Thursday, February 14, 2013

She turned a corner and everything changed

Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American poet, wrote a young adult novel called Habibi (which means “darling” in Arabic). A poet’s first novel, its language is poetic, brief, and vivid. It’s made up what I like to call “episodes” . . . they aren’t chapters, but they aren’t short stories, either . . . they're something in between. They capture the experiences of the main character, Liyana, as she moves with her family from the US to Palestine. Each episodic piece begins with an intriguing line at the top; these come are supposed to come from Liyana’s notebook, where writes ideas for the first lines of stories or poems. I used this line as my quote in the yearbook when I graduated from high school: If you could be anyone, would you choose to be yourself? (And I’m still not sure about the answer to that question.)

There’s another of these first lines that’s been floating in my head recently: She turned a corner and everything changed. Because this is just what I feel like has happened to me. I turned a corner and everything changed. Literally.

I’m from Idaho, which is something a lot of people look down their noses at when I tell them. Ever since I put that choosing-to-be-yourself quote in the yearbook, I’ve wanted to be an editor. It’s all a much, much longer story, but last summer I attended a graduate publishing course, and I thought I’d try entering the world of publishing in Boston instead of New York City, because NYC seemed scary, but Boston is my favorite city of any I’ve known. Some of my relatives live in and around Boston, and I fell in love the first time I came to visit. And since those relatives were nicely willing to let me live with them for free, I applied for some internships and jobs, and in January I got on a plane to do some interviews. I booked a ticket back to Idaho because I thought, if by some miracle I was offered a position, I’d have time to come back and pack up and say goodbye before it started.

But, instead, I was turning a corner and everything was changing. A press in Boston offered me an internship that was starting right away, so I canceled my ticket and stayed. I walked around the city investigating bookstores to work at, too—and, literally, I turned a corner and there was a certain tiny store tucked away on a side street, and there I found a job. A tiny job, but a truly extraordinary one. (Again, it’s all a much, much bigger story, but I’ll stop here for now.)

So, suddenly my life, or at least the outside of my life, is completely different. Suddenly I’m not in Idaho anymore. I’m riding around on the bus and the train and the T (which is what Bostonians call the subway), and my boots are tapping along the cobblestone streets, and always and everywhere I’m noticing and watching all kinds of people going about their lives. I saw a lady reading Fifty Shades of Grey (oh dear!) and heard a guy calling his mom to say Happy Valentine’s Day and sat next to a girl crocheting a rose-colored hat. I go past business men in suits and homeless people asking for change. I see tourists taking pictures and couples holding hands and friends walking arm-in-arm.

And here’s Walt Whitman, back again . . . as I go around this great city, I think how he wrote of

The blab of the pave . . . /The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes, / The souls moving along . . . are they invisible while the least atom of the stones is visible?

Now I am one of those souls moving along.

Though I say “everything” has changed, it really hasn’t. So many things are still the same, and I am still that same soul inside. But yet again it isn’t that simple, because the changes outside affect my soul and myself inside. I will move and grow on from here.

Another corner's always coming. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Walt Whitman on an airplane

I think if Walt Whitman were alive now, he might write about air travel. Maybe it would intrigue him how so many strangers, all from different lives and places in the world, are all closeted together in a mighty metal vessel traveling through the air. At least, this is what I thought about when I was flying across the country from the northwest to the northeast. I thought about how Walt Whitman might think about this. And I thought about it myself.

In his actual poetry, Whitman writes about how all the other people he meets and sees—all the things around him, in fact—affect him, but are not his essential self: 

People I meet . . .
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My . . . associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or
         lack of money, or depressions or exaltations . . .
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

On an airplane, you are part of the latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies—and you sit among all the unknown sorrows and hopes and fears and joys of all the other people in that airplane with you. You know that each person on that plane has a deep life—a history and a present—thoughts and circumstances and relationships, pain and secrets and a soul. You can’t know anything of any of that, but you know it’s there. You hover just on the surface, seeing only the other travelers' outside appearances. And that is all they see of you, too. They do not know the You yourself. But yet there you all are together in the sky.

There is, somehow, a kind of brief commonality among all the different people carried in that craft zooming at great speed and great height over the earth.

For Walt Whitman also says:

I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself

All you inscrutable human beings, all just happening to be companions for that journey—knowing nothing true of each other but that you all share mysterious, immortal, fathomless humanity.
I love Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass, which is where these quotes are taken from (parts 4 and 7, respectively), so much that I’m sure I’ll write more posts centered on his words. 

And it really is too bad Walt Whitman never got to ride in an airplane. I think it would have given him a lot of inspiration. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Certain Peculiar Words

. . . the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths and squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squich open, and splurge well . . .

– from “Blackberry Eating,” Galway Kinnell

I once read a short essay by Patricia O'Hara of Franklin & Marshall College, a reflection on poetry. She writes about loving "the way that the poems [she has] read and revisited add textures—little slubs and stitches and lunatic filaments of words and images that adhere to the stuff of [her] ordinary life." She describes how, whenever she goes out on a fall morning to pick raspberries from her garden, she thinks of the beginning of Galway Kinnell's poem "Blackberry Eating" (read the whole poem here). Reciting these poetic words about berry-picking as she picks berries enhances her own experience of doing so—it adds those "slubs and stitches and lunatic filaments" to what would otherwise maybe be a mundane moment. It heightens that little experience and makes it somehow richer and deeper. 

And every time Professor O'Hara sees a rainbow, she thinks of the words of Wordsworth: My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky. Because of this bit of poetry, "all [her] rainbows will forever be composed of bands of color and prisms of words." She speaks of the "bewitching" way in which "swatches of language" come into her mind as she lives her own experiences, the way in which that language forms and augments those experiences.

(Read Professor O'Hara's whole essay, published in the literary journal of Franklin & Marshall, The College Dispatch.)

When I read this essay for the first time, I knew that I was reading, in someone else's words, my own reasons for loving literature. Professor O'Hara speaks specifically of poetry, but I find my own mind and heart adding "slubs and stitches" from poems and novels and essays and children's books and any kind of literature at all to my everyday experiences. I go around constantly sewing those filaments, other people's words and phrases, into the fabric of my life. And Professor O'Hara is right: these bits of literature add such brightness and texture to my individual existence. It feels as if they grace my experiences and make them more than just ordinary, small, uninteresting events. I add literature to my life and it is enriched. And then, too, my life becomes a part of that literature; it connects me to all the authors who wrote all those words, to all the people in the world who share similar thoughts and experiences. 

When I read someone else's words and I experience something that, in some sense, lives out those words, that those words touch and illumine, I feel that I am not alone. Which, to me, is another enormous, essential aspect of literature. But that's for another post. :)

So, this is a blog about literature and how it intertwines with life, how it adds texture and illumination and hope. It's about "certain peculiar words" and how they are part of me and I am part of them. It's about how I hear them whatever I'm doing and seeing and finding and thinking. And it's about how I'm sharing that with you, if you'd like to listen. 

Thanks for reading, and check back for more.