my "letteracies" -- installment 3

this penultimate installment of excerpts from the india chronicles has a bit of a smorgasbord feel to it. i wonder what a journey across space and time does to an almost 18-year-old. by "does" i mean both the effect on an older adolescent's sense of self as well as the cultivation of an affect and aesthetic of self. how do encounters with multiple others, and the unfamiliar readings of oneself by others, shape a sense of self? and all the while that these encounters are happening and musings are coming in and out of focus, the chronicles putter along with a dual audience in mind -- the intended reader as well as the writer, herself. the pale green steno paper on which these words were scribbled, sometimes with haste and other times with deliberate script, are suggestive of a narrative not only being told but also one being made in real time.
I had a fascinating dream last night. I wrote down what I could concretely remember and I’d explain it but it’s confusing, even for me. More than the actual events of my dream, I remember the feelings – both emotions and physical – that occurred. Is there any real value worth giving to dream analysis? I’ve always heard that dreams are symbols of something. Are they?

i've been thinking a lot about aesthetics and literacies -- about how we feel when we engage with or encounter a text, even a text such as a dream. about how texts and related artifacts stay with us. how they linger long after the moment of encounter. how memory shapes them into the recesses of our minds, pushes them deep into our bodies, waiting for the right occasion or trigger to release them back into our consciousness. it is akin to the connection others have with smells or sounds; for me, it has always been words. i remember how i felt when my 2nd grade teacher insisted on mispronouncing my name even after i had meekly corrected her for the umpteenth time; she insisted on rhyming the 2nd syllable of my name with the word "with" when i desperately wished for her to realize its aural kinship to the word "teeth." 

and i sometimes get lost when the words of another hold me in place while the conversation moves along, leaving me holding my thoughts in quiet as the world rushes forward. like when i was told long ago that my face registered on it the hundreds of fleeting flashes of thought as i listened intently to people in dialogue, taking in their words and gestures and formulating a measured response. whenever a passer-by encourages me to "smile!" or reminds me that "it's not so bad!" as my face contorts when lost in thought. and in those moments, those words come rushing back; i had never had anyone read my face before nor has anyone done so since.
OK, still the eighth of August. We finished packing. Before that, though, j asked who I was writing to. i, looking at the first page, said that it must be a generic letter because it wasn’t addressed to anyone – all it says is “Hi!” so I said I was writing to you. Then she asked if it was a letter or if I was writing a book! I simply told her that writing to you was like writing in a diary, only better. It’s like having a sounding board. Somehow, when I write things down I feel better; when I write them to you, I not only feel better but I can think clearer. And besides, I like writing to you – above all else, it’s wonderfully fun!

this passage reminds me of a quote imprinted on the side of a mug given to me by a high school teacher who i adored, and about whom these particular words by eleanor roosevelt ring quite true, "Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart." i am reminded, also, of what another friend said about the ideas and words and meanings we carry with us. friendship is that, i suppose. we shift just a little bit with each encounter, but some change us forever. i'm thinking of people, themselves, as well as the words they share with us. and the stories they invite us -- move us -- to share with them.
I begin this passage not just as a citizen of the world and earnest observer of life, but as one who has visited the site of one of the wonders of the world: The Taj Mahal. It was strange actually going there, though.

last week i attended one of three racial literacy roundtables being held at tc, coordinated by the lovely yolanda and a group of earnest and thoughtful graduate students. one of the facilitators for the evening ventured forth a story by way of introduction to the evening's theme of stereotypes. (the word immediately takes me back to a moment from my childhood when i first heard the word "gandhi" used as an insult hurled toward me... and i was confused then, as i remain now, as to why the name of this icon of non-violence would be insulting to me. ah, youthful ignorance!) this young women noted that it was only upon entering graduate school that she realized that all of her friends were just like her, they looked just like her, shared her life experiences. so, when it became my turn to introduce myself, i wondered aloud, whether we don't all look for a glimpse of familiarity when we connect -- not only within presumed "sameness" but also across differences.  that is, might we not see something familiar in someone who does not share our phenotypic makeup and yet be "just like us?" and perhaps i am keenly aware of this as most of the people who have and continue to leave footprints in my heart look nothing like me, but they are my twin skin, nevertheless.


my "letteracies" -- installment 2

what is the impetus to put pen to paper, or these days to type in the key of a letter? do we resist because we don't have time? or do we assume that our recipient, whomever he or she may be, can't or won't make time for such trivialities? have we lost our ability to render ourselves vulnerable, not only to people in our lives, but to our very selves? are we afraid that if every minute isn't spent with just the slightest hint of suffering and laboriousness, that we ought to feel guilt; rather than creating the spaces for unpredictability, exploration, aimlessness that we (as adults) and certainly that children and youth so desperately need? i think we're just all a bit terrified of looking foolish...
Happy August! I’m back at my grandmother’s house in Madras. We finished the southern leg of our India trip without too much of a problem. All in all I’d say it went well. … in about 1 month and 3 days I will be all moved in at Penn; for that reason alone I can’t wait to get home. That and the fact that I can mail you this thing, which I predict will be a pretty hefty package by the time I finish!
given my constant attention to time, temporality, and location in these excerpts, perhaps it is not a surprise that theories of space/time captured my imagination from the first read.  references to college are peppered throughout the pages of the chronicle, suggesting a restlessness that is to be expected of an adolescent during the summer before leaving home for college.
Ahoy, again! Or actually I should say “All aboard!” or something like that, because at this very moment I’m aboard the Corumendal Express en route to Calcutta. It is about 9:15pm and we’ve been on the train for over twelve hours. But we have air conditioned sleeping compartments, so it’s a whole “lotta” fun! It wasn’t more than an hour ago that tears were streaming down my face in reaction to the conclusion of one o the best books I have ever read, “The Prince of Tides.” The last thirty of so pages were absolute torture, but I loved every minute of it I haven’t had a book move me like this one did in a long time. it felt good to know and experience the beauty of a language that could evoke such true feeling and emotion. Perhaps I’m wrong in saying language. A more accurate statement would be that knowing that a contemporary author like Pat Conroy could have such a mastery of language that really and truly clutches your gut – well, it both strengthens and illuminates the aura of literature in the world today.

I just finished listening to some guy literally yelp the words “Love and happiness” over and over as accompaniment to a beautiful Sandborne sax. But that’s not the point’ it’s what he was saying, rather than how, that inspired this next passage.

Ok, let’s take these words into perspective: LOVE and HAPPINESS.
What the hell does that mean?!?!?!?
Love. I wrote an essay on this same topic. Now perhaps you’re wondering what credentials I had that gave me license to write about this great wonder of wonder. Well I had, still have, and always will have the one trait that I share with about four and half billing other creatures that inhabit the earth: the trait of being human and having the capacity to love. The trait that not only allows me to feel, but to express to the world these feelings – if I so choose.
So I embarked on a voyage that required self-examination to great degrees on my part. As the essay took shape, bit by bit, I realized that love really is more than one thing, that it is many things, and that I was one hell of a lucky person to have even experienced the different kinds of love I had [experienced] in these seventeen years, ten months, and 25 days (and counting) of my life. Granted that one of those [kinds] did not include the one thing always linked to love: romantic love. But I’m beginning to see that everything comes in its own time; besides I had so much else to write about.
i marvel that i thought someone would want to read these words, these crazy and meandering musings. this tablet was nestled in a box alongside dozens of other letters that dated back to my middle school days. i had french pen pals -- bruno and madeleine -- and exchanged letters of varying length with friends i would meet for a day, some with whom i attended school, and others i met in a month-long residential program during the summer after my junior in high school -- where i met my friend L as well as my now-husband. some envelopes are decorated with artwork, others -- especially the ones sent to me by my younger sister -- were adorned with stickers and doodles and last minute messages hastily scribbled onto available blank space of envelopes.

11:45pm is the time as I say hello again from Calcutta. It’s hard to believe that I lived here for three years of my life. My dad used to describe the city to me at the time when he was growing up. I knew it wasn’t the poshest of locations, but I didn’t expect such an onslaught of smog, pollution, and more people!! I always pictured Calcutta as very black and white – that’s probably because of all the black and white photographs I’ve seen of my dad’s childhood.

We visited some friends of my parents, who still live in the same apartment building. (The guy was dad’s childhood friend and had lived in the same apt. for 54 years!) Then we saw a lady who supposedly was my friend. Mom said that I’d spent more time at her house that at home; their flat is right next to ours. Both she and the previous couple I mentioned had last seen me when I was 3 ½ -4 years old. Boy were they shocked when they found out who I was!
as i read my old letters from my friends, and as i sit with the chronicle that was never sent, i am reminded of how much meaning comes through in the space of correspondence. such was one of the great joys in the story of the "goat on a cow" (which was recently re-interpreted as an amazing feat of dance choreography), in which the discovery of a stack of letters along the side of a road led to the unveiling of a relationship and identities once thought long forgotten. the finding of letters, whether they be familiar or new discoveries, is reminiscent of a near-sacred moment -- the opening up and peering into of the middle of a conversation, of a self being crafted and gently unfolding as the words create lines that take up pages. once i got past the initial cringing that is bound to occur as the inner critic rears her ugly head, i was able to see connections to some of the uncertainties, frustrations, earnestness, confusions, and emotional dilemmas that i see echoed in my conversations with many young people today. and perhaps more than anything, i was struck by the acts of making public aspects of a very inner and private dialogue. they made me wonder if and how youth are carving out those spaces in their quotidian discursive activities today -- where? how? with and for whom?

installment 3 to come shortly...
installment 1 here


my "letteracies" -- installment 1

i've always found letters to be magical in nature. not only receiving them -- although i will admit that receiving a letter in my mailbox or a meandering email in these days of communiqué barely the length of tweets thrills me to no end -- but also writing them. unlike other forms of writing in which i routinely engage, so often driven by someone else's needs or demands, letters beckon to a different voice, an all-too-often quieted voice -- a voice of go-nowhere-quick ideas, confusing-at-best and nonsensical-at-worst punctuation, ambitious descriptions that sometimes fall quite short (but the joy is in attempting play with language); in letters, i get lost, happily lost.

i was positively jubilant, therefore, when i recently came across a 6"x9" ruled writing tablet that contained nearly 20 pages (double-sided) filled with musings, commentary, and often just idle chatter that i had composed while traveling across india during the summer after my high school graduation. for four weeks, i rode trains, boarded planes, squeezed into cars, jeeps, and all other manner of conveyance -- even a "boat" that looked like an upside-down mushroom, made of tightly stretched buffalo hide -- with my parents, my two siblings and my two friends as we journeyed north and south and east and west through the country where i was born. what makes this chronicle particularly intriguing to me is that it was written as a very long letter to my friend L with whom i had exchanged periodic correspondence for nearly a year before. letters, written long hand, before email was de rigueur.

as it is probably obvious by now, i never sent this travel chronicle and when i read it again in its entirety just a few weeks ago, i am even more thankful that it stayed with me. the letter writing space that my friend had opened up for me nurtured my curiosities, heightened my engagement with the world, and invited me to consider new audiences for my words and work.  for a then-17-year-old, such a space was simply wondrous. a true gift. and one that i have been able to reconstitute to some degree in newly found and "founded" spaces of correspondence. in this vein, i echo the joy of letters found in one of my favorite blogs, the letter writing revolution.

so, in the spirit of engaging with that young, 17-year-old girl -- and because i promised my friend i would share bits of these missives, no matter how silly and embarrassing they may be after so much time has passed! -- i'm going to spend the next few blog posts reprinting excerpts from the chronicle, not to navel gaze, but rather to become reacquainted with my former self and to rejuvenate my empathy for young people who are constantly negotiating multiple terrains in which they are striving to make themselves known. in that spirit, i offer these nascent scribblings as a springboard to my own memory work around the many meanings of writing -- and of letter writing in particular -- in my life. (and in so doing hope for generous readers who recognize and are willing to overlook the clumsiness of an adolescent seeking and crafting a voice out of words...)


… So, where am I now? At this point in time I am sitting in an uncomfortable, hexagon-shaped stool in a hexagon-filled hotel room in Mysore, India. … It’s been about a week now and I feel like I’m just going through the motions. … Today’s the 5th straight day we’ve been travelin and sightseeing and the strain is slowly beginning to have a negative effect on everyone’s demeanor. We’re all getting kinda testy!

Well today was more than fabulous and I am sitting here in the Kabini River Lodge in the middle of a national forest.  [Earlier today] we boarded a most wonderfully bumpy jeep and were given a 2½ hour tour of Nagarhole National Forest. But wait, it gets better: aside from the countless groups of deer jumping, leaping and standing still, we saw, up close and personal, bison, peacocks, and my personal favorite, a beautiful group of elephants. One even started to charge at us! As you can most likely tell this was absolutely, unquestionably, fantabulously, indescribably GREAT! The fact that we had to get out and push the jeep out of the mud a couple of times only added to this adventure.

Right now it’s about 10:25pm and the only sound besides the ceiling fan and this pen writing on this paper is the soft murmur of crickets whispering outside. No horns, cars, people; nothing but simplicity. I wish we could stay here for a few more days.

OK, that was a question break. So, tell me, how are you doing? I know you can’t tell me right now… but oh well. Are you all set for another year out in the wilderness in WV? Is it really that “isolationary?” you go out and have a good time, I’m pretty sure… right?
Do you ever just close your eyes and for just an instant feel your body being lifted – feel weightless? A sensation similar to a vacuum flows through your entire being like a flash of lightning. Every in of skin feels the instantaneous tingling, like a feather barely touching the hairs on your arm, legs, and neck. Your eyes seem to be traveling through the brain. This is an instant of complete and absolute peace and inner harmony.
And then, it’s over.

...more musings and chronicle excerpts to come in installment 2...