Inventory: An MFA Love Letter

After Durga Chew-Bose

Driving north on the I-5 toward Santa Barbara I inventory the things I’d miss if I died, if my car veered into the median or if another driver plowed sideways into me. There’ve been two fatal accidents this month—people I know, once removed—which feels like death tapping at the edges of routine. But it’s beauty, not morbidity that leads me to this inventory. Everything feels extravagant and it’s because of Santa Fe, because I’m coming off immersion in words and art and people who make me more porous, quicker to exclaim over a misshapen moon or the way evening light columns over mountains and across a freeway.

Driving north I watch the sky melt into peach, palm trees deepening into silhouette caricatures. I think about how I’d miss flowing up the coast like this, the anticipation of arrival. I’d miss the sting of the ocean, sand swirling like glitter in the shallows. I’d miss the sensation of hunger, and of surprise. The warm fragrance of my husband’s sleeping skin. I’d miss stepping off a plane into air that confirms my imagination of a new country—the way southern Mexico smells exactly like I think it should, of taxi exhaust, wet stone plazas, and tulip blossoms like fistfuls of orange. The way Santa Fe burns with sage and piñon and smoke.

Scent is witchy that way. It harnesses a physical place through something invisible: particles floating through air like noise. I left Santa Fe over a week ago but the particles cling to me. I can still smell sap and sage and rain on concrete. The scent of that place is charged, like thunder cracking over the mountains. It is a dorm hall stairwell: cleaning solution and dry linens and expectation. It is cigarette smoke diffusing through the screen of an open window. The scent seeps into the thin bed sheets of St. John’s College, sheets that absorb the way one falls into them: buzzed off low-grade whiskey, shoving pages and pens to the floor, brimming and unsteadied and ready to do it again tomorrow.

If I had a cauldron, I’d make a perfume of it—a catalog of scents to conjure you up. One spritz and you’d be here, all of you. You making coffee, you gripping the balcony railing and watching thunderhead clouds roil. The blue beat of your ankle in the chair next to mine. You holding an ice cream, smart and self-deprecating even as you lick chocolate from the cone. Your pinprick of light in the courtyard at night, heat between your fingers that you stub against the faux-adobe wall. You rushing through pages to find a rebuttal. You with your glasses or your good eyes. You leaning forward, expecting epiphany in that breath of silence between words. You, and you, and you.

Driving north I add the smell of Santa Fe to my inventory. I’d miss it, and I miss it now. And even without it I’m waking up with the same unsteadied, brimming feeling, ready to discover some new word that rinses me all over in gladness for being alive today, today. I’m scouring every conversation and page for that word, ready to lift it and hold it and tuck it away. This is something you taught me—you, and you, and you.

Eating is Delightful: Lessons from The Supper of the Lamb

Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful.
...
Love is the widest, choicest door into the Passion. God saved the world not by sitting up in heaven and issuing antiseptic directives, but by becoming man, and vulnerable, in Jesus. He died, not because He despised the earth, but because He loved it as a man loves it—out of all proportion and sense.
...
The world will be lifted, as it was always meant to be lifted, by the priestly love of man. What Christ has done is to take our broken priesthood into His and make it strong again. We can, you see, take it with us. It will be precisely because we loved Jerusalem enough to bear it in our bones that its textures will ascend when we rise; it will be because our eyes have relished the earth that the color of its countries will compel our hearts forever. The bread and the pastry, the cheeses, the wine, and the songs go into the Supper of the Lamb because we do: It is our love that brings the City home.
— Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb

Possibilities

1.

I'm writing on the sand at Ocean Beach in the heavy late afternoon heat of July. I tried to read but was distracted by the phone conversation of a girl lying next to me. (Disclaimer: she was right next to me, so it wasn't reeaallyy like eavesdropping.) It took me a while to figure out she was talking to her mom. The conversation ranged while her hair gusted wild around her face, eyes intent on an image beyond the waves.

At one point, I realized her dad had died. She talked about missing him, missing the way she could call him up, missing the way he could fix anything. "Why couldn't you have had me ten years earlier?" she asked her mom. "Then he'd still be around for me to call and ask for help." She laughed as she said this—no condemnation, just an invitation to open shared memories. Their conversation shifted again and again as I caught fragments of it over the wind. Like this one: "There are all these atrocities going on in the world, and I'm here on the beach, with a job, talking to my loving mother." 

2.

Three days ago, a U.S. airstrike killed over 60 people—women and children mostly. I opened Twitter and one of the first things I saw was a photo of a dead little boy. He was lifted in someone's arms, his head rolling back, covered completely in the gray dust of decimated concrete and desert. It was heartbreaking, of course it was, what else can you say? The image reminded me of that photo no one can forget from last fall—a tiny refugee boy's body washed onto the sand. What a strange age we live in, to see the faces of victims half a world a way on our computer screens. To carry the heaviness of sorrow as we sit on a beach and watch kids splash each other with salty foam. It seems like the only thing to do when the whole world's sorrow is so visible is to mourn with those who mourn. The mourning doesn't need to be publicized, seen, or spoken aloud, but we should mourn.

3.

And, rejoice. That's the other half: "Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn." So after the girl on the phone leaves the beach, I go for a run along the cliffs. OB and Sunset Cliffs is my favorite place to run in San Diego. Everything is bright and overgrown and ripe and pungent. There's always star jasmine and bougainvillea growing and an odd bunch of characters for people watching. It's the best. 

Honestly, I don't feel like running. The city's in a heat spell and my feet are like fat little sausages straining against their casings (you bet I'm going to be a happy pregnant lady). At one point I stop to stretch where a crowd has gathered. They are watching cliff jumpers—a crowd of teenagers egging each other on and leaping off the rocks into dives or flips, screaming the whole way down. I am one of a dozen strangers watching the scene. Suddenly the crowd parts: an old man in red trunks and a red hat is speeding toward the cliff's edge on his bike. In a split second everyone absorbs what is happening and the screams crest as he flies off the edge, off his bike which is attached to his leg with a surfboard leash, and crashes into the swell of water. He surfaces with his fist raised to applause. Along with the dozen strangers, I am laughing and cheering him on too.  

Sometimes it takes an old man riding off a cliff to wake us up to the possibilities a day contains. 

4.

Before the girl at the beach hung up, after her rambling and unforced and familiar conversation—just two voices connected by laughter and secrets and history and womanhood—they said goodbye. "I gotta go. I love you, Mama." I recognized exactly the mother-daughter, female-friendship intimacy in her tone. It made me thankful to have heard the conversation, and thankful for the relationship they shared.

A girl on the phone with her mom. A little boy dead from air strikes. A run along the ocean. An old man riding through a crowd of teenagers on his bike, meeting the frothing waves below. A day containing delight and surprise and sadness. Rejoicing and mourning. It's always both, and. 

 

Summer Reading Roundup

Happy summer friends! It’s the best season of year (no arguments, plz) and potentially the only time you’ll pick up a few new books, no? Even if you’ve already started your summer/vacation reading, let me nerd out for a moment and share some titles you should absolutely put on your list.

As of this month, year one of my MFA program is complete, which means I read forty books (and wrote around 230 pages)...but who’s counting. After all that reading, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite books of the year. All are nonfiction, some are spiritual essays, and some are memoirs. I hope you pick up a few and love them as much as I did. Now go and get your vacation read on! 

 

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace  

I had to read this collection of essays in the privacy of my own home because I kept laughing aloud. It’s both a pleasure and a chore to read, but the kind of chore you willingly undertake because of the result. Wallace’s sprawling mind rewards the reader for paying attention; his footnotes are about a mile long, and he’ll often circle back to a comment he made twenty pages prior. 

The title essay about Wallace’s two-week luxury cruise to the Caribbean just killed me. It’s a darkly hilarious look at the quiet desperation that permeates extreme “pampering” (his word, not mine). The essay is full of unrestrained descriptions and snappy witticisms. He depicts a knowledgeable cruise captain, for example, as “a veritable blowhole of hard data.” And the description of his cruise cabin bathroom—which amounts to several pages of praise—is too good not to share here: 

“I’ve seen more than my share of bathrooms, and this is one bitchingly nice bathroom. The shower itself overachieves in a big way. … There’s washcloths w/o nubble or nap, and of course towels you want to propose to. … But all this is still small potatoes compared to [Cabin] 1009’s fascinating and potentially malevolent toilet.”

 

Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart is less a memoir than it is a series of loving reminders. The book covers two decades of Boyle’s work with LA gang members. His writing convinces readers of God’s boundless compassion for us, just as his life has been about convincing gang members of the same. He wants to introduce us to a God who delights in us exactly as we are: “The God, who is greater than God, has only one thing on her mind, and that is to drop, endlessly, rose petals on our heads. Behold the One who can’t take his eyes off you.”

One thing I most admired about Boyle’s approach to writing about his homies is how he humanizes them. Because he has built a life with the poor—not just observed or helped or worked with them—his stories ring with authenticity and love. By detailing what he has learned from them, he returns dignity and gratitude to every character in the book. Tattoos on the Heart instilled a more expansive view of God in me.

 

Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White

Remember E.B. White? Yep, he’s the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. His collection of essays—many of which were published in the The New Yorker—are equally as wonderful as his children’s stories. White’s writing is generous and big-minded, and he has a knack for taking ordinary subjects—a tree in his yard, the death of a pig, his dachshund Fred—and opening up a thoughtful new world for his readers. 

White once wrote, “All that I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world,” and his love for the world is everywhere in this collection. His writing is attentive, varied, compassionate, and laced with wit. His diction is, well, perfect. Reading his work feels like sitting down with vintage copies of The New Yorker. (And bonus! An essay collection means you can read one or two at a time while lounging at your favorite pool/beach/tropical destination.)

 

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Jamison’s collection of smart and piercing essays explores “pain tours”—experiences of learning from and listening to others’ suffering—as well as the complicated reactions they evoke. “You want the tour to give you back another version of yourself, you and everyone: a more enlightened human,” she writes. But there is guilt, too, and embarrassment about your unearned privilege. “You feel uncomfortable,” she adds. “Your discomfort is the point.”

I disagreed with Jamison on a few points; most notably, I’d call certain responses compassion that she labels empathy. On a whole, though, The Empathy Exams articulates questions I grapple with from a stance of humility and sincere inquiry. I loved the bits of Latin American influence, Spanish language, and the way each essays is located squarely in a place. Jamison doesn’t resolve all of her questions, and I admired her for asking them thoughtfully and even self-consciously. Her approach felt true to the lived response of witnessing suffering from a place of privilege.

 

Lit by Mary Karr

Okay, Lit wrecked me (in the best possible way). Anyone who talked to me last fall is sick of hearing about it. But seriously guys, it’s that good! The best memoirs tell you something about yourself, and this magnificent book does that. Karr is a total outlaw who somehow finds her way to God. Her movement out of hell into surrender and eventually, recovery, pulled me in headfirst. Despite the wide gap between her experiences and my own, I identified with her as a narrator. I found threads of my story in hers, and recognized my internal fractures—however different they might look—in the way she details her own. 

Karr is one of the most accomplished memoirists of our time (and a damn good poet), and this book is her masterpiece. Her voice is irreverent and hilarious and transparent. As the back cover says, Lit is about getting drunk and getting sober, but it’s also about a million other things and impossible to summarize, so just head over to Amazon and add it to your cart ASAP. You will thank me, and then we’ll get to chat about the book, so I will thank you.

 

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Read this and then tell me you don’t want to move to Paris. A Moveable Feast is a long-time favorite—this was my third read, and the book just gets better each time. A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir of his time as a newlywed expat in France. The prose is rich despite Hemingway’s typically sparse writing (one meal consists of “cold white wine” and oysters “with their strong taste of the sea”). He is the master of the mot juste—the exact, appropriate word.

A Moveable Feast paints youth, marriage, and Paris in the dreamy light of nostalgia, but there’s a clear note of melancholy throughout the story. The entire book is tinged with loss and this melancholy stems most of all from his descriptions of beautiful things—the city in autumn or his wife sleeping next to him. “But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”

 

My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman

Oh man. My Bright Abyss is such an exquisite book. I read short pieces at a time because, like poetry, the writing calls for bursts of concentrated attention. Wiman’s style is fragmented, heady, and melodic. Certain lines lodged themselves in my mind and I still find myself rolling them around in my mouth: Listen to this description of his Texas hometown: “…Spanish rivering right next to rocklike English, the two fusing for a moment into a single dialect then splitting again; cowboys with creek-bed faces stepping determinedly out of the convenience store with sky in their eyes and twelve-packs in their arms.” 

If you need another reason to read My Bright Abyss besides Wiman’s language wizardry, then his searching approach to faith is worth your time. After falling in love and being diagnosed with cancer in his late thirties, he “assented to the faith that was latent within [him].” Still, Wiman’s faith is a wrestling match. He questions his own experiences and scrapes for new language to locate God, which makes for a really beautiful and open-handed spiritual memoir.

 

 

 

 

Dispatch: Pattaya, Thailand

Last week I traveled to Thailand on a story collection trip with Nations. I wrote a brief update on the trip, reposted below. Or head over to Nations' blog to read the piece accompanied by some gorgeous photos by the talented Haley Withers

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Last week I traveled with Nations to a city known as the world’s sex capital. Pattaya sits two hours south on a dusty highway from Bangkok. The beach city used to be a fishing village but since the Vietnam War, Pattaya’s sleepy charm and clear water have been obscured by bars and brothels clogging its downtown.

We spent the week with staff from Thrive Rescue and Shear Love International. The team graciously introduced us to their work and the darkness they’re up against. I’m still processing what I saw there, so this post is an abridged reflection (and a reason to order Nations Journal Volume 2 for the full feature!).

Here is what I saw in Pattaya:

I saw young women emptied of resources, forced to sell their bodies because they are told they have nothing else to offer. I saw men roving the red light district, many of whom carry traumas and loneliness that cause them to exploit desperate women and trapped children.

I saw individuals—like the Thrive and Shear Love team members—who came to Pattaya and stayed, despite all of its dirt and difficulties. These individuals stand in solidarity with people shoved to the fringes of society and accompany them on a path to freedom. I saw kids and women who’ve been through the worst a person can live through and who’ve emerged into full and free healing. 

As is often true, darkness and light exist very close together in this city. Humanity’s shadows and goodness bump up against each other on Walking Street, on Beach Road, and in the dark corners where girls in stilettos sit on their heels and devour a plate of noodles before getting back to work.

Maybe corruption in Pattaya is more visible, manifested in the exchange of cash for sex, the expressions of detachment, and the smell of sewage and trash. Yet grace is there too, embodied, for instance, by the young woman who stepped out of the shadows where she was soliciting to drop money in a blind woman’s begging hand. Grace abounds in the laughter of kids from Thrive's safe homes, and in the easy friendship between the women in Shear Love's vocational program.

Pattaya’s central shame—sex trafficking—is not just a story about perpetrators and victims. It’s not a question of tourism or sustainable development. It’s not even about the many factors—poverty, abuse, exploitation, pornography, and cultural norms—that continue the trafficking cycle. It’s bigger than all of that.

This place embodies a particular truth about our world, albeit more overtly than most. The exploitation of human lives, both male and female, is nothing new. It happens every day in every city in a thousand different ways.

People say Pattaya is a lost cause. Humanitarian groups and NGOs have written it off, concentrating their efforts in other areas of Thailand. I can’t tell you what the right approach is to such a pervasive and deeply rooted problem. I can tell you it’s incredibly complex, and that I left Pattaya with a firm sense of hope. This was due in part to the good work of Thrive, Shear Love, and their radically compassionate staff. It was also thanks to the young women and men and the kids we met who cling to courage, solidarity, and a persistent innocence in the face of injustice.

Mostly, though, it’s because Pattaya is not a lost cause. God hasn’t abandoned the city. It is full of people who are seen as outcasts, and these are the people that Jesus gravitated toward—that He still gravitates toward. No number of NGOs or reformers can fix Pattaya, but thankfully fixing is not our job. God, who liberates captives and frees the oppressed, only asks us to partner with Him in this process of liberation.

I had the chance to interview Thrive's Assistant Program Director Prae Saechang (pictured below), who articulated this idea beautifully. “If you look at the city, you get hopeless,” she said. “If you look to yourself, you’ll have no strength to fight the darkness because it’s too big. But when you look at Christ, you know how great he is and how much he can do for you and for the world. We do our best. The rest is God's job."

Prae’s words echo the poet Hafiz, who gives us another way to see our call to work with humility and hope:

I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through. 

Listen to this music.

With That Moon Language

Been reading a few Hafiz poems over and over lately. This is one of them:

 

Admit something:

Everyone you see, you say to them,
"Love me."

Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise,
Someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us
To connect.

Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,

With that sweet moon
Language,

What every other eye in this world
Is dying to
Hear.