In Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the lovable narrator, 14-year-old Arnold Spirit (based on Alexie himself), touches on an idea that’s been goading me for years. We spend most of our life running from or trying to get into a particular tribe. By tribe, I mean social group identity.
Being from nowhere once made me feel like I had no place and therefore no “people.” Of course, I have many tribes, probably three of four that resonate most with me. There is something poignant about Arnold’s quote below, with its wonderful teenage-hood ness and cultural context. In 2009, how relevant is the fact that we are being asked to step away from the one or two tribes we clutch to in order to breed some tolerance in this world? Very, I think.
But how does one do this without watering down an identity?
I realized that I might be a lonely Indian boy, but I was not alone in my loneliness. There were millions of other Americans who had left their birthplaces in search of a dream.
I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms.
And the tribe of cartoonists.
And the tribe of chronic masturbators.
And the tribe of teenage boys.
And the tribe of small-town kids. Continue reading
My cohort at Emotion Technology (and husband) Christopher Gandin Le is live blogging for the CDC at the National Environmental Public Health Conference: Healthy People in a Healthy Environment.
Majora Carter, a genius and one of my favorite speakers on this subject, is speaking at this conference along with many other great minds. You can enjoy the highlights of a conference on a vital topic from the comfort of your own computer!
Check it out via Twitter
You can also register to watch a free live webcast here.
“The Killing Season” is not a spoof television show–it’s an eerie phrase used by Mongolians who live on those grassland plains called steppes. It’s not hard to imagine which season exactly is the killer. These nomads usually lose half of their herd (of camels, yaks, sheep, horses) during the brutal windswept winters. Since their herd is their livelihood, the death of the herd is a kind of death of human existence.
I don’t depend on a herd, but I am anticipating living in a cold unlike any I’ve experienced, partially because I’ll be living in a yurt. Winter blasted into Montana the first week of October with 1° temperatures, a foot of snow and icicles hanging like daggers from homes. The snow has melted and left us some semblance of fall, but aspens and cottonwoods never had a chance to turn golden yellow. The leaves froze into a mottled purple color; now they flutter like strange ghosts casting a strange purpley hue in the valley.
A friend of mine hates summer. I love summer. Maybe for her, summer is the killing season, a killing of some piece of her, but I’m not sure anyone reading this blog or using a computer (like me) can understand what a killing season actually entails.
A brilliant healer friend of mine recently gave me homework: “You always write about the space around you, what you see, how others respond to their surroundings. Why don’t you spend some time writing about the inner space?” I am continually obsessed by the contention that our inner space is shaped by our outer space. But instead of exploring that orientation (again and again), here goes an attempt at only the inner space.
I am a chronic anticipator. I anticipate what will happen next, how it will happen, and often I anticipate the worst in order to pre-grief whatever might await. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t–and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown.”
So when another friend of mine (a visionary artist) shared his debilitating worry about whether a commission would go through with an important client, I told him about what I try to do in those moments of self-doubt or worry. Imagine that “worry thought pattern” inside your brain. Give it a color and watch it traversing across your scalp. Now, erase it; start at one end and smudge it out inch-by-slow-inch. With that new vacant space, draw a vibrant healthy thought pattern in a different color. Do this every time that “worry thought pattern” appears. Eventually, you reprogram yourself.
That’s an inner space I can visualize. We make grooves in our brain and our heart. Usually those grooves are worn-down roads. Despite the difficulty of traveling these roads, we like strolling down them again because they are familiar. I wonder about all the uncharted pathways in our inner spaces. There’s a fact floating around out there that humans only use 10 % of our brain. The possibility, the possibility, the possibility. And what of the heart?
I met an elderly woman on a metro-north train in Connecticut. Without any prompt from me, she began explaining why she gets off at Harlem 125th instead of Grand Central Station. Though Grand Central is closer to her home, it is a daunting space for her to navigate.
“I have a fear of open spaces,” she shared. Before I could dredge up the word Agoraphobia (that anxiety disorder that Woody Allen, and even mermaid Daryl Hannah are labeled with), she launched into a lament about how her children and husband never understand and that she can only cross a street in NYC when someone walks with her. Otherwise, she spirals into a debilitating anxiety attack.
“What about fields outside? Does it happen there too?” I asked, because a life without the distinct pleasure of feeling tiny in the natural world seemed to me like no life at all.
“Well, I’ve lived in the city my whole life, but anytime I have been in a field, it’s the same,” and she rambled on and on, as if I were the first person to listen.
Some people with Agoraphobia can never leave the house or “safe space”; most photos detailing it show people staring out windows with painful/longing/confused looks on their faces. As an open-space junkie (which isn’t to say that I don’t also love a nook), I had a hard time hearing this woman’s story and imagining all the lack of arms-thrown-open delight in her life.
Are we each born with a unique spatial orientation? Why would the shapes I see coming at me look the same as the shapes coming at you? Like everything, it reminds me of the nature v. nurture debate. And then I tracked my own fear. Though I can lie in a sparse field for most of the day, at some point, the cells in my body register that animal-feeling of wanting to take shelter, to dash towards a cozy spot under a tree, or at least to know that there is somewhere to hide.
I have an addiction. I admitted this yesterday while staring at the ancient lady–her bright-red, hair-sprayed beehive and two-tone glasses–at the New York Public Library. She is practically a fixture, and has been here forever, or at least during the three years I lived here, and even now when I stroll the marble halls as a visitor. She looks the same. She is still perfectly coiffed. I like that she’s still here. But my brain says, Ugh, how boring. I don’t want to be her, or someone who, at any point in time, is still anything. And therein lies my addiction. I am addicted to that shameful, self-conscious, liberal, privileged concept–new experiences in new places. It feels as strong and confusing as a drug.
“Go a mile wide, not deep” has always been my family’s mantra. I lived in five different countries before the age of 11 and my parents instilled in me the importance of a particular mindset–global, open and evolving. As an adult, I have translated that vision into two principles: the need to continually change environments in job and place (not so hard) and to seek out, in our “like-attracts-like” world, a good proportion of friends who don’t think, look, act, or feel like me (harder than it sounds).
But, knowing that the flip side can be sweet, I also have a thing for the word local and the idea of being deeply connected to a community and a landscape. The instant I start to slip into reverie about such a life, my wandering self barks, “But you must always push beyond your comfort zone! DO NOT get stuck in your comfort zone.” So I live my life wondering, Which way is better?
“Small Changes” by Jennifer and Christopher Gandin Le!!
Tonight was the Intelligent Use of Water Film Competition Screening and Awards ceremony, held at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. It was thrilling to see our work on a big screen and to hear the audience’s reaction. And it was even more thrilling to receive the Jury Prize, complete with big check and all!
For an encore, here it is again:
Written by Jennifer & Christopher Gandin Le
Edited by Matt Donaldson
Music by Liz Clark
Starring our brilliant friends and cohorts!
Beauty in a Wicked World is a weekly column by Jennifer Gandin Le. It appears on Wednesdays.