I thought this was a Speckled Skink at first then found that’s not so common in California. They’re natives of New Zealand. Turns out juveniles of the Alligator Lizard are mistaken as Skinks. So a baby Alligator Lizard then? There’s a bunch of fascinating reptiles on this site and I spent my morning teatime staring at them. Which was surprisingly refreshing. As opposed to Facebook, I mean.
This was at Franklin Canyon which sits at the center of Los Angeles city, 605 acres of park land, a lake, a pond with turtles and ducks. The park is also part of the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migratory route for birds. The lake has some nice tall grasses and rushes on its banks which you can walk through/under and it’s all very children’s adventure book at this point.
The pond is civilized and easy for kids to do some turtle spotting. They are not shy, the turtles (not the kids–I don’t know about the kids). The turtles are very photogenic and very obliging. True LA turtles.
Also, visited the Descanso Gardens — not the best time of year but their rosarium was pretty. I love the climbing roses. The oak forest is a wild canopy. And the tree ferns in the ‘ancient forest were beautiful.
History from wikipedia: In 1942, while the Japanese and Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast of the United States were being sent to internment camps, Boddy bought out two local successful Japanese nurseries. According to different sources, he acquired somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 camellias.
Immense parental guilt: at some point we realized our daughter wasn’t feeling well. She had seemed reluctant in the morning but she wasn’t warm and we thought it was just childish laziness. So we jollied her out of bed and went off “exploring”. Now, she was lying down on a rickety bench under the trees, saying she wanted to rest. Of course, we abandoned the ‘ancient forest’ at Descanso and hustled home. I keep thinking of it though. Old redwoods. Tree ferns bursting all over the place. The forest features plant species that Descanso gardens calls ‘prehistoric’. From this page: Today cycads, ferns, redwoods and other ancient plants persist relatively unchanged. They have survived dramatic changes in the world’s geography, competition from other plant species and major extinctions – including that of the dinosaurs.
July was full of walks. At Solstice Canyon, the sun was harsh but a couple of easy walks took us into shade and toward un-scorched plants. The canyon is in Malibu, just off the coast and it’s a short way to the ocean which means it has coastal vegetation alongside other types.
Here’s a Japanese Red Elder (Elderberry) blooming and a bee flailing about in the blooms. Most parts of this plant are toxic for us but apparently they can be eaten after cooking. Toxins exist to protect plants and we circumvent that through fire. Not always but sometimes.
Not sure what trees these are but they formed a wall of shimmering green near a dry creek. This canyon is part of the Santa Monica Mountains. Plants and animals here are suffering because of climate change but “possible plant responses include: tolerating new climate conditions, adaptation in place, migration to a more suitable environment, or extirpation.” (from here.) The more you adapt the more you can adapt. Which is to say those that have done it before will do it again. Many California plant species have experienced wide fluctuations in climate recently so they have a chance. New communities of plants may happen as the world changes around them.
A tiger lily growing in the wild. Tiger lilies are also called ditch lilies because they grow easily in ditches in America. Old Korean legend has it that a hermit helped a wounded tiger by removing an arrow from its body. The tiger asked him to make sure they remained friends forever. When the tiger died, he became a flower. But the hermit died of drowning and his body was lost. The tiger lily is still looking for his friend, in all the ditches and corners of the world.
I’ve been back in Los Angeles for less than a week and it’s a been a hard week for the US, and for the world, a terrible week. Blood and guns, all that is wrong with this country. Despite this, and between jet lag and the exhausted relief of return (however transient), at the personal level, I’m ok. It’s strange to speak as if carefully parsing happiness—personal versus ‘for the world’ — but it’s how I’m learning sanity these days.
June was a struggle and a mistake and it passed slowly, with the single-mindedness of people waiting to be let out of a claustrophobic train compartment. It was our fourth month in India. We were still in waiting and tired of living the nomadic life so we accidentally moved out of hotels/bnbs and rented an apartment. By accidentally, I mean sleepwalked into this decision because conservative middle-class upbringing advises you to ‘settle’; ghost voices in our head saying ‘give your daughter a home’. Except you can’t settle when you’re not meant to. A few days after signing the deal, we learned we needed to come back to LA. There was no point making this home because things were still too uncertain.
The dilemma of an unfurnished apartment. The dilemma of waste. How much to buy without guilt. How much space may be left empty before it begins to gape at you. I’m a home body: I spend most hours inside a house, fixing, cleaning, making, writing. A halfway house is not my thing. There is no romance in half-furnished apartments where you stare at plants, knowing they will die when you leave.
So the place we rented, this temporary home: Gundecha Symphony, a complex with three towers painted in a color between nude, mud and pink. Outside, a vast construction site preparing for a flyover. Traffic jams at the crossing. A cacophony of honking until late at night. Grey half-constructed buildings stretching to the hills in the distance. It’s part of Mumbai’s fresh redevelopment phase which seems to have engulfed most of the northern suburbs. Builders are buying up the older, low-built apartment blocks and erecting towers where they stood. The new towers are ostensibly posh, which is to say decent bathroom fittings but they have dubious water supply and outside the windows, nothing but other grey windows. Because they’re so tall, you can’t see the few trees that exist at road level and there aren’t too many in any case. Every available land area inside the complex is paved with concrete. A garden is contained in one area in the luckier complexes. Heaven forbid any green spills out of this containment.
Bombay was never an overwhelmingly green city and ensuring it doesn’t become entirely grey-brown is going to be a challenge in the face of corporate developer greed.
Then there is this: in a city where millions live on the street, does one have the right or the breath to complain about parks?
An article about migrants and the city in the Economic and Political Weekly says “The ‘purified spaces’ of the ‘beautified city’ normalise a ‘bourgeois urbanism’ that informalises labour, legiti- mises the downward spiral of wages, sharpens socioeconomic inequalities and institutionalises the displacement and social exclusion of minority groups” (Chatterjee 2014: 23) Further, “marketing the city to attract capital involves a ‘‘hypermarketised style of governance’ (Weber 2002: 520), often geared towards a cosmetic overhaul achieved through slum eviction, identify- ing ‘blight’ and ‘purification’ through greening and beautifica- tion projects” (Chatterjee 2014: 17). The direct implication of this style of governance is more and more eviction, dislocation and homelessness for the toiling masses.” Read the whole thing here.
It’s problematic. Yet, if one feels guilty asking for trees, the sadness of the place.
Beyond the tower, in the streets, there was the panic of watching the homeless. I seem to have lost some protective armour—the blindness we practice while on the streets in Bombay, or at least the ability to see but not feel (too much, too keenly) the lives of others. Poet CP Surendran writes:
To a thinking man, happiness is a false category. Especially if you are an Indian. You may travel in a souped-up Merc with a portable bar and a hand shower, but you are still travelling the potholed road that millions mistake for a Byzantine network of loos. No wonder that the beautiful people are partying nonstop. You stop drinking, doping and dancing for a moment, and then you find that moment is the eternity you have been trying to avoid all your life. If beautiful people stop partying, the world will turn ugly for them. Celebrate then the air-conditioned nightmare.
There are, according to one estimate, three million street children in India. Nearly 80,000 of them are on the streets of India’s number one city, Bombay, where I stay. An equal number of the naked hordes wander through the dust-laden roads of Delhi, battalions of brown baby phantoms, visible to the naked eye, but dead in every respect before they are born.
Our tycoons whose success we devour in the form of self-help books (Ten Traits of Successful People, etc), our politicians whom we merrily elect to arbiter our future, and the bald and the beautiful—the 10-million-strong articulate English-Speaking Republicans of India—see the future of India go begging on a daily basis, and think of happiness. So what they do? They go get a Guru, the Mental Masseur, the bearded gent who grants you peace in the time of war. Absolution guaranteed every second Saturday. A society of Absolute Absolutionists!
We make a noise when farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Maharashtra commit collective suicides. That’s far away and so, safe to sympathise. We are free to be outraged. Outrage adds to our happiness. It reaffirms our faith in our moral being. There are dozens of children dying of starvation on the road every day, unsung. That’s urban and in our face. What shroud of self-satisfaction and spiritual claptrap serve to cover the bodies of the little dead?
Yes, this time the colour of my lens was dark. I’m sorry if it hurts some of you who love Bombay. I too love the city and feel keenly my inability to access its greater parts / joy on this trip. I also got sick. I’m sure this did not help my perception/experience.
I’m back in LA for a couple of months. That’s all I know for the moment.
A poem, ‘Brink’ was featured at The Great Indian Poetry Collective website and is available on their poetry app. Read it here and you can download the app here and read lots of other poems.
I read at a gathering organized by Poetry Couture alongside Smeetha Bhowmick and others at Kulture Shop in Bandra, Mumbai. We were the featured poets before an open mic session. The audience and energy were fantastic. The folks at Poetry Couture are organized, professional, and lovely. They gave Smeetha and me a generous amount of time each. They seemed genuinely happy to be doing this. And they’re trying to do some great stuff around the country. Please give them some love on their FB page.
Besides being in between places, I’m also in between jobs. After three years of handling communications at Gender at Work, I’m moving on. To what? This and that, say I vaguely. Which is to say the freedom of freelance, the getting up in the morning, hunting for a gig kinda thing. It’s time. Frightening as it may be, I feel more alive this way. The hunt, the perpetual hunt. The possibility of being anyone. Less romantically, I’m in the market for writing/editing contracts etc.
I almost called this post in medias res, then didn’t. Convincing experts to simplify their language is tough. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time now, because it’s the kind of work I’ve been doing for a long time now. Steven Pinker says in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century that “When we are apprentices in our chosen specialty, we join a clique in which, it seems to us, everyone else seems to know so much! And they talk among themselves as if their knowledge were second nature to every educated person.” We then start to jabber, speak in code, nonsensical to people outside the universe. Sometimes we’re convinced that’s the right way to speak. Sometimes, we’re shit scared of not speaking like that. “Even when we have an inkling that we are speaking in a specialized lingo, we may be reluctant to slip back into plain speech. It could betray to our peers the awful truth that we are still greenhorns, tenderfoots, newbies.”
Good ol’ insecurity.
He goes on to say: “…if you are enough of an expert in a topic to have something to say about it, you have probably come to think about it in abstract chunks and functional labels that are now second nature to you but still unfamiliar to your readers—and you are the last one to realize it. As writers, then, we should try to get into our readers’ heads and be mindful of how easy it is to fall back on parochial jargon and private abstractions. But these efforts can take us only so far. None of us has, and few of us would want, a power of clairvoyance that would expose to us everyone else’s private thoughts.” The answer, he suggests is reviewers, people who will offer critique. The logic of the workshop. I helped out at a writer’s room for a tv series earlier this month. It was interesting to see how each of us have our own linguistic tics, words we keep using, phrases, even character arcs that we fall back on. The collaborative process is great for avoiding one person’s particular weaknesses. (On the flip side, things can go awfully slow on a bad day and pleasing everyone can mean a design-by-committee problem i.e. everyone’s ok with it but nobody loves it.)
On Edward Hall’s Context of Cultures: High and Low which basically classifies societies on the basis of interaction, communication, relationships. High-context cultures tend to rely more on context: references, old relationships, community. A lot is unsaid. What is said is flowery, indirect. Low-context cultures have open, direct communications, based on specific rules that are accessible to everyone. Commonly, China, India, Brazil, Japan have been talked of as high-context and the US and Germany are examples of low-context societies.
This website comes with a neat little test to help you figure out whether you function better in high-context situations or low-context ones. I’m not sure how accurate the test is but it is fun.
Ruchir Sharma talks about India and Brazil as high-context cultures in his book Breakout Nations.
“High-context societies believe deeply in tradition, history and favoring the in-group, whether it is one’s family or business circle, and thus they are vulnerable to corruption. If this description sounds questionable to businessmen or tourists who know Brazil and India as open, familiar and straightforward, that is because they’ve experienced only the low-context facade adopted by the outward-facing elites who need to deal in a clear way with foreigners. Everyone is welcome at Brazil’s Carnival or an Indian wedding, and they may even be made to feel like an insider, but the reality is that it takes decades to become a real part of these cultures.”
I think of times I’ve tried to ‘explicate’ India to foreigners. At one time, I worked as a ‘cultural fluent’ for a consumer research firm called Iconoculture. My job consisted of decoding Indians, categorized into tidy market segments of course, our particular triggers and responses. To them, India was a vast and mysterious place with its intricate coded meanings and these needed translation.
In classes at UCLA, I found myself saying, ‘No, I can’t put that in the screenplay; that would never happen in India’–and a moment later–felt the discomfort of generalizing, of ‘speaking for’. The question of representation. But ‘outward-facing elites’ are often those who get heard, those who get to speak. At night, I’d stay up late, replaying conversations in my head. What had I left out? What had I mis-conveyed? Sins of omission.
Once, I hosted ‘Indian night’ at our place, aware of the ridiculous inadequacy of any such endeavor. I cooked Punjabi-ish food. There had been vague discussions about watching a Hindi movie. I couldn’t choose one. What would be appropriate, encompassing, enough? Personal faves didn’t make it. Lootera was too period, Queen too atypical, Kahaani too much of a genre movie. Finally, I decided to show a montage of trailers. Bits and pieces of upcoming Hindi films, collated to add up to something like a ‘fair’ picture. Of course, it wasn’t. I didn’t include a single Khan movie (the upcoming ones just didn’t appeal to me). It was at best a representation–in fragments–of my taste in Hindi films.
From this article: For Indians, the purpose of communication is to maintain harmony and forge relationships but we’re moving towards an LC culture, largely because of technology, trade, travel and television. Indians are more verbose and dialogue-oriented than other high-context societies like the Japanese, Chinese or Koreans, which also makes this move easier.
And another view on this whole thing and the danger of stereotyping.
The month has passed in a haze of allergens, family and paperwork. All the plans I made about personal growth/writing seem to be heading into the sea. I’ve declared it our ‘Indian Holiday’ and am curling up for movies and fatness. It’s so hot that staying upright in a chair seems effortful. Plus I’m strung out and struggling to breathe after Bangalore allergies.
Gills and dry land.
The week has been a blur. Water shortage. Vague plans for Bangkok abandoned. Heat. I want to shower more often but can’t because water comes only at certain hours. I want to write but don’t because I’ve lost some faith and am lazy in the heat, like a stupefied dog. I wait. I sleep a lot.
by jet lag and memory — the calibration of it. I’ve lived in Bombay twice, once for 21 years as a child, teen, young person; and once when I was pregnant and for the first two years of Amaya’s life. I left unhappily, both times, went to emotional lack and ill health. Bombay thus became that larger-than-life, ghostly presence, ‘the last place I was happy’. So now when I visit, my memories are bound up with transience / something in my life that did not last. I keep waiting to leave, to be thrust out in the allergen-ridden skies of Bangalore. This infuses a sort of panic in the way I approach the city. I rush around trying to gather it in my arms. It’s a project slightly doomed.
But this is also the first time Bombay no longer occupies that space. I have now been (am) happy elsewhere. This is possibly normalizing my relations with the city. I’m not sure yet how I feel about this. We like our gods and ghosts infallible, frozen.
I am going to Bangalore today. I don’t feel like I have a choice: our families and some of our friends live there. I’m expecting sinusitis and fog head to hit by day 2, take over by day 4. I expect that waking up in the morning will become the main endeavor.
We came up with a plan. That A&A would travel without me, go on ahead, and I would follow a few days later, to minimize damage. I couldn’t go through with it. The umbilical is still very strong.
— in every direction. I struggle to individuate. I regress to an immature self, awkward, out of place. I can’t seem to escape psychological strangle holds. This leads to imagery of pythons when I dream of Bangalore. The city as devourer. Its pollen, noise and emotional fog. I’m overstating things in my head, I tell myself. I’m imagining fangs sharper than they are. It will be fine. Some of the worst years of my life. That can happen anywhere. I feel substance-less, like a wisp of air. Anybody can blow me away.
“In deep sleep man continues to be influenced by his environment but loses his world; he is a body occupying space. Awake and upright he regains his world, and space is articulated in accordance with his corporeal schema. What does it mean to be in command of space, to feel at home in it? It means that the objective reference points in space, such as landmarks and the cardinal positions, conform with the intention and the coordinates of the human body.” Tuan, Space and Place.
I feel like I’m performing myself, says Eddy Redmayne’s character in The Danish Girl.
In Bangalore, I sit in cafes a lot, smiling.
Morning has broken outside the windows. Life seems benign. Or capable of being so. Onwards then.
because it was my dad’s birthday, birth anniversary — the latter a term I don’t understand — anyway, it used to be, many aeons ago before he died at 56 of lung cancer — his birthday. He never celebrated it. He disliked us fussing about it and barely tolerated a birthday wish. As he grew older, he mellowed and allowed a meal out, a gift or two. I don’t know what made my father so resentful of the day he was born. I don’t know why he was so loathe to celebrate it.
On March 5, we bombed our own country. The airplanes flew over Aizawl and well, bombed it.
“No one had imagined that the Union government would bomb its own territory. “It took us by surprise that the government had the courage to deploy jet fighters to bomb Aizawl that it dared not fly inside China or Pakistan,” said Remruata, a village council member. “Well, charity begins at home.”
The bombing caused colossal destruction with some reports saying Aizawl town had caught fire. Fortunately, only 13 civilians were killed.” (Scroll.in)
The helplessness I often hear when the subject of Indian politics comes up. “But who?” There is anguish in this sense of no alternatives, these Faustian bargains. Well, I don’t know — maybe not the worst person? Here’s the thing: the world is imperfect. Pick the least bad person. Not so hard.
Turns out it was hard for India during the last elections.
Now two years into a regime, many realise it’s a mistake, that there is real danger. Even when they don’t admit it to themselves, especially when they don’t admit it to themselves. They shrug or diminish, say “what do they know?”, or recently re JNU, the more baffling–“they should concentrate on their studies”–because ‘studies’ is a hallowed, vaunted and vacant thing for some, rote and parrot, full marks.
“Did you come first in class,” my father unfailingly asked after every examination. “No,” I unfailingly replied.
These people should go back to their studies, an article says, grumpy. These people should go back to their books so they don’t disturb our universe. (‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’ Eliot, but you know that.)
The students at JNU seem to be doing that. And it’s making people uncomfortable. I’ll admit : it makes me uncomfortable when I see young boys and girls engaged in something so grueling — and then I let the discomfort record itself and sink, and something else takes over. I don’t yet know what it is — hope, tentative. I’m not brave enough to say I want my daughter to be one of them. That would be BS and my dear blog reader, I don’t BS here. I want my daughter to have the safest, most peaceful, the happiest life that one can(not) even imagine. However, that involves a free, just, non-violent society. And this is what these people seem to be fighting for. I’m not into hero-worship. I don’t do slogans. But even I can see that.
I can’t argue politics. Basically, I get bad-tempered. I brood into my iPad, would shout on the phone if the argument came up, have shouted. I’m not proud of it. So in fatigue, if not wisdom, I’m trying gentler methods. Those haven’t worked so far. I’ve not changed a single person’s political stance. I’m friends (almost) exclusively with people who believe in the same things I do.
Towards the end, when my father was in the last stages of cancer, he celebrated things a lot. I don’t remember if he ate cake — he never liked chocolate and in fact, eating. But he went to Nepal. He always loved traveling and it was the last trip he took. It wasn’t for his birthday but I seem to remember us celebrating his birthday a little bit as well — my new husband, 24 and still very naive, trying to figure out this strange new family, and us, my mother, my brother and I, wounded by the knowledge of everything changing / everything dying, eating cake, smiling.
‘Stupps,’ my daughter says, ‘I doing my own stupps,’. I suppose we were all doing our own stuff by then.
We’re in the last stretch of wrapping up now, which is strange because we’re not actually wrapping up. Because we are applying for two different visas, the chances of something working out are not insignificant. We’re leaving everything as is, mostly. We stopped buying plants some time back but I transplanted the Poinsettia we got for Christmas. If it doesn’t work out, A will come back and sell+ship everything. Whoever comes next will enjoy the garden. (I hope.) For now, the house pretends we’re going on holiday.
We ate ramen for lunch in a small Noho restaurant, drove to Hollywood Boulevard but were exhausted at the thought of negotiating Pre-Oscar roadblocks, bickered but rescued our moods and went to The Last Bookstore. I bought a book of Yusef Kommunyakaa poems as a gift because we’re not buying books for ourselves at the moment. We have too many to ship as it is. For myself, I went to the little yarn store upstairs and bought yarn because that I can carry more easily. Madelinetosh DK, four hanks. A lady, perhaps in her sixties, was helping her daughter start a project. She advised me about yarn, showed me pictures of her projects. Her husband came in later and told me it was their anniversary. “and this is what she wanted to do…” with a smile. The family left, cozy. He seemed proud, even after all these years, or maybe pretending real good. I like to believe he wasn’t, that he was genuinely pleased to be with this slightly loud, very talkative woman who helps strangers in yarn shops choose their yarn, and shows them pictures of her shawls and caps. The kind of person that even hermit-like i start speaking to, because on a clear Saturday afternoon, a conversation with a stranger can be, easy. But the one i liked more is the quieter one–
The woman who manages the shop, silver-hair in a bun, red kaftan, knitting something lovely and delicate in cream lace. She asked me why i was going to India: ‘Work or vacation?’ I told her. She said ‘that’s hard!’ and we moved on to talking about knitting versus crochet. She had to wind my hanks of yarn into balls using this contraption called a Swift. I left, giving her more time to do it and went back later. ‘Safe travels, anu,’ she said as i was leaving the shop, remembering both my name and my story. For a second, i had to catch my breath, get busy photographing something to sidestep tears at this random kindness.
Then we drove around some more, went up Mulholland drive, and finally ended up at a market cafe in Atwater Village. It was lovely—there was a live band—Jo loved it, was rapt, wanted to dance, didn’t want to leave. Casual conversations, books, hillside drives, music.
She wound the yarn for me using this:
At the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), David Altmejd‘s ‘The Egg’: it’s a prone human body, decomposing, which squirrels have appropriated as their home.
“I like the idea that actual meaning comes from matter. I like the idea that matter is intelligent. Some artists think that meaning comes before the object and that the object is a tool to communicate that meaning, but I don’t like that. I believe in the power that art has to generate meaning. I believe in the capacity of art to build its own intelligence. It’s not just an illustration, that’s very reductive.” (StudioInternational.com)
Also, a roomful of Rothkos.
Yesterday, we went up Mulholland Drive again. Uncertainty is a wide lens. I keep wanting to see the tableau. The city was shrouded in fog, the lights of Downtown hanging in the air, disembodied, ghostly.
Some things, I dislike finishing. Dislike is the wrong word. I’m wary of. Finishing is so final—the end of tinkering means the end of power.
I finally finished a crochet toddler blanket, which is to say I wove in the ends. It was really done for weeks but I couldn’t bring myself to ‘finish’. I typically betray/suspend pieces right before they’re complete, so I have a pile-up of crochet pieces in the cupboard with one little thing incomplete. That way, they’re never over. That way, I can still unravel, change, tinker.
I spend a lot of time unraveling things I make and making them again. Crochet is wonderful like that—much like writing, it allows you to endlessly undo, begin again, re-fashion. (I’m not getting into the Freudian definition of undoing, which is different = “a ritualistic effort to undo damage and reduce guilt over some action in the past.” Not sure that’s relevant to crochet but who knows. it’s true I started ‘yarning’ as A calls it, when our dog died. it’s true i felt guilty about his death because i wasn’t with him but it seems like a long shot and I’ll leave it to the therapy couch.)
As long as something is continuous, time feels like a string. When I end something, the air feels hollow.
I do this with books too, the ones I read and the ones I write. Which is probably why I rarely submit individual poems. To submit is to admit I’m done, at least for the moment.
I finished the second proofs of Monsters and Fables, my next book of poems, and sent them to the publisher. The book may be out in a couple of months. That’s the aim anyway. I’m jittery, brittle but heading to a place of indifference which helps me deal. In a few months, I’ll look at this book and feel entirely disconnected from it. I traveled to Los Angeles with no copies of City of Water. Not a single one. My classmates were baffled, probably thought I was lying about having a book out–“you didn’t carry a single copy?” I couldn’t explain it.
So here’s an interesting art project to do with crochet and undoing: Amy Stacey Curtis in Maine made Undoing (2012) by crocheting for an hour everyday, for a whole year. The resulting blanket was 72′ x 9′ and during the installation, viewers were invited to unwind the single string of yarn and place it in a 9′ clear box. By the end of the show, there was no blanket, only yarn. A vast empty space, a glass box, a heap of yarn. From this book: “Every stitch undone was a reversal of Curtis’ time and an eradication of her concerted effort.”
And the other morning in the garden, ladybugs — three or four different pairs — mating on the Pennisetum.
1. From Ross Gay’s poem ‘to the mistake’, which is in his collection catalog of unabashed gratitude.
“I am lecturing on the miracle
of the mistake in
that hiccup or weird
gift that spirals
what’s dull and land-locked
into as yet untraversed i.e. cosmic”
This made me think of wabi sabi. “Wabi sabi embodies the Zen nihilist cosmic view and seeks beauty in the imperfections found as all things, in a constant state of flux, evolve from nothing and devolve back to nothing.” (Andrew Juniper in his book Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence.) I crafted a neat little poem for my second book while thinking of wabi sabi. It was too neat, it talks about letting things go, and making it rough and all that, but it’s precisely laid out with every little word in place. I put it at the beginning of the book because I hope the ones that follow it will do something else, something more.
2. Living between places is antithetical to hoarding. I’m a collector of spices, yarn, books, vintage jars and bottles. I have spices I will never use. I will not finish my stash of yarn before I leave. An immigrant life described not as sunlight or dreams, but as ‘all that yarn I bought and won’t get to use.’ A psychiatrist once told me the mind creates decoys. Faced with something it doesn’t want to face, it creates little fires to put out elsewhere. As the plane leaves LA, my mind will be on the Wool of the Andes worsted. Color: hollyberry.
3. If I was struggling into a notebook, what would I be struggling with? The word seems to be at the surface today. The struggle to swallow down spice. Blood burst in the throat. The struggle to sit.
There are bird sounds. I saw a white butterfly sit on a parsley plant. The parsley is struggling to hold its place because a Broccoli plant, unwise-layed, is also threatening to sit on top of it. As an experiment, I’ve stopped tending the garden. How will things grow in my absence. Just fine, thank you, it says to me. Everything in the garden is going to seed. It’s beautiful.
4. We lost our car in the desert. It broke. We never repaired it–the cost of repairs being more than the cost of the car–we left it there in a garage owned by Rusty whom I never met. We got $100 for it and drove back in a rented orange car. It’s the beginning of this next phase, we said, of learning to let go.
It was just a car. Curiously, I kept thinking of our dog as we drove back. Cars are not pets. Cars are not pets. Yet, that silky black nose. That soft underbelly where the beige fur went all white.
People react differently to a child dying. Some never leave the house where it happened–they believe the child lives there. Others leave the house overnight, bags boiling with grief. After our dog died in LA, I wanted to leave the city. When I had survived the loss, I wanted to stay. Not because he had died here but because there was something in the place that had allowed me to live anyway. By live, I mean enjoy things.
and the garden is all wet. I woke to the sound of the lawnmower–or what I thought was the lawnmower–and struggled up, horrified. Louis who wields the machine is not mindful of spinach seedlings or fledgeling succulents. Louis is too busy to be so mindful of every step he takes. So I like to take out the weeds by hand and cut the grass with shears, and let the garden grow wild when I don’t have time. But sometimes Louis comes when I’m not looking. He’s very diligent and cheerful and well-meaning.
Rain is such a rarity here. I work so well when it’s raining that I’m almost sorry when the sun comes out. Sometimes, I sit in a dimly-lit room, blinds only half open and play rain sounds on my computer. A lot of people do this which is why Youtube is full of ‘ambient rain sound’ videos and there is an app that allows you to listen to rain sounds while working.
It wasn’t Louis with his lawnmower so everything is fine.
It’s been eventful. We went to Death Valley and I was suitably overwhelmed by the salt, wildflowers, snow, sand and ‘lowness’ of the place. Death Valley is below sea-level and the sense of constantly traveling on land that once wasn’t land hung over me as we traveled across the miles of it. Lots has been said about the magnificence of the place — it’s all true. It’s surreal. It’s majestic. It made me sad.
In this below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. Yet, each extreme has a striking contrast. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley.
Then we got stuck in the desert. We were driving to the ghost town of Ballarat and on a washed-out stretch of gravelly dirt road, our car made horrible noises and died. It was just past noon, the sun in the sky. Things I thought of: bread, cheese, bananas (food in the car); water (six small bottles); knitting, books (entertainment for me); crayons (entertainment for my daughter). We settled in to hail passing cars. There was one every half hour or so.
We stopped three or four, asked them to contact a ranger. They assured us they would. We took it on faith. Nobody looked keen to give us a lift. We didn’t ask. We decided if help hadn’t come by 4 pm, we would. We took turns guesstimating how long help would arrive in. I aimed at knitting 12 inches before help arrived, then 18 inches. Our almost-four-year-old tried to sleep in the backseat. I had washed her face and neck with water and taken off her jeans. She was ok.
Help arrived at around 4 pm, about an hour before sunset. The cop (turned out this was actually outside park limits and not in the ranger’s area) said there had been three or four calls about us. He bumped the car to the side of the road, called a tow truck, gave us a lift to the nearest desert motel. Cell phone signal–aha! We drank beer and ate a lot of fries. We let our daughter make a meal of fries and ice cream.
It was after dark when the tow truck arrived and we drove back to the same spot to pick up the car. The desert was silent, we passed no cars for miles. I don’t remember passing any but maybe I missed the one or two that I did. Or maybe there really were no cars. Sam, the driver of the tow truck, turned up the music and jigged about. He sounded annoyed when my daughter was chatty. I shushed her. We sat in silence, except for the music, for two hours, bumping along, the towed car hulking behind us. When we reached Ridgecrest, a town with lights and shops and grocery stores, I laughed nervously. Even Sam seemed to thaw. “We even have a Hilton,” he said.
“It’s important for people to know that only a tiny portion of Death Valley has cell phone reception,” search and rescue coordinator Micah Alley wrote in an e-mail. “GPS units are not only fallible but send people across the desert where no road exists.”
Over the past 15 years, at least a dozen people have died in Death Valley from heat-related illnesses, and many others have come close. Another hiker vanished last June in Joshua Tree National Park. His body has not yet been found.
These are not just stories of unimaginable suffering. They are reminders that even with a growing suite of digital devices at our side, technology cannot guarantee survival in the wild. Worse, it is giving many a false sense of security and luring some into danger and death.
Transplants have to stay somewhere for a while to make it theirs. For me, the Incline has become a shabby-chic monument to this idea. Now it is closed for reconstruction, and I worry about what will be left when work is done. Will it still resemble the landmark I invested with weight, the road I drove with my children? Will I recognize it, recognize my memories, or will all that be erased? Southern California, its critics like to insist, is a landscape of forgetting, but I no longer believe this to be the case. Rather, like the Incline, it is a landscape of association, in which the connections we make, our attachments, are what render us native.
A fractal is a complex and infinite pattern that repeats itself over and over. According to fractalfoundation.org, fractal patterns surround us, in nature. Trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, all fractals. A screenplay is a fractal or can be written as one. From Scriptwrangler.blogspot.com: “The overall three-act structure resonates like a crystal. Its structure is replicated in all the smaller beats. Within the beats, the three-act structure plays itself out, and with each vibration on every level, the story becomes more and more significant, whole, and moving.” And screenwriter John August in an interview: “No matter the script, though, you’re trying to make sure every moment can stand in for the whole movie. It needs to be fractal in a way. And yet, each of those moments has to be advancing the plot, too.”
At UCLA, one of our assignments was to watch a movie every week and write a detailed breakdown of its scenes, observing the acts, midpoint, low point, resolution etc. The ambit was wide. We could watch movies in any language, from any country or period. I watched some foreign films, some mainstream Hollywood and some modern Hindi films. It was interesting to me that many of the last do follow the three act structure—in recent times, Lootera, Queen, NH10 come to mind— but there is the additional question of the Intermission, which doesn’t exist here in LA but is expected in India. The 15-minute break is a time and space for rejuvenating yourself before you return to sort of “tackle” the next half of the movie. In a culture where three-hour movies are common, each half needs tackling, some kind of will power. Indian movie halls understand this. They provide a feast to help you do it. In LA, even the fancy Arclight in Hollywood serves hotdogs, ice-cream, popcorn (one flavor), assorted candy. I visited Mumbai’s PVR cinemas in Lokhandwala every week after Amaya was born. Postpartum and exhausted, I’d sink into a plush seat and feed myself. There were hotdogs, rolls, crepes, ice-cream, popcorn (several flavors), nachos, chaat, and some other items I forget. The food was almost as important as the film.
The Intermission means that Hindi movies need to provide a turning point exactly halfway through the movie which is pretty major—so that people will come back to their seats.
Structure doesn’t need to be predictable. And it is not of course “formula”, which is something many women mix in 3 or 4 ounces of water and hold to their baby’s mouths when they’re tired, milk-less or generally done with breastfeeding. I remember Patience Agbabi reading at the University of Kent sometime in the winter of 2010. Somebody in the audience asked her about her choice to write in rhyme. She said—and I’m paraphrasing—a poem could be such an amorphous thing, that the rules of formal verse helped you find / give form to thoughts..
According to Screenplayunlimited.com: “What’s so liberating about the 3-act structure is that when it’s used as it should be -which is in a dramatic rather than a logistical way – you can use it to structure not only the whole script but also each part.” Structure allows you a space to play, defines playground walls so you won’t run out in the road and get hit by a car while you’re doing it. The problem is sometimes the walls are as terrifying as the cars.
The most useful thing structure did was to keep us hopeful writers going. Writing the second act may be like “driving through Kansas” but when you’re just ten pages from the ‘turning point’ of page 60, there is hope. As we sat in libraries, Starbucks, artisanal coffee shops, parks and in my case, an Ikea futon, we needed that hope.
The chances of a screenplay being produced is minuscule, we were told repeatedly. At best, it will be a calling card, a ‘sample’ so you can get jobs writing / rewriting other people’s screenplays. At worst, you will spend the next thirty years sitting in Starbucks, next to the homeless guy who spends all night outside the ATM at the corner of Sunset and Vine.
The hope then is not of fame, prosperity or untold greatness. It’s mostly about finishing the damn thing. At that point, structure provides the next step. You focus on that one step, the next loop in the fractal. You see it over and over again, in your dreams. You escape the bigger picture, the panic and the futility. You make it. Eventually.
Crochet is all about structure because you’re imposing patterns on yarn. Diana Taimina does something called hyperbolic crochet which looks like this.
From crochetcoralreef.org: “For hundreds of years mathematicians tried to show that anything like hyperbolic space was impossible, until finally, in the nineteenth century, they accepted the “existence” of this aberrant geometry. Still many believed it wasn’t possible to model the structure materially. They were thus surprised to learn in 1997 that Dr. Daina Taimina had done just that using the traditional art of crochet.”
And here is something beautiful: these folks have created an interactive map of science which demonstrates how all the different fields of science relate to each other. You’ll need to click on the image link and scroll down a bit to see the interactive version.
Driving into a freeway is like diving—the roar in my ears, a sense of being submerged, almost drowning, and somehow, I’ve surfaced onto the right lane. I coast along, buffeted by a force greater than me, like wind, the collective will of people wanting to get somewhere.
The 110 or Pasadena Freeway is also called the Arroyo Parkway because in parts it runs next to the Arroyo Seco, a seasonal river and canyon, literally “dry stream” in Spanish and now after four years of drought in California, certainly dry in most parts. Being a Parkway (a road that connects to a park), it’s prettier than many freeways and more dangerous. This was the first freeway in the western United States, the first of the great American roads on this strip of coast. It’s a dangerous distinction. It was built for 45 miles per hour; cars swoosh past at 70 miles per hour. Because it opened in 1940, and because America is a new country, the Parkway is lovingly called the ‘Historic’ Parkway. Coming from a country where we take history for granted, we find this both amusing and faintly moving. We live on a hill above the freeway—Ads, my husband of fifteen years, our daughter, almost four, and I.
We moved to Los Angeles in September 2014 so I could study screenwriting at UCLA film school. Ads didn’t get his work permit for 6 months. For those months, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood, surrounded by aspiring models, actors and writers, and some lovely seniors. Outside our gates, there were junkies, homeless people and other aspiring models, actors and writers. We were at the heart of all the glamour, traffic, beauty, sleaze and messiness. It was a good introduction to LA.
Fall turned to winter. I went to class, learned about Hollywood–the industry and the place, went to the gym. There were movies at Arclight, at the Dolby Theater (where the Oscars are held), Hindi movies at Burbank. I wrote my screenplay. We rationed our money, ate and drank cheap, explored parks, drove the Pacific Coastal Highway, drove the canyons, prayed for the work permit. Once the initial glow of tourism faded, I missed Indian food, Indian textiles, Indian film, warm weather. I felt awkward among the blonde models at the gym. I was tired of being broke. Our roof fell down. Or rather, the layer of plaster that had been caked on cheaply and thickly, fell down and lay about our living room in huge heaps of debris and dust. it took a week to repair.
It was February. Our dog got sick. He was old, 13. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong. It could be an infection, they said. It could be cancer. We fed him pills, thought he was improving. Three days before my birthday, he died. He died in the night, between 3 am when I went to sleep and 7 am when Ads woke up. I was not with him.
We drove around Hollywood, trying not to see the pet shops, we cried, we ate at Canters, wordless. On my birthday, Ads dragged me out of bed and drove me to Malibu where we stared at the sea and ate oysters. After that, I stayed in for a long time. During this time, I learned how to crochet, pouring energy into balls of wool and acrylic. They helped me cope with a house that gradually emptied of dog fur, the empty spot near my feet where our dog used to curl up.
As spring came, so did the work permit. I wrote my second screenplay. We moved east to a house that was a little bigger and came with no appliances, but had a stretch of bare, brown land around it and a view of the hills. I looked at the land and the hills and said yes even before going in. I grew succulents, drought-resistant grass, vegetables. We put chairs in the porch and sat there all summer. We went to flea markets, art shows, museums.
Up here, the cars are a hum in the background. The birds of the surrounding Arroyo Park visit our garden. Squirrels dig up lettuce, hunting nuts they’ve buried. I find the nuts sometimes, odd half globes of hope. Cats sleep. The windows look out on surrounding hills, the houses on the hills. There is a chair by the window, sunlit. There is a basket of yarn by its side, a book, a throw I knitted in memory of our dog. A mug of tea sits on the window sill.
It has been a place of healing and adventure, beauty and discovery. It has become home.
A month from now, we will pack our bags, abandon our plants, close the house and leave. We may come back. It’s not up to us.
This is to do with gods and immigration authorities. I suspect the two may be the same.
The title of this post says ‘where i live now’ and of course, ‘now’ is the important word. It seems like a strange time to start blogging again. This space–the blog–has been abandoned, quiet and dusty as an empty apartment, for almost two years. Maybe it’s precisely because I’m losing my moorings in actual space, that I feel the need for this space again. What is a website?–An anchor hanging in nothing, in air. And yet, an address.
I admire people who have less need for an address. Who feel comfortable traveling because whatever they need, they carry it with them. Maybe they are so comfortable in their own skin, that all they need is to carry themselves.