Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Visitor, Solnit & Story: "To Love Someone is to Put Yourself in Their Place"

“To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.” ~Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

I watched “The Visitor” for the seventeenth (? I’ve lost count) time last night, to introduce my boyfriend to one of my favorite storytellers, writer/director/actor Tom McCarthy. 

In the movie, Walter (I love you, Richard Jenkins!) enters into the story of a younger couple, Tarek and Zainab, immigrants to NYC from Syria and Senegal, respectively. The film holds up, even after 17 times. I was a part of their stories that unexpectedly collided and intertwined – the subtly of the performances infused with the small moments of humor, beauty, and music that surround us daily, if we only pay attention.

I used the film to teach English to my advanced ESL class in Kosovo a few years ago, turning on the subtitles to help with the accents and unknown vocabulary. We watched it one night, and the six students returned with questions, words to guess via context, and themes to discuss: immigration and what it means to be connected in a busy, disconnected city.

As we gathered in a small room that reeked of the cigarette smoke that is omnipresent in Pristina, we heard a muffled drumbeat. Not the usual sound from the crowded Korza below, a pedestrian-only street surrounded by shops, office buildings, and peppered with street carts selling small house wares or roasted chestnuts in the winter.

Opening the window, the sound of drumming grew louder, a group of musicians jamming below. Pieter from Bulgaria eyed the circle, looked back at us, and said, “Perhaps it’s Walter!” We had all felt a part of the story, and suddenly, it appeared to have found us and joined our plot.

Solnit goes on to write that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live.”  Before watching the film, I’d had a day of craving numbness, no story. Feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, I’d wished I could simply check out, disengage.  Watching “The Visitor” brought me back to my own story, connecting with the larger story of us all through the intimate glimpse into a few weeks of Walter’s life.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Book Burners' Club: Journey with Cheryl Strayed's WILD PCT Trek via the Words She Read

"The flowery cover of The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor was unbent.  The same could not be said of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, or rather the thin portion of the book I still had in my pack. I'd torn off the cover and all the pages I'd read the night before and burned them in the little aluminum pie pan I'd brought .... I'd watched Faulkner's name disappear into flames feeling a bit like it was sacrilege —never had I dreamed I'd be burning books — bit I was desperate to lighten my load." ~Cheryl Strayed, Wild

I picked up a copy of Wild after discovering Cheryl's writing on The Rumpus, and then reading that Reese Witherspoon will be playing her in the film adaptation.  I always try to read the book before the movie -- no offense, Reese, but the books are almost always better.  But I'm excited to see how they capture the beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Despite sobbing through the first part in public (I don't recommend cracking open the first chapter, about her mom, on a plane, tears like that FREAK OUT men in middle seats) I loved reading Wild.  I lived vicariously through Cheryl's solo journey, making mental notes that it is always better to lighten the load, shed the unnecessary.

Who's in to start a Book Burner's Club here on the blog, and read Cheryl's trail books together?   As a writer, I wondered what she took away from the books she read along the trail. We can read them in light of that, such as when Anse ruminates on the nature of putting down roots in As I Lay Dying, "Because the Lord put roads for travelling ... when he aims for something to be always a-moving, he makes it long ways, like a road ... but when he aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man."

As a frequent nomad, I've felt both the need to hit the road, and travel to the unknown, as well as appreciate what it means to put down roots, and learn from the unexpected unknown you may discover in your own city, backyard, or best friend.

So that's the focus, and we can meander off the trail to wherever each book leads.  We'll note where she was on the trail, talk about our own wandering paths, and create a bit more community via words, here in the Blog comments.

1. Wild, Cheryl Strayed
2. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
3. The Dream of Common Language, Adrienne Rich
4. The Complete Stories, Flannery O'Connor
5. The Novel, James Michener (her mother's favorite writer)
6. A Summer Birdcage, Margaret Drabble (May have to hunt via Amazon or your local used bookstore.)
7. Dubliners, James Joyce
8. Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee
9. The Best American Essays, 1991
10. The Ten Thousand Things, Maria Dermoût

When should we start talking about Wild and As I Lay Dying?  Start with talking those two in December?  Say Tuesday, 17th? 

If you want reminders, message me at rebecca.snavely [at] gmail [dot] com!

If you haven't read Wild, go to to order online (Strayed now lives in Portland, so support PDX!). Along with that, we'll start in on Faulkner, her first trail book, leaving out Staying Found and the Pacific Crest Trail guides.

Without physically burning books, or reading them by the light of a flickering headlamp, we can take part of the journey Strayed traveled, sans heavy backpack, bears, snakes, and missing toenails.  Who's in?

(Photo: WWeek)

Thursday, November 07, 2013

What the Mute Gardener Taught Me: Fifteen Minutes of Music with Nothing Playing

I walked with purpose, a check in my pocket to deposit, a sports bra and tennis shoes to remind me this was an errand AND exercise.  I blew right past the man bent over, his sunhat bowed to the traffic, his tool digging down into the hard-packed earth of the neglected, city-owned sidewalk lawn. A small tree was newly planted in the middle of a circle he had carved in the dirt. 10 strides up the street, I paused, and circled back. Greeting him in English and Spanish didn't startle him for his work.  I was ignored, but allowed the awkward time to observe the mute gardener for a bit.

Just ahead, I passed a group of people blocking the sidewalk with their slow, serpentine parade, trash-bags and garden tools in hand, eyes on the concrete, I wondered if they were lost.  We're from Canada, one man explained when I asked where they were heading, holding rakes.  Oh, that explains it, I guess?  We're not really sure where we're going, he said.  Just cleaning up this area, volunteering for The Dream Center.


My walk turned to a run as I headed home on the downhill slope, pausing to capture a wall I walk / drive by almost daily.

I passed by my new coffee community, Muddy Paw, and headed up the Micheltorena stairs, stepping over the remains of a homeless camp, cigarette butts and empty, oily, fast-food bags strewn about.

I was thankful for the mute gardener, who slowed my speed-walk down to a pace where I could pay attention, be present.  

Freshen the Flowers, She Said

So I put them in the sink, for the cool porcelain 
     was tender,
and took out the tattered and cut each stem
     on a slant,
trimmed the black and raggy leaves, and set them all —
     roses, delphiniums, daisies, iris, lilies,
and more whose names I don't know, in bright new water —
     gave them

a bounce upward at the end to let them take
     their own choice of position, the wheels, the spurs,
the little shed of the buds. It took, to do this,
     perhaps fifteen minutes. 
Fifteen minutes of music
     with nothing playing.

~Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early