Category Archives: nature

Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13 (Jon Mc Gregor)

I assigned this book to my students to read and it seems like they all enjoyed it very much. Quite few of them were from the area where it’s set, so it was especially interesting to hear that they found it absorbing and realistic (and I’m sure it would be validating for Mr. McGregor).

I definitely think this should have won the Man Booker prize instead of George Saunders, in terms of being a book that’s “pushing the boundaries of the form,” etc. I suppose one criticism of it (that I heard from my students) is that it gets a bit boring at times, and it becomes hard to tell all the characters apart. BUT… I would argue that as in Knausgaard, there is a reason for this effect. If the book becomes boring, it’s because LIFE is boring.The everyday is boring. You know? Cyclical, repetitive. Everything decays and fades away, crumbles into nothing. And if people seem interchangeable, it’s because we all are, in a way. And it also seems to be an important point that the “big” moments of the book are narrated in such a defused way, alongside descriptions of badgers mating and birds building nests and sheep wandering away and the weather, so that if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss them.

I went to a talk Jon McGregor gave about the writing process of this book and it was one of the most fascinating talks about writing I’ve heard in years. Basically, long story short, he wrote the book by keeping two folders: one filled with descriptions of nature, the other of people. And then he tried to mash them all together. It was one of those talks that make you feel reassured about writing. And it was also just deeply interesting to hear someone talk about their process in such a detailed way – especially in terms of how dependent it is on restriction of form, like those crazy Oulipo writers who wrote whole books without using the letter ‘E’. And in terms of how much of the ‘writing’ turned into organizing – trying to figure out the structure.

I highly recommend reading this in one sitting – don’t walk away from it for a long time and then pick it back up again.

Most of all, I liked how this book tried to focus on what it means to be a person – what it means to be alive in a quiet everyday sort of way.

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Filed under books, British, nature, review

Soulcraft

At some point in your life, you begin to wonder if perhaps there is more to life than another round of success (or failure) at the Standard Game of Security Building—the pursuit of your personal selection of career, material possessions, physical safety, comfort, social and sexual relations, and economic position. (47)

This book (Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche by Bill Plotkin) was an interesting one to read at the end of the year. My sister got it for Christmas and I have been skimming through it myself these past few days. I’m really going to have to get his other book, Nature and the Human Soul, the one Cary Tennis recommended. These are some of the things that I found interesting about this book:

– I liked the book’s emphasis on myth-making (particularly of the Joseph Campbell kind), storytelling and archetypes. I loved it when he used a scene from Star Wars to illustrate an example of Jung’s Shadow (hint: it’s the scene in The Empire Strikes Back). It made me want to re-read Jung: A Brief Introduction and actually take notes this time so that way I can actually remember concrete information about his theories. I liked Plotkin’s definition of archetypes as a representation of “the patterns and possibilities of being human,” and how we will all embody each archetype (some more than others) at each point in our lives. As I’ve said before, this idea of fragmentation and many, separate selves that are somehow all cohesive really appeals to me. Case in point: Tori’s American Doll Posse album, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. I also liked how Plotkin argued for the ego to be reassigned “as an active, adult agent for soul, as opposed to its former role as an adolescent agent for itself.” (36) My ego DEFINITELY feels like an adolescent most of the time.

– My favorite part of the book was Plotkin’s discussion of specific archtypes, such as the Wanderer (seeker of adventure), the Wild Child (sensual creativity), the Nurturing Parent (does exactly what it sounds like!) or the Lone Solider. The latter particularly freaked me out because I wrote quite a few short stories this year that were about soldiers doing exactly what Plotkin says is the archtype’s purpose: an ally who protects you during childhood, but who needs to be told that the war is over, the battle is over and they can leave, they can go home. This archetype reminds me of another great mantra from Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, in which you picture walking away from your pain, sadness, anxiety, depression etc. like a soldier laying down his arms and walking away from the battlefield. Just listen to this:

Common Loyal Soldier survival strategies include harsh self-criticism (to make us—the ego—feel unworthy and thus ineligible for Wild Child actions that might bring further punishment, abandonment or criticism); placing our personal agenda last, other codependent behaviors (e.g. caretaking, rescuing, enabling) to stave off abandonment; pleasing but immature and inauthentic personas; partial or complete social withdrawal (to minimize social contacts); adopting an unpleasant or downtrodden appearance (to protect us from criticism); restricting our range of feeling by encouraging us to always be in charge, busy, angry, ruthless, withdrawn, and/or numb; and suppressing our intelligence, talent, enthusiasm, sensuality and wildness by locking up these qualities in an inaccessible corner of our psyches. (92-93)

That’s a long passage but I wanted to type it all up so that I could remember it, because it was definitely the section of the book that impacted me the most in terms of its “whoa… I learned a lot from just reading that” factor.

– I also found the book’s emphasis on the theme of descent (as in the mythological hero’s descent into the underworld, a la Innana) very interesting. I agree with Plotkin’s POV that we live in a culture that “protects us from the hardships and dangers of the descent.” One of the main reasons that I liked his discussion of descent is because I’ve been thinking a lot lately (as I’ve said before) about depression and addiction (thanks again, Infinite Jest and Shame the movie!). I read this transcript online about a depression-themed radio episode that was really fascinating and that I highly recommend, especially its discussion of depression not as something as an excess of feeling (i.e. sadness) but more like something that’s the ABSENCE of feeling. The idea of needing to stumble through the darkness in order to get to the light appeals to me. It makes me feel like it has a purpose, and that you can emerge triumphant at the end.

– I really related to the book’s criticism of contemporary culture. Not to sound like a crotchety old fart George Orwell type… but it really gave voice to a lot of things I’ve been rolling around in my mind, on and off, for the past three-four years. Such as how we live in a culture and world in which “everything is more or less predictable and where most people emulate getting the greatest socioeconomic rewards,” as opposed to meaning and mystery. He quotes a lot from a book with the pretty incredible title of My Name is Chellis, and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization. Check out these gems:

“The Western worldview says, in essence, that technological progress is the highest value and that we were born to consume… The most highly prized freedom is the right to shop… Competition, taking, and hoarding are higher values than cooperation, sharing and gifting…. Western lifestyles that revolve around a constant barge of anemic distractions may be, in part, ways of self-numbing so as to minimize the pain of that loss… This way of life becomes an addiction. The more we live this way, the more alienated we become from something deeper and more meaningful, and the more we need this way of life to keep us from experiencing that alienation.” (91)

I really dug how he brought up addictions (AGAIN!) here, specifically in Plotkin’s point that we seek “distractions” to hide the feeling that something essential is missing.

–       I liked the book’s emphasis on the role of nature in healing the soul. I don’t think I’m going to undertake a “wilderness setting” anytime soon (i.e. hiking out all by myself to get lost on purpose and fast for four days…), but it was definitely good to read this around New Year’s, as I can now be more fully committed to my intention to go hiking more often. I have a car and six-seven months (?) left in Portland—it’s truly now or never! Plotkin also relates nature to adventure, another core value of mine and something I love having in my life. Case in point: I’m so excited to be heading off to L.A. tomorrow to spend New Year’s with my beloveds!

–       I liked how the book’s main message that the best way you can help yourself (and thus in turn help the world) is to find out what it is you have to offer it: “It’s not possible to save the world by trying to save it. You need to find what is genuinely yours to offer the world before you can make it a better place. Discovering your unique gift to bring to your community is your greatest opportunity and challenge. The offering of that gift—your true self—is the most you can do to love and serve the world. And it is all the world needs.” (13) Or as another anonymous quote puts it, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy, I awoke and saw that life was service, I acted and behold, service was joy.” (40) It made me feel like YES… my passion CAN be my work, eventually. They don’t have to be separate! As long as I trust my “vision with a task” I am good to go-go.

Crossing that threshold into your uncharted future is an act of great courage and self-compassion, and it changes your relationship to life in a fundamental way. It embodies your willingness to employ a new form of risk-taking, to consciously choose growth-stimulating, soul-nourishing conflicts, to live through the accompanying anxiety, and to accept your life as open-ended and unpredictable. Passing through that door commits you to living in the present in a way you never before have. (60)

– I also thought it was a nice touch in the book to have all the quotations from Rilke poems scattered throughout. God, what an intense guy. This was the best of the lot:

You are not surprised at the force of the storm—
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit;
now it becomes a riddle again,
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered
leaves.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.

As long as we’re posting poetry I wanted to go ahead and share the poem that I’ll most likely be transcribing in all of my friend’s Christmas cards this year. This is called “In a Tree House” by Hafiz:

Light
Will someday split you open
Even if your life is now a cage,

For a divine seed, the crown of destiny,
Is hidden and sown on an ancient fertile plain
You hold the title to.

Love will surely bust you wide open
Into an unfettered, blooming new galaxy

Even if your mind is now
A spoiled mule.

A life giving radiance will come,
The Friend’s gratuity will come –

O look again within yourself,
For I know you were once the elegant host
To all the marvels in creation.

From a sacred crevice in your body
A bow rises each night
And shoots your soul into God.

Behold the Beautiful Drunk Singing One
From the lunar vantage point of love.

He is conducting the affairs
Of the whole universe

While throwing wild parties
In a tree house – on a limb
In your heart.

Here are some reading and writing related intentions for 2012 (assuming the apocalypse is survived, of course!)

Reading – I thought about making a specific list, as in Books I Want To Read, but attempting to do so just made me feel unhappy and frenzied. I like reading in my life to be spontaneous and uncontrolled. I like reading what I want when I want to, not because I feel like I HAVE to. Nevertheless here are some intentions:

  • Read some of the science fiction books and maybe even some of the fantasy ones from this list, er I mean flow chart.
  • Read some of the Bolaño recommended books. Read more Latin American ones in general.
  • Read some more big, classic books: The Pale King, the new Murukami, Moby Dick, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow. Maybe even Philip Roth. Hell, I read Rabbit Run, why not?
  • I might even be able to finish reading all of Philip K. Dick’s novels… can I do it? Is it possible?! Time will tell!
  • Read some contemporary writers, the kind who are published in Tin House and do interviews on NPR and OPB.

Writing:

  • My main intention for 2012 is to work on cultivating a more spiritual-like devotion to the practice of writing.
  • Continue finishing pieces, submitting them, applying for residencies and grants, etc. I did this at least once a month for every month in 2011 except for November, I think (I still have three days to go in December… haha!). Go me! Mm… maybe I can bump this up to TWICE a month in 2012, minimum?
  • Go to grad school! (!!!)
  • I would also like to write more here in this space! It is really very useful! Case in point: ALL of the Philip K. Dick books I read but didn’t review; it would be a shame to have them all just fade into a blur in my mind. I’m going to try to aim for once a week, with the understanding that sometimes this means the entries won’t be super well written or coherent, but oh well, in this case it’s the intention that counts. It’s my blog and I can do what I want with it…. 8D

Goodbye 2011... otherwise known as "The Year of the Chewable Ambien Tab."

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Filed under advice, depression, nature, non-fiction, poetry, pondering

Quiroga

the English edition has a pretty cool cover

Horacios Quiroga’s “Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte” (Stories of love, madness and death—how can you resist that combination?) had the privilege of being my Jammed Book, an honor previously bestowed upon Onetti’s “El astillero” in Nuevo Laredo. My Jammed books are the books I read while my computer is jammed for one reason or the other: my mouse freezes in place, my Internet browser crashes, the text I type refuses to appear, and my favorite, the ever-present hovering, all-seeing like the eye of Sauron hourglass (yeah, don’t tell me… I really need to get a new laptop). It’s nice to use Spanish books as my Jammed books, because they are small, light and fit easily into my ginormous Fred Meyer recycled plastic kitty cat bag.

Anyway, the problem with reading books in the office is that the reading sessions are somewhat fragmented, as I’m constantly having to put the book down during the magical moments in which my mouse can freely move across the screen again, only to pick the book up again when the screen inevitably freezes. I also had the same problem that I experienced while reading La casa verde: this book is so full of archaic jungle lingo that I’m constantly feeling lost and confused (and as my computer is jammed, wordreference.com is a no-no). Did you know that achucahdo is Quechua for “fever”? Or that “barigui” is guarani for small mosquito? That “catigua” is a kind of tree and “carpincho” is a kind a fish? Yeah, me neither. Fortunately my edition had a little vocabulary list at the back, which helped quite a bit.

Obscure vocabulary withstanding, over the past three weeks I’ve successfully managed to work my way through Quiroga’s book (a testament to my computer’s uselessness more than my reading ability). You can count this book as another in the series of Latin American novels dealing with the conflicts and anxieties caused by deep jungle habitats. Most of these short stories would make excellent Herzogian films, especially the one in which the sickly bride is convinced that something is sucking her blood at night in the ominous “The Feather Pillow” (a tale that puts the Poe in the Poe-esque), or the wonderfully titled opening story “The Decapitated Chicken” (how could Herzog not want to make a movie involving four mentally handicapped children, a jungle setting, a bloody murder and a headless chicken?).

Quiroga’s life is also decidedly Herzogian, as well as fun to summarize:

Lived in Paris before decided that the “bohemian” life was not for him

Accidentally shot his best friend, felt guilty about it for the rest of his life

Friends with Lugones, future fascist Argentinean poet, who encouraged him to start afresh in the jungle, where he ended up living for most of his life

Married three times; fond of girls 30+ years younger than him; first wife committed suicide by drinking mercury poison

Committed suicide by drinking cyanide

Phew!

While reading this book it was impossible not to think of other man-versus-nature tales such as “Into the Wild” or “Aguirre Wrath of God.” In all these kinds of stories, it seems like the common theme is always man’s search for knowledge, truth of himself (in the case of the first) or material wealth (in the case of the second). Quiroga’s characters tend to fall more into the second category than the first, like the men who plan to start an orange fermentation business in order to make orange wine. Overall, nature is definitely an intense place in Quiroga’s world. It’s definitely hostile towards men while at the same time being indifferent. Quiroga intriguingly adapts this indifferent point of view in stories such as “The Dead Man,” in which a man falls on top of his machete in the opening sentence and spends the rest of the story dealing with his impending death, on in “Drifting,” in which a man steps on a poisonous snake and decides to ride a canoe five hours down river for help. There’s also “Sunstroke,” (these story titles remind me of NIN songs) which is narrated from the point of view of some dogs as they watch their owner struggle with the heat (while staying wisely in the shade themselves, of course). These were probably my favorite stories, the ones that used narrative voice in a way I’d never seen before—the only other narrated-by-a-dog story I can think of is that one by Dave Eggers. Quiroga also has another story called “Anaconda” which is narrated from the POV of guess what, but I think I’m going to have to reread that one.

Overall I enjoyed the shorter stories more than I did the longer ones because they were easier to absorb. I’d definitely like to read these again in English, just because it’s always a different reading experience, reading the translation. I find it terribly funny and more than a little ironic that I read all these life-and-death struggling with nature stories within the sterile confines of an office, my computer humming before me, my empty espresso cup on one side and my glass of water on the other. Anyway. I definitely look forward to not working again in an office for a while.

orchid

shrimp-shaped seeds pods that I always see everywhere

fuzzy mushrooms! you'd think I'd know the names of these after dating a mycologist for almost three years now...

mystery yellow flowers the botanist was unable to identify

crazy red palm fruit that looked like radishes

orange flowers everywhere! littering the ground like cigarette butts in a city gutter

oh, that pesky human presence

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Filed under books, colombia, nature, Rio Plata

when literature reflects life: gabo’s “collected stories”

We spent last weekend couchsurfing in Campeche, a small pueblo 40 minutes outside of Barranquilla. We were in the area in order to attend the famous Barranquilla carnival, a very racuous, energetic affair that definitely lived up to its debauchery-fused reputation (the plastic toy babies with the long dangling brown dildos that the drag queens kept flashing at us are just one example). By comparison, Campeche was much more relaxed and low-key, with a smaller carnival parade that definitely felt more traditional in comparison to the giant blast that was the Barranquilla extravaganza. All weekend long, I kept telling anyone in my small travel group that would listen that Campeche felt “straight out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story,” whose Collected Stories I’d just finished reading (talk about appropriate timing!).

A typical street in Campeche

Collected Stories is a collection of his first three short story volumes, Eyes of a Blue Dog, Big Mama’s Funeral, and The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother (a title that always makes me feel like exhaling deeply after I type it all out). Eyes of a Blue Dog can be seen as his Faulkner-Joyce phase, a period in which you can definitely imagine the young GM struggling to find his own unique artistic voice (kind of like when Tori Amos made Y Kant Tori Read, her hair metal album). I hadn’t read most of these before and I’m afraid I didn’t really enjoy them too much, with the exception of “Monologue of Isabel Watching It Rain in Macondo.” A lot of them just confused me, which makes me glad that I read them in English first, as opposed to Spanish–eh, maybe I’ll go back and read them again someday. The early stories do contain some classic GM phrases, such as this gem from the first one, “The Third Resignation” (written when GM was all of a precocious 19–aaaaah, I’m so lagging!!!): “Madam, your child has a grave illness: he is dead.” (5) LOL. I also love this from Isabel’s monologue:  “The notion of time, upset since the day before, disappeared completely. Then there was no Thursday. What should have been Thursday was a physical, jellylike thing that could have been parted with the hands in order to look into Friday.” (100) Killer. 

The level of energy and creativity (you also could just call it liveliness!) definitely picks up with Big Mama’s Funeral, with stories that actually contain crackling dialogue, energetic plots and spunky characters, as opposed to just droning monologues. My favorites here include “Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon,” which I first read in high school (the ending still creeps me out just as much today as it did back then); “Tuesday Siesta” (very Flannery O’Connor-esque, with the descriptions of the hot train ride through the dusty town); “There Are No Thieves In This Town” (which has a fun plot to summarize: a man steals the local bar’s poolballs and thus curses the entire town to stagnating boring because everyone is left with nothing to do); and of course the title one. I hadn’t read most of these before, which is maybe why I enjoyed them so much.

 Erendira was published after One Hundred Years of Solitude and contains classics from high school curriculums such as “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” and the title story. Most of the stories in this collection feel like they’ve been deliberately written to seem like parables, or fairy tales for children (the subtitle of one story, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” goes so far to blunty present itself as ‘A Tale for Children.’) These are arguably the stories that people think of when they think of “classic” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or when they give a “definitive” example of his writing style. It’s a little strange, because to me these stories represent a departure from GM’s writing style, from everything that came both before and after. The categorizing of canonical authors is ddefinitely a weird affair. 

So what did I mean by that phrase, “straight out of a GGM short story”? I might have meant what I called “the fundamental spirit of Colombia, the weird mixture of absurdity and violence that’s difficult to summarize.” I guess I might also have meant that strange combination of dreamy surreality, as though a scene is springing straight out of your imagination, mixed with the grittier sights and smells of reality. That eternal conflict between the subjectivity of your imagination versus the crudeness of the reality before you. In this interesting article in the Nation (which is actually a review of a recent GM biography), the author calls “the struggle between reality and subjectivity” the central subject of GM’s work, which is as good a phrase as any to sum it all up. 

Lorenza

It was a feeling we kept running into all weekend, the feeling that something was happening to us that felt like it should have been narrated to us instead. Like the man who inexplicably kept walking up to us holding up a mirror, pretending it was a camera, saying “Look, it’s you! It’s you!” once we saw our faces. Or Lorenza, the parrot of our host’s grandmother, who could say two things: “Run, run, or the cat will get you!” and “Lorenza, turn on the motorcycle! Vroom vroom!” (She could also imitate human laughter, which was pretty eerie to hear.) Or our host’s pet bird, Pacho (short for Francisco–I never figured out why a female bird had a male name), with her rickety legs from being locked in a cage by her previous owner and was missing an eye, and who hurt our ears with her harsh, grating calls. 

Pacho

The parade was also straight out of a scene from the story “Big Mama’s Funeral”, with its cast of eccentric characters and inexplicable rituals. The drag queens, the parade queens: “Stripped of their earthly splendor for the first time, they marched by, preceded by the universal queen: the soybean quen, the green-squash queen, the banana queen, the meal yucca queen, the guava queen, the coconut queen, the kidney-bean queen, the 255-mile-long-string-of-iguana-eggs queen, and all the others who are omitted so as to not make this account interminable.” (233) (This passage is how you know for sure that GGM definitely grew up on the coast. As my co-worker told me the other day, “Oye, los Colombianos tienen reinas para todo!” (Colombians have queens for anything)). There were the guys dressed up as narcos during the parade, handing out fake money with Homer Simpson’s face on it, an interesting example of how people incorporated contemporary reality into the community’s rituals (ethnography, here I come!). There was the man who shoved a plastic pink bowl of wet noodles at my sister and I, a ritual I’m stil not sure of. I’m listing these anecdotes because I’m trying to recreate the feeling of what that whole weekend was like: a feeling that we were living in a short story that at the same time felt so gloriously raw and real. When I think of GGM, one of the many things I think of are random and colorful anecdotes that are fun to recite, along with wonderfully vivid adjectives, descriptions and metaphors: “sad breasts.” “smelled of onion.” “The world had been sad since Tuesday.”

Queens

"narcos"

the mysterious noodles

I’m deliberately trying not to use the word “magical realism” here. My undergraduate thesis advisor hated that word, and once viciously dissected it in a long rant as nothing more than a marketing ploy, a form of propaganda. Well, I don’t know about propaganda, but I did read a really interesting review of Joan Didion’s Salvador the other day (which luckily enough I happened to read in January) that made me think about MR in a different context. The review quoted a passage about the use of language and information in El Salvador, which could be applied easily-peasily to Colombia:

Actual information was hard to come by in El Salvador, perhaps because this is not a culture in which a high value is placed on the definite… All numbers in El Salvador tended to materialize and vanish and rematerialize in a different form, as if numbers denoted only the “use” of numbers, an intention, a wish, a recognition that someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, needed to hear the ineffable expressed as a number. At any given time in El Salvador a great deal of what goes on is considered ineffable, and the use of numbers in this context tends to frustrate people who try to understand them literally, rather than as propositions to be floated…”

At one point Didion writes that following her experiences reporting the political turmoil in El Salvador, “I began to see Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a new light, as a social realist.” That pretty much sums up my understanding of “magical realism”: I no longer see it as this deliberate authorial technique that you can apply to a work of fiction like pressing a keyboard (a la Insert Magic Fantastical Critter or Event Here), but rather, it’s a naturalized form of depicting subjects as they appear in everday life. As far as “magical realism” goes, the key word thus isn’t the “magic” part, it’s the “realism” bit. You can definitely argue that the reality of Latin America is one that deals with a lot of ineffability, with vagueness, with things that can only be reported subjectively, as opposed to as solid facts. (The impossibility of coming up withclearcut Good Guys or Bad Guys in Walking Ghosts is a testament to this.)

Thus it’s not so much the twee magical elements of GGM’s stories that interest me now–the grandmother bleeding green blood in “Erendira,” the smell of roses mysteriously emitting from the ocean in “The Sea of Lost Time”–but rather the nitty-gritty details, the ones that feel straight out of a reporter’s notebook. Like the grandmother in “Tuesday Siesta,” who “bore the conscientious serenity of someone accustomed to poverty.” (106) Or the war veterans who come to Big Mama’s funeral, “for the payment of their veterans’ pensions which they had been waiting for for sixty years.” (212) Sentences that make me feel like the author is angry about something, like he’s using fiction in order to depict a social reality that he finds unjust to the point of bizarreness.

Another important characteristic I think of when I say it “feels” like GGM is community. A lot of the narrators in the latter half of his Collected Stories are part of a clearly defined community, one that feels very pre-modern in its simplicity and unity. “Pre-modern” in what sense? Well, I guess I mean in the sense that it no longer exists, that that particular form of united community in which people can narrate from a “we” voice is dead, gone, RIP. Maybe that’s why the stories with the strongest sense of community (such as “Old Man with Wings,” “Handsomest Man,” “Roses,” etc.) are also the ones with arguably the most fantastical elements. Maybe the idea of the existence of rural communities that unite over common beliefs and accept the same versions of reality is the most fantastical element of all (at least from a modern standpoint–I’m sure these kinds of communities did exist at one point and continue to exist; they’re just few and far in between enough to seem exotic to us).

The parades we watched this weekend felt like a rare example of a community united over shared beliefs, with their acceptance actualized in the forms of common rituals and traditions. The parade made me think of Walter Benjamin, of all freaking people (thanks liberal arts education, for permanently infiltrating my brain!), and how one of the main themes in his writings was how modern civilization has lost its ability to appreciate myth. I have no interest in getting too academic here, but bear with me a little.

The role of myth in civilization is a pretty interesting one to think about. Corey was talking the other day about how the human brain is hardwired to look for patterns in everything, a tendency that you see reflected in nature (fractals, bee hives, garden plots… I could go on and on). This desire, this need, this drive of us silly humans to look for patterns in everything can explain why civilization need to seek out things like religion: it’s a way of connecting the dots, of drawing the lines between things and making it seem like they’re part of a system. It’s just a good way to keep organized.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of NATURE in our myths about civilization, and how nature itself is expressed in our myths. For instance, it was really interesting to me that a lot of the masks and costumes and dances in the parade had to do with nature. There were the little kids with the iguanas on their heads., for examples. The countless bull, rhino and jaguar masks. The kids in green leotards lined up and doing a caterpillar dance. The indigenous costumes.

Caterpillar dance!

The macaws were my favorite :)

the man (woman?) in the palm-draped truck with the giant frog was also a bit of a mystery

 What is ESPECIALLY interesting to me is that it’s as though these dances and rituals and traditions are referring back to nature, to the wilderness, to the jungle… which of course no longer exists in the area! All these community rituals and traditions are referring back to something that absent, gone finito! Whatever jungle that was there got cut down and cleared out long ago to make way for pastures (if not in this specific geographical area, then definitely in others). And yet, whether they know it or not, once a year people come together and “act” out the characteristics of the jungle, the so-called wildness, savagery, barbarity and so on.

The marimonda character is an especially interesting example of this. There is no entry for the Colombian version of the marimonda on wikipedia, which feels like absolute BLASPHEMY to me (is it also, maybe, a sign that I should finally write my first wikipedia entry? Hmm, I think I might leave it up someone who’s more of a marimonda expert…). Basically, as explained to us by our exceedingly gracious couchsurfing host, the marimondo is like a spirit that is meant to protect the jungle by attacking and harming those who cut down the plants and hurt the animals. In the parades, they appeared with elephant-like masks and lots of different colors, which apparently was meant to represent their shapeshifting abilities. They were definitely my favorite “characters” of the parade. I especially liked their little white gloves, and the way they thrust their hips and rolled around in the dirt.  

they were EVERYWHERE! it was seriously like the marimonda meme.

these little kids were the best dancers! so much energy...

 Coreywas telling me ( (based on his extensive Mardi Gras experience) how carnivals can be understood as fertility rites. (One of these days I’m gonna have to get better sources than my boyfriend and wikipedia, I swear!) In traditional, connected-to-the-earth and the-changing-of-the-seasons communities (the kind that could appear in a GM story), you want to have your child conceived around February, because that way, when it’s born around October or November, you’ll be in the fall, or the season of abundance, where you have enough food and crops on hand to be able to feed yourself and your kid. To me, it’s fascinating to think about how these rituals and traditions can be understood as expressions of how fundamentally connected we are to nature–how we are PART of and FROM nature, as opposed to separated or outside it. A lot of the time, we may not even be aware of how our rituals and traditions refer to this inescapable reality, this precedence of Nature and The Earth above all things. I hope that doesn’t sound too hippy-dippy, but there you go. I’m not trying to argue that “oh man when we were hunter-gatherers living at peace with nature everything was so much better.” As much as I can admire the beauty, organization and natural systems of biology and ecology and so on, at the same time there is very much a Werner Herzog part of me that sees nature as this very cruel, alien place that will **** you silly humans if you don’t know exactly what you’re getting into.

I wonder what other underlying myths of my culture and my world are out there waiting for me to discover and learn about…

The lake we swam in!

Banana country

On the road

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Filed under colombia, events, modernity, nature, photos, Walter Benjamin

ishmael: thinking about gardens


It’s Week 5 (beginning Week 6) here in Nuevo Laredo, which means my time here is rapidly approaching the half-way over mark. TIME! How do we go about measuring and conceiving it?? Every week that passes, I greet with astonishment: “Gosh, I can’t believe I’ve been here for three weeks. Holy cow! A whole month in Nuevo Laredo! Hijole. Five weeks, over as quickly as it came…”

I’ve been a little obsessed with time lately. Time management of the present moment, how we conceive time and how we measure it personally. It’s been a theme this year of mine, to flip through old journal entries and feel fascinated as I read what I did on the 2nd day of last month, two months ago, six months ago. Man, how crazy is it that I can read journal entries from 2006, or god forbid, 2005 or even further back than that, and recognize this distinct “voice” I had, as though I were reading a narrator in a novel! Within that recognition is also the acknowledgment that this voice of 2006 and backwards is no longer me: it was me, but it is no longer the voice that I use now. I guess this means in ten years, when I’m reading this blog entry (I wonder how that is going to work, exactly) I’m going to be freaking out even more.

The main event that got me thinking about time is fairly simple: I watched The Full Monty, the amusing British comedy lent to me in a stack of DVDs by my boss. The last time I watched The Full Monty was in 1997, when it first came out, when my sister and I were first really getting into seeing movies and renting them from blockbuster. Twelve years ago, I was twelve. When I was twelve, I couldn’t even SAY the sentence “I remember twelve years ago when…”, because I would have remembered nothing! So this is one of the first times in my life when I could say “I remember twelve years ago…” What is it going to be like to say “I remember thirty years ago”? Or forty? Fifty? That was the main thing I wanted to ask my grandma, when she was showing me old photographs of her with her high school boyfriends. Did you ever think you would end up here Grandma? I wanted to say. Did you ever think you would be a Grandma? Did you ever think you would be eighty-five? Time, dude. It’s a puzzler.

What else did I do when I was twelve? I was in sixth grade. I saw Titanic. I got really into reading all the movie reviews in the New York Times. I remember playing a game with my sister, where we would go to a page and then we would have to pick the one movie out of all the adds listed there that we wanted to see. (During Oscar season this game was fun, once February and March hit it definitely became an exercise in the lesser of two evils.) I guess I would say sixth grade was the time when I sort of became aware of culture, popular culture, and began wanting to integrate myself into it. Sixth grade was also the year I bought my first CD (the Titanic soundtrack—thanks, Mom!). I think it was also the summer before sixth grade that my sister and I first began buying music for ourselves in the form of cassette tapes: the Backstreet Boys, Hansen. Cassette tapes, dude!! Fortunately, we bought a cassette tape of Grammy nominees of ’96 and Paula Cole, Fiona Apple and Shawn Colvin were on it, and our path for preferring sensitive female singer-songwriters with pianos or guitars seemed to be set.

Another thing I did in sixth grade was read Ishmael. My brother was reading it for a class of his—social studies? World History? God knows, some hippie Canadian teacher assigned it to him. I always read my older brother’s books and textbooks; I read one huge English Lit textbook of his from cover to cover, starting with Milton and ending with the play version of The Diary of Anne Frank. Reading “older kids’ books” always felt tremendously exciting to me. I would always sneak into his room when he wasn’t there and read them while lying on my stomach on his bed, my chin hanging off the edge and the book on the floor (I still read like this sometimes, but it makes all the blood rush to my head).

I was definitely way too young for Ishmael at the time. I think the only part I really “got” was the part about the creation myth, in the first 40-50 pages. I thought that was really clever, when the jellyfish said, all proudly, “And then, there were jellyfish!” as its conclusion to its story about the creation of the universe. It was an eye-opening moment, to say the least. I’d definitely never really thought about the world like that before, that we had a specific way of narrating about our place in the world. Even during Humanities 110 class, years later, in between the slides of the Greeks and Romans projected at the front of the auditorium, I would still think every once in the while “and then there were jellyfish…”

So these were some of the things I thought about while re-reading Ishmael in the Estacion Palabra reading cultural center, while little kids shouted and whooped while making Halloween decorations in the children’s sections. At some point a girl dressed up as a pirate walked up to me and offered me candy; I took a green lollipop which broke as I was trying to unwrap it (I ate it anyway). I rushed through the last 60 pages in fear that I wouldn’t be able to finish it before it got dark; I wanted to walk home while there was still some light outside.

It was a good book, and I enjoyed reading it. Ishmael places an interesting emphasis on how the control and use of food supply is so important for defining culture and the formation civilization. It feels very much ahead of its time for a book written in 1992, especially Quinn’s commentary about First World farmers fueling Third World population explosion. It’s missing the specificity and urgency that Michael Pollan brought to the argument, but it’s definitely there. It feels very relevant.

It’s an interesting book to read at this point in my life, as well as in this point of history. I love reading the articles about food and good eating and urban farming and agriculture that seem to be consistently appearing on the NY Times and Salon and Slate and so on… When I walked into Powell’s to buy The Wings of the Dove and The Brothers K and other huge books to lug along with me to Mexico, in the front displays there was book after book about permaculture and bike riding and green living and good eating. It made my heart feel really warm. It made me want to believe that our consciousness is changing, that a very definitive, clear shift is taking place… I don’t want to think that it’s just Portland, either (though Portland is definitely a place where a lot of good things happen!)

I also think it’s interesting how Ishmael focuses so much on this idea that things can’t continue on this path for much longer, or else we’re pretty much doomed. Doomed in what sense? The apocalypse is pretty scary to think about (I can’t watch zombie movies for exactly that reason) but I find it SO interesting that the more people I meet who are interested in things like gardening, permaculture, gathering culinary mushrooms and sustainable development also seem to be very much comfortable (not sure if that’s the right word? Aware, maybe) with the idea of apocalypse. I could go on a rift about apocalypse that adapts themes from my postmodern fiction class, but I think I will leave it at that and take it up in another blog entry.

The last thing I want to say about reading Ishmael is how freaking interesting it was to me to read this book and be like yup, this is definitely how I feel; yup, this is definitely a conclusion that I’ve reached. Consuming the world as our prison industry that keeps us trapped: check. Man belongs to the world instead of the other way round: check. Human settlement isn’t against the law, it’s subject to the law: check, check. Teaching is enough, you can’t begin anywhere unless you begin changing people’s minds: triple check unto infinity. I would even go so far that you can’t begin anywhere unless you begin changing your mind. Oh my God, how can I possibly go about helping others unless I know how to help myself?! I think more than anything, this is the biggest lesson that I have learned in the past three years. It sounds so basic and self-explanatory, right? And yet, it is really revolutionary, but once you begin practicing kindness to yourself, it proceeds to open the door to oh so many other things…

I also REALLY liked how Ishmael tried to be positive at the end, so that I wasn’t left with this feeling of “Great, we’ve messed up this planet and now we’re screwed, start building the bunker.” Instead he does a good job of trying to make us feel good. He mainly does this by saying that we need a new vision of ourselves that’s more inspiring that being scolded about how we need to recycle more and pollute less. Somehow, it’s more helpful to view all of this as necessary. This lesson can be personal: If we didn’t go through all of this, then we wouldn’t have learned. It’s more helpful to think that humans needed to go through all this, to be “the first species to experience it without being the last,” as Quinn puts it, in order to KNOW how to do things DIFFERENTLY. So instead of beating ourselves up about the past and thinking we’re screwed, instead we can LEARN from our EXPERIENCES. How’s that for constructive thinking?!

What I like best about this mentality is how well it works in regards to viewing ourselves as individuals. We can view our flaws and mistakes as these terrible things: “God, I’ve messed this thing up, this one side of my personality is like this, so now I’m basically screwed!” But instead of this vision of ourselves, we can have a vision of seeing these flaws as necessary. If you didn’t have these tendencies, then how would you learn? And you can always learn. Now is never a better time.

The one last thing I want to say is that I found it incredibly ironic how after reading this book I went home to my apartment ate some ramen, the only food available in my apartment. Definitely not part of the Slow Food movement. But I figure that you gotta accept the gifts that are available to you… There’s a time and a place for certain things. For example, in Portland, I can learn about gardening and permaculture and botany from Corey, who has really been quite influential and formative in setting me down this path. Oh, to date a botanist…
Urban gardening in Nuevo Laredo appears mostly in the form of papaya trees in people’s front yards. Homegrown chiles are definitely the most popular.

Some songs about gardens:

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Filed under apocalypse, gardening, nature, perspective, time