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.

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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?

Letter from Boston

The girl in the Beacon Hill cafe has a double-strand of Job’s Tears around her neck. They are a shiny pale blue and small. Looking at them lying against her smooth nape, I think of Korea. In Korea we made malas out of them. One late summer we harvested the hard pods from a Job’s Tears plant growing on the edge of the fields. They were pale green and unpretty, the awkward color of unripe fruit. But the harvesting was the work of our hands and the cleaning of the thin seeds from inside the pod was the work of our hands and the stringing of the pods into wrist malas: the work. Of our hands.

What are you doing with our malas around your neck?

In my head, I sound confused, unable to square what I see with what I know. I shake my head. Those aren’t our malas. This is not Korea.

What does it mean to constantly be pulling myself back over the divide between worlds, between cultures?

On Beacon Hill I passed a brownstone with a burgundy upholstered settee placed against a curved window on the second floor, between sheer ivory curtains. The brownstones of Beacon Hill were well-appointed. I could tell looking in the windows, observing the fresh coat of paint on each graceful door. I could never have chosen that burgundy, those curtains, placed the settee in that window, visible to the street. The moment I looked at it, walking by on the street outside, I knew it to be an emblem of a life of which I could not partake. I don’t have the knack, not for that kind of life.

What are you doing with our malas around your neck?

Yesterday in Harvard Square I marveled at how unlike New Haven Cambridge is. The small neat shops lining the streets unfurling in arabesques around the square, the several “Irish Pubs” with gilded lettering on their signs, the evident affluence of the entire area. Harvard itself, much more self-contained than Yale. I tried to go into the library, but didn’t have a Harvard ID, so I gazed up the interior steps to a door, through which a powder-wigged portrait was visible, and I thought I could catch the gleam of polished wood and sconce lighting. Then I left and walked across Harvard Yard, noticing the preponderance of crimson clothing.

Today I rode the bus from Central Square to Newbury Street. In fifteen years on and around the East Coast, I had never been to Harvard’s campus, I had never walked Boston Common. Today was a steel-gray day. I underdressed. I had anticipated yesterday’s sunny warmth, the thin cheerfulness of early spring in New England. What I got was the scorpion’s sting of winter’s last.

I stopped in every church between Massachusetts Avenue and the Common. At Trinity Episcopal Church I stepped in and said a few rounds on the mala.

I am in sore need of guestship.

I find solace and welcome in the empty pews of churches. No one looks for me there, no one asks me to do anything. The crucifix brings the body back into the experience of suffering: none of that “no-self” stuff here. I am not a theologian. I am not making a theological statement when I say: in churches, I feel that my suffering is allowed in a different way than I feel it is allowed in temples. I need to see the hurting body, the crown of thorns, the obvious pain, to understand our own suffering.

When I say understand, I do not mean cognize. I mean experience. Which also means the words have already failed me, trying to write this down.

What does it mean to fail in the attempted crossing between two worlds?
What does it mean to fail?
Is it a failure?

I approach the altars and the icons unburdened: this is not my religion. What are you doing with our malas around your neck? I finger the beads, look up at the stained glass. Another woman is walking around, taking pictures with a digital camera. She is silent, the camera is silent. Not even the digitized shutter click retrofitted on new technology like a forgery, like antiquing documents with tea and dirt. I get up and leave.

In the gift shop, I buy a small glazed ceramic cross, solid red on one side and a shattered confetti rainbow on the other. I put it in my pocket and finger it the whole day. My senior year in seminary I was told that I needed more “red” energy in my personality. The person who told me this was a senior administrator who was getting into color therapy. It was something she did, call each of us into her room and run us through a rubric of color selection not unlike Tarot cards, in my opinion; we selected bottles filled with colored liquids, one of water and one of oil, so that they separated out. Each bottle had two possible colors, one on top and one on the bottom. I chose a set of four bottles, with only two colors throughout in different combinations: olive green and aquamarine. What I needed to balance out that set was red or magenta, the senior administrator told me.

I thought of that today in the gift shop of Trinity Episcopal. I was drawn toward the emerald crosses, the deep indigo crosses. I deliberately chose the red one. I put it in my pocket and I rubbed it between my thumb and forefinger all day, a talisman.

Of what?

I do this. I find a little thing, an icon, and I try to anchor myself with it. But in a few weeks I’ll pull it out of my pocket and it’ll go on my altar with all the other mementos. An altar to the shifting relationships between moment and memory. An altar to the mutability of need. I needed a red cross in my pocket today. When I look at it tomorrow or even later I’ll remember a steel-gray Boston day, the calm silence of the church, the graffiti in the alleys, the mounted policeman in the park. The burgundy settee in the window, between the parted ivory curtains. All the things I saw and knew I would forget, have already forgotten. The beautiful girl with long dark hair pulled into a bun and a double-strand of Job’s Tears at the base of her graceful neck. My confusion. What are you doing with our malas? But the need will be gone.

I once kept a photo-journal whose theme was red. I photographed red, and found red in poems everywhere, wrote those poems down next to the photographs. I asked myself what red might mean. It was a dark winter. Red was the living ember, red was blood and life. Among other things. Other things included fire hydrants and stop signs. Those could also be read, like texts or Tarot cards: interpreted. They did not have to mean one thing or another. Sure, they meant in case of fire and squeeze the brakes until forward motion ceases. But if this were a novel, if this were a poem, if this were a life and you weren’t in a fire or a car right this instant, they could mean many different things beyond their strict utility, depending on the person reading them, the time of year or life they were read, the previous events of the day. They had mutable meanings within the general frame of common utility associated with the object and the color.

What are you doing with our malas around your neck?

I took the subway back to Central Square from Beacon Hill. The wind was persistent and I didn’t want to walk all the way back to Mass Ave to stand in the cold for a bus. Used to the multi-line, 30 minute-plus rides that characterize Seoul and New York, I was amazed to get off a mere three or four stops later. I walked back to my room, shoulders hunched and hands jammed into my pockets, feeling the smoothness of the cross, stopping at every intersection. Waiting for the light to change.

Then walking on.

With apologies to JD Daniels and Joan Didion.