Byeeeee 2015!

On this night last year, I, along with other travelers, listened to a Dhamma talk inside a small Buddhist temple in the village of Pang Term in Samoeng, Chiang Mai. The talk was all about how life is both happiness and suffering, and how understanding and accepting that is the foundation of peace. In the morning, our host asked us to spend the entire day in silence and solitude, reflecting on our past and our future hopes to answer the question, “How do I live in an imperfect world with a calm mind and a peaceful heart?”

At the end of that day of silence and internal roiling, I felt so optimistic about 2015. But the past year did not at all go as serenely as I thought it would, with depression weighing the first half of the year, and busy-ness and anxieties the latter. Still, I think the year has been good for me–difficulties that may drive one to despair in the present always, for me, turn out to be invaluable experiences in hindsight. And though I’ve long realized that the key to feeling lighter is to keep letting things, people, places, even experiences go, I’ve learned this year that some things, while cumbersome or painful to carry, are so necessary to fully living and examining one’s life, thus making and remaking meaning for it, that to discard them would be as much of a folly as neglecting to bring a headlamp on a night trek in a densely forested mountain.

Thus, on this the last day of the year, and in the quiet moments of the preceding days, I thought about what I still carry, what kind of path I pave/tread with the choices I make every day, if the path I follow is the path I feel is right and purposeful for me, or if I’m just going where others think I ought to go, if my spirit is present where my body is present, or if it would rather be elsewhere. Though the pace of modernity is all about increasing acceleration, and social media afford us no end of means and images for comparison, I hope we find time and space to think about what all this hustle and bustle is for, what all the breathing and eating and shitting and fucking and sleeping and dreaming and laughing and crying is for, where we’re going, and why. Happy new year!

And because I  don’t know how to write about all that’s happened to me lately, here’s MY 2015 IN BOOKS + READING GOALS FOR THE NEW YEAR.

The collector of maladies

The highlight of today’s writing workshop for my freshman composition class was a story about pain. A 16-year-old boy had written a piece about a 25-year-old woman, a self-confessed masochist who inflicted pain on herself (cutting through her skin, punching walls until her knuckles bled, inserting barbed wires and barbecue sticks into “her womanhood”), not to feel pleasure, but “to relax,” to numb emotional hurt, to “find freedom” from the circumstances of her life. The boy worried that his piece was “too brutal.” I said it was not brutal enough. His classmates all said they could not feel any sympathy for the protagonist, because they could neither grasp her avowed fascination for pain, nor understand the emotional conflict that supposedly fed this fascination. As one of his classmates pointed out, the character’s woes were workaday: Her father cheated on her mother and took off with another woman; her mother could barely make ends meet; she dropped out of school. The classmate said, I know people in the exact same situation. They don’t go about poking barbecue sticks up their coochies.

The classic fault of the piece:  too much telling, hardly ever showing. We were told that the girl bled herself to keep calm. We were not shown the rusty blade held between the tips of her brown, bony fingers, the way it sliced across three inches of skin in her inner thigh, the blood snaking down her legs, dyeing a small clear puddle on the chipped white tiles of their bathroom floor as she hummed to the steady dripping of the broken faucet and the bawling baby next door. Pain, if you think about it, is fascinating. Feeling it fully, acutely, holds you in rapt attention, puts you out of time—past, present, future blur into a relentless drone of hurt hurt hurt.

The boy’s piece reminded me of a story I had wanted to write after reading Wittgenstein’s discussion of pain in Philosophical Investigations, a story about a collector of maladies. The protagonist of this story is also a woman who travels alone, inscribing in her body an archive of pain. She has three conditions for pain to be included in her collection: 1. It should be a particular sensation she has not felt before; 2. It must be self-inflicted, and it must leave a lasting, visible mark (burnt tissue, a scar, a broken tooth), and; 3. It has to be a reconstruction of another person’s injury. So this woman travels from city to city to meet the damaged, asking them the story behind their wounds, and writing the same scars on her body. The woman in that story in my head is in her mid-thirties. Five years of traveling and self-maiming has so disfigured her that she is no longer recognizable to her friends and family. People shun her, bearing so many grotesque wounds. Her body is failing, yet she does not want to die.

I cannot yet write that story. I don’t know how to access and describe such variegated pains, and have yet to think through the motivations of someone who would so ardently seek out hurt and own it. If one thinks through a feeling body, what could be going on in her mind? How could her self have changed through a connoisseur course of hurt? Do I have to feel pain myself to accurately describe another person’s pain? In inflicting the same wounds on myself, could I be said to have the same pain as that felt by the person whose wounds I recreate? If I open myself to another’s expression of his hurt so that I may, even on an intellectual level, “feel” it, could I close myself up again and be whole?

I told the boy, if you wish to write about pain, you must know pain, feel pain, express pain. If the kind of research and reflection that rewriting your piece demands proves to be too difficult, feel free to change your topic.

what eases sadness (is painting pretty)

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This gallery contains 9 photos.

“The key to mastering the medium is understanding how water behaves,” the art teacher said. I thought of things that evade control, things that fall, things that flow. I have been drawing and withdrawing. I try to ebb, but feelings surge.