Monday, February 9, 2009

Be here now.

It's something I can't quite get over yet. I attended a dance performance with Kristin. As we were leaving, she stopped to say hi to her friend Karen who was taking donations at the door. I was introduced to her, and after shaking three of her available fingers, I walked outside to wait for Kristin. When she came out, she commented, "so you weren't that interested in meeting Karen..." It caught me off guard, which she picked up on. So we talked about it, about unintentional messages, and then let the whole thing go as a harmless misunderstanding. But it stuck with me, I think because I could see where Kristin was coming from, partly because it was such an unexpected fault, but also because it was a fault nonetheless.

I remembered the first night I was in India. I was with the class I had traveled with (before I separated from them to study independently), our teacher, Ratna Roy, took us to a shop where she knew the owner. There were seven of us students and as we waited for Ratna, a man brought open coke bottles on a tray with straws plunged through the necks. Ratna's friend gestured to us with a wave of his hand to take the coke. Ratna turned to us and said "the coke is on the house." However, only a couple people accepted the free drink. The rest, including myself, declined. Ratna grabbed one off the tray thanking the man and as she sipped her coke, gave us an awkward look of displeasure, which one of us commented on saying, "looks like Ratna got bad coke." After we left the shop she told us, "I understand that many of you don't like coke. I don't care for it either. But those cokes were a way for my friend to show generosity and hospitality. If I had not taken one it would have gravely insulted him. I don't think he cares as much in regards to you, but it was sort of a snub of the nose as if you all were too good for his coke. It's just something to think about." Of course many of us objected and thought that sentiment was absurd. And yet it felt obvious. Everyone automatically rejected the free coke because no one liked coke, but who considered the act of the offering itself? No one.

I don't know Karen. I missed my opportunity to discover both who she is and how she knows Kristin. And because of that I don't know if I walked away from a good friend or casual aquiantence or whatever. It really doesn't matter. And looking back, I don't see why I went outside other than it being automatic to do so. But an automatic gesture is still affectatious. It's the considerate aspect of intuition. This past weekend I spent time with my friend Natalie. At first we were very cordial and slowly became more and more casual until I felt myself gushing out openly. And with Natalie I've been this way before. It causes her to step away from me precisely because I am coming on too strong. I don't mean to, but I can't always be told "you are coming on strong," or, "don't walk away, come meet my friend." I want to be able to pick up on these things for myself, but I don't always catch them when they are right in front of me.

It's fascinating how our perceived selves feel so inaccessible to us sometimes. We want to have full control of how we are read, at least I do, because it gives me a feeling of security. In regards to Kristin's friend Karen, I don't even know if she considered my walking away from her. She seemed incredibly nice even as she was occupied taking donations from other people leaving the building. And I don't think it would have bothered Kristin if perhaps I have not done this before and she hasn't said anything. That's a humbling thing to consider.

There is a lesson I learned long ago, a mantra actually, that I found powerfully illuminating, but one that I forget when it would be most useful. It's something Spalding Gray used to tell himself when he was so immensely depressed that he would crawl into his head regardless of who was around. He would say "be here now" over and over in his head snapping him back into the present enough to engage with others, to be intuitively considerate to his surroundings, and to keep himself from collapsing at any moment. I say it sometimes when I know I am way too into my head and a situation calls for me to be with the outside world. It's all a matter of fine tuning that threshold to trigger the mantra and practicing it dogmatically. That might require another mantra altogether. But it could also open me to new people and possibilities I might otherwise miss.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My rice tastes like the lake

The weather yesterday was ugly. I layered in heavy cotton clothing expecting a lazy snowfall, but instead found belligerent rain. This caused some delays in the L trainline so I was able to get lost in my book The Kindly Ones. In the book the German army has invaded Russia. The main character, a Nazi officer named Max Aud, needs a heavy jacket for the winter. He employs a Jewish tailor to make him a fur-lined coat, which he mentions is called a shuba. I recognized the name shuba and remembered that Tibetans call their fur-lined coats chubas. I made note of this in my small purple journal I keep in my bag for any such shuba-chuba discoveries. Nevermind that it would be the lightest discovery I've made thus far reading that book.

Jeffrey Yang, an editor at New Directions, and I planned on visiting Latse Library that day. Despite the rain we hopped over curve-lined puddles and soggy cobble stones towards Latse Library during our lunchtime.
We were let in by Christine, the head librarian whom I had called earlier to notify of our arrival. She gave us a thorough tour of the downstairs, and she even let Jeffrey look at a sutra wrapped in non-traditional psychadelic fabric. Afterwards we were led upstairs where many of the library's staff were seated at the long wooden dining table at the top of the stairs eating lunch. Pema Bhum, the Libray director whom I had met a few days before at a Tibetan literature forum gave me a nod of acknowledgement. At the forum he handed me a free copy of his own memoir that had been translated into English. I have yet to read it.
Many of the Tibetan lit books that were displayed for the forum were still out on one of the small tables in the library. Jeffrey recognized one of the poets whose books numbered more than any other Tibetan writer on that table, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa. He told me that she was Tibetan-American and was probably the most prolific Tibetan writer in America solely for this reason. Christine seemed to agree. Then he remarked how unnerving it was that all of the available Tibetan literature in English could fit on one small table. Christine and I told Jeffrey more about the forum. I showed him Tashi Dawa's book, A Soul in Bondage, which he flipped through as I mentioned that he was sort of an eminent contemporary writer. But I haven't read his work, so my enthusiam felt hollow. I picked up one of Tsering Dhompa's books and was not surprised to find poetry. "I have that book. It's fantastic," Jeffrey exclaimed. Evidently he has ben trying to convince Barbara, the editor-in-chief, to publish a new book Tsering's work from a manuscript she recently submitted to us.
We finished our tour and thanked Christine who was eager to take our information. "If more publishers would actually take an interest in Tibetan literature, it would be a great thing!" I think so too. When we got back Jeffrey emailed me a copy of Tsering Dhompa's new manuscript. It's synesthetically titled My rice tastes like the lake. It starts like this:

It is not everyone’s desire to swim as a fish.

I have a little dog who behaves like a cat, it is not

his fault he cannot pass the discipline test.

A fault line runs through the city center,

sullen as stretch marks under a dress,

we believe our undoing comes from one

source. An escape plan is our solace.

There are words, there are stories we never

tell. She said on the radio, my rice tastes

like the lake. It was a perfect sentence.

short intro.

Kristin and I are working with a Tibetan exile named Pala on his memoir. I met Pala while traveling through Dharamshala, India. Pala gave me his memoirs, which spanned spans three long rectangular notebooks and remain incomplete, to photocopy and transcribe to computer when I returned to the states. After allowing them to languish for three years, Kristin nudged me to allow her to work on them with me. We started transcriptions in March 2008 and finishing in July of 2008. Now we have been given his blessings to write in "the best English possible," and with a few visits to Latse Library and one grant application later, this is what we are trying to do. We decided to start a blog covering our development of the book, as well as our development as writers, as well as...well...having a shared place to write anything.