Wednesday, May 29, 2013

My Books

I've taken quite a few books to keep me company down here for the long, rainy nights and bright early mornings. There's a good mix of fiction and non, but at this point in life I'm inclining more to the non side of the room. Some I've read and some are brand new. Some bought for the trip and some are borrowed from friends.

Listed alphabetically, these are my papered companions:

Is this a novel? Haven't read it before.

Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth
I like words, and this book is an engrossing, labyrinthine history of them. So much fun. Words, you guys! I wish I could eat them. I have to stop myself from not reading this whole book in whatever sitting I am sitting down to read it for.

Godric by Frederick Buechner
A great, short novel of historical fiction about a 12th century hermit-saint who once went on a journey that changed his life. I haven't read this one in several years.

Harper's magazine two most recent issues. The newest does not have a Nebraska cover story, so make that only two of the last four.

Harvest of Empire by Juan Gonzalez
A history of Latinos in the United States as a result of the history of the United States in Latin America. A documentary of the same name will be screening this fall in Lincoln.

Listening to Your Life by Frederick Buechner
A daily reader with reflections on life, faith, and the mysteries of their union.

Memoria del fuego, 1. Los nacimientos by Eduardo Galeano
From the introduction (translated): "Latin America hasn't only suffered the plundering of gold and silver, saltpeter and rubber, copper and oil: it has also suffered the seizure of its memory. From early on it has been condemned to amnesia at the hands of those who have repressed its existence."

My Ántonia by Willa Cather
In keeping a promise to my dear friend Megan, who purchased this book for me on this very day two summers ago, I return to Willa. I hope it will keep me in touch with the prairie. (see bookmark above)

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
I've seen some of Zinn's videos but never picked up his classic. The first chapter about the arrival of the English to the "New World" had me floored. The idea is to recount History from the perspective of the losers, and it is fascinating.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Loaned to me by a neighbor, I've heard a lot of this book and hope it will alleviate the eventual headaches that some of the other academic books will give.

I often wonder why I keep books around at all. Once I'm finished with them, shouldn't they find other hands and eyes to give to? I've heard it said that old books are like old friends, and I suppose if I could shrink my friends and keep them in jars by my couch I would say that it would probably be enjoyable having that around as a piece of furniture.

For about two years I checked out books from the library, but I tired of it because I missed them when they were gone. I forgot about them more quickly than those I kept and could see over and over even though the years between us were many. I've forgotten mostly everything about Lolita and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for example. Those were two from that time period.

I really like to make my books mine, though, and not being able to underline or write notes in the margins about my associations and reactions made reading library books a handcuffing experience by their very nature. I couldn't possess them or have any say about what they were saying.

Some people think that marking in books is some kind of betrayal, but if you ever borrow a book from me please-please-please mark in it all the livelong day. I want to see what parts you found interesting or inspiring and reread them for the interest and inspiration that I may have missed the first time. I love a book with several different pen(cil) colors with notes, circles, and underlines. In fact, when I look for an old used book, I look specifically on Amazon for the "acceptable" category of book (behind "very good" and "good") precisely because most of those books are marked up by someone else.

I guess when I mark a book I don't mean to make it my own: I mean to make it feel read. "There, there, book," I say, "I'm reading you! [underlines something] See?!"

Sunday, May 26, 2013

New Air

Thumbnail provided by

My house has a patio that I read on most days. In the rain it is my place to watch the rain not make me very wet. I look at the rain making everything else very wet, and I say "not me today, rain! I am not very wet! Keep trying!" in my head so loudly that the rain would get really mad if it had a brain and if telepathy worked.

I'm in San Ramón now--day one is over. We arrived last night in darkness and drove through a dark that hinted at the deep greens that lie behind it. The students could tell in spite of the few lights along the highway that what lurked in darkness was quietly verdant. In other years we've arrived at sunrise when the greenscapes are as open to the world as our eyes.

I told one of the students to pay attention to the air when we landed, to that first whiff of Costa Rica. It's a moment that, even if you're expecting it, can really strike you by how unexpectedly new it smells. There is no smell, though. That word deceives in this case. Maybe "how unexpectedly new it breathes" is better. Yes, let's go with that. It doesn't smell new, maybe different, but it breathes new simply because you are breathing it and you are new in this place.

It's not just the air, of course. It's the palms, the Spanish flung skyward by so many around, the unfamiliar pattern in the cement, the dense rain-heavy night. It all accumulates and is breathed in during those first few breaths.

"You're right--it does smell different," she said.

"What I mean is: think of it like a lung might, not just a nose."

"Oh, yeah! I see what you mean--it's all so new!"

Yes, it's all so new even down to this most basic thing of breathing air.

I remember stepping out in Spain on my first day several years ago. I was with a group of six other students making our dazed, half-lost way through the airport to the ground transportation area when we turned a corner and unexpectedly were thrust into Madrid. A road teemed with taxis, smokers, palms, and rushing people. I wasn't expecting it, but I remember clearly how with a boom the sun hit me. I stopped in my tracks to take a breath, to breathe in the smokers, the honking horns, even the summer heat through my nostrils and into myself. I looked with my eyes, smelled with my nose, felt with my skin, but those senses were informing a deeper part still: my lungs.


It was a new country, a new continent, a new climate, a new language, and a new way of life. Beneath all of that, though, it was a new air.

We're taking it in today.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On Losing and Finding

I am leaving home for seven weeks four days from now.

Before any large trip that I've ever undertaken there is always a moment, sometimes in a hallway, other times in the car or munching on a donut, maybe a familiar song comes on that launches a familiar dream only this time the dream I see is myself leaving the place that I am. Wherever day dreams catch me away to on the other days is a far different place than the one I felt swept away to today as I stood in the offices of my temporary job saying goodbye to co-workers.

"I am leaving home for seven weeks four days from now." Earlier this morning, had I written that sentence, it wouldn't have contained nearly the weight that it does as I stare at it now. Its reality has dawned on my week. The rest will be lived in its shine.

When I went on my first real roller coaster, I remember the moment I felt the harness snap into place just after which the attendants ran up and down along side the cars to make sure they had in fact snapped in. Against my fears and worries, I did not call out for them to get me out of there. I simply accepted that there were decisions, moments, dozens of them that had lead me to this, and if I were going to back out at any point it had better not be right before the thing I'd been saying I wanted to do was to happen. Stringing along events and dumping them, like people, would be a terrible thing to do to oneself (and others).

I'm ready for Costa Rica again. If I weren't, the time to say so was December, not May.

What I felt in the office as I said goodbye was something like the sinking feeling of immediacy. Anticipation dies away and some sort of focused spirit saying "It is time" is born. I hadn't let myself feel it until then--there was much work to be done leading up to it. Anticipation makes big events like this feel like they will always be far off, always "next month" or "next summer," but one day you find yourself saying "next week" and your guts get kicked in by your own words.

Buechner talks of leaving home and the scrap of our heart that is left behind there. This scrap we know as homesickness when we are away from dear ones, familiar places, etc. This is why we say "I miss you" or "I miss that". It is literally missing. It is a missing piece of the person we are when we are with that person or in that place. There is also the scrap of our heart that is sent ahead waiting for us to arrive where we will soon be present. That is the scrap that I felt leave me today in the office as I said, "It will be a lot of fun." Future tense, but now much more immediately present. A piece of me left and now sits on the bench at the home of Doña Yolanda in San Ramón, Costa Rica. You can hope for the coming reunion if you prefer it to praying.

When people talk about finding themselves on journeys or travels, I am sure that they do not often mean it literally. I believe they literally do it, though, mostly without knowing.

If you see me before I go, you will only be seeing most of me. Whole me will be back in July. : )

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Neighborings pt. 2


He's got a shaved head, a muscular build and a tribal tattoo. I've got a bike helmet.

Instantly, I flashed back to my encounter with the Latino boys' mother from Kids in the Alley. How do I look in this moment? Guilty? Have I done something wrong by talking to these kids? Should I keep my distance like "good neighbors" do? Why do I somehow feel defensive like I've been caught red handed?

Maybe I should have slinked away to my apartment, but I don't believe in that. Instead I saw a chance to know another parent in spite of the again imperfect circumstances that prompted this meeting. I walked over to his yard with the kids as they were reprimanded for taking one step out of sight. As an explanation I offered, "They were just asking me about a bike that's behind my garage. I don't know whose it is, though."

He looked at me with plates of food in his hands, maybe not hearing, so I continued, "Do these kids have bikes? I could try to find some kid bikes at the Bike Kitchen if they need some."

Still not responding directly to me he seemed to soften and said, "Tommy, you need a bike don't you?"

I reexplained that they were asking me about a bike that's hanging out behind my garage and has apparently been there for a while. As he set down the food, still sort of evasive of my presence and his acknowledgement of it, I stepped forward and said, "I'm Aaron. I live up there on the second floor."

He told me his name and vice-gripped my hand. I mentally buckled my chin strap. That was the last we said as I left them to their dinner.

Two days later I found him alone outside and he called to me, "YO!" (again with the yelling!) "I hope it's OK but the kids took that bike yesterday since no one was using it." It was OK. I have no clue whose it is or why it was in my yard to begin with; it certainly doesn't belong to anyone in my house.

We talked for several minutes and I came to learn quite a bit about him. He was a railroad worker before his back gave out. He has an online business now and has mostly reinvented himself. Last year he took in a friend and accompanying children who were left homeless after domestic trouble elsewhere. He paid way too much money a week to rent a extended-stay room for them when his apartment got too cramped. He is back now but even moved himself out to give them enough space to live in his apartment when the extended-stay room became too costly. He said a hurried goodbye, feeling he might have bored me.

I guess what I needed to know, and probably part of the reason I wanted to meet this man, is because I knew deep down that he wasn't just a man that yelled at kids. He had to be more complex than that, but The Man Who Yells was all he was going to be in my eyes unless I took the initiative to meet him.

The world is full of people that are not black and white, I believe. We are grey people. We exist, as my pastor likes to say, "in the already and not quite yet." We are grey because we include darkness and lightness. We are not fully realized. Our histories are blurred with a swirl of dark and light times. They are not often in proportion either. My history is relatively light compared to many, so maybe I'm privileged to be able to feel this way about people. I'm not certain, but since I have the perspective I do I think it best to be proactive with it.

It's planting season. See you out there in the dirt.

Neighborings pt. 1

This is my house. Well, this is the house I live in. You see, I rent an apartment on the second floor just inside that door and up the stairs. It's a pretty great apartment even if it doesn't get many hours of sunlight.

Renting is limbo. It's a big plant in a too shallow pot. You put down some roots, but mostly you hover, you squat legally, you lick a finger for the changing winds.

This is my first apartment living solo. It felt like the right time, and the right place fell into my lap next to the apartment of a friend and renting from another. The houses I've lived in have been great, and the people I've lived with have made them so like good roommates should. One thing that's been lacking from those experiences may seem obvious, but now that I'm doing this solo renting thing I see its value: ownership. Maybe it's because I chose this place out of my sole volition and free of other opinions to consider. I imagine homeowners have a greater sense of this, but in my place I feel for the first time that this is my house and my neighborhood.

This all stirs up a most basic desire of mine: to know and be known to fellow humans. As I wrote back in October, I'm reaching out for the first time into the lives I see around me. This is my street now. That is my alley and those kids are still there. They skate, they shoot imagined guns, they run over and ask/say: "Hey! That's your bike!?" "Yes, it still is!" I say only the first part. A recent interaction with them occasioned a meeting of more adults.

"Do you have any boards to skate over?" said Sergio.

"You mean to ollie up onto?"

"No, we need to build a ramp!"

I didn't think I had anything sturdy enough for anything like that. Plus, these kids don't wear helmets, and so at the risk of being seen as too adult I chose to not have any boards that would work for them instead of tell them again that they need helmets.

"Is this your bike?" said a different kid, motioning to the alley.

I walked there and found a bike wedged between my garage and the fence behind it. It was about the right size for a kid of ten years, which I estimated this boy to be. As I was explaining that I didn't know where it came from I heard a familiar sound: a man hollering.

He yells a lot, this man. I hear it through my open windows that look out over his backyard. I heard it in winter sometimes through his closed windows as I walked to the garage.

(imagine growling at high volume)