Monday, September 19, 2011

Coming home from Oz

I'm sitting here, quietly listening to quiet music that fits me, as they say, like a glove.  It's funny how you can put on a favorite song and in a moment, an instant, an instantaneous moment, be transported to that oh-so-good place.  Tonight, for me, it is Dan Auerbach that is doing the transporting.  Thank you Mr. Auerbach, I needed this.

I am slowly, inch by inch, reclaiming a space and home that I can call my own.  After spending several months in France in a perpetual state of motion and several weeks after that back in Seattle living mostly out of my car as I ran around the city looking for new digs, I am finally, finally, at rest.  Here it is, an apartment with a key that I carry with me.  A place that welcomes me with that sweet, stuffy, old smell every time I walk in the door (it's an old building, folks).  Home.

It's been a long time since I've been so mobile (and so homeless) that I'd forgotten how hard it can be to be without a place to rest my hat.  It is a joy to make a big fat mess in the middle of my living room and then, get this...leave it.  Overnight!  Oh the indulgence.  Right now I have dishes sitting next to my sink that have been there for two days and I probably won't wash them til--oh I'm gonna be a rebel here--Wednesday.  Not to be a slob or anything, just to not have to think or worry or agonize over who will have to clean up my mess if I don't.  No one else is here, so no one else to bother.

Being in France gave me an incredible appreciation for home.  Not for Seattle necessarily, but for the places we build, the nests we feather, the sweet, cozy spots we set our favorite books, put on our music, and hang our things on the walls--the places we create.  This creating is so necessary a part of the human experience that I truly believe without it, we might as well be dead.  At least a part of us certainly is, anyway.  To create textures, rhythms, sounds and smells in our lives that are familiar, comforting and necessary because they are ours--this is to make a home.  I love this.  I love building a relationship with a place, a room, a configuration of furniture, a tree outside my window--anything--as I walk beside it each day, as I pass through the moments of my life, this becomes my theater, this is my stage.  A stage for me alone, perhaps, but that is irrelevant.  Home is the place where we are both performer and audience, performing as we spin together the threads of our lives and audience as we witness the beauty that emerges from this spinning.  Have you ever had a really great party at your place, stood back and been contentedly thrilled with all the great people in presence with you?  This is the moment you are audience to your own life, watching what your many spinnings have brought about you.  I feel this same way when I cook a great meal, or bring to life a new plant--both actor and audience; my home is my stage.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Where are we? We are here.

As many of you have probably guessed by now from my last entry, I am in France. Micael and I have decided to spend three months here this spring and summer to try and figure out whatever there is to figure out about this country.  Now, you may be thinking that this seems like a vague objective, and you would be right.  In fact, I agree wholeheartedly.  And this is why I'm still not sure exactly why we are here.

So rather than Three Months in Provence, I should probably title these entries Here We Go Into Even More 'Twenty-Something' Ambiguity.  Micael and I are essentially jobless, or even more importantly, we are career-less, we have no apartment or official address, we are practically using an Eagle Creek suitcase as our closet, and this is the kicker to our deepening state of ambiguity--we have no idea what comes next.  We've come to France for so many reasons that we can't quite figure out the main reason why we are here. A little bit of vacation, a little bit of Thiodet family bonding, a little bit of Briana learning French, a little bit of trying France on for size.  This trip has become everything, and in trying to make this trip everything, I am completely confused about what it is actually supposed to be.  Am I supporting Micael as he discovers what this place means to him?  Am I trying to learn French and claim a place here myself?  Are we relaxing and soaking up beautiful southern sun...? Oh the options--every day presents a dozen new ones, like eggs in a carton, waiting to be cracked.

I feel a bit as if I'm on a sojourn.  A kind of twenty-first century pilgrim trying to make sense of my world and my place in it by journeying to another.  The movie Away We Go comes to mind, in which a young couple, unexpectedly pregnant, decide to travel through the United States trying to choose the best place to set down roots and raise a child.  Similarly undirected, this couple could live anywhere, do anything--they just need to decide where and what.  They need to decide, most importantly, what it is they want. I've learned from heart-wrenching practice that knowing what I want is both the question and the answer, it is the becoming, it is the journey.

So here we are in France. An obvious destination as it brings us back to Micael's roots. But a past does not always help determine a future. I think we both came here hoping that France would strike us over the head, throw us in a sack and never let us leave. And of course, why would we want to?  We both somewhere (at times more secretly than others) hoped to be captured by this country. After only three weeks here, we're still waiting for France to give chase.

This trip may not be meant for us to discover a life right now in France. Or maybe it is, but this won't come until week 11 of our trip--more of that ambiguity I mentioned earlier. What is more important is that we are journeying. Being here is opening the floodgates of spring, allowing the first fresh waters to flow out into the fields, ripening wild flowers. It is giving us so much to think, to ponder, to wonder.  Each of those ripening flowers, a new possibility. For now we wander, and in the wandering, my hope makes me certain, we will find our next place.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

dipping into France

It's the French

I made a phone call this morning to a school to which I recently applied for a job.  This school is an international, bilingual school in southern France and although at a bilingual school one might expect to encounter bilingual people, this is still, after all, France, and so one is expected to do one's best to speak french.  Knowing this and dreading the actual experience of speaking french to another human being rather than in my own head, I have made all sorts of excuses why I really don't need to call and follow up on this position at all.  Certainly they will contact me when they are ready, or it would be best to email yet again so that I can choose my words carefully and with the help of my human translator (aka, my husband), or actually--and this is really the best excuse--it is possible that my husband's stepmom's friend knows the school director and will happen to mention that I am here in Provence and ready to work just about whenever.  If any of these things will please happen, I will not have to make this dreaded phone call in french.

No dice. Just like any job in any country that I have ever applied for, persistence pays off and a personal phone call, appearance or handshake can really move things along. Particularly here, where personal relationships seem to count for much more in the hiring process than do well-written resum├ęs.  So call I must.  I would actually prefer to just show up at the school and introduce myself in person, benefitting from the fact that my fluency in french pleasantly increases when hand motions, smiles and nods are involved.  But at the risk of seeming presumptuous, intrusive or culturally inappropriate, I must call first and get the ok to show up on their doorstep for a meeting.

Why is this so scary?  I've traveled to several countries without speaking the language, worked with teenaged orphaned girls without speaking their language, worked with rural guatemalan farmers without speaking their language, dated a chilean waiter without really speaking his language; what is it about this experience that is so much more daunting?  Oh, that one's easy to answer.  It's the French.

The French who love their language as if it were a child.  The French who speak quickly and curtly and stare at you quizzically for the most minor of mispronunciations.  The French who love sport so much that they have made a sport of their own words for the exercise of their tongues, dipping and turning, leaping through words, curling rrr's and eee's and uuu's with a robust fragility, the paradox of which only the French can attain. The language of this country is not simply language, it is art.  And in a country where art is not simply art, but is much more akin to religion, you can imagine how precious is the act of speaking.

And this, this is what terrifies me to make the phone call I must make in french.  I avoid and distract, stammer, defer and change the subject.  Finally, I accept my fate, and then, I cry.  I squeeze out the last bit of debilitating fear and then grab pen and paper and write out any possible phrase I might be called on to utter in this terrifying language.  Micael coaches me on the best way to arrange my words, questions they might ask me, and the best way to ask them to please (for the love of art!) speak more slowly.  I dial, my stomach flips, it rings, two more flips, they answer, it drops into my toenails, and I let fly a rapid series of all the phrases I have written before me in an order that I can only pray makes sense.  An answer--the woman I am asking for does not work today.  My response--and when...?  Tomorrow.  Au revoir!  And click.  The whole debacle lasted less than, who knows?! Four seconds?  It's over.  Which is what I think for about four second more before I realize that I've just set myself up for a re-run tomorrow.

Oh, the joys of stretching one's horizons. Let tomorrow come.  Whatever doesn't kill me will just give me cause to go drink another glass of wine.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Let the working make me

I've been toying with the idea lately of being a writer.  I throw that word out there and let it hang, suspended, waiting perhaps to see if it will come back at me and smack me in the face, attaching itself to me like a faithful labrador puppy.  I wait to see if the word will claim me.  It doesn't really seem like a title that I can rightly claim myself.  Aren't artists made by their work, not by their words?  Of course, you could say that a writer is precisely made by their words.  But a writer should be made by their visions, their stories, their great and beautiful essays, satires, comedies or poems, not by any words they claim of themselves.  So to wait and watch this word, this title--writer--seems unfitting of the post.  If I am to be made, I will be made by writing.  When I think about it, I would hope rather than to be a writer, to simply be known as someone who writes.

I once lent a book I thought to be completely incredible (It claimed its place as best book I have ever read several years ago and never lost that position) to a very close friend.  I told her the book was amazing and she would love it.  She got about a chapter through it before noticing the photo of the author on the back of the book, found herself annoyed by his apparently smug expression and refused to go any further.  After reading so many more of this author's books and at moments literally laughing out loud or in turn, crying, from his stories, I wish I could convince this friend to get over that damn picture.  But she won't.  For her, his stories are too closely tied to him as a person, as a writer, and she can't enjoy the stories for their own sake.

This seems to be a bit of the fallout of our capitalist conundrum.  In any time or place throughout history, a familiar face, name or title has helped to sell any product.  A large part of any decision, including purchasing, is emotional, and trust sells.  So the best way to sell books in our current age of distant communities is to create a name--create a writer that people will follow--build trust in a brand.  In some ways this is natural and appropriate, as all kinds of transactions are more meaningful when they belong within a relationship (even if that relationship is only imagined, as in the case of many authors and audiences).  However, as in the case of my friend and the smug author, sometimes this attempt to create a fictional relationship between the author and reader misfires.  Sometimes the author's likeability becomes more important than what it is they are writing.

This, if true, is a shame.  It turns art and creativity into another marketing objective and a big, mad, frenzied popularity contest.  In the hopes of securing book deals, bloggers write to readers' tastes, sometimes writing with strategically chosen words so as to land more 'hits' in internet searches.  To be a free-lance writer now means to find out what people want to read about and what advertisers want you to write about and then trying to mold yourself around these market demands in the most poppy, quirky, flashy or intimate way possible.  Writers have become politicians, catering to their constituents, rather than the artists I want to believe they should be.

It is for this reason that whatever writing means in my life, now or in the future, I will always wrestle with the title vs. the reality.  Perhaps it is better to remain anonymous so that one's writing might be judged on its own merits.  In this way, I would hope, something more beautiful, more original and most, most importantly, more true will emerge from the process.  For, I believe, this is what art is meant to be--the search, unceasing, for truth and beauty, even if one does not always equal the other.  Writing should say something that matters, as the long-winded Russian novelists always have done.  Of course writing might also entertain, be light and frothy and easy to read in an afternoon.  But in this, the truth is in the offering of a joyful experience, and the focus is always on the writing, not the writer.

It seems I must be content, then, to let this title float, unclaimed, and find my peace as Buddhists urge, without ownership.  As I write, I realize the many ways this should ring true in my life. Let rest the title and joyfully claim the work.  Let the working make me, much as this writing has done.  And in this moment, I realize exactly why I do it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

heady in the streetlight

I feel my world slowly prodding along. Like a toddler's first footsteps, slow and measured. Nothing hurried, nothing too daring. Maybe because life was passing so quickly for so long, the contrast is striking. Slow and measured. In just a week all of my rhythms have changed.

I have to admit, I still feel the anxious energy of being a graduate student and teacher. How can it be that I can lie on the couch and read a book all Sunday afternoon? There must be work! I must be missing something. This is so...lazy.

But, no.  It's real. I drink in the slowly rolling hours. Relish the small tasks that punctuate my day. I work, still, five days a week. But the work is different. I come home with my mind still securely in my head, my heart still full, my energy still with me. Even in my work, I feel indulgent.

I was walking home late last Thursday night. I passed the laundromat, the coffee shop, the little bistro and the old church on the corner. I walked slowly once I reached my street, always a bit slowly after the long hill. I looked up, looked around and was struck by the streetlight filtering through the pink blossoms of a cherry tree and glinting off of a beautiful blue Dodge truck. I normally would not be taken by the sight of an automobile, regardless of engine size or paint job, but this was different. The contrast of colors, the richness of the blue and the pink, the single cone of light on an otherwise dark street. All of it came together so smoothly, so fittingly, it created a feeling much like that of a beautifully sung aria.  These moments capture me. When something so full, so bold, so haunting crosses before me that I can't help but pause and admire. I stood for a full minute before I was satisfied that I'd fully appreciated what the moment was worth. It passes, so quickly. If I walked past and then returned it would be different. Something in me met with something in that streetlight. I'm so thankful the time to be present is returning to me. I'm here, ready for life to take hold.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

a moment's making

They say March comes in like a lion.
I feel this lion at my back, urging, roaring, prodding me forward
not fear, not danger, but
the intensity strips me bare

Every part of me unfolded

this lion is the wind that wears me, through and over
the reminder that growth comes slowly
small green buds push mightily through wet dirt
birth is never easy

and I wonder
with this neverending wailing
when does softness come

I reach you, in moments
I feel the tender whisper of your touch

yet the lion reminds me more is coming
more might be done
that more might be found

I greeted this lion
let him in
I didn't expect
but who ever does

even in spring's sweetness there is danger
of life giving birth to itself, again
the uncertainty of becoming

yet in all of it the beauty of a moment's making

Monday, March 07, 2011

The wind does hold me close

the coming shapes

I've been absent for the past two weeks--forgive me.  I've been in the midst of taking thesis exams, both written and oral, in order to finally, finally! complete my masters degree.

The exams consisted of a lot of writing, a lot of talking, a lot of defending all of the things I had originally written in my thesis papers.  At the end of it all, in a basement classroom in Smith Hall, just off the main quad on the University of Washington campus, I convinced my committee that I understood the developments in immigration from North Africa to France and the accompanying rise in Islamic practice.  At 2:30 last Friday I was granted my degree.  It feels amazing.

It also feels strange.  To work so hard and so long for something.  To wonder many times throughout (sometimes daily) why it was that I began this process in the first place.  To wonder what I'll do once it has finished.  And now it has finished, and the answers are no more clear.  For many, finishing school leaves open the same kinds of questions and possibilities, but usually after finishing a masters degree, most have in mind what they want to do. Whether in business, mechanical engineering, or education, the next step on the ladder is somewhat clear.  But what do you do with a degree in Comparative Religion from an International Studies program?  My professors keep asking what I intend to do next.  To make the answer less awkward, I babble on about applying to teach at international schools and talking with the consulate in France, maybe looking into a job at a community college.  But, I*have*no*idea.

Sometimes I kick myself for going through with all of this.  The stress, the never ending reading, grading, reading and grading, reading and grading and reading and grading that has been my life for the last four years.  I've become antisocial out of necessity.  The only way to stay afloat and to get it all done was to use every available minute.  Social time--as much as I wanted it--was never fully enjoyed because the reading and grading always crept into my thoughts.  And now, at least for now, I'll be waitressing full time again.  Leaving work at work and having plenty of extra time to go running, take a road trip, cook, read for pleasure and see friends.  It seems like a no brainer.  Why work so hard for an ambiguous goal when I could have been waitressing this whole time and had less stress?

I am wrestling with this one right now.  Micael and I often wander into conversation about whether it's worth it to try and climb our way up the ladder professionally, take out a mortgage on a house by ourselves, work and save to invest in a volatile market.  Isn't it possible to set our standards lower and then enjoy a less stressful life?  Maybe, or not.  We're not sure what that looks like anyway.  What would it look like to set our standards lower, or maybe not lower, but different?  I don't yet know what this means, but the wheels are turning.  Perhaps the stress was worth it for some future goal that has yet to take shape.  Perhaps the last four years served to teach me to ask these questions and seek out alternatives.

I'm sure the more distance grows between me and this last four years I will appreciate all the ways this work has shaped and challenged me.  School has taught me to be disciplined, which is an incredible skill, but I never had the opportunity to be creative.  I always had to be analytical, objective, critical; pull things apart until I discovered the smallest working pieces and how these pieces shaped and influenced one another, and then I had to explain.

But now, I have the chance, the freedom, to be creative.  To take what I've learned about the world and how it works and use that to better explore it.  Now I have the freedom to feel as much as to think; to interpret and observe in ways that allow me to build something, rather than to deconstruct.  Perhaps for the past four years I've been carefully shaping tools, and now I have before me a canvas and a license to paint. Perhaps this is the moment I lay down the first blunt strokes and allow the brilliant colors to speak to me of their coming shapes.

Perhaps.  It is a beautiful word.

Monday, February 14, 2011

the knee-jerk principle

There's a kid that sits next to me sometimes in Psych 101 (yes, yes--I'm a grad student taking Psych 101) that must have some sort of special situation because he often spends his time in lecture writing up a learning journal rather than taking notes.  I'm really not sure how I have time to look over at the guy's computer screen to notice things like this because I'm usually so furiously taking notes myself that I've practically burned a hole through my paper (or perhaps through the second joint on my pinkie--some days the jury is out on which one has sustained more damage).  Yet furious scribbling and all, I've noticed the emergence of the learning journal.  Maybe this is because I'm jealous and would much rather be writing a learning journal myself.  For psych 101 it would go something like this: this professor is highly agitated, I'm in a room with 400 other people born a decade behind me, psych 101 is hard, but I get an 'A' for effort on this learning journal, right...?

I love the whole concept of a learning journal.  No need to take notes furiously, no need to read books from the library.  Just reflect, put it on paper and--hopefully--remember why you're doing the learning in the first place.  This last weekend, as I turned 29 years old, I realized again the importance of this process.

I got in a horrific fight with my husband this weekend.  On my birthday to boot.  Actually, the birthday part exacerbated the fight part, but that may be diverging from the point.  There are so many reasons why the fight happened, and so many reasons why it didn't need to happen, but happen it did, and both of us spent a pretty miserable day in each others vicinity.  What surprised me throughout was that several times I acknowledged that what I was feeling had very little to do with anything my husband had actually done.  One accidental misstep on his part had initiated a seed of a feeling in me which sprouted, grew momentum and crescendoed before either of us could change course.  My reaction initiated an equal and opposite reaction in him (I'm defying the scientific principle here, I know) and both of us ended up staunchly in our own universes, unable to communicate with the other.

What I needed in this moment was a learning journal.  Something that could remind me what I had known and learned several times in the past, which was that my husband loved making me happy and couldn't possibly have meant to make me feel insignificant on my birthday.  My learning journal could have told me that I'd followed this same emotional path several times before (because, really, don't we often have the same exact feeling--guilt, fear, insecurity--just in response to different circumstances, like a rotating wheel?) and that it was my path, not one my husband forced me on to.  He could have had his own learning journal which would have told him much the same.  The truth was, our emotions had very little to do with the present situation--more than anything they were remnants from past crises that just never went away...past insecurities that kept gnawing at us in the gut.

In the end we made up without the learning journals, but not without some serious tension.  In the midst of it all, it felt like a day lost.  A precious Saturday together, with nothing to do but enjoy one another, but which never came to fruition.  However, today feels different.  Today I realize that sometimes all my stories, past and present, converge in a way I can't control.  Sometimes those stories that run around inside me and shape and pattern my landscape, sometimes they run into one another and I become the casualty.  Like when your knee jerks from the doctor's hammer.  Sometimes we have emotional knee-jerk reactions for no apparent reason.  I'm not sure I have the answers about how to prepare myself for more emotional knee-jerk moments, but a learning journal seems like a good start.  In the midst of the next emotional tornado, when nothing makes sense and my chest feels like it's being put through a blender, I can read through my learning journal and remember that I've been here before and things are going to come out a lot better than they seem at the moment.  Of course I won't get an 'A' for effort, but I bet I'll get my husband's kisses back a whole lot sooner.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

As the crow flies over Cairo

On the world map that hangs on my wall, Seattle exists a mere 17 inches from Cairo, Egypt.  The world gets smaller every day--clearly not accomplished by the fact of a map hanging on a wall in my apartment (and the arbitrary distances it chooses)--yet I can conceive of that 17 inches as a much smaller distance than was possible not that many years ago.

What does this 17 inches mean?  Well today, in this moment, in this year, it means a lot.

Protests in Cairo this last week have been pushing for a transition to a new government.  For many people this is curious, interesting even, but does it matter?  Protests in Tunisia, in Yemen, in France, in Mexico...protests.  Perhaps nothing new.  But perhaps they are.

Ben Curtis/AP
A whole generation--a very large generation--of young people is coming of age in the Middle East.  For that matter, a whole lot of young people are coming of age all across the 'third' world.  And they want jobs.  So do I, so do my friends, so do my students.  Some of those young people are pushing for access to jobs in the 'first' world and getting visas to the U.S., to France, to Germany.  They are studying for advanced degrees, winning positions in prestigious companies, maintaining communication with friends and family at home and truly changing the face of the world by creating global communities.

Those 17 inches, because of the internet, the airline industry, Skype, blogs, and satellite TV, are almost a meaningless distance.  I see Cairo and Cairo sees me.  But I'm watching Cairo in a very different way than Cairo is watching me.

What's happening in this push for a global community is both exciting and scary.  Young and old making demands for a transition to democratic leadership in Egypt--exciting.  The potential for instability in a country that helps keep cheap oil flowing straight to the U.S. and Europe--scary.

Perhaps the pushes for reform, advanced education and jobs that are happening all around the 'third' world will be a moment for reflection, readjustment and eventually, new innovation.  Perhaps the price of oil will rise as the Suez Canal goes into a state of flux and this will push new energy technologies onto the marketplace and spur job creation in a whole new sector.  But perhaps in the meantime this will increase the price of food, heat, transportation and just about any product that travels any distance to arrive at market--meaning, all of them.

The 17 inches between Seattle and Cairo have become very small indeed.  So small that what happens in Cairo has ripples that surely end up in my pond.  This is exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time--as moments of transition always, certainly are.  What we choose to do with a moment of transition can determine quite a bit about our future.  So let us absorb not only the import of this moment but also its possibilities.  For anyone interested in fostering a global community, in learning from dynamic social movements or in developing the technological innovation that supports a fast-paced, integrated world--for all of you, this is your moment to shine.  Seize it.

My succulent world

Watching el viejo.  The peruvian grey-haired cactus.
Dry blue explosion

 Like rippled aubergine

The Bart Simpson haircut

                       fecund desert

I call this one Stalin's mustache.  

Sunday, January 30, 2011

January closes

The verdict for this week...crappy.  It is still January, and try as I might, I cannot escape the dark mornings, the dark evenings, and the mostly dark days that pass in between.  I am flooded by work that seems never-ending and am finding it difficult to find some light in this tunnel.

I was at work on Thursday, just starting my shift after a quick afternoon nap that left me groggy and shooting daggers through my eyes at anything that moved.  Have you ever had that feeling?  For me, it's usually right after a nap.  Unfortunately, I'm never able to be rational right after a nap and explain to myself, Briana, you'll surely feel better in half an hour...just wait til you wake up a little bit more.  Nope.  Instead, I think the world is against me and I should go crawl in a hole. Anyway, in the midst of this storm cloud, I sat down with a cup of lemon egg soup--a classic Greek recipe called avgolemono--and let myself warm to it as its warmth settled in my mouth.  In a moment, with that soup, I felt better.

Why is it that familiar foods can change our mood so dramatically?  Why do we create emotional relationships with the things we eat?  I can't answer this, but I know that it is true.  Of course food is pleasant, fills our bellies and brings us together over the table with people we enjoy.  But it has another dimension.  Even if we're not hungry, or if another food could satisfy our hunger just as competently, there are certain foods that just hit the proverbial spot, that make us feel whole, feel comfortable, feel better.

Realizing this makes me happy.  It's one more way to make a relationship with the world, to allow certain things to enter in and add texture, color and dimension to our lives.  Why not have a relationship with food?  Let it mold and carve a place of its own...

When I have the time I love to sit and eat slowly, quietly.  Now it is winter and oranges fill the blue and white bowl on our counter.  I like to slowly peel and eat, looking at the thousand individual pockets of juice that make up each section of the orange.  Another food to make me smile, remind me of sunshine and the soft November days I used to spend at my grandparents' house in the middle of an orange grove and the gentle smell of their blossoms.

Food is so powerful because it can be the friend that always has the right things to say, that always reminds us of the best memories and comforts.  When my husband can't read my mind, when the world seems bleak and my work unsatisfying, I know there are foods that can give me space for meditation, that can bring me back to myself and then, bring me back to the world.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sometimes substance takes time

I was reading a book by a man named Rogers Brubaker this week.  On page one of his book, he begins to discuss the French Revolution and the German intellectual response.  (Yes, I know many of you are already starting to wonder where I'm going with this--I promise I'm going to make this interesting).  What struck me immediately as interesting was that Brubaker notes that "German intellectuals sought to distance themselves from the allegedly shallow rationalism and cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution..."

Whoa.  That's huge.  Contemporaries of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment considered these movements shallow?  Remember what these were...The Enlightenment sought to separate common people from dictatorial monarchs and priests and get them to think for themselves, to read the bible on their own, to make their own political systems, to be valued for their own thoughts and ideas rather than being told what to do.  I mean, it was called the Enlightenment, after all.  And the French Revolution was much of the same--separating from the yoke of an unjust monarchy that limited free thinking and the growth of new social classes.  How and why were these movements considered shallow?

It got me thinking about the things that I think of as shallow in my own day.  Many aspects of pop culture, 'cool' technologies, celebrities, marketing, blogs and the movies they help sell.  Is there any connection here?  Can I possibly compare the Enlightenment and, say, blogs about celebrities?  Let's see...

The Enlightenment and the French Revolution, as much as we might worship them today, were not all they were cracked up to be in their own day.  They changed social and political systems, but often only for white, European men.  At the same time as the French Revolution liberated the 'common man', colonial subjects across the French Empire were being pushed into forced labor, with no nod to any sort of revolution.  The Enlightenment pushed some rulers out the door, but often only so new ones could take their place.  People began to think in different ways, but it would take time before the ideas of philosophers would really take root and encourage the masses to claim political rights for themselves and truly begin to think on their own.  Perhaps in its own day, the French Revolution really did seem shallow--a few men, covetous of the power of a King, using a philosopher's words to justify an overthrow of the current system.

What about today? I often read historical quotes or passages from what, I think, are brilliant thinkers, poets and writers.  It seems as if people in history had more valuable things to say than we do today.  Reading about World War II, for example, is illuminating--the thoughts, fears and insights that many of that age had in the midst of war don't seem to come so readily to those of us comfortably at home on our couches.  But what if I'm wrong...?  What if all these new technologies, blogs, celebrities and other things I consider shallow are really making significant changes.  For example, the foodie movement.  It seems to be a self-indulgent trend overly concerned with the enjoyment and knowledge of food.  Yet, at the same time, this movement is helping to change the face of farming and food consumption in the U.S.  It is getting people to think about what they eat, watch cooking shows, ask for organic and go visit farms.  Perhaps it is shallow.  But perhaps also the effects will be impactful on the relationship between a country and its food--no small thing.

It may not be the Enlightenment, but apparently even in its day, the Enlightenment was not everywhere celebrated.  If something as monumental as the Enlightenment can take time to grow into its full weight, perhaps the verdict is still out on the pop culture I see surround me.

A birthday stroll at Golden Gardens

My ode to Golden Gardens:

Winter makes you empty.  Even in the midst of the city, raw; and strikingly beautiful.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

the return

I've had a bit of a hiatus from this blog--since August to be exact--because, as some earlier posts had hinted at, I'd lost motivation to keep writing about food all the time.  I love blogs like Orangette that constantly try out and suggest new recipes, introduce you to new cookbooks, and generally talk about the way to weave food into life.  But, I realized that my love for food and desire to write about food is more about discovering what makes for a full, whole and healthy life.  So, rather than having food as the sole focus of my writing, I am making a shift.  Food is central and necessary to a good life, but there are so many, many other things.  And of these, many things, I will write.

It is January in Seattle.  Grey and wet, as usual; a few snowshowers, unusual; thoughts of sunnier, drier places and the kinds of life shifts necessary to discover these places, more usual than I'd like to admit.  It is in the midst of sideways rain and wind that turns my umbrella inside-out, that I begin, inevitably, to think about Provence.  This dry, mediterranean climate in the south of France is, in many ways, my shangri-la. History drips out of Provence like a saturated sponge.  Cobbled, serpentine streets, 16th century stone farmhouses, Roman aqueducts and vineyards that trace their heritage to the days before Christ.  The color pallette is a mix of burnt browns and oranges with sage and landender thrown in for good measure, and to offset the whole mix, the locals paint their shutters periwinkle blue, most likely in homage to the brilliant sky overhead.  It is a dream.  But it is a dream without good job opportunities and without affordable mortgages.  It is a dream that lingers only as long as I don't think about how difficult it is to be accepted and embraced by the French.  Regardless, it is the dream I keep coming back to.

Maybe this is only because winter is winter and requires, in fact demands, some sort of warm-weather dreaming.  Living in Seattle may be wet and dreary more months of the year than I will even dare mention (lest I get gloomy again) but it is full of incredible opportunities.  A vibrant arts community, excellent universitites, job options and an entrepreneurial spirit that supports innovative young people, affordable living and access to the outdoors.  This is an incredible mix.  Perhaps I'm actually dreaming of faraway places because I'm not taking advantage of all this place has to offer.

It is January in Seattle.  It is cold and grey.  The saturated clouds gather over and around the Olympic mountains, embracing them as only clouds are able.  As I drive up and over the many hill crests in this city, I see the rugged mountains emerge for a moment or more from the mist and I'm stunned by how large and present they can feel, even as I look on from the midst of a city street.  Usually they retreat quickly, but sunset burns the clouds off the horizon and a sunny ring circles
Puget Sound and the Olympics, just enough to see their solid, snowy bases once more.  As early darkness settles in I light the house and sit beneath a down comforter, content to read for an hour or more.  Dinner is a thick soup and buttery bread.  Some nights there is a fire.  It is January in Seattle and I am awake.