Sunday, January 17, 2010

New York missive no 64 - Self Reliance, Through the Children's Gate, The Road

A bit of Sunday philosophizing, while it rains a January rain outside…

Various things I’ve been reading recently have carried the message that one’s self is the only thing, the only belief, that a person can rely on. One of them is Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self reliance." It was included along with Obama’s inauguration address in a little blue book that CA gave us as an engagement present – apparently Emerson’s thinking is a big influence on Obama. In it, Emerson says things like “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” and “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

What a relief to think the truth lies right here inside me. But how scary too. What if “I” am wrong? (Though the answer to that would be that there is no right or wrong, just true and false, so that’s ok). More importantly, then, how does that “I" interact selflessly with others? Because aren’t most of the world’s problems a result of “I’s” interacting selfishly with others? How do you (I!) prevent self reliance and self awareness from becoming blind individualism? Perhaps it’s by knowing that what the self really needs and wants is a) not very much and b) not very different from what other people need and want.


Emerson’s essay also talks about how independent minds will contradict themselves, apparently changing positions. But, he says, “of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight of at a little distance…The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency…” Zadie Smith picks up this idea in her new book of essays “Changing my mind,” in which she apparently (have only read a review) praises Obama’s “flexibility of voice." She says his example demonstrates that “each man must be true to his selves, plural.” That could be disconcerting, and even imply weakness, were it not read in the context of Emerson’s reassurance that apparently disparate ideas are solidly consistent if they flow from a mind (will, whatever) that is being totally true to itself. In politics though, can anyone remain true to themselves?


Other bits of reading recently, enabled in large part by aeroplane journeys (over the holiday) and subway journeys (to and fro work)...

Adam Gopnik’s "Through the Children’s Gate". Would I have picked that book up at the airport, a memoir about bringing up children in New York, were I not about to be doing just that? Albeit in rather different circumstances and for now in the singular rather than plural. The book is gently and entertainingly written with beautiful passages, such as the description of parents worrying how to “make the children fly” in a kindergarten production of Peter Pan. “The willingness of New York parents is bracing compared with the aloofness of French parents [Gopnik’s previous memoir is about his family’s time living in Paris], or even of earlier generations of American parents. They will do anything to make their children fly…” After much deliberation and consideration of potentially dangerous stunts, the solution is to shrink the city…to have a miniature night-time London on the stage that the children can swoop over.

What was portrayed too often in the book as “New York,” though, was just a slither of New York. A wealthy Upper East-Siders, “made-it”, literary New York. Which is all very well. The book is a personal memoir so was only meant to capture a microcosm (and who can capture any more than that in this city?). I just felt that the beating hearts and shrieks and laughs of kids being brought up all over New York in all different kinds of circumstances were muffled. As if there was a soundproof barrier between them and the comfortable lives described.

Cormack McCarthy’s "The Road", a rather less entertaining read. Ug. What is all the fuss about? The images, or more like image – man and boy travel down road through post-apocalyptic but still-threatening landscape that, oh my, will look great on a big screen – is powerful and has stayed with me. But the intentionally monotonous rhythm of the words lulled me into a numbness. I guess that numbness is McCarthy’s achievement. One stranger on the subway, a young guy with his girlfriend, saw me reading it and asked what I thought. I told him. “Oh really? My friend LOVED it and told me I HAVE to read it, that it was the most AWESOME book he'd ever read,” he said. And then a couple of days later a middle-aged woman sitting next to me said “Oh my God. You’re reading THAT. I couldn’t bear it. Do keep reading it though.” And I did.

And two self-helpsy new-yearsy books. For the New York Women Social Entrepreneurs bookclub I read Dave Pollard’s "Finding the Sweet Spot", about creating and nurturing sustainable enterprises. The key “take” from that was that the sweet spot (where you’ll be fulfilled in work) lies at the point where your “gifts,” (what you’re better at than most others), your “passion” (what inspires you) and “purpose” (what’s actually needed in the world), intersect. I’m not, for now, creating a social enterprise, but feel that if I make my book come off in the next couple of years I’ll be pretty close to that sweet spot, and to generating new ones. I’m also dipping into Eckhart Tolle’s "The Power of Now" which so many millions have read before me. How wise to let past and future dissolve and to live fully-present in the present, unencumbered by a chatting to put it into practice.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New York missive no 63 - Lima, 10 years later

I spent a tranquil Sunday after Christmas wandering the quiet end-of-holiday streets of central Santiago, before getting a plane back to NYC that evening. In the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombiana I came across a magnificent quipu, a complicated mass of threads and knots used by the Incas to store information about the empire – census data, weather conditions, the location of villages etc. It was fanned out in a dramatic circle for the purpose of the exhibit. Here’s what they look like. The precise meanings of those knots has yet to be deciphered, their significance lost along with the Incas themselves.

That quipu, the multicoloured Inca cloths called cumbi, and the huge geometrically designed weavings that C and I saw today at a MOMA exhibition on Bahaus, reminded me how I’m intrigued by thread as a material. In weavings, in clothes, in tapestries in quipu, wherever. One of the labels at the Bauhaus exhibition mentioned that the “inherent quality of materials” was central to the movement. What are the inherent qualities of thread? Ancient and practical come to mind…but then compared with wood and stone it’s not ancient at all. Human. Story-telling. Strong.


Earlier that day in Santiago I’d seen two kids playing by a fountain outside La Moneda. Children give us hope…I thought momentarily…and then they become adults. But determined not to succumb to cynicism I carried the thought through. Ok they become adults. But as children, they enable adults to see through a child’s mind again, which is no bad thing. Probably the key to sanity. And concern for their children’s future makes adults act far better than they would otherwise.


Back in Lima again after 10 years away. Last time I was there as a free-wheeling inquisitive 22 year-old. This time I was walking down the same streets as a 32-year-old soon-to-be-mother, acutely aware of the passing of time, how things change and don’t change. I decided to see if the woman whose house I lived in back in 1999 was still there (A, the mother of the poet Antonio Cisneros). We had lost touch several years ago. I passed the small Amnesty office where I used to work, crossed over to the familiar street, not remembering the exact house number but knowing I’d recognize it. A couple of blocks along I saw a huge new housing development, one of hundreds that are springing up all over Miraflores…that’s it, oh well, I thought, the house has gone. Then there it was, teetering on the edge of the new development. I peered through the window and everything was exactly the same. Dark wooden polished floors. A gold-rimmed mirror on one wall. Carefully-placed photographs of family members in frames on old furniture. One of AC’s grandchildren answered the doorbell when I rang and she brought AC to the door. She was older, so much older. Her memory was hazy and she only partly remembered me. But the wonderful thing was that she was there. Another thing that I found was still there was a small plate that I’d given to my friend AL’s mum before leaving. “Mira,” she said, and showed me the plate propped up in a display cabinet. Both those mothers seem to emanate security and keeping things in place. Eeek, can I have that in me?!


I was spoilt over Christmas, joining M and D on a boat around Cape Horn. On board we watched a feature documentary on Shackleton's second mission to the Antarctic. The mission failed in that he never accomplished his goal of crossing the continent. It succeeded in that he achieved his revised goal of keeping all his men alive. That was after the most staggering feats of endurance(which ironically is the name of the ship they’d had to abandon when it got trapped in the ice). Aside from wondering whether the equivalent group of people today could have survived what those men did, it made me think that human resilience to the cruelty of nature is so much stronger than our resilience to the cruelty of humans. What a strange, self-destructive species we are. What other species would conceive of things like concentration camps, gulags and torture?


What was going to be a very simple wedding – a quick trip to City Hall – has somewhat grown. We still want to keep it smallish and personal though. The first couple of evenings I was back C and I went hunting for a venue. There was the Foundry – a converted metal foundry that I’d thought could be a cool, wow-factor industrial space. It was dingy and disappointing. It felt like somewhere that is presented as a cool, wow-factor industrial space and has the prices to match but falls far short of actually being it. There was the Waters Edge, a restaurant on East River. It has impressive views of Manhattan but felt a bit like a wedding-factory and too tackily glitzy. And then there was the fabulous Seaman’s Church Institute near South Street Seaport, with its calm modern chapel, its gallery full of model ships and the “top deck” space for the party with glass walls overlooking Brooklyn Bridge. Venue found. Six weeks or so to fix everything else…nothing like a deadline.