marigold

I succeeded at marigolds today, leggy tumbles of them bought from the florist a classmate recommended. My apartment is fairly stark: two black desks, blond bed frame and kitchen table, a solid gray couch, white bookshelves. I keep bringing home blue accessories from Goodwill: a blue teapot, a blue vase, a blue jar for my tea. The towels are blue, the bathmat is blue, the winter duvet for the down comforter is blue, the first set of sheets was blue. The apartment cries for an interruption–an eruption–of complements, reds, mauves, yellows, oranges. And so marigolds, the color of saffron and sunsets, all the things that are holy and sanctified amid the dust of the world and are still a bit of the dust itself, offering garlands and monks’ robes and housing developments’ flower gardens. Crayons, chalks thick as yogurt, mangos and oranges sweeter than the satiety they bring.

The scent of marigolds filled the three rooms so quickly. A color so warm and a smell so cool and composed. A smell for the ending of summer; it’s early summer, the smell of marigolds, warm at first glance and cool later on.

It’s something to feel like a success, at marigolds or the laundry or a project or a word or a moment. It’s something to put the flowers in vases and spread them around, the little bowl on the altar, one on the temporary coffee table, one on the kitchen table. There are so many things that are always falling off the edge of my flat world, sailing clear off the edge and falling away into whatever chasm exists beyond the edge of a flat world; I don’t know. Deadlines come and I miss them, projects loom and I founder in them, work washes over me in an unceasing tide, sometimes in and sometimes out but never slackening over the long haul. So it’s something to succeed at marigolds, not even despite all the things that will not see success but simply because success is so rarely understood as the fact of doing a thing. Success?–there’s some of it out there that comes dosed out by a measurable standard and I would like some of it very much, I always have–but there is also this unmeasurable thing that smells like raspberries, or fresh-brewed tea, or cumin and coriander, or marigolds, or wet dirt, that complements whatever was already there by being something other than what was already there, by being itself, by filling three rooms unexpectedly, and without design.

A cemetery walk; an accident at the bookstore; a thunderstorm

Today I met Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries for a walk through Mount Auburn Cemetery. The cemetery was quiet and beautiful; it felt more like walking through the large park behind my home temple in Korea than a cemetery. Views unfolded (I had sudden moments of understanding what Austen meant in her novels when describing how the grounds of some vast estate would open up into a “view”), little dells appeared, well-shaped lawns and fascinating monuments challenged my old idea of a cemetery as a place always emerging from a well-worn and predictable mold. Mount Auburn Cemetery surprised and delighted. What we build for the dead often has more purpose for the living, I think. And if we’re soothed and pleased at the same time that we’re asked to contemplate our mortality and our relationships to the living and the dead, then maybe it’s a more skillful way to invite us to consider death than most.

Walking and talking and generally being with Lorianne is always a delight, and today was no different. The conversation ranged widely, as it does with her. Over the past several years, Lorianne has introduced me to several little nooks and corners of Cambridge and Boston that have been the compass points for me as I orient myself in this new city. Today’s walk, and the absolutely fabulous little diner we went to afterward, will be another set of coordinates; and, ever-insightful and somehow energetic and gentle at the same time, Lorianne herself is a kind of compass point.

Afterward, I headed over to Harvard Square to do a little work before class. I went to Harvard Bookstore. My sole purpose was to pre-order Roxane Gay‘s Bad Feminist. But, since hanging out with Lorianne also involves talking about writers we know or know of and this had reminded me of a writer I’d been meaning to read for years, I also found myself looking for Teju Cole’s two novels. I missed his debut novel when I was in Korea, so I picked up that one; and his new novel out this year also found its way into my arms. Like lovers–that’s how I pick up books. Then, since I was obviously in for the proverbial dime, I went ahead and got two French novels from the used book section. The cashier took one look at me and said, “Care to sign up for our frequent buyer card?”

I will be getting a public library card later this summer, I tell myself as I walk out. I will. (I haven’t even mentioned the two used books I picked up at Manchester-by-the-sea yesterday when we took a trip to the beach…)

I’m tired today. It’s probably the antihistamine I took this morning to manage a sudden onslaught of allergies. It could also be the strange weather this afternoon and evening: a tornado warning followed by a short, violent thunderstorm. I rode home in a rising, soggy heat. Unlike last week’s rain, this one didn’t cool anything off.

Homework. This project application. A book review. And the floors, the tub, the kitchen table, the Ikea lamp, the last box of clothing. The gas and electric bill. Financial Aid. The to-do list, the endless quotidian carousel. After I got home, sweating and steaming, I took a shower and went over to the main house for dinner. I’m also waiting for a letter, and was hoping it would be tucked into my mailbox. That minor shock I felt when I saw my little cubby empty, the sudden disappointment–I’d spent all weekend willing the letter to be there when I came home from class tonight, I’d counted up the days from when it was probably sent and done my math, and thought I’d had got it right–that little shock was curious. I watched myself react, and wondered: what would I do if the letter never arrived?

Now I’m sitting in a dark kitchen with the fan going, wishing I had seltzer water to mix with my cranberry juice and trying to figure out what work I’ll get done tonight. Or, maybe I should just call it quits, give into the sticky feeling in my head and take a book to bed. I don’t know. There’s still a blue light outside the windows, like a jar full of the watercolor paint from a washed brush. The night feels open, restful. It could go either way; it could go any way at all.

I will water the plants

“…drinking it all in but
never filling, never filled…”

“This,” Luisa Igloria

I will water the plants when I get home, the nasturtiums’ quivering nonsensical tendrils, the fragrant thyme and globe basil, I will water them when I get home. I will care for these littlest things like I used to tend the altars, cutting wicks and wiping dust with absurd meticulous faithful care. I will water the plants. I will attend to them and drink meaning from my attentions like drinking life from the sun. I will put away the laundry which I washed and dried and folded with the unshakeable conviction that doing so made this day a better day. I will water the plants and put away the laundry and clear the paperwork from the kitchen table. I will do all this. I will slip into the not-cool-enough sheets under my grandmother’s quilt and I will not think about the hour–one or two or three–when sleep might crack like a fragile ornament. I will lay down full with the small tasks of the day counted up like marbles in a sack hanging heavy in my pocket. I will not think about watering the plants again tomorrow, I will only think about their undaunted yearning growth and I will draw a parallel from that and fill with it. I will water the plants when I get home.

“This” is in Luisa Igloria’s latest chapbook, Night Willow, published by Phoenicia.

photo walk 6.29.2014 (central square, cambridge)

I slept poorly last night, waking around 1 a.m. and nearly frantic with wakefulness. These periods of bad sleep rattle me, since they have the unfair power to derail my unforgiving lifestyle. I took another melatonin and slept heavily until after 8. When I dragged myself out of bed it was like pulling my mind up through jelly or mud; everything was resistance itself. Insomnia and bad sleep come in bouts and I do what I can with melatonin and hot milk toddies and no electronics an hour before bedtime, but still: sleep fractures like brittle bones, and I couldn’t tell you why.

After making breakfast and then lunch (to eat later) in the main house, I came back to the apartment and did homework, felt virtuous staring down at my notes, color-coded. I ate lunch and continued reading Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, which had me gripping my own mouth in horror as I read. It’s that good, that real, that immediate; I wish I could say I hated it, that it rang false or felt overdone or was banal and facile. But it’s not. It’s terrifying and too real and got into my guts so quickly, it’s only with great effort that I put it down and went for a walk.

I took one of the cameras out with me. I thought I’d start photographing again. As I walked toward Central Square and passed by the church just off Mass Ave, I wanted to ask the men sitting on the benches by the boulevard if I could take their picture. I don’t want to literally take a picture, which seems like a sly form of theft. I remember how irate and sometimes violated I felt having my picture taken without permission in Korea. As if I stood, insensate, on a stage with props for other people to literally objectify. I don’t want to be that kind of photographer. As I stood hesitating on the street, however, I realized that to do the opposite, to not consume an uninvolved subject with a false sense of ownership, requires me to be involved. I saw I would have to go up to these men and introduce myself. Ask their names. Maybe share a cigarette with them. And then, maybe, after days, I could photograph them. Not just take their picture, but create something. Make a photograph. I’d have to be present, though, and have invested something so that they were not simply objects to be shot and recorded. And I was afraid of putting myself in that position. I would have to engage, which means I would have to open myself and be vulnerable.

I stood for maybe ten minutes on the sidewalk, thinking about this. The three men who had been sitting on the bench got up and ambled away. I stayed on the sidewalk, realizing I was afraid to reach out. I thought about my fear and the isolation it keeps me in (and the photographs it keeps me from making) while I turned the other direction and walked toward Central Square.

Photography has a vocabulary. There’s a style, a way of framing; I can’t say I’m very fluent. But I’ve gotten rustier in the year or more it’s been since I picked up a camera with seriousness. I can’t say what took me away in the first place. Retreat last summer, that took me away. Class and other obligations in the fall, that took me away. The huge stifling pressure of change: that took me away. I felt stuttered and stiff on the street today. I saw things and I didn’t know how to engage them, how to talk with them so that what happened with the camera was a conversation and not just a dead-end caption.

I ended up going grocery shopping. Ridiculously, I wandered up and down the aisles at HMart, the local Korean supermarket, with my camera banging against my hip and eavesdropping on Korean conversations and missing my other language and home. I bought some lunchbox storage containers, since I take my lunch to school, and a kettle for the altar. I’m one of those people who refuses to offer water from anything but a “clean” source. It’s always made me uncomfortable to fill an offering bowl straight from a faucet.

When I walked out the back of HMart, I went back to Mass Ave using a little covered walkway between the buildings. A young man was painting some graffiti on the wall. It’s not vandalism. The entire wall is like a public canvas, and hundreds of individuals illustrations layer up on each other the length of the passageway. I asked the young man if it was legal to do this, what the rules were, and so on. He said he didn’t know. He said no one ever hassled him, so he didn’t know what would get someone in trouble. He noticed my camera and asked if I was a photographer.

I said yes; I don’t know why. Because it’s an aspiration? Because why not–you’re a photographer if you call yourself one, an artist if you make art, and in some real way only you get to decide that for yourself. (Whether you’re a good artist, though…) I asked his name. I introduced myself. He gave me his card, and I said thank you, and then I walked away and took a shot of him putting the finishing touches on a starfish, one of several. His name was Morris.

At the other end of the passageway was an old man in a wheelchair. I thought, I’d like to make a portrait; and so I took a deep breath, walked up to him, and introduced myself. Hi, my name is Seonjoon. What’s your name? He responded to this question with the word “Hamaguchi,” and I couldn’t tell you if that was his name or an answer to the question he heard, but not the question I asked. He didn’t seem entirely present, although he wasn’t entirely absent, either. I asked if I could take his portrait. He said, “I don’t see why not…” So I did. Two frames. I shook his hand again and said I’d see him around, which I probably will. I’m beginning to recognize the people who wait around the bus stops and crowd the boulevard benches. Co-inhabitants of Central Square. I also saw how the better-dressed members of this neighborhood avert their eyes from the people sitting on the benches and the low brick walls, self-consciously disengaged. It was my own disengagement that I came up against when I realized I was paralyzed by a fear of crossing some invisible line with the three men on the bench earlier. It’s there, though, all the same.

I came home and shot four frames of the empty, dim apartment. Main room, bedroom, kitchen filled with glancing light. I have a book review to finish (funny that I can type out three times as many words in a quarter of the time here than I can with that review…) and more French to do. I need to get the review off my plate so I can move onto an application for a translation job, which I need to start so that I can get back to reviewing Sanskrit among French. And maybe tonight will be unbroken and peaceful, a fuzzed frame of indistinct contours, unbroken until the light is already over the horizon tomorrow morning.

All the photographs I shot today were with 35 mm film, the real deal, otherwise I would have posted anything that turned out.

the quiet

“…you become the sound.” ~Luisa Igloria, “Liminal”

I strip the bed, put on the summer blanket and quilt; the overwrought, anxious-to-please smell of household cleaner still rises from the corners. The sink is empty and the drying rack full, the desks cleared, the herbs watered. It is night and I am alone, pictures gazing down or averting faces from this solitary industry. How quiet a pair of rooms becomes in the puddling afternoon, how much quieter following night’s seeping tide when houses curl upon themselves like mollusks. I hold this two-bedroom-plus-kitchen-and-bath to my ear and hear the rushing of my blood, rushing like the traffic on Massachusetts Avenue, rushing like thoughts in the estuaries of minutes. I could do laundry all night or scrub the bathtub or unpack the last boxes, but nothing can hold back the salty, pungent fingerlets of quiet. You will press me against the sheets, flutter the curtains, give me back dreams speaking in voices made strange by distance. I will wake in the morning–will my breath remember me, will my spirit be returned back from the rooms’ shell, caverns echoing and empty? Will I remember the outbound journey on the ruffled waters, the sly unmooring of self the quiet night accomplished? Or will I forget, as I sometimes want to, and become something simple and untinged by loss, or loneliness, or the ordinary greatness required to live on the shores of this unborn and unrelenting sea?

Explicit, tacit; explicitly

As some of you who also follow me on Twitter or Instagram may have gathered, I’ve moved from New Haven to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The biggest, and most materially relevant reason, is for graduate school. I also am beginning to think it was simply time for me to move on. Other transitions and changes were happening in my life, and a physical move of location and the reorganization which inevitably accompanies that packing/unpacking dyad has ended up corresponding very closely to, and complementing quite precisely, those transitions and changes.

First and foremost, I returned my precepts. In other words, I returned to laylife. The decision was slow in its gestation, although the timing of the actual return of my kasa to my Zen Master was influenced heavily by the start of summer classes this June. As one friend put it, “Do you want to start off graduate school in one mode, then switch partway through and have to explain that to everyone? Wouldn’t it be easier if you simply started graduate school, beginning with the summer class, as a layperson?” Since I was settled in my decision to return my monastic precepts, it didn’t feel premature to return my kasa this May, when I was in Korea.

Despite the superficially public nature of a decision like this, superficial in that the effects of the decision are immediately visible in my dress and behavior, and anyone who knows me would recognize right away that something had shifted even if I didn’t tell her, I’ve been reluctant to write about this decision here. Reluctant for so many reasons, and reluctant for reasons that have no rationale, but simply because it felt (feels) so intensely private at times. This sense of privacy is strong, even though I literally wear the decision publically every day, much as I publically wore the decision to ordain every day, in the form of monastic robes. I’m not sure that private is the opposite of public, though, not in this sense. It’s been a month since I formally returned my kasa, and for this month I’ve been content to be both public and private about the decision. Not everything needs to be live-Tweeted. Not every moment or event is Instagramed. Nor should it be. This perhaps is the new privacy: the things we simply do, without attempting to record it on a social-media outlet. This was not something I was ready to announce beyond the people who either know me quite well in real life, or who see me every day.

And yet: I have always included not just my religiousity, but also my religious/monastic identity, in my writing here. If I haven’t written much (or at all) for the past year or so, I know that much of that silence came from the real tensions and unbearably private difficulties I felt surrounding both my personal religiousity and my monastic identity and life. To write anything honest would have required admitting to not only myself but to you, dear readers who find this blog from all over and some of whom I know and some of whom I do not, that I was struggling at a fundamental level with the entire foundation and edifice of my life.

Admitting difficulty is not something monastics really do. We do it, but in retrospect. “One time, when I was struggling with my practice…” “Once, when I was a young nun, my understanding of faith totally fell apart…” “Oh, I hear you, when I have dark times like that…” But rarely do we put it in the present tense even if it’s a current challenge, this very moment, even with each other, outside all but a close circle of friends and mentors. We do not disclose our real-time struggles, but wait until the moment passes so we can use it as a distal reference point. Too proximate, and it can’t be discussed. It’s as if these moments themselves exert a force preventing easy communication.

(Even in that paragraph, I slipped into “we.” There is slippage, a sloppy middle sphere; transitional, liminal.)

To write here that I had returned my precepts was to tacitly admit that I had had difficulties, and difficulties that wouldn’t be relegated to retrospection, “That time when I had a crisis of faith…” Unlike other difficulties in my monastic life which could be embraced by the robes and their effects hidden in some way, I had (have) unreconciliable, irrevocable difficulties. Difficulties that ruptured some fundamental tie to a monastic vocation. Difficulties that pushed the robes away. I wasn’t ready for that tacit admittance, until I felt like I was comfortable saying explicitly: I struggled with my monastic vocation greatly over the past three years or so, and the end I decided that to live authentically and as wholly as possible, I needed to leave. I couldn’t explicitly say it until I was able to own the tacit confession involved, too.

Maybe these difficulties will find new places to hide, like in the pages of textbooks, or in the pockets of my now-colorful wardrobe. For now, however, there is something very bare and open about them, and it was that bareness that had me shying away from writing anything here. Too bare, too open; not a state in which to make an announcement like this, I felt. I have not yet “had difficulties”; I am still having them, still walking through new landscapes of living and feeling both assured and bewildered by turns. I thrill at new freedoms, and I grieve deeply for the loss of old ones.

So, all the packing and unpacking has been good, helpful; it’s shown me that the boxes I store my life in literally and figuratively erupt into an interspliced melange when I unpack. I may use the words “irrevocable” and “rupture,” but it’s clear from where I sit (on a broken chair) in my still-underfurnished and box-strewn apartment, that there is also a continuum in my life. My religiousity remains. My religious identity is still here, in the form of ministry and community building, and I’ll look for other ways to fulfill a clerical or priestly vocation, although not a monastic one. My old kasa from when I was a novice and two kasa from my grandteacher and teacher are a part of the altar. My texts from seminary are carefully shelved. I have all the pictures of the various monastic communities I was a part of, and I will find places to display some of them.

It’s been a little over a month since I formally returned my precepts and my robe to our Zen Master in Korea. It’s taken me this long to say anything in this sphere (no tweeting, no Facebook) because I care so deeply about not only how I’ve now chosen to live, but how I did choose to live, too, and out of respect for my brothers and sisters who still live a monastic life. I really believe that you can’t take your own choices lightly without becoming superficial with others’ choices, and I owe the sangha the weight and time of consideration as much as I owe myself. It took over a month to find words roughly equal to the task. The weight of years and the many relationships involved in my monastic life have held me mute; what could I say that could possibly convey both the debt and the relief of these shifting but never absent relationships?

Honestly, one thing I hope comes out of making this announcement here is that some of the stuckness and silence I’ve experience creatively will ease. Having made my situation clear to both myself and others, maybe I can begin to reground myself creatively, and write again. The fundamental connection between honesty with myself and the ability to write has rarely been clearer than the last several years. With both personal and public honesty, maybe I’ll be able to re-engage writing.

To all the readers, known and unknown, thank you.

The wind wraps a thick-corded hand

5:10 pm

The wind wraps a thick-corded hand around the house and hums. Moving shadows—must be the neighbor’s trees—pass bars of light and dark over the kitchen table through the blinds. I have a pot of chili to make for a party on Saturday, but what I really want to do is curl up in bed with a book and listen to the wind. But I won’t; I’ll bow to the quotidian (laundry, packing) and honor anticipation (a party!) and carve my way through the wind-thick evening.