulfillment. Still, my old church was my home and there is a part of me that longs to go back. I like the new minister a great deal, and when I look at the service schedules I often find myself interested in his sermons. I miss that particular community, even if there were aspects of my relationship to it that were problematic.

I’m still not sure what the answer is but I’m pretty sure I need to be branching out with my energies, reinforcing the connections I have to my current communities, and building new connections.

Swimming lesson might not hurt either. There are, I think, worse things to resemble than coy goldfish.

"Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least."*

So it’s election time again. On Tuesday a friend had a dinner party to discuss the ballot. I think discussing politics in intentional and respectful ways is generally a good thing anyway, but in California I find that these sorts of gatherings are almost essential if you’re going to manage to vote with any degree of information. There’s simply too much on the ballot to process and think through all of it on your own. This year we have nine state-wide propositions and five of them are constitutional amendments. FIVE!!! Having grown up in a state where you mostly voted for people, bond measures, and sometimes a referendum or two, a ballot that includes nine big issues plus people (including a whole pack of judicial appointments) is just overwhelming.

So I’m writing up my take on the issues. This isn’t how I think you should vote. It’s just how I’m thinking about the issues and planning on voting as of right now, though I’m open to further discussion and could change my mind. I’m only going to cover the propositions and not the people because frankly I don’t have much of interest to say about the people. I think I’m probably voting a straight democratic ticket. In some cases this is because I like the candidate (Bowen, Chiang). In some cases this is because I really dislike the Republican candidate (Whitman, Fiorina). In most cases, though, it’s because after spending so much time on the issues I can’t really spare the mental bandwidth to figure out who would make a good insurance commissioner.

As a philosophical point I should note that I think the ability for the populace to get pretty much anything on the ballot strikes me as sort of absurd. I would much rather elect representatives who are going to focus their attention on the issues and then make decisions with the big picture in mind. Granted that’s not a perfect system, and the results are often frustrating. However, I really dislike being asked to make budget and tax decisions and vote on laws given that I don’t really know how everything fits together. As a result my default vote on propositions is no. From there I work out what I think the consequences of something will be and whether I’m going to vote yes. In all cases the task is to convince me a proposition is a good idea. Otherwise it’s a no. I could abstain on anything I’m unsure about, but since I’m sort of philosophically opposed to the very nature of the California ballot I prefer to vote no change on anything where I’m left with questions.

So, without further ado, the issues.
Continue reading “"Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least."*”

One of the only certain things

Lately the first few lines of Alice Walker’s “How Poems are Made: A Discredited View” have been floating around in my head.

Letting go
in order to hold on
I gradually understand
how poems are made.

This poem (full text available via google books) is one that has been with me for as long as I have read poetry. It was one of the first to really capture my imagination (there was an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that inspired me before I fell into Walker’s work, but since I don’t remember what it was, it obviously did not stick).

I have been making reasonable progress on my poetry goal for October. I have written or revised 24 things so far, putting me only two days behind. I have been frustrated, though, by the loops I find my creative brain caught in. One of the loops I predicted. It’s no less frustrating for that. I still can’t capture the images I want to capture. I still can’t make the emotions I feel make sense on the page. It is a new loop, though, and while I’m mildly annoyed that my brain is quite so caught in it, my frustrations have less to do with being caught in the loop itself than they do with the fact that the poems I have been producing from that piece of inspiration are utter crap, trite and pointless.

The other loop is what brings me back to Walker’s poems. It is a loop that I think, to varying degrees, I have found myself caught in every October for the past seven years. Indeed I wonder now if I was starting to fall into it last year when I conceived of the idea of dedicating my October to poetry. And it is weird, perhaps, to find myself so melancholy still over a friendship that ended more years ago than it lasted (by a factor of two at this point) but I do. More often, frankly, than I’d often care to admit.
Continue reading “One of the only certain things”

More Alert

My day-to-day life doesn’t always involve a lot of in-person, meaningful interactions with other people. Neither work project requires that I talk to anyone but the project heads and that often happens via email. Two days a week I work from home. The other three I’m in an office that I share with one other person, with whom I exchange pleasantries and not much else. I do have various online outlets that provide a level of conversation that’s deep enough to keep me from going completely batty. Nonetheless, some weeks the world starts to take on an unreal sort of cast.

This is one of those weeks. Brad is working on a project that had him out of the house until late three nights this week. I had dinner with an old college friend Monday night, but other than that I’ve had minimal contact with real live people. Meanwhile I’ve had my head buried in data, trying to sort out inconsistencies and finalize some things. This involves an iterative process running a piece of code that takes a little while, staring at some results, tweaking some piece of the code, rinse, repeat. While I wait for things to run I typically read a bit, or maybe I write something. This week those moments of down time have been filled with poetry. I sit in my office surrounded by piles of reports I’m trying to make sense of, listening to music on headphones, jotting down lines of poetry, while I watch new numbers tumble across the screen in front of me. And the day stretches forward in a way that is pleasant but feels somehow disconnected from time and space (that my office has no windows makes it even easier for my to disconnect and just move into the cave of my brain). It probably doesn’t help matters that the plant life on the westside is apparently conspiring to kill me, so my ears are a bit swimmy and the inside of my skull itches (along with my eyes and nose). This is after the Sudafed, too.

One of the things I’ve been reading is Rachel McKibbens’ Pink Elephant. Holy shit does that woman manage to take some seriously brutal subject matter and make it … beautiful is the wrong word, but moving. Her treatment of a childhood full of abusive alcoholic horror is honest and raw. And chilling.

So let’s recap the state of things by the time was driving to work this morning. My sinuses are a mess. I’m on the edge of what may very well be an ear infection. I’ve been on close to the max daily psuedophedrine dose for two or three days. I’ve had actual conversation with exactly two people so far this week. I’ve spent the better part of yesterday reading poems about child abuse. And my brain is tethered to the real world by only a shiny ribbon.

Then I see the amber alert: child abduction, suspect driving a silver dodge van with a dent on the right side. Or something to that effect. On the one hand I suppose that is a more useful description to post a freeway sign than the normal alert that includes a license plate number. I mean what are you supposed to do with that as you’re hurtling down the freeway? I know some people have better short-term memory than I do but I have a hard time believing that most people can actually process a sign like that and remember enough of the plate number for it to be useful. I know I can’t. As an experiment I’ve tried memorizing those while driving. Inevitably, even when I’m trying to pay attention to it, I’ve forgotten most of it by the time I even get to the next sign. On the other hand, aren’t there a whole lot of silver dodge vans around? Is that really enough information to be anywhere close to useful? (As it turns out there are apparently fewer than I thought given that I didn’t actually see any silver dodge vans during the rest of my drive to campus; and I saw a whole lot of cars). Given that one of the big California news stories this week has been about the guy in Sacramento who actually managed to apprehend a child abductor based on info from a newscast, I would tend to suspect that people right now might be a bit more inclined toward acts of attempted heroism than usual. So that really vague electronic freeway sign worried me.
Continue reading “More Alert”

To be a poet or not to be a poet.

I’ve been fickle in my choice of reading material lately. I’ve been slowly plugging away at Cadillac Desert for months now. I’ll finish it eventually but it’s not an uplifting read so I take it in small pieces. For Burning Man I retrieved Yes Means Yes off my bookshelf. I’d read the intro and first chapter when I first bought the book but then set it down. I think there’s a lot of interesting useful stuff in there (and some of it I’m sure I’ll eventually write about) but I’m sort of not in the mindset to sit down and devour academic arguments about sexuality all in one fell swoop. So again, one chapter at a time. Meanwhile I also started Kara Kush right before Burning Man. This novel about the Afghan war with the Russians is something I’ve meant to read for ages but never quite got around to it. A week in the desert seemed the perfect setting for it, but so far it’s not grabbing me. I may set it down for awhile and come back when I know I can just spend a day reading and see if getting far enough in makes it more interesting. And so I set Kara Kush aside for something “lighter.” For some reason Alice Hoffman’s The River King seemed like it would fit the bill. Don’t get me wrong, Hoffman’s stuff is lovely and generally an accessible read but light it is not. Her work is beautiful but deeply sad. I’m about halfway through and will likely finish it this week but in the meantime I was moved to grab and reread Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red.

This is one of my favorite books in the world. * It is beautiful and sad. There are places where the imagery is simply devastating. She paints complicated pictures of people, interactions, moments. This time through, though, the things that grabbed me most were simple one-line interjections. Things that made me stop, mid-page and think “Oh. Yes. This!”

Continue reading “To be a poet or not to be a poet.”

The secret of joy

Through high school and much of college my walls displayed a collage of various imagery clipped from calendars and other cheap sources. The exact mix of things varied, but one element that was pretty much constant was the hand-written reminder “Resistance is the secret of joy.” It’s the conclusion from Alice Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy. I don’t remember exactly when I first read it. It was sometime between the last half of eighth grade and the end of my freshman year of high school. The novel deals with the issue of female genital mutilation and I think it can safely be said that I was not old enough to really deeply understand the horrors being described. Already, though, I had begun to cling to the notion of resistance. I think if I had to describe my experiences from the ages of about thirteen to eighteen in one word, an obvious choice would be “besieged.” I resisted.

Looking back I am sometimes astounded by how hard I fought in those days. I was quick to call out the boys who insisted that women were weak and worth less than men. The physical was harder to deal with. I was less adept, even then, at dealing with the violations of my physical space than I was at fighting back against verbal challenges to my worth. Still, I resisted as best I could. I did not trust the social and institutional structures in place to support me in claiming my right to not be touched when I did not want to be touched. Sometimes, though, I forget that I claimed that right anyway. At fifteen I was scared and angry but I stood my ground and said “you will not touch me again or I will make a formal complaint.” And I did not mean simply that if he ever touched my breast again, even in a way meant to look accidental like he did the first time, that I would scream bloody murder. No, I meant if he ever touched me again at all I would tell that story, and others, to any school official who would listen. And he spent the next three years taking a step forward for every step I took away, leaving me afraid of being backed into corners. He said things to his classes that were terribly sexist and obnoxious. But he never touched me again. And looking back, I often regret not finding a way to feel safer in those years, not having the courage to fight back harder, not having the courage to the things that might have gotten him out of my life completely. But the truth is I did the best I could. I resisted.

That, though, was unrelated to joy. I took no joy in the times (two spring to mind) that I took a deep breath and said “this will stop NOW or else.” Perhaps I took joy in the pockets of peace that resistance sometimes bought me. But mostly for me, in those days, resistance was the secret of survival. Joy was uncharted water. The mantra no longer graces my wall for exactly that reason. At some point, I decided I wanted a different type of joy.
Continue reading “The secret of joy”

The prison of soulmates

Saturday was September 11th. Early in the day I saw a comment from one of my facebook friends that made me realize that I really had no interest in actually hearing any news coverage about the day. Fortunately, since my plan for the day already involved spending a large portion of it at a barbecue, instituting a media blackout for myself was fairly easy. However, in the early afternoon I turned on NPR in the kitchen while cooking. While this didn’t expose me to any of the hatred and ignorance around the 9/11 anniversary that I feared, it did expose me to a tidbit on Off-Ramp that annoyed me enough to actually turn off the radio and finish my food prep in silence.

The segment asked people whether they believe in soul-mates. Now I realize that this perhaps make me hopelessly unromantic, but the idea of soul-mates depresses me. I live in a metropolitan area with over 14 million people. Let’s assume for a moment that your soul-mate always magically resides in the same county as you do. My chances of meeting him or her would still be less than nine million to one. Obviously even if you cut that in half to take into account people’s gender preferences and then reduce it again to limit it to a reasonable age band (I’m just going to assume that by this point in my life my soul-mate* is at least a legal adult) there’s still an overwhelmingly small chance of meeting your one true love. And keep in mind, I’m assuming for this exercise that my soul-mate lives in Los Angeles County. Remove that assumption and the math becomes even more far-fetched.

*before anyone asks: no, I don’t consider Brad my soul-mate but that’s just because I don’t believe in soul-mates.

So they ask a number of people about whether they think there’s one person out there for everyone. The interviewer ends up talking to a nineteen year old girl whose love is in prison for three more years. And this is the part where I start to squirm. I’m mostly content to let people believe in fairy tales, even if they are mathematically impractical, but if we’re going to bolster some people’s fairy tales it feels only fair to me to apply the same rules to everyone else. The interviewer met this young woman’s description of who she considered her soul-mate with “you’re serious,” in a tone of voice that belied both disbelief and horror. Then the interviewer asked the next woman she talked to about whether the guy in prison was the nineteen year old’s soul-mate and the woman said no and another cute guy would come along who wasn’t a felon. Because of course soul-mates are always perfect, right?

Let me be clear here, I don’t think a nineteen year old in love with a man who still has three years left in prison is in a good situation. And since I don’t believe in soul-mates obviously I can easily dismiss him as not her soul-mate. But if you believe in soul-mates then you have to acknowledge that perhaps, just maybe, he is her one true love, criminal record and all. And I think the tendency to laugh off these sorts of complicated situations with “another cute boy will come along” is something that pushes women in non-ideal situations to stay in them, to try to prove the doubters wrong.

But that wasn’t what made me turn off the radio. What made me turn off the radio was that dismissive tone of voice. That sound of horror and disbelief. I’ve heard that tone. Indeed, if you knew me when I was nineteen there’s actually a chance that I heard that tone of voice from you. Because when I was nineteen envelopes stamped “this letter sent from the Wisconsin Prison System” regularly landed in my mailbox. It was a different situation, in that what I felt for the man on the other end of those envelopes was not romantic love. And I wasn’t waiting for him to get out of prison so we could be together. But still I cared for him deeply (and still do, I might add) and I used the word love to describe that caring. Any time I told the story, ultimately there would come a point where whoever I was talking to would get this strange look in their eye and ask “how did you come to know this guy again?” I’d sigh and say “he was my next door neighbor” and I’d try to explain that just because he’d made some really dumb decisions that lead him to be where he was, it didn’t mean he was, at the core, a bad person. It was a hard sell, though.

In the end I maintain that I was right and my doubters were wrong. He is, after all, one of the only people from my childhood besides family that I keep any regular contact with. But it is also the case that, generally speaking, I don’t tell the story anymore. I don’t talk much anymore about how we came to know each other, about those five years of letters, of what he meant to me then, of the five years we were out of touch after his release and how bad I felt about allowing that to happen. Perhaps that is because I don’t need to tell the story in the same way I did then. I think, though, part of it is that I don’t like to give people the opportunity to respond to a part of my life that was incredibly important to me with “really? You’re serious?” in that grating tone. And Saturday I resented that little piece of radio that seemed to me to be trying to invoke that exact tone of response from its audience.

The things you find

I just updated my wordpress install (well, sort of; it turns out my host is running a way old version of mysql so I updated as far as I could) and am now sorting through old drafts of posts that I never finished. While doing so I found this:

Sometimes after a lot of scotch has been consumed things are said that can’t be taken back. For instance “I grok Fraggles.”

I’ll confess that I really really wish I remembered the context of that (besides the obvious, scotch-related part of it).

Only connect

This morning I read something my friend Ben wrote about his search for an answer to the question “why are we here.” About halfway through the story what popped into my head was the phrase “only connect.” This motto from Howard’s End was oft repeated in my college years by Bill Cronon who was, in those days, running the Honors college and working to create a program in Chadbourne Hall that looked more like the residential colleges of Yale than the typical UW dorms. I was privileged, I think, to at that formative point in my life have been surrounded by so many people really interested in learning and thinking about the world. Of course I spent many of the years following that in academia so I have spent most of my adult life surrounded by really smart, interesting people. But smart people very focused on their own areas are different than smart people interested in the whole of the world around them, in connecting ideas, connecting people, just connecting.

I haven’t thought about that phrase in years, I don’t think. But having just come back from Burning Man–a week camping in a harsh desert environment surrounded by amazing large scale art and mind-blowing people–my brain is primed both for thinking about the why are we here question and the idea of connections. I had been to Burning Man before, three summers ago. And I always fully intended to go back because it was fun and some people I like a great deal go regularly. But I didn’t quite feel like the event lived up to the hype. Indeed it was merely weeks ago that I had a conversation in which I argued that Burning Man is not inherently a life-changing experience. And to a certain extent I’m still willing to stick by that. I don’t buy it as a new model for the utopian society. I don’t buy it as a gospel that I should be spreading to the masses. It’s a festival in the desert. The scale of it is mind-boggling, I’ll give you that. But it’s still 50,000 people coming together in an insanely harsh environment and bringing with them all the pieces of who they were before they got there. Sure there are different norms in Black Rock City. There’s space to try to figure out who it is you want to be, but the dichotomy that many people draw between BRC and the default world feels false to me. I feel like it creates this suggestion that we are different people when we are there, rather than creating a space to try being the same people doing different things.

This year there were some things that happened that gave me great heaping plates of food for thought. And I want to believe that I can actually use that as a catalyst to change my life in certain ways that have needed changing for a great many years (though I think I would still argue that Burning Man is not a life-changing event, just an inspirational one because now that I am home the real work of changing the patterns that have been harmful to me still needs to be done). But one of the things I’ve been thinking about hard is this question of connection. In those halcyon college days my life was chock full of connections that felt meaningful and deep even when they were brief. That sort of thing sustained me, made me feel as if the world was an interesting and worthwhile place. I was happy and excited about my life.

Somewhere along the line I let go of that searching for connections and just focused more and more on the day-to-day and the practical. As the years passed I think I cut myself off from people more and more. I am surrounded by amazing friends who I do feel that I connect with, but I don’t make quite the same effort I did all those years ago to start new conversations, to learn new things about people. I miss that. And a week in the desert has convinced me that I am still capable of it, even if I do feel like the intervening years have left me scarred and jaded.

Ben’s punchline is ultimately perhaps better than mine. But in the end, I think the only answer to “why are we here” is to live and love as well and as interestingly as we can. And connecting to other people, even if only briefly, is one way to do that. I think in the intervening years I’ve become too concerned about how connections flitted away, losing track of how they were formed and how they fed me at the time in the process. It may be a very long time before I again reach a point where I trust connections to last any real amount of time at all. But I think I can see my way forward again to a point where I remember how connecting for its own sake enriches my life more than the pain of connections that break reduces it.