The Power of Now

An assembly of recent strangers and now acquaintances were sitting on a sunlit patio in Italy at the end of a consensus conference.  They agreed on next steps for a new educational program and were congratulating themselves on surviving the two-day journey of “storming” and “norming” (as they say in group formation speech).  It was then, in the last moments of this meeting of minds, that one of the participants, Janet, said “We have ten minutes. Let’s go ahead and pick our case studies.”

Everyone groaned and protested.  They felt they had worked so hard, and now deserved a rest from the doing of anything. But Janet persisted. In that ten minutes they selected two stories to turn into case studies, outlined the contents, and nominated the working groups.

Janet did this time and again throughout my association with this particular organization.  Some people rolled their eyes, and protested, but in the end her gentle insistence won out, and progress was made.  I came to call this “the power of now”, and it is one of the greatest lessons I learned from Janet.

Procrastination, one could argue, is a general human tendency.  If it isn’t urgent, life-threatening, or otherwise pressing, why do today what you can put off for tomorrow.  While living in Italy, I became familiar with a phrase embracing this concept: Doppo domani. As in, I’ll do it the day after tomorrow.

I used to procrastinate, somehow feeling like a hero for staying up until 3 A.M. to put together a shoddy paper less than 24 hours before it was due.  While I have been able to whittle this mindset out of my life, it does still exist in various incarnations.  Do I get gas now, or put if off for the morning? Do I do that less desirable project now, or prioritize something over it? Do I take these last five minutes in my working day to be productive, or do I slide through that time?  Do I write this post, or zone out on facebook?

Here’s the thing; procrastination takes so much energy and is much more painful than just doing the task on a normal timescale.  I have never once regretted doing something now, which could be put off for tomorrow.  More often than not, I’ve been grateful to have tackled something on my ever-expanding list of things I want to accomplish.

There is a more philosophical tack to take on “the power of now”.  None of us know how much time we have in this existence.  A friend of a friend suddenly and unexpectedly lost her soulmate.  In these moments we reevaluate things we consider important.  When we are on the threshold of leaving this existence, what parts of our lives will bring us joy, and at what parts will we despair as distractions from the heart of living?  We can all use the power of now to build a more fulfilled life.

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Alarms, Beeps, and Other Auditory Tortures

We live in a world filled with noise, both the noise we generate internally from all of our mind chatter, and the externally created noise we are confronted with at the moment we awake. There is soundless noise, and there is loud, obtrusive, and incessant noise, which is not merely an alert, but a demand, or an instrument of torture. 

My boyfriend and I are of the same persuasion.  Certain noises, unfortunately present in everyday life, make us want to do bad things to total strangers, like throw a brick through the windshield of a car whose alarm is going off for no damned reason at all.

Take, for example, a lovely Sunday afternoon in Antigua, Guatemala exploring the ruined portion of a cathedral.  There is a working church on the site, and followers are praying and chanting and singing in the Sunday mass, and a breeze is picking up the ash dumped by Fuego days ago and shaping it into churlish clouds.  Fractured baroque architecture hangs above, incomplete and covered in soot and dust, and absolute lovely for everything it was and is no longer.

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Antigua, Guatemala, 2015 © JL Colomb

There are birds, and worshippers, and ruins and the moment is one to fold up and put into a tin of memories.  Until a freaking car alarm goes off.  And continues to go off.  Not for a little while, but for the next 20 minutes. 

The spell is broken.  We speed through the fetishes and votives, and flee from the jarring WAH WAH WAH of the car alarm, which we discover is attached to a new Black Mercedes parked in a handicapped spot though there are no plates or papers or placards denoting a need for handicapped accessibility of any kind.  What’s worse, is that the doors of the church have been open during the entire mass and the car is parked not 50 feet away directly in front of them. 

No one comes out.  No one has made a move to turn off their screeching car alarm even though, one could surmise, the owner of the car is sitting right there.

Another example lurks within the walls of our own home.  Suspect No. 1: the microwave.  Why does a microwave have to yell when it’s done?  We live in the age of advancing technology, of coding geniuses.  Why can’t we have chimes, or our favorite song, or how about a simple text message to say ‘hey, I made something for you and you might want to get it out of my belly and into your belly now’?  Why does it have to beep that jarring beep better suited for a real emergency, like fire or smoke?  And it’s not just one beep.  Four, or if you’re unlucky five, angry trill declarations will resound upon completion of the warming task.  The frequency of the beep is not the only thing that drives us crazy, it’s the pitch, too. [Aside: there was a New York Times article about what sound drives people crazy. A certain kind of baby cry, and a specific cat yowl had an equitable effect on helping people lose their rationale minds.]

Our coffee maker announces itself in this same attention seeking way.  It beeps when it’s finished brewing, and again three hours later when it decides the coffee in the thermal carafe is no longer drinkable.

I do understand these features, particularly on kitchen appliances, are desirable for some people.  I yield; however, a little extra engineering would give the rest of us an option to be free from beeping.

But now, one of my biggest nail-biting, head banging, ear gouging stimulus: lip-smacking, openmouthed chewing.  This, more than car alarms, microwaves and coffee makers, makes me want to navigate the world with my ears stuffed with wax. 

Other people don’t have the same sensitivity to this, and for the longest time I thought I was the crazy weirdo with super hearing.  As it turns out, I’m probably only misophonic.  Yep. Thanks to another New York Times article, I have diagnosed myself with this syndrome, which is so pervasive it is actually a syndrome with its own name.  Selective sound sensitivity syndrome (i.e. misophonia) is suspected when a person (like me) has an acute negative emotional response to specific stimuli.  The sounds of eating and fidgeting are popular triggers. The response? Annoyance, irritation and on the other end of the spectrum, actionable anger (the term sounded more pleasant than rage) and panic attacks.  I wonder if Hieronymus Bosch was afflicted by something like this.

We are impacted by the noises in our environment.  Car horns and alarms, speeding engines and squealing tires, arguments and anger.  And what do these sounds, or the sounds of gun shots, bombs, or the cries of someone in pain do to us? These frequencies ripple through our world.  They reshape us in the moment, and sometimes beyond.  We become to attuned to them; we bend to their peaks and troughs. From this perspective, consider the importance of silence.  Consider the critical nature of laughter, music, the sounds of the wind and birds and rain, and the joy the voice holds when we discover and wonder at something.

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Civica Jazz Band, Milano 2012 © JL Colomb

The Forest of the Ancients (a travelogue)

Nestled on the Eastern slopes of the White Mountains in the Inyo National Forest, lives a clan of ancients. The oldest of the impressive sentinels had already been living for thousands of years before the birth of Christ, before the creation of the famed Rosetta Stone.  They had already witnessed three quarters of a million sunrises and sunsets when the blocks for Stonehenge were being chiseled.  The Great Pyramids at Giza would have to wait yet another 500,000 sunsets and sunrises from that point before would they be conceived .  These creatures, the oldest living non-clonal organisms on the planet, are emblems of adaptability and survival.

I’ve had the honor of walking among these wonders thrice in my lifetime, and each time I have been amazed and humbled by them.  The steep dolomite slopes on which the Bristlecone Pines reside are rough and textured like the silvery skins of the trees themselves.

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Dolomite slopes

The Bristlecones stand alone and apart on these extreme inclinations; they thrive in the alkaline soil not because it is perfect for them, but because they are obstinate and adaptable and opportunistic enough to exist in an environment, which would kill most other plant life.  If that is not enough to hint at their stubborn nature, consider the Mohave Desert Basin lurking to the east far below Schulman’s Grove.

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Extreme and harsh environs surround the Bristlecones

To walk among them is akin to walking through the canyons of Zion National Park.  I taste my insignificance in these places, my transience.  I also sense wonder, and a host of other feelings in this vein.  Gratitude to be part of this experience, to be able to witness these creatures and creations, to stand amidst the art and science of time and revel in the absolute miracle of our planet.

The Bristlecone Pines perform their dance over eons.  For some species they grow as little as one inch per century.  Some 40 year-old seedlings in the White Mountains, where we were October 2016, are less than six inches tall.  The harsh environment, the growth rate, and the peculiarities all contribute to a movement in wood (for it really does appear that these trees undulate and dance).

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A photographer wandering among the Bristlecones can get lost through the lens.  The bark ranges from a silvery, monochromatic austerity to a warm vibrant glow.  It curls and folds like fluid ribbons tumbling from a gift.

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Ribbons

Serpentine, the gnarled limbs twist, as if to conjure their will and imagination into the world with the spell of their dance. 

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The Spell

The other striking thing about these trees is that it looks as if they wear their heartwood on the outside. As if, when they grow they fold outward, baring themselves, showing off the growing living sensitive bits of them.  I’m sure this is not the case.  I’m sure this is my uninformed and overly romantic interpretation.  Whatever the case, they are fluid magic.  They are historians. And hypnotists and sages.

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Writers aren’t superhuman (or the case for multiple dimensions)

Let’s get the whining out of the way right now. Writing is hard. And working on multiple novel-length projects while also trying to generate short content and still be a good friend and daughter and life partner and colleague – not to mention bathing and eating and sleeping – is the road to ruin. Maybe that’s excessive.  It’s a road akin to something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Desolate.  Smothering fatigue at the grind of an endless, hopeless task, like a pencil sharpened down to its eraser and thus rendered useless.

I must have a real point beyond the trite and predictable drone of complaint for my self-serving and ego-lifting activities. I have several, in fact, which can be distilled into a word appetizer: commitment, humility, and respect. These are big vague concepts, and lend themselves to rumination.

  1. Writing, and really any art form, requires time and dedication. Finished works do not birth themselves. They do not spring out of the ether, sleek and spry and ready to inflict upon people whatever laudable qualities they possess. A finished piece of writing is time laid out in crispy layers, like honeyed phyllo dough. It is strata of earth compressed. It is time condensed into one deceptive layer. The viewer does not see all of the time; they do not see all of the layers. We get credit for the finished piece, but we don’t get credit for all minutes and hours and weeks and months it took to create it.
  2. We are human beings, requiring sleep and sustenance (both for the body and the mind). We cry when we break a bone, or slice through our protective layer of skin. Or when a project becomes warped and stiff and unworkable.  We are not gods. We are not invincible. At times we are so short-sighted we can’t see the glasses on our noses as we desperately search for them. And yet our dreams are the size of galaxies, filled with light and darkness, radio frequencies and gasses, matter and anti-matter. We heap expectations, like Thanksgiving dinner, on our proverbial plates, and are diminished when lethargy takes hold not more than half-way through. It is this incongruity, which motivates us to create, and pains us at the immensity of the journey.
  3. The works we strive to create, those galaxies, are monoliths and we are pinpricks. Yet, a camera obscura is also a pinprick. In the right setting, it reveals the outside in inverted photographic clarity. We must take care to make the hole just right, to make the room dark enough, and to give the scene the right surface upon which to be exposed. We must make space for that thing to be created, as well as the process by which it’s created.

Though these three things are some of the dimensions of creativity, but they are by no means all. I have recently traveled through them (and others), and I will do so again soon. Each new foray starts as a beautiful day, with the fall nowhere in sight.

The Aesthetics of Bodie (a travelogue)

Hiding in the sagebrush, tucked between the folds of the soft hills dwell the bones of something.  Bones of wood and metal, fabric and stone.  They are hard, these bones. They have 90º angles, which time and the desert try to soften, or erase completely.

Some of the bones still bleed, or otherwise carry in them the notion of a time before decay and abandonment.

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bones of bodie, (c) JL Colomb

 

I first experienced Bodie over 20 years ago, which was fortunately right when I had become enthralled with photography.  We had visited the alkaline Mono Lake—steeped in stark alien beauty—earlier that day.  Continuing into the California wilderness, away from cities and streetlights, crowds and corner stores, was like pulling back the veil of modern civilization and stepping into a past living at the edges of our memory.

The road, a dirt washboard bearing all the evidence of the harsh climate of the area, was long and rough.  When we finally arrived, the late autumn sunset streaked its long golden arms over the hills and the remains the town birthed by the gold rush.

It was spectacular, this place of arrested decay; this evidence of our past and greed, of our human drive to make a home.

I had my own 35mm camera, and a certain amount of technical skill.  Through the lens, I explored the former businesses, houses, and outhouses.  I slipped through the graveyard and peered through windows to witness the pieces of what people leave behind.

All these years later, my feelings about Bodie and my reactions to it have not changed.  If anything, they’ve deepened as I become more comfortable with my dour sense of aesthetics.

I am obsessed with states of decay, titillated by the things we leave behind.  Perhaps it’s unusual, and I myself have had a hard time rationalizing this preference, understanding it in the context of the human experience.  Part of it is entangled with the mutability of life.  We are born, we create, and we lean into the next passage.  Evidence of our existence endures in some form, but our legacy is ever changing according to the influence of other factors.  We become a painting turned over to the curator of time; an abandoned home, picked through for salvage, and otherwise left to the process of unbecoming.

But the aesthetics of decay can also easily be a rejection of something, rather than strictly an embrace of it.  We live in a disposable society, where seemingly everything bears the stamp of built-in obsolescence; where we answer the fatigue of familiarity with a donation or trash run in parallel with the shopping trip for the new and wondrous.  We don’t live in a world of unfettered abundance, and what we take cannot be put back. I favor valuing an object for it’s persistence, and acquiring it with intention so I can use it well past its age of usefulness.  I suspect my attachment to decay relates to this aspect as well as any other.

There is a more simple driver, removed from this self-obsessed mental flossing exercise.  Decay can be beautiful.  Period. In tonality and texture.  In visual framing and juxtaposition.  In patterns and contrast.

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oxidized, ©JL Colomb

The soft sable texture of disuse.

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standing still, ©JL Colomb

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the left behinds, ©JL Colomb

The curling of the clapboards as the wood of the house dries and peels away from its intended use and returns to some process more natural to its existence

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clapboards in the desert, ©JL Colomb

It’s an emptiness you can step into and inhabit.

judgement (& absolution)

When they first put on the blindfold, they ask me, How do you see?

Not well.

I shake, though I’m in my own home.  I can hear them rummaging through the dresser my grandfather had made for his new bride decades ago.  Furniture falls to the floor.  Breakable things are broken in a horrific cacophony of loss. There is no music here.  Only discordance.

I can’t see at all.  The darkness stifles me, and I whip my head around to wherever I can hear noise clattering, and it clatters all around me.

They laugh.

I become dizzy, like an ever-spinning top, and stagger with my hands outstretched in a hopeless attempt to catch myself before I fall.

A foot catches my leg and helps me crash to the ground.

A hand tourniquets my arm and brings me to my feet.

Silence.

The silence is worse than the noise.  It’s flat and endlessly deep at the same time. Silence is the kind of landscape in which you become lost, in which you can forget you ever were at all.

Out of the nothing, a fingertip touches my cheek, barely pressing on the skin, it could be a fly or my imagination.  And I flinch.

Other hands emerge from the ether to grab at mine and cinch them together with a wild and biting wire.

They remove me from my home, bound like this, like a criminal. 

I trip and stumble on my stairs as a newly born blindman. We— I presume there is still a we though I only know them as the detached hands touching me and the footsteps indicating there are feet and legs and bodies attached to them, though unproven in this dark space—we descend to the front entrance at the street level. 

Inside the confines of my home the relative quiet gets bigger.  It sits on me with a long face full of judgement. 

Outside, chaos reigns. 

I am shoved onto a surface, which is alternating hard and soft, and the soft parts breathe.  An engine roars.  Exhaust peppers the air with greasy smoke. I jerk against the other men who presumably share the bed of the pick-up truck with me, and thus share my fate, as the truck stutters into motion. 

I’m not even sure the men closed my front door.

There is shouting.  There is screaming.  There is angry, terminal dissent, and righteous indignation.

When we stop, it is like we are propelled into another time and space.  This is not my country.  These are not my people.

We are extracted and lined up and stripped of our blindness.

The square is full of people with angry faces.  Mob, this is what a mob looks like.  They are boiling with rage and hungry for violence.  That is the only way to pacify them, to bring about some kind of resolution. Give them violence.

Men in military fatigues, men carrying guns grab me by the shoulders and force me to my knees.  Pain explodes in me as I make contact with the stone.  They proclaim I am impure. They boast how they will save others by getting rid of me, as if a human being was a piece of trash to be crumpled and thrown into a landfill.

The children in the crowd launch stones at me.  They bludgeon my head, and peel with laughter at each precise strike.  Women scurry up to spit on me. 

You are judged, I am told. By God and by his good and righteous People.

I am aching rot.  I am prostrate.  I am humbled.  I am shaking so badly I only see the world around me in strobed blurred images.  And then she appears.  She walks away from me, away from this tableau of endings, and she is the clearest thing in my world. Even though she walks away, she quells my shaking. 

Just before they blind me again to take me away to wherever the impure infidels are kept (if we are kept), she turns and gazes at me.  Her almond-shaped eyes, the color of obsidian, hold kindness.  They hold grace and strength and hundred other things that can’t be named, but felt.  She rotates her arm so her palm faces me, and she uncurls her fingers in one graceful movement.  The beautiful arches, swirls and patterns of words lay hidden there in her palm.  I alone see them.  I alone read them.   

the incongruous spoon

It’s not just a spoon

People are interesting creatures.  We encode meaning and memory into objects, and frequently project our psyches into tangible things. There are some objects, which elicit the most pure and concentrated memories, laced — like an oatmeal cookie — with nostalgia.  A. and I came upon one such object on a Spring afternoon when we were running errands on foot.

The heat of the day was swelling, but it was still mild enough.  We cut through a shopping center driveway, next to Taco Bell, to get to the crosswalk.  We discussed art, the goings on of the world, and what was next on our list.  In the midst of all our chatter, a shiny object caught my gaze.

There, in the grass median between vast swathes of blacktop, rested a spoon.  It wasn’t just any spoon.  It was one of the ones you buy in airports or curio shops, the kind never meant to touch food.  The edges of it folded into a delicate scalloped edge.  A braid of metal made the handle, and atop the braid stood a keyhole, from which a trolley dangled.  San Francisco scrawled across the top, and also in its concave surface.

Meme.

That was the first thought I had upon seeing this bobble.  You see, my grandmother, being the practical woman she was, collected spoons from the places she visited.  Other people also collected them for her, as folks are wont to do when someone curates a blessed collection of curios and whatnots. What to get Mabel?  Of course, a spoon!

She displayed the spoons in a specially crafted shelf.  They would dangle from their hand-carved notches and behind them rested porcelain creamers from a less manufactured era.  They weren’t her prized possession, but they warmed her heart nonetheless.

I hadn’t thought about Meme’s spoons in years, and now I was on the verge of recalling when I had picked out one for her.  I shared all this with A. as I turned the spoon over in my hands.

“This one’s had a hard life,” I told him as I puzzled over the blemishes in the metal.  “That’s so strange.  I wonder…?”

an aberration

My mind was on the verge of teasing out exactly what had happened to this little kickshaw when A. found the next item in our macabre set.  Perhaps those of you who are more savvy have already conjured all of the possible uses of a spoon, including the sinister ones.  Alas, it took locating the hypodermic needle to fully elucidate its recent history.

This was a heroin spoon.  As in some had used it to cook drugs and shoot up.  Maybe even right there in the parking lot, or as they were driving into the shopping center, chucking it out the window when they were done.

Needy.  Addicted.  Selfish.  Dirty.  Sick.  Disposable.

Was that black tar on my hands? How much residue was left on the surface of the spoon I had just been fondling with all the genial fuzziness of my childhood and shiny goodness of sweet family memories?

“I think you should put that down,” A. calmly instructed me, as if instead of dropping a spoon he was saving me from a rattlesnake.

“Jesus Christ.  Seriously?”  A decorative, commemorative spoon?  Who in the hell does heroin with a trinket like that?  I held my hands away from my body until we could get to the nearest bathroom.  I felt robbed. The world had intersected with the memories of my grandmother in a way I could not have anticipated.  I had a very specific emotional and intellectual meaning wrapped up in “spoon”.  And here was this cruddy little shlock. Scorched from a lighter and pot-marked from a caustic heavy-duty drug.

It was aberrant.  Not only did it not fit, it was incongruent with my reality, and because we intersected, it became part of my experience.  Now “spoon” not only means Meme, summer visits, travel, and gifts, it also means addiction, desperation, disease, and decay.